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The Death of Chaos (Saga of Recluce)by L E Jr Modesitt
I'd just applied the thinnest coat possible of a satin finish on the black oak wardrobe for the autarch of Kyphros--Kasee--when I felt the presence of horses, and their riders. Krystal was not with them, and I didn't like the idea of the Finest tramping up to the shop without my consort, but as subcommander of the autarch's forces, Krystal's schedule wasn't exactly predictable.
I finished the section of the wardrobe I had been working on before I met the troopers outside the stable. The stable hadn't been my idea, but Krystal's, and she had paid for most of it, especially the part that doubled as a bunkhouse for her personal guard. Funny things like that happen to the consort of the second-highest-ranking military officer in Kyphros, not that either of us had planned where we would end up when we-and Tamra and a few others--had been thrown out of Recluce years earlier because we hadn't been "ordered" enough for the black Brotherhood--or my father.
"Greetings, Order-master!" In the green leathers of the autarch's Finest, Yelena sat easily on the brown gelding.
I'd known Yelena from my first days in Kyphrien, when I'd been fortunate to best the white chaos-master Antonin and rescue Tamra. Yelena had been my escort part of the way on that troubled trip, but she still called me order-master and threatened to lash any member of the Finest who even hinted at any familiarity. If she weren't so serious about it, it might have been funny, but I understood her reasoning,- and couldn't say it was wrong. People had this idea that I was a great wizard because I'd managed to get rid of three white wizards. One of them had actually plagued not only Kyphros, but all of the continent of Candar.
"Greetings, Leader Yelena."
She wrinkled her nose. "What's that smell?"
"It's a satin-finish varnish-except it's got a touch of some other things that make it more like--
"Enough, enough..." The broad-shouldered squad leader grinned as she dismounted. "Until I met you, I always thought woodworkers were small little men who hid in their shops, toiling endless days in the dark until they produced something like magic."
"You have the endless-days part correct, and I'm not that big."
She shook her head. So I am a bit taller than the average Kyphran, who tend to be shorter and darker than people from the north or from the island continent of Reduce. That didn't make me that big a person.
"Where is Krystal?"
"The subcommander is meeting with the autarch, and will be here shortly."
"So, why are you here?" I looked down at the varnish-stained cloth in my hand. "I've got to get back to the wardrobe, or I'll have the demon's own time getting the finish to match.
"Commander Ferrel wanted to make sure that no one disturbed the subcommander."
That didn't make much sense. If Ferrel didn't want Krystal disturbed, why weren't the guards with her?
"How many for dinner, Master Lends?" Rissa was still barefoot and wore trousers that looked more like shorts. I'd given up on correcting her, but I had noticed that she only used the term "master'" when others were present. Rissa had grown up not far from the burned-out buildings I'd received from the autarch and rebuilt, but Yelena had rescued Rissa from bandits who killed Rissa's consort and daughter not long after we moved in. Rissa hadn't spoken at first, but my uncle Justen--the only true gray wizard in Candar, or perhaps anywhere--had been convinced that being around Krystal and me would heal her. Besides, at the time, Justen had had his hands full in rebuilding Tamra's abilities and confidence after her near disastrous encounter with Antonin when the white wizard Sephya had taken over Tamra's body.
So...I'd done what I could for Rissa, and so had Krystal, and it had gotten to be nice to have someone else do the cooking and cleaning. That way, I could concentrate on setting up my workshop and getting customers. Krystal was a good cook, not that she ever had any time for it, being the chief military trainer and administrator of Kyphros. I still was a bit amazed, when I thought about it, that Kyphros, like ancient Westwind, was run basically by women. Unlike Westwind, they didn't run out men or tromp all over them. It just happened that in Kyphros, most of the people with the ability to govern seemed to be women. That was fine with me, since I never had any inclinations along those lines.
"He's off somewhere, again," snorted Rissa. "Master Lerris...dinner? How many?"
"How would I know?" I turned to Yelena. "How many do you have?"
Yelena frowned gently. "We ate before we left, and they have their rations."
"Would you join us? And why aren't you with the subcommander?" Was Krystal being sent off somewhere else again?
"Not tonight. The subcommander told me to tell you that the wizard Justen and his apprentice would be arriving with her."
I took a deep breath. As usual, things were getting complicated. Krystal had been out for the past eight-day, doing something with the local levies around Ruzor, and I'd hoped to have some time with her. Now the whole world was arriving. Yelena, who usually joined us, even if her troops didn't, wasn't going to, and that meant something worse was about to happen.
Yelena smiled gently, understanding my thoughts.
"Five, so far. And make sure we have some ale for Justen."
Rissa shook her head and padded back into the house.
"--to get back to your finish. I am sure I wouldn't wish to spoil a piece meant for the autarch."
"How did you know?
She shrugged, turned, and motioned to Weldein and Freyda and two others I didn't know. Weldein grinned at me, and I gave him an exaggerated shrug.
As I turned back to the shop, I wondered, not for the first time, how anything could be kept a secret in Kyphros. Inside, I took a fresh cloth and dipped it into the finish and began to rub it into the wood. "Rub" is really the wrong term, because there's almost no pressure involved. The finish I had cooked up was thin and took a long time to dry. I needed to apply several coats, but the eventual result was a hard, but almost invisible coat--without magic--and that was what I'd wanted with the wardrobe, because the doors generally took a beating.
The inlaid design glistened and seemed to stand out from the dark wood. Inlay work was, for me, the hardest part. Not the grooving or the channels in the base wood--that was a matter of patience and care--but the creation of the inlay pieces themselves. The grain has to add to the design and not just appear as though it had been stuck there any old way. I also tended to make my inlays a shade deeper, but that meant ensuring that the base wood was fractionally thicker to avoid sacrificing strength.
The design was a variation on the autarch's flag--an olive branch crossed with a blade--golden oak set in the base, black oak on the panel above the doors. That was it--nothing else to mar the smooth finish of the piece. That sort of work is tricky, because any flaw is instantly noticed. Errors in more elaborate inlays often aren't seen.
I was probably extra sensitive to flaws in woodworking, and in wood, because one little flaw when I was working as an apprentice for my uncle Sardit had gotten me exiled from Reduce, carted across the Eastern Ocean and dumped in Candar to discover the "truth" of order, with only a staff, except it was a special staff, bound in order and black iron. Because I was a potential order-master, one of the so-called blackstaffers, no one had told me much, and I had gotten into more and more trouble. I'd been chased out of Freetown, chased out of Hris-barg, and generally on the run across Eastern Candar until I ran into Justen. Then, I'd thought he was just a gray wizard, and I was glad to be his apprentice. It took me more than a year to find out he was my uncle--and well over two centuries old. So I'd ridden with Justen, almost gotten possessed by one of the white wizards bound centuries earlier in the ruins of Frven. Justen saved me there, and then had taught me how to heal sheep, and a few other things. Nothing went quite as planned. I'd rescued and healed a street slut in Jellico. That hadn't been such a good idea, because all unlicensed healing there was forbidden, and I'd had to leave Justen and, once again, ride for my life, heading west across Candar.
Eventually, I'd gotten through the Easthorns--through storms and snows in those towering mountains--and made my way to Fenard--the capital of Gallos. I actually found a place with a woodworker, old Destrin, and got back to working wood. There I lasted about a year before I did something else stupid--I infused some chairs we made with extra order. The extra order reacted with the chaos in the Prefect's officers, and some were burned. That meant I had to leave Gallos, but not until I'd found a suitable match for Destrin's daughter Deirdre.
At that point, Gallos and Kyphros were fighting an ugly war, fomented and fueled by Antonin, one of the nastier white wizards I'd ever had the displeasure of running across. I'd found out that Krystal had joined the forces of the autarch of Kyphros. So I went to Kyphrien, the capital of Kyphros, to see if I could help, although my skills were certainly weak compared to those of Antonin.
After rescuing some of Commander Fend's Finest and disposing of one white wizard, I reached Kyphrien. I found Krystal had worked her way up to the number two position in the Finest, and that I'd missed being with her--except I'd been too stupid to see that. Of course, it wasn't that simple. Nothing is. So, I'd had to go seek out Antonin. He and his white colleague Sephya had enslaved Tamra, who had been exiled from Reduce with me. Sephya had started to take over Tamra's body--that's how the body-switchers prolong their lives--and both of them tried to tempt me. Because after two years of refusing good adult advice, I'd finally gotten around to reading The Basis of Order, I had this half-finished idea that I could stand up to Antonin. I did, sort of. In the end, he died because, after I'd figured out that I had to break my own staff because part of my soul and abilities were locked in it, I'd managed to separate him from the forces of chaos. His castle came apart, and Tamra and I had barely made it out. Tamra lost half her mind, and I'd rebuilt it--with Justen screaming from half a country away that I couldn't, but I did anyway. Then I got a reward for the success of surviving my stupidity and was smart enough to tell Krystal I loved her. After that, I built the house and shop and tried to get back to woodwork and avoid unnecessary wizardry.
And all of it happened just because I hadn't applied the glue clamps right to a tabletop in my uncle's workshop in Reduce.
I shook my head because Justen and Tamra were arriving, and reminiscing wasn't going to finish the wardrobe. I actually got the finish on before three more horses clinked into the yard. I shrugged, set the cloths aside, and hurried out into the cool fall breeze. When winter nears in Candar, the air carries an acrid tang, not quite musty, not quite bitter--something to do with the graying of the leaves.
My dark-haired and black-eyed subcommander got a hug first, then a kiss, almost as soon as her boots hit the ground. Tamra and Justen were still mounted--Justen, as always, on Rosefoot.
"You did miss me." Krystal grinned.
"I always miss you." I hugged her again.
"Don't seem so pleased, Krystal," said Tamra.
"I am pleased. Someday you'll understand." Krystal gave me another hug, and a long, lingering kiss, and I didn't even mind where the hilt of her sword jabbed into my guts.
"Disgusting..." Tamra swung off her horse. She wore her usual dark grays, with a scarf to set off her red hair. The scarf was blue this time, matching her ice-blue eyes.
Justen slipped off Rosefoot with ah ease borne of long practice and looked at his apprentice. "We can stable all three horses, Tamra."
"Give him hell, Krystal," said Tamra as she took the reins of Krystal's chestnut.
In her own way, Krystal was, and we were both enjoying it, but we eventually went inside, where Krystal slipped off for a moment to wash up while I washed in the kitchen and then joined the others at the table.
Rissa had set a loaf of fresh bread on the table along with olive butter and some redberry preserves she'd gotten from somewhere. I missed the pearapples of the north, but Kyphros was really too warm to grow them.
Tamra reached for the bread. The redhead was always hungry, but stayed as slim as a rail. "One good thing about visiting you, Lerris--good food. You're getting fat and sloppy, though."
"Hardly. My trousers are looser."
"Rissa must be letting them out."
"I do believe I saw you with a needle the other day," offered Justen, looking at Tamra.
Tamra flushed. Rissa giggled. Justen raised an eyebrow at Tamra, his still-unruly apprentice. I had learned a lot as Justen's apprentice, and could have learned more if I hadn't been forced to leave him because I hadn't paid any attention and healed that street slut in plain sight in Jellico. That had gotten all the Viscount's troops after me. I'd been lucky to survive and would have done better if I'd listened to Justen more, but Justen was like all the wizards who dealt with order. Besides telling me to read The Basis of Order, he didn't volunteer much. Tamra didn't seem to be doing much better than I had, and, as with me, Justen still wasn't saying much.
By all rights Justen should have been a doddering old fool, since he had been born over two centuries earlier, according to what I'd eventually figured out. He never admitted anything, except that he did happen to be my uncle and that he too had left Reduce. That also explained why my father--who was even older than Justen--had been extraordinarily evasive about our family history, and just about everything else. That lack of knowledge had gotten me, and a lot of other young exiles from Reduce--poor dangergelders--into a bunch of trouble. A lot of them died, and I almost did on more than one occasion. Ignorance is deadly, especially when it's not apparent.
Justen just looked middle-aged, with brown hair that occasionally streaked with silver-gray if he had been working hard in dealing with order--or various disasters--like when he finally bottled up the demons of Frven. Then again, in retrospect, I didn't feel that bad about that, even if I had nearly killed him, since he was the one who created that mess--he and my father. Of course, neither one had bothered to tell me. That's what dealing with order-masters is like. They never reveal much because they believe it doesn't mean anything if it isn't hard-earned. That's also why most order-masters or chaos-masters don't live that long.
While we ate the bread and waited for Krystal--my consort and subcommander--while she washed up, Tamra, Justen, Rissa, and I sat around the table. Like a lot in the house, it was a reject, something that hadn't quite worked out the way I'd intended. The table was octagonal, with an inlaid pattern. The reason it was a reject wasn't that it was bad, but that it had been commissioned by Reger. He had been a produce factor in Ruzor, until he fell out of an olive tree and broke his neck. How he could have broken his neck with a fall of only about six cubits was beyond me, but he'd had too much wine and was arguing with his brother. Anyway, it's hard to collect a commission when the person who commissioned it is dead. So we had a table that was far too elegant for the main room of a woodworker's home.
Krystal had told me it was fate, and that I should have at least one good piece of my own. "Would you trust an armorer who had only misshapen blades on his walls? A mason who lived in a house with crooked walls?" she had asked, and there was certainly some logic in that.
I tried the bread, but, conscious of Tamra's gibe, not the olive butter or the preserves.
"Have you reread The Basis of Order recently?" asked Justen, who ignored food unless he really needed it.
"No," I admitted.
"It might be worth it." He turned to Rissa, sitting on a stool at the side of the table closest to the cooler. "Is there any more of that dark ale?"
Rissa slid off the stool with the grace that all the Kyphrans seemed to have, for which I envied them, and set the pitcher before Justen. "Hurlot says that his is the best. So does Ryntar. This comes from Gesil's casks, and he spends more time brewing and less in the market."
"I still don't see how you can drink that," mused Tamra.
"Neither does my brother. Or he didn't." Justen looked at me. "About The Basis of Order..."
"I've been busy. There's the wardrobe for the autarch, and I had to do the dining set for--"
"Lerris...you don't have any competition. You could spend a little time studying,"
"What for? I'm a woodworker."
"You're also considered one of the most powerful wizards in Kyphros, even when you're just pretending that you're only a poor woodworker."
Krystal slipped into the seat next to me, wearing just the green leather trousers and a plain shirt. She'd left off the short jacket with all the gold braid. "I'm sorry. Kasee kept me. We have a problem--another one." Krystal looked toward Rissa. "Some of Justen's ale would be good."
"Justen's ale, yet?" asked Tamra under her breath.
I ignored her.
Rissa brought Krystal a mug and poured ale from the pitcher.
Krystal took a long, and very deep, swallow before continuing. "The new Duke of Hydlen has occupied the brimstone springs in the Lower Easthorns."
"Brimstone?" asked Rissa.
"That's for powder. You mix it with nitre and charcoal," Tamra explained.
"Explosive powder isn't that useful," I ventured. "Any chaos wizard--"
"That may be the problem." Krystal sighed and turned to Justen. "You've heard of Gerlis, haven't you?"
Justen pulled at his chin. "Yes. He's a body-changer. He's also probably the most powerful white wizard in Candar now."
"He's the court wizard to the new Duke--that bastard named Berfir," explained Krystal.
Dukes changed often in Candar, almost as often as the powerful white wizards changed bodies.
"Where did he come from?" asked Tamra.
"Berfir's the head of the Yeannota clan. His family has owned the rangelands between Telsen and Asula for ages. We don't know much more, except he raised an army, made some agreements with the merchants on taxes, and...poof...one day Duke Sterna died and named Berfir his heir. Very neat."
"You think Gerlis had something to do with it?" Tamra poured herself more redberry.
"Who can tell? If he didn't, he's certainly taken advantage of the situation."
Rissa got up and stirred whatever was in the big stewpot and the noodles that had been simmering in the other pot. The odor of onions and lamb drifted across the table, and I licked my lips.
"What does this all have to do with the brimstone springs?"
Krystal shrugged. "We don't know yet, but Kasee thinks that it bears watching, and that means sending a detachment to do the watching."
"When do you leave?" I asked.
"I don't. Ferrel says that it's her turn to take a trip. She's been stuck in Kyphrien running the Finest for years, and it's up to me to see how it feels. She's tired of everyone second-guessing her. Besides"--Krystal grinned and looked at me--"she says I've been neglecting you, and neglecting order-masters isn't a good idea."
I liked Ferrel even more, assuming she'd said that, or Krystal for thinking of me. Then, I'd always liked Ferrel--ever since she'd returned my knife at that first dinner I'd had with the autarch. I'd left my knife with the captives I'd freed in order to charge the first white wizard with a staff. That had been a very dumb thing to do, even if it had worked. Anyway, when I'd first come to Kyphros, Ferrel had confirmed my rescue efforts by returning the knife. "What does Kasee--I mean the autarch--think?"
"Her Mightiness the autarch agrees that the experience of standing in for Ferrel will do me good."
"Experience rarely does anyone good," grumped Justen. "It just does them in."
"How about some real food?" Tamra looked toward the stove.
"It's almost ready," said Rissa.
I got up and began to pass out plates, brown crockery things I'd purchased in Kyphrien with the last of the stipend the autarch had bestowed on me for ridding Kyphros--and Candar-- of some unwanted white wizards. I had spent most of those coins on building the house and workshop, and in getting tools. Good tools are expensive, and I still didn't have everything I really needed.
Justen was the only nonwhite wizard I knew who really made a decent living from wizardry, and he traveled across most of Candar to do it.
Because I was technically master of the house, although Krystal was certainly far more important, Rissa set everything in front of me, and I got to ladle out the stew and noodles while Rissa set out two big long loaves of steaming dark bread. I made sure Tamra got enough stew and noodles to choke her.
For a time, no one spoke, and the only sound was of eating, Tamra slurped even more than some of the junior guards in the Finest, hardly ladylike, but Tamra had never wanted to be a lady anyway.
I caught Justen's eye, and my uncle shook his head, but I wondered if he were shaking it more at my judgment than Tamra's manners. Krystal ate with the quiet efficiency I had noted the first time I met her, and I reached under the table and squeezed her knee.
"Tell Ferrel to be careful," cautioned Justen.
"Ferrel is very careful. You don't survive to be guard commander if you're not."
I squeezed Krystal's leg just above the knee again, glad that she would not be doing the scout mission. White wizards were always dangerous.
"You need to eat more, Master Wizard," said Rissa, gesturing at Justen. "The birds, they eat more than you. So do the ants,"
"It's not good to overdo anything," said Justen with a laugh.
"Then don't overdo the starvation," answered Rissa.
Even Tamra grinned, and Justen did eat a few more bites of stew and noodles before he spoke again. "How did the autarch find out about the springs?"
"Travelers. The spring is on the main east road to Sunta. The Hydlenese troops closed the road, and there were some very unhappy travelers."
Travelers made sense. The water route, going down the Phroan River from Kyphrien through central Kyphros to Felsa, then down the metaled river road to Ruzor, the only real port in Kyphros, and taking a coaster to one of the ports in Hydlen, was just as fast and a lot easier, if longer. It was also much costlier; so some travelers preferred the mountain way, but few traders.
"You think the Duke meant for Kasee to find out?" asked Krystal.
"How long had the Hydlenese held the spring before you found out?" asked my uncle the gray wizard.
Krystal nodded. "I'll mention that to Ferrel."
"Is there any more of that dark ale?" asked Justen.
Rissa handed him the pitcher, and he half filled his mug.
"Benefits of being a gray wizard."
"White wizards don't get those benefits," I countered.
"When you get a little older, you'll get gray, too, Lerris. I guarantee that."
I hoped I didn't get either gray or into terrible puns.
After more talk about everything from the unseasonable rain--rain more than once every two eight-days was unseasonable in Kyphros, even in winter--to the autarch's decision to try to open the old wizards' road through northern Kyphros, Krystal yawned. "I'm sorry, but...it has been a long day."
"Shoo..." said Rissa.
We shooed, leaving Tamra and Justen sitting at the table, talking about the Balance between order and chaos. I understood the Balance well enough, having played into Antonin's hand myself by creating too much order in Fenard. But once you understand that order and chaos must balance, one way or another, there's not that much else to be said. You try to live by it, although I wasn't about to give up crafting the most orderly woodwork I could. I wasn't about to put extra order into my pieces, though. That was the sort of mistake I didn't want to repeat.
Krystal smiled softly at me when I shut the door.
"I was tired...I was tired of people talking."
Still marveling that I had not seen her warmth when first I had met her, I opened my arms.
Later, much later, when Krystal lay asleep beside me, her face as open and as innocent as a child's, I watched her for a long time, knowing, somehow, that the latest wizard business would drag us all into it.
Outside, I could hear the faint clinking of whoever was on guard. Sometimes, I still shook my head at it all--the very idea of a woodworker's shop and home being guarded by the autarch's troops, because his consort was so important.
I kissed Krystal on the cheek. She murmured sleepily and squeezed my hand. I finally rolled over, snuggling up beside her again.
Copyright © 1995 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
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