“How droll,” she thought, watching two men savagely beat one another before a large crowd of onlookers. She would have preferred her coup to happen behind closed doors, but tradition was important to vampires and so all challenges for the throne had to be resolved in public, leaving no question as to the victor.

The old prince—a stodgy and uptight aristocrat from some forgotten English countryside—took blow after blow from her champion, the former’s preternatural toughness and resilience starting to weaken beneath the rapid and unrelenting attacks of her hired associate. To the prince’s credit he did land a few punches of his own, but nothing that could compare to the onslaught which came his way.

Seated in an overstuffed chair on the stage, she watched the crowd more than the battle for the region’s leadership—she knew her victory was only a matter of time. Violence between vampires was greatly frowned upon, a grim reminder that their immortality could be snatched away at a moment’s notice—only rigid adherence to customs and propriety kept chaos and death at bay. That the contest for the right to rule was both public and to the death helped quelled any potential dissidents from rising up against the society—the macabre dance unfolding before everyone’s eyes was a terrible reminder of the price of change.

Those who supported the old prince looked to the scene with horror, both at the brutality of the display and her brazen attempt to upset the status quo which had served them for so long. Her supporters were excited for the change yet still looked on with squeamishness—talking about making changes and actually following through are two very different undertakings. They knew blood would have to be spilled, but they weren’t prepared for the old prince’s neigh-inexhaustible stamina.

Each time her champion would send him reeling to the stage floor he would doggedly rise, imperceptibly less steady than the last, and prepare himself to receive more punishment. It seemed he knew the matter was settled, that even the best and most impregnable defense could be, would be, worn down given enough strength and will.

“Perhaps it’s a matter of pride,” she mused. If the old codger went down too easily he would bring shame on his fore-bearers and descendants, whithersoever dispersed around the globe, making a mockery of his bloodline. Still though, the iron resolve in his eyes didn’t trouble him—she had paid many favors to people in very high and very low places for the most ruthless and efficient vampire mercenary, and she was certainly getting her money’s worth.

The crowd gasped as the sound of snapping bone rang out across the crowded amphitheater. For all his will, a blow finally landed that broke through the prince’s defenses. The end would come swiftly.

She gestured for the seneschal to step forward. A busybody paper-pusher who served to handle the night-in and night-out business of running the vampire kingdom, he would bear official witness on the transition of power—from old blood to new. She could not restrain her smug smile. Years of planning, scheming, and back room-dealing had come down to his simple proclamation that she ascend the throne.

The prince fell to his knees, unable to withstand the torrent of violence any further. Both combatants were ragged, bloody, but only one was standing. With a cruel glee he took the fallen prince’s head into the crook of his arm, as if to squeeze the very last bit of unlife from his neck. Gasps from the crowd.

“Stop,” the seneschal demanded with a voice that brooked no disagreement. Startled, the woman, her champion, and the audience turned their attention to the usually meek, bookish fellow. “Lady Josephine,” he turned as she straightened in her chair, unsure of what was transpiring. He held out an ornate and aged scroll.

“Do you affirm that this is your signature, in your blood, made on this night, accepting the terms of this battle for regency?”

She nodded, her normally strident voice threatening to betraying her.

The seneschal looked to the nearly-unconscious, nearly-dead prince, before addressing the crowd himself. “I as the sworn keeper of the law affirm that Prince Remus has similarly signed these articles of propriety, which I myself drew up this evening.”

“What is the point of all this pomp?” she seethed through clenched teeth. “Let the man finish his job and declare me prince.”

The seneschal, firmly in his bureaucratic element, ignored her, continuing to address the crowd. “Our ancient and honorable tradition requires that this evening’s contest be governed exactly as prescribed in this document, as agreed upon by both parties, the seventh paragraph of which concerns the terms of victory. I shall now read an excerpt from this section.”

All violence issued by the claimant or their champion in the contest of regency will be meted out in like amount to the claimant, who forfeits the use of any gift, ability, or power of the blood to deflect, resist, or heal such damage before the whole of any such violence be completed.

A confused murmur rippled through the crowd.

“What are you saying you pigeon-eyed bookworm?” she spat out with fury, rising to her feet to stand before the populace—her populace. “The prince lost, declare me his successor.”

“I shall be most willing to do so, good Lady, once the terms of the compact have been met. Your champion has landed one-hundred eighteen power-infused blows upon the prince in the course of this contest. Before you can be named to the throne, you must complete your agreed-upon duty to suffer the same, without benefit of defense or healing.”

“That’s a death sentence,” she snickered. “It doesn’t matter what you two scheming rats slipped into the compact, I’m prince now and my word is law. That agreement is as worthless as the man who holds it. Take your stupid paper and get out of my city.”

The crowd grumbled.

“Lady Josephine, I must caution you that our entire society is predicated on the power of one’s oaths and the upholding of solemn compacts such as this. To dismiss either is to place us no better than the mindless wretches who stalk the long highways between civilization.”

“Declare me prince,” she demanded, shaking a fist in the seneschal’s face. The crowd’s indistinct but audible displeasure grew.

“A prince’s word is everything. You must either adhere to your word, or otherwise declare that this realm no longer conforms to the established ways of our great society, marking each and every resident herein an outcast and disgracing their names forever.”

“Declare me prince!” she bellowed, anger and fear mixing in equal measure.

“You’re no prince!” came a voice from the crowd. As if that one message opened the floodgates, the assemblage burst into threats and condemnation of her attempt to side-step tradition.

Horrified, her gaze flitted across the room, seeking out her allies. With dawning terror she realized they were either nowhere to be seen, or worse, had joined in with the mob.

“Josephine,” a throaty and ragged voice came from behind her. The old prince had risen to his feet and affixed her with an icy, iron stare. “You are banished from my city, and from all cities which share our values. For the unforgivable crimes of attempting to subvert law and violating your sworn compact, you are exiled. Live out your nights with the dregs who share your ignorance.”

“Kill him!” she snapped her fingers to her mercenary, her champion, who had been promised so much in her new regime.

He quickly shook his head; even a mercenary would not obey the orders of one who couldn’t be trusted to keep her word. The crowd grew louder.

“Tradition dictates you receive a thirty-minute head start, Lady Josephine,” the seneschal calmly announced, as much to the crowd as to her. “I would advise you to make good use of it.”

As the would-be-head of state fled from the great hall, bloody tears streaming down her cheeks in embarrassment and pain, the prince addressed his populace, seemingly unconcerned with his many bloody wounds, or the man standing behind him who moments prior had been ready to issue a killing blow.

“My subjects,” he began, a fatherly tone tempering the crowd. “Tonight we see the importance of keeping your word.”

“And of reading the whole contract,” the seneschal whispered to himself, a contented smile playing across his lips.