THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART THREE: CONVERGENCE OF DESTINIES


CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Approaching the palace gates as the central member of a group of nine, Lis discovered that she was nervous. She had been at court many times before, of course, as was the right of the daughter of a nobleman. This time, however, she was going to meet the king not as a ruler but as the man who might become her husband.

It was interesting, and more than a little annoying, that so many of the details of the match had been worked out without her consultation. In fact, she had not even known about her parents' meetings with King Sor's mother until three days ago. Now, along with her protector Nur and maid Iyo, her parents, and their respective guards and retainers, she was on the way to present herself to her potential groom.

Several months had passed since the final, acrimonious argument which had severed her relationship with Wil. The passion she had felt so deeply then, both of anger and love, had faded. They had been mismatched anyway. She and Wil were from different worlds, and, even though he claimed to be an Apath, that didn't change his upbringing. So, rather than opening old wounds by going to see him, she had decided to let matters lie.

Of course, if she became engaged to Sor, she would have to face Wil with the news. He deserved to hear the truth directly from her rather than a skewed story from the city's rumor-mongers. After all, they had declared their love for each other, although, in retrospect, Lis viewed it as a rather foolish and impulsive action on both their parts. It had felt like love then, but, looking back, she wasn't sure what her feelings had been, or, indeed, what they were now.

As for marrying Sor, the prospect of being Vorti's queen was appealing. Lis' annoyance at never being conferred with on the potential engagement was not so great that she was unwilling to feel tremendously flattered. She knew numerous young women who would have done anything to be in her position. Queen Lis of Vorti had a nice ring to it.

Sor was fairly attractive, having some of the best physical traits of his father and mother. Lis had always respected him, not just because he was the king, but because, like his father, he seemed capable of seeing both sides of the issue. She had not agreed with his decision in the rape trial of Duke Fys, but had been impressed by his willingness to stand up for his convictions. And, of course, he was an Apath. She wondered if there was some commonality among wizards that would make him anything like Wil, and, if there was, whether the similarities would disturb her.

"Stand up straight, Child," whispered her maid Iyo in her ear. "The king must not see you slouching. No man wants a crooked woman for a wife." Lis shot Iyo a reproachful glance, but did as she was told. She did not like her maid, nor had she ever done so. Iyo seemed to enjoy pointing out her faults with an attitude that was more malicious than maternal. One benefit of marriage would be to abandon the old woman and choose someone closer to her own age.

It had occurred to Lis several times to ask why Sor would be interested in marrying her. The best answer she could arrive at was that it was somehow a reward for her father's steadfast support following the difficult transition period. Rig had stood behind the king even during the thick of the Fys situation, when almost every other noble, even those who generally sided with Sor, turned against him.

A modest escort of three guards met them at the gates and led them through the grounds, into the building, and to the little throne room. Sor, his mother, and Chancellor Vas were all present when Lis' entourage entered the room. There was a great deal of bowing, curtsying, and shaking of hands. Through it all, Lis became aware of two pairs of eyes constantly on her - those of Queen Sye and her son. Unconsciously, one hand went to pat down her hair, which had become a little ruffled from the light autumn winds outside.

Lis returned the king's gaze as demurely as she could. For someone used to forthright glances and stares, the impression of shyness was not easy to achieve. Much to her delight, she noted that Sor was even better-looking up close than at a distance. He was also smaller than she had expected, although perhaps the lack of the voluminous robes of state helped account for that.

Not coincidentally, Lis' seat at the table around which they were to meet was directly opposite Sor's, apparently so the two could have a lengthy opportunity to examine one another. Lis' parents had made it clear that if she found the match reprehensible, they would not agree to it, although it was apparent that they would be very disappointed if that were the case. Looking at the king, who seemed almost as uncertain about things as she was, Lis felt sure that any objections to the marriage would not come from her.

"Everyone knows why we're here," began Sye. "Baron Rig, Baroness Una, and myself have worked out most of the details of the possible marriage, so the only thing left is to determine how His Majesty and Lis feel about the match. On a personal note, I've never met Lis before and must admit that she's every bit as enticing and charming as her parents said she was."

Coming from someone as graceful and beautiful as the queen, Lis considered this to be high praise. That it was obviously stated for Sye's son's benefit did not diminish its impact, and, as a result, Lis thought her cheeks might be turning a subtle shade of red. Sor continued to view her with a speculative, but not impolite, gaze.

"Perhaps we should leave them alone?" suggested Baroness Una in her quiet, contralto voice.

"That might be best, Your Majesty," suggested the chancellor to Sye. "It's hardly fair to expect them to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives with the rest of us hovering around like buzzards."

"Not a very pretty picture, Vas, but your point is taken. The rest of us will withdraw to the waiting room while Lis and His Majesty discuss whatever they wish to discuss," said Sye.

Within moments, Sor and Lis were alone, neither with much to say to the other. The king was the first to break the silence. "I hope this doesn't shock you, but my mother didn't talk to me about this until the day before yesterday. Considering that everything's arranged, it's a little strange to be meeting you this late."

"It sounds like a conspiracy," said Lis. "My parents first mentioned it to me three days ago."

"How did the idea strike you?"

"I was angry that no one had asked my opinion. After my first engagement fell through - I'm sure you've heard about that - I thought I might actually be given an opportunity to choose my husband."

"Your parents didn't give you a choice?"

"Oh, they gave me a choice, but the alternative doesn't bear thinking about. Don't misunderstand: I don't have anything against marrying you. I might even enjoy being Vorti's queen and it's certainly flattering, but I am annoyed at the manner in which it was handled."

"I can understand that. Because I'm king, I have a little more choice than you have. But if I reject you, they'll find someone else. My options are about who I marry, not about if or when. I need a son fast in case some assassin puts an arrow through my neck."

"What do you think? Would I make a suitable queen of Vorti? Do you think I have enough virtues for everyone to accept me as your wife?"

"It's odd that you should use the term 'suitable'. The first girl I asked to marry me refused because she didn't think she'd be suitable."

That revelation piqued Lis' curiosity. "What girl?"

"It's a long story. Suffice it to say she was far below the class that both she and my mother felt was necessary. Maybe your word 'conspiracy' is accurate.

"Anyway, yes, I think you're more than suitable. You'd make a wonderful queen. But I'm not going to force myself on you. If you don't want the marriage, tell me, and I'll pretend I'm not happy with it. That way, I'll be the one to live with your parents' rancor, not you."

Lis decided at that moment that anyone willing to make a sacrifice for her was likely to be a fine husband. "I don't think I'd mind being married to you, Your Majesty. In time, I might even enjoy it. If you'll have me."

"It's a little too early to finalize anything. I think we need time to consider our choices. But, for now, let's say in private that we've come to a potential agreement for marriage."

"It would be helpful if we knew each other a little better before we committed to spending the rest of our lives with each other."

"To that end, perhaps you and your group would care to join me for lunch this afternoon, followed by a stroll through the palace gardens?"

"I'd be delighted. Perhaps if we're really lucky, I can convince the rest of my group to go home before we start."

* * *

It had not been a good day for Wil. Early this morning he had received a visit from one of Vorti's bailiffs informing him that because he had failed to meet the crop quota agreed to in the terms of his lease, he was being evicted. Lord Bur had "graciously" given him a period of ten days to move his things out of the house and find alternative quarters, and, if possible, another job.

That turn of events had been expected. Wil was aware that his harvest had come in several hundred pounds light and a meticulous man like Bur would never miss such a gross oversight. It had only been a matter of time before the bailiff came knocking. The grace period he had been granted was more than he could have reasonably expected from the miserly Bur.

Then, moments ago, a second piece of bad news: Wor was leaving Vorti. According to the merchant, he had already spent several months longer in the city than he had intended, primarily to teach Wil. It was time to move on. He was, after all, an itinerant, and remaining in one place was bad for business.

"You know," noted Wor thoughtfully, after informing Wil of his decision. "Now that you've lost the farm, there's really nothing holding you here. You could travel the road with me as my assistant while continuing to master your Apath abilities."

"No," said Wil. "There are things that have to be done here, things that only I can do. Running away won't do any good."

"Does it have to be now? I'll be back in another few years. Travel with me until then..."

"No," repeated Wil. "The longer Sor stays in power, the more difficult he'll be to dislodge."

At those treasonous words from his companion, spoken a little too loudly, Wor glanced nervously around the half-full taproom of the Drunk Doxy. Fortunately, no one seemed to be paying special attention to their conversation.

"Keep your voice down!" warned the merchant. "Do you want to get us both arrested?"

"Sorry."

"Is it that girl? The baron's daughter?"

Wil shook his head. "I haven't seen her in months. Whatever we had...and I thought it was real...is gone. I guess it's for the best."

"So you're still determined to bring down the king?"

"You may not understand this, Wor, since you've never settled down, but I care about what happens in this city. I care about the people - my class of people - who too often don't have enough to eat or a warm place to spend a cold winter's night. I know how it feels to shiver in the darkness with an empty belly. We have a king who's content to sponge off our poverty. Vorti needs someone who can act decisively and with one stroke wipe away all the graft and corruption that's buried this city."

"Wake up, Wil, you're dreaming," snorted Wor. This was not the first time in his long life that he'd heard such lofty ideals. Most of the men preaching them ended up with their necks in a hangman's noose.

"Many of my people can only dream. But I have the ability to make things happen. I'm the only one in Vorti who can stand against Sor."

"You're not ready. Your abilities are still more raw talent than real control. If you go head-to-head with Sor, you may lose everything."

"Then stay and teach me!"

Wor shook his head slowly. "No, it's time to move on. There's no way one man can teach another common sense. You'll have to learn that lesson on your own."

"When do you leave?"

"Sunup tomorrow. Let me give you one last piece of advice, boy. Don't throw your life away on an ideal. You may be an Apath, but you're still human. Sudden upheaval isn't the only way to change things. Sometimes the more gradual shifts are the ones that make the most progress. Find that baron's daughter, marry her, and get her with child. Then, with a baby on the way, see how things look."

"I'll think about it," said Wil, promising nothing. Wor nodded somberly, knowing exactly how seriously people considered matters that they mouthed those words about.

"If you choose not to take my advice, then at least remember this warning: Beware burgeoning apathy. If you let it, it will destroy you more completely than any mortal can. And the road you're headed down leads directly into its teeth."

* * *

Evening twilight was beginning to descend when Wil approached the house of Baron Rig and Baroness Una. He felt uncomfortable and out-of-place in this part of the city, with its clean-swept streets and equally spotless buildings. The odors of urine and manure were not prevalent and there were no beggars to assault passerbys. Every house was alike, three stories high with carved marble facades and tall, arched windows. The people walking the streets were well-dressed and straight-backed. Many who looked in Wil's direction did so with an expression of profound distaste.

This was the portion of Vorti he wished he could eliminate. The air reeked of snobbishness as badly as the rest of the city stank of earthier stenches. And, even though he knew that the king and nobles rarely agreed about anything, the sickening arrogance of those who inhabited this quarter of Vorti recalled vividly everything that was corrupt and vile about the reign of the current ruling family.

Ignoring the stares of those who deigned to acknowledge his existence, Wil approached the finely-polished door to Lis' home. After speaking for the final time with Wor, he had decided that some of what the merchant said was sensible. Before he could take the next step in life, he needed to know exactly which options were left open to him. The greatest unanswered question remaining was the status of his relationship with the only girl he had ever loved.

Wil used the heavy brass knocker to rap three times, then took a deep breath and waited, every passing second seeming like an eternity. Finally, the door was pulled open to reveal a swarthy, thick-muscled man with steely-blue eyes and a blatantly unfriendly expression. In a grating voice, he demanded, "What do you want? Your kind aren't welcome in these parts. Now, get away or I'll thrash the life from you!"

"I've come to see Mistress Lis," said Wil.

"I don't care who you've come to see. They won't be seeing you. No more warnings."

"Just tell her it's Wil. She knows me."

This elicited an abrasive chuckle from the man. At that moment, a feminine voice called from somewhere in the house, "Who is it, Rag?"

"A ruffian, Your Ladyship."

"Get rid of him and shut the door. It's causing a draft."

As the man took a menacing step towards him, Wil decided to experiment with his control over magic. He didn't have to search deeply for emotion to transform; there was more than enough uncertainty, anger, and frustration associated with this encounter to give him what he needed.

The buzzing in his head started as the force of his churning emotions diminished, changing into power of a more tangible kind. Wil didn't want to hurt this man, at least not seriously, but he intended to administer a little chastisement.

The man, whose impressive hand was reaching for the front of Wil's tunic, suddenly staggered back as if dealt a sharp blow. His eyes widened in astonishment, then glazed over in pain as his head was jerked sharply to one side. With a loud crash, he collapsed across the threshold, lying half in and half out of the house, twitching spasmodically once or twice. Wil watched him impassively.

"What in..."

Wil looked up, and, seeing her as she came to a stop ten feet from the open door, realized immediately that this had to be Lis' mother. The physical resemblance was unmistakable.

"What's happened here?" she asked, her tone less certain.

"My name is Wil, Your Ladyship. I've come to speak with your daughter. As you may or may not be aware, she and I are...acquainted with each other."

"Wil?" she repeated, confused. There was no hint of recognition in her tone. Had Lis kept their relationship that much of a secret from her parents, even after he had revealed his abilities to her?

"What have you done to him? Did you hit him?" asked Una. She seemed ready to flee, scream, or both.

"Not with my fists. To those few of us who have the talent, there are other ways. He should regain consciousness in a matter of minutes," replied Wil calmly.

Una's eyes went wide with mixed amazement and fear as she understood the implications of Wil's words. Still, there was no sign that she knew who he was. Apparently, Lis had confided nothing to her mother.

"Lis?" asked Wil.

"She's not here." In a pleading voice, she added, "Please, don't hurt us. I didn't know..."

Without another word, Wil turned and walked away.

During the night, Wil came to a momentous decision, the result of which had him walking up the broad avenue leading to the palace the next morning. His impasse in challenging for the throne had been his inability to present himself as a reasonable alternative to Sor. People would not listen to the claims of a farmer unless he did something spectacular, and rumors and gossip were not good foundations upon which to base a revolution. He needed something more substantive.

His encounter with Baroness Una had indirectly given him the solution. The difficulty in his plan was being convincing, but not getting killed in the process. It was one thing to frighten a noblewoman on the threshold of her house; it was entirely another to try something similar in the audience hall of the palace. He had to prove himself without appearing to pose a threat to the king's well-being. That would not be an easy task.

Not wanting to hurt anyone, Wil disregarded acts of violence. Besides, any attack, no matter who it was directed against, would be countered by the guards. Instead, he had decided on something that was more flashy and pretentious, but ultimately less damaging. It would confirm his abilities without forcing Sor's retinue to take action against him. There was risk involved but, given the scope of his overall plan, it was one of the smaller gambles he would make in the foreseeable future.

Before entering the throne room, Wil gave his name and occupation to a nearsighted old man preparing the list of the day's supplicants, then moved to stand among the others of his class.

The morning dragged on and Wil's impatience grew as he listened to Sor adjudicate a number of inane disputes - nobles arguing over whose property a cherry tree was on, whether a dead pheasant had been killed while flying over one farm or another, and how to divide up a litter of prize hunting puppies when the father and mother were the respective properties of two rival families.

Early in the afternoon, a proposal presented by a Baron Cig caught Wil's attention. Among other things, it advocated that all servants with a means of income be subject to taxation. This would replace the current policy that forced their masters to pay their portions. Following a half-hour dissertation by Cig on the merits of his plan, most of which seemed exclusively to benefit the nobles, Sor called a brief recess to meet with his chancellor.

Wil did not understand the details of the proposal, but he knew that, if accepted, it would place a greater economic burden on his class, while lessening the pressure on the nobility. Cig's claims that if the servants paid their own taxes, it would give them a greater feeling of "financial self-sufficiency and self-worth" were the words of a man who had no concept of what poverty was.

Sor returned and announced that the proposal, as presented, was not acceptable, but he would be willing to entertain modifications. In principle, he said, he was not opposed to shifting a portion of the tax burden onto servants who could afford it, but he thought Cig's plan was inherently inequitable. Such pandering to the nobles' rapaciousness infuriated Wil. He almost joined the dozen or so voices around him raised in protest, but he had no desire to call undue attention to himself before the time was right.

The next man to approach the throne was a frumpy, disheveled merchant named Muf, whose appearance belied his considerable wealth. He was one of the few men in the city without a real class. His parents had been peasants who had brought him up in Vorti's less reputable districts but, since reaching adulthood, he had accumulated enough money to put his financial position above that of many noblemen.

"Your Majesty," began Muf in his notorious high-pitched whine. "We poor, hard-working merchants would like clarification and reassurance. Local rumor suggests that there may be an Apath at work in the city whose presence and actions are unsanctioned by the throne. If this is so, and he represents a threat to us, we would like to know what support we can expect from the militia in the event of an incident such as what purportedly happened this summer at the Noble's Repose."

"I have heard these rumors," began Sor, "And, although I can't be certain, I don't think there's any foundation to them. If there is an Apath in Vorti..."

"I'm afraid you're wrong, Your Majesty," declared Wil in a loud voice, stepping out from the anonymity of the crowd and starting down the aisle towards the throne. This was too good an opportunity to let pass. A guard moved to intercept him but stopped at a signal from the king.

"Indeed?" questioned Sor, one eyebrow raised. There was wariness in his tone.

"The rumors have been exaggerated, but there is a kernel of truth at their source."

"You know this supposed Apath then? Or perhaps you claim to be him?"

"I am the Apath, Your Majesty."

At his words, several nervous-sounding titters came from the nobles' seats. Murmurs erupted from all corners of the audience hall. Muf, eyes wide with fear, stepped far to the side to allow Wil to take his place in front of the king.

When the throne room had quieted, the king spoke. "You will understand, Sir, if I am skeptical about your claims. Apaths are rare and Apaths that hide their abilities even rarer."

Wil took that as an invitation, however loosely worded, to act. With a faint smile, he replied, "I understand, Your Majesty. Words are never proof."

There were enough immediate, surface emotions running through Wil at the moment that he didn't have to delve deep to produce the energy he wanted. This display was intended to be more impressive than potent. Using the procedure he was progressively becoming more comfortable with, he summoned up the buzzing and allowed the force of all those jumbled, shallow emotions to melt into the energy of magic. He then commanded nature and, perturbed by forces more powerful than it, nature obeyed.

The closed double doors to the throne room flew open and a blast of wind shrieked through the hall, extinguishing braziers and blowing loose clothing in all directions. Parchments littering the floor near Sor's chair were scooped into the air and scattered. Several women screamed, but their cries were swallowed by the banshee-like howling of Wil's magical airstorm. Then, like any sudden gust, it died away, going as quickly as it had come.

"Actions, however, should be sufficient," continued Wil in an eerily calm voice. Absolute silence greeted his pronouncement. For once, even the king was at a loss for words.

"I am Wil son of Gav son of Mog, once a farmer of Vorti and now without either home or profession. The reign of your father caused irreparable damage to my family, but that is only a symptom of the city-wide decay that has resulted from this corrupt regime. Gone are any hopes I held that things would be different following the transition of power. For the sake of Vorti, you must be brought down, King Sor. I give you warning this afternoon: the days of your reign are numbered."

Before anyone could react to what amounted to a declaration of war, Wil strode down the aisle towards the still-open double doors of the audience hall, his bearing more like that of a man who had already assumed the throne than a homeless farmer. Peasants and nobles alike shrank from him as he passed. The guards watched him warily but made no move to intercept him.

That night, Wil's last in his childhood home, he spent hours staring into the flickering flames that brought light and heat to the little hovel. By now, tales of his declaration would be all over Vorti. The people would begin to realize that they had an alternative to the current rule. He could not betray them by backing away from that destiny. He did not feel himself well-suited to the role of hero and champion, but he would be true to the mantle fate had saddled him with.

When a troop of the king's guards arrived the next day to escort Wil to the palace for a "discussion" with Chancellor Vas, all they found was an empty, abandoned house with a mound of cold, gray ashes in the fireplace. Of the farmer Apath, there was no sign.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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