When Justine was fourteen, her father took her to the mountainous north country of Wesloria. He said he was to meet with coal barons because they were restless and in need of appeasing. Why? Justine had wondered.
“Because coal barons are always restless and in need of appeasing, darling,” he’d said, as if everyone knew that.
She’d imagined large, heavily cloaked men, faces covered in soot, pacing their hearths and muttering their grievances. But the coal barons were, in fact, like all well-dressed Weslorian gentlemen with clean faces.
They peered at her with expressions that ranged from disgust to indifference to curiosity.
“Don’t mind them,” her father had said. “They are not modern men.”
Justine and her father were housed at Astasia Castle. It was a fortress that jutted out forebodingly from a rocky outcropping so high on the mountain that the horses labored to pull the royal coach up the steep drive. It was purported to be the best of all the accommodations in the area, afforded to Justine and her father by virtue of the fact Justine’s father was the king of Wesloria, and she was the crown princess, the invested heir to the throne.
Justine said the castle looked scary. Her father explained that castles were built in this manner so that armies and marauders could be seen advancing from miles away, and runaway brides could be seen fleeing for miles.
“Runaway brides?” Justine had been enthralled by the idea of something so romantic gone so horribly awry.
“Petr the Mad watched his bride run away with his best knight, and then watched his men chase them for miles before they got away. He was so angry he burned down half the village.” Her father did not elaborate further, as the gates had opened, and the castellan had come rushing forward, eager to show the king and his heir the old royal castle he proudly kept.
Sir Corin wore a dusty blue waistcoat that hung to his thighs, the last four buttons undone to allow for his paunch. His hair, scraggly and gray, had been pulled into an old-fashioned queue at his nape. He kept a ring of keys attached to his waist that clanked with each step he took.
He was a student of history, he’d said, and could answer any question they might have about Astasia Castle, and proceeded to exhibit his detailed knowledge of the dank, drafty place with narrow halls and low ceilings. A young Russian prince had died in this room. An ancient queen had lost her life giving birth to her tenth child in that room.
Sir Corin showed them to the throne room. “More than one monarch’s held court here.”
Justine was accustomed to the opulence of the palace in Wesloria’s capital of St. Edys. This looked more like a common room of a public house—it was small and dark, the king and queen’s thrones wooden, and the tapestries faded by time and smoke.
Another room, Sir Corin pointed out, was where King Maksim had accepted the surrender of the feudal King Igor, thereby uniting all Weslorians under one rule after generations of strife.
“My namesake,” her father said proudly, forgetting, perhaps, that King Maksim had slaughtered King Igor’s forces to unite them all.
They came upon a small inner courtyard. Stone walls rose up on three sides of it, but the outer wall was a battlement. Sir Corin pointed to a door at one end of the battlement that led into a keep with narrow windows. “We use it for storage now, but they kept the prisoners there in the old days. Worse than any dungeon your young eyes have ever seen, Your Royal Highness.”
Justine had never seen a dungeon.
“Is this not where Lord Rabat was beheaded?” her father asked casually. To Justine, he said, “That would have been your great-great-uncle Rabat.”
“Je, Your Majesty, the block is still here.” Sir Corin pointed to a large wooden block that stood alone, about two feet high and two feet wide. It looked to have been weathered by years of sitting in hard sun and wretched winters.
“Oh, how terrible,” Justine said, crinkling her nose.
“Quite,” her father agreed, and explained, with far too much enthusiasm, how a person was made to kneel before the block and lay their neck upon it. “A good executioner could make clean work of it with a single stroke. Whap, and the head would tumble into a basket.”
“If I may, Your Majesty, a good executioner was hard to come by. More miners in these parts than men good with broadswords. Fact is, it took three strikes of the sword to sever Rabat’s head completely.” Sir Corin felt it necessary to demonstrate the three strikes with his arm.
“Ah…” Justine swallowed down a swell of nausea.
“Three whacks?” her father repeated, rapt. “Couldn’t get it done in one?”
Sir Corin shook his head. “Just goes to prove how important it is to keep the broadsword sharp.”
“And to keep someone close who knows how to wield it,” her father added. The two men laughed roundly.
Justine looked around for someplace to sit so that she could put her head between her legs and gulp some air. Alas, the only place to sit was the block.
“Steady there, my girl. I’ve not told you who ordered the beheading,” her father said.
Sir Corin clasped his hands together in anticipation, clearly trying to contain his glee.
“Your great-great-aunt Queen Elena!”
Queen Elena had beheaded Lord Rabat? “Her husband?”
“Worse. Her brother.”
Justine gasped. “But why?”
“Because Rabat meant to behead her first. Whoever survived the battle here would be crowned the sovereign.”
“Ooh, a bloody battle it was, too,” Sir Corin said eagerly. “Four thousand souls lost, many of them falling right off the battlement.”
Justine backed up a step. A quake was beginning somewhere deep inside her, making her a little short of breath. Her knees felt as if they might buckle, and her skin crawled with anxiety, imagining the loss of so many. “Could she not have banished him?”
“And have him slither back like a snake?” Her father draped his arm around her shoulders before she could back up all the way to St. Edys. “She did the right thing. Why, minutes before, she was on the block herself.”
“Dear God,” Justine whispered.
“But at the last minute the people here saved her,” her father said. “She sentenced her brother to die immediately for his insurrection and stood right where we are now to watch his traitorous head roll.”
“Well,” Sir Corin said. “I wouldn’t say it rolled, precisely.”
The two men laughed again.
“Don’t close your eyes, darling,” her father said, squeezing her into his side. “Look at that block. Elena was only seventeen years old, but she was very clever. She knew what she had to do to hold power and rule the kingdom. And she ruled a very long time.”
“Forty-three years, all told,” Sir Corin said proudly.
“Queen Elena learned what every sovereign must—be decisive and act quickly. Do you understand?”
“I don’t…think so?” Justine was starting to feel a bit like she was spinning.
“You will.” Her father dropped his arm. He wandered over to the block to inspect it. “We almost named you Elena after her. But they called her Elena the Bi—Witch,” he said. “And your mother feared they might call you the same.”
“You said she was a good queen.”
“She was an excellent queen. But sometimes it is difficult to do the things that must be done and keep the admiration of your people at the same time.”
The spinning was getting worse. She gripped her father’s arm. “Why?”
“Because people expect a woman to behave like a woman. But a good queen must sometimes behave more like a king for the good of the kingdom. People don’t care for it.” He shrugged. “No king or queen can make all their subjects happy all the time.” He suddenly smiled. “You look a bit like Queen Elena.”
“The very image,” Sir Corin piped up.
Later that day Justine saw a portrait of Queen Elena. She wasn’t smiling, but she didn’t appear completely unpleasant. She simply looked…determined. And her dress was elegantly pretty, with lots of pearls sewn into it.
Later still, when her father and his men had retired to smoke cigars and talk about coal or some such, Justine returned to the courtyard alone. No one was there, no sentry looking out for marauders or runaway brides. She looked up at the tops of pines bending in a relentless wind, appearing to scrape a dull gray sky. She walked up the steps to the battlement and gazed out over the mountain valley below the castle. She spread her arms wide, closed her eyes and turned her face to the heavens.
That was the first time she truly felt it—the pull from somewhere deep, the energy of all the kings and queens who had come before her, rising up to the crown of her head, anchoring her to this earth. She felt the centuries of warfare and struggle, of the people her family had ruled. She felt the enormous responsibilities they’d all carried, the work they’d done to carve a road to the future.
Her father had often said that he could feel the weight of his crown on his shoulders. But Justine felt something entirely different. She didn’t feel as if it was weighing her down, but more like it was lifting her off her feet and holding her here. She didn’t believe this was a conceit on her part, but a tether to her past. She would be a queen. She knew that she would, and standing there, she felt like she should be. She felt born to it.
A gust of wind very nearly sent her flying, so she came down from the battlement. She paused just before the block and tried to imagine herself on her knees, knowing her death was imminent. She imagined how she would look.
She hoped she would appear strong and noble with no hint of her fear of the pain or the unknown.
Being queen was her destiny. She knew it would come.
But she hadn’t known then it would come so soon.
Excerpted from The Last Duke Standing by Julia London. Copyright © 2022 by Dinah Dinwiddie. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
Q&A With Julia London
1. Tell us about your latest book. Who are the main character(s) and what can readers expect when they pick up Last Duke Standing?
Princess Justine Ivanosen is going to be queen of Wesloria sooner than she hoped—her father, the king, is dying from tuberculosis. Because he is declining, a marriage becomes very important. The Prime Minister is dead set against having a young woman ascend the throne without a man to guide her, and her mother is still smarting over Justine’s disastrous affair with a charlatan, the reveal of which has left her without great prospects at home. The Prime Minister convinces the queen that they ought to employ a matchmaker to make quick work of it. They can ship her off to England to apprentice with Queen Victoria, bring some suitors around to court her there instead of here, where all of Wesloria will be watching, and give strict instructions that she is to return with a fiance. The prime minister won't leave the selection of the lucky fellow to chance, and persuades one of his old cronies to send his handsome son to London to keep an eye on the selection process.
William Douglas, the future Duke of Hamilton, has been flitting around Europe for ages. He’s met the princess before, but she was hardly more than a snippy girl who didn't like losing parlor games. The last thing he wants to do is babysit that child. But he discovers the girl in his memory is now a very attractive grown woman. She’s still a challenge, however—she likes to be called Your Royal Highness a lot more than he likes saying it, and expressly forbids him from offering his advice. He’s one of those people—if someone says don’t do it, he’s going to do it. And he has some advice about every man that comes to meet her.
Lady Aleksander, the matchmaker, sees that these two might be perfect for each other. The only way to find out is to bring some gentlemen around that she knows will unite Justine and William. But they are too busy pretending they aren’t falling in love to even notice.
2. Who was your favorite character to write in THE LAST DUKE STANDING and why?
I like all the main characters. Justine and William were so meant for each other. Little sister Amelia has some growing up to do. Beckett Hawke and Donovan are back from A Royal Wedding series. But I really enjoyed creating Lady Aleksander, the matchmaker. She is the third point of view in this book, and her observations of what is happening is like the Greek chorus—she can see clearly what the leads can’t see. It liked that she’s in her forties, very much in love with her husband, and she just wants everyone to have what she has. She makes no apologies for who she is or what she does and she has the patience of Job. She also likes to eat. We have that in common.
3. What do you like about writing in the historical subgenre? What are the challenges?
I fell in love with historical fiction when I was a girl. Castles and princesses were a long way from a ranch in West Texas, but I loved the stories of balls and gowns and the idea of a rich gentleman. I was surrounded by farmers and ranch hands, so the idea of a pretty dress and fancy dinner had a fairy-tale appeal. I loved history in school, and I minored in British history. The fairy-tale appeal still persists—through the last election and the pandemic, it was a great relief for me to slip off to another world where people were genteel and the biggest problem they had was the strict rules of etiquette putting a damper on their moves. The challenge of writing historical romance today is to make it interesting for the new generation of readers. There is a lot more competing for their attention than there was for mine at a similar age. But a good love story is a good story, no matter the era.
4. Who are some authors you look to for inspiration?
One of the best romances I ever read was Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. It is a history of Wales, and of King Llewellyn and his very young wife Joanna. The history is dark and bloody, but they truly loved each other.
I have also found a renewed admiration for Julia Quinn. I can look back at her Bridgerton series now and see how clever she was at giving us a large family with a lot of issues to enjoy for years. She must have taken excellent notes from her own books to keep up with all the twists and turns in that family.
5. What is your writing routine like? Do you have a specific place you write? Time of day?
My routine is to do it every day. I usually do some physical exercise in the morning, but once I’ve done that, and picked up the house, and done my Wordle, I get to work. I write every day. I have an office, but the pandemic has made me sick of it. So I move around the house now. I am done with the day’s work by the time school is out—I used to be able to keep my head in two places (the book and family) but I can’t do that anymore. I don’t know what happened to my ability to multi-task, but it has been obliterated. So I work as much as I can during school hours and then hit the wine fridge like any red-blooded working mom.
6. What’s next for the Royal Match series?
I am just finishing The Duke Not Taken. It’s about Princess Amelia, who is also sent to England under Lady Aleksander’s care to find a husband. Amelia really wants a husband and a family. Her problem, however, is she’s too much of a straightshooter for most people. And she’s not willing to settle. Enter the Duke of Marley, who has to be the only man in one hundred square miles who is not the least interested in a beautiful, rich, young princess. He has his reasons…