Duchess

For Nicole

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When Damara, the Duchess of Florett, received a message from the palace, she knew it could only mean one thing. Her husband was dead. She had prepared herself for this moment ever since he marched off to war. Following the news of her husband’s death, she comes face to face with her husband’s sister, the Queen. She has come to Damara with a request from beyond the grave. Writ on the aging parchment, her husband left her instructions and a confession. He was not the man she thought he was. He was the king’s spy and he died in his service. In his final letter to Damara, her husband asks her to find his killer and take his place as a royal spy. Whether Damara wants to or not, she has to find her husband’s killer. As Damara’s world crumbles around her she is dragged down into a world of secret orders and dangerous forgotten magic. She must follow the clues her husband left behind in order to find his killer to free herself of the secrets that bind her.

Read on for an Excerpt

 

Chapter One:

There are moments that change your life forever. The day my husband had ridden off to war I had known this moment was coming. Every day that passed, I was waiting without realizing what I was waiting for. The messenger was shown into the parlor by my maid. I was working on a bit of embroidery when my maid announced him.

The world slowed down around the two of us. I stood up, my heart thumping in my chest. In his hand he clutched a roll of parchment; the royal seal dangled from the ribbon that tied it. I had known this message was coming, but I still denied the truth. It’s just a letter. Someone is inviting me to a party, perhaps.

The messenger fidgeted, stepping from one foot to the other. He squeezed the parchment tight as he held it out to me. His garments were blue, with silver stitching on the border. On his breast was a silver oak tree. He was a palace messenger. It was strange that I would focus on such a small detail at a time like this, but I did. I reached for it, my fingers touching the soft vellum of the parchment. He avoided looking me in the eyes, but I saw the pity reflected there. I don’t need your pity. I have been waiting for this moment. I broke the royal seal with shaking hands. My eyes scanned the paper, devouring the words written there.

I wanted to deny the truth, to lie to myself, but lying would do me no good. No matter how much I had prepared myself for this moment, it did not make it hurt any less. The truth was printed there in an elegant hand.

 

Duchess Damara Florett,

We regret to inform you of the passing of your lord husband, Duke Artor Florett. His grace died valiantly in his service to King Dallen Raleban, King of Danhad. It is in part because of his efforts that we are winning in our fight against Neaux

 

I could not stomach reading the rest. I crumpled the paper and considered tossing it into the fire.

“I’m sorry to bring you these sad tidings, your grace,” the messenger said. His voice sounded as if it were a thousand miles away underwater.

I felt as if I were drowning. I couldn’t breathe.

I glanced up at the messenger. He was wringing his hands, perhaps for want of something to say. Nothing you can say will restore his life. The messenger was young, perhaps in his fifteenth year, not even a man. All the men are dead because of this bloody war. They only have boys left to comfort widows like me. I swayed on my feet and collapsed into a nearby chair. An embroidery needle stabbed me in the thigh. The pain brought me back to reality. I pulled the needle from my flesh, and my hand was streaked with blood.

I stared at my bloody hand, and a host of horrible images flashed through my mind: Artor lying on the ground, blood congealing around him. Artor’s body twisted, his limbs bent at unnatural angles, his clothing torn and bloodied. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. He’s dead. Artor is dead… I had been expecting this for so long, yet I had also prayed that I would never have to face this moment.

“Your grace, is there anything else I can do?” the messenger asked. His voice was hesitant, uncertain.

He sees me as breakable. He’ll return to the palace, and the rumors will fly about how I lost control when Artor died. I will not let them think me weak. Under normal circumstances, I would not have shown my true feelings so openly, but no matter how you prepare yourself, you cannot harden your heart to the death of a loved one.

I reached into my pocket where I kept my coin purse. I stood up and tossed my hair back over my shoulders. I am strong. I will not let anyone think otherwise. I crossed the room to the messenger and pressed a coin into his hand. “You may go. The cook will see you fed, and my housekeeper can find you a place to stay the night.” I showed him to the door. Even in times of grief I must show hospitality.

He sputtered his thanks upon seeing the silver coin. I smiled as he bowed out of the room.

I closed the door after him and leaned my forehead against the polished wood. I let go a ragged breath. This has to be a nightmare. I will close my eyes, and he’ll come through that door and tell me everything is going to be fine. I stayed there a moment and let my breathing return to normal. Artor didn’t come. He wouldn’t ever come again. I have to tell Layton. Emotion was tangled in my throat. Be strong. You are a rock. I checked my appearance in the mirror above a table on the far wall. My eyes were swollen and red with unshed tears, with bags beneath them besides. I straightened a stray auburn curl and dabbed my eyes where the tears had gathered against my lashes.

The servants were whispering in the entryway as I exited the parlor. When they saw me, they scattered. Either they had heard from the messenger about Artor or they had made the deduction themselves. No one received a royal missive during times of war unless it was ill tidings. The servants were well trained enough to stay clear of me.

My son, Layton, was in his chambers with his tutor. I eased the door open and stood watching him for a few moments. His hair was long, down to his shoulders. Its hue was similar to mine, but his had less red and more blond. His cheeks were round and flushed. I suspected he had just come in from practice with our master of arms. Short curls framed his face and softened his features.

At least I still have you. The emotions were threatening to bury me once more. I clutched at the front of my bodice; the fabric threatened to tear beneath my fingers. Perhaps this should wait until my thoughts are more organized. Then Layton turned his head and spotted me. His emerald eyes lit up, and he ran for me, hands outstretched.

“Mama!” he cried.

I kneeled down and gathered him into my arms. I buried my face into his neck and inhaled his scent. He smelled like grass and the faint scent of lye soap.

I must have hugged him a little too tight and for too long because he asked, “Mama, what’s wrong?”

I gazed upon his face. His eyebrows were pulled together, and it pinched his features, but I thought him precious despite it. He looked so much like me. I saw so little of his father in his features. Just the sweep of his nose and those darling rose-petal lips belonged to Artor. The rest—his chin, his eyes, his hair even his temperament—all me. Goddess, help me.

I brushed a few errant tears away.

“Layton, there’s something I need to tell you,” I began.

He clutched my hand tight. His shoulders tensed as he frowned at me. I led him over to one of his child-sized couches. We sat down, with him in my lap. Since it was made for a child’s size, the skirt of my gown enveloped the entire thing. I pulled my son close to me and nuzzled him, breathing in the scent of him. My boy.

“Mama?” he questioned me.

I took another deep breath. I must be strong for him.

“Layton, darling, I received a letter from the king… about Papa.”

His small body tensed against mine. “When is Papa coming home?”

Never again. I looked away to collect myself lest the tears fall unbidden. I pushed back his curls from his face to avoid answering for a moment. “Papa is not coming home, darling.”

“He promised me!” He pushed against me and withdrew from my grasp. He stared at me with hands balled into fists. Tears were brimming along his lashes and falling over his cherubic cheeks.

“Darling, I know it’s hard to understand, but Papa went to fight for the king. He fought very bravely… however, even brave men die…” My voice shook, and it was difficult to continue.

Layton took a step back, shaking his head. “No. You’re lying. Papa wouldn’t leave me.” Layton ran from me and out of the room. I watched him go with tears falling down my face.

The tutor had snuck out some time after I had come in. I was left alone among my son’s things—his petite writing desk, the books and parchments with childish scribbles strewn about. I sat there a while, letting the tears fall and focusing on nothing in particular. I should move, go find my son. But I did not have the energy to do anything but sit and cry.

After a while, I stood up. I had to find Layton. I couldn’t let our conversation end this way. I had to help him accept the truth.

When will I be able to accept the truth?

I went out into the garden. I knew where he would go. Whenever he was upset, he always went to the same place.

The garden was empty. The gardener had finished for the day. My footsteps echoed off the paving stones, and in the distance, I could hear the ocean’s roar. The manor was not close enough to see the ocean from the garden, but I could smell the salt in the air and the slight tang of fish. At the edge of the garden, beside a wall, was a large oak tree. It was ancient, and if you climbed up high enough, you could see the ocean, and that is where I found my son.

He was sitting in the crook of the tree, his knees drawn up to his chest as he stared at the ocean in the distance. I sat down at the base of the tree and said nothing. I spread out my skirt to give my idle hands something to do. Layton did not acknowledge me. His feet scraped along the branch as he shifted about to turn further away from me. We sat like that in silence for some time, both lost in our thoughts.

“He promised me he would come back. He said he would take me on one of the ships when he came back,” Layton said after a long time.

“I know, darling,” I said. I would not make excuses for my husband. I had known the risk when he had marched off to war.

He was silent for a while longer. After a few more minutes, I heard the scrape of his shoes upon the bark again, followed by a few leaves drifting down. He plopped down on the ground beside me. He stood a few feet from me, and under one arm he carried a small carved box.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Our secrets,” he replied. He glanced down at the box with a frown wrinkling his cherubic face.

“Secrets?” I asked, trying to inject some levity into my tone, but I feared it fell flat.

He nodded. “Papa asked me to guard his secrets. He told me I was to protect them with all my might.”

My heart skipped a beat in my chest. He left Layton something to hold onto, but me, nothing at all. It was a selfish thought that I had to squash quickly. Layton was a child, and I was his wife. I knew the risks, I reminded myself.

“Are mothers allowed in on the secret?” I asked.

He nodded his head. “Papa told me you could see it, if you wanted.”

He slid the box over to me across the grass. I took it with shaking hands. It was like holding a part of Artor. I opened the lid of the box. It was, as I should have expected from a box belonging to a little boy, full of odds and ends: a seashell, a wooden soldier, a few sticks and leaves, and then, in the corner, a locket. It had a stylized flower, the symbol of our house, House Florett. I plucked it out from the bric-a-brac.

Layton inhaled. “Papa said this was my magic necklace. If I was ever missing him, it would bring him back to me.”

I touched the flower, outlining the petals and then the stems and leaves with my fingertip. “Do you think it works?” I asked. My voice shook.

He shook his head. “No, I’ve been holding it all day, and nothing has changed.”

I put my arm around his shoulder and brought him close. We didn’t say anything for a long time. I stroked the locket, thinking of better times. My thumb caught on the edge of the locket, a latch to open it. I pressed it, and the locket opened. Inside there was an inscription.

Remember the old oak tree. That is where I’ll be.

I sat up straighter and stared at the words carved into the locket. They seemed familiar, but why? I must be grasping at straws. I’m desperate for a final message from him. I should save myself the heartache and quit looking for one. My husband was dead.

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