Next in Line

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Today’s prompt from The Daily Post.
A second royal baby will soon be joining the Windsors in England. Given the choice, would you rather be heir to the throne, or the (probably) off-the-hook sibling?

Sascha tucked a scrap of parchment into the crumbling tome to mark his place, replaced the quill on the ink tray and delicately blew sand from the final page he had been working on. Copying the aging, decaying volumes in the castle library was a chore for most of the brothers, but Sascha loved it. The work forced his mind to concentrate. Forming each letter, completing every word perfectly, kept his mind from taking flight; daydreaming had long been a trial to his tutors and to his efforts at self-improvement.

He closed the book, snuffed his candle and took a torch from its wall bracket, lighting his way from the library in the west wing to the kitchens in the basement. Sara looked up, smiled at his apologetic grimace and headed to the immense, lidded pot which hung over the banked fire.
“How late am I?” Sascha asked, thanking her as she set a bowl of steaming meat stew before him on the scrubbed oak table.
“Cock crow in no more than an hour, Brother Sascha; no sleep for you tonight, again?”
“I suppose not.”
He shrugged and applied himself to the bowl, unaware of Sara’s soft regard, the worry in her eyes. She settled opposite him with her customary nettle tea nursed against her palms, watching him assuage the hunger he had forgotten for many hours, probably since break of day.
“It’s not good for you.”

Another shrug, barely a pause between mouthfuls for breath; nor for enjoyment of her renowned craft in the kitchens.
“I know it’s not my place, and I am well aware that you, your brothers, are all pledged to the work of completing the library within the lifetime of our king, but you try too hard, Sascha” his eyes flicked up momentarily at her familiarity, but she ploughed on, “You don’t eat enough, nor do you get the sleep you require to maintain your abilities. Forgive my boldness, but without a change you will be in the infirmary inside a fortnight.”
“The work must be done, Sara. You know this, and I must do it.”
“But why must you work so hard? None of the brothers give as much of themselves. Why is this so important to you?”
“Because my mother asked it of me.”
“Your mother?”
“She died when I was six. Her deathbed request was that I join the brotherhood, change my name and work in the library, here. I think she knew I was not cut out for hard labour, being somewhat small of stature and lacking in strength, instead seeing the power of my mind. Working in the library I have learned so much, Sara. So much history, so many lives teaching so many lessons, so much knowledge I can share in my turn, helping to guide others who follow me.”

Later, Sara thought that was the moment she realised, but in it she could only see the sparkle in his blue eyes, the proud lift of his slender jaw and the inner strength she did not think he was aware of. She had no chance to speak further for a clatter of hooves in the courtyard above and the rumble of running feet alerted the pair to something strange happening.

It was a month before Sascha got the chance to visit Sara once more. With the chaos and uncertainty following the death of the king, the queen’s miscarriage, overcome with grief for her adored husband, the pomp of funerals, and the crowning of the king’s elder son, there was no time to work; the brothers had spent much time in prayer for the souls of the departed, and officiating at countless ceremonies. Now, with peace beginning to catch a tentative hold, Sascha had returned to the library, and to Sara.

They were deep in conversation, he relating the amusing antics of a long dead scholar and adventurer when the kitchen door swung open and a group of men, officials and soldiers marched up to the table. Sascha stumbled to his feet, unconsciously pressing Sara behind him.
“What manner of strange behaviour brings the king’s ministers and armed soldiers to such humble quarters?”
Sara noted the resolve in his voice, no sign of fear, his bearing erect, alert; not a priest but a warrior. The Chief of Ministers suddenly dropped to his knees before Sascha.
“My lord, the king is dead.”
For a moment both Sascha and Sara were thrown into confusion; surely this was common knowledge? The understanding dawned; the new king was dead, but why bring the news to the kitchens, in person, with such ceremony?
“For which we must all grieve, but what possible reason could cause you to bring these sad tidings to me, to us?”
“This will perhaps explain, my lord.”

Confused by his sudden elevation to lordship, Sascha took the proffered scroll and read through it. Seated once more, Sara looked up and saw the colour had drained from his face, his knees buckling and dropping him onto the bench. He read again, slowly, wincing as if each word caused him pain.
“How can you be sure this is true?”
The minister shuffled uncomfortably, still kneeling, Sascha oblivious to his unease.
“It bears the king’s personal seal, my lord. He bore witness to what was done, and that alone is sufficient to place you on the throne.”
Sara gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth, Sascha reaching an unconscious hand to hold hers, offering comfort. He pushed the paper to her, and she felt a momentary shame on shaking her head.
“I cannot read, Sascha. Forgive me… my lord.”
“Please don’t Sara. Be my sanity as you always are.”
She gripped his hand a little tighter, listening as he related the contents of the scroll, a letter from his mother.

“My beloved Sascha,
Forgive me, us, for what we had to do. Your father and I were married before he became king. On his ascension he was committed to a marriage deemed suitable, forced to put me aside, but he swore he would do right by you. In his way, he did.
You were given an education befitting a future ruler. This we worked out with the collusion of Abbot Greyling. He knew, if still alive, knows, who you were. We arranged for him to watch over you should anything happen to me, and he was to report to your father how you progressed. I hope and trust that you pleased him, Sascha. You ever had a bright and shining mind.
In the event of the deaths of his children via Queen Branda, he gave command that you were to assume rulership. Sascha, I doubt this will please you, and it will be a shock, but remember this; you were his first-born son and the kingship is yours by right, my most beloved child.
Be wise, be strong and fair and remember we loved you, though we may not have been able to do right by you as we would have wished.
I will always love you, your mother, Graine.”

When the ministers tried to gather around, to crowd and harry this new, unknown quantity who would be king, he reached through them, drew Sara to his side and she felt his back straighten, his chin tilt up, heard the steel in his voice as he claimed his birthright;
“Only with Sara, will I rule. I have learned much of courtiers and toadies from my years in the library…”

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