By Steven Brust, Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2011 Steven Brust
All rights reserved.
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 anymore. 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 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 anymore, 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. Reliability is one of the great virtues, I've always believed, and I like to encourage it in others when I can.
"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."
"Don't know. Messenger service, paper message. Showed up, handed it over, left."
"Did you tip him?"
My first thought was contact poison, but that's just because I'm paranoid and had recently 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 the final symbol; it is always a pleasure to see good calligraphy. I broke the seal.
"My lord the Baronet," it read, "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,
"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 hangouts, 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."
"I thought that was the Eastern custom."
"Oh, right. It is. Good. I'll be counting on it."
"I know what I'm doing, Kragar."
"Sure about that, Boss?"
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.
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."
"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 was 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 anymore."
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."
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 candlemaker's and got a candle that 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 and 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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Tiassa by Steven Brust, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2011 Steven Brust. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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