PART ONE: RITES OF SUCCESSION
Sor's new quarters were unfamiliar. He had a suite of three rooms: a study, a common room, and a bedroom. Each was furnished appropriately: cabinets, a desk, and chairs in the study; couches, chairs, and a table in the common room; and two chests of drawers, Kir's rocking chair, and a grand, canopied bed in the bedroom. For someone who had spent two years living comfortably in a chamber the size of his new study, Sor found that he had too much space. Although he used all of the rooms, none of them felt like home.
There were also ghosts to exorcise. Sor had returned to royal wing of the palace to take up residence in the crown prince's quarters. It would have been unsettling enough to go back to his old chambers, but his new, unwanted position forced him to live in rooms that had been Bem's only a season before, and, several years earlier, Kir's. In many ways, Sor felt like an intruder.
At least his new circumstances gave him more of a chance to see Joi. During the half-season she had been his maid while he'd lived next to Vas, he had seen her only once or twice. Now, rarely a day went by when he didn't see her that many times. With each meeting, Sor grew a little less awkward as he sensed a gradual warming on her part. He desperately wanted her to like him - too much perhaps - causing him to act occasionally like a fool.
His mother, who had initially been in favor of the liaison, now seemed uncertain. Sor had not forgotten her oddly prophetic words that for a prince, Joi might make a suitable wife, but not for a king. Sor was no longer just a prince. His father was old and ill and few doubted he would last the new year. By autumn, Sor could be king, even if he was only sixteen.
He had been learning from Kan. Peering through the peephole in his father's private sanctum, he had watched audience after audience, learning firsthand his father's brand of justice. Sor observed that fundamental to his father's philosophy was a belief in the equality of all men, whether they were nobles or common, rich or poor. Money and rank made no difference to Kan when he handed out judgments. The king also believed, and taught his son, that the way to better the lesser citizens of Vorti was not through the policy of random and careless land distribution that some nobles subscribed to. Rather, it was through a betterment of education and skills. Men had to pull themselves out of unfavorable circumstances. If they relied on others too much, they'd slide back in again as soon as the helping hand was withdrawn.
Sor knew that soon he would be expected to take over audiences for his father. It sapped the king's energy to sit on the throne so frequently. But Sor dreaded that day. The thought of so many eyes fixed on him and so many ears straining to hear every word was terrifying. More than even the crowds, though, Sor was afraid of being wrong. What if the decision he made was unjust? Worse still, what if someone innocent was hurt because of a judgment he made? Kan said that the word of a king defined justice. Sor was not simply concerned about justice, however, but fairness as well.
Another burden to bear was his ability. He would be the first Apath king in the history of Devforth. Never in any of the cities had a wizard sat on the throne. Everyone told him that being an Apath would make it easier, but Sor didn't agree. He feared that with the power of the throne might come a greater desire to use his wizard's ability. The ultimate result of that, a king without emotion, was a terrifying prospect.
Sor's reverie was disturbed by a knock on the outer door to his suite. A glance out the window revealed the early spring sun slanting toward the horizon. Joi came here every day at this time to lay out his night clothes, change his bed linens, and offer him a friendly ear. Today, he felt most in need of the last service.
"Come in," called Sor, flopping down in the rocking chair facing the bed. Joi walked in wearing a timid smile and carrying a bundle of clean, folded linens. Depositing them on the bed, she curtsied to her prince. "Good afternoon, Your Highness."
"Good afternoon, Joi. I wish you'd call me Sor. That's my name." The constant curtsying, bowing, and calling him "Your Highness" were habits he had unsuccessfully tried to break her of.
"That wouldn't be proper," said Joi, a refrain she'd uttered dozens of times before in response to the same complaint.
"I don't mean in public. When it's just the two of us."
Her typical response to this was to argue that if she called him Sor in private, it could lead to a costly slip of the tongue in public. This time, however, she startled him by saying, "Perhaps Your Highness is right. A little familiarity might be all right...Sor."
It was the first time she'd said his name and he thought it strange that such a simple, familiar syllable could sound so wonderful rolling off her tongue.
"So," began Sor after a brief pause, "I understand you've been spending more time with Mother lately." He phrased the statement as innocently as he could, hoping that Joi might be able to give him some insight into his mother's current mindset on his "relationship" with his maid. Sye hadn't been forthcoming with him.
"She's been ever so nice," said Joi. "She asks me all kinds of questions about my family, what it was like growing up on a farm, and how I like living in the palace. And she's so beautiful. I wish I had hair and skin like hers."
Sor was surprised by Joi's impression of his mother. Everyone that met the queen conceded that she was beautiful, but few used the term "nice." At different times during his life, Sor had heard her called imperious, cold, calculating, devious, cruel, and emotionless, but rarely nice. Perhaps his mother thought more highly of Joi - and a potential match - than he believed.
"She's terribly worried about your father," continued Joi. "She thinks he doesn't eat enough, sleep enough, and tires himself out too much. She says that ever since your brother's death - begging your pardon if that's a delicate subject - the king has been going downhill fast."
"Bem's death hit him hard," agreed Sor. "Everything was all set for him to become king and he had taken over most of the strenuous duties, then the accident happened. Nobody could understand why a horse that Bem had ridden for years would suddenly turn violent." That question had never been answered. Kan had ordered the beast destroyed immediately, so there had been no time to study it, except by autopsy.
"Do you want to be king?" asked Joi suddenly.
The question took Sor aback. At first, he didn't know how to answer it. "I'm not sure. Part of me is terrified. I watch my father on the throne and think I can never make the decisions he makes. And I don't...function well...in front of people. I'm not a public person, but there's no one in the city with less privacy than the king. On the other hand, ruling Vorti will give me a chance to continue what my father has tried to do and implement a few ideas of my own. I suppose it's always nicer to be bowed to than to do the bowing."
"I wouldn't know about that, Your Highness," replied Joi. Sor thought for a moment he'd made a gaffe, but a look at Joi's smiling face relieved his tension.
"My father says that the nobles might try something when I take over," said Sor. That was another of his worries. Kan had candidly told him that a coup attempt was possible.
"Like a civil war? They wouldn't dare, not with you being an Apath!"
"It's always possible," sighed Sor. "All I want is a peaceful reign. But too many people are interested in causing trouble. Even my half-sister Nia is involved in one of the plots."
"Surely the people - my people - back you."
"The common folk have supported my father from the beginning. They put him on the throne. But that doesn't mean they'll transfer the support. With the generous handouts being offered by Cen and his cohorts, those who have endorsed my father might turn against me."
Joi, who had finished her work, sat on the bed facing the prince, a small pile of dirty linens in her lap. "If you could be anything or do anything you wanted, what would it be?" she asked.
"Five years ago, I would have said 'be a king'. Now, I'm not sure. Maybe I'd go to Fels and study in the wizard's school. Maybe I'd settle down as a second or third prince, get married, and have a family. I want to get married. I want to have children." He stopped abruptly, his face turning a shade redder as he remembered to whom he was talking.
"So do I," said Joi quietly.
It was that last remark that Sor found himself contemplating long after Joi had left his chambers.
Kan, a shattered husk of the man he had once been, agreed to see his unexpected visitor in the little throne room. There he sat, bundled in his robes, with glazed and sunken eyes gazing half-seeing across the dimly-lit hall, searching for the once-familiar face he had not seen in a dozen years. Since Sor had taken over the bulk of his public duties a half season ago, the king had seen no one. This was his first exception ,and he made it only because he knew that he was dying.
Nia entered the throne room with head bent, her long dark hair falling in front of her face like a veil. Only after she had dropped a deep curtsy before the throne did she look up at her father. The sight that greeted her wrung her heart. With tears in her eyes and voice, the only word she could find was a tortured "Father!"
Kan understood her pain, even though the limitations of his vision didn't allow him to see the way it twisted her finely-chiseled features. "My daughter," he croaked. "It's good to see you. By coming here, you do a dying man a great favor."
"Oh, Father, why did it have to be like it was?"
"Perhaps I wronged you, but it was all for the good of the throne. Your case was not the first or last time I had to place my personal desires below the needs of Vorti. A king is not like any other man, Nia. He may not follow his heart, unless that heart is guided by the love of his kingdom."
"I know that, Father. I learned it from you. But Cen wants the same things as you. Only his methods are different. If you could see that!"
"Perhaps," wheezed the king. "But I stand by my decision. Much as I might like to, I cannot re-instate you into this family. At one time, I thought that by severing all ties, I could make you a memory. That was wrong. The more I tried to forget, the more I remembered. But this... reconciliation is private, not public. As far as the world is concerned, you are no more to me today than you were yesterday."
"I understand," said Nia. "I've played politics too long not to." There was no rancor in her voice. She had already gained more than she had dared hope for.
"Will your Cen support Sor?" asked Kan. He knew he probably shouldn't discuss the succession with his estranged daughter, but the statesman in him couldn't let the opportunity slip away.
"I don't know," replied Nia. "He would have tried to block the coronations of either Kir or Bem, but Sor is another matter. Cen is worried about his abilities. A neat, bloodless coup could have removed the others, but with an Apath, nothing is simple. If Sor wants to keep the throne, and, being your son, I'm sure he will, no power on Devforth will be able to pry him easily from it."
"He doesn't want the throne," sighed Kan. "He wants a simple life with a wife and children, much like what you have. But, because he believes in duty, he will take over Vorti and not give it up while there is life left in his body. He is...like me."
"I wish I knew him better. Kir and Bem I knew, but not Sor. He was still a little child when I left."
"He has grown much since then. Now, tell me of your life and offspring. Is being Cen's baroness everything you had hoped it would be?"
"It is. Tir is growing into a strong lad. He's just turned ten this season. Rae and Kae will be eight in the summer. I think they're more precocious than I was at their age. As for Cen...he's a dutiful husband and loving father. I never really had any illusions about him. Well...maybe at the beginning. I knew he was marrying me because I was a princess, but I loved him and didn't care. And, even though he didn't love me, there was still some affection."
"So you're happy?"
Nia smiled. "Content. I wish you could see your grandchildren."
"That isn't possible."
"How is Jen? I would have liked to have gone to her wedding."
"She's fine. Her husband is a good man. Oddly enough, I think her marriage is the reverse of yours. Although Yav is devoted to her, 'affection' is the strongest description of her feelings for him. But she wanted children and age is creeping up on her."
"Do you think she'd be willing to meet with me?" asked Nia.
"No." Kan's tone was unequivocal. "I know you two were close and that's probably the reason why she was the one to feel the most betrayed by your departure. She hasn't forgiven you, Nia, and I don't think she ever will."
Nia momentarily bowed her head before asking about her other sister.
For the first time, Kan laughed. The sound was dry and reedy, but it was a genuine chuckle. "She has about a dozen suitors, all convinced that they're going to be the one to marry her. She's got a lot of her mother in her, more than either you or Jen."
"Do you still miss her? Mother, I mean."
"Ah, Nia, more than you could imagine. I have Sye, of course, but Sye is not Lea. Sye takes where Lea gave. I'm not blaming her; that's the way she was brought up. Being a king is lonely, though, and after your mother's death, I needed someone. Sye was there."
A long period of silence ensued. Almost tangible memories hung in the air between them as they recalled happier times before the convoluted politics of Vorti had divided them. Finally, tears in her eyes, Nia climbed the three steps to the throne and bent to kiss her father on the cheek. When her soft lips brushed his weathered, cracking skin, he gave a sad little smile.
"Goodbye, Nia. We won't be meeting again in this life. May your children - and even your husband - give you much happiness and may peace reign to your dying day."
"I love you, Father, despite everything. Goodbye."
"Well?" demanded Cen as Nia entered the bedroom. The baron was already sprawled out on the bed, dressed only in a pair of breeches.
Nia glanced at her husband rather distastefully. The shaggy mat of soft brown hair that once covered his chest had turned white and coarse. His body was losing its edge, the muscle and sinew gradually degenerating into fat. In just the past season, his paunch had grown noticeably. He wasn't quite repulsive...at least not yet.
"Well what?" countered Nia.
"Did they let you see him?"
"I don't know what you mean by 'they'. He wasn't guarded by a troop of advisors. The herald asked and he said yes. So I saw him."
Cen appeared annoyed by her reticence. "About what? Did he mention the succession?"
"No," lied Nia. "Now if that's it, I'm tired and want to sleep."
"Suit yourself," muttered Cen. "But it's your son we're fighting to put on the throne. Kan's hung on long enough to ensure that I won't get a chance at it. He's only four years older than I am. Pretty soon, I'll be following him down that path. Maybe I've already started on it."
"Nonsense," argued Nia. "Father was in bad shape four years ago. That's something I've never understood. When he was younger, he was always virile and healthy. Even five or six years ago, he was still strong. Then he just started...wasting away."
"Too bad he didn't waste away before Bem died. That was the worst break we've had in a decade. Now, we have an Apath to deal with."
"It won't be easy to thwart the coronation," agreed Nia wearily, stripping off her clothing.
"Easy? It'll be nearly impossible. Everyone's awestruck at the idea of having a wizard on the throne. Even some of the barons are saying it might not be that bad. They think if Sor can be married to a noble, he might be persuaded to change some of Kan's more idiotic policies."
"Maybe they're right."
"Horsedung! Sor and Kan are cut from the same mold. I've had him watched at court. There won't be any changes. He'll continue to run this city into the ground. Now, that won't matter to me, because I'll be dead and buried in a few years, but it damn well will make a difference to our children. I want Tir on that throne before they put me in the ground!"
"You said yourself..."
"I know what I said!" snapped Cen. Nia, who was climbing into bed, flinched back from him. More calmly, he continued, "There are more ways than one to shoe a horse, my dear. Just because a king's been crowned doesn't mean he can't be removed, Apath or not."
Early in the summer, when blossoms were at their height, Sye encountered Vii in the palace gardens. The queen, with a flower in her silver-streaked blond hair, wore a tranquil expression. The healer, on the other hand, looked profoundly disturbed. When he noticed Sye, he did his best to avoid her, but she intercepted him.
"Shouldn't you be with my husband?"
"Your husband! That's a laugh! When was the last time you slept with him? How many other men have you had since then?"
Sye regarded him coldly. "You forget who you're talking to. If you don't keep a civil tongue, I'll have you flogged. Now, why aren't you with the king?"
"His Majesty sent me away. Said he wasn't quite ready to die and my constant 'hovering' just reminded him how close the end was."
"How long has he got?"
"No more than two or three days. Kan was a well-loved leader. The city won't take it well."
"It had to happen sometime. All men get old and die, no matter how much they're loved or hated."
"You're a cold-blooded bitch, aren't you?" demanded Vii. "As for the king's dying of old age... Well, he is old and I suppose that will be the 'official' reason." He paused, uncertain whether or not to say more. He was not talking to a trustworthy confidante, but he and the queen already shared more than a few secrets.
"But?" prompted Sye.
"I think he was poisoned," said Vii finally.
Sye appeared shocked. "That's not possible. Someone would have detected it. He has all his food tasted before he touches it."
"A massive dose would have been detected, but what about small amounts over a long time, acting like a wasting sickness? The tasters would hardly notice it. If it was done cleverly, even a healer might be mistaken."
"None of the nobles have the patience or opportunity to carry out such a plot," said Sye.
"You're probably right. It could be old age. It looks like old age, but I'm not convinced. Everything doesn't fit."
"Keep your mouth shut about this theory," demanded Sye, her voice harsh. "It's not going to do anyone any good. Do what you can for my husband now, in his present condition. If he was poisoned, and you haven't convinced me that he was, there's nothing we can do about it."
"But what about Sor?" protested Vii. "If they try the same thing with him..."
"Nothing of the sort will happen with Sor. I'll make sure of that! Now, go back and take care of my husband, whether he wants you there or not."
"As Your Majesty commands," replied Vii stiffly.
With a stony expression, Sye watched the healer as his strides took him back toward the palace.
The silky veil of the summer night had long since fallen over Vorti. In the early hours of the new day, when the streets were emptiest and nighttime activities at their lowest ebb, a knock came at the door to Sor's chambers. Since the prince had been unable to sleep, he was awake, polishing his sword, when the interruption came.
Taking the weapon with him as a precaution, he went to answer the knock. Unexpected visitors at an hour past midnight were rarely welcome and often dangerous, although most assassins didn't announce their presence.
The knock was repeated, louder and more urgently, accompanied by the cry of "Your Highness!" Even with a thick layer of oak between the speaker and himself, Sor recognized the voice. After removing the bolt, he jerked open the door to reveal the haggard face of Chancellor Vas.
"You're up," breathed Vas, dressed in hastily-arranged robes of state. "Good. Come with us."
Sor now saw that the chancellor was not alone. He was accompanied by four soldiers of the royal guard - the king's personal bodyguard.
Sor bit his lip to fight back the tears, but nothing he could do stopped the trembling of his hands. Gripping his sword with whitened knuckles, he joined the small party in the hall. Vas nodded once, whispered something Sor didn't hear, then started the procession toward the throne room.
It was the longest, darkest journey of the young prince's life. Never before had he felt more alone. As was customary past midnight, two out of every three lanterns had been extinguished, lending a sinister aura to the shadowy-yet-familiar halls. Two guards marched ahead of Sor and two behind, with Vas bringing up the rear. The only sound was that of boot heels clicking on stone. The customary muted babble of servants was stilled by the lateness of the hour.
The doors to the throne room had been thrown wide and guards lined the aisle to the dais. Every lantern had been lit and the brightness was such that, after the gloomy halls, Sor had to blink several times. The throne had been moved to the side and in its place was a low, simple stone table some ten feet long by four feet wide. Atop that slab lay the lifeless body of Kan of Vorti.
His throat and chest tight, Sor followed his two guides down the aisle. After bowing deeply to the figure on the bier, they peeled to the sides to let the prince pay final homage to his father.
Sor knelt beside the table. Its smoothly-polished surface came even with his chest. This was the resting place to which all kings of Vorti eventually came. Following their deaths, they were displayed before their subjects for three days before being borne on this slab to the center square and cremated. It was the duty of each successor to preside over the funeral rituals. As Kan had done for the man he had deposed, Rel XVI, so would Sor do for Kan.
Kan looked dead. Sor had seen bodies that, in their final repose, looked asleep. That was not the case for the king. The wasting sickness that had ravaged his body for the past few years left behind little but a gutted husk. The skin was pasty white and wrinkled like a prune. With the exception of a few random tufts, there was no hair left on the head. Even the eyebrows were gone. The eyes, mercifully closed, were filmed over. The royal vermilion robes of state hid how badly emaciated Kan's body had become.
Sor bent and kissed the Ring of Vorti, a finely-cut ruby mounted in a simple band of gold, then, as was required of him by tradition, he slipped it from his father's left index finger and placed it on his own. Its weight surprised him. Continuing to follow a formula as old as the city, he rose and faced the assembled ranks of the royal guard. For the first time he noticed that his mother, wearing a robe over her sleeping attire, was present, along with a weary-looking Vii.
"Kan of Vorti," began Sor in a husky voice, "Beloved ruler of this city for these past forty-one years, is no more. Let..." His voice cracked and he had to pause to swallow and blink away tears. "Let Vorti and all of Devforth mourn his death. I, Sor of Vorti, decree that the next three days shall be days of mourning."
The guards turned towards the bier, drew their sabers, and saluted the dead king. Then, with one voice, they proclaimed, "Hail His Majesty, Kan of Vorti!" Turning towards the sixteen year old prince, they repeated the salute. "Hail His Majesty, Sor of Vorti!"
Somewhere outside, a bell began to toll and Sor fancied he could hear the distant sound of weeping. Tears misted over his own eyes so that he could no longer see clearly. He hadn't wanted to cry. He had wanted to appear strong and solid, like his father. But even biting his lower lip until he tasted the salty warmth of blood could not hold his grief in check.
"Your Majesty should return to bed," whispered Vas. "Tomorrow will be a long day. It is customary for you to greet some of the dignitaries that come to offer their sympathy."
"Yes dearest," added Sye in a gentle, sympathetic voice. "Even though it will still be days to your coronation, you are the king now. You need to be alert."
Taking his arm gently, the chancellor started to lead him away from the dais.
"No!" declared Sor, shaking his arm free. "I will stay with him. For sixteen years, my father stood by me..." His voice threatened to break, but he forced himself to continue. "Now, for three days, I will stand by him. I will keep vigil by his body until I touch the final torch to it.
In imitation of the guards, Sor turned to his father and raised his own naked sword in honor and appreciation. "Hail Kan!"
"The king has spoken," said Vas, his voice loud enough to be heard in all corners of the throne room. "So be it."
Sye placed a comforting arm around Sor's shoulders and it required a conscious effort on his part to keep from hiding his face against her bosom. She leaned close and, as several long, soft strands of her hair tickled his cheek, whispered in his ear, "Now, Vorti's greatest moment has come. You, my son, will pave the path to the future!"
The night passed slowly, with the sad news spreading through the sleeping city. Watchfires were lit, bells tolled, and dirges were played. Long before sunup, hundreds had begun to file past the king's bier. Most of the early-comers were common folk. Few nobles were willing to sacrifice a few hours of sleep to see a corpse.
When it finally came, morning dawned bleak and rainy, as if the skies above had chosen to join the citizens of Vorti in grieving for their dead king.
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