3. The Iron Emperor

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The End

Takehiko had sulked alone in his room for weeks before his mother's sentencing and he continued his streak the day following her death, not even allowing visits from servants to bring him food and drink. I kept waiting for our father to summon him, but he never did. Of no credit to his own behavior, it seemed, Takehiko was getting let off free.

"He's acting like a child," Kağan complained as he noticed Takehiko's absence before the start of the Emperor's war meeting.

"Degenerate. Like mother, like son," Kağan's twin brother, Zoltán, agreed, shooting a dirty look in the direction of Takehiko's room.

I gave them a once-over. Takehiko's misfortune brought them that much closer to the throne, and they were enjoying the process greatly. The ghosts of smiles behind their eyes were unmistakable.

The twins, Xerxes, and I were in our seats at the War Room table, wasting time until the meeting's commencement. I was wedged in between Xerxes and Kağan, resting my head in my hands, trying to close my eyes and use the opportunity to get much needed rest, but with Kağan there, it was impossible. He purposefully prodded me with his prickly energy - a reminder that he was still watching me.

"He is a child," Xerxes countered.

Xerxes sounded ridiculous, speaking as though he was a grown adult and Takehiko was some small child when, really, Xerxes was only three years older at sixteen. Those three years seemed to make a world of difference, but they were still just that - only three years. At thirteen, Takehiko was four years older than I had been during my mother's execution.

"Hardly," I said.

Kağan rose an eyebrow. "What's the matter, Minos? Run out of ants to burn?"

Zoltán clapped me on my shoulder, oblivious to its injury, and squeezed it, hard. The twins had the physicality of tigers that had never had to hunt for their meat: large and brutish, strong but unrefined. I did my best to casually play off my flinch under the intense pain.

"He's agitated about something not burning, but I don't think it's ants." Zoltán smiled.

"He's jealous Father's allowing Takehiko to lounge around in his chambers when Father left him stranded in the middle of the desert." Kağan laughed. "Aw, Minos-"

I swatted away his attempt to pinch my cheek, but then he caught my wrist - more specifically, the burn on my wrist - in a death grip. I had no strength to pull away.

"-not everybody can be a favorite."

"That's enough," Xerxes interjected, his voice stern enough to make Kağan release his grip. "You go too far."

Xerxes attempted to share something meaningful with me in his eyes, but I avoided them, unappreciative of him defending me as though I was some invalid. My brothers knew very little of my 'tastes for stakes' or time in the Eastern Desert, and their harassment reflected that almost comically. I hardly minded them; they were really only doing what the gods had written they do.

We, like our father's generation before us, and his father's generation before him, were destined to devour one another. The twins were just particularly gluttonous, unable to help themselves from sneaking small tastes before the main course started. It was a miracle from Ihirtoii they hadn't eaten each other in the womb.

Besides, in part, they were right. I was agitated.

My bruised shoulder ached, my ears rung, and my head pounded furiously from the previous night's efforts. My momentary slip in control had left my mind clambered in an influencing hangover - I suffered the leftover effects of the previous night as seasickness in the worst form. Dizziness, coupled with the urge to become sick on the floor overtook me one minute, then passed, only to return again the next minute with a vengeance.

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