art by Shannon N. Kelly
The Steel Throne
by Eric James Stone
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."