THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART FIVE: LOSS OF FOCUS


CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT


On the second morning of his stay in his old house, Wil awoke with sandy eyes and a scratchy throat. Having just overcome a bout of influenza, he had no desire to do battle with another illness, but apparently the whims of fate had decreed otherwise.

After a long stretch, Wil performed the simple routine of dressing: pulling on his worn boots and donning the old cloak he used as a blanket last night.

He had not forgotten the body he had found the previous evening, nor did he intend to let her death go unavenged. Wil knew of too many men and women who had suffered the maid's fate - brutalized by people beyond the law, then dumped somewhere to decompose. This time, that would not happen. Wil had appointed himself the bringer of a law that his king did not have the backbone to pronounce or enforce.

The riddle he had to solve was who was responsible. Uncovering the truth was a self-appointed task. If nothing else, it was more palatable than enduring another meeting with the odious Baron Cen and his cohorts.

Wil stepped out his door into the cool, sun-drenched morning and considered some of the specifics of a plan he had formulated the previous evening. He intended to use the skills he had employed to enter the palace. Here, where security was more lax, his invisibility should prove nearly flawless.

It was the origins of the energy for the feat that concerned Wil. Emotions were not valves that could be opened or closed at will, and, over the past few weeks, he had plundered his own reserves more deeply than was perhaps wise. His feelings about some things were untainted: Sor's merciless grip on the city, the treachery of the nobles, and the longed-for companionship of a girl trapped in the palace. But apathy had long since claimed other parts of him. He no longer cared about tilling a field or honoring the memory of his father. He also had no superficial emotions left - those had been the first to go. If he intended to do this thing, it would cost him another piece of himself, and his control was not such that he could pick and choose which part to give up.

Ironically, it was possible that his rage at the injustice of the girl's murder could fuel his next working of magic, rendering him indifferent to this cause. In fact, since those feelings were closest to the surface and therefore easiest for the magic to feed off of, it was likely. He would have to make an effort to avoid that, which meant bringing to the fore a deeper, more powerful emotion - something whose energy he could siphon off without damaging the core of his passion. A difficult task, worthy of a master Apath, yet thrust upon one who had barely undergone the most basic training.

The manipulation of emotion was not an easy thing. Wor had once told him that centuries ago, Apaths frequently mastered such techniques, but that the subtleties of the art had been all-but-lost as the number of wizards dwindled. Now, those few who knew the secrets jealously guarded them. Only they, the craftiest and most innovative of Wil's kind, possessed the control to plumb the full depths of their talents without risking a slip into the all-pervasive trap of burgeoning apathy.

Wil wondered just how deep this wellspring of emotion was - a source he had always considered limitless - and whether, by using it to learn the identity of a murderer, he was sabotaging his overall plans. But when he remembered the half-decayed body of the girl, lying unburned in a forsaken field, he didn't care. She was what mattered. And whose plans had those been to put him on the throne? His, or someone else's? Had they been generated by his father, a man who had never had the desire or ability to rise above his own lot in life? Or perhaps Baron Cen, whose wants were as murky as his conscience? Much to his surprise, Wil didn't have the answer. And that disturbed him greatly.

With the advent of the colder seasons, the afternoons were growing shorter. Wil waited until dusk before starting for Bur's mansion. As he drew closer, moving cautiously across the fields that surrounded the big house, Wil noticed how brightly the three-storied building was lit up, with dozens of lanterns hanging on hooks all around the outside, and probably twice as many within. The shadows stayed at bay and at least five guards were visible patrolling the grounds.

Bur's mansion was a firm example of the kind of garishness that Wil hated. Other than to stroke his overinflated ego, there was no reason that Bur needed this kind of house. His father, a kind and simple man, had lived his entire life in a five-room, one-story dwelling. But, on the old man's death, the new lord had wasted no time tearing down that house and building this atrocity: a fifty-foot high monolith of waste, with dozens of glass windows, an intricately-carved marble facade, and a spacious, open porch encircling it on all sides. The porch, in turn, was surrounded by immaculately-groomed gardens with sculpted hedges and small patches of flowers, all presided over by large statues of impossibly-endowed nude men and women.

As Wil approached the outer edges of the mansion's pool of light, he paused to cloak himself with magic. Although the guards were patrolling routinely, none of them was particularly alert. They had about them an air of mixed disinterest and resignation. Wil slipped between their sparse ranks with no difficulty. The most challenging part of getting inside would have been timing his entry into the house so no one would see the door open and close, but a wide-open first-story window made such uncertain and convoluted plotting unnecessary.

Once through the window, Wil found himself in a spacious sitting room, with several rickety-looking wooden chairs arranged in a semicircle facing a fireplace in which a healthy blaze was burning. In addition to the glow provided by the fire, there were four lit lanterns in the room, one hanging from each wall. There was only one conventional entrance to the room, a slightly-ajar door in the wall to his left, directly opposite the fireplace.

From outside, the house had seemed quiet, but from within, Wil could hear distant sounds: a jumbled mixture of laughter, talking, and what sounded like pipes being played. He slipped through the half-open door into a corridor. In many ways, this excursion reminded him of the last time he had gone slinking through unfamiliar corridors. Perhaps on this occasion, the end results would not be as unpleasant.

While large for a house, with fifteen to twenty rooms on each floor, Bur's domicile was less than a quarter of the size of the palace. That simplified the searching greatly. Wil allowed the sound of laughter to guide him, and, within minutes, he was standing in a corridor outside a medium-sized room with a large, round table in the center and a group of seven men sitting around it.

As in the room through which Wil had gained his entry, there was a well-fed fire burning on the hearth. Bedrolls were laid out around the fireplace, only one of which was currently occupied. The men at the table were in various states of dress, some fully-clothed with rugged boots on their feet and swords scabbarded at their waists, and others in little more than a breechclout and soiled undertunic. Cards, coins, and mugs were scattered all over the table. The air smelled heavily of stale beer and unwashed bodies.

Wil did a quick count of bedrolls and determined that there were twice as many of them as there were men in the room. He had seen five guards outside, so, coupled with the eight in here, that left three unaccounted for - something of a relief. He had no desire to repeat his experience in the palace, where he had been ducking and dodging patrols everywhere.

He spent nearly a quarter of an hour waiting outside the room, staying out of sight while listening to the half-drunk, often fragmented conversation of the card-players, hoping to hear a snatch of something informative. Instead, all he got was a fairly graphic description of one man's sexual encounter the night before; complaints about the weather, their jobs, and Bur; and a discussion of warts on toes.

Although he had never been in this house before, Wil assumed that it was laid out like all the other mansions in Vorti: servants' quarters on the ground floor, visitors' suites on the second floor, and chambers for the ruling family on the top floor. Wil decided to look for the maids' rooms.

He found them with little difficulty. They were in a quieter portion of the house, two doors down from the room through which Wil had initially come in. A doorless entranceway opened into a sizable common room, with three chairs around one table and none around a second. Two chairs had been pulled close to the fireplace and one of these was occupied by a woman who was humming to herself as she knitted something. With her back to him and her figure silhouetted by the fire, Wil couldn't tell much about her. There were three closed, equally spaced doors to his left and another four across the room. He guessed that each probably opened into some kind of sleeping chamber for one or two of Bur's maids.

Wil approached the knitting woman from behind, moving cautiously. Although the dim light in the room, coming only from the fire, assured him nearly-perfect invisibility, a creaky floorboard could still be his undoing. If someone stared straight at him, they might see something amidst all the flickering shadows cast by the dancing flames.

Wil paused directly behind the woman to conjure up a magical knife. For effect, he made the blade curved and serrated with meaningless runes etched along its length. Then, with one quick movement, he clamped his left hand over her mouth while placing the dagger to her throat. She dropped her knitting and let out a muffled scream that died suddenly when she felt the touch of steel against her skin.

"If you scream or make any sudden moves, I'll slit your throat," hissed Wil, his voice soft and dangerous.

He removed his hand from her mouth. The woman didn't move, although a faint trembling had seized her body. Wil eased up slightly on the pressure of the knife.

Although he still couldn't see her face, Wil estimated the woman's age at between twenty-five and thirty. Her dark hair was pulled into a bun. She was short and plump, with rounded arms and legs and wide hips, and wearing a pale blue frock with a high collar that made effective placing of the knife difficult.

"Please don't," the woman whispered, her words unsteady. "I'll go quiet. I swear. Not like Tee."

"What?" demanded Wil.

"Please. I won't tell no one. I won't say nothing." She started to cry. "It'll be like last time. Just like last time. Not like Tee."

"What do you think I'm going to do to you?"

"Same as last time. I swear I won't be like Tee. You know that. She was young. She don't understand how things work."

Wil was getting more confused by the moment. He had no idea whether this woman's babbling was related to his reason for being here, but the body he had found belonged to a girl named Hie, not Tee. In fact, he had never heard of a Tee among Bur's household staff.

"So you won't be like Tee," said Wil, making his voice gravelly. "What about Hie?"

The woman stiffened visibly. "That was an accident. You says so and I believe you."

Wil had seen the body. What was done to Hie had been no accident. She had been cut and strangled. Those kinds of things did happen accidentally.

"You don't really believe that, do you?"

The woman didn't respond. Her trembling had become more pronounced.

"Do you??" repeated Wil.

"No."

Wil removed the knife from her throat, let his invisibility cloak drop, and moved around in front of the woman.

She gasped when she recognized him, eyes going wide, obviously expecting someone else.

"Fae," he said quietly, putting a name to the face. "Do you know who I am?"

She nodded once, her eyes never leaving him, never blinking. The fear was not gone from them.

"I'm here to help," he said. Considering that he had just held a knife at her throat, it was probably not a good way to begin, but he couldn't think of anything better. Did he actually believe that she'd trust him after that?

"I found Hie's body out in the fields. You knew she was dead?"

Another nod.

"She was murdered - maybe raped as well." This got no response at all.

"What happened to Tee? The same thing?"

The woman swallowed once, audibly, but there was no other reaction.

"Answer me! You know who I am!"

"You fight for the nobles," Fae said finally.

"No," disavowed Wil. "Never that. I fight for the common person. For men like me and women like you, chained to the yolk of nobles like Bur. I fight against a king who has never been fit to rule."

"The king, he's been good to us."

"He's a liar and a snake! He's the worst sort of ruler - one who gives lip service to us while padding his own coffers! That's the reason for this rebellion. And when it's over, it isn't the nobles who will come into power."

"Even an Apath can't stop them."

"If you believe that, you have little conception of what an Apath can do. Life for the common person will be changed for the better." It was important to him that she believe him. It was vital that all of his class do the same. Though they didn't know it, his own battle was for every one of them.

"Better? You call this better? We was happy here. All of us. Even Tee and Hie. Then your rebellion to make life better started."

"I've come to repay Bur for these things...and more."

Suddenly, Fae laughed. It was a high-pitched, hysterical giggle, the sound of someone on the edge of sanity. "Bur? It wasn't never Lord Bur!"

"Who then?" asked Wil.

"His guards. Because of your rebellion. Lord Bur don't know a thing. He probably don't even know Hie's dead."

"Tell me what happened to Hie. To Tee. To you."

The woman had stopped trembling now, anger and outrage excellent antidotes for her fear. "The nobles said they was against the king. Lord Bur ordered his lands closed. The guards took over. He left them in charge and hid in his rooms. Then they decided to take what they wanted, so they took us into their room one-by-one. We couldn't do nothing - they was in charge. Only it went a little too far with Hie. She hit one of them and he killed her. They said it's an accident, but we know better. Then Tee panicked when they tried to take her, so they beat her up. All this because of your rebellion to make things better!"

Wil was appalled. "It's a noble's duty to protect his servants against abuses like this."

"What you want him to do? Him an' his wife an' his baby? He can't do nothing against sixteen guards. 'Specially when they's all that's protecting him from the king. And they won't let us run away, so we have to take it."

There wasn't anything Wil could say to this. The thing that disgusted him the most was that these were his people: not only the maids, but the guards too. The stronger preying on the weak, without class distinctions. And Lord Bur locked up in his chambers not wanting to know the truth because he couldn't dismiss the guards without opening his house and land to takeover by the Crown. As Fae had said, it was all because of the rebellion. How often was this being repeated throughout Vorti? Was it like this in every noble's household?

"How many of you are there?" asked Wil finally.

"Nine. Used to be ten."

"They won't touch you again. Any of you. I swear it! Since Bur's too weak to keep his men in order, I'll do it for him. Now stay in here. Don't come out until morning, no matter what happens."

* * *

Sleep would not come to Vas tonight. True, it was still early, hardly past sunset, but he had been lying down for two hours and knew from his experiences with insomnia that it wouldn't get easier as the night wore on.

Some might say that it was qualms of conscience that kept the chancellor awake, but he would not agree with that assessment. His mind was active, but not debating the morality of earlier actions. Rather, he was attempting to plot strategies for the days ahead - tactics that would assure Sor's place on the throne and keep him there for the rest of his natural lifetime. Once this war with the nobility was won, it would take decades to mount another serious threat to Kan's line. By then, they would be securely enough entrenched that nothing would shake them free short of the kind of all-out revolution that had toppled the monarch before Sor's father. And that was best for Vorti: a single line of stable, intelligent rulers.

The welfare of the city had been Vas' single goal since he had taken over the chancellor's mantle from his deceased predecessor. Because he had served Kan faithfully and backed him in every public declaration, many had come to believe that he was devoted to the king personally. That had been a misinterpretation of their relationship. There were many traits about the late ruler of Vorti that Vas had found distasteful - even repugnant - but those had not affected his ability to rule. Kan had been the best leader Vorti had been graced with in centuries. That was what Vas had been loyal to. Now that he saw similar traits in the son, he intended to continue his support.

Nevertheless, he did have cause to doubt one of his own more recent actions, although he was not yet convinced that he had acted improperly. Time would tell but, regardless of what transpired in the future, there was no altering the past. He had followed what he believed to be the best course of action for the city - and he hadn't been alone in that belief. Now everyone, including him, would have to live with the consequences.

He was uncertain about Sor's marriage to Lis. He wished that the young king had consulted him before taking a second wife so impulsively. It was true that he had spoken to Sor earlier yesterday about the need for an heir, but he hadn't expected his liege to rush off and marry the first available woman. Lis' connections to the nobility made her especially dangerous at this time, with the political situation so uncertain.

Vas believed that Baron Cen was at the heart of the rebellion. Most people, Sor included, accepted the mysterious Apath Wil as the fulcrum of dissension, but the chancellor had a different theory. He believed that Wil was Cen's puppet, a rallying point for the nobility. After all, who better to challenge an Apath than an Apath? But behind this boy was the real power, the true threat. Cen had always been crafty, but this plot was his masterpiece.

The baron thought himself untouchable, his house impregnable by enemy forces. He would soon learn the error of his beliefs - that wizards had an answer for almost every obstacle. Hopefully, with Cen's death, the rebellion would collapse.

Vas considered his assassination plot from every angle and found it virtually foolproof. As with most of his ideas, it was convoluted, but its complexities were necessary to circumvent the unexpected. Thus far, nothing he had ever planned had failed - except possibly his most recent endeavor, and those results were still inconclusive.

The chancellor rose from bed and donned a dressing robe, deciding to spend a few hours in the library. Perhaps in time, sleep would come but, until then, why waste precious moments lying inactive in bed when there were so many books still to be read before his eyes closed for good? After all, who knew around what corner death might be lying in wait for any man? No one was immortal.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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