THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART FIVE: LOSS OF FOCUS


CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE


A headache was beginning to assert itself within Sor's skull. By the time he went to bed, it would be a blinding pain. The thought of making love to his new wife was unbearable. Under the best circumstances, her touch repelled him. Sleeping with her, he was sure, was the greatest sacrifice he could ever make for this city.

Perhaps he could ask Rim for a potion for the pain. He was, after all, the palace healer, although it wasn't in that capacity that he had asked to see the man. Rim would be standing before him in another ten minutes because he was the one to have had the great misfortune of finding both bodies. As such, that's where Sor's investigation began. Undoubtedly, it was where Vas' had started.

Where was Gea? She was supposed to arrive before Rim. Originally, she hadn't intended to be present, claiming that her appearance by his side would diminish his authority. His argument, or at least the part of it that had won her over, was that when it came to this investigation, his judgment could hardly be trusted and he needed someone with more neutrality to advise him. After all, he was looking into the murder of the two people he had cared for the most in this life.

And what a pathetic life it was without them. Each day looked no different from the next. A week ago, when Joi had been recovering from her illness, he had anticipated the next morning, when she would be a step closer to health. Now, all that was dead. He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes to hold back the tears that threatened, in the process exacerbating the growing throbbing between his temples.

"Sor?" asked Gea tentatively, stepping through the double-doors into the little throne room.

"I'm all right," he said wearily. "Pull up a chair. We might be here for a while."

"On my way here I saw Vas. I think he was headed for the library. He ignored me, of course, but that's not unusual."

"At this time of night?"

Gea shrugged. "It's still four hours before midnight. Is there something strange about that?"

"Just that he'll be there awfully late. He never spends less than five or six hours there."

"Maybe he can't sleep. Guilty conscience. Although somehow I can't imagine him having any conscience."

"Until we have proof, I won't..." Sor's voice trailed off as the impact of his sister's words registered, striking a responsive chord deep in the recesses of his mind. Several things he'd been wondering about for a while suddenly came into focus. "Say that again."

"What? That Vas doesn't have a conscience?"

"Exactly," he noted. "No conscience. No real emotion. An occasional smile or frown, but nothing deep. I've never seen him laugh or cry or get really mad. He's like a blank sheet."

"I guess he's good at hiding what he feels," said Gea.

"It's more than that. You know how we've always suspected he's an Apath, but he never uses his powers. Maybe that's because he hasn't got much energy left. Emotion becomes magical energy. If you're low on emotion, you can't afford to waste it on frivolous demonstrations. There's a term for the point when all feeling is exhausted. It's called burgeoning apathy."

"And you think Vas has reached this point?"

"No, but he might be close. If he reached burgeoning apathy, he wouldn't care about anything, not his life, not me, not this city. You could approach him with a naked sword and it wouldn't make any difference. Vas isn't that far gone."

"And someone approaching this state...it wouldn't affect them to commit five murders?"

Sor shook his head. "I doubt it. He could probably kill without compunction any time it suited him."

"Then, if he still has vestiges of his magical abilities, that could make him the most dangerous man in Vorti. Even Wil has a conscience."

At that moment, the door opened and the healer entered uncertainly.

"Come in, Rim. We've been waiting for you. Take a seat," said Sor.

"Your Majesty is most kind," replied the healer, bowing deeply. He hurried over to the table, pulled out a chair and set it down as far away from the king and his sister as he could politely manage.

"Rim, do you know a poultice for headaches?" asked Sor.

The healer appeared relieved by the question and answered immediately, "Of course, Your Majesty. There are many different formulas, depending upon the type and severity of the pain. If, for example..."

"It's in here," noted Sor, pointing to his right temple. "It's not bad now, but by the time I go to bed tonight, I'll be in agony."

Rim chewed on his lower lip for a few moments, then suggested, "I may have something for you. It will take a short while to brew. If you'll excuse me..."

"Certainly, but after we've asked you a few questions."

"Of course, Your Majesty."

"I need to know exactly what you saw that night. Everything you can remember. Just tell us what you told Vas," said Sor, his voice even, his eyes cold.

"Vas?" replied the healer, confused.

"Yes, Vas. When he came to you after the murder. To ask you questions." The continued lack of comprehension on the healer's face prompted a question. "He did talk to you, didn't he?"

"No, Your Majesty. I haven't seen Vas since before...that night."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"By your leave, Your Majesty?" asked Gea, turning to her brother. At his nod, she said, "Just tell us what happened that night. Don't leave anything out."

The healer began with his determination to check on the queen before retiring for the night, and moved on from there, recounting everything he could remember to the point where he discovered the officers' barracks and alerted the guards.

"After the guards left you, what happened?" asked Sor at the conclusion of Rim's tale.

"I waited in the room for maybe an hour. Finally, two of them returned, asked me a few questions, then escorted me back to my chambers. For the most part, I've been there since."

"And no one summoned you to discuss this?"

"No, Your Majesty."

"Didn't you find that odd? That you had found two bodies and no one wanted to talk about it?"

"Yes," answered Rim frankly. "I supposed someone would get to me eventually."

"And you never considered that you might be implicated in what happened?"

"I thought about it. But after a day went by...well, I knew they'd never let a man roam free if they suspected him of murder."

"You said that several times that night you thought you were being watched. How closely did you look for someone else?"

"Very closely, Your Majesty. There wasn't anyone there. They couldn't have hidden anywhere. The halls were well lit. But I swear it wasn't my imagination. It made my flesh creep."

Sor glanced at his sister, wordlessly asking if she had any questions. She nodded fractionally, then turned to the older man. "Outside of Queen Sye's rooms, you saw no signs of her guards, except the blood?"

"Nothing else, Your Highness."

"Did you know that their bodies were found further along the corridor, in a closet, and that there was a trail of blood leading to them?"

"One of the guards mentioned it," said Rim, swallowing in an attempt to bring up enough saliva to moisten his suddenly-dry mouth.

Gea, noticing his discomfort, silently rose from her seat, moved over to the table, filled a golden chalice with fine red wine, then returned and handed it to the healer. He accepted it with murmured thanks and downed it in two swallows, savoring the trail of warmth as it spread down his throat.

"Why, after seeing the blood and noticing that the guards weren't there, did you go into Queen Sye's rooms? That seems rather foolish. Why not get the nearest help? You said there was someone outside of Princess Jen's chambers, and that's only several halls away. In fact, why run in the opposite direction after coming out of Sye's suite, knowing that there might be a killer close behind you? Did you have a death wish?"

Despite the pleasant voice that Gea posed the questions in, Rim blanched when heard them, because he had no reasonable answer for even one, let alone all of them. And, although he knew that he was innocent, hearing those things asked, and knowing he couldn't possibly give a decent accounting of himself, made him feel guilty.

"I...I don't know why," he stammered, trying to gather his wits. He had never been good at thinking on his feet or extemporizing. Perhaps that's why he'd always been such a transparent liar. "It just seemed at the time...I mean, I know I should have gone for the guards. But, somehow, I had to see... I don't understand it myself. And then when it was over, I just wanted to get away. I wasn't thinking about where to go. Just to get away. That's all."

"That's enough, Gea," said Sor. "The poor man's innocent. He was in shock."

The princess nodded, acquiescing without argument. Almost. "I have one final question. By your leave, Your Majesty?"

"Go ahead."

"You said that you haven't seen Vas since before the murders. When exactly was the last time you saw him?"

"Earlier that day. In the library."

"The library?" echoed Sor. "You read?"

"I do, Your Majesty, but it wasn't for that reason that I went to the library."

"What was?"

"To give the chancellor a scroll. I found it in my chambers, left behind by Healer Vii. The one addressed to you, Your Majesty."

"If it was addressed to me, why did you give it to Vas?" demanded the king.

"I didn't wish to disturb Your Majesty."

"What did it say?"

"I don't know. I didn't read it. I gave it to the chancellor and he said he'd take care of it and I shouldn't..." Rim's voice trailed off. He suddenly wished he could bite off his tongue.

"He said you shouldn't what?" pressed Sor.

"I shouldn't mention it to anyone, not even you," finished the healer helplessly.

"That's all, Rim. You have my leave to go."

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

The king's voice stopped him on the threshold. "Don't forget the poultice for my head."

"Yes, Your Majesty. Right away."

Both king and princess were silent for a long time after the healer had departed, each deeply engrossed in their own thoughts, which reeled and revolved around the same subject.

Finally, Gea spoke. "Is that enough evidence for you?"

"More than enough," replied Sor. "The fool! Was he that arrogant, that sure of himself, that he didn't think he needed to even start the pretext of an investigation??"

"He trusted you to trust him. He never thought you might doubt him."

"For that, I have you to thank."

"It isn't something I wanted to be right about."

"We rarely get what we want."

Gea was disturbed by his tone, and the depth of emotion that went with it, but anything was better than the detachment he had shown while Rim was present. That had reminded her too much of the indifference so often expressed by the man who was now their quarry.

"We have to discuss how to handle this situation," said Sor. "I can't just take a few guards with me to the library and arrest him. It's too complicated for that, especially considering that he's probably an Apath, and likely very close to the point of burgeoning apathy. As you said, that quite possibly makes him the most dangerous man in the city."

* * *

Black spots danced before his eyes and the acrid smell of burning flesh stuck in his nostrils, causing him to cough and choke even as he stumbled away into the night. There was no need to run; at most, there were only three guards left alive to pursue him, and those weren't likely to give chase after seeing what Wil had done to their companions.

Nevertheless, his pace didn't flag until he was well out of sight of Bur's mansion. Then, finally coming to a halt, he squatted down, lowered his head between his knees, closed his eyes, and tried to catch his breath and bring his reeling world back into some semblance of equilibrium.

Wil had delivered a vicious blow for justice tonight; a blow whose violence and severity even he hadn't been prepared for. This wasn't the first time the power of a burst of magic had caught him off guard, however. He wasn't exactly sure what he had intended, but it certainly hadn't been the wholesale destruction that had resulted. Wil had intended to cause pain, and perhaps even death, but the magic, born of emotion and taking on a life of its own, had gone far beyond that.

It would be a while before his vision would clear completely. Truthfully, he was lucky to still have it. The fireball that had erupted in the guardroom had nearly blinded him. Wil had looked directly at the sun many times, but its light was weak compared to what had washed over him in Bur's house.

The screams hadn't bothered Wil, nor had the sight of hairless bodies writhing in agony on the floor, their clothes burned into their flesh. The guards had, after all, gotten no less than they deserved. It was doubtful that any of them had been assailed by pricks of conscience after Hie's death. Wil's only regret was that a few of them had escaped his justice.

Hiding in a closet and biding his time, Wil had waited patiently until after midnight, when it seemed logical to him that most of the guards would be in their chamber. Thirteen of the sixteen had been there, nine sleeping and the other four quietly playing cards. Wil hadn't hesitated. It was the greatest working of magic he had ever attempted.

A large ball of concentrated flames had leapt from his outstretched palm, gaining form, substance, and power as it blazed a crackling trail through the air - the image of a falling star come down to earth, beautiful and terrifying. It had existed for only a fraction of second before exploding midway between Wil and the far wall of the guards' room, directly over the heads of the men playing cards, bathing everyone in the chamber with fire. Like greedy, hungry things, the flames had splashed over them, feeding on their flesh. Mercifully, some of the sleepers never awoke. It was those who did that screamed the loudest while the tongues of fire devoured them.

Wil had been no more immune to the effects of his magic than the guards, but, not taken unawares, he had a moment's opportunity to dive for cover just as the blaze spilled into the hall. Nevertheless, he no longer had eyebrows and his clothing was badly singed. He felt and looked like he had been working too long in the sun.

No one in the chamber had survived, of that Wil was sure. The moans and whimpers had stopped soon after the smoke had cleared. The inside of the room was charred beyond recognition, wooden tables and chairs reduced to smoldering heaps of charcoal. The fire across the hearth had been consumed by the violence of Wil's conflagration. Of course there were also the thirteen bodies, many of them blackened beyond recognition, a few still barely visible as the residue of once-arrogant men.

Hatred and rage had been the catalysts for Wil, but they were gone now, along with fragments of dozens of other emotions, all spent in the name of justice.

Wil's mouth and throat felt like someone had poured a vat of boiling water down them. The taste and smell of the smoke, which permeated every pore and orifice of his body, was sickening. He needed a bath, not for any mystical cleansing of his spirit or conscience, but because he didn't want to spend half the night retching as a result of his inability to endure the stench of his own body. He never ventured near to the river after dark; it was too dangerous. A simple misstep could lead to a watery grave. But Wil decided he would risk it tonight.

The mansion had been strangely quiet when he had stumbled out the door. His attack had made a great deal of noise, enough to momentarily drown out the screams of the dying. Nevertheless, for a full three minutes following the explosion, while Wil had gathered his wits and surveyed his handiwork, no one had appeared to challenge him. He supposed they were all too terrified. Upon reflection, he decided that had he been in their place, he would have found a nice, dark corner to hide in. The image of Bur cowering beneath his bed was enough to bring a slight smile to the young Apath's cracked lips.

* * *

He awoke with the sun, disturbed more by the first rays of the new dawn shining through the still-unrepaired chinks in the ceiling than the pitter-patter of dozens of small feet as the mice exercised their dominion over the hut while he dozed. Movement, no matter how slight, was painful. He felt as if his skin had been flayed, so sore was he in those places where the fire had caressed his flesh. Had any of the guards by some miracle survived, they would be wishing for the surcease of death this morning.

Though he had spent the better part of an hour immersed in the chilly stream last night, Wil hadn't completely vanquished the odor. It clung to him like a bad omen. Some day, he supposed, it would dissipate. Either that, or he'd get used to it. Like he had managed to get used to everything else, no matter how unpleasant or unwanted, in his life.

He didn't feel like doing much of anything today, least of all getting up. He knew he had to leave the hut. It was too close to Bur's mansion and there was a chance that if a search was mounted, he would be found here. Not that it really mattered. If someone came after him, he would do to them what he had done to the guards last night. That would deter further pursuit.

Nevertheless, he had to move on. Back into the city, he supposed. There was nothing out here for him any more. No matter how much he tried, he couldn't recapture the past. Too much of it - and not just people - was dead and buried. He was no longer the simple farmer he had been a year ago. It was useless to pretend that he was. This trip had been an idle and wasteful one - an attempt to live out a fantasy, when a man in his position should only be concerned with reality.

Yet what more was there for him in the city? It was a crowded, ugly place, filled with disease, starvation, and poverty. No matter what the outcome of the war, things would get much worse before they got better. Baron Cen had made sure of that by burning the warehouses to the ground. Suddenly, Wil wanted very much to kill his supposed and soon-to-be-former ally. It was a cold, calculated desire, not one born of passion, and that made it seem all the more feasible an option.

There was still Lis, however. He cared for her, even though he no longer knew how to define his feelings. Certainly, he had once loved her, but that had been before he had sacrificed so much of himself to his talents. Maybe it still was love, or possibly a sentimental longing for the one person who had valued him for who he was, not what he could be. Either way, she was one thing worth fighting for. And Sor held her captive.

Perhaps, in some way, his last journey into the palace had helped to balance the scales a little. Sor had been hurt too - the sting of death had drawn blood. But that was not enough - striking at the arms and legs while the head remained unscathed. They would meet again, of that Wil was sure. Then, once and for all, matters would be resolved and the future of Vorti sealed.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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