The man shaking Kaj’s hand was an utter stranger. Still, with his shoulders still shaking from laughter, the stranger was obviously doing his very best to appear extra friendly. Who wouldn’t want to be on the good side of a potential future king?
I knew better than to trust a man whose scars I’d never seen. Kaj should too.
When I asked a priestess why our crimes are etched into our skin she said that’s what the Almighty intended. That taking a life should leave a mark.
And Kaj was sporting two scars, two tiny scars on his inner arm from the summer he spent three years ago with our father on the front site. My father’s arms were filled with scars, too, though he has always been adamant to hide them under long sleeves.
He’ll never know I had counted them once, soon after his return from the frontline, back when the wave of sadness hitting him after he broke his back had turned the once observant man into an absent shadow of what he once was. Even then, when I didn’t know better, it felt like the worst kind of betrayal- I still know the number. Thirteen marks on his right arm, seventeen on his left, one on his neck, varying in sizes.
“Well, I’ll deliver the clothes tonight, tomorrow morning at latest.” Looking my mom in the eyes, he continued. “I have to say, I am honoured that you chose me to make the future king’s attire for the upcoming events.”
Mom smiled as she walked him out. “Oh dear, we’re the ones honoured here. As you can imagine, we want nothing but the best for our son.”
It was kind of true; when it came to Kaj, mom didn’t spare anything in terms of time, education or money in the rare occasions when the Palace didn’t cover the expenses, at least not since she found out he was Gifted and had he might rule this kingdom one day.
My eyes searched the room, making sure my brother and father weren’t around, then I fixed my eyes on the window, watching the man’s frame pushing through the snow.
“What influence does he hold?”
I didn’t need to see her to know a smile was slowly spreading on her face. “Rising designer. Very popular right now.” She didn’t need to say anything else for me to know that a famous designer associating his name to Kaj’s was a huge vote of confidence in his victory. And a transaction of sorts- almost certainly if – when- Kaj would become king he will be named official Palace designer.
Actions and the strings attached. Kaj and dad never understood power plays like me and mom did. Most days I hated mom for showing me how to pull the ropes in the power game instead of Kaj. The rest of the days I hated her for knowing I’d be the better player.
“Tomorrow afternoon we’re going to the Palace to pay our respects to the king before the funeral. You know what to do.”
Pay attention. Read the room. Watch out for the threats Kaj wouldn’t look for. The race to the throne won’t start after the funeral tomorrow evening; it had started from the moment the king died and it won’t stop until three out of the four contenders lost.
All his life Kaj was taught that he’d just have to get through a bunch of events and then he’d be free- go through the king’s funeral, the Oblation and he’d be done. Then he was to be king, after he would do this tiny little thing.
He was to kill the three others first.