“Ghost in the Pact” Excerpt

BNGhostInThePact

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CHAPTER 1: SECRETS IN PLAIN SIGHT

Caina Amalas needed a ship, and for the first time in her life, she couldn’t find one.

It was infuriating.

During the two years of her exile in Istarinmul, thousands of ships had entered and departed the city’s Cyrican Harbor and Alqaarin Harbor, more ships than Caina could count, ships carrying goods from every nation and empire and kingdom under the sun. Istarinmul sat at the narrowest part of the Starfall Straits, the only passage between the Cyrican Sea and the Alqaarin Sea, which meant half of the world’s commerce had to sail past Istarinmul to reach the other half. The Padishahs of Istarinmul had waxed fantastically wealthy from tolls and trade, and despite the small size of its realm and army, Istarinmul remained a major power among the nations.

Yet for the first time that Caina could remember, likely for the first time in centuries, there were no ships in Istarinmul’s harbor.

Given that Cassander Nilas’s voice had boomed from a rift of golden fire in the sky, threatening to set all Istarinmul ablaze, killing every man, woman, and child in the city, perhaps it was not surprising that the ships had fled the harbors. Cassander would have carried out his threat, would have murdered hundreds of thousands of people in an instant, had Caina not tricked him and had Kylon not taken off his head with a sweep of the valikon.

So Caina could not blame the ship captains for fleeing. They would be back, she knew. Nothing ever stopped trade for long, not even sorcerous catastrophes.

But the ships might not be back in time to save Istarinmul.

She felt the ticking of time as keenly as an itch, almost as if an unseen archer had an arrow trained between her shoulder blades. Kalgri knew about the relics. Kalgri had likely known about the Staff and the Seal ever since Annarah had escaped from the Inferno. The only reason she hadn’t informed Callatas was to first kill Caina, and she had almost succeeded.

Her encounter with the Red Huntress in the Corsair’s Rest had become part of Caina’s regular roster of nightmares.

But Caina was still alive, and Nasser still had the Staff and the Seal of Iramis…and there was absolutely no reason, none at all, for Kalgri to withhold the truth from Callatas any longer.

She had probably told Callatas already, which meant that any moment Caina might find herself facing Immortals, nagataaru-possessed assassins, or even the Grand Master himself. Callatas wanted the regalia badly enough to come for it in person.

Likely the only reason he had not already done so was the paralyzing shock still gripping Istarinmul. Any moment, Caina knew, the storm would erupt, but not quite yet. Best to take the Staff and Seal of Iramis and be gone by then, to secure them in Catekharon and then return to aid Tanzir and the rebels against Callatas.

But to do that, she needed a ship, and there were no damned ships.

Caina stood on a pier and gazed into Istarinmul’s Cyrican Harbor.

The empty harbor.

When she had first come here two years ago, every pier had been stacked with cargo, and thousands of gray-clad slaves toiled along the waterfront, unloading and loading the ships. Now every single pier was empty, the waters beyond the harbor clear of sails, the waterfront was almost deserted. It was one of the eeriest things Caina had seen, as if Cassander’s spell had burned away Istarinmul’s people instead of its buildings.

Her three companions seemed just as unsettled by the sight.

Though of course Morgant the Razor expressed his discomfiture by talking.

“Two hundred and five years I have lived,” said Morgant, his black coat snapping behind him in the breeze rising from the harbor, the shirt beneath stark and white and crisp, his Caerish accent giving his voice a sharp burr. He was a gaunt man who looked about fifty-five, his hair iron-gray and his eyes blue and cold and pale. At his belt hung a sheathed scimitar and a dagger with a red pearl in the pommel. Caina’s altered perceptions saw the auras of sorcerous power within the weapons. “Two hundred and five years I have lived, many of them in Istarinmul. How often have I seen the harbor empty?”

“How often?” said Caina.

“Never,” said Morgant. “Not once. Not before today. It is,” he searched for a word, “unprecedented.”

“The Teskilati are destroyed,” said Caina. “The Slavers’ Brotherhood slaughtered. Half of Istarinmul is in revolt against the Grand Wazir. I think we’re about to see a lot of unprecedented things.”

“Best to be gone,” said the man next to Morgant, “by the time they happen.”

Kylon of House Kardamnos, once an Archon of New Kyre and now an exile like Caina, stood taller than either Caina or Morgant. He had the lean, muscled build of a master swordsman, and he wore clothes similar to Caina’s, leather armor over a tunic, trousers, and dusty boots. He had brown eyes and brown hair over a face that was just a bit grim and weary, and sometimes Caina wanted to just look at him, or to sit by him while she ran her fingers through his hair…

She dragged her mind away from such pleasant thoughts.

The blaze of white fire her altered sight saw around the valikon strapped to his back helped focus her mind.

“Kyracian,” said Morgant. “We’ve already lived through unprecedented times. What’s a few more?”

“There is going to be violence,” said Kylon. “I can sense it in the emotions of everyone we meet. They are still in shock from the circle of fire, but once the shock wears off, they will remember what Cassander said. They will blame Erghulan and Callatas. There might well be riots. This city is stuffed with tinder, and all it needs is a spark.”

Caina shivered despite the blazing heat of the Istarish sun. People were going to die when Erghulan put down the riots. Once Caina would have blamed herself for those deaths, but she knew better now. She could not save everyone – and if she had not acted, then Cassander would have killed everyone in the city.

Morgant snorted. “We save the city from getting burned down, and then Erghulan will burn it down anyway? That’s just bad manners.”

“Perhaps we should move on,” said the woman standing on the other side of Morgant. Annarah was tall for a woman, almost as tall as Kylon, with dark skin and bright green eyes. She looked to be in her thirties, yet her hair was a bright shade of silver. The hair and eyes were distinctive, and Caina had finally despaired of convincing Annarah to dye her hair. The last loremaster of Iramis had settled for donning a nondescript blue dress and matching headscarf, which mostly concealed her hair. “If there are no ships to be had here, perhaps Nasser and Laertes had better luck at the Alqaarin Harbor.”

“Maybe,” said Caina. With the war between the Empire and the Umbarian Order, the Alqaarin Sea was contested between the Emperor and the rebel magi. There had been a corresponding drop in ship traffic, as merchants elected for the overland route to avoid both Imperial and Umbarian privateers, and what few ships that remained had fled Cassander’s wrath.

A wave of pure frustration went through Caina.

If there had just been one ship left in the harbor! They could have set sail for Catekharon by now and taken the relics out of Callatas’s grasp forever. The only ships left in Istarinmul were the galleys of the Istarish navy, waiting in their fortified harbor below the Towers of the Sea. Caina had tried to think of a way to hijack a galley, but they were simply too well defended.

“I still say we should go on foot,” said Morgant. “You shiftless young people. No stamina for walking. You expect to sail everywhere. In my day we walked everywhere, and we grateful for the opportunity…”

“No,” said Caina. “No, we have to put the relics someplace where Callatas cannot reach them. We can’t even take them to Tanzir and the rebels. Callatas could find the regalia easily enough there. The Staff and the Seal have to go somewhere where Callatas cannot steal them.”

Morgant snorted. “We should have left the damned things on Pyramid Isle, then. Callatas would never have gone there.”

“No,” said Caina at once. Her skin crawled at the mention of Pyramid Isle. She remembered the gloomy shadows of Kharnaces’s tomb, the undead baboons creeping through the jungle, the hideous green light of the great Conjurant Bloodcrystal.

The necromantic poison threading its way through her veins inch by inch, killing her.

“She is right,” said Annarah. “We could not have left the relics there. Leaving them in the hands of a Great Necromancer of Maat would be as bad as delivering them to Callatas himself.”

“We had best go,” said Kylon. “Nasser said he would meet as at the Desert Maiden by noon. Perhaps he had better luck finding a ship.”

“Yes,” said Caina, shaking off her dark thoughts of Pyramid Isle.

“The midday meal at the Desert Maiden,” said Morgant. “At least if we fail to secure the relics, the food at the tavern will kill us so quickly that we won’t live long enough to regret it.”

“Don’t eat the food, then,” said Kylon.

“You surprise me, Kyracian,” said Morgant. “You’ve been in enough wars. A fighting man needs to eat when the opportunity presents itself.”

Kylon rolled his eyes, but said nothing as he fell in next to Caina. His presence comforted her. The day they had met, she and Kylon had tried to kill each other repeatedly. Then they had become allies, and then friends, and then exiles together in Istarinmul, and then lovers.

Now she never wanted to be parted from him. She wanted to go with him someplace far from Istarinmul and Callatas and the war between the Empire and the Order.

Yet she was a Ghost of the Empire, and she would not shirk her duty, so Caina left the docks, leading the way to the Alqaarin Quarter on the other side of Istarinmul.

###

“The Staff of Iramis. The Seal of Iramis.” Kalgri smiled and lifted a peculiar bronze compass. “Would you like to know where they are?”

Grand Master Callatas stared at her, incredulous.

The madwoman who called herself Kalgri was one of his first experiments with binding a nagataaru to a living human body. The experiment, alas, had not been particularly successful. She could not harm him or rebel again him, but neither could he compel her to obey him. Nevertheless, she had proven an effective tool against his enemies.

Though given the mountains of corpses she left in her wake, sending her to kill his enemies was a bit like burning down a house to catch a rat.

“Where?” said Callatas at last, anger pulsing through him. He didn’t have time to waste with the Huntress’s games. A century and a half of work in Istarinmul was in danger of coming undone, and he…

“Caina Amalas has them,” said Kalgri, still smiling.

“Caina Amalas!” spat Callatas, incredulous. “That Ghost schemer and spy? The so-called Balarigar? Do you seriously expect me to believe that she found the regalia of Iramis when I could not?”

Kalgri’s smile never wavered, her eyes like chips of blue ice. “It is as ridiculous as believing that she could deal with Cassander Nilas when you could not.”

A wave of pure fury went through Callatas, the shadow of Kotuluk Iblis whispering inside of his head. He wanted to strike that smile from her face, to unleash his power and blast her to ashes…

He restrained himself. He had spent so long trying to save humanity, and he would not lose everything in a fit of childish pique.

That, and he wasn’t sure that he could kill her.

For that matter, she was right.

Callatas had severely underestimated Cassander, and the Umbarian magus had almost destroyed Istarinmul and wrecked Callatas’s preparations for the Apotheosis.

Perhaps Callatas had also underestimated Caina Amalas.

The shadow of Kotuluk Iblis raged within him, just as it did whenever he considered that damnable Ghost woman. The sovereign of the nagataaru wanted her dead. Given that Caina had eluded the Huntress, destroyed the Inferno, had apparently located the lost regalia of Iramis, and Kotuluk Iblis himself wanted her dead…perhaps Callatas had been a fool not to deal with her himself.

Very well. He would not make the same mistake twice.

“Fine,” said Callatas. “Where is she?”

“Within the city,” said Kalgri, lifting the compass.

“That compass,” said Callatas. “I recognize that. Some fool made it to find the nearest valikarion. What use is that? I killed all the valikarion when I burned Iramis.”

“Quite true,” said Kalgri, “but Cassander’s mistakes turned Caina into a valikarion, the first to walk the world since Iramis burned. He didn’t heed my counsel either, and look what happened to him. I do hope, father, that you shall not repeat his…”

Again Callatas’s temper flared.

“I am not your father!” he snarled. Kalgri had once been the chief of his household slaves after he had fled Iramis and abandoned the loremasters. She had murdered and slept her way to the top of the household slaves’ hierarchy, and so it had amused him to use her for his first experiments in summoning nagataaru.

So in turn it amused her to call him “father”, likely because she knew it annoyed him.

But Callatas had no children. He would not bring any children into this blighted, diseased world, not until the old humanity had been swept away and the new humanity put in its place. “Do not ever call me your father. I…”

“Do you want to rage over petty insults,” said Kalgri, “or do you want to remake the world?”

Callatas fell silent, turning to gaze at the damaged city of Istarinmul. Smoke still rose in a dozen places throughout the city from the colossal circle of fire Cassander had conjured. From what Callatas had learned, Cassander’s spell had wiped out the Teskilati and someone had slaughtered the masters of the Slavers’ Brotherhood in the chaos. Istarinmul was crippled, and Grand Wazir Erghulan might not be able to stand against Tanzir Shahan and his rebels.

“We must consider how to act,” said Callatas at last, “coldly, rationally, and calmly.”

“That is the smartest thing you have said in decades, father,” said Kalgri.

Callatas decided to ignore that. He stared at Istarinmul, at the maze of palaces and slums and bazaars and temples and docks. The city disgusted him. It showed the corruption of civilization, the degradation and erosion of mankind. Callatas would repair it, would find a better path for humanity.

But only if he solved his current problems, of course.

He needed the Staff and the Seal. He also needed to deal with Tanzir’s rebels, and prevent them from seizing control of the city until Callatas could work the Apotheosis. Above all Callatas had to prevent the rebels or Nasser or anyone else from finding the Padishah. Callatas needed Nahas Tarshahzon, Padishah of Istarinmul, to remain alive until the Apotheosis was ready.

The Padishah…or at least one of his blood.

That could be arranged readily.

Kalgri waited as Callatas formulated plans.

The Staff and Seal he would take himself, and he could deal with the so-called “Balarigar” at the same time. As for the rebels, Grand Wazir Erghulan Amirasku, Master Alchemist Rhataban, and the remaining Immortals could handle them. Though their fate was almost immaterial. Once Callatas claimed the relics of Iramis, he could work the Apotheosis in short order.

Then he could sweep away the rotting corpse of civilization and raise something better in its place.

The shadow of Kotuluk Iblis murmured its approval at the thought.

“Very well,” said Callatas. “This is how we shall proceed.”

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