Home > The Princess Stakes

The Princess Stakes
Author: Amalie Howard

 

One


   India, 1861

   The coppery scent of spilled blood coiled into Princess Sarani Rao’s nostrils as she fled down the corridor toward the courtyard, her slippers soundless on the polished marble. She tugged on her maid’s arm, hefting the carpetbag she’d stuffed full of jewels, weapons, and clothing over one shoulder. Bombay. They had to get to Bombay, and then find a ship. Any ship.

   Her stomach roiled with nausea and nerves.

   “Hurry, Asha,” she whispered urgently. “Tej is waiting.”

   “Where are we going, Princess?” the maid cried when they stopped to make sure the second, less-used courtyard was deserted. Most of the noise had come from the front of the palace, which gave them a few precious minutes, and Sarani had sent Tej, her longtime manservant, with a hastily stuffed portmanteau to ready any transportation he could find. She was well aware that her life could end right then and there, just like her father’s. This was a royal coup.

   Sarani let out a strangled breath. “Anywhere but here.”

   She’d just seen her father—the Maharaja of Joor—lying on his bed and in his nightclothes with his throat slit. Bile crept up into her throat and she retched helplessly to the side, tears stinging her eyes. The distant sounds of shouting and the clang of steel filled her ears, the acrid smell of smoke permeating her nostrils.

   She hadn’t expected the attack. No one had, not even her father or his advisors, despite the fact that India, and in particular the princely state of Joor, had been divided in turmoil for years. Things were becoming precarious with feudal nobility and hostile laborers fighting against British rule, annexation, and cultural practices, and the sepoys in the British army were getting restless.

   But Sarani felt deep in her gut that this had been an assault from within. No one but family could get into her father’s private quarters. Her cousin, Vikram, had the most to gain from eliminating the maharaja, and even if Vikram took power, he would always view her—the crown princess—as a threat.

   The minute she’d found her father, Sarani knew that she would have to run if she hoped to get out of there alive. The only reason she hadn’t been in her own quarters was because she’d snuck out with Tej to go down to her favorite childhood spot by the river. One last time, for memories’ sake. To do something normal before she was married off like chattel the next day to Lord Talbot, the local regent and a decrepit English earl, whom she’d managed to thwart with an unnaturally long five-year engagement…until time had finally run out.

   The single moment of whimsy had been the one thing to save her.

   Sarani had known something was off as soon as she had returned. While climbing the trellised vine up to her chambers, she’d seen shattered glass on her father’s adjacent terrace. And then she’d discovered him. Only her years of training with her weapons master had kept her from screaming or fainting at the sight of so much spilled blood.

   Her room had been disturbed as well—sheets overturned, doors askew—as if a search had been made in haste. It had struck Sarani again that the assassin had known exactly where to go…exactly which suites had been hers and her father’s.

   She’d packed and woken her maid, blessedly unharmed in her own adjacent chamber. “The maharaja’s been killed,” she’d told Asha. “We have to go.”

   Tej was their only hope of escape. Locking down her grief and terror, Sarani searched the gloom for her loyal manservant, blood chilling with alarm, until she spotted him waiting with one of the smaller coaches a little way down the drive in the shadow of a cluster of banyan trees.

   The boy waved, eyes wide from the driver’s perch. “Get in! They’re coming.”

   She and Asha sprinted down the drive and tumbled into the conveyance. It was moving before either of them could sit. Listening to the sounds of Asha’s quiet weeping, Sarani forced back her own tears, her body tense with fear, as the carriage rolled off into the night.

   Would they be followed? Had she left quickly enough? Would they be safe? If Vikram was the murderer—or had orchestrated the murder as she suspected—who knew what he might do? He would certainly not leave her alive. He might be a weasel of a coward, but he wasn’t stupid.

   The first leg of the journey took several hours. When they stopped to change horses, Sarani felt her dread start to ebb and stopped looking over her shoulder as often. No one chased them, and they’d made excellent time. After they were back on the road, the tears she’d been holding back came like the monsoon. They spooled hot and earnest down her cheeks, and she allowed herself to cry in the privacy of the carriage.

   Asha offered her a lace handkerchief, sobbing quietly herself. “What will we do?”

   “Go where they cannot find us.” Sarani clasped her maid’s fingers. “Asha, do you wish to come with me or stay? Tej has no family, but you do. We can secure lodgings for you in Bombay until you can safely go back to Joor.”

   “No, Princess, my place is with you.”

   With a sad nod, Sarani dried her tears and straightened her shoulders. They were on their own now and survival was tantamount. Money was no object—she had a fortune in jewels and priceless heirlooms in her portmanteau and carpetbag—but they would have to leave India until it was safe to return. A tiny voice inside acknowledged that could be never.

   With the instability and political unrest, the safest place for her would be off these shores. As far away as possible…which left her with only one option.

   Her mother’s birthplace.

   The thought of faraway London, known only from secondhand stories, made a knot form in her throat, but the alternative was much worse. If she stayed here, her fate would be the same as her father’s. No, she would go to England and take on her mother’s maiden name of Lockhart.

   Pretending to be an English countess wasn’t the worst thing in the world. She had fortune enough to last a lifetime. She had her wits. She had her training. And she was of aristocratic blood. Mostly.

   She could do it…be English.

   Sarani caught a hint of her reflection in the carriage window. A wild-eyed woman with dark-lined eyes and a bird’s nest of black hair stared back at her, arguably more a mess of a girl than a highborn lady. She bit back a choked laugh. Her old French governess would be in a lather at the sight of her. Even with the aid of a bath and a comb, she wouldn’t pass muster. Thanks to her mixed heritage, her complexion had changed throughout her life, and right now, it had taken on a brown glow from recent days spent outdoors. She might love it, but English aristocrats were more critical.

   And they were quite dependably so…

   Over the years, she’d witnessed many curious and disparaging looks by other English lords and ladies in her own court…ogling her as though she were an oddity. A princess of hybrid origins led to scrutiny, and not always the good kind. People saw what they wanted to see. Once, when she was twelve and sick of such intense observation, she’d hollered boo and made three visiting ladies spill Madeira all over themselves. Their reaction had been hilariously gratifying, but her punishment wasn’t—she’d been forbidden from riding for a month.

Hot Books
» House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City #1)
» From Blood and Ash (Blood And Ash #1)
» A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire
» The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #
» Deviant King (Royal Elite #1)
» Sweet Temptation
» Chasing Cassandra (The Ravenels #6)
» The Play (Briar U Book 3)
» Den of Vipers
» Angry God (All Saints High #3)
» Steel Princess (Royal Elite #2)
» Serpent & Dove(Serpent & Dove #1)
» ENEMIES
» Credence
» Archangel's War