The Princess Stakes - Amalie Howard


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