Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
As we left the study, I asked, “Do you know where Tamra is?”
“She was in the small guest quarters off the Second's barracks. Do you think she knows where Justen is?”
Krystal shook her head. “Justen isn't about to be found.”
“Probably not. He seems to vanish whenever I'm headed into trouble.”
“Do you really think so?” Krystal rubbed her forehead again.
“Sometimes... still, he didn't get that ancient by walking into trouble.” I reached out and squeezed her shoulder, offering her both reassurance and a bit of order.
Although the autarch's residence wasn't a fortress, it was designed for defense, with thick walls, small windows, and shadows everywhere, even at midday. We walked down the long corridor toward the gate to the guard building.
The two soldiers on duty nodded as we passed, and before long we reached Krystal's quarters, and the always-present Herreld, who opened the door for us. He didn't smile, but he no longer frowned when I showed up.
Once the door was shut, I did manage another hug, and a kiss.
Krystal disengaged herself. “I don't know how you enjoy that with a blade half between us.”
I just leered.
“You're terrible.” Her eyes twinkled, and she turned and dropped the bar in place. Then she unfastened the sword belt, and kicked off her boots with two rapid thuds.
I grinned, but I didn't finish the grin because Krystal had both arms around me. Somehow, I did manage to get my boots off.
Later, as we lay entwined in the green quilt, I stroked her forehead. “You won't be coming home tonight, will you?”
“No. We have to meet with Mureas and Liessa. How did you know?”
“I have my ways, lusty wench.” I hugged her tightly, enjoying the feel of her satin skin against mine, and the perfume of her short hair against my cheek. All we could do was use the times we had together, and with Krystal's promotion and the troubles ahead, I knew those times were about to become a lot less frequent.
Outside, the bell chimed four times, and the quick sounds of booted feet below the balcony told of the changing of the guard.
Finally, Krystal sighed, turned, and squeezed me for a long while, then released me.
“You have to get to your meeting? What sort of meeting?”
“It has to do with the new commander.”
“That's you. Kasee said so.”
“That's what Kasee wants. And probably Liessa. Mureas wants her nephew Torrman-”
“Isn't he the one whose hand you took off?” I nibbled on her ear.
“If I don't get up, I never will.” Krystal gave me another hug and kiss, and swung away. “That was an accident. He threw sand in my face. I only meant to disarm him.” She began to pull on her uniform, and I reluctantly began to dress. “Mureas will make Kasee pay some price.”
“She won't make Torrman the subcommander?”
“Kasee's indebted, but she won't cut her own throat, not even if Mureas threatened to quit as Finance Minister. Besides, Mureas won't. She likes the power and position, but she'll make it hard, politely, on Kasee.”
“I don't like her.”
“No one does, but she's good with the coins, and she knows what works with them.”
Like who to tax and how much, I had gathered. I stepped up behind Krystal and put my arms around her, kissing her neck, and holding her in a most familiar manner. She leaned back for a moment, then took a deep breath. I gave her a last light kiss on the neck and let go.
“I need to find my boots.” Krystal stood up and looked toward the other room.
“You left them in the conference room.”
“You left yours there, too,” she pointed out.
What could I say? I didn't, but she didn't open the outer door until we were both presentable. Herreld remained as impassive as ever as we went down the corridor and down the stairs, hand in hand.
At the bottom, Krystal let go of my hand. “Tomorrow night... I hope.”
So did I.
I couldn't find Tamra, but I left her a note, then reclaimed Gairloch and headed back to the house and shop.
West of Arastia, Hydlen [Candar]
THE MAN IN the muddy leathers, wearing a hand - and - a - half sword across his shoulders, and carrying a coil of rope in his left hand, rides up to the dirt-spattered white tent in the middle of the camp. In front of the tent is a red banner with a crown emblazoned across the middle.
The white wizard stands up from behind the portable table. “Yes, ser?”
“What were you thinking?” The big man marches into the tent, his boots spraying mud across the carpet.
“About what?” Gerlis knots his eyebrows, looking down at the mud the other has brought in.
Berfir throws the scroll on the table, right across the crockery, ignoring the grease it picks up from the uneaten mutton. “That! Here I am, trying to build up enough forces in the north to keep Colaris from invading us, and here you are, using the rockets on the Kyphrans and trying to start another war I don't need. The rockets cost dearly enough...”
“The hermit charged you very little at all, I recall.”
“Getting the information was the easy part. The coins for the smiths and the chemists were what cost.”
“They don't work as well as chaos fire.”
“But I don't need a wizard for them. That was why you were here. The idea was for you to keep that hothead Cennon out of trouble, not help him get into it. You were just supposed to hold the spring, not have Cennon invade Kyphros. I thought that all of the rockets were coming north. That's where I need them. That bastard Colaris could put an army on the Hydolar or Renklaar roads anytime. He's raising levies, and he's buying more mercenaries.”
“You already have a great many of the rockets, and it does take some time to transport them.” Gerlis bowed, his cleanshaven face thin under the dark hair carefully combed to affect a widow's peak. “Colaris's troops are camped barely beyond Freetown, in any case.”
“Stop picking nits with me! You were supposed to restrain Cennon, not encourage him. You were supposed to send the rockets to Hydlen.” Berfir draws the heavy sword, and the worked steel tip centers less than a span from Gerlis's trim stomach. “If you won't help me, what use are you?”
“You did retain me for my judgment, Your Grace. After Cennon's decision, I thought some of the rockets should remain here. I did have half of those remaining dispatched.” Gerlis steps back and bows. “You may have passed them on your way here.”
“Stop changing the subject.” Berfir sighs and lowers the big sword.
“Cennon seemed to think the attack a rather good idea, ser. In your interests, you know.”
“And you let him? You need a healer!” The sword flips back up, almost to Gerlis's chin. “You know as well as I do that those Kyphrans were only scouting. Scouts aren't invaders, and they were on their side of the border. The autarch isn't interested in conquest. She wasn't even trying to get the spring back yet. You know it, and I know it. The longer things dragged out the better. So why did you tell Cennon to attack them?”
“It wasn't quite that way, ser. Cennon saw them as a threat.”
“Why didn't you stop him?”
“A wizard overruling a field commander?” asks Gerlis reasonably. “Especially the eldest son of-”
“Idiots!” Berfir sighs deeply. “Am I surrounded by idiots? How can I hold Hydlen together when I am indebted to idiots like that? I didn't even want to be Duke-not that much, anyway, but Sterna would have given Colaris all the fields on the north side of the Ohyde River, almost the whole Ohyde Valley, and then where would we have been? With Colaris at our front door, and with the best land... and now, if I don't fight, all the farmers will claim that because I'm a Yeannotan, I betrayed them. And you give me a fight I don't want and don't need.”
“Duke Sterna, the angels bless him, only wanted peace.”
“You don't get peace by giving things away, not to bastards like Colaris. And calling on the angels certainly doesn't become you, Gerlis.” Berfir laughs harshly and resheathes the sword.
“Perhaps you could use another enemy,” suggests the white wizard.
“Another enemy? I need another enemy? Everyone thinks I'm an upstart. The Temple priests say I'm in league with the demons of light because you're my wizard, and I need to get into a war with Kyphros? When I'm already trying to avoid one with Freetown? One that will break out in open war in eight days, if not sooner.”
“Well...” mused Gerlis. “If Kyphros attacks you, and you drive off the autarch, everyone will forget your origin. They might also forgive you for the casualties that will mount in the conflict with Colaris.”
“But the autarch won't attack.”
“She already did, according to Cennon. You might as well use it as best you can. For several purposes.”
Berfir pauses and scratches his unruly salt - and - pepper beard.“I see what you mean... I think. But what do I do now? I can't back down to the autarch now. That would give Colaris even greater reason to attack. And if I don't back down to her, I'll have to shift troops here. That would encourage Colaris to quick-march those troops down the road to Hydolar within an eight-day. Demons! What a mess! Why do I owe so much to Cennon's clan?”
“Well... Cennon has proved his worth, and he and his troops have earned the right to meet the enemy first.”
“I presume that means the real attackers? What if the autarch merely ignores the attack, or sends a more secretive group of scouts?” Berfir looks toward the closed flap of the tent as the fall breeze shakes the white cloth.
“She probably will. But Cennon and his troops will fight valiantly for Hydlen in any case, and after a sufficiently bloody stand-off, you and the autarch will reach a mutually beneficial agreement, which you will tout as a display of your heroic leadership... and that will free you to fight off the real invader.”
“And how does that work when we still will have the autarch's brimstone spring.”
“We'll give back the land.”
Berfir reaches for the sword, then stops and lowers his arm. “What? The whole point-”
“I've just about traced the underground springs, and I can shift them so that they come up farther downstream on your side of the border.”
“Then why did we take the spring, for light's sake?”
“Because I couldn't figure it out unless we held it.” Gerlis lowers his voice. “So what we need to do is to make Cennon a hero-one who died valiantly in the cause of Hydlen. You will shed copious tears in telling his dear father, and award some title to his infant son. And the next would-be Cennon might think twice before-”
“Did they teach you such deviltry somewhere, or did it spring from the depths of the earth?”
“I do appreciate the compliment, ser.”
Berfir shakes his head again, and walks across the muddy ground, swinging himself into the saddle of the big stallion.
Gerlis smiles, a toothy grin that reveals large white teeth and reddish gums. His eyes flicker across the odd-shaped carts and the crimson banner with the gold dagger that signifies Cennon's force, the banner that will soon pass to Cennon's heir.
Then his eyes return to the ducal banner, and he nods slowly.
WITH THE SOUND of horses, I set down the chisel and stepped out into the yard. The sky was clear blue-green, and a chill breeze blew out of the north.
The open-topped carriage, drawn by matched chestnuts, stopped precisely opposite the door. On the driver's seat sat a driver and a guard with both a blade and a cocked crossbow. Both wore gray leathers and gray shirts, but the driver wore brown boots and the guard wore black.
The single occupant opened the half door herself and vaulted onto the packed clay of the yard.
“Master Lerris?” She might have reached to my shoulder. Her eyes were a gray even stonier than her hair, and, under the green silk shirt, the brushed gray leather trousers and vest, she seemed whipcord-thin. Her high boots-gray leather-did match her outfit. For all the trappings of wealth, I did not recognize her. The faintest hint of roses flowed from around her.
“The same.” I bowed. “How might I help you?”
“By inviting me into your shop.”
I bowed again and gestured toward the open door. “My pleasure.”
“From what I've heard of your lady, your pleasure is bound to be only visual.” Her laugh was easy and practiced as she stepped into the workroom.
“Nice design.” She pointed at the first of Hensil's chairs. “How far along is that?”
“It's not quite rough-finished.”
She studied the tools, the partly completed desk in the corner, and the spoked shafts I had been working on. “Do you have any finished work I might see?”
“An inlaid table in the house,” I offered.
“Then let us go view this masterpiece.”
I led the way, conscious that the guard with the crossbow followed us both with his eyes as we walked back out and into the house. The crossbow wasn't exactly trained on me, but I knew it would have taken but an instant.
I could have had a door between the kitchen and the shop, but that idea hadn't felt right, and I really wanted some separation. Besides, it kept the sawdust from drifting into the house.
When she saw the table, she looked--just looked. Finally, she nodded. “You are as good as they say. Why is this here?”
“The man who commissioned it fell out of a tree just before it was finished. He broke his neck and died. My consort insisted I keep it.”
“Wise woman. You should keep listening to her.”
She looked up from the table. “I would like to commission a desk.”
I had to spread my hands. “I need to know more. What style? A table desk, or a pedestal desk? Do you want drawers?” I paused. “I can show you some sketches of general types of desks.”
“I know what I want.”
“Something like your table, except even less elaborate. The lines should be almost straight, very clean. Only an inlaid border on a top with beveled edges, but with drawers in the pedestals on both sides-and false backs to the top drawers on each side.”
“No special carvings or designs?”
“Would you suggest any?”
“I could put just a single initial-inlaid-somewhere not terribly obvious.”
“Why would you go to the trouble of inlaying an initial and not making it obvious?” Her smile was amused, as if she knew the answer.
“To show, tastefully, that it was a special piece.”
She nodded again. “How much would such a piece cost? Done to the same standards as the table?”
“Do you want a matching desk chair?”
“Fifty golds. Forty for the desk and ten for the chair.”
“How much of a deposit?” she asked.
“You are so rich that you need no deposit?”
“No, madame.” I bowed again. “If I take your deposit, then I must accept your advice, because you already own the work, or part of it. I would prefer to do the best I can. If it does not suit you, you are under no obligation.”
“So idealistic, Master Lerris. And so young.” She laughed, but it was not an unkind laugh.
“Practical, madame. If you did not like the work, with your wealth, you could easily reclaim your deposit. And,” I added, “I have found I can sell whatever I can make.”
“I like you, young fellow. But please do not call me ma-dame. My name is Antona.” She waited.
“I beg your indulgence, Lady Antona, but I am relatively new to Kyphrien and have not had the pleasure of knowing of you.”
“I'm sure you will hear sooner or later. Don't believe everything you hear. Only half of it is true. I will not tell you which half.” She turned toward the door, then paused. “When could I expect this piece to be completed?”
I frowned. “Normally, for something like that, about a season.” I held up a hand. “It doesn't take that long in workmanship, but if you want it to weather well and not have the wood split later, I need to let parts of the joints and any curving set for a while. Also, I have already been obligated to... spend some time I had not planned on, so this might take a bit longer. If that bothers you...”
“No. As you pointed out, I have not paid you yet. It's a fair bargain.” Antona stepped back from the table after taking another look at the inlay work. “The grain angles are very delicate.” She paused. “Would you mind if I paid you a visit to see how things are going in some several eight-days from now?”
“Not at all.” I held the door for her and waited in the yard while she climbed into the carriage.
Then I went back to the shop and drew up a rough plan for the desk, sketching out what I had in mind, while those details we had discussed were still fresh. I also wrote down the price- higher than I thought necessary, but I had learned that everything seemed to take longer and cost more. I wasn't in the business just for artistry. I was learning that I did have to buy, not only wood, but such things as food, feed for Gairloch and the old mare, and more than I would have liked for the mounts of Krystal's guards, although Krystal paid for most of their feed and some of the food. She would have paid more, but I didn't feel right about asking her.
After completing my quick rough plan, I put both the sketch and the estimates in the folder for commissions-thin, but growing-and went back to working on Hensil's chairs.
I'd gotten the one rough-finished, and had the backs of the next two done. That left five more. The grooved spokes were still the hardest. After I finished bending the backs of the next two with my too-few clamps and they were setting, I could go back to the time-consuming work of the spokes and the diamond backplates with the inlaid initial H.
As usual, I didn't get as far along as I would have liked, since I was working on the fourth chair back when I looked up at a faint sound.
“So? What did you want?” Tamra stood in the doorway to the shop. “It couldn't have been that important, or you would have tracked me down. I was only out in the market.”
“How was I to know?” I set aside the clamps, wiping my forehead on my upper arm, only half-annoyed that she'd shielded her approach to catch me unawares. I was more worried about the chairs. Doing the backs was, like everything, going to take longer than I had planned.
“You could have looked-with your order senses.”
“Would you like something to drink?” I unfastened the leather apron and hung it on the peg, then wiped off the clamp with a cloth to make sure it was perfectly dry. Glue on the clamp surface would set rough and ruin the wood. Good and clean tools are a woodworker's livelihood.
We walked past the rail where her roan was tied and into the house. She sat at the table while I got out the redberry. Rissa had taken the cart and the black mare to Kyphrien to market.
“Do you know where Justen is?” I poured two mugs and set one in front of Tamra, then sat down across the table from her.
“No. I already told Krystal that. You wanted to see me for that?” Tamra flipped the end of the green scarf back over her shoulder.
“Partly. I was wondering where he had gone, and how long before he'd be back.”
She shrugged, then swallowed about half the redberry in her mug.
“Why would he go off without telling anyone?” I got up and retrieved the pitcher of redberry, refilling Tamra's mug and setting the pitcher on the table where she could reach it.
“Lerris, you are still so... obtuse!” snapped Tamra.
I wasn't the one who had been dense enough to get enslaved by a white wizard, but I was obtuse? “So where is he?”
“He didn't tell me, but just because he's been around for a while doesn't mean he's not a man. You, with all your leering at Krystal, should certainly understand that.”
“Justen?” Somehow, the thought of my uncle Justen with a woman was disconcerting. “Justen?”
“You're impossible! Haven't you ever looked at Justen, really looked at him? With your order senses?”
“No. That's not something that exactly crossed my mind.”
Tamra sighed. “How you ever bested Antonin-”
“Lucky for you I did.”
“Lucky is right. Lucky.” She took a deep breath. “If you look at him with your order senses, if it ever crosses what passes for your mind, you can see an order tie-it looks like it stretches forever.”
“He's linked somehow to someone?”
“That's what I'm trying to tell you.”
I frowned. “The secrecy would make sense. He's probably got enemies...”
“Of course it would.” Tamra looked toward the pantry. “Do you have anything to eat?”
“There's some cheese in the cooler.”
“I'll get it.” She rummaged through the cooler-running water from the stream runs around the sides of the thing, a design that dates back to Dorrin, but I'd never seen one in Candar, so I had to have Ginstal, one of the local smiths, make it up specially for me. “You've only got the yellow stuff?”
“We finished the white the other night, and I haven't broken the wheel in the cellar yet.”
Despite the complaints, Tamra hacked off two healthy wedges and broke off a large chunk from the bread in the breadbox. I sipped the rest of my redberry while she sat down and ate.
“You going to eat, Lerris?”
“I had some cheese before you came.”
She winced. “... barely past mid-morning...” she mumbled with her mouth full. “When did you get up?”
“Early. I always do when Krystal's not here. Then I can stop whatever I'm doing when she comes in.”
“What happens when she's off somewhere?” Tamra refilled her mug.
“I get a lot of work done. I've gotten a lot of work done lately.”
“That's woodwork. What about real work?”
“You've gotten slow and sloppy.” Tamra flipped a strand of short red hair off her shoulder and looked at my chest.
“I have not. Not sloppy, anyway.”
She prodded my stomach. “Not sloppy... but slow, I'd still bet.”
“You just want an excuse to show your prowess.”
“Naturally.” She grinned. “You've been insufferable in your humbleness. Just the humble woodworker whose consort is the important one. Your humbleness is almost arrogance. Bah!”
I could use the exercise, and a break from planing the damned chair spokes. “All right. A short sparring session, but not for blood.”
“So get out that old staff.” Tamra drained the last of her mug and wiped her mouth.
“It's new. The old one got broken, remember?”
“I don't remember, thank the darkness. Let's get on with it. I'm supposed to work with the trainees later.”
“You like getting pummeled?”
“They have to hit me first. Or don't you remember?”
“That was a while ago, and it only happened once.” Once had been enough. Back in Recluce, the first time I'd sparred with Tamra she'd beaten me black and blue, and knocked me out-with a padded staff yet. I'd gotten a lot better since then, but I wasn't that enthused about sparring with her.
After rinsing the mugs and setting them in the rack, I led her out, stopping by the shop to reclaim my new staff.
We squared off in the center of the yard. A light breeze blew out of the west, bringing the acrid scent of graying leaves and a hint of chill all the way from the Westhorns.
“I hope you're better with it than with the old one.”
“So we will.” Tamra circled left.
I turned with her, but kept my feet balanced, knowing she was quicker.
Flickkk .. Her staff flashed, but I slid it off to the right.
Thwack! No finesse there, as that slight form shifted her weight to focus it all on the staff. My fingers were numb from the blow to my staff, and I backed up, trying to flex them while not letting go of the staff itself.
Sweat was already popping out on my forehead, and Tamra looked cold, almost dispassionate, like some ancient Westwind guard must have.
I feinted, then dropped, and came up under her guard. She parried but not before I cracked her on the thigh, not hard. I couldn't do that, not in sparring.
“Think you're good?” She grunted, and her staff turned into a blur.
At that point, I had to surrender to my own sense of order and let my body respond.
The whole thing became a blur. I got in some blows, and she got in some. I got in more, but hers were harder. She didn't have the restraints I did, which is why she got in trouble with Antonin, but why it took more work for me to hold her off with the staff.
“All right!” I finally puffed, backing up, and sweating like a roasted hog. “You're doing this every day. I only do it occasionally.”
She put down her staff, looking only a bit warmer than before we started. Her red hair was slightly disarrayed. “When do you leave?”
“About half the Finest know you're headed somewhere, and Ferrel hasn't come back, and Krystal's taken over the Finest. And you're asking about Justen.” Tamra snorted. “It doesn't take much in the way of brains.”
“Soon.” I bowed to the inevitable. “Since you know so much, what else can you tell me?”