Exclusive: How to Catch a Queen by Alyssa Cole Interview and Excerpt

How to Catch a Queen by Alyssa Cole excerpt
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We are so excited to bring you this interview with Alyssa Cole! Read on for an excerpt of her new book, How to Catch a Queen. How to Catch a Queen is the first book in her new Runaway Royals series, which takes place in the same universe as Reluctant RoyalsDid you know that Frolic optioned A Princess in Theory for film and TV? We can’t say too much here, but if you’ve ever wanted to see Ledi and Thabiso onscreen, you might just be in luck…

Here’s out chat with Alyssa!

Frolic: What aspects of “How to Catch a Queen” are you most excited about sharing with readers?

Alyssa Cole: Hm, so many things! Sanyu and Shanti’s story is, in a way, a mash-up of the Bluebeard fairy tale (minus the killing) and 1,001 Nights—in this kingdom, royal marriages only last four months at a time UNLESS the queen proves herself the “true queen.” Shanti is a hyper competent commoner (from Thesolo!) determined to be a queen who accidentally marries into a kingdom where queens have no power. Sanyu is a newly crowned king dealing with grief and anxiety and who doesn’t feel worthy of the power he now wields (or of a “true queen”). Together, they try to make the kingdom a better place as the clock counts down on their arranged marriage.

It’s contemporary romance, but is rooted in one of my favorite medieval historical romance tropes — laird takes a wife,— which is kind of like arranged marriage/enemies to lovers/fish out of water/second chance all rolled up into one!

Can we look forward to some “Reluctant Royals” cameos?

Yes, you can definitely look forward to some cameos! I won’t give away too much, but I will say there is at least one peach emoji present in the book.

How did you develop the backstory for the kingdom? Any world-building tips?

Njaza, which first appears in A Prince on Paper, is a fictional Central African kingdom. After winning independence from Liechtienbourg (Prince Johan’s kingdom) and dealing with civil war, it was united under Sanyu’s father who, along with his head advisor, reinstated the old Njazan kingdom. The back stories of many, many countries—African, European, and Caribbean—informed Njaza’s background as far as the lasting effects of war and colonization. I did NOT plan on doing this level of worldbuilding! But as I started writing, Njaza’s religion and its importance started to form in my mind, and the place of old traditions and modernity, and how the subjects of this imaginary kingdom would incorporate both into their lives vs the subjects on previous imaginary kingdoms…

There are some aspects of fantasy romance when it comes to how important the traditional, religious, and cultural worldbuilding ended up being. When was done I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m not setting the entire series here!” LOL

You always address serious topics in your books. Can you speak to the importance of addressing real-life issues in romance?

I don’t think every romance needs to deal with serious issues. Mine often do because for me, in my writing and in my reading, romance can be a kind of safe space to navigate issues that are overwhelming without the landing pad provided by a happily ever after. In this book, for example, some of the subplots are gaslighting, undiagnosed anxiety, grief, the patriarchy/toxic masculinity, and generational trauma. That’s a lot! But those topics are diffused throughout what (I hope) is also a fun and sexy second-chance romance for an already married couple.

What snack and drink are you most likely to have in your hand when writing?

I usually only drink water, coffee, or tea when working. Boring, I know, but my brain is very basic in the drinks department when I’m at home for some reason.

As for snacks, it changes depending on what Ive fixated on as a recipe obsession —  or if I remember to eat at all while working. 😀 Tuna salad with cassava flour flatbread or plain saltines is the latest snack.

About How to Catch a Queen:

An arranged marriage leads to unexpected desire, in the first book of Alyssa Cole’s

Runaway Royals series…

When Shanti Mohapi weds the king of Njaza, her dream of becoming a queen finally comes true. But it’s nothing like she imagined. Shanti and her husband may share an immediate and powerful attraction, but her subjects see her as an outsider, and everything she was taught about being the perfect wife goes disastrously wrong.

A king must rule with an iron fist, and newly crowned King Sanyu was born perfectly fitted for the gauntlet, even if he wishes he weren’t. He agrees to take a wife as is required of him, though he doesn’t expect to actually fall in love. Even more vexing? His beguiling new queen seems to have the answers to his country’s problems—except no one will listen to her.

By day, they lead separate lives. By night, she wears the crown, and he bows to her demands in matters of politics and passion. When turmoil erupts in their kingdom and their marriage, Shanti goes on the run, and Sanyu must learn whether he has what it takes both to lead his people and to catch his queen.

Frolic-Exclusive Excerpt:

“Search ‘How to erase my identity and start a new life,’” the heir to the Njazan throne spoke calmly into the evening quiet of his bedchamber in the Central Palace.

“Searching, Prince Sanyu,” came the reply from his cell phone’s virtual assistant. He had a  human assistant as well, but he doubted his advisor, Lumu, would perform this task without follow-up questions.

As Sanyu waited for the results to load—Njazan internet was ridiculously slow in the evenings—he carefully stuffed passports from five different nations, money in three major currencies, contact lens solution, shea butter, a tattered square of colorful crocheted wool, and enough clothing to last a few days into a large, sturdy backpack. The bag had been his father’s military rucksack, and it had accompanied Sanyu on his trips out into the world since he was thirteen.

He hummed his song as he packed—literally his song; it’d been written about him when he was a toddler and still played on local radio stations in his small kingdom. The earworm had been stuck in his head for most of his thirty-two years of life. Sometimes it was a slow acapella lullaby, but more often the upbeat drum-driven radio version with full backing band.

Sanyu II! Even fiercer than his fa-ther!

Our prince! One day our mighty king!

Enemies! Of Nja-a-a-za—Sanyu II, he will vanquish you!

It was a catchy little tune, and a good reminder of what his father, Sanyu I, and the royal advisor, Musoke, had been drilling into him for years: Njazan kings were fierce, mighty protectors. They didn’t experience fear, panic, or distress. The not-fear that twisted Sanyu’s  innards every time he had   to speak before a crowd, to take stock of his kingdom’s many problems, to even think about making decisions that might destroy his father’s legacy— the suffocating sensation that banded him now as he triple-checked his bag and then slipped into the escape tunnel connected to his room—had to be caused by something else.

Likely indigestion. He rummaged around in the side pocket of his backpack, then popped an antacid into his mouth.

Njazan kings didn’t feel anything but fierce pride and the drive to protect their kingdom from those who would weaken it, from without or within. This wasn’t a guess on Sanyu’s part—his father had reinstated the monarchy himself after the uprising that had driven out the Liechtienbourger colonizers. The former king had put an end to the civil wars that cropped up in the power vacuum and united his people under one benevolent iron fist.

His father.

The former king.

The man who currently lay in the gigantic gold-gilt bed in the king’s chamber, where death lurked among the wooden statues of warriors delivering killing strokes with their spears; behind framed artwork worth enough money to support a Njazan family for life; and in the folds of luxurious window treatments blocking the crumbling kingdom outside the window.

“I am no longer strong enough to rule, my son,” his father had told him that afternoon.

Those words had meant something else.

I am dying.

They had meant another something else, too, something only slightly less soul crushing to Sanyu.

You are now king.

Sanyu had nodded his acquiescence, as he always did; not out of fear, like everyone else in the kingdom, but out of respect and love for the man who’d protected their people for fifty years, if not for the methods he used to do so.

Then he had recounted the tale of Njaza’s rescue from the brink of destruction and the resurrection of the kingdom, the same story his father had told him after tucking him into bed when he was a child. He’d spoken softly, but loud  enough to be heard over the old man’s labored breathing, and his voice hadn’t broken once, even when he’d remembered what his father always said after the nightly retelling. He could feel his father’s big calloused palm resting on top of his head, even as he held the man’s frail hand in his own. Could hear the words his father had thought were comforting but had often kept him awake at night.

“And one day you will save the kingdom as well, my son. I know Musoke is hard on you, but you do not understand what war is. You will be king one day, and you must be strong enough to protect Njaza’s future. Are you strong enough?”

Sanyu’s honest answer, the one he’d never dared to speak out loud, had been the same then as it was now: no.

“You will be a great king,” his father had murmured weakly as Sanyu held his hand, his already watery eyes filling with tears as he looked up at him. Sanyu had never seen his father show this kind of emotion. And then the old man had gripped Sanyu’s hand with an almost desperate strength, a reminder of why he’d gained the name the Iron Fist. “The best. Strong. You have to be.”

Sanyu’s heart had squeezed in his chest, mashed between the gears of grief and resentment. Even with the end drawing near, this was still all his father could speak of.

“I will be,” he’d said. “You do not have to worry, Father.”

When the king’s eyes fluttered shut, the wrinkles of his face settling into a peaceful smile, Sanyu had watched him, mind blank and an unfathomable grief coating him like a layer of petrol that wouldn’t sink in. His father slept and soon he wouldn’t wake up, which was impossible.

Sanyu couldn’t imagine a world without his father’s booming laugh and bravado and secret winks when everyone around him cowered in fear. He couldn’t imagine a Njaza without the man who was the backbone of everything the kingdom was; even if Sanyu technically possessed all of the necessary skills to take the throne, he was not a king in spirit.

After a few hours of vigil had passed, he’d kissed his father’s knuckles and said a prayer to Omakuumi, warrior god and the first mighty king to rule Njaza so many generations before.

Then he’d calmly walked to his room and begun to pack.

Now, as he exited the passageway with his randomly selected belongings stuffed into his backpack, he forcibly blocked out all thoughts of his father. His soles sank into the peaty soil of the royal gardens and his heart pounded against his rib cage, as if it also surged toward escape. Sweat beaded along his brow, even though the temperature had dropped to a cool seventy degrees.

As he crept through the shadows of the garden searching for the secret side exit in the fence of reed and iron that surrounded the palace, three sentences repeated over and over in his head, vaguely matched to the tune of his song.

They want me to be king! I have to be king!

I cannot be king!

The song was annoying as ever, but  the  blaring repetition in his skull blocked out the reality  of what he was doing, of the action driven by the crawling sensation on his skin and the tension in his muscles and the whispers in his mind that said he wasn’t fit to rule Njaza, and thus if he didn’t become king, his father wouldn’t die.

Yes, he had to leave, and quickly. Then nothing would change.

Spiny plants caught in his clothes and scratched his skin as he lumbered through the fog-swirled darkness; their sweet fruits were crushed under his shoes as his search along the fence grew more frantic. Everything would be fine if he could just find the damn door and pass through it.

He’d been running from Njaza for half his life—as a teen, he’d convinced his father to send him to the Alpine boarding school where so many royals sent their children. After that, he’d been accepted and planned to go to Howard University in the US, but his dreams had been dashed when it was decided it was too dangerous for the future king to be away for another four years. He’d had tutors, and for a decade had been allowed a spring break of sorts where he traveled with his longtime friend, the prince from Druk. He’d tagged along on Anzam Khandrol’s international quests for enlightenment, or sometimes he’d quietly tended goats on a steep hill in the mountainous kingdom. Those trips away from home, where no one but Anzam Khandrol knew who he was, no one pointed out his flaws, and his future seemed larger than twenty thousand square kilometers, had sustained him.

He’d returned home after each one, but the suffocating atmosphere of the palace—and the constant reminders of how lacking he was—sent him scrambling away eventually, gasping for the air of “anywhere but here” until Musoke had put an end to the trips for good, stating security concerns.

But now his father was dying. Sanyu would be king. He would never again work a simple but fulfilling job, never dabble in all the rich new experiences life had to offer. Instead, the limited smorgasbord offered by Njaza’s isolationist politics, lack of capital, and stubborn resistance to change would be for breakfast, lunch, and supper every day.

Worse, he would be in the spotlight every day, too, paraded before the people to receive adulation he didn’t deserve, and he would have to pretend to love it.

No.

The need to escape ballooned, filling the hollow place inside him that should have been the reservoir of his royal strength.

All he had to do was make his way through the fence and into the bustling streets of the capital, and then to the airport or, if there was a search, across the border by land or sea. The latter was more perilous in a kingdom bordered by rivers, lakes, and mountains, not to mention the moors  of Njaza, which were nearly impossible to pass through without a guide. And then there were the land mines.

Njaza wasn’t a kingdom one escaped easily.

But once he was gone, he’d live the simple life that had always appealed to him, traveling and working in places where no one knew who he was or cared how often he smiled, laughed, or showed that he was anything other than a marionette forged from iron.

Maybe he’d go lie low in Druk—he hadn’t returned texts from Anzam Khandrol for months, but the prince was an amazingly forgiving guy. It was a requirement of the job when part of your extremely long title was “heir to the sun throne, most benevolent amongst humans, full of grace and peace.”

“Prince Sanyu?” a familiar voice reached through the darkness and pulled him up by the scruff of the neck. “There you are.”

Sanyu’s plans for the future retracted painfully, drawn back into the tight fist of the life that had been planned for him since he was born.

Several bobbing circles of light landed on him as he turned, blinking against the dazzling brightness. Before his vision cleared, he imagined seeing the outline of a scorpion with its stinger poised to strike, an image that resolved itself into the man who stood at the center of the retinue of palace guards who followed him everywhere.

Musoke, co-liberator of Njaza, Sanyu’s lifelong guardian, and the man who’d, over the last few years, generously taken it upon himself to shore up the king’s failing strength—and decision-making— with his own.

He was short and wiry, clad in the ankle-length, waist-cinched robe of purple and gold wax print that denoted his importance to the kingdom as head of the Royal Council. It was a position that could be held only by a man touched by Amageez, the god of wisdom, strategy, and logic. Musoke smiled, though his eyes were unreadable as always. Sanyu had studied Musoke’s every tic for his entire life and was still unable to guess what the man was thinking when he watched him like this, though judging by Musoke’s actions, it was usually some variation of You’re a disappointment, but we’ll make do with you.

Musoke’s words were clipped, the usual cadence of elders born during the occupation who were forced to speak  Liechtienbourgish  instead of Njazan in every aspect of life outside the home. “Where are you off to, my boy?”

Musoke still called him “boy,” even though Sanyu was thirty-two and strong enough to break the advisor’s slim walking stick and the man himself in two with minimal effort. Sure, he’d been caught absconding like a sulking child with a cloth sack hung on a stick, but he was still an adult, dammit.

“I’m taking a walk to clear my head and offer prayers for my father, king most noble and exalted, slayer of colonizers, he who forged chains into fists,” Sanyu said calmly, as if fear and grief didn’t have an anaconda’s grip around the barrel of his chest.

“How odd,” Musoke said, fixing his gaze on Sanyu in that way that felt as if he was scanning and cataloging every  fault.  “One  usually  prays at the temple of Omakuumi the Fierce for such things.”

Sanyu resisted the urge to shift from foot to foot, as he had when he was a boy and found himself the center of attention, usually because he had done something wrong. Something weak. He remembered what his father had told him once, after he’d humiliated himself by crying while getting dressed down by Musoke during combat training. “The true king does not feel weakness or fear, so if you do, simply pretend to be someone stronger who is never afraid. Imagine how they would act, channel their

power.”

“Is that what you do?” young Sanyu had asked, looking up at his father, a big strong man who, indeed, was never afraid.

“I am the king. I don’t need to pretend. But if I had to, I’d channel the power of my father, who was not a king but was braver than any man I’ve known. You never met him though, so you can pretend to be me. What use is my strength if it is not also yours?”

Sanyu came back to himself in that moment. Remembered who he was—son of the mighty Sanyu I—and what he was supposed to be—even fiercer than his father. He straightened all six feet five inches of himself, shifting the bulk of his muscle to look down at Musoke as his father had looked down at those who dared displease him, even after he’d shriveled with age.

“Our great and bountiful land is a temple, and the strength of Omakuumi is present everywhere,” he countered, adding a thread of challenge to the bullshit he was trying to sell.

“It is, indeed,” Musoke replied, his expression unchanging. “But your father requires something other than prayer from you.”

Sanyu’s heart thudded in his chest, and the Central Palace, looming up behind Musoke in all its menacing glory, seemed to grow even larger.

“Is he—did he—” Sanyu’s backpack became a weight that threatened to topple him over. Had he really been planning to run? As his father lay dying? Guilt and shame ripped through him, driving away the ridiculous thoughts of fleeing that had made sense only a moment ago.

“Our king still lives,” Musoke said. He gripped the head of his cane so tightly that the tip pushed deep into the dirt.

“And what does he require from me?” Sanyu asked as relief mingled with his guilt and shame, though the list of the things his kingdom required from him had been repeated without cease and added up to: everything.

“Marriage,” Musoke said, watching Sanyu with a hawk’s attentive gaze.

“Mar-riage?” The word came out in two choked syllables.

“Yes. He requires your marriage. It is one of the primary duties of a Njazan king, or have you not been paying attention the last three decades?”

“I have, O learned Musoke, but . . .” Of course, he’d thought of marriage—his father had married more times than Sanyu could count. A parade of women who appeared for four months or so, and then, after having shown they weren’t true queens as decreed by Omakuumi and Amageez, vanished from the kingdom and Sanyu’s life forever.

Despite the exorbitant number of wives, Sanyu was an only child, his singularity given as evidence that he was truly the heir to the throne, for Omakuumi had provided no alternative. He was born to his father’s twentieth wife—he couldn’t remember what she’d looked like, or what any of the wives had looked like. More had come after her, but they weren’t his mother and after the first few years, he’d learned to stop growing attached to them. Eventually, it’d been just Sanyu, his father, and Musoke.

Sanyu had paid attention, and he’d learned that marriage was an exhausting, useless practice that he wanted no part of. That was why fairy tales always ended at the wedding—a bright happy event that was all for show and would eventually lead to a king who spent more time with his council than his bride and a queen sequestered in her wing of the castle until it was time for her to join the ranks of former queens of Njaza.

And a young prince sitting alone, waiting for his mother to return or a queen who wouldn’t leave, and never getting either.

“Why do I have to marry so quickly?” he asked when he was able to speak again. “There are more important things to attend to, like my father’s health and preparing for . . . the worst.”

He’d thought of marriage as a royal duty he’d have to undertake far, far down the line, not when everything else in his life was being thrown into chaos. Just the thought of a lifetime of wife after wife, wedding after wedding, made him tired.

“Because the king must wed at or before his coronation, as is tradition. And your father wishes to see you take his crown and a wife before he joins the ancestors,” Musoke said tightly. “Will you fail him in that, too?”

That last word sank its venomous stinger into Sanyu’s will, weakening it.

Too.

Did his father think Sanyu had failed him, despite saying otherwise? Had he told Musoke, his closest friend, that?

“No,” Sanyu forced out. “I will not fail my father.” “Good. I knew you’d see the importance of this. We’ve found you a most beautiful queen on RoyalMatch.com. She’s from Thesolo, unfortunately, that kingdom of goddess-worshipping weaklings, and old for a first wife, at twenty-nine, but she will look good on your arm at the ceremony. She’s the best quality we could find who was willing to travel here at the snap of a finger. We will do better with wife number two. Let’s go meet your bride-to-be.”

“Wait. You mean I must marry now? Now now?” “How long do you think your father has?” Musoke asked, rapping his cane against his left foot, the thump of wood hitting the plastic of his prosthetic, a

tic that showed his true frustration.

“I’m just surprised,” Sanyu said, trying to measure his words before he poured a bitter draft that only he would have to drink. “I’m to take charge of the kingdom, but wasn’t consulted in choosing my own bride? There’s no reason I couldn’t have been included in this decision.”

“The bride herself doesn’t matter in the marriage trial.” Musoke’s voice was harsh, coated not in menace but in disappointment—the tone that had brought Sanyu to heel his entire life. “After four months, you may dismiss her. You will dismiss her, as she isn’t True Queen material by virtue of the fact that she is willing to marry you like this.”

“Oh yes,” Sanyu said wryly. “The conundrum  of the True Queen.” He’d been reminded every time a new wife arrived, smile too wide and eyes bright with the belief that she’d finally be the one to meet the exacting standards of Njaza’s Iron Fist and rule at his side. He’d been reminded every time he’d been told his mother was gone because she hadn’t been strong enough or smart enough or cunning enough—or docile enough or sweet enough—to be the True Queen.

Somehow, none of the wives had managed to fit the role.

Musoke nodded sharply. “Yes. You understand that the marriage trial offers both the opportunity for the furtherance of the royal lineage and the allure of . . . shall we say, an array of choice for our fierce and loyal king.”

Choice. Sanyu almost laughed as Musoke’s guards moved to form a semicircle at his back that would press him toward the palace. Guards he could possibly beat if he wanted to, given his lifetime of martial arts training, but what then? He was the sole heir to the throne. He did now what he hadn’t done before fleeing the palace. He thought about what awaited him if he actually left: A life on the run from his responsibilities? A humiliating return months or years down the line, after the country had fallen into the war his father had striven to prevent, or even deeper into debt?

Shame.

Proving to Musoke that he’d been right all of these years.

Making his father, who’d said he could be a good king, a liar.

Sanyu met Musoke’s firm gaze.

“I’ll meet her,” he said. “Meet. That’s all.”

A smile spread over Musoke’s face. “I believe you won’t have any complaints. You will meet her, then you will marry her.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you can explain to her why you won’t,” Musoke said. “And then you can explain to your father, who is currently taking his last breaths, why you can’t carry out this most simple of Njazan traditions.”

Musoke turned brusquely and walked off, two of his guards stepping quickly at his heels. After a moment, Sanyu followed, the awful not-fear squeezing his chest tightly and the spears of the remaining guards clacking at his back. This was worse than speaking before a crowd—he was expected to wed this woman, and to abandon her. That was the paradox of the Njazan marriage trial—similar to a Herculean trial, it was impossible for mere mortals to succeed.

When he entered the dim royal receiving room alone, a woman stood before the huge ornamental fireplace with inset shelves lined with sweet-smelling candles. The light of the candles burning in constant offering for his father’s health flickered over her tall form and the generous curves revealed by the green-and-gold gown that clung to them. Her hair hung down her back in a sheet, and her face was turned to the side, highlighting the rounded button of her nose and the plush silhouette of her lips.

Attraction slammed into him, unexpected and tangible as a blow to the chest, cutting through his anger and grief.

If he’d seen her anywhere else, at any other time, he might have been thankful for the chance  to know her. But he was meeting her with the spear tip of their marriage already pressed to his neck, and all he’d been taught of love nipping at his heels. “Wives will sap you with their needs and demands, if you let them,” his father had told him. “If you let one close, she will try to rule you, and that will be our kingdom’s downfall. I don’t worry about that, though. You are my son, and would never be foolish enough to fall in love with your own wife.”

His bride-to-be was gorgeous in the way of beauty pageant contestants, and likely just as superficial. Still . . . there was something in the set of her shoulders and the way her fingertips trembled before she clenched them into fists. How her gaze was lowered but her chin was raised. There was something solid about her, substantial.

If Sanyu didn’t already know that no wife had ever been strong enough to be a True Queen, he might have thought that this woman could do it.

No. It’s a trick of the light.

She turned to face him, then bowed low as he approached her; the movement was so excruciatingly graceful that it couldn’t be classified as the submissive action it was supposed to be.

His stomach clenched and his heartbeat pounded in his ears. She hadn’t even spoken yet, and he was drawn to her as if she’d lassoed him and pulled the knot fast. He approached slowly, and when she raised her head and stood straight, the imaginary rope squeezed even more snugly around him. Her eyes were a deep brown, dark like the tilled earth of Njaza’s terraced farms, and fertile with unbloomed possibility.

“It is pleasureful to meet you, Princess Sanyu,” she said. “Me called Shanti.”

Sanyu was almost amused at her terrible Njazan, but her voice . . . it was powerful and soothing at once, like the warm jets of his royal spa beating against his aching muscles after a long, stressful day. He wanted to hear her say his name again with her curious accent, and that was another hook she’d dug into him; he couldn’t allow this strange, intense interest in the woman who’d be his wife.

“Desire is fine in moderation, but if left unchecked leads to attachment, which is weakness. The king desires only the respect of his people; a wife is an accessory, like a scepter or a crown. He must be as strong without his accessories as he is with them.”

She took a deep breath when he stared down at her but said nothing, and then continued in English accented by the soft singsong of her native Thesoloian. “I am most grateful to be chosen as your queen, and I will do my best to honor and protect you and your people.”

You will protect me,” he repeated darkly, anger wiping away any amusement.

“Yes,” she said, her thin brows twitching together briefly in confusion. “Of course, I will.”

Already she disrespected him—as if the king needed the protection of a mere wife. Sanyu would put an end to this now.

“What do they say about a child who behaves badly in your kingdom?” he asked, his voice honed into a sharp thing that would send her running from the jab of it.

Her nostrils flared softly, but she didn’t hesitate. “They used to say ‘he’s been switched at birth for

a Njazan,’” she said stiffly. “No one says that anymore. It was cruel and wrong.”

“What do they say of a man who gets angry and uses his fist before his brains?”

“That he must have Njazan blood. They used to say that.” She straightened her back a little more. “Not anymore. The queen and king made it clear that such talk was not acceptable.”

“And what do they say about Njazans themselves? In Thesolo and elsewhere on our great continent?”

Her back was so ramrod straight now that her chest thrust forward; he kept his gaze above her shoulders. She didn’t answer, so he did for her.

“They call us the savages of the Serengeti. The heathens of the Kukureba Highlands. Yet you intend to marry me.” He walked in a circle around her, leaving enough space between them to let her know he wouldn’t actually touch her but close enough that she wouldn’t be able to ignore his size or his words. “A man you don’t know. A man who might be cruel and quick to anger, as the rumors say. Surely, you’ve heard of the Iron Fist of Njaza, of the wives who disappear and are never seen or mentioned again.”

He’d been asked countless times at his boarding school if they had a dungeon in the palace for queens who displeased the Iron Fist, or if his father simply murdered his wives. Those boys hadn’t known that the palace itself was a dungeon, and Sanyu was the only one imprisoned by it.

“Most of these rumors were started by Europeans and other Western interests after Njazans fought for their independence and won it. After sanctions and punishment by the international community left your father the choice of groveling or forging his own path.” She looked at him intently as he came to a stop in front of her, studying his face. “So, yes. I’ve heard the rumors about your father, but I’m not marrying him. And you’ve already proven you aren’t cruel. You wouldn’t have asked these questions if you were.”

She held his gaze. There was fear in the depths of those wide brown eyes, but not of him. He could see something else there, too: hope. It was better she learned quickly that no such thing existed within the palace walls.

“I don’t know what to make of a woman so desperate she’d give herself to me with no prerequisites,” he said, the harsh bark of his voice the same he’d heard so many times from his father and Musoke. He wanted her to feel what he did when receiving a lecture: the desire to run. “I’m  not cruel—what  a low bar I’ve managed to step over! That doesn’t mean you should marry me.”

His words reverberated in the room, and he fought his displeasure with himself for raising his voice to her. This was why he didn’t want to be king, why he didn’t want to take a wife, let alone dozens of them.

“So you admit you aren’t cruel.” Her expression remained pleasant but her gaze hardened with resolve. “Maybe I shouldn’t marry you. I don’t know what to make of a man so desperate he’d call me to his kingdom with the offer of a crown, but I came to Njaza to be queen. If you don’t want to make me one, say so and stop wasting my time.”

Sanyu bristled, though he should have figured that she was a title chaser. His father had once said that the reason he was able to have so many wives was there was always a woman eager for the coin and the crown.

“Fine,” Sanyu said. “You want to be queen so badly? We’ll marry. But don’t expect a happily-ever-after. Those don’t happen here.”

No. Here, women appeared briefly and faded away before they disappeared entirely, leaving nothing behind but snippets of memory.

Or perhaps a son.

No. No child would come of this union, despite his attraction to her. Despite the heat in her eyes as she looked at him. Sanyu would see to that, no matter what tricks she pulled.

“Happily-ever-afters don’t concern me,” she said firmly. “Love isn’t an indicator of marital success, and I’m not one to seek out failure unnecessarily.”

Sanyu snorted.

“You expect me to believe you don’t think you’ll win my heart? Make me love you?” he asked, following the question with a purposefully nasty chuckle to hide the frustration that rose in him from knowing he couldn’t love her even if he wanted to. She didn’t show any sign that his words affected her, just kept looking at him with that steady gaze. “I require only respect and cooperation. See? I do have prerequisites. Expectations, even. Whether you meet them over the course of the next four months is up to you,” she said, dropping into an even more elaborate bow.

Behind her, the door opened and Musoke stepped in, his lips pressed flat.

“Are you ready to proceed? Your father is awake—we should get this over with now.”

. . . because he might not wake up again, went un- spoken.

“We are ready,” Sanyu lied, his voice a perfect, confident imitation of his father.

He was prepared, more than prepared after a lifetime of coaching on how to be the king Njaza needed, but Sanyu was not ready. Not for any of what was to come, or what he was to lose.

They left the room single file, a somber procession. He would be married. He would become king.

In four months, when the trial was over, he would send his wife away.

The Njazan crown wasn’t so easily escaped, so he would remain.

In the meantime, he’d keep his distance because the last thing he needed was another person to disappoint—he’d just gained the attention of his subjects and a spotlight on the world stage.

His wife could fend for herself, as had every “queen” before her.

About the Author:

Alyssa Cole is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of romance (historical, contemporary, and sci-fi) and thrillers. Her Civil War-set espionage romance An Extraordinary Union was the American Library Association’s RUSA Best Romance for 2018, and A Princess in Theory was one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2018. Her books have received critical acclaim from Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, Shondaland, The Washington Post, Library Journal, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, Booklist, Book Riot, and various other outlets. When she’s not working, she can usually be found watching anime or wrangling her pets.

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