THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART SIX: BURGEONING APATHY


CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE


Gea should not have been so ill from a simple arrow wound. She had suffered worse nicks as a child playing mock battles with her older brother Bem. Nevertheless, six hours after the incident, she could hardly sit up in bed, much less get to her feet, without help. Her brow was moist with sweat and her skin felt like it was on fire. A wave of vertigo passed over her and she leaned over the side of the bed and vomited all over the throw rug that had been placed there.

Rim had cleaned and bandaged the wound the moment of her return to the palace this morning, advising rest for the remainder of the day. Stubbornly, Gea had ignored him, instead going to the throne room with the firm intention of helping her brother cope in the wake of the disastrous aborted execution. That had been a mistake. No sooner had she reached the open double doors to the audience hall, where there was a line of at least thirty people waiting to see Sor, than she fainted. She awoke in her bed two hours later, feeling dazed and weak. Over the past few hours, her condition had steadily worsened.

As Gea lifted her head and blinked the tears out of her eyes, she felt a hand placed gently on the back of her neck. She glanced up into the deep blue eyes of Dyi, her personal maid, a girl of about her own age with long, lustrous black hair and olive-tinted skin that marked her as a native of the small settlement of Knex.

"Your Highness?" Dyi asked, concern in her voice. "Shall I summon the healer?"

Gea considered. As bad as she felt, there were bound to be those in worse conditions. The ten guards who had survived Vas' escape attempt were suffering from a variety of physical and mental traumas that undoubtedly required the healer's constant presence. It was likely that her own ailment had nothing to do with her wound, but was the result of some kind of virus, or perhaps she had finally succumbed to the strain of influenza that had been driving men and women to their beds throughout the city.

A sudden, sharp pain seized Gea's abdomen, causing her to gasp aloud. Her stomach felt on fire and she could feel a hot liquid bubbling up into her throat. She tried to cry out, but the fluids choked her and she ended up coughing up a thick mixture of phlegm, blood, and some sinister greenish substance. Dyi shouted for a guard to fetch the healer immediately, but the princess didn't stay conscious long enough to mark Rim's arrival.

When Gea next opened her eyes, Rim was sitting by her side, wiping her brow with a cool, damp cloth while gently clasping one of her hands. Her eyes were slightly unfocused, as if obscured by a film. She tried blinking several times, but to no avail.

"How are you feeling?" asked the healer.

Her stomach was still cramped and her throat felt like she had drunk a mug of acid. When she spoke, the raspiness of her voice surprised her. "Terrible. What's wrong with me? It must be pretty bad for you to be here."

Rim glanced across the room. Gea's eyes followed the direction of his look and noticed her brother standing near the far wall. The moment she saw his grave, serious face, she knew the news was bad. Sor nodded once, curtly. "Tell her."

"We...that is I...think you've been poisoned. The symptoms are too violent and sudden for any known illness. Also, the wound is sorely inflamed, which shouldn't be the case this soon."

"I'm going to die."

"Not necessarily," argued Rim, but his face betrayed the lie. He looked stricken, as if he had failed her.

Gea withdrew her hand from his so she could reach out and pat him on the forearm. "It's not your fault. I'm sure you've done everything possible."

"If we find out what kind of poison it is, Rim might be able to come up with the antidote," said Sor. "Since it's not possible to tell from the blood and saliva samples, I'm hoping our prisoners can be encouraged to speak."

"You captured them?"

Sor nodded. "One of the guards caught sight of them when they were firing. They were apprehended shortly after Wil made an unexpected appearance."

"So, he was at the execution," she croaked, her voice breaking like an adolescent boy's.

"Didn't you expect him to be?"

"I think the princess should get some rest," interposed Rim firmly, stopping the king from any further comments. "She'll require all of her strength to fight this poison."

Sor nodded. "Sleep, then, Gea. I'm on my way to the dungeons to learn exactly what those bastards put on the arrows. By nightfall, we'll know the antidote." As he strode from the room, the king uttered a final vow, spoken under his breath, in a voice too low for anyone to hear. "I swear by all that exists, I won't let you die too."

* * *

By noon, Wil had returned to the barn that had become his latest place of hiding. To avoid discovery, he landed well north of the place, then crawled the better part of a mile through weed-choked fields before reaching here. Such elaborate precautions probably weren't necessary, but there was no one left in Vorti that Wil felt he could trust, and he wasn't about to chance anyone finding out where he was.

For several days now, he had been unclear about his next move in the political gamesmanship that was going on. What he had witnessed this morning had changed his mind. Two arrows had been loosed - one at Sor and one at Lis. Neither had struck their target, but it didn't take a great leap of intuition to guess who had been behind the attempted assassinations. And, if the nobility had acted, Cen had commanded it. Wil knew enough to realize who the real power behind the rebellion was. That man had just attempted to kill Lis.

Payment in blood was required in a way that had never been mandated with Sor. The king's offenses were all nebulous crimes of state - many times acts of omission more than commission. But, in striking at the woman he loved, Cen had committed a personal attack against Wil. That would not be tolerated. Wil would have his vengeance - the sooner the better. There would be more than one execution this day.

After that...the time had come for him to leave Vorti. He was growing weary of the fight, especially considering how little the people he was fighting for seemed to care about his victory. Actually, that wasn't true. They did care; they wanted him to lose. And now he was an island, battling both the forces of the king and the nobles. He had no allies, it seemed, and little hope.

His burst of fury at the king for marrying Lis had diminished and he found that the embers of hatred for Sor were burning low. Perhaps that was a result of his growing apathy; maybe it was just natural. He didn't know or care. As much as he loved the common people of the city, fighting their battles had become an exercise in futility. From now on, it would be left up to them. Wil was finished.

He realized something else as well. If his aim had been to hurt Sor, he couldn't have done a better job of it. So much treachery and betrayal, so many loved ones dead. Vas, Joi, and Sye, all interwoven in the tapestry of the king's grief. Wil almost felt sympathy for his nemesis...almost, but not quite.

He settled back in the straw and closed his eyes, seeking sleep. He would wait for the cover of darkness before making his next move. Night was the best time for sinister acts. Light rendered the invisibility imperfect, but darkness concealed everything.

* * *

The dungeons below Vorti's palace were a grim, uninviting place, far more hospitable to mildew and rodents than human beings. In years past, before Kan had assumed the throne, their unique facilities had been well-exercised, but the current Royal Family found little purpose for dank cells and torture chambers, so the underground catacombs had fallen virtually into disuse. There were still several cells where the iron. grates were not corroded away and where long-dead skeletons didn't lurk in the shadows. Because, even under the civilized leadership of Kan and his son Sor, this place was still occasionally made use of - in instances such as this.

There were only two permanent workers in the dungeons. They were both bald-headed and heavily overweight. Officially, they were members of the king's bodyguard, but they didn't wear uniforms to mark them as such and their weapons were racks and thumbscrews rather than swords. One, a grizzled veteran of fifty winters, was named Dex. His partner, twenty years his junior, was Cyv. They both dressed identically, wearing tight-fitting black leather tunics and matching breeches. Dex's face was scarred by a knife wound that stretched from inside his left nostril to the cleft in his chin. It split his upper and lower lips near where they met, giving him a permanent sneer. He was not a nice person, but he didn't enjoy his duties as much as Cyv did.

Sor didn't participate in the torture of the two attempted assassins, but watched the experts do their work. Having never spent any extended time in the dungeons before, the king was surprised to learn the variety of uses these men could find for relatively simple instruments. They favored something that looked like a hook, and produced a number of screams while it was both cold and red-hot.

At first, the two prisoners stubbornly clung to their silence. From their mirrored good-looks, it was apparent that they were brothers. Cyv explained to the king that there were many ways to exploit this. They began by marring the features of one, forcing the other to look on, then graphically explaining to both how they would vary this treatment on the other.

The initial stages of torture didn't phase them. Facial and chest scars extracted whimpers and screams, but no useful information. Whipping with both straight and knotted whips had no more success. Then Cyv and his partner moved on to the hook.

It was when one of the brothers had been burned and cut nearly to death that the other one finally broke down. "Yrith!" he screamed the name of the poison. "It's Yrith!"

The king didn't remain behind to hear what other information was torn from the bleeding lips of the prisoners. He was dashing through the damp, dimly-lit stone corridors on his way to the exit the moment he heard what he needed.

When he approached Rim with the news, however, the healer's face turned grave. Silently, he drew the king away from the bed where his sister rested, her glistening flesh now a sickly shade of gray.

"I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but there's no antidote. There's nothing I or any other healer can do for her."

"How long has she got?"

"A matter of hours. No more. It's working fast. I can make the end less painful, but there's nothing I can do to stop it."

"I understand that!" snapped Sor, showing only the tip of the emotions boiling within him. More calmly, he added, "Do what you can for her. What about visitors?"

Rim shrugged. "There's no reason she can't have them. Perhaps they'll cheer her up."

"All right," agreed Sor. "Let her see anyone she wants. Make her comfortable. I'll be back before the end." Then he was gone.

* * *

Gea had drifted off to sleep for perhaps the dozenth time in the past few hours. When she awoke again, she noticed through the ever-thickening film coating her eyes that she had yet another visitor, and this one completely unexpected. Had she been able to, the princess would have risen and executed her best curtsy, but she lacked the strength to exhibit the behavior proper in the queen's presence. She did, however, manage to rasp an appropriate apology. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but I can't rise."

"How are you feeling?" managed Lis.

"No pain. It's strange, lying here, dying, but not hurting at all. You'd think death would be a little more painful."

"I'm sorry...I wish..."

"That you were here? Don't. You're the queen of Vorti. He needs you. The city needs you."

"No. He doesn't. I've made such a mess of things. I suppose this is my punishment."

"You're making me think my sacrifice was in vain. I'm content with the life I've lived."

"No regrets?"

"Oh, I've got regrets," said Gea. "Plenty of them. But there's not much I can do about them now, is there? Maybe in my next life..."

"I've got a lot of regrets. That I listened to my parents. That I was stubborn and stupid. That I didn't follow my heart. That I married your brother."

"He's not such a bad person."

"No," agreed Lis. "But he's not right for me and I'm not right for him. It's neither of our faults, but that's the way it is."

"You may be right. The woman for him was always Joi. He loved her so much... I can't believe Vas and his own mother could do that to him."

"I can't help him. Not here. I almost think that by living in the palace, I'm making things worse for him."

"And what about you?"

"Me?"

"Sor at least had the life he wanted...for a little while. What did you miss out on?"

Lis hesitated, and, despite her failing eyesight, Gea caught the movement. She struggled to sit up a little more in bed. With the queen's help, she succeeded. "Don't worry about telling a dying woman. I won't give your secret away. What life did you turn your back on?"

"A little thatched cottage on a farm. The wife of the man I love. And, if I'd been true to myself, maybe this war never would have started. I might have been a bigger asset to Sor if I had never met him. Because he'd still have Joi, and me, I'd have Wil."

"Ahhh," breathed Gea. "I don't suppose you miss the irony of the situation, then."

"No. It's a little too bitter to miss. I've ruined at least half a dozen lives, probably more. Worse, I've caused this city to split at the seams."

"You're taking too much credit. I'm sure Cen would want a little for himself. And don't blame yourself for Joi's death. It was part of Sye's plan that she die no matter who Sor married. If she hadn't done it, Vas would have."

Lis was shocked. "So that's the way it was?"

Gea nodded. "That's the way it was."

A long period of silence ensued. Finally, Lis rose from her seat on the edge of the bed. "I just came to thank you for saving my life. I know what it's cost you."

Gea tried another smile. "Just doing my duty. Now do me a favor. Don't waste it. Cherish what I've exchanged with you."

Lis squeezed the other woman's hand. "I will. I promise."

* * *

Gea's health was fading fast when Sor came to visit. She didn't realize he was there until she felt a cool hand on her forehead. She opened her eyes to see a blurred, fuzzy image of her brother. She tried to smile but couldn't master control of her facial muscles.

"I thought you might be too busy to come see me off. I know how chaotic things must be downstairs after what happened this morning," she murmured, her words garbled as if she had been drinking heavily.

"No matter how busy things are, I'd never let them keep me away," whispered Sor. "I just wanted to give you time alone with everyone else. Your maid tells me you had a number of visitors."

"They were all here. Yiv, Jen, Rov, and even your wife."

"From now on, she's my wife in name only. I'll tell you something even she doesn't know: she's pregnant."

"It's unfair - and unnatural - for a man to know about his child before a woman," said Gea. She sounded like she found his use of magic to learn of the baby's conception to be an affront against the entire female gender.

"Don't worry. I'll let her know soon. No doubt she'll be as relieved as I am."

"Be kind to her, Sor," admonished Gea. "She's no less a prisoner of circumstances than you are. She doesn't deserve your enmity. All she ever wanted was what you had - if only briefly - with Joi, and it's not her fault that it was taken away from you."

"I suppose I have been unfair to her," admitted Sor.

"I understand why, and I'm sure she does too. But you have to put all that behind you. I'll go to my grave easier if I know you'll try to make her life less miserable. Who knows? Maybe you'll end up liking each other."

"I'd prefer not to know her well enough to like her."

"It's your choice, after all."

"Gea, I'm going to miss you. You were the only one in this whole damn city I could really talk to."

"And I was just a replacement for Joi," she acknowledged. She had known that from the beginning, of course, but it had never bothered her. In fact, she had been rather flattered that Sor had chosen her as his confidante.

"I didn't say that."

"I know you didn't, but it's true. You and I hardly had anything more than a civilized chat before her death. Suddenly, I was advising you on matters of state. Now you need to find someone else you can trust."

"There isn't anyone."

"No, there's someone. You just haven't found him - or her - yet."

"Maybe I should appoint Wil as my next chancellor," said Sor, his tone self-mocking. "At least I know where I stand with him."

Gea unsuccessfully tried another smile. "That might not be a bad idea, although it would certainly cause the nobility a collective apoplexy. The difficulty might be in getting him to accept the job. With two personalities like yours, the palace would seem a little small."

"I don't think the city's big enough for both of us. I could always hand it over to Wil. Let him see how easy it is sitting on the throne. I wonder if anyone would miss me if I simply got up and left."

"Your sense of duty is too strong. You'd go down with the city before abandoning it."

"Every man has his limits," said Sor quietly, his voice again flat and lifeless. "Even the Apath son of Kan of Vorti."

* * *

Gea died three hours before midnight. Present at her bedside were her sister Jen, her fiance Rov, and her brother Sor. Her final words, directed at all of them as she felt the last vestiges of her quickly-escaping life ebb away, were a reminder that she loved them. Then her chest fell for the final time and Rim closed her eyes.

Jen began to weep quietly, burying her face against her sister's breast. Rov remained frozen in his chair by the bedside, eyes staring unblinkingly at the prone form before him, one tear sliding down his left cheek. Sor released his hand from Gea's now-flaccid grip, rose to his feet, and strode from the room, his face a perfect mask of impassivity, his heart breaking again inside of him.

Only when he reached his quarters did Sor allow his emotions to bubble to the surface. He had suffered too much in the past week for it not to come pouring out at some time. So he threw himself down on his bed, hugged his pillow to his chest, and began to cry - tremendous gasping sobs that shook his whole body.

Eventually, the torrent of grief passed. The king sat up, reflexively straightened his clothes, then moved over to the washing basin to scrub away the tear tracks that stained his face.

It was time to put an end to this rebellion once and for all. More than that, it was time to ensure that there would never be a repeat of this for him or his successors to cope with in the future. There was only one certain way to do that: eliminate the nobility. Wipe them from the face of Vorti. Finally, he had discovered a use for his Apath's abilities.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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