THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART SIX: BURGEONING APATHY


CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO


Even though he was no longer recognized as their leader, the nobles still held their "emergency gathering" at Cen's house, chiefly because, other than the palace, his mansion was the best-protected building in the city. That the baron's wine-cellars were unequaled in stature couldn't be viewed as anything but an inducement. For his part, Cen didn't object, since it saved him a long and potentially-dangerous journey to the nobles' quarter of the city.

Seated in Cen's sitting room, around a table that comfortably sat eight, were Cen, the twelve other members of the nobles' "council", and Lord Bur, who couldn't have been excluded without the appearance of a mortal insult. Each of them sipped from a goblet of a dark red wine that represented one of the worst vintages the baron had available. Nevertheless, profuse comments on its flavor and body were forthcoming, reinforcing something Cen had always known: class was no guarantee of taste.

Rumors had run rampant through the streets today, spreading equal parts of fact and fiction about Vas' arrest and subsequent trial. Eventually, shortly after dusk, the official pronouncement came: Chancellor Vas had been found guilty of high treason, conspiracy to assassinate Queen Joi, and the murders of Captain Hud of His Majesty's guard and Queen Sye. He would be publicly executed at sunup the following day.

Cen had been no more or less surprised by the verdict than anyone else. It was something of a shock to learn that the chancellor wasn't as devoted to the Royal Family as he had always seemed to be. That was, of course, assuming that Vas was really guilty. It wasn't inconceivable that Sor might fabricate the charges to legitimatize the settling of a personal score. Rulers across Devforth had been doing that for centuries.

No matter what the actual circumstances were, this new development was a positive one for the nobility. It halved the king's magical effectiveness. Cen's greatest fear, especially since Wil's disappearance, had been how to combat two Apaths. Now, the more devious and cunning of the pair was to be removed, reducing not only Sor's arsenal, but crippling his intelligence network, which was controlled by the chancellor.

Cen's fellow nobles, of course, saw things on a smaller scale. As always, the topic of debate soon centered on assassination attempts.

"It may be the best chance we'll ever have to get him!" exclaimed Duke Jym, the new, self-appointed leader of the movement. "All we need are two archers with good aim. I know just the men for the job!"

"They'll be caught," predicted Count Uss.

"With all those people around them?" demanded Jym. "The streets will be packed for blocks in all directions. Our men will be able to melt into the crowd with no difficulty."

"No difficulty?" snorted Uss derisively. "You think a long bow and a quiver of arrows is inconspicuous?"

"In the first place, they won't be long bows. We'll make sure they're close enough for smaller, more compact bows to do the job. Accuracy, not range, will be of primary importance. As soon as the deed is done, they'll drop them. Since they won't get more than one shot, they'll only need one arrow."

"The crowd will be decidedly pro-Sor. They'll tear the men to pieces."

"All it will take is a few well-placed rabble-rousers to stir things up enough to get the archers safely away. In a crowd that size, once they've dropped the bows, all they'll have to do is move twenty feet, join in the shouting, and no one will be the wiser. The plan is flawless."

"I'm sure you have absolute faith in your archers," Cen began. "And I'm certain that they're excellent shots, but even the best bowman in Vorti would be hard-pressed to guarantee a fatal shot from someplace in the middle of a crowded street. Even with two men shooting at Sor, I'd say your chances aren't very good."

Jym smiled smugly. "Actually, both of them won't be shooting at the king. One will aim at Sor and the other at his wife. After all, it's always possible that she's carrying his heir."

"They've only been married three days!" protested Count Fil.

"All it takes is one night," noted Uss.

"What do you mean, you're only going to have one archer shoot at the king! Are you out of your damned mind??" wailed Count Ryf.

"All the arrow will need to do is scratch him. It will be coated with poison. Yrith, to be exact."

Slow, cunning smiles creased the faces of several of the nobles, including that of the perpetually indecisive Ryf. Cen had to quickly duck his head to hide the expression of contempt that flickered across his visage - disdain not only for the plan, but for the idiots willing to accept it.

Couldn't they see that it had no hope of succeeding? Every defense Jym had put up for it was a smokescreen, an overly-optimistic description of what might happen if everything went right. Not only would the archers not succeed in assassinating Sor, they'd probably never get their shots off. And if they weren't captured, it would only be because the crowd had gotten to them first.

Cen shook his head sadly, then, in a clear voice, declared, "It will never work. If it were that easy, it would have been done long ago." He had to be on the record as strongly opposed to the assassination attempt. That way, when it failed, they'd turn to him for leadership.

"Sor hasn't given us many chances. He's only been in power for a year."

"I was talking about Kan. Archers tried and failed - what was it? - fifteen times? You think a few of them didn't have 'flawless' plans?"

"You can't stand to admit that a better man's in charge now, can you?"

"I'd be willing to admit it," returned Cen pleasantly. "If it were true."

"You failed, Cen. Time after time, you failed. And you can't stand it now that someone else is about to succeed."

"I wish you all the luck. But I'd bet my fortune and estate that it won't work."

"I might take you up on that. This plan is rock-solid. And while we're talking about failures, why don't you tell us about this Apath of yours, who has suddenly turned against us?"

"I thought this council as a whole had rejected Wil's existence."

"Let's say we're willing to admit a mistake," offered Jym magnanimously. "Now perhaps you'll enlighten us about why our ally broiled Lord Bur's personal guard?"

"Maybe he didn't like his food raw," said Cen. Bur's face blanched at this, but Jym's condescending smile grew wider. "Or perhaps he was just tired of his supposed allies refusing to recognize his existence without an adequate demonstration of his powers."

"Ah...so this was only a performance. Some proof for the doubters. I see. Now that we believe, perhaps you'd be good enough to produce this mystery Apath for us."

"I don't think he'll be willing to come."

"I see," purred Jym. "I thought that might be your answer." His soft laugh was echoed by several other chuckles around the table.

"Perhaps you'll tell us who you have in mind for this display of archery prowess," said Uss.

Without a word, Jym walked out of the room. A prolonged period of silence, coupled with raised eyebrows and puzzled expressions, followed his departure. Cen's frown deepened. Jym always had enjoyed these kinds of cheap theatrics.

"I guess you scared him off, Cen," chuckled the corpulent, good-natured Baron Glu.

Finally, Jym returned, two golden-haired youths trailing in his wake. They were of similar height and build, both with twinkling blue eyes and thin, aristocratic noses. The resemblance was further heightened by the identical clothing they donned: long, dark robes that made them seem more like the ascetic scholars than the archers Jym had chosen as his assassins.

"Ryn and Tyn," pronounced the duke. In perfect unison, both boys bowed deeply. "The best shots I've seen in years. And, as I promised, they don't need long bows to be accurate."

With dazzling speed, two bows, neither of which was more than four handspans in length, were produced from beneath the oversized robes. Arrows were nocked then released and Baron Cen suddenly found the table in front of him sprouting two quivering, fletched stalks.

"Perhaps now, my dear Cen, you would care to reconsider our bet?"

The baron's only response was a cold stare, directed first at the arrows then at Jym.

* * *

Sor had more things on his mind this morning than the execution to consider. His union with Lis the previous night, although driven exclusively by violence, had borne fruit. His magical insight, used after he had awakened an hour ago, had revealed the first stirrings of a child deep within his wife's body.

She stood beside him this morning, the perfect picture of cool regality. He hadn't told her yet, but that moment wouldn't be long in coming. No doubt she would be as relieved as he was. There was no way to tell whether or not it was a boy, but, at the worst, Sor had been given a nine month reprieve. Or, if it was a girl, he could break with tradition and have a daughter as his heir.

Behind him were Princesses Gea and Jen. Gea's fiance, the sturdy and affable merchant Rov, was by her side. Conspicuous by his absence was Jen's husband, Yiv. A troop of fifteen guards brought up the rear, ringed around a silent and somber Vas, whose lowered face was a mass of bruises and scrapes. For the moment, the rest of his body was hidden beneath a soiled white robe.

The group waited in the palace courtyard, hidden behind closed and bolted gates. When the first rays of dawn touched the steeple of the Tower of Learning, the highest structure in Vorti, the gates would be opened and the fifteen guards would march Vas into the square, while Sor and the others ascended to the top of the palace walls.

Thousands had been expected to turn out for the execution, and, from the noise outside the gates, the predictions had been accurate. By midnight, there had been several hundred waiting and that number had swelled during the early hours of the new day. A fair number of nobles would be present disguised as commoners. Sor had commanded several dozen guards to patrol through the throng, looking to arrest such men and women.

Sor's face wore a dead, weary expression. The crescents under his eyes had grown darker and a lack of food was making him gaunt. His thoughts were bleaker than his looks, but he fought hard to control the emotions that lurked dangerously close to the surface.

Gea's eyes never left her brother. One small hand grasped his while the other rested in her soon-to-be husband's grip. She wished there was some way she could infuse Sor with a will to live, but that was nsomething he would have to discover on his own.

Sor let his gaze wander to the prisoner. Vas was a broken husk of a man, having been repeatedly beaten by the men who had guarded him overnight, but his face was as blank and barren as a frozen plain. Unlike Sor, whose glacial facade hid deep, dangerous emotions, Vas' expression was not a mask. He was concealing nothing; there was nothing left for him to conceal. He was an Apath who had walked the final road.

* * *

Wil's position for the execution was not the most favorable. Expecting crowds, he had left for the palace shortly after midnight, but hundreds had arrived before him. Strangely, the atmosphere in was one of gaiety. Far from being a somber event, the execution of Vorti's chancellor had apparently become an undeclared holiday. Drink was flowing freely and snatches of songs rumbled through the gathering.

By dawn, there were three times as many people behind Wil as there were in front of him. Most were peasants, but the young Apath recognized a few "disguised" nobles whose attempts to imitate the common people, despite the rags they had donned, were inept. If Sor had soldiers patrolling the crowds, which Wil thought likely, they wouldn't have any difficulty identifying the various counts, dukes, and barons who had arrived to watch.

There was also wagering going on, which Wil found somewhat distasteful. The bets ranged from how many times Vas would scream to whether he would live through the entire regimen of torture before dying when the horses tore him apart. Wil even heard one man wager that Vas, being an Apath, wouldn't die at all, even when the horses tore him apart. Although he easily could have, Wil didn't inform the man that being able to control magic didn't guarantee immortality.

From atop the thirty-foot high walls surrounding the palace, a gong sounded, the sign that the execution was to begin. The noise of the crowd rose a notch in anticipation of what was to come and many of the shorter people began to bob and weave in an attempt to see what was happening. While most eyes were fixed firmly on the gate through which the condemned man would emerge with his armed escort, Wil's attention didn't wander from the palace walls, where Sor - and anyone with him - would appear.

* * *

When the gong sounded, Sor's entourage split from the guards and Vas. While the king ascended the stairs to the top of the palace walls, the armed contingent fell into formation just inside the gate, still grouped in a tight circle around the chained and manacled prisoner.

Outside, the noise level had risen to where it was no longer possible to speak without yelling directly into the ear of the person being addressed. Had he not known better, Sor would have assumed that there was a riot in progress.

The gates swung open the moment that Sor reached his position atop the walls. A great cheer went up from the assembled throng, although whether this was for the appearance of the prisoner or the king, it was impossible to determine.

The guards marched Vas across a small portion of the square, then up the stairs to the raised platform that had been erected specifically for this purpose. He went calmly, finally showing the faintest flicker of interest only when he reached the top by turning his head from left to right, as if to assess how many of Vorti's citizens had arrived to send him off to his next life.

"Men and women of Vorti," spoke Sor in a loud, authoritative voice, using magic to amplify his words so they could be heard throughout the entire city. It was, ironically enough, a trick that Vas had taught him only recently, saying that it would be especially useful for official proclamations - such as for knightings, celebrations, and executions.

A hush fell over the crowd. With so many men and women, complete silence was impossible, but the best attempt was made.

"Before you stands Vas, formerly the chancellor of this city, condemned to death because of his crimes." The king proceeded to detail each of Vas' offenses, followed by a graphic description of the stages of his execution. He finished with the simple malediction, "Let no man show this criminal, or his memory, sympathy or kindness. Let his name be cursed from this day forward. And let the pain he visited upon his victims and those who loved them now be paid for through his own suffering."

At this, Vas, who had been watching the crowd through the king's entire speech, suddenly turned to face Sor. The guards around the prisoner tensed, prepared - or so they thought - to stop any attack or move to escape. Vas, however, simply executed a perfect bow to his former pupil, then whirled to again confront the masses from whom this performance drew an upsurge of catcalls and shouted invectives.

"Let it begin," called Sor.

The mob responded with a roar that was almost deafening, and which quickly resolved itself into a single, unanimous chant, the repetition of one word over and over until it reverberated from the housetops, rattling windows and door knockers: "Death!"

* * *

Wil's attention was riveted on the woman standing beside the king. From this distance, there weren't many details he could pick out, but he knew from her bearing that she was Lis. He was unable to determine whether or not her face wore the expression of weary resignation he expected, and, try as he might, he could discern no clues from her posture or actions.

The young Apath turned his awareness to the king as Sor pronounced the sentence on Vas. Wil felt a slight, mirthless smile tug at the corners of his mouth as the charges against the chancellor were recited. Sor had made a mistake - and a rather large one, at that. Wil knew that some of the specifications against Vas were unfounded. He had, after all, been there. He had seen and participated in things that had been blamed on the prisoner.

For his part, Vas seemed unnaturally calm, almost as if he didn't care about his fate, as if the proceedings around him were meaningless. A man without emotion or feeling - perhaps an Apath who had reached the ultimate point in his magical journey. There was no other logical explanation. No ordinary human could maintain such an aura of genuine complacency with this wild torrent of chaos all around him.

When the command to begin was given, the throng erupted into a frenzy, yelling incoherently and pumping fists into the air. Many of those near the platform began to pelt the prisoner, and, inadvertently, his escort, with rotting fruits and vegetables. A hundred or so guards moved in to stem the confusion, but there were too few of them to make any difference. Then, with the twang of two bowstrings, the level of commotion was further elevated.

* * *

Had Eds not possessed quick reflexes, Sor would have been killed instantly, the arrowtip embedded in his neck. The guard dove toward his king the moment he saw the missile, in time to knock Sor away but not quick enough to save himself. The shaft buried itself deep in his left eyesocket, striking one of the few unprotected portions of his body. He staggered, lost his balance, and toppled off the wall, landing with a thud in the cobbled plaza below, near the foot of the stairs to the platform.

The second arrow, aimed at Lis, was also deflected, although this time with less dramatic results. Princess Gea, seeing the danger sooner than Eds, was able to push the queen to safety while almost completely avoiding the missile herself. Her only wound was a small scratch to the left forearm where the arrow grazed her before fluttering into the courtyard below.

Sor ducked while guards gathered around him, forming a human protective shield to ward off further attacks. He glanced in Gea's direction to see how badly she had been injured. She reassured him with a tight smile while, along with her fiance, Jen, and Lis, she was herded toward the stairs leading down from her current vulnerable position.

It was at that moment, amidst all the confusion created by the attempted assassination, that Vas made his move to escape.

Sor didn't see exactly what happened, but its aftermath was plain. There was some kind of violent explosion from below, more light than sound. When Sor looked to the platform, he saw half of the prisoner's escort lying immobile while the rest, driven to their knees or thrown to the ground, were struggling to regain their senses, shaking their heads as they feebly attempted to rise. From where he now stood, Sor couldn't tell whether the unmoving ones were dead or just stunned, but the end result was less ambiguous. Neither they, nor those who were obviously alive, were in a position to impede the chancellor's actions.

The noise of the crowd hushed as Vas, hands extended over his head, rose into the air like a balloon, floating ever higher, riding currents of air. All eyes watched with mixed awe and fear as he rose majestically above the assembled masses, white robes flapping about his body like wings.

Some of Sor's guards were armed, and, at his orders, they would have brought Vas down - or at least tried to. The king, however, never considered using his men. This matter had become personal and he intended to end it himself.

Again, he had Vas to thank for what he was about to do. During his many and varied studies with the chancellor, he had learned a variety of defensive and offensive applications for magic. It was one of those that he now put to use, extending his arm, palm-forwards toward Vas' ever-rising form, and concentrating on releasing emotion and letting it transform into another form of energy - electricity.

Sor didn't release the power until it was searing his hand. Then, with an almost-visible shudder, he let it go. A lightning bolt exploded from his palm, and, searing the air as it went, arced between the king and his chancellor. It struck Vas with the sound of a thunderclap. There was a flash as the electricity wound itself around Vas' body, encircling him in an eerie embrace. The chancellor shuddered and twitched in mid-air, like a marionette dancing on strings, then, those strings cut, he plummeted earthward, the front of his robe charred black and the stench of burned flesh thick in the air.

The corpse landed among the vast throng of gathered peasants. Those directly beneath it, realizing that it was headed for them, tried to get out of the way, but the crowd was packed so tightly that there was nowhere to go. Two men were struck by the deadweight, one of whom was killed outright. Blood spattered the area, indiscriminately staining the ground and people. One woman screamed and, surrounded by the unnatural silence of such a large gathering, it was a strange and lonely sound.

The people, most of whom had never seen a display of magic before, were struck dumb, even after the plummeting corpse landed in their midst. Few of them had ever doubted their king's powers, but even Sor's stoutest believers felt humbled by what they had just witnessed.

Sor didn't remain atop the walls to see the remainder of his handiwork cleaned up. The guards around him, recovering from their shock quickly, whisked him to relative safety, lest the archer make a second attempt. The king went placidly, allowing himself to be led in the wake of his family. The entire sequence, from the firing of the first arrow to Sor's departure from the wall, had taken no more than a minute.

* * *

Wil didn't see much of the drama surrounding Vas' attempted escape and Sor's final solution, so intensely was he scanning the crowd around him, searching for the source of the arrow that had so nearly put an end to Lis' existence. He had never found himself more in gratitude to a member of the Royal Family than when one of the king's sisters interposed herself between the queen and the missile that was so obviously intended for her.

The young Apath saw no one, even though the arrows couldn't have come from more than one-hundred feet away from him. When he finally realized that something was happening other than the attempted assassination, it was almost all over. He looked around in time to see Vas' body, flesh seared to bone, crash to the ground less than twenty feet away from him. Blood splashed in all directions, thrown outward from the bodies of the dead chancellor and the two men he landed on. One droplet struck Wil on the forehead. A woman standing closer to the area of impact was splattered by a good deal more and let out a shrill shriek - the only noise to be heard in what had suddenly become a very quiet city.

Wil started to move moments before the general panic hit. He did his best to merge with the flow, but it quickly became apparent that the longer he stayed in the crowd, the greater his risk of being crushed under foot. Several people near him had gone down already, never to rise again, as the chaotic mass of humanity trampled them. Wil wasn't ready to die yet, especially not that way.

So, giving the people another sight to gape at, Wil channeled emotion into magic and took to the air, much as Vas had done. This time, however, there was no one to strike down the flying man, the king having retreated behind the palace walls. Wil's action singlehandedly brought the masses to a halt as they stopped to stare at the third magical act in as many minutes. The young Apath gave them less attention than they did him, as, moving almost-horizontally at a pace faster than a racing horse at full gallop, he was out of sight in a matter of minutes.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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