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The outer borders of Lohenberg1855
Karl von Lohenberg had always been a bastard. For twenty-five years, he'd merely thought it was a personality disorder rather than a reflection of his birth.
He'd been raised to believe he was a prince, the ftirst, who would one day be king of Lohenberg. And only a fortnight ago, one word had stripped away his future: bastard.
His father had ordered him out of the palace, granting him land and a manor house near the borders, as if to say: hide him where he won't cause any trouble.
Bitterness smouldered within him, at the way they'd turned their backs on him so quickly. Did they believe he was planning to kill or overthrow the true prince? Were the years of obedience and loyalty nothing to the king and queen? They treated him like a lighted fuse, leading to a keg of gunpowder.
Karl was stronger than that. He knew, well enough, that he'd never regain the throne of Lohenberg. It rightfully belonged to his half-brother Michael, and he wouldn't blacken the royal family or his country with scandal, fighting for something that wasn't his.
He'd given his life to his homeland, believing that one day he would be king, responsible for the lives of many. He liked being in command, and by God, he'd been good at it.
Fate might have picked him up by the collar and beaten him into a bloody mass, but he wasn't about to slink quietly into the shadows to lick his wounds. This was his life, and he intended to live it on his own terms.
For there was another way to restore his position. Cold-hearted and villainous, yes, but it was a solution.
He simply had to marry a princess.
Karl reached into his pocket and pulled out the letter he'd received a few days ago like the shred of hope it represented. His betrothed, Princess Serena of Baden-stein, was leaving the palace on an impromptu holiday to her grandfather's hunting lodge in Hamburg. Alone. The letter from her sister Anna thanked him for his promise to accompany Serena as her protector.
At first, he hadn't understood the letter. He'd made no such promise, since he'd known nothing about Serena's plans. They hardly knew one another, for Karl had only met the princess twice in the six years they'd been betrothed. She was beautiful, with a heart-shaped face, dark blond hair, and green eyes that held years of unhappiness.
Not once had he seen her smile. When they'd first met, she'd eyed him with distrust and more than a little fear. He didn't know what falsehoods her family had told her, but he wasn't that bad. He wasn't a man who caused small children to flee into hiding. Usually.
Why would the princess make a journey where her sister felt she needed protection? Wouldn't she have her father's guards and a hundred servants to keep her safe?
His instincts warned him that something was wrong with this so-called holiday. It was doubtful that Serena had invited him at all. More likely, the princess had lied to her sister, to appease her.
But Anna had turned the tables, letting Karl know that his bride was up to something. He didn't doubt that Serena would carry out her plan of leaving the palace, but why was she planning to go alone? Was she running away? Or meeting someone elsea lover, perhaps?
Grimly, Karl folded the letter, his mind taking apart each possibility. It was too soon for anyone in Badenstein to know of his fallen status. At the time Anna had sent this letter, he'd still been the heir to the Lohenberg throne.
If he joined the Princess on her holiday, as Anna had suggested, his presence might grant her protectionbut it would also compromise Serena's reputation beyond repair. She'd have no choice but to wed him, even if he never laid a hand upon her.
There would be hell to pay afterwards, but he could live with that. Once he became her prince consort, the scandal would eventually die down, and she could live her life as she wished.
Karl stared outside the window of the inn where he and his men were staying. The skies were growing dark, and he was within a few hours' ride of the palace. In the morning, he would put his plan into action. With any luck, he could claim the princess as his bride before anyone learned the truth about his lost kingdom.
Serena dragged out the small trunk she'd packed with a few days' worth of clothing. Today she would leave the palace, seizing the freedom she craved. She would depart Badenstein with a handful of servants and reclaim her life. Although the risk of discovery was terrible, it was worth it.
Beneath her tightly laced corset, her broken ribs had finally healed after so many weeks. Though it sometimes hurt to breathe or to lift her arms above her head, she'd grown accustomed to the pain. And after today, everything would be different.
Serena ran her hands over the brass-bound trunk and then ordered Katarina, one of her most trusted ladies, to ensure that the trunk was placed inside the coach she'd carefully prepared. Her heart was beating so fast, she pressed her hand to her chest as if she could steady it.
She had no doubt it would be only a few days before the messengers alerted the king that she was missing. Nothing escaped his notice, and Serena had to plan this carefully, so as to avoid getting anyone else in trouble.
For now, she would go to her grandfather's hunting lodge. Her father owned several estates in Badenstein and in Germany, but the lodge was rarely used any more since it had fallen into disrepair. Although they might search for her there, perhaps not until they'd investigated the other houses. It would grant her some time. She hoped to sell some jewels and purchase a small house or property somewhere no one would find her.
Her head spun with all the details, and she worried about being caught. If her father learned of this she shuddered to imagine it. Princesses were not supposed to run away. And although she had enough loyal servants to help her, it might not be enough.
For now, she would concentrate on getting out of the palace. She couldn't think too far ahead, or the worries would consume her. One moment at a time, one hour at a time, she decided. And before she left, she needed to see her mother.
Serena chose a single rose from the arrangement in the crystal vase upon the end table. Queen Clara had always loved flowers. During the spring, she often sat in the garden where she could admire the blossoms.
Flanked by her ladies, Serena walked down the long corridor leading to the east wing. Before she reached it, two footmen blocked their way and bowed.
'Your Highness, His Majesty has commanded your presence.'
A layer of ice coated her stomach, but Serena lowered her head in acquiescence, following the footmen to her father's chambers. Each time the king summoned her, she knew what was cominga punishment for some imagined misdeed. Every moment she spent in her father's presence was a mind-numbing game of trying to guess what sort of behaviour would help her to avoid his fists.
No one could protect her from His Majesty. Not the guards or her ladies, for they'd lose their positions. Not her younger sister or her mother, who was confined to a sickbed. She was defenceless against him.
Serena hated the pity in the eyes of the servants, for she didn't like appearing weak. But after the last beating had left her unable to move, she'd had enough. Six years of suffering was too much to ask of anyone. Nothing would stop her from escaping.
One of her ladies, Katarina, offered her a look of silent support. Serena squeezed the woman's hand, and then withdrew, needing the time to gather up her courage.
When the footman opened the door and announced her presence, Serena stepped forward. Her father, the king, stood with his back to them. He was a tall man, with greying hair and a physical form that rivalled his best guards. King Ruwald prided himself upon his strength, and he wore close-fitting clothing to show off his muscular arms and legs.
'Were you planning to go somewhere?' he asked softly, dismissing his men and her ladies with a hand. Serena curtsied and stared down at the Oriental carpet, her hand clenching her mother's rose.
Do not make him angry. Be demure and modest in your bearing. And perhaps he'll leave you alone.
The king moved closer, until he stood directly in front of her. 'Answer me.'
'N-no, Father. Of course not.'
'Don't lie to me!' He seized her by the arm, jerking her upright. The grip of his fingers was so tight, she gritted her teeth against the pain.
'My men informed me that you sent a trunk full of clothes to a waiting coach.' Softening his voice to a low murmur, he released her arm. 'Now why would you do that?'
'They're for Anna,' she lied, rubbing the bruised skin. 'The men were supposed to put the trunk with her belongings. That's all.' Tears spilled over her cheeks, as she stared down at the carpet.
'Do you think I don't see your defiance? I know everything you do. And you're going nowhere.'
His fist struck the back of her head, and stars exploded in her vision. The king knew exactly where to punish her so that it would not leave a visible mark. 'My men have their orders. You won't leave the palace.'
Why does he hate me so? she wondered. What have I done? Never had he laid a hand upon Anna, thank God. But for whatever reason, she infuriated her father. And she feared that if he lost control of his temper one day, she might not survive it.
Darkness swam in her vision, and she backed away, folding her body inwards as if to protect it. As the king advanced toward her, Serena let out a broken supplication, 'Please, Father.'
But her words meant nothing to him as he curled his fingers and raised his fists.
Serena lay with her body pressed against the carpet. Though her father had left, she couldn't bring herself to move. Her hand touched the tender skin at her throat, the pulsing fear returning. She tasted blood in her mouth, and pain radiated throughout her body.
It only renewed her resolve to leave. I won't stay here. I can't. The door opened, and she saw the stricken faces of her ladies. Serena said nothing, but allowed Katarina to help her to her feet. The woman picked up the fallen rose with its crushed petals and held it to her.
Though not a word was spoken, she was certain they'd heard her father's tirade. Serena accepted the rose and leaned upon Katarina as she entered the hallway.
'Your Highness?' Katarina asked, her voice fearful. Her maid stopped walking and reached for a fallen lock of Serena's hair, pinning it back into place. In her lady-in-waiting's eyes, Serena saw the worry. But she could say nothing to reassure them.
'I am going to see my mother,' she insisted. One last time, before I leave. Her ladies surrounded her and led the way.
As she walked, Serena rested her hand against her bruised side, fighting to calm herself. Though not every servant was loyal to her, there were enough men and women to turn a blind eye to her escape. She believed she could get out of the palace with little trouble. The true problem was reaching the hunting lodge before the other guards caught up to her. They had no choice but to follow and bring her home again.
When they finally arrived at her mother's chambers and her presence was announced, Serena tried to smile.
Queen Clara was propped up with several pillows, her light brown hair streaked with grey. She wore a cap and a white nightgown, but the pale linen only accentuated her wan face.
'How are you feeling today, Mother?' Serena asked, handing her the rose.
Clara took it and smiled, before she waved her hand, dismissing the ladies. 'Come and sit beside me.'
When the queen took her hand, her expression turned grim. Slowly, she reached out and touched Serena's reddened throat. 'What happened?' Her hand traced the marks, as if the caress could take away the pain.
A hard ball of fear rose up in her throat and Serena forced back the denial. Tears pricked at her eyes, but she could only lift her shoulders in a shrug. 'I've tried to be better. More like the princess he wants me to be. But he seems to hate the very air I breathe.'
Clara closed her eyes, her hands gripping the coverlet. 'Your lady-in-waiting, Katarina, confessed this morning that your father has taken your punishments too far at times. And she said you're planning to leave.'
Serena masked her frustration. It was her secret to keepnot theirs to tell.
'You should have told me about this,' her mother insisted, her face rigid. 'I thought he only hit you once in a while. I thought it was discipline.' A tear slid down the queen's face. 'But Katarina said he broke your ribs.' Her mother's eyes stared hard at her, as if trying to determine if it was true. Serena dropped her gaze, unwilling to answer.
' Why would you hide this from me? I could have done something to help you.'
'And what would you have done?' Serena demanded. 'You're ill. If you tried to fight him, he would have taken his anger out on you. I'm strong,' she whispered. 'You're not.'
'I know it, but surely'
'Don't try to stop me from leaving,' Serena warned. 'I.I need this time to decide what to do, Mother.'
The queen's shoulders lowered in defeat. 'You'll be married this summer,' she reminded her. 'And after that happens, your husband will keep you safe.'
Serena didn't believe it, though she nodded to her mother as if she did. Clara reached out and took her hand. She hid her dismay at how fragile her mother's knuckles were, how pale the skin.
'Take the next fortnight at our estate in Oberalstadt, if you need some time to recover. If your father returns and asks where you are, I'll tell him I sent you to visit my relatives.' Her mother tried to smile. 'And when you return, I'll do what I can to protect you from his temper.' Her gaze shifted over to the wardrobe that contained her day dresses. 'Perhaps I'll be strong enough to speak to him myself.'
Serena doubted if her mother could do anything, but she demurred. 'I love you, liebe Mutter.'
The queen reached up and touched her cheek. 'I'm sorry for being so weak. If I had more strength.' Her voice trailed off with unspoken words.
Serena lowered her strength. 'You'll be fine.' And so will I. She kissed her mother's cheek and squeezed her hands, praying that she would see her again one day.
After she left, she passed the tall windows that lined the east wing. As a young girl, she'd sometimes raced her sister down the hall, while sunlight spilled through the large panes of glass. Now, she walked at a more dignified pace, as befitted a princess.
Raindrops spattered down the windows, but even the wretched weather couldn't destroy the bottled up hope inside of her. Freedom lay just within her grasp.