Memory is like a Watchacallit
Memory is like a Watchacallit
No shit, there I was . . . .
We'd been cut up so many ways and so many times we hardly had a skirmish line, and the enemy kept getting reinforced. I, like the rest of the outfit, was exhausted and terrified from swords buzzing past my ear and various sorts of sorceries going "whoosh" over my head, or maybe it was the other way around; and there were dead people moaning and writhing on the ground, and wounded people lying still, and that was almost certainly the other way around, but I'm giving it to you as I remember it, though I know my memory sometimes plays tricks on me.
More on that in a second.
First, I have to ask you to excuse me for starting in the middle, but that's more-or-less where it starts.
So there I was, in a full-scale battle; that is, in a place where no self-respecting assassin ought to be. Worse, in a full-scale battle with the keen sense that I was on the losing side, at least in this part of the engagement. I stood on Dorian's Hill, with the Wall about two hundred yards behind me, and the Tomb (which is not a tomb, and never was, and ought not to be called that) about a quarter of a mile to my left. I wanted to teleport out, or at least run, but I couldn't because, well, I just couldn't. I had a sword, and I carried enough other weaponry to outfit half of Cropper Company (my unit, hurrah hurrah). In front of us was The Enemy, getting closer with each step, and looking like this time they meant to stay. There were so many of them, and all I could think of was, "If they want this damned hill so badly, let them have it," but I knew that was wrong, and certainly my messmates would have argued with the sentiment; we'd worked hard enough to take it away from them the first time (and we had failed. So why did we now occupy the hill? I don't know; they don't explain these things to foot soldiers).
Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, I heard the rip of the juice-drum playing, "Time to Be Alive," which meant to form up for a charge. I guessed the Captain had decided we weren't strong enough to defend, or else he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. I don't know: it seemed to me that if you already had the high ground, why waste it by charging? I wanted to call him an idiot but I knew he wasn't.
I relaxed my grip on my sword, and took the requisite Three Deep Breaths as he positioned himself in front of us. I found myself right next to Dunn, the alternate bannerman, which put my life expectancy at just marginally above his, and his was just about the same as the bannerman, and hers was mathematically almost indistinguishable from zero. Well, they had both wanted the job, now they had it.
The Captain gave no speeches this time; I guess he'd said everything he had to say over the last couple of days. He gave the signal that started us moving forward.
As before, I discovered that I was moving, although I don't remember ever deciding to; I wonder, as I had several times before, if there was some sort of subtle magic involved, but I don't think so. I recall that I really, really, really wanted to bolt, but I still couldn't, so of course I did the only thing I could: I started praying. It was far too late for that, however, and nothing happened.
Or maybe something did; I'm not sure.
Oh yeah, I was going to talk about memory. Maybe memory is where it starts. I don't know where it starts; that's part of why I'm doing this, hoping to put it together and make some kind of sense out of the whole thing. Of course, the gold ingots are a bigger part of why I'm doing this. Where was I? Right, memory.
I woke up one morning remembering something I'd forgotten the day before. I'd been having a one-sided conversation with a metal box, much as I'm doing now, in exchange for a good sum of raw gold and various useful oddities and trinkets, and I'd felt like I'd fulfilled my part of the bargain, but then, the morning after I finished, I realized what I'd forgotten, and my first thought was that someone had been playing with my memories. My second thought was that, if this were true, I was going to hurt someone. My third thought was to consider, if someone was repressing my memories, who that someone had to be. This was chilling, and it brought me fully awake, which led to one of those irritating sessions of, "How much was a dream?" After several minutes I had it sorted out in my head so I got up.
Loiosh, my familiar, was just stirring. He gave his bat-like wings one lazy flap, hissed at me sleepily, and said, "How 'bout something to eat?" into my mind.
I said, "Do you remember Deathgate Falls?"
"No. I'm senile. Of course I remember--"
"As you approach the falls, do you remember there being a large statue?"
"Sure, Boss. Where Morrolan performed that embarrassing ritual. What about it?"
"Nothing." Right. The ritual. I had forgotten that, too. I hate having disturbing thoughts before breakfast. I hate having thoughts before breakfast.
"Is it important, Boss?"
"Let it go, Loiosh."
That was then, and it illustrates what a tricky thing memory is: I had forgotten something important that had happened just days before, yet now, more than three years later, I remember waking up and talking to Loiosh about it. Interesting, isn't it?
But here, I've left you, you odd, shiny contraption with presumed ears at both ends, confused about who and what I am, and generally what I'm on about. Okay. I'll let you stay confused a little longer, and if you don't trust me to clear everything up, then you can go hang. I've been paid.
I whipped up a quick omelet, ate it, and washed up, considering whether to ask someone about my odd memory lapse. I'd made two acquaintances recently who might know, but I felt loath to ask them; something about expressing weakness, I suppose. But it bothered me. I was still thinking about it when I'd finished donning my Jhereg colors (grey and black, if you're taking notes) and making sure my various weapons were in place; after which I stepped out onto the street I all but owned.
I don't usually travel with a bodyguard. For one thing, it would be hard to find anyone who could give me more warning of danger than Loiosh; for another I'm not important enough to be a real threat to anyone; and for yet another, it's humiliating. I know that to some in the Organization the number of bodyguards is a status symbol, but to me they are only an irritation.
But I'm different. I wasn't born into the Organization. I wasn't even born into House Jhereg. In fact, I wasn't born a citizen; I'm human. They aren't. This is enough of a difference that it can explain all others.
So you can look around as I did. See the Teckla running around like the small rodents they are named for, doing things they think are important, selecting fruits at the fruit stands or pieces of fabric from the weavers, laying a bet with the local bookmaker, rushing to work in a garden or at a weavers, and, directly or indirectly, feeding me. See the Chreotha or the Jhegaala, with titles of the nobility but lives of the bourgeois selling the fabric or the fruit or buying brain-drugs or trying to get a bargain from the local fence and, directly or indirectly, feeding me. And, rarest of all, the nobles themselves, strutting about like issola in spring, scattering pennies to the paupers, having servants buy select wines and the more exotic brain-drugs, and, directly or indirectly, feeding me.
It's surprising that I stay so thin.
None of them gave me any special regard as I strolled by for another day of extracting from them everything I could. I like it that way.
The walk from flat to office was short, yet it was enough time for me to get a feel for what was going on in the neighborhood; on that day there was nothing worth noting--not the least clue, as it were, of the events that had already been set in motion. I arrived, as I recall, early that day. The Jhereg operates all day, but the real action is mostly at night, so things get started correspondingly late; I rarely see my office before noon. That day I arrived before my secretary, hung my cloak on the cloak-rack, set my rapier against the wall, and sat down at my desk to see what, if any, correspondence had arrived during the morning.
There was one item: a piece of expensive parchment sat in the middle of my desk; on it, in a neat, elegant hand, was written, "V. Taltos, Baronet." I picked it up and inspected the back, which showed a Dragonshead seal.
I set it down again and considered before opening it. I may have been a bit afraid of what it would say. No, I most certainly was afraid of what it would say. I picked it up and broke the seal before Loiosh could start on me.
"It would give me great pleasure to see you again. It may also prove profitable for you. If you would like assistance in transportation, you may inquire of Baron Lokran e'Terics at the House of the Dragon. Arrive today between noon and the tenth hour, and I will take the time to see you at once.
"I Remain, my dear sir,
"P.S.: You expressed a preference for a formal invitation over our last method of asking for your help; I hope this meets with your approval--M."
I set the letter down again and thought about many things.
As always when dealing with Morrolan, I didn't quite know how to take him. He calls his home Castle Black, which is either pretentious to the point of being silly, or a just and reasonable statement of his power, take your pick. He was unusual--perhaps "unique" would a better word--in that he was a Dragaeran, and a Dragonlord no less, who studied Eastern Witchcraft, which either showed that he did not share his compatriots attitude toward humans, or showed that he was so contemptuous of us that he could offhandedly learn our secret arts; take your pick. The "last method" he referred to had involved was offensive enough that we had almost killed each other over it, so this reference was either a nasty cut or a peace offering, take your pick.
However, it never occurred to me not to accept his invitation.
"We're going to Castle Black, Loiosh."
"I can hardly wait, Boss. When?"
I consulted the Imperial Orb through my psychic link. It was less than an hour before noon.
"Now," I told him.
I strapped my rapier back on, not terribly reassured by its weight hanging at my side and the scabbard's tapping against my leg. Melestav, my secretary, was just arriving. He seemed startled to see me. I said, "I have an errand. If you never see me again, blame Morrolan of the House of the Dragon. See you."
I stepped back out onto the street--the first steps, as it were, that began the journey that led me toward war and death. I hired a cabriolet to cut down on the number of actual steps involved. I gave the runner no particular attention, but I tipped him well. This is probably significant of something.
The House of the Dragon faces the Imperial Palace, just a bit west of north, and is marked by a forty-foot high marble likeness of Kieron the Conqueror holding his greatsword in one hand, its point off to the East; seeing it makes my arm tired. There is no discernible expression on Kieron's face, at least from below. There are (surprise surprise) seventeen steps up to the doors, which were standing open when I arrived, a bit footsore, just about noon.
When you enter the House of the Dragon, you are in the Great Hall, a vast, huge, booming, echoing place with murals on the walls depicting violence, skinny windows that don't let much light in, a marble floor, a single, very wide stairway planted in the middle of the Hall and running up out of sight, and many tiny hanging lamps way, way up on the ceiling where they do no good at all and probably require levitation to service; yet there was sufficient light to see the murals, begging the question of how they actually illuminated the place.
I didn't much care for it.
I hadn't been surrounded by so many Dragonlords since I was arrested after the death of my previous boss, and I didn't like this a lot more than I liked that. They were standing in groups and were all of them armed. They were talking quietly, I suppose, but the place echoed horribly so it seemed awash with noise. There was grey bunting draped here and there, which meant that someone had died. I stood there like an idiot for a long, long time--say half a minute--with Loiosh on my shoulder, and then noticed a pair of sentries, on either side of the door--that is, either side of me--and observed that they were staring at me with decidedly unfriendly expressions. This made me feel much more comfortable, because I'd rather be hated than ignored.
I approached the man because the height of the woman would have put my eyes at breast-level and this didn't seem to be the right time for that. I put some jaunt into my step because Dragonlords, like many wild animals, can smell fear. He looked down at me (my eyes were level with his collar bone) and kept his eyes away from Loiosh; he probably thought I'd get too much satisfaction out of seeing him react to the jhereg on my shoulder, and he was right. I said, "I seek Baron Lokran."
The Dragonlord swallowed, clenched his jaw, and said, "Who are you?"
I thought about making an issue of the question, but I didn't know the protocol and I didn't like the odds. "Vladimir Taltos of House Jhereg, on an errand for Lord Morrolan e'Drien." That should shut him up.
It did. "Up the stairs, straight back, last door on the right. Clap and enter."
I sketched a bow, resisting the temptation to make it over-elaborate.
"What are you afraid of, Boss?"
"Shut up, Loiosh."
The steps were set too high for my comfort, making it a challenge to climb casually with, I assumed, the eyes of the two Dragonlords on my back. I managed as best I could. My footsteps echoed, and the stairway went on for much too long. When I finally reached the top I walked straight back to the end of a hallway longer than the building that houses my entire operation. It ended in a large door which I ignored; instead stopping at the one to my left, as directed. One clap and I entered.
Lokran turned; he had, apparently, been staring out the window. He was young, with bright eyes, and had a faded white scar above his brows--the scar obviously had some sort of sentimental value for him or he'd have had it removed. His hair was dark, straight, and brushed back in almost a Jhereg-cut. He had rings on four fingers of each hand, and the rings all had jewels in them. The room held four stuffed chairs, a sofa, and no desk; a plain grey banner hung above the window. Three or four short, black staves were leaning against the far wall, and a heavy sword in a black sheath stood next to them.
His eyes narrowed briefly when I entered, then he said, "Taltos?" pronouncing it correctly.
I bowed and said, "Lokran?"
He nodded. "Come a little closer."
He gestured casually in my direction, as if he were brushing away an insect, and my bowels twisted, and I was in the courtyard of Castle Black, standing, as far as I could tell, on thin air that felt like a hard surface, say flagstones, but looked like nothing was holding me up. Just like that. He could have bloody warned me.
I've given a lot of thought to the question of why teleports upset my stomach; why they seem to have that effect on all Easterners, but not on Dragaerans. In between teleports, I've often decided it is all in the imagination of the Easterner, but right after a teleport I've found that answer unsatisfying. The explanation that sprang to mind as I stood before Morrolan's castle, surrounded by his walls, towers and guards, is that teleports also upset the Dragaeran stomach, but Dragaerans just won't admit it; how can having your innardsflop around so violently that you can feel them sloshing not make you queasy? Could natural selection account for it? I don't buy it; I just don't think that nature had it in mind for people get from one place to another without passing through the intervening area.
These thoughts, I should explain, were one way I occupied my mind while I gave my stomach time to settle down. Another way was to observe that the sentries in the towers were watching me, although they didn't seem especially surprised. Okay, so I was expected. Over one tower floated a single banner, all of grey.
Eventually I risked a look down. There were trees below me that looked like miniature bushes, and the two roads and one stream were lines of brown and blue respectively, meeting and crossing and running almost parallel to form a design that, if I tried, I could convince myself was a mark in some runic alphabet. Maybe it was a symbol that told the castle, "Don't fall down." That was a comforting thought.
I adjusted my cloak, ran a hand through my hair, and approached the double-doors of Castle Black. They swung open as I approached, which I should have been expecting, because they'd done the same thing last time. I cursed under my breath but kept a small smile on my lips and didn't break stride--there were Dragonlords watching.
I hadn't noticed it the last time, but one reason that it is so effective to see Lady Teldra appear when the doors open is that she is all you can see--the entry way is unlit, and except for her you might be entering the void that one imagines as the land of the dead (the land of the dead, however, is not a void--it's worse. But never mind).
"My Lord Taltos," said Teldra. "Thank you for gracing our home. The Lord awaits you. Please, enter and be welcome."
I felt welcome in spite of my more cynical side whispering, "Whatever."
I crossed the threshold. Lady Teldra did not offer to take my cloak this time. She guided me into the hall with all the paintings, through it, up the wide, curving stairway, and eventually to the library. It was big and full of stuffed chairs and thick books; three of the books, sitting just beyond the entrance, were massive jewel-encrusted objects each chained to a pedestal; I wondered but resolved not to ask. As I entered, Morrolan set a book down and stood up, giving me a small bow.
He opened his mouth, probably to make some sort of ironic courtesy, as a counterpoint to Teldra's sincere one, but I said, "Who died?" before he could get the words out. He shut his mouth, glanced at Loiosh, and nodded toward a chair next to his. I sat down.
He said, "Baritt."
I said, "Oh."
Morrolan seemed to want me to say something, so eventually I said, "You know, the first time I met him I had the feeling he wouldn't be--"
"Do not joke about it, Vlad."
"All right. What do you want me to say? I didn't get the impression he was a friend of yours."
Lady Teldra appeared with refreshment--a white wine that would have been too sweet except that it was served over chunks of ice. I sipped it to be polite the first time, and then discovered I liked it. The Issola glided from the room. There was no table on which to set the goblet down, but the chair had wide, flat arms. Very convenient.
"Well?" I repeated.
"In the second place," said Morrolan, "he was an important man. And in the first place--"
"He was a Dragon," I concluded. "Yeah, I know."
Morrolan nodded. I drank some more wine. The sensation of cold helps reduce the sensation of sweetness. I bet you didn't know that.
"So, what happened to the poor bastard?"
Morrolan started to answer, then paused, then said, "It is unimportant."
"All right," I agreed. "It is unimportant to me, in any case." I had met Baritt, or, more properly, his shade, in the Paths of the Dead. He had taken an instant dislike to Morrolan because Morrolan had the bad taste to be traveling with me, which should give you an idea of how Baritt and I had hit it off.
I continued, "I assume it isn't a request for sympathy that led to your invitation."
"You are correct."
He turned his head to the side and looked at me quizzically. "What is it you gave me, Vlad?"
I laughed. "Is that it? Is that what this is all about?"
"Actually, no. I'm just curious."
"Oh. Well, remain curious." I had, in fact, injected him with the blood of a goddess for reasons too complicated to explain now, and, at the time, I was in no condition to explain anything.
"As you wish. Baritt, as I say, died. In going through his possessions--"
"What? Already? He can't have been brought to Deathgate yet."
"Well, that seems awful quick for you long-lived types."
"There are reasons."
"You're just full of information, aren't you?"
"Were I to tell you matters pertaining to the internal politics of the House of the Dragon I should only weary you. And I should then have to kill you for knowing. So my thought was not to trouble you with such information."
"A good thought," I said.
Loiosh shifted on my shoulder, evidently getting restless. "As I was saying, in going through his possessions, certain items were discovered."
He stopped. I waited. He resumed.
"He had a large collection of Morganti weapons. A large collection. Hundreds of them."
I repressed a shiver. "I suppose the reason he had them is none of my business, too."
"That is correct. And, in any case, I don't know."
"Well then, what about them?"
"I spent a good portion of yesterday looking them over. I have an interest in such things."
His eyes narrowed for a moment, then he evidently decided to ignore it. "Such weapons," he went on, "represent power. Some covet power, some are threatened by others coveting power."
"Which are you?"
"I knew that," I said. "I didn't expect you to admit it."
I couldn't answer that so I didn't. "Go on," I said. "Who's the enemy?"
"You are perspicacious."
"Yeah, but my physicker says it can be treated."
"He means you're perceptive, Boss."
"I know that, Loiosh."
"Yes," said Morrolan. "I believe that I am likely to come into conflict with someone over possession of these weapons."
"Who might that be?"
"I don't know. There are several possibilities. The likeliest is--well, it doesn't matter."
"For what I want from you, you don't need to know."
"That's fortunate. Well, what is it?"
"I want you to arrange for the stolen weapons to be traced."
"Some weapons have been stolen?"
"Not yet," he said.
"I see. How certain are you?"
"That, too, is unimportant. I will be protecting them, as will various others. Whoever wishes to steal one or more will have to hire a expert thief, and that means the Jhereg, and that means--"
"I might be able to find out what's become of it. I see."
"Boss, this could get you into trouble."
I sat back and looked at Morrolan. He held my gaze. After a moment I said, "That isn't at all the sort of thing I'm any good at, Morrolan. And, to tell you the truth, if I did find out, I don't believe I could bring myself to tell you. It's a Jhereg thing, you know?"
"I believe I do, yes." He frowned and seemed to be considering. "On the other hand," he said, "if I understand how you--that is, how the Jhereg--works, whoever did the stealing would be unlikely to be more than a tool, hired by someone else, is that correct?"
"Yes," I said, not terribly happy about where this was going.
"Well then, could you find out--"
"Maybe," I admitted.
"What would it take?"
"Money. A lot of it."
"I have money."
"I still want to think about it. It could put me into a situation I'm not certain I'd like."
"I understand. Do think about it, though. I can offer you--"
"Don't tell me. I'd rather not be tempted. I'll let you know."
He nodded and didn't press the issue, which earned him some points with me.
"There's another matter," he said.
I bit back irony and waited.
"The circumstances of Baritt's death--"
"Which are none of my business."
"--have, among other things, made me aware of the vulnerability of Castle Black."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The circumstances of--"
"I heard you, I just don't understand. How is a castle floating half a mile or more in the air vulnerable? Other than to falling down, of course."
"That isn't likely."
"I'm glad to hear it. Which reminds me, why don't my ears pop when I teleport up?"
He looked smug but didn't tell me. "Obviously," he said, "the castle can be penetrated by anyone who can teleport and conceal himself from my guards."
"You don't have any security precautions?"
"Some, but not enough. It seems to me you could be of some assistance in telling me where to improve them."
I thought it over, and realized that I knew exactly how to go about it. "Yes, I can do that." I considered asking about payment, but on reflection calculated that it would be more profitable to do a good job and allow him to display his generosity.
He frowned for a moment, and seemed lost in thought.
"Psychic communication, Boss.
"I knew that, Loiosh."
"You're a liar, Boss."
At about that time, a Dragonlord entered the room and bowed to Morrolan. He was short and rather stocky for a Dragaeran, with short, light-brown hair and pale eyes; he didn't strike me as a fighter, but he wore a blade, which meant he was on duty in some capacity.
Morrolan said, "Fentor, this is Baronet Vladimir Taltos. I know you are willing to work with Easterners, but are you willing to take orders from a Jhereg?"
Fentor said, "My lord?"
Loiosh said, "What did he say?"
I said, "Errgh?"
Morrolan said, "I've just hired Lord Taltos as a security consultant. That puts you in his charge, under certain circumstances."
I felt my mouth open and close. Morrolan had what? And when had he done this?
Fentor said, "That will not be a problem, my lord."
"Good," said Morrolan.
"Excuse me," I said.
"I. . . ."
"Never mind. A pleasure, Fentor."
"The same, my lord."
"Boss, you've just been hired."
"Well, yeah. Recruited, actually."
"You should tell him to never use this power in the service of evil."
"I'll be sure to."
It occurred to me, also, that it was going to be harder, now that I was more-or-less working for him, to avoid trying to get the information he was after. Of course, maybe I'd get lucky, and no one would steal any of the weapons. Something made me doubt this.
Fentor bowed cordially to us both and made his exit.
I said, "Morrolan, what aren't you telling me?"
"In particular. I get the feeling that you aren't just generally worried about someone stealing some random Morganti weapon."
"You should trust your feelings; they seem to be reliable."
"Thank you so much."
He stood abruptly and said, "Come with me, Vlad. I'll show you around and introduce you to a few people."
"I can hardly wait," I said.
I got up and followed him.
Do you know what a battlefield smells like? If so, you have my sympathy; if not, you still won't, because I have no intention of dwelling on it except to say that people don't smell so good on the inside.
We stepped over the piles of dirt (I can't call it a "bulwark" with a straight face) that we'd spent so much time and sweat creating, and moved forward at steady pace; not too fast, not too slow. No, come to think of it, much too fast. A slow crawl would have been much too fast.
I adjusted my uniform sash, which was the only mark I carried to show which side I was on, since I'd lost my cute little cap somewhere during the last couple of attacks. About half of the company had lost their cute little caps, and many of the enemy, too. But we all had sashes, which identified the side we were on, like the ribbons that identify sandball teams. I never played sandball. I'd seen Dragons playing sandball in West Side Park, alongside of Teckla, though never in the same game at the same time, and certainly not on the same team. Make of that what you will.
"Have you thought about getting up in the air and away from this?" I asked my familiar for the fifth time.
"I've thought about it," he answered for the fourth (the first time he hadn't made any response at all, so I'd had to repeat the question; we'd only sustained three attacks hitherto). And, "How did we get into this, anyway?" I'd lost count of how many times he'd asked me that; not as many as I'd asked myself.
We moved forward.
How did we get ourselves into that?
I asked Sethra, not long ago, why she ordered us to hold that position, which never looked terribly important from where I sat--except to me, of course, for personal reasons that I'll go into later. She said, "For the same reason I had Gutrin's spear phalanx attack that little dale to your left. By holding that spot, you threatened an entire flank, and I needed to freeze a portion of the enemy's reserves. As long as you kept threatening that position, he had to either reinforce it, or to remain ready to reinforce it. That way I could wait for the right time and place to commit my reserves, which I did when--"
"All right, all right," I said. "Never mind."
I hadn't wanted a technical answer, I'd wanted her to say, "It was vital to the entire campaign." I wanted to have had a more important rle. We were one piece on the board, and only as important as any other. All the pieces wish to be, if not a player, at least the piece the players are most concerned with.
Not being a player was one of the things that bothered me. I was, I suppose, only a piece and not a player when I would carry out the order of one of my Jhereg superiors, but I had been running my own territory for a short while at that point, and had already become used to it. That was part of the problem: in the Jhereg, I was, if not a commander-in-chief, at least a high ranking field officer. Here, I was, well, I guess I was a number of things, but put them all together and they still didn't amount to much.
But how did we get ourselves into that? There were no great principles involved. I mean, you judge a war according to who is in the right as long as you have no interest in the outcome; if you're one of the participants, or if the result is going to have a major effect on you, then you have to create the moral principles that put you in the right--that's nothing new, everyone knows it. But this one was so raw. No one could even come up with a good mask to put over it. It was over land, and power, and who got to expand where, without even the thinnest veneer of anything else.
Those veneers can be important, when you're marching down toward rows of nasty pointy things.
Baritt died, that's what started it all. And Morrolan convinced me to set up a trap to find out who would be likely to steal what I preferred not to come anywhere near. Kragar, my lieutenant in the organization, looked worried when I told him about it, but I'm sure even he, who knew Dragons better than I ever would, had no clue how it would end up.
"What if someone does steal one, and you find out who," he said, "and it turns out to be someone you don't want to mess with?"
"That, of course, is the question. But it seems unlikely to be a Jhereg behind it."
"No, Vlad, it will be a Dragon. That's the problem."
Well, he was a Dragon; he should know. No, he wasn't a Dragon, he was a Jhereg, but he should still know. He had once been a Dragon, which meant--what?
I studied Kragar. I knew him better than I knew anyone I didn't know at all. We'd worked together as enforcers when I first entered the Jhereg, and we'd been working together ever since. He was the only Dragaeran I didn't hate, except maybe Kiera. Come to think of it, I didn't understand her, either.
Kragar was courageous, and timid, warmhearted, and vicious, and easygoing, and dedicated, and friendly, and utterly ruthless; as well as having the strange ability, or shortcoming, to blend into the woodwork so completely one could be staring right at him without realizing he was there.
I couldn't remember a single idea of mine that he hadn't thrown cold water on, nor a single one that he hadn't backed me on to the hilt--literally, in some cases.
"What is it?" he said.
"I was ruminating."
"Shouldn't you do that in private?"
"Oh, is someone here?"
"You're a riot, Vlad."
"In any case," I said, picking up the conversation from where it was lying in the middle of the floor, "there's a lot of money in it."
Kragar made a sound I won't attempt to describe. I could sense Loiosh holding back several remarks. It seems I surround myself with people who think I'm an idiot, which probably says something deep and profound about me.
"So," I said, "who do we put on it?"
"I don't know. We should probably go over there ourselves and look things over."
"I was afraid you'd say that."
He gave me a puzzled glance that went away quickly. There are matters on which Dragaerans and humans will never understand one another, and soul-killing weapons are, evidently, one of those. I mean, they hate them as much as or more than we do; but Dragaerans don't usually have the sort of overwhelming dread that such weapons inspire in a human. I don't know why that is.
"How do we get there?"
"I'll hire a coach."
* * *
I rehearsed the conversation I was about to have with them. I won't share it with you because the actual conversation disrupted my plans.
"Baronet Taltos?" said the one wearing Morrolan's badge.
Trust me: The conversation I'd been prepared for would have been much more fun to relate. But there was compensation. The guard said, "Wait--who is he?" noticing Kragar for the first time.
"My associate," I said, keeping my chuckle on the inside.
"Very well," he said.
I glanced at the other guard, who was busy being expressionless. I wondered who he worked for.
Kragar and I passed within.
Rarely upon crossing a threshold have I been struck by such a sensation of entering a different world--I mean it felt as if between one step and another I had left Dragaera and entered a place at least as foreign as my Eastern ancestral homeland. The first surprise was that, after passing by the stone entryway of the stone house, you reached a foyer that was full of blown glass--vases, candelabra, empty decanters and other glasswork were displayed on dark wooden pedestals or in cabinets. The walls were painted some color that managed to squeak in between white and yellow where no color ought to live, making everything seem bright and cheery and entirely at odds with any Dragonlord I'd ever met or heard of--and certainly with the Baritt I'd met in the Paths of the Dead.
My reverie was interrupted by Kragar saying, "Uh . . . boss? Where are we going?"
"Good question. Most sorcerers would either work in a basement where there it's most reasonable to put any heavy objects they might need, or up in a tower where there is less risk of wiping out the whole house if something goes wrong. In Baritt's case, probably some random room in a random place because it was convenient.
Loiosh moved nervously on my shoulder. We left the foyer and entered a sitting room of some sort, with more blown glass and decanters just like the others except full. On the wall to my left was a large oil of Baritt, looking imposing and dignified. There was a small door at the far end that should have led to the kitchen, and hallways heading off to the right and the left; one would presumably lead up a set of stairs to the bedchambers, the other to the rest of this floor. We took the one to the right and found a wide, straight stairway of polished white stone. We went back and tried the other hall, which looked more promising.
"There's something funny. I'm getting a feeling. It's like--"
"We're being watched, Vlad," said Kragar.
"Not really surprising," I said.
"I noticed first."
"Ignore it, I think," I told Kragar. "It would be odd if no one had any surveillance spells. Should we try that door?"
"The big ironbound one with the rune carved on it, and barred by a pair of Dragonlords with spears crossed in front of it? Why should it be that one?"
"You're funny, Kragar. Shut up, Kragar."
"Who are you, and what is your business?" said one of the guards, standing like a statue, her spear not moving from its position in front of the door."
"You know both answers," I told her.
She twitched a smile, which made me like her. "Yeah, but I have to ask. And you have to answer. Or you could leave. Or I could kill you."
"Baronet Taltos, House Jhereg, on an errand from Lord Morrolan, and for a minute there I liked you."
"I'm crushed," she said. Her spear snapped to her side; her companion's also moved, and the way was clear. She said, "Be informed that there is a teleport block in place around the house in general, and that it has been strengthened for that room."
"Is that a polite way of telling me not to try to steal anything?"
"I hadn't intended to be polite," she said.
I said, "Let's go."
"After you," said Kragar. Both guards twitched and then looked at him, as if they hadn't noticed him before, which they probably hadn't. Then they pretended they'd seen him all along, because to do anything else would have been undignified.
There didn't seem to be any way out of it, so I pulled back the bolt and opened the door.
There's a story, probably apocryphal but who cares, about Lishni, the inventor of the fire-ram. It seems he invented it out of desperation, having no other way for his flotilla of six cutters to escape a fleet of eight brigs and and two ships of the line that had cut him off during what started as a minor action in one of the wars with Elde. As the story goes, after arming his cutters with his new invention, he went out, sunk seven of the ten ships and damaged the other three, then, in a another moment of inspiration, took his crews ashore, captured the Palace, and forced an unconditional surrender that ended the war right there. As he walked out of the palace with the signed surrender in his hand, one of his subordinates supposedly asked him how he felt. "Fine," he said.
As I say, I very much doubt it happened like that, but it's a good story. I bring it up because, if someone had asked me how I felt when I walked into a room full of more Morganti weapons than I had thought existed in the world, I'd have said, in the same way, "poorly."
"Boss . . . ."
"I know, Loiosh."
The weapons were piled everywhere; it was like stepping into a room full of yellowsnakes. I could feel the two Dragonlords behind me, and even the knowledge that I was showing fear in front of them couldn't propel me forward.
"This is pretty ugly, Vlad."
"Tell me about it, Kragar."
"I wonder what he wanted them for."
"I wonder why the Serioli invented them in the first place."
"You don't know, Vlad?"
"No. Do you?"
"Sure. Well, I know what they say, at least."
"What do they say?"
"Back before the beginning of Empire they were invented by a Serioli smith in order to make war so horrible no one would fight any more."
I snorted. "You're kidding. Do you believe they could be that stupid?"
"Oh, but it worked."
"Among the Serioli."
"Shall we go in?"
"I don't think I can."
"That's a problem."
We stood there like idiots for a little longer.
"Should we leave then?" he asked.
Hours and hours went by. All right, maybe a minute. The worst part was knowing those Dragonlords were right behind me. Showing fear in front of a Jhereg is bad business; showing fear in front of a Dragon hurts my pride.
Kragar said, "I have an idea."
"Good," I said. "I accept. An excellent idea. Whatever it is."
"This will take a couple of minutes."
"Even better. You think I'm in a hurry?"
Kragar's brow wrinkled. I suspected psychic contact.
"All right," he said. "He'll be here."
"Someone who can help. I met him some years ago when I was--it doesn't matter."
He might as well have completed the sentence. Kragar wasn't born into the Jhereg--he'd once been a Dragonlord himself--and whatever reasons he had for not being one any more were his own business.
"What's his name?"
"Daymar. He's a Hawklord."
"All right. How can he help?"
"What about them?"
"He's very good. He can do things with the powers of his mind that skilled sorcerers can't do using the power of the Orb. He--just a minute." He stepped out of the room for a moment and spoke quietly with the guards. When he returned, there was a thin, sharp-featured Dragaeran with him, all in black, with a sort of dreamy, vague expression on his face that was quite at odds with his features and with other Hawklords I'd known.
"Hello, Kragar," he said in a low, quiet voice.
"Hello, Daymar. This is my boss, Vlad."
He bowed politely, which also set him apart from others of his House. "Pleased to meet you," he said.
"And you," I told him.
He studied the room. "Very impressive," he said. "I've never seen so many at once."
"I was thinking much the same thing," I said.
Kragar said, "Can you, uh, tone them down a little. Vlad is a bit sensitive to their aura."
He turned to me with a look of curiosity. "Really? That's interesting. I wonder why?"
I refrained from saying, "Because I'm an Easterner with a superstitious dread of the damned things;" instead I just shrugged.
"Mind if I find out what it is about you that--"
"Yes," I said.
"All right," he said, appearing to be a little hurt. Then he looked around the room again. "Well," he said, "it shouldn't be difficult," and, just like that, I felt better. Not good mind you, but better; it was as if they were still out there, and still hungry, but they were much further away.
"How did you do that?" I said.
Daymar frowned and pursed his lips. "Well," he said, "if we consider the aura emitted by each weapon as a spherical field of uni--"
"Psychics," said Kragar.
I walked into the room as if there was nothing to it, and began looking around. Kragar and Daymar stayed behind me.
The weapons were a bit more arranged than I'd first thought--they were stacked, rather than just lying around, and they were all in sheaths or scabbards--I tried not to think of how it would feel if they'd been naked. I couldn't, however, discern exactly what the order or arrangement was.
"The most powerful are at this end," said Daymar conversationally, "and the weakest are down there. That's a jhereg on your shoulder, isn't it?"
"Psychics," I said. "And a keen eye for detail as well," I added.
"Excuse me? Oh, that was irony, wasn't it?"
"Sorry. I'm a bit jumpy."
I glanced at Kragar, who, it appeared, was gallantly attempting not to smile. I left the question hanging and tried to look like I was studying the weapons, while simultaneously not really looking at them. This isn't easy, and it didn't work--they kept assaulting my mind, Daymar's psychic ability notwithstanding.
"How do you link to it?"
"The jhereg. You must have some sort of psychic link to it. How--"
"Witchcraft," I said.
"I see. Does it involve--?"
"I don't care to discuss it."
"All right," said Daymar, looking puzzled and maybe a little hurt once more. I wasn't used to running into Dragaerans who had sensitive feelings.
"So," said Kragar. "Any ideas on how to go about this?"
I glanced at him again, and he flushed a little--whoever this Daymar was, I wasn't prepared to discuss my business in front of him, and Kragar ought to have known that.
"What are you trying to do?" said Daymar.
"It's hard to explain," I said.
"Oh, well then--" he said, and, as I was still looking at Kragar, I saw a startled look spread over his features.
I said, "What--"
"Mind probe, Boss. A really, really, good one. And fast. That guy--"
I picked up the weapon closest to me, a dagger, and pulled it from its sheath. I crossed the room, stopping in front of Daymar, about four feet away. I stared up at him, holding the weapon casually in front of me. I was no longer frightened of the thing; it was as if something had taken control of me, and that something was red and burning. I said, "Look, I appreciate your help, but if you ever mind-probe one of my people again, it'll be the last thing you ever do, in this life or any other. Is that clear?"
He seemed a little startled but not at all frightened. "Sorry," he said. "I won't do it again."
I turned away, took a deep breath, and sheathed the weapon. I never know what to say after I've intimidated someone; I ought to keep a list of tough-guy remarks.
"I do have a suggestion, however."
I turned around and stared at him, not quite sure what I was hearing.
"Boss, either you're losing your touch, or this guy is really stupid."
"Well," continued Daymar, "since I know anyway . . . ."
I gave Kragar a "What should I do about this?" look, and he returned a "don't ask me" shrug.
I sighed. "All right, Daymar. Let's hear it."
"Well, Morrolan thinks someone is going to try to steal these weapons, right? And you--"
"Do you know Morrolan?" I said.
"I just wondered. Go on."
"You want to trap whoever it is."
"Trap? Maybe. At least find the culprit, if there is one."
"I can set up a psychic trace that will let us identify anyone who steps in here."
"Sounds too easy," I said.
"No one guards against psychics."
"What about Kiera?"
"Never mind," I said. "If something is missing and we don't know how, Kiera took it."
"Then what?" put in Kragar.
"That's easy. We give up and report failure, which I should have done already."
"Well?" said Daymar.
"All right," I said. "Do whatever you have to do."
"It's done," he said.
"I believe him, Boss. Something happened."
I graced Kragar with another look. In case I've failed to communicate it, I wasn't entirely comfortable with how things had worked themselves out, and Kragar presented an easy and not unreasonable target; he accepted the rle with good grace.
Loiosh said, "Don't worry, Boss; it'll all work perfectly. No, really."
I turned to Daymar. "How does it work?"
"If any of those weapons are moved from this room, I'll receive a psychic impression of whoever moved it."
"Whatever you want. I can put you in touch with him, or get a location--"
"You can? You can?"
"Why, yes," he said, looking slightly startled. "Is something amiss?"
I don't know why I should have thought we'd be done with him. Wishful thinking, I suppose.
"All right," I said. "I think we can say we've done all we have to here. Let's go."
"Where are we going?" asked Daymar.
I started to answer, bit it off, gave Kragar a pleading look, and made my escape. Whatever Kragar said must have worked; at least Daymar didn't follow us back to the office.
That day, I was prepared to call even that a victory.
On Stolen Swords and Borrowed Books
We had closed a good share of the distance between us before they broke into a run. I'd thought (insofar, that is, as I'd been thinking at all) that they were going to stop, take a defensive position, and wait for our attack, as we'd done when they'd charged us, and on reflection, they probably should have. They had spears, and if they'd just held steady and stuck them out, it would have been ugly for us. But that wasn't how they played it--they came right at us, maybe hoping we'd back down, turn, and run. Strategically a bad move, psychologically sound. Or, to put it another way, seeing them coming at us scared the shit out of me, a feeling mitigated only by the nasty pleasure of knowing how it felt to charge up a hill.
But there was no way we could stop, you see; the juice-drum was rattling around us, we were already moving, and we'd become a juggernaut, plowing forward, bristling with points, and at a certain stage I stopped feeling fear. I stopped feeling anything. I just went ahead and did it because there was nothing else to do. Even my own mission, my private plans and intentions, went out of my head, and the means became the end: I was advancing because my company was advancing, and when we met them we'd destroy them because that was what we did. It was never my job, but for a while, as I said, that didn't occur to me.
It was all different. I don't mean this battle in particular, but battle in general. I still wasn't used to it. Did anyone ever get used to it? If so, how? Except someone like Napper, and he was nuts.
I'd known battle would be different from assassination, and even different from the street brawls I'd been forced into from time to time, but knowing it and living it are not the same. I'm used to cold, but battle is hot; I'm used to precision, but war is chaos; I'm used to trying to kill, this kind of fighting involved trying to stay alive.
The sound of footsteps, my own and my comrades', blended with the juice-drum, then overpowered it and became a rhythm that I picked up in my head to the echo of, "Why? Why? Why? Why?" which was far too philosophical for the moment. We hardened soldiers, you see, are philosophical in camp, but very practical in the field. That was something else I learned. In camp, you have to be philosophical, or crazy, or funny, or nasty, or something, just to keep yourself from going out of your head while you're waiting for another chance to be a hero. It's a means of passing the time. That is one similarity between Dragons and Jhereg I can't deny: we know how to wait.
Another is that we don't like waiting. For my part, if something is going to happen, I'd just as soon that it happened quickly. With that in mind, I suppose you could say I got lucky way back at the beginning of all this, when I tried to carry out Morrolan's mission: I didn't have to wait. We heard from Daymar the very morning after we set the psychic trap.
I was just settling into my chair and enjoying the rare pleasure of an empty desk; if there's something on the desk, it usually means there is something I ought to be doing. I was about to have my secretary bring me some klava when Kragar, whom I had not noticed enter my office, said, "Someone stole one of the weapons, Vlad."
"Melestav!" I called. "Please bring me some klava."
"Right away, boss," he answered from the next room.
Kragar began again, "Vlad--"
"I heard you. I'm going to pretend I didn't. I'm going to have some klava. Then you can tell me about it."
"If you want it directly, I could have Daymar--"
"Let me see if I understand. Do I take it you don't want Daymar to--"
"Kragar, shut up and let me drink my klava. Then you can be funny. If you try to be funny before I've had my klava, I will probably have to kill you, and then I'll be sad."
"Ah. Well. I wouldn't want you to be sad."
I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. When I opened them Kragar was gone. A little later Melestav tiptoed in, set a steaming cup in front of me, and tiptoed out again.
"Well, we're in some kind of mood today, aren't we, Boss?"
"I was fine when I got here."
I drank my klava slowly. There is a perfect way to positions the lips on the cup to take in just the right amount of klava to avoid burning yourself. Everything comes with practice. I reflected on practice and on annoyance and I drank my klava and then I called for Kragar.
"Okay," I said. "Let's have it."
"I got word from Daymar this morning that his psychic alarm had been tripped sometime last night. He says it failed to wake him, for which he sends his apologies--"
"Apologies? I didn't think he did that."
"--and suggests that the thief must be quite accomplished."
"All right. We'd best head over and see what was taken."
"He knows what was taken: One greatsword, very large, not terribly potent. Plain cross-guard with brass knobs, leather grips, sharp on one edge and part of the other, enough of a point for stabbing."
I tried to call up a memory of that weapon, failed, but Loiosh managed--he put the picture into my mind. I saw it leaning against a wall along with several cousins. I hadn't noticed it; it had been utterly undistinctive in any way, and, for a Morganti blade, not even very well constructed.
"So, just as a guess, Kragar, I'd say it was a test, rather than that blade they were after. What do you think?"
"Possible. Or there's something about it we don't know. History, enchantments, something like that."
"Could be that, too. Any suggestions about what we do next?"
"You could always hire Kiera to steal it back."
"Letting whoever it is know that we know, for which we'd get a probably useless weapon. Any useful suggestions?"
"Whatever we do, we have to find whoever it was who took it. I presume Daymar will be able to find out."
"Right. See to it."
"Yes. I designate you Speaker to Daymar."
"Thank you so much."
"I pride myself on knowing my subordinates, and matching tasks to their skills."
"Don't start, Vlad."
There was actually a bit of truth in that remark--though only a bit. Since I'd been in control of the area, one of the things I was learning was what I could delegate, and what I had to do myself. In fact, a little later I ran into a situation where--but never mind. That's another story.
Kragar left, I stared off into space. Loiosh said, "You worried, Boss?"
"I'm a worrier, chum."
Unfortunately, there was nothing much to do that day, so I got to be pensive. I wanted to get up and pace, wander around the office, sit back down, and do all the things one does when one is nervous. But it's just no damn good letting your subordinates think you're easy to shake, so I sat at my desk, cooked some meals in my mind, remembered past lovers, and exchanged banter with Loiosh.
Lunch time was a relief. I went to an Eastern place run by a woman named Tserchi and had roasted duckling in a sour cherry sauce garnished with celery root and served with a pan-fried garlic bread that wasn't as good as Noish-pa made, but was perfectly edible. I tried to linger over the food, which of course made me eat faster. Tserchi joined me after the meal. I had a sorbet for dessert along with an orange liqueur and the pleasure of hearing her complain about how much she had to pay for ice. I was glad she was there, because I don't like eating alone. I made it back to the office and Kragar was waiting for me.
I noticed his cloak when I returned, so I knew he was there. I sat down at my desk and tried not to look like I was waiting for him.
If you're getting the impression that I'd built this thing up into something far important than it probably was, well, I told myself the same thing. The fact that I turned out to be right might make me seem prescient. I don't know. I've been wrong about such things, too, but those occasions don't make for interesting stories.
"Okay, Vlad, I've got it," Kragar told me.
"Took you long enough," I said, just because I was irritated.
"Uh huh. And suppose I just walked in and gave you a name. What would you say?"
I'd have told him to go find out about the guy of course, and probably made some sarcastic remark about his failure to have already done so. Sometimes you have to admit defeat.
"Okay," I said. "Good work."
"Sit down and let's hear it."
Melestav stuck his head in right then and said, "Kragar? I found that map."
"Thanks. Bring it in, please."
We're always polite to each other around the office.
I bit back any questions that Kragar would feel smug about answering, and waited. I shuffled paperweights and writing gear off to the side of my desk while Kragar unrolled a map that almost covered it. The map seemed fairly recent, and had the peculiar mix of sharp and fuzzy areas that denotes a psiprint; most of it, however, was very clean and distinct, indicating a skilled and careful artist. I recognized the region at once because Dzur Mountain was marked near the left-hand border, and I recognized the Barnsnake River two thirds of the way toward the right, which meant the markings on the right border were the foothills of the Eastern Mountains.
Kragar pointed to an area a little above and to the right of Dzur Mountain. "Fornia County," he said, tracing an area that ran almost all the way to the edge of the map.
"Never heard of it."
"Oh, well, never mind then."
"Get on with it."
"Melestav is looking for a more detailed map, just in case we need it. But that's where the weapon went."
"And what do you know of Fornia? Count or Countess?"
"Count. Fornia e'Lanya. Dragonlord, of course. And a neighbor of Sethra Lavode."
"I wonder who borrows sugar from whom?"
"Never mind. Eastern custom."
"The name 'Fornia' comes from the old language of the House of the Dragon and means 'patience.' There's probably a story there but I don't know it. Fornia is old; over two thousand. A sorcerer of some repute. Battle magic, mostly. He also keeps a staff of sorcerers to assist him. No discoveries, but they have a good reputation in the House."
Kragar continued. "He did a fair bit of expanding before the Interregnum, and he's been at it again during the last hundred years or so. Maintains a standing army of about six hundred, but also hires as needed, including Easterners. He--"
"Easterners? I don't understand."
"He's been known to hire Eastern mercenaries for certain actions."
"I didn't know--I've never heard of--"
"Neither did I and I haven't either."
"Are you sure about it?"
"Yes," said Kragar.
"From where in the East?"
"Not your part. Further south, as I understand it. Some foot-soldiers, but a lot of horsemen. He's known to keep a strong cavalry, and to use it well."
"What do mean, my part?"
"The part of the East your family came from."
"How do you know which part of the east my family came from?"
"Did you think I would be willing to work for you without finding out anything about you?"
"Uh . . . what else did you find out?"
"You don't really want to know, do you?"
"Hmmm. All right. Go on."
"That's very strange, Boss."
"How much Kragar knows about me, or business of the Eastern mercenaries?"
"Well, both, but I was thinking about the Eastern mercenaries."
"Yeah, it's strange."
"Did you find why he'd have stolen the weapon?"
"No, but I have a theory: The same reason anyone else would have; they represent power. If you want things like that, they're the sorts of things you'd want."
I digested that and failed to find a suitable response. "You said he keeps trying to expand his area. What does the Empress have to say about it?"
"He's been going after other Dragonlords; the Empress has pretty much the same attitude about that as about Jhereg wars: Let them have at each other as long as it doesn't interfere with the workings of the Empire."
"Interesting parallel; I wonder what Morrolan would think about it?"
Kragar smiled. I think, as a one-time Dragonlord, he took special joy in remarks like that. Of course, it also made him a good source of information matters military.
"All right," I said. "Let me summarize. What we have is a matter of Dragons acting like Dragons. This Fornia is after more land and power, so he steals a Morganti weapon, and Morrolan is after the same, so he doesn't want him to, and we can tell Morrolan who this guy is, and then we're done, and there's nothing more to it. Right? Heh. So, what haven't you told me?"
"The main thing is: Dragonlords don't steal."
"I see. And therefore?"
"One possibility is that he wanted it really, really badly. Another is that he intended to be outraged."
Kragar paused and stared at the ceiling as if to formulate a complicated thought. "He steals the thing, Morrolan accuses him of stealing the thing, he gets outraged."
"Oh. Is he a Dragon or a Yendi?"
"They aren't all that different, Vlad." I started to speak, but Kragar quickly said, "I should qualify that. Yendi are like that all the time, but a Dragon on a campaign is capable of subtlety when necessary."
"Okay, I get it."
"So," said Kragar, "there's likely more going on than we know about."
"Well, okay, fine. How does it concern us?"
"I don't know. Maybe, if we're lucky, not at all."
I sighed. "Okay. I'll report what I've found out--"
"What who has found out?"
"--to Morrolan and see what he says. But I'm not going to go steal that thing back." Then I asked hopefully, "Is there anything that needs attention around here before I go put myself in the dragon's maw?"
"All right. Thanks. Good work."
You don't, Sethra explained to me after it was all over, get to pick and choose your resources when you begin a campaign. In other words, the object is to make the best use of what you have, and to find a way to pit your strengths against the enemy's weaknesses. She used a complicated example I didn't follow involving pitting cavalry against sorcery, and long, fast marches against an enemy entrenched in a long line. Her point being that the first thing you do when starting a campaign is assess your own strengths and weaknesses and your opponent's in light of your goals.
As I say, I didn't follow the analogy, but now, looking back on it, when I can, if I want, see everything I did in military terms, I suppose you could say that it was somewhere in there that I began to take stock of my own forces, as if this were a campaign I had decided to enter on. The fact is, it wasn't until a day or two later that I became committed to it, but even as I sat there in my office contemplating what Kragar had told me and preparing another visit to Castle Black, I was, even if I didn't know it, embarking on a campaign, and somewhere in the back of my head I was assessing the forces I had to work with and preparing myself for what was to come.
I just didn't think I was going to give my report to Morrolan and be finished with it, even though I couldn't have told you why I had that feeling.
But my campaign had no goal, at least at that point, which made the preparation a bit tricky. And it was all unconscious, which made it trickier. And the fact is, I still think I'd have been done with the whole thing if Fornia hadn't . . . but no, we'll leave that to its proper place.
This time I had one of my own sorcerers do the teleport: a guy named Temek who had been with me all along. He was competent as a sorcerer, though his main skill was, let's say, elsewhere. He did a good enough job.
When I reached Castle Black, I made a point of noting landmarks--most of them way below me--in case I had to teleport myself there one of these days. I achieved only limited success, but I'm never excited about performing a teleport; I'm not that good at it. The stream was very thin below me, and details were hard to pick out, but there was certainly some sort of footbridge over it, partially hidden by a pair of trees at one end. The trees themselves, and those nearby, seemed from above to be oddly shaped; perhaps shiptrees bred millennia earlier for designs no longer used. Then again, perhaps my eyes and the altitude were conspiring to trick me.
When I felt ready, I moved toward the doors of Castle Black; I even managed a jaunty salute toward a pair of guards who watched me from the wall. They didn't appear to notice. Again the doors swung open and again Lady Teldra greeted me. She was tall and lithe and managed to achieve beauty without sexuality--that is, I enjoyed looking at her, but felt no desire. This is unusual for me, and I wondered if it was a calculated effect.
"The Lord Morrolan," she said, "will join you in the library directly. Would you care for refreshment?"
She escorted me up the long winding stairway to the library, left me for a moment, and returned with a glass of a red wine that had too much tannin for my taste, and was too warm, but which was good anyway. I'd been in that library on several occasions; this time, while I waited, I looked at some of his books. Most of them seemed, predictably, to be either history or sorcery. There were some books about the East that aroused my interest, in particular one called Customs and Superstitions in the Eastern Mountains, and another called, The Wars for Independence in the Mountain States, both published in the East, and both written by someone called Fekete Szsz, which I knew to be a Fenarian name. I wasn't sure what I thought about Morrolan having such books.
Loiosh informed me of his approach just before he said, "You may borrow them, if you wish," so I could avoid letting him startle me.
"I'd like that very much."
"I should warn you, however, that I have several volumes devoted to curses for people who don't return books."
"I'd like to borrow those, too."
"What brings you here?"
"I have the name you're after."
"Ah. So soon?"
"If you're going to employ Easterners, you'll have to adjust to things happening quickly."
"Boss, do you think he really has books full of curses for people who--"
"It wouldn't surprise me a bit, Loiosh."
"All right, then," said Morrolan. "Who is it?"
I gave him the name and watched his face. I might as well have been watching his rows of books.
"Very well," he said.
"Is that all?"
"Well, Boss, did you think--"
"What else, then?"
"The weapon must be retrieved."
"Yeah. I know some thieves. If you want it stolen back I'll give you a name or two."
"They wouldn't work for me. Besides--"
"I know. Dragonlords don't steal. And that isn't what you want anyway."
Morrolan nodded, but his thoughts seemed elsewhere. "More important, however, is that the Count of Fornia be taught a lesson."
"A lesson? I hope you aren't going to ask me to kill him, because--"
Morrolan's nostril's flared and he started in on a glare which died on the vine. "You are jesting, I presume. Please do not make such jests in the future."
I shrugged. I hadn't been, but there was no reason to tell him that. I was relieved he wasn't going to ask me to put a shine on a Dragonlord anyway.
"No, I think I must go to war with him."
I looked at Morrolan and blinked. "Well, of course. Certainly. That's obvious. What else can one do? But how does that concern me?"
"It doesn't, directly."
"Well, that's a relief, anyway."
"Too bad, Boss. I was hoping for a commission."
"Shut up, Loiosh."
"Lieutenant Loiosh...has a nice sound, don't you think?"
"Shut up, Loiosh."
"Attention first jhereg lancers, forward at a march--"
"Shut the fuck up, Loiosh."
"Yes sir, Colonel. Aye aye. Shutting up sir."
"I don't suppose you have any experience in military reconnaissance?"
"Oh, sure. It's one of my hobbies."
"I hadn't thought so. Still, you may prove useful. In the meantime, I appreciate what you've done. I'll have payment sent over by messenger."
"Payment is always appreciated. But I'm not entirely happy with the 'you may prove useful' business. I don't suppose you could tell me what you have in mind?"
"If it were a Jhereg matter, would you tell me?"
"Of course. Openness and honesty are my credo."
He twitched me a smile.
I said, "Just out of curiosity, how does this work? Are you going to declare war on him, or what?"
"A formal declaration of war isn't called for in an action of this type. I'll just send him a message demanding the return of the sword, or accusing him of stealing it, and that will accomplish the same thing. But there are preparations to be made first."
"Like gathering an army?"
"Yes, and planning a campaign, and, above all, hiring a general."
"Hiring a general?" That time I was actually startled. "You're not going to lead the army yourself?"
"Would you assassinate someone yourself if you could get Mario to do it?"
Actually, I probably would, but--"I see your point. And who is this military genius who is the moral equivalent of Mario? Wait, no, don't tell me. Sethra Lavode."
"I've always been bright for my age." Then, "Wait a minute. How do you know about Mario?"
He looked smug again. I must stop giving him occasion to look smug.
I said, "You think Sethra will do it?"
"I know she will."
"Because she's a friend?"
"For that, yes, and other reasons."
"Boss, there's a lot going on here that we don't know about."
"You think so? Really? Next you'll tell me that a dzur in the wild can be dangerous."
"How 'bout if you do the killing and I do the irony?"
That, in any case, concluded the interview with Morrolan. I picked up the books I was borrowing and made my way down the stairs toward the front doors, where a sorcerer was prepared to make me sick again. I stopped at the landing, and studied the painting there up close. It was ideally viewed from the floor below or above, but up close I could see the texturing that went into the detail work, and, though it strained my neck, I could study the head of the wounded dragon. Even in a painting, there was something powerful and intriguing about the way those tentacle-like appendages around its neck seemed to wave and flutter--apparently at random, yet there was purpose in it. And the expression on the dragon's face spoke of necessity, but of a certain joy as well. The wound in its side, which was closest to me, was skillfully rendered to evoke pity but not disgust, and even in the young dragon there was a certain hint that, though requiring protection, it was still a dragon and thus not to be trifled with either.
My eye kept returning to those tentacles, however, as if they were a puzzle that might be solved, revealing--what?
"Dragons are more complex than they seem, aren't they, Boss?"
"I was just thinking the same thing."
"Did you notice what he didn't ask about?"
"Yes. He never asked about the weapon that was stolen."
"You're not as stupid as they say, Boss."
"Save it, Loiosh. Instead, tell me what it means?"
"That he already knew about the theft. Which means when we were setting that trap, we weren't doing what we thought we were. Although what we were doing I couldn't guess."
"Yeah. Maybe. Or it might mean something else entirely."
I studied those tentacles again--random patterns that, somehow, made a kind of sense.
"That he knew there was a particular weapon that would be stolen, which means the theft wasn't just a test or trial, but accomplished what it was supposed to, and there's more to that weapon than we'd thought there was. Which would make sense, of course. Or Kragar's idea: it didn't matter what was stolen, the idea was to annoy Morrolan enough to start a war, just because he wanted a war. In fact, we were probably wrong about everything and, no doubt, still are. Whenever we come to a conclusion, we should just assume we're wrong and go from there."
Loiosh was silent for a moment. Then he said, "I like the artist."
"So do I," I said. "Come on. Let's go home."
I turned my back on the wounded dragon and walked out of Castle Black.
Call to War
Sethra Lavode once gave me a brief history of battle-magic, but I don't remember a whole lot of it; it wasn't important at the time, and my acquaintance with her was new enough that I was thinking less about what she said than the fact that she was saying it. I do remember bits and pieces, however. Between what she said and what I subsequently learned from Morrolan and Aliera, I can give you a very rough overview. It goes something like this:
The earliest practical spells were reconnaissance and illusion; both very powerful, but easily countered. Later there were means developed of creating mass destruction, and all sorts of effort went into protecting one's army. Defense eventually outstripped offense to the point where a soldier could usually consider himself safe from any direct sorcerous attack as long as he wasn't carrying too much metal. It was somewhere in here that armor went by the board, except that some used (and still use) wooden armor, and wooden shields are still common, and warriors in the House of the Lyorn still wear copper or bronze vambraces to prove that they are fearless or stupid--two conditions I've never been able to tell apart.
Various methods were created for allowing the foot-soldier to carry pre-prepared offensive spells into battle, and these, too, got stronger and more sophisticated, until some big battle, the name and date of which I didn't pay much attention to, where some sorcerer found a means of making every one of the enemy's "flashstones" blow up in his hand--which added a whole new level of spell and counter-spell, and made the common foot soldier leery about having anything to do with sorcery.
Offensive spells, after that, got bigger, more powerful, more sophisticated again, and often involved sorcerers working together to send huge, powerful spells capable of wreaking havoc on an entire force, and so, again, countermeasures were developed until battle became more a test of the skills of sorcerers than of soldiers and generals. This reached its peak just before the Interregnum with a Dragonlord named Adron, about whom the less said the better.
The Interregnum threw all of that out, and war returned to the proper mayhem of soldiers slaughtering each other like gentlemen, and since the end of the Interregnum the sciences of mass destruction have slowly been building up again, with the difference that, sorcery being now so much more powerful, it is hard to find a soldier incapable of some sort of sorcerous attack, and almost impossible to find one incapable of defending himself against sorcery. But the concentration required to cast a spell, or to defend against one, is concentration that isn't be used to avoid the sharp thing someone is likely swinging at you. All of which means that, for the most part, sorcery is beside the point. At least for now. Check back again in twenty or two hundred or two thousand years and you're likely to find a different answer.
To put it another way: In the early days of the Empire, when sorcery was simple and weak, it had little effect on battle; now, in the latter days of the Empire, when sorcery is powerful and sophisticated, it has little effect on battle.
Except, of course, against Easterners, who are helpless against it.
This, at any rate, was how Sethra had explained it before I began my brief military career. In the battle, her words seemed more important and far less accurate: the enemy kept sending nasty spells at us, and sometimes they'd kill someone, and several times they almost killed me.
I hated that.
I would not have needed the lecture to understand what it all meant to the common foot-soldier: it meant that, every once in a while one of your comrades would fall over, dead and twitching, with no visible sign of what had happened; that rather more frequently someone would go down, killed or wounded, after being hit by what looked like nothing more than a faint reddish light; and that, even while engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, you had to be aware that someone could be targeting you for something unhealthy.
At least, since the enemy was charging us, they couldn't throw javelins at us, and the spells became fewer as we clashed. The first few seconds after the lines meet is the most intense time of the battle; it is more intense, to the warrior, that is, than the inevitable crisis point where the battle is decided. The first few seconds are when you don't have to do any thinking; later the action gradually slows down, or seems to, until eventually you have time to let your fear catch up to you. As I said, I remember little of that first clash, but the thing I remember most is the sound of ten thousand steel swords thudding into ten thousand wooden shields, and the occasional clang and scrape of sword against spearhead. No, it wasn't really that many, it just sounded like it. Loiosh probably made some smart remarks. It is often a blessing to forget.
I remember noticing that Aelburr was somehow on his feet again, wounds notwithstanding, and swinging away with a will; and I caught a glimpse of Napper, being happy about the only time he ever was, which irony was lost on me because I'd grown used to it. It's amazing what you can grow used to with sufficient provocation, but irony, an old friend of mine, is just no good except at a distance. I wasn't catching any irony at the time, though now I can realize how ironic it is that, in spite of all my worry, and in spite of Kragar's comments, and in spite of Morrolan's hints, I almost certainly would have been done with the whole business when the messenger arrived with my payment the day after I made my report to Morrolan.
I would have been, if.
They showed up at my flat shortly after I returned from the office after speaking with Morrolan. I opened the door in answer to an imperious clap. There were three of them, all men, all Dragonlords, and two of them were armed. The third said, "Your name is Taltos." He pronounced it as if he'd seen it written but never heard it, from which I could draw conclusions that were, no doubt, useful for something.
"More or less," I told him. Loiosh flew over and landed on my shoulder. I was worried, and even a bit frightened. I don't worry much about opening my door, because the Jhereg considers one's home sacrosanct; but who knows what Dragons think?
"My name is Ori. My Lord the Count of Fornia requests and requires you not to interfere in any way in his concerns. This is the only warning you will receive. Is that understood?"
I took a moment to work that through. Fornia knew that I was involved. Okay. And he was warning me to stay out of the way. What did he imagine I was going to do? And why was he even bothering to threaten me?
It was puzzling as well as annoying, but the annoyance predominated. Three Dragonlords--three for the love of Verra, and one of them clearly a sorcerer, come into my home and tell me what to do? Even the Jhereg doesn't do that. Even the Phoenix Guard, when they're harassing the Jhereg, doesn't do that. If a Jhereg or a representative of the Empire wanted to threaten or intimidate me, they'd have the courtesy to call on me in one of my workplaces--say the office, or a restaurant, or an alley. This business of having my home invaded set me off, but I resolved to be diplomatic about the whole thing. I said, "What if I request and require the Count of Fornia to kiss my ruddy bum?"
Both of the Dragonlords drew their swords as best they could in the confined space of my entryway; at the same time they moved forward. An instant later they fell backward; one because there was a jhereg in his face, the other because I'd thrown a knife into his shoulder.
Ori raised his hand, but I knew very well what it means when a Dragonlord isn't carrying a sword. At the same time as I'd thrown the knife (a boot knife, one of only four knives I was still carrying after disarming myself when I'd gotten home), I let Spellbreaker, about eighteen inches of gold chain, fall into my left hand. I set it spinning to intercept whatever he was about to throw at me.
Ori turned out to be pretty fast; some part of his spell got past, and I felt weak, dizzy, and I couldn't move the right side my body. I let myself fall over and started rolling away from the door.
The effects of the spell were short-lived; I was able to stand and come up with another knife--this one a stiletto, not well suited to throwing--and start Spellbreaker spinning again. If Ori threw something else at me, the chain got all of it, and Loiosh was keeping the one Dragon pretty busy, but the other one, my knife still sticking out of his shoulder, had picked up his sword with his left hand and was charging me.
This was cause for some concern.
There was no way to parry his sword with my stiletto, so I did the only thing I could, which was to move in at him and hope to get past his attack.
I felt my knife strike home, and, at the same time, something hit me in the side, and then I felt the floor against my face. I did some calculations as I was lying there: Loiosh could handle the one, and, with luck, I had disabled the other at the same time as he'd gotten me, but there was still the sorcerer to worry about. I tried to roll over, and noticed that Spellbreaker was no longer in my hand; this is where I got really worried. I tried again to roll over, and I figured I must have succeeded because I was looking at the ceiling; that was a start. Only the ceiling was wrong, somehow. I tried to get up, wondering when the pain was going to hit me. Someone said, "Lie still, Vlad."
A woman's voice. Whose? I knew it, but I couldn't place it. But I was like Hell going to lie still. I tried to sit up again.
"Lie still. It's all right."
All right? What--?
Aliera e'Kieron came into view overhead.
"You're at Castle Black, Boss."
"Castle Black? How did I get here?"
"Morrolan came and got you."
"How did he--?"
"I told him."
"How could you--?"
"I wasn't sure I could."
"Am I ever going to be able to complete a--"
"How do you feel?" asked Aliera.
"Angry," I said. "Very, very angry. I would badly like to kill someone. I--"
"I mean, how do you feel physically?"
That was a tougher question, so I took some time to consider it. "All right," I finally said. "My side is a little stiff. What happened?"
"Someone cut you."
"Fairly deep," she said judiciously. "No organs were damaged. Two ribs were cracked."
"I see. Considering all of that, I feel great. Thanks."
"It'll get worse."
"Would you like something for the pain?"
"Pain doesn't bother me," I told Aliera.
She didn't choose to be impressed.
I'd first run into Aliera in a wizard's laboratory, trapped inside a piece of wood, which had hindered our ability to get to know one another. Later, when she was breathing and talking and such, we'd been too busy for much chatting. I'd picked up that she was related to Morrolan--which wasn't surprising, because I imagine most Dragons are related to most others, one way or another. As far as I knew then (I learned more later, but that doesn't come into this story), she was fairly typical for a Dragonlord, except shorter. Evidently she had some abilities as a physicker.
"Who was it?" she asked.
"A Dragon," I said.
She nodded. "So Morrolan informs me. I meant more specifically."
"Someone in the employ of Fornia. There was a sorcerer named Ori, I didn't get the names of the blademen."
"What did they want?"
"They wanted me to stay out of their business."
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