I stood tall in the middle of town. My people surrounded me, cheering. My campaign against the wretched Northmen barbarians was a rousing success. The tribes were reduced to one that simpered and hid from any who approached. They starved and shivered in their frozen home, and my people were safer for it.
My people were safe. I smiled, and there was a tightness in my throat. It was time.
I shot into the air. For a moment, all was numb. Pain erupted in my neck, torso, and limbs. I couldn’t scream. My neck was constricted, and my skin burned in pain. My agony felt like it lasted forever as the pain traveled and engulfed more of my body. I quickly became too weak to struggle.
My vision and hearing faded. The taste of blood in my mouth faded. The scent of my soil faded. Finally, the pain faded.
The emperor’s head executioner waited an hour before he pulled his skinned and hung leader from the public gallows. While he had been instructed to leave the man up, he found that the man’s face, as calm as in life, haunted him.
The emperor was sent to be cremated, while the executed man’s son, Margus, took on the imperial crown.
Margus was soft and weak. He was raised by his mother, who hated his father. The boy would not last long before the younger brother, raised by his father, took the crown by force and left the land in uproar over changing rulers so quickly.
The executioner cleaned the skinning knives and the special-crafted noose, and he put them away into their golden box. They were reserved for use only on emperors who committed horrible acts of treason. He left the box unlocked in a show that he expected them to be used again before a year passed.
Margus ruled with an even, merciful hand. The crime rate tripled the first month, and increased after. He gave the nobility far more than was needed. He destroyed the treasury and nearly drove the empire to ruin with his edicts.
Only the former emperor’s true son, Anyel, saved the empire with bloody coup. He watched for three months before he entered the throne room. To his brother, he did not bow.
“Who is this man who does not bow?” Margus asked. “Who is he, to show disrespect?” He looked to his mother, who sat at his side. His scowl asked a question, and her nod answered it. “Have him flayed.”
“Hold.” Anyel’s voice was quiet. Slowly, he raised his arm. “I hold the imperial seal, which you never inherited from my father.” His voice was clear and crisp. “I hold also the papers that seal me his heir, and ensure that I am neither of bastard or base blood. Sharp eyes stared at Margus, who shot another questioning look at his mother.
Margus’s mother stood slowly. “Show me.” she demanded. “Show me the mark of my dead husband, for he married no others, and you are a liar!” Her voice echoed clearly.
Anyel walked forward and held the document aloft. The woman reached for it, but Anyel held it from her grasp. “I am not so foolish as to place something of such importance in the hands of an enemy to the empire.”
The woman screamed in anger. “I will destroy my sister for this betrayal!” she screeched as she lunged forward. Anyel stepped to one side and allowed her to fall on her face. “Now you, half-brother. Do you remove yourself from my father’s throne willingly?”
Margus stood slowly, then slapped Anyel’s face. Anyel did not flinch. “A duel.” Margus insisted.
“I accept. Our weapons are the sword. The time is in ten minutes. The location is the blood-filled square you killed my father at. Our witnesses will be as many as the criers can assemble before we begin. If you do not meet me there, you forfeit honor and are craven. Thus, you shall lose that crown.” He turned on heel and walked out.
Behind Anyel, Margus howled in rage and fled to prepare. His mother fled in his wake.
True to his honor, Margus arrived at the appointed time. He bore a showy sword and a cage-like mask over his face. His clothing was padded, and he moved with poise. Across the platform, Anyel stood in mail and held a bastard sword casually. His expression was a mimicry of his father’s when the man was told he was to be executed. His quiet surprise was only visible in raised eyebrows and pursed lips. “Margus, oh half-brother of mine, go prepare to duel as a man.” he urged. “You shame yourself.”
Margus’s face reddened. “This is a gentleman’s duel, is it not?”
“You confuse yourself. This is a man’s duel with swords, not pointy sticks. Go fetch your sword.”
“This is my sword.”
“You insist, so must it be. Let us begin.”
The crowd pushed forward, eager to see spilled blood. Their thirst for it reflected in their eyes,
The executioner stood near. He held the golden box with noose and knives and waited.
The two young men inspected each other’s weapons, and they touched the blade tips. Five seconds passed, and the attacks began. Margus thrust, while Anyel defended.
Anyel waited and watched the wild thrusts of his brother. Margus stopped often to catch his breath. The fight lasted, and it was defensive for long minutes. Finally, Anyel’s sword sliced through the air. The heavier blade bent aside the light dueling blade, and Anyel aimed the point at his brother’s throat. “Do you yield?” he asked in a quiet voice.
Margus glared. “I cannot. For the sake of my father’s empire, I must never yield.”
“Now, I meet a man.” Anyel’s tone was somber. “I spare your life and take your crown for myself.” He used his sword to remove Margus’s crown. He slid the slender loop of metal from his blade and placed it onto his head. “Hear this! Emperor Anyel now reigns. Margus stands before me with many a crime on his shoulders, the largest being treason against the people.” He frowned and stared into the eyes of his brother. “His shameful deeds and shameful ability places him to blame.” His voice rose in volume. “However, he was not placed on the throne by his own power. He was not raised to be such on his own power. Truly, it was a weak being who infused him with such feebleness. Thus, the crimes land upon the shoulders of his mother. My half-brother shall instead be given home arrest at my castle, for he has no other home. His mother shall lose her tongue and hang, for her treachery has led to the death of an emperor, and nearly to the death of the grand empire itself.” He looked to his brother. “Come.” he urged as he walked ahead of his defeated kin and led the way to the castle.