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art by Shannon N. Kelly

The Steel Throne

A Hugo Award nominee and a Nebula award winner, Eric James Stone is also a winner in the Writers of the Future Contest. He has had stories published in Year's Best SF 15, Analog, Nature, and the Blood Lite anthologies of humorous horror, among other venues. Eric is also an assistant editor for Intergalactic Medicine Show. Read his other stories for Daily Science Fiction at ericjamesstone.com.
The Empress Uvay dismissed the physician with a trembling wave of her hand. What could he do except tell her she would soon join the late Emperor in the halls of Paradise? Terrified of being charged with regicide, he would not even give her a concoction to ease her passing.
No matter--the poison needle hidden in the ring on her right middle finger would quickly end her life if the pain became too great.
But not yet. She still must decide which of her children would succeed her as ruler of the Chosen People.
She smiled. Fifty years ago, there would not have been any need for a choice. As eldest son of her imperial father-in-law, her husband had automatically ascended to the Steel Throne on the death of the Emperor. And by tradition, on his death thirty-three years ago, Delgar, their eldest son, should have ascended--even at the age of two months.
Freed of the fear of her husband's military leadership, the enemy kingdoms that encircled the Empire and the lands her husband had conquered united in arms. It had been no time for half-measures, so Uvay had ascended to the throne herself and led imperial forces to war.
By the turning of the year, she was more feared as a general than her husband had been, and no one dared suggest that the Steel Throne was the weaker for having a woman seated upon it.
And so Uvay had a choice. Her eldest child, Hala, was the daughter of her heart. Beautiful as the sunlight, fierce as a lioness, Hala had commanded the Imperial armies as they finished the conquest of the kingdoms that remained. Beloved by her troops, it was said they would kill their own families or even themselves at her command.
Delgar, two years younger than Hala, was beloved by no one. Ever since he was old enough to understand that his mother had stolen the throne from him, he had resented her. He was smart enough to see the necessity of her actions, and he accepted her rule, but they had never been close. He lacked his sister's inner fire, but he had served Uvay well as an administrator, organizing the logistics of running an empire that spanned from ocean to ocean.
If there had still been enemies to conquer, Hala would have been the clear choice. But for an empire at peace, Uvay had to admit that Delgar would make the better emperor.
Uvay sighed, her breath crackling in her lungs. The choice was not as simple as deciding who would make a better emperor. If she named Hala, Delgar would loyally continue to run the empire on his sister's behalf. But if she named Delgar, Hala could easily take the throne by force. There were no throngs of soldiers sworn to die for Delgar.
And Hala could not claim the Steel Throne without killing Delgar.
On the other hand, there were rumors among sailors that strange kingdoms existed beyond the oceans. If such were true, then there would be new lands for Hala to conquer. The empire was finally at peace, but out of loyalty and love for his sister, Delgar would find ways to fund her campaigns, and her soldiers would follow her to the corners of the world.
Choosing Hala was the only way both children could live.
"Bring Hala and Delgar," Uvay rasped to a servant. "Tell them I will choose."
The two must have been waiting outside her chambers, for they were ushered in almost immediately.
"Mother," said Delgar with a curt nod.
"Oh, Mother, you must not die yet!" said Hala. "I wish to conquer the lands beyond the sea for you."
Uvay smiled. "Hala, my beloved, I wish I could live at your command. But my time has come."
She fixed her gaze on Delgar and said, "My son, I denied you the throne as a child, and I am sorry. I know you love your sister, so I hope you will forgive what I must do."
Turning her gaze to Hala, she said, "Hala, come forth and receive the blessing of my hand."
Hala walked over and knelt by Uvay's bed.
Placing her right hand on Hala's shoulder, Uvay whispered, "The Steel Throne requires us to be hard as steel, to choose for the good of the empire when no one else can."
And then she squeezed the ring to release the poison needle into Hala's skin.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, February 9th, 2012


I wrote this story for a flash-fiction writing contest with other members of CodexWriters.com. We each had to write a story of no more than 750 words in a weekend--each weekend for five weeks. This story was my entry for week five. (I have now sold four of those five stories, three of them to DSF.) It was based on the following prompt: "Write from the viewpoint of an elderly character of a different gender and social class than yourself." Although I am descended from King John of England, I don't consider my social class to be "royal." So an aged empress fit the bill. I gave her the poison ring at the beginning of the story without knowing that she would need it for the end. Having established her character, I tried to figure out what sort of difficult choice she might be facing at the end of her life, and decided that having to choose between her two children would work.

- Eric James Stone

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