Sophie Lawrence peered cautiously through the curtain of her bedroom window. Mostly hidden, she watched as a single carriage followed by two uniformed riders made their way up the gravel driveway of her family’s country estate.
The carriage was like none she’d ever seen before. It was made completely of black and grey metal. There were no windows, no ornaments, no decorations whatsoever. So uniform was the design, she couldn’t even make out a door.
It was pulled by four intimidatingly muscular brown horses. Never in Sophie’s life had she imagined she could be absolutely petrified of horses, but these beasts were nothing like the sleek, sophisticated Arabians in her father’s stables. These were war horses, horses bred for pulling supplies into battle, horses bred to pull a carriage full of dangerous prisoners.
She supposed that she was soon-to-be the dangerous prisoner.
That morning over breakfast, an urgent letter, addressed to her father, had arrived with the mail. It was from the innkeeper in town.
Her father, the Earl of Munton, was already wearing his reading spectacles, for he had been perusing the morning paper. He read the letter silently, his face becoming more and more distressed. When he was finished, he folded the letter, removed his spectacles and sighed heavily. “We’ve been found out.”
“What do you mean, darling?” said the Countess, her toast in one hand and a marmalade-covered knife in the other.
“John Bagby has two men in the king’s service staying at his inn. One of his servants overheard them mention Sophie’s name last evening when she brought them their dinner.”
“May I?” asked Sophie, gesturing to the letter.
The Earl frowned deeply. He hated allowing Sophie to read anything but frivolous fiction, but this seemed to call for an exception. “If you must,” he said, handing it to her.
She opened it with shaking hands and quickly scanned its contents. It read:
As I recall, you have offered to reward me handsomely for any information pertaining to guests coming through my inn who might be looking for the charmed. I think I’ve got the sort of information as what you’re asking for.
Two fellows, one young and one old, arrived last evening, asking for a room. As you know, we’ve the finest rooms in town, nothing suspicious there.
Anyway, they tell me they have a team of horses and a carriage about two hours behind them and to have some space in my stable saved for them. Nothing out of the ordinary; that’s a pretty usual request, and I’m sure you’ll agree with that, My Lord.
As it were, about an hour after I showed them to their rooms, I sent my girl Bessie up with supper for the travelers, just as I would do under normal circumstances at that hour.
When Bessie returned to me, I asked her what she heard and saw in the room. I do this with all my customers, My Lord, nothing wrong with keeping a close eye, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
Right, well, my girl Bessie, she told me she heard these two fellows discussing some young lady named Sophie, and I got to remembering that that is the very name of your lovely daughter. Seemed a coincidence to me, so I went off to my room to sleep.
Well, this morning, I awoke bright and early to feed my rooster and hens myself, as is my custom, for I quite enjoy it. As I’m waking to their little coup, I happened to see the so-called carriage these two fellows had me prepare for out in the yard. Wouldn’t you know it, it’s a prison carriage for the charmed.
I went back inside and wrote you this letter, right quick, My Lord. I do believe this is just the sort of information you have asked me for, so I’ll have my messenger wait for my payment in your esteemed kitchens before returning to me.
“He’s dreadfully long winded,” Sophie said, tossing the letter onto the breakfast table.
“Yes, but that’s neither here nor there, my dear, for I fear you’ll be leaving us shortly, possibly even this very day,” the Earl replied.
“Is there no chance that these men are just passing through?” asked the Countess.
“There is a chance, I suppose, although slim.” The Earl stood and straightened his coat sleeves. “I am going to the kitchens to ask the messenger a few further questions. I suggest you retire to your room for the time being.”
“I’ll join you,” said her mother, and as soon as the Earl left the room, she added, “Let’s not pack your things just yet. I’m sure all of this is just a coincidental misunderstanding, sweet. Let’s not worry ourselves.”
“I’m not so sure,” mumbled Sophie, as her mother took her arm in hers and led her to her rooms.
And, as she suspected, that is exactly where she found herself, a mere two hours later, when she heard the thundering sound of a heavy carriage being pulled by horses.
After rushing to peek outside to confirm the worst, she turned to her mother. “They’re here,” she said solemnly.
The Countess said nothing. Instead, she placed the needlework she had been pretending to do aside and got up from her favorite spot in Sophie’s room, a particularly plush armchair in front of the fireplace. She joined her daughter at the window, took Sophie’s previous spot behind the curtain, and looked out.
“My heavens. It looks as though his royal highness sent General Malume himself to collect you. He’s the king’s brother, you know. What an honor,” she said, her voice dripping with anger and sarcasm.
Sophie gave an indelicate snort and went to her armoire to find her valise. “The king must believe that I’m quite powerful. He must not know what my charm is or I’m sure he would not have gone to all this trouble.” She began to stuff items from her vanity into the dark green bag.
“Just because your charm, your magic power, didn’t manifest as a physical strength, that doesn’t mean you aren’t powerful, darling.”
Sophie paused her packing to consider this. “You’re right. Although, you must admit, Mama, my charm has proven to be dashedly useless thus far.” She grabbed her silver and boar bristle hairbrush and dropped it into the bag.
“Useless thus far? Possibly. Useless in the very near future? I think not.”
“I guess we shall see.”
“We shall. I think it’s best that I go down to the drawing room to greet our guests. Take your time to finish packing your valise. I’ll send for some servants to pack your wardrobe.” The Countess, not knowing quite what to do, grabbed her daughter’s hand, squeezed it reassuringly, and left the room.
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