THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART THREE: CONVERGENCE OF DESTINIES


CHAPTER FOURTEEN


By daybreak, hundreds of people were crowded around the gates to the palace, many of them pushing and jostling each other to get near the front, knowing that less than a quarter of the number present would be allowed in. A few had been here since dusk the previous day, while the majority had arrived in the predawn hours. They were farmers, traders, merchants, bartenders, servants, maids, stableboys, guards, whores, and a dozen other things, all with a common bond of class. They were peasants - the nobles had their own "private" entrance - who had come to watch one of their own either be given justice or betrayed by their king.

The guards, who had not yet opened the gates, watched warily from atop the stout stone walls surrounding the king's demense. They could already see that crowd control was going to be difficult, if not impossible. Even with an additional twenty men supplementing the two-dozen already on duty, there might not be enough if the crowd grew ugly. Judging by the number of fights that had recently broken out, orderliness was not going to reign when the gates swung wide. Riots inevitably meant bloodshed, and that was something no one wanted.

Among the more passive of those waiting to enter the palace was Wil, son of the late farmer Gav, sole planter and reaper of Bur's farm, and apprentice Apath to Wor. Having arrived shortly after midnight, Wil was near enough to the front that he had no fear of being excluded from the group permitted into the palace. This would be his first opportunity to see the new king at work. Rumor said that Sor was a weaker, more tractable version of his father, easily swayed by the cries of the rich and powerful. Wil did not doubt rumor and had already vowed that if Sor did not mete out justice to the victim, the reckoning, when it came, would be that much more swift and terrible.

The night before, Wil and Lis had engaged in a fierce argument over the issue. For her part, Lis had claimed that any woman selling her body on a streetcorner deserved what she got. That the duke had paid a full silver piece for services rendered made the charge of rape ludicrous. The harlot was clearly lashing out spitefully at the whole of the nobility through this one man, whose only crime had been the stupidity to seek out a prostitute in the first place.

Wil, of course, heartily disagreed and was unable to see how Lis, a woman, could condone such a brutal act against another of her own sex. Wil remembered some of the more sordid of his own mother's stories and could understand the harlot's innocence. Just because it was her normal practice to exchange sex for money did not mean that she had abrogated the right of refusal. The silver piece, in Wil's view, was a calculated insult.

Lis and Wil had said some rather unflattering things to each other and parted in a swirl of anger and bad temper. With sleep eluding him, Wil had decided to come and hear Sor's judgment for himself. Now, standing among hundreds of others with the same goal, the sense of righteous indignation remained. Nevertheless, he was beginning to regret the insults as well as worry that the damage some of the words had done might not be easily healed.

Wil hoped this process would not take long. With all the time he had been spending in Wor's company over the past month, his tending of the fields had fallen far behind schedule. Short of working straight through every moonlit night from now until the harvest, he didn't see any way he could meet his quota, and Lord Bur had made it quite clear that failure to bring forth the expected yield would result in expulsion from his home.

Somewhere in the distance, a bell chimed, the official signal of daybreak. The crowd stirred, knowing that the gates would soon open. Wil's muscles tensed imperceptibly. He would not tolerate anyone attempting to push their way ahead of him. The fifty or so who had arrived before him had earned their place in front; the others had not.

A hush fell over the crowd as a guard craned his head over the top of the walls and shouted down to the assembled masses. "All right, you mangy curs, I'm going to open these here gates now and you're going to come through them nice and orderly. I don't want no trouble and I don't want no mob scenes. When I say, stop, you stop. We've got steel and arrows and we'll not be afraid to use them on the likes of you. So just stay in line and no one will get hurt." The head disappeared as the same voice bellowed, "All right, men, open 'em up!"

Hundreds of bodies pressed around Wil, trying to surge forward through an opening that had not yet appeared. The young wizard had the feeling that the only words the crowd had heard were "open" and "gates". The king should have had the foresight to anticipate these kinds of problems - that an issue of such importance would draw larger-than-usual crowds.

Slowly, the portal opened and the men closest to it spilled through. Wil moved forward, not so much of his own volition, but drawn along in the grip of the tide of humanity. Just inside the palace grounds, there was an entire squadron of guards, all wearing chain mail shirts with swords held at the ready. Their faces were as stony and implacable as the walls themselves. A glance upward revealed another dozen guards atop the walls, arrows notched in bows, ready to fly at a single command. Twenty or so additional men, similarly appareled but with sheathed weapons, lined both sides of the broad avenue leading from gate to palace steps.

Once inside the gates, the situation was less chaotic. The throng actually reformed into something resembling a line, and, four-to-six abreast, moved between the wary guards towards the palace entrance.

Wil had reached the bottom step of the short flight of stairs leading into the palace when he heard a loud roar of "Stop!" from behind. A commotion arose, numerous voices raised in loud and often insulting protest, punctuated by the same guard repeating the command several times, each time with increasing urgency. Looking over his shoulder, Wil caught a glimpse of sword-wielding soldiers advancing on unarmed peasants while the gates inexorably swung closed, threatening to crush anyone in their path. Pressed by the crowd, he entered the building and saw nothing else, but several screams reached his ears.

Wil, who had never been in the palace before, was awed by the size and majesty of the throne room. The vaulted hall was at least three times as long as it was wide. The walls were polished white marble with elliptical windows of colored glass set more than halfway up. The high, arching ceiling was inlaid with elaborate carvings of animals, men, and monsters, all fashioned with remarkable detail as they gazed down upon those who came to watch and participate in the machinations of Vorti's court. At one end of the chamber was a pair of massive double-doors; at the other, a raised dais upon which the grand, gilt throne sat.

Staring around in stunned amazement, Wil let himself be pushed and prodded until his vision of the throne was obstructed. The people were packed in so tightly that it was impossible to relocate to a more favorable position. He would have to be content with listening. When the time came, he was certain that the dull roar of the crowd would diminish.

The wait for the king's arrival was long and uncomfortable. Although it was not an exceptionally hot day outside, the combination of typical summer warmth and the body heat of several hundred closely-spaced men and women raised the inside temperature. Since many of those present were not fastidious about their hygiene, a distinctive odor had begun to permeate the audience hall. Most of the peasants, accustomed to the smell, were unaffected, but many of the nobles were in obvious distress, some going as far as to cover their nostrils and mouths with silk handkerchiefs.

Wil's eyes continued to wander, trying to see sights other than those immediately surrounding him. Once, when gazing between the shoulders of two men, he caught a glimpse of the area of the throne room reserved for the nobles, and felt a flash of anger as he realized how much more comfortable their circumstances were. Not only were they separated from the common folk, but there were enough chairs that most of them could sit.

Wil had been standing in cramped quarters for nearly two hours when a hush fell over the audience hall, indicating that the king had entered. The sibilant proclamation of a voice, presumably that of Vas, Sor's chancellor, echoed throughout the large hall, "Nobles and commonfolk, citizens of the city of Vorti all, I present your chosen liege, Sor son of Kan, king of this great city."

A loud cheer erupted from the men and women surrounding Wil, causing him to flinch and scowl. This insane infatuation with Kan and his offspring would make Wil's eventual task all the more difficult.

When the audience hall had quieted, the younger, stronger voice of the king rang out, "The accused and his accuser will step forward."

Although Wil could not see the two named, he could tell by the murmurs around him that they were complying. He stood on tiptoes and craned his neck, desperately trying to see something, but too many people around him were doing the same thing, and many were taller than Wil.

Sor continued, "Duke Fys, you have been accused of rape by the woman Loi. After careful consideration of the evidence presented by you both and subsequent consultation with the Law of Vorti on this matter, I find you guilty of the crime you have been accused of. As there is only one penalty for this offense, I order that you be taken immediately from this place to the city gallows where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead."

Wil heard the first words of Fys' loud protest, but the rest of his tirade, as well as whatever complaint the nobles made, was overwhelmed by the cheers of the common people. Wil did not cheer, but his lips were pressed tightly together in a smile of grim satisfaction. At least Sor had not perverted justice...this time.

* * *

"So, were you at the palace this morning?" asked Wor as Wil sat opposite him in the taproom of the Drunk Doxy inn. They had been meeting here since Wil had begun his lessons. It was a reasonable compromise location, since the merchant refused to risk dirtying his boots by going to Wil's farm and appearances at the Noble's Repose were vastly inappropriate for even the most gifted of peasants. Despite its name, the Drunk Doxy was one of Vorti's more quiet lower-class taverns, offering a common room where the noise level was not so loud that pupil and teacher could not converse.

"I was there," muttered Wil, motioning to a serving girl to bring him a mug of ale.

"I gather from your tone that the verdict was not to your liking."

"Duke Fys was found guilty and hanged an hour ago in Vorti's central square. I'm surprised you haven't heard about it."

"You know my policy, boy. I don't get involved in local politics."

"The whole city is in an uproar, one way or the other. The nobles are shouting for the king's blood and my people," - Wil spat those two words like an insult - "are hailing him as a greater man than even his father was."

"Ah," exclaimed Wor. "Now I see."

"See what?" demanded Wil shortly. He was not in a mood for one of Wor's long philosophical talks or riddle-matches.

"Why you're in such a bad mood when Sor ruled in favor of your people."

"Which is?"

"It makes it a little harder for you to detest the man. Had he ruled for the noble, you could have ranted and raved all day about how unjust the decision was. However, since he ruled the way you wanted him to, there isn't much you can say against him. Worse still, you're being forced to face the possibility that he's not as big a bastard as you've always believed."

"This changes nothing. I'm sure he didn't care one way or another about Fys or the woman. He ruled the way he did to curry the favor of the common people."

"And turn the nobles so completely against him?"

"We outnumber the nobility by more than five to one."

"But all the power and money are concentrated with them. Do you seriously think Sor would have acted so definitively if he didn't believe in the man's guilt?"

"It's the law. He had to choose one side or the other."

"But if he's as corrupt as you suggest, couldn't he have simply circumvented the law? He is the king, after all, and an Apath too. Who would challenge him?"

Wil, disgusted as much by Wor's logic as anything else, shot back, "For someone not interested in local politics, you've got damn good information on what's happening in this instance."

"Touché," remarked Wor, seeming almost amused by his pupil's anger. "Other than the king, what else is troubling you?"

"Nothing."

The humorous twinkle in Wor's eyes vanished. Leaning closer to Wil, he said, "Remember who you're talking to, boy. I'm not asking this out of some salacious sense of curiosity, as well you know. Because of what I teach, I need to know your mental and emotional state. If I probe too deeply in an area where you're holding back, the result could be a disaster that neither of us wants."

"I had a fight with Lis last night. She said - among other things - that she'd sleep with Sor before she came to my bed."

"Well, she certainly knows you well enough to choose where to plunge the knife for maximum effect," remarked Wor. "What else?"

"Nothing."

"Are you sure?" pressed the merchant.

"Yes."

At that moment, the serving girl, offering more than a drink with her gaze, delivered a mug of frothy ale. Wil, paying a copper, studiously avoided her eyes. With a shrug and a smile, she turned away from their table and went back to her duties.

"Why didn't you take her up on her offer?"

"It wouldn't have been fitting. I still haven't...you know..." confessed Wil, blushing scarlet the moment he said the words.

"You haven't?"

"Well...not really."

"Not really??" replied the merchant, nearly choking on his mouthful of ale. When he had recovered from a loud bout of laughter, he added, "I'm sure you'll elaborate on that a little more later. You either have or haven't, boy! There's no middle ground.

"For now, let's go upstairs. I've got an experiment or two I want you to try."

* * *

"That's it! That's it!" Wor's encouraging voice sounded in Wil's ears, seeming distorted and distant, as if the young Apath was hearing his teacher from under water. "Keep it floating," continued Wor. "You're doing fine."

Once Wil had gotten the hang of how to focus his emotions, creating and applying the energy of magic to something as simple as levitating a vase had been effortless. The difficulty had been in identifying and isolating the emotion he wanted to siphon off, then making certain he didn't transform too much of it.

"All right, let it down now," said Wor. These words came more clearly. Wil could feel his control over the vase weakening. The magical energy he had created was dissipating. "Slowly, gently. I know it's getting more difficult, but try not to break the vase."

Wil fixed all his attention on the unremarkable clay vessel as it hovered several feet above the chamber's sole rickety table. With infinite care, as if it was a priceless treasure, he lowered it inch by painstaking inch until it came to rest. He let out a deep breath, blinked three times in rapid succession, then wiped the back of his hand across his damp forehead.

"Not so easy toward the end, was it?" asked Wor.

"No," admitted Wil. "I'm worn out, but this was probably the simplest thing I've tried to do."

"You're mistaken."

"You think killing my mother and knocking out that ruffian in the Noble's Repose were easier?"

"Absolutely. They required a greater expenditure of energy and emotion, certainly, but there was more than enough to do what was necessary. Everything was spontaneous; you had no control. Just now, you were focusing your abilities, learning how to do something with the bare minimum of energy required. When that energy began to disperse, the force of your will had to work harder to hold together what was left.

"So, how do you feel about the man who pushed you into the palace wall?" That was the emotion they had chosen to feed upon.

Wil shrugged, "I don't feel anything." It didn't seem worth his while to consider the man or his conduct. Impatient people were not known for their manners; the incident at the palace had simply been a display of rudeness.

Wor nodded. "Notice the apathy. It has infected your thinking. The emotion you felt about that man no longer exists."

"But I don't feel any different," protested Wil. "I know I once was angry about what happened, but it seems almost...foolish...now."

"Of course. There's no more anger. It's been transformed. You used up that emotion when you lifted the vase off the table. It's impossible to feel something where no feeling exists. Intellectually, however, you should understand what has happened."

"I do, but I thought I'd at least be able to understand how I felt before."

"To understand, to empathize, is to continue to feel."

"I suppose that's true."

"Well, you've learned a few valuable lessons today, I think. The most important is that now you know how to focus your emotion. Magical displays don't have to be the result of sudden outbursts. In fact, they're usually most effective when they're tightly controlled. Eruptions use emotion wastefully."

"Do you think...am I ready to confront Sor?" asked Wil.

Wor appeared surprised by the question. "Just how do you intend to confront him? In a face-to-face showdown? That would be stupid. Some guard would stick a sword through your back while you're preoccupied with the king. And, even if it did just come down to your power against his, he's undergone years of formal training while you've scarcely begun."

"I don't intend to meet him head-on. But, if it comes to it, do I have the power to overcome him? Am I strong enough?"

"Are your emotions strong enough? If it comes down to raw power against raw power, the winner will be the one with the greater emotional reserves. But beware, because such all-consuming battles, whether won or lost, can destroy you. Remember burgeoning apathy. Would it be a good thing to defeat Sor, but in the process lose your ability to care?"

Wil shuddered involuntarily, haunted by the image his teacher's words evoked.

"Did you ever wonder why I don't practice magic any more?" asked Wor.

"Didn't you say it was because of something you did a long time ago - people saw a rope tying up a thief by itself?"

"No. That's how the rumor of my abilities got started, back when I used magic often. Never anything big, usually just little things, like tying up thieves. Sometimes, when I was much younger, I'd show off for the girls. Anyway, I recognized that my quality of life wasn't what it should be. It's the sum total of our emotions that gives our lives their fullness. And, while I was never foolish enough to tamper with major emotions, I used up all the lesser ones and it diminished what I was. So, about six or seven years ago, I stopped. I won't say I haven't been tempted since, and if the situation warranted it, I wouldn't hesitate today."

"So you don't think I should challenge Sor?"

"Listen to me, boy. I don't give a damn what you do with your powers, but wait until I'm out of the picture before you start stirring up trouble. I've helped you because without that help, you'd be a public menace. You can take my advice or grind it into the mud for all I care. If you want to challenge Sor, go ahead. If you want to ignore him, go back to the farm. It's your life, not mine. Do with it what you will, but don't drag me down with you."

* * *

Wil gazed out over the ripening fields of wheat and corn as the sun faded beneath a low-hanging cloudbank hugging the western horizon. He hadn't done any work on the farm today, and, although everything looked fine from here, he knew that on closer inspection, he would begin to uncover the many problems that plagued neglected crops. There were areas of the fields he had not tended in over a week - places where ears of corn would be rotting in their husks, still on the stalk.

If it rained during the next full moon, when Wil was planning to work well past dark for several straight nights, his rapidly flickering hopes of meeting his quota would die. It was slim consolation that even without his growing preoccupation with magic, he wouldn't be in much better shape. The farm was simply too large for one man to handle. Yet if he left, where could he live? What could he do?

He had hoped that Lis might visit him this afternoon. He wanted to patch over their argument of the previous day, but she stayed away. Perhaps she was still angry and would remain so. He didn't like to think that their final parting words might be the ugly ones they had hurled at each other yesterday. He needed someone now - a friend and companion, if not a wife and lover. She was that person.

He missed his father, although Gav had drunk away the last months of his life, and his mother, although she had never shown him any real affection. He even missed old Mog, the grandfather he had never gotten the opportunity to really know. They had never been a warm family, but they had been together. Right now, Wil felt terribly alone and wondered if anything, even his vaunted powers, could soothe the hollow ache that was slowly eating into his heart.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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