THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART FOUR: SEEDS OF REBELLION


CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE


Sye rolled over in bed, an expression of disgust marring her beautiful features. Beside her lay Yiv, snoring away blissfully, having fallen asleep only moments after satisfying himself. Sye absolutely loathed men like that. To this point, Yiv had always been considerate and giving, but something had changed him tonight. He had been frantic, almost violent, and, the instant it was over, he had closed his eyes and drifted off.

Sye had been growing bored with him anyway and had already decided that the relationship had to end. With his callous behavior tonight, however, Yiv had hastened the inevitable. The queen resolutely refused to be subjected to the whims and desires of a man. She was the one that dictated the rules of any relationship she became involved in. There were plenty of other men under this roof as attractive as Yiv, any of whom would be all-too-happy to share her bed.

Drawing back her foot, she kicked Yiv solidly, her long toenails digging into his buttocks, drawing blood. He awoke immediately, leaping from bed with a yelp of pain. It took him only a moment to get his bearings, then he rounded on her with murderous fury.

"What was that for?" he raged, his hand raised to strike.

Sye's response was calm and chilling. "Touch me and I'll see you beheaded before dawn."

Reluctantly, Yiv lowered his hand, but the unrelieved anger in his eyes grew more pronounced. Three tiny rivulets of blood tricked down his hairy leg from the wounds where Sye's nails had gouged him.

"Would Her Majesty care to explain this?" He accented her title with ill-concealed sarcasm.

"You're a pig, Yiv, and I'm tired of rutting with an animal. Go back to your wife's bed. Maybe she's content to lie there passively while you take out your day's problems on her body. You were here on my sufferance, not the other way around. Now get out."

A flash of panic passed across Yiv's features. "You can't mean that!" he gasped as the full implications of her words became clear.

"I'm very serious. Go back to Jen. I don't want you any more."

"She knows about us! It's only our relationship that was protecting me. She didn't dare denounce me to your son while I was sleeping with you," protested Yiv. He looked like he might fall to his knees at Sye's feet and start begging. "If you ever loved me..."

The queen cut him off with a harsh laugh. "Love you? You must be mad. We slept together, but if you believe there was any emotion involved, you've been badly mistaken. What an ego you have to think that the wife of Kan could fall in love with a carpenter!"

"You bitch!" roared Yiv, his pendulous mood swinging back to anger. He took two threatening steps toward the bed, his hands balling into fists.

In a flash, Sye had moved from a reclining position to a crouch, a small-but-dangerous poniard appearing in her left hand. The blade was six inches long and less than an inch wide, but it was razor-sharp and curved slightly near the point. Yiv stared at it in astonishment, trying to guess where it had been hidden. Sye was, after all, completely naked.

"You don't get another warning," she said, her voice as cold as ice.

Not doubting for a moment that she meant it, Yiv backed slowly away from the bed, donned his breeches, picked up the rest of his clothes, then moved toward the exit.

Only after Yiv had left did Sye replace the knife beneath her pillow. She made it a point never to go to bed unarmed. If living with Kan had taught her nothing else, she had learned how easy it was for assassins to slip into the palace. Only a fool thought herself safe, even in the sanctity of her own chamber.

The queen rose, slipped on a silk robe, then rang for her maid so that a hot bath could be prepared. It was also time, she reflected, to start looking for a new lover.

* * *

For all Wil knew or cared, it could have been a beautiful day outside, although the occasional patter of raindrops on the stable's roof told him otherwise. He still hadn't recovered from his illness - his nose ran constantly, he felt ill-motivated to rise from his pallet, and his appetite had not yet returned - but at least he was now conscious more often than not. He had also taken the news of Tya's death, learned from Tim, harder than expected, perhaps because he felt guilt that she had caught the disease while nursing him.

"You okay up there?" called Tim, who had been manning the stables since Wil had first taken ill.

"Fine," returned the young Apath. "Throat still hurts a little." That wasn't true, but Wil didn't feel like engaging in any long conversations with Tim, and he knew the lad tended to be garrulous.

The stables lapsed into silence, except for the occasional wicker of a horse and the constant hum of background noise originating from outside. Wil closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift.

He still wasn't certain, but he was beginning to believe that his alliance with Cen had been a titanic mistake. The baron's actions regarding the food storage warehouses had so turned public opinion against the nobility that any hope for a quiet, relatively-bloodless coup was gone. When the nobles made their push to put Wil in power, the result would be an all-out war, with soldier fighting soldier and noble against peasant. The only outcome possible in such a bloody struggle would be the destruction of Vorti.

In the name of sanity and for the sake of the city he loved, Wil couldn't let things go that far. There had to be a way for him to seize power without forcing the nobles' hands, perhaps by causing Sor's regime to collapse from within. The difficulty lay in how to put pressure on the royal family.

Suddenly, Wil sat upright, an idea - a bolt of pure inspiration - flashing through his mind, a possibility by which he could attain all that he hoped for, and more...if it worked. The essence of the plan was simple, although it would be anything but that to execute. The key to its success lay in a flawless manipulation of magic that he had never attempted before. Considering how he had botched things with Rig, Wil didn't dare take this risk without first practicing, and practice expended precious emotion.

He spent the next several hours working out the details of the plan, refining the raw material of the idea into something that was workable. He did his best to consider every alternative, but knew from experience that no matter how thoroughly things were thought out, some variable would intervene and shatter the scheme's stability. Flexibility was the key, coupled with an ability to improvise.

Perfect invisibility was not magically feasible for a non-stationary target, and Wil definitely intended to move. The best he could hope for was a sort of camouflage, using a magical shield to disguise, if not totally obscure, his presence. Since his mind would form and control the envelope, it could only adapt as quickly as his thoughts allowed it to. If he was motionless, the shield would stabilize and he would be, for all practical purposes, undetectable. But, by moving, he would force the screen to constantly adapt, and since the speed of his mind limited the rate at which it could do so, a certain amount of blurring and shimmering would be apparent to anyone who looked closely.

Drawing on new emotions engendered by Tya's untimely death, Wil began to practice, starting out small. It took him the rest of the afternoon and numerous aborted trials before he finally discovered the way to create the shield. He stopped for the day, exhausted and light-headed, after successfully orchestrating the disappearance of his right hand. The process turned out to be relatively uncomplicated: envisioning the scene as it would be without the hand, then letting the magic simulate the image in the mind's eye. When the hand was held still, his arm gave the appearance of ending abruptly at the wrist. When he moved it around, however, a faint blur of muted flesh-tones could be seen tracing the hand's path. Experimentation revealed that the slower the shielded object moved, the less obvious it was. A lack of light also enhanced the invisibility effect.

The next day, Wil started the morning with a bowl of gruel in the Drunk Doxy's kitchen, then returned to the loft to continue his experiments, never losing sight of his ultimate goal. This was not academic research, but investigation for a purpose. Practice enabled him to delve more deeply into the subject, learning short cuts as his understanding grew. He discovered that it was only necessary to briefly envision the absence of the object, not carefully reconstruct the setting from every angle, as he had initially believed. The magic shield blurred the lines of reality and illusion, making it unlikely that small errors in detail would be noticed by any but the most astute observer.

When he was convinced that he had mastered the basics of the process, Wil decided to expand his range of shielding. He let the bubble grow until it enveloped him, then, imagining a path without him present, he descended the ladder into the main stable and slowly approached Tim from the side. The lad didn't look in his direction once. The greatest challenge was not keeping his appearance hidden, but avoiding making noise as his boots stepped through the often-brittle straw lining the stable floor.

Less than two feet away from his friend, Wil stood completely still, concentrated a little more carefully on his surroundings to firm up the illusion, then called out, "Can you see me?"

Startled by the close proximity of the voice, Tim jumped. He turned quickly in Wil's direction, but, to the Apath's satisfaction, appeared to look right through him. Wil noticed the expression of puzzlement on the stableboy's face as his eyes panned his immediate environs then swept upward to the loft. "Wil?" he asked quietly.

Deliberately, Wil moved from side-to-side. Tim's eyes caught the motion and tried to focus on it. "I...can see something," he began uncertainly. "Is that you?"

Wil let the illusion drop, allowing himself to appear before his friend. Tim's eyes widened in astonishment, but he said nothing. Knowing Wil to be an Apath, even though he had rarely been privy to magical displays, prepared him to expect the impossible.

The test had been a success. As long as Wil was careful, no one would notice him - not guards, not passersby, not even members of the royal family. He would have to husband his resources carefully, however. The screen required a continual influx of energy to remain intact.

"I'll be back later," said Wil. Behind him, Tim protested that if he was well, he should handle the horses, but Wil ignored him. He had more important things to consider than animals.

It was late afternoon when he stepped outside for the first day in over a week. The ground was damp, the short path from the road to the inn churned into mud. It wasn't raining at the moment, however, although the sky was overcast. There was a distinctly wintry chill, uncommon in late summer. Wil took a moment to breathe deeply of the fresh air - unclogged by the odors of sweat, manure, straw, and animals - then raised the hood on his cloak and headed off in the direction of the palace. This night, he had a visit or two to pay.

* * *

Earlier that morning, Vas was in the palace library reading as usual, when a servant entered. "Well?" demanded the chancellor.

"A man named Rim has asked for a few moments of your time."

Vas had to consider for a moment before he remembered who Rim was: Sor's new palace healer. Since the failed marriage, the chancellor had seen little of his king. Sor spent most of his days brooding and sitting quietly in a corner of his wife's sick room, endangering his own health. He had refused two requests on Vas' part for a discussion.

"Send him in then," said Vas, marking his place and shutting the book. The page scurried from the room, the chancellor's eyes on his back. Moments later, Rim entered, gave a perfunctory bow, then approached the table and took a seat opposite Vas. His eyes roamed at will over the vast shelves piled with a seemingly limitless supply of scrolls and books.

"Extraordinary," he murmured, clearly impressed. "I never imagined so many books could exist. I can see now why you spend so much time in here."

"You read?" asked Vas. He had assumed that Rim, like most of his class, was illiterate, or at best only marginally able to read.

"I had an aunt who believed that every child should read and write. When my parents died and I went to live with her and her two children, I was given little choice about the depth of my education in such matters. At the time, I hated it, but I've come to learn that she was more wise than I gave her credit for."

"As a member of Sor's council, you are welcome to browse through his library. I'm sure you'll find more than a few things to interest you."

"I've already found one," noted Rim. For the first time, Vas noticed that he was holding a bone tube - the kind that normally contained scrolls.

The healer passed the tube to Vas, who removed one of the ends and drew out the rolled sheet of parchment. On the outside, just above a seal, was printed clearly and neatly, "To His Majesty, Sor of Vorti. From Vii, Palace Healer. To be opened after my death."

"Where did you find this?"

"I was moving my belongings into my new quarters when I discovered it beneath a loose flagstone near the bedroom fireplace."

Vas broke the seal easily and unfurled the scroll. As he read through it, his features darkened. When he was done, he rolled up the scroll and replaced it in the bone canister. Face grim, he turned his attention to Rim.

"Tell no one of this, not even His Majesty. You have never seen it. Do you understand me?" demanded the chancellor.

"Yes, My Lord."

"You may go." It was a command, not a request.

* * *

Later, immediately following the midday meal, Sor made his regular daily visit to his wife's sickroom. According to Rim, today was the first day she was fully alert. Yesterday, Sor had spoken to her, but she had drifted off to sleep several times during their conversation.

"She's still tired, Your Majesty. Try not to take much time and don't upset her," said Rim as he passed Sor on the bedroom threshold. "I'm returning to my chambers."

"Should I summon you when I'm done?" asked the king.

"Only if there's a problem. She's out of danger and no longer needs constant supervision. I'll check on her periodically."

"When can I move back in?"

"Give it one or two more days."

Joi was lying sedately beneath a layer of blankets, eyes closed with her head propped up on several pillows and her arms folded over her chest. To Sor, she looked pale, fragile, and infinitely precious.

Her eyelids fluttered open when he sat on the edge of the bed. No smile transformed her features, as it once might have done. Rather, tears began to pool in her eyes. She had taken the loss of the child hard. In her opinion, its conception had been the only reason for her marriage. Now, that reason was gone.

Sor took his wife's hand, stroking and caressing it. "How are you feeling?"

"A little dizzy. Other than that, not too bad."

"In a few more days you should be up and about. Rim says you're out of danger."

There was a long pause before Joi said, "I suppose you'll divorce me now."

Sor was shocked by the suggestion. "Divorce you? Why? Because you lost the child? We'll have another one. We've got our whole lives in front of us."

Joi's expression took on a stricken look. "He didn't tell you?" she whispered.

"Tell me what?"

"I can't have any more children. There was some...complication, he called it, with the removal of the baby. I'm barren."

Barren? Why hadn't that damned healer told him!

"You'll have to divorce me."

"Out of the question. Not after I went through all this trouble to marry you."

"You don't have a choice."

"Of course I do! It's true that I need a successor, but no law mandates that it has to be my natural child. I can name anyone I want." He didn't mention the possibility of bigamy. It was illegal, but that wasn't Sor's reason for rejecting it; a king could nullify any law. Sor knew, however, that no matter what Joi said, the prospect of him marrying, or even bedding, another woman would be painful.

"It's unprecedented," Joi protested.

"No it isn't. It hasn't been done recently, but in Vorti's early years it wasn't unheard of. Besides, with a natural son, you can never tell if he's going to agree with your policies or not. With a hand-picked successor, you can be sure."

"Your advisors won't allow it."

"My advisors won't like it. They don't have the power to enforce their will."

Joi was thinking up another objection when Sor used his good arm to gently draw her up from under the covers and into a tender embrace. She didn't resist. He supposed that there was still a chance he could catch the disease, but at the moment, comforting his wife seemed more important than worrying about how contagious she was.

Leaning against her husband, she asked, "Did Rim say whether it was a boy or a girl?"

"Don't torture yourself. What happened wasn't your fault. It was those incompetents who were 'caring' for you."

"Was it a boy or a girl?" persisted Joi.

"He couldn't tell. It was still too young."

"I always thought it was going to be a son. In my mind, it was always a 'him'."

Sor didn't respond.

"I dreamed of holding him in my arms after he was born and presenting him to you. I thought how proud you'd be that you had a son. I wanted that baby more than anything - a new life that we both had a part in creating. Something special." At that moment, her entire body shuddered and she started to cry. They were quiet, almost silent sobs, straight from the heart.

After Joi's tears had subsided, she asked, "What's been happening? I ask people but they don't tell me anything."

Sor considered how to answer that. He knew that Rim had said not to upset her - an edict he had already failed to obey - but not knowing gave the imagination free reign and the images it created could often be far worse than reality. Nevertheless, he didn't want to paint too bleak a picture.

"We're having trouble with the nobles. They've decided to lodge a protest against the way I'm running the city by withdrawing their support."

"A rebellion?"

"Nothing so spectacular. It should all be over in a few weeks." Personally, he wasn't that optimistic, but he didn't want to confess his real views to Joi until she was better.

He expected more questions from her about the uprising, but she surprised him by changing the subject. "What about Lis and her mother? Are they still here or did you let them go?"

"They're still here, although not under lock and key. There are a lot of unanswered questions about what happened. Lately, I've been preoccupied with other things."

Stifling a yawn, she continued, "What about Wil?"

"Nothing. Now, I think it's time you got some rest." So saying, Sor lowered her back on the bed, pulled the covers almost up to her chin, then kissed her forehead. As he was getting up to leave, she murmured something unintelligible.

By the time he left the royal apartments, Joi's eyes were closed and her breathing had deepened into a slow-but-regular rhythm.

* * *

That night, several hours after dinner, Sye was sitting in front of the looking glass above her dressing table arranging her hair when there was an insistent knock on the outer door to her chambers. "Come in," she called.

She heard the door open then shut again, and noticed the black-robed shape of Chancellor Vas drift silently into the room, but paid him little attention. With a sigh of disgust, she put down the brush to take up a comb. She then went to work on her pale bangs, which had fallen across her face.

Vas cleared his throat impatiently. He stood behind Sye and to one side, a stormy expression masking his normally-impassive features. The scroll-case he had received earlier from Rim was clutched tightly in his right hand.

"What is it, Vas?" asked Sye, her voice peevish as the strokes of the comb became more violent. Her hair was simply not behaving itself - the strands that she pushed away from her face promptly fell back into place the moment the comb was removed.

"I have a grave matter to discuss," began the chancellor.

"Everything you want to discuss is grave. Just say what you came here to say."

"I would appreciate Your Majesty's undivided attention."

Sye let out another sigh of exasperation, threw down the comb with a clatter, and turned to face the chancellor. "All right. Go ahead."

Wordlessly, he opened the tube, took out the furled piece of parchment, and handed it to Sye. "What's this?" she asked, unrolling it.

Her expression betrayed nothing as she read through Vii's document - no frowns, no twitches, no lines on the forehead. If nothing else, Vas had to admire her control, especially since she was known for emotional displays. She was obviously reading very carefully, because it took over a quarter of an hour for her to finish the relatively short text.

Having finished, Sye tossed the scroll almost-negligently back to Vas. She lifted her eyes to meet his and said, "It's all lies, of course. Except that we were lovers. That much is true. He became very bitter when I broke it off. Undoubtedly, that's why he wrote this."

"I'm not a fool, Sye. I have eyes."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she snapped, her control momentarily deserting her.

"It means that I believe every allegation made in this scroll, except perhaps his assertion that you were responsible for Kan's death. Not even you could be so reprehensible."

"It's addressed to Sor," Sye commented.

"And a damn good thing he hasn't seen it."

"Ah!" exclaimed Sye, her eyes narrowing. "And you don't intend to show it to him."

"How do you arrive at that conclusion?" asked Vas.

"Your first duty has always been to Vorti, since the day my late husband appointed you. If Sor saw this, it might de-stabilize him and put the city's security in jeopardy. Better for me to die than have something like this come into the open. You can at least mourn the dead."

"You're a clever woman, Your Majesty, as well as an evil person."

"Evil? That's a cruel charge, Vas, and highly unfair, even if every accusation presented by our late healer is true. I am what I need to be. I'm what Sor needs me to be."

"You don't deny the charges, then?"

"Vii had an overactive imagination. He saw conspiracies everywhere he looked," replied Sye evasively. Vas couldn't decide whether she was playing with him or not.

"Perhaps that's because there were conspiracies everywhere he looked. He never struck me as a person easily susceptible to wild fantasies."

"He was unstable. There's no evidence. This is all supposition."

"That doesn't mean it didn't happen. You tell me, Sye. And, while we're discussing this, perhaps you can shed light on the circumstances surrounding Vii's death."

"He was murdered by thieves."

"Thieves or hired assassins paid to make it look like a robbery?"

"Does it matter? He's dead, as is everyone else on his list. It's difficult to get statements from beyond the grave."

"And Sor? What about him? Will he too become ill or suffer an unfortunate accident?"

Sye bristled visibly at this. "Nothing will happen to Sor! Whatever I've done, I've done for him!" The moment she said that, she flinched, but quickly recovered her composure. The words couldn't be withdrawn, so she'd have to make the most out of them.

Vas' expression didn't change. "Why don't we talk about exactly what you've done - and what's yet to come?"

* * *

Cen was in his study, sitting in an oversized chair specifically tailored to his girth, with half a dozen maps of the city spread out on the finely-polished wooden table before him. Four lit candles set in brass holders on the table provided the room's sole illumination.

The baron was stooped over, his squinting eyes no more than a foot above the maps he was studying. Most of his attention was focused on a current rendering of the palace environs, but occasionally he would put that aside and look at representations dating from different periods during the past several centuries. One of the maps, badly yellowed and brittle to the touch, was a sketch of Vorti before the three-hundred year old palace had been built.

The single door to the study opened silently, the brighter lantern-light from the corridor spilling into the darkened room. Cen lifted his head and gazed curiously at the slender figure silhouetted in the doorway.

"Are you coming to bed?" asked Nia.

"What time is it?"

"Around midnight."

Cen leaned back in the chair and allowed himself a long stretch. "I didn't realize it was that late," he muttered. "You'd better go to bed without me. I've got more to do and it may be dawn before I get a chance to sleep."

Nia entered the room and moved to her husband's side. As she looked down at him, at his thinning, gray hair and the sagging of his once-resilient flesh, a sense of melancholy filled her. Soon, he would be gone and she and the children would be alone. And if he died before the rebellion ended, what would become of them? It was doubtful that her blood-ties to the king would qualify her for mercy, not after being married to Sor's chief enemy.

Cen, heedless of his wife's misgivings, launched into an explanation of what he was attempting. "These maps represent the development of Vorti over the past four hundred years. By comparing them, I'm hoping to find clues to where a secret passage into the palace might be hidden."

"There's no secret passage," said Nia. "I lived my entire childhood in that place. My sisters and I spent more time than you can imagine playing in the cellars. There's nothing down there except empty wine barrels and broken crates. Believe me, if there was a good hiding place, Gea would have found it." She smiled fondly at the memories of her youngest sister, with skinned knees and a smudged face, burrowing deep into the shadows behind some smashed wooden boxes.

Cen disagreed. "If it were that easy to find, it wouldn't be much of a secret, would it? No, all buildings of that design have some sort of hidden exit. No king would be stupid enough to box himself inside without an alternative way out. It's there somewhere. It may be walled off, but it's there."

Nia's tone was as skeptical as her husband's was certain. "How do you expect to find it with those maps? They don't show any detail of the palace. You need interior diagrams for that, and those are kept under lock and key in Sor's library."

"The secret door leads to a short escape tunnel which emerges somewhere outside the palace gates," explained Cen patiently. "I'm using these maps to determine likely locations where the passage could come out. Presumably, that end is concealed even better than the one inside, so a thorough search over a large area would be too time-consuming, not to mention the attention it would attract. I'll have to narrow it down as much as possible beforehand."

"So you think you might be able to find a way to sneak in and out of the palace at will?"

"It would give us a significant advantage. Think of the possibilities if we could get inside without them knowing it."

"What makes you think Sor doesn't know about this passage?"

"He probably does, but there's no reason for him to suspect anyone else to. Any security around it is probably minimal. He wouldn't want to call attention to it, after all."

"You realize that there's security within the palace, in the unlikely event that someone gets inside. Members of the royal family and close advisors have personal bodyguards. It would take a small army to get to one of them."

"If they're being careful, I agree. But people relax their guards when they're feeling safe, and where better to believe yourself secure than in the heart of your own home - and especially a home built like a fortress? Eventually, everyone gets careless. We just have to be ready to take advantage when it happens."

"Have you found anything?"

"Nothing definite," confessed Cen. "The older maps are less detailed than I'd like. But a couple of places look promising."

"Well, happy hunting," said Nia tartly. "When you finally decide to come up, try not to wake me."

Cen marked her absence as a welcome relief from questions. Time was of the essence. In his opinion, Wil was becoming increasingly less reliable as an ally. It was plain that his ideals were widely divergent from those of his sponsors. The baron was no longer certain that he could risk enthroning a man who might turn and use his new authority against those who had put him there. Preemptive action excluding Wil might become necessary.

Less than an hour later, Cen was rolling up the maps and placing them back on their shelf, a self-satisfied smirk twisting his features. He had narrowed the possible locations down to one, and all that remained was a little physical labor to prove or disprove his theory. Normally, he would have delegated the work to one of his retainers, but circumstances were not normal, and he was unsure of the allegiances of some of those he might send. Better, he decided, to go himself, despite the obvious dangers.

Cen left the library and donned a heavy woolen cape, recognizing that it was colder than usual for this time of year. As a precaution, he took along a hunting knife. Nighttime was perhaps not the best time to go searching for concealed passageways, but Cen dared not venture out during the daylight hours, when one of Sor's men might easily spot him. Even at night he had to be careful, since his house was being watched. Besides, burglary - which was essentially what he intended to attempt - was always best accomplished with as little light as was possible. It was infinitely less troublesome to prowl through the shadows at an hour past midnight than to attempt the same feat under the cold, unrelenting gaze of the midday sun.

* * *

Emotionally weary, with the dimly-lit, deserted stone corridors of the palace seeming to close in on him, Wil let his magical shield waver and drop. For the first time, he noticed that he was drenched in perspiration, the product more of nerves than exertion. He had crept past a dozen guards at the gates, another half dozen at the main entrance, and several more in the front rooms and halls. He had not allowed himself to risk exposure until he was deep within the palace, far away from where discovery was likely.

He took a moment to compose himself, then started off down a corridor that branched to his left. Not having a clear idea of where he was going, Wil knew only that he needed to find the living quarters of the royal family. Once there, he could make more definite decisions.

No matter how gently he tried to step, the soles of his boots still made a distinctive sound as they struck the hard surface of the floors. Wil hoped fervently that the more-frequently used parts of the palace would have carpeting.

He was unsure what time it was or how long he had been inside - although it had been long enough to open countless unlocked doors and ascend three flights of stairs - when he finally came upon a series of halls and rooms that showed signs of current habitation: brighter lighting, an occasional snippet of distant chatter or laughter, and well-worn carpeting on the floors. He had waited for hours after sunset to risk entrance, and it seemed like he had been walking these corridors forever. His best guess put the time at an hour or two after midnight, although if the first rays of dawn had begun to slant through the skylight in the ceiling above, he wouldn't have been surprised.

Peering around a bend in the corridor, he noticed two guards standing at attention to either side of a door less than thirty feet away. They weren't sleeping, or even drowsy, and their eyes were constantly active. Sliding a hand to a magically-created dagger beneath his cloak, Wil let his fear and uncertainty metamorphose into a magical bubble of virtual invisibility. His sweaty palm grasping the hilt of the weapon, he glided grimly forward.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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