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Authors: J.C. Carleson

The Tyrant's Daughter

BOOK: The Tyrant's Daughter
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2014 by J. C. Carleson
Jacket photograph copyright © 2014 by Ilona Wellman/Trevillion Images
“Truth in Fiction” essay copyright © 2014 by Dr. Cheryl Benard

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Carleson, J. C.
The tyrant’s daughter / J.C. Carleson. — First edition.
p. cm.
Summary: Exiled to the United States after her father, a Middle Eastern dictator, is killed in a coup, fifteen-year-old Laila must cope with a completely new way of life, the truth of her father’s regime, and her mother and brother’s ways of adjusting. ISBN 978-0-449-80997-6 (trade) — ISBN 978-0-449-80998-3 (lib. bdg.) — ISBN 978-0-449-81000-2 (ebook) — ISBN 978-0-449-80999-0 (pbk.) [1. Exiles — Fiction. 2. Immigrants — Fiction. 3. Dictators—Fiction. 4. Middle East — Politics and government — Fiction. 5. High schools — Fiction. 6. Schools — Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.C21479Tyr 2014 [Fic]—dc23 2013014783

Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.


For Kai, who was there for every word


My brother is the King of Nowhere.

This fact doesn’t matter to anyone except my family—a rapidly shrinking circle of people who Used to Be. And, even for us, there are surprisingly few perks. Now we sit in our airless apartment, curtains closed against the outside world, pretending.

My mother pretends that nothing has changed.

She is good at this charade. Her every gesture oozes money and power now long gone. They wouldn’t let her take her closets full of designer clothes when we left our country, but she still spends hours on her appearance—pretending that photographers might still want to take pictures of her every outing, even dressed as she is now in J. C. Penney sale-rack clothes and drugstore lipstick. Pretending her old life didn’t die along with my father.

My brother is six.

I try to remember six. What it might feel like at that age to be told that you are the exiled ruler. That you deserve to be king. That someday soon you will be—once the right people die, that is.

My younger brother’s almost-title and nonexistent kingdom do not make
anything at all. And yet I’m right here beside him, thousands of miles from everything I once knew. Mine is a nameless, purposeless banishment. Guilt by relation.

My fifteenth birthday came and went yesterday. No one remembered. It’s understandable, I suppose, considering what we’ve all been through in the last few weeks. There are bigger things to remember, and we all certainly have far bigger things to forget.

Perhaps I’ll start calling myself the Invisible Queen. Sometimes just having a title helps.

My brother the king does not like that he has to share a bedroom with me.

I don’t like it either. So I pretend he’s not there. I ignore his king-sized tantrums and the dirty royal socks that he leaves on my bedspread. I pretend not to hear him when he tells me what to do.

“Mom!” Bastien shouts. “Laila isn’t obeying me. Tell her she has to obey. I’m the king!” He pouts in a very regal way.

It doesn’t help that Mother encourages him. She thinks it’s cute. “Laila. Can’t you at least show him respect? Someday you will have to, you know.” She pinches his cheeks. “My little prince.”

“King!” he insists, getting even more angry. “I’m not a prince. I’m a king!”

I suppose it doesn’t occur to him that his promotion from prince came at the cost of our father’s life. He’s only a child, after all; he can be forgiven for missing the connection. So sometimes I play along. “Yes, Your Majesty.” I curtsy, even though back home we never did such things. Ours was not that kind of royalty. Not the kind with ball gowns or high tea or croquet matches played on manicured lawns. It wasn’t even real.

But still we pretend.


A memory.

Bastien whining and turning up the volume on the TV. “Daddy, make them stop. I can’t hear my show.” He keeps pressing the button, up up up, until the voices of the talking cartoon fish drown out the sound of gunfire outside.

Father ruffles Bastien’s hair. Confident to the end, if you weren’t close enough to see the frown lines around his eyes and mouth growing deeper every day. If you didn’t pay attention to how many hours he spent just pacing, pacing. If you didn’t notice, as I didn’t at the time, that he hardly seemed to leave the house anymore, or that when he did go out, it was with twice as many bodyguards as before. “It’s amazing,” he says to us. “The satellite dish still works, through it all. Everything else out there has gone to hell, but just look at that resolution. Programs from the other side of the world—the best technology money can buy.”

In hindsight, perhaps he should have been paying closer attention to the guns.

Here, now, Bastien and Mother continue to turn the television volume up too high. Blocking out memories, perhaps? Or more likely just habit. Now it only serves the purpose of blocking out the sound of the neighbor in the apartment next door—a cranky old woman living alone who beats against the wall with a broom, or maybe a cane. Something that makes a faint, rhythmic
bang bang bang
sound that is no competition for the sound of bullets flying. No one else in our apartment seems to even hear it.

I turn down the volume when they aren’t paying attention, and try to smile in apology when I see the old woman outside.
It’s not their fault
, I want to say. But isn’t it? What else do they ignore simply because it suits them? What else have we all ignored?

The old woman just glares at me. All she wants is peace and quiet in her shabby apartment, and I can’t give it to her. In her eyes, I am useless.


Now we live in not-quite-Washington, D.C. Our home is twenty-five miles away from a capital where we have no status, in a suburb that feels so distant from either past or future that it might as well be on the moon. An exile within an exile.

Nothing is familiar. Nothing is easy. Not even for a King of Nowhere or an Invisible Queen.

At first, the differences between Old Life and New Life were most obvious in the small and the unimportant.

The grocery store, for example. An entire aisle of cereal. Hundreds of boxes. Hundreds of choices. Of course I had eaten cereal before. I’m not a savage. Mother’s shopping trips in Europe were always followed a few weeks later by the arrival of wooden crates full of her carefully selected treasures from abroad. Bastien and I would tear at the contents, racing each other for the discovery of the small luxuries Mother had picked out for us,
nestled among the bottles of liquor, perfume, and other adult delicacies that didn’t interest us in the least. For us there were metal tins of fancy chocolates, giant tubs of peanut butter, comic books, DVDs, and always, always our favorite cereals, which we ate from Grandmother’s delicate teacups rather than bowls in order to make each box last one or two more precious mornings.

Cereal was a small, affordable luxury—one we knew well. But it was still a luxury. An effort. A point of pride. Something special, chosen and imported just for
. Father’s position meant that rules were broken so we might have things that others in our country could not. Those crates of cereal meant that we
what others did not.

Here, the choices that stand before me in the store aisles seem to exist only to mock me.
Cereal isn’t a
you stupid fool
, the boxes laugh at me.
You were really impressed by a couple of jars of
peanut butter
Two aisles down I count twenty-seven different kinds of that too. And mustard. Dozens of varieties of mustard.

Is it really necessary?

It makes me angry, all of that mustard. Those taunting boxes of cereal, so overvalued in my memory.

Bastien sees things differently. He squealed and whirled and grabbed the first time he saw that aisle of temptation. He lost himself in the choices, filling our shopping cart until Mother told him, smiling, that that was enough cereal for the moment. He ate himself sick that evening, mixing enormous bowlfuls of cocoa nuggets with marshmallow crisps with honey puffs. I pulled my pillow over my head as the exiled king vomited Lucky Charms all through the night.


The king and I start school.

It’s not our choice. Mother didn’t like it—none of us were ready for it—but something came in the mail that shook her up enough to change her mind. I only managed to read a few phrases before she snatched the letter away. “Condition of legal immigrant status.” “Violation of terms.” “Deportation.”

Mother seethes enough for all of us. She doesn’t like being told what to do. Who do they think they are, sending this threatening, impersonal letter in the mail? Treating us like common immigrants!

It’s easier to just obey. Besides, after three weeks of staring at each other in our tiny apartment, we all need a break. Our mourning has kept us docile. Lethargic. But our grief-induced stupor is starting to lift, and we’re growing restless and more and more irritable with one another every day. Maybe school is a good thing. Even Bastien is unusually compliant with the idea.

BOOK: The Tyrant's Daughter
8.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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