THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART FOUR: SEEDS OF REBELLION


CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


Sor awoke early, the insistent throbbing around his injury demanding immediate attention. Even though the arm was tied to his body by a number of cloth strips designed to keep it immobile, he had rolled on top of it during the night, precipitating his present discomfort. He supposed it was going to be like this for a long time, or so the legion of healers claimed. It was still uncertain whether he would ever regain full control over his arm.

He turned over onto his back, being careful not to jar the injury. A glance at his pillow revealed a smear of dark brown; apparently, the wound on his cheek had opened during the night, as well. He was beginning to wonder if sleep was worth the tribulations he had to go through to get it. On top of everything, he didn't feel particularly rested.

Part of the reason for that was the woman next to him. Even though he had gone to bed nine hours ago, a good portion of the intervening time had not been spent sleeping, or even trying to sleep. This was, after all, his wedding night. He might have wished for happier circumstances, but the ultimate result left him more optimistic than he had been for a long time. Despite all the arguments, political maneuvering, and class obstacles, he had succeeded in marrying the only woman he had ever truly wanted for his wife.

In the wake of the debacle with Lis, a match that Sor had been quick to point out he had been manipulated into, few of his advisors had objected when he brought up Joi's name as his new choice for queen. Having learned of her pregnancy from his mother, he had hastened to disseminate the information and use it to his advantage. Given the treachery of one of Sor's more faithful noble subjects, the field of potential brides had suddenly dwindled to virtual nothingness. However, with the current political situation in such a volatile state, the need for an heir was even more urgent, but, to produce that child, Sor had to have a wife. The revelation of Joi's condition had won most of the panic-stricken advisors over. She might only be a peasant, they had reasoned, but at least she was fertile and a season along.

At the outset, Sye had not been enthralled by the notion, but, considering the import of her role in the arrangements with Lis, she had hardly been in a position to protest his new choice. However, after Sor spent an hour reasoning with her, an apparent sudden reversal of opinion had led her to make a semi-public declaration in favor of the match. Sor's greatest obstacle had still been Joi, timid and unwilling as ever, but the arguments delineating the king's immediate need for an heir - the child she was carrying - eventually won her over. So, in a very private ceremony, Vorti's ruler had taken his queen and granted legitimacy to the baby she would soon bear.

Sor studied Joi as she slept, her body curled in a ball facing him. This was not the first time he had awakened next to her, but it was the first occasion since their marriage, and in some intangible way, that made everything different. She didn't like him watching her when she was awake, claiming that it made her self-conscious, so it was only times like these when he got the opportunity.

Joi was smiling ever-so-slightly, her lips upturned as if in remembrance of last night. More than anything, Sor wanted her to be happy. He knew that his own well-being was governed by hers. She was nervous - perhaps even frightened - of the responsibilities that had suddenly been thrust upon her. It would be his duty to bolster her confidence and keep her shielded from criticism until she had developed the self-assurance to face it.

The king glanced towards the curtained windows of his chamber through which the faint illumination of the new day's sun shone. It was a brutal reminder that the solace of his wife's arms was only a temporary refuge from the ugly day-to-day affairs of running the city. Today, he would have to decide Lis' fate. She had almost been his wife and now he might have to sign the order for her execution. It was not something he was looking forward to and he hoped that there might be some way to exonerate her. Personally, he didn't believe she was guilty, but there was more to be considered in matters of high treason than his personal suspicions.

"How's your arm?" asked a soft voice from beside him. He turned to face his wife, who was regarding him affectionately, her sky-blue eyes only half-open. She turned onto her side and propped herself up with her arm, head resting on her hand.

"It hurts."

"I hope it wasn't anything we did last night. I tried to be careful, but I think we got a little carried away."

"It was okay when I went to sleep. I think I rolled over on it during the night."

"Your face was bleeding," she said, reaching up to stroke his cheek beside the wound, where it didn't hurt.

"I know." Sor indicated the tell-tale sign on the pillow. "Any regrets?"

"Many. I'm not suited to be a queen. I must have been mad to finally give in..."

"But?"

"But I think this is the happiest day of my life. Or perhaps yesterday was."

"Only the best for you and our son," promised Sor.

"Aren't you taking too much for granted? What if 'our son' turns out to be a girl?"

"My advisors will have a collective apoplexy. I all but promised them a Crown Prince. Some of them might not survive the shock if it turns out you're carrying a daughter. I, of course, will be delighted with either. And if it is a girl, we'll be duty-bound to keep trying until we get it right."

"I hope that doesn't mean we stop if it's a boy."

"Definitely not. Several heirs are always preferable."

"What about Lis?" she asked, her voice taking on a more serious note.

"The people are shouting for her blood, but I'm not convinced she's guilty. In fact, the whole assassination attempt doesn't sit well with me. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something not right... Vas says he has a theory about it. I hope he can come up with some answers and alternatives, or I'm going to have to hang both Lis and her mother."

"I don't want our marriage to start with bloodshed."

"Neither do I, but there may be no choice. And it could get worse when Wil comes out of hiding..." Sor's head suddenly snapped up, his eyes going wide. "Oh my...Of course!" He leaped from bed and began to gather his clothes. "Help me put these on."

"What is it?" asked Joi, scrambling to help him.

"A possibility, and we all may have made a terrible mistake. Damn! Someone should have thought to check who was in the audience hall!"

"I don't understand."

"Mind control, Joi. Apaths can do that. I bet that's what Vas' theory is. Maybe it wasn't really Rig who attacked me."

"Wil??"

"Wil," he affirmed. "And perhaps Rig was honorable to the end. Remember that scream I told you about?"

"The one that saved your life?"

"Exactly. Maybe that was the best he could do in the circumstances." By now, with Joi's help, Sor had managed to struggle into a tunic, hose, and soft boots. "Wait here, and whatever you do, don't get in front of an open window. For the most part, he has to see his target to do any damage. I have to talk to Vas."

* * *

Sor found Vas in the library, as usual. Not for the first time, he wondered if his chancellor ever slept. Vas always seemed to rise earlier and retire later than anyone else in the palace.

"You're up early, Your Majesty," said Vas as Sor entered, never even glancing up from the book he was reading.

"I think I figured out your theory about Rig's assassination attempt."

"I knew it wouldn't take you long. Listen to this," demanded Vas, his voice taking on a deeper resonance as he began to quote from the yellowed pages of the tome before him. "'Mind control requires a delicacy of touch which many Apaths lack. Frequently, attempts at mind control have unpredictable results, ranging from the complete personality annihilation of the intended subject to the identity erasure of the practitioner. The most common effect is mental displacement, whereby the practitioner creates a mind-link to the subject, initiating imperfect control over all body functions. Since the link is insecure, however, it is possible for the practitioner's domination to falter, occasionally even opening his own mind to reciprocal invasion by the subject.'"

"So Wil may have tried mind control, but botched things, which gave Rig the chance to warn me."

Vas, raising his eyes to meet the king's for the first time, nodded his agreement. "That would explain a number of things."

"So Wil was in the audience hall."

"Probably, but not necessarily. Mental violations are more difficult and less likely to succeed when the subject is not in sight, but they can be done - or at least attempted. I doubt Wil has enough knowledge to understand the dangers involved, but it seems likely that a beginner would feel more comfortable having visual contact with the person he's attempting to influence."

"So that exonerates Rig."

"It may be too early to use words like 'exonerate'. We have a plausible theory and a few supporting facts, but that's different from knowing the truth. There's still at least one significant question that I have."

"Where did the knife come from?" supplied Sor.

"No. That's easy enough to determine. He probably used magic to weave it out of air. No, I was trying to figure out why Wil chose Rig to deliver the blow instead of the most logical choice: Lis."

"She wouldn't have been able to put the same power behind the blade."

"True," agreed Vas, "but she wouldn't have needed to, nor would using her have required such an impressive weapon. She was closer and had better opportunities. A small, needle-sharp poniard driven under the base of your skull during the traditional wedding kiss would have been singularly effective. And, because she's so much younger, her mind would have been easier prey."

"Would Wil have known that? I didn't."

"Possibly not, but it doesn't require much understanding or intelligence to reason that Lis was the better choice. Why then Rig?"

"We may not know that until we apprehend Wil."

"Hopefully, by then, it won't be too late," warned Vas ominously. His words sent an icy chill down Sor's spine.

"I'm going to release Lis and Una from confinement, but they won't be allowed outside the palace. I'll tell them it's for their own protection, which is true. On the streets, the people would lynch them both."

"I have more bad news," said Vas. "It's a too early to be sure, but I believe the nobles are going to withdraw their support today. They'll probably declare Cen the ruler of Vorti - not immediately, but in a few days."

"Now that they've seen that I'm mortal and bleed, they strike."

"Precisely. Five-hundred people saw you nearly killed by a knife. The image of Apath indestructibility and omnipotence has been shattered. There are even rumors that you're not really an Apath."

"Perhaps it's time for a public demonstration."

Vas shook his head. "Not now. The common people are still behind you and the nobles have ventured too far into treason to be turned back by parlor tricks. Husband your resources instead of wasting them. The time may come when you'll need them."

"Do you think Wil is at the root of this trouble?"

"It's a possibility. Whether directly or indirectly, I can't say."

"With the nobility in rebellion, how long can the city last?"

Vas considered. "Difficult to say. The common people outnumber the nobility by more than five to one, but much of the power is in the nobles' hands. Production and distribution of food falls primarily within their purview. Riots are likely, sooner or later. And the longer this goes on, the more public opinion will turn against you. You'll be regarded as the one responsible for the people's woes. Disease often follows famine, so that may be a problem as well."

"And the army?"

"Half of the active forces are composed of retinues from the nobles' personal squadrons that they provide to you under the city defense provisions of the New Articles of Vorti drawn up by your father. Those men will be pulled immediately, probably to form a counter-force. What you have left may or may not be able to function effectively, considering how many of the officers have ties to noble houses and how rampant bribery will be. Even good soldiers can be swayed by the promise of full money purses and unlimited access to food."

"You paint a bleak picture."

"I paint a realistic picture," countered Vas. "This isn't a storm you can sit by and ride out. If you don't act, you will fall. Time isn't your ally in this war. When you lose popular support, you'll have nothing left."

"Call a council of my advisors for this afternoon. Brief everyone on the situation and tell them I expect suggestions. I want Count Tis and Duke Osc there if you have to bring them in chains. In the meantime, put all of my personal retinue on standby and start activating the citizen reserves. When the official announcement comes, choose some of the more trustworthy legions and have them march in and take over the noble-controlled food warehouses."

Vas nodded his approval. "Exactly what your father would have done."

* * *

"I'm to be released?" asked Lis, watching the king dubiously. "Why?"

Sor regarded her with a gaze as intense as the one she directed at him. Lis was not the same girl he had almost married two days ago. The events in the throne room had changed her more fundamentally than they had him. Their sparkle gone, her eyes were red-rimmed, as if she had been crying. Her face was dirty and her once-shiny hair hung in limp disarray. A large bruise marred her left cheek, the result of some less-than-gentle treatment she had received at the hands of the guard who had led her away following the assassination attempt.

"All I can tell you is that you're no longer regarded as dangerous and the charges of treason against you and your mother have been dropped. You will be allowed free access to all parts of the palace except the royal wing."

"What about going home?" she asked in a voice devoid of emotion.

"You must remain within the palace."

"I see. You've just made our cells a little larger."

"Not at all," demurred Sor. "It isn't safe for you out on the streets. Until it can be made clear to the populace that there was no complicity on your part in the assassination, they'll be shouting for your execution."

"You sound like one of your toadies. I thought you were different," said Lis scornfully, one hand straying to the purplish blotch on her face, as if to emphasize her words. "I'd like to see my mother."

"She's in the room next door."

Lis glanced at the two immobile guards that had accompanied the king into her small room. "I suppose one of them will be watching me - for my protection, of course."

"Both of them."

"I should have guessed. I suppose you'll decide when and how long it takes for the information about our 'innocence' to leak out."

Sor realized that coming here had been a mistake. Sye had mentioned that it was ill-advised, but he had ignored her, acting instead out of a personal sense of responsibility for Lis' current situation. Having encountered her spite, it was obvious that he should have delegated the matter to Vas or someone equally detached. Had he been in a better mood, perhaps he would have responded to this latest barb with better grace, but this had not been a good day and her taunts chafed against an already-raw disposition.

"Maybe if you weren't drowning in self-pity, you'd be able see things more intelligently. You're hardly the injured party here. I was the one that almost got killed and your father was the one with the knife. Whatever his reasons, that implicates you and your mother. If you left the palace, you wouldn't survive the trip to your house - or whatever's left of it by now. You mother's probably the second-most hated person in Vorti at the moment, behind only you!"

Sor didn't wait to see whether his tirade provoked a reaction, instead turning sharply on his heels and stalking away. Five minutes later, as he approached the little throne room where the meeting with his advisors was to be held, he was hating himself for having spoken those words.

* * *

Sor's council of advisors was made of nine men, including Vas, two influential merchants, a farmer, an innkeeper, the commander-in-chief of the military, a scholar, and two nobles. There was also a vacant chair for the palace healer, a position that had gone unfilled since Vii's untimely death.

When Sor entered the chamber, there were only five men waiting for him. Absent were one of the merchants - a neurotic named Jar, Commander Arr, and, despite the king's earlier demands, both of the nobles. He shot the chancellor a black look.

Vas shrugged. "Osc and Tis have barricaded themselves inside their homes. Short of a military sortie, there was nothing I could do to persuade them to come out. Apparently, Jar has decided it would be better for his health if he didn't attend. Our esteemed commander-in-chief has presumably switched loyalties after receiving a healthy sum of money directly from Baron Cen's personal funds."

Sor uttered several extremely creative, highly graphic, and distinctly unroyal phrases which brought a flush of color to the cheeks of Fru, the elderly and unworldly scholar.

"All right," noted the king after he had calmed down. "By tomorrow at this time, I will appoint a new commander-in-chief and a new representative from Jar's district. I want your recommendations for names, Gentlemen.

"Vas, after I've selected him, take the new commander with you and pay Osc and Tis a visit. Be certain they understand that failure to appear at tomorrow afternoon's meeting will result in my sending a squadron to their houses and having them and their families dragged outside and publicly executed on the spot. While you're at it, arrest Jar and hang him for high treason. I don't have time for a trial. If you can find Arr, do the same to him, but I doubt he'll be easy to locate. Cen and his cronies probably have him hidden away somewhere."

"As Your Majesty wishes," replied Vas, displaying none of the dismay apparent on the faces of the others. This was a side of their king none of them had seen.

"Now," continued Sor, his manner brusque, "Let's get down to business."

The first item on the agenda was the reading of the official proclamation by the nobles rejecting Sor as their rightful ruler and declaring themselves no longer subject to his laws, government, or military. They claimed that an "as-yet unnamed but identified" man, presumably Cen, would soon be publicly announced as the new and proper heir to the throne. Sor would be declared in rebellion against the legitimate leadership if he did not surrender his crown. Despite the pompous, insulting, and often-abusive language of the document, Sor had to concede a grudging admiration for the audacity of the men behind it.

When that was done, Sor began to outline some of the countermeasures he had devised to combat the nobles' actions. As usual, he encouraged suggestions from his advisors.

"Syf," said the king, turning to the bald-headed, middle aged merchant, "Sometime in the next few days, I'm going to move a force of men in to take over the food warehouses. I want you to get together a competent contingent to manage them so that distribution will continue unimpeded for as long as is possible."

Syf bobbed his round head up and down several times vigorously.

"Vra," Sor turned to the innkeeper. "Learn what you can about the people's mood. Spread some nasty rumors about the nobles and see if you can keep the ill-will against them alive. Do what you can to better my image."

"If I may speak, Your Majesty?" inquired the monkey-faced man in his gravelly voice.

Sor nodded.

"Opinion about you is high now. There's been a lot of talk about the nobles plotting against you and your choice of Joi as a wife is popular, moreso than Lis. I don't think there's any chance of the people turning against you in the near future. If anything, your problem may be that too many of them will want to take action to support you."

"Meaning?" inquired Sor.

"Small groups of men armed with pitchforks and knives attacking fortified noble strongholds," replied Vra in a grave voice.

"Brave and loyal, but foolish," noted Vas. "And once a few of those groups are slaughtered, the tide of rage will rise and flood the streets. Riots, once started, are most difficult and dangerous to stop."

"Do what you can to keep that from happening," declared Sor, addressing them all. He didn't specify how. These men were closer to the people than he was and they'd know the best ways to get through to them.

From that point, the discussion moved to an examination of issues and alternatives pertinent to the current crisis. A new merchant representative was selected fairly quickly, but the wrangling about the next commander-in-chief went on for over an hour. The method finally agreed upon for the systematic takeover of noble-owned warehouses took a mere half-hour to formulate, but the procedure to separate and incarcerate disloyal elements of the army was still being debated when Sor adjourned the council for the day.

Sor dismissed each of them with one or more tasks to perform before heading back to his chambers to write a speech that he intended to present the next afternoon at sunset from atop the eastern wall of the palace. Vas had suggested the time and place, believing that if the good weather held, the sun could be setting directly behind the king as he delivered the short speech. People were always impressed by that sort of thing.

After speaking to Hud and Mij, the two guards outside his rooms, he went in to find Joi lying in a swoon on the bed, her face flushed, and her skin hot to the touch. Her eyelids fluttered open and she tried to say something, but all that came out was a groan.

Within the hour, several healers arrived at the palace, including a seedy-looking man recommended by Sye. They huddled together around the queen's bed, spoke in hushed tones, poked and prodded at Joi in ways that disturbed the ever-watchful Sor, then finally arrived at a diagnosis.

The disreputable-looking fellow whose praises the older queen had lauded came forward. "Your wife has influenza, Your Majesty. A particularly violent strain, I might add. The recommended cure is as follows: cold compresses, large quantities of liquids to increase urination, applications of a special ointment of our preparation, and bleeding once every other hour. My three esteemed colleagues and I will take turns administering these methods and one of us shall be with her at all times to monitor her progress. If all goes well, the fever should break in about ten days' time."

"My wife is with child," said Sor. His mouth and throat were dry.

"We have ascertained that fact, Your Majesty. For as long as the mother is in danger, the same is true of the child. The nature of the disease is such, however, that it does not present an appreciable risk of miscarriage. We'll do what we can for them both."

"You're all agreed on the manner of treatment?" asked Sor.

The healer looked at him with the condescending expression that adults normally reserve for children who ask very stupid and equally obvious questions. "It is the standard method of treatment, Your Majesty. Everyone agrees upon it."

"Then you won't mind if I sit with her?"

"Actually, Your Majesty, that would not be a good idea," stated the healer, his voice as oily as his slicked-back hair and drooping mustache. "The progression of the disease is often painful for loved ones to watch, in addition to being dangerously contagious. My colleagues and I take frequent foul-tasting nostrums that give us a measure of protection against infections such as this, but you have no such advantage, so it would be dangerous if you were to remain. We would advise one short visit per day, with no physical contact until the patient is in remission."

The next several days passed slowly for the king. His arm injury plagued him constantly and the healers worried that it wasn't healing properly. He got little sleep, his concerns about the city and his wife keeping him tossing and turning even on those rare occasions when he lay down. The mystery of his near-assassination, while an important issue, was ignored as he spent most of his time plotting ways to thwart the nobles.

Count Tis and Duke Osc continued to absent themselves from the king's meetings. Sor did not immediately make good on his threats, but neither did he forget them. He had more pressing uses for those elements of the fragmented army still loyal to him than fighting skirmishes to carry out executions. The two nobles' time would come, but for now they could worry and sweat in the confines of their houses, afraid to even look out a window lest a sharp-eyed archer pick them off.

The attempt to storm the food storage warehouses turned into a disaster. The nobles, instead of giving up the buildings, lit them on fire. Nine of the eleven giant sheds were burned, six completely destroyed. Countless tons of rice, wheat, corn, rye, and other grains went up in flame. The thick clouds of black smoke rising from the city's northeastern quarter that evening was an evil portent for the winter to come, even if the rebellion was ended by then. There was no way to recover the destroyed food, and, since the farmers were no longer laboring for their masters, what new food there was lay rotting or withered in untended fields.

It took a full night and half of the next day for the men and women of Vorti to get the fires under control, with nearly half of the population lined up in living chains that stretched from wells to the fires, passing bucket after bucket of water along, an unceasing repetition of a vital activity. Four thousand peasants, with not a noble in sight, struggled to contain the small infernos before they merged together and engulfed the entire city.

As the new day dawned bleakly through the smoky haze, the tide of the battle had turned in the humans' favor. A summer rainstorm, breaking around noon, quickly doused the few fitful pockets of flames that were left and that crisis came to an end. But nothing could undo the damage. Along with the warehouses and Vorti's winter provisions, twenty homes, three stores, and fifteen lives were lost. Even after the rain stopped and the clouds cleared, the smoke hung in the air, keeping everything gray and lifeless, like the memory of a mass funeral pyre.

Sor eventually gave his speech, but a week later than he had originally planned. By the time he stood high atop the eastern wall of the palace gates, surrounded by a company of guards, the air was again clean. Thousands of people gathered to hear him, filling the streets for several blocks around the palace. The sun, fat and orange as it slid across the cloudless sky towards the horizon, presented a brilliant and striking backdrop as the king shouted out his message.

"People of Vorti, I salute you!" He raised his right hand high over his head, palm facing outward, in an exaggerated gesture of tribute.

Like a wave, the cheer rose beneath him, starting with those who had gathered at the base of the gates and rippling away through the crowd until those blocks away were returning the salute, arms raised and voices shouting. Despite all the problems in his life, with a quarter of his city in ruins, the nobles rebelling, and his wife hovering mid-way between life and death, Sor couldn't suppress a smile. These people felt genuine affection for him. So many people, so much love. He felt his heart unexpectedly swell.

"People of Vorti, I salute you," he repeated, this time without the hand sign. The crowd quieted, wanting to hear what their king had to say. Even with Sor shouting at the top of his lungs, it would be difficult for those more than half a block away to hear his words. He assumed men in the crowd would be relaying the message backwards - that was the way it was normally done.

"We are entering a difficult and dangerous time," he continued, slowly and clearly enunciating each word, giving the repeaters time to echo the message exactly. "During the past week, I have been reminded of how strong and resourceful you are. When a fire threatened to burn the city to the ground, you came to the rescue. Homes, business, and, most importantly, lives were saved because of you, the bravest and best people of Devforth!"

Another cheer exploded, rolling away from Sor much like the previous one. He paused to let it subside before continuing. "But the crisis is not over. As you know, the nobility and my family have never seen issues in the same way. My father struggled to make this a better place for you to live in, and the nobility resented that. I have continued Kan's work and they have treated me worse than him."

A current of anger bubbled through the gathered masses, sounding like the distant rumbling of thunder.

"Now, the nobility have declared themselves in rebellion. They have set fire to the winter provisions. They have attempted to assassinate me. They want one of their own in power. They want to bring Vorti to her knees. They want the old days back when free men like yourselves were the slaves of those with money and power. But this I swear: While there is breath left in my body, that will not happen!"

The uproar that those words spawned was deafening. While the wave rippled through the crowd, those left in its wake continued to clap and holler until the entire throng was shouting Sor's name. The acclaim lasted minutes and Sor made several aborted attempts to speak before silence finally returned. No one in the crowd could see the tears in his eyes.

As the final rays of sunlight slanted across the city, Sor concluded, "Darker days await us still. The nobility will not be put down easily, but they will be put down. And what will arise from the ashes will be a new Vorti, the freest city of Devforth! I am Sor son of Kan, Apath and king, and thus do I swear, by all of the power of my office, mind, and body!" His voice cracked with emotion on the last words, but it didn't seem to matter.

The final roar that went up from the crowd accompanied Sor as he returned to the palace. Long after he had gone inside, after the final traces of daylight had vanished, the outpouring of adulation continued.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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