“Ghost in the Throne” excerpt

GhostinthethroneBN

CHAPTER 1: HEIRLOOMS

“Beware the fire.”

Caina’s eyes jerked open.

For a confused instant she didn’t know where she was.

She lay alone in a bed, the air cool, almost cold, against her face. To the left she saw a hearth of rough stone, a bed of dying coals within it. The walls were built of rough-mortared stone, and wooden beams stretched overhead, layered with shadows in the dim light.

A wave of disorientation went over her.

This wasn’t right.

Rumarah, she should have been in Rumarah. And the Red Huntress had been waiting for Caina, her hard fingers clamping over Caina’s mouth, her blade slamming into Caina’s back…

With a surge of fear Caina sat up, pushing aside the blanket. She should have seen the bloody wound on her chest, should have seen Kalgri’s ghostsilver blade jutting from between her breasts.

Instead, the skin was smooth and unmarked.

Bit by bit her confusion drained away. She was in the village of Drynemet, in the Kaltari Highlands, and this was one of the guest rooms in the headman’s hall. Nasser and the others had brought Caina here after the fighting in Rumarah. Kalgri had mortally wounded Caina, but…

She remembered silver fire ripping through her, erupting from her flesh and consuming the world.

Caina closed her eyes and let out a long breath, the blanket scratchy against her legs.

Kylon had saved her. The Elixir Restorata should have killed her, but somehow Kylon had realized that Morgant’s wedjet-dahn would blunt the Elixir’s power. Kylon had taken her back to Drynemet, watching over her as she lay unconscious and healed from the ordeal.

And then…

Caina smiled.

She looked at the side of the bed where Kylon had been sleeping and wondered where he had gone. He must have slipped out without her noticing. Maybe he had changed his mind. Maybe he regretted their night together, and had decided to leave before she woke up…

Caina rebuked herself. Kylon had risked his own life in a horrendous gamble to save hers. After everything they had been through together, he deserved her trust. Likely he had just went to get some water. For that matter, it was almost dawn.

But if Kylon hadn’t awakened her, what had?

A voice. She had heard a voice, warning about a fire. The Kaltari roofed their stone houses with thatch or pine logs, and a fire would tear through the village like a storm.

Caina whispered a curse, stood up, and realized that she was still naked. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders like a cloak, crossed the room, and opened the door a few inches. The corridor beyond was quiet and dark. Through the window at the end of the corridor Caina saw the darkened hills of the Kaltari highlands, the eastern sky just starting to brighten a little.

Nothing was wrong.

Caina closed the door and went to the hearth, peering into the coals and up the chimney. There was no danger of a fire. Though it had gotten a bit chilly in the room. Caina dropped a few more pieces of wood into the hearth and stirred the coals with an iron poker until the wood caught fire.

“Beware the fire,” she whispered, and a new dread settled over her.

Caina had heard a voice that wasn’t there, and then wandered around the room in a state of fear.

It was possible, Caina realized, that she was no longer entirely sane.

The necromantic poison of Kharnaces had made her hallucinate, seeing dead enemies from her past. The Elixir’s silver fire had healed her, but it should have ripped her apart, and Caina wondered how complete the healing had been. Perhaps it had left her mind damaged. Certainly she knew that the Elixir had not left her unchanged.

The white light around her left wrist proved that.

With her eyes of flesh she saw the pyrikon wrapped around her wrist, currently in the shape of a delicate ghostsilver bracelet. Yet now she saw the flow of arcane power around the thing, manifesting as a white glow. The pyrikon was not really a bracelet. It was a spirit of the netherworld, specifically a spirit of defense, bound in physical form. For years, ever since the necromancer Maglarion had wounded her as a child, Caina had been able to sense the presence of sorcery.

Now she could see it.

If she concentrated enough, she saw the distant glow of Annarah’s pyrikon. The last loremaster of Iramis was in a room down the hall. Caina also saw the harsh glow around Morgant’s weapons, or the strange light around Nasser’s left hand, or even the mighty power wrapped around the valikon Kylon carried.

Annarah said that Caina had become a valikarion. In the days before Iramis had burned, warriors of Iramis had undergone a trial of skill and valor in the netherworld. Those who failed never returned. Those who survived gained the power to see the flows of sorcery, the sight to pierce spells of illusion, and immunity from divinatory spells. They had proven themselves worthy to carry a valikon, the swords forged to destroy spirits and pierce spells, and so had been named the valikarion.

And Caina, it seemed, had become a valikarion. The ordeal she had endured in Rumarah, combined with her own sensitivity to sorcery, had been enough to work the change. She should have died in Rumarah. Sulaman had predicted her death with grim certainty.

Yet she had not, and she had become a valikarion in the process.

A burst of dizziness went through her, and Caina gripped the side of the hearth to keep her balance. She closed her eyes, breathing hard, and slowly the dizziness passed. It had been less than a day since she had awakened, yet she had noticed that if she used the strange vision of the valikarion for too long and too intensely, the vertigo became overpowering.

Even when she forced it back, the ability to see sorcerous auras never quite went away entirely, so she saw the aura of power approaching her door.

Caina straightened up as the door swung open and a man stepped into the room. He was about thirty, with brown hair and brown eyes. He was barefoot, wearing only trousers and a shirt, yet had taken the time to sling a baldric over his shoulder, a sheathed sword with a curved blade strapped to his back. To Caina’s eyes the sword burned with leashed power, white fire that could drive back the shadows of the netherworld. The man’s clothes were loose, but Caina knew the strength of the limbs beneath them.

Come to think of it, she knew that better than she had yesterday.

“Kylon,” said Caina with a smile.

Kylon of House Kardamnos smiled back. “I should have known better.” He lifted a clay carafe and set it upon the table. “No water in here. Thought you might be thirsty when you woke up.”

“That was thoughtful,” said Caina. “Know better than what?”

Kylon snorted. “To think that I could sneak out and return without you noticing.”

“No,” murmured Caina. “Especially not now.” In addition to the sorcerous aura of the valikon, she also saw Kylon’s own aura, the sorcery of water and air that he commanded to make him stronger and faster in battle. It was a peculiar silvery-blue in color.

If she closed her eyes, she could still see the auras. However the vision of the valikarion worked, it did not depend upon her physical eyes.

“I suppose you can sneak up on me whenever you want,” said Kylon.

“You still can’t sense me?” said Caina. Kylon’s water sorcery allowed him to detect the emotions of those around him. Apparently a valikarion’s immunity to divinatory sorcery extended to that as well.

“No,” said Kylon. He took her left hand in his right. His fingers were strong and hard and callused, the fingers of a master swordsman. “Unless I touch you. Is there something wrong?”

“Bad dreams,” said Caina. There was no point in lying to him, not any longer. “I almost died, Kylon. I should have died, if not for you. That…takes some getting used to, I think.”

“Yes,” said Kylon, a flicker of old fear in his eyes. Caina knew what it felt like to watch someone you loved die in front of you.

They both did.

“But let’s not talk of that,” said Caina. “Kiss me.”

He blinked and started to say something.

“No, don’t talk,” said Caina. “Kiss me.”

He did, softly at first, and then with more heat.

“I wanted to do that for a long time,” said Caina when they broke apart for breath, her voice a little unsteady. “Now I can do that whenever I want, so I’m going to enjoy it. Kiss me again.”

He did.

“A long time?” said Kylon when they paused again. “Just how long?”

She looked down, embarrassed. “When I saw you fight in the Ring of Cyrica, the day we met Morgant.”

Kylon blinked, and she saw his lips twitch as he tried not to laugh. “Really? That was it?”

“Well.” Caina ran a hand along his chest. “I like strong men.” She noticed his left hand was closed. “What’s that?”

“Ah,” said Kylon. “You gave me something, and I only thought it fair to return it.”

“What is it?” said Caina.

He opened his hand. A heavy golden ring rested in his palm, connected to a slender leather cord that could serve as a necklace. It was the signet ring of a Nighmarian lord, and it looked old and worn, as if it had passed between many hands over the generations.

Caina blinked, her eyes starting to burn a little.

“You gave it to me at the Corsair’s Rest, before you went to confront Cassander,” said Kylon. “To remember you, you said. Since you’re here, you should have it back.”

“Thank you,” whispered Caina, taking the ring and hanging it from her neck.

“What is it?” said Kylon. “I saw you with it in…Catekharon, I think. And Calvarium, and New Kyre. It must be important.”

“My father’s signet ring,” said Caina. “He…died when I was a child.” The habit of secrecy made her hesitate, but the need for secrecy with Kylon had passed. “My mother murdered him. She…was a student of Maglarion…”

“One of the Moroaica’s disciples,” said Kylon. “My sister mentioned him once or twice.”

Caina nodded. “My father found out and my mother murdered him. This…this was all I had left of him. I thought I had lost it when the Corsair’s Rest burned.”

“You didn’t remember?” said Kylon.

“I…don’t remember everything that happened clearly,” said Caina, looking away. “I remember Kalgri laughing. The silver fire. Forcing myself down the stairs to Cassander. And then…nothing until I woke up in that bed yesterday.” She smiled at him. “Thank you for keeping this.” She took a deep breath, trying to get her emotions under control. “I…thought I had lost this. Thank you.”

“I was going to give it back yesterday,” said Kylon, “but we got distracted…”

“Distracted?” said Caina, slipping out of his grasp and taking several steps back. “Is that what we’re going to call it? You just brought a tear to my eye, Kylon of House Kardamnos. What are you going to do about it?”

With a dramatic flourish she tossed aside the blanket, leaving herself dressed in nothing but the pyrikon and the ring. Again she felt the urge to cover the ugly scar below her navel, but she stopped herself. He had already seen it, and that scar had pressed against Kylon as they had lain together last night, and he hadn’t seemed to mind.

Kylon crossed the room and joined her, and a moment later she had him out of his clothes and they were atop the bed together. Caina had almost died at Rumarah. Perhaps she should have died at Rumarah, had been destined to die in the Corsair’s Rest.

But right now she felt very alive.

“When was it for you?” said Caina once they had finished, resting her cheek on his chest.

Kylon grunted. “When was what?”

“When you first wanted to,” she searched for a word, “kiss me. To use a euphemism.”

He laughed at that, and then was silent for a moment.

“Catekharon,” he said at last.

Caina blinked in surprise and levered herself up on an elbow. “Catekharon? Truly?”

“I never really got a good look at you in Marsis,” said Kylon, his eyes distant as he gazed at the ceiling, “and that…was a bad day. I was distracted. Then in Catekharon you were dressed as a merchant’s daughter, um…”

“Anna Callenius,” said Caina after a moment’s thought. She had used so many false names she could not keep them all straight, and she had not used that one in a long time.

Not since Sicarion had murdered Halfdan in Marsis.

“That was it,” said Kylon. “I thought you were beautiful then, but dangerous. And the Empire and New Kyre were at war, and you were with Corvalis, so I gave it no further thought. Then I married Thalastre, and after the day of the golden dead, I thought I would never see you again.”

“But we both lost everything,” said Caina.

“And then we met again in exile,” said Kylon.

They lay together in silence for a moment.

“Sometimes it feels as if my head is split in two,” said Caina. “I wish Corvalis hadn’t been killed. I wish Kalgri hadn’t murdered Thalastre. I wish I had never come to Istarinmul, and that I was still in Malarae. But I am…I am so glad we found each other again. I am so glad this happened.”

Kylon snorted. “I understand. When I was a child my sister and the Archons always seemed so certain of the right course. I wonder if they had as many doubts and regrets as we do.” His arm curled around her. “But I am glad, too.”

“I love you, Kylon,” said Caina.

His arm tightened against her. “I love you, Caina Amalas.”

Something within her shivered, and she had to close her eyes for a moment.

“Look at me,” she said, rubbing at her face. “One brush with death and I become a weeping hysteric. If I try to start writing poetry, please stop me.”

“You could always take up painting,” said Kylon. “I’m sure Morgant would be happy to teach you.”

She stared at him for a moment.

“That was a joke,” said Kylon.

Caina laughed and lay down against him.

“Nasser wants to talk to us,” said Kylon after a while.

“He does?” murmured Caina.

“He wants to talk to you, I expect,” said Kylon. “We need to decide what to do next. The Staff and the Seal cannot stay here.”

“They cannot,” said Caina. Her night with Kylon had made her forget about the Staff and the Seal of Iramis, the long-lost sorcerous regalia of the Princes of Iramis. She had carried those relics out of the Tomb of Kharnaces with great pain and nearly at the cost of her life.

In a way, it was a reminder of Caina’s own insignificance. If she had died at Rumarah, Istarinmul would continue towards civil war. Grand Master Callatas would continue working towards his Apotheosis, murdering slaves and creating wraithblood. Worse, Kalgri had escaped Rumarah, and she knew that Caina and Nasser had the Staff and Seal. She would run straight to Callatas, and when Callatas learned the truth, nothing would stop him from claiming the regalia. He would kill everyone in Drynemet, everyone in Istarinmul, to claim the Staff and Seal for himself.

They did not have much time.

In fact, they were likely out of time. Caina had been unconscious for so long that Kalgri must surely have reached Callatas with the news by now. It was possible that Callatas himself had left Istarinmul with every ally and soldier he could muster, and was even now coming to descend upon Drynemet. She felt a twinge of guilt. If she had not been unconscious for so long, if the others had not waited for…

Caina shoved that aside. For a time she had blamed herself for Istarinmul’s impending civil war, but that war would have come even if she had died during her first day in Istarinmul. There was too much at stake for Caina to waste time in needless self-recrimination.

“We cannot stay here,” murmured Caina, staring at the door to the room.

“Would you want to?” said Kylon.

She knew, practically and realistically, that they could not stay here. Callatas was coming for the Staff and the Seal. Istarinmul was about to rip itself apart in civil war.

Caina didn’t really want to stay in Drynemet.

She just wanted to stay here with Kylon.

“If I asked you to run away with me, would you?” said Caina. “If I asked you to leave it all behind…the Empire, the war, Callatas, wraithblood, all of it, would you come with me?”

“Of course,” said Kylon.

The answer warmed her. “Thank you.”

“But you won’t, though,” said Kylon.

“You know what I’m thinking now, do you?” said Caina. “You can still sense my emotions when you touch me.”

His hand slid up her bare back. “I can. But I don’t need to, not for this. You won’t give up. You won’t turn back. You’ve seen too many terrible things to pretend that you have not. You will see this through to the end.”

“With you?” said Caina.

“With me,” said Kylon.

They lapsed into silence after that. Caina felt herself drifting off to sleep. Soon, she knew, she would have to get up, to face what awaited her once more. Callatas and Kalgri would not have been idle while she recovered from Rumarah. But for now, for just a few moments, she wanted to lie quietly with the man she had come to love…

“Beware the fire.”

Caina shot out of bed so fast that she did not remember standing up. She snatched one of her throwing knives from the table and stood motionless, every muscle tense, her ears straining to hear anything.

“What is it?” said Kylon. He had gotten out of bed, the faint shimmer of air sorcery flickering around him, the valikon a shaft of white fire to Caina’s eyes.

“Did you hear that?” said Caina.

“I didn’t hear anything,” said Kylon.

“A voice,” said Caina. “I heard a voice, saying ‘beware the fire’. You didn’t hear that?”

Kylon shook his head. “Nothing.”

Caina let out a long breath.

“I think,” she said, “that I might be hearing voices.”

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