THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART SIX: BURGEONING APATHY


CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR


It was a strangely silent night which somehow didn't feel right to Wil. Summer nights like these, when even the crickets refused to chirp, had always unnerved him, from the time he recalled first asking his father about one. Gav's reply to that childhood query had stuck sharply in his memory: "It's an unusual and rare thing, Son, but be assured that when one of those nights comes, disaster follows before the next sunup as sure as the first frost follows the harvest."

If Wil had anything to say about it, the disaster prophesied by this night would fall upon the house of Baron Cen. As he stood in the vast garden surrounding Cen's mansion, his magically-concealed body crisscrossed by patterns of light and shadow cast by the many lanterns, he resolved not to leave here until his score with Cen had been settled once and for all.

When it was finally over, he would leave Vorti. Maybe some day he would return, but not any time soon. There were too few pleasant memories to draw him back here. Lis, the only good thing this city had to offer, was the wife of one of his enemies.

Once, the thought of leaving Vorti had terrified him. This had been his home; he had grown up here. Except for a few short day trips, he had never been outside its boundaries. Now, the idea of staying was anathema. By remaining, he was clinging desperately to a past that could never come again and whose memories grew more poignant with each passing day. To live, he had to go elsewhere, and Wil wasn't ready to give up living...at least not yet.

Turning his attention to his present situation, Wil considered how little concentration this night's work had required of him. The baron's outer defenses had been childishly easy to penetrate. By Wil's count, Cen had nearly sixty men guarding the perimeter, but they were so lazy and inattentive that he probably could have snuck in without any magical protection whatsoever. Once beyond that initial line of defense, he hadn't seen more than two additional guards.

At the moment, he was hiding in a little ring of shrubbery, essentially invisible to even the most scrupulously careful of watchers. The effort he had put into choosing this place of concealment, as with the trouble he had taken to painstakingly plan every stage of this offensive, was entirely wasted, because the only qualification Cen's men appeared to have was laxity. It seemed likely that they would have to physically stumble over him before noticing that something was amiss.

The spacious garden surrounding Cen's mansion was well laid out and far more professionally-groomed than Lord Bur's. In fact, as he looked around him, Wil realized that Bur's own grounds were a pale imitation of Cen's - impressive only until one saw the real thing.

Even by the pale light of lanterns, this place was magnificent, with bushes, dwarf trees, and flower beds planted in such a way that their placing, in combination with the melding and mixing of colors, was pleasing to the eye. Bright red roses, their closed petals appearing pink without benefit of the sun, clustered around a sphere-shaped shrub that during the day would sport a riot of perfumed yellow-and-orange blossoms. A gigantic patch of violets paved the ground beneath a row of now-flowerless lilac bushes. All around the gardens, similar arrangements existed, with wide, spacious paths winding between them. Wil thought how wonderful it might be to spend a spring or summer afternoon strolling through such a place.

One of the vulgarities that had dominated Bur's gardens, the ever-present sculptures of nude men and women, was absent here. Cen was apparently content to let nature, carefully-controlled and groomed, preside over his grounds. There was a fountain somewhere - Wil could hear its babbling - but its location was hidden from his eyes in the gloom.

Despite the obliviousness of the guards, Wil, ever-cautious, drew a dagger - magically created, of course - from his boot top. Weapon in hand, he moved from between the shrubs and half-crawled, half-ran toward the shelter of the open porch. There, blending in with the shadow cast by one of the thick marble columns, he paused to re-assess his situation.

The porch, nearly thirty feet deep and stretching from one side of the mansion's back to the other, was completely deserted. There were six evenly-spaced columns along its outside, giving support to the overhanging roof. The door to the house, framed on either side by lanterns, was simply constructed but carved from the finest, most expensive redwood. The handle and knocker were plated with silver.

If there were guards around, he couldn't see them. This was almost too easy, not that Wil minded limiting his effort. He didn't regard this as a sport. He wasn't hunting Cen for enjoyment; his pursuit was in deadly earnest.

Wil realized that, at some future date, when he looked back on the watersheds of his life, this night was likely to feature prominently. Perhaps the path of all his tomorrows would be set by what occurred here tonight. He could almost taste the days ahead, and their flavor wasn't appealing. Perhaps it was the missed opportunities of the past that seasoned the future so bitterly.

A shout echoed across Cen's spacious grounds and Wil froze, willing his body into absolute immobility and the complete invisibility that accompanied it. There was no follow-up, however - no answering call, no signs of movement in the darkness. Wil almost wanted to laugh aloud at his skittishness, but any sound, no matter how subtle, could be dangerous, especially this close to the house. While the guards in the yard might be inept, undoubtedly those within would be much better trained and disciplined. Cen was selfish enough not to trust his immediate personal safety to any but the best.

After a longer wait than was probably necessary, Wil crossed the intervening space between the column and the back door. He acted quickly, as his every movement was bathed in the full light cast by the lanterns hanging to either side of the entrance. Painfully aware of how exposed he was and hoping fervently that the door was neither locked nor barred, Wil grasped the handle and pulled. His efforts met with no resistance.

A guard, alerted by the opening of the door, turned to face Wil. For a moment, the man was confused, not being able to resolve anything out of the curious blur of light and darkness before him. By the time he discerned Wil's silhouetted shape, it was too late. The Apath lunged at the guard, bowling him over as he clamped one hand over the surprised man's mouth. The other hand, wielding the knife, acted just as rapidly and decisively, ending the necessity for further restraint with a single sharp stroke.

Wil left the body in the foyer. At this point, it didn't matter whether it was found or not. He was inside and it was nighttime. Lanterns were a poor substitute for daylight. Every advantage was his. Assuming a crouch as he shut the main door behind him, Wil prepared to explore the mansion.

* * *

"He can't stay much longer. Only three days and he's already driving me insane," declared Nia as she and her husband prepared for bed.

"What do you suggest I do with him?" replied Cen. "He hasn't got any place to go. His house and lands have been seized by the Crown and his family taken to the palace dungeons. I think we can forgive Bur a little self-pity."

"A little self-pity I can stomach, but that man whines incessantly from dawn to dusk about his misfortunes. I'm beginning to think he's enjoying himself in some perverse way."

Cen shrugged. "If he bothers you, stay away from him."

Nia's expression grew dark. "This is a big house, Cen, but not that big. It's hardly possible to avoid someone for long. And since I'm not allowed to go outside..."

"We're not going over all that again! When all this is over, you can run naked through the city streets for all I care, but, until then, you'll stay where it's safe."

"You have six-dozen men patrolling the grounds! They aren't enough to make me safe?"

"Both Sor and Wil are Apaths, and neither of them bears me any great love. Sixty dozen guards may not be enough to stop them if they decide to come after me."

"And you think the walls of this mansion will?"

"That's enough! I refuse to go around and around in circles with this subject! There's no more to be said!"

Following the outburst, they were both quiet for some time as Nia stripped off her day clothes and donned her night robe and Cen doffed his breeches and tunic. Finally, after her husband had reclined on the bed with his fingers clasped behind his head, Nia decided to re-open the lines of communication. From her seat in front of a mirror where she was brushing her hair, she commented, "I suppose Rae and Kae will never get to marry a king."

"No. But they'll both be princesses once their brother assumes the throne." He said it with such confidence that Nia couldn't help but be intrigued.

"Are you so certain?"

"There's no doubt about it. All we have to do is wait. When the food runs out this winter, the people will take up arms against Sor. I'll claim it was the more radical nobles, such as Duke Jym, who put torches to the warehouses and that I was against it all the time. That business with parceling out the land a few years ago will help my reputation and believability. I'm regarded with a little more goodwill than most of our class.

"Anyway, once the seeds of anger have been sown against the king and some of my less ardent supporters among the nobility, I'll open up my personal food stores to the general populace as a show of good faith. At that point, I think, the choice for the new ruler will be clear. Due to my age, I'll decline, of course, but it shouldn't take much persuasion to get the people to accept - even embrace - Tir taking the throne in my stead."

"Aren't you neglecting a few things?"

"Like what?" demanded Cen, sounding hurt that his wife hadn't swooned at the obvious brilliance of his plot.

"For one thing, isn't it Jym who controls the nobles now, not you?"

"He did until this morning. After the botch-up he made of things with his 'perfect plan', I doubt he'll be in charge for much longer. All he managed to do was shoot the king's sister with a poisoned arrow. Once I'm back on top, I'll throw him and a few others, such as that oily Count Uss, to the people. Maybe I could include Bur in that group, although he's not a very big fish."

"And what about Wil? Do you think he's going to stand by and let you take over?"

"No, but Sor's bound to kill him before long. Those two have been on a collision course for some time. There's no doubt in my mind that a disciple of Vas can take out an untrained, penniless farmer. I wouldn't worry too much about Wil."

At that moment, there was a loud commotion out in the hall. The sound of glass shattering was followed by a violent crash and the screams of children. Footsteps could be heard, running at full speed - hard-soled boots thumping on the wooden floors, followed by several additional detonations, each one closer to the baron and baroness' sleeping chambers.

"What the..." muttered Cen, leaping from bed, grabbing a robe, and wrapping it around his bloated body. Nia was right behind him as he raced from the room. Just as he reached the door, it swung open and the baron was almost knocked on his back by a breathless guard.

Gulping in air, the man began a rushed, incoherent account. "Something is happening, Your Grace. Byf...at the front door...dead. Your childrens' guard also dead. Someone took the princesses. I don't know... We can't see anyone..."

"Get out of my way!" roared Cen, brushing the startled guard aside and lumbering into the hallway.

"Papa! Mama!" screamed one of the twins, echoed immediately by her sister. Cen took off down the corridor, heedless of whether Nia or the guard was following him, using his daughters' frightened cries to lead him to them. Along the way, he noticed doors blown off their hinges and several men either writhing in pain on the floor or lying there unmoving.

Cen rounded a bend in the hall, raced down a short staircase, then sped around another turn before coming face-to-face with his terrified children and their captor. At that moment, he knew he had made a terrible mistake in underestimating Wil, and perhaps an even bigger one in not bringing a sword with him.

* * *

Somewhere in the distance, a bell tolled midnight. The sound was barely audible over the plethora of noise in the noble's quarter: crackling flames, falling debris, and the moans and cries of the injured.

Once, this thoroughfare, Treeview Lane, had been the cleanest and most elegant street in the whole of Vorti proper. Large, immaculate houses, each nearly a clone of its neighbor, had lined both sides of the road, all shiny white marble, expensive redwood, and gray-tiled roofs. Yards were small, each mansion only feet from the street's edge, so landscaping was limited, although a few of the more colorful inhabitants had built window boxes and filled them with the most spectacularly-colored flowers.

All of that was no more - a polished, pretty image that was as much a thing of the past as these scenes of destruction were of the present. It was no different on the adjacent streets, or the ones beyond that. Every block of that section of the city known as the "nobles' quarter" was the same, the once-great mansions reduced to smoking ruins and the previously-spotless streets now lined with the dead and dying. Sor had spared no one and nothing, including his own emotions.

In the process of punishing the guilty, the king had also killed hundreds of innocents: servants of the nobles who had not been permitted to leave once the rebellion had started. Sor was aware of this, but considered it a regrettable necessity. He didn't have the strength or ability to create pockets of selective devastation. He had come as an avenger and executioner, not a savior. Mass destruction had been his goal, leveling entire blocks with cataclysmic bursts of magic. In that, his success had been unqualified.

As he surveyed his handiwork, with clouds of smoke and dust billowing into the sky, a grim smile of satisfaction creased his features. The skyline looked like a jagged, uneven parody of what it had once been, with broken segments of walls standing while the rest of the building had collapsed and, in some places, piles of rubble reaching nearly the height of the house they had so recently comprised.

Sor was not yet finished. Here, in the main city, he had cut out the heart of the rebellion and severed its limbs, but the head was still very much active. Six landowning families lived on Vorti's outskirts, controlling agriculture with an iron fist. Bur's mansion was already in the Crown's possession, although the lord himself was still at large. The other five demesnes, including that of Cen, had yet to be dealt with.

The king walked down the deserted street, looking around for survivors. He could hear a few, all of who seemed to be in considerable pain. Probably, they were either trapped inside uncollapsed pockets of buildings or half-buried by debris. Either way, it would require too much effort to reach them, either to help if they were common-born or kill if they weren't.

The first blow he had struck had hurt him, twisting like a knife in his guts. Not because the magic had been painful, but because of the toll it would take on his loyal subjects. In fact, based on numbers from the latest census, he estimated that nearly three common people had died for every member of the nobility. When he had started, that had been a disturbing statistic for Sor to come to grips with. Now, however, it was meaningless. The nobility had rebelled against the lawful rulership of the city. They had lashed out against him and this was his retaliation. It was a fact of war that the innocent always paid the heaviest price in battle.

The magic had poured from him in waves of ruin, each new pulse leveling another block. Much of Sor's work had been more insidious than spectacular. In some cases, he had sheared off roofs and caused walls to collapse, but the most effective and least draining method of destruction had been to simply undermine the foundations of the houses. Then, with little more than a gentle prod, their own bulk had brought them tumbling down.

There had been no pyrotechnics, at least not yet. The fires that had sprung up had done so naturally, the result of simple light-giving blazes surviving the holocaust, then thriving in its aftermath. None of them were serious enough to pose a threat to the majority of the still-undamaged city. Either they would burn themselves out or someone would come to extinguish them. Compared to what the nobles had unleashed at the warehouses, these were mere nuisances.

Somewhere, a baby was crying. Perhaps it was hurt, its mother and father dead or dying, crushed beneath rubble. Sor ignored it. It was another victim, more likely to die than survive, and probably better off that way.

Convinced that he had done all that was necessary here, Sor took to the air. He spiraled upward, letting the air currents do much of the work, thus hoarding what energy he still had left. He had already exhausted much but, in his estimation, there was enough remaining for him to finish what he had started.

From above, Sor got a better impression of the overall damage. He had no doubts that by daylight, the picture would be more stark, but the fitfully burning fires provided enough illumination to show off the worst of the destruction.

About twenty-five square blocks of the city, the entire nobles' quarter, had been crushed. It was difficult to accept that a mere hour ago, this had been one of the most tranquil and aesthetically pleasing parts of Vorti. Now reduced to innumerable piles of smoldering ruins, it looked less like an area of a city than one of the quarries in the Green Mountains that his father had taken him to see when he was six years old.

Lights were on all over the city, but no one had come outside. The streets were deserted, fear of the unknown keeping families where it was safer, probably hiding under wobbly tables, with mothers and fathers using their own bodies as shields for their children. None of them could know that the destruction would not spread beyond that portion of the city where the nobles lived.

Flying well above the highest tower or turret in Vorti, Sor headed north, intending to start his aerial assault on the mansion of Duke Jym and then proceed around the city's perimeter, raining destruction, until he reached Baron Cen's residence. There, he intended for his revenge to come in a more personal form. Cen would know who had come for him and why.

Jym's house, lit up by lanterns, was not difficult to locate. There was no reason to be any more dramatic here than he had been in the nobles' quarter. While a bolt of lightning was far more spectacular, it was less practical since it did less damage while utilizing more energy. Even had every eye in Vorti been watching, that wouldn't have justified such an overt display of his abilities. After all, he was already king and everyone acknowledged him to be an Apath. What did he have to prove?

Since he needed to touch the ground for his magic to be effective, he floated gently down into a small copse of trees about five-hundred feet from the house. Although Sor couldn't see any guards, he was sure they were there, someplace. Their presence would become quite apparent when the mansion started collapsing on itself.

Jym's house looked much like every other building the nobles built for themselves: a multi-floored structure with white marble facades, finely-crafted doors, and neatly-spaced windows. Jym's only claim to originality was a two-storied tower that protruded from the center of his roof and ended in a steeple. The duke had often boasted of its uniqueness, but Sor shared the prevalent opinion that it was awkward and unpleasant to look at.

Crouching down and placing both palms on the soil, Sor began to concentrate on the dirt, first at his feet and then farther away, underneath the mansion. Drawing on his rapidly-dwindling emotions, he formed magic, then used it to eat away at the ground below the foundation and main supports of Jym's house, a procedure that took less time than a heartbeat. Sor then systematically shattered each of those supports and others within the house, using minute bursts of magic to disrupt their structure.

The disintegration of the first few caused the house to shudder. Elimination of the second group sent tremors through the foundation and made the entire building list to one side, like a ship beginning to sink. The next batch, ten in all, removed in rapid succession, made the mansion so unstable that when Sor sent a shock wave through the ground, Jym's home collapsed like a wall of pebbles kicked by a sturdy boot.

The building twisted obscenely before falling apart, some of it collapsing inwards and the rest toppling outwards. The sound was like that of an avalanche, easily overwhelming any screams from within, which was fine with Sor. He didn't need to hear the inhabitants cry out to know that they were dead. No one would emerge from the wreckage alive.

As he had predicted, guards were suddenly everywhere, all shouting and rushing toward the house. Sor waited until they had passed his hiding place, then took off again. He still had three more nobles to visit before Cen. Obviously, he would let Bur's home continue to stand, since it was now officially the property of the Crown.

* * *

An hour later, with four of the last five noble households eliminated, Sor alighted in the gardens leading to Baron Cen's back door. Invoking the same sort of camouflage that Wil had earlier used, Sor unconcernedly approached the entrance and went in. The first thing he noticed was the dead body just inside. Then he heard the commotion upstairs: several detonations, a man shouting, a woman screaming, and children crying.

Having been here several times before, mostly as a child when he had been taken upstairs to one of several nurseries or playrooms, Sor possessed a decent recollection of the mansion's layout, which he put to good use now, quickly finding the stairs, then taking them two-by-two.

A quick survey of the second story indicated nothing amiss. Most of the noise had diminished, but children were still crying, and that noise seemed to be coming from above. Sor ascended again, taking the stairs that emerged in the living quarters. Here, he saw some of the results of whatever had happened - or was still happening.

Guards lay dead and injured in the corridor. Nearly every door to a room was blown off its hinges and a single skylight in the ceiling had been shattered, carpeting the polished wooden floor with sand-sized particles of glass. A cursory examination showed no sign of the mansion's inhabitants. The baron's sleeping quarters were empty, as were those of his son and daughters. Since the children were still wailing, Sor decided to follow that sound.

It led him along the main hall of the third floor, past additional minor damage, down a staircase, and around a turn. There he came face-to-face with the cause of all he had seen above.

Kae and Rae, Cen's daughters, along with Tir, their elder brother, were huddled together thirty feet away, where the corridor dead-ended at a closed door. The girls were sobbing hysterically and the boy appeared only marginally calmer. Nia, their mother, dressed in a sleeping gown, was hovering protectively over them, her own face stained by tears. Her back was to Sor as she attempted to shield her children from the gruesome sight of their father's dead body.

Blood was pooling under Cen from the gash across his throat. The front of his off-white robe was stained crimson. In death, the baron's features were twisted into a curious juxtaposition of pain and disbelief, but there was no such ambiguity regarding the feelings of his killer. Wil, still bent over the corpulent form, with his right hand grasping a dagger that was slick to the hilt with blood, was wearing an expression of unconcealed satisfaction.

When he saw his rival Apath, Sor let his invisibility melt away. Wil, realizing immediately that he was no longer alone, looked up. The moment he saw who the newcomer was, he did the last thing Sor could have ever expected - he smiled.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

Back To Main Contents
Back to Chapter Thirty-Three
On to Chapter Thirty-Five