Ghost in the blade

Warnings/notes: Aliera, Vlad, ooc, pretty much all Issola-based speculation.

Disclaimer: The wondrous world of Dragaera was created by Steven Brust. This ficlet contains big-time spoilers for Dragon.

written at 21st june 2006, by Misura, as a failed attempt at writing a drabble for the livejournal-community dragaera100 (prompts: Morganti, death)

"I require you," Aliera said, "to tell me everything you know about Napper e'Drien."

"Who?" I asked, more than a little confused. Now, before you start feeling the same way, I'd like to add that I wasn't asking 'who?' because I didn't remember who Napper was - or rather, had been, since he'd died rather convincingly and right in front of my eyes, and just when I'd started to get used to his eternal pessimism and begun to sort of like him, too.

However, as far as I knew, he'd been nobody someone like Aliera would take an interest in, especially not five years after his death.

"Napper e'Drien." She gave me a look that equalled a long lecture about how humans were, by nature, less intelligent than Dragaerans. I seriously considered taking offense, then decided I'd let it slip. Aliera had drawn the Great Weapon known as Pathfinder halfway out of its sheath, and I didn't really want to tempt her to draw it completely.

"There's no need to threaten me," I said.

She snorted. "I'm a Dragonlord. Dragonlords don't go around threatening people. We leave things like that to Jhereg."

Call me prejudiced if you want, but I feel it's much more polite to tell a person up front what you're going to do to him if he doesn't do what you want, then to just chop off his head when you feel he's annoyed you too much. I didn't think now was the time to share that point of view with Aliera though.

"Okay." I leaned back, as much to look relaxed and calm, as to put a few extra inches between me and Pathfinder. It didn't help a lot, but I assured myself that it helped at least a little.

Aliera shifted her seat closer to my desk, bring Pathfinder once again too close for comfort. I wondered if she'd done it on purpose and if she'd back off if I asked her to. Probably not.

"Well?" She tapped her foot a few times. It wasn't a gesture I'd ever seen her make before; Dragonlords are generally not made to wait by people, and when they do get impatient, they find other ways to express the feeling than by anything so bloodless and non-violent as tapping their feet a few times.

"So, you want to know what I know about Napper?" I asked, just because I could. Kragar tells me I'm suicidal sometimes, but, really, I've just got a low tolerance for Dragaerans who seem to think I live to serve them.

"Vlad, it's been nearly an hour since I've wished for anything else." She grimaced, as if something about the way she'd phrased that had left a bad taste in her mouth. I wasn't curious enough to ask.

"Kragar's the research-expert, not me," I said. "If you want to - "

She unsheathed Pathfinder completely, and I wished I hadn't stuffed myself the way I had at lunch, to celebrate an easy job for which I'd gotten paid well and punctually.

"I have no desire to see that snake," she informed me. "Now, talk. I've better things to do with my time than sitting here listening to you."

That sure sounded like a threat to me. It was a good one, though - I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to tell Aliera everything she want to hear. Unfortunately, there wasn't all that much.

"It's not like I got to know him all that well," I said. "If you know his full name, you know about as much about him as I do."

She shook her head. "It's not his descent I'm interested in. Morrolan's got people looking into that already, and I strongly doubt if any Jhereg could discover something they can't."

Kragar might disagree with that. I knew that I did. Jhereg are naturals at digging up information, especially when it's information that people want to keep a secret. Still, in this one case, Aliera might be right. Besides, Kragar would probably kill me if I doubled his workload for the sake of defending the honor of the Jhereg against Aliera.

"What are you interested in, then?" I asked.

She shrugged. "Impressions. What kind of person did you think he was? Did you like him? How did he get along with the rest of the company? Was he any good with a sword?"

"He was a Dragon," I said. "Of course he was good with a sword."

"Could he have beaten you?"

I thought about that one for a while, in part because a large part of my mind was far more interested in the question of why Aliera wanted to know all this, than in coming up with an answer that would satisfy her.

"Probably not," I said. "Maybe if I'd be armed with nothing but a sword, and wouldn't have Loiosh around to help me." Some Dragaerans have trouble with human opponents in a fight, because we're a lot shorter than they are. Of course, us humans have got our trouble, too - it's not easy putting a knife through someone's eye when his face is a full feet above the top of your head. Things like that take reach, practice and good timing.

"Not that good, in other words." Aliera made a dismissive gesture with her hand.

I suppressed an irrational urge to come to Napper's defense. He was dead, after all. He was probably used to Dragonlords belittling his abilities. When you're infantry, you're not supposed to be a hero; you're supposed to obey orders and keep yourself alive without getting anyone else killed, at least when they're on your side. Sure, Napper got a nice medal - post-humously. And it was for being eager to die - oh, excuse me, for being 'courageous' - anyway, not for being a good soldier or a brilliant swordsman.

"Did I like him? He was moody, pessimistic, complained a lot and didn't have anything even remotely resembling a sense of humor. Plus, as I already mentioned, he was a Dragon." I shook my head.

"Morrolan's a Dragon, too," Aliera pointed out. At least she had the sense to know that she wasn't exactly one of my favorite persons either.

"Morrolan's a witch," I said. Actually, that didn't have anything to do with whether or not I liked him - just like not all humans get along just because they're humans, or all Dragons because they're Dragons, not all witches get along because they're witches. "He's different."

"He is that," Aliera admitted. "Although it's certainly interesting that you'd think so."

I didn't think I liked where this was going. Aliera might consider it great fun to dig up memories of her past lives and study them; I felt that my present life was complicated enough already.

"Kragar - " I started. To be honest, I'd no idea how I'd finished that line. Even if Kragar might be the only Dragaeran I'd consider somewhat of a friend, Aliera would certainly not be the most suitable person to tell.

"He's no more of a Dragon than you are, and quite possibly less," Aliera declared icily.

"But back to Napper," I said. I was expecting Kragar this morning to discuss a new job, and I didn't really want him to walk in on an enraged Aliera with a bare Morganti blade in her hands. True, Kragar's got a gift for making people not notice him, but why take any risks? Besides, for all I knew, Pathfinder'd just cancel whatever it was that made Kragar so inconspicious. "I guess that overall, I liked him, yes."

"Why?" Aliera demanded.

"I don't know. Maybe it's because we were messmates. Maybe it's because we faced death together. Maybe I'm the kind of stupid idiot who likes moody, complaining pessimists. Take your pick." I shrugged. Kragar had said it was the first, once, when he found me drunk and maudlin about the whole Battle at Baritt's Tomb. Personally, I thought it probably was a combination of the last two things, added to the fact that he was dead.

Some people say it's impolite to talk bad about the dead but, really, it's just that memory's a fickle thing. Ask anyone if the present's better than the past, and they'll say no, things were lots better in the past. The Empire was fairer, the taxes were lower, the roads were better and the streets were safer.

The Organization is as old as the Empire though. This means that even if I may lack your average Dragaeran's long-term view, I'm pretty damn sure that the notion that there was less crime in the past is pure nonsense. It's more hushed-up and underground when there's a Iorich or a Vallista holding the Orb, but that's all. Just means we pay less in bribes to the Guards, and more to the owners of respectable establishments with convenient basements.

"You say he was moody," Aliera noted. Her expression was slightly absent. I saw one of her hands moving over Pathfinder in a gesture that I'd have called 'stroking', if she'd been holding a cat. "In what way? Was he cheerful on some days, and downcast on others?"

"He was just - have you ever gotten the feeling the whole world's out to put you down?" I frowned. "No, I don't think it was that, either. He just managed to always see the bad side of things. If it'd rain, then the ground would get muddy, and if it'd be sunny, then people would sweat a lot."

"Like a Teckla." Aliera sneered.

"Not like a Teckla!" That was just ... insulting. "It was simply the role he got in the company. You know, it's like some sort of rule. Every company's got someone who's always complaining, and someone who's always cheerful, and someone who's handy at fixing things, and so on."

According to Kragar, Morrolan had served as an ordinary recruit for a while, way back when. Fentor hadn't said anything when I'd tried to press him for details, so I'd been left to imagine what that had been like. He'd been younger then, of course.

I had no idea whether Aliera had spent some time mingling with common Dragons, too. She didn't talk a lot about her life before Adron's Disaster, and to tell you the truth, I'd never been all that interested.

"Which role did you get?" She seemed curious.

"Good-luck charm," I said. Well, actually they'd given that role to Loiosh, but seeing as how he was my familiar, there wasn't all that great a difference.

"I see." There was a hint of amusement in her eyes. "Did he ever talk about me?"

"Yes, he complained about how your horse threw dust in our faces when you rode by once." I sighed. "Listen, Aliera, what's with the sudden interest anyway? And why come to me, instead of the other members of the company?" One reason immediately suggested itself to me. "They're not all dead, are they?"

"Without their mascot to ward off bad luck, they perished in a cruel twist of fate," Loiosh quoted from a very bad translation of an Eastern faerietale about three brothers who all covet their father's throne. I'd bought it because I was curious, and because Cawti had convinced me to treat myself to a new book.

"Good morning to you, too," I thought at him.

"They're fine, I believe." Aliera made a gesture that implied she couldn't care less about the state of health of some mere soldiers. "Not many people seek to incur my cousin's wrath nowadays."

Perhaps Dragons were smarter than I'd assumed. After all, even Fornia had only let it come to a war because he'd been sure he'd gotten his hands on a Great Weapon that would reveal itself when it'd meet either Blackwand or Iceflame. (I'd bet he'd been hoping for Blackwand - Morrolan might be scary, but in the end, he's still 'just' a Dragonlord, while crossing blades with Iceflame implied facing Sethra Lavode in single combat, the Enchantress and Undead Lady of Dzur Mountain, rumored to be older than the Empire itself.)

"However, I don't wish to draw overly much attention to myself," Aliera continued, surprising me. I'd seen her challenge Dragonlords merely for not staring at her admiringly enough, and paying more attention to another woman than Aliera. Granted, it was only the one time, and Morrolan had told me later he'd been expecting it, because Aliera'd actually flirted with the Dragonlord in question (and he'd had the stupidity to flirt back, too). Still, Aliera wasn't known for wanting to be ignored.

"I don't understand," I said.

"Most people don't know much about Great Weapons," Aliera replied. "Iceflame is as famous as Sethra is, of course - the blade that harnesses the might of Dzur Mountain. But what does that actually mean? What is the might of Dzur Mountain?"

"I've got no idea," I admitted, not adding that I didn't want to either.

Aliera nodded. "Sethra thinks it's better to keep the exact nature of Great Weapons a secret from people not directly involved with them. My cousin's well-known for his library already - nobody takes any notice if he buys more books about pre-Empire sorcery. Not that any of the books he's gotten so far have been of any use." She lay Pathfinder on my desk.

I considered protesting that I wasn't 'directly involved' with any Great Weapons, unless you counted my part-time job as Morrolan's security-consultant a 'direct involvement'.

"Any Great Weapon requires a soul to awaken it," Aliera said, putting her hand on Pathfinder's blade again. Surprisingly, I felt a little better when she did that, as if the weapon was pleased at being touched by her. "Both Blackwand and Pathfinder were awakened that way, while Iceflame - well, Sethra refuses to discuss it, but I'm sure Iceflame, too, contains a soul."

"Must be an ancient one, if she's had it as long as she's been alive," I ventured.

"Yes. I have some speculations on the subject that I could share with you, but they would likely be beyond your level of comprehension. The point I'm making is that one who gains a Great Weapon also gains the soul connected to that Great Weapon." She eyed me expectantly.

"And what does this have to do with Napper?" I honestly didn't see it.

"Vlad, souls aren't just floating around. You can't simply rip a soul out of some person's body - well, not without killing that person at the same time. Pathfinder felt I was near, and it knew that, in order to fully awaken and be able to eventually come to me, it would need a soul. It wasn't too picky about whose."

I gaped at her. I also tried very hard not to remember how close I'd come to what had turned out to be a Great Weapon in disguise. I'd touched it, for crying out loud! What if Pathfinder had decided it felt like having Easterner? What if Napper hadn't shown up when he had? What if -

"Boss, I think you need to take a deep breath now," Loiosh said.

"You're saying that he's in - in there?" I pointed at Pathfinder. "Aware?"

"Surely that's better than that his soul would have been destroyed altogether?" Aliera didn't seem to understand why I was acting a bit unsettled. "I haven't yet been able to communicate with him, but my cousin has told me that Blackwand's abilities in that direction are limited to emotions and, on occasion, images, so perhaps I shouldn't hope for anything more than that. Of course, Blackwand's soul is far older than Pathfinder's. That may make a difference."

"Of course," I repeated numbly.

"So you see, I have every reason to wish to discover all I can about Napper e'Drien and the kind of person he is. Sethra is unclear on how the souls interfere with the Great Weapons themselves, but she is sure there exists some sort of interaction between the two." Aliera resheathed Pathfinder.

"Aliera, fascinating as this all is, I'm afraid I feel a tremendous headache coming up." I was lying - my head already felt like it was going to explode any moment.

"I could - oh." She nodded curtly. "Thank you for your time."

"Sorry I wasn't able to tell you all that much." That, too, was a lie.

"No matter. Perhaps I shall follow your advise and speak with Captain Rascha." She left, at last, leaving me alone with my memories of a man I'd hardly known and definitely shouldn't feel as badly about having ended up getting his soul sucked into a Morganti blade as I did.

"Vlad, about that new job," Kragar said, stepping - not in through the door, but out of a corner that I could have sworn to have been empty two seconds ago. I threw a paperweight at him.

He got the hint and went away, using the door.

I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon not by myself, reminiscing, but rather listening to Loiosh lecturing me about friendship, dinner, my treatment of certain (ex-)Dragons and the general weirdness of the human race.

the end