To most, her looks were plain, but to Sor, they were the most dear features of all: the tilt of her head, the way her lips curled when she smiled, the creases across her forehead, the freckles on her cheeks, and the upturn of her nose. Her long dark hair hung unbound to her shoulders, just the way he preferred it and her wide blue eyes - the most luminous in all of Vorti - gazed placidly at him from beneath carefully plucked brows.
     "You must not let them drive you from the throne," she said, her voice gentle and full of care.
     Sor nodded in agreement. "Vorti is my responsibility, handed to me by my father. I will not betray it."
     She moved a step toward him and reached out her hand to caress his. Flesh touched flesh - hers, cool and smooth; his, rough and warm. She leaned forward and brushed a kiss against his lips. He could smell the sweet aroma of her hair and it brought to the surface an unbearable yearning, a need that nothing could fill. For even as he was touching her now, she would vanish the moment reality intruded. The only place Joi could continue to live was in his dreams.
     When she was present, Sor always knew it was a dream, something that could not last. The pain of her death, a sorrow he had borne for twenty-five long years, was too acute to allow for illusions. Yet these moments of sleep-induced bliss could at least let him pretend, if only for a little while. While her image was there, he could push her death to the back of his mind and imagine what she might say and do if she still lived. It made the moment of waking more poignant, but dreams seemed to be the only thing he had left to look forward to.
     Joi broke the kiss and stepped away from him. "You must arrest this chancellor. Waiting is too dangerous. Your father was right when he said treason must be stifled as soon as it is discovered. You don't know how many allies he has. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to bring him down."
     "I delay to learn more of his plans. If this is a deep-rooted conspiracy, I don't merely want to cut off the shaft, I want to tear out the entire thing. It would be a mistake to go after Til if he isn't the real danger."
     "If he is Rel XVII, he poses a significant danger on his own," noted Joi. "Your position is weak now. He has seen to it that your unpopularity has grown. The people of Vorti might be sympathetic to the lure of an old and once-respected ruling family."
     "Respected? They were despised by everyone, even the nobles, when my father's rebellion brought them down. Rel was having girls plucked from the streets and brought to his bed, then killing them after he had satisfied his desires. You call such a man respected?"
     "The men and women of Vorti today cannot remember those times. They are seventy years and dozens of hardships past. And, except for the last two Rels, the family had a long history of selfless, energetic service to this city."
     "He must prove his claim first."
     "Til is your chancellor. He has access to all the information you have. He will seek out the seeress Meg. She will confirm his identity."
     Sor nodded. He had not forgotten about Meg - the presence of a seeress was not an easy thing to forget - so there was no reason to assume that Til had either. But would Meg help him? He supposed that, given the legendary devotion of her kind to the truth, she would have no choice.
     "I'm still an Apath," said Sor. "The people will be too afraid to rise against me."
     "You are not whole, my love. If it comes to a test of your powers, this will become obvious, and then you will have no advantage. You cannot afford to wait. You must..."
     Suddenly, the image of Joi's face wavered and dissolved to be replaced by the all-too-real visage of the healer Rim. Sor sat bolt upright in bed, nearly knocking his former chancellor to the ground. With some surprise, the king realized he was drenched in sweat.
     "Now, Your Majesty! Immediately!" demanded Rim, his voice on the edge of hysteria.
     "What are you saying?" muttered Sor. "For that matter, what are you doing here? What time is it?"
     "Your Majesty, we must go now! Any delay and they will have sealed off all the entrances and exits. There is no time for explanations!"
     Sor grabbed the terrified healer by the arm and stared deep into his eyes. "Unless you're assuming command, I'm still in charge. No one will do anything until I have an explanation."
     "Your Majesty, please! There will be time enough when we've reached safety..."
     "Now!" barked Sor. He noticed for the first time that Rim was not alone. Flanking the healer were a half-dozen of his most loyal personal bodyguards, all in full armor and with drawn swords.
     "Chancellor Til has publicly proclaimed himself Rel XVII, the rightful ruler of Vorti. The masters of the major guilds have pledged their support to him, maintaining that they heard validation of his claim from a seeress. General Ryf - who was supposedly executed several days ago - has commanded his troops to support Til against you and a contingent from Tsab has been sighted less than half a day's march to the west."
     "Are the rebels within the palace walls?" demanded Sor.
     "No. As soon as signs of unrest became apparent, the walls were manned with archers and the gates closed."
     "Have they made any moves against the palace yet?"
     "None, Your Majesty. They may be waiting for the troops from Tsab."
     "Why kill your own men when you can kill a foreigner's?" noted the king. "Til is his grandfather's grandson, all right. How many men are loyal to us?"
     "Three-dozen. All within the palace walls. What are we to do, Your Majesty?"
     Sor got out of bed, threw off his night clothing, and began to quickly dress - not in the formal garb of royalty, but in simple, serviceable clothing the likes of which he had not worn for years.
     "Obviously, we have no chance to fight our way out. The whole of Vorti's army against my private guard does not make for good odds."
     It was tempting, but too dangerous. As close as he was to Burgeoning Apathy, the kind of power necessary to defeat the army would likely send him over the edge. His dream-wife's words came back to him forcefully: "You are not whole."
     "No. Stealth and surprise. There is a hidden passage within the palace courtyard that leads into the northern section of the city. Since not even the royal family found out about it until twenty-five years ago, I doubt anyone out there will be aware of it. We should be able to escape through the passage and strike northward. With luck, we can be out of Vorti before anyone realizes the palace has been abandoned."

* * *

     With the coming of the dawn, all of Vorti except the palace was controlled by Til, who had renamed himself Rel XVII. The citizens had been ordered to stay inside until the takeover was finished, so the streets were empty except for small contingents of guards patrolling block after block through the cool morning air.
     The majority of the army waited outside of the closed palace gates - just beyond the range of any archers that might be manning the walls. As suspected by those inside, Til did not intend to throw his men's lives away taking the building - or at least not at first. When the troops from Tsab arrived, they would absorb the bulk of the casualties. There might only be three or four dozen soldiers still loyal to Sor, but, barricaded behind the sturdy defenses of the palace, they could do a lot of damage to an opposing army before being overcome.
     Til had already offered immunity and friendship to any member of Sor's elite corps willing to join him. His shouted message had been greeted with the same stony silence that had persisted since shortly after the arrival of his forces several hours ago. Following an initial flurry of activity from within the walls, an eerie quiet had descended upon the fortress-like structure. However, the new king had no doubts that the stillness would end when he made his move.
     Til was encouraged that he had encountered no resistance to this point - especially of the magical sort. The people, as expected, had backed his coup attempt and the soldiers had followed the orders of Ryf. The great unknown in the situation had been how Sor would react. To this point, that had not yet become apparent, but the deposed king was undoubtedly plotting something. The question was: what?
     In a normal coup, victory would have been assured at this point. Taking the palace would have involved overcoming token resistance. But Sor's powers invalidated the traditional rules of rebellion. The guards inside knew that they had an Apath fighting with them, as did Til's people. Even with the reinforcements from Tsab, perhaps the odds were more even than was apparent.
     Sor had to be found and killed. He could not be allowed to escape, and to arrest him and hold him for trial was to invite disaster. Til didn't care who did the deed, but he had already offered such a ridiculously generous sum of gold for the man who brought him the Apath's detached head that he was reasonably certain that someone would succeed.
     Two hours after sunrise, Til was called to the western fringes of the city to greet the contingent from Tsab. Led by a grizzled veteran with snow-white hair, a lean face, and a perpetual scowl, the foreign troops looked fresh and ready for battle, not road-weary. Most of the four-hundred men were foot soldiers, but several dozen in the lead were mounted. Strangely, their commander, Gok, walked with his men, eschewing the horsed position that was due to a soldier of his rank.
     Til was silently glad that the guards of Vorti would not have to do battle with this army. Although inferior in number, Tsab's soldiers were superior in skill and conditioning. Their armaments were also more impressive. In contrast to the ragged leather armor and dented short swords favored by the guards from Vorti, the Tsabians wore burnished breastplates emblazoned with the insignia of their city, greaves, visored helmets, and armored boots. Each man carried a circular shield, finely-honed broadsword, and some alternative weapon - frequently an axe or spear. The mounted soldiers each had a pair of lances. Tsab was a city that, unlike Vorti, prided itself upon its militia.
     Gok approached the new king and gave him a perfunctory bow that Til returned. "Your Majesty," acknowledged Tsab's commander.
     "General. My forces have secured the city with the exception of the palace, which is heavily fortified. The assistance of your troops will be most helpful in broaching the walls."
     "My men are here to assist in the taking of Vorti, not to act as fodder to archers," stated Gok. "We will back you, but not spearhead an assault."
     "I am not proposing that your men set themselves up as targets for the archers, but since they are better armored than the guards of Vorti, it might be more efficient if..."
     "Let us be frank with each other, Your Majesty. We from Tsab are here to act only in a crisis and to ensure, in the event that your own forces are unable to, that you attain the throne. That is our duty as commanded by King Hwo. We are not here to soften the blow against you in a military maneuver by sacrificing our lives. This is your city and any dying done to claim a part of it should be done by the men of Vorti, not by those who are a continent's width from their homes and families."
     Til began to nibble on a fingernail. The intractability and perceptiveness of the Tsabian commander were characteristics in a military man he had not been prepared for. His expectation was that the foreign general would be more comfortable receiving orders than giving them. Obviously, that wasn't the case. Gok had not been sent here as a liaison between Til and the Tsabian army, but to act on some hidden agenda of King Hwo's. He was the kind of leader that an army would respect as much as fear.
     It was time for a quick re-formulation of plans. Gazing at the legions of armored men, Til wondered if Hwo had ever intended to let him rule a sovereign Vorti. For decades, dating back to before Kan's takeover, this city had been a thorn in Tsab's side. Now there was an opportunity to change that, to make it an eastern satellite with a puppet king on the throne. The supposed allied army from Tsab was nothing of the kind. It was an occupying force, and if Til lost many men in an assault of the palace, it would make Gok's job that much easier.
     Til had made a mistake, but no man rose as far and as fast as he had without learning how to compensate for even the most serious error. The situation was by no means irretrievable. With a change of tactics, victory could still be achieved.
     "Perhaps you could pitch camp for your men around here," suggested Til. "We do not have room to house four hundred additional men in the city."
     Without further discussion, Gok gave the command to his men to begin setting up camp. Til could not help but be impressed by how fluidly and efficiently the army moved as a unit. There was no way the soldiers of Vorti could respond like that.
     "You have men patrolling the city?" asked Gok.
     Til nodded.
     "I offer you several squadrons of my men to supplement your patrols. They would, of course, be under your command."
     Til saw the trap. Inviting a group of Tsabian soldiers into Vorti, regardless of whose command they were ostensibly under, would be the first step toward losing control of the city. He was not about to let that happen. "That won't be necessary," replied Til. "We have more than enough men and the sight of groups of armed foreigners roaming the streets might start a panic."
     It was a good argument and Gok seemed to accept it, at least for the moment.
     "Perhaps we should meet to discuss tactics after noon?" suggested Til.
     Gok shrugged. "If you wish. As I have said, we are here as a backup. How you dispense your men to eliminate the remaining resistance and consolidate your hold on the city is your affair. If you desire my counsel, however, I will be more than willing to give it. Send a courier when you're ready for me."
     On the short walk back to the inner city, Til's mind was constructing a plan to maximize his chances of not only capturing Vorti, but of remaining in command when all the maneuvering was finished. He had no desire to be Hwo's puppet. He was the grandson of Rel and wanted to be the sovereign ruler of Vorti. Anything less was unacceptable. The solution Hwo would offer was as bad as being chancellor to Sor, if not worse.
     It occurred to Til that maybe the immediate death of Sor was not the best way to proceed given the new circumstances. Aside from the number of men he would lose taking the palace and the potential disaster that awaited when Sor let loose his magic, was the consideration that if he waited, the means might be uncovered by which he could manipulate circumstances so that the Apath and Tsabians came into conflict. As long as Sor remained hiding within the palace, his presence could be tolerated. Of course, it was uncertain how long he would be willing to do that. The thing that Til feared the most if he didn't act now was that Sor would take the initiative with a magical assault and all of his plans would crumble to dust.
     Siv was waiting for Til when he returned to the encampment around the palace. "Your Majesty," he began. "Several of the officers are of the opinion that the palace has been abandoned."
     "What? I thought you said the walls were fully manned when Ryf brought the men in during the night."
     "They were. One of the guards was killed by an arrow. But there doesn't appear to be anyone atop the walls now, and there's been no sign of activity inside."
     "You said the palace was surrounded at the start. That no one could have gotten out!"
     "I was, Your Majesty. But...begging your pardon, Sire, Sor is an Apath and could have used magic to evacuate the place."
     Til let out a blistering stream of profanity. This was a development he had never expected. His assumption had always been that Sor would fight for his throne, not flee like a craven dog. Of course, it could also be a trap.
     "Bring out the small catapults and start lobbing burning pitch over the walls. I want to see if that causes anyone to stir. And have Rfy and his lieutenants prepare an assault plan, taking into account that the archers might still be up there, staying quiet. The last thing I want is a group of unprepared men walking into a hailstorm of arrows."
     "Yes, Your Majesty," replied Siv as he hurried off to do the new king's bidding.
* * *

     It wasn't until dusk that Til finally sat on the throne of Vorti. It had taken the better part of ten hours to assure that no traps had been left behind by the former occupants of the palace. The entrance and securing of the building had taken all day, from the quick assault on the walls with scaling ladders to the searching of every room and corridor. No snares had been found, magical or otherwise.
     The new king had spent the afternoon pacing back and forth beyond the palace walls, half-expecting some kind of magical conflagration to erupt and wipe out half of his military force. Nothing of the sort happened, however, and as the sun approached the western horizon, he was beginning to believe that Sor had fled without setting any traps.
     Siv was against his even entering the palace for several days, but, while Til had no intention of spending an extended period of time inside until he believed it to be safe, he wanted to taste the experience of sitting on the throne - the chair upon which only kings could recline. Once he had sated the desire, he retreated beyond the gates.
     Shortly after nightfall, Til ordered the palace evacuated, except for a skeleton crew of guards left behind to stand watch. A temporary command center was set up in the most intact of the old nobles' mansions, which had been the property of the once-notorious Baron Cen. The new king was certain it would be a while before he could enter the palace without worrying that there was a hidden magical snare waiting to detonate.
     Til needed to have a coronation - some kind of ceremony to allow the people to participate in his transition into power. Due in part to the army camped on the city's western border and the disappearance of the man whose position he had usurped, Til did not feel secure without the crown on his brow. He almost felt less certain of the future now that he was Vorti's ruler than he had a week ago when he had been her chancellor.
     Another issue that demanded his immediate attention was conceiving an heir. He had to find a wife - preferably a young, attractive princess from one of the other cities - and get her pregnant. A king, especially the last of a line, was vulnerable until he had someone with blood-ties to succeed him. He needed look no further than the man he had deposed to see that. Had Sor possessed a wife and son, it would have been more difficult to sway public opinion against him.
     Til also had to form a governing body. Siv would be his chancellor and Ryf would remain as the commander of the army, but the composition of the council had to be altered, if not disbanded outright. Another sweeping change he intended to implement was the revival of the nobility. Til was convinced from his studies of past civilizations that a one-class system could not succeed. He would have to work slowly and carefully on this matter, since it would not be popular, but, if handled properly, he felt it could be accomplished without a major outcry.
     Relations with the other cities would also have to be repaired, but Til didn't believe that would be a problem. All he had to do was assign the blame for the rifts to Sor, and the other kings would accept his hand of friendship. How things would work out with King Hwo remained to be seen. Apparently, Til's view of who should rule Vorti had been different than that of Tsab's ruler. Some kind of arrangement would have to be reached, preferably without an armed conflict. Til didn't want to start his reign with bloodshed - it created too much ill will.
     There was a knock on the bedchamber door. Til motioned for the servant to answer it while he leaned back in the plush chair where he had settled for the evening.
     "The Lord Siv, Your Majesty," announced the servant.
     "Chancellor Siv," corrected Til, although the appointment had not yet been made official. Indeed it could not until Til was duly coronated.
     "I have had the throne moved from the palace to the large room on the first floor of this building. I thought Your Majesty might wish to sit in it tomorrow for your first audience."
     "Excellent," approved Til. "Who am I expected to see?"
     "General Gok will undoubtedly wish to discuss troop placement and will probably make an offer of assistance in maintaining order during the transition period. The ambassadors of Merk and Xert will probably wish for reassurances that the disposition of trade with their cities will be unaffected by the change in king. I imagine the other cities will be sending representatives as soon as word of the coup reaches them."
     "What about the guildmasters?"
     "You'll have to see them as well, Sire. The economic well-being of Vorti depends on them and they probably will want certain...reassurances. Everyone is uncertain now."
     "It's always like that after a change in rulership. The most dangerous time for a new king is the first two years of his reign."
     "With Sor still alive, yours will be more..."
     "Shh!" hissed Til, casting a quick glance at the servant standing unobtrusively beside the closed door. Leaning forward so his face was inches away from Siv's, he continued in a hushed voice, "I want the people to believe that Sor is dead. Find a body that's about his size and weight, scar it so badly that it can't be recognized, then put it on display for the city to see. As far as everyone's concerned, including the army from Tsab, Sor is dead."
     "That won't make any difference when he decides to make his move."
     "If," corrected Til. "If he decides to make his move. I was Sor's chancellor for some time and I wonder, now that he's been relieved of his responsibilities, whether he'll be eager to embrace them again. Maybe he'll just wander off to some outlying community and live the rest of his life in obscurity."
     "That's a dream and you know it. Sor's an Apath. He'll be back."
     "Maybe, but we'll fret about that if it happens. We have enough other problems to surmount now. You have your orders."
     "Yes, Your Majesty."
* * *

     For Sor's party of sixty-odd people, escape from Vorti, while nerve-wracking, had been eventless. They had proceeded through the hidden tunnel in groups of five, then, upon reaching the far end, had headed north out of Vorti, where they had met up with the others. Then, after the nearly two hours it had taken to evacuate the palace, Sor had started leading them away from the city on a route that took them first west and then south. No one had the courage to ask where they were going.
     Unlike his companions, who were clearly concerned about the future, Sor had no doubts. He knew what was necessary to reclaim Vorti. He recognized his foolishness in not dealing with Til's treachery the moment he had suspected it, but that was in the past. At least now he was aware of the depth of the plot, and who its architects had been. With that knowledge, he was convinced he could undo the damage that had been done. Regardless of how limited his powers were, his reputation as an Apath would be of immeasurable help in this instance.
     Of those with him, thirty-eight were members of his personal corps and the other twenty-five were either palace functionaries or servants. No one had been left behind, although Sor suspected a few would have preferred to remain and serve their new king rather than go into exile with the old one.
     By dawn, the group was several miles northwest of Vorti, heading due south. No one except Sor knew their destination, but they followed him wordlessly, a sullen group of men and women for whom he felt no sympathy. They, like him, were doing what duty required. Pain, discomfort, and grief were often the price of responsibility.
     Fortunately, it was a good day for a journey. Except for a few high, puffy clouds, the sky was a dazzling blue and the temperature was cool for late summer, although not unpleasantly so. The breeze from the northwest refreshed as it swept before it the unmistakable scent of autumn. Even the fine weather did little to buoy the sagging spirits of Sor's followers, however, and the king was so focused on the task facing him that it would have taken a monsoon to make him aware of the traveling conditions.
     By noon, they had crossed the North Vordi River and were moving across the Vorti Flat, their path still taking them directly south. Few words had been exchanged all morning and the atmosphere of a funeral hung over the travelers. Weary legs unused to strenuous travel caused the pace to flag and when Sor finally called a halt shortly before dusk by the bank of the Vordi near the northern fringes of the Forest of Llam, they were several miles east of where he had hoped to be by this time.
     The next day dawned cloudy with the promise of rain in the air, but no precipitation fell until after noon. The group made its way eastward across the Halcyon Meadows, following the northern curve of the forest until reaching the Llam River. It was there that they encountered the leading edge of the storm, and, while it hadn't rained enough to cause the river level at the ford to rise appreciably, the sodden conditions turned the glum mood morbid. Only Sor appeared unaffected by circumstances.
     By mid-afternoon, they were moving south of the city of Fels, their destination still a mystery. While the guards remained impassive, the others had begun to grumble at the pointlessness of the journey. The natural assumption had been that their goal was Fels, but when Sor continued past it, many began to wonder where he was leading them, and why.
     They were on the Southern Plains, several miles north of the ominous Green Mountains, when it came time to stop for the night. The rain, reduced to a misty drizzle, was falling and cooking fires failed to start. So, after a cold meal consisting of dried berries, oats, and corn meal, the guards on first shift took up their posts while most of the others wrapped themselves in wet blankets and tried to get some sleep.
     Rim took the opportunity to approach Sor, who showed no signs of needing rest. The former king was sitting cross-legged, his back to the camp, gazing southwest, his shoulders slumped only slightly. He heard the light footsteps of the healer and, without turning, inquired, "What is it, Rim?"
     "Are we going to Merk or Xert, or somewhere else?"
     "Xert. Not that it really matters. It could just as easily have been Merk. Those two cities are wedded to each other. When one does something, the other follows."
     "Perhaps you should tell the others. Morale is low, even among the guards. They see this as aimless wandering, not as a journey with a purpose."
     "If they have no faith in their king, so be it. They will learn our destination soon enough."
     "Some of them will be gone by morning. They won't stay the night in anticipation of another day like this one."
     "Then they are fools. The only reason we've been unmolested thus far is because we're such a large group. Any who go off on their own will be dead and forgotten before dusk tomorrow night."
     "Tell them what our goal is and no one need die!"
     Sor shook his head. "Consider it a test of loyalty and faith."
     "Is not their coming proof enough of that?"
     "They were not given a choice."
     "Lives will be lost tonight!" repeated Rim.
     Sor's response was grave. "Not nearly as many as will be lost over the next few days."
     With these words, Rim understood what his king intended. "You mean to ask Queen Mia for troops. To re-take Vorti."
     "I mean to ask nothing. I will demand those troops, and not only from Mia, but from Nom of Merk as well. In accordance with the mutual defense pact we signed, those troops must be made available to me."
     "They may not see it that way. After all, you no longer sit on the throne. A deposed ruler cannot claim rights accorded to the man who has taken his place."
     "Should they waver or prevaricate, I will bring my powers to bear on both of their cities. Let them ponder that before they refuse."
     "Your Majesty, why did you not use your powers to put down the rebellion in the first place? Then all of this would be unnecessary."
     "Go to bed, Rim. I have things to think about."
     "Your Majesty..."
     "Go to bed!"
     Without another word, the healer turned and melted into the misty night, searching for a dry patch of ground. There was none and he eventually settled for a bed of dripping grass.
     As he lay on his side and drew his cloak about him, the thought came to him that perhaps the coup had been for the best. The man who led this group, who cared more for loyalty than human life, was not worthy to rule a city. Someone who would terrorize two sovereign rulers to extort a foreign army did not deserve a throne. Yet that was the man he served, and whose authority he still acknowledged. Sor had become a monster - an unfeeling, uncaring creature.
     The shiver that raced down Rim's spine at that moment had nothing to do with the chill damp of the night air.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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