Ghost in the Seal (Ghost Exile #6)

BOOK: Ghost in the Seal (Ghost Exile #6)
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 GHOST IN THE SEAL

Jonathan Moeller

Description

 

CAINA AMALAS is out of time.

She has risked too much for too long, and her enemies have finally closed around her. The Staff and Seal of Iramis have been found, and threaten to destroy the world with their sorcerous powers. 

The terrible Apotheosis of the evil Grand Master Callatas will succeed unless Caina makes one final sacrifice.

Unless she makes the ultimate sacrifice...

Ghost in the Seal

Copyright 2015 by Jonathan Moeller.

Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.

Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.

Ebook edition published July 2015.

All Rights Reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.

Chapter 1: Bad Omens

 

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. 

BOOK: Ghost in the Seal (Ghost Exile #6)
12.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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