THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART TWO: THE CLASSLESS SOCIETY


CHAPTER TEN


     By the latter days of the Winter of 582, as the new year approached, Vorti was in the grips of a devastating famine. The king's inability to negotiate an agreement for food with any of his neighboring cities was resulting in widespread starvation. The death toll was already high - well over one-hundred - and there remained at least another month before the earliest harvests could begin producing food. Until then, disease abounded and the warehouses were empty.
     Sor had not returned to the large throne room, since his health remained in question. He continued to hold short audiences in the smaller chamber, but the more mundane tasks of ruling the city had been turned over to Til. Rim had moved back into the palace, resuming his role of long-ago as Sor's healer. He attended the king daily, attempting to ascertain how long it would take for Sor's seared innards to return to normal. Rim's estimate was that it would be another three weeks before His Majesty was able to shoulder the full burden of his position.
     It was on a sunny afternoon that Cha, the ambassador from Fels, rode into Vorti at a full gallop and headed straight for the palace. Thirty minutes after his return from a two-day visit to his home city, he was being presented to the king, the frost in his full, black beard unmelted and a mug of steaming ale in one hand.
     "So," demanded Sor, reclining in his throne while gazing down at Cha. "Is your news ill or good? Judging by the speed with which you brought it, it must be urgent. The groom in the stables says you nearly rode your mount to death."
     "Knowing the grave situation in Vorti, I travelled as fast as I could. I did not wish time to be lost in forging agreements with other cities while you waited for the response from Fels."
     "The king appreciates your efforts," said Til from where he stood behind his liege's left shoulder. "But he would like to know how favorably King Yax looked upon our latest trade proposal."
     Cha wet his lips, then took a long swallow of ale before replying. "His Majesty of Fels finds the proposal generous, but must decline it. Although he has stated that the terms are more than reasonable, he is concerned that, come mid-summer when Vorti would be expected to fulfill her portion of the bargain, she may be unwilling...or unable to."
     "What?" demanded Sor, his voice as cold as the day outside. "When have I ever cheated any of my allies? Name one occasion when I have reneged on a binding treaty?"
     "No such thing has ever happened, Your Majesty," replied Cha. His eyes were darting from side-to-side as if in expectation of some sort of unpleasantness. "But King Yax has expressed concern that you might no longer be on the throne when the time comes for Vorti to honor her debt and that your replacement might not be as concerned with honoring old treaties."
     A moment's silence greeted this pronouncement. Sor's face, as usual, betrayed nothing of what he was thinking, but Til's took on a severe expression and Cha looked as if he wished he could retract his words.
     "How dare you utter such treasonous filth in the presence of the Apath king of Vorti??" demanded Til.
     "I am deeply sorry if I have given offense, but in light of some of the rumors that have come out of the city, King Yax..."
     "This is insufferable!" raged Til. "Such insults to His Majesty will not be permitted, not even by a noble ambassador from Fels. I will personally..."
     Sor raised a hand to quiet his chancellor. "What rumors have you heard?" he asked.
     Cha licked his lips. "That the people are no longer behind you, Your Majesty. That they blame this famine upon you. That they would be willing to follow another should he rise up to lead them."
     "What other?"
     "The grandson of Rel XVI."
     "What??" This time, the king was unable to keep the surprise from his voice. Rel XVI was the ruler Sor's father had executed to take the throne. As a matter of political necessity, to prevent this kind of future challenge to one of Kan's heirs, the royal family of Rel had been eliminated. There could be no grandson, since all the sons and daughters were dead. That was common knowledge across Devforth.
     "Not legitimate, of course," added Cha. "But the claim is that Rel XVI had an affair with a parlor maid and, after she became big with his child, she was dismissed from palace service and given a position in a noble's household in the outer city. She gave birth to a son and that son, now dead, had an heir. He apparently calls himself Rel XVII."
     "That name is unlawful in Vorti," stated Sor. Sixty-five years ago, shortly after his coronation, Kan had made a law that no future man or child within Vorti would be called by the name of Rel again. The penalty was fifty lashes with a barbed whip, a punishment that few could survive and fewer would risk.
     "Of course it is!" exclaimed Til, far more emotional than Sor. "This story is an obvious fabrication to cover the insult being dealt to our city by that snobbish prig Yax!"
     Cha paled at the affront to his leader, but said nothing to rebut it.
     "Get out of this city!" demanded Til.
     Sor turned to his chancellor, eyebrow raised quizzically. All three men in the room recognized that Til had exceeded his authority by issuing that command.
     "Your Majesty," pleaded the chancellor. "We cannot allow incidents like this to pass with impunity. Vorti must be seen to be strong and inflexible, under the rule of a firm leader, even in times such as these. If not, the other kings will see our weakness and take advantage of it, even as Yax is now attempting to do."
     "Your Majesty?" questioned Cha, wanting confirmation or denial of the chancellor's demand from the king.
     Sor considered for a moment, his eyes flickering back and forth between the ambassador and Til. Finally, he said with a sigh, "I suppose you'd better leave, Cha. I am forced to agree with my chancellor. King Yax's refusal to agree to the treaty amounts to a slight on my honor and that of the city. If you depart now, I shall not impose a punishment."
     "A punishment?" exclaimed Cha incredulously. "I am an official representative of a sovereign city! You have no authority over me."
     "You are within the bounds of Vorti, Ambassador," reminded Til. "At the moment, you are subject to King Sor's laws. You may recall that he had an ambassador executed earlier this season."
     "That was for an assassination attempt! High treason!"
     "The insult you have delivered to His Majesty is technically treason," said Til.
     Cha turned his attention away from the chancellor and appealed one last time to the king. "Your Majesty, do not do this! I beg of you! I have worked as ambassador of Fels to Vorti for the past ten years, helping to devise numerous agreements beneficial to both of our cities. If you expel me now, I shall not return - nor shall any other - and King Yax will surely view this as an official severing of relations."
     "Fare you well, Ambassador," said Sor. "May your journey be safe and uneventful."
     Without another word, his outrage expressed on his features, Cha stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him. Silence descended in his wake until the king broke it.
     "He may be right, though," said Sor.
     "Your Majesty?"
     "Rel was a notorious womanizer. It's within reason that he had dozens of bastards. If one of them learned of his parentage from his mother..."
     "It's a ludicrous assertion, Your Majesty!"
     "Nevertheless, I think it bears investigation. See to it, Til."
     The chancellor seemed ready to put up an argument, but a single glance at his liege's uncompromising eyes caused the words of protest to die unspoken on his lips. With a shrug, he acquiesced. "As Your Majesty commands."

* * *

     Spring, especially the early part of the season, was not a pleasant time for Vorti. Relations with three of Devforth's five other cities were dead, with only Merk and Xert continuing to interact with their northeastern ally. Fels and Llam were stung and angry at the affronts they had received at Sor's hands, but feelings in Tsab ran deeper.
     Sor, however, had concerns beyond how he and his city were regarded across the continent. Vorti's internal problems - which included disease, malnutrition, and starvation - occupied much of his time, as well as that of his chancellor and everyone on his advisory council. To date, no one had been able to come up with a reasonable or acceptable solution. And the mood of the populace was growing bleaker by the day.
     The king had tried everything he could think of - except repairing relations with his neighboring cities - in an attempt to feed his people. Deals had been worked out with the Twin Cities which brought in increased quantities of food, but Merk and Xert were not equipped for agricultural trade. Feelers he sent out to smaller settlements across Devforth revealed that, while many of them were farming communities, frequently their surpluses were too small to be worth pursuing negotiations.
     Til was surprisingly unhelpful. For someone of his brilliance, he originated a lack of innovative proposals. The few he generated were cumbersome and unfeasible. The council was little better. There was no shortage of ideas, but most bordered on the impossible. The facts were stark: trade was impractical because of Vorti's relations with the other cities, crops couldn't be grown with the ground frozen solid and snow blanketing the fields, and, despite the belief of many, food could not be made to magically appear - at least not in tremendous quantities.
     Because of the rising tide of sentiment against the current ruler, concern was building in some quarters about Sor's lack of an heir. Dissatisfaction often led to assassination attempts, and, in the unlikely event that one was successful, the city would be thrown into turmoil. Dozens - perhaps even hundreds - of people would be vying for the throne. Chaos would reign and whoever emerged atop the rubble might not have much of a city left standing to rule.
     Even though Sor had fully recovered from his winter's indisposition as a result of the attempt on his life by Tsab's ambassador, he had not resumed audiences in the main throne room. Nor had he made any public appearances. The political climate was too volatile for Sor to risk a showing before a large number of people. The attack on him had shown that even as an Apath, he was vulnerable. There would be those among the people of Vorti who would be all-too-glad to put his mortality to the test.
     Sor didn't think he would mind dying. It was, of course, a great unknown, but, especially of late, he had begun to find life monotonous. There wasn't any point to it. Once - and it was almost hard to remember a time so long ago - the plight of his subjects had been enough to spur him on. But no longer. Now he looked at the hundreds of depressed, diseased, and forlorn faces that came before his throne every week, and not even the lost expression of a child could stir a twinge of compassion. The men and women of Vorti were no longer individuals to their king. For Sor, they had become a resource - a commodity. And, although he recognized that it was not a good way to govern, he was powerless to change things. He could not resurrect emotions that he had long ago sacrificed.
     His advisors could not understand why he refused the women they proposed for his third wife. They were unable to fathom how the simple act of sexual intercourse could be so repugnant to him. They called him stubborn and irrational and branded his arguments against another marriage as short-sighted. But they did not know Sor. They couldn't see through the opaque window that hid away the secrets of his heart and soul.
     One of the few areas that he had never permitted his magic to touch - and subsequently desolate - was his love for his first wife. He had shielded those feelings from the massive transformation of energy by which he had eradicated the nobles. Almost every other part of him had been strafed, but everything that Joi had meant to him was preserved. It had been thus for more than twenty years now. Sor could still long for her touch and weep when he remembered why it wasn't possible. Joi - and his memories of her - had become a shrine, a beacon in an otherwise cold wasteland. The thought that any woman could take her place, even in a purely ceremonial role, was unacceptable.
     Under pressure from his advisors, he had married Lis shortly after Joi's death, but he had still been in full possession of his emotions. There had been other concerns and feelings at work. He had never loved his second wife, but he had been able to tolerate her for what she had been intended: the mother of the future ruler of Vorti. Now, the concept of a third queen, even in a limited role, was something Sor refused to consider.
     Sor's brooding was interrupted by a gentle rap on the door to his sleeping chamber. He opened his eyes and sat upright in his rocking chair before calling for his visitor to enter.
     It was, as he expected, Til, the only man in the palace brave enough to disturb him at this late hour. He was still dressed in his formal robes, which indicated that he hadn't yet been to his quarters to change. As Sor had noticed, the chancellor was wont to put in long hours. Was there really that much work to be done?
     "Your Majesty, excuse me for disturbing your rest," said Til, bowing deeply to the king.
     Sor waved off the apology. "I was thinking. When I'm ready to sleep, I go to bed. What brings you here at this hour? Not, I imagine, something insignificant."
     The chancellor produced a mud-spattered scroll from under his robes. As he moved to pass the document to his liege, Sor forestalled him. "Read it to me."
     After clearing his throat, Til began, "'To His Majesty Sor of Vorti, from Hwo, King of Tsab. Greetings. In view of the recent insult shown to the people of Tsab by the unlawful execution of our ambassador and considering the offensive response to our message requesting his extradition, it has been decided that such conduct is not only unbecoming of a city of Vorti's stature, but unacceptable.
     "'To use the words of your own response, 'Actions of this sort cannot and will not be permitted if the civilization we have come to cherish is to be maintained. Punishment is not only desirable, but mandated.' We of Tsab are deeply wounded and offended by the use of veiled threats and intimations of a conspiracy.
     "'Nevertheless, as a ruler myself, I recognize that a king does not draft every missive he sends. In this case, I believe it possible that while the signature and seal of Sor were on the scroll, the words of a lesser functionary may have adorned it.
     "'In either case, for any satisfactory relations between our two cities to continue, three conditions must be agreed to unconditionally by the king of Vorti. These are non-negotiable and no substitutions shall be accepted, nor compromises negotiated. Tsab has been wronged and it demands recompense.
     "'First, whoever is responsible for the perfidious language of the earlier messages must be removed from office. I make no demands for his punishment other than that he be eliminated from a position where his continued irresponsibility could present a danger to future relations between our cities.
     "'Secondly, a public apology must be issued by the king of Vorti absolving Tsab of wrongdoing and admitting to his own improper conduct in this matter. The apology must be presented in person to the citizens of Tsab and in writing to the governments of all the other cities.
     "'Finally, a sum of money or goods shall be paid as reparations which shall not be less than one-tenth of the amount which Vorti was to have relinquished as part of the aborted trade agreement which was agreed to in principal, but never signed.
     "'In the case that these terms are not met, Tsab is willing and able to use military strength to enforce our will. It is my hope that such drastic measures will not prove necessary.
     "'I await your response, Your Majesty.'
     "It's signed `Hwo, King of Tsab'."
     Sor extended his hand for the parchment, and, once it had been given to him, crumpled it into a tiny ball, then hurled it into the fire that burned across the hearth. In a taut voice, he demanded, "The impudence of the man! Who does he think he is?"
     "Your Majesty," said Til. "Such a vile message demands a swift and immediate response. I can have the militia ready to march by dawn three mornings hence. We can go to Tsab and teach the upstart that Vorti will not be trifled with in matters..."
     Sor cut off his chancellor. "Vorti is in no position to march on Tsab, as you of all people are aware. They outnumber us and we are ill-provided for. If it came down to it, we could defend ourselves - but barely. However, for all of Hwo's bluster, he will not dare to cross this city - or me - once he has read my response. He has apparently forgotten that I am an Apath as well as a king. It is time, I believe, to remind him of certain truths. Take down the following. Record it verbatim. I want there to be no confusion as to whose words are being sent to the king of Tsab on this occasion."
     "Aye, Your Majesty," acknowledged Til, producing a stylus and clean sheet of parchment from somewhere within the voluminous pockets of his robes. He used an inkwell on a small desk to wet the point.
     Sor began, "'To Hwo, the Upstart of Tsab, from Sor the Apath.'"
     Til started at the choice of words, his pen hesitating fractionally before inscribing the first words. "Write it!" barked Sor. The chancellor began scribbling.
     "'The insult you claim to have suffered as a result of my words deserves no response. An attempt was made on my life and I dealt with the situation appropriately. Was any such assassination attempt made on you? But that was the subject of previous communication between us, and, as such, is a thing of the past. I will not dwell on it further here.
     "'You have set forth three conditions for peace between us. I reject them all categorically. I will not censure the man who scribed the missives to you. Instead, I salute him. I will not apologize, either publicly or privately for a matter in which I am without blame. It is you, not I, who should issue an apology, but it is not something I will demand. Finally, you will receive nothing from Vorti in the way of coins, gold, or goods unless Vorti receives equal recompense in return. The assertion that reparations are your due is absurd.
     "'You claim that you will pursue war if I refuse your terms. I say to you: pursue it! But you would do well to consider first who you will be fighting against. In all of Devforth, my militia numbers second only to yours, and they will be fighting for their homes, not half-way across the continent for a perceived insult. Most importantly, however, my men will be fighting with an Apath in their lead.
     "'I put it to you this way: I will not start a war, but if you begin it, you shall ignite something you will be unable to control. For not only will I decimate your army, but I will come to Tsab myself and level the entire city. This is no idle threat.
     "'It is my hope that you will reconsider your words before any rash actions on your part cause more havoc than you are prepared to accept.'"
* * *

     After sending the message by courier to Tsab, Til returned to his quarters, stripped off his official garb, and dressed in a plain brown tunic and matching leggings. It was past midnight, but, instead of going to bed, the chancellor left his room, made his way through the deserted corridors of the palace, and, nodding to the guards on duty, went outside. He continued past the gates and through the inner city, not stopping until he had arrived at a ramshackle tavern near the northeastern border of the city.
     While many of Vorti's posh drinking places closed around this hour, The Wet Spot stayed open all night, in part to compensate for the lack of customers it got early in the evenings. When Til arrived, the place was beginning to fill up, many less-than-sober men lurching through the door after being ejected at closing time from whichever tavern they frequented.
     A light-skinned man with long, lustrous fair hair and a somber expression sat waiting expectantly at a table in a darkened corner of the tavern, his blue eyes fixed on the entrance. The moment he saw the chancellor enter, he inclined his head slightly and reached with one gloved hand to tap the side of his nose. Til nodded in return, went over to the bar to order a mug of watered-down ale, then joined the man.
     "Hello, Siv," said Til, greeting his old friend.
     For the first time, the other man allowed himself a smile. "Good evening. Or should I say morning. You're late. I've been waiting here for nearly three hours. I thought something might have happened."
     Til observed his friend carefully. For a man as urbane as Siv, three hours in a place like this, surrounded by the chatter of penniless drunkards and the odors of stale beer, vomit, and sweat, would be a trial. It was a mark of his devotion to their cause - to Til's cause - that he had remained.
     "Sorry," apologized the chancellor. "I had a few things to do for His Majesty." The final two words were spoken with contempt.
     "Maybe I should wear different clothes," noted Siv, glancing down at his finely tailored wardrobe. "I don't think I fit in like this."
     "It's not the clothing," disagreed Til. "You could wear a beggar's rags and you'd still stand out. You're a noble through-and-through."
     "Careful," cautioned Siv in a low voice. "The word 'noble' is the most vile curse you can utter in this city. I'm just Siv the merchant, a hard working itinerant, originally from Tsab but lately from Xert."
     "I know the story," replied Til.
     "How much longer will it be necessary? You said last week that we are ready to move."
     "We are, but we have to be careful about this. It's not an easy thing to overthrow a king, not to mention one who's an Apath. But things have started moving in our favor. I was just instructed to send a scathing letter to King Hwo. Undoubtedly, before long, your king will have put more than half his militia at my command."
     "Our king," corrected Siv.
     "What?"
     "You said your king. Hwo is our king."
     "Oh, no," disagreed Til. "I may have grown up in Tsab, and I may have an agreement with Hwo, but I know my lineage too well. As the grandson of Rel XVI, I am of Vorti, even if I wasn't born here."
     "Does Sor suspect anything?"
     "Sor suspects many things," scoffed Til. "But I'm not one of them. He sees conspiracies everywhere, except where there is one. I think he trusts me, although it's difficult to be certain with someone like him."
     Siv paused for a moment, as if unsure where to go with the conversation, before he added, "There's something I've been wondering for a while, Til. Why are you doing this? I know you say it's to reclaim your birthright, the one that was stripped away by Kan, but you didn't feel that way three years ago. As a matter of fact, if I recall correctly, you cursed your heritage and said that none of it mattered."
     Til nodded. "That was before the king found out about who I was. I've often wondered who told him the truth. Not many knew." He turned steely eyes on his companion.
     Siv lifted both hands in protest. "Not me! You know I've never had anything in mind but the best for you."
     "Some would argue that this is the best for me."
     Siv shook his head. "I would never have told the king without your acquiescence. Your birthright is your affair and no one else had the right to reveal it."
     "Yet someone did," noted Til. Then, with a negligent toss of his head, he went on, "But no matter. It is done now. King Hwo acted cleverly with the information - cleverly and ruthlessly, as kings are wont to do. People in Vorti say that Sor is the coldest of men, but they have not met the king of Tsab. The Apath hides his emotions well, but Hwo's only passion is for power. It has driven everything else from his heart.
     "Twenty-three months ago, I met and fell in love with a delicate beauty named Gia. That wasn't her real name, of course. It was as false as the fiction she spun about her life and family. The man and woman she introduced as her parents were actually retainers of the king, and she was Princess Ina, the second-born daughter of King Hwo.
     "What happened after that is a long story, but, suffice it to say that her origins didn't matter to me - as Hwo had known they wouldn't. We struck the bargain - the one you know of - with one additional proviso. Ina was to be my wife as soon as I attain my rightful place upon the throne of Vorti."
     "So you're doing this because you love a princess?" asked Siv incredulously.
     "Try falling in love yourself sometime, and you'll see what it can make a man do. Yes, at first I did all of this for Ina, but now I'm doing it as much for myself as for her. Because I know what a strong leader can make of this city. The people here are resilient and without a worthless, self-absorbed king like Sor leeching off them, Vorti could come to challenge Tsab as the greatest city of Devforth! As her king, that would make me Hwo's rival as the most powerful man on the continent."
     "So it's a matter of ego to you?"
     "Don't look so surprised, old friend. Surely you didn't expect me to say something pleasantly hypocritical like I'm doing this for the sake of the hard-working men and women who are suffering under Sor's tryranical rule. I'm not a crusader."
     "People follow crusaders," remarked Siv. "Unless you lead them to believe that you're one, they won't go up against an Apath. Twenty years ago they supported Sor because they loved him. Now, they support him because they're scared to do otherwise."
     "Have you ever heard of Wil?" asked Til.
     "No. Should I have?"
     "Not necessarily. I've been doing a little reading. Back in the first year of Sor's reign, there was a farmer named Wil who challenged the new king's rule. He was somehow messed up in the nobles' rebellion which led to the elimination of the class barrier. Anyway, he was supposedly fighting for the rights of the common people, despite his working alongside the leader of the nobility, Baron Cen. At the end of the bloodbath, Wil disappeared. If rumor is correct, he ran off with Sor's second wife."
     "So? That had to be nearly a quarter of a century ago."
     "Wil was an Apath...and a crusader."
     The light of understanding flickered in Siv's eyes. "You want me to find this Wil?"
     Til nodded. "Maybe he's dead by now. Maybe Sor killed him back then and invented the story of his escape. But if Wil does exist, and if he still wants to crusade against a degenerate Apath, we might be able to make him a better offer than anything the nobles could. His presence would help our cause."
     "And if I can't find him? If he's dead?"
     Til shrugged. "The dice are already loaded in our favor. We just have to bide our time. Sor's popularity is in a nosedive and Hwo is nearly ready to commit his troops. With or without Wil, I don't see any way we can lose."
     "But you'd like a little more security."
     "I'd like an Apath backing me," said Til. "It doesn't do any good for me to take the throne only to have Sor blast it out from under me. I'm convinced we can beat him. I just don't know what it's going to cost us to do so. Those powers of his are damn tricky things to understand and predict."
     "All right. I'll leave at first light. Care to give me a clue where this Wil might have gone? Devforth isn't all that big, but it can be gargantuan if you're looking for one person."
     "West," suggested Til.
     Siv favored him with a sour expression. Since Vorti was along the eastern coast, that didn't help.
     "Try the Halcyon Meadows. There are a few isolationist communities out there. It's a pleasant place to live, and well out of Vorti's jurisdiction. Just the sort of place an outlaw might wish to disappear into."
     "This may take a while," noted Siv, his initial enthusiasm for the idea waning as he considered the difficulty of the task he had accepted.
     "We have time. It's our ally. As far as I'm concerned, the longer we wait to move against Sor, the better off we'll be. Within reason, that is."
     "So, what are you up to next?" asked Siv.
     "More of the same," noted Til with a conspiratorial wink.
     They both ordered another ale and drank to their continued success.
* * *

     It didn't take a healer to tell Sor that his meal had been poisoned. He had known that the second the stomach cramps had started. Within moments, his chamberlain had gotten him to bed and Rim had been summoned. Now, after a night's drug-induced sleep, the king was ready to hear the specifics of his ailment.
     "Food poisoning," decreed the healer. "Not one of the best ways to finish the second week of the new year."
     "I assume it was only my food," noted Sor.
     "You're the only one who had symptoms," confirmed Rim. "But I have to confess, as an assassination attempt, it was inept. The poison they used not only wasn't lethal, but it has a common anti-toxin. Even the most incompetent healer could have relieved you of the condition in a matter of hours."
     "Maybe they weren't trying to kill me."
     Rim looked surprised at that statement. "What then?"
     "I don't know," confessed Sor. "But so many things have been going wrong in the past few seasons that I'm beginning to suspect there's a greater conspiracy afoot than anything I'm seeing. These numerous unpleasant events could be pieces of a more dangerous whole."
     "You're getting paranoid," said Rim, unwilling to accept Sor's theory. "No one would dare threaten an Apath king."
     "I'm beginning to wonder if we don't rely on that refrain too often," said Sor. Then, after a moment's pause, he asked, "How long do I have to stay in bed this time?"
     "You can get up whenever you're ready," said Rim. "As I said, the effects of the poison are minimal. Right now, you're as fit as you were before dinner last night."
* * *

     Twenty minutes later, in answer to a summons, Til entered Sor's sitting room. The king was reclining in an armchair, flipping through an ironbound tome with sheets that were brittle and yellowed with age. As each page was turned, it made a sound like that of dry leaves being crunched underfoot.
     Eventually, Sor put the book aside and turned his attention to his chancellor. "An attempt was made on my life last night," he said.
     "So the healer has informed me. I have already taken measures to see to it that, from now on, all food and beverages served to Your Majesty shall be tasted beforehand."
     "Good," said Sor. "I expect you to conduct a discreet search for the responsible parties in this matter. Before their execution, I wish to question them."
     "The investigation is underway."
     For a moment, Sor had an eerie feeling of deja vu as he flashed back to another time in this same room with another close advisor. Twenty-five years ago, his "loyal" chancellor Vas had come before the throne to inform him that an investigation was underway into the murder of Queen Joi. But that had been a lie. Vas had been doing nothing, not even questioning obvious suspects, because he had been aware of the killer's identity and was himself implicated in the murder. Til's words, perhaps innocently spoken, gave the king a flash of momentary mistrust as the past collided with the present. Sor considered his chancellor to be one of his few trustworthy advisors - but he had thought the same of Vas. He had been mistaken then. Could he be in error now, as well?
     "Underway?" echoed Sor.
     "Yes, Your Majesty," replied Til. "Everyone involved with the preparation of the meal or present at the dinner is being questioned. Is there anything else you wanted of me?"
     "One more thing. Make a general pronouncement that, until further notice, the main throne room is closed. Open interviews will no longer be held. The current method of select interviews in this chamber will continue until I decide otherwise."
     Til raised an eyebrow in surprise. In effect, this meant that Sor was shutting himself off from the public. "Aye, Your Majesty," he said, then turned to leave.
     The king did not see the smile that overspread his features as he closed the double doors to the throne room behind him.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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