THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART FIVE: LOSS OF FOCUS


CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX


When Wil awoke the next morning, his immediate concerns were more with the events of today than those of yesterday, even considering how bizarre and shocking they had been. Creeping silently through the endless, nightmarish corridors of the palace seemed as unreal in the cold light of the new day as did almost everything else he had done - and seen.

As he became aware of his surroundings, Wil felt something warm and soft against the back of his left hand. Turning, he saw that a small brown mouse had curled up and gone to sleep there. Slowly, he twisted his hand until the palm was touching the mouse, then, using his forefinger, he began to gently stroke the animal's back. It awoke almost instantly, darted to its feet, and fled, scampering across the room and through one of the many holes in the hut's walls.

There were other mice in the room - probably several dozen of them. As if galvanized by the first one's actions, they all scattered, noses twitching and whiskers bobbing, so that by the time Wil's booted feet touched the floor, there was not one to be found.

Wil was undecided what to do with his day. He had a meeting scheduled with Baron Cen this morning, but he didn't think he could stomach the man's company. Cen would likely be bubbling with joy over events at the palace, and, while Wil couldn't sympathize with Sor, he didn't want to hear the baron crowing over someone else's tragedy.

What he really wanted to do was talk things over with Lis. Unfortunately, she was still trapped within the palace, and, given what had happened there, she wouldn't likely be released soon. In retrospect, he probably should have taken the time to locate her when he had gone in, but events had progressed too quickly to allow him the opportunity. So, if he intended to bring her out, he'd have to spend time searching for her first.

Eventually deciding upon one of the least demanding courses of action, Wil spent the morning cleaning up the hut. He swept all the debris into a corner, got rid of the moldiest straw, chased the mice out of his bedding, and even made an attempt to cover over the larger holes in the roof. After four hours of work, the place looked and smelled a little more like the home he had grown up in.

In the afternoon, he went for a walk. He moved cautiously, on the lookout for any guards that Bur might have prowling his lands. Wil hadn't seen any when he had climbed up on the roof earlier, but that didn't mean they didn't exist. Nevertheless, he not only didn't see any, but there were no signs of them having been around at any point in the recent past. The farm was desolate. He wondered about a man who could evict someone for not meeting a quota, then fail to bring in anyone to replace him. At least with Wil working the farm, Bur had gotten several tons of crops. Now, he was getting nothing; the land was completely unproductive. Apparently, quotas hadn't been the lord's primary motivation, after all. Rather, it seemed that his chief pleasure in the entire affair had been to cause suffering.

He wandered down to the riverbank, walked along it for a while, then sat down, took off his boots, and let his feet dangle into the water. Once, he and Lis had often met here. Those times, only two years past, seemed ages ago. So much had happened since then. What, Wil wondered, did the next two years hold for him? Would he even be alive to see them through?

From his current perspective, his life was a failure. There were two things he had wanted: Lis for himself and a fair, just government for Vorti. At this point, he had neither. Magic was not a goal, but a tool to achieve his aims. What good was all that power if it couldn't be molded and harnessed to change the world for the better?

Wil remained where he was for the better part of the afternoon, moving away with the onset of dusk. With the exception of a beaver, several water snakes, and two rabbits, he had seen no signs of life. He might have been in the farthest reaches of Devforth's wilderness rather than two miles from a city.

At this point, he was as undecided about tomorrow as he had been about today. One thing was certain - he couldn't continue to waste time. The people of the city needed the reforms he intended to bring.

Paying more attention to his thoughts than the way home, Wil let out a particularly vivid oath as his foot caught on something and he went sprawling headfirst into a patch of brambles. Cursing angrily, he got to his feet, dozens of small nicks covering the exposed flesh of his arms, neck, and face. One cut had missed his left eye by less than an inch. He turned to see what he had tripped over in this treeless, rootless plain, and found, to his astonishment, that there was a human body lying face down with a horde of flies buzzing hungrily around it. With the sight came the recognition of the unpleasant odor his nostrils had first detected several hundred yards downwind.

It was a small corpse, probably that of a girl several years Wil's junior, the perfect image of beauty and sweetness marred by death's unavoidable corruption. She was stripped from the waist up to reveal a wealth of welts on her decaying back. A garment resembling a loincloth was fitted loosely around her waist. Her legs were bare, the mottled flesh peeling away, but her feet were shod in a pair of open-toed sandals. Her hair was long and honey-colored, hanging to the small of her back and streaked with grime.

Wil reached down and turned her over, his actions stirring up the already-potent stench. He fought down a wave of nausea as he gazed upon the crumbling features of a girl he immediately recognized, even after several days of putrefaction. It was Hie, one of Lord Bur's numerous parlor maids, perhaps the most flirtatious and openly sensual of them all.

From the marks on her neck, it was clear how she'd died. Even for a person not skilled in such matters, the bruising from strangulation was not hard to identify. Blood, now dried and blackened, stained the front of the loincloth, testifying mutely to the atrocity that had been committed first. Wil was not inclined to investigate closer. There was other damage, but it had all occurred after her death, as the result of the feeding of insects and small mammals. It was remarkable that nothing large had come to feast upon such a ready meal.

As he looked at the husk of what had once been a beautiful girl, Wil felt the tide of rage crest within him, and, almost without realizing it, began to prime himself for a magical outburst.

He caught himself before it was too late, using mind control techniques to master his anger without dispelling it. He was certain that the emotion would come in useful, especially if he had the occasion to encounter whoever had committed this abomination. Utilizing only the smallest fraction of it, he lit a magical flame from which he built a carefully-controlled, smokeless pyre that consumed the body in an orange-red glow which mirrored the hues of the sunset.

By the time Wil reached his hut, the last vestiges of twilight were fading. The passion ignited by the outrage he had discovered was still in full flower. For reasons he cold not define, and didn't even understand, he wanted to avenge this girl. Encouraged partly by intuition and partly by his intense hatred of the man, a voice in Wil's mind urged that Bur, or one of his lackeys, was behind this. After all, one of the lord's servants could hardly vanish without a search unless he wished it so. Any attempt to find the girl, no matter how halfhearted, would have turned her up. Her body hadn't been well-hidden and it had lain less than a mile from the outskirts of Bur's land for more than two days. From Wil's experience of the man, it would be just like him to abuse someone, and, when that abuse resulted in death, to have her carted away and dumped somewhere like any other piece of refuse.

Wil intended to find whoever had done this thing, and when he found them, mete out the justice of which they were so richly deserving.

* * *

Contrary to Wil's expectations, Baron Cen was not in a jovial mood. His wife had locked herself in their bedroom and was refusing to admit him or listen to reason. The other nobles, fearful of a violent retaliation from Sor, were unwilling to press forward now, when the advantage was theirs. In fact, it had taken a great deal of fast talking on the baron's part to keep the revolution from collapsing. Now, on top of all that, Wil had disappeared, depriving Cen of his source of magic.

There wasn't anything he could do about it, of course. During normal times, he might have commanded his men to implement a citywide search for the wayward Apath, but they could hardly do that now, while he was in a state of open rebellion. The moment his guards left his lands, they'd be arrested. Cen could ask the other nobles for help but, even had their situations been better than his, it would have been folly to admit that Wil had disappeared. That piece of information would singlehandedly shatter what remained of the alliance. If the other nobles thought they were facing Sor without an Apath behind them, they'd surrender to the king en masse. Their superstitious beliefs of what a wizard could and couldn't do were laughable.

By nightfall, it was clear that the Apath had no intention of coming forth, at least for now. The baron wasn't sure what that meant. Perhaps Wil had gone into hiding following the double assassination. But the question was: who was he hiding from, Cen or Sor?

Cen had always considered magic a necessary tool to eliminate Sor, but his discovery of two nights ago had shifted his thinking. Certainly, the advantage of an Apath was not to be discounted, but the survival and success of the rebellion might not depend upon it. Using the secret entrance to the palace, it could be possible to engineer an assassination. While sleeping or if taken unawares, Sor was as vulnerable as any ordinary man. Cen knew that Sor's magic couldn't save him from a knife in the back.

That plan wasn't without difficulties, however. Following the deaths of Sye and Joi, security within the palace had doubtless been bolstered dramatically. The possibility of getting anyone into a position where they could strike at Sor was slim. Over time, that would change. As the threat faded into the past, the guards would become lax. Then, if Cen's alliance was still intact, an opportunity might arise.

There was also the possibility that the masses of Vorti could make such a decisive action unnecessary. At the moment, their love for their king seemed boundless, but they hadn't begun to struggle through the long, hard winter with little or no food. The atmosphere in the city would turn ugly then, and much of the animosity would be directed toward the king. Again, for Cen, it was a matter of keeping the rebellion alive. Not an easy task, considering the lack of backbone of many of his fellow conspirators.

He decided to see if his wife would let him into the bedroom tonight. In retaliation for his not permitting her to leave the house, she had denied him access to both her and their shared chambers. It was a decidedly immature reaction on her part, but it had gotten its desired results. Cen had seriously considered breaking down the door until he realized how foolish that would make him look.

His knock went unanswered and the door was still firmly bolted. Nia could be a headstrong bitch when she wanted to, and this was apparently one of those times when it suited her.

Muttering several choice curses under his breath, Cen went downstairs, questioned the guard at the front door about the latest perimeter check, then retired to his study, where he had set up a portable cot. The divans in the sitting room probably would have been more comfortable for sleeping, especially for someone of his size, but that room was too public. He didn't want to advertise that his wife had locked him out of his own bedroom.

Shortly after falling asleep, Cen experienced a terrifyingly vivid nightmare in which a hooded tormenter manacled him to a wall and systematically mutilated his body. The pain and humiliation were intense, and, although deep in the back of his mind he knew it wasn't real, he couldn't seem to wake up. The suffering went on forever, as Cen was slowly dismembered, piece by piece. Then, when his torturer prepared to deliver the final, fatal blow, the man stood back and removed his black cowl to reveal Wil's leering face. "Now, it's your turn to pay," the Apath declared in a voice quivering with hatred. At that moment, Cen awoke, his breath coming in gasps and his body drenched with sweat even though the night was cool.

For the first time, he wondered if there was truth to the legend that Apaths could invade the dreams of the unmagical.

* * *

Sor sat by himself, looking lonely, in his ornately-carved chair in the little throne room. Gea paused at the door, peering into the dimly-lit chamber to make sure she wasn't interrupting.

"I've just had a visit from Vas," said Sor when he noticed her. "He bore some rather unpleasant news."

"Has he discovered who's responsible?" If Vas had uncovered the killer or killers already, that was fast work, even by the crafty chancellor's standards. It would certainly make Gea look foolish for doubting Sor's decision to place him solely in charge of the investigation.

"No, nothing like that. In fact, he hasn't said anything about it."

"Then what?"

"He thinks I should get married again."

Gea flinched. "He's right," she said softly.

"You don't understand, at least not completely" demurred Sor. "He wants me to get married immediately. Tomorrow, if today's not possible."

"Right away?"

"He says that my life is in imminent danger and if there isn't a legitimate heir on the way, my death could tear apart the city. According to him, I need to find a wife and get her pregnant as soon as possible or face being the cause of Vorti's destruction."

Gea was quiet for several moments, trying to find something comforting to say. Vas' comments were to the point, but if he had warm blood running through his veins instead of ice water, he would have come up with a better way of approaching his king with the matter.

"I've thought it over all day and I...understand why he presented things like he did. I don't want Vorti hurt by this. I'm not sure that an heir will make all that much difference, especially if I get killed when he's too young to assume the throne, but I can't ignore the importance of the rites of succession. I was wondering if you might consider...I mean, there doesn't seem to be anyone else suitable..."

She smiled fondly at him, flattered that he would suggest such a thing. At the same time, however, she recognized the central problem to a union between them. "We can't get married, Sor. Inbreeding was the curse of too many of the royal families in the past. It caused physical weakness and certain mental aberrations. Your son needs fresh blood in him as much as that of our family."

Sor nodded slowly, his expression unchanging. Finally, he said, "I'll have to defer to your knowledge of history. It was never my strong suit. I daydreamed myself through more than half of the lessons. But it doesn't make my dilemma any easier."

"I'm not sure it's that much of a problem. What about Lis?"

"Lis?" exclaimed Sor.

"Well, why not? Until her father went berserk, you were supposed to marry her. In fact, you almost did. After that, she was vindicated. Why not her?"

"I doubt Vas would like it very much."

"Damn Vas and what he does or doesn't like! It's your life, your marriage, and your son, not his!"

"He's my chancellor."

"And you're the king," countered Gea. "Lis is as good a match today as she was four weeks ago. At least both of you know that you can tolerate each other. She won't be hard to locate, since you haven't released her from the palace yet."

"I'm not sure she'll still have me. I've only seen her once since the wedding and she was furious then."

"She doesn't have a choice in the matter. She'll do what's best for the city, whether it appeals to her personally or not. If nothing else, her pride will keep her from refusing. As for her being angry with you...that was three weeks ago, and, given the circumstances, can you blame her?"

"No."

"Why don't you go and ask her?"

The question hung in the air for a long time. Eventually, Sor spoke again, his words halting and reluctant. "I don't know... if I can... touch her. Not so soon after Joi."

"That's something you'll have to find some way to get around. If you have to, pretend it's Joi. I don't know whether that will work or not. Maybe you can just make your mind a blank; I'm sure your body will take over. After all, it isn't exactly an unpleasant chore."

"All right. You win. I'll go talk to her," said Sor. "I can't fight duty. No king can."

Gea didn't smile, either inwardly or outwardly. It certainly didn't feel like she'd won.

* * *

The view from Lis' window overlooked the front courtyard of the palace, and, beyond the walls, the western half of Vorti. Watching people move about out there, she felt much like she had as a child when her parents had brought her to the city's small museum. "Look, but don't touch," they had said. Look, but don't touch. That applied to her now. She could see what was going on past the confines of the palace, but, if she tried to sample those activities, the guards at the door would politely-but-firmly turn her away. She had already tried twice.

Since her release from confinement three weeks ago, everyone in the palace had been pleasant around her, treating her with the utmost courtesy. Nothing, however, allowed her to forget that she was a prisoner. The restrictions to her movement were there to remind her of her situation and, although the inhabitants of this building clicked their tongues when she used words like "captivity" and "prisoner", no one denied it outright - because it was undeniable.

Lis' initial anger at Sor had subsided. She had come to understand why he had locked her up in the first place, and why he continued the confinement. He was, after all, involved in a war with the nobility, and, while Lis wasn't proud of her class, she couldn't deny it. She was the daughter of a baron, and, technically, that made her an enemy of the Crown.

During the early days of her detention, she had spent long hours with her mother, but now, three weeks later, she avoided Baroness Una as often as she could. In her view, her mother had become a spineless sycophant, fawning before the Royal Family at every opportunity, scattering lavish thanksgiving for her life. To watch it nearly made Lis physically sick. Had the woman no pride? Couldn't she see how she was demeaning herself?

Lis had become companionable with several of the servant girls, but she avoided the Royal Family as often as she could. It wasn't a difficult task, since her quarters were about as far away from their wing of the palace as was physically possible. Occasionally, Lis saw Gea, and twice they had spoken, but the others she rarely, if ever, encountered. She was especially relieved not to have met the king.

The double assassination changed life within the palace for the worse. All of Lis' companions became sullen and uncommunicative. Guards patrolled the halls constantly, many of them eying her with distrust because of her background. The atmosphere, never relaxed, became bleak and tinged with fear as the realization sunk in that even the presence of an Apath under this roof could not prevent tragedies. More than ever, Lis felt the strength of the bars of her cage.

With as much time as she had to herself over the past weeks, Lis found her thoughts straying to Wil. Now that a reunion with him seemed impossible, she found that she wanted him more than ever. That desire raised questions, however, few of which Lis could answer. The darkest and most uncomfortable of those pondered how deeply Wil might be implicated in the events of the past few weeks. The presence of magic could explain much that was otherwise inexplicable - including why Baron Rig would attempt to kill a king he admired.

Of all that had happened, that was the most difficult thing of all to come to grips with. She could not understand how her father could have done that - it was so contrary to everything he stood for and believed in. Physically, it certainly had been him. But why - that was what troubled her. Wil's potential involvement made the subject more distasteful to contemplate, but like a sore tooth, she continued to probe and prod at it.

Lis didn't like to think that Wil was capable of such ruthlessness. She found it hard to believe that the capacity for such cold-blooded insensitivity lay within a heart whose basic goodness and purity she had always had faith in. Concrete evidence, of course, argued the opposite, but the demands of love would not allow her to accept the alternative that logic proposed.

The knock at her door, quick and discreet, was unexpected, but Lis hoped it was one of her friends wanting to talk after several days of silence. She moved away from the window, drew back the bolt, and opened the door. Standing there was not one of the servant girls, but the king of Vorti, flanked by two armed guards. For one irrational moment, Lis thought they had come to take her for execution. She backed fearfully away from the threshold.

Sor saw the look of panic in her eyes and waved the guards away. They retreated a short distance down the hall where they waited. "Can I come in?" asked the king.

"It's your palace," replied Lis. Then, realizing how unkind that was, she amended it. "Sure."

Sor nodded and shut the door behind him. Lis was shocked at how different he looked. In twenty-one days, he had aged that many years. It was difficult to believe that he was only seventeen. The most glaring differences were the haunted eyes with dark smears beneath them; the lank, lifeless hair carelessly pushed back from a pallid face; and the slack, unshaven jaw. The pain he had endured over the past three days was etched into his features. Gone was the boyish enthusiasm that had made him attractive. What remained was a husk of what he had once been.

"So, we've come full circle," murmured Sor.

"Full circle?" Lis had no idea what he was talking about. Strangely, she discovered that her heart went out to him. Pity was probably not a sentiment he would welcome, however, but no one deserved to suffer the way he had. And she had believed her position was difficult to bear.

"Full circle," the king affirmed, as if it was a refrain he had learned by heart. "But we're not the same people we were before the wedding."

That, at least, Lis understood. "No," she said quietly. "Neither of us is the same. Neither of us could ever be the same."

"Well, I got what I wanted," explained Sor. "All the time when Mother was scheming to get us together, I was trying to find a way to marry Joi. Don't misunderstand - when a union with her seemed impossible, I genuinely intended to marry you - but then that fell through, and Joi was pregnant... So, in the end, I got everything I ever yearned for: a wife I adored and the child she was going to bear - our child, mine and hers. And she died because of my selfishness, because I wouldn't let her go, no matter how many people told me to. If I hadn't married her, she would be alive today. Maybe my mother would be as well."

"You can't know all that."

"No. But I can feel it, and that's even worse."

There wasn't anything Lis could say to that. "Did you just want to talk?"

"More than that," he began, then momentarily faltered. To Lis, he seemed to be working up to something. "This may seem wildly inappropriate, considering everything that's happened. More than 'seem', actually. Joi's body is still lying in state, but there are some matters that a king, especially one under siege, doesn't have much choice in. I'm told that I need an heir, and for a legitimate son, I need a wife. So I've come to ask you if you'll consider taking me as your husband."

When Lis, too surprised to speak, didn't say anything, Sor continued, his voice a dull monotone. "With the exception of a few nights a year in the conjugal bed to assure that we have children, I wouldn't expect anything from you. You'd be Vorti's queen and, as such, guaranteed all the privileges accorded to the rank. We'd have separate bedrooms, eat separate meals except during certain public functions, and live separate lives. I can't pretend that I'll ever have any affection for you, but I care about the city, and if my heir is the only thing that will keep it from flying apart, I'll do what's necessary to produce that heir."

Lis realized that his asking her was an act of civility and politeness, and she appreciated it. In circumstances like these, he could take whatever he wanted, including her. She briefly considered how he might react if she rejected him. Would he ignore the refusal and force her into a hated match or accept her decision and look elsewhere? She would never learn the answer to that question. Her response came easily to her lips, a single word to seal the future. "Yes."

Sor flinched as if scalded - not the expected response of a man whose marriage proposal had just been accepted. He recovered quickly, but Lis was perceptive enough not to miss the initial reaction.

"Will I be allowed to leave the palace now?" she asked.

"Unfortunately, no, at least not until the war's over. We can't risk your life. If you feel a need for fresh air, there's always the gardens. I know it's not the same as walking through the streets, but it's part of the price we have to pay."

Lis could have reminded him that his own wife and mother had been killed within the palace walls, so there didn't seem to be much of a safety advantage in staying inside, but she kept her mouth shut. The cruelty of such a statement would serve only to aggravate an already-open wound.

At that reminder, Lis' eyes strayed to Sor's left arm. The visible evidence of the injury her father's attack had caused was concealed by clothing, but she could tell by the awkward way his arm hung that he was still very much aware of the effects of the wound.

"So, when does all this happen?" she asked.

"This afternoon?" It was phrased as a question, but Lis knew that was just for politeness' sake. If nothing else, Sor was doing a good job maintaining the illusion that they were both willing participants in this, free to choose as they wanted.

The timing didn't surprise Lis. No lavish preparations were necessary; it was something both of them would rather get through quickly. Then they could get down to the business of producing a crown prince. "This afternoon," she agreed.

"We've come full circle," repeated Sor. This time, she understood the meaning behind the cryptic refrain.

* * *

Two hours before dusk, in a ceremony even more private than the king's first wedding, Sor and Lis were joined in matrimony by Chancellor Vas. The only guests present were Baroness Una, who was twice reduced to tears, and Gea, whose gaze, directed at her brother, was full of compassion as she offered him what silent support she could give. Sixteen guards were there, silent and watchful, ringing the little throne room.

No attempt was made to keep the union secret and gradually word of it spread through the city. Many were amazed at the king taking another wife so quickly, but most understood the reasons for it. The peasants praised Sor for his willingness to subjugate his personal needs to those of the city. The nobles sneered at him, seeing the king's wedding as the panic-induced action of a man trying desperately to stave off his own downfall.

Even as quickly as the word spread, it did not touch the lives of those who had, for one reason or another, isolated themselves from their fellow men. That included a woodcutter living north of Vorti, several witch-women in the city proper, and an Apath and former farmer who had taken up residence in his old home.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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