PART FOUR: QUESTIONS OF DEATH
Finding a lone girl in a city of thirteen-thousand people was not an easy task, as Rim soon learned. The search was made more difficult by the limited number of people he could employ. He had to keep the operation as secret as possible, since he didn't want to attract attention. He would not mention anything about this to Chancellor Jav until he was certain of what he was dealing with.
For four days, Rim had had ten men out scouring the city, wandering through the streets, knocking on doors, and checking the inns, all searching for a young woman who met a specific description. Six girls had been found and brought to the guildmaster for inspection, but, while all of them had borne a passing resemblance to Joi, none had been the one he and Jus had seen.
There was little danger that any of the searchers would recognize the description of their quarry as that of the late queen, even though it was specific. The oldest of them hadn't been born until years after Joi's death. Their only opportunity to see an image of Sor's first wife was a sculpture that stood outside of the main entrance to the palace. Although thousands passed that statue every year, few paid attention to it, and even those who spared it a glance were ignorant of who it represented. Joi had not been pretty and the sculpture, which was a good likeness, was equally plain.
Pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes, Rim tried to turn his attention to the ledgers he was supposed to be studying. In the nine days since Sor had fallen ill, the guildmaster had been continuously busy, dividing his time between here and the palace. Throughout the crisis, he had gotten precious little sleep, and the lack of rest was wearing him down. Some day soon, he would collapse from exhaustion. If only he could hold off that moment until the situation had stabilized. Right now, the city needed his efforts more than he needed his bed.
He dozed off several times while trying to examine the ledgers. Of all the jobs he was required to perform as guildmaster, this was the most tedious and the most necessary. He had to keep a strict account of who had worked on what case, and if he didn't attack the problem regularly, he would fall so far behind that it would take him weeks to set things straight.
Rim lifted his quill and jotted a few notes in a margin, then began to carefully scan the columns of figures - who claimed to have done what, the amount they had charged, and how much they had been paid. Within moments, however, his heavy-lidded eyes had shut and his chin was resting against his chest. It was nearly an hour later when a knock on the door startled him awake.
Rubbing his cramped neck, Rim rose to his feet, stretched, then hobbled over to the door. Waiting patiently was Kyo.
The healer's bald head and neck were slick with perspiration and his light tunic clung to his skin. It was a hot day and Kyo had run all the way from the palace. His breathless explanation was terse: "The king is awake."
Less than a half-hour later, Rim was limping through the door to Sor's bedchamber. The healers Sam and Tiv were already present, flanking the unmoving form beneath the pristine white covers. Chancellor Jav hovered anxiously by the foot of the bed.
As soon as Rim entered the room, Jav drew him aside, and, in a whisper, said, "He's very weak, and has been drifting in and out of consciousness. I'm not sure how coherent he is, but we need to find out what he knows about this supposed son of his."
Rim nodded. Part of him wished he hadn't mentioned the subject to Jav, but the chancellor was right. The matter of the succession was of the highest priority, and Rim had made it clear on a number of occasions that he was not going to divulge Gav's location or identity until Sor agreed to it.
"Your Majesty," said Rim, approaching the bed and making an arthritic bow.
Sor was not the picture of health. His face was pinched, his complexion sallow, and his lips blue. His hair, damp with sweat, limply framed his features. His eyes flickered open when he heard the familiar voice of his former advisor.
"Rim," he pronounced hoarsely. "Don't whisper. I don't understand why people always feel the need to whisper around a sick man."
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty," said the guildmaster. "We whisper so as not to disturb you."
"Well, since you want to talk to me, you're going to have to disturb me, aren't you?"
Rim inclined his head fractionally.
"It's about the succession, isn't it?" demanded the king, letting out a sigh.
"It is, Your Majesty."
"I thought so. Jav has been talking about nothing else since I awoke. Will I name my successor? Will I acknowledge my son? What exactly does he mean by that, 'acknowledge my son'?" Sor's eyes had closed again.
Had there ever been a good time to discuss the matter with the king, now was not it. Fate, however, had removed the element of choice. "Your Majesty, certain information has come into my possession regarding the son of Queen Lis and the Apath Wil."
Sor's eyes snapped open. "Send them out," he demanded, indicating the healers.
"Your Majesty," protested Sam. "In case of a relapse, it would be better if at least one of us was..."
"Out!!" roared Sor, sounding almost healthy. Tiv and Sam vacated the room. The two remaining with the king moved closer to the bed, each on an opposite side.
"This child must be yours, Your Majesty. Wil cannot have children; you can. The dates are right. He was born nearly nine months after Lis left you," said Rim.
"All you need do is acknowledge this child as your son. Meg can confirm his heredity for all doubters. The issue of an irregular succession can be put to rest for good now that a legitimate heir has been identified," added Jav.
"Listen carefully," said the king. "I have known about this child since the day of his conception and I vowed long ago that for his sake, he would never take the throne of Vorti. I gave him to Wil to raise and charged that he never be told his true parentage. Never again is the child to be mentioned. You are to put him from your thoughts. He is no more my heir than either of you are."
Jav looked thunderstruck, but Rim merely nodded his head in acquiescence. This wasn't unexpected. A part of him had suspected that Sor kept Gav's identity a secret all these years precisely because he did not want the child to succeed him. That was why he had been so adamant about speaking to the king before giving Jav the information to locate the potential heir.
"If not this child," began Rim, "Then who will you choose?" That was still the paramount issue. Now that Sor had vetoed the possibility of Gav taking the throne, they needed a name.
Sor's eyes had closed again. It was several minutes before he answered. "Jav, tomorrow you will go into the streets of Vorti and choose, at random, twenty of the poorest men. Bring them, along with the seeress Meg, to this room, where I will make my decision based upon their merit in this life and the previous one."
"Sire, surely you cannot be serious!" exclaimed Jav, horrified.
"You can think of a better way to choose a successor?" questioned Sor mildly. His eyes were still shut.
"Any way would be better, Your Majesty. To leave such a critical matter in the hands of fate, when there are many well-qualified men to take over the position..."
"Qualified men? Such as yourself, perhaps?"
"I do not aspire to such heights, Your Majesty."
"Of course not. You are not meant for royalty, Jav. As a chancellor, you do a good job, but you are too ambitious to be given the power of the Crown. As for the others I might name... Rim I would trust with the city, but he is old and will not outlive me by many years. Besides, it is unfair to place such a burden upon him late in life."
Rim was equally startled, pleased, and relieved to hear Sor's pronouncement. Ruling Vorti was something he had never considered, and a role he did not desire. Nevertheless, it was gratifying to hear the man he had served for so many years praise him in that way, even if he was not deserving of it. Somehow, it made all the long hours seem worthwhile.
Sor continued, "There is Wil, an Apath whose views may be closer to my own than either of us would suppose, but he is as old as I am, if he yet survives. Few others would I trust with the kingship of Vorti, except those who would never believe it possible that such a position could be theirs, and, because of their station in life, might be sincerely dedicated to continuing the kinds of reforms I have instituted. I do not wish the nobility to rise again. Not in a year, or ten, or one-hundred."
"Your Majesty," pleaded Jav, "Let me draw up a list of able men, men who believe in what you are doing. Men who will continue to lead Vorti in the same direction you have..."
"Enough!" demanded Sor, coughing violently as he said this. When the spasm passed, he added, "My decision is final. You will bring Meg and the twenty citizens tomorrow and I will name the next king of Vorti. Based on the current state of my health, it is possible he will take the throne before the week is out."
"Surely not, Your Majesty," said Rim. "You are much improved from yesterday. We are concerned about the succession only as a matter of procedure. It is, after all, an issue that should have been settled long ago."
"In that, Rim, you are correct, and I'm sorry to have put it off so long. But it will not wait any more. I know a mortal disease courses through my veins and my time in this flesh is measured in days. I do not fear death. In a way, I welcome it. There is precious little left for me to live for, anyway. Let fate bring what it will. I shall choose my successor and let him take the burden from my shoulders. Vorti shall continue without me. The reign of the first Apath king is drawing to a close."
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