“Blood. It’s what runs the realm. It’s what makes family important. To draw the blood of an enemy, that makes one feel whole. Makes one feel a part of the world. But, to draw the blood of family…nothing else will equal this. Not your first love. Not your life-long enemy.
“The blood of a family,” my father said, and handed me his keeper, “that is the only blood worth spilling.”
The keeper’s edge gleamed in the meager torchlight. I scraped my thumb across the edge, ascertaining its sharpness. A thin bit of skin fell away, drawing a drop of blood. I sucked on my thumb until the bleeding stopped.
My father returned to his chair, and wrapped the shawl around his diminishing shoulders. A footman, standing beside the fireplace, added another log.
“Not since Atrin and Jento have twins been born into our family.” I knew all this, but I let my father retell the story. He enjoyed telling family history, despite his memory failing him in remembering how often he had told these tales. “Their mother birthed them at the same time. Her death sent waves of grief and sorrow throughout the realm. This, of course, since both Atrin and Jento exited simultaneously, gave them equal claim to become first of the family. Their father, my great-grandfather, your grandfather, Darient, decreed that twins born in the family in line to be first, must, when of age, engage in combat with one another, until one lives, and one does not.”
I knew all this. And the next part. Atrin had poisoned Jento’s breakfast porridge on the morning of their seventeenth birthday. He watched his brother grasp at his throat. The burning so much that Jento did not die of the poison, a vile concoction Atrin procured on the isle of Binn. Jento clawed and scratched at his throat so vehemently that he tore through the skin, tore through his esophagus, and died with his blood spitting into his porridge.
“You, Junie,” my father said, and nodded at the footman, “shall take your rightful place as first in the family.”
The footman exited my father’s room. To do what, I did not know. Most footmen had served my father so long as to be able to read his every nod as a specific command. Most times in my father’s presence, I spent it glaring at my feet, or at one of the myriad pieces of art cluttering his room’s walls. One piece kept my eyes rapt. It hung above my father’s nightstand. I knew not its name, but recognized it as one of my mother’s attempts at artistry.
A simple landscape. Hills, spots of trees. All colored in a pale green. Azure sky with redish tendrils tangled throughout it. Dotted along these hills were myself, on the extreme right foreground, nestled against a dead tree with a book in hand though I wasn’t reading it; my father, on his horse wreathed in black, in mid-gallop along the horizon; and my brother, extreme left foreground, his back to the viewer of the painting, his head tilted toward me.
My mother had not added herself. She had died before completing this work. The only hint of where she might have painted herself was a dark smudge near my brother, to his right, the faint outline of an arm reaching for him. What that arm was to do, I know not. It was he that found her, slumped in her chair, the painting on its easel before her, her rigid hand unwilling to let go of the brush.
On the hilt of the keeper was a small button, near the pommel. I clicked it. The keeper’s blade glowed a dull red. A deep hum emanated from it. The blade, almost imperceptibly, began whirring around. Spinning at such a speed to allow it to cut through stone if one were so inclined. Or one found necessary to do. I clicked the keeper off and held it, the point hovering just above the stonework floor. “Does Jona know of this?”
My father coughed once.
“He should prepare himself,” I said.
My father shifted in his chair, tightening the shawl about himself. The footman returned, easing the door opened, and leaned over my father. A few whispered words delivered into my father’s ear, and then the footman left the room, leaving the door more open.
“Jona awaits you in the courtyard.”
For the last three years, my father had prepared me for this. He spoke of the intuition I displayed, my ability to find the correct decisions in the most difficult and immoral problems, and arrive at those decisions with a ruthlessness demanding of one desirous of being the first in the family.
No. I should not use the word ‘desirous.’ That would imply that I have used my talents, spent my nights as I slumped into dreams, in the sole hopes of rising above my brother Jona and becoming first of the family. At fifteen, I killed my first man. A thief in the night. He, more a spy than anything, belonged to the Fauls across the Admon border, a young man known as Tomays. Dressed in sheer black, his face the only betrayal of his maneuvering through the shadows, had mistaken upon my room first. A light sleeper, I heard the door open, knowing it was not a footman or my brother. One becomes most aware of even the most minute details with ones surrounding them so closely, so intimately. I kept no light glowing, yet the Moon provided enough of a view for my slit eyes to observe the thief/spy creep along the walls.
I never knew his intent. What he was looking for. His body held no weaponry. He made no sound as I flung my blankets from my body, a dagger in my right hand. I implanted that dagger, a fourteenth birthday gift from Jona, into the thief/spy’s right eye. A burst of air escaped his body. He slunk to his knees, sat upon the backs of his feet, and twitched. Even when I knew him dead, he continued to twitch. I knelt, and watched the blood blubber out from my strike. When he halted his twitching, I withdrew my dagger.
Even in the Moonlight, the blood glowed. The tang of its smell bristled the wispy hairs along my body. The thief/spy, by the look on his face, died peacefully. Grateful that this journey had ended, and a new one would begin.
I rather feared viewing this look upon Jona’s face. While seventeen himself today, no one would consider him a man. He flaunted responsibility, made jest of those that worked hard, and would rather sit in solitude, a tome across his lap, and ponder over the text his pale eyes could not tear away from. He held no desire to become first of the family.
And yet, it was not until the week prior that it had been told to me by my father that for one of us to become first of the family, the other must be killed. A duel, he called it. Equal chance for each twin to win out in physical combat. A pure proof of who had the proper fortitude to become first; who could display the ruthlessness to lead a family in these wars. One cannot lead a family if one cannot draw the blood of one of their own.
As I exited my father’s room and took the longest route to the courtyard, which would take me through the kitchens, past my mother’s painting room locked since her death, I attempted ignoring the questions that had trembled in the back of my mind.
Why must this be? Why not one ascend and the other be content as not first? Jona had shown no inclination to being such. Point of such, I was perfect for being the next. He was not. Within his books, he found answers to questions only one who had never drawn blood would ask. Why the wars? Why this overblown bickering amongst families? He found it served no purpose in the ways of the world.
Knowing he knew such history, I explained a family must war with another until only one has proven through the shedding of blood that it may be trusted by the populace to control our realm. Admon. A place feared and envied by countries over the countless Seas, a country not even those that dwell in the sky and on the glowing Moon could ever hope to acquire, let alone attack successfully.
I passed our mother’s painting room. I did not break stride. How could I? What would the purpose be of stopping there and looking in and seeing how the room still looked? My father had not sealed it; my brother had not entered it. Once, a month ago I believe, I opened the door. Peeked through the slit.
There are times I want to speak of this to my brother. Jona and my mother had more of a relationship than my mother and I did. In Admon, this was true of most families. A mother and son closer than a mother and daughter. The same with fathers and daughters. A practice to enforce providing of a different viewpoint of gender, of not limiting yourself by such trivial differences such as sexual organs. This being so, I held no compunction on looking into my mother’s former painting chamber.
Inside the room, the easel empty of the painting I had been viewing a moment before, sat my brother. His head bent toward the empty easel. A thin blade, one of his own creation, laid across his lean lap. He spoke to the nothingness.
“I miss you,” he said. I edged away from the slit in the door, so were he to turn about, he would believe he had not shut the door completely, and not that I dared to eavesdrop on his conversation with the dead. “They do not listen to me. I am right. I am beyond correct in telling them all that this…this is insanity. The families fight and scuffle and trade wins and losses. No one gains from this. The populace does nothing but get conscripted into a family that offers what a peasant most desires. Why did you bring me into this madness, Mom?” He stifled a sob. “Junie is right to become the first. If war is all anyone craves, if destruction and death and blood is all anyone wants, than on our birthday, I do so hope that she kill me. That she take the blood from my body and spill it across our land. Our pitiful land.”
I shuffled away from that door. That night, we dined, just he and I. He read from one of his myriad books. I studied my meat, my stale bread. Not once had he and I ever discussed what was to occur on our seventeenth birthday. That after that, only one of us would be alive, to take our rightful place and lead our family to glory and honor and the blood of our lives to forever flow through the land of Admon.
He shut his book and raised his head, his plate of cooling food untouched, unnoticed. “I dreamt of a creature last night. Great, terrible. A leviathan of the Seas. Do you remember the boat ride we took when we were younger, to visit the Fallow Lands?”
“The creatures that leap through the water, those great beasts father called ‘whales,’ well, I dreamt of one of these creatures, these whales. It stalked me through a murky water. There weren’t any other animals in this Sea. I was terrified. I swam faster than even you can. Right before I woke up, I turned to see how close the whale was. I saw its maw opening to devour me. This hump on its back. Its fins streatched full length. The whale turned to show me its entire body. And you know what else I saw on it?”
“It wore a tutu.”
He laughed first. I detected no sarcasm in his laughter. For a moment, the tension I had noted for so long gone as I laughed along with him.
Jona wiped his mouth. “Do you fear death, Junie?”
I swallowed the last of my bread. “I fear not having it on my terms.”
“And who are you to deal out those terms?” His eyes burned, though his tone belied none of the harshness he wanted those words to contained.
“I never have killed one who did not deserve it.”
“And who deserves death at your hand?”
“Those that threaten our family, that threaten our supremacy over Admon.”
“So, then,” he said, and leaned back in his chair, “when you kill me on our birthday, will that mean that you will kill yourself?”
I drank water.
He waved a hand and picked up his book. “I’ve long ago made peace that I will not see many more sunrises. I long ago decided that I am not the one that will lead this family. You see, sister, our family, all families, they fight, and they die, and they shed their blood, of the others and themselves, and they think that it’s right. That that is how to live. And you have been the one that has come up and been the one that is so favored to lead this family into continued supremacy when father dies. It’s all you’ve known. Do you know what I know?”
I shook my head. Sixteen years, and he and I had never spoken at length about anything like this. Our childhood spent mostly apart. The times together were formal, learning our letters together, the constellations. Battle tactics and using a keeper, while kept separate, were discussed. Ideas and tactics and hints shared. He obviously took to the letters more. I did as well, but found little practicality in the tomes he perused on a daily basis. They spoke of pacifism. They spoke of a peace Admon had many years before, even before Jento and Atrim. Families in harmony. Co-existing for the good of the whole realm.
“The reasons,” he said, “for all the strife, all the desire for blood, are long lost. Why? Did you ever ask yourself this, sister? Did you ever ask why?”
I passed my room. The keeper felt heavier the closer I came toward an exit from our abode to the outside. I had decided on the scullion’s entrance by the kitchen. A few of the pot scrubbers did not look up from their work as I passed them. Perhaps they sensed the keeper in my hand. Perhaps the word had spread of what was to occur in the main courtyard this morning.
I loved my brother. Deeply. When we were seven, I had gone swimming, an activity undertaken as I understood it to be a strengthening exercise for the entire body. A river ran through the forest by our family’s home. Simply called the White River, I used to pick these roses that grew underneath the water , and give them to my father as a present when I thought he was in good moods. His presents were rare. I would swim from one bank to the other. In—
The sunlight hurt my eyes when I stepped outside. I forgot what I had been thinking about. Across the expanse of virid grass and the edge of the abode’s wall was our courtyard. Nothing interesting about this courtyard; a simple area where I and my brother had practiced our fighting skills, our ability at being able to take the blood of another.
Jona stood near the rear gate. His back to me. Even from this far away, I saw the double daggers he held in each hand. He more displayed an aptitude for a shorter blade than a longer one. Why this was, even he could never say. I always believed it to be his willingness to be as close to his opponent as he could in order to experience the nuance of slipping a blade into your opponent, and be close enough to see the effect that would have. For someone who had spoken of the futility of a family’s existence, our family’s existence, this choice of weapon always struck me as particularly…odd.
He turned. Even from here, his face betrayed his poor ability to hide his feelings. We had not spoken since that dinner, where he brought up the simple question, the most simple one could ask of an idea, of a moral, of a way of life.
For that entire month, I have, at times, contemplated the words he spoke to me. About the futility of these family wars. The toil they had taken upon Admon for all these years, all those uncountable years wherein the reasons for rivalries and problems had been lost like wind. I’m sorry; I’ve not the knack for poetic comparison as my brother possesses.
I long for his thoughts, his true thoughts. As his twin, he does share some of my more unfortunate qualities. Such as the inability to be complete in the truthfulness of their beliefs. While he has been so outspoken about how he has felt about the family, and that he had acknowledged that his seventeenth birthday, our birthday, would be his last upon this earth, I have never detected within him a distaste or disdain for me. He has loved me, and I have worried oh so that me killing him in this duel would be the end of me.
This was the right thing to do. He must die. I am clearly the one that must lead. I must be the one to lead our family into continued and unending strife with the other families, holding onto our status as the ones in charge of Admon. I clicked the keeper alive. Felt its warm hum in my hand.
Jona remained still. His double daggers in the ‘present’ position taught by a long-dead master of swords.
As I approached, Jona remained, the fair wind tousling his hair. Had my father ever heard Jona speak of his pacifism, of the mere suggestion that one who was a first in a family should attempt any sort of peace, he would have taken the keeper I held now and tore Jona from the wrinkles on his forehead to the mud on his shoes.
That day he saved my life, Jona did not ask anything of me, as he pulled me from the White River. I had caught an ankle between rocks, while I was picking one of the White River’s roses. No fish dared to eat from these underwater flowers, for they were as poisonous as they were beautiful. I enjoyed picking them, the only hobby I had cultivated that did not have a direction toward becoming first in the family. Jona enjoyed reading his books beside the river. He had given me a brief nod as I dove in, and found me struggling.
While walking to meet him for this duel, this end to his life that would be at the hands of this keeper, at the hands of me, I smiled. How stupid of me to have stuck a foot between two heavy rocks, underwater. I had tried to gain some sort of purchase as I pulled on a stubborn rose that refused to be rescued from the riverbed. How Jona had found me under that murkiness, how simply he had been able to move a rock that I could not gain a grip on, I shall forever be thankful for him.
I lost my smile and stopped.
He could have let me die. Let me drown under that water, White River rose in hand. For, as much as he thought it wrong our way of life, the realm Admon’s way of family, he was always loyal. Loyal to the cause of the wars; loyal to his family; loyal to the traditions. Not had it ever come up with him that we could simply not engage in a duel. He had resigned himself to meet his end at my expense, at me doling out of killing him.
“Are you ready, sister?” The courtyard had a circular disk of deadened earth in its center. No one was about. Orders had been given to clear away. No ritualistic moments for this. No pomp, with family members looking upon us, some rooting for one sibling to kill, other family members cheering for the other to die.
When he pulled me from the White River, he took the rose I still clung to and held it up for me to see. “Why would you die for such a trivial thing?”
Jona knelt at the disk’s edge and planted one of the daggers into the ground. He reached behind his back and pulled forth a White River rose. He smelled it and tossed it at my feet. “I gift you, Junie, because I want you to at least remember me.” He took his dagger from the ground and stepped into the disk.
“I would die,” I told him, me cradled in his arms as we sat gasping for air on the White River banks, “for something that matters.”
I would lead the family into victory. I would lead into destruction, desolation. Admon a shimmering wasteland, perhaps. It is what I am to do. Jona? Jona would demand the firsts of all families meet. Discuss. Talk. And Jona could talk, at such length that the passing of the sun and the Moon would go unnoticed, unheeded. For a month after that dinner, I had ignored all that he said, yet felt the creeping terror within my soul, the terror of what he was saying so desperately wanting to dominate my thoughts. Infect what must be done.
I love my brother.
I clicked the keeper on, its dull hum deafening to me. I blinked, and felt something I had not ever.
“I am ready, brother.”
He nodded. He raised both hands, the blades of his daggers pointing out at me, holding them in the ‘overhand thrust’ position. Once, while sparring he defeated me with this maneuver. He was across the disk, and had to run a good ten paces if I stood still before he could bring the daggers down.
He would lead to peace. I would lead to the continued existence of our family.
So, I did what had to be done, the only thing to be done, as he rushed me and leaned his hands back a little more behind his head, to maximize the downward thrust of those daggers. I did what I would do as he did for me.
I let go of the keeper. Closed my eyes. And saved my brother’s life.
Daniel Brophy has been writing for nearly ten years. He has finished less than that number of stories and books. He has had one short story published, but that was six years ago and the name of the now-defunct publication escapes him. Born with a thirst for words and stories, Daniel owns enough books to open a small library, or to re-enact the ending of the Twilight Zone episode where the bookworm breaks his glasses at the end (spoiler alert). Thankfully, Daniel has eyes like baseball legend Ted Williams, so broken glasses are not a problem. It should also be noted that his pop culture acumen borders on worrisome, due to a Tarentino-level of knowledge. Dream projects for Daniel include: writing a book set in the Alien universe; building a life-sized replica of the TARDIS and setting it into a wall to act as a door to a room, giving off a ‘bigger on the inside’ illusion; and making a low-budget horror movie about a graveyard. Daniel gallivants across this perilous journey through time and life with his wonderful girlfriend, a joyous woman light-years smarter than Daniel, and whom he hopes sticks around long enough so that he won’t have to edit this author bio ever.