A Conspiracy of Princes


By Justin Somper

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The second book in Justin Somper’s Allies & Assassins series delivers another twisted tale of high-stakes betrayal and political machinations set amid a lush medieval background.

The newly crowned Prince Jared, ruler of All Archenfield, has inherited a kingdom in crisis. The murder of his older brother has revealed a traitorous plot in his court, calling into question who, if anyone, Jared can trust as he ascends the throne. Now the realm is on the brink of invasion from the brutal princes of Paddenburg and Jared must travel to neighboring kingdoms in search of allies to defend his throne. Little does he know that an even more dangerous plot is hatching in the Archenfield court–one that threatens to remove Jared from power. One put in motion by the very people he left in charge.


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The Prince: Jared Wynyard

The Edling: Axel Blaxland

The Beekeeper: Emelie Sharp

The Bodyguard: Hal Harness

The Captain of the Guard: Axel Blaxland

The Cook: Vera Webb

The Executioner: Morgan Booth

The Falconer: Nova Chastain

The Groom: Lucas Curzon

The Huntsman: Kai Jagger

The Physician: Elias Peck

The Poet: Vacant Office

The Priest: Father Simeon

The Woodsman: Jonas Drummond


The Black Palace, Paddenburg

LYDIA WILDE BOLTED UPRIGHT. WHERE WAS SHE? Her eyes focused and traced the familiar outline of her closet, the drape of heavy curtains. She was safely in her bedchamber. She raised a hand to her forehead and felt the slick of perspiration and the heat there. It had spread through her entire body, and her chemise was soaked through. She pushed back the heavy bedcovers and stepped down onto the floor.

She felt giddy and unsure of her reality. Had she actually witnessed her brother's execution or had it just been a vivid dream?

Lydia reached for the black glass carafe on the bedside cabinet and, not bothering to decant the water into its matching glass, raised it to her lips and swallowed thirstily. Only then did she feel her heartbeat slow, the heat begin to dissipate.

I'm here in the royal bedchamber in the Black Palace of Paddenburg, she told herself. It was only a nightmare. The same nightmare that stalks me every single night. Logan is safe. And I will hold him in my arms again soon.

She set the carafe back down on the cabinet and turned to see if her sudden movements had roused Prince Henning from his slumber, but there was no familiar rise and fall of bedcovers on the other side of the bed. Lydia was alone in the royal bedchamber. She felt grateful for that. It was better Henning didn't see her in such a state. But where had he gone, and what was he doing, at such an early hour? Had his torturous insomnia gotten the better of him once again?

She ran a hand through her short bob of hair. It was still a shock to feel cool air along the nape of her neck, but Henning had desired her hair to be cropped like this. She remembered him sitting across from her, that first time, watching intently as her lady's maid had taken merciless scissors to Lydia's long tresses. As the twin blades had moved across one another, their brutal scrape had sent a shiver down the length of Lydia's spine. "Short enough, Your Infinite Highness?" the maid had asked Prince Henning—no care for Lydia, who might as well have been a yew hedge. Each time, the Prince had given a small, silent shake of his head. And in answer, another inch of her beautiful black hair had tumbled to the rug below, dead as an autumn leaf. Lydia had never felt more naked in her life.

Shivering at the memory, she paced toward one of the pairs of heavy brocade curtains that shielded each of the bedchamber's seven windows and drew them back, conscious that her palms were still slick with sweat. Next, she turned her attention to the thick wooden shutters. Henning couldn't even contemplate sleep without the room being as dark as the grave. It would have been Lydia's preference to keep the curtains parted and the shutters on their hinges, in order to be woken softly, sensuously, by the first rays of the morning sun, but, from the time she had first arrived in Prince Henning's bedchamber, she had been made aware that this—along with certain other matters of personal taste—was not up for discussion or compromise.

The shutters open, Lydia unlatched the window and felt the air on her face, neck and shoulders. She leaned forward, grateful for its cool caress, and gazed down on the intricate formal gardens to the rear of the palace. Even from this bird's-eye view, the mazes remained as resistant to comprehension as the twists and turns in Prince Henning's and his brother Prince Ven's sinuous minds.

Suddenly—almost as if her thinking of the two Princes had summoned them onto the stage set below—she saw two flashes of white moving within the contours of the dark green maze. Then, close by one of the white flashes, a burst of silver. Henning and Ven, stripped bare to the waist, swords in hand, were stalking each other through the Grand Maze. It was a favorite game of theirs, though to call it a game was to diminish the seriousness with which each Prince approached the challenge.

One of the white flashes suddenly moved: Ven was running. True to form, he had good instincts—he was close upon his brother. She wondered if he could hear his brother's heavy breath on the other side of the perfectly tended hedge. She saw the glint of light on Ven's sword; she thought of the maid's scissors. A fresh shiver snaked down her spine. As Ven closed in to claim his victory, she turned away.

Lydia was sitting at a chair by the window—washed, perfumed and dressed in a silk robe patterned with peacocks—when the door was flung open and Henning strode into the room. His eyes were wild and there were cuts all across his pale chest and muscled arms. The stink of sweat emanating from him spoke not only of his recent labors but of the copious amounts of wine he had imbibed the night before.

His lips settled on hers and then he ran his fingers slowly, possessively, through her hair. Stepping back, he stood proudly over her, fists on his hips.

"These games you play," she said. "One day, you'll go too far."

He laughed. "Don't you want to know who won?"

"I'm guessing it was you," she said.

"Of course it was me! He thought he had me, but that was just what I wanted him to believe." Henning ran his fingers along the nape of her neck—it felt like a spider scurrying across her flesh.

Henning leaned down until his face was level with hers. Lydia's nostrils flared at the tang of his sweat. "Does anything matter to you more than winning?" she asked.

He laughed. "Lydia, my precious Lydia. There's nothing more important than winning. Don't pretend you don't agree."

She shrugged.

"The higher the stakes, the sweeter the victory." He folded his arms across his grime- and sweat-streaked chest. "You of all people know that." Now he reached out for her pale hand and placed it on his blood-nicked left pectoral. She could feel, beneath the thin veil of his skin, the wild thumping of his heart. Instinctively, she began to withdraw her hand, but he brought across his own and trapped hers, pressing her flesh against his. "Winning is the only thing that makes us feel alive," he rasped. "It's what binds you and me together. It is the star that steers us toward our future."

Lydia smiled awkwardly and drew away her hand, wiping it dry on her silk robe. "You stink like a wild boar. For goodness' sake, go and take a bath!"

"I've been looking all over the palace for you," Lydia said later that morning, as she approached Henning at the periphery of the royal aviary.

No answer.

She stepped closer but not too close. The door to one of the aviary's enclosures was open; the one belonging to Prince Ven's much-prized golden eagle. Ven was inside, communing with his beloved creature. The eagle was sitting on a steel facsimile of a branch, its vast wings extended as he stroked the bird with his bare fingers.

Lydia felt a shudder course through her. She'd heard the Princes' stories about how this eagle had plucked out the eyes of one unfortunate steward and employed its claws to scratch the face of another, scarring him beyond all recognition. In Lydia's view, the bird should have been destroyed rather than cherished. But she knew that this was not an argument worth voicing: it would only serve to widen the gulf between herself and Prince Ven, which, in turn, would not play well for her relationship with Henning.

"Come on!" Ven turned to face Henning with a smile.

Ven was strikingly good-looking—far more handsome than his older brother. Where Henning's face was inclined to be red and puffy, Ven's was all sharp lines and skin the color of freshly drawn milk; where Henning's hair was tufty at best, and thinning over his crown, Ven's was sleek and black, like the wings of a raven. But there were reasons she had chosen Henning, she reminded herself. His looks, or lack of them, were of little consequence.

She watched now as Ven beckoned his brother into the enclosure. Her first instinct was to cry out to Henning, to warn him to be careful. But she bit her lip, watching fearfully as Henning entered the cage.

He was carrying a neat scroll of parchment. Intrigued, she dared to step a pace closer. Ven reached out and passed a small, tubular container to Henning, all the time talking soothingly to his monstrous bird.

Henning opened the tube and carefully inserted the scroll. Lydia saw that there was a clip at one end of the canister, and Ven now used it to attach the tube to a ring that circled the eagle's left leg.

Henning retreated from the enclosure with Ven following, the giant eagle resting on his leather-clad forearm. Frozen to the spot, Lydia realized how strong Ven must be to carry the bird without so much as a flinch or a tremble.

Outside the enclosure, the bird extended its vast wings once more. Ven was holding the eagle on a thin, leather rein, which he held gently in his fist. As a new coldness ran through her, he let the rein drop from his hand. The bird was released.

"Fly!" Ven cried. "Carry our missive across the borders!"

The bird soared into the air. Lydia let out a small cry as it climbed quickly to the height of a kite-string's length above them.

Only then did she dare to move closer to the two Princes. "What was that note?" she asked.

Ven did not respond. He was standing rapt, his head thrown back, eyes brimming with purpose as he watched the flight of his precious eagle over the dark roof of the palace.

Henning turned to meet Lydia's gaze.

"What have you done?" she asked.

Henning smiled, his eyes dancing with light. "Something," he told her, "that will change everything."

Now Ven turned his own gaze toward her. In spite of the crucial physical differences between himself and his brother, their eyes were the same—cold and hard and black as obsidian, as if the Princes themselves had been hewn from the same rock as their forbidding palace. In Ven's case, the hardness of his eyes was balanced by the somewhat feminine set of his lips. These now broke into a soft smile as he opened them to speak.

"First Archenfield," he said. "Then the rest of the Thousand Territories."



To Prince Jared of All Archenfield,

Your Princedom is irredeemably weakened. Paddenburg is ready to take over full control. You have seven days to surrender your lands and people to us.

If you fail to submit by sunset on the seventh day, our armies will break through your borders.

Should anything happen to Logan Wilde during this time, we will know about it and our armies will arrive even sooner.

Enjoy your coronation and the fact that yours will be the shortest reign of any Prince in the history of Archenfield.

Yours in ambition and anticipation,

Prince Ven and Prince Henning of Paddenburg



The Council Chamber, the Palace, Archenfield

"WE HAVE THREE OPTIONS." AXEL BLAXLAND'S VOICE held the attention of each man and woman gathered within the Council Chamber. "One, we surrender. Two, we fight. Three, we seek alliances from our neighbor states."

Prince Jared couldn't help but envy the easy authority in his cousin's voice. In the brief time that had elapsed since Jared had summoned his Captain of the Guard to show him the note—swiftly christened the Paddenburg Ultimatum—Axel's response had been unflinching. Such gravitas was a needling reminder of the disparity in experience between the Prince and his cousin. Jared was a sixteen-year-old boy who had inherited the throne on his brother's assassination; his cousin was nine years his senior, with far greater experience of political disputes and war itself. While Axel had fought alongside Prince Goran and Prince Anders on the battlefield, Jared and his younger brother, Edvin, had remained cosseted at the palace, playing games of war, where the worst bloodshed had been a scraped knee or elbow.

Jared wished he could summon even a smidgen of Axel's composure to combat the whirling sense of vertigo that had become horribly familiar to him these past weeks. The new state of emergency had arrived so hard on the heels of the previous crisis of his brother's murder that there hadn't been time even to draw breath. It felt like a capricious twist of fate—but these were not two isolated incidents. The crazed rulers of Paddenburg had been the architects of the royal assassination plot, and now it was becoming clear that that had been only an opening gambit in their attempt to take control of Archenfield.

The ultimatum, with its biblical deadline, had made that explicit.

Jared glanced at the somber faces clustered around the Prince's Table, each member of the Twelve in his or her designated position. The new Prince drew some comfort from the knowledge that this table, hewn long ago from a centuries-old oak, had endured many such crises; other rulers had sat in his position since the infancy of the Princedom, well before the intricate letters had been carved into the wood and filled with molten metal to spell out his title: "The Prince." Other Princes had summoned meetings with different men and women, predecessors to the Twelve that he had gathered here today. Other Princes had stared into the eye of the storm, held their nerve and navigated the way to peace. He had to remember this.

"Surrender is not an option." The words came not from one of those seated at the Prince's Table itself but from the nearby dais, where Jared's mother, Queen Elin, sat alongside Prince Edvin. It was Elin who had spoken, her voice clear and sharp as crystal.

Jared sensed that she had offered her words in order to fill the void created by his silence. He turned to meet her imperious, harshly beautiful face. "Of course we cannot surrender!" He was surprised by the force of his own voice. "But if we forge weighty enough alliances, then surely Paddenburg's army will be forced to retreat? There might be no need for us to fight."

His fleeting relief at having taken control was undercut by the slow shake of his cousin's head. "I'm afraid that is a naïve thought," Axel told him. "Paddenburg will attack, whatever alliances we have in place. The lunatic Princes have not come this far to back off without tasting the blood of Archenfield on their cannibal tongues."

Jared frowned. Had it been necessary for Axel to underline his inexperience in front of the Twelve by branding his comment "naïve"? Not for the first time, he questioned his decision to elect Axel as his Edling, or heir. Only it hadn't been his choice, had it? He had wanted Edvin for the role. It had been Queen Elin who had told him in no uncertain terms to choose Axel. He was still smarting from the memory of that manipulation as his mother resumed speaking.

"You are wrong, nephew. Of course a new alliance will make a difference. Do not forget that our timely agreement with Woodlark brought an end to the war with Eronesia. Prince Anders married Silva to save our Princedom. If the soldiers of Woodlark hadn't helped our diminished forces to drive Eronesia back across the border, Archenfield would have fallen. Woodlark, and its own alliance with Malytor to the east, made Archenfield strong."

"Whatever else we do, we must make ready to defend our borders." Axel's glance ranged over the assembly. "But I'm not saying I disagree with the principle of securing alliances. Far from it."

"It's good to know you don't feel my every thought to be naïve," Jared said sourly. Immediately, he regretted it. It sounded petty, even to his own ears.

"If we're bandying about words like 'naïve,'" said Kai Jagger, the Huntsman, "I'm not sure what hope we truly have of securing even one alliance within the seven days before Paddenburg invades."

"Assuming they actually wait seven days!" Emelie Sharp, the Beekeeper, cut in. "If the accepted thinking is that they are crazy, why would we take anything they say at face value?"

Lucas Curzon, the Groom, now entered the fray: "Emelie is right. We cannot trust this enemy. In destroying the Woodlark alliance, Paddenburg has succeeded in making us weak again. It has been less than two years since the war with Eronesia ended. We're still reeling from the loss of life that the prolonged fighting cost us. We simply don't have the manpower to defend ourselves against a new threat."

Jared was frustrated to hear this from Lucas, of all people. "Surely you're not suggesting that we just give up?"

Lucas nodded sadly. "It gives me no satisfaction to say this, Prince Jared, but if we fight, we will lose."

"I refuse to accept Archenfield's defeat so quickly," Jared countered. "We must fortify our border settlements and seek a fresh alliance."

On the dais, his mother nodded encouragingly.

"Assuming we do pursue one or more strategic alliances," the Huntsman resumed, "then who should undertake this mission?"

His question had been directed at Prince Jared, but it was Axel who responded. "Ordinarily, a task of such magnitude would fall to the Prince himself."

Kai nodded. "Or, in his stead, the Captain of the Guard." He paused, smiling. "Or perhaps the Edling."

The implication behind the Huntsman's words wasn't lost on any of those in the room, least of all Prince Jared. He was too inexperienced to broker the all-important alliances; Axel would do a much better job.

Jared found himself responding before anyone else could. "I should go. I am the Prince."

Kai nodded respectfully. "You are our Prince and the ruler of Archenfield, Jared. But in these exceptional circumstances, the Prince should not depart the Princedom."

"The Huntsman speaks the truth." A fresh interjection from Queen Elin. Jared met his mother's eyes with a grimace. Was even she intent upon undermining him?

"Axel should go." Jonas Drummond, the Woodsman, drew Jared's attention back to the Prince's Table.

At Jonas's side, Morgan Booth shook his head. "We need Axel here," the Executioner said, his muscled arms folded on the table. "We need Axel in charge of what little army we have left."

A chuckle came from the other side of the table. All eyes turned swiftly from the Executioner to the Priest. "It would seem, Axel," Father Simeon observed, "that you are quite indispensable on both sides of the gates. Congratulations to you!"

Axel shrugged off the Priest's mischievous compliment.

"Well, what about Prince Jared?" Emelie butted in again. Her eyes were bright with conviction. "Why exactly can't he go?"

Queen Elin did not miss a beat. "Even if he had recovered sufficiently from the traitor's attack, it is not appropriate for the Prince to leave the Princedom or his subjects in a time of crisis. Prince Jared must remain here, to lead Archenfield through whatever turmoil lies ahead. He is our nation's figurehead and a beacon of continuity."

"Rather more than a mere figurehead, I trust," Jared said. No one responded. Had they all lost confidence in him entirely?

Vera Webb, the Cook, cleared her throat with a phlegmy rattle—a sure sign she was about to take the floor. "If neither Prince Jared nor Axel is able to venture beyond the gates to seek these vital alliances, then who can we send?"

There was silence in the chamber. Then a crystal voice rang out once more. "I will go," Queen Elin announced, rising to her feet.

"No!" Jared and Axel cried in unison.

Elin pursed her lips and remained standing, poised and as unyielding as a royal statue.

"Why not?" Elias Peck, the Physician, spoke now. "Why wouldn't we ask Queen Elin to undertake such an important mission? She is a senior member of the royal family, who carries with her the experience of many years and countless other crises. She is a respected figure, both at home and abroad. She is known to all the leaders we would wish to approach. As such, I think we would struggle to find anyone better qualified to seek out these alliances."

"There is truth in your words." Nova Chastain, the Falconer, took up the baton. "But we should remember keenly the current animosity between Archenfield and Woodlark." Her voice was low. "I intend no disrespect, but Queen Elin proved unable to save the alliance with Queen Francesca of Woodlark."

"And I, in turn, intend no disrespect," Queen Elin rejoined, "when I observe that your affair with my oldest son, Nova, all but wrecked that alliance beyond repair."

The Queen's words sent shock waves around the chamber, reminding everyone that Nova had conducted an illicit relationship with Prince Anders throughout his marriage to Silva, daughter of Queen Francesca and Prince Willem of Woodlark. Jared thought of Silva, whose lifeless body had been fished from the frigid waters of the river days after Anders's assassination. Silva's corpse was now reunited with the royal family of Woodlark, who still labored under the misapprehension that the grief-stricken widow had taken her own life. In truth, it had been the deranged Poet who had murdered her, at the behest of his masters in Paddenburg.

It had all been part of a plan to send Archenfield spiraling into chaos, and it had proved highly successful.

"We can't lay the blame for our broken alliance with Nova," Jared said, "when the true culprit sits in our Dungeons." He thought of the disgraced Poet and the reference to him within the Paddenburg Ultimatum: "… should anything happen to Logan Wilde… we will know about it and our armies will arrive even sooner." The Blood Price had underpinned the justice system of Archenfield since the Princedom's very beginnings. Everything had a value—from the loss of a limb to the loss of a life. Yet Jared could not even extract the Blood Price from the assassin of the Prince and his Consort; Paddenburg had succeeded in rendering him impotent in this respect.

Axel interjected. "Logan Wilde, for all his deeds and posturing, is only the puppet of the Princes of Paddenburg. They are the true culprits of these unspeakable crimes. Let no one forget that, even for an instant."

Murmurs of assent came from around the Prince's Table.

It was Lucas Curzon who spoke next. "Queen Elin will need a team to accompany her beyond the borders."

"I'll go," Morgan Booth offered, raising his hand.

"Of course you will," said Emelie Sharp, not quite under her breath.

Prince Jared frowned, aware of the sordid whispers concerning his mother and the Executioner. He set his hands on the table and was, for once, grateful for the distraction of Axel's voice.

"Securing an alliance is a long shot. We must do what we can to protect our border for as long as we can. I will put together an inventory from the armory and assess exactly how many trained fighters we have to send to protect the outlying settlements. Lucas, we'll need armored horses. I want to know numbers and how soon you can be ready to deploy them. Elias, field hospitals will need to be erected a safe distance from the front line. I expect a plan on my desk by tomorrow morning. The rugged terrain in the south is our greatest natural defense. It will funnel any invaders into our path and slow the advance of however large an army. But if we follow this line of thinking, both the settlements of Grenofen and Inderwick would be in the immediate line of fire and need bolstering."

"You are all talking as if this is decided," Prince Jared said. "Shouldn't I be the one to choose our strategy?" He glanced up and saw Hal Harness, the Bodyguard, watching him closely. He realized that Hal was the only one of the Twelve who had not yet spoken; it was not unusual for Hal to keep his own counsel. He heard Axel's voice once more at his side. "Cast your emotions aside, Cousin Jared—"

"Prince Jared," he cut in, angrily. "We are in the Council Chamber now. Please accord me the respect of my formal title, not my familial one."

"Of course, Prince Jared," Axel resumed, calm as ever. "I'm sorry to cause unintended offense. I just want you to see that this is actually a very sound idea."

"Thank you, Axel." The unflinching voice from the dais once more. Jared glanced across at his mother, her hands now resting on her narrow hips. "Perhaps it is worth reminding everyone that I have crossed the borders many times before."


  • Praise for A Conspiracy of Princes:
    "Somper has created a strong cast of well-defined characters, each with a distinct personality. There are so many conspiracies, alliances, betrayals, and deceptions that even careful readers will not be sure who is to be trusted... VERDICT Action-packed and fast-paced, this sequel will have fans of medieval adventure and intrigue eager for [a] third installment."—School Library Journal
  • Praise for Allies & Assassins:
    "Drawing on premedieval Welsh courts for inspiration, Somper breathes life into the inner workings of his fantasy kingdom...With its focus on forensics investigation and suspense, this is both political thriller and royal drama...Solid and entertaining."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "From the first page of this hefty volume, the Princedom of Archenfield is plunged into mystery, danger, and intrigue...Somper manages to keep the mystery alive with many red herrings, surprises, and plot twists, while deftly setting up the scenario for a sequel. Fans of medieval adventure, murder mysteries, and romance will all find something to like here, and readers will eagerly await the continuation of the this engrossing saga."
    School Library Journal
  • "...Those who like the mechanics of forensic detective work will enjoy watching Asta and Jared attempt to logically and scientifically solve the crimes, unknowingly hampered by their lack of modern equipment and know-how. Both teens fight to be taken seriously, and their friendship is a solid component of the story, balancing the huge cast of characters. A cliff-hanger ending will leave readers wanting more."—Booklist

On Sale
May 26, 2015
Page Count
496 pages

Justin Somper

About the Author

Justin Somper is the worldwide bestselling author of the Vampirates series, which has been published in 25 languages in 35 countries. When he isn’t writing, he works with other authors as a publicist and trainer. He lives in London with his partner and two energetic dogs.

Learn more about this author