CHAPTER 1 – THE CALM
Caina saw the dead sorceress standing in the center of the room.
The woman was beautiful, radiant. She looked like a maiden of eighteen years, with long black hair and red lips. But that was only an illusion. She was the Moroaica, a sorceress of legend and terror, and her black eyes were ancient and cold with dark knowledge.
And Caina had seen her die.
The Moroaica stirred, those ancient eyes falling upon Caina.
“No,” said Caina. “You’re dead. I killed you myself. I saw you die.”
The woman who had called herself Jadriga smiled. “Did you?”
“I saw you die,” said Caina, reaching for the dagger at her belt, “but if by some trick you have returned, then I will slay you again!”
The smile on Jadriga’s red lips widened.
“Child,” she said. “You should prepare yourself for what comes.”
The world dissolved into blackness.
Caina awoke with a sharp gasp, dawn sunlight filling her eyes.
She sat up, yanking a dagger from beneath her pillow, and looked around. Her room at Zorgi’s Inn looked just as it had last night – the same soft bed, the same windows with a fine view of the ships filling Marsis’s harbor. Caina looked back and forth, expecting to see Jadriga in the corner.
But Caina was alone.
A dream. It had been nothing more than a nightmare. Jadriga had been dead for two weeks, killed by the dark forces she sought to conjure below Black Angel Tower.
Just a dream. Yet the uneasy feeling lingered. Dreams were the scars of the mind, Halfdan always said. And perhaps Jadriga had left more of a scar than Caina had thought.
Caina pushed aside the blankets, rose, and began to stretch, her limbs moving through the exercises Akragas had taught her at the Vineyard years ago. She looped a rope to the beams of the ceiling and pulled herself up by the strength of her arms, over and over again. She stood balanced on her right leg, left foot raised to her jaw.
Then the unarmed forms. High punch, middle block, leg sweep, backward throw, all the moves she had practiced over and over again until they were imprinted upon her very muscles. When she finished, sweat soaked her shift, and her arms trembled just a bit, and she felt much better.
Work was the only cure for dark feelings.
Caina bathed, washing the sweat from her skin and black hair, and put on a green dress with black trim on the sleeves and hem. A curved dagger went in a sheath at her belt. Most of the women of Marsis wore a dagger, but Caina also hid a pair of daggers in her boots and strapped a set of throwing knives to her forearms.
She would have felt naked without the weapons.
After she dressed, Caina went to the common room for breakfast.
Zorgi’s Inn overlooked the Plaza of the Tower, the richest district of Marsis, and wealthy merchants and minor nobles preferred to stay at his inn when visiting the city. The common room had hearths crackling at either end, and guests broke their fast at long tables, while maids in livery brought out trays of food from the kitchen.
A stout Szaldic man in his middle forties hurried over to Caina, smiling beneath an enormous bushy mustache. He smiled a lot, but when Caina had first met him, the smile never reached his eyes. But since his son had returned with the other slaves from the dungeons below Black Angel Tower, a new vigor had appeared in his step.
And he would never know that Caina was the one responsible.
“Anna Callenius!” boomed Zorgi, bowing over Caina’s hand and planting a kiss upon it. “It is good you have awakened. Our humble inn is all the brighter for your beauty.”
Caina let herself smile. “Anna Callenius”, her disguise in Marsis, was a flighty merchant’s daughter. Anna appreciated compliments. Besides, Caina liked Zorgi.
“How could I stay away?” said Caina. “All of Marsis knows the splendor of your table, Master Zorgi.”
“Ah,” said Zorgi, taking her arm and steering her across the room, “your compliments bring to a tear to the eye of this weary old man.”
“I have seen many tears in your eyes,” said Caina in a quiet voice, “since your son returned.”
Zorgi’s face softened further. “Aye. Did I tell you? The Balarigar himself brought my son here, after he slew the dread Moroaica and freed the slaves.”
Caina kept her expression still. The Balarigar. The Demonslayer, in the Szaldic tongue. The freed slaves had given that name to the masked and hooded figure that defeated Jadriga, little dreaming that the Balarigar was in fact a woman.
That Caina was a nightfighter of the Ghosts.
“But enough of such talk!” said Zorgi. “Your father awaits you. Perhaps he has found you a rich husband, eh?”
He led Caina to a table in the corner. Two men, a woman, and a boy sat there. One of the men was in his fifties, and wore the cap and furred robe of a prosperous merchant, his craggy face shaded with a gray beard. The second man was in his forties, with balding, close-crapped hair and the hard look of a former Legionary. His left hand rested atop the woman’s right. She was no older than twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and looked a great deal like Caina, though taller.
The boy had the Legionary’s gray eyes and the woman’s black hair.
“Ah, daughter,” said Halfdan, adjusting the sleeve of his robe. “You’ve joined us. Thank you, Zorgi.”
“My pleasure, Master Basil,” said Zorgi, using Halfdan’s false name. Just as he did not know that Caina was a Ghost nightfighter, he did not know “Basil Callenius” was a circlemaster of the Ghosts, the Emperor’s spies and assassins. “I shall have tea brought for her at once.”
He bustled off, and Caina sat.
“Still drinking tea, daughter?” said Halfdan, his gravelly voice amused. He spoke with a Nighmarian accent, though like Caina, he knew how to change his voice and accent as needed. “You’ll never pass as a merchant’s spoiled daughter. Spoiled daughters prefer to have mixed wine with breakfast.”
Caina lifted an eyebrow. “Perhaps I’m hung over.”
The former Legionary snorted. “You? Doubtful.” Unlike Zorgi, Ark had a hard, unsmiling face, with cold eyes the color of steel.
Yet some of the hardness had vanished from his face since Caina had brought his wife and son out of the darkness below Black Angel Tower.
“You’ve never been hung over,” said Ark, “since you would never let yourself lose control enough to get drunk.”
“Or I simply do not care for the taste of wine,” said Caina.
“She may drink,” said Tanya, Ark’s wife, “whatever she wishes to drink. And I will bring it to her myself.”
“I like tea,” announced the boy, with all the solemnity a six-year-old could manage.
Ark snorted. “Wait until you’re twelve, Nicolai, and you can have ale.”
“Fourteen,” said Tanya.
Caina grinned, and this time it was not feigned. She would never have a husband and children. Not after what Maglarion and her mother had done to her. Yet it pleased her to see Ark and Tanya happy together. She had seen the despair in Ark’s eyes as he spoke of his lost wife and son, the horror on Tanya’s face as she described Jadriga’s plans for Nicolai.
It pleased Caina very much to see them happy.
“Will we depart soon, Father?” said Caina. “I had thought we would have left by now. You have pressing business in the Imperial capital.”
“Soon,” said Halfdan, taking a bite of cheese and swallowing. “After we attend to a small business matter here.”
Caina frowned. “Business?”
“I want to see the ships,” said Nicolai.
They all looked at him.
“Ships?” said Caina. “There are hundreds of ships in the harbor.”
“But these are special ships,” said Nicolai. “Master Basil said so, when he was talking to Father. I want to see them.”
“An embassy,” said Halfdan. “The Padishah of Istarinmul is sending a new ambassador to our Emperor. A noble named Rezir Shahan, an emir from the Vale of Fallen Stars. He and his entourage are traveling to Malarae to present their gifts to the Emperor, but first he will stop to pay his respects to the Lord Governor of Marsis. He is due to arrive this morning.”
“I do not,” said Tanya, voice quiet, “care for the Istarish.” Little wonder. Most of the slavers in the Moroaica’s and Lord Naelon Icaraeus’s service had been Istarish.
“The are an unpleasant folk,” said Halfdan, cutting himself another slice of cheese. “The Istarish slavers’ brotherhood dominates the Cyrican sea, selling slaves in the markets of New Kyre and Cyrica and the free cities. But war between the Empire and Istarinmul would profit no one, and both the Emperor and the Padishah know this. So Rezir Shahan comes to present himself to the Emperor as Lord Ambassador.”
“Rezir Shahan,” said Caina, frowning. “I’m sure I’ve heard that name before.”
“I want to see the special ships,” said Nicolai.
“Perhaps later,” said Tanya. “Soon we will go to Malarae with Master Basil. Then you will travel upon a ship.”
“I’ve never seen a ship,” said Nicolai. “Mother would read about them in the Moroaica’s books. But I’ve never seen a real ship.”
A shiver of agony went over Tanya’s expression, and she looked from Nicolai to Ark and back again. It was not hard for Caina to decipher that glance.
Tanya wanted Nicolai to have a younger brother or sister.
“I’ll take Nicolai to see the ships,” said Caina.
Tanya blinked. “You will?”
“A walk would do me good,” said Caina. “And Nicolai does want to see the harbor.”
“And I suspect Rezir Shahan’s entry into the city will be quite splendid,” said Halfdan. “The Istarish do love their pomp and ceremony.”
Ark snorted. “So does Lord Governor Corbould, to hear Hiram speak of him.”
“It will be no trouble,” said Caina. “And you’d prefer some peace and quiet for a morning, no doubt.”
“A good idea,” said Halfdan. “Come, daughter. Walk with me a moment. I have an errand you can do while you’re out and about.”
Caina frowned, but followed Halfdan as he strolled to the hearth.
“It’s warmer here,” said Halfdan. “And we are less likely to be overheard.”
“What errand did you have in mind?” said Caina.
“I want you to take a look at Rezir Shahan,” said Halfdan.
“That’s it?” said Caina. “Just look at him?”
“Just look at him,” said Halfdan. “Our lord emir is not a good man. He ranks high among the slavers’ brotherhood, and has many friends in Istarinmul’s College of Alchemists. He…”
Caina blinked. “That’s why I remember his name. I saw him in Lord Haeron’s ledgers.”
“Aye,” said Halfdan. “Rezir sold slaves to Haeron Icaraeus, and bought slaves from Naelon Icaraeus. You remember those slavers we killed in the Vytaagi swamps? Those were Rezir’s men. He is a powerful man in Istarinmul, and a cousin of the Padishah. So I wonder…”
“Why he would serve as an ambassador,” said Caina.
Halfdan nodded. “He is up to something, I’m sure of it. Some plan, some stratagem. Else he would not have become the ambassador. Whether his plot is aimed at the Empire, or some enemy within Istarinmul, I know not. But I intend to find out.”
Caina frowned. “If there’s any danger, I should go alone, and leave Nicolai here.”
“No, there’s no danger,” said Halfdan. “Rezir will have an honor guard of three hundred men with him. Not enough to make serious trouble. Lord Governor Corbould will meet him in the Great Market with his own honor guard, and they’ll process to the Citadel. Crowds of commoners always gather to watch the pomp and pageantry of these ceremonies. No one will notice one woman and a small boy. You have a knack, my dear, for observation. So I’d like to see what you can observe about our new ambassador. Then you can walk to the harbor and let Nicolai see the ships.” He snorted. “Though the boy will likely take it into his head that he wants to be a sailor, and break his poor mother’s heart.”
Caina shrugged. “Why not? He spent most of his life locked away. Perhaps he wants to see the world.”
“For now,” said Halfdan, “you can take him to see the ships, while you look at Rezir Shahan.”
“It will be done,” said Caina.
She crossed back to the table and sat across from Nicolai.
“You want to see a real ship?” said Caina.
Nicolai nodded, wide-eyed.
Caina smiled. “Well, if your mother will allow it, I think I will take you to see a dozen ships.”
Ark smiled. “He could use a holiday.”
“And I think his mother and father could use some time to themselves,” said Caina.
A touch of color appeared in Tanya’s cheeks.
“All right,” said Tanya. “Just be back by sundown.”
“I will,” said Caina.
She rose, as did Nicolai, a wide smile on his face, but Tanya started to reach for him.
“You’re not sure about this, are you?” said Ark.
Nicolai turned an imploring look toward his mother.
“No. You can go,” said Tanya. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “And if the Balarigar cannot keep you safe, then who can?”
An hour later, Caina walked hand in hand with Nicolai along the Avenue of Governors, the main street connecting the Plaza of the Tower to the Great Market. Traffic flowed around them. Ox-drawn carts carried goods to the shops and merchants of the Plaza of the Tower. Hawkers cried out from the booths and workshops lining the street, selling their wares. Women hurried back and forth, carrying jars of water from Marsis’s public aqueducts. Gulls wheeled overhead in the blue sky, and the air smelled of sweat and smoke and horse dung and salt.
It was a beautiful day.
Nicolai looked at everything. This was all new to him. He had been raised by his mother in the dungeons below Black Angel Tower, his death intended to fuel Jadriga’s monstrous sorcery. Caina looked at the dark shape of Black Angel Tower, rising from the Citadel atop its crag, and her mouth tightened into a hard line. Well, Jadriga was dead, and Nicolai would live…
Nicolai looked up at her, concerned.
“Nothing,” said Caina.
“You were frowning,” said Nicolai.
“Well, I was upset,” said Caina.
“Did I do something wrong?” said Nicolai.
“I was upset,” said Caina, “because I haven’t gotten you a piece of candy yet.” That wiped the concern from Nicolai’s face. “But don’t tell your mother.”
They stopped at a confectioner’s shop, not far from the Plaza of the Tower, and Caina bought a pair of hard candies. They were expensive, but Caina had the coin. Sweeter than she would have liked, but Caina preferred simpler food.
Nicolai devoured his.
“Can I have another?” said Nicolai as they returned to the Avenue of Governors.
“No,” said Caina, “you’ll rot your teeth.”
“And Mother won’t really get mad at you,” said Nicolai.
“Oh? Why is that?”
“Because she says you are the Balarigar and you kept the Moroaica from hurting me,” said Nicolai. “And Father says you are very clever and you stopped a bad man from burning thousands of people.”
“You shouldn’t say such things,” said Caina.
“Why not?” said Nicolai. “They’re true, aren’t they?”
They were. But Caina did not like this “Balarigar” business, this legend that had grown in the retelling. She was no demonslayer, only a woman of flesh and blood. Her victories had been such near things. Maglarion could have thrown her from that tower, rather than trying to kill her with plagueblood. Kalastus could have burned her to ashes. And if Jadriga could have twisted Caina into a monster.
“Because,” said Caina at last. She picked up Nicolai and whispered into his ear. “Because the Ghosts have to stay secret, so we can do good. Can you help keep my secret?”
Nicolai smiled. “I’ll keep your secret.” He hesitated. “Since I’m keeping your secret, can I have another candy?”
Caina rolled her eyes. “Maybe on the way back.”
Crowds packed the Great Market.
Of course, the Great Market was always packed. The wealthy merchants and high nobles preferred to buy their goods from the shops of the Plaza of the Tower. But the commoners of Marsis shopped at the Great Market. Booths and stalls filled the vast square, and warehouses lined the nearby streets. Marsis was the Empire’s chief port on the western sea, and items from half the civilized world found their way to the Great Market.
But today, it was packed for a different reason.
A century of Legionaries waited in the center of the Market, grim and solemn in plate armor and crimson cloaks. The banners of the Empire and House Maraeus flapped overhead. Corbould Maraeus, the Lord Governor of Marsis, sat upon his horse before the Legionaries, clad in black ceremonial armor. He was in his later fifties, lean and fit, with the arrogant expression of a lord of high Nighmarian birth.
“Who’s that?” said Nicolai.
“The Lord Governor,” said Caina. A ring of Legionaries kept the crowds at bay. She heard the roll of distant drums, and saw a mass of horsemen entering the Market.
“I want to see the ships,” said Nicolai.
Caina looked around. The Legionaries had closed off the street to the docks, and crowds of people choked the Great Market. Yet many of the merchant booths and stalls had been closed for the day. And some of the booths had roofs of sturdy wood.
“Here,” said Caina, crossing to the nearest booth. She climbed upon a barrel, lifted Nicolai to the roof, and then pulled herself up after him. A few nearby men gawked at her, but most copied her idea and climbed onto booths themselves. From here Nicolai could see the ships, until she took him to the docks for a closer look.
And from here Caina could take a good look at Rezir Shahan.
“Are those the ships?” said Nicolai, peering at the forest of masts that filled the harbor.
“Aye,” said Caina, watching the horsemen enter the Great Market. They moved at a slow, steady pace, drummers beating out a solemn rhythm. Banners of crimson silk floated overhead, adorned with the sword-and-crown sigil of the Padishah of Istarinmul. Most of the horsemen wore elaborate coats of black chain mail and black cuirasses, faces hidden beneath helms wrought in the shape of human skulls. Curved swords and whips made of coiled chains hung from their belts.
“Who are they?” said Nicolai.
“Immortals,” said Caina. “The bodyguards of the Padishah.” Istarinmul’s College of Alchemists fed the Immortals a steady diet of sorcerous elixirs, granting them superhuman strength and speed, though the elixirs tended to induce homicidal insanity after a few years of regular use. Yet the Immortals were among the finest soldiers in the world. With them came regular Istarish soldiers, infantry armed with spears and scimitars, clad in shirts of steel scales and spiked steel helmets.
Rezir Shahan himself rode at their head.
He was a in his middle thirties, clad in ornate gilded armor, the purple cloak flowing from his shoulders a marked contrast to his bronze-skinned face. His horse was a huge, ill-tempered stallion, yet he handled it with easy skill. As he drew closer, Caina saw that he was dark-haired, the line of his jaw shaded with a close-cropped beard.
He looked…cold. His expression, as he looked over the assembled crowds, was contemptuous. Caina suspected he was the sort of man who had no qualms about kidnapping women and children and selling them in chains far from their homes. Like the sort of man who had sold Jadriga her victims.
“He looks like a bad man,” said Nicolai.
Caina opened her mouth to answer, and her skin began to crawl.
She frowned in alarm and looked around. She had only been a child of eleven when her father had been murdered with sorcery, when Maglarion had scarred her body and soul with his necromancy. In the nine years since then, that scarring had permitted her to sense presence of arcane forces.
And right now she sensed the presence of nearby sorcery.
She looked around, trying to find the source. A short man in a black robe stood near Lord Corbould’s horse, his gut spilling over his purple sash. She knew of the man – Quintus Tolius, master magus and preceptor of the Magisterium’s Marsis chapter. Yet he remained motionless, his expression bored. He was not casting a spell.
The tingling grew sharper, and Caina realized it came from Rezir himself.
A wind picked up from the harbor, tugging at her hair and skirts.
She squinted at Rezir, wondering if he had a hidden arcane talent. Then she saw the black ring upon the third finger of his right hand. A massive green crystal rested in the black band, and from a distance it looked like an emerald. But Caina knew that crystal was no gem.
It was a bloodcrystal, a product of necromantic science. And as Rezir rode past her booth, she felt the queasy, clenching sensation that indicated the presence of necromantic sorcery.
Where had Rezir gotten such a thing? He had sold slaves to Haeron Icaraeus. Perhaps Maglarion had fashioned it.
Caina wondered what the ring did.
The horsemen reined up, and a blast of trumpets rang out. One of the Istarish soldiers spurred forward, a banner streaming from a lance in his right hand.
“Behold!” he boomed. “He comes! He who is the Emir of the Vale of Fallen Stars! He who is Captain of the Southern Towers! He who is Lord Ambassador to the Empire of Nighmar, and high in the favor of the Most Divine Padishah! Rezir Shahan comes!”
Rezir walked his stallion forward, flanked by four of the Immortals in their black skull helms. A fifth horseman followed, a small man slumped in the saddle. He wore simple clothes, leather and wool, and a pair of daggers rested in his belt. A hooded cloak hid his face, yet even from this distance, Caina glimpsed hideous scarring across his jaw and mouth.
For a moment he looked right at her, and then his gaze swept over the crowd.
The wind grew sharper, the banners snapping.
Lord Corbould rode forward, surrounded by a pair of Legionaries, the master magus Tolius, and a throng of Marsis’s prominent nobles and merchants. One of the minor nobles stepped forward, carrying a banner, and began to shout.
“You stand in the presence of Corbould, Lord of House Maraeus, Lord Governor of Marsis, and cousin to the Emperor.”
Rezir did not answer, and neither did his herald.
The wind picked up, the gusts striking with enough force that Caina had to take a step back to keep her balance, skirts billowing around her legs.
Corbould frowned at his own herald.
The minor noble cleared his throat. “Lord Corbould invites the Lord Ambassador to come forward, that he might lodge as a guest of the Emperor of Nighmar in the Citadel.”
Still Rezir and his men did not move.
Caina frowned. There was something wrong here, she…
“Look at the ships!” said Nicolai.
Caina turned, and felt her eyes grow wide.
She saw a fleet sailing into the harbor, their sails filled with the sharp wind. But these vessels were neither merchant ships nor warships of the Empire. They were long and narrow, with raked banks of sails. They cut through the water with smooth grace, and their sleek lines made them look like hunting predators.
Kyracian ships, from the city-state of New Kyre, the chief maritime power of the western sea. The Empire and New Kyre had fought many wars over the years, but for a Kyracian fleet to sail so boldly into the harbor of Marsis…
Gods, there were hundreds of them.
One of the nobles grabbed Lord Corbould’s arm and pointed.
And as he did, Rezir Shahan drew his sword. The Immortals and Istarish soldiers followed suit, and a ripple of panic went through the gathered crowds.
“What’s happening?” said Nicolai as the sound of chaos rose around them.
“I don’t know,” said Caina. This was madness. Rezir was in the heart of one of the Empire’s chief cities. Surely he couldn’t think to cut down Lord Corbould and his officers, not here…
As one, the doors to most of the warehouses ringing the Great Market burst open.
And Istarish soldiers, hundreds of them, flooded into the Market.
Caina looked from them, to the Kyracian fleet sailing into the harbor, and back to the soldiers.
This wasn’t a parley.
This wasn’t even an assassination.
This was an invasion.