THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART FIVE: LOSS OF FOCUS


CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN


"Nothing?" asked Sor in a dead voice, his tone not betraying his surprise at Vas' report. It was difficult to accept that three days of "exhaustive" investigation had turned up no concrete evidence of the identities of his mother and first wife's killer or killers.

"They were clever, Your Majesty," explained Vas, his own voice as flat as that of his king. "They left no traces. That in itself should suggest something, however."

The implication was so obvious that a blind man could have seen it. It was also not a particularly original conjecture. Sor had considered the possibility several times over the past few days. "Magic."

"It fits together," stated Vas. "Strong, alert guards easily dispatched, no intruders sighted, no clues left. And Wil does have a strong motive to strike out at you."

Sor wasn't foolish enough to believe that Vas' suggestion was the only possibility. "It could have also been someone who lives in the palace. If the guards knew the killer, they would have been easier to eliminate, and that would explain why no intruders were sighted."

"Nothing I've learned corroborates that theory. While it might be possible to remove one guard in this manner, your mother had two guards. Both of their throats were cut and they were hauled into a storage closet two-hundred feet away. It's not likely that recognition would encourage one to wait his turn while watching his companion die. And dragging heavy bodies around like that wouldn't be easy without help."

"You're assuming there was only one person involved. Multiple murderers would explain most of these deficiencies."

"A conspiracy within the palace? From people close enough to the Royal Family to put personal guards at ease? That seems unlikely. Besides, why strike at the arms and legs, rather than the head? You would have been their target, Your Majesty, not your mother and wife."

"But I went for a late-night bath, which no one could have anticipated."

"Doesn't it seem reasonable that conspirators, upon finding your chambers unoccupied, would try again later in the night, or, if that wasn't possible, on the next night?"

"The same argument is valid for Wil."

"Not necessarily. It would have taken the Apath much time and effort to get into the palace using magic. Finding your chambers empty must have been a shock and, worried about being discovered, he couldn't afford to wait for your return. Unwilling to leave empty-handed, he acted to hurt you. Everyone in Vorti knows that Joi and Sye were the two people closest to you."

Absently, Sor scratched at the several days' stubble adorning his chin. "How certain are you that it was Wil?"

"I can't be positive since there's no hard evidence , but I'm as sure as I can be that magic was used. Unless there's an Apath in Vorti that we don't know about, that limits the field of suspects to him."

"I see. Is there anything else you can do?"

"A few things, but I doubt they'll reveal much that's more conclusive. There don't seem to be any witnesses, which makes things difficult. No one saw or heard anything out-of-the-ordinary, except your new healer, who found the body."

"Could he have been involved?" asked Sor, unwilling to abandon the conspiracy theory as quickly as his chancellor had.

"Rim? The man's as harmless as an insect."

Upon further reflection, Sor agreed with Vas. Rim's nervous disposition made him an unlikely candidate.

"Keep looking," commanded Sor, running a hand through his unkempt hair. "There has to be some evidence out there. Crimes like this can't be committed without something being left behind, even if magic is involved. No one is that perfect. I'm relying on you to find me something concrete, Vas. If you can't do it, I'll have to get my own hands dirty." His voice abruptly changing from resigned to feral, he added. "I want him found! I will have justice done!"

"I understand," stated Vas with infuriating calm. "For the sake of the deceased."

"No! My wife and mother are beyond suffering now. This is for me!"

A terrible stillness fell over the little throne room in the wake of that pronouncement. While Sor lapsed into a moody silence, the chancellor considered how to best phrase his next comment.

"Your Majesty," he began. "I understand your desire to punish the miscreants..."

"Miscreants?? They stick a knife into one queen and butcher the other and you call them miscreants! They're vicious, murdering swine who deserve to have their balls sliced off and rammed down their throats!"

"A poor choice of words, perhaps," conceded Vas. He realized that no matter how tactfully he phrased this, the king was not going to respond well to it. But, in his view, it had to be said. As chancellor, the welfare of Vorti was his primary concern. Sor's personal well-being was important only in that it served that purpose. "Nevertheless, Your Majesty, you have placed upon me the duty of finding the killers. I shall apply all my talents to that end. Your involvement would be a needless reduplication of effort. The city is in a time of crisis and needs a firm hand at the helm. Should you allow yourself to be distracted by the search, the loss of focus will hurt your people."

"You think I need to be reminded of my duties?" demanded Sor, his tone dangerous. Vas could see the fire smoldering in his liege's eyes.

"That is one of my functions, Your Majesty."

The undeniability of Vas' reply deflated the king. Sor responded by waving vaguely towards the door, then burying his face in his hands. "Get out of here," he murmured.

No tears came. Of the many emotions Sor was experiencing, grief was the least potent. Foremost instead were the gnawing emptiness of loneliness and a towering anger, but there was little measure of the clean, healthy sadness he had experienced following Kan's death. Sor felt tainted, all the goodness and joy within him turned rancid. There was nothing cathartic in this mourning; no surcease for his anguish. And things would not change quickly; they would be like this for a long time. He realized what he had said to Vas was not entirely accurate. He didn't want justice so much as he wanted revenge.

No matter where he turned his thoughts, they returned involuntarily to what was no more. It seemed incredible that so many commonplace things could have been torn away. They surfaced in his mind, feeble echoes of a lost reality. He would never again hear his mother's firm-but-gentle criticism for some perceived wrong. Even more painful was the recognition that Joi's soft, sweet voice had been silenced forever. She would never whisper her love for him in his ear while nibbling on the lobe. And her soft flesh, soon to be burned to ashes, would never receive his caresses again. Barely nineteen years old and the last page of her life had been written.

Now there was only Lis, a woman duty had forced him to unite with - a wife he was certain he would come to resent, if not openly hate. Last night, their wedding night, she had reached for him and he had flinched away. Eventually, he had deadened his senses enough to commit the act, but it had left him feeling filthy. A long bath in cold water had neither cleansed him nor washed away the deep sense of unfaithfulness - his body's betrayal of Joi's memory.

Lifting his head from his hands, he saw Gea standing before the throne, waiting quietly to be acknowledged. He suspected that she would have stood there like that for days if it had taken him that long. He wondered if she realized how much he had come to depend upon her - that, at the moment, she was all that stood between him and the endless realm of darkness and shadow. Looking deep into her eyes, he decided that she did. And that made it easier for him. At least he had the small solace that he was not completely alone.

"Your Majesty," she intoned, bowing deeply.

"Your Grace."

"I saw Vas leave. Did he bring any information?"

"He brought reminders of duty. Perhaps he was right to do so. All I have left is duty. Two sharpened blades have robbed me of everything else."

"Speaking of duty, I saw your queen this morning."

"Oh?"

"She said that after some difficulty, you managed to consummate the marriage."

"It was probably as much a chore for her as for me. Fortunately, sex doesn't require an active mind. As you indicated, the body pretty much takes over."

"And now you feel that you've somehow betrayed your late wife," observed Gea.

Sor's surprise at the acuteness of her perception showed on his face. "Yes. My body reacted the same way with Lis as with Joi. As if there was no difference between them."

"It's the mind and heart that matter, Sor, not the body. That betrays us at every turn."

"Just words."

"I know," she sighed. "But remember that what you experienced with Joi wasn't there last night. You dislike sex with Lis, while I'm sure you enjoyed it - very much, too - with Joi. That defines the difference. It's not the same. And, if it makes it any easier, Joi would have understood. Weeks ago, when you almost married Lis, she was ready to make the sacrifice."

"That's kind of a pointless argument, since she's dead."

"But it's true."

"You're right. Well, at least I won't have to sleep with my new queen any more than necessary. We won't have to keep rutting like dogs until her belly starts to swell."

"I don't understand."

"It's one of the advantages to being an Apath. I can look into her. Not long after the baby's conception, I'll know."

He paused for a moment, then let his thoughts drag him down a more dismal path. "What good is all this power, anyway? Telling when Lis is pregnant. What a masterful use of magic! It couldn't save my unborn child, the one who should have been my heir. It couldn't stop some craven pig from sticking a knife into my wife or mother. And it can't do anything to keep this city from crumbling into ruins. Kan would be weeping bitter tears if he saw me now, the son in whom he invested his fading hopes. I'm a failure, as an Apath and a king."

"Stop it!" demanded Gea. Her tone was harsh because she knew anything gentler wouldn't reach him. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself! There are thousands of people relying on your guidance."

"Then they're fools." Heaving a weary sigh, he added, "But of course you're right. In the past few days, you've been right about everything. Maybe even about Vas."

"What about him?"

"For a man who's supposed to be devoting all his attention to discovering who murdered Joi and Sye, he hasn't found much. All he has is a suspicion that Wil was behind it, without a shred of solid evidence to back it up. How can a man with his skill and cunning uncover so little about such a major crime?"

"Maybe he doesn't want you to learn the truth. Tell me exactly what he said."

Sor related his discussion with Vas. When he was done, a frown creased Gea's face. There was something not right with what she had just been told. Something obvious...

"If Vas is correct, how did Wil know which rooms Sye and Joi were in?" she asked suddenly.

Sor shrugged. "It's was only logical that Joi would have been in the royal suite. She was the queen, after all. And everyone knew where my mother slept. She's had those rooms since she married Father."

"Everyone inside the palace knew. But someone from the outside?? Wil wouldn't have been able to tell one room from another. There's nothing anywhere to identify the royal suite, or Sye's. He would have had to check, room-by-room, until he found what he was looking for."

"But he couldn't have done that," Sor added. "Because there were guards outside every occupied room."

"So either he made two very lucky guesses, or there's a gigantic hole in the tale your chancellor is trying to get you to accept."

"It couldn't be Vas!" exclaimed Sor. "He's served our family for years."

"A man like him - someone with no emotion or conscience - is capable of anything. Believing in him just because Father trusted him may be the biggest mistake of your life."

"It couldn't be him," repeated Sor without conviction.

"He's damned himself, so he isn't that clever. In his own words, it had to be an Apath. So if it couldn't be Wil, that leaves only him. He was probably counting on your trusting nature to keep you from suspecting him."

"It could be someone else...some other Apath none of us knows about."

"With intimate knowledge of the palace?"

"Besides, we don't know that Vas is an Apath. He's never claimed to be one. In all the years I've trained with him, he's never used any powers."

"You don't believe that any more than I do! Could anyone but an Apath have taught you everything he did??"

"No," conceded the king finally, reluctantly.

"He has you thinking the way he wants you to. That it couldn't be him. That he's too loyal to do it. Wil's your enemy - it has to be him. But you and I know it couldn't have been!"

"Why would he do it?? Why??"

"I don't know."

"I won't turn my back on him without proof. This could all be a mistake. Maybe he's been set up." When Gea started to say something, Sor held up a hand to forestall her. "If he is guilty, I'll put him through such a living hell he'll wish his mother had remained a virgin."

"Then I strongly suggest you begin your own investigation. If our suspicions are correct, you'll start turning up more than Vas has brought to your attention."

"I hope we're wrong. After all this, a betrayal as well."

"I know. In the end, it all comes down to what you owe..."

Sor cut her off. "No. Don't make this an act of duty. It isn't. It's personal. As selfish and vicious as it might sound, I want revenge! I need revenge!"

* * *

"Again he isn't here!" exclaimed the short, balding man with bloodshot eyes and a runny nose. "Now, when we need him more than ever! I'm beginning to believe that this so-called Apath of yours is nothing but a well-contrived myth!"

Cen smiled thinly. "He's no myth, Ryf. Of that, you may be sure." Personally, he thought he was doing an excellent job holding his temper. Faced with a dozen spineless, gutless worms like this, it was a marvel he hadn't taken up a sword and skewered a few of them. Today, their complaint was about Wil's continued failure to make an appearance.

"Proof!" roared the physically impressive Duke Jym, pounding one fist soundly on the table. "We demand proof!"

"But Your Grace, you're one of the few of our number who's had the pleasure of meeting Wil."

"True," conceded Jym. "I met someone you named an Apath. Looked more like a beggar to me. Straw in his hair and all over his clothes. What kind of wizard would look like that, eh? And he smelled. Never did any magic though. Never did much of anything, come to think of it."

"Would I trick you?" asked Cen.

Jym let out a hearty laugh. "Cen, you'd trick anyone if you thought it would gain you some advantage. Maybe it's because we're all just like you that we've been so willing to believe you all along."

"But now you're going to have to come up with some proof," said an unobtrusive man sitting with his hands steepled before his face - Count Uss, a relatively uninfluential man with ice water for blood.

"I can't produce what I don't have. At this moment, Wil is deeply involved in activities that will make our path to victory easier."

"Specifics, Cen. What kinds of activities?" demanded Uss.

"Truthfully, I don't know. Wil doesn't always confide the details of his plans to me."

"I thought he was supposed to be our ally!" exclaimed another of the nobles, the highly-strung Count Fil. True to his well-deserved reputation of never being able to stay still for long, he got to his feet and began to pace.

"He is our ally. But I'm just a noble, while he's an Apath. Would any of you demand details from the likes of him?"

"Humility, Cen? That's not like you at all," snorted Jym, clearly still unconvinced of his host's sincerity.

"If you'd seen what he's capable of doing, you wouldn't be so quick to judge."

"Be that as it may," began Ryf, pausing to wipe his nose on the already-stained sleeve of his fine silk tunic. "It's time to consider getting out of this war while we still can. I'm sure we can reach some kind of mutually beneficial arrangement with the king."

Cen opened his mouth to refute the little man but, surprisingly, Jym beat him to it.

"You're a stupid fool, aren't you, Ryf?? We've gone a little too far to start getting squeamish about the rebellion. This isn't some little power play, it's treason. Sor's not going to capitulate with any of us. We're traitors and he's out to have our heads. If any of us goes to him, the only thing we'll find waiting is a headman's block!"

"Then what are we here for??" demanded Ryf, his voice verging on hysteria.

Calm as always, Uss supplied the answer. "We're here because we're damned tired of being treated like lackeys by one of our number because he claims to hold an ace. Until Baron Cen can produce that ace, I suggest we start listening less to his outrageous claims."

"Here! Here!" seconded Jym heartily. Every other voice, naturally excepting Cen's, was raised in agreement.

The Baron knew that, despite the apparently unfavorable turn of events, he had actually won a huge victory, and he had one of his most dangerous adversaries, Duke Jym, to thank for it. The war would go on. In the end, that was all that mattered.

"I'm astonished that any of you would doubt my word!" Cen exclaimed. "I'm insulted!"

Jym shrugged. "That may be, but you're also outvoted. And, unless you're a fool, you should have seen this coming. If you wanted to keep your power, old boy, you should have come up with that Apath. In addition to losing your hair, maybe you're losing what's underneath it."

"I will not stand to be spoken to this way in my house! You will apologize immediately."

"I most certainly will not. As for this being your house... There are a number of other places equally well-suited for these meetings." He made a show of getting ready to leave. Several of the others also rose.

"Wait!" interposed Cen hastily. "Perhaps I've been a little too presumptuous. But you must remember that it was my efforts that brought about the rebellion."

"For which we are undecided whether to thank or curse you," stated Uss. Unlike many of his fellows, he hadn't budged. He recognized maneuvering when he saw it. None of them was going anywhere, at least not for a while.

"Well," said Jym, retaking his seat. "I think we should discuss our next move. It's all very well to sit and wait while some mythical Apath does our work for us, but what better plan could we expect from an old man. If we're going to win this war, it will require action. Sitting on our asses isn't going to get us anything."

Old man indeed, seethed Cen. When he came into power, one of his first actions was going to be to see how effective Jym's vaunted muscles were when he was being pulled in opposite directions by four mustangs. No one insulted Cen like that without eventually paying a steep price.

"If I might offer a suggestion," offered Cen.

"We're always open to suggestions," replied Jym.

"Perhaps we might consider an assassination." It was, in Cen's opinion, a blatantly foolish suggestion - plans to openly murder Sor stood no chance of success - but it was what he judged the others wanted to hear. He was correct.

"So, now that you've lost your position, you've decided to start talking sense!" rumbled Jym. "Too bad you didn't do that last time, instead of going on about this Wil."

Cen's only response was a forced smile.

"One wonders why he's decided to mention it now," noted Uss. "Perhaps he recognizes that this is an even less intelligent approach than sitting and doing nothing."

As Cen silently cursed the man's perceptiveness and re-evaluated who his most formidable opponent might be, Jym demanded, "What's that supposed to mean? Are you saying that assassinating Sor is a bad idea?"

"No. Assassinating Sor isn't a bad idea, but it can't be done. You're talking about trying to assassinate the king, which is patently stupid."

"You have a better suggestion?" demanded Jym, his normally-pale face having acquired a startling shade of red.

Uss surprised everyone, including his host, with his response. "I believed what we were doing was the most appropriate action: nothing. Time is our ally, not Sor's. With the onset of winter, public opinion will turn away from him. Then will come our best opportunity to move against him directly." That had been Cen's argument all along.

"You can't be serious!" exclaimed a man who had not yet spoken, the dark-skinned Baron Vit.

Uss shrugged.

"You're as bad as Cen," snorted Jym.

"So how do you propose to assassinate Sor?" pressed Uss.

"Haven't worked that out yet. But he's vulnerable. Every man's vulnerable. Look at what happened to his wife and mother."

"And you believe that will make him an easier target? The security around him will be thicker than ever. The nobility tried - and failed - dozens of times to eliminate Kan. And he wasn't even an Apath. What makes you think you stand a ghost of a chance with Sor?"

"Because we're not stupid," replied Jym flatly.

"And the others were?" questioned Uss.

"Yes."

The steeple-fingered man's only response was a contemptuous smile. He said no more. His expression was plain enough to everyone.

For his part, Cen also remained silent, sitting back in his chair and listening as the men around him debated the virtues of arrows and knives. They discussed possibilities from the outrageous to the improbable, few of which had the most remote basis in reality. Their schemes were preposterous enough to be laughable. They suggested bribing Sor's personal guards - something that had been ineffective on the hundred or so occasions when it had previously been attempted. Shooting arrows at the king when he made a public appearance was also mentioned - as if Sor would make himself such a willing target.

As the talk progressed and the suggestions grew more silly, Cen had to bite his lip to keep from laughing out loud. If nothing else, the nobles' discussion convinced him that, when it was all over, he would emerge on top - if he could overcome a much more serious threat: that posed by his wayward Apath ally, Wil.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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