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The King was dead, and his two sons accused each other of his murder. It was little wonder that the Great Hall was so crowded that day; a sea of nobles and courtiers had been waiting at the doors with unseemly excitement. The seamstresses of the city must have been working all night to dress them all in black. They seemed like a crowd of crows, come to peck at fresh bones.

The Queen sat on the bench beside the High Throne, her face pale behind her dark mourning veil. Ladies looked at her and whispered; how hard it must be for Her Grace, to have lost a husband so suddenly.

A hush fell as her sons were brought in to stand before her. Their station had saved them from a night in the dungeons, but the strain on them was visible in their faces. Their eyes narrowed as they regarded each other.

“My sons,” the Queen said quietly. “You have each accused the other of the most heinous crime. Not simply murder; not simply the murder of your King, but also the murder of your own father. Your own blood.”

She paused, and whispers were heard throughout the crowd, muttered prayers to the Divines.

“You shall be judged as all who shed innocent blood are judged,” the Queen said, her voice barely audible.

The Master of the Courts came forward and knelt before the queen. Behind him, two servants held covered baskets.

“By your order, Your Grace,” the Master of Courts said, looking up at her. Behind her veil, she smiled. The man had been expensive, but it would be worth it.

She swept past him and took one of the baskets from its bearer. The Master of the Courts coughed once, quietly, and she turned to place the basket before her youngest son. She brushed her hand lightly over his hair before turning back and taking the second basket. This one shook in her hands, and she set it before her elder son quickly, before the crowds could see it quake.

“You know what you must do,” she said. She walked up the steps to sit once again beside her late husband’s throne as the young men bared their right arms and thrust them into the baskets.

“The serpents within will sense the blood of the guilty and strike with the will of the Divines.”

She allowed herself a half-smile behind her veil. So it would be, were it not for the attentions of her bought man; one snake could do no harm even if it were awake to strike, the other was starved and mistreated – ready to strike at the very air if it so much as moved.

The hall was silent, so silent that it seemed everyone had stopped breathing.

The younger Prince looked across at his brother and smiled. The elder remained stoically still as the basket shook increasingly violently around his arm. Suddenly, it toppled and fell away from him, the cover falling completely free. The crowd gasped and surged away towards the doors as a serpent slithered from the basket.

“Catch it,” somebody cried. A few brave souls ran forward to do so, but the serpent eluded them with ease, slipping past the stunned Prince and up the steps towards the throne.

It struck, as quick as a flash, then allowed itself to be picked up gently by one of its pursuers.

The chamberlain was the first to reach the Queen. The venom was already coursing through her veins, and she cried out in pain. He ignored her cries, and wrenched a large ruby ring from her finger.

“Poison,” he declared, twisting the gem from its base to reveal the compartment within. “The justice of the Divines has been done!”

The two princes examined their unmarked arms and looked at each other for a moment before the younger man knelt, and the Queen’s voice was quickly drowned out by cries of “Hail to the King!”

© Kari Fay

(Author’s Note: This is a bit of possible background history for a much longer story I’m working on…)