“Take the prince inside the church, Chesna,” an urgent voice spoke low in her ear. “Request sanctuary from Father Grigory.” She looked up from the little boy’s bowed head and into the harried eyes of her father. “Hurry! Remember your vow to me. Get inside the church and stay there.”
Despite Bela’s prodding, she hesitated. If she fled to the church with Mikhail, she knew she’d never see her father alive again. Glancing between them, her mind wavered between fear for the little boy and fear for the man. How could she possibly choose?
A large red-haired man appeared out of the screaming throngs and grasped Chesna’s hand. Mikhail’s personal servant, Karol, wore the same terror in his eyes Chesna bore in her heart. “We must go now. There’s much to do and precious little time.” Without waiting for any argument she might attempt, Karol pulled Mikhail from her arms and scooped him against his chest.
She turned again toward her father, but the smoke-filled air and sea of people had swallowed him.
“Remember how much I loved you, Chesna,” her father called out from somewhere beyond her foggy line of vision. “May God be with you.”
Karol’s forceful nudge in her right shoulder pushed her toward the granite steps that led to the church’s entrance. She’d only reached the arched mahogany doors when a sudden clatter arose behind them. With her fingers clutching the cold brass handle, she whirled.
In their panicked flight, the townspeople had upset the funeral cart, which stood unguarded. The cart fell onto its side and the casket slid out, spilling the linen-wrapped bodies to the ground. Men, women, and children trampled the deceased royals beneath their frantic feet.
“No!” King Jarek raced forward to protect his dead wife and child from being crushed by the crowds.
As the king broke out into the open, one of Napoleon’s sharpshooters fired. A blossom of red appeared on King Jarek’s shirtfront, and he pitched forward, his arms thrust outward in a final attempt to shield his beloved wife from harm. He landed directly atop the two bodies, still.
“Papa!” Mikhail’s shriek of terror caught Chesna’s attention.
She turned away from the spectacle, wrenched the door open, and raced inside the church with Karol, still cradling Mikhail, on her heels. They scrambled up the aisle, passing the empty rows of benches in a blur of gleaming brown. At the altar, Father Grigory lit the tall, pillared candles on either side of the church apse. The two adults fell to their knees on the scarred wooden floor with a loud thump.
“Sanctuary, Father,” Chesna managed to gasp with her last breaths, her hands thrust toward the priest in supplication. “I beg of you. Please grant us sanctuary.”