Title: A Day With His Heirs
Rating: PG / K+
Summary: During a winter carnival, the King of Stormhold spends a day with his children, teaching them to be cunning. Or, trying to.
Disclaimer: Stardust is not mine.
Revised and reposted April 2012.
A Day With His Heirs
Every year a festival was held in the Grand Courtyard of Stormhold Palace to celebrate the midwinter solstice. Snow was shovelled to the edges of the massive circle and within, hundreds of colourful stalls were set up, ranging from the best of Market Town's ragtag peddlers to ostentatious shows paid for by the city's noblemen. Everything was brightly lit and vividly coloured, filled with swirls of rich fabric and the wonderful, enticing smell of hot pastries and melting chocolate. Some said that the winter carnival had become too coarse over the last few years, more suited to peasants than the kingdom's well-bread and wealthy, but few could deny that they enjoyed the day of careless festivities, and so it went on, every year, just the same.
And every year King Decadus, eighty-first King of all Stormhold, would personally take all of his children out amongst the stalls, buying them those trinkets he deemed worthy and narrating long stories about how each of their ancestors rose to power. He didn't do so out of fondness, and certainly not out of love, but because his children had a duty to their blood and, in his opinion, the constant attention of their mother and nurses was not strong enough guidance for sons who must one day fight to the death for his crown. As each son grew older Decadus would take time to tutor them in the ways of succession, ensuring they were able to compete until only one remained, but for now only the four eldest boys could really understand his lectures.
Spending a day with their father wasn't quite as fun for the young princes and princess as wandering around freely without him, but they delighted in the rare and dazzling colour and looked forward to it every year – save for little Septimus, who had never been before and didn't understand all these noises and strange people; he spent the day clinging to his father's cloak, sucking his thumb as they listened.
"…his surviving son was King Tertius the Fourth," the King was saying loudly, and Prince Tertius beamed as though he was the one being praised. "This was nearly seven hundred years ago. Tertius the Fourth had seventeen brothers – even more than I did – and defeated them all. It was one of the most famous coronations in all our history, because Terti –"
"Father!" his daughter suddenly cried. "Father, look!" Una grabbed his big hand and pulled him towards a display filled with porcelain dolls.
"Una," he said sharply, "you know you are not to interrupt me."
Her little face fell and she let go, standing straight in the proper manner she had been taught since infancy. "'m sorry," she said quietly, and her voice betrayed a hint of tears.
Decadus sighed. Women! "You are forgiven, Una. What is it you want?"
She pointed up – straight up, actually – to a little doll in a blue dress. Her father paused and examined it, deciding whether the craftsmanship was of sufficient quality for a royal daughter. Then he nodded and the delighted shopkeeper hurried to bring it down, offering Una a matching ribbon for her hair while he glanced repeatedly at his king for permission.
Irritated, Decadus allowed it, then led the children on. "Tertius the Fourth was extremely cunning," he continued. "He knew he would never be safe until all his brothers were dead, and so he contrived to–"
"Wha's 'contwived'?" asked Sextus.
"'Contrived' means 'planned'," said his father. "You see, King Tertius was found dead on the morning of his eighteenth birthday, and with so many brothers still alive, it was no surprise that none of them claimed responsibility. Why is that?"
"Because no brother wanted to appear threatening, Father," Secundus recited, hands clasped behind his small red coat, "or the others might have tried to assi… assasis… assasnin – get rid of him."
"Assassinate," his father corrected with a frown – Secundus was old enough to know that word by now. "But yes, correct. Very good."
Decadus continued, leading his children up to the large dais on which his throne waited, empty, for the official ceremony later that night. "But Tertius the Fourth was not dead; he hid in the depths of the palace for nine years, until his father died suddenly in a riding accident. At the time, ten of his brothers were still alive and, as Tertius predicted, they murdered each other very quickly and brutally. At last only Octavius was left, and at his coronation ceremony, on this very spot, Tertius walked out from behind the pillars and simply pushed him off."
Awed, the brothers scurried to the edge of the stone platform and looked down. The drop was shallow now because of the huge amounts of snow that had been piled there to clear the courtyard. Decadus frowned and added, "This was in summer, of course. Octavius fell onto stone."
"What if the coronation had been in winter?" Primus asked.
"King Tertius would probably have used his sword. Like this," he said suddenly, snatching a wooden toy sword from Secundus' belt and lunging at Primus.
Primus yelped and jumped back, crashing into Quartus and knocking him off the platform.
There was a scream and a thump, and Decadus leaned over to see his fourth son lying in the sludge, unharmed but soaked and shivering. Primus was horrified. "Quartus!" he shouted. "Quartus, I'm sorry, are you all right? I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…" he babbled, scrambling to climb down and help his furious little brother.
Secundus saw this. He knew he was a better prince than Primus and was determined to prove it to their father, so he looked around, saw his brothers crowded at the edge, and picked the easiest target – Tertius.
"Father, look!" he cried, and everyone turned as Secundus sprinted forward, arms stretched out towards his terrified brother, watching as he–
–slipped, on a patch of ice, and fell flat on his face.
Their father sighed. "Secundus, you always forget; no one should see what you are doing. They need only see the result."
Quintus grinned. No one was looking, so he simply shoved the closest person – Una.
She shrieked as she fell, her pretty new doll slipping out of her hands. It landed head-first in the snow and Una burst into tears. Primus, who was already being screamed at by Quartus, ignored him to pick up his baby sister, patting her shoulder and promising her that no, dolly was fine, dolly would be all right...
"Quintus," their father said through gritted teeth, "you do not kill your sister…"
But then Sextus, who didn't quite understand the point of this game, shouted "Me too!" and made a running leap off the side. He landed on Quartus, who started shouting all over again.
There was no chance for Decadus to scold him because suddenly there was a sharp blow to the back of his knee. He stumbled and turned around. "Septimus?"
With a bright smile and in a very small, cheerful voice, Septimus pointed and said, "You fall!"
Burying his face in his hands, gripping his hair in frustration, King Decadus of Stormhold called for the nurses to take away his cold, bruised and weeping children. He gave a long sigh.
Perhaps he should look into a contingency plan. Just in case.