Hugging himself tightly, Sage stared out the window. He was in the highest room of the tower, where he was sealed away by magic—for your wellbeing—the week prior. Though the distance and witch-gales muffled the screams, the devastation of the palace was overwhelming. Smoke billowed up in streams, and the western wall was reduced to rubble. His home of twenty years was overrun by the forsworn and their dark magic.
Sage did not know how he felt about that.
His family had lived at the Aschean Court for fifty years; the Asche kings and queens had held the peace for near a hundred. Even after the plague that took their parents, they had a place here. Even later, after the—scandal—Sage had a place here. Despite the whispers of tainted blood and compromised loyalty, he’d been allowed to complete his degree at the university. The king was merciful.
But he had driven Zenith away. That, Sage could never forgive.
Now he stood at the window, ears pinned back against the screams, and as he watched his home burn, tried to tamp down the flickering flame of satisfaction.
He sometimes had trouble reading human expressions—their small-eyed faces were so flat, and there were no tell-tale ear flicks—but even he could see this man’s desperation. How the tables had turned, he mused. Not five years ago, he had stood in this same hall, and this same aging man condemned him for sacrilege. For research into immortality, an affront to the laws of men and gods.
Taboo aside, Zenith thought the feeble old man was just jealous.
“Please,” the wretch begged. The gold embroidery of his doublet was fresh-torn, and a bruise purpled on his jaw. “Spare my people.”
“I have spared them,” Zenith said lightly, “from your pretense at benevolence. Mine will be an honest reign.”
He had not magicked the blood and scorch marks from his robes, his bare arms. He wished the world to know what he was, and what he was willing to do to claim what belonged to him.
Eternity was his. The kingdom was his. Now all that was left—
Zenith asked, “Where is my brother?”
He had barely scrambled to his feet when the familiar magic surged—and surged, and the force of it was utterly new. It rang so loud he could hear it, and then collided with another power in a thunderous gong. Like he was inside a drum. It drove him to his knees. He crumpled over, hands clapped over his ears, eyes screwed shut, and thought, The seal.
Nausea stabbed through him, and he gasped for breath and balance. He had regained neither when the ringing subsided.
In the new quiet was the click of the door.
Sage tried to stand, but couldn’t quite. His sharp nails dug into the rug, and he looked up.
He had imagined his brother’s return so many times. Had dreamed of it, sleeping and waking. But he had never dreamed Zenith poised in the doorway, in the black robes of the forsworn. An iron circlet curled around his sleek ears. His arms were bare, and streaks of blood and ash marred his pale skin.
“I’m back,” Zenith said. “Just like I promised.”
Five years gone, and Zenith was a blade reforged by witchfire. Sage shuddered, suddenly cold. But it was not the ash or blood that scared him most: it was the familiar warmth of his brother’s voice, and how good it felt to hear.
He was unreally beautiful.
The silence welled up, a deep, cold-water silence, like the first night he spent in Danzeren. He’d had an inn room all to himself, without the gentle sigh of Sage’s breath to lift the darkness.
Zenith entered the room. He stalked a large arc around Sage and rested his fingertips against the windowsill. He did not quite look at Sage, and he did not quite look at the firelit sky. “They offered to trade you for their skins,” he said quietly. “As if you were theirs to give.”
He felt a ping along his senses; one of his generals calling for him. She could wait.
“Zen,” Sage whispered.
His name had never sounded so sweet. He needed Sage to say it again, again, again, to fill the silence, to wash away the memory of the last time he heard Sage say it: a thin, defeated murmur, the morning he left.
Zenith could not read the expression in Sage’s golden eyes, behind the gleam of his spectacles. Much had changed those past five years. Himself, perhaps, least of all. He had always been this. But he feared suddenly that Sage might not have seen the ambition behind his education, the rancor behind his patience, the hunger behind his love. That in his honesty he might have lost—
“This is not the last kingdom I will conquer,” Zenith said, a growl edging his words. He needed Sage to know him. “But it is the first, because they sent me from you. I could not forgive that.”
“Zen,” Sage said again. He took a step closer, eyes wide and wet behind his glasses. “Zen, I missed you.”
The want surged through Zenith like witchfire in his veins. He stepped nearer too, until they were a breath apart and Zenith was breathless with fury and need.
Five years of Sage’s life they stole from him. He had not seen that freckle formed. He had not kissed that worry from his brow. He wondered whether Sage had gone into heat yet. Had he spent it with some vile Aschean human, or flushed and desperate, locked alone in his room? Five years they stole, and more—every year since Sage grew from a child to an adolescent, every year Zenith resisted for fear of what people would say.
But that was over. He bowed to no authority but his own, that he had seized with magic and fear. Let loving his brother be the least unsavory thing about him.
“I’m here now,” Zenith said. “We’ll never be apart again.”
He touched Sage’s face, and painted him with ash and blood.
He inhaled the smoke and spice of witchfire, and asked, “What happens now?”
It was a relief to ask the question, and expect the answer. To seek Zen’s guidance, as he always had—even before their parents died.
Zenith’s thumb gently stroked under his jaw. “I need you to swear fealty to me,” he said.
Sage jerked up at that, but Zenith’s hand was firm on his neck, and his gaze arresting. His ears pricked forward, and he seemed intent on Sage’s every breath.
“Fealty,” Sage repeated, for time, to gather himself. “What does that mean?”
He knew what it meant. It meant obedience—which, fine—but also support. Approval. And he loved his brother, but—people had died. He didn’t even know who had died yet.
This is not the last kingdom I will conquer.
Zenith smiled, and for a moment, he was a boy again. Five years older, but always with a moment for his little brother. He still had the dimples. “It means you accept my reign, and in return, I’ll keep you safe and at my side,” he said. The dimples vanished, and his grip tightened on Sage’s neck. “It means you’re mine.”
The threat was clear. It should terrify him. Instead, that faint, on-the-edge fluttering just intensified.
Maybe if I stay, Sage thought, I can check him. He used to listen to me.
“I’ve always been yours,” Sage said. It was the right thing to say; Zenith’s grip loosened. Sage took a shaky breath. “But before I swear anything, there’s one thing I have to do first.”
He moved close again and ran his hands up Zenith’s arms. He noted distantly how gritty the dried blood was beneath his fingertips. Zenith’s ears were back now, uncertain, as Sage wove his fingers through his hair, pulled him down, and kissed him.
When Sage at last pulled back, Zenith let him. They stood at arms’ length, and the air was cool on his burning skin. He looked at his brother—face red, dark hair mussed, ears pricked determinedly forward.
“I wanted you to know that was me,” Sage said, fiercely. “Not about your reign or fealty or whatever.”
Sage belonged to him. If Zenith had ever doubted Sage knew this, his doubts were now burned away by the heat in Sage’s eyes, and the soft hands resting over his heart. The willing submission left Zenith white-hot with satisfaction.
Not that his willingness mattered, in the end. But it was easier this way.
Now, to secure his victory. “Thank you,” Zenith said. “Sage, hold still for me.”
Sage obeyed, trembling, as Zenith lifted his hands to Sage’s slim neck, and began to chant. Sage held still through the quick, lilting words, and the tickling of magic—the fear in his eyes was so sudden and charming, Zenith mumbled the last word of the incantation against his lips. He kissed him as the golden collar materialized beneath his hands, around Sage’s throat.
He held the kiss firm, as Sage whimpered, squirmed, tugged and tested the metal at his throat. Zenith purred into his mouth. He’d won it all—eternity, a kingdom, and Sage, who was sweet, and good, and his.
They would never part again.