1. To a reader who may or may not exist:
Among other things I was blessed with superior wisdom when I was two weeks old, which, I suppose, is how I remember the fiasco that occurred at my christening party.
It all began innocuously enough. My parents had invited nearly everyone their invitations would reach, and countless guests crowded into the enormous cathedral. Faces peered curiously down at me from the balconies, the clamor of their voices filling my ears. I lay swaddled in a crib on the dais with my parents, various important people I have no interest in recalling, and the three visiting sages who had come from allied peoples to bestow blessings. Flanking the dais stood the Royal Guard, supposedly sworn to protect my defenseless infant self from any catastrophic events.
As for the actual christening, I am told I wailed very loudly while it was happening. While I do have my young age and total incomprehension as an excuse, the unfortunate onlookers must have suffered lengthily through my loud cries.
Yet in general, things went quite as planned. I shall recount to you events starting from the exact moment things began to go awry.
And that was when a total stranger approached my crib.
"Greetings to all of you on this fine winter morning. My name is Alfonso!" a young man announced. By way of introduction, he was one of the two total strangers the Royal Guard allowed to approach my crib within the span of five minutes.
"I am the humble apprentice of the great Catalina of Navarre," he continued. "Please, allow me to bestow a blessing."
He furrowed his brow and stared at me. I was probably doing uselessly baby activities at this point, like drooling or examining my own feet. Meanwhile, I imagine the three visiting sages probably exchanged looks of anxiety.
"This prince," Alfonso began dramatically, "will possess a vast pool of vital energy that can be used to influence the very fabric of reality. Within him will lie an unstoppable reservoir of magical potential that can be used, for good or for ill. Here lies a baby that can determine the fate of entire nations!"
Cacophonous applause fairly shook the cathedral, and people began throwing silver coins at Alfonso's feet and chanting his name. Typical gifts at christenings include a good singing voice, or slightly improved swordsmanship, or unusually good balance. Meanwhile, it sounded as if this mere apprentice had made me into a sage of the highest order, a magic user beyond compare.
It was ingenious, really, how everyone was hoodwinked.
Nothing he said was a lie: like all sentient beings I did have a vast pool of vital energy, which could be used for good or ill. And it was possible, given my position as crown prince during a time of war with the northern Republic, that I could determine the fate of entire nations. Certainly, I will have much more to say about Alfonso and his motives later.
All eyes fell on Catalina of Navarre in wonderment; if her apprentice was capable of such gifts, the onlookers must have thought, what kind of blessings would she give?
So the red-gowned sage raised her hands and put on an air of concentration; gestures in magic are mostly for show, but still the crowd quieted. I am told there was a long, confused moment of silence while everyone wondered what was happening. Then, apparently, I began to wail very loudly.
"It is done," she said simply, while I screamed in the background.
"What's done?" my mother asked, a little too sharply.
"The boy will be able to obliterate entire armies," Catalina of Navarre said, with all the nonchalance of one who wanted to prove that this was mere child's play. "He will be the strongest sorcerer alive."
Later she would tell me she felt faint for several days after this moment of utter pettiness—although it did grant her some considerable renown amongst her fellow sages and recognition to her workshop.
I can fairly imagine the second sage gritting his teeth in the corner while this was happening. He was in significant danger of being vastly outclassed here.
"Well!" he announced, striding forward and opening his arms to the crowd. "It is I, Vlad from Mazovia! Fear not, for I have come to bless your crown prince with the grandest gift of all; he shall become one of the most handsome men to grace this earth! The unimaginably perfect grace and charisma he carries will be told throughout legends."
I have largely this spell to thank for my looks. I also wish it had never been cast.
The third sage, Dihya of the Tuareg, is usually the most levelheaded of the three, but it seemed even she was not about to be outdone by a mere apprentice. Dihya rolled back the sleeves of her long robes, cast an appraising look over the cathedral, and smiled.
"What an eventful morning," she said, and even though she spoke quietly her words were perfectly audible across the entire cathedral. "Doubtless you all expect something grand from me." She turned to the king and queen, who had been watching all this with increasing bafflement. "Is there anything you would like to request?"
My parents exchanged perplexed looks.
"Well," my mother said at last, "these are great gifts for our son. Ideally he would be intelligent enough to use them for the best benefit." She considered. "Yes. We would like to request that this child is smart-"
"Your child will possess a brilliant intellect that will grant him keen insight into even the most complex problems," Dihya intoned. By now, the crowd was beyond applause and merely stared in stunned silence. "He shall possess not only knowledge, but true wisdom; his visage will be graced with an intelligence that bestows immeasurable advantage."
"Oh," my mother said, hazarding a furtive glance at where I lay in the crib. "Yes. Thank you."
And so I ended up remembering the rest of the whole sorry affair. At the time my silly baby self was absolutely elated; I remember gathering the essence of what had happened from the burgeoning whispers, the world gradually taking on meaning. Was this possible? Yet I felt magic twisting and shaping my core. I was a fundamentally different person now, one who had changed for the better.
I daresay my thoughts even began to veer towards narcissism; how charmed would my life be, I wondered, how perfectly perfect? As someone wise, handsome, and powerful beyond compare, surely only good things waited in store—
Well. Everyone knows babies are foolish, and this still was the case despite my supposed intelligence. Let us continue with our tale.
Earlier I noted that my parents invited everyone their invitations would reach, and this is mostly true. Yet, the youngest prince from the enemy Republic had arrived at our waterfront, accompanied by only few guards, for negotiations. He was said to be very young indeed, only six or seven years old, with bright orange-gold hair and angelic features. There was much talk of inviting this prince to my christening as a gesture of goodwill and diplomacy, and many thought he would be easy to manipulate into negotiating a peace that favored our side. With a passive-aggressive reasoning that surely would not end well, I suspect that my parents decided by some unspoken agreement to mutually forget about it. They would not invite him, and, if asked, perhaps even pretend the invitation did not come through.
This enemy prince was the one who parted the crowd, his light footsteps leaving no sound. He was dressed in the characteristic clothes of our sworn enemies, with soft dark leathers and draping indigo fabrics, and yet the garb seemed oddly out of place on a child so young. A smattering of freckles was sprinkled across his nose, his eyes cloudy blue. Save the silver crown gleaming on his head, he seemed just like another innocent child.
I instinctively knew something bad was going to happen. Yet I had no idea how to use magic and was hopelessly swaddled, my limbs bound so tight it was nearly impossible to move.
The child rose on tiptoe to peer into my crib. His face seemed open and sweet, and yet his gaze carried unfathomable maturity and sorrow. I stared back, wide-eyed.
He reached out towards me and began to trace a complicated inscription on my cheek for what seemed like an eternity. I did not know what he had written, yet I felt the symbols work themselves into my body, leaving me sick and weak like slow-acting poison.
The air in the room stilled, taut with tension. He drew back, and I struggled for breath.
"You were right," the child said mildly, "not to invite me." The atmosphere in the room suddenly became colder.
"Guards," my mother shouted, deciding a bit too late this child might be a threat, "guards!"
Yet suddenly the world seemed to still; the guards could not even reach for their swords. Incompetents like the Royal Guard stood no chance against someone like him. This child, as I already knew well, was dangerous.
"Don't you want to know what curse your crown prince bears?" the child asked. "If you listen carefully, maybe I'll tell you."
No one could speak. I saw traces of movement slowly creeping through the crowd, but they were infinitesimally small. And I, too, was frozen; I could not have cried even had I wished it.
He stepped closer to the crib, considering me carefully. "Look what you have created," he continued, speaking aloud to the silent cathedral. Suddenly, the words coming from his lips sounded much wiser than they should, delivered with gravity and precision as if there were an adult in his body.
"A prince with wisdom but not the means to save himself from his life course, one so beautiful he will charm birds out of the sky and beasts out of the woods but never find his equal, a formidable fighting force who levels armies to the ground and reaches the limits of villainy. You have created a monster, indeed. With great blessing comes sacrifice—such princes tend to meet utterly tragic ends, hmm?"
I despise the fact that my archnemesis is the only person who has ever fully understood me.
He paused. "I daresay you have forgotten something," the boy continued slowly, the chandelier's incandescent lights glinting off his bright hair. His gaze was eerie, probing, and I will remember it forever. "A weakness, as it were. His body is flesh and blood, his countenance still mortal."
All-consuming fright reached through my heart. I became aware of the people around me and their reactions: sweat beginning to bead down Catalina's face as she attempted to use magic but found herself lacking after such exertion, my mother ready to strangle the intruder but unable to move, the beginnings of horror on my father's face.
"Your prince will possess a great fragility," the child said, almost lazily, and I knew this was what he had written into me such that it became part of my very being. "His bones easily shattered, his hand unfit for close combat. He will find himself tormented by the gifts you have bestowed upon him, that they leave him drained and desperate to escape their burden. Upon his eighteenth birthday, the silver edge of a blade shall bring his demise; his soul will flee from his body, bound for death."
In a few seconds, I had fallen into the grip of a curse that would dictate the rest of my life. There are many events I am still bitter about, but certainly I am most bitter about this one. I would wish death upon his name daily for the curse he cast.
"I look forward to meeting him on the battlefield," the young boy said finally, turning to face the crowd again, but his face was grim and I knew that he spoke to me. It was a promise he would win this war, that I would fall by his hand.
I tried to speak, to swear he would bitterly regret this day for as long as he lived, but my tongue was numb and I couldn't form the words.
And then the child prince strode away, the world frozen in his wake.