“I smell death.” Sol Regem’s hot breath huffed from his nostrils in disdain, blowing Runaan and Ethari’s hair back and coating them in the scent of sun-baked stone.
Runaan shifted Ethari’s weight against his shoulder, supporting the heavy, exhausted elf around the waist, and glared up at the blinded Sun Archdragon. In the late afternoon light, his bony crown was silhouetted against the sky's golden glow. Runaan had hoped the stench of what Ethari had suffered wouldn’t reach the dragon’s sensitive nose. “Let us pass. He was attacked by humans. I’m taking him home.”
The sun-crowned dragon let a soft, threatening growl ease through his teeth. “No.”
Slumped against Runaan’s shoulder, Ethari sucked in a deep enough breath to speak. “Runaan, I should’ve told you—”
Runaan immediately turned his face toward Ethari, though he kept his eyes on the looming dragon. “I know what they did to you,” he murmured. “We don’t need to speak of it. Not here.”
Ethari shook his head slightly, still weak with exhaustion. “No, you don’t under—”
“You can both perish here, together, assassin,” Sol Regem interrupted, “or you can leave the tainted one and return to your princely duties. Surely your father would not wish for you to stain the family honor so ignominiously as to die in the arms of a blood traitor.” The dragon’s heavy lip curled. “Choose. Or I will choose for you.”
Runaan’s breath fled. His eyes flew wide as his spine shot full of chills. The world spun out in a whirlwind from his mind. Ethari at his side, warm and sturdy, and the Moonshadow Forest beyond, where all his people lived and fought and loved. Where his father expected him to uphold the honor of the royal house and all the Moonshadow elves as well, for all Xadia to see. Where he had grown up, cold and aloof and alone, the perfect prince, primed to serve as the leader of the honorable assassin squad in the Silvergrove near the human border, striding into the night wherever his father pointed.
But in the Silvergrove, he had met Ethari. And the ice in his heart had begun to crack and melt. He craved the craftsman’s warmth, sucked it deep into his soul and let it ease his oldest hurts. Over the last year, safe in Ethari’s arms, that ice in his heart had become warm tears of joy.
Ethari at his side. Runaan had never wanted anything more.
But the Forest lay beyond. Runaan could feel the siren tug of duty on his soul. He closed his eyes. Let out all his breath. Pulled Ethari tight against him, and kissed his temple.
In the aching emptiness of oxygen deprivation, Runaan let his darkest instincts have their way. They’d always protected him, even at the cost of others. When he opened his eyes, he knew what he had to do.
He kept his voice as cold as iron. “May I have a moment to say goodbye?”
Sol Regem snorted disdainfully. “Make it quick, and so will I.”
“Runaan, I’m so sorry…” Ethari’s murmur broke into a sob, and he tried to push Runaan away from him. “I never should have gone with them. But it’s all right, you need to return—”
“Ethari.” Runaan seized him by the shoulders to get him to stop talking. One hand lifted to cup his cheek, and he gazed lovingly into Ethari’s sunset eyes.
Ethari’s dark brows lifted softly, and his lower lip trembled as he leaned into Runaan’s palm.
“Ever since I met you,” Runaan began, “you’ve been hammering my heart at your forge. You’ve shaped me and made me stronger. The work of your hands has refined and purified my soul. If there is any beauty in me, Ethari, it is because you crafted it there. Your patience with my imperfections has made me love you more deeply than I knew I could. You are the light in my darkness. Without you, I am only shadow, too well suited to my appointed duties. I am the night, but you are my moon, and I would cradle you in my arms every night if I could, just to ease your way until the dawn.”
Runaan would’ve kept talking, but Ethari’s face crumpled with happy tears, and he laughed, brushing them away. “You should be this charming with everyone. It looks good on you.”
Runaan settled himself with a steadying breath before replying or he’d tear up, too. “There is a question I have been wanting to ask you for some time. But I suddenly find myself in a desperate hurry. So, before I must part with you one last time, I… I would like to know what your answer is.”
Ethari blinked and stood straighter, and his breathing sped up. His soft smile broke into a teary grin.
Runaan kissed him softly. Their mouths moved together, warm and sweet, tasting each other, and Ethari leaned into him, sliding his arms around Runaan’s waist, drinking him in. Reluctantly, Runaan broke the kiss and pressed his forehead against Ethari’s.
Moment of truth. He eased a breath in, filling his chest, feeling his heart thrumming, and leaned in to whisper his question in Ethari’s ear.
“Can you run?”
Ethari’s strong hands spasmed around Runaan’s waist, and he pressed his temple against Runaan’s. His next few breaths were deeper as he gathered his strength, mindful of the dragon who still waited to incinerate him. Finally, he pulled back and met Runaan’s eyes again. “Yes, Runaan. My answer is yes.”