The first time I saw him, he was golden.
He was wearing a golden crown inset with rubies that sparkled in the palace light, and a gold-threaded red cloak as he ascended the throne at the age of thirteen. Prince of the Highlands. Prince of my opposition.
Mother and Father made me attend the ceremony. They said it was the polite thing to do. The honorable thing, even though he had not attended my own crowning seven months earlier – my parents said he was out of the kingdom visiting family in Olin. As a prince myself, I should shake his hand and congratulate him. I should offer my respect and my alliance. And so I stood at the front of the fawning crowd as Prince Hadrian was crowned, smiling over his people, looking much older and more mature than his thirteen years. I suppose I had looked much the same way when I was crowned. All princes were taught to look older than they were.
We had never met before this, although we had heard of each other. He was Prince of the Highlands, I of the Lowlands; our neighboring kingdoms had been caught between war and civility with each other for centuries. At the moment of his crowning, we were in an era of alliance. My father hoped for it to stay that way, and so we were here as a gesture of peace and goodwill.
When the ceremony was finished and the court and the kingdom folk had returned to their daily schedules, the palace emptied of gentry and nobility, my family stepped forward. Our herald introduced us to the Highland royal family, though we needed no introductions. King Leotholdus and Queen Hildegard knew my parents well.
“Lady Mara,” Queen Hildegard embraced my mother welcomingly and bowed to my father. “Lord Altair. And young Prince Thomas.” She smiled kindly at me, though I did not smile back. I was too busy staring at the other prince, who was staring back at me. “We are honored to have you in our halls.”
“We are honored to have received an invitation to the ceremony,” my father spoke warmly. “Leotholdus, you must be quite proud. Your son fits the crown well.” The crown never fit the prince; the prince was always bred to fit the crown.
“Indeed he does.” Leotholdus nodded, staring at his son with pride. His eyes shone. Prince Hadrian bowed to my father, tearing his gaze away from me.
“Lord Altair,” he said, in a voice that was deeper than I expected. “I am pleased you could attend my crowning. You as well, Lady Mara. It is an honor to finally meet you both.” He turned his eyes back to me almost immediately. They were a shocking color, like the Erebus River under ice in winter. His hair was lighter than mine; where mine was black and dark as Lowland soil, his was a warm shade of autumn. I thought of the golden brown leaves on the trees in the Forest of Eller.
“Prince Thomas.” He said my name slowly, as if it felt strange to taste it on his tongue. We were strangers to each other, after all. He bowed to me, and I nodded my head silently. “You are welcome here. I thank you for coming.”
My mother nudged me gently from behind; she wanted me to say something.
“Yes,” I said. I cleared my throat and composed myself. “I am humbled to be in your presence, Prince Hadrian.”
“Tonight we will hold a feast in honor of my son’s crowning,” Leotholdus announced. “We wish you all to be the guests of honor.”
My parents accepted the invitation gratefully. I was less articulate in my gratitude. I knew I was being rude, but I could not stop staring at the other prince. He looked at me oddly, just as he had said my name. Perhaps it was because we had not met before – aside from the moment of his birth, when I was nothing but a seven-month-old baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, this was the first time we had come face to face. As princes of neighboring kingdoms, we were meant to be enemies and allies both. It depended on which way the tide would turn as we grew older. With every second generation of rulers, there was a new war – it was fated, prophesied by the Highest more than six centuries ago. Our grandparents’ armies had fought a bloody battle before us in an era of violence; our parents were lucky enough to rule in a time of peace. But we would not be so fortunate. One day, we would cross swords on the battlefield as enemies of war. It was the curse of our kingdoms.
My parents were hopeful that we could break the cycle.
I did not know why they thought they could defy a prophecy by the gods.