The first morning of the summer of 558, dawning glorious and clear, found Wil indoors, away from the fields that he had been brought up learning to till. Part of him yearned for the feel of a spade in his hand and the sun on his face, but those things were part of a life he had left behind.

His new lot was as the stableboy of the Drunk Doxy. Of course, he was there incognito, using the name of Liw, since "Wil" was known to be the mysterious Apath who had declared war on King Sor three seasons ago. The name, however, was much better known than his face. Descriptions of all sorts had been circulated around Vorti over the past half-year, most of which were wildly inaccurate. On one occason, Wil had been amused to hear himself referred to as "a bear of a man with a foot-long red beard and a balt pate."

As long as he avoided parading through the streets in broad daylight, where someone who had actually been at the palace that day might see him, he felt he could keep his genuine identity a secret for as long as was necessary.

Wil suspected that the innkeeper of the Drunk Doxy guessed the truth, but the man was kindly and apparently indisposed to reveal whatever he knew to the king's men. The only other one aware of Wil's identity was a messenger boy in the innkeeper's employ. Tim was fourteen and Wil had taken a liking to him from the start. The friendship they had established had led to Wil's confiding in the lad. So far, he had not had cause to regret that decision.

During the recent winter and spring, Wil had occupied himself by studying the mood of the city, a task made simpler by the frequent contact his job permitted with a variety of people. Much to his disgust, he found that the peasants, almost to a man, supported Sor. As much as it disturbed him, it seemed likely that his backing would come from the nobility, who were as eager as ever to dethrone Kan's son.

There was a moral dilemma that Wil had not yet solved. At its most basic, his battle was with the values that Sor espoused, many of which were embraced by the nobility - those who would back his push for the throne. To get their support, he would have to misrepresent his position to a degree that he didn't feel comfortable about. When it was all over, the nobles would be outraged by the betrayal.

With the arrival of summer, the time to act had come. During the gray days of winter and early spring, dreariness and depression abounded, and it was difficult to stir enthusiasm for any cause. So Wil had delayed starting his campaign until the advent of better weather and the accompanying higher spirits that it brought. This morning, he had set things in motion by requesting a meeting with Baron Cen, Vorti's leading noble.

Cen's relationship with the throne had noticeably improved over the past half-year, but the accord was tenuous. Wil was certain that, if presented with a legitimate opportunity to remove Sor, Cen would take it, even if it meant siding with a homeless stableboy. In fact, during the latter part of the previous year, Cen had been searching for Wil as diligently as the king had.

There was something else troubling Wil, but this matter was of a more personal nature. Currently, there were three rumors circulating around Vorti about Sor's wedding plans. One indicated that he was bedding his maid and intended to marry her, regardless of the inevitable scandal. Another contended that Baron Cen and the king were close to reaching an agreement whereby Sor would marry Rae, the more docile of Cen's twin daughters. The third rumor claimed that a marriage between the king and Lis, the daughter of Baron Rig, was arranged and simply awaiting His Majesty's final approval before being announced. It was this tale, one that had persisted since before the beginning of the year, that disturbed Wil. He had discovered that no matter how desperately he tried to put Lis from his mind, she was never far from his thoughts. He had to find out the truth of the matter.

"Are 'ee in here, Liw?" called a voice from below. Wil, seated in the stable's loft where he frequently slept during warm weather, lay down on his stomach and peered over the edge into the stalls. Three of ten were currently occupied, one by a fine, dark stallion, another by an old and cantankerous mare, and the third by a donkey. Standing in the open and peering up towards the gloomy rafters, was Tim. He was alone.

"Up here," called Wil.

Tim shot his friend a toothy smile, then scampered up the ladder to join him. Although three years Wil's junior, the lanky youth was several inches taller and nearly as bulky. He had bright red hair - redder than any Wil had ever seen - and a face dotted with freckles. The boy's outfit, like that of Wil and every other male who worked for the innkeeper, consisted of an open-necked, oversized white tunic and a pair of short, woolen trousers which became itchy and uncomfortable in even mild heat.

"Well?" demanded Wil.

"'Ee gave me this. Said I was to give it to 'ee and nobody else." Tim handed Wil a tightly folded piece of parchment.

"Did you read it?"

"Can't read. No one ever learned me how."

Wil nodded absently as he unfolded the parchment. The note was short and it took only a few moments to read.

"What's it say?" asked Tim eagerly.

"He's willing to meet me at his house ten days from now. He says to come alone or with one other, and not to bring any arms. He expects a demonstration of my powers - something minor. It isn't signed, so were it to come into the possession of anyone but me, there is no proof that he wrote it."

Wil considered a moment before asking, "If I gave you another note, do you think you could deliver it for me? This one is also very important and you must give it only to the person it's for. You will have to wait by the road near her house for her to come out. If you go to the door, you'll be turned away."

Tim shrugged. "I can do it. 'Ee know I won't let 'ee down."

Wil searched through the pile of straw he used as a mattress until he found the few scraps of parchment and chunk of charcoal he kept there. He carefully scribbled a few words - "Lis, I need to meet with u. Send tym and playce to me with Tim. Wil." - then folded the parchment and handed it to Tim.

"Take this to Lis, daughter of Baron Rig and Baroness Una. Don't leave until she's given you a reply, either by word or in writing."

* * *

Lis entered the Drunk Doxy tentatively, nervous as much about who she was going to meet as by the boisterous atmosphere. The only taproom she had previously been in was that of the calmer Noble's Repose. She pushed back the hood of her cloak to let her hair free. It wasn't a cool night out - in fact, it was warmer than usual - but she hadn't wanted to be seen coming to a place like this. It might easily destroy her future marriage prospects.

Her entry caused a brief ripple of interest through the inn's patrons as she was clearly better dressed - and wearing more clothing - than the majority of women who came here, but it passed quickly. Most of them were far too engrossed in drinking and telling loud, exaggerated stories .

At first, Lis did not see Wil, and, when she finally spied him, sitting quietly at a table in a dimly-lit corner, she almost didn't recognize him. It had only been a year since their last meeting - actually, less than that - but the months had changed him. He seemed harder than before and there was a bleakness in his expression that it wrung her heart to see.

Having seen her come in, Wil motioned for her to join him. Carefully, she threaded her way across the floor, copiously avoiding stepping in spilled beer or being knocked over by drunks lurching to their feet or falling over backwards in their chairs. Still studying her companion's features, searching for some hint of promise, she took a seat opposite him.

"Something to drink?" asked Wil.

Lis wrinkled her nose in distaste. Anything served in this place was likely to be, at best, awful. She shook her head, then asked, "You wanted to see me? After all this time?"

"All this time?" repeated Wil. "It's been less than a year. For someone who swore undying love to me, things have changed rather quickly."

"I meant what I said when I said it," replied Lis as quietly as she could in the loud room.

Wil took a swig of ale or beer or whatever he was drinking. "And now...?"

That was a hard question, and, in Lis' opinion, a profoundly unfair one, but she didn't back away from it. "I'm not indifferent to you. Maybe I still love you. I don't know. But there can never be anything between us. We're too different and the things that you've done in the past year...they scare me."

"You've changed," said Wil, resignation supplanting bitterness in his tone.

"Have I?"

Wil nodded. "You're more sure of yourself and less...flighty. I miss the old you."

"I miss the old you. But we're different people now. You changed when you declared yourself to the king and I changed when I..." She stopped suddenly, uncertain how to proceed. Wil would not react well to the news of her impending engagement.

"There are some things I would have done differently. That stupid last argument we had. It wasn't worth what happened to us," said Wil.

"Maybe that would have happened anyway. It was only a symptom of our differences. When we were younger, we could ignore them, but the older we got, the more important politics became. Unfortunately, your point-of-view and mine are mutually exclusive."

Wil nodded. "It was fun while it lasted."

"It was wonderful. But it had to end."

"I want to be honest with you, Lis. I still love you, although maybe not in the same way I used to. Even if we can't go back to the way we were, I'd like to continue to see you - as a friend, nothing more. The only one I can really talk to is Tim, and he doesn't have many opinions to offer back. You always have opinions."

Lis took a deep breath. Now was the time to tell him. "This has to be the last time we meet, Wil. It's not what I would have chosen, but circumstances have intervened."

"What do you mean by that?"

"My engagement will be announced soon. It's to be a major..."

"And your husband wouldn't understand our friendship?" Wil muttered. After a moment's pause, he added, "I suppose it's only natural. I probably wouldn't either."

"It's more than that," said Lis, choosing her words carefully. "You don't exactly get along with the man I'm going to marry."

Wil's eyes widened. "Sor?" he breathed. "You can't be serious!"

"I told you, Wil. We have two different outlooks on life. In mine, he isn't the monster you believe him to be."

"How did this happen? A year ago, you'd never even met him!" There was passion and anguish in Wil's voice, but none of the uncontrolled rage she had expected.

"Most of it occurred without my knowledge. I didn't find out until all the preliminary arrangements had been made. When I was introduced to Sor, I was essentially meeting my future husband."

"How long ago?"

"Late last year."

"And he hasn't announced the engagement yet?"

Lis shrugged. "He wants to take things slowly, give us a chance to get to know each other before everything becomes public."

"What do you feel for him?"

"Not what I feel for you. I suppose I admire him, but I don't love him."

"So it's a purely political marriage."

"When the king gets married, that's always the case. But I can think of worse matches to be forced into. The one with Bek, for instance. At least married to Sor, I won't lack for anything. Except a husband who loves me, and, unfortunately, that's a rarity for any noblewoman's marriage."

"You'd have that with me," disagreed Wil. "Consider carefully: Sor may not be in power for much longer. If you wait..."

"I know you're sincere about this, Wil, but the odds against you are too great. I know by now that it's useless to ask you to give it up - sort of like asking a volcano to stop erupting - but at least try not to get caught. Sor wouldn't have any choice then but to execute you. That was a foolish thing to do, going to the palace and saying those things."

"It had to be done."

"I suppose from your perspective, it did."

Following that statement, neither of them spoke for some time. Finally, Lis rose and said, "I guess this is the end, then."

Not disputing her words, Wil also got up. "Take care of yourself."

"I'll miss you," said Lis, emotion creeping unbeckoned into her voice. She leaned across the table and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, then turned and hurried from the inn. Wil silently watched her go, the flesh brushed by her lips feeling as if it had been branded.

"Anything else I can getcha, Liw?" asked a voice from beside Wil. Standing there was a short, plump barmaid with curly black hair and laughing brown eyes. Little of her ample cleavage was hidden by the low-plunging neckline of her thin white blouse and her short skirt ended above her knees. It took Wil a moment before he remembered her name: Tya. Off-and-on, she had been pursuing him since he had arrived here in the company of Wor. Since his employment in the inn's stables, her efforts had become more persistent. To this point, mostly because of what he now saw as misplaced loyalty to Lis, he had rebuffed her.

"What did you have in mind?" replied Wil, forcing a smile. He hoped it didn't look to much like a leer. On reflection, however, he recognized that Tya might view a leer as a compliment.

Pleasantly surprised by his reaction, Tya offered, "I get off in half an hour. We could go examine that loft you sleep in. I've never been in a loft before. I'll bet it's fun with all that straw."

"All right," agreed Wil. "Get me another ale while I'm waiting."

Both of Tya's eyebrows went up. In the past, she had never come close to success with Wil. In fact, her constant attempts to seduce him had become more playful than serious.

"Ale it is!" she exclaimed gustily. "Something to build up the stamina. On the house, love!"

* * *

Had Wil possessed better clothes than those he wore to do his job in the Drunk Doxy's stables, he would have worn them to his meeting with Baron Cen. It was, after all, his goal to impress the man; hopefully, the small demonstration of his powers that he had prepared would be sufficient. No matter how much he privately despised the nobility's attitudes and standards, he needed their help. More truthfully, he needed to use them. The creed of "the end justifying the means" had always disturbed Wil, but fate had given him little choice in this matter.

Cen lived in a large mansion situated along the southwestern fringe of Vorti, three and a half miles from the most densely-populated portions of the city. The baron's estate was enormous, more than four times the size of the farm that Wil had grown up on, and that was without the acres of land that Cen had given to various servants through the years. It was easy to see why he was so violently opposed to Sor's land-taxation policies.

The servant who answered the door looked at him with an expression of profound distaste, at first refusing to announce him until Wil grabbed the old fool by the front of his spotless shirt and threatened violence if he wasn't allowed to see the baron.

Much to the servant's horror, Cen commanded that Wil was to be treated with the utmost courtesy and shown in immediately. The baron was reclining on a divan beside a table spread with a sumptuous feast. A woman and two tantalizingly beautiful young girls waited on Cen. After the old man had shown Wil to a seat to the baron's left, he bowed deeply and withdrew.

Wil was shocked at how obese and old Cen seemed. It had been a while, perhaps as long as three years, since he had seen the baron, but in that time, he seemed to have gained a hundred pounds and added another twenty years to his life. His hair was completely white and all of his muscles had turned to flab.

"Ah," said Cen, turning his attention to his guest. "So you are the great Apath Wil. Pleased to meet you." The baron's voice was a little slurred, perhaps the result of too much wine. "Have something to drink?"

Wil nodded perfunctorily and one of the girls came forward with a crystal goblet. The other, obviously her twin, filled the cup with a golden liquid. Wil sipped it tentatively, then, finding it pleasant, took a larger swallow.

"Mianthina," said Cen, indicating the half-empty decanter. "Brewed by elves in the Forest of Llam. Very rare and expensive. I hope you enjoy it. Only the best for our honored guests." There seemed to be a mocking condescension in the baron's voice that Wil found profoundly insulting. Perhaps it was just because the man was drunk.

The goblet that Cen raised to his lips suddenly shattered in his hands, splashing wine and scattering glass shards all over the table and his robes. At the same time, three similar glasses on a tray carried by one of the girls exploded. With a shriek, she dropped the tray, which crashed to the floor with a clatter.

"Damnation!" roared Cen, stumbling to his feet. Except for a few small nicks on the back of his left hand and one ruby-red drop of blood forming on his chin, he appeared uninjured, although his fury was obviously without bounds. The two girls and their older companion cringed away from the baron. Wil, on the other hand, placidly raised his undamaged goblet to his lips and took another sip of the elvish brew.

"You wanted a demonstration. Now you have it," said Wil.

"You son-of-a-bitch! Look at me! Soaked through! Glass all over the place!"

"There will be time enough to clean up later," remarked Wil. "Sit down."

"Now see here..."

"Sit down!"

Reluctantly, Cen obeyed.

"I'm here because we have a common goal: the removal of Sor from power. I believe as you do that his unsound policies have brought this city to the brink of ruin. The taxes he has leveled on the nobility have hurt not only your people but mine as well, because the brunt of the burden has simply been passed on. We must harvest more crops, work longer hours, and endure worse conditions so that the nobles can afford the yoke the king has placed upon them." Wil had rehearsed that speech until he was satisfied with it. He believed no more than a few of the words he had spoken, but the explanation gave him a philosophy that Cen would not find abhorrent.

"I understand what you're saying," said Cen. "You think that if Sor's brought down and the taxes are lifted, life will become better for everyone. Sound reasoning as far as I can see. I admit I've had to come down hard on my servants to meet the king's demands. A few taxes I can understand, but he's gone beyond what's necessary."

"Then, when I move against him, you and your people will give me your support?"

"One moment! I haven't said anything of the sort. In the first place, I can speak only for myself."

"Come now, Baron. We both know that whatever you decide will be adopted by the majority of the nobles. You lead and they follow."

"Perhaps," admitted Cen. "But let's look at things realistically. You're a peasant who's a declared traitor. If you fail, there's not a whole lot you can lose. On the other hand, I'm one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Vorti. For me to dare treason, the rewards would have to be substantial and the chance of failure almost nonexistent."

"I'm an Apath. Is that not reason enough to accept that I will not fail."

"Sor is also an Apath, as is his chancellor. The odds are against you."

"Numbers mean nothing in magic. Wizards cannot combine their powers. Everything is a matter of emotion, and believe me, Baron Cen, my emotion is stronger than any within the king."

"All right, say you succeed, what's in it for me if I help you? Why put my head at risk for something you've obviously decided to do with or without me?"

"How about co-rulership of the city?" suggested Wil. He had decided that it was a fair price to pay. Equal, or nearly-equal, control over Vorti for the baron was not unreasonable, especially since Cen's years were limited.

"How about single rulership of Vorti?" countered Cen.

"Out of the question. I will not risk my life to hand the crown to you."

"You offer much, but with many risks."

"Revolution is never easy. I must have people behind me who are committed to my cause."

"We may be able to work something out. Now hear my proposal. I don't want co-rulership of Vorti. A divided government is bad. Rather, I suggest that you be crowned sole king. In return for my support, you will marry one of my daughters." He indicated the two girls who had served the wine. One averted her eyes and blushed slightly while the other smiled at Wil. "Their names are Rae and Kae and you may have your choice. In this way, my grandson will eventually rule Vorti. Of course, for the rest of my lifetime, I would expect to hold a post of considerable influence, perhaps that of chancellor. After my death, my son should hold the same post."

On the whole, Wil thought it was a rather remarkable proposition, demanding less than he had expected, and that made him instantly suspicious. Then again, he had anticipated treachery from Cen from the start. The only question was when it would come and what its nature would be.

"Your daughters are not of marriageable age," pointed out Wil. In reviewing Cen's plan, that was one of the more practical objections. After all, he did have certain needs that a child could hardly fulfill. Besides which, neither Rae nor Kae was yet capable of bearing him a son.

"Time will correct that. Just because a betrothal is announced does not mean that the marriage must take place immediately. In two years, there will be no question of impropriety. What do you say?"

Wil deliberated. "It may be workable," he decided finally, echoing Cen's earlier words. "You will understand that I can't give you a firm answer immediately. And we have yet to discuss the nature of your support."

"That will depend entirely upon the merit of your actions. Be assured that if your plans look to have a chance of success, the whole force of Vorti's nobility will be behind you." So much, thought Wil, for Cen's protestations that he could speak only for himself.

"Very well," said Wil. "We'll meet again - and soon. Next time, be prepared to talk specifics and commit yourself. I'm done waiting. I swear this: by the dawn of the first day of summer a year hence, Sor son of Kan will no longer sit upon the throne of Vorti!"

The look of fierce determination in the young Apath's eyes left no room for doubt.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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