In an age of political unrest and racial divide, one girl's search for truth will determine the future of her kingdom.
For the last ten years, nineteen-year-old Eleanora Svobodová has worked as a servant in her stepmother's household, dreaming of the day she will be free to live life on her own terms.
But when her estranged grandmother, Lady Penelope, comes to Prague on behalf of Queen Victoria, everything changes. Throughout Bohemia, a string of murders and secret whispers hint at a larger coup, and Lady Penelope, as the leader of the Order of the Crystal Daggers, an ancient order of spies and soldiers that protect kingdoms and their rulers, is determined to discover the perpetrators. When she offers Eleanora the chance to help her prevent the kingdom from falling apart, she is hesitant to trust her. And while joining means freedom from her stepmother and protecting the people of Prague, Eleanora knows her life will never be the same--or her own.
Can she find a way to be free and still do the right thing? Or will joining the Order only lead to disaster?
With castle intrigue, true love, and family dysfunction, Cinderella meets Mission Impossible in this historical fiction spy adventure series by C. S. Johnson.
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|Publisher:||Prodigy Gold Books|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.74(d)|
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The call to wake up was never a pleasant one. Ben's voice, though it had grown deeper over the years and changed according to his moods each day, was constant throughout the last decade of our lives; it was the precursor to the endless rounds of chores and errands.
It was a comfortable kind of discomfort.
My slumbering barrier against the real world was breached again, this time more urgently.
"Come on, Nora, wake up."
I could hear the mix of impatience and compassion in his tone as Ben sighed.
At that, I shot up, sitting upright on my small pallet. I groaned as I pushed back the loose tresses of my hair, allowing my eyes to find sunlight. It was a wasted effort; the sun had not yet risen. "Already?" I asked, rubbing my eyes. "Why is she even up this early? You'd think that after so many evenings of dancing till dawn she would never again rise from sleep before noon."
"Why else?" Ben asked. "She and Priscilla have rounded up more treasures that used to belong to our father, and she wants us to trade or sell them at the market before the neighbors can see how shabby they look."
"Oh, no. Not more of Táta's things!" I turned my face away from my brother and flopped back onto the small, soft bag I'd stuffed with cotton and feathers to use as a pillow. "I thought she'd finished searching for his stuff years ago."
"Otec collected a lot of junk from his travels for the king," Ben said. His formal use of "Otec" snapped in the air between us, also reminding me of his animosity toward our father. "Máma's stuff is nearly gone, too. Including all her lovely books from Paris."
From the look on his face, Ben mourned the loss of those books more than I did, and it was likely only a little less than either of us missed our mother.
"I know, but still. It's been over ten years since Táta died," I moaned. "Cecilia wasn't married to him that long."
Ben gave me a small smile. "I know it hasn't helped Cecilia that we've hidden some of Otec's things. And there is her party tonight, don't forget."
"How in the world could I forget about the party?" I held up my hands. "My palms have been raw all week from the extra scrubbings she's had me and the other maids do."
"That's probably how she managed to find some more of Otec's collectibles." "She didn't find anything under the floor in the pantry, did she?" I asked, my eyes suddenly wide with fear. "I put Máma's locket there, along with Táta's pocket watch."
"I'm sure we'll find out," Ben said. "I just saw her hanging out the east tower window, yelling at the gardeners, and when I went to go pilfer some bread earlier, Betsy told me 'Her Ladyship' has to check on the barn's repairs on her way over here to us. She'll come for us last."
"Of course." Ben mocked my tone. "So you'll have time to shake the soot out of your skirts."
"Huh?" I looked down and sighed. I had stayed up late reading by the fireplace, and my shirts were covered in a light coating of soot.
Why was it so hard to find the time to read, and then to have the joy of reading itself tampered with the cost of Cecilia's anger?
"Ben, help me." I began jumping up and batting the ashen dust off my apron. "She'll kill me if she sees my dress like this. She hates doing laundry any more than she has to."
"You mean she hates it when we have to do laundry any more than she wants us to. It's laughable to think she does any real work herself."
"She does all the accounting work. I've seen her doing it, even very late into the night in the library." I suddenly laughed. "Oh! I forgot to tell you. The other night, I actually saw her wearing her spectacles."
Ben smiled as he pushed my pallet and homemade pillow inside a small chest and grabbed a broom while using his crutch to push aside the rug. "I'll bet that was a sight," he said. "What did they look like?"
"They were wire frames," I said, "and they were perched on her nose like a chained bird, trying desperately to fly free. They made her nose look so big! I'd never noticed how long it is."
"We'll have to keep that in mind if we ever need emotional blackmail," Ben said.
"Yes, most definitely —"
I flinched as Ben's weak leg tripped over the book I'd managed to hide under my pallet; once I recovered, I hurried over and picked it up, quickly thrusting it behind my back.
"I see you were in the library looking for books again," Ben said.
"I can't help it," I insisted. "Life is so dull without books."
"Life also gets much worse when Cecilia realizes you're reading these by the fire, getting them dirty, and demands we work more to earn back the cost."
I lowered my eyes. "We only have each other, Ben. Can't we have books, too?"
"Not while they're technically hers, and we have to pay for them."
The door snapped open with a melodramatic creak. "Pay for what?"
Instantly, we snapped to attention before our stepmother. While ten years had passed since our father died, and it had been eleven years since her marriage to him, Cecilia's face was nearly as fresh and fair as it had been on their wedding day.
Unless, of course, she was frowning, as she usually was when she looked at us.
After the long years of working as her servants, Ben and I were well-acquainted with the flash of her temper and the guilt of her sermons.
"Good morning, My Lady," I murmured delicately, curtsying in the fine manner Máma had taught me.
"Save your curtsies," Cecilia snapped. "I have no time for your disruptions today. Tell me, what are you going to pay for?"
"A new dress," I said. I didn't think God would mind the small misdirection. "I heard that Madame Balthazar down at the market has a bolt of new silk in from the East, and I'd like to try to earn some money to pay for it."
Between dresses and books, I was more than happy to let Cecilia think I wanted the dresses more. She was appalled at the thought of servants knowing how to read, let alone actually reading.
Her nose reflexively sniffed. "I doubt you'd be able to afford it, Eleanora. It would be a poor investment besides, considering you ruin the dresses you have now by sleeping close to the fire." She prowled around the room as she shook her head. She let out a disapproving tsk, tsk as she looked up and down at my servant's outfit.
I turned along with her, keeping the book behind me and out of sight.
Ben coughed, effectively distracting her.
She turned her gaze on him. "Benedict, are you ill?"
"No, ma'am," he said, bowing his head down to her ever so slightly.
"I have some items I need you to take to the market." Her eyes narrowed. "I'd like for you and Eleonora to take them today, and quickly. I also have a list of things you will need to pick up before His Grace arrives for the party tonight."
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
"See to it that you are both back in time to help with the dinner preparations," she said. "Betsy and Mavis are going to be extra busy, and we need all the hands we have to make sure the day is sufferable."
"Stop that," Cecilia barked. "Don't use that tone with me."
Ben said nothing.
Part of me waited to see if Cecilia was going to give the same old lines to Ben: You're lucky I am able to keep you, as a cripple wouldn't last long in the market streets or out in the fields.
I am more than willing to do my Christian duty to your father's memory, but you're enough of a man to know I could turn you out if you would ever indicate that was your desire.
You have no place here anymore; it is fortunate for you that you can be of some help, given your regrettable condition.
I should think you would be grateful to me, to keep you here with your sister, rather than thinking you deserve more.
Life does not guarantee you anything, and it's time to stop acting like I should feel sorry for you, rather than embracing what my good choices have brought me.
It was almost as if she had branded those words on Ben, deforming his heart as much as his leg. A moment passed, and from the small smirk on Cecilia's face, just barely peeking out from the thin layer of wrinkles, I knew we were all thinking the same thing.
I guess she knows that she doesn't have to say it anymore.
Still, I held my breath as she turned to face me. Over the years, I'd learned to stop flinching; the one time I stopped her, back when she was more apologetic about the state of "poverty" my father left her in, she had me flogged. "As a servant girl should be," were her exact words on the issue.
"See to it that you have at least one clean outfit to wear tonight, Eleonora," she said. "I will need you to help with our guests."
Her impressive skirts swept around her, and before I could ask her who else besides the Duke was coming to dinner, Ben cut me off with a stern look.
I shut my mouth and nodded to him.
"You'll find the items to trade gathered in the back of the main house," she called back. "Go, and hurry now."
I finally allowed myself to wince. "She's getting shrilly," I said to myself.
"Old age comes to us all," Ben said. "Hopefully, we won't have to deal with her too much longer."
"How is our goal coming?" I lowered my voice by several degrees. "Are we any closer to Liberté?"
"Nora." Ben sighed. "We will need another year, at least."
I wanted to pout. But I gave Ben my best smile. "Only a year doesn't sound so bad." I almost hid my roughened hands in my skirts, before I recalled I was hiding the book I'd taken from the library.
"Do you want me to return it for you?"
There was a playfulness behind his grin, and seeing it, I couldn't help but give in to the temptation to run and pretend I was far away from home. "I'll race you," I said. "Just let me get my shoes."
"If I win, you have to go to town yourself," he said. "I want to stay and help with the cooking."
"Help yourself to the cooking, more likely."
"The rich and fancy have people taste their food before they eat it," Ben said. "They aren't like us, Nora."
I ignored the part about the fancy. Ben and I had known our share of a comfortable world, before Máma was lost at sea and Táta died. "Are you hoping you'll get the job?"
"No, and that's a shame. It might help us get to Liberté faster."
"Ha!" I rolled my eyes. "I doubt Cecilia would let you be hired, even if it was the Duke of Moravia that wanted you as his personal food taster."
"Yes, where would she be without us?" Ben rolled his eyes. "She wouldn't be able to get on her high horse and claim she's doing her duty to our father's memory."
"I can't imagine her on any horse at all," I said, trying to add some levity. "Not in those gowns, with those horribly voluminous skirts. It's worth it to be a servant just so I can walk without falling over and drowning in a puddle."
Ben laughed, and I cheered at his mirth as I grabbed my shoes and laced them up. My brother knew little of joy in his life, outside of caring for me and working on his machines. It was only right that I tried to provide him with as much happiness as I could.
Especially since Cecilia seemed so determined to take it away, just as she'd taken our inheritance away.
"Ow," I muttered.
"What is it?" Ben asked.
"My shoe." I held up the small slipper. "It has a hole in the bottom."
"I'll see if I can repair it while you're out on the town, you klutz." The smirk on his face might have made me mad if I didn't know we relied on making each other laugh and keeping each other fighting.
"Ha!" I stood up. "You really think you'll beat me to the library?"
"WhileI'm holding the book." He lifted up his pant leg to show me the latest brace he'd designed for his crooked leg. "This model helps my balance a lot more. I used some spare iron from the blacksmith's shed. I don't even need my crutch to run."
"Run, maybe," I said, "but I'll still be able to beat you climbing into the kitchen windows!"
And before he could stop me, I tore out of the small servant's house and headed for the main house, laughing all the way.
Ben quickly managed to catch up to me. I could see his twisted leg moving with a straightened limp, and he'd been right; his balance was kept in place as he ran.
As soon as I could feel him catching me, I twisted about, skipping through the pig's pen.
The mud and muck would surely slow him down, I thought, not too thrilled to be so competitive that it made me less than compassionate.
Ben didn't seem to mind.
"Ha, nice try, Nora!"
As I watched, he pulled out the feeding trough and used it to slide through the muck. The pigs didn't even see him.
And I didn't really see them. I stumbled right into one, only managing to jump over him at the last moment.
Furious Ben had found a way to beat me, I grappled with the ivy vines, thick from years of growth in the Bohemian clime, and pulled myself up to the second floor of my father's mansion.
"Ha, yourself!" I called back, teasingly waving as I headed down the stone battlement.
Ben grunted in response, but I saw the smirk on his face as he trotted up a small tower of hay bales and hurried into a nearby window, only catching his leg briefly on the outer trim.
"Hey!" I rushed toward the door.
Only to be immediately stopped by my stepbrother.
"Where are you rushing off to?" he asked, as he lazed about in the doorway to the inner keep.
"I'm just going inside, Alex," I murmured, avoiding his eyes.
He looked too much like Cecilia that I did not like to look at him in general, but he had inherited her vanity along with her looks.
As I glanced up at him, waiting for him to move, I caught sight of the leer on his face, and I felt the sudden urge to hit him. He was looking down his nose at me, as though I was beneath him.
Which, considering my role in his household, even I had a hard enough time doubting. But I was a lady, a true one, just as my mother had been, and my father made me a knight's daughter.
"That's Lord Alex to you."
"Well, then it's Lady Eleanora to you," I spat back.
"I'd hardly bow to a servant, especially a hoyden such as you," he countered. "What kind of lady romps around on the battlements just before breakfast? One returning from an illicit, romantic tryst, maybe?" His gaze wandered down my dress, and I gave in to my hateful temptation.
My fist balled, and I struck him in the stomach before he could move.
"Ack." He gasped before doubling over in pain.
"Serves you right," I said, kneeing him in the face. I could feel the stark bluntness of the impact, and I was not surprised a moment later to see droplets of red slam against the stony walkway.
"You'll pay for that," he vowed, as his nose began to bleed.
"Oh, what are you ever going to do? Tell your mommy on me? She'll hardly think you're man enough to marry that countess then."
"I'll find a way to make you pay," Alex grunted, "if it's the last thing I do."
"I would gladly let you try, if it was indeed the last thing you would ever do," I yelled back, already moving past him and out the door of the next room.
It was no secret my stepbrother was a monster; Ben and I had caught him trying to coerce Betsy and some of the other younger maids into dark corners of the house a few years ago, and ever since then we've made sure he was well watched by the guards.
All of Táta's playing around when we were younger looked more and more like a wise investment, I thought, as I arrived at my destination. Ben and I had learned to hit and fight as well as any siblings who shared the ups and downs of our lives, mostly thanks to each other, but plenty of others as well.
The halls around me were quiet and still. I burst through the double doors of the library and threw up my arms in triumph.
"Take that, Ben!" I twirled around and flopped into a chair. I decided it was the perfect place to greet him as he entered and found himself in second place.
There was just one problem with that.
"Take what?" Ben asked, all too innocently, from behind me.
I jumped up and swiveled around, the mud on my shoes making my feet more slick. "Oh, no."
"Yep, that's right. I'm the winner." The innocence was gone, and the arrogance had come.
My shoulders slumped over. "I guess this means I have to go into town by myself."
"You know it." Ben grinned. A moment later, he softened. "It might be for the best," he said. "If you go by yourself, you'll take longer. That'll give me some time to get the work done around here."
I sighed. "Anything to get away from Alex. I ran into him out on the battlements. That's why I lost."
"Then it is better you go," Ben said. "So when I beat him, you won't be around to take the blame."
"I already took care of it," I said, before diving into the details, telling Ben the story of how I had fought off our wicked stepbrother.
"In all seriousness, we need to practice your fighting some more," Ben said when I was done, and he was done laughing. "He'll be the master here soon, Nora."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kingdom of Ash and Soot"
Copyright © 2018 C. S. Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Prodigy Gold Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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