The Foreign Prince
Once, in the desert kingdom of Miraji, there was ayoung prince who wanted his father’s throne. He had no claim to it but the belief that his father was a weak ruler and that he would be stronger. And so he took the throne by force. In a single night of bloodshed the Sultan and the prince’s brothers fell to the young prince’s sword and the foreign army he led. When dawn came he was nolonger a prince. He was the Sultan.
The young Sultan was known to take wives into his harem the same way he had his country: by force.
In the first year of his rule, two such wives gave birth to sons under the same stars. One wife was a girl born in the sands. Her son belonged to the desert. The other wife was a girl born across the water, in a kingdom called Xicha, and raised on the deck of a ship. Her son did not belong.
But the sons grew as brothers nonetheless, their mothers shielding them from the things the palace walls could not. And for a time, in the Sultan’s harem, things were well.
Until the first wife gave birth again, but this time to a child that was not her husband’s—a Djinni’s daughter, with unnatural hair and unnatural fire in her blood. For her crime in betraying him, the Sultan turned his anger on his wife. She died under the force of his blows.
Jst added 30 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRH_News by reading @AlwynFJH 2 support @SavetheChildren #ReadWell
Such was his rage, the Sultan never noticed the second wife, who fled with their two sons and the Djinni’s daughter, escaping back across the sea to the kingdom of Xicha, where she had been stolen from. There, her son, the Foreign Prince, could pretend that he belonged. The Desert Prince could not pretend; he was as foreign in this land as his brother had been in their father’s. But neither prince was destined to stay long. Soon, both left Xicha for the open seas instead.
And for a time, on ships going anywhere and coming from nowhere, things were well for the brothers. They drifted from one foreign shore to another, belonging in each place equally.
Until one day, across the bow of the ship, Miraji appeared again.
The Desert Prince saw his country and remembered where he really belonged. On that familiar shore he left the ship and his brother. Though the Desert Prince asked his brother to join him, the Foreign Prince would not. His father’s lands looked empty and barren to him and he could not understand what hold they had over his brother. And so they parted ways. The Foreign Prince stayed on the sea for a time, raging silently that his brother had chosen the desert over the sea.
Finally the day came when the Foreign Prince could no longer be separated from his brother. When he returned to the desert of Miraji, he found that his brother had set it on fire with rebellion. The Desert Prince talked of great things, of great ideas, of equality and of prosperity. He was surrounded by new brothers and sisters who loved the desert as he did. He was now known as the Rebel Prince. But still he welcomed the man who had been his brother his whole life with open arms.
And for a time things were well in the Rebellion.
Until there was a girl. A girl called the Blue-Eyed Bandit, who had been made in the sands and sharpened by the desert and who burned with all of its fire. And for the first time the Foreign Prince understood what it was that his brother loved in this desert.
The Foreign Prince and the Blue-Eyed Bandit crossed the sands together, all the way to a great battle in the city of Fahali, where the Sultan’s foreign allies had rooted themselves.
In that battle of Fahali the rebels won their first great victory. They defended the desert against the Sultan who would have burned it alive. They freed the Demdji, another Djinni’s child, whom the Sultan would have turned into a weapon against his will. They killed the young commander, their brother who would have shed blood until he could win praise from his father, the Sultan. They ruptured the Sultan’s alliance with the foreigners who had been punishing the desert for decades. And the rebels claimed part of the desert for themselves.
The story of the battle of Fahali spread quickly. And with it spread news that the desert might be a prize for the taking again. For the desert of Miraji was the only place where the old magic and the new machines were able to exist together. The only country that could spit out guns quickly enough to arm men to fight in the great war raging between the nations of the north.
New eyes from foreign shores turned to Miraji, hungry ones. More foreign armies descended on the desert, coming from all sides, each trying to claim a new alliance, or the country itself. And while enemies from outside gnawed at the Sultan’s borders and kept his army occupied, the rebels seized city after city from the inside, knocking them out of the Sultan’s hands and rallying the people to their side.
And for a time things were well for the Rebellion, for the Blue-Eyed Bandit, and for the Foreign Prince.
Until the balance started to shift against the Rebel Prince. Two dozen rebels were lost in a trap set for them in the sands, where they were surrounded and outgunned. A city rose up against the Sultan, crying out the Rebel Prince’s name in the night. But those who did saw the next dawn with the blank eyes of the dead. And the Blue-Eyed Bandit fell to a bullet in a battle in the mountains, gravely wounded and only just clinging to life. There, for the firsttime since the threads of their stories had become tangled, the Blue-Eyed Bandit’s and the Foreign Prince’s paths split.
While the Blue-Eyed Bandit clung to her life, the Foreign Prince was sent to the eastern border of the desert. There, an army from Xicha was camped. The Foreign Prince stole a uniform and walked into the Xichian camp as if he belonged. It was easy there, where he did not look foreign anymore. He stood with them as they battled the Sultan’s forces, spying in secret for the Rebel Prince.
And for a time things were well, hiding among the foreign army.
Until the missive came from the enemy camp, its bearer wearing the Sultan’s gold and white and holding up a flag of peace.
The Foreign Prince would have killed for news of what came in that missive for his own side, but there was no need. It was known that he spoke the desert language. He was summoned into the Xichian general’s tent to translate between the Sultan’s envoy and the Xichian, neither of them knowing he was an enemy of them both. As hetranslated he learned that the Sultan was calling for a ceasefire. He was tired of bloodshed, the message said. He was ready to negotiate. The Foreign Prince learned that the ruler of Miraji was summoning all the foreign rulers to him to talk of a new alliance. The Sultan asked for any king or queen or emperor or prince who would lay claim to his desert to come to his palace to make their case.
The missive went to the Xichian emperor the next morning. And the guns stopped. The ceasefire had started. Next would come negotiations. Then peace between the Sultan and the invaders. And without the need to mind his shores, the desert ruler’s eyes would turn inward again.
The Foreign Prince understood it was time to return to his brother. Their rebellion was about to turn into a war.
I’d always liked this shirt. It was a shame about all the blood.
Most of it wasn’t mine, at least. The shirt wasn’t mine, either, for that matter—I’d borrowed it from Shazad and never bothered to give it back. Well, she probably wouldn’t want it now.
I was jerked to a halt. My hands were tied, and the rope chafed painfully along the raw skin of my wrists. I hissed a curse under my breath as I tilted my head back, finally looking up from my dusty boots to lock eyes with the glare of the desert sun.
The walls of Saramotai cast a mighty long shadow in the last of the light.
These walls were legendary. They had stood indifferent to one of the greatest battles of the First War, between the hero Attallah and the Destroyer of Worlds. They were so ancient they looked like they’d been built out of the bones of the desert itself. But the words slapped in sloppy white paint above the gates . . . those were new.
Welcome to the Free City
Jst added 30 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRH_News by reading @AlwynFJH 2 support @SavetheChildren #ReadWell
I could see where the paint had dripped between the cracks in the ancient stones before drying in the heat.
I had a few things to say about being dragged to a so-called Free City tied up like a goat on a spit, but even I knew I was better off not running my mouth just now.
“Declare yourself or I’ll shoot!” someone called from the city wall. The words were a whole lot more impressive than the voice that came with them. I could hear the crack of youth on that last word. I squinted up through my sheema at the kid pointing a rifle at me from the top of the walls. He couldn’t have been any older than thirteen. He was all limbs and joints. He didn’t look like he could’ve held that gun right if his life depended on it. Which it probably did. This being Miraji and all.
“It’s us, Ikar, you little idiot,” the man holding me bellowed in my ear. I winced. Shouting really didn’t seem necessary. “Now, open the gates right now or, God help me, I’m going to have your father beat you harder than one of his horseshoes until some brains go in.”
“Hossam?” Ikar didn’t lower the gun right away. He was twitchy as all get-out. Which wasn’t the best thing when he had one finger on the trigger of a rifle. “Who’s that with you?” He waved his gun in my direction. I turned my body on instinct as the barrel swung wildly. He didn’t look like he could hit the broad side of a barn if he was trying, but I wasn’t ruling out that he might hit me by accident. If he did, better to get shot in the shoulder than the chest.
“This”—a hint of pride crept into Hossam’s voice as he jerked my face up to the sunlight like I was a hunted carcass—“is the Blue-Eyed Bandit.”
That name landed with more weight than it used to, drawing silence down behind it. On top of the wall Ikar stared. Even this far away I saw his jaw open, going slack for a moment, then close.
“Open the gates!” Ikar squawked finally, scrambling down. “Open the gates!”
The huge iron doors swung open painfully slow, fighting against the sand that had built up over the day. Hossam and the other men with us jostled me forward in a hurry as the ancient hinges groaned.
The gates didn’t open all the way, only enough for one man to get through at a time. Even after thousands of years those gates looked as strong as they had at the dawn of humanity. They were iron through and through, as thick as the span of a man’s arms, and operated by some system of weights and gears that no other city had been able to duplicate. There’d be no breaking these gates down. And everyone knew there was no climbing the walls of Saramotai.
Seemed like the only way into the city these days was by being dragged through the gates as a prisoner with a hand around your neck. Lucky me.
Saramotai was west of the middle mountains. Which meant it was ours. Or at least, it was supposed to be. After the battle at Fahali, Ahmed had declared this territory his. Most cities had sworn their allegiance quickly enough, as the Gallan occupiers who’d held this half of the desert for so long emptied out of the streets. Or we’d claimed their allegiance away from the Sultan.
Saramotai was another story.
Welcome to the Free City.
Saramotai had declared its own laws, taking rebellion one step further.
Ahmed talked a whole lot about equality and wealth for the poor. The people of Saramotai had decided the only way to create equality was to strike down those who were above them. That the only way to become rich was to take their wealth. So they’d turned against the rich under the guise of accepting Ahmed’s rule.
But Ahmed knew a grab for power when he saw one. We didn’t know all that much about Malik Al-Kizzam, the man who’d taken over Saramotai, except that he’d been a servant to the emir and now the emir was dead and Malik lived in his grand estate.
So we sent a few folks to find out more. And do something about it if we didn’t like it.
They didn’t come back.
That was a problem. Another problem was getting in after them.
And so here I was, my hands tied so tight behind my back I was losing feeling in them and a fresh wound on my collarbone where a knife had just barely missed my neck. Funny how being successful felt exactly the same as getting captured
Hossam shoved me ahead of him through the narrow gap in the gates. I stumbled and went sprawling in the sand face-first, my elbow bashing into the iron gate painfullyas I went down.
Son of a bitch, that hurt more than I thought it would.
A hiss of pain escaped through my teeth as I rolled over. Sand stuck to my hands where sweat had pooled under the ropes, clinging to my skin. Then Hossam grabbed me, yanking me to my feet. He hustled me inside, the gate clanging quickly shut behind us. It was almost like they were afraid of something.
A small crowd had already gathered inside the gate to gawk. Half were clutching guns. More than a few of those were pointed at me
So my reputation really did precede me.
“Hossam.” Someone pushed to the front. He was older than my captors, with serious eyes that took in my sorry state. He looked at me more levelly than the others. He wouldn’t be blinded by the same eagerness. “What happened?”
“We caught her in the mountains,” Hossam crowed. “She tried to ambush us when we were on our way back from trading for the guns.” Two of the other men with us dropped bags that were heavy with weapons on the ground proudly, as if to show off that I hadn’t gotten in their way. The guns weren’t of Mirajin make. Amonpourian. Stupid-looking things. Ornate and carved, made by hand instead of machine, and charged at twice what they were worth because someone had gone to the trouble of making them pretty. It didn’t matter how pretty something was, it’d kill you just as dead. That, I’d learned from Shazad.
“Just her?” the man with the serious eyes asked. “On her own?” His gaze flicked to me. Like he might be able to suss out the truth just from looking at me. Whether a girl of seventeen would really think she could take on a half dozen grown men with nothing but a handful of bullets and win. Whether the famous Blue-Eyed Bandit could really be that stupid.
I preferred “reckless.”
But I kept my mouth shut. The more I talked, the more likely I was to say something that’d backfire on me. Stay silent, look sullen, try not to get yourself killed.
If all else fails, just stick with that last one.
“Are you really the Blue-Eyed Bandit?” Ikar blurted out, making everyone’s head turn. He’d scrambled down from his watchpost on the wall to come gawk at me with the rest. He leaned forward eagerly across the barrel of his gun. If it went off now it’d take both his hands and part of his face with it. “Is it true what they say about you?”
Stay silent. Look sullen. Try not to get yourself killed. “Depends what they’re saying, I suppose.” Damn it. That didn’t last so long. “And you shouldn’t hold your gun like that.”
Ikar shifted his grip absently, never taking his eyes off me. “They say that you can shoot a man’s eye out fifty feet away in the pitch dark. That you walked through a hail of bullets in Iliaz, and walked out with the Sultan’s secret war plans.” I remembered Iliaz going a little differently. It ended with a bullet in me, for one. “That you seduced one of the Emir of Jalaz’s wives while they were visiting Izman.” Now, that was a new one. I’d heard the one about seducing the emir himself. But maybe the emir’s wife liked women, too. Or maybe the story had twisted in the telling, since half the tales of the Blue-Eyed Bandit seemed to make out I was a man these days. I’d stopped wearing wraps to pretend I was a boy, but apparently I’d need to fill out a little more to convince some people that the bandit was a girl.
“You killed a hundred Gallan soldiers at Fahali,” he pushed on, his words tripping over each other, undeterred by my silence.“And I heard you escaped from Malal on the back of a giant blue Roc, and flooded the prayer house behind you.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” I interjected as Ikar finally paused for breath, his eyes the size of two louzi pieces with excitement.
He sagged, disappointed. He was just a kid, as eager to believe all the stories as I had been when I was his age. Though he looked younger than I ever remembered being. He shouldn’t be here holding a gun like this. But then, this was what the desert did to us. It made us dreamers with weapons. I ran my tongue along my teeth. “And the prayer house in Malal was an accident…mostly.”
A whisper went through the crowd. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t send a little thrill down my spine. And lying was a sin.
It’d been close to half a year since I’d stood in Fahali with Ahmed, Jin, Shazad, Hala, and the twins, Izz and Maz. Us against two armies and Noorsham, a Demdji turned into a weapon by the Sultan; a Demdji who also happened to be my brother.
Us against impossible odds and a devastatingly powerful Demdji. But we’d survived. And from there the story of the battle of Fahali had traveled across the desert faster even than the story of the Sultim trials had. I’d heard it told a dozen times by folks who didn’t know the Rebellion was listening. Our exploits got greater and less plausible with every telling but the tale always ended the same way, with a sense that, while the storyteller might be done, the story wasn’t. One way or another, the desert wasn’t going to be the same after the battle of Fahali.
The legend of the Blue-Eyed Bandit had grown along with the tale of Fahali, until I was a story that I didn’t wholly recognize. It claimed that the Blue-Eyed Bandit was a thief instead of a rebel. That I tricked my way into people’s beds to get information for my Prince. That I’d killed my own brother on the battlefield. I hated that one the most. Maybe because there’d been a moment, finger on the trigger, where it was almost true. And I had let him escape. Which was almost as bad. He was out there some where with all of that power. And, unlike me, he didn’t have any other Demdji to help him.
Sometimes, late at night, after the rest of the camp had gone to sleep, I’d say out loud that he was alive. Just to know whether it was true or not. So far I could say it without hesitation. But I was scared that there would come a day when I wouldn’t be able to anymore. That would mean it was a lie, and my brother had died, alone and scared, somewhere in this merciless, war-torn desert.
“If she’s as dangerous as they say, we ought to kill her,” someone called from the crowd. It was a man with a bright yellow military sash across his chest that looked like it’d been stitched back together from scraps. I noticed a few were wearing those. These must be the newly appointed guard of Saramotai, since they’d gone and killed the real guard. He was holding a gun. It was pointed at my stomach. Stomach wounds were no good. They killed you slowly.
“But if she’s the Blue-Eyed Bandit, she’s with the Rebel Prince.” Someone else spoke up. “Doesn’t that mean she’s on our side?” Now, that was the million-fouza question.
“Funny way to treat someone on your side.” I shifted my bound hands pointedly. A murmur went through the crowd. That was good; it meant they weren’t as united as they looked from the outside of their impenetrable wall. “So if we’re all friends here, how about you untie me and we can talk?”
“Nice try, Bandit.” Hossam gripped me tighter. “We’re not giving you a chance to get your hands on a gun. I’ve heard the stories of how you killed a dozen men with a single bullet.” I was pretty sure that wasn’t possible. Besides, I didn’t need a gun to take down a dozen men.
It was almost funny. They’d used rope to tie me. Not iron. If ever there was iron touching my skin, I was as human as they were. So long as there wasn’t, I could raise the desert against them. Which meant I could do more damage with my hands tied than I ever could with a gun in them. But damage wasn’t the plan.
“Malik should decide what we do with the Bandit anyway.” The serious-eyed man rubbed his hand over his chin nervously as he mentioned their self-appointed leader.
“I do have a name, you know,” I offered.
“Malik isn’t back yet,” the same one who’d been pointing the gun at me snapped. He seemed like the tense sort.“ She could do anything before he gets back.”
“It’s Amani. My name, that is.” No one was listening. “In case you were wondering.” This arguing might go on for a while. Ruling by committee never went quick. It barely ever worked at all.
“Then lock her away until Malik gets here,” a voice from somewhere in the back of the crowd called.
“He’s right,” another voice called from the other side, another face I couldn’t see. “Throw her in jail where she can’t make any trouble.”
A ripple of agreement spread through the crowd. Finally the man with sad eyes jerked his head in a sharp nod.
The crowd parted hastily as Hossam started to pull me through. Only they didn’t move very far. Everyone wanted to get a look at the Blue-Eyed Bandit. They stared and jostled for space as I was pulled past them. I knew exactly what they were seeing. A girl younger than some of their daughters, with a split lip and dark hair stuck to her face by blood and sweat. Legends were never what you expected when you saw them up close. I was no exception. The only thing that made me any different from every other skinny, dark-skinned desert girl was eyes that burned a brighter blue than the midday sky. Like the hottest part of a fire.
“Are you one of them?” It was a new voice, rising shrill above the din of the crowd. A woman with a yellow sheema shoved to the front. The cloth was stitched with flowers that almost matched my eyes. There was a desperate urgency in her face that made me nervous. There was something about the way she said them. Like she might mean Demdji.
Even folks who knew about Demdji couldn’t usually pick me out as one. We children of Djinn and mortal women looked more human than most folks reckoned. Hell, I’d even fooled myself for near seventeen years. Mostly I didn’t look unnatural, just half-foreign.
My eyes were what gave me away, but only if you knew what you were looking for. And it seemed like this woman did.
“Hossam.” The woman staggered to keep up as he dragged me through the streets. “If she’s one of them, she’s worth just as much as my Ranaa. We could trade her instead. We could—”
But Hossam shoved her aside, letting her be swallowed back into the crowd as he dragged me deeper into the city.
The streets of Saramotai were as narrow as they were ancient, forcing the crowd to thin and then dissipate as we moved. Walls pressed close around us in the lengthening shadows, tight enough in some places that my shoulders touched on both sides. We passed between two brightly painted houses with their doors blown in. Gunpowder marks on walls. Boarded-up entryways and windows. There were more and more marks of war the farther we walked. A city where the fighting had come from inside, instead of beyond the walls. I supposed that was called a rebellion.
The smell of rotting flesh came before I saw the bodies.
We passed under a narrow arch half covered by a carpet drying in the sun. The tassels brushed my neck as I ducked under. When I looked back up, I saw two dozen bodies swinging by their necks. They were strung together across the great exterior wall like lanterns.
Lanterns who’d had their eyes picked out by vultures.
It was hard to tell if they’d been old or young or pretty or scarred. But they’d all been wealthy. The birds hadn’t gotten to the Kurtas stitched with richly dyed thread or the delicate muslin sleeves of their khalats. I almost gagged at the smell. Death and desert heat made quick work of bodies.
The sun was setting behind me. Which meant that when sunrise came the bodies would blaze with light.
A new dawn. A new desert.
Excerpted from Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton. Copyright © 2017 by Alwyn Hamilton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.