Looks like I’ll be getting the book back from the 2nd round of edits at the end of the month. So it’ll be live end of September or early October. And as a thank you for waiting, it’ll be 99cents the first week.
“It’s ruined.” Stanford Lake the Sixth stared at the portrait of his great-grandfather. Large gashes rent the canvas and a huge chunk of the forearm had been excised. Blood-speckled plaster showed through the hole. Despite the pungent stench of bleach, his cleaning staff had left evidence of the crime behind.
Stanford’s hands clenched. The painted cobalt blue eyes condemned him. The family square jaw seemed to tense and the nostrils flared in the aquiline nose. The vandalism was not his fault. He ran his hand through his thick black hair and tugged out the white ribbon holding back the long locks. Shaking loose strands from his blunt fingers, he hooked his pinky through the loop of silk.
Who would destroy the portrait? And why would they remove the Lake family birthmark?
“I can patch it.” Rice raised a paint-spattered finger to the cut and traced the clean edges.
Stanford slapped the tradesman’s hand away. His great-grandfather would roll over in his grave to be touched by such a lowlife. The Lakes were royalty, the leaders of Abaddon. “You are a painter, not an artist.”
That unique creature had perished in the torture rooms under Stanford’s office. Touching a Lake was a capital offense. Even if the Lake in question wasn’t one by birth, but by marriage.
Especially if the Lake was Stanford’s straying wife.
He traced the ridge of scar running across his covered chest. The soft wool of his tailored shirt whispered at his caress.
Rice hunched into his splattered shirt and sidled down the family gallery. Portraits lined the eight-foot high cream-colored walls and bracketed the cherry doors leading to the side rooms. Strands of gray hair stretched across Rice’s bald head. Joints popped as the old man crouched near his bundle of paint-stained rags. “I can do it.”
“Do the job I hired you for.” Stanford glared at the brown streaks on his cream walls. Peasant blood. ‘Vider blood on his gallery. Such an affront would not be tolerated. If the male ‘Vider and the useless female servant hadn’t already been dead, they would now plead with him to end their suffering.
Stanford liked it when they begged.
Rice gently opened a ball of rags and lifted two stones from the nest of fabric. “Tis a sample of me work.”
Miniature faces stared back at Stanford. In one, blond curls framed an oval face, pouty from youth and still as death. A couple clasped hands in the second. The woman was young enough to be released from Breeder service, but still worn about the edges. Although the work lacked the skill of Stanford Lake II’s portrait, the detail was adequate.
“You did this?”
“Yep.” Rice lowered the rock portraits and carefully wrapped them. “Ordinary folks can’t afford fancy painting, but they like ta mark the ‘cassion.”
Stanford eyed his great-grandfather’s portrait. Perhaps it could be fixed. He squared his shoulders. Its repair would symbolize him taking back his empire. “How much?”
Rice scratched his whiskered chin and squinted one eye. “Twelve ounces outta cover it.”
“Twelve!” Stanford sputtered. The outrage. The peasant was a painter not an artist. And Stanford had never, ever paid an artist such an outrageous sum. Never. Usually, he simply allowed them to live—his attention slipped to the old man’s hands—without their livelihood.
“Reckon the canvas will cost me ten ounces.” Rice carefully packed his rags into a soft-sided bag near the green wainscoting. “They don’t make that stuff anymore, ya know?”
Few people made anything anymore that wasn’t an absolute necessity. That’s why the portraits mattered. To show everyone the importance of the Lakes. The Lakes saved everyone, gave everyone a place in the new society. A chill snaked down Stanford’s spine.
For a moment, the destruction seemed to manifest the riptides swirling through Abaddon.
Peasants forgot their place in the world. His men had a difficult time retaining order. Stanford’s finger stilled on the ridge of scar. And one of the useless masses had escaped just punishment. Even the elite participated in the anarchy. How many of them had he sent to his special rooms? Twelve, thirteen in the last year?
“If’n the price be too much for you, I reckon we could barter.” Dusting off the knees of his pants, Rice stood. His cloudy blue eyes fixed on the gold ring on Stanford’s thumb.
Stanford twirled the thick band with its blue stone. What would it take to kill that old rumor of the Lakes running out of gold? He should never have approached his fellow elites to fund his plan. But he hadn’t wanted to use his own treasury. Why should he? Everyone benefitted from maintaining the status quo.
Yet the status quo didn’t demand Stanford pay when he had other means at his disposal. “Barter?”
Rice licked his thin lips. “Yes ’em. I think maybe you could give me one of them passes for me daughters, and we’ll call it even like.”
“Yep.” Rice clutched his bag to his chest. “Me youngest is near ta being breeder age with another not far behind. With the farm and me wife’s lame brother, I could use them at home.”
The bastard had two daughters? Two. With one finger, Stanford pushed the destroyed portrait until it hung straight. “Abaddon needs its daughters to procreate. There are so few of us.”
“You golden ones gets the passes fer yer kind. Asides, I’ve already given ye two.” Rice’s bushy brows descended. “And they never came back liken they was supposed to. Me wife and I’s getting old.”
“Have you no sons?” Sons secured the family legacy. It was their duty. His duty.
“Nay, they be gone ta the city.”
The city. Dark Hope. The thought roared in Stanford’s ears. Those fools upset the natural order of things with their ideas, medicines and schools.
“We need the girls ta hook a husband, tend us, keep the patch in our family.”
The patch. A useless little farm on Abaddon’s boundary. Hardly worth the energy to take it. Still… Stanford could reward one of his men with the bit of land. His guards always worked harder for extra rewards.
Rice ducked his head. “Surely, puttin’ the town’s founder back ta his glory be worth a pass. Wouldn’t want no one forgetting what the Lakes did fer us.”
“You’re correct.” Stanford ground his teeth together. Rice would die after he restored the painting. “If you do an acceptable job, I shall give you a pass.”
“Just the one?”
“One.” Stanford held up one finger, resisted drilling it into the old man’s eye. “You can choose which daughter you love best and want to keep.”
Rice’s shoulders drooped. “Just the one.”
“I could always find another painter.”
“We’ll be decidin’.” Rice shuffled down the gallery. His footsteps echoed on the cracked marble tile. “But I’ll be wantin’ it in writing.”
“Of course.” Writing. Damn the Dark Hopians and their fancy notions. As if a Lake’s word wasn’t good. “After you finish the repairs and I approve you shall have your pass.”
Rice nodded. “Be back fer the painting once I see about the supplies.”
A servant in gray stepped from the shadows opened the door just as the painter reached it. Sunlight and birdsong streamed inside the foyer. Light footsteps sounded on the curving staircase.
Stanford glanced at his office door. He could retreat inside. The blood-stained carpet and walls would be preferable to his wife’s company. Pivoting on his heel, he strode past the family portraits.
“Was that the painter?” Lana Lake’s whine grated down the gallery.
He stumbled a step then stopped. Best have this out here. His office contained too many sharp objects. None of which he could use. Yet.
The servant shut the door then dissolved into the shadows.
For an instant, Stanford envied him.
“Stanford?” Lana stopped on the bottom step and stroked the polished bannister. Gold butterflies hovered around her upswept auburn hair. Hammered gold necklaces roped her ivory neck and funneled into the channel of cleavage. Metallic threads embroidered vines around her slim wrists, tiny waist and grew over the green fabric covering her enormous breasts. A simple emerald skirt draped from her narrow hips and skimmed her toe rings. “Stanford? Was that the painter?”
“Yes.” He kicked at a streak of brown dirt and a shard of pottery the servants had missed in their cleaned up. “He’ll return tomorrow for the painting.”
“Just the one, or will he take all of them?” Lana’s tapered fingers traced the gilt on the frames as she glided toward him.
“Only one is damaged.” He snapped off each word, nicked his tongue. Sweet blood flooded his mouth.
“Yes, well…” She smiled. It didn’t reach her brown eyes.
Bitch. He stiffened. If only… “The portrait of my great-grandfather will be restored and rehung in the gallery.”
And, if things worked out, he’d have another to add to it.
“I hope you’re not wasting good gold on the repairs.” She fondled the choker of necklaces. “Whoever moves in after us won’t need them.” She tapped the name placard under his portrait with a sharp nail. “Unless it is a very cold winter, and they need tinder.”
Before he finished his next breath, Stanford closed the distance between them. He gripped her upper arms and slammed her against the wall. The portrait rattled. God, he wanted to kill her.
Her head bounced forward but her smile didn’t slip. “Uh-uh. Careful. You forget who my family is.”
“I forget nothing.” He shoved his body tight against her, smashed her curves against his hard length. His stomach rolled and his muscles trembled. Sometimes he dreamt about squeezing the life from her. Other times, he pulled her teeth out of her pretty face one after the other and let her drown in her own blood.
Her nostrils flared. “Then release me.”
“A husband can’t hold his wife?” His ears strained to detect noises beyond the doors—anything to indicate her family’s spies toiled, gathering information. Nothing.
They were alone.
His hands crept up to her throat; fingers slipped beneath the coils of gold to the warm flesh underneath. Minutes of strangling her, or a quick snap of her neck? It would all be over.
She raised her chin. “You won’t kill me. My family has enough gold and influence to remove you from office.”
“I know all about your father’s plans.” His fingers dug into her soft tissue. Leaning in close, he whispered in the shell of her ear. “I know he bribed the Brasses, the Hendersons, the Montoyas and the Van Allens.”
“You know nothing.”
“They revealed everything to me before they died.” He clasped her earlobe between his eyeteeth and bit down. Her sweet blood bubbled inside his mouth.
She squirmed under him. Her hands shoved at his shoulders.
“I know he saddled me with a barren daughter.”
“I’m not barren. I am the youngest of six. You are the only child of an only child…you—”
He choked off her words and leaned back to watch the show. “I sired a child before you.”
Her face turned pink then red.
“I gave up my wife and child to marry you.”
Lana’s eyes bulged and veins danced at her temples.
A soft whistle blew through the gallery.
“All because your father wouldn’t accept our union if another heir stood in the way of his grandchild inheriting. We planned to build a vast Abaddon-Purgatory empire. It is you whose seed is withered and diseased.” Releasing her, he stepped away.
Gasping, she collapsed onto the marble and clutched her throat.
“And someday you will pay the price for your betrayal.” Stanford eased back. “All of you will pay.”
“No.” She shook her head. Locks of hair escaped her bun and a gold butterfly skidded across the marble. “No, that can’t be right.”
Her father should die last—the better to watch his sniveling children and grandchildren suffer and perish. Perhaps, Stanford would even make the event public, to discourage his people from conspiring against him.
“Fix yourself. You’re still a Lake.” For now. Smiling, Stanford crushed the butterfly under his heel and entered his office.
A fair-haired man stood near a pile of broken frames and punctured canvas near the fireplace. His dark blue tunic and trousers molded broad shoulders and muscled legs. A lock of hair curled over his tawny forehead and echoed the light glinting in his faded blue eyes. “Ah, I was afraid I’d mixed up the times.”
Time. Another reminder of his failures. Stanford’s attention cut to the clock on the mantel. The golden balls visible under the clear glass covering remained still. He’d stopped it when his father passed, and had never been able to get it started again.
Minos Charon twisted the double rings on his left thumb, pushed away from the fireplace and ambled closer. “We were supposed to meet today, weren’t we?”
“Of course. Sit.” Stanford pointed to a barrel chair across from his desk before perching on the edge of the polished mahogany.
Tugging up his slacks, Minos sank onto the cowhide upholstery. “My sources have confirmed that Dark Hope security forces have reclaimed the weapons I dropped.”
Security Forces. Stanford laced his fingers and braced them on his knee, aiming the razor’s edge of the crease at his visitor. His delicately embroidered cuffs slipped over his thick wrists. He’d had his men watch these security forces and found four men who barely came outside and carried no weapons. Useless sponges. “I won’t pay for items I didn’t receive.”
“No, of course not.” Minos waved his hand in dismissal. Light sparked off the large diamond ring on his pinky. “Considering your retrieval squad was annihilated by ‘Viders, I think you’ve paid enough.”
Stanford studied the play of gold, light and jewels. Of course the man could afford to be generous. He had so much gold. Rings, bracelets, pins, earrings and buttons of it. According to Minos, Dark Hope was practically built on it.
Yet few from the city actually wore it.
Fortunately for Stanford, Minos wanted more.
More power, more jewels, more gold.
Stanford couldn’t remember seeing the same pieces twice. The skin over his spine itched. Could his ‘ally’ actually be arming both sides?
Had Stanford’s shipment of weapons really been supplied to his ambitious father-in-law in Purgatory?
Stanford shook his head, clearing his thoughts. He had enough weapons to defend his city, his legacy and more. “Is that all you came here to say. I have no weapons and my men are dead?”
“Only one is dead, killed by the ‘Viders. The others have been taken to Dark Hope.” Minos smirked before he bowed his head. “You know no one ever comes back from the city.”
“A few have.” A loyal few. Stanford almost wished they hadn’t. Their talk of wonders sowed discontent in Abaddon. People should be happy with their lot, what the blood of his ancestors provided for them.
“And there are those of us who can’t escape the place fast enough.” Minos pointed to himself.
“What of the ‘Viders?”
“Dead? All of them?”
“Yes.” Minos balanced his left ankle on his right knee. The library reflected in the dusty shine of the black leather. “All of them.”
Well, well. This changed things. Perhaps Stanford had dismissed Dark Hope’s security forces a little too quickly. Pushing off his perch, he walked to his bookcase across from the fireplace.
“Shall I arrange another shipment of weapons?”
“Not at the moment.” Stanford tugged a dictionary off the shelf. The stiff leather binding crackled under his grip. Flipping open to the page with his town’s name, he pulled out the paper tucked inside.
Minos shifted to the edge of his chair and raised his head as if sniffing the air. “You’re going to attack Purgatory then?”
Stanford unfolded the crackling paper and set it on his desk. “Attack yes. But I may have changed my mind about the target.”
“Oh?” Minos smoothed the folds of his tunic. “You have new information?”
Scanning the squiggly lines and x’s, Stanford looked for the latest village added to his kingdom. He located the bloody smudge near the plateau. According to his prisoner, the town had been there before this new world started. Yet, none of his scouts had ever reported it. “Where were the guns found?”
Minos swirled his finger over the plateau, over the bloody fingerprint. “Here abouts. Why?”
Stanford’s scalp prickled. A new town magically appeared, a gold-laden stranger from the new town visited Abaddon, and his weapons had been accidentally diverted there. The air reeked of coincidence. He tapped the mark labelled Sanctuary. “That is my new target.”
Shaking his head, Minos stepped back. “I wouldn’t do that. That town is practically in Dark Hope’s backyard.”
“All the better.” It was time the interfering do-gooders realized their actions had consequences.
“I thought the plan was to attack Purgatory, coerce your father-in-law’s men into joining your forces, then go after Dark Hope.”
“You’re not ready to take on Dark Hope.” Minos raked his fingers through his hair. “Your men don’t have the experience to take on seasoned soldiers.”
Stanford leaned forward, balancing his weight on his knuckles. “Perhaps you don’t want to take over Dark Hope after all.”
“I don’t want to see your men slaughtered.” Minos’s nostrils flared and a flush stained his tan skin. “If you fail, you’ll take me down with you. As it is, many of my compatriots are under suspicion since those weapons were found.”
Ahhh. The man was afraid of dirty work. Stanford dropped to his seat. Such cowardice would make him easy to control—until Stanford decided to add Dark Hope to his territories. He’d been the first Lake in three generations to expand their empire.
Minos collapsed onto his chair. Leaning forward, he scratched at the x’s on the boundary of Stanford’s father-in-law’s kingdom. “Please. Please, reconsider. Try your men on a suburb of Purgatory.”
Stanford steepled his fingers under his chin. He did so love it when they begged. “I shall consider it. My father-in-law should get a taste of what’s coming for him.”
“Thank you.” Minos sighed, seemed to deflate. “Thank you.”
Shadows danced across the panes of the French doors leading to the terrace. Stanford’s men had arrived and would be needing their orders.
“If there isn’t anything else…”
Minos pushed out of his seat. Biting his bottom lip, he swayed for a moment then shuffled to the door. “No. Nothing else.”
He flattened against the door and eased into the garden while Stanford’s men stomped inside. Six of them, in Abaddon green uniforms, filed behind the group leader. The door clicked shut.
Tino, a man so thick with muscles his head seemed to melt into his body, stared with black button eyes. “Your orders, boss?”
Stanford rolled up his map. “Gear up and prepare to move out. Today, we attack.”