“Not the knife, boy, I want to look presentable at the funeral.”
“What then? What do I use if not the knife?”
“You’re going to use your hands. You need to feel this in your flesh, in your bones. You must feel it when you take a life.”
“I don’t want to take a life.”
The young man trembled. He shakily smoothed back his hair as he placed the knife as carefully as possible onto the bedside table. The old man watched him, a disapproving frown darkening his face. The young man hesitated, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and the old man grunted.
“No, I’m not,” the young man lied, raising his chin pugnaciously, “I just don’t understand why this is necessary.”
“It is necessary,” the old man growled, rising a few hard-fought inches out of his bed in anger, “because you are soft. As you are now, you are unfit to rule.”
“I am a general,” the young man said, standing straighter, towering over the infirm, supine old man in the opulent bed, “I have led countless men to countless victories.”
“You are a boy,” the old man wheezed, grabbing a cloth from his table to catch the blood he spat, “who has hardly stepped on a battlefield.”
Silence. The young man glowered, looked around him at the sumptuous bedroom. Every surface gleamed with burnished gold and jade; every object was perfectly polished and clean. The bed holding the old man was the centerpiece, a gigantic, embroidered affair with too much gold to actually be comfortable. The old man looked comically undersized in the bed, like an infant in an excessively large crib. The young man smiled at that comparison.
“You’re grinning like a fool. Does that mean you’re ready to do what I’ve asked of you?” The old man’s beady eyes ran over the young man from head to toe. He gave a dismissive snort to show the conclusion of his inspection.
“I don’t want to kill you, father.”
Silence, again. The old man stared at the young man, and the young man stared at the floor. A long moment passed.
“Your brother could do it.”
“Then why don’t you get him? He is the eldest.” The young man lifted his eyes to meet those of the old man. The old man took a long, rasping breath, a horrific death rattle that almost made the young man wince, before speaking.
“He is… wasteful. Impractical. No. You are the crown prince. And you must fulfill your duty.”
“There is no clause in my official duties that states I must murder the current emperor to succeed him.”
“Your duty is to me, to my command. You must obey your emperor.”
The two men looked at one another. The young man took a step forward, within arm’s reach of his father.
“Good boy,” the old man hissed. He coughed again, and did not manage to catch the blood with the cloth. The blood fell onto the bed’s quilt, a dark red embellishment to the ornate covering.
“Why do you want this?” The young man asked, his voice just above a whisper. “Why can I not wait for your sickness to take its course? Why must it be my hand?”
“It is my final lesson, one a ruler must learn.” The old man’s voice was quieter, a hoarse croak. “You must be able to do your own dirty work. You must be able to put aside your sympathies, your sentimentality, for the good of your nation. This land needs a ruler who can see beyond the human cost, who can see a grander purpose. You must look past human life, to the health of your nation as a whole.”
The young man hesitated for one more moment. Then he took the final step forward, and placed his hands around the old man’s throat and squeezed.
“Your brothers must be next,” the old man gasped, barely audible. “They will refute your claim. They must fall, quickly and quietly, before rebellion begins. Your reign must be uncontested, completely consolidated. You must be untouchable.” The young man squeezed harder, placed his thumbs on the old man’s windpipe. The old man’s brittle, sweaty hands clawed at the young man’s shoulders, his elbows, his neck. His bloodshot eyes bulged in their wrinkled sockets as spittle and blood issued from his open mouth. The young man tightened his grip as much as he could, and as his breath escaped him forever, the old man hissed his last words.
“Long live the emperor.”