I. It'll make sense later. Maybe.
I did not come to the decision lightly or quickly--well, mostly not quickly. I'd been contemplating it in the abstract for weeks when another assassin caught up with me and forced the issue.
He had a Morganti knife: a soul-eating blade that could utterly destroy me with the lightest of cuts. Wherever you think a person goes when he dies--reincarnation, Paths of the Dead, Verra's Hells, hang around as a specter--a Morganti would make sure you never got there. This was what really terrified me about being assassinated, the fact that every contract taken out on me was apparently Morganti.
I did a lot of ducking and retreating, which is basically the only thing you can do when someone's trying to kill you with a Morganti weapon. That, and throw things. I threw a couple of Phoenix stones I had been wearing. Gold and black. They had been my defenses against sorcery and psionics, but the side effect was that while in contact with them, I couldn't use the talents either. I hoped the assassin would take a few minutes before he figured this out, and not be able to follow my teleport immediately.
No such luck. I had barely arrived in the courtyard of Castle Black when he appeared--too close, barely a foot away from me. Too close to use his weapon on me well. Loiosh, my familiar, rose off my should again, shrieking. The assassin took a stab at my back or maybe my neck, but I knocked his arm away. I pulled a dagger from its sheath on my belt, and slashed at his throat. I would have gone for the eye--it's quicker--but the knife was a little too big for that, and we a little too close for me to get the knife that high fast enough.
He fell backwards, reached toward me with the Morganti blade even as he did so, failed to get me, gurgled, and died.
I looked up at Lady Teldra, who was standing above me on the steps to the castle proper, looking faintly shocked. She was too good at what she did--greeting and guiding all the guests who visited Castle Black--to look more than faintly shocked.
When I had my breath back, I said, "Hi. Sorry to drop in on you like this. Is Morrolan around?"
"Not your wittiest," Loiosh commented in my mind as Teldra indicated that he was and guided me inside.
I only grunted. Various cognitive functions shut down after someone tries to kill me. Loiosh knew this. I don't know how the hell he was managing to sound so calm--as my familiar, what happens to me, happens to him. If I get soul-sucked, his soul gets sucked too. That was part of what had brought me here.
Morrolan rose in surprise when we entered the library. "Vlad!" he said, sounding pleased. "Are you alright? We've been worried about you--"
It was about that point that I stumbled. Before I had betrayed the Jhereg--the organization I had worked for--I usually managed to get to my office before I started shaking, after surviving an assassination attempt. I had no office any more; I had been on the run for years now. I didn't get to choose where I broke down anymore, it seemed.
Morrolan caught me, and carefully lowered me onto one of the couches. "He was followed here," Teldra told Morrolan. "An assassin with a Morganti." She handed it to him. I hadn't noticed her picking it up.
Morrolan took the blade and made it vanish somewhere on his person. Morrolan didn't have the fear and horror of Morganti weapons most of us do--he possessed a rather large and powerful one named Blackwand that was linked to his soul, and would protect him from most threats, nicks and cuts from lesser Morganti included.
"Never did take it well when people try to kill me," I murmured. Morrolan was kneeling in front of me, nodding and looking sympathetic. I joked, "All I ever wanted was to be liked."
"Are you injured?" he asked me. "I could call Aliera--"
Aliera was his cousin, and a healer. I shook my head.
"Well." Morrolan bit his lip. "You are safe here, of course. You know that, right?"
"Safe," I laughed, a bit hysterical. When I had calmed down some, I said, "That depends on if you'll do me the favor I've come to ask you for."
"What favor is that, Vlad?" Morrolan asked. "Anything in my power."
I drew a breath, and exhaled. "I want you to take Blackwand, and I want you to kill me."
Originally posted 4 Jan. 2002
II. Vlad Taltos and Slash Plot Device #4: The Telepathic Link
At least telepathic links are common in this world, and something both characters were already capable of...
Morrolan looked down at his sword, then back at me. He tilted his head and asked, "Are you quite--sure?" I got the feeling the question he really wanted to voice was, "Are you quite sane?"
Looking at him, kneeling in front of me, doubtful and concerned, I felt my shaking ease off. I still had a few tremors left in me, but I had avoided being sick, at least, which is something I never like to do in front of Morrolan, no matter how many times he's teleported me. I wasn't sure whether to be pleased, or worried that I was losing it, if I could get through almost being killed without that formerly inescapable reaction.
"Yes," I answered Morrolan. "You remember I once told you, anyone can be assassinated?"
"Yes," Morrolan said cautiously.
"I'm no exception," I said. "I can't stay two steps ahead of these guys forever, and I'd rather choose the time, place and manner of my death than let them choose for me. I'd rather die at the hands of a friend than--" I paused, struggling for a description. Just thinking about it, about the assassin I managed to kill through a fluke of fortunate teleport, had me shivering violently again. I said firmly, "I'd rather die at the hands of a friend."
Morrolan digested this, looking down again. "Things must have been difficult for you during your exile," he said finally.
"You could put it that way," I replied, swallowing half a dozen other ways I might have put it.
"May I ask why you chose me to ask this favor of?" Morrolan said.
"Well, it was a toss-up between you and Aliera for who would get the most pleasure out of it," I told him, "but I decided I liked you more."
"Aliera will be heartbroken," Morrolan said wryly. Then, "Vlad--"
"The real reason. Right." I sighed. "Suppose I could have asked Aliera, she has a Great Weapon too. I guess she'll just have to be heartbroken."
"Why do you wish to be killed with a Great Weapon?" Morrolan asked patiently.
"I spent a long time trying to figure out if there was any way for me to die that didn't kill Loiosh," I began.
"Shut up, Loiosh. This is for you."
"Because of his bond to you as your familiar," Morrolan said, encouragingly.
"The only thing I could come up with was that if my soul were--trapped here," I explained, "not in my body but still--you know, not wherever dead Easterners' souls go--then you could show the Jhereg my soulless corpse, which is what they've been after for a while, but Loiosh wouldn't--he wouldn't be dragged into death after me because I wouldn't be properly dead."
Loiosh said, "Boss, are you insane?"
Morrolan said, "You wish me to preserve your soul in Blackwand?"
I said, "Yes," in answer to both of them.
Morrolan stood, toying with Blackwand's hilt. While he thought, Loiosh said to me, "You don't have to, you know. I'm touched. And you're touched. In the head!"
"It's not that bad a plan," I insisted.
"Any plan wherein you end up dead is a bad plan," Loiosh answered severely.
"How long," Morrolan asked musingly, "would you want me to preserve you? Until Loiosh died a natural death? Until the Jhereg have forgotten you, and the Necromancer could put you back in a body? For as long as I live and possess Blackwand?" He turned to face me. "I ask only because I can see you getting fed up with life in a sword very quickly. You would be fully aware, you understand, but you would not be able to act, and I do not think you would be able to speak to anyone but me, or whomever holds Blackwand."
"Oh," I said.
"And Blackwand herself, naturally," Morrolan added. "What, 'oh'?"
"I hadn't realized I'd be awake," I said. "And, um, I hadn't really given a lot of thought to when or how I'd be leaving Blackwand. I certainly didn't think 'alive' was an option."
"You mightn't be alive in the strictest sense," Morrolan answered, "if we had to wait years--or even longer than three days, really--to return you to a body. Of course, you'd live a great deal longer if you were undead." For some reason, the idea of being undead bothered me less than the fact that he kept saying "a body," not "your body." He concluded, "Take Sethra for example."
I snorted. "Yeah, but she lived a really, really, really long time, even by Dragaeran standards, before she undied."
"True, but I think we digress," Morrolan said.
"Yes, however did we get from me asking you for a little help with dying to you offering me immortality?" I asked.
"I missed the connection myself, but take him up on it. It sounds loads better than the plan where you die," said Loiosh.
"I'll consider it," I promised Loiosh, "after I find out whose body he plans to put me in."
Morrolan sat down opposite me, steepling his hands. His expression went from speculative to pensive. "I propose a trial," he said. "An open link between us, from now 'til--dusk tomorrow? If you can stand my thoughts for that length of time and still wish to subject yourself to them semi-permanently, I shall do as you ask."
I nodded, then said, "And whether you can stand my thoughts isn't an issue?"
"Vlad, I promised you anything in my power," Morrolan answered. "I meant that."
"Thank you," I said. I wondered if I was going to cry.
Originally posted 7 Jan. 2002
Morrolan and I forged the mental link between us. I don't know what exactly he did to make sure it would be semi-permanent. I just concentrated extra hard.
The first thing I heard Morrolan think, with an air of mixed relief and resignation, was "That's done, then." I didn't know what he meant, but he was suddenly too busy with other things for me to ask him, and they were all things that he was doing for my benefit, so I couldn't even object.
Morrolan started by putting up a teleport block around the Castle, to keep assassins out--I could see how it looked in his head, a kind of box enclosing the keep. This didn't make much sense to me, as the whole point of teleporting, aside from being able to travel great distances, is that it doesn't matter what walls are between you and your destination. I don't know how I expected a teleport block spell to look, but I suspect I may never entirely understand sorcery. Morrolan gave me the brief and obscure explanation, "The box is opaque," before moving on to other things.
While Morrolan was contacting Teldra to make sure she had told Fentnor, head of security, about the corpse on the doorstep, and then contacting Fentnor, Loiosh licked my ear and said, "You have to see a place in your mind to be able to teleport to it, right?"
"Right," I agreed.
"I think what he meant by 'The box is opaque' is that it's supposed to keep someone trying to teleport here from seeing what's inside properly."
I spent a few moments wondering how you make the box so it's only opaque one way and transparent the other, because you can make teleport blocks keep people in or keep people out, or both; and if you could open one side of the box and only let people teleport to or from one direction. My head was starting to pound, so I gave that up and asked Loiosh, "Okay, so how did he make a psionic link to me so that--it wasn't exclusive? That he can still contact all these other people?"
"Got me, Boss," answered Loiosh. "I'd suggest he just made you his familiar, but I think you'd take it wrong."
I wondered if Teldra and Fentnor could hear me pondering while they were talking to Morrolan, and then I wondered if people I contacted psionically could hear Loiosh. Mostly Loiosh doesn't talk to anyone but me, but he used to talk to Cawti, and once or twice in emergencies he had contacted Morrolan to come to my rescue. The first time with each of them, I was startled. Occasionally jealous. I mean, he's my familiar.
Morrolan was contacting Aliera just then, asking her to join him in the library. Aliera said, "Who's that in the back of your head?"
Well, that answers that, I thought, and held my mental breath.
After a pause, Morrolan answered, "Perhaps I shall tell you later."
Aliera expressed annoyance. "Are you in some kind of trouble, cousin? Should I be making sure not to think about House secrets? Am I going to find a sorceror holding you hostage and dissecting your brain when I get to the library?"
"Not unless Vlad's condition has significantly improved," Morrolan replied. "He was attacked by an assassin and came here. He was followed, and killed the fellow here. I'd like you to look at Vlad and make sure he's alright."
"I'll be right--oh, drat you, Morrolan. Why is there a teleport block up?" she asked. I was trying to keep my thoughts quiet, but I suddenly had to figure out why someone already in Castle Black, inside the opaque box, couldn't teleport to another place in Castle Black. I failed to figure this out.
"Because Vlad was attacked by an assassin and followed here," Morrolan said patiently.
"Drat you," Aliera repeated. "I'll be down as fast as I can," she said, and cut contact.
"I told you I was fine," I said aloud, and winced. My words seemed to thunder back at me along the link.
Morrolan frowned. "You're not. You've just barely avoided being killed, come in and more or less gone into shock on my couch, and asked me to kill you."
"Does that mean you won't do it?" I asked challengingly.
"I promised I would," Morrolan said stubbornly. "That doesn't mean I can't worry about it, and you. I wouldn't trouble you with my worries except that we've just linked our minds so you can't really avoid hearing them. My apologies."
Aliera arrived just then, so I only grunted at Morrolan.
"Injuries?" she asked me, bending over me.
"None," I snapped, glaring at Morrolan. "Guy had a Morganti. Wouldn't be here talking to you if he had succeeded in injuring me."
"Bruises or sprains," Aliera said impatiently. "Did you take any falls? Did he kick you or strike you at all? Should I be checking to see if you're concussed?" She was running her hands over my skull even as she asked this.
"Yes," Morrolan told her.
Since I knew he'd know I wanted to do it anyway, I went ahead and stuck my tongue out at him. Aliera looked startled. Morrolan crossed his arms. I could hear snatches of him internally cursing himself. For suggesting my request had stemmed from a concussion? What, suddenly the usual war of wits was off?
"Call it a temporary truce, Vlad," Morrolan answered me silently. "It may cease to be temporary if we go through with your plan. In any case, we cannot be constantly needling each other while linked--please, make an effort."
It wasn't going to be a very representative trial link if we weren't acting like ourselves, but he had a point. What had possessed me to stick out my tongue at him--in front of Aliera? I sighed and turned back to her. "I might have bruises on my back," I admitted. "I ran into a tree. And tripped. Left foot. Doesn't hurt too badly, though. And came down kind of hard on my right hand. I don't think I did anything to it, but I fractured my wrist that way once when I was learning to fence, so I guess it wouldn't hurt to check."
Aliera took my hand and felt my wrist carefully, then knelt and took my boot off and gave my ankle the same treatment. I couldn't tell if she was fixing anything or just looking. "If you could turn around and let me see your back?" she asked. I turned, taking off my jerkin. I heard Morrolan hiss, and I could suddenly see the image of the bruises forming down my left side.
"Thanks loads," I shot at Morrolan.
"I didn't mean to show you," he replied apologetically.
Aliera felt some more, declared that none of my ribs were broken. She left her hands pressed against my back for a moment, and they felt warm. The dull pain in my back softened a bit. As she withdrew her hands, she told me, "I think what you need most is rest and food. Which would you like first?"
I thought, and wasn't sure food would stay down at the moment. "Rest."
Aliera looked at Morrolan, who was already contacting Teldra to ask if a room had been prepared for me. She replied that yes, the green room had been prepared, and I was trundled off to bed.
Originally posted 13 Jan. 2002
IV. Talslash part... um, let me check. Four.
I had jumbled dreams. In the one I recall most clearly, Morrolan was in a troupe entertaining a Teckla village out in the country. I was in the audience, and he asked me for my sword. I handed it over, and he tilted his head back and swallowed it to the hilt. He was also juggling Morganti knives, one of which I recognized as the blade that had almost ended my life on his doorstep.
The crowd had been keeping back in case he dropped one of the knives, but a little girl with brown hair and eyes came forward and said, "That's not anything! Anyone can swallow a rapier."
Morrolan took the sword out his mouth--the knives he had been juggling with had vanished--and asked, "Who can do better?"
"I can," said Kragar, who may have been standing next to me the whole time without my noticing. Or he may have appeared.
Morrolan drew Blackwand, which is a greatsword, and, I should mention, longer that I am. I shuddered. Kragar took it, and looked at me. "Are you sure this is safe?" he asked.
"It's better than the knives," I answered. Morrolan was juggling again, but with torches instead of knives.
"I suppose," answered Kragar. He tilted his head back and lifted Blackwand, hands against the flat sides of the blade, nearer the point than the hilt, and let it slide down.
Morrolan still had my sword, but keeping it in the air with the torches was difficult, so he caught one of the torches in his mouth. He spat it out, doused. He inhaled, then breathed flame at Kragar.
Kragar had Blackwand in his hand again, and the flame parted around it. "Silly young Dragonlord," he said. "Don't you think I know your tricks? I can make a bigger fire than you."
"How?" asked the little girl, delighted.
Kragar smiled at her and threw Blackwand at Morrolan. He had to drop all the torches to catch it. The grass around us went up in flame.
Morrolan and I didn't seem to be burning. The little girl did, but she was smiling and clapping her hands. Kragar seemed to have vanished. He's good at that. The rest of the crowd was screaming.
"Well, this has been going on for half a day and you've still managed to keep your secret safe from him," Morrolan said.
"I don't have any secrets from Kragar," I answered. "Not any important ones, anyway." The flames had gone, now. I was still warm, but everything was dark.
Morrolan didn't seem to be speaking to me. He ignored my reply and answered himself: "And that was the entire point of this exercise. I suppose I'll just have to tell him."
Around this time, I realized that I was prone, and that I was warm because I was covered in blankets, and that I was awake. "Morrolan?" I asked.
I felt a sense of resignation from him. "I've been wondering how long you would sleep, he said. He lit a candle, which startled me, because I hadn't realized he was in the room with me. I watched him disarm and undress himself, and I rolled over to make room for him in bed. He climbed in beside me, wrapping his arms loosely around me. I could feel his lips against the back of my neck in something I wasn't sure was a kiss, which I suppose means he wasn't sure either.
What followed, I recall less clearly than some of the dreams, and I can't swear that none of the fragments were from my dreams. Perhaps it doesn't matter, since Morrolan was as privy to those as to my thoughts.
The feel of the ridged curve of his spine against my hand, pressing him to me. The tug of him carding my the hair on my chest. Tracing a line down his smooth torso, to where the few dark curls finally did start, and wrapping one around my finger. His sharp ears leaving strange shapes on my thighs. My hand on his cheek, thumb at the corner of his mouth, and the way he turned his head to bite, gently, with teeth that reminded me of the dragons in his ancestry.
In the middle of it, somewhere, there was a conversation. I think I remember all of it, although I'm not sure it's in the right order. I was relaxed and warm, and he was on top of me, supporting his weight on his elbows. "I haven't done this with many Dragaerans," I started to tell him.
He tilted his head at me. "Why not?"
"It--feels strange. To be with someone who's so--different," I tried to explain.
"How does this feel?" he asked, more curious than anything. I think he was kissing me as he posed the question.
"Good," I answered languidly. Really, it was in the attitude, not the body. Morrolan didn't think of me as fundamentally different. I knew; I had been hearing his thoughts as he explored me. And even as I had noticed our physical differences, they hadn't seemed important.
"Good," Morrolan answered, with a laugh in his thoughts.
"I had a point, at one point..." I thought lazily. He laughed again, easily. "Mmm, I remember," I said. "I'm going to do something I've never done with any other Dragaeran guy."
"What's that?" Morrolan asked, intrigued.
"I'm going to let you in," I answered. It sounds like a ridiculous attempt at poetry now, but at the time the words weren't really important. "I'm going to take you out to dinner and give you flowers" would have conveyed the meaning, because the meaning was underneath, more of a feeling or sensation than anything else.
"Why?" Morrolan asked softly. I think the question was "Why me?" but I chose to misinterpret it as "Why haven't you?"
"Let's face it... you guys are big," I replied.
"That's only bodies," Morrolan told me. "This is in the mind..." He kissed my temple. "And in the heart." He bent, and kissed my chest.
"So this was your secret," I said.
"Yes," Morrolan answered.
"I'm going to die tomorrow, you know," I said idly.
"Not really," he said.
"I know," I replied.
Originally posted 20 Jan. 2002