Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
WHILE KRYSTAL WAS filling in for Ferrel, and while Ferrel was investigating the brimstone spring, I was working on the first chair of the set of eight for Hensil-the olive trader who owned groves from Kyphrien to Dasir. Like everyone lately, he wanted something “original.” He'd liked a sketch of a square-backed armchair where the upper joined corners were more like arcs than right angles. The design took four dowellike shaft-spokes around a long diamond brace with his initial in the center. I couldn't turn the shaft-spokes all the way down because the middles had to be grooved. So I worked on one of them.
I was worried about the chair. The spokes still didn't feel right. I hadn't been sure of the proportions. That happens the first time on a new design, and I'd rough-cut them too big. My frugal side told me not to waste the wood, but that meant a lot of work. Planing cherry is hard work, even after turning it down as much as possible.
I'd gotten one almost rough-finished, and it was time to start on the rest of the set. The grooved spokes were the hardest. What I needed to do first was steam and bend the backs, since the longer and more gently I worked the wood, the stronger they'd be. While they were setting, I could go back to the time-consuming work of the spokes and the diamond backplate with the inlaid initial H.
As usual, nothing worked quite as I planned. I didn't have enough clamps to do more than two backs at a time, and the glue I'd made had gotten too thick.
While I was mumbling to myself about that, a single horse galloped into the yard. That was bad. Krystal never rode alone, not anymore, and no one galloped unless it was a trooper in a hurry. Although the last eight-day had been uneventful, that could change at any moment, especially when I had actually been seeing Krystal more than occasionally.
I ran out. “What's wrong?”
“Nothing, Order-master, ser... nothing.” Weldein drew back in his saddle, brushing his long and lank blond hair back off his forehead. He did not wear either his cap or battle helm. “Leader Yelena sent me to fetch you. The subcommander and the autarch want to see you immediately.”
“Just a moment.” I went back into the shop, cleaned and racked the saws I'd been using, and put away the clamps. I studied the chairs and the desk in the corner for a moment, then nodded before heading out to the washroom and the shower. I did take a few moments to shave, both for comfort and appearance. A little stubble wasn't bad, but more than that just made my face look dirty, and it itched if I sweated at all.
I dressed in my best, my good browns that were decidedly modest for an audience with the autarch, and I wondered how Deirdre and Bostric were making out. Memories, and the good browns, were all I really had of Deirdre, old Destrin's lovely daughter. It wouldn't have worked, but I did wish her and Bostric the best. Someday, he'd even be a decent woodworker. After changing, I went out to the stable, saddled Gairloch, and walked him out into the yard.
“You wizards and your ponies, and your bridles that are not bridles,” said Weldein, still waiting patiently.
“We can't spare the time to ride those monsters you use.” Besides, Gairloch answered easily to gentle pressure on the hackamore.
Weldein laughed, and we turned onto the highway back to Kyphrien.
“Where am I supposed to meet Krystal?”
“In her quarters. Then you'll go to see the autarch.”
The autarch didn't really have a palace, more like a walled residence that adjoined the guard complex housing the Finest, who were the mounted troops that formed the core of the autarch's forces. There was a much smaller crack infantry, but generally they only served as the autarch's personal guard when she actually led forces into battle. Most ground troops were drawn from the outliers, and they were locally recruited and housed in barracks all around Kyphros. That lack of a large central military force had almost been the autarch's undoing in the recent war with the Prefect of Gallos.
I guided Gairloch through the open gates behind Weldein and toward the front stable. The ostler outside the guard area looked stolidly at me, but said nothing, only nodded. I couldn't blame him... not too much. After stabling Gairloch in the end stall with the lower headroom, I walked outside, and Weldein saluted me before turning his mount toward the guard stables.
“Good day, Order-master.”
“Good day to you, Weldein.”
“And to you, ser.” He tipped the cap he had put on just before we entered the autarch's walls.
I walked across the paved courtyard and entered the main building, where Bidek looked away as I passed. Herreld was the guard outside Krystal's door, and he rapped on it, but didn't let me in. He never did, not without Krystal's command, and I'd never pressed it.
“Yes... good! You're here.” She motioned, and I stepped past Herreld.
Once the door was closed, and I saw that no one else was in the conference room, I gave her a hug, but didn't get as far as a kiss.
“I love you, too, but we don't have much time before we meet with Kasee.” Her eyes had deep circles under them, and she pursed her lips after speaking.
“What's the problem?”
“Ferrel's dead. At least, we think she is.”
“That wizard of the new Duke's?”
“Something like that. I'll tell you what we know when we get to Kasee's study.”
That was serious. I'd never been invited to the autarch's private study. Krystal did give in and kissed me warmly, if quickly, after she pulled on the vest-jacket with all the braid proclaiming her the subcommander. She straightened her blade, the same one I had bought for her in Recluce when we were still training for the dangergeld, back when I thought she giggled too much, and when she probably wished I'd grow up. She had stopped giggling, mostly, but I felt I still had some growing up to do, even if I was considered an adult with a profession-or two of them.
We walked down one flight of stairs and turned right- toward the wing with the autarch's quarters, offices, dining rooms, who knew what else. Even as a walled residence, and not a palace, the place smelled important-scented lamp oil, wood polishes, a spray of lemon incense, and, underlying it all, the distant odor of polished metal and working leather.
The whole setup was much less grandiose than, say, the palace of the Prefect of Gallos, with its fountains and columns, and carpets. The modesty impressed me. There were two guards outside the study door, the no-nonsense kind that look able to cut you apart and not raise a sweat. Krystal and I could have taken them, but, then, she could have done it single-handedly.
The autarch, who insisted I call her Kasee, even if I didn't always think of her on a name basis, sat behind a wide table heaped with parchment, scrolls, and even a set of ledgers. She did not stand up when we entered.
The table wasn't that good despite all the ornamentation, and I could see where the grain hadn't been quite aligned right in the inlays, and that the larger spooling on the front legs was too much larger and visually unbalanced the piece, so much that it seemed to tilt forward.
“Order-master.” She gave me a respectful nod in return. “I wish I were glad to see you, Lerris. I have this feeling that I'll always see you either before or after some disaster.” Her black hair-shot with silver-gray-was not neat, as at functions, but unruly, and she had a black smudge above one eyebrow. The green eyes met mine for a moment, not quite twinkling.
“I hope not.: .”I still didn't feel right not putting a title in, and my words trailed off.
“That's the problem facing wizards and rulers. No one really wants us around, and all their troubles are our fault.” She brushed a strand of silver-gray hair back off her forehead before continuing. “Krystal has told you about Ferrel?”
“Only that you believe she is dead. We came immediately, and Krystal didn't have time to tell me everything.”
“There isn't much else. There were two survivors, lucky laggards.”
“How many did you lose?”
“Two squads.” Krystal rubbed her forehead. “That's just as we're finally getting back up to strength. You can't train good troops overnight.”
“Do you know how?”
Krystal and Kasee exchanged glances. Finally, Krystal spoke. “No. The two troopers who escaped said the Hydlenese troops-or the wizard-used some sort of firebolts. They were waiting for Ferrel.”
“Did Ferrel just march down the road toward the spring?”
“No. She took a side road, not much better than a trail, according to the troopers. They were a good twenty kays from the spring when they were ambushed. The whole thing doesn't make any sense. Why would Berfir start something now? He's got his hands full with Duke Colaris. Colaris is talking about reclaiming the Ohyde Valley.”
Kasee took a deep breath, and I looked at her.
“Freetown and Hydlen have been fighting over the valley and the control of Renklaar for as long as there's been history. Hydlen's held it since before the fall of Fairhaven,” the autarch explained, “but no one seems to forget. They have long memories.”
“And long knives,” added Krystal.
“So that's why he needs the brimstone spring? Is he going to try to use cannon against Colaris?” I speculated.
“It could be, but he would be gambling that Colaris couldn't round up a white wizard,” mused Krystal.
“Given Colaris's reputation, that's not much of a gamble. All of the dukes of Freetown have been rather brutal, and frugal, and Colaris is cast in the same mold,” said Kasee. “But Berfir is very practical, from all reports, and he could hang onto the spring, string us out, and finally give it back after he got a lot of brimstone. Why deliberately start another border conflict?”
“It doesn't make sense. Not from what we know,” ventured Krystal.
“I wonder if there were any vulcrows around.”
“Is there anything to that?” asked Kasee. “You think this is tied up with another white wizard?”
“I don't know, but Antonin used one to spy on me. And, remember, Antonin really didn't care who won between you and the Prefect. He only wanted to increase his powers, just like all white wizards.”
“How did anyone ever overcome them?” asked Kasee dryly.
“I think it took about a thousand years and enough power to melt Frven,” I answered.
“We don't have that much time or power.” Krystal pursed her lips.
“Has anyone seen Justen?” I asked. “He should know something.”
“I talked to Tamra this morning,” Krystal said. “He left two days ago.”
“Rather convenient,” observed the autarch.
“She didn't go with him?”
“According to Tamra, Justen told her that she was now perfectly able to take care of herself for a while and he needed a holiday. He was headed west, but he didn't say where he was going.”
Both women looked at me.
I sighed. “I guess I'd better take a trip.”
“I'm not commanding,” Kasee began. “One requests from order-masters-politely. Very politely.”
I wasn't certain that the half-lucky disposal of a mere three white wizards merited so much deference. Still, I had to smile. “You can't afford to lose your subcommander.”
“Commander,” interposed Kasee.
“And neither can I.”
“Lerris...” began Krystal.
I shrugged. “I'll pack up some tools and wander into Hydlen. I'll be an apprentice, looking for a situation. I still look young enough for that.”
“I appreciate that offer, Lerris. You don't have to undertake this.”
“I have an interest.” I looked at Krystal. “A strong interest.” Then I looked back at the autarch. “This is going to take time. I don't intend to march over the pass directly. Don't you have to do something? I mean, soon?”
Kasee looked at me with the hint of a smile. “What? I can send more troops and have them slaughtered. If Berfir invades Kyphros, I'll get plenty of warning, and it's easier to fight in our desert hills than in the mountains. Acting too soon can only cost us. There's only Jikoya there, and the town's worth less than the troops I could lose. I might need the troops, and their commander, for when they're more useful.”
I didn't quite swallow. The idea that troops were more important than a town-that I hadn't thought about.
“Anything else you might need, Lerris?” asked the autarch.
I forced a grin. “It would help... if I could obtain some... donations for... travel expenses.”
“You've gotten hopelessly mercenary,” Kasee said dryly.
“It's much less expensive than losing troops because you don't know what's going on,” I pointed out. “You just said that.”
Kasee did smile, briefly.
“How would you go?” asked Krystal.
“The land route. A poor apprentice wouldn't arrive the easy way.”
“You never have taken the easy route.” Krystal rubbed her forehead. I appreciated the worry, but I stood a better chance than she did, what with wizardry and firebolts apparently flying around.
“Thank you, my dear subcommander.”
“What about an escort partway?” asked Kasee. “It would speed up the first part of your trip, wouldn't it?”
The message was clear enough, and I bowed to the need for deliberate haste. “It wouldn't hurt to have a few troopers, at least until I get to the Lower Easthorns. As Krystal can tell you, I'm hopeless with most weapons.”
Krystal snorted. “He can only hold off or disable two or three at a time with that staff of his. That's how he translates 'hopeless.' ”
“Are you on my side or this Gerlis's?” I asked.
“How soon?” I glanced from one woman to the other. “Yesterday? I can't do that. How about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow...” mused the autarch. “There are reasons that tomorrow might be a little... precipitous.”
“The day after?” I just wanted to get on with it, a tendency that had a way of getting me in trouble, and Kasee had indicated the need for haste.
“That would be better, for everyone.” The autarch gave Krystal a broad smile, and my consort actually flushed. So did I. Then the autarch stood and nodded at Krystal, and she nodded back. I gave the autarch a half-bow.