The morning after the fire, Baron Cen was sitting in his extensive library, skimming through a sheaf of lists presented to him by his personal secretary. They detailed just about everything Cen could wish to know about the current state of the rebellion: who had been bribed, how much they had been given, who currently supported the nobles and who was against them, how the resources of the nobility compared to the royal treasury, and the breakdown of loyalties within the army. The latest information provided gave preliminary estimates of fire damage, including tonnage of food lost and the potential famine impact on Vorti once winter fell.

Cen was in an excellent mood and the more he read, the deeper his smile became. Occasionally, he was even moved to chuckle aloud. Thus far, Sor had been hurt badly, the fire a crushing blow for which the baron could gleefully take credit. From the start, Cen had known that the king would move against the warehouses - it was an obvious maneuver - so he had ordered combustible material on hand in anticipation.

The portion of the army remaining to Sor was larger than the combined forces assembled by the nobles, but not by so much that the king could claim a clear advantage or risk a full-scale confrontation. For his own protection, Cen had his estate surrounded by more than eighty professional soldiers at all times. Within the house, there were another thirty men, rotating guard duty with ten men on each of three eight-hour shifts per day. There was, of course, little or no privacy, but in war, such minor inconveniences had to be endured.

His face still alight with mirth, Cen put aside the figures and lists to turn his attention to the latest packet of missives from his fellow conspirators. He quickly sorted them into two piles: those for his secretary to respond to and those that required his personal attention. The quantity in the former category greatly outnumbered that in the latter, most of the letters being querulous requests for reassurance from the man generally recognized as spearheading the revolt. Not for the first time, Cen wished the nobles had more backbone than their effete - and too-often accurate - reputations suggested.

One of the more interesting reports contained a description of the queen's illness and the prognosis for recovery, which wasn't good. Cen tried to determine whether Joi's death might lead to some positive developments in the war, but decided that was unlikely. Sor was cold enough that a minor setback like the death of a wife was unlikely to distract him from more important matters.

At that moment, the door to the library slammed open with such force that the room shook. Cen was so startled that he nearly overturned the chair scrambling to his feet. Facing him across the ten yard gap separating the reading nook from the entranceway was an enraged Wil. Cen's cowed secretary was there also, pleading with the Apath not to disturb his master, but Wil was clearly paying the little man no heed.

Cen regained his composure quickly. "Ah, come in, Wil. Take a seat," he offered graciously, retaking his own. "Would you like a drink? We have the Mianthina you appreciated so much."

Wil turned to the secretary and, in a loud, dangerous voice, demanded, "Get out!" The little man paused for a moment, glanced toward his master, then turned and fled. Cen watched him go with a faint expression of disapproval. The coward hadn't even waited for his nod of assent. Who was giving the orders around here, anyway?

Wil slammed shut the door with as much force as he had opened it, causing the flames to jump in the lanterns. Resolutely refusing to meet the Apath's eyes, Cen took in the newcomer's appearance, which was even more ragged and disheveled than usual. His tunic and leggings were covered with black dirt and his exposed skin was no cleaner. It even appeared to be in his hair. As Wil slowly closed the gap between the two of them, the baron realized that it was ash, not dirt.

"You bastard!" growled Wil. "You dung-eating bastard!"

At that moment, Cen risked a glance into the Apath's eyes, and what he saw there made him fear for his life. Panic set in as his mind raced to uncover what could provoke this reaction.

"So that was one of your 'surprises', igniting three-quarters of the city's food supplies. Not even Sor would sink that low. Do you realize what you've done? Do you realize how many men, women, and children are going to starve to death? Do you??"

For the first time since the fire, Cen stopped congratulating himself on his foresight. When Wil wasn't present, which was most of the time, the baron thought of him as "the Apath", equating him more with nobility than peasants. After all, the drive of the rebellion was to crown him, at least temporarily. As a result, it was easy to forget that Wil's sympathies were skewed by his background.

"It's war," began the baron wearily. "I don't like it any more than you do. Do you think I enjoy seeing urchins huddled in the gutters, begging for something to eat? It tears at my heart. I know that if not for a whim of fate, I might be one of them. But to make Vorti a better place for all of its citizens, blood will have to be shed. People will suffer and die.

"It was a hard decision to order those warehouses burned, but if Sor had taken them, we might never have won. He'd have control over thousands of tons of food and, for as long as he continued to distribute it, the people would support him. The key to victory has always been eroding the king's popular support, and that might mean acting more like a barbarian than a civilized man."

Cen leaned back in the chair, his outward appearance one of frank sincerity and concern. Inwardly, however, he was pleased with the speech - the right blend of pathos and strength, he thought. He was especially proud of the part about the starving urchins. That would appeal to Wil. Personally, he couldn't stand the brats, always whining and begging for food, pawing at innocent passersby with their diseased-riddled hands.

Wil took a deep breath, some of his passion draining away as he exhaled. "From now on, I want to know about everything you plan in advance. No more repetitions of this travesty. A little suffering is one thing; mass destruction is another. That fire could have leveled Vorti. I know how close it was to doing that - I was out fighting it. And the loss of those warehouses - the deaths that will cause..."

"Deaths that will be on Sor's conscience. Deaths that will be blamed on him. Deaths that we can ride into power and then take action to make sure nothing similar ever happens again."

"Just tell me next time," muttered Wil. "Now give me that drink."

* * *

Wil felt worse after leaving Cen's. He had gone there in a righteous rage, infuriated that the man could be behind such a diabolical scheme, his temper on the verge of exploding. Then the baron had rattled off his reasonable explanation, and, as much as Wil hated to admit it, Cen's words were logical. Wil had never expected his path to the throne to be bloodless, but it was depressing to acknowledge how many sacrifices would have to be made to get there.

Part of him still wanted to kill Cen. The thought that any man could so cold-bloodedly think up a scheme like that, regardless of the reason, infuriated Wil. The baron's empty speech about urchins on the street had nearly made him vomit. Cen didn't give a damn about beggars. He'd kick them in the face rather than let them touch him. But there was nothing Wil could do. He was reliant upon the nobility.

When he got back to the loft, he found a little red bow, Tya's "signal" that she wouldn't be able to join him tonight. It was probably for the best given his current mood. He lay on his back and closed his eyes, hopeful for an hour or two of sleep before the evening crowd started to arrive with horses for him to stable. He hated animals and he hated this job. He wished he could be out in the open fields again, planting, plowing, and harvesting.

As he drifted into a half-conscious state, Wil thought about Lis. Her image rose unbidden into his mind, laughing and carefree as she'd been last summer, when they were together. In the inn, she hadn't looked like that. The light that had once burned so brilliantly within her had been dimmed by that time. Now, with her confined in the palace because of the assassination attempt, he hoped it hadn't gone out altogether.

Wil didn't intend to marry Cen's daughter. When he had first made the bargain with the baron, he had meant to keep his side, but the man's crudeness and callousness had made any firm and lasting alliance between them impossible. Wil sometimes wondered if he didn't hate Cen more than Sor.

A match with Lis was still his hope. Perhaps it wasn't realistic, but it was possible. If his plans came to fruition, she could become the queen of Vorti, only wife to a different king - one that she had once professed undying love for.

* * *

The next day, Wil came down with a sickness. He tried working, but fatigue and muscle cramps eventually forced him to stagger inside the Drunk Doxy and ask the innkeeper for the day off. Taking one look at his stable-caretaker's pallid skin and bleary eyes, he excused Wil, who promptly returned to his loft, where he curled up in a ball and fell into a nightmare-riddled sleep.

He was awakened shortly after dark by Tya, who had come to inquire about his health. It took Wil a long time to focus on her face.

"I brought this for you," Tya offered, holding out something.

Wil forced himself into a sitting position to examine her gift. It was a tattered and threadbare blanket, pale brown to match the straw that was his bed. He took it from her and eagerly wrapped it around himself, noticing for the first time that he was cold - so cold his teeth were chattering.

"You probably have influenza. Lots of people are getting it," said Tya. She leaned over him, placing a hand across his forehead. The thought registered in Wil's fuzzy mind that, if he adjusted his position ever-so-slightly, he'd be able to look right down the open V of her tunic neckline. Instead, however, he closed his eyes and leaned back, hugging his arms to his chest beneath the blanket.

"Do you want another blanket?" asked Tya. "I could probably find you one."

Wil muttered an inaudible reply that he didn't care one way or another.

A voice called from someplace that seemed very far away. It sounded vaguely familiar.

"Who's that?" he muttered, opening his eyes again and rolling onto his back.

"Tim. He's taken over your shifts until you're better. He was asking how you are."

"Tell him I feel like the pile in stall three," muttered Wil, turning his back to Tya as he curled up again. She dutifully relayed the message, which drew a short bark of laughter from the younger boy.

By the time Tya climbed down from the loft, Wil had returned to the realm of sleep, clutching the blanket to him as if it was a lifeline. His dreams were feverish and haunted, images of blood, death, and magic abounding.

He was forced to relive the wedding dozens of times, each with an even more bizarre variation: Rig attacking Lis, Rig attacking him, a mob of peasants turning and rending him to pieces. Lis and Sor kissed, passion overcoming them while he stood by in impotent rage, his magic somehow neutralized. They fell to the floor, tearing at each other's clothing while the laughter of Baron Cen filled the throne room.

Then there were nightmares about the fire. He could feel its heat burning his skin, the smoke pouring into his lungs, choking him. He was taking a bucket of water from the man to his left and passing it to the woman to his right, some of the liquid splashing out onto his feet. Suddenly it was acid, burning away his shoes and eating into his flesh like a starving wild dog as the tongues of flame licked at his hair. And Cen started to laugh again, his bubbling mirth filling the air until it was louder than even the crackle of the fire.

The next day, when Tya came to visit him, he was worse. She applied cold compresses to his head. Occasionally, he would open his eyes, stare wildly at her, and mumble something in his delirium before losing consciousness again. She watched over him carefully, for as long as her duties within the inn permitted, then left instructions with Tim to call her if there was any significant change.

On the third day of Wil's illness, the day that Sor gave his speech to the citizens of Vorti, Tya's time nursing her lover was cut short by the mass influx of customers just after dark. When she left him, she had the slim consolation that he seemed a little better, unless that was just her imagination.

Around noon the following day, Wil regained consciousness for a little while, but Tya was not there to greet him. During the night, she had fallen violently ill, the disease attacking her with a suddenness and vengeance it had never shown with Wil. At the moment he opened his eyes, hers shut forever.

* * *

On that same morning, Sor reached a conclusion concerning his ailing wife and the men who were treating her. Over the past week, Joi's condition hadn't noticeably improved and he was becoming frustrated and worried. The healers, falling all over themselves to offer him reassurance, hastened to remind him that she hadn't gotten any worse, either, but the king found scant comfort in those words. Even though his knowledge of diseases was limited, he understood enough to realize that the longer she remained in this state, the slimmer her chances of survival were.

On top of that, his arm didn't seem to be healing properly. The skin around the injury had turned an unhealthy yellow and the scabs occasionally wept a milky puss. From shoulder to elbow, the arm hurt. The healers frequently whispered among themselves after examining him, an activity that didn't boost Sor's confidence in their abilities or his own hopes for a full recuperation.

In response to a summons issued by the king earlier in the day, a page entered the little throne room, followed at a discreet distance by a middle-aged peasant dressed in a patched brown tunic and leggings that had been washed so often they had lost their color. The man had long, gray-streaked black hair and kind, weathered features. He bowed deeply, although without much grace, when the page announced him.

"The healer Rim, Your Majesty."

"Thank you, Jac, you may leave us now."

The page balked. He had been given direct orders from Queen Sye not to leave Sor's side under any conditions.

"That will be all, Jac," stated Sor, a hint of iron in his voice.

Jac nodded miserably and headed for the door, deciding to wait directly outside. In this case, his duty was clear, although, if she found out, Sye might not see it that way. But, after all, Sor did outrank his mother and a direct command could not be refused.

Back in the throne room, Rim had sunk to one knee.

"You may rise, Rim," said Sor gently.

"I am at Your Majesty's service."

"I hope you mean that literally. If you have no objections, I mean to appoint you to my council as the new Palace Healer."

Rim's lower jaw dropped and he appeared lost for speech. His guileless hazel eyes widened in astonishment.

"Can I take that as an affirmative answer?" prodded Sor. He didn't want to press the man, but, as far as he was concerned, the medical situation with Joi was serious and he wanted to get rid of the worthless buzzards hovering around her as soon as possible.

"Of course, Your Majesty," said Rim. "I would be more than happy...this is a most unexpected honor."

"You did me a great service at my aborted wedding. You saved my arm and possibly my life. It's a debt I'll always be conscious of. Perhaps this post will go a little ways towards repayment, but I haven't summoned you here to even the score. I need your expertise. There are four healers in this palace at the moment, all congregated around my sick wife, and I have no faith in any of them."

"You wish me to replace them?" asked Rim, sounding awed.

"I do. They say my wife has influenza - that she came down with it a week ago. Whatever the cause, she has not improved since they began to attend her. And I believe my arm is beginning to fester."

Rim moved forward, ascended the short flight of three steps to the platform on which the throne sat. "If I may?" he inquired tentatively, indicating the king's bandaged arm. Sor nodded.

The healer unwrapped the bandages and stared at the wound, occasionally prodding it. One long, tapered finger ran up and down the side of his nose as he contemplated the damage. Eventually, he asked, "Have they been applying an ointment to the scabs daily?"

"Every morning, they take off the bandages, have the wound rinsed with cold water, then put on fresh strips of cloth. I can't recall them ever using any kind of ointment. In fact, most of what they do, I could accomplish myself without their help."

Rim made a clicking noise with his tongue and teeth. "This won't do at all," he murmured, his reverence at being in the king's presence evaporating as his professional instincts took over. "I hope the infection hasn't progressed too far. I worked hard to save this arm last week. It would be most unfortunate to lose it now."

"For your predecessors as well as me," growled Sor.

When Rim gave him a confused look, the king explained, "If I lose my arm, they lose their heads. Incompetence cannot be tolerated, especially from fools who claim to be preservers of life and health." The healer nodded as if he approved of the declaration.

"If Your Majesty will excuse me, I'll go back to my house and gather the necessary medicines. When I return, we can attend to your wound and then see your wife."

"We have a better stock of medical supplies here than you could find anywhere else in Vorti. I'm sure that whatever you need is here. And I'd prefer we went to my wife now. For me, all that's in danger is an arm and I doubt that a few hours will make any difference. For her, it's her life ."

Five minutes later, the two of them, accompanied by a pair of armed guards, strode into Sor's royal suite. As usual, one of the healers - the youngest, named Ith - was seated by Joi's bedside, gently filing his nails with an almost feminine precision. He glanced negligently toward the door as it opened, then stumbled to his feet and executed a clumsy bow when he saw who the visitor was.

"Your...Your Majesty," he stammered. "I didn't expect you until this afternoon."

"Get out," commanded Sor coldly. Both guards drew their swords to indicate that they were willing to resort to violence, if necessary, to enforce their liege's command. Rim shouldered past the astonished man and knelt beside Joi's bed, taking her hand in his. He spied a large jar of bloated leeches by the bedside and gave them a contemptuous look.

"Wait!" demanded the healer, the command in his voice halting Ith's uncertain progress out of the suite. "How often have you been bleeding her?"

"Once every other hour."

"What other treatments have you employed?"

"Cold compresses, occasional sulphurous ointment applications, and large quantities of liquid," replied Ith, his bearing that of a man who had been struck over the head by a tree limb.

"No potions??" Rim seemed astonished by this.

Ith shook his head once.

"Do you need him for anything more?" asked Sor, addressing Rim.

"What?" replied the healer, who had already turned back to his patient, his forehead creased with concern. Distractedly, he added, "No. That's all."

"Get him off the palace grounds," demanded the king of the guards. "And find his three cohorts and get rid of them as well. If I see any of them around here again, I'll have them executed. Make sure they understand that."

With a perfunctory salute, the guards moved to obey their orders, grabbing the unresisting ex-healer and dragging him from the room.

When they had departed, Sor asked, "How bad is it?"

"About as bad as your arm, relatively speaking," replied Rim. "Their 'treatments' have weakened her. Those fools should know that bleedings are not advisable for influenza! Another day or two and she wouldn't have had anything left to fight the disease with."

"And now?"

"I don't know. I swear to you, Your Majesty, I'll do everything in my power to save her, but it may already be too late."

"She's with child," pronounced Sor after a moment, the pain in his voice evident.

"I see," noted the healer noncommittally. "Let me be perfectly honest with you. To save the queen, it may be necessary to end the pregnancy. Do you understand?"

Sor nodded. "How likely is that?"

Rim sighed. "Almost certain. I doubt I can save them both. Had I been called a few days earlier..."

"Do what you have to do. I'll see that someone escorts you to the supply room. Everything you need should be there."

* * *

Rim spent the rest of the day in the royal suite with Joi. The king sat alone in the little throne room, staring into space and hoping. A page came to him just before dusk with the news that his presence was requested in the sick room. He rose immediately and went, as if he was a servant answering the summons of his master.

Joi looked paler than ever, but at least her chest continued to rise and fall regularly. Rim was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his left index finger to her neck, timing her pulse. Sor's eyes didn't miss the basin of ruddy water near the bed. It could mean only one thing.

"I did what I could, Your Majesty," said the healer gently, rising to join the king several feet away from the bed, his voice a low whisper so as not to disturb his patient. "But it was too late. If the pregnancy hadn't been ended, both child and mother would soon die. She needs all of the strength she was giving to the baby to fight for her own survival."

"Was it a boy or girl?" asked Sor in a hollow voice, his eyes never leaving the basin. With the surface of the water smooth and undisturbed, it looked like a scarlet-tinged mirror.

"It was too young to determine," replied Rim.

"And was this death caused as a result of the other healers' incompetence?"

"I would say so, Your Majesty."

* * *

At dawn the following day, the four healers who had initially treated the queen were hanged within the palace gates in a semi-public execution, with a small group of curious onlookers gathered. Sye protested this action vigorously, asserting that at least the man she had recommended be spared. Sor, however, rock-solid in his determination, steadfastly ignored his mother's pleas.

Two days later, under the gentle ministrations of Rim, the queen of Vorti began a slow-but-steady recovery from the disease that had cost the life of her child and nearly claimed her as its victim, as well.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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