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The Last Emperor
Author:Kari Gregg

The Last Emperor by Kari Gregg



Dedication:

To knitters with shameless yarn stashes

The tribes were his to lose…and theirs to regain.

History taught that rebels executed the imperial family, including young Prince Nika Marisek, and hid the bodies in an unmarked grave. History was wrong.

Decades later, yarn shop owner Nick Goode reclaimed his identity to see his long-dead family decently buried. He’ll do whatever he must to persuade elders who now rule the tribes…even offer to abdicate. Some, however, seek to capitalize on Nick’s survival. Who better to drag the tribes from corruption into freedoms the rebellion had promised if not the prince who became one of the peasantry in exile?

Arit hates politics. When Elder Benjic, his estranged sire, shows up with the celebrity prince to fulfill a pre-war mating pact, Arit refuses. He craves strength on strength, the challenge of an alpha mating another alpha. A damaged omega who knits won’t do. Arit will guide them on an adventure tour exploring their wolf instincts; that’s his job. But that’s all he’ll do.

Except Nick isn’t an omega. He isn’t damaged. And if he seduces Arit to win Benjic’s support, Nick won’t give up his throne, either. He’ll risk everything to realize the ideals of the rebellion…and end his fate as the tribes’ last emperor.

CONTENT WARNING: palace intrigues, mpreg themes, shifter knotting , and two stubborn alphas who must learn to work together to save an empire





Prologue


After a gentle nudge from Averlee, Nika blinked awake to the steady plink plink plink of rain pelting the window next to his pallet. “Into your traveling clothes. Quickly,” she said, already turning to attend to Nika’s brothers and sisters in the attic set aside as the nursery when they’d arrived at Barton House three moons ago. “The rebels are evacuating us.”

Again?

Muzzy-headed and yawning, Nika pushed down his blanket and scrabbled into the linen shirt, blue velvet breeches, military-style vest, and overcoat designated as his traveling costume when the rebels had overrun the palace what felt like several lifetimes ago. He didn’t think about the richly appointed rooms he’d enjoyed as a son of the emperor anymore, nor remember the plentiful and succulent meats upon which he’d feasted, or recall the warmth he’d taken for granted as a child of royalty.

No guards stood at the door to watch them dress and hurry them along, but he nevertheless schooled his features to give no indication of the jewels hidden in the lining of this particular set of clothes. His sisters Lyssandra and Catterin carried most of their secret wealth, rows of diamonds hugging the stays of their corsets thanks to Averlee’s clever stitches, but their parents had distributed the treasure saved from the revolution among each of their nine children in case the rebels separated the imperial family, either to ransom hostages or for their “protection.” Nika had watched Averlee sew a necklace dripping emeralds into the seam of his vest as rebel forces had approached the palace. The weight of his father’s imperial signet ring had been disguised behind decorative buttons on Nika’s coat.

Once he’d laced his boots, he helped Averlee with his youngest sister Elba who, at only two winters, still cried a lot. Nika wiped her tears and urged her with furtive whispers, “Listen. Do you hear the booms? That isn’t thunder from the storm. Be brave, El. The White Army is near.”

Soldiers flung open the attic door, and with bayonets glinting in the dim light, screamed demands for haste, which only intensified Elba’s cries to hysterical sobbing. They grabbed Catterin by the biceps and shoved her down the stairs. Their time to dress for the evacuation at an end, Nika snatched Elba’s shoes from the floor. He followed Averlee’s swooshing skirts to the exit. More rebels guided them to the lower floors of Barton House, forbidden to the emperor’s children the past two moons.

“The stone walls of the kitchen will provide some shelter from artillery,” one of the soldiers said, “until the transport truck arrives.”

“Toly is ill. May we have a chair for him?” The empress nodded to Nika’s eldest brother and heir to the empire despite the leg deformity that made running impossible and walking difficult under the best of circumstances. Although their healer had remained with the imperial family through the revolution and captivity, Toly had been deprived of medicines and proper exercise, so Healer Kott carried him.

The soldier sneered. “I’ll fetch a throne worthy of the crown prince.”

The floor under Nika’s boots vibrated with the shelling from the White Army, which must be close. The barrage blending with cracks of thunder resonated in his sensitive ears, but the humming engine of an approaching truck did not. Nika crouched and slipped Elba’s stockingless feet into her shoes while the nanny held her. His task finished, he stood and started at a heavy hand settling on his shoulder. “Thank you, Nika. You’re so good with your sister.” His father smiled at him, then met the gaze of Averlee struggling to retain her hold on Elba who squirmed. “Give the baby to him. She won’t be easy until she’s under Nika’s care, and you’ll be free to tend the other children.”

Fortunately, Elba was by all standards a runt. Nika grunted when he accepted her weight from their nanny, but with his sister’s thin arms snaking around his neck and her legs encircling his hips despite her voluminous skirts, Nika managed with only a momentary stumble. Still, Nika wouldn’t be able to carry Elba long. She’d grown that much during the war. Nika closed his eyes, concentrating on Elba’s sweet baby smell as her tears wet his neck. He prayed the fighting would end soon, that his smallest sister would learn life outside imprisonment. At eight summers, Nika had acquired a wealth of memories to rely on and carry him through the horror of this war, but Elba had still been nursing from their mother’s breasts when rebels had stormed the Winter Palace to seize them.

The soldier returned with a cushioned chair for Toly. “A throne to die in.” He waved at it with an exaggerated flourish.

His family had acclimated to such petty cruelties, however, and could not be provoked by rebel contempt. Father thanked the soldier while Nika’s mother settled Toly more comfortably.

“Shh, it’s all right,” Nika murmured into the pink shell of Elba’s ear when her arms tightened around him. “The truck is coming. We’ll leave soon.”