Chapter One

Sandor

             I glanced down at my watch for what was probably the hundredth time. We’d been in the General Assembly Room of Parliament for nearly eleven hours and weren’t getting anywhere. We should have been on a plane heading to the U.S. hours ago, but we weren’t. I hated politics, and though I loved the strides we were making in my country, this wasn’t my life. I was a bodyguard, no matter what the royal blood running through my veins said, and having to sit through these sessions was torture.

            My phone buzzed and I looked down, trying to hide my amusement at the text from my cousin, the king, who was across the table from me.

            Erik: If your distaste was any more visible, you’d have a sign on your forehead.

            Sandor: Fuck you. We’ve been battling the same issue for six hours. Enough already.

            Erik: You know, you’re right. Please hold.

            To my surprise and delight, Erik cleared his throat and raised a hand to get everyone’s attention. “Gentlemen—” He paused and looked at the only woman in the room, my sister, who grinned at him. “And Elen. As you know, my wife is nine-months pregnant and about to give birth in the U.S. Her due date was yesterday. I was to be at her side already, yet here we are, arguing the same points we’ve been arguing for three damn months. We have two options: Continue to argue a point that’s holding up everything else, or find a compromise and move on. Education isn’t optional, it’s not a luxury. The bill isn’t for gold-plated desks and a professional baseball stadium. It’s for teacher salaries and school buses for the rural areas. It’s for digital textbooks, which are efficient for both the environment and our pockets since there are no printing costs. It’s for modernizing buildings with heat so our children are safe and warm in the winter. We have—”

            “Your Majesty!” Xander Holt came running into the room. He was the head of Erik’s personal security team as well as former U.S. Special Forces. “We need to move everyone. Right. Now.” He met my gaze and gave me a meaningful nod.

            Without hesitation, I leaped over the table, grabbed Erik by the arm, and pulled him toward a back exit. This was something we’d practiced a dozen times in the event of another attack on Parliament.

            “Everyone, listen up!” Xander yelled. “Get to the bomb shelter immediately!”

            People began to run, and I glanced over my shoulder for Elen, though I didn’t stop moving. Xander seemed to be arguing with her and the last thing I saw as I rounded the corner was him throwing her over his shoulder. She was going to be pissed, but I didn’t have time to worry about that.

            “I’m getting really fucking tired of this,” Erik grunted as I typed a code into the security panel and threw open the reinforced steel door that led to a secret tunnel. It wasn’t finished and it didn’t go very far yet, but if someone set off a bomb, it would protect the king.

            “Put me down!” Elen was swatting at Xander, who finally placed her on her feet.

            “Then stop fighting me,” Xander snapped. “I have a job to do. If you’re going to be difficult, talk to the king, but I follow his orders, not yours.”

            “Fuck you.” Elen glared at him and then moved past him to fall into step beside me. “Why does he have to manhandle me?”

            “Because he asked you to do something in an emergency and you obviously didn’t do it,” I replied with a shrug.

            “I’m not a child and—”

            “Stop it.” Erik swung around to look at her, frowning. “Xander’s job in an emergency is to protect me. If Sandor is here, like today, then Xander’s job is to protect you. So knock it off.”

            Elen looked pissed but she knew this was neither the time nor the place to get into something like this.

            We trudged down a set of concrete steps and into the tunnel.

            “How far has it extended since we began construction?” Daniil, who’d followed us, asked.

            “Only about two thousand feet,” I replied. “This is it.” We stopped walking and I went to another panel on the wall. Punching in yet another code, I released the latch and opened a compartment containing an arsenal of firearms.

            “This is why you’re in charge of security,” Erik said, grinning at me.

            I grinned back, but I was anything but jovial. This was a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Erik had only been in power six months and this was the second attempt on his life. Granted, we didn’t know who or what was going on this time, but Xander wouldn’t have ushered us down here if there hadn’t been a viable threat.

            “We need to establish—” I instinctively ducked as an explosion shook us. We all braced for some kind of impact, but the tunnel had been well-built and other than a little shaking, nothing happened.

            “Fuck.” Erik and I exchanged worried glances.

            “Is there a way out of here?” Elen asked after a moment.

            I nodded. “Yes, but there hasn’t been time to do a test run on the exit.”

            “So what’s the alternative? Sit here and wait for them to find us?”

            “For now, I’m going to try to make contact with someone on the outside.” I flipped a switch on another panel, this one inside the compartment, and then typed in another code. I pulled out my phone and breathed a sigh of relief when the Wi-Fi came online. I quickly tapped out a text to someone I trusted.

            Sandor: Explosion at Parliament. Lion is safe for now. Need exit strategy.

            I was gratified to see a response come back within seconds.

            Ace: Give me a few minutes to put a plan in motion.

            “Okay, I’ve got a man on the outside looking into things. Let’s just hang out until I hear back from him.”

            “What happened?” Erik turned to Xander.

            “I found two guards by the back stairway, dead, shot at point-blank range, and I knew something had to be going down. After the last attack, I wasn’t going to wait around to find out what.”

            “Fuck.” I shook my head. “This is the second attack, Erik. Someone on the inside has to be working against you.”

            “It comes with the territory,” he said, leaning against the wall. “There will always be threats against me.”

            “The people voted for you, and Parliament didn’t just vote you in as king, they voted for you to be President of Parliament as well. You have a ninety-three percent approval rating. That’s unheard of with a leader of any democratic country.”

            “The people spent eleven years ruled by a theocratic dictator masquerading as their king,” he reminded me needlessly. “They’d be happy with a leprechaun as long as they have food and heat again. I reopened the ports, we’ve had a modicum of tourism so far this summer, and the farmers are selling to the cities again. It’s a start but not enough, so no matter what I do, I’m always going to have enemies.”

            “Yes, but most monarchs don’t have assassination attempts twice in six months,” I responded.

            “He’s right.” My brother, Daniil, who had a temporary seat in Parliament and had been with us today, spoke quietly. “I’ve been busy rebuilding the military but it takes time. The young men aren’t anxious to serve, and numbers are small. The troops don’t trust the government yet, and when I should be building relationships with other countries, I spend most of my time placating the generals and giving speeches to boost morale at our military bases.”

            “Where’s Jesper?” Erik asked suddenly, looking around. Jesper was a close confidante as well as the newly appointed Minister of Commerce, and he’d been lost in the shuffle when we’d left the General Assembly Room.

            “He would have made sure everyone else was safe before worrying about himself,” Daniil said quietly.

            “Not acceptable.” Erik turned to Xander. “I need those closest to me to be a priority.”

            Xander help up his hands. “I’m not making excuses, sir, but there’s only one of me, and you told me Elen was my priority. Jesper was on the other side of the room and I had to make a choice.”

            Erik let out a huff of frustration and turned to me. “This is why I need you here. We don’t have enough people we trust.”

            I opted not to spar with him about this in front of the others. We went back and forth about where he needed me most, and most recently he’d asked me to take a place in Parliament. It was temporary and had a very specific purpose, but it was a nuisance nonetheless. Especially at times like this when I itched to be in charge of security. Not that Xander had done anything wrong, but as he’d pointed out, he was still just a single person and there was too much going on; it wasn’t a job for just one man.

            Another explosion jolted us, this one stronger than the last, and I reached for my phone, texting Ace again.

            Sandor: We’ve been hit again. Any idea what’s going on?

            Ace: Get out of the tunnel. I have a ride waiting for you. Old black pickup truck, you’re going to have to pile in. Code word is Loco.

            “Let’s move,” I said to Xander. “Ace has a ride waiting.”

            We moved to another hidden panel and I put in yet another code. Two electronic doors opened and revealed a ladder.

            “I’ll go first,” Xander said. “Is there a pass code for the top?”

            I shook my head. “At that point, if we need to use the exit, we need to get out and not worry about codes.”

            Xander climbed up about twenty-five feet and pushed open the hatch that led to the street. It was strategically placed in an abandoned alley, between two buildings that no longer had any businesses or tenants.

            “There’s no one here,” Xander called back down. He crawled out and since I was already halfway up the ladder, I followed.

            “Erik, you come out last. If you don’t get the go-ahead from me, you don’t come out. You understand?”

            He didn’t answer, but I knew he would do what I told him to do. As I crawled out after Xander, I looked around in frustration. There wasn’t a vehicle anywhere in sight. We were in downtown Hiskale, the capital of Limaj, but in a rundown part of town. We weren’t far from Parliament House, but with the state of the country right now, much of the city was still in disarray.

            I yanked out my phone and called Ace.

            “They had to abort,” Ace said as he answered. “They picked up a tail. Hang on, I’m on it.”

            “We’re in the middle of an alley,” I said as Daniil joined us on the street and reached out a hand to help Elen. “Do I call for Erik or not?”

            “We haven’t tested the tunnel to see if it can withstand multiple explosions. Get him out of there. The majority of the people love him; he’s safer on the street than underground.”

            “Shit.” I disconnected and called down to Erik. “Come on up.”

            “I don’t like this.” Xander looked around worriedly.

            “There’s a café,” I said. “It’s still in business. We’ve known the owners for years. It used to be my father’s favorite place. I think they’ll hide us if necessary.”

            Erik came out of the tunnel and glanced at me. “Casey’s going to kill me if I don’t get there in time.”

            He wasn’t kidding. His wife was going to be pissed if he missed the birth of their child. Unfortunately, there was no help for that now.

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