Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Myths & Legends, #Greek & Roman, #90 Minutes (44-64 Pages)
Caina Amalas is the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, the leader of the Emperor's spies in the city. She is a master of stealth and disguise, and faces foes of terrible power.
So when thieves try to burn down the home of an impoverished widow, Caina sets out to help the old woman.
But the widow's dead son had a secret.
A secret that might lead Caina to her death...
Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Moeller
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC
Cover image copyright Prochasson Frederic | Dreamstime.com & Dan Breckwoldt | Dreamstime.com
All Rights Reserved
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.
Caina had not set out to become a master thief, but she was quite good at it.
She was the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, the leader of the Emperor’s spies in the city. Of course, the Ghosts of Istarinmul had been wiped out a year before Caina had been banished to Istarinmul, so she was the only Ghost in the city.
And there was a great deal of work for her in Istarinmul.
She worked to disrupt the business of the masters of Istarinmul’s Brotherhood of Slavers, and the best way to do that was by robbing them. So Caina robbed them whenever she had the chance, entering their palaces by stealth and carrying off as much jewels and gold as she could carry, freeing their slaves whenever the chance presented itself and when the slaves themselves wanted freedom.
She wound up with a lot of money.
Which was just as well, because she needed the money. Rebuilding the city’s Ghost circle would take time and effort, and Caina could put that money to good use.
Such as by preparing safe houses.
“Don’t know why you’d want to rent from me, boy,” said Talisla, squinting at Caina.
The woman was at least seventy, her hair wispy and white beneath her black widow’s headscarf, her frame lean and bent, her face a maze of weathered wrinkles. Yet her black eyes did not waver as she considered at Caina, and she looked capable of swinging her heavy cane with enough force to inflict some damage.
“Because, madam,” said Caina, taking care to speak Istarish with a heavy Cyrican accent. She had disguised herself as a man, since a lone woman would not rent rooms in Istarinmul unless she was a prostitute. Specifically, Caina had disguised herself as a mercenary messenger named Koraz, one who braved the roads between Cyrioch and Istarinmul to carry letters, and wore the leather armor, riding boots, and short sword and dagger that such a man would wear. “Your house is in the Tower Quarter, and not far from the Crows’ Tower itself.” She gestured at the imposing bulk of the fortress in the distance, the headquarters of Istarinmul’s watchmen. “A man need not fear thieves here.”
Talisla spat into the street. “As if the watchmen would lift a finger to help an old widow.”
“The Collegium told me the cheapest lodgings would be found in the Anshani Quarter,” said Caina.
Talisla’s face hardened further. “Aye, you can find cheaper rooms in the Anshani Quarter or the Alqaarin Quarter. But the Anshani Quarter is full of thieves and idle men, and foreigners flood the Alqaarin Quarter. No, boy, you’re better off here. Though I warn you I might not keep the house for long.”
“Why not?” said Caina.
“It belonged to my son Turkaar,” said Talisla. “He and his friends marched off to war with Rezir Shahan. None of them came back from the great battle at Marsis.”
“I’m sorry,” said Caina. She had been at the battle of Marsis.
It was, she reflected with a flash of weary guilt, entirely possible that she had killed Turkaar during the fighting.
The old woman shrugged. “Men live and men die, and my boy was no different. Inherited the house, aye, but I cannot pay the inheritance tax upon it. I have a few months left, but if I don’t make the payment soon, the Wazir of the Treasury will claim the house, and I’ll be out on the street. Along with all my tenants. So I’ll take your money, Koraz. Come have a look at the place.”
Talisla led Caina through the front doors and up to the rooms on the third floor. They were nicer and cleaner than Caina had expected, with an outer room, a closet, and a bedroom. The windows on the bedroom overlooked the narrow alley behind the house. Caina swung the shutters open, testing the hinges, and peered into the alley.
“Gloomy back there,” said Caina, shaking her head. “And not much light in the front room.”
But that pleased her. Very few windows overlooked the back alley, and it would be simplicity itself for her to fasten a rope to the window and come and go unseen. If she needed to hide, these rented rooms would make a convenient bolt hole. She could stash useful supplies and weapons here, and her cover story as a traveling courier would explain her long absences to Talisla.
Talisla gave an indifferent shrug. “Can’t be helped.”
“But I suppose the dark will help me sleep,” said Caina, “after long weeks on the road. How much for the rooms?”
They haggled for a while, and at last settled upon a sum. Caina paid Talisla for a year’s rent, which surprised the old woman.
“Carrying messages must pay well,” said Talisla.
“It does,” said Caina, though in truth robbing master slavers paid far better. But Talisla didn’t need to know that.
“Waste of your money,” said Talisla. “I don’t know how long I can keep the house. I should save the coin…but if you pay me, I’ll just spend it all on food.”
“If you lose the house to the Wazir of the Treasury,” said Caina, “where will you go?”
Again Talisla offered that fatalistic shrug. “To the street, I suppose. I have no kin left. I’m too old to whore, so I’ll beg for my bread. Or perhaps an illness will take me, and I’ll die quickly.”
“I see,” said Caina. Perhaps there was something she could do for Talisla. If need be, Caina had sufficient funds to buy the house outright. But that would create documents, and given that the Teskilati, the Padishah’s secret police, were hunting for Caina, that seemed foolish. Maybe Caina could simply find a way to pay off the debt in secret. That would cost far less than buying the house, and it might turn the old woman into an ally.
If Caina was to rebuild Istarinmul’s Ghost circle, she needed willing informants.
“Men live and men die,” said Talisla, “and our souls return to the Living Flame.” She hefted the pouch holding Caina’s money and grinned. “But not today.”
The next day Caina moved some things into the rooms, clothes and blankets and other items of the sort a young mercenary courier would own. She needed to spend at least a few nights there, establishing the identity of Koraz the courier, before she went about her business elsewhere. That gave her the opportunity to pry up a few floorboards and ceiling planks to create hiding places for weapons and bandages and a few other items useful to a Ghost circlemaster.
It was past dark by the time Caina finished, and she closed out the day by practicing her unarmed combat forms in the bedroom. She moved her arms and legs through the high kick and the low block and the middle strike, into the elbow grapple and the high strike and the side throw. She had practiced them for years, ever since she had joined the Ghosts at the age of eleven, and time and time again the knowledge had saved her life.
They also had the benefit of wearing her out and helping her sleep. Caina was only twenty-three years old, but at times she felt as if she had lived five times that, and she had seen some horrible things. Consequently that meant she did not often sleep well.
But that sometimes had its advantages.
So when she heard the scraping and shuffling noise in the alley below the window, she awoke at once.
Caina rolled to her feet, moving in silence across the bedroom. It was well past midnight, and the bedroom was utterly dark, save for a few rays of moonlight leaking through the half-closed shutters. She knelt by the window and peered into the alley. A pair of dark shapes stood below, near a ground-floor window. Thieves? Caina felt her right hand curl into a fist. If those thieves sought to rob an old widow, she would teach them the error of their ways.
Then bright orange-yellow light flared in the darkness. The shutters of the downstairs window had caught fire.
The thieves were going to burn down the house.
Caina mouthed a silent curse, rolled away from the window, and got to her feet.
Fortunately, she had slept in her clothes. She did not know if Talisla was the sort to spy on her tenants, but if she was, Caina needed to keep up the masquerade that she was a man. She pulled on her boots, threw on her coat, and wrapped a belt of throwing knives around her waist.
Then she seized the bucket of water she had planned to use wash in the morning, dashed down the stairs, and out of the house. She left the bucket at the mouth of the alley, slipped a throwing knife into either hand, and headed toward the fire.
The downstairs shutters had gone up in flame, and by their light Caina saw two men. They were garbed the gray tunics and worn leather sandals of slaves, and both looked strong and fit. Unlike most slaves, they wore hoods and masks and carried clubs. Istarinmul had tens of thousands of slaves, and it wasn’t unusual for some of the more desperate slaves to slip into the streets at night for a little robbery and mayhem.
Arson, though, was unusual.
“Stop!” said Caina.
Both men turned.
“Be off!” snarled the first one. “This isn’t your…”
Caina flung the knife in her right hand, her arm shooting back and then forward, her entire body seeming to snap like a bowstring. The blade hurtled forward in a shining blur. The first masked man started to dodge as Caina began to throw, but her knife skidded along his upper right arm, opening a bloody cut. The man stumbled back with a bellowed curse, which gave Caina all the time she needed to toss her second knife to her right hand and fling it. This time her blade struck the man’s forearm as he tried to dodge.
“Run, idiot!” shouted the second man, grabbing the first. “Run!”
The two men sprinted away, leaving the burning window behind them. Caina hesitated, torn between the flames and her fleeing enemies. She wanted to find out who those men were and why they had set fire to the house. But the window was burning, and very soon the flames would spread into the house itself. Talisla was in there, along with any tenants on the first floor, and they would burn if the fire spread.
Caina ran back to the street, grabbed her bucket, and dumped it over the burning shutters. The flames went out with a sputtering hiss, black smoke rising into the night sky.
“I don’t know,” said Talisla, staring at the burnt window frame and scowling. The window opened into the kitchen, and Caina stood with the old woman there. “I can’t think of anyone who has a grudge against me.”
“Anyone at all?” said Caina.
Talisla offered an indifferent shrug. “Perhaps Turkaar had enemies.”
“Perhaps,” said Caina. Though it would be a hard-hearted enemy indeed who took vengeance upon a dead foe’s widowed, impoverished mother. But Istarinmul overflowed with hard-hearted men.
Talisla snorted. “What about you, Koraz? Maybe you have enemies.”
“If someone wanted to kill me, they would do it while I’m on the road,” said Caina. “No witnesses.”
But Talisla was more right than she knew. A man like Koraz would have no enemies…but Caina was the Balarigar, and the Balarigar had a huge bounty upon his head. The Teskilati, the Alchemists, the Kindred, and every bounty hunter and every impoverished noble with dreams of glory hunted the Balarigar. It was entirely possible that one of Caina’s cleverer enemies had followed her here.
But if they thought she was the Balarigar, why not attack in force? Why bother with the fire? A fire would force everyone out of the house, giving thieves an opportunity to plunder unobserved. But save for the rent money Caina had just paid Talisla, there was nothing worth stealing.
“Well, I think it was those wraithblood addicts,” said Talisla. “Vile poison. Drives men mad.”
“You are right about that,” said Caina. Still, she had her doubts. Wraithblood first induced pleasant hallucinations in its users, and in time those visions turned from dreams of beauty to horror, and eventually wraithblood addicts descended into madness. Yet while some became violent, most did not. A maddened wraithblood addict would have simply tried to kill everyone he saw.
“If you want to leave,” said Talisla, “I understand. But you’re not getting your money back.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Caina, leaving the kitchen and walking into the street. The most logical explanation was that the two hooded slaves had simply botched a burglary attempt. Yet if they were hunting for the Balarigar, Caina would leave the rent money and disappear without a trace. Talisla had enough woes in her life without Caina adding to them.
She went to the alley and the burned window, her eyes roving over the ground. The alley was hard-packed earth, baked by years of sun, so hard that Caina’s boots left no marks. If it ever rained, it would turn into a river of mud, but it never rained in Istarinmul.
Yet she saw marks upon the ground nonetheless. Various small holes, as if someone had been hammering a chisel into the earth. Or a row of small chisels, given that the holes were all parallel.
Caina squatted and considered the marks, and at last she realized what they were.
The mark of hobnails.
In the Empire, the men of the Legions wore hobnailed boots for greater traction in battle, and those boots left tracks exactly like this. Yet the two hooded slaves had been wearing sandals. But why had they been wearing hobnailed sandals? Most of the slave owners of Istarinmul bought the cheapest possible sandals for their slaves, and many slaves went barefoot.
Caina followed the mark of the hobnailed sandals. The two men had fled and returned to the street, heading northwest. Northwest would take them past the Old Quarter and then to Cyrican Quarter…
Suddenly it clicked.
Caina remembered exactly what kind of slaves wore hobnailed sandals.
She stopped at one of her safe houses long enough to secure a change of clothing, and then headed for the Ring of Cyrica.
There were dozens of fighting pits in Istarinmul, ranging from grungy cellars that only seated a few dozen spectators to the massive Arena of Padishahs, capable of seating fifty thousand in comfort. The Istarish were mad for gladiatorial games, and both slave and free and rich and poor and noble and commoner gathered together to watch men and wild beasts struggle and die upon the sands.
It was barbaric and brutal, and Istarish loved it. Nor were there ever any shortage of gladiators. By ancient tradition a successful gladiator kept part of his winnings, and could rise to fame and fortune if he commanded the adoration of the crowds. And, in truth, fights to the death were rare. A skilled gladiator was worth thousands of bezants, and no owner wanted to lose that much money. A man named Muravin, one of the Ghosts Caina had known in Malarae, had been a champion of the fighting pits, and had risen to a lucrative position as the captain of an Alchemist’s bodyguard.