Arthur Pendragon dies on a cold November night with a bullet in his lung, a single trail of blood leaking from his lips.
The next day his sister makes a tearful speech in front of thirty eight cameras, broadcasted live. Her lips are bright, a flushed red, burning across millions of screens across the country.
She meets Arthur for the first time at her father's funeral.
"So sorry for your loss," the blonde boy, half a foot shorter than her, scuffs his feet on the ground. He has a slight lisp, his tie is crooked, and there is a slight smudge on his white shirt, beneath the fitted suit jacket. Her lip curls, and she thinks, I thought you'd be bigger.
Her father had told her that Uncle Uther was a very important man. He was her father's business partner, she remembers, and his wife had been a pale, elegant creature before the sickness took her away. Uther Pendragon looms over his son, one hand against his back, mouth a stern line. "Arthur, look up," Uther says, and Morgana feels her back straighten almost unconsciously—he has that effect on people. "And speak properly."
Arthur scuffs his foot on the ground, and she feels a coil of irritation—annoyance holding back the tears pricking at her eyes. He looks up, and never tearing his eyes from hers, says again, "I'm sorry for your loss, Morgana."
His eyes are very blue. She manages a smile, and thinks; you are so very small, for a giant's son.
She holds her hands very primly together, and says, "thank you."
She sidles up to him, where he is gulping down his second scotch by the bar, and orders a dry martini. "Slow down," she murmurs around the glass. It burns in her mouth, and she makes sure her lips are not marred at all. "It's only seven."
She is wearing a red dress; hemline inappropriately snug around her thighs, tight against the curve of her hips; but the high lace collar gives her an air of prim propriety. He's noticed too—she can tell. He's decidedly not looking anywhere near her.
"Don't scold," he says, and his eyes are flickering. Around them, the ballroom hums with laughter and the chatter of three hundred tongues. She spies Uther in the centre of a crowd of old white men. "It's unbecoming, and we all know how much worth father puts on your appearance—"
"Somebody has to keep up the family name," she says lightly. "Given that oh, only one of us graduated with a double first and only one of us doesn't get photographed shitfaced on a weekly basis—it's not hard to see who it is."
He downs the rest of his drink, and turns to her, gaze flickering, from her red lips to the red lace gathered at her throat. She smiles, her lips a ruthless cut across her pale face. It looks like a knife wound. "Don't scold."
She makes a small, careless gesture. Uther is proposing a merger tonight, one that can see their revenue grow by twenty percent if everything goes according to plan. She has the papers filed away in her office, had been pouring over it for weeks, reading over every clause, every sub-clause, tweaking when necessary, making sure that the contract was as clean and ironclad as a bullet through the eye. "Try not to get shitfaced tonight," she says.
Arthur's hair is mussed, his tie is crooked, and she can smell smoke and alcohol on him already—all he was missing was the sex. She sets down her drink, shoots a smile over his shoulder to a board member, and straightens his tie, her fingers brushing only briefly against his throat. She feels his breath hitch, and she presses a bit closer in response. She likes to see him on the edge of breaking.
"Uther is about to do something big," she murmurs, and smiles up at him, distinctly aware of people beginning to notice, and makes the scene sickeningly domestic. "For appearances' sake, try not to fuck anyone in the toilets before ten."
She leans up, and presses a kiss against his cheek. Her hand splays over his heart.
They are photographed together, more often than not.
A stray curl, stark against the pale curve of her throat. The impeccable cut of his suit, moulded to the long lines of his body. Her thin fingers with their pale polish, curved into the crook of his arm. His mouth close to her ear as he whispers to her, in the front rows of fashion shows in Milan, at exclusive galleries in New York, at all the parties and functions they are definitely not seen at.
The first time he had kissed her, she had laughed. He was seventeen, and home for the weekend—she was in her last year at the exclusive girls' school she attended; Uther had wanted to keep her close at hand, while his son he let roam free. He was seventeen, and she already had the shine of adult glamour, already wore pale polish and red lips, lining her eyes with kohl whenever Uther left for his business trips overseas. His father had been in Tokyo, Arthur remembers. Uther's household is marked by his absences rather than his presence.
Morgana had been dropped off at the front door laughing by a man he didn't recognize; and he was a man. Tall and dark and he had listened to them laugh quietly at the door, before Morgana said, "Go," and he did. This is the thing about Morgana: she always gets what she wants.
"Lurking is not a becoming trait," she said loftily as she came through, throwing her coat down on the floor—someone else will get it; dry clean it; hang it up neat and tidy in her wardrobe. Her mouth was red and not just from lipstick, and she had been wearing a black dress with geometric cut outs, wide swaths of pale skin.
"You know what else isn't becoming," he said. "Guys who pick girls up at high schools. That's creepy, Morgana."
"He's charming," she replied, and he had smelt cigarette smoke on her, and something stronger. Strange—he was usually the one who comes home the worse for wear. "He buys me flowers, and perfume, and—"
"You let him fuck you?" He asked, without thinking, and wants to retract it immediately. Her eyes were lidded, lips curved knowingly.
"And if I do?" The housekeeper appeared at the top of the stairs, and she made an irritated gesture with her hand. "What business is it of yours?"
"Morgana—" he had said, and broke off. He felt foolish, all of a sudden, too big and clumsy, staring down at her curved mouth and thin wrists, at the shadows cast by her collarbones. "Mor—"
She had started it, he remembers.
She tasted of alcohol and smoke, and smelled of another man's cologne. Her skin was cold beneath his hands, and she had bit him, sharp teeth bringing a burst of copper into his mouth.
They are sitting in a booth, in a dark corner of a club, when she says it.
She is drinking something green, something that looks toxic, which matches the colour of her eyes when they are holidaying at the vineyard in France—bright and verdant, almost poisonous. Under the flashing lights now, he can only spy the curve of her red mouth as she says, casually, almost without thought: "Uther is dying."
She sets down her drink, folds her hands primly in her lap, against the white flesh of her bare thighs. "Uther is dying."
"Morgana," he says, and he feels as if his voice is coming from very far away. "For fuck's sakes, don't joke about these things—"
"I'm not." She says. "Terminal cancer. He's in the final stages; why else do you think he's been taking so many trips to Switzerland? To ski?" She snorts. "He's been going to a clinic. There's nothing they can do."
His heart is pounding fast, and he can taste something bitter at the back of his throat. She is still, unmoving, eyes moving steadily over his face, and he is hit with a sudden surge of hate, of disbelief at the line of her mouth, at the emptiness in her eyes. What happened to you? He wants to scream. What the hell happened to you to make you so cold?
"They're announcing it in two days." She says, and smiles. "The king is dead."
The thought completes itself in his head as she stands, straightens her skirt. Long live the king.
He had been groomed to take over his father's position at the head of the company ever since he was thirteen.
Figures, and rhetoric, how to chart the rise and fall of a market, when to buy and sell and when to merge; he had made his million at the age of eighteen—a prime piece of land in Texas, they had found oil. Morgana had sat by his side through all of Uther's little talks, eyes too large and too keen, like a wolf, candlelight reflected in her pale irises, smiling when Uther told her that all this must be too complicated; go to bed, darling.
"I like to learn," she had said. "Won't you please let me stay?"
But those were the official lessons. How to smile without teeth, how to laugh pleasingly, how to shake a man's hand and let him know you are superior—all of this he learnt at his father's soirees, while Morgana learnt to hone her beauty to a point, learnt to paint her lips red to direct her listener's gaze. "It's a game," she had said once. "And Pendragons win, do they not?"
This he would never forget, so long as he lived: the curl of her hair falling over a bare shoulder, her lips against his ear, and her voice low and with all the purpose of a cocked gun, as she pointed to the map of the lot in Texas: "that one. There."
"Bigger," Morgana says after the first board meeting after Uther's death. "Bolder."
Her fist is clenched, small and pale and angled in her lap, blue veins protruding at her wrists. Her face is studiously relaxed, and she throws the words out like stray thoughts. She thinks he doesn't notice, he is beginning to see; she thinks he doesn't see her throat work, the way her eyes are large and hungry enough to swallow up the world, the minute imperfection at the corner of her lips, where the lipstick doesn't stain her mouth exact. He adjusts his tie, smooths his hands over the tailored cut of his suit jacket.
"We have to make concessions," he says. "To keep them happy. Father made too many enemies for me to run the company the same way, and we need allies—"
"Pendragon is the biggest name in the markets," she says. "We don't need to make concessions to anyone. Kings don't bend to pressure; would you sacrifice your queen to save a pawn?"
"Depends where the pawn is," he replies, and he feels a coil of irritation building in his core. "And for Christ's sake, we don't live in the eighteenth century, Morgana, there is no king."
She stares at him for a long time, and her hands splay across her thighs. "This is why you always lose, brother." She says, standing up, and he wants to say, don't call me that. Her hands trail across his shoulder as she makes her way towards the door. "You don't know how to take."
"Rule the market, and you rule the world," Uther had told him once. "Money, Arthur. Money, and economy, demand and supply. This is capitalism; you might not get a crown, but you can still be king."
In his will, Uther bequeathed his 47% share in company ownership to his children, Arthur of the House of Pendragon, and Morgana, now legally adopted daughter, of the family of Le Fay.
"Joint ownership," Arthur had said, and his voice was still thick, still gruff from tears. "Us, together. The way it should be."
She had studied history and law at college; international business law, and then a thesis in Ptolemaic Egyptian history. Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt, had been left a crumbling kingdom by her father as well; had been granted joint ownership and even less than 47% control of her country, the lion's share left to her incompetent fool of a brother on the sole basis that he had a cock to rule his head.
On dark nights, in their New York penthouse, in the London flat, in the villa in Rome, in the high-rise in Shanghai, when she is naked in her brother's bed, she leans towards him, watches him breathe in the dark.
He had always looked more like Igraine than Uther; an aquiline nose, eyes framed by thick lashes, and a full mouth made to be bitten instead of being the one that devours. He's always looked more like a sheep than a wolf—a beautiful sheep, yes. But they're all the same once you get them on the altar.
I am a Pendragon too, she thinks, and presses her breasts against his back, watching his breath hitch, even in sleep. And I don't need a Caesar.
Seven months in, he loses a hundred million in one fell stroke. A tsunami hits the coast where they were planning a series of resorts; the entire place is ruined.
It's not much, for a company that rakes in billions every fiscal year, but she screams at him all the same.
"I told you not to buy it," she shouts, when she gets the call. "The coastline is unstable, didn't I say that? Didn't I tell you not to invest in that lot?"
"No one knew it was going to hit," he snaps. "You can't calculate nature, Morgana, we knew it was a risk, but the payoff had potential, we knew that going in—"
"It's unstable," she shouts. "The whole place is fucking unstable—you were told the place was liable to earthquakes. You knew insurance didn't cover that far. You knew, and I told you, and you did it anyway, all so you can pull some stupid fucking publicity stunt for the press—" she breaks off into a harsh laugh. "How many jobs do you think were lost because of this? And how many did you create?"
"It wasn't a publicity stunt," he snaps. "It was a good cause, and forgive me if I thought that this company might benefit from not being called a bunch of circle-jerking capitalist leeches on national television." His throat was working. "We're in the middle of a recession. It'd help our public image if we displayed the slightest trace of empathy and actually tried to help."
"And how did this help?" She retorts. "Our stock points dropped to the lowest they've ever been in twenty years this morning, we've lost a hundred million and seven top level investors. Face it, Arthur—" her voice drops to a hiss. "You fucked up."
The silence between them is deafening, Morgana's nails biting into her palm.
"You want to be friends with your employees?" She says finally, and there is a cold, curling humour in the depths of her voice. "You want to invite the accountants to barbecues on Saturdays? You want to lose millions so you can give a teenager a summer job?" Her lips curl. "Buy a fucking beauty salon, and leave the running of the company to the adults."
She moves out the next day, and three months later, the board votes her in as the new CEO of Pendragon, Unlimited.
The fact of the matter is, Arthur doesn't have his father's guile.
In time, maybe he'll learn. In time his mouth will harden and his eyes will turn to steel, his suits will be cut sharper and his ties will no longer be crooked. In time, he can be Uther's heir; he can take the company and make it into an empire.
The truth is, Morgana just doesn't want to wait for him.
She had lived in his shadow her whole life, had bit down on the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood when he struggled over figures she can do in her sleep, when he deliberated on where to invest, whether to buy, or sell, or merge, she all she had to do was follow her instinct. How unlucky for both of us, she had thought on more than one occasion, that I wasn't born in your place.
Uther had known. Uther had seen her work, had seen her flinching instinct for cash as cold and hard as she is, and when she had graduated from her girls' school, he had pulled her aside, and told her in not so many words that she must look out for Arthur; he doesn't have the same strength, his heart is made of malleable stuff.
Pendragon men are all the same—they'll trample you underfoot, take your successes for theirs, and reduce you to nothing if you let them.
This is a game, she had told Arthur once, and what she had meant was: I don't intend to lose.
She's had enough.
Two weeks after the coast line fuck up, she finds him shitfaced in an alley. She is wearing gloves.
"Morgana?" He asks. "Is that—"
"No one feels the loss of him more deeply than I do," she says, and her voice is thick. She stares into the waiting lenses of thirty eight cameras. "He was my last living family. America has lost a visionary, and I have lost a beloved brother."
If at night, her tears are not as affected as she'd like, if sometimes she wakes up wondering why she is alone in her bed, if the sob in her throat is a bit too real for comfort, then she shall not think upon it.
She steps away from the podium, and her lipstick is perfect.
"I'm sure you'll do marvellously," says one of Uther's old friends, the day they appoint her as CEO.
She is sitting in Arthur's seat, and it had been Uther's seat before him. Her hands are no longer primly folded in her lap, but resting lightly on the arms of the chair. "I'll try and live up to my predecessors," she smiles.
The room is cold around her, and she thinks, the king is dead.
No one is there to finish the thought.