PART FOUR: QUESTIONS OF DEATH
The statue of Queen Joi of Vorti which adorned the palace courtyard was a lifelike representation of Sor's first wife. Chancellor Jav, like most of the population born after Joi's death, had spent little, if any, time contemplating that sculpture - until today. Suddenly, there was a reason to look at it more closely than the other pieces of stone artwork dotting the grounds. And what he saw when he gazed upon the statue was amazing.
"I can't believe it," muttered Jav. "I simply can't believe it."
Rim, who stood by his side, laid a hand on his arm and indicated the small crowd that had gathered. It was unusual for the chancellor and former chancellor of the city to wander around the palace grounds, and curiosity-seekers were loitering to see what the occasion might mean.
"Better to wait until there are fewer ears," said Rim quietly. "We don't want word of this getting around. At least not yet."
Together, they returned inside. On the way to the little throne room, where Rim's charge was waiting, Jav spoke at some length of his incredulity.
"They're identical - that girl and the statue. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were the same person."
"I do know better, and I'm not sure what to think," admitted Rim. "In all my years, I've never encountered a situation like this. Because it's so unique, I feel uneasy."
"Is it possible for a person to be re-incarnated into the same body, with some memories intact?"
"You have as good a chance of answering that question as me. My field is healing the living, not understanding the dead. That's why I think we have to let Meg examine her. If anyone can tell us what the situation is with our new Joi, it's her."
"But first you suggest we use her to bring His Majesty back to health."
"It's worth a try," said Rim. "At this point, anything is worth a try. I'm not sure it will work, but we're running out of options. Even though I'm not an expert at Gic's Syndrome, I can tell Sor is dying. He's given up, and if he doesn't start fighting for his life, there's not a thing that the greatest healer in Devforth can do for him."
"You intend to present her to him as his former wife?"
"Nothing so deceptive. I'll bring her to the sickroom, sit her next to the bed, and have her tend to him. Any questions he asks, she'll answer by urging him to get better. He's not in a position to hold lengthy discussions and I think his mind is too muddled by fever to allow him clarity of thought. It may work."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Then we've done the best we can, and we'll have to get ready to swear our allegiance to King Erd."
Jav scowled. He hadn't approved of Sor's choice from the beginning. Not that any of the twenty men had been suitable. Of them all, however, Erd had been by far the worst - filthy and stinking of manure, with shifty eyes and a stubborn tongue. According to Meg, he had been a peasant of Vorti in his previous life - some name that the king apparently recognized. As a result, Erd was now heir to the throne of Vorti.
"He's not that bad," said Rim. "At least he didn't try to ingratiate himself like the rest of them. He was forthright and honest, which is probably why Sor picked him. And he didn't want the job - that's another mark in his favor. You know what they say about people who want to be king."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that. That man couldn't rule the back alley my men found him in, not to mention this city."
"That's why he'll need good advisors, especially in the beginning."
"I won't be one of them. If Sor dies, not only will I leave the palace, I'll get out of Vorti," said Jav. There was always the hope that Erd would run away, but it seemed unlikely he'd get the chance since he was under arrest. Once he had made it plain that he had no desire to be king, Sor had ordered him confined until his coronation. Not in the dungeons, of course, but it was a gilded cage nonetheless, with a dozen guards to watch him. Even a chancellor couldn't arrange for a man's escape under those circumstances.
Rim shrugged. He was too old to leave Vorti, but even had he been less decrepit, he would have stayed. King Erd would need all the help he could get, and more than a few of the city's chief citizens might follow Jav's example when they discovered the identity of their next ruler.
During the course of their discussion, the two men had reached the little throne room. Nodding to the four guards on duty outside, Rim and Jav entered the chamber where Joi was waiting.
She had been given a bath to wash away the weeks of grime earned working in an inn, then dressed like a queen, in a fine azure gown that set off her complexion and eyes. With buttons down the front, it was a simple dress of the kind Sor's first wife would have worn, the only frills being white lace trimming around the collar and sleeves.
"Do I have to wear those?" demanded Joi as soon as they entered. She was pointing at the pair of satin slippers lying halfway across the room where she had apparently flung them.
Rim glanced at her feet. Not even a half-hour's scrubbing had been able to wash away all the ingrained dirt, and there was nothing that could be done about the callouses. If the girl had ever worn footwear in her life, it had been long ago.
"We do not go about in bare feet in the palace," said Jav. "Certain...sacrifices...have to be made."
"It's necessary," replied Rim. "Put them on."
Frowning, Joi went over to the slippers and slid her feet into them.
"You remember what you're supposed to do?" asked Rim.
Joi nodded. "I tend to King Sor as I would any sick person. Wet cloths to the forehead and chest and a constant monitoring of his pulse. If he asks me anything, I'm to tell him that I'm waiting for him to get better."
"There will be a healer there at all times, so if anything serious or unpleasant happens, you won't be expected to deal with it. The most difficult part will be to remain awake and alert. It may take several days before we can let you leave his side."
"I don't need much sleep," said Joi. "I can manage for however long is necessary."
"Good," said Jav. "Then I think we're ready."
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