“Ghost in the Flames” Excerpt

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Chapter 1

Caina thought she might have to do some killing, so she dressed for business.

In many tales, the Emperor’s Ghosts were always women of perilous beauty, clad in skin-tight black leather. Caina thought that ridiculous. Black leather made too much noise, and reflected too much light. Instead she wore loose black clothes, black gloves, and a black mask that concealed her face. Around her waist went a leather belt of throwing knives and other useful tools, and she secured a heavy dagger in each of her boots.

Next came the cloak.

Light as air and blacker than night, it was a wondrous thing. Halfdan had told her that only the Ghosts knew the making of these cloaks, fused together of spider silk and captured shadows. It mingled and blurred with the shadows around her, and when she pulled up the cowl, it made her face all but invisible.

Last, the ring.

It was a man’s signet ring, heavy and thick; she wore it on the first finger of her left hand, beneath the glove. It was old and nicked, the sigil worn smooth with use. Unlike everything else Caina carried, it could not be used as a weapon, nor did it have a practical use.

But she wore it anyway.

 

###

 

Night lay over the city of Mors Crisius, and Caina glided from shadow to shadow.

Long ago, she had been told, the city had been prosperous, built around the tomb and mortuary cult of some long-dead Emperor. But the city’s harbor had worn away, bit by bit, and the merchant ships went instead to Rasadda. Mors Crisius had become a sleepy town of fishermen, farmers, and mortuary priests, and now only pirates and smugglers made use of its decaying harbor.

Along with worse people.

Caina stopped and stared at Vanio’s townhouse.

It looked like the townhouse of a thousand other prosperous merchants. White walls, a roof of fired red tiles, a paved courtyard ringed within a low wall. It did not look at all like a home of a man who would kidnap fellow Imperial citizens and sell them as slaves.

But, then, appearances lied. Caina knew that well. She took a deep breath and went to it.

She sprang up, caught one of the ornamental metal spikes crowning the wall, pulled herself up, and waited. The courtyard lay quiet, its flagstones worn and smooth, a fountain bubbling by the gate. One of Vanio’s watchmen strolled towards the house. He wore a studded leather jerkin, his belt heavy with sword and dagger. The watchman opened the main door and vanished into the house. No other guards emerged.

Beneath the cowl and the mask, Caina’s lip curled. Vanio’s security was barely adequate to keep out common thieves, let alone one of the Emperor’s Ghosts. No doubt Vanio thought himself safe from the retribution his crimes had earned.

Well, that might change, tonight.

She counted to three hundred, but no other watchmen appeared, and she saw no signs of life from the house. Caina dropped into the courtyard, the black cloak pooling around her. A single light gleamed in one of the windows, no doubt where Vanio’s guards sat earning their keep. She crossed the courtyard and tried the front door. It was locked, of course, and the lock was a fine one, but Caina had seen worse. She knelt, pulled some tools from her belt, and set to work.

Her skill made short work of the lock. Caina pushed the door open as slowly as she could. Within she saw a darkened atrium, the floor covered in an expensive mosaic, but heard nothing.

The smell hit her at once.

Caina slipped into the atrium, pulling the door closed behind her. The smell was stronger in here, thicker and heavier. For a moment Caina thought that the house had caught fire, but she saw no smoke, no signs of panic. She had never smelled anything quite like it. It was a burnt, greasy odor, almost like fat dripping upon a fire. Or like burnt pork.

Burnt pork? Were the watchmen trying to cook something?

Caina shook her head and crept into the townhouse, her boots making no sound against the floor. She glanced around, and noted that Vanio had done quite well for himself. Like so many of these provincial merchants, he had done his utmost to copy the High Nighmarian style. The mosaic beneath her feet showed the Emperor Crisius triumphing over Corazain the Ashbringer. Freestanding marble statues littered the halls, along with busts resting in niches, all copies of famous artworks in the capital. The statuary alone must cost twice what every fisherman in Mors Crisius earned in a year, and the rare woods in the doors had come from the forests of Varia Province on the other side of the Empire of Nighmar.

Someone like Vanio could not make that kind of money doing something honest.

Caina crept through a dining room, the gleaming table set with polished silver, and found the stairs. She had reached the landing when she heard the voices, saw the gleam of light. Caina sank into a corner, her cloak blending with the shadows, and waited. The voices came louder, and Caina realized that two men stood at the top of the stairs, one of them holding a lantern. The watchmen, most likely.

They were speaking in Saddaic. Fortunately, she knew the tongue.

“What in hell’s name is that stink?”

“Damned if I know,” said a second man. “You did the last walk. Are they cooking anything?”

“It’s past midnight! All of Vanio’s servants are lazy dogs. You’ll not see any of them out of bed before dawn.”

“Something must be burning.”

“I told you,” said the first man, irritated, “I already walked around the house. I didn’t see any smoke. The house is not on fire.”

“Then why is the smell getting worse?”

The first man spat. “Must be coming from one of the inns. Cooking a pig for tomorrow’s stew or something. What of it? It’s no concern of ours.”

“The nearest inn’s a half-mile away! Something’s burning, I tell you. Maybe we should wake old Vanio.”

“Are you mad? You know how that greedy bastard loves his sleep. Wake him now and we’ll be out of work before dawn. Do you want to go back to work on a fishing boat? Or into the Legions? No, we’ll do nothing, and that’s that.”

“I still think something’s burning,” said the second man. “What if something is on fire? Do you think Vanio’ll keep us on if we let his house burn down?”

“Damn you, nothing’s on fire,” said the first man. “You worry worse than an old woman. But if it’ll shut you up, we’ll go look.” Boots clicked against the stairs.

Caina flung herself backwards, rolled over the landing’s railing, and ducked under the massive table. She slipped a throwing knife from her belt, the blade tucked against her gloved hand to hide its gleam. Two of them. Not good. She adjusted her grip on the blade and braced herself.

The watchmen came down the stairs, and Caina saw that there were in fact three of them. The third man, older than the other two, hadn’t opened his mouth. The first watchman carried a lantern, and all three wore studded leather jerkins and carried swords and daggers on their belts.

For a moment Caina thought they would see her. The watchman lifted his lantern, throwing shadows across the dining hall, and Caina remained motionless. They walked past her, and their eyes glanced over the table without alarm. Caina blinked in surprised relief. She heard them open the front door and walk into the courtyard. Apparently they hadn’t noticed the opened lock.

Caina hurried up the stairs, cloak flowing behind her. The stairs opened into a narrow upstairs hallway, with two doors on the left and one on the right. She had spied out Vanio’s townhouse yesterday, and knew that the left doors opened into the study and the solar, while the right door lead to Vanio’s bedchamber.

The burnt smell was very strong up here, almost overpowering. The air almost tasted of it, even through her mask. No wonder the watchmen had complained. Caina crossed the hall, listened at the study door for a moment, and swung it open.

The study shared the townhouse’s ostentatious opulence. The shelves held the sort of works an educated man was expected to own; histories of the Nighmarian Empire, lives of the Emperors, treatises on oratory and virtue. A thin layer of dust covered most of the books, except for a trio of weighty histories in the corner. She pushed aside the books, and saw the gleam of a safe built into the wall.

Caina grinned, produced her tools, and got to work. The safe, like the lock on the front door, was excellent work, but Caina had seen better. After a short time, she tugged and the door swung open. Only one thing lay in the safe, a battered merchant’s ledger, worn with much use. Caina took the ledger, carried it to the window, and flipped through the pages.

Her mouth tightened into a hard line. The ledger detailed Vanio’s inventory of slaves. It seemed that he specialized in buying children at cut-rate prices from impoverished peasant farmers, and selling them at an enormous profit to the Carthian and Alqaarin merchants who dealt in such things. He also turned a substantial profit dealing in artworks, old Saddai and Kyracian artifacts and the like, but the bulk of his money came from selling children. Caina closed the ledger, her hand twitching towards the knives in her belt. A short detour on her way out, a quick slash of her knife, and the villainous scum would die choking in his own blood…

No. Not yet. Halfdan had only wanted evidence, not blood. And the Emperor had declared slaving a crime against the Empire, and the penalty for a crime against the Empire was worse than anything Caina had time to inflict upon Vanio now. She closed the safe, replaced the books, tucked the ledger under her arm, and made for the door.

She stepped into the hallway just in time to see the watchmen come up the stairs.

Caina froze in the doorway. For a moment she thought the watchmen wouldn’t see her. They were arguing about the smell again, and none of them even glanced towards the study door.

“I’m telling you,” said the man in the lead, “that damned smell is worse! Where the hell is that coming from?” He looked around, glancing at the study door.

His eyes got wide.

“Gods!” he said, fumbling for his sword, “what the hell is…”

Caina stepped forward and flung a knife, her foot forward, her arm thrown back, her back arched. Her entire body snapped like a bowstring. The knife hurtled forward and buried itself in the man’s throat. He fell to his knees, gagging. The other two watchmen leapt past the fallen man, yanking their swords from their scabbards. Caina threw the heavy ledger. It caught the older man in the face, and he stumbled back with a curse, bouncing off the door to Vanio’s bedchamber.

The last man ran at her, his sword a silvery blur.

Caina stepped back and yanked the daggers from her boots. She did not want to take the man in a fair fight. She had trained with short blades for years, along with the open-handed fighting style favored by the Ghosts. She was quick and agile, but she was not a large woman, and she simply did not have the raw strength to fight toe-to-toe with most men.

No matter. She had learned long ago that to fight fair was to lose.

The sword came towards her head, and Caina caught it in a cross-parry between her daggers, her arms straining with the effort. Her left foot lashed out and slammed hard into the man’s knee. He gasped with pain, leaning forward, and Caina disengaged and whirled to the side. The watchman stumbled forward, and as he did Caina slashed with her right hand. The blade opened the artery in his neck, and the watchman toppled, blood spurting between his fingers as he vainly tried to stem the flow.

Caina turned just in time to meet the older, silent watchman’s attack. He came at her with both sword and dagger, and he knew how to use his weapons. Caina retreated before his advance, her blades working to beat aside his attacks. She sent a knife spinning for his face, but a flick of his sword sent the blade clattering to the floor. Sooner or later he would pin her against a wall, and that would be that.

In a fair fight.

Caina reached up and undid the black silver brooch that pinned her cloak. It came loose and dangled from her right hand, a drape of shadow billowing from her arm. The watchman stopped, frowning at her, and Caina flung the cloak at his face. He sneered and slashed his dagger to knock the cloak aside.

But mundane steel passed through the shadow-spun cloak without touching it, and the black cloth fell over him. He snarled in fury and clawed at his face, his sword sweeping back and forth before him. Caina ducked below the waving sword and drove her dagger into his gut. The watchman screamed and fell to his knees, the cloak slipping from his face, and Caina dragged her blade across his throat.

He joined the others on the floor a few seconds later, his blood pooling across the tiles.

Caina retrieved her cloak and stood, breathing hard. She stared down at the bodies, and the blood staining the floor and walls. They would have killed her, and not thought twice about it. Yet her stomach still twisted with nausea. Suddenly she was eleven years old again, and she saw the men lying sprawled on the floor of her father’s library, their glassy eyes staring at the ceiling…

Later. The noise might have woken the servants. And there was no way Vanio could have slept through the racket. She had to get out of here now. Caina retrieved her knives, picked up the dropped ledger, and started for their stairs.

And stopped.

The burnt smell was stronger. Much stronger. Almost overpowering. Caina turned, puzzled. She saw that the door to Vanio’s bedchamber stood partway open. For a moment she thought Vanio himself had opened it, but the door must have been knocked ajar during the fight.

The burnt smell poured out through the open door.

Caina hesitated for a heartbeat. She ought to get out of the townhouse, now, before someone discovered the bodies. Yet that smell. Had Vanio taken to burning pork in his bedchamber? It made no sense, and Caina did not like things that made no sense.

She pushed the door open the rest of the way and glided into the bedchamber.

If the townhouse was opulent, the bedchamber was palatial. Her boots sank into a rich, thick carpet. Tapestries hung from the walls, and the wooden furniture gleamed. A massive double bed stood in the center of the room, draped in curtains. The smell was very bad in here, almost overpowering.

It was coming from the bed.

Again another memory from that awful day came to her, as she crossed her father’s study, her heart pounding with terror, towards the chair at his desk…

Caina shook aside the memory. She crossed the room, flung open the curtains, and found the source of the awful stench.

Vanio himself lay sprawled across the silken sheets.

Or, rather, what was left of Vanio.

His corpulent body had been reduced to a twisted mass of black char, his fingers curled into shriveled claws, his mouth yawning in an eternal scream, his eyes and nose blackened pits. His teeth seemed shockingly white in the black ruin of his face. The smell rolled off his charred flesh in nauseating waves. Grease seeped from red cracks in his torso, staining into the silken sheets.

Impossible.

Caina stepped back, staring at the gruesome corpse. Vanio looked as if he had been roasted atop a pyre, or burned at the stake. Yet she saw no fire damage to the bed or the room, no smoke stains on the walls. Had he been burned elsewhere and carried here? That made no sense either. Caina had been able to sneak into the townhouse, but she doubted a pair of men carrying a charred corpse could have managed the same feat.

Her mouth tightened. That left only…

“Murder!” shrieked a woman’s voice from the hallway. One of the maids, no doubt. “Murder! Murder! Master Vanio!”

Time to go.

Caina tore the curtain from the bed, wrapped her fist in it, and smashed the window. Leaded glass fell in a rain to the courtyard below. She threw the ledger out the window, and then went through herself, finding easy footholds in the townhouse’s stonework. More lights came on in the windows, and Caina heard more shouts, followed by a shrill scream from the broken windows.

No doubt the poor maid had found Vanio’s corpse.

Caina dropped into the courtyard, retrieved the ledger, and scrambled over the wall. More screams and panicked shouts came from the house, but it didn’t sound as if anyone had spotted her. Caina had only wanted to get in and out with Vanio’s ledger, and she hadn’t wanted to kill anyone. How had things gone so wrong?

Well. She hadn’t planned on finding a charred corpse, for one thing.

Caina broke into a full run, the cloak billowing out behind her like a living shadow.

10 thoughts on ““Ghost in the Flames” Excerpt

  1. Pingback: Ghost in the Flames available now | Jonathan Moeller, Pulp Writer

    1. jmoellerwriter Post author

      Thanks! I’m glad you like it so far. I’m about 80% through the rough draft of the seventh book, so there’s definitely more to come. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Billye Fetrow

    I worked for Keith Laumer the last 12 years of his life. I’ve read sci-fi/fantasy since I discovered Andre Norton in the mid 60’s. You are good. Your characters seem real. They have real motivation for those things they say/do. They are varied and you have avoided one of the things that could drive Keith to rage. You do not use too many words. You are chary of description, giving your descriptions a great deal of power in the development of the plot.
    Congratulations. There are very few I have told how much I enjoy(ed) their work.
    BTW: Baen Publishing knows me as Deane. Keith abhorred my first name. Go figure.

    Billye D. Fetrow

    Reply
    1. jmoellerwriter Post author

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you liked it.

      All I can say is that everything I know how to do, I learned the hard way. Sometimes repeatedly. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Collin LaShure

    Very, very good! I have never been one to read a fantasy like this. I am more of a history lover, but this is the only good of this type that captivated me from beginning to end and left me wanting more! Only book I’ve finished, period. Thanks for giving me an interest. Jolly good work

    Reply
    1. jmoellerwriter Post author

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you liked the book. One of the nice things about ebooks is that I see more people reading these days.

      Reply
  4. Collin LaShure

    Quite right! I have a severe case of ADD and a cell phone of pages, instead of a book of pages, makes it a lot easier to read for me. I intend to purchase all your ghost series books, once my finances to permit me, of course! Got children to feed, no less, but I am excited to get to them! Best of luck, mate!

    Reply
  5. Denise

    Great start to the next book! You have now become my favorite author! I am disabled but will get all your series as I can.

    Reply

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