How to Catch a Queen by Alyssa Cole

Prologue


Search ‘How to erase my identity and start a new life,’” the heir to the Njazan throne spoke calmly into the evening quiet of his bedchamber in the Central Palace.

“Searching, Prince Sanyu,” came the reply from his cell phone’s virtual assistant. He had a human assistant as well, but he doubted his advisor, Lumu, would perform this task without follow-up questions.

As Sanyu waited for the results to load—Njazan internet was ridiculously slow in the evenings—he carefully stuffed passports from five different nations, money in three major currencies, contact lens solution, shea butter, a tattered square of colorful crocheted wool, and enough clothing to last a few days into a large, sturdy backpack. The bag had been his father’s military rucksack, and it had accompanied Sanyu on his trips out into the world since he was thirteen.

He hummed his song as he packed—literally his song; it’d been written about him when he was a toddler and still played on local radio stations in his small kingdom. The earworm had been stuck in his head for most of his thirty-two years of life. Sometimes it was a slow acapella lullaby, but more often the upbeat drum-driven radio version with full backing band.

Sanyu II! Even fiercer than his fa-ther!

Our prince! One day our mighty king!

Enemies! Of Nja-a-a-za—

Sanyu II, he will vanquish you!

It was a catchy little tune, and a good reminder of what his father, Sanyu I, and the royal advisor, Musoke, had been drilling into him for years: Njazan kings were fierce, mighty protectors. They didn’t experience fear, panic, or distress. The not-fear that twisted Sanyu’s innards every time he had to speak before a crowd, to take stock of his kingdom’s many problems, to even think about making decisions that might destroy his father’s legacy—the suffocating sensation that banded him now as he triple-checked his bag and then slipped into the escape tunnel connected to his room—had to be caused by something else.

Likely indigestion. He rummaged around in the side pocket of his backpack, then popped an antacid into his mouth.

Njazan kings didn’t feel anything but fierce pride and the drive to protect their kingdom from those who would weaken it, from without or within. This wasn’t a guess on Sanyu’s part—his father had reinstated the monarchy himself after the uprising that had driven out the Liechtienbourger colonizers. The former king had put an end to the civil wars that cropped up in the power vacuum and united his people under one benevolent iron fist.

His father.

The former king.

The man who currently lay in the gigantic gold-gilt bed in the king’s chamber, where death lurked among the wooden statues of warriors delivering killing strokes with their spears; behind framed artwork worth enough money to support a Njazan family for life; and in the folds of luxurious window treatments blocking the crumbling kingdom outside the window.

“I am no longer strong enough to rule, my son,” his father had told him that afternoon.

Those words had meant something else.

I am dying.

They had meant another something else, too, something only slightly less soul crushing to Sanyu.

You are now king.

Sanyu had nodded his acquiescence, as he always did; not out of fear, like everyone else in the kingdom, but out of respect and love for the man who’d protected their people for fifty years, if not for the methods he used to do so.

Then he had recounted the tale of Njaza’s rescue from the brink of destruction and the resurrection of the kingdom, the same story his father had told him after tucking him into bed when he was a child. He’d spoken softly, but loud enough to be heard over the old man’s labored breathing, and his voice hadn’t broken once, even when he’d remembered what his father always said after the nightly retelling. He could feel his father’s big calloused palm resting on top of his head, even as he held the man’s frail hand in his own. Could hear the words his father had thought were comforting but had often kept him awake at night.

“And one day you will save the kingdom as well, my son. I know Musoke is hard on you, but you do not understand what war is. You will be king one day, and you must be strong enough to protect Njaza’s future. Are you strong enough?”

Sanyu’s honest answer, the one he’d never dared to speak out loud, had been the same then as it was now: no.

“You will be a great king,” his father had murmured weakly as Sanyu held his hand, his already watery eyes filling with tears as he looked up at him. Sanyu had never seen his father show this kind of emotion. And then the old man had gripped Sanyu’s hand with an almost desperate strength, a reminder of why he’d gained the name the Iron Fist. “The best. Strong. You have to be.”

Sanyu’s heart had squeezed in his chest, mashed between the gears of grief and resentment. Even with the end drawing near, this was still all his father could speak of.

“I will be,” he’d said. “You do not have to worry, Father.”

When the king’s eyes fluttered shut, the wrinkles of his face settling into a peaceful smile, Sanyu had watched him, mind blank and an unfathomable grief coating him like a layer of petrol that wouldn’t sink in. His father slept and soon he wouldn’t wake up, which was impossible.

Sanyu couldn’t imagine a world without his father’s booming laugh and bravado and secret winks when everyone around him cowered in fear. He couldn’t imagine a Njaza without the man who was the backbone of everything the kingdom was; even if Sanyu technically possessed all of the necessary skills to take the throne, he was not a king in spirit.