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The 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? Is 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, it probably is now. Expect to see power plays by The Grand Vizier, 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.
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.
- 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 3, 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.
- King George V in The King's Speech.
- 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.
- Cordelia's Honor: The Emperor is terminally ill, but still as lucid and conniving as ever.
- 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.
- 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 scorpions!" 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 Warhammer 40000 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.
- King's Quest I.
- Pretty common in Fire Emblem games:
- Genealogy of the Holy War: King Azmur is implied to be on his way to this before the game started due to his old age, and fully fitted the trope after the murder of his heir and Number Two, Prince Kurth. He barely gets to live to see his illegitimate granddaughter, Deirdre, become his heiress; Deirdre's husband, Arvis, uses this to gather power.
- Binding Blade: King Mordred of Etruria had a similar predicament, falling in despair after the apparent death of his son Myrdinn. His Treacherous Advisors use this to ally themselves with Bern. It's eventually revealed that Elffin, the bard and Fortune Teller of Roy's crew, is actually Myrdinn who was Faking the Dead, and Mordred soon recovers.
- Blazing Sword: Lord Hausen of Caelin, who's severely ill and therefore sends out his knight Sain and Kent to find his estranged daughter. Said daughter and her husband, plus the husband's tribe, have all been killed - but Lyndis, his granddaughter, is still alive, and she decides to go meet him. Subverted in that Hausen is being poisoned by his evil brother Lord Lundgren, and saving him becomes the crew's priority. He also lives through once Lundgren is slain and Lyn meets up with her grandpa.
- Fire Emblem: Three Houses: Emperor Ionus of the Adrestian Empire, also Princess Edelgard's father. He loves his daughter and she loves him back, but he has become a Puppet King after many machinations that destroyed his authority, and his health has declined in the last years.
- The end of Cariadoc of the Bow's first 'William Marshal' poem take place at the deathbed of King Henry II.
- Edward the Confessor
- 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.
- 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