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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Issola

Vlad (Volume 9)

Steven Brust

Tor Books

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1
Adapting Behavior to Environment


Just because they really are out to get you doesn't mean you aren't paranoid. If they've been after you long enough, paranoia can become a reflex.
Interesting things, reflexes: if you pay attention to them, you'll stand to learn some interesting things about yourself. This is one reason I avoid paying attention to my reflexes.
But sometimes I can't help it.
Let me pick an example at random:
I awoke almost instantly from a sound sleep to active stillness, and before reaching for a weapon, or dodging from a possible attack, or even opening my eyes, I reached out, mentally, psychically, for contact with my familiar. My mind to his, I said, "What's going on, Loiosh?" At that instant, all I knew was that something had happened to wake me up. I didn't even remember where I was, though one patch of ground in the wilderness is much like another, and that's where I'd been sleeping lately.
My first real clue that there might be a problem came when he didn't make any wisecracks. Instead there was a moment of mental silence, if you'll excuse the expression, and then Loiosh said, "We may have been hunted down, Boss."
"Well," I said. "That wouldn't be good."
Pretending to be calm to my familiar helps me to actually be calm. Loiosh accepts this as part of his job, and doesn't give me grief about it, much. In the meantime, without any conscious decision on my part, I was holding a neat, slim stiletto in my hand. Reflexes again.
I remained still, counting on Loiosh to tell me if and when I ought to move. While I waited, I contemplated my circumstances—in particular, the sharp, nasty stone that had insinuated itself onto the ground between my shoulder blades. I had a thick layer of" darr skin between me and the ground, and a thin layer of chreotha fur between me and the sky.
"Brigands, do you think, Loiosh?"
"Brigands come in bands, Boss. Whoever this is, there's only one of him."
"So the Jhereg is more likely."
"Or something else entirely."
I heard Rocza shift, caught the faint psychic whispers of Loiosh telling her to stay still, just to fill you in on the basics, in case we haven't met before, Rocza is Loiosh's mate, which I'm sure must answer every question you have.
"Coming closer, Boss."
"Do I have a target, yet?"
"No."
"Do you have any suggestions?"
"No. But I'm not worried, Boss. I'm sure you'll come up with a plan."
Reptiles are cold-blooded; a reptilian sense of humor will naturally display the same characteristics. This, in spite of being hunted and hounded by a massive and murderous criminal society that wants nothing less than the destruction of my soul, is probably the greatest burden I carry.
"All right," I said, ignoring his remark. "Fly as silently as you can away from whoever it is, and circle around. As soon as you see—"
I was interrupted by the ostentatious clearing of a throat, followed by someone saying, "I beg your pardon for disturbing you at such an hour, Lord Taltos, but I'm certain you must be awake by now, and I'm afraid if I come any closer you might do something I'd regret."
I sat up, the knife poised for throwing. "You can't be who you sound like," I said.
"I am, though."
"It's not polite to lie."
She laughed. "Nor to accuse a friend of lying."
"You can't be—"
"It is, Boss."
"Well," 1 said after a long moment. "I'll be skinned for a norska."
"Probably," said Loiosh. "But not by her."
I heard her come a little closer; Loiosh could now see her, but 1 can't see as well at night as he can.
"Don't feel bad, Boss. We can't all have adequate vision."
"At least both of my eyes face forward, scavenger."
"Mind if I make a light?" I said.
"Please do."
I stood up slowly, put my knife away, and found my firekit close at hand. I lit a candle and held it up and away so we would both be illuminated. There was, fortunately, little wind. I saw her standing before me, looking very beautiful and incredibly out of place. She gave me a courtesy, and I bowed in response.
"Lord Taltos," she said.
"Lady Teldra," 1 replied. "Welcome to the wilderness."
She looked around. "Yes. Well, shall I start, or should it wait until morning?"
"If it is urgent enough to track me down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, can it wait until morning?"
"It can, Lord Taltos. My urgency was to find you before you moved on, thus making the search more difficult. Again, 1 apologize for disturbing you."
"Not to worry. Did you bring any blankets?"
"I…"
"I know bow difficult this must be for you, Lady Teldra, and I can't wait to hear about what brought it all about, but, believe me, we'll both be better off if you let me handle things for tonight. I'd prefer it that way. Please."
"Very well."
"Did you bring any blankets?"
"No."
"Is anyone following you?"
"No."
"Are you—forgive me—are you certain?"
"Yes."
I studied her face. Lady Teldra was worried about something. She was worried enough about something that she had allowed it to appear on her features, and something was wrong enough for her to have deliberately woken me up. This was almost more startling than her sudden appearance in the forest between Appertown and Ridge.
Startling. Yes.
When one knows an Issola, such as Lady Teldra, one gets so used to the grace, elegance, and manners of the House that one forgets its other side. The issola is a beautiful white bird. I'd seen several during my recent travels. One usually saw them standing, graceful and lovely in the early morning or late evening, in swamps or the shallow banks of rivers. They stand as if their only reason for being were to look lovely and graceful. And then the issola would be holding a fish in its beak, and you'd never see it strike. And then the fish would be gone in a single swallow, and the issola would be standing on one leg, looking lovely and graceful.
Lady Teldra looked lovely and graceful. I felt plain and clumsy. On the other hand, now that the adrenaline was no longer coursing through my system I realized that I was still pretty tired.
"Let's sleep," I said. "You can share my furs, as long as you don't get forward with me."
"My lord—"
"I'm kidding. Climb in."
I blew out the candle. It had been a long time since I'd slept curled up with a warm body—it brought back memories that I'd been trying to suppress, and the fact that she wasn't human did little to help me forget. There had been a time when, every night, I had gone to sleep next to a woman I loved, and, even better, woken up with her. Those days were over and beyond recall, and allowing myself to dwell on them could take from me the edge I needed to stay alert and alive.
It took a while, but eventually I fell asleep, and when I woke up it was dawn, and she had climbed out of the furs and had a fire going.
"Have you klava?" she said, when she saw I was awake.
"Not even coffee," I said. "But we're within a few miles of a town."
"Really? I'd have thought you'd stay at an inn, then."
"Loiosh works better out here, and these days I'm thinking more about survival than comfort."
"I'm sorry," she said, and seemed to mean it. But, of course, she was an Issola: she would always seem to mean it. In the light of dawn, I saw that she was dressed in white and green, in a gown suited less to the wilderness than to her duties at Castle Black, home of the Lord Morrolan, where she'd welcome you into his home, serve you wine, and convincingly seem delighted to see you. For almost the first time in the years that I'd known her, I wondered: Just exactly what were her duties for Morrolan?
She looked an inquiry at me, then held out her hand. I nodded and Loiosh flew over to her, landing delicately. Her hand was stiff and slightly tilted, her elbow sharply bent: she knew the technique, though as far as I knew she'd never held a jhereg before. This failed to startle me.
"A pleasure to see you," she told my familiar.
He gracefully lowered his head until it was below the level of her hand, then raised it again.
"I believe," said Lady Teldra in an amused tone, "that I am being mocked." I heard Loiosh giggle inside my head. He turned around on her hand, launched himself, and returned to my right shoulder. Rocza, by now on my left shoulder, shifted and wriggled, which she often did in the morning. It probably meant something. There are many interesting facets to the character of the wild jhereg—poisonous reptilian scavengers of the jungle—but for some reason I got stubborn and decided not to learn about them. I imagine Teldra knew a lot about the wild issola.
"I'll bet you know a lot about the wild issola," I said.
"I know a bit about them," she said. "But, your pardon Lord Taltos, I should imagine that isn't the question foremost on your mind."
"No, foremost on my mind is breakfast. There's bread, cheese, and the remains of a dried and salted wild boar in my pack, as well some dried gammon and jerky in my pouch. Help yourself while I vanish for a moment and get myself a little cleaned up. There's a stream about a hundred feet this way, just over that rise."
"Thank you, my lord. I found it earlier."
I went off and did what was necessary and filled my water flask. When I returned Teldra had broken off several chunks of bread and, while they toasted on the rocks next to the fire, she was cutting up strips of cheese to lay across them.
"No questions before you eat?" she said.
"Exactly."
"I can respect that."
The bread started smelling good. When she put the cheese over it, and the boar, my mouth started watering. The cheese was a smokey honin; I usually prefer something sharper, but it went well with boar. We ate, and I passed the water flask over. I almost apologized for the lack of wine, but Teldra would have been mortified to hear me apologize, so I didn't. The food was good. As I ate, I fed bits to Loiosh, some of which he passed on to Rocza.
When I was done eating, I wrapped my furs and few possessions in their leather cords so I could leave in a hurry if I had to. As I did so, I said, "Let's have it, then."
"Where should I start, Lord Ta—"
"Vlad," 1 said. "I'm sorry, Teldra, but titles just don't work with the surroundings."
"Very well, Vlad. What would you like to know first? How I found you, or why I wanted to?"
"Start with how you found me; it might be more urgent. If you can find me, perhaps the Jhereg can find me."
"Not the way I did."
"Oh?"
She said, "Do you remember Morrolan's private tower, and the windows in it."
I stared at her for some few moments, then said, "Oh. No, I don't suppose the Jhereg is very likely to find me that way. I don't think. Although the Left Hand—"
"Oh, that isn't the whole of it. By themselves, the windows could bring me here, but couldn't find you. I—"
"That's a relief."
"—had help."
"Of?"
"Well, Kiera the Thief, for one."
"Kiera. Yes." I did not believe Kiera would betray me, or do anything she knew would put me in danger without a very good reason.
"She knew more or less where you'd be—what part of the Empire, that is. She said you'd been nursing a sick boy back to health, and that he lived in this district, and that she expected you to be escorting him to his home by now."
"True enough."
"And then, once I knew the general area, 1 got more help. Sethra Lavode."
"Oh, her," I said. The most powerful sorceress and wizard in the world, yeah, well, 1 wasn't surprised she could find me. Especially because a year or so ago, when we had run into each other near Northport, she had said something about—"Loiosh?"
"Yes. She gave me a means of tracing him."
"Well, is my face red."
"Shut up."
"So," I said. "You had help from both Kiera and Sethra."
"Yes."
I watched her face, but if she knew anything, she betrayed nothing. Well, neither would I.
She said, "What happened to your hand?"
I looked at my maimed left hand, turned it over, and shrugged. "A sorcerer tried to eviscerate me from across a room, and either his aim was off, or I was too fast with Spellbreaker. Or not fast enough, depending on how you want to look at it."
"How did this come about, Vlad?"
I shook my head. "Later, Teldra. We're still hearing your story. For myself, 1 wouldn't care, but you know how curious Loiosh gets."
She flicked me her smile again; my familiar did not deign to make a rejoinder. Rocza, at that moment, flew off into the trees, probably thinking the breakfast scraps inadequate. Of the three of us, she seemed most happy to have spent the last few years away from cities.
"Shall I start now, or ought we to find Klava first?"
I'm not an Issola, but I can sometimes take a hint. "Sure," I said, standing up. "This way."
We hiked in silence at first; Teldra picking her way carefully, me just walking. I had, over the last few years, become something of a woodsman, albeit unwillingly. It seems that Teldra never had, and I allowed myself to enjoy a certain feeling of superiority.
"Kiera never explained what happened to the boy," said Teldra after a while.
"Not that much to tell," I said. "If I were just a bit more cynical, I'd say it was a debt of honor. He was hurt in my service, so I tried to help him."
"And you succeeded?"
"The Justicers are debating that one. I think so, at least in part."
"Where is he now?"
"Back with his family, not far from here." I recalled his family's reaction to his return, and then their reaction to me, and refrained from giving Teldra any additional information.
We reached Appertown, with its post office, dry goods store, and inn. The latter, which boasted a faded sign that had once been red and seemed to have a chicken's head painted on it, was almost deserted, but the three Teckla occupying a table in the back quickly looked away from Teldra while trying to glance at me covertly. If I had been wearing my Jhereg colors, instead of the nondescript leather 1 now affected, they wouldn't have dared to look at me, either.
The hostess, a Teckla who was too thin to give me much confidence in the food, seemed a bit wary as she asked what we wanted.
"Klava, if you have any," I said.
"Klava?" she repeated as if she'd never heard the word before.
"If not," said Teldra, "we should be glad of coffee."
"We have a klava press somewhere," she said. "But—"
"You must have eggshells," I said. "Have you any vanilla bean?"
"Oh, I'm certain we have that. But I don't know how to make the filter."
"I do," I said. "If you'll allow me into your kitchen—"
"Vlad," said Teldra softly. "I think coffee would do, wouldn't it? As long as there is honey and cream."
"Very well," I said. The hostess sent Teldra a look full of gratitude and scuttled off for coffee. She brought back two mugs, along with a pitcher of thick cream and a jar of honey. Teldra gave her a smile that our hostess probably valued more than the money we'd leave with her later. Along with the coffee, she brought us each a sample of the house bread—a small, round loaf with a hole in the middle, cut horizontally and lightly toasted, 1 tried it.
"Not bad," I said. "This would be good with smoked pinkfish and buttercheese."
"And a bit of onion," agreed Teldra.
As I mixed the proper proportions of my coffee, Teldra said, "How do you brew klava?"
"You don't know?"
She smiled. "I can serve it with the best, but I've never needed to learn how to brew it."
"You press coffee through a filter made of eggshells and wood chips with vanilla bean, then reheat it so it almost boils, then you pass it through a cloth to remove any oils brought out by the reheating."
"Wood chips?"
"Hickory works well, also fegra, cherrywood, and crocra. It's the wood, or combination of woods, that makes each version unique. Well, and how much vanilla you use. Also, some people add cinnamon, but I don't; cinnamon is just as good if you add it later. Everyone has his own recipe. Valabar's does it best, but they do everything best. I miss Valabar's."
"Is that all you miss, Lord Taltos?"
The expression on her face made it seem like light banter rather than an intrusive question, so I said, "Maybe one or two other things. And, even though we are enclosed by four walls, I still consider this the wilderness."
She smiled. "Very well, Vlad."
I took another sip of coffee and missed Valabar's. This inn was a single-story building, stretching back quite a ways from the road, and built of molded brick with what had once been very nice woodwork around the windows; but now the wood was old, scratched up, and showing signs of dry rot. There was no actual bar, such as Adrilankha's inns always had, but just various tables with glasses and bottles sitting on them. We sat near the front door; two doors led back, no doubt to various sleeping rooms, and another went back to the kitchen. I always notice the entrances and exits when I'm in a new place, although there haven't been many times in my life when noticing actually did me any good. It's just one of those things you do, like warming up your muscles before and after fencing practice. I once asked my grandfather, who taught me fencing, how, were I ever jumped by brigands, I could convince them to wait while 1 warmed up. He just rolled his eyes and gave me a flank strike, which 1 parried, causing the tip of his weapon to whip past my guard and leave a nasty welt on my forearm. After that I made my questions more serious.
"Would you like to share your thoughts, Vlad?"
"Have you ever had a practice saber whip around the bell of your weapon and leave a welt on your arm?"
"Why, no, I can't say I have."
"Then you wouldn't understand."
She laughed. You never know if an Issola is laughing to be polite. I resolved not to try to be funny around her.
"How long do you think that will last, Boss?"
We finished our coffee at about the same time and called for more, which was brought with a cheer and alacrity that showed the hostess had fallen under Teldra's spell. No surprise there.
I said, "So Kiera told you how to find me, Sethra did the locating, and Morrolan let you go into his tower and use one of his Magical Mystical Powerful Transcendental Wizard Windows to get here. What I'd like to know—"
"Not exactly," said Teldra.
"Oh?"
"Morrolan didn't exactly let me use the window."
"Go on."
"Morrolan…that is, I didn't ask him."
"You didn't ask him."
"I couldn't. I didn't—that is, I don't know where he is."
"I see. I begin to see. I think I begin to see."
"Perhaps I should begin at the beginning."
"Arbitrary. But still, not a bad choice."
"Almost a minute, Boss. Good work."
"Shut up, Loiosh."
"Well, to begin with, then, the world was made when the gods created a ball of amorphia to hang—"
"Maybe we should let Loiosh make the jokes."
"But you're the only one who can hear him."
"Believe me, Teldra, that's a blessing for you."
She smiled. She had dimples. I tried to remember how many Dragaerans I'd met who had dimples. Plenty of humans did, but I didn't recall seeing many on Dragaerans.
"Early in the morning, four days ago," she said, "I received a message from Her Majesty, the Empress, asking Morrolan to extend his hospitality to a certain Lady Marquana, House of the Athyra, who would be in the area on Imperial business."
"What sort of Imperial business?"
"Does it matter?"
"Probably not, but asking questions makes me feel smarter."
She dimpled again. "In point of fact, Vlad, I don't know."
I shrugged. She continued, "I went to find Morrolan, and he wasn't in the library. I attempted psychic contact, and failed to reach him."
"Is that unusual?"
"Unprecedented."
"Really? He's never been busy?"
"If so, he has told me in advance. The only time I have been unable to reach him is when he has been, well, off the world."
"Off the world?"
She studied me. "You know something of those windows."
"Ah. Yes. And this didn't happen often?"
"Twice before, and both times he told me ahead of time he would be out of touch, and left instructions about what to do in case of trouble."
"What were those instructions, Teldra?"
"To reach Sethra Lavode."
"Not Aliera?"
"This was before Aliera had, uh, re-emerged. I agree that, now, Aliera would be the obvious person to speak with first."
"And so did you speak with Aliera?"
Teldra tilted her head and smiled suddenly. "Why do you remind me so much of an Imperial Inquisitor?"
"Damn," I said. "I was aiming for Third Floor Relic."
"Who?"
"Ah ha."
"Ah ha?"
"I've just proven that you're not Sethra Lavode. Did you speak with Aliera?"
"She's gone too," said Teldra.
"My goodness," I suggested. "Four days, you say?"
"Yes."
"No message, no word, no communication?"
"No message, no word, no communication."
"I see." I tried to wrap my head around the idea that something might have happened to Morrolan and Aliera. It was hard. They'd always struck me as, for all practical purposes, indestructible. But Teldra had sought me out in the wilderness, and that meant, however unimaginable it might be, something serious had happened.
I forced my mind back to business. "So when did you make contact with Sethra?"
"As best I remember, Your Equitableness, it was—"
"‘Your Equitableness'? Are the Justicers really addressed that way, Teldra?"
"I thought you'd know."
"I never had an advocate, so I've never heard the forms used."
"Oh. I believe that's the term."
"It sounds silly, doesn't it? Want more coffee?"
"Yes, please, Your Equitableness. If you don't mind my asking, why didn't you hire an advocate?"
"Having an advocate makes one look guilty."
"But the Orb—"
"The Orb is an awfully literal-minded thing, Teldra. They asked their questions, and I answered, and they looked at the Orb, and then they let me go. And, speaking of questions, I think I'd just asked one."
"Very well, Your Equitableness."
I sighed. "Okay, I get the point. I'll just let you tell it."
"After we get more coffee. If I were a Justicer, I'd require you to find a place that served klava."
I signaled the hostess for coffee, which was supplied with oppressive good cheer.
Presently, Teldra said, "Morrolan and Aliera were gone, and with no message. I tried for psychic contact with each of them, and failed. After a day, I spoke with various people in the Castle—Fentor, whom you know—"
"Yes."
"And Surill, whom I believe you have not met."
"Correct. Who is he?"
"She. She currently leads Morrolan's circle of witches." I had heard that Morrolan had such a circle, though he rarely spoke of them and 1 never asked. "They were unable to help, though Surill said she had tried to reach Morrolan through her own means as well. So I sent a messenger to Dzur Mountain, to Sethra Lavode."
"A messenger? Why?"
"To get her a message."
"But—"
"I don't know her well enough for direct contact, Vlad. Not everyone does, you know."
"Oh," 1 said, feeling sheepish.
"She sent a message back asking me to visit her at Dzur Mountain, so I did."
"Oh, yeah? How's the old place holding up?"
Teldra gave me a look. "We had a long talk. Sethra explained to me about Phoenix Stone, gold and black, and the blocking of psychic contact. She also, in my opinion, seemed worried."
"To paraphrase Seapur," 1 put in, "if Sethra's scared, then I'm scared."
"Yes," said Teldra. "Your name came up."
"How did that happen?"
"In connection with gold and black Phoenix Stone."
I fingered the cords I wore around my neck, which had a sample of each. "Yes," I said. Then, "What if they're already dead?"
"They aren't."
"Who told you that?"
"The Necromancer."
"Ah. Yes. Well. She'd know, wouldn't she?"
"Sethra believes you can help find them."
"Did she say how?"
"Not exactly. She mentioned something about Aliera's Great Weapon, Pathfinder, and some sort of link between it and some artifact you carry."
"Spellbreaker," I said.
"She didn't give it a name."
"That's the name," I said. "What does she want me to do?"
"Return with me to Dzur Mountain."
I drank some coffee.
"Boss, it isn't the same as returning to Adrilankha."
"I know that, Loiosh."
"If you'll be safe anywhere—"
"I know, Loiosh."
"And if there's anyone you owe—"
"I know, Loiosh."
"Sethra thinks I can help?"
"She does."
"And she thinks Morrolan and Aliera might be in trouble?"
"She thinks it probable."
I considered a little longer. Teldra was courteously silent. Exactly why I had to consider, I don't know; certainly the idea of returning to any of my old haunts, when the Jhereg had a large price on my head, was scary; but there was never any doubt about how I would decide. I guess I just needed a few minutes to work it through my viscera.
I had just about decided when Teldra said, "Vlad, it would be wrong of me to put unfair pressure on you, but—"
"Oh, go ahead, Teldra. What is it?"
"Do you remember Sethra's servant?"
"Tukko. Yes."
"He knows how to brew klava."
"He does? Verra! What are we hanging around here for?"
"I'll pay the shot," she offered politely.

Copyright © 2001 by Steven Brust