“I do remember the drudgery,” he said, looking up at the turrets, bright white against a sun-bleached sky.
And he was walking back into it. Back into the past. Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe.
He wanted to run again in that moment. Because he could remember what had pushed him to it now, all too easily.
Blood. Death. Blame.
So much easier to run. To wrap himself in life’s pleasures and ignore the pain.
“I can’t imagine anything ever felt like drudgery to you. You never took it seriously enough.”
“Maybe not then. But I’m here now. Oh, yes, I’ve decided to come back and assume the throne, I don’t believe I mentioned that.”
There was a long pause. He looked across the car at Layna, who was sitting there looking straight ahead, as though she was pretending she couldn’t hear.
“I’m glad,” Stavros said, at last, and Xander believed him. “But if this is a game to you, then I suggest you take your ass back to wherever you came from. It’s been my life’s work to bring Kyonos back from the brink, and I’ll not have you destroy it.”
“Don’t worry, Stavros, I’ve only ever been interested in destroying myself.”
“And yet, somehow, you seem to destroy others in the process.”
Xander looked at Layna and felt an uncomfortable pang in his gut. “Not this time,” he said. “Now, call and have them admit me, please.”
“You’ll find your quarters just as you left them.”
He laughed. “I hope there’s still porn under the mattress.”
* * *
There was. Though it was hideously dated and nowhere near as scandalous as he’d imagined it to be when he was a young man only just starting down the path of debauchery.
The head of palace hospitality had ushered Layna to her room, and his father’s advisor had walked him to his own quarters. The man, as old as the king, was blustering, shocked and trying to get answers from Xander who was, unfortunately for him, not in the mood to answer questions.
Instead he shut the man out, shut the door and looked around. That was when he found the magazines, just as he left them. They used to thrill him. He remembered it well. Now they just left him with this vague feeling of the stale familiar.
But then, life in general didn’t thrill him much at this point. He’d seen too much. Done too much. He was less a carefree playboy than he was a jaded one. It was hard to show shock or emotion when one barely felt it anymore.
The glittering mystery had worn off life. Torn away the day his mother died. Forcing him to look at every ugly thing hidden behind the facade. And so he’d walked further into that part of life. The underbelly. Into all the things people wanted to revel in, but could never bring themselves to discard their morals—or their image—in order to do so.
But he’d done it. Morals didn’t mean a thing to him. Neither did his image.
It was too hard to go on living in a beautiful farce when you knew that was all it was. So he never bothered. He was honest about what he wanted. He took what he wanted. As did those around him. Whether it was gambling, drugs or sex, it was done with a transparency, an unapologetic middle finger at life.
He’d found a strange relief in it. In being around all that sin in the open. Because it was the secrets, the pretense of civility, he couldn’t handle.
And now he was back in the palace. Center stage for the show. Back in chains. Pretending to be someone he was never born to be.
He threw the magazines down onto the bed and looked around. He’d expected a few more ghosts. Or something. But he felt the same as he had before returning home.
Shame and regret were his second skin. They existed with him, over him. And so he’d spent his life reveling in the most shameful things imaginable. He would feel it either way. At least if he sought it out, it was his choice. Not something forced upon him by life.
Like standing beneath water that was too hot. Until you were scalded to the point where you didn’t feel it anymore.
In truth, it had worked to a degree.
But only to a degree.
He pushed his hands through his hair and turned toward where his suitcases had been put. He would need ties, he supposed. He didn’t wear ties. One of the things he’d cast off when he’d left Kyonos.
For now, he just had his suits and shirts he wore open-collared, but it would have to do. Just the thought of ties made it feel hard to breathe. Or maybe it was the palace in general.
Her pulled open the door to his room and stalked down the corridor, not sure where he was going. He grabbed the passing housekeeper. “Where is Layna?”
“Oh!” She looked completely shocked. “Your Highness...”