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The Paths of the Dead, Page 2

Steven Brust

  The reader may recall that when we were first introduced to Lord Adron, in our history of The Phoenix Guards, he was then the Dragon Heir. When he appeared in our later history of Five Hundred Years After he was the Dragon Heir. If there was, in between, a period of time, more or less prolonged, in which he was not the Heir, we can hardly be held responsible for failing to describe events that fall outside of the realm of our investigations.

  But we feel it our duty, in any case, to separate fact from myth; truth from legend; possible from impossible. We will acknowledge, then, that there are stories—and these from reliable sources—that have linked Mario Greymist, who slew the Phoenix Emperor, with Lord Adron. While these stories, perhaps, have their origin in someone who knew Adron well, we should also add that these stories have come from one who also knew Mario, and who had reason to wish history to hold a higher opinion of the assassin than, perhaps, he deserves. We nevertheless maintain that under no circumstances would Lord Adron have used an assassin, nor given sanctuary to one. We defy anyone, however well informed, to point to anything even Adron's detractors of the period have said, that would lead us to believe the Duke of Eastmanswatch would countenance such methods under any circumstances whatsoever.

  We should add that the vilification of Lord Adron that has occurred since the Disaster is as natural as it is predictable; nevertheless, this author will not indulge in such conduct himself. Whatever else he was, Adron was above all a human being, with all of the strengths and weaknesses that implies: there is no more reason to treat him as an inhuman monster than there is to present him as a military genius. As we have attempted to do with all those who pass through our pages, we endeavored to present him as he was, leaving judgment to the reader. Those who have censured us for "apologizing" for the Duke in our previous work no more deserve our attention than do those who have accused us of "bending the fabric of history to sustain a dubious maxim," as one supposed historian has suggested.

  There nevertheless remain two valid questions: Did the quarrels within the House of the Dragon, and between the Dragon and the Jhereg, contribute to the fall of the Empire? And, if so, is the historian negligent in having failed to discuss them?

  In the opinion of this historian, the rôle played by these two quarrels in the fall of the Empire is negligible at best—the disagreement over who was to be Heir, which occurred early in Tortaalik's reign, was resolved well before the end of it; and if a certain bitterness lingered among the supporters of Kee-Laiyer, it was an impotent bitterness. More importantly, those few wizards who were assassinated by the Jhereg could have no effect on the power unleashed by Lord Adron's spell, and to claim that, had they been present, he would not have required the spell, is to engage in the most base and unhistorical sort of speculation.

  The figure at the center of this controversy is, of course, Adron's daughter, Aliera, who appears to have made certain comments to the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain. If Aliera did make these comments, then we should point out that they were made to Sethra Lavode, who then somehow relayed them to another party, from whose mouth or pen they fell into the hands of a supposed historian. The reader is encouraged to consider: Aliera makes an interpretation; Sethra summarizes this interpretation; some third party records this summary; a historian writes based on this record. How far removed we are from truth! To call this "hearsay" is to accord it far more weight, even, than it deserves.

  This historian, we may add, has, over the years, had the honor to carry on a limited but fascinating correspondence with Sethra Lavode, in the course of preparing for the work (as yet unpublished) from which, accidentally, sprang our two previous histories; and the Enchantress has never mentioned any such conversation to this historian.

  In short, we would like to say that, while historical speculation is, perhaps, an amusing pastime, it has no place in serious works of history; and this author has avoided, and will continue to avoid, such speculation in the course of laying before the reader the interesting lives of those few persons with whom these narratives have concerned themselves.

  There are other remarks that could, perhaps be made; but we long ago made the choice, regarding these works, to avoid insulting our readers by explaining matters with which anyone is likely to be familiar. We would no more offer an explanation, then, of conditions obtaining during the Interregnum, where we begin our narrative, than we would describe the location of Adrilankha itself.

  With this firmly established, we hope the reader will, without further delay or digression, allow us to embark once more on a narrative journey through a stormy and enchanting time in our recent past.


  2/2/10/11 (Norath. II: 181)

  The Viscount of Adrilankha

  The Paths of the Dead



  Chapter the First

  Chapter the Second

  Chapter the Third

  Chapter the Fourth

  Chapter the Fifth

  Chapter the Sixth

  Chapter the Seventh

  Chapter the Eighth

  Chapter the Ninth

  Chapter the Tenth

  Chapter the Eleventh

  Chapter the Twelfth

  Chapter the Thirteenth

  Chapter the Fourteenth

  Chapter the Fifteenth

  Chapter the Sixteenth

  Chapter the Seventeenth


  Chapter the Eighteenth

  Chapter the Nineteenth

  Chapter the Twentieth

  Chapter the Twenty-First

  Chapter the Twenty-Second

  Chapter the Twenty-Third

  Chapter the Twenty-Fourth

  Chapter the Twenty-Fifth

  Chapter the Twenty-Sixth

  Chapter the Twenty-Seventh

  Chapter the Twenty-Eighth

  Chapter the Twenty-Ninth

  Chapter the Thirtieth

  Chapter the Thirty-First

  Chapter the Thirty-Second

  Chapter the Thirty-Third

  Chapter the Thirty-Fourth

  Some Notes


  In Which We Introduce the Principal

  Actors in Our Drama, and Most of Them

  Set Out on Diverse Missions

  Chapter the First

  How a Traveler Wishing for a Name

  Met a Coachman Wishing for a Drink

  And a Bargain Was Reached

  It was on a Homeday in the early summer of the 156th year of the Interregnum that a traveler entered a small village in the East. This village was, we should say, far to the East—farther than any except the most intrepid of explorers have ventured, for it involves crossing the range of mountains that lie beyond the Laughing River, and descending, from there, into a land of myth, legend, and, if we are to be permitted, history. Knowing, as we do, that few of our readers will ever venture into these lands, we hope we may be permitted a moment to sketch the peculiar landscape that might greet the traveler who emerges from the narrow Grinding Pass between Mount Horsehead, also called Hookjaw Mountain, and the Broken Mountain, which may also have other names, although these have not come down to us.

  In this place the traveler in his coach or the reader on his couch would find a gradually widening gorge or valley descending from the mountain in the place where a furious river had once run. The valley is as green and lush as one might expect from what had once been the bottom of a river, while above it stand ranks and rows of greyish rock, cut or molded into the strangest of formations, some standing two or even three hundred feet high, and many of them appearing almost manlike in their aspect. These are called by those who dwell in the valley the Guardians, and these Easterners, a peaceful agricultural tribe called Nemites, believe, in fact, that these rocks contain a sentience that watches over them. What is more significant, however, is that all of the neighbors of the Nemites, including the warlike Letites to the north and the fierce Straves to the south, also believe it, for which rea
son the Nemites have dwelt in this valley for years upon years without the least disturbance.

  While phenomena such as strange and oddly beautiful rock formations—caused by we know not what fluke of wind, water, and earth—might well serve to protect these Easterners from others of their own kind, one could hardly expect them to do any good against the less superstitious human; especially those of the House of the Dragon who, after all, had dwellings not twenty leagues away, on the other side of the Broken Mountain. What, then, has protected the Nemites from the Dragonlords? Could it be that, in fact, they are correct in their beliefs concerning the formations of stone that seem to watch over them day and night? Perhaps. Yet it seems to us that the answer lies more in geography than in magical philosophy. The very existence of the Broken Mountain has served, for thousands of years, to shunt large groups to one side or another of the Nemite Valley, and both of its sides, or "flanks" to put it in the military terms of the House of the Dragon, are guarded by the very tribes who are filled with superstitious dread of the Guardians. In this way, one might say that the Guardians have, indeed, done exactly what the Nemites believe them to do.

  The astute reader will have observed that we have explained why the valley is safe from the west, from the north, and from the south, and is, no doubt, furiously wondering what lies to the east. The author would like to assure the reader that we have not forgotten this cardinal direction, but intend to take him there directly; indeed, it is for the purpose of this easterly journey that we have introduced the Nemites who, though certainly of interest in and of themselves, form no part of our history.

  To the east, then, is one of the more peculiar features of landscape to be found anywhere in the world. It is as if the gods who made the world had decreed that no one should be permitted to pass eastward from the land of the Nemites. To begin, the valley is sealed off by a sheer cliff of granite—to all appearances, a slab of rock nearly four thousand feet high, three miles wide, and running almost straight up. From its peak, it runs down to the east in a slope only slightly less sheer. How such an object could occur in the course of nature is a curiosity rivaled only by the Rising Waterfall of Cordania or the Steam Caves of Northern Suntra. But however imposing Man might consider this object, Nature, evidently, did not deem it sufficient, for beyond "the Rise," as the Nemites call it, is a land of bogs and mires, where what few dry patches exist are liable to turn into quicksands whenever the sudden and unpredictable rains visit the district. This useless, boggy area continues for several miles—all the way, in fact, to Thundering Lake, or Lake Nivaper as some call it: that wide, blue, scenic, but terrifying lake, surrounded by harsh rocks and subject to the sort of weather that one might anticipate finding at sea, but should hardly expect to encounter in a freshwater lake, whatever its size.

  The Thundering Lake dominates the region both physically and economically, and should the author indulge in a description of the various small kingdoms and independent villages that thrive or struggle along its shore the reader might well grow impatient, to the chagrin of the author, who prides himself on laconicity. Therefore, bowing to the reader's understandable desire to learn what there is in this region that bears upon our story, we focus our attention upon a village directly opposite the Lake from the the Rise. This is the village of Blackchapel.

  Alas, little is known of the strange gods and demons who were once worshiped here by the heathen Easterners, but at some point, most likely around the middle of the Third Cycle, an enclosed altar was built to one or more of them, which became a center of prayer and commerce. In the opinion of this historian, the first chapel (there have been at least six) was probably erected to a fish god, because the district has thrived on fishing for as long as anyone can recall, and because certain markings in and around the altar could be interpreted as crude representations of primitive fishing gear.

  Blackchapel, for most of its history, was a quiet little village. Indeed, the noted traveler Ustav of Leramont, one of the first human beings to visit, noted that a day spent in the village was, as he put it, "as exciting as watching two pieces of granite involved in a staring contest," and added, "I eagerly looked forward to my night's rest as a means of relieving my ennui."

  We go back, then, to the 156th year of the Interregnum—which is, we should add, nearly a hundred years before the rest of our tale begins—when a young warlock came to this village, traveling from the south. He was remarkably tall for an Easterner, towering well over everyone he chanced to meet, and he was, moreover, thin of figure. He had dark hair and eyes, and was dressed simply in a black shirt, black trousers, and short brown cloak, and was equipped with a sword, a knife, and a small satchel which contained a heavier shirt, a longer cloak, and a change of underclothing. We should take a moment, before continuing to follow this young man, to say two words about the term "warlock." It is, as a translation from the Eastern boszorkány, simply the masculine form of the word for "skilled one" or "witch." But throughout various Eastern cultures, this word has acquired other meanings, as a young nobleman who grows in power gradually acquires additional lands, dwellings, and retainers. In some cultures, the word has come to mean "enemy." In others, "servant of dark powers." Yet in other places of the East it means stranger things, such as "man who dresses as a woman," or "traitor to one's lord," or even "man who knows the secrets of women," this latter indicating that among some Eastern cultures the practice of witchcraft is considered a woman's skill, although no other evidence has been found to support this belief.

  In this case, however, when we call this traveler a warlock, we mean simply a man who has studied the heathen arts of Eastern witchcraft. In fact, though initiated into these arts, this young man had not progressed in them to any great degree, but, rather, had only recently come to the point where, according to the "school" of witchcraft practiced by this young man and his teachers, he had to undertake a journey and attempt to find a guide or a path into what the Easterners called the "spirit world." Upon the actual meaning of this term, if any, the author will not speculate, this being, after all, a work of history, not a treatise on magical philosophy or a study of primitive superstitions.

  The young man had not, in fact, traveled far, his home was in the manor house of a minor noble not twenty miles away, so upon his arrival at Blackchapel, which he conceived as only the first leg of his journey, he was well rested and eager for whatever adventures might await him. We need hardly add that he did not anticipate these adventures, or, in fact, any other that might await him in Blackchapel; and yet, as the reader has no doubt surmised by the fact that we have taken it upon ourselves to make reference to this place, it chanced that he was incorrect.

  The day having nearly reached evening when his feet brought him to Blackchapel, his first order of business was to procure lodgings for the night, which he set about doing in the simplest and most natural way: he made a polite greeting to the first Easterner he met, and inquired as to any inn that let rooms by the evenings, or of any persons who might take in strangers for a pecuniary consideration. As it turned out, however, the first Easterner he met was a certain man named Erik, who was unable to be of much help to him. This Easterner could be described, by any standards, as ignorant. In fact, he could be described as ignorant not only by any standards, but upon any subject. While everyone is, of course, ignorant upon some subject or another, Erik maintained his ignorance in any and every matter he came across, and even improved upon it when he could.

  The traveler, then, spoke to this fellow, saying, "My good man, I wish you a pleasant day, and hope indeed you are finding it so."

  Erik considered this for a moment, then said, "Well?"

  "Well, there is a question I would wish to ask you, if it is no trouble: Do you know a place where a traveler such as myself might secure lodgings in this charming village?"

  "How, lodgings?"

  "Yes. That is, a place where I might spend the night, enjoying more or less of comfort."

  "Ah, yes, I see. Well, I must consider
this question."

  "Yes, I understand that. You, then, consider the question, and I will wait while you do so."

  "And you are right to wait," said Erik promptly, "for I have even now begun considering."

  "And I," said the young warlock, "have begun waiting."

  In the event, it seemed that the traveler had far more success in waiting than Erik had in considering; for his waiting was accomplished with considerable skill—that is, not a shift of feet nor a quiver of an eyebrow betrayed impatience, whereas, after the span of some ten or fifteen minutes had elapsed, the considering had yet to bear fruit. At the end of this time, Erik, still with a countenance that spoke of deep consideration, turned and wandered off. The traveler, initially startled by this action, at length concluded that the other had discovered an answer, and the traveler determined to follow Erik, who wandered through Blackchapel on some errand of his own, and at just about the time the traveler realized that Erik would not lead him to what he sought, he noticed, in a two-story stone bungalow* set back from the road, a small sign saying, "Let Rooms." Now, our friend the traveler could imagine no reason for anyone to put up a sign suggesting that others let rooms; but, to the left, he found it easy to imagine that someone who found calligraphy a chore might save himself the trouble of scripting out, "We have rooms to let," and might, indeed, shorten it to, "Let Rooms." The possibility that this was the case was so strong, in fact,—that he immediately resolved to test it by entering the bungalow and inquiring. We need hardly add that this resolution was no sooner made than acted upon.

  Entering, then, he found himself in a narrow, dingy room, lit only by a single candle, this candle being the sole occupant of a tiny, square table, the table being accompanied by a plain wooden chair, and the chair being occupied by a skinny, balding old Easterner, who looked up from under bushy eyebrows that were astonishingly black compared to the grey of what remained of his hair. Without saying a word, the Easterner waited for the traveler to speak. This the traveler did, and almost instantly, by pronouncing the words, "Have you, in fact, rooms to let?"