SPLITTING HEIRS • by Michael Haynes

The princess Camilla took the single strand of her father’s hair which had been retained for the challenge and divided it neatly into four segments. As she slipped one piece into each of her brothers’ goblets, the potion inside them bubbled and smoked. The mixture was now poison in all but one. She stepped away, then, to watch her younger siblings endure the kingmaking trial.

“I don’t see why this is necessary,” said Jordan, youngest of the brothers. His hand trembled on its way to stroke the few hairs which made up his thin beard. “I don’t even want to be king. Surely we brothers could come to some sort of agreement?”

The eldest brother laughed at this. “Always looking to talk your way out of things, eh? Well, there’s no talking out of this. Our land needs a king.”

“Aye, but does it also need three dead princes?” asked the youngest as he turned toward the twins Nerian and Fortalan who sat, as always, side by side. “What say the both of you? Laran clearly wants to be king. I’m sure neither of you wish to be dead, not even to allow your twin to become ruler of the land. Why can’t the three of us simply concede to Laran and allow him the rule he desires so much?”

Camilla’s insides trembled at this sign of weakness in her brothers. None of these scoundrels who called themselves men were fit to be king, but for them to concede the throne to Laran now would be disastrous.

“The rules of succession” — Mothar, the priest responsible for safekeeping the materials for the trial and overseeing the ceremony, now spoke — “are quite clear. There may be only one male heir to the throne. To allow otherwise invites chaos.”

“And yet she will live!” The youngest brother pointed at his sister Camilla. “No matter what happens today.”

“Oh, yes, brother. A life full of all the richness afforded the serving-maid and concubine of a priest. Would you trade places with me?” Jordan did not answer his sister. “I thought not.”

Camilla turned toward Mothar; he pointedly avoided her gaze. She bowed slightly. “Forgive me.” But he did not reply.

“Enough of this stalling,” Laran said. “I know my destiny and I’ll not sit here and bicker further about it. My first kingly act will simply be to put you all to the sword.” He downed the contents of his goblet in one draught.

Laran never finished the act of setting the goblet back on the table. His arm spasmed and the drinking vessel clattered to the ground, seconds before Laran himself did.

“Well, brothers,” Nerian said, speaking for the first time since the four men had entered the chamber, “our odds have just improved somewhat.”

The priest strode to the table. “I will have no more mockery made of this ceremony. Raise your glasses, princes, and drink.”

The twins brought their goblets up immediately, holding them high. The youngest hesitated still.

“You saw the death Laran had,” the priest murmured in Jordan’s ear. “Quick, certainly almost painless. Not all deaths are so merciful.”

At last, the fourth-born son of King Mardrick raised the vessel containing his portion of the magical brew.

“On three, then,” one of the twins said. “One. Two. Three.”

The brothers all raised their glasses. Within seconds the twins had both joined Laran on the stone floor.

The priest and the princess shared a troubled glance. A hush hovered in the room, broken only by the youngest prince’s laughter.

“To think,” he said, “that I had been afraid of this potion all this time when I was the one it would not harm!” And then swiftly he downed the liquid he had feigned drinking moments before.

He leaned back in his chair, a broad smile on his face. And it was thus that he died.

“A pity,” the priest murmured, “that the potion decreed none of these men fit to be our king.” He walked toward Camilla, whose troubled look was gone, replaced with a smile of her own. She handed him back the phial, now empty, which he had given her before they had left his home that morning.

“But a regent queen,” he continued, slipping the phial into one of the many pockets of his robe, “can rule as well as a king.”

He laid a hand on the princess’s stomach. “And there can only be one male heir.”

Michael Haynes lives in Central Ohio where he helps keep IT systems running for a large corporation during the day and puts his characters through the wringer by night. An ardent short story reader and writer, Michael has had stories appear in venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Every Day Fiction. He is the Editor for the monthly flash fiction contests run by Kazka Press and is an Associate Editor for the Unidentified Funny Objects series of anthologies. His website is www.michaelhaynes.info.

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