Mystery & Thriller / Fiction / Thrillers / Historical
Date de parution: February 21st 2023
The Last Kingdom
King Ludwig II of Bavaria was an enigmatic figure who was deposed in 1886, mysteriously drowning three days later. Eccentric to the point of madness, history tells us that in the years before he died Ludwig engaged in a worldwide search for a new kingdom, one separate, apart, and in lieu of Bavaria. A place he could retreat into and rule as he wished. But a question remains: did he succeed?
Enter Cotton Malone. After many months, Malone’s protégé, Luke Daniels, has managed to infiltrate a renegade group intent on winning Bavarian independence from Germany. Daniels has also managed to gain the trust of the prince of Bavaria, a frustrated second son intent on eliminating his brother, the duke, and restoring the Wittelsbach monarchy, only now with him as king. Everything hinges on a 19th century deed which proves that Ludwig’s long-rumored search bore fruit–legal title to lands that Germany, China, and the United States all now want, only for vastly different reasons.
In a race across Bavaria for clues hidden in Ludwig’s three fairytale castles–Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee–Malone and Daniels battle an ever-growing list of deadly adversaries, all intent on finding the last kingdom.
PREVIEW AN EXCERPT
AUGUST 8, 1881
LUDWIG FRIEDRICH WILHELM VON WITTELSBACH LOVED THE NIGHT. He’d long ago stopped living in the sun, finding the serenity of a velvet sky dotted with sparkling stars far more preferable to the warmth of a summer day. For an ordinary person such a preference would not have mattered.
But he was far from ordinary.
He was King Ludwig II. Duke of Franconia and Swabia. Count Palatine of the Rhine. The latest in a long line of Wittelsbachs who’d ruled Bavaria for over seven hundred years. He’d occupied the throne for the past seventeen of those years, governing a principality that stretched from the jagged Alps in the south to the forests of Prussia in the north. In between flowed the Danube, Inn, and Isar Rivers. It was a diverse and rural land of hamlets and villages, home to four and a half million subjects who lived under both his rule and the fading influence of the Catholic Church. One of thirty-nine independent states that made up the Bund, the German confederation formed seventy years ago from the last remnants of the Holy Roman Empire.
Bavaria was his kingdom.
He owned it all.
But he hated it.
A strange attitude for a monarch.
And one he’d come this night to change.
His carriage stopped.
The bumpy trip east from his palace at Linderhof had taken several hours. He’d sat well back, out of sight, muffled in a cloak, the curtains on the windows drawn, lanterns on the carriage lighting the way. He loved his nocturnal journeys. He took one nearly every night. Some only a short ways through the dark Alpine forests. Others deep into the mountains to places that few ventured. Those were his favorite since solitude had become his refuge. He hated politics, people concerned with politics, or anything even remotely associated with politics. His crown had become nothing more than a burden. Government more a nuisance, not an end to any means. Instead, he preferred to dream, to build, to be enveloped in a peculiarity all his own, a law unto himself, a ruler from some ancient mystical legend subject to no one.
He’d found that safety existed in fantasy.
The Bavarian constitution mandated that the monarch must reside within Munich at least twenty-one days each year. What a ludicrous requirement. But he obeyed. Then, on the twenty-second day, he always fled the capital for the mountains in the south. To a glorious place. One he truly loved. He’d heard the talk. Some had begun to call him Mad King Ludwig.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, like everyone, he was simply searching for peace.
The carriage door opened and he shifted his bulky weight off the silk-lined bench and maneuvered himself out the small door into the night. One of the footmen offered a hand as he stepped down onto stairs that had been positioned on the ground for his convenience.
He was thirty-six but looked far older, his body a disgrace. Once he’d been tall, slim, with long curly hair and piercing blue eyes.
Handsome. Desired. A brilliant horseman and fine swimmer, like a heroic character from one of his beloved operettas. But that lean figure had been replaced by a girth that grew ever larger each day. The fire in his eyes, so bright in the beginning of his reign, had been dulled by the many disappointments he’d been forced to endure. His walk, formerly a slow and dignified gait with his head held high, was now more a waddle. His passion for sweets and a fear of the dentist had rotted away his teeth. His mouth constantly hurt, his head pounding from headaches. Narcotics and alcohol had become his closest friends. He knew both of those were wrong. But they were far more faithful companions than the quivering acolytes who liked to surround him. He’d grown to detest both them and all of the pomp and ceremony that came from being king. Instead, he preferred the simple quiet life of the peasants, many of whom he’d met during his nightly forays into the milieu of hill farmers and woodsmen. Tonight, though, he’d come to meet a special visitor from far away who was bringing what he’d dreamed about for a long time.
A man approached. Short, bespectacled, with a whiskered face, wearing a dark suit. He looked the part of a Herr Professor but he was actually the director of the Bavarian archives, trained as a lawyer and historian, and one of the few people Ludwig trusted.
“Welcome, Majesty,” Franz von Löher said to him, bowing.
He nodded an acknowledgment of the greeting, but said nothing. He’d chosen an Austrian uniform to wear for the occasion with a grand cordon sash—red with white stripes bordering the edge—aslant across his broad breast. Upon it was pinned an octagonal silver star, with a companion cross, suspended by a red ribbon trimmed in white. He’d been awarded the medal in 1865, one year into his reign. A somewhat insignificant platitude at the time from a foreign monarch that had now become all important. Normally he shunned military dress, preferring simple trousers, a shirt, waistcoat, and jacket. Armies and war had never interested him. But this was an occasion that demanded the highest of protocol.
He’d selected the location for the meeting with care. Altach. Beside the cold waters of the Walchensee. Which, ironically, meant strangers in High German. His geologists had told him it might be the oldest lake in Europe. But on this night the fact that it lay not far from Salzburg loomed most important, since that was where the nearest train station was located.
“Is he on the way?” he finally asked.
Von Löher nodded. “A messenger rode in a short time ago. His train arrived and he is now headed here by carriage, less than thirty minutes away.”
His gaze drifted out to the small meadow and the solitary mountain scenery, all filtered by the grandeur of a summer’s Alpine night. He loved nature, with its solemnity and magnificence, along with an eternal everlasting youth that had to be admired.
Four torches illuminated an oak table with a red woolen cloth draped over it. An enormous bouquet of fresh wildflowers decorated the center. He also loved flowers, particularly those that grew in abundance along the mountain slopes. A Turkish carpet covered the grass beneath and two high-backed chairs waited at either side. Beyond the torches’ glow stood two attendants, stiff as ramrods, dressed in blue-and-white liveries, three-cornered hats perched atop powdered wigs, ready to pull back the chairs for both himself and his visitor.
“How is he to be addressed?” he asked von Löher.
“I am told the same as you. Majesty.”
He liked that. The single word. No Your added to it. Much more suitable for an absolute monarch.
“What is he like?”
“Six years ago, when I met him, he was a man of fine presence. An educated gentleman of good abilities. He’s now forty-five, but he makes little display and does not talk much of politics. There, you are similar.”
He liked that as well.
“From my previous visit I found him to be a quiet, dignified, sensible man, who would do no discredit to his kingly office. He loves to sing and play an instrument called a ukulele. Quite well, too, I might add.”
“I wonder if he brought it with him.”
“I doubt it. It seems something he only does at home.”
A shame, but he liked everything he’d just heard. Definitely a kindred spirit. “Are the papers properly prepared?”
“The lawyer assured me they are.”
“Can Lehmann be trusted?”
No one could know what he was about to do.
“He is bound by secrecy and absolutely loyal to you. Rest assured, nothing will be revealed.”
In the distance he caught the flickering light of an outrider, bearing a torch, signaling that the carriage was not far behind. He’d provided the coach for his visitor. All gilded, lined with velvet, drawn by six dapple-gray horses harnessed with Moroccan leather.
Definitely fit for a king.
He was weary—always weary—and restless. But the unbroken silence around him comforted his frayed nerves. He gazed up at the moon and stars. Hopefully, they’d smile upon him tonight.
“My goal is in sight,” he whispered to von Löher. “Finally. I shall have it.”
“That you will, Majesty.”
Das letzte königreich.
The last kingdom.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 09
Cotton Malone kept his entire attention on the man and the woman. He and they were part of a tour group at Herrenchiemsee, a seventy-room nineteenth-century palace tucked away in southern Germany. Ludwig II had wanted his own Versailles, a Temple of Fame in honor of his hero, the Sun King, Louis XIV. So he’d bought a heavily wooded island washed by the cold waters of the Chiemsee and erected not a copy, but his own paraphrase to Versailles. As with the original practicality had not been part of its design. Instead, both palaces had been built as monuments to absolutism. Ludwig’s version came with an added memorial to his Wittelsbach ancestors, a way to align himself, if only in his own mind, with that storied past.
But the palace was never finished.
When Ludwig died in 1886 only the central axis had been erected and twenty rooms completed. None of the immense side wings, pavilions, or the famed dome were built. Still, what he’d managed to create was definitely impressive. A nearly overpowering mixture of baroque and rococo, each room more gilded and grander than the one before. Which all seemed to send a clear message of power and wealth to any visitor.
Cotton’s attention, though, remained on the man and the woman.
He’d noticed them immediately once the group had formed on the ground floor. They’d arrived at the last minute, coming in out of the cold with the final two tickets of the day. The palace closed at a quarter past four, so this was the last tour. He’d noticed earlier that a few had made the journey across the lake on the ferryboat, then either hiked or taken a horse-drawn carriage from the dock. He’d opted to walk the half mile through groves of pine and birch, enjoying a brisk winter’s afternoon in Bavaria. Before heading out he’d purchased his admission ticket and a pamphlet in a gift shop near the dock, one that not only told him all about Herrenchiemsee but provided a schematic of the second floor. He was particularly interested in one room in the north wing, between the king’s bedchamber and the dining room, and was pleased that the booklet contained some useful information.
He loved this corner of the world.
Bavaria seemed to float in a haze of myth, with the towering Alps, deep valleys, caves, fortresses, and quaint villages ready-made haunts for mimes, gnomes, fairies, and goblins. The adventures of legendary Germans like Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Parsifal had given rise to endless tales that poets, composers, and writers had mined for centuries. And he’d long been a fan of Ludwig II, reading several books about the storied monarch who dreamed backward, then dared to bring those dreams into reality. But, sadly, that vision had not connected with his contemporaries.
Many dubbed him mad.
He’d visited Herrenchiemsee before, along with Ludwig’s other two fairy-tale residences at Linderhof and Neuschwanstein. All lovely fantasies. But reality was the theme of this day, and that involved the man and the woman.
They were young, maybe early thirties. She was blond, curly-haired, slender with high cheekbones. He was clean-shaven and sinewy, with dark hair trimmed close to his scalp. They both wore lightweight wool coats, which, like his own and unlike those of the rest of the tour’s participants, had not been left at the coat check downstairs.
Cotton followed the group as they climbed an ornate stone staircase in the south wing. The guide droned on about the multi-colored marble floors and stucco-clad walls, all modeled after the former ambassador’s staircase at Versailles. He noticed the friezes. Full of allegory. Power. Strength. Truth. Justice. Along with the four corners of the earth. A bull for Europa. Tiger for Asia. Buffalo for America. Lion for Africa. More images represented the elements and seasons. Through the glass-paneled roof, which the guide said had pushed nineteenth-century technology to the max, he saw the sky beyond darkening to a fading afternoon. Being so far north, night came early to Germany in late autumn.
The guide pointed out that Ludwig visited the palace only a few days each year, from September 29 to October 8, for an annual inspection of the work progress. So the grand staircase had rarely echoed to the tread of feet, the rooms barely knowing the sound of human voices. When Ludwig had been there, the staircase had always been littered with lilies and roses. One of the visitors asked why and the guide shrugged, explaining it was just more of the fantastical that the so-called Mad King of Bavaria had loved to be surrounded with.
He had to admire Ludwig. A true individual. A visionary. The story was that he bought the island to save it from loggers intent on stripping its timber. But the grand silence among the solitude of its woods had captivated him. Supposedly he’d said, Here shall I build me a home, wherein no man, nor woman either, can disturb my peace.
The tour continued through a series of ornate spaces adorned with massive oil paintings. Mainly Louis XIV. Lots of lilies too—the emblem of the Bourbons—in the friezes and the parquet floor. Unlike Versailles, the rooms were not empty. Furniture abounded. Sacrosanct was the word Ludwig had liked to use to describe his French idols, their likes, habits, and customs too important to be interfered with. He’d loved that the French form of his name was Louis. So, as the tour guide stated, he’d felt a relationship to them had been sealed by baptism, a bond superior to any physical lineage, one that, to him, bestowed upon him his fantasies of purity and grandeur.
They entered a state bedroom paneled in white, all aglitter in gilding, the rounded bed alcove fenced off by a golden balustrade. Gilded stucco mythological figures adorned the ceiling. The windows were framed by red velvet draperies lined with gold embroidery, which, according to the pamphlet Cotton perused, had taken seven years to make. The bed was large enough to accommodate a dozen people. When finished it had been the most ornate room in all of Germany, the first to be completed at the palace in the early 1880s. But no one ever slept here. Instead, it had been created only for show.
Slender and Sinewy tried to act interested.
But they weren’t.
Their interest would be piqued shortly.
In his brain he visualized the schematic of the second floor that he’d studied on the walk over. The ability came from an eidetic memory inherited from his mother’s side of the family. Not photographic, as many called it. Just a remarkable ability to recall details. He knew the spectacular Hall of Mirrors loomed just ahead with the tour continuing through another smaller, more practical bedroom that had actually been used, then into the king’s study, or writing room as the pamphlet had labeled it.
That’s when the party started.
Right now was just foreplay with Slender and Sinewy trying to act like tourists. The rest of the group included four Chinese and two other ladies speaking French. Usually Herrenchiemsee would be packed. Hundreds of people visited each day. But that was in spring and summer when the hedges were high, the fountains spewed sheets of water, and people filled the gardens and grounds. This time of year was not tourist season, which more than anything else explained why Slender and Sinewy were here.
The last thing they needed were crowds.
Twelve years he’d worked as an intelligence officer for the Magellan Billet, a special unit within the United States Justice Department, before retiring out early and moving from Georgia to Denmark. Now he was an entrepreneur, the owner of his own shop dealing with rare books in Højbro Plads, an olden cobbled square in the heart of Copenhagen. He lived in a small apartment above the store and loved his new life but, occasionally, like today, he slipped off his shopkeeper’s hat and redonned the one he’d worn for so long as a spy.
He’d never particularly liked that label.
It connoted something devious and sordid.
He’d never been a spy. Instead, he’d been the eyes and ears of the United States government, charged with a mission and trusted to carry it out. His job had not been to simply look, listen, record, and report. He’d been required to act. Make decisions. Deal with consequences.
He’d been an intelligence officer.
And a damn good one.
The group moved to the next room and he watched as Slender and Sinewy admired the grand Hall of Mirrors. The guide was saying how Ludwig had built his version larger than the one at Versailles, stretching it to ninety-eight meters. Nearly three hundred feet. Its walls were a swirl of light gray and green stucco marble. Seventeen arched windows lined each side. The ones on the right opened to the front of the palace, the ones on the left were faux and gave the room its name, containing only mirrors. A barrel-vaulted ceiling with murals spanned its entire length and supported thirty-three cut crystal chandeliers. Another forty-four candelabra stood at attention down each side.
“There are twenty-five hundred candles,” the guide said. “All thirty-three chandeliers could be lowered simultaneously, where they were lit at once. When they were raised, the hall filled with a sudden, almost intolerable glare and heat, which was multiplied into many more thousands by the mirrors. It was a sight just for the king. Ludwig saw his palaces only through candlelight. He loved to roam this hall and dream.”
Easy to see how that was possible.
Even the incandescent light being tossed off seemed a pyrotechnic display of flashing white and prismatic color.
He was always amused at how Ludwig was described as either a tyrant, a lunatic, or an incompetent. But none of those labels were correct. Today he might have been characterized as bipolar, or a manic-depressive, and treated with medication, living a long and productive life. But no such assistance had been available in the nineteenth century. His father, Maximilian II, had been stiff and pedantic, keeping his distance, dying far too soon. His mother had been someone who never understood him. One observer at the time noted that his dark eyes swirled with dreams and enthusiasm, his fine forehead, elegant address, and dignified presence winning him instant admiration. But his faults came from a bit of megalomania, a debilitating indecision, and a love of change that seemed common to his age. Eventually, the world fell upon him, with political infighting and his own insatiable desires compounding his troubles. Ever so slowly he lost a grip on reality, withdrawing into himself, his castles, and the night where he became a king from a fairy tale, a mythical figure of poets, this grand hall proof positive of that obsession.
Photography was not allowed inside the palace, though two of the four Chinese toted cameras around their necks. Expensive looking, too, with high-intensity flash attachments. Cotton made a mental assessment of the possibilities ahead and decided one of those cameras might come in handy.
The tour group left the Hall of Mirrors and headed toward the north wing, inching ever closer to the king’s study. When they finally entered that space he noted the time.
The room was a perfect square with a doorway in on one side and another out, opposite, on the other, consistent with the French style of rooms-to-rooms with no hallways. The walls were white-paneled with more gilt carvings. A large portrait of Louis XIV dominated the wall behind an ornate writing desk. Two astronomical clocks sat on console tables to each side. He knew about the large rolltop desk from the pamphlet. Made in Paris, 1884. Inspired by the one in the Louvre that had belonged to Louis XV. It had been delivered after Ludwig II died in 1886 and had remained here, inside the palace, since around 1920. The guide told the group about the room and the desk, repeating some of what he already knew.
Time was short. He needed a plan.
And one came to him.
He was good at improvising. Which, more than anything else, accounted for the fact that he was still alive, considering the risks he’d once taken on a daily basis and still liked to take on occasion.
Everyone headed for the next room, led by the guide. He drifted toward the rear of the pack. Slender and Sinewy lingered even more. The next space was oval-shaped and had served as Ludwig’s dining room. The guide began pointing out the fireplace, the Meissen porcelain, and the Wishing Table that could be lowered down below, set with food, then winched back up so the king could always dine alone without attendants.
“The whole thing was impractical, as the table was so laden with supports that the king’s legs could not fit beneath and his knees were cut by lots of sharp edges. Still, he dined here. But not entirely alone. Three other places were always set for his imaginary guests. Usually Louis XIV and some of his court. Ludwig would talk to them and drink toasts in their honor.”
The guide seemed focused on her spiel and did not notice that she was missing two members. Slender and Sinewy had remained in the study and he needed to give them a few moments of privacy. He stood just beyond the doorway that allowed access between the two rooms, far enough inside the dining room that the guide was happy and the two behind him were not disturbed.
He figured the couple of minutes he’d allowed them were more than enough, so he stepped over to one of the Chinese and smiled as he pointed to his camera and said, “Excuse me, might I borrow this?”
Without waiting for an answer, he slipped the strap from around the man’s neck. Shock filled the older man’s face but the suddenness of the unexpected violation and his smile bought enough time for the theft to be completed. He hoped the camera was on standby, ready to be used, and he immediately retreated to the doorway.
As predicted, Slender and Sinewy were busy with the rolltop desk.
He aimed the lens at them and said, “Smile.”
The two looked his way and he snapped off three flashes, the camera clicking away. Pictures weren’t the point. But the bright lights were. Both Slender and Sinewy raised an arm to shield their eyes. Behind him he heard the guide saying in a loud voice that photographs were not allowed.
He snapped two more.
Across the study, in the doorway leading out, a third man appeared, his blond hair more mowed than cut, the bright face clean-shaven and glowing with good health and outdoor life. He wore a dark pullover shirt and jeans, matted to a muscular frame, his waist-length, fleece-collared bomber jacket open in the front, a black scarf around his neck.
He knew him well.
United States Justice Department.
Who leveled a pistol straight at Cotton.