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Today he would meet his bride. Prince Miklos hurried along the narrow passageway. If all went well, in three months they'd be married. Given the political climate of the Valtrian kingdom, a traditional engagement in the public eye that lasted a full year wasn't an option. The Royal House of Kerkay desperately needed the positive publicity and all the goodwill a royal wedding would bring. They needed it quickly.
There came that noise again. His attention focused on his surroundings. He wasn't alone in the catacombs, the narrow corridors carved into stone that crisscrossed most of the city and culminated in a jumbled labyrinth under the Valtrian royal palace. Unease prickled his skin, a distinguishable sensation from the goose bumps the cool, damp air gave the prince every time he walked through here. Which wasn't often. But today his schedule was tight and he didn't want to waste time on the reporters who loitered around the palace entrances armed with pointed questions about the unrest in the south.
The lights flickered, but that wasn't unusual. The electric system down here was over fifty years old, currently scheduled for maintenance. He strode forward without hesitation, his military boots making a hard sound on the stone that echoed, mixing with the scrape of other footsteps up ahead.
Some of the catacombs under the city had been turned into a tourist attraction, with guided tours twice a day, but the closed-off section under the palace was guarded twenty-four seven. He expected a palace guard would pop around a corner in seconds.
Except that didn't happen.
Odd. Whoever was down here with him had to have heard him by now. A guard would have come to see who he was, would have properly greeted him. The sound of footsteps grew more faint, definitely not coming closer. Someone in a hurry. To get away from him?
The lights flickered again.
And he considered how he hadn't come across a single guard yet. He picked up speed, but couldn't catch sight of anyone, the footsteps always just around the next corner.
"Halt!" he called out, the intonation that of a military manhe was a Valtrian Army major.
The palace guard would have recognized his voice and obeyed.
Instead, the footsteps quickened.
He took off running toward them, then pulled up short when the lights went out and he was suddenly enveloped in complete darkness.
Ambush, his military-trained mind said. He stole forward slowly, taking care to soften his steps.
His hand moved to his sidearm, although, realistically, he didn't expect much more than an opportunistic tourist who had somehow gotten past a chained gate. Gotten too far while the guards were doing something else somewhere else. The catacomb system was vast.
He stepped to the side and put his back against the wall, ready for anything. But when the lights flickered on for one second, he found the corridor empty in front of him.
And yet his senses told him something was off. He slipped his gun from its leather holster and hadn't taken two steps forward when the lights went out again.
He could be walking into a trapside tunnels frequently interrupted the corridor he traveled. He moved forward one slow meter at a time, preparing for whatever was to come next, cautioning himself to restraint. A prince beating up a lost tourist would make for terrible publicity, so he bade himself not to jump to conclusions and rash actions when he caught up with whoever was down here. But he kept his gun out, although he didn't take the safety off, not yet.
He followed the sound, turned when he had to, going by feel through twisting corridors in the darkness, enveloped by damp air and musty smells. Then the footsteps suddenly died.
He strained to listen, but couldn't hear anything. He braced his left hand against the wall to orient himself the stone in the various passages was cut with different techniques, as the catacombs had been added to over the centuriestouched something wet, pulled his hand back.
In some places the walls were moist. There was even a small underground stream, but that was at least a mile from where he was standing.
Could be a water pipe was leaking somewhere beneath the palace. He would have to have that investigated.
He moved ahead, but could no longer pick out any sound beyond the muffled ones he made. The lights flickered back on again. He immediately knew where he was and turned the corner toward the palace entry he'd been headed for. He turned another corner, strode down another long walkway, then another. And spotted a guard, at last, by the steel security door.
"Your Highness." The man snapped his heels together and pulled his spine ramrod straight, staring ahead.
"Has anyone come up this way?" he asked.
"None, Your Highness."
"You're the first guard I've seen since coming in through the stables." He'd entered the catacombs through the secret door at the royal stables at the foot of Palace Hill.
"I'll alert the captain immediately."
"See that you do. Are the lights working properly?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
"They keep going off and on down there."
"It'll be seen to. Is there anything else, Your Highness?" The man's face was set in stone, but his voice betrayed his nerves. His unit had been caught derelict in their duties by none other than a member of the royal family.
And Miklos didn't feel like going easy on him. He was a military man through and through who considered his duty sacred. "Tell the captain I want a full sweep. There might be unauthorized personnel down there."
If the man was surprised, he didn't show it. A complete sweep of the catacombs was rarely conducted. The last time they'd done a full survey was over a decade ago, for architectural reasons. They were testing the rock bed for stability before beginning renovations on the East Wing of the palace. Before his father's death.
He left the guard behind and walked up the stairs, was greeted by another guard as he entered the palace proper. He checked his cell phone when he passed the man. Three unanswered calls from the chief of security. Cell phones didn't work down in the catacombs.
He checked the times for the calls. All in the last ten minutes. Since he was already late for a meeting, he didn't immediately return them. He crossed a receiving area and came out by the library, walked straight through and into the business offices, into the private meeting room where Chancellor Hansen was waiting for him.
"Chancellor." He nodded, hating that he was two minutes late. "Go ahead."
"Are you hurt, Your Highness?" The man was staring at his left hand.
And when Miklos brought it up, he realized why. His palm and fingers were stained with blood. He hadn't felt just groundwater seeping through the stone down in the catacombs when he'd leaned against the wall.
The full sweep would tell him what was going on. Miklos would make sure to check in later with the captain. He turned into the small bathroom off the office, left the door open as he pumped soap and thoroughly washed. "I'm fine. I would hear your report."
The chancellor knew better than to push with questions, and gave his usual twenty-minute update instead, leaving ten minutes at the end of their weekly appointment for questions and answers as he always had. But when that was over, uncharacteristically, he didn't immediately take his leave. He was fidgeting, shuffling papers in his appointment book.
He decidedly lingered, although he was the type to plow through his report with the force of a steam engine then be gone, rushing to the next item on his endless to-do list. He had a propensity for believing that he single-handedly kept the kingdom running.
He probably wasn't too far off the mark.
"Is there anything else?" Miklos asked.
The chancellor closed his leather-bound folder softly and looked up with trepidation on his lined face. "The queen is " He drew a quick breath. "The queen is " Moisture gathered in his eyes under lids that drooped with age.
"The queen is dying." Miklos said what for most of the country was still unthinkable. He, himself, hadn't said it out loud until now, although he and his brothers had been aware of it for some time, communicating with half sentences and long looks of regret. "My mother is dying," he said it now, again.
The chancellor hung his head.
"Dr. Arynak is requesting audience?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
But the good doctor had asked the chancellor to break the news first. At another time, in a different situation, Miklos would have smiled at that.
Dr. Arynak never delivered bad news to any of the members of the royal family. He had an aversion, more of a phobia, perhaps going back to his predecessors, some of whom had been beheaded for being the harbinger of bad news during the less enlightened centuries.
His evasive techniques, which he took to the extreme at times, could be annoying. He was an excellent physician, however.
"I'm so sorry, Your Highness."
Miklos's heart darkened. The weight that had been straddling his shoulders for the last couple of months now slid to settle firmly in his chest. How long? He wanted to ask, but for that he had to wait for the doctor's audience.
"I'll see him as soon as we get back from the airport."
"Yes, Your Highness." But the chancellor didn't look relieved for being done with delivering the doctor's message.
"Have you talked to the chief of security?"
"Not yet." Miklos's voice picked up some impatience, which he regretted. But what could be worse than the queen's impending death? And the country in the worst turmoil already. He was tired of the political fires they were fighting at every level of government.
And still the chancellor wouldn't talk.
"We must leave momentarily," Miklos reminded him.
"There seems to be a plot to assassinate the crown prince." The words came in a rush, with a pained expression on the old man's face. And anger over the audacity that anyone would want to harm the royal family. And unease because he was treading on the security chief's territory by reporting that information first.
Information that made Miklos's head reel. "Arpad?"
The man in the catacombs It had been a man; the footsteps gave that much away. Probably young. He'd been fast, and there hadn't been any shuffling. Miklos looked at his left hand. No trace of the blood remained. His body went still for a moment when he thought Alarm and urgency filled him as he asked, "Where is my brother now?"
"Meeting with a team of security advisors."
He acknowledged the brief moment of relief and headed for the door. "Where? And why am I not there?"
"We have another appointment."
He stopped in his tracks. How could that slip his mind even for a moment?
He appreciated that the chancellor said "We," even though he spoke of a burden Miklos alone must bear. "I should still go and see my brother." He glanced back.
"But Your Highness " The Chancellor paled. "You must receive her."
He wasn't in the mood for musts. "I must nothing. Am I not still a prince?"
"Which is exactly the reason." The chancellor took a tone he'd employed often during the princes' childhood, using it for the same argument once again duties of royalty.
Which hadn't chafed in a long time, but they did now, when his mother and brother needed him, and Miklos had to go on a side trip to receive some girl he hadn't met in twenty some years, all because protocol demanded. He almost told the chancellor that protocol be damned. Then reminded himself that a Kerkay never shirked any duty of the crown.
In an hour's timetwo at the mosthe would be rid of the girl, and he would be back at the palace. He glanced at his watch. "Where is the meeting?"
"The Map Room. Shall I come along, Your Highness?"
"I'll only be a moment." He glanced at his watch again. "You should probably start getting ready."
The Map Room was called as such not only because the floor displayed the map of the world in various colored granite, but because the shelves housed all the royal maps that had survived the tumultuous centuries of Valtria, starting with an outline of the country's hills and rivers, hand-painted on scraped sheepskin in the tenth century.
His five brothers looked up as Miklos entered.
"We weren't expecting you," Arpad, the crown prince, said with obvious pleasure in his voice, although Benedek and Lazlothe twinslooked rather guilty.
"The chief of security and the rest of the advisors aren't here yet." Janos stated the obvious. He was a prominent economist and involved with politics, as well. His face showed the shadows of sleepless nights.
"And yet you're all here," Miklos remarked, glancing at the old leather-bound book Janos had shoved behind his back as Miklos had entered but now was pulling out again.
Not the book?
Miklos put a scowl on his face, regretting that none of his brothers was easily intimidated. "No," he said with emphasis.
"The times are calling for" Lazlo, a brilliant entrepreneur and born gambler, started to say.
Miklos cut him off. "When were you going to tell me about this?"
"Tonight." Arpad leaned against the fifteenth century massive walnut desk. "We thought you were, er, otherwise engaged?" His right eyebrow slid up, an amused look on his face.
"Leaving momentarily," Miklos said with utmost restraint. "You can put that book away. I'll take care of this with the security chief. You'll be safe, Arpad, I swear to that."
Arpad was a colonel in the air force, but he was the crown prince and could not be part of the kind of foolishness that had been cooked up, no doubt, by the youngest princes. Arpad was to be protected.
Miklos was the only other one with military training among the six brothers. He was the one who was involved with state and palace security anyway. "The Brotherhood of the Crown is a legend," he snapped at them.