“One hundred and forty-three: do not try to avert prophecy, fulfil prophecy or in any way tinker with prophecy. Swallowing poison will lead to a quicker death and less ironic horror inflicted upon Creation.”
– “Two Hundred Heroic Axioms”, author unknown
Kairos was twelve years old and he had less than a year to live.
That was what he’d learned today, going down to the crypt even though he had been forbidden to by the king. The… thing in the tomb had spoken its prophecy in a croaky whisper, that he would not make it to his thirteenth nameday. He wished he could say he was surprised, but had anything ever been more obvious? He’d been born frail, with a dead eye and limbs that shook. Ripped from his mother’s womb too early when her pregnancy had turned sour and she’d begun withering like grapes on the vine. The priests and the mages had said he wouldn’t survive his first winter and his father had washed his hands of the matter, putting him in a distant wing of the palace and drinking all thought of the matter away. But Kairos was still dragging his crippled hide around the city to this day, a prince of the blood no one would look in the eye. Royal or not, he was a pariah. Misfortune had touched him young and never let go, they said. Bad seed. That was what happened when kings wed commoners, even for love.
The odd-eyed child closed the door after dismissing the servant, kneeling with shaking legs by the bowl. Dipping a cloth in the warm water, he wiped away the dust and dirt from his face before resting his head on the table. Kairos exhaled, his breath unsteady. His lungs had not been entirely formed when he’d been born, the priests told him. It was why sometimes he choked on his own spit, clawing at his throat until a God as cruel as it was merciful returned his breath to him. Those same priests urged him to entrust his life to the Gods Above, to seek relief in the life after this one. Until then, he should find solace in prayer and good deeds: those would not soothe his body, but they would wash away his sins. They never said exactly what sin he had committed. Presumably being born was bad enough there was no need to belabour the matter. The cripple laughed quietly, though a rasping cough killed the mirth halfway through. His knees felt like they were swelling already, but he stayed kneeling.
He clasped his hands and tried to clear his mind, to let the words of the House of Light fill it. Nothing came. Staring down into the bowl, Kairos sighed.
“I am trying,” he told the Heavens,” to find a reason to worship you. Any reason at all.”
His distorted reflection stared back, the blood-filled dead eye made even more monstrous by the water.
“There’s a place beyond the Heavens where righteous souls go, your people tell me,” he said. “A paradise of sorts, from which no one has ever returned. A reward for those who embrace the seventeen cardinal virtues while living out their allotted time on Creation.”
Idly, he flicked the side of the bowl. His kneecaps throbbed painfully but Kairos was no stranger to pain. It was an old friend, the teacher that had reared him from the cradle and followed him in every misshapen step he took. The water rippled, turning his reflection from ugly to abstract.
“It has tempted me, on occasion,” he said. “The thought of a place without suffering. I have to wonder, though – what would I even do there?”
“Sing your praises, rejoice with all the other worthy souls?” he said. “Tell me, o Gods Above – what should I praise you for?”
Silence answered him. It always did. Even in the heart of the House of Light, where Dorian said he could almost hear the singing of the Choirs, he was given only silence. Even the Heavens played favourites. Hesitant knocks at the door roused him from his thoughts.
“Enter,” the child said.
A servant, head shaved as was tradition and in white robes that hid their gender, knelt by the open door.
“Prince Kairos,” they said. “The king sends for you.”
The cripple shakily rose to his feet, leaning heavily against the table.
“I am feeling ill,” he replied. “Tell my father I am unable to attend him.”
Two men came by the doorway, decked in the ornate bronze armour of the palace guard. Had their swords ever seen any use, Kairos wondered? Doubtful. All the real soldiers went into the army.
“The king insists, my prince,” one of them said.
“Does he, now?” the cripple said. “I’ll spare all of us the indignity of you getting me there slung over your shoulder.”
Knees throbbing, Kairos followed them into the corridors. The servant stayed kneeling until he was gone. The walk was long, by his standards, and made worse by his exertions of the day. His chambers were in the oldest part of the palace, the one that had once been the heart of the fortress when Helike was little more than a castle with huts around it, but this section was all marble and gold. Frescoes of kings and Tyrants spread colourfully along the walls, all depicting the many victories of the city’s warlike rulers. That never ceased to amuse him. His father had never wielded a sword in his life, or even ridden a horse. The few skirmishes with Stygia and Atalante that had taken place in his lifetime had been overseen by one of the many generals cluttering the palace, which while blatant parasites at least knew their way around a battlefield. The line of Theodosius was sinking further down the wine barrel every year.
They did not head for the Great Hall. While it was the place where audiences such as this should take place, the king rarely left his parlour unless he had to. The place had grown when the adjoining chambers had seen their walls knocked down to make room for more seats and a direct route to both the cellars and the palace kitchen. What little business was still conducted by Helike’s royal line instead of being tossed into the hands of councillors happened there, more often than not. Kairos had only ever stepped foot into the room a handful of times. He was not invited to the courtly games and drinking binges that took place behind those doors. He would not have attended even if he had been: there were few things fouler to look at than a man deep in his cups. The obnoxious laughter always made him think thoughts the Heavens would frown upon.
The guards were still flanking him when he limped into the parlour. The room was half-full, which still meant almost a hundred people. The King of Helike was on a long couch full of cushions and courtesans, a cup of wine in hand and chuckling as he fed one a piece of honeyed plum. The sexagenarian had kept a full head of hair, though gone white, and his face still kept the remains of the handsomeness of his youth. For a man who spent most of his time feasting, he was not all that fat. His face was red, though. Wine took its toll. The rest of the parlour was arranged in a half-circle of couches all turned towards the free space in the centre. Usually, it was filled with dancers, musicians and other performers but today all it had to offer was Kairos’ crippled form. A disappointment, no doubt. The couches closest to the king were filled with sycophants and nobles, but the wings of the half-circle on both sides effectively made up the heart of Helike’s ruling class. To the left, the most powerful nobles and the most influential generals formed a sober and uncomfortable cluster. All of them were looking at him.
To the right were Dorian and his cronies. Many were sons and daughters to the very same people across them, but there were others. Priests, even a member of the Order of the Righteous Spear. The heir to Helike himself looked like a living statue. Perfect pale skin unmarred by his hours in the sun, long flowing golden locks that cascaded down his shoulders. Kairos’ nephew had that peculiar sort of vanity where he refused to style himself, preferring to awe people with his natural good looks. The other prince was tall and perfectly proportioned, talented with a sword and lance. A famed horseman and promising commander, fair-handed in all things and an orator of talent. That hadn’t stopped Dorian’s father from drunkenly slipping in the baths and breaking his neck, of course. It used to take half a continent to put us down, Kairos thought with disgust. Now all it takes is a wet tile. The golden-haired prince smiled encouragingly in his uncle’s direction. The cripple looked away, limping his way to the couch where the king was finally deigning to notice his presence.
“Kairos,” King Agrius Theodosian greeted him flatly. “You made me wait.”
“The shaking of my legs does not bow to decrees,” the prince said.
He did not manage to thread as much apology in that as he should have.
“Neither does your head, boy,” the king barked. “I forbade you to go into the crypt. Do you deny you disobeyed me?”
“Grandfather,” Dorian spoke up. “My uncle is obviously feeling ill. Perhaps this matter could be settled another day?”
Kairos eyed his hand, which was shaking like a leaf. Not, though, out of fear. How strange. When he’d woken this morning, he had been already flinching at the thought of his father’s displeasure. Now, looking at the fury painted over the king’s face, he could think of only one thing: what are you going to do, Father? Kill me before I die? The prince closed his hand, tucked it under his tunic where it could not be seen trembling.
“I do not,” he said. “Deny it, that is.”
Some part of him wondered if he should have thought this through. Found an excuse, cooked up a scheme to shield him from the king’s anger. He hadn’t though. He didn’t even have a reason for admitting to this. Just morbid curiosity.
“You disobeyed a royal decree,” King Agrius growled. “That is treason.”
“I suppose it is,” Kairos mused. “How tawdry of me, if you’ll forgive my language. Still, I’m surprised you only sent for me now. I left the crypt before dawn came. Were you too drunk until now to hear the report?”
The silence in the room was deafening. Not a single person even dared to breathe.
“Are you mocking me, cripple?” his father spat.
“Obviously,” the prince replied. “I did try to make it blatant, for your sake.”
“I could have you killed for this,” the king said, looking almost sober now.
Though no less furious, evidently.
“It will spare me the walk back to my chambers, at least,” Kairos said. “By all means, get on with it.”
The was a ripple in the parlour, though his words were not the cause of it. Dorian made his way to his side, graceful even in haste, and knelt as a supplicant.
“Grandfather,” he said. “My uncle is delirious with pain, that is the only explication for his words. I implore you, do not make this decision in anger.”
The king looked at his precious golden grandson humbling himself against marble and hesitated. How proud you are, nephew, even on your knees, Kairos thought. The cripple limped to the closest table and snatched a cup of wine, pouring it out before casually tossing it at the other prince. The bronze made a delightful little bonk as it hit the back of his head before rolling on the floor.
“Get up, Dorian,” Kairos said. “Your wretched pity is the worst indignity I’ve been subjected to today.”
Surprise and irritation flickered across that perfect face and Dorian turned towards him. The odd-eyed child drank in the sight of it. It as like finally drinking cool water after years of being parched.
“Uncle-“ he began.
“You are more platitude than man,” Kairos said. “I want no part of what you peddle.”
“You’ve gone mad, boy,” the king said, sounding horrified.
Slowly, the odd-eyed child took out the hand he’d slipped into his tunic. It was, he saw, no longer shaking. He wondered if there was a meaning in that.
“Guards, take him to his quarters,” King Agrius ordered. “Prince Kairos is under house arrest until I decree otherwise.”
The men pulled him away roughly under the stares of the entire court, as he continued thoughtfully looking at his hand.
His sleep was dreamless and his hours empty. The apothecaries tried to shove half a dozen different remedies down his throat, but he flatly refused to have anything to do with them. He was going to die, soon enough. What little time he had left would not be spent moving from one daze to another. His first visitor was, naturally, Dorian. It was midmorning after he was first put under arrest that the heir to Helike came, followed by that androgynous fanatic of his. The daughter of a fairly prominent noble, he remembered, though he could not recall her name. Slender and short-haired, and the way she could have been either a boy or a girl branded her a servant in his eyes. In Helike it was only they who made a point of surrendering the more obvious trappings of gender. Still, it hardly mattered since she herself hardly mattered. The girl hovered by the entrance when her master entered, leaving only reluctantly when he dismissed her and closed the door. Kairos would give it decent odds she was waiting outside in the corridor.
“Good morning, Uncle,” Dorian greeted him, taking the seat across his. “Has your health improved?”
The odd-eyed child put down the cup of water he’d been drinking on the table, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
“I am twelve years old, and I can tell that girl is in love with you,” Kairos said, wrinkling his nose as he ignored the greeting.
“Semia is a dear friend,” Dorian replied. “Put no stock in rumours.”
“Your kindness is worse than cruelty, nephew,” the cripple said.
The golden prince flinched, then mastered himself.
“I’ve been talking to grandfather,” he said. “Your arrest will be revoked soon.”
The odd-eyed child raised an eyebrow.
“Why?” he asked.
“Traditionally, all of royal blood are allowed-“ Dorian began.
“I mean why did you talk to Father?” Kairos interrupted.
The man looked surprised.
“You are my uncle,” he said. “I would not see you punished this way.”
“You don’t love me, Dorian,” the cripple said.
“We’re family,” the prince replied, almost offended.
“So you feel guilt, and go through the motions regardless,” Kairos said. “I must admit I find that rather disgusting, if you’ll forgive my language.”
The heir to Helike looked irritated, then his face softened.
“I understand you’re in pain, Kairos,” he said. “And frustrated. You’ve been mistreated ever since you could walk. Grandfather is not the man he used to be, and how you’ve been treated was… ill-done. It will be different, when I rule. You will not have to be alone anymore.”
“No one has ever disliked you before, have they Dorian?” the child said, cocking his head to the side. “Not to your face, at least.”
“I want to help you, uncle,” the golden-haired man said earnestly.
“It’s not because you’re beautiful, you know,” Kairos said. “Or even because so many people love you while they despise the sight of me. It’s because you’re hollow.”
“Pardon?” the other prince said.
“You’re not a person, Dorian,” the child said. “All you are is an object, moving according to rules not your own. You don’t want anything for yourself.”
“It is the duty of a ruler to sublimate their selfish desires for the good of his people,” the prince replied quietly.
“I am going to die,” Kairos smiled. “Sometime soon, I am told. And yet, just with the few moments yesterday in that parlour, I’ll have been alive longer than you will be throughout your entire life.”
“I made a choice, uncle,” Dorian said. “I’ve been given so many gifts, I owe it to Creation to use them for the sake of others.”
“We don’t owe anyone anything,” Kairos said.
And in that moment, the words coming out of his mouth without thought, he finally understood it all. There was a trap and there was bait. Live according to our rules, the Heavens said. Toil and struggle and die, fritter away your days and you will be rewarded after death. It doesn’t matter what comes after. Only now. All we are is what we do. And if you let Gods decided that for you, you’re not anyone at all.
“I always admired it, you know,” his nephew said. “The way you kept going to the House of Light even if you never got anything from it. Not like I do. It doesn’t matter if they say you were born bad, Kairos. You’re trying, that’s what matters.”
Dorian leaned forward.
“We are what we do.”
“Yes,” the boy who would be the Tyrant smiled. “I couldn’t agree more.”
When the nobles and the generals came that night, cloaked and bearing treason in their eyes, he was still smiling.