Like an ever-circling vulture, always present and always alert, death hovered low over the crowned head of Kan of Vorti. Since his ascension to the throne nearly thirty years ago, amidst the tide of rage and blood that had swept out the old rulers, he had become keenly aware of his mortality. Kan was equally the best-loved and most-hated man in the city and had survived more assassination attempts than any person in Devforth since the distant dawn of recorded history.

The peasants, merchants, guards, and ordinary citizens proclaimed Kan the best ruler in centuries. They lined the streets to cheer and wave whenever he emerged from his shining, marble palace. His constant efforts to promote justice and abolish poverty had won over the majority of his subjects. There were few commoners who had not, at one time or another, professed a willingness to die for their king, and a majority of them were actually sincere in the sentiment.

The nobility, however, did not share the views of the other four-fifths of Vorti's populace. As much as the common people revered Kan, the nobles hated him. To finance his "Great Reform", the king had levied taxes upon them the likes of which no ruler in history had dared consider, much less impose. As the wealthiest and most influential class in Vorti, the nobility demanded respect from their rulers. From Kan, however, they received thinly-veiled contempt.

So far this year, no knife-wielding assassins had crept through the benighted corridors of the palace, their blades seeking Kan's blood. None of his ever-wary food-tasters had died after sampling one of his meals. No arrows or other missiles had sought his heart during his often prolonged and frequently unplanned public appearances. In fact, it had been nearly three seasons since someone had attempted to prematurely force his eldest son to take the throne.

Kan had not escaped tragedy altogether. One half-season past, on the night following the celebration of Midsummer, his closest friend and confidant, Tui, had been butchered in bed while sleeping off a drunken stupor. Since before his coronation, Kan had relied upon Tui's advice. Now, the wellspring of so much wisdom had been cut off. The king had many other advisors, but none that he could trust the way he had Tui. There were still times, when he was sitting on the throne in judgment, that he looked to the empty seat to his left as if seeking counsel.

Kan sat in his private sitting room, staring into a well-polished looking glass, gazing at the once-pleasing face that had become haggard. He was not the man he had been when seizing the kingship from Rel XVI in 515. Much of the youthful enthusiasm was gone. He still loved his people and wanted to change their often grueling lives for the better, but the inner drive was withering. He was coming to enjoy peaceful nights by the fire far better than boisterous parades through the packed streets of Vorti.

By the standards of Devforth, Kan was an old man at forty-six. The body he had kept lithe and trim during his youth had degenerated, muscle becoming flab and a large bulge developing around his waist that even the voluminous robes of state could not entirely conceal. His six-foot frame had lost several inches as his shoulders had become stooped from the weight of too many cares pressing down upon them. The rough skin of his face was heavily lined and his twin blue eyes no longer burned with wolfish intensity. His once abundant mane of raven-black hair had thinned as it turned steel-gray. He no longer cropped it short or drew it into a ponytail, content instead to let it hang loosely and frame his face.

Kan shrugged out of the heavy turquoise robes tradition forced him to wear whenever he sat on the throne. On days such as this, when the temperature soared far above the summer norms, it was torture to endure audience after audience buried beneath layers of silk and wool. Now, in the aftermath of that ordeal, sweat plastered his simple cotton undertunic to his body, and his face and forearms glistened in the lanterns' light.

Kan's sitting room was a small, unwindowed haven adjacent to the throne room. Other than the framed looking glass, the only furnishings were a large, well-padded chair and a beautifully crafted wooden desk. Doors in opposite walls opened respectively into the vast audience chamber and a little-used hallway leading to the royal apartments. Kan had made this his private sanctum, a place where he could change personalities as well as clothes and find refuge from the pressures of running his city or family.

Kan took a towel from across the chair's armrest and began to dab at his face and arms, all the while continuing to watch his reflection. Sometimes, he could hardly believe that the face in the mirror was his. Age had not merely worn down his features; it had crippled them. Soon, death would obliterate whatever was left. Not that the Black Specter hadn't been threatening to do that for decades, but somehow it felt more tangible now than ever before.

There was a respectful knock at the inner door, neither too loud to be intrusive nor too soft to be ignored. Kan let out a heavy sigh. He would have preferred a few more moments of solitude, but such was not the lot of a king. Without even answering the knock, he knew who was waiting: Syr, his ever-faithful chamberlain, schedule in hand, ready to lead his liege to the next item on today's agenda.

Kan took the golden circlet from the desk top and placed it atop his head, then donned a far more comfortable robe than the audience garments before stepping into the corridor to face Syr.

The ancient, white-haired chamberlain gave his king a courtly bow. "Your Revered Wife wishes to know if Your Majesty will be seeing Prince Sor in the nursery this day," said Syr, his words marked by the sing-song inflection that was characteristic of Twin Cities natives. Syr had been born in Merk, spent the first thirty years of his life in Xert, then had come to Vorti in the seventh season of Kan's reign, searching for a position. Through a combination of good luck and skill, he had eventually become the head of the then-youthful king's household staff.

"You may tell Her Majesty that I will see Prince Sor immediately before dinner. Will my other children be eating with me tonight?"

"Princess Nia sends her regrets. She will be dining with the family of Baron Cen," said Syr.

Kan did not attempt to hide the mingled disdain and dismay he felt at this news. His eldest daughter was becoming entirely too close to one of the more influential and ruthless nobles. He would have to discuss this matter with her at the earliest opportunity. Not that she would listen to him, especially when it came to matters of the heart. If only her mother was still alive...

"Princesses Jen and Gea will be there, as will Princes Kir and Bem," reported Syr.

The king nodded with satisfaction. At least four of his offspring still deigned to eat with their father. Their stepmother, Sye, would definitely not be joining the meal. Of late, the queen had made it quite plain that she would rather starve than eat with her husband and his children.

"Your Majesty," added Syr deferentially, "The ambassador from Llam is waiting in your private audience chamber to have a word with you. He indicated that he would be willing to remain there until your schedule permits you to see him. You have the next hour open."

Had the next hour open, Kan mentally corrected, unable to suppress a groan. Syr said nothing and his expression remained impassive, but the king had the impression that his chamberlain was amused.

"That's all, Syr," said Kan. "I'll see Ambassador Rax now."

"Very good, Your Majesty," replied Syr, turning sharply and striding off in the direction of the Royal Nursery.

Kan did not like Ambassador Rax. The man was an unmitigated ass, but, unlike many officious, self-opinionated busybodies, Rax was no fool. Kan could not simply dismiss the man with a flimsy excuse, because Rax was shrewd enough to see through even the best concocted smoke screen. Since Kan wanted Vorti to remain on friendly terms with Llam, it would be imprudent to do anything that might upset or offend that city's official envoy. At least, Kan reflected, Rax had the good sense to want the audience in the much more comfortable private chamber.

Kan entered what was often referred to as the "little throne room" with a pleasant smile for his guest. He took his seat on the raised dais and motioned for Rax to come forward.

Rax was a lean, beak-nosed man with shifty eyes and the air of a predator. As was common of the noblemen of Llam, his scalp was shaved and his face cleanshaven. An intriguing scar, the origin of which Kan had never learned, split the bridge of the ambassador's nose. Rax's lips were curled congenially upwards, but the king was convinced that such a smile, no matter how apparently sincere, concealed a hidden agenda.

"Your Majesty," drawled Rax in his unmistakable baritone, bowing low before the throne. "It is pleasant to see you in good health." The frequent attempts on Kan's life, several of which had resulted in lengthy indispositions for the king, lent an element of irony to the traditional greeting.

"Ambassador Rax," replied Kan. "It is pleasant to be in good health."

"May it continue to be so," said Rax, finishing the formula.

"What brings you to Vorti, Rax. I haven't seen you since my son's funeral."

"And a very sad day that was, Your Majesty," said the ambassador with suitable solemnity. Tam, Kan's youngest son by his first wife, had died one year ago at the age of twelve. The cause had only been identified as a "mysterious illness" although rumor had it that Tam's food had been poisoned. Many viewed this as an assassination attempt that had claimed the wrong victim.

"I bear condolences on the death of Councilman Tui," added Rax.

"Thank you. His wisdom will be missed by all of Vorti."

"Let me speak plainly, Your Majesty," said Rax suddenly, surprising the king. One of Rax's traits was that he never spoke "plainly."

"Of course."

"There is concern outside of Vorti, especially in those cities on good terms with yours, that your reign might be in jeopardy."

Kan was doubly surprised. Rax did indeed appear to be speaking plainly.

The ambassador continued, "Rumors abound concerning new plots by the nobility and that an especially influential baron is wooing your eldest daughter."

"The nobility has always plotted against me. There have been, to date, eighty-two attempts on my life. So far, none has succeeded. Security around me has never been tighter. There's no reason to suppose that the nobles have a better chance now than at any time in the past.

"As for my daughter, I won't deny that she's been seeing a good deal of Baron Cen, and I'm not pleased with the direction the relationship seems to be taking, but it's far from a formal liaison. And I will not have my family connected, even by marriage, to his."

"Be that as it may, Your Majesty, the real source of our concern lies with Queen Sye. Because of her close ties to the city of Tsab, we in Llam were wary of the match from the beginning. Now that rumors have reached us of a rift between you and your wife...well, suffice it to say that our concerns have resurfaced with new urgency. Your placement on the throne is important to us and to the harmony between our cities, but your position has never been completely secure. The threat of the nobles is ever-present. Now, such discord within your own house serves only to open new gateways to danger."

Kan tried to disguise his anger. In his opinion, as he had told those of his own advisors who had voiced similar fears, the situation between his wife and himself was a personal matter. Whatever she might have been, Sye was now the queen of Vorti. Besides, although relations with Tsab might be strained, a trade agreement was in place and communications were better than they had been in centuries.

"You have a suggestion, I assume," noted Kan.

"Only what is obvious," replied Rax, again with unusual candor. "You must divorce Sye and send her back to Tsab. You must disinherit your son by her and send him along. Only by taking those steps will you eliminate the central danger to your person and kingdom."

"Ambassador, you are not the first one to suggest this. Many of my own councilmen have said similar things. I'll repeat to you what I told them: I do not wish to divorce my wife. I have two strong, healthy sons ready to assume the throne should I die and both of them share the majority of my goals and aspirations."

Softly, Rax said, "One year ago, you had three strong, healthy sons. After a mysterious illness, one is gone. Who is to say what 'mysterious illness' might threaten the other two or even you."

Kan was livid. Such insinuations were going too far, even for one with the privileges of Llam's envoy. Words of caution and warning, no matter how distasteful, the king would hear, but slanderous accusations of this sort would not be tolerated - not from Rax or anyone else.

The king rose to his feet. "This interview is terminated," he stated coldly, his tone mirroring the outrage in his eyes. "If you have any matter of substance to speak with me about before your return to Llam, make an appointment with Syr for a formal hearing in the throne room. Otherwise, there should be no reason to delay your return home. Good day, Ambassador." Without waiting for the customary farewells to be exchanged, Kan stormed from the little throne room, leaving behind a shocked, but speculative, Rax.

* * *

Kan's anger had diminished greatly by the time he visited his youngest son that afternoon in the Royal Nursery. In attendance when he arrived were Prince Sor's nurse, Ila, and mother, Queen Sye. After dropping a quick curtsy, Ila prudently withdrew. Sye watched the nurse go, her expression thoughtful.

"Good afternoon," greeted Kan neutrally, probing his wife's mood for the day.

"What?" replied the abstracted queen. "Oh yes, good afternoon. Do you know, I've just had a thought."

"Yes, my dear?"

"It isn't fair that because of my...indisposition, you should have to spend your nights alone. Why don't you invite Ila to join you. She's young, energetic, has a nice figure and a comely face, and would probably feel honored to receive the invitation."

Kan frowned, noting that Sye had not added "and no brain." Intelligence was definitely not one of the nurse's attributes.

"Still bothered by those pelvic pains?" asked Kan. They both knew that her supposed infirmity was a convenient excuse for her to visit the bed of Councilman Raq, but they played the game to keep relations between them civil. Kan had no desire to alienate his wife. Unfortunately, Sye was becoming progressively less discreet and her affair with Raq had moved beyond salacious gossip to common knowledge. The situation was turning into a public embarrassment.

"I'm sorry," she said, smiling too sadly to be sincere. "I'd like nothing more than to return to your bed, but the pains are too sharp."

"I understand," replied Kan. "But I don't think my taking a lover is the solution. The king's conduct must be above reproach."

Sye's eyes narrowed as she tried to determine whether her husband's last words had been a slight against her. Finally, she said, "It was only a thought. I wanted you to know that I'd understand if you felt it necessary to look elsewhere while I'm unable to be a complete wife to you."

"I appreciate that," replied Kan blandly. "So how is my youngest prince today?" he asked, turning his attention to the sleeping youth in the crib, who was sucking blissfully on his royal left thumb.

Sye also turned to her child. There was an unmistakable note of tenderness in her voice as she said, "He's been very good today and I've promised him an extra share of dessert."

Gently, she lifted the three-year old, folding his small form into her arms. Sor took after his mother, with small bones and a small frame. None of Kan's other children, even the girls, had been so tiny at this age.

The king watched silently as his queen mothered their child, smoothing back his wispy blond hair and speaking to him in soft, melodious whispers. Sor, in the contented twilight between sleep and wakefulness, snuggled close to Sye's breast as he continued to chew on his thumb.

Sye, lately of Tsab and now of Vorti, was a beautiful woman, with long wheaten hair, startlingly luminous green eyes, and a clear, flawless complexion. Her body was soft, supple, and curvacious. The gown of white silk she wore clung seductively to her, caressing her in places that Kan longed to touch. He missed Sye, more than he would ever admit to even himself. She and their son had been two bright spots in a life otherwise blighted by the death of his first wife. Now, she seemed to be slipping away from him.

The queen was twenty-three years old, but, in part because of her small frame and in part because she spent hours each day caring for her face and body, her appearance was that of a younger woman. Kan believed that Sye actually looked more youthful today, after one child and four years of marriage, than she had on the fateful day of the Winterday Fair of 539 when he had first set eyes upon her and decided that she would be his.

Turning to her husband, Sye extended her arms and proffered him the now-sleeping child. Gently, Kan took Sor and cradled him in his arms. The prince's eyes fluttered open and he murmured something unintelligible before going back to sleep. Imitating Sye's earlier actions, Kan tenderly stroked his son's hair. A glance away from the dozing child revealed Sye watching father and son warmly, a slight smile on her face.

After Sor had been placed back in his crib, Sye drew Kan to the other side of the room and, in a hushed tone, asked, "I heard that Ambassador Rax came to see you today. How did it go?"

Kan shrugged. "The man's an obnoxious pig. I listened to what he had to say then sent him on his way." Gazing deeply into the ingenuous eyes of his wife, Kan reflected how truly ludicrous the possibility was that she could be involved in any conspiracy against him.

"I hope you didn't offend him. He can be touchy at times," Sye remarked. Almost as an afterthought, she added, "What did he want, anyway?"

"The usual," replied Kan evasively. "He was concerned about my security on the throne. You'd think that thirty years of dodging assassins' knives and stomaching poisoned meals would convince him that I'm not an easy man to get rid of."

"Try not to let him upset you," advised Sye. "He just wants to keep you alive and on the throne. That's what we all want."

* * *

At dinner that evening, Nia's absence was glaringly apparent to her brothers and sisters, especially since her location was no secret. Even ten-year old Gea realized that Baron Cen was no friend to her father and Nia's entanglement with him was likely to have painful consequences.

Kan and four of his five elder children sat around a cozy, circular table in a warm room just off the kitchen. With such a small group, the king did not like using the vast, empty formal dining room with its long table. This arrangement was more comfortable.

To the king's left sat his eldest son and heir, Kir. The sixteen-year old was a younger copy of his father, few traces of his mother having manifested themselves in him. He was tall, lean, and muscular with a strong face, piercing blue eyes, and a long mane of jet-black hair. He sported a well-trimmed mustache and goatee. His face seemed to wear a perpetual frown, perhaps from an almost-constant preoccupation with the troubled city he was likely to soon inherit. He was dressed regally in a blue-and-silver doublet with matching tights and soft leather boots.

To Kan's right was his other surviving son, fourteen-year old Bem, who also bore more of a resemblance to his father than his mother. Physically, Bem was almost as large as his brother, but his honest, hairless face betrayed his youth. His eyes were not as fierce as Kir's, and his hair was a shade lighter. Of a naturally jovial nature, Bem smiled frequently and easily, often, unfortunately, at the most inopportune moments. He wore a sleeveless white tunic with dark leather breeches and comfortable, well-worn boots.

Ten-year old Gea sat to Bem's right, occasionally playfully jostling elbows with her older brother. She shared Bem's disposition as well as his looks. She had a body that was somewhat more developed than that of a normal girl of her age, with pronounced breasts and well proportioned hips. Her face, however, was that of a child, with features not fully formed, a pert nose, sparkling sapphire eyes, and short, curly auburn hair. Gea, favoring the light, unbound dresses of a child to the more stately gowns of a woman, came to the table wearing a loose, off-white frock.

Seventeen-year old Jen, sitting between Gea and Kir, was the only surviving child of Kan and Lea to favor her dead mother. With a soft, almost plain face, and strawberry blond hair, Jen was diminutive, standing just under five feet and looking only a few years older than Gea. Her figure was slim and boyish, although the perfectly designed, scarlet satin gown she wore did much to disguise her physical shortcomings. She was painfully shy and spent most of the time gazing at her plate while pushing morsels of food around with her fork, not feeling at ease even among her family.

The meal was eaten in virtual silence, Nia's absence and the king's other troubles stifling all attempts at conversation. The only sounds in the room came from the clinking of utensils on plates, the ring of the decanter on goblets as more wine was poured, and an occasional muted giggle from Gea or Bem as the two continued to jostle each other. Kan almost commanded them to stop, but decided against it. In times such as these, it was best to let those who could find a diversion enjoy it.

Finally, after dinner was finished and the two youngest children had withdrawn, the unavoidable subject was broached by Kir.

"Father, you have to put a stop to this. It's gone on too long as it is, already."

Kan sighed. His son was right. He should have ended the meetings between Nia and Cen the moment he found out about them. He had trusted his daughter's instincts, that she would have better sense than to do more than flirt with such a dangerous man. Unfortunately, events had since proved that faith to be misplaced.

"Jen, you know your sister's heart better than any of us. How serious is the situation?"

Kan's second-eldest daughter appeared uneasy, torn between loyalty to her father and the natural bond between sisters. Eventually, she reluctantly said, "In the beginning, it was all just in fun. You know - how she could entice a baron, then leave him. But I think it ended up working the other way around. Now..." she hesitated before adding, "I think she expects a marriage proposal from Cen."

There was a simultaneous intake of breath from Kan and Kir, neither of whom had conceived that the matter had become this serious. An infatuation or even a sexual liaison they had considered, but never something like this.

"Are you sure?" demanded Kan, his tone alarming his skittish daughter.

"I think so. Father, please, I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't listen. You know how she is."

"I do indeed," muttered the king. That's what made the situation so damn unpleasant. The only one Nia would listen to was Nia.

"She cannot be allowed to marry a baron, at least not while she's a member of the Royal Family," said Kir, stating a fact they were all aware of. "It would make the life expectancy of all of us very short. A few convenient deaths and Cen would have the road to the throne open."

Kan nodded grimly. If the nobles ever banded together behind one man, instead of acting individually, Kan would have more than a few inept assassination attempts to defeat. Nevertheless, he didn't want to make any rash declarations at this point, at least not until he'd heard Nia's point-of-view.

"I'll talk to her tonight," he promised.

* * *

Nia stood in front of her father, her long, dark hair swept over one shoulder and her head lowered submissively. However, her blue eyes, hidden from Kan's view, revealed anything but surrender. Still dressed in the elaborate gown she had worn to the baron's dinner party, Nia had been escorted to the little throne room immediately upon her return to the palace. The setting was a reminder that she was not just facing her father, but the king as well.

"Yes, Father?" she inquired demurely, as if bewildered why he should demand an audience at this late hour.

Kan had spent the past three hours contemplating how to handle the interview. The alternatives were numerous and diverse, from compassion, understanding, and commiseration to the authoritarian stance of issuing a firm command. In the end, he had come to the realization that nothing would make his task easier. It was more a question of which approach would have the best chance of swaying his daughter.

"I'm going to ask you plainly, how serious is the attachment between you and Baron Cen?" asked Kan, his voice deceptively mild.

"You wouldn't be asking that if you didn't already know," replied Nia, still keeping her eyes averted.

"Very well," said Kan, the words sounding like a verdict. "Are you aware of the position you've put me in? The Royal Family cannot become linked to the nobility. It would undo everything I've worked for."

"I'm not really in the line of succession, Father. By law, you have three sons and a wife who would rule before me - that's five deaths before I took the throne and then it would still be me who ruled, not my husband. I love Cen, Father, but I don't share his principles."

That was a clear example of emotion blinding logic. Did Nia actually think that if she became queen that the gaggle of counts and barons surrounding her would give her a choice about which principles to follow? Cen might be presenting a charming facade to her now, but that would change as soon as it suited his purposes. Nia, of course, would never believe that until it happened.

"Five deaths would not be all that difficult to arrange," said Kan coldly. "Then, after you'd given Cen an heir, a sixth would give him complete control."

In the stillness of the chamber, Nia's gasp sounded unnaturally loud. "Father, how could you?? He'd never do anything like that! Never!"

"I can't force you to see him in a neutral light, Nia, but you're going to have to start thinking some time. A marriage between you and Cen is an impossibility."

Nia looked up for the first time, defiance in her eyes. "I'm of age. You have nothing to say about it."

Kan sighed. It was almost as if this exchange had been scripted beforehand. He'd known exactly where it had been heading from the start. Nia had always been willful, independent, and painfully predictable.

"It's true that I can't stop you, but understand this: no member of the Royal Family will marry a noble. Consider exactly what that means before you give your hand to Cen. You have my permission to withdraw."

Nia's face lost a shade of color upon hearing her father's words, but the determination in her eyes did not diminish. At her father's dismissal, she turned and stalked away without another word, leaving Kan sitting alone in the dimly-lit chamber, shoulders slumped and head bowed.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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