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"You sure you'd not be wanting more, ser?" The ample Adelya stood in the archway from the kitchen to the breakfast room.
Kharl smiled as he eased back the straight-backed oak chair and stood. He glanced down at the green-trimmed white plate--it was the plain china--on which remained a half slice of egg toast. "More, Adelya? I couldn't finish everything you cooked. It's been a long time since I've eaten so well." That wasn't quite true. He'd eaten that well as Lord Ghrant's guest in Dykaru, but, he reflected, he'd never eaten under his own roof as he had for the last two eightdays.
He still had trouble believing that he was lord of Cantyl. He'd studied the figures laid out in the ledger by Speltar, the estate steward, and seen and counted the golds in the strong room below. He was wealthy, if modestly so by the standards of lords, and that was something he'd never expected, never dreamed. Not for a man who had been a cooper in Brysta most of his life, and a carpenter's assistant on the Seastag after he'd been forced into exile by Lord West's son Egen.
From that exile had come all the events--and the magely talents--that had led him to become lord and master of Cantyl and its lands. Cantyl was a modest estate, as estates went, roughly some ten kays by five, with timberlands and vineyards, enough fertile ground to provision the lands, and more than a few rugged and rocky hills. There were a handful of fruit trees on the slope south of the main house, but they were barely an orchard.
The only things missing were his sons, but he had no way to reach Arthal, and he'd sent a message on Hagen's Seastag, the next ship of thelord-chancellor's merchant fleet scheduled to port in Brysta. It was chancy as to whether his letter would actually reach Merayni in Peachill, where Warrl stayed with his aunt, but Kharl had to try.
"You be sure you've had enough, ser?" asked Adelya. "The way you've been working, more like a field hand than a lord..."
"Hard work makes me feel better," Kharl replied.
"You could have someone--"
"I'm a better cooper and carpenter than anyone I could pay." Kharl grinned. "And I'm more trustworthy, too."
Adelya tried not to smile, and failed.
"Besides, how can I learn about Cantyl if I don't work it?"
"You sound like Lord Koroh. He was Lord Julon's father."
Hagen had mentioned in passing that Julon had held the estate before Lord Ghrant, but had not mentioned any details.
"Good lord, Koroh was." Adelya straightened. "You sure you don't need any more?"
"I'm most certain." With a smile, Kharl turned and walked from the breakfast room down the rear hall to the south doorway. It was really a service entrance, but it was closest to the small barn that he was converting into his private cooperage. He enjoyed working with wood, and once he received the oak he had ordered, he could begin to make barrels for the vineyard. That would save Glyan, the head vintner, more than a few golds over the course of the year, and it would give Kharl the sense that he was adding to the worth of Cantyl.
Once outside in the chill sunlight, he walked briskly down the gravel path toward the small barn. Although the first days of spring had been cool for Austra, the heavy sandstone walls of the house had kept it pleasant during the past eightdays as Kharl had worked to learn about his holding, studying the accounts, walking the lands, and building his cooperage.
Without hesitation, Kharl slid back the barn door and stepped into what had once been a secondary stable. At some point, he'd need to put in a better set of doors, but his first task was to finish removing the remaining stalls.
For a good two glasses, Kharl worked in the small barn, carefully loosening and breaking down the last of the stall walls, taking out pegs and the occasional nail, so that the planks and cut timbers could be reused. He had three piles in the center of the dirt floor.
After finishing with the eighth stall, he straightened. Despite the coolness of the day, sweat beaded on his forehead, and he blotted it away with the sleeve of the heavy gray shirt he'd worn as the carpenter's assistant on the Seastag.
Kharl turned to see Speltar, the estate steward, standing in the open doorway. "Good morning, Speltar."
"That it is, ser. You've been working hard."
"I can't build a cooperage here until I've got the space ready."
The steward nodded. "I should have the listing ready this afternoon." He paused. "For the equipment we talked about yesterday."
"What did we forget?" Kharl grinned. "Or I forgot?"
"We'd talked about varnish or shellac for the flooring here..."
Kharl looked at the dirt floor inside the east end of the barn, a space where there had been ten stalls, then glanced to Speltar. "I can't believe there were so many stalls. There were ten here, and there are twenty in the main barn."
"Lord Julon had four teams," replied the short and slim steward, nervously pushing back his wispy reddish brown hair, not that there was enough to cover his balding pate. "He had four horses to a team, and they weren't used for work around the lands. So we needed stalls for the shire horses, mostly in winter, and stalls for the fancy teams."
"Where did he drive them?"
"Oh, he took two teams to Valmurl. One team pulled the carriage most of the way, and then he made his entrance with the other." Speltar cleared his throat. "About the varnish?"
"What about it?"
"I was talking to Dorwan about it. He had a suggestion."
Kharl nodded. He'd already learned that Dorwan never volunteered anything directly to him, but always suggested things to Speltar. The forester, for all his size and bulk, was almost painfully shy, and it would take a while before he was at ease with Kharl--or anyone new to the estate. "It was probably a good one."
"Yes, ser. You know the flagstone walk in front? Well...years back, Lord Julon had flagstone squares cut, big thick squares, and he was going to have them polished for a summer porch. Ah...the porch never got built. Dorwan says that the flags, more than enough to floor your cooperage anyway, are still there, in the back of the storage shed above the vineyard building. They were smoothed, but never polished."
Kharl laughed. "Those would be better than a timber floor, especially around the forge." He paused. "I know how to lay a plank floor. I can't say I know how to lay a stone floor that well."
"Dorwan says his boy Bannat and he can do it. Take less than an eightday. Need some lime for the mortar, but that's a sight cheaper than varnish."
"Does he have the time, without neglecting what he does in the woodlands?"
"Still early for poachers, and word's out that Lord Kharl's a mage." Speltar grinned shyly. "Dorwan says that he and Bannat can start leveling and packing the clay underneath tomorrow."
"What do you think?"
"Stone'll last longer than wood, ser. We already have the flags. If we have to cut the timbers...all we have is softwood."
"What you're trying to tell me is that a softwood floor won't last, and that we could sell the good spruce timbers to the carpenters and shipyards in Valmurl for good coins, and besides that, you can get some use out of the flagstones stored in the shed, and free up some storage space."
"There is that, ser."
Kharl shook his head. "It's a good idea. We should do it. If I don't see Dorwan today, and you do, tell him that I appreciate his thoughtfulness. I'll tell him, but..."
"Yes, ser. He's a mite...reserved."
"Begging your pardon, ser..." came a young voice from behind Kharl. "There's a vessel under steam headed for the pier. Da said you'd want to know, ser."
Kharl turned to see a dark-haired girl of ten or so--Glyan's daughter Rona. She was the unofficial messenger around Cantyl. "Thank you."
"Yes, ser." Rona smiled. "Do you want me to tell Da anything?"
"Not yet. Why don't you come down to the pier with us? That way, if I need you to take a message..."
Kharl and Speltar walked up the rise from the small barn to the main house, then took the graveled lane that led down to the east and to the pier. Rona followed several paces behind. The lane split a large sloping meadow into two sections of roughly equal size--although the grass was still winter brown, with just the barest hints of green showing beneath the dead thatch. The meadows were bordered by stone walls, beyond which, on the south-facing slopes, were the vineyards that produced much of the income from the estate, mainly from the sale of the pale amber Rhynn, considered a desirable wine with poultry and fish by those well-off in Valmurl and Bruel. In the brief time he'd been at Cantyl, Kharl had discovered that he actually liked good wine, and he suspected that his past dislike of wine had not been a distaste for wine but a repugnance for bad wine--and that had been all that he'd ever tasted. Still, a good lager was his favorite.
The incoming vessel was already well past the harbor mouth and steaming toward the pier, a thin trail of smoke dispersing into the blue-green sky.
"You weren't expecting a ship?" asked Kharl.
Kharl tried to make out the vessel. It wasn't the Seastag, but with the twin masts, and the midships paddle wheels, it could have been her twin. "Looks like one of Lord Hagen's vessels."
"Aye," offered Speltar. "Looks much like the Seacat. Captain Druen stops here now and again for timbers, and for the wine."
Kharl and Speltar reached the pier before the ship, but not before Dorwan and his assistant, the wiry Norgal.
"You'll be handling the lines?" Kharl asked.
"Yes, ser," replied Dorwan.
"Good." Kharl paused. "Dorwan...Speltar told me about your idea for the cooperage floor. Using the old flagstones, that's much better than using softwood. Thank you."
Dorwan nodded. "My duty, ser."
"That may be, but I appreciate how well you do it."
"Thank you, ser." Dorwan turned toward the end of the pier, watching as the vessel approached with bare steerageway.
When the ship drew within a ten rods or so of the pier, Kharl made out the name under the bowsprit--Seafox. Within moments after making out the name, Kharl recognized Hagen, standing just aft of the bow, wearing the same dark gray jacket he'd often worn as master of the Seastag, rather than the finery of the lord-chancellor of Austra. Why was he coming to Cantyl? Or was he stopping on his way to Valmurl?
That was unlikely, Kharl thought, because Hagen had been obliged to ride northward from Dykaru with Lord Ghrant in almost a processional return to Valmurl.
The master of the Seafox backed down the paddle wheels expertly, and the vessel came to rest less than three cubits from the pier. Dorwan and Norgal caught the lines and made them fast to the bollards.
"Walk her in! Lively now!" came the commands from the deck.
When the gangway was down, Hagen was the first one onto the water-whitened timbers of the pier.
Kharl stepped forward, inclining his head to Hagen, out of respect for both the man and the office. "Lord-chancellor."
"Ser Kharl and mage." Hagen smiled broadly. "No sooner than you're out of sight, and you're back in working grays." He shook his head in mock-despair.
"I don't see any lord-chancellor's finery on you, ser," Kharl replied.
"Not in traveling," Hagen said with a laugh. "What's your excuse, ser Kharl?"
"I was working on turning part of a barn into a cooperage. If we make our own barrels, we can bring in more coins from the wine. We can also save on storage barrels..."
Hagen shook his head. "Lord Ghrant will be disappointed to hear that his mage has returned to coopering."
"I can't be a mage all the time, not when matters here are peaceful." Kharl gestured toward the Seafox. "I'm not sure that we have any cargo for your ship." He turned toward the steward. "Speltar? Do we have cargo that should go?"
"Not right now, ser."
"That makes us even," replied Hagen. "We don't have anything to off-load, either. Or so I'm told."
Kharl gestured toward the house. "Would you like to see the house? You haven't seen it before, have you?"
"No. I wasn't exactly favored by either Lord Julon or Lord Estloch." Hagen's voice was dry. "I'd like to see it. I do need a few words with you, as well. That's why I'm here, but we can talk while you give me a private tour."
Kharl caught the slight emphasis on private. Of course, Hagen had a reason for stopping in Cantyl. He turned to Speltar. "Speltar, if you and Rona would let Adelya know that the lord-chancellor will be having the midday meal with me. We'll eat in the breakfast room, just the two of us."
As Rona and Speltar hurried ahead of them, Kharl and Hagen started up the lane toward the house at a more measured pace.
After several moments, Kharl glanced at Hagen. "You can stay for a midday meal, at least, can't you? I didn't ask you...I just thought..." His eyes flicked back, but Dorwan and Norgal had remained on the pier.
"That would be about all," replied Hagen, with a laugh. "Lord Ghrant expects me for tomorrow afternoon's audience." Hagen paused. "He expects you as well."
Lord Ghrant had told Kharl his services might be required, but within two eightdays of coming to Cantyl?
"He has a problem," Hagen said. "The problem is Guillam."
"The head of the factors' council?" As Kharl recalled, perhaps according to Lyras, the black mage who had claimed he was but a minor mage, if that, Guillam had been quietly backing Ilteron and had slipped out of Valmurl during the revolt.
"Guillam claims that he is a most faithful subject. For obvious reasons, Lord Ghrant has his doubts. You are known to be a mage, and Lord Ghrant wishes you present when he receives Guillam."
"He expects I will know if Guillam lies, then?"
"Will you not? You knew when Asolf was lying about stealing Reisl's coins."
Again, Kharl was reminded of how thorough Hagen was, and how he had known everything aboard the Seastag. Doubtless, that attention to detail was what had made him the owner of ten ships and lord-chancellor. "I usually can tell."
"That could be a problem," mused Hagen.
"That I might not be able to tell?"
"No. That you could. Let us say that Guillam did support Ilteron. What else can lord Ghrant do but execute or exile him?" Hagen cocked his head, waiting for an answer from Kharl.
"If he does either, then, that will upset the other factors."
"All regarded Ghrant as weak."
"He still is," suggested Kharl. "He has a strong lord-chancellor."
"And a black mage," added Hagen.
"So...you are suggesting that my presence is more important than my judgment?"
"Your presence is most important."
Kharl realized that. It had to be, with Hagen diverting one of his ships to get Kharl. "Does it matter so much what Guillam has done as what he will do? Does his past matter as much as his loyalty?"
Hagen fingered his chin, smiling broadly. "So you would have him questioned about both his past and his loyalty?"
"If he lies about his past, but honestly believes that he is loyal," Kharl said slowly, "Lord Ghrant might overlook his lies."
"That is possible, but what if Guillam lies about his loyalty?"
"Then Ghrant is better off if he is dead or exiled, I would judge," Kharl replied carefully.
"Dead. Traitorous exiles can return."
Kharl wasn't so sure that he liked having Guillam's life put in his hands.
"You see, Kharl," Hagen went on, "there is a price to wealth and position. There is always a price. Those who do not attain either seldom see that price, and at times, the price is deferred, often for generations, but when it is deferred the cost falls upon the descendants manyfold."
Kharl couldn't help but wonder if Lord West of Nordla and his sons had ever paid such a price, or if it had been deferred in the manner Hagen suggested.
Adelya hurried up as Kharl and Hagen stepped onto the front porch. "Ser Kharl...ser Kharl..." Abruptly, she stopped and bowed. "Lord-chancellor...I'd not be meaning..."
"Whatever we have will be fine," Kharl said to Adelya. "I didn't know that Lord Hagen was coming, and he didn't know before yesterday. That didn't give him time to send a messenger. Whatever you cook will be far better than we ate on board ship."
Adelya did not look mollified, not completely.
"I'll come back--with notice--for one of your finest meals," Hagen offered with a smile. "Then you will have time to offer your best."
Adelya bowed again. "Your lordship is most kind."
"Please don't blame Lord Kharl. He did not know I was coming."
Kharl could hear the words under her breath as Adelya backed away, "But he's a mage..." He resisted replying.
Hagen laughed softly. "You see. There is a price for being a mage, too. People come to expect the impossible."
"She isn't happy that I like working with my hands."
"People aren't ever happy when you don't meet their expectations." Hagen's voice was matter-of-fact, almost dismissive. "How do you find Cantyl?"
Kharl gestured toward the bay. "It's more than I ever expected. I'm still learning about the lands, and I haven't been through all the timberlands and the southern hills yet."
"If you do, you'll have seen more of them than any of the lords who've held Cantyl in generations," Hagen said dryly.
"How can a man not know his lands?" asked Kharl.
"That's a good question. It's also why at least some of them didn't keep them."
"Let me show you the house and the nearer outbuildings," offered Kharl.
"If you would..."
Kharl began the informal tour by showing Hagen the first-floor study with the wide window overlooking the bay, directly below the master suite, which had an even grander view, and took him through the entire two-story stone structure. By the time they had walked through the house, toured the barns, viewed the vineyards, and returned to the house, the mid-day meal was waiting.
Adelya hovered in the archway as the two seated themselves.
"This looks to be a feast, not a midday meal!" Hagen exclaimed, taking in the platters that Adelya set between them, with cutlets, fowl breasts, cheese lace potatoes, honeyed pearapples, and rye and dark bread with the honey-butter that was Adelya's pride. There were two goblets, with a pitcher of Cantyl's full red wine set on one side of the table.
"It's little enough, ser."
"It's a great deal, Adelya," Kharl said firmly, "and we both appreciate it. Thank you."
"I am hungry," Hagen admitted as he began to serve himself, "and we won't have anything near this good on the return voyage to Valmurl."
"How long will that take?"
"We'll be using both the engines and sails. If the winds hold, we might reach the harbor by midnight."
Kharl filled both goblets, then lifted one. "To you, for all of this..."
Hagen flushed as he lifted his goblet. "To you, ser Kharl...for saving Austra."
"And to friendship..."
Hagen nodded, then took a sip of the wine. "It's a good solid wine."
"I like it. Glyan says that the Rhynn is better, but to me, they're both good." Kharl broke off a chunk of the dark bread and passed the basket to the other. "Do you know how Tarkyn, Furwyl, and Rhylla are doing?"
"The Seastag is on its way to Land's End on Recluce. Only want to port there in spring and summer. I heard that there was some black wool to be had there. Doesn't come on the market often. A good weaver can make cloth for a lord from it."
At the reference to weavers, Kharl couldn't help thinking about Jeka, wondering how she was doing with Gharan--hoping that she had been able to stay with his former neighbor. He just wished he'd been able to do more for Jeka. She'd certainly saved his life and befriended him at a time when no one else would lift a hand. Beneath the hard surface...
"I'm sorry. I was...thinking. Was everyone all right when they cast off from Valmurl?"
"Furwyl left a report for me, and everything was fine. He did say that he needed to look for another carpenter. Tarkyn was complaining that there was too much work for another carpenter." Hagen shook his head. "No one will ever be as good a ship's carpenter as you were, not for Tarkyn."
"Nothing is ever as good as it was," Kharl said dryly. "Even when it wasn't that good."
"You are almost as cynical as I am, ser mage." Hagen took another sip of wine. "That's saying a great deal."
Kharl feared he would need that cynicism when he reached Valmurl.
Copyright © 2005 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.