Vlad Taltos, Book 10
2006 Prologue: Peasant’s Platter
Vili glanced up, turned his head back toward the interior, and said, with no particular inflection, “Klava with honey for Lord Taltos.” He then turned back to me and said, “Your usual table is available, m’lord.”
If Vili wasn’t going to make any observations about the fact that I had been gone for years, was missing a finger, and had a price on my head sufficient to make every assassin in the city drool with greed, well, I certainly wouldn’t either. I followed him inside.
Valabar and Sons is in a part of Adrilankha that looks worse than it is. The streets are narrow and full of ruts winding among the potholes; the dwellings are small and most of them show their age; and the population there—urban Teckla with a few Chreotha—give no appearance of wealth, or even comfort. But, as I say, it looks worse than it is. Few who live there are actually destitute, most of them being tradesmen or those employed by tradesmen and most of the families having lived there for millennia, some for Cycles. Valabar’s fit right in.
You walk down three shallow steps, and if you’re Dragaeran (which I am not) or an exceptionally tall human (which I am not), you duck your head. When you raise it again, you’re immediately ambushed by the aroma of fresh-baked bread—ambushed, and you surrender. Why it is that with all of the scents inundating the place it’s the bread you smell, I don’t know; there are myriads of other smells that you notice when you’re outside. But inside, it’s the bread.
You’re in a room with eleven tables, the largest of them big enough to seat a party of six. There is a great deal of space between the tables. The walls and tablecloths are white, the chairs a sort of pale yellow. On each table is a yellow flower, a small white dish with finely ground salt, and a clear glass jar with powdered Eastern red pepper.
I followed Vili to the other room, much like the first, but with space for only nine tables. Those two rooms were all there was; most evenings both were full. We reached my favorite table, a deuce in the back corner that I liked not for any reasons of security, but just because I enjoyed seeing what everyone else was eating.
The chair felt good—familiar. I salivated and my stomach rumbled. As I sat down, Mihi came by with my klava, and I drank some, and right away I have a problem: I could spend so much time telling you about just the klava that I wouldn’t get anything else done. It tasted of cinnamon and monra and honey and heavy cream and I found myself smiling as I sipped it. Loiosh and Rocza, my familiar and his mate, were quiet out of respect for my pleasure—a rarity in Loiosh’s case especially.
Next to my chair, carefully positioned so I couldn’t bump it by accident, they placed a small brazier. In it were wine tongs, carefully kept heated. Next to the brazier was a bucket of ice water, and in the ice was a single, long white feather.
There would be wine tonight. Oh, yes.
I’d come early; there weren’t many diners at this hour, just a quad and a stiff. The quad—all Chreotha—spoke quietly. Valabar’s seems to encourage quiet conversation, though I don’t know why. The stiff looked like a Vallista. He gave me a glance as I entered, then went back to his Ash Mountain potatoes. A good choice. But then, so far as I knew, Valabar’s didn’t have any bad choices.
I had made a good choice by accident, showing up as I did in the early afternoon. I enjoyed Valabar’s when it was full of people, but being almost alone fit my mood. I sipped my klava, and found that I’d closed my eyes for a moment, savoring what was, and what soon would be. I smiled.
An hour earlier, I had been in Dzur Mountain. An hour before that, I had been fighting for my life and the soul of a friend against—
Now, right away, I have a problem. You see me, but I don’t see you. I don’t know who you are. You’re there, but invisible, like Fate if you choose to believe in it; like the Lords of Judgment even if you don’t. Do you know me? Have we met? Do I need to explain who I am, or shall I assume you’re the same individual who’s been listening to me all along?
Well, I guess there’s no point in telling you about what happened before either way. If you’ve been with me before, you know; if you haven’t, you’d never believe it. I just barely believed it. But I touched the hilt of Lady Teldra hanging on my left hip, and there was such a keen sense of her presence that I couldn’t doubt, no matter how much I wanted to.
But then that was ages before—hours, as I’ve said. Now life was klava, and the klava was good, so life was good.
Klava had been part of what I now thought of as my “old life.” Every morning I’d gone into my office, had my first cup of klava brought to me by my secretary, Melestav, and begun planning what crimes I’d commit that day. After Melestav was killed, Kragar, my associate and, if you will, lieutenant, who didn’t know how to brew klava and could just barely make coffee, would order it from a place down the street.
I look back to that now as a good time in my life. I was respected, I had power, I had money, I was happily married (at least, I thought I was), and, if every so often someone tried to kill me, or the Phoenix Guards would beat me bloody, well, that was just part of the game. At the time, I suppose I wasn’t so aware of being happy; but then, spending your time asking yourself if you’re happy is as good a way to be miserable as I know. If you want to be happy, don’t ask yourself difficult questions, just sit in a quiet, peaceful place and enjoy your solitary klava.
I was not, however, destined to enjoy my solitary klava for long.
“M’lord,” said Vili. “A gentleman wishes to be brought to your table.”
Loiosh gripped my left shoulder a little tighter.
“If he were coming to kill me, do you think he’d ask?”
“No, Boss. But who knows we’re even here?”
“Let’s find out.”
Before Loiosh could reply, I said, “What sort of gentleman, Vili?”
“A Dragaeran, m’lord. He would appear to be of the House of the Dzur.”
I frowned. That was certainly unexpected.
“Bring him over.”
Young, was my first reaction. I’m no great judge of ages of Dragaerans, but if he’d been human, he’d have barely needed to shave. He also had that sort of tall, uncoordinated lankiness that spoke of someone who hadn’t quite settled into his body yet. His House was no mystery at all: Only Dzurlords have ears like that and eyes like that, and think that black on black is the ultimate of fashionable color combinations. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the hilt of a sword sticking up over his shoulder—a sword that was probably taller than I was; a very Dzur-like sword, if you will.
The expression on his face, however, was very un-Dzur-like. He was smiling.
“Hi there,” he said, all cheerful-like. “My name will be Zungaron someday, but for now it’s Telnan.”
It took me a moment to manage a reply. For one thing, I’d never had anyone introduce himself in quite that way. For another, Dzurlords are ... well, some of them can be ... you might find some who ...
You don’t expect to find a cheerful Dzurlord.
I stood up. If he’d been a Jhereg, I’d have remained seated, out of courtesy, but he was a Dzur so I rose and gave him a half bow. “Vladimir Taltos,” I said. “Call me Vlad.” I sat down again.
He nodded. “Just checking. Sethra sent me.”
“I see. Why do they call you Telnan?”
“Sethra says I haven’t yet earned the name Zungaron.”
“Oh. What does ‘Zungaron’ mean?”
“She hasn’t told me that, either.”
“What does Telnan mean?”
He thought about that. “I think it means ‘student’ but I’m not sure. May I join you?”r />
I held up two fingers to Vili, who nodded and went back about his business. Telnan sat. I don’t know how he managed with that thing slung behind his back that way, but it seemed easy and natural. Maybe that’s something Dzurlords study. He said, “Sethra was worried about you.”
“That’s a kind thought on her part, but are you trained to handle Jhereg assassins, assuming one shows up?”
He smiled like he’d just been ordered into battle against overwhelming odds with half the Empire watching. “Not yet.”
“Oh. So this is training for you?”
“I don’t know about you, Boss, but I feel worlds better.”
Mihi brought klava for Telnan. I drank some more of mine. “Have you known Sethra long?” I asked Telnan.
“No, not really. Around twenty years.”
Not long. More than half of the time I’d been alive. “Odd I’ve never met you before.”
“It was only a year and a half ago that I was permitted above the dungeons.”
I blinked. “Uh, if you don’t mind my asking—”
“What did you do in the dungeons for most of twenty years?”
He frowned. “Why, I studied wizardry of course. What else?”
I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “Of course. What else?”
He nodded agreeably.
“You know, Boss, I don’t think this one is the brightest candle in the sconce.
“That looks like a sort of uniform you’re wearing.”
He lit up like the skies on Ascension Day. “Oh, you noticed?”
“I picked right up on it,” I said. From his reaction, I knew I was supposed to ask, and the klava had temporarily removed my normal contrary streak. “What sort of uniform is it?”
Well, that was interesting.
Presently Mihi, a pleasant, chubby Easterner with great, gray bushy eyebrows, approached again. This time holding a large, wooden platter that I knew well. He gave me a sort of conspiratorial smile, as if he knew what I was thinking. I imagine he did. The platter contained a block of granite, smooth, about a foot round, and heated in a bread oven. Mihi set the platter on the table, and took a small stoneware pitcher from his apron. He gave it a quick, practiced shake, then removed the cork from the pitcher.
The bottle had oil—a mixture of grape-seed, olive, and peanut oil to be precise. The aroma it gave off as it spread over the heated granite was mild, slightly musky. I sat back in my chair. It had been so long. The last time I was at Valabar’s, I was—
I was still married, but let’s not go there.
I wasn’t yet on the Organization’s hit-list, but let’s not go there either.
I still had all ten fingers, but let’s &c.
Years. Leave it at that.
Telnan gave the platter a curious glance, as if wondering what was to come. Around it were leafs of lettuce—red, green, and yellow. Between the lettuce and the granite were thin strips of raw beef, smoked longfish, raw longfish, poultry, lobster, and a small pair of tongs for each of us. All of these except the tongs had been marinated. Hey, they marinate the tongs too, for all I know. I’d give a lot to know what’s in the marinade, but it certainly contains lemon.
Also on the platter were three dipping sauces: hot mustard, sweet lemon sauce, and garlic-horseradish-crushed-mustard-seed sauce. I don’t generally use the sweet lemon sauce; something about that combination of flavors bothers me. The other two I alternate between.
You take beef, or the fish, or whatever, and move it to the middle of the granite, where it cooks in about ten seconds on a side—the waiter will do that for you, if you wish. Then you take it with the tongs, dip it in the sauce of your choice, and go to work. With the beef, I wrap it in a piece of lettuce. I started to show Telnan how to do it, but Mihi was faster and better. Telnan paid close attention to Mihi’s instructions.
“You know,” said the Dzur, “this is really good.”
“You know,” I said, “I believe you’re right.”
“Don’t forget to save some for the Planning Committee, Boss!”
“Do I ever forget?”
“About half the time when you eat here.”
“You have a long memory for wrongs.”
“Just looking out for the lady, you know.”
“Think Rocza will appreciate the food?”
“I’ll let you know.”
Telnan was frowning at me. “Are you talking to the, uh, to the jhereg?”
“Yes,” I told him.
He had no more to say about it, but I enjoyed giving him something to think about.
When we were just finishing up the peasant’s platter, I got two things: The first was a basket of what in my family we called “langosh,” which is an Eastern garlic bread. The second was another visitor.
I really liked the bread; I’ll get to the visitor in a moment.
As I reached for a garlic clove, a little tingle went up my left arm—the lingering effects of a recent injury, even more recently healed by an expert. That was fine; five hours earlier I hadn’t been able to use the arm at all; I’ll take a little tingle.
Telnan and I didn’t talk for a bit. I was concentrating on the process of rubbing garlic on bread when Loiosh tightened his talons on my right shoulder, followed almost immediately by Rocza tightening her claws on my left. I looked up, which gesture alerted Telnan, who turned his head and half turned his body, while reaching for his sword. An elderly, plainly dressed Dragaeran was walking up to the table, with no hint of effort at concealment or speed. If he had hostile intentions toward me, he wasn’t very good; I had time to drop the bread, wipe my fingers, and take a dagger from my boot. I kept the dagger under the table. Telnan must have reached a similar conclusion because he didn’t draw. I studied the fellow as he approached.
He was a bit small for a Dragaeran, and, though I’m not all that good at their ages, I’d have put him at over twenty-five hundred years. I couldn’t identify a House either from his clothing, or from his features.
He showed none of the signs of being a Jhereg—by which I mean that I got no sense that he knew how to handle himself, or was looking around for danger, or that, well, he was anything except an elderly merchant. Naturally, I assumed he was there to kill me.
It took him something like six seconds to get to my table, which gave me time to remember Lady Teldra, so I pushed myself just a bit back from the table, re-sheathed the dagger in my boot, brought my hand back up, and let my right forefinger rest against the hilt of Lady Teldra on my left hip. Lady Teldra is—but we’ll go into that later. For now, let me say that, as before, touching her hilt gave me a comforting sense of her presence. The thought came to me that if this individual was going to disrupt my meal, I would be more than a little annoyed.
Vili frowned and started to approach but I waved him off—I’d hate myself forever if Vili got himself shined trying to valiantly defend my right to a quiet dinner.
It’s funny how time seems to stretch out when you think you’re about to have to defend your life. As he came closer, I was able to make a few more snap observations about him—he had a pleasant, slightly round, almost peasant-like face in spite of the noble’s point, with bright, friendly eyes and thin eyebrows. His hands were the only thing that struck me as dangerous, though I can’t say exactly why I thought so; they were just hands: neatly trimmed nails, fingers about average, though perhaps a bit stubby. I stood; Telnan did as well. If it was rude, I didn’t especially care.
The visitor didn’t keep me in suspense. In a pleasant baritone, he said, “My name is Mario Greymist. May I join you, Lord Taltos?”
When I could talk again, I said, “So, correct me if I’m wrong: You’re not a myth, then?”
“Not entirely, at any rate. May I join you?”
Telnan hadn’t appeared to recognize the name.
“By all means, i
f my friend doesn’t mind. His name is Telnan, by the way.” I trust my voice was even, and I sounded sufficiently calm.
“Hi,” said Telnan, smiling.
Mario Greymist inclined his head and smiled back.
I addressed my familiar: “Loiosh, you’re about to draw blood.”
He relaxed his grip on my shoulder. Vili shuffled a chair over from another table, placing it to my left and Telnan’s right. If Mario Greymist decided to join us for dinner, the table would be crowded. The three of us sat down.
“Boss, if he’d wanted to kill you ...”
“I know, I know.”
“I take it,” said Mario, “that you’ve heard of me?” He smiled. The smile of a downstairs neighbor who has just thanked you for loaning him half a pound of coffee.
“Yeah,” I said. I was at my cleverest.
“I haven’t,” said Telnan.
Mario and I looked at the Dzurlord. I said, “Uh ...”
“Never mind,” said Telnan.
“Don’t let me interfere with your meal,” said Mario.
I looked at him. He seemed to be sincere. I said, “Feel like having something to eat?”
“No, thank you. I won’t be here that long.”
I almost said, “Good,” but caught myself. Mihi approached and asked the same question of Mario, and got the same answer. He then asked me if we’d care for wine. We would. He could recommend—fine. I trusted him, just bring whatever he thought best. He bowed.
He was to assassins what Kieron the Conqueror was to soldiers. Except that Kieron was dead. Mario had assassinated an Emperor before the Turning of the Cycle, at least according to the stories. When the Phoenix Guards couldn’t solve a murder, they’d say, “Mario did it,” meaning the case would never be solved. There is a story (probably not true) of a guy who was told that Mario was after him who simply brought himself to Death-gate and threw himself over the Falls.
And Mario was sitting across the table from me, and smiling a friendly sort of smile.
It was almost enough to put me off the food.