“You’re not joking. You’re seriously going to just leave me here?” I hissed between my teeth. Rowan and I stood in front of a pair of imposing doors. Laughter and the timbre of feet and music scratched along my nerve endings.
“Priscilla hates my guts. Hate’s Quimer. Hate’s everything that isn’t flashy. She only barely tolerates you because you make fire drops for her. Wait, no, well, Wallace makes fire drops for her on her birthday as entertainment.” Rowan pushed strands of dark curls from his face.
“A. You aren’t allowed to freaking be handsome. B. Is she a spoiled brat? C. What are fire drops? The weird blue things I do when you’re in my face?” I tugged at the neckline of the new wool tunic I’d been forced into.
Rowan coughed at the comment. “Wait, what?”
“Spoiled brat. That’s what she is, isn’t she?” I glared at the massive smithed hinges.
“That’s not what you first said.”
“Handsome. Not allowed. Too many inputs. I can’t take you amid all the noises and textures and dealing with crowds. How many people are in there? Who am I supposed to be talking to? What about these parents?” Questions crowded out my senses. The world was turning into a pinpoint throb behind my breastbone.
“Handsome. That’s what I thought I heard you say. You’re my stepbrother!” He quipped.
“Body is. Mind is not. There’s the distinct word ‘step’ involved too, so other than your parent and this body’s parent shacking up to make good ol’ Prissy-pants in there, you and I ain’t got anything in common. Might as well let you hate me now for finding you fuckable. Would rather not face that pain later.” I shrugged.
Rowan smothered his face in his hands and sighed. “We’re coming back to this. I am not mentally prepared for it. Mom and dad. You can figure that out pretty quick. They’re gonna be dressed the best out of everyone. Save for Priscilla.”
“Is there any way to drag them out here so I don’t have to go in there?” I fiddled with the wrinkles of my tunic. “And who’s your parent, and who’s mine?”
Rowan paused, listening to the clamour on the other side of the doors. At least he could make heads or tails of what was going on. “My mom, your dad. Reason you’re the prince, and I’m just a paladin.”
“Wait, so you actually are older than me, like I thought?” I paused.
“That’s your qualifier for being a prince? Age?” Rowan raised a hand as if to protect himself from a miasma.
“It was a wild guess on how the royal lineage worked. I mean, we could go with patrilineal, matrilineal, parent’s choice, prophecy. As it is, am I supposed to be heir apparent, or Priscilla, or you? I’m a prince. You’re a paladin. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna be king one day, necessarily. I mean, we kinda just figured out I died and got swapped, so, there is that.” I was stalling, and he knew it.
Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Rowan sighed. “Get your butt in there, Mac.”
“Nope. I go in there, I’m coming out a peasant.” I planted myself firmly so that the doors couldn’t be opened out toward me.
“The hell you mean by that?” Rowan snapped.
“I walk in there, I’m telling them I’m not me. I’ll tell them about the soul switch spell.” I crossed my arms.
“Why would you even do that? That makes no sense! You have a palace. Money. Access to books. Why would you go throwing all that away? Don’t people wish to become you?” Rowan rounded on me, grasping me by the shoulders.
“No touchy!” I hissed, sending him down the hall.
Raising his head from the floor, he waved in surrounder. “Sorry, forgot. I’m stuck. A bit of help here.”
I slouched and dragged myself down the hall to where Rowan was plastered. The little Manders were all over him. “Oye. Beasties. Get off him.” The black newt creatures swivelled to fix me with their golden orb eyes before scuttling back into the water stones.
“Now you’re talking to Manders. Yeah, mom’s not going to believe this. Well. I mean, she will if you go pulling one out of the wall again. Priscilla will have a fit. Did you call her Prissy-pants?” Rowan rolled over to stare up at me.
“Spoiled brat. Yeah. I hate dealing with people who expect me to be something I’m not. It feels wrong and exhausting. Did that enough back home. I’m no prince, Rowan.” I squatted down on my heels next to him. “So what am I supposed to be?”
“Successor.” He sat up, laying his hands on his knees to study them. “Maybe not,” he muttered.
“How so?” I cocked my head, wondering about the tack-on addition.
“You know what you said about a prophecy?” He stood and brushed himself off.
“Nope. Not doing it. I ain’t no hero. Not gonna be some prophecy King Arthur. Can’t do it. Can’t make me.” I rooted myself to the ground. The Manders came out of the floor to slither over my feet.
“If I say it’ll get you out of the party?” He bribed.
“Yeah, no. You want me to be some kind of prophecy, and money hasn’t worked, and you’re thinking I’d do it to get out of a party? I’m not an idiot.” I held fast.
“Not what I meant. Though, the fact you didn’t fall for that shows you aren’t Wallace at all, Mac. What I meant is, if I show you a book about this prophecy, I can get you out of the party. Not like it will get you out of other responsibilities.” Rowan tried again.
“Let me guess. Some old witch came across some omen that prophesied there’d be a person who would reveal great powers this world had never seen before, and it would be some second coming. There’d be demons. This person with powers would take out the big bad guys and become some top dog that would reform the entirety of the cultural and political system. Peace would spread across the lands. Yad yad yad.” I guessed. The sallow green on Rowan’s face told me I probably hit the mark.
I grabbed Rowan’s hand and turned him to the hall leading towards the kitchens and the rest of the castle keep. “Show me this prophecy so you don’t feel completely shamed for this.”
“But. Wait. How did you? You’re not…?” Rowan blubbered.
“Where I come from, this is called an Isekai trope. Who’s the evil thing that’s leading to the kingdom’s downfall? Why is it evil?” I motioned for him to start leading the way.
“You’re scary. You know that, right?” He turned us down a narrow hallway that led to a damp staircase.
“That’s not news to me. Now, what’s with a ruling royal class if there’s some prophecy? Placeholders? Wouldn’t it just be bizarrely convenient for a royal to retain their position by their child being the prophecy?” I slipped on a stone stair and slid onto my butt. The Mander rose to keep me from breaking my coccyx and turned themselves into a tidal wave slide that took me to the base of the stairs.
“Wal-Mac! Are you okay?” Rowan’s voice echoed down behind me. I found myself in a cobbled dungeon-like room.
“Yo, you keep Druagr down here or something? It’s creepy!” I called back up. The water walls still hadn’t solidified into any type of grey stone, like Rowan kept telling me. Due to being underground, they were a dark cast, which wasn’t exactly pleasant in its own right.
“Definitely not. The palace has been blessed by the archdiocese to keep away those creatures. Why? Find something?” Rowan emerged from the staircase.
“Nope. What’s down here anyway?” I got up off my butt and followed Rowan to a rack of torches. He lit one and pointed me towards a hallway that shot off from the room back toward the great hall.
“Most of Wallace’s darker works he acquired. Feels weird talking about him in past tense with you’re standing right here.” Rowan drew up to another door. He took a ring of keys from a pouch at his hip and flipped through the stack until one fit the door lock. Swinging in with a creak, the door revealed a black hole. Popping my head around the frame, I found a series of ruby clear wooden crates, each bearing a gold-painted magic seal. Leaning down, I peered through the crates to see what each contained.
“What am I looking for? Scroll, book? This one’s got a whole human skeleton in it.” I pointed to one box. Rowan paled at the comment.
“Thin book. Dark blue, leather-bound, old.” He crept into the room after me and avoided the chest with the skeleton.
“This one’s got clothes and a book.” I motioned him to one buried under a stack of five chests, all filled with cast iron cooking pots and pans. “Didn’t make this any easier.” I went to try lifting the first of the boxes and found it outrageously heavy.
“Here, matchstick, move.” Rowan pulled me away from the boxes and got the stack disassembled.
“Matchstick?” I scoffed.
“Fits better than Strawman. Remind me to keep you away from the armory.” The paladin extracted the main box in question and set it in front of my feet. “No keyhole?”
“Nope, but there is a mechanism built into it.” I flopped to the slimy stone floor and regarded the complex gear bundle holding down the lid. True to fact, there was no key per se, but a path of colored lines that circled the top of the box that looked like a twisted Tsuro game. “Strawman was your nickname for Wallace?”
Rowan scratched at his neck and grunted a positive reply. “Do you really want to be called Mac? I mean, well. It’s my father’s name, and I think mother will feel weird if I start calling you that.”
I stalled my tracing as the labyrinth distorted on the lid. I had gone down the wrong path. “I thought Mac meant steer nuts?”
“It does, here. Dad wasn’t from here. Neither was mom. They’re from Rusano, about six months ride from here.”
I stalled my contemplation of the enchanted line-lock to study the paladin blatantly. Having been the first face I had encountered, even up to this moment, not having run into maids or other personnel of the castle, I would not have been able to point out if he was distinctly different. Taller than me by a good head and wider in the shoulder didn’t tell me if he came from a land of giants or if he was uniquely-tall. Brooding citrine eyes were not a normal color, but then again, amethyst trees weren’t either. My initial impression of a dark countenance shifted with my observations. It was not that he had dark brown hair shadowing him. It was a black shag falling out of a blue ribbon tie at his neck. Between my hands and his, he was probably a warm beige if I was a ghost. If everyone in the kingdom looked like me with white hair and purple eyes, then it was probably the difference between elves and humans. He blushed under my scrutiny. Shrugging, I turned back to the intricate chest lock. “You’ve probably told Wallace your whole history or at least she knew most of the stories through other information. Is the name a tender topic?”
The paladin sank to a chest to watch me wipe the tile locks back into their jumbled pieces. I stood up and traced the tiles with my eyes this time instead of my fingers, waiting on the labyrinth in my head to turn over. Rowan replied when I started tracing again. “Um. Well. Yeah. Father was your dad, I mean Wallace’s dad’s best friend. He died of a battle wound a few weeks after you were born. Your mom died in childbirth. Somehow this seemed to make sense to the king that he could marry my mom so he would be taking care of his best friend’s wife, and it just seems odd when I have to talk about it. Mom never got over my dad. She took up the title because your dad said he could pay for her health and future that way if she would raise you. Then along came Pricilla.”
“That sucks. That sucks all the way around. You sure it was a battle wound?” I asked.
Glowering, he regarded me under thick brows. “What do you mean by that?”
I shrugged, making it through half the locks this time. “Meh. Enough stories I grew up with. Guy kills his best friend to get his girl or wife. Sounds sketchy to me on first hearing it.”
Rowan rose, crowding my working space. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“No. I don’t. I just have no emotional connection to either of these people. So, coming at the story from a logical point of view, I would question if the king sent your dad into battle just so he could have your mom. If the way some of these monarchical societies work, she probably didn’t own the house she lived in, and she had no job with which to support herself without ending up on the street doing something she’d rather not.” The lock clicked free, and the lid slid sideways.
“He wouldn’t! He’d never…” He sank back to his crate, horror dropping his shoulders as he buried his head into his hands.
“That didn’t take long for you to doubt.” I pulled out a set of cloaks, tunics, and leggings, all in black. Rowan, rendered mute, stared at my feet, blinking here and there with a small shake of his head and a rise of his shoulder as thoughts tumbled around in his brain. Near the bottom of the chest, I extracted the thin little tome. The gilt lettering had worn clean off. What was left behind held minimal clues as to what the title had been once upon a time.
Flipping the binding open, I found worn vellum and hand-sketched illustrations. The script was jagged and hurried; quill splatters and redactions littered the manuscript. I slowed, a sense of foreboding running up my spine. Setting the book away, I went to the clothing, holding up the tunics one by one. They would fit Rowan’s frame with a bit of room. They would swamp me.
“This prophecy, Rowan?” I asked, setting away my assumptions and the tunics to hurry back through the book.
“That prophecy.” He nodded to the book, though his gaze lay fixated on the black linen.
Glancing across the pages, my gut dropped. “Where did this prophecy come from?”
Rubbing one thumb with the other, the man opposite me drew in a breath. “A witch.”
“More, please.” I motioned him to cough up what nerve-racking detail was buried in his chest.
“One that came to my father before he married. She made him write it all down over a week while he was trapped in her hut during a blizzard. That was her exchange for sharing her food and her home.” Rowan turned his focus to the book.
“This is no hero’s prophecy.” I handed it to him. He took it carefully, his thumb sliding into a worn indent.
“It is a prophecy.” He held the book to his chest, inhaling the smell.
“Why did Wallace have this hidden in a chest?” I asked.
“He didn’t. This is Wallace’s storage chamber. I asked him to hold onto my dad’s old chest when mom gave it to me on my fifteenth birthday. Dad used to read the prophecy to me. Then, when he left the last time, he put it away in the box. I haven’t seen it since I was six.” Rowan’s fingers were turning into a death grip on the leather binding.
“I’m not the villain of this story.” I slid the lid of the box back into place and sat down.
“No. I am.” Rowan met my eyes.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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