Home > The Princess Stakes(9)

The Princess Stakes(9)
Author: Amalie Howard

   Rhystan cupped her face. “I won’t come to you again. It’s too dangerous. If you don’t hear from me, be at the tavern two nights hence. Please, Sarani. This isn’t what I planned for us, but I need you with me. Say you’ll stand at my side.”

   Her heart could no more refuse him than it could stop beating. “I will. I promise.”

   Rhystan kissed her again before leaving the way he’d come.

   * * *

   After a restless sleep, Sarani passed the next day in a fugue. Nothing could hold her interest, not even her books. She’d half expected armed officers from the Company to be waiting in the palace courtyard, but there was no disturbance of any sort. Despite her suspicion that Rhystan was neck deep in trouble, she distracted herself with a grueling horseback ride after her studies were finished.

   “Princess,” a breathless groom said as she rode, wind-blown and red-cheeked, into the courtyard. “The maharaja commands your presence immediately.”

   Without stopping to change her riding habit, Sarani dismounted and made her way to the throne room. Her gaze scanned the occupants of the room, hoping that Rhystan might be there although he’d said he’d been discharged, but his lanky frame was nowhere in sight. Disappointed, she approached the dais, where her father sat.

   Sarani curtsied. “You wanted to see me, Father?”

   The fact that his normally stern face didn’t break into a smile as it always did when he saw her should have been her first warning. The second was the distant expression in his eyes. “You are of marriageable age, and I have given my consent for you to marry the regent.”

   Everything whirled to a violent stop. Marriage to the regent? Sarani’s jaw unhinged, her gaze flicking to the man in question. The regent, Lord Talbot, was an earl, one of the British Crown’s agents assigned to monitor local nobility. He was an aging Englishman who had always sent her lecherous stares that had made her skin crawl. His vile opinions on the locals was sickening, and she knew he viewed them—and her as well—as less than property to be claimed.

   “But Rhystan…” She faltered, flushing. “Commander Huntley—”

   “Has left for England,” Vice Admiral Markham said, stepping into view, his eyes touching on her, a sneer in his tone. She didn’t like the way he regarded her as though she were a stain on the edge of his cuff and not a princess a far step above him.

   “He wouldn’t leave,” she said.

   “I had him put in a convoy headed to Bombay myself.”

   Clenching her fists, she met the vice admiral’s hard, scorn-filled eyes. “Why?”

   “He assaulted me.”

   The words jumbled into a nonsensical rush, but something like satisfaction in the vice admiral’s tone rubbed her raw. He was enjoying this. She recalled the blood in Rhystan’s hair and his split lip and smothered her cry. Likely, the vice admiral’s men had beaten him bloody for whatever crime they’d accused him of.

   “He would never do that,” Sarani said, her heart in her throat. “Why would you send him away? Because of me?”

   “You?” the vice admiral scoffed, his pitch lowering to a vicious whisper for her ears only. “You dress like us and talk like us, but you will never be one of us. You’re nothing.”

   Her eyes widened with shock. “How dare—”

   “That is enough,” her father cut in.

   Though his face was dark red with suppressed anger, he did not say anything else. Sarani waited. Surely, he wouldn’t stand for the man’s insult! But then her eyes met his, and when she saw the resignation in them, her heart tumbled to her toes. Perhaps Rhystan was right, after all. Her father didn’t have any power. Not with men like Markham speaking on behalf of the powerful British Crown. Their wardens. Their smiling oppressors.

   “Papa?” she whispered, forgetting herself and her place.

   “You will be wed to Lord Talbot,” her father said, a note of regret in his voice.

   Sarani gaped. “And if I refuse?”

   “You will cease this nonsense.”

   Flinching at the harsh whip of her father’s command, she pinned her lips between her teeth and clenched her fists. He had never spoken to her like that before. Ever.

   Tears filled her eyes when he beckoned her close and dismissed the rest of the people in the room. “You would sacrifice me to him?”

   “Sacrifice, Sarani?” The words held so much sadness, so much pain. For the first time, he let some remorse show, though it did nothing to reduce her ire. “We are rulers. Sacrifice is a necessary part of duty. He is a British earl. You will be an English countess by marriage. What could this discredited Huntley offer you? He is nothing and no one—a third-born, soon-to-be-disowned pauper. We cannot risk the ire of the English or the agreements in place. You are a princess of Joor.” His voice hardened, his dark eyes showing the merciless streak he was reputed to have. “Your duty is to your people.”

   She lifted a blazing gaze. “You speak of duty? Is it our duty to give in to tyranny? Because that is what this is, and you cannot see it. These men are nothing but pirates plundering in disguise. Look at what they did to Bengal. They are our enemy, can’t you see that?”

   Fear burst in his eyes at her heedlessly hissed words, and she knew then that her father would not listen. “Quiet, daughter.”

   “Silence has never done any woman any favors.”

   Her father didn’t stop her when she ran from the room and closeted herself in her bedchamber, her body racked with hard sobs. She would have to let Rhystan go and marry a man three times her age. Duty would always come first.

   Duty, and the will of powerful men.

   She was no more than a pawn…a piece to be played on a board. Such was her fate.

   Her very hollow future.

   Why shouldn’t she run? She could leave with Rhystan and never look back. But what if Markham was telling the truth and he was already gone? Her heart battled with her head, reason warring with impossible dreams. But in the end, Sarani knew she couldn’t abandon her people, not when she had any shred of power left in her. She had a voice and she would use it, even if her new husband tried to muzzle her.

   Quelling her protesting heart, she reached for a piece of parchment and a quill before hesitating. It was not the done thing for an unmarried lady to write to a gentleman, but Sarani couldn’t bear the thought of Rhystan not knowing why she hadn’t come, if he did show up to the inn. She had to explain why she’d broken her promise to meet him. Perhaps it was in the face of her own sorrow or perhaps it was because, deep down, she felt like she’d wronged him somehow. But he had to know the truth, even if he’d already been sent away for good. Her message might never reach him, but she had to try.

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