Prince Kaiden bolted upright when he felt someone sit on the side of his bed. His eyes flew open to find himself staring into the grizzled face of an old man holding a dagger near his heart.
“Not a sound, Highness,” Jack said, his voice low and as rough as a gravel road.
Kaiden, although just sixteen, had been groomed for leadership since birth. He did an admirable job of masking the fear he felt and met the old man’s eyes.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Jack Lazarus.”
Kaiden’s bravado fled in the face of knowing that he lay at the tip of the boogeyman’s blade. Jack Lazarus was the name parents, particularly parents of royal pedigree, threw around to frighten their children into behaving. Kaiden had stopped believing in Jack, or at least thinking that the renowned assassin was still alive, years ago.
Jack cast the boy a knowing look. “Good, you’ve heard of me. I hope that means that you will do as I say.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You are king now. The future of your nation is upon your shoulders.”
The prince’s face fell and tears welled up in his eyes. “You killed my father? My mother?”
“My brother and sister!”
Jack raised a finger to his lips. “They are fine and will continue to be so as long as you do as I tell you.”
“Why have you done this to my family?”
“Because thousands of fathers, sons, and brothers have died in this war, with Mothers, wives, and sisters mourning their deaths as you mourn theirs.”
“My father did not start the war.”
“No, but he and your mother have kept it going long after it should have been quelled.”
“What should they have done, shown weakness and surrendered half our best farmland to Lusan?” Kaiden demanded.
“Auradan was never going to win. Your father engaged in a war of attrition with a nation twice its size. He should have made a deal with King Arman and stopped the bloodshed on both sides. Instead, he let pride get in the way, and people continue to die because of it. You are going to put an end to it.”
Kaiden’s courage return. “You want me to surrender? I would rather die, like my father.”
Jack’s grey, bushy eyebrows rose. “That’s still an option, but wouldn’t you rather see Arman dead instead? If not, there’s one more prince in this castle who might be willing to do as I say.”
“You will kill Arman?”
“That’s the plan. As you said, he started it. He started more than you know.”
“What must I do?”
“I leave for Lunaris to complete my business. I need a head start. Three days at least if you can manage it.”
Kaiden’s face fell slack. “You want me to hide the death of the king and queen for three days? How can I possibly?”
“You have people you trust. Explain what I’ve told you to them. If they truly have yours and Auradan’s best interests at heart, they can do it.”
“Then what? Simply killing Arman is not going to end this war.”
“You will marry Arman’s daughter Elaine. The two of you will draft a treaty declaring the land along the border neutral territory. After you are married, you will slowly consolidate your respective power and integrate Lusan and Auradan into a single kingdom with the city you will both build together upon that free land to create a new capital for a unified nation.”
Kaiden shook his head. “What you are proposing is…”
“Insane! But also brilliant. My father was a decent man. You could have convinced him of such a plan.”
“No, I could not. It would have taken years and Arman would have never considered it. He has the more powerful kingdom and his victory was inevitable. While he might have entertained the idea of you marrying his daughter, it would have resulted in him absorbing your kingdom into his own. His idea is to eventually crush you and marry Elaine to a prince or king of another land.”
“What makes you think Elaine will do as you say?”
“I cannot know for certain, but I will give her the same choice I gave you. If she is truculent, she has a younger sibling as well. It’s been my business to know who leads, as well as who will lead in the future, for a very long time. She’s a smart girl. She’ll see it’s the right thing to do, as you have.”
“Kaiden nodded. “I cannot argue with your logic. I will do as you say.”
“I thought you would. Your first decision as king is a wise one.”
“Know this, murderer, I will expend every resource at my disposal to track you down and make you pay for what you have done once this war is over.”
Jack smiled and patted the boy’s leg. “I never expected anything less. You’ll give me my head start?”
“I will delay news of my parents’ death for as long as I can. If you fail to kill Arman, this war will continue.”
“I’ve never failed before, and I’m too damn old to change my ways now.”