THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART TWO: WAGES OF POVERTY


CHAPTER NINE


For the next four years, Gav, Mog, and Aya kept their son's abilities secret from everyone, including him. After the revelation that the youngest prince was also an Apath, they decided it might be dangerous for Wil's well-being if the truth became known. The Royal Family could view an Apath farmer as a threat and takes steps to have him removed. Eventually, of course, it would have to come out, but the time was not yet right.

During the spring of 550, following an especially long and harsh winter, rumors began to spread about extraordinary actions being contemplated by some of the nobility. The name of Baron Cen was mentioned prominently and the nature of the gossip was such that few peasants were willing to credit it until the day it was confirmed.

Aya, Wil, and Mog were gathered around the table for their morning meal when Gav came thumping into the house, rubbing his hands to ward off the cold. He moved to sit by the fire before revealing news that a passing courier had just brought.

"Well, it's really happened. I never thought he'd do it. I thought it was all rumors."

Mog, having heard most of the same rumors, was able to deduce what his son was referring to. "So, Cen's actually given some of his peasants land, eh?"

"Yes. One dozen male serfs freed, all given small plots of land, none smaller than half an acre. Cen also said that if they choose a wife from his household, he'll summarily free the woman from his service provided she goes to live with the man."

"That's awfully generous of him, isn't it, Father?" asked nine-year old Wil.

"It's so damned generous, nothing like this has ever been done before," muttered Gav. "I almost wish we were working for Cen."

Mog shrugged. "We're free men as it is, son, not serfs."

"The way we work, and what we work for, we might as well be serfs," said Aya bitterly.

"I think there's less to Cen's generosity than meets the eye. I doubt that land is his most productive. It's a political move to curry favor with the people. Cen wants his son to be the next king of Vorti. He needs support from our class if he's to have a hope," said Mog.

"At least he did something for us, which is more than can be said of Kan," said Gav.

"True. I don't think Cen would make a bad king. If he understands what it takes to win us over, that means he understands us. That's not true of the current ruler, which is odd considering his background."

"Should we support Baron Cen as king?" asked Wil.

"Right now, we shouldn't support anyone. I won't back Kan, but actively favoring anyone else while he's in power is treason. Frankly, I don't think there's much chance of getting him out of there short of killing him, and that's been tried a hundred times. No, he'll be king until he dies. That's when the issue of support will become important. A normal succession would pass the rulership to Kir, but I doubt it will be a normal succession. Cen, or his heir, and several others will likely make plays for the throne then. It's too bad we can't set up one of our own to be in a position to make a move when the time comes," noted Mog.

"I think we have to face facts. There won't be another revolution, so the next king will either be a member of the current ruling family or come from one of a few noble families. We have to choose the best of the bad, and I think that's Cen," said Gav.

"You're probably right, but let's not make the decision before we have to. It's also a good idea to remember that Kan's sons won't just give up the throne. They'll fight for it, and one of them is an Apath," said Mog.

"Is that really important?" asked Wil.

"Very important," replied Mog. "The fate of cities often turns on the words or actions of an Apath. Remember that."

"I don't understand," muttered Wil.

"What isn't there to understand?" snapped Aya. "Your grandfather just explained it to you."

"Why are Apaths so important? What can they do?"

"I'm not sure," confessed Mog. "And I'm not alone in that uncertainty. All I can tell you is that Apaths have the ability to control great powers, powers that no one else can touch. More often than not, power is the secret of greatness and since Apaths have the power, the rest follows. Understand?"

"I think so," said Wil, his young face a mask of concentration.

"Well, when you do, maybe you can explain it to me," replied Mog with a chuckle. His grandson looked at him in confusion for a moment, then joined him in smiling.

"We haven't resolved anything," interjected Gav.

"I don't see that there's anything to resolve. Cen's set free a dozen serfs and given them land. It doesn't affect us, at least not yet. We continue to do what we've always done, and what most of the city is doing: we wait."

"Will Cen's action sway enough of the populace away from Kan?" asked Aya.

"Hard to say," said Mog. "There will be a lot of vocal support for him, but Kan's still a popular king. Support for Cen will fade quickly. People have short memories."

"All except us," added Gav.

Mog nodded. "All except us."

* * *

One season later, on a rainy night in the middle of summer, Gav was on his way to the Wench's Bosom when he heard the news. He immediately turned and started home. There would be no drinking or carousing tonight. As he walked through the light drizzle with a thin fog creeping out of the encroaching darkness, a distant bell began to toll - Vorti's Chimes of Mourning. People cleared the streets, understanding immediately what had happened. After all, Prince Kir had been ill for weeks.

Outside his house, Gav could still hear the bell, but it was distant and no louder or more distinct than the patter of raindrops on the roof. He doubted anyone inside would be aware of it. He tried the door, and, finding it unbolted, went it.

"This is unexpected," remarked Mog on his son's return, glancing up from a book he was reading by the flickering light of the fireplace. Aya, her face a mask of distaste, was sewing while Wil idly played with a cricket. Gav doffed his wet cloak and joined the others by the fire. It wasn't exactly cold outside, but the dampness had gotten into his bones.

"Kir's dead," said Gav simply.

Mog nodded, "I thought you must have news. There aren't too many things that will keep you from that tavern on a night like this."

Gav grunted. "They've probably closed it. The Chimes of Mourning are ringing."

"See!" exclaimed Wil as he trapped the insect beneath a cupped hand. "I told you I heard bells!"

"Oh shut up!" muttered Aya, sticking herself with a needle as she glanced in her son's direction. A stream of profanity followed.

Mog, ignoring his grandson's mother, acknowledged Wil. "So you did, boy, so you did. You must have good hearing. Even knowing that they're ringing, I still can't hear them."

Wil's expression, which had grown cloudy after his mother's outburst, broke into a tentative smile at Mog's compliment. He let the cricket go and sat up to listen to the conversation between the adults that would inevitably follow such news.

"I suppose this isn't good for us," muttered Gav.

"Don't see that it makes much difference," said Mog. "I didn't care one way or another about the lad."

"I mean this can only hurt Cen's eventual chances in a bid for the throne."

"I thought we had decided to withhold our support for as long as possible."

"What's the point?" snapped Gav. "Cen's the only logical choice. He's a far sight better than what we've got now."

"I hope you haven't been telling other people that."

"There's no reason to keep it secret."

Mog sighed. "Then you're committed."

"You mean we're committed."

"No. I haven't decided yet and I won't be giving my support until the time is right."

"Why wait when you know what the choice is going to be? That doesn't make any sense."

"It makes plenty of sense. If people want your support, they'll do things for you that they wouldn't ordinarily otherwise do. Besides, when I said I haven't decided, I meant just that. Not all the players have come forth yet and I don't want to cast my die until I know who I'm playing against."

"Have it your own way," muttered Gav. "My support goes to Cen."

"In that case, you're right. This isn't good for you. Kir wasn't a well-liked young man. He had none of the charisma of his father or brothers and would have been easy for your baron to take down. Things will be different with Bem. He's almost as popular as his cursed father."

"And it puts Sor, Vorti's newest Apath, two deaths away from the throne," noted Aya. Everyone looked at her.

"Don't even think that!" exclaimed Gav. "That would be a disaster. There's nothing we'd be able to do to dethrone him."

"I don't know about that," said Aya. "After all, it only takes an Apath to bring down an Apath."

"Then we'll just have to find an Apath who'll help us," said Wil.

The three adults looked at each other in astonishment.

With a kindly smile at his grandson, Mog asked, "Do you believe such an Apath would be that easy to find?"

"No, but I think you know where one is," said Wil.

"And why would you think that?"

Wil shrugged. "Sometimes I hear you and Mother and Father talking about Apaths. It sounds like you know one. Do you?"

"It's possible," acknowledged Mog.

Gav, not wanting the conversation to progress further along those lines, addressed a question to his father. "Do you think Kir was poisoned?"

"There's a rumor going around to that effect, but it doesn't make much sense. Who would want to poison him? Not the nobles. They'd never trade Kir for Bem. They were quite happy having the sour-faced bastard as their opposition."

"How about the queen?" suggested Aya.

"You can't be serious!" exclaimed Gav. "Her son?? For what purpose?"

"You forget that Kir isn't her son. Sor is. Perhaps she's decided that she wants him on the throne. Given that she's a princess of Tsab and Sor is her flesh and blood, that raises a number of interesting possibilities."

Gav looked thunderstruck by his wife's reasoning. Mog considered a moment before responding. "We all know that Sye's a flagrant adulteress, but I can't believe she'd do what you're suggesting. Not murder. Not a woman."

"I think you underestimate women," said Aya. Her eyes were cold. "When we want something, there's little we won't do to get it."

* * *

Lying on his belly with his left cheek pressed against the hard-packed, frozen dirt, Gav couldn't stop shaking, and not from the cold. His hands, feet, limbs, and torso were trembling as the breath streamed from his mouth in great white clouds. He thought he could hear voices, but they seemed far away. He tasted blood, warm and salty, and knew it to be his own. He panicked for a moment, thinking he had been hit, then almost sobbed with relief when he discovered that the wound was of his own making. He had bitten through his lower lip.

His eyes were clamped shut. Some inner superstition or childish instinct made him believe that if he could not see his enemies, they would never find him. There was also a more practical reason. If death came, he didn't want to see its approach. Let the executioner's sword fall swiftly and silently while he lay and trembled in ignorance.

Greed had brought him to this. Greed and the lure of something illicit becoming too easy. He never should have agreed to come; his family had enough to survive the winter on. Another pouch of gold wasn't necessary. Proper rationing would see them through to the earliest harvests. But Mog had been persuasive. Would it not be better for Gav's son, an Apath, to have a full belly every night rather than spending the coldest part of the year half-starving on carefully-parceled rations? The reasons had sounded plausible and it had been so easy the other two times this winter.

Not today, however. The supposed merchant's caravan hadn't been carrying spices and silks for sale at Vorti's markets, nor had its passengers been three fat vendors accompanied by four half-drunken guards. It had been a trap, canvas flaps in the back of the two wagons opening to reveal over a dozen armed and ready soldiers. Then the bloodbath had begun.

For all Gav knew, he was the only survivor. There had been five ambushers, including Mog and him. He had seen three of them perish, including his father, whose head had been neatly lopped from his neck. It was a sight Gav would never forget. His stomach churned again, but all that was left were dry retches.

He had fled south from the road, arrows whizzing past him, all of them miraculously missing. He had run until he thought his heart would give out. Then he had collapsed here, in some farmer's desolate fields, waiting for death or nightfall, whichever came first.

Even if they didn't find him, he wasn't free and clear. He had to hope that no one would recognize Mog's body. Since his father hadn't been well-known in town, that was thankfully possible. But if someone identified the body, the guards would go to Gav's house, and, if he couldn't be found, even the thickest of them would make the connection. Kan's soldiers didn't need more than intuition and circumstantial evidence to execute a suspected ambusher.

The afternoon wore on, minutes ticking by with the slowness of hours. Gav was beginning to believe he had spent days, not just a portion of one, lying in this ditch. Nevertheless, he didn't move, not to scratch the itch in his nose nor to relieve a cramp in his leg. At least the trembling had stopped.

Finally, by the gradual dimming of his surroundings, he could tell that night was approaching. For the first time, he felt a faint surge of hope. It seemed possible that he might get away. Under cover of darkness, he could slip past any patrols that were out and make his way home. Then he would be safe...if the guards hadn't beaten him to his own door.

Gav's legs were stiff, and at first it was painful to move them. Every muscle in his body was tight, contracted by tension and the cold. It took Gav several minutes before he was able to move fluidly with a minimum of discomfort.

There didn't seem to be anyone in sight - only the vast, rolling terrain of some farmer's wasted and barren fields. It was clear that no one had planted here in several seasons. Dry, dead scrub was everywhere, as brown and brittle as the tall, dormant grass. Even in his dire circumstances, Gav couldn't help but curse the waste of so much potentially-useful land.

Since he didn't recognize his surroundings, Gav surmised that he had fled far to the south and west, probably close to the North Vordi River. If he could find the water, then follow it upstream, it would bring him to territory he was familiar with.

The night closed around him, turning slight dips and rises in the terrain into snares. He stumbled and fell many times, once landing in a thorny bush and incurring dozens of small, stinging wounds. He stopped frequently, listening for the telltale sound of running water, but heard nothing, not even the trill of a night bird. At least there were no signs of human pursuit.

Gav was comfortable outside during the day, but he didn't like the night. It hid too much. The bandits that had robbed his father and killed his sister had struck after dark. And there were worse things than humans rumored to roam the benighted countryside beyond the city limits - where Gav surely had to be now. If he never reached Vorti, he would not be the first man to disappear in the southwestern plains.

After the last vestiges of twilight had faded, Gav lost track of time, so he didn't know how long it took before he finally located the river. Had he not heard it as he approached, he probably would have fallen in, so black and impenetrable were his surroundings. There was no moon this night and the faint light of the stars only occasionally filtered through openings in the clouds that clogged the sky. Gav's ears had become his guide.

The trek upstream was arduous. He moved at a snail's pace, sometimes falling to his knees to pat the ground and make sure he hadn't strayed to close to the ribbon of black silver whose gurgle he followed. If he fell in, he would stand no better chance than if he'd turned and faced his pursuers earlier in the day.

Eventually, Gav saw lights flickering in the distance to the northeast. In his life, he could never remember a more welcome sight. Turning away from the river, he headed towards those beacons, striking out through yet another field. Within moments, after a stumbling journey away from the North Vordi, Gav came upon the Great Southern Road. Now, he knew his way home.

* * *

The soldiers didn't arrive at Gav's farm before he did, but they showed up just after dawn the next day. He'd had less than two hours' sleep, having stayed up late into the night telling his tale and assuaging his son's grief. Nevertheless, Gav was the one to stumble heavy-lidded from his pallet and lift the bolt the moment the pounding on the door started.

"Good morning," greeted Gav huskily, not sounding as if he meant it as he squinted against the cold, harsh light of the new day. "What can I do for you?"

Two guards stood there, each of them easily more than a match for Gav. If they wanted to take him, either of them could do it alone and unarmed. They wore chain-linked mail, had long swords scabbarded at their waists, and smelled vaguely of rust and sweat. Their eyes were as devoid of a smile as their faces. Gav thought one of them looked familiar - perhaps from the Wench's Bosom - but he couldn't be sure.

"We'd like to speak with an elderly man who goes by the name of Mog and is supposed to live here," said one of the guards, a youngish blond man with a thickly-accented bass voice.

It wasn't a stretch for Gav to appear disconcerted. "I'm sorry, but I haven't seen Mog since early yesterday. He didn't come home last night." He stepped back and spread his arms as if to show the men the veracity of his words. It was plain that, other than himself, only his wife and son were in the one-room hovel.

Their eyes never left his face, however, not even to glance into the house. "Is that usual behavior?" asked the one who hadn't previously spoken, a veteran at least twenty years his companion's senior.

"No. In fact, he only does it once or twice a year, usually when he gets drunk in town. Has something happened to him?"

"He's dead," said the first guard flatly, eyes burning into Gav's, probing for a reaction.

Gav took a step back, grasping with one hand at the open door for support. He hoped he looked convincing. It was his life on the line now. If the soldiers didn't believe his innocence, they were empowered to arrest him.

"We're sorry to bring such tragic news first thing in the morning," said the older guard without a hint of sincerity.

"There are a few things we'd like to get cleared up," noted his partner. "For instance, are you aware of any plans Mog might have had yesterday?"

Gav ran his fingers through his hair, trying to give the impression of deep thought. His forehead was damp with sweat.

"Ah, let me see... No, I don't think I remember him saying anything."

Aya, who had come up behind her husband, put an arm around his shoulder in an unexpected gesture of comfort and support, then addressed the guards, "He said he was going up to 'the mill' to close some kind of deal and we shouldn't wait supper for him."

The guard who had asked the question responded with a raised eyebrow. His fellow demanded, "What kind of deal?"

Aya shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't ask and he didn't say."

"What's your name, Sir?"

"Gav."

"You would be the son of the late Mog?"

"Yes."

"And you're not interested in how he died?"

Gav felt a cold shiver of dread. Of course I should have asked about that. It's the first thing anyone wants to know. How could I have been so stupid! "Uh...yes. I mean, I assumed... What happened?"

"An accident, Sir. Something with a merchant's caravan. I'm surprised you haven't heard about it."

"None of us has been in town for the past three days," said Aya. "I assume Mog was run down in the street."

"Something like that."

"Was he drunk at the time?"

"I couldn't say, Ma'am."

"Is there anything else?" asked Gav, feeling like a trapped animal, waiting for the killing blow. He hadn't been clever enough. One simple conversation and he had botched it. The soldiers knew. They had to.

"Where were you yesterday, Sir?" asked the first guard. Gav noticed that his hand had strayed to the hilt of his sword.

"Here. All day," he managed to stammer.

"My husband was fixing some dry rot in the wall." She pointed to a spot that Gav had repaired the previous week. "Did something happen that you're not telling us about?"

"It's nothing, Ma'am. Thank you for your time. Sorry about your loss. If you come to the town hall, they'll tell you where to pick up the body. If we have any more questions, we'll be in touch." With an artificial smile and nod of his head, he turned and sauntered away, followed closely by his companion.

Gav quickly shut the door and leaned against it from the inside, heaving a huge sigh of relief. Aya, her aura of concern and comfort gone the moment the door clicked shut, rounded on him with cold fury, "You stupid bastard! You really bungled it this time, didn't you!"

She was right, as usual. Now Mog was gone - the one constant throughout his entire life, never to advise or listen again. Aya turned away from her husband in disgust the moment she saw the first tears pooling in his eyes.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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