Warnings/notes: speculative pre-Empire AU, Sethra, Aliera, Vlad (Dolivar), Kieron, drabble-ish, ooc. Major spoilers for Jhereg, minor spoilers for Orca.
Disclaimer: The wondrous world of Dragaera was created by Steven Brust.
written at 26th december 2006, by Misura. For Gisho, if she'll do me the honor of accepting it.
"It's not fair," she says. "It's not fair, mother," throwing that last word in Verra's face like it's an insult, a challenge, and like Verra's her equal, instead of a goddess.
"Well, dear," Verra says, and she wants to believe Verra sounds just unimpressed, not sad and with a hint of sympathy. "It's life. It was never meant to be fair. If someone's told you differently, I'm afraid they were misinformed."
"Is that it, then?" Perhaps it's unwise to make demands of gods, but then again, she's already dead, and even if she hadn't been, her life wouldn't have been important enough to risk her honor for. "You're just going to do nothing?"
"You talk like you want me to fix things," Verra says. "It doesn't work like that."
"I don't want /you/ to fix things," she says. "I want /me/ to fix things."
"Oh," Verra says, and perhaps she's smiling, but perhaps not. "That's different. /That/ I can help you with, a little at least. Very well then. The next time the Empire's going to be threatened, I'll make sure you're there, and in the best position to save it. Will that content you, daughter?"
"Yes," she says.
"Good," Verra replies. "I'm so glad we had this little chat."
The goddess smiles then; she sees it, and is reminded of Sethra, who has a smile just like that.
"You missed," she says. "You knew what would happen if you missed, and you still did it."
Sethra looks at her, and she's a Shaman and Sethra's a warrior, but in that moment, she feels like it's the other way around, like Sethra has knowledge of things she can't even begin to imagine, let alone manipulate and communicate with.
"I didn't know it /would/ happen," Sethra tells her. "I knew it /might/ happen. Dolivar is a good warrior, and a skilled hunter. He's hunted yendi before. I missed, yes. He could have taken more hunters to help him. He led the hunt; he should have known someone might miss. If he'd been better prepared, he would still have brought down the yendi, and the tribe would have feasted in his honor this evening."
"He trusted you not to miss," she says. "He trusted you, and you betrayed that trust."
"You are upset," Sethra says. "You should go back to your tent, rest and calm yourself."
"I demand you to explain your actions to me." She is angry, not upset. She is angry, and she is right; Sethra has no right to look at her like she's a fifty-year-old, and Sethra her grandmother.
"You have no right to make such a demand," Sethra says. "You can accuse me in public, if you wish. You can plead with Kieron to be lenient, if you wish. You can help Dolivar to escape, if you wish. But don't assume you know what I'm doing, or that I owe you any explanations."
"I thought," she says, bitterly now, and accusing, "that you were my friend."
"You thought right." Sethra turns her face, concealing her expression from her. "Now go, before you say more things we may both regret later. Trust me, or hate me - it makes little difference."
She leaves, in the end not visiting either of her brothers, simply going back to her tent to meditate and look for answers, waiting for the summons to the trial.
"You know," Vlad tells her one evening, when he's a little tipsy and when Morrolan has left to deal with some of his guests who have consumed too much wine to remember the first law of Castle Black (all duels must be fought outside, and in the presence of a judge), "if there's such a thing as fate, I'd think Kragar should have been your brother, not me."
"Excuse me?" She's not drunk. Morrolan's best wines are rare ones, the ones he only has a hundred bottles of, or even less, and she doesn't want to waste them.
"Well, you told me Dolivar got kicked out of the tribe for something that wasn't really his fault. So did Kragar, the way he tells it. Next, Dolivar became a Jhereg. And again, so did Kragar. It's a pattern, see? Me and Dolivar, we've got nothing in common at all." Vlad waves his hands, apparently thinking she'll get the point he's trying to make better if he acts like the drunken fool he is.
"You don't know anything about reincarnation," she says.
"I'm a Jhereg. If I get kicked out, I'm dead. No way I'm going to become a Dragon, or something like that. If I'm supposed to be Dolivar's second chance, the gods must have messed up somewhere."
She shakes her head. "It doesn't work like that." She sounds like her mother, but she realizes it too late to take the words back. Vlad doesn't notice it anyway, slumped in his seat and snoring softly.
Dolivar looks like he's been through this trial already, answering the occasional question curtly and tiredly, his tone of voice indicating he doesn't expect anything he says to make a difference. Kieron's face is as expressionless as Sethra's, who sits amidst the others who accompanied Dolivar on the hunt that day. Neither of them suggests leniency and Dolivar, given the chance, refuses to humble himself in front of all the tribe, to ask for mercy.
She keeps her silence during all of it, sitting amidst the other Shamans, separate from the warriors. As Kieron pronounces judgment and the punishment that comes with it, she feels numb, like she's inhaled too much dreamgrass and can't free her mind from the body that shelters it.
The sentence is carried out the next day and this, too, she watches silently. At some point, her gaze meets Sethra's, briefly. Sethra looks away first. She takes some small satisfaction from that.
From the expression on Kieron's face when it's finally over and he's returning to his tent, leaving Dolivar to either reach the borders of their camp before dawn, or still be here tomorrow morning and be killed, she takes no satisfaction at all. He has done his duty, what he had to do. She can't blame him for it; she would have done the same.
No dreams come to her that night. When she wakes up, Dolivar is gone. The trail leading out of the camp is blurred, like someone has gone through considerable trouble to make sure it's impossible to determine not if Dolivar has had help in getting away, but only how many have helped him. Sethra meets her gaze serenely, almost smugly, like a life in dishonor is still worth living.
She knows that she'd have chosen death, had it been her instead of Dolivar. She mentions this to Sethra, months later, when she is done mourning.
"I know," Sethra replies, nodding. "That's why it had to be him. He's not like you."
After Dragaera City has dissolved into a sea of amorphia, after Sethra has rescued her once, and then again, sending her cousin and an Easterner to enable her to follow the Orb and return from the Paths of the Dead to the world of the living, she wonders if she should kill herself.
She was there, after all, exactly like her mother had promised her. If any person could have stopped Adron e'Kieron, it would have been her. If any person could have stopped Mario from killing the Emperor, it would have been her, too. She had all the right stones to win.
Morrolan is sympathetic, tells her it's not her fault before pestering her with some other silly rule he expects her to obey, because she's his guest. He annoys her, yet at the same time, his obsession with doing what's right and honorable, reminds her of Kieron and her father.
"This isn't going to work at all," Verra tells her in her dreams. "Knowing who you were when you were sort of dead is all very well, but it's obviously not going to do you any good when you're alive."
"Morrolan can be the Heir," she says.
"I like that boy," Verra says. "I'm not going to ruin his life by letting someone make him Emperor. He deserves something better. Besides, I have plans for him."
"Do you really like him, mother?" she asks. "Do you really like anyone? Did you like my father? Or do you just mean that they can be of some use to you? Have you ever liked someone you didn't have plans for?"
"Now you're being rude," Verra says, leaning forwards to kiss her forehead. "A rude little Dragon. Don't worry, daughter; my plans for you don't include the Orb either. I just need you to be Heir for a little while. You'll figure out why soon enough."
She wakes up the next morning and doesn't remember anything at all.
The rumors reach her before the truth does. About a tribe consisting of those without honor, who have chosen the jhereg as their animal, an honorless, cowardly eater of carrion, lacking the courage to face its enemies unless they've been forced in a corner.
She hears the rumors and wonders if Dolivar has joined that tribe. She hopes not.
"And why not?" Sethra asks, when she shares that hope. "Our tribe stripped him of his honor. He has nothing left to lose anymore. He is free to do whatever he wants to do, or needs to do."
"He isn't a Jhereg! It's not in his nature!" she protests.
"He isn't a Dragon," Sethra counters. "Not anymore. He's a warrior and a hunter, and he knows how to survive. If he's smart, he's joined the Jhereg. If he's as smart as I think he is, he'll make them his."
"What?" Kieron has always been the leader of their tribe. Dolivar has never begrudged him that position, has never challenged it. She knows people have been expecting that, because none of them could ever hope to be Kieron's equal, except Dolivar.
"Once, when we were still only wandering, we didn't need anyone else. We didn't need any other tribes to aid us," Sethra says, and her hands gesture to indicate a growing world. "Now, we do. We need the Issola, with their rituals and poise. We need the Dzur, with their daring and willingness to die. We need the Athyra, with their many Shamans. And we need the Jhereg, with their spies and lack of honor. They can do things no one else will or can do."
"A victory gained at the price of your honor is worse than a defeat," she recites.
"Exactly," Sethra says. "If we can get the Jhereg to aid us, the Dragons can keep their honor and still win the war. If the tribe of the Jhereg hadn't already existed, we would have had to create it. Now, all of that won't be necessary. Because of Dolivar."
"Because you made him be cast out of the Dragons," she says.
"A victory gained at the price of your honor is still a victory," Sethra says. "Do you think me dishonorable? Do you think I should become an outcast, too?"
"Perhaps," she says, because she can't say 'yes', but she can't say 'no' either.
"Older than the Empire," Sethra muses aloud, studying the way the light falls through her wineglass and onto the table. The wine they've been drinking is a white Khaav'en.
"What about Kiera?" Vlad asks, surprising her. Whenever she thinks he can no longer surprise her, he proves her wrong.
Sethra offers him one of her enigmatic smiles.
"As old as the Jhereg," she hears herself saying, stating the obvious, really. Vlad could have figured that one out for himself, surely.
"But Kiera's not half the legend Sethra is," Vlad objects. "I mean, sure, every Jhereg knows her, but nobody's ever even suggested she's older than she looks. Why hasn't anyone noticed that?"
"Jhereg-records are unreliable." Sethra shrugs. "You know that, Vlad. When Dragaera City was wiped out, a lot of people who knew what Kiera looked like or how long she'd been around were wiped out as well. The Interregnum took care of most of the others. Once things had settled down again, Mario introduced me to the Council. I told them who I was, he backed me up, and given who he was, they chose not to argue."
"I know I'd regret it if I'd ask how you got to know Mario," Vlad groans.
"Yes," Sethra agrees. "You probably would."
She expects him to ask anyway. He doesn't, instead pouring himself another glass from the chilled bottle of wine that her cousin has provided him with, oblivious to the fact that his knowing Morrolan e'Drien is far more extraordinary than Kiera the Thief being acquainted with Mario Greymist who are, after all, both Jhereg. Then again, Vlad's wife is the future Empress' ex-partner.
It's remarkable, really - all these ties connecting Dragons to Jhereg, and vice versa. She wonders if her mother or Sethra had anything to do with that, and, if yes, what war the Dragons are going to need the Jhereg for. Somehow, she doesn't think it's the war in the East.