NO WOMAN IS BORN A QUEEN, no matter the title attached to her name at birth.
Kings are crowned. But queens . . . queens rise.
They lift themselves from the depths of tragedy and heartbreak that always seem to follow them. They break the chains of society, and they soar through their triumphs and joys. They are forged by the burn of betrayal and they are shaped by the constant, cold clash of wills.
Still they rise, and then . . . they reign.
For good or bad, in sickness and in health, until death do they part.
The vestiges of that reign are the true inheritance of the descendants. For most, that birthright is duty, tradition and loyalty.
But the two of us were different. Right from the start, and in every way.
Passion that could tear the whole world down around us. Love that would not be ignored or denied. Devotion that would last beyond a lifetime.
These would be our legacy—our gifts to the ones who would follow in our footsteps. It would be scored on their bones and branded on their souls.
We just didn’t know it then.
Every dynasty has a beginning. Every legend starts with a story.
This is ours.
“YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN HER, Alfie. She was so damn impressive. More dignified than any of those bawbags in Parliament could dream of being.”
My father, Reginald William Constantine Pembrook, the King of Wessco, often talks about me like I’m not in the room. My mother calls it a sorry habit. But I don’t mind, especially when he’s proud of me.
“And my advisors,” he says, spitting out the word like a curse. “They don’t understand the people at’all. Damn fools, the lot of them.”
Father’s advisors talk about me like I’m not in the room too.
“Eight years old is too young,” they’d said. “She will humiliate herself,” they’d warned. “The Crown Princess is just a girl after all.”
When the war finally ended last month, we had a parade through the city. There was music and sweets, banners and balloons, and golden confetti floating everywhere you looked. The crowds waved and cheered and welcomed the men home as they marched down the street in their handsome uniforms.
This morning, the rest of the lads came home, but no one was cheering.
The bagpipes played and a sea of sad faces—crying mums and dads and little brothers and sisters—watched as the flag-draped caskets were loaded off planes in a parade that seemed to go on and on and on.
I wanted to cry too. My heart felt like a lead ball, and my stomach pinched from the awfulness of it all.
But I didn’t let it show. I kept my eyes dry and my face solemn. I nodded my head and told them we would never, ever, forget their brave boys. And I think my being there, my words, made it better . . . a little less awful for them.
Just like Father had told me it would.
“I’m glad it worked out how you wanted, Reggie,” Alfie Barrister replies from the leather chair by the fireplace.
Alfie is Father’s best friend. I like him very much. He’s large and round and happy—like a redheaded Father Christmas.
“There’s a call for you, Your Majesty,” a servant says from behind me.
“I’ll take it in the study.”
I hear the library door close behind Father as he leaves the room, but I continue to look out the window. Across the carpet of green grass to the rear of the sun-streaked yard, where a rope swing hangs from a thick black branch of a tree that’s as big as a monster.
The cheery kind of monster.
It’s my favorite part of visits to Alfie’s. Because while our palace has hundreds of rooms and endless hallways, and fountains and gardens with flowers of every color you can imagine . . . there’s not a single swing hanging from one branch of any tree in the whole damn place.
I’m not supposed to say damn out loud, but it feels good to say it in my head sometimes.
Alfie steps up next to me and looks out the window too.
“Would you like to go swing, Chicken?”
I grin all the way up at him, and nod.
A hop, skip and a jump later, Alfie’s pushing me on the swing and it feels like I’m flying—like I’m a bird who can go anywhere—with the sun on my face and the wind in my hair. My navy-blue dress is tucked under my legs to keep it from flailing.
“Did you hang this swing for yourself, Alfie?” I ask. The wooden plank that makes the seat would fit him.
He chuckles. “No. It’s for my children.”
I twist around in the seat to gape at him. “You have children?”
“That’s right. Two boys and a little girl.”
I turn back in the swing and contemplate this unexpected development.
“I don’t think I like children. They seem confusing and badly behaved.”
I don’t actually know any children—not officially. Miriam goes to school while I’m tutored at the palace.
“But I’m sure I would like yours, Alfie.” I look up, scanning the yard. “Are they here? Why haven’t I met them when we visit?”
“They live in Scotland with their mother,” Alfie explains.
“Why does their mother live in Scotland and not here with you?”
Alfie thinks a moment and then he sighs. “Well . . . I wasn’t a very good husband. Married to the store and all that.”
Alfie’s store, Barrister’s, is the biggest in Wessco—it has toys and clothes and all sorts of amazing things. I heard him tell Father he’s opening another one in London soon, and after he’s finished taking over the world, he’ll be nice and let Father keep Wessco.
“Do you miss them?” I ask.
“Yes.” Alfie nods. “But my wife is happier in Scotland with her family. And children belong with their mums.”
My mother is beautiful, with a soft voice and long dark brown hair like mine, and eyes that are the exact color of the sky on a sunny day.
“I’m hardly ever with Mum,” I say quietly.
When I’m not with my tutors, I’m with Father. Sometimes, when they think I can’t hear them, the staff call me HRS—His Royal Shadow.
“Yes, I know,” Alfie says, sounding a bit sad for me. “But you’re special, Chicken.”
I’m special because one day I’m going be queen. Father said so.
There were two babies before me—and one was a boy. But they came too soon, were born too small, and didn’t survive. After my younger sister, Miriam, was born, Mother was very sick and the doctors told Father there would be no more babies.
And that means I’ll be the first Queen Regnant Wessco has ever had.
It’s important that I’m good at it.
“Why do you call me Chicken, Alfie?” I wonder on the upswing.
“Because I saw you the night you were born at Ludlow Castle. I was there the first time your father held you—and that’s just what you looked like. A pale, squawking chicken with no feathers.”
The description is disturbing. I frown.
“I hope I don’t look like a chicken anymore.”
Alfie steps to the front of the swing, watching me. Then he rocks his head from side to side, his blue eyes sparkling. “Eh . . . depends on the day.”
My mouth drops open. “Alll-fie!”
And his belly shakes in time with his deep chuckle. “It’s a pet name, Lenora. An endearment. Every child should have one.” He gives me another push from the side of the swing. “And believe it or not, Your Highness, you are, in fact, a child.”