The Tyrant’s Heir (Desertera #3) - Kate M. Colby - E-Book

The Tyrant’s Heir (Desertera #3) E-Book

Kate M. Colby

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Should a king inspire love or fear? Lionel receives neither… and it could cost him everything.

Lionel Monashe isn’t ready to be king. After ordering his father’s execution and taking the throne, he struggles to reconcile his royal duties with his compassionate nature. His insecurity and inconsistent ruling lead prominent subjects to challenge his authority.

His main adversary is a self-proclaimed prophet, whose religious zealotry launches the kingdom into economic crisis and civil unrest. When Lionel attempts to make peace, he sparks even more discord and ignites the greatest tragedy in Desertera’s history.

Blame for the disaster falls on Lionel, and his enemies take full advantage. Lionel must determine who he can trust before he loses his title… and possibly his life.

Will Lionel save his crown? Or will his enemies gain control of the kingdom? Buy The Tyrant’s Heir today to find out.

–––––

The third novel in the Desertera series, The Tyrant’s Heir portrays a desperate power struggle in an equally desperate dystopian world. This political thriller will keep readers guessing until the end.

Desertera Series Order
The Cogsmith’s Daughter
The Courtesan’s Avenger
The Tyrant’s Heir
The Queen’s Revenge (forthcoming)

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The Tyrant’s Heir

Desertera Book Three

Kate M. Colby

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Copyright © 2017 Kate M. Colby

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the author.

Published by Boxthorn Press

Spring Hill, KS

ISBN-10: 0-9967825-6-7

ISBN-13: 978-0-9967825-6-2

Library of Congress Control Number: 2017911402

Cover design by Damonza.com

Editing by Red Adept Editing

Created with Vellum

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Thanks for reading

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Also by Kate M. Colby

Acknowledgments

About the Author

1

King Lionel Willem Monashe straightened his back and strode through the double doors into the palace’s grand ballroom. As he entered, the crowd of noblemen and -women parted to allow him passage. With each step Lionel took toward the center of the room, a new wave of nobles bowed or curtsied in greeting. Their postures appeared respectful, but from the edges of his vision, Lionel saw the narrowed eyes and wrinkled noses emerge as the people rose. Contrary to his advisers’ assurances, the nobles had not warmed up to Lionel in the nine months he had reigned.

As he reached the center of the room, Lionel stepped onto the raised platform that held the three royal thrones. He resisted the natural urge to sit on the shortest throne, the one designated for the king’s heir and Lionel’s former seat as prince. Instead, he eased himself onto the center throne, the tallest of the three.

Ignoring how the nobles’ gazes lingered on the empty seat at his right, Lionel straightened his top hat, the physical symbol of his position as king. At his valet’s insistence, Lionel had allowed the hatter to redesign his top hat in a more traditional style, with a jeweled crown around the base and metal cogs near the top. While Lionel had to admit he fancied the new design, he didn’t appreciate the added weight.

A cool palm squeezed Lionel’s left hand, and he turned to look at the queen dowager. Because Lionel had not yet married, Zedara Ollessen, his father’s final bride and Lionel’s close confidant, retained the ceremonial duties of queen. Her blond hair shone gold under the ballroom’s skylight—which allowed in sunshine from the Queen Hildegard’s deck—and her dark-blue eyes glittered with encouragement. Lionel couldn’t help but return her gleaming smile, and a flurry of whispers rustled through the crowd. From the corner of his eye, Lionel could see a few nobles nodding in approval and others allowing their lips to curl into smirks.

Lionel understood why the nobles wished he and Zedara would marry. On the surface, Zedara acted as the perfect queen—elegant, obedient, and gracious to all. She was the confident and law-abiding monarch that Lionel had never been, exactly the kind of woman who could tame the playboy prince and reform the radical king. If only the nobles knew that Zedara had given her heart away a long time ago to a woman already burned on the funeral pyre. And more importantly, if only they would accept that Lionel’s heart belonged to Aya Cogsmith.

The bishop stepped out from next to the thrones, and the crowd fell silent. In his typical grandiose fashion, the bishop stretched out his arms, letting the crisp white sleeves of his robes drape like wings. In one hand, he clutched the ceremonial golden goblet, filled to the brim with holy salt water. The other hand remained empty, but as sunlight ricocheted off his many jeweled rings, it looked as if the bishop held light itself in his palm.

“Today is a blessed day.” The bishop’s voice boomed over the crowd, and Lionel winced at the volume. “For today, we welcome a new life into our ranks. Lord and Lady Meeran, Count and Countess of the Hull, please bring forward your son.”

The couple moved to stand before the thrones. Lady Meeran cradled the infant against her chest. Despite her corset and careful makeup, her body appeared soft and swollen, and shadows hung under her eyes. Still, the countess beamed with motherly joy, and the count’s equally radiant smile revealed his own pride. Warmth spread through Lionel’s chest, and he hoped that one day he and Aya would get to experience the love and satisfaction of bringing an heir into the world.

With his short stature, the bishop stood level with the baby, nestled in its mother’s arms. Despite the happy occasion, the bishop’s face remained stoic and smooth, as if it had been worn down by years of ritual. He reached up with his free hand and placed it on the infant’s brow. “I pray to Her Holy Highness, the Benevolent Queen, as Her humblest of servants. Please send forth Your blessings upon this ceremony and Your grace to this child.”

Lionel squeezed Zedara’s hand tighter, embarrassed by the sweat that laced his palm. Over his life as prince, he had sat through dozens of naming ceremonies, but he could not remember the words his father had spoken. For all his faults, King Archon had always conducted himself with perfect pomp during ceremonies. He had thrived on the adoration and authority, which was why Lionel never paid attention—he couldn’t stand watching his father gloat over the nobles. But in that moment, Lionel wished he would have studied his father’s actions. How foolish he had been to dream of King Archon’s death, to help orchestrate his father’s execution, and not give a single thought to his own ascension to king.

Zedara inched closer to Lionel. “Are you all right?”

Lionel barely heard her whisper. He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head as his eyes scanned the crowd. The nobles remained focused on the bishop, who was reciting a prayer for the infant. Lionel dared a response. “I don’t remember my lines.”

Zedara nodded and leaned away.

“Now, the new parents shall make their vows to the child.” The bishop turned to Lord Meeran, who wrapped an arm around his wife and baby. “Do you swear to the Benevolent Queen that you will raise this child in Her name? That you will teach him the responsibilities and honors of his noble title? That you will protect him from physical, emotional, and spiritual harm for as long as you both draw breath?”

Lord Meeran held his composure, but his voice cracked with emotion. “I swear all this to the Benevolent Queen.”

Lionel’s chest tightened, and he gripped the arm of his chair. King Archon would have made those same vows when Lionel was born. Though his father had been cruel to his subjects and had abused the adultery law, using it to trap several wives in the crime and execute them to make room for his next infatuation, he had never harmed Lionel. As a monarch, Lionel had done right by his people and brought a tyrant to justice. As a son, Lionel had betrayed his father.

The bishop faced Lady Meeran. “Do you swear to the Benevolent Queen that you will teach this child to practice fidelity in his every action? That you will give yourself to his care, providing for his every physical, emotional, and spiritual need? That you will never forsake him nor deny him your love as a mother?”

Lady Meeran grinned. “I swear all this to the Benevolent Queen.”

Tears pricked Lionel’s eyes as he imagined his own mother standing before the court to take the vow of motherhood. He wanted to believe that she loved him as much as the countess adored her son, but ever since King Archon’s trial, Lionel had begun to doubt. For his entire life, Lionel had thought King Archon had murdered his mother. But if King Archon had been honest, Queen Lisandra had leapt from the deck of the ship because she had been unhappy with her marriage. But what about her relationship with Lionel? Would she—could she—have broken her vows of motherhood that easily? Did I mean so little to her?

Lionel shook his head. He still didn’t know whether King Archon’s words had been the truth or a desperate attempt to save himself from the executioner’s ax. Either way, it didn’t matter anymore. There was nothing Lionel could have done to help his mother, nor could he discern the truth of his father’s words.

With the parental vows completed, the bishop dipped his fingers in the goblet and traced the holy salt water along the infant’s forehead. “On behalf of the Benevolent Queen, I welcome you into Her divine kingdom. May you be a loyal son, a faithful lover, and a true friend to all.”

A loyal son. Lionel swallowed. So he had forsaken his vows as well.

“The Benevolent Queen smiles upon this child.” The bishop turned to Lionel. “Now, our terrestrial monarch will welcome him to Desertera.”

All eyes fell on Lionel, and he rose on shaky legs. To his—and the crowd’s—surprise, Zedara stood with him. Though the queen dowager never moved her lips, Lionel could hear the ceremonial words whispered through them. It was all he could do not to laugh with relief.

“I, King Lionel Willem Monashe, welcome this child on behalf of the people of Desertera.” He smiled, a pause that allowed Zedara to finish whispering the next instruction. “Lord and Lady Meeran, have you chosen a name for your son?”

“We have, Your Majesty.” Lord Meeran nudged the countess, and she passed the baby to Lionel. “Arthuro Thomas.”

Lionel shifted Arthuro to his right arm, and the awkward movement made the infant wail. The bishop raised the goblet toward Lionel, and he hurriedly dipped his fingers in the salt water. While he sprinkled the drops on Arthuro’s forehead, Zedara whispered the final ceremonial lines, but Lionel couldn’t hear them over the baby’s cries.

With a flushed face, Lionel looked up at the crowd. He stalled for a moment by rocking Arthuro, but when Zedara didn’t repeat the words, he knew he had to improvise. “In the name of the Benevolent Queen and by the power She has bestowed upon me, I pronounce this child Mr. Arthuro Thomas Meeran, Viscount of the Hull, and accord him all the rightful honors and duties of his station.”

The crowd showed no disapproval nor did the bishop and Arthuro’s parents. Lionel looked at Zedara, and she grinned. After a long exhalation of relief, Lionel passed the wailing infant back to the countess. She scooped Arthuro up in her arms, and he quieted within seconds.

In the renewed silence, the nobles stared at Lionel. A jolt of fear coursed through him. What am I supposed to do now?

Zedara looped her arm through his and whispered, “Goodbye.”

Of course. Lionel felt his eyes widen with remembrance, and he hoped he didn’t look as dumb as he felt. “On behalf of Desertera, I would like to congratulate Lord and Lady Meeran on their son and say a final welcome to the young viscount. Bishop, thank you for a moving ceremony. I believe this draws the morning to a conclusion.”

The crowd bowed to Lionel, and he felt a weight lift from his chest. His first naming ceremony as king had gone well—thanks to Zedara—and hopefully, it had earned him a fraction more of the nobles’ respect.

As the people took turns congratulating the new parents and filing out of the ballroom, Lionel patted the queen dowager’s arm. “Thank you, Zedara. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“Been a charming fool, as usual.” Zedara softened the jab with a coy smile. “Though, you’d do well to start reading up on your duties in the royal library. I won’t be around to save you forever.”

A sense of dread crept up Lionel’s spine. He glanced at the dwindling crowd, but only a few nobles dared to stare at him and Zedara, far out of earshot. “I know you’re right, but I can’t bring myself to go in that dusty old room. Besides, I’ve had more important problems to address—the details of Mr. Rutt’s death, Rykart Farmer causing a religious and economic mess in Bowtown—”

“And your friendly meetings with a certain craftswoman?”

Lionel frowned. “Please tell me the whole kingdom doesn’t hate the idea.”

“From what I can gather, the feelings are still mixed. Half think that Aya’s an unfinished conquest. The other half recognizes that you’re serious, but I don’t believe they’re ready to accept a commoner as their queen.” Zedara swept a strand of hair behind her ear. “The first half will catch up quickly enough. It’s obvious you’ve started your official courtship. I’m relieved you’ve had the sense to remember a chaperone… even if he is just for show.”

“Of course I did. Besides, when Aya and I first started courting, things were a bit awkward. Having Theo there helped take some of the pressure off.” Lionel shook his head. “But anyway, from the looks you and I received this morning, I think all the nobles have forgotten about Aya.”

“They haven’t forgotten; they merely hope that you will. And who can blame them? Even married to a monster, I made a fabulous queen.” Zedara winked. “I’ll see you at the council meeting this evening.”

Lionel bowed. “Ah, yes, unfortunately. Have a nice afternoon, Zedara.”

After a quick greeting to the new parents, the queen dowager departed. Before Lionel could feel too alone, Eldric stepped up from the base of the platform and filled the empty place at his side. The valet had served King Archon, but after the king’s execution, he had come to Lionel to confess his hatred for his former master. Like Zedara, Eldric had allied himself with Lord Varick in the plot to execute King Archon. He had faked an illness so that Aya could have a private encounter with the king. While Eldric claimed that he despised Lord Varick and would never aid him again, Lionel still worried that Eldric’s loyalty could be swayed. So far, however, he had proved a capable adviser.

“You did well today.” The valet smiled, the lines around his eyes crinkling. “I know it isn’t what you want to hear, but you would have made your parents proud.”

“Um, thank you.” Lionel lifted his top hat to run his fingers through his thick brown hair. “Is it time for my next appointment?”

Eldric’s grin turned sly. “You mean you haven’t checked?”

Lionel narrowed his eyes and pulled his pocket watch from his vest. It sat smooth and heavy in his palm, ticking away the seconds in perfect rhythm. Though it didn’t need wound yet, he turned the bronze crown to ensure the watch would run for the rest of the day. Then he flipped it over to the backside, which Aya had fitted with a custom plate from the glassblower. Watching the cogs and gears spin and sway comforted Lionel. He considered them a glimpse into Aya’s sharp mind and the magic of her craft.

With a tender smile, Lionel remembered the day Aya had given him the pocket watch. It was a few weeks after Mr. Augustus Rutt’s funeral, on their third official date. Aya had placed the watch in Lionel’s hand, kissed him, and whispered, “I’ve had enough time for myself. I’m ready to give my time to us now.” Despite all the gifts and heirlooms Lionel had been given as prince and king, he treasured the pocket watch above all other possessions—except maybe Penelope, his childhood mechanical bird.

As Eldric cleared his throat, Lionel shivered from his reverie. He tucked the pocket watch back into his vest. “There’s still plenty of time. I should pay my respects to the new parents before we go.”

Eldric nodded, and Lionel stepped down from the throne platform. The happy couple stood conversing with the bishop, as the rest of the nobles had dispersed.

“Count, Countess.” Lionel inclined his head. “Though I’ve already congratulated you on behalf of the kingdom, please allow me to give my personal congratulations on the birth of your son.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” The count reached out a finger, and the infant grabbed it in his fist. “I hope you’ll know the joy of fatherhood one day.”

Lionel chose not to comment on his obvious lack of an heir and instead smoothed back the baby’s wispy hair. “He has your lovely green eyes, Lady Meeran.”

The countess blushed. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I think he has his father’s strong chin, as well.”

“A perfect combination.” Lionel placed his hands behind his back. “You’re a lucky man, Lord Meeran.”

The count straightened with pride. “You are kind to say so, Your Majesty. I believe you’ll find yourself equally lucky one day, when you’re ready to settle down.”

A coldness seeped through Lionel’s veins, and his body stiffened. Was the count implying that Lionel’s relationship with Aya was moving too slowly or that Aya was just another lustful dalliance? Lionel thought better of asking whether the count had sowed all his wild oats at the Rudder—it was no secret he’d been a regular customer of the brothel for years.

Instead, Lionel replied, “As a matter of fact, Lord Meeran, I think my bachelor days are nearly over.”

Lord Meeran clapped Lionel on the shoulder. “Congratulations, Your Majesty. I think I speak for all of Desertera when I say that we are anxious to have a proper queen again.”

Lionel raised an eyebrow, unsure whether the count meant Aya or Zedara. “As am I.”

The countess snuggled the baby closer to her chest. “I hate to ask in this context, Your Majesty, but is there any update on the investigation into Lord Varick? He’s a close family friend, and we were disappointed he couldn’t join us today.”

Lionel sighed. “I’m sorry about that.” Lady Meeran hadn’t been the first noble to ask about Lord Varick, and Lionel knew she wouldn’t be the last. “With any luck, I’ll have an update for the kingdom soon.” And finally expose him for the monster he is.

The countess inclined her head. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Shaking off the dour topic, Lionel turned with a tight-lipped smile to the bishop, who had remained quiet during the exchange. “A wonderful ceremony, Bishop, as always.”

The short man bowed. “I’m glad you enjoyed it, Your Majesty. With all the recent changes to the kingdom, I think it’s important that we respect our most sacred traditions.”

“So do I.” Lionel bit his tongue. Like most of the nobles, the bishop had not approved of Lionel’s abolishing of the adultery law. He still believed that anyone who violated the Benevolent Queen’s desire for fidelity should be executed. Easy for a lifelong bachelor to say.

Eldric walked over and bowed to the group. As he rose, he straightened his broad shoulders and exuded the polite authority so distinctive of elder gentlemen. “Excuse me, Your Majesty, Count and Countess, Bishop, but the king has another engagement.”

“That’s right.” Lionel hoped he didn’t look too relieved to escape the awkward conversation. “Congratulations again, and have a pleasant rest of your day.”

The trio said their goodbyes, and Lionel hurried away with Eldric at his side. Once they had left the ballroom and emerged into the empty corridor, Lionel let out a long breath. “Thank you. I don’t know how many more thinly veiled innuendos I could have handled.”

“It’s my job.” Eldric waved his hand as if dismissing the thought. “Not to overstep, Your Majesty, but you know that you don’t have to tolerate such language. You have every right to call out the nobles when they don’t speak frankly or respectfully.”

Lionel’s brow furrowed. “You mean that’s what my father used to do.”

“I didn’t say that.” Eldric wrinkled his nose, and his bushy white mustache wriggled. “Though you shouldn’t be resistant to everything your father did. While he might not have been well liked, he was certainly well respected.”

Lionel sneered. “Fear isn’t respect.”

“Perhaps not, Your Majesty.” Eldric shrugged. “But right now, you have neither.”

Lionel sensed the challenge in Eldric’s voice, and he knew the valet wanted him to lash back, to exert his authority, to stand up for himself at the expense of another’s dignity. While the words bubbled up in Lionel’s throat, he couldn’t force them out. As painful as Eldric’s statement had been, it was true. And no matter what happened during his time as king, Lionel would never punish someone for speaking the truth.

2

The metal stairwell creaked as Lionel and Eldric walked down to the dungeon. With only a lantern to light the way, they took careful, measured steps. Shadows danced along the walls behind the spiral railing, and Lionel’s mind wandered to all the people who had been led down into the darkness to await their trials or executions. He remembered how Aya had trembled at returning to the dungeon with him and Dellwyn to question Rykart Farmer, and his hands balled into fists.

“Is everything all right, Your Majesty?” Eldric’s voice echoed in the tight space.

“Of course.” Lionel heard the hollowness of his words. “I must admit, though, I am nervous about what the investigation has uncovered. It’s been weeks since the last update, and the nobles grow angrier with me every day.”

“I think you’re overexaggerating.”

“Maybe.” Lionel sighed. “Regardless, I’m relieved to finally see the scene of the crime for myself. I know the council expects a full report.”

“They’ll have to accept whatever you give them.” Eldric’s brow creased, and he held the lantern farther in front of him. “Watch your step, Your Majesty.”

Lionel ran his hand along the wall, his fingers skipping over the rivets. “What a wretched place to die.”

Eldric didn’t comment. A few moments later, they reached the bottom of the stairs. Lionel tugged his jacket straight then knocked on the dungeon door. With a groan, the wheel spun, as if on its own, and the door wrenched open.

Captain Laurel Theophilus met Lionel with a grave face, and the king’s heart sank. “Welcome, Your Majesty.”

“Thank you, Theo.” Lionel stepped into the dungeon’s narrow hallway, Eldric in tow.

One of Lionel’s proudest actions as king had been to make Theo, his closest friend, captain of the royal guard. When Augustus Rutt had been found dead minutes before his murder trial, Lionel knew Theo was the only person he could trust to run the investigation. Judging from his friend’s downcast gray eyes, the mission continued to disappoint.

Theo led them past several doors before stopping at the cell that Augustus Rutt had occupied during his alleged suicide. At the sight of the dried blood, Lionel’s hand flew to his nose by instinct. The smell of death no longer lingered, but the vicious red stain turned the king’s stomach.

“Nasty, isn’t it?” Theo wrinkled his nose. “Other than what’s been necessary for the investigation, I’ve kept the scene intact, as you asked.”

Lionel nodded, unsure whether he could speak without his voice cracking. Even though he had witnessed several executions—including his father’s—the sight of blood still unnerved him. Somehow, this cell seemed more gruesome than a beheading. Here, a man might have taken his own life or had it ripped from him in darkness and secret. At least with an execution, a man had the dignity of knowing when, why, and by whose hand his death came.

“Very good. I’m glad you’ve decided to share your findings. The nobles are getting restless.” Lionel glanced down the corridor, left then right. A guard stood sentry at either end. “Can your men be trusted?”

Theo smirked. “These two can. To be honest, I’m not sure about certain members of the royal guard, but I’m working on that issue as well.”

“That’s reassuring,” Lionel replied with a smirk of his own. His grin widened as Theo chuckled at the double meaning in the king’s words. “Would you walk me through what you’ve uncovered?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Theo took a deep breath. “As you know, the investigation started right after Mr. Rutt’s death, with the examination of his body by Dr. Engel. She declared that the cause of death was blood loss. While she also found defensive wounds, she said they could have happened during the fight with Madam Dellwyn Rutt. However, she did admit that a few looked too fresh to be from that incident.”

Lionel raised his eyebrows. “So, it’s possible that Mr. Rutt had an altercation while incarcerated?”

“Possible, yes.” Theo frowned. “He might have been roughed up by one of the guards on duty, or he could have self-harmed in a different way before taking his life. It’s difficult to say.”

“I assume you talked to the guards about it?”

Theo sighed. “They denied any mistreatment, but we both know that doesn’t mean anything.”

Lionel shuddered, remembering again Aya’s fear of the dungeon. He pushed the thought from his mind. “And the rest of the investigation?”

“A lot of runaround.” Theo’s jaw clenched. “We spent the first few weeks combing the dungeon, as well as the Rudder and the corridors between the two, for any clues. But honestly, most of my time has been spent chasing down people to interview—every palace guard, every Rudder worker, every client Mr. Rutt served, any merchant who ever sold anything to him. It’s been a slow process.”

“I see.” Just thinking about all the loose ends made Lionel’s head hurt. He couldn’t fathom Theo’s frustration. “Well, why don’t you show me the layout of the potential crime scene?”

“Of course, Your Majesty.” Theo pointed to the end of the corridor, where one of his trusted guards stood before a plain wooden chair. “At any time, there is only one guard stationed in the dungeon. The cells are secure, and no one has ever attempted to break a prisoner out.” Theo gestured to the other end of the hallway, and his leather armor creaked. “The door to the outside is always locked from the inside, so no one can enter without the guard on duty letting them in.”

“So if Mr. Rutt’s death were a murder, either the guard that was on duty is the killer, or he allowed the killer entrance.” Lionel shook his head. “I’m assuming this guard maintained his innocence during questioning?”

“Indeed.” Theo rubbed the back of his neck, ruffling his sandy-blond hair in the process. “He admitted to falling asleep on duty, but he said that he didn’t kill Mr. Rutt and he didn’t see anyone else during his shift.”

Lionel’s brow furrowed. “And you trust him?”

Theo shrugged. “I’m not sure. He seemed nervous when I interviewed him, but in retrospect, I think he feared that he’d be punished for falling asleep. I can’t do that, though. Everyone stationed down here has done the same once or twice.”

Lionel nodded.

“For now, let’s assume the guard is telling the truth and Mr. Rutt did commit suicide.” Theo stepped into the cell, ducking to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe. He rapped his knuckles on the wall. “As you can see, the dungeon cells are made entirely of metal. The only windows are the barred ones at the top and bottom of the door. The layout tells us that Mr. Rutt could not have left the cell to retrieve the weapon, but someone might have passed it to him through the bars. It also explains how the guards did not notice Mr. Rutt’s death sooner. If you’ll close the door…”

Eldric shut the door, and Lionel peered through the top window.

Theo had moved to crouch in the corner, his features obscured by darkness. “As you can see, from the guards’ vantage point, it might have looked like Mr. Rutt had fallen asleep.”

Lionel stepped back to allow Eldric room to reopen the door. “Is that where his body was found?”

“Yes. He was propped up in the back corner here.” Theo held out his arms, palms up. “His forearms had been slashed from wrist to elbow and rested at his sides. You can see how the blood flowed in two separate streams until they merged near his legs.”

Lionel couldn’t tear his eyes away from the stains, which marred the floor in the shape of a wide letter V. “And the weapon?”

“Found next to Mr. Rutt’s right hand, as if it had fallen from his fingers.” Theo pulled a white shard from his pocket and held it up for Lionel to inspect. “I talked to the potter, and she confirmed it’s porcelain, probably a piece from a plate or teacup. Maybe one got broken in the scuffle when he was detained, or maybe he had carried it in his pocket as a sort of trinket. Your guess is as good as mine.”

Lionel frowned. “The potter didn’t make the set from which the shard came?”

Theo shook his head.

“Hmm.” Lionel squinted at the shard. Dried blood caked the surface at two of the most jagged points. An intricate purple swirl curled along the top, and Lionel imagined it encircling a plate or teacup to form a ring of amethyst smoke. While he’d only been to the Rudder once, a long time ago, Lionel didn’t think the brothel would have a tea set expensive or fancy enough to produce a porcelain shard. Then again, Mr. Rutt had seemed to appreciate the finer things. “Did you ask Dellwyn about it?”

“Yes, we inquired with Madam Rutt. She says that she didn’t find any matching dishware in Mr. Rutt’s former office or residence.” Theo tucked the shard back in his pocket. “Granted, that doesn’t rule out the theory that it’s something Mr. Rutt found or carried as a memento.”

“True.” Lionel appraised the barred windows on the door. The shard would have fit through them without trouble. “And you’re certain no one could have given it to him?”

“No…” Theo let out a long sigh. “But given the guard’s statement and the lack of other evidence, I have to assume that Mr. Rutt had the shard on his person when he entered the dungeon.”

Lionel gestured for Theo to come closer so that he could whisper, and Eldric took a large, tactful step backward. “I know Lord Varick did this. That man is evil incarnate, and killing Mr. Rutt was the only way he could have escaped conviction in the conspiracy to murder Madam Huxley and control the Rudder by proxy.”

“I believe you, Lionel, but he did it too well. We searched his estate from top to bottom for the tea set that could have produced this shard, an item of clothing stained with blood, anything to connect him to the crime. We didn’t find a damn thing.” Theo stood taller than the king, but the weary slump of his shoulders almost put him at eye level with Lionel. “Short of torturing Lord Varick or the guard on duty to coerce a confession, there’s nothing I can do. And I don’t think either of us has the stomach for that.”

Lionel shook his head.

“Besides, maybe the guard is innocent.” Theo’s fingers traced his goatee in thought. “Lord Varick’s involvement might have been indirect. Maybe he made Mr. Rutt swear he would die before betraying their plan, or perhaps Lord Varick subtly planted the idea of suicide in Mr. Rutt’s mind for weeks before the opportunity arose. At this point, I don’t think we’ll ever know.”

“Are there any other leads you can chase? Any path you can look down again?” Lionel winced as he realized his questions sounded like pleas. “Given how quiet you’ve kept the investigation—at my request, I know—the nobles, and the council especially, are breathing down my neck for an answer. If you declare an official ruling of suicide, I have to let Lord Varick off house arrest early.”

Theo pursed his lips. “Couldn’t you keep him detained until his involvement in the Rudder’s ownership is determined? There’s not much evidence there either, but searching through the palace banker’s records will take time. I could delay that investigation for another month, minimum.”

“I don’t think the nobles would stand for that. They accept Lord Varick’s house arrest because he might be a danger to others.” Lionel sighed. “None of them will care about his financial meddling, not when they all have used their purses to gain power and influence themselves.”

Lines creased between Theo’s eyebrows. “How much do you trust Madam Rutt?”

“Dellwyn?” Lionel arched an eyebrow. “Completely.”

Theo nodded. “Then I’ll drag out this investigation on account of her word. Since she insists that Mr. Rutt had no way to access such fine dishware, I can continue researching where he might have gotten it.” Theo’s lips twisted into a smirk. “And besides, I’m sure in that long list of interviewees, I can find someone to question again.”

“Thank you, Theo.” Lionel reached out to shake his friend’s hand. “I know this puts us both in a difficult position, but I can’t allow Lord Varick to go free.”

“I understand, Your Majesty.” Theo stepped back and cleared his throat. In his normal, authoritative tone, he announced, “Unfortunately, I’m not yet ready to declare an official cause of death.”

Eldric had the decency to raise his eyebrows in surprise, as if he had not been eavesdropping from only a few feet away. Not that Lionel minded—he would have told the valet the details of the conversation later, anyway. From either side of the corridor, Theo’s guards inclined their heads in acceptance of the captain’s decision.

Lionel straightened his top hat, uncomfortable with the obvious ruse. “I appreciate your careful attention to this investigation. If there is anything I, or anyone in the kingdom, can do to assist you, please let me know.”

“I will, Your Majesty.” Theo bowed to Lionel, and the king bit his tongue. When Lionel had been prince and Theo a regular palace guard, Theo had never bowed to him. No one had minded that they shirked protocol in the name of friendship. But now that Lionel had risen to king, the friends had to act by the expected social conventions, no matter how awkward it made Lionel feel.

“When can—I mean, I’ll expect your next report in two weeks.” Lionel widened his eyes in silent apology, but Theo didn’t appear fazed. It seemed a reasonable amount of time—short enough that the nobles would tolerate it but long enough that Theo might still uncover something.

The captain bowed again. “I’ll have it ready, Your Majesty.”

“Thank you. I’ll leave you to it.” Lionel inclined his head in a cordial goodbye then turned to leave the dungeon.

Eldric matched him step for step, but the valet remained silent until they emerged into the stairwell and shut the door firmly behind them. “If I may ask, Your Majesty, what do you make of Captain Laurel’s findings?”

“What findings?” Lionel smiled in a vain attempt to lighten the mood. “I appreciated learning the exact layout of the crime scene, and we do have the weapon—that’s a good clue.”

Eldric rubbed his bulbous nose. “I hope the council will share your optimism.”

“Clearly, you do not.” Lionel turned to ascend the spiral staircase, and Eldric rushed to light the way with the lantern. “You know how Lord Varick operates as well as I do. His craft is manipulation, and it leaves little evidence. But he’ll mess up eventually, and when he does, Theo will catch him.”

Eldric’s eyes flitted up and down the stairwell. “Do you think Lord Varick killed Mr. Rutt himself?”

“No, I don’t.” Lionel rubbed his chin, wincing as the stubble pricked his fingers. I’ll have to shave before I see Aya again. Before Lionel’s thoughts could drift further, he replied, “Consider Lord Varick’s last schemes. He sent his daughter, Isadona, to marry King Archon then Aya, as his ward, to seduce the king. And finally, he manipulated Augustus, as his business partner, into killing Madam Huxley. Lord Varick never does anything himself.”

The lantern shook in Eldric’s hand, and light rioted through the dark space. “Who do you think his newest accomplice is, then?”

“It’s not worth guessing.” Lionel stopped to catch his breath. The rest of the staircase loomed above him, and as he stared up through its coils, he grew dizzy. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, waiting for the world to stop spinning. With a sigh, he said, “Let’s not talk about it anymore today, Eldric. We still have a long way to go.”

3

As the sun dipped below the horizon, Lionel raced to the courtroom. Reluctant to attend the council meeting, he had dawdled too long at dinner, cutting his meat into tiny pieces and chewing each morsel several times. When he reached the courtroom’s double doors, his face burned hot, and sweat trickled down his back. He doubted he looked the image of a dignified king, and the curious gaze of the guard on duty confirmed as much.

After dabbing his face and neck with his pocket square, Lionel tugged his jacket a final time. He motioned for the guard to open the doors then strolled into the courtroom with his head held high. His shoes clacked as he crossed the floor, the sound echoing back from the tiered benches that encircled the room. Though Lionel had presided over several meetings there, the courtroom still made his stomach uneasy. In every silent moment, the memory of King Archon’s trial washed over Lionel, and his father’s final pleas beat against his mind like sand in a desert storm.

When he reached the round table, Lionel clutched the back of his chair as if he could squeeze the painful remembrances away. The council members stood to welcome the king, each offering a small bow or curtsy.

“Please be seated.” Lionel sank into his chair, his body growing heavy with the weight of the problems he knew were about to be thrust upon him. “All right, let’s begin with this week’s reports. Your Highness, would you like to speak first?”

Zedara, seated in her usual spot at Lionel’s left, folded her hands atop the table. The worn, scratched wood appeared dark under her pale skin. “You’ll be relieved to hear that I don’t have any complaints to share. In fact, the nobles seem in good spirits after this morning’s naming ceremony.”

Lionel withheld a pleased smile. “The best kind of news. Thank you, Zedara.” He turned to Lord Stanton Collingwood, the Duke of the Bow, who sat at Zedara’s left. “Anything to add, Uncle?”

“Nothing from my jurisdiction, Your Majesty.” Lord Collingwood traced the small anchor that adorned his bronze cuff link. Dellwyn had given the pair to him after she had taken ownership of the Rudder and they had agreed to be exclusive to one another. “However, Madam Rutt would like to request an extra guard for the Rudder’s entrance. She’s caught a few adolescents sneaking in for a peek lately.”

“Very well. I’ll send an order to Captain Laurel tomorrow morning.” Lionel dared a smirk. Maybe this council meeting won’t be too difficult after all.

He turned to the final noble, Lord Collingwood’s son-in-law of seven months and Duke of the Stacks, Lord Frederick Greyson. The young duke had taken Lord Varick’s place on the council as the Starboardshire representative, at least for as long as Lord Varick remained under house arrest. Though some of the nobles, including the king himself, had worried about electing another of Lionel’s relatives to the council, Lady Greyson had used her every social advantage to dissuade them and secure the vote for her husband.

At first, even Lionel had been hesitant to trust Lord Greyson. After all, Lionel figured that anyone who would marry the former Miss Madeleine Collingwood, his gossip-mongering cousin, had to be deranged. However, thus far, the duke had proved to be a fair and honest man, and he always took Lionel’s side in council meetings. Lionel hoped that his cousin would mature under her new husband’s influence.

“And Lord Greyson, how are things in Starboardshire?”

The duke fanned his face with his handkerchief, and Lionel noticed that his tanned skin appeared pale and held a thin sheen of sweat. “Everything seems in order, Your Majesty.”

Lionel raised an eyebrow. “Even in relation to Bowtown?”

“Well, no… but there hasn’t been much change since my last update.” Lord Greyson attempted a chuckle, but it erupted into a wet cough. His dark eyes watered. “Pardon me, Your Majesty. I think Mrs. Farmer will be better able to enlighten us.”

“So the nobles remain concerned that the religious sect will become a greater distraction for their farmers?”

Lord Greyson nodded through another cough. This one sounded more like a stomach heave.

Lionel frowned. “Are you okay, Frederick? Do you need to leave?”

“No, no.” The duke made a show of straightening in his seat and slicking back his long black hair. “I’m fine. Just had a tickle in my throat.”

“If you insist…” Before turning to the next representative, Lionel allowed Lord Greyson the opportunity for another polite refusal. When the duke held up his hands to indicate the fit had passed, Lionel moved on. “Mr. Wellman, anything from Sternville?”

Despite being the poorest of Desertera’s villages, Sternville offered the fewest complaints. At every meeting, Lionel wondered whether the residents were too busy to participate in government, too jaded to believe the council could help them, or too reluctant to approach their representative, Mr. Jack Wellman. Lionel guessed all of the above.

“Not lookin’ good, Yer Majesty.” Mr. Wellman rubbed his eye, leaving a smudge on his face.

Lionel sighed. Of course, I couldn’t be that lucky. “Care to elaborate?”

Mr. Wellman shrugged. His shoulders were thin but muscular from years spent cranking water buckets up and down the wells. “With them farmers charging more for crops, we’re havin’ to pay more for our food. If it weren’t for the laws you put in place to let us trade and give the young’uns jobs, I don’t know how some people’d afford it. Some still don’t.”

Lionel frowned. “I’m sorry to hear the Bowtown situation is affecting your village, Mr. Wellman, but I’m glad that my policies have eased some of the burden.”

While he’d never thought much about Sternville before meeting Aya and Dellwyn, the village had become a particular concern of Lionel’s after learning how his lover and her friend had lived for the past decade. During his short reign, Lionel had tried to strengthen Desertera’s economy from the bottom up. By abolishing a few ancient trade prohibitions and providing tax breaks for merchants and skilled laborers who took on apprentices, he’d been able to help free up goods for bartering and create new educational and career paths for people. It wasn’t a lot, but it was more than any previous monarch had done.

“How about Portside, Miss Baker?” Lionel asked.

Miss Heidi Baker pushed a strand of hair back into the white scarf that covered her head. No matter when the council met, she always came clothed in her baking attire. “About the same, Your Majesty. Overall, trade between merchants in Portside and between merchants and other villages has picked up. However, we’re already seeing price increases on crops and animal products from Bowtown.” She shot an accusatory glance at Mrs. Farmer, who sat two chairs down.

“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Lionel’s brow furrowed.“Other than raising prices, has the situation in Bowtown affected anything else in Portside?”

“As you’d expect, we food merchants have had to increase our prices to make ends meet.” Miss Baker shifted in her chair, and it groaned under her broad frame. “It’s created a lot of tension between the farmers and us, and between us and the people. Theft has risen in response, as well. I had a whole basket of rolls stolen while I turned my back to check on the oven. And that was just today.”

Lionel’s jaw clenched. If the people had already begun to steal, it might not be long until they resorted to vandalism or rioting. “Thank you for the report, Miss Baker.” He turned to Lord Collingwood. “Uncle, you’re the landlord of Miss Baker’s shop, correct?”

Lord Collingwood stiffened. “Yes.”

“Perhaps the two of you could work out an arrangement to ease the financial strain on the shop. Take the value of the stolen goods out of this month’s rent, for example.” At Lord Collingwood’s pursed lips, Lionel added, “Just until we’ve gotten the situation with the farmers under control.”

“Of course.” Lord Collingwood put on a gracious smile, and Lionel hoped his own attempts at a charming grin didn’t look so fake.

Miss Baker put a hand over her heart. “Thank you, Your Majesty, Lord Collingwood. I promise I will make up every coin once the economy has been put right.”

“We’re sure you will, Miss Baker.” Lionel moved on to the next representative. “Mr. Chef, has the palace experienced any negative effects from Bowtown’s price increases?”

“A bit, Your Majesty.” Mr. Stefan Chef twirled the end of his thin mustache. “However, we’re still managing fine.”

“Good.” Lionel gave a slight smile, relieved that the palace chef had the tact to answer without financial specifics. “Are there any reports or complaints from the rest of the palace staff?”

“Not this week.” Mr. Chef winked. “But I’ll try to make it up to you during our next meeting.”

“How kind of you.” Lionel shook his head at the chef’s jest and turned to the next council member. “If you don’t mind, Mrs. Farmer, I think we should save your report for last.”

The woman’s callused hands trembled as she slipped them into her lap. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”

“Thank you.” Lionel turned to the bishop, who sat frowning on his right. “Bishop, anything to add from the spiritual sphere?”

Even seated, the top of the bishop’s head only came up to Lionel’s shoulder. However, he held it high with his nose pointed up at the king. “The queen dowager’s earlier report was correct, Your Majesty—this morning’s naming ceremony was a success. I believe I owe you both thanks for that.” He shot Zedara a disapproving glare, probably for sabotaging his chance to make a fool out of the king.

Lionel put on his trademark smile, tugging one corner of his mouth up higher than the other. “Yes, I’m equally pleased that my former stepmother and I make such a good team.”

Zedara shoved Lionel playfully, earning another scowl from the bishop.

The short man cleared his throat. “Afterward, you visited the dungeon, correct?”

“That’s right.” Lionel swallowed, all joking forgotten. With the concern about Bowtown, he had hoped to avoid this conversation until next week. Apparently, he wasn’t going to be so fortunate.

Lionel cleared his throat. “This afternoon, I spoke with Captain Laurel Theophilus about the investigation into Mr. Augustus Rutt’s death. The guards have spent the past few months reviewing the crime scene and related locations, as well as interviewing anyone who had dealings with Mr. Rutt during his regular life or his arrest. While they have a detailed layout of the crime scene and the weapon, if you will, Captain Laurel has decided that he does not have sufficient evidence to rule out murder at this point.”

The bishop grunted. “And why not? It seems there’s little evidence to suggest foul play.”

Lionel tried to keep his face smooth and impassive. “That’s only because you are on the outside of the investigation. The captain has more leads to follow, several of which are suspicious.”

The bishop crossed his arms. “To clarify, Your Majesty, you intend to let Lord Varick—a member of this council and an upstanding nobleman—rot in his estate for six more months, based on leads you refuse to disclose.”

Lord Greyson leapt to his feet. The action launched him into another coughing fit, but he won the council’s attention. After a deep breath, he said, “If His Majesty says that the investigation must continue, then it must. Who are you to question his authority?”

“An impartial member of this council.” The bishop gazed at each representative in turn, challenging them to stand by him. “We’ve all been brought here to advise the king and question his decisions.”

“Not with such blatant disrespect.” Lord Greyson shook his head, and Lionel noticed that he had one palm pressed over his abdomen. Normally, Lionel didn’t mind allowing Lord Greyson to stand up for him—the duke made for a good example in how to respect royalty—but he was far too ill to argue with the bishop.

“That’ll be enough, thank you. Please sit, Lord Greyson.” Lionel clenched his jaw. “Bishop, I understand your skepticism. However, this investigation is out of your—and the entire council’s—jurisdiction until Captain Laurel has finished. He’s promised to give another report in two weeks, and until then, I won’t say any more on the matter.”

The bishop huffed again. “Very well. I’ll convey your message to the concerned subjects who attend my prayer meetings. We’ll continue imploring the Benevolent Queen to clear Lord Varick’s name sooner rather than later.”

“A sensible plan.” Without giving the bishop the opportunity to raise any more concerns, Lionel turned back to the Bowtown representative. “Mrs. Farmer, you have the floor.”

Mrs. Eveline Farmer sat rigid, her gray-streaked hair swept back into a simple ponytail. “Rykart Farmer remains camped out at the edge of Bowtown, beyond the crop fields. While he seems content to stay there and not interfere with the happenings of the village itself, more people go to hear his message every day, and a handful have decided to leave their farms and join his cause.”

“How curious. You’d think they would be grateful to have land to work.” Lord Collingwood’s hazel eyes narrowed, and Lionel wondered how long it would take for his matching eyes to grow such deep creases. “They’re damning themselves. The landowners won’t hesitate to replace anyone who abandons his farm with a grateful young farmer or Sternville resident. I know I won’t.”

“I’d take that job,” Mr. Wellman mumbled.

“Many other farmers have warned the deserters, but they do what they feel is right.” Mrs. Farmer lowered her gaze to the table. “At this point, I suspect the price increases are their fault. With some farmers giving up the trade to join Rykart, the others foresee a shortage of goods and an opportunity for profit.”

“Lucky us,” Mr. Chef muttered.

Miss Baker tugged on her apron. “Ungrateful is right.”

Lionel held up a hand to silence any more interruptions. “How many farmers have abandoned their plots so far?”

Mrs. Farmer counted them off on her bony fingers. “Seven or eight. Not too many.”

“Do you know who owns their land?”

Mrs. Farmer shook her head. “Some, yes. I can ask about the others.”

“Please do and report your findings to Lord Collingwood.” Lionel turned back to his uncle. “The nobles who own these farms might not have realized that they’ve been abandoned yet. Can you work with them and Mrs. Farmer to get the farmers to return?”