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Through the Blood
    by Mette Ivie Harrison
Through the Blood
Artwork by Anna Repp

The day had been long and loud, with the constant roar of the crowds outside the palace cheering for Elwell. Now it was dark and the man himself was inside, with the king he had deposed, carrying a heavy crystal decanter and a white powder in a bag.

"There's not enough powder here to kill you, but enough to make you forget who you are and how you will end," Elwell offered gently, as if with real compassion.

Haber, no longer King, stood at the window, looking out on his last sunset.

Elwell shrugged. "It's your choice. The end won't come any sooner or slower for it, but I wanted you to know that I do have some scrap of mercy left for you. We were once friends, were we not?"

"I was your friend," said Haber. "But I think you've been planning this for a very long time indeed. Revenge for boyhood slights? You have capitalized on every misstep, on the queen's death, on the rebellion I put down so bloodily, on the raised taxes after the drought. I trusted you."

"Trust is a fatal flaw in a king, sadly." Elwell put another log on the fire.

The room was plenty warm. Elwell was making it hot enough that Haber's robes would become acutely uncomfortable. But to take them off -- no. They were the last sign of kingship, the last thing he had left that Elwell had not taken, and he would die with them on.

"What is the price, then?" asked Haber, gesturing to the powder though he had no intention of taking it.

"Gifting your son with the magic," said Elwell. "Of course. What else do you have to offer?"

The magic that protected the kingdom from outside attack. It did not extend to civil war, nor to drought or plague. But so long as the king held the magic and the king held the throne, the kingdom of Triborn could not be taken by an invading army from another land.

In his youth, Haber had twice been tempted by his friendship with Elwell to tell him how the magic passed from one king to the next, but both times had stopped himself. It was perhaps his only wisdom in all those years. If Elwell knew, how different this scene would be.

"No," said Haber. "Giving the magic to him would be the same as giving it to you." Elwell would use Berick worse than he had used Haber.

"Your Majesty, I beg you to reconsider. Think of how frightened your son is. He does not know how to be king. He is only a boy. Barely six years old. You cannot be angry with him. Why deny him his rightful inheritance only because you must die?"

"He has his mother's eyes, but he does not look like me." At his birth, Haber had had no doubt that the boy was his. Now he had nothing but doubt.

Elwell had been the one to bring back the portrait of Princess Yara. Elwell had spoken praises of her grace and queenliness. He had lit a fire in Haber's heart for her, and had stood as translator for her time and again. Now Haber wondered what else Elwell had done for the queen before she had died of the plague.

"What will you make of him?" Haber asked, his tone still demanding, for he had no other.

"King," said Elwell.

Haber smiled bitterly. "That is the one thing I am sure you will never do. For if he is king, then what of you? He would have no need of you, and you cannot allow that. That is the difference between us, Elwell. I am capable of love."

"I loved you once," said Elwell. There was a hint of color in his cheeks.

That one night, that drunken kiss. Was that the beginning of this grudge? They had been only a few years older than Berick then, and still in school. But it was true that Elwell had changed afterwards. Haber had thought it was only embarrassment, and had been so eager to show his friend that it did not matter.

"Bring him to me, then," said Haber with a sigh.

Elwell's eyes lit, and he left the chamber.

It was not long before he was back. Certainly not long enough.

Haber felt the tears start in his eyes at the sight of the boy. He felt the love of a father to a son, no matter what was in the blood.

"Father!" shouted Berick, and ran to him. Then he stopped and looked at Elwell.

"Go on," Elwell said with a wave of his hands.

This time Berick came more slowly, his arms outstretched. But he did not embrace his father with any strength.

"How are you, boy?"

"I am well, Father," he said, licking his lips and looking at Elwell again.

"Good, good."

"I missed you, Father."

"I missed you, too, boy." Berick was named for his grandfather, and suddenly Haber found it very hard to taste his father's name in his mouth.

"I love you."

"I love you, too. You are a good boy."

What else was there to say?

"Give him your gift, Berick," Elwell prodded.

Berick put a hand to his pocket. He took out a tiny stone flower. "For you, Father," he said.

Haber held it up. The details were astonishing. Each petal had been delicately cut into the stone. It had been years since he had seen such beauty. Since school, when Elwell had enjoyed showing off his skill to the young Haber, who had never been gifted in the arts.

"You made this yourself?" asked Haber, his heart sinking at this last, damning bit of evidence.

Berick nodded. "Duke Elwell has been teaching me."

Haber spoke stiffly. Elwell had once tried to teach Haber, with no results. Why should the son be so different from the father? "Thank you, Berick. I will treasure this. It is a beautiful gift."

"Father --" said Berick.


"Do you have a gift for me, as well?"

Part of the script Elwell had prepared for this meeting.

Haber put his hands behind his back, clasping them to keep then from shaking. Now it was time for his own script.

"Has Elwell told you how I will die?" he asked.

Berick looked away.

"He knows it will be the gallows," said Elwell. "Do you think that he will hate me more if you tell him the details? Shall I get a rope to let him feel it around his own neck? Show him the drawings of criminals who have been left to rot?"

"But a king is never hanged," said Haber. "Do you not remember your histories? It has been many years -- but still, there must be courtesy given." Now he had surprised Elwell. There was some pleasure in that. "A king must be killed with the axe," said Haber.

Berick flinched.

Elwell's eyes narrowed, searching for the purpose behind this. "You think that this will give you a reprieve, of hours or days, while I search for an axeman?"

Haber shrugged. "I have no wish for reprieve, not now. I have been wishing for the end of this since you first stormed into the palace. You could have killed me then, you know, when you met me in the throne room, your sword raised against mine. How your soldiers would have loved that, to see you best me in front of them."

But at school, Haber had always defeated Elwell in sword play. Once, Haber had allowed Elwell to win, and he had known it. It had infuriated him.

"But you never were a man for blood," said Haber, teasing the man dangerously, as if pulling a bird carcass from a hound. "Were you?"

Elwell's eyes flashed with anger. "You think I am afraid of a bloody, messy death? You think I will spare you for that?"

"I think you would rather poison me the night before, and then bring my lifeless body to the hangman for a show," said Haber, nodding to the crystal decanter and the powder he had been offered. In truth, though, he suspected nothing of the sort.

"What? Never. You will die in gore, then, if that is what you desire. Remember this, Berick. Your father demanded this death, not me." His hands were so tightly clenched into fists that the knuckles had gone white. There was a circle of white around his mouth, as well.

So, now Haber had fallen to Elwell's level, using him as he had been used.

"Would you like to see your father's head hacked off?" asked Elwell in his fury. "Will you hear the sound of it dropping into the basket? Will you see his eyes open one last time, and his mouth drop, when the head is held up to the crowd?"

Haber looked into the terrified eyes of his son and wished this was not necessary. But there was one thing he could do.

"Not the boy," said Haber softly. "I beg you. Keep him away from the sight." He had never begged Elwell for anything before, but he would beg for this. Haber knew better than anyone. Berick would be haunted for the rest of his life by such a death.

That was reason enough, even if it was not the only reason. Elwell waved a hand, tired of the argument. "He may remain in the palace, then. Afterward, he will step out and be declared king at my side. But I will watch it. I will see you die. No one will call me a coward."

From a distance, he would watch.

Good. That was what Haber needed to be sure of.

"It is time for you to go now," he said to Berick again. "We shall not meet again."

Berick began to sob. He turned his face into Elwell.

"Give him the magic now," said Elwell. "You will have no other chance. Give it to him now or know that your kingdom will fall after you are gone."

But this was not part of the plan. "What do you know of the magic?" scoffed Haber. "Nothing. I could give him a button and tell him it was the magic, and you would know no better."

"I know more than you think. There is an old manuscript, from the earliest days of the kingdom," said Elwell, triumphant. "It says that the magic is strongest if it is given freely, but that it passes through the blood regardless."

For a long moment, Haber was as if deaf. Did Elwell know everything, after all? Would the magic be his?

"From your blood to your son's," said Elwell.

With those words, hope returned. Elwell would never have planned all of this -- believing that it depended on Berick inheriting the magic from his father's blood -- if he did not know for certain that the boy was Haber's son. Whatever else he had done with the queen, he had not made a son with her.

"I thank you," said Haber, sagging into a chair at last. "But I will not give him the magic."

Elwell took out his anger on the boy, which was painful for Haber to see. "Come, Berick. You must go back to your room."

"No, please," said the boy. He dug his feet into the carpet.

Elwell reached for his ear and boxed it.

But Berick would not give up. He fought until Haber put a hand on his son's shoulder. He could not give his son the magic, but he could give him some dignity, and that, too, was something a king needed.

"Go with him. No struggling like a prisoner. You will be king," said Haber.

Berick's body went limp. "Yes, Father," he said.

Elwell took him out and came back alone. "If you think that he will rebel against me in time, if that is the hope that keeps you sane, you are very wrong. I know him too well. And I will know him better. I will know of everything he dreams of at night, what frightens him to breathlessness, what he cannot give up and still live. I have already begun it, and I tell you, it has not been difficult."

Haber clapped slowly. "Yes, great work. A boy of six years old. What a master you have shown yourself to be, that he does all you say. But it may change when he is twelve, or sixteen, or twenty. Or four-and-twenty. You can never be sure of him, because he will always be changing. That is what a boy does, Elwell. It was what I did. And what you did, too."

"I never changed," said Elwell. "Nor did you. You were always so wrapped up in your own world that you never saw anything you did not want to see."

There was a silence as Haber accepted the truth of this. "I have one favor to ask," he said then. "For the sake of those old days."

"What is it?" asked Elwell.

Was he like to refuse it, only because he could?

"Let me speak to the man who will wield the axe. You will choose him from among the king's men, will you not?"

Elwell was suspicious. "You think that I will choose a man who has been with you for some time, and he will let you escape somehow? You have no allies within or without these walls. I have made sure of that. I do not leave such things to chance."

"I ask only for a man of experience," said Haber. He allowed his voice to shake, and held out a hand in front of him, a formal petition from man to liege. It was part of the show.

Elwell drank it in. And then smiled. "A quick death, eh? A man who has a strong arm and who has killed before and will not hesitate?"

"Yes," said Haber.

"I will send in the three youngest of the guard. There are some who have never met you before. You may choose one of them."

"But --" said Haber, pretending to protest.

Elwell did not notice the gleam in Haber's eyes. He did not think to, now. He left the king to scrub his own robe clean of its filth, and to stare at the offering in the decanter, and the white powder.

Just before dawn, they came. Three young men. One was not even full grown. His shoulders were small in his uniform, and his cheekbones stuck out of his skin as if it were pasted on. He had pustules on his face and worse, his hair was red. No doubt he had been teased mercilessly for that, all his life. The guard would not have made it better.

The other two were more handsome. One had a broken nose. The other walked with a swagger.

Haber asked them all where they had been born, and who their families were. But it was not the words of the answer he listened to it. It was something else, the tone, the taste of it. He asked who had been in battle before. None of them had. He asked who had practice at wielding an axe. The one with the broken nose said that he had cut a good deal of kindling. They did not any of them know why they were there.

At last, Haber asked which season they liked best.

The one with the broken nose said that he liked summer.

The swaggering one said he liked spring.

The red-headed one said he liked winter, because it was quiet.

Haber focused on him. "Have you any sisters?" he asked.

"One," said the red-head.

"Tell me about her."

"She sings songs while she is working in the fields. She teases me and sometimes I hate her for it."

The other two sniggered.

"And if she were insulted?" asked Haber. "What would you do?"

"Defend her," said the boy.

"And if the man who spoke the words were a swordmaster and a head taller than you?" he asked.

"I would defend her all the same."

Haber believed him.

Haber asked questions of the others, of their families, of their training. But he already knew what he needed to know.

When Elwell came back, he asked, "Which do you choose, then?"

Haber did not hesitate. He pointed to the one with the swagger.

"Then you shall have this one." Elwell pointed to the red-head and turned to him. "You are to be the one to execute the king. Come with me. You must acquaint yourself with the axe."

The boy protested and Haber watched him go sadly. He was perhaps sixteen.

And how long before Elwell realized the truth? Would the boy be old enough by then? He was the only one of the three who seemed to have any sense of honor, or love. He had not even asked his name, thought Haber.

They brought a hood for him and tied his hands behind his back. He did not struggle.

When they led him outside, he could hear the crowd, though they were not as loud as they had been the night before. There was some respect for the king, and for his magic, it seemed, despite having risen up against him.

He was nudged to go up the steps. There were forty-six of them. He nearly fell, but the men behind him dragged him forward. One of them was the swaggering one, who swore at him and cuffed his head.

But the crowd hissed and the king thought he heard something thrown. There was a thunking sound, and the swaggering one went quiet and he did not pull as hard on Haber's arms.

Finally, Haber was at the top. For the last time, he felt the bounds of the magic that edged the kingdom in protection.

"Your Majesty," said the red-head in a choked voice.

"Is it time?"


"I will kneel."

The red-head helped him to the right place. What to say to him?

"I killed my father," said Haber. "I cut his throat when he was old and ready to die, and his blood splattered me."

The red-head stuttered something.

How to make it clear? "The blood," said Haber. And he leaned his head forward. "The magic goes through the blood. In your time, you will have to pass it on to someone, as well."

The red-head's breathing was labored.

"You will do well," said Haber.

The axe was raised.

And fell. Blood splattered onto the boy's hands.

And a new king was made, through the blood.

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