Hawk: A New Novel Vlad Taltos

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9780765324443: Hawk: A New Novel Vlad Taltos

Years ago, Vlad Taltos came to make his way as a human amidst the impossibly tall, fantastically long-lived natives of the Dragaeran Empire. He joined the Jhereg, the Dragaeran House (of which there are seventeen) that handles the Empire's vices: gambling, rackets, organized crime. He became a professional assassin. He was good at it.

But that was then, before Vlad and the Jhereg became mortal enemies.

For years, Vlad has run from one end of the Empire to the other, avoiding the Jhereg assassins who pursue him. Now, finally, he's back in the imperial capital where his family and friends are. He means to stay there this time. Whatever happens. And whatever it takes.

Hawk is the latest in Steven Brust's New York Times bestselling Vlad Taltos series.

"Watch Steven Brust. He's good. He moves fast. He surprises you. Watching him untangle the diverse threads of intrigue, honor, character and mayhem from amid the gears of a world as intricately constructed as a Swiss watch is a rare pleasure." ―Roger Zelazny

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About the Author:

STEVEN BRUST is the author of Dragon, Issola, the New York Times bestsellers Dzur and Tiassa, and many other fantasy novels. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

MAKING A STAND OR MAKING TRACKS

 

Several years ago, I was getting drunk with four or five of the most powerful sorcerers in the Empire—like you do—when Daymar told a story. We were in the library of Castle Black, having just finished doing something dangerous and preposterous, and our host, Morrolan, pulled out a case of a really good white wine from Descin. Sethra Lavode, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, was there, as was Morrolan’s cousin Aliera, and I think the Necromancer, and of course Daymar.

The more we talked, the more we drank; and the more we drank, the less I can recall of what we said. But I remember that at some point in there they started telling stories of the various rites of passage among the different Houses. You know, some tests or things you go through before you’re considered fully part of the House, or maybe an adult, or officially a bloodthirsty asshole, or whatever it is your House values.

All the Great Houses except the Teckla and the Jhereg have them, and they’re all different. The Dragonlords—Morrolan and Aliera—told of having to make tough command decisions during a combat exercise. Sethra recounted different tests among the Dzur, the Tiassa, and the Iorich across much of history, which she could do, having lived through all of history and a little more besides. I talked about a couple of traditions among Eastern witches; including the one that had got me the jhereg that was, at that moment, sitting on my shoulder telepathically making smart-ass remarks.

Daymar turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining storyteller for a guy who never seemed sure where his imagination stopped and reality started. I don’t remember a lot about what he said, but I remember enjoying it. And there is one piece that must have stuck with me. I know this because years later I abruptly remembered it, setting off, well, I guess everything that I’m about to tell you.

Here’s the bit of what he said that I suddenly remembered: “I had to hide from the Orb while I did it.” I must have been pretty drunk not to react at the time, but—jumping forward to now, to a time when I was on the run from the Jhereg and concentrating all of my energy on living through each day—I woke up from a light sleep and said aloud, “Verra’s tits and toenails!”

I sat there in a dank, windowless, cell-like room, with my back against the stone wall, and let things play out in my head. Then I stood up and started pacing. There wasn’t enough space in the room, so I went out and started pacing up and down the hall.

“Okay,” I said into Loiosh’s mind after a while. “I might have something.”

“Think soup and bed rest will cure it, Boss?”

“Something that might get me out of trouble with the Jhereg.”

Silence in my mind. Then, “Really?”

“Maybe.”

“What—”

“Find Daymar. Have him meet me across the street,” I said.

Loiosh didn’t reply; I opened the door at the far end of the hallway and he flew out, followed by his mate, Rocza. A moment later she returned and hissed at me. That was another time when I was glad she and I couldn’t speak with each other, although, really, she was communicating just fine.

*   *   *

I don’t know. If I hadn’t been on my way to see my kid, I might not have decided it was time to risk everything. I wonder. I mean, it probably wouldn’t have changed things, but that’s the sort of thing you wonder about later.

So, yeah. A couple of days before I suddenly woke up with that memory of Daymar, I was on my way to visit my kid at the home of my estranged wife in South Adrilankha when someone tried to kill me. Loiosh warned me. “Boss,” he said. “There are two people up ahead, hiding. They’re Dragaerans. I think there’s a Morganti weapon.” He didn’t actually say, “They’re waiting to kill you,” but he also didn’t tell me that water is wet and rocks are hard (nor that water is hard, but never mind that for now).

I stopped. This part of South Adrilankha was full of cottages set at varying distances back from a narrow road dotted with large deciduous trees. I figured the trees were planted there so their leaves would catch the stench of the slaughterhouses and keep it close to you. That way, even on days like this when the breeze wasn’t from the south, you had a little reminder of why you hated this part of the city. I stepped behind one of the trees and spoke to Loiosh.

“Goodness,” I said. “Whatever could they want?”

“Imperial representatives, wanting to present you with an island kingdom?”

“That’s just what I was thinking they were.”

“As you would say: Heh.”

“How far ahead?”

“Fifty yards or so.”

“In other words, right in front of Cawti’s house?”

“Yeah. Also—”

“What?”

“Another guy, leaning against the house itself.”

“That doesn’t make any—”

“Colors of the House of the Dragon, Boss, and a gold half-cloak.”

“That makes perfect sense.”

It was a dilemma. The assassins—I had no doubt they were assassins because I’m not an idiot—were in front of the house my kid lived in. I could come around behind them and hunt the hunters, but that would bring the whole mess to my front door, in a fairly literal way. Yeah, Cawti was there, and she could certainly handle herself. But murder tends to get noticed, sometimes even in South Adrilankha. And there was a Dragonlord, an Imperial Guardsman, on duty. That would mean the Jhereg couldn’t get me, here and now; but I couldn’t get them, either. Put it another way: Much as I wanted to take them down, it seemed like the best thing would be to just walk away.

But if they were watching my house (dammit, not my house; my ex-wife’s house), it meant it would never be safe to visit there.

“Boss, it never has been safe to visit there.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And why the guardsman?”

“Norathar. I mean, the Dragon Heir, not the boy. I’ll bet you six dead teckla she arranged for that gold-cloak to be there, to keep Cawti and the boy safe.”

I chuckled a bit to myself as I imagined just what Cawti must have said about being protected. I’d have loved to have eavesdropped on that conversation. Probably psychic, though. Too bad you can’t listen in on someone else’s psychic conversations.

For now, I kept myself hidden, I studied, and considered. I discovered that my right hand had gone to the hilt of Lady Teldra, about whom more later. I relaxed and let the hand fall to my side while I thought.

Yeah, sometimes I think. It isn’t what I do best, but occasionally I just give it a shot anyway.

If I were the assassins, and there was an Imperial Guardsman right in front of where I thought the target would be, what would I do? That was easy—find a different place to “take my shot,” in the idiom of my homeland. Where? Well, ideally, a place where there weren’t any Imperial Guardsmen? But okay, if I wanted the guy really, really bad, and I couldn’t find anywhere else? Maybe—maybe—I’d try to arrange for the guard to be distracted long enough for me to make the attempt anyway. It would be complicated, tricky, expensive, and risky; but maybe.

Well, no, to be more precise, I wouldn’t do that, but it was possible these guys would. After all, there were two of them doing a job that usually only one did—assassins usually work alone. Having two of them waiting for me was, to be sure, an honor of sorts. But like the guy on the Executioner’s Star said: Except for the honor, I’d have preferred to skip the ceremony.

“What do you think, Loiosh?”

“You know what I think, Boss. You should walk away right now.”

“Yeah. Talk me into it.”

“If I had to talk you into it, you wouldn’t be asking me to. Let’s go already.”

There was nothing to say to that. Loiosh landed on my right shoulder, Rocza on my left, and I turned and walked back the way I’d come. After a few hundred feet, I stepped off into an alley, and took back streets all the way to the Stone Bridge, which leads back to the City. Instead of taking the bridge, however, I cut north on a street whose name I never learned. In a few minutes, I saw a dilapidated building off to my right that had the vertical parallel lines—drawn or painted above the door—that indicate, in the Easterners’ district, a place that lets out rooms for the night.

“The street would have fewer vermin than that place,” said Loiosh. “And probably be safer.”

I didn’t answer him.

I paid for a room from the fat, grizzled woman in the chair next to the door. She grunted a number at me.

“Are there actually numbers on the rooms?” I asked her.

She squinted at me, and opened her mouth. She didn’t have many teeth.

“Up the stairs, second door on the right. If you have a bag, carry it yourself,” she added, which wasn’t necessary because she could see I didn’t have one, and because I wouldn’t have trusted her with it if I had. It was the kind of place the lower order of prostitutes avoid as too disgusting.

She glowered at me, I think just on principle; but when I started moving, my cloak shifted, and she could see the hilt of my rapier, and she stopped glowering, and I knew if we had any more conversation she would be very polite.

The room was about what you’d expect. I tested the bed. I’d slept in worse. Of course, that was on the ground, but still. There was an empty water pitcher, which indicated a pump room nearby, so it could have been much worse. There was a window big enough for Loiosh and Rocza to fit through, but no way to close it, or even to block any light that came through unless I drove a nail into the wall above it and hung my cloak there. I considered going out to find a blacksmith. There was a chair and a small table with a washbasin on it. The chair looked safe, so I sat in it, and relaxed for half an hour or so while I considered nails and other matters.

“Boss, there really is a lot of insect life in here.”

I grunted and stood up.

You could say that I was unable to perform any witchcraft because of the amulet I wore that made me invisible to magical detection, but it wouldn’t be strictly true. I took a selection of herbs from my pouch, put them in the tin water basin, and lit them. Just because I couldn’t invoke any power didn’t mean I couldn’t use what I knew, and what I knew was how to drive at least most of the insect life out of the room. After that, it was just a matter of leaving the room for a couple of hours while the herbs did—

“Boss! There’s someone in the hall.”

I froze, my hand on the doorknob.

There’d been occasional people walking up and down the hallway all along, but Loiosh wouldn’t have mentioned this one without reason.

“Check the window.”

He flapped over there, stuck his head out. “No good, Boss; two of them out there.”

“Two? Two outside, and one inside? Three of them? What is this organization coming to?”

“There might be more than one outside the door, Boss. I can’t tell for sure.”

I looked around for a place to hide. I mean, there wasn’t one, and I knew there wasn’t one, but I looked anyway, because you do. I could jump out the window where I knew there were two of them, and, with any luck, Loiosh and Rocza could distract them while I recovered from the jump enough to, you know, not die. But aside from any other problems, I wasn’t sure I could fit through the window. I could wait and deal with the unknown or unknowns who, I presumed, were getting ready to smash my door down, and—well, same problem. If it were me on the other side of the door, I’d blow the damned thing up and rush in before the dust settled. Crap. If I were in a farce, I’d hide under the bed. In a play full of exciting fake violence I’d …

Hmmmm.

The room didn’t have a real ceiling, just bare rafters with the roof a few feet above them.

“Boss, seriously? That’s what you’re going with?”

“Got a better idea?”

I stood on the bed frame and jumped, catching hold of one of the rafters. I pulled myself up, which wasn’t as easy as it should have been. Either I’d gained weight since coming back to Adrilankha, or else the extra hardware I’d picked up recently was weighing me down. But I got there, stood on the beam, and put my other hand on the slanting roof for balance.

Loiosh and Rocza flew up next to me and door blew in, almost knocking me off the beam in spite of my grip.

From above, all I could tell was that there were two of them, one of them holding a dagger and the other a Morganti broadsword. I mean, you don’t exactly see that it’s Morganti, unless you’re in light bright enough to notice that there’s no reflection from the metal, but it doesn’t matter. You know it’s a Morganti weapon. Even wearing a Phoenix Stone amulet, which pretty much makes you deaf to both sorcery and psychic phenomena, if you’re that close to a Morganti weapon, you know.

They charged into the room ready to kill, stopped, looked around. I took a deep breath and a grip on the rafter. After a moment, they went over to the window and looked out on the street. The one with the dagger shrugged his shoulders. The other one turned around, looked up, saw me, opened his mouth, and got both of my boots in his teeth. He didn’t go out the window, which is what I’d been hoping for, but I could hear the crack when his head hit the sill; I didn’t think I’d have to worry about him for a bit.

The other one turned to me. I’d fallen to the ground after my heroic leap, so I rolled back out of range while Loiosh and Rocza got in the assassin’s face in a very literal, biting, fill-him-with-jhereg-venom kind of way. I got to my feet and recovered my balance, then I threw the basin of burning herbs in his face, then drew a dagger and stabbed him in the throat, angled up to get the base of his brain. In a move that had become almost automatic, I stepped to the side to avoid the stuff that would require laundry services if it got on my clothes. The other guy seemed to be unconscious. I stabbed him in the throat too, just to be sure. I left the knife there.

Then I stood in front of the window and looked down at the other two, spreading my hands in a “now what?” gesture.

They turned and walked away.

What I really wanted to do next, just for effect, was to go back downstairs and demand a new room of the landlady on the basis that mine was full of vermin, the washbasin was dented, and the door was broken. But I didn’t. I went back down the stairs and, ignoring her, walked out the door. If she had any presence of mind and a few connections, she’d sell that Morganti broadsword on the gray market for enough to retire on.

I took a sharp left, taking me off in a different direction than the two button-men had gone.

I wondered how they’d found me.

After a couple of blocks I stopped, rested against a building, and let myself shake for a while. I don’t know, maybe two minutes, maybe five.

Evening was coming on.

I’d been in Adrilankha for several months; too long to be in one place with assassins after you. Loiosh was no longer bothering to tell me how stupid it was for me to hang around. I couldn’t argue with him, even before the Jhereg stationed outside Cawti’s place confirmed it. The price on my head was high enough to be tempting to anyone.

I had to get out of the city, but I didn’t want to. My son was here, and I’d only managed to ...

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