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Thick woods crowded the lonely road as the royal carriage and its phalanx of armed outriders pounded on through the black autumn night.
Inside the coach, seated across from her lady-in-waiting, the raven-haired Princess Sophia of Kavros stared out the window at the dark tangle of gnarled tree trunks and scraggly branches whizzing by. The tiny candle sconces inside the carriage cast her reflection on the window glass—a face of exotic beauty, with an expression of brooding intensity, lost in her thoughts.
Not much longer now.
In another few hours, they would reach the castle for tonight’s secret meeting with the British diplomats.
The rhythmic jouncing of the coach set the beat as Sophia continued mentally rehearsing the impassioned speech she meant to give the Foreign Office lords.
On this, the very eve of her destiny, they could no longer deny her, for at the stroke of midnight, she would turn twenty-one, attaining her legal majority; then they could not brush her off anymore with their excuses and protestations that she was too young to rule.
The time had come for the British government to keep its promise and restore Sophia to her family’s throne. Her people would have it no other way, and God knew, they had suffered enough.
Restlessly, she glanced at her attendant. “What is the hour, Alexa?”
The striking blonde jumped when Sophia addressed her.
Of course, they both were nervous about this night, so long in the planning.
There was so much at stake.
Alexa checked her locket-watch. “A quarter past nine, Your Highness. Ten whole minutes since the last time you asked,” she added, with a taut smile.
Sophia knitted her eyebrows and flicked an impatient scowl toward the carriage window, but took no offense at her companion’s irreverent tone. Alexa had been with her too long to stand on ceremony; her ancestors had been courtiers to the royal family for generations, and had even followed them into exile here in England when the kingdom had fallen to Napoleon. Alexa had been assigned as Sophia’s lady-in-waiting when both girls were barely fifteen.
Besides, Alexa always made cheeky jokes when she was on edge.
“Must you look so glum?” her friend attempted again with an air of vague distress, though striving for levity. Not every girl gets a crown and scepter for her birthday, you know.”
“We’re not there yet,” Sophia answered matter-of-factly.
When one had survived as many shocking twists of fate as she had in her brief years, one learned to take nothing for granted.
The cooperation of the English, for example.
She did not think at this point that they would refuse her outright, now that conditions on Kavros had deteriorated to such a degree. But no doubt the English government would try to keep her on a leash, and for a time, Sophia supposed, she could go along with that, at least until her power was secure.
But then, eventually, they would learn that she had bigger plans in mind than to serve their convenience as a mere royal figurehead.
Her people desperately needed true leadership. Though she had never expected to rule, now, with her father and both elder brothers dead—assassinated—the duties of the royal house fell to her.
Obviously, the task ahead was dangerous. Her family had many enemies, and her entry into public life would bring her to their attention.
But no matter. Big, burly Leon, her chief bodyguard since childhood and current head of security, had prepared her well for all eventualities.
He chose that moment to guide his horse up alongside the carriage, ducking his shaved head down to glance in the window. “How are our ladies doing?” he asked in a jaunty tone over the creaking of the carriage and the pounding of the horses’ hooves.
“We’re fine,” Sophia assured him.
“Only a little impatient,” Alexa chimed in with a pointed glance at her.
Leon’s sturdy grin had a much-needed calming effect on both girls. “Happy birthday, Your Highness.”
“Not yet!” Sophia retorted with a twinkling smile.
He’d been saying it all day.
She did not want the moment of her birthday to arrive until she had all those haughty diplomats sitting there in front of her. Then she’d take out her royal birth certificate and jam it down their throats if they dared balk at her claim.
Just then, Leon glanced ahead, his expression sobering. At the same time, Sophia felt the carriage begin to slow.
“What’s happening? Have we come to a bridge?”
“There’s something in the road,” Leon murmured.
“What is it?”
“Not sure. Looks like a broken-down cart. Pull the blinds,” he ordered, then clucked to his horse and surged ahead.
More than superstition made Sophia’s heart begin to pound.
Alexa had gone ashen as Sophia gestured reassuringly to her to draw the shades on her side of the coach. The girls quickly followed Leon’s order, pulling the thin leather carriage blinds over the glassed windows.
“It’s p-probably nothing, I’m sure,” Alexa whispered with a dread-filled stare at the carriage door, but Sophia wasn’t taking any chances. She checked the locks on the door, then reached down and slid the crimson velvet skirts of her formal court gown up a bit, brushing aside the gold lace trim to reach for the knife that she wore strapped around her thigh.
If they think they can take me as easily as my brothers, they’re dead wrong.
Alexa’s eyes widened as Sophia unsheathed her weapon and calmly opened the hidden compartment under her seat. She pulled out a loaded pistol, handing it to her friend.
Alexa shook her head rapidly, trying to refuse.
“Take it,” she ordered.
“Just in case. Calm down.” Sophia took a second pistol for herself and cocked it.
Father had been poisoned. Giorgios had been drowned. Kristos had been stabbed in some dark Vienna alley. All of Europe’s most powerful empires lusted to possess her tiny homeland, a small but strategically placed Greek island chain, gateway between the East and West. Napoleon himself had said that whoever ruled Kavros could control the Mediterranean and thereby dominate Western Europe—which was exactly why the victorious British had claimed it as their protectorate after Bonaparte’s defeat.
But throughout those awful years of chaotic war, while Sophia had been growing up in exile in Nottinghamshire, her poor homeland had changed hands several times, first to the French under Napoleon’s conquest. Then the imperial Habsburgs of Austria had seized it, only to lose it again to the Russian czar—to say nothing of the ever-present threat from fierce Ali Pasha, the so-called Terrible Turk, as well as the inscrutable sultans of the Ottoman Empire.
Any one of these great powers might still have designs on Kavros, which meant that she and Leon and all her bold Greek guards were on full alert to make sure that she, the next in line for the throne, did not meet some equally gruesome fate.
Well armed now to combat any danger, she pulled her dark woolen cloak—a very special cloak—more tightly around her, the better to conceal her royal garb. Hearing voices outside, Sophia tried to make out the words, willing herself to believe it was some English yeoman farmer whose cart had broken down, like Leon said, on the way to market.
Then she noticed Alexa’s stark pallor. Taking pity on her helpless friend, she drew breath to tell her not to worry. Before she could speak, however, their carriage jolted, then rocked to a sudden halt. Gunshots pierced the night. Everything happened at once.
Horses screamed, men roared outside, Alexa shrieked, and Sophia’s whole focus homed in on the sounds of the chaos outside.
There was no time to indulge her disbelief.
Her pulse roaring in her ears, Sophia seized her weapons and snapped Alexa out of her screaming hysteria with a clipped order: “Stay calm!”
Her own composure was jarred with a gasp as the butt of a rifle came crashing through the carriage window, partly tearing down the leather blind.
Sophia turned her face away from the spray of shattering glass while Alexa covered her head and dove down on the seat with another shrill scream.
When Sophia looked over again, the carriage blind was still dangling askew, but a black-gauntleted hand and forearm had hooked in through the broken window.
The hand was feeling around for the door’s handle, scrabbling at the locks. Her eyes narrowed with a furious gleam. She knew enough to save her bullets.
Clenching her jaw, she brought up her dagger and slashed the intruder’s hand hard, slicing through his black leather glove and cutting him all the way up to his forearm. At once, behind the leather blind, a garbled shout of pain rang out. The hand was immediately withdrawn. When the next intruder shot the locks away in the blink of an eye, Sophia was ready for him, too.
The masked man tore open the carriage door and found himself staring down the muzzle of her pistol. With the barest memory of her father and her brothers, she squeezed the trigger and killed him on the spot. Another one took his place as she reached down and picked up the pistol Alexa had dropped. She shot him, too, but her hands were shaking now; it was only a glancing blow.