Excerpt: The Engineered Throne

Chapter 1: Surprises

Vellem flinched when he heard something shatter against the study door—the last remaining crystal decanter, likely. Rine’s Balls, he had told the servants to make certain all such fragile items were removed. His mother would be devastated; that set had been a wedding gift and the decanter the last piece of it remaining.

He paused outside the study door, listening carefully, one hand on the pistol at his left hip. When no sound emanated, he breathed a sigh and tested the doorknob. It gave easily beneath his touch and he gently pushed the door open with the palm of one hand, the other still braced on the gun.

The study was dimly lit, with only a lamp on the table to cast off the early evening gloom. There were books strewn about, some so damaged they probably could not be salvaged. “Fuck me twice,” he muttered irritably and left the door open as he ventured further in.

His boots crunched on shattered crystal and he froze at the noise—and relaxed slightly when the enormous lump in front of the fireplace grunted before settling in again. The figure began to snore, and Vellem finally let go of his pistol. He glanced at the clock above the mantle, grimacing at the time. When had it crept to half past six? Why in the White Lady’s name was his father already so heavily drunk? Typically he lasted until after supper.

Crossing the room to the fireplace, Vellem knelt before his father and wrinkled his nose at the smell of too much alcohol—and a hint of expensive vanilla and cardamom perfume. Rine’s Balls. Standing again, he left the study, closing and locking the door behind him, and strode back toward the main hall then across the way and down a smaller hall all the way to the room at the end.

He knocked thrice, then opened the door and slipped inside. His mother was settled in her favorite chair, bent over a book, one hand wrapped around a cup of tea held precariously on the armrest. Vellem’s mouth tightened to see the bruise already forming on her cheek. “Mother.”

“I’m fine, Vell,” she said with a sigh he’d heard a thousand times. It was the sigh reserved solely for after the violence. The sigh of a woman who wished life had given her a different path but was long resigned to the one she walked. “He didn’t even mean to, this time. He was distressed about the letter from your brother. You know how he gets when the … arrangement is mentioned.”

Vellem bit back the choice words he would have liked to say to that and instead said only, “The wedding, you mean?” She flinched and he almost felt bad, but he was tired of being treated like a criminal. He was a war hero, curse them twice, and he was betrothed to a prince—so what if it was a prince of Tallideth? Better to be making peace than continuing the war. He could understand his father’s lingering animosity, but not the way he was behaving about it. Would he never be willing to see what a point of honor it was that Vellem was being trusted with such an arrangement?

He did not know why he kept expecting his parents to change; he even knew it wasn’t fair to expect it and that doing so anyway made him no better. But damn it, they could be happy for him, for just an hour.

The bitter thoughts broke off as his mother’s words registered. “What do you mean a letter from Koit? When did we receive a letter from Koit?” He could tell from her faint wince that he wasn’t going to like the answer. “When?” he asked again.

“Two weeks ago,” she replied, mouth flat. “I told that idiot maid to hold back all such letters, but she didn’t listen and gave it to him. He refused to let you be informed; he’d hoped you would not be returning so soon.”

Vellem curled his fingers into fists, then uncurled them. “Of course I would be returning so soon,” he said with a sigh. “I am departing for Tallideth in less than two months. My regiment will be arriving in six weeks. What did he think—” He broke off when he realized his temper was gaining control. He took a calming breath and then asked, “What did the letter say?”

She drained her teacup, hands trembling faintly. He wondered tiredly what powder she had put in it, but did not care to draw close enough to figure it out. “He was granted approval to journey with you and should be arriving … well, any day now.”

“He—” Vellem’s bad mood vanished, overcome by the good news. The king was letting Koit go with him to Tallideth! “Thank you, mother,” he said and crossed the room to drop a kiss on her cheek. “Go to bed. You need rest and you know that dragon holly will put you right out. I will tend to father.” He kissed her cheek again and then left to find the servants.

He ran into the head footman, Withte, on his way to the kitchen. “My father’s study was to be emptied of all fragile items. Why was it not?”

“He hasn’t left the study long enough for us to be able to and he locks it when he goes to bed at night,” Withte replied, bowing as he spoke. “My apologies, my lord.”

Vellem shook his head, gesturing dismissively. “I understand. I am more troubled that a maid is not delivering the post as she was instructed. I am only now informed that my brother will be arriving any day now.”

Withte blanched. “I will speak to the maid and see that the house is made ready for his lordship. Did you want her dismissed or …”

“No, just … my father is not to receive letters from my brother—or the capital—until my mother has read them first. He finds them trying and his health is not improving.” Withte’s face was impassive, but they both knew very well that his father was a belligerent drunk on a good day and loved any excuse to wax violent about the failings of both his wretched, ungrateful sons.

White Lady, he needed some space to breathe. “I am going to make certain my father stays asleep; send some men to carry him up to bed. Make certain a maid helps my mother upstairs. After I tend my father, I am going for a ride. Dinner won’t be necessary. I’ll take a tray in my room when I return.”

“Yes, my lord,” Withte said and bowed off.

Vellem returned to the study, hand once more going to his pistol, and cautiously opened the door. Thankfully, his father was still passed out drunk. Reaching into the pouch nestled at the small of his back, he extracted a soft cloth and a small, blue glass bottle he knew by touch. He dampened the cloth with a small measure of the clear liquid inside the bottle—what soldiers liked to call healer’s gin, a strong elixir made from faerie roses that could put a grown man to sleep for hours, even days depending upon the dosage.

Vellem held the cloth to his father’s face, grimacing all over again at the stench—when had the man last bathed?—and after he’d counted to twenty, withdrew the cloth. He threw it into the fire, covering his own face to avoid the momentary fumes. When they had dissipated, Vellem slapped his father’s cheeks several times. No reaction. Good, the bastard would be out all the night and ideally most of the morning.

Standing, he tucked the bottle back into its pouch and left the study. Two footmen were already waiting in the hall and they bustled in once he was well clear of the door. Vellem left them to it and headed upstairs to change into clothes more suitable for riding.

When he reached his room, however, he was reminded why he had gone downstairs in the first place: he’d been attempting to find the books that someone had taken from his shelves. He was more than a little annoyed because the books, histories of engineering and several old manuals, had been difficult and expensive to obtain. What he had been thinking in leaving them behind, he would never know, but he was furious with himself. If his father had sold them off …

The idea of returning to the study churned his stomach. He would look for them upon his return. Right then, he needed a ride to calm his foul mood and settle his restlessness. Changing quickly into riding clothes, he buckled his gun belt back into place and scooped up his greatcoat, then briskly left his bedchamber and headed back downstairs.

His horse, a fine black stallion given to him as a reward for services rendered, was saddled and waiting for him at the base of the front stairs. “Thank you, Rej,” he said, taking the reins as Rej held them out and mounting smoothly. “I should be back right around dark. Ring the bells if I am needed sooner.”

“Yes, my lord,” Rej replied and bowed as he rode off.

Vellem headed toward the foothills, riding along a road he knew as well as his own face. When he was a boy, it had been little more than grass and mud. When he’d apprenticed as an engineer at the age of ten, he’d helped his master turn many of the footpaths into proper roads. Travel through the foothills had become much easier after, making the local town far more appealing a stopover point to travelers. The resulting increase in income had done a great deal of good for the town and his family. Vellem had done so well as an apprentice he had quickly moved on to journeyman afterward. His brother had bought him a commission in the royal army shortly before his twentieth year and by twenty five he had become the youngest Master Engineer in the country. Only five years after that the war had taken the life of his superior, and Vellem had found himself Colonel of the Army Corp of Engineers. A year later he had been informed he was being engaged to a prince of one of their oldest enemies.

Thinking about it still left him reeling. The youngest son of a duke who had been thrown out of court was not the sort of man who wound up the keystone in such a pivotal arrangement. It wasn’t as though he would be ruling the country, though; he was a youngest son marrying a youngest son. It was an exchange of services: he would rebuild vital bridges and roads, help build up the engineering force of Tallideth, and in exchange, Tallideth would help to rebuild Belemere’s navy, which had never recovered from the devastation of decades of war.

But he would be a prince, and finally free of his damned family and the stains his father had left on their legacy. The only part that saddened him was that Koit would be farther away than ever, tied to the Belemere throne by duty. Between the trade renewals and his pregnant wife, Vellem was surprised Koit was able to accompany him. He was also ecstatic, however, and secretly relieved. Vellem was an engineer and a soldier, not a diplomat, and while he was fluent in Tallideth, he was by no means entirely comfortable with it.

Vellem slowed his horse to a stop as they came to a small clearing alongside the road where a small traveler’s temple had been built. It was made of wood, as all such temples to Garthen, God of Wind and Travel, should be. His symbol, six spirals turned into an intricate knot at the center, was carved above the door. The steep roof had gained shingles since his last visit, which made him happy. The smell of incense lingered faintly in the air, so someone else had recently passed through and left an offering.

Dismounting, leaving his horse in the grass immediately in front of the temple, Vellem slipped through the open doorway and walked to the altar at the far end of a room that could not comfortably hold more than five people. The altar table was covered with offering, only just enough space reserved for the candles and bowls of incense. Vellem looked over the myriad offerings: coins, tiny carved figures, travel berries, and the odd slip of paper from those educated enough to know how to write and wealthy enough to have paper and ink they could use to leave a prayer meant to be burned in offering by the priest.

Garthen was the patron saint of his family and home, and so he whenever he was able he stopped by to pay his respects. Vellem’s personal patron was Rine, however, God of Craft. He reached up to touch the talisman strung on a leather cord and nestled in the hollow of his throat. It portrayed Rine’s symbol, a blacksmith’s hammer set in a rectangle of iron.

Lighting incense, Vellem folded his hands—left pressed against his chest, right laid over left—and murmured the familiar prayer: Let the skies be clear, let the stars shine bright, let the winds guide us where we need to be, and bring us home again. In the name of He who Guides us, blessed be all who journey.

He left a few coins on the altar and put out the last bit of incense. Just as he turned to leave, he heard the bells. The Bell Tower of Dalanda, named for the first Duchess of Athelwaite, who had first commissioned it. Since she’d had it built, the bells had run throughout the town and surrounding foothills to signal celebration, general calls to gather, and danger. The war had seen the bell tower destroyed, until six years ago when Vellem had used his hard-won skills and personal funds to restore it.

Thankfully, they were only ringing to summon him home, not in warning. Sighing, Vellem turned his horse back toward the manner and urged it to a faster pace.

All his irritation over the trying day fled when he saw the familiar coach and four emblazoned with the bell and raven crest of Athelwaite. Koit, standing near the carriage, lifted a hand in greeting. Vellem barely waited for his horse to come to a halt before he threw himself off and at his brother, embracing him tightly. “Koit, I’ve missed you.”

“And I you,” Koit replied, embracing him tightly. “How are you?” He drew back, gripping Vellem’s shoulders tightly before letting go and giving him a thorough look over. They looked almost exactly alike: same dark gold-toned skin acquired from their father, their mother’s pale brown eyes, though Koit had their mother’s fair curls and Vellem their father’s thick, straight dark hair. They were five years apart, but had always appeared much closer in age. “Still too thin. You’ve let your hair grow out a bit, though. Trying to look pretty for your prince? I’ve told you time and again you’re far too ugly to be saved.”

“You’ve got no room to talk of ugly. Your poor wife, always having to wear a blindfold to bed. If I’m too thin, it’s because you’ve got all my weight. Palace life is making you into a unicorn.”

Koit laughed and threw an arm over his shoulder, guiding him up the stairs and into the house. “So, are you ready for your wedding, little brother? How excited were you to learn about the ship, eh? I’m astonished you’ve not already asked me a thousand questions about it.”

“Ship?” Vellem echoed. “What ship?”

Koit abruptly stopped, frowning at him—then sighed. “Father got to my letter first. Fuck me twice, I knew I should have sent a messenger. Did you even know I was coming?”

“I only learned of it an hour or so ago,” Vellem replied. “I should have known mother left bits out of her accounting. What ship?”

Snorting, Koit replied, “Your betrothed is sending his private schooner upriver to escort you directly to Tallistar. Your regiment will have to travel through Tallideth the hard way, but you’ll arrive in the royal city in style.”

“I’m not abandoning my regiment like I’m too good—”

“You’re a prince-in-waiting; they’ll understand. No doubt the entire regiment is acquainted with your blind love for ships and will gladly watch you board rather than endure your sulking over a missed chance all through the mountains and Tallideth.”

Vellem rolled his eyes at the familiar teasing. “Silence yourself.”

Koit just smirked.

“How is your lovely wife?” Vellem asked.

“Ask her yourself. I believe she’s already taken over the violet parlor. At least, I think that’s what I heard her muttering about when she abandoned me to find a comfortable place to rest.”

Vellem’s brows shot up. “You brought her with you? What in the name of the Pantheon is wrong with you, bringing a woman that heavy with child on such a miserable journey?”

Mouth quirking, Koit replied, “You’ll find in marriage that it’s less about doing and more about doing as one is told. My wife informed me she was coming, that she would brook no argument, and I had best get to packing. I did as I was told. She’s quite eager to see you married and settled, and she does love Tallideth.” He opened the door to the violet parlor and motioned for Vellem to precede him.

“Hello, Cynta,” Vellem greeted his sister-in-law, a tall, stately woman dressed in a dark blue gown that gently followed the curves of her pregnancy-large belly, though he knew at five months it still had quite a bit of growing to do. It was strange to see her sit so still, when normally Cynta was a woman always on the move. Even seated and still, however, she was every bit the king’s cousin, used to commanding whatever room she occupied. He bent and kissed her cheek. “How are you and my niece?”

She smiled approvingly at him while next Vellem, Koit rolled his eyes and sighed the sigh of a man facing an argument he heard every day—namely, that they had no way of knowing whether the child would be a son or daughter, but Cynta insisted they were having a daughter. “We’re doing very well, thank you, Vell. We’ve brought your gifts from your betrothed and the king as well. Koit did not want to risk them to post or messenger.”

“The king?” Vellem asked. “I was not expecting a personal gift from the king, save perhaps a polite threat not to muck it up. What did he send me?”

Cynta chuckled and nodded toward the desk, her warm, light brown curls tumbling about her shoulders, only a shade or two darker than her flawless skin. “Go see for yourself, silly.”

Vellem obediently went to the desk and examined the two large boxes set upon it. One was of gold-toned oak and had the king’s personal seal burned into it. Releasing the latches, he flipped opened the two top pieces and then stood staring, speechless, at the contents: a set of ikons made from various types of marble, each one carved with a different divine symbol. The entire pantheon, an ikon set worth a fortune. Vellem had not had such a set since he was a boy, and that had been an incomplete hand-me-down set made of wood and tin. “I don’t know what to say,” he said, running his fingers over the intricately carved figures, lingering over the one of Rine, picking it up to examine it: it was carved from silver-veined black marble, and every detail had been lovingly carved, from the metal hand and heavy hammer to every fold and hem on the short robes and leather apron. “They’re beautiful and far too generous a gift from a king who has only briefly met me.”

“That single meeting made an impact, and I know two of his sons have met you since they are generals. You are highly regarded for your work both on and off the battlefield. It has made you a hero, as you well know. The king knows how devout you are and thought you’d like to have them while you settle into your new life. Tallideth worships quite differently from us, so he thought they’d be a comfort to you.”

Vellem replaced the Rine figurine. Closing the case, he turned to the second box. It was made of polished ebony that gleamed richly in the lamplight. It was unadorned, save for a folded slip of paper attached to it with sealing wax. Pulling it free, Vellem opened the letter and read the elegant script. He hadn’t much experience with handwritten Tallideth, but it was written neatly enough reading it was easy:

Dear Vellem,

I hope this small token finds you well. It was relegated to the treasury many years ago and I thought you would enjoy it, after all that I have heard of you. I look forward to at last meeting you.

Be Well,
Perdith

He smiled faintly, though he was a bit anxious about what, exactly, Perdith had been told. Tucking the note away, Vellem turned to the box, frowning when he could find no way to open it. After several more minutes of searching, he finally realized there was a seam close to the bottom of the box and small grooves on the short sides meant to give him hold. Settling his fingers in the grooves, he gave a sharp tug. With a soft click the box came loose, leaving only a base about a finger’s width thick. Lifting the top away, he nearly dropped it when he saw what it had hidden. Encased in glass was a perfect, tiny replica of a beautiful viaduct—the bridge he was planning to rebuild, though technically he was going to replace it with an entirely different type of bridge, if he was permitted. It spanned a miniature of the Dethte River and a beautiful schooner glided along the water headed toward the bridge. “It’s the Princess Bridge, before we blew it to the depths of the Great Dark.”

“That’s the Day Dreamer,” Koit said.

“It’s not called that, it’s called the Princess—oh, you mean the ship. Yes, of course. What else would it be, given the plaque there says The Day Dreamer sails the Dethte.”

“Have you never heard of the Day Dreamer?” Koit asked. “You, with your obsession? Nevermind you are marrying into the royal family.”

Vellem shook his head. “Must have missed that tale, somehow.”

“The Day Dreamer was a royal ship,” Koit said, voice going quiet. “The entire royal family went sailing on a summer day and a squall came up and sank the ship. There were no survivors. Legends tell of seeing it sail up and down the river whenever tragedy is about to strike. They call it the Ghost Ship. Your box must have been made well before terrible day. No wonder it was put away in the treasury.”

Vellem shrugged. “To judge by the date on the plaque, it was a long time ago. Something so beautiful shouldn’t be locked away forever. Look at the detail—the sails, the real stones used for the bridge, the water looks like it would actually be wet should you touch it.”

“I think it a mite strange that he send you the Ghost Ship as a present. Strikes me as a trifle morbid.”

Huffing impatiently, Vellem replied, “He didn’t send me a present of the Ghost Ship. He sent me a replica of the bridge I am meant to rebuild. He knows it’s what I do and that I am greatly looking forward to the project. It’s a thoughtful gift, not a morbid one. You spend too much time mired in your politics.”

“He sent you a replica of a ship that serves as a tomb to his predecessors, sailing toward the bridge that we destroyed in a war that took out many Tallideth citizens, including distant relations of the royal throne. He sent you a replica of the bridge you’re meant to rebuild or else new, fragile relations shall likely crumble. You’re right. I’m utterly ridiculous to find the gift in poor taste.”

“He’s no more a politician than I,” Vellem replied. “He is a man of numbers, not of words. This is why Cynta says you have no romance in your soul.”

“I keep trying to instill it, but I admit it’s quite the battle,” Cynta agreed with a laugh. “Stop being cynical and have tea brought for me, Koit.”

Koit rolled his eyes, but smiled at his wife. “Yes, sparrow.” With a bow, he vanished to carry out his orders.

Vellem settled on the small sofa near Cynta’s chair. “I cannot believe you troubled yourself to journey with Koit and me to Tallideth. I’m most honored, milady.”

Cynta laughed and reached out to pat his cheek. “I went to Tallideth once as a girl, back when our countries first attempted peace. Obviously the meeting went poorly, but it’s a beautiful place and they were most kind to me. It is hardly a chore to visit again under much happier circumstances. More importantly, Koit and I want to see you happy, little brother, and I dare to hope this marriage will help bring that about at last. I have heard he is quite charming and friendly. Handsome, too, but from what I recall of my visit the entire family is excellent stock.”

“It sounds like it will be a satisfactory arrangement,” Vellem replied. “Assuming, of course, that my fumbling Tallideth does not cause me to say something horribly awkward or provoking.”

Laughing all over again, Cynta winked at him. “You are a fair bit past fumbling, and you know it, and I will help you still more on the journey there, my love.”

“Who are you calling your love?” Koit asked as he returned to the room. “I leave the room for three minutes and you are falling into my brother’s arms? Outrage!”

Cynta tossed her hair and smiled up at Koit. “Well he is prettier than you, darling, and soon to be a prince.”

Koit snorted as he settled into the chair beside Cynta’s. “Your tea will be along shortly. As to my princely brother, beware, my sparrow. He loves only his bridges and roads. Nothing sets his blood aflame like a project and unlimited funds.”

“Says the man who gets excited when people begin muttering about tax laws.”

Cynta rolled her eyes. “Ugh, men. I knew I should have run away with Alesenda.”

Vellem shook his head, chuckling faintly, and left them to bicker congenially to take another look at his gifts. He would have to get a proper shrine for the ikons. That would be easy enough to do when he went to town to make a last few purchases for the belongings he was sending along ahead of him.

“Vellem!”

He turned around and stared. “Pardon, what?”

Koit’s mouth curved, and he laughed briefly. “Enjoying yourself over there, fondling the gods?”

Vellem cast him a look. “Do not be disrespectful.”

“Dinner should be ready in another hour or so. I was trying to ask if you wanted to freshen up. I know we’ve not given you a proper chance to do that and that we recalled you from your ride.”

“Ah, yes,” Vellem said. “I should go clean up. It would not do to dine in my riding clothes. Pardon me, I shall return shortly.” He gave an absent bow, then quickly headed upstairs, wondering if his blue coat had been cleaned. Reaching his room, he pushed the door open—

And saw movement from the corner of his eye, only just barely dropping in time to avoid the gunshot. Splinters exploded above him as the bullet landed in the door. Vellem didn’t wait for his assailant to take new action, simply drew his own pistol and fired a return shot. There was a grunt of pain and the heavy clacking thud of a gun striking wood, followed by the heavier, duller thud of a collapsing body. The smells of blood and gunpowder were acrid, sharp. Vellem walked through the dark room to find a lamp, swearing when his fingers only jabbed broken glass. He stuck his finger in his mouth, sucked at the blood. Rine’s Balls.

He heard footsteps pounding up the stairs and holstered his gun as he returned to the doorway to greet a frantic-looking Koit. “I’m well,” Vellem replied, holding up his hands to catch his brother’s shoulders.

Koit hugged him tightly. “What in the White Lady’s name happened?”

“I need a light—” he broke off as a cluster of servants appeared. “Fetch lanterns and send someone to clean up in here. It looks as though someone smashed my lamps, though I could not say why. Send for the constable as well, and you’d best bring cleaning supplies along before his blood ruins the floor.” Leaving them to it, he strode back into the bedroom and across to the body. It took only a moment to find his neck in the dark and ascertain that he was indeed dead.

Vellem’s nose wrinkled when a strange scent caught his nose. “What is that smell? It’s got a peculiar sort of sweetness to it.”

“Oh?” Koit asked and joined him by the body. “Ah. That’s ‘Water of Wisdom’. Be careful what you touch, just touching it can be enough to kill you if it’s potent enough.”

“Water of Wisdom? Did they think shooting me wouldn’t do enough of a job?”

Koit snorted. “Clearly they were right to take precaution. Why in the Pantheon was someone waiting in your room to shoot you?”

“I aim to find out,” Vellem replied as two servants returned with cleaning supplies and light. “Go reassure Cynta that all is well and handle the constable when he arrives, would you?”

“Of course.” Koit gripped his shoulder tightly, then rose and departed as the servants scattered several lanterns about the room.

Vellem motioned for a lantern to be brought close, murmuring a thanks when the servant set it down next to him. Light poured out over the room, and Vellem realized they had not simply smashed his lamps—they had vandalized his entire bedchamber. Not enough to murder him, or had they planned to make it look like a robbery or something? Vellem supposed they would never know. He turned his attention to the body, kneeling to better cast light over it, and immediately marked the way the man’s skin had been dyed to hide its fairness. Standing, Vellem went to his army chest kept at the foot of his bed. Unlocking it with the key he always carried, he threw the top up and pulled out a metal box that held various bottles, boxes, and pouches. Extracting a bottle of brown glass marked only with a flower drawn on a pasted-on label, he carried it and a small bit of cloth back to the body.

Dabbing the cloth with the yellow-ish liquid in the bottle, he wiped at a bare patch of skin until the dye was cleaned away. “Such white skin—he is likely from Dethmane.” Unfortunately, that was of limited use. The origin of the assassin was not necessarily the origin of whoever had hired him. Dethmane was well known for its bloodier services, though the fact those services did not come cheap would narrow down the possibilities slightly.

He examined the man’s clothes, then stripped them off and searched the body, but came up with nothing useful. The question of who wanted him dead and why remained frustratingly unanswered. Though given his impending nuptials, it was not hard to come up with one working theory. Sighing, Vellem gestured for the servants to tend the body, standing and moving out of their way. Leaving them to it, he went to join his brother and the constable.

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