THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG


CHAPTER TWO


     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.
     

* * *

     Several hours later, during the height of the afternoon, the king and one of his closest friends and advisors climbed the winding staircase to the top of Tsab's fortress-like palace. There, leaning against the parapet with guards flanking them at a discreet distance on either side, they gazed across the snowy landscape of the city and its environs.
     It was icy and treacherous out here, but Guc didn't mind. Uncertain footing was preferable to spending the rest of the day inside. If he wasn't "permitted" to take his horse for a ride in this weather, at least he could get away from the sycophants and grovelers by coming up here into the biting cold where few would follow.
     Mak, perhaps Guc's only true friend, was none-too-happy about accompanying his liege away from the warm fires but, as always, he endured the whims of the king. However, whereas Guc was dressed only in the heavy crimson robes of state, Mak was bundled in several layers of fur, and even those were insufficient to ward off the sting of a swirling northeasterly wind. Other than the dark flesh of his bearded face, little of his skin was exposed to the elements. Even his eyes were shielded beneath the overhanging flap of a hood.
     For a while, the pair were silent, looking eastward across the center of the city, the outlying farms, and the darkish splotch on the distant horizon which was the Merk Woods. It was a gray and gloomy day, and snow had again begun to fall fitfully earthward. Many of the buildings below had their lanterns already lit, even though dusk was two hours off. With the sky clotted by clouds, it would be dark before long.
     Eventually, Guc spoke, his voice raised to be heard over the wind. "Out there, a continent away," he began, gesturing expansively to the east, "lies the great city of Vorti. This winter, she prepares to crown a new queen."
     Mak did not mistake the bitterness in his friend's tone. It was a sentiment shared by almost every man, woman, and child in Tsab. There were not many things that went wrong in this city that could not be attributed to Vorti. Few families had been spared losing at least one member in the failed invasion.
     "Did you hear what that bitch had the gall to do?" demanded Guc, his voice deceptively mild.
     Mak knew who and what his friend was referring to. The king had never liked Eya and he was likely to attribute the worst possible motives to any of her actions. Even had this been a sincere gesture, he would view it as otherwise. "About the reparations?"
     Guc nodded. "Can you believe the effrontery of that woman, sending her brother here to make a proclamation in front of the entire court? If she was serious about wanting to make a goodwill gesture, the negotiations should have been carried out behind closed doors. By coming to us this way, she assured we would have to turn her down."
     "Still," began Mak hesitantly, stamping his feet to keep warm, his breath streaming out in clouds of white. "In your position, I might have accepted the offer. Pride be damned, we need the money if we're going to get this city, and the army, back to where they were before your father threw it all away."
     "What good is a city's might if her reputation is tarnished? Anyway, the matter is closed. I've made a public decision and I can't go back on it now, unless the new queen decides to make the proposal again in Vorti."
     "So you've decided to go to the coronation, not send a few functionaries?"
     "It would be a fitting insult to send my chancellor and a couple of dukes, considering the way Vorti reacted to my coronation, but all the other rulers will be there, and there are a few trade agreements I want to hammer out. You'll come?"
     "Of course. I had a thought, though..."
     "Tell me."
     "Well, of the reigning rulers, you're the only unmarried one. And Lea is certainly of marriageable age. She's the daughter of Sor, but without the magic, and our intelligence sources haven't heard rumors of a potential match for her."
     "You want me to woo Vorti's queen?"
     "Why not? An alliance by marriage between the two cities would be an excellent move. In essence, your as-yet unborn son would rule the closest thing to an empire Devforth has ever seen. Control Vorti and Tsab, and everything between is yours. Your father recognized that; he just went about it in the wrong way."
     "My father was a pompous ass who didn't care one iota about the people he was sworn to protect."
     "But he knew the path to dominion. Tsab and Vorti - no one could challenge their combined might, even considering our city's current depleted state. Not even Merk and Xert together would be a serious rival."
     "Do you honestly suppose that Lea's advisors will countenance a match with me?"
     Mak shrugged. "Worry less about them and more about the queen. The whole point of this coronation is that after Midwinter's Day, the city is hers to rule as she chooses. Eya becomes a figurehead. If you capture Lea's heart, she'll defy anyone to be with you, even those who have coddled her since birth."
     "That seems unlikely."
     "You've never been in love, Guc. Strange as it may seem, that emotion can make you do the most unexpected and unreasonable things. The key is to make her fall for you, and to do that, you're going to have to polish your charm between now and the coronation in four weeks' time. We're going to need to cultivate an entirely new personality - something that will appeal to a young girl getting her first taste of power and responsibility."
     "What's wrong with the way I am now?" demanded Guc.
     "Do you think we could go where it's a little warmer and discuss it?"
     For a response, the king continued to lean against the railing, watching wind-whipped plumes of smoke curl upwards from chimneys across the city. His face was red from the cold, but he didn't mind it.
     Resigning himself to spending at least a little more time outside, Mak drew his fur garments more tightly around his body. "You're too bitter, My Liege. Bitter and angry at the world. Young girls like kindness, romance, and gallantry. They want a knight out of a book. To win Her Majesty Queen Lea, you must adopt a role."
     "And you think I can change thus in four weeks?"
     "Change, or appear to change, what does it matter? Once you and she have wed, it becomes irrelevant how much of your persona as a suitor was a facade. And remember that she is the only one you have to convince. The opinions of the others, even Eya, are of little matter. When it comes to choosing a husband, Lea will hear the whispers of her heart before listening to the wisdom of others. Look at the way her own father defied everyone in his choices of wives."
     "And can you work this miraculous change with me?" asked Guc, turning to face his friend.
     A faint smile played on Mak's lips. "I won't deny that it's a challenge, but not the most difficult I have faced, Your Majesty. If you will but abandon yourself to me over the next few weeks, we should be able to smooth out some of the rough edges. Remember too, though, that timing is as important as technique. There is much involved in this plot that cannot be taught."
     Pondering the words of his friend, Guc returned his gaze to the east. A marriage to Lea was a fascinating possibility, and one he had not considered. To keep his royal line alive, he recognized that he would eventually have to sire a child, but for his son to be heir to the thrones of both Tsab and Vorti... And what better way to enrich Tsab than to leech resources away from the city that had stolen them? Guc might be the titular king over both places, but that did not mean he had to treat them equally. Vorti and Tsab might be the cornerstones of his power, but Tsab must be the stronger of the two.
     "If this weather persists, it will be an unpleasant trip east," commented Guc. It had begun to snow again in earnest. "I have heard weather witches claim this may be the worst winter in a century."
     "They say that every year, and it's never true. But I'll grant you it is cold out, too cold to be standing exposed like this. Our plans will come to naught if you're bedridden with a fever when it comes time to make the journey to Vorti."
     With laughing eyes, Guc regarded his companion, "Why, Mak, I thought you to be of a heartier breed! Are you offended by a little fresh air?"
     "In truth, Your Majesty, at the moment I'm too numb to be offended by anything. But a warm fire and a hot drink would not come amiss."
     
* * *

     Following his brief audience with the king, Reg of Vorti made his way to one of Tsab's more reputable inns, a place called the Flighty Nymph, and ordered a room. He had not initially intended to stay overnight in the city, but the weather was worsening, and the roads between Tsab and Vorti were not in the best of repair. New snow could cover dangers that might mean a broken leg for his horse - or worse.
     So, accompanied by the two guards his sister had insisted he bring with him, Reg made inquiries about a clean, reasonably-priced inn, and was directed to the Flighty Nymph. The innkeeper gave him and his companions a few nasty looks when he requested a room, sensing from his accent what part of the continent he was from, but a healthy tip improved the man's sour disposition.
     While the guards sat in the common room sipping ale and throwing dice with the rest of the crowd, Reg slipped upstairs to his room. It had been a long ride to Tsab, and he was unused to spending that much time on horseback. He was sore and weary, and all he really wanted was a good night's sleep.
     Reg did not enjoy being away from home, but on those rare occasions when his sister requested his services as an ambassador, he never refused. Normally, the trips were to nearby places such as the small Halcyon Meadows farming community Falnora or the southern city of Llam, which was only a half-day from Vorti by boat. Tsab was an unusual destination, and not only because of its physical distance. To the best of Reg's knowledge, there had been no official contact between the cities in more than ten years.
     Given some of the problems at home, this had been an unfortunate time to make the journey. Lor, the thirteen year old daughter of Reg and his wife Bre, was becoming more disobedient and volatile. She argued and fought with her parents and brother, occasionally resorting to violence when she didn't get her way. She no longer wanted to live on a farm, so she spent days and nights elsewhere. Reg didn't like to consider where she was spending all that time away from home, but he had heard rumors about her unsavory reputation. For her age, she had an unreasonable sexual appetite.
     With every passing day, Bre was concerned that something ugly was going to happen to their daughter, but there was little Reg could do about it. He and Lor had never been close. His attempts to communicate with her in the past few years had met with little recognition or response. At this point, he despaired of ever helping her. If the situation wasn't so distressing to his wife, he might have given up.
     Reg didn't pass a pleasant night. Unaccustomed to sleeping in a cold bed without his wife beside him, he tossed and turned until the first rays of another bleak dawn slanted through his bedroom window. The fire across the hearth had died to cooling ashes and the room was frigid. Reg felt little more rested, and far more stiff, than he had the night before, and immediately questioned the wisdom of not having departed immediately after his audience with Guc. After splashing some water on his face, but not bothering to shave, he dressed and went in search of his escort.
     The guards, who had apparently been up for some time, were in the common room downstairs eating a hearty breakfast. Reg sat with them but didn't order anything, impatient as he was to leave. At the moment, it wasn't snowing outside, but the roads were likely to be treacherous and they would be lucky to reach Fels by nightfall. Perhaps they would be better off taking the southern route through Merk and Xert. South of Lake Merk, it was probably a little too warm for snow.
     None of the three noticed the approach of a hooded figure. There weren't many patrons in the inn at this hour, but the presence of one more individual bundled up against the cold wasn't unusualů until he approached Reg with an odd question.
     "You come from Vorti?"
     Reg turned to examine his questioner, an ordinary Tsabian commoner wrapped in tattered furs and cut burlap sacks. His features were hard to distinguish beneath the hood, but he appeared to be sporting a scraggly beard.
     "I am," replied Reg cautiously.
     "You were at the palace yesterday? You represent the queen?"
     Reg nodded. "I am an emissary of Queen Lea's regent."
     With a grunt but no further words, the man departed. Reg stared after him in consternation. What was that all about?
     Shortly thereafter, the trio was ready to leave. After squaring their bill with the innkeeper, they headed for the stalls behind the inn where their horses had spent the night. As they approached the entrance to the stables, Reg became aware that something was wrong. There were about a dozen people loitering. This far from the street, the place should have been deserted, except for the stable boy, who was nowhere in sight. Each of the peasants carried a farming instrument that could double as a weapon, and among their number was the cloaked man who had confronted Reg in the inn.
     "Get ready. There may be trouble," whispered Reg to his companions. Unobtrusively, their hands dropped to the hilts of their swords. It was not the policy of the guards of Vorti to draw weapons on peasants, but if pressed, they wouldn't hesitate. Their duty was to protect the life of the ambassador.
     As Reg and his escort neared the stable door, the milling peasants converged to block the entrance. At this point, a confrontation seemed inevitable. With a scant arm's length separating them, the parties faced one another.
     "Please step aside," said Reg.
     "You are from Vorti?" questioned the man from the inn.
     "I told you earlier that I am. Now, will you please move aside. We don't want any trouble." So saying, Reg took a step forward. Someone - probably the man who had addressed him - pushed him back roughly. As he stumbled and nearly lost his footing on the slippery ground, he heard the quiet hiss of two swords being drawn.
     "We'll ask you nice and peaceable to clear the entrance," said Und, one of Reg's guards, weapon held in the ready position. "We want no bloodshed."
     "You've changed your tune, Vorti scum!" cried one of the men, brandishing a shovel. "My father died because of you!"
     An angry chorus of agreement echoed the first speaker's claim. To Reg, it looked unlikely that violence could be avoided. And it was apparent that he and his guards were outnumbered. Not even a pair of well-trained swords could make up for three-to-one odds.
     "We'll go for the watch. They'll disperse this rabble," said Reg to his companions.
     "Rabble, are we?" screamed the man from the inn. "We'll show you rabble!"
     As one, they surged forward, waving clubs, pick-axes, and shovels. The guards moved in front of Reg, naked steel held ready to strike. Few of the peasants were cowed, however, even after first blood was drawn by Und.
     Und and his companion Gre slashed back and forth, trying more to discourage the attack than injure the peasants, but they were pressed and had to change their strategy. They assumed a defensive posture, but when their swords struck, they did so in earnest. For his part, while Reg was not an expert swordsman, fifteen years of practicing with Vorti's master-of-arms had given him some skill, so he knew what to do with his blade.
     The first peasant to get around the guards came rushing at Reg waving a shovel. His charge was poorly controlled, however, and his intended victim was able to sidestep the weapon and strike at the man's exposed back as he passed by. The sword bit deep and the peasant died choking on his own blood.
     Reg turned back to the fray in time to see Gre go down, a pick-ax driven through his neck. Suddenly Und was alone facing seven frenzied men. Even as Reg moved to the guard's aid, Und lost his footing in a puddle of blood, and fell. His skull hit the frozen ground with a sickening thud and he made no move to rise. The small mob, still led by the cloaked man from the inn, advanced on Reg with murderous designs.
     Reg did not intend to become a willing sacrifice. Even had he been uncertain of Und and Gre's demise, there was little that he could do for them since he had no hope of defeating that many foes. So, slamming his sword into its sheath, Reg turned and fled, seven men in pursuit.
     He didn't know the streets of Tsab, so he paid little attention to where he was going, trusting to luck that he wouldn't stumble into a dead-end. He dodged into alleyways, raced down streets, streaked across busy thoroughfares, and cut through public gardens. Every passing moment widened the gap between him and his pursuers, but they were tenacious and whenever he nabbed a quick rest because he thought he had gotten away, someone spotted him and the chase was on again. Finally, however, after Reg had been running for the better part of half an hour and was near to exhaustion, the moment of escape arrived. Crouched in an outdoor garderobe behind a row of small stores, Reg heard the men rush by, huffing and wheezing as they went, obviously little better prepared for an extended chase than their quarry was.
     While safely out-of-sight in the confines of the stall, Reg considered his options. Going back to the stable was unwise. Not only would that be the first place the thugs would go, but the presence of two dead bodies would attract attention. The last thing Reg wanted was to be stuck in Tsab for an extended period of time while an "official inquiry" was carried out. If the general feeling in this city for the people of Vorti was as poor as what he had experienced, he might not survive a prolonged stay. For that matter, at this moment, he couldn't rightfully claim that he had survived this situation.
     Fortunately, however, when he emerged, there was no sign of the group that had chased him, and it took little effort to find someone willing to provide him with instructions to the city's eastern gate. Reg kept his eyes open as he made his way in that direction, but he saw no signs of anyone who might bear him ill-will. The streets of Tsab were filled with gloomy faces, but few passerby took notice of Reg, despite an appearance at odds with that of the city's natives.
     An hour later, Reg was headed out of Tsab, riding in the back of a covered wagon bound for Fels. It had taken quite a bit of money to convince the merchant to take on a passenger, but every man had his price, and the more Reg offered, the less resistant Yox the spice trader became to the idea of transporting a human in addition to his cargo. The eventual charge was thirty-five gold coins, at least three times what a normal passage would cost, but since Reg believed this might save his life, he was more than willing to pay it, even to someone as shifty-eyed as Yox.
     He heaved a sigh of relief when the city dropped below the western horizon late that morning, then turned his attention to the road ahead. Their progress was rapid, if risky, as the merchant driving the wagon braved the slippery roads to get his spices to Fels before sunrise tomorrow.
     
* * *

     "Damnation!" swore Guc, slamming his fist into the nearest breakable object, which happened to be an ancient, and priceless, vase. "Get out of here!" he roared at the unfortunate soldier who had brought him the tidings.
     "Calm down, Your Majesty," cautioned Mak after the guard had scurried away. His mind was working to find some way to turn the apparent disaster to their advantage. "There may be a way that this can further our plans, rather than hamper them."
     "I'd be interested to hear what that is!" retorted Guc, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "After this incident, we'll be lucky if that bitch Eya doesn't send an occupying army here. It was her brother who was attacked, after all."
     "But not killed, thankfully. Only the two guards are dead."
     "Two citizens of Vorti murdered on a diplomatic mission. If we were on good terms with Vorti, this would be unfortunate, but Eya has been waiting for an excuse to strike. Now she has it. As soon as her brother gets home, she'll be mobilizing troops."
     "Unlikely, with the coronation so near. And I think this can help us in your quest to get into the new queen's good graces. We must act swiftly, however. Swiftly and decisively. I hope you have no scruples about killing a few of your 'loyal' subjects for the greater good of them all."
     Guc shook his head. "What are you thinking?"
     Mak told him, and the moment the plan had been outlined, a slow smile crept across the king's face.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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