THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART FIVE: LOSS OF FOCUS


CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE


The early morning fog lay across Vorti like a gray blanket, muting sight and sound, as the night reluctantly surrendered its hold on the world to the dawn. In the quietest hour of the day, the bells began to toll their mournful song, awakening every citizen who had not drunk himself into oblivion. They sounded a peculiar double-chime, one never heard in the lifetime of even the eldest residents of the city - the desolate announcement of two deaths within the Royal Family.

Nia, like thousands of others, was roused by the bell-ringing. Her first sleepy inclination was to wonder why her head was ringing so - she hadn't drunk much the night before. Then she realized that the sound was coming from outside - and what it meant.

The baroness rolled over to get out of bed, and, for the first time, noticed that her husband was not beside her. In fact, his side of the bed showed no evidence of having been slept in: crisp, neat sheets and a firm, fluffed pillow with no indentations. Nia frowned as a dark suspicion wormed its way into her thoughts.

She rose and stripped off her sleeping gown, shivering as the cool air caressed her skin. Eschewing the aid of her maid, she dressed alone, slipping on a randomly-chosen floor-length skirt and unmatched blouse. Instead of taking thirty minutes to pick at and style her hair before a looking glass, she gathered it up, pulled it away from her face, and tied it into a single ponytail with a length of red ribbon. She slipped on a pair of old, worn shoes - comfortable relics from her days in the palace - and paused by the full basin to splash water on her face. Seven minutes after leaving bed, she was on her way out of the room.

She nearly collided with Cen on the threshold. The baron seemed abnormally alive, awake, and full of good cheer for a man who had been up all night. "You don't look well, my dear. Perhaps you should go back to bed. It's early."

"What's happened?" demanded Nia.

"The bells, you mean?" returned Cen, feigning ignorance.

"Of course I mean the bells!"

A measure of Cen's mirth subsided as he acknowledged his wife's disposition. "There have been two deaths at the palace. Both of the queens, Joi and Sye."

"Both queens?"

"Murdered. Actually, butchered might be a better way to put it, at least in Sye's case. Joi's body apparently is presentable, so she'll be put on display in the throne room. Sye, on the other hand, will be quickly cremated in a 'private' ceremony."

"What happened?"

Cen shrugged. "It was an inside job. They haven't caught whoever's responsible. Both bodies were found by the new palace healer while Sor was taking a late-night bath, if you can believe that."

"Did you find what you were looking for last night?"

"Hmm?"

"The secret entrance."

"Supposedly, several guards were killed to get to Joi and Sye. One of them was the head of Sor's personal squadron," remarked Cen, ignoring his wife's question.

"What about the secret entrance?"

"Too bad they didn't get rid of Sor. That would have solved all of our problems - well, most of them anyway."

"Are you going to answer me?"

"No. I would have thought that was obvious by now."

"Why not?"

"Let's just say that there are some things you're better off not knowing. As the elders always say: knowledge is a dangerous weapon, and weapons cut both ways."

"What's that supposed to mean?? You talked about it enough last night!"

"A few things have happened since then. Don't forget that we're at war and the rules change from day-to-day. Something that's terribly important today may be worthless tomorrow. Or vice versa. The only constant is that nothing's constant."

"Don't treat me like a child! I'm not one of your sycophants, to be impressed by empty babbling that passes for profundity."

"That's more than a little unkind. I will not tolerate being insulted in this manner by my wife."

"Then tell me what happened last night! Did you kill them?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" snapped Cen. "If I was going to kill someone in the palace, do you think I would have gone after the women?"

"No," conceded Nia. "So what happened?"

The baron resolutely bypassed the question. "I'd advise you to stay away from open windows today. It's well-known in Vorti that we're at the heart of the rebellion, and some overzealous peasant might decide that the best way to avenge their queen is to go after us. Sye wasn't popular enough to engender warm feelings, but Joi's death will be widely mourned. I don't know why, since no one knew her."

"She was a peasant, she hadn't done anything to anger anyone, and Sor apparently adored her. Those are three good reasons for every untitled citizen to like her."

"Just remember: don't stand in front of windows and watch out for danger. The guards are on alert, so you should be safe in the house."

"I bet that's what Joi and Sye thought."

"Precisely my point. I think the guards are all loyal, but if Sor's been circulating enough money, anyone can be bought. So be careful. I'll see you later."

"You're going out?"

"I have urgent business to attend to. A man in my position can't afford to waste time."

"But you just got in. You haven't slept yet."

"Too much to do, my dear. I'll sleep later." He leaned over, kissed her perfunctorily on the cheek, then turned and headed for the stairs. Nia watched him go, her face twisted into an expression that was part consternation and part anger.

After an early breakfast, Nia retired to the mansion's courtyard to consort with butterflies and inhale the sweet aroma arising from a patch of peculiar little yellow flowers with lopsided petals. She picked one and twirled the stem between two fingers, wondering that such a delicate thing could bloom so close to the advent of the first nighttime frost. Overhead, the sun still hung low in the sky, but the fog had burned off and it was beginning to look like a clear late summer's day. Like discordant background music to such a peaceful scene, the bells continued to toll. They would do so until noon.

As she strolled around the courtyard, Nia reached a decision. Despite the war and the bad feelings engendered by it and other things, Nia felt it was her duty to present to Sor her sincere condolences. She had never liked Sye and didn't know Joi, but the king was her half-brother, and she felt she owed him some family loyalty. In her mind, the real division between herself and the Royal House had been mended when she had gone to Kan's deathbed.

She wished she knew how Sor would react to her arrival at the palace. Because of the situation in Vorti, he would be within his rights to have her arrested - and even executed. She had to trust that there was enough of his father in him that he would treat her in the spirit in which she would come: as his sister, not his enemy's wife.

The other matter to be considered was how to get to the palace without being identified. Although her face was not as well-known as her husband's, anonymity without a disguise would be impossible. Perhaps if she wore a hooded cloak with a scarf wrapped around the lower portion of her face, she could avoid being stoned or lynched. It was an unusual style, especially for this time of year, but it would be better than being noticed as Baroness Nia. Most of the common people had forgotten that she had been born into the Royal Family. As far as they were concerned, Sor only had two sisters: Jen and Gea.

Leaving her melancholy thoughts behind in the courtyard, Nia went inside, assembled her costume, then headed for the front door. There, she was confronted by a burly armored man dressed in her husband's colors. Nia recognized him immediately: Urt, the captain of Cen's guards. Normally, he was stationed outside. He bowed to her deferentially, but did not step out of her way.

"Stand aside, Urt. I'm going out," said Nia.

The guard didn't move. "I'm sorry, My Lady, but I can't allow that." His tone was intensely polite, bordering on subservient, but his bearing was rigid and it was clear that he meant what he said.

"Can't allow??" gasped Nia, outraged. "I'll see to it that you're dismissed. Now, get out of my way!"

The sandy-haired young man looked down at her, his blue eyes regretful. "I'm sorry, My Lady," he repeated. "But His Lordship has commanded that you not be allowed to leave the house. He said that if you became violent, I was authorized to use any means necessary to restrain you."

Nia stepped back in astonishment. Had Cen considered that she might try something like this? Did he trust her so little? She spent a moment staring open-mouthed at the nonplused guard, then whirled and stalked up the stairs to her room. Moments later, everyone in the house heard the crash as Nia hurled a silver goblet at her looking glass - her wedding present from Cen - shattering the mirror into hundreds of tiny, glittering fragments.

* * *

His head throbbing, Wil awoke to the clopping of hoofs and the bellowing of a rather strident tenor. "Anyone here?? Boy??" shouted the man, sounding as if he was yelling directly into the young Apath's ear. Wil rolled over and forced himself to his feet, much as he wanted to do otherwise. Straw clinging to his clothing and hair in disarray, he lowered himself onto the rickety wooden ladder that connected his loft with the ground floor of the stables.

"I'm coming," he muttered.

"About time!" exclaimed the man. "I was just about to go inside and tell the landlord that there wasn't anyone out here!"

The entrance was a darkened opening, the curtain of blackness broken only by the faint, feeble haze of light reaching from the inn. It was dark outside. Only one lantern in the stable was lit, probably a product of an earlier visit by Tim. As Wil moved from wall-to-wall lighting the others, he was subjected to a barrage of ranting and raving about the poor quality of service in stables.

The man was obese, with a stomach to match his lungs. He had small, beady eyes and a full head of greasy, uncombed, rust-colored hair. His beard and mustache, while of the same texture, were graying. He was dressed in what appeared to be a fairly expensive emerald tunic, although his leggings were those favored by commoners: poorly-tailored in dark leather. Wil wondered how a person of his size could manage to climb on and off his horse. The animal had a beleaguered expression, probably the result of having to bear such a weighty burden.

"What can I do for you, Sir?" asked Wil, trying without much success to sound polite.

"What can you do for me?" echoed the man mockingly. "What do people usually come to stables for?" He tossed the reigns negligently to Wil, then turned to leave, listing from side to side as he waddled away.

"Do you want him fed, watered, and brushed down?" Wil inquired as he led the animal into a stall.

"How do I know? Do I look like a stableboy to you?" he called over his shoulder.

"No, you look like a fat-assed pile of lard," muttered Wil, a bit too loudly.

"What was that?" demanded the man, stopping and turning to face Wil from just outside the entrance, his features masked in darkness, his expression unreadable.

Wil was suddenly weary of this life: cleaning up horse droppings, filling troughs, getting kicked in the chest by an occasional bad-tempered animal, and, most of all, having to kowtow to arrogant pigs like this. Ever since his birth, he had been subjected to the whims of such people. It was the lot of the common man to obey and, through that obedience, survive. For Wil, however, it was no longer acceptable. He was an Apath. He didn't have to bow or scrape to anyone. As of now, it was going to stop.

"I said that you look like a fat-assed pile of lard."

At first, the man looked dumbfounded, as if he couldn't accept that anyone, especially a lowly stableboy, would have the gall to address him in such a manner, then his face began to color. "How dare you! The innkeeper will hear of this, you can be sure!"

"Go ahead and tell him, you half-witted pig."

The man let out a gasp of outrage, eyes going wide from the shock of such treatment, then practically fled from the stable, hauling his mammoth form towards the inn as fast as he could move it.

Wil didn't waste any time. He still wanted nothing more than to lie down and close his eyes, but he had no desire to be out here when the innkeeper arrived alongside his irate customer. Other than what he was wearing, he had no personal possessions - nor had he ever had any - so there was nothing to pack. He simply walked out the door and headed into the night. The only thing he regretted was the extra work that would inevitably be heaped upon Tim as a result of his unexpected departure.

It didn't take long for him to decide where to go. He didn't know for sure, of course, but he was reasonably certain that his family's old hut was still uninhabited. To the best of his knowledge, Bur's lands had gone untilled this year, so that meant that the landowner hadn't found another tenant. Wil suspected that he could live there for months without being detected as long as he didn't do something stupid to call attention to himself, like light a fire in the fireplace.

He hadn't been there in almost a year, but that small, rundown little house was still the only place he thought of as home. For the past ten months, he had experienced a deep sense of displacement. He'd been a vagabond - a powerful one, to be sure - but a nomad nevertheless. Now, an outcast and fugitive, he was returning to the home that was no longer legally his. Given his attitude towards the law and those who made and enforced it, the ownership of the house and farm meant little to Wil.

Once he left the lighted portions of Vorti, he had to rely on his memory to take him down narrow, rutted trails and across weed-choked fields. The light of a crescent moon produced enough illumination to show Wil how different everything looked - even though it was all the same. Gone were the neatly plowed rows of corn, wheat, and rye. It was amazing how fast nature could reclaim the land, overgrowing everything in less than a year, replacing crops with weeds and brambles. Yet the odor of mingled dirt and manure was still strong and he sucked it into his lungs like a tonic to soothe his weary soul.

From outside in the dull, silvery light, the hut appeared as ramshackle as ever. It had withstood decades of abuse from the elements, yet still it stood, looking as if a strong gust of wind would collapse it into a heap of rotting timbers and thatch. The door creaked badly as Wil pushed it open, the hinges obviously in need of lubrication. His nose was immediately assailed by the scents of must and mildew.

Shutting the door behind him, Wil used his powers to conjure a magical light. After a second's concentration to transform his momentary pang of nostalgia into energy, a disembodied white flame appeared just above the Apath's outstretched left hand. As Wil lowered his hand, the light grew fractionally brighter, then stabilized.

On the floor, mice scurried in all directions, startled by the unexpected intrusion. The floor was a mess, covered with droppings, rotting thatch, and the decaying remnants of the chairs and table, which had been exposed to the elements as a result of a large hole in the roof directly above them. The pallet which had once served as Wil's bed stank of mice, but at least it was relatively dry. At this point, he was more concerned about finding a place to get a good night's sleep than the cleanliness of where he did it. The loft in the Drunk Doxy's stables hadn't been the most hygienically sound place to spend a night, either.

Dousing the light, he lay down in his old pallet, provoking a high-pitched squeak as something darted out from under him. Not closing his eyes, he gazed at the stars through the hole in the roof, considering what the events of the past twenty-four hours might mean for his future plans. Finally, he drifted off into oblivion. While his sleep was uninterrupted by the pealing of bells, bizarre dreams of a bloody tableau haunted him until the first rays of the next day's sun came slanting through the half-open roof.

* * *

Gea drew her brother to her in a close embrace as his rigid composure finally broke. Burying his face against her chest, he began to cry - great, racking sobs that brought tears to her own eyes. Never in her twenty-five years of life had she encountered such deep pain. Not even Kan's death had hurt Sor this much, and she knew how much the young king had idolized his father.

Gea's relationship with Sor had always been less strained than the ones he shared with his other half-brothers and half-sisters. Although they had never been especially close, suddenly Gea was all that Sor had left. Jen had never hidden her contempt for him, extending her hatred for the queen to Sye's son. Everyone else, including the mother he had adored and the wife he had doted on, was dead. Even the strongest man could not face a tragedy like this on his own, so Sor gravitated to the only one remaining. In Gea, he found a measure of compassion and comfort.

Throughout the day, he had stood rigid and stone-faced beside his wife's bier, eyes flickering emotionlessly over each mourner who came to pay tribute to the dead queen. Never once had he shown the slightest trace of emotion. Earlier, before dawn, he had presented the same facade at the small, personal ceremony where Queen Sye's mutilated body had been cremated.

Now, however, the mask crumbled. Sor's first shedding of tears since receiving the news of the double murder the night before - just after returning to his chambers following a late-night bath - served as a powerful catharsis. When he finally stepped away from Gea, his face as moist as the front of her gown, the ice was gone from his eyes, replaced by an unspeakable, but altogether human, agony. Gea wished she could say something, but her throat was tightly constricted - and what words could have meaning in a situation such as this?

"Thank you for attending Mother's ceremony. I know you two didn't get along, but at least I wasn't the only one there," Sor said finally, the first words he had spoken since committing Sye's body to the fire. Even then, all he had done was mouth the traditional pronouncement of "The journey of this soul is ended in this life. Know that we shall miss it always and wish for it to find a better and brighter future when it re-enters the world in its next incarnation."

"Whatever else Sye might have been, she was still our father's wife," Gea replied. Actually, Sor's assertion wasn't true. Without her, there still would have been four mourners. The captain of Sye's bodyguard, Vot, had been there, along with Vas and Rim. Nevertheless, it had been a small crowd for someone so prominent, with her older sister's absence being the most glaring. "I can't believe Jen didn't show up. What a bitch!"

Sor seemed inclined to overlook what Gea was unwilling to. "She and Mother hated each other. It would have been hypocritical if she had come."

"No," disagreed Gea. "It had nothing to do with Sye. It would have been a sign of respect for you. Father would have skinned her for behavior like that."

"Perhaps," admitted Sor.

"There's no 'perhaps' about it."

"Jen's never exhibited any particular fondness for me, either. She considers me about as much her brother as she does Nia her sister. Only Kir or Bem deserved to succeed Kan."

Had she been able to, Gea would have refuted Sor's claims, but there was nothing she could say. He had articulated Jen's views precisely.

There was a significant lull before the king spoke again. "I suppose Joi's...burning" - he nearly choked on the word, then managed to regain control - "should be public. It can be done from atop the palace walls, like Father's." In the past, the cremations of Vorti's rulers had been private events, performed in a special grotto in the palace gardens, where Sye's had occurred. Kan, however, had always maintained a desire for his ceremony to be a public one, and Sor had honored his wishes. Although he had never discussed the matter with Joi, he felt she would want the same thing.

"Are you going to be all right tonight?" asked Gea.

"No," replied Sor, already envisioning the cold loneliness of empty rooms and an even emptier bed. "But I'll ask Rim to come up with a potion to make me sleep - and not dream. I don't want any dreams, not even good ones, because it will hurt too much when I finally wake up."

"Where are you going?"

"Back to my old quarters."

"Those are a prince's chambers."

Sor nodded. "In some ways, they're nicer than the royal suite. And I can't go back to where she was killed - or even where I learned about it." In fact, there was no place in the palace where he could go to escape reminders of Joi, but at least all she had been to him in his old apartment was a maid and confidante.

"I understand," said his sister. "If you need a shoulder to lean on..."

Sor shook his head. "I need some time alone. Parts of me still haven't come to grips with what's happened. I can't believe that she won't be there, waiting for me in bed. It just won't register. She's been such a part of my life since before Father's death - always there, ready to listen and advise. We never had a serious quarrel. We were perfect together - too perfect, I think, for it to last."

"I'm going to postpone my wedding," said Gea abruptly.

"You don't have to do that. We need a little cheer around here."

"Not now we don't. It's too soon."

Sor took her hand and squeezed once, a wordless display of gratitude.

There was another issue to be mentioned. Gea was reluctant to broach it, however, knowing how unpleasant it would be to face. Had Sor been any other man suddenly bereft of his loved ones, it could have been pushed aside. A king, however, didn't have that option.

"There's something else you have to consider," she began gently. "It will be up to you to find out who killed them."

Sor's nod was almost imperceptible. "I know. But I don't want to talk about it now. Vas said he'd take over the investigation and I'm going to let him handle it."

"I don't think that's a good idea," said Gea tentatively. She hadn't wanted to get into this, either, but Sor's words made it imperative that she mention it.

"Why not?"

"Because you should consider the possibility - and it's no more than that - that Vas might have been involved in what happened last night."


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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