Art Pact 202 - Kingdom of Birds

There was once a kingdom in which several warring princelings vied to be the successor to their aunt, the queen. The queen was herself unmarried, and despite several pregnancies she had been unable to carry an heir to term. Each time the queen lost a child she grieved and cast suspicious eyes at her brothers and sisters and their squabbling broods, but the royal doctor assured her that there was most likely no foul play involved - that she had simply been cursed by fate.

"Perhaps," he suggested, "the iron will needed to rule a country is incompatible with motherhood. Your constitution, well suited to the demands of the regnal lifestyle, might be too strong for a child to survive. A pregnancy is a battleground," he added, seeing that the queen was observing him coolly with the sort of gaze she normally reserved for those she was about to send away to war or to the executioner's block, "between the mother - who wants to preserve her own life - and the child, who wishes to grow as fast and as big as possible. Such a battle is often well-matched, for the mother is older but the child has the benefit of attacking from within."

"Are you trying to say," said the queen slowly, "that I am too strong for a child to overcome?"

"That is... yes, your majesty."

"I suspect that you may have to argue with the ghosts of queens past," she told him. "Since I have at least two ruling queens in my own ancestry."

The doctor smiled uncomfortably. The queen was known to prize honesty above all other traits in her advisors, but the subject of the dynastic lineage was an exception to this rule. It was well know that the queen did not have two ruling queens in her ancestry, but instead only one, her maternal great-grandmother. The other, Queen Paracel the Just, was the subject of much contention. Had she been a real queen? Had she even been an actual person? Whichever it was, there was no reason to believe that she was a direct ancestor of the queen, unless you were yourself the queen and wished such a belief to be widespread as a political tool for your own use. He briefly considered suggesting something of this, but a less suicidal part of his brain overruled, and so he wisely kept his mouth shut - and therefore, he suspected, also attached to his throat.

"It may be, of course, that your choice of consorts is the sticking point," he conceded. "Perhaps those other queens chose men of hardier stock, perhaps of more forthright seed?"

"Who I choose for my bed," the queen warned him, "is my business."

"As it should be, your majesty. I merely comment that you may have chosen your paramours for qualities other than their ability to beget children upon you." He bowed, and took a step backwards towards the door, wishing he had kept his mouth shut about that too and hoping that the conversation would end now before it became even more uncomfortable. To his great relief, the queen dismissed him.

Alone in her chamber, the queen considered the facts. She had been pregnant four times in her forty-two years, and each pregnancy had ended in unhappy pain. She had hoped for a daughter or son to pass on her kingdom to, but she had come to realise that that was unlikely to be. She would have, she realised, to attempt to discover which of her nephews might be suitable to the throne. She wished that her brothers and sisters had gifted her with a niece or two to throw into the competition, but whatever fate it was that had cursed her womb also seemed to have decided that her siblings should only beget or birth sons - cause for rejoicing amongst certain of her family, but something of an annoyance to her.

She withdrew to her most private chambers, a room at the top of a tower overlooking the palace and it surroundings, and considered her options. She could do nothing, of course, and let the bickering work its way painfully towards its natural conclusion - that one of the nephews would finally dominate the others and be prepared to take her place when she died. That was simple, traditional in its own terrible way, and would at least provide the kingdom with a strong ruler, if perhaps not a just one. But it also hinted at a darker possibility. A nephew strong enough, cunning enough, or ruthless enough to take on his family and win might not balk at testing the strength - or perhaps the liver - of his aunt. The natural corollary to the struggle between the cousins would be an inter-generational battle in which the heir assumptive could move more subtly than she could. She was middle-aged, and her death might be looked on as something more natural than that of a young man, particularly in those margins of the family who resented a woman ruler. No, it could not be so simple as that - she would have to act, and as she was a naturally cautious woman, that made her uneasy. To remain, to watch the status quo, is an easy thing for a queen. She assumed the throne simply because she was the one that the people accepted as her father's heir, and it did not do to think about which by right or other she kept her crown. There was no rhyme nor reason to it, it was all a great game of dice in the heavens. Better to leave that in the hands of the gods and take what came to one.

Even so, the choice now was between action and death, and that was quite enough to motivate her. She could either observe her nephews and choose between them by her own criteria, or she could decide upon a competition, something that one nephew would incontrovertibly win. That was it, she decided - a competition for the crown. None of the family could object to it, and it would provide a little entertainment both for her and for the winner's future subjects.


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