Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Myths & Legends, #Greek & Roman
GHOST IN THE RAZOR
CAINA is the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, leader of the Emperor's spies in the city. She has hindered the malevolent plans of the sinister Grand Master Callatas, but has been unable to defeat him.
Callatas has slaughtered every foe who ever challenged him, and Caina may be next.
CASSANDER NILAS is a ruthless magus of the brutal Umbarian Order, and seeks to destroy the Emperor. At last he has found the key to the downfall of the Empire.
All he needs to do is kill Caina Amalas, and the Empire will burn.
MORGANT THE RAZOR is an assassin of legend and myth. He vanished a hundred and fifty years past, but he may hold the key to Caina's victory.
Or her final defeat...
Ghost in the Razor
Copyright 2015 by Jonathan Moeller.
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.
Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.
Ebook edition published January 2015.
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.
Chapter 1: The Artist
“I am looking for Morgant the Razor,” said Caina Amalas.
The poet standing on the dais regarded her in silence.
The coffee house around them was definitely not silent. It was early evening, the time the merchants of Istarinmul preferred to drink coffee and discuss the gossip of the day, and the House of Agabyzus was the most popular coffee house in the Cyrican Quarter. Booths lined the walls, and low tables ringed with cushions filled the floor. Patrons sat at every booth and table. Damla’s maids moved through the crowd, serving coffee and cakes, Damla’s sons Bayram and Bahad among them. Bayram had a steady head for numbers, and Bahad was a skilled cook. Damla hoped Bayram would one day take over the business of the House of Agabyzus, while Bahad managed the kitchens and the workers.
If Caina had not rescued the boys from the clutches of the Master Slaver Ulvan a year and a half past, none of that would have been possible.
It still might not, if Grand Master Callatas finished his Apotheosis.
The man sitting at the foot of the dais scowled at Caina. He had the thick arms of a blacksmith, the broad shoulders of a soldier, the callused hands of a swordsman, and a grimace that promised death to anyone or anything that threatened his employer. “You should not question the poet before his recitation. You…”
Sulaman raised a hand. “Peace, Mazyan.”
The poet wore only a simple brown robe and white turban, his black beard close-cropped and speckled with gray. Caina had never been able to figure out his age. He could have been anywhere from thirty-five to sixty. She knew nothing about him, save that he apparently had some arcane ability to foretell the future.
He had helped her, more than once, and his counsel had proven sound.
Mazyan subsided. “As you say.”
“Speak to me after the recitation,” said Sulaman in his quiet voice.
Caina nodded and sat at one of the tables. She was employing a new disguise today, that of a man named Duncan of Caer Marist, a factor for a noble of the Caerish provinces. Caina did not dare use any of her previous disguises. The bounty upon her head had risen to an astronomical two million bezants, and that was just the bounty offered by Grand Wazir Erghulan Amirasku. Cassander Nilas, the magus who served as the Umbarian Order’s ambassador to the Padishah, knew who she really was. He had come to secure the Padishah’s alliance against the Empire, and if he placed Caina’s head before the Grand Wazir, that would go a long way to winning the Padishah’s goodwill.
It was odd that the bounty notices on the Balarigar’s head had not changed. Cassander knew that she was a woman, and in all likelihood had a good physical description of her. Caina had been there when Cassander had shared that information with Erghulan, yet the official bounty notices had not been updated. Perhaps Cassander hoped to capture her himself.
That meant Caina had to take extreme caution. So she discarded all of her previous aliases and disguises and created new ones. For Duncan of Caer Marist, she dressed in the trousers, shirt, boots, and outer robe favored by Imperial merchants, complete with a beret adorned with a silver badge. The robe was too warm for the hot sun of Istarinmul’s dry lands, but it offered ample concealment for weapons. She also wore a long red wig, the hair tied into a tail, and a false red beard. Makeup beneath her eyes and upon her forehead added a few decades to her face.
Hopefully that would throw off any hunters.
She sat at the table and played dice with the merchants, losing a little money and listening to their conversation. The markets of Istarinmul were unsettled, and Caina herself had done a great deal of the unsettling. The Balarigar had terrorized the Brotherhood of Slavers, and consequently the price of slaves had quadrupled. Raiders from the Kaltari Highlands had been attacking the caravans of the Brotherhood of Slavers, driving slave prices even higher. The emirs and Istarish nobles of the Vale of Fallen Stars, led by Tanzir Shahan, had grown more critical of the Grand Wazir and the Padishah, and some whispers spoke of revolt. The civil war between the Umbarian Order and the Empire had disrupted trade on the Alqaarin Sea, and the Kyracians in the Cyrican Sea charged higher and higher prices for shipping. A new freeborn gladiator was creating a stir, defeating champion after champion and raking in prize after prize. Most of Istarinmul’s gladiators were slaves, but freeborn men sometimes entered the arena in hopes of winning glory and fortune. Some did. Most did not, and a few died in the process.
None of the merchants spoke about the main danger to Istarinmul. From time to time Caina heard a joke about the wraithblood addicts. Caina doubted they would believe that Grand Master Callatas manufactured wraithblood and distributed it for free.
She didn’t know why, not yet. But she knew Callatas needed wraithblood to finish his mysterious Apotheosis. She knew he needed the lost Seal and Staff of Iramis, once part of the royal regalia of the Princes of Iramis, to work his terrible spell. No one knew what had happened to the relics.
Morgant the Razor, though, might have known, even though the legendary assassin had likely died a century and a half ago. If Caina learned what had happened to him, she might have a chance of finding the Staff and Seal before Callatas did.
If she did, perhaps Bayram and Bahad would live to inherit their mother’s business.
Caina waited for Sulaman’s recitation to start.
Later in the evening, Sulaman finished an epic of Istarr and the seven Demon Princes of old, the nagataaru-possessed sorcerers who had ruled the lands of Istarinmul until Istarr had defeated them. The Istarish loved their epic poems, their gloomy tales of war and struggle and defeat. Perhaps that explained why they enjoyed gladiatorial games so much.
After the applause finished, the merchants crossed to the dais. Mazyan produced a bowl, and the merchants dropped silver and copper coins. Caina even saw a few golden bezants in the mix. Sulaman always did well, but he was a gifted poet. Sometimes when he recited Caina could almost see the battlefields and hear the battle in the rhythm of his words.
She waited until the crowd had thinned and approached. Mazyan scowled at her, but Sulaman regarded her with his deep, dark eyes.
“Walk with me for a moment,” said Sulaman. “Let us discuss the affairs of the day.”
Caina nodded, and followed Sulaman and Mazyan into the night.
The Cyrican Bazaar was quiet, the booths and shops closed for the night. The stars shone overhead like jewels flung against a black blanket, and in the distance Caina saw the lights of the Padishah’s Golden Palace and the College of Alchemists. Sulaman walked into the empty space of the Bazaar, and Caina and Mazyan followed. They were alone in the Bazaar, and Sulaman stood in silence, his head bowed.
“You seek a secret,” he said at last.
“I do,” said Caina. “Morgant the Razor.”
“He was a man of blood and violence,” said Sulaman. “Why do you seek him?”
“Because I, too, have learned a secret,” said Caina.
A faint smile went over the poet’s face. “We all have our secrets, Duncan of Caer Marist.” He put a bit of emphasis upon her false name.
“We do,” said Caina, remembering what Nasser had told her. “Our secrets protect us.”
“Tell me why you seek Morgant the Razor,” said Sulaman, “without betraying your secrets.”
“You know that Callatas plans to work a great evil,” said Caina. “He needs relics of great power to work his spell. He has been seeking them for decades. I think Morgant knew what happened to them. If I can learn his fate, perhaps I can learn the fate of the relics…”
“The royal regalia of Iramis,” said Sulaman, nodding as if a suspicion had just been confirmed “The Staff and Seal.”
“That knowledge is worth your life,” said Caina. “Callatas would not hesitate to kill both of you if he learns of it.”
“I know,” said Sulaman. “Though it hardly matters at this point. Callatas already wishes me dead for several reasons. One or two more will not make much difference.”
“This might,” said Caina. “Those relics…without them he cannot achieve his goal. You know what he did to Iramis when its Prince opposed him. He won’t hesitate to do the same to anyone who challenges him.”
“Like you?” said Sulaman.
“Like me,” said Caina. “But Callatas already has his own reasons for wanting me dead.” Mazyan let out a little snort. “As you said, one more won’t make much difference.”
“I doubt neither your courage nor your ability,” said Sulaman. “But I doubt your ability to survive.”
“Everyone dies,” said Caina.
“Everyone does,” said Sulaman. “Some sooner than others, I fear. If you continue on this path, if you seek Morgant the Razor, it will almost certainly lead to your death.”
“I know,” said Caina, looking at the House of Agabyzus. “But my own life means little. Not when there are so many other lives at stake. If I can stop Callatas and his plans…it is worth the risk.”
Sulaman was silent for a long moment, his head bowed again. A faint prickle of arcane power washed over Caina’s skin, and she suppressed a shiver. Sulaman was not a sorcerer, but he nonetheless possessed the power to see glimpses of the future.
“Perhaps,” said Sulaman. His dark eyes turned to her. “I thought you would die when Callatas sent his servant to slay you.”
“The Red Huntress,” said Caina.
“Your death seemed certain and imminent,” said Sulaman. “Callatas has sent his creature to slay many innocent men and women, and few ever escaped her blade. Yet you have. Perhaps that means you will survive what I am about to tell you.”
“Then you will tell me?” said Caina.
“Two secrets I can tell you,” said Sulaman. “Do you know the artist Markaine of Caer Marist?”
Caina frowned, thinking. “Yes. That’s…he painted the mural in the Tarshahzon Gardens, didn’t he? The one showing the Fall of Iramis?” The mural had been a masterwork, terrifying in its dark power. Caina had almost felt the fear and terror the people of Iramis must have experienced when Callatas used the Star to burn their city to ashes.
“The same,” said Sulaman. “You must speak to him.”
“Surely Markaine has been dead for years?” said Caina.
“He still lives,” said Sulaman.
“Truly?” said Caina. “I saw that mural in the Tarshahzon Gardens. It looked as if an eyewitness painted it.” She had seen the destruction of Iramis in her dreams, shown to her by the djinni Samnirdamnus, the Knight of Wind and Air. The mural had matched what she had seen, and she assumed Markaine had been an eyewitness, which meant that he must have died decades ago.
“That,” said Sulaman, “is something you shall have to discuss with him. His home is in the Cyrican Quarter, not far from here, on the street of the metalworkers.” Caina blinked. That was not far from Nerina Strake’s workshop, and Caina often went there. Had the answer truly been under her nose the entire time?
“Markaine knows where Morgant is?” said Caina. “Or what happened to him?”
“I believe so,” said Sulaman. Mazyan snorted, his eyes scanning the darkness around them. “Speak with him, and he will put you upon the path you must walk.”
“You said you had two secrets to tell me,” said Caina. “What is the second?”
“Fire,” said Sulaman, his voice soft.
“Fire?” said Caina.
“I looked into your future and I saw fire,” said Sulaman.
She remembered the gauntlet upon Cassander Nilas’s right hand, the gauntlet that let him wield pyromantic sorcery without suffering any ill effects. Was that her fate? To die under Cassander’s spells?
“What kind of fire?” said Caina.
“Killing fire,” said Sulaman, “and healing fire.”
“Healing fire?” said Caina. “That doesn’t make any sense. What kind of fire heals?”
She had seen healing fire in the past, hadn’t she? The Alchemist Ibrahmus Sinan had blazed with it as he drank an unfinished vial of Elixir Rejuvenata, healing the mortal wound that Muravin had dealt him. Of course, that vial of Elixir had been incomplete, and it had twisted the Alchemist into a ravening monster.
“I don’t understand,” said Caina.
“Neither do I,” said Sulaman. “My visions of the future are unclear and ambiguous. Yet I see burning men in your future. Fire awaits you, and it may consume you. I fear that is all I can tell you.”
Caina bit back a frustrated response. Someday, she knew, she would find a way to get a straight answer out of Sulaman. Still, she could not blame Sulaman for protecting his secrets, not when she had so many secrets of her own. And he had given her a name she could use. Perhaps Markaine would know more.
“Thank you,” said Caina at last.
“May the Living Flame watch over you,” said Sulaman.
Caina raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t you just say that you saw fire in my future?” Mazyan scowled at that.
Sulaman’s smile was sad. “Let us hope that was it.”
The next morning Caina walked to the Ring of Cyrica.
She had found Markaine’s house in short order, expecting a mansion guarded by armed mercenaries. Instead it had been an average house, little larger than Nerina Strake’s workshop. It wasn’t quite falling into ruin, but it was going to need maintenance soon.
Caina had walked past it dozens of times and had never seen anything remarkable about it. She felt a flicker of annoyance at that. Perhaps Markaine of Caer Marist was skilled at keeping a low profile and hiding in plain sight. Caina herself had done so for nearly a year and a half, and there was no reason Markaine could not as well.
The artist had not been at home. An elderly freeborn maid had answered Caina’s knock, and said that Markaine had gone to the Ring of Cyrica to watch the games. Peering over the old woman’s shoulder, Caina had seen an artist’s workshop, tables with brushes and canvases. There had been nothing valuable in sight.
So Caina had gone to the Ring of Cyrica, still disguised as Duncan of Caer Marist.
The Ring was a mid-sized arena, large enough to seat about ten thousand spectators. The merchants and craftsmen of the Cyrican Quarter came here to watch the games, along with foreign merchants visiting from other lands. There were dozens of fighting pits in Istarinmul, ranging from grungy cellars that held a few dozen to the massive Arena of Padishahs, capable of seating fifty thousand in comfort. The Istarish loved gladiatorial games, and both slave and free and rich and poor and noble and commoner gathered to watch men and wild beasts struggle and die upon the sands. More than a few of the poems Sulaman recited were tales of gladiators, of noblemen forced to fight disguised into the arena to avenge a murdered lover.