Read Issola Online

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

Issola (20 page)

"How could it have come to this place?"

"It is," said Morrolan. "With Vlad's help, using an old invocation," which, in case you didn't notice, made no sense at all.

Verra didn't seem bothered by the non sequitur. "I see," she-said slowly. I looked up
at her bony face, with its slightly askew forehead, and strange jawline, and deep-set eyes, and the thought suddenly came to me:
She's scared.
I found myself thinking,
Dear Verra, protect us,
before I caught myself. She glanced at me, and a smile flickered briefly around her lips, then went out. She turned her eyes once more to the trellanstone. Presently she asked, "What was it, exactly, that Sethra said?"

Morrolan cleared his throat, started to answer, stopped, and finally said, "There was a great deal of military theory in it."

"That doesn't astonish me," said the Goddess.

"I might summarize it by saying that complex enemy plans are the easiest to defeat, and we shouldn't be afraid of walking into a trap."

"Uh huh. What else?"

"She reminded me that they can be killed."

can we

Morrolan shrugged. "I have never
liked giving up the initiative."

"Nor I," I muttered under my breath, earning me a quick glance from the Goddess, who evidently had very
good hearing.

"And yet, my love," said Verna to Morrolan, "we are here, on their world, and they can appear if and when they wish, so they have the
initiative. And if
little Sethra is that
certain, why isn't she here herself?"

"Mother," said
Aliera. "You know the answer to that very well." Verra gave her an indulgent smile. "Perhaps I do."

"I don't," I remarked, but they all ignored me.

"Moreover," continued Aliera, "you also know, I am certain, that if you hadn't wanted to come, you wouldn't have. You are no demon to be summoned and dismissed, and no one here except perhaps our Easterner could take you for one."

"Could I have refused a plea for help from my daughter?"

Aliera snorted. "Easily."

Verra chuckled. "My darling child, you don't know me as well, perhaps, as you think you do." Morrolan said, "It is the only means we have of learning," which made no sense whatsoever; I was starting to
get used to that though.

Aliera herself didn't deign to respond. The Goddess spread her arms and gave Morrolan an exaggerated bow. "Very well, then," she said. "You have summoned me, and I am here. What, exactly, is your plan?" Aliera and Morrolan looked at each other.

After an embarrassing moment, Verra said, "You don't have a plan?"

"Not exactly," said Morrolan.

"Plans are overrated," I said. "Let's just start killing things. If there's nothing else around, we can always kill each other."

"Don't tempt me," said Morrolan.

I snorted. Verra said, "Perhaps you should allow the three of us to confer, my dear Easterner."

"Sure," 1 said. "I'll just amuse myself by exchanging sarcastic comments with Loiosh."

"No doubt you will," she said.

Lady Teldra was standing across the room, as calm and patient as an issola, as if waiting for some call that hadn't come. She had taken herself away from the conversation while no one was watching. I reflected on what a fine skill it would be to know when you weren't wanted at a place you didn't want to
be, so you could make everyone happy by going away. I walked over to her. She looked up at me, a slightly quizzical expression on her face. I said, "How do you do that, Teldra?"

She smiled and raised her eyebrows, and came as close to looking smug as I'd ever seen her. I said, "So, all right, how do the laws of courtesy tell us we should handle this mess?"

"The laws of courtesy," she said, still smiling, "are strangely silent on the subject."

"I'm not surprised."

"In any case," she added, "I think you know them as well as I do."

"Oh, yeah," I said. "If there's anything I know, it's courtliness and good manners. I'm even better at politesse than I am at refining petroleum."

"I know little of petroleum, Vlad, but I do know that you are actually quite skilled in the arts of courtesy."


Behind me, Aliera and Morrolan were continuing to speak to the Goddess, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. In the event, this did not displease me.

"It is the simple truth, Lord Taltos. It is how you survived for so long in the world you used to inhabit - or, more precisely, the worlds."

I bit back a smart reply and just waited. After a moment, she said, "The Jhereg has its own rules and customs, you know - codes of appropriate behavior. You couldn't have survived among them without knowing what all of their signals mean. And I've seen you with my Lord Morrolan. That is another different set of codes." I snorted. "I've almost pushed him far enough to kill me. More than once."

"I know that, too," she said.

"Well then?"

"What stopped him from killing you?"

"His strong sense of self-interest combined with iron self-control."

"I don't believe that is entirely correct, Lord Taltos. I know him
rather well, 1 think, and there are severe limits to his self-control, whereas there are no limits to his pride. Had you pushed far enough, you would have faced a mortal contest."

Morrolan, Aliera, and the Goddess all turned and walked out the door. I guess if you put a pretty little stream outside your door, people will want to look at it. I hoped the Jenoine would feel gratified.

"Okay," I said to Teldra. "Look. I'll concede that, over the years, I've learned that there's no point in making a bad situation worse, and that it's less work to talk yourself out of a tough spot than to slice your way out, and that words, while potentially deadly, are less deadly than Morganti daggers. But I don't think that is quite the same thing as being courteous."

"I believe, Lord Taltos, that it is very much the same thing. And you know more than those things, if I may say so. You know when a casual insult is, in fact, courteous under the circumstances - and when it is not. You know when to make a friendly gibe, and when the gibe is not quite so friendly, but still called for. You know how to negotiate from a position of weakness but make it appear to be a position of strength. These are the sorts of things I'm talking about. And do you know how many of our folk - and yours - never learn these lessons that appear so simple to you?"

"Maybe, being an Easterner, I have a natural talent."

"You forget how many Easterners I have known, Vlad. Your people have no such natural talent. In fact, the conditions under which your people live tend to promote the opposite: an irritating obsequiousness, or an aggravating combativeness."

After a moment's thought, I said, "That's true."

She nodded. "It is really all a question of taking appropriate action for the circumstances. I'm sure you realize that I could have this conversation with few others - human or Eastern - that I know. Some it would embarrass, others it would merely confuse."

"Yes, I understand."

"You have learned, faster than some of my own House, what actions - and words are only a special case of actions - are appropriate to the moment."

"A survival skill, Teldra."

"Yes, it is."

"Ah. That's your point, isn't it?"

She smiled, making me feel like my grandfather had made me feel when I had managed the correct riposte after parrying a lowline cut.

Morrolan, Aliera, and Verra returned at this point, speaking in low tones. I gestured toward them and said, "And the Goddess?"

"What about her?"

"What need has she of courtesy?"

"Toward her peers, the same as you or I. Toward us? None. Many of the gods, I believe most of them, display a certain degree of courtesy even though none is needed. Those who don’t acquire a reputation."

"For being, say, chaotic?"


"So it is all a question of courtesy?"

"It is all a question of doing the appropriate thing. Of acting as the situation calls for."

"Appropriate thing. You keep saying that, Teldra. When someone walks up to me and says, 'Out of the way, whiskers, you're blocking the road,' is it appropriate to bow and say, 'Yes, my lord?' Is it appropriate to suggest his mother was a toothless norska? Or to quietly step out of his way? Or to urinate on his boot? Or to pretend to ignore him? Or to put a knife into his left eye? Just what does appropriate mean, anyway?"

"Any of those things might be appropriate, Vlad, and I daresay there are circumstances where you might do any of them. But you are always, or nearly always, correct in which you choose. And this is not a matter of instinct, but of observation, attention to detail, and experience. Appropriate action means to advance your own goals, without unintentional harm to anyone else."

"Unintentional harm."


"By Verra's tits," I said, forgetting then remembering that be pair of them weren't all that far away, "you're as cold as Morrolan, aren't you?"

"Yes," said Teldra, "I suppose so. Or as cold as you."

"Me? I'm not cold. I'm the soul of compassion, understanding, and courtesy."

"Yes," said Teldra, dimpling. "You are indeed. But only when it is appropriate." I chuckled. And, "Okay. I'm convinced. All problems are matters of courtesy, and I am the personification of tact. So, to return to the question, what is the appropriate thing for us to do now?"

"I have no idea," said Teldra, still smiling. "I imagine that is what our friends are discussing right now." I glanced over at them: heads together, deep in conversation.

"Great," I said. "I can hardly wait to see what they'll come up with."

"I have no doubt," said Teldra, "that it will be entertaining." I nodded. "Entertaining. Good. That's always been high on my list for the kind of plan I need to get out of a fix." She didn't reply. 1 shrugged, gave her a hint of a bow, and wandered over to the others. As I approached, they all stopped talking and looked up, like they'd been caught at something.

"Well?" I said. "Have we come up with the ultimate solution to all of our physical and spiritual problems? Have we saved the world, made sure the Empire is secure, and—"

"That will do, little Easterner," said the Goddess, giving me a look that made me question what Teldra had just been telling me. I restrained an insolent shrug, perhaps answering the question.

"What do you think, Loiosh? Am I the very soul of tact, discretion, manners, and courtliness?"

"Am I a three-legged tiassa?"

"]ust checking."

"We have decided," said Verra, "that if the Jenoine are not polite enough to appear suddenly and force us into action, we will attack them."

"That took serious discussion?"


"Yeah, okay. I sort of suspected you might come up with that one. Have you worked out the details yet?"

"Some of them."

"Okay. How are you going to try to get me killed this time?"

"This time," said Verra, "we just might succeed."

"Heh. You should be so lucky."

Morrolan said, "We're trying to reach the Necromancer. We're hoping she—"

"The Necromancer!"

"Yes. We're hoping—"

"With you and Aliera and the Goddess and Sethra Lavode we don't have enough of a concentration of power? You need to bring the Necromancer in on this? How 'bout the Empress, for the love of V ... something or other." Morrolan waited for me to run down, then spoke again "We're trying to reach the Necromancer," he said. "We're hoping she can find the Jenoine, and a way to get at them. Our problem at the moment is reaching the Necromancer."

"Why do you need the Necromancer at all? Why not have Aliera do it?"

"What are you talking about, Vlad?" asked Aliera a bit impatiently.

"Pathfinder," I said, and suddenly they were all staring at me.

Then, "Pathfinder," repeated Aliera.

"Damn," said Morrolan.

"How did I manage to not think of that?" said Verra.

"How did
manage to not think of it?" said Aliera.

"Pathfinder," said Morrolan.

"All right, all right, I'm a genius," I said. "Now we've thought of it. Can we get on with whatever we're going to do?"

"I've never
met anyone so impatient to get himself killed, Boss."

up, Loiosh."

"Yes," said the Goddess, "1 believe we can, as you put it, 'get on with it.' Aliera, your weapon?" I involuntarily took a step back as Aliera drew, and, as the weapon cleared her sheath, I noticed something odd. I had been in the presence of Morganti weapons a great deal more than I cared to in my brief life; and the same is true of the Great Weapons. I had become, if not used to, then at least familiar with the ugly and terrifying sensation of their presence - sort of the mental equivalent of finding sour milk in one's pitcher, combined with the feeling of waking up suddenly after a dream of being in a cave with a dzur blocking the exit while anklesnakes slithered around behind. But what was odd was that I suddenly realized that Pathfinder felt different from Blackwand. Not that it was at all pleasant, you understand, but it was as if I were picking up bits of personality from the weapon. I don't know, maybe what is strange is that I'd never noticed it before.

Exactly what the differences were was harder to say, except that Pathfinder didn't seem to be quite as, well, aggressive as Blackwand. Morrolan's weapon gave me the feeling that it would love to have the chance to swallow my soul if I'd just come a little closer; from Aliera's weapon I got the feeling that it would devour me without a second thought if I gave it the chance, but it wouldn't go looking for me, either. Also, Blackwand gave me a strong sense of a female personality, wherein from Pathfinder I got no clear indication of a sex. Aliera’s sword, it seemed, was more patient, perhaps more protective, and there was a sense of inquisitiveness; while from Morrolan's blade I picked up feelings of arrogance, of strength, of the desire to get to smashing things. And there were other, more subtle differences, too, that I couldn't exactly identify but was now aware of. I also became aware that Morrolan had said something. "Excuse me," I said. "I was distracted. What was that?"

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