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Last Stand





Councillor Hardaker was not sure he could cope with another palace coup. He was, after all, in his seventh decade of life, and in his four-and-a-half decades of service at the court of Sullicania he had owed fealty to seven monarchs - and it looked like an eighth was imminent.

He was a tall man, once broad-shouldered, with an impressive white beard. In his prime, he had been known as a formidable swordsman - not as good as the real champions of the Kingdom, of course, but good enough to hold his own against them. He was known as a careful and thorough planner and thinker, as well as being something of a traditionalist. But unlike most traditionalists, he was smart enough to realise that if a tradition wasn't working any more, or was no longer relevant, and could be shown to be so with his careful reasoning, then it should be left by the wayside. He had been instrumental in stopping the bear-baiting, for instance - Sullicania had long since run out of bears, so expeditions had been mounted to the mainland to poach some from there, inevitably leading to deaths from misadventure with the bear, or from gamekeepers.

It was something of a tradition that the monarch of Sullicania was always male. This was not exactly law - primogeniture was the rule, but over the centuries there had been a tendency for the eldest surviving child to be male. However, the current monarch was, for the first time in Sullicania's history, female - much to the displeasure of her younger brother.

Queen Birgit had inherited the throne from her father, who himself had successfully seized it a decade before. Birgit had been Queen for three years, and whether she remained so for another three years largely depended on the next few minutes.

The echoes of the latest challenge were still ringing around the hall. Prince Gart had entered at the head of a squad of spearmen, and demanded that his sister abdicate the throne she held in defiance of all tradition, in favour of himself. He had had enough, and the country had had enough, he said, of the tyranny of women.

Before anyone else could respond, Hardaker felt himself marching in front of the throne. He drew his sword and proclaimed, "Gods Save the Queen! And I will kill anyone who says otherwise!"

The guards around the walls were loyal to the Queen, he was sure. Gart's spearmen were there to counter them, but it would be a close fight. As for everyone else present, Hardaker wasn't sure. Things could swing either way, but Hardaker judged that Gart had over-estimated his support. Decisive action now could tip the balance, and Hardaker had just taken that decisive action.

"What, sister? Are you so unfit to rule that you need to be defended by a senile old man?"

Hardaker knew he didn't have long to live, whatever happened next. He figured he may as well go out doing something meaningful. "If I am so senile, Highness, feel free to swat me out of the way so that the Queen may deal with you herself!"

"If you wish a swift death, dodderer, I will be happy to oblige you! And then I'll deal with that weak little girl behind you." Gart was apparently ignoring the fact that female eldest children met their ends by assassination more often than to illness, and Birgit had actively thwarted three assassination attempts on herself in the decade while her father was on the throne. Gart was also ignoring the fact that Birgit was wearing a sword of her own.

The Prince had been educated in arms by some of the finest armsmasters in the country. He was in the prime of life, wearing chainmail and carrying the finest sword the kingdom's money could buy. Hardaker was merely a geriatric old man in the long robes of senior advisers to the throne, with a ceremonial sword - and over five times more combat experience than the Prince.

It was not a fair fight.

Gart wheeled away screaming, clutching his empty left eye socket.

"What, brother, are you so unfit to rule that you can be defeated by a senile old man?" Queen Birgit asked, mockingly. As Hardaker's exertions got the better of him and he staggered out the way, she stood and drew her blade. "I thank you for your assistance, Lord Hardaker," she said, "but now it is time for younger hands to finish the job." She pointed her sword at her brother. "Kneel, traitor."

Hardaker tried to pay attention to what followed, but it was difficult. He was so short of breath that it felt as though he'd climbed Sullicania's mountain in an hour; his heart was pounding in his chest so much he felt it would burst open, and in his hands his sword trembled. He stepped aside and sunk onto the steps of the throne's dais.

"I am no traitor!" Gart declared, still clutching his eye socket. "I am saving the kingdom!"

"A traitor is one who tries or plans to try to remove the lawful ruler of the land. I have received the oaths of fealty of all the country's nobles, I have legally and properly inherited this throne from our father. You are indeed a traitor."

Hardaker wished he could follow what would be coming next. His ears were dull, and his vision was darkening. He was so tired - oh, so tired. He died without even knowing if his service to the kingdom of Sullicania would encompass eight monarchs, or just the proper seven.

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