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)
A suspicion came to Caina. “Just how poisonous?”
“Lethally poisonous,” said Halaam. “Ingesting one of the mushrooms causes the heart to rupture within moments. It used to be a popular method of assassination in Anshan, before the Bostaji killed anyone who attempted it.”
“Poisoned mushrooms,” said Caina. That made sense, yet it seemed too obvious. If his guests died after eating his food, Morius would come under immediate suspicion for murder.
That carrion flower. That was the key. He had lured the guests to see the flower bloom. But why the flower? Any pretext would have served…
Caina remembered the strange smell from the flower’s roots.
“Do you have any of the extract on hand?” said Caina.
“A few vials left,” said Halaam.
“I wish to smell one,” said Caina.
“Why?” said Halaam. “It smells most unpleasant, I am afraid.”
“No matter,” said Caina. “I wish to smell one.” She turned toward the stairs. “Go down to the shop and…”
She froze. A dark shape stood at the bottom of the stairs, and she saw the glint of metal as the shape moved.
A crossbow quarrel.
“Back!” shouted Caina as Corvalis turned, and she grabbed him and jerked him back.
An instant later a crossbow bolt shot up the stairs and slammed into the ceiling, quivering.
Halaam shrieked and stumbled to his feet, eyes wide. “What? Why? Is that…”
“Is that you, Halaam?” said a rough voice at the base of the stairs. Caina heard the click as the crossbow reloaded. “You have betrayed the Kindred, and you shall die.”
“But…but how…” said Halaam.
“That damned candle,” said Caina. Letting Halaam light it had been a mistake. Someone had been watching his window.
“I told them nothing!” said Halaam. “At least, nothing they could not have learned from any apothecary! I…”
“Silence!” said the assassin. “I heard every word, fool. And you are still under suspicion for the incident five years past. You have a gift for wagging your tongue for enemies of the Kindred! Those are Ghost agents with you, I am sure. They can die alongside you.”
“No!” said Halaam. “Please, have mercy!”
“You’re a fool, Kindred!” shouted Caina, cutting off Halaam’s pleas.
Again Caina glimpsed the glint of steel as the assassin shifted aim. Anyone who went down the stairs would catch a crossbow bolt, and a crossbow quarrel to the torso at that range would be almost certainly be lethal.
“And why is that?” said the assassin.
“Because there are five of us and one of you,” said Caina.
The assassin barked a harsh laugh. “Is that so? You lie boldly, Ghost. There are two of you, and the first one of you down the stairs will die. But while the Ghosts and the family of the Kindred are foes, this need not end in unnecessary bloodshed. Hand over Halaam, and we shall go our separate ways.”
Halaam turned a pleading look in Caina’s direction.
“Why don’t you tell me how you’ve planned to kill Septimus Rhazion?” said Caina.
The assassin laughed again. “I have no idea. Orian merely contracted with us to provide the poison. What he does with it is his own affair. As is how the Kindred handle disloyalty. Now. Hand over the traitor…”
“Or what?” said Caina. “You’ll come up and get us? The first one to go down those stairs dies, but the same thing applies to the first man to come up.”
“No,” said the assassin. “There are quite a few flammable substances in here. I’ll simply set the building on fire and wait for you to come out.”
That would work.
“Very well,” said Caina. “We’ll negotiate.”
Halaam gaped at her.
Caina leaned forward and put her lips against Corvalis’s cowl.
“Stall,” she hissed.
He nodded and stepped forward, keeping away from the stairs.
“So!” Corvalis boomed. “If we give you the apothecary, what will you offer in return?”
“Your lives,” said the assassin.
Caina hurried across the room, climbed onto the bed, and pushed open the shutters of the window. She saw no trace of any other Kindred in the gloomy alley below.
“And how do we know you won’t betray us?” bellowed Corvalis, glancing at Caina.
“Simplicity itself,” said the assassin. “Send the traitor down the stairs. I shall shoot him, and go on my way before you catch me. Let the urban praetor and the civic militia puzzle over one dead rat of an apothecary. Certainly it is no concern of the Ghosts.”
Caina swung out the window and hung by her fingertips from the sill, and then dropped into the alley. It was not a long drop, but she still made more noise than she liked. Fortunately, Corvalis was shouting, and had the assassin’s attention. Caina saw the Kindred standing just within the back door, wearing the clothes of a common laborer, a crossbow cradled in his arms.
She glided up behind him, drawing the daggers from her boots.
“Very well,” said the assassin. “Tie him up and push him down the stairs. Then I will…”
His offer ended in a strangled gurgle as Caina buried one of her daggers in his back. The assassin stumbled forward, his crossbow going off. The bolt buried itself in the stairs, and the man started to turn. Caina seized his hair, yanked back his head, and ripped her remaining dagger across his throat. He went rigid, and she planted a boot into his back and shoved.
The assassin toppled forward, bounced off the stairs, and went still, his blood pooling around him.
Caina let out a long breath, trying to ignore the flicker of guilt. She had been a Ghost nightfighter for over four years now, and the killing had gotten easier. Much easier. That troubled her. It shouldn’t be easy.
On the other hand, the assassin would have killed her without hesitation, and he had undoubtedly killed innocents. The world was better off without him.
Yet Corvalis had once been an assassin of the Kindred…
Caina pushed aside the thought.
Corvalis descended the stairs, sword and dagger in hand, and Halaam followed.
“By the Living Flame,” the apothecary moaned, “there is a corpse in my shop…”
“Would you rather that the corpse was yours?” said Caina. “Go fetch me a vial of the lionroot extract.”
“What?” said Halaam. “Now?”
“Yes, now,” said Caina, pointing at him with a bloody dagger.
Halaam swallowed and vanished into the main room of his shop. Caina wrenched her dagger free from the assassin’s back, cleaned it, and slid the weapons into their sheaths in her boots. Halaam returned with a small vial filled with a yellowish fluid.
“Here,” he said.
Caina took it, pulled the stopper free, and took a sniff.
It smelled exactly the same as the damp earth around the roots of Morius Orian’s carrion flower.
And all at once, she knew how Morius intended to kill Septimus Rhazion.
“I suggest,” said Caina, pocketing the vial, “that you get out of Malarae at once. The Kindred aren’t likely to forgive another assassin dying in your shop.”
“But I didn’t kill him,” said Halaam, his voice a whine.
“No,” said Caina, “but who are they going to blame?”
Halaam sighed, and started gathering his possessions.
A few hours later, Caina let herself into Marcus Orian’s room at the Gilded Rose, wearing the disguise of a caravan guard come to enjoy the brothel’s amenities.
Marcus, she noted, had not. He sat in a chair at the room’s small table, the bed unused, scribbling into a small, leather-bound book. A quick glance at the pages told her that he was attempting to turn his recent travails into epic verse.
Caina wondered if the poem would skip over his time at the Gilded Rose.
“Who are you?” Marcus demanded, surging to his feet. He didn’t recognize her through the disguise – that was good. “Why are you in my room?”
“A messenger from Sonya Tornesti,” said Caina, masking her voice.
“Oh,” said Marcus, clutching his book to his chest. “What…what does she want?”
“Be certain to attend your father’s dinner tomorrow night,” said Caina. “Master Anton and Mistress Sonya will be there, and they shall need your help.”
Marcus blinked. “For what?”
“To stop your father,” said Caina, “from murdering all his guests.”
The next night, the coach of Anton Kularus stopped in front of the mansion of Morius Orian, and Caina stepped down.
She had abandoned both the garb of a nightfighter and her caravan guard’s disguise for a black-trimmed blue gown that was too tight and too low across the bodice. It was exactly the sort of thing Sonya Tornesti would wear. Fortunately, the loose skirt allowed her to conceal weapons, and if she kicked off her high-heeled sandals, she could run without trouble.
Caina suspected she might have to do some running before the night was out.
Corvalis stepped next to her, tall and dark in his black coat.
“Well,” said Corvalis, offering her his arm. “Shall we go cause trouble?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Caina. “Did you bring it?”
He grinned. “Halaam didn’t bother to take it with him when he fled. It was still there, in his shop.” He handed her a small glass vial filled with a blue-colored fluid. “You’re sure this will work?”
“Yes,” said Caina. “Mostly.”
A pair of footmen stood at the gates and bowed as they passed. Marcus Orian waited just inside the garden, shifting from foot to foot with nervousness, sweat glittering upon his brow.
“Master Anton, Mistress Sonya,” he said with relief. “You came.”
“We did, my lord,” said Caina, slipping back into her Szaldic accent. “Our instructions, did you receive them?”
“I did,” said Marcus. “Though I confess I do not understand them at all.”
“That is of no concern,” said Corvalis. “I understand the Elders of the Kindred are fond of saying that understanding is not required for obedience.”
“I hope you are right,” said Marcus.
They strolled into the garden. Liveried servants stood here and there, offering trays of food and drink to the master magus’s guests. Caina saw several members of the Magisterium present, stark and forbidding in their ornamented black robes, and her hands wanted to move to her concealed weapons. She hated the magi, loathed wielders of sorcery, and would have killed them all, if given the chance.
But these men and women had done nothing to warrant death, and she would not let Morius murder them in cold blood.
And if Caina was right, Morius was going to kill a lot of people to become preceptor of Malarae’s chapter of the Magisterium.
“Ah.” A stout, balding master magus strode toward them. Caina recognized Septimus Rhazion, the current preceptor of Malarae’s magi. “A pleasant evening to you, Master Anton. I would hope Morius serves some of your fine coffee, but then I fear I would be awake all night.”
Corvalis grinned. “Perhaps, but do not magi stay up into the dark of the night anyway, studying forbidden tomes and conjuring demonic spirits?”
Rhazion snorted. “Don’t be absurd. I fear most of my colleagues lack either the ambition or the energy to pursue such nefarious schemes.” He looked up at the mansion. “Though I hope this shall be less exciting than the last banquet we attended. No assassins, for one.”
“One may always hope,” said Caina.
Rhazion glanced at her, at Lord Marcus, and seemed to dismiss them. “Yes, of course.”
They reached the doors to the mansion proper, and Morius Orian, master magus of the Magisterium, greeted them. He looked a great deal like Marcus, but older and even thinner. Yet there was iron in Morius’s eyes, while Marcus’s held only timidity. Morius had the same air of arrogance Caina had encountered in the other senior magi, a ruthless and iron-hard certainty in his own power.
“Ah, preceptor,” said Morius with a polite little bow. His voice was cold and deep. “Thank you for coming to my little gathering.”
“How could I pass?” said Rhazion. “Anshani carrion flowers are rare even in the Shahenshah’s domains. I understand the chance to see one bloom is indeed a unique opportunity.”
“I trust it shall be a memorable experience,” said Morius, his eyes shifting to Corvalis.
Corvalis executed a smooth bow. “Anton Kularus, master magus.”
“Yes, the coffee merchant,” said Morius with a sniff. “I do not care for the drink myself, but you are welcome.” He smiled. “I want as many eyes as possible to see my little flower bloom.” His eyes turned to Marcus. “Such as my wayward son. Come home at last, my boy? Run out of money? Or did you run out of ideas for your execrable poetry?”
Marcus swallowed, fresh sweat glittering on his brow. “I wished to see this for myself.”
“Splendid,” said Morius. He turned away before Corvalis could introduce Caina, speaking to Rhazion in a low voice. A coffee merchant’s mistress was beneath his notice.
Which was just as Caina preferred.
“I don’t think he likes you very much,” said Corvalis.
Marcus opened his mouth, closed it.
“Let’s get moving,” said Caina. “Corvalis, give him one of the vials.”
Corvalis produced another glass vial of the blue liquid, and Marcus took it and gave it a dubious look.
“What is this supposed to do?” said Marcus.
“It’s a mild hallucinogen,” said Caina. “Made from a berry in the jungles beyond Anshan. Causes intense visions, but is otherwise harmless. Apparently the monkeys in the jungles regularly consume the berries.”
“And for the gods’ sake,” said Corvalis, “don’t get any on your skin.”
“Go,” said Caina.
Marcus braced himself, took the vial, and walked into the gardens. Caina and Corvalis strode arm in arm through the gardens, weaving around the guests. Morius’s exotic animals wandered freely through the bushes, including his dozens of monkeys.
Caina splashed a little of the blue drug upon their faces whenever she drew close enough, and Corvalis did the same. The monkeys blinked in surprise and reared back, and then withdrew into the bushes. Caina had managed to distribute the drug to a dozen monkeys when Morius’s voice rang out.
“My honored guests!” he said, his voice amplified through sorcery. “Please, moonrise is almost upon us, and the carrion flower will open for the first time in decades. Let us gather around the flower, and witness a sight few have ever been privileged to see. I guarantee you will remember it for the rest for your lives.”