Acheron kissed her on the lips even though he was still cold inside. He had nowhere to go and he was tired of being here with people who hated him.
Styxx . . .
In the blink of an eye the simplest answer to his predicament came to him. Why had he never thought of it before?
Pulling back from Artemis, he held her hand. "You should go before someone stumbles in here."
"I’ll see you tomorrow."
Not if he had his way. "Tomorrow."
Acheron watched as she faded and the second she was gone, he immediately made plans for what was to come.
His father refused to let him die so long as his life was tied to Styxx’s and Styxx was plotting the death of his father.
The answer was so simple. If he killed Styxx, his father would be safe and he’d be free.
Peace. He would finally have peace.
February 19, 9527 BC
Acheron waited until the palace was completely silent. In less than an hour the sun would rise . . .
And both he and Styxx would be dead. The mere thought of it brought more joy to him than anything else he could imagine.
More than eager for it, he held the dagger tight in his hand as he snuck past the guards and crept through the door of Styxx’s room. He shut it with only a whisper of a noise. Like a shadow, he made his way across the floor to the large feather-stuffed bed where his brother slept. Heavy curtains hung to shield the heir from a stray breeze.
But they couldn’t shield him from Acheron.
His gaze dark, Acheron pulled the curtains back. Naked except for his royal emblem necklace, Styxx was sleeping on his side, completely vulnerable.
All the years of abuse, of Styxx mocking him, went through his mind, as well as the memory of the way his brother had been willing to see him punished for the treason Styxx had committed.
Acheron lifted the dagger. One slash . . . one cut . . .
He started the downward motion, then stopped before he made contact with the prince’s throat.
Silently, he cursed as he realized a horrible truth about himself. He couldn’t do this. Not in cold blood. Not this mercilessly.
Disgusted, he stepped back as he realized he was a coward.
No, not a coward. No matter what had happened in their past, they were brothers. Twins. He couldn’t kill his own brother. Even if the bastard deserved it.
Your pain won’t stop until you do this.
He wouldn’t show such mercy to you.
It was true. He’d been willing to see him beaten, gelded and even killed if his father had been able to do it.
Styxx had no mercy for him, no pity or even compassion and if he allowed the man to live, Acheron’s abuse would continue. It would most likely worsen once Styxx killed their father. And once their father was gone, Styxx would hurt Ryssa.
He’d already made those threats. Repeatedly.
She Styxx could kill with impunity. Acheron’s blood ran cold with the reality of it. If not for himself, he had to protect his sister and her child.
Styxx had to die.
"Forgive me, brother," he whispered an instant before he stabbed Styxx straight through the heart.
Styxx gasped as his eyes flew open. Acheron staggered back, into the shadows while his brother tried to crawl out of bed. Falling onto the floor, Styxx collapsed as blood ran from the wound and pooled onto the stone.
His breathing ragged, Acheron waited for death to claim him too.
It didn’t and with every continued heartbeat, panic began to set in.
He felt the same as ever. How could that be?
Maybe Styxx wasn’t dead. Terrified he’d only wounded his brother, he went to him and pressed his hand to his neck. There was no pulse at all. No movement or any other sign of life. Rolling Styxx over, he saw that his skin and lips were already turning blue, his eyes were open and glazed.
Styxx was dead.
Yet Acheron lived.
Horrified, he ran for the door and then past the dozing guards, down the hall back to his own room. No! The word echoed through his mind over and over as he tried to make sense of this. If he died, Styxx died. If Styxx died . . .
Nothing happened to him. How could this be?
Why would the gods have done that? It didn’t make any sense.
You’ve killed your own brother. Your twin.
Acheron leaned against his closed door as absolute horror filled him. They would kill him if they ever found out the truth. His father wouldn’t forgive this. They would tear him apart . . .
Suddenly an alarm sounded through the palace as guards shouted to each other and clamored through the hallway.
They’ve already discovered his body. Gods help me!
Someone knocked on his door.
It was Ryssa. Acheron opened the door to see her there, her face pale and hair mussed. She wore a red wrap around her blue gown. "I wanted to make sure that you were all right. Someone tried to kill Styxx tonight."
Tried? No, he’d f**king succeeded. "What do you mean?"
Before she could answer, he saw Styxx behind Ryssa, his face flushed with anger as he led the guards through a search of the rooms. "Find my attacker! I want him now. Do you hear me? Search every corner until we have him!"
Acheron blinked in disbelief.
Styxx was alive? He was completely unprepared for what this meant. Styxx had been resurrected.
Ryssa shook her head. "Have you seen anyone?"
"I was in my room," he lied.
As if sensing him, Styxx froze then turned to face him. Though he was covered in blood there was no sign of the wound that had killed him. "Guards!" he roared.
Acheron stepped back in fear.
Styxx pointed to him. "Guard him. My attacker might realize that to kill me all he has to do is kill him first. I want someone guarding his back at all times."
If only his brother knew the truth . . . Thank the gods that he didn’t.
"What a horrible night," Ryssa said. "I’d best go to Apollodorus. I know all this commotion will have him scared."
Acheron didn’t move as she left him. Through the crack in the door, he watched the guards swarming the hallway and searching rooms. His brother was alive. He couldn’t get past that one fact.
So their lives weren’t truly bound together. At least not in a traditional sense. If he died, Styxx died. If Styxx died . . . there was no effect on him.
His father was right. He was unnatural.
Why would the gods protect him and not Styxx? It didn’t make any sense.
Withdrawing into his room he decided to wait out the search until the house was again quiet. Once he was sure he could leave and not be seen, he wrapped his cloak around himself and headed out into the dark streets.
He remained hidden as he wended his way through the alleys to Apollo’s temple. Once there, he knocked on the door.
"I’m from the royal house," Acheron said forcefully. "It’s imperative that I see the oracle."
The door opened a partial degree until the old wizened priest caught sight of his face. His demeanor immediately changed to one of subservience. "Prince Styxx, forgive me. I-I didn’t realize it was you."
Acheron didn’t bother to correct him. For once, he was grateful they were twins. "Take me to the oracle."
Without further hesitation, the priest led him through the columned walkway to the back where small rooms were set aside for the priests and attendants. The oracle’s room was slightly larger than the others. It was bare and stark with only a small drapery-lined bed.
"Mistress?" the priest called as he headed for the bed. "The prince wishes a word with you."
A blond woman who couldn’t have been much older than fifteen sat up on the bed and with the priest’s help she stood, then walked toward him. By the way she moved, Acheron knew she was drugged. Heavily.
The priest led her to a tall chair that was set over a bowl with vapors. By the scent of it, he’d guess it contained Morpheus Root mixed with Risi Opsi, a compound that created fantastic hallucinations. It was something he’d only taken once after Euclid sang its praises, but that had been enough. It’d left him delirious with nightmares for two days.
"Leave us," she snapped at the priest. "You know the law."
He withdrew instantly.
The girl pulled the cloak up on her head as she added water to the boiling herbs to make them smoke more. "You’re not the prince."
He frowned at her. "How do you know?"
"I know all," she said snidely. "I’m the oracle and you’re the cursed firstborn son whom the king denies."
That last bit wasn’t common knowledge and it made him believe in her abilities. "Then tell me why I’m here."
She breathed in the vapors and writhed on the stool as if she heard the same voices that haunted him. When she opened her eyes, her gaze pierced him like a lance. "You can’t kill him. It is forbidden for you to die."
She inhaled again. Her eyes turned a glowing shade of gold. "In the mark of the sun lies a slash of silver. Not once, not twice, but thrice. The mark of the father to the right, the mother to the left and in the center is the one who unites the two. Three lives intertwined. You are what you were though you don’t know it yet. You will. The day draws near when your destiny will manifest. Walk with courage and listen. Yours is a birth of pain, but one of necessity. Akri di diyum. "
The Lord and Master will rule . . .
She reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Your will will make the laws of the universe."
"What are you saying?"
"He who fights destiny loses. Embrace your fate, Acheron. The harder you fight the more painful your birth." She collapsed.
Acheron barely caught her before she hit the floor. Scooping her up in his arms, he took her to her bed and laid her down. She continued to mumble nonsensical words of birds and demons coming for him.
Even more confused than he’d been before, he left her to the care of the priests and made his way back to the palace.
Her prophecy was gibberish.
It had to be. Why would the gods pick a whore to move through? Why would his will be the will of the universe?
She’s drugged . . .
Of all men, he knew how disconcerting that was. It was nothing more than the hallucinations he’d had himself. He was nothing.
Yet in the back of his mind two words whispered over and over again.
March 3, 9527 BC
Acheron sat in the nursery, spooning strained meat to Apollodorus. The two of them had been alone most of the morning while Ryssa lay with a vicious headache. He didn’t know why his nephew appeared to adore him, but the boy would follow him anywhere.
It was the only good thing in his life.
Apollodorus let out a long burp, then giggled.
Acheron lifted his eyebrows. "I think you’re done, my lord."
The baby fell over and laughed. Acheron scooped him up and propped him against his shoulder.
He’d just set Apollodorus down for a nap when the doors to the nursery opened. For an instant, he feared it might be his father or Apollo, but luckily it was Ryssa entering with a tiny blond young woman.
It took a moment before he realized who she was.
"Acheron! Look who came for a visit with her mother."
Joy filled his entire being as he rose to greet her. "It’s so good to see you again." He held her close.
She pulled back to look up at him with a smile. "Acheron . . . it’s been far too long. You haven’t changed a bit."
But she had. And when she ran her hand down his arm in a disturbing caress, he went cold with dread. Especially when that familiar light came into her eyes. It was as if she couldn’t control herself. Damn, his curse.
Not Maia . . .
Stepping back, he put distance between them. "What brings you here?"
"I came here with my mother."
Ryssa gave him a wan smile that let him know her head was still paining her. "They’ll be staying for a week."
That news should have made him glad, instead he dreaded it. "Really?"
Maia approached him slowly, like a stalking lioness who was hungry to take a bite of him. "You and I should get reacquainted."
Before he could respond, a maid called for Ryssa.
Ryssa grimaced in pain and pressed her hand to her temple, then glanced to them. "I’ll be right back."
Maia took another step closer. "I had forgotten how beautiful you were . . ."
He put his hands on her shoulders to keep her back. "I was told you have a husband now."
"He’s not with me." She leaned toward him invitingly.
"No," he said firmly. "I won’t do this with you."
She licked her lips as she glanced up at him from beneath her lashes. "I’m not a child anymore, Acheron. I’m a woman full grown with a babe of my own."
"And I have no interest in you that way."
She reached for his groin.
Acheron grabbed her hand before she made contact. "Maia, I tended you when you were a child."
"And now I’d have you tend to me as a woman."
"Please, stop this."
"Why? You’re younger than my husband is." She tried to pull her hand away from his grip. "Don’t you find me attractive?"
Acheron released her and quickly moved away. "I have to go now."
"Is something wrong?" Ryssa asked.
More than he could ever tell her. "No. I’m fine. I just need to go." He practically ran from the room and didn’t stop until he was safely locked inside his own chambers.