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Kill a man, acquire his magic. A tale as old as time.
With a roar, Puck the Undefeated swung a pair of short swords at his latest opponent, the king of Clan Walsh. One blood-soaked blade hacked through the man's metal breastplate, sending him to his knees; the other sliced into his throat from front to back.
No match for a Connacht prince. Who is?
The king gasped with shock and pain, then gurgled as a crimson tide poured from both sides of his mouth. "Wh-why?"
With only a thought, Puck shapeshifted back to his normal appearance, letting the dying king see the true countenance of the one who'd bested him.
"My brother sends his regards." Puck twisted the blades and said, "May you rest in pieces."
The king gaped, wheezing a final breath before going silent, his head lulling forward. Puck yanked the swords free, and the body collapsed on the ground, flinging sand.
In war, there was only one rule: win, whatever the cost.
Walsh soldiers retreated in a frenzied rush.
A dark glittering mist rose from the king's corpse and drifted to Puck. Potent magic adhered to the runes branded in his hands — curling gold symbols that stretched from fingertips to wrist. Pure power. Intoxicating. Nothing better.
His head buzzed, the blood in his veins heating and fizzing. Because of the magic, aye, but also because he felt triumphant. In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, the newest war in a long string of wars had ended, and the Connachts had won.
Puck maintained his position in the center of the blood-soaked battlefield. Sand dunes stretched as far as the eye could see, broken up by the occasional oasis with towering trees and crystal clear ponds. The realm's twin suns had long since vanished from the skyline. Night ruled, the heavens the same color as mulberries, creating an endless sea of dark purple-red. No stars glittered tonight.
His eyes closed as he savored the victory. The odds had been stacked against him, with an enemy army more than twice the size of his own. So, last night, his brother, Sin, suggested Puck sneak into the enemy camp, kill a Walsh commander, ash the body — and take his place. Not easily done, but done all the same.
In his new guise, Puck had instructed the soldiers to "ambush" the Connachts, and ultimately led the entire army into a trap. From there, reaching the king had been child's play.
Sin could look at any situation — any man — and somehow discern every hidden weakness.
Puck sometimes wondered what weaknesses his brother perceived in him. Not that it mattered. Sin only ever sought to protect him, doing anything, everything to ensure he won every battle.
Together, they would defy the prophecy spoken over them as children. One brother kill the other? Never! Puck and Sin would rule the five clans together, and nothing would come between them.
A bond as strong as theirs could never be broken.
As a cold wind spit sand, Puck opened his eyes. Despite the frigid temperature, he radiated heat, adrenaline pumping through his veins. Sweat mixed with the blood of the vanquished splattered on his torso, dripping down every ridge of muscle.
In the distance, someone shouted, "Victory is ours!"
Other cries followed.
"The Walsh magic is ours!"
"We've won, we've won!"
Jubilant cheers rose, a familiar chorus. He'd trained with, suffered with, and bled with — and for — these men. To Puck, loyalty was far more precious than gold, diamonds or even magic.
"Return to camp," he called. "Celebrate."
In unison, the soldiers surged toward the campsite just beyond the dunes — a sub-realm tucked inside a realm, hidden by Sin's magic.
Puck sheathed his swords and picked up the king's blade, the perfect trophy. Pride lifted his head as he followed his men from the battlefield. More dead bodies and a surplus of severed limbs littered the path, the air saturated with the copper tang of blood and the stench of emptied bowels.
Carnage never pleased him. It also never bothered him. He refused to shy away from violence. Threaten his people, suffer. The day he showed a foe mercy was the day he condemned his clan to bondage or death.
Remaining in the shadows, Puck slipped through an invisible doorway only accessible to people who'd been branded with Connacht magic. For anyone else, the doorway remained closed; oftentimes men, women and children walked past without ever knowing a sub-dimension existed a mere arm's length away.
Suddenly tents, blazing fire pits, soldiers and their females surrounded him. The death-stink evaporated, replaced by the aroma of roasting meat, hard labor and sweet perfume.
A maid spotted Puck and closed the distance, interest glowing in her eyes. "Hello, Your Highness. If you be in need of a companion this evening —"
"Let me stop you there. I never go back for seconds." He never forgot a face, either, and he remembered he'd had this woman in the past year.
Before he'd ever climbed into bed with a female, he'd made sure she understood his one and done policy.
Disappointment shadowed her expression. "But —"
Done with the conversation, he sidestepped her and made his way to the fringes of camp, where he and Sin had both erected a tent. A cold move on his part, yes, but necessary.
Puck wasn't like other royals. While most princes kept a "stable," and traveled with their "fillies," even during times of war, Puck refused to bed the same women twice. He could not risk promoting a romantic tie with anyone. A romantic tie would kindle hope to marry. No marriage meant no loving queen. No loving queen meant the prophecy remained unfulfilled.
Although, truth be told, Puck adored everything about the "feminine softness" he'd been denied most of his life. He loved kissing, touching, and the build of anticipation. Sweaty bodies grinding together, creating friction. Moans and groans and breathy sighs in his ears. The bliss of finally sinking deep inside his lover.
Sometimes, a few hours in a stranger's bed only whet his appetite ...
Deep down, he had a secret, shameful desire to keep a woman all to himself, to learn every little detail about her past, all her hopes and dreams. He dreamed of spending weeks, months, years pampering her and her alone, branding himself in and on her. Being branded by her.
He yearned to have a "mine."
Maybe one day he could —
No. Never. Sin before women, always. Sin before everything.
Tonight, the brothers would review the battle's successes and failures. They would drink and laugh, and plan their next move, and all would be right in Puck's world.
A thorny vine surrounded and protected his tent, no one able to enter or leave without his permission. Unleashing a tendril of magic, he forced the vines to part and stepped inside.
When his brother came into view, affection punched Puck dead center in the chest. While they shared the same dark skin, darker eyes, and even darker hair, the same aquiline nose and unforgiving lips, Sin's features were set in a softer frame. On numerous occasions, Puck had been told his face looked "carved from stone."
Sin paced, seemingly oblivious to the world.
"What troubles you?" Puck's fingers tightened around the sword hilt.
His brother had never paced ... until recently. A month ago, he'd attended peace talks with a neighboring realm and returned ... changed. From calm to paranoid, certain to unsure.
He told Puck he'd woken the final morning to find his army slaughtered. He'd lain among the carnage, the only survivor, with no memory of what had happened. Now he couldn't sleep, startled at sudden movements and noises, and stared at shadows as if someone hid within. He hadn't visited his stable and refused to remove his shirt during training.
Puck suspected new scars littered his brother's chest. Did he think others would consider him weak if they caught a glimpse?
If anyone said a single word against him, "anyone" would die.
Whenever Puck expressed concern, Sin changed the subject.
Sin paused before the crackling fire pit, his gaze finding Puck before darting away.
Gradually Sin relaxed, even grinned a familiar grin only Puck had the privilege to see. "You took your sweet time returning to camp. Old age slowing you down?"
He snorted. "You're only two years younger. Perhaps we should switch places for the next war. I plan, you fight."
"You forget I know you better than you know yourself. Worry for my safety would drive you straight to my side."
Sin wasn't wrong.
His brother could handle himself in a fight, whatever the weapon. He had no equal, except Puck. But if anything were to happen to him ...
I will burn this realm to the ground.
Puck stalked to the basin of water perched atop his travel armory. After resting the Walsh sword against the side, he washed away the night's filth.
"When we were children, you worried for me," he said, drying his face with a towel. "What happened?"
"You learned to use a sword." Sin rubbed his temples, as if he hated the thoughts swirling inside his mind.
He needed a distraction. "Shall we begin our review of the battle?"
"Not yet. I come bearing news." Seconds passed, each one crackling with tension.
Puck stiffened. "Tell me."
Eyes stark, Sin said, "Father announced your betrothal to Princess Alannah of Daingean."
Puck's first reaction: I will have a wife. She'll be mine!
Then he scowled. Must proceed with caution. From a very early age, he'd seen the world around him through a near blinding filter: MY brother, MY clan, MY realm.
He'd seen Alannah only once, and though he'd liked the look of her, he wouldn't deign to bed her, much less wed her. Temptation could not be indulged, even in the slightest sense.
However, he comprehended Sin's concern. King rather than primogeniture decided a successor. Unless the king refused to make a selection, of course, then the strongest warrior took the crown. But. With this announcement, King Púkinn III had made his choice.
"Father spoke in haste," Puck said. "I won't be wedding anyone. You have my word."
"This is a political move meant to solidify the alliance between our clans, but ... the prophecy ..." Sin's voice frayed at the edges. "One will become king with a loving queen at his side, and he will slay the other. The Oracles are never wrong."
"There's a first time for everything." He closed the distance to frame his brother's cheeks with his hands. "Trust me. A wedding will never take place." Neither would wed, and the prophecy would remain unfulfilled. "I choose you, brother. I will always choose you."
Sin remained as inflexible as steel. "If you refuse her, you'll insult the Daingeans. Another war will break out."
"Another war is always breaking out." Each clan collected magic from the men they slayed, desperate to possess more than the others.
Magic was strength, and strength was magic.
Sin broke away from Puck to worry two fingers against the dark stubble on his jaw. "By wedding Alannah, you will unite the clans, as you've dreamed. Connacht, Daingean, Fiáin, Eadrom and Walsh."
How could he make his brother understand? Yes, he dreamed of uniting the clans. War would end at last. Lives would be saved. Peace would reign. Amaranthia would flourish, the lands no longer ravaged by near constant battles.
But concord without Sin meant less than nothing.
"Nothing matters more than you," he said. Centuries ago, there'd been twelve clans. Now, because of kings and armies greedy for magic, only five remained. If something wasn't done, the entire population would die out. "Not to me."
"You aren't listening," Sin insisted. "Daingean now ally with Fiáin. With your marriage to Alannah, Connacht will ally with Daingean, so Fiáin will be forced to side with Connacht. When that happens, Eadrom, who is currently allied with Fiáin, will have to break their alliance with Walsh in order to keep the peace with us. And they will. They have no familial ties with Walsh. And now that the current — or rather, former — Walsh king is dead, the new ruler has a clean slate with us."
"I don't care," he said with a shake of his head. "The cost is too high."
Silent, Sin studied him the way he often studied his favorite maps. Sadness darkened his eyes, until it was snuffed out by determination. He nodded, as if making a monumental decision, and motioned to the table in the corner. In the center rested what looked to be a small trinket case.
"It arrived this morning," Sin said. "Just before battle."
Weapon? "Worry not. I'll take care of it." Puck would do anything — kill anyone — to fix his brother's problems. Fair was fair. Sin had always fixed his.
He crossed the tent to stand before the little case. Mother-of-pearl overlaid some kind of metal. A cluster of diamonds glittered at each corner. As he reached out, a pulse of malevolence brushed his skin. Not magic, but pure unadulterated evil. His blood flashed ice-cold.
"Who sent it?" And what type of weapon was it, exactly?
"A woman named Keeleycael, with the title of Red Queen. She said she hopes we enjoy our downfall."
Keeleycael. He'd never heard of her. "Does she rule a neighboring realm?" To Puck's knowledge, a woman had never led ... anything. Not outright, anyway. Females aided their kings.
"I'm unsure," Sin said.
The answer hardly mattered, he supposed. No one threatened his brother and lived. Downfall? Not while Puck lived and breathed.
Sin hadn't just saved his life too many times to count; he'd saved Puck's soul.
Just before Puck's seventh birthday, his cousin died in battle. Needing a new commander from the royal line, the king chose Puck. Meaning, a little prince was ripped from his mother's arms sooner rather than later so that a woman's sweetness would no longer "influence" him.
Ruin a boy, and you ruin the man he will become.
The words his father had shouted at his mother the day Puck was taken.
"I'll go, too," five-year-old Sin had said. "Where you go, I go."
The details of that fateful day were forever branded into Puck's memory. How their mother's sobs could be heard throughout the fortress. My babies. Please, don't take my babies. How tears had streamed down Sin's face as he'd taken Puck's hand and willingly walked away from the only home he'd ever known. How comforted Puck had been by the younger boy's unwavering resolution to stay together.
The two boys lived and trained with the clan's most hardened soldiers for years, softer emotion beaten, whipped or cut from them.
At the ages of twelve and ten, they were both given a sword and abandoned by their father in the midst of the most dangerous sand dunes with these parting words: Return with the heart of our enemy — or stay gone.
If Puck could f lash back in time, he would demand Sin remain cosseted with their mother, safe in her loving arms. Now, guilt was his constant companion. Until he'd learned to fight, and fight well, he'd been unable to protect Sin from daily abuses. Worse, their mother died before they could visit her.
She'd delivered a stillborn babe soon after their departure and, in her grief, purposely burned herself to ash. A warrior could have survived the f lames, but not a female without runes and magic.
Massaging the back of his neck, Puck considered the best way to proceed. "Have you opened the case?"
"No. I waited for you," Sin said, with a tremor of fear.
Fear? Impossible. Sin feared nothing while Puck guarded his back.
"I shouldn't have brought the cursed thing to your tent." His brother strode toward the table. "I'll take it and —"
"No." Arm extended, Puck stopped Sin before he could make contact with the case. Yes, Sin had already handled it without consequence. Didn't matter. There was no reason for further risk. "I want to know what's inside." Wanted to know what this unknown queen thought to use against his family.
"I'll fetch one of the commanders. Let him —"
"No. I'll do it myself." A good king did not put the life of his people ahead of his own. "Leave me. I'll let you know what I find."
"You stay, I stay."
Another log fell into the fire pit of his guilt. He popped his jaw. "I don't want you endangered, brother." Not now, not ever.
For a single heartbeat of time, Sin's eyes glistened with unshed tears. He quickly blinked them back. "And yet," he said, "still I plan to stay."
Why those almost-tears? Suddenly Puck couldn't tolerate the thought of having his brother anywhere but nearby. "Very well. Stand back."
Excerpted from "The Darkest Warrior"
Copyright © 2018 Gena Showalter.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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