In memory of my brother,
Leo Brust, 1954-1994
My thanks to the Scribblies: Emma Bull, Pamela Dean, and Will Shetterly fortheir help with this one, and also to Terri Windling, Susan Allison, and Fred A. Levy Haskell. Thanks as well to Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who recommended a book that turned out to be vital; to David Green, for sharing some theories; and, as always, to Adrian Charles Morgan.
And to the fan who actually suggested the whole thing in the first place: Thanks, Mom.
My Dear Cawti:
I’m sorry it has taken me so long to answer your letter, but the gods of Coincidence make bad correspondents of us all; I am not unaware that the passing of a few weeks to you is a long time—as long as the passing of years is to me, and this is long indeed when one is uncertain—so I will plead the excuse that I found your note when I returned from traveling, and will answer your question at once: Yes, I have seen your husband, or the man who used to be your husband, or however you would describe him. Yes, I have seen Vlad—and that is why it has taken me so long to write back to you; I was just visiting him in response to his request for assistance in a small matter.
I can understand your concern for him, Cawti; indeed, I will not try to pretend that he isn’t still in danger from the Organization with which we are both, one way or another, still associated. They want him, and I fear someday they will get him, but as of now he is alive and, I can even say, well.
I don’t pretend that I think this knowledge will satisfy you. You will want the details, or at least those details I can divulge. Very well, I consent, both for the sake of our friendship and because we share a concern for the mustached fellow with reptiles on his shoulders. We will arrange a time and a place; I will be there and tell you what I can—in person, because some things are better heard face-to-face than page-to-eye. And, no, I will not tell you everything, because, just as there are things that you wouldn’t want me to tell him, there are things he wouldn’t want me to tell you—and, come to that, there are things I don’t want to tell you, either. It is a mark of my love for you both that I keep these secrets, and trust you with those I can, so don’t be angry!
Come, dear Cawti, write back at once (you remember that I prefer not to communicate psychically), and we will arrange to be alone and I will tell you enough—I hope—for your peace of mind. I look forward to seeing you and yours again, and, until that time, I remain,
Vlad knew almost at once that I was in disguise, because I told him so. When he called out my name, I said, “Dammit, Vlad, I’m in disguise.”
He looked me over in that way of his—eyes flicking here and there apparently at random—then said, “Me, too.”
He was wearing brown leather, rather than the grey and black of the House of the Jhereg he’d been wearing when I last saw him; but he was still an Easterner, still had his mustache, and still had a pair of jhereg on his shoulders. He was, I assumed, letting me know that my disguise wasn’t terribly effective. I didn’t press the issue, but said, “Who’s the boy?”
“My catamite,” he said, deadpan. He faced him then and said, “Savn, meet Kiera the Thief.”
The boy made no response at all—didn’t even seem to hear—which was a bit creepy.
I said, “You’re joking, right?”
He smiled sadly and said, “Yes, Kiera, I’m joking.”
Loiosh, the male jhereg, shifted its weight and was probably laughing at me. I held out my arm to it; it flew across the four feet that separated us and allowed me to scratch its snakelike chin. The female, Rocza, watched us closely but made no move; perhaps she didn’t remember me.
“Why the disguise?” he said.
“Why do you think?”
“You don’t want to be seen with me?”
He said, “Well, in any case, our disguises match.”
He was referring to the fact that I was wearing a green blouse and white pants, rather than the same black and grey he’d once worn. My hair was also different—I’d brushed it forward to conceal my noble’s point so I’d look more like a peasant. But perhaps he didn’t notice that; for an assassin, he can be amazingly unobservant sometimes. Still, you wear a disguise, first, from the inside, and perhaps that can in part explain the fact that my disguise didn’t fool Vlad; I’ve always trusted him, even before I had reason to.
“It’s been a long time, Vlad,” I said, because I knew that to him, who could only expect to live sixty or seventy years, it would have seemed like a long time.
“Yes, it has,” he agreed. “How odd that we should just happen to run into each other.”
“You haven’t changed.”
“There’s less of me,” he said, holding up his left hand and showing me that the last finger was missing.
“A very heavy weight.”
I winced in sympathy. “Is there someplace we can talk?” I said.
He looked around. We were in Northport, quite a distance from Adrilankha, but it was the same ocean, and the docks, if older, were pretty much the same. There was a small, two-masted cargo ship unloading about fifty yards away, and there was a fishermen’s market nearby; between them, on the very edge of the ocean, we were in plain view of hundreds of people, but no one was near us. “What’s wrong with here?”
“You don’t trust me,” I said, feeling a bit hurt.
I could see a snappy answer get as far as his teeth and stop there. Vlad and I had a great deal of history; none of it should have given him any reason to be suspicious of me.
“Last I heard,” he said, “the Organization wanted very badly to kill me; you still work for the Organization. Excuse me if I’m a bit jumpy.”
“Oh, yes,” I agreed. “They want you very badly indeed.”
The water lapped and gurgled against the dock that had stood since the end of the Interregnum; I could feel the spells that kept the wood from rotting. The air was thick with the smell of ocean: salt water and dead fish; I’ve never really liked either.
“Who is the boy?” I asked him, as much to give him time to think as because I wanted to know. Savn, as Vlad had called him, seemed to be a handsome Teckla youth, probably not more than ninety years old. He still had that look of strength and energy that begins to diminish during one’s second century, and his hair was the same dusky brown as his eyes. It annoyed me that I could conceive of him as a catamite. He still hadn’t responded to me or to anything else.
“A debt of honor,” said Vlad, in the tone he uses when he is trying to be ironic. I realized that I’d missed him. I waited for him to continue. He said, “Savn was damaged, I guess you’d say, saving my life.”
“Oh, the usual—he used a Morganti weapon to kill an undead wizard.”
“When was this?”
“Last year. Does it matter?”
“I suppose not.”
r /> “I’m glad you got my message, and I’m glad you came.”
“You’re still psychically invisible, you know.”
“I know. Phoenix Stone.”
“How is Aibynn?”
Aibynn was one of the last people Vlad wanted to ask about; he knew it and I knew it. “Fine as far as I know. I don’t see him much.”
He nodded. We watched the bay for a while, but it didn’t do much. I turned back to Vlad and said, “Well? I’m here. What is it?”
He smiled. “Maybe I’ve come up with a way to get the Organization to forgive and forget.”
I laughed. “My dear Vlad, if you managed to loot the Dragon Treasury to the last orb and deposited it all at the feet of the Council they wouldn’t forgive you.”
His smile disappeared. “There’s that.”
He shrugged. He wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. That was all right, I can be a very patient woman.
“You know,” I said, “there aren’t all that many Easterners who walk around with a pair of jhereg on their shoulders; are you quite certain you aren’t too conspicuous?”
“Yeah. No professional would try anything in a place like this, and any amateur who wants to is welcome to take a shot. And by the time word gets around so someone who knows his business can set up something, I’ll be gone.”
“But they’ll know where you are.”
“I don’t plan on being here for more than a few days.”
He said hesitantly, “Any news from home?”
“None I can tell you.”
“You’re asking about Cawti.”
“I’ve promised not to say anything except that she’s fine.”
“Oh.” I watched his mind work, but he didn’t say anything else. I very badly wanted to tell him what was going on, but a promise is a promise, even to a thief. Especially to a thief.
I said, “How have you been getting by?”
“It’s been harder since I acquired the boy, but I’ve managed.”
“I mostly stay away from towns, and you know the forests are filled with bandits of one sort or another.”
“You’ve become one?”
“No, I rob them.”
I laughed. “That sounds like you.”
“It’s a living.”
“That sounds like you, too.”
He shifted his weight as if his feet were causing him pain; it made me think about the amount of walking he must have been doing in these past three years and more. I said, “Do you want to sit down?”
“You don’t miss much,” he said. “No, I’m fine. Ever heard of a man named Fyres?”
“Yes. He died a couple of weeks ago.”
“Other than that, what do you know about him?”
“He had a great deal of money.”
“Yes. What else?”
“He was, what, a baron? House of the, uh, Chreotha?”
“All right. Then that tells you what I know about him.”
Vlad didn’t answer, which meant that I was supposed to ask him a question. I thought over a number of things I’d have liked to know, then settled on, “How did he die?”
“They’ve found no evidence of murder.”
“That’s not—Wait. You?”
He shook his head. “I don’t do that sort of thing anymore.”
“All right,” I said. Vlad has always had the ability to make me believe him, even though I know what a liar he is. “Then what do you think happened?”
His eyes were in constant motion, and the jhereg, too, never stopped looking around. “I don’t know,” he said, “and I have to find out.”
For just an instant he looked embarrassed, and “Oh ho!” passed through my head, but I sent it on its way—Vlad could be embarrassed by the oddest things.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Let me tell you what I’d like you to do.”
One thing I like about Vlad is that he understands details. He not only gave me every detail of every alarm I was likely to encounter but also told me how he found out, so I could do my own checking. He told me where the stuff was likely to be and why he thought so, and the other places it might be located if he was wrong. He gave me the schedules of the patrols in the area and explained exactly what he hadn’t been able to discover. It took about an hour, at the end of which time I knew the job would be well within my capabilities—not that there are many jobs that aren’t, if they involve stealing.
I said, “There will be a price.”
“Of course,” he said, trying to hide that I’d hurt his feelings.
“You have to tell me why you want it.”
He bit his lip and looked at me carefully; I kept my face expressionless, because I didn’t want him learning too much. He nodded abruptly, and the deal was made.
It took me two days to check everything Vlad had told me—two days that I spent working out of a reasonably comfortable room in a hotel in the middle of Northport; on the third I went to work. The place I was to burgle was situated a couple of miles east of Northport, and the walk there was the most chancy part of the operation—if anyone saw me and saw through my disguise as easily as Vlad had, it would arouse curiosity, and that would lead to investigations and that would lead to this and that. I solved the problem by staying off the roads and sticking as much as I could to the thin-wooded areas to the side. I didn’t get lost, but it was several hours before I reached the bottom of a small hill, with Fyres’s mansion looming above me.
I spent a couple of hours walking a wide circuit around it, taking a long, slow look at the place. One of the things Vlad hadn’t given me was a set of blueprints, but with this newer work you can almost create the inside by seeing the outside; for some reason post-Interregnum architects object to having rooms without windows, which means the dimensions indicate the layout. You can also identify windowed corridors because (again, I don’t know why) the windows are invariably smaller than those in rooms. By the time I’d finished my walk, I pretty much knew what it looked like, and I’d found the most obvious places for an office.
I spent the last hours of daylight watching for any signs of activity. There were none, which was as it should be—Fyres’s family (a wife and three children) didn’t live there, his mistress had abandoned the place, the staff were, no doubt, ensconced within, and all of the remaining protection was sorcerous and automatic. I took out a few of the devices I use to identify such things and set to work.
Darkness came as it always does, with shadows becoming dusk—shadows that were a bit sharper here than in Adrilankha, I suppose because the westerly winds thin out the overcast, so the Furnace is more apparent. Everything is brighter in the west of the Empire, as it is in the far east; all of which makes the darkness seem even darker.
The protections weren’t bad, but not as thorough as I would have expected. The first was very general and nearly useless—all you had to do was pretend you belonged there and it would let you burn down the place without raising a fuss. The recognition spell was only marginally trickier, requiring me to cause it to bend around and past me; but there was no spell monitoring whether the recognition spell was being bent, so, really, they might as well not have bothered with it. There were the usual integrity detectors on the doors and windows, but these are easily defeated by transferring the one you want to pass to another door or window. These, in fact, did have monitor spells to watch for just this, but they’d been cast almost as an afterthought and without anything to let the security people know the monitor had been removed—I could take it down just by identifying the energy committed to that spell and absorbing it into a working of my own.
I considered the significance of how poorly the mansion was protected. It might mean that since the place was abandoned and i
ts owner was dead, no one felt the need to use high-level protections. It might also mean that the Orca weren’t as sophisticated as the Jhereg. Or it might mean that there were some traps concealed that I hadn’t found yet. That possibility was worth an extra hour of checking, and I took it.
I went through enough gear to stock a small sorcery shop and found fertility spells that had probably been placed on the ground before the mansion was built, spells that kept the latrines from smelling, spells that kept the mansion from sinking into the ground, spells that kept the stonework from crumbling, and spells to make the row of rednut trees that flanked the road grow just so—but nothing else that had anything to do with security. I even used a blue stone I’d picked from the pocket of Vlad’s friend Aliera, but the only signs of elder sorcery were distant echoes from the explosion that had dissolved Dragaera City at the start of the Interregnum.
I was satisfied. I climbed the hill slowly, keeping my eyes open for more mundane traps, although I didn’t expect to find any, and I didn’t. I eventually reached the edge of the mansion, which, I suppose I should have mentioned, demonstrated the sort of post-Interregnum aesthetic that thinks monoliths attractive for their own sake, producing big blocks of stone with the occasional bit of decoration, usually a wrought-iron animal, sticking out as an afterthought. Buildings like this are exceedingly easy to burglarize, because you know exactly where everything is relative to everything else, and because the regularity of the construction makes those who live there believe that it is difficult to conceal oneself while climbing up a wall, which is silly—I once challenged three friends to try to spot me while I scaled three stories of a blank wall, after telling them which wall I was going up and when I was going to do it. They couldn’t find me. So much for the difficulty of concealment.
It took me about ten seconds to levitate up to the level of the window; I rested on the ledge and considered that idiotic spell I already mentioned that was supposed to make certain the integrity of the window wasn’t broken. There was, indeed, nothing fancy about it, but I was careful and spent some time circumventing the alarm. The window, by the way, was filled in, as were all of them, with a solid sheet of glass cunningly worked into slots in a wood and leather contrivance that, in turn, fitted snugly into the window; a silly luxury that would need to be replaced in a hundred years or so, even if the fragile thing weren’t broken in the meantime.