Neither Reg nor Bre was used to horseback riding, so, after five uncomfortable hours on the road to Vorti, both of them were surly. While there hadn't been any prolonged conversations, all pretense of civility had evaporated at about the halfway point, just past the ford of the Vordi River.
     Reg was not enjoying his first extended foray outside of Falnora since childhood. His companion was making things less pleasant - she delighted in demonstrating her knowledge of the lands and customs beyond the Halcyon Meadows. Reg suffered in silence, his temper slowly mounting. About the only thing he could imagine to make this trip worse would be a rainstorm. Fortunately, despite pervasive clouds, there had been little precipitation since the morning.
     It was commonly accepted that the Halcyon Meadows were a better place to live than the neighboring plains of the Vorti Flat. Frankly, Reg couldn't see any difference. During the winter, it might be a few degrees colder here, but, in the height of the growing season, it seemed the same. The only way he knew he had passed from the Halcyon Meadows to the Vorti Flat was that they had crossed the river which marked the boundary.
     "That's the city," said Bre, speaking for the first time in thirty minutes. She had reigned in her horse and was pointing northeast.
     Reg was confused. He might not be adept at geography, but he knew that to reach Vorti, the North Vordi River would have to be crossed. He could see no signs of water from here; just rolling grasslands from horizon to horizon.
     "It can't be," he said.
     Bre spared him a disgusted look, but said nothing.
     "We have to cross the river first."
     "Once you ford the North Vordi, you're in Vorti. We're still a few miles away, but you can see it from here."
     Reg carefully scanned the northeastern horizon. Try as he might, he could see no signs of a city. The terrain became hilly to the north and east, so he wondered if Vorti was in a shallow valley just out of sight.
     "I don't see anything," admitted Reg when he was convinced there was nothing to see.
     Bre made a derisive - and distinctly unfeminine - sound. "Surely even a woolhead like you can't miss the house."
     Reg looked again. For the first time, he noticed a snake-like column of smoke drifting lazily into the mist-laden sky. The same color as the clouds, it was almost impossible to differentiate from them.
     "You mean that? Smoke?"
     "So you're not completely blind. It took you long enough."
     "That could mean anything. It's probably just someone camping on the plains. I'm sure it's no different here than in the Meadows. On any given morning, you can see two or three columns of smoke like that."
     "Except that everyone knows the first sign of Vorti from the south is that smoke. There's a woman who lives in a house on the north bank of the river who always keeps a fire going. No one seems to know why, but it's been like that for years. Besides, how many campfires are lit in the afternoon in the middle of the summer when the ground is too wet to catch a spark?"
     Grudgingly, Reg admitted she had a point. It was improbable that anyone would start a fire outside in this weather. Still, this was another attempt on Bre's part to assert her superiority.
     "Well, if we're going to get there before dusk, we'd better ride," said Reg, spurring his horse to a trot. "We won't make it by standing here gaping."
     As they drew closer to the city, Bre became more talkative, as if the prospect of returning to civilization had re-awakened something within her. At times, she grew animated, but no matter how excited she seemed, she never forgot who she was with, and her voice never lost its condescending tone.
     "Now, someone like you will probably be overawed by the size of a city, and the number of people who live there," said Bre. Reg didn't think that was likely. He had seen paintings of Vorti in one of Wil's books. As for the people, he imagined they were much the same as everywhere else on Devforth, and he told Bre that.
     She laughed at him. "The people of Falnora are naive and backwards compared to those of the cities. Vorti, like Fels, is cosmopolitan, and its men and women are nothing like those of your village."
     "I wasn't expecting them to be. People that live in cities have a reputation of being selfish, miserly, and corrupt," said Reg. "Actually, I was expecting them to be something like you."
     That ended conversation for a while, but, when the sinuous North Vordi became visible ahead - a quicksilver snake in the distance - Bre started talking again, explaining the most cogent points of city etiquette. Reg ignored her, fixing his attention on something more interesting - a bird endlessly circling to the west.
     "Do you understand me?" demanded Bre when she had finished her lecture. The river was perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead. As far as Reg could see, there were still no signs of habitation - except for the ubiquitous column of smoke.
     "What? Oh, yes. Of course."
     "I don't know why I bother. People like you always make fools of themselves anyway. It won't matter how hard I try to train you."
     "If you're so disdainful of those of us who like to live out on the plains, why don't you just stay in Vorti when we get there? Or, better yet, go back to Fels, where you came from. I'm sure not many of us would miss you."
     If Reg's words bit as deeply as he hoped they would, Bre gave no indication of it. Instead, she said, "I can't go back to Fels. No matter how much I might want to."
     "Why not?"
     "Because if I did, I'd be thrown into prison or a labor camp."
     "What did you do?"
     "I fell in love."
     "And that's a crime in Fels?"
     "Only if you fall for the wrong person, and are stupid enough to believe he feels the same way about you."
     "I'm sorry," said Reg. "I didn't know."
     "Of course you didn't! How could you, living in your idyllic little world, where if you fall in love with someone, you just get married? It isn't like that in the cities. Everywhere except Vorti, where it's been outlawed, there's the matter of class differences to be considered. Except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, nobles don't marry commoners. They use them."
     "Is that what happened to you?" asked Reg, treading cautiously. He was more sensitive than she gave him credit for.
     Bre told him the whole story, unlikely audience that he was. She had become smitten with Uti, the middle son of the landowner who controlled the farm her father worked on. Uti brought her to the main house as a maid, thinking to make her his mistress. She resisted his advances for nearly a year, until she managed to extract from him a promise to wed her in the spring. Then she made the mistake of letting him into her bed. After only one night, he had her dismissed from service and sent back to her father's farm. When she tried to press her claim to marriage, Uti denied everything and the landowner branded her a whore. Ebb came to her defense and lost his place on the farm as a result. Both were warned that if they didn't leave Fels immediately, never to return, the guards would come for them. Uti's father, who was on the king's council, was one of King Yax's most trusted advisors, so his threat was not an idle one.
     "I didn't realize it was so difficult for you," said Reg when she had finished. Bre made no response.
     The road they had been travelling, little-used as it was, led them to a ford of the North Vordi. The river was neither deep nor swift, so it might have been safe to cross anywhere, but they rode the horses across at the marked place, where the water barely came above a rider's feet.
     Southern Vorti was a series of farms and reminded Reg of Falnora. Most of the houses were simple dwellings with fields surrounding them. Wheat, corn, and rye were the most abundant crops, although Reg saw smaller quantities of almost every other kind of plant he had eaten. The men tending to the land either ignored the newcomers or spared them a suspicious or unfriendly glance.
     "They don't look pleased to see us," observed Reg, after receiving a venomous look from an elderly woman.
     "Why should they be? Merchants, not farmers, like visitors. Especially in Vorti, where these men own their land. They're afraid we'll wander off the path and trample their fields."
     Reg was horrified by the notion. "We'd never do that."
     "We wouldn't, but there are many who would. Either out of malice or ignorance."
     The sun was setting by the time they rode into central Vorti. Reg tried unsuccessfully not to gawk. In thinking he was ready for the sight of a city, he had been wrong. It was nothing like what he had expected. All of the buildings were three and four stories tall, towering above anything in Falnora. His old home in Heltala had been a two-floor house, but it had been nowhere as grand as the most simple of Vorti's buildings.
     The streets were wider than the lanes of Falnora, and crowded. In one sweeping glance, Reg could see more men and women than the entire population of his village. They were everywhere, doing everything. Women with buckets on their shoulders were making trips to and from one of the city's wells. Men were heading for a tavern and a night of drinking and carousing. The night watch was on patrol. Merchants, seeking a last-minute customer, were hawking their wares streetside. The cacophony of sound was dizzying.
     "Told you," said Bre with a smirk. Reg ignored her.
     "Where now?" he asked as they walked their horses along a crowded thoroughfare. They had dismounted shortly after entering Vorti proper. Travel was quicker and less dangerous afoot. "Where are the healers?"
     "We have to find their guild," said Bre. "But not until tomorrow morning. Right now, we need to pool our money and get a room in an inn. Preferably someplace clean. If I'm going to have to spend the night with you, I'd rather be spared the rats and mice."
     "At least I rate higher than them."
     "Only because we don't have enough money for more than one room. If you were gallant, you'd offer to spend the night in the stables."
     "Not a chance."
     "I didn't think so."
     It took the better part of an hour to find a suitable inn with nightly rates they could afford given the meager purse of copper coins they had brought along with them. The place was called the Shining Goblet, and Reg couldn't think of a less appropriate name. After checking to be sure that their third-floor room met Bre's requirements, they returned to the common room for a meal of gravy-soaked, overcooked meat and stale bread, accompanied by watered-down ale.
     "This tastes like rainwater." Reg peered into his mug, as if trying to discern what he was drinking.
     "That's the way it's served here. It wouldn't be so cheap if it was stronger."
     "You call half a copper a mug cheap?"
     "You don't know anything about money, Farmboy. Trust me, two mugs for a copper is inexpensive. As is a copper a meal and a night's room for fifteen. In a good inn, the prices would be twenty times that."
     "I'm glad you don't consider this a 'good' inn." Reg found the atmosphere of the common room unpleasant. It was smoky, loud, and hot. The patrons seemed more concerned about drinking themselves into senselessness than enjoying an evening out.
     "They're here to get drunk," explained Bre. "They work hard all day, then drink hard all night. This isn't a village where families gather together in the evenings and sit around a fire sipping cider. Men come to inns and taverns to get away from screaming babies. And they don't farm because they enjoy it. They don't have any choice."
     Reg grunted, as if to express bewilderment at how people could live such a pointless existence.
     "You always have to take such a high-handed approach to anyone who doesn't agree with your ideals. You're just like your father. At least Wil has lived in a city, though. He has a right to criticize."
     "High-handed? You're calling me high-handed? A girl who rode into Falnora in a wagon and hasn't deigned to get her hands dirty since then?" As an afterthought, he added, "And Wil isn't my father."
     Bre blinked in surprise. "He's not? But you live with him."
     "What about Lora? Did you think that because she lives there too, we're related to her?"
     "Of course not. She's an elf."
     "Eya and I came to Falnora with her when we were seven. Wil took us into his home because we didn't have anywhere else to go. My father, a man called Dav, was butchered to death by a band of dwarves on the night we fled from Haven. So, while you may have had a hard life, you're not the only one who's suffered. There are plenty of us out there to keep you company."
     They finished their meal in silence, surrounded by the noise of the inn's patrons. When a spirited brawl broke out over a game of dice, Reg and Bre decided to head to their room before one of them accidentally got hit over the head with a breakable object.
     Once upstairs, they doused the lanterns and lay down, Bre on the bed and Reg on the floor. He didn't question their sleeping places. Never in his life had he slept in a proper bed, so he was used to hard surfaces. He assumed the opposite was true of Bre. If she had been a maid in a noble's household, doubtless she had been given a soft mattress to spend her nights on.
     Sleep, however, didn't come easily for either of them, and it wasn't just the noise drifting up from the common room or the muted sounds from outside that kept them awake. The tension between them, coupled with the unfamiliarity of their surroundings, chased away whatever vestiges of weariness they had been experiencing after the long trip.
     Finally, Bre spoke into the darkness. "What's it like having an Apath for a sister?"
     "Much the same as having a non-Apath for a sister, I guess. I don't really think of Eya as an Apath. To me, magic is something she does, not what she is. Others might disagree, but they don't know her the way I do."
     "I don't really know what it's like to have a brother or sister. When I was a baby, I had two brothers, but they died. I can't even remember their faces - or my mother's."
     "What happened?"
     "What usually happens to poor people in a city. Plague." With a sigh, she added, "Maybe you're right. Maybe living in a village is the solution to the world's ills."
     "We have plagues in villages, as well. All it takes is one traveller to bring it."
     "Except for the incident with the Tsabians, when was the last time anyone in Falnora died of anything other than childbirth or old age?"
     Reg had to think for a few moments to come up with an answer. "Num died of some sort of wasting sickness. That was about three years back."
     "You see? And here I've been defending city life all along."
     "So where do you want to live? What do you want in life?"
     "I'm not sure," she confessed.
     "I wonder if any of us really knows," said Reg. "Eya might, but that's because she's an Apath. I'm content to go wherever she goes, do whatever she does. We're twins, and I don't think either of us could be complete without the other."
     "And when she gets married?"
     "Having a husband won't change things between us. Nor will my getting a wife, if I ever do."
     "Marriage has never held any great appeal for me. Except Uti, I've never met any man I really liked, not to mention loved. And deep down, even after he made his promise, I knew we could never be married."
     "According to some of the elders, you can love someone without liking them."
     "That doesn't make any sense."
     "Maybe not, but look at some of the couples in the village and you'll see the truth of those words."
     "I wish I could feel more at home somewhere."
     "You're just lonely. It's a natural human condition."
     "I don't suppose there's a cure."
     "You could try being nice to others for a change. Maybe if you didn't act like a bitch, people would take a liking to you. You might even make a few friends with those of us who aren't blind."
     "You really are arrogant aren't you. I should have known you'd find some way to twist things like that. If I wanted advice on how to make friends, you'd be the last one I'd ask!"
     Reg shrugged in the darkness. If she wanted to turn spiteful because she wasn't willing to face the truth about herself, there was nothing he could do about it. "Goodnight," he said. There was no response from the bed.

* * *

     The next morning, after an uncomfortable night during which neither of them got much sleep, Reg and Bre checked out of the inn shortly after dawn and headed for the Healers' Guild. The directions the innkeeper gave them were confusing to Reg, but Bre understood them. Leaving their horses stabled at the Shining Goblet, they made their way to their destination on foot.
     Reg was surprised there was so much activity on the streets at this early hour. He had formed the impression that people living it cities rarely emerged before mid-morning. When he mentioned this to Bre, she laughed, saying that cities never slept. Remembering the sounds of revelers long past midnight, Reg conceded she was probably correct.
     The Healers' Guild was a tidy three-story building set in what had once been the nobles' quarter of Vorti. All of the old, sumptuous houses in the part of the city had been razed decades ago. The structures which had been erected on their sites were simpler and more spartan. The Healers' Guild, like most of the private residences surrounding it, reflected this design philosophy. It had a plain stone facade, with only three clear-glass windows looking out on the street and a functional, unadorned wooden door. There was no porch; the entrance opened directly onto the street - a common arrangement for most of the buildings in the area.
     Reg pulled the bell and waited. The door was answered by a mousy man with white tufts of hair behind his ears and an eye patch over one eye. He smiled genially and invited them inside.
     "What can we do for you, Good Sir and Lady?" he asked, when the morning bustle of Vorti's streets had been muffled by the closed door.
     "We're here to see a healer," explained Reg.
     "Then you've come to the right place."
     "We're willing to pay..."
     "All fees are based on the nature of the illness and the credentials of the attending healer. May I ask which one of you is afflicted?"
     "We're not from in the city," said Bre. "We've come from a settlement on the Halcyon Meadows. One of the members of our community is desperately sick and beyond the skills of the local healer."
     Their host appeared taken aback by this information. He lifted a tapered finger to his face and began to caress the side of his hooked nose. Finally, he motioned them through an inner door into a waiting room. It was a small, square chamber with wood-paneled walls lined with benches. At the moment, there was no one else present.
     "One moment, please. I must consult with the guildmaster. No healers are permitted to go on outside assignments without his acquiescence."
     "Charming," grunted Reg as soon as the man had departed.
     Bre shot him a hard look. "Actually, he seemed rather a nice person. Certainly better-mannered than the one I'm with now."
     They sat in silence for many minutes. Occasionally, they would hear footsteps passing outside of the door, or snatches of conversation in the adjacent entrance hall, but no one joined them. After a time, Reg got to his feet and began pacing.
     "They've forgotten about us," he stated.
     "Of course they haven't. The guildmaster is a busy man. It takes time to get these matters resolved."
     "Well, it better not take too much longer. We have to leave by mid-afternoon if we're going to make it back to Falnora by nightfall, and we still have one more stop to make."
     "Another stop? Where?"
     "The palace. I want to speak to King Sor about Eya."
     Bre looked at him in open-mouthed astonishment. "You can't be serious."
     "Of course I'm serious. Do you think I'd joke about something like this? We sent him a letter, but since I'm here, I think a personal meeting might be more effective."
     "I hate to disillusion you, but the king of Vorti is not going to grant an immediate audience with a farmer from an obscure town on the Halcyon Meadows."
     "Even one who's sister is an Apath?"
     "It takes weeks to get a hearing in front of a king. Even in a city as unusual as Vorti, there's no way you're going to be able to just walk into the palace and ask to see King Sor, no matter who your sister is!"
     "And who is she?" asked a quiet voice. Stepping into the room from the entrance hall was one of the oldest man Reg had seen. He was bald, stooped, and obviously blind in the left eye. His skin was more wrinkled than that of a prune and his hands shook as if palsied.
     "Who is she, this sister of yours?" repeated the old man, shutting the door behind him and sitting on one of the benches.
     "Excuse me," began Reg. "But we've been waiting here for quite some time, and we're in a hurry. We were told that the guildmaster was being consulted about a matter we brought to the attention of the man who showed us in."
     "So it was. I'm the guildmaster. My name's Rim. Pleased to meet you."
     "Oh," said Reg. "Have you come to a decision?"
     "The Halcyon Meadows are a long way for one of my people to travel. Much closer to Fels. Maybe even Llam. Why did you come to Vorti?"
     Bre answered, "I used to live in Fels, and I know the kind of healers that operate there. We aren't a wealthy community and we wouldn't be able to afford the fees they would demand. And we had no desire to risk a trek through the Forest of Llam. The Vorti Flat is safer during the night than that forest is during the day."
     "So it is, so it is," said Rim. "Well, tell me the patient's symptoms and I'll see what can be arranged. We're not in the habit of turning people away."
     "What's this going to cost us? We can't pay in coin, but we have some gold or could trade for crops," said Reg.
     "Young man, we can't discuss payment until I know what kind of treatment is going to be necessary, and how long the healing is going to take. The symptoms, please."
     Bre, who knew Dek's condition better than Reg, told Rim everything she had noticed about the patient since his injury.
     Rim appeared confused by her description. "That's an unusual mix of symptoms. They don't fit together. The only other time I've heard tell of someone with something similar, he turned out to be an Apath. But there's never been a documented instance of the first parasite infestation occurring after childhood."
     "Parasite?" asked Reg.
     "Yes, parasite. That's how a latent Apath's abilities are activated. Apaths are born with the innate ability to channel magic, but they can't use their powers until an infestation by the Gaja worm occurs. Somehow, the worm triggers a defensive reaction that activates the energy-changing aptitude. Almost all human children are infected by the worm, but the infestation is harmless to non-latents. In Apaths, however, symptoms similar to the ones you described manifest themselves. But since humans are uniformly infected as children, there's never been a case of a latent turning active after he has reached adulthood."
     "So Dek is an Apath?" demanded Reg.
     "Steady on, young man, I didn't say that. I simply indicated that his symptoms are consistent with those of a latent Apath turning active."
     "So what's the answer? How do we find out for sure?" asked Bre.
     "Investigation. I was going to send one of our less experienced healers with you, but, given this development, I think I'll change my mind."
     "And the price?" persisted Reg.
     "Let's not decide on that right now. If this man turns out to be an Apath, there will be no charge. If, instead, he is in need of our skills, the cost will be based on the healing required."
     "I need something less ambiguous. I have to know if we'll be able to afford the price."
     "Until it's known the exact nature of the illness, I cannot estimate the cost. All that I can do is give you my word that it will be within your means to pay. We are not usurers, young man. We do not take money from the needy. We give care where it is needed at prices that can be afforded."
     "All right. I agree," said Reg after a moment's internal deliberation.
     "Now, who is your sister?" asked Rim.
     "You said before that you believe you sister's identity will gain you a quick interview with King Sor. Who is she, to have that much influence with him? Not a prospective bride, I hope. The king has little patience for the legion of unwed girls who flock to his court each year in hope he will choose them."
     "Not a bride," said Reg. "Eya is an Apath."
     One of Rim's snow-white eyebrows shot up. "An Apath? A female Apath? And in the same village as the sick man? How many inhabitants are there?"
     "In Falnora? About two-hundred."
     "Falnora," mused Rim. "Elf for freedom. Is it an elf community?"
     "No. We only have only a few elves. One of them named it."
     "I see. Well, whatever the population, it's amazing enough to have one wizard, but to possibly have two..."
     "Three, actually," said Bre before Reg could stop her. She, of course, could not know that Wil would not want his name mentioned here. "Our leader, Wil, is also an Apath."
     "Wil?" demanded Rim, his pasty face blanching. Reg began chewing on his lower lip. It was obvious that this man recognized the name. It wasn't surprising. Someone this old had certainly been alive during the height of Wil's notoriety.
     "You've heard of him," said Reg.
     Rim nodded. "Yes, I've heard of him. It's been many years since his name has been mentioned in this city. We always wondered what happened to him. The king knew, but wouldn't say. Most thought Sor killed Wil, but I suspected differently. Now I know."
     "You speak with a certain...familiarity of the events," said Bre.
     "I suppose I do. You see, I was Palace Healer at the time. Shortly thereafter, I became Chancellor, a post that I held for many years. In fact, I only finally resigned it seven years ago, when someone trustworthy was found to take over. Over the years, Sor has had terrible luck with his chancellors. Jav isn't like the others, though. We selected him carefully, and tested his loyalty before I was allowed to leave the palace and live out the short span of years left to me in this appointment."
     "You're Chancellor Rim?" breathed Bre. She looked ready to genuflect.
     Rim smiled. "For nearly twenty-eight years. But no longer. No, now I'm only the humble master of the Healers' Guild."
     Reg was less in awe of the former chancellor. "Do you think you could get us an audience with King Sor this morning? You must still have some influence."
     "I daresay I do, but, as you astutely pointed out, your sister's condition would be enough, I think, for the king to see you on short notice. Out of curiosity, why are you interested in bringing her to His Majesty's attention? Since she doesn't live in Vorti, she can hardly be considered one of his subjects."
     "She needs a teacher."
     "And you think Sor might be willing to be that person?"
     "You obviously don't."
     "In all the years I've known His Majesty, he has never shown the slightest inclination to instruct anyone. Then again, no Apath has ever come to him with that request."
     "But you still think he'll say no."
     "I've learned that King Sor can be most unpredictable. Nevertheless, the role of teacher would not suit someone of his temperament."
     "If he's unwilling to instruct her personally, I thought he might be able to recommend someone."
     "It's possible," conceded Rim. "Since Sor took the throne, the number of Apaths within Vorti has doubled. If memory serves me, including His Majesty, there are four here now. But you might do better in Fels. There is a school of sorts for Apaths there. It is run by one of the most respected wizards in Devforth."
     "We have sent a missive to Fels, but my sister has a preference for Vorti. She did not confide the reason to me, although I believe the classless system of the city intrigues her. We have heard " - Reg glanced at Bre - "unsavory tales about the excesses of certain nobles in Fels."
     "Whatever you decide, you will be most welcome in Vorti. All Apaths are, and, indeed, all people. If you will accompany me to the palace now, I will arrange an audience."
     "One moment," said Reg. "Do you know what happened between Wil and Sor? Why Wil had to leave Vorti?" As many times as Wil had made oblique references to his exile from Vorti and his previous conflict with the royal family, he had never told Reg the whole story.
     "You don't know?" Rim seemed surprised.
     "Wil is...secretive about his life before Falnora. Other than his wife, there may be no one else in the village who knows of his past. Not even his son."
     At that statement, Rim looked like he had been poleaxed. "What is his wife's name?" he asked, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
     "And Wil fathered her child?"
     "Yes. His name is Gav. I believe he was born shortly after they came to Falnora."
     "Does he favor his mother or his father?"
     "Lis, I suppose. Actually, he doesn't look much like Wil at all."
     Unsteadily, Rim got to his feet. Reg wondered if the man was all right, and what he might have said to upset the guildmaster. It was plain that something in his words had caused Rim's agitation.
     "Come. We will go to the palace. Along the way, I will tell you the story that every citizen of Vorti knows - about how a peasant named Wil challenged the succession of Sor to the throne. Perhaps then you can fill in a few of the blanks about how that same Wil has lived his life since he fled from Vorti. And about Lis. And her son, Gav."
     Reg found Rim's choice of words strange. Her son, Gav. Not their son, Gav.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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