Authors: Steven Brust
Tags: #Fantasy - Epic, #Fantasy - General, #Epic, #Taltos; Vlad (Fictitious character) - Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #General, #Fantasy, #Taltos; Vlad (Fictitious character), #Historical, #Fiction, #Fantasy fiction - lcsh
"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.
"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," I 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."
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."
"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."
"And then, once I knew the general area, I got more help. Sethra Lavode."
"Oh, her," I said. The most powerful sorceress and wizard in the world, yeah, well, I 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 –
"Yes. She gave me a means of tracing him."
"Well, is my face red."
"So," I said. "You had help from both Kiera and Sethra."
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, I 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 I 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. I 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
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."
"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 I warmed up. He just rolled his eyes and gave me a flank strike, which I parried, causing the tip of his weapon to whip past my guard and leave a nasty welt on my forearm. After that 1 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.
long do you think
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.
"Morrolan didn't exactly let me use the window."
"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."
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?"
"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."
"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."
"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?"
"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—"