The twelfth novel in the New York Times-bestselling Vlad Taltos seriesin which Vlad Taltos's struggle to survive the Jhereg price on his head takes him to new heights of danger and intrigue
House Jhereg, Dragaera's organized crime syndicate, is still hunting Vlad Taltos. There's a big price on his head on Draegara City. Then he hears disturbing news. Alieralongtime friend, sometime allyhas been arrested by the Empire on a charge of practicing elder sorcery, a capital crime.
It doesn't make sense. Everybody knows Aliera's been dabbling in elder sorcery for ages. Why is the Empire down on her now? Why aren't her powerful friendsMorrolan, Sethra, the Empress Zerikacoming to her rescue? And most to the point, why has she utterly refused to do anything about her own defense?
It would be idiotic of Vlad to jump into this situation. He's a former Jhereg who betrayed the House. He's an Easternersmall, weak, short-lived. He's being searched for by the most remorseless killers in the world. Naturally, that's exactly why he's going to get completely involved...
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By Steven Brust, Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Steven Brust
All rights reserved.
For a State to investigate the actions of its own military is, as no less than Lanya pointed out as far back as the Third Cycle, to either begin with a set of assumptions that will ultimately control the investigation, or to tangle one's self hopelessly in contradiction before beginning. This report, then, will begin by stating those assumptions (see Part One).
The questions this committee was asked to address were as follows:
1. What were the facts in and around the events in the village of Tirma in the county of Shalomar involving Imperial troops on Lyorn 2 of Zerika 252?
2. Was there any moral or legal culpability attached to any Imperial representatives associated with the incident?
3. If so, who should be held to blame, for what, and how are the interests of justice best served in this matter?
4. Insofar as there was culpability, what steps might be taken in the future to prevent a repetition of any unfortunate or regrettable events ...
* * *
I felt confident that the immediate dock area was safe, because I had sent Loiosh and Rocza ahead of me to look for anyone suspicious, and Loiosh is good at that sort of work. I'd come in on a boat filled with flour from the Pushta and fish from the river; though as I understood it, the main profit from the trip would come from the salt they'd bring back. Next to the dock was a small market area, where bakers would bid for the sacks of flour I'd slept among for the last couple of nights.
I brushed brown flour off my brown leathers, adjusted my cloak, and moved past the market, climbing the seemingly endless flight of concrete stairs that led up to street level. It was morning, and the streets were just starting to get busy. Loiosh and Rocza flew above me in wide circles, keeping watch.
River and ocean smells — entirely different — battled for attention, along with flour and refuse of various kinds. Tradesmen were setting up, Teckla were running errands, coins were already starting to clink all around me. This was my home, whether I liked it or not. In fact, I didn't like it, at least at the moment; but it was still home.
As if to emphasize the point, I became aware once more of the Imperial Orb, now close enough that its effects penetrated the Phoenix Stone amulet I wore about my neck. Its presence in my mind was like a low shepherd's pipe playing quietly over the next hill.
From here, it was only a couple of miles to the most northeastern entrance of the Imperial Palace; I didn't think the Jhereg would be stupid enough to make a move on me once I was inside. Even the Jhereg Wing would be safe — the thought of going there just to taunt them was only briefly tempting.
"As stupid moves go, Boss, this one isn't bad. I mean, comparatively."
"Glad to hear it."
"I knew you'd be relieved."
Usually, if you're a professional and you're going to kill someone, it takes a while to set things up — you need to be sure of where to find your target, how you're going to take him, all the escape routes, and so on. Arriving unexpectedly in town like this, I figured my chances of making it safely to the Palace were pretty good. And if anyone did try anything, it would be a clumsy, last-minute effort that I ought to be able to deflect.
That, at any rate, was my thinking. And, right or wrong, I did make it; taking the Street of the Issola to what is called the Imperial Wing, though in fact it is not a wing, but the heart of the Palace, to which the other wings are attached. Once inside, I had to ask directions a few times, but eventually managed to walk quite nearly all the way around the Imperial Wing. In fact, I'd entered rather close to the Iorich Wing, but the Jhereg Wing was in between, and walking in front of it didn't feel like a smart move, so I took the long way.
The main entrance to the Iorich Wing from the Imperial Wing is through either of a pair of twin arches with no door. Above one arch is a representation of an empty hand, palm open like a porter expecting a gratuity; above the other is a hand holding an ax, like a porter mad at not getting one. These same symbols are on the opposite sides of the arch in the other order, so you can't escape the ax. This would, no doubt, be a powerful statement if I knew what the images were supposed to symbolize. High above both of the arches is a representation of an iorich, its toothy snout curving back as if looking over its low shoulder. Given what the ugly thing is famous for, that is another bit of symbolism that doesn't make sense to me. I could find out if I cared.
The Iorich like to make everything bigger than it has to be, I guess to make you feel smaller than you'd like to be. It was a long walk through a big, empty room where my footfalls echoed loudly. The walls were dark, only slightly lit by oddly shaped lamps hanging high overhead, and there were half a dozen marble statues — pure, white, gleaming marble, about twenty feet tall — depicting figures that I imagine were famous within the House.
Loiosh gave no signs of being impressed.
In front of me was a desk, elevated about two feet, with a square-shouldered middle-aged Dragaeran at it. Her straight hair glistened in the torchlight.
I went clack clack clack clack against the hard floor until I reached her; her eyes were slightly higher than mine. She glanced at the jhereg on my shoulders, and her lips tightened. She hesitated, I suppose trying to think if she could come up with a law against their being there. She finally gave up and said, "Name."
Her voice and demeanor — brisk and slightly bored — went with the surroundings the way lemon juice goes with cream; she sounded more like an Imperial clerk in charge of tax rolls than a magistrate of the House of justicers. I said, "I want information about a case."
"Name," she repeated.
"Aliera e'Kieron, House of the Dragon."
"Your name," she said, with the air of someone trying very hard to be patient in spite of provocation.
But you can't operate in the Jhereg without knowing some of the basics of the Imperial justice system; no one but an idiot breaks a law without knowing that he's doing it, and what he's risking, and the best ways to reduce the risk. "I don't choose to give it," I said. "I want public information on the case of Aliera e'Kieron, whose name has been entered under Imperial Articles of Indictment for Felonious Conduct." I paused. "Of course, if you wish, I can ask at the House of the Dragon, and explain that the House of the Iorich wasn't willing to —"
I stopped because she was glaring and writing; continuing the battle after you've won just wastes energy. She handed me a piece of paper; I didn't bother looking at it, because I don't know the symbols the House of the Iorich uses instead of the perfectly reasonable writing the rest of us get by with.
"Room of the Dolphin, see the clerk. He will answer your questions. Good day."
I walked down the hall. She hadn't even addressed me as my lord. Once. My feelings were hurt.
I'd been in the Halls of the Iorich often enough to believe I could find my way around, but not often enough to actually do so. I saw a few Iorich as I walked — clerks, men-at-arms, and perhaps one was a magistrate — but I didn't feel like risking a snub to ask any of them for directions. Nevertheless, after most of an hour, I managed to find the correct stairway to the correct hallway to the correct room. The man behind the desk inside — very young, an apprentice of some sort, no doubt — glanced up as I came in, smiled, frowned, then looked puzzled about just what sort of attitude he was supposed to adopt.
Before he could decide I gave him the paper. He glanced at it, and said, "Of course," stood up, and vanished through a door on the far end of the room. He returned before I had time to decide if I should sit down at the chair opposite his desk. He had a fairly large sheaf of papers in his hand. The papers all had two holes on the top with pieces of white yarn running through them.
"Sit down, my lord," he said, and I did. "Aliera e'Kieron," he said.
"Arrested on the ninth day of the month of the Hawk of this year, charged with violation of Imperial Edict Folio ninety-one part thirty paragraphs one and two. Intent to Indict filed with Her Imperial Majesty the tenth day of the month of the Hawk of this year. Writ of felony placed before the Circle of Magistrates on —"
He looked like a draft horse pulled to a stop just short of the barn door, but he managed, "Yes, my lord?"
"Would you mind telling me what Folio ninety-one... that is, what the charges are? I mean, in plain speech?"
"Oh. Use of Elder Sorcery."
"Barlen's crack," I muttered. "Nice work, Aliera."
"Your pardon, my lord?"
"Nothing, nothing. I was talking to myself. Who accused her?"
"Heh. Anything on how Her Majesty learned of the crime?"
"I'm not permitted to say, my lord."
"All right. Go on, please."
He did, but there was nothing useful in it, except that, yeah, she had been bound for judgment on a crime. A capital crime.
"Does she have an advocate?"
"She refused, my lord."
I nodded. "Of course she did. Any friends of the defendant presented themselves yet?"
"I'm not permitted to say, my lord."
I sighed. "Well, you may as well add me. Szurke, Count."
"Imperial." I dug out the ring and showed it to him. He was very impressed and so on.
He made some notations, and pressed some seals onto a document, then said, "It is done, my lord. You wish to see the prisoner?"
"If the prisoner should agree, where can you be reached?"
"Castle Black," I said, hoping that was sufficient.
It was; he made a notation.
"Has she received any visitors so far?"
"I'm not permitted ..." Then he shrugged and consulted another paper and said, "No." I guess that one doesn't matter so much.
I thanked him, and that concluded my business in the House of the Iorich.
And, having acquired the bare minimum of information — enough to know what I was dealing with — the next step was obvious: I stopped on the stairway, removed my amulet, and carefully made the teleport to the courtyard of Castle Black. I replaced the amulet around my neck and spent a moment taking in my surroundings. It had been years, but it still felt like home, in a different way than Adrilankha did. It's hard to explain.
I tapped the hilt of Lady Teldra, wondering if somewhere down there she felt like she was home, too; but I didn't feel a response. I think.
I didn't approach the doors right away; I took a good look around. Around; not down. I knew what was down: a long drop and unforgiving stone. I wear an amulet that prevents sorcery from working on me, and sometime after I got it I came out here, to the courtyard, and it was only a day or two later that I realized I ought to have wondered whether the amulet would interfere with the spells that kept me up in the air. I mean, it was fine; whatever the nature of the courtyard, it doesn't require sorcery to act on me directly. But I really should have thought about that before walking onto it, you know?
There were pairs of guards stationed at various points along the walls. Always pairs: one fighter, one sorcerer. So far as I know, they've never had anything to do since the Interregnum, but they're always there. Cushy job, I suppose. But boring. Nice to know they still recognized me, though. At least, I assumed they recognized me, because otherwise they ought to have challenged me or something.
The walls were black; I could see the little veins of silver running through the ones nearest me. I turned, and the castle itself, also black, towered over me, the highest turrets were blurred and indistinct where they kissed the Enclouding. I lowered my eyes to the great double doors. How many times had I walked through them, to be greeted by Lady Teldra, followed by conversation deep or trivial, amusing or infuriating? Lady Teldra wouldn't greet me this time.
When I'd had my moment of nostalgia, I walked up to the doors, which opened for me in their usual grandiose, overdramatic way. I'm a sucker for that stuff, though, so I liked it. I stepped inside, and before me was a white- haired Dragaeran gentleman, in a frilly white shirt with green tapered pants. I stared at him. Rudely, I suppose, though I didn't think about it, and he didn't act as if it were rude. He simply bowed and said, "I am Skifra, and I welcome you to Castle Black. Am I correct in that I have the honor to address my lord Morrolan's excellent friend Lord Taltos?"
I returned his bow by way of assenting that he did, indeed, have that honor, such as it was.
He looked decidedly pleased and said, "If you would be so good as to follow me to the sitting room, I will inform His Lordship of your presence. May I get you wine?"
"That'd be great," I said, following him to another room I knew well.
I sat in a chair that was too big for me and drank a decent red wine that was slightly chilled, just the way I like it. That implied a great deal, which I set aside for later ruminating.
I expected him to return in five minutes or so to bring me to Morrolan, but in just about two minutes, he himself appeared: Morrolan e'Drien, Lord of Castle Black, bearer of Blackwand, and, well, stuff like that. I recognized his footsteps — walking quickly — before the door opened, and I stood up.
"Vlad," he said. "It's been a while. A couple of years, anyway." He gave Loiosh a quick smile; Loiosh fluffed himself on my shoulder and dipped his head in a sort of greeting. Morrolan said, "You heard about Aliera, then?"
I nodded. "I've been to the Iorich Wing, got my name added to the list —"
"Friends of the defendant."
"What does that do?"
"Lets you see her, if she agrees."
"Oh, that's why... all right. Let's go up to the library."
I followed him up the wide stairway, got reacquainted with the paintings, then down the hall, past the pair of huge tomes chained to pedestals (an expression of Morrolan's sense of humor that I may explain some day) to another double door. Morrolan sure seems to like double doors a lot, for a skinny guy.
He shut the doors behind me, and we sat down in chairs that were like old friends, facing each other at an oblique angle, little tables by our right hands.
"It's good to see you again, Vlad." He poured himself something purplish- red from a cut-glass decanter. I still had my wine. "How have you been?"
"Same as always. Still kicking, still running."
"You get used to it."
"Any stories worth telling?"
I shook my head. "Tell me about Aliera." That's me: straight to business.
"Right," he said. He frowned into his wine. "I don't know exactly. She was engaged in some experiments, and the Phoenix Guard appeared, asking to see her. I showed them down to —"
"Wait. This was here?"
"Yes, that's right."
"They arrested her here?"
He nodded. "She lives here, you know."
"Uh, okay, go on."
"That's about all I know. They came in, got her, took her away."
"You let them?"
He cocked his head at me. "You expected me to launch a rebellion against the Empire?"
I considered that. "Yes," I said.
"I chose not to."
I dropped it. "What have you learned since?"
"Very little. I couldn't find out anything. They wouldn't let me in to see her."
"You need to go to the Iorich Wing and declare yourself a friend, then you can get some information, and if she approves it, you can get more, and you'll be permitted to see her."
"All right, I'll do that."
"Any idea why she refused an advocate?"
"Well, you're pretty damned helpful."
He smirked. "It's good to see you again, Vlad."
"Mind if I ask what you have done?"
"I've spoken with Norathar and Sethra."
"Oh," I said. Yes, the Dragon Heir and the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain would be good people to start with. "Uh, have they been keeping you informed?"
"As much as you'd expect."
"She was arrested, ah, what was it? About two weeks ago?"
"A little more."
I nodded. "Okay, we need to find her an advocate."
"How do you know so much about this stuff, Vlad?"
I looked at him.
"Oh," he said. "All right, but didn't she refuse an advocate?"
"There may be a way to get one in to try to talk some sense into her."
"I've no idea. But advocates are clever bastards. I'd have been Starred otherwise."
"Money isn't a problem," he said.
"No," I agreed. "It isn't."
He nodded. "Are you hungry?"
I realized I was, and said so.
"Let's go to the pantries and see what we can find."
We found some sausages in the style of some Eastern kingdom: oily and biting, tasting of rosemary. With it was crusty bread in long, thin loaves and a wonderfully sharp cheese. There was also a jug of red wine that was probably too young but still had some body. We ate standing up in Morrolan's pantry, passing the jug back and forth.
"Vlad, do you know what happens if she's convicted?"
"My understanding — which isn't perfect — is that either they execute her, or the Empress has to commute the sentence, which will raise havoc among the Houses."
We walked back to the library, brushing crumbs off ourselves. "What are you going to do?" he asked me.
Excerpted from Iorich by Steven Brust, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2009 Steven Brust. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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