THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART TWO: WAGES OF POVERTY


CHAPTER TWELVE


Spring, which had seemed so long in coming, finally arrived. Wil, however, did not find his spirits lightened by that first balmy day when the winds started to blow from the south. There was work to be done - a planting to get ready - and it was beginning to look like all the labor would be Wil's responsibility. During the winter, Gav had begun drinking heavily, and he now spent the bulk of his days and nights in a half-drunken stupor. He was in no condition to work in the fields and seemed intent upon drinking himself to death.

The elusive spice merchant had never been found. Before he had given up the hunt to turn to the bottle, Gav had learned that the man's name was Wor, but he was an itinerant and had not been seen in Vorti for over a year. Perhaps that had been the final blow.

The burden of running Bur's farm fell squarely on Wil's shoulders this year. He didn't know if he could do it. With three, it had been difficult; with one, it might be impossible.

He and Lis had begun meeting at the farm. With Gav consistently drunk, there was no fear of discovery, and Wil felt more comfortable staying close to his home. Lis was amenable to the change in locale, since it meant a shorter walk for her. It also enabled them to meet during the warmer seasons, when Wil wouldn't have the time or opportunity to leave the fields.

Between their last meeting and today, Wil had made some decisions. Things couldn't continue as they were. For good or ill, changes had to be made. He wasn't frightened of the future, but there were too many uncertainties. And, although he felt no remorse over Aya's death, he was conscious that it could happen again -- and next time it might be Lis or his father.

Lis and Wil's first meeting of the new season came on a tropical, overcast day. The moisture hung thickly in the air and, although it wasn't hot, Wil wore his tunic open to the waist.

Through her association with Wil, Lis had developed a strong tolerance for sweat and dirt. Two years ago, she wouldn't have come within an arm's length of Wil, but today she greeted him by melting into his waiting embrace and kissing him on the lips.

"If the summer's going to be like this, it's not going to be fun," she said, using her left hand to brush a wayward strand of hair from her face.

"No," agreed Wil quietly.

"Rumors are flying about how much longer the king is going to live. My father dismissed a couple of men yesterday when he found them wagering on the day of Kan's death." Lis wrinkled her nose in distaste. "What a revolting thing to gamble on."

"I bet they're not the only ones in the city doing it."

"You're right about that. Still, everyone seems to be holding their breath, waiting. Not that there's as much drama as there would have been if Kir or Bem was next-in-line. No one in their right mind would dare oppose Sor."

"No one but another Apath."

"Right, and the only other Apath in Vorti is the chancellor, who's as loyal to that family as they come."

Wil let the opportunity to speak slip by. The moment wasn't yet right, and he had something else to say first.

Lis continued, "You remember the lordling I was supposed to marry?"

"Bek?"

"That's him. Apparently, he's been wed to the pimply daughter of Marquis Fot. For the dowry, they say he got a hut smaller than yours on a plot of land no larger than Vorti's central square!"

"He won't be doing much farming," observed Wil.

"With a plot of land that small, he'll have trouble finding a place to piss!" Lis allowed herself a chuckle, then noticing her companion's sober demeanor, asked, "What's wrong with you? You're not usually cheerful, but today you look like the world's about to end."

"I have a confession to make. There are a few things I want to tell you."

"Go ahead. I'm listening."

"I've never said this before, and I'm not sure if you know it or not. For some reason, we've never talked about our feelings. It seems that whenever one of us starts, the other finds some way to divert the conversation. But not today. I'm running out of time to be truthful and we can't keep on like this for the rest of our lives."

"You're going to tell me that you love me," said Lis, stealing the words off Wil's tongue. Although no longer laughing, she was smiling.

"Yes."

"Go ahead then. Say the words. I want to hear them."

Taking a deep breath, Wil looked her directly in the eyes. "I love you, Lis." She was in his arms kissing him before he had finished saying her name.

"What about you?" asked Wil when they'd broken apart.

"You mean that wasn't a good enough answer?" After a pause, she added, "You know, It's a shame your father spends all that time in the house."

Wil nodded his agreement. "I could use his help in the fields. We'll have to start planting within a week or two."

"That's not what I'm talking about. It would be nice to have some indoor location - preferably your bed - to ourselves for a while."

"Oh," said Wil, his cheeks reddening.

"Presumably, you have some reason for this sudden confession. You're not the kind of person to spontaneously shower someone with romantic platitudes."

"There's something you don't know about me."

"There are a lot of things I don't know about you."

"This is something big."

"Oh really?" she chuckled slyly. Then, noticing that his sober expression didn't waver, she added, "Tell me then."

"I'm an Apath." Three words, more difficult even than "I love you."

If anyone but Wil had made this declaration, Lis would have burst out laughing. Wil, however, did not make jokes like this, and she could tell by the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes that he was in earnest. "You're serious," she said in a small voice. It was not a question.

"I've known for a while now. No one else, except my father, an old wise woman, and now you, knows." He stood awaiting her judgment, heart thudding.

A smile as bright as the hidden sun lit up her face. "This is wonderful!" she exclaimed. "It's fantastic!"

"You think so?"

"Don't you see?? As the daughter of a baron, I could never have married a farmer. My father might have suggested that I take you as my lover, or some such nonsense, but never as a husband. But an Apath... I think now you probably outrank me! If you can prove your claim, there can never be a question of class separating us, unless your father thinks a baron's daughter isn't good enough for you."

"Prove my claim?" Wil didn't like the sound of that. "Don't you believe me?"

"Of course I believe you," replied Lis, sounding annoyed that he doubted her. "But my father isn't going to take your word for it. You'll have to show him something and, knowing him, it will have to be fairly spectacular."

"Wait a moment. Don't you think it's a little too soon to talk about marriage? It isn't that I don't want you, but I don't know how to control my powers."

"So? We can explore them together."

Wil shook his head. "No matter how much you might want to, you can't share this. It's too dangerous. Lis, my mother died because I didn't know how to control forces I unleashed."

That stopped Lis cold. "I thought you said your mother died in a fall."

"She did. But she triggered something in me that unleashed magic. She fell because I threw her across the room."

"On purpose??"

"No, but she hit me and that made me mad. I only meant to push her away, but I lost control."

"I see. So what do you intend to do?"

"There's an itinerant merchant who visits here every year or so. His name is Wor. It's been nearly a year and a half since he was last in Vorti, so he's due. Rumor has it that he's an Apath. When he returns, if I can locate him, he might be willing to teach me what I need to know. The problem is, with my father drunk, I don't have the time to go into town every week and ask questions."

"I can ask around for you."

For the first time today, Wil smiled. "Thanks."

Lis shrugged. "Love makes a fool out of everyone sometime. I guess this is my time."

"And mine. I'm glad it is."

"But why look for this Wor? We've got two known Apaths in Vorti: Sor and Vas. If you went to the palace and explained matters, I'm sure one of them would be willing to train you. Apaths are rarer than diamonds."

His features darkening, Wil shook his head. "Never. Do you seriously suppose Sor would countenance a threat to his power, let alone aid it?"

"He's not the monster you make him out to be. In fact, he's actually quite charming. Vas might be something of an ogre, but not Sor."

"You don't understand. I wouldn't just be a poor farmer petitioning for aid, although that would be bad enough. I'm an Apath. Excepting Vas, I'm the only other one in Vorti that shares his powers. As such, I'm the only one who could stand against him. That makes me a threat."

"In whose eyes?" asked Lis. "His, or yours?"

* * *

Nine weeks later, as summer - the longest season of the year - approached, Lis informed Wil that Wor had just arrived in Vorti and was staying at one of the city's better inns, The Noble's Repose. Not willing or able to give up an afternoon's work, Wil continued in the fields until sunset, then cleaned himself up and went into the city.

The moment he walked through the door to The Noble's Repose, he recognized that he was going to be as out-of-place here as any of the finely-dressed patrons would be on his farm. Even Wil's best clothes were rude compared to how the scullery boys dressed. This was not an inn for peasants, as innumerable shocked and hostile expressions testified.

A hush fell over the gathered crowd as every pair of eyes turned to look at the newcomer. Wil heard a few whispered insults and snickers as he weaved his way between the tables. He noticed that the finely-dressed nobles and merchants shrank from him as he passed, as if fearful that his touch might contaminate them.

"Your kind isn't welcome here," said the innkeeper, facing Wil across the bar, his expression flat and unfriendly.

"I've come to see Master Wor," replied Wil.

"Has he sent for you?" demanded the innkeeper. This brought a series of guffaws from the onlookers, all of whom clearly realized that no one staying at The Noble's Repose would send for a peasant.

"No, but I have to see him all the same."

"Well, if he hasn't sent for you, he must not want to see you, and I certainly don't want you in my inn. So get out before I call the watch to haul you off to the gaol."

"I'm sure once I've spoken to him..."

"Byr!" hollered the innkeeper. A burly, barrel-chested man stalked through the door to the kitchen. He was possibly the most animal-like human Wil had ever seen. A feral expression distorting his features, Byr began to crack his knuckles in anticipation. "Give our guest an example of The Noble's Repose's hospitality - outside. When you're done with him, have the watch cart off whatever's left."

Byr smiled before vaulting over the bar and charging Wil, as if prepared to trample him underfoot. The young Apath barely had time to step backwards before the bear-like man crashed into him, knocking him to the floor. A huge hand grabbed him by the throat and hauled him to his feet. Byr began to squeeze, cutting off the air supply.

Dimly, through the buzzing noise that was filling his panic-stricken head, Wil heard the innkeeper demand, "I said outside, Byr! There are people trying to enjoy their supper in here. They don't want to see this."

With a grunt of assent, Byr started dragging the choking, sputtering Wil toward the door, almost as he might haul a sack of grain. Fascinated, the inn's patrons looked on, their eyes riveted to the spectacle, some of the best sport they'd seen in days.

Wil's vision was beginning to swim. The buzzing grew stronger as his feeble attempts to break free from Byr's iron grip weakened. Fear, strong and potent, surged within him - the fear of death.

Like the first time, Wil didn't know he had used magic until it was over. There was a sudden release of...something, accompanied by the instantaneous evaporation of terror. His vision cleared and he found himself standing tall and straight, his back rigid and fists clenched.

One of the inn's circular tables had been split down the middle and lay collapsed on the floor amidst the wreckage of the chairs that had been clustered around it. On top of this pile of debris lay the unconscious body of Byr, his chest continuing to rise and fall. For that, Wil was thankful. He didn't want another death on his hands. Looking at the unmoving man, he found it difficult to feel anything but pity. How had something so brutish and stupid managed to frighten him?

The patrons of the inn had fled to its far corners, sadistic amusement replaced by trepidation. The two men who had been sitting at the ruined table looked especially shaken. Wil ignored them and approached the bar again. The innkeeper's face had turned a pasty white and there was a wild look in his eyes.

"I didn't come here for trouble," said Wil placidly.

The innkeeper nodded his head dumbly. "We don't want no trouble, either."

"I've come to see Master Wor. Which room is he in?"

"Third floor, second on the left." The innkeeper pointed to a flight of stairs.

"Thank you." Calmly and unhurriedly, Wil headed for the staircase the innkeeper had indicated. Behind him, whispered conversation started again as the patrons of The Noble's Repose returned to their seats. As he climbed to the third floor, Wil heard the innkeeper shout, "Byr! Wake up, you worthless cur!"

Wil's knock on the door was answered almost immediately. The man scowling from across the threshold was almost dwarfish in appearance, his head barely coming to his visitor's chest. He looked old and wizened, but the thickness of his arms and legs revealed a greater strength and vitality than many younger men possessed. His pate was hairless, but he had big, bushy white eyebrows over bright green eyes, long mustaches and a well-groomed beard that hung nearly to his expanding waistline. Like Wil's, his skin was toughened and bronzed as a result of constant exposure to the sun.

"Well?" he demanded in a deep baritone that Wil found incongruous coming from a man of his size.

"Master Wor?" asked Wil tentatively. His earlier confidence dissipated, returning him to his role as supplicant.

"Wor's my name, but I don't want to hear any of that 'Master' crap. That's an affectation I've never cared for. Don't believe in slavery myself."

"I'm sorry."

Both of Wor's eyebrows shot straight up. "What are you apologizing for?? Nothing to be sorry about. Now that you know, just don't do it again."

"I've come here on urgent business..."

"I know why you're here. I was near the bottom of the stairs when you gave your little display. Don't you think you'd better come in? Or do you want everyone on this floor to know your business?"

Once the door was shut, Wor sat in what for him was a tremendously-oversized padded armchair. Wil remained standing.

"Come on!" snapped Wor. "You've obviously got something to tell me. Out with it!"

"You saw what happened in the common room. You know what I am."

"Yes. And if you've come to me for help, you've listened to too much idle gossip."

"You're not an Apath?"

"I didn't say one way or the other." Wor seemed to consider for a moment before continuing. "Obviously, you've been waiting for me to return to Vorti. Why not go to someone else? If I remember correctly, your chancellor is an Apath, as is your prince. They may be a little above you on the social scale, but your abilities make you more important than the ordinary peasant. I'm sure they'd see you if you made them aware of the situation."

"If you knew those two, you'd realize that no one with power is safe with them. If they knew about me, they would see me as a threat."

Wor scratched his beard, "Not a big supporter of the royal family, I see. Well, you may be right. Kan's always been decent to me, but I don't have to deal with him on a regular basis, and his son may have completely different views."

"The problem is that Sor's views are almost identical to his father's."

"Regional politics has never been my strong suit. I go to too many places to become embroiled in the issues of any one. But I could see where a crown prince Apath might find it in his best interests to remove possible threats. As someone who shares his unique powers but not his philosophies, you might fall into that category."

"My powers have to remain a secret...at least until I know how to use them."

"Then I hope you weren't foolish enough to give your name downstairs. By dawn tomorrow, some exaggerated story of what you did will be all over Vorti."

"I only told them I wanted to see you."

Wor sighed. "So I'll be the focus of attention again. Well, hopefully all the extra curiosity will help out business. That was the only benefit last time."

"Last time?"

"I imagine you were just a babe then," reflected Wor. "It was when I was younger, cockier, and quite a bit more ignorant of certain basic truths. I did something with my powers...a little something to stop a thief. A few people saw the rope tie him up all by itself. That's how my anonymity was lost. Carelessness and stupidity on my part. I had to avoid Vorti for nearly five years after that. Since then, this has never been my favorite city to trade in, but there are things I need here, so I can't avoid it forever. You're another example of my past catching up with me. How did you find out?"

"My father was looking for someone to teach me and he remembered some rumors about you."

"It's usually something like that. No matter where you go or how long you wait, someone always remembers."

"Will you help me?"

Wor scowled again, then nodded. "A dozen years ago, I probably would have refused the request, but I've learned a lot since then - about life, people, and, most importantly, magic. Besides that, we have a certain unwritten responsibility to each other and society. An untrained Apath is a serious danger to himself and everyone else. But there's something I want to make clear at the outset: I don't use my powers any more. Don't expect demonstrations. You might learn that that's the best way of all. Some people regard Apaths as blessed. I think we're cursed. The price we pay every time we use magic is terrible."

"I need to control what's inside me," said Wil. "I caused my mother's death and I could have killed that man downstairs."

Wor nodded. "Sometimes understanding isn't the solution. As you probably realize, emotion is the key, and emotions aren't subject to logic and reasonable control."

"Emotions?" pondered Wil. "That makes sense, I suppose. Both times, I was...emotionally drained after I used magic, as if I couldn't feel anything."

"Apathy. That's why we're called Apaths. In excess, it's called burgeoning apathy, and that's a condition that Apaths must avoid. But I don't want to discuss this here or now. Where do you live?"

"On a farm to the south and west. It's owned by a Lord Bur. Anyone call tell you how to get there. Bur is well-known. My name is Wil and my father's called Gav."

Wor shook his head emphatically. "I most certainly am not going to a farm. Farms are all mud and dirt. No, I'll have to figure out something else. This inn is certainly no good and I'm not going to lower my standards and find a more 'appropriate' lodgings just for your benefit." He considered for a moment. "Come to the market in a few days. You shouldn't have much trouble finding me. I'll be there from dawn to dusk. We'll reach some sort of accommodation."

Wil hesitated, not wanting to push his luck with Wor, before asking, "Is it possible...could we meet after dark? I'm running the farm alone - my father's ill - and I need all the daylight hours I can get."

"No. Dawn to dusk. As an Apath, you're going to have to start making sacrifices, and a few hours less of sunlight will be among the least painful. But if it makes you happy, wait for a rainy day. Just don't wait too long. I'm not staying in Vorti forever."

"How long do I have?"

"I don't know. Until I get everything I need and grow tired of trading here. Maybe until late summer. One more thing: keep your emotions in check until we get started. You know what you're capable of. Don't let it happen again."

Wil nodded. "I'll see you in a few days," he promised.

Wor grunted. "Oh, and take the back stairs. That is, if you want to avoid attracting undue attention."

A sudden thought occurred to Wil. "Could the innkeeper have sent for the watch?"

"Not a chance. He saw what you did. Do you think he'd risk the wrath of an Apath? The only thing you have to worry about is prying eyes. And, if you want to remain anonymous, that's worry enough."

"Thanks," said Wil, turning to leave.

"Shut the door on your way out," muttered Wor. Already the short, stocky merchant's attention was on a book he had lifted from the nearby bedside table.

Once in the hall, Wil closed his eyes and took a deep breath to steady himself before looking for the back staircase that would provide a less obvious exit from The Noble's Repose.

* * *

Ten days later, in early summer, Wil emerged from his house and glanced skyward. There were a few high clouds, but no sign of rain. He momentarily considered abandoning the farm for the morning and going into town, but decided against it. Eventually, the rains would come, then he could travel to the market on a day when he wouldn't lose valuable time. For now, there was too much to do and, as important as it was for him to learn to be an Apath, his survival, and that of his father, depended upon his being able to exceed the quota Bur had selected for the farm. Besides, Wor wasn't going anywhere - at least not immediately.

Wil quietly shut the door behind him, careful not to disturb Gav. The older man had passed a bad night, moaning and crying out several times. Wil had done his best to comfort him, but Gav seemed beyond human consolation. The ale had saturated his mind and body, drawing out the darkest nightmares from the hidden parts of his soul.

He had not seen Lis since his visit to Wor. He wondered if she had heard the stories about his display in the inn and stayed away because of them. Maybe they frightened her, or perhaps she was perceptive enough to realize that he needed some time and distance. Although he hated to admit it, part of him was thankful for her absence. Right now, the last thing he needed was a distraction. Even taking an hour off to talk with Lis could put him behind schedule - and frequently her visits turned into half-day events. If she came soon, he could try persuading her to lend a hand with his work. Unfortunately, it seemed unlikely that such a tactic would be successful.

The day passed quickly, and, before Wil realized it, the shadows were getting longer. During the course of his labors, he discovered a second reason to hope for precipitation: some of the crops were beginning to show the first signs of dryness. It wasn't serious yet, but, given another five days without rain, the weaker stalks would begin to wilt and perish. For a farm operating so near to its quota, any extreme weather conditions - wet or dry - could mean disaster.

When he returned home with the sunset, he found Gav still lying in bed, which was unusual. By now, he normally would have risen to start on his day's fill of ale, or, on rare occasions, to eat something or even attempt lending a hand outside. This evening, however, he lay flat on his back, coughing and wheezing. Moving closer, Wil noticed that the blankets wrapped around the older man were stained with blood.

"I'm going to get Yrr," he said, but a restraining hand on his arm stopped him. He looked into his father's eyes and, for the first time in years, the gaze reflected was sober, unclouded by drink.

"Don't bother," rasped Gav, his voice so soft that Wil had to bend close to hear the words. "You'll never get there and back in time, and I don't want to die alone. There's nothing she can do, anyway. There's no cure for what I've done to myself."

"Father, there may still be time..."

Gav's reply was harsh, "There's no time, Wil. Stay with me while I die."

Reluctantly, Wil nodded, sitting cross-legged next to Gav's straw pallet. Neither of them spoke for some time, and Wil could hear how strained his father's breathing was. Gav had been right; had he gone for Yrr, he might have returned too late. This would not be a long vigil.

"I've found Wor," said Wil. He felt his father deserved to know that.

"Good. At least I can rest easy about your abilities. But I should have been out there looking, instead of drinking myself to death. I've placed too many burdens on you in the past seasons, burdens you didn't ask for or deserve."

"You were upset."

"That's a poor excuse, Wil. It's a sad testimony to my behavior that it's the best one there is." Following that condemnation, Gav broke into a hacking cough which brought up as much blood as mucus. When the attack had passed, he was visibly weaker, his eyelids only half-open.

Wil reached out and took his father's hand. The flesh he pressed to his own was cold and clammy.

"Wil..." whispered Gav, his voice a soft, dry rasp. "Do you intend to stay on at the farm after I'm gone?"

"If I can keep to the quota. It's my life now."

"No," Gav dissented, shaking his head slightly. "Your life must be your abilities. You must rise beyond this pathetic little plot of land. You can have greatness...take what is your right. This farm was my lot, not yours. Find a good wife, raise a family, and use your powers to change the world. Take down corrupt rulers like Kan. Force them to stop feeding on the populations they're supposed to be supporting." There was more he wanted to say, but he ran out of breath.

"Father," began Wil. "I've met someone...a girl. I think I want to marry her."

"Who?" The word was more mouthed than spoken.

"Her name is Lis. She's the daughter of Baron Rig."

"I don't know him," wheezed Gav. "Is he a good man?"

"I'm not sure. But Lis is a wonderful person. She knows about my powers. Actually, she's the one who found Wor."

"Hold onto her then. A noble's daughter will be useful if you're to be king."

"King??" exclaimed Wil.

"Yes, King. That must be your goal." Putting all his fading strength into the handclasp with his son, he said, "You are an Apath. You can do anything. Fulfill your destiny. Bring peace and justice back to...to...Vorti." Then, his body stiffening as if caught in the grasp of a seizure, Gav died. The grip on Wil's hand became flaccid.

Wil fought against the terrible grief that welled up within him, squeezing shut his eyes to hold back the tears as Wor's warning echoed in his mind. Strong emotions were his enemy. He had to control them - control himself - or the results could be catastrophic. It was a long and painful struggle, and several times Wil thought he could sense the buzzing noise - the herald of his magic - starting, but, in the end, he won the battle - the first battle in what was likely to be a long war.

At sunrise the next morning, Wil set fire to his father's body and watched as the physical shell that had housed Gav son of Mog was reduced to a pile of smoking gray ashes. Surprisingly, the funeral pyre attracted no attention from neighboring farms - perhaps no one cared enough to be curious. Gav had always been a loner. Over the past few years, his isolation had become more extreme. Wil could not think of one man or woman who would name Gav as a friend.

Wil worked hard for the rest of the day, throwing himself into his duties with a fervor that was almost unnatural. He labored until the last vestiges of twilight faded away, then returned exhausted to the house to collapse on his pallet and fall asleep without supper.

Wil passed a dreamless slumber to awaken to the distant tolling of bells. Rising groggily from bed, he went to the door and looked out to see what the day would bring. Clouds clotted the sky as the murkiness of a gray dawn began to manifest. A slow, steady rain was falling.

Still the bells rang, dozens of them, clanging out a somber, mournful message, the meaning of which it took Wil a few moments to realize. When he finally understood, he nodded once, as if in satisfaction. Somehow, it seemed fitting that his father's passing should precede that of the King of Vorti by a mere thirty-six hours.

Of course, that meant that Sor was king - or soon would be. Perhaps not for long. Wil nodded again, as if communicating with his dead father. With training, he would be up to the task Gav's final words had laid before him. The contest of the Apaths for the leadership of Vorti was about to enter its preliminary stages.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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