BLOOD, LOVE AND LIES (THE ROYALS Book 1), page 1
BLOOD, LOVE + LIES
33. King Martin
THE STORY CONTINUES…
ALSO BY BROOKE SIVENDRA
DID YOU ENJOY THIS BOOK?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
“You have thirty seconds to make a decision,” Noah said with a glint in his eyes.
Asher lifted his gaze to the rumbling clouds above. He wasn’t seeking advice from a higher power, though—he’d already made up his mind.
“I’m in,” he said, returning his gaze to his childhood friend in time to catch the smirk that spread across his lips.
“And what do you think the King will do if he finds out?” Noah asked with a hint of amusement.
Asher chuckled at Noah’s expression, though not so much at the expected wrath of the King. “I think the Crown Prince is keeping him occupied enough that his second son’s extracurricular activities will fail to capture his concern.”
Noah rolled his eyes. “You heard about last night, right?”
Asher shook his head, grimacing. “Of course I did. My father’s health is failing, and the monarchy is going to be left in the hands of the irresponsible, womanizing Crown Prince.” Asher might’ve laughed at his brother’s behavior, but it was no laughing matter.
The monarchy was falling out of popularity with the people. Asher knew full well his family was seen as indulgent and privileged, not to mention corrupt, thanks to his uncle’s recent antics. The King had imposed harsh punishment upon his brother for siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars into his own family estate—a decision Asher knew agonized his father, even though it was absolutely the correct thing to do. Family was family, though, and his father valued family above all.
“There you are,” Emilia said from behind him, almost making him jump.
“Mother,” Asher and Noah said in unison. Noah was not her biological son, but Asher and Noah had been the closest of friends since early childhood, and the Queen had taken Noah under her wing when his household became too unstable. Noah had lived at the palace since he was five years old.
“What are you two scheming?” she asked.
Asher raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think we’re scheming anything?”
“Because you’re taking a walk amongst my flourishing garden, which we all know is the best place to have a private conversation,” she said with a sly grin.
“So what are you scheming?” Noah asked with cheekiness like a ten-year-old boy.
Emilia laughed. “I’m just here to spy.”
“You have people for that,” Asher said knowingly, but he couldn’t help his smile.
His mother’s laugh was infectious—it was no secret that, of them all, she was the most loved by the public. Asher would bet she was one of the reasons his family continued to rule, and that the King had managed to keep Santina peaceful despite being surrounded by warring neighbors. Santina was in the heart of the desert, but unlike their neighbors, they hadn’t been blessed with rich oil supplies or natural resources. They were poor by comparison—but they were rich in heart. Santina’s people were passionate about their country, and they were proud.
“When it comes to spying on my sons, I like to do it myself,” she said.
“It’s a shame you weren’t spying on Alistair last night,” Asher said.
The Queen’s smile faded, and she shook her head as she sighed heavily. “I don’t know when he will learn. Did you watch the footage?” she asked, looking directly at Asher.
“I did . . . as much as I could stomach,” Asher admitted. Which had been just enough, and not a second more, of his brother snorting cocaine and drinking alcohol while in bed with multiple women. Of course one of them had filmed it, and now it was circulating the internet. It was not only poor behavior for the Crown Prince; even those who knew little about drugs knew cocaine wasn’t cheap, and especially not at the rate Alistair was snorting it. It was a public slap in the face to every Santina household struggling to make ends meet.
But despite Alistair’s recklessness, Asher still had a soft spot for his brother, because he knew Alistair used drugs and women as a coping mechanism. He wasn’t fit to rule, a reality Asher was sure his brother felt deep down, but he was nevertheless the firstborn son.
“He embarrassed himself, and he embarrassed the monarchy. He needs to stop behaving like a child and start behaving like the Crown Prince. He’s thirty-five, for goodness sake,” she said with a strained voice.
“He’s smart . . . perhaps smarter than any of us,” Noah said quietly. “He’ll get his life together.”
Asher knew Noah didn’t believe that, but he loved the Queen and he hated to see her anguished.
“Or perhaps he’ll try to wash away his shame with more women and illegal substances,” she said through gritted teeth.
Suddenly, a thunderous clap roared over the palace and droplets began to fall on Asher’s shirt.
“Let’s go inside,” Asher said, turning toward the looming white palace. In the hazy light of the storm, the stone archways appeared to shimmer.
They hurried toward the door, passing a few scurrying servants who stopped to nod their heads politely, acknowledging the royal family as they passed.
Under the protection of the archways, his mother excused herself. “Behave—whatever you’re up to. One scandal is enough,” she said, her voice a strong warning.
They watched her walk away, her emerald dress trailing behind her.
“Do you think she overheard us?” Noah asked.
“No,” Asher said confidently. “What time do you want to leave tonight?”
“The meeting starts at eleven. We’ll leave the palace after family dinner. I expect the mood will be joyous tonight.”
Asher scoffed. “That it will. I need to report to Father. See you at dinner?”
Noah nodded before turning his back. At times Asher envied him, because he had all the luxuries of the royal family, but none of the responsibility, and best of all, Noah was the happiest person Asher had ever known.
Asher knew better than to dwell on that as he was hardly suffering like many of the kingdom’s people were—and with that thought, he went to his father. He might not be the Crown Prince, but he still managed several projects, and feeding the people was his primary focus.
He wondered if that would still be true after the meeting he would attend later tonight.
Asher strode toward his father’s office, nodding to the security guards on either side of the door.
“He’s expecting you,” one of them said.
“Thank you,” Asher said, his annoyance at having to make an appointment to see his father long since passed.
Asher knocked b
“Father,” Asher said, noting the dark circles beneath his father’s eyes. It had been a harsh winter for the King, one marred by sickness. One virus after another had plagued him, but after every test known to modern medicine, the doctors concluded his health was otherwise good—he wasn’t suffering from a life-threatening condition, but rather a weakened immune system and a string of bad luck.
“Asher.” His father sounded tired as he extended a hand, gesturing to the seat opposite.
“We can do this tomorrow,” Asher said.
His father waved away Asher’s comment dismissively. “Tomorrow will likely be much of the same. Please sit. I’ve read through your proposal, and I liked it—a lot.”
Asher refrained from raising his eyebrows. King Martin was not normally so forthcoming with praise. Asher assumed Alistair’s antics were casting the King’s only other child in a positive light.
“I’m very pleased to hear that. It’s not a quick fix, and it will be a huge undertaking that will involve negotiating and strengthening ties with our allies, but I believe it can be done.”
The King tilted his head, seeming to search Asher’s eyes. “I agree,” he finally said. “And you are going to be the one to negotiate for your plan.”
Asher’s jaw fell open, but he quickly shut it.
His father gave a tired smile. “You were expecting me to say that Alistair would broker these deals. In the past, that would’ve been true . . . but right now, I cannot rely on him. He embarrassed himself and our family last night, and until he gets his head straight, he will not be conducting any formal business for the Crown. Regardless, you are more than capable of doing this. It is your project, your passion, and that will give you a greater chance of succeeding than anyone.”
Asher was speechless.
“Every day that the wars continue, our region falls further into despair. We must act now, or come the new year we will not be able to feed our people,” the King said with sadness in his eyes.
While their country was safe, the conflicts on almost every border meant they were still suffering. Tourism had plummeted, and they had taken in an unfathomable number of refugees. Asher wondered again if they should’ve allowed so many refugees to come in, but if they hadn’t, where would these people go? The refugees weren’t coming to Santina for a scenery change, they were running from war and fighting for their lives—many of them running because family members had already been victims of war. Santina couldn’t turn them away.
It was a testamony to the King’s prowess that they’d been able to defend their country and keep it safe. He had stopped the wars from spilling into Santina through extremely tight border security and background checks on travelers and refugees. It was hard to get in and out of Santina, and those who did were on watch lists for months. Asher prayed the conflict ended before the Crown Prince took power.
“It will be my top priority,” Asher said. “Where do you suggest I start?”
“With the big players: the United States, the United Kingdom, and our neighbors, the Adani. If you can secure them, it will be easy to bring in the small ones. You will need every alliance to make this work.” The King clasped his hands, resting them on the grand mahogany desk he spent his days sitting at. Asher often wondered what the people thought the King did all day; he was almost certain they didn’t think it involved being buried in paperwork with a schedule of telephone calls to be made every hour on the hour. Being a member of a royal family was not a life of luxury, but rather a life of service—something that had been taught to Asher from the time he’d learned to crawl.
“Have you seen Alistair today?” his father asked, their minds obviously drifting in similar directions.
“No, I haven’t. I expect he’s in bed with a very sore head,” Asher responded.
“He’s going to have more than that when I’ve finished with him. Please find him, and tell him he’s expected at family dinner,” his father said sternly.
“Will do,” Asher said, relieved to escape the formality that permeated his father’s office.
He stood, nodded to his father, and turned to leave. The King was kind, yet tough, and the only person who received any display of clear affection was the Queen. For all the King’s faults, the way he loved his wife was not one of them.
Asher strode through the palace hallways, his eyes diverting to the windows. Rain blanketed down so heavily he couldn’t see the gardens surrounding the palace—the gardens he’d played hide and seek in all of his childhood.
He banged on his brother’s bedroom door and didn’t bother waiting for a response. He flung it open and sighed when he saw Alistair flat on his back with a pillow over his eyes.
“Family dinner is in an hour. You’re expected to attend,” Asher said, leaning against the wall.
Alistair groaned like he was undergoing an exorcism. “I think I’m dying.”
Asher rolled his eyes. “And whose fault is that?”
“You can save your lecture. Mother has already ripped into me twice today,” Alistair said, lifting the pillow to reveal an ill-looking white face.
“You look like shit,” Asher said flatly. “Get in the shower. I’ll find you some pain relief.”
“I already took some,” he said, grimacing. “How bad are the media reports?”
“What do you remember of last night?” Asher asked.
Alistair paused. Lines creased his forehead, and his face scrunched.
“Yep, it’s about that bad,” Asher said. “You keep doing this to yourself—you self-sabotage more than anyone I know, and your self-sabotage makes our entire family look bad.” Asher knew the real reason behind his brother’s antics, however. He wasn’t a complete asshole—he was just destined for a life that he wasn’t equipped to deal with.
Alistair scoffed. “If only I were more like you,” he said, with a dangerous glint in his eyes: a darkness Asher had never seen before. It sent chills down his spine. Did Alistair feel threatened by Asher? Asher didn’t want the throne—he never had—but Asher knew that the people of Santina wished otherwise. A full-page article stating as much had been printed last week.
“Get in the shower and clean yourself up,” Asher said slowly before turning to leave. Nothing good was going to come from talking to Alistair while he was in this mood.
But nonetheless, with every footstep Asher took, he felt his brother’s eyes boring into his back.
Abigail forced herself to look at the images, but they were more than she could bear.
“The numbers are increasing,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Some days I feel that no matter what we do, it will never be enough.”
Rachel, her second cousin, met her gaze. “Which is exactly why we need Prince Asher.” When Abigail didn’t immediately respond, Rachel continued, “What concerns you most about his involvement?”
Abigail scoffed. “What doesn’t concern me? Let’s start with the fact that we bribe officials for information and border passes—let alone that our fathers are enemies.”
Rachel shrugged. “He knows you bribe officials. He hasn’t reported it yet, so what makes you think he will now? He must see it is done for a good cause. As for your fathers hating each other, it is an old feud that no one understands except the King and your father. It has nothing to do with you and Asher, not really.”
Abigail gave a weak laugh. “Not really. That sums it all up.”
“Well, there’s one thing you’re overlooking,” Rachel said with a sly grin. “He knows the leader of our group as Abi, not Abigail Bennett. Even if he knew you as Abigail, he wouldn’t immediately make the connection that you’re a Bennett because people think you’re studying abroad. You haven’t been photographed with your family in years, and on the rare occasion your father requests you attend an event, you arrive before or after they do and never pose on the red carpet. There’s no way
Rachel wasn’t done. “He doesn’t know who you are, Abi. Give him a chance to get to know you, without the shadow of your father. The people love Asher, almost as much as they love the Queen. By all accounts, he’s rational, empathetic, and intelligent. He’s not coming tonight out of obligation. He’s coming because he wants to help us.”
“Says Noah,” Abi said dubiously.
“Yes, says Noah, and Jacob swears they’re coming with good intentions too. They aren’t attending the meeting to gain information to close us down,” Rachel said. “They could’ve closed us down yesterday if they’d wanted to.”
Abi massaged the back of her neck. “Well, let’s see if he shows up.”
Rachel gave a satisfied smile. “Remember, if you want him to know you for who you are, give him the same respect.”
Abi rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t dream of treating the prince any differently.” She turned over the photographs in front of her, unable to look at them a second longer, as they made her stomach churn. She pushed them away.
The work they did broke her heart, sometimes multiple times per day—every time a new report came in—but she would keep fighting, because if they didn’t, no one would.
They were IFRT.
International Female Rescue Team.
They ran dangerous hostage retrievals for women and children, and occasionally men, who had been kidnapped as a result of war, then worked with the rescued to help them rebuild their lives.
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