"Kratistos." noteThe King, The Emperor, or the high commander has become terminally ill, but lingers on his deathbed for weeks or months. His loyal retainers stand vigil at his side, mourning the loss of their leader and dreading the moment of his death... or are they? It seems the anticipated power vacuum has kicked off furious machinations among the members of the court. Heirs and aspirants to the throne are collecting as many supporters as they can beg, bribe or threaten. There may even be whispers of Civil War. If the royal power is still lucid, he or she may be desperately trying to prevent the looming anarchy, but hindered by their lack of trustworthy lieutenants. If the illness is such that they are senile, insane, or comatose, they will not yet have named their heir, or left standing orders that make things awkward for everyone, but no one has the authority to rescind them. If it wasn't a Deadly Decadent Court already, it probably is now. Expect to see power plays by the Evil Chancellor, The Evil Prince, The Royal Bastard or—God help you—The Caligula. Though strangely, you probably don't have to worry about The Baroness. If this work is Darker and Edgier, expect everyone to develop Chronic Backstabbing Disorder; if it's a more lighthearted work, watch the good guys dig up a Reluctant Ruler, or rally around The Wise Prince.
— Alexander the Great's chosen successor...
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Anime and Manga
- Fullmetal Alchemist
- The Emperor of Xing is dying, which is why Ling and Mei have traveled to Amestris - they're looking for the secret to immortality in order to gain the Emperor's favor.
- What leads to Xerxes' destruction - the king wants immortality when he realizes he's dying and follows Father' instructions on creating a Nationwide Transmutation Circle.
- A major part of the second season of Slayers. The king of Saillune is an old man (Who never actually appears on screen), and various members of the Royal Family are trying to kill off Prince Philionel, the Heir Apparent so that they can claim the throne.
- This trope is vital in Anatolia Story:
- The male lead Prince Kail Mursili is one of the biggest candidates to succeed his father, King Suppilinuma of the Hitite Empire, who is not expected to live for long. Problem is, Kail's Wicked Stepmother Nakia is desperately trying to install her own child Juda in the throne and won't stop at anything to do so. In comes Yuri, the female lead, who becomes Kail's lover and one of his strongest supporters.
- And later the one who actually reigns is Kail's half brother Arnuwanda, who appoints Kail as his succesor. Few later, he does die and that kicks off another succesion crisis...
- In The Seven Deadly Sins, the Holy Knights of Liones cover up their coup by saying that King Baltra Liones had fallen ill and become bedridden.
- The Skeksis emperor in The Dark Crystal, leading to Trial by Combat for his succession.
- In Gladiator, Emperor Marcus Aurelius isn't literally on his deathbed, but knows he's old and dying, and so names the hero his heir. This, combined with telling his psychotic son before telling anyone else who could confirm it, leads to him passing the deathbed stage and going straight to all the way dead.
- Prince Humperdinck's father in The Princess Bride.
- In the beginning of Shrek the Third, Fiona's father, the king of Far Far Away, is on his deathbed (in frog form), and is trying to get a message about an heir to the throne to Shrek and Fiona. He seems to die three times before croaking out the end of the message, then finally dying.
- Kicks off the plot in Stardust. The King of Stormhold summons his four remaining sons to his deathbed, watches approvingly as one of them kills another, and tells the three who are left that he's sending his magical ruby flying off into the land and whoever finds it is his heir. He expires immediately, with an earlier line implying that he was keeping himself alive through sheer willpower.
- King George V in The King's Speech.
- King Stefan's predecessor in Maleficent.
- The Hallowed Hunt: The king falls ill before a successor has been elected. Everyone in the kingdom plots to advance themselves or their candidate, all the while the true immortal king of the Weald, at last completes his incredibly complex Gambit Roulette to reclaim the hallow kingship.
- Shards of Honor: The Emperor is terminally ill, but still as lucid and conniving as ever. He actually uses his own illness and rumors about it to draw out and counter various attempted power plays, in order to ensure that the Empire will be in good shape for his grandson.
- Tigana: this is going on in the background in the Empire of Barbadior. We never actually see the machinations, but they're part of Alberico's motivation.
- Ponniyin Selvan : The emperor of the Chola dynasty - Arulmozhivarman's and Aditya Karalikaran's father - is said be suffering from a deteriorating sickness.
- In The Colour of Magic, the ruler of the dragon riders gets poisoned by his daughter. However, since she is still in a power struggle with her two brothers, he refuses to pass on, lingering as a lich until he makes sure she is fit to rule on her own.
- In Interesting Times the old emperor is on his deathbed, but still clinging on (and as utterly psychotically insane as he ever was) and all the armies of the other lords are massed outside the city waiting for the civil war to start. The Grand Vizier naturally decides to help things along a little.
- King Guslav in The First Law.
- The King of Stormhold in Stardust.
- Happens at least twice in The Bible:
- With King David on his deathbed, the royal court brings the beauty Abishag to warm him up. This does nothing. In the meantime, his son Adonijah attempts to take the throne; his court prophet Nathan and his favored wife Bathsheba inform him of this in such a way that David orders that Bathsheba's son Solomon becomes king. Solomon takes the throne upon David's death, and after a short period orders the execution of Adonijah (he had asked for the hand of Abishag, which would give him a claim on the throne...or so goes the theory).
- With King Solomon in his deathbed, years later, his successor is clear (his son Rehoboam), but whether his successor would be accepted is another matter entirely, with rumblings of discontent across the land. Things come to a head when Jeroboam, a rival claimant, comes up and asks Rehoboam, more or less, if he would be an improvement on Solomon. Rehoboam famously replies, "My father chastised you with whips...I shall chastise you with scourges!!" To which Jeroboam replied, "To your tents, O Israel!" and ten of the 12 tribes split off to form the northern Kingdom of Israel; the tribes of Benjamin and Judah remain loyal to Rehoboam.
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it's mentioned that the Emperor of the Galaxy has been on his deathbed for thousands of years, having been placed in temporal stasis because nobody really wanted any of the people who would have inherited the throne when he died. After all his heirs died out, the galaxy became a popularly-elected democracy with the Emperor as a figurehead.
- The second Redwall book, Mosseflower has Lord Verdauga the wildcat in this state, while his son Ginguivere and daughter Tsarmina tend to him. It doesn't end well, because Tsarmina is secretly poisoning him to frame her brother.
- In the second Warrior Cats series, WindClan leader Tallstar is ill for a long time, and his deputy Mudclaw has been doing most of the leader's duties, and looks forward to becoming leader himself. When Tallstar dies, naming Onewhisker his successor, Mudclaw thinks that some scheming has been going on behind his back, not believing Tallstar would have wished that.
- In The Belgariad, Emperor Ran Borune XXIII began the process of slowly dying of old age. Since he had no sons, the various great houses of Tolnedra started squabbling over the throne in advance in anticipation of the latest Borune dynasty dying with him. This mainly is relevant in one section of the second book, but the matter keeps cropping up until the Emperor finally dies in the first book of the sequel series, by which time the Emperor had resolved the succession issue by adopting a very competent General from an lesser house aligned with the Borunes as his son and heir.
- In the backstory of Tanya Huff's Sing the Four Quarters, the young princess-protagonist wants to become a bard. Against her older brother's wishes (he wants to marry her off to a neighboring monarch) she asks her father on his deathbed to release her from her royal obligations. He does so, and the moment he dies her brother banishes her.
- Happens twice in Julian: Once with Constantius, then later with the titular Julian.
- Occurs in A Song of Ice and Fire halfway through the first book when King Robert is gutted by a boar while hunting and as he lies dying his wife immediately starts plotting to secure the throne for her son but is opposed by The Good Chancellor (who knows that the queen's children are not her husband's), setting off the Succession Crisis and Civil War that fills subsequent novels.
- In Warhammer 40,000 the Emperor of Mankind has been on life support for ten thousand years, while all around him the "High Lords" politic and scheme. In this case there's no question of succession — if he ever finishes dying the entire Imperium will probably collapse and die — but otherwise it fits this trope to a tee.
- Something similar played out with his rebel son Konrad Curze, whose descent into crippling madness tore his legion apart long before he died. His assassination by a Calidus assassin was more of an excuse for the Night Lords to dissolve than an actual reason to do so.
- Exalted has an interesting variation; the Scarlet Empress is merely missing, rather than dying, and speculation among her Dynasty includes factors not only related to the possibility of her confirmed death but also of her potential entirely healthy return (which would include her easily resuming control of the empire's superweapon network).
- Edward IV's illness creates this situation at the beginning of Shakespeare's Richard III, since Edward's son is too young to be an effective ruler, and Richard not-yet-III devotes a great deal of his energy to knocking off everyone who'd be a more respectable regent than himself.
- Henry IV's deathbed scene in Henry IV, Part Two involves a slightly panicky Prince Hal contemplating the responsibility of the crown, the dying king dressing his son down for his truant ways, then giving him the crown. Hal accepts it and, contrary to all expectations, rises to the kingship in magnificent fashion.
- Final Fantasy Tactics: This situation kicks off the War of The Lions.
- In King's Quest I: Quest For The Crown, the main catalyst for the eponymous quest is that King Edward of Daventry is near death without an heir. He thus sends Sir Graham to reclaim the kingdom's three stolen treasures before he dies with the promise that he'll reward the knight with his kingdom.
- In Crusader Kings II, rulers who are rendered Incapable get a regent appointed on their behalf, with all the court intrigues and power plays that that implies. They also usually don't last very long.
- Though sometimes regencies can last for years or even decades, forcing the player to watch helplessly as their regent undoes everything they worked for.
- Somewhat subverted if you pick a decent (read unambitious) regent in advance who can hold on to their position.
- The end of Cariadoc of the Bow's first 'William Marshal' poem take place at the deathbed of King Henry II.
- When Edward the Confessor died childless in 1066, the throne of England passed to his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, who'd likely been pulling the strings for years. However, Edward also had ties to Duke William of Normandy via his Norman mothernote and may have promised the throne to William during a falling-out with the Godwinsons. Meanwhile, Harold had recently driven out his brother Tostig, who sought the aid of King Harald Hardrada of Norway who could claim the throne based on his predecessor's deal with Edward the Confessor's predecessor to inherit each other's kingdoms if either died without heirs. In the ensuing war, Harold Godwinson defeated Harald Hardrada but was defeated at the Battle of Hastings by William, who went on to become William the Conqueror.
- Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain. His death was so prolonged and important to Spain that Saturday Night Live constantly joked that he was still dead for years.
- Vladimir Lenin's long, drawn-out death and the struggle for his position that ensued amongst several high-ranking Bolsheviks.
- When Henry VI of England fell into a catatonic stupor for 16 months in 1453-54, a power struggle broke out between his French wife Margaret of Anjou and his cousin Richard, Duke of York, over control of the government, which sparked an escalating feud even Henry's sudden recovery couldn't quell, effectively creating a Succession Crisis while he was still alive that eventually devolved into the Wars of the Roses.
- Henry VIII's death was so protracted that the courtiers surrounding him had time to rewrite his will completely. Unfortunately they didn't finish in time for Henry to sign it himself so they used a signature stamp on it, which caused all kinds of headaches for both Edward VI and Mary I.
- This happened in the long and lingering final illness of Elizabeth I of England, as she hesitated to name a successor. Finally, some gestures she made were interpreted as naming James VI of Scotland, who succeeded her as James I of England.
- China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang was this during his last days, obsessing on acquiring the elixir of life. Reportedly, he died from the pills that were supposed to make him immortal, which unfortunately contained mercury. Some Chinese adaptations of his life depicts him having any newborns heard within his vicinity immediately executed.
- Alexander the Great: The story goes that when asked who rule of his empire would fall to, he responded "tôi kratistôi." ("To the strongest.") Unfortunately, there was severe disagreement as to who this meant. An alternate theory is that he said "To Craterus," one of his generals who was not present and the others conveniently misheard. Another version holds that he was unable to speak and thus didn't actually give the iconic response at all, but gave his signet ring to another general, Perdiccas, implying endorsement of him.
- Alexander actually had heirs in his mentally-challenged half brother Arrhidaeus (Philip III) and eventually his infant son Alexander IV (born several months after his death), but since neither could rule for themselves, his chancellor Perdiccas became regent. However, Perdiccas' attempts to maintain central authority upset the other self-interested generals and he was soon killed invading Egypt after Ptolemy absconded with Alexander's body, thus destroying central authority and allowing the mighty empire to fragment into warring factions.
- Josef Stalin's death in 1952 was very much like this, as even as his magnates surrounded his bedside they were plotting against each other, but everyone was particularly terrified of his police chief Lavrentiy Beria. When Stalin finally expired, Beria sprung forward, making sure he was the first to kiss Stalin's hand, an act one historian called the equivalent of "wrenching a dead King's ring off his finger," before sweeping out of the room and triumphantly calling for his car. Historians to this day debate whether it was Beria who had actually poisoned Stalin. One magnate said to another, "He's off to seize power," and they all quickly followed after him, calling for their own limousines.
- Later this resulted in everyone joining forces against Beria; Nikita Khruschev and Nikolai Bulganin, two of the less pro-Stalinist magnates won with help of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the Soviet Union's top military commander (of questionable competence as a strategist, but with exactly zilch political ambition). Beria himself was executed in 1953.
- The inbred King Carlos II of Spain was so sickly that arguably his entire life was spent close to the deathbed. When he was clearly fading, it spawned an international crisis, since Carlos II as the very last of his dynasty had no clear heirs. Both the Hapsburgs in Austria and the Bourbons of France had strong claims, while King William III of England and others, afraid of France and Spain being united under one monarchy, wanted to at least make sure that Spain and its territories in Italy and the Americas were split among the various claimants. Carlos II willed everything to his Bourbon grand-nephew, Philippe, and to ease tensions King Louis XIV of France passed a decree barring Philippe from inheriting the French crown, but a thirteen-year long war, the War of the Spanish Succession, broke out anyway.
- This is basically what the entire War of the Eight Princes in the Chinese Jin dynasty boiled down to: eight princes as well as several members of the Imperial court vying for the regency over the developmentally disabled second Emperor Hui of Jin, born Sima Zhong. The eight princes, all relatives of the Sima clan, battled each other intermittently from 291 to 307—the net result was several dead members of the Sima clan, two dead empresses, and quite a number of dead ministers, and one Sima Yue as the eventual winner for a few years.
- The deathbed of King Louis XIII is a classic example as the courtiers and his devious brother Gaston of Orléans were wondering whether first minister Cardinal Mazarin would manage to retain his position (in the end, the answer was yes) and who would become the regent during the successor's minority (Louis' widow, Anne of Austria). The deathbed is also well remembered because St. Vincent of Paul was on hand to lend his spiritual support and for the exchange that occurred when the five-year-old Dauphin was brought to see his dying father:
- Louis XIII: What is your name?Dauphin: Louis XIV.Louis XIII: Not yet, not yet...