Crime deserved to be punished.
Khalid Bakhtiar knew that. He had repeated it to himself in the months he’d been locked in a prison cell, waiting for his sentencing after a long, drawn-out trial. But no matter how many times he said it, no matter how many times he tried to convince himself that he truly belonged here, it never made the pain of isolation easier to bear.
Yes, crime deserved to be punished. And yes, there was no denying that he deserved this—all of this—for what he’d done. After all, murder wasn’t something that could be easily overlooked.
The Malikbahri court had convicted him of voluntary manslaughter for the killing of his father, a charge that boasted a maximum ten-year sentence. Today, a judge would decide the specific number of years he’d have to spend behind bars in a country that was not his own. The little island in the Persian Gulf had once felt like a second home, but now it was only a reminder of the things he had lost, his freedom being one of them.
To take a life was a grave sin, an action every secular law and holy book wholeheartedly condemned. But the life he’d ended had been responsible for so much death, pain, and destruction—was it not an act of mercy for the world to see that person gone? Were his actions justified for the reign of terror he’d brought an end to?
Amir Bakhtiar had not been a good man. Powerful, influential, and domineering, yes, but there were few who would have seen any goodness in his heart. If they had, then they truly hadn’t known him.
Khalid burned with the knowledge that the man’s blood flowed through his veins, that he’d been born from the same slick evil, and he couldn’t help but think it was Amir’s influence that had driven him to this. Would he have been capable of such violence if he hadn’t been the man’s son?
It was a question that had plagued him since he’d driven the knife into Amir’s back, twisting over and over and over again until his hands had been drenched in red. When the police had come to take him away, his sister’s screams had been nothing more than white noise in the background. All he had felt was a sense of relief in knowing this monster could never hurt another soul, but those actions had made him the monster now. Removing one source of pain from the world had only created another for those around him.
Those people were in the courtroom today, settled a few rows back from where he sat with his lawyer, close enough that he could make out each of their pained expressions, but far enough that he couldn’t reach out to comfort them.
From the moment the guards had marched him in here, he’d hardly been able to look away from his sister. Over the months of his trial, he had only seen her a handful of times, each one of those in this very same courthouse. As a witness to the crime, she had been instructed by lawyers and advisors to the Malikbahri royal family to keep her distance from him, both for the sake of the case and for her position as the wife of the Crown Prince.
It had been nearly two years since she’d watched Khalid kill their father; two years since Amir had tried to force her into a marriage against her will; two years since she’d discovered that Amir had planned the plane crash that had killed her mother. Khalid’s own parents had also been killed in the same crash—his mother, Parvaneh; and Reza, the man he’d been led to believe was his father, who had been Amir’s younger brother.
Khalid had discovered the truth of his parentage when his sister—a girl he’d always thought was his cousin by blood and sibling by adoption—had told him what she’d found out about the plane crash, and asked him to look further into things. Back then, Amir had been grooming him to take over the family business, which just so happened to be the world’s biggest energy company, PersOil. That position had given him access to unlimited sources of information, and in the process he’d stumbled upon something he’d never wanted to know.
Amir Bakhtiar was his biological father, not his uncle as he’d always been told. But it was how that had come to be that had ultimately driven Khalid over the edge.
It had hit a critical point the night before his sister, Laleh, was to be forcefully married off to the Crown Prince of Malikbahr, one of the terms of the semi-coup Amir had staged for the country’s oil supply. Only a few days had passed since Laleh had discovered how her mother had been murdered, and she’d done her best to quietly play her role as a pawn in Amir’s games.
But everyone had their breaking point and she had reached hers, verbally lashing out that night at dinner. Amir hadn’t been pleased with what she’d had to say, even though it had been the truth—the man had taken away everything she’d ever loved, and she had suffered at his hand for all seventeen years of her life. And she was done letting him control her.
When Amir hit her, her delicate cheekbone crunching under the force of the strike, Khalid’s vision had gone dark for a moment, rage consuming every inch of him. As he came to again, he’d found himself standing between his sister and their father, his mind made up as to what had to be done.
Amir Bakhtiar would never hurt another woman that Khalid loved ever again.
And now, because of what he’d done, Amir never could.
His defense team had tried to claim that the murder had been justifiable homicide, that he’d done it to protect his sister from Amir’s violence, but the prosecution had convincingly argued that there had been intent, and that the situation could have been de-escalated without deadly force. It was a miracle that they hadn’t charged him with a higher degree of murder.
If they’d known he didn’t regret what he’d done, they certainly would have.
All of that had left him staring down the barrel of spending the rest of his twenties behind bars. He had been a few weeks shy of twenty-one at his arrest and was nearly twenty-three now, so with the chance of the full ten-year sentence looming, he likely wouldn’t be leaving Malikbahr until he was into his thirties.
He’d asked for no special treatment because of who he was—because of his family name, who his friends were, and who his sister was now happily married to. Khalid didn’t want what he’d done to reflect negatively on them, but sometimes there was no stopping the backlash.
Zayn al-Haydar, Crown Prince of Malikbahr, had been his best friend since they’d met at Oxford University years ago, and as of five months ago had become his brother-in-law. The connection had only brought more scrutiny upon the prince, opening the door for detractors of the monarchy to claim that Zayn was the wrong choice to be their future leader. If they’d only known him like Khalid did, known that Zayn had been born with the heart of a righteous leader, they never would have said such things.
This was the first time Zayn had been in the courtroom, as a crown prince could not be seen to side with or even give the idea that he condoned such a violent crime. But he had an excuse today, as this was the moment when the criminal would be put away and the case that had thrust his country into the spotlight would finally be over. Khalid hated that he’d brought such negative attention upon Zayn, but this circus was thankfully drawing to an end. They’d all have peace soon enough.
Or as much peace as they could get with Khalid behind bars.
The judge was reading out the sentence now, but he paid it little notice, watching as his sister’s face fell and a choked sob escaped her lips. He’d been given the maximum punishment, the full ten years minus one for time served, but it came as no surprise. He had been prepared to hear it and almost welcomed it. At least now he had something to count down instead of endlessly waiting.
With that finished, the guards returned to take him to a holding cell, where they’d keep him for a little while longer before escorting him back to the high-security prison in the middle of the desert. But before they could return him to isolation, he turned and met Zayn’s gaze, giving him a nod he knew his friend would understand. He offered Laleh a small smile, something he hoped would give her some semblance of comfort, but her tears made his throat constrict. He may have freed his sister from Amir’s chains, but in doing so, he had removed himself from her life as well.
And that was his true punishment.
So to keep himself from breaking, Khalid forced his gaze down and swore to never look back.