Half-breed eyes drifted over the crowd and barely suppressed his disdain for the joviality surrounding him. Lurid suggestions and not-so-subtle innuendo bantered through the room. Layers of lusty conversation and familiar camaraderie could be found in every corner just shy of creating a raucous noise. Patrons chatted with the employees of Lady Graetha's establishment to find a companion to ease the daily toll or simply escape for a short time, all for a price. Coins changed hands over and over, all for a night of passion – or at least a small portion of it.
Rath signaled for another ale to accompany the four empty flagons before him. One by one, they stood in a row, soldiers drawing a line in a war they couldn't win, yet more troops would be sacrificed for the cause. The bartender had tried to collect them earlier, only to be warned off by the prince's harsh growls. He knew the appearance of growing mugs was unappealing but he couldn't be bothered with that right now.
The immediate seats around Rath sat empty. It hadn't taken long for the others in the brothel to maintain a wide berth around Rath with his surly attitude. Lady Graetha kept watch from the corner of her eye; no doubt she worried the prince could be a problem in his current state. Her scrutiny was a subtle attention as she catered to the clientele. Rath appreciated her discretion and had no intention of abusing her hospitality.
Rath had even gone so far as to gather a selection of males to ease his distress and forget his troubles. Being her best customer, Lady Graetha provided him the finest choices. Any one of them could have made an excellent bedmate for an evening.
But none of them were Puppy, so he rejected them all.
Swilling down nearly half of his new drink, Rath attempted to drown the loss that haunted his every waking moment. Puppy's sadness and misery were constantly in the background of his thoughts and Rath had no method to block the emotions that colored his moods. He knew he should find some way to hunt Puppy down and carry him home, but Rath was just so wounded and trying to understand the reasonings of the smaller male hurt so much. The whole point in coming here was to help him forget and ease the pain, but all he saw were times he shared with his mate before they bonded. Rath couldn't even look at Hirith, Puppy's favorite courtesan, without feeling the knife in his chest.
The mug's handle threatened to buckle in his grip as Rath began to worry about his future. Would he be fated to a loveless life like his father? Bound to a mate that was unavailable, the king was forced to throw himself into his duties with only random assignations to quell his needs without the hope of bonding with another. Did the royal blood carry a curse that damned his line? It certainly seemed that way.
Rath tipped back his drink until his breath echoed in the hollow of the mug before ordering another round. A strong hand squeezed his shoulder gently before its owner settled into the stool next to him.
“Go away, Raza. I will not have you as a bedmate.”
The copper-skinned fire fae flagged the server for a drink. “Considering what happened the last time, I have no intention of doing anything of the sort.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I work here.” Raza's penchant for sarcasm had not been diminished in the least.
“I meant sitting here.”
“Having a drink with a friend.”
Rath snorted and shook his head. “You'd do anything to become my consort.”
“I wouldn't bind myself to any male who couldn't honestly return my affections. Your heart and cock are promised to another and I like myself too much to be second to anyone.”
Rath said nothing as fresh drinks arrived before them both. From the side of his vision, he eyed Raza's casual sip from his short cup, waiting for the courtesan to say or do something suspicious. A potential customer walked up and began to chat with Raza, but he politely turned him away.
The good natured rumble of the rest of the bar area mocked Rath as he scanned over the elf sitting next to him. Raza was clad in his usually daring working clothes, decent yet barely covered. Why would he put his profession on hold for someone who didn't want his services?
“This isn't like you, Rath.”
“You just turned away good coin. This isn't like who?”
“I'm not working the rest of the night.”
Rath shot a glare at the house's proprietor. “Did Lady Graetha send you to supervise me?”
“She couldn't pay me enough for that chore.”
“Then why are you still here?” Rath growled.
Raza reached over and tapped his cup against Rath's ale in salute. “As I said. I'm here to have a drink with a friend.”
“I don't need companionship.”
“So I've heard.” Raza took another drink that was small in comparison to Rath's drinking pace.
“Never ending gossip...” Rath hissed. “Leave me alone, Raza.”
Raza set his drink on the bar and cupped it in both hands. “I heard Puppy left.”
“And why would you care?” Rath took a large mouthful of ale, nearly spilling it in his suddenly unsteady hand.
“Because I've never seen you like this, Rath. You've been in many different tempers before, but this...this is not like you at all.” Raza took in the way Rath's unsettled fingers worried the edges of his clothing. “The great warrior prince of Garadur was unshakable. You've always had a lust that could barely be quenched and now you refuse them all.” Raza sat quiet as he reflected into his drink. “Puppy was your true mate, wasn't he?”
Even Rath could feel how fiercely twisted his face became at the question, answering it without words. The shame and anger made him want to lash out and beat Raza blind for saying the truth out loud, but the lack of cruelty and derision he would have expected stayed his hand. If anything, the elf was showing Rath a glimpse of something completely foreign to his nature – sympathy.
“That's not rumor talking, Rath. It's what I see. Nothing breaks a male like you otherwise.”
“Are you here to gloat? I'm not in the mood for your games–”
Raza frowned and peered deeper into his glass. “No. I would never do that. True mates are the one thing in this world I find sacred.”
A rude snort escaped the prince. “I find the idea that you find anything sacred hard to believe.”
If Raza gave Rath's comment any weight, it didn't show in his face or posture. He continued to sit solemnly, staring unfocused into his cup. “I know it's not much consolation, but at least you were fortunate enough to find him. Many of the people of Garadur never do.” Raza paused and let out a quiet breath. “At least yours is still alive.”
With closed eyes, Raza lowered his voice. “Maketh was fire fae like myself but was slain in a riot during the chaos before we all went below ground. I suppose I was fortunate to be saved before the magic was lost; I nearly killed myself in the madness afterwards. Even so, it took a very long time before I could look at another male for any reason. It's how I ended up here. Lady Graetha takes good care of me and I get to play out the fantasies of others. Which is much better than pining away for the loss of my own.”
“I had no idea.” An unwelcome sense of shame filled the prince as his voice softened.
Raza released a deep shuddering breath. “I don't talk about it often. It's not something I'm fond of sharing.”
Rath lowered his head as silence overcame the pair. Clearly, no one knew what to say next – Rath certainly didn't. The temper that came at him in waves was at low ebb; Raza's confession had done its handiwork.
It didn't make Rath feel any better. Puppy's feelings were still playing underneath everything around him and it was an agony he would never admit to understanding. But he had it under control – for now.
Raza emptied his cup in one final draught before signaling the bartender to give the prince whatever he wanted. A fresh serving of ale was placed before him before the courtesan stood up, a hand on the prince's shoulder, leaning in close before leaving Rath's side for the night.
“I don't know why he left and it's not important. I would never wish that kind of pain on anyone, Rath. While you and I may never share a bed again, seek me out if his absence is too much to bear. I'd be happy to share a drink with you. I can tell you stories of what's worse and that may make the future a touch easier.”
* * * *
Two weeks passed since Puppy's departure and the tension inside the keep was nearly a physical presence. The prince's moods continued to be unpredictable and the servant's whispers and curiosity did nothing to improve the situation. Rath kept to himself, wanting complete privacy in his grief, but that was nearly impossible in the royal fortress.
A fresh pair of sheets intended for the prince's bed sat in the basket under Maertagh's arm. It was one of the final chores in the room to bring to a close. Maertagh had been fortunate to finish other tasks in the rare moments Rath left his sanctuary. Last week when he spent the evening out at Lady Graetha's was a godsend. Removing the table and chair that Rath had splintered into a thousand pieces was a task by itself; nothing had been touched since Puppy went back above.
Her knock on the heavy door went unanswered so she tested the door to be sure. It was locked, so she carefully used her master key.
“Rath? Rath, lad. I'm comin' in to finish me chores. If ye didn't want me in, ye should've said somethin',” she called out at the door swung open. The room was empty.
Thankful for the opportunity, she made quick work of the bed, its blankets and linens a twisted, shambled mess. As engrossed in her work as she normally would be, Maertagh couldn't help noticing the lack of Puppy's belongings. They were always few, to be sure, but the empty spaces on the shelves had yet to be filled as if using them made the whole experience too real for the prince to accept.
She missed the energy and life that Puppy brought to the keep. Watching the little man run around and make the prince into a worried madman was worth every second to watch. Even at their darkest moments, Rath had never been so alive; it was a horrible shame how short a time they’d had together.
Maertagh gathered the soiled linens and prepared to exit when her eye caught the one item left of Puppy's on the side table that Rath hadn't destroyed. The journal sat open to the last entry. She couldn't read the writing, it was just a bunch of human scribbles, but the used pages were worn and dirty from excessive handling. Some even looked like they had been crumbled then smoothed out in a poor attempt to preserve them.
“Are you finished in here, Maertagh?”
Rath's voice startled the housekeeper. It took a moment to find her bearings and she hoisted the basket better under her arm.
“Just now, Rath. Are ye all right?”
Rath walked over to the small table that held his pitcher and wash basin. He poured water into the bowl and began rinsing off his hands, scrubbing what looked like blood off his knuckles. “I'm fine. Why do you ask?”
“Och, Rath, lad. What've ye done?”
“It was just an argument. In the end he saw my point of view.” Rath caught the disapproving scowl Maertagh directed his way. “He's alive if that's why you're looking at me that way.”
Drying his hands on the small towel next to the basin, Rath's eyes shifted a few times between Maertagh and the open book on the table. Rath walked across the room and closed the journal, taking the time to buckle it shut before picking it up and holding it close.
The housekeeper placed a warm, but calloused hand on the prince's forearm. “Puppy's leavin' is hard on all of us. I would expect it would affect ye most of all.”
“I haven't had time to think about it.” He snatched his arm away from her touch. “Now go away, woman. I tire of all the servants’ chittering.”
Maertagh could put up with many things from the prince, but his dismissive tone riled her. She changed his diapers as a child and could recall more than once when she would have taken a strap to his behind if it would have made a difference. Anger and recklessness she could deal with, disrespect was something altogether different. Dropping the basket, Maertagh straightened her back and stepped in front of Rath, refusing to be ignored. A stubby finger stabbed the prince's chest as she huffed her displeasure.
“Is tha so, yuir highness? Tell me, how many times have ye read tha book of his? A hundred? A thousand? It looks like the pages are ready to fall out they've been worked over so many times.”
“That's of no importance to you.”
“Of course it is, ye daft bugger. I helped raise ye and I hate to see ye in such a state.”
Rath stood silent, his body going rigid as his grip on the journal tightened. The lines in his face were deep with stress and lack of restful sleep in spite of the vast time spent alone in bed. As annoyed as she was, she couldn't help but relent at the sight of Rath in this state. She had raised him from a baby; he was like her own child even if he didn't share her blood.
“I know yuir hurting, Rath. Ye of all of us have the most right. Yuir wounded to the quick in a way none of us will ever know. Och, yuir angry and sad and it breaks my heart. But remember this: Puppy left ye to try to restore your gift and make ye unbreakable again. As horrible as this is, he did tha for ye because he thought he had na choice.”
The prince's face began to twist into a subtle snarl. “It didn't work, Maertagh. I can still feel him in my head taunting me.”
“I tried to talk to him to stay, but he wouldn't hear of it. He's just as stubborn as his mate. Surely ye can see he did na do it to be cruel.”
“Maertagh, I don't care why he left. I learned to accept the trick the gods played on me a long time ago. My mother is the greatest criminal of our age and my father can barely stand the sight of me.”
“Ye know that's na true–”
“Don't. You know it is. My bloodline has made me an outcast; I hear the talk of the townsfolk when they think I can't hear them. Sometimes they're not even polite enough to whisper. I made some kind of peace with that a long time ago. I believed the gods would never bless someone like me with the rare gift of finding my true mate.”
The breath hissed out of Rath as his shoulders deflated a bit. “Having it snatched away just shows that all of the talk is right. The gods and the world have conspired to take away the only thing in all these years that ever brought me true happiness. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, I will always be unworthy. The true insult is that I will always feel his joy, sadness and pain for the rest of our lives and there's no way to get him back.”
“Are ye sure?”
“I couldn't stay hidden in his world long enough to find him even if I knew where to start. It's just too big.”
“But couldn't Sethus be of help? Surely he could find a way. Ye found him before.”
An odd frown painted his face, making him avert his eyes. “That was pure luck and I've run out of that.”
“Ye canna give up, Rath.”
Rath shook his head. “It's just not possible.”
Lowering his eyes, Rath's grip tightened on the journal as Maertagh watched the life bleed out of the fearless warrior, his formidable presence shrinking before her eyes. Rath crawled into his bed, the journal still clutched to his body, curling in while deliberately turning his back on Maertagh.
“I'm feeling very tired, Maertagh. Could you please lock the door on your way out? I'd rather not be disturbed for the rest of the evening.” The deflated tone disarmed the housekeeper's need to push him into action.
Rath's voice softened more as he rolled even further away. “Thank you, Maertagh.”
Maertagh stood stunned for a long moment unable to believe the change in the prince. Never would she have imagined he could be laid so low. She started to say something but was halted by a sick sigh that broke her heart in sympathy. She picked up her basket and locked the door on the way out.
Laundry under her arm, Maertagh lost track of how long she stood staring at the heavy bedroom door. The mother inside reached out to her wayward foster child and screamed to find a way to heal his broken soul. Something had to be done. If not, she was convinced he would waste away into something horrible and Rath would be lost forever.
With a firm grip on her basket, she stormed down the hallway, desperate purpose at her heels. Before long, she found herself in the section of the keep that contained the living quarters for the Royal Hunters that lived on site.
“Sethus! I need to speak with ye, lad!” Maertagh’s voice boomed down the hall even before she reached his door. She pounded the heavy wood with her fist, surprised when it swung open, unlocked and unlatched. He preferred his privacy; it was very uncommon for Sethus to leave his door ajar for any servant or passerby to walk into his space.
The goblin's quarters were strangely still. A small side table and chair were tipped over and a few random possessions scattered on the floor. So engrossed in the silence was Maertagh, she nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of a rough groan hidden on the other side of the bed.
A shaky moss-colored hand appeared and steadied itself on the mattress before its owner pulled himself upright from the floor, his face and neck bloodied and bruised. Maertagh dropped her laundry and immediately rushed to his side.
“Verath's crown, Sethus! Come on now. Let's get you sittin' down so I can get a good look at ye.”
Sethus grunted as the housekeeper helped him up and they made their way back into the center of his room. They righted the upset chair and table before Sethus settled into it with a visible wince. Maertagh poured a glass of water from the pitcher on another shelf which he gratefully sipped.
“Are ye all right, lad?”
The swelling on the right side of his face was slowly closing his eye. “Nothing's broken other than my pride. Just a little bit battered.”
“What in the devil's name happened to ye?”
“Rath and I had a disagreement.”
A flash of Rath cleaning blood from his hands became clear. “Just now? That's madness! What in the world brought that on?”
Sethus went quiet, his gaze shifting away when Maertagh tried to catch it. The way his head dipped reeked of shame in a way that was more than simply taking a beating. Maertagh rolled her eyes as the realization struck home.
“Ye did na go an tell him ye helped Puppy go home, did ye?”
“He asked me outright. I think he only just realized it, he's been so upset.” Sethus sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I couldn't lie to him, Maertagh.”
Maertagh barely resisted the urge to slap the back of his head. “Och, now why would ye go and do a fool thing like that, ye daft goblin? Ye just sat there and let him wail on ye, didn't ye?”
The lack of answer spoke volumes to Maertagh. She could picture Rath venting his anger on Sethus, who, suffering a guilty conscience, refused to defend himself. He was lucky the prince regarded him as a brother; Rath would have likely killed anyone else in his rage. A huff of disapproval sounded from the housekeeper as she collected Sethus's water basin and a towel. After filling the basin, she wet the towel and began scrubbing the blood from under his nose and mouth.
“Quit yuir flinchin' or I'll thump ye myself. Now I understand part of why Rath was actin' the way he was. Puppy's leaving has wounded him gravely. He holds onto that diary like it's his only breath. I dinna know if he'll recover.”
“I don't know why I thought Rath wouldn't take this to heart so strongly. I wish I'd never let Puppy talk me into leading him home.”
Maertagh's voice softened as she rinsed out the rag and continued cleaning Sethus's face. “Ye wanted to do the right thing; we all thought it would be for the best. But I think we were wrong. We need to find a way to undo what's been done.”
Sethus shook his head. “I don't know that we can. I can find the door I let him out of easily enough and I can follow his scent to that point, but the top-world is too hard to track that way for long distances without making deliberate markers. The air is full of unnatural foulness, it's like inhaling rotting garbage at every turn. I'd need to know where to go so I could find him quickly enough. I couldn't risk being found up above and exposing us all. Not even for him. It's the highest trust of the Royal Hunters.”
“Then it's fortunate I have a solution for that.”
In the doorway stood Advisor Haythen, his onyx skin a sharp contrast to his elegant robes of amber and blue. Maertagh immediately straightened and nodded to the dark elf as he entered. His regal brow creased as he took in the extent of Sethus's injuries; he was never known to be a brutal male. Haythen's compassion was one of the things Maertagh admired about him.
“Haythen!” Sethus tried futilely to smooth his tunic, clearly embarrassed at his appearance. “I'm sorry you had to see me like this.”
“I was coming to see you. I overheard what happened. I have to apologize for accidentally eavesdropping.”
Sethus dismissed the Advisor's politeness. “There's nothing to forgive. Is there something I can help you with?”
“As the King's Advisor and highest ranking Royal Seer, I have a mission for the Prime Hunter.”
“Ye said ye had a solution. Does this have somethin' to do with Puppy?” Maertagh asked.
“I've had a vision. I can tell you where to find the prince's mate. For all of our sakes, you must bring him home.”
Sethus slowly rose from his seat. “What about the Queen's vision that leads to Rath's death?”
“I may be crippled in comparison, but she is not the only one gifted with The Sight. I saw that as well, but there are too many pieces missing. I'm not convinced it's an absolute event. From what I have seen, I have every reason to believe it is critical to have him here.”
“This could na have come at a better time,” Maertagh said.
Sethus nodded. “That's wonderful. I'll be on my way as soon as I make my arrangements.”
“See a healer to tidy yourself and come see me. There are important details that must be discussed.” Haythen paused for a moment as if debating whether to say more. “I must warn you about his companion.”