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Steven Brust


  Vlad Taltos

  Book XI

  Steven Brust


  Fresh from the collapse of his marriage, and with the criminal Jhereg organization out to eliminate him, Vlad decides to hide out among his relatives in faraway Fenario. All he knows about them is that their family name is Merss and that they live in a papermaking industrial town called Burz.

  At first Burz isn't such a bad place, though the paper mill reeks to high heaven. But the longer he stays there, the stranger it becomes. No one will tell him where to find his relatives. Even stranger, when he mentions the name Merss, people think he's threatening them. The witches' coven that every Fenarian town and city should have is nowhere in evidence. And the Guild, which should be protecting the city's craftsmen and traders, is an oppressive, all-powerful organization, into which no tradesman would ever be admitted.

  Then a terrible thing happens. In its wake, far from Draegara, without his usual organization working for him, Vlad is going to have to do his sleuthing amidst an alien people: his own.


  Copyright © 2008 by Steven Brust

  Edited by Teresa Nielsen Hayden

  ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-0147-5

  ISBN-10: 0-7653-0147-4

  First Edition: July 2008





























  Incubation time is short—eight or nine days—during which the egg is vulnerable. While the mother is able to protect the eggs after completing her metamorphosis (see Chapter 19), that still leaves between thirty-five and forty hours during which the eggs would be entirely without protection, were it not for the help of a male who has undergone his own metamorphosis after fertilizing the eggs (see Chapter 18) and now returns, as it were, to stand guard while the mother is helpless, as will be covered in more detail during the discussion of the levidopt.

  It must be stressed that it is not, in particular, the father who returns to guard the eggs, but rather the first unattached male levidopt to pass within fifty feet or so of the transforming mother. Exactly how the male levidopt finds the eggs…

  —Oscaani: Fauna of the Middle South: A Brief Survey, Volume 6, Chapter 15


  Lefitt: But, my dear, what does it do?

  Boraan: Why, nothing, of course. It just lies there. That's the beauty of it.

  —Miersen, Six Parts Water Day One, Act II, Scene 4

  There is a place in the mountain called Saestara where, according to the locals, you can look east and see the past, and look west and see the future. I suppose it has its origins in some migration in pre-history, or some invasion, or some mystical rubbish built of thin air—plenty of that in the mountains, at any rate. I don't know, but the locals seem to believe it.

  And, if it's true, I was going backward. Looking west, I remembered lots of painful scrabbling up paths that were made by and for mountain goats; looking east, I foresaw more of the same going down.

  Some distance behind me was a lake called Szurke, on the edge of a forest. I owned the lake and a little bit of the forest and the big manor house near it, courtesy of the Empire and thanks to "extraordinary service." That's a laugh. I didn't dare stay there, courtesy of the House of the Jhereg and thanks to "extraordinary misdeeds." That's not such a laugh.

  I'd installed my grandfather as regent. As I told him, "I prefer nepotism to despotism." He hadn't been amused; he didn't much like the idea of being a despot himself, having pretty much always hated the aristocracy with a sort of mild dispassionate hate that had its origins in a past of which I'd never gotten more than hints.

  He and I had both been worried during my visit. He was worried because the poaching in his part of the forest had gotten out of hand when the poachers realized he didn't have the heart to enforce the laws against it. I was worried that the Jhereg might be mad enough at me to take it out on him. I didn't think they would—what I'd done hadn't been as bad as, say, giving evidence to the Empire—but it caused me some concern.

  We talked about that, and Noish-pa wasn't worried. The Jhereg is capable, perhaps, of making use of a human witch, no matter how much they scorn the magic of "Easterners," but they'd be hard pressed to find one as skilled as my grandfather. And give him a little time with all the animals, and even the trees and plants in this area, and he would create a security network and defensive perimeter I'd defy Mario to break through.

  We had a long talk about the trouble I was in, and his troubles with poachers (which translated to hating having to tell anyone what to do), and where I was going to go from here. He didn't want to know, because he figured that what he didn't know the Jhereg couldn't force him to tell. I was going to explain that the Jhereg didn't do things like that, but, well, sometimes they do.

  I played with Ambrus, his familiar, and Noish-pa and Loiosh, my familiar, got reacquainted. I stayed for a week and he cooked for me and we talked about many things, especially how he could continue as regent without actually running anything. We came up with some ideas to at least cut down on the orders he would have to give, and he seemed happy.

  One night, over Fenarian brandy, I said, "Noish-pa, is there anything you can tell me about my mother?"

  He sighed. "She studied the Art, Vladimir, and that made my son, may he find peace, unhappy. And so I saw her little."

  "Eh, why?"

  "You know how your father felt about the Art, Vladimir. He didn't want the two of us speaking of it. I hardly saw my son after his marriage, save when he brought you over after your mother passed on. I wish I could tell you what she was like, Vladimir. I remember she had a kind face and a soft voice, yes?"

  I nodded; that much was more than I'd had before.

  He said, "You know that, like me, she was not long in this land of elfs. I came from Fenario when—when I had to leave. But her father came, either before she was born, or when she was only in arms."

  "Why did he leave?"

  "She never said."

  I nodded. "What was her name? I mean, before she was married?"

  "I don't know," he said. "No—" He frowned. "Yes, I may know at that. A moment, Vladimir, while I search."

  He left the room—a cozy little alcove that Noish-pa had turned into his library—and was gone for about half an hour. When he returned, he was holding a piece of parchment-cloth. He said, "I had this note of her. I have often puzzled over it."

  I took it. It smelled the way cloth gets to smell when it's been in a drawer for years and years; it had yellowed a little. I studied it and frowned. "You can't read it either?"

  "Oh, I can read it, Vladimir. It is a runic writing that is very, very old in Fenario. Some say it goes back to before the Fenarians settled there. It is still sometimes found in old tomes of the Art, which is why I learned it. I should have taught you."

  "Well, if you can read it, what's the puzzle?"

  He smiled the smile I knew so well: eyes twinkling with secrets that were fun, rather than secrets that could cut. He took it back; he had to hold it just a little farther away from his eyes than he had a few years before. He cleared his throat and read: "Father, the food was good and the evening delightful. Please accept my thanks on behalf of myself and Pishta. We both
very much look forward to seeing you again. With love, Marishka Merss Taltos."

  "Merss" I said.

  He nodded.

  Then I frowned. "Wait. What is puzzling about it?"

  "Eh, Vladimir? You tell me." His eyes were twinkling again.

  "Umm," I said. "Well, is it what it seems? I mean, did it come after a meal?"

  He nodded.

  "Then what—oh." It took me a moment, but I got it; first one piece, then the other. "In the first place, why did she use her full name when writing a thank-you note? In the second, why write a thank-you note in an ancient runic script?"

  He nodded. "I still wonder."

  I said, "Do you remember the dinner?"

  "Oh, yes. Not often did your father visit me at that time."



  "Was my mother pregnant when she wrote that?"

  He frowned and his eyes narrowed and shifted up and to the right as his memory worked. After a moment he nodded.

  I smiled. "It was meant for me, Noish-pa. To answer my questions, in case I lived and she died. She knew my father—"

  He was grinning and nodding. "Yes. It must be!"

  "I wonder where she was from." I said.

  He shrugged. "Merss, it is not a common name. Do you know its meaning?"

  I shook my head.

  "Pulper," he said. "And what is a pulper?"

  "Um, it has something to do with wood. With making paper out of wood, I think."

  He nodded and frowned. "I know of a town where much paper came from, in the west of Fenario where the River of Faerie is young and strong. Burz, it is called."

  I laughed. "Burz? They named their town Burz?"

  "Eh, perhaps making paper makes not such a pretty smell?"

  "Maybe," I said.

  A town called Burz with a paper factory and a bad smell, on the River—that was where my mother might have come from. And me with nothing to do except stay out of the clutches of the Jhereg. There would be all sorts of advantages to going east to the homeland of my mother and father. For one thing, a Dragaeran would stand out there even more than I stood out among the Dragaerans. For another, I had the strong feeling that they were going to use a Morganti weapon on me. And bringing such a weapon in among a group of witches would alert every one of them within a quarter of a mile. There are special sheaths made to conceal the effects of such a blade from a sorcerer—I knew, I'd used them a couple of times. But even if it were possible to construct a sheath to hide the psychic emanations a witch would feel, the Jhereg wouldn't know how to go about it. In fact, they might well not even be aware they needed to.

  No question, it would be safer for me in the East.

  And I could find my mother's family.

  The conversation passed on to other things, and I never told him I was going East, but over the next several days I received lectures, in the same tones I remembered from when I was studying the Art, about Eastern customs, the political structures of Fenario, and the culture. He also began speaking Fenarian and demanded I did, too. He was very picky about my pronunciation, and even pickier about my accent.

  Guilds and Covens.

  We talked a lot about Guilds and Covens, and it was good that we did, because—but no, I'm getting ahead of myself. But I'll tell you some of it now, so that later you'll understand. Well, understand at least as well as I did, which wasn't very.

  Guilds, I was told, were for trades—craftsmen—and were a means to have some way of defending themselves against the merchants who often sold their goods as middlemen. In some parts of Fenario, the craftsmen sold things directly, so there were fewer Guilds. In other parts, there were Guilds that took in large areas (well, relatively large; Fenario itself is a pretty small kingdom by my standards).

  And nearly every town, no matter how small, had its Coven, occasionally open, but more often with its members secret. The Coven functioned as a Guild for witches, sometimes combining their powers into common spells, sometimes simply using the threat of their abilities to look out for the members' interests.

  I asked him, "Are all witches usually members?"

  "Vladimir, in Fenario, there are, ah, well, nearly all peasants know some little spell or another."

  "Then who joins a Coven?"

  "Those who use the Art a great deal. Many will sell their services, you know. And others, who gather and prepare the herbs."

  "Like you. You'd be in a Coven if you were back there."

  He nodded. "Many places, you can't help it. Those who do not join, but should . . ." He trailed off, leaving to my imagination what a Coven might do to an individual witch they didn't like.

  "Is there ever more than one Coven?"

  "Not for long," he said.

  Guilds and Covens, Covens and Guilds. Yeah, it's a good thing he took the time to explain those to me.

  We drank more brandy and ate more food, and finally, the day after Spring Balance day, I embraced him and said good-bye, which was how it came to be that I stood in the pass of Saestara, looking behind me into the future and before me into the past.

  Below, at some vague point, was the end of the Empire and the border of Fenario, land of ignorance and knowledge, superstition and science. Okay, well, maybe not so much with the science. But what do you call it when the superstitions might be true?

  Loiosh on my right shoulder, Rocza on my left, I started down the mountain.



  This stage will last from the moment of hatching until the layer of fat has been entirely consumed—usually four to five weeks. During this period, the apoptera, its fins fully grown by the time it has hatched, will remain entirely in the water while its basic organs develop. Curiously, the last of these is sight; the apoptera is blind until nearly the moment of transformation. Indeed, it is speculated by some natural philosophers (cf. Hidna, Corventra) that it is the first sensation of light that triggers its metamorphosis…

  Much remains unknown about the memory of the apoptera. Most of the assumptions in previous work about the "astonishing memory" at this stage are based on Leroni's work documenting its determination to explore every corner of its limited world. While its inquisitive nature cannot be denied, it has never been positively established that there is any memorization as such that carries on to later stages. Indeed, there is some indication to the contrary (see Appendix D this volume).

  —Oscaani: Fauna of the Middle South: A Brief Survey, Volume 6, Chapter 16


  Boraan: A candle! As you love the Gods, a candle!

  Nurse: But we have no candles!

  Boraan: How, no candles?

  Nurse: They were all burned up in the flood.

  Dagler: Permit me to sell you this beeswax.

  [Boraan strikes Dagler with candlestick]

  [Exit Dagler, holding his head]

  —Miersen, Six Parts Water, Day One, Act IV, Scene 4

  The transition from mountain to forest was so gradual, I wasn't entirely sure I was out of the mountains for a while even after I had turned north; and this in spite of them towering over me to my left. But eventually, I became convinced that I wasn't getting much lower, and soon enough, there was no question that I was in deep woods, with trees I can't name so close together I sometimes had to squeeze past them and with branches so low I had to duck to avoid getting hit in the face. The combination seemed unfair.

  After that I felt more confident as I headed north, giving thanks for the occasional clearing, even though in the clearings I could see the Furnace, and it hurt my eyes.

  I don't like forests. I hate the trees, and I hate the bushes, and I'm not even that fond of the paths, because they have a way of either suddenly heading off in directions you don't want to go, or just stopping without giving you any explanation for their conduct. When I was running my territory for the Jhereg, if any of my people had acted like that I'd have had their legs broken.

  In the Pushta, you can usually see a good distance arou
nd you; you just have to keep an eye on what might be moving through the grasses. In the mountain, at least the mountains I've been on, you can see for miles in at least a couple of directions. In the city, you might not be able to see very far, but you can identify where anyone who might want to do you harm could be lurking. Forests are thick, and anything can come from anywhere; I never feel safe.

  And sleeping is the worst. I spent about three nights in the forest after I came down from the mountains, and I didn't get a good night's sleep the entire time, in spite of the fact that Loiosh and Rocza were watching for me. I just couldn't relax. When I become ruler of the world, I'm going to have inns put up along every little road and trail in that place. I would certainly have gotten lost if it weren't for Loiosh and an occasional sight of the mountain.

  I waded over several brooks and streams, one of which showed signs of becoming a river soon: it seemed to be in a terrible hurry, and had a lot of force for being only a foot or so deep and maybe ten feet wide. I didn't much care for that, either.

  In spite of the annoyances, I was never in any danger so far as I know (though I'm told Dzur sometimes hunt the forests). I made it through; leave it at that. The trees became lower, sparser, and the grasses taller, with large, jagged boulders intruding on the landscape as if the mountain were encroaching.

  "Well, for marching blind, I guess we did all right, Loiosh."

  "We sure did, Boss. And only modesty forbids me from saying how we managed."


  An hour or so later we found a road. A real road. I could have danced, if I could dance. It was getting on toward evening, and the Furnace was sinking behind the mountains. The shadows— remarkably sharp, looking almost tangible—were long, and a certain chill was coming into the air on a breeze from behind me.

  "That way," said my familiar, indicating down the road to the right. Since the mountains were to the left, I'd have figured that one out on my own, but I didn't say anything. I set out.

  After mountain and forest, it was a positive luxury to walk on a road; even a rutted, gouged, untended road like this. My feet thanked me, as did my left elbow, which was no longer being cracked by my sword's pommel when I raised my left leg to climb onto a rock.