PART ONE: RITES OF SUCCESSION
Baron Cen was a rugged, hardy middle-aged man whose trim, well-muscled figure made a pleasant change from the flabby, fat bodies that generally characterized the nobility. Standing nearly seven feet tall with steely gray eyes and silver-streaked chestnut hair, Cen dominated any room he was in, regardless of the others present. His stern demeanor, however, did not hint at the baron's love for the frivolous, bawdy, and inane. When not scheming to protect his position or consolidate his considerable power, Cen liked nothing better than playing a practical joke or spending an evening over a keg of ale laughing at jests whose humor was directly proportional to the amount of drink consumed.
Cen's excesses had been curtailed since his marriage to Nia. His spacious mansion no longer hosted all-night parties three times a week. His maids, once required to appear topless when serving guests, now wore demure costumes. Orgies and opium were things of the past and the baron ordered less than a quarter of the quantity of ale he had once desired.
As Nia had changed Cen, so Cen had changed Nia. Five years of living with the baron had given her a broader view of issues than she had been exposed to in the palace. The nobles were not all rapacious, evil men grasping for every coin they could find, careless of whom they trampled on the way to get it. There were exceptions of course, but every caste and class had its bad examples. In general, however, the nobles were simple people frightened that the policies of the king might strip them of the possessions and wealth that was rightfully theirs.
Nia supported her husband's position against the throne, although she frequently vowed never to condone violence. At first, she had adopted Cen's views because of the hurt and anguish she had felt at her family's rejection, but gradually she had come to believe and accept them. Rather than taking the extreme stance of many nobles and denouncing Kan as petty and destructive, Nia chose to see her father as misguided. After all, she had lived with him for eighteen years. In her opinion, he believed his policies were beneficial to all, but couldn't see how much ill-will was being fomented among a sizable portion of his subjects.
Nia and Cen had three children. The eldest, a son, was a three-year old terror called Tir. Rae and Kae were twin eight-month old girls. It was the desire of both the baron and his wife that Tir become king, although they frequently disagreed about what actions might be acceptable to put him there.
Nia had just finished her dinner, which, this night as often, she ate alone, when Cen banged into the house, stomping his feet to ward off the evening's unnatural chill. Moments later, the baron strode into the room with a wide smile on his bearded face.
Rubbing his hands briskly together, he commented, "You must have ice in your veins, Woman! It's freezing outside and hardly any better in here." He glanced disdainfully at the feebly glowing fire. "Damn thing's almost burned out."
Nia shrugged. It was true that, for the most part, she didn't feel the cold the way most of the nobles did. Her father had always been a believer that smaller fires were better since they saved fuel. A king didn't need to worry about a lack of wood, but Kan had not always been a king. Cen, on the other hand, had grown up around roaring fires, and, rather than becoming accustomed to chill nights, he had always piled more wood on the blaze.
Cen rang a pull-bell, calling a servant to build up the fire and bring his meal. He sat next to his wife, leaned close to give her a chaste kiss on the cheek, then reclined in his seat with one arm draped companionably around Nia's shoulders. The self-satisfied smirk he had come in with still masked his features.
"Obviously, you had a good day," said Nia.
"Today wasn't a good day, it was a very good day, both for us and our son."
"Tell me about it." Nia realized that Cen was referring to his plan to release many of his serfs, but she also knew it would give him great pleasure to speak about it in detail.
"You should have seen them, the poor cows!" exclaimed the baron, chuckling. "Half of them looked like they were going to bow down to me and the other half were so stunned they didn't know what to think. There were a lot of tears and more than a few calls for me to be the next king of Vorti."
"And you said you had no desire for that title."
"Of course. No one wants a ruler who wants to be king."
"On the other hand, reluctant kings rarely make the best kings."
Cen nodded vigorously. "Look at the mess your father's made of his reign. If I recall correctly, he wasn't eager to take over at first."
"No, he wasn't. He always said that a peculiar sense of duty forced him to take the crown." She paused for a moment, then decided she had to say something in defense of her father. "I don't think he knows the damage he's done. He believes everything is for the best. He's never seen the issues from both sides."
"That's why he's a bad king. He doesn't have the foresight or the initiative to be a ruler. Fine sentiments and lofty dreams don't run a city. It's wonderful to think you can give every man a nice home and plenty to eat, but that's ignoring reality. Kan would make a great philosopher or crusader, but he's a disaster as king." He suddenly turned on Nia, a hint of bitterness in his voice, "I'll never understand why you feel compelled to defend him. There have been more than a few times when you've taken his side over mine. He turned his back on you when you married me."
Nia raised her hands in supplication. "I lived with him for eighteen years. When he disowned me, it hurt, but it was consistent. If he'd done anything else, he wouldn't have been Kan of Vorti."
Cen grunted, then said, "Sorry. But discussion about your father never brings out the best in me. I'm sure that after five years you've begun to realize that."
"More than 'begun,'" acknowledged Nia with an ironic smile.
"Anyway, we've lost a lot of land, but it should pay off handsomely in the end, and none of it was our best property. In all, I freed a dozen serfs, and gave small plots to each of them. It won't take long for word of my generosity to spread through the city."
"You'll be a hero."
"More than that, I'll be well-loved by all the people of Vorti. A noble for the citizens, they'll call me. The perfect choice to unify Vorti when Kan dies. Certainly a better choice than your brother Kir, who few understand or like."
"Kir's quiet. He always has been. I've never been able to decide whether or not he wants to be king," said Nia.
"We'll relieve him of the choice. In the confusion and uncertainty following your father's death, the coup will be simple and bloodless. By then, I'll be able to work things so the people will clamor for my coronation. Kir will have no choice but to step aside. That my wife is of the legitimate royal bloodline, disinherited or not, should only strengthen my claim. Once, you were a princess. Soon, you'll be a queen and our son the crown prince."
"No more assassination attempts?"
"I've told the others to stop. They know my plan, so they should listen. We'll let Kan die of natural causes. At his age and in his health, that shouldn't take long. Besides, since the plan isn't ready yet, it's better if he holds on for at least a little longer," noted Cen with a chuckle. Nia, however, didn't find the subject amusing.
"What about the rest of my family? Frankly, I don't care what happens to that bitch my father married or her son, but I love my sisters, Bem, and even Kir. I don't want them hurt." She said the last words with a quiet intensity that her husband could not ignore.
"There's no need for unpleasantness, as long as Kir abdicates in my favor. Your sisters can continue living in the palace as princesses and your brothers will retain their titles. Sye's position will be a little uncertain, but I'm sure we can find a nice mansion to put her in."
"And if Kir doesn't abdicate?"
Cen's expression turned bleak. "Let's hope that doesn't happen. I want this to proceed with a minimum of violence and unpleasantness. I really do. If Kir's sensible about things, I might even offer him a position on my council. But if he refuses to give up the crown...I'm afraid I can't let an enemy like that live. I'm sorry, Nia, but that's the reality of politics."
Reluctantly, Nia nodded. If Kir refused to yield his position willingly, yet was allowed to live, he could become the rallying point for malcontents across the city. Cen's reign would never be secure. Nia's brother would either have to capitulate or die.
"Let's just hope everything goes smoothly. There's no use courting trouble where there is none," noted Cen.
Nia murmured her agreement, but wondered if such a clean, neat resolution was possible. There was much about Kir that she didn't comprehend, but Nia knew he loved their father deeply. Even if he didn't want to be king, that nearly-worshipful respect might force Kir to stand against Cen regardless of the circumstances. Then things would turn bloody.
Nia shuddered, but her husband, now digging into his meal, didn't notice. The last thing she wanted was to be caught in a blood war. For her, the only fruits borne of such a struggle would be grief and pain. Nevertheless, the conflict was beginning to look increasingly more likely. In the end, no matter who won, she would be the one to suffer the deepest wounds.
Kan was not really ill, although that was the story which had been presented to the myriad ambassadors, merchants, nobles, and other citizens who had come to present complaints and petitions to the Crown. Rather, Kan, in conjunction with his chancellor, had decided that it was time for Kir to be given a firsthand lesson in ruling Vorti. So, while the real king watched from behind a concealed peephole in his private sanctum, the crown prince tried to handle the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom.
This was the fourth day of Kan's "illness" and he found that he was actually enjoying not having to appear in the throne room. This was his first opportunity when not recovering from an assassination attempt to avoid the daily audiences, and he found it refreshing. Of course, it couldn't last for much longer, or people would become concerned about their king's well-being. Besides, although Kir was learning, he was still not quite ready to take over the throne. Unsure of his authority, he was easily swayed by persuasive oratories, whether or not they had suitable facts to back them up.
Queen Sye had been against this experiment from the start, arguing that it was not a good idea for Kan to give up any of his power, even to his son for a few days. She claimed that others might perceive the so-called illness as a sign that Kan's health was failing and that his days as ruler were limited. Sye's opinions concerned Kan, but not enough to dissuade him from taking the action his other advisors believed would ultimately benefit both Kir and Vorti. After all, Kan could not live forever and his son would be the next king.
Kan watched but did not interfere, nor did he permit Vas to step in on those rare occasions when Kir was on the brink of making an obvious blunder. Part of becoming an apt ruler was making mistakes. Kan had made enough of them in the days following his coronation.
Kan's attention, which had been wandering, snapped into focus the moment he saw the tall, bearded man stride through the open double doors opposite the throne. The newcomer marched up the aisle, made a perfunctory bow to the prince, then stood waiting behind the peasant who was making his supplication. As if feeling eyes upon his back, the farmer turned, and, seeing the imposing noble, mumbled his apologies before stepping aside. When Kir said nothing about this, Kan clenched his teeth. Such arrogance should not be condoned. Any noble, especially this noble, should be made to wait.
"The crown will hear Baron Cen," declared Kir, inclining his head ever-so-slightly. To Kan, Cen's answering nod was like salting an open wound.
"I have come at the behest of the Council of Nobles, Your Highness, to inquire after His Majesty's health. It has come to our notice that he has been absent from audiences and other public appearances for several days and this is the cause of some concern. We hope nothing serious has befallen him."
Kir's voice was cold as he responded, "The Crown thanks you for your concern, Baron Cen. His Majesty has had a slight indisposition of late and should be back attending audiences before several more days have passed."
"I speak for all those of my class when I say that this is a great relief," said Cen. Then, without even asking Kir's permission to depart, the baron made another slight bow before turning on his heels and striding from the throne room.
It had taken all of Kan's willpower to keep from storming out of his place of concealment and confronting Cen. That, however, would have done potentially irreparable damage to Kir's still-fragile confidence. The baron was an obstacle Kir would have to learn to deal with, since Cen would doubtless outlive Kan and become an even more unpleasant impediment once his chief nemesis was gone.
The rest of the morning went relatively smoothly, with the exception of a vocal and profane outburst from a beggar when the prince's judgment went against him. Kan was waiting for his son in the private sanctum at the conclusion of the audiences.
"I assume you saw Cen," said Kir, shaking himself free of the royal robes.
Kan nodded but said nothing.
"What would you have done?" asked Kir, uncertain whether his father's silence indicated disapproval.
"I wouldn't have handled it the same way, but I wasn't the one in the hot seat at the time. Cen isn't your enemy - at least not directly - so perhaps it's best for you to be diplomatic with him until circumstances warrant a different approach."
"But you would have thrown him out on his ass," noted Kir.
Kan allowed himself a small smile. "Exactly. Cen knows that and that's why he'd never come into the throne room while I'm there."
"Otherwise, how did I do?"
"One of the first rules of kingship is that you ask for help and advice before making a decision, but never question a proclamation after you've made it. Whether I think you've made good decisions or not is irrelevant. They're your choices and they'll stand as you made them. When you're on that throne, your word is law. What anyone else thinks, including me, doesn't matter.
"But, since you want to know my opinion, I'll give it to you this time. I thought you did a decent job. Not a great job, but you'll accumulate wisdom with experience and that's what makes a competent ruler."
"So it gets easier the longer you do this?"
"No," replied Kan. "If anything, as long as you care about what you're doing, it gets harder."
"Will you do me a favor then, Father?"
Sor was deeply engrossed in his studies under the tutelage of Vas when Kan entered the library to confer with his chancellor. The large, rarely used room was ideal for a child's lessons. In the air was the faintly pungent aroma of the many books and scrolls that lined the walls. Several lanterns were the only sources of illumination with tiny motes of dust dancing wildly before the enclosed flames. The library was like another world and those who came here often forgot the realities beyond the thick wooden door.
The nine-year old child flashed his father a quick grin, then returned to reading the yellowed scroll before him. Vas motioned the king to the far corner of the room.
"How fares the instruction?" asked Kan, glancing in Sor's direction. With his full awareness focused on the document, the boy was oblivious to his father's attention.
"He's an apt learner," replied Vas in a voice that was almost a whisper. "I haven't actually started teaching him about magic, but he's learning the background."
"What about using those abilities?"
"Difficult to say. He may choose never to use them. Being a wizard is one thing, but deciding to embrace the Apathy is another. Magic does not come without its price. You remember me telling you about this after we discovered what he is?"
"You said that emotion was the...'crux' of magic?" foundered Kan, trying to remember a conversation from four years ago.
"'Fuel' is a better word. Emotion fuels magic. To use the powers, the Apath must drain emotion. Love, hate, or any other emotion will do, but using magic means a lessening of feeling. Not everyone with the ability is willing to make that sacrifice and it frequently isn't the wisest course of action."
"So that's why you don't flaunt your abilities."
Vas smiled. "I never said I had such abilities to use. But if I did, and I emphasize if, I would use them only in the most dire of circumstances. I have no desire to lose my emotions just to manipulate magic."
"You still won't admit it."
"I have nothing to admit," replied Vas, a twinkle in his eyes. "I am what you see, a wise old man serving the king as best he can."
"That I'll never believe."
Vas did his best to look wounded. "Does His Majesty think I'm hiding something?"
"His Majesty does."
The chancellor threw up his hands in a mock gesture of resignation, then artfully changed the subject, "How was His Highness' day on the throne?"
"Quite interesting. He outright forbade old Gog from any and all public begging."
Vas let out a hearty chuckle. "That must have created quite a stir. I'll bet Gog was less-than-happy about it."
"Gog was outraged and he called Kir quite a number of colorful names. I'll have to remember them for the next time I get mad at one of the endless stream of ambassadors that plagues me."
"What happened to precipitate this?"
"Apparently Gog was out begging as usual near Mik's vegetable stand. Gog was being especially offensive that day and Mik's trade was suffering as a result. When he asked Gog to move away, the dirty bastard pulled down his leggings and pissed on poor Mik."
"So old Gog is going to have to go to work for a living. We see something amazing every day."
"Only after a few more arrests and complaints," said Kan. "Surely you don't think even a royal decree is going to stop Gog that easily?"
"I suppose not. I wish I'd been able to see his face! Of all the days to decide not to join you in that little spy room of yours."
"That's not all you missed. Baron Cen made his first appearance at court in nearly a decade."
"What did he want?"
"Supposedly to see how I was. He asked in the most insulting manner possible. I think he actually wanted to see whether I was still alive or not, and how easily Kir might be manipulated."
"What answers did he get?"
"Kir told him I was alive and well. He was polite to Cen. Not how I would have handled it, but I don't think he appeared too weak."
"That's important," agreed Vas. "Actually, it's a good thing he didn't handle it the way you would have. Cen's popular enough now that throwing him out of the throne room might have caused a great deal of public unrest."
"What do you make of all this crap about his freeing serfs and giving them land?" asked Kan.
"It's a ploy to get public support. He's getting ready to make a bid for the rulership of Vorti on your death. He won't get it. Regardless of how generous he appears to be, he's still a baron and Kir's the rightful ruler. Cen will have most of the nobility behind him, but not enough of the commoners to be able to stage a successful coup."
"I hope you're right," muttered Kan.
"I usually am. Cen only represents a danger if we're not ready for him. Fortunately, he's transparent. Of course, the longer you stick around, the harder it becomes for him. Whatever support the ploy with the serfs gives him will fade fast, so he must be anticipating that you won't last much longer."
"Maybe he's planning to help me on my way. It's been tried many times before."
"It's possible. If I were you, I'd start being cautious again. Perhaps the long break from assassination attempts has been designed to keep you off guard. A relaxed target is an easier one."
"Well," growled Kan, "Baron Cen will find this bird difficult to bring down. I'm going to do my damndest to grant Kir the favor he asked of me."
"And what's that?"
"To live forever."
Less than two weeks after Kir's first taste of rulership, the crown prince fell violently ill, his body wracked by convulsions and his stomach spasming uncontrollably. His retainers quickly removed him from the practice yard where he had been training with a sword and moved him to his own chambers. The healer was summoned immediately. Kan was told as soon as his morning's audience was at an end.
Kir was unconscious when the king arrived, looking pale and drawn lying on the plain white linens of his large bed. The curtains around the bed had been drawn back to let as much light reach the sick man as possible, and the three long, narrow windows in the room were opened wide. Vii was sitting on a sturdy, uncomfortable-looking wooden stool next to the bed, taking his patient's pulse.
Kir's room was spartan, much like his personality. Unlike so many of those living in the palace, he eschewed tapestries and paintings, preferring instead plain walls. He had an ornate, finely-carved desk that had been a present from his mother, but he rarely used this, instead favoring a stark, functional writing table. Three of the four chairs in the chamber were unpadded. The fourth, an oversized, comfortable rocking chair, had also been a gift from Queen Lea, and, although Kir had possessed it for over ten years, it appeared unused. This and the desk he kept almost as a shrine to his mother, virtually untouched but always present, a constant reminder of a loving woman who had died too young.
"How is he?" asked Kan, concern in his voice. Not only was it his son lying on the bed, but his full investment in the future of Vorti.
Vii's face wore a puzzled frown. "I don't understand this. The symptoms don't match any known disease. And by my reckoning, he shouldn't be unconscious. It's almost like..."
"Like what?" demanded Kan.
"What killed Tam."
Kan's intake of breath was audible. His youngest son by Lea had died over six years ago of a mysterious illness that Vii had been unable to identify or treat. At the time, allegations of poison had run rampant, but nothing had ever been proved.
"Is there anything you can do?" asked Kan.
"Not all the symptoms are the same, so it could be a normal illness..." He sounded doubtful. "I'll do what I can, and more. He's got a strong constitution and that should help."
"I'm going to get Vas. He may be able to tell us something," said Kan.
Vii's response was a derisive snort. Since Vas' correct diagnosis of Sor's condition, the healer had developed a dislike of the chancellor.
Fifteen minutes later, Kan re-entered the sick room in the company of Vas. Vii relinquished his place on the stool to the chancellor, who placed one hand on the prince's damp forehead and another over his heart.
"What are his symptoms?" asked Vas.
"Sweating, elevated heart rate, occasionally erratic respiration. At least the fever's down. When his retainers summoned me, they said he'd been vomiting and convulsing, but I've seen no evidence of that since."
After only several moments of examining the patient, Vas pronounced, "Whatever it is, it's not magic-related. There's nothing I can do for him."
"Are you sure?" asked Kan.
The chancellor gave his king a steady look, then repeated, "There's nothing I can do for him."
Kan turned back to Vii. "Do what you can. I...Vorti cannot afford to lose him."
"I hope it won't come to that," said Vii. He was the best healer in Vorti and one of the most accomplished on Devforth, but that was not always enough. For Tam, it had not been enough.
When the king did not come to her chambers that night, Sye went in search of him. After finding the royal bedchamber empty and questioning a few guards, she arrived at Kir's bedroom to discover her husband, looking haggard and old, slumped in the plush chair, his eyes never leaving the prone form on the bed. Vii, appearing almost as weary as the king, nodded to her when she entered, then tactfully withdrew to give the couple privacy.
Sye, although wearing only a light shift under her summer dressing gown, began to perspire profusely from the nearly unbearable warmth in the room. A healthy blaze was popping and crackling in the fireplace, making it feel like one of the hottest summer nights. Sye undid the buttons down the front of the outer garment, revealing the peach-colored chemise beneath, but that action offered little relief.
"How is he?" asked Sye. She had not seen Kir since he had been stricken. The figure lying beneath a single sheet bore little resemblance to the athletic young man who had been practicing at swordplay when Sye had encountered him soon after daybreak. His skin had an unhealthy yellowish cast to it, but that was only to be expected under the circumstances. Tam had looked the same way.
"No change," muttered Kan. "Vii thinks it's poison, since no known disease causes these symptoms. He's not sure of the likelihood of recovery. If he can discover what the poison is, he'll have a better chance. We've sent a messenger to Fels in search of a well-known poison expert. If he's willing to come, and can get here in time, he still might not be able to tell us much."
"I'm sure your son will recover. Kir is one of the strongest men I've met," said Sye.
Kan looked into his wife's eyes, his own troubled, then smiled wanly at her. "I hope you're right."
"Why don't you go to bed and get some sleep. I'll sit up with him."
The king's gaze returned to her, this time expressing surprise. The animosity between his wife and eldest son was well-known. Neither of them had ever pretended to like the other. Yet Sye's expression was placid and Kan could detect nothing but sincerity and concern in her voice.
When her husband did not respond, Sye pressed, "You need sleep. He's unconscious now and there's nothing you can do for him. It's when he wakes that he'll need you. I promise I'll send for you if there's a change. And Vii will be here with me the whole time."
Kan sighed. He was tired and Sye was right. It was important that he be more than a half-asleep zombie if and when his son awoke. "All right," he conceded at last. "But wake me if there's any change, no matter how small."
"Don't worry. I'll take good care of him."
Kan took her hand and pressed it gratefully, then rose and left the room. After he had gone, Vii slipped back in, bowed to the queen, then re-took his bedside seat. He did not see the secretive smile that played about the corners of Sye's lips.
They sat in silence for several moment before Sye said, "It's damn hot in here."
"His Highness needs the heat. It should help..." Vii's voice trailed off as he turned to face the queen. She had removed her dressing gown and slipped the straps of her chemise off her shoulders.
"Your Majesty?" questioned Vii, a lump in his throat. He was suddenly beginning to feel the heat.
Sye perched on the arm of the rocking chair that her husband had just occupied. Patting the padded seat, she purred, "Why don't you come sit over here and keep me company. I don't think much is going to happen with His Highness for a while."
Vii swallowed hard. His normally-steady hands had begun to tremble. When Sye let her shift slip to the floor, the healer could not stop himself. He crossed the chamber and pulled the willing queen into an embrace blazing with passion hotter than the flames in the fireplace.
There was no change in Kir's condition that night or during any of the immediate days to follow. The longer the illness persisted, the less likely it seemed that the prince would ever regain consciousness. As the weather warmed and spring ripened into summer, hopes for Kir's recovery were at their lowest. Kan began to consider everything that would be necessary to prepare Bem for assuming the throne.
Vii seemed at a loss to explain why his every treatment failed. The poison-expert from Fels was either ignorant or feigned ignorance about the toxin and its symptoms, although he did say that the prince's case was consistent with his wide experience of poisoning.
Vas was no more or less of a help than the other two. The chancellor was always ready with advice, but flatly refused Kan's request to use magic to heal Kir, telling Kan that the balances in a man's blood were too precarious for anyone but a skilled expert to manipulate.
Audiences, which had been suspended for much of the spring, resumed in early summer. Condolences came in from all parts of Devforth, but Kan heard most of them with a cynical ear that detected more gloating than true sympathy. Sye did her best to comfort her husband and help him through the difficult time, including spending several hours a day with the sick prince, but the king seemed to have cut himself off from everyone, including her. It was difficult to determine whether he would ever withdraw from the shell he had enclosed himself in.
The process of running the city started up again, but slowly and tentatively. Only issues of the gravest importance were brought to the king's attention, often by annoyingly apologetic officials. As a whole, the nobility kept a low profile, frightened of being accused of poisoning the prince. Even Baron Cen's normally strident voice fell silent. The city seemed to be holding its collective breath, waiting for the inevitable.
At noon on the day before Midsummer, Kir began to sputter and choke. His eyes fluttered open and he gasped his father's name. Kan was summoned immediately, but by the time he arrived, his eldest son had died.
Vii and Vas were already present, the former shaking his head sadly while the latter used a soft, damp cloth to wipe the blood from Kir's mouth and nostrils. Flecks of crimson dotted the white linens. Kan stopped just across the threshold and bowed his head. There were no tears, however. His eyes were hot and dry.
"Vas," said Kan at last, his voice hoarse. "Draft a proclamation to be read from the palace ramparts at sunset. His Highness Kir of Vorti has passed on to his next life. All hail Bem, son of Kan and the next king of Vorti."
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