Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Caina Amalas is a Ghost nightfighter, trained by the circlemaster Halfdan to be one of the Emperor’s elite spies and assassins.
But when a foreign noble is ripped to shreds by a mysterious beast, Caina and Halfdan face something far more dangerous than any hunting animal.
For treachery is the deadliest blade of all…
Ghost in the Ashes
Copyright 2013 by Jonathan Moeller
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC
Cover image copyright Adreiuc88 | Dreamstime.com & Prochasson Frederic | Dreamstime.com
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.
I have used many names, but you can call me Halfdan, and I have made two decisions that shook the world to its foundations.
I made the first decision when I was a boy.
The second decision happened ten years ago along the Bay of Empire’s western shore. I am a circlemaster of the Ghosts, the eyes and ears of the Emperor of Nighmar, and we hunted a gang of Istarish slavers employed by a renegade necromancer named Maglarion. We tracked Maglarion to a ruined villa in the hills, and found that he had killed his slaves and used their blood to fuel his necromantic experiments.
All save one.
When I found Caina Amalas, she was a wisp of a girl, half-starved, half-crazed, and I had no idea what to do with her. I thought to have one of the Ghosts’ friends among the nobles adopt her, or perhaps to give her to the Temple of Minaerys as an initiate.
Then I realized that she had gotten out of her cell without any help.
A starving girl of eleven, half-mad from grief, and she got out of her cell without any aid. I learned she had a keen eye for detail. She realized things about my companions, about myself, simply by looking at us and making deductions from our appearances. Her mind was keen, and I aimed to make it sharper yet.
So I did it. Part of my service to the Emperor is to seek out skilled men and women to bring into the service of the Ghosts…and so I deliberately took a girl, still crushed by grief from her father’s murder, and molded her into a weapon. I shaped her into a Ghost nightfighter, one of our Emperor’s elite agents, a woman able to masquerade as a Countess or a commoner, a woman able to move silent and unseen, a woman capable of killing with knives or daggers or her bare hands.
I did this knowing the cost it would inflict upon her, how it would leave her more scarred than she already was.
But I do not regret it.
Seven years after I found her, Caina Amalas killed Maglarion…and stopped him from finishing a spell that would have slain everyone in the Imperial capital.
A year after that, she defeated a renegade magus that would have burned the city of Rasadda to ashes.
And a year after that, she kept a greater earth elemental from awakening and drowning the city of Cyrioch.
Had I not made that decision ten years ago, had I not made her into a Ghost nightfighter, then millions of people would be dead. The Empire would have collapsed into chaos and civil war.
I have a chill when I think about how I almost talked her into joining the Temple of Minaerys.
How close all those people came to death, because Caina would not have been there to save them.
While I have made many decisions I regret, this was not of them.
And yet…I look at her and see how cold and hard she has grown, and I know that I set her upon that path. She wanted to have a husband and children and shall never have either. Surely she deserves at least some joy in her life.
Because of that, I could not make up my mind whether I was going to kill her lover Corvalis Aberon or not.
I woke up, dressed in my merchant’s robe and cap, and left my tent to face the morning.
We were ten days east of Catekharon, in the midst of the great grasslands of western Anshan. We had stopped the Sages of Catekharon from selling a weapon of sorcery that would have drowned the world in blood. Of course, the Sages themselves would have been destroyed, their souls bound to power the weapon created by their treacherous student.
The Sages may have been brilliant, but they were not particularly clever.
Caina and Corvalis sat next to each other by the campfire, eating breakfast. I had disguised myself as Basil Callenius, master merchant of the Imperial collegium of jewelers, which meant Caina disguised herself as Basil’s daughter Anna Callenius. She wore a blue traveling dress, a belt of black leather at her waist holding a sheathed dagger. She never went anywhere without a weapon, and I was sure she had more blades hidden in her boots and sleeves.
“Father,” said Caina with a smile. It made her look young and lovely and happy. Unlike most of her smiles, it touched her eyes. She smiled more than she used to.
The reason for that sat next to her, drinking from a wooden cup.
“Master Basil,” said Corvalis Aberon. He was a big, lean man with close-cropped blond hair and eyes like chips of cold jade. Corvalis masqueraded as one of my caravan guards. I suppose it added verisimilitude to our disguises to have one of Master Basil’s guards sneaking into his daughter’s tent every night.
“Cormark,” I said, as he passed me a piece of cheese. “Where is your sister?”
“Tent,” said Corvalis. “Headache. She’ll probably ride in the wagon today.”
I nodded and thought it over.
If I was going to kill Corvalis, I should do it today.
He had made a serious error in Catekharon, and it had almost gotten all of us killed. Anyone can make a mistake. But he had sided with his sister over the Ghosts…and that I found harder to forgive.
But it had been an honest error, if a stupid one. And Caina loved him. Killing him would devastate her.
If I did kill him, I would have to make it look like an accident. I owed her that much. I owed her much more than that.
“Out of curiosity,” said Corvalis, “how did you join the Ghosts?”
The question was so unexpected that I took a moment to consider my answer.
My first impulse was to rebuke him. We were traveling with the embassy of Lord Titus Iconias. The embassy of the khadjar Arsakan, the Shahenshah’s ambassador to Catekharon, was also traveling with us. But both camps, and their attendant merchants and followers, were out of earshot.
“Why,” I said, “do you want to know?”
Corvalis shrugged. “You…collect damaged people, Master Basil, and turn them into weapons. Caina told me what happened to her, at least some of it. And I know how you recruited me.” He took a bite of cheese. “I was curious if the same thing happened to you.”
Caina blinked. “How did you join the Ghosts? You’ve never told me.”
I hadn’t. Only one other living man knew what had happened.
“Well,” I said. “I was once in the Legion. The Ninth Legion, to be precise. My centurion started kidnapping Ulkaari villagers and selling them to Alqaarin slavers. He was caught, and tried to frame me for it. So I killed him, and the Legion’s legate sentenced me to die for killing my centurion. But the Ghosts rescued me.”
“A grim story,” said Corvalis.
“Yes,” said Caina with a laugh, “and one that is completely false.”
“Oh?” I said, smiling back. “Tell me where I am wrong.”
We played this game from time to time. Caina is so keenly observant that sometimes people assume she is a sorceress, but she is simply clever. She knows how to use her eyes and ears.
“You said you were a veteran of the Legions,” said Caina, “but the Legions tattoo every soldier upon the right arm with the number of his Legion. I have seen no such tattoo upon your arm, nor a scar to indicate its removal. Also, I’ve seen you fight. You don’t fight like a Legion veteran. You fight like a caravan guard.”
“Did you hear that?” I said to Corvalis. “She is calling me feeble.”
“There are more dangerous weapons,” said Caina, “then just swords.”
“Aye,” I said. “At…”
A shout rang out from the Anshani camp. Both Corvalis and Caina looked in that direction, hands straying to their weapons.
“What is it?” I said.
“I think,” said Caina with a frown, “that someone has been killed.”
That was a concern. Lord Titus and the khadjar Arsakan were cordial, but they were hardly friendly. If one of Lord Titus’s Imperial Guards had killed one of Arsakan’s men in a quarrel, things would become ugly. On the other hand, perhaps one of Arsakan’s men had simply died in his sleep.
“Let us take a look,” I said, getting to my feet.
Corvalis and Caina both stood, and Caina…changed.
There was no other word to describe the process. She opened her eyes a little wider, parted her lips, stood to emphasize her hips and chest. The tension, the poise of a trained fighter, drained from her. Anyone looking at her would only see a wealthy merchant’s petulant, spoiled daughter. Years ago I had sent her to learn the arts of disguise from Theodosia, the leading lady of the Grand Imperial Opera, and she had learned them well.
Sometimes she could even fool me.
Corvalis merely scowled, which made him look even more threatening.
We headed into the Anshani camp. I put on my best expression of imperious annoyance, walking with the dignified stride of a prosperous merchant of middle years. Anshani warriors scowled at me as I passed, and a few shot ogling glances at Caina. They were anjars, the lowest rank of Anshani noble, those with wealth enough to equip themselves with horse and armor. They wore coats of scale armor and spiked helmets, flowing crimson cloaks hanging from their shoulders, swords at their belts and spears in their hands.
Four of them stood in a circle around a dead man.
The man lay in the high grass behind a tent, his body spattered with blood. He wore only a pair of trousers, and deep gashes marked his chest, belly, and face. Both his eyes stared sightlessly at the cloudless blue sky, his mouth open in a silent scream.
“You. Merchant,” said one of the anjars in Anshani. “Be gone. This is not your concern.”
“I say,” I said, “what has happened? All this screaming has disturbed my daughter.”
Right on cue, Caina leaned against me, her blue eyes filling with tears.
“Please, sir,” she said in Anshani with a heavy Nighmarian accent, “all the screaming…I am ever so frightened.”
The anjar’s expression softened somewhat. “This is Kamahd.” He gestured at the dead man. “I fear he was slain by a grass lion. They are numerous on the plains, and prey upon travelers.”
“Oh, gods,” whispered Caina, staring at the corpse. “The lions will kill us all.”
“Fear not,” said the anjar. “The grass lions prefer lone travelers, and Kamahd must have been foolish enough to leave the camp.” He tugged at his cloak, and I saw a mantle fashioned of lion skin hanging over his shoulders. “And you are well-protected, my lady. For I have slain three lions with my own hands. They are fierce beasts, and it takes a fearless hunter to bring them down.”
“You must,” said Caina, eyes wide, “you must have been very brave.”
He puffed up a bit at that. I was amused how easily Caina had disarmed his suspicions. “The Shahenshah’s warriors fear nothing, my lady. In fact, I…”
“Thank you, noble anjar,” I said. “We have no wish to distract you further from your duties.”
I turned to go, Caina on my arm, Corvalis trailing after us.
“Well?” I said, once we were out of earshot.
“No lion killed that man,” said Caina. “Kamahd was murdered.”
“I agree,” said Corvalis. “If a lion took him, he wouldn’t be in one piece.”
He was observant. A point in his favor. Not as observant as Caina, but few people were.
“An Anshani grass lion drags its kill into the deep grass to eat it,” said Caina. “It wouldn’t have left Kamahd’s corpse there. And those gashes weren’t deep enough to come from a lion. It looks like someone hit him with a spiked mace.” She frowned for a moment. “Probably two or three blows to the head to drive him to his knees, and then the rest at his chest. The angle of the cuts suggest that the blows came from above.”
“So,” I said. “Murder.”
Corvalis shrugged. “Probably an argument over a whore or a gambling debt.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “but the Anshani are obsessed with honor. If another anjar killed him, there would have been a formal duel by now.”
“Anshani can be dishonorable, too,” said Corvalis.
“True,” said Caina. “But if someone from Lord Titus’s men murdered Kamahd…”
I sighed. “Then that means Lord Titus’s men killed someone under Arsakan’s protection, and Arsakan can demand a blood price.”
Corvalis frowned. “Couldn’t Lord Titus just pay it?”