Dragon (Vlad Taltos), Page 2Steven Brust
Eventually I risked a look down. There were trees below me that looked like miniature bushes, and the two roads and one stream were lines of brown and blue respectively, meeting and crossing and running almost parallel to form a design that, if I tried, I could convince myself was a mark in some runic alphabet. Maybe it was a symbol that told the castle, “Don’t fall down.” That was a comforting thought.
I adjusted my cloak, ran a hand through my hair, and approached the double doors of Castle Black. They swung open as I approached, which I should have been expecting, because they’d done the same thing last time. I cursed under my breath but kept a small smile on my lips and didn’t break stride—there were Dragonlords watching.
I hadn’t noticed it the last time, but one reason that it is so effective to see Lady Teldra appear when the doors open is that she is all you can see—the entryway is unlit, and except for her you might be entering the void that one imagines as the land of the dead. (The land of the dead, however, is not a void—it’s worse. But never mind.)
“My Lord Taltos,” said Teldra. “Thank you for gracing our home. The Lord awaits you. Please, enter and be welcome.”
I felt welcome in spite of my more cynical side whispering, “Whatever.”
I crossed the threshold. Lady Teldra did not offer to take my cloak this time. She guided me into the hall with all the paintings, through it, up the wide, curving stairway, and eventually to the library. It was big and full of stuffed chairs and thick books; three of the books, sitting just beyond the entrance, were massive jewel-encrusted objects each chained to a pedestal; I wondered but resolved not to ask. As I entered, Morrolan set a book down and stood up, giving me a small bow.
He opened his mouth, probably to make some sort of ironic courtesy, as a counterpoint to Teldra’s sincere one, but I said, “Who died?” before he could get the words out. He shut his mouth, glanced at Loiosh, and nodded toward a chair next to his. I sat down.
He said, “Baritt.”
I said, “Oh.”
Morrolan seemed to want me to say something, so eventually I said, “You know, the first time I met him I had the feeling he wouldn’t be—”
“Do not joke about it, Vlad.”
“All right. What do you want me to say? I didn’t get the impression he was a friend of yours.”
Lady Teldra appeared with refreshment—a white wine that would have been too sweet except that it was served over chunks of ice. I sipped it to be polite the first time, and then discovered I liked it. The Issola glided from the room. There was no table on which to set the goblet down, but the chair had wide, flat arms. Very convenient.
“Well?” I repeated.
“In the second place,” said Morrolan, “he was an important man. And in the first place—”
“He was a Dragon,” I concluded. “Yeah, I know.”
Morrolan nodded. I drank some more wine. The sensation of cold helps reduce the sensation of sweetness. I bet you didn’t know that.
“So, what happened to the poor bastard?”
Morrolan started to answer, then paused, then said, “It is unimportant.”
“All right,” I agreed. “It is unimportant to me, in any case.” I had met Baritt, or, more properly, his shade, in the Paths of the Dead. He had taken an instant dislike to Morrolan because Morrolan had the bad taste to be traveling with me, which should give you an idea of how Baritt and I had hit it off.
I continued, “I assume it isn’t a request for sympathy that led to your invitation.”
“You are correct.”
He turned his head to the side and looked at me quizzically. “What is it you gave me, Vlad?”
I laughed. “Is that it? Is that what this is all about?”
“Actually, no. I’m just curious.”
“Oh. Well, remain curious.” I had, in fact, injected him with the blood of a goddess for reasons too complicated to explain now, and, at the time, I was in no condition to explain anything.
“As you wish. Baritt, as I say, died. In going through his possessions—”
“What? Already? He can’t have been brought to Deathgate yet.”
“Well, that seems awful quick for you long-lived types.”
“There are reasons.”
“You’re just full of information, aren’t you?”
“Were I to tell you matters pertaining to the internal politics of the House of the Dragon I should only weary you. And I should then have to kill you for knowing. So my thought was not to trouble you with such information.”
“A good thought,” I said.
Loiosh shifted on my shoulder, evidently getting restless. “As I was saying, in going through his possessions, certain items were discovered.”
He stopped. I waited. He resumed.
“He had a large collection of Morganti weapons. A large collection. Hundreds of them.”
I repressed a shiver. “I suppose the reason he had them is none of my business, too.”
“That is correct. And, in any case, I don’t know.”
“Well then, what about them?”
“I spent a good portion of yesterday inspecting them. I have an interest in such things.”
His eyes narrowed for a moment, then he evidently decided to ignore it. “Such weapons,” he went on, “represent power. Some covet power, some are threatened by others coveting power.”
“Which are you?”
“I knew that,” I said. “I didn’t expect you to admit it.”
I couldn’t answer that so I didn’t. “Go on,” I said. “Who’s the enemy?”
“You are perspicacious.”
“Yeah, but my physicker says it can be treated.”
“He means you’re perceptive, Boss.”
“I know that, Loiosh.”
“Yes,” said Morrolan. “I believe that I am likely to come into conflict with someone over possession of these weapons.”
“Who might that be?”
“I don’t know. There are several possibilities. The likeliest is—well, it doesn’t matter.”
“For what I want from you, you don’t need to know.”
“That’s fortunate. Well, what do you want then?”
“I want you to arrange for the stolen weapons to be traced.”
“Some weapons have been stolen?”
“Not yet,” he said.
“I see. How certain are you?”
“That, too, is unimportant. I will be protecting them, as will various others. Whoever wishes to steal one or more will have to hire an expert thief, and that means the Jhereg, and that means—”
“I might be able to find out what’s become of it. I see.”
“Boss, this could get you into trouble.”
I sat back and looked at Morrolan. He held my gaze. After a moment I said, “That isn’t at all the sort of thing I’m any good at, Morrolan. And, to tell you the truth, if I did find out, I don’t believe I could bring myself to tell you. It’s a Jhereg thing, you know?”
“I believe I do, yes.” He frowned and seemed to be considering. “On the other hand,” he said, “if I understand how you— that is, how the Jhereg—work, whoever did the stealing would be unlikely to be more than a tool, hired by someone else, is that correct?”
“Yes,” I said, not terribly happy about where this was going.
“Well then, could you find out—”
“Maybe,” I admitted.
“What would it take?”
“Money. A lot of it.”
“I have money.”
“I still want to think about it. It could put me.into a situation I’m not certain I’d like.”
and. Do think about it, though. I can offer you—”
“Don’t tell me. I’d rather not be tempted. I’ll let you know.”
He nodded and didn’t press the issue, which earned him some points with me.
“There’s another matter,” he said.
I bit back irony and waited.
“The circumstances of Baritt’s death—”
“Which are none of my business.”
“—have, among other things, made me aware of the vulnerability of Castle Black.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The circumstances of—”
“I heard you, I just don’t understand. How is a castle floating half a mile or more in the air vulnerable? Other than to falling down, of course.”
“That isn’t likely.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Which reminds me, why don’t my ears pop when I teleport up?”
He looked smug but didn’t tell me. “Obviously,” he said, “the castle can be penetrated by anyone who can teleport and conceal himself from my guards.”
“You don’t have any security precautions?”
“Some, but not enough. It seems to me you could be of some assistance in telling me where to improve them.”
I thought it over, and realized that I knew exactly how to go about it. “Yes, I can do that.” I considered asking about payment, but on reflection calculated that it would be more profitable to do a good job and allow him to display his generosity.
He frowned for a moment, and seemed lost in thought.
“Psychic communication, Boss.”
“I knew that, Loiosh.”
“You’re a liar, Boss.”
At about that time, a Dragonlord entered the room and bowed to Morrolan. He was short and rather stocky for a Dragaeran, with short, light-brown hair and pale eyes; he didn’t strike me as a fighter, but he wore a blade, which meant he was on duty in some capacity.
Morrolan said, “Fentor, this is Baronet Vladimir Taltos. I know you are willing to work with Easterners, but are you willing to take orders from a Jhereg?”
Fentor said, “My lord?”
Loiosh said, “What did he say?”
I said, “Errgh?”
Morrolan said, “I’ve just hired Lord Taltos as a security consultant. That puts you in his charge, under certain circumstances.”
I felt my mouth open and close. Morrolan had what? And when had he done this?
Fentor said, “That will not be a problem, my lord.”
“Good,” said Morrolan.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Never mind. A pleasure, Fentor.”
“The same, my lord.”
“Boss, you’ve just been hired.”
“Well, yeah. Recruited, actually.”
“You should tell him to never use this power in the service of evil.”
“I’ll be sure to.”
It occurred to me, also, that it was going to be harder, now that I was more or less working for him, to avoid trying to get the information he was after. Of course, maybe I’d get lucky, and no one would steal any of the weapons. Something made me doubt this.
Fentor bowed cordially to us both and made his exit.
I said, “Morrolan, what aren’t you telling me?”
“In particular. I get the feeling that you aren’t just generally worried about someone stealing some random Morganti weapon.”
“You should trust your feelings; they seem to be reliable.”
“Thank you so much.”
He stood abruptly and said, “Come with me, Vlad. I’ll show you around and introduce you to a few people.”
“I can hardly wait,” I said.
I got up and followed him.
Do you know what a battlefield smells like? If so, you have my sympathy; if not, you still won’t, because I have no intention of dwelling on it except to say that people don’t smell so good on the inside.
We stepped over the piles of dirt (I can’t call it a “bulwark” with a straight face) that we’d spent so much time and sweat creating, and moved forward at a steady pace; not too fast, not too slow. No, come to think of it, much too fast. A slow crawl would have been much too fast.
I adjusted my uniform sash, which was the only mark I carried to show which side I was on, since I’d lost my cute little cap somewhere during the last couple of attacks. About half of the company had lost their cute little caps, and many of the enemy had, too. But we all had sashes, which identified the side we were on, like the ribbons that identify sandball teams. I never played sandball. I’d seen Dragons playing sandball in West Side Park, alongside of Teckla, though never in the same game at the same time, and certainly not on the same team. Make of that what you will.
“Have you thought about getting up in the air and away from this?” I asked my familiar for the fifth time.
“I’ve thought about it,” he answered for the fourth (the first time he hadn’t made any response at all, so I’d had to repeat the question; we’d only sustained three attacks hitherto). And, “How did we get into this, anyway?” I’d lost count of how many times he’d asked me that; not as many as I’d asked myself.
We moved forward.
How did we get ourselves into this?
I asked Sethra, not long ago, why she ordered us to hold that position, which never looked terribly important from where I sat—except to me, of course, for personal reasons that I’ll go into later. She said, “For the same reason I had Gutrin’s spear phalanx attack that little dale to your left. By holding that spot, you threatened an entire flank, and I needed to freeze a portion of the enemy’s reserves. As long as you kept threatening that position, he had to either reinforce it or remain ready to reinforce it. That way I could wait for the right time and place to commit my reserves, which I did when—”
“All right, all right,” I said. “Never mind.”
I hadn’t wanted a technical answer, I’d wanted her to say “It was vital to the entire campaign.” I wanted to have had a more important role. We were one piece on the board, and only as important as any other. All the pieces wish to be, if not a player, at least the piece the players are most concerned with.
Not being a player was one of the things that bothered me. I was, I suppose, only a piece and not a player when I would carry out the order of one of my Jhereg superiors, but I had been running my own territory for a short while at that point, and had already become used to it. That was part of the problem: In the Jhereg, I was, if not a commander-in-chief, at least a high ranking field officer. Here, I was, well, I guess I was a number of things, but put them all together and they still didn’t amount to much.
But how did we get ourselves into this? There were no great principles involved. I mean, you judge a war according to who is in the right as long as you have no interest in the outcome; if you’re one of the participants, or if the result is going to have a major effect on you, then you have to create the moral principles that put you in the right—that’s nothing new, everyone knows it. But this one was so raw. No one could even come up with a good mask to put over it. It was over land, and power, and who got to expand where, without even the thinnest veneer of anything else.
Those veneers can be important when you’re marching down toward rows of nasty pointy things.
Baritt died, that’s what started it all. And Morrolan convinced me to set up a trap to find out who would be likely to steal what I preferred not to come anywhere near. Kragar, my lieutenant in the organization, looked worried when I told him about it, but I’m sure even he, who knew Dragons better than I ever would, had no clue how it would end up.
“What if someone does steal one, and you find out who,” he said, “and it turns out to be someone you don’t want to mess with?”
“That, of course, is the
question. But it seems unlikely to be a Jhereg behind it.”
“No, Vlad, it will be a Dragon. That’s the problem.”
Well, he was a Dragon; he should know. No, he wasn’t a Dragon, he was a Jhereg, but he should still know. He had once been a Dragon, which meant—what?
I studied Kragar. I knew him better than I knew anyone I didn’t know at all. We’d worked together as enforcers when I first entered the Jhereg, and we’d been working together ever since. He was the only Dragaeran I didn’t hate, except maybe Kiera. Come to think of it, I didn’t understand her, either.
Kragar was courageous, and timid, warmhearted, and vicious, and easygoing, and dedicated, and friendly, and utterly ruthless; as well as having the strange ability, or shortcoming, to blend into the woodwork so completely one could be staring right at him without realizing he was there.
I couldn’t remember a single idea of mine that he hadn’t thrown cold water on, nor a single one that he hadn’t backed me on to the hilt—literally, in some cases.
“What is it?” he said.
“I was ruminating.”
“Shouldn’t you do that in private?”
“Oh, is someone here?”
“You’re a riot, Vlad.”
“In any case,” I said, picking up the conversation from where it was lying in the middle of the floor, “there’s a lot of money in it.”
Kragar made a sound I won’t attempt to describe. I could sense Loiosh holding back several remarks. It seems I surround myself with people who think I’m an idiot, which probably says something deep and profound about me.
“So,” I said, “who do we put on it?”
“I don’t know. We should probably go over there ourselves and look things over.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
He gave me a puzzled glance that went away quickly. There are matters on which Dragaerans and humans will never understand one another, and soul-killing weapons are, evidently, one of those. I mean, they hate them as much as or more than we do; but Dragaerans don’t usually have the sort of overwhelming dread that such weapons inspire in a human. I don’t know why that is.
“How do we get there?”