Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Fantasy - Female Assassin
“We are strangers in a foreign land,” said Muravin, “and so we must place ourselves in your hands.” He scowled. “But why are you helping us? Before we go anywhere with you, you will tell me who you are.”
“We are the Ghosts,” said Caina, “the eyes and ears of the Emperor of Nighmar.”
Muravin’s eyes narrowed. “So the Ghosts are real. The emirs and the Alchemists always claimed the Ghosts were myth.”
“They are fools,” said Caina.
Muravin snorted. “They are. But why would the Emperor’s Ghosts help us?”
“Because we hate slave traders,” said Caina, “and I would kill every last one of them with my own hands, if I could.”
Muravin’s black eyes glittered. “That I understand. Lead on.”
Chapter 3 - The Champion of Marsis
Malarae’s newest foundry loomed out of the fog.
It was a tall, blocky building of stout brick and concrete, constructed with reinforced walls in the event of an explosion. Six thick smokestacks rose from the roof, smoke rising from their crests to mingle with the fog. A sullen glow came from the high, narrow windows, casting a harsh orange light over the fog. The foundries of Malarae labored day and night, manufacturing arms and armor for the Legions, or producing pots and pans and horseshoes to sell across the Empire.
“A foundry?” said Muravin.
“The Ghosts have friends in many places,” said Caina.
Muravin scowled. “A foundry is no place for my daughter.”
“Fear not,” said Caina. “She’ll be comfortable enough.”
They circled to the foundry’s rear courtyard, where iron carts held heaps of coal and raw ore. A night watchman patrolled the yard, a man in his middle forties whose close-cropped hair and tattooed right arm marked him as a veteran of the Imperial Legions. He turned at their approach, a loaded crossbow in his arms.
Muravin bared his teeth and reached for his weapons.
Caina raised a gloved hand to forestall him.
“Let the tyrants beware the shadows,” said the watchman in High Nighmarian.
“For in the shadows wait the Ghosts,” said Caina in the same language.
The watchman looked them over, grunted, and jerked his head to let them pass. They passed the carts of iron and coal and came to the foundry’s corner. A flight of wooden stairs climbed twenty feet up, ending in a thick, iron-banded door. Caina took the stairs, knocked, and waited.
After a moment the bolts released and the door swung open.
Caina found herself looking at the tip of a crossbow bolt pointed at her face. The crossbow rested in the arms of a bald man of about forty, with cold gray eyes and the build of a blacksmith. He wore a ragged red tunic and trousers, a Kyracian sword at his belt.
“It’s late,” said the man. “Business can wait until tomorrow.”
“Not this business, Ark,” said Caina in Caerish, dropping her disguised voice. She reached up, drew back her hood, and tugged off her mask.
She heard a startled curse from Muravin. Undoubtedly he had believed her to be a man.
Arcion of Caer Marist, the Champion of Marsis, friend of Lord Corbould Maraeus, and owner of Malarae’s newest foundry, lowered his crossbow. “Countess. I wasn’t expecting you until later this morning, when Halfdan arrives. You have a knack for surprises.”
“It’s a gift,” said Caina. “I need your help.” She gestured at Muravin and Mahdriva. “I think they’re escaped slaves. They’ve got the Kindred of Istarinmul and the Immortals after them.”
Ark frowned. “Immortals? In Malarae?”
“You must have left quite a few corpses behind,” said Ark.
“Aye,” said Caina. “The civic militia is going to have a busy morning. This is the safest place I could reach at short notice.” Indeed, it would be hard to find a more secure place to hide Mahdriva and Muravin. Ark preferred to hire veterans, and most of his workers knew how to fight. The Kindred could not burn down the brick foundry, and there was only one entrance into Ark’s apartment.
And, more, she trusted Ark. They had entered some very dangerous situations together and managed to come out alive at the end.
Ark glanced at the stairs. “I suppose you have your pet assassin with you?”
Corvalis rolled his eyes.
“Ark,” said Caina. “He does come in handy.”
Ark grunted. “Come inside.”
He turned and vanished into the apartment, and Caina beckoned for the others to follow.
They entered a large, comfortable sitting room, with wide windows overlooking the foundry’s courtyard. The view was hardly scenic, but the windows would admit ample sunlight. A thin boy of about seven years stood near the door, watching them with wide gray eyes.
He grinned when he saw Caina.
“Countess,” he said.
Caina smiled and ruffled his hair. “Nicolai.” A blur of memories shot through her. She had taken Ark’s son with her on a walk on the day Rezir Shahan attacked. They had been trapped in the Great Market by the Istarish troops, and the slavers had taken Nicolai.
Caina had gotten him back, but to save his son, Ark had rallied the remaining defenders of Marsis and wound up killing Kleistheon, a Kyracian stormdancer, winning the title of the Champion of Marsis.
If the slavers had not taken Nicolai, Marsis might well have fallen to the Istarish and the Kyracians.
“You have brought guests,” said Nicolai, looking at Mahdriva and Muravin with wide eyes.
“I did,” said Caina, pushing aside the memories. “Your mother makes the finest cakes in Malarae, and they wished to taste them.”
“Nicolai,” said Ark, “go wake your mother.”
“She’s up anyway,” said Nicolai. He wrinkled his nose. “The baby was crying again.”
Caina laughed. “Babies do that.”
Nicolai ran back into the apartment’s inner rooms. Muravin walked to one of the couches and helped Mahdriva to sit. The girl looked wet and cold and exhausted. Muravin hovered over her, his touch gentle, and she leaned against him.
Strange to contrast that with the man’s brutal fighting prowess.
“Where have you taken us?” said Muravin to Caina in Istarish, voice low. He watched her warily, no doubt still surprised that she was a woman.
“The house of a friend,” said Caina. “He owns this foundry, and his workers are veterans of the Emperor’s Legions. I do not think the Kindred followed us, but if they did, they will find this place well-protected.”
“Give him my thanks,” said Muravin. “For he has put himself at risk by taking us into his home.”
“No need,” said Ark in Istarish. “I understand you well enough. And your thanks are unnecessary.” His eyes hardened. “I think you are escaped slaves…and I do not care for slavers.”
Muravin nodded. “The woman of the shadows said as much.” He looked Ark up and down, a warrior measuring another warrior. “You were in the Legions, no? That is how you know the Padishah’s tongue?”
“I was the first spear centurion of the Eighteenth Legion,” said Ark. “The Eighteenth spent several years guarding the Empire’s southern border against the tribesmen of the Argamaz Desert.”
“Ha!” said Muravin. “Then we are well-protected. The tribesmen of the Argamaz are vicious…”
The inner door opened, and Tanya walked out, wrapped in a robe. She looked a great deal like Caina, with blue eyes and black hair, though she was six inches taller and a bit heavier. She stopped, looked at Muravin and Mahdriva, and then at Ark.
“Husband,” she said in Caerish. “We have guests?”
“Aye,” said Ark. “I suspect they are escaped slaves.”
“Oh, you poor dear,” said Tanya, sitting next to Mahdriva. “You’re half-frozen, I shouldn’t wonder. Let us get you some warm clothing and food. That will help. And a comfortable bed upon which you can sleep.”
Mahdriva blinked and looked at her father.
“She only speaks Istarish, I think,” said Caina. She switched to Istarish and addressed Muravin. “This woman has borne two children herself. She will know how to care for Mahdriva.”
“Daughter,” said Muravin, getting to his feet, “go with this woman, and let her tend to you.” He started to step forward, swayed, and grabbed at the back of the couch for support.
“Father!” said Mahdriva, grabbing his hands.
“I am well,” said Muravin, shaking his head. “I…”
“I suspect you spent all night fighting and running,” said Caina, “and even the mightiest champion needs rest. Go with your daughter. You have earned your rest, and we can decide how to proceed in the morning.”
Muravin managed a weary nod. “You speak wisdom, however strange you seem to me. I will rest.”
“Wife,” said Ark in Caerish. “Put them in the guest room. Make sure the shutters are closed. I suspect dangerous men wish them dead.”
Tanya smiled. “If I know anything, husband, it is how to be discreet in the face of danger. Nicolai, come and help me bring food to our new friends.”
She took Mahdriva’s arm and led the girl from the room, Muravin and Nicolai following, leaving Caina and Corvalis alone with Ark.
“What the hell is this about?” said Ark.
“I don’t yet know,” said Caina. “We saw an Immortal moving through the streets, and I thought it odd. We followed him and found the Kindred and the Immortals trying to take Mahdriva alive. Muravin held them off while Mahdriva tried to flee.”
“The old man must be formidable with a blade,” said Ark, “if he managed to hold off Immortals.”
“He is,” said Corvalis, voice quiet. “And if he survived Nalazar, that makes him all the more formidable. The Istarish Kindred are not to be trifled with.”
“Who is Nalazar?” said Ark.
“A Kindred from Istarinmul. Which reminds me,” said Caina. “How do you know Nalazar?”
Corvalis sighed. “When I was a member of the Kindred family in Artifel, Nalazar and some Kindred from Istarinmul came to our Sanctuary. An emir who gained the Padishah’s disfavor had fled north, and Nalazar had been sent to hunt him down. The Elder of Artifel helped him in exchange for a cut of the profits.”
“Did this Nalazar succeed?” said Ark.
“He did,” said Corvalis. “He’s good at what he does.”
“Would he recognize you?” said Caina.
“Maybe,” said Corvalis. “I was in the room when he met with the Elder, but I don’t know if he would remember me.”
“A more important question,” said Ark, “is why the Istarish Kindred came north in pursuit of this gladiator and his daughter. And with Immortals.”
“I don’t know,” said Caina. “The Immortals serve the Padishah, but the College of Alchemists creates them. My best guess is that Mahdriva is pregnant with the bastard heir of some emir or another.”
“She said the Kindred had slain her sisters,” said Corvalis.
“Perhaps the Kindred killed her sisters,” said Ark, “and Muravin took her and fled north before they could find her.”
“That seems likely,” said Caina. She yawned and rubbed her face. Gods, but it had been a trying night. “We can get more information out of them tomorrow. When Halfdan meets us here, we can tell him what happened, and perhaps he’ll know more…and he might be able to get Muravin and Mahdriva to talk.”
“You think they’ll lie to us?” said Ark.
Corvalis shrugged. “Why would they not? They have no reason to trust us.”
“And it is indeed odd,” said Ark, “that this happens the week before a new Lord Ambassador arrives from Istarinmul.”
“We will find out more tomorrow,” said Caina.
Ark grunted and crossed to the shutters. “It is tomorrow.” Caina saw that the night sky had begun to brighten. “Halfdan will be here soon. Why don’t you two rest here? I’ll have Tanya bring you some food once she’s finished with Muravin and Mahdriva.”
“Thank you,” said Caina. “For everything.”
Ark offered a tight smile. “I don’t like slavers any more than you do.”
He disappeared through the inner door, leaving Caina alone with Corvalis. She sat on the couch Mahdriva had vacated. The soft cushions felt pleasant against her legs and back, and a wave of weariness went through Caina. It had indeed been a long night.
She looked at Corvalis and smiled.
And she hadn’t gotten that much sleep before seeing that first Immortal, either.
Corvalis stared at the inner door as he sat, his face grim.
“What is it?” said Caina.
“I wonder if Muravin would have tried to kill me,” he said, “if he knew what I really was.”
“What you used to be,” said Caina. “You’re not Kindred any longer.”
“True,” said Corvalis. He sighed. “A man like Nalazar. That’s what I would have become. If not for Claudia.” He looked at her. “If not for you.”
“You’re a better man than you think you are, Corvalis Aberon,” said Caina. “I’ve told you that before. Perhaps someday you shall listen.”
“Perhaps,” said Corvalis. His frown faded. “Though I wonder how Nalazar found them at the Inn of the Broken Wheel. Malarae has a thousand inns. Muravin could have chosen any one of them. How did Nalazar find them?”
“With luck,” said Caina, “we’ll discover that tomorrow.”
He took her hand, and they lapsed into a comfortable silence.
“There is one thing,” said Corvalis, “I enjoy about this ridiculous charade of Anton Kularus. He has quite a comfortable bed.”
Caina laughed. “If you’re tired enough, you can sleep anywhere.”
She proved it by drifting off to sleep.
A pounding at the door awoke Caina.
She lifted her head from Corvalis’s shoulder, her hand reaching towards her knives out of habit. More sunlight streamed through the opened windows.
The inner door opened, and Ark came out, crossbow in hand. He stepped to the front door, opened it a crack, and spoke for a while in High Nighmarian. Then he laughed and stepped aside. A man in the furred-lined robe of master merchant walked into the sitting room, a beret with a silver badge on his head. He had iron-gray hair and a close-cropped beard, and the thick arms of a man accustomed to physical labor.
“Well,” said the man in the robe, his voice thick with a Caerish accent, “you’ve been busy, haven’t you?”
“Halfdan,” said Caina.
He was one of the high circlemasters of the Ghosts, and she had known him for over ten years, ever since he had rescued her from Maglarion’s lair near Aretia. He was one of the four or five most knowledgeable men in the Empire – and one of the most dangerous.
Few others knew as many secrets.
“I will never get used,” said Halfdan, “to the sight of you with blond hair.”
Caina sighed. “Don’t remind me.”
“It suits you,” said Halfdan. “But we have more pressing concerns. The civic militia is in an uproar, Theodosia tells me. A dozen dead men, found scattered from the merchants’ district to the docks, most of them Istarish. I’ve heard some say that a gang of Istarish slavers ran amok, others that a group of assassins sent to kill the new Lord Ambassador turned on each other.”
“Fanciful tales,” said Corvalis.
“Indeed,” said Halfdan. “What really happened?”