The solemn tone of the great horn echoes through the city walls, signaling the passing of King Aldamus II. Nobles gather in the court to await the crowning of his heir. Commoners whisper wild gossip about their king-to-be, hoping to steal a glance of the young ruler during his customary ride through the capital. Before the occasion can take place, all are kept waiting while the late king’s final wishes are fulfilled.
Aldamus II’s will is the shortest in the kingdom’s history. It proclaims that four letters are to be delivered at once to the members of the royal family, carried by the late king’s most trusted servants and elite soldiers from his guard. The contents of these letters are not to be discussed, and the letters themselves are to be burned after each recipient declares themselves to have finished. Any interference with the delivery of these letters will be forcibly quelled, without exception.
The servants set to their tasks at once, each delivering their letter to the appointed member of the royal family. What follows here is the best kept of secrets: a complete account of the late king’s lost words.
* * *
Aldamus, my firstborn son and heir,
I have ruled our land for decades, crushing invaders and rebellions alike. I have led our people through famines and plundered the dens of my rivals for their fortunes. These deeds have made me beloved. Yet these accomplishments are nothing at all when compared to the future I have gifted our kingdom with.
My time runs short. It pains me to leave you, your siblings, and your wonderful mother. I find comfort only in knowing that you shall rise in my place. You shall be a great king. You must be an even greater king than I.
Read these words well, son, for they shall soon be burned. I have written simple goodbyes to your siblings and mother on the same terms so as not to arouse suspicions. I chose the most loyal of my men to deliver your letter. Those who stand before you now will serve you well when I am gone.
Yet, as a king, you cannot trust. The nobles of the court will use my demise for their own ends, wishing to warp or limit your newfound power. Chief among these malcontents is Lord Bandric Robur, an ardent opponent of our monarchy. Beware all nobles, but beware Lord Robur most of all.
I advise you to speak carefully with each member of the court at some length. Declare these private conversations to be in the spirit of sowing the seeds of friendship among your newfound vassals. Assess them with great care. It is essential to determine who is loyal, who can be swayed, and who may soon rise as an enemy. In all cases, you should keep each Lord on the shortest leash they are capable of tolerating.
Pay little mind to the cries of common folk. The values of our kingdom would rot if they were left to their own devices. You must rule all of your subjects with clear vision and rapid action. Demand total loyalty and accept nothing less. Strong leadership will guide them through any difficulties they may come to face.
At the first opportunity–be it that of banditry, foreign agitation, or an uprising–you must prove your strength. Crush the first enemies who would dare to stand against you. In doing so, you will forge a reputation that shall be forever feared and respected.
You have made me as proud as any father could be. I leave this world in your hands.
* * *
Derren, my brilliant son,
Your presence in my life has been a remarkable gift. In life’s darkest moments, you’ve been a shining light. You’re quick to joke and sing if only to make me smile. I have needed you many times more than you could ever know. Thank you, my dear boy, for each and every treasured moment.
As I die, I need you more than ever before. I need you to take what I believe to be your rightful place. I need you to tear the rule of this land from your brother and seize power for yourself.
This will be no easy task. It is, without question, not legal. How I wish you had come first. Aldamus is my heir, and our ancient laws dictate that I cannot name another in his place. He shall be the king as long as he lives. Aldamus will rule with force, to be sure, but without a single drop of intellect. The true strength of our kingdom–strength that comes in clever, cautious rule–will crack beneath his steel gauntlet. I have no doubt that you know this already, but I tell you as your beloved father: you must take the throne from him, by any and all means necessary.
Observe the beginning of your brother’s rule with care. The nobles will not tolerate a king who seeks to oppress their rights for long, and Aldamus shall certainly take steps to do so. Lord Robur has never shied from speaking his mind against the monarchy and could prove to be a valuable ally. You would be an ideal compromise; a king, to be sure, but a friend to the court as well. Lord Robur’s knowledge of the nobles, their positions, and their desires is second to none. Use him.
Take care, however, when dealing with such men. Their lust for power rivals that of your brother. There must be give and take in negotiation, but you should not allow other clever men to outmaneuver you. Keep yourself ahead of every other man and make yourself essential to each figure in the realm who counts for something.
Do not forget: no matter what you must do, your means will always justify your ends. It was you who should have been first. You should have shared my name. I have faith that you will find a way to claim your rightful place. I know that you will rule with wisdom and make me very proud.
* * *
Illia, my beloved daughter,
It is with great pain that I must leave you, but I am comforted in knowing that you shall shed tears for my passing. My love for you is as deep as an ocean, and knowing that your love for me is just as true has warmed my heart since the first moment you spoke. You are my everything, sweet girl.
I have always indulged you in every way I was able. Now, for the first time, I must ask something in return. I must ask you to rule in my stead.
Aldamus is an arrogant fool who will amount to little more than a tyrant drunk on power. Derren is the least trustworthy man in the kingdom. A squabble for power is inevitable, and so long as either of your brothers sit upon the throne, our people will surely suffer.
There is cunning and intrigue in the court. You must keep a practiced and pleasant demeanor. I doubt this will be hard for you, as you have always shown friendship to all. But be wary of these people who consider themselves the betters of others. They will do anything they can to raise their own station without the slightest care of how it will affect those beneath them.
You must become a champion of the common people. Take up their causes as your own. Your brothers are sure to ignore their woes; the commonfolk sorely need the promise of a compassionate ruler. Become the voice that shouts to sate their hunger and cure their ailments. The people, when united, are unstoppable.
The time will come when one of your brothers will need to be dethroned. You will accomplish this with the will of the people. I ask you to take heart in knowing that you will do what you must for the good of each soul who makes their home in our domain.
You will be magnificent, and I am so sorry that I could not live to see your bright future. I love you, my sweet champion; now, forever, always.
* * *
Wife, whose name I cannot bear to write,
You have always asked for honesty in its entirety, and I have strived, whenever possible, to indulge you. The time for pure, brutal honesty has come. I shall bear my soul to you, here and now, as I lay passing into death.
I care for you deeply, make no mistake. All the same, I have at times regretfully resented your presence in my life. You were not the one I wanted when our marriage was arranged. There was another. I have never understood how you could so easily accept being given to a stranger. Even now–no, especially now–I cannot understand how you could ever have wanted me.
You are a wonderful mother. Your love for our children is unconditional. It is your very nature to love. I know that you still have love for me as you read these words, though I wish that you did not. I wish you had not married me. You deserved so much better than what I have amounted to. It may mean nothing now, but from the depths of my heart, I’m sorry for what I’ve done, and damnably sorry for what I must now do.
I have set our children against each other. I’ve contemplated this wretched plan for months, trying to convince myself that such a thing could bring nothing but misery. Alas, I know now that this must be done with my last twinge of life. My words will evoke the strength of Aldamus’ brutal ferocity, Derren’s sly tongue, and Illia’s loving heart. One of our children shall succeed in casting their siblings aside, and in the wake of their methods our kingdom will thrive with a king or queen reigning utterly unopposed. Our family’s suffering shall bring prosperity to the people. The realm will be secure for centuries.
I will not be present to see the coming fate of our land. I’m so sorry, my beloved, but neither shall you. Your love has made you the sole obstacle that could cripple this utopia in its infancy. You cannot be allowed to stop what I have put into place. Even if I had not confessed my vile scheme, you would have found a method to make peace between our children. I will not give you the opportunity.
When you have finished with the letter, you will be given a vial. You must drink willingly from this. It contains a painless poison that shall let you pass on peacefully. If you do not, my guards will force the substance down your throat. Your heart will be said to have stopped while reading this last farewell. Should you break the vial, you will meet with an unhappy accident; a much more painful fate than I would ever desire for you.
I have no words to express what I feel. An apology isn’t enough. It could never be nearly enough. Perhaps we will meet again in death, and you can take your righteous revenge. No, I know that your heart will conquer your hate. I hate that you can so easily conquer your hate.
I’m so very sorry, my dear. I regretfully await you.
Letters from the Late King by Ethan Hedman