Everyone in the Drion Collective knows that finding your match—the one person in existence with the same soul mark as yours—is the best thing that could ever happen. But the last thing Lord Anders Hawthorne is thinking about when he boards a ship to Drion for the king’s funeral is finding his soul mate.
Captain Zachary O’Connell has the perfect life—his ship, the stars, and no emotional entanglements. When heat sparks between him and Lord Hawthorne, Zach gleefully dives into a no-strings arrangement. He doesn’t expect it to last beyond arrival at Drion, any more than he expects trouble along the way.
Trouble quickly finds them, however, and it soon becomes clear that Lord Hawthorne is not only not who he says he is, but also that he’s the target of a deadly plot. With danger all around them, Zach and Anders must work together to save the Collective. Meanwhile, Zach must come to grips with losing everything he always thought he wanted, to have the one thing he never dreamed he needed.
In celebration of the Great Compromise, Dryos Cycle 3046 was renamed Drion Cycle 1, in honor of King Drion Ands, the first and greatest king of our people, Unifier of the System, Protector of Our Way of Life, and Father to a long line of great kings and queens, beginning with his firstborn son and general of his armies . . .
Anders ignored the intrusion, gloved fingers tracing the lines of faded text, moving on to the next passage.
Ciebos declined to be renamed, passing on the honor of bearing the name Gloria after King Drion’s first wife, she who had first proposed the Great Compromise, and she from whence peace had forever radiated. It was at Queen Gloria’s tomb where the final signature was added to the Compromise and the first five-cycle rotation began . . .
He scowled, hunching his shoulders. This dialect was just old enough that translating as he went was no small feat. Still, Anders was up to the task, if only people would stop interrupting him.
The first rotation held many challenges. Laws and gods from twelve planets needed reconciling after three hundred cycles apart. It was only through the steady guidance of King Drion, he for whom our great planet is called, that those difficult cycles were navigated. King Drion was the one to establish the first Temple of the Many, and it was he who also drafted the first law of the Collective, establishing the law of succession and ensuring his line’s right to the throne from that day onward . . .
“Ground Command to Lord Hawthorne, your signal’s scrambled. Anders!”
Anders glanced up from the dusty pages of the ancient tome, blinking rapidly as his eyes adjusted. Bern, one of his loyal guards, cocked a blond eyebrow and gave him his best and flattest look. Anders smiled back; Bern was more bark than bite, regardless of how long he’d been trying to get Anders’s attention.
“Sorry,” Anders said, carefully slipping a piece of silk between the pages to mark his spot. “Sometimes the family history can be a bit hypnotic, if obnoxiously redundant.”
Bern, as ever, was entirely unmoved. “You’re the one writing a book about your own genealogy,” he said. “Don’t even try to tell me it doesn’t get you going to read about how great your ancestors were.”
Anders laughed. “Maybe a little,” he admitted. He lifted the tome with gentle, gloved hands, and secured it in the preservation box. There were digital copies on the network, of course, but there was something about holding a book in his hands that settled a part of Anders like nothing else. Book safely tucked away, he turned back to Bern.
“What can I do for you?” he asked. “Or did you just come in to admire my work?”
Bern huffed a laugh through his nose. “Not precisely. I wanted to let you know that Daniel is in your office and is asking to see you right away.”
Daniel. Anders couldn’t help the little thrill in his stomach at the thought of his friend. They hadn’t spoken in weeks, and a part of Anders couldn’t help wondering now if that meant their friendly arrangement of convenient sex and welcome companionship had run its course. He hoped not; it wasn’t love, but he was quite fond of Daniel and had been considering possibly deepening their relationship.
They had met at the library two years earlier and had been friends ever since. The sex, a relatively recent addition, had only started when Anders had flat-out propositioned Daniel, half curious to see what his buttoned-up history-professor friend would say to a blatant come-on. It wasn’t the most spectacular sex in the Collective, sure, but it was certainly better than going home alone every night without fail.
Anders smiled over his shoulder at his guard. “Why don’t we call it a day? You can contact Jackson and tell him our change in schedule while I talk to Daniel, and then we can all get out of here.”
“Sounds like a solid plan to me, my lord,” Bern said, smoothing his close-cropped blond hair. Being a military man down to the core, just like his partner Jackson, Bern hated when it was his turn to watch over Anders at work. He also had far less patience than Jackson, so Anders was careful to take pity on him whenever possible.
Anders tidied up his workspace, wanting to have everything in its place when he came back in the morning. As much of an absentminded academic some people might think him at times, Anders strictly enforced neatness and order in his offices. It was one of the many things he’d learned from his father, though not the most important.
Finally satisfied, Anders headed down the hall. Bern trailed after him as usual, but didn’t follow him into his office; fortunately for everyone’s sanity, Daniel had been cleared for private interactions a long time ago.
“Daniel,” Anders said warmly, the office door shutting behind him.
Daniel jumped up out of his chair and swept Anders into his arms, kissing him firmly. When Anders tried to deepen the kiss, however, Daniel pulled back. His tanned face shone bright with excitement and barely-contained happiness.
“The most amazing thing has happened, Anders,” he said. “And you’re the first person I want to know.”
“Does this have anything to do with why you’ve been off the grid for three weeks?” Anders asked with a laugh, catching Daniel’s hand and guiding them both to the sofa.
Daniel flushed. “I’m truly sorry about that. Time just got away from me.” He outright giggled; solid, staid Daniel had giggled, and Anders blinked at him for several seconds.
“This must be one incredible story,” he said at last. “So tell me, what’s your fantastic news?”
“I matched!” Daniel flung himself back on the couch, arms wide as he nearly shouted. “I went to that dreadful staff party because my supervisor all but ordered me there, and I came out with my match!”
“You . . . matched?”
Daniel pulled up his sleeve to show off his soul mark, nestled in the crook of his elbow. Anders had teased him once that the plain black square was a book, a terribly unhelpful indicator of who his match would be, academia being Daniel’s whole world and all.
“Jane’s is on her chest.” He touched his own collarbone, a distant look in his pale eyes. “I’d never have seen it if she weren’t wearing a dress for the party.”
Anders rubbed his own mark, hidden under a privacy patch firmly affixed to his left wrist. No one but Anders, his parents, and a very few physicians had even seen his mark. It made the possibility of matching much more remote, but it was standard practice for members of the royal family to hide their marks in order to prevent attempts at fraud. The last thing a person of Anders’s standing needed was to be tricked into an unnecessary and unmatched bonding. Anders had never considered that anyone around him might do something as random as meet their match at a staff party. His chest ached, and he wasn’t sure if it was disappointment or jealousy.
“And the past few weeks?” Anders prompted, because clearly he was a glutton for punishment.
“Getting to know each other and using up as much personal time as we dared.” Daniel sighed happily and leaned back again. “I’ve never met someone I meshed with so perfectly, Anders. I get it’s largely biology, complementary hormones and all that, but she makes me laugh. That’s something more than science, you know? Now I understand why they call them soul marks; because we really do match, right down to our souls. Also,” he added, a wicked grin spreading across his face, “the sex is unbelievable.”
“Always good,” Anders said quietly.
“We’re bonding next week,” Daniel said suddenly. “I recognize it might be a bit awkward, all things considered, but I’d really like to have you there.” He sobered. “It would mean a lot to me to have my friend with us. And Jane wants to meet you.”
Anders arched an eyebrow. “I take it you haven’t told her how you and I spent the entire weekend of the last staff function, then?” The words were a little bitter, but Anders deserved to be a touch petty, if only for a few moments. It wasn’t every day someone like him got dumped, after all.
Daniel flushed. “Not yet, no,” he admitted. “Although she knows about our arrangement. She’s had her own fair share of arrangements in the past too, so she’s fine with knowing you and I used to . . .”
“Fuck on a semiregular basis?”
He coughed. “Yes. That.”
Used to. Well, this wasn’t unexpected, all things considered. It was rare that people would match and not immediately enter into an exclusive, monogamous relationship, and virtually unheard of for bonded couples to see other people. Likely it had to do with the empathic connection activated by the bonding ceremony, one that often deepened into a telepathic connection, allowing bonded matches to communicate with each other over great distances. Jackson and Bern had such a connection. It was part of why they’d been recruited right out from under the Navy and into the Royal Guard.
Still, it stung to be so summarily dismissed by a lover as a used to.
“Will you?” Daniel was asking. “Will you come?”
Anders couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do less. But. “You couldn’t keep me away,” he said instead. Certainly he’d be able to find a solid excuse within a week.
Daniel laughed again, pulling him in for a hug. “Thank you, friend,” he said in Anders’s ear. “Thank you for being so understanding.”
Anders returned the hug, but only for a handful of seconds. Then he gently pushed Daniel back, careful to keep his smile as close to real as possible. “Now go back to your match and let me work,” he said. “I was in the middle of a particularly difficult translation before you and your love life interrupted.”
With a snort, Daniel stood and snatched up his coat. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you to dinner?” he asked. “Jane and I have reservations at that café you showed me. We can easily add a third.”
“Tempting, but no,” Anders said, manfully resisting the urge to shudder at how terrifically awkward that meal would be. “So much work, so little time.”
He could have done without the look of obvious pity, but at least Daniel finally left, giving Anders a moment alone.
This wasn’t a heartbreak, Anders decided. More like a bruise. Honestly, matching caused more problems for people on the periphery than the supposed benefits to the pair. Why people went so absolutely mad over finding someone with the same birthmark, Anders would never know. Besides, it wasn’t as though most people didn’t bond with imperfect matches. As a people, they were so spread out across the stars, it was unrealistic to wait for that one special person. From not-quite exact matches to outright mismatching, bonding had never truly been just for matches, even if it was supposedly best that way. Why, Anders’s own ancestor, King Drion Ands, had bonded and buried a total of three wives in his lifetime.
Someone knocked on the doorframe, and Anders looked up to see both Jackson and Bern standing there, with identical somber expressions. Speaking of matching pairs.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Daniel matched.” He took a great lungful of air and released it all at once. “Maybe I should go home for a while. Spend some time with Father. He didn’t seem very well in our last video call.”
Their faces went more troubled. “Anders,” Bern said, stepping into the room. “My lord . . .” Jackson followed him, carefully closing the door behind him.
Something similar to anxiety started brewing low in Anders’s stomach. “What’s wrong?”
Jackson knelt at his feet and gently took both of Anders’s hands in his own meaty ones. “Your father,” he said at last. “We’ve just received word from home.”
“What about him?” The anxiety was rising up and into his throat, threatening to become full-blown hysteria.
“Anders,” Jackson said, still in that gentle voice of his, “Anders, your father is dead.”
Elizabeth Silver is a writer, a tarot reader, a Level Two Cat Lady, and an internet junkie. Her day job is terribly dull, her hobbies oddly specific and quirky, and her husband the most patient person a writer could ask for.
A New Jersey native, Liz is a proud nerd and an awkward human being. She likes to think it makes her endearing. When not writing, Liz can be found collecting tarot cards, chasing Pokemon, fighting her way out of YouTube spirals, and/or performing online searches that will probably land her on a government list somewhere someday.
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Jenny Urban lives not too far from Las Vegas—but not too close—with two cats named after fictional wizards. She has been writing with coauthor Elizabeth Silver for nearly fifteen years, with their first book published in 2010.
When not writing or at the evil day job, she loves to sing, play the piano, read, and watch monster-hunting brothers on TV.
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