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The Lord of Castle Black: Book Two of the Viscount of Adrilankha, Page 2

Steven Brust

  “You are most welcome, sir,” said the other, “and would be even if you had nothing. It is lonely in the mountains, or even at their feet, and company is always welcome.”

  Pel dismounted, hobbled his horse, and approached the fire, saying, “I am called Galstan; may I inquire as to whom I have the honor of addressing?”

  “I am Wadre, a road agent by trade, although you need have no fear on that score, as I do not work alone, and my associates are not, at this time, near at hand.”

  “Ah, I am reassured. Here, may I offer you these figs? I have made trial of them upon myself and found them excellent.”

  “You are very courteous. For my part, I have managed to save a little wine, and, by the Gods, you are welcome to the half of it.”

  “I am deeply in your debt, my friend. Tell me, if you would, how you happen to be out here alone, if, as you say, you ply your trade in a band?”

  “I met with misfortune, and became separated from my companions. But you, what brings you to these mountains alone, if you will forgive my curiosity?”

  “I am on a mission.”

  “A mission?”

  “Yes, exactly, and of the most serious kind.”

  “Ah! You say, ‘serious.’ ”

  “And if I do?”

  “That is to say, rewarding?”

  “Rewarding? Well, it is not impossible that, at its end, there will be a certain recompense.”

  “In that case, well, do you have any need of a confederate?”

  “How, a confederate?”

  “Well, you perceive I have a sword, and I give you my word I am tolerably well acquainted with its use. If this would be useful to you, we could perhaps consider a partnership of some sort. I tell you frankly that I have been unable to decide upon my course of action, after losing my companions; indeed, I have been sitting in this very spot trying to come to some sort of decision, and, as I have sat here, I have watched my few provisions gradually disappear. You have already given me some aid, in that you have brought food just as I was coming to a most unwelcome understanding of hunger. In short, I am, just now, meeting severe circumstances, and I look to you for rescue. You perceive I hold back nothing; I hope that, even if you cannot use my services, you will love me a little for my honesty.”

  “You interest me exceedingly, young man, and I must say that I am considering your offer in all earnestness.”

  “I am glad you are considering my offer, because I certainly made it with no question of joking.”

  “What of your companions?”

  “Well, what of them?”

  “Do you speak for them as well?”

  “Only under a certain condition.”

  “A condition? Let us hear this famous condition, then.”

  “Feathers! It is that I find them again!”

  “Ah. Well, I understand how this could be necessary.”

  “And if I find them, are we agreed?”

  “Permit me to consider.”

  “Oh,” said Wadre, “please believe that I would never question a gentleman’s right to consider. Even when I was with my band, and we would come upon a stranger and I would offer him his life in exchange for whatever he possessed of value, well, even then I would not begrudge him some time to consider.”

  “And you were right not to. In this case, there are many things to consider, but, above all, I must consider whether my objectives will be aided by having a swordsman, or perhaps, indeed, a few swordsmen, near at hand; or whether these objectives will be hindered. As I consider, perhaps you will tell me what you have been doing in these regions, and how you happened to become separated from your associates.”

  “Oh, that is easily enough explained.”

  “Well, I am listening, then.”

  “We were hired for a mission by a sorceress, which mission proved to be overly difficult for us.”

  “Well, but you must understand that this answer, laconic as it is, only produces more questions.”

  “How, does it?”

  “I promise you it does.”

  “Well, I cannot help that.”

  “But can you answer them?”

  “My dear sir,” said Wadre, “should you but ask, I will turn my entire attention to doing so.”

  “Very well, let me begin then.”

  “You perceive that I am listening.”

  “You say you were hired by a sorceress?”

  “I say so, and I even repeat it.”

  “Tell me, then, about this sorceress, for it is unusual to meet someone with such skills in these days when the Orb is no longer whirling merrily about the head of an Emperor.”

  And in this way, Pel very soon had extracted from the bandit the entire history of the recent encounter between Orlaan and Piro in all significant details. And, although Wadre mentioned nothing that might divulge the identity of Zerika or her friends, he did happen to include Tazendra’s remark about having known the sorceress by another name.

  “Grita?” said Pel. “That was the name of the sorceress? Grita? You are certain?”

  “It is as I have had the honor to say, my dear sir.”

  “And the name of the Dzurlord?”

  “This name I never heard pronounced.”

  “But she was wearing a uniform of sorts, mostly of black, yet with hints of silver as a Dragonlord might wear, similar to the old uniform of the Lavodes?”

  “Yes, indeed.”

  “And she was the one who called the sorceress by the name Grita?”

  “It was none other; indeed, there is no question in my mind that the Dzurlord and the sorceress knew each other.”

  “Well, that is more than a little interesting,” said Pel, considering the matter deeply.

  “You think so?”

  “Believe me, my friend, I am captivated by your tale.”

  Wadre bowed. “I am glad that you are.”

  “But it does make me wonder one thing, my dear brigand.”

  “What is that?”

  “It concerns loyalty.”

  “How, loyalty?”

  “Exactly. Suppose that my mission were to conflict with that of this Grita, or Orlaan, or whatever her name is. Where would your loyalty lie?”

  “Why, I am always utterly loyal to whoever pays me, at least for a while.”

  “For a while?”

  “Yes. For example, if we were to fight with Orlaan—”

  “Yes, if we were to fight her, what then?”

  “Why then, as you had hired me, I should fight for you at least until the end of the battle.”

  “So then, you are not fanatical in your loyalty.”

  “Oh, I think I am fanatical in nothing. And, as for loyalty—”


  Wadre shrugged. “I am a highwayman. You perceive, loyalty is not of great value in my profession.”

  “Yes, there is some justice in what you say. But I must know if I can depend upon you to remain loyal for a certain period of time.”

  “If you have engaged me for it, and I have agreed, you can depend upon me.”

  Pel nodded. “I will take you at your word,” he said.

  “You may do so with confidence,” said the brigand. “But, what is it you would have me do?”

  “In the first place, you must find your confederates, because we may require them.”

  “That may be difficult.”

  “The reward will be commensurate with the difficulty.”

  Wadre bowed. “I will take you at your word.”

  “You may do so with confidence,” said Pel.

  The highwayman made a respectful salute and set off. When Wadre had departed to begin looking for his associates, Pel spent some few moments in deep consideration; as he considered, he frowned, then briefly shook his head as if to dispel a stray or distracting thought that had intruded upon his contemplations. Sometime later he permitted himself a brief smile, after which he nodded abruptly, as if he had at last come to a decision. The results of this decision w
e will see presently.

  Chapter the Thirty-Sixth

  How Khaavren At Last

  Set Out from Adrilankha

  With the Intention of

  Visiting an Old Friend

  The reader may recall that Khaavren had determined that, rather than permitting history to wash over him as if he were a piece of driftwood by the banks of the Laughing River, he would prepare himself to take an active part in it. He had further determined that he was in no condition to do anything useful; therefore, he reasoned, he must remedy this condition at once.

  He thus began to attempt to recover some of the form and physical situation he had enjoyed years before—driving his agèd body (or, at any rate, what felt to him like an agèd body) as hard as he could. He rose before dawn, and, before even so much as taking a glass of klava, he would slowly run through a series of motions he had learned of Aerich and which were designed to put his muscles into such a state that they could suffer certain abuse without being damaged—these were very slow actions, taking each joint in the body in turn and slowly causing it to extend, stretch, or turn; the result, though Khaavren didn’t know this, was very similar to the motions and gyrations of an Issola snake-dancer.

  These motions and actions took rather more than half an hour, and, when they were done, Khaavren took himself out of doors and ran in a regular route that took him some three miles to complete. We must say that he had begun by walking this route, and then, after some weeks, he had begun to trot through parts of it, and so on; but now he was running the entire distance, and, indeed, was beginning to run it at a good speed.

  Having completed the run, he would pause long enough to drink a glass of water and another glass of a certain combination of fruit juices that he had learned of years before from Tazendra, who pretended it replenished resources of the body which running tended to consume. Then, having taken this sustenance, he would retire to the weapons room and there spend two hours running through the sword training that he had begun learning as a child, and that had never entirely deserted him. He would thrust, parry, advance, retreat, circle, and go through complex combinations and patterns that had been handed down from Tiassa swordsmen of antiquity, improved by practice in combat, refined by theoretical studies, and tempered by experience. To these traditional maneuvers, Khaavren, like the Tiassa he was, would add in his own techniques, taken from his observations of Aerich’s coolness, Tazendra’s aggressiveness, and Pel’s ferocity.

  When finished with these exercises—and the reader must understand that, as Khaavren drove himself through these with all of the enthusiasm of a Tiassa, he was by now exhausted, and trembling in all of his parts—he was not yet done. Next came the part where he worked to make his muscles stronger. On certain days, he would work on lifting heavy objects; on other days, he would attempt to increase his flexibility by straining his various limbs to the limits of their movements. On other days, he would combine these activities.

  Often, his wife, Daro, would come to him when he had concluded his regime and with her own hands rub and massage his muscles. Whether this aided Khaavren in his efforts to return his body to what he called “fighting trim” we cannot know; but there is no question that it was enjoyable for both of them.

  We should say that, when he had first begun to subject himself to this regimen, he had discovered in terms that left no room for doubt how far his physical state had deteriorated. He would quickly find himself covered with perspiration, and note that his breath was coming in gasps, and sometimes he could barely sustain himself upright for the trembling in his limbs; whereas at night it would seem as if he were, as he put it to himself, “trying to sleep in a pool of my own aches and pains.”

  But he was a Tiassa, and he had made a decision; nothing was going to shake his resolve. The more his body seemed to object to the treatment to which he subjected it, the more determined he was to do more. He played mental games with himself, saying that if he could push himself a little harder to-day, he would ease off tomorrow (which agreement with himself he would promptly break the next day), or else he would try to convince himself that it was easier than it had been the day before, or sometimes pretend that he was displaying his prowess before a host of admirers who had never seen such a display of strength and endurance, and were cheering him on.

  But, most of all, he simply gritted his teeth and carried on, pushing himself for no other reason than that he had decided to do so, and his self-love would permit no failure, no cessation, no easing up in the effort.

  In all, he would spend five hours at these activities, at the end of which time he would bathe and then break his fast—and break it well, for by this time he would have built up a prodigious hunger. He would drink more of Tazendra’s juice combination, as well as eating hot bread, butter, and certain fresh fish that the Countess caused to be brought to Whitecrest Manor directly from the piers. In addition, he would have kethna procured from smokehouses in South Adrilankha, and various vegetables that Daro, the Countess, pretended would help improve his hearing and eyesight.

  His repast would be in the company not only of his wife, but often of their guest Röaana as well, and, as the weeks became months, both of these women were unable to help but notice certain changes in our old friend, as this physical training caused not only physical, but also mental, or, if the reader prefers, emotional improvements. His eyes began to recover their old glint; his voice became at once more firm and more gentle; his conversation both more precise and more intriguing. It need hardly be added that Daro was no less than delighted with these changes, and, if she understood that it meant he would be leaving her for a more or less prolonged period, and to go into greater or lesser danger, well, that was still some weeks or months away, and the Countess of Whitecrest, being herself a Tiassa, understood how to live fully in the moment.

  As for their guest, she had, within the first few days of her visit, become part of the household. She had at once made friends with the cook, and could often be found in the kitchen, snacking on cinnamon crusts and chatting with her about almost any subject. And she had entirely won the heart of Daro because the girl’s enthusiasm had quite reminded the Countess of herself at that age, and Röaana had almost immediately discovered that it was completely natural to confide in Daro, telling her much about her life and her hopes for the future, and, indeed, as is the way with such conversation, many things that she, Röaana, had not herself realized before speaking of them. With a sensitivity that is, alas, rare in a Tiassa, she had recognized at once that Khaavren rarely wished to be entertained by bright conversation, but had rather respected his reticence and desire for quiet, and so she often amused herself when in his presence by reading from Whitecrest Manor’s rather extensive library of works historical and poetic.

  A little later, as Khaavren began to feel some of his old power returning, the girl volunteered to spar with him, an offer which he accepted at first grudgingly, then more willingly upon finding that she had, in fact, some skill as a swordsman, and so after this the two of them would fight with buttoned foils for an hour each day, at the end of Khaavren’s exercise period. If he was able to teach her much of the technique that made him such a formidable adversary, she, in turn, was able to give him a great deal of practice in fighting against younger and less disciplined swordsmen; practice that he was convinced would be useful to him. In this way, as we have said, she endeared herself to all of the house, and, between her influence and the improvement in Khaavren’s disposition, there was a period of some months when Whitecrest Manor was a happy household. If there was no small worry on behalf of the young viscount, and yet more worry regarding Khaavren’s future departure, we hope the reader will comprehend that, in a time of such fear and sorrow as the Interregnum, families and individuals grasped at such joy as they were able to, keeping well in the back of their thoughts such fears as concerned matters over which they had no control.

  And so it was a smiling, happy Countess of Whitecrest who greeted Khaavren and Röaana e
arly one afternoon on the terrace overlooking the ocean-sea. Khaavren rose as she appeared, and kissed her hand tenderly as she seated herself. She smiled at their guest, who had fit so well into the household, and said, “A very pleasant day to you both.”

  “It is,” said Khaavren. “Though I perceive the sea is troubled below us; no doubt there is a storm to the southwest, beyond the range of our vision.”

  Daro said to Röaana, “It is hard to believe that my lord Khaavren was raised far inland, hundreds of leagues from the ocean-sea, for, in the short time he has dwelt here, he has come to know the sea as well as any of us born to it. Indeed, my lord has predicted storms that old, old men could not sense, and I have never known him to be wrong.”

  Khaavren smiled. “I must say that I love the ocean-sea as much as if I’d been born to it. It is peaceful, yet never inducing of ennui.”

  “Indeed,” said Röaana, “the waves have been dancing for us. I find that I never tire of watching them.”

  “It does soothe the heart,” said Daro. “My lord Khaavren and I have spent many a troubled hour staring out at the sea.” Daro gave Röaana a friendly smile as Cook appeared with cool drinks hinting of mint and lime.

  Khaavren sipped his, then permitted his gaze to drift eastward for a time. Neither of the others spoke, nor needed to; they were well aware that his thoughts were following his eyes out toward where his son was, wondering, and worried. Daro watched him, and Röaana watched Daro.

  Khaavren let his gaze return to the ocean-sea. After a time he said, “My dear, I must tell you that I believe it is at last time to set out. Today I completed the Form of the Six Valleys in the proper time, and, upon completing it, was able to do so again, and then yet a third time, with no greater result than a rapid pulse, a need for deep breaths, and a slight trembling in my forearm. I cannot recall a time when I was able to do more with milder effects, therefore I conclude I have reached a state of conditioning that I must deem sufficient.”