An extract from Born of Silence

Prologue

“You have got to be the biggest manwhore in the entire universe. What are you trying to do? Tie Caillen for the record on how many people you can sleep with in a single month? And just so you know, his is twenty-two.”

Maris Sulle, Darling’s oldest and dearest friend, laughed at his dry tone. “You’re only jealous you didn’t get the waiter’s digies.” Leaning back in his ornately padded chair, Darling snorted in response. He swirled the wine in his crystal glass while they finished eating lunch in one of the most exclusive restaurants in Perona— the capital city of the southern part of the Caronese Empire where Darling’s family had ruthlessly ruled for more than three thousand years.

After the brutal suck-ass morning he’d already had, he really wanted something much stronger than this weak shit to drink, but his public persona kept him from ordering the hard liquor he craved.

He could only drink that whenever he was alone. Even then, he had to be careful no one found out lest they discover who and what he really was.

“I thought you were still involved with . . .” Darling paused as he mentally sorted through the lengthy roll of men his best friend had been with over the last year. “I can’t even remember his name now.”

“Gregor?”

Darling shook his head as he finally recalled the last boyfriend’s name, and it wasn’t Gregor. He’d fear senility had already set in, but it was more he had a lot of other things on his mind. Besides, no one could keep up with Maris’s ever revolving list of boy toys. “I’m behind apparently. The last one I remember was named Destin.”

“Drustan,” Maris corrected. “And yes, you are. You really should try to keep up. That was a good two months ago, and I’ve had three since then.” He looked down at the number on his mobile and smiled as he stored it. “Soon to be four.”

“Does Gregor know he’s being replaced?”

“Oh don’t get me started on that repulsive ape. I caught him in flagrante delicto with his personal secretary. His secretary . . . really? If you’re going to be such a slut, the least you could do is not be a common, clichéd one. Right?”

Darling laughed, then took a deep drink of wine before he spoke again. “I’ll keep that in mind for future reference. The last thing I’d ever want to be accused of is being a clichéd slut.”

“Oh please. You’re such a monk. I’m not even sure you’ve lost your virginity.” With a deep, horrified expression, Maris looked up from his mobile and slapped his hand over his mouth as he realized what he’d said and the land mine of pain he’d unintentionally exploded all over Darling. “I’m so incredibly sorry, Dar. That was so insensitive of me. I didn’t mean it. Gah, I can’t believe I said that to you, of all people. I wasn’t thinking, sweetie. You know I would never, ever hurt you. Not for anything . . . You can punch me if it’ll make you feel better.” He clenched his eyes shut and tensed, waiting to be hit.

It took Darling several more seconds before he could club the monster from his past back into the closet, slam the door on it, and then speak over the surge of barbed emotions that gutted him.

“It’s all right, Mari,” he said finally, his voice deceptively calm as he stroked the crystal decanter on the table. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it.”

Still, that didn’t stop it from cutting all the way to the marrow of his bones.

Darling set the glass on the table and wished he could rip some of his memories straight out of his brain. Most pathetic part? As horrifying as that had been, it wasn’t at the top of the list of things he’d kill to forget.

Opening his eyes, Maris reached out and covered Darling’s hand with his own. “You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known. You know that, right?”

Strange, he didn’t feel that way. Most days he felt even more battered inside than he was outside. And here lately those feelings of rage and resentment, of unrelenting hatred and vengeance, were forcing him into a place of darkness he wasn’t sure he could come back from.

Before Darling could stop himself, he pulled away from Maris’s touch and brushed his hand over the latest bruise on his cheek. Luckily the long hair he wore covering the left side of his face concealed it and the deep, rancid scar no amount of plastic surgery could get rid of.

Another pugnacious memory he could do without, and a perpetual reminder that he really was in this world alone. Friends were friends, but at the end of the day, they all went home. Not even Maris could be with him 24/7. And though he might have tiny slices of freedom for a while, sooner or later, Arturo got nervous and had him hauled back to hell.

His mobile alarm chimed.

That’s what you get for thinking about the bastard. Nothing like summoning the dybbuk up from his stygian hole.

Maris scowled. “What’s that for?”

Darling cut the alarm off, then slid his mobile back into his pocket. “My uncle’s activated my chip.” A lovely nano tracking device that was so microscopic it couldn’t be located, removed, or jammed. But the one thing Arturo hadn’t counted on was Darling’s ingenuity in writing a program that would intercept his uncle’s access to the chip. “I set the alarm to notify me whenever he sends his goons out to drag me home.” A constant in his life that always firebombed his temper.

How the hell could he still be deemed a minor when he was twenty-eight years old?

Only by something as backward as Caronese law . . .

A law originally designed to protect his people from the reign of an immature monarch. Instead, it’d proven to be a prison sentence that had hung around his neck like a perpetual noose.

And honestly, he was getting really sick of all this shit. Kere, his Sentella alter ego, wanted blood. Any day now, he expected that darkest part of himself to take over, forget all consequences, and lash out against the world. May the gods help whoever was in the line of fire when that happened.

In the past, he’d been able to quell his outrage with cold rationale, but every day his fury was getting harder and harder to harness. No amount of logic soothed him anymore. If anything, the attempts to rationalize his situation and the injustice of his life only provoked him more.

He felt like he was starting to go insane from it all.

Daintily, Maris wiped his mouth with his linen napkin. “We should get going, then. I don’t want you in trouble.” It didn’t matter. The fact he breathed got him in to trouble.

I can’t take this much longer . . .

But he had to. It wasn’t just his life on the line. It was his mother’s, brother’s, and sister’s. And unlike his older brother Ryn, he wasn’t about to turn his back on his family. Ever. Even if he hated his mother more than he loved her, he couldn’t sacrifice her to his uncle.

He would never spit on his father’s memory that way. But he was getting really tired of holding that line. Sixteen years of utter bullshit had taken its toll on him. Not just physically, but mentally.

C’mon, Dar. Just eighteen more months. You can do it.

Then he’d inherit his father’s empire and finally be in control of his own destiny.

You don’t really think that’ll happen, do you?

He had to. Even though his gut told him that he’d most likely be murdered between then and now, it was all that kept him sane these days. That and the one person he couldn’t talk about to anyone.

Not even Maris.

That secret was currently the only lifeline he had.

Darling lifted his hand to signal the waiter that they were ready for the check. If his uncle’s men followed their usual routine, he only had about fifteen minutes before he was dragged out of here by royal guards.

That was the last degredation he needed, especially after this morning’s round of Humiliate Darling in Front of the Ruling Gerents.

Don’t think about it. He would be governor soon and then they’d all learn just how not weak he was.

He pulled his card out and laid it on the table. He didn’t need to look at their bill. It didn’t matter to him if it was right or wrong. Time meant more to him than money.

The waiter came by, flashed a dimpled smile at Maris, and took the check and card.

He was back in record time . . . with a small container of the cake Maris had started to order, then changed his mind about. There was something to be said for Maris’s outrageous flirting. They always received the best service in the United Systems.

Darling pressed his thumb against the scanner, then signed his name on the electronic ledger. As soon as the payment was accepted, he got up and followed Maris toward the entrance.

“Where are you heading after this?” Maris asked as he held the door open for him.

What Maris really meant was where would Darling try to hide to keep from being dragged home like a felon, and beaten because he’d dared to have an afternoon of peace out of his uncle’s sight.

“I’ll grab my fighter and head over to Caillen’s for a while. I haven’t had a chance to see his daughter since she started walking. What about you?”

Maris glanced back into the restaurant. “I want to grab something, all right. But it’s not a fighter . . . Or maybe he is. With that tight body, it is possible.”

In spite of his disgust at having to leave so abruptly, Darling smiled. It was what he loved most about Maris. No matter how bad he felt, Maris could always amuse him. “Seriously, you want to come with?”

“Sure. I can always stare at Caillen. That man . . .” Maris bit his knuckle with lustful glee.

Darling laughed as they joined the huge crowd on the street and had to push their way through the sea of shuffling bodies. “Better be careful, his wife might get jealous.”

“True. And I’m not dumb enough to upset a woman who knows how to use a blaster and a blade. I like my body parts attached.”

Darling didn’t respond. Damn, the crowd was always thick this time of day, but this was ridiculous. He could barely move.

Then again, he should be grateful. It would slow down his uncle’s men and help conceal him from them.

His alarm buzzed again.

“Bastard,” he snarled under his breath before he looked down and reached to silence it.

“Dar! Forward front! Point one!”

With reflexes honed by the best assassins in the business who’d taught him to protect his vital areas, Darling turned at Maris’s military command that warned him of an imminent attack. The instant he moved, he felt the sting of a knife sliding into his flesh, just below his shoulder blade.

A knife that had been aimed at his heart.