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Authors: Diane Stanley

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BOOK: The Chosen Prince
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Alexos is used to this. He is known—or suspected,
or believed—to be the future champion of Arcos, the long-awaited hero sent to win the forgiveness of the gods. It's only natural that people should be curious about him. So Alexos, knowing he will always be watched, has learned to keep his feelings to himself and behave with dignity at all times. As he is doing now.

He wants to cross and uncross his restless legs. He wants to shift around on the bench, to fidget away his growing tension. But instead, he sits calmly, hands folded in his lap, staring at the mosaic on the anteroom floor.

While he waits, he counts the number of times he's been called to his father's chambers. There haven't been many; King Ektor is rarely at court. He lives and rules his kingdom from the borderlands, returning only once or twice a year. Ektor is a warrior-king and his place is with the army.

Alexos curls a finger to record each meeting he can recall. He stops at nine. He may have left out one or two, but he doesn't think so. Visits with his father are hard to forget.

The door to the inner chamber opens and the steward comes out.

“Prince Alexos,” he says with a smile and a respectful bow from the waist. “Your father will see you now.”

The prince rises without haste in his natural,
graceful way. He acknowledges the steward with a nod, then, doing his best to conceal his dread, enters the lion's den.

Ektor is sitting at his desk, a scroll in his hands, apparently engrossed in reading it. This is what he always does. He makes Alexos wait.

Finally the king looks up at his son and heir, whom he hasn't seen in almost a year, and notes that the boy has grown.

“You're very tall,” he observes.

“Yes, Father.”

“I expect you'll be taller still.”

“I expect so.”

“That's good. A man ought to be tall.”

Alexos has nothing to say to this.

“You may sit,” Ektor says, carefully rolling up the scroll, tying a ribbon around it, and setting it down. He isn't scowling exactly. It's more his usual expression of impatience.

“I have good reports from all of your masters,” he says. “That's as it should be, of course. Much is expected of you. You cannot afford to fall behind.”

“I won't, Father.”

Every time Alexos is called into Ektor's presence he is warned
not to fall behind
. He's thoroughly grasped the concept by now. Why must his father keep repeating
it? But he hides any hint of annoyance.

“However, I am disturbed to hear you are not well liked by the other boys, that you keep apart from them and refuse to join them in their games. This will not do, Alexos! You will need their support when you become king. It's crucial that you earn their friendship now, while you're young—which you cannot do by being haughty and aloof.”

Alexos' face has flushed hot. “That's not true,” he says. “The situation is very different from what you describe.” He speaks quietly and in a respectful tone, but he senses that he has still managed to offend his father.

“Really? Then perhaps you'd care to enlighten me.”

“I would.” Alexos has unconsciously balled his hands into fists. He releases them, though his body remains as tight as the skin on a drum. “It's my classmates who keep apart from me. Apparently they don't feel natural in my presence, because of who and what I am.”

“Well, they
might
if you didn't lord it over them! Truly, you have no reason to disdain those boys. They may not be your equals, but they're the sons of the highest nobles in the kingdom.”

Alexos gasps, shocked by the unfairness of this accusation. “I
don't
disdain them,” he says. “And I
don't lord anything over anyone. I'm always polite and kind to my classmates. I praise their accomplishments and am modest about my own. Can I help it if they stop talking when I walk into a room? It's not my fault that I'm a prince, and heir to the throne, and all the rest. Surely it must have been the same for you when you were a boy.”

“Not in the least; I was well liked. I had many friends. You'll just have to try harder, Alexos. Tell a few jokes, have a bit of rough-and-tumble. And it wouldn't hurt to smile now and then.”

This last bit hits home. Alexos resolves to work on smiling.

“I especially arranged for you to be schooled with those boys, not privately tutored as your brother is, so you could make them your friends. They will be your lieutenants someday, advising you and helping you carry out your plans. You'll need every ounce of their devotion—for believe me when I say that being king of Arcos isn't the roll in the grass you think it is.”

Alexos grits his teeth. He thinks nothing of the sort. He is perfectly aware that ruling a kingdom while fighting a war is hard.

“And King Pyratos of Ferra is a most formidable adversary. These past ten years have been hard going, even for a seasoned commander like me. I've needed
all the help I can get. It's well that my men worship me as they do—why, they would walk on burning coals if I asked it of them! You had better make sure
your
men feel the same about you. For without their full support, Pyratos will have crushed you like a worm beneath his heel within a month after I am dead.”

Speechless, Alexos nods.

“See if you can be a bit more accommodating and a good deal less solemn. Make an effort. Be a
boy
, for heaven's sake, not a dreary old man.”

Alexos feels a hot stinging rising in his eyes, and it terrifies him. This conference has been unpleasant enough already. He cringes to think how much worse it would be if he should actually shed tears. So he quickly orders his mind to think about something else—mathematics usually works; that's what he chooses now—and manages at last to recover his composure. By then the king has moved on.

“Good,” he says. “Good. Now, on a happier note, I also hear you have wings on your heels.”

This change of subject takes some readjusting. “Running, you mean?”

“They say you are marvelous fast.”

“I . . . yes. I like to run and I give my best effort to everything I do.”

“Then you'll be glad to know that now you've
turned twelve you may race on festival day.”

“Oh!” Alexos cries. “Father,
no
!”

The king's smile vanishes. “And whyever not?”

“I'm too young. For me to compete at such an age would make me look ridiculous. And it wouldn't sit well with the other boys. They'd laugh at me behind my back.”

“They'll stop laughing soon enough when you win the race.”

“But I
won't
win, Father. I couldn't possibly! I doubt I'd even make the final twelve.”

“You needn't worry about that. I've reserved you a place.”

“You mean I
won't even compete in the trials
?”

“Of course not! You're the crown prince of Arcos; it would be unseemly. And it's not as if you're some pathetic weakling. Everyone knows you're more than good enough.”

Alexos buries his face in his hands. “Father, I beg you—”

“Oh, stop being such a child. I have my reasons.”

Alexos is trembling now and can't control it. “May I at least know what they are?”

“I suppose.”

A sniff of annoyance, a bit of toying with the scroll, a drumming of the fingers.

“You are the chosen champion of the goddess Athene. But unfortunately, as victory in war is forbidden under the decree of Zeus, there's little scope for winning fame and glory on the battlefield. And even if there were, your masters say you lack the spirit of a warrior, and while you are more than competent with the sword and the lance, Leander and Titus both excel you. Clearly we must look elsewhere.”


Fame and glory
, Father?”

“It
has
to be running, don't you see? That is your goddess-given gift. But it won't mean much if you win the crown at the age of eighteen. You must show yourself to be a prodigy. Why do you look at me like that?”

“Athene didn't choose me to be a
hero
. I am not Achilles. That's not what she wants from me at all.”

“How do you know the mind of Athene?”

“I have spoken with the priests. I sacrifice a white heifer to her every year on my birthday and they are there to help me with the prayers, to make sure I do everything properly. I have asked them often what is expected of her champion. Never once have they mentioned fame and glory. Quite the opposite, they speak of submission and sacrifice, purity of heart, forbearance.”

There follows a terrible silence. Ektor is stone-faced,
rigid. He has no good answer to give his son, but he won't and he can't back down. “Then,” he finally says, his words heavy with irony, “you will submit to me with purity of heart and run the race as I have asked. Athene will blow a fair wind at your back and you will win the crown.”

Alexos knows he's beaten, that to protest will only make things worse, but he can't let this lie go unanswered.

“No,” he says coldly. “That's not how it is. Athene doesn't make things easier for me. She puts obstacles in my way to make things harder.”

Ektor ignores this completely. “You may tell the other boys that I made you do it, if that will be any help. Be humble, say you expect to fail.”

Alexos shuts his eyes, begging Athene to please, please,
please
let this meeting be over soon. Apparently she is listening.

“That's it, then,” the king says. “I have things to do.”

2


I HAVE BEEN INFORMED
by your lord father, the king,” says the master of arms, “that you will be racing for the laurel crown this year.” He speaks in a booming voice, as if addressing a crowd.

“Yes,” Alexos says.

He's been dreading this moment. Now that it has come, it's even worse than he'd imagined. The other boys whip their heads around and stare. Alexos is too embarrassed to meet their eyes.

It would have been so much kinder and more courteous of the master to have had this conversation in private. Alexos has to assume, therefore, that he has done it on purpose: because he disapproves of the idea, considers it unfair and unwise (which of course it is), and probably judges Alexos to be a puffed-up
prince who doesn't know his limits.

“I assume you'll want to step up your training, then,” the master says. “Put aside your work with the sword and the javelin and concentrate on running. I can set up a training program for you. We'll also need to discuss strategy and so forth. Would that please you, my lord? We can begin today if you like.”

“Of course,” he says woodenly. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Well then, I think you oughtn't to waste any time. You're a fine runner, my lord, but the festival race will be a challenge, even for you. So let's take advantage of the two weeks we have. I expect you'll make significant progress in that time. I know you'll push yourself. You always do.”

Alexos wants to explain that this was not his idea, that it's been forced upon him, but he doesn't know how to say it. He can't just blurt it out. And he doesn't want to sound pathetic:
my father made me do it!
He's searching for the right words when Leander interrupts.

“Excuse me, Master,” he says, taking a couple of steps toward them, coming near enough to join the conversation without seeming to intrude. “But the trials start in seven days. Not two weeks.”

“That is correct, Leander. Thank you for pointing
it out. But the prince will not be running in the trials; he already has a place.” The master's voice is completely devoid of any expression. He can't even
try
to pretend he thinks this arrangement is fair.

“I see,” Leander says, and the silence that follows is excruciating. Alexos feels his cheeks flush with shame.

“It wouldn't be appropriate,” the master continues impassively, “considering his position.”

This doesn't help, of course. Really, nothing could. For while it might be regarded as bold for Alexos to enter the race at such a young age, to
push ahead of the others because he's the king's son
—there's no way that could be made acceptable to anyone.

“Excuse me?” It's Leander again, now with the addition of his most dazzling smile. “I was wondering, since Prince Alexos will be running, if I might enter, too.”

“Certainly you may. Anyone in the kingdom may enter, so long as he is male and at least twelve years of age.”

“Well then, I wonder if I could join in the training—for the first week at least. Until the trials begin.”

“That's entirely up to the prince, Leander.”

Alexos doesn't know whether to be heartsick or glad. He's relieved to have one of his classmates also trying for the laurel crown. It will make him seem
less ridiculous. People will think they decided to do it together, on a lark or out of boyish competition. But oh, that
Leander
should be the one—that's hard! Handsome and athletic, confident and funny, Leander is the kind of boy that other boys like. Wherever he leads, they will follow. Wherever he is, the sun is shining. In short, he is everything Alexos is not.

The room has fallen silent. They are waiting for Alexos to respond. And really, there's only one possible answer.

“Of course,” he says. “I would welcome it.”

The master tells them to run a single lap as hard as they can go, as if this were the day of the race. But neither Alexos nor Leander is fooled by this. The master already knows how fast they are; he wants to study their form.

“Good,” is the verdict, “but not good enough.”

They nod respectfully, panting a little, and wait for more.

“My lord Alexos, you are a beautiful runner. It's a pleasure to watch you in motion. But your head and upper body are too far forward. Your shoulders should be over your hips. Do you understand?”

BOOK: The Chosen Prince
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