Somewhere in the distance, a bird was singing, its bright trilling in stark contrast with the muddy grayness of the morning. The newly-risen sun was blanketed from view by a featureless plain of unbroken, lowering clouds that promised rain before noon. A gentle-but-persistent breeze blew from the west, carrying with it the scent of cooler, wetter weather. Vorti was about to receive one of those unpleasant late summer squalls that turned the hard-packed dirt streets into mud and sent the farmers into panic as their crops threatened to wash away.

Sor sat quietly in the palace garden, dressed in a simple outfit of matching pale-blue tunic and hose. His mood too often matched the weather, and this morning was no exception. He wondered how he would fare with the onset of winter, with its perpetually short and gloomy days. Perhaps it was just the newness of his situation, combined with the still-lingering grief, that made his emotions so fragile and changeable.

Over the past few weeks, it had become his routine to rise early, before the sun's first rays illuminated the palace's turrets, and spend a few hours alone in the garden. The servants usually disturbed him shortly after sunrise, but that at least gave him some time to himself. Between lessons with Vas on how to control his power, lessons in statecraft from various advisors and teachers, and the long afternoon audiences in the throne room, the rest of the day was not his own.

As dearly as he would have liked a wife and children, Sor sometimes thought it was a blessing that he wasn't married. With the amount of time being king took, his family would have been sorely neglected. His respect for Kan's ability to balance his duties as a father, husband, and ruler had never been greater.

Sor's coronation had been four weeks ago today. Had it been up to him, the ceremony would have been quiet and solemn, but Sye had taken over the planning in its infant stages, and had created a gala, citywide holiday and celebration out of the event. This had been especially distressing to Sor, since he had still been grieving for his father, dead only a eight days. He thought it unseemly to celebrate anything so soon after that momentous tragedy.

At least there had been no challenges to his claim as ruler. When Vas had stood by his side on the palace ramparts before the assembled nobles and peasants and called for anyone who would stand against the right of Sor son of Kan to the kingship of Vorti to step forward, there had been no takers. The men who would have moved against Kir or Bem were frightened by Sor's abilities. If nothing else, his reputation as an Apath had cowed those who would stage a forthright coup. Undoubtedly, they would now turn to less obvious methods.

His first few weeks as king had not been difficult ones. The days were long but most of his time was occupied by small, tedious matters, like learning every law or tradition that held sway in matters of justice, reading through reams and reams of documents delineating Vorti's trade agreements with the other cities of Devforth, and meeting every petty official and noble in the city, most of whom wanted something from him. He suspected that, for the time being at least, his immediate advisors, Vas and Sye in particular, were shielding him from the more important and significant duties. Eventually, he realized that he would have to face those decisions but, for now, he was content to let others struggle with them.

When faced with a choice, Sor often considered what his father would do in a similar situation. He regretted that his opportunities to watch Kan on the throne had been so limited. It hadn't been anyone's fault, as he had never been expected to replace the king, but the sense of inadequacy was difficult to shake.

He gazed around the garden, his eyes searching for his winged, warbling companion. Blossoms and leaves surrounded him, a profusion of greens, yellows, and reds whose normal lushness was muted by the dull slate sky. Even the varied fragrances of a hundred species of roses, lilies, and mums failed to excite his nostrils. Their vitality, much like his own, seemed leeched by the weather's lack of promise. There was no sign of the bird; it was obviously resting among the higher branches of one of the trees.

Sor rose to his feet and began pacing back and forth, his footsteps threading between rows of neatly-planted flowers. There was no one specific problem that troubled him; it was an amalgamation of everything. As a child, he had often dreamed and fantasized about being king. Back then, it had seemed a wonderful, magical rank, filled with honor and respect. The truth was almost exactly the opposite and he had quickly learned that his position was not one to be relished. It was almost amusing to consider how many men in Vorti would kill to attain the throne.

It was also distressing how people's attitudes towards him had changed following his coronation. Servants that he had talked to before were now nervous around him. Friends, of whom he had never had many, now shunned his presence whenever they could, and, when they could not, their exchanges with the new king were frequently peppered with awkward pauses. Joi, his personal maid, had become distant, despite his obvious desire for greater intimacy. Even his mother treated him in a less maternal fashion and with added respect. Only Vas remained the same, consistent and solid as a rock. For that, Sor was profoundly grateful.

He had not been out in the city since his ascendance. Several times, he had suggested a venture among the common people, either in full regalia or incognito, but his mother, the captain of the guards, and Vas had conspired to veto the notion, informing him that it was "not safe at this time". When he reminded them that Kan had made such excursions routinely during the first thirty years of his reign, he was informed that his father had not been an Apath, and, although frequently the target of assassins, was not nearly in as much jeopardy as Sor would be out on the streets. So, effectively, he was trapped in the palace. He had begun to regard it more as a prison than a home and gilded jails were only mildly more endurable than barren ones. It was the confinement and loss of freedom, not the surroundings, that rankled the captive.

Sor's musings were interrupted by the soft sound of a discreetly-cleared throat. He turned to look into the rheumy eyes of the aged chamberlain Syr. "Yes, Syr?" he inquired with a heartfelt sigh. It appeared that his all-too-brief period of solitude for the day was at an end.

"Your Majesty," acknowledged Syr in a voice brittle with age. "Chancellor Vas has requested that you join him in the library."

Sor raised an eyebrow is surprise. It had been months since the two of them had met there.

When Syr did not bow and withdraw, as was his custom after delivering such a request, Sor asked, "Is there something else?"

"Not specifically, Your Majesty," confessed Syr, his tone troubled. "But the chancellor's summons was most unorthodox. It came through a closed door. He would not permit me to see him and was most insistent that you come at once."

"That is odd. All right, Syr, I'll go see him now. You're dismissed."

With a bow, the chamberlain turned and slowly made his way back into the palace, followed shortly by the king.

* * *

"Come in," called Vas' voice in response to Sor's knock on the closed door to the library. As an afterthought, the young king considered that as the master of the palace, he probably didn't need to knock to enter any room, much less his own library. In fact, his mother might deem such an action improper. Nevertheless, old habits died hard.

He opened the door on a shocking scene. Seated at the far end of the room's single table was the chancellor, his hands bound behind his back and a substantial discoloration marring his left cheek. Behind his chair stood a rough-looking man dressed in the garb of a farmer. He was holding a crude-but-effective knife to Vas' throat. His yellowed teeth shone in the dim lantern light that illuminated the room.

"What...?" began Sor, stepping forward, his hand reflexively reaching for the sword that he had not carried since his coronation.

His error became apparent as the door slammed shut. A pair of hands grabbed him from behind, roughly forcing him to his knees. A blade, similar to the one threatening Vas, was placed against the side of his neck. A thickly accented voice demanded, "Don' move an' don' turn aroun'!"

Sor's moment of panic passed quickly and he didn't struggle. The fear, however, remained, although it was a rational fear, coupled with a healthy portion of self-recrimination. He had acted foolishly, ignoring danger signs, believing himself safe within his own palace. Now, he was about to pay the price that fools had paid over the years.

"Kill 'im!" hissed the ragged thug threatening Vas. "Kill 'im an' be done wi' it!"

Sor began to concentrate, to focus his will upon the hands gripping and twisting his arms. He could feel and taste the fear inside, noticing how it had elevated the rate of his heart and made his mouth dry. The almost-familiar noise of a wind gusting through his mind started - the indication that he was bringing his magic to bear. These cretins would learn what it meant to assault an Apath king.

"STOP!" yelled Vas suddenly, leaping to his feet. The man behind the chancellor lowered his knife. "Don't use your power! Keep your emotions intact!"

Sor, confused and surprised, let his focus waver. The buildup to magical release drained away quickly, like water into parched ground. His hands were released and a man, as unkempt and dirty as his cohort, moved around to face the king, his knife back in its sheath.

"Untie me," Vas commanded the thug by his side, who obeyed without hesitation. When that was accomplished, he added, "You two may go."

With perfunctory bows to the chancellor and Sor, the men silently withdrew from the library, leaving behind a stupefied, speechless king.

Vas lifted a hand to rub at his left cheek. The "bruise" wiped away with little effort. He then reseated himself at the table, watching his pupil and ruler with a calculating expression.

Sor, finally finding his voice, demanded, "What was that about?"

Vas allowed himself a thin smile. "A test, Your Majesty. A test of your reaction, control, and good sense. On the first two counts, you performed well. On the third, however, you showed a serious deficiency. If you are to remain alive, that must be remedied."

"A test??" echoed Sor incredulously. "I might have killed one or both of them."

Vas nodded. "It was a possibility, but they knew that. Both of them were convicted thieves headed for the noose. I offered them their freedom in exchange for help in this little charade. This way they were given a chance."

"What exactly did you hope to gain from this 'test', aside from putting the life of your king in danger, potentially killing two thieves, and placing the integrity of this library, with its many rare documents, in jeopardy?" Sor's tone did nothing to conceal the anger that was seeping to the surface within him.

"Calm yourself," said Vas. "As I said, there were three purposes. For the test to be effective, you had to be surprised. Warning you beforehand would have defeated the objectives. I have several duties to perform, Your Majesty. Among them are teaching you to safeguard your person and use your abilities as an Apath. To those ends, I use whatever means I deem most effective."

After a long pause, Sor reluctantly nodded. "You said I passed two out of three."

"You showed excellent control and quick reaction. You obviously feel comfortable enough with your abilities to be willing and able to use them in that situation. Unfortunately, it was a situation you never should have been placed in. Under such curious circumstances, you should not have come here alone."

"They weren't that unusual. You used to teach me in here," objected Sor.

"But not lately. And the method of my summons should have made it clear that something was wrong. No matter how small the possibility of danger, no matter how slim the risk, you should be prepared. You're the king, Sor, and an Apath, and those two things make you an attractive target to assassins."

"But no one's tried to kill me yet."

Vas shook his head. "You just haven't bee informed of the attempts on your life. There have been six. The men have all been quietly arrested and executed. Several of them came closer to succeeding than is pleasant to consider. One got as far as the door to your sleeping quarters three nights ago."

"Why wasn't I told of this??"

"It is not standard practice to inform a ruler of every attempt made on his life. Your father knew of less than half the assassins who went after him. It's not a good idea for the king to spend his every waking hour worrying about being killed, although a little healthy wariness isn't a bad thing. You must learn to trust your advisors."

"Then why tell me now?"

"To illustrate a point."

"Would you have me travel through the palace with an armed escort?"

"That's a practical, intelligent idea."

"My father never did that."

"No he didn't," agreed Vas. "But that wasn't because I didn't try to convince him to. There are some things you would do well not to emulate Kan in. Also, taking these morning strolls unattended in the garden is an act of blatant foolishness."

"I need time alone. I don't want to be followed and shadowed all the time."

"Stop acting like a child!" snapped Vas. "Whether you like it or not, you're the king. You don't have the same rights and privileges as normal men. If you want to be alone, do it in your quarters. Show some common sense, Sor." In a modified tone, he added, "Besides, you aren't as alone as you think. Your Master-at-Arms takes your safety seriously. There's almost always someone watching you."

"A spy?"

"A protector," corrected Vas. "His duty isn't to watch what you do, but to make sure you're safe when you do it."

Sor was quiet for a few moments, still trying to regain his equilibrium. After weeks of grinding boredom, too much had suddenly happened too fast. Finally, he said, "You've given me a lot to think about."

"I hope you'll do more than just think about it. Action would be wiser. This is something to think about." He pushed a leatherbound sheaf of yellowed parchments across the table to Sor. "Vre's Thoughts on the Origins of Magiks," explained Vas. "It's considered one of the definitive early works on our abilities. It has been cited in several of the books you've read to this point. It's a labor to read and difficult to understand."

"Thanks a lot," muttered Sor, who had grown to despise the neverending list of treatises and texts Vas presented him with. "When do you want me to start?"

"The royal breakfast isn't for another hour. There's no time like the present." He indicated an empty chair across the table from him.

With an audible groan, Sor, king and master of Vorti, took a seat, opened the book to its first page, and, like any other pupil under the tutelage of an unrelenting instructor, began to read.

* * *

Sor collapsed on his large, canopied bed at the end of a long, difficult day. Following Vas' early- morning surprise and an hour of painfully dull reading, he had spent the remainder of the morning meeting with a trade delegation from the western village of Hons before holding his usual afternoon audience. During those seven hours in the throne room, he had been forced to adjudicate a number of claims, including a fierce rivalry between neighbors arguing over whose cows grazed in the other's pastures. His most difficult case came at the end of the day, and, after hearing the arguments of the claimants, Sor had closed the audience for the day, promising a decision the next morning.

The situation was not only difficult because of the legal issues involved, but because it presented a direct clash of the classes. A nobleman, Duke Fys, one of the most respected leaders of Vorti's merchant guild, was accused by a street harlot of rape. The nobles thought it laughable that any sexual contact with a harlot could be considered rape. Fys did not deny having engaged in sexual activities with the woman, but claimed that since she had been duly paid, and well paid at that, with her stated profession, it could not be rape. The harlot, Loi, said that she had never agreed to sleep with Fys and he had forced himself upon her. The peasant population of Vorti was outraged that the nobles believed such acts could be committed with impunity.

What made circumstances more difficult was that, by law, rape was a capital offense. No noble in Vorti had been executed for a crime other than treason in the past half-century. Sor was faced with what he saw as an untenable and potentially explosive situation. Not wanting to be forced into an immediate decision, he had temporarily refrained from making a judgment. But his delay would give him no more than a night's respite. The case would not vanish into the tropical rainstorm that was deluging the city.

He knew what his father would have done, but Kan had been an established king with decades of enmity built between himself and the nobility. Sor's position was not nearly as secure and he was not certain that he wanted to start his reign by alienating every count, marquis, baron, and duke in the city. Nevertheless, if he ruled in favor of Fys, the general populace would be outraged, viewing this as a betrayal. Compromises, such as convicting then pardoning, would not be viewed much more positively.

Sor found that, unfortunately, the actual guilt or innocence of Fys was of secondary importance. This was less a rape trial than a test of the new king's mettle and a method by which his sympathies could be gauged. Personally, Sor believed the duke to be guilty. The law was clear: no man could take a woman by force, regardless of the class of the abuser or victim. Fys' claims of payment and the woman's acknowledged profession changed nothing. The evidence was fairly clear-cut. The duke had taken Loi against her will. But, regardless of how Sor the person felt, was that how Sor the king could rule?

He decided that this wasn't a decision he should make on his own. Granted, he was the king and the final judgment had to be his, but a few opinions would be helpful in guiding him, notably those of Vas and his mother, although he suspected he already knew what their advice would be. Sye would counsel ruling against the harlot, accepting the argument that a woman in her profession should be willing to accept whatever happened to her, especially if she was paid. Vas would likely recommend the same ruling, but for more politically-motivated reasons. His claim would be that, at this stage of Sor's reign, the danger of alienating the nobles would outweigh the danger of causing the general populace a brief surge of anger. The nobles' resentment would be lasting; the same was not true for the peasants'.

At that moment, there was a soft rap on the door to his outer chamber. Sor almost called out "Come in", but, reflecting on Vas' morning advice, decided against it. In fact, he realized that he probably should have locked and bolted the door. The chancellor's comment that an assassin had almost made it to his rooms was not a thought to inspire a sense of security.

Sor cautiously opened the door to reveal a startled Joi, who was obviously unprepared for the king personally answering her knock. Ordinarily, Sor would not be in his chambers at this time. She dropped a quick curtsy and lowered her eyes.

Sor could barely contain a sigh. Here was yet another example of how his coronation had changed attitudes towards him. While Kan was still alive, he and Joi had developed a solid, if guarded, relationship. Now, however, she avoided him diligently, a difficult task for his personal maid, but one which she managed ably. To Sor, it seemed that she was almost frightened of him, a reaction that he would have found laughably absurd if it had been anyone else.

"I'm sorry, Your Majesty, I thought you'd be at dinner. I'll come back later."

"I wasn't hungry," replied Sor. "Come in. I won't attack you."

She hesitated for a moment, then, with a quick smile, passed through the opening. "I've just come to light the lanterns and turn down the blankets. It will only take a moment."

"Well, the lanterns are already lit, but you can do whatever you want to the bed."

Determined to clear up a few matters, Sor followed her into the sleeping chamber, even though he recognized that his presence was making her self-conscious. When she had finished her duties, he invited her to sit down. After a little persuasion and with seeming reluctance, she agreed.

"Is there something wrong?" began Sor. At the look of incomprehension on her face, he elaborated, "Half a season ago, we were getting along fine. We'd spend hours talking. Now, you all-but-run in the other direction whenever you see me."

"I'm sorry, Your Majesty..." began Joi.

"Stop apologizing. It makes me nervous. And when we're in private, you can call me Sor. I get enough 'Your Majesties' all day to make me sick."

"It wouldn't be proper."

"I'm the king. I'll decide what's proper. Now, why the change? Have I suddenly developed leprosy?"

"No, nothing like that. It isn't proper for a servant to be too formal with the king. When you were a prince, it was permissible, but not now that you're the king."

"Who told you that?" asked Sor. It sounded like the outdated philosophy that most of Vorti's nobility still clung to. It was certainly not the thinking his father had introduced forty years ago.

Joi shrugged. "That's just the way it is."

"Not around here it isn't. If you're going to continue in your present position, you'll have to warm up a little. I want to be able to talk to my maid."

"As Your you wish."

"I have a difficult decision to make," began Sor, "And I'd like to know what you think about it." He explained, in some detail, the background and facts of the rape case about which he was expected to make a judgment.

Joi took several minutes to digest and consider everything Sor said before offering an opinion. "I can see the problem you face," she began, somewhat timidly. "And I know that there are pressures on you from the nobles, but if you believe this woman is innocent, how can you decide otherwise? Vorti needs a king to rule justly and wisely, like your father did. If you start bowing to the nobles in small things, who knows where it will end?" She stopped abruptly, looking startled, as if afraid she had said too much.

Sor was silent for a moment before nodding his head. "You're right. That is what my father would have done, not because he hated the nobles, but because it's the right thing to do."

"I hope aren't offended by my saying this, but you're allowing circumstances to cloud your views. Your father was wise enough not to allow that to happen. Maybe it isn't so easy for a king to see, but if you ask any of my people - the people on the streets - they won't think twice before giving you an answer."

Nodding again, Sor said, "Legally and morally, Loi is innocent. She shall be declared so tomorrow."

Joi's anwering smile reminded the king of times past. Sometime during his hour-long explanation of the trial, her posture had relaxed. Perhaps, in striving to regain what they had once had, he was not aspiring for the impossible.

"I'm glad we had this talk. Without it...well, simply say that a grave injustice may have been done. The advice of others probably would have been more politically motivated. You're right when you say I complicate things. In the future, I hope you'll be able to...assist me further in such matters."

"I'm sure Your Majesty won't need my help."

"I'm equally sure My Majesty will," replied Sor, gently mocking her form of address.

Joi's face flushed slightly, but she did not apologize. "In that case, I'm at your disposal."

"Good," murmured Sor. "One more thing: please don't come sneaking in here when I'm at dinner. I often need to talk to someone who isn't moved by the wheels of politics and diplomacy. Even if they let me out of the palace, which they won't, you'd still be the perfect candidate."

Joi rose to her feet and curtsied. "As you wish, Sor."

* * *

"Chancellor," said Sye by way of greeting upon entering the library, "I was told I might find you here. Wouldn't you prefer to be in your quarters at this hour of the night?"

Vas rose to his feet and bowed elegantly. "No, Your Majesty. My quarters are very far from these books."

"With your abilities, couldn't you just..." She made an obscure gesture with her hand.

"Transport them there?" finished Vas. "That would be an outrageously foolish waste of emotion and power. Besides," he added with a wink. "I never claimed to have powers in that area."

"Still playing the innocent, after all these years."

"I assume Your Majesty wishes to discuss something," said Vas, neatly changing the subject.

"You assume correctly. Since you're the nearest thing my son has to a living father, I thought it might be appropriate to discuss his marriage with you."

"Is there to be a marriage?" asked Vas, surprised. "Sor hasn't mentioned anything to me."

"Let me be a little clearer," amended Sye. "I want to discuss potential candidates for Sor's wife. As the only living son of Kan and the king of Vorti, he should be married and sire an heir as soon as is possible."

"I thought there was some kind of understanding between him and his maid, and that you endorsed that match."

"Joi and Sor??" exclaimed Sye, sounding shocked. "I'm sure there's nothing between them. To the best of my knowledge, they hardly ever see each other."

"But you did support their...companionship."

"Sor has a man's drives. If he feels the need to express them, better he do so with a servant like her, who we can monitor, than with someone else. I was willing to accept an affair between them, if it developed, but anything further is out of the question! The king of Vorti cannot marry a maid!"

"The late king of Vorti's first wife was born a peasant."

Sye's expression grew icy. "Lea was Chancellor Mar's daughter. That made her a little more than 'a peasant'. Surely you wouldn't consider yourself a peasant?"

"No. You forget that I knew Mar, however. He was a simple farmer before Kan appointed him to the position."

"I will not have my son married to a maid!"

Vas lifted his hands in a placating manner. "I'm not suggesting that. But it wouldn't be unprecedented if it happens."

"It will not happen. There's nothing between them anyway. I came here to discuss other, suitable choices."

"What do you have in mind?" asked Vas.

"I'd like you to make a list of all the nobles who are friendly - or at least non-hostile - to the throne and who have daughters of marriageable age."

"That won't be a long list," noted Vas. "Have you considered the possibility of Sor's marrying a princess from another city. I believe King Rid of Llam has a thirteen year old daughter who isn't promised."

"I am a princess of Tsab," stated Sye. "And it's precisely because I know the problems that such a marriage can create that I don't want Sor to become involved in one."

"Was your marriage to Kan that unpleasant?"

"Not always," acknowledged Sye. "There were a few times worth remembering, but most of it was pretty horrible, especially the way the people treated me. To this day, there are many of them that won't acknowledge me as their queen."

"That's not entirely because you're from Tsab. Lea was a much-beloved woman. There was more grief in this city on the day of her death than when Kan died."

"They believed I was a spy. There are even a few that think it of Sor, because he's my son. A marriage to Tya of Llam or any other foreign princess could be disastrous for him. I want him tied to the daughter of a sympathetic noble of Vorti."

"Does rank mean anything to you?"

"As you said, I don't think we'll have enough options to pick and choose."

"That doesn't answer my question."

"No, rank is irrelevant. A noble is a noble, whether he calls himself a duke or a marquis. We're not marrying into their family, they're marrying into ours."

"And how do you think Sor will react to this?"

"He won't like it at first. Isn't it every boy's dream to fall in love with a girl and marry her?"

Vas laughed, "I wouldn't know; I never got married. I was always under the impression that it was every girl's dream."

Sye shrugged, "It works both ways."

"Not in your case, it doesn't."

"No. I was never an idealistic fool. I don't believe in the kind of mindless love that most young people seem hypnotized with."

"Does Sor?"

"I don't know, but he's intelligent enough to realize that his marriage has to be for the good of the city. I hope his wife can be pretty and affectionate, but those are only secondary considerations."

"You're a hard woman, Your Majesty," said Vas.

"Perhaps. Now, will you make the list for me?"

"Of course. Perhaps you'll permit me to highlight a name or two that looks promising?"

"My dear Chancellor," said Sye, practically purring, "I would never consider picking a mate for my son without consulting you. After all, if he doesn't listen to me, I'll need your help to convince him, and I know you can be very persuasive."

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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