The Adventures of Vlad Taltos
Penguin Group (USA)
Pub. Date: November 1984
When I was young, I was taught that every citizen of the Dragaeran Empire was born into one of the seventeen Great Houses, each named for an animal. I was taught that humans, or “Easterners,” such as I, were worthless scum. I was taught that the only choices we had, if we wished to amount to anything, were to swear fealty to some lord and become part of the peasant clans in the House of the Teckla, or, as my father did, buy Orders of Nobility in the House of the Jhereg.
Later, I found a wild jhereg, and trained him, and set about to leave my mark on Dragaeran society.
When I was older, I learned that most of what I had been taught were lies.
“Stay out of sight,
in case they get rude.”
Kragar says that life is like an onion, but he doesn’t mean the same thing by it that I do.
He talks about peeling it, and how you can go deeper and deeper, until finally you get to the center and nothing is there. I suppose there’s truth in that, but in the years when my father ran a restaurant, I never peeled an onion, I chopped them; Kragar’s analogy doesn’t do much for me.
When I say that life is like an onion, I mean this: if you don’t do anything with it, it goes rotten. So far, that’s no different from other vegetables. But when an onion goes bad, it can do it from either the inside, or the outside. So sometimes you get one that looks good, but the core is rotten. Other times, you can see a bad spot on it, but if you cut that out, the rest is fine. Tastes sharp, but that’s what you paid for, isn’t it?
Dzurlords like to fancy themselves as pantry chefs who go around cutting the rotten parts out of onions. Trouble is, they generally can’t tell the good from the bad. Dragonlords are good at finding bad spots, but when they find one they like to throw out the whole barrelful. A Hawklord will find a bad spot every time. He’ll watch you cook the thing, and eat it, and he’ll nod sagaciously when you spit it out again. If you ask why he didn’t tell you about it, he’ll look startled and say, “You didn’t ask.”
I could go on, but what’s the point? In the House Jhereg, we don’t care teckla droppings about bad spots. We’re just here to sell onions.
But sometimes someone will pay me to remove a bad spot. This had earned me thirty-two hundred gold Imperials that day, and to let the tension drain out I visited the more or less permanent party at the keep of the Lord Morrolan. I was sort of on his staff, as a security consultant, which gave me a standing invitation.
Lady Teldra let me in as I recovered from the teleport and I made my way to the banquet hall. I studied the mass of humanity (I use the term loosely) from the doorway, looking for familiar faces, and soon spotted the tall form of Morrolan himself.
Guests who didn’t know me watched as I moved toward him; some made remarks intended for me to overhear. I always attract attention at Morrolan’s parties—because I’m the only Jhereg there; because I’m the only “Easterner” (read: “human”) there; or because I walk in with my jhereg familiar, Loiosh, riding on my shoulder.
“Nice party,” I told Morrolan.
“Where are the trays of dead teckla, then?” said Loiosh psionically.
“Thank you, Vlad. It pleases me that you are here.”
Morrolan always talks like that. I think he can’t help it.
We wandered over to a table where one of his servants was pouring out small draughts of various wines, commenting on them as he did. I got a glass of red Darloscha and sipped it. Nice and dry, but it would have been better chilled. Dragaerans don’t understand wine.
“Good evening Vlad; Morrolan.”
I turned and bowed low to Aliera e’Kieron, Morrolan’s cousin and Dragon Heir to the Throne. Morrolan bowed and squeezed her hand. I smiled. “Good evening, Aliera. Any duels, yet?”
“Why yes,” she said. “Did you hear?”
“As a matter of fact, no; I was being facetious. You really do have a duel lined up?”
“Yes, for tomorrow. Some teckla of a Dzurlord noticed how I walk and made remarks.”
I shook my head and tsked. “What’s his name?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll find out tomorrow. Morrolan, have you seen Sethra?”
“No. I assume she is at Dzur Mountain. Perhaps she will show up later. Is it important?”
“Not really. I think I’ve isolated a new e’Mondaar recessive. It’ll wait.”
“I am interested,” said Morrolan. “Would you be pleased to tell me of it?”
“I’m not sure what it is yet . . . ” said Aliera. The two of them walked off. Well, Morrolan walked. Aliera, who was the shortest Dragaeran I’ve ever met, levitated, her long, silver-blue dress running along the ground to hide the fact. Aliera had golden hair and green eyes—usually. Although she wasn’t carrying it now, she also had a sword that was longer than she was. She had taken the sword from the hand of Kieron the Conquerer, the head of her line, in the Paths of the Dead. There’s a story in there, too, but never mind.
Anyway, they walked away, and I drew on my link with the Imperial Orb, did a small sorcery spell, and chilled the wine. I sipped it again. Much better.
“The problem for tonight, Loiosh, is: how am I going to get laid?”
“Boss, sometimes you disgust me.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Aside from that, if you own four brothels—”
“I’ve decided I don’t like visiting brothels.”
“Eh? Why not?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“All right. Put it this way: sex with Dragaerans feels more than half like bestiality, anyway. With whores, it feels like paying the . . . whatever.”
“Go on, boss. Finish the sentence. Now I’m curious.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“What is it about killing someone that makes you so horny, anyway?”
“You need a wife.”
“Go to Deathsgate.”
“We did that once, remember?”
“Yeah. And I remember how you felt about the giant jhereg there.”
“Don’t start on that, boss.”
“Then shut up about my sex life.”
“You brought it up.”
There was nothing to say to that, so I let it drop. I sipped my wine again, and felt that peculiar, nagging sensation of there’s-something-I-ought-to-be-thinking-about that heralds someone trying to reach me psionically. I quickly found a quiet corner and opened up my mind for contact.
“How’s the party, boss?”
“Not bad, Kragar. What’s up that can’t wait for morning?”
“Your bootblack is here. He’s going to be made Issola Heir to the Throne tomorrow, so he’s finishing up his calls.”
“Funny. What is it really?”
“A question. Did you open up a new gambling joint in Malak Circle
“Of course not. You’d have heard about it long ago.”
“That’s what I thought. Then there’s a p
“I see. Some punk thinking we won’t notice? Or is somebody trying to muscle in?”
“It looks professional, Vlad. He’s got protection there.”
“Three. And I know one of them. He’s done ‘work.’ ”
“What do you think?”
“Kragar, you know how a chamberpot gets when it isn’t emptied for a few days?”
“And you know how, when you finally do empty it, there’s all that stuff stuck on the bottom?”
“Well, that stuff on the bottom is how I feel about this.”
“I’ll be right over.”
I found Morrolan in a comer with Aliera and a tall Dragaeran who had the facial features of the House of the Athyra and was dressed all in forest green. She looked down at me, figuratively and literally. It’s frustrating being both a Jhereg and an Easterner—people sneer at you for both reasons.
“Vlad,” said Morrolan, “this is the Sorceress in Green. Sorceress, this is Baronet Vladimir Taltos.”
She nodded, almost imperceptibly. I bowed with a deep flourish, dragging the back of my hand over the floor, bringing it up over my head, and saying, “Gentle lady, I am every bit as charmed to meet you as you are to meet me.”
She sniffed and looked away.
Aliera’s eyes were twinkling.
Morrolan looked troubled, then shrugged.
“Sorceress in Green,” I said. “I’ve never met an Athyra who wasn’t a sorcerer, and the green I can see, so I can’t say the title tells me—”
“That will be sufficient, Vlad,” said Morrolan. “And she isn’t—”
“Sorry. I wanted to tell you that something’s come up. I’m afraid I’ll have to leave.” I turned to the Sorceress. “I’m sorry to do this to you, my dear, but try not to let it ruin your evening.”
She looked back at me and smiled sweetly. “How would you,” she said, “like to be a newt?”
“I asked you to desist, Vlad,” said Morrolan sharply.
I dropped it. “I’ll be leaving, then,” I said, bowing my head.
“Very well. If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”
I nodded. Unfortunately for him, I remembered the remark.
* * * *
Do you know what the single biggest difference between a Dragaeran and an Easterner is? It isn’t that they are so much taller and stronger than we are; I’m living proof that size and strength aren’t that important. It isn’t that they live two or three thousand years compared to our fifty or sixty; in the crowd I hang around with, no one expects to die of old age anyway. It isn’t even that they have a natural link with the Imperial Orb that allows them to use sorcery; Easterners (such as my late, unlamented father) can buy titles in the House of the Jhereg, or swear fealty to some noble, move out to the countryside and become a Teckla—thereby becoming citizens and getting the link.
No, the biggest difference that I’ve found is this: a Dragaeran can teleport without feeling sick to his stomach afterwards.
I arrived in the street outside my office about ready to throw up. I took a few deep breaths and waited while my gut settled down. I had had one of Morrolan’s sorcerers do the actual spell. I can do it myself, but I’m not very good; a rough landing makes things even worse.
My offices at this time were on Copper Lane
, in back of a small gambling operation, which was in back of a psychedelic herb shop. My offices consisted of three rooms. One was a screening room, where Melestav, my receptionist-bodyguard, sat. To his right was Kragar’s office and the files, and behind Melestav was my actual office. Kragar had a small desk and one hard wooden chair—there wasn’t room for anything else. The screening room had four chairs that were almost comfortable. My desk was a bit bigger than Kragar’s, smaller than Melestav’s, and had a well-padded swivel chair facing the door. Next to the door were two comfortable chairs, one of which would be occupied by Kragar when he showed up.
I told Melestav to let Kragar know I was in and sat down at my desk to wait.
“Oh.” I sighed as I realized that, once again, Kragar had sneaked in without my seeing him. He claims that he doesn’t do it on purpose—that he’s just naturally sneaky.
“What have you found out, Kragar?”
“Nothing I didn’t tell you before.”
“Okay. Let’s go blow some money.”
“Both of us?”
“No. You stay out of sight, in case they get rude.”
As we went out I ran a hand through my hair. This let me rub my arm against the right side of my cloak, so I could make sure that various pieces of hardware were in place. With my left hand I adjusted the collar, letting me check a few more on that side.
Out on the street, I gave a quick look around, then walked the block and a half up to Malak Circle
. Copper Lane is what is called a one-and-a-half-cart street, which makes it wider than many. The buildings are packed tightly together, and most of them have windows only on the upper stories. Malak Circle
is a turnaround, with a fountain that hasn’t worked as long as I can remember. Copper Lane ends there. Lower Kieron Road enters from the left as you approach from Copper Lane
, and leaves again, slightly wider, ahead, and to the right.
“Okay, Kragar,” I said, “where—” I stopped. “Kragar?”
“Right in front of you, boss.”
“Oh. Where is it?”
“First door to the left of the Fountain Tavern. Inside, up the stairs, and to the right.”
“Okay. Stay alert.”
“Loiosh, try to find a window you can look in. If not, just stay in touch.”
“Right, boss.” He flew off.
I went in, up a narrow stairway with no handrail, and came to the top. I took a deep breath, checked my weapons once more, and clapped.
The door opened at once. The guy who stood there was dressed in black and gray for House Jhereg, and had a broadsword strapped to his side. He was damn near seven and a half feet tall and broader than is usual for a Dragaeran. He loooked down at me and said, “Sorry, Whiskers. Humans only,” and shut the door. Dragaerans often seem confused about who the “humans” are.
Being called “Whiskers” didn’t bother me—I’d deliberately grown a mustache because Dragaerans can’t. But to be shut out of a game that shouldn’t even be here without my permission displeased me immensely.
I quickly checked the door and found that it was bound with sorcery. I gave a flick of my right wrist and Spellbreaker, two feet of thin gold chain, came into my hand. I lashed out at the door and felt the spell fail. I put the chain away as the door was flung open again.
The guy’s eyes narrowed and he started moving toward me. I smiled at him. “I’d like to speak to the proprietor, if I may.”
“I see,” he said, “that you’re going to need help getting down the stairs.” He moved toward me again.
I shook my head. “It’s sad that you can’t cooperate with a simple request, dead man.”
He moved in, and my right sleeve dagger was in my hand. Then I was past him, ducking under his arms. Six inches of steel were buried, at an upward angle, between his fourth and fifth ribs, twisted to notch on the sternum. I stepped into the room as I heard vague moaning and coughing noises from behind me, followed by the sound of a falling body. Contrary to popular myth, the guy would probably remain alive for over an hour. But contrary to another popular myth, he would be in shock and so wouldn’t be able to do anything to keep himself alive.
The room was small, with only one window. There were three tables of s’yang stones in action, one with five players, the other two with four. Most of the players seemed to be Teckla, a couple of Jhereg, and there was one Tsalmoth. There were two other Jhereg
there, just as Kragar had told me, who seemed to be working for the place. They were both moving at me quickly, one was drawing his sword. Oh me, oh my.
I put a table between myself and one of them, then kicked it over toward him. At that moment, the window broke and Loiosh flew straight at the other. I could forget about that guy for a few minutes, anyway.
The one I’d kicked the table at, scattering coins and stones and customers, stumbled a bit. I drew my rapier and cut his wrist as his arm was flailing around in front of me. He dropped the blade, and I stepped in and kicked him between the legs. He moaned and doubled over. I brought the pommel of my blade down on his head and he dropped.
I moved to the other one. “Enough, Loiosh. Let him alone, and watch my back.”
The guy tried to get his blade out as I approached and Loiosh left him, but mine was already out. I touched his throat with the point and smiled. “I’d like to speak to the manager,” I said.
He stopped moving. He looked at me coldly, with no trace of fear in his eyes. “He’s not here.”
“Tell me who he is and you’ll live,” I said. “Don’t, and you’ll die.”
He remained silent. I moved the point of my blade up until it was opposite his left eye. The threat was clear: if his brain was destroyed, he wouldn’t be in any condition to be revivified. There was still no sign of fear, but he said, “Laris.”
“Thank you,” I told him. “Lie down on the floor.”
He did so. I turned to the customers. “This place is closed,” I said. They began heading for the door.
At that moment, there was a woosh of displaced air, and five more Jhereg were in the room, swords drawn. Oops. Without a word being spoken, Loiosh was on my shoulder.
“Kragar, take off.”
I drew recklessly on my link and tried to teleport, but failed. I sometimes wish teleport blocks could be outlawed. I lunged at one of them, scattered a handful of sharp pointy things with my left hand, and jumped through the already broken window. I heard cursing sounds behind me.
I tried a quick levitation spell, which must have worked a little bit since landing didn’t hurt. I kept moving, in case they had sharp pointy things, too. I tried the teleport again, and it worked.
I found myself on my back, right outside the door to the shop containing my offices. I threw up.