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CHAPTER 1 – A MASK OF JADE
“Then,” said Caina Amalas, her voice hoarse, heart hammering against her ribs, “then I think you had better do that again.”
Corvalis Aberon looked down at her, hands resting upon her arms. He was a tall man, handsome in an austere sort of way, with a hard face and eyes like cold emerald disks.
He put his arms around her, pulled her close, and kissed her long and hard upon the lips. She reached up and took his face in her hands, her fingers sliding along his jaw and neck. Her heartbeat sounded like a drum in her ears, a slow warmth spreading through her chest and into her arms as she leaned into him.
Corvalis stumbled, lost his balance, and fell against the wall of the sitting room with a thump. The breath exploded from his lungs and into Caina’s mouth with a startled exhalation.
She laughed in surprise, and he did, too.
“Gods,” said Corvalis. “I haven’t done that in a while.”
“Nor I,” said Caina. “I wasn’t…I wasn’t expecting that.”
It had been a long time since someone had touched her. Her head almost spun with the sensation.
“No,” murmured Corvalis, one hand rising to brush her cheek.
“I thought,” said Caina, “I thought you were going to leave with Claudia.”
“So did I,” said Corvalis. “But I found I could not. Caina…I have never known a woman like you.” He shook his head, a brief expression of wonder flickering over his face. “I thought you a spy with veins of ice. Yet you put yourself at terrible risk to save Claudia and all of Cyrioch.”
“And I thought you a Kindred assassin,” said Caina. “A killer without a conscience. But I saw what you did to save your sister. You are a better man than I thought.”
Corvalis barked a harsh laugh. “Perhaps, but I am not a very good man. I…”
“You do have one flaw,” said Caina.
“Oh?” said Corvalis.
“You’re talking too much,” said Caina. “Kiss me.”
After a long moment they broke apart, breathing hard, a tremor of excitement going through Caina’s hands.
“Come with me,” said Corvalis.
“Here?” said Caina. “Theodosia will be shocked when she returns.”
“I have my own room at the Inn of the Defender,” said Corvalis. “Away from the others. No one will disturb us.”
Caina smiled, the warmth spreading through her…but the cold part of her mind, the part the Ghosts had trained, did not remain still.
It pointed out the many ways this was a terrible idea. She was a nightfighter of the Ghosts, a spy and an agent of the Emperor of Nighmar. He was a former assassin of the Kindred, and had only recently left them. And though she and Corvalis had gone through great danger together, had faced powerful foes side-by-side, she did not know him very well. Perhaps he had been planning to seduce her from the beginning, had been hoping to infiltrate the Ghosts…
She had seen what kind of man he was, how he had risked himself again and again to save Claudia.
And Caina was so tired of death, of killing, of fighting.
She wanted this.
Corvalis’s expression did not change, but the cold shield fell back over his green eyes. She had hesitated too long. He had trained in the brutal regimen of the Kindred families since childhood…and every one of his instincts must have screamed against making himself vulnerable to her.
He would step away, make a polite excuse, and then leave.
“Corvalis,” said Caina, and she kissed him again. “Lead the way.”
His room was nicer than she had expected.
It occupied the Inn of the Defender’s second floor, its narrow windows overlooking the alley behind the Inn. Yet the carpet was thick beneath Caina’s boots, and the room boasted a bed, a pair of chairs, and a gleaming wooden table. Corvalis’s weapons and supplies rested in neat order upon the table, no doubt fetched from his rooms in Cyrioch’s Seatown slums.
The bed was large enough for both of them.
The next morning Caina blinked awake.
Only a faint glimmer of dawn sunlight came through the shutters. For a moment Caina could not remember where she was.
Then she heard Corvalis’s slow, steady breathing, felt his warmth against her, and remembered.
For a moment she lay motionless, simply enjoying the sensation. She often woke up alone in the dark, the final threads of a nightmare dancing through her head. She had so many nightmares. Gods knew she had seen and experienced enough horrors to fuel them.
This was much nicer.
After a moment she stood up, her bare feet making no sound against the thick carpet, the blankets sliding over her skin.
She needed to clear her head, and working through the unarmed forms would do the trick.
Her arms and legs moved through the motions she had learned as a child in the Vineyard. Kicks and punches, blocks and holds. A high leg sweep, a middle block, and a low kick. She went through the forms over and over again, the motions imprinted upon her very muscles. Time and time again the knowledge and skill had saved her life. She practiced until her breath came hard and fast, a sheen of sweat beading her forehead.
She turned, balanced upon one leg, and saw Corvalis watching her from the bed.
Belatedly, Caina remembered she wore nothing but a golden signet ring on a leather cord around her neck.
“I didn’t realize,” said Caina, lowering her leg, “that I was putting on a show for you.”
Corvalis smiled and stood. “I am not vain enough to think it was for my benefit…though I enjoyed it nonetheless.” The swirling black lines of his tattoos marked the muscles of his arms and chest. Those tattoos, inked by an Ulkaari witchfinder, gave him a measure of resistance against sorcery. “A fighter needs to practice to remain sharp. That I happened to enjoy watching you practice…well, I shall not complain.”
He put his hands upon her shoulders and kissed her.
They regarded in each other in silence.
“I thought,” said Corvalis at last, “that I might awaken to find that you had slipped away.”
“If that was my plan,” said Caina, “then I made a botch of it by practicing the unarmed forms in front of your bed for an hour.”
A brief smile went over his face. “True.”
“But why did you think I would slip away?” said Caina.
“I don’t know,” said Corvalis. “You could win the eye of a wealthy lord or a noble easily enough…”
“No,” murmured Caina. “I am not…I do not do things casually, Corvalis. At least not this.”
“Nor I,” said Corvalis.
“I thought you might,” said Caina, her fingers wandering over his chest. “I know how the Kindred assassins live. How they are rewarded with gold and slaves to…use as they wish.”
“Aye,” said Corvalis. “When I was a new assassin of the Kindred.” His eyes grew distant. “But I stopped. My father thought it made me weaker, you see, so…once he arranged for one of the slave women to kill me. As a test. After that, it became…difficult to lower my guard.”
“Oh, Corvalis,” said Caina, touching his cheek.
He blinked, once, and then shrugged. “That is in the past.” His eyes strayed to the scars below her navel. “And I am not the only one to have known pain, am I?”
“No,” said Caina.
“I do not know what the future holds,” said Corvalis. “No man does. But…this is not an idle dalliance. Not for me.”
“Or me,” said Caina.
Again they fell silent, and then she laughed.
“Did you really think I would want to lure a lord of the Empire to my bed?” said Caina. She grinned at him. “Have you seen most of the lords of the Empire?” She ran her hands over his chest and stomach. “I would much rather have you in my bed.”
He grinned back. “Prove it.”
After, Caina stretched against the bed. She felt tired, but it was a pleasant sort of exhaustion.
“I,” she said, “am ravenous.”
“As am I,” said Corvalis. He barked his short, harsh laugh. “You have a gift for wearing a man out.”
“Good,” said Caina. “We can get breakfast in the common room.” She sighed. “Though I suppose we’ll have to explain things to Theodosia and your sister.”
Corvalis shrugged. “Why? It’s not as if they need to know.”
“No,” said Caina, “but neither one of them are idiots. They’ll figure it out.”
Corvalis nodded. “Or we could slip away for the morning.”
“Wouldn’t that be transparently obvious?” said Caina.
“Not if we tell the truth,” said Corvalis. “We’ll simply say we went to see the mood of the city after the earthquakes and the death of the Lord Governor.” Caina remembered the golden light flaring at the heart of the Well, remembered the master magus Ranarius screaming as his enslaved earth elemental turned upon him. “It will be pure coincidence that we’ll walk past the man who sells the best sausage rolls in the city.”
Caina laughed. “Indeed.”
“I’ll leave a note for Claudia and Theodosia,” said Corvalis. “After one of Lord Khosrau’s dinners, they’ll likely sleep until noon anyway.”
He pulled on his clothes and left as Caina dressed herself. A mirror stood on the table, and she examined herself. Her black hair was a mess, and she needed a bath, but she looked like any other commoner walking the streets of Cyrioch. Dark circles ringed her blue eyes. The last few days had been exhausting…and she hadn’t gotten very much sleep last night.
Her reflection smiled back at her.
She strapped throwing knives to her forearms beneath her sleeves, checked the daggers in her boots, and tied a blue headcloth over her hair, lest the Cyricans take offense. Corvalis returned, turned her from the mirror, and kissed her.
“They’re both asleep,” said Corvalis. “Shall we?”
Caina nodded and took a rope and grapnel from the tablet. “Out the window?”
“Why?” said Corvalis.
“So we can slip away unnoticed,” said Caina. She lifted an eyebrow. “Unless you think you can’t keep up?”
They walked through the Plaza of the Defender, Caina’s arm resting in Corvalis’s. The morning sun reflected off the whitewashed walls of the shops, and crowds hurried through the Plaza, men going about their business, women visiting the shops, slaves in orange attending to their masters. The sight of the slaves angered Caina. With Lord Governor Armizid Asurius’s plot defeated, Cyrica would remain in the Empire, yet Cyrioch’s slaves would remain in their chains.
Still, it was pleasant to walk arm-in-arm with Corvalis through the crowds.
“Fisherman,” said Caina, looking at a man in salt-stained clothing.
Corvalis snorted. “A guess. He could be a porter or a shipwright.” He wore chain mail and leather, and looked like a caravan guard or perhaps a mercenary soldier.
“Neither,” said Caina. “He walks like a sailor. A porter or a shipwright would be at work this time of day.”
“So would a fisherman at this hour,” said Corvalis. “They wouldn’t have yet come in with the catch.”
“They wouldn’t have,” said Caina, “because the tides are wrong for fishing at this time of the month. The fishermen won’t put out for another day. That fellow has the day off, and he’s on his way to the Ring of Valor or the hippodrome to enjoy the games.”
Corvalis opened his mouth to argue…and then the man in the salt-stained clothing turned in the direction of the Ring of Valor, revealing the sheathed scaling knife at his belt.
“Very clever,” said Corvalis with a laugh. “How about that slave?” He looked at a stout middle-aged man in a slave’s orange robe hurrying across the plaza.
“A seneschal,” said Caina. “Probably for a wealthy merchant. He doesn’t belong to a noble house, since his robe has no sigil. And he’s a seneschal, since he’s too fat to have done manual labor for years. He’s going to one of the shops to…yes, complain about a late order. You see that paper under his arm? That’s the invoice. His master made an order and it hasn’t been fulfilled. So his master sent the seneschal to sort it out.”
“Perhaps he’s simply going to pick up his master’s order,” said Corvalis.
“No,” said Caina. “See how he gets angrier the closer he gets to that jewelers’ shop? He’s going to throw a fit. Slaves don’t get to show anger often, and I think the poor man is going to enjoy having a fit of righteous indignation on his master’s behalf.”
Corvalis shook his head. “You have a mind like a razor. To think I once thought to keep my business in Cyrioch secret from you.” He squeezed her hand. “Just as well that I failed.”
Caina smiled, and they kept walking.
He led them to a deserted side street lined with less prosperous shops, and stopped at a wooden cart. A brazier topped with a metal grill stood atop the cart, its interior filled with smoldering coals. An old man puttered at the grill, humming to himself as he arranged sausages. Corvalis cleared his throat, and the old man looked up with a smile.
“Ah, young master!” said the old man in Cyrican. “It is good to see you again!” He lowered his voice. “Have you heard the news?”
“What news is that, Barimaz?” said Corvalis.
“Both Lord Governor Armizid and the preceptor Ranarius plotted to murder old Lord Khosrau,” said Barimaz, “and claim Cyrica for themselves.”
“Truly?” said Corvalis, feigning astonishment. “Alas for Lord Khosrau!”
Barimaz shook his head. “Aye! Lord Khosrau kept the Cyrican provinces in order for thirty years, and his ungrateful son tries to murder him. Alas for the ingratitude of children!”
“I had heard,” said Caina in Cyrican, giving her voice a singsong lilt, “that the Balarigar descended upon the Palace of Splendors and slew Lord Armizid with his own hands.”
“The Balarigar!” said Barimaz with a wheezing laugh. “Just a legend of those Szaldic barbarians, my dear.”
“I heard,” said Corvalis, “that the Ghosts assassinated Armizid.”
“The Ghosts!” said Barimaz with another laugh. “You young folk and your fanciful tales. The Ghosts are a story.”
Corvalis kept his face calm, but she felt the twitch in his arm as he stifled a laugh.
“Two rolls,” he said, handing over some coins, “if you have them.”
“I do, young master, I do,” said Barimaz, making the coins disappear. He worked for a moment, and then handed Corvalis two rolls of flaky brown bread. Corvalis kept one and handed the other to Caina.
She gave it a dubious look.
“Fear not, dear lady,” said Barimaz. “Barimaz uses only the finest ingredients, and if I lie, may the gods of the desert send their vultures to feast upon my entrails.”
“Charming thought,” said Caina, and she took a bite. “That’s…a lot better than I thought it would be!”
“Aye,” said Corvalis. He was already halfway through his roll. “When I went about my business in the city, I needed food to carry with me.” He finished the roll and brushed the crumbs from his fingers. “Certainly better than jerky and hard biscuits.”
Caina swallowed another bite, opened her mouth to answer…and saw the man staring at her from across the street.
He was about fifty, gaunt and lean, his face unshaven, his brown hair streaked with gray. His clothes looked as if they had once been expensive, but were dusty and tattered. He leaned heavily upon a cane in his right hand.
Caina glanced at him, but his eyes never wavered.
She turned, looked at Corvalis, and saw his faint nod.
The man with the cane limped across the street, his cane tapping against the cobblestones. He stopped at Barimaz’s cart, and Caina stepped to Corvalis’s side, reaching for the knives hidden in her sleeve. For a moment she wondered if the man would simply buy a sausage roll.
But his blue eyes focused upon her.
“You were speaking,” he said in flawless Cyrican, “of the Balarigar?”
Caina smiled at him. “But, sir, I don’t know what to say. It’s just a story I heard. They say there are djinni in the Sarbian desert and serpents in the deeps of Cyrican Sea. But I don’t know if that’s true or not.”
The man frowned. “That word. Balarigar. Do you know it? It is from the Szaldic tongue. It means…the slayer of demons, the hunter of darkness.”
“I am sorry, sir,” said Caina, “but I was born in Malarae, and came to Cyrica Urbana with my father as a child. The only Szalds I’ve ever seen have been a few slaves. I don’t know anything about Szaldic legends.”
Perhaps he was just a lonely scholar, eager to lecture an unwilling audience. But his eyes did not waver, and Caina had the sudden feeling that the man was much older than he appeared.
Suddenly he reminded her of Jadriga, and she felt a tingle of alarm.
“They’re real, you know,” said the man. “All the Szaldic legends. All their tales of blood and horror. They’re all real.”
Caina knew that very well. She had seen the black pit below Marsis. She had seen Jadriga’s mighty sorcery.
And she knew what had become of Jadriga’s spirit.
“Be off with you,” said Corvalis. “There’s no need to frighten her with Szaldic ghost stories.”
“They’re not,” whispered the man with the cane, “stories.”
Corvalis’s smile showed teeth. “Come now, fellow. No need for this to get unpleasant.” His hand dropped to his sword hilt. “Be. Off.”
Barimaz looked back and forth, blinking.
“Very well,” said the man with the cane.
He limped away.
“Peculiar,” murmured Corvalis. “Do you recognize him?”
“No,” said Caina, “I’ve never seen him before.”
“Forgive me, young sir,” said Barimaz, “but if this man is an enemy of yours, I ask that you kill him away from my cart. Killing draws the attention of the militia, which would be most unwelcome.”
“No fear, Barimaz,” said Corvalis. “We’ll…”
The man with the cane reached into his coat, drew something out, and lifted it to his face.
“Look,” hissed Caina.
A jade mask covered the features of the man with the cane. The mask had been carved with a face of inhuman beauty, its features serene. A ring of peculiar glyphs encircled the mask, stylized images of animals and birds and men, symbols that tugged at Caina’s memory.
She had seen those symbols somewhere before.
“What the devil?” said Corvalis.
The man in the jade mask lifted his cane, and it broke in half, the wood clattering on the street. He was left holding a rod of a peculiar silvery metal, about two feet long, its length carved with more of those odd symbols.
“Yes,” said the masked man, his voice distorted behind the jade lips. “You are her. I should have known.”
“Enough,” said Corvalis, starting to draw his sword. “Identify…”
The man flicked his wrist, and Caina felt the crawling tingle of sorcery. She had been scarred by a necromancer of terrible power in her youth, and ever since she had been able to sense the presence of arcane force. The sensitivity had sharpened as she grew older, and now she could distinguish between the kind and magnitude of spells.
The silver rod in the masked man’s hand radiated tremendous power.
White light flared around the rod, and both Barimaz and Corvalis fell limp to the ground. Caina shot a look at them, keeping her eyes on the masked man. Both Corvalis and Barimaz were both still alive, but unconscious. Yet in Corvalis’s sleeve she glimpsed a glimmer of white light.
His tattoos. Would they have resisted the masked man’s spell?
“You killed them!” shouted Caina, hoping to distract his attention from Corvalis.
“I did not,” said the masked man, stepping towards her. His right leg twitched and trembled. Apparently he had needed that cane. “I don’t know what vile use you had in mind for that Kindred assassin, but it matters not. Whatever design you planned for Cyrioch will not come to pass.”
“Design?” said Caina. “What are you talking about?”
She snatched a frying pan from Barimaz’s cart and stepped to the side.
“Enough,” said the masked man, pivoting to follow her. “We have played this game too many times before, but this time, I have the better of you.”
“I’ve never seen you before in my life,” said Caina, talking another step to the side.
The masked man turned to follow her, keeping the rod pointed at her chest…and turned his back on Corvalis.
She saw his eyes open.
“Your latest death will not undo the harm you have caused,” said the masked man, “but it least it will stop you from wreaking future harm. For a time.”
Corvalis rolled to a crouch and drew his sword.
“For the gods’ sake,” said Caina. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Could you at least tell me what this is all about before you kill me?”
“A likely trick,” said the man. His rod flared with white light, and Caina felt the surge of sorcerous power.
Corvalis jumped to his feet, and the masked man turned to face him, leveling the silver rod at his chest.
Caina gripped the frying pan like a discus and flung it with all her strength. It slammed into the masked man’s bad leg. The masked man dropped him to one knee, a pale pulse of white light spitting from his rod, but the blast missed Corvalis to splash against the side of Barimaz’s wagon.
Corvalis lunged forward and buried his sword in the masked man’s chest. The man toppled backwards without a sound, the rod and mask falling away. Corvalis released his sword and stepped back, and Caina hurried to his side, shooting a quick look around the street.
No one had noticed the fight.
“Damn it,” said Corvalis, looking at the dying man. “I should have taken him alive.” He reached for the silvery rod.
“No!” said Caina. “Don’t touch it! There’s a spell on it. I don’t know what it will do to you.”
Corvalis stepped away from the rod. All at once Caina remembered where she had seen the symbols before. They were Maatish hieroglyphs, the same kind that adorned the ancient scroll her father had found.
The ancient scroll that had led to his death, that Maglarion had almost used to destroy Malarae.
Caina looked at the dying man. Blood bubbled at his lips, and his skin had turned gray.
“Who are you?” she said.
The man glared at her, his blue eyes full of pain and fear.
“Moroaica!” he spat, and then died.