THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART FOUR: QUESTIONS OF DEATH


CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR


     Her garden was a wellspring of vitality, a source of hope and cheer. Meg did not remember what "green" was like - she had been young when her eyes had been put out - but she could imagine it was the color of health and renewal.
     She liked to sit out here, amidst the chirping crickets, buzzing bees, and teeming vegetation. It was so much more comforting and enjoyable than brooding away in the dreary hovel that sheltered her. If she had been able, she would have spent every moment of her life out-of-doors, but her body was only mortal, and she did not relish the cold of autumn nights and winter days. Also, this far from the center of Vorti, there were often predators at night - some of the human variety - and it was best not to provide an easy target.
     Meg was lonely. It was not a new sensation. All her life, she had craved companionship, but the gift which made her special kept others at a distance. They saw her as some sort of paragon, set apart from the rest of humanity. They did not understand that the only difference between her and her two sisters was that she saw with a different sight. Her emotions were as alive and variable as theirs, and her body was capable of experiencing the same pain and pleasure that they could.
     Nevertheless, no one dared get close to her. Many wanted her advice, for which she never charged, but no vision that she spoke of was repaid with friendship. In fact, even kindness was a rarity. Often, alone in her house at night where no one could see, she would weep without tears. If there was anyone out there that cared about her, she hadn't yet found them.
     In her youth, she had tried hard to make others like her - too hard, her mother once said. She had used everything in her power, including her abilities and her comely looks, to win a friend. Nothing had worked. In earning the respect and fear of everyone in her village, she had lost the chance to be loved. They could not - would not - see past the mutilated eye sockets that marked her as a seeress.
     It was then, during the most bitter time of her life, that she had begun to neglect her appearance. After shaving her head of its long pale tresses, she had stopped bathing and allowed the grime and dirt to accumulate. And when people had treated her no different than when she had been pleasant to look at, she gave up in despair. One dark, moonless night, she had stolen out of the village, never to return. The next morning, everyone had probably been relieved - especially her family, for whom she had become a burden.
     Eventually, after a long period of wandering, Meg's travels had brought her to Vorti. She did not like this city. It was squalid and frightening. But fate and its ultimate purpose had brought and kept her here. Whatever future event had drawn her to this place had not yet occurred. So she waited and played her role as the calm, cool bitch of prophesy.
     For the most part, she had few visitors. Everywhere else she had lived, they had come from miles away to see her. She could remember lines a hundred people long in some places. But not in Vorti. It was a rare day when she had more than one visitor, and there had been times when she had gone for weeks without seeing anyone. The lifestyle of solitude suited Meg, however. Since recognizing that those who sought her out cared only for her abilities, the bitterness of isolation had become bearable.
     There were a few of her more frequent clients that Meg had come to like. Chief among them was the king, in whom she sensed a kindred spirit. In his own way, Sor was much like her. He too was a lonely man who people sought out not because of who he was, but because of the power he controlled. Apaths and seers were not all that different. They both wielded strange and unusual abilities while being feared and respected by everyone, yet loved by few.
     Meg had met Sor five times, and, of course, had never seen him as most humans would. She could not say whether he was attractive or appealing. Her symbolic vision of him told her much about Sor the Apath and Sor the king, but little about Sor the man. However, the flat monotone of his voice spoke volumes about how he felt about life. Meg understood that outlook and hoped that upon it they might lay the foundation of a more lasting bond. So it came as an unpleasant surprise to learn that he had taken a third wife.
     The seeress had never specifically had designs to become Vorti's queen. All she had desired was companionship. Only in her fantasies had she permitted herself to imagine being Sor's wife. Now, however, reality had intruded. It was difficult to envision any kind of rapport with the king since he had regained something which she had never experienced.
     Through his former chancellor, Rim, Sor had requested that she come to the palace to examine his new wife. Rumor had it that the queen was strikingly similar to Joi, a woman he had married thirty-five years ago and who had died only weeks after the wedding. Moreover, it was hinted at throughout the city that not only was this new queen - coincidentally also named Joi - like Sor's first wife, but she was the same-body reincarnation.
     Meg was skeptical about that. In her capacity as a seeress, she had looked into the souls of thousands of men and women. Never had she met one that in any way resembled the person they had been in a previous life. The notion was unsettling. Fate was capricious, certainly, but the universe had its rules, however hard they might be to comprehend. One of them demanded that reincarnated spirits must inhabit a different body.
     Then there was the issue of memories. The new Joi was said to possess some memories of the old Joi. That, at least, was more believable. While it was rare for people to recall things from their previous life, it was not unheard of. In fact, using her gift, Meg could often summon some of those recollections to the surface.
     It would be interesting to meet this woman. While Meg would not be able to tell how much physical similarity there was between her and her predecessor, it wouldn't be difficult to determine whether there was any spiritual kinship. She wondered if Sor had married her in the hope that she was his first wife. If so, it would be unpleasant to watch his reaction if she turned out to be something different.

* * *

     Rim was resting in his quarters when one of his secretaries came to inform him that a group of travellers from the settlement of Falnora was awaiting him downstairs. Apparently, they brought word of the fate of the healer Tad, who had been missing for several months.
     Heaving a sigh, Rim struggled from beneath the covers, drew on his clothing, and followed the secretary to the waiting room. He wondered when - and if - he would again enjoy a protracted period of sleep. Since Sor had fallen ill earlier in the season, Rim had been forced to catch an hour's sleep now and then, whenever he could. Even his nights were frequently disturbed because of one crisis or another, and on those rare occasions when he was left alone from dusk to dawn, he often lay awake, gazing into the darkness around him, his mind uneasy.
     Sor had been married for nearly a month now, and, while there had been no incidents to mar the domestic tranquility of the palace, the issue of Joi's origins remained shrouded. Despite his promises to do so, the king had not yet summoned Meg, and Jav had been in no hurry to press the issue. It was almost as if Sor was unwilling to learn the truth about his wife, in case it proved unpleasant. While Rim could sympathize with his liege's reluctance in this matter, the issue was too important to be ignored.
     As he reached the door to the waiting room, the former chancellor turned his attention away from matters of state to the situation at hand.
     Four people were waiting for him. Two of them he recognized - a young man and woman - although he couldn't remember their names. The others were a female elf and a girl who resembled the young man.
     "Guildmaster, my name is Reg. You may remember Bre and myself," said the young man, indicating the woman who had previously accompanied him. Laying a hand on the elf's shoulder, he continued, "This is Lora, who has been like a sister to me since I was a child. As I'm certain you can tell, she's an elf. And this is Eya, my twin, who we spoke about last time. She's the Apath."
     Eya flashed Rim a nervous smile. The healer could tell from her body language - the way she shifted from foot to foot as she stood, the rubbing together of hands, and her unwillingness to meet his eyes - that the girl was uncomfortable. He guessed this was her first trip to a city and she was finding Vorti overwhelming.
     "Welcome to Vorti," said Rim unenthusiastically. "I'm told that you bring word of Tad, who we haven't seen for many weeks."
     "Yes," said Reg, "and of matters of greater seriousness."
     "Greater seriousness?"
     Reg nodded. "After we first met you, on the trip from Vorti to Falnora, Tad, Bre, and I were set upon by a small group of dwarves."
     "Dwarves?? On the Vorti Flat?" The assertion was incredible. Dwarves were creatures of the mountains, never leaving their domain except in exceptional circumstances. It had been centuries since a dwarf had been sighted more than ten miles beyond a range, and the nearest mountains were seventy miles from Vorti.
     "Yes, Sir," replied Reg. "Dwarves."
     "You must be mistaken. They must have been some other creatures, bent and twisted like dwarves. A band of outlaw human midgets, perhaps?"
     "Guildmaster, I spent several years of my life in the community of Haven, in the Green Mountains. The village was invaded by dwarves. They killed my father. Believe me when I tell you that I know what they look like. The creatures that Tad, Bre, and I encountered were dwarves."
     "Can you confirm this?" Rim demanded of Bre.
     "Before this, I'd never seen a dwarf, so I can't say for certain. They were like the descriptions in stories - white skin, twisted backs, fur all over, hideous faces. They weren't human."
     "How many?"
     "Nine in the group that attacked us. On the way north to Vorti yesterday, we encountered evidence that there may be more out on the plains."
     "Where there are nine dwarves, you will find hundreds," said Rim. "Tell me what happened to Tad."
     Briefly, Reg recounted the story of the trek to Falnora, the attack by the dwarves, and the disaster they had subsequently found upon returning home, which had prevented them from earlier sending word of Tad's fate. When the tale was done, Rim sat and stroked his chin thoughtfully with a thumb and forefinger. His expression was grim.
     "The king must be alerted," he pronounced. "Even if this attack was an isolated incident, the possibility that there may be dwarves on the plains is a serious danger. Vorti is ill-prepared to defend against a mass attack. The army must be put at stand-by."
     "Aren't you at war with Tsab?" asked Eya.
     Rim regarded her curiously. "Technically, I suppose we are, but not in actuality. Since their forces moved to occupy the city twelve years ago, there have been no engagements."
     "Are you aware that two months ago, a force of hundreds of Tsabian soldiers marched east across the Halcyon Meadows? Only a magical defense at Falnora turned them back," said Eya.
     "The Tsabian army? This far east? That's too far from home for maneuvers," said Rim.
     "Reg, maybe we'd better tell the guildmaster everything that's happened since Midsummer's Day."
* * *

     "It has to be today. We've already put it off too long," said Sor. He sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than Joi.
     Leaning over to pluck a plump strawberry from the bedside tray, she said, "Why the sudden urgency? Surely it can wait another day or two?"
     "Since we were married, it's always been another day or two. Not knowing is starting to eat away at me, Joi. I need to know the truth. Our union can never be whole until we understand what's at its foundation."
     After taking a bite out of the berry, she pressed it to his lips. "And what if I'm not a reincarnation of your first wife? What then?"
     "Then we'll know that much, at least."
     "Have you considered that maybe the reason you've been putting it off is because you're afraid to know the truth?"
     "Are you?"
     "Maybe," she admitted. "I like being married to you. I don't want our marriage to be dissolved."
     "I would never do that. I...care...about you."
     "You care about who I look like! This face!" fumed Joi, rising from the bed and throwing on a dressing gown. Sor remained reclining, watching her actions with a bemused expression. "This has never been about my marriage to you. It's been about your trying to recapture something you lost thirty-five years ago. It doesn't matter what I feel."
     "Of course it matters what you feel. If you hadn't loved me, we never would have been married. I wasn't going to force myself on you. We agreed..."
     "I was confused then! You were the king, and someone whose face haunted my memories. There's no woman in Devforth who wouldn't have been flattered to marry you."
     "And your feelings have changed."
     "Now I understand why you went through with the wedding. You were hoping I was a ghost! It's not enough any more, Sor. I need to be your wife because you want me, not because I'm the other Joi's twin."
     Sor rose from the bed and moved behind her, where he rested his hands on her shoulders. She flinched at his touch, but didn't pull away.
     "Aren't you being a little unreasonable?" he asked.
     She turned to face him. "Do you deny it? That you married me because of who I remind you of?"
     Sor shrugged. "I can't deny it. It's true that I was drawn to you because of your appearance. No matter what Meg finds, my feelings for you - whoever you turn out to be - will always been entwined with those that I have for her. There's too much alike about you for it to be different."
     "And what do you think Meg will find? Is my soul that of your first wife or is this some quirk of fate?"
     "I don't believe in the kind of coincidence necessary for your presence here, with your face, memories, and name, to be a random event. But the alternative is equally as difficult to accept. So I don't know what Meg will discover. I know what I hope, though."
     "You hope I'm her."
     Sor nodded.
     "And if I'm not? If it turns out that in my last life I was some humble farm girl in Fels?"
     "Then I'll be content with what I have. Even if you're not my first wife reincarnated, you're the nearest thing to her. I can pretend."
     "A girl wants to be loved for who she is, not because of a fantasy."
     "I'm being honest with you, Joi."
     "I guess I'll have to take what I can get," she said with a sigh.
     "Whatever happens, you're still my queen. That should be some consolation."
     "All right. Let's get it over with. Let's summon Meg and get her verdict. If nothing else, maybe she can help jog some of my lost memories."
     "We're not going to summon Meg," said Sor.
     "But you just said..."
     "This is a delicate situation. It will be difficult for her to make an accurate reading here. Besides which, I don't want her seen entering the palace grounds. Any time she comes here, it stirs up unsettling gossip. We're going to her instead."
     "And you think that will cause less speculation?"
     "We won't go openly. There's a secret exit from the palace that leads into the city. If we wear hooded cloaks, we should be able to pass through Vorti without discovery."
     "No guards? Isn't that dangerous?"
     "Only if someone finds out who we are. I don't intend for that to happen. And remember, I'm not without means of defense. You'll be safe with me."
     "I never doubted it. When do you want to go?"
     "As soon as possible."
     "Give me an hour or two. I have a few people I have to see first."
     "I'll be in the little throne room when you're ready. Jav has set up an army of ambassadors for me to see today, including some of our good friends from Tsab. They're going to attempt to explain King Hwo's latest proclamation."
     "Which one?"
     "That any citizen of Vorti sighted within ten miles of Tsab will be arrested and subject to summary execution."
     "What will you do about it?"
     "Demand that it be retracted."
     "They won't do that. You know they won't."
     "They've been going out of their way to antagonize me over the past few months. It's as if they've forgotten some things they need to be reminded of. I will only be pushed so far."
     "And if they keep pushing?"
     "Then I'll take decisive action. I wonder how full of bluster Hwo will be if his entire army suddenly fell victim to an unexpected natural disaster."
     "You can do that?" Joi demanded, a mixture of awe and trepidation in her voice.
     Sor's response was flat. "Remember, Vorti used to have a nobility. What I can do to my own people, be sure I'm able to do to another's."
* * *

     With the arrival of the afternoon and the promise of storms, Meg retreated inside. Rain did not normally disturb her, even when accompanied by thunder and lightning, but today something was different. The encroaching black clouds carried the scent of doom. Whether her own or someone else's, she could not tell, but she knew the smell of death.
     Perhaps she was going mad. If that happened, she would not be the first seeress driven out of her mind by her powers. There were many tales of such things happening. Often, it was one specific vision that did the damage, but on occasion, the cumulative pain, loneliness, and depression grew to be too great a burden for the human spirit to bear.
     Meg was awaiting a summons to the palace. Her intuition told her it would come today. Often, when she experienced these bursts of prescience, she wondered if they were really the result of what some called her "second sight".
     The afternoon was wrapped in disquiet. Normal people would notice only in a lowering of spirits, but it weighed heavily on Meg, its force almost physical. She wanted to be liberated from it, to gain the freedom to soar, but it had been long since her soul had taken wings.
     Suddenly, she was aware that there was someone outside. She wasn't sure how she knew this - her ears had detected nothing and her eyeless vision was useless through walls - nor was she certain how she realized that whoever it was did not want to be discovered. They approached with stealth, and that meant their motives were as dark as the building thunderheads.
     Only once before in her life had Meg been forced to defend herself, and she had done so admirably, crushing the skulls of two ruffians who had attempted to rape her. Years ago, before she had left her home village, one of her neighbors had given her a stout walking stick, which had made an effective cudgel. In her longs travels, Meg had never lost it, and she now took it from its customary place by the door. If whoever was out there was relying on her being surprised and helpless, their error would soon be apparent.
     The waiting continued for a long time. Meg became aware that there was not one stalker, nor even a few. There were many, and their number grew with every passing moment. The weapon that might have been effective against one or two would be useless against the dozen or more that had gathered. Meg's options were reduced to two: surrender or succumb. If they wanted her death, she would die. She waited, sweaty hands clutching the walking stick. Her death would doubtless make for an interesting piece of gossip in the city square, even though no one would care that she was dead.
     Thunder, which had been rumbling in the distance for some time, was getting louder. The wind had picked up and rain would soon follow. Out in the fields, farmers were scurrying for cover. Normally these storms came later in the day, but this afternoon's was unusual.
     Meg wasn't sure what happened next. A violent concussion rocked the house. For a moment, as she regained her balance, Meg couldn't hear anything through the ringing in her ears. Then she began to notice the beastial bellows of anguish coming from outside. Whatever creatures were stalking her, they were not human.
     There was another crash. While this one was not as violent as the first, the cries cut off as it dissipated. A moment of silence descended, followed immediately by the pitter-patter of rain on the roof.
     Meg nearly jumped out of her skin at the banging on the front door.
     "Seeress! Are you all right?" called a familiar voice. Then, when there was no immediate response, the call was repeated more urgently
     Practically weeping with relief, Meg rushed to open the door. She was greeted by a spray of wind-swept water. Standing just outside, in the midst of what had become a howling gale, was King Sor. He was alone - no guards or functionaries were in sight.
     "What...?" began Meg.
     "May we come in?" asked Sor.
     Meg wasn't sure who he meant by "we", but she stood aside to let him pass, then gazed into the pouring rain for his companion. There was no one living in sight. She did see several corpses, however. They radiated a peculiar mixture of loneliness and hunger, although the impressions were fading. Soon, when she looked at them, Meg would see lumps of lifeless meat. She didn't recognize what sort of creatures they were. That was often difficult with the living; virtually impossible with the dead.
     Meg turned to Sor. For the first time, she noticed the dwindling aura around him - a halo of power. Those had not been natural lightning strikes. He had used his magical abilities to draw the bolts here, to defend her. Perhaps someone did care.
     "Your Majesty, what happened? Why are you here?"
     "You were besieged. I'm not sure what they were, but from the descriptions I've heard..."
     "Dwarves," stated a female voice.
     Meg flinched. She could not see the woman who had spoken. It was as if she didn't exist. Never before had she been blind to anyone.
     "Are you all right?" asked Sor.
     Meg nodded. "Dwarves?"
     "Dwarves," affirmed the woman. From her voice, the seeress could tell where she was standing, but, no matter how hard Meg concentrated, she could see nothing.
     "They're dead now," said Sor matter-of-factly.
     "Dwarves should not be in Vorti. They shouldn't be anywhere near Vorti."
     "Where they should or shouldn't be is irrelevant," said the king. "They are here. When I get back to the palace, I'm going to put the militia on alert. I can't believe that dwarves would venture this far from their lands of origin in small numbers. Maybe this is the explanation for those lost merchant caravan and border patrols."
     "Why would they attack my house?" asked Meg.
     "This cottage is isolated. A perfect first target for an encroachment into the city," said the woman.
     It was a logical explanation, but Meg's intuition told her it was wrong. This had not been a random attack. They had been after her. If not for Sor's timely arrival, she would be dead.
     "Is your wife with you?" asked Meg.
     Sor appeared surprised by the question. "This is Joi," he affirmed. "You know why we came."
     "Why didn't you summon me to the palace?"
     "It's easier for me to slip out than it is to slip you in, and I wanted to discourage gossip. There's been too much of that lately. Besides, last time you were at the palace, to probe my potential successors, you were ill at ease and it hampered your readings. I thought things would be clearer if we came here."
     "It was the men I read who made me uneasy, not the place where I read them," said Meg. "In this case, it wouldn't have mattered. I cannot see your wife."
     "What?"
     Meg shrugged. "I can hear her voice and the rustle of her skirts, but no matter how hard I concentrate, I can't see her. To me, it's as if she doesn't exist. Or shouldn't exist. I can't explain it. This hasn't happened to me before."
     "Like a ghost?" asked Sor.
     "I've never met a ghost, but perhaps. Definitely something unnatural."
     "Could she be Joi?"
     "How can I answer when I can't see her? If I hadn't heard her voice, I'd say she wasn't real, but illusions don't talk. I can no more tell you if she's Joi than I can tell you if there's land across the great oceans."
     The king appeared perplexed, but Meg could sense the optimism building. What his queen thought or felt, she had no idea.
     "I'm sorry if this was a wasted journey," said Meg, a trace of bitterness in her voice. "I would have come to the palace. I'm like any of your subjects, willing to serve."
     "All things considered, this was not a wasted journey," said Sor. "Even in the matter of my wife's identity, I'm better informed than before. Perhaps this is an example of when learning nothing can mean learning something."
     "Perhaps," agreed Joi quietly in a voice Meg thought was speculative.
     "We'll be off," said Sor. "If someone finds us missing, the palace will be thrown into a panic. I'll send a squadron of guards to clean up the mess, and assign a permanent group to patrolling your lands, in case these creatures strike again."
     "Thank you, Your Majesty."
     Although the rain had lessened and the wind had stilled, the skies were dark when Sor and his wife departed. Meg watched the king go, but remained unable to see his wife. After Sor had passed beyond the range of her vision, she shut the door and leaned against it.
     Only then did she begin to shake and shudder, sliding along the length of the door until she was curled into a ball. Burying her face in her hands, she began to weep.
* * *

     Sor and Joi said little on the way back to the palace. Each was bothered, in their own way, by two images: the burnt husks of fourteen dwarves incinerated by lightning strikes and Meg's face when she realized she couldn't see Sor's companion.
     The feeling of wrongness that the seeress had sensed plagued Sor, although not as deeply. He too recognized that all was not as it should be. An ill wind was blowing toward Vorti, carrying with it death - if not worse.
     As had been the case on the trip away from the palace, no one in the city paid any attention to two cloaked and hooded figures who kept to themselves. The citizens of Vorti were too busy about their own business to concern themselves with others.
     The king and queen had just arrived inside the palace and had not yet removed their wet outdoor garments when they were approached by Uri, Sor's new chamberlain.
     "Are Your Majesties returning from outside?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
     Sor had to suppress a slight smile. Uri's family had served Sor's for three generations, and the attitude and expressions of the grandson were identical to those of his father and his father's father.
     "Yes, Uri. The queen and I stepped out for a breath of air. Did you want something?"
     "Chancellor Jav has been looking for you. Apparently, you have an audience scheduled for mid-afternoon in the little throne room."
     "Tell the chancellor that I'll attend. In the meantime, the queen and I will be in our quarters. Except in dire circumstances, we do not wish to be disturbed."
     "Understood, Your Majesty," said Uri. With a perfunctory bow, he headed off in the direction of the chancellor's rooms while Joi and Sor retired to the royal suite.
     Once inside their bedchamber, Sor doffed his damp tunic and sat on the bed. Joi curled up under the bridge of her husband's arm.
     "So what now?" she asked.
     "That's it," said Sor. "We know as much as we ever will."
     "There's nothing you can do with your powers?"
     He shook his head. "Magic works only in the realm of the tangible. Your identity is an intangible. Even if it were possible, I wouldn't know where to begin, and tampering with your mind could cause permanent damage."
     "So where does that leave us?"
     "With our hopes, and perhaps a little more. Maybe the reason Meg couldn't see you is because you represent a deviation from the natural order. To me, along with everything else, that's convincing evidence that you could be the reincarnation of my first wife."
     "But not as convincing as if she'd said it outright."
     "No. Perhaps we were unrealistic to expect such a clear-cut answer."
     "I never expected anything clear-cut," Joi reminded him. "Nothing in my life, for as far back as my memories stretch, has been straightforward. You were the one relying on the definite answer. Now, you'll never know the truth for certain. There will always be doubts."
     "Doubts are an easier burden to bear than the one I've carried for the past thirty-five years. I can tell you from experience that uncertainty is an improvement over grief. I could never let go of the love I bore for Joi, because it was all that kept me human. But, to retain the love, I had to keep the sorrow and pain as well. Now, for the first time in decades, I can have one without the other."
     "So you're content, then? With me?"
     "Yes."
     "You need an heir," observed Joi, snuggling closer.
     "So my advisors have been telling me since I took the throne. Perhaps finally I'll be able to accommodate them."
     "Not by talking, you won't."
     "I assure you, talking was far from my thoughts," said Sor, brushing his lips across her forehead as one hand stole down to rest on her bare thigh.
     "Your Majesty," Joi chided with mock seriousness. "Chancellor Jav is expecting you shortly in the little throne room."
     "Jav can wait. I'm sure even he'll agree that making the future king of Vorti is more important than any boring meeting he can convene."


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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