There are twelve avatars, and the thirteenth which is Death.
It is normal for the royal family to produce fewer than twelve children in any generation. It is rare that there should be a thirteenth.
Thus there is no difficulty when an older child takes it upon themselves to walk down to the pit of the avatars and jump.
For example, one cannot consider Cedric selfish in any manner for taking the first of the twelve avatars.
When he made his choice he was fifteen and he had three siblings only. His condition was one of abundance. He walked down to the avatar pit. He stared down: the pit was deep and black and full of edged in sharp rocks. It resembled an ecstatic’s vision of the entryway to Hell. Cedric steeled himself against fear. Then he jumped.
As he fell he connected to an avatar. This proved his blood and confirmed him as a child of the throne. Great black wings surrounded him. Stars burned around his head. In this fashion he became one with Night.
Similarly Ernest claimed Fire, Samantha the Blade, and Mark the Sea.
When the Queen gave birth to Doreen, expectations changed. All eyes turned to Doreen and the other young children to see if they would live.
Doreen, you see, was the thirteenth.
There is no established protocol of precedence for distributing the avatars when the royal family has more than twelve children. It is generally presumed that the twelve oldest will claim them, unless one is disabled, disgraced, or in some fashion unwilling to take up the duties of their blood. However the actions of those who have claimed avatars are essentially superior to law and custom. Since society has no power to enforce its decisions on those who claim an avatar out of turn, and since the compact between royalty and the avatars does not specify a resolution, the matter remains a lacuna in the fabric of the law. Those who try and fail to break the line of succession bear a burden of shame. Those who succeed in doing so demonstrate their worth.
Doreen was a girl who dreamed of avatars.
She would run and imagine she ran with great wings on her back. She would cut at the air with a play-sword. She imagined herself bringing woeful defeat to the enemies of the realm. She listened with rapt admiration to the stories Cedric told and the lectures that Samantha gave. She climbed up to the chandeliers, dangled from them, and fell, dreaming as she did so of her future.
Of course, as her younger siblings assured her, she had none. There were only twelve avatars, save the thirteenth which is Death.
Her future was drab.
She would be a royal princess and no more.
Matthew put it to her plainly: “You probably won’t have an avatar,” he said.
And Bertram slyly: “Well, of course, you can have one, if, you know, there’s one left.”
Sarah played quietly with her dolls. She did not meet Doreen’s eyes.
Doreen made this contention every time the matter came to hand: “Surely it is an issue for rational decision. Perhaps someone is the least worthy, or the least injured by the avatar’s lack; or some of us will have measurable natural compatibility with certain avatars, which sum we can then maximize.”
And while she theorized Matthew, age 12, walked down to the avatar pit. Green with the nausea that looking down gave him, he could not jump; but he could lurch forward and, while scrambling to recover his purchase, fall. The rocks cut him terribly, but he bound himself to the avatar of Morning and rose in numinous bloody brilliance from the pit.
Cedric sat down beside Doreen one day and he told her this:
“You must not expect reason to apply.”
She frowned at him.
Cedric’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. He said, “Listen: if there were a unifying principle that guided you all, then reason should apply; then you might set in order those who receive the avatar and those who do not. But you cannot expect this to be so. Each of you has an individual bond to the pit; it is a mystic experience that transcends social expression. No one will bind themselves to a proposal that excludes them; the right they have to the pit is palpable to them. Thus the only matter at hand is this: when you are ready for the pit, will an avatar remain?”
“It is not fair,” she said.
“Scarcity is unfair,” Cedric agreed. “Murder one of your elder siblings; then the matter is in balance.”
Doreen considered. “I had rather be virtuous and good.”
It took her several days to understand that Cedric had meant to encourage her.
There was a niggling seed in Doreen’s heart. It writhed like a worm. It made her sick on some occasions.
One day, as she understood the world, this seed would mature into readiness for the pit. Then she would face the choice: to jump, or not?
But Sarah jumped. And Bertram jumped. All twelve of her siblings jumped.
Before the seed sent forth its shoots and flowered, her siblings claimed the twelve avatars of the pit.
On the day that Bertram jumped Doreen became unimportant to the politics of the realm. Because the royal family wielded great and reckless power, she had no immediate obligation to them; they did not need to sell off their princesses as families in other places do. The path remaining to her was hers to choose: she could live in luxury or find some way to serve the throne. She could become a scholar, a tactician, or a spy; a soldier, a theologian, a baker; a lady who reclines in gardens; or something else as yet unstated.
The seed in her heart flowered.
She went down to stand beside the pit.
“It is problematic,” she said. “If I should jump, it will cause no end of sorrow.”
As has been mentioned, there are only twelve avatars, save the thirteenth, which is Death.
Staring down, she decided that jumping would be selfish; though exactly so selfish, of course, as the decisions of those siblings who had jumped since she was born.
She teetered on the edge.
Then she leapt.
A chill breeze came among her siblings then. Cedric was the first to feel it: his head snapped up. His eyes took fire with rage.
“There is Death,” he said.
And his words were a low rumble that all in the castle heard. In a moment the twelve avatars of the realm took flight and spun in the air above the palace where they dwelt.
“She jumped?” asked Bertram.
His voice was rank with disbelief.
“She can’t have jumped.”
And Mark said, “She should be hung.”
“Torn apart by hounds.”
“Gutted, and left to die.”
“Starved, in wracking pain.”
And the night rang with the thunder of the royal family, and there were dark clouds throughout the realm, and trees grew stunted and black, and the sea boiled, and the morning came bloody and black, and as they waited for Doreen to rise from the pit their cursing grew more vehement and rich with fear; for while each generation of the royal family yields inevitably to the next, they may only truly perish in a time of Death.
The hands of Doreen’s twelve siblings trembled. They formed into claws eager to cut her down.
But Doreen did not return. Not that night, not the next, nor the one after.
In the winter there is snow, and their mother takes ill and dies.
In the summer a man of the island Crete shoots Cedric down with a gun of dragon’s bone.