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Six days before the next House Conclave, Arthur Ling, Scion of Aubergine House, died on his homeworld Anubis.
Like a flock of bright birds in their house colors, fifteen of the sixteen Anubian Scions -- or their duly appointed representatives -- met at the Truce Table to discuss Arthur's succession. The empty chair was Aubergine's. The representative of that house sat by himself in a corner. He disdained the chair that had been offered him, and instead sat on the floor, reclining against the wall in an immobile mockery of relaxation. For this man sat in an absolute, stonelike stillness, a stillness that very few people can achieve, and then only through intense mental effort.
He could do it naturally.
He had been doing it for an hour and a half.
The Scions kept glancing at him, and at the satchel resting on the floor under one of his immobile hands.
"... irregular. Most irregular."
"He claims the right."
"But the balance ..." offered the Scion of Silver House, resplendent in her ceremonial robe of nanocrafted steel chains, each link so tiny that the robe looked like a cascade of silver water falling over her shoulders.
The Scion of Lavender House nodded along with her. He was among the oldest of those at the table, the skin of his face immobile from repeated rejuvs, twisting his mouth into a permanent rictus. "It's a hard time for us all. Between the Zahali recession and that unrest in Siderea System ... this isn't a good time to confirm someone who isn't ..."
"As hidebound as yourself?" inquired Carnelian House, rising from her seat in a swirl of dark red robes.
The Scion of Saffron House, this cycle's Truce Chair, tapped one of the three buttons on the table in front of him -- the blue one. Carnelian's image blurred briefly; her lips still moved, but whatever else she was saying was lost in electronic distortion.
"Enough discussion. We're going round in circles, retreading the same points. Call to vote?"
He touched the green button; his AYE vote lit up in front of his face. The vote went around: thirteen ayes, two nays, agreeing that it was time to vote on the matter.
"The ayes carry," Saffron said. "Hereby does the Truce Table of Anubis vote to confirm or deny the petition of one David Ling, claimant to the succession of Aubergine House. Please cast your vote."
Fingers moved, and the votes began to light up. Aye. Nay. Nay. Nay. Aye ...
"Nine aye, six nay," Saffron reported, with a soft sigh. His had been one of the "nay" votes, but unless it was required to break a tie, his vote counted no more than anyone else's. "David Ling, please rise and approach the table."
Something snapped behind the clear, piercing green eyes of the man in the corner, and he went from immobility into graceful motion without any preamble. He rose, clutching the satchel, and set it carefully on the table before taking the seat of House Aubergine.
His skin was pale, and a casual-looking ponytail held back his long black hair. He wore a tight-fitting bodysuit in the colors of house Aubergine: black with hints of purple, like a fresh bruise. He appeared quite young if you didn't look too closely at his face. Under the harsh lights in the Truce Room, the tiny tight places were visible along his hairline and jaw, scars of numerous rejuvs. Even in this century, money could not buy youth, but it could buy the appearance of it.
The Scion of Saffron House cleared his throat. "David Ling," he said. "Did you bring the proof required by House Law?"
David Ling smiled. He did it by moving only his lips. The rest of his face did not change.
"Yes," he said. "I did indeed."
He unstripped the satchel and carefully opened it. Although the Scions, forewarned, had expected what they would see, there was nevertheless a sound among them, a soft release of breath. Ahhhhh. Not quite shocked, not quite resigned. They stared into the open eyes of Arthur Ling Aubergine, and not one of them said a word.
David placed his hand lightly atop the dead Scion's head, ruffling the gray hair in a mockery of affection.
"I also have papers," he said, running his fingers through his brother's hair. "Death certificate and the like. If you need to see them."
Saffron cleared his throat.
" I don't suppose that will be necessary. That is, uh, not a replica, I presume --?"
"Of course not."
"Of course not," the Scion of House Saffron echoed, smiling a bright, brittle smile. The rest of the Scions were speechless. It had been generations since the Truce Table had seen such a literal
interpretation of House Law.
David let the silence hang just a little bit longer. "Is it adequate?" he said at last.
There were hasty murmurs of assent along the Table.
Saffron looked at his fellow Scions with a sort of helpless anger, as if to say, Isn't anyone going to do anything?
No one did, so it was up to him to face David Ling's sardonic green eyes, and say the traditional words:
"David Ling. Let it be known that your predecessor, Arthur Ling, is hereby stripped of all rank and function according to the Laws of Succession, and hitherto will be known by his previous name in all things. Let it also be known that the Truce Table recognizes David Ling, brother to the deceased, as the eleventh Scion of Aubergine, and his name shall be David Ling Aubergine until he dies, an equal among equals."
David Ling Aubergine smiled at them. It wasn't any more pleasant than the first time around.
"Thank you, honored brothers and sister." He sealed up the bag.
"Further business?" Saffron inquired.
There were no replies. He looked up at the ceiling. "Meeting adjourned, by the authority of Saffron speaking as the voice of Anubis."
The bright lights flickered and dimmed as the ceremonial words brought the meeting to a close. The fifteen other people sitting at the table with David Aubergine, formerly David Ling, flickered and vanished along with it. He was left alone at the replica Truce Table in the council chamber in the innermost parts of Aubergine's home complex.
David drew a deep breath and released it. Though he had expected the outcome -- he had, after all, fulfilled every requirement of succession in the most thorough manner possible -- it was always difficult to fathom the minds of the Scions. The fifteen other rulers of the world Anubis were all shrewd, savvy and smart, but they were also, to a man or woman, somewhat insane.
I, fortunately, am not,
David thought, with a tight smile. He opened the satchel so that he could stroke his dead brother's hair.
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