PART TWO: THE CLASSLESS SOCIETY
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?"
"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?"
"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."
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