PART FIVE: QUESTIONS OF LIFE
The morning's audiences over, Sor bolted from the throne room, so eager was he to get away from the sycophants and hangers-on that clogged his court. Normally, those people were bearable, but today the king of Vorti had pressing matters on his mind. His wife, Queen Joi, some nine months pregnant, had gone into labor shortly after sunrise.
The past year had been a difficult one for Sor. Beginning with the death of his old friend and advisor Rim at the hands of a marauding band of dwarves, circumstances had conspired to make it a trying period for the Apath king and the people under his protection. Last year's harvest had been a bad one, leaving the city on the brink of famine during the subsequent bitter winter. When spring arrived, it did so with torrential downpours that flooded fields and washed away the city's less-sturdy structures. Plague followed the rains, as surely as summer succeeded spring. Additionally, Tsab officially declared war on Vorti, although no troops had been observed moving east since King Hwo made the pronouncement on Midsummer's Day, two months ago.
With the coming of the autumn of 595, things were improving. The farmers, having recovered from their earlier weather-related problems, claimed that the harvest was going to be a good one, and the city was excited about the prospect of at long last having a natural heir to the throne of Vorti.
Sor left the throne room for a private sitting room adjacent to it. His father had often used this room as a place of meditation and solitude, but Sor had only recently claimed it as his own place of retreat. It was small, but comfortable, with wood-paneled walls and a carpeted floor. There were two doors opposite each other, one opening into the audience chamber and the other into a hall that led to the royal apartments. The only furnishings were a large padded chair and a wooden desk, both of which had once belonged to King Kan.
After removing the crown from his head, Sor shrugged out of the robes of state and slipped into a lighter silk tunic with matching leggings. He dressed quickly, anxious to make his way to the royal bedchamber where Joi lay in labor.
Sor froze at the sound of a knock on the inner door to the sitting room. "Who is it?" he demanded, not caring whether the person on the other side could hear the anxiety in his voice. All day, he had been half-expecting a messenger to approach him with news that the child - or worse still, his wife - had died.
"Are you all right, Your Majesty?" asked Jav. "Has there been news?"
Opening the door, Sor strode past the chancellor on his way to his rooms. "I'm on my way to find out," he said as Jav fell in beside him.
"Let me assure you, Your Majesty, that all of us are wishing and hoping the queen..."
"Yes, yes, yes," muttered Sor impatiently, moving so quickly that Jav had to jog to keep abreast.
The two guards outside of the royal apartments saluted the king and his chancellor. Sor spared them barely a glance, throwing open the doors and bursting into his sitting room.
The moaning coming from the bedroom was evidence that the queen's ordeal was not yet over. One of the legion of healers present, along with a harridan of a midwife, approached the king as he entered.
"How is she?" demanded Sor without preamble. He glanced through the open doorway into the bedroom, but his view of his wife was blocked by the drawn curtains around her bed.
"All is well, Your Majesty," said the healer, his voice too smooth to be trustworthy.
The king turned to the midwife, repeating his question.
She shrugged. "I be seen all kinds of births, Yer Majesty. Hard ones, kind ones, dead ones. She be a wee thing, your wife, and she be going ta be in pain afore 'tis over. But I reckon she'll pull through. Her kind usually does. That elf she do spend so much time with be in there now."
By "that elf," Sor knew the old woman was referring to Lora. For some unknown reason, Joi had taken a liking to the lonely creature who had come to Vorti in the company of Eya and Reg. The two had become companions and, three months ago, Lora had come to the palace to serve as Joi's personal maid and confidante. At times, Sor felt almost jealous. He sensed that his wife opened up more to her elf friend than she did to him.
Sor started when Joi gave out a violent scream.
"'Tis all right, Yer Majesty," said the midwife, flashing him a toothy smile. Even as the king noticed that she had dimples, he wondered how they could be seen amidst so much excess flesh. "'Tis normal fer there ta be pain when the moment gets near. Now, why don't you go and leave her ta get on with what she be doing. This here be woman's work, an' there ain't no place fer a man in it. An' fer all you may be king, you still be a man under them robes."
The healer, who had been standing by the woman's side, nodding his head in agreement, added, "I can assure you, Your Majesty, that Queen Joi is in the best hands." He gave smarmy smile that set Sor's skin to crawling. At least he had faith in most of the other men attending the birth.
"That's good," muttered the king. "Because if something happens to my wife or child, I'll have the whole lot of you drawn and quartered."
The healer's smile vanished and his skin turned pale. With a quick bow, he scuttled into the bedroom. The midwife, chuckling under her breath after winking at her liege, hobbled after him.
"Your Majesty," said Jav, holding the door open so Sor could precede him out of the royal apartment.
The chancellor followed as Sor headed for the west wing of the palace, away from the inhabited portion of the building.
"I suppose the entire city is holding their breath, waiting for word," said Sor as the two of them strolled down deserted corridors with half-inch layers of dust on the floor. Not even the servants visited this part of the palace, which had been closed off since before Sor's birth. It was in these rooms that Kan's predecessor, Rel XVI, along with his family, had been butchered to death in the rebellion that had ousted the ancient line.
"None more so than you, Sire. But yes, they are waiting. It has been many years since they've had a royal birth to celebrate."
Sor nodded. His own birth had been the last one, and that was over fifty years ago. If there were any alive who had lifted a glass of wine on that day, they were old by now. A whole generation had passed without knowing what it was to celebrate the arrival of a crown prince. It was no wonder there was so much anticipation.
"My advisors will have a collective apoplexy if Joi gives birth to a girl," noted the king. In some ways, he hoped it was a daughter. The expressions of some of the councilmen would be worth the inconvenience of having to name a female heir. Vorti had never had a crown princess.
"At this point, Your Majesty, I don't care one way or the other. At least there will be a child with your blood in its veins. This is what I've worked for since my appointment, and what Rim did for so many years before me."
"I know. It's unfortunate that he couldn't be here today."
"No one could have foreseen what happened to him that night. Who knew there were dwarves within the city?"
"I blame myself more for never catching his killers than I do for his death," admitted Sor.
"At least after that they left this part of Devforth."
"Can we be certain of that?"
Jav regarded the king with alarm. "Have you heard something?"
"Whispers," acknowledged Sor. "Nothing substantial, but enough to make me wonder if the city is as safe as we have come to believe. Dwarves are masters of camouflage. There could be an army of them within ten miles of Vorti and if they didn't want to be found, none of our patrols would see them. I have a feeling..."
"You've been spending too much time with Lora." The elf was known around the palace for a constant sense of unease. Although never able to explain it, she often claimed that she felt as if something terrible was about to happen.
"Lora is my wife's companion, not mine. I'm not certain how much I can trust her."
"But you trust her friends, Reg and Eya."
"'Trust' is too strong a word. Because Eya is an Apath, I accept her. Reg is her twin, so I think duplicity from him unlikely. But Lora is a different matter."
Having reached one of the many entrances to the palace gardens, Sor stepped outside into the sun-dappled autumn afternoon. Taking a moment to drink in the cool air, he closed his mind and let his muscles relax. Jav stood by his side, allowing the king a moment's relaxation.
"I'm concerned, Jav," said Sor at last, moving along one of the walking paths. Most of the flowers were dead or dying, but the multi-hued leaves of the many small trees invested the gardens with a splash of color. "Something is wrong and I don't know what it is."
"The 'war' with Tsab?"
"Why now?" demanded Sor. "There has been hostility between myself and Hwo for decades. If anything, circumstances have been less disruptive this year. So why choose now for a war? He must know something that we don't. The survival of Vorti may depend upon our learning his secret."
"Maybe he did it as a matter of convenience. Perhaps there was internal pressure on him to define the relationship between Tsab and Vorti. Of all men, Sire, you know how politics can mold the actions of a ruler."
"I wish I could believe it was that simple, but Hwo is not a man to bow to pressure, no matter who exerts it. He confronts things head-on. Which is why this declaration of war makes no sense, especially since he hasn't moved against us since uttering the proclamation."
"If it comes to a battle, Your Majesty, we'll be ready," said Jav.
"I certainly hope so. Because if we aren't, you and I will be hanging from gibbets in the palace courtyard and this city will be calling itself Hwo's eastern realm."
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