Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Myths & Legends, #Greek & Roman, #90 Minutes (44-64 Pages)
Caina Amalas is a nightfighter of the Ghosts, the eyes and ears of the Emperor of Nighmar, and she has defeated both corrupt lords and cruel sorcerers.
But when word of a strange assassination plot reaches her ears, Caina faces a new kind of danger.
For there are other ways to kill than swords and knives...
Copyright 2013 by Jonathan Moeller.
Cover image copyright Iakov Kalinin | Dreamstime.com & Prochasson Frederic | Dreamstime.com.
Ebook edition published December 2013.
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.
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.
“The flower shall kill us all!”
Caina looked up from her coffee in surprise.
She sat at a table on the main floor of the House of Kularus, the Imperial capital’s finest (and only) coffeehouse. Servants in black livery hurried back and forth, carrying trays of coffee and pastries to the five levels of balconies encircling the main floor. Nobles and merchants came to the House of Kularus to do business, to plot and scheme, and to enjoy the coffee.
But now every eye turned to watch the sweaty young man stumbling through the front doors.
He was no more than twenty, and his fine black coat and trousers hung off his bony frame like the clothes of a scarecrow. His black hair stuck up at odd angles, and his beady gray eyes darted back and forth.
And if Caina was not mistaken, the young man’s name was Lord Marcus Orian, a minor noble of the Empire …and the son of Morius Orian, one of the magi of the Imperial Magisterium.
“Listen to me!” bellowed Marcus, waving his hands. “The flower! Beware of the flower! Please, why won’t anyone listen to me! The flower will kill us all!”
A gale of laughter answered his warning.
Caina sipped her coffee, a suspicion rattling at the back of her mind, as footmen in black livery hurried to intercept Lord Marcus.
“Selling flowers, young fellow?” shouted a merchant from the balconies. “You might have better luck at a brothel!”
Another roar of laughter rang out.
“Please!” said Marcus. “Listen to me! The flower…”
The footmen seized his arms and hustled him away. He protested, but the footmen were former Legion veterans, and Marcus soon disappeared through the kitchen door.
The bustle of normal conversation returned.
Caina sipped her coffee, black and bitter.
“What was that all about?”
A tall, hard-looking man with close-cropped blond hair and green eyes stood over her table, clad in the coat and trousers of a prosperous merchant. He wore a sword at his belt, but unlike most prosperous merchants, actually knew how to use it. His name was Corvalis Aberon, and he had once been an assassin of the Kindred. Now he masqueraded as Anton Kularus, but like Caina he was one of the Ghosts, the eyes and ears of the Emperor of Nighmar.
And together they used the House of Kularus to gather secrets for the Ghosts.
Caina smiled, rose, and took his outstretched hands. He pulled her close and kissed her on the lips, rather longer than propriety allowed in public.
But that was all right. He masqueraded as Anton Kularus, and she pretended to be Sonya Tornesti, Anton’s Szaldic-born mistress.
The fact that they actually shared a bed, of course, only strengthened the disguise.
“That was Marcus Orian, son of Morius Orian, one of Malarae’s magi,” said Caina. She made sure to speak with a thick Szaldic accent. “He thinks a flower is going to kill him.”
Corvalis snorted. “If he thinks that, he needs something stronger than coffee to clear his head.” He titled his head. “You have that expression.”
“What expression?” said Caina, looking at the kitchen door.
“The expression,” said Corvalis, “that means you have an idea.”
“I had heard,” said Caina, “a rumor about Master Morius and a flower of some kind.”
It was an idle thought…yet perhaps not so idle. There were girls who sold harmless cut flowers by the docks. Yet some flowers were not so harmless, and skilled hands could transform them into deadly poisons.
“Have a word with the footmen, will you?” said Caina. “I would like to speak with Lord Marcus.”
“Very well,” said Corvalis. “But be on your guard. He might come at you with a flower.”
Caina grinned, kissed him again, and went to the kitchen doors.
Caina scrutinized her reflection in the gleaming copper pot, nodded in satisfaction, and stepped into the alley behind the House of Kularus.
Two of the footmen waited with Marcus, thick hands wrapped around his arms.
“I demand you release me at once,” said Marcus, his voice a whine. “I am a son of House Orian, and…”
“Lord Marcus,” said Caina, keeping her Szaldic accent in place. “It grieves me to see you so distressed.”
Marcus looked her up and down, his lip curled with contempt. That was as Caina expected. She wore a brilliant gold gown with black trim, jewels upon her throat and ears and fingers, and too much makeup. She looked exactly like a wealthy merchant’s young mistress, a commoner with more money and beauty than brains and sense.
“Master Anton has me thrown out of his establishment,” said Marcus, “and sends his mistress to calm me down?”
“Anton’s mistress I may be,” said Caina, “but I did not just make a scene in front of the richest merchants of Malarae, no?”
That deflated him. “Well…yes, that was rather…beneath the dignity of a lord of the Empire, yes, but…” He made a fist, and the footmen tensed, but Marcus only slammed his hand against his leg. “But no one will listen to me! My father is going to kill them, and no one will believe me.” He slumped. “No one will listen.”
“I am listening,” said Caina.
Marcus gave a bitter laugh. “What good will that do?”
“You might be surprised,” said Caina. “Sonya Tornesti has many friends. And I am a very good listener. For instance, in the coffee house you said that the flower was going to kill them, and yet here you claim your father shall kill someone.”
He blinked. “You were listening?”
“Why, clearly,” said Caina, making a dismissive wave, the rings glittering on her fingers. “Perhaps you should explain. Is your father going to kill someone with a flower?”
“Well,” said Marcus, “yes, he is.”
One of the footmen snickered, but fell silent when Caina glanced at him. They did not know that she was a nightfighter of the Ghosts, but they did know that Anton Kularus listened to her, and Master Anton employed them.
“Perhaps you should return to the doors,” said Caina. “I am quite safe with Lord Marcus.”
The footmen released Marcus, bowed, and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Caina alone with the young lord.
“I don’t understand,” said Marcus. “Why are you listening to me?” He sounded bitter. “I tried going to the magistrates, even to the Magisterium, but they all laughed at me.”
Caina shrugged. “Perhaps I am simply curious. Perhaps I have friends who can help you. Now. How is your father going to kill a man with a flower?”
Marcus rubbed his face. “Have you ever heard of a carrion flower?”
Caina had, and she recalled the rumors she had heard about Morius Orian.
“It’s a giant flower from the jungles south of Anshan,” said Caina. “It only opens every few decades…”
“Thirty-seven years, to be precise,” said Marcus.
“And when it does, it emits a stench similar to that of a rotting corpse,” said Caina. “I do not understood the appeal.” She had smelled more than one rotting corpse in her life, and had no wish to smell another, let alone a giant flower that mimicked the odor.
Marcus shrugged. “The odor attracts flies, which the flower then traps and digests.”
“A corpse-reeking flower crawling with flies?” said Caina. “What a pleasant prospect.”
“Botany always interested Father,” said Marcus. “And I understand an opened carrion flower is really quite lovely. Very colorful. Perhaps I shall write an epic poem about it.”
Marcus fancied himself a poet? Suddenly his overwrought reaction made a great deal more sense.
“Your father’s carrion flower. Is that the flower you meant?” said Caina.
“I didn’t think the stench was lethal,” said Caina.
“It’s not,” said Marcus.
“Then how is your father going to use it to kill someone?” said Caina.
“I don’t know!” said Marcus, his frustration bubbling over. He began to pace back and forth. “But he is, I’m sure of it. He’s going to use the flower to kill the new preceptor.”
“Septimus Rhazion?” said Caina. She had met the new preceptor of the Malarae chapterhouse of the Magisterium a few months ago at a banquet. An assassin had tried to kill him at the banquet, and Caina supposed Rhazion had many other enemies. “Why?”
“Father thinks he should have been made preceptor, not Rhazion,” said Marcus. “And Father’s going to use the carrion flower to kill him.”
“How, exactly?” said Caina.
“In two days,” said Marcus, “the carrion flower will bloom at moonrise. Father has invited Rhazion and some of the other chief magi and nobles to attend. At the dinner, he’s going to kill Rhazion and every else there.” Marcus rubbed his sweating hands on the side of his coat. “All those…all those people…”
“How do you know this?” said Caina.
“I overhead Father,” said Marcus. “He was talking with a man. An assassin of the Kindred. They were discussing which poison to use. They didn’t know I could hear them.”
“Poison?” said Caina. “Did they say what kind?”
“No,” said Marcus, wrapping his arms around himself.
“Then it seems Morius will use the flower to lure Rhazion to his house,” said Caina, “and then will poison him there, no?” If so, it was a stupid way to go about it. If Rhazion suddenly died at Morius Orian’s house, the suspicion would naturally fall upon Morius, and the Magisterium took harsh measures with magi who murdered their superiors.
“That’s not it!” said Marcus. “They’re going to use the flower to kill Rhazion and every single other guest. That way it will look like an accident.”
“How?” said Caina.
“I don’t know!” said Marcus. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I heard them talk about it last night. I didn’t…I didn’t know what to do. I went to the magistrates, but they laughed at me. I tried visiting the chapterhouse, but the magi would not see me.” His mouth twisted. “You see, I’m Father’s little embarrassment. I have no arcane talent. I have seizures, so I cannot serve in the Legions as an officer. I think Father would be happier if I just died. No one of importance will believe me over him. The only person who has listened to me is a coffee merchant’s mistress. Truly, it has been a disheartening day.” He sighed. “And I don’t even know if you believe me.”
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” said Caina. “You spoke to the magistrates this morning.” She glanced at the sky. It was a little past noon now.
Marcus nodded, looking miserable.
“Then follow me,” said Caina.
He blinked. “Why?”
“Because if you’re telling the truth,” said Caina, “someone is about to kill you.”
“What?” said Marcus. “Why? I…”
“Stop talking,” said Caina, “and come with me.”
Marcus followed her back into the kitchens. Caina led him back to the main floor of the House of Kularus and made a circuit, keeping her expression vacant and pleasant as she chattered about Anton Kularus’s various business ventures. Marcus stared at her in bafflement, which was just as well, since she was sure that was his usual expression when speaking with women.
At last they stopped near the kitchen doors.
“Why did we do that?” said Marcus.
“Those two men at the table near the door,” said Caina. “Did you see them?”
“I think so,” said Marcus. “I…”
“No, don’t turn around,” said Caina. “They came through the front doors right after you did. They’re Kindred assassins, and they’re here to make sure you have a sudden and fatal disappearance.”
Marcus’s jaw fell open, the color draining from his face.
“But…but why?” he sputtered.
“Because the Kindred have spies and informants hidden throughout the city,” said Caina. “Including some in the basilicas of the magistrates, and certainly in the chapterhouse of the Magisterium. They overhead you and passed word to their superiors. The Kindred dislike witnesses, as one might expect from professional killers. These men came to make you disappear quietly so the attempt on Rhazion’s life goes off without difficulty.”
“Oh, gods,” said Marcus. “What am I going to do? I’m…I’m not a soldier, I can barely hold a sword without getting cutting myself.”
“Calm down,” said Caina. “If you panic, they’ll notice. We’re going to hide you for a few days, Marcus. Long enough to get this cleared up.”
“You are?” said Marcus. “You’re…you’re not really just a coffee merchant’s mistress, are you? Who are you?”
Caina shrugged. “Simply a woman with some friends.”
“You sent him to a brothel?” said Caina.
The Ghosts had safe houses scattered throughout Malarae, including one in the cellar of the House of Kularus. Caina would have preferred to keep Marcus there, but since the Kindred had already followed him to the coffee house, it seemed unwise.
Corvalis shrugged. “The Gilded Rose. Our young Lord Marcus has a reputation as an absent-minded scholar, so the Gilded Rose is the last place anyone will ever look. Might even be good for him.”
Caina raised an eyebrow, and Corvalis grinned.
“Master Morius’s dinner,” said Caina. “Did we get an invitation?”
“Anton Kularus did,” said Corvalis. “Malarae’s only coffee merchant still has some notoriety. Though if Morius is planning to kill all his guests, I wonder what I did to offend him.”
Caina looked at the evening crowds filling the balconies of the House of Kularus. “Nothing. I think he’s planning to use the carrion flower to kill all his guests, make it look like an accident. The more victims, the greater the plausibility.”
“A carrion flower to create carrion,” said Corvalis. “Perhaps Lord Marcus will write a poem about it.”
“There’s no need to be cruel, my love,” said Caina. “I suspect Marcus Orian’s life has been cruel enough already.”
She gazed into the crowd for a moment, thinking.
“You have an idea,” said Corvalis.
“Master Morius invited us to his dinner,” said Caina. “Shall we arrive a few nights early and have a look around?”
Corvalis grinned. “I would enjoy nothing more.”
Midnight came, and Caina looked at the mansion of Morius Orian.
She and Corvalis had discarded their finery for the garb of Ghost nightfighters – black jackets, black trousers, black masks, and black boots, and over their clothes they wore shadow-cloaks. Only Ghost nightkeepers knew the secrets of creating shadow-cloaks, of infusing shadows into silk itself. The cloaks blended with the shadows, and made it child’s play for a man skilled at stealth to make his way unseen across Malarae in the dark of night.