Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
Prince Ambrose Averen of Arlan didn’t believe in fate. He didn’t believe in the monotonous preaching of the clerics that had been wandering the halls of his home for the past week. He most definitely didn’t believe in the prophecies they supposedly saw in their visions sent by the gods.
But no one could know of his lack of faith. Not when he was the prime center of one of those clerics’ prophecies.
Kneeling before the altar, he felt the eyes of many upon his back. Weighing him and his importance to their land. Setting their expectations for him—expectations his father had been sure to reinforce just the day before. He had a week. One week before the prophecy was said to commence, and he was meant to accomplish the impossible.
While the task was daunting, he wouldn’t be alone. Glancing over at Kai, his one and only friend, he knew their nerves were equivalent. Although despite the others the prophecy named—others that had the same birthday as himself, exactly a week from today—he would be separate from them. The expectations upon his shoulders were far heavier than those upon the other ignorant souls out in the city.
A cleric dipped his thumb into a bowl of wine, said to be blessed by the God of Good Fortune. He pressed the pad of his thumb between Ambrose’s brow. A single droplet of wine drew a line down his nose, and his senses honed to the potent scent of grape. The cleric commenced his long list of tedious scriptures, paving way for a hopeful future, not just for Ambrose, but for all of Arlan. Raising weathered hands to the vaulted ceilings, all eyes turned upward, ritualistic habit. Paintings of gods and humanity stared down upon them. Their eyes were no less prodding than the live ones at his back.
After the lines and blessings were finished, he dipped his thumb again and repeated the process on Kai, though for his friend, far fewer words of good fortune were given.
In spite of the obvious descrimination in treatment, his friend kept his broad shoulders held back and his chin high. Kai—despite his unfavorable heritage—was a more ideal prince than Ambrose was. An orphan raised as the king’s bastard, he had succeeded in everything where Ambrose had fallen short. Kai had memorized the scriptures and prayed to the gods daily as was proper. He had far surpassed Ambrose in swordplay and had even been appointed Ambrose’s personal guard. Though, no matter his worth in the supposed prophecy or his success in their schooling, not even the holy clergy could look past his dark skin—such a sharp contrast from Ambrose’s freckled ivory.
The ceremony concluded, and the cleric waved a hand for Ambrose to rise. The audience and Kai remained kneeled as he was pronounced blessed and chosen by the holy gods—words that had been repeated to him in multiple ceremonies over the past week.
As the audience began to clear from the hall, Ambrose held out a hand to help Kai up. His friend grasped his palm and yanked himself to his feet. They began walking down the long, carpeted hall, boots muted against the scarlet velvet.
“If I have to sit through another one of those ceremonies, I very well might go insane,” Ambrose muttered around the chatter of lingering guests.
Kai shot him a look. “Those ceremonies are meant for you. For your good fortune.”
“Us,” Ambrose corrected.
“No. I am a pawn in this prophecy. You, my friend, are the centerpiece.”
“Or so the clergy says.” And it was all a lie.
“The clergy speaks the word of the gods.”
Ambrose let it drop. He wasn’t in the mood to argue the merits of religion. It would be futile, anyway, as Kai was devout as any proper citizen of Arlan should be.
They turned into a grand hall, the crystal windows casting fragmented light over the yellow-painted walls. Ambrose stretched out his palm, the light refracting into various colors upon his skin. Before he could begin to feel the sun’s warmth, he shoved his hand back into his pocket.
“My father didn’t show,” he commented off-handedly. His vain attempt at indifference fell through as Kai gave him a knowing look.
“He’s likely busy. With the shortage of food, coin, and the growing rebellion in the north, I doubt he has much time on his hands.”
“I suppose not.” No, his father would never have time for the multitudinous religious ceremonies proclaiming his second son blessed. Not when he believed quite the opposite. His father, for all his talk of the gods and their good deeds, was likely less religious than Ambrose himself, but for the sake of the church and its power and influence over the people, his religious zeal could never be questioned. Just as Ambrose’s worth to the gods could never be questioned.
“Your mother attended,” Kai said. A failed attempt to raise Ambrose’s spirits, but an attempt nonetheless.
“My mother is more devout than the clergy,” Ambrose said. It was true. A wealthy Lady in northern Arlan, she had been raised among clerics and was more likely to sacrifice herself to the gods then she was to draw Ambrose in an embrace. She had tied her soul to his father by law, but in all ways that mattered, her soul belonged to the gods. She had said so the day Ambrose had questioned her love for him and his father.
Kai chuckled but quickly fell silent as a group of Lords and councilmen passed them in a hurry to get from one meeting to the next. They stopped briefly to bow before Ambrose, not gracing a glance in Kai’s direction.
After they passed, their shined leather boots tapping on the marbled floor, Kai said, “I wonder if women were allowed in the clergy, if she would have taken that path over marriage.”
“Of course she would have. She told me herself she often wishes she had joined the Sisterhood.”
Kai chuckled, shaking his head. “Of course she did.”
The Sisterhood—despite their strict religious zeal—was often seen as a pack of delusional women who separated themselves from the world and gave themselves up to the gods. They were the radicals among the religious, looked down upon by even the clergy.
As though spurred on by thoughts of religion, a gaggle of clerics entered, blocking the entrance to a connecting hall. Ambrose slowed, hoping they would hurry along before he was obliged to speak with them. The conversations were always the same. They thanked the gods for blessing him with life, and Ambrose waited, attempting to feign appreciation.
They appeared to be in no rush. Instead, they clasped dry palms before them, their movements silent despite the resounding halls. He was about to propose they turn and take a different route when the clerics all bowed their heads, their white caps flashing in unison. They didn’t even notice Ambrose and Kai as they turned on their heels and started down the halls, golden-lined cloaks billowing behind.
Ambrose resumed his pace and turned down the hall that had been previously blocked. Shadows swallowed the delicate, fragmented light. White stone statues lined the thin hall, posed in acts of worship. There was little escape from the suffocating gods.
“Do you wonder…” Ambrose murmured, his eyes snagging on a particular sculpture he had walked past everyday. It was a man bent in agony, his arms beseeching the skies for mercy. The following sculpture depicted him again, eyes alight and body stretching with ease. The statues told a story. Worship the gods and perhaps mercy can be granted. However, it was the agony Ambrose was always drawn to. To him, it was no story, only an individual. An individual praying for relief to gods whose existence was fabricated.
“Ambrose?” Kai prompted.
He turned away from the wretched statue. “Do you wonder about the others? The others who are spoken of in the prophecy?”
Kai pondered the question as they turned into the library—the one place Ambrose could find peace.
“Yes,” he finally said. “It seems… strange. That we have to venture beyond borders in the company of strangers.”
Strange indeed. More than a little dangerous, too. He and Kai both took their seats at their usual table, already piled with his books the librarians knew better than to touch. Ambrose drew them in and began rifling through pages while Kai monitored the halls with quick eyes.
“Haven’t you already read that book?” Kai asked after the aisles surrounded by shelves of books appeared empty of any threats.
Ambrose didn’t look up from the page he was studying. “Yes. But I think I missed something, so I’m reading it again.”
Kai rolled his eyes, slumping in his chair. While Kai had surpassed him in everything that counted, Ambrose had always gotten better marks with their tutors and had enjoyed reading far more. Though the books before him were not for enjoyment. Ever since his father had sat him down and listed the expectations of his journey, Ambrose had been studying on anything that could assist him in accomplishing the impossible. Anything to give him some semblance of control over the situation. With no knowledge as to who was going to be accompanying him and Kai, he couldn’t rely solely on their skill sets. Not for a task so important.
Kai straighted, instantly alert, as someone cleared their throat beside them. His hand jumped to the hilt of his sword, but he immediately lowered into a bow when he identified the intruder. Ambrose dragged his eyes towards the Crown Prince of Arlan. His brother, Marcell, arched a brow, glancing pointedly to the pile of books beside him.
“Say what you came to say,” Ambrose said, his voice a low drone.
Marcell turned his mocking eyes back to Ambrose’s face and smirked. “Father wishes to speak with you in his private office.”
Ambrose sighed, not at all prepared for the conversation about to be had. “Right now?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.
“No. He sent me personally rather than a messenger because he wants to meet you in an hour.”
Ambrose sighed again. Typically, he would send back a message with whichever poor soul had been tasked with requesting his presence on his father’s behalf. It was a safe way to avoid any contact with his father. But there was no way he could ignore his brother.
“Fine,” he grumbled, pushing himself from his chair. He straightened his jerkin and ran a hand over his bound hair.
Kai shot him a look. A question. Ambrose shook his head. This was not a conversation his father would want with the both of them.
“Enter,” his father’s voice echoed from within his study. He didn’t bother asking who was knocking.
Ambrose pushed inside, bowing. “Rise and sit,” his father said impatiently.
The chair on the opposite side of the King’s desk was low and uncomfortable—just the way his father wanted people to feel when speaking with him. The hard, wooden surface of the seat dug into his tailbone as he attempted to situate himself in a graceful manner. His father delighted in his discomfort, watching him fidget. Noticing his attention, Ambrose fell still.
“One more week,” his father said, stroking his dark beard with contemplation. His piercing blue eyes—the one trait Ambrose seemed to gain from his father—were set on him with infuriating calm. “Are you prepared?”
Ambrose nodded. “Yes, father.”
He cocked a wiry brow. “And you understand what you must do?”
He silently appraised Ambrose, his judging eyes softening. “If you fail, your life will be forfeit.”
Ambrose’s stomach twisted in a knot, and his eyes flitted around the prodigious office on their own accord. He scanned each mounted sword and tall portrait without truly looking. When his eyes landed back upon his father’s, he stilled, smoothing his expression. The King didn’t appreciate weakness, and as his son, Ambrose should always conceal it.
“Yes, father,” he murmured.
“If you succeed, all of Arlan will prosper. Your name will be forever remembered.”
Not as King, Ambrose silently corrected. No. No matter how great of a man Ambrose grew to be, he would never be king. His warrior brother was built for that. Ambrose would be remembered as the gods-blessed son. He would be favored for his divinity. Loved not for his own deeds, but for the ones the gods shined through him. None of his success would ever be marked as his own.
Yet, if he succeeded, he wouldn’t be a failure—not to his father. Not to himself.
“I will succeed, father,” Ambrose said quietly, but strongly.
The appraisal that glimmered in his father’s eyes was inspiration enough. It flashed an image through his mind of a life where everyone looked upon him with the same appraisal. The same respect. No matter the cost, Ambrose would succeed for a chance at that life.
“Then let us go over the plan once more,” his father said with a small smile that was nothing short of wicked.