THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART ONE: RITES OF SUCCESSION


CHAPTER FIVE


It had been a gray day, nasty and unpleasant for the first of the year, with intermittant squalls of rain-mixed snow. Now, as a premature night settled over Vorti, Nia commanded her servants to stoke up the fires. Cen was not yet home, and, if the previous evenings were anything to go by, he might be very late. His mechanations to take the throne were consuming most of his waking hours. That singular goal had become an obsession that blinded him to other concerns, including his often-neglected family duties.

Indeed, Nia was sitting before a mirror brushing her hair in preparation for bed when she heard the door bang downstairs. Moments later, her husband came into the room, still wearing an ice-encrusted cloak. He quickly pulled off his boots and doffed his garments. Standing naked by the fire, he vigorously rubbed his limbs. Nia, after observing her husband long enough to gauge his mood, returned her attention to the looking glass.

"Damned unpleasant night! Ice and snow, all over the place. Isn't the weather supposed to take a turn for the better on the first of the year? Isn't that why it's the first of the year?" muttered Cen.

"It was nice a few days ago," commented Nia.

"A few days ago were a few days ago. I'm interested in today. Dix says it's probably going to be like this for at least another day. I hate cold weather!"

"Anything new happen today?" asked Nia.

"News from the palace. Count Fod saw your father and says he looks almost dead. Actually, it's amazing he's hung on for this long. Since Kir's death, his health's been in a steady decline."

"Are we ready?"

"We've been prepared for over a year. The nobles are set to make the push and I think we've won over enough peasants with promises of land that they'll support us. One or two more gestures should be all that's needed to give us a decisive majority."

"What gestures?" Nia turned to face her husband. This was something she hadn't heard about before.

"Give a few more serfs their freedom and plots of land."

"Is that wise? Last time you did that, the reactions were mixed," said Nia. Although Cen had been generous providing quantities of land, the quality had been dubious. Much of what he had given to the freedmen had been useless for farming, the only work the former serfs knew. During the first winter, several of them had died, and, of the survivors, only a few had stayed self-sufficient. Many had returned to work for Cen, making the difference between their former and present status minimal, a matter simply of what they were called, not what they did.

"The results might not have been favorable, but it helped our image with the general populace. The men back working for us are happy because they have land to call their own now, although it is next-to-worthless. And they have a choice to work, even if it is a choice between working and starving. You'd be surprised how important the concept of freedom is to a man whether or not it makes a difference to his lifestyle."

"What plots are you going to give away this time? The ones you took back from the men who died?"

Cen shook his head. "That would be bad form. Besides, some of those lands can be reclaimed by next year and will start yielding high-volume crops. No, something along the southern border should be good. Workable, but not prime land, at least not for another six or seven years. By then, we should be in the palace with access to the royal treasury."

"And the income from what you've lost won't matter at all."

Cen smiled. "Exactly."

"This might not gather the attention it did last time," noted Nia. "Then, it was a radical idea. Now, it's been done a few times, and once already by you. People might almost be expecting it."

"Then I'll live up to their expectations. At any rate, I have something additional planned. I'm going to offer limited sponsorship to a few select peasants who want to start farms just north of the city limits. It will cost us some gold - 'sponsorship' usually means coins - but if we manage to get a couple of families situated up there on nice pieces of land, the results should be worth it. Then we can petition the king to widen Vorti's boundaries so those families can receive protection from the city watch. While Kan's fumbling around trying to make a decision and sign a proclamation, I'll send a few of my personal guards up there as a show of support."

"Cen, the hero of the undertrodden," said Nia.

"I certainly hope that's the impression."

"What about Bem?"

Cen frowned. "I admit I would have preferred Kir as our rival. He was dour and unpopular. Unfortunately, the people like Bem. These new maneuvers should swing the tide in our favor, though. No matter how much men and women like a ruler, they'll always put their own interests first."

"And your plan is to present yourself as the better alternative."

"Precisely. Once I'm king, there's little they'll be able to do about it, one way or the other."

"That's rather a callous viewpoint."

"It's a realistic one. Your father's practically ruined this city with his idiotic notions and I'm determined to bring things back together. That's going to cause a lot of ill will, but there's nothing that can be done about that."

The baron turned from the fire and climbed into bed, pulling several layers of blankets and quilts over him. Nia continued to brush her hair, occasionally humming softly to herself.

"You coming to bed?" asked Cen.

"In a moment," replied Nia. She knew what her husband wanted, but she really wasn't in the mood tonight. Perhaps if she stalled long enough, he'd either lose interest or fall asleep. The latter was more likely.

Silence prevailed for several minutes, broken only by the constant snapping and popping of wood in the blaze across the bedroom hearth. The telltale snoring that would have marked Cen's drift into the realm of dreams did not start, however. The baron was patiently waiting for his wife, watching shadows cast by the flickering flames as they capered across the ceiling.

"If my father's as close to death as you say, perhaps I should visit him," said Nia. Since her marriage to Cen, this was the first time she had mentioned a desire to return to the palace, although not the first time she had considered it.

Cen let out a gruff, mirthless chuckle. "You think you'd be welcome there? All these years and not a word? Not even congratulations from your beloved sisters on the birth of our children. They'd probably have you turned away at the door."

"Maybe if he's dying...he might agree to see me then." While her father had been alive and healthy, the gulf between them had been bearable, but Nia didn't want him to die without at least an attempt to bridge it.

"You're dreaming. And I don't want you going there."

"You don't have a say in the matter!" flared Nia.

"You're my wife!"

"I'm my own person! I go where I like when I please."

"Do what you want," said Cen finally, sounding disgusted. "But don't expect any sympathy from me when they send you away humiliated. You go there as the disinherited daughter of Kan, not the wife of Cen."

Nia rose from in front of the mirror and walked around the bed to the bedroom's eastward-facing windows. Pulling back the curtains, she peered out. A myriad of lights dotted the landscape before her, most of them the distant night-lanterns that lined the city streets. Cen's estate along the southwestern fringes of Vorti was more than three miles distant from the central city.

Many nights like this, Nia had gazed toward where she knew the palace to be. Perhaps some of those distant, wavering lights were from her childhood home. Even if not, she could imagine they were, like she could imagine her sisters and brothers lying peacefully in their beds, unchanged from eleven years ago. Of course, since Jen had gotten married last year, she would no longer sleep alone.

Snow continued to drift groundward. Nia could see the flakes passing before the lanterns on her and Cen's property, three stories down. She lifted her gaze back toward the city. A few lights here and there went out - taverns closing, men and women going to bed. It was late, several hours past midnight. This was as close as Vorti ever got to sleeping. So much of the city stayed awake through the night.

Nia continued to watch until Cen started snoring. Then, almost regretfully, she turned away from the glass pane and slipped under the covers next to her husband, careful not to wake him. She needn't have worried: the baron was a deep sleeper and never stirred. As a result, there was no one to see the single tear that trickled down her right cheek.

* * *

The cold, wet spring of 556 ripened into a balmy summer in the regions surrounding Vorti. As a result of the early rains, the crops were growing well, giving the farmers, as well as the merchants they sold to, an opportunity to enjoy a portion of prosperity. The only pall hanging over the city regarded the king's health. Rumors abounded that Kan was dying and, indeed, the king had cut back his public audiences to one every five days and reports from those indicated that he looked frail and haggard. The best thing that could be said about the grave situation was that Kan had lived a long life and his successor was generally well-thought of.

On an especially pleasant day, Sor was sitting alone in his chamber with eyes closed and arms extended in front of him. The simple, straight-backed chair he occupied was set facing an open window, so the prince could feel the warm sun and pleasant breeze on his face as he meditated. Sor did not share his brother's fondness for the outdoors, but neither could he bear the typical scholar's life, shut up in a windowless room pouring over books by the light of a single candle. Sor preferred a little color to his skin. Vas, in his opinion, looked too much like a walking corpse.

A knock at the door disturbed the young prince's concentration. With an ill-concealed snort of displeasure, he rose to see who was there. Since his move from the royal wing of the palace nearly two years ago, disturbances had been rare. Few people came into what had been dubbed the "scholar's wing" where Sor occupied a small room adjacent to the chancellor's much larger suite. None of the members of his family, except perhaps his father, understood why he'd chosen to live in relatively spartan circumstances. Sor had made the move shortly after discovering the truth of one of Vas' more important lessons: ultimately possessions became distractions. To be an accomplished Apath, Sor needed to gain complete control over mind and body. Plush chairs and soft beds were not conducive to those aims.

"Good morning, Sor," Sye greeted him cheerfully, smiling broadly as she leaned over to kiss him on the cheek.

Of the infrequent visits he received in this room, most of them were from his mother. At times, when he was unoccupied, it was pleasant to see her. This was not one of those times. Nevertheless, he forced a smile that ended up looking more like a grimace. "Good morning, Mother."

"Studying?" asked Sye.

"Meditating," replied Sor, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the now-vacant chair.

"Vas says you'll be trying to use magic again soon."

"Vas says many things," muttered Sor. The chancellor had been hinting that another experiment was coming, but was adamant that no energy be "wasted" until Sor's mastery of his concentration was complete. That stage was at least a season in the future.

"Have you seen your father recently?" asked Sye.

"No," admitted Sor. He felt a little guilty about that. He had been busy for several days, but that didn't excuse his lapse. His father was a busy man too, but always made time for his children. It wasn't that they didn't get along, either. Sor not only loved his father, he genuinely liked him. Kan was perhaps the only person who understood his youngest son. Even Sye, whose affection and love for Sor were beyond question, lacked understanding.

"You should be a little more attentive," chided Sye. "He's old and sick and I'm sure he'd like to see you more often. He'd come down here if he didn't think you'd view his visits as interfering and intrusive."

Sor nodded. His father did indeed understand him.

"You could be king some day," noted Sye. "Learn what you can from your father while you have the opportunity."

"With Bem as my older brother, I don't think it's much of a worry."

"I'm sure that's exactly how Bem felt while Kir was alive," said Sye softly, her voice sharp as a knife. "It never hurts to be prepared."

"It's only a matter of time until Bem has a son or two. Then I'll be way down in the line of succession."

"He'll have to find a woman who's willing to stay engaged to him first," said Sye.

Sor considered that. His mother was right. In the past four years, Bem had been engaged to three different women. All of them had backed out before the wedding without giving a reasonable explanation. Sor couldn't understand it. As if his position as crown prince wasn't enough to guarantee Bem a flock of female admirers, he was charming, good-natured, and handsome as well. Yet no one seemed to want to marry him.

"Anyway, I didn't come here to talk about Bem. There's something you asked me to check into a while ago that I've just gotten around to doing," began Sye. Sor allowed himself a little smile. His mother never "just got around" to doing things. Whatever her reason for delaying, it was far more calculated.

"Before you moved out of your old chambers, you asked me to find out what I could about one of the servants, Joi by name. I think you were considering making her your personal maid," said Sye.

That had been a long time ago. Sor hadn't seen or thought about Joi in over a year and a half. He recalled that she was one of the few things he had regretted leaving behind in the royal wing, even though he never knew her well - their meetings had been brief, infrequent, and predominantly accidental. There was something fascinating about her, but the appeal of furthering his abilities had outweighed any growing attraction. Once or twice he recalled mentioning her to his mother, possibly accompanied by a reddening of his face, but he had never been more than half-serious.

"I remember," replied Sor hesitantly, unsure where Sye could possibly be leading him with this. "That was a while ago, Mother."

"Are you still interested in her...position in the palace?"

"Possibly," acknowledged Sor, remembering the curve of Joi's buttocks and the softness of her breasts one of those times he had "accidentally" bumped into her in the hall. Suddenly, it didn't seem all that long ago.

Sye smiled the secretive smile of a mother. "Later this season, she turns seventeen. With her coming of age, her parents' pledge of her to us comes to an end. She's shown some desire to move back with her family or get married. She's had a couple of suitors."

"Who are her family?"

The queen shrugged. "Peasants. They work on a small farm in southwest Vorti - the one adjacent to Cen's. She's an only child - her three brothers and sister died during the plague of 538, the year before she was born."

"So she either wants to go back to her parents or find a husband."

"Not unusual for a girl of her age. Life in service, even in a palace, can be a bleak prospect."

"And life on a farm - one that you don't own - is better? At least here she's comfortable." Sor couldn't imagine why anyone would prefer the hard life of a farmer to that of a palace servant.

"It's how she was brought up," said Sye. "If we want to keep her - if you want us to keep her - we'll have to make a good offer. An increase in position and wages, if attractive enough, might encourage her to stay."

"You want to know whether I'd like her to stay or not," decided Sor. He knew that the future plans of one maid shouldn't make a difference to him, but, surprisingly, it did.

"I want to know more than that," said Sye. "I want to know whether you're interested in her as your maid."

"My maid?"

"Isn't that what you wanted two years ago?"

"I suppose so," replied Sor. "But now I don't need a maid. I have one small room."

"As a prince of Vorti you're entitled to and will have servants. You may be living in a small room for now, but that won't last forever. You'll need a maid and a manservant. I know most men get the latter first, but there's nothing to keep you from starting out with the maid. The position would give her enough increase in stature and wages that she might be willing to stay."

"And if she someday bares my child?" asked Sor. It was a rather forthright question for a fifteen-year old boy to put to his mother, but the young prince wondered if Sye wasn't promoting such a relationship between himself and the maid. Given the way she was endorsing Joi's virtues, it seemed possible.

The queen's response was equally direct, "That, of course, is your affair."

"And if I should chose to marry her?" pressed Sor, still trying to uncover any hidden motives his mother might have.

"If you are still a prince, I don't think there would be any objections. Your half-sister Jen married a carpenter, after all, and she's a princess. But if you're the king, a...different match might be more suitable. But, as I said, it's essentially your affair. It was my father's meddling with my intended marriage that caused me to run off and marry your father. I'm not going to do that to you."

Sor blinked. That was a story he'd never heard before. He knew his mother had been a princess in Tsab, but she rarely spoke about her family or the early days of her marriage to Kan.

Sor pretended to consider the matter carefully, although he had already made up his mind. Finally, he said, "All right, make the offer. She can be my personal maid, not that it will mean much for a while."

"If she accepts, shall I send her to you?" asked Sye. Sor couldn't decide whether or not there were sexual overtones in the offer.

"No," he decided. If soft chairs and cushions could be damaging to his concentration, Joi's presence would be infinitely worse. "Why don't you give her a room and assign her duties. You've got a much better idea of what they should be than I do. Tell her I'll see her at the earliest possible opportunity."

"As you wish," offered Sye. With another smile, she turned and left the room, shutting the door silently behind her. Sor tried to meditate again, but his attention was distracted by the seductive image of a none-too-pretty girl in a powder blue dress.

* * *

Later that same day, Kan's older son was called to an audience with his father in the little throne room. The king, shriveled and wasted in an oversized white robe, sat hunched over on the throne. A milky white film covered his right eye and his left cheek muscle occasionally twitched spasmodically. The king had lost most of his hair and the little that remained was thin and white.

Bem, aged twenty-six and in the prime of his manhood, was the antithesis of his father. Straight-backed and clear-gazed, the crown prince had a tall, muscular frame that testified to his love of physical activity. His skin was deeply tanned and his long hair as black as night. Like Kan in his youth, Bem favored a mustache but no beard. With genuine respect, he bowed deeply to the old man on the throne, then stood back to await his father's wishes.

"Bem," said Kan in a hoarse, brittle voice, "I'm going to get straight to the point because I'm too tired to be diplomatic. You've been very patient with me, waiting and helping, but never usurping my authority. Well, that time is at an end. As of tomorrow, I want you to take over all public functions. I'm not abdicating officially - the general populace will never have that - but by turning over some of my power to you, it will make the transition easier on everyone."

"May your reign continue for another twelve years!" declared Bem.

"If it continues for one season, I'll be the luckiest man in Devforth," chuckled the king, the sound more wheeze than laugh.

"Of course, I'll have to make an occasional appearance, just to let everyone know I'm alive. We wouldn't want our subjects to think my continuing existence is a myth perpetrated by my successor. I know of a few nobles who'll probably try to spread that tale."

"You really think I'm ready?"

"I know you're ready. Even if you weren't, as the next king you're going to have to get the experience sometime. Better before I'm dead, when I can still give advice, than after."

"I guess I should start looking for a wife again," said Bem. It was as puzzling to him as to everyone else how three seemingly adoring women could suddenly cancel a wedding and walk away.

"It's damned curious what happens to those women of yours. Do you suddenly catch some hideous disease before the wedding?"

"I'm beginning to wonder that myself."

"This time, we'll have to make sure you keep the girl. I want to see you safely married before I pass on to my next life. If possible, I'd like a grandchild or two, but I'm afraid this body won't hold out that long."

"We'll see," said Bem.

"Anyway," continued the king, gingerly shifting his position on the throne, "I'll have Vas draw up the proclamation. At tomorrow's audience, I'll come in, read it, introduce you, then leave. Unfortunately, I haven't left things in very good shape, so I'm afraid you'll have a full schedule. The infrequency of my audiences has created an enormous back-up. You may have to work mornings and afternoons for half a season to clear it up. Welcome to rulership, Bem. It's like being thrown to the wolves." There was something vaguely lupine about the smile Kan gave his son.

"Then," replied Bem with an easy smile, "I'll just have to keep their teeth away from my throat."

* * *

Vii was seated at the single long table in his cramped study, bent over five neatly-arranged mortars, each containing a finely-ground brownish powder. Also on the table were two pestals, a clean white cloth, and three flasks full of different-smelling clear liquids.

Vii's workstation was situated in the center of the room. The walls surrounding him were as cluttered as any in the palace, lined with shelves and cabinets, displaying a variety of chemicals, medicines, minerals, tablets, dried and living plants, several well-calibrated hourglasses, and other assorted odds-and-ends that a healer might be expected to possess. Pieces of cloth, cut in a variety of shapes and sizes, covered the surface of a second, circular table. Most of these were clean, but a few showed evidence of old bloodstains. Next to this table, pushed against the wall opposite the door, was an old-but-sturdy wooden chest of drawers, on top of which a human skull was used as a weight to hold down a collection of parchment scraps. A second skull, with a hole drilled in the crown, held an unlit candle. There were no windows in the room, so the light was provided by three wall-mounted lanterns.

It was a macabre chamber and many of the more superstitious palace residents, not to mention the servants, refused to enter it. That suited Vii, since he deplored the thought of uninvited and unknowledgeable fingers touching - and frequently disordering - his supplies.

Vii poured a small amount of the liquid from one of the flasks into the mortar nearest to him. A faint plume of vapor appeared. The healer leaned forward to catch a whiff of the mixture's odor. Nodding to himself in satisfaction, he took one of the pestals and began to stir the mortar's contents, counting slowly and silently to himself to make sure he got the timing correct. Then, putting aside the pestal, he reached for another flask. After carefully dripping two drops into the gruel-like concoction, Vii leaned back in his chair and waited for the expected reaction. Nothing happened.

"Rather unspectacular, isn't it?" said a pleasant but completely unexpected voice from just inside the doorway. Vii nearly jumped out of his skin.

"Don't you ever knock??" demanded the healer angrily, nearly upsetting his chair as he leaped to his feet.

"I'm the queen. I don't have to knock," replied Sye passively.

"Close the damn door!"

"Why? Shouldn't a queen be allowed to visit her healer?" Nevertheless, she gave the door a gentle push and it swung shut.

"You should be more concerned about scandal than I am," muttered Vii, eying his visitor suspiciously. Unbidden, the thought came to him that at thirty-five, she was more beautiful than most women half her age. Her face was virtually without lines, the silver highlights in her hair only heightened its beauty, and her body was as firm and inviting as ever.

"Scandal? My dear Vii, it's been four years since we broke off our fling. I didn't come here to renew it, especially considering how it ended."

Vii flinched at Sye's words. As a healer, he was committed to the preservation of life. Yet, when the queen had become pregnant as a result of a sexual liaison with him, he had performed the abortion, going against every oath he had sworn and every precept he held dear. That one operation, depriving his own child of a chance at life, had haunted him ever since. He couldn't face Sye without remembering the self-revulsion all over again.

"I've brought you this," said the queen, extending a four-leafed stem to the healer. Each of the leaves was long and slender with serrated edges. The pale yellow-green coloring was unusual for this time of the year, when most plants showed deeper, richer hues.

Vii took the proffered specimen. Turning it in his hands and running a finger along a leaf's prominent veins, he examined it. Although a rare and exotic variety of flora, certainly not easily grown in the cool-to-temperate climate of Vorti, he recognized it almost instantly. Lifting it to his nostrils and inhaling the faint minty scent confirmed his identification.

"Do you recognize it? What is it?" asked Sye. She sounded almost eager to know.

"Where did you get this?"

"I found it growing in a meadow on my morning ride. It looked...strange, so I brought a few leaves back. What is it?"

The story was obviously a lie, since this plant grew wild only in the south, and even there was not hearty or abundant, but he said nothing. If the queen didn't want to tell him the truth, that was her affair. Whether he resented it or not was unimportant - at least to her.

"It's commonly called horsedragon. It's a rare plant and has some unusual properties."

"Such as?"

"If ingested, it heightens the sex drive, at least at first. It's often sold at high prices as an aphrodisiac. When repeatedly used, it becomes addictive. At that point, males become impotent without it and females frigid."

"Is that it?" demanded Sye. "Why is it called horsedragon?"

"Supposedly, if you feed it to horses, it causes unpredictable and often violent reactions. After a short period of normality while the plant's oils to get into the system, the animal becomes uncontrollable, 'like a dragon'."

"Why do you say 'supposedly'?"

Vii shrugged. "No one in their right mind would pay the asking prices for horsedragon to feed it to an animal. Those that use it have more human...prey in mind."

Sye nodded thoughtfully, then took the horsedragon back from Vii. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Without another word, she left. At that moment, the mixture in the mortar began to sputter and bubble. Immediately forgetting about the queen's visit, Vii turned his attention back to his experiments.

* * *

A day after Joi accepted the position as Sor's maid, the young prince was on his way to her new quarters when he encountered her in the palace halls.

It had been between one and two years since Sor had seen her last, and, in the intervening time, Joi's looks had matured considerably. She was still not beautiful and her appearance at a ball would not turn many heads, but the approach of adulthood had refined her features. Her nose, while still upturned, did not seem as large. She had pruned her eyebrows, making them thinner. Her freckled cheeks were not as hollow nor her chin as pointed. Long, silky, jet-black hair, similar in color to Bem's, was drawn back in a ponytail. As always, it was Joi's sapphire-blue eyes that caught Sor's attention first, then the curves of a body now ripened into maturity.

"Your Highness," said Joi, lowering her eyes and curtsying.

"Joi," acknowledged Sor. He had thought that after a year and a half, he would be more self-confident and less awkward at this meeting, but that didn't seem to be the case. Apparently, time did not automatically grant poise. He suddenly wished he had stayed in his room and practiced meditating. Behind his back, his fingers repeatedly clasped and unclasped.

"Did Your Highness want something?" asked Joi.

"Ah..." began Sor, "I just wanted to say how pleased I am that you chose to accept your new position." He swallowed several times. Being around Joi made his throat go dry. No other girls, not even the prettiest ladies-in-waiting, had that effect on him.

"Do you find your chambers suitable?" asked Sor when the period of silence had become painful. His cheeks felt like they were on fire. Part of him wanted to end the interview, but another part wanted it to continue, even though there was really nothing more to say.

"They're very nice, Your Highness. Your mother has been helpful. She's a kind woman."

"I'm glad," began Sor. Then, unable to think of anything else, he lamely concluded, "That's good."

"Would Your Highness care for me to clean his chamber? Her Majesty told me where it's located."

His room, small and tidy as it was, had no need of a maid's services. Nevertheless, he said, "That would be fine."

"I'll see to it immediately," offered Joi. "With Your Highness' permission?"

"What?" stammered Sor, then, realizing she was asking for a dismissal, "You may go."

Dropping another curtsy, Joi continued on her way, moving down the hall in the direction Sor had come from. The prince watched her go until she turned a corner, then, rubbing his sweaty palms on the sides of his gray doublet, hurried off to the library.

* * *

In the waning hours of the fifth day of autumn, Kan was reclining in his high-backed chair in the little throne room while a servant girl massaged his cramped legs and Vas related the results of Sor's second use of magic.

"He had excellent control. Of course, the emotion we tapped was a feeble one - his dislike of dogs - but he was impressive. He moved objects around, created a ball of light, opened the door, levitated a few books, and even conjured up an imperfect image of Your Majesty."

Kan did his best to keep the pride out of his voice when he asked, "So what does that mean for him?"

"It means his lessons are just about finished. There's not much more I can teach him. If you're serious about him studying to be a master Apath, send him to Fels. Two wizards there have put together a training program, almost a 'school for wizards'. It's expensive, of course, but a king should be able to afford it. Otherwise, let Sor resume his duties as a prince."

"How dangerous is it to become a master Apath?" asked Kan. He'd once heard rumors that many wizards pursuing advanced studies died before they reached their goal.

"There's only one danger: a condition called burgeoning apathy. When a wizard becomes obsessed with power, he drains away all his emotional energy to coalesce magic. As a result, he's left empty and barren. Often that leads to death, either by suicide or carelessness. I don't think it's a danger with Sor, however. His control and concentration are too solid. Burgeoning apathy usually happens to the undisciplined or power-hungry."

"Neither of which describes Sor."

"Neither of which..." began Vas. He was cut off as the door to the throne room banged open and an out-of-breath page rushed in.

"Your Majesty!" cried the boy, bothering neither to kneel or bow. "There's been a terrible tragedy! Prince Bem's been killed!"

The little color remaining in Kan's face drained away. Like those of a melting waxwork, his features crumbled. His hands gripped the throne's armrests with clawlike intensity, fingernails digging into the solid wood.

"What happened?" gasped Kan, having trouble catching his breath.

"He was out riding along the banks of the Vordi with Queen Sye, Princess Gea, and Countess Tes when his horse suddenly became violent. No one expected it, not with His Highness being such a good horseman. But the horse was too much for even him to control. He was thrown and landed headfirst. His neck was broken. Healer Vii was summoned but arrived too late."

Kan was too stunned to note the curious circumstances of the accident, but Vas was not. Why had the queen been riding with Gea and Bem, when she openly acknowledged dislike for Kan's children by Lea?

"Bring the healer to me as soon as he is able to come," demanded Kan, waving his hand dismissively. The page bolted from the room. Turning to his masseuse, he barked, "Leave me." Quitely and submissively, she left his side in the wake of the page.

As soon as he was alone with his chancellor, the king buried his face in his hands. Vas noticed that those hands were trembling. Moving to Kan's side, he placed a comforting hand on his liege's shoulder. He was shocked to discover how little flesh and muscle remained around the bone.

"Another son, Vas, another son," moaned the king. "All my sons by my beloved Lea gone. Now the burden falls to Sor, and he's not ready for it."

"I think you underestimate him, Your Majesty."

"I know you have a high opinion of him," sighed Kan, lifting his head. His eyes were red but no tears had fallen. "But excelling in magical studies is not preparation enough for what has been dropped on him. And he's only fifteen."

"At fifteen, you were a counselor and a king at seventeen. He will have many helpers and friends, Your Majesty, including you. Old and in ill-health you may be, but you are not dead yet."

"Not dead yet, but near enough that it hardly matters. Fate has sealed the hour of my passing and it grows ever closer. It's almost close enough to touch."

"Fight it off then!" urged Vas. "If not for your own sake, then for Sor's."

"I've never given in easily," replied Kan. "And I won't start now." After a pause, he asked, "Do you think...will Sor's Apath abilities serve him well as king?"

"I think they will, Your Majesty, whether he uses them or not. Men will respect and honor a wizard when they would not another man. Couple that with his relationship to you, and it should minimize the trauma of the succession. I think even the ever-plotting nobles will be cowed by the change in circumstances."

"I'm tired, Vas, but it looks like I'll have to take the throne again."

"You could let Sor take it."

Kan shook his head. "Not yet. He's too young and inexperienced. He needs to watch first. This will be a painful season. I never planned...I never thought this could happen. Another son gone. How fate must hate me. Forgive me, old friend, but I need a few moments alone."

"As you wish, Your Majesty. Shall I draw up a proclamation?"

Kan nodded. "Let all of Devforth know that Bem of Vorti is dead. Long life to Sor of Vorti, the new crown prince."

Vas exited the little throne room silently, shutting the door on the bowed and grieving man who was about to bury his fifth child and fourth heir.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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