PART SIX: BURGEONING APATHY
"Strange, isn't it? Of all the places I imagined we'd meet, this isn't one of them," remarked Wil. "If you'd been a moment earlier, you could have watched me eliminate your foremost enemy."
Sor did not mirror the other Apath's smile. In a tone devoid of humor or feeling, he asked, "Isn't that you?"
The king's attitude seemed to sober Wil. "Once, it might have been. Perhaps you could say I've mended my ways." Prodding at the corpse with his boot, he added, "I didn't approve of his tactics."
"So you killed him."
"It seemed the only way to make my opinion clear. Cen was never a reasonable man," remarked Wil. "What about you? Why are you here? Not, I assume, to discuss a truce?"
"I would never consider capitulating with...that filth. I came to finish what I started in the nobles' quarter. The rebellion is at an end."
"I wondered how long it would be before you took definitive action. We're both Apaths. We know how much the other's capable of. When the nobility lost me, they lost all hope of winning. They were too stupid to realize that, of course."
"So you're saying that you're no longer against the Crown?"
"No. I'm saying that I will no longer actively fight against the Crown. It's not quite the same thing."
"And this is your proof?" questioned Sor skeptically, pointing to the body.
"Then why did you kill him?"
"It was something personal."
"That answer isn't good enough."
"All right. You want to know the truth? I'll give you the truth. I'm in love with your wife. I have been for years. Cen tried to have her killed, so I slit his throat."
"I see." Sor's tone was as flat and noncommittal as ever. "So that's why you hate me. Because I stole your woman."
"No! I hated you long before you took Lis from me. I hated you because of what you and your damned father did to people like my family!"
"We did the best we could. We always have. Any slights on our part, real or imaginary, were unintentional. You must remember that as king, I bear responsibility for thousands, not just a few."
"You're so damned smug about all this, as if what I say doesn't matter."
"I can hardly ignore the only other known Apath in the city, can I?"
"But if I wasn't an Apath?"
"What, specifically, are you referring to? You rant and rave about the evils that my father and I have done to the common people of Vorti, but you consistently leave out the particulars. And how is it that almost every citizen other than you approves of me and the way I govern? Don't you think that puts you in a rather unfortunate minority? So small, in fact, that you had to look to the nobility for help?"
"The others only know that the lot of their family is better now than it was fifty years ago. They don't know how good it could be with a king on the throne who has real backbone to stand up to the nobility. Farmers who slave day and night, only to be at the mercy of quotas set for them by their masters. Warehouse workers who are paid less than a copper a week for eighty hours of backbreaking labor because there are so many clamoring for a job that if they don't do it someone else will. Criminals with high-placed friends who get away with what they do, so long as it isn't done to someone with standing or wealth. These are all things you have the power to stop.
"You could free lands for us, give us decent places to live, and cultivate a real hope for the future. But, instead, you're concerned about keeping some sort of balance and not enraging the nobility. That's true cowardice and a king who exhibits it isn't worthy of the throne he sits on."
"And which of these 'offenses' was committed against you?"
"I never said..." began Wil.
"You didn't have to. Your passion speaks for itself. Few men go on crusades like yours unless they have a personal stake in them."
"My grandfather was granted a sizable stipend by your father to buy land and start farming. The money was stolen and a member of my family killed. The only ones who knew about the grant were the king and those close to him. After the robbery, when my grandfather complained, Kan refused to hear his case. The investigation was dropped with the crime left unsolved.
"As a result of that, we had to continue working for a noble. Most of the time, he was a fair man and gave us flexibility with our quotas, but, after he died, his son inherited the lands and title and Bur had none of his father's compassion. My family was squeezed until we had nothing more to give, then, after I missed the quota the year my father died, I was cast off the land and it was allowed to lie unplowed and unplanted this summer."
"That explains why you attacked Bur's household."
Wil shook his head. "It wasn't that. Bur's guards raped a servant girl, then killed her. I took it upon myself to exact revenge, since I knew they were beyond the king's justice."
"Then it seems I have you to thank for righting a wrong. And you believe that this city would be a better place for all were I to stop kowtowing to the nobles' wants?"
"Something like that."
"Then you have your wish. As of tonight, there are no more nobles in Vorti."
"I don't understand."
"I told you I came here to finish something. I meant that literally. The nobles, by declaring themselves in rebellion, committed high treason. The punishment for that is death. I have personally carried out the sentence...on everyone."
Wil gaped at the king, hardly able to accept what he was hearing. Would anyone go that far? Could even Sor be so ruthless?
"Every noble in Vorti is dead."
"What??" exclaimed Wil. His blood turned to ice.
"I thought it would delight you. By your own admission, they were the source of all of this city's ills. Without them, life should be better for everyone."
Wil's mind was reeling from the implications of the king's revelation. Sor was right. He should have felt elation. Instead, the emotion surfacing was horror. "How?"
"Isn't it obvious? How else could I kill so many people so quickly."
Suddenly Sor's blase attitude made frightening sense. Mass destruction of the kind he hinted at would demand tremendous amounts of energy. Enough to drive even the most emotionally-whole person to the brink of burgeoning apathy.
"Have you...?" began Wil.
Sor shook his head. "No. I wouldn't be here if I had. I can feel how close I am, though. It's a powerful lure, lurking so near. Now I understand how Vas felt, why he was driven so forcefully by the one emotion left to him: his love of the city."
"And what do you have left?" asked Wil, uncertain that he wanted to know the answer.
Sor's response was straightforward and, for the first time since Wil had met him this night, there was a glimmer of something human in his eyes. "The love of my first wife - my dead, beloved Joi, who they killed to make this night possible."
"'They'? Vas and Sye?" asked Wil.
"Vas and Sye," repeated Sor, turning the question into an affirmation. "They plotted to kill her to add to the strength of my 'emotional reserves'. Then Vas turned on my mother and murdered her. And he was right, as always. Without that impetus, I never would have been able to do what I did tonight."
"Vas didn't kill your mother," said Wil. "But I know who did."
"How could you know that?"
"The night of the murders, I used magic to get inside the palace and move around unseen. I saw your mother die."
"I'm responsible for the deaths of two guards - those outside your mother's chambers. Originally, I went there in hopes of killing you. Not knowing anything about the layout of the palace, when I saw the two guards outside the door, I thought it might be your quarters. Since I was nearly invisible, slitting their throats wasn't difficult. Then I dragged them back down the hall and hid them in a closet.
"When I'd gotten rid of the bodies and cleaned up most of the blood, I went into the room. It turned out to be your mother's sleeping chambers. She was undressing at the time and I felt...a powerful desire..." He hesitated. "She was a beautiful woman, I know, but it was something more primal than that, some instinct rooted more in violence than lust.
"I had put the knife on a table in the sitting room when the outer door slammed open and Princess Jen entered. She and your mother got into a heated argument. I didn't understand the particulars, but it seems that Sye was having an affair with your sister's husband. When Jen stormed from the bedroom, she was furious. Then she saw the knife.
"I don't think Sye was ever really aware of what happened. Jen's first lunge stabbed her through the throat. Then she slashed apart the body, almost as if killing the queen wasn't enough. She only stopped when she heard the outer door open. She doused the light immediately, then disappeared into the darkness. I'm not sure, but I think she hid in the wardrobe. She still had the knife in her hand.
"Some middle-aged man came into the room and I used that opportunity to slip out. I can't tell you anything more, except that, on the way out, I saw Cen inside the gate. He was doing a very poor job of trying to stay hidden. I doubt, however, that he could have gotten into the building itself."
"My husband found a secret passage that leads into the courtyard," said a sad, weary voice from beyond the two Apaths. Both of them started, having forgotten about Nia since the children stopped crying. "It was something those of us living in the palace never knew about," she added to Sor. "He told me about it last night. He hoped to use it to get an assassin into the palace."
"So Vas was telling the truth after all," said Sor softly. "Jen killed Sye. And over that worthless husband of hers. What a waste. I should have guessed it, I suppose. She was altogether too pleased to have Vas take the blame for both deaths. She even congratulated me on my 'brilliant deductive investigation'."
"I'm leaving Vorti," said Wil suddenly.
"You've just admitted to killing two guards and intending to kill me. And there are certainly no doubts about your treason. Those are capital offenses. What makes you think I'll let you go?"
"Because you don't have any choice in the matter. We're both Apaths, but you're at the end of your tether and I'm not. In a battle, you wouldn't stand a chance."
Then it dawned on Wil that this was his opportunity, the moment he had been awaiting for years. The advantage was his. Sor had precious little energy to work with. If he acted quickly, he could kill the king and take the throne. It was what his father had wanted for him and what he had spent the past year striving for.
Sor seemed to recognize this as well. He looked Wil straight in the eye and demanded, "What are you waiting for? Don't you want to be king?"
Had Sor held his tongue, perhaps Wil would have acted, but the words deflated him. He no longer cared about his father's aspirations and his own goals had changed. He wanted only one thing now. "I'm leaving Vorti," he repeated.
Sor nodded. "You're free to go. But not alone."
"I don't understand. You want guards to escort me...to where?"
"I didn't say anything about guards."
"Take Lis with you."
"Take Lis...? But she's your wife," Wil gaped.
"She is, but I don't love her. In fact, I don't feel anything for her. It's different for you. She means something. You love her. Leave Vorti by all means. Consider it a death sentence commuted to one of exile. But take Lis with you."
Wil was dumbfounded. "And that's all?"
"Actually, no," Sor admitted. "There's something else you should know. Lis is pregnant with my child. I don't know whether it's a boy or girl. Lis doesn't even know of its conception. But I don't want it growing up in Vorti, with me for a father. Above all, I don't want it to suffer this curse."
"The curse of being king. Take it away from here. Claim it as your own. I never want to see it and I never want it to see me."
With a sudden flash of insight, Wil noted, "You wouldn't want this if you didn't have some feelings for the child."
"Perhaps you're right."
"Then maybe you aren't as close to burgeoning apathy as you believe yourself to be."
Sor laughed at this - a humorless, grating chuckle. "Oh, I'm close. Push me a little and watch me go over the edge."
Wil wasn't sure what to make of that. An offer? A request? A threat?
"Will you take her with you?" asked Sor.
Wil didn't have to think about it twice. Raising Sor's child as his own was a fair enough price if it meant he could have Lis. "Yes."
Sor nodded. "Good. Then this has been a night for many resolutions. Meet me outside the palace gates in two hours. I'll bring Lis to you."
It occurred to Wil that this could be a trap. He was as vulnerable as any man to an arrow and if Sor realized he couldn't win in a face-to-face confrontation, wouldn't this be a convenient way of eliminating a foe?
"I'd prefer a more neutral location," he said. "Someplace where I can be sure there aren't archers waiting above."
"If I intended to kill you, I wouldn't resort to subterfuge. I am the king."
"Where would you suggest?"
"There's a little hut on Bur's farm."
"Your hut?" asked Sor.
"It was. Until I was thrown out. But it's an open area that both Lis and I are familiar with. If there are no tricks, we can leave peacefully from there."
"There won't be any tricks. I swear it."
"What's the value of a man's oath when he doesn't feel enough for anything to care whether it's broken or not?"
"On my first wife's memory," added Sor.
That shook Wil, although he could never have put into words exactly why. Perhaps it was the depth of longing in Sor's voice, or maybe it was because, to that point, he had still been skeptical about Sor's offer. But no longer. Not after that vow.
"I'll be there," said Wil. "In two hours' time."
Without another word, he dropped the bloody knife to the floor, glanced a final time at Cen's body, and was gone.
Following Wil's departure, Sor turned to Nia and her children, his one unfinished piece of business for the night.
"I suppose you're my sister, although I was too young to remember you when you left."
Nia faced him, her once-pretty face ravaged by age and worry. She had inserted her body between Sor and her children, more as a symbolic act of protection than anything else. She was aware that if he wanted to get to them, there was nothing she could do to stop him.
"You may wish to know that your sister Gea died three hours before midnight. The bells will start tolling before dawn."
"The poisoned arrow..." she whispered. "Oh no!"
"Apparently, you've done a good job of severing your former family ties. I assure you that I'll be equally dispassionate."
"I didn't..." she stammered brokenly, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I loved Gea!"
"You have an unusual way of showing love, but you'll be joining her soon enough. Tomorrow, when I execute Jen, the last of Lea's children will pass from this life. Not even a princess may murder a queen, no matter what the provocation. In the case of you and your children...treason carries the same sentence and makes no exceptions for age."
Nia was suddenly very frightened. "Spare my children!" she pleaded, clasping her hands in front of her in the universal gesture of supplication.
"I didn't come here to compromise. They are heirs to a barony. Their lives are forfeit."
With a wail, Nia lunged for the knife Wil had left behind. Sor snatched it from the floor before she reached it.
Two minutes later, the king left the mansion, following the path that Wil had used shortly before. True to his word, there was no one left in the house with a rightful claim to Cen's lands and possessions. When Bur had come in answer to the screams, Sor had been granted an additional bonus. No magic had been necessary for any of the five deaths. One knife - Wil's knife - had been quite effective.
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