Some called it an obsession. Elias Ahtissari called it his duty. Memorizing every inch of Kallaster Castle was as integral to his person as breathing. It wasn’t the hallways and great rooms or even the hidden passageways behind the walls that held so much of his attention, but the intricate tunnel system far beneath the fortress that his ancestors had carved into the bedrock.
At fifteen, he’d discovered a previously unknown tunnel in the dungeon, which led to more undiscovered tunnels and an unexplored cave. In the nine years since, Elias had mapped out the entire maze of underground passageways—at least what he’d uncovered so far. His ancestors had been crafty bastards, hiding doorways and entrances in places he’d initially overlooked.
And it wasn’t just Kallaster.
He had done the same kind of mapping in several other castles throughout his homeland of Latvala, a kingdom he would someday rule. When he wasn’t engaging in secretive missions with his brethren, practicing the art of war, or attending royal functions, he could be found stalking gloomy corridors with handmade maps rolled into a backpack.
It was how he had come to be in this particular cavern, on this particular day, far beneath the Ahtissari family seat. Ahtissari Castle had once been attacked by his late uncle Paavo, leaving a good portion in ruins. Over the years, his father had arranged for the structure to be rebuilt, stone by stone, until it was restored to its former glory. The tunnels had remained undamaged, at least, and continued to give up treasures such as the medieval dagger he held in his hand.
Elias stared hard at the crest carved into the dagger’s hilt. A single beam of light attached to his headgear pierced the darkness of the cavern, illuminating the cursive letter A surrounded by a circle of ivy and a pair of rearing lions. A for Ahtissari, there could be no doubt. What puzzled him were the lions. In this crest the lions faced each other on either side of the letter A.
Traditionally, his family crest featured lions facing away from each other, with no letter between. What might have seemed an insignificant detail to many drew a frown onto Elias’s brow.
Why had he never seen this depiction in the history books? Surely a change as major as this would have been hashed over by scholars and kings alike.
Handling the blade with care, Elias wrapped the artifact in a strip of muslin and tucked it into his backpack.
He continued his search, emboldened and encouraged by the strange find.
After three hours of navigating tunnels and one small cave, he backtracked into more familiar territory—known corridors and subterranean rooms—and ascended a steep set of stairs to the main floor. His bootfalls echoed off the stone with every step.
It was musty there. Cold.
Sometimes Elias found it difficult to believe the front of the castle had once been leveled to the ground. Architects and stonemasons had done an outstanding job of rebuilding the fortress, yet few of the family wanted to visit, much less live beneath its roof. The castle had sat empty for years, for all intents and purposes a giant tomb filled with too many bitter memories. Not just of the living, but of the dead.
After careful consideration, the reigning king, his father, had opened the doors to the public. Ahtissari Castle and its riches, its heavily guarded family portraits and gilt furniture, now existed in the modern world as nothing more than a tourist attraction. People flocked to its doors by the tens of thousands every year, drawn by the drama and prestige.
He chose to exit the castle via a guarded hallway used only by the royal family, one that remained out of view of the tourists.
In a private courtyard, he slid into the back of a waiting limousine and regarded the rugged landscape as the vehicle ferried him to the docks. Spring was here, painting the wide open fields surrounding the castle a stunning shade of green. Little wildflowers popped up all throughout the grass, adding swathes of violet, yellow, and blue. In the distance were trees. The forest where his parents had first met.
Not for the first time, Elias’s chest swelled with pride at his homeland.
He loved everything about Latvala: its rugged shoreline, the vast meadows, dense forests, and even the hinterlands. His country was ripe with natural beauty and opportunity.
What he loved most, besides his family and his countrymen, were the castles. The strongholds of his ancestors, those fortresses that had withstood severe weather and war.
Even now, with a new lead to follow and royal duties to perform later this evening, all he wanted to do was return to the subterranean pathways and continue mapping the tunnels.
But duties . . . yes. He had them.
The headgear came off with a light tug. He doused the little light and set the helmet on the seat. One hand raked back through hair that had darkened over the winter, like it did every season, but which still sported golden streaks throughout.
He had his father’s hair. His father’s build, too, though he stood exactly one inch taller than the king. At six feet four, he was taller than his brothers and best friends, though not by much. A few inches were all that separated him from his peers.
At the docks, he exited the car. He slung the backpack over a shoulder, clutched the helmet in his hand, and boarded a boat that waited specifically for him. Casting off, the vessel set sail across the inlet toward Pallan Island.
He stood on the deck as the outline of the island loomed large and imposing. From this vantage point, he was unable to pick out Kallaster Castle. The ruling seat of the king sat on the west side, facing the wide open sea, mostly hidden by the uneven terrain and a swath of unhindered forest. Small houses dotted the landscape between the trees, homes belonging to staff members who worked in the castle. A few mainlanders had moved to the island as well, though by and large Pallan Island remained remote and uncivilized. There were no supermarkets or high-fashion stores to be found among the buildings lining the docks. Only a small machine shop for boat repairs, a spartan café, and guard station were open for business.
His father preferred it that way, as did he.
Elias did not want the unspoiled terrain to become a haven for housing tracts, endless tourism, and glitzy shopping malls.
Once the boat docked, he disembarked and headed toward a private parking area reserved for the royal family. The small lot consisted of five parking spaces, no more.
A silver Land Rover, windows tinted black, waited in one of the slots.
Elias stowed his gear in the back of the Rover and slid behind the steering wheel. He enjoyed driving and did so at every opportunity, shunning the limousines on constant standby. He used them when he had to, or when he needed to.
Moments later, Elias sped away from the docks toward home. A dark SUV followed, as it always did. His personal security team gave him his space, however—inasmuch as they could and remain safe—leaving Elias to crank the radio and drive.
He found himself anxious to get the evening’s festivities over with so he could raid the library and look for clues to the mysterious dagger.
There was more to life than dinner parties and ballroom dances.
“You look bored as hell.”
Elias sipped from the drink in his hand—water, not alcohol—and looked away from the elegant ballroom to his best friend, Jeremiah Morgan. “I’m not bored.”
“Yes, you are. I can always tell when something is on your mind. You get a distant look in your eyes, that thousand-mile stare, and I’d bet my next paycheck that you were thinking about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with this party.”
Elias snorted. Jeremiah wasn’t wrong. “I was thinking I might ask that lovely lady over there to dance.”
Jeremiah squinted past the crowded dance floor to the array of women standing and sitting, some accompanied by men, as if searching for the object of Elias’s attention.
Elias tried not to grin as Jeremiah scanned the available faces. It could have been one of many, which was the reason Elias had been so vague to begin with. Many of the women present were titled and sporting royal lineage. Some were debutantes, others daughters of prominent, wealthy men. Billionaires, not millionaires.
Jeremiah scoffed and side-eyed Elias with a look that said you bastard.
Finally, Elias laughed.
“So what were you thinking about, then, since it clearly wasn’t dancing with a woman?” Jeremiah asked.
Elias’s attention skipped past Jeremiah as they talked, landing on a fluted glass held in a woman’s hand. It was one of those rare instances when he happened to be looking at precisely the right time, in exactly the right place, to observe a crime in progress.
He frowned as he noticed a vial appear between the bodies of partygoers. The contents of the vial spilled into the glass, a deft sleight of hand move that would have gone unnoticed had Elias not happened upon the scene by accident.
Elias pushed past Jeremiah and threaded through the crowd. He knew Jeremiah would not remain behind, not after such sudden action, and said over his shoulder, “Jer, go see if you can find someone attempting to depart the room who seems to be in an unusual hurry.”
“Got it.” Jeremiah did not ask for details. He split off as if the men had performed this particular dance hundreds of times, no doubt already on alert for the clues Elias had given him.
This allowed Elias to home in on the woman’s hand—distinctive thanks to a sparkling diamond bracelet—and, more importantly, the tainted drink. There were too many bodies; Elias skirted around two women, dodging obstructions, and arrived next to the victim moments later.
He left his own drink on a waiter’s tray and, because Elias loathed making scenes, he cut into the woman’s personal space and gently blocked the upward trajectory of her wrist as she was about to sip the champagne.
The woman darted a surprised look to his face.
“Why, how dare you? Who do you—”
Elias had not seen Inari Ascher, King Thane’s firstborn and heir to Somero’s throne, in more than three years. She was a vision in her peach gown with its beaded bodice and layered skirt, tawny hair styled up and away from her face. A pair of striking pale green eyes peered up at him past a veil of inky lashes, her makeup flawlessly applied to enhance the finely sculpted angles of her cheeks and chin. A mature woman stood before him now, as opposed to the slightly girlish specimen he remembered from a royal ball more than three years past. Back then, she had been fresh faced and a little rebellious, with a penchant—if he recalled correctly—for flirting rather boldly with members of the opposite sex. This incarnation seemed less vivacious, more in control of her actions and reactions, as a prospective queen should be. She’d changed more than he could believe but, in the end, he recognized her easily.
“Don’t drink from your glass,” Elias said in a quiet voice. Already, Inari’s circle of friends watched with curious interest. He knew that Inari’s personal security were probably also watching, not on alert yet because Elias was a well-known figure. A prince and heir in his own right.
Unfortunately, the security had not seen the damning act with the vial thanks to many guests mingling around the apparently popular princess.
The perpetrator had picked a perfect time to strike.
“Elias? I haven’t seen you in ages. What’s wrong?” Inari asked.
His grip gentled on her arm. He slid his palm down to her wrist and expertly divested her of the glass. “Why don’t we retire to a parlor for a moment?”
Elias did not draw more attention to the situation than necessary. The rumor mills would explode should word get out that someone had attempted to drug the heir to the Ascher throne. If they were all lucky, Jeremiah would intercept the culprit or, at the very least, discreetly alert Inari’s personal security.
He casually offered Inari his elbow and escorted the princess away from her friends.
Although this was not Kallaster—nor any castle in Latvala—Elias knew his way well enough. The family seat of Imatra, a neighboring country in alliance with Latvala, had become something of a second home as he and the heir to the throne, Caspian Rehn, grew into great friends. Elias had spent quite a bit of time in the main castle of the Rehn dynasty, which was why he led Inari with confidence into the closest parlor available. The circular room boasted a domed ceiling, ancient tapestries on the walls, and gilt-framed furniture.
“Elias, I really wish you would tell me what’s going on,” Inari said.
Elias eased his elbow from Inari’s gentle grasp and faced her.
“If my friend has not done so already, you need to summon your security, Inari. I believe someone just attempted to drug you.” Elias lifted her champagne glass to indicate what he meant.
Surprise crossed Inari’s delicate features. “What? Drugged my . . . but I would have seen.”
“The only reason I happened to notice was pure luck. Right place, right time.” Elias studied Inari’s eyes and found himself somewhat angry at her plight. It took some nerve to attempt to drug a woman surrounded by so much security at an event teeming with guests.
“I’ll fetch your security for you. Who should I ask for?” Jeremiah asked Inari as he appeared in the room. He shook his head vaguely in Elias’s direction. The perpetrator had not been located.
“Ask for Bero. Thank you,” Inari said.
Jeremiah bowed his head and departed the parlor.
Unfortunately, Elias thought the odds of catching the perpetrator at this point were slim to none. Unless the palace had security cameras.
“I don’t know what to say, Elias. Thank you for interrupting,” Inari said. She lifted a delicate hand to brush a loose lock of hair away from her face.
The move struck Elias as nervous, rather than primping. He also thought he saw a flare of anger in her eyes despite her distraction. “Of course. Anyone would have done the same. Do you know why someone would want to drug you? Have you made enemies lately? Or has there been an ardent admirer?”
“You know how our lives are, Elias.” Inari did not play coy or simper with fear. She spoke in a straight-forward manner, her cultured voice quiet in the empty room. “I could have offended someone without even realizing it. As far as an admirer? I have several. Again, it’s not uncommon in our positions.”
Elias could not disagree. He had his own slew of admirers, some of whom sent him dedicated letters every single week. As heir to the throne of Latvala and a confirmed bachelor, there was no end to the number of women vying for his attention.
“Jeremiah and I will do some investigating of our own, if you’ll allow it. Survey the room, look for anything unusual. I know your guards will do the same. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few extra pairs of eyes on the lookout tonight,” he said.
“Forgive me. I do not remember Jeremiah. Should I?” Inari asked. She did not look ashamed for not recalling Jeremiah’s face or name.
“In truth, I’m not sure you’ve ever met. He accompanies me and my brother to these royal functions often, but not always. You’ve been gone for a while as well, so it’s possible you’ve never crossed paths,” Elias said.
Just then, eight guards, all attired in black and white suits, entered the parlor.
“Your Highness,” the lead guard, Bero, said. He bowed his head and then repeated the action to Elias. But it was to Inari he went, cupping her elbow in his palm. “Are you well?”
“Yes, yes. I’m fine. Elias has the glass. Will you have someone take it from here and have the contents examined?” Inari asked.
Elias handed the glass off to a different member of Inari’s team.
“I was told you did not get a good look at the person, Your Highness,” Bero said to Elias.
“I did not. There were too many people crowding around the princess at the time. I was lucky, honestly, that I happened to see the vial and Inari’s glass at all. I can say that it was a man, however, thanks to the suit sleeve and cuff links,” Elias said.
“Can you identify the links, Your Highness?”
“I only caught a quick glimpse, as it were. So no, not with every other man present sporting similar dress.”
“I see. Will you be available for further questioning tomorrow or so, if needed?” Bero asked.
“Indeed. Have your people contact mine to set up a meeting. I’m happy to help.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” Bero and company exited the room. A few guards remained outside the doors, clearly on high alert.
Elias pocketed his hand and prepared to depart the room in their wake. Inari laid her fingers on his arm, halting his exit.
“A moment, please, Elias?”
“Of course.” He would not deny her, even if he was anxious to get back into the crowd and do some investigating.
“I’d like to return to the ball and prove all is well. I don’t know how many people witnessed our departure, but I’d like to quash any rumors before they get out of hand. I can think of only one way to distract the guests,” she said.
Elias arched a brow, curious at what she had in mind.
When she smiled, it changed her whole face. She said, “We dance.”