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Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt

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BOOK: The Death of Chaos
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5.Death of Chaos
LXXIV

East of Lavah, Sligo [Candar]

 

THE MAN IN the tan uniform knocks three times at the cottage door. Behind him, surrounding the small cottage, and creating a blanket of dust that seems to flow downhill toward Lavah, two horses wait with empty saddles and nearly fivescore mounted troopers.

   “Honored Mage?” Leithrrse says as Sammel appears and opens the door.

   “It's you again. What might you want this time? To offer me the position of the Emperor of Knowledge of Hamor?” Sammel wipes his forehead and steps out into the glare of the sun. Then, he squints and retreats into the dimmer space of the cottage. “Come on in. No sense in discussing things in front of the world. They'll find out soon enough.”

   Leithrrse follows the white wizard inside. He blots his forehead with a cloth. Despite its open windows, the cottage is warm in the midday heat.

   “Actually, I was going to appeal to you to help us reclaim some lost knowledge.” Leithrrse bows again.

   “Exactly what lost knowledge? Why are there so many troops out in the yard? And don't bow so much. That's false humility, and it doesn't go with an envoy from Hamor. I doubt there's much humility there.”

   “Perhaps not. All of this”-Leithrrse gestures toward the tan-clad troopers-“is somewhat tied together. As you may have heard, a Recluce assassin killed Regent Rignelgio. Likewise, the invisible warships of Recluce have sunk a small number of our ships. Unfortunately, Fleet Commander Kuliorrse was aboard one of them. So, for the moment, I am more man a mere envoy, a situation that the Emperor will doubtless rectify shortly. But for the moment-”

   “For the moment,” chuckles Sammel, “you personally would prefer that the Hamorian leadership in Candar not be further decimated. Clearly, I am being even more honored than upon your last visit.” He offers a slightly exaggerated bow. “And what is this 'knowledge,' and how might I possibly be of assistance to your mightiness? Or to His even more Supreme Mightiness the Emperor?”

   “The Emperor is mighty...” begins Leithrrse, then shakes his head. “You are getting impudent, Mage.”

   “You are getting more desperate, Honored Envoy. The knowledge you would like me to recover?”

   “Once there were great highways all the way from Freetown to Frven and from thence through the Easthorns. We believe we can locate those highways, and would like to restore them, by removing obstacles, and then use them.”

   “With your armies leading the way, no doubt.” Sammel blots his forehead again.

   “Unfortunately, we have neither scholars nor engineers at hand.”

   “And you're getting tired of dealing with Recluce on the ocean... so you figure you'll suffer fewer losses on land.”

   The envoy waits. His eyes flick to the rocket gun on the wall, and his lips twist.

   “And what will you do if I say no?”

   “At this point... nothing.”

   “That sounds suspiciously like a threat.”

   “The Emperor remembers friends.” Leithrrse shrugs. “He also remembers others.”

   Sammel strokes his chin. “Well... restoring roads. That is a form of knowledge.” His eyes follow the envoy's to the rocket gun, then drop back to Leithrrse. “Last time you mentioned remuneration. What did you have in mind?”

   “I left a token upon my departure. It was only a token, and the head librarian's position remains open. In addition, traveling with an army might be somewhat... healthier... these days,” points out Leithrrse.

   “So long as the other was but a token.” Sammel laughs and wipes his forehead. “And the Easthorns are definitely cooler now.”

   “I did take the liberty of bringing a mount, in case you had none.”

   Sammel smiles wryly. “Let me gather a few things before we start on this quest for knowledge. And you can gather up the latest 'token.' ”

   “Of course.” Leithrrse nods. “Of course.”

 

 

5.Death of Chaos
LXXV

 

“WHAT ARE YOU doing today?” As I glanced toward Krystal, I lifted the mug of redberry, early redberry, and expensive, but I was tired of water and had broken down and bought a keg of the juice. I'd also, to be fair, bought a keg of light ale for Krystal, although she only would drink that at night.

   The remnant of a gust of wind, hot and bearing dust, sifted through the open door. Rissa closed it with a thud. “Leaving the door open... we lose all the cool of the night too soon.”

   “I'm sorry.” Then I looked up. Why was I sorry? I hadn't been the one who left the door open. It had been one of Krystal's guards, going out to saddle up and get ready for the ride to Kyphrien. Or maybe it had been Wegel. “What are you doing?” I asked again.

   “Playing politics again.” Krystal smiled wryly, setting down her mug. She looked more rested than when she had arrived two days before, although I hadn't seen much of her between breakfast and sunset. Still, while she'd gotten more sleep, there were still lines running from the corners of her eyes, and circles under them. “Getting advice from Zeiber, and even paying a call on Father Dorna, and trying to keep the followers of the one god happy. I've already met with Mureas twice.”

   “Isn't that Kasee's job?”

   “She'll be here later today, and she'll do the same thing, starting tomorrow, but this way she'll have an idea of what they're thinking, and they'll be flattered that we both value them.”

   “Won't they know that's what you're doing?”

   “Of course. But the form of the flattery counts. It says they're important enough for both of us to talk with them. They can't resist telling everyone, and that shows that Kasee cares about Kyphrien and the people. That's very important, especially when it comes time to raise levies.”

   I shook my head. Wizardry was sometimes, maybe always, less convoluted than politics.

   “What about you?” Krystal finished the last of her redberry and set her mug on the table.

   “Me? We'll finish the two travel chests, and I'll smooth out Antona's desk chair. By tomorrow, I'll be ready to start the finish work on the set.”

   “After that?”

   I had to shrug. “There isn't much else. Everyone else with coins has either left or is hoarding them.”

   “It's like that everywhere.”

   “I know, but I don't understand.”

   “It's simple. The wealthy determine prosperity. At least, according to Mureas,” she added dryly. “If someone commissions a piece, you buy lumber from Faslik, and Faslik pays his family or his mill hands. They in turn use their coins to buy wool cloth or food or what they need. Now, what happens if you don't get commissions? You don't buy lumber...” Krystal stopped.

   “But I still buy food and clothes,” I protested.

   “You don't buy as much. Then the merchants either don't make as much, which means they can't buy as much, or they charge more, and that means others can't buy as much as they used to.”

   It made a sort of sense, and I sat there for a moment and thought. I already worried about fewer commissions.

   Chirrrppp...

   The cricket's call was cut short by Rissa's strong arm and a rolled rag. “Bugs... the heat, it brings them inside. They look for water, and then they eat anything.”

   Krystal and I grinned at each other. Then Krystal stretched and stood up. “I've enjoyed myself too long this morning.”

   “So you're going to punish yourself?” I got up and hugged her, then let my fingers walk up her back, massaging muscles that were too tight.

   “That feels good.”

   “You still want to leave?”

   A horse whinnied in the yard before she could say anything.

   “I think that's my answer.”

   After massaging her shoulders for a moment, I kissed her and let go, watching as she shrugged on the worn braided vest and belted on her blade.

   “I'll be late tonight, way after dinner. Kasee's coming in, and we're going to eat with Liessa and a few others.”

   “More politics?”

   “What else?”

   She gave me a hug before she left, and I watched from the kitchen steps-after Rissa shut the door behind me-as she and her guard rode northeast to Kyphrien. Lately, she hadn't said too much about my trying to be a hero, but why was it that she could ride off and do things, and it was all right?

   Wegel had finished sweeping the shop and was smoothing a brace for the travel chest when I came in.

   “T-this all r-right, M-m-master L-L-Lerris?”

   “That's fine. You keep working on those. I'm going to do the last touches on the cherry desk.” My fingers crossed the inlaid A. The combination of Wegel's carving and my grooves had worked. “I like the A.”

   Wegel bobbed his head and smiled, and I smiled back, happy that I'd found someone who actually understood the woods.

   After taking a deep breath, I cleaned the smoothing blade and checked the edge, knowing that I had to be careful... very careful I wiped my already sweating forehead and used my order senses on the wood, trying to detect even the smallest patches of roughness in the cherry. There weren't many, and I was almost finished, although it was near noon, when a low murmuring seemed to whisper in from the yard, and I set down my chisel, and walked quietly to the door Wegel looked up for an instant, then went back to smoothing one of the braces for the travel chest for which we didn't have a buyer-not yet.

   Two children stood on the stone step outside the kitchen door, looking up at Rissa. A thin woman, a ragged gray cloth tied loosely over her hair and forehead to protect her from the sun, stood on the other side of the yard, in the small patch of shade cast by the thin oak I had planted after I'd finished building the shop nearly three years earlier.

   “Please... we're so hungry...” The plea from the dark-haired older girl was barely loud enough to reach my ears. “Mama... said you had food.” She looked at her younger sister. Both children seemed clean, but dressed in rags, and those clean faces were far too thin.

   I eased back into the door before Rissa looked in my direction.

 
 “Just a bit...” Rissa's voice was uneven, not exactly harsh.“Master Lerris cannot feed everyone.”

   “We're not everyone,” said the smaller girl. “You know us. I'm Jydee, and she's Myrla, and we don't have enough to eat.”

   “I'll see...” Rissa's footsteps faded as she walked into the kitchen.

   Were things so bad that children were going without food? And begging at my door, not just in the poorer quarters of Kyphrien? I'd expected my work to dry up, but I catered to those who had extra coins.

   “Here...”

   “Thank you, Mistress Rissa... thank you...”

   “Don't thank me. Give thanks to Master Lerris. It's his larder.”

   I eased back to where I could see. Each girl had half a loaf of nearly stale bread and some olives. They walked slowly across the yard to their mother, their bare feet lifting red dust as they walked.

   Jydee, the smaller one, slowly put an olive in her mouth and then began to chew on the corner of the bread.

   The mother raised her hand to Rissa, and the three walked down the drive.

   I walked up to the kitchen.

   “Master Lerris... Guysee is a good woman...”

   I held up my hand. “I'm not complaining. Those children looked loved and cared for-and very hungry.” I nodded toward the table in the kitchen and shut the door behind us, to keep out both the heat and the red dust.

   I took a pitcher from the cooler and poured some redberry. “Who is the woman?”

   “Guysee? I have known Guysee for many years. Her man was Wylbel. He worked for the old wool factor Sinckor. He died before-”

   “Isn't he the one who owned this land?”

   Rissa nodded. “His home and warehouse burned down, and he died in the fire, and a terrible fire it was, with flames as high as the trees. Some say Histel-that was his only son, and an evil one he was, beating the girls until his own father turned him over to the autarch's guards-some say Histel killed him for his gold.” Rissa shrugged. “No one ever found Histel or the gold. Wylbel tried to save Sinckor, and he was burned and never could work a day again. He died in the great rain three years ago. So Guysee, she ran Morten's household until that black-haired woman came and the times became hard and the hussy could persuade Morten to let Guysee go.”

   “Where do they live?”

   “Where they can.”

   I swallowed, then took a sip of redberry. The extra silvers I'd paid for the keg seemed truly luxurious.

   “They come here to you often?”

   “I always tell them you are the generous one, and you are, for it is your food.”

   “Even if I didn't know it?”

   She shrugged. “She is a good person, and there is no work, and her family, they are dead.”

   Now what was I going to do? It was easier when you didn't see people's troubles. Maybe... maybe... but I couldn't solve everything overnight.

   “For now, you can be a bit more generous. Let me think about them.”

   “You are a good man.”

   I shook my head. I didn't feel good. A little extra food for a homeless woman with two children made me good? “Is it like this all around Kyphrien?”

   “Food, it is getting dear.”

   “Why...” I stopped. “I didn't notice it because, with Krystal gone most of the time, we're not feeding as many mouths.”

   “That is true, and we are eating more maize and old mutton and olives.” Rissa smiled. “I try to be careful with your coins.”

   “I'm grateful for that.” I finished the last swallow of redberry and stood. “I need to think and work.”

   “And you should. Many people, they depend on you.” Rissa gave me a broad smile.

   I didn't need that. I had a snug house, a wonderful consort, food, a good pony, and a craft I enjoyed. What did people like Guysee and her daughters have?

   Back in the shop, I looked at Wegel. “Do you know Guy-see?”

   “Wh-wh-who?” But he flushed.

   “What do you know about the woman?”

   “N-n-not m-much...” Between stammers, he explained that he and his brothers had sneaked her food for a while, until their father had caught them.

   “So... what can she do?”

   “Sh-sh-she sews...” Guysee had been good enough to be a seamstress.

   I shook my head. “Fine. You started this. You can finish it. You get to turn the henhouse into a cot with three beds-we'll worry about a hearth later. Then you get to build another henhouse. I'll pay for the lumber.”

   “Wh-wh-why?”

   “Because... if I don't do something, who will? I can't save the world, but maybe we can help a poor woman for a while. And don't tell Rissa or Guysee! Not until you finish that cot. Tomorrow, we'll have to get the lumber from your father's mill. Now... finish that chest.”

   “Y-yes, s-s-ser...”

   Was building a cot just something to make me feel good because I couldn't figure out what to do about the bigger problem that seemed to face Kasee, Krystal, and Kyphros? Did I have to be a hero of sorts in someone's eyes?

   I didn't know, but my eyes lighted on an object in the comer behind the drafting table-the old piece of cedar I'd started to carve I didn't know how many times. There was a face in the wood, but I still couldn't see whose face or what it was, not clearly.

   After studying it for a while, I set it aside and picked up the smoothing blade. I needed to get the desk ready for the finish.

   Wegel hummed while he worked on the travel chest; I began to study the desk and to smooth it, and the unfinished carving seemed to reproach me in a sightless way-although I didn't understand how, since it had no more than a rough outline of a face and no eyes at all.

 

 

BOOK: The Death of Chaos
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