The room was dark. Too dark for the middle of the day. Michael walked gingerly down the small hall that spilled into the sitting room before him. The windows that boasted views of the hazelnut forest beyond the castle were hidden behind thick velvet curtains, allowing not a single ray of sunlight to penetrate the space. Instead, ghostly orbs of candlelight hovered in the room like the souls of the dead. A candle on a table. A single candle by the chair. Hardly enough light to see the next step in front of him.
But Michael walked on.
“Your Majesty?” he said hesitantly. There was no answer. He tried again and was greeted only with eerie silence. So he decided to call her by her name, in the hope it would offend her enough to answer.
Still, the queen said not a word.
But he could see her, sitting solemn and still in the chair that faced the drawn curtains. He could make out her slender silhouette in the candlelight. She was a statue, holding vigil over a loved one. A monument to a kingdom marred by death. A queen of dark magic, frozen in time by her own transgressions, her own sins.
“Meria, can you hear me?”
Michael walked the remaining steps to face the queen, but she remained motionless. Her hair was piled in matted knots atop her head, the gray that she usually so painstakingly hid with intricate braids and curls now frizzing out in knots and tangles. Her skin hung limp and pallid from her face, ashen even in the golden candlelight. She wore a dove-gray gown that bore not a single embellishment or adornment.
The queen of Navah, Michael thought mockingly.
The Queen Mother. Regent in Ferryl’s absence, but no longer the ruling monarch of this kingdom. She might as well have been a sarcophagus. A pillar of salt. For she bore no signs of life or of the fire that once burned brightly in her black eyes.
Michael knelt before his queen, an odd sense of fealty at the sight of her. For more than a decade, he had given his life to protect her and her husband. But he had failed the latter. Failed that fateful day he had taken Delaney from the castle that he might woo the prince’s betrothed. Like a lying, traitorous bastard.
And he would pay for that day. With the guilt that plagued his very soul, he would pay every day from now on for not being there when the king of Navah was murdered right under the noses of the entire castle.
“It was supposed to be you.” That’s what Sir Thomas Nachash had said, his last words before he took his own life like a coward.
It was supposed to be you. Michael. He was supposed to be the one who had killed the king. Because he was supposed to be the one who had been cursed that day. Not Amos, his friend, the guard who had been caught in the crossfire of a wicked scheme. Him. Michael.
Michael had been set up to take the blame for the death of the king.
By whatever mercies, he had been spared such a fate, but seemingly only to face a much worse one. Guilt, it turned out, was much worse than being falsely accused of murder.
“Meria, talk to me,” Michael tried again. Her cold eyes met his, but she made no sound, no other movement.
“You must speak to your people. They need you,” he tried. The court was getting antsier by the day, the courtiers buzzing with rumors, questions, and worries because no formal announcement had been made. Nothing had been said about the strange events of the previous month. The king had been murdered in his own chambers, but the queen had not said one word to her subjects, just as if all was well. As if the king was still alive.
But the court and the people knew the king was not alive. And they knew all was not well. They knew the queen hid in her chambers like a coward.
Maybe she hadn’t directly murdered her husband. But no one believed she hadn’t been behind it, Michael included.
“Meria, can you hear me?”
The queen’s black gaze held Michael still like a spider lurking from her web. Queen Meria, the Black Widow of Navah.
“You must convince him,” she said, her voice hoarse from disuse. Or screaming. Michael couldn’t be sure.
“Convince him? Convince who?” Michael asked.
The queen seized Michael’s hands so suddenly that he nearly yelped, his heart a sudden war drum in his throat. Her grip was like iron on his hands, but it was not cold, as Ferryl had once described it. It was clammy. Lifeless. Numb.
“He will not believe me. Not after this. But you must help me, Michael. You must convince him.”
“Convince who? Your Majesty, what are you talking about?”
Her grip tightened, his hands going numb at her vice-like strength. “It was not supposed to be this way,” she said. “He was not supposed to die.”
Michael’s eyes shot to the queen’s. “Who? The king? The king was not supposed to die?”
“Convince him, Michael. Please. Convince him of my innocence. You are the only one he will believe.”
The air reeked of excrement and vomit, a stale, untouched foulness that permeated every crevice of the dungeons. A slow dripping sound haunted every step as Michael made his way farther and farther down this forsaken place. But for his friend and for the sake of his duty, he would endure it. For Amos, he could brave almost anything.
Michael gagged at the reek as he walked past cell after cell, some occupants passed out in the darkness, some clinging to the bars, begging.
“Please, sir!” one of the prisoners cried as Michael walked by. “I’m innocent, I swear it!”
Every one of them had sworn their innocence at one time or another. Michael hated the sickening sounds of their cries. For half of these men, he had no idea why they were here. And considering the vengeance of the queen of Navah, there was no accounting for the legitimacy of the verdicts of their guilt.
He could not get her words out of his head. Convince him, Michael. Convince him of my innocence. They sounded in his mind like the caw of an eagle echoing off the cliffs of Navah. Meria, the queen regent of Navah, had looked terrified. And Michael had no idea what to think of that.
But he could not think on the queen just now. Nor could he listen to the cries of these prisoners as he rounded the last corner. Michael was here for one reason.
Amos, whom he could not release. Not without the king’s permission. Amos whom he knew damn well to be innocent of his crimes. Amos hadn’t killed Captain Samuel. Not intentionally, anyway. He had been cursed. Michael knew it in his bones.
And he knew who was responsible for the curses that seemed to abound at Benalle these days.
“Michael,” Amos breathed, grabbing hold of the bars that separated him from his freedom. “Tell me you’ve made progress.”
“I’m sorry. The king has not returned yet. And I sent letters, but I would imagine he’s on the road.”
“You swore my innocence, right? You swore it?”
“Yes. Yes, Amos, I swore it.” Michael reached into his pocket, retrieving the contraband he had procured from his breakfast.
Amos devoured the biscuit in two bites.
“I’m sorry it’s not more,” Michael said, and he meant it. If there was one thing he would take up with Ferryl upon his return, it was the state of the dungeons. And the treatment of the prisoners. One meal of questionable gray mush a day was hardly enough to keep a man alive. But right now, he could not risk bringing anything down here that someone might see. If the other prisoners caught wind that a guard was sneaking food in…
Everything about this place bore the signature of the vengeful queen who once ruled the palace, the same woman who now sat alone and quiet in her chambers like a prisoner awaiting her own death sentence.
“How much longer, Michael? How much longer must I bear this?” Amos asked, a crumb from the biscuit clinging to the red beard that had grown in his time down in this Sheol-hole.
“He will he home soon, Amos. King Ferryl will be home soon.”
King Ferryl will be home soon, Michael reminded himself as he stared into his fire, his arm resting on the mantle. King Ferryl. Not Prince Ferryl. King. Ferryl was now the king of Navah. The king whose former betrothed would greet him with another man on her arm. The king whose most trusted guard had betrayed him with one kiss.
King Ferryl would be home soon to see all of the mess Michael had made in his absence.
A knock at his door tore his attention from the licking flames, and Michael answered to find the source of his problems and the answer to every question standing before him in a cerulean skirt tied over a round belly. He had always been a damned fool where Duchess Delaney was concerned. Former duchess, that is.
But when she was near him, when he looked at her, all his worries, all his scruples fell by the wayside. And the only thing he could think of was her—the one person in the world who truly understood him. One look at Delaney Dupree, and Michael Aman didn’t give a damn what the king of Navah thought. Or anyone else, for that matter.
“Done with your rounds?” she asked, and it was concern in her eyes.
Michael merely nodded before he pulled her into his chambers and slid into her arms, breathing against the skin of her shoulder as he held her tightly. Her rounding belly pressed against his own stomach, and when he felt a tiny thump, he pulled away just enough to look down, a smile curving his mouth from ear to ear. Delaney pressed his hand firmly into the side of her belly.
“Feel her?” she asked, her attention on her belly as well.
Michael laughed at the notion that Delaney had decided her baby was a girl. Laughed more at the notion that the baby seemed to move—dance, really—anytime he was near, according to Delaney. He laughed in delight and with a deep breath before he pulled the love of his life back into his arms and kissed her thoroughly.
It was stupid to wish for something so impossible. But every time he thought about it, every time his mind wandered to that day when her time would finally come, Michael wished he could be there. Wished he could be a part of it.
But it was stupid, and she would never allow it. Men, as a rule, were not welcome and certainly not allowed to witness the birth of their children. How much less the birth of another man’s child?
Her cheeks were flushed, her lips glistening as Delaney snaked her arms around his shoulders. “Michael, what happened?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I can tell something is on your mind. It is written all over your face.”
He wondered if she could read him so well all the time.
“It was an unsettling day, that’s all.”
“Did you see the queen?” she asked, making her way farther into his chambers. He eased down onto the settee beside her before he answered.
“She begged me to plead for her.”
“Plead for her? In what regard?” Delaney asked.
Michael took hold of her hand, playing with her fingers as he spoke. “Her innocence,” he finally managed.
“What?” Delaney scoffed. “After all that she’s done, she wants you to plead her innocence? What—to Ferryl?”
Michael merely nodded, running his fingers along Delaney’s left hand, along the finger that would have already been wearing his mother’s ring, if not for the king, the friend who was owed an explanation, at the very least. He pulled her hand to his mouth by way of distraction.
“She is a fool if she thinks anyone believes her to be innocent.”
But Michael said nothing, absently weaving his fingers between hers, tasting the tip of every finger.
“Michael, what’s really on your mind?” Delaney asked.
But that was the one thing he could not tell her. He could not be the source of even one moment of worry or burden for her. Providence knew she had already been through enough.
So he mustered a smile and said, “Nothing, beautiful. Nothing at all.”