Chapter 1 – The Ambush
There was going to be trouble.
Caina realized it the moment she walked through the door.
She would have expected to see a liveried steward standing inside, waiting to greet the White Road Inn’s wealthy guests, or perhaps a porter or two. But instead of a steward or porters, she saw a dozen rough-looking men sitting at the tables, drinking and playing cards. Some looked like sailors and others like mercenaries, but none of them looked like sort of men she expected to see at a place like the White Road Inn.
Every eye turned to look at her as she walked into the common room, examining her like a cut of meat on the butcher’s block.
It was not a comfortable sensation.
One of the men rose. He looked like a sailor, with a thick mane of gray hair over a leathery face. A sword in a worn scabbard hung from his belt. Caina found her eyes drawn to the bracers covering his forearms. Black leather, with various odd sigils cut into their sides.
She had seen those sigils before.
“Aye, girl?” said the gray-haired man, speaking in Caerish with a thick Kyracian accent. “What’s your business here?”
Caina drew herself up, tried to look authoritative, and answered him in the same language. “What is your name?”
“Name’s Tigrane,” said the man, smiling at her. “I suppose you could say that I’m the steward of this Inn.”
One of the men chuckled.
“I shall have you know that I am Julia, a maid in the service of the Countess Marianna, of House Nereide,” said Caina, clutching her saddlebags. “My mistress has sent me ahead to prepare her rooms for her.”
Tigrane stared at her, a cold glint in his eye. “We’ve no rooms available.”
“But…but that’s impossible,” said Caina. She let a little fear creep into her voice. “My mistress stays here every year at this time, when she makes the journey from the Imperial capital to Marsis. The arrangements have been made well in advance.”
Tigrane gave an indifferent shrug. “Alas. Yet we’ve no rooms available.”
Caina stared at him for a moment. “Very well. I shall go and inform my mistress. Know that she shall be wroth.”
She turned to go.
Tigrane reacted exactly as she expected.
“Wait,” he said, stepping towards her. “Perhaps I spoke hastily. All our rooms are booked, but we can make other arrangements. And I cannot let a pretty young thing like you walk alone into the night. There are robbers and slavers about, you know.”
Another man chuckled.
“Yes,” said Caina. “I am sure. Very well.” She lifted her chin, glaring up at him. “Take me to my mistress’s chambers.”
Tigrane gave a mocking little bow. “As you will.”
Caina adjusted one of the bags, hand curling about the dagger hidden within. Yet Tigrane made no move against her. He took a lantern and led her up two flights of stairs, to the Inn’s top floor, and ushered her into a suite. The rooms were richly furnished, and the windows had a splendid view of the courtyard and the moon-lit sea beyond.
“Here you are,” said Tigrane. “I’m sure your Countess will find these rooms most satisfactory.”
“She will,” said Caina, dropping the saddlebags on a table.
Tigrane lit a few of the oil lamps. “Some of my men will be along shortly, to make certain you are comfortable.” He gave her another cold smile and left the room.
“Yes,” said Caina to the closed door. “I’m sure that you will.” She was sure that Tigrane and his men had plans for her. Plans that ended with her naked corpse in a shallow grave behind the Inn.
Fortunately, she had plans of her own.
She barred the door and walked to the table, shrugging out of her serving maid’s dress. Her saddlebags held more useful clothing. She pulled on loose black pants, black boots, black gloves, and a heavy padded black jacket, lined with steel plates to deflect knives. A man’s worn signet ring went on the first finger of her left hand, beneath the glove. Around her waist went a belt of throwing knives and other useful tools. Daggers went into concealed sheaths in her boots, and more throwing knives beneath her sleeves. A mask of loose black silk covered her face, concealing everything but her eyes.
Last came the cloak.
It was a wondrous thing, light as air and black as shadow. Halfdan had told her that the great wizards of old had created these cloaks, weaving shadows together with spider silk. The cloak was virtually weightless, and blended and merged with the shadows in the room. Caina shrugged on the cloak, pulling up the cowl to conceal her face.
She was a Ghost nightfighter, a sworn spy and servant of the Emperor. Tigrane and his gang of thugs no doubt expected to deal with a helpless serving woman. They were in for a surprise.
She hoped they enjoyed it.
Caina wrapped the empty saddlebags in her discarded dress and tossed them under the bed. She crossed to the windows and opened the shutters. Moonlight flooded into the room, along with the steady crash of surf breaking against the shore. A broad ledge stretched beneath the window, circling around the Inn. Caina dropped onto the ledge, her cloak flowing behind her, crossed three windows down, and popped the latch with a quick flick of a knife. Inside she found another empty bedroom, rather less opulent than the suite Tigrane had given her.
The hall outside the bedroom was empty. Caina had a great deal of experience moving quietly, much of it under dangerous conditions, and had no difficulty keeping silent as she crept down the halls. She glided down the stairs, settled into the shadows on the landing, and watched the common room.
Voices drifted to her ears.
“Claims she’s a maid,” said Tigrane, speaking to a man out of sight. “In the service of a Countess Marianna Nereide. Says her mistress is coming soon.” He shook his head. “I told you this was a risk.”
“It was necessary,” answered another voice, deeper and commanding. The voice spoke Caerish with the cold accents of a Nighmarian lord. “Our employer required additional merchandise immediately, and this was the safest way to do it. Too many more people disappearing in the city might draw attention.”
“What about the maid?” said Tigrane. “What do we do about her? Does she go into inventory?”
“Don’t be foolish,” said the second man. “Innkeepers and servants are one thing. A highborn Imperial noblewoman is quite another. Someone will notice if she goes missing. Even taking a member of her household might draw unwanted attention.”
“I say we take the maid with the others,” said Tigrane, walking around a table. Caina leaned forward, trying to see Tigrane’s companion. “And then when this Countess arrives, we can do the same for her.”
“No,” said the second man. “Kill the maid. Bury her corpse and all her possessions in the cellar. Once she’s dead, take our inventory and head for the ship. Burn the Inn after we leave. At dawn, we’ll sail for Marsis. By the time the Countess and her entourage arrive, we’ll be long gone, with no evidence left behind.”
Tigrane grinned. “And the men can enjoy themselves before we finish off the maid.”
“No,” said the second man. “No rapes.”
“Why not?” said Tigrane. “It’s not as if we’re going to sell her. No sense keeping her undamaged if no one’s going to buy her.”
“Because,” said the second man, “men with fun on their minds make mistakes. And there can be no mistakes here, Tigrane. If we leave behind evidence of our presence – any evidence at all – we’ll have the Ghosts on our trail.”
“The Ghosts?” said Tigrane, a note of fear in his voice. “Gods of the brine, not again. The last time was a disaster.”
Caina smirked behind her mask.
“Then you see the necessity for caution,” said the second man. She heard heavy footsteps. “Still. It’s on your head. Do as you will with her…but only after you take her and all her possessions to the cellar. I don’t want a shred of evidence left in that suite. A single mistake and I’ll gut you. Or I’ll turn you over to our client. You’ll wish I had killed you then.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Tigrane as the second man came into sight.
The deep-voiced man looked nothing like Tigrane. This man was tall and pale, his hair black, his face gaunt, his lips framed in a trimmed beard. He wore fine clothes and jewelry, a broadsword at his belt, and the same sort of strange bracers as Tigrane. Caina recognized him at once and suppressed a hiss of excitement.
Lord Naelon Icaraeus.
Son of Haeron Icaraeus, the traitor lord who had supplied the necromancer Maglarion with slaves for his experiments. Naelon has followed in his father’s steps. He was a rebel lord and traitor to the Emperor, and most wanted and elusive slave trader in the western Empire.
And he was here, within her grasp.
“You three,” said Tigrane, pointing to some of the men. “You heard his lordship. Get ropes and a gag, and take that maid down to the cellar. Do whatever you want with her, but only after you get her downstairs. Kill her when you’re done. Understand?”
“Aye,” said one of the men. They rose and went in search of their weapons.
Caina headed up the stairs, moving as fast as she dared. She contemplated hiding and discarded the idea. If the men searched the suite and found no trace of her, they would report back to Tigrane, and Icaraeus would realize that something had gone amiss. Better to spread confusion. And fear.
She reached the third floor, went out the window, and climbed back into her suite. Dousing the lamps, she looked around for a suitable hiding place. The wardrobe seemed more than adequate, and she climbed atop it, her cloak mingling with the darkness. Her heart raced with fear and anticipation, and she slipped one of the daggers from her boots. She was fast, but most men were stronger than her, and she could not win a straight fight against three opponents.
So she would not fight fair.
A moment later someone knocked at the barred door.
“Miss?” came a man’s rough voice. “Come out. We’ve got a surprise for you.”
She heard the laughter through the door.
The door shuddered against the bar.
“The little whore barred it,” snarled another man.
“Well, you’ve got that axe, haven’t you? Use it!”
There was a crack, and an axe blade came through the door. Caina waited as they chopped through the thick wood. Finally the men crashed into the suite, weapons in hand.
“Come here,” said the first man, lifting his axe. “We’ll have ourselves a good time, won’t we?” They laughed. “She’s hiding somewhere. Find her.”
Two of the men entered the bedroom. The man with the axe turned towards the wardrobe, frowning. He grinned, and reached for the wardrobe doors.
He never once looked up. People never looked up.
Caina shoved off the wardrobe and fell upon him, her boots smashing into his chest. The man hit the floor with a stunned grunt, the axe flying from his hand. Caina landed upon him, throwing her momentum into her shoulder and arm. She just had a chance to glimpse his eyes, shocked and terrified, before her dagger plunged into his throat. Hot blood splashed over her gloved hand, his boots drumming his death spasm against the floor.
Caina sprang to her feet, snatched up the fallen axe, and hurried across the room. She pressed herself to the wall besides the bedroom door.
Laughter came from the bedroom. “Eh? What’s that? She’s putting up a fight, is she?” The other two men walked back into the parlor, grinning.
The grins vanished as they saw the corpse upon the floor.
“What the devil…”
Caina pushed away from the wall, axe in both hands, and buried it in the nearest man’s neck. He stumbled forward with a choking gurgle, blood pouring from his mouth. Caina shoved him, and he stumbled into the last man. Both went down in a heap. She dropped to one knee, right hand dipping into her boot, and came up holding another dagger.
The last man didn’t even have time to scream.
Caina retrieved her blades and wiped them clean, trying to ignore the churning nausea. The men had been slave traders. They would have killed her, after torturing and raping her for sport. Surely they had deserved to die. Yet still she wanted to drop to her knees and throw up. She remembered the dead men lying upon the floor of Maglarion’s lair…
Enough. Sooner or later Tigrane and Icaraeus would realize that something had gone wrong. She had to put that time to good use. Doubtless Icaraeus had letters with him, documents that could bring him down, and all his clients and allies as well. If Caina could escape with those documents, Icaraeus would pay. And if her path should cross Naelon Icaraeus’s before the night was done…well, he had sold hundreds, perhaps thousands, into slavery in the lands beyond the Empire.
His death would not trouble her in the least.
Caina retrieved the axe from the dead man’s neck and slipped out the window, marking her slow way along the ledge. She rounded a corner and stopped, peering into the courtyard. A man stood guard before a set of sunken stairs, no doubt leading into the Inn’s cellar. He was clever enough not to hold a torch, keeping his night vision intact, and kept watch upon the road.
But he didn’t look up. People never looked up.
Caina dropped the axe. It struck the back of the guard’s skull with crack, and the man collapsed. She climbed down the wall as fast as she dared, hurried over, and gave him a quick look. The back of his head was wet with blood, and he would not be waking up anytime soon, if ever. She pulled a set of keys from his belt, hurried down the stairs, and unlocked the cellar door.
The smell of blood and excrement hit her in the face.
Wine casks stood against the walls, secure in their wooden racks. Fifteen men, women, and children sat chained wrist and ankle to the racks, gags stuffed into their mouths. The only light came from a pair of lanterns on a table against the far wall. Another set of stairs no doubt led to the common room.
The captives, Icaraeus’s “inventory”, looked at her with wide and terrified eyes.
“Do not speak,” said Caina, disguising her voice. Her words rasped and snarled like something inhuman. The captives flinched away even further. “Obey my commands, and you may yet live through this night.”
She knelt besides the nearest man, unlocked his shackles, and wrenched the gag from his mouth.
“Who…who are you?” whispered the man. He was fat, his clothes rank with sweat. “Are you a demon, come to drag us down to hell?”
“Your name?” said Caina.
“Oscar, keeper of the White Road Inn.”
“Lord Naelon Icaraeus. The man who took you captive,” said Caina. “He has some papers in his possession. Where are they?”
Caina hissed, lowered her shadowed face closer to his. “Where are they?”
“In my room, under the stairs,” said Oscar, “I saw him writing in there.”
“Good,” said Caina, handing him one of the keys. “Get to work. The rest of you, remain silent.”
The innkeeper understood and started to work. Caina moved down the line of captives, loosing their chains.
“Who are you, sir?” said one of the women, rubbing her wrists. Oscar’s daughter, to judge from the resemblance.
“That is not your concern,” said Caina. “Depart this cellar, and take the road south to Marsis as quickly as you are able.”
“What of the slavers?” demanded Oscar. “Won’t they just recapture us?”
Caina shook her head. “They’ve a ship waiting in a cove a few miles north of here. You were to have been loaded aboard that ship at dawn. Instead the slavers will flee to it shortly.”
“Why would they retreat to their ship?” said Oscar. “They have no reason to flee.”
“No, no reason,” said Caina. “Not until I burn the building down.”
“My inn! You can’t!”
“You can either run for your life,” said Caina, “or you can spend the rest of your life tending some Istarish emir’s harem. After they make a eunuch of you.”
That got his attention.
Shouts of alarm came from above, followed by the stamp of running feet. Someone must have found the bodies.
“Go, now,” said Caina.
Oscar herded the others towards the cellar door. Caina snatched up both of the lanterns from the table and followed them. The captives stumbled into the night, fleeing towards the southward road. Caina crossed to the nearest ground-floor window, kicked open the shutters, and flung the lantern inside.
It shattered against the wall, hot glass and burning oil falling onto the bed. The blankets caught fire, embers falling onto the rich carpet. Caina kicked open another window and flung in the second lantern. Again the blankets caught fire, the flames spreading to the carpet and the tapestries. Caina vaulted through the window, dodged around the flames, and pushed open the door.
The fire spread to the hallway, licking at the varnished wooden walls.
Caina had no time to watch its progress. She hurried to the common room and looked around. The men had vanished, no doubt in search of whoever had killed their fellows. Caina ripped a tapestry from the wall and threw half of it into the fireplace, leaving the other half to dangle upon the floorboards.
As the flames spread, she ran across the room and opened the door under the stairs. It opened into the innkeeper’s richly furnished room, lit by a single lantern on the table. A writing desk sat near the door, covered with papers.
Caina seized them. There was a ledger, and something that looked like a journal, and she took them both. A leather satchel lay against the wall, and she dropped the papers, books and all, into it. Men began shouting, and Caina heard the heavy thud of running footsteps on the stairs. No doubt someone had noticed the fires, and the slavers had come to the conclusion that they were under attack.
She ran back into the common room, surprised by how quickly the fire had spread. A pair of mercenaries ran down the stairs, taking no notice of her, and escaped into the night. Tigrane’s angry bellow rang down the stairs, followed by Icaraeus’s cold voice giving rapid orders. Caina hurried back into the hallway, ducking low to avoid the thick black smoke billowing from the bedrooms. She entered a room still untouched by the spreading flames and went out the window.
The drum of hooves came to her ears, galloping away to the north. The slavers were making a run for it. Caina slipped around the inn, saw the horsemen pounding towards the road.
And then, for just a moment, she saw Lord Naelon Icaraeus himself.
He sat atop a horse not twenty feet away, turning his head to shout something at Tigrane. His sword was in its sheath, his whole attention diverted away from Caina, and he wore no armor.
Her hand plunged to her belt, coming up with a throwing knife. She stepped towards him, arm and shoulder flung back, blade clenched between gloved flingers. Her whole body snapped like a bowstring and sent the knife hurtling towards Icaraeus.
The blade flew true and plunged into Icaraeus’s exposed neck.
Or it would have, had it not bounced away with a green flash. For a moment the bracers on his arms flickered with the same eerie light, the strange sigils shining with a sickly emerald glow. Pins and needles erupted over Caina, her skin crawling. She knew that feeling.
Sorcery. Some sort of sorcery to turn aside steel had been laid upon those bracers.
Icaraeus turned in the saddle, face tight with anger, his eyes falling upon Caina.
“My lord!” shouted Tigrane, “we must go, they’ll be upon us at any moment!”
Icaraeus jerked the reins and slammed his heels into the horse. The beast galloped into the night, Tigrane close behind. Caina stared after them for a moment, and stooped to retrieve her throwing knife. The blade had been warped, almost as if it had been thrust into a forge and left to melt.
So the rumors had been true.
She shoved the ruined weapon into the satchel.
It was time to go. She doubted Icaraeus and his gang would return. But the fire would be visible for miles, and sooner or later someone would come to investigate. Caina had no wish to be found. Besides, she had come here to seize Icaraeus’s papers, and she had them.
Freeing the slaves had been a bonus.
One of Icaraeus’s men had taken her horse, so Caina walked into the night, her cloak blending with the darkness.