With the burning of Sor's body three weeks' past, nothing had yet been determined about the next ruler of Vorti. Numerous families, many believed eliminated during the former king's purge of the nobility, surfaced to make claims, however spurious, to the throne. There were also common citizens, visiting dignitaries, and various other men and women asserting their right to rule. Few of these, or any other pretenders, were given credence by those involved in the "transition government," since it was naturally assumed that little Lea would be the next ruler of Vorti. The real question was who her regent would be for the next fifteen years.
     A self-appointed council, made up mostly of the late king's "closest" advisors, had decided to resolve the thorny issue of Lea's guardian. It was a six-member panel which included the four most influential guildmasters, Chancellor Jav, and Commander Orf. Each believed himself to be the most qualified to guide the steps of the young queen. With none willing to bend and vote for someone else, there was a six-way stalemate.
     Meanwhile, the city continued running itself, albeit not well. Criminals and the few prisoners of war that had been taken rotted in dungeons with no one willing or able to order a trial. In the wake of the invasion, looting, murder, and theft were rampant. Since there were fewer guards to enforce the law, and no ruler to punish wrongdoers, Vorti was becoming a city where only the armed were safe. Social collapse, while not yet complete, seemed unavoidable.
     Two of the principles in the salvation of Vorti - Eya and Wil - had been unceremoniously turned out of the palace. Along with Reg and Bre, they had been forced to take a room in a low-class inn where they could afford the rates. Eya had been insulted at not receiving a position on the council, especially considering the importance of her role in the city's salvation.
     "Don't upset yourself over it," said Wil as the four of them sat together at a table in the noisy common room of the Drunken Doxy. "If they had appointed you to the council, anything sensible you had to say would have been ignored. Those six are there for one reason: to promote their own self interests."
     "I thought Jav was different," said Eya.
     Wil shrugged. "Maybe when Sor was alive, but now that he's dead, it's every man for himself. It's a good thing Sor had separate provisions in his will for guarding his heir, or there would have been an assassination attempt by now. If Lea dies, there will be civil war."
     "This whole thing seems so wrong," said Eya. "Vorti should be concentrating on rebuilding, not worrying who the regent is. If Sor hadn't died, this city would be well on its way to recovery. As things stand now, a quarter of the population will be without shelter when we get the first snow."
     "Rites of succession in Vorti are never easy. I remember the last one. If Sor hadn't been an Apath, his coronation would have been a bloody affair."
     "Maybe what we need now is another Apath to take control," said Bre. The comment was innocently intended, but she received three sharp looks the moment she said it.
     "Apaths don't grow on trees," said Wil carefully.
     "But wouldn't that solve the problem? No one would challenge an Apath," said Bre.
     "Where are you going to find one willing to take the regency?" asked Reg. "Certainly not at this table."
     "The issue isn't just one of wanting to take control," said Wil. "The population of Vorti has to support you, since this so-called council won't. Any Apath who tries to take the regency will need to engineer a coup. Bringing down an established government, even one in flux, is not easy. Sor is the only cog missing from this machine. Everything else is still in place."
     "You wanted to be king once," said Bre. "What about now?"
     "Thirty-five years ago I would have jumped at the opportunity, but it isn't an accident that I've let at least two chances pass me by. I have no desire to rule this city. At this point, I'm not sure I could do a better job than Sor did. Once, I was certain I could, but I got a taste of the difficulties in Falnora and recognize that my condemnation of the king may have been unfair. All rulers have their flaws, but I think he tried to do what was best for the city."
     "Strange to hear you eulogizing him," said Reg.
     Wil shrugged. "It does no one good to speak ill of the dead. Don't expect me to praise Kan, though."
     "The nobility will come back," predicted Bre. "It was only the force of Sor's personality that kept them away. With him dead, they'll be flocking back to the city, demanding land and rights. The legal ban on titles will be repealed within a year."
     "Unless someone who feels as Sor did becomes regent," said Eya.
     "The members of the council are already entertaining bribes from men eager for land and titles. There's no one with power who agrees with Sor's controversial positions."
     "I do," said Eya quietly.
     "But you're not in contention for the regency," said Reg.
     "Perhaps I should be."
     There was a long moment of silence following that statement. Finally, Reg exclaimed, "What??"
     "There's something we haven't considered through all of this. You and I are Lea's only living relatives. She is the daughter of our half-sister. Don't we owe her something?"
     "No. Her mother may have been our sister, but we never knew her."
     "Then don't we owe Lora something?"
     "Not this."
     "Eya, I don't think you realize the ramifications of what you're suggesting," interjected Wil. "This isn't a decision to be made lightly. Think of the turmoil that will occur if you announce that you intend to take the regency by force. You may believe that kinship gives you a legitimate claim - and perhaps it does - but there are many in Vorti who will not share that view."
     "If they don't listen to me because Lea is the daughter of my sister, they'll listen because I'm an Apath. They will no more oppose me than they did Sor. Not even the council members are that stupid."
     "With power involved, you would be surprised how stupid people can be," said Wil.
     "If I declare for the regency," began Eya, "Will you support me?"
     "Of course. Not that my support would mean much."
     "You're an Apath."
     "There is that, of course," agreed Wil. "But my name is besmirched in Vorti. I was one of the leaders of the losing side in a rebellion that took place decades ago. My involvement in that ugliness made me one of the least popular people in the city."
     "You can't be serious about this, Eya!" exclaimed Reg. "This is madness."
     "Why is it madness? Don't you think I can do a good job? Don't you believe that the child should be guided by someone willing to put forward the precepts her father sanctioned? Whoever becomes regent will not only rule this city for the next fifteen years, but will mold the education of the next lawful ruler. Lea has a right to be taught as Sor would want her to be."
     "For what it's worth," said Bre, "I think you would make an excellent regent."
     "And I think that we should all sleep on this before any commitments are made. I've made enough rash decisions in my life to know when it's better to wait and consider before acting," said Wil. "No regent will be chosen before tomorrow. Let's talk more in the morning."
     From the set of Eya's jaw, however, Wil feared that the decision had already been made.

* * *

     Later that night, as Bre was sitting in front of a looking glass brushing her hair, there was a knock at the door to her room. She opened it to admit an agitated Reg before returning to her treatment of her hair.
     "To what do I owe this honor?" Since he had chosen not to propose to her, an iciness had developed between them. Things were back to the way they had been before the day of Lea's birth.
     "I need to talk," said Reg.
     "And Wil isn't available?"
     "I need to talk with someone who isn't an Apath."
     "That fits everyone in this city except Wil and Eya."
     "Stop making this difficult," said Reg. "I need someone who's involved. Who cares."
     "Interesting how you keep saying what you need. Do you ever consider what anyone else needs? Or what they want?"
     "Doesn't it mean anything that I came to talk to you?"
     "Only if you came for the right reasons," said Bre. She put down her brush and faced him. "Only if you came here because, more than anything else, this is where you want to be. Not because I'm the most logical choice for a listener."
     "You never make things easy, do you?" demanded Reg. "Everything has to be a fight with you."
     "I'm not fighting now. You're the one who's making things hard. I just want to know the real reason why you're here - because you want to be with me or because you're lonely and I'm the best bet for someone who will listen to you?"
     "I didn't come to talk about this."
     "You don't believe that you could come to my room at this hour and expect to ignore what's between us, do you?"
     "I'm concerned about Eya. Can't you forget about us long enough to discuss her?"
     "Don't make me the insensitive one! Eya is capable of making her decision without help from us. Besides, we don't agree on the matter anyway. I think she'd be an excellent regent."
     "I don't want to see her hurt."
     "And how is becoming regent going to hurt her? Have you considered that this might be what she wants out of life? That it will fulfill her. Apaths have dreams and goals, too, just like the rest of us."
     "I know that. Don't forget that I'm her twin. Power has never been one of her desires."
     "Maybe she isn't doing this for power. Maybe she's doing it because she believes everything she told us this evening. Do you have so little faith in her?"
     "I have the utmost faith in my sister. I just don't want to see her hurt," repeated Reg.
     "Curious how much you care about certain people being hurt."
     Reg heaved a sigh. "All right. We'll deal with it. What do you want from me?"
     "You know."
     "A marriage proposal?"
     "You haven't been listening to me at all, have you? It doesn't have to be that formal. I want to know if we have a future together, if there's any hope for us."
     "Does it make a difference?"
     "What a stupid question! Of course it makes a difference. You and I aren't the kind of couple who can 'just be friends'. Our relationship is too volatile for that."
     "You want a commitment?"
     "I want whatever you can give. I want to know where I stand. You made it plain in the infirmary that marriage is out of the question, at least for now. I can accept that. Marriage isn't everything. But I need to know what you think there is between us."
     "Let's look at it from a different perspective. What do you think there is?"
     "Are you so unwilling to answer a simple question that you have to turn it around?"
     "The question is anything but simple, at least from my perspective. If you think it's easy to answer, you should be willing to."
     "All right. I love you. Is that what you want to hear? I dread the thought of waking up some day and not seeing you or hearing your voice. I love the idea of working side-by-side with you and raising our children together. And I feel trapped because you don't seem to share those feelings."
     Having spoken from the heart, Bre looked Reg in the eyes. He glanced away, avoiding the naked emotion revealed there.
     "That was direct," said Reg. "And it deserves an equally honest response. The reason I can't marry you is because I don't know how I feel. I could lie and say I love you, but you deserve better than that. What I can say is that I enjoy your presence. For now, at least, I want you near me. You're important. For my whole life, everything I've done has been designed to protect Eya. Suddenly, I'm considering you along with her."
     "And you don't call that love?"
     "You're on my mind a lot. I don't know what that means."
     "Do you want me?"
     Reg looked at her, wearing a simple night garment that clung seductively to her body, and felt a lump form in his throat. He said nothing.
     Bre approached him. Standing on tiptoes, she circled her arms around his waist and kissed him gently on the lips. "All you have to do is say the word - one word - and I'm yours. Maybe it will help you figure out what love is."
     "Bre, I don't..."
     She started to move against him, burying her face against his shoulder so he could smell the fragrance of her hair. She kissed him again - small pecks on his shoulder and the soft, sensitive part of his neck.
     "Yes," he finally managed to say, the huskiness of his voice surprising himself.
     Bre reached over and doused the light.
* * *

     "I have decided to make a play for the regency," said Eya as she and the three others gathered for an early-morning meal in the common room of the Drunken Doxy. "For the sakes of Lea, Lora, and Vorti. I can't abide the thought of what this city will be like if any member of that council becomes regent. I didn't risk my life fighting against Tsab and the dwarves so this city can be torn apart by internal strife and corruption."
     "There's one thing you haven't considered," said Reg. "Frankly, Lea isn't the natural heir to Vorti's throne. Gav is."
     Wil gave Reg a stony look but said nothing. He had suspected his son's name was going to enter into the discussion at some point.
     "Sor named Lea his heir," said Eya. "That gives her precedence over anyone else. Besides, Gav doesn't know that Sor is his natural father."
     "Then it's time he should be told."
     "Don't you think it should be Wil's choice whether or not to tell him?"
     "This is a decision Gav should be given the opportunity to make. To do that, he needs to know the truth."
     "The choice has already been made," said Wil. "Before I left for Vorti with Meg, I told Gav who his real father is. Knowing that, he still chose to stay behind in Falnora. The issue of Lea's position as the heir to Vorti's throne is clear, as least as far as Sor's other blood-child is concerned."
     "Reg," began Eya, "It's clear you don't want me pursuing the regency. Who would you prefer instead?"
     "It's not that I don't want you to be Lea's guardian, just that I think you should consider all the ramifications of this action before making a final decision."
     "That's less than a resounding endorsement. For your information, I have considered everything. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes."
     Reg cast a significant glance in Bre's direction. Eya noticed the action with little surprise. The two had come down together this morning and were sitting closer than usual. It was plain to anyone with eyes that something had developed between them.
     "If you're firm in your decision," said Reg, "we'll support you." The "we" was meant to include himself and Bre.
     "What do you think, Wil?" asked Eya.
     "I think you're right, that Vorti deserves and needs better than it will get from the men and women sitting on the council now. I can't say that you're the best qualified or that, in your position, I'd make the same choice, but I can't fault your reasons."
     "So you're behind me?"
     Wil smiled. "Of course. As I said yesterday, however, I may be more of a detriment than a help."
     "How do you intend to do this?" asked Reg.
     Eya shrugged. "It shouldn't be difficult. I'll ask permission to see the council, then announce my intentions to them. If they put up a struggle, which I expect they will, I'll drop a few reminders about my abilities and those of another Apath backing me. If they value their lives, they won't complain much."
     "Don't ask for an audience," advised Wil. "Asking gives them an opportunity to deny you. Demand one. Let them know from the beginning that you expect obedience. Make it clear who is in the position of authority. Also, if you intend to go through with this, you must be ready to shed blood. It's possible that the coup could occur without deaths, but not likely. Someone will oppose you, regardless of what powers you have. When that happens, no matter who it is, you must be ready to kill them. No second chances. Are you willing to go that far?"
     "Yes. I never expected a smooth road."
     "After you convince the council, you must convince the people. Your relationship with the child will help, but you will personally have to make them believe that you are the one to guide this city. Sor's favorite method of stirring up public sentiment was to stand atop the palace walls and give a speech. Often, there wasn't much substance to what he said, but he was good when it came to atmosphere and theatrics. I suggest you adopt the same approach. The people will see it as another connection to a late ruler who is becoming more beloved with every passing day since his death."
     "When do you want to start?" asked Bre.
     "I have time to plan, since the council seems interminably deadlocked, but I don't want to wait too long. As unlikely as it seems, there's a possibility that they could agree on a compromise candidate. I should be ready in two or three days."
     "I would advise moving more quickly," said Wil. "Walls in a city like Vorti have ears and the sooner you move, the better your chances of taking everyone by surprise. There's little planning to be done. Compared to the battle with the invaders, this campaign will be straightforward."
     "Tomorrow morning?" asked Eya.
     Wil nodded. "We'll be ready."
* * *

     With a wave of annoyance, Jav dismissed the messenger. Suddenly, he felt guilty - and uncomfortable - sitting in the little throne room's gilt and padded chair. The news that he had received confirmed a possibility he had acknowledged when the council had outvoted him in demanding that the two Apaths be removed from the palace.
     As chancellor, Jav recognized that during this time of turmoil and crisis, he should be the stabilizing force in Vorti. Unfortunately, no one was willing to recognize his power. Every time he attempted to take definitive action, it either backfired or was ignored. The army was responsive only to Commander Orf, the various guilds were loyal to their masters, and the king's personal corps were following the letter of Sor's will without regard to the chancellor's needs.
     Jav had been in favor of naming Eya or Wil as regent, but no sooner had he opened up the possibility to the council-at-large than he was loudly shouted down. None were willing to countenance an Apath as a rival for a position they were pushing to occupy. Personally, Jav had no desire to be the regent, but he had entered the fray to keep his political power base from eroding.
     Now, one of the dozen or so loyal couriers had brought him one of the hottest new tavern rumors, that Eya was going to make a play for the regency. As far as the chancellor was concerned, that was the best of all possibilities, and he was ready to help however he could. When she came before the council, he intended to champion her cause.
     Personally, Jav had not agreed with many of Sor's policies, but he believed that it was the duty of the chancellor to ensure that the next ruler of Vorti was educated in the policies that her father espoused. Without a doubt, Jav was the only one on the council who believed that. The desires of the others were to mold Lea's views to fit their own. They wanted, and intended to have, a puppet, and that was something Jav was determined to stop.
* * *

     The chancellor was not the only one to learn of the rumors concerning Eya. Commander Orf, sitting in his spacious office planning the next move in his march to the regency, received word of the Apath's intentions from one of the spies he had roaming the streets. Unlike Jav, who considered his reaction to Eya's move, Orf chose to make a preemptive strike. He did not intend for one woman - albeit a powerful and important one - to interfere with his plans. He despised the kind of underhanded tactics this unfortunate development would force him to employ, but the stakes were too high for squeamishness.
     He called in the captain of his personal bodyguard and issued the orders which would cement his control over the council and guarantee his elevation to the regency.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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