PART TWO: THE CLASSLESS SOCIETY
According to a commonly held belief across Devforth, the climate of Vorti was glorious during the autumn, with dry, temperate days and cool, clear nights. Unfortunately for Princess Lal of Llam, the day that she arrived, the city was being buffeted by a rare autumn storm with violent gusts of wind and copious amounts of rain that had turned the roads in and around Vorti into streams of mud.
Lal shivered against the chill, drawing her cloak more tightly about her as her private coach continued to lurch eastward toward its destination. Although she was not the only person on board, she was by far the most important and this journey was being made for her benefit - or so they kept telling her. Accompanying her were Llam's ambassador to Vorti, Nex, and her personal maid/chaperone, Iye.
Lal pulled back one of the curtains to gaze outside, but the terrain she could see through the mud-spattered windows looked cheerless: the uninhabited plains of the Vorti Flat, north of the Vordi River. She pulled the curtains closed, shivered again, then let her eyes roam around the interior of the coach for the hundredth time in the past ten hours.
Sitting across from her was Nex, a fat man whose every feature was bloated. His arms were pudgy and his legs looked like sausages, especially in the ridiculous black tights he favored for court appearances. He had a large rump and a larger paunch that even the voluminous tunic he wore could do nothing to conceal. His face had layers of fat, sagging jowls, and several chins. His lips looked swollen, as did his eyelids, and his reddened nose seemed to take up half his face. Although scarcely older than thirty, Nex was already losing his hair, and what remained was changing from brown to gray. He favored his princess with a grin when he felt her eyes upon him. Lal immediately looked away.
Next to her sat Iye, a woman who had done more to raise and care for her than her own mother. Iye was a spinster, and looked the part, but she was a kind woman and Lal had always thought it sad that she had never had children of her own. Perhaps her plainness - bordering on homeliness - had scared potential husbands away. Now, at fifty, she was long past marriageable age and destined to die alone.
Iye was a tall, slender woman, a startling contrast to Nex in almost every way. She ate little and it showed in the gauntness of both her frame and features. She had thin, tight lips that rarely curled upward and a long, aquiline nose. Her eyes, sharp and cat-green, were constantly darting back and forth, never seeming to rest on any one object for more than a few seconds. Even when she was speaking to someone, she never held a gaze. Iye's long, whitening hair was drawn into a severe bow, revealing that her hairline had begun to recede. Her manner of dress was conservative: a multi-layered gray dress that made her form seem fuller than it was.
Lal was nothing like either of her companions, either in appearance or age. The youngest daughter of King Rul of Llam, she had just turned fifteen on her last birthday, the age at which her father deemed her ready to wed. She was widely regarded as one of the most exotic and beautiful girls of Llam, the reputation owing in part to an elf element in her lineage. Her mother's mother had been an elf, and, while Lal appeared mostly human, there was something alien to her looks.
Her skin was darker than that of most humans, even though she spent little time in the sun, and her hair was the consistency of silk and the color of obsidian. Her honey eyes were angled and her eyebrows arched dramatically. The tips of her ears were subtly pointed, but otherwise of human shape. Her lips were fuller and redder than those of any elf, but her nose, more than any other feature, retained the delicacy of her non-human heritage. She was a slight girl, standing perhaps five feet tall and weighing close to ninety pounds. Her clothing, chosen by Iye, was as conservative as that of her maid, but more colorful. She wore a silk emerald riding dress with blue ribbons and lace, and a pair of scarlet hiking boots. The plain woolen cloak that was wrapped so tightly around her was not part of her costume and would have to be removed before she left the coach.
Lal was ambivalent about this journey. She was being brought to meet Sor, the king of Vorti, in hopes that a match might be arranged. Actually, when her father had informed her of his decision on the matter, he had put it more strongly: "Lal, I want you to go with Ambassador Nex to Vorti on his next trip. He's spoken with the Chancellor, a man named Rim, and has received assurances that any one of my daughters would be welcome as the next queen of Vorti. You're the most suitable." What he had meant by the last remark was that she was the prettiest, and therefore the most likely to capture the fancy of an aging monarch.
The idea of leaving Llam didn't distress Lal - she was the sixth daughter of parents whom she rarely saw and didn't particularly love - but the consideration of what she might be leaving it for did worry her. Sor had a frightening reputation. He was an Apath - the only wizard king in the history of Devforth, and, for more than twenty years, he had steadfastly rejected the idea of remarrying. His first wife, Queen Joi, to whom he had been devoted, had been murdered by the king's own mother, and his second wife, Lis, had run off with another man. Neither marriage had produced an heir, and, following the failure of Sor's union with Lis, he had made no attempt to find another wife and had rejected every match proposed by his counsellors. He was said to be a calculating man with no room in his heart for affection.
Of course, things could have been worse. Lal's older sister Mea was engaged to a man in his seventies, and she was expected to present him with a son. At least Sor wasn't that old - he had turned forty-one in the spring, and was rumored to be handsome. If they married, regardless of how her husband treated her, Lal would be the queen of one of Devforth's six major cities, rather than one of a litter of princesses.
"Don't frown, Child. The expression does not become you," chided Iye. "King Sor must see in you a fresh, innocent girl untainted by the ills of the world."
Lal shrugged. It was difficult to keep from frowning in weather like this. A sunny day would have helped her disposition, but there was nothing that could be done about the weather, except to wait for it to change.
Another thing that bothered Lal about Vorti was the way the society there was structured. It was the only city in Devforth that had no nobles. The entire class had been eradicated twenty years ago. Lal had heard dozens of versions of the story of how it had happened, each with its own twists and embellishments, but there were certain themes common to all. The nobles had been in rebellion and Sor, newly-crowned and unsure on the throne, had acted decisively and bloodily by killing every noble he could find in the city. Heavy doses of magic were said to have been used. After that, there had been only one class in Vorti: citizen. Titles, like their holders, had been eliminated.
Lal supposed that the time had come for her to give up her daydreams - those every unwed girl shared - of a knight on a white horse who was brave, handsome, and filled with true love for her. The realities of the world were harsh. Growing up in a palace, amidst the swirl of politics, she had recognized that long ago. Only, before this trip, she had been able to pretend, wrapped in a cloak of naiveté, that her life might be different, that King Rul would not make her another pawn in his power games. She had, of course, been wrong, but maybe she had always known that she would be.
Another half-hour of the bumpy ride passed by, Lal's boredom continuing to grow. She had never enjoyed traveling in a coach, preferring horseback riding. She liked the feel of the wind in her face, blowing back her hair. But there was no way her parents would have permitted her to ride all the way to Vorti, not even with a well-armed escort. The roads were too treacherous and she was not an expert rider. Besides, given the current weather conditions, it would have been unpleasant to travel without some kind of cover. The coach might be slow and ponderous, but at least it was dry.
Lal started when she realized that the coach had stopped. She glanced at her companions, but neither of them seemed interested, so she pulled back the curtain and looked outside.
They had reached some kind of guard checkpoint and the coach driver was involved in an animated conversation with a sword-bearing soldier. After a while, several coins were passed to the guard and he waved them along. The coach sprang into motion with such a shudder that Lal was nearly thrown into Nex's lap.
The roads were no longer empty, but bustling with people, most of whom were trudging through the ankle-deep mud, moving in the same direction as the coach from Llam. Lal had seen similar sights often enough near Llam to know that they must be getting close to Vorti. For her, it couldn't be too soon. She was tired, cramped, dirty, and cold. She wanted nothing more than to lie back in a tub of warm water and close her eyes. She hoped she would be given the opportunity before being brought before Sor.
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