THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART FOUR: SEEDS OF REBELLION


CHAPTER TWENTY


Even though the wedding ceremony of Sor and Lis was not scheduled until high noon, the festivity outside of the palace grounds started at dawn. Many tavern owners and innkeepers were offering a free first round of drinks, so these establishments were packed long before they would normally have their first patrons. The streets were mobbed, as everyone living on the fringes and beyond the actual limits of Vorti came to the inner city to join the celebration. The weather cooperated by yielding a nearly-perfect day, with a temperate breeze blowing from the south and hardly a cloud in the powder-blue sky.

There were, of course, some in Vorti who were not ecstatic about the wedding. One was Joi, who had stayed as isolated as she could from others during the morning. Ironically, because Sor had gotten up long before daybreak and was being prepared for his ordeal in a special chamber in another wing of the palace, she had found refuge in his chambers, a place where only she and a few select others had the right to go.

Around mid-morning, another of those select entered, searching for Sor's sash of office, which, because he almost never wore it, he had left behind. The queen found the despondent-looking maid in her son's bedroom, changing his linens in preparation for the wedding night.

"Are you all right, Child?" asked Sye, her voice strangely gentle.

Joi smiled, half-nervously, half-sadly. Despite what others said, she had always thought the queen to be a kind person. "Yes, Your Majesty," she replied.

"Come now, Child, you needn't hide your feelings from me. I know - have known for some time - that you and my son are lovers. This cannot be a happy day for you."

"I know he has to get married, Your Majesty, and that this is a happy day for Vorti, but...it hurts a little too much inside for me to join in. And I couldn't stand in the audience hall with the rest of the servants and watch the ceremony, even though, as his personal maid, I'm supposed to be close to his side."

"I assume he has released you from that duty."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Then I certainly don't have any objections if you choose to spend the rest of the day in this chamber. You might want to leave before the king and queen retire for the night, however."

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

"Was there something else you wanted to tell me?" asked Sye.

Joi hesitated before speaking, but she needed someone - anyone - to talk to. "He asked me to marry him first, Your Majesty."

"I know, and it was a wonderful sacrifice you made by turning him down. Though it's slim consolation, what you have done is the best for him and all of Vorti."

"There is...something else," said Joi hesitantly.

"You can tell me."

"I'm carrying Sor's child."

For the briefest of moments, Sye's expression of gentle caring slipped. "Are you sure?" she asked, her voice not quite so assuaging.

Joi nodded reluctantly, made uneasy by the queen's reaction.

"How advanced is it?"

"More than a season."

"Does he know?"

"No. Not yet," said Joi. She had spent some time trying to determine how best to broach the subject.

"Do you want to get rid of it? I know someone who can take care of that with almost no trouble. It would be done very discreetly and you would miss only a few days of work," offered Sye.

"No!" One thing Joi was certain of was that she wanted to keep the child. She would never give it up, before or after it was born.

"All right, all right. You must realize, however, that Sor can never acknowledge the child."

"I understand."

"This is a difficult situation," admitted Sye. "I knew it could happen, of course. Were you sleeping together every night?"

"Nearly."

"I suppose it's odd it didn't happen sooner, then. Listen: I know you want to tell Sor, but it would be best to wait about a half-season, until he's had time to get settled into his marriage. If you start to show before then, tell him you're putting on weight. In the meantime, go on sleeping with him whenever he wants you."

Such forthright advice from the queen surprised Joi. "Yes, Your Majesty."

"Very well. Why don't you rest in here for a while. I'll come back to get you before the royal couple heads in this direction." So saying, the queen left the room. Joi didn't see the slow, secretive smile that overspread Sye's face as the door shut behind her.

* * *

Wil's next meeting with Cen was scheduled for later in the week. The baron, enraged beyond belief by some perceived insult - Wil couldn't guess what - had suddenly pledged his undying support to Wil in whatever endeavors he intended to pursue against Sor. He had also given the young Apath the pick of his daughters for a future wife. Although Wil hadn't chosen yet, he was leaning towards Kae, the livelier of the two, who reminded him a little of Lis, in spirit if not appearance.

This war would not be won by magic alone. Wil accepted that. In fact, he knew that, for the most part, he would just be a figurehead and rallying point. Eventually, magic would be used, but not for a while. The more conventional part of the struggle would come first.

As hard as it was to accept, the commoners would soon be his enemies. His people, the ones he was ultimately fighting for, would be against him. It had taken much rationalization to convince himself that killing them, when necessary, was the right thing to do. That was not an easy doctrine to believe, but he knew that when the time came, he would steel his heart and do what had to be done. All good commanders had the blood of both sides on their hands. The only difference here was that Wil would be fighting the war with one side to win it for the other.

His temporary allies, the nobles, would get killed too, although not in nearly as great numbers. It was their money, more than their bodies, that he would use. Wil didn't want battles raging in the streets; he hoped that most of the fighting could be confined to the palace. Not only would that reduce the final body count, but it would ensure that most of the dead deserved their fate.

Today, Wil intended to start the war with a flourish. If luck was with him, which it hadn't been of late, he might also be able to finish it in one stroke, with a single death. The core of the ruling family was Sor. Eliminate him, and with no heirs to take his place, there would be a mad scramble for power. Wil had no blood-ties to the throne to claim, but with his Apath's power, no one would stand against him.

Setting off for the palace, Wil dismissed alternatives as quickly as he thought of them. His tendency was to consider plans of widespread destruction, which were not desirable in this situation. No matter which course of action he chose, it must not put Lis' life in danger. Other lives were expendable, but not hers. It perhaps wasn't realistic to expect Sor's death - the king would have to be woefully unprepared for that fortuitous event to happen - but, at the minimum, Wil wanted to knock his enemy off balance.

Wil's already-bleak mood was further curdled by the presence of the many festive revelers celebrating so early in the day. The cheering and dancing sickened him, every joyous shout a bitter reminder of what was going on and who Sor had chosen to take as his wife.

There was a mob gathered in the courtyard of the palace; hundreds of people struggling to get near the doors so they could have an opportunity to be a part of the wedding ceremony. Masking his features with the coldest, most hostile expression he could muster, Wil passed through the gates and began to elbow, shoulder, and push his way forward, all the while exhibiting a ruthless lack of consideration for the others trying to do the same thing.

People turned vicious glares in Wil's direction, a few of them even vocalizing their anger. Seemingly impervious to the ill-will he was generating, the young Apath struggled on, striving for the single goal he had set his sights on. In order to do anything to disrupt the wedding, he had to get into the audience hall, and it was while he was fighting his way inside that he came up with an idea - the first seeds of a plan.

Wil found a standing place near the back of the room along the right side of the center aisle, which was being kept clear. He needed both an unobstructed view of the dais and easy access to the exit. As soon as he had done what he intended, a quick departure would be necessary.

The ceremony was supposed to begin at noon, but by the first hour past, there were still people filing into the cramped audience chamber. Most of the nobles had arrived and were seated in their pews, but the guards were trying to find room for a few final peasants. As yet, there had been no sign of any members of the wedding party. In the midst of summer, with all of the closely-spaced bodies, the heat was almost-unbearable and the odor only slightly less so. Wil noticed with grim satisfaction that many of the nobles looked distinctly uncomfortable, if not blatantly ill.

Finally, the double doors were shut and the trumpet fanfare started. A hush fell over the assembled crowd of half a thousand as the royal entourage emerged from a concealed door just behind the throne.

First came the bride's mother and father, she in a new, stylish emerald dress and he in a doublet and hose of deep purple. Wil, who had never before seen Baron Rig and only once encountered Baroness Una, looked on curiously. From the back of the room, at least, they appeared an impressive couple, with the Baron cutting an especially dashing figure. Wil nodded grimly to himself. Rig would do perfectly for what he had in mind.

Lis was next, resplendent in a billowing saffron gown with a twenty-foot long train borne by several little girls, each also dressed in yellow. Lis' flaxen hair was woven into a delicate pattern, with braided strands crossing and crisscrossing intricately, giving her a natural crown. This didn't impress Wil, since he preferred hair - any hair, not just hers - to hang loose. He was too far away to see her face clearly, but she didn't seem to be smiling.

Behind Lis was Sor's youngest half-sister, Gea, beautiful although unmarried at the age of twenty-five. She had short, loosely-curled auburn hair and a nearly-perfect, strangely-compelling face with twinkling hazel eyes. To Wil, who could not spot that much detail, she looked like any common brown-haired girl in a pale blue dress.

Jen and her husband Yiv came next, she with her hand resting lightly on his arm. Both were attractive, Jen with a head of rich strawberry-blond hair that had only begun to show signs of graying and Yiv with his perfectly-conditioned, nearly-flawless physique. Most in the throne room saw nothing amiss between the smiling couple, but a few of the more discerning members of the audience noticed the falseness of their smiles.

Sye came next, her beauty eclipsing that of everyone who had come before her. Like the other women on the groom's side, she was dressed in a gown of pale blue with complex patterns of lavender lace across the breast. Her hair hung loosely, spilling over her shoulders. Her face, with its smooth, flawless perfection, was serene, with full, red lips slightly upturned.

Behind Sye came the corpulent Vas, dressed in full-length black robes and sporting an equally dark skullcap. His face was grave and his long mustaches seemed to droop more than usual.

Finally, bringing up the rear, was Sor, flanked by two of his bodyguards. The king's expression was only slightly less grave than that of his chancellor. He was dressed simply, in a deep blue doublet and hose, with a long cloak of the same color fastened around his neck. Atop his neatly-arranged head of wavy blond hair was the crown of Vorti, a simple jewel-encrusted circlet.

Wil watched the procession from the back of the room, barely noticing anyone other than Lis, whose appearance had arrested his attention. He was aware, of course, that Sor had entered the hall, but, after a brief glance to confirm this, his eyes went back to the girl in the saffron gown.

As the ceremony began, Wil readied himself. When the couple joined hands in preparation for a greater, more permanent union, he opened himself to the nearly-familiar buzzing noise that heralded a burst of magic.

* * *

Lis was weeping, her sobs on the verge of hysteria. Someone else was crying - Sor couldn't be sure who, although he thought it might be Una. His own lips were uttering occasional groans as the man kneeling beside him gently prodded at and probed his left arm. His mind was a jumbled mass of sounds, sights, and smells, none of them clear, all of them merging together to form a nightmare-like tableau that was fragmented and incomplete. Only the pain, vicious and undeniable, demanded that he accept this as reality and not a creation of his subconscious.

He forced his blurred vision to focus on the arm receiving all the attention. There was a lot of blood. His tunic was stained with it, the blue sleeve so thoroughly soaked that it had turned brown. The knife had bitten deeply, cutting just below the shoulder, shearing through flesh, tendons, and muscles. Sor realized that he was lucky to still have the arm, and, for that matter, his life.

His eyes closed and he felt himself sag against arms supporting him from behind. The man by his side - he had claimed to be a healer - tore away most of the clothing around the wound and set to work sewing it shut to staunch the flow of blood. Sor let out a ragged yelp and felt a stick inserted in his half-open mouth. Instinctively, he bit down hard and kept biting until sweat was beading on his forehead. The pain was almost unendurable. Abruptly, he swooned, and the stick fell to the floor with a clatter.

When he regained consciousness, his eyelids fluttering open, Sor realized he hadn't been out for long. The healer had finished stitching the wound and was now bandaging his arm from shoulder to elbow. The pain had diminished enough for him to be aware of the ache in his jaw and the sting on his left cheek, where the first dagger thrust had cut him.

The throne room was, of course, in chaos, with the guards trying to clear the hall as quickly as they could. Everyone from the bridal party was still present. Sor heard his mother and Vas giving orders. His sisters were around somewhere - he could hear their voices as well, hushed to whispers. Lis and her mother were still crying, although no longer as vocally. A quick glance to the side revealed Baron Rig, lying in an ever-expanding pool of his own blood, a surprised expression frozen on his dead face, as if he couldn't believe that a guard's sword-thrust had run him through.

Sor still wasn't sure exactly what had happened, the attack having come so swiftly and from such an unexpected source. As he had started to take the oath that would bind him to Lis, Baron Rig had suddenly let out an inhuman howl and launched himself at the king, his eyes wide with a wild, mindless rage and a wicked-looking, curved knife appearing in his hands as if from nowhere. His shout had given Sor sufficient warning to jerk back his head, or the thrust that had torn open his cheek would have severed his neck. Before anyone could react, Rig reversed the knife's path, slicing downwards and nearly hacking off the king's arm. Then the king's bodyguards had come to the rescue, one of them knocking him to the side, out of harm's way, while the other dispatched the would-be assassin with practiced skill. As best Sor could remember, Rig had died silently.

Immediately, the guards had begun clearing the room, being none-too-gentle with anyone, even the elderly and infirm. Calls for a healer had brought forward the man who knelt beside Sor now, a middle-aged peasant with a kind face and deft fingers. The guards had been reluctant to let any stranger near their injured king, but Sye's demands had cowed them and the healer had been allowed to approach and get to work.

Sor was suddenly aware that the healer was asking him something. "How do you feel?" repeated the man gently, his face a picture of genuine concern.

"It hurts...feels like someone's lit a fire under the skin," said Sor, shocking himself with the weakness of his voice.

"That sensation won't go away quickly, but it will go away. You must be careful to keep the arm very still. If the damage doesn't heal properly, you could lose the use of it. If the wound had been a fraction more serious, there would have been nothing I could do. You were lucky, Your Majesty."

All things considered, Sor didn't feel very lucky. "How's everyone else?" he asked.

Vas appeared, stepping into his field of view from behind. "You were the only one injured, besides the assassin, that is. As you can see..." - he gestured towards the body - "he has been dealt with."

"My wife?"

"She isn't your wife yet," declared Vas, his voice cold. "And never will be. All of this was apparently an elaborate set-up for the baron to take your life. He almost succeeded."

Even in his current, dazed state, Sor thought there was something wrong with that explanation. He was certain that Rig's loyalty hadn't been a ploy; the man had been faithful to the crown for decades, never once wavering, even in the most difficult of times. The few times Sor had met him, he had found in Rig an unimpeachable sincerity. The baron he had known was not the man who had done this. And why had he cried out, ruining a sure opportunity for success? Nothing made any sense.

"How is Lis?" repeated Sor, amending the question so that it was more to Vas' liking.

The chancellor shrugged. "She seems upset. It's too early to determine whether she was in on the plot or not. I'd like to throw her in the dungeon and see what she has to say after a few days without food."

Sor shook his head. "Confine her to a room upstairs. Her mother as well. Let's not punish them without understanding more about what's happened. If being civilized won't persuade them to tell the truth, we can try other means."

Vas bowed stiffly, "As Your Majesty commands."

Sor turned back to the healer, who had been trying surreptitiously to catch his attention. "What's your name?" he asked the man.

"Rim, Your Majesty."

"What is it, Rim?"

"Your cheek, Your Majesty. I'm afraid there isn't much I can do. It's stopped bleeding, but when it heals, there will be a scar. There's nothing I can do about that. I'm sorry."

Sor lifted his right hand and let his fingers brush across the injury. It was tender to the touch and he could feel the blood congealing and caking around it. He realized that for the rest of his life, from ear to chin, he would have a vivid reminder of his close call with Rig's knife.

"It's all right," sighed Sor. "You did the best you could. I'll see that you're suitably rewarded."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," replied the healer, bowing deeply.

"You're going to bed immediately," decreed Sye, moving in front of Sor so he could see her without turning his head. "No arguments."

In response, Sor nodded wearily, then closed his eyes. Had it not been for the pain in his arm, he might actually have fallen asleep.

* * *

That evening, as Wil sat in the loft waiting for his lover Tya to finish her shift, he contemplated what he had accomplished and where he had failed. The most bitter lesson of the day had perhaps been that having magic was not necessarily enough - knowing how to use it was at least as important. Wil had experimented and the experiment had yielded mixed results. Consequently, frustration and triumph now warred within him: triumph that he had done so much damage, and frustration that it had not been enough. The marriage had been stopped, but Sor still lived.

From his studies under Wor's tutelage, Wil had known that mind control was possible. In fact, because it required only enough magical energy to amplify and extend thoughts, it was a frequently used tool of wizards. Unfortunately, Wor had never taught him how to do it. So, in trying it on Rig without previous experience, he had failed. Looking back, Wil suspected he had used too much energy. Instead of gaining mental control, he had gotten physical domination. Rather than sitting quietly in the baron's mind and controlling his thoughts, he had somehow taken possession of Rig's body, shunting the other man's mind to one side.

Suddenly, he had been in two places at once, looking out of two pairs of eyes: his own and Rig's. Although he had realized that all wasn't as it should be, it hadn't been until later, when he'd analyzed the experience, that he had arrived at some conclusions about what had gone wrong, why it had done so, and how it might be corrected in the future.

The link between himself and Rig had been incomplete; his control over the foreign body limited at best. Rig, reduced to skulking in some dark corner of his own mind, had fought him every second, trying to eject the invader from his body. That had not been Wil's only problem. His own consciousness had started to fray at the edges, threatening his sanity. By dividing his identity, he had begun to lose small pieces of it.

Having established a tenuous and temporary command over Rig's body, Wil had then tapped more emotion and used the resulting magic to shape the molecules of air around the baron's right hand into a formidable knife: heavy, sharp, and curved. Weapon in hand, the body - Wil's tool - was compelled into action. Had his control been more sure, the young Apath would have succeeded, but Rig managed to summon up enough willpower for a final sally against the usurper. At a critical moment, Wil's concentration wavered, giving Rig the opportunity to cry out and alert Sor to his danger.

Wil had fled the body before the guard's sword struck home, but not before cutting the king twice. He might have gotten in one more thrust had he remained longer, but he hadn't been anxious to discover what would happen to his identity if Rig's body was killed while he was partially inhabiting it.

Escape from the throne room had not been difficult. In fact, the guards had helped, reacting immediately to clear the audience hall, forcing him along with the hundreds of other observers out at swordpoint. There had never been any need to flee. No one had recognized him or suspected anything.

From a clinical perspective, Wil was displeased with the way he had handled the situation. Striking an opening blow against Sor was not a bad idea, but he had acted impulsively, without a plan. Had his every move been previously considered, the results might have been satisfactory. An old saying stated that in war, every commander was allowed one mistake. Wil had just made his.

* * *

The next night, Wil arrived for a previously-arranged after-dinner meeting with Cen. The baron was in an excellent mood, his spirits buoyed considerably by the disaster at Sor's wedding. After filling two glass tumblers with a dark, sweet-smelling brew, Cen invited Wil to join him in the privacy of his sitting room.

"Who would have thought it? Old Rig on our side after all?" chuckled the baron after he and Wil had seated themselves in facing padded chairs.

The room, in Wil's view, reflected the personality of the man who used it: extravagantly wasteful. The chairs, tables, desk, and sofa were all obviously quite expensive, yet gave the appearance of being used on only the rarest of occasions. Rich tapestries, depicting the battles of great armies and struggles of heroes against dragons, adorned the walls, each probably worth a prince's ransom. The large rug that covered the floor nearly from wall to wall seemed to be some kind of map, although of what, Wil could not guess.

Wil hated ostentatious displays. He found it deplorable that men like Cen could sit smugly in their chairs sipping their drinks when the sale of just one tapestry or piece of furniture would feed dozens of families for a winter. Wil remembered vividly how hard and cruel some of those winters could be. When he got into power, these things would change. The inequities that had ruined his family and countless others would be wiped away and a new era would embrace Vorti - one that his current ally would view as a betrayal. So be it.

Wil forced himself to concentrate on what Cen was saying. The baron continued to ramble on about what a pleasant surprise Rig's action had been, a self-satisfied smirk curling his lips in a most unflattering manner.

"I hate to shatter your newfound respect for Rig, but what he did, he didn't do on his own," said Wil, determined to shake Cen's self-assuredness.

"What?"

"That was me. With a little help from certain powers, I used Rig's body like a marionette."

"You what??" gasped Cen.

"Don't ever forget that I'm an Apath. Now, have you begun to implement the measures we discussed?"

Cen nodded. "Starting tomorrow morning, the nobility will withdraw all support from the government. No more taxes will be paid, private guard squadrons will be recalled to the houses financing them, and all representatives will be withdrawn from court. We will refuse to acknowledge the authority of Sor or his queen over us."

"His what??" demanded Wil, stunned. Without realizing it, he had gotten to his feet.

A frightened look passed across Cen's face. "His queen," he repeated timidly.

"I stopped that wedding!"

Cen nodded vigorously. "Yes, you did. It wasn't Rig's daughter. She's being held captive somewhere in the palace, along with her mother. He married some maid. They say she's carrying his child. I think her name's Jei or Joi or something like that."

Wil sat down again, more relieved than he let on. He didn't like the news that Lis was being held against her will, but Sor's unexpected elevation of some serving girl to queen was an excellent development. The danger of his marrying Lis at a future date had been removed.

"Are you all right?" asked Cen.

"I'm fine. So Sor has gotten married after all."

"Just the kind of match you'd expect from the likes of him," muttered Cen. When Wil gave him a cold look, he hastily added, "No disrespect intended, but you don't make a serving girl queen of Vorti."

"You're about to put a farmer on the throne."

"No. I'm about to put an Apath on the throne."

"They're one and the same," said Wil. "Very well, after you get things started tomorrow, how long until Sor's armed forces have been undermined?"

Cen scratched his stubbled chin. "Some of them are pretty loyal. Half-a-season if we're lucky."

"And if we're not?"

"Twice that. In the meantime, a few of us have come up with some surprises that might make it more difficult for Sor to rule."

Wil raised an eyebrow, silently questioning the baron's last statement. He didn't like surprises, especially from a man like Cen.

"It's nothing for you to worry about. A few minor acts designed to foment civil unrest."

The evasive response did nothing to convince Wil, but he decided not to pursue the matter for the moment. He'd keep his eyes open and if the baron did something he didn't approve of, Cen would find out firsthand how harsh a commander Wil could be.

"All right," he said finally, eliciting an almost-audible sigh of relief from his co-conspirator. "Let's get started. The hammer's struck the anvil and the sparks are already flying."


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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