Weak, they’d called him. Sickly. Ill-favoured, if they were feeling kind; ugly, otherwise. The Duke’s son he might have been, but his brothers and sisters were Duke’s sons and daughters and hadn’t seen any reason to include an unhealthy little boy in their games and activities. It wasn’t as though an unhealthy puppy like Wreffen was likely to live to adulthood, never mind inherit their father’s title, so why cultivate loyalty with him?

Oh, the rest of Wreffen’s litter hadn’t been so harsh – they were all Cani, after all, and they were around him enough to know he had a keen mind and a good head for magic. But outside of that immediate circle, it wasn’t Cani who made up his associates – the children of a Rassimel legeriator here, young Orren guildsmen there; he’d even chanced to do an early favour for a very unlikely friend, a Sleeth on the cusp of becoming a mastersmith – the right word in his father’s ear had eased that appointment along.

Ironic that he’d survived through adolescence and into adulthood, while the same healthy children’s pursuits he’d been excluded from had killed Trust and Nastrothon.

Still, as he’d grown from an ugly puppy into a striking, if not exactly handsome, youth, whenever his older siblings had taken notice of him it had been tainted by cruelty – from them, from their Cani friends who had even less reason to be loyal to him; from other Cani, too, who’d heard of his talents for sinister magic and blamed him for the deaths of his middle siblings. He’d done no such thing – whatever they’d done to him, they were his siblings, and they’d not done enough to warrant anything that foul – but it had still given him a poor reputation in some circles. Not enough to keep him from marriage – not all of the city’s Cani were blind to his rank as the Duke’s son, youngest or otherwise – but that wedding had certainly been one of the worst-attended in the city.

Then, though, their aging father the Duke had died suddenly in his sleep, with no clues given as to who should inherit his power.

Ill-regarded though he was, Wreffen’s older siblings hadn’t quite dared exclude him from the choof to see who would be the next Duke. The people of Harquen Mene were restless, said Anoof, eldest of the four surviving candidates. Father had always said that if he couldn’t get that bickering under control, the city could wind up splintering, or worse. Whoever succeeded him needed to have their trust – so they would take a month to gain the favour of as many different guilds as they all could. Whoever was the best regarded across the city, measured by the collective votes within each of the city’s guilds, would be the next Duke.

Wreffen had bickered – a month, for such a task? Argentry had chided him for that, saying he ought to have been more pleasant in his childhood if he wanted any chance to inherit; he’d subsided, outwardly fuming – but his silence was as much to keep himself from laughing as anything else.

Oh, they were good friends with the rest of the city’s Cani, to be sure – but Harquen didn’t have that many Cani in it. The Smith’s Guild was small enough that, between a Sleeth who did, in fact, remember her patron and two Rassimel who’d always been glad for a dependable person to mind their children, he’d scarcely needed to exert himself. Many of the other sorcerers’ guilds had been swayed by flickertide conversations and suitable gifts. The Weavers took more work and the calling in of a good many favours. And so on. Loyalty, as Cani knew it, was not something he had in great supply, but the Guilds understood the language of what was in it for them, and he’d shown himself to be quite fluent in that language through his formative years and his early adulthood.

In the end, it wasn’t really much of a contest. Argentry and Anoof spent so much of their time competing against each other for the Hostelers and Carters and other massive guilds, and cementing their own positions with the Perfumers and the Spice Merchants, that they’d scarcely noticed the trouble they were in until it was much too late.

Now they sat in the wings, wide-eyed, as the priest of Reluu lowered the ducal crown onto Wreffen’s head. His mind was not on the ceremony; instead it was on every slight, every insult, every time they and their so-beloved friends had pushed him away from the society that was his by right.

And as their eyes met his, he could see that they knew he remembered. The puppy they’d said would never live to his majority, the youth they’d been so sure would be dead before he could marry, the young man they’d told would never amount to anything – that was the bright-eyed sorcerer who sat in the highest seat now.

Yesterday, they’d been Duke’s heirs, candidates for the greatest authority in the city. Now? Now they were nothing. They’d been so careful to spurn his loyalty – well, they’d be regretting that now, wouldn’t they?

And if they weren’t, they certainly would be in the days to come. He had no reason to give them a comfortable living stipend, and certainly not quarters in the longhouses that formed the wings of the ducal palace. He had no room for someone he couldn’t trust in the Office of the Exchequer – so much for Anoof’s cozy appointment. And he wasn’t going to let an enemy join his guard as an officer, like Argentry had hoped to do before the old Duke’s death.

Oh, no. It was time for some changes to happen around here. Great changes indeed.

But maybe not quite yet. The priest’s little ritual was coming to a close; now it was time to thank his real friends, his true people, the ones that had supported him this far – to make sure that they knew he remembered that support.

He rose from the throne, launching into the formal wording of his carefully-prepared speech – but in some corner of his mind, he wondered what a fitting appointment for his feckless elder siblings would be. He couldn’t just dismiss them, not when they had the ducal pedigree; that didn’t mean, though, that he had to make their lives nice.