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The Sword and the Dagger

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The Sword and the Dagger: Prologue

When I was four and learning how to read, my favorite story was an Eastern fairytale called “The Princess and the Teckla.” I liked it because she had a pet teckla that never left her shoulder, and I had a thing for cute, furry animals. When I was seventeen and learning how to kill people, I liked it because the princess had a dagger that never left her side, and I had a thing for sharp, pointy objects.

If you want to know why I like that story now, you’ll have to wait till I get to the end.

No matter how old you are, you can always learn patience.

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter One: Haughty dragon yearns to slay

Once upon a time there was a brave young princess who loved nothing better than fighting with her favorite dagger and playing with her pet teckla. But the princess also liked to read. One day she read a story about a lost sword named Fearbringer.

This excited the princess, as none of the swords in her castle had names, and she decided to go on a quest to find it. She packed a map, a change of clothes, a blanket, flint and tinder, and a picnic basket filled with food that travels well. She also brought a package of raw kethna wrapped in oilcloth. Then, with her dagger at her side and her teckla on her shoulder, she set out to find Fearbringer.

She had barely stepped out of the castle gates when she encountered a dragon. It loomed over her menacingly, its tentacles probing toward her, each one longer than her arm.

“Oh, princess!” squeaked the teckla. “Let us flee back to the castle, and be safe!”

“Nonsense,” said the princess, patting the teckla reassuringly while side-stepping the nearest tentacle. “I brought the kethna for a reason.”

The princess whistled the call of the norska, then unwrapped the kethna and threw it toward the dragon. A pack of wild norska raced from the nearby forest, drawn by the call and the smell of blood. While they fell upon the dragon, the princess walked around the fray and continued on her quest.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter One: Dragon: War and Conquest

It all started when an Jhereg named Barennan ripped off a bunch of Easterners. Or, more precisely, it started when one of those Easterners, Mariska, asked me for help. She wasn’t a friend – I didn’t exactly have friends in those days – but I knew her well enough.

“What did he do?”

“Got a bunch of us to invest in a spice import business. Then he took our money and disappeared.”

I nodded, trying not to look like I thought she was an idiot, and let her go on. It seemed that this Barennan had targeted old people, young people, and newcomers to Adrilankha: people who didn’t know any better, people who weren’t old enough to know anything, and people who had forgotten everything they’d once known.

“If you can get out money back, we’ll pay you a third of what he took,” Mariska offered. “We all got together and agreed on it. We really just want our money back, but if the only way to get it is to kill him…”

“Why me?”

Mariska looked at her feet, and I wondered why she’d been picked to talk to me. It couldn’t be that everyone else was even more scared of me than she was.

“I heard you helped out a guy a few months ago,” she mumbled.

I was twenty years old and I’d been working off and on for three years. By that I mean “working.” My last job had been a few months ago, like she said: a button man who’d run off with his boss’s money. I guessed I was getting a reputation for retrieving funds. I didn’t normally work on spec, but then again, I didn’t normally work for Easterners.

“Tell me everything you know about this Barennan.”

For the first time, Mariska smiled. “He’s a dead man.”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Two: Lyorn growls and lowers horn

As the princess and the teckla walked through the forest, a lyorn stepped out from the shadows beneath the trees.

“You may not pass,” said the lyorn. “It is my duty to guard these woods from strangers.”

“Indeed,” said the princess. “And I would never keep you from your duty. But will you not sit and share some bread and meat with us? Duty is a hungry business.”

The lyorn sat down with the princess and the teckla. While the teckla nibbled nervously on a lump of cheese, the princess ate a sandwich of split kifli stuffed with crisp back bacon, red onion, cucumber, and red peppers, and seasoned with paprika and dripping from the bacon. The lyorn lowered its horned head to eat a large liver sausage. As they picnicked, the princess told the lyorn all about her life and her quest, and the lyorn spoke too of its life and duties. Even the teckla reminisced about games he’d played with the princess when she was a child.

Then the princess said, “We are no longer strangers. You must let us pass.”

“Indeed,” said the lyorn, and stepped aside to let them pass.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Two: Lyorn: Tradition and Duty

I started by finding out all I could about this Barennan, relevant or not. I could tell you all the boring details, but… okay, no boring details. Good parts only.

This was the first good part: I heard he had bodyguards. Lots of bodyguards. Highly trained Dragaeran swordfighting bodyguards. This was the second good part: He was fond of both shereba and good klava, and patronized only parlours of the former which served the latter. There is an unsurprisingly small number of places which met that description, but I could only stake out one at a time. I picked the one in the neighborhood with the best restaurants.

On my way there, a Dragaeran woman confronted me in the street. “I believe we have a common interest.”

“Oh?” I said. “And what might that be?”

“Barennan.” She drew her sword. “Draw, you miserable teckla!”

It occurred to me that perhaps my inquiries into Barennan had been less than discreet. It also occurred to me that I didn’t have a sword. I didn’t even own a sword. Finally, it occurred to me that the woman, though not wearing House colors, looked and behaved like a Dragon.

“Draw yourself.” I’d had a dagger in each hand by the time she’d said ‘Barennan.’ “Sword fights sword; dagger fights dagger. It’s traditional.”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Three: Tiassa dreams and plots are born

The teckla had been saying so for hours, but it was long past sundown when the princess had to admit that they were lost in the woods. She peered again at her map, then determinedly strode forward in no particular direction.

“Ouch!” exclaimed the princess, dropping the map.

“Oh no!” squeaked the teckla, digging his claws into her shoulder. “Danger! Death! Doom! Princess, we must go home!”

The princess knelt and lowered her torch to illuminate a tiny, exquisitely wrought, silver tiassa.

“It’s beautiful,” said the teckla, sounding calm for the first time that day.

“It was facing that way,” said the princess. “Treasure must lead to treasure. Let’s go.”

Leaving the silver tiassa to point the way for the next lost traveler, the princess continued on.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Three: Tiassa: Catalyst and Inspiration

With a glare, the woman sheathed her sword and drew a dagger. “I hope you appreciate the degree to which I’m lowering myself to fight with –“

I threw my dagger before she could say, “Easterner.” She batted it aside. I was impressed. But not intimidated: I had quite a few more on my person. No, I’m not telling you how many.

“I hope you appreciate the degree to which I’m lowering myself to fight with—“ I was waiting for her attack, but it didn’t come. Annoyed, I finished my sentence, but it didn’t flow as it ought. “One of Barennan’s –“

She threw her dagger. I ducked and rolled, then threw a handful of shuriken. A bright flash of sorcery vaporized them. I dove aside, coming to rest behind a handy bit of concealing wall, another dagger in my hand

“Are you going to finish your sentence?” The shout was emphasized with another flash of sorcerous energy. I rolled, and just in time, too. A Cawti-sized chunk of the wall wasn’t there any more.

“I would, but I’m not sure exactly what word I meant to use. Bodyguards? Minions? Henchmen?”

I threw another dagger, then ducked down before I could see what happened to it. Given the clatter and the lack of scream of agony, I guessed it didn’t hit.

There was a long pause. “The word I was going to use was also ‘bodyguard.’ Or possibly ‘minion.’ I don’t think I’ve ever called anyone a henchman. Does that even have a singular form?”

“I’m not working for Barennan.”

“I’m not working for Barennan either.”

“He ripped off a bunch of people I know.”

“He ripped off a bunch of people I know.”

“I intend to get their money back.”

“I intend to kill him.”

“I normally wouldn’t say that I intend to kill him, but since the subject has been broached… I intend to kill him."

I stood up. We looked at each other.

“Cawti.”

“Norathar.”

“We should talk.”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Four: Hawk looks down from lofty flight

The princess and the teckla emerged from the woods at sunrise. The land before them was mountainous, with few trees to break up the view of high cliffs and deep valleys. All was quiet. A hawk circled overhead against the cloudless sky.

The princess examined her map. “Here be dragons.”

“Again?” squeaked the teckla.

“It means, ‘the map ends here.’” The princess arranged her hair to shield the teckla from the sun. “Let’s climb the mountain. We’ll be able to see better from there.”

Gravel crunched under her feet as she began to climb.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Four: Hawk: Observation and Perception

“The man does not keep regular hours, and he’s constantly surrounded by bodyguards. I think he’s trying to avoid assassination.”

“I think you’re right.”

“It’s shameful and cowardly.”

“I agree,” I said. “Let’s have lunch.”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Five: Dzur stalks and blends with night

The bloodcurdling growl of a dzur echoed along the cliffs. Then the dzur stalked out, black and huge, fangs bared.

“Oh, princess, let us flee!” squeaked the teckla.

“I’m not afraid!” said the princess. “Hold tight.”

She brandished her dagger and charged the dzur, shouting a shrill war-cry. The dzur rushed to meet her.

The teckla closed its eyes in terror, then clung tight as the princess plunged downward, and landed with a thump. The teckla opened its eyes, and saw that they were at the bottom of a gorge in a heap of soft sand. The dzur stared down at them from the top of the cliff, then shook its great head and stalked away.

“I tripped,” admitted the princess.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Five: Dzur: Heroism and Honor

I took her to Karoly’s. Have you ever been there? It’s a bit of a hole in the wall, but the food is good and cheap, and I had this odd compulsion to show off Eastern cooking to Norathar.

She looked around dubiously. The other diners, all but one Easterners, pretended not to see her. Only the Dragaeran, a little brown-haired girl sitting at a table alone and swinging her feet, smiled at us.

“Do you like spicy food?” I asked.

Norathar shrugged. “I don’t pay attention to what I eat. What does it matter, so long as it sustains my life and strength?”

“I’ll order.”

I started us off with Fisherman’s Soup. As is traditional, it was poured directly from the kettle into our bowls. It came out bright red and steaming hot, accompanied by a dry white wine and bread for dipping. We dipped and ate. Karoly varied his recipe according to what fish was freshest and best that day. Today the best catch had been carp, catfish, and perch. The coral and roe, which must be added to the boiling soup ten minutes before it’s served, added richness and depth, as did the perfectly caramelized onions.

Karoly had used a heavy hand with the paprika, and I wondered if that was for Norathar’s benefit. I enjoyed it. Her eyes watered.

“Eat more bread,” I suggested. “It helps with the heat.”

She glared at the bread and me. “Pain is nothing to me.”

I shrugged and finished my soup. The heat piqued my appetite for the main course, a filet of kethna pounded thin, quickly fried so that the exterior has a crisp crumb crust and the interior is tender and juicy, and served on a bed of shredded cabbage, accompanied by a tangy sauce of lemon, garlic, oil, and just a touch of honey. I don’t know the purpose of the bed of cabbage. No one ever eats it. It’s one of those inexplicable traditions.

Norathar seemed to enjoy the kethna, or at least she slowed down after the first bite in a manner which suggested enjoyment. She certainly didn’t need to dip each bite into the sauce in order to sustain life and strength, and yet she dipped.

For dessert we had plum dumplings rolled in cake crumbs and fried in butter, with a hot caramel dipping sauce. The plum filling was tart, and the sauce was very sweet. I couldn’t afford a new wine, so we drank the same white we’d been served with the kethna, a light wine with notes of grass and roses. It went well with both.

“So,” I said. “Shall we talk?”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Six: Issola strikes from courtly bow

The princess climbed out of gorge and once again began to climb the mountain. They reached the top at midday, sweating and tired. And there stood an issola beneath a bower of woven leaves, not a feather out of place.

“Greetings,” it said. “I hope you aren’t too tired. Would you care for refreshments?”

The princess and the teckla gratefully sat down in the shade. The princess sipped sweet Tokaji wine and ate a dish of meringues floating in custard, while the teckla drank pure water and nibbled on a salad of herbs. All the while, the issola spoke with such courtesy, kindness, and understanding that the princess and the teckla felt that they could stay on the mountaintop forever.

“A garland of spring flowers for your hair?” suggested the issola, crowning the princess with an tiara of pink sweet briar.

“Spring?” repeated the teckla, blinking as if awoken from sleep.

“But we set out in winter,” said the princess.

The princess and the teckla leaped to their feet. Scooping up the teckla and her picnic basket, the princess fled down the mountain, which was now covered in spring flowers.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Six: Issola: Courtliness and Surprise

“We could go our separate ways.”

“Or not.”

“I don’t work well with others.”

“We do have the same goal.”

“True.”

“Do you have any intention of giving up?”

“Do you?”

“Well then, it seems best for us to work together. Less chance of getting in each other’s way.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

I raised my glass and touched it to Norathar’s. “To a job done well!”

“To a job done quickly.”

We drank.

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Seven: Tsalmoth maintains though none knows how

The princess and the teckla walked through the mountainous land. They passed herds of tsalmoth doing their mating dance, but still they walked through the mountainous land. They saw baby tsalmoth following their mothers, but still they walked through the mountainous land. They passed the graveyard of the tsalmoth, but still they walked through the mountainous land.

The princess did not lack for courage, but she lacked a little in patience. “This quest will never end,” she sighed.

“All things come to an end,” said the teckla.

And then they crested the final mountain, and came into a beautiful green land.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Seven: Tsalmoth: Unpredictability and Tenacity

We waited in the inn room we’d rented for the stake-out. There is little to do on a stake-out. You can’t read or play cards, or you risk missing your target. You can’t even daydream too much, or you run the same risk. But a conversation provides just the right amount of stimulation to keep the mind contented, not to mention awake, without spoiling the ability to watch what must be watched.

Four hours later, I concluded that either Norathar hated me, or else she wasn’t much of a conversationalist.

Six hours later, I considered giving up on trying to get more than purely essential talk out of her.

Eight hours later, I wore her down.

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Eight: Vallista rends and then rebuilds

The princess and the teckla walked until they came across a fine vallista home, built of branches elegantly arranged and mortared together with mud, which stretched across a wide stream.

The vallista popped its head out of the water as they approached. “This is my stream, and you may not cross it, unless you give me what I desire.”

“What is it that you desire?” asked the princess.

“I wish to improve my home,” said the vallista. “I’m not satisfied with the design. Make me a home that I’m happier with, and you may pass.”

The teckla’s little nose wrinkled with frustration. “But your home is perfect! How can we improve it – we, who are not vallista ourselves, and do not know your methods of construction?”

“I know how,” said the princess.

With a branch in one hand and a dagger in the other, she began prying at the branches and chipping out the mud of the vallista’s home. The teckla joined her, gnawing at the wood supports. Finally, hot and sweaty and tired, they were done. The vallista’s home was nothing but a heap of branches.

“You are happiest when building,” said the princess. “Make yourself a new home.”

The vallista fell to sketching designs in mud with a twig, as the princess and the teckla walked across the stream.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Eight: Vallista: Creation and Destruction

“Even a fight against an unworthy opponent offers its brief moment of pleasure, to engage in an exercise of my own skills. But the best battles are against opponents who are good enough to kill me. Fighting them is a joy. It’s almost unimportant whether I kill them or they kill me. And, of course, killing someone who has wronged me, or is in league with someone who has wronged me, or is in the same House as someone who has wronged me… all those offer their own satisfactions, from significant to small.”

“Have many people wronged you?” I asked.

“Many.” Norathar turned to me, with something resembling genuine curiosity in her eyes. “What about you, Cawti? Do you enjoy your work?”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Nine: Jhereg feeds on others' kills

“Ugh, what’s that smell?” asked the princess.

The teckla indicated the well-aged corpse of a kethna, and a jhereg feeding on it.

“Hello, princess,” said the jhereg, lifting its scaly head.

“Hello, jhereg,” said the princess, a bit wearily. She was getting tired of animals refusing her passage and setting her tasks.

“Can I eat him?” asked the jhereg, hopefully eyeing the teckla.

“No!” exclaimed the princess and the teckla.

“Oh, well,” said the jhereg. “I had to try.”

The princess and the teckla waited to see if it would ask anything of them, but it seemed content with its banquet of carrion. They passed it and continued on their way.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Nine: Jhereg: Greed and Corruption

“I like fighting. I like planning, and finding out people’s secrets. I do witchcraft, sometimes, and I like that.”

“Witchcraft?”

“Well, I am an Eastener.”

“Not all Easterners do witchcraft.”

“True. But it is an Eastern thing.”

“Why are you not in the Left Hand of the Jhereg?”

“They’re sorcerers. I’m a witch. It’s a completely different thing.”

“Both use magic.”

“Spoken like a sorcerer. Why aren’t you in the Left Hand?”

“They are not my kind of women.”

“They’re not mine either.”

I looked out the window. Norathar looked out the window. It wasn’t bad, sitting there with her. It wasn’t bad at all.

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Ten: Quiet iorich won't forget

“I think something is following us,” squeaked the teckla.

“I think so too,” said the princess. “Come on out!”

An iorich lumbered out of the woods. “I have been following you since you left the palace. Before that, I followed your mother to the palace. I followed her mother before her, and her mother’s mother before her. I do not forget.”

“Why have you followed my family so long?” asked the princess. “What do you want from us?”

“Your mother’s mother’s mother slew my mate,” it said. “I will have vengeance.”

“But my mother’s mother’s mother is dead,” said the princess. “Is not your vengeance done?”

The iorich shook its head. “I did not slay her.”

“And I did not slay your mate,” said the princess. “There can be no true vengeance upon me.”

The iorich gazed at her solemnly. “I will consider this quandary. Perhaps there is some precedent…”

While the iorich sat pondering, the princess and the teckla slipped past, and left it behind.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Ten: Iorich: Justice and Retribution

“Maybe,” I said.

“It was a yes or no question.”

“I resent Dragaerans. Of course I resent them! They lord over us and treat us like dirt. But hate… It’s hard to say. I suppose I hate them in general, with some individual exceptions. Or else I don’t hate Dragaerans in general, but I do hate enough individuals that it seems like the ones I don’t are the exceptions.”

Norathar’s mouth twitched in something like amusement. “You make such things so complicated. I find them to be very simple.”

“Okay then, who do you hate?”

“Everyone.” Yes, definitely amusement. “See? Simple.”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Eleven: Sly chreotha weaves his net

The princess stepped forward between two trees, and found herself caught fast in a chreotha’s web. She struggled, but to no avail. She could not even move her hand to reach her dagger’s hilt.

“Teckla, are you caught?” called the princess.

“No,” squeaked the teckla. “Hold still. I will gnaw you free.”

The princess held still while the teckla gnawed and gnawed. But while she still had both hands trapped, the chreotha stalked into view, leisurely inspecting its trap for prey.

“Teckla, run!” shouted the princess. “I cannot protect you!”

“I will never leave you,” said the teckla, in a muffled voice for he was still gnawing away. “Never.”

“Excellent,” remarked the chreotha. “I will have an appetizer as well as a main course.”

The last strand of the web trapping her left hand snapped, and the princess reached around her body to snatch up her dagger. With that, she held off the chreotha, until the teckla had finished gnawing her right hand free. She scooped up the teckla and ran.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Eleven: Chreotha: Forethought and Ensnarement

Barennan’s bodyguards were inside the room before we saw or heard any of them.

I threw both my knives, hitting one guard square in the stomach and cutting off the earlobe of another, before I was hit with a paralysis spell. From where I lay, I could see part of Norathar’s face, lips fixed in a snarl, and a slowly spreading pool of blood. Since it wasn’t around her or the bodyguard I’d hit, I was pleased to assume that she’d gotten at least one of them.

Then I saw boots. Very expensive, tsalmoth-leather boots, subtly embossed with black-on-black designs. Barennan’s boots, stepping forward to stand right beside me.

“Disarm them.”

A bodyguard confiscated my weapons. For a moment I thought she’d missed some, but then she took off my boots and jacket, leaving me helpless as a fly in a web.

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Twelve: Yendi coils and strikes unseen

“Beware!” squeaked the teckla.

The princess sprang backward as a yendi slithered away through the tall grass. When she looked down, she saw two pinpricks of blood on her ankle. The princess drew her dagger, but it slipped from her numb fingers. She never even felt herself hitting the ground.

She awoke, dizzy and cold. But to her surprise, she was alive. There was a clumsy gash in her ankle, across the bite, and her teckla’s soft muzzle was covered in blood.

“I sucked out the poison,” he explained. “But I’m not sure I got it all. Princess, we should go –“

He broke off with a squeak as the princess caught him up and cuddled him.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Twelve: Yendi: Subtlety and Misdirection

“Let them sit up.”

The paralysis spell lifted, but only partially: I could move my upper body, but nothing below the waist. Under other circumstances, I’d appreciate the sorcerer’s finesse.

I sat up, which was harder than you’d probably imagine. So did Norathar. Barennan stood there, flanked by four bodyguards, which was three fewer than he’d come in with. Not bad, considering the surprise factor.

“I set wards against sorcery on this room!” Norathar exclaimed. “How did you get in? How did you get in without me noticing? I had alarm spells set as well.”

“It’s quite simple.” Barennan smiled. “If anyone was trying to stake out my favorite shereba parlor, this inn would be the perfect location from which to do so. The room was already spelled, by my sorcerers, before you ever entered it, with countermeasures against exactly the spells you set. And also, of course, with spells to alert my sorcerers to inhabitants who spend hours looking out the window. Don’t bother trying any more sorcery, by the way; there are wards against that, now, as well.”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Thirteen: Orca circles, hard and lean

The princess and the teckla came to a river. By the banks of the river they saw a high wall surrounding a castle. In the wall was set a door.

“Fearbringer surely lies beyond that door,” said the princess.

“The door is surely locked tight,” squeaked the teckla.

“It is indeed,” said an orca, lifting its head above the water. “And to unlock the door, you must buy the key from me.”

“What is your price?” asked the princess.

“What is most precious to you?”

“What is most precious to me would be of no use to you,” said the princess, smiling. “You have a lean and hungry look, and my teckla would barely be a mouthful.”

“Who said I wanted food?” asked the orca.

But as the princess opened her picnic basket, the orca’s head loomed further out of the river. The teckla leaped back.

“Liver sausage,” said the princess. “Pork sausage. Horse sausage. Headcheese. Winter salami…”

“My favorite!” exclaimed the orca.

The princess dangled the salami over the river. As the orca’s jaws opened wide to receive it, she reached inside its mouth and snatched the key from under its tongue.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Thirteen: Orca: Brutality and Mercantilism

There are few possible satisfactions one can have when one is outnumbered, partially paralyzed, and in the presence of a person who is very likely to have you killed within the next few minutes. One is the satisfaction of being right. I had heard that Barennan liked to gloat, and gloat he did.

He gloated over his clever trap, he gloated over our foolishness, and he even had one of his ubiquitous bodyguards produce a large bag of money and dangle it over us, so he could gloat over it being the money we’d hoped to retrieve.

But even the satisfaction of being right could not survive Barennan taking out the coins so he could count them before our eyes. I began to honestly wonder if his plan was to bore us to death.

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Fourteen: Frightened teckla hides in grass

The teckla curled up in the princess’s lap, quaking. “I’m tired of all these adventures. I hate being scared all the time. Do we have to go through that door? Can’t we go home?”

The princess stroked its soft fur. Reluctantly, she said, “If you want, I’ll turn around now and take you home.”

The teckla’s ears perked forward. “And stay home with me?”

“I vowed to find Fearbringer, so I’d have to leave you there and come back. A princess must keep her vows. But I’d come back to you.”

The teckla hopped back on her shoulder. “I’ll stay with you. Wherever you go.”

The princess unlocked the door.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Fourteen: Teckla: Cowardice and Fertility

Finally, Barennan managed to bore even himself. He shoveled the coins back into the bag and laced his fingers together.

“I’ll give you two a choice,” he said. “Your fighting skills are quite good, and I’m always looking for bodyguards. You could come work for me –“

“Death first!” Norathar spat out. "Give me my sword, and I'll duel you all together!"

“Or I can kill you now,” Barennan concluded. “Unrevivifiably. Think about it: you’re completely outnumbered, not to mention unarmed and paralyzed. What’s a little honor compared to life? I pay quite well.”

Norathar told him where he could put his offer.

“I’ll take it,” I said. “I don’t want to die.”

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Fifteen: Jhegaala shifts as moments pass

The princess and the teckla stepped through the door and into a grassy courtyard. It was bare except for a small egg lying in a hollow on the ground.

“It’s a trap,” squeaked the teckla. “Don’t touch it.”

The princess approached the egg. It cracked, and a phoenix emerged in a burst of flame. It fell to ash, and then the ashes coalesced into a small dragon. The dragon shimmered and became a tiny lyorn. Again and again the animal changed, while the princess watched, half-mesmerized.

Choose, came a cold voice inside the princess’s head. Choose right, and take me. Choose wrong, and die. You have a one in seventeen chance.

“Bad odds,” squeaked the teckla. “Don’t choose at all!”

Jhereg. Iorich. Chreotha. Which animal was the right one? Yendi. Orca. Teckla.

“The one that changes,” said the princess, and snatched up the jhegaala in its larval toad form.

The warty skin hardened in her grip, and she held the great sword Fearbringer in her hand.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Fifteen: Jhegaala: Metamorphosis and Endurance

“You miserable teckla,” said Norathar. “I should have known better than to think an Easterner has any honor.”

“Listen, elf,” I said. “I used to be a little girl getting bullied and kicked around on the streets. Then I was a bigger girl, watching my family get disrespected, forced to learn to kill to survive. I’m a woman now, and I’ll do whatever it takes to survive. Whatever it takes.

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Sixteen: Athyra rules minds' interplay

Fearbringer spoke again, in tones as hard and sharp as steel. I claim a life. Yours or the teckla’s. Choose.

“I won’t!” said the princess. “And I don’t want you anyway. I like my dagger better than you.”

She dropped Fearbringer and turned to go. But wherever she stepped, invisible walls sprang up before her, trapping her in a cell no more than three paces wide.

Fearbringer’s icy words echoed in her mind. Take me or leave me here, but you may not go without giving me a life.

Then the teckla spoke. “Princess, do you love me?”

“Of course I do!” The princess kicked at the barrier, then stabbed at it with her dagger. The point skittered off as if the wall was made of steel. The teckla flinched.

“May I have your vow to give me whatever I ask of you?”

“Of course you do!” The princess knelt and felt around the bottom of the barrier.

“If you truly love me, this is my wish. I want you to take your trusty dagger, and cut off my head.”

The princess begged and pleaded to be released from her vow, but the teckla held firm. Half-blinded by tears, she raised her dagger high and then brought it whistling down, cutting off the head of her beloved teckla.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Sixteen: Athyra: Magic and Philosophy

“An admirable philosophy," said Barennan. "But I require a demonstration of your commitment to 'whatever it takes.'"

He snapped his fingers, and a bodyguard returned Norathar’s sword. Another returned my weapons to me.

To Norathar, he said, “You wanted to duel my bodyguards: here’s your chance.”

To me, he said, “And here’s your first job for me: kill her.”

To both of us, he said, “Note that my other bodyguards stand waiting to kill you if you attempt to go after me instead.”

The paralysis was gone. I rolled, but Norathar leaped to her feet. For an instant, she staggered, stiff from sitting in one place for so long. I rose and lunged, using my own unsteadiness to help propel me forward, under her swordstroke, to bury my dagger in her heart.

The Princess and the Teckla, Chapter Seventeen: Phoenix rise from ashes, gray

The barrier faded away. Leaving Fearbringer where it lay, the princess knelt weeping over the body of her teckla. Then the body dissolved into mist, and a handsome young prince stood up. His eyes were as brown as a teckla’s.

“I was under a spell,” explained the prince. “It could only be broken if I was killed by the woman who loves me. Princess, will you marry me?”

She fell into his arms and stroked his hair and moustache, which were as soft as the fur of her teckla.

“Careful!” squeaked the prince. “Don’t forget, you still have your dagger in your hand!”

And so they were married, and all the animals they had met on their quest came to dance and slither and swim and crawl at their wedding. And if they are not dead, they are still alive to this day.

The Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg, Chapter Seventeen: Phoenix: Decadence and Rebirth

I crouched over her corpse, my hand still on the hilt of my dagger, watching the pool of blood spread across her chest, as if her body didn’t yet know that she was dead, and it could stop bleeding now. Her outstretched arm still clutched her sword. Slowly, I let go and stood up.

“Done,” I said. My voice was steady. “Got another job for me?”

“Soon,” said Barennan. He turned to leave, and his bodyguards followed. I fell in with them, turning my back on Norathar.

I never heard her stand, even though I was listening. I only heard the crunch as she sliced through three spines in one great swing of her blade. I drove a dagger up through the chin and into the brain of the bodyguard beside me, then jerked it out and did the same to Barennan. There were six thumps and a jingle as five bodies and a sack of money hit the floor.

Norathar removed the trick dagger from her chest and passed it back to me, then plucked at the kethna blood drenching her shirt. “A bit over-dramatic, Cawti. A blow to the heart, with the dagger still embedded, wouldn’t bleed quite that much.”

“On the contrary,” I replied. “Think of Barennan’s personality. The melodrama was exactly what made him believe.”

“You may be right. Well, we should go. We both have money to return.”

“We should.”

Neither of us moved.

“Assassins don’t work in teams,” Norathar said.

“Women aren’t in the Right Hand of the Jhereg,” I said.

“True.”

“True.”

“We need a name.”

“Why a name?”

“To strike fear into the hearts of our opponents.”

“Are you joking?” I asked.

“I never joke,” Norathar said. “How about the Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg? Frightening, and accurate.”

“That’s not a short joke, is it?”

“I never joke.”

“We’ll work on that.”

The Sword and the Dagger: Epilogue

Cawti stretched luxuriously, draping herself over Vlad’s warm body. “And that’s how Norathar and I became the Sword and Dagger of the Jhereg.” She stroked Vlad’s moustache. “Soft as a teckla.”

“Shut up, Loiosh,” said Vlad.

He stood up and held the door for Loiosh. Reluctantly, the jhereg flew out.

Vlad returned to bed and lay down beside Cawti. “So why do you still like your fairytale now?”

“Deep in the depths of my icy cold heart, I’m a sucker for happy endings. Don’t tell a soul.”