THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART TWO: THE CLASSLESS SOCIETY


CHAPTER THIRTEEN


     In her youth, Mia had been one of the most beautiful women in all of Xert. Now, even in her sixtieth year, she was still handsome, with a fine head of silver-gray hair, skin that was smoother than that of many women twenty years her junior, delicate features that had not become bloated with the advance of age, and blue-green eyes that shone with the luster of life. She was dressed in a simple white robe since she rarely, if ever, agreed to the robes of state except in the most formal of occasions. Upon her coiffured head rested the crown of Xert, a bulky but beautifully crafted circlet of platinum surmounted with at least one of every kind of precious stone known to man.
     Of the six cities, Xert was the only one in which hereditary rule was passed through the female line. Since a minor coup in 345 when a woman had been installed on the throne, the tradition had continued. Mia had never taken a husband - she had always regarded her suitors as being more interested in her position than her person - but that hadn't stopped her from taking one of them to bed in order to conceive an heir. Her first child, unfortunately had been a boy, as had her second. On the third attempt, however, she had given birth to Lia, the current princess of Xert. At twenty-five years of age, she was waiting for her mother to pass onto her next life so she could assume the crown. Had Mia not been so shamelessly devoted to her daughter, she might have called Lia a viper.
     Mia normally did not receive visitors after noon, but she was making an exception today. Failure to do so, besides being an unpardonable insult, would likely lead to some sort of unpleasantness. In addition, she had heard the rumors coming out of Vorti and was interested to know the truth from an unimpeachable source.
     The audience hall was not decked out with the regalia that normally accompanied the visit of a king, but Sor had given her less than an hour's warning. She had managed to assemble most of her court, who now lined the long red carpet leading from doors to throne, but that was all she had been able to do in such a short time. Even a proper honor guard had been impossible to organize. Instead, she had commanded six of her personal soldiers to don full armor and salute the king of Vorti as he entered the hall.
     Sor, dressed in mud-spattered clothing and looking nothing like a king, walked through the open doors at the far end of the hall, and, ignoring the bowing nobles and the saluting guards, stalked up the carpet toward the throne. Behind him came Rim, who appeared more than a little concerned about his liege's rejection of the tribute being paid to him.
     After stopping before the throne and bowing perfunctorily, Sor began to speak before Mia had a chance to utter the ritual greeting that every queen of Xert was expected to welcome a royal guest with.
     "If I offend Your Majesty with my brusqueness, I apologize," began the king of Vorti, his manner grim. "But the situation is grave enough that I feel all of this -" he gestured to the gaily arrayed court around him " - to be inappropriate. I am not here as an emissary of goodwill or to regale you with flattery, empty or otherwise. If you have listened carefully to rumor, you know why I have come."
     "So it is true then," said Mia. "You have been unseated in Vorti."
     Sor nodded. "An upstart chancellor who claims blood-ties to the old family of Rel. He has managed to obtain the support of my mother's brother, Hwo of Tsab."
     "There has long been enmity between Tsab and Vorti. It is easy to understand why Hwo would see it to his advantage to ally himself with a new ruler. How many troops has he consigned to the venture?"
     "Approximately four-hundred."
     "Four hundred? That is surprising. That must be half his ready militia. He must place a great deal of importance on putting this new Rel on the throne. And what is the disposition of your own army in all of this?"
     Briefly, Sor outlined for Mia the tale of Til's duplicity with regard to Ryf.
     "Were you a normal man, I would have expected that you came here in search of military aid, but you are not simply a deposed monarch. With your abilities, you do not need my help or that of any other to put yourself back on the throne. Why have you come, Sor?"
     "I have come for troops, as provided for in the Treaty of 528, which was re-ratified ten years ago. It provides me with a number of men equalling half of your ready military force in a situation of dire and immediate peril."
     "I do not dispute the language of the treaty. But if you are no longer the ruling party in Vorti, then you are hardly in a position to request that aid."
     "If I may, Your Majesties," cut in Rim timidly. At nods from both Sor and Mia, he continued, "The provisions of the treaty state that the aid must be requested by the rightful ruler of Vorti. Until Til has been duly crowned and you have accepted his rule, Sor is still the legal king. It is within his rights, at this point, to make the request."
     "It is not a request," said Sor, his voice as hard as his eyes. "It is a demand. I did not come here to play diplomatic word games. The treaty is valid and I will have the troops it allows me."
     Mia rose to her feet, her temper rising. Across Devforth, the queen of Xert was known as much for her passionate - and occasionally violent - nature as she was for her beauty. "Stay your tongue, King of Vorti. While you are in my palace, you will heed my..."
     Sor did not wait for the queen to finish before beginning the "demonstration" he had planned. It was a simple magical act requiring little expenditure of energy - the king, after all, could not afford much more than that - but the results were impressive. After this display, Sor did not anticipate further arguments from Queen Mia or King Nom of Merk, since his city would also be included in the radius of Sor's spell.
     The sensation of emotion being transformed to magic, and the exhilaration that accompanied it, washed over Sor. This feeling, so unlike anything a non-Apath could experience, which was at the core of any wizard's existence, had, except on rare occasions, been denied to him for twenty-five years. Each time he made use of his abilities, he was reminded of how much he had sacrificed in destroying the nobles. Any normal Apath could ration out his use of magic over the course of a lifetime, but Sor had drained himself long ago, condemning himself to this life.
     The temptation was to let himself go, to permit all of the emotion within him to drain into magic, leaving behind a vacuum. Then he would be free - free to die and pass to the next life. It was a seductive lure, but Sor did not succumb to it. Suicide, much like every other option open to him, had long since been analyzed and rejected. His mind worked too logically to allow that, and Sor was not so emotionally dead that he could not, upon occasion, entertain hope - hope that the future might hold something more promising that the past.
     This afternoon, he had accessed his magical abilities for a single reason. As a sound, much like the blowing of a gale, echoed through his mind, Sor took the energy which had once been emotion and transformed it into physical reality.
     The light streaming through the high translucent windows in the audience hall was blotted out and the room was plunged into the hazy grayness of an unnatural twilight. It was not complete darkness, but the contrast between what the day had just been and what it was, was dramatic. Nearly everyone at court gasped and one woman shrieked. Mia sank back in her chair, her face ashen, while Sor remained frozen in place, his eyes gazing beyond the throne room to something that no one else in the hall could see.
     The eclipse lasted only a few moments. As soon as Sor relaxed his body, the sun's light returned and the audience hall was again bathed in the soft, warm glow of a summer's afternoon.
     The deposed king of Vorti was the first one to speak in the wake of his spell. "That was just a sample. A fraction of what I can do with my powers if I so choose. The blackness that engulfed this hall was felt from here to the far borders of Merk. If you continue to refuse me what is my right by law, I will let that black fog engulf the sun and not remove it. Think about what it would be like to live in a city where the only light that would ever shine is what people create. The crops would not grow and the terrors of the night would become bold."
     "There was no need for such a forceful...demonstration," said Mia, her voice unsteady. "I'm sure a mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached. Have you not heard the phrase that honey is a better lure than acid?"
     "I am not interested in a 'mutually satisfactory arrangement'," said Sor. "I am interested in obtaining what is my right, and in doing it quickly. The longer the usurper is in power, the more difficult it shall be to remove him. And I have found that maxims such as the one you quoted are frequently as false as they are stupid."
     "Yours are not the actions of a king."
     "Perhaps not," agreed Sor. "But they are the actions of an Apath, a title that everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten that I also hold."
     "Then I beg your pardon." Only those who knew the depths of the queen's pride understood the full meaning of those words and the price it cost Mia to utter them.
     Sor ignored the apology. "What is the current strength of your army?"
     "Roughly seven-hundred."
     "I am entitled to three-hundred and fifty, then. With your permission, I would like to take four hundred. Along with an equal number from Merk, that should give me a sizeable enough force to re-take Vorti. The militia there numbers only about five or six-hundred, but they are buffered by four-hundred from Tsab."
     "With my permission? You've already made it quite plain that you intend to take what you will! What does my permission have to do with anything?"
     Sor spared the queen a cold stare. "I will take nothing that is not my due without your leave. If you feel the fifty extra men should remain here, I will not dispute you. I ask you for them. If you refuse, I will leave only with the three-hundred fifty men allowed by the treaty."
     "Take them! Take as many as you want! Take five-hundred, for all I care!"
     "I would not leave your city so poorly-defended, but thank you for the offer all the same. Four-hundred will be sufficient."

* * *

     The sixth day of Til's rule in Vorti was the first official day of his reign. At dusk the evening before, in the makeshift throne room that had once been Baron Cen's dining room, he was coronated king of Vorti. The ceremony had been ostentatious, with as much pomp as circumstances would allow. Everyone present had been in their best dress, including several woman who already had designs on becoming the next queen of Vorti. Til wore Vorti's official robes of state, liberated from the palace. Since Sor had taken the crown with him, it had been necessary to commission the design of a new one. It had taken the best jeweler in the city half a week to fashion it, but, in the end, it had been worth it. Til's crown was more splendid than the simple circlet Sor had worn.
     Til's popularity among the citizens was beginning to wane. The revelation that he intended to revive the two-class system had caused ill-will among the peasants who had bitter memories of the old nobility. Those among them who had supported Til's bid for the throne felt betrayed. Still others wondered if Vorti could continue in its preeminence without an Apath at its head. Rumors of the sordid and bloody last days of Rel XVI's reign were spreading like wildfire, without concern for how much truth underlay the tales.
     Despite the unsettled nature of Vorti's own populace, the other cities seemed ecstatic by the ouster - and apparent death - of Sor. Judging by the reactions of the various emissaries that arrived from Tsab, Fels, and Llam, there was universal acclaim for the return of the family of Rel. Curious by their absence were delegations from the Twin Cities of Merk and Xert, but Til assumed that, in time, they too would welcome his ascension to the throne.
     Today he had given titles to the first of the "new nobility". The five most influential guildmasters had been named barons. Since they were among the elite of the city - with both power and money - it was only natural for the honor to be bestowed upon them. But it was only a beginning. Til realized it would take years - perhaps even decades - for him to rebuild a class that Sor had destroyed in one night.
     "Your Majesty, we found another one," said Siv, startling Til out of his reverie. His chancellor was on bended knee, facing the throne. Behind him, in chains, was an unwashed, bearded man who wore an expression of contempt.
     "His name is Bof. He is a merchant who deals in trinkets, silks, and animal skins."
     "Was a merchant," corrected Til. The penalty for this man's crime was a stripping of all possessions if he confessed to "the error of his statements." Otherwise, it was death.
     "Was a merchant," acknowledged Siv. "He was taken after being overheard telling men in a tavern that the body hanging from the palace gates is not that of the former king."
     Til did not understand how so many of the men and women of Vorti realized that the body was not Sor's. It was charred beyond recognition, yet dozens of people had sworn, even on pain of death, that it was not the corpse of the Apath. Worse still, a fervent cult who believed that Sor would return to take vengeance on the usurper was beginning to take root. Til might have laughed at them if he didn't fear the truth of their message.
     "Why do you claim that the body is not that of the traitor Sor?" asked Til in a voice he tried to moderate with openness and wisdom.
     "Because it is not his. I have met His Majesty. I have kissed his hand. That...thing...is not him. It may be a man of his height and build, but it is not King Sor."
     "Do you know the penalty for this filthy venom you spew??"
     "I know it, but my conscience is clear. I know I have spoken the truth. Though you may silence my voice, others will come after me, until His Majesty returns to take the throne."
     Through gritted teeth, Til pronounced, "Take him out and hang him!"
     Stripping men such as this of their possessions was no longer enough, whether they made a public confession or not. Such moderate actions were doing nothing to curb treasonous tongues, and the arrogance of these people was growing.
     As soon as the man had been taken from his presence, Til rounded on Siv, "Find every last one of them and have them executed! This sedition must be stopped before it spreads. If the populace as a whole begins to believe that Sor is alive, chaos will rule."
     "Does Your Majesty wish for me to give those captured a chance to repudiate their statements?"
     "No! There are to be no captures! Kill them on the spot! All of them!"
     "Understood, Your Majesty. General Gok waits to see you."
     Had he been alone in the throne room, Til might have lowered his head into his hands. But there were courtiers and guards present, not to mention his chancellor. He could not appear weak or lacking in their eyes. Not when his grip on the throne was so tenuous. "Show him in," he said.
     Gok, as always, gave the appearance of being respectful while managing to convey his disdain for the man wearing the crown. His bow was perfunctory and the expression on his face wavered between stoic indifference and a sneer.
     "Your Majesty, I have received a missive from King Hwo this morning," began Gok. "His Majesty expresses grave concern about the situation in Vorti. He has heard rumors of fledgling rebellious movements and dissentions among Vorti's militia."
     Til reflected that Hwo was remarkably well-informed considering that every messenger sent west had been set upon and killed by a special patrol that had been assigned to that duty. The same fate had befallen two couriers traveling to meet the army from Tsab. Gok was obviously acting on his own, without the sanctioning of his king.
     "His Majesty has commanded me to detail several squadrons to aid your forces in keeping order in the streets of Vorti. King Hwo has also suggested a twenty-two hour curfew until matters have settled down."
     "You may thank your king for me, but I can assure you that my army has everything under control, and circumstances are not serious enough to demand a curfew."
     "Speaking frankly, Your Majesty, your forces are in disarray. Without a strong hand to lead them, they have...confused loyalties."
     "They like and respect General Ryf. They will follow his commands to the letter."
     An expression of mock surprise flickered across Gok's features. "Is it possible? Has Your Majesty not been informed of the tragedy?"
     "What are you talking about?"
     "General Ryf is dead. His body was discovered in one of Vorti's whorehouses not two hours past."
     A period of stunned silence ensued. For a moment, Til felt as if his world had suddenly spun off-course. It wasn't so much the news itself that shocked him as its source. The only way Gok could be aware of the incident before he had learned of it - assuming it to be true - was if the general had been directly involved in whatever had befallen Ryf.
     "Dead?" demanded Siv, the only response any of them could manage to Gok's news.
     The general continued to play the part of the innocent bearer of bad tidings. "I assumed Your Majesty had been informed... What I heard came to me as rumor, so perhaps it is incorrect. Maybe this is all some terrible mistake."
     "I doubt that your information is in error," said Til, recovering his poise. "If General Ryf is dead, I'm sure it was no accident. Did this 'rumor' happen to mention how he died?"
     Gok shrugged. "I believe he was stabbed several times then left to bleed to death in the cellar."
     At a nod from his king, Siv slipped out of the room through a curtained-off exit behind the throne. Til turned his attention on Gok, leaning forward in his chair to bring himself closer to the general. "And have you heard anything else of which I should be aware?"
     "No, Your Majesty. Given the circumstances, however, you can surely see the importance of my offer to bolster your troops. The situation will be chaotic over the next few days."
     "Again, I thank you for your assistance, and again I must decline it. My troops are professional men. While they may have respected General Ryf deeply, his untimely death will not shatter their discipline or morale. They will follow whoever I appoint as his successor with the same devotion they gave to General Ryf."
     "The same devotion? General Ryf was a unique man, Your Majesty. It was only his support of you that allowed your transition to the throne to be so smooth. Now that he is dead, how will the troops see things? Might they not view his death as a sign of how dangerous it is to oppose an Apath?"
     "Sor is dead. He can no more harm them than he can me," declared Til, hoping the hollow words sounded convincing.
     "Indeed. I have seen his body. But what does it matter if he is dead or not if the people come to accept that he is still alive? I have heard strange tales that Sor did not perish during the coup, and that the scorched body you put on display is actually someone else's. While I personally do not give credence to these stories, most are not as practical as me, and with rumors flying as freely as they are, it would not be difficult to fan the flames of an already dangerous situation."
     "Is that supposed to be a threat?"
     "A threat, Your Majesty? Certainly not. To threaten you would be foolish. I was merely trying to impress upon you why it is in your best interests to take up my offer of troop support. Had you agreed to it earlier, these rumors about Sor would never have started. Were you to reject it now, at such a critical juncture in your reign, I fear that the throne may not be yours for much longer."
     Til got to his feet. "Not only will your troops not enter this city, but they will be removed from this region entirely. I will not yield to tactics of terror and intimidation. I am not some weakling lord that can be bullied into submission. Any soldier of Tsab found within three miles of the city limits after dawn tomorrow will be summarily arrested and hanged - yourself included. And anyone found spreading seditious rumors will be subject to the same fate, before or after that deadline. Do I make myself clear, General?"
     During Til's outburst, Gok's bearing had become stiff and his eyes deadly. "Perhaps Your Majesty would do well to remember who it was that supported your claim to Vorti's throne. King Hwo will not be pleased to hear about this edict. Is your untried and fragmented army ready to face the full military might of Tsab?"
     Before Til could deliver a blistering response, the closed doors to the throne room flew open and an out-of-breath courier rushed into the room, pausing only briefly before the throne to genuflect to the king. All eyes fell on the boy, who was no more than twelve years of age.
     "What is it?" snapped Til.
     The lad's eyes widened in terror and he took several hesitant steps backward, away from the throne. His lower lip started to tremble.
     Taking a deep breath, Til forced himself to regain his composure. In moderated tones, he addressed the courier, "Tell me the message you bring. I won't be angry with you."
     "Your Majesty, I were told to bring word of a large group of men coming toward Vorti from the south."
     "How large?"
     "I dunno exactly. Hundreds. It looks like a whole army. They were too far away to see what city they were from."
     Til rounded on Gok, but the general seemed as startled as everyone else. He shrugged at the king, as if to say that he had no more idea of what this latest development signified than Til did.
     "Siv!" bellowed the king. At the shout, the chancellor rushed into the throne room.
     "Your Majesty," he started. "There have been unconfirmed reports of large troop movements to the south."
     "That's what this boy just told me! I want specifics, damn it!"
     During the next half-hour, the throne room became a hive of activity as attempts were made to ascertain the nature of the new threat to Til's power. Couriers, soldiers, and minor functionaries were brought in, but few could say more than the obvious - there appeared to be a sizeable force of armed men moving north toward Vorti. Til's fledgling intelligence network had failed in this instance since not only had there been no early warning, but even now no one seemed to know what was happening. It wasn't long before the temperament of the whole city was mirroring the chaos of the throne room.
     In the midst of the confusion, a Lieutenant Ben rode into the city at full gallop, his foaming horse sporting several arrows in its hindquarters and the guard cradling a bloody arm against his chest. Despite his injuries, however, he demanded to be taken immediately to see the king.
     Ben had been one of twenty-five men assigned to patrol the lands immediately south of Vorti, just beyond the far bank of the North Vordi River. The group had been sent out the previous morning and had been routinely riding east-to-west across the plains earlier today when they had seen the approaching army. They had, quite naturally, scouted cautiously ahead to discover what they could about the oncoming forces, but their presence had been detected and they had been pursued and cut down, one-by-one. Ben was the sole survivor.
     Til saw him immediately, ordering the arguing men around him into silence as the lieutenant was helped down the aisle to stand before the throne. From a position off to one side, Gok observed the proceedings with keen interest.
     "Tell me what you know," commanded Til.
     "A large army, Your Majesty, approaching from the south. They will reach Vorti in the afternoon, well before dusk. They carry with them the banners of Merk, Xert, and King Sor's coat-of-arms."
     A chill of dread surged through Til, racing up his spine to tickle the base of his skull. Merk and Xert were the two cities with which he had never managed to damage Sor's relations. It was only natural that if the deposed ruler went looking for aid, he would turn to them.
     "Numbers?" demanded the king.
     "Close to eight-hundred. More than a match for our militia. Most of them are on foot, but there are some riders, mostly along the flanks and at the fore."
     Til turned to Gok, but, before the king could say anything, the general raised his hands in a warding-off gesture. "No, Your Majesty. While the troops of Tsab are willing to support you in a coup, we will not risk war with the Twin Cities. As I said when we first arrived, we are not here to spill our blood on the soil of a city a continent away from our homes. You have ordered us to leave, and that is what we shall do. Work out your own solution. And, for your sake, I hope King Sor truly is dead and not riding with the army that approaches Vorti, or your future, Your Majesty, will be very bleak."
     With that, Gok turned and strode from the throne room, followed by a small group of retainers. Til watched him go with a harsh expression, wishing more than anything that he could sink an arrow into the man's back.
     "Are you certain you saw Sor's standard?" asked Til, fixing his attention on Ben.
     "Yes, Your Majesty. But it wasn't near the front, so I couldn't see who was bearing it."
     "Siv, I want Lieutenant Dal appointed temporary commander of Vorti's militia. Get him in here immediately. I want our forces mobilized on the near bank of the river. That army cannot be allowed to cross it."
     "Aye, Your Majesty," said Siv, but the tone of his voice indicated how hopeless he viewed the current situation to be.
* * *

     Sor's retaking of Vorti was a relatively bloodless affair. The army accompanying him met some minor resistance on the bank of the North Vordi River, but that was quickly overcome. After several dozen deaths and a brief pyrotechnic magical display that cost almost no emotion, the rest of Vorti's military surrendered, their hearts never seeming to be in the battle. Sor then moved to the head of his forces so the people of the city could see him as he returned.
     In the streets, there was no resistance. Those soldiers that had not met the army outside of the city quickly scattered, and, despite orders to the contrary coming down through a confused and fragmented chain-of-command, they refused to engage what was an obviously superior force. Sor's presence, alive and uninjured after "his body" had been on display for almost a week, shook what little confidence the guards possessed. They would not fight an Apath.
     The reaction of the general citizenry was more optimistic. While Sor's return was not openly cheered on the streets, many felt relieved to have the uncertainty of the past week at an end and most were glad that the "re-nobilization of Vorti," as it was being called, would be put to an end.
     The joint army of Merk and Xert suffered only seven casualties - six in the fighting on the river bank and another when a horse inexplicably bolted and threw its rider. The soldiers from Vorti were briefly interred in a prison camp to the city's north while the forces accompanying Sor enforced Martial Law. Meanwhile, Sor returned to the palace along with his household staff and personal corps of guards.
     Til and Siv were captured attempting to flee Vorti after it became clear that the city was about to be re-taken. Their own bodyguards turned against them and put them under arrest in hope that this action would be seen in a favorable light by the returning regime. It was, and those responsible for the capture of the chief architects of the coup were issued full pardons.
     The guildmasters who had accepted titles of nobility left the city. Two were captured on the road leading west, and were brought back for trial and execution, but the others got away. All members of Til's court who had not escaped were rooted out and imprisoned. The citizens were unwilling to hide anyone who had sympathized with or participated in the short-lived reign of Rel XVII.
     Two weeks after Sor's return, Vorti was nearly back to how it had been before the coup. The soldiers had been released and allowed to return to their homes, provided that they swore fealty to Sor. The few who refused were quickly and cleanly executed. Sor released the men of Merk and Xert from his command and that force, eager to be away from the "inhospitable north," as they called it, headed home. Except for the heightened security measures in and around the palace, there was little to show that two kings had been toppled in the past month.
     Sor had returned to holding audiences in the main throne room, indicating on his part a greater willingness to interact with his people. Attendance was slim, but those that came were treated to several treason trials per day, almost all of which resulted in convictions and subsequent hangings.
     Late one evening during the waning days of summer, following the last of these cases, which ended with the drawing-and-quartering of Lord Siv of Tsab, Sor summoned Rim to join him in his quarters. The healer, who had returned to his old chancellor's rooms in the palace, joined his king for a glass of well-aged wine.
     "What are we going to do about Til?" asked Sor, althogh Riim suspected the king had already made up his mind about the usurper.
     After all the executions, Til was the only survivor of those involved in the rebels' government. Sor had thrown him in a dungeon and left him there to experience day after grinding day of inactive despair. No one visited him, except a guard once daily to pass a crust of mouldy bread and a saucer of lukewarm water through a grate in his cell. He was constantly watched, not because there was fear that he would escape, but in case he attempted to harm himself. As far as the king was concerned, Til's suicide was not an acceptable resolution to the situation.
     "Have him executed," said Rim, as if the result was obvious. "What else is there? Make it a big public spectacle. If you're looking for something different, why don't you use your magic to kill him. That will make an impression. Not too many people will be thinking about trying for the throne after that."
     "Not too many people are thinking about it now. No, I want something else for Til. He deserves a unique punishment."
     "You can't get much less pleasant than death."
     "Yes you can. Life. Life as a prisoner in a dungeon, with nothing to look forward to. With hope dead and death impossible. With my magic, I can make that happen."
     Rim was unable to suppress a shudder at the thought. An image came to mind of an aging, shrivelled man squatting on the floor of a dark cell. It was Til, forty years from now, his body a skeletal shadow of what it had once been, the skin blistered and raw, his arthritic joints barely able to move. Sor was right. That was a fate worse than death.
     "You don't agree?" asked Sor, noticing the shudder.
     "No. If anyone's worthy of such treatment, it's him."
     "If anyone's worthy of it? You think it's too harsh, even for Til?"
     Rim tried to put his unease into words. "It sickens me to think of him - of anyone - like that, year after year, collapsed in his own filth. It's...monstrous. I'm sorry to use that word, Your Majesty, but that's how I feel."
     "You were - are - a healer, Rim. Your calling is to save human flesh, to heal men. It is right that you should feel that way. But I am the king, and being a ruler demands ruthlessness in cases such as this. Taking his life is too easy. I'm not interested in deterring others by setting an example of him. Enough others have died for that impression to be made. Instead, I want him punished. Punished because he abused my trust. Punished because he took my throne. And punished because he treated me like a puppet on a string."
     "Then, Your Majesty, you have devised a method that will suit your desires - and more."
     "Perhaps after a few years, I'll have mercy on him. But not now. Not yet."
     Rim was a little surprised at the passion in Sor's voice. It wasn't a healthy emotion, to be sure, but it was one of the rare occasions when he could remember there existing a crack in his liege's icy veneer. Sor was almost always in complete control.
     "One other thing. Since Til's unfortunate decision to betray me, I find myself in need of a chancellor. I know you recently resigned that post, but I'm asking you to take it up again, at least temporarily, until I have the opportunity to thoroughly screen your potential replacements. The aftermath of this coup has caused countless problems, all of which are too much for one person alone. In the whole of Vorti, you are the only person I can rely on. I need your help, Rim."
     The healer bowed his head in submission. Even if the plea had not been so eloquently worded, he could not have refused it. Deep inside, he felt a portion of responsibility for everything that had happened. If he had not resigned, Til would never have come to power and the coup wouldn't have happened, at least not in the way it had. While it was true that Til probably would have tried some other way to seize power, maybe it would have been less insidious and more easily detectable.
     His reservations about Sor's ability to govern had not diminished, but he was committed to his king and he hoped that his return might, as it once had, be able to temper Sor's occasional tendencies toward excess, especially when it came to executions. And there was still the issue of an heir to be faced.
     "I accept the position, Your Majesty. For as long as you require my services."
     "Excellent."
     With that, the reign of Sor the Apath was returned to a state of relative equilibrium.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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