"They're gone," said Eya, entering Wil's room without knocking. The elder Apath was sitting on his bug-infested bed lacing up his boots.
     "Who is?"
     "Reg and Bre. I checked both rooms and the common room downstairs. There's no sign of them."
     "Did you talk to the innkeeper?"
     Eya nodded. "He says he hasn't seen anything, but I think he's lying. I haven't trusted that man since we ame here. Always skulking around our table trying to hear what we're saying. I wouldn't be surprised if someone was paying him to spy on us."
     Wil pursed his lips. "The absence of your brother and Bre could be innocent. Perhaps they went out for an early morning lovers' walk."
     "That's not it. Reg knew what time we were leaving this morning and how important this is to me. He would have been back by now."
     "So you think something ill has befallen him?"
     Eya nodded. "What else? How better to stop an Apath than through her brother?"
     "In that case," said Wil, rising to don a cloak, "We'd better get to the palace as quickly as possible."
     "The palace? We have to find them!"
     "And how do you propose to do that?"
     "The innkeeper must know something. We can force him to talk."
     "Whatever he knows - if anything - won't be much. Whoever took Bre and Reg will have made sure of that. If they are attempting to stop your taking the regency, they won't be easy to trace. They'll expect you to track them, using up time in the process. The best way to beat them is to act quickly and decisively."
     "If I do that, Reg and Bre might end up dead."
     "True," admitted Wil. "But the same might happen if you try to find them. Once you're in power, they might back off. As bad as it is to have an wizard after them, it will be worse to be hunted by an Apath regent."
     "He's not dead yet," said Eya. "I can feel it. I would know if he had been killed."
     "You have to act before they do. Keep them off balance. Don't let them get the upper hand. Once you give in to them on one point, they've won. In that case, you may never see Reg or Bre again."
     "We don't know who 'they' are," said Eya.
     "We can make a few shrewd guesses. Six of them, to be exact. At this point, it doesn't much matter. I'm sure we'll find out soon enough."
     "You advise going to the palace?"
     "I've always trusted you, Wil. Now doesn't seem to be a good time to stop. Let's go."

* * *

     The council to determine Lea's regent was assembled, but no one was saying much. By now, they had heard the rumors, and were nervously awaiting the next development in a tense situation.
     Besides Chancellor Jav and Commander Orf, the members of the council were guildmasters. Mys, head of the powerful dockworker's guild, was considered the least intelligent but most outspoken of the six. Dru, the bean-shaped leader of the merchant's guild, was the only one Orf considered a serious rival in his quest for power. Uys of the farmer's guild and Upp of the fishermen's guild were present less because of a personal desire for power than to represent the interests of their sizable constituencies.
     "The people will never accept her," said Mys in response to Upp's question about how serious Eya's chances were. "She has no connection to the throne whatsoever."
     "And we do?" retorted Jav.
     "We have been loyal advisors to the Crown."
     "She was instrumental in defeating the invasion forces."
     "Are you saying you believe she has a legitimate claim?" demanded Mys.
     "Her claim is no less valid than any of ours," replied Jav. He did not mention the blood-relationship between Lea and Eya. That was a personal matter and up to Eya to reveal if - and when - she chose to.
     "Claims and rights are invalid at a time like this," said Orf with characteristic dispassion. "We are not discussing the next ruler of Vorti, but the person who will guide her footsteps through childhood. That Lea is the rightful heir to the throne is not in dispute. The only qualification necessary for the regent is that he have the competency and ability to rule the city and teach the child for the next fifteen years. As such, Eya has as much claim as any of us."
     "What chance do we stand, then?" demanded Upp. "She's popular with the common people. They regard her as a hero. I don't agree with Mys; they'll laud an announcement proclaiming her as regent."
     "And she is an Apath," noted Dru. "With another Apath backing her claim."
     "We are still the council empowered with the final decision," said Orf. "We will consider Eya's claim - if she makes it - just as we will consider that of anyone else. She will not be given special treatment because of her status as an Apath."
     "You're being naive, Orf, which I must admit I never expected from you. With her powers, she has no need to ask our permission for anything. She can take whatever she wants, including the regency, whether or not we endorse her."
     "I have already taken steps to assure that such a thing will not happen. Eya may request that we consider her petition, but she will not make demands of this body."
     "What have you done?" snapped Mys.
     Orf allowed himself a thin smile. "Acted in a manner that will preserve the authority of this council. What any of you should have done had you thought of it."
     Jav didn't like the way the conversation was going. Orf was not a man accustomed to bluffing, and he seemed confident of his position. He was a realist of the bluntest sort, and men like him did not take stands unless they had something to back up their position. Jav wondered what it could be, and whether it was potent enough to muzzle Eya.
     "We're going to have to choose a regent soon. This city needs firm direction," said Upp.
     Orf shrugged. "We have all given our names and voted for ourselves. Stalemate. Three people will have to adopt a new choice for us to get the majority needed to choose the regent."
     "What about a compromise candidate?" suggested Uys. "Since none of us is willing to vote for the others, perhaps we could agree on someone outside of the council."
     "Someone like Eya," said Jav.
     "The six of us represent the most experience and knowledge available in Vorti. Any 'compromise candidate' would be inferior."
     "But he might be pliable," noted Dru. "Pulling the strings of a puppet is in some ways more advantageous than being the obvious center of power."
     "You speak as if from experience," said Orf.
     Dru smiled at this.
     At that moment, there was a commotion outside of the hall where the council was meeting. After a hurried exchange of raised voices, a flustered guard entered the room. All eyes turned to him.
     "Honored Sirs, there is a woman outside who requests an audience..."
     "Demands," stated Eya, shouldering aside the guard. Wil followed in her wake, his expression as grim as death.
     "You may leave, Pur," said Orf. Relieved, the man exited, closing the door behind him.
     "There is no need to be uncivil," said Dru. "We would gladly honor any request to petition this council."
     "I'm not here to petition the council," said Eya, her voice as cold as the gleam in her eyes. "I'm here to disband it."
     There was a moment of silence before Orf said, "You have neither the authority nor the ability. This is a lawful council..."
     "Lawful? It has been organized and assembled by you, not the former king or the people," said Eya.
     "The current highest ranking official in the city, Chancellor Jav, not only supports this council, but sits on it as a member."
     "At this point, Chancellor Jav is a figurehead. All of us in this room are aware of that, including him."
     "So you think to usurp the authority of this council and seize control of the city?" demanded Orf.
     "No. I intend to disband this council and announce my acceptance of the position as regent to Lea. It's that simple."
     "And you believe we will accept such an unlawful - not to mention insulting - act?"
     "As I see it, there's little you can do about it. I need not remind you that both of us standing before you are Apaths. We have more than enough power to quell any problems that arise."
     "Ah yes, I see that you're in the company of the infamous Wil. Thirty-five years ago, when I was a lad, he led a failed rebellion against King Sor, didn't he? I hardly think that's the kind of man any of us want in charge of this city. I daresay our late ruler wouldn't have countenanced such a thing."
     "I have no aspirations toward the regency or the throne," said Wil. "I am here solely to support Eya's claim."
     "You've changed your position."
     Wil nodded. "I have. Thirty-five years imparts wisdom to some men. I'm sorry if you aren't among them."
     Orf blanched at the insult. "This has gone far enough. This council will be the body to decide who the regent will be. Its authority - and decision - is absolute and binding. We will not give way to threats of terror. I strongly advise that both of you leave Vorti before I have you arrested and executed for treason." So saying, he jerked a bell-pull to his left.
     The double-doors at the opposite end of the hall to those through which Eya and Wil had entered swung open. Through them marched a contingent of eight guards in four rows of two. In their midst, shackled and barely able to stand, were Bre and Reg. Both were stumbling, with heavy-lidded eyes, and showed signs of physical mistreatment. Bre had an ugly discoloration on her left cheek and Reg's bare chest showed burn marks.
     "If you wish to avoid causing additional unnecessary harm to these two, you will leave Vorti now."
     "If we do, you'll let them go?" asked Wil.
     "Of course not!" scoffed Orf. "What kind of fool do you take me for? The moment these two are free, there will be nothing to stop you from returning. No, unfortunately, they must remain in custody indefinitely, but if you obey the edict of the council and stay away from the city, they'll be removed from the dungeons and placed into quarters more suitable for honored guests."
     "What have you done to them?" demanded Eya through gritted teeth. Her brother had not once looked at her since entering the room. It was plain that he and Bre were drugged.
     "Nothing compared to what we'll do if you don't leave. And don't think of using magic. These guards will kill your brother and his lover the moment you make a move."
     Eya glanced at the eight men surrounding Reg and Bre. All were armed and alert, naked steel in their hands. The two directly behind the prisoners had the tips of their swords pressed against their necks. A moment's pressure was all it would take to end both lives, and magic, no matter how quickly it came, always gave at least a split-second's warning. That was too long to assure the survival of the captives.
     "Orf, I don't think you want to do this," said Upp. "Don't pick a fight with Apaths. It isn't worth it."
     "Shut up. If you don't have the stomach for it, get out. This is what it means to have power."
     "You've gone mad," said Dru. "You can't fight Apaths, you fool. Not like this."
     "That belief is why when the dust settles, I'll be the regent while the rest of you will still be squabbling among yourselves."
     "By doing this, Commander, you've signed your death warrant," said Wil.
     "Then I won't die alone. If I go, these two go with me."
     "I can't allow this to go on," said Jav, rising from his chair. "This is too much." He started for the door.
     "I never thought you had much stomach for this, Jav, but I didn't realize how weak you are," said Orf.
     Jav's route to the door passed directly behind the commander's chair. As he came abreast of Orf, the dagger he had concealed up his sleeve slipped into his hand. Before anyone realized what was happening, Jav had the blade pressed against Orf's throat. A thin rivulet of blood trickled from where the knife bit into the skin.
     "No one move!" shouted Jav.
     "Don't be a fool," growled Orf. "Put it down."
     "This is what's called a power play," said the chancellor. He was relieved that the commander couldn't see the perspiration gleaming on his brow. At least the hand holding the knife was steady. "How's this for a 'weak' move?"
     Eya and Wil were as surprised by the turn-of-events as everyone else. They hadn't expected to find any allies on the council, much less one willing to risk this much.
     "Tell your guards to release the prisoners," said Jav.
     "Not a chance."
     "Then let me explain what's going to happen. I'm going to slit your throat. You'll die. Then it will be up to the guards to decide whether to kill Reg and Bre and be annihilated by magic or let them go and escape unscathed. With their commander dead, which do you think they'll choose?"
     "They know how to follow orders. If anything happens to me, Reg and Bre will die."
     Jav glanced at the guards. Indecision masked their features. Swords, except for the ones at the prisoners' necks, had dipped.
     Orf moved so quickly that Jav was taken unprepared. The dagger traced a crimson line across the commander's throat but, with no force behind it, serious damage was averted. Punching him in the stomach, Orf knocked Jav away from him before twisting the knife from his grip, shattering the chancellor's wrist with an audible snap . Jav cried out, cradling his wounded hand as Orf advanced upon him with murderous fury.
     As he raised the dagger to plunge it into the chancellor's heart, the commander's body erupted into greenish-blue flames. His mouth opened to scream, but his body was consumed before a sound escaped. A small shower of ash settled to the floor, some of the powder-like substance still licked by tongues of fire. Not even the steel of the knife had survived the conflagration. It was all over in a matter of seconds.
     The guards stood in stunned amazement as Eya turned to them. "Let my brother and Bre go or the same will happen to you, but more slowly. Orf's death was swift. If the prisoners aren't released, I'll see that the next series of executions is infinitely more painful."
     Almost as a single entity, the guards sheathed their weapons. One of them unclipped a ring of keys from his belt and unlocked the manacles imprisoning Reg and Bre's ankles and wrists. Eya moved forward to help the dazed prisoners to seats while Wil went to the aid of the doubled-over Jav, who was in great pain.
     "Someone call a healer," demanded Eya. When no one moved to do so, she repeated the command, singling out a guard and fixing him with a threatening glare. He quickly left the room.
     Moments later, Sam, the palace healer, bustled into the hall. After briefly checking to ensure that Reg and Bre's conditions were not serious, he tended to Jav's injuries.
     "Just a shattered wrist," he pronounced clinically. "This is going to hurt."
     The chancellor's scream affirmed that. After the break had been set and splinted, and Jav had been given a cup of drugged wine to dull the pain, Sam made a thorough examination of the others.
     "They've been drugged. Some sort of opiate. They'll recover in a few hours, but with a nasty headache. The rest of the injuries are superficial."
     At that moment, the guard who had initially announced Eya's arrival entered the hall. "Sirs, the seeress Meg wishes to speak before the council."
     "Show her in," said Eya.
     The guard looked at the Apath in surprise, not expecting her to speak for the council, but when no one objected, he gave a bow before admitting the blind woman.
     "I have come to give my advice on the choice of regent," began Meg without preamble. Her sightless eyes scanned the room, settling on each person present before she continued. "Much has been accomplished here today that was fated. Will the council hear my advice?"
     "They will," said Eya.
     The seeress turned to face the Apath, a gentle smile quirking her lips. "Perhaps my presence is unnecessary since the decision has apparently been reached. Would you Eya, daughter of Dav and Sya and twin of Reg, step aside if it was my advice that another take on the role of regent, a position for which you have made a claim?"
     Eya answered without hesitation. "I would." If there was one power less immutable than that of Apaths, it was the vision of a seeress. To go against the advice of one such as Meg would be to court disaster. Eya had no wish of that for herself or the city.
     "You are a woman with integrity and honor, Eya. I look into you and I see ability and strength. Once, in your previous life, you were destined to rule before the machinations of politics struck you down. It is fitting that you be given a second chance. My advice is that you be selected as the regent of Lea daughter of Sor, the next ruler of Vorti."
     Eya nodded her thanks, although aware that Meg couldn't see the gesture. Something in the seeress' endorsement had piqued her curiosity, however. "You spoke of my previous life. Who was I... what was my name?"
     "To know of the past is a serious thing. It may forever alter how you view the future. Are you willing to accept the risks of that knowledge?"
     "I am."
     "Very well," said Meg. "In your previous sojourn in Devforth, you were Kir, the first son of Kan and Lea, and the Crown Prince of Vorti until your death at the hands of Queen Sye, the mother of Sor. Your link to this city was unfinished and fate saw fit to place you in the position you are now in, where an incomplete role can be fulfilled."
* * *

     Following Orf's death and the endorsement by the seeress of Eya, the Apath's confirmation by the council was a matter of routine. For the sake of form, debates were held on the issue, but the result was never in doubt. After a delay of approximately six weeks, the council officially proclaimed Eya daughter of Dav and Sya as the Regent of Vorti, caretaker of the throne and city until such time as Lea had reached the majority age of fifteen and was eligible to be crowned.
     Eya's first act as Regent was to disband the council. She then called a meeting of her four closest advisors - Wil, Reg, Bre, and Jav - in the little throne room.
     Wil was the first to arrive, dressed somberly in tones of black and gray as had been his custom since returning to Vorti. Eya knew that part of him missed Falnora but that since the death of his wife, the Halcyon Meadows community no longer held the magic it once had.
     With his arm heavily bandaged and tied to a splint, Jav arrived immediately after Wil. The chancellor had been told by Vorti's most experienced healers that he would never regain full functionality of his left hand. The damage to the wrist had been too severe. If all went well, he might be able to do some rudimentary grasping but little else.
     Arm-in-arm, Reg and Bre arrived several moments later. The past few weeks had brought about a change in the nature of their relationship. Although they still bickered, they no longer shrank away from public displays of affection.
     "Good afternoon," said Eya when they were together.
     "Good afternoon, Your Honor," said Jav. It had been previously agreed that the Regent would not be addressed as "Your Majesty". That title was reserved for Lea.
     "There are a few matters which have to be discussed. The first is the date of my investment. I have been told that the height of the Midwinter Carnival might be a good time."
     Bre let out a chuckle that earned curious glances from everyone except her companion.
     "That would be a good time," said Reg. "It would give us another cause for celebration."
     "Another?" questioned Eya.
     "Tell her," said Bre.
     "We're to be married during the Midwinter Carnival. We thought it best since Bre is with child."
     Several minutes of congratulations followed, including the traditional round of drinks. Golden goblets were filled with a deep purple brew rescued from the depths of the palace wine cellars. It was a fine vintage that had been placed in storage by Rel VII over one-hundred years ago.
     "The Midwinter Carnival it is," said Eya after several rounds of toasts. "For both the wedding and the investment. I think I'll bestow a plot of land to you two as a wedding gift, although I had hoped to keep you here in the palace as advisors."
     "My advice is always yours for the asking," said Reg. "But I'm a farmer. This palace is your chosen prison, not mine."
     "Fair enough, as long as you stay in Vorti."
     "No fear of us leaving."
     "Now," continued Eya, turning to the others. "There's the issue of my chief advisors. I spoke to Jav earlier about staying on as Vorti's chancellor. While he said that he was honored by the offer, he would prefer to step down from the post."
     "No offense intended, Your Honor, but I was Sor's chancellor and I believe my time passed with the end of his reign."
     "No offense taken, but I'd like to keep you in the palace in some capacity. I thought perhaps a post as Lea's chief tutor might suit you. Would you be amenable to that position?"
     A smile transformed Jav's features. "Yes, Your Honor. You know I would."
     "Very well. That much is settled, leaving only the post of chancellor to fill." It was obvious who she had chosen before she spoke. "Wil, would you be willing to stay in Vorti and live in the palace?"
     "For anyone else, no, but for you, yes. I'll miss Falnora, of course, but at the moment I think Vorti needs me more."
     "Good," said Eya with a smile at her four guests. "Then it's time to set this city to rights."
     Together they drank one final toast - to the well-being of Vorti, the reign of the Regent, and the chancellorship of Wil.
* * *

     "Citizens of Vorti, I come to you on this cold morning to offer you a window into your future. I come to you not as a ruler, but as a caretaker. For the next fifteen years, I will do all that is within my power to shape this city into a place where Queen Lea will be proud to rule. Recently, Vorti has been shaken by the terrors of war and invasion. Hopefully, those are things of the past. The enemies are beaten and the future looks free of bloodshed.
     "Rebuilding must come first, but it is my aim for Vorti to go far beyond rebuilding. We must become the strong city we once were so when Lea stands atop these walls to give her coronation speech, she will be speaking to a thriving metropolis.
     "I would never attempt to replace King Sor. His is a powerful legacy that no ruler in the history of Devforth can match. No other king has done so much. Single-handedly, he erased the boundaries of class, an act that transformed the nature of Vorti. I see no reason to change a policy that has been instrumental in shaping this city over the past three and one-half decades.
     "Sor was a great man. During the course of his long rule, there was nothing he would not sacrifice for his people. He gave up his wife, his emotion, and his life for Vorti. Even in the bleakest hours, when his popularity was at its lowest ebb, he never lost faith in what makes this city great. I hope that in the days and years to come, I will be granted a measure of the greatness that was King Sor's so that Vorti may continue to prosper until it is the envy of the civilized world.
     "Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the Carnival."

- The Investment Speech of Eya, Regent of Vorti, Midwinter's Day, 595 CR

The End

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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