Love a good retelling of a classic tale? How about a lush, epic fantasy? Of course you do. So today’s excerpt is perfect, because C.J. Redwine combines both to bring us the latest in her Ravenspire series of retellings—THE TRAITOR PRINCE! Inspired by the classic stories of The Prince and the Pauper and The False Prince, it tells the story of Javan, a crown prince who is falsely imprisoned by an evil imposter with deadly intentions.
In order to gain an audience with the king and reveal his true identity, Javan must compete in and survive a deadly gladiator-style tournament held by the prison. He’ll face his fellow prisoners, deadly creatures, and a dangerous warden with vicious intentionsof her own.
Can Javan survive the competition and expose the imposter before he’s able to carry out his evil plan? You’ll have to read THE TRAITOR PRINCE on February 13th to find out—but you can get a sneak peek below!
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.”
The headmaster moved to Javan’s side and rested a heavy hand on the prince’s shoulder. “No student has brought more honor to his kingdom than you. Taking an hour away from studying won’t tarnish that. If anything, it will improve your ability to be an excellent ruler.” At Javan’s raised brow, the headmaster squeezed his shoulder. “People matter more than competitions and grades. You matter. I hope you realize that you are more to your father than the honors you bring home from school. And I hope you know that you are more to me than any of your accomplishments.”
The warmth in Javan’s cheeks poured into his chest, and he stood a little straighter. Earning his father’s respect and fulfilling his mother’s dying wish were the fuel that pushed him to the limits of his endurance every day. But earning the headmaster’s affection—seeing love and pride in the eyes of the man who’d been like a second father to Javan for the past ten years—was a light that burned steadily in the prince’s heart.
“And before I forget, another letter arrived for you.” The headmaster reached into his robes and produced an envelope with creased corners and a gritty coat of the burned red sand of the Samaal Desert that separated Akram from Loch Talam.
Javan took the envelope, and the light inside him burned a little brighter.
Maybe he hadn’t seen his father since he’d arrived at Milisatria, but the letters his father sent—as infrequent as they’d become in the last five years—kept Javan tethered to the family he’d soon be returning to.
“Thank you, Headmaster. I need to go now,” Javan said.
“I hope you mean go to the tavern with your friends,” the headmaster called to Javan’s retreating back.
The prince clutched the letter to him as he exited the building and turned toward the dormitory. Moments later, he was inside his room and sliding a slim dagger across the envelope’s edge, leaving the royal purple wax seal with its Kadar family crest intact as he always did.
There was a single piece of parchment inside, and Javan tried to quell the sting of disappointment at how few lines were written on it. The first letter his father had sent him, three months after he’d arrived at Milisatria, had been two full pages detailing the comings and goings of Uncle Fariq, who loved to travel, the antics of Javan’s pet leopard Malik, and the growth of the jasmine he’d planted on the queen’s grave. Until five summers ago, his letters had contained a wealth of details that kept Akram alive in Javan’s mind and strengthened the connection he felt with his father.
But then the letters had begun to change. Less description. Less interest in Javan’s life. When the letters began arriving every six to eight months instead of every three months, and Javan found entire paragraphs that didn’t quite make sense, the prince had finally sent a letter of his own to his uncle asking after his father. His uncle had assured him that King Samaal was simply busy—distracted by the heavy burden of ruling Akram.
Javan had absorbed both the hurt and the comfort in his uncle’s reply and had redoubled his efforts to prove to his father that he too was worthy of the burden of ruling Akram. Turning to the latest letter from his father, Javan’s eyes devoured the two short paragraphs greedily, lingering on the last sentence.
I am sure you will do your duty.
Slowly, he placed the letter in the box that contained the rest of the correspondence from his father. A band of pressure wrapped around Javan’s chest as he slid the box back under his bed.
Javan’s duty wasn’t to Kellan or the rest of his friends, no matter how much he might wish to spend an afternoon with them at the tavern.
His duty was to fulfill his mother’s wish, earn his father’s respect, and return to Akram ready to rule his people with strength and honor when the time came for him to take his father’s place. Nothing less would do.
And to do that, he had to earn first place in the final exam.
Without hesitation, he sat at his desk, pulled out a sheaf of parchment and a quill, and began to plan.
The day of the final exam dawned cold and damp, and Javan woke with a prayer on his lips and a coiled tension in his chest. A heavy mist clung to the rocky hilltops and belly crawled over the fields as the ten students who’d earned the honor of taking the test filed out of the dormitory and headed toward the stables for the first of the five tasks.
The headmaster met them at the mouth of the stables, while behind him grooms saddled horses and assembled armor and lances.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning, Headmaster,” the students answered.
“A brief reminder of the rules,” he said. “Each task is a test of your strength, your skills, and your strategy. You must remain at that task until you have earned enough points to move on. Jousting requires ten points. You receive one point per touch, two points for hitting the center of someone’s chest, and three points for unseating your opponent. Once you’ve reached ten points, you may leave for the next task. I will wait for you on the final field where you will try to gain the sash by using your combat training to defeat any challengers who arrive at the field with you. A touch from the weapons will count as an injury.” His eyes narrowed. “Any actual injury caused to a fellow student will result in your immediate disqualification. Good luck.”
Javan’s stomach felt as though he’d swallowed rocks, and his mouth was dry as he wished Kellan and the other students luck and then quickly moved into the stable and chose a mount.
He was decent at jousting. Maybe not as skilled as Cora or as fast as Eljin, but he could keep his seat and put points on the board in quick order, and that was all that mattered. He simply had to hold his own in the first three tasks and not fall behind. The fourth task was where he planned to take the lead. Pulling a hauberk over his head, he reached for a helmet and mounted the horse.
It was time to fulfill his mother’s dying wish and make his father proud.
Two hours later, Javan was in serious danger of the one thing all of his planning hadn’t accounted for: being eaten by a dragon.
The beast crouched at the edge of the precipice above Javan, its talons digging into the rugged stone cliff, its wings casting a shadow as wide as seven men lying end to end, and its dark eyes locked on the prince. The morning sunlight glanced off the dragon’s dull gray scales and disappeared in the shadow of the beast’s black underbelly. A long, jagged scar ran the length of the dragon’s chest, from the base of its neck to its stomach. Javan swallowed as the creature’s lips peeled back from a row of knife-sharp teeth, smoke pouring from its nostrils.
Fear was lightning spiking through Javan’s veins, threatening to send his carefully crafted plan into chaos as images of being snapped up in the dragon’s immense jaws filled his head.
He was trapped. A dragon in front of him. A treacherous climb through slippery, shale-covered hills behind him. And no one he could call for help.
He’d been certain of his strategy. He’d walked the academy’s vast grounds long after he should have been asleep, memorizing the craggy landscape—the green hollows that dipped into pools of shadow, the gray-blue rivers that reflected the stars, and the rocky peaks that pierced the sky like a smithy’s nails, looking for an advantage over his fellow students.
He’d found the trail that sliced through a cluster of steep, rocky hills two nights ago. By his calculations, using this trail to get to the final task instead of staying on the main path that neatly dissected the academy’s enormous estate into tidy quadrants would save him valuable time.
The rest of his strategy had worked beautifully. He’d held his own in jousting, trapped his opponent in a game of kingdoms at war within twelve moves, and completed the obstacle course with only two students ahead of him. He’d banked his success on the fourth task. Archery had always been one of his best sports. Arriving at the grounds for the fourth task in a tie with three other students, including Kellan, he’d grabbed a bow, nocked an arrow, and then sent it flying dead center into the target. Two more quickly followed, and then he’d tossed the weapon to the grass and left the archery grounds at a dead run while the others were still reaching for their second arrows. Veering left at the tumble of rotting tree trunks that marked the intersection between the north quadrant and the east, he’d ducked behind a rocky outcrop and hurried toward the shortcut.
Everything had gone according to plan until the headmaster decided to block the shortcut with a dragon.
The beast exhaled, a long, rasping growl of breath that shivered through the air and sent smoke curling toward the thick gray clouds that scudded across the sky.
Javan forced himself to breathe as well. Fear out. Courage in.
This was just another test. Another way to make sure that only the truly deserving wore the crimson sash at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony.
Doubtless there was another equally daunting obstacle blocking the others on the main path. Javan shoved all thoughts of his friends and fellow competitors from his mind and focused on the problem of getting past the beast.
The dragon beat its wings, slowly at first, and then shale began sliding down the hill as the beast picked up speed. Every flap of its wings was a leathery slap of sound that sent a chill over Javan’s skin.
He had no weapons. They were forbidden between tasks.
He had no allies. He’d left them behind on the main road.
He had nothing but his instincts and his brain.
That didn’t seem like enough to best a dragon the size of a small house, but the headmaster wouldn’t have allowed it to be here if he didn’t believe his students already had the skills to beat it.
Javan looked away from the dragon to quickly scan the area, forcing himself to catalog his options as the dragon’s talons scraped the rocky precipice, sending chunks of rock tumbling past the prince.
He needed a weapon. He needed shelter.
He needed a way through the hills to the fifth task before one of his classmates got to the sash first.
His list of options was pitifully short. There were plenty of small pieces of shale. There were rocks ranging from fist-size to ones as large as a carriage. There was the hill in front of him, but no tunnels that could offer safety while keeping the dragon at bay. And there was Javan himself with his tunic, his boots, his pants, and his belt.
The dragon rose, blocking the pale sun, its immense shadow swallowing Javan whole.
The prince was out of time. Whipping off his tunic, he leaned down and scraped a hand through the shale until he found a piece sharp enough to cut his skin. He scooped it up along with a few rocks the size of pomegranates. The dragon’s roar shattered the air above him, and Javan’s heart thudded as he dumped the rocks onto the center of his tunic, tied the sleeves into a makeshift knapsack, and then scrambled for the incline that led to the hill’s precipice.
Doubtless the dragon would try to block Javan. He’d just have to find a way to distract it or fend it off long enough to get through the pass.
The dragon dove for him, the air whistling past its body as fire poured from its mouth.
Yl’ Haliq be merciful, the dragon wasn’t just trying to block his progress. It was trying to burn him.
Javan leaped to the side, crashing onto the shale as the fire seared his left arm. The dragon slammed into the ground beside him, sending a wave of rocks skidding down the rest of the hill.
Terror lanced Javan, bold and bright. Fragments of prayer tumbled from his lips as he reached for his tunic full of rocks with shaking fingers. The beast wasn’t trying to stop Javan. It was trying to kill him.
Javan lunged forward, grabbing sharp outcroppings to haul himself over the slippery ground, his breath sobbing in his lungs as he whispered a prayer for deliverance.
The outcroppings sliced into his hands, and soon his palms were slick with blood. The dragon’s wings swept the air, and Javan had to brace himself to keep from being flattened by the gusts of wind that hit him.
As the dragon rose into the air once more, Javan forced himself to reach. To climb.
The precipice was three body lengths away.
The dragon was circling overhead, smoke pouring from its nostrils.
“Yl’ Haliq, save your faithful servant,” Javan breathed as he dug deep for more speed. More strength. As he tried to push the blinding terror into the corner of his mind so he could think.
The dragon’s roar thundered as Javan’s bloody hands closed over the spiny ridge of the hill. The prince pulled his legs under his chest, planted his boots against the shifting shale beneath him, and leaped.
Fire exploded against the side of the hill as Javan cleared the ridge and landed on the narrow flat strip of the hill’s precipice. Throwing his makeshift knapsack to the ground, the prince tore the knot loose and grabbed the sharp piece of shale. Four quick slices and he ripped a patch of fabric the size of his hand from the bottom of his tunic.
The dragon dove toward him. Javan threw himself forward, skidding on his hands and knees as the beast’s talons dug into the ground, leaving long gashes where the prince had been crouched.
Javan’s hands shook as he flattened the square of fabric and gouged a slim tear into two opposite sides of the patch. Above him, the dragon flew into the air and began circling. The prince grabbed the braided cord of his belt, unwound it from his waist, and shoved one end through the tear in the right side of the patch. The dragon’s roar shook the ground.
Fear wrapped around Javan’s chest and squeezed. Hastily pushing the end of his belt through the other tear, he centered the patch in the middle of the corded rope while the dragon dove.
This time, Javan didn’t move fast enough. The beast’s great leathery wing collided with the prince and sent him spinning toward the edge of the precipice. Javan dug into the ground with his elbows and feet, his hands still clutching the slingshot he’d fashioned.
The beast flew into the air and circled back.
Javan jumped to his feet and dove toward the cache of rocks sitting in the middle of his ruined tunic.
Smoke gushed from the dragon’s mouth and hurtled toward the prince with every flap of the creature’s wings.
Javan’s hand closed around a rock, and he centered it in the piece of tunic even as he spun to face the dragon’s next assault.
There would be no time to dive out of the way if he missed.
The dragon roared.
Javan pulled the rock back with one hand until the cord of his rope belt was taut.
With an enormous whoosh of smoky air, the beast locked eyes on the prince and came straight toward him.
He was going to die.
The words chased one another inside his head as his stomach dropped and his knees shook. He was going to die, and he’d never been to a tavern or kissed a girl or seen pride in his father’s eyes.
Terror threatened to turn Javan’s limbs to stone as the dragon closed in, and he forced himself to breathe.
Flames gathered in the back of the dragon’s throat.
Javan leaned his weight onto his back leg, stared at the space between the dragon’s eyes, and let the rock fly as fire began pouring from the beast’s mouth.
The flames rushed for Javan as the rock sailed through them and struck the dragon’s left eye.
With a guttural cry, the dragon wheeled away, clawing at its face with its front talons.
Javan lunged forward, ducking beneath the wave of fire and wincing as the heat seared the bare skin of his back. Grabbing another rock, he readied it in the slingshot even as he hurtled over the far edge of the precipice and began sprinting down the incline and toward the path that wound through the next cluster of craggy hills.
For a moment, he thought the dragon wouldn’t follow. It hung in the sky, wings pushing at the air while it clawed at its injured eye. Javan focused on the slim space between the third and fourth hills in front of him and reached deep for another burst of speed. His boots crunched on the shale beneath him as he closed in on his way out.
Behind him, the dragon roared. Javan risked a glance over his shoulder and his mouth went dry at the light of blind rage that glowed in the dragon’s uninjured eye. The beast snarled and dove for him.
“Yl’ Haliq be merciful,” Javan breathed as he raced toward the slice of light that glowed between the hills.
He couldn’t stop. Couldn’t turn around and aim the rock at the dragon. One misstep, one lost instant of forward momentum, and he wouldn’t be able to outrun the fiery death that was closing in on him.
Heat swept his back as the dragon sent a fireball toward him. Javan cried out in pain, but didn’t stop. Reaching the space between the hills, he abandoned the slingshot, grabbed both sides of the rocky outcrop, and swung his body through. Without pausing, he skidded down the steep incline, sending showers of rocks onto the small meadow at the base of the hill.
Carved wooden stakes marked the four corners of the meadow, and at its center was a raised stone platform the size of a table that could seat twenty. The academy’s coat of arms was carved into the front of the platform. A small selection of weapons was arranged on the left of the dais, and on the right stood the headmaster, the crimson sash in his hands. His back was to Javan, his focus on the main road where in the distance the three students Javan had left behind on the archery grounds were running toward the meadow.
“Weapon!” Javan yelled as his boots hit the grass.
The headmaster pivoted, his mouth an O of surprise as behind Javan, the dragon crashed into the space between the hills and exploded through it in a hail of dust and debris. The sash fluttered to the ground as the older man lunged for the other side of the platform and grabbed a bow and quiver.
Javan stumbled as he crossed the meadow, the painful burns along his arm and back searing into his nerves, and the headmaster yelled, “Catch!”
The bow and the quiver flew toward the prince. He scrambled to his feet and caught them as the headmaster hefted a long sword and began running toward Javan.
Whirling to face the dragon, Javan planted his feet, nocked an arrow, and took a breath as he aimed the weapon at the incoming beast. Its scales were impenetrable. He’d have to hit it in an eye again.
The headmaster reached his side as Javan drew back the bow, prayed he’d calculated wind speed and velocity correctly, and let the arrow fly.
The arrow arced through the air. The dragon’s lips peeled back, fire blooming in its throat. The headmaster raised his sword.
And then the arrow buried itself in the dragon’s injured eye.
The beast screamed, a half-human half-dragon sound that sent a chill shuddering through Javan.
This wasn’t a wild dragon from the north. This was a Draconi, a dragon shape-shifter from the eastern kingdom of Eldr. Why would a dragon shape-shifter be ordered to kill anyone who tried to get through the hills?
As the other competitors rushed into the meadow, the dragon clawed at its injured eye while the other eye glared balefully at the humans in the meadow. When it saw the prince’s friends grabbing weapons and joining him, it gave one last roar and then turned, its massive wings beating the air as it flew south.
Javan remained poised, another arrow nocked, though his chest heaved with every breath and his back was lit with white-hot pain. His friends surrounded him, their gazes on the sky until the dragon was no more than a tiny speck in the distance. Finally satisfied that the beast wasn’t going to return, Javan turned toward the headmaster and said, “That thing tried to kill me.”
The headmaster was staring at the southern horizon, his face ashen. “I know.”
Javan clenched his jaw and forced himself to speak respectfully to his elder. “Please help me understand why you would instruct a Draconi to guard the hill pass and kill anyone who came through it.”
“I didn’t.” The headmaster’s voice was soft, but there was anger in it.
“Then who did?” Javan asked, unease coiling in his stomach.
The headmaster’s eyes narrowed. “I’d very much like to find out.”
Javan stood at the window of the room he shared with Kellan as the crowds for commencement day began pulling their carriages onto the academy’s long half-circle drive. His gaze flicked between the people below and the sky above, his pulse racing every time he caught sight of a dark, distant cloud and wondered if it was the dragon returning to finish what it started.
“What are you looking at?” Kellan asked.
Tearing his gaze from the sky, Javan glanced at the academy grounds again. “The extra security the headmaster ordered for the commencement ceremony just arrived.” He winced as he carefully pulled a clean tunic over his shoulders. The poultice the academy’s physician had spread over the burned skin on his back had taken away much of the sting, but it was still tender to the touch. “If that Draconi comes back, it’s in for trouble.”
Yl’ Haliq be praised, this time Javan wouldn’t be in the fight by himself.
Javan’s stomach knotted as he watched the security reinforcements move past the slow line of carriages carrying the noble parents of Milisatria’s graduating class from across the three western kingdoms. Somewhere in that line there would be a sleek carriage made of polished teak and ebony with the Kadar family crest painted on its doors. Somewhere in that line was Javan’s father, whose deep grief over the death of his wife hadn’t caused him to miss a single day of ruling both Akram and his son with an implacable resolve.
A true ruler was fit—body, mind, and soul—and Javan had spent every ounce of his considerable willpower becoming a worthy heir to Akram’s crown. The look of pride he’d finally see on his father’s face would be his reward.
The thought was both exhilarating and somehow terrifying.
“Move over. Let me have a look.” Kellan shouldered his way to the window frame and gave an appreciative whistle. “The headmaster went above and beyond with security this time. I guess he’s still worried about that Draconi returning. Look at this! Royal knights, trained wolves, and an entire contingent of elven archers wearing black patches with a constellation insignia on their left shoulders.” Kellan’s eyes were lit with excitement. “Those are dark elves, Javan. Do you know how long I’ve wanted to meet one? Let’s go introduce ourselves.”
Javan shuddered. “So they can poison our minds with their magic and use us as slaves? No thanks. The only good elf is a dead elf.”
“I’m sure these must be safe elves. Why else would the headmaster allow them on the grounds?”
“Safe elves.” Javan snorted and looked over Kellan’s shoulder as the security forces began spreading out to cover the academy’s grounds. “There’s no such thing as a safe elf. Maybe if your people had been captured and enslaved by those monsters like mine were, you’d understand. The only reason they’re here is because the headmaster needs something that can kill a Draconi in case the dragon comes back, and the city’s baron is hosting a contingent of dark elves from the northern land of Ystaria. The elves are visiting Loch Talam to convince the king and queen that the peace treaty they recently signed is solid. What better way to assure them of the elves’ good intentions than to voluntarily protect the academy the king’s children attend?”
“How do you always know everything?” Kellan demanded as he turned from the window to grab his commencement robe. “It’s annoying. Useful, yes. But annoying.”
“Because while you were out constantly looking for new and creative ways to kill yourself on some ridiculous adventure, I spent my time listening, observing, and learning.” And if that sounded just a little bit boring, it didn’t matter. Javan hadn’t been sent to the academy to have fun.
“I’ve done plenty of listening, observing, and learning. Which is how I know that the girls from hall six will be celebrating at the Red Dwarf tonight.” Kellan wiggled his brows, and Javan laughed, though his eyes were once again drawn toward the sky.
“Hey!” Kellan snapped his fingers in front of Javan’s face. “You. Me. The girls from hall six and some of the best whiskey in Loch Talam. You’re coming, right? It’s your last night.”
Javan hesitated. What would it feel like to laugh and linger and not worry about his studies? This one night was all he’d get. Once he returned to Akram, he’d assume a new set of duties. A new routine that would bind him to a set purpose the way his father’s instructions had bound him to his tasks at Milisatria.
At the thought of his father, Javan’s smile slowly disappeared, and he drew in a deep breath.
“I know that look.” Kellan folded his arms over his chest.
“I’m sorry. My father will finally be at Milisatria tonight. It’s been ten years since I’ve seen him. I can’t go anywhere.”
“My mother will be here too. That’s why we’re sneaking out after they settle into the guest rooms for the night.”
Javan scanned the horizon while he searched for a way to explain his refusal. His gaze lingered on the craggy rock hills in the distance. He couldn’t find any sign of the dragon who’d attacked him, but still a queasy sense of dread pooled in the pit of his stomach.
“Javan, are you coming with us or—”
Regret filled him, a painful weight that bowed his shoulders. “I can’t. If we were caught, my father would think . . . It would cast doubt on everything I’ve accomplished. I’ve worked so hard to make him proud. I’m not going to risk losing that.”
Kellan said nothing.
Turning away from the window, Javan shrugged into his sky-blue commencement robe and lifted the crimson sash. Once the dragon had disappeared in the distance at the previous day’s competition, the headmaster had awarded the sash to Javan for arriving at the meadow first. The prince had offered to defend the sash from the other competitors, as was proper, but his friends had unanimously declined. Something about not wanting an arrow in their eyes.
“Look at you, wearing that red sash.” Kellan’s tone was easy, as if Javan hadn’t just turned down the last invitation he would ever issue, but his gaze was thoughtful. “You’ll be drowning in fair maidens by the end of the ceremony. I will, of course, graciously offer to dance with a few of them just to give you some breathing space.” Kellan winked at Javan as he flung his own golden sash—the standard color for all graduates—around his shoulders.
Javan rolled his eyes. Approaching the room’s looking glass, he smoothed the crimson fabric that was draped over his neck, its beaded ends hanging even with his waist. “I’ve never once been drowning in fair maidens.”
“That’s because you’ve always ignored them in favor of studying. Now that you no longer have to constantly bury your face in a book, you’ll finally have a chance to impress a girl.”
Javan stared at his reflection for a moment, searching for pieces of his parents, of his heritage, in his face. He found his father in the arch of his cheekbones and the tilt of his chin. Saw his mother in the line of his jaw and the slight curl to his hair. Felt the deep ties of duty and faith they’d instilled into the very fabric of his being. He was every inch their son, inside and out, and tonight his father would see that for himself.
Javan tied his shoulder-length black hair back with the ceremonial zar’ei his father had given him, his fingers lingering over the strip of leather with its narrow band of inlaid garnets—his mother’s birthstone. She’d grown hazy in his memory, the passage of time breaking her into bits and pieces. Her laugh when they’d walked through the citrus grove, plucking lemons from the trees. The way the sun had gleamed against the roses in her cheeks. The smell of honey and jasmine that didn’t have an image attached to it but felt like home all the same.
If earning his father’s pride meant the world to Javan, then sending his mother to her peaceful rest by fulfilling her wish was the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Kellan looped an arm around Javan’s shoulders and grinned at him. “Ready?”
Javan met his friend’s gaze. “Ready.”
Ordering his knotted stomach to relax, he moved toward the door, Kellan close behind.
He’d done everything that was expected of him and more. He was going to stand on the commencement stage wearing the crimson sash, proof that he was capable of ruling in his father’s stead when the time came, and he was going to see pride on his father’s face. Something soft and bright glowed in his chest at the thought of it, and Javan smiled as he stepped out of the room and made his way toward the academy’s performance hall.
The hall was crowded. Rows of chairs in neat, horizontal lines faced the stage that occupied the north wall. Parents, siblings, and extended family filled the aisles, hunting for seats and scanning the graduating students—who sat quietly on the stage behind the headmaster—looking for their own child.
Javan stood to the right of the headmaster, slightly in front of the first row of students. His place of honor for being the top of his class. He kept his body still, his chin lifted, but his heart thudded painfully against his rib cage as his gaze skipped from one family to the next, searching for his father.
Would the king’s shoulders stoop now? Would his long black hair have silver running through it? Twice, Javan was sure he’d seen him, but both times he’d been wrong. By the time the crowd was seated and quiet, the knots were back in Javan’s stomach, and he’d given up pretending that he wasn’t actively looking for his father.
The headmaster’s voice rumbled beside Javan, filling the room. Candelabras moved gently in the breeze from the bank of open windows to the west, their shadows dancing along the floor. Javan strained to see every corner of the room, his eyes racing from one row to the next until he forced himself to slow down and methodically look at every person seated before him.
His father wasn’t there.
The headmaster spoke Javan’s name, and applause filled the room, but Javan couldn’t find the will to force a smile. His chest ached like he’d run the entire perimeter of the academy, and the knots in his stomach had turned to stone.
He hadn’t come.
Ten years. Ten long, arduous years of sacrifice, duty, and honor. And his father hadn’t bothered to show up.
As the ceremony ended, and the crowd surged toward their children on the stage, Javan turned on his heel and walked away. Through the clusters of parents and grandparents, their smiles and tears salt on a wound Javan had never expected to be dealt. Past the pair of dark elves that stood sentry at the ballroom’s west entrance without sparing them a glance. Over the lush green lawn of the academy proper and onto the cobblestoned road that led away from the academy.
There he stopped as the sun sank into the western sky, a ball of fire disintegrating into darkness.
“Javan!” Kellan’s shout came from behind him, but Javan didn’t turn.
He’d spent a decade with the single-minded purpose of honoring his mother and earning his father’s regard. What was he supposed to do now?
Kellan came to a stop beside him, and they stood in silence for a moment. Finally, Javan said, “He didn’t come.”
The words were ashes in his mouth.
Javan didn’t want to be sorry. He wanted to feel like what he’d done mattered. He wanted to smile and laugh and feel better than the boy who’d been left behind and then forgotten.
And he knew exactly how he was going to do that.
The ache in his chest became a flame of anger as he turned toward Kellan and said, “Is the invitation still open?”
Kellan blinked. “If you’re referring to girls, whiskey, and dancing, then, yes. Of course it is.”
Javan glanced once more down the road his father’s carriage should’ve traveled and then turned his back and met Kellan’s gaze. “I’m in.”
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