[Vlad Taltos 06] AthyraSteven Brust
Vlad Taltos, Book 6
For Martin, and it’s about time.
A whole bunch of people read early stages of this book and helped repair it. They are:
Fred Levy Haskell
As always, I’d like to humbly thank Adrian Charles Morgan, without whose work I wouldn’t have a world that was nearly so much fun to write about.
Special thanks to Betsy Pucci and Sheri Portigal for supplying the facts on which I based certain portions of this book. If there are errors, blame me, not them, and, in any case, don’t try this stuff at home.
Woman, girl, man, and boy sat together, like good companions, around a fire in the woods.
“Now that you’re here,” said the man, “explanations can wait until we’ve eaten.”
“Very well,” said the woman. ‘That smells very tasty.”
“Thank you,” said the man.
The boy said nothing.
The girl sniffed in disdain; the others paid no attention.
“What is it?” said the woman. “I don’t recognize—”
“A bird. Should be done, soon.”
“He killed it,” said the girl, accusingly.
“Yes?” said the woman. “Shouldn’t he have?”
“Killing is all he knows how to do.”
The man didn’t answer; he just turned the bird on the spit.
The boy said nothing.
“Can’t you do something?” said the girl.
“You mean, teach him a skill?” said the woman. No one laughed.
“We were walking through the woods,” said the girl. “Not that I wanted to be here—”
“You didn’t?” said the woman, glancing sharply at the man. He ignored them. “He forced you to accompany him?” she said.
“Well, he didn’t force me to, but I had to.”
“And all of a sudden, I became afraid, and—”
“Afraid of what?”
“Of—well—of that place. I wanted to go a different way. But he wouldn’t.”
The woman glanced at the roasting bird, and nodded, recognizing it. "That’s what they do,” she said. “That’s how they find prey, and how they frighten off predators. It’s some sort of psychic ability to—”
“I don’t care,” said the girl.
“Time to eat,” said the man.
“I started arguing with him, but he ignored me. He took out his knife and threw it into these bushes—”
“Yes,” said the man. “And here it is.”
“You could,” said the woman, looking at him suddenly, “have just walked around it. They won’t attack anything our size.”
“Eat now,” said the man. “We can resume the insults later.”
The boy said nothing.
The woman said, “If you like. But I’m curious—”
The man shrugged. “I dislike things that play games with my mind,” he said. “Besides, they’re good to eat.”
The boy, whose name was Savn, had remained silent the entire time.
But that was only to be expected, under the circumstances.
I will not marry a dung-foot peasant,
will not marry a dung-foot peasant,
Life with him would not be pleasant.
Hi-dee hi-dee ho-la!
Step on out and do not tarry,
Step on back and do not tarry,
Tell me tell me who you’ll marry.
Hi-dee hi-dee ho-la!
Savn was the first one to see him, and, come to that, the first to see the Harbingers, as well. The Harbingers behaved as Harbingers do: they went unrecognized until after the fact. When Savn saw them, his only remark was to his little sister, Polinice. He said, “Summer is almost over; the jhereg are already mating.”
“What jhereg, Savn?” she said.
“Ahead there, on top of Tem’s house.”
“Oh. I see them. Maybe they’re life-mates. Jhereg do that, you know.”
“Like Easterners,” said Savn, for no other reason than to show off his knowledge, because Polyi was now in her eighties and starting to think that maybe her brother didn’t know everything, an attitude he hadn’t yet come to terms with. Polyi didn’t answer, and Savn took a last look at the jhereg, sitting on top of the house. The female was larger and becoming dark brown as summer gave way to autumn; the male was smaller and lighter in color. Savn guessed that in the spring the male would be green or grey, while the female would simply turn a lighter brown. He watched them for a moment as they sat there waiting for something to die.
They left the roof at that moment, circled Tern’s house once, and flew off to the southeast.
Savn and Polyi, all unaware that Fate had sent an Omen circling above their heads, continued on to Tem’s house and shared a large salad with Tem’s own dressing, which somehow managed to make linseed oil tasty. Salad, along with bread and thin, salty soup, was almost the only food Tem was serving, now that the flax was being harvested, so it was just as well they liked it. It tasted rather better than the drying flax smelled, but Savn was no longer aware of the smell in any case. There was also cheese, but Tem hadn’t really mastered cheeses yet, not the way old Shoe had. Tem was still young as Housemasters go; he’d barely reached his five hundredth year.
Polyi found a place where she could watch the room, and took a glass of soft wine mixed with water, while Savn had an ale. Polyi wasn’t supposed to have wine, but Tem never told on her, and Savn certainly wouldn’t. She looked around the room, and Savn caught her eyes returning to one place a few times, so he said, “He’s too young for you, that one is.”
She didn’t blush; another indication that she was growing up. She just said, “Who asked you?”
Savn shrugged and let it go. It seemed like every girl in town was taken with Ori, which gave the lie to the notion that girls like boys who are strong. Ori was very fair, and as pretty as a girl, but what made him most attractive was that he never noticed the attention he got, making Savn think of Master Wag’s story about the norska and the wolf.
Savn looked around the house to see if Firi was there, and was both disappointed and relieved not to see her; disappointed because she was certainly the prettiest girl in town, and relieved because whenever he even thought about speaking to her he felt he had no place to put his hands.
It was only during harvest that Savn was allowed to purchase a noon meal, because he had to work from early in the morning until it was time for him to go to Master Wag, and his parents had decided that he needed and deserved the sustenance. And because there was no good way to allow Savn to buy a lunch and deny one to his sister, who would be working at the harvest all day, they allowed her to accompany him to Tem’s house on the condition that she return at once. After they had eaten, Polyi returned home while Savn continued on to Master Wag’s. As he was walking away, he glanced up at the roof of Tem’s house, but the jhereg had not returned.
The day at Master Wag’s passed quickly and busily, with mixing herbs, receiving lessons, and keeping the Master’s place tidy. The Master, who was stoop-shouldered and balding, and had eyes like a bird of prey, told Savn, for the fourth time, the story of the Badger in the Quagmire, and how he swapped places with the Clever Chreotha. Savn thought he might be ready to tell that one himself, but he didn’t tell Master Wag this, because he might be wrong, and the Master had a way of mocking Savn for mistakes of overconfidence that left him red-faced for hours.
> So he just listened, and absorbed, and washed the Master’s clothes with water drawn from the Master’s well, and cleaned out the empty ceramic pots, and helped fill them with ground or whole herbs, and looked at drawings of the lung and the heart, and stayed out of the way when a visitor came to the Master for physicking.
On the bad days, Savn found himself checking the time every half hour. On the good days, he was always surprised when the Master said, “Enough for now. Go on home.” This was one of the good days. Savn took his leave, and set off. The afternoon was still bright beneath the orange-red sky.
The next thing to happen, which was really the first for our purposes, occurred as Savn was returning home. The Master lived under the shadow of Smallcliff along the Upper Brownclay River, which was half a league from the village, and of course that was where he gave Savn lessons; he was the Master, Savn only an apprentice.
About halfway between Smallcliff and the village was a place where a couple of trails came together in front of the Curving Stone. Just past this was a flattened road leading down to Lord Smallcliff’s manor house, and it was just there that Savn saw the stranger, who was bent over, scraping at the road with some sort of tool.
The stranger looked up quickly, perhaps when he heard Savn’s footsteps, and cursed under his breath and looked up at the sky, scowling, before looking more fully at the lad. Only when the stranger straightened his back did Savn realize that he was an Easterner. They stared at each other for the space of a few heartbeats. Savn had never met an Easterner before. The Easterner was slightly smaller than Savn, but had that firm, settled look that comes with age; it was very odd. Savn didn’t know what to say. For that matter, he didn’t know if they spoke the same language.
“Good evening,” said the Easterner at last, speaking like a native, although a native of a place considerably south of Smallcliff.
Savn gave him a good evening, too, and, not knowing what to do next, waited. It was odd, looking at someone who would grow old and die while you were still young. He’s probably younger than I am right now, thought Savn, startled. The Easterner was wearing mostly green and was dressed for traveling, with a light raincape over his shoulder and a pack on the road next to him. There was a very fragile-looking sword at his hip, and in his hand was the instrument he’d been digging with—a long, straight dagger. Savn was staring at it when he noticed that one of the Easterner’s hands had only four fingers. He wondered if this was normal for them. At that moment, the stranger said, “I hadn’t expected anyone to be coming along this road.”
“Not many do,” said Savn, speaking to him as if he were human; that is, an equal. “My Master lives along this road, and Lord Smallcliff’s manor is down that one.”
The stranger nodded. His eyes and hair were dark brown, almost black, as was the thick hair that grew above his lip, and if he were human one would have said he was quite husky and very short, but this condition might, thought Savn, be normal among Easterners. He was slightly bowlegged, and he stood with his head a little forward from his shoulders, as if it hadn’t been put on quite right and was liable to fall off at any moment. Also, there was something odd about his voice that the young man couldn’t quite figure out.
Savn cleared his throat and said, “Did I, um, interrupt something?”
The other smiled, but it wasn’t clear what sort of thought or emotion might have prompted that smile. “Are you familiar with witchcraft?” he said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I mean, I know that you, um, that it is practiced by—is that what you were doing?”
The stranger still wore his smile. “My name is Vlad,” he said.
He gave Savn a bow as to an equal. It didn’t occur to Savn until later that he ought to have been offended by this. Then the one called Vlad said, “You are the first person I’ve met in this town. What is it called?”
“Then there’s a small cliff nearby?”
Savn nodded. “That way,” he said, pointing back the way he’d come.
“That would make it a good name, then.”
“You are from the south?”
“Yes. Does my speech give me away?”
Savn nodded. “Where in the south?”
“Oh, a number of places.”
“Is it, um, polite to ask what your spell was intended to do? I don’t know anything about witchcraft.”
Vlad gave him a smile that was not unkind. “It’s polite,” he said, “as long as you don’t insist that I answer.”
“Oh.” He wondered if he should consider this a refusal, and decided it would be safer to do so. It was hard to know what the Easterner’s facial expressions meant, which was the first time Savn had realized how much he depended on these expressions to understand what people were saying. He said, “Are you going to be around here long?"
“I don’t know. Perhaps. It depends on how it feels. I don’t usually stay anywhere very long. But while we’re on the subject, can you recommend an inn?”
Savn blinked at him. “I don’t understand.”
Savn shook his head, confused. “We’re mostly pretty friendly here—”
“A place to spend the night?”
“Oh. Tem lets rooms to to travelers.”
Savn hesitated, then said, “I’m going that way myself, if you would like to accompany me.”
Vlad hesitated in his turn, then said, “Are you certain it would be no trouble?”
“None at all. I will be passing Tem’s house in any case.”
“Excellent. Then forward, Undauntra, lest fear snag our heels.”
“The Tower and the Tree, Act Two, Scene Four. Never mind. Lead the way.”
As they set off along the Manor Road, Vlad said, “Where did you say you are off to?”
“I’m just coming home from my day with Master Wag. I’m his apprentice.”
“Forgive my ignorance, but who is Master Wag?”
“He’s our physicker,” said Savn proudly. ‘There are only three in the whole country.”
“A good thing to have. Does he serve Baron Smallcliff, too?”
“What? Oh, no,” said Savn, shocked. It had never occurred to him that the Baron could fall ill or be injured. Although, now that Savn thought of it, it was certainly possible. He said, “His Lordship, well, I don’t know what he does, but Master Wag is ours.”
The Easterner nodded, as if this confirmed something he knew or had guessed.
“What do you do there?”
“Well, many things. Today I helped Master Wag in the preparation of a splint for Dame Sullen’s arm, and reviewed the Nine Bracings of Limbs at the same time.”
“And, of course, I learn to tell stories.”
“I don’t understand.”
Savn frowned, then said, “Don’t all physickers tell stories?”
“Not where I’m from.”
“A number of places.”
“Oh. Well, you tell stories so the patient has something to keep his mind occupied while you physick him, do you see?”
“That makes sense. I’ve told a few stories myself.”
“Have you? I love stories. Perhaps you could—”
“No, I don’t think so. It was a special circumstance. Some fool kept paying me to tell him about my life; I never knew why. But the money was good. And he was able to convince me no one would hear about it.”
“Is that what you do? Tell stories?”
The Easterner laughed slightly. “Not really, no. Lately I’ve just been wandering.”
“To something, or away from something?”
Vlad shot him a quick glance. “An astute question. How old are you? No, never mind. What’s the food like at thi
s place you’re taking me to?”
“Mostly salad this time of year. It’s the harvest, you know.”
“Oh, of course. I hadn’t thought of that.”
Vlad looked around as they walked. “I’m surprised,” he remarked a little later, “that this has never been cleared for farming.”
“Too wet on this side of the hill,” said Savn. “The flax needs dry soil.”
“Flax? Is that all you grow around here?”
“Almost. There’s a little maize for the stock, but it doesn’t really grow well in this soil. It’s mostly flax.”
“That accounts for it.”
They reached the top of the hill and started down. Savn said, “Accounts for what?”
“It must be flax oil.”
“Oh. Linseed oil. I guess I must be used to it.”
“That must have been what they served the last place I ate, too, half a day east of here.”
“That would be Whiterock. I’ve been there twice.”
Vlad nodded. “I didn’t really notice the taste in the stew, but it made the salad interesting.”
Savn thought he detected a hint of irony in the other’s tone but he wasn’t certain. “Some types of flax are used for cooking, some we use to make linen.”
“You cook with the same stuff you make clothes out of?”
“No, not the same. It’s different.”
“They probably made a mistake, then,” said Vlad. “That would account for the salad.”
Savn glanced back at him, but still wasn’t certain if he were joking. “It’s easy to tell the difference,” he said. “When you make the seedblocks and leave them in the coolhouse in barrels, the true, true salad flax will melt—”
“Never mind,” said Vlad. “I’m certain you can tell.”
A pair of jhereg flew from a tree and were lost in the woods before them. Savn wondered if they might be the same pair he had seen earlier.
They came to the last hill before Tem’s house. Savn said, “You never answered my question.”