The Last Kingdom
Cotton Malone Series Book 17
Barnes & Noble
From celebrated New York Times bestselling author, Steve Berry, comes the latest Cotton Malone adventure, in which the discovery of a lost historical document could challenge the global might of the United States.
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.
What continues to amaze me about the Cotton Malone books is how Steve Berry can consistently find global stories about legendary loopholes, or unwritten history, that I am completely unaware of. Berry is in very limited company when it comes to thrillers of this magnitude, which includes those written by the likes of Brad Meltzer, Brad Thor, and James Rollins. This series never disappoints!”
"The always great Steve Berry is back with another, well, great thriller. History buffs especially will devour this quest story of sorts, in which the truth is the rarest treasure of all . . . a page-turner of the absolute highest order.”
“Those looking for a fun page-turner with historical elements will be satisfied.”
— Publisher’s Weekly
“The seventeenth book in the series delivers—this should come as no great surprise to Berry’s fans—a thrilling adventure. When readers crack open a new Malone adventure, it’s like reuniting with an old friend. Another strong entry in a consistently fine series.”
"About what you’d expect if James Bond were an American who consulted with the CIA. Bring it on.”
— Kirkus Reviews
"Scott Brick narrates the action with intensity. This is a fascinating listen for fans of Bavarian history and the landscapes and castles of Germany.”
— AudioFile (reviewing the audio edition)
"Berry once again proves that history matters, skillfully crafting a fictional story around historical truths . . . [he’s] like a fine-tuned machine, melding historical fact and authentic locales within a complex fictional storyline. History enthusiasts will relish the intricate research behind the spy-versus-spy thriller, which challenges readers to consider historical what-ifs.”
— Library Journal
FROM THE BLOG WORLD
The Last Kingdom has a solid share of surprises, a myriad of mysterious moments, and a heaping of historical happenstance. Better than anyone writing today, Steve Berry manages to create an amalgamation of the authentic and absurd. His ability to connect and create seemingly random events of the past into a pulse pounding treasure hunt continues to entertain this long time fan. . . . As always, highly recommend this for anyone who loves a good treasure hunt.”
"It’s been two years since the last Cotton Malone novel, and well worth the wait. This is another thrilling novel in the series and fans will not be disappointed."
I am confident [Berry] will keep turning out some of the best adventure fiction out there. Fans will welcome this fast-paced, action-packed story, told in relatively short sections and chapters which makes this a fantastic weekend read.
Tuesday, December 9th
Cotton Malone kept his entire attention on the man and woman. He and they were part of a tour group for Herrenchiemsee, a seventy-room 19th-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 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 few had made the journey across the lake on the ferry boat, 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 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, 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 Tannhauser, 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 backwards, then dared to retail 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 woman.
They were young, maybe early thirties. She was blonde, curly-haired, high-cheekboned and slender. He was clean-shaven and sinewy, with dark hair trimmed close to his scalp. They both wore lightweight wool coats which, like himself and unlike 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 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 19th-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 amongst 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 his name in French meant 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 his fantasies purity and grandeur.
They entered a state bedroom paneled in white, all a glitter in gilding, the rounded bed alcove fenced off by a golden balustrade. Gilded stucco mythological figures adorned the ceiling. Red velvet draperies lined with gold embroidery framed out the windows. From the pamphlet Cotton knew that it had taken seven years to make them, the bed 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 peak 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 which 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 rare bookshop 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 connotated 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 grey 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. Then they were raised, the hall filled with a sudden, almost intolerable glare and heat, which multiplied into many more thousands from the mirrors. It was a sight just for the king. Ludwig only saw his palaces 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 either as a tyrant, lunatic, or an incompetent. But none of those labels were correct. Today he might have been characterized as bipolar, or a manic depressant, and treated with medication, living a long and productive life. But no such assistance had been available in the 19th century. His father, Maximillian 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, 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 roll-top 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 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, pointing to his camera, “Excuse me, might I borrow this.”
Without waiting for an answer he slipped the strap from around the 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 roll-top 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.
Also in this series: