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.

* * *

     When Rim had taken on the duties of Master of the newly-formed Healer's Guild upon stepping down from his position as chancellor, he had expected the title to be little more than an honorarium. In that, he had been wrong. Rather than having less work to do, he had more. The only benefit of working in the guild as opposed to the palace was that he didn't have to deal with the bureaucrats who populated the audience chamber from dawn to twilight.
     Rim supposed he was probably too old for work - his body seemed too old for anything - but he also realized that if he retired, he would become bored within a week. It would have been nice, however, to find a happy medium - a little more leisure time, but not so much that he was left with nothing to do but putter away in some flower garden. Unfortunately, unless he was willing to surrender most of his control, there were few duties he could delegate. And Rim had been in power for too long to give it up easily. Twenty-eight years as the second-most powerful man in Vorti had left its impression on him.
     At least the new chancellor, Jav, could be relied upon. Indeed, Sor had been relying upon him for the past seven years. When Rim had been given the duty of choosing his own successor, he had not rushed the process. The disaster of his previous replacement was fresh in everyone's mind, especially since Til languished in one of the palace dungeons. This time, all of the candidates had been thoroughly tested for loyalty and aptitude, and while Jav's ability had not been as great as that of some of the others, his allegiance to the Crown had been without par. Rim had recommended him on that basis.
     There was a knock on the door to his office. When Rim called for the visitor to enter, one of his secretaries, Kyo, opened the door a crack and stuck his shaven head through the opening.
     "Guildmaster, there are a pair of women at the front door requesting to see Tad."
     Rim frowned. Tad had been gone from Vorti for nearly four weeks, and, with each passing day, it seemed less likely that he would return. Ten days ago, Rim had hired a courier to take a message to Falnora on the Halcyon Meadows inquiring about the healer, but the courier had not returned. On top of that, there were all sorts of rumors circulating about unpleasantness to the south. Everything from a large force of Tsabian soldiers to a massive group of dwarves was claimed to have been sighted out on the plains. While Rim was unwilling to believe any of these stories, he knew that most such accounts had at least some basis in fact, although he had no idea what a dwarf could be doing this far from the mountains.
     "Tell the women that Tad is on an errand of mercy that has taken him away from Vorti for an extended period. If they wish for him to contact them upon his return, they should leave their names and whereabouts with us and we'll be certain that he gets the message."
     "Between us, Sir, is Tad coming back?"
     "I don't know," admitted Rim. "In fact, I don't know if he's still alive. Tad was ever a conscientious person and four weeks without word from him is too long."
     With a bow, Kyo withdrew, leaving Rim alone with his thoughts and a sheaf of parchments that had to be read and signed. Then there were the account books, which recorded every case taken on by one of the guild's members. It was going to be a long day.
     Rim had hardly begun his work when there was another knock. Again it was Kyo. This time he bore a written message. The scroll was sealed with the royal insignia.
     The guildmaster broke the seal and read the document, his face becoming more grave with every word. It was a terse message, but there was no mistaking the severity of the crisis it hinted at.
     "To Rim, Guildmaster of the Healers and Former Chancellor to His Majesty King Sor,
     "I regret to inform you that His Majesty fell seriously ill following his supper last evening. The current palace healer feels that the nature of the illness is beyond his ability to diagnose or heal and has requested that you be sent for.
     "Let me impress upon you that the situation is serious. The king's breathing is unsteady and we are unable to rouse him. We ask that you come as soon as possible, and bring with you any of your fellow healers who you feel might be of assistance."
     It was signed by Jav.
     "Kyo, get a cart. We're going to the palace."
* * *

     Sor was indeed gravely ill, and the palace healer, Sam, in Rim's judgement, had been justified in calling for assistance. Unfortunately, at first look, the symptoms baffled both Rim and Kyo. One thing the guildmaster was able to do, however, was eliminate the possibility of a poison. The symptoms were incompatible. That did not rule out an assassination attempt, however. Food could be intentionally contaminated by substances other than poisons.
     The disease, while virulent, did not seem to be contagious. Sor was unconscious, with a high fever. Occasionally, his breathing or heart beat would falter, but neither stopped completely. None of Sam's initial remedies had done any good, and the poultices and potions Rim prescribed didn't seem any more effective. The Apath king was clinging to life. The key to his survival lay in determining the nature of the illness.
     More healers were brought in, but it wasn't until nearly a dozen had seen the ailing monarch that someone diagnosed the affliction.
     It was called Gic's Syndrome, and was rare in this portion of Devforth. Little was known about its causes or treatment. About half of the people who got the disease died. Those who lived recovered within two to three weeks and suffered few, if any, post-illness problems. A strong constitution seemed to be the primary factor in determining who survived Gic's Syndrome.
     Sor did not have a strong constitution. In the past, colds and viruses often disabled him for several days. Rim had a theory about that and now it seemed he would have to bring his views into the open. Not that voicing them would do the king any good. The past, especially the distant past, could not be altered.
     "I don't believe His Majesty has a strong desire to live. It has always seemed to me that when he gets a disease - no matter what the illness - he simply gives up. Until now, it hasn't mattered much, since minor viruses don't kill, but in this situation... His Majesty may not wish to continue living."
     Tiv, the healer who had identified the disease, shook his head sadly. "If the king has lost his will to live, he will not recover. The patient must actively fight for his life to beat Gic's Syndrome. Apathy of any sort - not to mean the magical sort, you understand - will lead to death."
     Both men, along with Kyo, were in the king's chamber, gazing at the sickly monarch. Sor's skin, coated with a sheen of sweat, was as pale as death. His breathing was shallow and occasionally a gurgling noise could be heard escaping from his throat.
     "How long has he got?" asked Rim.
     "Gic's Syndrome has three stages. The first is the longest. It lasts about ten days and is consistent with the king's current state. Most patients survive it, but in this case... "
     "And the second stage?"
     "During the second stage, the patient appears to improve. He often regains consciousness, sometimes becomes well enough to get up and walk. But the fever and general feeling of illness persist. This stage may last five to seven days. Those with a strong constitution recover at this point, and never go into the final stage. Once the patient has lost consciousness again, he's as good as dead.
     "The third stage begins with a coma, then quickly leads to death. All of the symptoms of the first stage return, but with greater force. This part of the disease progresses quickly and most patients are dead within forty-eight hours of passing into it."
     "So there's hope as long as Sor doesn't pass into the third stage," said Rim.
     "Slim hope, if he has no will to live. The patient has to fight, and fight hard, with the help of a healer, during the second stage, if he's to avoid the third. A man who doesn't care if he lives or dies isn't going to put forth much effort to stay alive."
     "Then perhaps we're going to have to find something for him to live for."
     "Like what?"
     "I'm not sure," confessed Rim. It had been too long since he'd muddied his hands in affairs of state, but apparently he was going to get involved again. As if he didn't have enough other things to occupy his attention. "But I'll come up with something. Vorti can't afford to lose him. Not now."
     "Do you want me to stay with him, Guildmaster?" asked Tiv.
     "Yes. Kyo, you stay here too. If there's any change in his condition, no matter how slight, I want to be informed immediately. After a meeting with Jav, I'm going back to the guild. I'd like to stay here, but there's too much else for me to do to allow me to waste a week waiting for His Majesty to regain consciousness."
* * *

     "This is a dangerous situation. A crisis such as this city has never known," said Chancellor Jav, taking a seat across the table from Rim. He was a youngish, handsome man, not yet thirty years old, with a strong, lean body and stern features. His eyes were clear and gray like a wolf's, his curly hair was the color of night, and his flesh was almost as dark. The tint of his skin and his pronounced accent marked him as a native of the northern community of Torg.
     Although Jav hadn't specifically mentioned what he was referring to, Rim understood the implication. He knew what his concern would have been were he in the chancellor's place. "The succession," said Rim.
     "Precisely. He has steadfastly refused to name his successor. I have pressed him for it, week after week, but he always says that his hour of death is yet far away and there is no need to concern myself with such matters."
     Had the situation not been so grim, Rim might have laughed. Sor's protestations to Jav had a familiar ring.
     "If he dies now, I'm going to have to pretend that he revealed his successor to me, which means I will have to pick someone. It is a responsibility I'm not ready for," said Jav. "That's why I called you here. You know the people of Vorti better than I. I must have your help in making the decision."
     "Sor isn't dead yet."
     "His own healer is not optimistic. I fear we must be prepared for the worst."
     "The disease he has, Gic's Syndrome, has three stages. Sor is presently in stage one. Most victims regain consciousness during stage two. We can get him to name a successor then. As long as he understands the situation, I'm sure he'll name someone."
     "And if he doesn't regain consciousness? Rim, we cannot allow Vorti to go without a king for any time. If this disease claims his life, we may even have to create a fiction that Sor is recuperating after he dies. If Tsab sees us in a weakened condition, King Hwo will pounce. Whoever we choose must be able not only to stand up against Vorti's enemies, but must be able to compensate for not being an Apath. The loss of Sor means more than simply the loss of a king."
     Rim considered what he had learned from the couple who had arrived four weeks ago from Falnora. He had hoped to have more time to investigate his suspicions, but Jav was right. The situation was dire. If Sor died, a successor had to be found - and quickly. Anyone without blood-ties to the Apath king might be challenged.
     "I believe Sor has a natural son," said Rim.
     Both of Jav's eyebrows shot up. "A son?? No one has said anything about this to me! It is my understanding that the king is childless."
     "I thought so myself until recently. Since then, however, some evidence suggesting the opposite has come to light. Are you aware that no wizards can have children?"
     Jav shook his head. "But if wizards cannot have children, then how...?"
     "Let me amend that. Until Sor, no known wizard has ever been able to produce offspring. By a quirk of fate and biology, Sor is an exception. He conceived a child with his first wife, Joi. Its life had to be ended to save hers." That was a painful memory. Rim had been the one to terminate the pregnancy. It had been one of his first official acts as palace healer.
     "How do you know the child was Sor's? Perhaps the queen had a lover."
     "Sor was her lover. Besides, if you'd seen them together... Suffice it to say that I know the child was the king's."
     "But if the child died, how can it succeed to the throne?"
     "Not that child. After Joi's death, Sor married again. Queen Lis ran off with an Apath named Wil soon after the marriage, but not before Sor had spent several nights with her."
     "I thought this Wil was said to have died."
     "Misinformation. The rumors about Wil's fate have been uncertain, but the truth is that he and Lis escaped together. I recently learned that they raised one child. A son. Wil is an Apath, incapable of fathering children. That would mean that the child, who was born at about the right time, is Sor's natural son, and the next king of Vorti."
     "Unless this Wil has the same biological advantage that His Majesty has."
     "Unlikely," said Rim. "And if he was able to have children, why does he have only one?"
     "Is there a way to prove that this child is Sor's son?"
     "There is. Meg the Seeress, who lives by the North Vordi River. Til used her to establish that he was of the line of Rel. I see no reason why she couldn't confirm a legitimate heir of Sor's."
     Jav considered. "I have to think on this, but it has merit. We must send someone to investigate. Immediately. You know the location of this man?"
     "I do, but I must speak to His Majesty before I reveal it. King Sor may have known about this child, and kept his existence secret for some reason."
     "And if the king dies?"
     "Then it will be my choice."
     "And the time factor? We need to know now, Rim. Before he dies!"
     "As you said, we can keep up the fiction that he's alive for several months while we investigate the situation."
     "I wouldn't want to have to command you to tell me the location."
     "Good, because I wouldn't advise that you try. I refuse to be bullied on this matter. Let's wait and see what fate has in store for our king. Then we can make some decisions."
* * *

     Rim could understand why Jav was panic-stricken by Sor's sudden illness. If the king died, which was a possibility, Vorti would be in serious trouble. Without a clear line of succession, anyone named as the next king would be challenged, even if he was allegedly Sor's choice. Added to that was the danger of war with Tsab. For the past twelve years, since Til's coup, they had been waiting for an opportunity, even going so far as to send their army on "training maneuvers" along the eastern coast of Vorti. Without the strength of an Apath on the throne, King Hwo was likely to strike, and his attack would be swift. Even in the case of a smooth succession, disaster would be hard to avert. Now, with everything in such a muddle, it might be impossible.
     Nevertheless, the situation with Lis' son didn't necessarily simplify matters. For one thing, he almost certainly didn't know his heritage and therefore might be unwilling to assume the throne. Few men not raised by royalty wanted to assume a crown, and those who were willing were often unfit. Also, to bring Gav into the picture would involve contact with Wil. How would Sor's former enemy, who had once made a play for the throne, react when he knew his old rival was dead? Would there be civil war on top of the threat from Tsab? Vorti could never survive in those circumstances.
     Rim was glad that the decisions were no longer his to make. All except one, that is. Beyond guarding the secret of Gav's location, however, the responsibility was the chancellor's. He had spent twenty-eight long, anxious years trying to convince Sor to either marry and father another child or to publicly proclaim his heir. The matter had become Jav's concern when he had taken the oath of office. So why did Rim feel accountable for all that was transpiring? Why did it seem like he had failed, and that Vorti's current precipitous situation was a product of that failure?
     There was a knock on the door to his private chambers. "Come," called Rim wearily, lifting himself into a sitting position on the bed. So much for his hope of catching a few hours of sleep. Not that his mind was willing to rest, anyway.
     One of the healing apprentices, a lad of about thirteen, entered. "Begging your pardon, Guildmaster, but there's a lame man to see you. I offered the services of several other healers, but he insisted on being attended by you. Said it was a matter of 'mmediate importance.'"
     Rim sighed. Everyone wanted to see him. They seemed to think that his former appointments as palace healer and chancellor gave him some magical ability to heal the sick. "Did he say who he is?"
     For some reason, that name was familiar, but Rim couldn't quite place it. "Anything else?"
     "No, Sir. Only Jus."
     "All right. Thank you, Ert. Tell Master Jus that I'll be down to see him in a few minutes."
     "Aye, Sir."
* * *

     As soon as Rim saw his visitor, he recognized him. After all those years of living in the palace, Jus' face was as familiar as Sor's own. It was the name that had confused him. In his time as chancellor, he had always known this man simply as "the butler".
     "My dear Jus," said Rim warmly, stepping forward to clasp the other man's hand. "How good to see you. It's been many years."
     "Indeed it has, Guildmaster."
     Rim looked Jus up and down. Aside from the obvious problem with his leg, he appeared to be in excellent health. Perhaps better than Rim himself. At least the other man could see out of both eyes.
     They were in one of the waiting rooms. Gesturing for Jus to take a seat on a bench, Rim sat down himself. These days, with his infirmities, he found it uncomfortable to stand for long.
     "You told one of the apprentices that you came here about something urgent."
     "I did, but now that I'm here, I'm beginning to think how foolish this is going to sound. I don't know if anyone told you, but I've been here, asking for you, each of the last three days. They kept telling me you were away from the guild. I almost didn't come this morning, but there's something I have to talk about to someone, or I'll burst. You were the only one I could think of outside of the palace."
     "Why don't you slow down and tell me what you have to say. I promise I won't make any rash judgements."
     Jus let out a chuckle. "I wouldn't make promises like that if I were you. Not until you know what I've come to tell you."
     Rim waited in silence.
     Taking a deep breath, Jus said, "Four days ago, in the central marketplace, I saw Queen Joi. Or at least a woman who looked so like her in her youth as to be her twin."
     Rim started visibly at the other man's statement, not because it was impossible, but because it confirmed what he had seen on the day a month ago when he had escorted the two people from Falnora to the palace. For a moment, in the crowd, he had caught a glimpse of someone who had looked eerily like Sor's first wife.
     "You think I'm mad," said Jus. "I can see it in your face."
     "On the contrary. I'm beginning to think we're both sane. Tell me exactly what you saw, and the circumstances in which you saw her."
     Meticulously, Jus recounted everything that had happened to him four mornings ago, from his decision to go out to his encounter in the marketplace. He concluded with, "I know I'm an old man, but I wasn't imagining things. I got a good look at her, too. She was as close to me as you are now, and she looked exactly like the Joi I used to know. The same eyes, the same hair, the same cleft in her chin, the same dimples, the same freckles. Everything was the same. It isn't possible, but that's the way it was."
     "I believe you," said Rim. Jus looked relieved at the pronouncement. "But you must tell this to no one else. I don't know who this girl is, or how she can bear such an uncanny resemblance to the late queen, but she is not Joi. Joi died with an assassin's knife in her breast. I certified her death and was there at her burning. Nothing must be said about this matter until it has been investigated."
     "I know it can't be her, but two people looking so much alike... Will you tell His Majesty?"
     "Under no circumstances, at least not until more is known. Joi's memory is dear to Sor, and I believe news of this girl might cause him distress. Be sure that I will act on what you have told me, Jus, but bringing the matter to the king's attention is not, I'm sure, the way to proceed."
     "What will you do, then?"
     "The first step is to find the girl. Once we have her, we can worry about what to do next."

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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