THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART TWO: WAGES OF POVERTY


CHAPTER ELEVEN


Baron Rig was a stern, imposing man with wide shoulders, a flat midsection, arms as thick as most men's thighs, and legs like tree trunks. Because he had been raised by a tough, demanding father who had earned his title through force-of-arms, Rig had never learned to appreciate the pampered lives that most of Vorti's nobles enjoyed. Although he allowed his wife and daughter to indulge themselves, he was by nature an ascetic.

As a result of his more rigorous lifestyle, Rig looked a good deal younger than his contemporaries. While most other men in their mid-forties had whitening hair and dimming eyes, Rig's chestnut mane was only streaked with gray, and his blue eyes were as cool and sharp as ever. With shoulders that did not stoop and a ramrod-straight back, he stood nearly six feet tall.

Presently, Rig's face was wearing its sternest, most disapproving expression, and the object of that disapproval, young Lord Bek, was so frightened that he was literally trembling in his boots. His long, limp blond mustaches quivered and his tongue flicked over his lips in an nervous action that was almost-serpentine. Having erred grievously, he was about to pay the price.

The two were cloistered in Rig's study, a windowless room with three of the four walls lined with occupied bookshelves, evidence of the baron's fondness for materials of learning. On the other wall were mounted various trophies from Rig's hunting expeditions, including the heads of several wild animals, the tusks and hide of a troll, and a large two-handed sword that had been used to do most of the killing. Above the fireplace was the most gruesome display of all: the skull of a nameless, misshapen monster that Rig had killed on a trip to the northern Whitetop Mountains. The curious juxtaposition of items of scholarly interest and violence was an excellent reflection of the baron's personality.

The only furniture in the room was a long, rectangular table surrounded by six chairs. Across the width of the table, Rig glowered at the young lordling. Bek had wisely refused the baron's offer to sit. Standing, he was dwarfed by Rig; sitting, it would have been much worse.

Finally, after several minutes of tension-filled silence, as sweat was beginning to bead on Bek's forehead, Rig spoke. His voice was deceptively soft for such a big man. "You have brought dishonor upon my daughter by your scandalous actions. How do you propose to make reparations?"

Bek swallowed. One simple indiscretion had led to this - a brief dalliance in a haystack with a young woman he had never before met who turned out to be the daughter of Marquis Ekk. As a result of that single contact, she was with child. The entanglement led naturally, as such things often do, to the issuance of a challenge to Bek by the girl's betrothed, Count Cis. Bek ran Cis through in a fair duel, but things were not effectively covered up. Bitter relations of Cis freely discussed certain irregularities concerning their kinsman's demise and the entire sordid tale, often outrageously embellished, became a matter of public gossip, impugning the honor of all involved. Because of her unwanted engagement to Bek, Lis' name was tainted.

"I'm deeply sorry for what happened, My Lord. I tried to do what was right. I regret the dishonor that has been brought upon your household and the name of my future wife," said Bek.

"Your former future wife," stated Rig. "My daughter was never in favor of this marriage. Apparently, I should have trusted her judgment."

Bek didn't have an answer for that. To this point, he had harbored faint hopes that the match might still be possible. He had an insatiable desire to possess the feisty Lis, the only girl thus far to have resisted his advances, and also a yearning for the significant dowry and title she would bring with her as the only child of a baron. Rig's words, however, shattered those ambitions. Noting the older man's impressive physical prowess and recognizing the depth of his anger, Bek suddenly became more concerned about escaping with his life. Murder within the ranks of the nobility was not an unheard-of way to dole out punishment and end disputes.

"Of course I couldn't marry Lis," babbled Bek. "I didn't mean to insult Your Lordship by insinuating that the marriage can still go through. I'll do whatever I can to rectify matters. I swear it on my name."

"Your name isn't worth horsedung."

"A public apology, then, in the palace courtyard," suggested Bek. He was perspiring heavily.

"Your apology is as valuable as your name. What you have done cannot be undone. Because of your unchecked lust and rank stupidity, you may have cost my daughter any chance at a good marriage. We are not here to discuss apologies, excuses, or regrets. You can mouth as many platitudes as you like; they will make no difference. We are here to discuss reparations."

Bek swallowed hard. "What did you have in mind?"

Rig did not respond immediately. He let his eyes wander to the wall behind Bek, where his gigantic sword was mounted. Following the baron's gaze, the lordling turned around, his eyes bulging when he noticed the weapon.

"What would you suggest?" asked Rig mildly.

"Please, Your Lordship," begged Bek. "Anything. Just spare my life." Tears pooled in his eyes as he clasped his hands in front of him in supplication.

"Your father will pay me two hundred thousand gold pieces, or the equivalent. That is the price I place upon my daughter's dishonor."

"Such a payment will ruin him!"

"If he cannot pay or chooses not to pay, I will accept the life of his only son and heir in exchange. This discussion is closed. I expect an answer from him before week's end. You are dismissed."

Still trembling, Bek turned and hastened out the door. Rig's voice pursued him down the corridor. "Don't think of leaving the city until this matter is settled. I have a very long arm."

* * *

Wil scanned the terrain around him, looking across the fields to the north and east. It was still a little early, but there was no sign of Lis. Perhaps she wouldn't be able to make it today. She had never missed more than three meetings in a row before, but there was always a first time. To lessen the bitter disappointment he always felt when she didn't show up, he had to constantly remind himself that it was far easier for him, a peasant farmer, to come here alone than for her, the only daughter and heir to Lord Rig's barony. She not only had to escape the clutches of her parents, but had to elude her maid and ever-present guard, Nur.

They had been meeting here, on the bank of the North Vordi River, for over a year, having chosen this spot, the place where they had first gone swimming together, because it was easy for both of them to reach, relatively safe, and secluded. The routine they had established was that Wil would come here every fifth day around noon. He would wait for an hour. If Lis was able, she would join him. Otherwise, they would try again five days later. More often than not, the baron's daughter didn't show, but Wil was always there.

They had started meeting regularly nearly a year after their initial encounter in Vorti's marketplace. At first, their clandestine liaisons had been a source of excitement for Lis, giving her a chance to fool everyone. Wil had come simply because he was intrigued by her. Lately, however, stronger ties had developed. Wil now came because he needed to see her, his only real companion, and he suspected that it was no longer just her longing for secrets and deception that drew her here.

All they did was talk, except on those rare occasions when one of Lis' whims led to a quick kiss or embrace. Both of them recognized the dangers of further exploration, and neither was willing to accept the risks - yet. When they were alone, class boundaries meant nothing, but that wasn't how it would be if developments in their relationship forced them to reveal it to others.

Wil's hour was almost at an end when he noticed a tiny, distant figure approaching at a run. Even half-a-mile away, he recognized Lis. Unlike Wil, who, with the exception of an added half-foot to his height, was much the same now as he'd been when they first met, many things had changed about Lis, but her spirit and exuberance remained constant.

As she got closer, he could see some of those changes. She had begun to pay attention to her flaxen hair, brushing and styling it into a cascade of loose curls rather than letting it hang straight. Her features had become subtly more defined and her eyebrows had developed more arch. Although she was only four or five inches taller than when they had first met, other parts of her body had developed more obviously. Wil hadn't gone swimming with her since last summer, nearly a year ago, but he knew that next time they went, a number of revelations awaited.

Today, she looked radiant. A wide smile split her face from cheek to cheek and her eyes were sparkling. Her method of greeting was to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him on the lips.

"I thought I'd missed you. Did you stay late today? Mother can be such a bore. But I have great news, even if it did take Mother all morning to tell me. Can you guess?"

"What is it?"

"I'm not going to have to marry Bek! In fact, I'm not going to be allowed to marry him! Isn't it wonderful!"

"What happened? I thought your parents were determined to force the marriage."

"I guess since you don't go into the city much, you haven't heard. Apparently, Bek got some Duke's daughter pregnant then killed her husband-to-be in a duel. Can you imagine him winning a duel? His opponent must have been incompetent. Anyway, there's been this big scandal and now Father has decided to break off the engagement. Mother actually thought I was going to put up a fight!"

"So what does this mean?" asked Wil.

"It means I'm free! No more Bek! I never have to see that snot-nosed lecher again!"

"Won't your parents find you another husband?"

"Not for a while. My reputation's been damaged by all of this."

"Damaged? I don't understand. If you weren't involved, how can it hurt you?"

"You don't understand the way the nobility thinks. If he went and laid some other girl, it was because he wasn't getting what he wanted from me - which is absolutely true - so some of the responsibility falls on me. As a result, no self-respecting noble will marry his son off to me until the taint has disappeared."

"That's not right."

Lis shrugged. "That's the way it is. Anyway, it works out well for me. I get what I want and my father's going to wrestle a lot of money out of Bek's family for reparations. I suppose it will be added to my dowry to make me more 'palatable', but it will still be a while before anyone comes calling."

Following Lis' announcement, they sat and talked for the rest of the afternoon, watching the low, fluffy cumulus clouds drift across the sky and feeling the cool breeze off the water. The odors of spring were in the air: newly turned dirt, blossoming honeysuckle, and fresh, tall grass emerging from its winter hibernation. Life and warmth were returning to the world after a season of bleak cold and grayness.

As the lower edge of the sun's disk kissed the western horizon, the pair got to their feet, knowing that their secret sanctuary was no longer safe after dark. Each time they met, the parting became more difficult, though no less inevitable.

After a few reluctantly-spoken words of farewell, Lis gently drew Wil to her. Their lips met in a tender, lingering caress before they headed towards their respective homes, returning to Vorti by different routes in case prying eyes spied them out.

* * *

One season later, on a stormy midsummer's afternoon, something occurred which forever altered the direction of Wil's life.

The day started off like any overcast day during the growing season, with Gav and Wil heading outdoors to care for their crops. By mid-day, the westerly wind had picked up and the clouds scudding across the sky had become thicker and darker. The first raindrops fell soon after and, by the time the two farmers were able to make it to the house, the water was coming down in windswept sheets. Their clothing, soaked through, was plastered to their skins.

Wil, who had met with Lis the day before, was in an upbeat mood that not even the rain could dampen. The crops were growing well - there would be more than enough to get them through the winter. His relationship with the baron's daughter had taken a serious turn and in the recesses of his heart, he was beginning to wonder if a match could somehow be possible. For the first time in his life, everything seemed to be going right.

Gav, however, was openly nervous. In fact, he had seemed out of sorts since the previous night.

Aya, sitting cross-legged on her sleeping pallet, was using her long, delicate fingers to mold a clay figurine she had been working on. Although she typically spent half the day out in the fields helping her husband and son, she had recently discovered a new hobby and now devoted much of her free time to it. On days such as this, she had an opportunity to make real progress.

After Gav and Wil had donned dry clothing, Aya rose, wiped her hands on an apron, and sat in one of the three chairs around the lone table. Her expression stern, she indicated the other two. "Sit."

Wil, looking baffled, obeyed. Reluctantly, Gav joined him.

"Are you going to the tavern tonight, Father?" asked Wil. "If you are, I'd like..."

"Be quiet, Wil," demanded Aya, silencing her son. She turned to her husband and said, "This has gone on long enough. Do what you said you would. Tell him."

"Wil," began Gav. "We haven't told you this because we wanted to protect you. But you're a man now." Having said that, Gav went on to relate the story of Wil's childhood illness, the summoning of the wise woman Yrr, and her diagnosis. "Your mother and I, and Mog, while he was alive, discussed and debated this endlessly. We were never able to decide when the right time was. I'm not sure that this is the right time, but you had to be told. In case there comes a time when you need your powers, you have to know that they're there. Learning how to control them may be a more difficult task."

"How did Prince Sor learn? I've heard stories that he uses his abilities competently."

"They say Chancellor Vas trained him. There have always been rumors that Vas is an Apath, although nothing's ever been proved. It would suit Kan to have a pet wizard close to him. No wonder no one's been able to kill him."

"Whether it's true or not about Vas," added Aya, "You can hardly go to him for training. He's Kan's man. You wouldn't survive your first lesson."

"Maybe I don't need training. Maybe it just comes naturally."

Gav was skeptical. "I don't know. It's a lot of power. It would be better if you had some kind of schooling, I think."

"And who would you suggest for this 'schooling'?" asked Aya.

Gav considered. Across the face of Devforth, Apaths were rare, numbering perhaps only several dozen. Many of them kept their identities secret to avoid unwanted petitions and interruptions. Others abandoned civilization altogether, preferring seclusion in the wilderness where they could practice and study in peace. The only widely-rumored man in Vorti to be an Apath was Vas, Kan's chancellor, although Gav had a distant recollection of some other man, a spice merchant, being mentioned as possessing unusual abilities. That, however, had been at least a decade ago and Gav had no idea who the man was or what had become of him.

It was common knowledge that Devforth's center of "civilized Apaths" was the city of Fels, a thirteen hour walk to the southwest. Fels boasted four confessed wizards and was the only city known to contain more than one. Logically, therefore, the best choice to advance Wil's abilities was to send him there. Unfortunately, that solution was unacceptable.

In a very real sense, Gav's survival depended on Wil. Since Mog's death, it had been a struggle for the family to plant, cultivate, and harvest enough crops to satisfy Lord Bur and feed themselves. If Gav lost Wil's hands, he would have no hope of meeting his quota, even if Aya joined him full-time in the fields, a scenario he thought unlikely. So, as much as Gav would have preferred his son to learn from someone who understood the practice of magic, it was not feasible at this time, nor was it likely to be in the near future.

"I'm not leaving Vorti," stated Wil flatly, as if reading his father's thoughts. "You need my help on the farm." And, of course, leaving the city would also mean leaving Lis.

"I wasn't going to suggest that," said Gav.

"You'd damn well better not have!" exclaimed Aya. "Our son may be an Apath, but we still have to eat. I say let him learn what he can on his own."

"Maybe you're right," admitted Gav. "Do you remember a few years back, there was some stir about a spice merchant?" As far as he could recall, it had been shortly before Wil's abilities had been discovered. Had it been after, Gav would have paid closer attention.

Aya shrugged. "There are always rumors like that. Most people are superstitious. They see or hear something they can't explain and suddenly they believe there's an Apath in their midst."

Gav shook his head. "This was different. There was more substance to the rumors."

"What if there was? Do you think you're going to be able to track him down? If he wanted it known that he was an Apath, the message would have gotten out."

"I'm not going to give up that easily. We owe Wil the best opportunity we can get for him."

"Do whatever you want. Just don't expect me to help in some hopeless search."

"Very well. If that's the way you feel about it," muttered Gav. Turning to his son, he added, "I don't think you should try anything yet. I know you're curious to see what kind of powers you have, but let me see if I can find this spice merchant first. I'm afraid that if you start experimenting, you'll hurt yourself...or someone else."

"Maybe I shouldn't try anything. I mean, just because I have the powers doesn't mean I have to use them, does it?"

Gav's reaction was unexpectedly strong, almost violent. "Don't even think a thing like that! For the past forty years, this city's been under the thumb of Kan and his sycophants. Now, he's got an Apath son to keep his line in power for another forty years or more. You're our one hope for change! We have to get the law on our side, so bastards like Bur can't keep grinding us into the ground. The people aren't going to stand up to an Apath unless there's an Apath with them. Our people need you."

"Oh bravo!" drawled Aya. "Have you ever thought that maybe the boy doesn't want to be a crusader?"

"He's an Apath, Aya. Apaths don't watch events happen, they shape them."

"For now, all I'm concerned about is that he tills the fields, plants the seeds, and picks the crops. Idealism's a nice thing, but survival comes first. Until his magic can put food on our plates, it's what he does with his hands that's important."

Because he agreed, Gav didn't say anything. As much as he believed what he'd just told Wil, he didn't want to become a martyr to the cause. His fight was for a better way of life for himself as well as for everyone else. It wouldn't do him any good if he starved to death along the way. Perhaps it was selfish - perhaps he should have been willing to sacrifice everything - but that wasn't the kind of man he was.

"All right, Father," said Wil. "I'll do whatever you think is best. If you say 'learn', I'll learn. If you say 'wait', I'll wait."

Gav nodded. Now it was up to him to find his son a tutor so that Wil would have a chance to fulfill his role.

* * *

By early autumn, as the harvest approached, Gav had not yet found the elusive spice merchant, although he claimed to have "a few leads". His work in the fields prevented him from spending more than a few hours a week in the search, but he proved his sincerity by diligently avoiding the taverns in favor of pursuing the latest clues.

Wil, meanwhile, outwardly continued as always, although thoughts of what he had learned tantalized him. Many times, when faced with an unpleasant task, he yearned to experiment with his abilities. It didn't matter that he had no idea how to tap those powers; he figured if he tried hard enough it would come naturally. However, since his father had asked him to wait, and he had genuine respect for Gav, he curbed his impatience.

He also refrained from telling Lis, although part of him wanted to blurt it out every time he was with her. The revelation would change their relationship, but Wil couldn't predict how. On the one hand, it would put them on more even footing - baron's daughter and Apath rather than baron's daughter and farmer. However, it might also distance them, since Lis would no longer be as sure of herself or him. In fact, she might even become frightened - if only just a little. Wil didn't want that.

He was debating this issue as he trudged through the ripened fields to meet Lis one day early in the season. It was raining lightly - not hard enough to keep Wil indoors, although he was fairly certain Lis would stay away. He had noticed that she had an aversion to any kind of damp weather. Fog was as bad as rain or snow. So he was surprised to discover that she had arrived before him, something that had never happened in a year and a half.

"This is unexpected," said Wil as he came up to Lis. He noticed that her hair was already slick, an indication that she had been outside for quite some time.

She flashed him a quick smile, one hand wiping a stray strand of wet hair away from her face. "This weather is miserable. I thought you might not be coming at all."

"I always come. There have been times when I've stood out here in the pouring rain for an hour. Why are you here today?"

"I have news that I doubt you've heard, especially secluded on your farm. Prince Bem was killed in a riding accident yesterday." She paused, watching Wil's face intently to see his reaction.

To be sure, Wil was surprised, but he felt no sorrow. By all accounts, Bem had been the best of Kan's sons, but he was still one of them, what his father called "a disease that threatens to infect our city for the next century."

Lis seemed satisfied by his reaction. From his talks with her, he knew that her family was moderately supportive of the king, so he found it odd that she should appear more excited than upset. Surely Bem's death would be a hard blow to those who stood behind Kan.

"Do you know what this means?" asked Lis. "For the first time ever, we're going to have an Apath on the throne!"

A sick feeling blossomed in the pit of Wil's stomach.

"Think of what we'll be able to do! And they say that Sor's just like his father. I know you don't like Kan, but just imagine: an Apath on the throne. None of the other cities will be able to deny us anything."

The weather shortened their meeting that day, but Wil couldn't remember anything said after that. He knew they talked for a while, but his mind was so abstracted that Lis' words didn't register. Likewise, he couldn't remember his trip home.

Aya took the news rather sedately, but Gav began cursing fluently. "Dammit!" he exploded. "This is all we need! An Apath on the throne! This kills any hope of a peaceful changeover at the succession. And just when Baron Cen was making another push!"

"Look on the bright side, Gav," noted Aya, hardly looking up from her pottery. "One more death and Kan won't have any heirs at all."

"You try and assassinate an Apath!" raged Gav, pacing back and forth in front of the fire. "It can't be done."

"Except," Aya added, "by another Apath."

Wil didn't let his shock show as he slipped out of the house. He had the feeling that he wasn't ready to hear the rest of the discussion.

* * *

Three weeks later, during the height of the harvest, Wil went to his meeting with Lis as usual on the specified day. However, despite the fair weather, she did not show up. In fact, this was the third consecutive meeting she had skipped.

He was out-of-sorts when he arrived home. Intending to get a quick drink of ale before going to help his parents in the fields, he stopped by the house. Aya was inside, stitching closed a ragged gash along her forearm.

"Where have you been??" Aya demanded angrily. "This wouldn't have happened if you were where you're supposed to be!" She gritted her teeth as she pierced the skin with her needle.

"I was taking a walk. It's my right. I'm not a child anymore."

"'I'm not a child anymore'," mimicked Aya. "That's the first complaint of a child."

"Leave me alone, Mother. I'm not in the mood." He turned to go outside.

Aya leaped from her seat as if she'd been scalded. With her good arm, she grabbed Wil's shoulder and spun him around. "Do you think I'm in the mood for this?" She brandished the injury, still seeping blood, for him to see. "If your father had been able to find you, I wouldn't have had to help him move that cart!"

"Let go of me, Mother," demanded Wil, trying to shake free of Aya's grip. She only tightened it, her claw-like hand digging into his shoulder with unexpected strength.

"You listen to me, you ungrateful brat. I swore to myself when you were a child that I was never going to beat you, because all I knew as a girl was the switch. So I let your father do the disciplining. Ha! Gav couldn't discipline a dog. He's always been too lenient on you, claiming that you're 'too valuable to be damaged'. Now look what you've become! A self-centered little bastard who doesn't give a damn about anyone else!"

Wil's own temper, normally mild, now flashed as bright as his mother's. "If anyone's self-centered, it's you! The only reason you married Father was so that you didn't have to keep rutting with anything that moves!"

Aya drew back her hand and, for the first and only time in her life, struck her son. The slap sounded unnaturally loud in the dull silence of the room. Wil was badly staggered, but his mother's other hand, whose firm grip seemed ready to rip his shoulder apart, kept him from falling.

Rage seethed within Wil, anger at the woman he had adored as a child who had never shown him more than indifference and contempt. Something buzzed in his head, as if a cluster of bees had flown through his ears, and the sound only fanned his emotions. He lashed out at Aya, pushing her away with his hands, willing her away with his mind.

The buzzing ceased as the anger evaporated. Wil was surprised to discover that he had closed his eyes and clenched his fists. He was breathing heavily, almost gasping. As he took a moment to quiet himself, he became aware of a strange sensation of emptiness, as if a void had opened within him. He opened his eyes and let his hands relax.

Aya was lying on the floor halfway across the room, her supple body twisted into an impossible position. The table and chairs had been overturned.

Wil was stunned. He hadn't shoved her that hard... she shouldn't even have fallen. Unless there had been more involved than a physical push. With sickening intensity, Wil heard his father's oddly-prophetic words: "I'm afraid that if you start experimenting, you'll hurt yourself...or someone else."

He knew before he bent to listen for a heartbeat that his mother was dead. He'd never seen a human corpse before, but Aya's body was so twisted and broken that there was no other possibility. Had he done this to her? The thought of such power was frightening, but perversely exhilarating. And he felt no sorrow. Perhaps a little regret that a sixteen-year connection had ended like this, but nothing more. Wil could not find it in his heart to mourn his mother's passing, and that didn't feel right to him.

"Oh no," came a low moan from the doorway. Wil half-turned as Gav rushed into the house, his expression stricken. Falling to his knees beside his dead wife, he cradled her head in his lap. "Oh no," he repeated.

Wil looked on impassively, saying nothing until his father's eyes lifted to meet his. "She never loved you, you know," he said, his tone almost clinical.

Sadly, Gav nodded, "I always knew. But I loved her." He paused to run a forefinger down Aya's cheek from scalp to chin. "What happened?"

"I'm not sure. She slapped me and when I went to push her away, something...snapped. That," he indicated the corpse, "was the result."

"I was afraid of something like this. Your mother wouldn't listen to me. Magic can't be trifled with."

"No," agreed Wil. "I see that now. There was a lot of power."

They were silent for a while, Wil standing and watching his father while Gav tenderly stroked Aya's hair. It was a sad, almost pathetic, scene.

Eventually, with a sigh, Gav rose, moving as if his joints were sore. His eyes were shadowed by grief but he had not shed a tear. "I suppose we'd better bury the body. We don't want anyone finding out what happened."

"Bury it?" asked Wil, a little surprised. The honorable way to dispose of a corpse was burning. Burials were normally reserved for criminals. Even unnamed vagabonds found dead in Vorti's alleyways were granted a decent, if unattended, burning.

"Like a criminal," said Gav. "Not what I would have preferred, but it can't matter to Aya, and there are reasons for keeping this secret. A death-pyre would alert too many people."

"Couldn't we pretend she died of a fall or a sickness? In the flames, no one would see the condition of the body."

Gav shook his head. "A public display will invite questions. This must be done secretly. You're too important to risk, especially for a rite that will have meaning only to us."

"So we bury her. In the fields?"

"In the fields."

It took them the better part of the afternoon to dig a hole deep enough to be certain that future tilling would uncover nothing. Gav then returned to the house to get Aya while Wil waited in the midst of the still-unharvested field of shoulder-high corn.

There was no ceremony. Gently, the farmer deposited his wife in the grave, then, with help from his son, filled the hole and stamped flat the earth. In a few days, as the corn was harvested, all evidence of the burial would be obliterated.

That evening, father and son sat alone in their strangely-empty house, drinking home-brewed ale at the righted table while a fire burned fitfully across the hearth. For more than two hours, neither said a word, until Gav, having filled his mug for the tenth time, rose unsteadily to his feet and declared, "For Aya. May her next life bring her more happiness than this one ever did."

"For Aya," echoed Wil more quietly, lifting his earthenware cup to tap his father's. Both drinking vessels were the products of Aya's skilled potter's hands.

Gav collapsed into his chair, ale sloshing out of his mug. In a slightly slurred voice, he promised, "As soon as this harvest is over, I'll find that spice merchant. Can't have this happening all the time."

"No," agreed Wil soberly. "This can't ever again happen."


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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