PART FOUR: QUESTIONS OF DEATH
Jus had been a citizen of Vorti for nearly sixty years, and for much of that time, he had been a member of the royal household staff. As a boy, he had served under Sor's father, King Kan, and after that monarch's death, he had continued his servitude into the new reign, even though, at the time of the transition, he had been offered the opportunity to leave with a large monetary gift. Decades later, he had been among those Sor had brought with him into exile when the betrayer Til had usurped the throne. A gimpy leg had finally forced him to resign his post as chief butler in the palace three years ago. Since then, he had been living in the inner city, in a nicely furnished one-room dwelling provided at no cost to him by the Crown.
If there was a more loyal supporter of Sor than Jus, it would have been difficult to find such a person. Jus had never wavered in backing his liege, no matter how unpopular the king's views might be. In Jus' opinion, Sor could do no wrong. Although his plans might appear to bring temporary discomfort to the city of Vorti, eventually they would be revealed as the best option. Legend said that an Apath could not make a mistake, and Jus accepted such lore.
Jus had never gotten to know his liege well. With the exception of the chamberlain, few of the household staff had any day-to-day dealings with the king. Since Sor's coronation, Jus had only had the pleasure of speaking with His Majesty on a few occasions, and nothing said between them had been of any substance. There had been a time, however, while Sor was a prince, when Jus had interacted more freely with him. Before the death of his elder brother Bem had elevated Sor to the position of Crown Prince, the young Apath had developed relationships with a number of the servants.
The most notable of those relationships had been with the maid Joi, who had later become Sor's queen. Jus had known her fairly well, and, even though she had been several years his junior, he had harbored desires for her. Of course, as soon as he had learned of her liaison with Sor, he had put thoughts of marrying her out of his mind. Never, under any circumstances, would he stand in the way of something his sovereign prince - later to be king - wanted.
Things had worked out well, at least initially. After a few complications, Sor and Joi had been married. Jus had been among the privileged few to attend the private wedding, and it had filled his heart with gladness to see the love shared by the king and his new bride. But the marriage had been doomed not to last, and, only weeks after their union, Joi had been murdered, and Sor had never been the same man since.
Sitting alone in his dark home, Jus was prone to introspection and remembering. It seemed that in his old age he had little else to do. It had always been his intention to serve in the palace until his dying day. That would have made him happy. But his damn uncooperative leg had decided matters differently. There was no life for him outside of service, yet he was being forced to find one.
For a while, when he had first come to this part of Vorti, many people had visited him, wanting to hear stories of the old days, of when Kan was king and Sor's reign had been young. He had told many tales, some elegantly embellished, and his house had been filled with the sounds of laughter and applause. However, as with all distractions, the novelty of spending a day or evening in an old man's one-room hovel lost its appeal and Jus' audiences waned. Now, it had been almost a year since anyone had come wanting to hear his stories. He missed those days, but knew that he had told his last tale.
It seemed that there was little left but to wait for death. He had no relatives. His last cousin had died years ago of influenza. After Joi, he had never considered marriage, so there had been no wife or children to interfere with his duties at the palace, and eventually no one to keep him company and care for him in his latter years.
Leaning heavily on his stout oak staff, Jus heaved himself out of his reclining chair and hobbled over to the window. How many days had it been since he had emerged from his house? Three weeks? Four? All of his needs were provided for in here - food, drink, and waste disposal. A courier came twice a day to empty the privy and deliver supplies, but the man was not interested in talking or listening. He was being paid by the king to see to it that Jus' physical needs were cared for, not to listen to the idle gossip of an old fool.
The window was so filthy he could barely see anything outside - indistinct shapes moving past, shadows gliding by during the height of daylight. By dusk, it would be a blank mask. Jus was tired of sitting in here and letting the world pass him by. Taking a firm grip on the staff, he opened the door and stepped outside.
No one seemed to notice his emergence, but that wasn't a surprise. Jus started up the street, heading in the general direction of the palace. He didn't have a specific goal in mind. He was simply out for a walk. He wished there was some friend's house he could visit, but the few friends of his who were still alive lived and worked in the palace, and that was too far a trek for Just to attempt with his bad leg.
At least the city's central square and market were close. If nothing else, that part of Vorti was always lively. Jus began forging his way through the crowd. There were more people out here than he had expected, and it was difficult for a person leaning on a staff to make progress. A route that might have taken a hale man ten minutes to traverse demanded nearly an hour of Jus' time.
He was entering the center square when he saw her for the first time. Initially, it was just a glimpse through an assemblage of customers, a quick view that might have fooled anyone, especially with eyes as aging and uncertain as his. It could have been any girl - fully one-half of Vorti's female population had brown hair. That he thought immediately of her was merely an indication that she had been on his mind of late as he ruminated about times past and what had once been.
Then he saw her again. This time, she was closer, and it wasn't just a glimpse. She passed within ten feet of him and he got a good, long look. What he saw shocked him so badly that he forgot where he was, which resulted in him getting jostled from behind and knocked off his feet. By the time a kindhearted gentleman helped him up, she was gone. But, as impossible as it seemed, Jus was certain he had not hallucinated. He had seen what he had seen.
There was nothing wrong with his memory. He could see an image of Joi in his mind as if he had last met her yesterday: long, straight chestnut hair; an uncomely face with freckled cheeks and an upturned nose, and startling blue eyes. That was the girl he had just seen in the marketplace. Thirty-six years after her murder, Jus had seen Queen Joi, alive and in the flesh, and looking as if she had not aged one day since her death.
Jus never remembered making his way back to his house that morning, nor could he recall sitting down in his recliner. He never fell asleep - he was sure of that - but the next thing he realized, it was dusk. Too late to do anything about what he had seen today… not that he had a clear idea of what he should do. No one would believe him. There was no way after all this time that even if she was still alive, she could look the same. But something strange was going on and Jus couldn't keep it to himself.
The king was not the right one to approach. Sor had never recovered from Joi's death and any mention of his lost queen made him morose. Those spells could last for weeks, or even months. But who in Vorti had known Joi that might be willing to consider what he had to say as more than the ravings of a senile old man?
Jus went to bed pondering that question. He slept little that night, and, predictably, those moments when he drifted off were haunted by images of a female face. He awoke long before dawn, changed into a fresh set of clothes, and prepared to go out. If nothing else, he had thought of a name while lying in bed. There was still only a ghost of a chance his tale would be taken seriously, but that was better than no chance at all. And at least he would have tried.
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