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As dusk settled over the land like a tattered cloak, Prince Ruben of Teslinko stood alone in the crumbling, condemned tower of his ancestral home and wondered if madness had finally come to claim him.
If not yet madness, then complete blackness of soul. Worse, he could see no way out. He was trapped, as surely as a wild animal caught in a snare.
At the thought, his inner wolf snarled. The beast had been furious as of late, clamoring for him to shape-shift, to change. Stubbornly deliberate, Ruben had remained human for two entire days now. Normal for most Shifters. As for him, forty-eight hours felt like a death sentence.
If only death could come so easily.
Again, the black thoughts. Nothing would help him. Nothing save changing, letting his beast take over once more. Each time, he remained wolf longer and longer, having to battle the wolf inside to shift back to human. And then once he had he wanted to die.
He'd lost control. More than that. No matter how he tried, he couldn't seem to regain that part of himself he'd given over to the wolf. The human part, necessary to survive in the kingdom of his parents, the world of his people. Something had broken inside him and he didn't know how to fix it. Being human felt like how an addict must feel without the drug. Craving it, shaking, unable to sleep, or eat, or function.
He was damaged, ruined, borderline insane. And heor rather his wolfdidn't care. Always, the idea of changing, of remaining wolf, beckoned like a glittery bauble forever out of reach. The struggle to keep from giving in grew more and more difficult, compounded by the fact that he really did not care. He'd rather be wolf than human. And though he knew this was considered wrong, it was the way he felt.
Worse, he could only think of one reason why he should try to repair his damaged psyche, because he sure as hell would rather stay wolf than man. But as his father's sole heir, the fate of his bloodline rested squarely on him. Unless his hidden madness overwhelmed him, Prince Ruben would rule Tes-linko one day. Therefore, he couldn't give in to his deepest, darkest desire and vanish into the vast forests surrounding his father's lands. Forever to walk on four legs instead of two.
Even the thought made his insides quiver with longing.
Rather than pace the confined space, stepping carefully to avoid the crumbling stones and gaping holes, Ruben gripped the stone window ledge so hard his knuckles turned white. Breathing rapidly, he watched as vehicle after vehicle snaked up the winding, ancient road toward the royal castle. Not to the old part where he now hid, but the sleek, renovated, modern building where his family resided.
No one but Ruben ever visited the decrepit ruins. He preferred it this way, relishing his solitude over the hundred irritating daily tasks a royal prince must perform.
He counted this night among those onerous duties.
His parents, King Leo and Queen Ionna of Teslinko, were having a huge ball. Tonight, and again one week from tonight, and once more a fortnight from tonight, and so on. As long as it took, they had said, making no secret as to their reason. Now that his sisters, including Alisa had been married, all eyes had turned to Ruben, the youngest child and, as the only male, the royal heir. His parents had decided Ruben needed to settle down and produce an heir of his own. This event would be the first of the many it took to find him a suitable wife.
Which was the absolute last thing he wanted.
Ruben could have told his parents they were wasting their time. But as much as he loved them, he was well aware of their shortcomings. They heard only what they wanted to hear, steadfastly refusing to believe their only son could do any wrong.
He certainly hadn't told them of the dark cloud that had settled over him. They weren't aware of the possibility of his encroaching madness, nor that he'd reached a decision never to marry. How could he, when he could be a danger to anyone who got too close to him?
So he'd suffer through who-knew-how-many balls, dances or parties, all the while hoping for a miracle that would likely never come. Pity he didn't believe in either magic or divine intervention.
These days Ruben didn't believe in much of anything. Least of all, in his ability to lead his people.
Below his vantage point, a door closed and a woman's bright laughter trilled through the air, drawing his attention. They came alone and in groups, every young, marriageable woman in Teslinko and beyond. Dressed to impress, they chattered and giggled and plotted. Though he despised the label, he knew he was known far and wide as the catch of the season. Therefore he could, in theory, have his pick of gorgeous, desirable and well-connected women. Sadly, he wasn't interested, not in the least. He had too many issues to burden anyone else with them.
Of course, unaware of this, his parents plunged full-steam ahead in their plans of finding him a mate. Shifter or human, they'd told him they'd be happy as long as he was happy. They had no idea that happiness for him was an unattainable goal.
A party only made him feel worse rather than better. And what a gala this would be. For this event, the royal decorator had spared no expense. A hundred thousand tiny lights illuminated the trees, the drive and the entrance.
Glumly, he continued to stare down at the festive scene below as more and more guests arrived. How many were there? From what he'd seen so far, he'd guess at least two or three hundred single women, all fixated on the same goal.
Inside, his wolf stirred, intrigued by the variety of new scents and sounds. The beast wanted to be set free to investigate. As always, the notion tempted him.
No. He shook his head, mentally pushing his wolf back into a cage and locking the door. Once finished, his chest ached with the familiar and now forbidden longing. Better if he could simply shape-shift into wolf and never change back to human. At least this impending madness didn't seem to bother his lupine self.
And there it was. Again. Temptation. If he valued what was left of his mind, he knew he could not give in.
Watching as expensive car after expensive car rolled up the drive and disgorged its contents, he sighed. He'd better go change and prepare to do his time. If he was lucky, he could snag a couple of glasses of strong Scotch to help him survive the ordeal.
Trudging through the forest, the watered silk of her best formal dress bunched up in her fist, Willow of the Southward Brights tried to think happy thoughts. Because she couldn't take a chance on getting dirty, she ignored the siren call of the wild animals watching her from their various hiding places around the thick forest.
All she'd have to do was crook her little finger and whistle, and they'd come. When they were with her, carnivores ignored their natural prey, and the most skittish of beasts calmed under her gentle hand.
It was a gift and one she had kept hidden, by necessity. The one time she'd tried to tell her mother, she'd been treated with scorn and derision. After that, she'd supposed everyone else would view her gift the same way, so she had kept it secret. Not only from the rest of her family, but from everyone in the kingdom. In a place where the level of magical ability meant power, Willow's was a secret best kept inside.
Just like the tear in the veil.
She'd discovered the portal by accident a year ago while on one of her solitary strolls through the forest. Just because she didn't cast spells or use magic like her mother and sister, didn't mean she couldn't sense it. And the lure of the shimmering veil had drawn her as surely as a bear to honey.
With it, she could cross between her world and that of the humans. She'd taken advantage of this numerous times in the months since, yet another secret she held close to her breast.
She quite enjoyed her anonymity in the human world. There, no one knew she was a princess. No one thought she looked different or looked down on her because she was lacking in magic.
A loner by nature, Willow had few friends among her kind. With a rueful smile, she stepped over a fallen log. Make that no friends. At least, not among her peoplethe Bright.
Forcing herself to focus on the present, she felt the siren thrum of the magic as she approached the veil. Her heartbeat quickened and the scents of the forest became sharper, more intense. Damp earth and plant, and the slightly acrid, barely detectable scent of its animal inhabitants.
As she neared the shimmering space, she felt an unfamiliar tickle of anticipation.
The royal family of Teslinko was having a ball. Tonight, in fact. According to the chatter she'd picked up hanging around near their castle, they'd been preparing for the huge event for weeks. Rumor had it that the king and queen were determined to find their son, Prince Ruben, a bride.
Willow cared about none of that. As the youngestand least desirabledaughter of a powerful queen, she had her own worries about that area. According to her olderand much more beautifulsister, Tatiana, Willow would remain unwed the rest of her natural-born, magicless life.
Which, though occasionally sounding lonely, was all right with Willow.
Growing closer to the veil, she felt the pull of its magic. She took a deep breath, then another, allowing herself to feel the power of the ancient earth gathering under her feet and the rush of air swirling around this, an opening between worlds.
Ahead, in a clearing between two tall ash trees, the space flickered, odd shapes sparkling through a fog, as though one might be able to see them if one turned quickly enough. The magic was strong here, visible even to the untrained eye. Briefly she wondered how it was that a hapless human hadn't managed to wander straight into it and wind up among the land of the Brighther home.
Maybe, because the power felt so odd, humans instinctively avoided this area.
Shaking her head at the absurdity of it all, Willow stepped into the shimmering veil and gave herself over to the magic.
Bored, drifting from one cluster of simpering women to another, trying not to gag on the choke of their strong perfume, Ruben glanced at his watch for the twentieth time and wondered how long he needed to stay. At least until the meal had been served, he estimated grimly. Naturally, the dinner service was a drawn out process that could take as long as two and a half hours. So for now, he was stuck.
His mother, Queen Ionna, had already taken him by the arm and dragged him around the crowded room, introducing him to what seemed like every unmarried woman under the age of forty. He'd taken care to be pleasant, nothing more, well aware of his mother's displeasure when he didn't choose one female to single out for his attentions.
He suspected several of the women were disappointed as well, though most took care not to show this. There were so many of them, women of every shape and size. Young and old, virgin and widow, his skin crawled as each eyed him as eagerly as if he were a prize stud up for auction to the highest bidder.
Which in a way, he supposed he was. His sister Alisa had often complained about this very thing. Aware of her tendency toward the dramatic, he'd never taken her complaints seriously. Now that she'd been married off and his parents' focus had turned to him, he'd begun to see her point.
Restless, his wolf tested the edge of his control. Gritting his teeth, Ruben forced the beast back into his mental cage, a task growing more and more difficult.
At the thought, a wild longing swept him, freezing him in his tracks. To run free. Wild. As he pushed the desire away, he swore he could feel his wolf's savage amusement.
Not good. So not good.
The evening was early yet, the music soft and the food and drink plentiful. He eyed the guests lingering over their cocktails, standing in clusters and conversing about financial markets, the latest fashions or the employment crisis in other nations. All topics which held zero interest for him.
He'd already downed two strong Scotch-and-waters and now sipped his third. Mildly intoxicated, he was well aware that he had to slow down if he wanted to keep the wolf at bay and the darkness inside him from leaking out. Wouldn't do, he thought cynically, if the guests were to realize the heir to the throne grappled with bouts of insanity. The humans would be horrified and the Shifters they'd be appalled. He could imagine the varied reactions. He wouldn't be regarded as such a catch then.
Again, he nearly smiled, his wolf pacing restlessly, full of nervous energy. The idea almost sounded good to him. Proof positive how unbalanced he'd become.
In the crowded ballroom, Shifters and humans mingled, the majority of the humans unaware that there were those among them who could change into a wolf at will. His boredom growing, Ruben began picturing their reactions if he were to calmly stroll out to the middle of the empty dance floor, strip off his tuxedo and drop to all fours to initiate the change that would turn his human form into that of a huge, nearly Feral, wolf.
Panic from the humans. His wolf snarled, enjoying the mental image. From his own kind, the Shifters, he expected he'd see a mixture of shock, anger and disgust.
His parents would be mortified. After the first moment of horror, the damage control would begin in earnest.
The thought made him smile again, a record as of late. Again, the idea felt tantalizing. As if he could close his eyes, let his tattered willpower fall away, and allow events to happen as they would. His wolf would take over. Everything would be out of Ruben's hands.
So simple He swayed, tempted. Snapping his eyes open, he took another slug of the strong liquor, letting it burn its way down his throat.
And therein lay the twisted path to madness.
Giving himself an inner shake, putting a choke hold on the furious wolf inside, he again began to make another circuit of the room, trying to regulate his breathing, his thoughts, his steps. As he looked up, he noted his mother's sharp gaze fixed on him.
Inhaling the mixed odors of perfume and human sweat, he shuddered, longing for the clean, crisp scent of the pines, the damp muskiness of the earth. The lure of the forest beyond the castle, where he spent so much of his time, pulled at him, though he knew part of that was tied up in his wolf's desire to break free.