Penguin Group (USA)
Pub. Date: November 1990
The Adventures of Vlad Taltos
This one's for
Pam and David
Thanks for help in preparing this book are due to Emma Bull, Pamela Dean, Kara Dalkey, Will Shetterly, Fred A. Levy Haskell, Terri Windling, and Beth Fleisher.
Thanks also to my mother, Jean Brust, for various political insights, and to Gail Cathryn and Adrian Morgan for research work on Dragaeran history. Thanks to Robin "Adnan" Anders for percussive help, and, lastly, thanks to my house-mate, Jason, without whose taste in television this book would have taken much longer to finish.
About The Author
All the time people say to me, "Vlad, how do you do it? How come you're so good at killing people? What's your secret?" I tell them, "There is no secret. It's like anything else. Some guys plaster walls, some guys make shoes, I kill people. You just gotta learn the trade and practice until you're good at it."
The last time I killed somebody was right around the time of the Easterners' uprising, in the month of the Athyra in 234 PI, and the month of the Phoenix in 235. I wasn't all that involved in the uprising directly; to be honest, I was just about the only one around who didn't see it coming, what with the increased number of Phoenix Guards on the street, mass meetings even in my neighborhood, and whatnot. But that's when it occurred, and, for those of you who want to hear what happens when you set out to kill somebody for pay, well, here it is.
Maybe it's just me, but it seems like when things are going wrong—your wife is ready to leave you, all of your notions about yourself and the world are getting turned around, everything you trusted is becoming questionable—there's nothing like having someone try to kill you to take your mind off your problems.
I was in an ugly, one-story wood-frame building in South Adrilankha. Whoever was trying to kill me was a better sorcerer than me. I was in the cellar, squatting behind the remains of a brick wall, just fifteen feet from the foot of the stairs. If I stuck my head out the door again, it might well get blasted off. I intended to call for reinforcements just as soon as I could. I also intended to teleport out of there just as soon as I could. It didn't look like I'd be able to do either one any time soon.
But I was not helpless. At just such times as these, a witch may always take comfort in his familiar. Mine is a jhereg—a small, poisonous flying reptile whose mind is psychically linked to my own, and who is, moreover, brave, loyal, trustworthy—
"If you think I'm going out there, boss, you're crazy."
Okay, next idea.
I raised as good a protection spell as I could (not very), then took a brace of throwing knives from inside my cloak, my rapier from its scabbard, and a deep breath from the clammy basement air. I leapt out to my left, rolling, coming to my knee, throwing all three knives at the same time (hitting nothing, of course; that wasn't the point), and rolling again. I was now well out of the line of sight of the stairway—both the source of the attack and the one path to freedom. Life, I've found, is often like that. Loiosh flapped over and joined me.
Things sizzled in the air. Destructive things, but I think meant only to let me know the sorcerer was still there. It wasn't like I'd forgotten. I cleared my throat. "Can we negotiate?"
The masonry of the wall before me began to crumble away. I did a quick counterspell and held myself answered.
"All right, Loiosh, any bright ideas?"
"Ask them to surrender, boss."
"I saw three."
"Ah. Well, any other ideas?"
"You've tried asking your secretary to send help?"
"I can't reach him."
"How about Morrolan?"
"I tried already."
"I don't like that, boss. It's one thing for Kragar and Melestav to be tied up, but—"
"Could they be blocking psionics, as well as teleportation?"
"Hmmm. I hadn't thought of that. I wonder if it's possib—" Our chat was interrupted by a rain of sharp objects, sorcerously sent around the corner behind which I hid. I wished fervently that I were a better sorcerer, but I managed a block, while letting Spellbreaker, eighteen inches of golden chain, slip down into my left hand. I felt myself becoming angry.
"Careful, boss. Don't—"
"I know. Tell me something, Loiosh: Who are they? It can't be Easterners, because they're using sorcery. It can't be the Empire, because the Empire doesn't ambush people. It can't be the Organization, because they don't do this clumsy, complicated nonsense, they just kill you. So who is it?"
"Don't know, boss."
"Maybe I'll take a longer look."
"Don't do anything foolish."
I made a rude comment to that. I was seriously upset by this time, and I was bloody well going to do something, stupid or not. I set Spellbreaker spinning and hefted my blade. I felt my teeth grinding. I sent up a prayer to Verra, the Demon-Goddess, and prepared to meet my attackers.
Then something unusual happened.
My prayer was answered.
It wasn't like I'd never seen her before. I had once travelled several thousand miles through supernatural horrors and the realm of dead men just to bid her good-day. And, while my grandfather spoke of her with reverence and awe, Dragaerans spoke of her and her ilk like I spoke about my laundry. What I'm getting at is that there was never any doubt about her real, corporeal existence; it's just that although it was my habit to utter a short prayer to her before doing anything especially dangerous or foolhardy, nothing like this had ever happened before.
Well, I take that back. There might have been once when—no, it couldn't have been. Never mind. Different story.
In any case, I found myself abruptly elsewhere, with no feeling of having moved and none of the discomfort that we Easterners, that is, humans, feel when teleporting. I was in a corridor of roughly the dimensions of the dining hall of Castle Black. All of it white. Spotless. The ceiling must have been a hundred feet above me, and the walls were at least forty feet apart, with white pillars in front of them, perhaps twenty feet between each. Perhaps. It may be that my senses were confused by the pure whiteness of everything. Or it may be that everything reported by my senses was meaningless in that place. There was no end to the hallway in either direction. The air was slightly cool, but not uncomfortable. There was no sound except my own breathing, and that peculiar sensation you have when you don't know whether you're hearing your heart beat or feeling it.
Loiosh was stunned into silence. This does not happen every day.
My first reaction, in the initial seconds after my arrival, was tha
t I was the victim of a massive illusion perpetrated by those who had been trying to kill me. But that didn't really hold up, because, if they could do that, they could have shined me, which they clearly wanted to do.
I noticed a black cat at my feet, looking up at me. It meowed, then began walking purposefully down the hall in the direction I was facing. All right, so maybe I'm nuts, but it seems to me that if you're in big trouble, and you pray to your goddess, and then suddenly you're someplace you've never been before, and there's a black cat in front of you and it starts walking, you follow it.
I followed it. My footsteps echoed very loudly, which was oddly reassuring.
I sheathed my rapier as I walked, because the Demon Goddess might take it amiss. The hall continued straight, and the far end was obscured in a fine mist that gave way before me. It was probably illusory. The cat stayed right at the edge of it, almost disappearing into it.
Loiosh said, "Boss, are we about to meet her?"
I said, "It seems likely."
"You've met before—"
"I remember, boss."
The cat actually vanished into the mists, which now remained in place. Another ten or so paces and I could no longer see the walls. The air was suddenly colder and felt a great deal like the basement I'd just escaped. Doors appeared, caught in the act of opening, very slowly, theatrically. They were twice my height and had carvings on them, white on white. It seemed a bit, well, silly to be having both of those doors ponderously open themselves to a width several times what I needed. It also left me not knowing whether to wait until they finished opening or to go inside as soon as I could. I stood there, feeling ridiculous, until I could see. More mist. I sighed, shrugged, and passed within.
It would be hard to consider the place a room—it was more like a courtyard with a floor and a ceiling. Ten or fifteen minutes had fallen behind me since I'd arrived at that place. Loiosh said nothing, but I could feel his tension from the grip of his talons on my shoulder.
She was seated on a white throne set on a pedestal, and she was as I remembered her, only more so. Very tall, a face that was somehow indefinably alien, yet hard to look at long enough to really get the details. Each finger had an extra joint on it. Her gown was white, her skin and hair very dark. She seemed to be the only thing in the room, and perhaps she was.
She stood as I approached, then came down from the pedestal. I stopped perhaps ten feet away from her, unsure what sort of obeisances to make, if any. She didn't appear to mind, however. Her voice was low and even, and faintly melodic, and seemed to contain a hint of its own echo. She said, "You called to me."
I cleared my throat. "I was in trouble."
"Yes. It has been some time since we've seen each other."
"Yes." I cleared my throat again. Loiosh was silent. Was I supposed to say, "So how's it been going?" What does one say to one's patron deity?
She said, "Come with me," and led me out through the mist. We stepped into a smaller room, all dark browns, where the chairs were comfortable and there was a fire crackling away and spitting at the hearth. I allowed her to sit first, then we sat like two old friends reminiscing on battles and bottles past. She said, "There is something you could do for me."
"Ah," I said. "That explains it."
"I couldn't figure out why a group of sorcerers would be suddenly attacking me in a basement in South Adrilankha."
"And now you think you know?"
"I have an idea."
"What were you doing in this basement?"
I wondered briefly just how much of one's personal life one ought to discuss with one's god, then I said, "It has to do with marital problems." A look of something like amusement flicked over her features, followed by one of inquiry. I said, "My wife has gotten it into her head to join this group of peasant rebels—"
I almost asked how, but swallowed it. "Yes. Well, it's complicated, but I ended up, a few weeks ago, purchasing the Organization interests in South Adrilankha—where the humans live."
"I've been trying to clean it up. You know, cut down on the ugliest sorts of things while still leaving it profitable."
"This does not sound easy."
I shrugged. "It keeps me out of trouble."
"Well, perhaps not entirely."
"But," she prompted, "the basement?"
"I was looking into that house as a possible office for that area. It was spur-of-the-moment, really; I saw the 'For Rent' sign as I was walking by on other business—"
"My other business was seeing my grandfather. I don't take bodyguards everywhere I go." This was true; I felt that as long as my movements didn't become predictable, I should be safe.
"Perhaps this was a mistake."
"Maybe. But you didn't actually have them kill me, just frighten me."
"So you think I arranged it?"
"Why would I do such a thing?"
"Well, according to some of my sources, you are unable to bring mortals to you or speak with them directly unless they call to you."
"You don't seem angry about it."
"Anger would be futile, wouldn't it?"
"Well, yes, but aren't you accustomed to futile anger?"
I felt something like a dry chuckle attempt to escape my throat. I suppressed it and said, "I'm working on that."
She nodded, fixing me with eyes that I suddenly noticed were pale yellow. Very strange. I stared back.
"You know, boss, I'm not sure I like her."
"So," I said, "now that you've got me, what do you want?"
"Only what you do best," she said with a small smile.
I considered this. "You want someone killed?" I'm not normally this direct, but I still wasn't sure how to speak to the goddess. I said, "I, uh, charge extra for gods."
The smile remained fixed on her face. "Don't worry," she said. "I don't want you to kill a god. Only a king."
"Oh, well," I said. "No problem, then."
I said, "Goddess—"
"Naturally, you will be paid."
"You will have to do without some of your usual resources, I'm afraid, but—"
"How did you come to be called 'Demon Goddess,' anyway?"
She smiled at me, but gave no other answer.
"So tell me about the job."
"There is an island to the west of the Empire. It is called Greenaere."
"I know of it. Between Northport and Elde, right?"
"That is correct. There are, perhaps, four hundred thousand people living there. Many are fishermen. There are also orchards of fruit for trade to the mainland, and there is some supply of gemstones, which they also trade."
"Are there Dragaerans?"
"Yes. But they are not imperial subjects. They have no House, so none of them have a link to the Orb. They have a King. It is necessary that he die."
"Why don't you just kill him, then?"
"I have no means of appearing there. The entire island is protected from sorcery, and this protection also prevents me from manifesting myself there."
"You don't have to know."
"And remember that, while you're there, you will be unable to call upon your link to the Orb."
"Why is that?"
"You don't need to know."
"I see. Well, I rarely use sorcery in any case."
"I know. That is one reason I want you to do this. Will you?"
I was briefly tempted to ask why, but that was none of my business. Speaking of business, however—"What's the offer?"
I admit I said this with a touch of irony. I mean, what was I going to do if she didn't want to pay me? Refuse the job? But she said, "What do you usually get?"
ve never assassinated a King before. Let's call it ten thousand Imperials."
"There are other things I could do for you instead."
"No, thanks. I've heard too many stories about people getting what they wish for. The money will be fine."
"Very well. So you will do it?"
"Sure," I said. "I've got nothing pressing going on just at the moment."
"Good," said the Demon Goddess.
"Is there anything I should know?"
"The King's name is Haro."
"You want him non-revivifiable, I assume?"
"They have no link to the Orb."
"Ah. So that shouldn't be a problem. Ummrh, Goddess?"
"Why, Vlad," she said, and it was odd to have her call me by my first name. "It is your profession, is it not?"
I sighed. "And here I'd been thinking of getting out of the business."
"Perhaps," she said, "not quite yet." She smiled into my eyes, and her eyes seemed to spin, and then I was once more in the same basement in South Adrilankha. I waited, but there was no sound. I poked my head out quickly, then for a longer time, then I stepped over, picked up my three throwing knives, and walked up the stairs and out of the house. I saw no sign of anyone.
"Melestav? I told you to send Kragar in."
"I already did, boss."
"Then where—? Never mind. " "Say, Kragar."
"I'm being called out of town for a while."
"Not sure. A week or two, anyway."
"All right. I can take care of things here."
"Good. And keep tabs on our old friend, Herth."
"Think he might decide to take a shot at you?"
"What do you think?"
"Right. And I need a teleport for tomorrow afternoon."
"Nothing special. I'll tell you about it when I get back."
"I'll just wait to hear who dies in Northport."
"Funny. Actually, though, it isn't Northport, it's Greenaere. What do you know about it?"
"Not much. An island kingdom, not part of the Empire."
"Right. Find out what you can."