Since she discovered the truth of her ancestry three nights ago, Alia had tried to escape twice, stab Vikram, the Kshat guard, four times, and considered flinging herself into the path of a wayward horse once.
“I will shackle you if I have to,” Vikram snarled, pressing his hands into her shoulders and forcing her to sit down in the carriage.
The lush trappings of the vehicle threatened to suffocate her. The deep purple velvet of the seats felt unnatural against her palms. A golden snake’s tail encircled the window, its head functioning as the handle. The carriage smelled unnatural. Gone was the heavy stench of sweat and urine of Toshalwar. In its place were crisp notes of jasmine. Somehow, it felt just as stifling.
She shifted uncomfortably, fidgeting with her sari. Alia had first tried to kill Vikram with his own sword when he insisted she wear something “suitable for a princess.” She supposed it was a lovely garment, draped across her torso and pleated elegantly against her legs, but it restricted her movement. She felt like a tiger caught in a hunter’s trap, and she guessed the Maurya Palace would make a fitting circus.
Alia would be damned before she ever performed tricks for a gaggle of overfed nobles.
“That’s no way to treat your princess.” She crossed her arms and huffed, settling into her seat, glaring daggers at the man responsible for this mess. Why couldn’t you just leave it be? She wanted to scream, digging crescents into her palms. I was happy.
A young woman sat next to Vikram, clothed in a dark green sari with silver embroidery. Somehow, she was more nervous than Alia, furtively glancing between all three of them and chewing her lip raw.
She was too beautiful for her job, spending most of her days cooped up in the Toshalwar municipal building, sending messages to and from the Palace and keeping the Queen up-to-date on trade and the economy. If Alia had her long brown tresses, warm hazel eyes, and bright smile, she would have married a rich man and lived in excess.
Though she supposed that was her future now. Excess. Abundance. Prosperity. Maybe she was mad for wishing to return to the shantytowns. But the only thing she had ever truly had in her life was her freedom. Everything else she had stolen.
Alia had never even believed in the story of the Lost Princess, thinking it a tall tale that peddlers spun to trick foreign traders into purchasing tiny busts of the girl.
It was a simple story, really. 17 years ago, there was an attack on the Magad Palace, though no one knew who orchestrated it. They wanted to destroy the royal bloodline, and they nearly succeeded, too, killing the King. No one ever knew what happened to the princess. Alia always assumed she had died. And the Queen allowed the myth to blossom, needing her enemies to believe the princess was still alive, that the blood of the Gods still flowed through an heir.
Alia swallowed tightly, unfolding her arms and playing with the hem of her blouse. For the past three days, the revelation that she was descended from Gods had not caused her as much unease as the discovery that she had a mother.
The carriage suddenly jerked to a halt, nearly flinging Alia into the unsuspecting Nandini. She could hear the driver yelling angrily.
“We can’t possibly be there yet,” Alia said, looking to Vikram. His hand on his sword was all the confirmation she needed. Someone was out there, and Alia could not have been more ecstatic. Every muscle in her body itched for a fight, a way to let out her frustration.
“Bandits?” Nandini whispered, shrinking into the velvet seats.
Vikram shook his head. “They wouldn’t dare attack a royal carriage.” He hesitated, glancing at Alia. “They must be here for you.”
She smirked, cracking her knuckles. The delicious tingle of danger stretched the length of her body, setting her muscles free for the first time in days. This was exactly what she needed.
Part of Alia wondered how they already knew the truth of her parentage, but that was a question for later. First, a brawl. She pressed her back to the carriage door, glancing out the window. “I count four, maybe five men.” Alia could barely make out the figures against the overwhelming darkness of the road.
It was a darkness like she had never seen before. Toshalwar was always bright. Some tavern or brothel would illuminate the streets at any hour of the day. She wondered how dark it got in the Palace.
“You know, if you give me a sword, I’ll be of more use,” she sang to Vikram. “Though I suppose I never needed one to beat you.”
“If you think I’m letting you go out there, you’re mad.” Before she could think, she felt the cool metal of shackles encase her ankles. A long chain connected the two, looping through a bar beneath her seat to trap her in the carriage.
“What are you doing?” she hissed. “If they get inside, I won’t be able to escape.”
“I am not a fool, princess. Had I not cuffed your feet, you would have run away the second I turned my back.” And then, he quietly pushed open the carriage door and disappeared into the night.
Yes, but I would have taken out a few of them first.
She groaned, drumming her fingers against her knees as the sounds of metal clanging on metal and the grunts of men echoed around her. Alia had not even stepped foot in the palace yet and already her freedom was being snatched from her. Squeezing her eyes shut in frustration, she gently beat the back of her head against the seat.
“Are you,” Nandini stuttered, her hands clutching her petticoat so tightly that her knuckles were wight. “How could you want to be out there fighting?”
Alia eyed the young woman warily. She knew women like her. Noble girls who thought they wanted a taste of the city and independence. Within two moons, they all scurried back to their fathers, tail between their legs, ready to be betrothed to any wealthy half-wit.
“A fight is simple,” Alia finally responded. “You have one purpose, one goal. All the extra noise just… melts away.”
Nandini frowned, mulling over her words. “But isn’t—”
The door flung open, and a large man wearing a black tunic and a lion mask made of wood charged into the carriage, his sword raised.
Alia sprang into action immediately, catching his wrist with one hand and slamming it into the side of the window with the other. He had not expected her to fight back, so his grip on the sword was weak. The impact sent the sword clattering to the ground. Alia prayed that Nandini was smart enough to move it out of the man’s reach.
She moved as fast as lightning, grabbing his ears before shifting to the side and ramming his head into the floor of the carriage. Alia had no time to celebrate her victory when she felt two arms ensnare her waist, frantically trying to hoist her away.
They wanted her alive.
The shackles scraped and cut into her ankles, and she could see blood staining her leather sandals. She glanced at Nandini, hoping the woman would find some semblance of courage and do something, but she was tucked into the corner, her arms wrapped around her legs, the sword laying uselessly next to her as she sobbed.
Gods, give me patience.
“Nandini!” she yelled, trying to jolt the girl into action. It appeared to help a little, as she stared up at her, smearing away the tears. Alia whipped her eyes to the sword, praying she would catch her meaning.
Nandini nodded, slowly moving to the sword. Alia had hoped she would launch her own attack, but instead she placed its pommel in her hand.
With a grunt, Alia swung her legs to the side, screaming as the metal shackles buried deeper into her skin. At the same time, she plunged the sword into her attacker’s thigh. Instantly, he dropped her, and she gasped as her ribs flung into the side of the carriage.
But there was no time to catch her breath. Pulling the unconscious man into the dirt road, she used that momentum to drag herself back into the carriage. She had managed to keep hold of the sword, and quickly, she slammed the butt of the weapon into the lock of one of her shackles.
Once. Twice. On the third try, it finally gave, the metal panel slid off, and she nearly weeped in relief. Alia quickly turned her attention to the other lock. The fighting outside was dying down, and she had only helped Vikram by taking out one man and injuring another. He would be back soon, and she wanted to be long gone by then.
“What are you doing?” It seemed Nandini had finally found her voice.
“Going to help Vikram.”
“You’re lying,” Nandini said bravely, crossing to the door and shutting it. “I won’t let you leave.”
Where was this girl a few moments ago?
Alia arched a brow, pulling off the remaining cuff. “I have a sword,” she said slowly, wondering if Nandini understood just how out of her depth she was. Had the display of violence not scared her off?
Nandini went pale, her bottom lip quivering as she considered her options. In less than a heartbeat, she had returned to her seat, her head hung in shame.
“You did the right thing.”
As quickly as a fired arrow, Alia dropped the sword and fled out of the carriage, each step sending shockwaves of pain up her shins, and her ribs screamed at her to stop. But she could not have made it more than two meters before she was lifted up in the air — that really had to stop happening — and she heard Vikram in her ear. “Not so fast, princess.”
Just like that, the fight in her extinguished, like a boot snuffing out the last embers of a cigarette.
“If I put you down, do you promise not to run?”
Alia sighed reluctantly. “Yes.”
Carefully, he set her down, and Alia laughed darkly to herself. She hadn’t even made it past the road. Dirt clung to her bloody sandals, and the smell of blood lingered in the air. Alia inhaled deeply, the copper scent invading her senses. As horrid as it was, she vastly preferred it to the sterile environment of the carriage.
“Who were they?” she asked, nudging a man over with her toe. Kneeling, she pulled off his mask.
He could not have been much older than her, his cheeks still holding a boyish pudge. Perhaps he had tried to hide the baby fat underneath his patchy beard. She shuddered under the weight of his ghoulish black eyes staring back at her. Though she had seen death many times before, it still sent a chill down her spine.
“Mercenaries, probably,” Vikram said quietly. “They have nothing on them. No identification. Nothing to tie them to their buyer.” He carefully examined one of their weapons, testing the balance and inspecting the engraving on the pommel. “They seem well-funded.”
Alia nodded, reaching forward to shut the boy’s eyes. She could not blame him for trying to kill her. Poverty made desperate and violent thugs of them all.
“We should get going, princess. I can drive us the rest of the way.”
The adrenaline was leaving her now, seeping out of every pore of her aching body. As she stood, staring at the dead bodies that littered the road, she said, “Be honest with me, Vikram. Was I safer in Toshalwar?”
He climbed onto the driver’s box, reins in hand. The royal horses must have been of a different breed, as they had not been frightened by the bloodshed. Maybe they were used to it.
Vikram glanced at her, his mouth quirked in a wry smile.
“Of course you were, princess.”
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