The first time I met a Claimed, I was twelve years old.
His painted gold skin blended so well with the gold steps behind him that I took a moment to notice him. But when I did, I could not look away.
He knelt at the bottom of the stairs to the tribal chief’s palace, eyes fixed on the ground a few feet ahead of him. His head was a shiny golden globe without eyebrows, and a thin gold collar circled his neck. Pressed up between his bent legs, even his flaccid penis glittered with gold.
Chills prickled along the back of my neck as I remembered my father’s words. The Rakim tribe still practices some heinous traditions. It is best not to get too close or ask too many questions. I forced my gaze to return to the bright gold and marble turrets and pillars of the palace, battling my curiosity.
But the curiosity won.
Stepping forward, I said, “Why are you naked? And what happened to your hair?”
He stared at the ground in silence.
I crouched down in front of him and waved a hand in front of his face. “Hello?”
“He’s not allowed to speak to you.” The bored voice carried the accent of the Rakim region with its smooth delivery and the drawn out s.
I jumped and whipped around to see the speaker. Though he was probably just a couple of years older than myself, he stood maybe six inches taller than me. He was thin — very thin — but the confidence in his posture made the long lines and sharp angles appear elegant and poised rather than gawky. His billowy white tunic hung unlaced at the top, exposing flawless ebony skin. With hair in perfect shiny black ringlets, high cheekbones, an angular jaw, and a slight upward tilt of his broad nose, he radiated arrogance.
I suddenly felt embarrassed by my unkempt dirty-blonde hair, my freckle-spattered nose, and the baby fat still rounding my cheeks. My father claimed my green-blue eyes put even the Paksha Sea to shame, but my eyes were evidently not enough to give away my identity. The boy’s tone and posture suggested I was his servant rather than his prince.
I attempted to mimic his smooth tenor, but my traitorous voice cracked. “Why not?”
“Because Gold is a Claimed.”
“Gold belongs to my brother, Makash.”
“Like a slave?”
“No. Anyone can own a slave. Only the Rakim family and our top advisors can Claim.”
“How is Claiming different from enslaving?”
He propped an elbow against his hip and examined his fingernails as he spoke. “Slaves keep their spirits and identities, but when a person is Claimed, their former self is completely erased. And when the Master tires of them or dies, the Claimed is killed.”
His calmly stated words tightened my throat and weakened my stomach. “Why? Why would anyone do that to another person?”
His eyes dropped to the man still kneeling like a statue behind me, but his gaze remained disinterested. “Revenge. Power. Entertainment. And of course, unlimited sex.” His eyes flicked my direction as he said the last word, an eyebrow raised as if daring me to react.
Despite my best efforts, I felt my cheeks heat. “So your brother prefers men?”
He regarded me with his head tilted back, long black lashes half-closed over his dark eyes. “Actually, he has Claimed more women than men. I’m not even sure he is actually attracted to the men sexually — I think he just enjoys breaking them.”
A cold stone pushed at the walls of my gut, but morbid curiosity pushed me to find out more. “How many Claimed does your family have?”
“My brother just claimed his sixth. My father has five Claimed, and my mother has almost twenty. Voracious appetites seem to run in the family.”
My own parents sometimes giggled and fawned over each other until I averted my eyes, but I had never seen them look at anyone else. After my mother’s fifth miscarriage, the Royal Council advised my father to take another wife or a concubine. My father reacted so violently that no one dared mention the idea again, even after many more miscarriages.
“Your parents have each other. Why would they need a Claimed?”
He stared at me for a moment, and something unreadable swept over his face. Then he said coolly, “You have the eyes of a whore.”
I blinked at the topic change and the sting of his words. “I have my mother’s eyes.”
“Is that not what I just said?”
As my hands tightened into fists, I decided to reveal my identity. “Before you say anything else about my family, you should know my father is King Karoo.”
I waited for him to apologize, take a step back, and bow his head like everyone else did when they met me. Instead, he snorted a laugh.
“I know who you are, Prince Toom of Fooja. I just don’t care.”
I furrowed my brow, feeling even more childish than I had before announcing my royalty. “Well, you should care. If I tell my father that Chief Makari’s son —”
I blinked at him.
“My name is Niako, not ‘Chief Makari’s son,’” said the boy. “Now do continue the threat. It is most amusing.”
I faltered, feeling off-balance. When I pulled my dry tongue from the roof of my mouth, I said, “It’s not amusing. You may be the son of a chief, but your father obeys mine.”
“Your father came because mine asked him to, so who really obeys whom?”
“My father is the most powerful man in Najila. He obeys only Goddess Rashika.”
He yawned and stretched his arms out to his sides. “Your father is only king because of an outdated tradition of heredity and the protection of Najila’s Royal Guard. He has no power over the tribes. I give him five years until someone takes his head and his throne.”
My heart thumped painfully against my chest as hot, ugly steam unfurled inside me. “My father should have you killed for saying that.”
He shrugged. “He probably should, but he won’t. Your father is afraid of mine — just like you are afraid of me.”
I swung a glance behind me, where a narrow gravel path interrupted the dense green forest. My guard still chatted with a Rakim guard nearby, surely close enough to hear a yell.
But I didn’t want to yell.
Instead, I forced myself to turn back to the boy and said, “I’m not afraid of you.”
Then I swung a fist at his head.
He ducked back, and my fist swept through empty air. With a yell of frustration, I swung both fists wildly, but he caught my wrists, his grip surprisingly tight, and shoved me backward. I stumbled back two steps before dropping down on my rear end.
Realizing I had landed alarmingly close to the kneeling man, I quickly scooted aside. The man remained motionless. Before I could get up, Niako grabbed my wrists again and pressed a knee into my stomach, pinning me down.
I bucked and thrashed violently. “Get off me.”
He pushed my wrists above my head, onto the cool smooth surface of the bottom step of the staircase behind me.
“No,” I rasped.
He shoved me to the side and twisted one of my arms behind my back at an awkward angle. Then he repeated, “Say please.”
I made a garbled sound of discomfort and frustration as I fought against him. He twisted my arm further, and fire seared from my fingertips to my shoulder. No one had intentionally hurt me before. I wondered how much force was required to break an arm. Biting my tongue to keep from crying out, I desperately blinked back the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Just say please, and I’ll stop.” His voice was tense now.
“No,” I bit back. “Go ahead and break my arm — I still won’t say it.”
Abruptly, he released me and stood up.
I groaned and rolled to my back to glare up at him, rubbing my shoulder. Shame and anger heated my face.
“I hate you,” I said, aware of how childish I sounded even as I said it.
His eyebrows drew together, and his hands twitched at his sides. “You’re stubborn. I almost hurt you.”
His eyes darted to my arm. I could see a question forming on his lips, but then he clamped his lips together and averted his gaze.
“Don’t worry — I won’t tell anyone.”
He shook his head. “I don’t care if you —”
“But I will find a way to get even.”
Then the unease left his eyes, and he smirked. “You can try.”
He brushed past me, giving my shoulder a rough pat before starting up the staircase.
I watched as he pulled open on the gold-plated double doors and disappeared into the palace.
Then I cast another glance at the Claimed man still kneeling at the bottom of the stairs.
When movement blurred in my peripheral, I jumped. I turned to see my guard, Stro, jogging toward me. A rust-colored beard and mustache covered his face except for a patch of forehead, two bright tawny eyes, and an aquiline nose.
“Your Highness! I lost you for a moment. Shall we return to the Royal Tent?”
Stro and I reached the tent in less than ten minutes. Set amidst the Rakim tribe’s central plaza with gold pillars and impeccably clean white marble floor, the Royal Tent’s copper posts and velvet drapes appeared drab and lackluster. Perhaps the Rakim chief intended to demonstrate his superiority like his son had with me.
The two guards at the entrance greeted me with bowed heads and a mumbled “Your Highness.” I gave them a curt nod before swiping the drapes aside.
My father sat in a chair at the table in the back corner of the tent, head bent over a letter. His personal guard, Yuri, stood beside him, palms planted on the table and sleek black hair falling in a sheet across his cheeks.
I marched up to my father with hands fisted at my sides. “Father, why did you bring me to this horrible land?”
He dropped his quill into an ink bottle and ran a hand over his smooth-shaven jaw as he turned to face me. “You will be king of Najila someday, Toom, and this ‘horrible land’ is one of Najila’s six states. You are old enough to learn the ways of the world and begin taking on responsibility. Are you ready for that?”
My eyes flicked to the flap in the tent through which my bed lay as great weight pressed down my chest as words pulsed through me, a cold truth I never dared to say aloud.
I don’t want to be king.
I forced my gaze back to my father’s face. “I still don’t understand why I had to come here. What is so important for me to learn about Rakim?”
My father dismissed his guard with a flick of his hand and then patted his right knee. “Come sit, Toom.”
I considered telling him that if I was old enough to take on responsibility, I was definitely too old to sit on his knee. But without my mother around, I missed the comfort of a loving touch. Finally, I strode over to him and perched on his knee.
He wrapped his right arm around my middle and grabbed my left hand in his, holding it palm-up. “Najila is the hand of Goddess Rashika.”
“I know this already, Father.”
He chuckled. “Alright, then show me where we are.”
I pointed to the crease of skin where my thumb met my palm. “Here. Rakim Lands.”
“Right. And Rakim was the first of our six states to stake out their land. Do you know why?”
I studied the lines of my palm as if I could read the answer there. Finally, I shook my head.
He touched my thumb with one calloused fingertip. “Here is the Fooja Peninsula where our kingdom resides. Why can you not swim in the ocean at this time of the year?”
I recited words I had been told many times. “It’s dangerous because the tide is too high.”
“Yes, and the storms are unpredictable and powerful. But our peninsula protects Rakim Lands from all the worst storms and breaks the biggest waves. Their fishermen and transport ships can work year-round. And that’s not all. Do you remember what we saw on the ride here?”
“A mine.” We had stopped to watch workers push wheelbarrows and shovel dirt in and out of the hillside like ants.
“Yes, there is a very prosperous gold mine right about here.” He pointed to just below where my skin creased.
“Fooja has mines, too.”
“Fooja has copper mines. You know one gold is worth one hundred copper.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “If Rakim is so great, why isn’t the Kingdom here?”
“The Kingdom was here, Toom... before your great-grandfather killed the Rakim king.”
Despite the warm arm around my waist, a chill washed over me. I swallowed before speaking. “Father, does Niako’s family wish to reclaim the throne?”
A silence followed.
My father cleared his throat.
Then he spoke with stilted cheer.
“I think that’s enough history lesson for today. Up you go. My leg has fallen asleep.”