Charming. Irreverent. Haunted.
Alastor Vega is the sole challenger in a brutal battle for succession. Against all odds, he must stop his power-mad brother, Tycho, before he destroys the Numina. Though he never wanted to rule, he must claim the throne and liberate his people, or the consequences will be calamitous. Yet only the surprising support of a beautiful Animari doctor gives him the fortitude to fight.
Focused. Analytical. Solitary.
Dr. Sheyla Halek has always been more interested in research than personal contact, but family ties—and the needs of her pride—keep her in Ash Valley, deferring her dreams. Brusque and abrasive at the best of times, she never expected to bond with anyone, let alone Golgoth royalty. Strangely, Alastor seems to need her as no one has before, and not only for her medical skills.
Their attraction is forbidden, likely doomed beyond the wildness of wartime, but these fires burn too hot and sweet to be contained…
Warning: this is a romance with plenty of hot sex and you’ll find some m/f/m or m/m/f, depending on how you define such things. I’m not sure if it qualifies as an erotic romance. You should see for yourself!
The demon prince wasn’t a model patient, but he was killing Sheyla’s patience.
“I told you not to drink while I’m assessing your response to the new serum.” Keeping her voice level required some effort.
From the sound of it, the party was still winding down outside. The hospital still didn’t have four solid walls, and she had been fielding complaints from people in pain all night. For some, sleep offered the only respite and tonight it had been impossible. Now she had Alastor Vega, the Golgoth prince, in her office, reeking of hard liquor.
“Dr. Halek.” Somehow his tone came across as both mocking and reproachful. “It seemed churlish to refuse to toast my host’s happiness.”
“Per the breath analysis, you’ve had considerably more than one.”
That wasn’t the point anyway. Tonight, she couldn’t get the accurate test results his life depended on, and that inefficiency made her want to bite through a durasteel column. By the time he showed symptoms, it might be too late for her to correct course in his treatment. Add in the fact that she hadn’t even studied Golgoth physiology, and this felt like malpractice already.
“Consider me chided,” Prince Alastor said.
“Do you even want to live?”
“Not always.” That quiet honesty silenced her.
Sheyla didn’t like people at the best of times, which these weren’t. Occasionally pride mates asked why she’d decided to study medicine, but she did love the research side and the logic of how body systems cooperated. Through a microscope, the world made sense and samples behaved in predictable ways. While she wasn’t equipped for counseling, it seemed callous to refer him for mental health assessment without another word.
“The pride seer is still awake. I can get Arran—”
“Why? Will he tell my fortune? I suspect I can make a relatively accurate prediction without the use of cards or bones.”
“He doesn’t—” Aggravated, Sheyla bit off the rest of her explanation. The prince was clearly baiting her as a means of declining a counselor’s ear, so he didn’t care how Arran’s abilities functioned.
The smile didn’t reach the prince’s eyes. “Thank you for the offer.”
“I need you to abstain from all recreational chemicals and alcohol for the next twenty-four hours.”
“Does that mean mood-altering mushrooms are fine? All natural.”
Doctors are not allowed to punch patients. Ever.
“Drink plenty of water. Eat healthy meals. That’s all I want in your bloodstream when I run the full battery of tests.”
“If you tell me where you last saw your sense of humor, I’ll help you look for it.”
She wouldn’t let him bait her into snarling, no matter how tempted she might be. With effort, she completed the exam by taking his vitals, checking reflexes, and generally evaluating his condition. He watched her with amused jade eyes, demonstrating exaggerated patience. Her jaw hurt from clenching it, and maybe she wasn’t as gentle as she could’ve been in assessing his joint mobility.
When the prince flinched, she made a note. “How long has this been hurting?”
“As long as I can remember.”
For once, he didn’t seem to be joking. Leaning in, she spotted a bruise forming. She didn’t have nearly enough data on his illness, but sending away to his brother for a complete medical file was impossible. Saving Alastor might provide the key to weakening the Golgoth enough to turn the tide in the war. While Sheyla wouldn’t follow the prince into a pub, his men seemed devoted, so he probably had hidden capabilities.
“Yes, it hurts more if you press it,” he said mildly.
“That’s not what I’m checking for.” Side effects from the new serum might be causing a fresh blood disorder, too soon to diagnose. “That does it for now. You’re dismissed.”
“But your bedside manner is so charming and the environs, beyond inviting.”
The office that doubled as an exam room was many things, but inviting would never be one of them. Cracks spread up the wall from the explosion that had taken out of the west wall, so what used to be internal medicine had been converted as a makeshift morgue. Her equipment had been damaged too, but getting replacements from Burnt Amber would be a difficult proposition.
“I’m immune to sarcasm.”
Unfortunately, she wasn’t immune to exhaustion. Since the bombs went off, she hadn’t slept more than two hours in twenty, and while this asshole played word games, her pride mates were suffering. If the new matron hadn’t begged, she would’ve balked at taking on such a difficult patient when she could least afford the distraction. In terms of pure research, she welcomed the challenge, but Sheyla could easily spend ten hours just working on Prince Alastor’s illness, and that wasn’t fair to everyone else.
“A useful quality, if many of your patients are like me.”
“They’re aren’t. I’m going on rounds now. Feel free to rest on the cot or peruse one of my medical journals.”
She didn’t wait for his response, merely hurried to check on her critical patients. Two Latents, she suspected wouldn’t last the night, and their families were gathered for the death watch. In their tired eyes, she saw her own helplessness reflected. Awkwardly, she lingered and wished she could offer more than silent support. She ended her rounds at Jase’s bedside; he was the new pride matron’s nephew, and while he hadn’t woken yet, Sheyla entertained a cautiously positive prognosis.
His aunt was dozing in the chair nearby, so she kept her voice to a whisper. “Hang in there. Jilly’s waiting for you.”
The boy’s finger twitched. She knew better than to ascribe too much meaning to a reflex, but that was a good sign. Wearily she straightened and crept out before she could wake Glynnis. Another hour went in conferring with nurses and volunteers. The Animari tended to recover quickly, even from grievous wounds, so patients were leaving the hospital almost hourly. In another two days, she’d have only a handful left, including Prince Alastor.
I’ll have more time to devote to his condition, too.
To her surprise, she found him asleep on the cot when she got back. She hadn’t expected him to take her invitation seriously when he had an apartment in the residential annex. The music had finally stopped a while ago—about time, as it was damn near dawn. But there went her plan to crash here for a few hours. Sheyla resisted the impulse to shake him awake and evict him. He must’ve remained here for a reason.
Sheyla eased into the chair behind her desk, but instead of tackling the files that disheartened her—there were deaths to certify and bodies she couldn’t identify without more advanced testing—she leaned back, almost to the point that the chair must look like it was about to tip. Closing her eyes, she sought that elusive inner quiet, but she couldn’t eliminate the nagging voice that insisted she should’ve done more, better, or faster. Sleep wouldn’t come either, not with the demon prince breathing all over her office.
That wasn’t a kind nickname for the Golgoth exile; she’d never seen his shifted form, which might not be monstrous. Like most in Ash Valley, she’d only heard stories about his people before the conclave. Sheyla was too tired to be fair.
Silent counting didn’t relax her much, so she put her head on the desk. If sleep was impossible, rest might help. Before she could start the next round of Please shut up, brain, Prince Alastor stirred. From beneath her lashes, she watched him over the curve of her arm. With any luck, he would guess she was asleep and leave without additional conversation.
At first, he only rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Long moments later, he pulled himself upright like an old man hauling a heavy load. His shoulders rounded, and he struggled for a few seconds to breathe. If he’d shown continued distress, she would’ve had no choice but to respond. That fact that he controlled it gave her the option to stay still and not engage further with someone she still felt was probably an enemy.
As he stood, he whispered numbers, and she realized he appeared to be counting backward. Why? She didn’t know.
Until he said in a soft, hopeless tone, “Minutes left.”
Those moments alone felt like freedom. All too soon, the taste of it faded like early morning mist. Alastor left swiftly, for his bodyguard would be searching for him. For once Tycho’s schemes had backfired. When his brother assigned Dedrick as Alastor’s keeper, he never anticipated that eventually, he would command his loyalty. Far from being his warden, the man served as both his closest friend and fiercest protector.
Unsurprisingly, he encountered Dedrick prowling the hospital hallway. “How are you?”
If he had a coin for every time he’d heard that question, he could buy and sell the Golgoth empire ten times over. “Fine,” he said.
Lying had become second-nature. Most people didn’t want an honest answer. Ded was an exception to that rule, but he would fret if Alastor detailed his current condition. He wasn’t stoic by nature, and he’d learned to cover it with a certain insouciance. So he strolled toward his friend, lifting a hand in lazy salute.
“The bears have withdrawn, along with the wolves,” Ded reported.
“Leaving us with the feline contingent and the new Eldritch order. What do you make of the princess?”
As they walked, Ded gave the question due consideration. “She’s ruthless, certainly.”
“My thoughts as well. Do you suppose I have a shot at seducing her?”
He got a gloomy look in response. “Did you actually want me to estimate your chances?”
“By your expression… I suppose not. But it would be helpful if I could, no? She has a host of warriors ready to die on her command. If I could secure a marital alliance and unleash them, it would minimize our casualties.”
“I think your reach exceeds your grasp.”
“Pity. But I appreciate your honesty.”
Still, he wasn’t ready to relinquish the idea. Politically, it would be the best move he could make, but competition would likely be fierce, and he had little to offer other than potential. Dedrick had spoken passionately in his defense, part of the reason that the Ash Valley matron had assigned a doctor to his care yet he couldn’t envision leading forces against Tycho. The slaughter required for either side to claim victory churned his stomach, but if he didn’t stop his brother’s march to conquer, the cost would be catastrophic for all Numina.
All roads lead to damnation.
With determination, he set out for the back corner of the hold, where the men he privately dubbed the Exiles had been toiling on reconstruction. At this hour, they had just finished their breakfast and were prepared for another day of hard work. Not a single soldier complained though they were trained for the battlefield, not in masonry. Quietly, he pitched in beside them—to show solidarity and because manual labor gave him time to think. Before he approached the Eldritch princess, he needed to know more about her. Charm would only take him so far, and he was none too confident how his brand of it would translate.
Heavy lifting also strained his already-throbbing joints. With an impatient growl, Ded snatched the stones from his arms and pointed toward the flaming barrel, where a few of the men had set up a makeshift camp. The reality of his situation washed over him anew. This, what he could offer those who followed him: a crackling fire in enemy territory, broken cement slabs arranged for seating, and a gray sky spitting snow. Fat white flakes dusted his skin and lingered only a second before melting. There was a good chance he was running a fever, courtesy of the alcohol he shouldn’t have had last night and the new medicine that was as likely to kill him as let him survive the week.
Because Ded was insisting, he sat near the fire and stared at the crackling flames for a few, hypnotic moments. The next thing he knew, someone was pressing a thermos into his hands. Alastor glanced up to find Rowena hovering.
“Have you eaten?” she asked.
She was half-caste, reviled in Golgerra as a ‘stain’, born from a union between a guard and one of the prisoners. Based on her silvery hair and fey features, her mother had probably been Eldritch. Early on, it’d seemed as if she would never learn to shift, but once she finally did, she was beautiful and ferocious in a way utterly unlike the other Golgoth, for she had wings.
“Not yet. Thank you, lovely.” It was fun to make her blush, though he shouldn’t.
She perched beside him, watching with anxious eyes as he downed the soup. It was the same stuff they’d been given for days on end, but from what he’d seen, the cats weren’t hoarding better provisions. When he finished it, she traded the empty thermos for one full of herbal-smelling tea. Alastor wanted that as much as a kick in the face, but when she poured some, he drank all of it.
“How long are we staying?”
Sometimes, their faith humbled him. No matter how often he denied it, no Exile ever accepted that he didn’t have a master plan—that he wasn’t biding his time. He’d come on this assignment because direct rebellion was impossible. At least this way, he got out of Golgerra and he’d brought a good number of his people to safety as well. When Tycho heard of his defection—that the cats had offered sanctuary—the followers who had remained in the city would likely be put to death.
“It depends,” he said at length.
Rowena didn’t ask; her eyes said she wanted to. In the end, she got up and returned to work. Not before he noticed that her knuckles were chapped and cracking, blood seeping from the broken skin. Her fingertips were scraped raw as well. When he looked closer, he noticed that his entire honor guard was visibly thinner. They all looked as if they’d gone to war, and that was what decided him.
If they’re willing to work like this for me, I can’t do less.
For the rest of the day, he mixed the mortar and wheeled it around. By sunset, his men had completely rebuilt the north wall. Everyone was tired and sore when they retreated to the apartments they had been allotted. Still no hot water, but a cold shower was better than nothing. Alastor shivered as he stepped out of the stall, silently relieved not to find Ded or Rowena waiting for him. If they appeared, he would need to keep up the pretense that he was holding together just fine.
With a muffled groan, he collapsed near the bed, shivers wracking him from head to toe. His chest tightened and he tried not to panic because that only made things worse. The constriction climbed to his throat, choking his air so that he went lightheaded. Sweat beaded on his brow, and he curled onto his side clinging to consciousness by a thread. Whispers of oxygen came in through his nose, not enough to keep him from familiar, visceral terror. In time, the episode passed. It had been years since it hit him so hard, proof that the medicine from the cat doctor wasn’t working as it should.
That’s why Tycho let me live. He figured time would take care of me.
Alastor was struggling to his feet when somebody knocked. Briefly, he contemplated ignoring the caller in hopes he went away, but a louder thump followed, definite impatience, there. Exhausted beyond bearing, he got to door, opened it with his best off-putting expression.
To his astonishment, Dr. Halek pushed past him into the apartment. “You lied to me. About a number of things. How am I supposed to treat you this way?”
“How do you know?” He stared in utter bemusement, as she looked… odd, outside of her usual setting, dark hair spangled with snow like a diadem of stars.
“I left a sensor to monitor your condition.” In an efficient motion, she plucked a tiny, transparent patch from the back of his neck, a cunning gadget immune to hard labor and bathing. “And it’s given me some fascinating insights.”
Probably, he should be angry about this invasion of his privacy. “Now you know my secrets,” he said lightly, though he wasn’t sure what the device had revealed. “How thrilling. You don’t know how long I’ve waited for someone who insists on absolute truth.”
2017 – Paranormal Worldbuilding nominee
“Top-notch author Aguirre is back with the second installment of her terrific Ars Numina fantasy romance series. This book focuses on Golgoth Prince Alastor Vega and the ramifications of the brutal battle for succession with his brother Tycho. Along with the action sequences, Aguirre also deftly explores love in many forms, as well as loyalty and sacrifice. The worldbuilding in this series is outstanding, and each book moves the epic nature of the overall plot forward while also showcasing the emotional growth between characters. Truly an outstanding series that is not to be missed!” RT Book Reviews