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Dzur (Vlad Taltos), Page 2

Steven Brust

  The visitor didn’t keep me in suspense. In a pleasant baritone, he said, “My name is Mario Greymist. May I join you, Lord Taltos?”

  When I could talk again, I said, “So, correct me if I’m wrong: You’re not a myth, then?”

  “Not entirely, at any rate. May I join you?”

  Telnan hadn’t appeared to recognize the name.

  “By all means, if my friend doesn’t mind. His name is Telnan, by the way.” I trust my voice was even, and I sounded sufficiently calm.

  “Hi,” said Telnan, smiling.

  Mario Greymist inclined his head and smiled back.

  I addressed my familiar: “Loiosh, you’re about to draw blood.”

  “Sorry, Boss.”

  He relaxed his grip on my shoulder. Vili shuffled a chair over from another table, placing it to my left and Telnan’s right. If Mario Greymist decided to join us for dinner, the table would be crowded. The three of us sat down.

  “Boss, if he’d wanted to kill you—”

  “I know, I know.”

  “I take it,” said Mario, “that you’ve heard of me?” He smiled. The smile of a downstairs neighbor who has just thanked you for loaning him half a pound of coffee.

  “Yeah,” I said. I was at my cleverest.

  “I haven’t,” said Telnan.

  Mario and I looked at the Dzurlord. I said, “Uh . . .”

  “Never mind,” said Telnan.

  “Don’t let me interfere with your meal,” said Mario.

  I looked at him. He seemed to be sincere. I said, “Feel like having something to eat?”

  “No, thank you. I won’t be here that long.”

  I almost said, “Good,” but caught myself. Mihi approached and asked the same question of Mario, and got the same answer. He then asked me if we’d care for wine. We would. He could recommend—fine. I trusted him, just bring whatever he thought best. He bowed.


  He was to assassins what Kieron the Conqueror was to soldiers. Except that Kieron was dead. Mario had assassinated an Emperor before the Turning of the Cycle, at least according to the stories. When the Phoenix Guards couldn’t solve a murder, they’d say, “Mario did it,” meaning the case would never be solved. There is a story (probably not true) of a guy who was told that Mario was after him who simply brought himself to Deathgate and threw himself over the Falls.

  And Mario was sitting across the table from me, and smiling a friendly sort of smile.

  It was almost enough to put me off the food.

  “Hey, Boss.”


  “How do you know he’s really Mario?”

  “Hmmm . . . good point. But do you know anyone who’d claim to be Mario if he wasn’t?”

  “Well, no. But still.”


  He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. It was about as non-threatening a position as he could take, without making it painfully obvious that he was trying to look non-threatening. He said, “Of course, you’re aware that you’ve annoyed some people.”

  “Yes,” I said. “That’s been made clear to me.”

  Telnan turned to me. I didn’t feel like giving explanation to a Dzur, so I didn’t.

  Mario said, I guess to both of us, “There are two things you don’t do: talk to the authorities about the association, and—”

  “Association?” I said.

  He smiled. “An old term. The Organization? The—?”

  “I see.”

  “I don’t,” said Telnan.

  “Tell you what, Loiosh. You take the Dzur out and explain to him.”

  “Uh huh.”

  Out loud, Mario and I ignored him. I nodded. Mario continued, “Talk to the authorities about us, and interfere with our Imperial representative. You did both. Well, one and a half, anyway.”

  “I didn’t tell the Empire anything about the, uh, Association. Not really.”

  “Close enough to annoy people.”

  “I suppose.”

  “But you know that.”

  I nodded. “In the last few years of wandering the world dodging them, it’s become more-or-less clear. I assume, at some point, you were offered the job?”

  He looked directly at me. At the same time, I felt an odd little twinge from somewhere in the back of my head, as if there were a voice whispering just too softly for me to hear. I decided now wasn’t the time to think about that twinge, and what it implied.

  “Sorry,” I told Mario. “Improper question.”

  His nod was barely perceptible. He said, “You’re taking something of a chance coming here, aren’t you?”

  Loiosh shifted slightly on my shoulder; in response, Rocza shifted on my other. Telnan said, “I’m here.”

  “Yes,” said Mario. “Of course.”

  “Not so much,” I said. “You know how we . . . that is, you know how things are done. By the time word gets out that I’m here, and someone sets something up, I’ll be far from the city.”

  “That’s why you were so relaxed when I walked in.”

  “Yeah, that’s why.”

  He nodded. “There are rumors that you’ve acquired a rather formidable means of defending yourself.”

  I felt the length of Lady Teldra hanging from my left hip, just in front of my rapier. I didn’t touch her, though I wanted to. “No,” I said. “They aren’t rumors. You were flat-out told, and from a reliable source.”

  “Well, that too.”

  Which, I figured, was as close as I was ever going to get to confirming the stories I’d heard—that the most famous assassin in the history of the Dragaeran Empire was the lover of Aliera e’Kieron, second in line as Dragon Heir, and head of the most prestigious line of the House of the Dragon. It was amusing. Or something.

  So as I sit here, between Valabar’s Kermeferz and the Jhereg’s Mario Greymist, and await my wine with a strange Dzurlord for company, maybe I should tell you a little bit about myself. Hmmm . . . then again, maybe not.

  Mihi showed up with the wine, asking me to approve the bottle. I nodded. I was sure it was a bottle. He used the feather and, with the aid of a thick glove taken from his back pocket, the tongs. He opened it and poured without flourish. Jani, my other favorite waiter, always made it look like opening the bottle was an occasion for major triumph. It’s the little stylistic things that differentiate us, don’t you think?

  I leaned back in the chair like I didn’t have a worry in the world and said, “Care for some wine?”

  Telnan did, Mario didn’t. Mihi poured and left the bottle.

  I nodded, sipped, and waited for Mario to go on.

  “Good wine,” said Telnan. I doubted he’d know the difference. But I could be wrong.

  Mario shifted in his chair, and, for just a moment, looked uncomfortable. Before the shock really had time to register, he said, “You know Aliera.”

  Well, yes, I knew Aliera. That is, I knew her as well as any “Easterner” (read: human) could know a “human” (read: Dragaeran). I knew she was short, as Dragaerans go; not much over six feet tall. I knew she had a lethal temper and the skill in sorcery to back it. I knew, well . . .

  “Yeah,” I said. “I suppose, in some measure, anyway.”

  He nodded. “She asked me to speak with you.”

  That was certainly worth an eyebrow. “She’s concerned about my safety?”

  He frowned. “Well no, not really.”

  “That’s reassuring.”

  “There are others she’s concerned about.”

  “Are you going to make me guess?”

  He sighed and looked unhappy.

  “Okay,” I said. “I’m guessing. Since she sent you, it has to have something to do with the Organization, since Aliera would never publicly demean herself by admitting she had anything to do with criminals.”

  Telnan and Mario both glanced at me, and I felt myself flushing. “Uh, I hadn’t meant to exactly include you in that,” I told Mario.

  He nodded.
“Continue, then. You’re doing well.”

  Unfortunately, having gotten that far, I drew a blank. If Aliera was in trouble with the Organization, which I couldn’t imagine, Mario could do anything I could do. And if the Organization was in trouble in some way, it was no longer a concern of mine; I no longer had any interest or connections in their doings, with the possible exception of—

  “Cawti,” I said.

  He nodded, and something slammed down in the pit of my stomach.

  “South Adrilankha,” I said.

  He nodded again

  “My fault, then.”

  He nodded again.

  “Uh . . . care to explain?” said Telnan.

  “No,” I said.

  I made a few other remarks, these with more emotional than rational content.

  “I suppose,” said Mario. Telnan looked puzzled.

  I felt Loiosh’s presence in my mind, the way I sometimes do when a spell threatens to get out of control. I concentrated on my breathing, like during a fencing exercise.

  In case we haven’t met before, I used to run a small area of Adrilankha. That is, when anything illegal happened there, I either got a piece of it, or made arrangements for someone to regret that I didn’t get a piece of it. I also, eventually, acquired some similar interests in the Easterners’ Ghetto, what was called South Adrilankha. At this time, I was happily married. To the left, my wife, Cawti, was unhappily married at the same time, mostly because she had some sort of moral objection to making money off Easterners the same way we made it off Dragaerans. Who knew?

  Then she was in danger, and I heroically saved her and all like that. In the course of doing so, I made a few enemies and a quick escape. The last thing I did before leaving my career, my friends, my wife, and everything else, was to give Cawti all my interests in South Adrilankha as a kind of going-away present.

  At the time, I thought it was funny, in a sick sort of way.

  Now it was sounding sick, in a funny sort of way.

  Mihi wanted to know if I was ready for—no, I wasn’t. He could return after our guest left, as our guest didn’t care to dine. Mihi understood and vanished into that place waiters and creditors go when they aren’t in front of you.

  “Okay,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”

  He nodded and smiled. Like the guy who lived downstairs, as I said before. Or else maybe the old man who pinches the pretty girl in the market, but she smiles back instead of smacking him. That guy.

  “The Dagger started out by—”

  “She isn’t called that anymore.”

  He gave me an odd look, and said, “That’s what I call her.”

  “Eh,” I said. “Okay.”

  “She started out by trying to dismantle the Organization in South Adrilankha entirely.”

  I nodded. “And, of course, it popped back up, only outside of her control.”


  “I could have told her that would happen.”

  He tilted his head a little. “Some things are easy to see when you aren’t in the middle of them.”

  “I suppose. What next?”

  “She managed to get back some control of the area, and tried running it—” He frowned. “More gently, I suppose you’d say.”

  I grunted. “That’s what I’d have tried first.”

  “It didn’t work either. As I understand it, debts went uncollected, profit margins were too small—”

  “I get the idea.”

  He nodded. “So, well, various individuals started smelling opportunities. You know how that works.”


  “I don’t,” said Telnan brightly. We ignored him.

  Mario said, “She tried to hang on to what she had, but, really, she didn’t have an organization; just herself and her reputation. That only goes so far.”

  I nodded.

  “Then she started getting help. A few button-men turned up dead, and—”

  “Help from whom?”

  “That’s the big question.”

  I gave him a look.

  “No,” he said. “I had no part in it.”

  “Then who . . . ? Oh.”

  He nodded. “Her old partner.”

  “The Sword of the Jhereg.”

  “Yes,” he said. “At least, that’s the rumor.”

  “The Sword of the Jhereg, now Dragon Heir to the Throne.”

  He nodded. “And not just her personally, but she included various friends and retainers.”


  “No. Just some Dragonlords who felt obligated to help her, no matter what.”

  “That could get ugly.”

  “Yes,” he said.

  “If word gets out that the Dragon Heir is involving herself in—”


  I rubbed my chin. “They’ve just gotten over the last nearscandal with her. But I can see it. Norathar and Cawti—” it still gave me a twinge to say her name—“are friends. Norathar can’t just let it alone.”

  “Precisely. And it’s upset Aliera more than a little.”

  “She mentioned nothing about it to me.”

  He frowned. “I don’t know the whole story, but it seems to me that when you last saw Aliera—”

  “About two hours ago,” I said.

  He nodded. “It seems she had other things on her mind.”

  “Yeah, I suppose she did.”

  “And then you left rather abruptly.”

  “I suppose I did. Has anything been heard from Kiera the Thief in all this?”

  His brows came together. “Why would it concern her?”

  “No reason that I know of. Just wondering.”

  He shook his head.

  I leaned back in my chair. “So, Aliera would like me to see if I can help out.”

  Mario nodded. “As long as you have returned to the area anyway.”

  “Yeah, as long as I’m here.” I didn’t quite roll my eyes. I said, “I admit that, in some ways, I’m in a position to help. At any rate, I know the principles rather well.”

  He nodded again.

  “And I can’t argue that the whole situation isn’t my fault.”

  He nodded again, which was uncalled-for.

  “But there’s the issue that, if I stay around this area for more than a few hours, my life isn’t worth a rusted copper.”

  “That’s where we come to the new resources you are reputed to have.”

  Telnan twitched a little when he said that. He had, it seemed, mostly been lost during the entire conversation, but he must have guessed something about what we spoke of there.

  I ignored him and said to Mario, “Not enough to take on the whole Jhereg, thank you very much.”

  “And an additional resource you may not know about.”


  “Me,” he said.

  I stared off into space for a while. Then I said, “Sure you don’t want something to eat?”


  I nodded, and cleared my throat. “Uh . . . shall I call you Mario?”

  “It’s my name.”

  “Okay. Look. I have some idea of how good you are, but—”


  “We’re talking about the whole Jhereg being after me.”

  “Not the whole Jhereg. Just the Right Hand, as it were.”

  “Oh, well, that’s all right, then.”

  “And it’s the Left Hand that is moving on South Adrilankha.”

  I stared at him. “The Bitch Patrol?”

  He chuckled, as if he’d never heard the term before. “If you like.”

  “What do they want in South Adrilankha?”

  “You’ll have to ask them that.”

  I sat back, remembered my wine, and drank some. I don’t remember how it tasted.

  Loiosh said, “Boss, this is all kinds of not good.”

  “Thank you,” I said, “for the profound observation.”

  I sat there and considered what I knew about the Left Hand of t
he Jhereg, which was not nearly as much as I should have known. The Right Hand, what I usually just called “the Jhereg,” or “the Organization,” was almost entirely male—Kiera, Cawti, and Norathar being exceptions—and it was involved in, well, all the stuff I knew: untaxed gambling, unlicensed prostitution, selling stolen goods, high-interest loans, and other fun things. I had known that the Left Hand, mostly women, existed; but I’d never been exactly clear on what they did. Well, that isn’t completely true; I mean, I know if you need to purchase some artifact of Elder Sorcery, they’re the ones to see. If you need a quick bit of sorcery to help you make someone dead or insure that he stays that way, you go to them. And if you need a piece of information that is only stored inside someone’s head, then a Jhereg sorceress is your best bet.

  But I also knew that couldn’t be all the extent of their interests.

  What could they want in South Adrilankha?

  “What else can you tell me?” I said at last.

  He sighed and shook his head. “It’s unfortunate, how little the Right Hand knows what the Left Hand is doing. I wish I could tell you more.”

  “Whatever details you have.”

  “Yes. Well, at this point, we know that the Dagger has been given warnings to leave South Adrilankha alone. So far as we know, they’ve taken no particular steps.”

  “How do you know it was the Left Hand delivering the warnings?”

  He reached into his cloak. I tensed involuntarily and my hand twitched toward the stiletto I’d replaced in my boot. Telnan seemed to tense as well. Mario pretended not to notice, and emerged with a neat little square of paper, which he passed to me. The handwriting was simple and clean, almost without personality. It read, “We thank you for your interest in and contribution to this part of our city. Now that your work here is done, we hope you will accept our kind wishes for your continued good fortune and good health.” It was signed, “Madam Triesco,” and had the symbol of House Jhereg at the bottom.

  “Madam Triesco?” I said. “Never heard of her.”

  “Nor have I.” He shrugged.

  “Yeah, well, I agree. It seems clear enough.”