Held for Ransom
“Well. Well. Well. What do we have here?” The leader of the rebel group walked toward us with a swagger in his step. His voice was high-pitched and his cheeks caved in like he didn’t eat much while running amok. Two rebels stepped in behind us, blocking the exit. “This is unexpected. I knew you’d show up.” The leader pointed his knife at me. “But not the eldest princess and little brother too. What a treat!”
Saqoiya, Nikko, and I had been distracted by our argument about Nikko kissing Opale, my RMC contestant. We walked into the drawing room and found that all twelve contestants had been pulled to one wall of the room and were now at the mercy of about a dozen armed women and men.
“This is going much better than I had anticipated. Aren’t you going to give me a warm welcome? No?” The leader continued through the silence, while I planned how I might get my contestants out of this. I scanned the rebels, hoping to come up with something.
Observing the rebels, I noticed they were clad in brown and black ragged, cotton clothes. The leader, however, wore a rich brocade, now dirty and stained, seams coming undone. The odor emanating from him reached me from a few feet away.
The intruders all were armed with flintlock pistols, daggers, and double-edged swords. What was most disturbing was the fact they were wearing our palace guards' distinctive bright blue uniforms.
How many spies did he have inside my palace? How many of my palace guards worked against us? If he could get this far, he was capable of a lot more.
“No warm hugs or congratulations for making it this far? Fine. But before you cause any trouble, give up Excalibur.”
Not everyone knew what I called my sword, only close-knit family and friends. How did he know?
“Who are you and what do you want?” I growled through clenched teeth.
“Now, that’s no way to treat the next Velazian emperor. But you’ve been fooled into thinking you’d inherit the throne your entire life, so I’ll forgive you this once, Prince Zadkiel,” he said my name with venom. “Now be a good mama’s boy, do as you’re told, and slowly place your sword on the ground. I won’t pretend that I don’t know how good you are with your weapons. Especially with the way you fought that Payonnian crown prince during your duel. What’s his name? Prince Zain? Yes, that’s it. I watched from the sidelines. I did notice that he was terribly angry with you afterward. I wonder if I can defeat him just as easily. . . . Now drop it!”
I heard Prince Zain’s sister, Aaliya, growl from the wall where the rebels held her back. Her catlike eyes narrowed in on him.
Slowly, I pulled out Excalibur and put it on the ground.
“Good. Good. Now pull out that knife that’s hidden in your right boot.”
Once again, he was correct. Not even my siblings knew about the secret daggers I kept in my boot and belt. It was for times like these. At least he doesn’t seem to know about the one in my belt.
I did as he said, and it was followed by another snicker from the would-be usurper.
“And . . . the little dagger inside your belt.” He smiled at me with a tilt of his head.
I clenched my fists.
“How do you know about that?”
“Oh, I know a lot more about you than you want me to. I know all of your secrets and desires.”
“Or you have a lot of spies.”
He released a bellowing laugh from his stomach while swinging the knife about. “Or . . . perhaps I’m just smarter than you.” He waved a hand at the two rebels holding Saqoiya and Nikko and sent them over toward the girls, while I remained idle in the center of the drawing room. Tables, chairs, and couches—which would have been used for our political quiz competition today if they hadn’t ambushed us—had been carelessly shoved against different walls, some upturned, to create an open space in the center.
“Now, . . . I won’t ask you again. Give me your dagger. And if you use it against any one of us, one of your contestants will suffer the consequences.”
He had definitely thought of everything, and was making it difficult for me to get these girls to safety. He was the same man I had seen twice, possibly even three times before. Once while on a date with Princess Esperanza of Ogarz in the night bazaar, last night in the forest by the pond when I was kissing the redheaded commoner, Makayla, and he could have been our attacker at Yondragon Castle too. There was something else familiar about him as well. He had a thin, weathered face and pasty skin from hiding underground for who knows how long, with several scabs on his cheeks and lips, yet he was probably less than forty years old.
Slowly, I unsnapped the secret pouch hidden inside of my belt and placed my throwing dagger on the ground.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Well, . . .” He twirled around, as if he was on top of the world and nothing could go wrong. “I have what I want. With all of you at my fingertips. Every. Single. Noble girl from. Every. Single. queendom and kingdom and empire in the entire realm in my hands! I’m in quite a position to make some demands, aren’t I?”
“I’m the crown prince and all you need. Let them go and take me.” I’d die for all of them if it would save them.
“Oh, how valiant of you!” The leader walked right up to me. I could smell his putrid breath from a foot away, as if he ate rotten eggs from a garbage bin every meal. “You certainly live up to your ‘Prince Charming’ name, now don’t you? Offering yourself for your family, your women, your empire, . . . I’m touched. Really, I am. And look at you, all tall and grown up since the last time I saw you.” He patted my cheek, but I grabbed his hand and ripped it away. He pushed my chest in anger, as if to thrust me back against the wall, but I was well grounded and didn’t budge from my position. I towered about half a foot above him and could easily defeat him in his scraggly form.
After realizing that he couldn’t move me—and possibly because he looked ridiculous in the process—he laughed it off, as if to relieve himself of the embarrassment. But I detected fear in his eyes. Something I saw in many opponents when they stepped up to duel me. It wasn’t my height or my position as the crown prince of an empire that was intimidating, but my reputation as a swordsman that made men cower. He was up against a trained warrior in his prime. I was a combination of elven flexibility and height, and human strength.
The leader nonchalantly spoke to the entire room, “I’ll have you know, my little, elven boy, I know your mother will be willing to give up the empire to save you. Now that I have you and your siblings, the hard work is already accomplished.”
Again, the extent of his knowledge about my mother and my own inner feelings was disturbing. Even though my mother, the Empress Qloey, had never said so out loud, I felt it to be wholeheartedly true that she’d give up everything for us, just to keep us safe, including the throne. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
“With the rest of these noble girls added to my collection, I can ensure nobody will support Qloey’s right to rule anymore. If . . . she actually has any remaining supporters. The price of your freedom is complete allegiance to me, as the rightful ruler of the Velazian Empire. Once I make this announcement, the mothers and fathers of all these royal contestants will force Empress Qloey to abdicate the throne. But I don’t think we even have to get to that point. I think Qloey will go willingly once she learns I have all three of her eldest children.”
My chest fumed with anger, but I couldn’t become upset now. My mind had to stay calm and focused. I had to keep him talking, wasting time until we could get out of this, to make the rebels comfortable and hopefully drop their guard. At some point, something had to happen. Either more guards would come into the room and a fight would break out, or the rebels would get too relaxed in their position and make mistakes. Flintlock pistols only carried a single bullet. It took several minutes to reload. Then again, things could go awry too. My parents could come in to see how the political quiz was going and get captured themselves. If that happened . . .
No! I cannot allow it. They can’t have that much leverage!
My legs trembled underneath me. Although, it felt as if the floor shook from the anger raging within me.
Then he swiftly turned to one of the guards in our palace uniform. “Go tell the empress. You know the plan; we don’t need to tell everyone in the room. They have twenty minutes to decide . . . or else.” He snickered again and turned his brown eyes back to me.
“If you want my crown, I’ll give it to you under the condition that you let everyone go right now,” I blurted out.
“You’re . . . just . . . so cute.” He wrinkled his nose at me. “A truly chivalrous prince sacrificing himself! How often do we see that anymore? It seems like fairy tales are dead. Romance about knights in shining armor and charming princes have transformed into stories of princesses saving princes, damsels climbing out of their dragon-protected towers, and all the real charming princes are now ‘womanizers.’ And now that I’ve found a true and chivalrous prince charming, you’re about to meet your end. How sad.” He faked a pouty face. “While we’re waiting, let’s have a little fun. I’m just curious, which one of these girls were you going to choose as your bride?”
The soldiers behind him started shifting their feet. One leaned against the wall. Another sat on a chair. Others were focused on listening to their leader. The problem was that one of the girls or my siblings could get hurt if I attacked. He might even enact revenge and harm one of them to teach me a lesson. There had to be an opportune moment and . . . perhaps a miracle.
“You don’t want any of them?” he asked in my silence. “Well, let me help you decide. The one in red.” One of the guards grabbed Esperanza and brought her over to him.
No! Not Esperanza.
The Ogarzian princess had made the greatest first impression on me. I had seen her before the opening ceremony, when she twirled about the courtyard, which gave me a good first impression of her. And the way she danced flamenco! She was passionate when she spoke about new inventions and scientific discoveries. I grew jealous thinking of anyone marrying her except me. She had my first kiss, and a part of me wouldn’t mind if she had my last.
But still, I wanted to be absolutely certain in my choice. Once the elimination ceremony happened and I was allowed more private time with the girls I had grown closest to, I could really delve deeper into our compatibility and what our family life would look like. But not anymore. Now it seemed that I might never get married or have children. Now all I cared about was saving their lives.
“You two had a really good first date, didn’t you?” the leader asked. “Rowing down the Velazian River. Dancing in the restaurant alone.”
“So you were watching us?” I turned the question back to him to get insight into his activities.
He released another belly laugh, twirling the dagger between his fingers as if it were a habit. He knew we would be on that date at the night bazaar, even though we hadn’t given this information out publicly for our own safety. Only our constable, Sir McKinley of Centaurus knew. Did McKinley leak the information?
The leader put an arm around Esperanza and spoke into her ear while glancing at me. “Zadkiel here wanted to kiss you on your first date, did you know that?”
My jaw tightened. I’d only told my sister that.
The black-haired princess glowered at him.
His cheek pressed against hers, then he gently turned his head, nearly touching her cheek with his chapped lips.
Impulsively, I took a step toward her, but the men behind me quickly grabbed ahold and reeled me back.
“You’d risk your life for Princess Esperanza, wouldn’t you, Zadkiel?” he asked. “Well, being the charming prince you are, you’d probably do the same for all of these girls, even for the girls you don’t like, am I right?”
“I’M THE ONE YOU WANT! JUST LET THEM GO!” I’d hit a fuse, but that was exactly what this leader wanted.
Take a few breaths. Calm down. I grounded my anger through my feet.
“It’s a simple question,” the leader said. “All I want to know is: who do you love the most? Seeing as you’re never going to get to finish the RMC . . . the anticipation is killing me. So I’ll make a bargain with you—after all, I have several bargaining chips with each civilization, so I can spare one or two girls if you don’t cooperate. Whichever girl you choose, I promise to spare that girl’s life. In fact, I’ll marry her myself and she can still become empress!”
Sick, disgusting man!
“I told you, I don’t know!” I yelled at him.
“You will tell me or”—he kicked Esperanza’s knees in, and she fell to the ground—“I’ll start eliminating them to help you.”