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.

* * *

     Sitting on a high-backed chair in a small audience chamber referred to as the "little throne room" was the King of Vorti. Sor was not a large man, although the overlarge turquoise robes of state hid much of the smallness of his frame. His wavy blond hair, neatly cropped near his shoulders, was beginning to show the first traces of silver, and his features were hardly withered or wrinkled by age. The king sported a thin mustache, but no beard. His face was calm, and the gaze of his emerald eyes clear, if somewhat cold. From his father, he had inherited a firm chin and a crooked nose that did little to mar his often remarked-upon good looks. A pinkish scar split his left cheek from ear to chin, but it was one of those disfigurements that leant character rather than ugliness. To the great astonishment of everyone at court, Sor appeared at least ten years younger than others his age. Most of his subjects attributed the slowed degeneration of his body to magic.
     The king was not alone. Standing by his side was Rim, his chancellor for the past twenty-four years since the execution of the traitor Vas who had previously held the position. Rim had not aged as well as his liege. While the passing years had leeched Sor's youth, they had gorged on Rim's. He was simply dressed in a patched brown tunic and leggings that had been washed so often they had lost their color. His hair, what little of it remained, was long and pure white. His eyes were blue, but the left one was filmed over. Rim's face was wrinkled and his toothless gums were drawn into his mouth.
     "What's next?" asked Sor in a weary voice, a tone that betrayed disinterest. This morning's audience had been dull, and the weather wasn't doing anything to help the king's mood.
     "Your Majesty," began Rim tentatively. "There's something I have to speak with you about."
     Sor turned a questioning gaze at his chancellor. Rim swallowed hard. Until now, he hadn't mentioned anything about the proposed marriage he had been discussing with the king of Llam. Now that the prospective bride was on her way, however, he thought it would be advisable to broach the subject. He had the feeling, however, that Sor's reaction would not be pleasant.
     "Your Majesty," repeated Rim. "There is great concern not only in Vorti, but all across Devforth about the matter of an heir."
     "I'm in good health and only forty-one years old," said Sor. "Since I'm an Apath, I'm likely to live twice as long as any normal man. An heir is not an immediate concern. Maybe in a hundred years, it will be."
     "Vorti must have a prince...and a queen."
     "Vorti has a queen, only she's rejected her title. You may recall that I've never officially divorced my second wife."
     "A matter of semantics," said Rim, brushing aside the argument. "I have invited someone to Vorti that I believe you should meet."
     Sor's response was a raised eyebrow.
     "We have hopes...her father and I...that something might develop."
     "Who is it this time?" demanded the king, the anger in his voice ill-concealed.
     "Princess Iye of Llam."
     "Damn you!" roared Sor, showing more emotion than he had in months. "I'm tired of your meddling in my life! If I ever marry again...if...then I will be the one to choose the time and person, and it will likely be long after they've burned your carcass!"
     "I'm sorry, Your Majesty," apologized Rim. The king was taking this worse than he had dreaded. "But she's on her way to Vorti now and it would be a mortal offense not to at least receive her for a private audience."
     "I will not offend Princess Iye or her father. But this is the last time I will permit such interference on your part, Rim. You've been a faithful servant for the past quarter-century, but there are limits to my tolerance. See to it that you don't strain them again."
     "Yes, Your Majesty."
     "Is there anything else?"
     "There is one thing..." began Rim, then hesitated as he saw a brief look of disgust flicker across his liege's face. "But it can wait," he finished.
     "Tell me now," commanded Sor.
     "A growing group of citizens are complaining about some of the tactics used by their guildmasters to lower pay and extend working hours. The power of certain of these guildmasters has been on the increase."
     "And they expect me to take some action about this?"
     "They want you to hear their complaint. Their spokesman wishes to have a private audience with you as soon as possible."
     "How important would you classify this situation to be?"
     "Very important, Your Majesty, as far as your policies are concerned. The guildmasters seem to be building a pseudo-noble class. Their actions may lead to another schism in the society of Vorti. Some would argue that this has already happened."
     "Very well. Tell them that I will see them tomorrow afternoon. When is the party from Llam due?"
     "This evening."
     "I will not see them today. Cancel the general audience tomorrow morning and inform the princess that I will see her here at her convenience before noon."
     "As You Majesty commands," replied Rim. Then, executing an arthritic bow, he turned and exited the little throne room. Once out in the hall, he paused to lean against a wall, take a deep breath, and mop the sweat from his forehead.
* * *

     Sor was summoned to the little throne room at two hours before noon the next day. Reasoning that he should present the most regal appearance possible, he donned not only the robes of state, but Vorti's crown, as well - a simple gold circlet inlaid with two diamonds, a ruby, and an emerald.
     Rim was there already, along with the corpulent Ambassador Nex of Llam, dressed in his typical funereal black. For some reason, the man seemed unduly fond of dark, cheerless colors. It was a strange propensity, given that the people of Llam had the reputation of wearing the gayest clothing of any of the cities' inhabitants.
     "Your Majesty," drawled Nex in his dulcet tones, executing a flawless bow. Rim imperfectly shadowed his actions.
     Sor inclined his head fractionally, then took a seat on the high-backed chair which functioned as his throne. He pulled a bell to summon a servant.
     Wis, Sor's aged chamberlain who had held that post for the past twenty-odd years, tottered in through the door. "Your Majesty?" he questioned in a reedy voice.
     "Wine, Wis," said Sor, sparing the old man a glance. Wis nodded, then exited to fulfill his master's wishes.
     "After all this time, still the same servants, eh?" commented Nex.
     "They are reliable," said Sor. "I can abide slowness if a man does his job properly. Wis is as efficient and loyal as his father Syr was. He served until he dropped dead at the age of ninety-two."
     "That's old," noted Nex. "Older than I'd care to live."
     With a paunch like that, thought Sor, twice as old as you're likely to live. Out loud, he merely said, "Perhaps you will feel different as you get closer to his age."
     "Perhaps, but we are not here to discuss aging, but a marriage." Noting Sor's sharp gaze at this pronouncement, he amended, "At least I hope that's why we're here."
     "The king has agreed to meet the princess. No promises have been made," said Rim.
     "Of course. But we are all agreed upon the need for a new queen and heir, are we not?"
     "No," said Sor. "We are not. We spoke of age moments ago, My Lord. I have many years left before my natural span on this world will be over, and there hasn't been an assassination attempt in over twenty years. No one would dare try. As I have repeatedly told my chancellor, the issue of an heir is of far less importance than everyone seems to believe."
     "I see," said Nex, casting a questioning glance at Rim. "We - King Rul and I, that is - were under the impression that you were considering marriage in the near future."
     "Any such impression did not originate with me - of that you may be certain. I have never voiced a desire to take a third wife. That's not to say that it may not some day happen."
     "Pardon my boldness, Your Majesty," said Nex. "But there seems to be little point in your meeting Her Highness if there is no possibility of a match. It is for that reason, and that alone, that she has made the arduous journey here. Chancellor Rim has assured me..."
     "My chancellor has exceeded his authority in this matter. I have already discussed the situation with him. As for whether you intend to present Princess Lal to me or not, that is your affair, but know that I have many pressing matters to attend to and can't wait all day for you to make a decision."
     Nex flinched at the king's words and Rim paled. Attempting to repair some of the damage that the pronouncement had done, the chancellor added, "I'm sure His Majesty would not outright disallow the possibility of a match before having met the princess."
     When Sor said nothing, Nex replied, "How considerate of His Majesty." His words, normally coated with honey in the presence of the king of Vorti, now dripped with sarcasm. "If you'll permit me, I will escort Her Highness here for an audience It would not be propitious to keep such a busy man waiting."
     Sor nodded, eager to get the unpleasant business over with.
     Bowing stiffly, Nex withdrew.
     "That was most foolish, You Majesty," began Rim, speaking with uncharacteristic bluntness. "Llam is our closest ally, perhaps the only one we can count in a moment of crisis. Your words may have done serious damage to that relationship."
     "I hold you personally responsible," replied Sor. "Had I been consulted at the outset, this unpleasantness could have been avoided."
     Rim let out a disgusted sigh.
     Moments later, Nex re-entered the little throne room in the company of an exotic young girl. Eyes downcast, she approached the throne while the ambassador faded into the background.
     "Your Highness," acknowledged Sor, inclining his head. Protocol required that he rise and bow to the princess. He did neither, remaining seated. Nex's scowling visage darkened at the snub.
     "You Majesty," said Lal, either not noticing the omission on the king's part, or not caring about it. She dropped a delicate curtsey.
     "I hope you passed your night comfortably," noted Sor. "Were the chambers you were given satisfactory?"
     "They were, Your Majesty."
     "Excellent. I trust your father is well. It has been many years since we have had the opportunity to meet face-to-face."
     "He is in fine health, Your Majesty."
     "Tell him I send my greetings and my wishes that he remain thus in the future."
     "I will convey the message faithfully, Your Majesty. Next time I see him, that is."
     "Good. And I thank you for paying your respects to me while in Vorti. Feel free to remain in the city for as long as you like. I'm at your disposal, Your Highness. Good morning."
     Following the abrupt dismissal, silence descended on the throne room. Nex's outrage was barely contained, Lal looked stunned, and all of the remaining color had drained out of Rim's face. Only Sor remained unperturbed.
     "Is that all, Your Majesty?" inquired Lal uncertainly. She had been under the impression that she was to receive a marriage proposal at this audience. She had even gone so far as to prepare a brief acceptance speech.
     "Unless you have some further matter to discuss with me..."
     "Your Majesty, I must protest!" declared Nex. "I find these proceedings insulting to myself, Her Highness, and the ruling house of Llam!"
     "I have nothing but the deepest respect for the ruling house of Llam," replied Sor.
     "That has not been apparent in your dealings with the princess! We are here to enter into negotiations and I do not intend to leave Vorti without some form of satisfaction for this outrage!"
     "My Lord, you are being melodramatic and tiresome," said Sor, an edge entering his voice.
     "Your Majesty," interposed Rim, recognizing the how volatile the situation had become. Sor appeared almost eager to incite a conflict.
     "Silence, Rim," said Sor. "It was your ill-advised meddling that precipitated this incident." Turning to the small delegation from Llam, he continued, "I find Princess Lal to be a singularly beautiful and enticing young woman, but I am not searching for a bride. There is no more to say on the matter. This audience is at an end, Ambassador."
     "I think there is a great deal more to be said!" retorted Nex, dropping all pretenses of diplomatic curtesy. "Your actions and words have slighted the city of Llam. Compensation is demanded!"
     In a very quiet voice, Sor said, "Get out of my sight."
     Nex did not move, although Lal took several steps away from the throne as the king rose to his feet. Rim, heart thudding in his breast for fear of what might happen next, simply stood and watched. At this point, there was nothing he could do. Sor was beyond his, or anyone else's, influence. He had seen incidents like this dozens of times before, all with less important functionaries, none of which had ended well.
     "Do you represent the official position of Llam in this matter?" demanded Sor.
     "I do," replied the ambassador, holding up his head proudly. Lal took two more steps backward to come alongside Nex.
     "Then hear the position of Vorti. Before Llam begins threatening this king, consider first who you are threatening. Are you willing to face an Apath? Are you willing to risk incurring the same terrible wrath I delivered upon my own nobles when they stood against me?"
     At the king's words, Rim bowed his head and closed his eyes. In a few short moments, Sor had destroyed an alliance that had taken decades to build to its current strength. The shock evident in Nex's and Lal's eyes were a pale shadow of how King Rul would react to the statement. It was as close to a declaration of war as could be made without actually committing troops. The chancellor was at a loss to understand how things could have gone so bad so quickly, and why he had been powerless to stave off such a dismal conclusion.
     Sor re-took his seat calmly, knowing that there was no way Llam would risk a confrontation. Had Nex known the truth about the reality of the king of Vorti's powers, however, he might not have backed down. But, aside from Sor himself, there was only one man aware that the king's magical reserves were severely depleted, and that man, an Apath himself and once Sor's chief rival, had fled civilization more than twenty years ago.
     As an Apath, it was Sor's reputation that sustained him, not his ability to wield magic. He had used up most of his emotional reserves on the night he had just alluded to, when he had obliterated Vorti's nobility. While he could still perform as an Apath, and had done so on occasion since that incident, his abilities were limited, and any dramatic display of power was out of the question. He didn't have the emotional reserves necessary to transform into large quantities of magical energy. Making the attempt would kill him, or failing that, drive him to the point of Burgeoning Apathy, which amounted to the same thing. Fortunately for Sor, the extent of his limitations were a secret.
     With Lal behind him, Nex stormed from the throne room, leaving the king alone with his chancellor. For the longest time, Rim was at a loss for words.
     "Obviously, you think I handled that badly," noted Sor.
     "Your Majesty, what you did was unwarranted! Llam was our most valued ally!"
     "What I have done is made a point. Over the years, the other cities have conveniently forgotten that, when they deal with me, they are not dealing with another man, but an Apath. It was time to remind them of that. Just because I don't have an heir doesn't mean they can think to turn the uncertain state of Vorti's next succession to their advantage."
     "But to destroy an alliance for that...?"
     "Despite his claims, Nex is little more than a hanger-on in Rul's court, and Lal is not a much-loved daughter. The king of Llam will be stung by my rejection of his gift, but he is not foolish enough to allow this incident to impair the close ties between our two cities. And, as a positive side issue, we won't have to put up with that odious Nex any more. Hopefully, Rul's next choice for an emissary will be less offensive."
* * *

     That afternoon, Sor received a delegation of ten citizens of Vorti, headed by a grizzled dockworker named Vic and representing a large contingent of men who claimed that a select group of guildmasters was amassing enough power to upset the city's current "classless" balance.
     Sor listened as they presented their case, a process which took nearly three hours. Vic laid out his arguments concisely, supporting each with numerous real-life incidents. The nine men with him gave firsthand accounts of how they had been mistreated or abused by one or more of the guildmasters. Vic's conclusion, which was as succinct as the rest of his presentation, summed up his position.
     "We no longer have the option of changing jobs, or of demanding better working conditions, or higher wages. The guildmasters collect all the money, getting rich themselves, while the workers are given little for their hard work. The power is theirs. The decision of who lives and dies is in their hands. No one can break into their ranks, because none but a guildmaster has the money to do so.
     "It is becoming more difficult for a private farmer to survive. Unless he is willing to work for a certain guildmaster, and turn over a portion of his crops to him, he will find his harvest ruined and his fields salted. My people, the dockworkers, are in little better condition. We work fifteen-hour days for a handful of coppers unloading ships. If we refuse or complain, all work will be closed off to us. It's no different for merchants or any other kind of worker in Vorti.
     "All we want, Your Majesty, is an end to these injustices and a return to the city you made early in your reign. I remember how it was then, with every man having a fair chance to provide for his family, regardless of his type of work. That's what we want back."
     Initially, the position of guildmaster had been created to oversee and organize the various trades in Vorti in the absence of the nobles who had previously controlled everything - one guild for each trade and one master for each guild. The dockworkers's guild had been the first one formed, less than three months after the purge of nobles, with over three-hundred members. The function of the guildmaster was to obtain contracts for work, then fairly parcel out the work to the men registered in the guild. His only means of remuneration was supposed to be through a small yearly payment of dues by each of the guild's members.
     For several years, the system had worked. The guildmasters had been no more or less preeminent than the other members of the guild. They had not been rich and, except in rare cases, they hadn't abused their power. Then, slowly, things had started to erode. Sor was aware that the system had become corrupt, that the guildmasters were no longer mere organizers, but controlling "bosses." However, the situation as described by Vic was worse than he had realized. As Rim had said the previous day, the guildmasters seemed intent upon setting themselves up as a new kind of nobility, lacking only the titles.
     For all the years he had ruled Vorti, Sor's major goal had been an equality of the citizens - an opportunity for any man to make a decent life for himself without being hemmed in by an inflexible system. For a while, after the destruction of the nobles, things had worked. Now, it appeared that another "adjustment" was in order. Apparently, after a time, even the most equitable structure could begin to rot from within.
     Sor was not a leader to shrink from decisive, and potentially bloody, action. He had proven that more than once in the past.
     "Rim, get a list from these men of the ten most corrupt guildmasters," said Sor. While there were over fifty guilds in the city, there was no need to take action against all of them. If an example was made of one-fifth of the guild's leaders, the others would amend their methods. Sor had found that the fear of death - especially painful death - could be an effective inducement in getting men to change their ways.
     With Rim dutifully writing down names, Vic and his companions came to a rough consensus of which ten were the worst. Most of the names on the list were unanimous choices, leaving little doubt as to who the worst abusers were.
     Not coincidentally, the named men were the heads of the ten largest guilds in Vorti, foremost of which were the dockworkers and farmers. Also mentioned were the masters of the guilds of merchants, masons, blacksmiths, innkeepers, tanners, seamstresses, armorers, and cobblers. The smallest of those groups, the blacksmiths, had more than thirty dues-paying members, all of whom were being squeezed by Tar, their guildmaster. The farmers' guild numbered nearly two-thousand.
     When the list was complete, the king said, "Make out a warrant for each of these men. Have them arrested and thrown into the dungeon. After three days, bring them up and have them publicly executed by drawing and quartering. Their possessions, including land and money, should be divided equally among all members of the guild, leaving their families with nothing, and the guild should gather to choose a new leader - presumably one who will abide by the original charter."
     "Executed, Your Majesty?" asked Rim, disbelieving. "Without a trial?"
     "Without a trial," echoed Sor. "In this case, I do not consider a trial necessary."
     "But the articles of policy authored by your father decree that those accused of non-treasonous capital crimes shall always receive a trial before the king, who shall act as the final arbiter of any..."
     "Those same articles also state that the will of the king is paramount and shall supersede any written laws," stated Sor. "Besides, in my view, the actions of these men are treasonous. They are in contravention of my edict of 558, when the guilds were established to 'aid and maintain the balance of classlessness which exists within Vorti.'"
     Rim's response was to shake his head. Sor was right, of course, but Rim wished His Majesty was more willing to temper judgements such as this, with its wide-ranging political implications, with compassion and understanding. He still had one objection, however.
     "Your Majesty, it is entirely possible that these men will be protected."
     Sor turned his attention to Vic. "Well?"
     "Many of the guildmasters have in their employ groups of personal bodyguards. Tuw, master of the farmers, has a squadron of not less than twenty-five men with him at all times."
     "Very well," pronounced Sor. "Have the arresting officer take a troop of one-hundred armed men with him and make it clear that any so-called bodyguard who does not throw down his weapon will be considered in rebellion against the Crown and will receive the appropriate punishment."
     "Yes, Your Majesty," said Rim. There was no sense in further protests. Sor was already displeased with him about the Princess Lal situation.
* * *

     Four days later, on the first day of the autumn of 582, ten hungry, weak men were dragged out of cells in the "royal" dungeon, taken to a special staging area outside the palace walls, and, one-by-one, executed in the manner commanded by King Sor. The king himself did not attend the drawing-and-quartering; he was inside holding his usual morning audience in the throne room. Rim, however, was required to observe in his stead. So, rather than standing by his liege's side unfurling documents and announcing petitioners, he looked in horror from his position atop the walls as guildmaster after guildmaster was ripped apart.
     Rim could not help but feel a measure of responsibility for what was transpiring. After all, it was he who had urged Sor to hear the plaintiffs. His words had been to the effect that some of the guildmasters seemed to be setting themselves up as the new nobles of Vorti. Yet, despite how well he knew the king's feeling about classlessness, he had never seen this coming. It was only ten men, but each deathcry tore at Rim's conscience. Would not a public flogging have been enough? Why did it seem that Sor's first reaction to any situation was an execution. Long ago, when he had first taken the throne, he had not been like that. Now, with each passing day, he seemed colder and more vicious.
     Before the tenth man was executed, Rim had come to a decision. He would resign his post. He had been with Sor for twenty-four years. For most of that time, he had felt honored to serve the Apath king in such a crucial position. No longer, however. It was time for someone younger, in better health, and with a stronger stomach to take over the role of Vorti's chancellor.
     When the executions were over, he returned to the palace, ignoring the raucous cheering from the crowd that had gathered to watch the "show." It disturbed Rim that so many citizens enjoyed the public bloodlettings. Once, Sor's intention had been to build a gentler Vorti. Now, all the king seemed to want was a place of cold and harsh equality, where the sword enforced what the letter of the law could not. Rim refused to be part of a rule that espoused such a grim philosophy.
     Normally, after leaving the ramparts, he would go to the throne room to assist Sor, but today he went to his chambers, sat down at his desk, and began composing a letter of resignation. When he had completed it, and was reading it over, there were tears in his eyes - tears for days gone by and the loss of a position he had cherished for nearly half his life - but never any doubt that what he was doing was anything other than what had to be done.
* * *

     Sor was spending a rare quiet afternoon in his spartan quarters when Rim found him. The older man's light knock was answered by a fully-armored guard who flashed the chancellor a welcoming grin and ushered him into the king's four room suite.
     Sor was in his sitting room, a small chamber with two thickly-upholstered chairs, a large desk, and a hanging circular looking glass which had been purchased by Queen Joi shortly before her death twenty-four years ago. Several luxurious, hand-woven carpets covered the smooth stone floor. Other than those simple trappings, however, the room was barren, with none of the tapestries, carvings, and furnishings that would be expected in a king's quarters. Those were things that Sor, like his late father Kan, did not care about, so he had never made a move to acquire any of them.
     Sor was sitting at his desk, writing in a journal he had begun keeping a decade ago. He looked up when Rim cleared his throat.
     "Chancellor," greeted the king, even as his gaze returned to the parchment in front of him. "What brings you here this afternoon? I'm told that the executions were carried out as expected."
     "The popular reaction was positive, Your Majesty," noted Rim.
     "Good. But I'm more interested in how the surviving guildmasters react. I suppose we'll have to wait a few days to learn that. Gather the information as quickly as you can, though."
     "I'm afraid that won't be possible, Your Majesty," said Rim.
     At this statement, Sor turned to face his advisor, giving him his full attention. "What?"
     In response, Rim extended to Sor the scroll he carried with him. Wordlessly, the king took the document, broke the seal, and read it. For the first time in a long time, an expression of surprise registered on his face.
     "You won't reconsider?" he asked.
     "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but this is something I must do. I no longer have the stamina to serve you as I have over the past two decades, or as well as someone many years my junior might be able to do."
     "Very well," acknowledged Sor. "Then I wish you well in whatever you choose to do next. In response for your many years of faithful service, the Crown will purchase a house in the inner city which you may inhabit until your dying day."
     "My thanks," said Rim. He was not one to turn down such a gift out of false modesty. The bestowal of a house, while not expected, was welcome.
     "You have my leave to go," said Sor.
     Rim bowed, then strode from the room. The king's voice stopped him in the outer chamber.
     "I'll miss you, Rim. Chancellors I can find aplenty, but good chancellors are few."
     For the first time since he had come to serve Sor in the post he had just resigned, Rim thought he detected affection in his liege's voice. There were tears pooling in the ex-chancellor's eyes as he left the royal suite.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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