THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART THREE: CONVERGENCE OF DESTINIES


CHAPTER FIFTEEN


"I'm not interested in your thrice-damned excuses!" raged Baron Cen, his lightly-tanned, badly wrinkled face twisted into an expression of pure rage. "I told you to find that Apath and bring him to me, not a load of horsedung and piss-poor apologies!"

The Baron's messenger, a fifteen year old lad named Wun, took several steps back from the baron, frightened that he might come to physical harm. During his brief tenure in the household, he had learned that Cen was normally a genial and generous lord, except when some piece of news sent him into a rage. Wun's inability to find the nameless Apath that rumor claimed lived in Vorti was one such bit of information.

"I'm sorry, my lord," mumbled Wun, trying desperately to keep his voice from quavering. "But I looked everywhere I could. There are just so many people in Vorti, and none of them know anything about an Apath. Other than the king, that is."

"Then go to the damned merchant, Wer or Wor or whatever his thrice-cursed name is! Use the little intelligence you have!"

"He refused to see me. Said, 'My compliments to the baron, but I don't involve myself in local affairs.' He invited you to visit him in the marketplace if he has something you'd be interested in buying."

"Get out!" roared Cen, raising his hand as if to strike the page.

Wun turned and fled, pursued by the baron's angry voice, "And you'd damn well better find out something by tomorrow or I'll send you back to your father in disgrace and with an ass so red you won't be able to sit down for a month!"

"Well done," congratulated Nia, emerging from behind a curtain leading to their bedchamber. Her face wore an expression of open disapproval. "Far better than even my father could have done."

Cen shot her a dark look. "I'm not in the mood for games, Nia."

"There's no reason to take your anger out on Wun. The poor boy's doing the best he can."

"He's useless. I give him a simple task and he botches it completely."

"'Simple task'?" scoffed Nia. "You've only asked him to dig up information on what half the people in Vorti want to know. We're not even sure there is an Apath other than Sor and Vas."

"There's got to be another one. Rumors like that don't just spring out of thin air."

"Obviously, you don't know much about rumors."

"Have you got a point or have you just come in here to torment me?"

"As a matter of fact, I do have a point," replied Nia, exercising all of her self-control to keep her own temper from taking command. "My half-brother has requested an audience with you a week from tomorrow in the little throne room. The messenger's waiting at the door for a reply."

"What unmitigated gall! After what he did to Fys?"

"Perhaps it's because of what he did to Fys that he wants to speak to you."

"Forget it! Tell that damned messenger that Sor can rot in his own vomit!"

"I don't think it's wise to pass up this opportunity. You haven't been invited to the palace since..."

"I don't give a rat's ass what you think is wise! Tell the messenger I will not set foot in Sor's little throne room!"

"As my lord wishes," said Nia coldly, turning from her husband and leaving the room.

When she returned ten minutes later, she found that Cen's temper had cooled. He regarded her almost sheepishly and said, "Sorry about that. You know how I am when I get in one of those moods."

Nia nodded. "I think you should apologize to Wun as well. He's probably soiled himself by now."

"Quite right," muttered Cen.

"I assume Wun wasn't able to find anything out about that mysterious 'other' Apath."

"Nothing. It's damn frustrating, too. I know this is more than some drunk's hallucination. Too many people saw what happened. There has to be another Apath."

"If he's from the peasant class, he's likely for Sor."

"That's true, but there may be ways of inducing him to change allegiances. Frankly, without him, we don't have much of a chance. After that outrageous abomination perpetrated on Fys, Sor has the common people all-but-licking his boots."

"The key to finding this Apath seems to be the itinerant merchant. Are you going to accept his offer to visit his stall for a purchase?"

"Of course. He sounds like a stuck-up bastard though. It may be difficult getting anything out of him."

"Patience, dear. If there is another Apath in Vorti, he won't be able to stay hidden forever. At some point, he'll either have to declare for Sor or against him."

"I want to get to him before he makes that declaration. If he publicly supports the king, it isn't going to be easy to get him to change his mind. Damn! I wish people were more observant. None of the patrons of that inn could give a reasonable description of the man."

"They were probably all too drunk to notice."

"No doubt about that. One of them said he was six feet tall with the muscles of an ox and another said he looked like a lad of fifteen. Unbelievable."

"Indeed," commented Nia, then neatly changed the subject. "Now, about my brother's invitation..."

A sharp intake of air issued from Cen. "I wish I hadn't said those things. That was a little hasty, wasn't it?"

"Yes, dear, it was, and that's why I told the messenger to inform Sor that you'd be there."

A momentary flicker of anger passed across Cen's features, but it faded quickly. "Sometimes I think I'd be in trouble without you, Nia."

"Try 'most of the time'," she responded with a coy little smile.

* * *

At that moment, halfway across the city, Vorti's queen was on her feet in the palace library, staring down at the calm, relaxed features of Chancellor Vas, unable to believe that he had actually done what he had just admitted.

"You discussed it with him?" demanded Sye, stamping one little foot in frustration. She had asked the chancellor to get the list of names for her, not show them to Sor first.

"Only in general, Your Majesty," replied Vas serenely. Unlike everyone else in the palace, he was not intimidated by the queen's mercurial mood swings.

"What exactly is that supposed to mean?"

"I mentioned to His Majesty that it might be wise if he chose a wife soon and that I was researching which daughters of nobility could make a suitable and attractive match. He said, 'Thank you for your concern, Vas, but I don't think I'll need your help. I believe I've already found someone.'"

Sye was shocked. Sor had never confided anything of this sort to her. "Are you sure that's what he said?"

"Absolutely."

"Who?"

"He didn't give her name, but I got the impression it might be that maid of his that you assured me he wasn't interested in."

Sye, for a moment memorable because of its rarity, was stunned into silence. Her lips parted slightly, but no words came out. Her eyes were almost bulging from their sockets.

"When I pointed out to His Majesty that a servant might not be the most appropriate choice for a queen, he had a rather interesting response. He said he realized that, but he had spoken to you about it at some length and you had assured him that the candidate for his wife would be his choice and that you would not attempt to manipulate him because of some irregularity in the way your own wedding was arranged."

"Damn!" hissed Sye. "I did say something like that, a while ago. I never thought he'd actually consider marrying the wench!"

"It might be interesting," speculated Vas. Sye couldn't tell whether or not he was being serious. "The common people would certainly love it."

"It's not the common people he has to be concerned about! He's alienated the nobles with that Fys ruling of his. Couldn't you have gotten him to be at least a little more tactful about it?"

"I was not consulted. I wouldn't have advised him to do as he did, but I admire him for taking such decisive action. There may be more of his father in him than I had previously suspected."

"The nobles hate him more than Kan now," said Sye. "Perhaps a marriage with one of them will smooth things over."

"Better to be hated by the nobles than the common folk. Kan understood that. The nobles will grumble and shout, and maybe even try a few inept assassination attempts, but the general populace, once enraged, can bring down anyone. Rel XVI found that out the hard way."

"Better to be hated by no one," countered Sye. "Do you have the list?"

Vas nodded. "There are three possibilities. The first is Ray, daughter of Marquis Vib and his consort Mya. I'm sure her parents would consent to the match."

Sye shook her head, "If I remember her correctly, she's a pretty little girl, but too young. I doubt she's even old enough to start bearing children."

"I've known several girls of her age who have had children," said Vas.

"Too young," repeated Sye.

"Then there's Lly, daughter of Duke Ure and Duchess Hae. She's twenty-three and, although she has a suitor, her parents would be amenable to a match between her and Sor."

"She's also a fat pig - at least twice Sor's weight. It's no wonder she's still unmarried at that age."

"If I recall correctly, Your Majesty, you were only three years younger when you married Kan."

"As you said before, the circumstances surrounding my marriage were unusual. Who's the third girl?"

"Lis, daughter of Baron Rig and Baroness Una. She's fourteen. An engagement between her and some lordling was broken early last year, but circumstances indicate it was more his fault than hers."

"Lis..." mused Sye, trying to remember the girl or her parents. Finally, she asked, "Brownish-blond hair? Short, but reasonably attractive?"

"That sounds like her."

"All right. I'm not thrilled with her, but she's a damned better choice than either of the others. Arrange a meeting between her parents and me in a few weeks' time."

"In the meantime, who's going to speak to Sor?" asked Vas.

"Leave His Majesty to me," replied Sye, the note of steel in her voice to making it clear that she wanted no further interference from the chancellor.

* * *

When Sye arrived back at her chambers, a visitor was waiting. When her maid informed her that Healer Vii was in her sitting room, the queen wrinkled her nose in distaste, but told the girl to inform Vii she would be with him presently.

Sye didn't feel like seeing her on-again, off-again lover today. In fact, she wished he would go away altogether. In the beginning, the chemistry between them had been right. Their illicit trysts, behind the backs of both her husband and her regular lover, Councilman Raq, had been exciting. The passion had died out, however, at least for her. She had continued to see Vii because she occasionally required his professional services in some rather unethical circumstances. Of late, the healer had become concerned about appearances and morals. In the queen's opinion, that made him something of a risk. He knew - or at least suspected - entirely too much about her activities of the last decade.

"Your Majesty," said Vii, rising to his feet from the plushly-padded chair he had been occupying. Although it had only been a few weeks since Sye had last seen him, she was startled by the change in his appearance. He looked stooped and haggard, with gray streaking the black hair at his temples and dark circles around his eyes.

"Vii," acknowledged Sye coolly.

"Since the king's death, I've spent considerable time in the city, since Sor has seen fit to limit my duties in the palace." A trace of bitterness entered his voice at the last words. The new king, while not explicitly dismissing the healer, had indicated that since Vii's responsibilities in the palace would be limited, it might be appropriate for him to look for a house in the city. Vii found Sor's attitude ungrateful and insulting. He was equally displeased that Sye, his former lover, had not offered him much support.

"And...?" prodded the queen.

"There are two pieces of information you may be interested in. When you speak to your son about the first one, I hope you'll mention that it came from me. The second is meant for your ears alone."

"How mysterious," noted Sye drolly.

Vii did his best to ignore the queen's apparent bored indifference, although he was beginning to wonder if he had made a mistake in coming here. Perhaps he should have gone directly to Sor, at least with one of the items he'd learned.

"There's a well-circulated rumor among the peasants about some farmer who displayed the powers of an Apath in an inn called the Noble's Repose. Personally, I don't believe in that kind of fakery, but since you and your son obviously take it seriously, I thought you might be interested. Perhaps I was incorrect..."

"No," said Sye quickly, her eyes locked with Vii's. It was apparent that the healer now had her complete attention, as well as her interest. "Tell me what you know."

Vii repeated all the gossip that was floating about the city regarding the incident, dredging up even half-remembered stories that were highly-implausible, if not impossible. When he had finished, he didn't have to wait long for Sye's reaction. It was expressed clearly in a profane, single-word utterance.

"Someone's going to have to find out who this Apath is," the queen continued, speaking aloud to herself. "The last thing Sor needs is a potentially hostile wizard floating around the city." She turned her attention back to the healer. "You had something else to tell me?"

Vii swallowed hard. He had debated for a long time whether he should speak to Sye about this. It wasn't something he'd learned recently, but information his informal 'investigations' following Kan's death had turned up. For a while, before Sor had made Vii's position at the palace uncertain, the healer had decided not to say anything about it. But now, with his future in doubt, he needed help, and few had more influence with the young king than his mother.

Vii's suspicion that Kan was poisoned had led him to do some checking with those in the city who trafficked in such substances. From one of them, he had learned that a disguised woman had, over a four-to-five year period, been a regular customer, repeatedly buying small doses of a rare, very slow-acting poison, similar to what Vii believed responsible for the king's death. Despite the disguise, the poison merchant had noticed a more-than-passing resemblance between his customer and the queen.

"Do you know a merchant named Eis?" asked Vii.

If the name meant anything to Sye, her face didn't betray it. She shook her head once.

"He has a little shop on Wanderer's Row, next to Bvy's Apothecary. He mostly sells perfumes and spices, but, for those with more money, he makes available certain illegal substances."

There was still no visible reaction from Sye, but she was clearly paying attention. Her eyes still held Vii's.

"What kind of 'substances' would these be?" she asked.

"Poisons, primarily."

"I see," noted Sye thoughtfully. "Thank you for the information. I'll see that this is investigated as well. If someone is illegally selling poisons, they must be stopped." After a moment's pause, she added, "But I'm curious. Why was this for my ears only? Surely you want Sor to know that this information also came from you?"

Vii was so taken aback by Sye's reaction that he couldn't think of a response. The best he could manage was a shrug of his shoulders.

Shortly afterwards, as he left the queen's chambers, he considered whether he had done Sye a grave injustice in his suspicions. Her reactions seemed too sincere for her to be guilty of the crimes he had mentally attributed to her. There had been no signs of nervousness, indecisiveness, or prevarication. Perhaps the situation with the poison-seller had been a coincidence.

Try as he might, however, Vii could not bring himself to believe that. Bem's fall from the horse had certainly been no accident. Since the new queen's arrival, there had been too many 'sudden' or 'mysterious' deaths in and around the royal family: Tui, Kan's closest friend; Tam, Kir, and Bem, Lea's three surviving sons; and even the king himself. The more Vii considered it, the more convinced he became that Sye was not only a cold, calculating woman, but a clever murderess as well. But his attempt at subtle blackmail had failed. Perhaps he would have been better off keeping his mouth shut after all.

* * *

A season later, on a summer-like evening in early autumn, Sor was alone in his chambers with Joi. Bare-chested, he lay on his stomach on the bed while she demurely straddled his torso, her hands kneading the taut muscles of his shoulders and neck.

"Mmmm," murmured Sor, "That feels good. You have deft fingers."

As recently as a few weeks ago, Joi would have complained about the propriety of their situation, but she had given up worrying about such things ten days before, when, for the first and only time so far, Sor had shyly and awkwardly kissed her.

"Your muscles are really tight," noted Joi. Then, with a giggle, she added, "But they're nice too."

"It's been a hard day. You wouldn't believe some of the requests people come to me with."

"That's what it means to be a king. Listening to people's problems, then solving them. Your father was very good at it. If I'm right about you, you'll be a worthy successor."

"It's a pain in the ass, sitting there in that hot robe on a sweltering day. I must have boiled off five pounds today. Some of those people have the most inane complaints. Then there are the sycophants, bowing and scraping to me all day long. And I had another meeting with Baron Cen."

"How did it go?" asked Joi. She knew how much Sor hated meetings with his half-sister's husband. Since their first exchange in the summer, they had gotten together three times. Few of the sessions went well, but Sor felt it necessary for the dialogue to go on.

"A little better, surprisingly. I can't put my finger on it, but Cen was different today. He actually made a couple of intelligent proposals instead of shouting at me the whole time."

"Proposals like what?"

"He thinks it might be a good idea to split the taxes into seasonal portions rather than taking it all in one lump sum. For instance, if a landowner pays an annual amount of two-thousand gold pieces in taxes, Cen suggests that the new procedure be that he pay five-hundred gold on the first day of every season."

"He actually agreed that taxes are necessary?" asked Joi, surprised. At Sor and Cen's first meeting, the baron's initial demand had been the abolition of taxes. His position on that issue had not wavered since. Until now, apparently.

"Well, that's still a bone of contention. He started out by saying something like, 'If these damned taxes are going to continue...'"

"I guess that's some progress," noted Joi, her fingers continuing to pull and prod at his flesh.

"He also indicated he might be willing to support a charter change that would allow a separate house of common people and house of nobles to advise the king, rather than the current, noble-topheavy council. That's something I've been trying to get done since my coronation. His proposal is different than mine, of course, but there are enough similarities to make a compromise workable."

"Are you sure this isn't a ploy?"

"No," confided Sor with a heavy sigh. "That's the worst part about it. I want to believe that I'm coming to terms with him, because as he goes, so go the rest of the nobility. I want to heal the wounds between the classes, not make them worse. Cen is the key. But there's something odd about his sudden willingness to cooperate. Maybe I'm thinking too much. Maybe I should just accept things as they come. Unfortunately, it's never that easy. Honestly, I don't understand how Kan could have endured being king for over half his life, or why so many people want the job."

"It's power. Many people find that attractive."

"And you?" challenged Sor, turning his head to look over his shoulder at her. "Do you find power attractive?"

"I love power," whispered Joi, running her tongue across her top lip.

Abruptly, Sor flipped over and pulled Joi down for a kiss. She offered playful resistance for a moment, then melted into his embrace.

This kiss lasted longer than their previous one, and there was a palpable increase in intensity. When they mutually broke apart, faces flushed and breathing quickened, there was an instant when both of them sensed that more could happen. Then Sor rose to don his clothing and Joi self-consciously smoothed down the front of her frock.

Lacing up his tunic, Sor took a seat in his rocking chair. Joi arranged her position, sitting cross-legged on the bed, so that she was facing him. Typically, they spent several hours every evening like this, sequestered in the king's chambers, talking. Sor knew what the palace gossip was and did nothing to encourage or dissuade it. People would think what they wanted, regardless of what he said or what the truth was.

They spent a few minutes speaking of inconsequential things, as if following their sudden intimacy, there was a need for a period of distance. However, despite the talk of the autumn heat spell, the latest fashions for ladies, and the many ailments of the old palace cook, the sexual tension would not dissipate.

Finally Sor declared, "This is pointless. We both felt it. It's useless trying to pretend there's nothing between us."

Joi said nothing, lowering her head so that Sor couldn't read her eyes.

"Well? Am I wrong?"

"There are some things I can't be forthright about," Joi replied. "And this is one of them."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Think, Sor. I'm sure you'll figure it out without my having to embarrass us both by saying it."

Now he understood. "It's that issue of propriety again, isn't it? Damnation, Joi, I've told you dozens of time that we're just Sor and Joi in here. King and maid get left outside the bed chamber."

"That's a curious way to put things."

"Are you afraid of me?"

"No," replied Joi. "But I am afraid of myself...of what I'm starting to feel. No matter how much you say otherwise, there is a difference between us. This room, where, as you put it, we're just Sor and Joi, is only a small part of the city and we're only in here for a short part of our lives. The fact is, I don't want to get hurt. Only I'm not sure there's any way to avoid it now."

Sor was silent for a while. It was apparent that the mutual attraction that was so delightfully tantalizing to him was intensely disturbing to Joi.

When he next spoke, his words were slow and deliberate. "You're my best friend, Joi - maybe my only friend - and I don't want to risk losing that friendship. I value it, and you, greatly."

"I understand, but the problem is that things are changing. It's becoming more than just a friendship, and that could destroy everything we have."

"My mother's been dropping hints that I should get married. I need a wife I can trust. I can't think of anyone better suited for the position than you."

Sor had expected surprise, but the look of panic that crossed her features baffled him.

"Sor...even in jest..." Her voice was trembling.

"I'm not joking."

"Surely you can see that it isn't possible," she pleaded. "I could sleep with you, even bear your bastard children, but I could never marry you. Vorti needs better than me for a queen."

"Better? How do you define 'better'?"

"Someone the whole city can be proud of. A countess to heal the wound between you and the nobles. A princess from some other city to better relations. A queen is like a crown, Sor. I'm hopelessly tarnished."

"In whose eyes?"

"In the eyes of everyone who matters."

"So you won't marry me?"

"I can't marry you," said Joi, tears in her eyes. "I think I'd better go."

"Wait a minute..." began Sor as she rose. He was interrupted by a knock at the outer door.

"Who is it?" he called out.

"Hud, Your Majesty," came the muffled voice. Sor recognized it as belonging to the captain of his personal bodyguard, the man standing watch outside the door to his suite. Without hesitation, he went to the door, lifted the bolt, and gestured for Hud to enter.

The soldier executed a swift bow to his king. "I bear grave news, Your Majesty. Healer Vii has been murdered in his home."

"How?"

"As best we can determine, it happened late last night. He appears to have been set upon by brigands while in his bed. He didn't have time to defend himself. They cut him to pieces, ransacked the house, and stole just about everything worth taking."

"Has his mother's brother been informed?"

"A courier's on his way, Your Majesty."

Sor considered. Although he had made little secret of his displeasure with Vii's work, the healer had been a faithful servant to Kan. Vii's relatives were paupers, so a financial gesture, however minimal, seemed in order. "Have his next of kin paid the equivalent of a baron's death sum." It was an exceedingly handsome amount, considering that he was under no legal obligation to Vii's family.

"Your Majesty," acknowledged Hud without surprise. "Will that be all?"

"Yes."

Without another word, the guard turned, barked orders to one of his fellows waiting out in the hall, then went back to his post outside Sor's chambers.

"That was generous," said Joi as she moved towards the door.

Sor intercepted her, stopping her merely by placing a hand on her arm. "I meant what I said tonight. Every word. I wouldn't have asked if I didn't think it was workable - for me, the city, and you. At least give it some thought."

"Good night, Your Majesty," said Joi, shutting the door behind her.

* * *

Sye visited her son the next morning. When Sor admitted her to his rooms, he seemed out-of-sorts and she wondered if he was distressed by the news of the healer's sudden death.

"I'm sorry about what happened to Vii," she said.

"I suppose it's too bad," noted Sor, "but I can't say I feel any real sorrow. Father liked and respected him, but I didn't. I think his talents were exaggerated. I can't remember any time when he saved anyone from a serious illness."

"He had a difficult job."

"Which he wasn't adept at. Now at least I'll be able to appoint someone with real skill. And why the sudden need to defend him? You've said often enough that you thought he was a scoundrel and liar."

"Just because I didn't like him doesn't mean he deserved to be murdered."

"I never said that."

"You're not yourself this morning. I assumed it had something to do with Vii."

"No. It's a little more personal than that."

"Do you want to talk about it?" They were close enough that Sye felt she could ask this without sounding presumptuous.

"Last night, I asked Joi to marry me."

Except for a twitch in her right cheek, the queen's expression remained unchanged, but the sudden cold gleam in her eyes betrayed her displeasure. Sor, knowing his mother better than most, did not miss the telltale sign.

"What did she say?" asked Sye in a deceptively mild voice.

"She turned me down, and rather decisively too. She said that Vorti needs a better queen than she could be."

"Sensible girl."

"I thought you, of all people, wanted me to marry who I want to marry, not who political expediency recommends."

"You have to balance the two, Sor. As the wife of a prince, Joi might have been a fine choice. But as the queen of Vorti, she would be an unmitigated disaster."

"The people would love her, I'm sure of it."

"Yes, the common people would love her, but they're not the ones you have to worry about. You already have their adoration, thanks to the way you handled Duke Fys. The ones you have to watch are the nobles. Marriage to a chamber maid would only further alienate them."

"Let them all froth at the mouth. There's not much they can do."

"You may be a king and an Apath, but a well-aimed blow with a knife will spill out your life as easily as that of another man. Your father was the most careful and best-protected man in the history of this city and it was only the most incredible good fortune that kept him from being assassinated ten times over. Luck, like the winds, can turn at the most unexpected times."

"I presume you have an alternative to Joi. A noblewoman, perhaps?" There was a faint trace of mockery is the king's tone, but Sye couldn't tell whether it was directed at himself or her.

"As a matter of fact, I do."

"So, you're prepared to marry me off to the proper girl. Forget all those fine words about it being my decision and how others trying to force you into an unwanted marriage caused you to run off and wed Father. Nice sentiments, I suppose, as long as you don't have to put them to the test." This time, there was no mistaking who the rancor was directed at.

"No one's going to force you into an unwanted marriage. The decision still is, and always will be, yours. But Joi definitely isn't the one."

"Isn't that for her to say?"

"I thought she already has."

"I asked her to reconsider. Maybe after thinking about it for a while, she'll change her mind."

"Try considering this from her perspective. If you were a maid - a servant with a nice, quiet, ordered life - how would you like suddenly being forced into the open for everyone to judge and snicker at? A queen has no more privacy than a king. Every action of hers will be watched, and when she makes mistakes, which she will, they'll be the talk of Vorti. She was born and raised to be the wife of a peasant. She'll have no idea what to say or how to act. Unless she's made of steel or stone, she'll be reduced to tears more times than you can count. Whether she's infatuated with you or not, the idea of being a queen has to terrify her."

Recalling the look of panic in Joi's eyes, Sor conceded that his mother might be right. What Sye had said was true: he had never considered it from that point-of-view. He had simply assumed that every girl would want to be queen.

"So who's your alternative?" he asked finally.

"I haven't met her yet, but I've spoken with her parents on several occasions. They're excited about the possibility of a match and are sure their daughter will feel the same way."

"Who is she?" repeated Sor.

"Her name is Lis. She's fourteen, and the daughter of Baron Rig and Baroness Una. At least according to her parents, she's supposed to be intelligent, witty, and reasonably pretty. She was involved in a broken engagement some time ago, but was blameless in the incidents that led up to it. Apparently, her intended was that horrible toady Bek."

"If I recall correctly, Rig and Una are among the few nobles who have supported my policies."

"They also supported your father. Naturally, I felt it best to investigate those who favored your rule. There are probably dozens of prettier choices out there, but it might be a little worrisome to wonder whether you'll survive your wedding night."

"And if I don't find her suitable?"

Sye shrugged. "I'll keep looking. If necessary, we can look to the unmarried princesses from other cities, although, having been in that position myself, I don't think it's the best solution. People don't react well to foreign queens."

"What if Joi changes her mind?"

Sye let out a long sigh, then countered, "What do you want me to say? That I'll tie you down or send her away to prevent the wedding? I won't. If you're determined, if there's nothing anyone can say or do to dissuade you, then go ahead and marry your maid. But I think you know as well as I do what a disaster it would be. If it's a matter of attraction, then sleep with her. Take her as your mistress. But don't make a mistake that will doom your life, her life, the lives of your future children, and all of Vorti."

"Arrange a meeting with Baron Rig, Baroness Una, and Lis. I want to meet them and hear what her opinion is, not just what her parents say she thinks."

Sor didn't see the faint smile that creased his mother's lips as she turned and departed from his chambers, but neither did she see the look of sad resignation that settled over his features.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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