“Child of the Ghosts” excerpt

Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.

When her life is torn apart by sorcery and murder, young Caina Amalas joins the Ghosts, the legendary spies and assassins of the Emperor of Nighmar. She learns the secrets of disguise and stealth, of assassination and infiltration.

But even that might not be enough to save her.

For the evil that destroyed her family seeks to devour the entire world…

CHAPTER 1

Caina loved her father’s library.

It had high windows, with a fine view of the town and rippling Bay of Empire beyond. Her father’s desk stood by those windows, covered with papers and books and curiosities he had picked up over the years. Count Sebastian Amalas worked there in the evenings, writing and sealing letters with his heavy gold signet ring. Caina liked to sit on the nearby couch, reading as he wrote.

He had taught her to read when she was three or four years old. First in the High Nighmarian tongue, as befit the daughter of an Imperial Count. Then in Caerish, the commoners’ language, and then in the tongues of the eastern Empire; Saddaic, Disali, Kagarish, Cyrican and Anshani. His library held books in all those languages and more, and Caina devoured them, working her way through his oak shelves over and over again, reading new books as her father bought them from printers in the Imperial capital. Sometimes she spent all day in the library, and old Azaia the cook brought her meals, and Caina read as she ate.

“You read too much, daughter,” her father said, with a slight smile.

“No, I don’t,” she answered. “If you’re meeting with the town’s decimvirs, you should just tell me to use another room.”

Count Sebastian lifted an eyebrow. “And just how do you know that I’m meeting with the decimvirs?”

“Because,” said Caina. “You always meet with petitioners at your desk. You don’t care if I overhear those. But if you’re meeting with the decimvirs, that means you’re discussing criminal cases, which don’t want to discuss in front of me.” She stood from the couch. “I’ll go read in the solar.”

Sebastian laughed, leaned down, kissed her forehead. “Why do I even try to keep secrets from you, my clever child?”

Caina smiled, picked up her book, and left the library, her skirts whispering against the polished marble floors of the villa’s corridors. Busts of long-dead Emperors stood in niches, gazing down with stern marble eyes. Sebastian was a Loyalist, and so he had busts of Emperors like Soterius, who had ended slavery in the Empire, or Helioran, who had forced the magi to abide by Imperial law. Caina had read about them in her father’s books of history.

She opened the solar door and stopped.

Her mother stood at the windows, gazing down at the sea with a scowl.

Caina slipped away before her mother could notice her.

She loved her father’s library. It gave her a place to hide from her mother.

 

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Caina was eleven years old, and she could not remember ever hearing a kind word from her mother.

Countess Laeria Amalas was the opposite of her husband, short where he was tall, slender where he was thick. She had long black hair and icy blue eyes that seemed to burn when she was angry.

And she got angry a lot.

Caina’s earliest memory was her mother’s fury. She had been no more than two or three, so young that she had not yet learned to read. Her mother had been alone in the dining hall, practicing simple sorcery – making a goblet float, summoning light from her fingers, conjuring gusts of wind.

Caina blundered into her, disrupting her concentration. The goblet fell from midair and shattered against the floor.

“You stupid girl!” screamed Laeria. Her backhand sent Caina to the floor atop the shattered goblet. “Useless brat!” She started to kick. “I wish I had never borne you! I wish had I never met your father! Get out of my sight – get out of my sight! If you interrupt my concentration again, I’ll beat you so bloody that…”

Caina fled, wailing, and hid herself beneath the table.

Her father came, and Sebastian and Laeria shouted at each other. After Laeria stalked from the room, Sebastian carried Caina, still weeping, to her bed.

“Why does she hate me so much?” whispered Caina.

Sebastian hesitated before he answered.

“I don’t know.”

She spent much more time with her father after that.

 

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But her mother still did things to her.

Laeria knew a spell that let her reach into another’s mind. And she used it upon Caina whenever she had the chance, digging through Caina’s thoughts and turning her into a puppet. Caina hated it, hated the feeling of her mother’s thoughts digging through her mind like wet, groping fingers. She loathed how the spell forced her to do without question whatever Laeria commanded.

And she grew to hate her mother, the rage becoming hard and sharp.

One day when Caina was seven, Laeria held her immobile in the grip of her sorcery.

“Do you know,” murmured Laeria, taking Caina’s chin in her hand, “why I had you?”

Caina said nothing. She couldn’t, not with Laeria’s spell wrapped about her mind.

“I wanted to go back,” sighed Laeria, black hair sliding over her pale face. “They put me out, only four years into my novitiate. They said I wasn’t strong enough, that I could never wield the power of a full magus. But if I had a talented child…then the Magisterium would have to take me back.”

She growled and slapped Caina across the face.

“But you’re useless,” she said. “Not a spark of arcane talent. Utterly useless. How I wish I had never had you. I should have purged my womb of you, spared myself the bother.”

Caina’s fury writhed inside her like something alive.

“And your father,” said Laeria. “I cannot believe I let myself be chained to that sniveling weakling. It is not fair! I was meant for so much more. For greater things than to waste my life with a useless child and a pathetic weakling of a husband…”

Caina’s rage flared.

And she felt her mother’s spell shiver.

“Don’t talk about him like that!” Caina shouted. “He’s better than you!”

Laeria flinched as if she had been slapped.

“Don’t talk!” she said, making a clenching gesture, the chains of her will tightening against Caina’s mind. “I command you not to talk!”

But Caina’s anger could not be denied, and she thrust it against her mother’s will.

The spell shivered again, and then shattered. Laeria stumbled back, eyes wide with shock, and perhaps a touch of alarm.

“I hate you!” said Caina, clawing at her mother’s skirts. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you…”

“Get off me!” said Laeria, shoving, and Caina fell to the floor.

“What is this?”

Sebastian hurried towards them, expression thunderous.

“Husband,” said Laeria, voice heavy with contempt. “You’ve returned early from town. I suppose the rigorous duties of the Count of the Harbor cannot fill your entire day.”

“You were casting spells on her again, weren’t you?” said Sebastian, placing himself between his daughter and his wife.

Laeria lifted her chin. “What if I was? The little whelp is useless for anything else.”

“Enough,” said Sebastian, voice quiet. “That is the last time you will cast spells upon her.”

Laeria laughed. “Or what?”

“Or I’ll report you to the Magisterium for practicing unlicensed sorcery,” said Sebastian.

“You wouldn’t,” said Laeria. “You’re a Loyalist, not a Restorationist or a Militarist. You hate the Magisterium, and won’t have anything to do with it.”

Sebastian took a step towards Laeria. “Cast a spell my daughter again, and you’ll find out just what I’ll do.”

Laeria met his gaze for a moment, and then stalked away.

Sebastian sighed and scooped up Caina. “Did she hurt you?”

“She didn’t hit me,” said Caina.

He carried her to the library, sat upon the couch. Caina leaned against his shoulder, crying softly.

“Why does she hate me so much?” said Caina at last.

“I suppose you’re old enough to understand now,” said Sebastian. “Do you know what the Imperial Magisterium is?”

Caina had read about it. “It’s…the brotherhood of the magi, the sorcerers. The only ones allowed to use sorcery inside the Empire.”

Sebastian nodded. “Before I met your mother, she was a novice of the Magisterium. The novices take a seven-year course of study before they become full magi. The Magisterium expelled your mother in her fourth year. She was simply not strong enough with sorcery to become a full magus. When she married me, I thought she had gotten past that, but I was…I was wrong.”

“Why did she marry you,” said Caina, “if she hates you as much as she hates me?”

“She thought I was a different kind of man than the one I really am,” said Sebastian. “I am the Lord of House Amalas, and a Count, besides. Do you know the difference between a Lord and a Count?”

Caina thought back to her reading. “A Lord is a noble of the Empire,” she said, remembering. “But a Count…a Count is a noble appointed to an office by the Emperor himself.”

“I was already appointed Harbormaster of Aretia when I met your mother,” said Sebastian. “I think she hoped that I would rise higher, become the commander of a Legion, or maybe the Lord Governor of an important province.”

“Someone powerful enough to force the Magisterium to take her back?” said Caina.

“Yes,” said Sebastian. “Very good. But I am not that sort of man, Caina. I have no stomach for Imperial politics. Aretia is my home, and I am content to stay here.”

“And Mother hates it here,” said Caina.

“Yes,” said Sebastian. “She would rather return to Artifel and the Motherhouse of the magi, but they will not take her. So she takes her frustrations out upon me…and upon you.”

“Do you wish you had never married her?” said Caina.

Sebastian smiled. “How could I,” he said, touching her hair, “for without her, I never would have gotten you.”

Caina smiled.

“But this has gone on for too long,” said Sebastian. “I am ashamed that I let it go on for so long. If she strikes you again, tell me and I will put a stop to it. And if she uses her sorcery against you, tell me…and I will go to the Magisterium.”

“I don’t think she will,” said Caina. “I made her stop. I got angry and pushed her out of my head.”

“You did?” said Sebastian, surprised. “That takes great mental strength.”

“She said bad things about you,” said Caina. “I got angry.”

“You defend me more than I deserve,” said Sebastian. “But if Laeria lifts hand or spell against you, tell me. I will not let it pass.”

 

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But her mother left them alone after that.

Perhaps Sebastian’s threat daunted her, or Caina’s unexpected resistance alarmed her. After that day, Laeria ignored them, spending almost all her time shut away in her rooms, practicing her spells, or corresponding with the few magi who did not ignore her. She emerged only to appear with Sebastian and Caina at public functions, and left as soon as possible.

As Caina grew older, more than once she wondered why her father simply did not divorce Laeria. The gods knew he had endured enough. Perhaps he thought Laeria could change. Perhaps part of him still loved her.

Caina did not love her mother, not even a little.

Eventually, she realized that her father preferred reading and thinking and writing to any sort of action, and would put off confronting Laeria as long as possible.

She loved him nonetheless.

But Laeria left them alone, and Sebastian continued with his duties and his scholarship, and Caina worked her way through his library. Sebastian hired new tutors for her, and she began learning new languages.

It was a pleasant enough life.

 

###

 

Night had fallen by the time her father finished meeting with the decimvirs, the ten magistrates who governed the town of Aretia.

Caina let herself into the library after they left. A bright fire crackled in the fireplace, covered by a bronze screen to protect the books and the carpet from any sparks. Sebastian sat at his desk below the windows, fiddling with a pen, his expression distant.

He smiled as she approached.

“How was your meeting with the decimvirs?” she said.

“Simple enough,” said Sebastian. “Not a major criminal matter, thankfully. A smugglers’ ship ran ashore a few miles south of here, and the smugglers fled before the militia could take them in hand.”

“What were they smuggling?” said Caina. “Not slaves?” Slavery had been banned in the Empire for a century and a half, since the War of the Fourth Empire, but Istarish slavers still sometimes raided the coasts.

“No, nothing so grim,” said Sebastian. “Spices, mostly, from the Cyrican plantations. Some Anshani silks. And scrolls.”

“Scrolls?” said Caina.

He beckoned her closer. “Come look at this.”

A tattered scroll lay across his desk, the thick papyrus yellow with age. An intricate diagram filled most of the scroll, an elaborate sigil of swirling lines and crossing circles. Lines of strange characters filled the rest of the scroll, the symbols resembling birds and animals and men.

“I think it is a Maatish scroll,” said Sebastian. “What can you tell me about the land of Maat?”

Caina smiled. Her father was a scholar at heart. Had he not wed, she supposed, he would have been quite happy as a priest in the Temple of Minaerys, tending to the collections of books and scrolls the priests kept in Minaerys’ honor.

“Maat was called the Kingdom of the Rising Sun,” said Caina, thinking. “Its pharaohs ruled a great empire long before our Empire arose. The Maatish priests were all powerful sorcerers and necromancers, but grew too proud, and destroyed the Kingdom of the Rising Sun in their folly.”

Sebastian nodded. “Much as our Empire’s own magi almost did, during the War of the Fourth Empire. Caina, I think this is a genuine Maatish scroll.”

Caina blinked. “But…I read that the Kingdom of the Rising Sun fell thousands of years ago. All that remains are stone ruins in the desert. For a scroll to have survived…”

“It is rare,” said Sebastian. “And incredibly valuable. The smugglers must have looted it from a Maatish ruin and hoped to find a buyer for it within the Empire.”

“What will you do with it?” said Caina.

“I will study it, make certain it is authentic,” said Sebastian. “If it is…I think I shall make a trip to the capital, to the priests of Minaerys at the Imperial Library.”

Caina’s eyes widened. The Imperial Library was the Emperor’s own library, the largest collection of books in the Nighmarian Empire.

The thought of all those books made her hands tremble.

Sebastian laughed. “Would you like to accompany me?”

“Yes,” whispered Caina. “Yes, I would.”

“Then it is settled,” said Sebastian. “If the scroll proves authentic, we shall go to the capital and the Imperial Library. Now get some sleep, daughter. You’re still too young to stay up half the night reading.”

“You do, father.”

“Yes, but I’m old enough that it doesn’t matter. Now, off to bed.”

Caina smiled, kissed his cheek, and left for her bedroom. Though she doubted she would be able to sleep. The Imperial Library!

She entered the hallway, and stopped.

Laeria stood at the end of the hallway, staring at her.

Caina stopped and stared back, readying herself to fight, if her mother tried to invade her mind.

But Laeria only smirked, and walked away without another word.

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