Even though summer still had nearly a week remaining, the feel of fall was already in the air. The mornings and evenings had acquired the chill that presaged an end to the warmer days and their halcyon memories. Day-by-day, the hours of light shortened as the sun's position in the sky drifted southward. Farmers' crops, having yielded their best for the year, stood ready for the first killing frost. Vorti teetered on the seasonal edge, ready to plunge forward into what might be its darkest winter in centuries.

Wil, however, was not concerned with the encroaching autumn, nor with the coming harvest festival, or even the shocking rumor from the palace that was spreading like wildfire throughout the city. Reliable sources claimed that Vorti's chancellor, the staid and solid Vas, had been arrested early yesterday morning for the double murder of Queens Sye and Joi. No one from the palace was willing to openly attest to this, but sealed lips, in the opinion of many, was confirmation enough.

What was foremost on the young Apath's mind was another small tidbit of information that had escaped from behind Sor's walls. This one, unlike the tales of Vas' treachery, was not in doubt. Only days earlier, and before the cremation of his first wife, the king had married for a second time, joining in union with the woman he was to have originally made his queen: Lis.

The shock of learning persisted. Wil had first heard it earlier in the day, as he had strolled through the marketplace - a chance remark, slipping through the careless lips of a streetside merchant babbling on about anything that would draw a crowd. After Sor's marriage to Joi, Wil had dared hope that Lis was safe - perhaps available might be a better word. This was something he hadn't foreseen. Gossip claimed that Sor had been madly in love with Joi and that his marriage to her had flaunted advice and tradition. If that were true, how could he bear to touch another woman so soon after her death?

Of course, the answer was obvious. A legitimate heir was necessary, especially with the city torn by strife. Lis had been conveniently available, trapped in the palace as a result of her guiltless association with the failed assassination attempt. Any hopes of marrying Lis, regardless of how fanciful they had been, were gone - another blow dealt to Wil's life by Vorti's king.

Wil lay back in the hay, arms wrapped around his chest to ward off the evening chill. With the exception of two short ventures into the city, he had been here for the past thirty-six hours, in what seemed to be a little-used, poorly-repaired barn situated near Vorti's northern border. It was not the most comfortable of hiding places, but he was unlikely to be stumbled upon while here. And, given his recent association with hay lofts, it felt almost-familiar.

Wil closed his eyes and let darkness filter into him. He wanted nothing more than to sleep. He hadn't been dreaming much lately, so the surcease was welcome. Perhaps that was what death was like, at least until one's soul was born into its next life. Sometimes, Wil envied those who were no longer around, even those who had died violently. They were the lucky ones. They no longer had to cope with the torments of this existence.

As he lay in the deepening twilight surrounded by the pungent aroma of damp straw, Wil tried to convince himself that this bout of depression would pass, that so many blows in such a short time were bound to make any man despondent. But was this truly temporary? Or was this what he had become, what the world had made of him: a soul-sick, weary person who saw only shadows and darkness where others found warmth and light?

A few weeks ago, he had wanted only two things out of life: a chance for happiness with Lis and an opportunity to remove Sor from power. For a while, both had seemed achievable goals, or at least he had deluded himself into believing them to be. Now, neither was likely. Lis was gone and Wil's alliance with the nobles had crumbled beyond repair. Perhaps it was time to alter his priorities.

* * *

After much discussion and deliberation, Sor decided that Vas' trial was to be a private affair. Since Kan's ascension to the throne, it had been traditional for all matters of justice to be handled openly and publicly in the throne room for all to see and hear. This, however, was different. Not only was the city in a virtual state of war, but this was the trial of the second-most powerful man in Vorti. The situation was too painful for Sor to allow it to turn into a spectacle for general populace's greedy consumption. The execution, on the other hand, would be a different matter.

There were to be seven present at the trial: Sor, Gea, Eds and another guard to watch the prisoner, Vas, and Syf and Fru, two members of Sor's council, one of whom would likely be the next chancellor. The king sat upon his throne in the little throne room, with Gea and Fru in chairs to the left of the dais and Syf to the right. Vas knelt before the throne, his hands and legs in shackles, with his two watchers flanking him.

"Vas, Chancellor of Vorti, you are brought before the Crown on charges of murder and treason. If not acquitted, the punishment for any of your crimes will earn you death. What have you to say?" declared Sor, his raised voice echoing through the nearly-empty chamber as he uttered the ritual words with the cold detachment expected of a judge.

The chancellor said nothing in response, his gaze slightly unfocused as a result of the drug he had been given to keep him quiescent. His face was badly bruised, evidence of the ruthless and unfavorable treatment he had received at the hands of his captors. Vas' robes were torn and soiled and his skin had an unhealthy pallor to it, perhaps evidence of the early stages of an illness.

"Have you nothing to say in your defense?" demanded the king.

Dazedly, Vas lifted his face toward his liege. Eds slapped him on the back of his head. "Keep your eyes lowered, worm!" he barked, his voice harsher than Sor's.

"I did not kill either your mother or your wife," said Vas finally, his voice slurred. "I deny wielding either knife. I cannot, however, deny accountability for the conspiracy that came to fruition that night."


Vas inclined his head and looked Sor directly in the eyes. This time no one moved to prevent him. "If I am to speak of this, I must have corroboration. Accusations such as those which I will present must not be put forth without support."

"I'm in no mood for verbal sparring, Vas," said Sor. "If you have anything to help your hopeless cause, produce it."

"There is a scroll in my chambers that may help Your Majesty accept my claims. It has no bearing on the particular events of that night, but its contents will make what I have to tell you more believable."

"The nature of this scroll?"

"It is the final testimony of the healer Vii, written shortly before his death, addressed to you, and presented to me by Rim on the day he first occupied his new quarters."

"Where is it?"

Vas briefly described the location in his chambers where he had hidden it. Sor commanded Eds' companion to find it, indicating that there would be a delay in the trial until he returned. Vas, however, had more that he wished to say before the scroll arrived. The king allowed him to continue.

"In the spring of 533, more than twenty-five years ago, your father's first chancellor, Mar, died under mysterious circumstances. Most of Kan's advisors suspected poison, but nothing was proven and no assassin brought before His Majesty. After a careful scrutiny of the candidates, he chose me to replace Mar, because, in his words, my devotion to the city of Vorti was unsurpassed."

"None of this is disputed," said Sor through gritted teeth. "Get to the point."

"It has always been as Kan saw it. My devotion has never been to one man or one family. It has been to the well-being of this city. I was your father's advisor and supported him because he was the best ruler for Vorti. He considered me his friend. In that, he was in error. I was never more than his chancellor. My wisdom was at his disposal, but my other talents...meager as they are...were not."

"You're an Apath." It was not a question.

Vas nodded. "Before that night a week ago, I hadn't used my powers in three decades. That's a long time to go without touching something that beckons to you seductively every waking hour. But I'm close to the brink. So close, I can almost taste its vast emptiness. If you expect contrition for my actions, you will be disappointed. But I did not kill either your wife or mother, at least not directly."

The king glanced at the others in the room. Eds was keeping his face carefully neutral but Sor could read in the clenched muscles of his cheeks a similar simmering fury to the one in himself. Gea's face was also bleak, but she appeared more insulted than angry. Perhaps she believed that every word spoken by the chancellor was a lie, and, in that, she could be right. Syf and Fru both had troubled aspects, looking perplexed and disturbed by the course the proceedings had taken.

Vas continued, "The morning before the deaths, your new healer came to me in the library with a scroll he had discovered hidden in his new chambers. It recounted a number of...incidents your mother was involved in. After reading the scroll, I went to confront the queen myself. I didn't find her until several hours past dinner. I showed her what Vii had written, and, much to my surprise, she denied nothing. In fact, not only did she admit to having done everything the healer suspected her of, but she confessed to even more..."

At that moment, the guard returned to the little throne room, bearing a bone scroll case. He bowed to the king before handing the container over, saying, "It was exactly where he said it would be, Your Majesty."

Sor opened the case and unceremoniously dumped its contents into his lap. Without even unfurling it, he passed the parchment to his sister. "Read it," he commanded from between dry lips, fearing that if he began, he wouldn't be able to finish.

"Your Majesty..." she protested.

"Do it!"

"As you command, Your Majesty.

"'This is the final testimony of Vii, Chief Healer to King Sor in the city of Vorti, written on the first day of autumn of the year 557.'"

"Nearly a year to the day," noted the aged scholar Syf. "Sorry," he apologized when the king shot him a black look.

"'I have written these things down that there might be some record of my suspicions should I meet an untimely demise. This is intended for the eyes of King Sor, or, should he precede me in passing from this life, for those of his successor.

"'For many years now, I have been suspicious of the activities of Queen Sye, but, following a recent conversation with her, I now feel certain that there is foundation to these fears. I believe her to be an evil, unscrupulous woman who will stop at nothing to attain her desires. And, for much of her life, her greatest wish has been that her son Sor succeed his father as king of Vorti. Sor now sits upon the throne and I believe Sye to be solely responsible for that.

"'The first murder may have been that of Kan's fourth son, Tam. At the time, I believed the cause of his death to be a wasting sickness, but now I fear I might have been mistaken. Poison, carefully administered, can simulate the symptoms displayed by Tam. That was fourteen years ago and may have been where it all started. Sor was two and I believe his mother had already decided that he would be king after his father.

"'The following summer, Tui, Kan's closest friend, was murdered in his bed. Again, there is no clear evidence connecting the queen to the murder, but I believe she may have paid someone to eliminate her husband's confidante, as his had been the loudest voice among many encouraging the king to divorce her. Most of them Kan ignored, but he valued Tui's advice and, because of that, the councilman proved a dangerous threat to Sye's position. If she did not orchestrate his death, it was indeed a fortuitous coincidence for her.

"'Kir's death six years later is less of a mystery. Although I was suspicious at the time, I am now certain that Sye poisoned him. The ineffectiveness of normal healing methods for his symptoms only strengthens this belief. As Crown Prince, he had to be eliminated.

"'Because of Kir's death, Bem became Kan's immediate successor, and the only man between Sor and the position of Crown Prince. Bem attempted several engagements to women, but all fell through with no acceptable reasons given for their termination. Again I must state a belief with no concrete proof, but it is my feeling that Sye sabotaged those relationships to keep Bem from marrying and fathering a legitimate heir who would precede Sor in the line of succession.

"'When Kan's health began to fail, Sye recognized that the time was short to eliminate Bem. It is about this death that I am most certain. On the day that Bem suffered his fatal fall from the horse, the queen visited me to ask about the properties of a plant she claimed to have found. Called horsedragon, it is normally used on humans to heighten the sex drive. When fed to horses, however, it causes extreme and uncontrollable behavior, much like Bem's mount exhibited in throwing him. I have no doubts that Sye fed the animal with the horsedragon in the hope that something like this would happen.

"'The last death was Kan's. Although I haven't confessed this to anyone other than the queen, I believe he was poisoned. It was a slow-acting poison administered in small doses over a span of years. I have met a poison-seller, Eis by name, who claims to have served a client answering to Sye's description. The substance he sold, Issin, is the one I believe responsible for Kan's death, and had been purchased regularly by the mysterious woman for nearly five years.

"'So the last obstacle was removed and Sor became our king. It is my belief that he is innocent of any knowledge of his mother's plans, and that is why I have written this for his eyes. Until now, his mother has backed him, but no one knows where her fancy may turn in the future. I was once favored by her, but now I believe she has it in mind to eliminate me.

"'I wish I could produce more proof, but, at this time, my investigations have only begun. As time goes on, I hope to build a strong case. But if you are reading this, Your Majesty, I have perished before that case could be built. I regret bringing the pain that I know this missive will cause you, but I feel it is in your best interests to know the truth. Despite how you may have felt about my abilities, know that I have always been your humble and obedient servant.'"

"That's all," concluded Gea. "Except his signature."

The king sat as still as a statue in his chair, back and shoulders rigid. His eyes were unreadable, curtained by a sheath of icy indifference that could only be a facade.

Into the silence spoke Vas. "You need not wonder about the veracity of Vii's claims. I confronted Sye with his charges and she admitted every one. The death of Tam, whom she poisoned. Tui's murder, for which she hired three cutthroats. Kir's poisoning. Kan's poisoning. And the intoxication of Bem's horse, who, overwhelmed by the horsedragon, threw him to his death. More than that, she claimed she had paid the group of men who had broken into Vii's cottage and killed him. He had become, in her words, 'an unreliable man and an unacceptable risk.'"

Sor couldn't believe he was hearing all this about his own mother. Worse, he was unwilling to simply dismiss it as the clever attempt of a doomed man to save his own life. Because Vas was too close to the point of burgeoning apathy to care that much any more. His life had less meaning than his duty to the city. Since no sacrifice was too great for that, he was almost certainly speaking the truth, and that made Sor's beloved mother...

"No!" shouted the king, leaping to his feet. "I refuse to listen to any more of this filth! Take him out and execute him!"

Vas looked Sor directly in the eyes without flinching. "I speak only the truth. I have no reason or will to lie."

Gea placed a hand on her brother's shoulder. "His trial isn't complete, Your Majesty. You cannot order his execution yet, much as he might deserve it. Let us hear him out."

Sor stood completely still for many moments before, with an abrupt nod of his head, acquiescing to his sister's request. The guards, who had been poised to drag Vas from the little throne room, relaxed their stance.

"You may wonder, Your Majesty, why I didn't have your mother arrested. Let me assure you that I was prepared and willing to do so, until she explained her reasons to me. Her sole desire, and what she had devoted the last fifteen years doing, was to put you, her only child, on the throne. That you were an Apath was incidental to her, but not to me. Your abilities made you the prime ruler for Vorti, which meant that, no matter what Sye's motives were, the end results had been in the city's best interests."

Sor was flabbergasted. In a voice hardly louder than a whisper, he found himself saying, "You condoned her actions because I'm an Apath??"

Vas nodded. "At the time I thought it was fate that brought you into power, but that was a force Queen Sye was unwilling to trust. Nevertheless, had the obstacles to your assumption of the throne not been removed by her, I was perfectly willing to act on my own. I had a plan, though it was never put to use. In statesmanship, you were no better or worse than your brothers. But your powers made you far superior to them. Tam, Kir, and Bem stood between you and the throne. It was nothing personal for Sye, nor would it have been for me."

"You bastard," hissed Sor.

"There's more. We realized in that conversation how much we had in common. True, our basic motivations were different - I wanted the best ruler for Vorti; she wanted you as king. The ends, however, were the same - to promote your well-being and make your position on the throne unassailable. In essence, we decided to join forces to attain those goals.

"She had already set in motion a complex plan, the aim of which was to increase your powers. Even I must admit that it was a masterful plot; a scheme whose audacity I would never have attempted. I think it ended up working better than she had imagined possible. Perhaps, in the end, too well.

"Sye knew that emotion is the raw energy of magic. She recognized that waves of emotion promote power and that, as king, you would need all the power you could muster. So, even before Kan was dead, she arranged for you to fall in love with a servant girl. From the beginning, it had been her intention to kill Joi, and by her death, elevate your position through the grief that would flourish within you.

"Your relationship got out of control, however, and Sye became torn between the original intent of her plan and a need for stability within the palace. She had almost decided to let Joi live when the nobles rebelled. Realizing you would need all the resources at your command to defeat them, she changed her mind, even though Joi had become your wife and was carrying your child.

"She told me these things freely, sensing that I would support her, which I did, because I too, having experienced the power that emotion can bring, knew that through your anguish, you would find a wellspring of strength and energy - if you could contain it. So I agreed to help her murder Joi. In the end, it was her hand that wielded the knife. My only duty was removing the guard outside the royal chambers, which I did. Using magic for the first time in decades, I allowed my form to blend in with the background, and, under the guise of an Apath's invisibility, approached Hud from the side. Before he was aware of his danger, I had driven a knife under the base of his skull. He died instantly, without struggling or suffering."

To Sor, it all made horrible sense now. Why his mother had pushed him and Joi together, but balked at any lasting commitment between them. How she had pressed for his wedding to Lis, but eventually "consented" to his taking a maid for a wife. He and Joi had been manipulated from the moment of their meeting. The result had been her death.

"You...and my mother conspired to kill my wife?" demanded Sor.

"Yes, Your Majesty," replied Vas, eyes probing the king's face.

Eds dealt the chancellor a stunning blow to the back of his head, sending the man sprawling. "You were told to keep your eyes down," he said in a dangerous voice. "Next time, you won't have a head to look up with." No one moved to assist Vas as he struggled to his knees.

"How did my mother die?" asked Sor. "Did you decide that it was in my best interests to eliminate her as well?"

"No, Your Majesty. Still invisible, I remained in the hall while Queen Sye entered the royal chambers. She dragged Hud's body with her, to hide within, then emerged five minutes later and said that the deed was done. The last I saw of her, she was headed for her rooms. I wandered around the halls for a while, savoring the sensation of using magic again after so many years. I was outside of Rim's chamber when he emerged to check on your wife. I followed him at a distance, and when it became apparent that he had discovered the body, I went to my bed. It was never my intention to sacrifice myself. I had decided to prove Wil as the killer."

"So how did my mother die?"

"I don't know, Your Majesty. When she left me that night, she was alive and well. I was as shocked as anyone else to learn that she had been murdered."

Up to this point, Sor had accepted much of the chancellor's tale. But this last part rang false. It was too neat a finish from Vas' point-of-view, and the frightening alternative, that there might be another killer, didn't bear thinking about. If the chancellor believed that denying culpability for Sye's murder would save his life, he would soon learn differently.

"You're lying, Vas. I want to know the truth."

"I have told you the truth. What motive could I have for concealing more?"

"Guilt? Or, more likely, a desire to save yourself from the agony of being torn apart by four horses."

Vas shook his head. "For Hud's death, if nothing else, you will have me killed no matter what I claim. I am a doomed man. I have known that since I realized my drink was drugged. As for your other supposition, that too I must deny. I have no guilt about what I did. Admittedly, I miscalculated more than once, but the basic foundation of the plot was sound. I acted that night as I have for every hour that I have held this position - in the best interests of Vorti."

Such pompous self-righteousness was beyond the king's ability to tolerate. Although not a violent man by nature, blind fury turned Sor into a raging animal. He leapt from his chair and lunged at the helpless prisoner. Grabbing either side of the chancellor's head with clawed hands, the king dug his nails into the other's flesh and dragged him forcibly to his feet. Vas didn't cry out, but his agony was etched on his features as the blood began to flow from the ten jagged puncture wounds along his cheeks and jowls.

Sor drew back a fist and smashed it into Vas' face, staggering the chancellor, but not toppling him. The king struck again, this time with a knee to the groin. Uttering a nearly-silent groan, Vas crumbled like a felled tree.

Breathing hard, as if he had run a long and arduous race, Sor retook his seat. Tasting blood, he realized that he had bitten his own lip sometime during the attack.

"How dare you mock the people of this city, who loved my wife, by professing to have done this thing for them! Execution is too good for you, Vas. If I could, I'd think of a way to prolong your torment through eternity!"

It took several moments for the chancellor to recover enough to respond to his liege's condemnation. When he did, however, it was in the same unwavering voice he had used while relating his entire tale. "I never professed that my actions were the best for you as a person, Your Majesty. But you cannot deny that the emotion produced in the wake of the events of that night has given you the potential for greater magical power than you ever could have had otherwise. Grief and pain are emotions we are always willing to excise. Love, on the other hand, is something we never willingly give up. Your love has been replaced tenfold with agonies of the heart. Not only are you stronger, but you will be more willing to use the energy available through those emotions.

"Sometimes what is best for the city is not best for the king. This is one of those times. And, while there are few in Vorti who would agree with me, realize that they do not understand all that is at stake. This is no childish game. It is in deadly earnest. To win this war, Your Majesty, you must be utterly ruthless. It is that ability which I have given to you. In the end, I've made the ultimate sacrifice for this city - that of my life. I cannot say that I have cause to regret it."

Sor had never before hated a man the way he now did Vas. His feelings for Cen paled in comparison with this, seeming in retrospect impure and illusory. Worse still, he recognized the truth in the chancellor's words. There was great power in this emotion - power enough to level all of Vorti, if not more.

The king again stepped toward the prisoner, but this time his intention was not a physical assault. He stooped until his face was inches away from the torn and bleeding visage of his chancellor, then spoke in a slow, deliberate tone. "I wish I could make you endure the hell that you've put me through, Vas, but your emotions are so dead you'd never be able to understand it. I doubt there's a man or woman in Vorti, even among my enemies, who would sympathize with what you've done. If nothing else, it's shown me how feeble my quarrel with the nobles is. But you will pay a heavy price for this - the heaviest the law will permit me to pronounce." Having said that, he gathered a mouthful of phlegm and spewed it directly in Vas' face. The chancellor made no move to wipe off the offensive material, instead merely continuing to stare directly ahead of him with a vaguely-abstracted look in his unblinking eyes.

"This I cannot forgive," said Sor, speaking at once to no one and everyone.

The only person in the room with the courage to respond was Gea. Laying a hand on her brother's arm, she said, "No one would ever ask you to. Of the many things Vas deserves, forgiveness is not one of them."

"I do not ask for forgiveness," said the chancellor. For that, he received a sharp kick in the side from Eds. The pop of one cracking rib was loud enough for all to hear. Vas again collapsed, this time clutching at his side.

"You will show proper respect to His Majesty," admonished the captain.

"Get him on his feet," commanded Sor.

Roughly, the two guards jerked Vas upright, not allowing him time to recover. He hung limply between them, unable to stand on his own, with each guard supporting half his weight by grabbing him beneath an armpit.

"Chancellor Vas of Vorti, you are hereby found guilty of high treason, conspiracy to murder Queen Joi, and the murders of Captain Hud and Queen Sye. There is no effective punishment for crimes of this nature or magnitude, so I can do no more than apply the stiffest and least humane penalty within my power.

"Therefore, it is my judgment that, at dawn on the morrow, you will be taken out to the square before the palace, and, before the eyes of all who wish to watch, you will be stripped naked and given fifty lashes with a barbed, heated whip. After that, you shall be castrated. Then, as you look on, your entrails will be torn from your belly and set on fire before your eyes. Finally, a rope shall be tied around each of your limbs, the other end of which shall be attached to a horse. The animals shall be driven in different directions, completing your sentence by tearing your body into four quarters. This is the will of Sor, son of Kan and king of Vorti. Let no man question its wisdom or justice."

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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