“Ghost in the Cowl” sample chapter

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COMING SOON

Chapter 1 – Istarinmul

Two weeks after she lost everything, Caina Amalas stood on the ship’s deck and threw knives at the mast.

It was a way to pass the time and keep herself from thinking too much. To distract herself from the memories that flooded her mind if she was idle for too long. Sometimes she locked herself in her cabin for hours and performed the exercises of open-handed combat she had learned at the Vineyard long ago, working through the unarmed forms over and over again until every muscle in her body throbbed and spots danced before her eyes.

But if she stayed alone too long, her thoughts went to the dark places. To New Kyre and the blaze of golden fire above the Pyramid of Storm. To Sicarion laughing as he drove his dagger into the back of the man who had raised Caina. To the Moroaica, weeping as the white fire blazed behind her.

To Corvalis, lying dead upon the ground of the netherworld.

And when her thoughts went there, Caina found herself gazing at the veins in her arm, thinking of the knives she carried.

She retained enough of her right mind to realize that she was not thinking clearly, that her mood was dangerous.

So when that mood came, she went to the deck and threw knives at the mast.

At first the sailors were alarmed, but they soon grew accustomed to it. They had been told that she was a mercenary named Marius, a courier for the Imperial Collegium of Jewelers, delivering contracts now that trade between Istarinmul and the Empire had opened up again. An important passenger could be forgiven an eccentricity or two.

That, and she never missed the mast.

Soon the sailors ignored her, even without Captain Qalim’s orders. Caina suspected that the sailors would have reacted rather differently if they knew that beneath the disguise “Marius” was actually a twenty-two year old woman, but she did not care.

She could not bring herself to care about very much.

So she threw knives at the mast, the blades sinking into the wood. Compensating for the motion of the waves and the wind kept her mind busy. Pulling the knives out of the mast and sharpening the blades anew kept her hands occupied.

The sailors ignored her, but Caina nonetheless attracted an audience.

When the Emperor had sent her on a ship from New Kyre’s harbor, she had expected to share the vessel with cargo. Kyracian olive oil, most likely, or perhaps Anshani silk. The Starfall Straits had been closed to trade for nearly a year, and cargoes had piled up in New Kyre’s warehouses.

She had not, however, expected to share the ship with a circus.

More specifically, Master Cronmer’s Traveling Circus Of Wonders And Marvels.

Caina flung another knife, the blade sinking into the mast, and Master Cronmer himself approached.

Cronmer was huge, nearly seven feet tall, with the shoulders and chest of a titan. He was bald, with a graying mustache cut in Caerish style, and wore a brilliant red coat. She saw the dust on his sleeves, and knew he had eaten bread and cheese for breakfast, along with the vile mixed wine the ship carried.

“Master Marius,” boomed Cronmer in the Caerish tongue. “You should come work for me.”

Caina shook her head. “I am already employed.” She made sure to keep her Caerish accent in place, her voice gruff and raspy, as Theodosia had taught her to do.

“Bah,” said Cronmer. “Fetching papers for those dusty old merchants? You should join my Circus. We’ll use your talent to create a stupendous knife-throwing show, my boy.” He grinned behind his bushy mustache. “Aye, you’ll throw knives at some lusty Istarish lass, your blades will land a half-inch from her skin, and she’ll melt into your arms in the end…”

“Working for the Collegium,” said Caina, “pays better.”

Spending the voyage throwing knives at the mast and brooding had likely been a poor idea. A spy needed to remain inconspicuous, and Caina had not bothered to do so. If she was to rebuild the Ghost circle of Istarinmul, she would have to take greater care.

But she could not bring herself to give a damn.

“Mere money,” said Cronmer, striking a pose. “What is that compared to the roar of the crowd, of a woman in your arms, of…”

“Cronmer,” said a woman with a heavy Istarish accent. Cronmer’s wife, a short Istarish woman named Tiri, hurried to his side. She looked tiny next to her massive husband, and they bickered constantly, but they had been married for twenty years and had six children. “Leave the poor man alone. The life of the circus is not for everyone.”

Cronmer rumbled. “But the Traveling Circus Of Wonders And…”

“Can’t you see?” whispered Tiri into Cronmer’s ear. Caina heard her anyway. “Can you not see that he has lost someone? Likely when the golden dead rose. Do not pester him.”

Caina wondered how Tiri had figured that out. On the other hand, Caina had spent the last two weeks throwing knives into the mast and staring into nothing. It was hardly a mystery.

“Yes, well,” said Cronmer, a hint of chagrin on his face. “If you ever get tired of working for fat old merchants, Master Marius, come see me. The Circus shall be at the Inn of the Crescent Moon for the next week, and then we shall perform before Master Ulvan of the Brotherhood of Slavers.”

Caina had no wish to visit the home of an Istarish slave trader, but it caught her curiosity. “What does a slaver want with a circus?”

“A celebration,” said Tiri. “He has been elevated to a Master of the Brotherhood, endowed with his own cowl and brand. Traditionally the newly-elevated Masters throw lavish celebrations, and he has hired the Circus for that purpose.”

“Just as well,” said Cronmer. “The Kyracian nobles were humorless folk. Too enamored of their own traditions to enjoy the Circus. Well, Master Marius, if you change your mind, the Inn of the Crescent Moon is in the Cyrican Quarter.”

Caina nodded, barely hearing him.

“We had best gather the others, husband,” said Tiri, “for we shall put in before noon.”

Caina blinked and looked over the ship’s rail.

Istarinmul rose before her.

She yanked the knives from the mast, returned them to her belt, and walked to the prow.

The city was huge, larger than New Kyre and almost as large as Malarae itself. The Padishah’s capital occupied a jut of land that almost reached the southern end of the Argamaz Desert. The resultant Starfall Straits gave the Padishah his power. The domains of Istarinmul were far smaller than the Empire of Nighmar or the vast lands ruled by the Shahenshah of Anshan. Yet the Padishah of Istarinmul could close the Starfall Straits, blocking off traffic from the Cyrican Sea and the Alqaarin Sea, and halt the world’s commerce. Kyracian merchants visited every port in the world, but Istarinmul could close half the world’s ports to the other half.

And ships from Istarinmul ranged across the seas, buying and selling slaves.

Even through her apathy, Caina felt a twinge of anger at that.

But for now Caina gazed at Istarinmul. The city gleamed white from walls whitewashed to reflect the hot sun of the southern lands. In the city’s core rose a massive palace of brilliant white marble, its domes and towers sheathed in gleaming gold. The Golden Palace, where the Padishah sat and governed Istarinmul with his nobles and magistrates. It faced another, slightly larger palace, a towering edifice of white stone and domed towers, gleaming crystals lining its roofs. It was the College, where Istarinmul’s Alchemists carried out their secret studies.

It was a beautiful building, and the crystals lining the towers gave off a brilliant gleam in the sunlight.

Caina’s knowledge that the Alchemists transmuted their foes into crystalline statues to forever adorn the walls of the College rather ruined its beauty.

Cronmer stomped away, shouting commands to his performers. Captain Qalim, a tall man of Anshani birth, spoke to his first mate, who bawled curses and threats as the ship turned toward Istarinmul’s western harbor. Tiri lingered for a moment, gazing at Caina.

“What is it?” said Caina. “Do you think to recruit me, too?”

Tiri shook her head. “No. It is just…have you ever been to Istarinmul before?”

“I have not,” said Caina.

“Then be careful,” said Tiri. “You are an able-bodied young man, but Istarinmul is a dangerous place for the unwary. If you offend the Alchemists or the emirs, they will kill you. You are Caerish, yes?” Caina nodded. “An emir or an Alchemist can kill a foreigner, and the hakims and the wazirs – ah, the magistrates, they are called in the Empire – would not blink an eye. And do not go alone into strange neighborhoods. The Collectors of the Slavers’ Brotherhood are everywhere, and they often kidnap foreigners and forge the papers of servitude. If you are not careful, you might end up in the mines or pulling oars upon one of the Padishah’s galleys. And the Teskilati, the secret police, have eyes and ears everywhere. If they think you are a spy for the Emperor, they will make you disappear.”

Caina felt a twinge of annoyance, but pushed it aside. Tiri was only trying to warn her. And Istarinmul was a very dangerous place.

“I will take care,” said Caina. “The Collegium has rented a room for me, and I have no intention of going out after dark or alone anywhere. The sooner I am gone from Istarinmul, the better.” That was a lie, but there was no need to burden Tiri with the truth.

“May the Living Flame watch over you,” said Tiri. She hesitated. “And those you have lost.”

The pain rolled through Caina, hot and sharp.

“Thank you,” she said, and Tiri joined her husband.

Caina watched as the ship moved closer to the quays in the crowded harbor. The districts near the docks and the seawall did not look nearly as opulent as the neighborhoods near the Golden Palace and the College. The western harbor smelled as harbors did the world over, of salt and rotting fish and exotic cargo. Yet the harbor of Istarinmul had an extra odor, the vile smell of men lying in their own filth for days on end.

The smell of the slave ships.

An Istarish war galley guarded the harbor’s entrance. Banks of oars jutted into the water, and armed Istarish soldiers in their spiked helms and chain mail stood ready with crossbows. A strange metal device jutted from the ship’s flank, a steel spout wrought in the shape of a snarling lion, connected to an apparatus of pumps and tubes.

A spigot for Hellfire.

Caina had read of the strange elixir the Alchemists of Istarinmul brewed in secret, the potion that once set ablaze could not be quenched by water. The Master Alchemist Callatas had devised the formula centuries past, and one ship equipped with a Hellfire spigot could turn an entire fleet into an inferno. The Kyracians had tried to conquer Istarinmul once, centuries ago, and the Alchemists had turned their fleet to ashes. Istarinmul stood between the Empire and Anshan, yet Hellfire insured that the Padishah’s capital had never fallen its stronger neighbors.

And fed the rumors that the Master Alchemists ruled Istarinmul in truth, with the Padishah as their puppet.

But the galleys remained motionless, and Captain Qalim’s ship docked at a stone quay.

Caina went to her cabin, retrieved her heavy pack, and set foot in Istarinmul for the first time.

The docks were chaos, but ordered chaos. Rows upon rows of stone quays lined the harbor, lined with ships loading and unloading goods. Everywhere Caina saw carts rumbling back and forth, saw heaped crates and barrels. Men in gray tunics labored to move barrels and crates, and she realized they were slaves, likely owned by whatever magistrate oversaw the harbor.

She saw hundreds of the slave porters. Thousands of them.

So many slaves.

The anger burned through her again, struggling against her apathy. For a moment Caina stood motionless, caught in the grip of rage and pain. She had lost the man she loved, she had lost her teacher, and she had been banished from her home. Now she was in this miserable city built upon the backs of suffering slaves, and there was nothing she could do for them. She had been sent to rebuild Istarinmul’s Ghost circle, the eyes and ears of the Emperor in the city, but what use would that be?

Gods, what use would any of it be?

For a moment Caina thought of veins, the weight of the throwing knives in her belt…

No.

She started forward, walking further into Istarinmul’s docks.

She wore a man’s clothing, boots, trousers, and a heavy leather jerkin, sword and dagger at her belt, her pack slung over her shoulders. Her hope was that the disguise would let her pass unnoticed, but she saw that was a false hope.

The beggars saw to that.

Hundreds of them lined the street. Some were missing arms and legs, veterans of the fighting in the Argamaz Desert. Some had the look of peasants driven from their lands to seek their fortunes in the city. Others were old, their faces marked with brands. Slaves who had grown too old to work, put out by their masters to die in the streets. She wanted to help them, but she dared not. If she gave a beggar a single coin, the rest would swarm her, and she might well be robbed and killed.

So she kept walking, trying to ignore their pleas. Fortunately, there was a great deal of traffic upon the street, and she was just one more face in the crowd, another ragged Caerish mercenary dusty from travel.

And then she felt the faint tingle of sorcery.

Caina stopped, surprised. A cart nearly ran her over, and she sidestepped, ignoring the driver’s outraged curses. At the age of eleven, half her life ago, a necromancer had murdered Caina’s father and wounded her with sorcery. Ever since then, Caina had been able to sense the presence and intensity of arcane forces.

And she felt sorcerous power now. Faint, but it was there.

She turned, and saw one of the beggars staring at her.

He was an old man of Istarish birth, his hair white and wispy, his bronze-colored skin scored with a thousand lines. A steady tremor went through his limbs, and the muscles of his neck twitched and danced. He looked sick, and Caina doubted the poor man would last another week.

Yet the faint aura of sorcery came from him.

And his eyes were…wrong.

They were blue. Most men of Anshani and Istarish descent had brown or black eyes, but there were always exceptions. Yet this man’s eyes were a pale, ghostly, blue. The color of flames licking at the bottom of an iron pan.

No one had eyes that color.

The old beggar looked at Caina, his eyes widening.

“Who are you?” said Caina in Istarish, remembering to keep her Caerish accent in place.

“Wraithblood,” he whispered.

“Wraithblood,” said Caina. “That is your name?”

“Wraithblood,” said the old man. “Coins. Give me coins. I will buy the black blood again. And then I shall see my wife and sons and my daughters. They all died so long ago. I can…I can tell them I am sorry. I can…coins.” He raised his wasted hands, as if to paw at Caina’s legs, but they dropped into his lap. “Coins. I will buy wraithblood. Buy the black blood.”

“What happened to you?” said Caina.

“I…I do not remember,” said the old beggar. “The blood…the blood takes away the pain. I…I think…”

His strange eyes grew huge, and he shied against the wall.

“I can see you,” he whispered.

“Of course you can,” said Caina. “I am right here.”

“The shadows,” said the beggar. “I can…I can see all the shadows. So many shadows! They are following you! All the shadows!” He began to weep. “Don’t let them hurt me, please, don’t let them…”

“I won’t hurt you,” said Caina. “I…”

“Here, now,” said a gruff voice. “What is this? Begging is illegal.”

Caina turned, and saw a stout man approaching. He was about twenty-five, and unlike the slaves and the beggars, he looked well-fed. He wore gleaming chain mail beneath a jerkin of black leather, and a scimitar rested at his belt. A steel badge pinned to his jerkin showed a hand holding a coiled, thorn-studded whip.

The sigil of the Slavers’ Brotherhood of Istarinmul.

This man was a Collector, one of the Brotherhood’s lowest ranks, a hunter who ranged about seeking new slaves for the Brotherhood’s markets.

Or one who kidnapped solitary foreigners from the docks.

Such as Caina.

“His eyes,” said Caina.

“Eh?” said the Collector, surprised. “What about them?”

“Is he sick?” said Caina.

“What?” said the Collector. “No, he’s addicted to wraithblood.”

“What is wraithblood?” said Caina, watching for the Collector’s associates.

“A drug,” said the Collector. “The poor and other such vermin prefer it. Apparently it gives visions of dead loved ones and other such rot. Eventually it drives its users insane and turns their eyes blue.” He swept a thick arm over the street. “You’ll see hundreds of them here. The Padishah ought to have them killed and spare honest men the stench.”

“Indeed,” said Caina. The Collector was looking at her with barely concealed greed. A plan, hard and cold, came together in her mind. “Which way to the Cyrican Quarter? I’ve messages to deliver.”

“Why, right that way,” said the Collector. “Head up the street with the warehouses and take a right turn at the public fountain. You will come to the Cyrican Bazaar shortly.”

In between her frenetic exercise sessions and throwing knives at the mast, Caina had taken the time to memorize a map of Istarinmul. The Collector’s directions were wrong.

Likely leading her into a trap.

“Thank you,” said Caina, and she left without another word.

She counted to twenty, and then glanced over her shoulder to see the Collector hastening away, no doubt to warn his friends.

The old beggar stared at her, his strange eyes full of terror.

Caina looked over the other beggars and saw many like the old man, their eyes transformed to that pale blue color.

And from every one of them she felt the faint hint of a sorcerous aura.

Strange. Very strange. But Caina had more immediate concerns at the moment.

She turned the corner and walked down the street lined with warehouses. It was deserted at the moment.

The perfect place to make a foreigner disappear into a slaver’s inventory.

Caina considered for a moment, then went to one of the warehouses. The masonry was rough, and she found ample handholds and footholds. A moment later she climbed to the roof, and jumped from warehouse to warehouse, taking care to avoid the skylights.

No one ever looked up.

She jumped to the last warehouse, dropped down, and crawled to the edge of the roof. The street ended in a square surrounded by three towering, rickety tenements of whitewashed brick. A small fountain occupied the center of the square, and the place looked deserted.

Save for the four men in black leather jerkins waiting there. One of them carried a net, and another a set of iron shackles. Their plans for Caina were clear enough. Likely they planned to sell her to the mines, or perhaps to the fighting pits.

She felt a flicker of grim amusement as she imagined their reaction once they learned they had kidnapped a woman. Caina was not unattractive, and she knew how to dress and carry herself to appear pleasing to the eyes of men, but the massive scar across her belly would keep them from selling her to some nobleman’s harem. Likely they would sell her as a kitchen drudge or a domestic servant, and such slaves commanded far lower prices than strong backs for the mines.

Well, she would inflict far more serious disappointments upon them before the day was done.

Caina crawled back along the roof and peered through one of the skylights. The warehouse below was deserted, and stored massive heaps of bulging sacks, lashed in place by rope nets. After a moment’s examination, Caina realized that the sacks held rice. The plantations of Istarinmul grew coffee and fruit and olives and many other things, but the Istarish themselves ate a great deal of rice.

Enough rice to pile it in sacks twenty feet high.

Caina dropped through the skylight and landed on one of the piles, a puff of dust rising from her boots. She scrambled down the net to the floor, and examined the knots for a moment. Then she drew her short sword and went to work, cutting ropes here and there. She stepped back, nodded in satisfaction, and after a moment’s thought hid her heavy pack behind another one of the piles.

She was going to have to run very quickly, and she did not want it slowing her down.

Then she went out the front door, making sure to leave it open behind her.

Caina walked the remainder of the street and into the square. She ought to feel frightened, she knew, but she felt nothing but an icy indifference. Though she did feel anger.

Quite a lot of it, now that she thought about it.

She took on more step into the square as the Collectors moved toward her.

“Welcome,” said the Collector she had spoken with earlier, smiling as he raised a club. “You’re going to come with us. Put down your weapons and come quietly. If not, well…you’ll fetch just as high of a price with a few bruises.”

Caina made an expression of terror come over her face, and then spun and ran for the rice warehouse.

“Take him!” roared the lead Collector, and the men sprang after her.

They were fast. Which made sense, since they kidnapped people for a living. Caina head the crack of leather as two of the Collectors unfurled whips, no doubt to entangle her legs and pull her down.

But she had a head start, and she dashed back into the warehouse.

And as she did, she yanked a dagger from its sheath and slashed through the remaining rope holding the massive stack of rice sacks in place.

The Collectors ran through the door after her.

“You’re just making it harder on yourself,” said the leader, grinning. “I am going to…”

Right about then the twenty-foot stack of sacks collapsed, and two or three tons of dry rice fell upon the Collectors.

The sheer force of the impact drove one man to the ground with such force that his head cracked against the hard floor. The other three men disappeared as dozens of forty-pound rice sacks fell upon them with bone-cracking force. Caina heard limbs snap, heard the Collectors scream. One man clawed his way free, and Caina cut his throat before he regained his feet. Another was trapped beneath three sacks, screaming in pain, and Caina put him out of his misery.

The lead Collector staggered to his feet, his left arm hanging at an odd angle. He turned towards Caina with a furious curse, but she seized his left arm and twisted. The Collector fell with a scream of agony, and she kicked him in the gut and sent him sprawling. He tried to stand, but she put her boot on his broken arm and he went rigid.

“Who are you?” whispered the Collector.

“Why did you try to take me?” said Caina.

“The…the Brotherhood,” said the Collector, “they’re buying slaves right and left.” His words tumbled out in a terrified rush. “It…it ought to flood the market, but the prices keep going up and up. I’ve never seen anything like it. It…it wasn’t personal, I just need the money…”

She looked into his eyes and saw the fear there. And for some reason she remembered the final words of Horemb the scribe before he passed to the next world, the words he had claimed would one day aid her.

“The star is the key to the crystal,” she said. “Do you know what that means?”

“I…I don’t know, I swear,” said the Collector. “A poem? I don’t know. Let me go. I’ll do whatever you want. What do you want?”

The question cut into her like a knife.

She remembered Corvalis, remembered his strong arms around her. His dark wit, and the way his green eyes flashed when he found something funny. The aplomb with which he had masqueraded as Anton Kularus, merchant of coffee. His mouth against hers, his body against hers…

She did not know what might have passed over her expression, but dread flooded the Collector’s face.

“I want Corvalis back,” she told him, “but I will settle for one less slave trader in the world.”

He started to scream, but her dagger cut the cry short.

Caina cleaned her weapons and her hands and stepped over the mess to the door. Whoever found the dead Collectors would likely assume they had fallen to fighting and accidentally knocked over the sacks. So long as Caina departed quickly, she need not worry about vengeance from the Brotherhood or the dead men’s families.

Odd, that. She had just killed four men…and she felt nothing at all. Once she would have felt guilty over it. But now, it seemed, she felt nothing but grief.

And rage.

Still, the Collectors had deserved it. How many innocent men and women and children had they sold into slavery?

Again Caina felt the overwhelming sense of futility, but shoved it aside with some effort.

She left the warehouse, made sure she was unobserved, and set off for the Cyrican Quarter and the House of Agabyzus.

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