The Traitor Prince – C.J. Redwine

A BRISK WIND scoured the packed dirt streets of the peasant quarter in Makan Almalik, tossing grit into the night air and clawing at the robes of the young man who walked briskly down a side road, his cowl pulled over his head to guard his face against the onslaught. The streets were deserted at this time of night. The lanterns hanging in their metal cages every quarter block illuminated rickety wooden shops with their shutters closed and goat hair tents with their flaps tied shut. Only a fool would venture out at midnight to face the tumultuous moods of Eb’ Rezr. The god of wind and rain was a capricious master—one the aristocrats of Akram had stopped serving over a century ago, after Yl’ Haliq, the all-powerful, had vanquished the lesser gods—but the peasants didn’t have the luxury of betting their survival on a single god. Rahim buried his face in the coarse wool of his cowl as another gust of desert wind tore at him. The moods of Eb’ Rezr were useful to the FaSaa’il, the rebellious faction of aristocrats who sought to use Rahim as their puppet. The wind kept people inside—their prying eyes far from the faction and its activities—as they mumbled prayers and set aside tiny offerings from their already meager supplies to gods who couldn’t or wouldn’t help them. Pathetic. Rahim didn’t pinch mouthfuls of food from his meals to toss to the ground for Mal’ Enish, the goddess of animals, or cut strips of cloth from his robes for the priests’ collection barrels in honor of Sa’ Loham, the god of the poor. He needed no god, and neither did the superstitious peasants who clung to the belief that their offerings would somehow bring them rescue. The fact that he’d been forced to spend seventeen years in a tent just like them, surrounded by poverty and desperation, was a bitterness that poisoned him with every breath. He should have been raised in the palace in Makan Almalik, claimed by his father, his every whim catered to. Instead, he’d been raised in his mother’s tent in a small desert town far from the palace. He’d toiled in heat and misery—by day learning the trade of a tailor and by night dreaming of the destiny that should have been his.

A destiny that could still be his if the FaSaa’il’s plan was successful. Grim determination lent strength to his body and sharpened his thoughts as he passed a tiny mercantile shop, its walls shaking beneath Eb’ Rezr’s onslaught, and entered an alley that stank of camel dung and trash. Two shadows detached from the wall as he approached, cowls pulled over their heads so that all he could see of the figures were their eyes—sharp and hungry. Rahim’s eyes were sharp and hungry too, but there the likeness ended. His skin was a darker shade of bronze, his cheekbones set slightly higher, his chin a bit more pointed—all gifts from the royal blood that ran through his veins. He was the spitting image of a Kadar, and the resemblance was going to change his future. “Yl’ Haliq meet you and keep you safe,” the taller man said. Rahim’s heart thudded angrily, and it took all of his restraint to keep the sneer from his face. Instead, he answered, “Yl’ Haliq be praised.” The man drew back, and his companion opened a narrow door in the side of the shop.

Rahim moved past them and into the well-ordered stockroom as the door closed behind him. Before him stood five figures, shrouded in cloaks, though the material of their garments was far finer than anything he’d ever owned. The closest figure, a man with broad shoulders and an even broader gut, strode to Rahim’s side and wrapped a hand around his shoulder. “Here he is, friends. The answer to our problems. Yl’ Haliq be praised that I happened to catch him trying to steal from me at the racetrack a few months ago!” The man’s fingers dug into Rahim’s shoulders, but the boy didn’t flinch. Yl’ Haliq had nothing to do with any of it. Rahim had left his mother’s tent in the dead of night, traveled the distance between her town and Akram’s capital on foot, and then spent nearly five months on the streets of the city, his eyes downcast, begging for scraps from the priests, while he listened and learned. It hadn’t taken long to pick up on the whispers of discontent among some of Akram’s aristocrats— families whose businesses had been heavily penalized by the king or who had lost royal favor for one transgression or another. It had been a simple thing to strike up a friendship with a servant from each house until he had the information he needed.

Simpler still to target Lord Borak, the man he’d judged as the leader of the FaSaa’il, and get caught stealing. One look from Borak at Rahim’s features had been enough to spare him a trip to Maqbara prison. “This will never work.” A woman who stood on the opposite side of the room crossed her arms over her chest. “You can’t just have him trade places with the prince. Someone will notice.” “Our friend in the palace will help confirm his identity. Besides, look at him.” Lord Borak reached up and yanked Rahim’s cowl back to reveal his face. An older woman gasped and took a step toward him.

“Remarkable. You can’t even tell he’s half peasant.” Anger flashed through Rahim, heating his cheeks and curling his fists. It took effort to smooth his expression into something bland and nonthreatening. More effort to uncurl his fists and pretend his heart wasn’t slamming against his chest as these pathetic aristocrats sized him up like a horse on an auction block. “See?” Lord Borak sounded triumphant. “He’s the spitting image of his father, Prince Fariq.” “Who walks and dresses like a peasant,” the woman at the far end said. “I’m willing to bet he sounds like one too. He’ll be discovered, and he’ll give up our names, and then we’ll be killed, our families will be exiled, and our holdings will be turned over to the crown.

” Rahim shook off the man’s hand and stepped forward. Giving his voice the crisp polish Lord Borak had drilled into him over the past four months of instruction, he said, “Forgive me, madam, for my uncouth clothing, but I’m afraid until the trade is made, I must continue to blend in with the peasants. I assure you, I am entirely capable of passing as royalty when necessary.” “But even if he looks like an aristocrat, the king will surely know his own son.” The man closest to Lord Borak frowned as he swept his gaze over Rahim. “The king hasn’t seen his son in the ten years that the prince has been at Milisatria Academy in Loch Talam,” Lord Borak said. “A father knows his son, no matter how long it’s been,” the man argued. “Not when the father is taking daily doses of poison and can barely remember his own name,” Lord Borak shot back. “You can’t be sure of that,” the man said. “I have sources placed all throughout the palace.

I am sure of everything,” Lord Borak said. “Now—” “But what about the prince? The real one? Surely he’ll return to fight for the crown,” the man said and then took a step back as Rahim’s cold gaze landed on him. “I am the real prince now. Anyone claiming otherwise must be put to death.” The man flinched. “I didn’t join this group to kill a boy.” “Quit being disingenuous, Lord Halim,” the woman at the back said. “You were the one who provided the poison our ally is giving to the king in place of the daily tonic he takes to treat his weakening heart.” “But a boy—” “‘Sometimes blood must be shed for the good of the kingdom,’” Rahim said. Lord Borak shot him a look, and Rahim forced himself to incline his head respectfully.

Better to let them believe they controlled him. That the puppet they thought they’d fashioned from a street rat would never turn on them the second he had the chance. “We are doing what must be done,” Lord Borak said grimly. “The king has neglected the old ways, and has acquiesced to demands from both Ravenspire and Balavata at our expense. We’ve all lost land along the shifting lines of the kingdom’s borders. We’ve had sanctions placed on our horse races, our goods taxed, and our property invaded on accusations that we’re violating the new laws against selling child slaves or that we’ve thrown debtors into prison on false charges just to take over their businesses.” His voice rose as the others nodded in agreement. “We’re out of favor and losing power, and the only way to regain the upper hand is to put our own prince on the throne and take back what is ours.” There was a beat of silence after Lord Borak finished speaking, and then Lord Halim said, “Let it be done. But this boy had better fool the king.

I’m not going to die for treason.” Rahim met Lord Halim’s eyes and then slowly moved his gaze around the room as each of the five aristocrats pledged their support to the plan. Kidnap the true prince after his graduation from the academy in the northern kingdom of Loch Talam. Kill him and send Rahim back to Akram in his place. Push for a quick coronation due to the king’s failing health, and once Rahim was installed on the throne, rule through him. He bared his teeth in a smile as the pact was made. He was no puppet. By his father’s blood and his own tenacity, he was a prince. A ruler. A god among men.

And once he was through carving his destiny out of the blood and bone of those who stood in his way, everyone in Akram would bow before him, his name the prayer they raised as they begged for his mercy. FOUR WEEKS LATER ONE WAITING WAS AGONY. Javan Samad Najafai of the house of Kadar, prince of Akram, paced the stone corridor outside the headmaster’s office because staying still felt impossible. He’d spent the past ten years at the prestigious Milisatria Academy for the Comportment and Education of the Nobility in the northern kingdom of Loch Talam, far from his family. He hadn’t seen his father since the moment the king had escorted him into the school at the age of seven and solemnly reminded him of his duty to his mother’s muqaddas tus’el before returning to Akram. He’d done his best to fulfill his mother’s sacred dying wish that her son would earn the most honors of any prince educated at Milisatria. He’d studied hard for every exam. Taken extra classes and turned down invitations to visit the taverns and theaters in town so he could do schoolwork instead. He’d worked tirelessly to prepare himself mentally and physically for the challenge of earning the academy’s top honors, and now everything came down to the thin sheet of parchment the headmaster would soon be nailing to his door. “Stop pacing.

You’re making me nervous,” Kellan said. The crown prince of Balavata was slouched lazily against the wall opposite the headmaster’s door, eating a sandwich as if learning which ten students had qualified to compete in the upcoming final exam for the position of top honors was of little consequence. Javan glanced at his roommate, his heart jumping in his chest. “Nothing makes you nervous.” Kellan spoke around a mouthful of thick oat bread and ham. “I am pretty unflappable.” Javan rolled his eyes, forced himself to breathe past the surge of nerves that wanted to close his throat, and continued pacing while two dozen of his friends and fellow students joined him in the corridor, their eyes lit with anticipation, their conversations echoing throughout the stone hallway. Kellan shoved himself away from the wall and offered half his sandwich to Javan. “Here.” “I’m not hungry.

” And Yl’ Haliq knew if Javan tried to swallow anything right now, he’d choke. “You’re always hungry.” Kellan raised an eyebrow at Javan, and the prince shook his head. “I can’t eat right now. My stomach is in knots.” Kellan grimaced and took a small step back. “Last time you said that, you vomited on my boots two seconds later.” Javan punched Kellan’s shoulder. “That was in fifth year. And you said you’d never bring it up again.

” “Just making sure that’s the only thing that’s coming up.” Kellan winked at Javan, and the prince laughed, though it felt like his lungs were constricting. He’d make the cut. Of course he would. He’d studied longer and worked harder than anyone else at the academy. But what if? What if the tricky question on his applied mathematics exam had knocked his grade down a point? There were three other students who were naturally better at math than he was. What if he’d used the wrong codex to interpret the obscure quote on his philosophy exam? He could name five others who would never make that mistake. What if the margin of victory he’d tried so hard to achieve was a fragile thing easily lost by a single mistake? Yl’ Haliq be merciful, Javan couldn’t return to Akram without fulfilling his mother’s muqaddas tus’el. He’d never be able to look his father in the face again. “Stop it.

” Kellan smacked Javan’s back, his dark eyes glaring at the Akramian prince. “Stop what?” Javan frowned at his friend, refusing on principle to rub the spot where Kellan’s handprint felt singed into his skin. “Stop obsessing. You’ll make the list. You make every list. You always get everything you set your mind to. If I hadn’t spent the last ten years with an up close and personal view of your many flaws, I might be jealous.” Javan snorted. “Since when are you jealous of anyone?” Kellan grinned, but any reply he might have made was lost as the headmaster’s office door swung open. Silence descended on the corridor as every student watched the tall man with close-cropped gray hair and a neatly clipped beard step out of his office, a sheet of parchment in his hands.

“Greetings, students,” he said, his low voice filling the corridor. “Greetings, Headmaster,” the students answered as one. “Exams for individual subjects have all been graded, and your marks over the course of your tenure at the academy have been tallied.” The headmaster’s gaze slowly roamed over the small crowd of tenth-year students gathered around him. “I’m proud of all you’ve accomplished, and you should be too. As you know, only the ten students with the highest overall scores will be allowed to compete in the upcoming final exam to win the crimson sash and the title of Most Honored at the commencement ceremony.” The headmaster’s eyes caught Javan’s and held for a brief second before he turned his back on the students and raised a hammer to nail the parchment to his door. Javan’s heart was thunder shaking his chest as he surged forward with the others once the headmaster stepped out of the way. His eyes skimmed the list rapidly, and then the world snapped into sharp focus as he caught the fourth name on the list. Javan Samad Najafai.

The pressure in his chest eased. He’d made it. Now all that was left between him and the sash was the final exam—a multifaceted assessment designed to rigorously test students mentally and physically through a series of challenges. There were others on the list—Kellan included—who were better at individual events in the exam, but Javan could hold his own. And he knew that victory wouldn’t go to the student who was most naturally skilled at each of the five tasks. Victory would belong to the student who approached the exam with the best strategy. Figuring out how to win was like solving a puzzle, and there wasn’t another student at the academy who was better at strategizing than Javan. “I suppose it’s bad form to say I told you so,” Kellan said from Javan’s left. “Terrible form.” Javan laughed and turned to offer Kellan his hand.

“Congratulations on making the cut.” Kellan shook Javan’s hand and then shouted, “This calls for a celebration! To the tavern!” “To the tavern!” Many of the surrounding students echoed back, though a few whose names weren’t on the list were slinking away. “Are you coming?” Kellan asked, even though never once in all of their years of friendship had Javan ever gone to town to celebrate anything. There was always another exam to study for, another weapon’s technique to practice, another goal to hit. This time was no different. Javan started to shake his head, and Kellan rolled his eyes. “The exam isn’t for another three days. Are you going to start overpreparing already?” “You know me.” Javan shrugged as if missing out on a night at the tavern with his friends didn’t feel like another moment in a long chain of lost opportunities that he’d never get back. He’d have a chance to socialize once he returned to Akram, having brought honor to his family name and peace to his mother’s spirit.

He could invite Kellan to visit from Balavata and show him the racetracks, the roasting pits full of pistachios and marinated goat meat, and the dimly lit salons with their citrus-flavored liquor and their harp players whose nimble fingers flew across the strings until you couldn’t help but dance. A pang of homesickness hit. Ten years was a long time to go without seeing his father. The other students returned home for the winter and summer holidays, but not Javan. He’d stayed to study. To practice. To sit with the headmaster or a tutor and do his best to live up to the expectations that rested on his shoulders. Soon it would all be worth it. He just had to enter the exam with the best strategy, stay focused, and win. “If you change your mind, we’ll be at the Red Dwarf.

You can come embarrass yourself with your poor drinking and conversational skills,” Kellan said. “I think you’ll be embarrassing enough for the both of us,” Javan said with a quick smile for Kellan as the other boy crooked his arm through the elbow of the closest girl, flashed her a charming smile, and walked out of the building with a pack of students on his heels. “You don’t want to celebrate with your friends?” the headmaster asked, pinning Javan with his gray eyes. “Not even for an hour?” “I can’t. The exam—” “Isn’t for three days.” “Only three days to study the tasks and come up with a plan—” “Only four days before commencement and your friends scattering to their own kingdoms.” The headmaster smiled at Javan, though there was a sadness in his eyes. “You’ve pushed yourself hard for your entire tenure at the academy. No student of mine has ever given more to his studies. But being the best at everything isn’t all that matters.

” “It is to my father.” The words were out before Javan could stop them. Heat flushed his cheeks at the expression of pity on the headmaster’s face. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.” “We should never apologize for speaking the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it might be to hear.” “It’s just . I’m the only heir. My uncle Fariq doesn’t have any children, and even if he did, he’s my father’s cousin, though he’s been treated like a brother. Only a direct descendant can inherit the throne. I’m the last of the Kadars, and we’ve ruled Akram for nearly two hundred years.

I have to bring honor to my kingdom.”

.

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