THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART SIX: BURGEONING APATHY


CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX


The summer of 559 was one of the most glorious Vorti had seen in years, with consistently balmy - but not sweltering - temperatures day-in and day-out coupled with beautiful, sunlit afternoons. It rained fairly regularly, of course - the skies opening up enough to keep the crops green and growing, but the clouds gathered and dispersed rapidly, leaving behind that peculiar scent that follows a summer downpour. Dawn and dusk were moments of kaleidoscopic, multicolored splendor and the nights, cool enough for comfortable sleeping, were crisp and clear, revealing a myriad of stars to any who chanced to look up.

On a day roughly midway between the first day of the season and Midsummer's Day, a messenger arrived at the palace bearing a missive for Sor of Vorti. It was marked "private and confidential" and had been borne by horseback from an obscure village in the Halcyon Meadows.

Dismissing the messenger to go to an inn to slake his thirst, Sor turned the parchment over in his hands, noting its texture. It was primitive: far thicker and rougher than the product produced in Vorti or any of the other large cities. Only after waving away the ever-hovering Syf, his chancellor, did the king unfold the letter. He had no desire for anyone else to read something that had been designated "private and confidential" for his eyes only.

It was a simple message, but one that stirred a profound sense of unease deep within the king. "Your Majesty Sor, King of Vorti: Greetings from Wil and Lis of the Halcyon Meadows. Although at our last meeting, you expressed a desire to sever all contact, I have instructed my scribe to send this brief note to inform you that Lis was delivered of a son this morning. Mother and child are well. Though you wished never to see your son, I believed you would want to know that he was safely born. Your Servant, Wil."

Without a word, the king crushed the parchment into a ball and jammed it into one of the deep pockets of his robe.

"How many supplicants today?" he asked the middle-aged, bald-headed former merchant who had been his chancellor for the past seven months.

"Fifteen, Your Majesty. Most of the disputes are still regarding the distribution of land."

Sor nodded. Still was the key word. Three long seasons since he had expunged the nobility from Vorti, arguments and quarrels were still festering about the parceling and distribution of the titled landowners' former holdings. Everyone wanted the best plot and, no matter how fertile their own soil was, they were convinced that their neighbor had been granted something better. The inevitable results were feuds and skirmishes, several of which had ended in bloodshed. Nothing about governing, it seemed, was easy.

At least the executions were over. Although Sor's night of destruction had eliminated most of the nobles, a few had survived and it had taken the guards weeks to round them up. Each then had to be tried and sentenced. The whole tedious process had lasted into the winter. There had also been the matter of Jen, but that had been decided more quickly. When confronted with Wil's testimony, she had denied nothing, and consequently had been hanged within forty-eight hours. Her death had left Sor as the sole surviving child of Kan, a man who had sired five boys and four girls.

Difficult economic times lay ahead. Presently, the city as a whole was still basking in the pleasant afterglow of the events which had created a classless populace, but the harsh realities of existence would soon interfere. Intangible goodwill would be replaced by a growing realization that the nobles had been good for more than taunting and tormenting the common people. They had been the ones responsible for luring the bulk of commerce to Vorti. Their trade networks had kept goods flowing in and out of the city. Those connections had died with them.

Sor's advisors counseled him to move toward isolating Vorti from the rest of Devforth. They made this recommendation not because it was best for the people, but because it furthered their own particular interests. After all, if the city was cut off from outside commerce, the black market would flourish and many of those that advised the king were receiving generous payments from that sector.

Sor was surrounded by self-serving sycophants who cared less about his welfare and the stability of the city than they did about lining their own purses. Gone were people like Joi and Gea or even Sye and Vas. All that remained were money-grubbing men who sought the prestige of saying that they had the king's ear. And Sor didn't care. Let them advise and suggest and let the city run itself into the ground. For now, that's what the citizens wanted. They could have it for all it mattered to him.

Sor wished Wil hadn't sent him the message about his son. It had taken three seasons, but he had almost succeeded in forgetting about Lis' pregnancy. Now he'd have to start all over again. The worst part was that thoughts of the child could still touch a chord of emotion buried deep within him. He didn't like feeling any more - it seemed alien. He preferred the unnatural emotional sterility that permeated most of his life. Anything outside of that was uncomfortable and unwelcome. Except the occasional tear that came to his eye when he remembered Joi and what it had once meant to be happy.

Turning his attention away from inner concerns and back to those of the world around him, he addressed Syf: "Any criminal proceedings today?"

Syf scrutinized a scroll he was clutching in one hand - his lifeline for dealing with the king: the day's itinerary. "One, Your Majesty. Something about someone caught raiding one of the food dumps." The chancellor's deprecating tone indicated what he thought of the offense and the man committing it.

"What was his excuse?" asked Sor.

"Your Majesty?" sputtered Syf, surprised that the king wished to pursue the matter.

"His excuse. What he said when he was arrested."

"He claimed that part of his allotment for the year was mildewed and, being a dock worker and not a farmer, he had no other means of feeding his family. I don't suppose he ever considered buying something to eat."

Somewhere in the palace courtyard, a bell rang. Simultaneously, the great double doors to the audience hall opened and a smattering of men and women began to file in. Syf nervously glanced over his shoulder, uncomfortable about continuing this conversation in public, especially since almost everyone in the crowd would be unsympathetic to the legal position he was presenting.

Sor, however, unconcerned about who overheard what was being said, continued to question his chancellor. "Why didn't the man make applications for additional food?"

"According to his statement, he filed several petitions which were turned down."

"I see. I believe all such petitions come across your desk, don't they, Chancellor?"

Syf swallowed, nodding nervously.

"How many children does he have?"

"Eight."

Sor leaned back in the throne, eying Syf coldly. Did this man think him a fool? He knew, and had known for weeks, what was going on. The time had come to bring it to a halt.

In the wake of the nobility's burning of the warehouses, Vorti had survived the winter by distributing the private food stores of the various dukes, counts, barons, and other lords - all of which had been confiscated by the Crown. There had actually been more than enough to get the population through the cold season, quantities far in excess of what had been lost in the fires. The nobles had all been highly protective of their own comforts and, as result, had amassed enough food to make deprivation a virtual impossibility. In addition to the usual grains and salted meats, there were such unusual delicacies as pickled vegetables, jams, dried fruits, and even a small supply of honey.

In the spring, since prices were still high due to the difficulties of getting the newly-parceled farms into production, further allotments were made to those families unable to pay for what was needed to stave off starvation. Even after this round of distribution, a surplus remained.

It was then that the corruption started. Up to that point, the chancellor had been generally rigorous and fair in disseminating the food. However, toward the latter part of spring, Syf and his cronies had begun to sell the rights to additional allotments. Petitions accompanied by small "donations" were accepted; those presented without money were summarily rejected. The chancellor, of course, believed the king to be ignorant of these activities.

"And you believe that eight children is not enough to justify an additional allotment?" asked Sor.

"The issue here, Your Majesty, is not whether the rejection of the petition was justified, but whether a crime was committed, which it surely was."

"You have tunnel vision, Syf, and a finger in too many pies."

The chancellor looked profoundly shocked by the accusation. "Your Majesty! I am deeply distressed that you should think such a thing about me! I have never been anything but your most loyal and obedient of servants! If you truly believe me to be such an untrustworthy person, I shall be forced to offer my resignation!"

"Resignation accepted. You have my permission to leave."

Syf's jaw dropped. Eyes bulging with horror, he remained frozen in place until Sor repeated his dismissal.

"Your Majesty! I assure you that I meant no offense. I was merely attempting to express my deep distress that you should think such a thing..."

"Did you or did you not offer me your resignation?" demanded Sor. At a minute gesture, guards began to inch toward the chancellor.

"Your Majesty, I..."

Sor repeated the question more forcefully.

"Yes," admitted Syf finally, "But I meant..."

"You are dismissed. Guards, escort the former chancellor from the room."

Syf appeared ready to object again, but the sight of four armed men with hands resting lightly on sword hilts gave him pause. He turned and, flanked by them, meekly walked down the aisle and out the door.

"Fas," said Sor, turning to the most recent captain of his personal guard. "Bring the healer Rim to the throne room. Inform him that he's been appointed Chancellor."

The guard bowed and withdrew. Sor bent and retrieved a copy of the day's itinerary from a pile of scrolls at his feet. Glancing over it, he decided that today was going to be another day of grinding boredom, little different from yesterday, or the day before. Glancing up at all the eager faces watching him, he wondered why he even bothered. It wasn't just ruling that he found so tiresome, but life in general. At the best times, it was monotonous, but more often it bordered on odious. Sometimes he thought he might be glad of a successful assassination attempt, but no one had tried since he had wiped out the nobility. Those who hated him were too frightened.

"Let Gel of North Vorti step forward and present his claim," declared Sor, so opening the audience session for the thirty-first day of summer - yet one more day of one more year.

* * *

The Halcyon Meadows were populated by a wide variety of wildflowers, most of which were in full bloom by the start of the summer's second quarter. A profusion of pinks, purples, yellow, and reds dotted the otherwise-green plains. Aside from human-created structures such as cottages, nothing stood higher than a man's head.

Wil, Lis, and their new son, Gav, lived in a small farming community near the southeastern fringes of the plains. In the distance, the gray-green bulk of the Forest of Llam was visible, a ninety minute walk to the south. Once every five days, Wil and some of his friends rode horses there and spent the day hunting, since pickings in the Halcyon Meadows were normally limited to small animals like rabbits.

Upon their arrival here nearly three seasons ago, the exiles had been greeted with unexpected warmth by two-dozen odd adults and nearly as many children. This was surprising, considering the open hostility they had encountered in the few other clumps of human habitation their travels had taken them to. Once the couple had decided to stay here, the village men had willingly offered their help in building a stone cottage for Wil and Lis. With between thirty and forty hands at work, the construction of the three-room dwelling had only taken four days.

Early in their stay, Lis let something slip about Wil's unusual powers and he was elevated to the unofficial leadership of the village, a position willingly vacated by his predecessor. Although Wil was initially fearful that the others would expect him to use his powers, something he was determined not to do, that proved not to be the case.

Like all but two of the people living there, Wil was a farmer. Even the exceptions, old Eni the scribe and Mai the healer, spent some time tilling, planting, and harvesting, when their other duties and projects allowed it. The community believed strongly in sharing everything - work as well as its products - and money, the lifeblood of cities, was meaningless.

The birth of Lis' son was greeted with a day-long celebration which was no more than a thinly- veiled excuse for everyone except the mother and father to get drunk. The villagers naturally assumed that the child was Wil's, and the parents did nothing to dissuade that belief.

For the first time in years, Wil was happy. He felt complete, and even the knowledge that he was about to undertake the raising of another man's child did nothing to dim his joy. Gav would grow up as his son and would be treated with as much love, respect, and affection as would any natural child.

Sending the letter to Sor was Lis' idea. Wil did not agree with it, and they argued, but, in the end, he gave in and dictated the terse message to Eni. He sincerely hoped this would be the last time contact with the king of Vorti would be necessary.

Bare-chested and wearing only a pair of breeches and calf-high boots, Wil leaned against the wall of his house as a warm evening breeze drifted in from the southwest. Off in the distance, a couple of men waved to him. This far away, he didn't recognize them, forms silhouetted against the horizon, but since everyone here knew everyone else, it didn't matter. He closed his eyes and let the sweet fragrances of summer settle over him.

"Feeling all right?" asked Lis, poking her head out an open window to his left. He smiled at her, receiving in response a mischievous wink. Farm life had meant a change in lifestyle for her, but she had adjusted well. For someone used to spending her days in the carefully-controlled environment of an inner city, she had taken to life on the Halcyon Meadows like a bee to a flower.

"How's Gav?" asked Wil.

"Asleep, mercifully. I think he cried so much this afternoon that he tired himself out."

"I heard him when I was out in the fields. A couple people came over to ask if he was sick."

"Mai said there was nothing wrong with him, except maybe a little gas."

"I just hope the next time he has gas, he'll be more quiet."

Lis pulled her head back through the window, then re-appeared moments later in the doorway, dressed in a comfortable-looking white frock with her long blond hair set free from the bun she customarily wore it in. She sidled up to Wil and draped an arm companionably around his shoulders.

"The stream should be full to its banks today," she observed. The village's primary source of water was a small tributary of the Vordi River - not much wider or deeper than a brook - located half a mile to the east.

"I'm sure you're right," Wil acknowledged.

"Perhaps we could ask Mai or Ren to look after Gav while we go take a bath. I'm filthy."

Wil appraised her carefully. Aside from a comma of dirt just to the left of her lips, she looked fine to him - more than fine, in fact.

"We got soaked in the rain last night," he pointed out.

"I know. Actually, I wasn't thinking only of getting washed."

"There's not much else to do out there."

"We'll figure something out. As I recall, we were never bored when we used to meet by the river south of Vorti."

"Come to think of it, you're absolutely right."

Ten minutes later, after recruiting one of the neighboring women to look after Gav, Lis and Wil began a leisurely stroll, arm-in-arm, toward the stream. By the time they reached their destination, the fat crimson sun had begun to dip below the western horizon. The couple sat on the bank, removed their footwear - boots for Wil and open-toed shoes for Lis - and dangled their feet into the cool water.

"Mmmm," murmured Lis. "I never understood how confining it is to live in a city until we came out here. Now I can see why you wanted to live on a farm."

"There's something about being out in the open air that makes life worth living. And to think I almost threw it all away to become the king of Vorti. I must have been out of my mind."

"What about me? You were only almost the king. I was the queen."

"Any regrets?"

"Absolutely none." She leaned over and placed her head on his shoulder.

They remained like that for a short eternity, until, as darkness stole over the plains, Lis rose. Lifting her arms, she shed her dress before leaping into the gently-moving, four-foot deep current, letting out a squeal at the coolness of the water.

Wil moved to join her, leaving his breeches on. Lis looked pointedly at them. "Some things never change, I guess."

Half-in and half-out of the water, Wil regarded her quizzically. "What?"

"The second time we met, when I was in the river with my faithful guardian Nur watching over me, you wouldn't take your clothes off. You said, as I recall, something about it being improper."

Wordlessly, Wil slid all the way into the water, then reached down and drew off his breeches. After tossing them on the shore, he turned back to Lis, who was wading in his direction. "Nothing's changed. It's still improper. Only now I enjoy doing improper things."

Their embrace was fierce and when Wil lost his balance, they both slipped beneath the surface.

An hour later, they were walking back to the village, taking a long, circuitous route that afforded them time to be alone and savor each other's presence. The stars had emerged overhead, paving the sky with a mosaic of scintillating speckles and marking the end of another idyllic day. No longer was the future a thing of uncertainty and trepidation, not when it could bring moments such as this. Rather, it was something to be approached with eagerness, because out here, away from class distinctions, politics, and burgeoning apathy, the promise of tomorrow was a rare confection of hope.


The End


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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