Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Fantasy - Female Assassin
“Please, please,” said the girl. “Do not hurt me. I…please, do not kill me the way you killed my sisters. Please, dark ones. Please!”
“What is she saying?” said Corvalis.
Caina blinked, and remembered Corvalis could not speak Istarish. “She thinks we’re going to kill her the way someone killed her sisters.”
She stepped forward, wiped her daggers clean on the dead assassin, and lifted her hands. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
“Please,” said the girl, shivering. “Please, just let me go.”
“What happened to you?” said Caina. “Why were these men trying to kill you?”
“I don’t know!” said the girl. “I don’t know why they wanted me, and I don’t know why they killed my sisters.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “I…please, let me go.”
“Where will you go?” said Caina.
“I don’t…I don’t know,” said the girl, shaking her head. “Anywhere. Someplace where they can’t find me.”
“I can help you,” said Caina.
“No,” said the girl. “Please…don’t hurt me.”
Caina realized the Istarish girl only saw them as cloaked shadows, as armed wraiths who had cut down an Immortal and a Kindred assassin in the space of a few heartbeats.
Little wonder she feared them.
Caina decided to take a gamble, and drew back her hood and pulled off her mask.
The girl’s eyes widened. “You…you are a woman?”
“I am,” said Caina. “I can take you somewhere safe. You must be expecting the child soon.”
The girl gave a hesitant nod. “Any day.”
“Then come with us,” said Caina. “You do not want to be alone when your time comes.” She gestured at the corpses. “And these men had allies, I’m sure. You don’t want them to find you.”
The girl shook her head. “No.”
“What is your name?” said Caina.
“Mahdriva,” said the girl. She hesitated. “The assassin…the assassin said you were a Ghost. Is that true?”
“We are,” said Caina. “We can help you, if…”
“My father!” said Mahdriva. “Please, save my father. We were hiding at the Inn of the Broken Wheel when they came for me. My father fought them off and told me to run. I went through the back door and ran as fast as I could, but the men caught me here. Please, Ghost, help my father.”
Caina knew the Inn of the Broken Wheel. It was at the edge of the district, and catered to the moderately successful merchants that lived nearby. But if the Kindred and the Immortals had come for Mahdriva and her father in force, then the man was likely dead.
“He is still alive!” said Mahdriva, as if she had guessed Caina’s thoughts. “My father is the mightiest warrior in Istarinmul. It will take more than assassins to kill him. But, please, he must have aid.”
“She’s asking you for something,” murmured Corvalis in Caerish, “isn’t she?”
Caina nodded, thinking. Mahdriva’s father, whoever he was, had likely perished. Yet why send Kindred assassins and Immortals to kidnap one pregnant girl?
A pregnant girl, Caina suspected, who had escaped from slavery in Istarinmul.
Why go to that much trouble to recapture a pregnant slave girl?
An odd coincidence, with the Istarish Lord Ambassador arriving within a week.
And Caina did not like coincidences.
She looked at the girl, remembering the day her own father had died before her eyes.
“Yes,” said Caina. “We will save your father, if we can.”
“Thank you,” said Mahdriva, her voice shaking. “Thank you.”
“Ah,” said Corvalis. “We’re going to help her, aren’t we?”
“You told me you liked challenges,” said Caina. She pulled her mask and cowl back into place. “Well, get ready for a challenge.”
Corvalis laughed. “Best we move on before the militia finds the corpses.”
Caina left the courtyard and headed for the Inn of the Broken Wheel, Corvalis and Mahdriva following.
Chapter 2 - The Gladiator
Something was amiss at the Inn of the Broken Wheel.
It was an impressive five-story building of mortared stone and timber, its wings encircling a courtyard containing a fountain and a small garden. Usually lamps holding enspelled glass globes illuminated the courtyard at night. Yet now the iron lamps were dark, and Caina saw glittering shards strewn about their base.
Someone had smashed the lamps.
The Inn stood dark and silent.
“Where were you and your father staying?” said Caina.
“On the second floor, in one of the cheaper rooms,” said Mahdriva, shivering in the damp. Caina wished there had been time to find Mahdriva a cloak. Or to secure her in one of the safe houses the Ghosts had hidden throughout Malarae.
Yet if there was any chance of saving Mahdriva’s father, Caina could not delay.
And she suspected Mahdriva’s father knew far more about what was happening than Mahdriva herself did.
“The footman at the door is dead,” said Corvalis, pointing at a dark shape slumped against the wall. “Looks like they did it quietly, too. Smashed the lamps so no one could see them, and then slipped inside. I’d wager most of the guests at the Inn are still asleep.”
“You ran through the back door?” said Caina.
“Yes,” said Mahdriva. “In the kitchen. The assassins…the assassins came through the door to our room. My father overpowered them, and had me run while he fought.”
Caina nodded. Likely Mahdriva’s father had escaped through the back door in pursuit of his daughter.
Assuming he was still alive.
“This way,” said Caina, and they slipped around the side of the Inn, past the stables, and into the alley behind the building. The Inn’s back wasn’t nearly as polished as its front, with raw brick and rough timber showing in place of the facade’s polished stone. The air smelled faintly of garbage, rotting food, urine, and…
The door to the Inn’s kitchen stood open, and a pair of bodies lay motionless in the alley.
Caina hurried closer, her dagger ready in her right hand. One of the corpses wore servants’ livery identical to the assassin in the courtyard, and the other the clothing of a common laborer. Both men were dead, slain by a sword thrust through the heart.
“Kindred, most likely,” said Corvalis, nudging one of the corpses with his boot.
“Mahdriva,” said Caina in Istarish. “Are either of these men your father?”
Mahdriva gave a ragged shake of her head, arms wrapped tight around herself. “No. But they broke into our room.”
“Looks like they were facing that way,” said Caina, switching back to Caerish. “I think Mahdriva’s father was backing away and fighting.”
“You’re right,” said Corvalis. He pointed with his sword, and Caina saw a third corpse. “There’s another one.”
Caina hurried to the next corpse. The dead man wore dark clothing, his chest torn and bloody from multiple puncture wounds. The eyes gazed sightlessly up at Caina, and in their depths she saw a fading blue glow.
“Gods,” said Corvalis. “He killed an Immortal.”
“So did you,” said Caina.
“I stabbed an Immortal in the back before he noticed me,” said Corvalis. “This Immortal’s wounds are in front.”
Caina looked at Mahdriva.
“Father,” she said, “is the mightiest warrior in Istarinmul.”
“Plainly,” said Caina, looking down the alley. “He must have gone this way.”
She hurried down the alley, Corvalis and Mahdriva following. They passed two more slain Kindred. Mahdriva’s breath came in harsh, short bursts, her face going gray. Caina wondered how much father she could go. Perhaps they ought to turn back and find a safe place for Mahdriva to rest.
But Mahdriva kept going, her teeth gritted.
The alley opened into a street leading to Malarae’s vast maze of docks and warehouses. The Imperial capital’s harbor accommodated both ships from the Bay of Empire and barges from the River Megaros, and merchant vessels from a score of nations filled Malarae’s quays.
Or, at least, they had, before the Kyracians had started sinking half the ships in the Cyrican Sea.
Caina looked around. Where would Mahdriva’s father have gone? Perhaps he had slipped into an empty warehouse and eluded his pursuers. Or had he lured his foes into a trap? If a man had the skill to fight and defeat an Immortal of Istarinmul, he might have the cunning to draw his enemies into a trap…
Even as the thought crossed her mind, she heard the clang of steel on steel, heard men shouting. The noise was coming from an alley between two brick warehouses.
“Go!” said Caina, running for the alley.
She ran into the alley, Corvalis following, Mahdriva staggering after. The sounds of fighting grew louder, and Caina heard a man scream and fall silent. Mahdriva groaned and came to a stop, one hand clutching her belly.
“Wait here,” said Caina, grabbing her shoulders and steering her to a narrow doorway in the side of the wall.
“But,” said Mahdriva, her face glistening with sweat, “but my father…my father…”
“You won’t help him if you miscarry and bleed out,” said Caina. “Wait until we come for you.”
Caina helped her to sit and rejoined Corvalis.
“How is she?” said Corvalis.
“Not well,” said Caina. “But she’ll do worse if her father dies in front of her. Come on.”
Corvalis nodded and followed her.
The alley ended in a yard between three warehouses. Stacks of crates and barrels stood scattered at intervals, and countless white streaks of gull dung marked the brick walls. Three dead men, two Kindred and one Immortal, lay sprawled near the edge of the yard.
Another shout and the clang of steel on steel reached Caina’s ears, followed immediately by the sound of another body striking the ground.
Caina beckoned to Corvalis, and he nodded. They crept around one of the stacks of crates, their boots making no sound, and Caina peered around the edge.
An Istarish man in his fifties stood in the center of the yard, clad in boots, trousers, and a leather vest. His hair and beard were the color of iron, and his arms bulged with muscle. Fine wrinkles lined the dark skin of his face, and he reminded Caina of an ancient oak tree, hard and tough and unyielding.
In his right hand he held a scimitar, and his left he carried a steel trident.
“Come!” roared the man in Istarish, banging the trident and the sword together with a clang. “I know you skulk in the shadows, creeping in the darkness like rats! Come and die, dogs!” He spat upon the ground. “Are you so afraid of one pit slave? Do the mighty Immortals and the Kindred cringe in fear of one gladiator?” Again he struck his trident and sword together. “Come and I shall send you to join your brothers down in hell!”
And as he spoke, men emerged from the fog. Six men, wearing the livery of servants or the rough clothes of dockhands. Yet all moved with the balance and grace of trained Kindred assassins, swords and daggers in their hands. At their head walked a gaunt man in leather armor with a salt-and-pepper beard and a hooked nose. His eyes narrowed at the sight of the middle-aged Istarish man, his scowl deepening.
“I know him,” whispered Corvalis. “Nalazar. From the Kindred family in Istarinmul.”
That surprised Caina. Malarae had its own Kindred family. So why had Istarish Kindred pursued Mahdriva and her father to Malarae? For that matter, the Immortals served only the Padishah and Istarinmul’s College of Alchemists.
Someone of great power and influence in Istarinmul clearly wanted Mahdriva.
“Enough, Muravin,” Nalazar said. “You have made this far more difficult than it needs to be. Where is Mahdriva? This needn’t be painful.”
Muravin spat again. “Do not weary me with your lies. Do you think me stupid enough to believe them? You have already spilled the blood of my daughters!”
Nalazar gestured with his sword. “Where is the girl?”
“Where you shall never find her,” said Muravin.
“Enough,” said Nalazar. “One pregnant girl cannot elude the Kindred. Kill this fool and let’s be on our way.”
Muravin hefted his weapons, and the Kindred advanced on him, spreading in a half-circle. Muravin turned back and forth, his trident darting forth like a serpent’s tongue. He would take at least two or three of them with him, but in the end, Nalazar and the Kindred would kill him.
And Caina had told Mahdriva she would save her father, if she could.
She looked at Corvalis, who nodded, and they slipped around the stack of crates.
Muravin backed away, the Kindred following him. Which made it so easy for Caina to glide up behind the assassins, Corvalis at her side. She darted forward, seized the hair of the nearest assassin, and ripped her dagger across his throat. The hot blood splashed across her gloves, and the man toppled with gurgling moan. In the same instant Corvalis plunged his sword through the back of another assassin, killing the man in an instant.
The remaining four Kindred whirled in shock.
“We are attacked!” shouted Nalazar. “Defend…”
Muravin surged forward with a roar, stabbing with his trident. One of the Kindred caught the trident on his sword blade, but Muravin ducked under the locked weapons and stabbed, his scimitar taking the assassin in the gut. Caina snatched a throwing knife from her sleeve and flung it at the nearest Kindred. The assassin dodged the spinning blade, but Corvalis lunged, his bloody sword taking the assassin in the chest.
Nalazar whirled and sprinted away, the remaining Kindred assassin following him. In an instant the two men vanished into the fog. Muravin lowered his sword and trident, breathing hard, and Caina saw a spasm of exhaustion go over his lined face.
Then the hardness returned as he looked at them.
“I know not whether you are living men or shadows of the netherworld,” he said, looking at their cloaks, “but I thank you for the aid. But I must find my daughter. Aid me or not, but do not think to hinder me.”
“Your daughter,” said Caina in Istarish, making sure to keep her voice disguised. “She is named Mahdriva, and great with child?”
“Aye,” said Muravin, a flicker of hope in his hard black eyes. “You have seen her?”
“Yes,” said Caina. “And we shall aid you, if we can. Follow me, quickly. Explanations can come later.”
Muravin nodded. “Then lead on, shadow. But I have slain Kindred and defied Immortals to come here. Betray me or harm my daughter, and I swear you shall sup with your ancestors before the sun rises again.”
“What is he saying?” said Corvalis in Caerish.
Caina walked from the yard, the men following “That if we betray him or hurt his daughter, he’ll cut off our heads.”
“How touching,” said Corvalis. “Tell him he fights well. Not many men can face an Immortal and live.”
“My companion praises your valor,” said Caina in Istarish, as Muravin gave Corvalis a suspicious look. “Few men can defeat an Immortal unaided.”
“Bah!” said Muravin. “The Immortals are strong, yes, but they trust overmuch in their strength. A true warrior does not place too much trust in any weapon, lest it be turned against him.”
Caina found that she agreed.
They returned to the alley, the fog cold and cloying. Caina headed for the doorway, hoping that Mahdriva was still there, that the girl hadn’t fled terrified into the night, or that Nalazar had been bright enough to send some men to search the alley.
But Mahdriva huddled in the doorway, arms wrapped tight around herself.
“Father!” said Mahdriva, staggering to her feet.
“My girl,” said Muravin, his voice rough. “You were very brave.”
“They saved me, Father,” said Mahdriva, nodding at Caina. “The shadows. One of the Immortals caught me, and they would have taken me if the shadows had not come.”
“Who are you?” said Muravin, turning to Caina. “And why have you aided us?”
“Questions can come later,” said Caina. “For now, we must decide upon a course of action. A moment.”
She turned back to Corvalis and switched to Caerish.
“We have to get them somewhere safe,” said Caina. “Nalazar got away, and I’m sure he has more men hidden in the city.”
“Aye,” said Corvalis, “and he’s not the sort to give up easily.”
“How do you know him?”
“Later,” said Corvalis. “Perhaps we should take them to the townhouse.”
Caina shook her head. “It’s too close. If Nalazar is still searching the area, he might think to look there.”
“The Grand Imperial Opera?” said Corvalis.
“It’s too far across the city,” said Caina. “And Muravin would stand out at the Opera like a wolf in a flock of peacocks.” Caina lowered her head and thought for a moment. The Ghosts’ various safe houses were all too far away, and Caina had no doubt that Nalazar had other groups of men searching the city. If they ran into another group of Kindred or Immortals, they might well be overpowered. They needed a safe place, one they could reach without…
The answer came to her.
“The foundry,” said Caina.
Corvalis snorted. “The Champion will be delighted, I’m sure. Who doesn’t enjoy unexpected guests in the middle of the night?”
“The Champion is one of us,” said Caina, “and he understands his duty.” She glanced at Muravin, who stood glowering at her, Mahdriva huddled against him. “And both the Champion and his wife will aid an escaped slave.”
“So you think our new friend is a gladiator?” said Corvalis.
“Almost certainly,” said Caina. “He called himself a pit slave when he challenged Nalazar. And a man of that age who survived as a gladiator…he’ll know his way around a sword.”
“Plainly,” said Corvalis.
Caina nodded and turned back to Muravin.
“Well?” said Muravin, his eyes wary, his posture tense. “You have decided our fate, then?” He had one arm around Mahdriva, his scimitar at his belt, his trident slung over his shoulder. Yet Caina had no doubt he could have his sword in his hand and through her heart in an instant.
“Your foes still hunt you,” said Caina. “We will take you to a safe location. From there, you can rest and recover your strength, and decide how best to keep your daughter safe.”