PART TWO: THE CLASSLESS SOCIETY
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."
"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.
"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."
Back To Main Contents
Back to Chapter Nine
On to Chapter Eleven