The Vlad Taltos Series
Penguin Group (USA)
Pub. Date: January 1987
This is the city: Adrilankha, Whitecrest.
The capital and largest city of the Dragaeran Empire contains all that makes up the domain, but in greater concentration. All of the petty squabbles within the seventeen Great Houses, and sometimes among them, become both more petty and more vicious here. Dragonlords fight for honor, the Iorich nobles fight for justice, Jhereg nobles fight for money, and Dzurlords fight for fun.
If, in the course of this squabbling, a law is broken, the injured party may appeal to the Empire, which oversees the interplay of Houses with an impartiality that does credit to a Lyorn judging a duel. But the organization that exists at the core of House Jhereg operates illegally. The Empire is both unwilling and unable to enforce the laws and customs governing this inner society. Yet, sometimes, these unwritten laws are broken.
That's when I go to work. I'm an assassin.
I found an oracle about three blocks down on Undauntra, a little out of my area. He wore the blue and white of the House of the Tiassa, and worked out of a hole-in-the-wall above a bakery, reached by climbing a long, knotted wooden stairway between crumbling walls to a rotting door. The inside of the place was about right. Leave it at that.
He wasn't busy, so I threw a couple of gold Imperials onto the table in front of him and sat opposite him on a shoddy octagonal stool that matched his. He looked to be a bit old, probably pushing fifteen hundred.
He glanced at the pair of jhereg riding my shoulders, but chose to pretend to be unexcited. "An Easterner," he said. Brilliant. "And a Jhereg." The man was a genius. "How may I serve you?"
"I have," I told him, "suddenly acquired more cash than I've ever dreamed of having. My wife wants me to build a castle. I could buy a higher title in the Jhereg—I'm now a baronet. Or I could use the money to expand my business. If I choose the latter, I risk, in turn, competition problems. How serious will these be? That's my question."
He put his right arm on the table and rested his chin on it, drumming the tabletop with the fingers of his left hand while staring up at me. He must have recognized me; how many Easterners are there who are high up in the organization and wander around with jhereg on their shoulders?
When he'd looked at me long enough to be impressive, he said, "If you try to expand your business, a mighty organization will fall."
Well, la-dee-da. I leaned over the table and slapped him.
"Rocza wants to eat him, boss. Can she?"
"Maybe later, Loiosh. Don't bother me."
To the Tiassa, I said, "I have a vision of you with two broken legs. I wonder if it's a true one?"
He mumbled something about sense of humor, and closed his eyes. After thirty seconds or so, I saw sweat on his forehead. Then he shook his head and brought out a deck of cards wrapped in blue velvet with his House insignia on them. I groaned. I hate Card readers.
"Maybe he wants to play shereba," said Loiosh. I caught the faint psionic echo of Rocza laughing.
The oracle looked apologetic. "I wasn't getting anything," he explained.
"All right, all right," I said. "Let's get on with it."
After we went through the ritual, he tried to explain all the oracular meanings the Cards revealed to him. When I said, "Just the answers please," he looked hurt.
He studied the Mountain of Changes for a while, then said, "As far as I can see, m'lord, it doesn't matter. What's going to happen doesn't depend on any action you're going to take."
He gave me the apologetic look again. He must have practiced it. "That's the best I can do."
Splendid. "All right," I said. "Keep the change." That was supposed to be a joke, but I don't think he got it, so he probably still thinks I have no sense of humor.
I went back down the stairs and out onto Undauntra, a wide street packed full of craft shops on the east side and sparsely settled with small homes on the west, making it look oddly lopsided. About halfway back to my office, Loiosh said, "Someone's coming, boss. Looks like muscle."
I brushed my hair back from my eyes with one hand and adjusted my cloak with the other, allowing me to check a few concealed goodies. I felt tension in Rocza's grip on my shoulder, but left it to Loiosh to calm her down. She was still new at this work.
"Only one, Loiosh?"
About then, a medium-tall Dragaeran in the colors of House Jhereg (gray and black, if you're taking notes) fell into stride next to me. Medium-tall in a Dragaeran, you understand, made him a head and a half taller than I.
"Good afternoon, Lord Taltos," he said, pronouncing my name right.
I grunted back at him. His sword was light, worn at the hip, and clanked along between us. His cloak was full enough to conceal dozens of the same kind of things my cloak concealed sixty- three of.
He said, "A friend of mine would like to congratulate you on your recent successes."
"Thank him for me."
"He lives in a real nice neighborhood."
"I'm happy for him."
"Maybe you'd like to visit him sometime."
I said, "Maybe."
"Would you like to make plans for it?"
"Or later. Whatever's convenient for you."
"Where should we talk?"
"You name it."
I grunted again. In case that went too fast for you, this fellow had just informed me that he was working for an individual who was very high up in the Organization, and that said individual might want my services for something. In theory, it could be for any of a number of things, but there's only one thing that I'm known to do freelance.
I took us a little further, until we were safely in my territory. Then I said, "All right," and steered us into an inn that jutted out a few feet onto Undauntra, and was one of the reasons merchants with hand-carts hated this part of the street.
We found an unoccupied end of a long table, and I sat down across from him without getting any splinters. Loiosh looked the place over for me and didn't say anything.
"I'm Bajinok," said my companion as the host brought us a bottle of fairly good wine and a couple of glasses.
"My friend wants some 'work' done around his house."
I nodded. Work, said that way, means wanting someone killed. "I know people," I said. "But they're all pretty busy right now." My last "work" had only been a few weeks before, and was, let's say, highly visible. I didn't feel like doing any more just then.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "This is just your style."
"I'm sure," I said. "But thank your friend for thinking of me. Another time, all right?"
"Okay," he said. "Another time."
He nodded to me, stood up, and left. And that should have been the end of it.
Verra, Demon-Goddess of my ancestors, may the water on thy tongue turn to ash. That should have been the end of it.
Leffero, Nephews and Niece,
Launderers and Tailors
Malak Circle fr: V. Taltos
Number 17, Garshos St.
Please do the following: gray knit cotton shirt: remove wine stain from rt sleeve, black tallow from lft and repair cut in rt cuff.
1 pr gray trousers: remove blood stain from upper rt leg, klava stain from upper lft, and dirt from knees.
1 pr black riding boots: remove reddish stain on toe of rt boot, and remove dust and soot from both and polish.
1 gray silk cravat: repair cut, and remove sweat stains.
1 plain gray cloak: clean and press, remove cat hairs, brush to remove white particles, remove honing-oil stains, and repair cut in lft side.
1 Pocket Handkerchief: clean and press
Expect delivery by Homeday next.
V. Taltos, Brnt, Jhrg
gray knit cotton shirt:
remove wine stain from rt sleeve.
I stared out of the window onto streets I couldn't see and thought about castles. It was night and I was home, and while I didn't mind sitting in a flat looking at a street I couldn't see, I thought I might rather sit in a castle and look at a courtyard I couldn't see.
My wife, Cawti, sat next to me, her eyes closed, thinking about something or other. I sipped from a glass of a red wine that was too sweet. On top of a tall buffet was perched Loiosh, my jhereg familiar. Next to him was Rocza, his mate. Your basic conjugal scene.
I cleared my throat and said, "I visited an oracle last week."
She turned and stared at me. "You? Visiting an oracle? What's the world coming to? About what?"
I answered her last question. "About what would happen if I took all that money and plowed it into the business."
"Ah! That again. I suppose he told you something vague and mystical, like you'll be dead in a week if you try."
"Not exactly." I told her about the visit. Her face lost its bantering look. I like her bantering look. But then, I like most of her looks.
"What do you make of it?" she said when I was finished.
"I don't know. You take that stuff more seriously than I do; what do you make of it?"
She chewed her lower lip for a while. Around then Loiosh and Rocza left the buffet and flew off down the hall, into a small alcove that was reserved for their privacy. It gave me ideas which I suppressed, because I dislike having my actions suggested to me by a flying reptile.
Finally, Cawti said, "I don't know, Vladimir. We'll have to wait and see, I guess."
"Yeah. Just something more to worry about. It's not as if we don't have enough—"
There was a thumping sound, as if someone were hitting the door with a blunt object. Cawti and I were up at almost the same instant, myself with a dagger, she with a pair of them. The wine glass I'd been holding dropped to the floor and I shook droplets off my hand. We looked at each other and waited. The thumping sound was repeated. Loiosh came tearing out of the alcove and came to rest on my shoulder, Rocza behind him, complaining loudly. I started to tell him to shut her up, but Loiosh must have because she became quiet. I knew this couldn't be a Jhereg attack, because the Organization doesn't bother you at home, but I had made more than one enemy outside of the Jhereg.
We moved toward the door. I stood on the side that would open, Cawti stood directly in front of it. I took a deep breath, let it out, and put my hand on the handle. Loiosh tensed. Cawti nodded. A voice from the other side said, "Hello? Is anyone there?"
Cawti's brows came together. She called out tentatively, "Gregory?"
The voice came back. "Yeah. Is that you, Cawti?"
She said, "Yes."
I said, "What the—?"
"It's all right," she said, but her voice lacked certainty and she didn't sheath her daggers.
I blinked a couple of times. Then it occurred to me that Gregory was an Eastern name. It was the Eastern custom to strike someone's door with your fist if you wanted to announce yourself. "Oh," I said. I relaxed a bit. I called out, "Come in."
A man, as human as I, started to enter, saw us, and stopped. He was small, middle-aged, about half bald, and startled. I suppose walking through a doorway to find three weapons pointing at you would be enough to startle anyone who wasn't used to it.
I smiled. "Come on in, Gregory," I said, still holding my dagger at his chest. "Drink?"
"Vladimir," said Cawti, I suppose hearing the edge in my voice. Gregory didn't move and didn't say anything.
"It's all right, Vladimir." Cawti told me directly.
"With whom?" I asked her, but I made my blade vanish and stood aside. Gregory stepped past me a bit gingerly, but not handling himself too badly, all things considered.
"I don't like him, boss," said Loiosh.
"He's an Easterner; he ought to have a beard."
I didn't answer because I sort of agreed; facial hair is one of the things that sets us apart from Dragaerans, which was why I grew a mustache. I tried to grow a beard once, but Cawti threatened to shave it off with a rusty dagger after her second set of whisker burns.
Gregory was shown to a cushion, sitting down in a way that made me realize that he was prematurely balding rather than middle-aged. Cawti, weapons also gone, sat on the couch. I brought out some wine, did a little cooling spell, and poured us each a glass. Gregory nodded his thanks and sipped. I sat down next to Cawti.
"All right," I said. "Who are you?"
Cawti said, "Vlad…" Then she sighed. "Vladimir, this is Gregory. Gregory: my husband, the Baronet of Taltos."
I saw perhaps the faintest of curl to his lip when she recited my title, and took an even stronger dislike to him. I can sneer at Jhereg titles; that doesn't mean anyone else can sneer at mine.
I said, "Okay. We all know each other. Now, who are you, and what are you doing trying to knock down my door?"
His eyes flicked from Loiosh, perched on my right shoulder, to my face, to the cut of my clothes. I felt like I was being examined. This did nothing to improve my temper. I glanced over at Cawti. She bit her lip. She could tell I was becoming unhappy.
"Vladimir," she said.
"Gregory is a friend of mine. I met him while visiting your grandfather a few weeks ago."
She shifted uncomfortably. "There's a lot more to tell. I'd like to find out what he wants first, if I may."
There was just the least bit of an edge to her voice, so I backed off.
"Should I take a walk?"
"Dunno. But thanks for asking. Kiss."
I looked at him and waited. He said, "Which question do you want me to answer first?"
"Why don't you have a beard?"
Loiosh hissed a laugh. "Never mind," I said. "What do you want here?"
He looked back and forth between Cawti and me, then fixed his glance on her and said, "Franz was killed yesterday evening."
I glanced at my wife to see what effect this was having on her. Her eyes had widened slightly. I held my tongue.
After a pair of breaths, Cawti said, "Tell me about it."
Gregory had the nerve to glance significantly in my direction. It almost got him hurt. He must have decided that I was all right, though, because he said, "He was standing at the door of the hall we'd rented, checking people, when someone just walked up to him and cut his throat. I heard the commotion and ran down, but whoever it was had vanished by the time I got there."
"Did anyone see him?"
"Not well. It was a Dragaeran though. They all-you-never mind. He was wearing black and gray."
"Sounds professional," I remarked, and Gregory looked at me in a way that you ought never to look at someone unless you are holding a blade at his throat. It was becoming difficult to let these things pass.
Cawti glanced at me quickly, then stood up. "All right, Gregory," she said. "I'll speak to you later."
He looked startled, and opened his mouth to say something, but Cawti gave him one of those looks she gives me when I carry a joke too far. Sh
e saw him to the door. I didn't stand up.
"All right," I said when she came back. "Tell me about it."
She studied me for a moment, as if looking at me for the first time. I knew enough not to say anything. Presently she said, "Let's take a walk."
There was no time in my life up to that point when I was as filled with so many strong, conflicting emotions as when we returned from that walk. No one, including Loiosh, had spoken during the last ten minutes, when I had run out of sarcastic questions and removed Cawti's need for terse, biting answers. Loiosh rhythmically squeezed alternate talons on my right shoulder, and I was subliminally aware of this and comforted by it. Rocza, who sometimes flies over our heads, sometimes rests on my other shoulder, and sometimes rests on Cawti's, was doing the last. The Adrilankhan air was cutting, and the endless lights of the city cast battling shadows before our feet as I found and opened the door to the flat.
We undressed and went to bed speaking only as necessary and answering in monosyllables. I lay awake for a long time, moving as little as possible so Cawti wouldn't think I was lying awake. I don't know about her, but she didn't move much.
She arose before me the next morning and roasted, ground, and brewed the klava. I helped myself to a cup, drank it, and walked over to the office. Loiosh was with me; Rocza stayed behind. There was a cold, heavy fog in from the sea and almost no breeze—giving what is called "assassin's weather," which is nonsense. I said hello to Kragar and Melestav and sat down to brood and be miserable.
"Snap out of it, boss."
"Because you've got things to do."
"Like finding out who shined the Easterner."
I thought that over for a moment. If you are going to have a familiar, it doesn't do to ignore him. "All right, why?"
He didn't say anything, but presently memories began to present themselves for my consideration. Cawti, as I'd seen her at Dzur Mountain after she had killed me (there's a story there, but never mind); Cawti holding me after someone else tried to kill me; Cawti holding a knife at Morrolan's throat and explaining how it was going to be, while I sat paralyzed and helpless; Cawti's face the first time I had made love with her. Strange memories, too—my emotions at the time, filtered through a reptilian mind that was linked to my own.