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."

* * *

     "His mind is addled," said Jav as he and Rim supped together in the chancellor's private dining hall. Aside from a serving girl, they were the only two present, although the long table could have seated ten times their number.
     Lifting a goblet of blood-red wine to his lips and sipping its contents, Rim said, "I think not. His arguments made sense to me."
     "Don't tell me you agree with this ridiculous plan of his? Twenty men, chosen at random? Using that logic, we might have a cutpurse or rapist as our next king!"
     "As it happens, I don't agree with his methods, but I understand why he has chosen this manner to pick his heir. And it won't be as haphazard as you fear. Sor will do whatever he believes necessary to maintain the type of government he has developed. He will not jeopardize it by putting someone unfit on the throne."
     "Then how do you explain his actions?"
     "First of all, Sor is meticulous. While it's true that he's made mistakes in the past, I believe he has learned from those mistakes. I expect him to question those twenty thoroughly and narrow the field considerably in that way. Then, he'll find out what Meg sees in them."
     "I agree that a healthy Sor might do those things. But he isn't healthy, and I repeat that I'm concerned this Gic's Syndrome has addled his wits."
     "We cannot be sure of that, and, even if we could, there is little we can do."
     "We can approach this son of his. No matter what His Majesty claims, he is the rightful heir to the throne. It is his decision, not King Sor's, whether or not he should take the Crown. What's more, since Sor and Lis were lawfully married, he's legitimate."
     Rim's expression became hard, although, in truth, this was not unexpected. Despite the king's decisive words on the matter, he had anticipated that Jav would not give up that easily. "I will not go against the king's wishes. He said the matter is closed and so it is for me. While I cannot stop you if you seek to learn the whereabouts of Sor's son, you will have to proceed with that search without help from me."
     Jav frowned. "That would be pointless, and you know it. Devforth is a big place."
     "What concerns me more than Sor's method of choosing his successor is his attitude toward his health and life. If he does not struggle against this disease, it will beat him. We'll be crowning another king within a fortnight. That's something none of us wants to see. While choosing the right successor is important, it's better if no successor is necessary, at least for now."
     "If he no longer has his will to live, what can we do?"
     "Give it back to him." That, of course, was easier said than done.
* * *

     Rim would have spent the night at the palace had he not received a message stating that another woman fitting his description had been found. She was new to the city and wary of the man who came to question her, but had agreed to see Rim.
     Upon returning to the guild, he was informed that the girl was waiting for him in his office. He asked a few preliminary questions about her from Ava, the man who had brought her in.
     Ava knew little, other than that she matched the description he had been given. Apparently, by her own admission, she had been in Vorti a month and was working as a barmaid at the Floating Froth because she had no money. She had arrived in the city in the company of a man who had since abandoned her.
     Other than those details, Ava was ignorant about his charge. He didn't know her name, or where she came from. After paying the mercenary the agreed-upon sum and sending him on his way, Rim made his way up the stairs to his office.
     The door was open wide to allow Mel, one of Rim's secretaries, to stand watch from outside the room without disturbing the girl who was lying stretched out on the divan, fast asleep. Motioning to Mel that he could leave his post, Rim entered his office, closing the door behind him. Then he turned his attention to the newest discovery of his small army of searchers. He thought his heart would stop the moment he saw her.
     The resemblance to the late queen of Vorti was so uncannily exact that the guildmaster could not believe it was natural. He stared at her sleeping form, half in wonder and half in shock. His brief glimpse in the streets had not prepared him for this. A likeness, a similarly in features and form, he had expected, but this was like seeing a ghost. The hair, the face, the body - everything was the same. It was as if some force had frozen Joi's body on the day of her death and waited nearly four decades to re-animate it.
     Perhaps sensing she was being watched, the girl came awake, lazily stretching as her eyes fluttered open. For a moment, she regarded Rim and her surroundings curiously, then, perhaps realizing where she was, she sat up, smoothed down her disarrayed hair, and murmured an apology. It had been a long time since Rim had heard Joi speak, so he couldn't be sure if the voice was the same.
     "Nay, child," he said kindly, forcing a smile. "There's no need to apologize. Indeed, it is I who must say that I'm sorry for having kept you waiting so long."
     Apparently not knowing how to respond, she nodded, the fingers of one hand raking through her hair.
     "I'm told that Ava found you working in an inn in the waterfront district. Did he tell you why I wished to see you?"
     "He said that I reminded the guildmaster of the Healer's Guild - I assume that's you - of someone he once knew, and asked if I would be willing to answer some questions. He also hinted there might be some money involved."
     Rim went over to his desk, unlocked the upper drawer, and took out a small pouch. This he tossed to the girl. "Half again as much if you're willing to help me."
     Undoing the drawstring that held the pouch closed, she let out a gasp. "There are five gold heralds in here! I've never had one-quarter of that in my whole life. My wages at the inn don't equal that in a year!"
     "Then I assume you're interested in earning the rest?"
     "Of course. Whatever you want me to do. I mean, anything. For that kind of money."
     "For now, just a few questions. First of all, what's your name?"
     Rim blinked in surprise. "Joi??"
     The girl nodded. "It's not that unusual a name," she protested. "Did you think I was someone else? If you want, I can change it."
     " That won't be necessary," said Rim. He couldn't believe this. This was beyond the realm of the most bizarre coincidence he could dream of.
     Joi winked at him. "For the kind of money you're paying, I can be whoever you'd like me to be."
     "You're sure your name is Joi?"
     She gave him an odd look. "Of course I am. Don't you think I know my own name? Then again, given that I don't remember much else, maybe you're right in asking."
     "What do you mean, 'don't remember much else'?"
     "Before Sib rescued me on the road to Vorti, I can't remember anything. I think I might have been in a caravan that got attacked, but my memory is hazy. All I know is that someone stabbed me in the chest and Sib saved my life. He brought me to Vorti, nursed me back to health, then disappeared."
     "A wound? In your chest?"
     Without the slightest embarrassment, Joi opened her vest then undid her bodice and let it drop to the floor. Just below her left breast was a pinkish scar where an incision had been made. It was in the same place where the knife that had killed Queen Joi had penetrated her chest.
     Rim had to sit down. He pulled the chair away from the desk and collapsed into it.
     Concerned, Joi asked, "Are you okay?"
     Rim nodded, not trusting his voice for the moment. What was going on here?
     "Tell me exactly what happened to you. Everything for as far back as you can remember."
     "Everything? I hope you have a lot of time."
     "I have as long as you need."
     Joi told him her story, how she only had vague memories of her life before seven weeks ago. She thought she remembered what her mother looked like, but couldn't be sure. She also had a hazy recollection of being a maid somewhere. She didn't know why she had been traveling when she had been attacked, or what had happened. She had lain alongside the road for a long time, drifting in and out of consciousness, until the man she knew as Sib had found her. Being a healer, he had used his powers to save her life, then, after several weeks of convalescence in a small community along the Great Western Road, she had accompanied him to Vorti. Once here, Sib had gotten them rooms in the Floating Froth, but he had disappeared after the first night, and, without money to pay for her meals and lodging, Joi had been forced to work. She had spent the better part of her spare time in the past four weeks scouring the streets for Sib, but had found neither him nor anyone who recognized his description.
     In essence, she was lost, without any solid memories to anchor her present and with no one she could rely on. "I know my name," she said, "And how to speak the language, and how to read and write and count. But I can't remember my favorite color, or what foods I like to eat, or how old I am. Sometimes, I feel like I don't have a past, that these things I half-remember are images out of some dream."
     Rim knew his face looked haunted. He hoped the dim illumination of the room camouflaged his expression. He didn't want to scare the girl off. Not now, with so much at stake - regardless of who she was.
     "That's all you can remember?" he asked.
     Joi nodded.
     "Are you married?" She was certainly of an age when that was possible - even likely.
     "I don't know," she replied. "I think there was a man with sandy hair and green eyes. He often dressed in blue - at least that's how I remember him. He was a lord or something, and younger than me. But I don't know if we were married, or lovers, or whether he was my brother."
     From the moment Rim had come into his office and seen Joi lying on his divan, his mind had begun to formulate a plan. Too many years in Sor's service had taught him to always think ahead, regardless of the situation, and to use unexpected turns of events to his advantage. Putting aside the question of the girl's identity - one which Rim was not ready to tackle yet - she could be extraordinarily useful to the city and the Crown, just as she was.
     Some might consider it a cruel trick, but if Sor could be made to believe that this girl, who so resembled his lost queen, was waiting for him, it might lend him the strength to recover. While it was true that the king was normally a rational person, his logic had been uncertain where Joi was concerned, and, in his current state, with his mind clouded by disease, he might not question events too carefully. And if he survived and could be persuaded to marry this girl, the issue of legitimate heirs might be resolved as well.
     "I asked before if, for payment, you would be willing to help me. Are you still of the same mind?"
     "For seven and a half gold heralds, there's nothing I wouldn't do."
     "Some of what I will ask of you may seem strange, but I assure you that it's all necessary. For reasons which you will come to understand, I won't be able to answer many of your questions."
     "What do I have to do?"
     "Very little, in fact. We are going to the palace, to the bedside of King Sor, who lies ill. There, you will be introduced to him. All you have to do is stay by his side until he recovers and say that you are waiting for him. The healers and I will advise you when you can leave."
     Now it was Joi's turn to appear shocked. "The king?" she exclaimed. "You want me to sit by the king's bedside?"
     "I know it's difficult to understand, but you...resemble someone who was once dear to him, and having that image near at this difficult time may mean the difference between life and death."
     "I've heard nothing about the king being ill..."
     "To avoid a possible panic, it has been kept secret, but circumstances are grave. Now, will you do this thing?"
     "Of course. For the honor of meeting the king, I'd do it for free."
     "You will be paid. We have an agreement. I'll see to it that the inn is informed of your absence."
     "There's no need. With twelve and a half gold heralds, I'll never have to see that sweat-soaked place again, as a worker or a patron."
     "One more thing. I must ask that anything you see, hear, or do while within the palace, you never speak another word of. Vorti, and especially her enemies, must not learn of the king's condition, or the methods we are employing to restore him. This is of paramount importance. Since you aren't a citizen of Vorti, I cannot bind you to the king's oath unless you freely offer to swear fealty to Sor. Because of the circumstances, I must ask for your silence by this oath."
     "I'll swear for Sor. And I won't mention anything I see, hear, or do."
     "Then let's go to the palace."

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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