“Ghost in the Ashes” Excerpt


Cover design by Clarissa Yeo


Caina Amalas opened her eyes.

Something was wrong.

She turned her head, her hair rustling against the pillow.  A pale shaft of moonlight leaked through the balcony doors. In the gloom she saw the table that held her mirror and cosmetics, a wooden stand for Corvalis’s weapons and armor, and the wardrobe that contained her disguises. Corvalis lay next to her, eyes closed, chest rising and falling with his breath.

It was utterly silent.

Yet Caina was certain that she had heard someone scream.

She pushed aside the blankets and stood, her bare feet silent against the floor, her hair cool and dry as it brushed her shoulders. Her right hand slid under her pillow and retrieved a dagger, the razor-edged blade glinting in the moonlight.

She had a hard time sleeping without a weapon close at hand.

Caina crossed to the balcony doors and pushed them open a few inches, looking into the street below. Thick fog choked Malarae’s streets, transformed into a pale silver haze by the full moon overhead. Successful merchants occupied this district of the Imperial capital, merchants with money enough to purchase townhouses separate from their shops, but not enough to imitate the lifestyles of the high lords. Through the silvery fog, Caina glimpsed the houses across the street, tall and narrow with small courtyards encircled by iron fences. The smell of brine and rotting fish filled her nostrils, carried by the fog rolling off the harbor.

Yet the street was deserted.

She shook her head in annoyance, still certain she had heard someone scream.

Caina stepped away from the doors and saw Corvalis Aberon standing behind her.

He was tall and lean, his arms and chest heavy with muscle, his eyes like cold jade disks. Strange, spiraling black tattoos marked his pale torso. Inked by an Ulkaari witchfinder, the tattoos gave him a measure of resistance to sorcery, which had saved his life more than once.

A dagger gleamed in his right hand. Like Caina, he always slept with weapons at hand. Unlike Caina, he was unable to sleep at all unless he had a weapon nearby.

His training had been rather more brutal than hers.

“There was a time,” said Caina, “when I would have been alarmed to find a naked man with a dagger in my bedroom.”

Corvalis barked his short, harsh laugh. He ran his free hand over his face, the blond stubble rasping beneath his callused palm. “What is amiss?”

“I heard someone scream,” said Caina.

Corvalis looked out the balcony doors and back at her.

Caina shrugged. “Perhaps I dreamed it.”

“No,” said Corvalis. “A dream wouldn’t fool you.”

“One of the servants?” said Caina. They had a pair of maids, a cook, a seneschal, and a footman who doubled as the night watchman. Had someone attacked the house? Any number of people wanted Caina dead, and Corvalis’s father would never forgive his defeat at Catekharon ten months earlier. “No. If they screamed, it would have awakened both of us.”

Corvalis shook his head. “Eight months we’ve played this game, and I still cannot get used to the idea of servants.”

Caina shrugged. “If it helps, think of them as Anton Kularus’s servants, not yours. A man like Anton Kularus has servants.”

She looked into the fog-choked street. It was still deserted.

“True,” said Corvalis. “I’ll go speak with them and see if anything is amiss, let them know you heard someone screaming.”

Caina smiled. “They’ll think I’m flighty and irrational.”

“Ah,” said Corvalis, “but you are Anton Kularus’s mistress, and a man like Anton Kularus has both servants and a flighty, irrational mistress.” He put a quick kiss on her lips. “Go to sleep. I’ll speak with the servants. If there’s anything wrong, I’ll come get you. Otherwise you’ll want to be rested when we speak with Master Basil tomorrow.”

Caina nodded. “He has news about the new Lord Ambassador from Istarinmul, I am sure…”

She shivered, and not just from the cool air against her bare skin. She remembered the last time she had seen a Lord Ambassador from Istarinmul, the day that Rezir Shahan had come to Marsis. But his arrival had been a trap. Rezir Shahan had allied with Andromache of New Kyre and smuggled troops into the city. Caina remembered the ambush, women and children screaming as lightning fell from the sky, the shouts of fighting men, Nicolai sobbing for his mother, the cold blue glow in the Immortals’ eyes…

She looked back at the street and saw a gleam of blue light in the mist.

Caina went rigid.

“Caina?” said Corvalis.

For a dreadful moment Caina thought she was dreaming, that her nightmares had come to life. A man walked on the street below, moving at a rapid pace. He looked like a caravan guard out for a night of drinking, clad in leather armor and a ragged cloak. Yet there were no taverns nearby, which made it an odd place for a caravan guard to go after dark.

But his eyes reminded Caina of her nightmares.

Specifically, the blue glow coming from his eyes..

“Corvalis,” whispered Caina. “His eyes.”

Corvalis frowned.

“He’s an Immortal,” said Caina.

“So,” said Corvalis, “what is one of the Padishah of Istarinmul’s elite soldiers doing in Malarae?”

They looked at each other, and Caina knew what they had to do next.

Caina had taken many names and disguises in her life. Countess Marianna Nereide, a minor noblewoman. Marina, the maid of Theodosia, the leading lady of the Grand Imperial Opera. Marius, a caravan guard. Anna Callenius, the daughter of the wealthy master merchant Basil Callenius. Sonya Tornesti, the mistress of the rakish merchant Anton Kularus.

But she changed names and identities as easily as she changed clothing, for she was a Ghost nightfighter, one of the spies and agents of the Emperor of Nighmar.

Caina moved to the wardrobe, catching sight of her reflection in the mirror as she did. In the moonlight she looked lean and pale, the muscles in her arms and legs visible, the scar below her navel an ugly gash across her belly. The moonlight caught her pale blond hair and turned it silver.

Blond hair. She was just vain enough to find that an irritation.

But dyeing it had made sense. There were many among the nobles and the magi of Malarae who would kill a black-haired, blue-eyed woman of the Ghosts on sight, and Caina needed to disguise herself.

She opened the wardrobe, lifting out the false bottom, and all thoughts of her appearance fled her mind.

Caina dressed in black boots, trousers, and a black jacket lined with steel plates to deflect knife blades. Black gloves covered her hands, and a mask concealed everything except her eyes. Daggers went in her boots, throwing knives up her sleeves, and a belt holding more knives and other useful tools went around her waist.

Last came the cloak.

The cloak was a marvelous thing, woven of both spider-silk and shadow by a method known only to the nightkeepers of the Ghosts. It blurred around her, merging with the shadows. Additionally, the cloak also protected her from mind-affecting sorcery, and rendered her undetectable to divinatory spells.

It had saved her life more than once.

She turned just as Corvalis finished dressing. He had clothing similar to hers, a shadow-cloak over his shoulders, but he wore black chain mail beneath a leather jerkin and carried a sword at his hip.

She nodded, and Corvalis headed for the balcony with a slender rope in his hands. He hooked the grapnel to the iron railing and tossed the rope to the street below. Corvalis scrambled down the rope, bracing his boots against the wall, and Caina followed him.

“Most women,” said Corvalis, releasing the rope and stepping onto the street, “want a house with a balcony for the view.”

“I never cared much for scenery,” said Caina. She peered into the mist for a moment. There was no sign of the Immortal. Or of anyone else, for that matter. “This way.”

Corvalis nodded and let her take the lead, his hands remaining near his weapons. He was stronger than Caina, and better with his blades. But she was far more observant.

And this damnable mist and the narrow alley presented ideal conditions for an ambush.

She scanned the walls and the windows, looking for any sign of the Immortal, while the rest of her mind turned over the possibilities.

Why was an Immortal in Malarae? The Empire and Istarinmul had been at war ever since Rezir Shahan’s attack, and Caina had spent months hunting Istarish and Kyracian spies through the Empire’s capital. The Immortals were the most ferocious soldiers in Istarinmul, yet their vicious temperaments made them poor spies.

To say nothing of the glowing eyes.

Was the Immortal an advance guard for the new Lord Ambassador? Or had the Immortal gone renegade? Caina thought…

She heard a yelp in the fog ahead, followed by the sound of a fist striking flesh.

Caina came to a stop, as did Corvalis. She listened for a moment, the fog cold around her, and again heard a shout, followed by the sound of scuffling. She beckoned, and they moved forward in silence. They turned a corner, and the alley ended in a courtyard shared by several different houses. No lights shone in the darkened windows overhead, but the moonlight and the fog illuminated three figures.

The first was the Immortal, glowing eyes narrowed in thought. The second was a lean man in servant’s livery, a dagger in his hand. He held the dagger at the throat of a brown-skinned Istarish girl of about eighteen, his free hand clamped over her throat. The girl wore a ragged gray shift, her black eyes rolling back and forth in terror.

She was also at least eight months pregnant, her belly tight against the thin cloth of her shift.

“You have found her, then?” said the Immortal in Istarish, his voice a rasping rumble.

“Yes, master,” answered the man in the servant’s livery. “The girl fled out the back door as her father fought. A pitiful sacrifice. As if a pregnant slave girl could escape the grasp of the Kindred.”

Caina saw Corvalis’s hand move to his sword. She knew of the Kindred, the outlaw families of assassins that terrorized their victims. She had crossed paths with them more than once.

And Corvalis’s father had sold him to the Kindred.

“Good,” said the Immortal. “Take her to the harbor. We shall secure her until we contact the master.”

“What of her father?” said the Kindred assassin. “He killed several of my brothers. The blood of the Kindred must be avenged.”

The Immortal growled, and the assassin took a prudent step back, dragging the slave girl with him. The alchemical elixirs the Immortals ingested made them stronger and faster than normal men. They also induced fits of murderous fury.

“Your brethren were paid to take the girl,” said the Immortal. “If they were foolish enough to fall beneath an old man’s rusty sword, that is not my concern. Now. Gag the girl and come.”

The assassin nodded pulled a gag from his pocket.

“Gently!” said the Immortal. “If she miscarries your life shall not be worth two copper coins.”

Caina looked at Corvalis, and he nodded.

He disappeared into the fog, moving with the stealth of a master Kindred assassin.

Unsurprising, given that he had been one for years.

Caina strode forward, letting her shadow-cloak billow behind her.

“Hold!” she roared, using the rasping, snarling voice she employed while masked.

Both the Immortal and the assassin whirled to face her.

“Help me!” the slave girl screamed in Istarish. “Oh, gods, please, please help…”

“Shut up!” said the assassin, striking her across the face with the handle of his dagger. Her head snapped sideways, blood flying from her lips.

“Let her go,” said Caina.

“Be off with you,” snarled the Immortal. “This is not…”

“Fool,” said the Kindred. “Don’t you recognize the cloak? That’s a Ghost, one of the Emperor’s pet rats.”

“The Ghosts?” said the Immortal. “The Ghosts are a myth.”

“And one is standing before you in the flesh,” said the Kindred. “Kill him now, or else we’ll never get out of Malarae alive.”

“Very well,” said the Immortal, drawing his sword with a steely hiss. The Immortal strode towards her, and Caina remained motionless, eyes fixed on the Kindred assassin.

An instant later the Immortal let out a shocked gurgle, and a foot of bloody steel blade erupted from his chest.

Corvalis’s gloved hand gripped the Immortal’s shoulder, the other twisting the blade of his sword. The Immortals were some of the most dangerous and ferocious soldiers in the world, and only a skilled fighter could prevail in a fight against one.

So better not to fight at all.

The Kindred snarled a curse and shoved the girl aside. She fell with a cry, twisting so she landed upon her rump rather than her belly. The assassin ran at Caina, yanking a second dagger from his belt. Caina rolled her right wrist, a throwing knife dropping from its sheath to her gloved hand. She took a step forward and flung the knife, her entire body snapping like a bowstring. The assassin jerked to the side, but the knife raked the right side of his jaw, and the man stumbled with a cry of pain.

Caina yanked the daggers from her boots and charged. The Kindred assassin recovered his balance and came at her, both his daggers a blur of steel. But Caina had fought Kindred assassins before, had learned many of their secrets from Corvalis, and knew what to expect. She blocked the thrust of his right dagger, ducked under the swing of his left, and rammed her right dagger into his belly.

The Kindred doubled over with an agonized groan, and Caina grabbed his hair and opened his throat. Blood sprayed over the damp cobblestones, and the assassin pitched forward onto his face and lay motionless.

Caina let out a long breath Corvalis as joined her. The dead assassin’s blood pooled on the ground, seeming to drink the light. She had killed a lot of men in her time as a Ghost, and it troubled her how easy it had become for her to kill without hesitation, without remorse…

The slave girl sobbed, taking a step back.

Caina pushed aside her doubts. She had more immediate problems.

“Please, please,” said the girl. “Do not hurt me. I…please, do not kill me the way you killed my sisters. Please, dark ones. Please!”

“What is she saying?” said Corvalis.

Caina blinked, and remembered Corvalis could not speak Istarish. “She thinks we’re going to kill her the way someone killed her sisters.”

She stepped forward, wiped her daggers clean on the dead assassin, and lifted her hands. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“Please,” said the girl, shivering. “Please, just let me go.”

“What happened to you?” said Caina. “Why were these men trying to kill you?”

“I don’t know!” said the girl. “I don’t know why they wanted me, and I don’t know why they killed my sisters.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “I…please, let me go.”

“Where will you go?” said Caina.

“I don’t…I don’t know,” said the girl, shaking her head. “Anywhere. Someplace where they can’t find me.”

“I can help you,” said Caina.

“No,” said the girl. “Please…don’t hurt me.”

Caina realized the Istarish girl only saw them as cloaked shadows, as armed wraiths who had cut down an Immortal and a Kindred assassin in the space of a few heartbeats.

Little wonder she feared them.

Caina decided to take a gamble, and drew back her hood and pulled off her mask.

The girl’s eyes widened. “You…you are a woman?”

“I am,” said Caina. “I can take you somewhere safe. You must be expecting the child soon.”

The girl gave a hesitant nod. “Any day.”

“Then come with us,” said Caina. “You do not want to be alone when your time comes.” She gestured at the corpses. “And these men had allies, I’m sure. You don’t want them to find you.”

The girl shook her head. “No.”

“What is your name?” said Caina.

“Mahdriva,” said the girl. She hesitated. “The assassin…the assassin said you were a Ghost. Is that true?”

“We are,” said Caina. “We can help you, if…”

“My father!” said Mahdriva. “Please, save my father. We were hiding at the Inn of the Broken Wheel when they came for me. My father fought them off and told me to run. I went through the back door and ran as fast as I could, but the men caught me here. Please, Ghost, help my father.”

Caina knew the Inn of the Broken Wheel. It was at the edge of the district, and catered to the moderately successful merchants that lived nearby. But if the Kindred and the Immortals had come for Mahdriva and her father in force, then the man was likely dead.

“He is still alive!” said Mahdriva, as if she had guessed Caina’s thoughts. “My father  is the mightiest warrior in Istarinmul. It will take more than assassins to kill him. But, please, he must have aid.”

“She’s asking you for something,” murmured Corvalis in Caerish, “isn’t she?”

Caina nodded, thinking. Mahdriva’s father, whoever he was, had likely perished. Yet why send Kindred assassins and Immortals to kidnap one pregnant girl?

A pregnant girl, Caina suspected, who had escaped from slavery in Istarinmul.

Why go to that much trouble to recapture a pregnant slave girl?

An odd coincidence, with the Istarish Lord Ambassador arriving within a week.

And Caina did not like coincidences.

She looked at the girl, remembering the day her own father had died before her eyes.

“Yes,” said Caina. “We will save your father, if we can.”

“Thank you,” said Mahdriva, her voice shaking. “Thank you.”

“Ah,” said Corvalis. “We’re going to help her, aren’t we?”

“You told me you liked challenges,” said Caina. She pulled her mask and cowl back into place. “Well, get ready for a challenge.”

Corvalis laughed. “Best we move on before the militia finds the corpses.”

Caina left the courtyard and headed for the Inn of the Broken Wheel, Corvalis and Mahdriva following.

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