The poet had summoned her to his recitation, which alarmed Caina Amalas.
Sulaman never summoned her to his recitations. For that matter, she didn’t know who he really was. He aided her from time to time, providing advice and money in her task as the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul. She knew that Sulaman sometimes worked with her ally Nasser Glasshand, and that Sulaman knew the rebellious emirs of southern Istarinmul and was involved in the expanding rebellion against the Grand Wazir Erghulan Amirasku.
Yet for all that, Caina did not know very much about Sulaman, did not know if he was a Teskilati agent or a spy or someone with a game of his own. It was as if the man was a phantom. No one seemed to know where he lived or what he did when he was not reciting epic poetry in the coffee houses of Istarinmul.
So when the note arrived from Sulaman, written in flowing calligraphy and requesting her presence at his recitation tonight, Caina knew that something was wrong.
Best to come prepared.
She chose her disguise with care. Since the destruction of the Inferno, it had become harder and harder to move about the city unnoticed. Often Caina had disguised herself as a caravan guard, but the Grand Wazir’s press gangs were not particularly concerned about how they met their quota of new recruits. Caina was too pale to pass as an Istarish native, and foreign merchants had come under increasing suspicion as the Grand Wazir and the Grand Master looked for someone to blame for the Inferno’s destruction. More to the point, bounty decrees for the head of the Balarigar were plastered all over Istarinmul. All of her old disguises were too dangerous to use, especially since both the Umbarians and the upper ranks of the Grand Wazir’s magistrates now knew who she really was.
Instead, she dressed as a slave trader.
The irony was too sharp to be funny.
Specifically, Caina dressed as a Collector, one of the lower-ranking members of the Slavers’ Brotherhood, the thugs who kidnapped peasants from their farms and foreigners from the streets to sell upon the blocks of Istarinmul. Caina wore heavy leather boots and trousers, a long tunic, a padded gambeson, and a coat of chain mail, a fake beard concealing her jaw and her black hair hanging in greasy strands over her face. Over the chain mail she wore a jerkin of black leather, a bronze badge with the coiled-whip sigil of the Brotherhood of Slavers pinned to her chest. A short sword hung at her belt, and her ghostsilver dagger waited on her other hip, concealed with a battered leather scabbard.
It was a damned uncomfortable costume. The chain mail was heavy and made Caina’s shoulders and back hurt. For that matter, black leather was excruciating beneath the searing Istarish sun. Why did the Brotherhood insist upon black leather? Caina supposed it looked formidable, but it felt like she was wearing an oven.
Still, the disguise worked. Caina put on an arrogant sneer and strode unhindered through Istarinmul’s streets. In her satchel she carried forged documents identifying her as Rymazid of Cyrica, Collector of the Brotherhood, but no one challenged her. Even the soldiers walking the streets and guarding the Bazaars avoided her.
There were a lot of soldiers on the streets.
Some were conscripts, newly impressed into the Padishah’s army, and held their spears and shields with a mixture of bravado and nervousness. Others were veterans, grim-faced and steady, their eyes hard and suspicious. The Cyrican Bazaar seemed far less raucous than usual, the merchants and customers keeping their usual frenzied negotiations to a minimum under the cold eyes of the Grand Wazir’s soldiers. Given how much legitimate business took place in Istarinmul after dark, the Grand Wazir had not yet declared a curfew. If he did, it might provoke a riot, and given the seething mood of the city, that riot might explode into a revolution.
No matter who won, it would be a bloodbath.
A shiver of guilt went through Caina as she looked around the Bazaar, at the soldiers and the wary merchants, at the potential violence in the air like the stiff wind before a storm.
She had done this.
Not on purpose, but she had started this. Her raids against the Brotherhood had made the cowled masters desperate. They had become so desperate that they kidnapped free peasants from the southern emirates to meet demand, and that enraged the southern nobles into rebellion. Tanzir Shahan and the other southern emirs had not yet issued any formal declarations, but Istarinmul was about to explode into civil war.
And it was Caina’s doing. All because she had been half out of her mind with grief and pain, all because she helped a widow whose sons had been kidnapped into slavery.
Caina’s sole comfort was the certainty that far more people would have died if she had not acted. If she had done nothing, Callatas would have continued working his towards his great spell unhindered. Thousands more slaves would have died in his laboratories, their blood spilled to manufacture wraithblood, and thousands more people would have become addicted to the strange drug. Damla’s sons would have died in the wraithblood laboratories. The Inferno would have continued to twist innocent men into the monstrous Immortals.
Kylon would have died in the tunnels below the Ring of Cyrica.
Caina swallowed, kept her expression hard, and crossed the Bazaar. No one challenged her, and none of the merchants made eye contact.
The House of Agabyzus stood at the far end of the Bazaar, three stories of whitewashed stone, the lower windows thrown open to admit the dusk air. Caina went inside, noting the bounty notices for the Balarigar and Annarah posted on the door. Inside the House was crowded, with merchants and minor nobles sitting at the low round tables or in the booths lining the walls. Previously merchants and artisans had frequented the House, but as more soldiers mustered in the city, the nobles who served as khalmirs in the Grand Wazir’s army had developed a taste for Damla’s coffee. That was just as well, since the khalmirs and nobles discussed many things in the coffee house, and Caina had ears among the House’s maids.
Damla, the owner of the House of Agabyzus, hurried to Caina, the brittle smile on her face almost concealing her fear. She was in her middle thirties and wore sober widow’s black.
“Welcome, sir, to the House of Agabyzus,” said Damla. “I am…”
“Damla,” said Caina in a quiet voice.
Damla’s eyes widened a bit as she recognized Caina. “I see. Yes. I welcome you to the House, and urge you to come this way.” She guided Caina away from the door, towards one of the corners where they could speak with only a minimal risk of anyone overhearing. “Is anything amiss?”
“Not yet,” said Caina. “Sulaman recites here tonight?”
“Yes,” said Damla, looking towards the dais on the far wall. “He hasn’t arrived yet, though. How did you know?”
“He invited me,” said Caina.
Damla frowned. “He did? He never does that.” Her frown deepened. “Could it be a trap?”
“Perhaps,” said Caina, “but I don’t think so.” The note had mentioned Caina’s meeting with Sulaman in the Vale of Fallen Stars. As far as Caina knew, only Tanzir Shahan and Sulaman’s bodyguard Mazyan had been privy to that meeting. “He’s given me warnings before. I think he means to warn me of something else.”
“I see,” said Damla. “Some new danger you have not foreseen?” She gave a quiet little sound that was half-laugh, half-sigh. “With all the dangers that face you, this new danger shall simply have to get in line behind all the others.”
“I’d need to rent a larger space than the House to hold them all,” said Caina, and Damla did laugh at that. “Any trouble here?”
“No,” murmured Damla. “Business is good, in truth. There is much fear in the city, so people come to discuss their worries over coffee and cake. The khalmirs and other officers of the soldiers like to take their coffee here as well. They gossip worse than old women, but they never know anything of note. One day they say the Grand Wazir will march upon Tanzir Shahan at dawn. The next they say Tanzir is outside the walls, and is about to sack Istarinmul.” She shook her head. “There is little gold to be sifted from that sand, I fear.”
Caina hesitated. “Any trouble with Bahad and Bayram?” Both boys were old enough to be conscripted into the Padishah’s army. Caina had not rescued them from Master Slaver Ulvan only for them to die in defense of Grand Master Callatas’s evil.
“No,” said Damla. “The press gangs know that I am friends with the hakim of the Bazaar. They have stayed away, so far.”
Caina reached into her satchel and passed Damla a sealed scroll. “Use this only if necessary.”
“What is it?” said Damla.
“A writ of exemption from conscription,” said Caina. “I happen to know a good forger.”
“Thank you,” murmured Damla, some relief coming over her face. “As ever, you are a good friend, to watch over us when you have so many other cares upon your mind.”
“I look after my own,” said Caina. She was the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, and Damla was one of her Ghosts. “And you’ve been a good friend, too…ah. It looks like Sulaman is here.”
Two men emerged from the kitchen doors. The first was squat, muscular, and scowling, with the build of a blacksmith and the glare of an enraged gladiator. Mazyan wore chain mail and carried a sword at his belt, a drum and a wooden bowl tucked underneath one arm. The second man was taller and thinner, with an ascetic look and a graying beard shading his cheeks. He wore a simple Istarish robe and turban, and could have been anywhere from twenty to fifty years old. Sulaman was one of the most renowned poets of Istarinmul, yet Caina could find nothing out about him.
And, sometimes, he apparently had visions of the future.
Caina sat alone in a booth near the dais. No one wanted to sit near a Collector of the Brotherhood, which suited her. One of Damla’s maids brought her coffee and scurried away. Damla crossed the room, weaving her way past the tables, and spoke with Sulaman for a moment. She nodded, climbed the dais, and raised her hands. Silence fell a moment later as the merchants and nobles turned their eyes toward her.
“My friends,” said Damla in a loud voice. “Tonight we are honored to hear the words of the poet Sulaman, who shall recite for us the epics of the Istarish people. Tonight Sulaman shall tell us of the Song of Istarr and the Demon Princes, of the great deeds our ancestors performed of old.”
Caina blinked in surprise. She had heard Sulaman recite this poem on her first night in Istarinmul two years past. Why recite it again? Was it a message for her?
Mazyan settled himself upon the edge of the dais, and Sulaman began to recite in a voice halfway between a song and an incantation as Mazyan kept time on his drum. He told the tale of Istarr, the warlord who had led the Istarish people north from the ruin of Maat to a new land ruled by demon-possessed sorcerers, the dread Demon Princes of legend. Istarr waged seventy-seven battles against the seven Demon Princes (surely a poetic flourish), aided by the might of the djinn of the desert and the djinn of the air. At last Istarr faced the final Demon Prince before the gates of Iramis while hosts of djinn dueled overhead, and was overcome by the sorcerer’s fell power. But his beloved wife threw herself before Istarr, taking the sorcerer’s fatal attack into her flesh, giving Istarr the moment he needed to slay the Demon Prince and lead his people to freedom.
Caina listened, her mind only half upon the poem. The first time she had heard the epic, so soon after Corvalis’s death, had been too much. Something had broken inside of her, and she had almost drank herself to death afterward. Now the poem just made her feel sad and tired.
It also made her think of Kylon, which added guilt to the sadness.
But this time, the poem also sent a jolt of fear through her.
She knew the truth behind those words now.
The Demon Princes had been possessed by nagataaru, malevolent spirits of the netherworld. The djinn had been the air elementals of the Court of the Azure Sovereign, djinn that Callatas had somehow bound or defeated. Istarr had been able to defeat the Demon Princes with the aid of the loremasters of Iramis, who Callatas had killed when he had destroyed Iramis a century and a half past. Now Callatas had a pact of some kind with the nagataaru, and his Apotheosis would summon millions of nagataaru into the mortal world. Caina didn’t know why he would do such a mad thing, at least not yet.
Yet Caina did know that those who had defeated the nagataaru before could not do so now. Iramis had burned. The Court of the Azure Sovereign had vanished. The Padishah had disappeared, and the Grand Wazir and many of the emirs and magistrates were under Callatas’s heel.
Which meant that if Callatas’s Apotheosis was to be stopped, it was up to Caina. It was up to the Ghosts of Istarinmul and any allies they could find. Caina thought again of the soldiers in the Bazaar. Istarinmul was about to erupt in civil war, and yet the horrors of a civil war were not as terrible as what Callatas might do if he succeeded.
Caina had to see this to the end, no matter how bitter.
No matter what it might cost her.
Sulaman finished his recitation, and the merchants and nobles came to their feet, applauding and cheering. The Istarish did like their poetry, the gloomier the better. Mazyan traded his drum for a bowl, and the patrons formed a line, dropping coins into the bowl as they filed past the dais. Caina finished her coffee and got to her feet, joining the line. She dropped a pair of silver coins into the bowl, and Sulaman’s dark eyes regarded her for a moment.
“Collector,” he said. Was there the faintest hint of amusement in his voice? If anyone would see the irony of her disguise, he would.
“Master poet,” said Caina. “A fine recitation.”
“Your praise warms my ears,” said Sulaman. “Wait in the courtyard behind the House a moment, if you please.”
“Why?” said Caina, uncertain. The courtyard behind the House of Agabyzus would be deserted this time of night, making it the perfect place for a quiet conversation.
Or a quiet murder.
“You shall be in no danger,” said Sulaman.
Mazyan grunted, his scowl intensifying. Evidently he did not agree.
“No immediate danger, let us say,” said Sulaman. “Beyond those that presently confront you.”
“Very well, master poet,” said Caina, offering him a polite bow. She bought another cup of coffee and walked out the front door. It was getting late for coffee, but it would keep Caina alert, and she had a long night ahead of her once she left the House.
Assuming, of course, that Sulaman did not kill her.
That was absurd. Sulaman had given her a great deal of aid in the past. If he wanted to kill her, he had passed numerous opportunities to do so.
Though Caina had been wrong before.
With that cheery thought in mind, she went to the courtyard. It was deserted and empty, the dry fountain stood undisturbed in the center. Beneath the fountain was a secret entrance to the Sanctuary of Istarinmul’s Ghosts, where Caina had secured a great many supplies. She sipped at the coffee and looked at the back door, idly glancing for any knives hidden in the dust. A few weeks past, she had put on her best dress and makeup and gone out that door with the intention of meeting Kylon, of going someplace alone with him and…seeing what would happen next.
The knife in the dirt had stopped her cold. Someone was following Caina. Someone was leaving those knives in the dust for her to find. She didn’t know who or why, though she was certain her stalker had no benevolent purpose.
She gazed at the door, a fresh wave of sadness going through her. Perhaps it was just as well the knife had stopped her from going to Kylon. Almost certainly Caina’s shadow war against Callatas and his servants would get her killed. When that happened, anyone around her would die as well. Better that Kylon was nowhere near Caina when her enemies at last found her.
Caina blinked a few times, staring at the door, and took another sip.
Well. At least the coffee was good.
The door swung open, the kitchen firelight spilling into the courtyard. Mazyan stepped out, his hand on his scimitar hilt, his eyes sweeping back and forth beneath his bristling brows. Caina had the distinct impression that the darkness did not trouble him. The bodyguard scowled at her, then jerked his head toward the door.
Sulaman stepped into the courtyard, a tall shadow in the gloom.
“Master poet,” said Caina.
“Balarigar,” said Sulaman in his quiet, deep voice.
“You know,” said Caina, “the reward on my head is over two million bezants now. If you turned me in to the Grand Wazir, you could live in wanton luxury for the rest of your days and still die with a vast fortune.”
“Ah,” said Sulaman, and his stern face flickered in a brief smile. “You think I have lured you here to kill you, then?”
Caina shrugged. “It’s how I would do it.”
Mazyan let out a disapproving rumble.
“No, you are in no danger from me,” said Sulaman. “I told you once that I wish what is best for the people of Istarinmul. Killing you would not be in their interest. And why should I wish to live in idle luxury? I enjoy reciting the epic poems of my nation.” He almost sounded wistful. “It is the closest thing to honest labor I have ever performed.”
“I see,” said Caina, considering that. Did that mean Sulaman was an Istarish noble? One, like Tanzir, dissatisfied with Callatas’s murderous hand upon Istarinmul?
“Perhaps it is time,” said Sulaman, “for some plain speaking between us.”
“I would welcome that,” said Caina. “Are you going to tell me who you really are?”
“No,” said Sulaman. “No more than you are.”
“I don’t need to tell you who I am,” said Caina. “Walk a few yards until you see a bounty decree. It shouldn’t take long. Then you’ll know who I am.”
“You know,” said Sulaman, “something of me already. You know the gift and the curse of my blood.” Suddenly she felt a sorcerous aura flare to life around him. “You know I am blessed and burdened with visions of the future.”
“Yes,” said Caina. Her mouth went a little dry. Sulaman had told her of his visions, and they usually heralded some deadly danger. “You’ve had another one?”
“You speak truly,” said Sulaman, and his eyes flickered with gray light, similar to the eerie light that came from an opened Mirror of Worlds. “You are about to undertake a great task. A terrible and dangerous task, yet one that you must perform.”
Caina’s mouth went a little drier. “This is so.” Even now Nasser was preparing their expedition to retrieve the legendary Staff and Seal of Iramis from the Tomb of Kharnaces.
“And you have no other choice?” said Sulaman. “You must do this?”
“I must,” said Caina. “If I can do this, I can stop Callatas. I can make sure the Apotheosis never happens.”
“Then they have been found,” said Sulaman. “The Staff and Seal. The loremaster Annarah has returned to the waking world.”
Caina said nothing. For Sulaman, that was as good of an answer.
“Caina Amalas,” said Sulaman, and Caina blinked, stunned. Sulaman had never called her by name before. “Listen to me. I have seen a vision. If you undertake this task, if you claim the Staff and the Seal, then you shall surely die.”
“You mean you see the possibility of death before me,” said Caina.
“No,” said Sulaman. “I see the certainty of your death.”
“You’ve death in my future before,” said Caina. “When I went to the Widow’s Tower. When I went the Maze, or when Callatas sent the Red Huntress after me. When you sent me to find Morgant the Razor.”
“That was only the possibility of death,” said Sulaman. “My visions are rarely certain…but when they are, they close around the future with the implacability of an iron shackle. Thrice before I have seen visions of such certainty, and thrice before men died.”
“There you go,” said Caina, trying to keep her voice light. “I’m a woman.”
“If you undertake this task, if you take the burden of finding the Staff and the Seal, then you will die,” said Sulaman. “It is unavoidable. All paths lead to that fate.”
Caina said nothing, gazing at the poet. Mazyan looked back and forth, scowling at the courtyard.
“Fine,” said Caina. “What happens if I don’t go after the Staff and the Seal?”
Sulaman hesitated. “Callatas succeeds. All paths of the future then lead to his victory.”
“And if I do this?” said Caina. “If I take the Staff and the Seal and I…die, then what happens?”
“I do not know,” said Sulaman. “That future is clouded.” The gray gleam faded from his eyes. “My visions do not extend beyond that possible future.”
Caina said nothing for a long moment. She found herself thinking of Kylon. Of Nerina Strake and Azaces and Damla and the other Ghosts in Istarinmul. Her thoughts went further back, to those she had lost, to Corvalis and Halfdan and her father.
Caina had been certain that she was about to die so many times.
What was one more time?
“So be it,” said Caina.
“You would do this, knowing it will lead to your death?” said Sulaman.
Caina shrugged. “You could be wrong.”
“No,” said Sulaman. “You may not believe me. But my vision is not wrong. Not in this.”
“Everyone dies,” said Caina. “I should die doing something worthwhile.” She shook her head. “I started all this.”
“It started,” said Sulaman, “long before you or I were born.”
“But I accelerated it,” said Caina. “I made the Brotherhood desperate. I destroyed the Inferno. I started the civil war. I didn’t meant to do any of that, but I did. Now I have to see it through to end.” She took a deep breath, and her voice came out mostly steady. “If that…if that means my death, then so be it.”
They stared at each other in silence for a moment. Mazyan kept scowling. He seemed warier than usual for some reason.
“Caina Amalas,” said Sulaman, shaking his head. “If it was in my power to reward you, I would.”
Caina laughed a little at that. “I’m a spy, master poet. A liar and a trickster and a schemer. People like me…I don’t think people like me get rewards. The best we can hope for is results.” She gazed up at the distant lights of the Golden Palace and the College of Alchemists for a moment. “Everyone in the city will die if Callatas succeeds.”
“Beyond all doubt,” said Sulaman.
“Then maybe they can enjoy the rewards I will never have,” said Caina.
For a long moment Sulaman was silent. For the first time since Caina had met him two years past, the poet seemed…tired, sad even.
“Very well,” said Sulaman. “May the Living Flame go with you, for…”
Mazyan growled, shoved Sulaman back with one hand, and took several steps forward, his scimitar drawn. For an instant Caina thought the man had decided to attack her, and she yanked the ghostsilver dagger from its sheath. Mazyan ignored her, his eyes looking back and forth over the surrounding buildings.
“What?” said Caina. “What is it?”
“It is,” said Mazyan. He fell silent, his scowl sharpening further. “It is…nothing. There is nothing there.” He shook his head, his anger plain. “But there should be. I do not understand.”
“We’ve lingered here long enough,” said Caina. “It’s time to go.”
“Agreed,” said Sulaman. “Farewell, Balarigar. I fear we shall not meet again in this life.”
“Thank you for all your help,” said Caina, bowing again.
Sulaman bowed back, and then Mazyan escorted him from the courtyard.
For a moment Caina stared after him, cold sadness heavy within her. She had known her death was likely, perhaps even certain, but to her Sulaman prophesy it with utter conviction was chilling.
Perhaps it was just as well she hadn’t gotten any closer to Kylon.
Caina rebuked herself. There was work to be done.
She looked around the courtyard once more, trying to find what had spooked Mazyan.
Nothing showed itself, and after a moment Caina left.
The woman who now called herself Kalgri crouched upon the edge of the rooftop, wrapped in her stolen shadow-cloak, and watched Caina leave the courtyard.
She felt a mad smile spread across her face, the face that now so closely resembled Caina’s features now, and the Voice hissed and spat its hatred in her mind, urging her to kill, kill, kill.
Patience, Kalgri reminded herself. Patience…but not for very much longer.
The meddling poet’s enspelled guardian had almost detected Kalgri’s presence. Kalgri feared nothing, but she knew her limitations, and she did not want to fight the guardian in anything like a fair fight. She must have gotten sloppy, let the shadow-cloak’s cowl fall back long enough for the guardian to sense the power of the Voice.
No matter. The poet, like Kalgri, knew his limitations, and would not meddle further. Kalgri was not stupid enough to attack Caina while the poet and his guardian were nearby.
She would wait until Caina was alone, until the moment had come at last.
And then, at long last, Kalgri would strike down Caina and feast upon her death.
How Kalgri looked forward to seeing the knowledge in Caina’s eyes, the certainty and horror of her own death!
She would have giggled behind her mask, but she had been the Red Huntress for a very long time, and was far too experienced to let her cravings override her thinking. No, cautious patience was the best approach. Kalgri would wait, and then she would feast upon Caina’s death.
And then, if her plan for the Staff and the Seal held true…she would feast upon the death of an entire world.
How she thrilled to think of it!
Kalgri moved in silence from rooftop to rooftop, following Caina as she walked deeper into the Cyrican Quarter of Istarinmul.