The kiss was tentative and passionless, both participants more concerned about decorum than emotion. Instead of trying to ignite a spark, they were careful not to bump noses or exhale improperly. The fingers of his left and her right hand were interlaced, but that action had no more significance or depth than the kiss: a mere formality to privately seal what would soon be a public reality.

"So, it's settled?" asked Lis quietly when they had drawn apart.

"Yes," replied Sor.

"I guess we'd better tell the world. I suppose Midsummer's Day is the best time."

The king nodded. "It gives us a week."

"To back out?"

"To consider if this is what we both really want. Once the engagement is formally announced, there's no turning back. Until then, changes are possible."

In the end, Sor's choice for a wife had come down to Lis or Rae. Politically, there were pros and cons to each match. While Lis was definitely the safer of the two women, Rae was the more interesting. Sor had considered that because of her young age, he might be able to mold the personality of Cen's daughter to match what he wanted from his queen, but, at the same time, the possibility was not lost to him that she might already have been molded into something deadly. So he chose relative safety and decided to marry Lis.

"I think we'd better talk," suggested Lis. "If we're going to live together, we have to come to some sort of arrangement."

Sor nodded, taking a seat on the bed and inviting her to sit in his plush chair. They were in his chambers, the place where Sye had suggested - or, more accurately, insisted - that he propose. The ever-scheming queen had probably hoped that pair would do more than talk, but Sor didn't see that as likely. Even though Lis was going to be his wife, he couldn't envision anyone but Joi in his bed.

"You and I both know that there's nothing between us. I don't love you and you certainly don't love me. I'm not even sure that you like me," confessed Lis.

"I don't like or dislike you. To be truthful, I'm indifferent."

"I thought so. Because there's no animosity, it may be possible to build some sort of positive relationship. I don't want to live a miserable life trapped in a cold marriage. Politics are forcing us into this, but there's no reason that we can't take what we're allowed and make it into something... enjoyable. More than a few successful marriages have started that way."

"You want us to try kisses and hugs and that sort of thing."

"Perhaps we should start with what we already have - honesty - and move on from there. I'm willing, but it will never work if we don't commit to it. Maybe nothing will happen but, for both our sakes, we have to make some sort of effort. Who knows? One day, perhaps we'll be the happiest couple in Vorti."

That idea was so absurd that, had he been in a lighter mood, Sor would have laughed aloud. Apparently, Lis was still nurturing her little-girl dreams of a perfect marriage and loving husband, fantasies that had no place in politics. In one sense, however, she was right. There was no need to endure a barren marriage if it could be made more palatable. But he absolutely would not give up Joi. To the best of his knowledge, Lis didn't know about his mistress, but, if she found out, the issue was non-negotiable.

"All, right," said Sor, forcing a smile, "I'll do my best."


The couple talked for a little longer, their conversation broken by frequent, uncomfortable pauses, before Lis noted that she should inform her parents of their decision. When he was alone again, the king let out a heartfelt sigh before returning to the bed to await his maid's regular evening visit.

* * *

"We've got him hooked!" exclaimed an ecstatic Cen, pausing in devouring his evening supper to rub his hands together in anticipation. "The official proposal will come any day now."

"Rae?" asked Nia between delicate bites.

"I assume so. We haven't actually talked about which twin, but I think he's more taken with her. Kae's forthrightness makes him nervous. Hell, sometimes it makes me nervous, and I'm her father."

"We'll have to marry her off quickly or she'll end up with child by one of the male servants. Even at her age, she's starting to flirt."

"There are plenty of families who will drool at the chance to align with us by marriage, even moreso after Rae marries Sor. Kae can have the pick of the litter, so to speak."

"And what about Wil?" asked Nia. She knew that her husband had been involved in three meetings with the renegade Apath, but Cen had been unusually closemouthed about his plans over the past few months. Apparently, Wil was no longer part of them, at least as far as marrying one of his daughters was concerned.

"He's not worth the effort," admitted Cen. "He's clearly got power, but it won't be enough, not against Sor, Vas, and the militia. Maybe with the full support of the nobility, he'd have a fighting chance, but why go to all that trouble when everything's working out so well with Sor and Rae. I played both sides to get the best chance at the throne. Now it's time to end things with Wil."

"You'd better be careful."

"Damn right, I'd better be careful. That lad will burn this house to the ground if I'm not. He's obsessed with avenging some kind of wrong that Kan did to his family. He explained it to me, but I'm not sure I understand it. Figuring out how to get rid of him without angering him is going to be a huge problem. I'd give him Kae as a 'peace offering' if I thought it would do any good, but he wouldn't be interested. For him, our daughter is only a necessary stepping stone to get to Sor. Yes, this is going to be a difficult situation to handle."

"I have every confidence in your abilities, Dear."

Cen tried unsuccessfully to detect sarcasm in his wife's response. He knew how displeased she was at his usage of their daughters as bargaining chips in the power games he was playing. Personally, he didn't like it either - he adored the twins - but there was no other way.

"When are we going to tell Rae?" asked Nia.

"When we're sure it's her that your beloved half-brother has chosen. It would be a trifle unsettling to get her all prepared for the engagement, then discover that he wants to marry Kae."

"But you're sure it's one of them?"

"That's what he said this morning. 'Baron Cen, I've given your proposal a great deal of thought, and, with a few minor alterations, it seems the best way. I've talked to my chancellor and he agrees that a union between myself and one of your daughters might be best for the future of Vorti.' That sounds to me like someone who's made his mind up."

"Strange," commented Nia. "Rumor has it that Rig and Una are getting ready for a wedding between their daughter and the king. The queen was at their house yesterday and earlier today, and Lis apparently went to the palace late this afternoon."

Cen frowned. "I hope our king isn't trying to play both ends of the pipe. And how come you always find out about these things before me?"

"My maids are excellent sources of information. You should try listening to the servants' talk."

"The servants stop talking when I come within earshot."

"That's because you intimidate them."

"As it should be," grunted the baron. "They chatter and gossip too damn much when they should be working."

"Do you know what your children think of this match?"

"No," said Cen. It had never occurred to him to ask his daughters' opinions. "Do you?"

"Rae seems taken by the idea of marrying the king and going to live in the palace. She daydreams about it and says things like 'When I'm the queen'. Kae teases her about it, but I think she's just as hopeful as her sister."

"There!" declared Cen triumphantly, spearing his last chunk of meat with a fork and popping it in his mouth. "Everything works out for the best."

Nia shook her head. "They're too young, Cen. They don't know Sor. They don't understand what a marriage to him will mean."

"One of them is about to find out."

* * *

Sye was sitting in front of a looking glass in her dressing chamber, brushing her long, silver-streaked golden hair and humming softly to herself, when a knock came at the outer door to her rooms. Frowning slightly because Yiv was half an hour early and she wasn't ready yet, she put down the brush, slipped a filmy, almost-transparent robe on, then padded barefoot across the plush carpeting to answer the door.

Her visitor, however, was Vas, not Yiv. "May I come in, Your Majesty?" Without waiting for an answer, he strode past her and took a seat in the only hard-backed chair in Sye's sitting room.

The queen looked at him in vexation before shutting the door. "I assume you have some important reason for disturbing me like this?" she asked coldly.

"I wouldn't have come if I didn't. Perhaps you can enlighten me as to why your son suddenly decided to marry the daughter of Rig rather than one of Cen's twins."

"Because I'd like Sor to stay alive."

"And that wouldn't be possible married to Rae or Kae?"

"No," stated Sye flatly. "Cen's purpose from the start has been to get the throne. Everything he's done has been to that end. This is just the culmination of his plans. Marry his daughter - Kan's granddaughter - to the king. Then, when Sor dies - and accidents can happen so easily - she'll have a perfect claim to the throne."

"I'm sure you know all about accidents," said Vas.

Sye looked at him sharply. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. And what makes you think Cen isn't sincere about what he proposed to Sor? Is it difficult to accept that he'll be satisfied with one of his daughter's children taking the throne rather than his daughter?"

"Yes. He wants the power to come to his family while he's still alive to manipulate it. He won't live to see his grandson take the throne unless something happens to Sor."

"And you think that your son, an Apath, along with my help and the aid of a corps of loyal, elite guards, can't be protected from anything Cen might conjure up?"

"No one can protect him from his wife."

"She'll be eleven years old when they get married!" exclaimed Vas, showing more animation than Sye ever remembered. "That's hardly old enough for Cen to have indoctrinated her. The deceptions of children are evident; Cen would never try something so foolish."

"You underestimate Cen. He has a cunning, devious mind."

"And it takes one to know one?"

Sye's face turned white. "Get out!"

"I'm not going anywhere," replied Vas. He made no move to rise.

"I'll call the guards."

"Do so," invited Vas, raising one eyebrow. "I'm sure you'll be most effective pleading your case dressed like that. Interesting the kinds of rumors it would start."

When stony silence answered the chancellor's comments, he returned to the original topic of conversation. "So, by convincing Sor to abandon a marriage to Rae or Kae, you've doomed this city to be torn apart by strife for another generation. Our one chance to heal the wounds...gone. I hope you're proud of what your ill-advised manipulation has earned."

"Lis is the daughter of a baron. Her marriage to Sor will unite him with the nobility."

"Rig is nothing in their eyes - a sycophant. He's laughed at behind his back. The other nobles call him one of the 'King's pets'. It isn't a term of endearment. Cen, on the other hand, has real power and influence among them, from dukes to counts and everything in between. You might almost say he's their leader."

"He's an arrogant son-of-a-bitch."

"I agree. But he's going to be one angry son-of-a-bitch when he finds that his daughter's been rejected for Lis. Sor all but promised him that there would be a marriage."

"That isn't my problem. I didn't make any agreements with him. The situation with Lis was arranged before any of this mess with Cen started."

"Why are you so determined that Sor marry Lis?" asked Vas.

"You agreed with it at one time," pointed out Sye. "You were the one who recommended her, if I recall correctly."

"When there were no better alternatives. Not now. As you just pointed out, that was before Cen made his first overture. Why aren't you willing to be flexible? If you're worried about Lis' parents' reaction, give them a few thousand silver and there won't be any ill will. Payments like that are made all the time to the families of jilted brides and, in this case, there hasn't even been a formal announcement."

"So pay off Cen. Nothing's been made public about either of his two daughters."

"It isn't that simple with him. Rig is a small man with small ambitions and little power. He can be trifled with and nothing will happen. If Cen thinks Sor's been playing games with him, his wrath will be terrible."

"Sor will marry Lis. It's been decided. It's the best match."

"It most certainly is not, unless you want to risk a war with the nobility."

"War? You're exaggerating. No one wants a war - not them, not us. Now, if you'll kindly leave, I'm...expecting someone."

Vas rose, shaking his head. "If wish I could get inside your thoughts. You have the most twisted, warped mind of any woman I've met."

"Good night, Chancellor," replied Sye coldly, turning her back on him and walking into her dressing chamber.

In the doorway, Vas encountered Yiv, Jen's husband, apparently ready to knock. The carpenter blushed deeply when he saw Vas emerge, but the chancellor only shook his head sadly and moved on.

* * *

At that moment, Joi was cuddling close to Sor under the covers of the royal bed, her flesh pressed against his as she nuzzled his chest, nipping at the short, wiry hairs that grew there.

"Ouch!" yelped Sor following a particularly effective assault.

"Have I caused Your Majesty pain?"

"Yes," muttered Sor, reaching up with one hand to massage the area where one of the hairs had been yanked out. There was a little red mark there.

"That's to remember me by when you're in bed with your new wife. I bet she won't do that to you."

"If she does, I'll divorce her. Obedience is expected from a wife."

"But not from a mistress?"

"No. In fact, sometimes obedience isn't wanted from a mistress."

Joi started to nibble at the fingers that were rubbing Sor's "injury", but quickly the bites turned into kisses. Abruptly, she stopped and rolled onto her back.

"So, have you decided who it's going to be?" she asked.

"Who who's going to be?"

"Your wife, of course."

"Oh, that," muttered Sor. "Do we have to talk about it now? Wouldn't it be a little more appropriate...later?"

"I'm curious."

"Doesn't it bother you a little that I'm going to marry someone else?"

"It was my choice."

"That isn't what I asked."

"Okay, it does bother me a little, but I don't have the right to ask for more than I already have - in fact, I don't have the right to ask for this. And I can't help it that I'm curious about her."


"Really?" replied Joi, surprised. "Last night, you sounded like you'd decided on Rae."

"I did?"

"You remember. I called you a pervert because she's half your age and isn't developed enough to have children yet."

"Well, I talked with my mother. Actually, I argued with my mother, and she seems pretty convinced that marrying Rae would be more than my life's worth. So it's back to Lis."

"Will it be Rae again tomorrow night?"

"Who knows?" admitted Sor. "But I'll have to make a final decision fairly soon. The engagement is supposed to be announced on Midsummer's Day."

"And the marriage?"

"If it's Rae, two years to the day. If it's Lis...thirty-five days."

"That's not much time," noted Joi.

"It will force a necessary change in our relationship."

"Obviously. If you want to get her pregnant, you'll have to sleep with her once in a while."

"Maybe more often than that."

"You want to break it off with me?"

"No, no, nothing like that," said Sor hastily. "It's just that...for a while at least, I don't want to make it obvious that I'm being unfaithful. That's not a good way to start off any marriage."

"So we stop for a while?" Joi didn't sound happy about the prospect.

"Not entirely. I need you. We can meet once or twice every ten days. Discreetly."

"I suppose that will have to..." She was interrupted by a sharp double rap on the outer door. It was loud enough that, even had the king been in a deep sleep, he would have heard it.

"What the..." muttered Sor. Then, more loudly, he called, "Who is it?"

"Hud, Your Majesty."

Sor threw back the covers, pulled on his tunic and leggings, then told Joi, "Stay here. He knows you're in here, but there's no need to be brazen about it."

Hud was waiting patiently outside when the king opened the door. The guard handed him a rolled piece of parchment with the name "SOR" scrawled along the edge.

"What's this?"

"I don't know, Your Majesty," confessed Hud, sounding upset that he couldn't give a satisfactory answer to the simple, direct question. "I'm sure it wasn't here a few minutes ago, then I looked down and there it was. No one came near here, that much I swear. The only one I've seen since going on duty is your maid."

Sor might have been tempted to smell for liquor on the breath of any other guard, but Hud was as staid and faithful a man as any he had met. He would not disgrace himself by drinking on duty.

Sor unfurled the scroll and read it, a grim expression transforming his features as his eyes scanned the eight barely-legible lines. When he was done, he said, "It's not your fault, Hud. Keep a careful lookout and call me if anything unusual happens. And get someone else to stand guard with you. From now on, there should be at least two on duty at any one time."

"Aye, Your Majesty," replied Hud, saluting.

"What is it?" asked Joi, noticing Sor's disturbed and preoccupied expression when he returned to the bedroom.

Knowing she couldn't read, Sor related the scroll's contents to her, "'Greetings, King of Vorti. This note is to remind you that I have not forgotten. And now there is something else for you to pay for. On the memory of my mother and father, I swear to bring you down. You know as well as I that magic is a matter of passion. In that, you can never beat me. There will be no more warnings. Wil.' He delivered it magically so I wouldn't doubt its authenticity."

"Shouldn't you order a search?"

Sor shook his head. "No point. With magic, he could have been across the city when he sent this. Or even outside of it. It's not a difficult thing, if you know how."

"What does he mean, 'something else for you to pay for'?"

"I haven't got a clue. I still don't know what the first thing is that I'm supposed to have done to him. I wish he'd be less cryptic."

"What will you do?"

"Nothing for now. I have men out looking for him every day, but they won't find anything. He'll stay hidden for as long as he wants, but to make his move, he'll have to show himself."

"And then you'll get him?"

"And then I'll get him." He didn't add what he was thinking: Either that, or he'll get me.

* * *

Five days later, on Midsummer's Morning, Sor entered the throne room. Accompanying him was Lis, the daughter of Baron Rig, dressed in a floor-length, ermine-trimmed sapphire gown with a stunning diamond broach adorning her bosom - both of which were engagement gifts from the prospective bridegroom. A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd, which was smaller than usual because of the holiday and bad weather outside. An uncommon absence, noted by only an observant few, was Chancellor Vas.

"Ladies and gentlemen, nobles and peasants," began Sor, adapting a speech that was centuries old. "I, Sor of Vorti, have the pleasure of introducing you, my people, to one of your own who is to be the first among you. She is Lis, daughter of Baron Rig and Baroness Una, and she has found much favor with me. In thirty days' time, in this very hall, our lives will be joined and she shall be the daughter of Rig and Una no longer, but the queen of Vorti. Your queen, my people. All hail Lis!"

A loud cheer arose from the assembled crowd, although the reaction of the nobles was considerably more restrained than that of the peasants. One noble in particular did not cheer. White-faced and trembling with suppressed fury, Cen stalked from the room, peasants and nobles alike shrinking away from him as he passed.

Sor noticed the baron's departure. Vas had warned him that this would happen. Cen would see this as a betrayal, and all the bridges that had been built between the two men would come crashing down. For the hundredth time, he wondered if he had done the right thing, but didn't allow the doubt to show on his face. A king, even when wrong, could never be seen to waver in public.

He looked at Lis, splendid in the gown he had presented to her earlier this morning, and, for the first time, felt a stirring of desire. One thing he could never deny was her beauty. Despite Cen's biased assertions to the contrary, she looked like a queen. Almost as if reading Sor's mind, Lis caught his glance and winked at him.

Throughout the city, the news spread quickly, and, despite the rainy weather, one of the biggest Midsummer's celebrations in recent years started up, the normal joyous atmosphere buoyed by the engagement of the king to the daughter of one of the few popular nobles. Men and women danced in the streets, heedless of the mud beneath their feet and the cascading water from above. Taverns and inns filled to overflowing as revelers stepped inside to get drunk and sing songs. In the palace, a ball hosted by the king's mother was underway, allowing a more stately celebration by those too refined or stodgy to make merry outside. Beneath a low-hanging gray cloud bank, the city of Vorti was suddenly alive with light and sound, except in the mansion of Baron Cen and stables of the Drunk Doxy, where the mood was blacker than the sky above.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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