Chapter 1
17 Sp'gin (Penul'day)

"If I never see another stag, it will be way too soon," said Darius Lonewander, taking a seat at the bar of the Boar & Bear inn & tavern.

"Never seen one, myself," said the bartender, "seeing as they generally don't show up here in Plist, and I've never left the village. But I've heard plenty of stories about them. They sound like they'd be frightful enough to look at, but no real trouble for any adventurer worth his salt."

"Normally that'd be true enough, George, but the ones I just spent a week dealing with were no ordinary stags. It's bad enough that the damn bugs normally get to be around three feet long, but some crazy Sorreter got it into his head to mix their DNA with that of katoro."

"My God. So how big were they?"

"Looked to be at least twice the normal size, and if I hadn't stumbled upon the madman's secret experiment and put a stop to it, there's no telling how much bigger they might have gotten."

"Whereabouts was all this going on? And what on the Land was his plan?"

"Oh, you know, the standard shite about world domination, or whatever. To tell the truth, I was too bored to listen to his whole monologue. Well, mostly annoyed, and exhausted from battling all the giant stags, but also bored. So I cut him off in the middle of his speech. Literally. Plunged my katana right into his chest, and that was the end of that."

"Oof. But you didn't literally cut him off, unless you cut off his head, or something."

"Fine, literally cut him, then. Close enough."

"And why can you never just say 'sword'? I know perfectly well what kind of sword you use, Dare, so why do you always have to specify 'katana'?"

"Uh, because katanas are awesome. Duh. Anyway, his lair was hidden deep within No-Name Forest. I'd gone to Frinn to see Lor, who was home visiting her folks, last I talked to her. But by the time I got there, she'd taken off on some new adventure of her own. So, you know me, I didn't want the trip to be a complete waste, so I decided to do some exploring in the woods. Wasn't really expecting to find anything interesting, but that's usually when the most interesting things happen, for good or ill."

"Reckon so. Well, what can I get you?"

"Lager. Make it a tall."

George had just finished pouring the drink when an older, somewhat stout fellow unceremoniously plunked himself down on the stool next to Darius. "I'm slightly drunk," he said. "I'd like to get drunker. Cheapest stuff you have."

George produced a jug and glass, and set them before the newcomer. "Half-piece by the glass, or five for the whole of it."

The customer took out a bag that looked quite full. Darius wondered idly why someone who apparently had so much coin should be drinking such cheap alcohol. The man fished a five-piece coin out of his bag, placed it on the bar beside the jug.

Although Darius was certain he hadn't been staring, the newcomer must have sensed his curiosity, for he suddenly said "Tom," apparently by way of introduction. George had already picked up the coin and moved on to another beckoning customer, so Darius assumed himself to be the one Tom was addressing, even though the man hadn't cast so much as a sidelong glance at him, as yet. He poured himself a glass, took a swig, and only after setting the glass down again did he turn to face Darius. "I do have plenty, for now. And I'll get more, soon enough." Tom returned the bag to his belt, then returned his attention to his glass, from which he took another swig.

"Sorry?" asked Darius, only half-turning to look at the man, just for a moment. He was never entirely comfortable being addressed by perfect strangers, nor was he comfortable with more than the briefest of eye contact. Even with old friends like George, it could sometimes be difficult, and it was exponentially worse with people he'd just met. Because of the care he always took to avoid displaying any cues that might invite social interaction, he was momentarily surprised by the stranger's decision to strike up a conversation with him. So it took a second for him to realize that what Tom had said was actually in line with what he'd just been wondering about the drink. But how-

"Oh, I read minds, some. That's what one of my old masters called it, anyway. Long time ago. I've had lots of jobs in this too-long life of mine, and a different master for each. Once I read minds, to entertain crowds at fairs. I've used the trick a few other ways, from time to time. It's not really reading minds, though, it's a slightly different art. More like reading faces. Faces usually say clear enough what you're thinking. Faces, and what you'd call body language, and such."

"That's a common enough observation," said Darius, though he was still a bit confused. Partly this was due to hearing Tom use the alien subword 'language,' a word rarely used by anyone on the Land. Since only one language was spoken on the planet, there was rarely need to think of the concept, let alone put a name to it. The first time Darius recalled encountering the word- though not the first time he'd actually heard it- was years ago, while reading stories based on concepts from Earth, a planet that had many languages. He didn't recall having ever heard the term 'body language,' but he knew at once what Tom meant by it. Of course, all Landians possessed an innate subword sense, which allowed them- with just a bit of thought- to understand unfamiliar alien words when they heard them for the first time, though Darius wasn't quite sure if it was his subword sense that told him what 'body language' was, or if his immediate understanding of the term came because it clearly described an already familiar concept (albeit one he'd never quite mastered).

"You're right, of course," said Tom. "Most everyone can read nonverbal cues. But they tend to do it on a less refined level than my master and I. He taught me to take it a step further, along with a few other things, all of which add up to something in many ways closer to mind-reading than face-reading. Which is why he called it that, obviously. Anyway, that's how I guessed what you were thinking."

Darius felt slightly dubious this; not that he doubted Tom's abilities, it was just that he'd always thought he had a relatively inexpressive face. Or rather, his expressions were often unintentionally misleading. Even the people who knew him best sometimes misjudged his mood. He'd lost count of the times people had told him to cheer up, even when he was actually feeling good. But considering how often he was depressed, he supposed it made sense that that had become his default expression. Then again, it sometimes seemed that when he was at his most miserable, no one had a clue that anything was troubling him at all. But he decided against mentioning any of this to Tom.

Tom grinned slightly. "Well, like I said, I'm better at it than most. Though I will allow that your face is somewhat less expressive than most." At this, Darius' expression clearly registered a measure of surprise, for just a few moments, before he regained his normal composure. But he nodded, and his estimation of Tom's talents rose. Tom's grin widened, and he downed another drink. "Anyway, you were wondering why I'm drinking cheap, if I have plenty of money. Well, it's because I have to drink a lot. One bag," he said, lowering his hand to joggle the coin bag on his belt, "keeps me right good and drunk just about til I fill it again."

"I see."

"So, til I'm as drunk as I'd like to be, maybe I could amuse myself with some talk. If you don't mind, that is. Some do, and I sense you might be one such. So I apologize for not asking sooner."

Darius smiled, but only fleetingly. He felt he normally had little skill at conversation, and even less interest in it. But if something did interest him, his aptitude tended to improve dramatically, even with strangers. He got the feeling this Tom fellow might be interesting to talk to, so he said, "It's fine. For starters, why don't you tell me why you have to keep drunk?"

Tom continued grinning a few moments longer, before his smile slowly sank into a frown. With a sigh, he finished his first glass, and poured another, which for now he simply held, the glass resting on the bar. He stared straight ahead, his eyes resting upon the bottle-laden shelves behind the bar, though it was clear that his mind's eye was elsewhere. "Life ain't what it was. I used to have fun, and made plenty of money doing it. Oh, I did so many different things. Lots of jobs, as I've said, and I loved every one. I was somewhat rich, for a while. I mean, not rich rich, but I always had more than I needed, and kept getting more, faster than I could spend it. Now I still have more than enough, but I don't get richer. Oh, I set up some investments, awhile back. But now about the only money that comes in is interest. Most of the trades I once plied, that I loved so well, I now lack either the heart or the stamina for. Some others just don't work like they once did. People don't care as much, these days. The world's gotten too small, people have lost their sense of wonder. Things that once seemed novel, even marvelous, now seem hackneyed, as far as most folks are concerned. That, and... other things... have led me to lose my own sense of wonder, my sense of adventure. Once upon a time, I felt that... well, you never knew what tomorrow might bring. But nowadays you can be pretty damn sure. One day's much like the next. There's too much order in the world these days, if you take my meaning." He sighed again. "So, if I can't find any interest in life, at least I can get interest from the bank. And I take that interest, when it comes, and get drunk. When I'm drunk enough, my memories of how life once was seem... about good enough."

Darius's ears had pricked up at Tom's use of the word 'order'; one could hardly help but take his meaning, but it meant more to Darius than his new acquaintance could have imagined. "I preferred how things were before the Order, myself."

Tom once again turned to look at Darius, who averted his gaze. "I wonder how much you even remember from before the Order. What were you, about thirteen, when it came?"

"Thereabouts. But that doesn't mean-"

"Oh, relax. I was only teasing. I'm sure you remember what the world was like back then. After all, you lived more than half your life to date, before the Coming of the Order. ...Barely," he added with a grin and a wink. He finally started on his second glass, then said, "Me, I was a bit past forty, by the end of the Coming. Already I was starting to suspect my way of life was coming to an end, on account of the changes it brought to the world. Took me several years to be sure of it, though, before I finally gave up the ghost." He finished off his glass, and poured a third, while Darius took a draught of his own draught. "Yep, much preferred the chaos."

"The... chaos, you say?" A smile spread across Darius's face, rather uncharacteristically.

"Yeah, that's what I'd call it, how things were. Opposite of 'order,' eh? I mean, not like the world was that chaotic before the Order, but still-"

"That's perfect." So perfect, thought Darius, so obvious, I can't believe it actually never occurred to me.

"Hmmm? What's perfect? And what're you grinning about, lad?"

"The Chaos," Darius said, half to himself. "That's what I'll call it."

"Call what?"

He remembered himself, and stopped grinning. "Say, I haven't mentioned my name yet, have I?"

"Uh, no. I'm Tom." He turned and awkwardly offered his hand to shake. Darius had always disliked shaking hands, but always did so when someone offered, not wanting to seem impolite.

"Yes, you said that. At least I assumed when you said 'Tom' earlier, that you meant it as an introduction. Anyway, my name is Darius. Darius Lonewander."

Tom snorted, and shot Darius a mildly scornful look. "Chose an Order-name, did you? And go by it?"

"When it suits me," said Darius. "Mainly just for tax purposes, and other official business."

"I thought you said you didn't like-"

"No, I don't. Still, small enough price to pay, to avoid needless hassles. I suppose you choose the hassles?"

"Well, I'm lucky. I have a good accountant, takes his fee straight from my interest. He gets my money to me, and my taxes to the Order. So I don't have to deal with any government types, or even bankers, usually. Numbercrunch, his name is. Frank Numbercrunch."

"Chose an Order-name, did he? And goes by it?"

"Touché. It's just, you strike me as the type who doesn't necessarily worry about society's conventions, whereas Frank has to. It's part of the job. Can't very well take offense at a man doing that... least not if it means I don't have to, myself. Now, what were you saying before about-"

"Help me save my master?" came a sudden, pleading voice from behind them. "Hmmm, okay, yes? Must save my master, been held away so long now, he needs me, I need good helpers, help me, please?"

Tom and Darius turned to him. "Shoo, get away, street rat," Tom said. "You'll get no gold from us."

"No gold, need no gold. Have gold, I do. Need adventurers, good, strong, clever, brave adventurers, help me free my master."

Tom snorted and turned back to the bar, and his drink. "Don't pay him any mind, friend. He's just a crazy beggar. Been harassing good honest folks around here for years. Before I even moved here, I think. I don't believe he even has any master."

Darius was still looking at the beggar. "Well? Are you crazy?"

"Crazy, yes," he said. He grinned, and laughed. "Crazy, yes, so many years now, can't be so sane like good, would to be sane am crazy, yes. Crazy but honest and true. Had master, I did. Still will do, if save him you help me. Please you will helping me save my master?"

"What's your name?"

"Hmmm. Should I tell? Hmmm hmmm hmmm. Oh... oh... hmmm. Oh, yes, okay. Tiejo."

"Do you have an Order-name, Tiejo?"

"Order-name... um... no. Um, no, yes. Order-name. Don't need, am crazy beggar, yes. Um... call me Streetrat. They all do, yes. Streetrat. I have friends, I do, called Streetrat. Little um big nice sort of family, Streetrats. Not real family you know, but like family as how... um... hmmm."

Darius said, "I know what you mean. There must be a word for it, or maybe a subword, but I can't quite think of it, somehow. Fellowship, maybe? No, something closer to family than that, perhaps... Ah, I'm sorry. Maybe it'll come to me later. Or to you; it's your concept."

Tom sighed, finished another glass, and turned back to the conversation, having resigned himself to the knowledge that Darius wasn't going to ignore the street rat. "The Order introduced a good word for it, during the Coming: class."

Darius grimaced. "Surely not. Tom, please don't tell me you subscribe to that concept? Of all the changes wrought by the Coming-"

Tom's whole face scrunched as he shook his head and waved his own words away. "No, no, not really. Sorry. I just meant... never mind." He sighed again. "How about 'coterie,' then?"

Tiejo said, "Hmmm, not bad, but maybe that is being a bit too close to family or friends. Not all street rats is Tiejo knowing, after all. Anyhows, a side issue this is being. Whatever calling we are the relationship between 'rats, 'Streetrat' is what we are being called. Or Dockrat, Hillrat, Woodrat, Riverrat; depends it does on where we live or hang out."

"If you say so," said Tom. Turning back to Darius, he asked, "Speaking of Order-names, how'd you come by 'Lonewander'?"

"Lonewander good fine name for adventurer," said Tiejo.

"Thanks, Tiejo," said Darius. "Well, I like to wander a lot, and I like to do it alone, for the most part. Fairly straightforward."

"Not a proper family name, then?" asked Tom.

"No." He paused. "My clan was wiped out during the Coming. Well, except my uncle. He goes by Lonewander, too. But it was my choice."

"Ah. I'm sorry. About the rest of your clan."

Darius took a long drink of lager. "Don't worry about it. I never much liked them anyway, for the most part."

"Bad sort, were they?"

"Not at all. Very good sort, in fact. I'm not saying I didn't love them, by any means. It's just not easy for me to like most people, that much. Which makes it difficult for me to truly miss them." He sighed. "Still. They fought the Coming. Tried to hold on to the... the Old Chaos, let's call it, then. Yes, very good people. They just bored me. Most of the time, anyway. Most people do. Life does. I try to do some adventuring, now and then. Wander a lot, and write some. I still get bored quite easily, and often. But not nearly so much as I would if I stayed in one place, with the same people all the time."

"Good wandering adventurer help me save master?"

Darius looked at Tiejo, stared at him for several moments. Oddly enough, he found himself realizing, he didn't seem to mind looking at him the way it bothered him with most people. Perhaps he simply felt that someone crazy, or someone with a childlike mind, would be less likely to judge him; or at least, such people were less apt to trigger his paranoia about being judged. Finally he said, "Why not? Might not be too boring. Where is he, anyway, this master of yours?"

"Prison, yes. Prisoner of war, held away since near the end of the Coming. The Order holds him. They hate my master, yes. Must free him. Good warrior, my master. He can help you bring back your friend, if he is become free. You help?"

"What friend?" asked Darius in sudden bewilderment.

"Um, no. You like... ah, the Chaos. Group, good, rebels. He, master, would making good group member."

"What group?" asked Tom.

With a grin, Darius replied, "Your crazy street rat was obviously listening to our earlier conversation, and figured out something you didn't, mindreader."

"What's that, then?"

"I've been thinking of forming a group, a... rebellion." The corners of Darius' mouth jerked almost imperceptibly further upward, but then he forced the smile off his face entirely. The subject at hand was serious, and not one for open discussion in a public place. Still, there were few enough people in the tavern at the moment, and none of them seemed to be listening to this exchange. One thing Darius had always hated about people was how loud they could be, but there were times he had to admit that such an annoying trait came in handy. People talking loudly and laughing amongst themselves, with their doubtless inane patter, would keep them from overhearing things best... not overheard. Still, he had lowered his voice slightly when he mentioned the rebellion, and kept it low, now. "I've been trying for some time now to think of a name for such a group, and you yourself provided that name for me."

"Did I?"

"Chaos," said Tiejo. "The Chaos. Yes. Fine name it is being for a rebellion. Tiejo can be in Chaos, yes?"

"Sure, Tiejo. Now then, what's your master's name? I should know it, if he's to join our group, as well."

Tiejo grinned. "Can't say, no. Secret, it is. You know maybe when we free him. Yes? Help?"

"Yes. I think I said that already. What about you, Tom? You said you don't like the Order, so would you care to join the Chaos, and help free Tiejo's mysterious master?"

Tom thought about it for a bit, then shrugged. "I guess I've got nothing better to do. Still, if you're letting a street rat in the group, it seems pretty indiscriminate. Admission standards are low, sort of thing."

"Well, maybe. Maybe not. Hard to say; I haven't seen what either of you are capable of, beyond a little faux mind-reading. For that matter, you don't know what I'm capable of. Anyway, I'm not in a position just yet to be a chooser, so I might as well let in a beggar. The group's just getting started tonight."

"Are you saying we're the only three members?"

"So far. I mean, I didn't want to start the group before I even had a name for it. But I feel it in my bones, that that will be changing soon enough."

"If you say so." Tom went back to his drink. "But for now, I'm just about drunk enough not to need more conversation. Talk to me again in the morning, see if I still want to be a member."

"I'm a member, still in morning," said Tiejo.

"Glad to hear it," said Darius. "Now, run along, Mr. Streetrat. And have a good night."

"Night, yes, good. Night, friend Darius. Night, fellow Tom." And he left the tavern.

Darius and Tom finished their drinks, and went upstairs to their respective rooms.

chapter 2

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