The Emperor is dead, and four brothers quarrel over who should succeed him.
| Dravis looked over the people situated around the thick mahogany dinner table. He wanted nothing more than to be gone from this entire situation and doing something productive with his time.
“And how goes our war on the high seas, ser Carver?” His mother asked, a cutting smile across her face. Dravis had always thought ser Carver a dangerous man—the sort of soldier who actually enjoyed fighting wars.
Carver grinned back from the distant right of the table, “A great victory was won at the Port Isles, m’lady,” he said in his huffy, gravel, voice, “We expect to be in reach of the Raymerian mainlands within the month.” Dravis dug from his bowl of soup and let the salty, burning, broth flow down his throat. He cared not for this conversation, yet it carried on regardless.
“That is excellent news. If Droth Ayer is wise, perhaps this war may come to an end without more blood being spilled.” Mother continued. Dravis caught sir Mercer’s downward glance. His eyes shone as brazenly green as the ferns skirting the room, and cynicism danced within them. They were mechanical eyes, having replaced his natural ones which had been gouged out by a Shapeshifter’s claw. Dravis constantly found himself unsettled after looking into those glossy orbs for more than a few seconds at a time. They tricked you into believing them human.
Mercer said, “Ayer would be dragged through the streets of his own city and beaten dead if he were to surrender. Raymerians know only their honor. This war will carry on yet.”
“If that were to be the case,” Carver put ample emphasis on the ‘if’. “Our fleet would be more than capable of ending the conflict in a timely manner.”
“I’d rather be beaten dead than have to choke down another bite of this vile stew,” Baren, Dravis’ second oldest brother, quipped. “Who did you find with the skill to concoct such a dastardly potion, mother?”
Dravis stifled a chuckle as his sister Mira glared daggers Baren’s way. Mira’s fury was not a trifle, and Baren became white as a sheet. Before he could suffer her wrath, however, the set of paneled oak doors leading to the dining hall burst open to reveal the rather short form of ser Cyrus Fiendel. His auburn-striped black trenchcoat, black cords, and scaled leather armor of a similar color made him appear an embodiment of death itself. Shadows played underneath his blazing scarlet eyes, and the whole room froze upon his arrival.
Dravis watched confused as silence dominated the atmosphere. Then, after a few dreadful seconds, Cyrus spoke, “It is with great regret I inform you that Lord Edmonton Blacke, first of his name, has passed in his sleep.” His voice was fitting for such news: deep, smooth, commanding. Dravis let his mouth fall open a little, the news hitting him like a sack of bricks. A clock ticked on in the corner, footsteps echoed the halls, and the booming clang of a bell seeped through the scaffolding from the distance.
For whatever reason, the first thing to come to Dravis’ mind was Edmonton teaching him the ways of a leader, ‘The most important skill for a Lord of any age to possess is cunning,’ he had told him, ‘know when to show mercy, when to show strength, and when to bend the knee. The people come first. Don’t let anything stop you from doing what is right for them—even your own family.’ Mother fell back into her chair, her usually glowing, youthful, face now wrinkled and gaunt.
Surprisingly, it was Mercer who was first to react to the news. Distress was clear across his face as he stood up, pushed in his chair, and said, “I’ll be excused,” proceeding to walk past Cyrus and vanish into the hall. If it were anyone else, Dravis knew mother would have questioned the validity of this announcement, but Cyrus didn’t jest.
“Everyone but my family—out.” She said in a high and uneven tone, pushing her hand in the air dismissively. Ser Cyrus and ser Carver each bowed and left in silence. Dravis felt he didn’t know how to respond. None of his kin knew either, judging by the looks of confusion and worry they all shared.
Dravis didn’t realize his hand was quivering as he set his spoon at the edge of his soup.
“So it’s happened, then,” said Corinth, the oldest of Dravis’ brothers and perhaps the most intelligent. Past those ivory-laced spectacles were eyes veiling more than they let on. “What are we to do?”
Mother put a hand to her mouth and shook her head, “I don’t know.” Her voice wavered. They had all made peace with Edmonton's death long before it actually happened, Dravis knew. As such, their initial responses were not coupled with tears.
Edmonton had fallen ill with Bedrot two months earlier. First, his skin turned a sickly shade of green, then a dry cough set in, followed by vomiting and fantastical, crippling, delusions. Scribe Khorat told Dravis that it was spread first through the fleas, which then bit rats, and then the rats bit into food. After somebody ate the infected food it was a gamble as to whether or not they lived. Age crippled one’s immune system, but the tragedy was that Edmonton was only thirty and seven years old when the sickness fell upon him.
Violetta had prayed to gods Dravis never knew existed aside Edmonton’s bed, weeping all the while. When the doctors told her it was unlikely he would pull through, she disappeared within his dark chambers for days on end, presumably making peace with his inevitable demise. Now she sat broken at the table, still seemingly unable to accept the truth. Dravis couldn’t blame his mother—it was a hard truth. She had lost a husband, and now Dravis had lost a father.
A tear streaked Mira’s rosy cheek, running past her carrot seed dimples and onto the folds of her flowing dress of ocean blue linen. Her gaze dropped as more tears fell. Baren came next. He had always hated seeing other people in pain. His face crumpled and his head shook side to side. Corinth was blinking more than usual, Dravis noted, hardly realizing his own face was hot with sorrow. And there, on the far left end of the table, sat Klein. He may have appeared mournful as well to the untrained eye, but when Dravis looked to his last brother’s face he could see a disgusting smugness festering beneath it. He knew him only as a demon pretending to be human: cruel, distant, uncaring, and manipulative above all. No doubt he was plotting to play this situation for his own gain.
Klein was the most handsome of Dravis’ three brothers. He was sixteen, with swept back hair of a glorious burning brown. His eyes glimmered like sapphires—frigid as the north oceans and complemented by firm features as stony as their shores. He loathed the company of others. Not even the hordes of women who followed his processions through the cobble streets could make him turn an interested eye. He bore a more respectful tone with his other family members, but not to Dravis. To him he often gave answers with single words and foul, prideful, glares.
“This shall be a trying time for both our family and our kingdom,” Klein’s authoritative, arguably over-mature, voice dominated the room. “But order is a matter of utmost importance. Naturally, the most pressing matter regards who is to succeed father.”
“Must we have no time to mourn?” Dravis pried, tasting the salt of his eyes.
Klein appeared unmoved, “We are highborn of the greatest variety, brother. The people look to us for guidance in their time of need, and what would we be but failures if we suffer them wait?” His arrogant, all knowing, tone ignited a fire within Dravis’ heart. The way Klein could perfectly mimic sincerity disgusted him.
“And just who do you think is fit to hold the title of Emperor, brother?” Dravis fired back. Once again, his words were deflected by an icy face riddled with faux empathy.
“Father named not his heir,” Klein said. “As madness overtook him, not even our best scholars and doctors could make sense of his words. As such, I believe the throne belongs to he with the greatest accomplishments—someone who has captured the very heart of the lands they preside over.”
Corinth shifted in his seat, “The throne belongs to the firstborn son,” he said, sadness giving way to annoyance. “I am one year your former. If we are to name a successor so soon after father’s death, it is I who is ordained to fill that role.”
“And I disagree with such ancient, foolish, rites. An Emperor should be made of he who is best Emperor, not someone whose sole claim lies with age.”
Baren shot up from his seat, clearly the most upset of all of them, as his face was red as a cherry, “Damn it all, our father just died!” He shouted at his three siblings. “We all should be grieving and honoring his memory, but Instead you bicker over who should take his place while he watches in horror from the very grave!very ” He had nearly captured the attention of the whole room, save mother, who continued to stare blankly at the table through hollow green eyes. “I refuse to remain in this den of vipers a second longer. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be having a chat with ser Fiendel.” Baren stormed out of the room and slammed the doors behind him. There was a silence, and then Mira followed. She spared Dravis a final, tearful, glance and disappeared out the same door as her brother. More silence.
Dravis turned as an uneven tapping reached his ears from one of the stained glass windows behind him. Moonlight severed the choking darkness to cast its deathly gleam upon the feathers of a crow—perched firm on the windowsill. Its beady eyes bore into Dravis for what felt like forever until it cocked its head, produced a muffled ‘caw’, and took to the night air.
“Such strange creatures.” Klein mused.