The Night Watch
When Prince Liam returns to his kingdom after five years away, there's only one person he wants desperately to see: Cerdec, his closest friend since childhood. But Cerdec is now a knight sworn to protect the kingdom, and Liam fears he is the only one who remembers their stolen moments together.
Newly-sworn knight Cerdec has had no shortage of lovers since Liam left, but he's never felt as close to them as he once felt to the prince. Now that Liam has returned, Cerdec is prepared to serve as his personal guard, even if the position torments his with longing he's terrified to voice.
Even if it means he must welcome and protect the bride Liam's father has selected.
"Your Highness? It's time."
Prince Liam put down his book and nodded at the sailor in the doorway. He'd have to be completely deaf—and a total idiot to boot—to not notice the ship was approaching port. Sailors had been calling down the gangway all morning and pounding over the roof of his cabin. Still, he had to keep up appearances. And perhaps one of those appearances was being a total idiot.
"Thank you," he said, coming to his feet.
Liam ducked his head to follow the sailor out of his cabin and up the steep, narrow staircase to the main deck. After nearly two weeks at sea, he could actually smell land—the tang of pine resin, smoke from the city of Cyon. His city.
Liam knew it was an inconvenience for him to be above-board at this time: docking was a delicate procedure. But still. He had to know. His breath caught in his throat as his eyes adjusted to the glare off the ocean, slowly bringing Cyon's harbor into focus. A line of knights on the dock waited for him, their white pennants waving in the offshore breeze. He squinted, but it was impossible to recognize anyone from this distance.
Five years. It's been five years.
When he left Cyon, he'd been fifteen. A boy, scarcely more than a child, fighting tears as he said goodbye to everything he'd ever known and stepped on the ship bound for the Academy of Alexria.
He didn't come to see me off, Liam remembered. It still hurt, even after five long years. They'd grown up together, Crown Prince Liam and Cerdec, son of the First Knight. They'd been inseparable, playing together, training together, getting into trouble and trying to escape the punishment together. And the last time I saw him, we fought. Liam bit back a sigh.
"Your Highness," Captain Roberts said, joining Liam on the railings. "I trust the voyage was to your liking?"
Liam nodded silently.
"Ah, she's a beautiful city," the captain said.
"Thank you, Captain." Liam allowed himself a small smile. As though I've done anything to make the city beautiful. All I've ever done is cower in the king's shadow. And leave.
"And it's been a lovely voyage," Liam said. I'll give you credit for the weather, just as you gave me credit for the city.
Captain Roberts grinned, seeming more than willing to accept the credit. "Of course, of course. It's been an absolute pleasure having you on board. We're more than happy to accommodate you again."
Oh, I'm sure, thought Liam. He'd noticed the sailors grumbling as he was given the best food, the first pick of their wretched rotgut wine. And he was sure the captain had been positively thrilled to give up his own quarters to the spoiled blueblood from the Academy.
"I'll give the king a most favorable report," Liam said, extending his hand. "And there's no one else we'd consider for our future transportation needs."
Captain Roberts gave Liam a wide smile as he kissed his hand. Then, lies and formalities completed, he stepped away to supervise the docking. Liam leaned forward, shielding his eyes to scan the shore. His hands clenched the polished wood of the railing, his knuckles turning white. The ship was still too far to be certain, but Cerdec had been massive five years ago, when he was only sixteen. By now his curly blond hair would stand a full head above the other knights.
If he were there.
Liam was horrified to feel the hot prick of tears behind his eyelids. He spun away from the railing and almost smacked a sailor scurrying across the deck.
The sailor's face dropped, and he paled. "Your Highness!" He bent low, almost scraping the deck. "My apologies!"
"Oh, stop it," Liam snapped. "I ran into you."
The sailor stood frozen in place as Liam walked around him, heading below deck. He suddenly did not want to see any more of Cyon.
The guard at Liam's cabin door stood at attention as Liam brushed past. His books and tunics had already been packed, leaving him with precious little to occupy himself in the creaking, claustrophobic room. He opened the tiny, round portal window, then slammed it closed again as the ship shuddered through the harbor.
Not a single one of the king's letters to the Academy had mentioned Cerdec. After the first year passed, Liam grew too terrified to ask about him. It wasn't unheard of for knights-in-training to leave the kingdom as hostages or tokens in a peace treaty. Or even to seek their fortune elsewhere, to swear fealty to some other sovereign.
And sometimes there were accidents.
Liam squeezed his eyes shut, bringing the palms of his hands to his eyes. I am to be king. My citizens will not see me cry.
Liam turned to the door. It was the same sailor who had fetched him earlier, a mere slip of a boy, barely older than Liam had been when he first left Cyon.
"The ship is secured. They're, uh, ready for you. Your Highness."
Liam cleared his throat. "Thank you."