Tiassa (Excerpt)

Please enjoy this excerpt from Steven Brust’s Tiassa, the latest book of the Vlad Taltos series, out today, March 29th from Tor Books. For more good times in the Draegaran Empire, check out his original short story, “The Desecrator,” here on Tor.com.

***

Prologue

 

Sethra greeted me with the words, “There’s someone I’d like you to meet, Vlad.” I had expected something more like, “What are you doing here?” as I’d shown up at Dzur Mountain without any advance warning. But then, if Sethra Lavode had been accustomed to do the expected, she wouldn’t have been Sethra Lavode.

I had been visiting my friend Morrolan, who had been kind enough teleport me to Dzur Mountain, and after a long climb up a wide and tiring staircase I had found her in a library, reading a book that looked like it must have weighed ten pounds.

My familiar noticed it as well. “It’s not a book, Boss. It’s a weapon. It lands on you, and that’s it.”

 “I think you’re right.”

I was torn between curiosity about this person she wanted me to meet, and the business that had brought me. She asked if I wanted wine, and I did, and her servant, a strange, twitchy old guy named Tukko, thumped a bottle and a glass down in front of a chair. I sat and drank and said, “Who?”

“An Easterner.”

“From?”

“Far from here.”

“All the Eastern kingdoms are—”

“Very far. He doesn’t speak any language you’ve ever heard before.”

“But you have?”

“I hadn’t either, but I learned.”

“How?”

“The Necromancer taught me. Once you’ve learned a few languages, the others come easy. I’m working on teaching him ours, but it’s slow going.”

“How’d you meet him?”

“The Necromancer introduced us.”

“Well. Now I’m intrigued.”

“You were intrigued when I didn’t ask what brought you here.”

“All right, now I’m more intrigued.”

“What did bring ou here?”

“Now that I’m out of the army, I thought we could swap war stories.”

She smiled and waited.

“Okay,” I said. “It’s this.” I opened my pouch, found the object, and held it out for her to inspect.

“My,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

“That’s a long story. What is it?”

“I’m not sure. It’s interesting, certainly.”

“Who goes first?”

“Up to you.”

“This guy you want me to meet—what’s the deal? He have a job for me?”

“Sort of. Not your usual kind.”

“By my usual kind, I assume you refer to my perfectly legitimate herb shop?”

“Yes. Not that.”

“What then?”

“He wants you to talk.”

“About what?”

“Everything. Everything you do, legal and illegal.”

I studied her. She looked serious. “Sethra, if I ever did something illegal—which of course I never have—why would I be so stupid as to talk about it?”

“Reason one: There is a lot of money in it. Reason two: There may, from time to time, be other things in it for you—useful trinkets. Reason three: Because I tell you, on my honor, that nothing you say will ever be heard by anyone who can do anything to you.”

“How much money?”

“Five hundred imperials’ worth of unminted gold for a few hours of conversation, with the option of doing it again if it works out for all concerned, and maybe several times.”

“Five hundred.”

“Yes.”

“That’s a lot. Why me?”

“He wanted me, but I won’t. I suggested you instead, because you can give him what he wants.”

“What does he want?”

“To understand what life is like here.”

“At Dzur Mountain?”

“In the Empire.”

“And I can tell him that?”

“I believe you can, yes.”

“No one will hear it? On your honor?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, I’ll meet him, and I’ll think about it.”

She nodded. “Good. Now, where did you come by the Tiassa?” She held her hand out for it, and I gave it to her. She held it up and studied it carefully. It was a really remarkable thing—about the size of my palm, all of silver, except for the eyes, which appeared to be very tiny sapphires. The wings were thin, and filled with a multitude of tiny holes so the light shone through, and there were whiskers around the mouth. After a moment she pulled her eyes from it and looked back at me. “How did you say it came to you?”

“I happened to come across a recently deceased individual, and it was in a pouch at his belt.”

She smiled. “No you didn’t.”

“Why Sethra, whatever do you mean?”

“The idea of you going through the pockets of a random corpse you stumbled over is absurd. You’re trying to make me think it was someone you killed. But a Jhereg assassin never robs his victim. It’s unprofessional.”

“Now, how would you know that?”

“Vlad, I have been around a long, long time. So, tell me the truth. Where did you find the tiassa?”

“Is it important?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“For reasons full of mystical significance. Now tell.”

“I’d rather hear about the mystical significance.”

“I’m sure you would.”

“All right. You know the old market just above Northpier?”

“Very well.”

“That’s where I found it.”

“Just lying there?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well?”

“Now, about that mystical significance.”

“Vlad, I was kidding about that.”

“No you weren’t. You had that look you have when you’re telling the truth in a way you hope won’t be believed.”

That stopped her. “I’m impressed.”

“Thank you. Now, what exactly did you mean?”

“Tell me exactly how you found it.”

“It came to me in a dream.”

“How very tangible it is.”

“Okay, it was delivered by someone I only knew from a dream.”

She tilted her head and said, “I think it might be straight answer time, don’t you?” I opened my mouth, and she said, “Vlad, you know very well you never win these.”

That stopped me. “You’re right.”

“I’m listening.”

I started talking.


The Silver Tiassa

 

The first time I saw the tiassa was nine Real Years before I was born. Mafenyi was holding it, and it was so pretty! When I saw it again, two hundred Real Years earlier, I had to take it so I did.

I didn’t think Mafenyi would mind too much. She hadn’t made it to keep. She told me that she made it because she had to, but it shouldn’t ever stay with anyone for too long. She used silver that came all the way from Aelma, which is a city on the Chareq River near some mountains called Daeld, which is where the silver was found in the ground.

Mafenyi said she melted the silver in a cauldron made of light, and she cut off her hand and put it in the cauldron, and plucked out one of her eyes and put that in too, and then shaped it while it was still hotter than hot. She worked on it for years and years, so the ears would would be so perfect, and you could see candlelight through the wings; she put tiny sapphires in for the eyes. I asked her how come she still had both hands and both eyes, and she said she was a Goddess and so she grew them back. She said I could be a Goddess if I wanted to be, and I said my grandmother was a Goddess and it didn’t seem like much fun.

 When we were done talking I went away, but then I came back. I wanted to just look at it some more, but she was sleeping, and that’s when I knew I had to have it, so I took it from her shelf.

It wasn’t big, but it was so heavy I had to hold it in both hands. I went back home and just held it and looked at it, but I got fingerprints on it so I cleaned it off, and then wrapped it in cloth. I kept it in the cloth after that except when I wanted to look at it.

There was a woman named Chuvin. She was an Athyra, and she was very nice. I thought she should have the tiassa, so I left it in her house, then I went off to see a new world being made, which was very exciting.

When I got back, I went to look at the silver tiassa, but Chuvin didn’t have it any more. She had made some very pretty psiprints, though, and I got to see them. She gave me one of Yevetna Falls that’s so good you can almost get wet looking at it. Mommy said that first, but I think it’s funny and true, so I’m saying it now. I asked Chuvin what she did with the tiassa, but she said she didn’t know, it just got lost somehow.

It wasn’t hard to find it, though. When you looked in what the Necromancer calls the other place, it was like a big white light, with two blinking blue thingies. I saw it right away, and followed it because I wanted to know where it was, and really I just wanted to see it again. It isn’t hard to follow something in the other place, but it’s hard to talk about. It’s like painting when you don’t have paint, or singing when there’s no song, or talking when there are no words. I can’t explain. Anyway, I followed it.

It was an old man who had it. He was a Lyorn and his name was Pindua. He made statues from big pieces of marble. I got to hold the tiassa for a little while, but then I left it with him. He made one called, “Worill Reclining on Stairway” that they put in the Hall of Monuments in the Imperial Palace.

A little while after he made it he died and they brought him to the Paths of the Dead. He owed a lot of money when he died, and when that happens they sell all your things to try to pay the people you owe money to, so the tiassa was sold to a man named Paarfi who was a Hawk and who wrote books.

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but then I remembered it one day a year later, which was almost three hundred Real Years later. I looked for it, and Paarfi still had it. I went to talk to him about it. He talked about what he was writing. He was a nice man.

I told him he should give the tiassa away, and he agreed, but said he wanted to keep it a little longer, until he finished his new book. I said that was okay, and he gave me one of his books and signed it for me. He wrote, “To Devera, a very special little girl.” I took it to grandma’s and put it in the chest with my things, next to the sea shell that whistles “March to the Kaanas” and the psiprint of Yevetna Falls and the tick-ticker and some other stuff I want to keep.

While I was there, grandma asked me what I was doing, and I said I was looking for the silver tiassa and she asked what that was so I explained where it came from. She asked some questions about it, but she had the look she gets when she’s being nice and doesn’t really care about what you’re telling her, so pretty soon I said good-bye and ran off.

I went to a place called Tanvir where it was just spring and there were flowers in all the colors there are. After that, I went to an empty tower in a dead city and a man made of metal played music for me. After a while, I started wanting to see the tiassa again, so I went back to fifty Real Years later, and Paarfi still had it. I thought it was long enough, so I took it but left him a note, then I want to Adrilankha ten Real Years ahead and played with Vlad Norathar. I showed him how to look in the other place, and he showed me how to make a spinnystick with glitters.

Then I was tired from all the jumping around so I put my spinnystick in the chest and took a nap. Mommy says naps are good for you, but I only take them when I’m sleepy. When I woke up again I found Daddy and showed him the tiassa and he said it was very pretty. I asked if he was ever going to come visit me and Mommy and he said he would soon because he wanted his sword back. He looked angry when he said it so I didn’t ask about it any more. While I was there Mafyeni came up and said I shouldn’t have stolen the tiassa and had to give it back and Daddy told her not to accuse me of stealing but I said I had just borrowed it to give to some people who needed it. They started arguing with each other so I left and took the tiassa with me.

I started to Mommy’s but then a while later I looked in the other place, and saw Mafyeni was coming after me. I hadn’t thought she wanted the tiassa that much. I thought about jumping, but then I could never come back to now. I didn’t want to go to grandma’s, because then she would fight Mafyeni and I’d feel bad, and if I went to Mommy’s I’d have to explain what I did.

So please, Uncle Vlad. She’ll be here soon. Can you take it?


Tag

1

 

I lie sometimes, just so you know. It goes with the job.

Most of what I make comes from running untaxed gambling games of various sorts, owning unlicensed brothels of various qualities, dealing in stolen goods of various types, and offering usurious loans of various amounts. Why, you may ask, do I not pay the taxes, license the brothels, sell legitimate goods, and offer loans at legally acceptable rates? Because of customer demand, that’s why. The Empire, which we all naturally love and revere and to which we pledge our undying loyalty, doesn’t just tax the runner of the game, but also the customers; and the ones who win prefer not to pay those taxes. The licensing of the brothels requires intrusive observation by Imperial representatives, and customers aren’t fond of that. The goods I sell are at the rates people want to pay. The loans I dispense are to those the banks laugh out of their offices.

If it weren’t for the demands of the customers, I’d be legitimate; I’d much prefer it that way.

I did say I lie sometimes, didn’t I?

Anyway, that’s where most of what I live on comes from; most of the rest comes from killing people, which I only do occasionally. And lest you think I’m a terrible person, I assure you that everyone I’ve ever killed has deserved it—at least according to whoever hired me.

And then there is the in-between stuff, which I don’t do much of any more. I’ve heard a lot of terms for it: lepip work, enforcement, muscle, convincing—one guy I knew used to say, “I’m a musician you see. I call myself a repercussionist.” Heh. Yeah, there are all sorts of ways to not say that what you’re really doing is either hurting someone, or threatening to hurt someone, to get him to do what you want. What you want is generally for him to go along with agreements he made knowing what was liable to happen if he didn’t, so I don’t generally have a lot of sympathy for the individual who may become damaged in the process. And they’re always Dragaerans, whereas I’m human, so they consider themselves inherently superior to me, so I have even less sympathy than I otherwise might.

I do not consider them superior.

Bigger, stronger, they live longer, and they can do better than us at pretty much everything. I’ll concede that. I won’t concede superior.

Like I said, I don’t do lepip work much any more, but once in a while something will come up that will make me reconsider. On this occasion, it was a fellow named Byrna, and one named Trotter, and one named Kragar; the order depends on how you look at it.

Let me start with Kragar, who is my executive assistant, or something like that. I need to find him a title. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he does all the hard work. Yeah, maybe.

On this day, when I came in to work and was having my first cup of klava (I have it in a cup because glass burns my fingers, okay?), I had a number of things I wanted to talk to him about. I’d recently been through some experiences: I’d fought a losing war against a Jhereg who was tougher than me but I ended up winning in spite of it, I’d been killed, I’d been resurrected, and I’d learned many fascinating things about the internal workings of this great Empire that we love and happily serve. So of course, I was waiting to talk to Kragar about the girl I’d met in the middle of all of it.

He never gave me the chance: he started talking before I even realized he was in the room. No, I wasn’t distracted, he just does that.

“You know a guy named Trotter?”

“Sure,” I said, pretending I hadn’t been startled to suddenly notice him in the chair in front of my desk. “Muscle. Dependable. We’ve used him a couple of times.”

“Yep.” Kragar leaned back, stretching his legs out as if he had not a care in the world, and nothing he was about to say mattered; this was a sure sign he was going to give me news that was unfortunate, upsetting, or both, so I prepared myself.

“What is it?”

“We hired him yesterday, to have a talk with The Amazing Elusive Byrna.”

Byrna was a young Jhegaala who was into me for a lot of money, and had missed several appointments to discuss his situation; I had told Kragar to find someone dependable to convince him to, if not pay his debts, at least be more reliable in meeting to talk about them. Reliablilty is one of the great virtues, I’ve always believed, and I like to encourage it in others when I can.

“Well, and?”

“He’s not dead,” said Kragar.

I frowned. “Trotter got out of hand? That seems—”

“I meant Trotter,” said Kragar, who I have no doubt encouraged the misinterpretation just to increase the shock value. Which worked, by the way.

I sat back. “Okay, talk.”

“I don’t know a lot. He came stumbling through the streets bleeding from four or five places and passed out from loss of blood. He’s with a physicker now.”

“How does it look?”

“He’ll probably live.”

“So we don’t know Byrna did it?”

“He was on his way there.”

“Byrna isn’t a fighter.”

“He can hire one.”

“What good would that do unless he hired him long term?”

“Maybe he did that.”

“If he could afford to hire a fighter long term, he could pay me, so he wouldn’t need to hire one.”

My familiar remarked into my mind, “Be sure to explain that to him.”

I ignored him. Kragar spread his hands and said, “You know what I know.”

“Find out more,” I said.

He nodded and left without making any more wisecracks. Good. I didn’t need him to make any wisecracks. That’s why I have a familiar.

Oh, right; you haven’t actually met my familiar. Pardon my rudeness. His name is Loiosh, and he’s a jhereg. If you don’t know what a jhereg is, you’re probably better off, but I can at least explain that it is a poisonous reptile with two wings, two eyes, two legs, and one form of wit: irritating. I guess he’s a lot like me, except I don’t have wings and I’m not a reptile. Well, maybe metaphorically. At this moment, he was sitting on my right shoulder, waiting for me to say something so he could make sarcastic comments about it.

Of course, I obliged him. I said, “I can’t believe he’d hire a free sword.”

 “And of course, he can’t have any friends.”

 “Who are good enough to paint the wall with Trotter?”

 “I love it when you start theorizing before you know anything, Boss. It fills me with admiration.”

I told him some things about him I admired, and he did that head-bobbing thing with his long, snakey neck that means he’s laughing. Usually at me.

Of course, the alternative to bantering with my familiar was sitting there and worrying, since I had no intention of charging into anything without knowing what was going on. I’d done that before and come to the conclusion that it was a bad idea.

So I sat there and waited and exchanged more comments with Loiosh; you don’t need the details. I didn’t, in fact, have to wait all that long.

I have a secretary and bodyguard named Melestav. He poked his head in about an hour after Kragar left and said, “Message for you, Boss.”

“From?”

“Don’t know. Messenger service, paper message. Showed up, handed it over, left.”

“Did you tip him?”

“Of course.”

My first thought was contact poison, but that’s just because I’m paranoid and had just gone through an experience with someone who had caused me significant concern for my continued existence. But Melestav was holding it, and he wasn’t showing any signs of dropping dead; and contact poison, while it does exist, is rare, tricky, and undependable. Besides, no one wanted to kill me. As far as I knew.

I took the message. The seal was a half circle with a jhegaala sinister facing a flower with three petals, and it meant Byrna. It was addressed to Vladimir of Taltos, House of the Jhereg; which isn’t exactly my name, but close enough. There was a very pretty curlicue trailing off from final symbol; it is always a pleasure to see good calligraphy. I broke the seal.

“My Lord the Baronet,” it said, “I am anxious to meet with you to resolve the financial matters that lie between us. I have bespoken a private room on the main floor at the Blackdove Inn, where I can be found between noon and dusk every day. I await your convenience.

”I remain, my Lord,

“Your servant

”Baron Byrna of Landrok Valley.“

Well, wasn’t that just the honey in the klava.

”Gee, Boss. You should head right over. It couldn’t possibly be, you know, a trap or anything.“

”Heh,“ I said.

Melestav was still standing in my doorway, waiting to see if there was an answer. I said, ”See if you can find Shoen and Sticks and have them hang around here until I need them.“

”Will do,“ he said.

He left me alone. Loiosh didn’t have anything more to say, and neither did I. I took out a dagger and started flipping it. I thought about Cawti, the girl I’d just gotten engaged to, then realized that wouldn’t help the problem. Then realized that until I knew something, it wouldn’t do any harm, either, so I continued. Time passed pleasantly.

Eventually some of the more mundane aspects of my job intervened, so I spent the interim saying yes, yes, no, and get me more details until Kragar said, ”I’ve found out a few things, Vlad.“

I jumped, scowled, relaxed, and said, ”Let’s hear it, then.“

”He didn’t know where the guy came from, but, yeah, Byrna has a protector.“

I cursed under my breath and listened.

”Trotter found Byrna at one of his usual hang-outs, went after him with a lepip, and the next thing he knew he was full of holes. He didn’t get a good description of the guy, except that he wore blue.“

I sighed. ”All right.“

”I imagine,“ he said, ”you’ll need me to go find out things I have no way of finding out, right?“

”Naw,“ I said. ”I’ll just go meet the guy.“

Kragar nodded. ”Smart move. I’ll send flowers.“

”Hmm?“

”I thought that was the Eastern custom.“

”Oh, right. It is. Good. I’ll be counting on it.“

”Vlad—“

”I know what I’m doing, Kragar.“

”Sure about that, Boss?“

”Shut up.“

Kragar made a grunt, indicating he believed me about as much as Loiosh did. This is a reaction I’m used to from those who know me.

Kragar left, and Loiosh started in. Did I really know what I was doing? Did I care that I was walking into a trap? Did I this? Did I that? Blah blah blah.

”Melestav!“

He poked his head through the door.

”Message to Lord Baron Byrna of Landrok. Begins: I will be honored to wait upon you at the fifth hour after noon of this day. I Remain, My Lord, Sincerely and all that. Ends. Send it to him at the Blackdove Inn.“

”Will do.“

”Shoen and Sticks?“

”They’re both here.“

I nodded. I checked the time with the Imperial Orb, and I still had several hours. Good.

I got up from the desk and strapped on my rapier, increasing the number of weapons I was carrying by an insignificant percentage, then put on my cloak, increasing that number by a much larger percentage. Concealing hardware in a big, flowing cloak is pretty easy. The hard part is keeping said hardware from clanking, and arranging it so the cloak looks and feels like it’s a reasonable weight. It had taken a lot of trial and error to get there, and it still took a bit of fiddling about before it was adjusted properly on my shoulders. But eventually I got it and I walked out, telling Melestav I’d be back later.

Kragar wasn’t in the room. That I noticed. The two guys I’d brought for protection were; I nodded to them, they stood up and followed. Shoen walked like he was one mass of muscle, just waiting to explode as soon as he had a direction to explode in—and that’s pretty much what he was. Sticks was tall and lanky and he walked as if he were just out enjoying the ocean scent and wouldn’t notice a threat if it was right in front of him. He wasn’t really like that.

We went down the stairs, past the little business that gave me a nice legal cover, and out into the street. Sticks kept a couple of steps ahead of me and to the street side, Shoen a bit behind me away from the street. We didn’t talk about it, just sort of fell into it. I’d worked with them both before.

The Blackdove Inn is considerably south and just a hair east of my area, in the part of Adrilankha called Baker’s Corner for reasons I couldn’t guess at. Jhereg operations there are controlled by a fellow named Horin; protocol required me to let him know if I were doing anything major in his area and get his permission if appropriate. But as far as I knew, this would be nothing major. And besides, I didn’t like him much.

Just inside Baker’s Corner, along Six Horses Way, there’s a public house called The Basket that at times has a slab of beef turning on a spit, and periodically they douse it with a mixture of wine and salt and pepper and magobud and whiteseed. You have to get there early, because if you don’t it will be either overcooked or gone. I was there early. The host cut some for me, slapped it unceremoniously on a plate and nodded toward the basket of rolls. I had some summer ale to go with it and sat down. I also got some for Shoen and Sticks—I figured we were safe here, because Loiosh was watching, so they could eat.

We sat and we ate and it was good.

My philosophy is that if I’m going to do something reckless, I should have a good meal first.

”So, you want to tell us what’s up?“ said Sticks.

”Don’t know,“ I said. ”You heard about Trotter?“

”Yeah. Nasty business. It’s like the streets aren’t safe any more.“

I nodded. ”I’m going to see about it.“

”And we’re going to make sure you don’t get the same treatment while you do?“

”Something like that.“

”Any details you feel like sharing?“

”I just know I’m meeting a guy at an inn.“

”The guy who did it?“

”Probably, though that’s not what was on the invitation.“

”All right.“

Shoen kept eating. Talkative bastard, that one.

”So, how do we play it?“

I shrugged. ”We go in, see what’s up, decide. You guys try to keep me alive long enough for me to make a decision.“

He ate another bite, chewed it, and swallowed. ”It’s a good thing you have us to watch out for you, otherwise you’d be helpless.“ He winked at Loiosh.

 ”He’s as funny as you, Boss.“

 ”Why thank you, Loiosh.“

 ”Point proven. You should probably send one of these guys over an hour early, just to look things over.“

 ”No one is trying to kill me, Loiosh.“

 ”Explain that to Trotter.“

We finished up the meal, and they went out the door in front of me to make sure no one was waiting outside to do me harm. No one was; those days were over, at least for a while.

We took our time getting to the Blackdove. I stopped on the way at a candle-maker’s and got a candle that was stood about four feet high and was scented with lavender, along with a silver holder for it. I figured Cawti might like it. I had them send it to the office, because whatever happened later, walking around with a four-foot-tall candle was unlikely to make it go any better.

 ”Boss, you know you’re going to make those two wonder if you’re in control of yourself.“

 ”Feh. Because I bought a candle?“

 ”No, because you’re walking around with a stupid grin on your face.“

 ”You can’t even see my face.“

 ”I don’t need to see your face.“

I got my features back under control, and found we still had an hour or so before the meeting, so we took our time getting there. I looked into shop windows for other stuff to get Cawti, but didn’t see anything that felt right.

And then it was time, and we covered the last half mile or so, and I walked into the inn about five minutes early. It was quiet—not the sort of place that’s busy between lunch hour and dusk. The hostess looked half asleep behind the bar, and there was one Teckla snoring loudly, his head down on the table in front of him. The other individual was a rather attractive woman who was obviously a Dzur; she wore loose-fitting black clothing and had a whole lot of steel strapped to her side. She was in the back corner, her head against the wall, apparently dozing, but probably watching us through her lashes. I caught Stick’s eye, and he caught mine; enough said.

I approached the bar and the hostess opened her eyes, looked at me, looked at me again, hesitated, then said, ”My lord?“

A quick glance suggested that she was a Jhegaala, like Byrna, which might or might not be significant. I gave her my name, then his, saying I was to meet him. She nodded and pointed down a dark hallway. ”First door on the right, my lord.“

I looked back at the Dzur, estimating how long it would take her to get from where she was to the door I was about to go through. The way she was keeping one foot so casually under the chair, I’d say just over three seconds.

Shoen went first, then me, then Sticks. When Shoen reached the door, he looked a question at me; I nodded, he clapped. Someone called to enter, so he did. Sticks and I waited there in the hall. It isn’t like we were alert, ready to move and go for weapons at the first sign of excitement; it’s just that, well, I guess we were.

Shoen came back out said, ”One guy, sword on the table in front of him.“

I nodded and he went back in, then me, then Sticks.

It was a small room, with two chairs and a table, and not a whole lot more space than that—the sort of room for a private card game, maybe, or a meeting of three or four Chreotha who want to pool their resources and start a laundry service. The individual seated behind the table was certainly not Byrna. He wasn’t even a Jhegaala; from both his slightly feline features and the blue and white of his clothes, I took him for a Tiassa. A bit younger than middle age—he probably hadn’t seen his thousandth year. His hair was light brown and long, his eyes were bright. He was studying me as I was studying him.

”Sit down,“ he suggested. ”Let’s talk.“

The naked sword lying across the table was slimmer and lighter than usual, though still heavier than mine. His hands were out of sight below the table. If he made a move for the sword while I was sitting in the chair, things were liable to get interesting. The room wasn’t big enough for much swordplay, which worked to my advantage, as I was carrying a lot of little things with points on them. I studied him a bit more. He held my eye and waited.

”Sticks. Shoen,“ I said. ”Wait for me. I’ll be out presently.“

They both left without a word, footsteps echoing as I continued my study. My hard stare failed to intimidate him so I sat down.

”I’m Vlad,“ I said.

He nodded. ”I’m the Blue Fox.“

”You aren’t really.“

”You’ve heard of me?“ He seemed surprised.

”No. No, if I had heard that there was someone going around calling himself the Blue Fox, I’d remember. You don’t really, do you?“

”I tried wearing a mask for a while, but it was uncomfortable so I stopped.“

”Why?“

”You Easterners have no sense of the theatrical.“

”I’ve heard that said. In any case, I can’t think of an Easterner who has ever called himself The Blue Fox, so maybe you’re right.“

”I’ve met an Easterner who calls himself The Warlock.“

”No, everyone else calls him that.“

He shrugged. ”In any case, if we’re done talking about my name, perhaps we can—“

”What do I call you? Blue? Lord Fox?“

”Blue Fox will do fine. Are you trying to make me angry because you think it will give you an advantage over me?“

”I hadn’t actually worked that out,“ I said. ”But probably. If you’re going to give me an opening like that—“

”Why don’t we talk first, and find out if we even have anything to quarrel about, before we start trying to get advantages over each other?“

”Oh, we have a quarrel. You sent one of my people to a physicker with a lot of holes in him. It hurt my feelings.“

”Sorry,“ he said. ”I didn’t know you’d take it personally.“

”I guess I’m over-sensitive. I assume the attractive Dzurlord out there is with you?“

”Pretty, isn’t she?“

”She is. Certainly prettier than the guys I brought.“

”The tall one is kind of cute, in a boyish way.“

”I’ll tell him you said so.“

”Ready to talk business yet?“

”Are you a friend of Byrna?“

”Close enough, I guess. I’m handling the negotiations for him.“

”Negotiations,“ I repeated.

”Do you have a better word?“

”Not just now. Give me some time and I’ll come up with one.“

”Take as much time as you need. But while you’re thinking, we seem to have a problem.“

”Yes. Byrna owes me money.“

The Tiassa who had introduced himself as the Blue Fox nodded. ”That’s a problem. He doesn’t have it.“

”That’s another problem,“ I said.

”He came to me—or, to be precise, his wife came to Ibronka, and—“

”Ibronka? The Dzur?“

He nodded.

”That’s an Eastern name,“ I said.

”And a very pretty one. His wife came to Ibronka, you don’t need to know how, and said that you were going to hurt him if he didn’t give you money. Seemed like I should step in.“

”Did his wife go to her when he needed to borrow the money?“

”No, she should have though. We’d have found it.“

”If you find it now, and give it to me, that’ll solve the problem.“

”Over time, the amount has become rather large.“

”Yes, that does happen.“

”Hence, I thought I’d negotiate.“

”You see, Lord Blue, I’m generally willing to negotiate.“

”Generally?“

”Generally. But there’s the matter of the holes you put in one of my people. I don’t care for that. And then there’s the fact that instead of coming to me like a gentleman and explaining that he was having problems, in which case I’d have been willing to work something out with him, he avoided me for several weeks, and then you show up. To be blunt, Lord Blue, I’m just not feeling inclined to negotiate much of anything. So, now what?“

He glanced at the sword on the table. I carefully placed my hands on the table, smiled at him, and waited.

”You’re very good,“ he said at last.

”At what?“

”Fighting. I can tell. You think you can take me. I think I can take you.“

I smiled and waited, my hands on the table. The weight of the dagger in my left sleeve was reassuring.

He glanced at Loiosh and said, ”You think your friend there will give you an edge.“

”Possibly,“ I told him.

”I don’t think it will be enough.“

I nodded, my eyes never leaving his. I was pretty sure I could take him even without Loiosh’s help. But you never know until you’re there.

”But,“ he said, still maintaining eye contact, ”as I told you, I would prefer to negotiate.“

”I’m not inclined to negotiate.“

”Do you really want to push this?“

”I’m in a bad mood. I told you why.“

”You shouldn’t lend money at ruinous interest rates, then threaten violence when people can’t pay, and then act surprised when they go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves.“

”Have I been acting surprised?“

”Good point.“

”I have more good points. Like, he knew the rates when he took the loan. And he would have had no reason to fear violence even when he got behind if he’d come to me and explained his problem. I’m always willing to work with someone, up until the time they bring in a hired sword to mess up my people.“

”He didn’t handle this very well.“

”No.“

”He could have gone to the Empire, instead of to me.“ I didn’t say anything to that. After a while he said, ”Yes, well, we both know that would have been a mistake.“

”Yes,“ I said.

”So, what do we do now?“

”You’re talking, I’m listening.“

”What if we give you double the initial amount of the loan and call it even.“

”If I didn’t have a guy being patched together by a physicker, I’d probably go for that.“

”And I pay for the physicker.“

I mulled it over. Evidently, he was serious about wanting to avoid violence. Well, the fact is, I’d like to avoid violence as well. I’m here to make money, not mayhem. But it annoyed me to have a punk like Byrna pull something like this. It annoyed me a lot.

 ”Boss?“

 ”Yeah?“

 ”It’s business.“

 ”Yeah.“

I said, ”All right, I accept the deal. But the money comes through you. I don’t want to see Byrna. I don’t trust myself.“

He nodded. ”I’ll have the money sent to you. And if you give me the name of the physicker, I’ll take care of that, too.“

I felt obscurely disappointed, but agreed.

”Good then,“ he said. ”One more thing.“

”What’s that?“

”You hungry?“

Interesting indeed. What might this be about? Probably nothing it would be smart to get involved in. ”Just ate,“ I told him.

”All right.“

But then, we Easterners are curious beasts. ”I could stand a drink, though.“

”On me.“

I stood up and proceeded him out the door. He wasn’t a Jhereg, so he might not have appreciated the courtesy.

 ”Boss? What’s this about?“

 ”No idea. Maybe he wants to show how friendly he can be to Easterners.“

 ”You think?“

 ”Probably not. But I suspect if we take him up on the drink we’ll find out.“

We went back into the room, and I could feel the Dzurlord, Ibronka, looking us over carefully. Then she stood up and walked toward Lord Fox. Sticks, who’d been leaning against the bar, walked over to greet me, just coincidentally putting himself between me and Ibronka.

Foxy said, ”Lord Taltos, this is Ibronka. Ibronka, Lord Taltos.“

I bowed without undue exaggeration and said, ”This is Stadol, and this is Shoen. Let’s find a table.“

We did, except for Shoen and Sticks, who each took a table flanking ours. The guy with the funny name ordered us two bottles of Khaav’n; apparently he was settling in for a while. His hand was under the table; so was Ibronka’s. If we were going to be romantic, I wanted Cawti there. If we were going to be violent, I wanted Cawti there for that. I should have thought to invite her, dammit.

They brought the wine, already opened, and Blue poured it for us. We drank some. It was pretty decent, though I’d have served it slightly chilled.

I sat back and studied him some more, and waited. Loiosh shifted a little on my shoulder; he was waiting too.

”So,“ said the Blue Fox. ”I’m glad we were able to settle things peacefully.“

”Uh huh.“

He hesitated, then said, ”There’s a reason, of course.“

”I’m sure there is. Want to tell me about it?“

He nodded, hesitated, then said, ”I could use your help.“

”I wondered about that,“ I said. ”The trouble is, you aren’t Sethra Lavode.”

 

Tiassa © Steven Brust 2011

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