THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART THREE: CONVERGENCE OF DESTINIES


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


Baroness Nia had often been proud of her husband's single-minded pursuit of certain goals, but this time she felt he was going too far. There were bounds to propriety and Cen appeared willing to ignore them in his obsessive quest to take the throne for himself, or, failing that, for his son or as-yet-unconceived grandson. He had just announced that not only was he willing to sacrifice the marriage of one of his daughters, but that of both of them.

"But they're only eight years old!" Nia protested.

"I don't intend for them to be married now," replied Cen. "But it's not unheard of for young girls to become engaged at that age. The wedding can come in another two or three years, when they mature enough to have children."

"You're a cold-blooded bastard!"

Cen let out the melodramatic sigh of the deeply misunderstood. "Don't you see? We can't possibly fail this way! We'll have every option covered and, no matter how things turn out, the throne will eventually come into our family. Isn't that worth the sacrifice? I'm sure if you ask Rae and Kae, they'll answer yes."

"Rae and Kae are only eight! They won't understand what they're answering yes to!"

Cen's manner turned hard. "Arranged marriages are performed all the time. You had the rare privilege of being able to choose your husband, Nia. Not many women, especially among the nobility, are so fortunate. Our own son will be marrying for position and power, but I've never heard you complain about our choice for him. The decision was made about a year ago, wasn't it? So he was nine and, if I recall correctly, his bride-to-be was six or seven."

Cen was right. The agreement with the widower Duke Emi for the marriage of his daughter Isi to their son Tir had never disturbed her. Somehow, this seemed different, however. Perhaps it was because Rae and Kae were being used as pawns in a political struggle, or perhaps it was simply because they were her daughters, and that made all the difference in the world.

"Which boy will you ask first?" asked Nia finally.

"The king. He's still our best bet. With the crafty Chancellor Vas on his side, he won't be easy to bring down. No, he'll get first pick. I think Rae will be a better choice for him; she's less outspoken, but he might prefer Kae's spunk."

"How long?"

"That's the tricky part. We daren't wait too much. I think there may already be plans underway to marry him off, possibly to that bastard Rig's daughter. I've seen her hanging around the palace lately. But, until an official announcement has been made, our opportunity is still open. And, when I point out all the advantages for Sor in marrying Rae or Kae, he shouldn't need much convincing to terminate any agreement with Rig."

"Unless he's fallen in love with Lis," said Nia. From personal experience, she knew that love could cancel out all the arguments of reason and logic.

"Not likely," replied Cen with confidence. "I don't see how anyone could fall in love with that shrew, especially Sor, who I can't envision falling in love with anyone. He has ice water running through those veins. If he wasn't such a bastard, I might actually admire that half-brother of yours."

"Whether you like to admit it or not, you do admire him."

Cen grunted. "Maybe you're right. Since I've been 'capitulating' and working with him in the name of fostering amity between the royal family and the nobility, I've learned that there's more to him than meets the eye. But he hasn't changed my opinion about your father. Kan was an arrogant fool who thought he could grind us under foot just to prove that he had more power than us. They should never have given the crown to him. A man with nothing suddenly getting everything - what a stupid and dangerous thing to do. The nobility could have been destroyed, and with it all of Vorti. Kan was too twisted in his hatred to understand that it's the nobility, not those beloved scum of his, that form the backbone of this city."

"And Sor follows Father's principles."

"Exactly!"

"Isn't it possible that we could...convert him?"

"Of course it's possible. Why do you think I'm putting so much effort into trying? It isn't just for show, I assure you. At least not entirely. An assassination would muddy things up. We want a clear, clean path of succession leading to our family and someone who will have our best interests at heart. Killing Sor isn't likely to give us that."

"At least not until one of our daughters has borne him an heir." Suddenly, Nia saw the part of her husband's plan that he had kept from her. Anger entered her voice again. "Now you're talking about using Kae or Rae as an assassin!"

"Steel your heart, my dear. It's not something that I want to happen, but we'd be foolish to eliminate any option. First things first, however: we arrange a marriage between the king and one of the twins. Are you with me?"

There was a long pause before Nia finally agreed, hating herself even as she said the words.

* * *

Grasping the heel of Sor's boot in both hands, Joi pulled, shifting her weight so that when the king's stockinged foot came free, she lost her balance and ended up sitting down hard on the floor. With a chuckle that was not reciprocated, Sor rose and offered her his hand.

"Why don't you just get some that fit better?" she asked.

"New boots always hurt. These are comfortable."

"Some day, you're not going to be able to get them off."

"I'll worry about that day when it comes." With a grunt, he twisted and pulled the other foot free. "If only that was all I had to worry about."

"Wil?" she asked, although there was no need. Little else had preoccupied Sor's attention in the half-season since the Apath farmer's declaration in the throne room.

"I should never have let him out of the palace."

"And what would you have done with him if you'd kept him here? Locked him in the dungeon?"

"Maybe," conceded Sor. "At least I could have talked to him, tried to understand why he wants to destroy me."

"You said your father gave his family a stipend a few decades back. Why would that breed ill will?"

"I don't know. There must have been more to it, but that's all the records show and everyone involved in the decision-making during those years is dead."

"What about Vas? I'm sure he was alive then."

"Alive, yes, but he didn't become chancellor until seven years after the stipend was granted. Wil may be the only one in Vorti with the answer - if he's still in Vorti. He's gone to ground someplace."

"There are people who will hide an Apath."

Sor nodded. "Especially among the nobility."

"Well," said Joi, leaning over and resting her head on his shoulder, "at least things are going a little better between you and Cen."

"That's true. You know, since I started working closely with him, I've almost gotten to admire him. If he could just lose that inbred arrogance."

"He wouldn't be a noble without it."

"So what do you think I should do about Wil?"

Joi shrugged. "Nothing more than what you're already doing. If he doesn't want to be found, you're not going to find him. When he's ready, he'll come out of hiding."

"He's an Apath. That makes him a little more dangerous than a run-of-the mill conspirator."

"You're more than a match for him." She said that with an innocent, open trust that was disarming. "Didn't you say he was trained by an itinerant merchant? Besides, if things really get nasty, there's always Vas. No matter how good Wil is, I don't think he could beat two of you."

"Probably not, but I wonder if Vas is willing to use his powers. Since I've known him, he's never tried."

"Maybe he just likes keeping up the ruse that he isn't really an Apath," suggested Joi.

Sor shook his head. "It's more than that, I think."

"Could he have lost his powers? Is that possible?"

"No. But he could have decided never to use them again. Have you ever noticed how shallow Vas' emotions are. It's rare that he ever loses his patience. Even when he gets angry, there's never much passion in it. Magic requires emotion. I think, some time before he came to Kan's court, Vas used up most of his emotion."

"What if he tried to use magic after running out of emotion?"

"It isn't possible. There wouldn't be anything left to transform. But, by then, he wouldn't care enough to try." Sor shuddered at the thought. "Imagine what it would be like with no emotion left. There's no motivation to do anything, not even to go on breathing. It's called burgeoning apathy and it's the thing wizards fear most, because it can happen so easily. Most of the time, we don't even see it coming. Maybe Vas does see it, and that's why he won't use magic, because the next step for him would be over the edge."

"You won't let that happen to you, will you?" demanded Joi, sounding more worried than was proper for a simple maid.

"I'll do my best to avoid it. The less I use magic, the less likely it is to happen. And, face it, we all have a lot of emotion. It's difficult to imagine draining it all. Besides, I'm sure Vas will come down hard on me before I get anywhere close."

Joi snuggled closer to him. "I guess we won't be able to do this for much longer."

"Why not?" asked Sor absently, his mind again drifting to the question of where to find Wil.

"I don't think your wife will appreciate it."

Joi's words arrested Sor's attention. "If you would say yes to one of my daily proposals, we wouldn't have to worry about that."

"Haven't we had this argument before?"

"This time you started it."

"According to you, I always start it. I wish you'd stop asking me, Sor. It...hurts, because a part of me dearly wants to say yes." The jesting tone that so often accompanied her refusals was absent.

"I'm sorry. I won't ask again. I didn't realize."

"And that's one of the reasons I can't marry you, because fundamentally, we're too different."

"You're still a woman."

"So is Lady Lis," noted Joi. "Did you see her today?"

"No. I was supposed to, but my session with Cen ran long." He paused before asking, "Are you sure you want to hear about her? I mean, it can't be pleasant listening to all the details about the woman I'm probably going to marry." Sor found it a strange that Joi always wanted to hear word-by-word accounts of his meetings with Lis.

"It's a fact of life we're all going to have to adjust to. And what do you mean by 'probably'? According to Queen Sye, everything's arranged."

"Her Majesty My Mother is overzealous. I have a tentative understanding with Lis, nothing more. We've both agreed to wait, if only to make sure that we can stand each other."

"You seem to get along well."

"We're cordial to each other, but there's no spark. In other circumstances, the closest we'd ever get would be acquaintances. But, unless someone can give me a good alternative, in these circumstances we'll end up husband and wife."

"Most people don't have passion in their marriages. That's why there are mistresses."

Sor was surprised at the suggestiveness of Joi's tone. Thinking he had been mistaken, that the strain of a long day was causing him to misunderstand, he looked deep into her eyes, only to encounter an undisguised invitation.

"Are you serious?"

"Yes. You know I've wanted you, Sor. I've finally decided to take you the only way I can."

"Why now?"

Joi let out a little laugh. "Your mother suggested it."

"My mother?"

"She said you were too tense and probably needed something to relax you a little. Then, in case I didn't get the point, she added that maybe it might be a good idea for you to find someone to...practice with...before your wedding night."

"She never..."

"Oh yes she did. I have to admit that I was shocked at first."

Sor suddenly burst out laughing, "You know, come to think of it, that is the kind of thing my mother would do. I think motherhood must be the only power stronger than magic."

"Love and motherhood," corrected Joi. "Although perhaps they're two faces of the same thing."

Sor reclined on the bed and beckoned his maid closer. Joi leaned over him, the ends of her long hair teasing his face. "Yes, Your Majesty?"

"Why don't you join me?" He patted the bed, then let his hand wander up to her bare calf.

"I always do as my liege commands."

* * *

At that moment, Sye was in bed with her newest lover, Yiv the carpenter, the husband of her stepdaughter, Jen. The queen glanced over at his naked, sleeping form somewhat fondly. He always fell asleep after their lovemaking, but, considering the amount of energy he expended, that was not surprising. He was a big, athletic man, and Sye could understand Jen's physical attraction to him. He possessed an erotic magnetism that was rare.

According to Yiv, Jen was not a particularly interesting bed partner. For him to have begun straying a mere two years after their wedding was proof enough of this. Sye didn't mind; she was more than happy to accomodate the carpenter for a while. Eventually, she would grow bored of him, as she did with all of her lovers, and then she would send him away. He could either return to his wife or go to someone else, she didn't care which.

Jen didn't know about her husband's infidelity, but if the affair continued for any length of time, she would find out. Although Sye did not flaunt the men she lured into her bedchamber at night, the servants talked and word spread. Eventually, someone was bound to let something slip around Jen. Things would get unpleasant for Yiv at that point, but not for Sye. She was, after all, Vorti's queen, at least until Sor married, and the opinion of a spoiled stepdaughter that she had never liked didn't matter to her.

She rose, slipped on a dressing gown, and went to sit by the window, gazing out at the star-bespeckled sky. Her plans were maturing nicely, although Sor's sudden closeness to Baron Cen was a cause for concern. She didn't like or trust Cen, in part because he was a noble and had been Kan's most bitter foe, and in part because he was married to that bitch Nia. Sor could be a little too trusting at times and it might fall to her to keep him from stumbling into a trap, if that was what the baron was devising.

Other than that, things were going well. Her greatest danger, Vii, had been eliminated by a "tragic misfortune". She was having less trouble than expected with Vas; the old fool seemed content to sit in the background and pore over mouldy books. At one time, she thought it might be necessary to get rid of him, but his lack of ambition had proved beneficial.

The marriage between Sor and Lis was all-but-announced. The two children seemed to tolerate each other, and that was enough. It was clear that there would never be any real affection between them, but all they had to do was sleep together enough times to produce a few healthy sons, and then they could never see each other again, if that was their desire. Besides, at least for the time being, Sye had provided Sor with a mistress for whom he claimed to have feelings. Of course, she had a different role in mind for Joi, so that liason could not last indefinitely.

Wil's appearance concerned Sye far less than it did her son. Perhaps because she had not been in the audience hall when he had made his declaration, she saw him as little more than an arrogant fool, and certainly no danger to a trained Apath like Sor. Vas wasn't overly worried about the sudden arrival of Wil either, but then Sye was hard-pressed to remember Vas becoming perturbed about much of anything.

Behind her, still in bed, Yiv stirred. She turned back to him, trying to decide whether to send him away or climb back under the covers. Eventually, her mind influenced by the as-yet unsatisfied desires of her body, she chose the latter.

* * *

The next morning, Sor and Cen resumed their incomplete sequestered session, trying to arrive at a reasonable proposition by which farmers would not lose their land by failing to meet the quota of the landowner. Cen, one of Vorti's largest owners of farm acreage, obviously preferred the quota system. Sor, admittedly influenced by what he had learned of Wil's recent misfortune, was in favor of enacting a law to change quotas to percentages. A ninety/ten split had been the king's initial proposal, so that for every one-hundred pounds of crops produced on a farm, the landowner would get ninety and the farmer ten. Cen, along with dozens of other nobles, had begun frothing at the mouth upon hearing this proposition. Paying taxes was bad enough, but this, in their view, was ludicrous. Several mentioned open rebellion if such a law was sanctioned.

So Sor and Cen had begun a long series of closed-door meetings, trying to reach a compromise. In the past few months, they had done this several times, but never on such an important or divisive issue. Both of them felt strongly about their positions, and there was a great deal of shouting, but eventually progress was made. Now, after nearly twenty days of exhausting negotiations, an agreement had been reached that neither of them hated.

Under the terms reached, direct quotas were prohibited. There would be a ninety-two/eight percent division, but only after a certain absolute minimum was produced, equaling two-thirds of the previously-determined quota. A farmer would have to fail to meet this minimum at least two out of three years to be evicted, unless a successful appeal was made to the throne. In addition, many of the more prosperous farmers would be required to assume at least a portion of their own taxes, and, correspondingly, the penalty on the landowners would be reduced.

"Let's have a drink," invited Sor, rising from the hard-backed chair he had occupied to pull the little throne room's bell. "What will you have?"

"Rum," declared Cen, leaning back in his chair and propping both booted feet on the parchment-strewn table. "After negotiations like this, I need hard liquor."

Sor nodded his agreement. When old Syr appeared at the door, he said, "We'll have two glasses and a bottle of the finest rum we have in the cellar."

"You know," said Cen, when Sor had re-seated himself. "I may not like you, and I certainly don't like your damned policies, but I admire the way you negotiate. I never would have expected someone so young to be as adept."

"The feeling's mutual," said Sor with a slight smile. "I hope if we keep working at things, we might be able to make Vorti a more amiable place to live in. It doesn't always have to be the nobles against the peasants with the king taking one side."

"An interesting notion," conceded Cen, although Sor couldn't tell how sincere the baron was. "With your father, it was always division."

"My father had other concerns. He had to establish a strong basis for his heirs. My agenda is different. I admit that Kan was prejudiced against the nobility, perhaps unreasonably so, but consider his background. Your people did nothing to endear themselves to him after he was appointed to Rel's council."

"There's a lot of your father in you, but I think you may be more open-minded."

Conversation halted as Syr arrived with the rum. Sor poured glasses for Cen and himself, then reclined in his chair to sip the warming, potent drink.

"I have a proposal," said Cen. "Hopefully one that will cause less argument than those that we've been debating over the past half-year."

"I'm listening."

"I think I might know a reasonably painless way that unbreakable ties could be established between you and the nobility - marry one of our daughters."

"Unless you're stupid or blind, Cen, you already know that's my intention."

The baron shook his head. "I don't mean Lis. She's a nice enough girl, but her father's fallen into ill favor with the rest of us. Speaking plainly, most of those among my class with any influence regard him as a traitor. He's sided with you too many times to be considered reliable. Marrying Rig's daughter will gain you nothing in your dealings with the nobility."

"You have another suggestion?"

Cen took his feet off the table and leaned forward. "I have two daughters, Rae and Kae, both beautiful girls. You may have your pick of the two."

"That's a...magnanimous offer, but your daughters are hardly of marriageable age."

"They will be in three years. Do you consider a three year courtship a bad thing? After a couple of months, how much do you really know about Lis?"

"More than I know about your daughters," replied Sor frankly.

"But not more than you would know about them following a three year courtship. I know that there's little between you and Rig's daughter. I've seen you two together, very proper and polite, but no emotion or feeling. Do you want to doom yourself to that marriage? During three years' time, with either of my daughters, a natural relationship will have time to develop. Perhaps there won't be love - I certainly can't guarantee it - but at least there will be a genuine bond. And you would be uniting yourself with the daughter of the most influential noble in Vorti."

"I would also be putting my life in jeopardy. Once my wife gives birth to a son, I will be expendable."

"True. The best assurance I can give you is that you will have three years before your marriage to learn the heart and mind of whichever of my daughters you choose. They are too young yet to be able dissemblers. You will know them, and that is the greatest safety of all. Can you say the same about Lis? Do you think her father could not harbor similar ambitions to those you attribute to me? Just because he has backed you in the past does not mean he has no designs upon the throne. Will you tell me now that you'll feel safe sleeping in the same bed with a woman you barely know?"

Sor was unsure whether the rum was addling his wits or not, but much of what Cen said was making sense. At least with this man, he knew where he stood, but how well did he understand Rig and his motives? And wasn't three years long enough to learn the truth about anyone, especially someone so young? How necessary was it that he marry Lis?

"Tell me about your daughters," said Sor. He was not in a position where he could ignore any alternative and, if he chose to marry one of Cen's daughters, that would give him three years alone with Joi. In three years, anything could happen. Perhaps if she became pregnant...

"As you're probably aware, I have twins," began Cen.

"I recall hearing something about that when they were born. I was about nine then."

"They turned eight this past summer. Rae is a quiet little girl, taking after no one in my family or yours," said Cen, amusing himself enough to chuckle. Sor spared the jest a tolerant smile.

"Kae is more active, definitely emulating her mother. So, the question is, do you want a naturally docile, affectionate wife or one that you have to tame? Personally, I can see advantages to either."

"Which would you recommend?" asked Sor, more interested in how Cen would answer the question than who his choice would be.

"That's a difficult question to ask a father. I love both of my daughters deeply. But I think Rae would make you a better wife. Nia agrees with me."

Sor nodded, wondering if the baron had unintentionally let it slip that he had already discussed the matter with his wife. Cen was, after all, on his third glass of rum. The king, not wanting to take any rash action as a result of excessive drink, had not yet tasted his second drink.

"Physically, what are they like?"

"Oh ho!" bellowed Cen, slapping his thigh. "I knew that beneath that icy exterior you were as warm as any other man. Let me assure you, Your Majesty, that both of my daughters are great beauties, far more delightful than Lis. And they aren't yet full grown!

"Of course, since they're twins, they look alike, although they dress differently. They have blond hair like spun gold, and the faces of angels. They're large for girls of their age, but not ungainly. Words, however, cannot do justice to them. You must meet them yourself."

Sor considered, no longer sure whether he was playing along in some game of the baron's or seriously contemplating a marriage to Rae or Kae. The prospect was tantalizing, with a variety of benefits, both personal and political, but the fear of getting a knife in the back was a strong counterpoint. If one of Cen's daughters bore him son, some attempt would assuredly be made to remove him. The hand wielding the dagger would not necessarily have to be his wife's.

"The most I can say is that I'll seriously consider your offer, Cen," said Sor, intending to do exactly that. "It's tempting, but, to be honest, I don't trust you - certainly not enough to risk my life."

Cen nodded in acknowledgment. "I understand. We don't like each other, you and I, and we never will. My offer isn't made out of a desire for friendship, but a wish to elevate both our positions. It would help you with the nobility and give me greater stature and influence. And, of course, it would be no small thing to realize that my grandson would one day sit upon the throne of Vorti."

"Then we understand each other, My Lord."

"We do indeed, Your Majesty," said Cen with the calculating look of a sober man. "We do indeed."


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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