PART TWO: THE CLASSLESS SOCIETY
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."
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