Protecting the Princess – Nadine Millard

“YOU SHOULDN’T BE here, Your Highness.” Harriet Liezel Farago Wesselbach, Crown Princess of Aldonia spun around at the sound of the voice behind her, clutching a hand to her speeding heart. “I – I was – that is—” She stumbled to a halt under the scrutiny of the family’s private butler, Ansel. At only ten years old, Harriet was already well aware of what behaviours were acceptable for the Princess Royal. It was just that occasionally she forgot. Or chose to forget. She wasn’t usually caught though. “Your Highness, your father does not want anyone privy to his talks with the duke. Especially his children.” Harriet scowled up at the long-serving butler, who was honestly more like a family member than a servant. At least to Harriet. “But if Christopher wanted to listen—” “His Royal Highness is heir to the throne, Highness. And more importantly, he is eighteen.” Harriet scowled but well, facts were facts, and everything Ansel said was true. Heaving a sigh, she allowed him to guide her back to the private living quarters in the palace, away from where Father was conducting what sounded like a very tense meeting, if the shouting was anything to go by.

They hurried along the corridor surrounded by windows on both sides that led to the family’s private quarters. Harriet loved it here. In the summer, the sun warmed her skin in the glass hallway. In the winter, she could see snow for miles around. In the rainy season, the rain lashed against the windows and she sat for hours listening to the sound, watching the stormy clouds stream by. She stopped now to watch the new recruits in her father’s army march in formation around the courtyard. Christopher was down there. She saw him, resplendent in his army blues, covered in medals and badges befitting the prince of the realm. As she looked on, another figure arrived in the courtyard, bedecked in the blue jacket sans the medals and badges. He skidded to a halt at the back of the last line of soldiers.

As Harriet watched, the formation ceased their marching and a tall, straight-backed figure stomped toward the straggler. Even from up here she could tell the young man was in trouble. Harriet knew the feeling. She constantly seemed to find herself in trouble, too. “Come along, Your Highness,” Ansel coaxed Harriet away from the window. The captain, or whomever the large man was, had turned and strutted back to the front of the soldiers. It appeared the young man was safe for now. Just as Harriet was moving away from the window, the young soldier looked up. She was surprised by how fair he was. Golden hair glinted in the spring sunlight under his hat, and his skin was fairer than a lot of Aldonians’, too.

He grinned up at her, delivering a flourishing bow, and Harriet giggled in response to his foolishness. Before she could see if he would be taken to task for his antics, however, Ansel called out to her with practised patience. Harriet dashed off ahead of the butler, wondering as she ran just who the golden-haired soldier could be. And why someone with such an apparent free spirit wanted to be a soldier, of all things. Chapter One HARRİET LİEZEL FARAGO Wesselbach, Crown Princess of Aldonia, was bored. There really was no other word for it. Since her return from a winter in England where her older brother Alex had not only learned that he was to inherit a British earldom, but had also fallen in love and gotten married, she’d felt deflated. While Alex had fallen in love, the most exciting thing Harriet had done was go to a ball. The difference was stark and not at all pleasant to think on. Whilst her oldest brother Christopher was in line to be king, and Alex was living a life of bucolic bliss rusticating in the English countryside, Harriet was wasting away in the gilded cage of Aldonia’s royal palace.

She had the best of everything. She wanted for nothing. Well, nothing except real friendships, a normal life—love. Heaving a sigh of irritation at her own maudlin thoughts, Harriet threw her gothic novel onto the window seat she was occupying and jumped to her feet. She turned to look out the open window, enjoying the feel of the cool spring breeze on her skin. Watching the goings on in the gardens below was always somewhat interesting; members of court and politicians conversing in small clusters, the occasional servant scurrying from one task to another. And there were her parents, King Josef and Queen Anya, taking a walk amongst their favourite Aldonian tulips. Harriet’s brow creased as she noticed her father’s gait was slower, more lumbering than it used to be, and her stomach flip-flopped with worry. Father had always been stern and distant. Being king would do that to a man, she supposed.

But he was still her father, and she didn’t like to think of him aging or becoming in any way frail or vulnerable. Christopher was currently in France meeting—oh, someone terribly important, Harriet was sure. Truth be told, she probably didn’t pay as much attention as she should to the goings on of Aldonia. Although even she had noticed the tension increase over the past few weeks. Her uncle, who had fallen foul of Papa years ago, had recently died and her cousin, his son Augustus, had been causing issues of some sort. She didn’t know what he was doing exactly or why. But then, nobody would expect her to. Her job was to be pretty and proper and charming to visiting dignitaries. That was it. That was the extent of her responsibility in life.

As she gazed out across the verdant palace lawns, a movement at the corner of the walled garden in which her parents were strolling caught her eye. A solider in full regalia was moving briskly toward them. Harriet frowned at the unusual sight. Her parents rarely, if ever, wanted guards when in their gardens, preferring to have their time there as private as possible. But this guard, whoever he was, was hurrying toward them with seeming determination. A feeling of foreboding swept over Harriet, though she couldn’t have said why. There was just something—off about what she was watching. Harriet glanced around the gardens but none of the other soldiers were even nearby, instead they were all at their stations. Where they should be. She pressed her forehead to the window, keeping her deep-brown gaze trained on the renegade soldier.

And because she was looking so closely, she spotted the early spring sun glint off something in his hand. A dagger! “No.” The word left Harriet on a horrified breath. Screaming would be useless. She was too far away, on the second floor of the palace. Yet what else could she do? “Guards,” she shouted at the top of her lungs, knowing someone would come running any second. But they would be in the same position as she; stuck here looking helplessly on. The rogue soldier was nearing the perimeter of the gardens. She needed to do something! Even now she heard the sound of footsteps coming. When a member of the royal family screamed, people came running.

But it wouldn’t be enough to save her parents. Harriet darted her eyes around, panic clawing at her, setting her heart thumping frantically and fear skittering along her veins. Her gaze landed on an ornate vase. An heirloom that had been in her family for generations. Without a thought for the priceless artefact, she picked it up and threw it as hard as she could against the windowpane, which exploded with a loud crash. Harriet leaned out as far as possible without tumbling out, supporting herself on the window frame, shards of glass digging into her flesh. She looked straight to the small maze in which her parents strolled, oblivious to the threat just feet away. Harriet opened her mouth and screamed as loudly as she could, watching with relief as she caught the attention of people below. “The king,” she cried, even as soldiers and household staff skidded to a halt below her. “Get to the king.

” Without stopping to question why, soldiers and parliamentarians alike turned and ran toward the flower mazes. The would-be assassin had entered the maze by now, and Harriet nearly cast up her accounts as she watched him creep terrifyingly closer to her parents, the dagger now unmistakeable. But Harriet’s frantic warning was gaining traction and more and more people were running toward the maze. Mercifully, her parents took notice. So, too, did the mysterious attacker. Just as help arrived, the soldier turned and fled with a speed that seemed impossible, darting through the maze and out the other side. Harriet’s knees gave out as relief swept over her. Her parents were safe. But even as her maid Olga helped her regain her feet, even as household staff fussed around her whilst outside the king and queen were bustled into a crowd of protective guards, a knowing fear slithered along Harriet’s veins. Someone wanted her father or mother dead.

More than that, someone wanted the king or queen dead. But why? And what on earth was going to be done about it?

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