THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART TWO: WAGES OF POVERTY


CHAPTER EIGHT


The Wench's Bosom was the busiest, bawdiest, and cheapest tavern in Vorti. Its owner, Arg, boasted that he had never once sold beer, ale, or wine that wasn't watered down. Nevertheless, men of the lower classes jammed the Wench's Bosom every night because, even though the spirits were diluted, there was no place else where three mugfulls could be bought with a single copper piece. In addition, no noble ever visited the tavern, and, as any of the working men would willingly agree, time spent in the company of a member of the upper class was as pleasant as making use of a filthy privy.

Gav frequented the Wench's Bosom during the late autumn, winter, and early spring. On summer nights such as this, however, a farmer only spent his evenings inside when the weather was unsuitable for work. Late this afternoon, a torrential storm had broken, and, as the hidden sun sank into a premature twilight, the rain showed no signs of stopping. So Gav was given a rare midseason's opportunity to visit his favorite watering hole.

He was in good spirits, as he had been for most of the summer. After a poor showing last year and a disastrous one the year before, when he'd been forced to join his father on his inaugural caravan raid, the crops had improved this year. Barring a pestilence or drought, it looked as if there might be more than enough food for the lean months. In fact, Gav suspected he might have enough left over to sell to his less fortunate neighbors.

The talk this night was, as it had been for several days now, about the king's youngest son's illness and the continuing indiscretions of the queen. Most of the patrons of the Wench's Bosom favored Kan and his policies. Gav was an exception and everyone knew it.

"I's no tha'!" exclaimed a drunken, slovenly man, his loud baritone cutting through the high noise level of the tavern. Gav turned to find Bre, a man he had never known to be sober, standing atop a table and gesticulating with one hand while he cradled a mug of something with the other. Bre's position atop the rickety table seemed precarious, but that didn't stop him from stomping one of his feet to emphasize his point.

"I's no tha'!" he repeated, louder and less coherently than before. "We's all cheeted on ur missus a' one time or t'other. Tha' give them the right ta cheet on us, bu' they shood a' leas have some discreshun when they doos it! T'ain't right, carryin' on like tha' for everyone ta see!"

"'Course t'ain't right!" seconded Vam, a man equally as drunk, but maintaining enough sense not to climb on a table to argue. "Bu' the point ain't her gettin' caught. She shouldn' be doin' it in the first place. She's suppose ta be the queen, no' the palace whore!"

Gav stepped up to the table where the argument was taking place and, in a loud voice, added his own opinion. "That's precisely what she is, the palace whore! She'll take anything to bed that's got the tools to satisfy her. And it's not just her. It's everyone in that stinkin' place. The whole lot of them, sick to the core!"

"Ah, gi' over, Gav!" retorted Bre loudly, lurching unsteadily on the table top. "Ye dunno what yer talking' abou. Our king, now he'd ne'er do a thin like tha'. Pure as the vurgin snow, 'e is."

"Aye!" seconded Vam. "His missus might be a bitch, but the king, 'e's above...above..."

"Reproach?" supplied one of the less-drunk men gathered around Bre's table.

"Thassit!" exclaimed Vam triumphantly. "The king, 'e's above reproach!"

"The king's the worst of the lot!" countered Gav, shouting loud enough to be heard over the ever- increasing din. "He makes proud speeches about morality and caring for the undertrodden, then retires to his fancy bedchamber with his pampered serving girls. And what difference has it made to us? Are we any better off this year than last? Or than ten years ago? Or than before Kan took over? Are we better now than we were under Rel XVI?"

"Ah, whatcha complainin' abou', Gav? Yer makin' a killin' this year, wi' yer crops!" exclaimed Bre. "Yer certinny better than las year!"

"Yeah!" added Vam. "Besize, you weren' even alive when Rel were king!"

"That's not what I mean!" declared Gav, taking a full mug of ale proffered by an anonymous hand. In the Wench's Bosom, such arguments were regarded as high entertainment and the participants were frequently rewarded. Some men came into the tavern and picked quarrels just to get free drinks. Vam and Bre were among the most notorious at this practice.

After taking a sip from the mug, Gav continued, "Kan is supposed to be our king, the man our people put on the throne, but all he's done is throw us a few scraps. We're still slaving away for the nobles, taking whatever they give us!"

"Heard tell some rumors that you were doing a little more than taking what the nobles was giving you, Gav!" laughed a ruddy-faced, fat man that Gav had never seen before. At the man's words, he felt a cold chill run down his spine. That was not a subject he cared to discuss.

Fortunately, no one paid the red-faced man any attention. They were much more interested in the growing conflict. Bre and Vam, hoping for more to drink, would milk it for all it was worth.

"I can't complain," declared Vam. "I'ze got my bissness an' it brings 'nuff money in fer me an me family. Ain't got to pay no taxes like them rich folk an' the city guard keeps bandits off my ass. Wha' more could you wan' from a king?"

Gav let out a mirthless chuckle at this. "Let me tell you about the city guard's efficiency when it comes to bandits. Twenty years ago, when I was a lad, the great revered Kan gave a small stipend to my family..."

Bre interrupted the farmer's tale with a loud belch and an equally noisy, "See there! You've got nothin' to 'plain 'bout! No' if you've been given a sti...stipen'!"

"Shut up!" hissed Gav, with more venom than anyone expected. An unprecedented hush fell over the corner of the tavern.

"At that time, my father Mog loved the king with all his heart. He was the loyalest of subjects. Never in our house could a bad word be spoken against the king, even in jest. He once beat my mother for repeating a slanderous joke she'd heard about His Majesty. Why, my late brother was even named Kan after the king.

"Then came the stipend, and, less than a season after, the robbery. We never found out for sure who the bandits were, but it wasn't hard to guess. There hadn't been a proclamation about the stipend and my father had told no one, fearing something like what did happen. The thieves had inside knowledge - knowledge gained through friends at court. Perhaps not the king, but someone who had his confidence. There was no other way. And the stipend was the only reason the bandits had for robbing us. We didn't have anything else worth stealing and they didn't stop tearing the house apart until they'd found it hidden under the floorboards.

"It was a bloody, noisy crime, with a good deal of screaming and shouting, yet the bandits had been gone for more than ten minutes before a guard showed up. That man's post was two farms away - easily within hearing distance, especially on a quiet night like it was. He could have been to our house in two minutes, yet it took him nearly a quarter of an hour. He stayed back until there was no chance of catching the bandits, stayed back because he'd been told to.

"Then, after it was over, the so-called 'investigation' made by the militia was closed as soon as it opened. The guards seemed very anxious to bury the matter and, given all the facts, it didn't take much intelligence to guess why.

"So we made a direct supplication to the king. He wouldn't even see us at court. His message said that it was none of his affair, the guards would handle the matter, and we would have to abide by the results of their investigation. Under no circumstances would he interfere.

"I can't abide a king who gives with one hand, then takes away with the other. Worse than that, I lost my sister in that robbery. She was butchered to death by a sharp sword - not the weapon or the method of a common thief. And Kan refused to act. Why? Because he knew that some of his underlings were involved and he was determined to cover up for them. Don't tell me that's a man who deserves our love and respect. Don't tell me he's the champion of the undertrodden, when he bargains our justice for the security of his surrogates. And don't tell me that the city guard will protect you from bandits, when they're likely to be the ones who plunder your homes as soon as you've got something worth stealing."

"Bah!" snorted Vam the moment Gav had finished. "Jus' 'cause you had some bad luck, doesna mean it'll happen to everyone. Thur's good guards and bad guards. You jus' got cheated by the bad ones."

"Aye," agreed Bre from his uncertain perch. "You can't blame the king fer what happened to you. He certinny didn' go an' tell a group of crooked guards, 'This is a man's house who's got a lot a coins. You can go rob it.'"

A number of previously-silent voices rose in a chorus of approval for Bre's words.

"And this is why Kan sits securely upon his throne," said Gav, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "You don't see because you don't want to. Kan's not a king for the common man. He never has been. He's the best friend the nobility could have in power, because he's tricked everyone, all of you included, into believing that he's for the undertrodden when his reign's as corrupt and degenerate as that of his predecessor!"

As was customary for such a vehement anti-king outburst, Gav's statements were met with loud curses and an occasional threat. He listened in silence, sadly shaking his head. This was why the city was in the state it was in. Until someone did something to wake the people up, there was no hope of things getting better. But, as always, men were afraid to upset the status quo. They had engineered a revolution less than a generation ago and weren't prepared for another one yet. Such action demanded a commitment that too few of Vorti's citizens were willing to make.

Later that evening, as Gav strolled through the light drizzle on the way home, he found himself unable to easily shrug off the night's events. He had become embroiled in the same argument with many of the same people dozens of times in the past, but tonight's struggle had somehow seemed more personal. For whatever reason, he had taken their words more seriously tonight. He hadn't just been arguing for a free drink. It had suddenly mattered that he strike a chord with those men, that he drive home the point of a cause that, day-by-day, he was feeling more certain about.

The dark mood had not lifted by the time he made his way up the little dirt path leading to his house. Except for the lantern-light peeking from between shutters, the little ramshackle hut he called home was dark. This must have been how it had looked to the bandits twenty years ago. He tried to shake off that unbidden and unwelcome thought, but it clung to him as relentlessly as the moisture in the air.

The moment he opened the door, Gav sensed that something was wrong. As his father turned to face him, he saw deep lines of worry etched in the older man's features. A quick scan of the one-room hovel revealed the source of Mog's concern.

Aya was sitting dispassionately in a rickety chair by the foot of Wil's sleeping pallet, watching the unmoving child with a detached gaze. She looked toward her husband as he entered. "Your son is ill."

Gav nearly flinched at her choice of words. Your son. Not our son. She made it an accusation, as if Wil was a burden that he had forced her to bear.

The blankets and linens wrapped around Wil were flecked and spotted with drying blood. Darkening crimson stained the front of his tunic. His skin was unnaturally pale and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. Mercifully, however, the child's breathing seemed normal.

"What happened?" asked Gav, moving to his son's side. Unconscious, Wil did not acknowledge his presence.

Although the question was directed at Aya, Mog answered. "It happened suddenly. He was playing with those cursed beads of his, then he started to choke and cough. At first I thought maybe he'd swallowed one, but I counted and they were all there. So we sat him up on a chair and slapped him on the back to dislodge whatever was causing the problem. For a moment he seemed all right, then he started again, this time vomiting blood along with his coughing. It didn't last long and, when it was done, he had a fit of shivers then fainted. We cleaned him up a little - wiped the blood off his face and hands - and put him to bed. He's been like that for the past hour. He's running a fever, but it's not that high."

"Did you send for the wise woman?"

"Not yet," said Mog. "I'll go to her at first light."

"First light?? It may be too late by first light! She should have been sent for the moment this happened!"

"Calm yourself, my son," said Mog wearily. "It will wait until morning. Unless his condition worsens, there's no need for immediate concern. Let the old woman have a night's sleep. She wouldn't thank you if you woke her at this hour. I don't think she'd see this as a sufficient emergency. You can ill afford her enmity."

Halfway to the door, Gav stopped, shoulders slumped. "You're right," he muttered.

"Morning isn't that far off. Sit with him tonight. If he worsens, I'll get the old hag out of bed myself."

"I'm going to bed," said Aya, rising from her seat at Wil's bedside.

"You can sleep?" asked Gav incredulously.

Aya shrugged. "I'm tired and it isn't going to do any good for me to sit there all night. There's nothing I can do for him."

"He's your son!"

"That changes nothing," replied Aya, letting her robe slip to the floor. Clad only in a light shift, she slid beneath a pile of blankets by the fire and closed her eyes. Within moments, she was fast asleep.

Gav stared at his wife with a mixture of astonishment and disgust. It was unnatural for a woman to care so little about her offspring. He had seen animals show more concern when one of their litter was hurt.

The night passed without incident, Gav sitting diligently by his son's side, weariness never so much as pressing his eyelids closed. Mog joined in the vigil, but, as the night deepened, the older man dozed off. Wil stirred faintly twice, but neither time regained consciousness. His breathing remained regular and unstrained.

Daybreak, gray and cool for a summer's morning with banks of low clouds scudding across the sky, found Gav on his way into town. The old wise woman - the same one who had cared for Aya when Gav first met his wife - lived in a rundown little shack in the southern quarter of the city, near the invisible barrier that divided the urban parts of inner Vorti from the wide ring of farms that encircled the city's more populous sections.

Everything was still a murky gray and most of Vorti's streetlamps had not been extinguished - not that there were any to extinguish on the wise woman's street - when Gav reached his destination. He knocked gingerly on the door, knowing from a previous experience that a hard rap could cause the fragile, worm-eaten slab of wood to collapse.

The door was opened slowly to reveal the wizened and wrinkled features of Yrr the wise woman, mistress of herbs and healings. Scrunching up her face and squinting her eyes, she looked at Gav sourly. Finally, with a noise that sounded like a snort, she stepped aside to let him enter.

Yrr was perhaps the oldest woman in Vorti, and looked every day as ancient as she was rumored to be. The skin of her face had the appearance of a prune and the texture of worn leather. Her dried and cracked lips were drawn in over toothless gums and her clouded green eyes appeared sunken in their sockets. Yrr was almost bald, having only a few long, wayward strands of white hair hanging from her pate. She wore long, heavy robes that served the dual purpose of hiding the frailness of her body and protecting her from the cold she seemed to feel on even the most sweltering of summer afternoons.

Gav was no stranger to Yrr. He had come to her for healing since childhood, as had his father and grandfather before him. No one could remember a time when Yrr's services were not available, although Mog claimed to recall the wise woman with abundant quantities of darker hair and a fairer complexion.

"Eh?" lisped Yrr. "What brings you to my humble domain at this early hour, Gav son of Mog?"

Gav didn't enter the old woman's house, having strong memories of some of the unpleasant smells and sights within. Yrr was not a tidy woman and there were likely all sorts of unsavory objects lying around. Last time, he remembered gazing upon some slick, bloody object and being told it was a skinned mouse. Yrr was fond of dissections and kept many of her specimens out in the open, heedless of what visitors might think. Even standing outside, he caught a whiff of the distinctive odor of an unwashed body mingled with pungent herbs and preserving chemicals.

"Come, Gav son of Mog, I bid you enter," invited the old woman with a wicked smile. She knew exactly the effect that the inside of her house had on others.

"No," replied Gav, involuntarily taking a step back. "I came to see if you would accompany me to my house. My son is seriously ill."

Yrr's face puckered again. "You could not bring him here? I am an old woman and travel is hard on my bones."

"I did not wish to disturb him, Yrr. I thought it might be harmful." Gav briefly outlined Wil's symptoms. The old woman's face took on an expression of consternation.

"It has been many years since I have heard of another with an illness such as this," she pondered.

This surprised Gav, as he had seen similar symptoms manifested all-too-frequently among the poor of Vorti. It was his experience that many of those so afflicted did not recover. "Surely it can't be all that uncommon."

"Taken alone, many of those signs are indeed common, but together... The wasting sickness does not lead to fevered unconsciousness. The burning sickness is not preceded by the expulsion of blood. This is something different. You were right in coming to me, Gav son of Mog. I shall accompany you to see your child."

"Thank you," breathed Gav.

Less than half an hour later, the two arrived at Gav's home, Yrr leaning on her companion's arm as they walked. Once inside, she was all business, replacing Mog at Wil's side, preparing herbal potions over the fire, and applying compresses to the fevered boy's forehead. Gav stood by watching nervously, absently chewing on his lower lip. Aya, complaining that she found it stuffy inside with the fire burning so healthily, went outside to wander around the farm.

Finally, after spending nearly half the morning fussing over Wil, Yrr gave a grunt of satisfaction, applied an herbal solution to the boy's neck and throat, then turned to the onlookers to pronounce her diagnosis.

"He's not sick," she said.

"What?" replied Gav and Mog as one.

"He's not sick," repeated Yrr, rolling her eyes heavenward as if to condemn the obtuseness of her audience. "At least not in the normal sense."

"Of course he's sick," disagreed Gav. "He was coughing up blood. You can see it all over the blankets. He's been unconscious since last night."

"If he's not sick, what is he?" asked Mog.

"His body is undergoing a transformation. It's been a long time since I've seen this - almost so long, I forgot what it's like."

"A transformation?" echoed Gav.

"Yes," snapped Yrr. "That's what I said. Are you deaf or just slow, Gav son of Mog?? Your son is an Apath and now his inner capacity for magic is beginning to assert itself."

Yrr filled the ensuing silence with a raspy chuckle. "Ah, it's always the same. They never believe it at first. But you'll learn, Gav son of Mog, as will your son. There are things in this life that cannot be denied, strands of our fate that cannot be rewoven. Being an Apath is one of those things.

"There is nothing I can do for him since he is not sick. He will be uncomfortable for some time, perhaps as long as several weeks, but he will not die. When his body is ready, the fever will go and he will return to you as healthy and hale as ever, yet fundamentally changed. Wil son of Gav is no longer a boy. He is a wizard and you would do well to remember that."

"We won't forget," promised Mog. Gav was still too shaken to respond.

It was more than an hour after Yrr's departure when Aya finally returned from her walk. She found both men huddled around Wil's sleeping pallet, much as they had been all night.

"Well, what did she say?" asked Aya. There was mild curiosity in her tone, but no real depth of concern for her offspring.

"You may have reason to care for your son now," said Gav.

"I've never neglected him," she replied defensively.

"Yrr has told us the nature of Wil's illness. He is undergoing a physical transformation. Our son is an Apath."

Aya's eyebrows shot up. "An Apath? Is she sure?" Even Aya, born and bred on the streets, knew how rare it was to have a wizard for a child. It was the basis of fantasies and fairy tales. Aya was not even sure she believed in Apaths or the powers they could purportedly control.

"Yrr was positive. She said it had been decades since she'd seen a case, but there was no mistaking the symptoms. Aya, Wil will be the first known Apath born in Vorti in over half a century!"

Aya felt a need to sit down, but didn't move to do so. She glanced in the direction of the stricken child. He didn't look any different than he had earlier this morning, or yesterday, or last week. If Yrr was right, the change hadn't altered him physically.

"He looks the same."

"The change is internal," replied Mog. "Yrr says we will not see any differences. We must trust her word. She is a very wise woman."

"She is a very old woman and likely prone to flights of fancy. I think we must consider this carefully before we make fools of ourselves," said Aya.

Slowly, Gav nodded his head in agreement. "I think you're right, Aya. Perhaps if we go to someone else...Yrr could have been mistaken, I suppose."

Mog, however, disagreed. "Do what you feel is necessary. Wil is your child and I shall not interfere. But I tell you that Yrr would not mistake something like this. If she says Wil is an Apath, that's what Wil is. I don't need the opinion of someone else."

Less than four weeks later, a second wise woman confirmed Yrr's diagnosis. On that day, the first rumors from the palace began to circulate throughout the city that Sor of Vorti, the youngest prince, was an Apath.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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