BOOKS BY STEVEN BRUST
The Dragaeran Novels
THE KHAAVREN ROMANCES
The Phoenix Guards
Five Hundred Years After
The Viscount of Adrilankha,
The Paths of the Dead,
The Lord of Castle Black,
THE VLAD TALTOS NOVELS
To Reign in Hell
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars
Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille
The Gypsy (with Megan Lindholm)
Freedom and Necessity (with Emma Bull)
A TOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events
portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination
or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2009 by Steven Brust
All rights reserved.
Edited by Teresa Nielsen Hayden
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Brust, Steven, 1955–
Iorich / Steven Brust. — 1st ed.
“A Tom Doherty Associates book.”
1. Taltos, Vlad (Fictitious character)—Fiction. I. Title.
First Edition: January 2010
Printed in the United States of America
0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Meridel Bianca
Thanks to Reesa Brown for potato pastries and other things too numerous to mention, and to Kit O’Connell for computer and research help. Anne K. G. Murphy provided some emacs help for which I remain grateful. Thanks to Brad Roberts and Thomas Bull for significant help in surviving until this was done. Finally, my thanks to Alexx Kay for continuity checking.
Even if things don’t work the way you’d planned, it’s good when you can take something useful away from the experience.
They jumped me just as I was entering a little village called Whitemill at the southern edge of the Pushta. They had concealed themselves behind the long, broken hedge that bordered the Whitemill Pike before it turned into the single road of the hamlet. It was a good place for an attack. The nearest dwelling was perhaps a quarter of a mile away, and night was just falling.
There were three of them: Dragaerans, two men and a woman, wearing the colors of no special House. They all carried swords and knives. And they knew their business: the key to convincing someone to give up his cash is to be fast and very, very aggressive; you do not stand there and explain to your client why he should do what you want, you try to get him into a position where, before he has time to think, much less respond, he is at your mercy and hoping that somehow he can get out of this alive. When he hands over his purse, he should be feeling grateful.
Rocza took the man on the right, Loiosh flew into the face of the woman. I drew and disarmed the one in front of me with a stop-cut to the wrist, then took one step in and hit him in the nose with the pommel of my rapier. I took another step in and kicked the side of his knee.
He went down and I put the point at his throat. I said, “Intent to rob, intent to assault, assault, and failing to be selective in your choice of victim. Bad day for you.”
He looked at me, wide-eyed.
I gave him a friendly suggestion: “Drop your purse.”
The other man had run off, Rocza flying after him; the woman was doing what I call the Loiosh dance—futilely swinging her sword at him while he kept swooping in at her face then back out of range. He could do that all day.
The guy on the ground got his purse untied, though his fingers fumbled. I knelt and picked it up, the point of my rapier never moving from his throat. I spoke to my familiar.
“Get Rocza back. Let the other one go.”
“She’s on it, Boss.”
She returned and landed next to my client’s head and hissed.
“As long as you don’t move, she won’t bite,” I said. He froze. I went to the woman, who was still flailing about, and now looking panicked. I said, “Drop it.”
She glanced at Loiosh, then at me, then at her friend on the ground. “What about—”
“He won’t hurt you if you drop your weapon. Neither will I.”
Her sword hit the ground, and Loiosh returned to my shoulder.
“Your purse,” I told her.
She had less trouble untying it than her friend. She held it out to me.
“Just drop it,” I said.
She was very obliging.
“Now get out of here. If I see you again, I’ll kill you. If you try to follow me, I will see you.”
She sounded calm enough. “How did you—?”
“Wonder about it,” I said.
“Not a bad day’s work, Boss.”
“Lucky you spotted them.”
“Right. It was luck. Heh.”
“May I stay and help my friend?”
“No,” I said. “He’ll be along presently. You can pick up your weapons once I’m out of sight. I won’t hurt him.”
He spoke for the first time. A very impressive and lengthy string of curses finishing with, “What do you call this?”
“A broken nose,” I said. I gave him a friendly smile he may not have appreciated.
The woman gave me a glare, then just turned and walked away. I picked up the purse.
“Beware of Easterners with jhereg,” I told the guy with the broken nose.
“———!” he said.
I nodded. “Even if things don’t work out the way you planned, it’s good when you can take something useful away from the experience.”
I continued into the village, which had its requisite inn. It was an ugly thing, two stories high and misshapen, as if bits and pieces had been added on at random. The room I entered was big and full of Teckla, who smelled of manure and sweat, mixing with the smells of fresh bread, roasted kethna, tobacco smoke, dreamgrass, and now and then a whiff of the harsh pungency of opium, indicating there must be one or two nobles in here, among all the Teckla. Then I noticed that there were also a few merchants there. Odd. I wondered about it—even in rural inns, there generally isn’t that much of a mix. The bar ran about half the length of the room, with ceramic and wooden mugs on shelves behind it. At one end of the bar was a large knife, just lying there—almost certainly the knife the innkeeper used to cut fruit to put in wine punch, but that’s the sort of thing an assassin notices.
I got a lot of looks because I was human and had a jhereg on each shoulder, but none of the looks were threatening because I had a sword at my side and a jhereg on each shoulder. I acquired a glass of wine and a quiet corner. I’d ask about a room later.
Conversation went on around me; I ignored it.
“Smells like real food, Boss.”
ng since we’ve had real food?”
“About a month. Soon.”
“How did we do?”
I set the wine down and checked the purses, using my body to hide them from curious eyes. “Not great, but, you know, it’s pure profit. Strange place.”
“They’re all talking to each other.”
It really was interesting—you don’t normally find an inn where merchants and peasants talk freely with each other, or noblemen and tradesmen; even in the East, where it was more common to see the mix of classes in the same inn, they didn’t talk to each other much. I didn’t even notice any special hostility between the two obvious aristocrats and the various Teckla. Odd. There was probably a story there.
Just because I was curious, I picked out a couple of merchants—both of them in the colors of the Tsalmoth—and bought them drinks. They gave me a suspicious look as I approached, but merchants are always aware they might be talking to a future customer, so they don’t want to give offense.
“Pardon my intrusion,” I said. “I’m Vlad.”
They gave me their names, but I don’t remember them; they sounded almost identical. Come to that, they looked pretty much the same, too—probably brothers. “I’m just curious,” I told them. “I’m not used to inns where there is such a mix.”
“A mix?” said the one whose name ended in the harder consonant.
“Teckla, merchants, noblemen, all in the same inn.”
“Oh.” He smiled a little. “We get along better around here than most places, probably.”
I nodded. “It seems odd.”
“It’s because we all hate the navy.”
He nodded. That didn’t explain anything—Whitemill was hundreds of miles from the nearest port.
It took a few more questions, but it finally emerged that, for whatever reason, the Empire had given control of the local canals to the Imperial navy, instead of whatever engineering corps usually handled such things. It was something that had happened long ago, when the Orca were higher in the Cycle and so could exert more economic pressure, and it had never been revoked even during the Interregnum.
“The whole region lives off those canals, mostly for watering the fields.”
“And the navy doesn’t maintain them?”
“They do well enough, I suppose, when they need to.”
“I still don’t—”
“The navy,” he repeated. “They’re all Orca.”
“I know that.”
“Orca,” he repeated, as if I were missing something.
I glanced at one of the noblemen in the room, a woman having an animated conversation with the host; she wore the colors of the Tiassa. “So, the barons are Tiassa, but they need to deal with the Orca.”
He nodded. “And the Orca want to soak every copper penny they can from the place.”
“So everyone hates them more than they hate each other?”
He frowned. “We don’t hate each other.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s just a bit odd.”
“You’d understand if you’d ever irrigated on a navy canal, or shipped goods on a navy barge.”
“I already understand,” I said. “I know Orca.”
They both smiled, and offered to buy me a drink. I accepted. In case you don’t know, the House of the Orca is the House of sailors and naval warriors, which is well enough, but it’s mostly the House of bankers, and financiers. No one likes them; I don’t even think Orca like other Orca. We traded stories of Orca we had known and hated; they made a few polite probes about my history and business, but didn’t press when I steered the discussion elsewhere.
They filled me in on a few things I hadn’t heard about, having been away from “civilization” for a while: an uprising of a few minor lordlings in the northwest, which would increase demand for spun wool; the recent repeal of the chimney tax within the House of the Tsalmoth, which was only a grain in a hectare; the recent decision “by Charlsom over there, fortune smile on his loins” to permit taverns to sell their own locally made brews without surcharge; and the proposed Imperial land-use loan, which would obviously be a catastrophe for the peasants without helping the landlords, or be a disaster for the landlords without helping the peasants, or else have no effect on anything. It was all from the point of view of the small merchant, which would interest me more if I were one. I nodded and smiled a lot while my mind wandered.
The conversation in the room was a chattering hum—no discernible words, just a constant noise of voices of differing pitches and tones, punctuated by laughs and coughs. It’s always strange when you’re hearing someone speak in a tongue you don’t know, because names of people or places that you do know suddenly jump out. You hear, “blah blah blah Dragaera City blah blah,” and for just an instant you think you understand that language after all.
It was just like that when amid the chittering and buzzing of meaningless noise I suddenly heard, clear as a whistle, the words “Sethra Lavode.” I was instantly alert.
I shifted in my chair, but that didn’t help—the speaker was at a table just behind the two Tsalmoth. I looked at my drinking companions and said, “Do you know what they’re talking about?”
I gestured toward the table I’d overheard. “What they say startles me extremely, and I would admire to know if it’s true.”
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea—may the gods keep me from ever conveying a false impression—I hadn’t heard a thing except the words “Sethra Lavode.”
They listened for a moment—being a bit closer to the speaker—then nodded. “Oh, that. It’s true enough. My cousin is a post inspector, and told me while he was passing through on his way to Gatehall from Adrilankha.”
“Indeed,” I said, looking impressed.
“Everyone’s talking about it; I’m surprised you hadn’t heard.”
“Are there any more details?”
“No. Just the arrest.”
I said, “Forgive me, did I understand you correctly? Sethra Lavode is arrested?”
He shook his head. “No, no. It is said that she has agreed to be a witness.”
“The accused, my lord. Aliera e’Kieron.”
He nodded again.
“For what, exactly?”
At that point, both of them spoke at once. It took a while to get the story out, but apparently Aliera had tried to kill the Empress, had loosed a demon in the House of the Dragon, and had attempted to betray the Empire to an Eastern army. I got the impression that this was a part of the story they weren’t sure of. But there seemed to be one thing they were sure of: “The trial starts next month.”
“Interesting indeed,” I said. “How far are we from the River?” In this part of the Empire, “the River” can only mean the Adrilankha River. My River.
“About two leagues. From here, there’s no need to take a navy barge if you’re going that way.”
“And the nearest dock?”
“Upriver half a mile.”
“My thanks,” I said, and put a couple of orbs on the table. “Have another round on me.”
I stood, turned on my heel, and crossed the room before they could start asking questions I didn’t want to answer.
I found the host and arranged to get a room for the night.
Well, well. Aliera, arrested. Now, that was interesting. She must have done something pretty remarkable for the Empress—a good friend of hers—to have permitted that to happen. Or caused it to happen?
I lay on my back on the hard but clean bed the inn provided; conversation drifted up from below and the wind made the trees outside hiss as I thought things over.
My first reaction had been to return to Adrilankha and see if I could help her. I could get there fast. Anyone in Adrilankha would take more than a month to
reach me here, barring a teleport or access to a really efficient post system. But I was only a few days from Adrilankha; rivers work like that.
Very little reflection was required to realize how stupid that idea was—even Loiosh hadn’t felt the need to point it out. Adrilankha was the capital city, and the heart of the Empire, and the center of operations of a certain criminal organization that very much wanted me dead. I had spent several years now avoiding them—successfully, with one or two exceptions.
Returning would mean putting myself into their hands, an action for which Aliera herself would have nothing but scorn. And, in fact, whatever sort of trouble Aliera was in, there was unlikely to be anything I could do about it anyway.
A stupid idea, to be sure.
Three days later I stepped off a boat onto North Market Pier Number Four in Adrilankha, smelling like fish and looking for trouble.
For a State to investigate the actions of its own military is, as no less than Lanya pointed out as far back as the Third Cycle, to either begin with a set of assumptions that will ultimately control the investigation, or to tangle one’s self hopelessly in contradiction before beginning. This report, then, will begin by stating those assumptions (see Part One).
The questions this committee was asked to address were as follows:
1. What were the facts in and around the events in the village of Tirma in the county of Shalomar involving Imperial troops on Lyorn 2 of Zerika 252?
2. Was there any moral or legal culpability attached to any Imperial representatives associated with the incident?
3. If so, who should be held to blame, for what, and how are the interests of justice best served in this matter?
4. Insofar as there was culpability, what steps might be taken in the future to prevent a repetition of any unfortunate or regrettable events . . .