“Ghost in the Hunt” excerpt

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CHAPTER 1 – SHADOW KNIVES

The men who sought the enormous bounty upon her head thought that she was a man, so Caina dressed as a woman.

It was almost refreshing. Since coming to Istarinmul a year ago, Caina had spent most of her time disguised as a man, both for the freedom of movement and to add an additional layer of deception against her enemies. She rarely went out in women’s clothing, not since she had disguised herself as Natalia of the Nine Knives during the Master Slaver Ulvan’s grand ascension.

Considering what she had done to Ulvan after that, disappearing had seemed prudent.

“I appreciate this,” said Caina, adjusting the fold of her blue dress.

“It is hardly a difficulty,” said Damla, owner of the House of Agabyzus, the most prosperous coffee house in Istarinmul’s Cyrican Quarter. “After all you have done for my family, you could ask me whatever you wish. The loan of a dress and a headscarf is nothing.”

Caina nodded and considered herself in Damla’s mirror. The borrowed clothing fit well enough, though too loose about the hips and the chest. Caina had cut off her hair in a fit of grief a year past, and had kept it close-cropped to make disguises easier. Her face was pale and increasingly gaunt, the cheekbones sharper and the blue eyes colder than she remembered. Still, the dress and headscarf made her look like any other young woman of Istarinmul, albeit one of Nighmarian or Szaldic birth.

At least until someone looked into her eyes. Killers had eyes like hers.

“Do you not have any women’s clothing?” said Damla. “I have seen you wear any number of disguises.”

“I do,” said Caina, buckling a belt of black leather around her waist. A single dagger rested in a sheath at her hip. The weapon was distinctive, and she had stolen it from the laboratory of the Grand Master Callatas himself. If she was caught with it, it would mean her death, but the nature of her enemies meant she wanted to keep the weapon close at hand. “I suspect Teskilati informers are watching the nearest safe house. I don’t dare go there, at least until they stop watching so closely.” She pulled on a pair of sturdy leather boots. Sandals were more comfortable in Istarinmul’s blazing heat, but sandals did not offer hidden sheaths for daggers. “So Marius the courier enters the House of Agabyzus, and a random young woman leaves.”

Damla snorted. “If Marius keeps disappearing into the House of Agabyzus for hours at a time, that will be suspicious.”

“Actually,” said Caina, hiding sheathed knives beneath the dress’s loose sleeves, “the Teskilati think you are having an affair with Marius.”

Damla sniffed in disdain. It was not implausible that a courier would fall for her. Widow she might have been, but she was still fit, most likely from remaining on her feet all day. Any number of merchants, both her junior and senior, had made polite indications of interest, and Damla had just as politely declined them. Caina suspected that Damla would remarry at some point. It had been three years since her husband had fallen during Rezir Shahan’s attack upon Marsis.

Some wounds took a long time to heal, or never healed at all.

Caina knew that too well.

“A disgraceful rumor,” said Damla. “I am a respectable woman. For the Living Flame’s sake! You are not even a man.”

“A scandalous tale,” said Caina, giving her reflection one final check. “But it is better than the truth. If the Teskilati knew who I really was, they would kill us all and burn the House of Agabyzus to the ground.” The Padishah’s secret police were not merciful, and Caina was a Ghost, a spy of the Emperor of Nighmar. “A bit of salacious gossip is a flimsy shield, but an effective one.”

“True.” Damla sighed, her black dress and headscarf rustling as she shook her head. “If my part in the defeat of the Grand Master’s evil is a tarnished reputation, so be it. The price could be far higher.”

“It could be worse,” said Caina, turning away from the mirror. “Innkeepers and coffee merchants always have seedy reputations. But you could be an actress. Or a circus girl.”

Damla shuddered. “I did that once before, and I have no wish to do it again.” She grinned. “Though if you wish to don a skimpy costume once more and parade before a crowd as Natalia of the Nine Knives…well, you are the circlemaster. I shall not gainsay you.”

Caina laughed. “Not today. I wish to avoid attention.”

Damla’s smile faded. “Is this dangerous?”

“No more than usual,” said Caina. “There is a bounty of two million bezants upon my head.” Six months ago it had only been a million, but Caina and her growing network of allies had been busy. “I am in danger any time I set foot outside. But this should be safe enough.”

“The courier,” said Damla. “Do you think it is a trap?”

“I don’t know,” said Caina. “I have been circlemaster of Istarinmul for almost a year. I would have expected instructions from the Emperor and the other circlemasters long ago, but I have heard nothing but silence.”

“And rumors,” said Damla.

A dozen different contradictory rumors about the state of the Empire rebounded through the coffee houses of the merchants, each one darker than the last. They spoke of civil war within the Empire or a plot against the Emperor, the eastern provinces rising in revolt against Malarae. Others claimed that the Imperial Magisterium, the magi of the Empire, had splintered into warring factions, each faction seizing as many provinces as it could hold. Others whispered that the Ashbringers of old, the pyromancer-priests of the Saddaic provinces, had risen from the dead to wage war upon their ancient enemies.

But every rumor agreed upon a civil war within the Empire. Caina had received neither news nor instructions for nearly a year. A new Lord Ambassador to the Padishah’s court had not even arrived from the Empire.

And now, after a year of silence…a courier had arrived from Malarae.

Perhaps the courier was real.

Perhaps the courier was a trap. Two million bezants was a lot of money, enough to draw the attention of bounty hunters skilled enough to execute such an elaborate ruse.

“If it is a trap,” said Caina, “even a trap has its uses. Especially when turned back upon the man who set it.”

“You will be careful?” said Damla.

“Of course,” said Caina.

Damla shook her head. “Lies. You are never careful.”

“True,” said Caina.

“You will make Agabyzus be careful?” said Damla, her fingers brushing the side of her skirt. “I have already lost him once. I have no wish to lose him again.”

Caina nodded. “As careful as I can make him.”

It was only half a lie. Agabyzus would masquerade as the circlemaster and talk to the courier while Caina listened from the shadows. Damla’s elder brother had been the circlemaster of Istarinmul, at least until the Teskilati had destroyed the circle and imprisoned Agabyzus in the Widow’s Tower. After Caina had rescued him, Agabyzus had relinquished control of the Ghost circle to Caina. She doubted that the courier would believe that a twenty-three year old woman was the circlemaster of Istarinmul, even if Caina knew all the proper code words and signs.

If the courier was a trap for Caina, the deception might give them an edge.

“We should both return by midnight,” said Caina.

“Wake me when you return,” said Damla. She sighed. “Though I will not get any sleep until you return, I confess, and shall instead lie awake wondering if the Teskilati are about to fall upon us.”

“I am sorry,” said Caina.

“Do not be,” said Damla. “You did not bring the danger into our lives. If you had not come, I would have lost both my sons and my brother.”

“Then I shall strive to keep you from losing them again,” said Caina.

She left the House of Agabyzus and headed into the streets of the Cyrican Quarter.

###

It was harder to run and fight in dress than in the various male disguises she employed, but Caina admitted that the clothing of an Istarish woman had one advantage over that of a man.

It was so much cooler.

A mercenary’s leather armor or the fine robes and coats of a wealthy merchant were often damnably hot. Beneath her skirt the air felt pleasant against her legs, and she wished she had been able to wear sandals. Still, the sheathed daggers in her boots made for a reassuring presence.

The reassurance helped, because Agabyzus had picked the worst possible place for the meeting.

In the months she had known him, Caina had grown to respect Agabyzus’s considerable intellect and rely upon his counsel. He knew how to set up and maintain a network of informants. He also knew how to disguise himself well, and understood the intricate maze of power among Istarinmul’s nobles, magistrates, wealthy merchants, slavers, and Alchemists.

But the man had absolutely no tactical sense, and so had picked a half-constructed building for the meeting. When Caina had asked why, he replied that he had always met the couriers at deserted buildings since there were no witnesses at hand.

Caina wanted witnesses. The best place for this sort of meeting was the heart of a bazaar at noon or a coffee house in the early evening, a place crowded with hundreds of people. With so many witnesses, it was much harder to spring a trap. Far easier to kill someone in an abandoned building or a deserted place. Caina had done that herself a few times.

A half-finished building was even worse. With a proper bribe to the stonemasons or the carpenters, a corpse could be buried in the cellars with no one the wiser.

Caina had done that a few times, too.

She left the Cyrican Quarter behind and made her way to the Old Quarter at the heart of the city. To the north of the Old Quarter rose the towering domes and spires of the Masters’ Quarter and the Emirs’ Quarter, the gleaming domes of the Padishah’s Golden Palace standing only slightly taller than the domed towers of the College of Alchemists and the palace of Callatas himself. The Old Quarter lacked such ostentation, and Istarinmul’s more settled merchant associations based themselves here, men who bought and sold ores and gems and lumber and cheese. Their halls rose tall and solemn, built of gleaming white marble and fronted with delicate columns, the walls adorned with colorful mosaics of animals and forests. Merchants emerged from the halls as the sun went down, sober and paunchy middle-aged men in respectable robes and graying beards, and headed to coffee houses to discuss the day’s business. A few cast admiring glances Caina’s way, but she kept walking.

She came to a half-built merchants’ hall. The timber merchants had commissioned it to replace their old hall, and the cellars had been dug and the walls of stone and concrete raised. The marble fronting and columns and mosaics would come later. Nothing of value was within the building, so no fence stood around it, and no one had bothered to secure it.

Caina walked past the scaffolding and stacks of cut stone and into the entry hall, her hand straying to the sheathed dagger at her belt. One day the entrance hall would be a grand open space, with a skylight overhead and fountains bubbling upon the floor. Now it was just a rough space of cut stone and concrete, dust gritting beneath her boots, the roof open to the twilight sky. Supplies stood against one wall, hammers and chisels and planks and amphorae of lamp oil. A layer of rock dust covered the floor, marked with hundreds of footprints. Some of the tracks had been made by bare feet, which struck Caina as odd. Slaves often went barefoot, but the slaves of masons and builders almost always wore sandals since a jagged rock or a broken nail could slice open even the most callused foot.

Three dry, empty fountains stood in a row along the floor. Caina moved past them, her ears straining, but she heard nothing. Agabyzus had said he would wait for the courier on the second-floor balcony overlooking the entrance hall. Caina considered that another poor decision. The balcony let him observe the approach, yes, but it was also hard to escape. A large number of attackers could trap him upon the balcony, and…

Caina came to a stop.

Dark specks marked the dusty floor near the central fountain.

Blood.

Caina moved around the fountain, taking care to remain quiet, and saw the dead man.

He lay facedown upon the floor, blood pooling beneath him. The corpse wore the ragged clothing and steel-studded leather armor of a caravan guard, his short sword and dagger sheathed at his belt. A ragged, wet hole rested in the leather armor between his shoulders, his blood spreading beneath him.

Which meant the blade had gone through his torso and emerged from his chest.

Caina put a finger to the man’s neck, feeling for a pulse, but she knew it was futile. Her eyes flicked over the corpse, noting details. The skin beneath her finger was still warm, which meant the killing had taken place less than an hour ago. The dead man was young, no more than twenty-five, and had the musculature of a man accustomed to physical labor and fighting. Such a man would not die without a struggle. Yet his weapons remained in their scabbards. That meant he had been taken unawares, killed instantly with a single powerful blow that pierced his heart.

Caina looked around, slipping a throwing knife into her hand.

The hall was utterly deserted. The fountains provided cover, but not much. Did that mean the dead man had known his attacker, had turned his back? That made the most sense. Caina squinted at the ground, trying to make sense of the confused tracks.

She saw the marks of many bare feet upon the dust. Had the attacker or attackers been barefoot? More dark droplets marked the dust, leading toward the stairs up to the balcony overlooking the hall. Agabyzus had said he would wait upon the balcony for the courier. Was he up there now?

Or did his corpse lie there?

Caina did not want to have to tell Damla that her brother had been killed, but she suspected that was what had happened

She took a step toward the stairs, and then went motionless as a painful, shuddering tingle passed over her, like needles crawling up and down her skin.

The presence of sorcery.

Caina had no arcane ability, but at the age of eleven, she had been wounded by a necromancer. Ever since then, she had been able to sense sorcery, an ability that had proven useful in her work as a Ghost nightfighter and circlemaster. The sensitivity had become more acute as she grew older, and she could often discern the type and nature of a spell.

Yet she had never sensed this spell before.

Still, it felt familiar, almost like the spells of air and water Kylon of House Kardamnos had used to make himself stronger and faster. Or the spells the stormsingers of New Kyre had unleashed to fight the hordes of the golden dead in the Agora of Nations on the day the Moroaica had completed her great work and opened the rift of golden fire, the day Corvalis had died and Caina had lost everything…

Had it truly been a year ago?

Sometimes it felt as if it had been a lifetime. Sometimes she felt the pain of that loss as if it had happened an hour ago.

The sensation of the spell intensified, and Caina realized that this was not the time to dwell upon it.

She turned in a circle, seeking for the spell’s source.

The hall was still deserted. She scanned the balconies, even the edge of the walls far overhead.

Nothing. She was alone, save for the dead man upon the floor.

Yet the spell was getting stronger.

No. Closer. The spell’s intensity was not changing, but it was getting closer. Caina could have sworn the spell was coming from the dry fountain nearest to the doors.

As Caina stared at it, she saw the footprint appear.

She blinked, wondering if the fading light had tricked her eyes. Yet she was sure the mark of a bare foot had not been there before. Even as she looked, another footprint appeared, and another, and then one more.

Like a barefoot man was striding toward her.

An invisible, barefoot man.

The thought was absurd. Yet the Moroaica had used sorcery to alter her appearance. The undead priest Rhames had carried a mask that had allowed him to take the guise of a living man. Sorcery could do many things. Could it make a man completely invisible?

There was only one way to find out.

Caina lowered her head, as if staring at the dead courier. Yet she watched the progress of the silent footprints through the corner of her eye. She did a quick calculation, guessing at where an invisible man leaving those footprints would stand.

She whirled, flinging the knife in her right hand with all her strength. It spun from her fingers with a steely gleam…and came to a sudden stop fifteen feet away, quivering in midair.

A grunt of pain came to Caina’s ears, and the knife vanished.

And then a man appeared out of nothingness, grimacing as he yanked the bloody knife from his left shoulder with his right hand.

He was tall and lean and wore only a loincloth and a leather weapons belt, his bare feet dusty with grime, a bloodstained short sword waiting in his left hand. An intricate maze of elaborate scars covered his torso and upper arms, elaborate chains of symbols that looked like writing. The largest symbol occupied the center of his chest, an arrangement of scars that looked like a stylized, winged skull.

The man glared at Caina.

“You’ll regret that,” he spat, using the High Nighmarian tongue. Either he was from the Empire, or he had learned the language from a capable tutor.

“I have seen a lot of strange things,” said Caina in the same language, “but I must confess that a naked man who can turn invisible is new.”

To say nothing of odd. Why go about the city in a loincloth and armed with only a short sword? Perhaps the man’s power had a limit. Perhaps the spell that rendered him invisible only lasted for a short time. Or maybe he could turn his body invisible, but could only extend that power to a few other objects.

“You’re a pretty little thing,” growled the scarred man, stepping forward. Caina slid another throwing knife into her hand, and the scarred man began to circle her. “Are you a Ghost, pretty thing?”

“I don’t think so,” said Caina, turning to keep him in sight. “I feel like I’m flesh and blood, not a spirit.”

The scarred man spat. “Lies. Do you know how many Ghosts I have killed? All their tricks and false words did not save them.” He slapped his free hand against his scarred chest, ignoring the blood trickling from the wound in his shoulder. “They call themselves the Ghosts, but I am the unseen killer. They cannot stop me. You cannot stop me.” He smiled. “I shall enjoy listening to you scream.”

“All those scars,” said Caina, gesturing at him with the throwing knife. “Did they hurt?”

“Like nothing you can imagine,” said the scarred man. “But the pain made me stronger. The pain gave me power.” She felt the sudden prickle of sorcery, and pale silver light flickered and gleamed over the ridged lines of the scars. “As you will soon see.”

He vanished into nothingness, and Caina heard the rasp of his feet upon the ground as he ran at her.

She ran as fast as she could for the far end of the hall. When the scarred man had been stalking her, she had been able to spot his footprints. But if he sprinted at her, there was no way she could spot him before he tackled her, and if he pinned her she was dead.

Caina ran faster, her boots scraping against the dusty floor. Damned skirts! She veered to the right, towards the supplies stacked against the wall, the planks and tools and the amphorae of lamp oil. Likely the slaves needed the lamp oil to see as they dug out the cellars. Caina snatched a half-filled amphora, ripped the seal free, and flung the lamp oil in a shining arc.

About half of it splashed into something unseen, and for a moment Caina saw the outline of a man covered in shining oil. The outline stumbled, raising a hand to wipe the oil from his face.

A moment was all Caina needed.

She yanked the dagger from the sheath at her belt and sprang at the invisible man. The dagger’s blade was a foot long, leaf-shaped and forged from a peculiar silvery metal called ghostsilver. It was stronger and lighter than steel, and could hold a sharper edge, but that was not its chief virtue. Ghostsilver was a proof against sorcery and could disrupt spells.

The gleaming outline twisted away as Caina stabbed, but not before she drove the ghostsilver blade into his right thigh. There was a harsh sizzling sound, and the dagger’s hilt grew hot beneath Caina’s fingers. A scream filled her ears, and the scarred man reappeared, his eyes wide with pain, the sigils upon his chest and arms glowing with silver light. Smoke rose from the dagger in his leg, the wound charring and blackening as the spell reacted to the ghostsilver blade. The scarred man screamed and stabbed at Caina, but his leg collapsed and she dodged his stroke. He started to rise, but Caina turned and drove a throwing knife into his throat. Blood welled up from the wound, splattering across her fingers, and she planted a boot into the small of his back and sent him sprawling. The scarred man twitched several times, tried to rise, and then went motionless with a sigh.

Caina checked to make sure that he was dead, and then retrieved and cleaned her weapons. She looked around, but no one had noticed their struggle, and she did not feel the presence of any more sorcery.

She crossed the hall, climbed the stairs to the balcony, and looked around.

Like the main hall, the balcony was raw stone and concrete. The first thing Caina saw was the corpse upon the floor, a loincloth-clad man like the one she had killed below. More of the elaborate scars covered his arms and chest, including the winged skull over his heart. A crossbow quarrel, its steel head caked with drying blood, jutted from the center of the skull.

A man slumped against the far wall, breathing hard, a loaded crossbow cradled in his arms. He wore the sand-colored robes and turban of a Sarbian tribesman, the shoulder and left sleeve of his robe dark with blood. A bushy gray beard concealed most of his lined face, and dark eyes glittered above his thin, hooked nose.

The crossbow twitched towards her.

“Whoever you are,” rasped the man in Istarish, “run. Get out of here and run. If you stay here your life is in danger.”

“You don’t recognize me?” said Caina. That didn’t surprise her. Agabyzus knew that she was a woman, but had only rarely seen her dressed as one.

He blinked and lowered the crossbow. “Circlemaster?”

“Aye,” said Caina. “What happened here?”

“Be wary,” said Agabyzus. “Another of those assassins lurks nearby, and they can turn invisible…”

“I know,” said Caina. “I killed the other one. That invisibility…it’s a spell of some kind. I could sense it, which is the only reason I’m not dead.”

“Can you sense any more of them?” said Agabyzus, getting to his feet with a wince. The crossbow bobbed alarmingly.

“No,” said Caina. “No. Just the two. Did you see any others?”

“I did not,” said Agabyzus, lowering the crossbow. He looked at his left shoulder and winced. “I met with the courier as planned…”

“The dead man below,” said Caina.

“Aye,” said Agabyzus. “We were deep in discussion, for his news was dire. Then…I do not know. Something felt wrong. I turned around to look, and so the stab intended for my heart entered my shoulder instead. The courier, alas, was not so lucky.”

“You knew him,” said Caina.

“Aye,” said Agabyzus. “He has delivered messages from the high circlemasters before. A reliable man.” He shook his head in dismay, his beard rustling against his collar. “You have traveled more than I have. Have you ever encountered these invisible assassins before?”

“I have not,” said Caina. “I’ve seen sorcerers cast potent spells of illusion, but not like this. The invisibility must have limitations, though. Else they would have worn armor. When they attacked, they became visible, did they not?”

“They did,” said Agabyzus. “If they could remain invisible when striking, then we would both be dead.”

“How did you escape?” said Caina.

“I ran for the balcony,” said Agabyzus. “I realized the assassins could turn invisible, and needed a way to find them. So I went to the balcony where the rock dust was thickest. As soon as I saw the footprints appear, I fired. I got a lucky shot and took down the first assassin. I suspect the other was waiting for me to bleed out and planned to cut my throat when I fell unconscious. Then you arrived.”

“I told you we should have done this in a public place,” said Caina.

“Clearly,” said Agabyzus. He lifted a leather satchel. “The courier’s letters. We must discuss them at once. I…”

He winced and started to sway, and Caina grabbed his uninjured arm.

“We can discuss them,” said Caina, “after we get you stitched up.”

“But the news is dire,” said Agabyzus.

“Unless the news will decide the fate of the Empire in the next hour,” said Caina, “stopping you from bleeding out is more important. I did not go to all the trouble of rescuing you from the Widow’s Tower only for you to bleed to death here.”

Agabyzus grimaced. “You are the circlemaster. Though I am obviously wounded. How will we get across the city without drawing notice?”

“I have a safe house nearby,” said Caina. “If anyone asks, we shall say that you are my father, that you accidently fell and injured yourself while splitting wood, and I am taking you to a physician.”

Agabyzus snorted. “Your father? Do I look so aged?”

“You’re actually old enough to be my father,” said Caina.

“That is what makes it worse,” said Agabyzus. He winced, and Caina put an arm around his shoulders. “Lead on.”

A spasm went through his limbs, and Caina suspected he would not need to feign leaning upon her.

She led him from the hall and into the Old Quarter’s darkening streets. The crowds of merchants had cleared away, and Caina saw no one else, which was a relief. If anyone saw a young woman helping a wounded man, it would draw questions. Caina looked around, watching for anyone…

She froze.

“What is it?” said Agabyzus.

“I…” said Caina, frowning.

For just a moment, she had glimpsed a shadow standing on top of the half-constructed building. Had someone been watching them?

But she saw no one, and Agabyzus was bleeding.

“Let’s go,” said Caina, and she helped him along.

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