THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART ONE: RITES OF SUCCESSION


CHAPTER TWO


The period from engagement to marriage lasted less than a year. So, in the Spring of 545, three seasons after her father's declaration that no member of the Royal Family would marry a noble, Nia was joined in wedlock with Baron Cen in a lavish ceremony attended by dozens of influential nobles, but none of Nia's relatives. Even Jen, to whom Nia was closer than any other, refused to appear.

Kan did not hesitate to make good on his threat, as much as it hurt him to do so. The last action he had wanted to take was one that would cost him a daughter, but he had no choice in the matter. The simple truth was that Cen could not be allowed to cultivate any ties with the throne. The king was acting not only to preserve his personal safety and that of the other members of his family - including Nia - but also to safeguard his principles and the security of Vorti.

The moment the courier came to him with the official announcement of Nia's wedding, Kan solemnly rose and read the proclamation he had been hoping would never have to be unfurled. Those present at court, a myriad of commoners along with a few nobles, waited expectantly. Whatever their excuse for being in the throne room this day, their real reason was to hear the proclamation read.

"Men and women of Vorti," began the king, his voice held strictly under control, never wavering or trembling. "As much as it grieves me to take this action, you will understand that it cannot be avoided. In ruling a city, personal costs must always take second priority to the greater good of the people. For that reason, from here forward, Nia, daughter of Kan and Lea of Vorti, is no longer your princess. She was severed from her family the moment she entered a union with Baron Cen. Her title is now Baroness, and it is forbidden to address her as Princess. Her rights and privileges under that title are hereby revoked. None of the Royal Family or retainers of the Royal Family may henceforward have any dealings with Baroness Nia. She is as dead."

The king lowered the document, carefully rolled it up, then replaced it in its bone tube. Silence reigned in the vast hall, making the crinkling of the parchment sound unnaturally loud. No one dared move or speak; all eyes were riveted on Kan, and men and women alike held their breaths, as if expecting an explosion.

Rising from his throne, Kan stated, "Today's audience is ended." Without another word, he turned and exited the throne room through the door to his private sanctum. Behind him, the hall suddenly came alive with the buzz of chatter. The most frequently repeated words seemed to be: "never thought he'd actually do it."

In his private chamber, Kan tossed the bone scroll case onto the desk, then shrugged out of his heavy robes of state and sank into the chair. He ran one hand through his thinning gray hair while the other dangled limply by his side. The new lines etched into his worn face and the dark circles under his eyes spoke eloquently of how difficult it had been for Kan to draft, sign, and present the proclamation.

There was a gentle tap on the door to the throne room. Kan lifted his bent head, surprised. No one ever disturbed him from that side. If anyone needed him while he was in the sanctum, they typically informed his chamberlain, who would decide whether the matter was urgent enough to warrant disturbing his liege. There were guards in the throne room specifically charged to keep everyone away from the door.

The thought entered Kan's mind that he might be in danger. A knock on the outer door was unusual enough that it could presage a threat. Oddly enough, he discovered that he didn't care. He was weary of ducking thrown knives and avoiding unguarded corridors. "Enter," he called out, deliberately courting peril.

The door opened slowly to admit a middle-aged man. Kan recognized his chancellor, Vas, immediately. Although seven years his king's senior, Vas looked much younger, with only hints of silver streaking his sideburns and mustache. Vas was definitely not an athletic man, preferring all forms of mental exercise to anything manual, and his bloated physical condition gave testimony to that. He had a lean, elongated face which seemed out of place on such an oversized body. His eyes were a clear, calm brown, that, if gazed into, could liberate any number of cares. His bland expression never changed, no matter how joyous or dire the tidings that he bore.

Vas had been chancellor for twelve years, having been appointed to the favored position following the mysterious death of his predecessor. The king had chosen Vas not only for his keen insight and level-headed judgment, but because rumor attributed him with certain extraordinary powers. No one was sure whether Vas actually was a wizard -- or, as they were more properly known, an Apath -- but few doubted that there was something singularly unusual about the man.

"This is a surprise," said Kan flatly as he rose to greet his visitor. The tone of his voice left no doubt that he did not consider it a pleasant one.

"You should be more cautious about who you let in here," replied Vas in a sibilant voice that was scarcely louder than a whisper.

"The guards are there to keep undesirables out. Unfortunately, in your case, they didn't do their job." While the words seemed to be spoken in jest, the king's voice was hard enough to create doubt. "I'm not really in the mood for talking and certainly not for discussing treaties and such. What's so important that it couldn't wait until later, or tomorrow?"

"Your Majesty has taken the correct action," stated Vas with absolute confidence.

"Really?" snorted Kan. "Then how come it doesn't feel that way."

"Life doesn't always offer us pleasant options, and sometimes the better choice is not always the least painful. You have acted to protect all that you have built during your reign. The cost was your eldest child. The alternative does not bear thinking about."

"Your advice is not for a father, Vas, but for a king. I've already done my royal duty."

"I'm an advisor to the king," replied Vas simply, his words so soft that Kan had to strain to hear them. "But if you wish counsel for a father, I will be happy to give it. Even had you kept Nia as your daughter, you would have lost her anyway. Living surrounded by Cen and his cronies will poison her mind, regardless of whether you blessed or cursed her marriage. At least now you won't have to face her despite in person. Isn't a full, clean break better than that alternative?"

"So you're saying I never should have let her meet Cen in the first place. How was I to know it was going to develop into this?"

"No person can control another's life, not even a king his daughter's. Blaming yourself for her actions is foolish."

"That's a father's prerogative," argued Kan.

"Your greatest fault, Your Majesty, is a tendency to dwell upon your failures rather than your successes. You have four children by Lea and a son by Sye, all of whom are delightful. Think of them rather than the lost lamb."

"Your advice is heavy on logic and light on emotion, Vas. It makes me wonder if there isn't some truth to all those rumors about your being an Apath," said Kan, although he was sure that there was more than "some truth."

Vas allowed himself a mirthless smile. "To be an Apath does not necessarily mean a loss of emotion. To lose emotion does not necessarily mean that one is an Apath."

"Only a wizard would say something like that," prompted Kan, seeing an opportunity to lure Vas into the admission he had been seeking for a dozen years.

The chancellor wriggled out of the position neatly, however. "Or someone who was trying to make another believe he is a wizard. Now, if Your Majesty will excuse me, there are matters that require my attention, none of which deal with magic."

"That's all you had to say to me?" asked Kan, surprised, having expected something more substantive.

"It is," replied Vas. "If it doesn't satisfy you, I could make something up."

"That's quite all right. You have my leave to go."

"Your Majesty," acknowledged Vas. With a bow, he turned and departed the way he had entered.

* * *

The rest of that year and the first half of the next passed without incident. No attempts were made on Kan's life during the period and this lack of activity concerned him. He was certain that the nobles had not given up trying to eliminate him and their lack of occasional strikes indicated darker, more sinister possibilities. Knives and poison Kan could defend against, but complex, well-organized plots might find their mark.

Virtually nothing was heard about Nia during the period, except for an occasional snippet of gossip. Try as he might, Kan could not resist listening in as a short piece of news was related about his former daughter. She seemed to be happy with her lot as mistress of Cen's house, and although no children had yet been born, reliable sources said one was on its way.

Kan's own married life was less than harmonious. He and Sye continued as they had for more than two years, seeing each other during the day, engaging in civil conversation, then sleeping apart at night. In recent months, the queen's fascination with Raq had dwindled even as her penchant for discretion increased, resulting in fewer, less public, and less frequent nighttime trysts.

One day early in the summer of 546, an event occurred that brought husband and wife closer, at least temporarily.

Kan entered the room of his youngest son Sor, having been alerted by his ever-faithful chamberlain Syr that "His youngest Royal Highness" appeared to be ill and the queen was waiting for him in the boy's chamber. Needless to say, Kan terminated the remainder of the day's interviews and proceeded immediately to see his son.

Also present was Vii, one of Kan's advisors and the palace healer. Sye, her face unusually pale, was standing several feet from the sick bed while Vii bent over Sor, checking his breathing and heart rate, among other things.

"What's wrong?" asked Kan, presenting a regal image still dressed in his robes of state.

"He started coughing up blood then fainted," whispered Sye, her voice trembling. She ran her fingers through her long, fair tresses.

"Vii?" asked Kan.

The healer, a young man of twenty-five, looked up from his patient, a puzzled frown masking his homely features. One bushy eyebrow was raised. "I'm clueless, Your Majesty. I would have guessed at some internal inflammation, but he seems perfectly sound."

"I've seen things like this before..." began Kan.

"Indeed," agreed Vii. "The symptoms are most common, but they don't match the usual causes. This is something...different. A reference tickles my memory but I can't quite recall it."

"Will he be all right?" asked Kan, his voice steady.

Vii shrugged. "Without knowing the cause, it's difficult to say. Keep him warm and watched. I'll come back in the morning. If there's any change, have me called. Other than that, there's little I can say or do."

Kan was surprised and disappointed. Eight years ago, he had chosen the youthful Vii as palace healer because of his exceptional intelligence and keen intuition. If this man could not help his son, Sor's future appeared grim.

After the healer left, Kan moved to stand by his wife. Hesitantly at first, then with more confidence when she didn't rebuff him, he gathered her into his arms and let her rest her head against his chest. It was the first intimate contact they'd had in nearly three years. The moment was a bittersweet one, especially for the king, who had never wanted a separation from his young wife.

"He can't die," murmured Sye.

"He won't die," said Kan. Even as consolation, the words were empty. A king had many powers, but the ability to forestall death was not one of them. Not counting Nia, he had already lost three children. If fate decreed it, there was nothing to stop Sor from becoming the fourth.

After a few moments, Sye gently disengaged herself from the embrace. Her eyes were red-rimmed, as if she'd been crying, but there were no tears. In a quiet voice, she said, "Thank you. I don't deserve your kindness." It was the closest she had gotten, or would likely get, to an apology.

"You're my queen and the mother of my youngest son. You deserve no less."

Before going to sit by Sor's bedside, Sye raised herself on tiptoe to give her husband a sisterly kiss on the cheek.

There was no change in the young prince's condition through the night. When Vii arrived at dawn the next day, he was unable to make a diagnosis or suggest a treatment. The situation persisted for more than a week, with Sor unconscious and fevered, Vii mystified, and the king and queen consumed by anxiety. Finally, on the ninth day of the illness, the healer arrived for his morning visit in the company of Chancellor Vas.

"Vas!" exclaimed Kan, surprised to see his advisor in the sick chamber. "Is there something so urgent that it couldn't wait until this afternoon." The king had shortened his daily audiences, but no personal crisis could supersede business of the throne.

"Nothing like that," Vas assured him with a smile. "I'm here at the request of your esteemed healer."

"Since I haven't been able to learn much and His Highness' condition hasn't changed, I thought Vas' knowledge of certain...arts might be helpful," explained Vii.

"If you can get Vas to admit that he has knowledge of those arts," said Kan.

"I'll do what I can, no more, no less," replied Vas, sitting on the edge of Sor's bed and clasping the child's hand. "No promises and no admissions. Could I have a little privacy?"

Although there were few men in Vorti that Kan would trust alone with his son, Vas was one of them. Had Sye been present rather than lying in bed after an all-night vigil, she might have raised an objection, but Kan had none. Along with Vii, he left the room.

Even though the chancellor's examination lasted for less than half an hour, the waiting was tedious, even for a king who had learned the art of patience. Kan paced the floor from one end of the hall to the other, his boot heels clicking on the marble surface as his body's restlessness sought to match that of his mind. Vii, meanwhile, took a seat on one of the benches, closed his eyes, and dozed off.

Finally, the chancellor emerged from the sick room, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "His Highness will recover."

"You know the illness?" asked Vii skeptically, not having expected the chancellor to find anything. His purpose in bringing along the supposed wizard had been to satisfy those involved that every possibility had been examined. Vii didn't believe in magic so he couldn't accept that Vas was a practitioner of those arts.

"Prince Sor, as it turns out, is a Latent. Roughly a quarter of a season ago, he was bitten," said Vas.

Kan was admittedly not well versed in lore about magic, but he understood the implications of Vas' declaration. His son was an Apath.

Latents were wizards who possessed the innate ability to use magic, but in whom that power had not been activated. It took the bite of a rare parasite to activate a Latent. Kan had never seen an activation, since such events were as rare as Apaths, but rumor said that the older the person, the more traumatic the transformation.

Vii was profoundly doubtful, "A simple parasitic infection would never cause these symptoms. Loosening of the bowels, yes; stomach cramps, yes; but not what this child has."

"It isn't the parasite that's the source of the problem. It's the reaction of the body to the activation of his abilities. The parasite is relatively harmless and will die now that its function has been performed, if it isn't dead already."

"I've never heard of anything like this."

"And isn't that why you brought me along? In case the symptoms were caused by something outside the normal range of medicine?"

"Will he recover?" inquired Kan, addressing the question to his chancellor. Regardless of what the healer thought, the king was willing to accept Vas' explanation.

"Completely. Our esteemed healer might wish to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't contract a real disease while his body is weak, but the activation of his Apath abilities will only temporarily incapacitate him. Within a few days he should be conscious again."

"I must strongly protest this 'diagnosis', Your Majesty. There is no evidence whatsoever to support it," said Vii.

"What evidence would you like for an activation?" asked the king. "For now, I'm inclined to accept what Vas says. If things haven't improved in a week or so, I may change my mind, but for now..." He left the statement unfinished.

"Will Your Majesty continue to require my presence?"

"You heard what Chancellor Vas said. Prince Sor needs to be watched for infections and diseases of a more mundane sort. For that, your skills will be most helpful."

"I'm not sure I'll be able to discern a 'normal' infection from what His Highness is afflicted with now," said Vii. Then, noting the king's stern expression and realizing he had probably overstepped the bounds of propriety, the healer hastily added, "Of course, I'll do my best to make the distinction."

"I knew I could rely on you," replied Kan with a cool smile.

* * *

"Wake up, my dear," said Kan gently, placing a hand on his wife's shoulder. This was the first time he had been in Sye's chambers since the last night they had spent together, several years ago. Even when they were close, she had wanted the distinction of separate bedrooms. Unlike Lea, his previous wife, she had been unwilling to share a room with him.

"Kan?" she asked sleepily, looking up with a mixture of surprise and confusion.

"Rest easy, my queen," said Kan. "I thought you'd want to know that our son's 'ailment' has been diagnosed. It isn't life-threatening."

Sye was upright immediately, and, almost without thinking, she threw her arms around her husband, startling them both. After a moment of intimate contact, however, she moved back, seeming embarrassed. Kan, no less disconcerted, was having difficulty containing his delight.

"Vas diagnosed what Vii couldn't see," said Kan after a suitable pause.

"Vas?" questioned Sye. "Why would Vas...?" The answer came to her before she finished the question, causing a look of childlike wonder to transform her features.

He nodded in silent confirmation. "What we thought was a disease is his reaction to the activation of his powers. Vas says he's been bitten by whatever parasite triggers the transformation of an Apath."

"Thank the fates he's all right," breathed Sye.

"Indeed," agreed Kan solemnly. "And now we have a wizard in the Royal Family. I wonder what the nobles will make of that."

Sye turned to her husband, placed her hands on his shoulders, and lifted herself up to kiss him fully on the lips. Her tiny arms wrapped around his neck and she drew him down next to her. At first, Kan was too surprised to offer any resistance, and, by the time he had recovered his senses, he had no desire to.

"What about Raq?" he murmured against her lips, risking ruining the moment by openly challenging her affair for the first time.

Biting Kan's earlobe as she reached to loosen his breeches, she breathed, "Let Raq spend the morning with his kitchen wench. I want my king and husband."

* * *

Later that day, while Kan was receiving audiences in the throne room, Queen Sye went to her son's chamber to sit by the side of the newly activated wizard.

To his mother, Sor looked subtly different. Physically, he was the same, but Sye thought she noticed an aura that had never been there before. As a child of the king of Vorti, Sor had always been special, but this unexpected, unprecedented change made him extraordinary. Never before had an Apath been this close to the rulership of a city. Only three men, one of whom was old and would soon die, stood between the youngest prince and the throne.

Sye stroked her son's soft blond hair. Before entering the sick room, she had spoken to Vas and Vii. The chancellor had assured her that her son would soon awaken. Vii had been more doubtful, unwilling to state more than that there were no symptoms other than those which had persisted for the past week. The prince, in his opinion, was neither better nor worse.

Vas would make an excellent tutor for Sor. It was fortunate that one of Devforth's few wizards was an advisor to the king, although the chancellor persisted in his unwillingness to admit his abilities. He smiled mischievously while saying that "Wisdom to know an Apath does not mean that one is an Apath, merely that one is wise." Vas wasn't fooling anyone with his murky denials, least of all Kan or Sye, but not admitting his identity had become something of a game. The queen didn't care what he did or didn't confess, as long as he taught her son the arts of magic.

As predicted by Vas, Sor regained consciousness the next day, and, within a week, all lingering effects of his apparent illness had vanished. Vii was mystified, but stubbornly refused to accept the obvious explanation, stating that the success of the chancellor's predictions was a coincidence. The healer, however, was the only one privy to Vas' declaration who believed this. As far as everyone else was concerned, an Apath had joined the Royal Family.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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