Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Amani helped him lead Ren to his horse. From there, Ren tucked his foot into the stirrup and grabbed the horn of the saddle. He gritted his teeth as he hefted himself up, sighing when he was finally seated and his feet could sway at the horse’s side. Ambrose gathered his nerve, then pulled himself up behind Ren, keeping his body as far from him as he could without falling off the horse.
“I don’t bite, prince,” Ren said, glancing at Ambrose from over his shoulder. His dark eyes twinkled mischievously, his full lips quirked in a smirk. “Unless you want me to.”
Ambrose’s face burned as though a fire had been lit beneath his skin. He willed away the blush in vain, lamenting how easily his skin reddened. Ren chuckled low in his stomach, the sound skittering over Ambrose’s skin.
“Put your feet in the stirrups,” Ren said as the others began leading their horses out of the cave.
Ambrose looked down. If he did so, his legs would be pressed right against Ren’s.
“My feet were stabbed by rocks repeatedly just two days ago,” Ren reminded him.
With a sigh, Ambrose scooted forward a smidge until he could reach the stirrups. His shins brushed against Ren’s calves.
“The reins, Your Highness,” Ren said, lifting the reins for Ambrose to take.
“You can use the reins,” Ambrose protested.
“While you use the stirrups? The poor horse will be confused.”
Ambrose gnawed on his lips and reached around Ren to gather the reins in hand, boxing him in with his arms.
“So, you do know how to ride,” Ren said. “Onward, then!”
Ambrose urged the horse forward, trying to lean back the best he could. The others were waiting atop their horses just outside, and Rieka shot Ambrose a look before taking the lead of the procession. The rest filed behind, leaving Ambrose and Ren to follow.
“It’s freezing,” Ren commented. “If you come closer, we will both be warmer.”
“I’m not that cold,” Ambrose said, though the sharp air nipped at his skin.
Ren twisted in the saddle and peered up at Ambrose, his dark curls tousled in the wind. He reached up his gloved hand and touched it gently to Ambrose’s cheek. Ambrose jerked back, but was already on the edge of the saddle and could not create any more distance between them.
“What’s this, then?” Ren said, poking at the chapped, blistered skin on Ambrose’s face, courtesy of the sharp winds and glaring sun. “Blisters from the cold,” he said knowingly.
“It is a sunburn.”
Ren’s dark brows rose and his hand fell away. “It’s not warm outside. How can you get sunburned?”
“It does not have to be warm outside. The sun is also out when it is cold.”
Ren looked over his face, his eyes tracing each angle. Ambrose shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. His eyes settled back on Ambrose’s, and they crinkled slightly in the corners. “You should be watching the path before us, prince. I’d rather not fall to our deaths today.”
Ambrose blinked and looked away, his face warming. He heard Ren’s quiet chuckle as he, too, turned back to the road.
Ambrose was not used to Ren’s unfiltered words. Growing up as the prince, he was surrounded by practiced tongues and barbed compliments. While Rieka spoke harshly and unabashedly, he had adjusted to her taunting manner quickly. It was truly not so different from the passive aggression he was accustomed to.
Ren, however, did not speak with insults and ridicule. He spoke with… flirtation. Teasing or not, the act of flirtation between men was illicit within the palace. Ambrose had yet to rid himself of the anxieties he felt when Ren spoke in such ways, his eyes darting around as though he could spot any of the palace’s listening ears.
Ambrose vaguely wondered what it would be like to live with such confidence. To not watch each breath he took and word he spoke. He wondered if Ren truly did have such ease in his own skin, or if the words of flirtation were his own crafted mask.
Ambrose’s eyes flitted to Amani, her horse just before his. Her fur cap had been passed to her sister, Shadya’s having apparently been lost somewhere on the road. Her hair that was typically shiny and smooth was now a mess of curls braided back from her face, almost matching Shadya’s frizz.
Ambrose had never been good at donning masks, so he opted to hide away his secrets and emotions until no one could find them. Somehow, though, after a single meet, Amani had dug them up and displayed them under light.
He wondered if she remembered that time only two years ago. The time they had met before she had been aware of the prophecy. The time she had managed to find a secret of his that not even he liked to admit. If she remembered, why had she not used it for some kind of blackmail? That was what any intelligent man or woman would do if they acquired a secret of a prince.
Amani was intelligent, so that begged the question of what she still had in mind for his secret. Ambrose had long since given up on the notion that anyone could behave kindly for a prince without self-benefit.
Ambrose turned his eyes to Kai, his head bobbing far ahead in their procession. Kai behaved kindly to Ambrose with seemingly no benefits, but then again, Kai was a man of loyalty and honor. Regardless of any negative feelings he had for Ambrose, he was sworn to him as a guard, told at birth to protect Ambrose and, therefore, the prophecy. Ambrose would never question their friendship, but it was not one formed by mutual respect. It was formed by obligation.
Perhaps that was why Ambrose had learned to not only withstand Rieka’s harsh words but also appreciate them. When they had been alone in the mountains unaware of the fates of the others, she had never been kind. On the contrary, she had been cruel, mocking his worries and anxieties and ridiculing him when he struggled against the harsh climate and terrain. Intentionally or not, her words had been a comfort. She gave the comfort of not submitting to the obligated courtesy his title demanded.
Ambrose had always been aware of the disdain others felt for him within the palace. In comparison to his elder brother, he fell short of any set standards. He found he preferred those opinions to be spoken aloud rather than delivered in mocking glances and inaudible whispers.
And perhaps that was why Ren made Ambrose so uncomfortable. He was not yet aware whether his words of flirtations and jests were genuine. Amani’s kindness could be easily explained—it was a common ploy for gaining trust and therefore a semblance of power, though she excelled at the mask more than most. Zain’s silence was only attributed to his obvious lack of interest in any kind of relationship, which was both understandable and respectable. But Ren… Ren was an enigma.
“This must be a big change from a fancy palace,” Ren commented. He lifted a hand to wave at the wild terrain, snow billowing about the horse’s feet and the steep cliffs just a few steps away.
“I suppose,” Ambrose responded, his eyes tracing the mountain slopes beyond. It almost astounded him that those mountains were all he could see along the horizon. Just over a week ago, they had not even entered the Kiertsk range, and now it seemed to be the entire world.
“No hot meals at your beck and call; no servants to attend to your every needs… The minute I have my money, I’m going to hire a load of servants so I never have to lift a finger again,” Ren said, his voice glimmering with anticipation.
“It is not as wonderful as it may seem.” Ambrose had not meant to respond, but the words managed to slip out. He had no intentions of furthering the conversation—not when every conversation with Ren ended with his embarrassment. Yet, here he was, continuing it.
“Only the rich say that,” Ren joked, twisting his head slightly to meet Ambrose’s eyes. The corner of his lip hiked up in a crooked grin.
“I am not saying money is the issue,” Ambrose began, then stopped.
“Then what is the issue?” Ren prodded, turning back to the path.
“Nice try, prince,” Ren said, nudging Ambrose’s torso with his elbow. Ambrose shifted away from the contact. “You aren’t escaping that easily.”
“I am not escaping anything.”
“You’re escaping answering my question. Now, I’m not against a man who plays hard to get, but—”
“What?” Ambrose blurted, his face reddening. “I am not ‘playing’ anything.”
“But,” Ren continued, “you’re not going to win that game if you end every serious conversation before it starts.”
“There is no game,” Ambrose reiterated.
Ren glanced back at him and smiled, reaching up to pat Ambrose’s cheek twice. “Darling, everything’s always a game. Now, stop distracting me. What’s the issue if it’s not money?”
Ambrose turned to look back at the snowy path already trodden by the horses ahead of them. He did not know whether to answer Ren or ignore him. If he did the latter, he would end the conversation. It was what he always did, and each time it was a relief to no longer have the pressure of picking each word to form into sentences. If he did the former… Well, he was not sure what would happen if he did the former.
Why was Ren asking such questions anyway? He had made it clear up until this point that he was not one for serious discussions. So why did any of it matter? What gain did he have for knowing Ambrose’s thoughts?
Again, the enigma of Ren plagued Ambrose, eating away at his mind. If this was all a game like Ren believed, then it was a game Ambrose was sorely losing.
“I’m waiting,” Ren sang, glancing back briefly at Ambrose.
“The issue is the expectations,” he said, his words falling from his lips like water slipping through his fingers.
“Your servants have expectations for you?” Ren asked doubtfully.
“Everyone has expectations for me.”
Ren hummed in thought. “I’m failing to see how that’s an issue.”
Ambrose sighed, his breath puffing out before him. He did not know what he had expected. Sympathy? Understanding? Either, from a thief—a man of the opposite coin than Ambrose—was unlikely.
“Look at it this way,” Ren said. “If I died today, no one would give a damn. In fact, if anyone bothered to notice, they would likely be glad. If you died today, there would be national uproar. Expectations mean you are important.”
“People would notice,” Ambrose argued. “If you died.”
“Was that a come-on, prince?” Ren said, turning to smirk at him. “If so, you need to work on your flirting.”
Ambrose’s cheeks warmed, the sharp air feeling all the more harsh against them. “I— I only meant—”
“I’m glad that you would notice if I died,” Ren said. “It’s comforting.”
“I am sure other people would notice,” Ambrose assured. “That they would… care.”
Ren shrugged. “They wouldn’t. That’s why I don’t plan on dying. I’ll wait until it matters. Which means I will be immortal, I suppose.”
Ambrose ignored Ren’s cynical jest and said, “If you wait until your death matters, will that not mean you are finally making an impact in life? So then what would be the point in dying?”
“See?” Ren said, a small, genuine smile tugging at his lips. “I knew there was something about you, prince.”
“Every once in a while, you prove that there is a good brain in that pretty head of yours.”
Ambrose’s face burned, and he looked away in an attempt to mask his embarrassment. He should have stopped the conversation when he had the chance.
Amani pulled her horse to a stop before them and Ambrose followed suit, straining in the saddle in an attempt to see the hold-up.
“Why aren’t we moving?” Ren asked.
“I do not know,” Ambrose murmured.
Ambrose saw Kai dismount his horse, revealing Rieka atop her horse before him. Her back was stiff, her head turned down.
Amani turned to Ambrose and Ren, her hand clamped firmly over Shadya’s eyes. “It’s a body,” she said, her voice somber.
Ambrose’s brows furrowed. The last time Rieka had come across a body, she had kept walking. What was different?
Ambrose swung his leg over the horse and hopped down into the snow.
“What are you doing?” Ren asked, but Ambrose ignored him and began making his way around the horses and towards Rieka and Kai.
It was not just one body. It was four. Three of which were Styrkish warriors.
Ambrose stopped beside Kai, his eyes falling on the final body. It was a Larabosi warrior dressed in Styrkish armor. Where the emblem usually lay upon the chestplate was only a series of jagged gouges. Blood stained the snow beneath his body, blending into one collective pool with the blood of the Styrkish.
Why would a Larabosi man be trekking up the Kiertsk mountains? Ambrose’s eyes flitted to the Sword of Strength sheathed at Kai’s belt. He did not know when Rieka had given it to Kai to carry.
As if spurred on by Ambrose's thoughts, Kai’s hand settled heavily on the sword’s hilt. Ambrose examined his friend’s face, finding nothing there. No sign of what was going through his mind.
“These bodies are relatively fresh,” Rieka said, her voice like ice. “A few days ago, at least.”
Was it a coincidence, then, that a Larabosi man was after the sword just as they were?
Ambrose did not believe in coincidences.
“We should keep moving,” Ambrose said, turning away from the bodies.
“He killed three warriors,” Rieka commented, her voice quiet.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Ambrose said, putting his back to the corpses. “We need to keep moving.”
As he began the walk back to his horse, Ambrose’s stomach churned. Chin high, he reminded himself. Eyes forward. His fingers twitched at his side and he shoved them into his pockets.
There was no use in thinking about those deaths. No use in pondering whether they would be next, the Styrkish warriors having discovered the theft they had executed. No use in wondering why a Larabosi warrior entered the Kiertsk mountains alone.
There were so many things to think about—worry about—that he need not waste his time on this. At least, that was what he told himself.
Once he reached his horse, he pulled himself into the saddle, his mind too busy for embarrassment at his proximity to Ren. When Rieka began their trek once more, continuing their procession, Ambrose kept his eyes far from the ground. No matter his attempts to avoid it, those bodies were still visible in his periphery, the iron armor protruding like icebergs in an ocean of blood.