PART FIVE: LOSS OF FOCUS
Nia had permitted Cen to return to their shared chamber and bed, but the invisible barrier between them remained intact. She would not tolerate his touch, nor would she respond to his questions. The situation was galling to the baron since his infraction, if it could be considered that, had been minor - certainly nothing to warrant such complete, unrelenting isolation. Nia, however, seemed to view what he had done - not letting her endanger her own life - as a mortal insult.
Cen would have preferred a little domestic harmony at the moment, with the political situation so stormy. Sor had been silent for a while, but that wouldn't last for long. As soon as he overcame his grief, he would strike out in a decisive manner, seeking vengeance regardless of who was innocent or guilty. Kill enough men and he was bound to get the right one eventually... Then there was Wil. Cen was almost more concerned about him than about the king. At least Sor was predictable. The other Apath was a wild card and the baron was worried that he had turned his coat. At least the nobles were holding firm to their course, though they had ousted him as their leader. That wouldn't last for long. As soon as their attempts to assassinate Sor fell apart, he would be back on top again. When it really counted. When the final blow was struck.
He rolled over in bed, shifting his immense bulk, one hand reaching reflexively for his wife. He found instead rumpled sheets already growing cold. He opened his eyes, but there was no sign of her. She had gotten up early to minimize their waking contact. He tried to convince himself that it was better this way, since time spent in her icy presence could hardly be described as pleasant. But things weren't likely to get any better if she kept avoiding him. They had to talk...or, if she persisted in her current policy of not speaking to him, he had to talk and she had to listen.
There was a knock on the door. Not Nia. She certainly wouldn't knock and, even if she did, it wouldn't be with such timid politeness.
"Come in," bellowed Cen, gathering the covers around him as he hefted himself into a sitting position. A guard entered, bowed deeply, then awaited permission to speak. The baron had made it perfectly clear to everyone serving him that he expected to be treated as if he was the king. All the bowing and scraping normally reserved for Sor was to be exhibited for him. At first, it had been flattering. Over time, however - and a short time, at that - it had grown tedious.
"What is it?" he snapped, in no mood for the servility of this man and the inevitable delays it engendered.
"The Lord Bur is waiting to see you in your sitting room, Your Grace."
Cen frowned. What was Bur doing here? Was the man mad, to have left his mansion at this hour of the day, without intricate plans having been made for his crossing of the city? He was fortunate that Sor's guards hadn't spotted him. They were hungry to capture nobles, especially in the wake of Joi and Sye's deaths. Although nothing had been publicly announced, everyone accepted that the nobles had been responsible, in some way or another, for both murders.
"How many men does he have with him?"
"None, Your Grace."
None?? The baron hadn't expected him to come with a legion of troops, but for any noble to travel completely unescorted...Bur had to be insane. There could be no other explanation. Muttering an oath, Cen climbed out of bed and stalked over to his wardrobe.
"Get him some wine and make him comfortable. Tell him I'll be down as soon as I can."
"Aye, Your Grace," replied the guard. With another bow, he turned and hastily exited the room.
"Good morning, Your Grace," stated Bur with a slight bow as Cen stormed into the sitting room.
The baron, in no mood for the inane pleasantries with which his fellow nobles always wanted to greet each other, ignored Bur's words and demanded, "What are you doing here?? Have you lost what little intelligence you once possessed??"
"I'm truly sorry for the intrusion and inconvenience, Cen, but a great disaster has befallen my household. I believe your Apath has...surfaced."
For the first time, Cen noticed Bur's face. The middle-aged man, normally blessed with a healthy complexion, was deathly pale. In the light of the sitting room, provided by two lanterns and two small windows just below the ceiling, his skin looked almost white. His blue eyes were frightened and his left cheek muscle twitched spasmodically. Before this morning, Cen had never seen Bur with a hair out of place, but the lord's dark, flowing locks were uncombed and tangled as he stood in the baron's sitting room. He wore old, worn riding clothes, including a dirty, hooded cape. That at least explained how he had gotten here unmolested. Bur had looked no different than hundreds of others out on the streets at this hour.
"What do you mean by that?" asked Cen.
"Yesterday, I had a troop of sixteen guards. This morning, I have none. The three who survived last night's attack have run off, and the servants with them. Only myself, my wife, and my children are left in the house. We are unprotected if the king comes for us. Or worse, if he returns."
Bur nodded. "It can't be anyone else. What was done had to be done by magic. There's no other way. He killed thirteen men with one blow - some kind of firestorm that charred the chamber they were using for a barracks. If you're claiming that man as your ally, Cen, you'd better reconsider. He's no friend to our class."
"Why you?" demanded Cen. "Why would he do this to you?"
"Perhaps..." Bur hesitated, as if unwilling to say more. Finally, under the baron's steely gaze, he relented. "Perhaps because he felt he owed it to me. But I never did anything to warrant this!"
"What do you mean, he owed it to you?"
"Wil was born on my farm. His parents and grandparents lived there for years, working for my family. When his father died a year ago, I let Wil stay on if he could meet the quota. When he fell short last harvest, I evicted him."
Cen was livid. "You what??"
"I didn't know he was an Apath. I never would have considered it if I'd known."
"Obviously not! That's probably why he didn't tell you. He's one of that breed of people who would rather be appreciated for who he is, not what he can do to you." The baron ran a hand through thinning hair. He was too damned old for this kind of trouble. As if he didn't already have enough problems to deal with... If this was what it meant to be a leader, Sor could keep the job.
"You're going to have to stay here. I'll see that a bed's made up," resolved Cen after a lengthy pause.
"I can't. My wife. My children," protested Bur, a stricken look on his face.
Cen grabbed him none-too-gently by the shoulders. "There's nothing you can do for them! Think about it. When those servants fled your house, who do you think they went to? By now, there's probably a whole troop of Sor's guards at your mansion. Your wife and children will be on the way to the palace dungeons. If you go back, your head will be off before sunset. "
"I have to help them."
"Do as you like. I can't hold you here. But there's not much you'll be able to do for them with your head separated from your body. And, as long as you're not in custody, they'll be safe. Bait for the trap. Once Sor's got you, he can kill them."
The words, more ruthless than physical blows, sunk in. Bur practically collapsed into a chair behind him.
"Prepare a room for his lordship," stated Cen to his footman, one of several servants hovering nearby.
"Yes, Your Grace," replied the man, executing a flawless bow.
"Where's your mistress?" demanded the baron before the man could scuttle away.
"I believe she's with your daughters."
Cen grunted, glanced one more time at his deflated guest, then left the room in the wake of his servant. He took the steps two at a time and was outside the closed door to his daughters' room moments later.
The baron was unaccustomed to knocking in his own house, but, recognizing that barging in now would not be the ideal way to attempt a reconciliation, he swallowed his pride and rapped gently on the door. After what seemed like an interminable pause, Nia opened it. Her face wore the same expression she had shown him incessantly over the past forty-eight hours. Rae and Kae, standing behind her, beamed joyfully at their father. He favored them with a quick smile.
"Lord Bur is downstairs," he began. "His house and family have been taken by Sor's men."
Nia raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised you let them."
"I think you overestimate my influence."
"What does this have to do with me? Surely you don't expect me to play hostess as if nothing has happened?"
"And exactly what has happened? I'm trying to understand, Nia, but I don't know what I've done wrong!"
"You don't think it's a little perverse to keep me locked up in here like an animal? That a guard, at your direct orders, should inform me that it was his duty to use whatever means were necessary to keep me from going out?"
"I wanted to protect you."
"You didn't trust me! After years of marriage, you still thought of me as his sister and not your wife, as if the two were separable!"
At last he saw it and cursed himself for being a fool. No matter what, she was still the daughter of Kan with the ego of a princess. His simple action, designed to protect, had humiliated her. The consummate player of political games, he had made the ultimate blunder in his own house.
"I'm sorry. I didn't think. All I wanted was to protect you. Things were getting ugly out there."
"Tell me where you were that night."
"Later," he promised. When she started to protest, he raised a hand to forestall her. "I'm not trying to put you off, but we're in trouble right now. Wil has turned against us."
Everything was ready. Sor and Gea, along with Eds, Hud's successor as the captain of the King's Guard, had spent the night plotting how to entrap the wily chancellor with the least amount of danger to all involved. In the end, after examining dozens of complex and convoluted plans which could go wrong in any of a hundred ways, they settled upon a simple scenario.
However, before they could put it into action, events occurred to force its postponement, however briefly. Sor had just taken the throne with the first rays of the new morning, and was preparing to summon his chancellor, when a guard entered the little throne room.
"What is it?" demanded Sor.
"Your Majesty, a woman to see you."
"At this hour? Audiences commence two hours before noon. You know that. Tell her to return then, with everyone else. If her petition has merit, I'll hear her."
"Begging Your Majesty's pardon, but I thought you might hear her now. She brings news of a noble's mansion that stands vulnerable...and of the Apath Wil."
"See her in."
The "woman" turned out to be a girl of no more than thirteen, with wide brown eyes and wavy chestnut hair that hung to her waist. Her clothes, those of a maid, were mud-spattered. Lower lip trembling, she all-but-threw herself at her liege's feet.
"Rise," said Sor as gently as he could manage. "Tell me what happened."
In a halting, uncertain tone, she related a fragmented version of the events that had transpired at Bur's mansion the previous night. While many of the specifics eluded Sor, the general thrust of the maid's tale was clear: the bulk of Bur's personal bodyguard had been wiped out by some kind of magical attack.
"And you assume Wil did this? Did you see him?"
"No, Your Majesty," she replied, eyes firmly fixed on the king's boots. She hadn't lifted her head since entering the little throne room. "But Fae did."
"Why did you run away after the attack was over?" he asked.
"None of us was staying there because we's ha' a choice. Lord Bur wouldn'a let us go. He put a guard on us an' says if any of us tries to leave, he'll hurt us. But when the guards got killed, there was no one to keep us there any more. Ayn says I should go to the king and tell him wha' happen."
"Thank you. I'll look into it."
As the girl was leaving, Gea entered the room. "What's happened?" she asked. "The guards are saying something about Wil killing Lord Bur."
"They've only got it partly right," explained Sor. He gave her a condensed version of what he had learned from the maid.
"What are you going to do?"
"Send someone over there. If Bur's smart, he'll be gone, but intelligence has never been one of his more redeeming qualities. Maybe we'll get him."
"If so, we'll have Wil to thank."
"He's one man I'd rather not be beholden to for anything. Let's just say we're taking advantage of an opportunity."
Sor summoned Eds, who had been standing discreetly outside the room, awaiting the inevitable. He commanded the guard to take twenty men to Lord Bur's mansion, secure the house and grounds, and arrest any noble still on the premises. "Remember, we're in a state of war. If any resistance is offered, you are authorized to act as you see necessary. No questions will be asked later."
"I understand, Your Majesty," replied Eds. With a deep bow, he turned and departed.
"This is extremely strange," commented Gea. "Why would Wil attack Bur's guards?"
"I don't know. Maybe a falling out among allies. If I were working with Cen, I might not be able to hold my patience."
"So why attack Bur's men, and not Cen, or even Bur himself?"
"Perhaps one of the guards pissed Wil off and he decided to do something about it. I really don't give a damn. Vas would say I'm losing my focus, but then he's the cause of it, anyway."
"You still have a war to fight,. Don't let what's happening in the palace blind you to the greater needs of the city."
"Don't worry. I won't let my people down. After everything that's happened, they're all I have left. Besides you, that is."
"As long as they know that, you can't lose this war."
Less than ten minutes later, Vas strode into the chamber. An eyebrow lifted in surprise when he registered the presence of the princess this early in the day, but, other than that, his face remained as impassive as always.
Unobtrusively, a guard appeared just inside the open entrance to the throne room. Sor nodded slightly in his direction. The man responded with a silent salute, then turned and left.
"I gather you've heard the news," said the king.
Vas nodded. "This may be excellent news, Your Majesty. It could indicate fracturing among the noble's ranks. Cen may have sent Wil to administer a punishment."
"Or perhaps Wil acted on his own," said Gea.
"Indeed. A personal score to settle, perhaps. Wil is a peasant with a self-professed goal of 'freeing the common man'. Maybe the necessity of aligning himself with the nobles has become too odious to bear. Whatever the case, it can only be good for us."
"In case it hasn't been brought to your notice, Wil attacked guards, not Bur. Those men were commoners, not nobles," said Sor.
"They were fighting for a self-proclaimed enemy of the Crown. That makes them as guilty as their master."
"To us, perhaps, but would Wil make that distinction?" There was no response from either Vas or Gea.
"I'd like a drink," said Sor suddenly, nodding to his sister. "Gea? Vas?"
Despite the early hour, Vas assented with a slight inclination of his head. He could hardly do otherwise, since it was considered ill-mannered to refuse refreshment when the king was drinking.
Gea moved over to the table, where six goblets were set out along with a number of full decanters. "Wine? Brandy? Ale?" asked Gea, pouring herself a glass of a golden liquid.
Sor requested brandy and Vas, wine. Her back to the others, the princess filled the goblets, then returned to her brother and his advisor. Only after Sor had taken a long sip of his own ruby-colored liquid did the others lift their goblets to their lips and drink.
"Have you sent a troop to Bur's mansion?" asked Vas.
"I did. Immediately."
"I doubt he'll be cooperative enough to wait to be arrested. Self-preservation is probably his strongest instinct. Nevertheless, it's worth checking."
"I thought so. If you don't mind my switching the subject, I have a question I've been waiting to ask you. It's about your efforts to learn who killed my wife and mother."
"How thorough has this investigation been?"
Vas appeared nonplused by the question. "You know it's been extremely thorough. I gave you a full report yesterday, Your Majesty. If you have reason to doubt..."
"How can you claim to have made an 'extremely thorough' investigation when you haven't even spoken to the man who found the body?"
Vas' eyes went wide and one hand went to his throat, as if he was having difficulty breathing. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.
"Well??" demanded the king, rising from his throne.
Vas turned and stumbled over to the table, where he pulled out a chair to collapse into. He was gulping in air.
"Excuse me, Your Majesty," he rasped, wiping a hand across his forehead "I seem to be ill."
"Drugged, actually," said Gea. "In the wine."
Vas' eyes raked over brother and sister uncomprehendingly.
"To prevent you from hurting anyone else. Vas, Chancellor of Vorti," said the king, his tone suddenly loud and official. "I hereby arrest you for the murders of Queens Joi and Sye. You will be held in close confinement until your trial, with neither food to eat nor water to drink."
Numbly, Vas was aware of guards swarming around him. His arms were grabbed and yanked roughly behind his back. A blindfold was placed over his eyes, blocking out the whirling scene of the little throne room and those within it. The chancellor tried to say something, but his tongue refused to form the words. He made an attempt to stagger to his feet, but his legs were too weak to support him and he felt himself pitching forward, sensed the ground rising to meet his body. He was unconscious before he struck the tiled floor.
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