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Uniting Fire & Storm (chapter 1)

by Alex Cooper 2 months ago in Fantasy
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Sent to a magical place to find the evil sorcerer threatening his sister's life, Prince Ambrose Falla finds himself not only painfully out-of-his-league, but questioning everything he'd ever been taught.

Uniting Fire & Storm (chapter 1)
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Author's note: This is the scrubbed version of a fanfic I'm writing. The fanfic is currently posted on AO3 as well.

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A week at sea and I have never been happier to glimpse solid land. The journey was as rough as I was warned; more than one treacherous storm threatened to capsize the ship, bringing the sea god Poseidon another great offering. Yet the gods must be on our side, for the sun broke through midday and tonight I set my eyes on the peninsula the sailors call the tail of the great beast. It shouldn’t be long before we dock; they said the belly is the safest place to disembark.

I’m uncertain how to feel about the concept of stepping into the belly of Leviathan Island.

Ambrose Falla, 3rd Prince of Fulminare

3:81 Year of the Selkie

The moon sits on the ocean horizon by the time the sailors finish mooring the ship, a cheer rising up from the entire crew at another successful journey across the treacherous seas. The Jade Beauty is as good as they come: top of the line vessel with only the best crew, guaranteed to get to and from Leviathan Island no matter the obstacles. Expensive for sure, nothing a mere commoner could afford without selling everything.

Not that price was an issue. When it came to ensuring the safety of the third prince of Fulminare, only the best ship would do.

Leaning against the gunwale, Ambrose observes the flurry of the crew as they drop the anchor as a safeguard against high winds. They’d done well; he hadn’t sensed an ounce of fear among the lot when the vessel was whipped around like a dog’s chew toy. It had been incredibly vexing to be stuck in a cabin, hearing waves crash against the deck and thunder so loud it threatened to split his eardrums, and be unable to do anything, but his offer to help had been quickly turned down during the first storm. Paid to get me here in one piece, indeed, he thinks, lip curling slightly in disdain. My father, ass that he is, wouldn’t dare take down The Jade Beauty. It would be too dangerous, risking war with the other lands that wish to travel to and from the mysterious island.

War is the last thing the throne needs now. All it would take is one spy to discover their secret, and all would be over.

A loud thump rattles through the boards beneath his feet as the gangplank lowers, the entrance crowded by the many other travelers wishing to disembark and put the nightmare of a trip behind them. In tight groups they walk down the stained wood, some more unsteady than others.

“Prince Ambrose?”

The captain appears next to him; an older man with starch grey hair and bushy brows, he eyes Ambrose warily, stroking his beard. “I thought you’d be first to get off.”

Humming in thought, Ambrose’s eyes drift back to the island. Miles and miles of mangroves, clustered along the rocky shoreline as means to protect the inner portion of the island. Further away from the small port town the rocks shift into sand and the trees thin to showhouse a beautiful beach, the moonlight shimmering along the small waves as they lick at the shore. An ordinary island, at first glance.

But Ambrose knows better than to trust looks alone.

“I’m in no rush to enter such a place,” he answers slowly, choosing each word with care. This man holds his ability to leave on a moment’s notice in his calloused hands. Whether or not he personally has interest in Leviathan Island is unknown, and Ambrose has no desire to burn his only bridge.

With a sagely nod, the captain places his forearms on the wood and gazes at the loading dock. “Aye. Tis a long way from home for ya, yer highness. And to come here from Fulminare, no less. Do ya at least know the name of the fella yer lookin’ for?”

Ambrose shakes his head. “No, I only know he’s threatened vengeance against my kingdom, and I must return with him to ensure it doesn’t take place.”

“Huh.” A pregnant pause ensues before the captain bursts into merry laughter, slapping Ambrose on the back. “Well, good luck to ya, yer highness! Most people here use magic of some sort. Yer gonna be lookin’ for a needle in a haystack.”

What an apt description. “You will remain here for one moon to wait for me, correct?” After an answering nod, Ambrose offers a restrained smile. “Excellent. Til next we meet, Captain.” Lifting his satchel from where it rests near his feet, Ambrose slings it over his shoulder to rest comfortably on his waist. Traveling light had been a must for a journey of this length, especially on his own. Not something his father had been pleased about in the slightest, but Ambrose stands by his argument that coming here with his intent clear to all the inhabitants would have ended in unnecessary bloodshed.

Of course, King Aurick would have had no qualms with butchering the innocents who live here, convinced that all magic is evil and should be eradicated from the world for the good of all. Thankfully his hands remain tied by the peace he’s so carefully cultivated with their allies, and so Ambrose’s request had been granted as a necessary precaution.

He intends to do this as peacefully as possible.

The gangplank rattles underfoot but remains sturdy enough as he makes his way down to the less-cared for wood of the dock, beyond ready to find his footing on solid ground once more. As the 3rd prince, Ambrose enjoyed more leisure time than his elder brothers and thus found joy in the occasional boat ride along the coast, even joining the fishermen at times. The salty air and squawking gulls bring a sense of calmness to him that he’s rarely able to achieve in the castle; at least, not since Wynn was locked away. Once she was taken and visitors restricted, he had to find his peace elsewhere, and the sea had been there for him.

Yet none of that prepared him for this journey. It will take some time for him to want to brave the waters again, though he has no doubt that desire will return.

The small portside city is alight with life even as the moon climbs higher in the sky, lanterns strung high from window to roof. Dancers take to the street, dressed in linens of bright and eye-catching colors. Women in dresses embroidered with intricate designs spin lithely, skirt in hand as they wave it around in an enchanting manner. The men wear long, sleeveless tunics with similar embroidery, their trousers cut off above the knee with no stockings to be found. Both appear to be without shoes, feet stomping against the ground with fierce passion. Music floats through the air, the pleasing sounds of flute, harp, lute, and drums intertwining with one another. Several of the other passengers from the ship have joined in the merrymaking, much to Ambrose’s amusement. Were he any less tired, he might, as well; however, as it stands, the only thing on his list tonight involves finding the softest bed he can buy at the first inn he spots.

Which, conveniently, is only a couple of paces beyond the first group of dancers.

The Leviathan’s Belly Inn & Tavern is full to the brim when Ambrose steps in, both with other travelers and, he guesses, citizens of the town. Little is known about Leviathan Island beyond its reputation as a safe haven for magical folk of all kinds, so most of what Ambrose had learned about it was pure speculation by scholars too intimidated to visit themselves. A simple glance at the different humanoids in this tavern would be enough to back up its reputation, and he finds it hard not to stare at the first pair of horns he sees poking out from under a head of fiery red hair. Despite the fact that he’s far more educated than any of his siblings, the material was very lacking in anything considered magical - he doesn’t think he could name even a third of the different creatures he’s seeing from the corner of his eyes, forcing himself to keep them trained on the bar at the other end of the room. Even the short bartender doesn’t look entirely human, with horse-like ears that protrude from the side of his head and a thick mane of hair barely covering his exposed chest.

Ambrose steps up the bar and takes a seat, waiting for the bartender to finish with a couple on the other end. Curiosity wins and he leans over the bartop enough to catch sight of a horse’s tail attached to a very naked ass, muscular thighs, and -

Heat rushes over his face and he sits back so fast his stool rattles underneath him. Oh. That’s, um. Interesting. Apparently it’s a good thing that the bar goes as high as it does, shielding everyone from a view they likely don’t want. Or do, it’s not Ambrose’s place to judge.

But for such a short guy to have such a large - surely Ambrose didn’t see right. A quick glance to ensure the bartender is still distracted, and he leans forward once more. Just to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.

A laugh next to his ear startles him and he whips around, fist raised in defense. There, sitting in the previously empty spot next to him, sits a young man that looks to be about his own age. Leaning his elbow against the bartop, he props himself up with a fist against his cheek, a blindingly bright smile aimed at Ambrose. Eyes the color of fresh honey sparkle, set against tanned skin and spiked black hair. “You’ve never seen a satyr before, have you?”

Blinking in confusion, Ambrose frowns. “A satyr?”

The stranger jerks his chin toward the bartender, an amused lilt to his voice. “Like Raitun. Human body, horse ears and tail, big dick.”

Ambrose startles once at hearing someone speak so frankly, then a second time as it hits him that he’d been caught looking. “Uh - what? Haha, what are you talking about, I wasn’t, um, I-I-”

With a roaring laugh, the stranger thumps his free hand against the wood. “Sure you weren’t. Don’t worry, I won’t tell. Not that it’ll stop him…” Waggling his eyebrows, the man snickers before pulling a nearly empty mug toward himself.

Before Ambrose can ask what that means, the bartender is in front of him. Forcing himself to swallow past the embarrassment he feels is no small task, but Ambrose manages to do it and puts on his best princely smile. “Hey, I need a room for tonight. The best you have, money is no problem.”

“Aw, sorry handsome, but I’m all booked. They took the last room I had. You can ask around and see if anyone will share a bed with you if you want.”

No, no, that won’t do. Ambrose’s well aware that bed-sharing is a necessity amongst travelers and he might normally suck it up and deal with it, but after the uncomfortable excuse of a bed on the ship he deserves something nicer, damnit. He sucks in a breath. “I’ll pay you twice whatever your highest asking price is.”

A tutting noise comes from beside him, but Ambrose pays it no attention. “Hell, I’ll pay to rent the whole damn inn if that’ll make a difference.”

“Hmm.” The satyr - Raitun - taps his plush lips a moment, thinking. “Well, that would require kicking out people who were better prepared and got here before you. I’ll do it, for the right price.” Splitting into a wide grin that’s some hellish mix between innocent and devilish, he tilts his head down to look up at Ambrose from under long eyelashes. “But I’m not asking for money.”

Ambrose’s brows furrow in confusion. “Then what are you asking for? Jewels? I didn’t bring any with me, but I can arrange for-”

“Not jewels, handsome.” A soft hand lands on his arm, causing Ambrose’s hairs to stand on end. “I saw you looking at me earlier,” Raitun purrs, leaning over the bar to get in Ambrose’s space, pouting when Ambrose leans away. “Did you not like what you saw?”

Ire rushes through Ambrose at the audacity of the proposal. “How dare you!” he seethes, all cold fury and pointed edges, slapping Raitun’s hand off of him. The satyr’s posture changes completely, hunkering down as though preparing for a fight. How pointless. As if you stand a chance against me. Ambrose’s lips curl into a sneer and he stands, the stool falling to the floor with a loud clatter. “You dare to treat me this way? Do you know who I am?”

“Oh, I know who you are, all right.” Mouth pinched and eyes hard, Raitun shows no signs of backing down. “Another rich pretty boy who’s used to always getting his way. Well, that’s not how it works here, so take your money and get out.”

Ambrose’s voice lowers to a growl, easily heard in the suddenly quiet room. “I’m Prince Ambrose Falla of the Kingdom of Fulminare, and you will grant me a room.”

Hushed whispers break out behind him, panic and fear permeating the air.

“A Fulminarian prince? Here?”

“The Fallas wiped out all of our kind from their kingdom a century ago.”

“Are they planning to kill us?”

“I’d like to see them try!”

“Mommy, why is everyone so scared?”

“Well, that was a good idea,” snorts the stranger beside him, and Ambrose whips his head to glare at him, causing him to raise his hands in defeat. “I’m just sayin’, if you want to get something, you probably shouldn’t go around threatening people.”

“Get out.” During the time Ambrose glanced away Raitun retrieved a rather large crossbow, aiming it for Ambrose’s chest. “No prince from that kingdom is welcome here.” When Ambrose doesn’t move, he pulls back the string. “Get out, or die.”

“Whoa, whoa, let’s not-” Pressure against his chest causes Ambrose to glance down, eyes widening in shock to see the stranger pushing himself between him and the satyr. “Let’s not get carried away, eh, Raitun? After all, we don’t know why he’s here, maybe he just wanted to come say hi?” Finishing with a nervous laugh, he reaches forward to gently push the crossbow down.

“Well he can say hi to my arrow,” grumbles Raitun, reaiming the crossbow the moment the stranger lets go.

“Ahaha. Okay, well, that didn’t work.” The stranger gives a soft chuckle, then turns to face Ambrose, scratching the back of his neck as though he’s bargaining for food and not someone’s life. “Hey, my aunt owns an inn in the town on the other side of the river. I can get you a room there. It isn’t far!”

“Really?” Ambrose asks, raising an eyebrow warily. What convenient timing. “How do I know you’re not going to try to kill me like this dickface?”

Raitun grumbles at the insult and cocks the bow further.

“Because if I wanted you dead, I wouldn’t be saving your life right now! Can you please stop insulting the person pointing a crossbow at us?” The stranger hisses, and for the first time the friendliness drops out of his voice. “Now turn around and walk, Raitun won’t shoot us as long as we’re leaving, right, Raitun?”

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Kai…” the satyr mumbles, eyes narrowed at Ambrose. “If I hear any news about you dying-”

“That won’t happen! He’s not going to kill me, right, Ambrose?”

He raises an eyebrow at the casual nature of how his name is said. “As long as you get me to a nice bed, I won’t.”

“See? It’s all good. It’s perfectly fine. Okay, let’s go.” And without waiting for any further comments from either party, the stranger grabs hold of Ambrose’s hand and begins to drag him out of the tavern.

“E-eh? Don’t -” Ambrose attempts to snatch back his hand but is met with equal resistance and an even angrier expression when the stranger flips back around to face him.

“Come on.”

Ambrose follows without any further complaints as he’s roughly pulled out into the humid night air, the discontented grumbles behind him quieting when the door slams shut. Once again he’s assaulted by the cheery music but his eyes linger instead on the slightly shorter man continuing to drag him without pause. He can only assume they’re heading further into town, the buildings morphing from shops and eateries to those of a more domestic design. Each house is built the same yet has a distinctive feel to it, but barring the soft moonlight, there isn’t enough light for him to identify why that is.

They simply feel different, and to say such a thing out loud would land him in the dungeon back home. The Fallas operate on the concrete, the logical, the proven. Anything other is lesser and worthy of ridicule.

They walk in silence until the houses thin out, eventually dropping off entirely to reveal rows and rows of fields filled with all manner of crops - he recognizes the watery makeup of paddy fields in the distance, presumably closer to the river, and maize off to his right. There are many he does not recognize, neither from book nor experience, and most likely not grown in his homeland. I’ll have to ask about the agriculture here. Is the variety due to the nature of magic?

A humorous laugh that’s quickly becoming familiar sounds near his ear. “You’re staring at the crops like they’ve lept from a book of fairy tales. Surely you have similar where you’re from, right?”

Ambrose blinks. “Huh!? Don’t be daft, of course we have crops in Fulminare. Sheesh.” Nose in the air, he huffs in faux annoyance. “If anyone were to not have crops, I’d expect it to be you lot, what with your magic and everything. Probably conjure up whatever you want from air.”

The man beside him laughs again, as though Ambrose said something particularly funny. Raising a brow, Ambrose looks over at him and yanks his hand away - finally remembering the grip around his wrist, which relents easily enough. The action catches the other’s attention, turning his gaze to him, smile falling off his face to be replaced with a small ‘o’. “You’re serious.”

When their eyes meet Ambrose’s breath whooshes out of him in awe. That honey color had been beautiful in the poor lighting from the tavern, yes, but under the moonlight they shimmer like molten gold, swirling around the pupil as though being stirred in a crucible. It is captivating, pulling Ambrose in as sure as a fish on a hook, but also immeasurably terrifying. A reminder that he is far from home in a land of magic, woefully underprepared.

He takes a step to the side, placing more distance between them. “Yeah? Why wouldn’t I be?”

The movement doesn’t go unnoticed by his companion, sadness churning specks of brown in gold, then whisked away as quickly as it came with a sheepish chuckle. “Wow, Ambrose. I thought, since you’re a prince ‘n all, that you’d know magic can’t be used like that.”

“You shouldn’t assume things.” Perhaps that would be a fair assumption about a prince from any other kingdom - particularly the ones that engage in regular trade with Leviathan Island or that have no qualms with the usage of magic - but not his. “Magic is outlawed in Fulminare. There’s no reason to study its uses.” Whether or not that’s truly Ambrose’s opinion on the matter isn’t important at the moment; he’s simply repeating what his father has told him over and over when he’s pressed the subject himself.

“That seems backwards. Kinda stupid, if you ask me.”

Ambrose’s temper flares and he halts, glowering at the other man. “Funny. I don’t recall asking your opinion on the matter!” he snaps, teeth revealed in a snarl and one hand on the hilt of his sword. Perhaps it was a bad idea to follow this weirdo after all, given how he’s not only addressing Ambrose in a borderline offensively casual manner, but also going as far as to insult his homeland. The nerve of it! Gritting his teeth, Ambrose exhales hotly, watching comprehension dawn across the other’s face.

“Oh, no, no, I didn’t mean it like that!” he cries, waving his hands in front of him desperately. “I’m not saying Fulminare is stupid, or that you’re stupid or anything. What I mean is, if you want to make something like magic go extinct, knowing that there’s always gonna be more of it in the world that you can’t touch, wouldn’t it, uh, wouldn’t it make more sense to understand how it works? Cuz if I want to, like, mmm…” Biting his lip, he glances up at the sky, tapping his chin thoughtfully. “It’s like hating math, and wanting to get rid of it because there are now letters in with the numbers and you don’t understand it anymore, but if I did that, then how would I know how many potatoes to grab when Aunt Beca sends me to the market?”

Silence. Ambrose’s hand slowly falls from his sword as he processes, trying to wrap his mind around what, exactly, the point of that mess of a sentence was. “I- what?”

Flustered, the stranger gesticulates wildly. “Math!” he emphasizes, eyes wide and face pleading, as though by begging Ambrose to understand, he’ll somehow absorb the meaning of it all. When Ambrose’s face remains confused, he slaps a hand over his eyes and sighs. “You know? Getting rid of math, but that means I can’t count? So when I have to get five potatoes, maybe I’ll get 2, or 8, or 13!”

It still doesn’t make a lick of sense to Ambrose, but his lip twitches in dry amusement against his will. What kind of idiot is this guy? Get rid of math, pfffft. His posture relaxes a little, the tension that had settled between his scapulae lifting as he realizes this guy really had no intention of insulting him. He’s just stupid. The realization combined with the slump of broad shoulders causes Ambrose to give a soft snicker, and he smirks when a single eye peeks out from behind fingers. “You’re an idiot, you know that?”

“Yeah, so what if I am?” he shoots back, hand falling away to reveal another smile, this one a little less blinding and softened with relief. “Not all of us can be educated like royalty, your majesty.”

Ambrose’s brows raise and he snorts, smirk morphing into a crooked, half-amused grin. “Seriously? The first time you address me properly and you’re gonna use it like an insult?” Maybe he’d overreacted a few moments ago, stressed out by all of the uncertainties and dangers of this quest. This man is clearly harmless. “You’re lucky I don’t cleave your head from your shoulders for that.”

Somehow his empty threat causes the other to burst into a face-splitting grin, bouncing on the balls of his feet like he’s about to bolt. “Nah, I don’t think you’d do that, Ambrosia. You like me too much.”

“I met you mere minutes ago,” Ambrose deadpans, head cocked to the side as he surveys him with new interest. “And that’s not my name.” To be honest, he’s always wanted to have people talk to him as an equal - no more of the pussyfooting, don’t-dare-to-offend-the-prince bullshit he’s put up with since he was but a toddler. Always “prince” this and “your highness” that, no one ever giving their honest opinion or willing to treat him as a child or friend.

Perhaps this is his chance. Here, in a foreign land, where his title means very little - especially to this rowdy commoner.

“How can you be so certain that I like you already? You haven’t even had the base manners to introduce yourself to me,” he continues, keeping his features schooled into as neutral an expression as he can manage.

“I just do. People are easy to read for me.” With a shrug, the stranger’s grin switches to something playful, edged with a sharp dare, eyes sparkling boldly in the night. “Just like I know when I say you can only have a bed if you can keep up with me, you’ll jump at the challenge to prove yourself.” He’s gone before Ambrose can blink, a cloud of black dust trailing him as he disappears into the night.

Cursing under his breath, Ambrose takes off after him, thankful for the light of a nearly-full moon that keeps something of a figure in sight even as the inky blackness attempts to swallow it whole. One thing the Fallas did right was spending massive amounts of time building up the strength of their family’s senses, trying to hone them as much as possible without any type of enhancements. Sight can only work so well, but hearing can be trained and the laughter that tinkles like bells on the wind is easy to follow. Easier than the dust, in fact, and far, far more reliable than the shadows that seem to morph and shift under each passing tree or farmhouse.

The paddy fields grow closer, a meadow blooming between the previous crops and those ahead that sings a soft lullaby as he passes; he dare not spare a glance to see where the sound originates, lest he be enchanted without permission. Would the stranger dare to do something so bold as lead Ambrose into the maw of a monster, effectively ending his journey when it’s barely begun? Of this he is uncertain, but as his shoes slap against the gravel lining the start of rice (he can recognize it now that he’s closer) the song fades and he’s left with only the sound of his heavy breathing, pounding footsteps, racing heartbeat, and that almost maddeningly taunting laughter.

It’s difficult to believe his eyes anymore, despite the fact that the rice stems are familiar and the sky is clear save for a few lazy clouds, moonlight casting a silver glow over the land. Perhaps he’s more tired than he originally thought or maybe it’s magic, but the man in front of him seems to slip in and out of view, phasing away as though never existing before appearing once more, solid. A trick of the eyes is one thing, brought about by simple hand movements or an oddly–shaped branch, but this is more than that. In hindsight, he should’ve assumed the man was magical, too; if the pure fact of his existence on this island wasn’t convincing enough, the ethereal way his irises shimmered sealed the deal.

Ambrose’s lungs burn as he reaches a stone bridge crossing a mid-size river, and oh, how he’s missed the thrill of the hunt, as it were. Maybe this is magic and maybe it isn’t, but he hasn’t chased another person like this since he was a boy - likely around Wynn’s age, if he had to guess. After the coming-of-age ceremony is held, such childish things are no longer permitted, a new expectation to act as an adult would in place and firmly upheld. Ambrose always liked running; he was good at it, and was able to outrun anyone who dared to challenge him. He liked it so much that he swiftly incorporated it into knights’ training once he became their head, insisting that the ability to chase down a flighty opponent was every bit as important as swordsmanship.

So despite whatever sorcery is at hand, he finds himself gaining, slowly but surely, on the other man. Lactic acid builds in his muscles as he pushes them further, harder, reveling in the pleasurable ache that permeates his body. Without even realizing it, a smile spreads over his lips, and as he crosses onto the dirt road on the other side of the bridge, he lets out a whoop of joy.

He receives an answering whoop back, every bit as delighted as he feels.

Buildings appear through the shadows, taller than in the previous town, partially hidden by a grove of trees. The distance between the two of them has dwindled enough that Ambrose can discern that the man is not flickering in and out of existence, but rather, the way he blends with the shadows, sometimes seeming to become an extension of them, lends to that appearance. With a surge of energy he sprints forward, barely a man’s width separating them.

Glancing back over his shoulder, the stranger laughs, low voice carrying a note of smugness. “See? I was right! Can you catch me before we hit the town, though~?”

“I’ll pass you before we cross its threshold,” Ambrose shouts back, confident in his abilities. “And then you shall know how much you sorely underestimated me!”

“I didn’t underestimate anything!” Another laugh, and he picks up in speed, almost like he’d had it on reserve for the final stretch. “I knew you’d like a challenge, so I gave you one!”

This is… fun. It shouldn’t be, Ambrose should not be having any type of fun at all right now and yet, inexplicably, he is. “This? A challenge?” Steadying his breath, Ambrose taps into his own reserve - a place within that always holds warmth and strength, something he can draw on in moments of dire need. Up until now, that’s the only time he’s ever dared pull energy from there, because while it always replenishes, it depletes quickly.

He reckons he can allow one foolish usage of it, and mentally dives deep.

Heat floods through his body like lava rolling out of a volcano top, his increase in speed every bit as explosive. Uncontrolled and wild, it surrounds his muscles, seeping into them until he’s running so fast that the trees in the grove begin to blur in the corners of his eyes. His feet feel like they’re made of air, light and fluid, moved by the wind itself.

Soon they’re shoulder to shoulder, big eyes staring at Ambrose with wonder. “Well, I’ll be a fish on land,” the other says with a howling laugh even as Ambrose passes him, bouncing like a crazed rabbit before he’s no longer within eyeshot without Ambrose turning his head to look at him.

For a few breaths, at least, but then he appears next to Ambrose once more, albeit a hair behind him. “I’m Kai, by the way. Kai Hughes.” Exertion finally seems to be catching up to him, the moonlight filtering in between the leaves to show a ruddier complexion than earlier. “Not a prince of anything, but I am a member of the council on this island if that counts?” he offers breathlessly, showing no signs of slowing down as they approach the archway signifying the entry to the town.

“Oh?” Rolling his eyes, Ambrose keeps his pace, not wanting to back down unless given no choice. “You think that might have been beneficial to mention earlier? Like at the tavern when I was almost shot in cold blood?”

Kai shakes his head, lips curled into that smile he must sport all the time. “Nope! I had to test you first.”

“Test me?”

“Yep! And you passed, Am~bro~sia~!” he sing-songs, bursting into the town with nary a thought to the flock of chickens that scatter, squawking loudly in complaint as they pass. “Race you to my aunt’s inn!”

“You idiot!” Despite his words Ambrose is wearing a matching grin, his own eyes flashing with the challenge. “I already beat you to the town, and you’re asking for more? What are you, stupid?”

“Sure am!”

—---------------

Moments after they burst through the gnarled wooden door to the Evergreen Inn, Ambrose realizes his mistake. Crowing with the assuredness of a victor, he skids to a smooth stop before smashing sidelong into a table - the same can’t be said for Kai, who slams into it with his thigh and lets out a loud howl of pain - turning to face the other, hands on his hips and leaning forward, smirking. “That’s what you get for challenging a prince,” he snarks, halfway to reaching out to flick Kai’s forehead before pulling his hand back in (too familiar, he only does that to his closest, most trusted people. He can’t do that to someone he just met!). “Dummy.”

“Aw, be nice!” Kai whines, aggressively rubbing the side of his leg, lip pushed out into a pout. “You didn’t win by much! If I hadn’t slipped on that spilt water-”

“You still would’ve lost!” Letting out a cackle, Ambrose throws his head back in glee. The adrenaline rushing through his veins has him trembling, a fact he hides by clutching his hips harder. “Oh, gods above, that was fun! I haven’t had anyone truly challenge me in years.”

The pout melts off of Kai’s face, the familiar tilt of a smile beginning to bloom. “Really? Well, I-”

“Kai Hughes, what do you think you’re doing!?”

Ambrose stiffens at the hiss of a soft, angry voice, watching as Kai’s eyes go wide with guilt before shrinking into himself, arms behind his back and kicking abashedly at the stone floor. A young woman - surely not much older than his eldest brother - with bright red hair plaited from the base of her skull and tied together along the hairline above her brow appears behind the bar. Working class, he realizes, the style one he’s seen among many of the servants of the castle and the commoners around the kingdom. Large brown eyes in a shape he’s seen before - Kai’s - scowl past him, narrowed threateningly on Kai.

He takes a step back to reveal Kai in his entirety, an action that elicits a whine from the other.

Rounding the bar, she snatches up a broom that had been leaning harmlessly against the wall and brandishes in front of her like a sword. “It is late and there are people sleeping!” Crossing the room in mere breaths, she proceeds to smack Kai in the back of the head, appearing to hold nothing back from the thwack! that echoes through the empty room and the yelp Kai gives. “Yet in you barge like a feral wulver prepared to rip out the hearts of unwitting victims!”

“That’s just a superstition-”

“It’s going to be a miracle if no one complains tonight-”

“Wulvers are actually really kind and misunderstood-”

Thwack!

Ambrose flinches as another smack is given, Kai’s mouth snapping shut as he rubs the back of his head with a whimper.

“Do you think that now is the appropriate time to lecture me on the supposed way the wulvers are misunderstood!?” the woman seethes, nostrils flaring. Kai mumbles an apology under his breath, and it’s such a stark contrast from his earlier boisterous manner that Ambrose can’t help letting out a little chuckle.

A mistake, as the woman whirls around to face him now and he snaps to attention, posture straight and rigid under the weight of her vitriol.

“And you!” Jabbing his chest with the broom handle, she storms closer to him before replacing the wood with a finger. “You’re every bit as bad as him! What would your parents think about your abhorrent lack of manners?”

Oh, that is not a concept Ambrose cares to think about right now. The entirety of the past few minutes would land him with a flogging, starting with the race and ending with the raucous jeering and laughter after they’d entered the building.

A flogging at the least, depending on who would be carrying out the discipline. If he were unlucky he’d end up with Bryson, and there’s little His Royal Pigginess enjoys more than finding new ways to make Ambrose’s punishment as unpleasant as possible.

“Don’t think I can’t tell you’re highborn,” the woman continues, bringing him back to the current, very real threat in front of him. “The embroidery on your brigantine is delicate and precise, and your leather is of high quality. There is no excuse for your behavior.” Her eyes move to settle on Kai once more, who visibly shrinks back. “Either of you.”

Ambrose dips his head respectfully. “My humblest apologies,” he offers, reaching out to gently grasp her wrist and placing a kiss on top of her hand - as he was taught to do, though not usually for commoners. He has a feeling, though, if she is able to address Kai as such and Kai is a member of the council that she is no mere commoner. Instantly her facial expression shifts to one of ill-disguised shock, eyes widening as her cheeks darken. “Please allow me to make amends. You’re too correct, such behavior is not befitting someone of my status.” Releasing her wrist, he places one arm in front of him and one behind, both tucked tightly to his body, and gives her a bow befitting of a king. “I humbly ask for your forgiveness, milady…?”

“Beca,” she breathes, and he smirks at the ground at the abrupt shift of her tone. “You can call me Beca. There’s no need to-”

“Lady Beca, pardon the interruption, but there is every need for me to apologize.” Ambrose straightens up and shifts into the type of stance that was drilled into his head from the time he was a child standing by his father and big brothers’ sides: feet shoulder width apart, shoulders back, chin tucked, spine straight, arms held behind his back. “I’m afraid I’ve already made a poor impression on many of the islanders, and if not for sir Kai’s intervention-” It doesn’t escape his notice at the way Kai starts at being addressed as such, expression such a mirror of Beca’s that it’s clear they’re related in some manner (perhaps this is his aunt?, he wonders). “I may have had to pass the night in the stables. If this is the inn he was referencing, then would it be too bold of me to assume that you must be the lovely lady in charge?”

The question seems to bring Beca back to her senses and she inhales deeply before smiling - a bright thing that penetrates deep in her face - warmly and gesturing him over to the bar with her. “Yes, this is my inn, where my nephew and I both live. Although he’s usually off galavanting around doing who-knows-what.” She slips behind the bar and pulls out an old but well-kept tome, flipping it open to about ¾ of the way through. “I’m not as busy as the inn at the dock on the first night after the ship arrives since we’re further inland, so there are plenty of rooms available. I’m also a more meticulous bookkeeper than Raitun,” she adds with a laugh, grabbing a quill from under the tabletop. “What is your name, sir?”

He’ll skip where he’s from this time and hopefully it’ll go over smoother. “Thank you for your kindness, milady. I’ll take the best room you have available. I’m Ambrose Fa-“

“Ambrose!” Kai bursts out, abruptly cutting him off and earning confused looks from both the other two. “His name is Ambrose, isn’t that such a cool name, Aunt Beca? I’ve never heard one like that before!” Springing to life, he dashes over to them, waiting until Beca glances back at her book before shaking his head vehemently.

Ambrose’s brow furrows. He doesn’t want me to say my surname? Why?

“The Fallas wiped out all of our kind from their kingdom a century ago.”

Cringing, Ambrose gives a discreet nod. Right. Maybe a good plan.

“Ambrose,” Beca repeats, already scratching away at the paper. “That is a unique name. Not like any I’ve heard before.” With a final embellished scribble she sets the quill down and disappears under the countertop, resurfacing breaths later with a key. “Here you are, sir. Room 12, second floor. Kai can show you there and help you get settled in.” Shutting the book, she slides it back where it came from and leans on the counter with an easy smile. “Welcome to Evergreen Inn, Ambrose. Leave any clothes you’d like washed in the basket next to your door, I’ll be around to grab them when the sun rises. If you’d like, I can have one of my girls draw you a hot bath in the morning when you wake.”

“That would be lovely,” Ambrose says, barely keeping himself from swooning at the idea of a hot bath. “I feel like the grime from the journey here has settled into my skin.”

Beca’s laugh is light and airy, so unlike her anger from earlier. “The sea does have that effect on a person.”

Fishing out some gold from his pack, Ambrose slaps an amount down that he’s sure is far more than the room is worth. Judging from the way both Beca’s and Kai’s eyes bulge, he’s correct. Before they can object, he pushes it toward Beca. “Please, keep it. I insist. Consider it a thank you for all you’ve done for me.”

She nods her head humbly, gesturing at Kai. “Thank you so much, sir. Kai, show him to his room, please.”

“Yeah! Come on, Ambrose!” Kai cries, already latching onto Ambrose’s wrist to drag him toward a door in the back of the room.

Rather than waste what little energy he has left fighting it, Ambrose resigns himself to Kai’s overly-excited way of dragging him around, amused. “Do you have no concept of personal space?” he asks, brow raised they tromp through the archway separating the tavern from the rooms, veering left toward wooden steps.

“Nope!” Kai chirps, squeezing Ambrose’s wrist as he tosses him a smile. “You can stop talking all fancy now, you know. Aunt Beca’s not here.”

Ambrose lets out a soft huff of laughter. “Fancy? This is the way I was taught to speak. How else should I?”

“Like you were before!” Flapping his free hand about, Kai hops from the last stair to the landing. “You still were more, um, what’s the word… refined, but you didn’t sound like you are, er…”

“Royalty?” Ambrose fills in with a chuckle, finding Kai’s inability to come up with descriptors somewhat charming in itself. It earns him a beam and an enthusiastic nod before he’s swiftly tugged down the hallway.

“Exactly! Like you’re a prince or something.”

“...Kai, I am a prince.”

“Well, yeah, obviously!” Sheepishly scratching at the back of his neck, Kai offers him another smile, eyes half-closed from its width. “But you didn’t sound like one when we were having fun!” He halts abruptly and raps on the plain door in front of them. “Here we are! One room for the prince.”

For a moment they stand there, staring at each other, before Ambrose realizes he’s the one holding the keys. “Ah, right.” Fitting it into the slot, he turns it and pushes open the door, surprised at the lack of a creak from the hinges. It’s a fairly simple room, but the bed is large enough to hold several people and looks to be made of something much softer than straw. Off to the side is a large washbin and a set of what look to be towels and washing supplies. A chest of drawers sits against the wall, boasting far more room than what he needs - but he appreciates it, nonetheless. “This is a much nicer room than I expected,” he comments, crossing the threshold and touching the blankets. Soft.

“Aunt Beca’s got the nicest inn on the island!” Kai crows, chest thrust out and eyes sparkling. “A lot of upper class visitors choose to stay here so she does her best to make it comfortable.”

“She does well.”

Kai continues to stand in the doorway, smiling, watching as Ambrose pulls his bag over his head and sets it down. Even as Ambrose begins to loosen his brigantine he remains, pleased as anything - though why, Ambrose has no idea.

“Do you need anything more from me?” Ambrose asks with a raised brow, pulling the leather armor off and setting it delicately on the bed. “Or may I sleep?”

With a soft jerk of surprise, Kai laughs awkwardly and scratches at his neck (a habit, it seems). “Oh, woops, sorry! I’ll let you settle in. Let us know if you need anything! Our rooms are behind the bar,” he helpfully offers. Grasping the metal door handle, he shuts it about halfway before pausing. “Goodnight, Ambrosia.”

“Not my name.” Odd. Does he treat all guests like this? “Goodnight, Kai.”

Then the door clicks shut, light footsteps fading down the hall, leaving Ambrose to himself at long last. He wastes no time in stripping down to his breeches, the night air warm. Rifling through the few changes he brought, he selects something for in the morning and drops the rest in the laundry basket by the door, as instructed. Whether or not he remains at this inn is yet to be seen, so he’ll take advantage of its amenities while he can.

The window is barred shut, but he’s used to sleeping with his open - to the protest of his family, of course. Danger, danger, danger, blah blah - he can take care of himself well enough he’s unfazed by the prospect of any potential assassin. But this isn’t home, and so he considers the window thoughtfully. If the concern behind open windows is one of safety, would it truly matter here? Spells are unhindered by such materials as wood (or so he thinks, though his confidence in that is shaken from Kai’s comment earlier), so what difference would it make if he has it open or shut?

He opens it, the soft night breeze blowing in to ruffle his silver hair like a friend might. Scents of some floral variety float in with it, along with the chirping of insects.

This’ll do. This’ll do plenty.

It isn’t long before he drifts off into slumber.

Fantasy

About the author

Alex Cooper

Hi! I spent much of my childhood telling myself stories while walking in the woods behind my grandparents' house. So naturally, here I am 20 years later and finally doing my best to catalogue those stories somewhere. Single parent badass.

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