Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Revenge of the Mad Scientist" by Lara Nance Review ((:

About the book:

A steampunk adventure with a touch of romance. When Lady Arabella Trunkett’s father, the Lord High Minister of Urbannia, is kidnapped, suspicion points to the mysterious country of Gandiss and the world is thrown into political upheaval. But Arabella is convinced the more sinister nation of Carabarras is to blame, urged on by a mad scientist seeking revenge. She sets out on a dangerous airship adventure across numerous exotic locales to rescue her father before war breaks out. Not only is she faced with danger from mysterious assassins, slaver traders and air-pirates, the fickle hand of fate adds an additional complication to her trials. Unfortunately, the captain of the only airship available for charter is a man who left her at the altar. For eight years she's wanted nothing more than to see him dead. But now he's her only hope.

Chapter one:

Chapter One
The events of the next twenty-four hours would determine the fate of the world. Lady Arabella Trunkett gazed at the couples twirling around the white marble floor of the ballroom. Did any of them fully appreciate the gravity of the situation? She swirled her champagne and then turned the glass up to drain it. A sense of dread shivered over her skin and she scanned the ballroom for a waiter. One more glass might settle her nerves.
The high and mighty of Urbannia assembled in the mirror-walled expanse of Highview House to honor the presence of the Ambassador from Gandiss. They waltzed by, gliding across the polished floor, men in their finest evening tails and women in velvet and silk gowns. Jewels and shiny fabrics glittering in the glow of gaslight chandeliers. She had to admit it was a beautiful sight, and the ebullient atmosphere nudged her attitude an inch toward hopeful.
“Not interested in dancing tonight, Belle?”
She jumped at the voice behind her. “Father,” she exclaimed, but then smiled as Sir John Trunkett leaned forward to kiss her cheek. “You startled me.”
“Come with me. I’d like to introduce you to the Ambassador. He’ll want to meet the prettiest and smartest woman in the room.” He held out his elbow and she slipped her hand through the crook.
“Don’t forget tallest,” she joked--her six foot frame a constant thorn in her side.
“He’s an intelligent man. He won’t care about such nonsense.”
“Will you really sign the treaty tomorrow?” Belle asked as they strolled around the side of the room, avoiding the dancers.
“Barring some unforeseen difficulty, yes. The queen is eager to wrap this up given the instability of the current political climate.” He took a deep breath. “Five long years I’ve worked on bringing Gandiss to the table. I can’t believe it’s finally going to happen. At last we have some hope of a lasting peace between the east and the west.”
“I’m so proud of you father.” She squeezed his arm. “This is a momentous occasion.”
Sir John smiled and covered her hand with his. She followed his gaze as it traveled to where the Ambassador from Gandiss, His Excellency High Lord Ismatan, talked with a short man in evening tails.
“Yes, everything seems to be going well at this point,” Sir John said. “We discussed trade relations today and I must admit, the end result is very favorable. I only wish I had hopes the other eastern countries might be willing to begin talks. But the situation there seems more unstable than ever. Every approach I try with them is a complete failure.”
Belle sensed her father’s frustration. The Empire of Urbannia constantly sought to captain an unwieldy boat of peace and modernization on a turbulent sea of dictators, poverty and ignorance. Of course Sir John as Lord High Minister felt the brunt of this responsibility. The burden hung heavily upon him.
She glanced up at him, admiring his firm jaw and the aristocratic line of his thin nose and high cheekbones. Only a sprinkle of gray touched his black hair at the temples--a handsome, intelligent man. Yes, she was enormously proud of him.
“Tonight we shall forget the rest of the world and focus on celebrating this accomplishment.” She smiled and held up her empty glass. A little more of the bubbly and that nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach might go away. “Now, how about another glass of champagne?”
He returned her smile. “Very well, but first I’d like to introduce you to His Excellency. Maybe that will interest you more than dancing.”
“You know me so well.” She chuckled as she grabbed a full glass from the tray of a passing waiter.
They approached the ambassador where he talked with Lord Percy Bottlemere, the Lord High Treasurer of Urbannia. Lord Ismatan towered over the other man. She would certainly not be looking down on him, thank goodness. His nose curved like a hawk’s beak between dark brown eyes alight with intelligence, and he wore long black velvet robes, with a white silk scarf tied about his neck and a small white cap on his head. Such exotic attire and the reputation of secrecy loving Gandiss lent him an air of mystery.
“Lord Ismatan, I’d like to present my daughter Lady Arabella Olivia Trunkett,” Sir John said, holding out a hand toward her.
She sank into a deep curtsy. A thrill of excitement swept through her replacing the lingering dread. The night suddenly became interesting.
The ambassador’s sharp eyes studied her and when she rose he held out a hand. “It is a great pleasure to meet you, Lady Arabella. I must say I have some knowledge of you from your business.”
Belle glanced at her father and saw his lips twitch, no doubt remembering how traditional Urbannia had frowned on her as a young woman starting her own business. Yet, he had supported her, loaning her startup money that she was able to pay back after only a year. His unconditional support was one of the many reasons she loved him so much.
“I thank you, Your Excellency, and I must say I’m flattered you have noticed my small endeavor.”
“My dear Lady, you can hardly call your business a small endeavor. I’d say you have the largest thread company in the world. Your idea for steam powered spinning wheels was sheer genius and just the sort of advancement I’d like to see in my own country.”
“Why, Lord Ismatan, you have quite turned my head.” She flipped open her lace fan and gave a few flicks in front of her face. If she played her cards right, she might be able to open a new thread factory in the uncharted business frontier of Gandiss.
The ambassador held out his arm and she placed her hand on it, giving him a gracious smile. Her father’s eyebrows shot up and she almost laughed, knowing he worried she would say something outrageous and offend the ambassador. She gave him a wink and strolled off around the side of the dance floor with Lord Ismatan. Two burly bodyguards in long, burgundy robes started after them but the High Lord waved them away.
“I’m impressed with all the advances your country has made with the power of steam. My own land is still mired in the traditions of the past. Such innovations could move us into a new era of prosperity and provide increased opportunities for commerce.” He leaned close to her. “I’m sure it’s no secret that my country is in desperate need of a stabilized economy.”
She gazed at his face, finding a genuine smile there. Impressed, she decided to like him. She prided herself on being able to read character. Her only lapse being the fiancĂ© who left her at the altar eight years ago. But that happened a long time in the past, so she didn’t consider it a true measure of her abilities.
“My Lord, I would be happy to help you in any way I can. If you’re interested in commerce, I would dearly love to discuss opening a division of my company in Gandiss. And I am more than willing to share business knowledge with your citizens.”
He gave her a pleased smile. “Excellent. I hoped you would say that. Your father is a skillful negotiator, but I must say, I trust him. I don’t believe he would lie to me.”
“No, my father would never lie. You can count on that,” Belle said.
“I am glad to hear you say so. You also have an honest face, Lady Arabella.” He put a hand over hers.
A scream erupted behind them and they both turned, searching for the root of the disruption. Belle's first thought was to locate her father in the mass of people, but he was nowhere in sight.
The orchestra screeched to a halt and the room filled with a buzz of confused conversation and high pitched exclamations. Arabella's stomach flipped, and the Ambassador's fingers tightened on hers.
She pulled her hand from his grip and hurried forward, a strange chill of fear enveloping her. Where was her father?
Another scream sounded and then another. A group of people blocked her view and she didn’t hesitate in pushing them aside. She gasped when she reached a body sprawled on the floor and noted a trail of red blood tracking from a side room. She recognized the injured man as Conrad Bellows, her father’s assistant. Horrified, her champagne glass slipped from her fingers and shattered on the marble.
She pushed another man out of her way. What the hell was wrong with everyone standing around like statues while a man needed help? She knelt at Conrad's side. A knife protruded from his back but when she put her fingers on his neck she found him still alive, thank God. He struggled to his side and blinked as he looked up at her.
“Gone,” he whispered. “So…sorry, My Lady…gone.”
“Who is gone, Conrad?” She put a hand on his shoulder as panic shot through her.
“You’re, fa, fa, father…they took him.”
“What? Who took him?”
“Ahh, all in black, don’t know…” He closed his eyes and then slumped on the floor, unconscious.
Belle sucked in a sharp breath. She jumped to her feet and spun around. “Someone call for a doctor and help Mr. Bellows. Where’s my father?”
“He was just here. Maybe he went into the sitting room,” a man said, pointing in the direction where Conrad’s bloody trail led. Everyone else stood frozen in position, faces pale.
Their inaction infuriated her. What a bunch of ninnies. She ran forward, her heart pounding. As she reached the doors to the sitting room, a squadron of the queen’s guards burst into the ballroom behind her, but she didn’t wait. She lifted her skirt to avoid Conrad’s blood, pushed through the double doors, and stopped short on the threshold.
Before her, upended furniture littered the room. Statues, flower vases and trinkets formally on tables, now scattered across the elaborate rugs. Double windows at the end of the room stood open to the night sky, and sheer curtains on either side billowed out in the breeze. A chill ran to her core, freezing her heart, and it had nothing to do with the cool evening breeze.
She ran to the window and leaned over the sill. Gas streetlights illuminated the cobblestone street two floors below, but no one appeared either there or on the sidewalks. She choked back a sob. Someone had taken her father. Her fingers curled around the pocket watch tucked into a fold of her skirt—but the special gift from her father brought little comfort in this situation.
“Gandiss, it’s Gandiss!” The cry rose in the room behind her. She turned and slowly made her way back through the door, her head spinning in despair. What had happened to her darling father?
The mass of people transformed into an angry mob, raising fists and glaring. One of the queen’s guards had the knife from Conrad’s back in his hand. Another placed a bandage over his wound and helped lift him onto a stretcher. The ice in her heart thawed a bit to see he still moved.
“It’s a Gandiss dagger,” a man said. “Look at the handle, no doubt about it.”
The guard held aloft a round ivory hilt that tapered to a point, unmistakably made from a snow tiger tooth. Why would Gandiss do such a thing when they were about to sign the treaty? It didn’t make sense. Disbelief fogged her brain as she gazed at the ambassador. He looked directly at her, eyes conveying an appeal for trust. He shook his head and seemed about to come toward her, but his bodyguards grabbed his arms and pulled him from the room.
Her mind whirled with uncertainty. What had happened to her father? And, what did this kidnapping mean? She turned back to the disheveled room, and scanned the area looking for some clue to what had occurred. In her heart she admitted she sought a sign they had not killed him, only taken him captive.
There was no sign of blood other than the trail made by Conrad. Relief enveloped her. Then she noticed a crumpled white handkerchief, half covered by a fallen jade vase. Her breath caught in her throat . She bent, picked it up, and peeled back the edges until a stickpin fell into her hand. It was a long golden pin with an ornately carved head embedded with a ruby. But more importantly, the linen handkerchief had a letter embroidered in one corner, a ‘T’. Her pulse quickened. She knew it belonged to her father, she had done the needlework herself.
Belle paced about the room of the Imperial Inspector, Sir George Lufton, fury battling with fear in her chest. How dare someone kidnap her father? The stiff taffeta of her ball gown's train swished as she moved back and forth across the floor.
 She glanced at her mother. Thankfully, Lady Elizabeth Trunkett had calmed after her initial outburst of tears when told her husband had been kidnapped. The two guardsmen who accompanied Belle assured Lady Trunkett Sir Lufton was hot on the case. Once composed, she'd ordered her carriage and they came to Sir Lufton’s office looking for answers.
Her mother sat calmly in her rolling chair, a lace edged handkerchief clutched in one hand, face pale, but stoic beneath her brown curls and the bonnet atop them. Her frail figure shrunk into her pelisse of dark blue velvet. She eyed Sir Luftin expectantly as she pulled an elaborately embroidered shawl more closely over her wasted legs.
Belle knew a diplomat’s wife learned over the years to control her emotions and she admired her mother’s composure. Although it was sad her mother stopped attending parties since the accident that left both of her legs crippled, in this case it had allowed her to miss the horrifying scene in the ballroom tonight.  For that, Belle was grateful.
“Why would Gandiss kidnap my father when it seemed they were on the verge of signing a treaty?” Belle asked for the third time. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
The inspector took a deep breath as he answered her for the third time. “As I said before, there are many factions in Gandiss. Perhaps one of them did not want the treaty signed. There’s no denying the dagger is unique to Gandiss with the handle made from the tooth of a snow tiger. You know no one outside Gandiss is allowed to own one legally.” 
“That doesn’t mean one couldn’t be obtained illegally,” Belle snapped. How could he be such a complete idiot? And her father’s life rested on him. Anger rose ever higher, burning in her chest.
“Darling, please calm down,” Lady Elizabeth said, holding out a hand to her daughter. “I’m sure the inspector is doing everything he can to find out what happened to Sir John.”
“But what about this?” Belle pulled the handkerchief and stickpin from her reticule and held it up. “I found it on the floor with my father’s handkerchief. It could be a clue.”
The inspector raised his monocle and peered at the gold and ruby pin. “A decorative stickpin likely lost in the scuffle. It could have even belonged to your father. I’d hardly call that a clue when we have a snow tiger dagger sticking out of someone’s back.”
“Oh, it doesn’t belong to Sir John,” Lady Trunkett said. “I can assure you of that.”
“Then possibly it came from another guest.” Sir Luftin tucked his lips together. “In any event I can’t see how it’s a clue of some sort. Preposterous.”
Belle crossed her arms over her chest and flounced down in one of the inspector’s wing chairs. She clutched the handkerchief wrapped stickpin in one hand and glared at the condescending inspector, frustration and anger boiling within. She kept seeing the eyes of the ambassador before he was forced to leave. His gaze had sent a message asking her to trust him, suggesting Gandiss was not responsible. But how could she be sure? She wondered what would happen to the treaty now.
“Lady Trunkett, I assure you we will do everything within the Queen’s power to track these kidnappers and return your husband to you. Her majesty has given me broad authority in this matter.” The inspector bowed in front of Elizabeth with a pompous flourish.
“What about the treaty?” Belle asked. “Will the signing go forward tomorrow?”
He turned to her, his bushy gray eyebrows raised. “Her majesty will not sign the treaty under such circumstances. Surely you can understand that.”
“But isn’t that what the kidnappers want? Let’s be honest. This has to be an attempt to disrupt the treaty process.” Belle sat forward, frowning.
Sir George ignored her and addressed himself to Lady Trunkett. “My dear Lady, I feel it would be best if you and Lady Arabella were to return home. It’s late and there is nothing you can do here. I will let you know as soon as any new leads develop, I assure you.”
“Is there any evidence other than the knife?” Belle asked.
The inspector hesitated, his gray moustache twitching. “Well, no, actually. Not at this time. Mr. Bellows can give no description except that there were two men who wore black with faces covered. But we hardly need any more. The trail leads directly to Gandiss, there can be no doubt about it. We would lose valuable time seeking obscure leads to other areas. I shall not put Sir John’s life in such danger.”
“I’d like to speak to the Queen,” Belle said. She could trust Her Majesty not to jump to conclusions. If she could see her, she would tell her about the stickpin and urge her to start a more widespread investigation. Surely Her Majesty would understand that blaming Gandiss out of hand would only cause more political upheaval.
“Her Majesty is in seclusion preparing for the State of the Empire address. She will see no one for the next three days.” He drew himself up and looked down his nose at her. “No one.”
She cursed silently. Pompous fool. In three days her father could be dead. Belle stuffed the handkerchief back into her reticule. Somehow she knew her father had left the clue for her. She just had to figure out what it meant. The authorities all wanted the culprit to be Gandiss so they didn’t have to do any investigative work. Meanwhile her dear father had been brutally taken to places unknown.
“Thank you, Sir George,” Lady Trunkett said extending a delicate hand for him to bow over. “We shall take your advice. Come Arabella.”
Her mother activated her chair. Little puffs of steam popped from a pipe in the back and a whirring sound indicated its functional status. Elizabeth used a lever on the arm of the chair to send it into forward motion and control the direction. Belle followed as she rolled outside where her carriage had already been called for and stood waiting in the road. She glanced at Belle as she motioned for her servants to come and help her into the vehicle.
“Are you going home tonight or would you care to come back with me?” Her mother offered a sad smile.
Belle frowned, preoccupied with the mystery of the dagger and dissatisfied with the platitudes offered by Sir Luftin. She feared the investigation was headed in the wrong direction, but she couldn’t prove it. Time slipped away while her father’s life was in danger.
“Mother, I need to go back to my house. I’ll come by tomorrow and see you.”
“Very well. Try not to worry, dear. The queen is very attached to your father, and he is the Lord High Minister after all. She’ll leave no stone unturned in seeking his captors.” Her footman picked her up in his arms and placed her on the seat inside the coach. He closed the door and took the rolling chair to a special platform built on the back of the carriage. Her mother leaned out the window. Creases of concern marked her face in the yellow glow of the gas lit street.
“Try not to be a nuisance to the authorities, Belle.” Her mother lessened the bite of her words with a sympathetic smile. “Get some sleep and we shall hope for good news in the morning.”
Belle nodded and waved as the carriage headed down the street. She wrapped her arms around her chest hugging herself against the night chill. Or maybe it was the icy grip of despair. She didn't move until the clop, clop of the horses’ hooves had faded into the distance. Her mind reeled in indecision. Finally, she wheeled around and sent two piercing whistles into the night.
Several minutes later, a whizz and pop heralded the approach of a pop-cab. In spite of its ridiculous appearance, like a miniature outhouse set atop a large tricycle, it would get her to her destination faster than walking or using one a horse-drawn carriage. Besides, the noise of the pop-cabs now taking over the streets easily startled the horses, making coach travel almost dangerous these days.
“Evening, M’ Lady.” A scruffy, wiry man doffed his newsboy cap and gave her a deep bow. “What can I help you with tonight?”
“Number twenty-nine, Pollberry Court, if you please,” she said in a precise tone, and picked up her heavy skirts as the little man opened the door of the cabin to allow her to enter. She stepped in and settled herself on the narrow seat.
“Hoo, hoo, Pollberry Court is it?  A very lovely part of town.” The cabbie hopped up on the seat of his cycle and released the brake. “And what’s a swell like you doing out this late with no one to escort you?”
“That’s certainly none of your business,” Belle said through the small window cut into the cabin just behind the cabbie’s head. She took her folded fan and rapped sharply on the edge of the sill. “Now hurry along or I shall make sure your tip reflects the delay.”
The cabbie gave a whistle, raised an eyebrow, and pushed the other lever to the front as he started the forward motion by pressing the peddles with his feet for a good two or three spins. With a pop and a spurt of steam, the little vehicle lurched and then sped off down the street, the momentum throwing Belle back against her seat. She would certainly be happy when these pop-cab drivers learned better control over their gears.
Fortunately, the cabbie had no further mishap and they pulled up before her home with a loud pop and a fizz of steam vapor in only ten minutes. She gave the cabbie some coins and then climbed the stone steps to the door of her townhouse.
“Good God, Jasper. Are you still up?” she exclaimed as she opened the door and found her butler just inside, still dressed in his formal black butler suit with tails. “You know I don’t expect you to stay up when I go to a party.”
She pulled off her gloves, annoyed at how her servants needlessly coddled her. She was the mistress of her own home, head of an international business and yet they still insisted on treating her like a young girl in pig-tails.
“I’m sure My Lady is more than capable of handling her own affairs,” Jasper said stiffly as he helped her off with her pelisse, his thin face pinched in displeasure. “However, I hope you don’t expect me to live here, take your money, and not fulfill my duties. Such a course would certainly be quite repugnant to me.”
Belle turned her head to hide her smile. When she had composed her features, she handed him her gloves and said, “Well, then since you’re up, I’d like a glass of sherry. Bring it into the library, if you please.”
“Of course, My Lady. I also have a package for you. It came about half an hour ago.” He held out a small square shape that had been hastily wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
“At this time of night?” She looked at the hall clock. It was near three o’clock in the morning. It seemed like only a few minutes ago it had been ten at night with the ball just starting and her father disappearing, abruptly ending the festivities.
She frowned and took the package, turning it over in her hands. Her name was printed on the front with a frank mark from the Royal Asburry Hotel.
“Exactly my thought, My Lady. And if you had seen the young person who delivered it you would have been even more surprised.” He sniffed. “I don’t hold with foreigners, never did. Now that we have the new airship port, we have these strange individuals running all over the place in Aereopolis. Very improper.”
“What?” Belle had been barely listening as she tried to remember why the name of that hotel struck a chord of memory. “What person?”
“The young man, the messenger. He had on outlandish long black robes and a silly hat perched on top of his head. Nothing you would ever catch me wearing outside my bedroom I assure you.”
She tore off the paper. It had to be from the ambassador. Now she remembered. Her father had told her yesterday that he had rooms at the Royal Asburry.
Inside, she found a brass box with a round seal of carved jade on the top. She ran her fingers over the carvings in the stone and jumped when the seal depressed and the top of the box popped open. Inside rested a folded sheet of paper and a silver ring.
She picked up the ring and examined it. A crest marked the surface—entwined figures of a tiger, a hawk and a snake—the imperial seal of Gandiss. There was a short message on the paper followed by a glob of red wax with an impression pressed into it. The design in the wax mirrored that of the ring. Curved elaborate writing covered the page.
My dear Lady Arabella,
I write to you in great haste, for I must leave your country at once. Someone has decided to intervene in the treaty between your country and mine and leave the impression that Gandiss is responsible for your father’s disappearance. I beg you to believe me when I say that nothing is further from mine or my country’s desire. I came to Urbannia fully committed to working out a fair and lasting peace with full support of my Raja.
Unfortunately, other countries have become threatened by this alliance. I want to assure you that your father’s kidnapping was not at the instigation of Gandiss. You must look for the culprit in another area.
I wish you the best of luck in locating your father. I send you my imperial seal ring in the event I may be of service to you in the future. You have only to present this ring to any agent of Gandiss and you can be assured of aid.
I leave with the dawn to return home. My sources indicate there is danger for me to stay here with the present unrest. I hope you will find your father soon and end the hostility that threatens to dissolve us into a world war.
Your servant,
Lord Ismatan
Just as she suspected, there were powerful forces at play here. Politics and popular opinion would lead the investigators to suspect Gandiss. Meanwhile her father was likely on his way someplace else. Unless she could find him and expose the truth, there was no telling how far they were from a world conflagration. Too many countries already stood on the brink of war. She slipped the heavy silver ring on her forefinger.
She walked down the hall and went through the doors into the library, an intimate wood paneled room lined with bookshelves filled with every size and topic of tome for which one could ever hope. Lingering embers in the fireplace cast only a dim light about the room. She paused on the doorway, one hand still on the handle of the door and a tender smile curled her lips as she observed the only occupant.
Benji lay stretched out on the brown leather sofa, fast asleep with three books tented across his abdomen and legs. His shirt was rolled up at the sleeves and his cravat askew. At least he'd removed his shoes.
She crossed the room and rescued the precariously tilted books from his body and laid them on the side table. He snorted in his sleep and rolled over on his side. She put a hand on his forehead, brushing back the unruly brown curls falling over one eye. At her touch, his eyelids fluttered and then went wide.
“B,B, Belle,” he said as he struggled to a sitting position.
“There, there, Benji. Sorry to wake you,” she murmured as she lit one of the table lamps and turned up the wick. Then she lowered herself into a wing chair beside him, put up a hand to remove the pins from her auburn hair, and let the long strands spill down upon her shoulders. With both hands she ran fingers across her scalp and sighed at the release of tension.
“What t, t, time is it?” He pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. “Zounds, Belle, i, i, it’s bloody three a.m.”
“I know. I’ve had a very disturbing evening, Benji,” she said.
He tugged fingers through his tousled hair and then rubbed his eyelids. “What happened?”
“My father was kidnapped.”
“What?” he exclaimed. “Sir John?”
“Right in the middle of the ball. Someone came in through a window in a side room off the ballroom. Father'd been meeting with his assistant there. They attacked and then carried him back out the window. Conrad was stabbed in the process—ghastly proceedings.”
“Bloody hell.” Benji blinked several times. “Did C, C, Conrad survive?”
“Yes, thank God. But he was stabbed with a snow tiger tooth dagger so everyone is keen to blame Gandiss without further evidence. There will be no treaty as a result. The whole affair is a disaster for Urbannia.”
The library doors opened and Jasper entered bearing a tray holding a decanter of sherry and two small stemmed glasses. “I took the liberty of bringing a glass for the young master as well.”
“Brilliant, Jasper,” Benji said. “You’re t, t, top of the trees.”
The butler made a ritual of pouring two glasses full of the golden liquid and then handed one to Arabella and then Benji. “So happy to have your approval, Master Benjamin.”
Benji let out a snort of laughter.
“Might I ask if My Lady would like something to eat as well?” The tall spare man raised one eyebrow.
“No, no, Jasper, please, I beg you, go to bed. I shan’t want anything else tonight.” Belle waved him away. “I’ll just have a nightcap with Benji and then I’m off to bed myself.”
Jasper gave her a dignified bow. “Very well, My Lady.” He placed another log on the fire, turned on his heel and marched out of the room, closing the doors soundlessly behind him.
“How does he do th, th, that?” Benji said, watching the butler’s silent exit. “Sneaks up on me all the time.”
“Don’t worry about that. We have to figure out what happened to my father.” She filled him in on the evening’s proceedings. “It just doesn’t add up. I have to tell you, my brief interaction with the ambassador left me quite impressed with him.”
Benji rubbed his hands together and frowned as he considered the situation. “If the weapon came from Gandiss, why are you s, s, so sure it wasn’t them?”
“Oh!” She jumped up, put a hand in her purse and withdrew the handkerchief. “I forgot to tell you about this. I found it on the floor in the room from which Father was taken. I’m positive he left it as a clue but I’m not sure what it means.”
Benji took the piece of cloth with the stick pin and his youthful face screwed up in concentration as he examined it, then he bolted to his feet “D, d, dash it all, Belle. Do you know what this is?”
She shook her head and her heart raced at his tone.
“It’s a ceremonial j, j, jewel given to the Sarcs of Carabarras.”
Her eyes widened. She’d heard of the secret group of assassins but didn’t know any more than the general public. She hoped her adopted boy genius had more details. “You’d better explain.”
“The Sarcs are t, t, taken as children and trained within the secret organization. When they finish their t, t, training, they’re given a task to fulfill. Usually that means k, k, killing someone. If they're successful, they’re given the t, t, title of Sarc and one of these.” He held up the gold and ruby pin. “They wear it on the inside of their c, c, cloaks and never take it off until they die.”
“Or until it falls out of their cloak while they’re kidnapping someone…or…that someone steals it as a clue.” Belle hadn’t really examined it, so she reached out and took it from him. She turned the pin around seeing it in a new light. The golden head resembled some type of flower and the large ruby was planted in the middle of the blossom. She looked up at Benji.
“It’s a l, l, lotus,” he said. “A death lotus—only grows in the d, d, desert of Carabarras. The Sarcs boil it and make a p, p, poison for their knives and arrows. It’s incredibly d, d, deadly. The tiniest drop will kill a man instantly.”
“Benji, what are the chances someone could have one of these and not be a Sarc?” She held up the long pin between her fingers. As she twisted it around, the gold and ruby cast a deadly glitter in the candlelit room.
“N, n, none. Nearly impossible. If someone got hold of one, they w, w, would be hunted down and killed. The j, j, jewel is sacred to the Sarc.”
Belle sat back in her chair. “Then how difficult would it be to obtain a snow tiger dagger?”
“They c, c, can be bought on the black market for a few thousand silver bills by anyone with enough m, m, money.”
She knew what that meant. The lead to Gandiss had to be a false trail. She was sure of it now. The real trail pointed to Carabarras and her father had left his clue to lead her to him, knowing she would recognize the handkerchief. She was convinced he had taken the pin from the person who attacked him and in the scuffle the man didn’t miss it. Benji rocked back and forth on his toes in eagerness.
“Benji I have to go after him. I have to find my father. The authorities are off on a wild goose chase and I can’t get to Her Majesty to explain for three days. Time is running out. By the time I get in to see the queen and convince her of the truth, the trail will be cold.”
Benji straightened his collar and cravat. “Then we have no t, t, time to lose.”
Belle stood. “Benji, I can’t take you with me. It wouldn’t be fair to put you in danger. Besides, I’m not really your legal guardian.”
“Blast it all, Belle. I’m seventeen. In a y, y, year I won’t even need a guardian.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Besides, you c, c, care more about me than my bloody family ever did. You’re going to need my help and I won’t let you g, g, go without me.”
“No need to curse, Benji.” She eyed the stubborn tilt of his chin and the mulish look about his eyes and knew he was right. His fountain of knowledge would be indispensable on this trip. Look how much he had already helped. It might have taken her days to figure out the meaning behind that stickpin. She also knew he would stow away or even follow her if need be. So she might as well keep him with her where she could watch out for him.
She sighed. “Very well. Pack your bags and call us a hack. We’re going to Carabarras.”
He let out a whoop and ran out the door while she sat down at the writing desk to compose a letter to her mother that would make some semblance of sense. If Lady Trunkett could get to the queen and convince her of the truth, then maybe Urbannia would turn their resources in the proper direction and avert a war over this incident.

About the author:
Lara Nance grew up and lived in many cites through the South. She started out with a career in business/marketing for twenty years and then went back to school for a masters in nursing and is currently a nurse practitioner in Virginia Beach, VA.
     Having been on the fencing team in college and now living on a sailboat convinces her that she was a pirate in another life, or possibly kin to Errol Flynn… However, due to the unfortunate demise of the romantic pirates of the past, she lives out her fantasies, thrills and adventures in her stories.
     From ghosts, witches, and energy vampires to thrilling mysteries and  steampunk tales, she is willing to explore a variety of compelling adventures  full of danger and suspense, along with a touch of romance. Lara loves to weave interesting true historical tidbits into her fiction which invite the reader to explore further after the novel is finished.
     Currently docked in Norfolk, Virginia (until the wind changes) Lara enjoys living on her sailboat and spends time reading, of course writing, indulging a variety of artistic endeavors, cooking and sailing with her husband, Joe and their Yorkie, Rio.

My review:
I think this book is awesome. I mostly recommend this book for teens. I say if you think your teen will like it go and buy it for them for Christmas right now. (((:

Stars I give this book: 
***** (5)

(I have personally reviewed the product listed above. I did receive a free product to try out so I could evaluate and use it for my review. My thoughts & opinions in this review are honest and your opinions may be different than mine. I am not responsible for delivery of any giveaway items won from this blog, but if you have any questions about the item you have won, please email me and I will look into it.)

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