THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART ONE: RITES OF SUCCESSION


CHAPTER FOUR


The man who stood obsequiously before Chancellor Vas had the eyes of a rat, the nose of a weasel, and the body of a scarecrow. He was dirty, unkempt, and possessed of a nervous disposition that kept him constantly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Despite his unsavory appearance, however, Vas considered Gru the groundskeeper to be one of the most trustworthy and reliable of Kan's household servants.

"You wanted to see me, Sir?" asked Gru, his eyes directed unblinkingly at his mud-encrusted boots.

"Yes. I have a task for you that you may find a little odd," noted Vas with a wry smile.

"It's not my place to question your commands, Sir."

"This afternoon, while His Highness Prince Sor is in training with me, I want you to go out into the garden, capture five of the biggest, noisiest crickets you can find, and place them inside Prince Sor's chambers."

"But, Sir," protested Gru, "I'm not allowed inside the..."

"I've already made arrangements for you to be allowed in and out. Furthermore, you will continue this procedure every day until I tell you to stop. Do you understand?"

"Aye, Sir," replied Gru blandly. If he was perplexed or intrigued by his orders, he concealed it well.

"Good. Remember: five of the noisiest."

* * *

At first, the idea of studying magic had been an exciting one. At thirteen years of age, the prince's blood had thrilled at the thought of learning the secrets of one of the rarest and most awe-inspiring of powers. Soon, however, he had learned his folly. Not only was studying about magic as dry and tedious as any of his other lessons, but it was under the tutelage of Chancellor Vas, a man who was stern, unforgiving, and adept with a switch.

Actually, he had been learning about energies, magic, and Apaths for more than five years. It was only recently that those studies had been openly referred to as "Magic Lessons." Unfortunately, changing the name had done little to modify the content and even less to alter the disposition of the dictatorial teacher.

Sor took after his mother in many ways, with a small frame, emerald eyes, delicate fingers, and wavy blond hair. His father's influence was not entirely absent, however. Anyone who knew Kan recognized the king's chin and nose on the youngest prince. The resemblance was strong enough to quell the occasional rumor that Sye's child had not been sired by her husband.

Sor stopped by his quarters to change from the rough, durable garments he wore for sword-training with the Master-at-Arms to a more lightweight, comfortable doublet and hose. There was no need to add voluntary physical discomfort to the other unpleasantries available in the library. He wished he could take a quick bath - just enough to wash away some of the dirt and sweat - but Vas was a stickler for punctuality. Sor would receive a vicious rap across the knuckles if he was even a moment late.

On the way out of his chambers, heading for the library, the hurrying prince collided with a maid who was moving from room-to-room, changing bed linens. More than half of her load of neatly folded, scrupulously clean sheets ended up on the floor. Muttering his apologies, Sor bent to help retrieve them.

"Oh no, Your Highness," gasped the girl. "You mustn't... It was my fault."

Sor regarded her with a bold gaze. She had an open, honest face, that, while not especially comely, nevertheless had an indefinable quality that the prince found intriguing. A faint sprinkling of freckles dotted rosy cheeks. She was perhaps a year or two older than he was, but possessed the timidity of someone much younger. Her hair was long and dark - almost the color his father's had been before the gray became dominant. For a moment, wide eyes of a startlingly deep blue met Sor's, then were quickly averted.

"It isn't your fault," replied the prince, continuing to gather the spilled sheets. On a sudden impulse, he asked, "What's your name?"

"Joi, Your Highness," she replied, standing and looking on helplessly as her prince stooped by her feet. Unconsciously, one hand smoothed the front of her powder-blue maid's frock while the other cradled the remaining linens against her breast.

"A very pretty name," said Sor, rising with an armload of sheets that he gently deposited atop the pile Joi had retained after the mild collision. "I hope to see you around."

Sor thought he detected a reddening of the girl's complexion as she turned away. He absently wondered why he'd never seen her before. Perhaps a more accurate musing was why he'd never noticed her. Sor had to admit that there were few servants he could put a face to. He had grown into the habit of not really paying attention to them.

Running full speed from his quarters to the library enabled him to shut the door behind him just as the old clock in the corner chimed three. Vas, seated at the single table reading a huge, leatherbound tome, looked up precisely at the third stroke to give his pupil a slight smile.

"Read the fifth chapter today," said the chancellor, indicating a packet of scrolls across from him. "Let me know when you're done. I have some questions."

Sor suppressed the impulse to groan, knowing it would earn him a long lecture on how fortunate he was to possess abilities that most men and women only dared dream about. It occurred to Sor that he had no proof of his magical aptitude. In fact, he had no proof that magic even existed. Since childhood, he had heard all the talk about wizards and power, but no evidence had been presented to him. Vas was supposedly an Apath, but the most impressive thing Sor had witnessed the old man do was bring the switch down hard upon his backside. So far, everything had to be taken on faith and there was a limit to what the young prince could accept without confirmation.

As Sor was leafing through the scrolls, trying to find the elusive passage he had been commanded to read, Vas glanced in his direction and said, "Don't take all afternoon about it. We have much to discuss, including a change in your schedule."

Once Sor found the chapter, it took him less than an hour to read, although, as usual, his understanding of the words was limited. He was an adept reader - a necessary residue of Vas' teaching - but the material he was given to study frequently required the comprehension level of someone wiser than a thirteen-year old.

When Vas noticed that his pupil was finished, he closed his book and got to his feet. The inevitable questions started immediately.

"Name the four energies."

"Lifeforce, electricity, emotion, and magic," said Sor. That was not a new question. Vas began with a variation of it nearly every day.

"State their relationship to each other."

This was a little more difficult, but still nothing unique. "Lifeforce is the energy of life, that which gives movement, thought, and ability to all creatures. It is vital, powerful, and immutable. To kill the body is to puncture its essence, allowing lifeforce to escape beyond its physical bounds." Sor paused. There had been something new about lifeforce in the passage he had just completed. He did his best to explain it. "Once the lifeforce has left the body, it...wanders through the...spirit world...until another gateway opens for it to return." Vas nodded his approval and Sor continued, "Lifeforce can never be destroyed or created, merely dispersed or coalesced. Death is not destruction, but dispersion. Birth is not creation, but coalescence. No living creature can control lifeforce, nor coalesce it, although his actions can cause its dispersion.

"Electricity is the energy of nature, the source of external power. We see its manifestation when lightning sears the skies. It is a dynamic energy, which no living creature may harness.

"Emotion is the energy of man, a force which gives meaning to life and actions. Emotion is powerful, but ethereal and only the Apaths may tap into it. Emotion frequently causes physical action and occasionally empowers the physical beyond its normal abilities.

"Magic is emotion transformed. As an energy, magic does not exist on its own. An Apath must convert emotion into magic. Since energy can neither be created or destroyed, merely transformed, any increase in magical energy must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease in emotional energy. Since emotion is an internal force tied to an individual, an Apath has access only to his own emotion and not that of any other creature. Raw magic may be shaped and formed by an Apath to create a variety of effects, some of which may cause changes or deformations in the other energies."

Vas nodded. "Very good. Now, what happens if an Apath drains all of his emotional energy and still attempts to increase the magical energy available to him?"

This was a hard question, based exclusively upon the passage Sor had just read. His brow furrowed with concentration. "Emotion is an offshoot of lifeforce. While they are separate, they are still...interconnected. Creatures in general cannot access either. The Apath can access only emotion. If he attempts to draw more deeply than that, he will...skim his lifeforce. Since it is impossible for him to transform lifeforce to magic, his actions will puncture it and he will die."

"Correct," pronounced Vas. "You learned your passage well today."

"It was difficult." Difficult and boring, but he would never openly admit the latter to Vas.

As if reading his pupil's thoughts, the chancellor inquired, "Don't you find all of this reading and studying dry? Wouldn't you prefer to do something a little more active?"

Heart leaping, Sor was unable to contain an excited "Yes! Could I?"

Vas smiled tolerantly. "You have learned your lessons well, Sor, but there is still much more to be understood. Nevertheless, one of the foundations of learning is doing. If you continue to be diligent and show comprehension of what I teach, it may be possible to begin some experimentation. But take heed: no magic is minor. No experiment is simple. No act of touching and transforming energies is safe. There is danger in the smallest action. For that reason, even the slightest sign of immaturity or impatience will not be tolerated. You are an heir to the throne of Vorti. I will not have you killed because you think I bring you along too slowly."

Sor swallowed. Killed?

"Now, I have discussed scheduling with the Master-of-Arms, Master Vii, Mistress Fey, and your parents. It is agreed that you shall come to me first thing in the mornings from now on. You will go to them after you are done here as time permits."

Sor was not certain he liked the idea of his magical studies being given preeminence, even if there was the possibility of experimentation. He liked swordplay and archery. He didn't mind learning about herbs and poultices from the healer. Even Mistress Fey's discourses on etiquette and protocol were generally less tedious than the chancellor's lessons.

Vas continued, "Get a good night's sleep, Your Highness. I'll expect you here at sunrise tomorrow."

"That's it?" asked Sor, surprised. This had been an exceptionally short and undemanding lesson.

"For what you will begin tomorrow, you'll need this break. Enjoy yourself for a few hours, my prince. This may be your last opportunity to do so for a very long while."

* * *

Sor was in a surly mood when he arrived at the library for his first morning magic lesson. He had been kept awake most of the night by the incessant chirping of crickets. Nearly an hour's worth of careful scouring of his chambers by himself and two servants had led to the discovery of three exceptionally large specimens, but that hadn't been all of them. As soon as he'd climbed back into bed and doused the light, the chirping had started again.

Contrary to the young prince's expectations, no forays into the more practical applications were made during the morning's lesson. The word "experiment" was not mentioned and Vas seemed oblivious to the previous day's discussion. The passages Sor was assigned to study seemed abnormally long, tedious, and obscure, resulting in frequently-incorrect answers to Vas' questions. An occasional yawn earned him a stern rebuke. He left the library at noon feeling thoroughly disgusted and disgruntled. Even the exhausting physical exertion of training under the Master-at-Arms did not clear his mind.

The pattern was repeated every day for the next seven. Each night, Sor got less sleep and found it progressively more difficult to concentrate during his morning lessons. He repeatedly dozed off while reading, receiving stinging raps on his knuckles on each occasion. It wasn't only the prince's magic studies that suffered. He became clumsy and careless in swordplay, began to confuse the properties and names of herbs while with Vii, and completely lost interest in his lessons in etiquette. Then, following sixteen hours of grueling activity, Sor collapsed into bed to the lively chirping of what seemed to be an army of the thrice-damned crickets.

Sor tried everything to get rid of them. Searching was fruitless, cleaning useless, and even changing rooms didn't help. The crickets followed him wherever he went. In eight nights, he tried two bedrooms and a parlor and the insects were in all of them. In fact, the rooms where Sor slept seemed to be the only ones in the palace with the infestation. No one else was having any difficulties.

On the morning following his ninth disturbed night, Sor dragged himself into the library and slumped in his customary seat. His heavy-lidded eyes had deep circles under them and his long hair was tangled and unkempt.

"You're late," said Vas placidly, his alert and awake appearance in direct contrast to that of his prince.

With a grunt of resignation, Sor presented his left hand, palm downward. Vas produced a stout wooden stick which he brought down on his pupil's knuckles with a loud crack. Crying out, Sor snatched back his hand. Vas' punishments had never been that vicious before. Normally painful reminders, this one had seemed designed exclusively to hurt.

"Your tardiness has been getting worse every day. This is unacceptable. If you continue to loll in bed rather than getting ready, firmer measures shall have to be taken."

It took all of Sor's self-control to bite back a bitter retort. The cramping pain in his hand left no doubt how Vas would reply to an angry outburst. Gingerly flexing his fingers, the prince wondered if any of the bones were broken.

Before returning to his black leather-bound tome, Vas gave his pupil the day's first assignment. Unenthusiastically, Sor unfurled the parchment and began to read. The scroll started with the esoteric and quickly diverged even farther. A discourse on reincarnation, discussing in the most abstruse language possible the diffusion and coalescence of lifeforce, was virtually impossible to understand. What came next, a long treatise on a unifying theory of the four energies, proved even worse.

Sor did not realize that he had fallen asleep until he was none-too-gently shaken awake. Opening his eyes, he gazed into the sternly disapproving features of the chancellor. For a brief moment, Sor felt like balling his uninjured hand into a fist and punching that face as hard as he could.

"You are in no fit state to study today, nor have you been for the past few days. Until you learn to get a proper night's sleep, I can teach you nothing. A suitable punishment for this abominable behavior shall be discussed with your parents. You are dismissed."

That was too galling for the young prince to swallow. Throwing caution to the wind, he let loose with the blistering retort he had earlier curbed.

"You can take your damned magic and choke on it! My father wanted you to teach me, but I haven't learned a thing in seasons! Even before that, I got more value out of an hour with the Master-at-Arms than ten days with you! Now you want to have me punished because I can't stay awake reading this rubbish!? I'm a prince and I refuse to stand for this treatment!"

His anger running unchecked, Sor swept his arm across the table, scattering parchments and books alike onto the floor. Breathing heavily and with eyes glittering, he grasped the edge of the table, preparing to overturn it. It was only then that a ray of common sense penetrated his haze of anger and he stopped abruptly. He had already gone much, much too far.

"You ungrateful wretch!" hissed Vas. "As if I don't have more important things than teaching an inept whelp like you! My time would be better spent cleaning out chamber pots than attempting to explain magic to you! In all my life, I've never seen someone so incompetent. Your father's maid would have a better chance of using magic to lift this table than you!" Despite the fervor of the chancellor's words, his gaze remained calm, almost calculating.

Vas' insults fanned the flames of Sor's anger further. Almost without realizing what he was doing, he found himself concentrating on the table, focusing all of his pent-up fury on it, as if guided by an instinct that he neither understood nor controlled. The young prince focused his will until the table seemed the only reality. Without touching it, he could almost feel its texture and weight. Just beneath the surface, the anger continued to bubble and seethe, waiting to be set loose.

Suddenly, there was a loud whooshing sound in Sor's head. The all-consuming anger evaporated, leaving the young prince momentarily confused. Why was he standing with his fists balled? Then he noticed what had happened to the table and where his teacher had moved to.

Vas was standing next to him, a restraining hand placed on his forearm. The table had been hurled across the room, where it had slammed into book-laden shelves. Tomes and scrolls now littered the carpeted floor amidst the shattered wreckage of the shelves. The table lay upside down on its top, with two legs snapped off.

"Impressive," murmured Vas. "I hope nothing valuable was damaged."

Sor felt vaguely foolish. It was obvious that he had done this. He wasn't sure exactly how it had been accomplished, but, as his studies had indicated, strong emotion was the catalyst for magical ability. The exact instant when emotion had been transformed to magic was unclear, but the results left no room for doubt that the process had taken place. Nevertheless, in retrospect, it now seemed ludicrous that such a minor series of incidents could have provoked a reaction of this magnitude.

"How do you feel?" asked Vas.

"All right," acknowledged Sor with a shrug. The evenness of his response surprised him, but no more so than his sudden inner equanimity. There was no trace of rancor. His use of magic had truly evaporated his emotion. The insults, the crickets, and the tedious lessons all had no meaning. He didn't care about them any more.

"Apathy," said Vas. "It fills the void left by the vacating emotion. A sense of balance, almost of serenity."

"You did that on purpose, didn't you?" asked Sor, seeing things in a much clearer light. "You goaded me into using my powers."

Vas nodded. "I guess I'll be able to stop sending crickets to your chambers at night."

"You did that?"

"All part of the lesson."

"Is all of the anger gone?" It certainly seemed to be.

"Oh yes," acknowledged Vas. "Your little explosion drained everything. Although it may seem a small thing, consider that you will never again experience emotion about the crickets or these lessons. That was all wrapped up in the magic you let loose. From now on, you will be apathetic to those things. That is the danger of magic. Think of what would have happened if you had drawn on your love for your mother. The power would have been much, much stronger and more lasting, but, in the end, you would have been left indifferent to her. How you now feel about crickets you would have, in those circumstances, come to feel about her."

Sor shuddered at the thought. Crickets were inconsequential. Let them chirp all they wanted. It wouldn't bother him.

"In this case, the removal of emotion will have a few beneficial effects. It will make you a better student. With all of the frustration and anger gone about your lessons, your concentration and analytical abilities will improve. But remember that this is an exceptional case. Never take the loss of emotion lightly. I know it's easy to say that, but now that you've experienced it, hopefully those words will strike a chord."

"When it happened, it seemed like there was...in my head...a kind of..."

"Wind?" finished Vas.

"Yes!"

"That happened when the emotion was transformed into magic. The energy went from a mental to a physical form, then manifested itself by taking whatever action your mind was envisioning. In this case, I think you overdid things a little. I mentioned lifting the table, not throwing it across the library."

"So this was the experiment?"

Vas nodded. "Next, we'll work on control. There are a few mental exercises I know that will help, but eventually you'll have to tap the power again."

"I'm not sure what I did," admitted Sor. "I might not be able to do it again."

"Don't worry about that. When the time comes, you'll be able to. After the first few times, you'll even begin to understand what you're doing. The art of control is being able to temper emotion with logic and reason. That's not easy to do, but it's necessary. If a normal man can wreak havoc in a fit of anger, imagine what an Apath can do, when that anger becomes power." Vas glanced significantly toward the wrecked table.

"And..my limits?" asked Sor.

"Magic is the ability to bend physical realities to suit your desires. How much or how little you can do results mainly from the strength of your emotion and the force of your will. Incidentally, often the subtle things, like influencing a man's mind, are more difficult than grand displays. It's much easier to just release the power than to twist and manipulate it. Control is what separates the master from the novice."

"Which are you?" asked Sor. He was aware that his father had been trying for years to get the chancellor to acknowledge his own powers. Now the prince saw a chance to succeed where Kan had not.

"I am your teacher. No more, no less. I have never professed to be anything different. One doesn't need power to have wisdom. You would do well to remember that. Now, I think that's enough for today. Besides, it's going to take a few hours to clean up the mess you made."

Sor smiled wryly. He should have known that Vas was too wily an old fox to be snared by such a simple trap. "Until tomorrow?" asked the prince.

"Until tomorrow," said Vas. "And if you should see Gru the groundskeeper, send him to me. I want to talk to him before he starts collecting crickets."

* * *

Normally, Sor went directly from the library to the yard, where he practiced his swordsmanship and archery. Today, however, he was several hours early, so he decided to stop by his rooms and take a quick nap. Although his magical display had drained his anger, it hadn't done anything to relieve the deep-rooted tiredness that nine nights of poor sleep had begotten.

He reached his chambers to find a maid changing the linens on his bed. She looked up, appearing flustered by his entrance. It took the young prince a moment to place the familiar face. This was the same girl he had once blundered into in the hall.

"I'm almost done, Your Highness," she said, following a quick curtsy. "If I'd known you were coming back, I'd have done this earlier."

"Joi, isn't it?" asked Sor.

"Yes, Your Highness," she replied, eyes looking everywhere except at Sor.

The prince sat in a beautifully-crafted rocking chair, the finest of three chairs in the room and once the belonging of his late brother, Kir. He pulled off his boots and tossed them into a corner. Leaning back in the chair, he glanced around the room, but eventually his attention returned to Joi.

Sor studied the girl as she bent over his bed, glad for once that he had rejected the canopied style favored by almost everyone else in the palace - the curtains would surely have hampered his view. He admired the curve of her legs as she bent over to smooth out the sheets and the bounce of her breasts as she fluffed his pillows. Her sable hair, drawn back into a ponytail, seemed to shimmer in the full sunlight that passed through the open windows.

"Is this all right, Your Highness?" she asked, straightening to face Sor beside the immaculately made bed. The sheets were perfectly matched, the pillows full, and the quilt neatly folded.

"Perfect," said Sor with a smile.

"Your Majesty is too kind," replied Joi, eyes still not meeting his. "May I be dismissed?"

Sor nodded. As she hurried out the door, he quietly added, "Come back whenever you like," but he wasn't sure whether or not she heard him.

* * *

Following Sor's lesson, Vas met the king and queen in the little throne room to inform them of their son's progress. They had been aware of the chancellor's plan - in fact, Sye had identified Sor's choice of rooms each night for Gru - and had known that today was to be the day when the prince's talents would be examined. When Vas entered the room, they were waiting as anxiously as any parents to hear the results of their child's test. The king was seated on his throne with the queen standing by his right side.

"How was he?" asked Kan in a voice growing hoarse and brittle with age. The four years since his eldest son's death had not been kind to the king. His once majestic head of raven-black hair had gone almost completely white, except around the top, where it had fallen out altogether. The flesh around his jowls sagged while his once-powerful body had wasted away to near emaciation.

Queen Sye, standing faithfully beside her husband and looking as radiant as ever, seconded the question.

"His flare of anger was quick and violent, as such emotions often express themselves, and the accompanying magical results were appropriate. In short, he was fine. If anyone ever doubted his abilities, they can stop. He threw a man's-weight table across the library without touching it."

A wide smile materialized on Sye's face, but Kan merely looked relieved, as if he had been anticipating bad news.

"How much longer will you need to teach him before he has full command over his powers?" asked Sye.

"Full command?" echoed Vas. "It's rare for an Apath to gain full command, since they use the abilities so infrequently. In a few more years, he should know the basics. The rest he'll have to learn on his own. There are many things that cannot be taught."

"Years?" exclaimed Sye. "I thought you were almost finished."

"With the preliminaries, yes. But these things can't be rushed. Your son is gifted with dangerous powers and it would be foolish to hurry him. Apaths without patience usually don't survive for long."

Sye appeared ready to argue with the chancellor, but Kan forestalled her. "Of course, Vas. Whatever you think is best. My son will stay under your tutelage for as long as you deem necessary. Don't you agree, my dear?" said the king, turning to his wife.

"Yes," replied Sye shortly, her smile gone.

"If that's all, Your Majesty..."

The king appeared ready to ask something else, then changed his mind. "You can go, Vas."

Bowing to his liege, the chancellor turned and exited the throne room. Only after the door had shut behind him did he shake his head sadly. In the past few months, he had seen the king only in the brightly lit throne room, wearing his crown and full, regal robes. Kan did not look healthy there, under the best of circumstances, but in a shadowy room without the regalia, his appearance was infinitely worse. Vas hoped Bem was ready for the throne. Vorti might need a new ruler before many more seasons passed.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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