You tend to remember the face of a man you’ve sworn to kill.
As Groshen hoisted a rundlet of wine into the wagon, he spotted the crimson-robed prophet strolling along the village’s main road. Groshen had only met the prophet twice, but he recognized those copper-colored eyes divided by that bulging nose.
Despite his sudden rage, Groshen carefully lowered the cask into the wagon. He must catch the prophet alone, where no one could interfere.
“Excuse me,” Groshen said to Marya, “but there’s someone I must have a word with.” She was the head cook, and the only person on Squire Korpet’s farm who didn’t look away from the burn scars covering Groshen’s face.
“Have a drink with, you mean?” The corners of Marya’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Go on. I’ll cover for you with the master, and I’ll save you a good cut of roast.”
“Thanks.” Though he liked her, Groshen wished Marya would focus her romantic attentions elsewhere. He did not want pity.
The village streets were uncrowded. The Emperor Dal’s slavers had come through five months ago, choosing a third of the able-bodied men by lottery to work on building the new capital city. Most of the men’s families had followed.
Groshen’s number had been pulled out of the lottery box, but the slavers had rejected him due to his injuries.
After a few minutes, the prophet wandered into an alley. Groshen picked up his pace–with luck, the alley would be abandoned.
Rounding the corner, he found the prophet had stopped.
“Hello, Your Majesty,” said the prophet.
Groshen halted. “I’m not a king anymore.”
“Just because the Emperor Dal has taken away your throne doesn’t mean you’re not a king.”
Pointing at the prophet with one of the three remaining fingers of his right hand, Groshen said, “I’m tired of your lies.” With his left hand, he drew his knife.
“I never lied to you.”
In three quick strides, Groshen reached the prophet and grabbed the front of his crimson silk robe. “Never?” Groshen lifted his knife to the prophet’s throat. “Have you forgotten what you prophesied the first time you came to me?”
Stretching his arms wide, the prophet lifted his coppery eyes toward the overcast sky. “‘A great destiny lies ahead of you, Your Majesty,’ I said. You asked what destiny, and I replied, ‘The destiny of the man who will overthrow the Emperor Dal and claim his throne.'”
Groshen threw the prophet into the dirt. “I was mad to trust you.”
“Not mad.” The prophet crossed his legs and sat up. “Ambitious, perhaps.”
“I ruled my corner of the Empire with little interference from Dal. I had no ambition until your secret prophecy. It’s your fault I led my army to be slaughtered by Dal’s wizardry.”
“You raised another army, larger than the first. That you could do so despite your initial defeat speaks well of your leadership.”
Groshen’s boot connected with the prophet’s face. A satisfying crunch came as the man’s nose broke. The prophet fell back, blood flowing from his wide nostrils.
“You mock me,” Groshen said. “Only your second prophecy kept me from accepting Dal’s amnesty.”
The prophet pinched his nose shut to stanch the blood. “The peace would not have lasted. Dal planned to kill off the kings in his empire anyway.”
“Or my rebellion stirred him to do that,” said Groshen. He remembered the guilt he had felt two years ago on hearing that Dal had executed the royal families of every kingdom in the Empire, down to the youngest child.
Groshen kicked the prophet in the stomach. “Your second prophecy was a lie. ‘If you raise an army against Dal, he will be defeated.'”
The prophet clutched his abdomen, wheezing. Blood still dripped from his nose.
Stroking the ridged scars on his face, Groshen said, “See the results of your prophecy? I only survived because one of my friends pulled me out of that inferno of wizard’s fire. And do you know what he did then, prophet?”
The prophet sat up again, lips wet with blood. “He took your crown and placed it on his own head. Then he ran back into the flames to die in your place. It worked–Dal still believes you dead.”
For a moment, Groshen was taken aback. No one else knew what had happened that night. Did the prophet have some power after all? But his anger surged again within him.
“You deserve to die in flames,” said Groshen. “Because I trusted you, I’ve gone from ruling a kingdom to working as a common laborer.”
The prophet rose to his knees. “I confess to misleading you. I understand your desire to kill me. But let me tell you of one more prophecy before you do.”
“I’m through raising armies,” said Groshen.
“Dal killed all the royalty because of a prophecy that only a man of royal blood could rise up to take his throne.”
Groshen snorted. “My destiny, according to you.”
“No, Your Majesty. I said that destiny lay ahead of you, not that it was yours. But there is another prophecy, one Dal doesn’t know, about a farm boy rising to defeat him. Both destinies belong to your grandson.”
“I have no grandson.”
Coppery eyes glowing, the prophet spread his arms wide. “You will wed Marya and have two daughters. The younger will bear a son. And he will defeat Dal.”
The prophet’s tone was convincing–Groshen almost believed him.
“Even if you’re right, I should kill you for the pain your deceptions have caused.” Groshen held the knife to the prophet’s throat.
The prophet did not pull away.
“Answer one question,” said the prophet, “then kill me if you wish.”
“You blame everything on the fact that you trusted my words as a prophet. If I had come to you ten years ago and prophesied that to defeat Dal you must leave your throne, marry a cook, and live out the rest of your life as a common farm laborer, would you have done it?”
As Groshen recalled the arrogant young king he had been, he knew the answer was no. His own pride had been his downfall–and even now, it was pride that kept him from accepting Marya’s affection.
After a long moment, Groshen released the prophet and left the alley without looking back. If he hurried, he might catch up with Marya on the road back to the farm.
A great destiny lay ahead of him.
“A Great Destiny” previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction.