"Don't you think we should get cleaned up?" asked Sor as he and Tui approached the Drunk Doxy. Both were covered, head to foot, with caking mud.
     "What for? It's not as if anyone's going to care. Most will look as bad, if not worse."
     "What about Eli?"
     "She'll be too glad to see me for it to make a difference."
     Technically, neither Sor nor Tui was supposed to be here. While they hadn't actually deserted, they hadn't reported in, which is what they were supposed to do after finishing work on their section of the wall. Taking their cue from a trio of nearby veterans, they had opted for a few hours' recreation before returning to see what new work was waiting for them. If they were caught - which seemed unlikely - they could be disciplined, but any punishment on the eve of a war was likely to be minor.
     The Doxy was almost empty. The normally packed common room was grave-like in its silence, with workers equaling patrons. Two elderly men sat at the bar, stooped over mugfulls of ale, gazing longingly into their depths. A pair of soldiers who matched Sor and Tui for filthiness were seated in a remote corner of the room. With the entrance of the new arrivals, they glanced nervously toward the door.
     The three serving maids lounged near the entrance to the kitchen, absorbed in their own gossip and paying the customers little heed. The innkeeper appeared more interested in polishing his bar than in who came or went.
     Tui motioned Sor toward a table near the fireplace. Although there wasn't much of a blaze - in fact, the once healthy fire had burned down to glowing embers - it was still the warmest place in the room.
     "You're a filthy pig!" exclaimed one of the serving girls as she approached the table. Her expression was one of profound disgust. Beneath the grime, Tui managed a sheepish smile.
     "This is Eli," he said by way of introduction. "Eli, this is Sor. We've been watching each other's backs."
     "Under all that mud, I'm surprised you can see each other's backs. Didn't your mothers teach you to bathe?"
     Based on Tui's description of his paramour, Sor had constructed a complete mental picture. Thirty seconds with the real Eli shattered his preconceptions. Not only was she considerably more mature than he had been led to believe, but here was someone willful and not the least bit submissive.
     "Get me an ale, darlin'," said Tui, reaching out to grab her around the waist.
     Eli neatly sidestepped him. "You've got a better chance being served unwatered ale than touching me with those filthy hands." Turning to Sor, she asked, "Whacha like?"
     Sor studied her more intently than she did him. She was at least four or five years his senior, and it showed in her figure, which had filled out nicely in all the right places. Girls his age - including his beloved queen - aspired to the full-blown curves possessed by Eli. She had deep brown eyes and raven tresses that brushed her shoulders. Her face was angular and probably not all that pretty, but Sor doubted most men who came here paid attention to what was above Eli's neckline.
     "Well? Are you a mute?" she demanded, becoming impatient.
     "Sorry. Ale too," he murmured.
     "All right. Two ales. There's a pump out back. Why don't the pair of you use it. I'm not serving you like that."
     As soon as Eli turned away, Sor got to his feet. Tui did nothing more than lounge back in his seat and scratch at his nose. "Where are you going?" he asked.
     "To find the pump."
     "You're not serious! Don't let her get to you. She'd serve you even if you were unrecognizable under the mud."
     "I am unrecognizable under the mud. And it may surprise you, but I like being clean."
     Tui grunted. "That's what comes from spending too much time around royalty. Suit yourself."
     Five minutes later, a considerably more presentable - although not precisely "clean" - Sor was seated across the table from Tui. When Eli returned with the drinks, her expression revealed her opinion of Tui's stubbornness. She spared Sor a brief smile.
     "You're actually not bad looking under all that gunk. Which is more than I can say about your friend. Come to think of it, maybe he'd do better not getting washed. He's more attractive this way."
     Tui downed his ale in two long swallows, then favored Eli with a lascivious leer. "How 'bout coming upstairs with me?"
     She appeared genuinely surprised, and not pleasantly so, by the offer. "You're not serious. I'd as soon go to bed with a pig."
     "Come on. You know you want it."
     "If your friend asked me, I might go up with him. I meant what I said. I'm not your whore, Tui. I don't rut just because you have an urge. Take a bath, then I'll consider it. Until then, the most you'll get out of me is a refill for your empty mug."

* * *

     "What now?" demanded Lea, the plaintive note in her voice reminding everyone in the little throne room that she was as much a fifteen year old girl as the queen of Vorti.
     Eya, sitting to one side of the dais, nibbled on one fingernail as she considered the question. The news brought by the scouts was unexpected and troubling. She was no master of tactics, but it was obvious the quatics' actions were not militarily sound, and that worried her.
     Most of Lea's scouts were apparently dead, but three had made it through. The one from the north had reported no movement. That was expected. The one to the south had stated a large force appeared to be marching on the Twin Cities from the east. That was also according to plan. What no one had anticipated was the third messenger's report - a substantial army of quatics was approaching Fels.
     Dividing an army was insane, but Eya didn't think the quatics' leader was a madman. For this reason, his latest maneuver disturbed her. There was something he knew that she did not, and that made the situation especially dangerous. How could she advise Lea when she was no longer certain what was going on? She also didn't have much faith that Vorti's battle commanders and generals would have any answers. They tended to be unimaginative and would likely see this as an indication the quatics were stupid. It was an assumption that, in Eya's opinion, would be a catastrophic mistake.
     "They've split their army," said Eya at last.
     "Of course they've split their army. I'm not a simpleton, Eya. Even I figured that much out!"
     The former regent ignored the outburst. "So the question we have to ask is why. They probably want us to think they're going after both the Twin Cities and Fels, but I doubt that's the case, especially if there's some sort of agreement with Yax. So what we're seeing here is some kind of subterfuge."
     "You said the Fels emissary arrived with an offer of an alliance."
     Eya dismissed the possibility with a negligent gesture. "I don't believe him any more now than I did then. It's part of the same ruse. I just can't see what the quatics are hoping to attain. I wish Wil was here. He has a better grasp of military strategy than I do."
     "Can you contact him?" asked Lea, Meg's warning echoing in her mind. In the few hours since her conversation with the seeress, little had preoccupied her more than finding some way to get her chancellor to return. The task was made difficult because she had no idea where he had gone.
     "Do you know where he is?"
     "No, but I thought maybe there was some magical way two Apaths could communicate."
     "Not that I know of, at least not over long distances. Unspoken communication means entering the mind of another, and that's not always easy to do. It's impossible if you don't know where the other person is."
     "Could you try? It's important."
     "There are one or two tricks I know, but for them to work, Wil would have to be 'listening', and not with his ears, but his mind." She didn't sound hopeful.
     "And you don't think that will happen?"
     "There's no reason for him to listen. If I make contact, it will be more due to luck than anything else."
     "Still, it's worth a try. We have to get him back here, especially if the quatics are going to try something we don't expect."
     "They're already doing something we don't expect."
     "Eya, there's something I have to tell you..."
     The regent raised an eyebrow, but remained silent, waiting for her queen to continue.
     "This happened earlier, shortly after I returned - while I was in the middle of an audience with Guc." She proceeded to detail her encounter with the ghost.
     "And you believe this specter is your father?" asked Eya when Lea had finished. By the tone in the regent's voice, she was doubtful.
     "It seemed like him, but I can't say for sure. He looked like he did at the coronation, and Wil thought that was real, and Meg agreed with him. And she said she had a visitation this time, too."
     "She lost her sight. How is that possible?"
     "He spoke to her. Right around the same time he spoke to me."
     "Without her sight to verify the speaker, how did she know it was King Sor?" persisted Eya.
     Lea shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe you should ask her that question. When she came here, she didn't have any doubts."
     "I do, though. This sort of illusion isn't difficult to create - magically, that is. I could conjure a fairly convincing image of your father right now, if I wanted. All it requires is a little knowledge and a modicum of creativity."
     "But that would mean there's another Apath in Vorti."
     "Not just in Vorti - someplace close to you, probably within the palace. If someone has been creating these illusions to unsettle you, they would need ready access. The closer an Apath is, the easier it is to maintain an illusion, especially if it is meant to interact."
     "But another Apath? Here?"
     "While you were gone on your aborted rescue mission, I got a few inklings there might be someone else. Apaths can't precisely identify one another, but once you've been active for a while, you get a 'feel' for others like you. With Wil around, that sensation was always there. After he had gone, however, I expected it to go away. It didn't. And now he's gone again, it's still there."
     "But couldn't it be some sort of special bond with Wil?"
     Eya smiled. "My relationship with him isn't the kind that will create any deep or lasting bonds. No, this is something different, and if there's another Apath here, in the palace, actively working against you, we may be up against more sinister forces than we anticipated."
     "Why would a human work with quatics? It doesn't make sense."
     "Revenge. Or power. Or money. Look at Fels. Yax almost certainly has some sort of arrangement with the quatics. And Guc intimated the quatics had some inside help at Tsab getting the gates open. It's reasonable to assume there are a number of men in this city who would sell us all out if they thought there was something to gain by it."
     "But the quatics aren't likely to keep any promises they make."
     "True. But it's often the most dishonest men who readily believe a lie."
     "So you don't think what I saw was my father's ghost?"
     "After what happened at the coronation, it would be foolish to discount any possibility although, Meg's statements notwithstanding, it could have been the same Apath at work then, without Wil's noticing. But now... we can't be blinded by advice from beyond the grave. If someone is working against us, what better way to get us to do what they want than by creating an image of a man we all respected? We can weigh the words of this supposed specter, but our actions should be based on a more concrete rationale."
     "All right. I suppose we should convene another 'war council' to tell the battle commanders about the quatics' latest trick. Maybe they'll have some idea what it means."
     "I'm sure they know already, Your Majesty. After all, the scouts report directly to them, probably before coming to you. But it might be helpful to gather them together and hear some opinions. Frankly, though, as good as your generals might be against human foes, they lack the originality needed for a campaign against this sort of enemy. They're struggling for ideas."
     "You have a suggestion, I presume?"
     "Wil's son Gav. He has lived his entire life in Falnora, and his experience with non-humans, while admittedly limited, is greater than that of anyone born and bred in Vorti. He's in the city now, with a couple dozen of his men and, in my opinion, is being woefully underused. He should be briefed and admitted into the war councils with a general's rank."
     "Gav?" replied Lea, surprised. Wil's son had always seemed the most self-effacing of men, not a leader. He had rejected several invitations to sit on Lea's council and had never allowed the citizens of Falnora to name him as their official ruler.
     As if reading the queen's mind, Eya said, "I know Gav. I grew up almost as his little sister. He's quiet and unprepossessing, but don't underestimate him. When it comes down to it, he's as tough as they come. He's his father's son." Both of his fathers' son, she acknowledged silently.
     "Do you think he'd accept the position?"
     "You'll have to ask to find out. But if you explain your reasons, I think he will. A sense of duty is important to him."
     "All right," said Lea. "Have him summoned. And Guc as well. I know he probably doesn't want to be pried from Meg's bedside, but I have a few things to discuss with my wayward betrothed, not the least of which is how active a part he intends to play in the upcoming battle."
     "You might consider suggesting he take up a position on the front lines, alongside all Tsab loyalists," said Eya.
     Unexpectedly, Lea let out a throaty chuckle. "Yes, that would solve a great many problems, wouldn't it?"
     Guc, more easily located than the chancellor's son, arrived first. With Eya not present, he appeared more at ease than he might have otherwise, his most recent conversation with the queen notwithstanding.
     "Your Majesty," he acknowledged, bowing perfunctorily. It was a sign of respect among equals. Lea had noticed that since the destruction of his city, Guc had gone to great lengths to emphasize he was still a lawfully crowned king.
     "Your Majesty," Lea responded in kind. "I have a few issues of strategy I wish to discuss with you. If you were in charge of this campaign, how would you handle it?"
     Guc considered. "Much the same way, I suspect. Vorti isn't as defensible as Tsab but, in the end, the walls didn't make any difference. I never expected a traitor in our midst. That, in fact, is one lesson you might learn. Don't believe everyone in Vorti is fighting for our survival. I don't understand how the quatics managed to turn the coats of a few Tsabians, but if they could do it there, it could happen here as well."
     "You think I should have troops police my own people?"
     "No. You'll need everyone in armor for the battle. But tell the men to watch their backs."
     "What else?"
     "I'd use magic. Early and often. We lost badly at Tsab, but if we'd had a pair of Apaths, victory might have been possible. Frankly, even though you have more men than I had, I don't think your force is large enough to stand toe-to-toe with the quatics. You've seen their style of battle. Hack off an arm, and they keep fighting with what they have left. They're strong and powerful, and what they lack in intelligence and quickness, they make up for with ferocity. The army is going to take a lot of casualties early. You have to bring magic into play to stem the quatic tide and keep morale up. We've yet to see how the quatics will react if they think they might lose."
     "Eya has spent her life learning offensive spells. Wil is less combat eager, but he'll participate as he can, and at the moment, he's out looking for other Apaths."
     "So we think alike. Perhaps there's little more I can offer, then."
     "Perhaps. I was wondering what you make of this latest development." She related the recent reports from her scouts.
     "I think it's an attempt to mask their next move. They attacked Tsab when it was an unlikely target. Their strategy was unconventional. Their leader knows how humans react to troop movement and is intentionally attempting to lead us astray. Maybe they're not dividing their forces to go after a northern city and a southern one, but making it seem like that's what they're doing. Consider the division temporary - a ruse to confuse us. If they keep marching eastward, the two halves of the army will rejoin in time to march on Vorti."
     "You think they're going to attack here next?"
     "It's the only thing that makes sense out of their latest move. And Vorti is really Devforth's final remaining human stronghold. If they take this city, I can't imagine any of those left will offer much effective resistance. Llam and the Twin Cities might be able to scrape up an Apath between them, but most of the wizards are in Fels, and they've apparently signed some sort of treaty with the quatics. An attack on Vorti makes sense. Eliminate the strongest opposition first, or not at all."
     "A sound philosophy," noted Gav, striding through the open double doors to the little throne room and pausing to offer the queen a far more elegant bow than Guc's. "Not the kind of tactics I would expect from a mass of uncoordinated savages like the quatics."
     "If you think they're uncoordinated, you should have been at Tsab," replied Guc, a coldness entering both voice and eyes. "Their forces were trained and well-disciplined."
     "I don't doubt that. Which brings to light the question of who their leader is. Until we know, defeating the quatics may not be possible."
     "What are you suggesting?" demanded Guc.
     "Merely that someone cunning and intelligent enough to build a deadly fighting force out of quatics, and who could outmaneuver your army, is hardly likely to be unprepared for a magical attack. Hasn't it occurred to anyone that our so-called trump card might not come as a shock to him? What if he already has something prepared with which to counter it?"
     "An Apath of his own?" surmised Lea. Meg's mention of Vas came to the fore of her mind, but she did not speak it aloud.
     "I think it would be dangerous to discount the possibility. If the quatics can induce normal humans to turn traitor, who's to say they might not have found a way to obtain the services of a pet wizard. If they have magic, our position is tenuous."
     "It was never strong to begin with," snapped Guc. "I don't see Apaths as a panacea. Without them, I don't think we can win, but I'm not sure we'll win with them, either."
     "And certainly not if the quatics have something to counter them."
     "Gav," interjected Lea, "Would you consider taking a temporary position on my war council? With a rank of General for as long as this crisis continues."
     Gav smiled. "Your Majesty, you know that as long as I'm in this city, I'm here to serve you. There's no need to give me a rank. Of course I'll be on your war council, although I don't know that my advice will be heeded. One voice lost among many, I suspect."
     "Actually, I was hoping you would be more than just 'one voice'. I want you to lead the council, and to have the final, binding word on all matters involving strategy and tactics. The others will have their say, to be sure, but you will be the final arbiter of all decisions."
     Gav appeared surprised. "Your Majesty, I'm flattered, but I'm not sure you've considered the kind of situation such a change in power might create. Your generals are all proud men who have earned their positions through years of service in Vorti's army. They would not take kindly to being ordered about by the likes of me - a non-citizen of this city - no matter what rank you bestow upon me. At a time such as this, you need unity among your generals, not dissension, and if you elevate me to the position you propose, you would face a near mutiny, no matter how close the quatics are."
     "Gav, the problem is that my current corps of commanders are incapable of making the kinds of decisions necessary to bring us through this crisis. We need someone in charge who has an idea of how to face the quatics, who won't be afraid to take radical action. Even if it means relieving every current general of his command, I want you in charge. Those that can't or won't accept it can resign. Besides, since your father was born in and is currently a citizen of Vorti, you technically are as well, even though you reside in Falnora."
     "Your father," interrupted Guc, who had been regarding Gav strangely during his discourse with the queen. "Isn't Chancellor Wil your father? You don't look much like him, do you? In fact, I can't see one feature you two have in common. And Apaths are supposed to be sterile, aren't they, so how is it you were born?"
     "Don't be rude, Guc," snapped Lea. "I'm proof enough that not all Apaths are sterile. Or are you doubting my paternity?"
     "Not at all, Your Majesty. Your father is well-known to be the only Apath capable of bearing children, and if I remember my history correctly, he had three wives. The first was Queen Joi, who was murdered by one of Wil's predecessors. The third was your mother. But there was another in between, wasn't there? A Queen Lis." Turning to Gav, he said, "The same Lis who gave birth to you, Gav, citizen of Vorti and Falnora."
     Gav met Guc's stare without blinking, his features impassive.
     Guc continued, "You know, I've seen you many times before, but this is the first time I realized how like another you are. That's probably because I just recently had the pleasure of making his acquaintance for the first time, albeit not in the flesh." Redirecting his attention to Lea, he pressed on. "Wouldn't you agree, Your Majesty, that Gav bears a remarkable resemblance to your late father."
     "What are you saying?" demanded Lea.
     "He's saying I am the son of Sor of Vorti, not your chancellor," said Gav, a hint of resignation in his voice. There were few alive who knew the secret, and he had hoped to keep the truth hidden until his death. Considering how closely he resembled the late king of Vorti, it was a surprise so few had made the connection, but memories of Sor had faded with time, and people thought of the late king as the virile, exaggerated figure of paintings and sculptures, not the frail man who had aged prematurely.
     "In that assumption," continued Gav, "He is both correct and incorrect. My biological father was Sor of Vorti, but he freely gave me to Wil before I was born. The man who raised me as his own is the man I identify as my sire."
     "That makes you my brother," said Lea, dumbfounded. Clearly, she had never heard any of the more salacious palace gossip which questioned Gav's parentage.
     "It makes him the rightful king," said Guc.
     Gav looked at the king of Tsab sharply, but Guc's features betrayed nothing of his motives for bringing this revelation and its attendant controversies into the open.
     "That's right!" she gasped. "You're older than I am, and a male. Vorti's rulership has always passed through the male line."
     Gav shook his head. "Sor appointed you as his successor, not me, and you can be assured he knew about me before his death. It was his choice that I should live my life as the son of Wil, not on the throne of Vorti. In fact, when it appeared he would die before having met your mother, he decided to choose a successor from the general population rather than recall me from Falnora. I do not seek your crown, Lea, and were it offered, I would refuse."
     "How noble," sneered Guc.
     Gav ignored him. "It might have been better had you not learned of this, especially in this manner. But now that you do, I implore you to put it aside and mention it no further. The truth of my birth can do no one any good: not me, not you, and not Vorti."
     "On the contrary," said Guc. "It is for the good of Vorti that I brought up the matter in the first place."
     "Since when has the 'good of Vorti' been on your agenda?" demanded Gav, his patience beginning to fray for the first time since his arrival in the throne room. He was normally slow to anger, but Guc was trying him.
     "Since my city was razed and I am forced to seek shelter here. I believe the arrival of the quatics has permanently smothered petty human quarrels. Survival, plain and simple, is why I have Vorti's best interests at heart."
     "And how will telling me these things help in this situation?" asked Lea. The question was asked in a subdued voice as she attempted to assimilate the new information and maintain her composure.
     "You propose to elevate Gav to the rank of battle commander, something that will create fissures within your army's leadership. They won't accept him, no matter what you tell them. And they won't resign, either. They'll go on as they have, ignoring his orders and doing whatever they damn well think is best. In the end, when the quatics arrive, there won't be any order. The city's defenses will crumble and we'll be witnesses to the biggest bloodbath in the history of Devforth.
     "But if we let it be known that Gav is actually Sor's son - that changes everything. True, the generals might still grumble, but they won't defy someone with that heritage, regardless of his background."
     "You propose I issue some sort of decree declaring that Gav is my brother?"
     "Nothing so dramatic as that. Just acknowledge him. Publicly."
     "King Sor would not have wanted this," said Gav, forbearing from adding that having his paternity known wasn't a burden he was eager to accept. His real father's identity had been difficult enough for him to come to terms with privately - how much more so if it became public. Yet, deep inside, he had to admit that, as cruel as they were, Guc's words made sense. The army would not reject him if they believed him to be Sor's son. That name held too much awe.
     "Despite his spectral appearances, King Sor is dead, so his wishes have little bearing on our current situation," said Guc, pressing on ruthlessly. Turning to Lea, he continued, "Your Majesty, what we need now is strong leadership and a clear chain of command. You cannot put the good of one person, or many persons, over what is needed to preserve this city, and perhaps our race."
     "You're a cold man, Guc," said Lea. "Gav, can you think of another way? I don't feel this is my secret to reveal, but..."
     Sadly, Gav shook his head. This was doubtless not the last sacrifice he would have to make before returning home to Falnora - if there would be a home to return to. "No, Your Majesty, and we don't have time to search for alternatives. Do what you must."
     "I'm sorry," Lea whispered. Louder, she added, "I'll send for Eya. She'll know best how to handle this."

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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