PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG
Most days at court were tedious bores: hour upon hour of sitting in a stuffy room listening to the whining complaints of dirty peasants and pampered nobles. The odor of unwashed bodies and sickly sweet perfumes was enough to make the strongest stomach quail, and the closeness of the air was sure to bring on a headache by noon. Sometimes, Guc of Tsab wondered why he had agreed to the alliance with the Council of Nobles that had aided him in deposing his late father, Hwo the Hated.
Today, as usual, he was sitting slumped on his throne, with splayed legs, crossed arms, and an expression of terminal boredom on his comely features. He usually made an effort to look interested, but this morning he wasn't bothering. He was out-of-sorts, the inclement weather having forced the cancellation of his usual daybreak riding expedition. His aides, who seemed to rule his life, claimed the new-fallen snow made it "too dangerous for His Majesty to take unnecessary risks." Galloping about the countryside on his trusted mount fell into that category.
Guc shifted in his seat as the bald-headed peasant kneeling in front of him continued to drone on about water rights. He was an owner of a plot of Tsab's outlying farm lands and his claim was that his neighbor had dammed up the stream, depriving his crops of water. Absently, Guc wondered how that could be an issue at this time of the year. Why hadn't the man made the complaint during the warmer weather if, as he claimed, the infraction had been made last spring?
He could have asked, but Guc had no real desire to get to the bottom of what was likely to be an unpleasantly complicated matter. He believed justice should be swift and impartial, taking little account of extenuating circumstances, thus saving time and energy. To that end, he cut off the old man in mid-sentence.
"Your complaint is duly noted, Citizen," declared Guc. The king's scribe went to work, copying his liege's pronouncement word-by-word for posterity. "Chancellor Hob, if the two parties involved cannot work out a mutually acceptable solution to this dispute within forty-eight hours, you are to command a squadron of guards to dam the steam upriver so that neither of them can make use of it. Thus is my judgment on this matter."
The bald-headed plaintiff opened his mouth to protest. However, when a glance into the king's eyes revealed no trace of compassion, he thought better of it and turned away to shuffle down the aisle. King Guc was noted for ruthlessness, fairness, logic, and justice, but never for kindness.
"Next," muttered the king, running two fingers across his newly-shaven chin. He missed his beard and wished now that he hadn't let his chancellor bully him into removing it. Did it really matter whether it made him look "less royal" or not. Regardless of his appearance, he was the king. Neatly-styled hair, a waxed mustached, a lack of beard, and the insufferably hot robes of state made little difference. At least he had won the point about not having to wear the crown except on the most important of occasions. That thing was so heavy it was torturous to endure for more than an hour at a time.
"Will the Right Honorable Nobleman His Excellency Duke Riv step..." began Chancellor Hob, going into his florid introduction of the next supplicant, a annoying little man who seemed to have a new complaint every week. Hob stopped in mid-sentence when he saw a guard hurrying up the aisle, waving a sheet of parchment.
Guc sat up in his chair, suddenly taking interest. Something unusual was about to happen, and anything to break the monotony of one of these audiences was worth paying attention to.
Hob and the guard huddled for a short conference that involved lowered voices and gesticulating. The king couldn't make out what they were saying even though the audience hall had become silent as fifty pairs of ears strove to hear the conversation.
Eventually, the guard hurried back the way he had come, his booted footsteps echoing through the vaulted chamber.
"Your Majesty," began Hob, turning to face the king. As usual, the old man's expression was unreadable. Then again, he had so much white hair on his face that it was difficult to see if he had any expression at all. "If Duke Riv will pardon the interruption..."
"Of course Duke Riv will pardon the interruption," snapped Guc, waving dismissively in the direction of the genuflecting noble. "Duke Riv is a loyal servant of the Crown and will gladly step aside if more pressing matters intervene. Now, what is it?"
"An emissary, Your Majesty," stated Hob.
Guc frowned. He hated interviews with emissaries as much or more than those with his subjects. "Emissaries gain no special privileges in this court, Chancellor. Place him at the end of the list."
"It's Reg of Vorti, Your Majesty," said Hob. Those gathered in the audience hall gave a collective gasp.
It had been twelve long years since there had been any official visits from Vorti. After Tsab's defeat in battle, there had been only two meetings between the cities. The first had been the summit discussing terms of Tsab's surrender following that military debacle; the second had been when Vorti sent a delegation to Guc's coronation.
Reg, twin brother and close advisor to Eya, the acting ruler of Vorti, had been at the coronation along with Chancellor Wil and several other noted dignitaries. Eya had not come, nor had her ward, the underage Queen Lea, who was the lone child of Vorti's dead Apath king, Sor. In fact, according to Guc's excellent military intelligence, the queen and her Regent rarely ventured beyond the palace walls and when they did, they were heavily guarded. Two assassination attempts early in Eya's tenure as ruler had prompted a re-working of security in Vorti.
But why had Vorti chosen this time to re-open relations, and why send one of its most important officials on this mission, instead of some lesser flunky? There was no love lost between the leaders of the two cities, but Guc had to admit his curiosity was piqued.
"Send him in," said Guc.
Reg of Vorti, dressed in a splendid blue doublet, looked much the same as he had twelve years ago. There was more silver in his fair hair, but he was the same picture of calm elegance Guc had studied during the banquet following his coronation. He was slim and short, with clear-blue eyes, an overlarge nose, and almost feminine features. Some said that from a distance, on horseback, he and his sister were indistinguishable. Looking at the man now, Guc could believe that.
Reg executed an impeccable bow, then waited in silence for the king to give him leave to speak. If nothing else, this emissary had better manners than most who graced Guc's court.
At a nod from Guc, Reg began, unfurling and reading from a scroll he carried. "'Greetings and felicitations to Guc, king of Tsab, from Eya, Regent of Vorti. It is my pleasure to extend this invitation to you to attend the coronation of Queen Lea, rightful heir to the throne of King Sor, on the date of Midwinter this year. It is my desire, as well as that of our new queen, for this era in Devforth to begin with a cessation of previous hostilities. As a token of our good will, we not only wish for Your Majesty's presence at this ceremony, but are amenable to dropping all remaining reparation payments agreed to at the Peace Summit of 595, of which Tsab is still indebted for twenty-eight thousand gold coins.
"'Signed, Eya, Regent and Acting Ruler of Vorti.'"
As Reg stood awaiting an answer from Tsab's ruler, Guc did his best to avoid scowling. The offer to eliminate the remaining reparation payments, while apparently a gesture of goodwill, was actually a calculated insult. Tsab was perfectly able to pay off her debts, even those that had been forcibly placed upon her. The original payment schedule, while recognized by almost every civilized citizen of Devforth as excessive, had been for Tsab to give Vorti fourteen thousand gold coins every Midsummer's Day for seventeen years. Guc intended to see that obligation honored no matter what Queen Lea and her bitch of a Regent offered.
After a significant pause, Guc rose to his feet, executed a perfunctory bow to the emissary, then sat again. "You may tell Her Honor and Her Majesty that I and my entourage are greatly honored by the invitation to attend Queen Lea's coronation, and we will certainly be there. However, as to the matter of the most generous gift of eliminating the remaining two years' sum of reparations, I must decline on behalf of my city. Tsab fulfills her financial obligations, regardless of the circumstances in which the debt was incurred. Those who live in this city find charity unnecessary and offensive."
"But if Her Majesty is willing to forgive the debt..." began Reg.
Guc flinched at the use of the word "forgive" - that was something Tsab certainly did not need from Vorti. "Begging your pardon, Sir, but Her Majesty does not have the ability to 'forgive' this debt. It was essayed by an independent council designed to arrange terms of peace between Tsab and Vorti. Tsab will honor that agreement to the letter."
"As you wish, Your Majesty. At any rate, my sister and I, as well as our new queen, look forward to seeing you on Midwinter's Day. A suite in the palace will be held ready for you and those who travel with you."
With a negligent wave of his hand, Guc dismissed Reg, wanting nothing more than for the odious man to leave his presence. Before the war, the people of Vorti had been bad enough, but following Tsab's defeat, they had become infused with an unbearable sense of superiority. Guc would have liked nothing more than to raze the Eastern City to the ground, but he lacked the army with which to do it. At the moment, his only viable option was to do his best to hide his disdain, make polite mouthings about the "new era of peace" that everyone in Vorti seemed to applaud, and await the time when Tsab was again strong. He did not intend another invasion, but these calculated insults would stop.
By the time Reg of Vorti had left the audience hall, with every pair of eyes watching his departure, Duke Riv was again approaching the throne. Guc let out a sigh and prepared to face the rest of the day's ordeals.
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