“The king is dead.” Lucius declared. “Long live the king!”
Marcus dropped his gaze, struck with sorrow at the sudden news. King Remus was beloved and renowned for being just and fair.
Lucius continued, “This day has been planned since the day you were born. We have successfully kept the deception for 16 years. And it has worked. You’re alive.”
“What deception?” Marcus asked.
“You’re the true heir to the throne. You’re now the king.” He proclaimed, “Long live the king!”
“How can that be?” Marcus was confused.
“I’m not your father. Your real father was King Remus. You were always the heir but we kept you hidden to keep you safe.”
Lucius explained: Before becoming king, Remus fell in love with a woodland nymph. He first discovered her on a hunting trip when he was not much older than you are now. He had come upon her while she was getting a drink from a sacred spring. She was at first frightened and hid in the ivy. She had been warned her whole life to stay away from humans, that they would only cause misery.
Remus tried to coax her out. “Please, oh sacred nymph, don’t be afraid. I mean you no harm. What’s your name? I just want to talk to you.”
The nymph was terrified on that first occasion but she chose to hide nearby rather than run away. She was curious to learn more about the human who had spotted her. Long after the hunting party had gone home, Remus continued to wait. He could sense her presence, it’s calm.
Remus went home that first day disappointed but not discouraged. From that point forward, he went back to the sacred grove every day. He pleaded with the nymph to reveal herself but happily accepted her silence if that was all she would share. “Don’t be afraid.” He would repeat. “I just want to learn your name. I just want to talk to you.”
He told her everything about himself. He confided in her silence and would even bring food for a picnic lunch: warm bread, fresh cakes and exotic cheese. He left it all behind when he went home. When it was safe, the nymph would sneak out and share the human-made food with the squirrels and rabbits.
This went on for ten years. His friends and advisors tried to dissuade him. They accused him of wasting his time on a fantasy, that he needed to find a real wife to get an heir. They told him his love was a mirage. The future king however paid no attention and continued to spend his days in the grove, rain or shine, no matter the season. And each day the nymph made sure she hid in the same place so she could watch him and hear his voice. She too was enamored.
Even on the day he became king, when his father died, Remus came to the grove, but this time his demeanor was different. He didn’t call out for the nymph. Instead he sat on a rock in silence and watched the spring bubble. He loved his father very much. He had learned from him everything a monarch should know: how to fight with a sword, engage in diplomacy, and dispense justice. He learned that the kingdom was more important than one person, that stability and peace was best for all and that succession should always be clear.
The nymph took pity on the king. She cautiously stepped out from the shadows and approached him from behind. He didn’t even notice that she had crept up until she carefully leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “My name is Ampelus.”
The king turned quickly, jumped to his feet and for the first time saw the nymph up close. He paused, suspended between grief and joy. He was dumbstruck by her beauty until he finally stammered, “Hello Ampelus. I’m Remus.”
“I know who you are.” Ampelus smiled then added. “I’m sorry your father passed away.”
“My whole life has been a preparation for this moment. I’m his only heir. And now for the rest of my life I have to prepare for my own death, for the safety of the kingdom. I need an heir but first I need a wife.”
“You’re still young. You’ve lots of time.You’re strong, kind and handsome.” Ampelus replied.
“I’m sure you could pick any woman you wanted in the kingdom. They would be honored to be your queen.”
“There’s only one person I want to be my queen and that’s you. You’re the only one I have ever loved.”
Ampelus was flattered. “You don’t know me.”
“I know more about you from our shared silence than I could have ever hoped to learn from anyone else.”
The nymph was unsure how to respond.
“Please, Ampelus, be my bride.”
The nymph demurred. She desperately wanted to say yes but was not sure if it was appropriate. “I’m not sure that the gods will approve.”
“Who cares about the gods? Venus herself, the goddess of love must have sent us on the same path. Why would she be so stupid as to start a love without any intention of success.”
Ampelus cringed. “You mustn’t speak of the gods that way.”
“Why not?” King Remus stood tall. “We love each other and that’s all that matters. Venus can go to Hades.”
Just then, a wind began whispering through the treetops. The branches around them began to sway, slow at first but then more violently. A thick mist descended, and the goddess Venus appeared.
Both the king and the nymph covered their eyes and turned away. The light of the goddess was too bright to look at. Her voice boomed, hurting their ears. “How dare you question my motives, mortal. Have your love, I don’t care, marry, rule the kingdom, just know that you’re the last of this dynasty. I will beseech the fates to kill your only son. They will send an assassin to cut short his life and leave you without an heir. And nymph, you have long been told not to mingle with humans, that they will only bring misery. Why didn’t you listen? As of now you're pregnant with the king’s heir. You will never know where and when your son will be killed. You will live your lives in fear of your blasphemy.” Then with a sudden gust, she disappeared.
Ampelus was devastated. She was so afraid.
King Remus embraced the nymph ”Did you hear what she said? She said we can marry.”
“But what about your heir?” the nymph asked, still trembling. “I’m already pregnant. This was not supposed to happen to me. I’m a nymph.
“I have a plan. I love you so much. I know I can make this work. Trust me.”
King Remus and Queen Ampelus lived a happy life for the next nine months. Ampelus was not comfortable with living among humans so she remained in her sacred grove. King Remus would visit every day. Together they would talk and sing and simply hold hands. At night, they would gaze upon the vast expanse of the universe. And while he was tending to royal duties, she would encourage the vines in the grove to grow more full and verdant, to create a cloister and a throne.
Then one morning King Remus found the grove abandoned. All that was left was a newborn baby sleeping in an ivy woven basket lined with lilacs and purple chrysanthemums. Attached was a note from Ampelus.
“My dear love, here is your son and heir. I’m sorry but I’m too frightened of the future Venus has plotted. I must run away now, deep into the woods. I’m no longer a nymph. I have lost all my powers through motherhood. Please guard my son as long as the fates allow. I love you. Ampelus.
King Remus was devastated. He kept returning to their grove every day but never saw her again. This made him all the more determined to thwart the goddess’ curse. Once his son was safe , they would go together on a quest to find Ampelus.
He told only one person about the curse, his top advisor and best friend, me, Lucius. Together, we devised a plan. It so happened that I also had a newborn at that time. And so we traded babies. My real son was raised in the royal household while the true heir would be raised closeby. The plan was that my son would be a decoy for the assassin. When he was killed the real dynasty wouldn’t be broken. No one knew of the switch. Even the wet nurses were fooled.
At first we expected that the goddess would strike right away. But Venus was far more cruel than that. She wanted to prolong the fear so our lives would be under constant threat.
Marcus was dumbstruck when he heard the truth. “You mean you’re not my father?” He asked. “And now I’m actually king?” He was incredulous.
Lucius knew there was no time to delay. He urged Marcus on, “Come, we must get to court at once, so you can be revealed as the true heir. Paulus is waiting for us.”
“Does Paulus know?” I asked.
Together they rushed to the palace. The grand hall was filled with various lords of the kingdom. They were mulling about waiting to hear the announcement of the new king, to see their new lord and sovereign. However they were concerned by the delay. After all, they knew the king’s son was in court. Why hadn’t he declared himself already? Lucius and Marcus moved past them quickly and slipped into the throne room where the old king was on a pyre. The crown was placed in his hands and rested on his chest.
Paulus was alone in the room, hovering over the body. He had always been told that when the king died, he had to wait until Lucius arrived before doing anything.
Paulus was relieved to see them. “Where have you been?” He shouted. His sword was drawn and dripping with blood. His right bicep was cut and bleeding. His hair was disheveled and he was out of breath.
“What happened?” Lucius asked.
“You were the king’s closest advisor, why weren’t you here? You knew he was about to die and you left. Why?” Paulus was angry and confused.
Marcus noticed three bodies strewn on the ground. They were all dressed in black robes and bleeding out. “What happened?” he asked.
“Assassins came to kill me, hired by one of the lords of the land. I was able to dispatch all of them. They were more trained in stealth than combat. They were easy to defeat. As king I will find out who is behind this and take swift justice.”
“But you survived?” Lucius declared, in disbelief. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Was it you who tried to kill me?” Paulus was dumbfounded by Lucius' words.
“No.” Lucius was puzzled. He didn’t think fate could be changed but perhaps their plan had worked out better than they had expected. He smiled then laughed relieved. “You have fulfilled a very noble purpose, my son. Your life has been in danger for many years. You have ensured successful succession. Now the true heir can sit on the throne.”
Paulus was confused. He looked at Marcus to see if he knew what Lucius was talking about.
Lucius sought to untie his confusion. “There was a switch at birth in order to save the heir.” You’re actually my son and Marcus here is the true king.
Paulus was speechless.
“Venus cursed our dynasty but King Remus has foiled fate. No one knew of the switch except the king and I.”
“You lie.” Paulus shouted. “I don’t know why you are trying to trick me but your intentions are wrong. I am the king.”
“You’re not.” Lucius insisted, “Marcus is.”
“Prove it.” Paulus demanded.
“Everyone knows that the king’s son was born by a nymph.” Lucius explained.
“Yes. My mother was Ampelus.” Paulus nodded his head.
“Except she wasn’t. She was Marcus’ mother.”
“Prove it.” Paulus repeated his demand more forcefully.
“Sit on the throne.” Lucius ordered. “Ampelus made that throne for the king. Its leaves and vines are carved in living wood with gold and silver intertwined.”
Paulus rolled his eyes believing all of this was a waste of time. He sat down on the throne and said, “There.”
“Now let Marcus sit down.”
Paulus got up and motioned with his hands, “Be my guest, but mark my words, it’s the last time you’ll sit there.”
As soon as Marcus sat down, the vines came to life. They became supple and verdant. They actually started to grow round the armrests and up the high back of the throne. The wood carvings all changed to living leaves. Gold turned to sunflowers, the silver to variegated ivy.
Paulus stood amazed at the miracle. He couldn’t argue the evidence of the supernatural. But that didn’t mean he was not the heir, only that Lucius and Marcus had conjured some sort of divine distraction so they could overthrow the dynasty.
“My father trusted you.” Paullus shouted.
“And that is why the plan worked.”
Paulus remained suspicious. “You mean for my whole life I have been dangled as bait? That I was some sacrificial lamb? You’re my real father and you agreed to this arrangement just so you could be the king’s top advisor? Who are you? And now it’s inconvenient because your plan didn’t work?”
“What do you mean? It worked just fine. Better than we expected. You killed the assassins. Marcus can now be king. You saved him.”
“Of course you would say that. All the lords of the kingdom have known me my whole life. I am their prince and heir. If what you are saying is true, only the three of us know of it. Except for your magic trick on the throne there’s nothing else that says you’re king. To everyone else you’re usurpers, trying to overthrow the rightful heir.”
“But it’s the truth.” Lucius declared.
“How do I know that you’re not fate in disguise, sent to deprive my father of his dynasty.”
“Enough of this!” Lucius declared and stepped forward to take the crown from the king’s corpse.
“Traitor!” Paulus leapt forward and in a single decisive motion sunk his sword deep into Lucius’ chest. The advisor dropped the crown and grasped at his wound, wheezing and groaning. Paulus then yanked his sword free, splattering blood and let the corpse crumble to the ground. He next threatened Marcus.
“What have you done?” Marcus screamed. “You’ve killed your own father.”
“What kind of father offers his son up to be murdered?” Paulus thundered.
Marcus pulled out his own sword in defense.
Paulus smiled cruelly then asked. “Are you sure you want to do this? You could just run off and live your life in obscurity. You don’t have to die. You know in combat I’ll win.”
Marcus knew his words were true. He always lost when the two sparred together. Paulus had attributed his success to his supposed divine heritage and Marcus had accepted that fact.
“We don’t have to do this? I never knew of the plan. Both of our fathers are dead.” Marcus made his appeal.
“Who then is king?” Paulus asked.
“Why me of course.” Marcus answered, “and you can be my most trusted advisor, my best friend.”
Paulus became enraged, He charged, slashing the air with broad violent strokes. When they finally joined blades Paulus immediately drove Marcus back. The heir parried every attack but could not hold his ground. He found himself retreating with each blow. Paulus’ desire for justice, his own justice, was profound. Finally Marcus could retreat no further. His back was up against the pyre. His sword trembled on the edge of surrender. Paulus smiled then knocked the weapon free from Marcus’ hands. It crashed to the stone floor and re echoed ominously.
Marcus raised his hands in desperation. “Stop. You can’t do this.” He begged. “You know I’m the king.”
“Only you and I know that.” Paulus’ words were carved in stone, “And demigods can be killed. You’re not immortal. And I’m the king. Go to Hades.” And with that, he struck a fatal blow, burying his sword into Marcus’ throat. The heir’s eyes swirled turbulent then faded to a dull pale gray. He collapsed to the ground, dead.
“Long live the king.” Paulus declared.