CHAPTER 1 – THE LORD GOVERNOR’S BALL
Caina had to admit that Nisias Druzen, Lord Governor of Varia Province, knew how to throw a splendid ball.
A pity that she might have to kill him before the night was out.
The ballroom’s marble floor gleamed beneath her boots, reflecting the light from the chandelier overhead. Tall, wide windows framed in bronze offered a splendid view of the town of Mornu and the western sea, the moonlight rippling across the waves. Statues of long-dead Emperors stood in niches between the windows, gazing at the ball with solemn dignity. Musicians played in the corners, and liveried servants circulated among the guests, bearing trays of food and wine. The guests themselves were the chief merchants and magistrates of Mornu, and nobles from the hinterlands of Varia Province. They were powerful and influential men in the province, but not throughout the Empire.
The ball was indeed splendid. Caina would have expected such a display in the Imperial capital, not in a rural province on the Empire’s northwest edge.
She wondered how Lord Nisias had paid for it all.
“Pleasant, isn’t it?” murmured the man standing at Caina’s side.
She looked at him.
Corvalis Aberon stood at her right, clad in the black coat, trousers, boots, and crisp white shirt of a prosperous Nighmarian merchant. Unlike most merchants, he was hard and lean, and the fine clothes did not make him look any less dangerous. He had close-cropped blond hair and eyes like green jade, a sword and a dagger riding in sheaths at his belt. The scabbards were black and adorned with silver, and the weapons themselves looked ornamental.
Yet Caina wondered how many of the guests would see the faint stains of sweat on the leather-wrapped hilts of Corvalis’s weapons, the signs of hard practice and fighting.
“A very nice ball,” said Caina, making sure to keep her Szaldic accent in place. Like Corvalis, she wore a disguise, a rich blue gown with black trim that left more of her chest exposed than she would have preferred. But that was all part of the disguise. Corvalis masqueraded as Anton Kularus, the only coffee merchant of the Imperial capital, and Caina had disguised herself as Sonya Tornesti, Anton’s mistress. Sonya was the sort of woman who would wear inappropriately revealing gowns, too much makeup, and too much jewelry.
The fact that Caina actually did share a bed with Corvalis, of course, only added verisimilitude to the disguise.
Corvalis took a sip from a glass of wine. “It’s very good wine.”
“It is,” said Caina. “All the way from Caer Marist in Caeria Superior. The wine glasses came from Malarae. I think the musicians were hired from Marsis. Those wall hangings are silk, which means they came from Anshan.”
“Which,” said Corvalis, who knew how her mind worked, “makes you wonder how he paid for all of it.”
Caina nodded, watching the guests. Lord Nisias stood on the far side of the ballroom, speaking with some merchants and laughing. He was a short, plump man of Cyrican birth, middle-aged with a fringe of gray hair encircling his brown head. He looked like an amiable man, but Caina had known men who could smile and wink as they killed a foe.
Corvalis was such a man.
“Aye,” said Caina. “House Druzen is not wealthy, and Lord Nisias did not have much money before the Imperial Curia voted him this province.”
“Then he is taking bribes,” said Corvalis, “or he is embezzling from the taxes.”
Caina shook her head. “Varia Province is mostly farmers, fishermen, and miners. Mornu has only ten thousand people, and it is the largest town in the province. Nisias could not embezzle enough to pay for these balls, this new mansion.”
“And that means,” said Corvalis, “he has another source of revenue.”
Caina looked at the Lord Governor as he chatted with the merchants and the magistrates. He looked like a kindly uncle, a trustworthy and diligent man.
“Such as,” said Caina, “trading slaves.”
“Master Basil was right, then,” said Corvalis.
Caina nodded. Gangs of slavers had tormented the Empire’s western coast for years, kidnapping farmers and fishermen and shipping them in chains to the great slave markets of Istarinmul and Anshan. When Naelon Icaraeus had perished below Black Angel Tower, the slavers had been broken, and the Ghosts hoped the menace had ended.
And a few weeks later, Andromache of New Kyre and Rezir Shahan of Istarinmul had attacked Marsis. A year after that, Kylon of House Kardamnos had completely destroyed the Empire’s western fleet. Now predators of all sorts prowled the western sea, corsairs and pirates attacking every merchant ship they could catch.
Gangs of slavers preyed anew upon the people of the western coasts.
And it seemed that Lord Nisias was in league with them.
Caina’s left hand curled into a fist, twitching towards the daggers hidden beneath her skirt. She loathed slave traders, and if Nisias was in league with them, Caina would kill him. Halfdan had sent them to investigate the situation, to find out of if Lord Nisias or any of Varia Province’s magistrates were cooperating with the slavers. If Caina found proof, she would kill Nisias Druzen without hesitation.
She regretted some of the men she had killed in the past…but she had never regretted killing a slave trader, and was not about to start now.
Nisias smiled, laughed, and started across the ballroom, greeting his other guests.
“I think it is time,” said Caina, “that we paid our respects to the Lord Governor.”
“Of course,” said Corvalis, offering her his left arm. Caina threaded her right arm through it, and they walked across the ballroom floor. Corvalis exchanged greetings with a few of the other guests. Anton Kularus was well known in Malarae, and rumor of his name had spread to the outer provinces. Caina kept an expression of polite boredom on her face, but she paid close attention to the guests. Perhaps the slave traders had other associates among the nobles and magistrates of Mornu. And it was possible that Nisias himself was innocent, while one of his underlings had conspired with the slave traders.
At last they stood before Lord Nisias, and Corvalis disengaged his arm from Caina’s and made a deep bow, while Caina gripped her skirts and performed a curtsy.
“Ah, there you are,” said Nisias in High Nighmarian. “You must be Master Anton Kularus of Malarae.”
“I am, my lord,” said Corvalis. “It is an honor to meet you. This is my companion,” the polite word for mistress, “Sonya Tornesti.”
“An honor, my lord,” said Caina. “Anton, he meets many fine people, but he has never introduced me to a Lord Governor before.”
Nisias chuckled. “Well, do not let it go to your head, my dear.” He gave her the sort of indulgent smile older men reserved for pretty young women. “I fear the Lord Governor of Varia Province is about equal in honor to serving as the Lord Aedile of sewage in the Imperial capital.”
“My lord, you are unkind to yourself,” said Caina. “Mornu is very orderly. No sewage in the streets at all.”
“You sound and look rather Szaldic, if I may say so,” said Nisias. “Are you from Varia Province?”
“When I was a little girl,” said Caina. “But my father and mother went to Malarae to find work.” She smiled at Corvalis. “And there I met Anton.”
“I must say, Master Anton,” said Nisias, “I am quite pleased to meet you. I had dismissed coffee as a drink for the Istarish and the Anshani. But then a merchant happened to sell a barrel of beans when he stopped in Mornu,” he spread his hands, “and I find that I have developed quite a taste for it. Especially when spiced with cinnamon.”
Corvalis laughed. “An expensive taste, I fear. Shipping coffee to Malarae is expensive, and I can only image what that merchant charged. And cinnamon has grown most costly.”
“Indeed,” said Nisias with a scowl. “This endless war with New Kyre has had dire consequences for commerce.”
“Actually,” said Corvalis, “that is why I came to Mornu.”
Nisias raised his eyebrows. “Indeed? You have piqued my curiosity, sir.”
“The war has driven up the cost of shipping,” said Corvalis. “My coffee is grown mostly upon plantations in Anshan and Istarinmul, and shipped north over the Starfall Straits. The Istarish, as you can imagine, make for most rapacious customs collectors.”
Nisias grunted. “Indeed. The greed of the Istarish emirs is legendary.” He scowled. “Had Rezir Shahan not been so greedy, this miserable war would not have started.”
Caina, who had killed Rezir in a burning warehouse in Marsis, could not disagree. But Nisias Druzen had no need to know that.
“Perhaps the war has created new opportunities,” said Corvalis. “I am considering having my coffee shipped through the Cyrican sea and then delivered to Mornu.”
“The long way around, surely,” said Nisias. A servant passed with a tray of wine, and the Lord Governor took a glass. “Cheaper and quicker to take it to Marsis and have it shipped up the River Marentine.”
“But the Lord Governor of Marsis charges a steep customs rate,” said Corvalis. “If the coffee is shipped to Mornu and carted along the Imperial Highway to Marsis, I can have it loaded upon barges there and then shipped up the River Marentine. The western sea ought to be safe enough, with most of the Kyracian fleet pulled back to defend New Kyre.”
Nisias grunted and gazed at the ceiling for a moment, swirling his wine.
“A bold plan,” said the Lord Governor, “but I cannot recommend it.”
“Oh?” said Corvalis. “Why not? It seems the port of Mornu could use the extra traffic.”
“It could,” said Nisias, “but only if your traffic actually reaches us. The Kyracian fleet has withdrawn to defend New Kyre, yes, but that devil Kylon Shipbreaker destroyed the Emperor’s fleet. Now there is no one to keep order upon the western seas, and pirates and raiders infest the waves. Worse, gangs of slave traders are raiding Varia Province and taking captives to sell in the markets of Istarinmul.”
Caina frowned. “We heard the rumors on our journey here. Dreadful tales.”
“Aye,” said Nisias. “It is just as well you did not take ship to Mornu. You might have found yourself heading to a very different destination.”
“There were slave traders in Varia Province, when I was a girl,” said Caina, “which is why my father wanted to find work in Malarae. But I thought they had been wiped out.”
“They were,” said Nisias, “briefly, before the war. Naelon Icaraeus, son of the traitor Haeron Icaraeus, controlled them. It seemed he had some fool idea of building a mercenary army to overthrow the Emperor, aided by some sorceress out of Szaldic myth. But then the Legions killed him.” He snorted. “Aided by the Balarigar, if you believe the tales.”
“A fanciful tale,” said Corvalis.
“It is,” said Nisias, “but the Szalds believe it. And not a few people in the Imperial capital, for that matter. But I wander from the matter at hand. The Legions wiped out Lord Naelon and his followers, but the war transformed the western seas into a battlefield…and I fear battlefields always draw jackals.”
“Perhaps you could write to the Lord Governor in Marsis,” said Corvalis, “and ask him to send one of his Legions to sweep the slavers from the province.”
“I have,” said Nisias, “and he refused me.” He sighed and took a drink of wine. “The honorable Lord Aiodan Maraeus believes that his father Lord Corbould and his brother Lord Conn shall soon starve the Kyracians and force them to submit. So he holds his Legions back, lest the Kyracians grow desperate and launch an attack upon Marsis.”
“That seems unlikely,” said Corvalis. “The Kyracians could not even take Marsis with the aid of the Istarish. Surely they could not do so on their own.”
“No,” said Nisias, “they could not. But I cannot convince Lord Aiodan Maraeus of that fact.” He sighed. “But perhaps Lord Corbould’s plan will work, and the Kyracians shall soon submit. Then Lord Aiodan would have the men to spare.”
Caina knew better. If Lord Corbould convinced the Anshani to stop selling grain to New Kyre, the Kyracian stormsingers would respond by using their sorcery to alter the weather over the Empire to produce a famine. The resultant war would drown the world in blood, and she could only imagine how the Magisterium would use the chaos.
Or, worse, the Moroaica…
She pushed aside the thought.
“So I fear you have wasted your trip, Master Anton,” said Nisias. “I cannot recommend that you send your cargoes to Mornu. Perhaps after the war, once the governors of the coast can turn their attention to dealing with the pirates and the slavers. But by then, alas, my term will be over. Ah, well.” He grinned. “I would have looked forward to sampling your fine coffees as they passed through my port. Merely to maintain my goodwill, you understand.”
Corvalis laughed. “I understand quite well. Thank you for your candor, my lord.”
Nisias shook his head. “Alas, my fate is to be the bearer of bad news. Enjoy the feast, Master Anton.”
Corvalis bowed, and the Lord Governor went to speak with another group of guests.
“What do you think?” said Caina.
“He seems an unlikely slave trader,” said Corvalis. “Most magistrates would leap at the chance to have more cargoes coming through their ports. More opportunities for graft. Though shipping coffee to Malarae through Varia Province is a stupid idea. Perhaps he saw through it.”
“Aye,” said Caina. “If you bankrupt my coffee house, I shall be most cross.”
Corvalis grinned. “It is your business, my dear. I am merely the public face.” He shrugged. “Perhaps Nisias Druzen has nothing to do with the slavers.”
“Or maybe he’s merely a very good liar,” said Caina. “We know someone has been kidnapping slaves from the coast and shipping them through Mornu. Perhaps he’s not involved directly, and is merely taking a cut of the profits.”
“And if it’s just that,” said Corvalis, glancing across the ballroom, “then he’s still going to have an unfortunate accident, I assume?”
Caina nodded and followed Corvalis’s gaze.
She just managed to keep her expression calm.
A master magus of the Imperial Magisterium walked across the room, the hem of his black robes rustling against the marble floor. He was lean and gaunt, with a shock of graying black hair and a prominent nose. Caina had never seen him before in her life.
Yet he seemed familiar, somehow.
“Do you know him?” said Caina.
“No,” said Corvalis. “I have seen most of the high magi and the master magi, but I’ve never seen him. He must be the Lord Governor’s advisor. If he was banished out here, he must not have been terribly competent.”
“Or he got on the wrong side of your father,” said Caina. Decius Aberon, First Magus of the Magisterium, was the sort of man who kept grudges.
“My father doesn’t have anything but wrong sides,” said Corvalis. “We…”
He fell silent as the master magus headed towards them.
Toward Caina, specifically. His black eyes locked upon her, and a faint sneer of contempt went over his lip. Her first thought was that he wanted to seduce her. That vanished as she got a better look at his face, at the hatred there.
She wondered what she had done to offend him.
He stopped a few paces away from them, scowling.
“Good evening, master magus,” said Corvalis. “It is an honor to meet you. I am…”
“I know who you are,” said the magus, his voice curt. “Do you know who I am, I wonder?”
“I fear not,” said Corvalis. “I…”
“There’s no need for you to do the talking,” said the magus, still staring at Caina. “I know that you are merely the arm that carries out her designs.”
Caina felt a prickle of alarm. When people looked at her, she wanted them to see the shallow, flighty mistress of a coffee merchant. She did not want them to see the nightfighter of the Ghosts, the eyes and ears of the Emperor of Nighmar.
“Who are you?” said Caina.
“You don’t remember?” said the master magus. “Well, we have never met. My name is Oberon Ryther.”
For a moment Caina could not recall the name, but then her alarm increased.
A few months past, she and Corvalis had gone to town of Calvarium to stop the Moroaica and her ancient enemy Rhames from claiming the Ascendant Bloodcrystal in the cursed ruins of Caer Magia. Rhames had been destroyed, and the Moroaica’s body killed again. But Martin Dorius, the Lord Governor of Calvarium, had aided Caina, and knew that she was a Ghost.
And the master magus assigned to the Lord Governor of Calvarium had been named Oberon Ryther.
“When I last heard your name,” said Caina, “you were in Calvarium, in Caeria Ulterior. A long way from here.”
“When I last saw you,” said Ryther, “you were calling yourself Rania Scorneus, and claiming to be a sister of the Imperial Magisterium.” He smiled. “Impersonating a magus carries the penalty of death, Sonya Tornesti. Knowledge of your crime might be of interest to certain men within the Magisterium.”
“Interesting,” said Caina.
“Oh?” said Ryther, tilting his head to the side.
“You didn’t attempt to arrest me,” said Caina, “and you didn’t denounce me before Lord Nisias. Which means…”
“Which means that Lord Nisias is a pompous fool,” said Ryther.
“Or,” said Caina, “that you intend to bargain.”
Ryther send nothing, a twitch going through his face.
“Come with me,” he said at last. “I would prefer that neither the Lord Governor nor his fools overhear us.”
Corvalis glanced at Caina, and she nodded. They followed Ryther toward the high windows that overlooked the bay, away from the other guests.
“Let us dispense with the games,” said Ryther. “I know who you are. I know you are both Ghosts. No one else would dare to impersonate a sister of the Magisterium. And I know why you’re here. It’s about the slave trading, isn’t it? All the abductions from the countryside?”
Caina said nothing.
“Do not,” said Ryther, “play games with me. It will end badly for us both, Ghost. I am in just as much peril as you, if not more.”
Caina hadn’t expected that.
“Why?” she said. “Are you fearful your illegal slave trading will come to light?”
“Hardly,” said Ryther with a grimace. “I care nothing for the slaves, nor for this miserable backwater of a province. But the First Magus, as you can imagine, is not terribly pleased with me. It would be politically convenient for him if I happened to disappear, and Decius Aberon has strong ties with the Kindred assassin families.”
“I’ve heard that,” said Caina. “So what do you propose?”
“A pact,” said Ryther.
“You’re mad,” said Caina, “if you think I would trust a magus.”
“And you are just as crazed if you think I would trust a Ghost,” said Ryther. “But trust is not required, merely mutual necessity.” He gestured in the direction of Nisias. “Your suspicions are correct. The Lord Governor is indeed heading up a ring of slave traders. He has been kidnapping both citizens from the town and Szalds from the countryside and selling them to his Istarish associates.”
The rage stirred within Caina. If Nisias Druzen was indeed aiding the slave traders, he was not long for this world.
“So,” said Corvalis. “If you know that Nisias is selling people into slavery, why have you not acted? You could report him to the Lord Governor in Marsis, or to the preceptor of the Magisterium’s chapterhouse in the city.”
“No, he’s not going to do that,” said Caina, pushing aside her dark thoughts. “The First Magus doesn’t like him. And if he causes the Lord Governor’s downfall, it will look like the Magisterium had a hand in it. That would annoy the First Magus. And if the First Magus is annoyed, Master Oberon Ryther is unlikely to live much longer.”
“I’ve heard,” said Corvalis, “that the First Magus has a temper.”
“Indeed,” said Ryther with a scowl. “But there is another option. Sooner or later that idiot Nisias is going to make a mistake and meet his downfall. But if the Ghosts were to remove him first, why…no one would suspect the Magisterium of his ruin.”
“So you want us,” said Caina, “to kill Nisias Druzen for you.”
Ryther smiled. He looked far too pleased with himself. “It is crude to speak so bluntly about such a delicate matter. But who am I to disagree with your conclusions?”
“No,” said Caina.
Ryther scowled. “Why not? You are not the first Ghost I’ve had the misfortune of meeting. Your order never stops yammering about corrupt nobles and the grievous injustice of slavery. I thought you would leap at the chance to rid the Empire of a corrupt governor who deals with slavers.”
“We would,” said Caina, “but we don’t have proof that he is involved. We only suspect it. We know that slaves have been taken from Mornu, but we don’t know for certain that Nisias is behind it.”
“He is,” said Ryther, “and I can prove it. Break into his study, on the third floor of the mansion. The second drawer of his desk is locked and trapped, and it contains his ledger. His secret ledger, not the province’s official financial records. Get your hands on that, Ghosts, and you shall have all the proof you need to deal with Nisias.”
“That’s very helpful,” said Caina. “Too helpful, even.”
Ryther sighed. “What does it take to satisfy you? If I withheld information, you would accuse me of obfuscation. I tell you everything you need to know, and you are still suspicious.” He gave an irritated shake of his head. “Do with the information as you please.”
He stalked away, his boots clicking against the marble floor.
Caina stood in silence with Corvalis for a moment.
“Well,” said Corvalis after a moment. “That was interesting.”
“It was,” said Caina.
“You’re going to break into Lord Nisias’s study tonight, aren’t you?” said Corvalis.
“Ah,” said Corvalis. “Just as well that I had only one glass of wine.”
Caina feigned illness to leave the ball early, and returned with Corvalis to the Rusalka’s Kiss, Mornu’s finest inn. Tanya had told Caina about the legendary Rusalkae, the beautiful river spirits who drew unsuspecting men to their watery doom. It was a grisly name for an inn, but many sailors lived in Mornu, and Caina had found that seamen often had a black sense of humor.
Rather, she supposed, like Ghost nightfighters.
In their rooms at the Rusalka’s Kiss, Caina prepared.
She put aside her finery and donned black trousers, black boots, and a black jacket lined with thin steel plates to deflect knife blades. She secured daggers in hidden sheaths in each of her boots, and around her waist went a leather belt holding throwing knives, lockpicks, a coiled rope and grapnel, and a number of other useful tools. The strap of a leather satchel went across her chest, to carry any documents she found in Nisias’s desk. Her curved ghostsilver dagger went into a sheath on her right hip. Black gloves covered her hands, and a black mask concealed her entire head, save for her eyes.
Around her neck went a leather cord holding a man’s worn golden signet ring. Everything else she carried had a practical purpose, but the ring did not. Her father had once worn it, and it was all she had left of him.
She paused for a moment, looking at the ring. Eleven years he had been dead, for half her life. His death and her mother’s betrayal had led her to the Ghosts. That pain would never leave her…but it had been part of her for so long that sometimes she forgot it was there.
And if she had not joined the Ghosts, so many people would have died. Maglarion would have destroyed Malarae, and Kalastus would have turned Rasadda to ashes. Ranarius would have thrown Cyrioch into the sea, Mihaela would have unleashed an army of enslaved souls bound into living armor, and Rhames would have claimed the Ascendant Bloodcrystal and rebuilt the dark empire of ancient Maat.
Caina could take not credit for any of those victories. She would not. Luck and good fortune had been with her.
But if her father had not been murdered, if she had not joined the Ghosts, than all those people would have perished.
Yet Caina still wished her father was here.
“Something wrong?” said Corvalis, donning his own nightfighter grab. He wore black chain mail beneath a leather jerkin, his sword and dagger at his belt.
“Nothing,” said Caina. “Though we are about to break into the mansion of a Lord Governor of the Empire.”
Corvalis snorted. “Compared to some of the other things we’ve done, this is a pleasant afternoon stroll.”
He had a point.
Caina tucked the ring beneath her jacket and donned her shadow-cloak.
It was a wondrous thing, black as night and lighter than the finest silk. The Ghost nightkeepers created them using a secret method, fusing shadows with the silk of spiders. The cloak weighed nothing at all, and it blurred and merged with the shadows, allowing her to move through the darkness with great stealth. Additionally, so long as she pulled up the cowl, the cloak shielded her from both spells of divination and mind-controlling sorcery.
The cloak had saved her life more than once.
Corvalis donned his own shadow-cloak. It transformed him into a hulking, silent shadow. He moved with just as much stealth as she did, but he had learned stealth in far grimmer circumstances. His father had sold him to the Kindred assassins as a child, and they had brutalized him into an efficient, skilled killer. Yet he had left the Kindred to rescue his sister and had joined the Ghosts.
“Corvalis,” said Caina.
She stepped closer, lifted their masks, and kissed him long upon the lips.
“That was,” said Corvalis when they broke apart, “unexpected.”
“I love you,” said Caina.
“I love you, too,” said Corvalis. He grinned. “Let’s go break into a Lord Governor’s study.”
They donned their masks and departed the Rusalka’s Kiss.
It was a cold, damp night, a thick mist rolling off Mornu’s harbor. In the gloom Caina could just make out the glow of the lighthouse, but saw little else. That was good – the weather would make it all the easier to enter the mansion unseen.
The Lord Governor’s residence sat on a hill overlooking the town, fortified by its own low wall of gleaming white stone. It resembled a townhouse in the Imperial capital, complete with a colonnaded arcade and a peaked roof of red clay tiles. A watchman stood guard at the gates, but it was a simple matter to avoid him, jump the wall, and make their way to the mansion proper.
Lord Nisias did not seem the sort to bother himself unduly about security. Which was odd, if he was kidnapping people and selling them to slavers. Perhaps Varia Province’s distance from Malarae had made him complacent.
If so, he would pay for it tonight.
Caina slipped the rope from her belt, unhooked the grapnel, and threw it. The rope uncoiled, and she felt the grapnel catch upon the clay tiles of the roof. She tugged it a few times, making sure the rope would support her weight.
Then she nodded to Corvalis. He vanished into the shadows behind a bush. Caina took a deep breath, gripped the rope with her gloved hands, and scaled the wall.
The plan was simple enough, and they had used it before to good effect. Caina would break into the Lord Governor’s study and retrieve his records from the trapped drawer, while Corvalis kept watch from the mansion’s grounds. If he saw any signs of alarm, he would create a disturbance, and Caina would escape in the chaos.
But she did not think that would be necessary. The mansion of even a minor lord in Malarae had a dozen guards, locked and barred windows, even sorcerous wards shielding the entrances. Lord Nicias’s residence had none of those things.
Again she wondered at his complacency. A man breaking the Emperor’s laws and consorting with the enemies of the Empire usually took greater care. Perhaps Nisias was simply a fool. Or perhaps Ryther had set them upon the Lord Governor’s trail for reasons of his own.
Caina intended to find the truth.
After a moment she reached the third floor and braced her boots against the wall, her arms tight with strain. Caina was grateful for all the long hours she had spent practicing the forms of unarmed combat. The climb had been difficult, but nonetheless well within her strength.
She hung motionless for a moment, considering the Lord Governor’s study. It occupied a solar with tall, high, shuttered windows built in the Imperial style. The shutters could be opened, but given the chill and damp weather of Varia province, Caina wondered if Nisias ever bothered.
She drew a dagger and slipped the blade into the gap between the shutters. A simple tug of the blade popped the latch, and the shutters swung out. Caina went over the sill and into the solar, her boots making no sound against the floor. The windows had not been locked, and she saw no signs of mechanical or sorcerous traps.
Either Nisias was one of the dumbest slave traders Caina had encountered, or he simply wasn’t involved.
Or Ryther had sent her here for another reason.
Caina kept the dagger in her left hand and went to the desk.
It was a massive slab of polished Ulkaari oak. The drawers were large enough that Caina could have hidden herself within them, if she squeezed. Had Nisias felt like it, he could have concealed corpses within them.
Caina felt a twinge of unease at the thought, and then went to work on the drawer Ryther had indicated. As the magus had warned, it was trapped with a fiendish mechanical device, one that would unleash a spray of poisoned needles on anyone who attempted to force the lock. Fortunately Halfdan had taught her to pick locks long ago, and Caina’s time as a Ghost had given her a great deal of practice. She pried aside a wooden panel on the side of the drawer and jammed the intricate gears and springs that powered the trap. Then she slid a pick into the lock, probing for the tumblers. After a few moments, the lock clicked, and Caina slid the drawer open.
A single massive, leather-bound ledger rested within the drawer. Caina lifted it toward the dim light leaking through the window and turned the pages. Nisias Druzen kept careful, detailed records. He listed every slave his hired thugs had kidnapped from the province, their age, their health, and how much money he had obtained from their sale to the Istarish slavers.
It was even in his own handwriting.
Caina shook her head in disgust and closed the ledger. Nisias had condemned himself with his own hand. She would return to Corvalis, and together they would plan a fatal accident for the corrupt Lord Governor.
She tucked the ledger under one arm, turned, and stopped.
Caina tugged her mask down far enough to uncover her nose and sniffed the air.
She smelled blood.
Her eyes swept the solar. Had she cut herself on the trap, perhaps on a blade smeared with numbing poison so she would not feel the wound? No, if she had lost enough blood to smell it, she would have become light-headed by now.
Which meant the smell was coming from somewhere else.
There were two other doors in the solar. One opened in the corridor, leading to the other rooms on the mansion’s top floor. The other was on Caina’s left, and if the mansion had been built in the Imperial style, it led to the Lord Governor’s private rooms.
She saw a dark puddle spreading from beneath that door.
Blood. Freshly spilled.
Caina hesitated. One part of her mind argued for retreating back down the rope and enlisting Corvalis’s aid. Another part urged her forward at once.
She glided forward, careful not to step in the spreading blood, and put her ear to the door.
Nothing. Utter silence.
Caina tucked the ledger into her satchel and opened the door, dagger ready.
Beyond she saw a well-furnished sitting room, dotted with overstuffed chairs and gleaming tables. Wooden shelves held books that looked as if they had never been read, and busts of long-dead Emperors and nobles. The intricate Anshani carpet was thick and soft.
A dead woman lay by the door, her blood soaking into the carpet.
Caina stepped over the blood and examined the woman. She looked like a Szaldic townswoman of middle years, her face lined and her hands callused from years of work. Blood soaked her neck and the front of her dress, her glassy eyes gazing at the ceiling, her face slack.
Her right hand clenched a bloody dagger, and a disturbing thought worked its way into Caina’s mind.
The dead woman had cut her own throat.
She had cut her own throat so violently that she had almost decapitated herself. That meant she had stood there, sawing away with the dagger, until she finally collapsed from blood loss.
It was a terrible way to commit suicide.
Unless she had been forced to do it.
Caina touched the dead woman’s forehead. It was still warm, and the blood had not even begun to dry. Most likely she had killed herself while Caina had still been climbing the rope up the wall.
She heard a muffled groan, and raised her dagger.
A half-open door stood on the far side of the sitting room. Caina crossed the room and pushed the door open the rest of the way. Beyond she saw a bedroom dominated by an enormous four-poster bed. Two more corpses, a man and a woman, lay upon the floor, daggers clutched in their hands, their throats cut.
Lord Governor Nisias Druzen lay upon the bed, still wearing his finery, his eyes staring unblinking at the ceiling. For a moment Caina thought that he was dead, that he had also slashed his own throat. But his chest rose and fell, and the skin of his neck was unbroken.
He was alive…and stared at the ceiling while two corpses bled out around his bed.
Disturbed, Caina moved closer. Nisias made no reaction, and Caina bent over him. The appearance of a hooded shadow holding a dagger would get a reaction out of most people, but Nisias only blinked. He did not move, did not try to defend himself.
He only blinked.
Caina frowned, and gave his hand a gentle jab with the point of her dagger.
Again he only blinked.
Caina sniffed his breath. Had he been drugged? She knew of a few drugs that could induce a peculiar, trance-like state, though she could not imagine why the Lord Governor might have taken them. Perhaps the dead people on the floor had taken some sort of drug and gone berserk, killing themselves in their mania…
Caina smelled nothing but wine and expensive cheese upon his breath, but she felt a sharp, crawling tingle. She put one hand upon his forehead, and the tingle sharpened.
As a child she had been scarred by a necromancer, and ever since then she had been able to sense the presence of active sorcery. The ability had become only more acute as she grew older, and now she could often distinguish between the degree and intensity of spells.
Someone had put a spell upon Nisias. A mind-controlling spell, unless she missed her guess.
Suddenly the corpses upon the floor made a great deal more sense. Certain forms of sorcery controlled the minds of its victims, forcing them to fight in defense of the sorcerer.
Or to cut their own throats.
Nisias flinched as Caina straightened up, and she felt the sharp tingle of the spell intensify.
“The door,” rasped Nisias, and he pointed at the wall.
Then he went limp, his arm falling to the bed.
Caina turned and saw a faint glimmer of light in the wooden paneling of the bedroom wall.
A secret door.
Caina examined the wall and found the trigger. The hidden door swung open without a sound, revealing a set of stairs spiraling into the depths of the mansion. It was not unusual for a noble’s mansion to have at least one or two hidden passages. The stairs might lead to an escape tunnel, or it might lead to a hidden vault beneath the mansion, where Nisias kept his treasures…or where he could carry out activities unobserved.
Given the corpses upon the carpet, Caina suspected the latter.
But since Nisias lay trapped within a spell, perhaps someone else was carrying out secret activities in the vault.
She returned her dagger to its boot sheath and drew a throwing knife with her left hand. With her right she pulled her curved ghostsilver dagger from its scabbard. Ghostsilver was proof against sorcery, and had the power to penetrate defensive spells.
Caina thought she might need the dagger sooner rather than later.
She went down the stairs, moving without sound against the rough stone steps. Enspelled globes had been embedded into the curved wall at regular intervals, throwing their harsh glow over the stone. The walls grew cold and clammy as Caina descended beneath the earth.
Then the stairs ended in a large stone vault, and Caina stepped into an abattoir.
And a dark scene from her memories.
Six steel tables stood throughout the vault, and upon each rested a corpse in various stages of dissection. Shelves held books, scrolls, organs floating in jars of brine, and knives and scalpels caked in dried blood. A wooden worktable stood at the far end of the vault, laden down with more books and scrolls and papers covered with arcane diagrams.
Oberon Ryther stood before the worktable, smiling at her.
“Ah,” said Ryther. “I see my trap has caught a fly. A nasty, buzzing little fly.”
“Then it was you,” said Caina, using the rasping, disguised voice Theodosia had taught her. “It was you all along. The slavers, Nisias, everything. You…”
“Oh, don’t bother with the stage voice,” said Ryther with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I know exactly who you are, Caina Amalas. A Ghost nightfighter and a woman of many disguises…and the whore of the First Magus’s miserable bastard son.”
Caina’s alarm sharpened. Only a few people outside of the Ghosts knew who she really was, and even fewer knew that Corvalis was Decius Aberon’s son. And there was no way that Ryther could know that, no way at all.
“I see you met the Moroaica,” said Caina, using her normal voice, cold and hard.
“Getting closer,” said Ryther. “Yes, I’ve known the creature called the Moroaica for some time. Probably longer than you have been alive. A cruel mistress, to be sure, but she has taught me many useful things.”
“She will destroy you,” said Caina. “Her disciples are tools. She keeps them so long as they are useful, and then casts them aside in the end.”
Ryther’s smile was chill. “I know this, Caina of the Ghosts. Far better than you. But you should know this by now. For we know each other very well, do we not?”
“I have never seen you before coming to Mornu,” said Caina, but a suspicion started to form in the back of her mind.
“Come, come,” said Ryther. “The mistress thinks you are so very clever. I have my doubts. I think you are merely a whore who has gotten lucky too often. First in Cyrioch, and then in Calvarium and Caer Magia, and…”
“Ranarius,” hissed Caina.
Oberon Ryther – or, rather, the creature that had stolen Oberon Ryther’s body – smiled at her.
“So you do understand,” he said.