CHAPTER 1: SOMETHING ALWAYS GOES WRONG
Caina Amalas expected something to go wrong.
No matter how carefully she planned, no matter how thoroughly she prepared, something always went wrong. It was simply the nature of her business. She was the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, the leader of the Emperor’s spies in the city, and she played a deadly game with millions of lives at stake. At any moment disaster could fall upon her, and she had to be ready to improvise.
So Caina was not entirely surprised to see Nerina Strake sprinting past the brothel at full speed, her bodyguard Azaces running after in grim silence.
Caina was not surprised…but that made her no less alarmed.
She cursed and pushed away from the window, her boots sinking into the room’s lush carpet. Today she was dressed as a Cyrican merchant of middling prosperity, clad in a bright robe of blue and red, a fake beard and makeup adding fifteen years to her age. She had started growing out her hair, but since her turban concealed it entirely, it didn’t matter. A scimitar and sheathed dagger rested at her belt, and she had throwing knives hidden up her sleeves and daggers in her boots.
The disguise made her look exactly like the sort of merchant who would frequent the Crimson Veil, the most exclusive brothel of Istarinmul’s Old Quarter.
The room was richly furnished with crimson curtains hanging from the walls, a thick carpet, and a large bed. It would have been impressive had Caina not seen the opulence of the Padishah’s Golden Palace and Grand Master Callatas’s palace, and the scent of incense could not quite drown out the odor of sweat and other things. The room possessed one unusual feature, installed by the brothel’s owner to deal with troublesome patrons. A large wardrobe stood against the wall, and it concealed a secret door into the next room.
The room, as it happened, that her target had rented for his enjoyment.
Unfortunately, if Nerina and Azaces had been forced to flee, something had gone wrong. Caina cursed again as she hastened across the room and opened the door. The hall beyond was quiet. The Crimson Veil did not transact much business during the day. One of the brothel’s guards, a towering, grim-eyed man in chain mail, looked down at her. His chain mail, turban, and scimitar looked expensive, but he had the thick arms and callused fingers of a man quite comfortable killing with his own hands.
“Your girl hasn’t been brought up yet,” he said. “Guests are to remain in their rooms.”
“Bad fish,” gulped Caina, breathing hard. “Ate some. Going to be sick. I…”
A disgusted look came over the guard’s face. “Damn it. Out the back.” He jerked his head at the end of the hall. “Go in the alley. If you throw up on the carpet we’re adding it to your bill.”
Caina nodded, lifted a hand to her mouth, and sprinted down the hall. She raced down the stairs and pushed open the door to the alley. The alley was much less opulent than the Crimson Veil, and lacked incense to cover the underlying stench. The door closed behind her, and Caina abandoned the pretense of illness and dashed into the street. The Crimson Veil itself had a modest exterior of whitewashed stone, a single lantern with panes of red glass hanging over the door. On either side of the street stood more respectable taverns and coffee houses where the merchants and factors of the Old Quarter went to conduct their business. It was not yet noon, but already the harsh Istarish sun blazed overhead, so hot that the street beneath Caina’s boots seemed to give off waves of heat.
She looked around, trying to spot Nerina.
The plan had been straightforward enough. Nerina would wait until the emir Kuldan Cimak entered the Crimson Veil. Caina would then drug Kuldan into unconsciousness once he had taken his pleasure with the Veil’s prostitutes. After that, Kylon and Morgant would take Kuldan prisoner, and Nerina would then fire a specially-prepared quarrel from her crossbow, shattering the jar of oil Caina had hidden on the roof last night. In the chaos over the cry of fire, Kylon and Morgant would disappear with the real Kuldan Cimak, while Caina disguised herself as the emir and joined the Immortals awaiting their new commander in the Old Bazaar.
It was a bold plan, but if it worked, Caina would march south with the Immortals and gain access to the Inferno.
But the bolder the plan, the more easily something could go amiss.
Caina spotted Nerina at the north end of the street, running towards the Old Bazaar. Nerina, like Caina, was dressed as a man. Specifically, she was disguised as a nomad of the Sarbian desert, with a long sand-colored robe and a turban of similar color to conceal her ragged red hair. She was too pale to pass as Sarbian, but the towering man running behind her was Sarbian, his dark face marked with scars, an enormous two-handed scimitar strapped to his back. He was a dozen yards behind Nerina, and Caina had the distinct impression that he was chasing her.
Both Nerina and Azaces ran towards the Old Bazaar.
To where a hundred Immortals waited to escort their new commander south to the Inferno.
So why were Nerina and Azaces running towards the Immortals?
Caina raced after them, shooting a look over her shoulder, wondering what could have possibly caused Nerina and her silent bodyguard to run towards the Immortals. Another troop of Immortals? Perhaps the Silent Hunters or the Adamant Guards of the Umbarian Order, or a nagataaru-possessed assassin? Or maybe the Teskilati, the secret police of the Padishah, had caught up to the Ghosts?
But the street was deserted.
Nerina was moving at a good clip, and Azaces was fast, but Caina was faster than them both and she started to overtake them. She did not dare call out. They were almost to the Old Bazaar, and the Immortals might overhear. Yet Nerina started shouting at the top of her lungs, over and over again.
“Malcolm!” screamed Nerina. “Malcolm!”
Caina was so surprised that she almost stopped running.
Malcolm was the name of Nerina’s husband, but he had been dead for three or four years. Caina had never gotten the exact date out of Nerina. Caina would never get an exact date because Nerina had been using so much wraithblood at the time that she had lost the ability to discern between hallucination and reality. The sorcerous drug wraithblood was many things, but it was also a potent hallucinogen that induced terrifying delusions.
Such as seeing a dead husband returned to life?
Caina whispered a curse and ran faster.
“Nerina!” she shouted. If Nerina had started taking wraithblood again and had hallucinated her dead husband among the waiting Immortals, she was going to get killed. The alchemical elixirs that gave the Immortals their inhuman strength and stamina also gave them a taste for sadism, and the Padishah’s elite soldiers could do whatever they wished within Istarinmul. If Nerina annoyed them, they would not hesitate to kill her.
After enjoying whatever torments their twisted minds could imagine.
Nerina burst into the Old Bazaar, still shouting Malcolm’s name, and Azaces finally caught up to her. He seized one of her shoulders, his meaty arm going around her waist, and picked her up as if she weighed nothing at all. Nerina shouted again, trying to twist free of Azaces’s grasp, but it was like fighting a boulder.
Caina skidded to a stop next to Azaces, and the big Sarbian gave her a relieved look.
“Let me go!” said Nerina. “Malcolm!”
“Nerina,” said Caina, “what the…”
She fell silent as dark figures walked closer, and Caina realized that they were in a lot of trouble.
Normally the Old Bazaar would have bustled with activity as women and slaves went from shop to shop and stall to stall to purchase goods. Now the shops were closed and the stalls shuttered. Nearly twenty wagons stood in the square, each pulled by a pair of oxen and tended by slaves in gray tunics, their beds laden with supplies. The wagons had not closed the Old Bazaar. Far more traffic than that passed through the Bazaar every day.
The hundred Immortals guarding the wagons had driven away the merchants.
Five Immortals walked towards Caina, Azaces, and Nerina. They wore black armor of steel plate and mail, scimitars and coiled whips of chain at their belts. Their helms enclosed their heads, and the faceplates had been wrought in the likeness of grinning skulls. A pale blue glow shone in the eyeholes of their skull-masked helms. The same elixirs that gave them their strength and cruelty caused their eyes to shine with that ghostly blue light.
Nerina’s eyes were the same color, but they did not glow. Wraithblood did not have that effect.
The Immortals stopped a few paces away as Nerina struggled, and Caina felt a drop of sweat slide down her back.
“Disturbances in the Bazaar,” said the lead Immortal in Istarish, his helm making his voice cold and metallic, “are unwelcome.”
“You have my husband,” said Nerina, still struggling against Azaces. Caina had never seen Nerina display this much emotion before, her eyes wide and wild, her face flushed. “You have my husband! Let me go, let me go, let me go!”
“The woman makes accusations,” said the Immortal, amusement entering the dead voice.
That was very bad. Caina knew how the Immortals found their amusement.
“Forgive my servant, most noble soldier of the most divine Padishah,” said Caina in a disguised voice, offering her most florid bow. “As you can see, her mind has been addled by overuse of wraithblood. Honestly, I do not know why I employ her.” Caina reached into her belt, drew out some coins and one other object from a belt pouch. She held out the coins in her left hand, palming the small sphere in her right hand. “Please accept this small remuneration for your trouble, most noble soldier.”
“A bribe?” said the Immortal. The amusement sharpened. “You think to offer a soldier of the Padishah a bribe, little man?”
“Of course not,” said Caina. “Merely a small token of my esteem for the noble warriors of the most divine Padishah.”
“You have my husband!” said Nerina. “Let…”
The Immortal stepped forward, his steel-clad fingers clamping around Nerina’s jaw. Caina tensed. She knew the terrible strength of the Immortals, and if the Immortal felt like it, he could have ripped off Nerina’s jaw like a man opening a peanut.
“The eyes of a wraithblood addict,” murmured the Immortal. “She has gone mad, I fear.” He tilted her head from side to side. “But she is pretty enough, if overly scrawny.” The glowing blue eyes shifted to Caina. “She shall amuse us on the road until we tire of her.” He raised his voice. “Kill both the men. The shorter one, take his coins and stuff them down his throat before you kill him. Let all Istarinmul see what happens when a man tries to bribe an Immortal.”
The other four Immortals reached for their scimitars. The Immortal holding Nerina’s face shoved, and the push sent Azaces stumbling several steps. Azaces could not draw his sword without putting down Nerina. The big Sarbian was a formidable fighter, but even he could not take five Immortals at once.
“Eyes!” shouted Caina, drawing back her right hand.
Azaces closed his eyes and looked away, one hand clamping over Nerina’s face. Caina flung the small clay sphere in her right hand. The lead Immortal’s skull-masked face turned towards her, the clay sphere shattering against his helmet, and Caina squeezed her eyes shut.
An instant later the liquid inside the clay sphere erupted with a brilliant white flash, blinding even in the glare of the sun. Caina had found the materials to make smoke bombs in the Sanctuary of Istarinmul’s Ghosts, but she had altered the formula to generate less smoke and more flash. Smoke had its uses, but so did the dazzling flash, which proved its worth when the Immortals rocked back with cries of fury, their armored gauntlets coming up to shield their eyes.
“Go!” said Caina, spinning and opening her eyes. “Follow me!”
“Take them!” roared the lead Immortal. Already the other Immortals in the Bazaar were stirring, their attention drawn by the shouting. Unlike the first five Immortals, they had not been dazzled by the smoke bomb. “The men and the woman. Kill them!”
Caina sprinted down the street towards the Crimson Veil. Nerina still struggled in Azaces’s grasp, shouting Malcolm’s name, but Azaces’s grip did not loosen. He slung Nerina over one shoulder like a sack of flour and raced after Caina, Nerina’s head bouncing against his back. That probably hurt, but dying upon an Immortal’s scimitar would hurt much more.
Immortals raced after them, swords in hand…