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."

* * *

     Over the course of the nine months Eya had been studying under the guidance of Mat, she had come to know her master not as the gruff wizard that was his facade, but as a gentle and giving man. Of course, she would never let Mat know that she recognized the truth because of the embarrassment such a revelation would cause him.
     At first, Eya had been terrified of him: a hulking giant with a full red beard and an uncombed head of thick and colorful hair. Although reputed to be a keen scholar, Eya's first impression of him was that he would be more at home in a tavern than in a library, and that his booming voice was suited for such watering holes. It didn't take long for her to realize that Mat's fearsome image was just that - an image.
     Under Mat's tutelage, Eya's magical skills evolved. His lessons were relentless, and his tongue would lash her if she made a mistake., but never once did he lay a hand on her. As her teacher, no one would dispute his right to punish her in any way that he saw fit - including a flogging - but he admitted that little was gained by physical force.
     Mat was a recluse. Those hours he didn't pass in his spacious home were spent in Vorti's library. For him, magic was more an intellectual exercise than a physical activity. He rarely practiced his talents, preferring instead to learn all that he could about them. Knowledge was every bit his weapon as the abilities he had been born with.
     Today was different from most days. Like everyone else in Vorti, Mat was excited about the impending birth, and had declared a holiday. That meant no studying for Eya and no working in the fields for Reg and Bre. It was a unique change-of-pace for the young wizard. Since she had come to Mat's, there had not been a day when at least three-quarters of her waking hours hadn't been spent poring over books, memorizing passages, or refining techniques of meditation and concentration. Even on Midsummer's Day, the most festive day of the year, she had been forced to work through the morning and into the afternoon. At times, the sun had become almost as much a stranger as her friend Lora, who now spent the majority of her time at the palace.
     Three hours before noon, Reg came looking for his sister and, much to his surprise, found her still lounging in bed.
     "Not up yet?" he asked, stepping into the small room Mat had given her. Other than the master of the house, Eya was the only one to have a private chamber. Reg shared quarters with three workers, and Bre, who was also staying in Mat's house, lived in a dormitory with six women.
     "How often do I get to sleep past sunup?"
     "But you're not sleeping. You're just lying there, doing nothing."
     "I'm thinking. Why are you up already? You've got the day off, too."
     "There are a few things I want to do in the fields. Just because Mat said I didn't have to work today didn't mean there weren't things to do. You know as well as I do that a harvest doesn't grind to a halt because someone decides it's a holiday.""
     "That's an excuse."
     "Really? For what?"
     "I think you were too nervous to sleep."
     Reg gave her a peculiar look. "Why should I be nervous? I'm not the one trying to come to grips with the powers of an Apath."
     "Reg, we're twins. I've known for a while what you've been planning for today."
     "I'm not planning anything," replied Reg, sounding genuinely confused.
     Rising from bed and donning a robe, Eya searched her brother's face for signs of duplicity. "You're not?"
     "No. I was going to spend the day with some of the other men and have a few mugs of ale, but that's about it. Nothing to be nervous about. What did you think I was going to do?"
     "It's nothing," said Eya sheepishly.
     "I'm curious. Tell me."
     "All right. I thought you were going to ask Bre to marry you."
     Reg stared at his sister, his expression changing from surprise to amusement. Finally, he burst out laughing. "You can't be serious! Marry Bre? Me? We can't stand each other."
     "That's because you're in love," said Eya. "I thought you were going to gather the courage to say it out loud."
     Reg continued to chuckle. "I wonder what she'd throw at me if I said anything like that."
     "You don't understand women at all, Reg. She's waiting for you to say something. She's been waiting for months. I don't know how much longer she'll continue to wait. If you don't act, you're going to lose her."
     "All I can say is that I wish good luck to whoever finds her."
     "You don't mean that."
     "Yes I do," said Reg.
     "Whatever you say."
     "So, what are you going to do today? Spend the whole day lying there and thinking?"
     "Actually, I intend to practice a little on my...special project."
     "Have you told Mat yet?" asked Reg.
     "We agreed that neither of us was going to say anything about it. I trust Mat more than anyone in this city except you, Bre, and Lora, but this is too important to put at risk. Not until I'm sure about him...and it."
     "After all this time, you still don't know about him?"
     "All what time? We've only been in Vorti for a year! Is that enough time to get to know someone? To know what he'd do with the kind of power I might be able to put into his hands? It's too soon, Reg. You're not an Apath. You don't understand what this means."
     "I'm your twin, Eya. When you cry, I cry. When you laugh, I laugh. When you bleed, I bleed. Don't tell me I don't understand."
     "I can't tell Mat. Not yet!"
     "What about King Sor?"
     "I don't know. Maybe."
     Reg shook his head in disbelief. "I don't believe you just said that. You won't consider telling a man under whose roof you've been living for the past nine months, yet you say 'maybe' about someone you've only met a handful of times?"
     "Sor has the kind of experience with magic that Mat will never have. And he knows what power is. As a king and an Apath, he's had to live with it every day of his life. If I told him, it would be because of who and what he has demonstrated himself to be."
     "You're not thinking straight, Eya. Something's addled your mind."
     "Perhaps. Besides, we don't know if it's going to work. Maybe things aren't as simple as I believe them to be."
     "But you're going to find out today?"
     "Once and for all," said Eya. "I have to know if this is a theory or whether it can work in practice."
     Reg hesitated before asking, "Do you want a little help?"
     Eya favored him with a smile. "I thought you had plans. Drinking ale with the boys."
     "It's not very good ale."
* * *

     Sor gazed at the portrait of his father that hung high on the wall above the throne in the great audience hall. It was a recent addition to the chamber, added soon after a servant had discovered it in one of the disused cellars. The likeness of Kan was that of a younger man than Sor remembered, but the features were unmistakable.
     The king wished he could have been more like his father. Kan occasionally had been ruthless - when circumstances demanded it - but he had always tempered his judgments with compassion, and had tried to find the most just solution to every dilemma. That had not been Sor's way, at least not for many years. Over the decades, he had become concerned with expediency, often at the price of justice. How many innocent men had he sent to the executioner's block, and how many guilty had he set free?
     There had been a convenient excuse. Wizards called it Burgeoning Apathy, the point at which nearly all emotion is dead. Sor had believed himself to be at that point, burned out by his massive attack on the nobility. Only recently had he learned that his justification was a sham. While it was true that he had drained a great deal of emotion on that night long ago, he had not reached Burgeoning Apathy. Instead, he had given up on life. Not because of anything to do with magic, but because his wife had been murdered. He hadn't wanted to go on without her, and it had been his desire to punish a world that forced him to continue.
     Had he been as close to Burgeoning Apathy as he had believed, feelings such as those newly resurrected within him would be impossible. He had seen what Vas - an Apath truly without feeling - had become. Rather than falling prey to the wizard's nemesis, Sor had given in to a more human failing - he had lost hope.
     Few would blame him for sinking into depression after the deaths of his mother, his sister, and his wife. They would understand his impotent rage at the betrayal of his closest advisor. But those things should have passed. Sor was not an ordinary man, but a king and an Apath. He did not have the luxury to wallow in grief. So he had taken refuge in a lie - a lie he convinced himself to believe. Only in that way could he absolve himself of responsibility. Yet now he had discovered the falsehood within himself, and learned there was no way to set right the damage he had done.
     In the twilight of his life, it was up to him to make recompense. The people had grown used to a cold, uncaring king. They had forgotten the man whose face Sor now regarded. Before he died, the current king of Vorti intended to restore the legacy of Kan. He would become the king he had promised to be that day long ago when the crown had first been placed upon his brow.
     There would always be one question that would trouble Sor, but he thought he could accept not knowing the answer. Perhaps it was not important to learn who Joi truly was - whether or not she was the same wife that his mother's knife had stolen from him. Maybe all that was necessary was to recognize that she was here, and because of her presence, he had been redeemed. And now she was about to present him with an heir.
     Kan had ruled over a different sort of community than the one Sor would give to his son. There had been nobles then, but the end of the nobility had not been the cure-all some had expected it to be. A classless city did not mean a society without problems. Sor had become obsessed with suppressing any stirrings of class, often to the exclusion of greater concerns.
     Perhaps the city would be healthier if its social and economic structures were permitted to develop on their own. Let the guildmasters amass power without fear of violent retribution. Ultimately, the decision on that issue would be for Sor's successor to determine, but the king was determined to lay the proper foundations, as Kan had done for him. It was unfortunate that he had lost sight of all his father had tried to prepare him for. Relying upon magic had been his downfall. Perhaps it would yet be his salvation.
* * *

     Lora didn't understand her attachment to the young queen of Vorti. Perhaps they had more in common than was initially apparent. Even though Lora had her memories intact, she had been isolated from her own people since she had made the impulsive declaration that there was no god and Garvad would never return for his people. In a sense, albeit a different one, she and Joi were outcasts. Neither had a past they could turn to for guidance in the future.
     It was possible that the queen felt the same sense of kinship, but Lora believed that Joi had been drawn to her because she was an elf. For some reason, her race - possibly her alienness - captivated Joi.
     "I never thought it would be this hard," said the queen, her hand clasping Lora's. Her dark hair was plastered to her face and her thin silk gown clung to a body slick with perspiration. During the best of times, the queen was no beauty. In these circumstances, with pinched lips and a wan complexion, she looked ghastly.
     It had been a difficult labor thus far, more like Lora's own experience than that of any human woman she had seen give birth. There was a degree of agony in Joi's contractions beyond what was normal. The healers were concerned and spoke often among themselves about what might be wrong.
     "I know what it is like," said Lora softly, one hand reaching out to brush aside a limp strand of hair that had fallen across the queen's face.
     "You know?" Despite her agony, Joi's face displayed surprise.
     "I had a child once - a daughter. Giving birth was perhaps the hardest thing I have ever done, except losing her."
     "She died?"
     Lora nodded, fighting back tears. These were memories she dreaded recalling. "Yes. As a baby, she was stolen from me. I never saw her again. I assume the dwarves that took her ate her. The flesh of an infant is greatly prized. It is tender."
     "Dwarves took your baby?"
     "On the night Reg, Eya, and I fled from Heltala. Eighteen years ago."
     "How could you let them take her?"
     "Let them? I did not let them. But they were an army and I was only one, with the twins to care for. I could never have rescued her, even if I had given my life in the attempt." Lora did her best to describe the chaos and confusion of that night, stopping only when another contraction wracked Joi's body. The queen's agonized screams were inhuman, like the cries of a stricken beast.
     After that, although the conversation did not return to Mora, Lora found herself unable to shake the image of the tiny half-human, half-elf baby. Especially, she recalled her last vision of her daughter as the infant's features had misted and melted away from the familiar to those of a child of the race which had carried her away.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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