The first story is one of redemption, found by the most unlikely people, in the most unlikely place, on the eve of...
A Bloodless Coup
Voices broke the prisoner’s fitful sleep. A quiet conversation would not usually waken William, even from the uncomfortable slumber afforded by being shackled to a prison wall — but this particular voice brought him fully awake at once. So this is it, he thought. A thrill of apprehension — bah, call it what it is, fright — ran up his spine, but he resolved to show none of it to the Despot.
The sound of footsteps, echoing through the empty cells, reached him first. Time stretched to the breaking point; it seemed like years before two men finally stood before him. He recognized them both; one wore a dark travel-worn cloak, the other a guard’s uniform. The first said, “I wish to speak with the prisoner in private. Take the hidden exit and prepare two mounts for us.” It was widely rumored that Evard would at times ride through the realms in disguise, listening for dissent among the people. This explained the battered pack he carried; it would contain some plain clothes and other necessities. As for the first — William resigned himself to the inevitable. One secret he had, and he would likely carry it to his grave. With some luck, Evard, Overlord of the Three Realms, would shortly join him there.
The Overlord stood quietly for a moment, watching the prisoner, as the guard continued down the cell block. He saw a young man of medium build and dark brown hair, a somewhat younger-looking version of Evard himself. (There was much grey among the brown in Evard’s mane these days, however.) Like most of Evard’s prisoners, he looked somewhat the worse for wear but had no serious injuries. Unlike any other prisoner, he met Evard’s eyes boldly. “The Despot comes to gloat,” he said.
“Good evening, William of Oaktree,” the Overlord said. “I hope you are enjoying your stay; you won’t be here much longer.” The prisoner said nothing but watched the Overlord smile sadly. “I suppose you were wondering how I caught on to your plan to overthrow me,” he continued after a moment. “I must say, it was a very clever plan, but it had a fatal flaw that you could not have known about.
“You see, it was the exact same plan I used to topple Charles the Tyrant, twenty-seven years ago! Intriguing, eh?” William stared, then nodded reluctantly. “You’re clever — how could I say different? We’re much alike — or at least you are much like I was at your age. So it’s nothing you did that brought you here, just bad luck.”
“And some day, your luck will run out as well,” William growled defiantly.
“So true,” Evard agreed. William gave him a puzzled frown. “I’ve known that since the day you were born.”
“Twenty-one years ago, the Prophet informed me that I would not — rather, the realm would not see old age remove me from my Seat. One must be careful when quoting prophecy, you know. You have undoubtedly heard the prophecy; Marie is a woman whose word cannot be suppressed.
“You were born on April twenty-eighth, no? That is the very day Marie stood before me and announced her prophecy against me. An amazing coincidence, don’t you think?” Evard put down his pack, then sat on the floor with his back against the bars of the empty cell opposite William’s. “There, now we speak eye to eye.
“So when I caught on to your plan, it became clear to me who you are. I summoned Marie this morning and asked her to tell me my fortune, now that you were in my hands. ‘By noon tomorrow,’ she said, ‘God will take the Three Realms from your hand and give them to another whom He has chosen.’ So you see, my luck truly has run out.”
“Then it’s over, or all but,” said William, smiling for the first time. “Whatever happens to me, at least I know it was worth it.”
“You understand, I was concerned,” Evard smiled back. “Marie once was a dear friend of mine — you find that surprising? I give you another surprise: she anointed me Lord of the Realms, the week before I overthrew Lord Charles. I suppose she has done the same for you? — no need to answer; your face tells all. In all the time I’ve known Marie, she has never prophesied wrong.
“When Marie left this morning, I went to my chambers and thought a great deal. I even prayed. That was difficult; I’ve been out of the habit for too long. I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you, but first —” Evard removed a scroll from his cloak — “can you guess what this is?”
William fought down the apprehension. “My death sentence, I suppose,” he replied dryly.
Evard laughed — not the cruel or maniacial laughter that William expected, but a hearty, even joyous laughter of a man enjoying a good joke. William thought — for a moment — that he could come to like a man who could laugh like this.
“No, not your death sentence, William,” chuckled Evard at last. “You live or die, it makes no difference to my fate. Tomorrow I am no longer the Overlord; Marie made that clear enough. What this is, you may come to think of as something worse than death.” He opened the scroll. “Judge for yourself:
“Lord Evard, Overlord of Sand Hill and the Three Realms, to all subjects of the Realms. Listen well to this proclamation.
“In accordance with prophecy, I do as of noon on August Fourth, renounce my Seat and all claim to the Lordship of the Three Realms.
“The prophet Marie has anointed as my successor William of Oaktree, whom I name Lord William. I charge all officials of the Realms to pledge your loyalty to your new Lord.
“May God bless the Three Realms and its new ruler.
“Affirmed this August Third, with God as my witness, Lord Evard.”
The silence stretched between them for several moments, until William broke it. “Is — is this some kind of twisted joke?”
“Sadly, no,” sighed Evard. Marie’s prophecy will be fulfilled, in a way that I suspect will surprise even her. God takes the realm from my hand — an open hand that now offers Him what has always been His — and you take my place.”
“And you, what becomes of you?” William asked. “Do you expect me to simply let you go free?”
“I’m rather hoping you will,” Evard replied frankly. “But to make sure, I’m leaving it for your friends to release you.” The Overlord rolled up the scroll and tossed it through the bars into William’s cell, just out of reach. “When they come to set you free, they will find you here, with your proclamation. Marie knows my handwriting; she will confirm that I wrote it.
“So, tomorrow at noon, you become Overlord. The Three Rings are in my chambers, with a copy of the proclamation — and a list of those in the government whom you should... let’s say, offer honorable retirement. I’ve left strict orders with the staff that no one is to enter my chambers before noon tomorrow. In celebration of your capture, I have given the Sand Hill garrison three days’ leave, which should allow your friends to walk right in and free you — your jailer is also on his way home for an extended holiday. Marie will catch on to what is happening soon enough, and the people certainly will not rise up against you.
“Neat and orderly: no blood is shed. The garrison will be too hung over and confused to mount effective resistance, you have the approval of the Prophet, the people will regard you as a hero.”
“Which ‘why’ do you mean? Why you should let me go to find my fate? Why I’m stealing away? Why you? Which is it?”
William rubbed the back of his head on the rough wall of his cell. “All of it, I suppose. You’ve said why you’re leaving the Seat — I suppose you will take the wealth of the Realms with you?”
“You disappoint me, lad. What kind of repentance would it be, that I lay down the Three Rings and become a thief? No, you may have heard it said that I live as simply as one can in a palace and I will not hereafter live in luxury. I admit, I will not leave penniless, but I will take no more than the pension due a soldier who has served the Realms for nearly thirty years. Perhaps enough to buy a small croft in a faraway land.”
William let it pass. “Marie — you called her a friend?”
“Once upon a time, I railed against the Injustice of Charles. I must have had the favor of God, and I certainly had the good advice and friendship of a Lady who speaks His Word. Can you believe, the first few years of my reign were thought of as a kind of golden age? People prospered, they spoke without fear, and they hailed me as the Deliverer. Believe it or not, but tonight I will speak no lies.”
“Then... I remember hearing... what happened?” William hated himself for stammering in front of the Despot, but God! what was happening here? How could anyone expect this?
“I don’t rightly know.” Evard sighed and buried his head between his knees for a few moments, scratching the back of his scalp. Finally, he looked up and stared at the ceiling as he continued. “I can say this: the road to Evil is travelled one step at a time. You do something you ought not, justifying it as being good for the Realms. The next time, it becomes easier, and perhaps you go a little farther. Eventually, you begin to see your position as something other than a gift of God, you begin to see it as something that was rightly yours of birth. You see your deeds as Right, whether or not they truly are... then you do not hold the Seat so much as the Seat holds you.
“This is my warning to you, Lord William,” Evard looked directly at his prisoner and spoke sternly now. “I myself hung Charles the Tyrant in the Plaza, the day I took the Seat. I told myself, and all who would listen, that I was ending the Injustice with Justice. I could have given Charles an honest trial, and the result may well have been the same. But when you drink from that cup called Power, it’s so hard to put it down. You begin to listen only to that which you want to hear, and the prophets speak to you less and less and then one day they speak against you. You silence those who criticize you, first by threats and then by blood and fire. To make a long story short, in ten years’ time I was no better than the man I’d hung.”
Evard looked into the eyes of his prisoner, silent for a few moments. “It is said a death sentence focuses the mind,” he said at last. “Today, I realized I had a choice: put down the Three Rings and perhaps live, or let you or another worthy soul take them from my dead hand. Remember this, Lord William: God always gives you a choice, even at the very end. Perhaps especially at the very end. Tomorrow, Marie puts the Three Rings on your right hand, places the Staff of Office in your left, and leads you to your Seat. Perhaps it is in your mind to make hunting me down your first act of office. The people would likely applaud you for it. But unless I am dragged back by force, the sun will never shine upon Evard in the Three Realms again.”
A noise from the far end of the cell block told of the guard climbing the stairs: he no doubt had the horses ready. Evard stood and retrieved his pack. “Think on what I have said tonight, Lord William. Ask Marie, and she will speak truly. You may not like what you hear, but what she says you always need to know.”
“Milord?” the guard spoke through a door slightly ajar, giving the Overlord his privacy. “The horses are ready.”
“Good,” Evard called. “Go down and I will join you in a moment.” To William he said, “And now I bid you good-bye and good luck. Listen to your people, listen to your prophet, and above all listen to God. I can guarantee that we would not be having this conversation if I’d taken that advice myself.” And without another word, Evard bowed to the prisoner, grinned, shouldered his pack, and walked briskly toward the end of the cell block. To William, it was the stride of a much younger man — perhaps a young man who had found the mate of his dreams.
Near dawn, a lone figure watched from the shadows of a tavern stoop, as two men on horseback reached the Tri Via near the eastern border of the Three Realms. They spoke for a few minutes, then one of the men saluted, mounted up and rode back the way he came. The other stood and watched until he was out of sight, then turned back and tacked a paper to the trivia post. He looked around him, staring intently toward where the watcher hid unmoving, then mounted up and rode south toward Fenn Vale. Once the second rider had gone, the watcher walked hesitantly to the trivia post to see what had been left. If yet another had been there to watch the watcher, he would have seen the prophet Marie raise her hands heavenward and laugh, as if God had told her a very funny joke.