Cover image Copyright Nicholas Wave | iStockPhoto.com
Chapter 1 – Assassin
Caina Amalas spotted the assassin.
She stood among the crowds filling the Praetorian Basilica and watched Lord Corbould Maraeus give his speech. The Basilica was a vast stone hall, its vaulted roof rising five hundred feet overhead, elaborate balconies lining the walls. Corbould, a lean man in his middle fifties, stood upon the dais, tall and imposing in his black armor. Nobles and magistrates sat near the dais, and master merchants and magi sat behind them. Commoners packed the balconies, looking down upon the nobles, merchants, and magi.
Caina stood with them, disguised as a common serving girl. She wore a gray dress and a leather boots, and a curved dagger rested in a sheath at her belt, since no sensible man or woman went about unarmed. Yet an additional pair of daggers waited in her boots, and she wore throwing knives strapped to her forearms, hidden beneath her sleeves.
Watching the assassin move through the crowds of commoners, Caina knew she would need the extra weapons.
“My lords and ladies!” said Lord Corbould Maraeus, his voice booming through the Basilica. A magus stood near the dais, discreetly using a spell to amplify the speech, and Corbould’s voice thundered through the walls like the words of an angry god. “Brothers of the Magisterium! Masters of the collegia! Citizens of the Empire of Nighmar! I am Corbould, Lord of House Maraeus, and the Lord Governor of Marsis! I address you today, citizens of the Empire, to tell you that we have been betrayed. Treachery has been wielded against us, and our enemies move to strike us down!”
Corbould was more right than he knew.
Caina moved after the assassin, murmuring apologies as she pushed past the spectators.
The assassin looked like any other man. He had brown hair and brown eyes, and wore the simple clothing of a moderately successful shopkeeper. Yet the man was lean and fit for a shopkeeper, and moved with a quiet grace of a hunting cat.
Of a predator.
Caina knew an assassin of the Kindred when she saw one.
“Our Emperor,” said Corbould, “extended the hand of friendship to the Padishah of Istarinmul. The Padishah sent his cousin, the emir Rezir Shahan of the Vale of Fallen Stars, as his ambassador.”
For a moment Caina remembered Rezir Shahan lying on the floor of that burning warehouse, remembered the terror in his eyes as she killed him.
“I greeted Rezir Shahan as my guest!” shouted Corbould, making a fist. “And how did he repay the hospitality of our Emperor? With treachery and black betrayal! He smuggled soldiers into the city, attacked the innocent men and women of Marsis. He clapped women and children into chains, intending to sell free citizens of the Empire upon the block as slaves!”
A rumble of discontent went through the galleries, but not all the nobles and magi looked displeased. Slavery had been banned in most of the Empire for over a century, but not all the magi and the nobles thought this a good thing. Some of them wanted to restore slavery to the Empire.
The assassin reached the end of the balcony, spoke a few words to the black-armored Imperial Guard at the door, and vanished into the stairwell.
“To aid the treachery of the Istarish,” said Corbould, “the Kyracians came, sailing into the harbor of Marsis and betraying our treaty of peace. Truly, the city would have fallen, if not for the valor of Legionaries, the determination of the free men of Marsis, and the heroism of the Champion of Marsis.”
Caina strode for the stairs, and the Imperial Guard at the door lifted an armored hand.
“See, girl,” he said. “Where are you going during the Lord Governor’s address?”
Caina felt a stab of annoyance. The idiot Guard hadn’t even bothered to question the assassin. But she kept the irritation from her face.
“I am sorry, sir,” she said, in her most querulous voice, “but my time of the month is upon me, and I…”
The Guard jerked his head. “Go.”
The stairs spiraled down to the floor of the Basilica, but she saw no trace of the Kindred assassin. Had he disappeared? No. He had gone up. If he had come to assassinate Lord Corbould, he would make his way to the triforium, the highest balcony in the Basilica. A skilled archer would have a clear shot from there.
Caina looked up, glimpsed a shadow moving above her. And without a trace of sound – the Kindred were skilled in stealth.
But so was Caina.
She glanced over her shoulder, but the Imperial Guard had already forgotten her.
Caina slid a dagger from her boot and hurried up the stairs, her feet making no sound against the steps. Her mind worked as she hurried, the dagger ready in her right hand. The triforium was an obvious vantage point for any assassin, and a guard must have been posted…
Caina heard a faint gurgle, followed by the distant clank of metal hitting stone.
Like an armored man falling against the stairs.
Caina moved as fast as she dared.
She reached the top of the stairs and saw that the door to the triforium stood open. An Imperial Guard lay before the door, the front of his cuirass wet and gleaming.
Blood pooled beneath his helmet, leaking from his slit throat.
Caina hissed a curse and eased onto the triforium. The narrow balcony was dark and gloomy, the railing lined with thick pillars. Light shone from the clerestory windows overhead, but little of the light reached the triforium.
The shadows offered dozens of hiding places for a skillful assassin.
And the Kindred were nothing if not skillful.
“We have retaken Marsis, destroyed the Istarish invaders, and driven the Kyracians back to their ships,” said Corbould. “Yet they still threaten our Empire. The Kyracian warships ravage the seas, seizing our merchant ships. The Istarish emirs gather their hosts and march north to challenge our Legions, and if we do not stop them, they shall raise the banner of Istarinmul over Malarae itself!”
Caina slipped forward, gliding from shadow to shadow. The shadows of a pillar would make an ideal place of concealment. But which one? There were dozens.
“I call on you,” said Corbould, “to do your duty as citizens of the Empire! My fellow nobles! Serve diligently in your offices, and lend your wealth and support to your Emperor’s Legions. Merchants of the collegia! Sell your goods honestly, and do not cheat the tax collectors. Free men of the Empire! Enlist in the Legion, and teach the cringing slaves of Istarinmul how free men of the Empire fight!”
A cheer went up from the crowds. For a dreadful instant Caina expected the assassin to use the cover of the cheers to mask his arrow. But nothing happened. The Kindred were methodical assassins, and always planned to escape with their lives. So where…
The second set of stairs, at the other end of the triforium. The assassin would shoot Corbould and escape out the Basilica’s rear entrances. By the time the chaos from Lord Corbould’s murder subsided, the Kindred assassin would be on the other side of the city.
“Let us take up arms!” thundered Corbould. “Let us draw sword and raise spear! Our Empire shall chastise the Kyracians and drive the Istarish behind their walls! We shall show them what it means to make war upon the Empire of Nighmar!”
A cheer went up from the crowd filling the Basilica. Caina cursed and ran forward, hoping the cheering would mask her footfalls. If the assassin was going to shoot Lord Corbould, he would do it now, while the noise from the cheers would mask the sound of his bowstring…
And then Caina ran past a pillar and saw the assassin.
He knelt before the railing, a short black bow resting in his hands, the ends coming to sharp curves. It was a Kagari horse bow, capable of flinging an arrow with enough force to punch through steel plate. The assassin drew back the string, the bow creaking…
Caina lunged forward and cut the bowstring. The string snapped, one end drawing a line of blood across the assassin’s jaw. She reversed her dagger, hoping to land a stunning blow on the assassin. With luck, she could take him captive and discover who had hired the Kindred to kill Lord Corbould.
But the assassin whirled, throwing aside his bow and yanking a dagger from his belt. Caina jerked back, the tip of the dagger brushing against the front of her dress. Another half-inch and he would have opened her belly. He came at her, dagger flashing, and Caina backed away. She considered screaming – any Guards seeing the fight would see a man attacking a woman and come to her aid. But the assassin had already killed the nearest Imperial Guard, and Caina doubted she could scream loudly enough for anyone to hear her over the cheering crowd.
So she let her left heel pin the hem of her skirt. The cloth jerked against her legs, and she lost her balance and fell. The assassin grinned, leaving himself open as he raised his dagger to plunge into her chest.
But as she fell, Caina snatched a throwing knife from her sleeve and flung it. The blade buried itself in the assassin’s left thigh. The man stumbled to one knee with a cry of pain, and Caina rolled to the side as the point of his dagger scraped against the floor. Her boot came up and slammed against the handle of the throwing knife in his leg, and the Kindred assassin snarled in pain. Caina snatched her dagger and scrambled back to her feet, dodging a hasty slash from the assassin.
They faced each other, the cheers still ringing out from the floor of the Basilica.
“Who hired you?” said Caina. “Tell me and I’ll let you live.”
The Kindred assassin sneered. “Put down that dagger and run, or you’ll wish that I had killed you.”
“No,” said Caina.
The Kindred took a step forward. “You aren’t strong enough to kill me.”
Caina shrugged. “I only need wait until you bleed out from that knife in your leg. Or until the poison on the blade takes effect.”
The assassin glanced at the knife.
It only distracted him for a half a second, but it was long enough. Caina sprang forward, her dagger flashing. Her blade opened the assassin’s arm from wrist to elbow, and the man growled in pain, dagger falling from his hands. He lunged at her, hands reaching for her throat, and Caina slammed her dagger between his ribs. The assassin went rigid, teeth peeling back from his lips in a snarl.
“Damn it,” muttered Caina.
She had wanted to take the assassin alive.
The Kindred’s knees buckled, and the man collapsed to the floor. Caina wrenched her dagger and throwing knife free and cleaned them on the dead man’s clothes. She searched his pockets, but found nothing to indicate who had hired him.
The Kindred were not that foolish.
The cheering from the Basilica’s floor subsided. Caina returned her weapons to their hiding places and hurried from the triforium, leaving the assassin’s corpse behind.
She wondered what the Imperial Guard would think when they found it.
That night Caina returned to the workshops below the Grand Imperial Opera.
The Grand Imperial Opera was a massive edifice of gleaming white marble, topped with a dome that rose two hundred feet over the surrounding streets. The great theater held ten thousand people, and the nobles of the Empire (and wealthy commoners) came to hear the legends and histories of the Empire told in song.
The workshop beneath the stage was much less ornate.
Thick pillars supported the ceiling overhead, and a small army of stagehands hurried through the workshop, moving panels of scenery and working the elaborate maze of ropes and pulleys for scene changes. A loud song filtered through the boards overhead, and Caina recognized the chorus from the Romance of Soterius, an opera about the Emperor who had freed the slaves and ended the War of the Fourth Empire for the sake of the slave girl who had won his heart.
Though Caina doubted that Soterius’s motives had been quite that pure.
She threaded her way through the chaos and found a man sitting at a table in the corner, eating a slice of bread and resting his leg on a stool. He was in his early fifties, with iron-gray hair and arms like tree trunks. He wore the leather jerkin and rough clothes of a common caravan guard, but Caina knew that he was much more than that.
In fact, he was probably one of the four or five most dangerous and knowledgeable men in the Empire.
“Marina,” said Halfdan, speaking the alias Caina had chosen. “How was your visit to the Praetorian Basilica? I trust Lord Corbould gave a rousing speech.”
“He did,” said Caina, taking a piece of bread. She had not eaten since breakfast and was ravenous. “There was a keenly interested spectator, just as you predicted.”
Halfdan nodded. “What did the spectator think of the speech?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Caina. “He died before I could ask him.” She grimaced. “I wound up having to…deal with him.”
Halfdan nodded and got to his feet. “Come with me.”
He led her to one of the narrow rooms on the far wall. Sometimes the singers used the stone vaults as changing rooms, and sometimes the Ghosts hid corpses down here. Halfdan closed the door, listened for a moment, and then nodded.
“We can talk freely,” said Halfdan. “The assassin is dead?”
“Aye,” said Caina. “A Kindred assassin, and I caught him just before he put an arrow into Lord Corbould’s throat. I tried to take him alive, but I had to kill him.”
“Don’t fret about it,” said Halfdan. “The Kindred assassin families are far too well organized to let the man who does the killing know who actually paid for it.”
“But that’s the important question, isn’t it?” said Caina. “Who hired the Kindred to kill Lord Corbould?”
“A very good question,” said Halfdan. “You are clever, my dear. What is the answer?”
Caina sighed, leaned against the wall, and thought it over.
“The Kindred are not cheap,” said Caina, “so it would have to be a powerful lord, someone within the Magisterium, or a wealthy merchant. But most of the nobles support the war against Istarinmul and New Kyre. The Magisterium hates the stormsingers of New Kyre and the Alchemists in Istarinmul, so they would not turn against Corbould, even though he dislikes the magi. And why would the merchant collegia hire the Kindred to kill him? They’ll make a fortune feeding and clothing the Legions. Was it a personal grudge? Or…”
Her eyes widened.
“Cyrica,” she said.
“You understand,” said Halfdan.
“The Cyrican provinces are the only place in the Empire where slavery is still legal,” said Caina. “Part of the treaty that ended the War of the Fourth Empire. You told me that the Emperor is sending Lord Corbould to Cyrica, to make sure the Cyricans don’t revolt.”
“Very good,” said Halfdan. “What I didn’t tell you is that both the Istarish and the Kyracians sent embassies to Cyrica, asking the Cyricans to join them against the Empire.”
“And half the Cyrican nobles would, if given the chance,” said Caina. She felt her lip curl in contempt. “If the Cyricans swore to the Padishah or the Assembly of New Kyre, they wouldn’t need to worry about the Ghosts freeing their slaves.” She thought for a moment. “So Lord Governor Armizid Asurius paid the Kindred to kill Lord Corbould?”
“His father, more likely,” said Halfdan.
Caina frowned. “I thought Armizid was Lord Governor of Cyrica.”
“He is,” said Halfdan, “but only because his father doesn’t want to bother with the work of holding an actual magistracy. Lord Khosrau Asurius was once good friends with Haeron Icaraeus. After Haeron died in that incident with Maglarion, Khosrau Asurius has gained most of Haeron’s old supporters. Khosrau also owns half the land in Cyrica, and the Cyrican nobles respect him. If he wants to leave the Empire, they will follow. Lord Corbould is paying a visit to Lord Governor Armizid…but the real negotiations will take place when Corbould talks to Khosrau.”
“And if Khosrau assassinates Corbould during the negotiations,” said Caina, “then the Emperor will blame him, and the Cyrican nobles will have no choice but to join Istarinmul.”
“You grasp the problem,” said Halfdan. “The war is a stalemate right now. Our fleet cannot stand against the Kyracians, but the Istarish cannot defeat the Legions. If the Cyricans join the enemies of the Empire, that situation could change rather quickly.”
“And you are telling me this,” said Caina, “because you want me to do something about it.”
“Aye,” said Halfdan. “Lord Corbould is leaving Malarae for Cyrica Urbana in a week. I would like you to accompany him.”
Caina nodded. “How should I disguise myself? As Countess Marianna Nereide?”
“No,” said Halfdan. “Unmarried young noblewomen go on tours of the Empire…but they rarely visit the Shining City of Cyrica. No, you will disguise yourself as Marina, the maid of the leading lady of the Grand Imperial Opera.”
Caina blinked. “Theodosia is going to Cyrica?”
“So she is,” said Halfdan. “To prove his hospitality, Lord Khosrau will hold a series of celebrations and festivals in Corbould’s honor. And to show his own generosity, Lord Corbould will bring the finest entertainments from the Imperial capital at his own expense. Chariot-racing teams from the Imperial Hippodrome, for one. And the Cyrican nobles are mad for Nighmarian opera, so Lord Corbould will also pay to bring the Grand Imperial Opera to the Shining City.”
“And our task,” said Caina, “will be to keep Lord Corbould alive.”
Halfdan nodded. “Corbould Maraeus is arrogant, rigid, and utterly inflexible. Yet he is the most powerful lord in the Empire and a strong supporter of the Emperor. And if anyone can convince Lord Khosrau to stay with the Empire, Lord Corbould can. Yet if he is assassinated, it will be an utter disaster…and Cyrica will break away from the Empire.”
“Then,” said Caina, “we shall have to make certain that Lord Corbould is not assassinated.”
“Aye,” said Halfdan. ” I also want you to find who paid for his death. The Kindred do not come cheap, and someone with a great deal of money paid for Corbould to die.” His voice dropped. “And if you find the man who hired the Kindred, Theodosia will pass word to the Ghost circle in Cyrioch…and he will never be seen again.”
Caina gave a slow nod.
The Ghosts of the Empire, the eyes and ears of the Emperor, were not above assassinating treasonous nobles and magistrates. With Theodosia, Caina had helped bring about the downfall of Lord Macrinius, who had kidnapped people to sell as slaves. She had killed Anastius Nicephorus, the Lord Governor of Rasadda, whose greed and corruption had almost driven the Saddai to revolt. She had helped kill Agria Palaegus, who had plotted with Jadriga to free the imprisoned demons below Black Angel Tower…
Caina closed her eyes.
So much death.
That assassin in the Praetorian Basilica. She hadn’t meant to kill him, but she had, and she had killed him without the slightest flicker of hesitation or regret. True, he would have murdered Lord Corbould. But once she would have regretted his death.
Now she felt nothing at all.
How hard and cold she had become.
“Caina?” said Halfdan, his rough voice gentle. “Is anything amiss?”
“No,” said Caina, opening her eyes. “I’m fine.”