Authors: Jonathan Moeller
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Myths & Legends, #Greek & Roman, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)
Caina Amalas is the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, the leader of the Emperor's spies in the city. She is a master of stealth and disguise, and seeks to find the legendary Staff and Seal of Iramis, mighty artifacts of sorcerous power, before her enemies claim them.
A mysterious collector of ancient relics might have the answers she seeks.
Or Caina's bones might gather dust in his collection forever...
Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Moeller.
Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.
Cover image copyright Chesterf | Dreamstime.com & Kenzenbrv | Dreamstime.com.
Ebook edition published December 2014.
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 Lost Assassin
“Tell me,” said Caina Amalas, “what you know about the sorcerer called the Curator.”
The man sitting across the booth from her froze, his clay cup of steaming coffee lifted halfway to his lips. He was in early middle age, but looked older thanks to a strenuous life and a year imprisoned in the Widow’s Tower. Currently he wore the bright robes and turban of an Istarish merchant of middling prosperity, though he was as skilled in the art of disguise as Caina and could look like anyone he wished.
Agabyzus sighed, put down his cup of coffee, and took a deep breath.
“Was it that alarming of a question?” said Caina.
“No,” said Agabyzus. “But I know you well enough by now to realize that the alarming questions are just around the corner.”
They sat in the House of Agabyzus, the coffee house that Agabyzus himself once owned. Of course, Agabyzus had never been a simple coffee merchant, but the circlemaster of the Ghost circle, the leader of the Emperor’s spies in the city of Istarinmul. The Teskilati had wiped out the Ghost circle and taken Agabyzus captive, and his sister Damla had inherited the coffee house. After Caina had freed Agabyzus from the Widow’s Tower, he had been content to fade into the shadows, leaving the coffee house to Damla while advising Caina on her work as the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul.
Caina lifted her own cup and sipped. The coffee was hot and bitter, just as she preferred it. “Why?” Like Agabyzus, she wore the robes and turban of a merchant, though she also wore a fake beard to disguise the fact that she was a woman. Given the enormous bounty upon her head, the more she did to disguise herself, the better. “Why do you think I’m about to ask you an alarming question?”
“Because,” said Agabyzus. “When you ask me these sorts of questions, they’re usually followed by both insane risks and the bounty upon your head going up a little higher.”
“The bounty is already at two million bezants,” said Caina. That kind of money could make a man one of the richest men in Istarinmul. One of the richest in the world, really. “At this point, a few thousand more really doesn’t make a difference.”
“I suppose not,” said Agabyzus. He shook his head, gray beard rustling against the collar of his robes. “We play a game with high stakes.”
“We always have,” said Caina, lowering her voice and taking a quick glance around the coffee house. The House of Agabyzus was almost full, with merchants sitting upon cushions around the low round tables, discussing business and the news of the day. “You know what we face. If Grand Master Callatas finds the Seal and the Staff of Iramis before we do, he will work his Apotheosis. He has killed so many people already, and the gods only know how many more he shall kill if he succeeds.”
“And you think the Curator might have the Staff and Seal of Iramis?” said Agabyzus. He took a sip of coffee. “I think that unlikely. If he had them, Callatas would have learned it by now, and the Grand Master would have killed the Curator decades ago.”
“You’re right,” said Caina. “But the Curator might possess knowledge or relics that have more value than he yet realizes.”
Agabyzus shrugged. “Very well. I shall tell you what I know. The Curator is…something of a peculiar figure.”
“How so?” said Caina.
“He is not an Alchemist,” said Agabyzus, “but is clearly a sorcerer, since he has dwelled in Istarinmul for over a century and retains the appearance of a man of middle years. No one knows precisely what kind of sorcerer he is. Some say he is a necromancer, while others claim he is an exile from the Magisterium or the Assembly of New Kyre.”
“He deals in antiquities, in relics,” said Caina.
“In the artworks and relics of fallen empires,” said Agabyzus. “He is something a collector, as well. He keeps a personal museum in his palace stocked with relics of historical note, and permits wealthy guests to view them for a fee.”
“He sells relics of sorcery, too,” said Caina.
“Yes,” said Agabyzus. “Some he acquires, some he makes himself.”
“Why does the College of Alchemists tolerate him?” said Caina. “I thought they would permit no one else to sell items of sorcery within Istarinmul.” The College made vast sums of money selling their alchemical wares to the wealthier nobles and merchants of the Padishah’s realm.
“Istarinmul is not the Empire,” said Agabyzus. “In the Empire, only the Magisterium is permitted to practice sorcery, and the magi kill any sorcerers who refuse to submit to the Magisterium’s authority…”
“At least until the Umbarian Order came out of the shadows,” said Caina.
Agabyzus conceded the point with a nod. “Things are different in Istarinmul. Foreign sorcerers are permitted to live here, so long as they do not make a nuisance of themselves and do not offend anyone powerful. The Curator has many powerful friends.”
“Is Callatas one of them?” said Caina.
“I believe so,” said Agabyzus. “I know the Curator obtained several powerful relics for Callatas, and the Grand Master even made an appearance at one of the Curator’s banquets.” He gestured with his cup. “Therefore I am certain that the Curator does not possess the Staff or the Seal. He would have given them to Callatas, and if he lied about them, the Grand Master would have killed him and burned his palace to ashes around him.”
Caina nodded, considering.
“So tell me,” said Agabyzus. “Why the sudden interest in the Curator?”
“Because,” said Caina. “I doubt he knows where the Staff and the Seal of Iramis are hidden.” She lowered her voice. “But I heard a rumor that he has a sword once owned by Morgant the Razor.”
“Why does that interest you?” said Agabyzus.
“I don’t know where the Staff and Seal of Iramis are,” said Caina, “but I know the last person who had them. A woman named Annarah, the last loremaster of Iramis to survive the destruction of the city. The Prince gave his regalia to her, and she fled with the Staff and the Seal. No one knows what happened to her.”
“No one?” said Agabyzus. “But you have a suspicion.”
“I do,” said Caina. She felt the bracelet upon her left wrist, an intricate, delicate-looking thing. It looked like a piece of bronze jewelry, but she knew that it was a pyrikon, the enspelled badge of office once carried by the loremasters of Iramis. More importantly, she knew that it had once been Annarah’s pyrikon. “Apparently the assassin Morgant the Razor found her in the Desert of Candles and killed her.”
“I have heard tales of Morgant the Razor,” said Agabyzus.
Caina nodded at the poet’s dais against the far wall of the coffee house. “Sulaman has recited tales of his exploits here.”
“Most of them likely legendary and nothing more,” said Agabyzus.
“Likely,” said Caina. “But he existed. He killed one of the magus-emperors when the Magisterium still ruled the Empire, and several accounts agree that he killed Annarah in the Desert of Candles.”
“That was a hundred and fifty years ago,” said Agabyzus. “The man must have died a century ago, if not longer.”
“Undoubtedly,” said Caina. “But he was the last man to see Annarah alive. He might have known where she concealed the Staff and Seal of Iramis. If he killed her, he might even have taken the Staff and Seal himself.”
Agabyzus blinked his watery eyes. “So you think it possible that the Curator has been sitting on the Staff and Seal for all these years and never realized it?”
“It is unlikely,” said Caina, “but possible enough that we should investigate. The potential reward is too great to ignore. If we find the Staff and the Seal and deny their powers to Callatas, the Apotheosis never happens.”
“He cannot work the Apotheosis without wraithblood, either,” said Agabyzus. “If we keep disrupting the supply of slaves to Istarinmul, then he cannot murder slaves in his laboratories to create wraithblood. The cowled masters of the Brotherhood appeared before the Grand Wazir yesterday, complaining how the price of slaves has gone up yet again.”
“You are right,” said Caina, “but if Callatas gets the Staff and the Seal, it doesn’t matter how many slaves we save from his laboratory. I don’t know what he intends to accomplish with the Apotheosis, but it’s going to be bad.” She stared at the crowd in the coffee house for a moment, wondering how many of them would die if the Grand Master achieved his goal. “But none of it happens if he never finds the relics of Iramis.”
“Very well,” said Agabyzus. “I suppose we shall need funds to pay the Curator?”
“No,” said Caina. “As far as I know, Callatas has never realized what happened to Annarah. If the Curator is loyal to the Grand Master, and I pay him for his relics of Morgant, he might pass that news to Callatas. That could be disastrous.”
“True,” said Agabyzus. “Then how are you…oh.” He sighed and rubbed his temple for a moment. “You’re going to break in and have a look around.”
“You look disappointed,” said Caina.
“I should have known you would do something like this,” said Agabyzus. “What is your plan?”
“When is the Curator holding his next banquet?” said Caina.
“In a week’s time,” said Agabyzus. “To my knowledge, no one of prominence has been invited. Mostly middling merchants and minor emirs, I believe.”
“Do you know any of them?” said Caina.
“See if you can secure invitations for two people,” said Caina.
“Which two, might I ask?” said Agabyzus.
Caina smiled. “For a Cyrican merchant and his unmarried daughter.”
Agabyzus sighed. “I suppose I shall act as your father in this ruse?”
“Does that trouble you?” said Caina.
“Only that I look old enough to be your father,” said Agabyzus.
“You are actually old enough to be my father,” said Caina. “I could pretend to be your wife, but that would constrain my movements somewhat. No one expects any cleverness from a merchant’s unmarried daughter. That will give me the freedom to look around.”
“You are right, as ever,” said Agabyzus. “I shall do as you command, though I still do not like the risk.”
“It is worth the risk,” said Caina. “If we’re very lucky, we find the Staff and the Seal and stop the Apotheosis. If we’re lucky, we find out what happened to Morgant the Razor and Annarah.” She shrugged. “And if nothing goes our way…then we simply waste an evening, though we might learn some useful rumors from the conversations at the banquet.”
“And if we’re unlucky?” said Agabyzus.
Caina shrugged once more. “We’ll improvise.”
Chapter 2: The Merchant’s Daughter
A week later, Caina prepared in the Sanctuary.
Agabyzus had secured invitations to the Curator’s banquet for a Cyrican merchant named Tamirzid Kolarzu and his daughter Azarma. That meant Caina would dress as a woman for the banquet, which she found refreshing. She spent most of her time disguised as a man, whether as a caravan guard, a merchant, a nobleman’s factor, and a dozen other disguises. To wear women’s clothing had almost become a luxury.
The Sanctuary was hidden underground. Once it had been the headquarters of the Ghost circle of Istarinmul, until the Teskilati, the Padishah’s secret police, had wiped them out. Yet the Teskilati had not learned the Sanctuary’s location, and Caina had been able to employ it as a refuge. The Sanctuary was a large, vaulted room, its ceiling supported by thick pillars. Tables and wardrobes held a variety of supplies, clothing, and cosmetics, everything Caina needed to assume a number of different disguises.
She did so now, donning a green dress with black and gold trim, a belt of black leather around her waist. Istarish women were more modest than the noblewomen of the Empire, so the dress showed no skin save that of her throat and hands. Caina had shaved off her long black hair in a fit of crippling grief last year and had found short hair conducive to disguise, so she had kept it trimmed to black stubble. A merchant’s daughter would hardly be seen in public with short hair, so Caina donned a black wig and tied a green headscarf over it. A bit of makeup, some silver earrings and a silver choker chain adorned with sapphires to match her eyes, and Caina examined herself in the mirror.
She looked the part of a merchant’s spoiled daughter, and Caina was just vain enough to feel pleased by how good she looked. She had not done this since…
A little spasm of grief went through her mind.
She wished Corvalis could have seen her like this.
But Corvalis was dead and she was not, and if Callatas succeeded, a lot more people were going to die.
Caina had work to do, and no time for grief.
She paused long enough to strap sheathed throwing knives to her calves, hidden beneath her skirt. A long dagger went in a sheath upon her belt, and she hid a few other small tools near it. Then she donned a pair of high-heeled sandals and left the Sanctuary.
Agabyzus awaited her before the coffee house, clad in the robes of a prosperous merchant. A pair of sedan chairs waited nearby, their bearers talking amongst themselves in low voices. In Istarinmul, men of wealth and rank did not travel by horse and coach, but by slave-borne palanquin. Caina found the custom distasteful, but it was necessary to maintain her disguise.
She stopped before Agabyzus.
“Yes?” he said, lifting his eyebrows.
He didn’t recognize her. Which wasn’t surprising, given how rarely she had worn female clothing in front of him. “Father, is that any way to greet your daughter? You shall hurt my feelings.”
A brief flicker of surprise went over Agabyzus’s bearded face, and then he nodded. “You should not startle me so, daughter. It isn’t good for my old heart.”
Caina gave a haughty sniff and flicked her hand. “I forgive you, but you shall have to buy me something expensive. Shall we go?”
The Curator kept his palace at the edge of the Alchemists’ Quarter. The College itself dominated the Quarter, a massive, sprawling structure of gleaming white towers, gilded domes, and glittering crystal statues. The College was a vision of beauty, but Caina knew that those statues had once been living men and women, their flesh transmuted to crystal by the power of an Alchemist’s spell.
Since it was adorned by the corpses of the Alchemists’ victims, Caina could not appreciate the College’s beauty.
The Curator’s palace was more modest, though only by degree. A low wall of white stone encircled grounds dotted with flowering gardens and trees. The palace itself, five stories high, rose within, covered in a façade of white stone. The Curator’s guests moved among the grounds, merchants and minor nobles both. Caina also saw Alchemists in their gold-trimmed white robes, flanked by their bodyguards, Immortals in black plate and chain mail. She suppressed a shiver at the sight of the Immortals in their skull-shaped helms, their eyes shining with blue light. The Alchemists’ elixirs gave the Immortals superhuman strength and savagery, and they had tried to kill her more than once. In fact, if they knew who she really was, if they realized that Azarma Kolarzu was really the thief known as the Balarigar, they would kill her.
Compared to the Immortals, the Curator’s own guards looked almost harmless. They were men in chain mail and black leather jerkins, spiked helmets upon their heads and sheathed scimitars at their belts. Two of them approached Agabyzus, and he presented the invitations. Caina eyed the white-robed Alchemists as Agabyzus spoke to the guards, resisting the urge to finger the pyrikon bracelet around her left wrist. It was just as well the sleeve of her dress concealed it. Fortunately, they would not be able to sense its sorcerous aura. She did not know the extent of the pyrikon’s abilities, but she suspected the thing had a mind of its own. It seemed able to conceal itself from sorcerous detection.
Suddenly her skin crawled, and Caina felt the presence of sorcery nearby.
“Ah,” said a deep, resonant voice. “You must be Master Tamirzid Kolarzu, merchant of Cyrican marble.”
Caina turned her head towards the source of the sorcerous aura, and one of the strangest figures she had even seen walked towards her.
The man was over six feet tall, with brown skin and a hooked nose. His head had been shaved hairless, even his eyebrows, his eyes encircled with lines of black makeup in the fashion of the priests of ancient Maat. A dozen rings glittered in each of his ears. He wore the black coat, gleaming white shirt, black trousers, and polished black boots common among the nobles of the Empire, but no nobleman of the Empire wore as much jewelry as this man. A ring glittered upon every finger, some gold, some silver, some bronze, each set with different jewels. She glimpsed bracelets upon his wrists, and around his neck he wore a golden chain adorned with a stylized solar disc. It was another symbol of Old Maat, the long-destroyed Kingdom of the Rising Sun, an ancient empire that had been ruled by necromancer-priests of great power and greater cruelty.
Caina felt the aura of necromantic sorcery around this man. At least one of the gems upon his rings was a bloodcrystal, a reservoir of necromantic power.
“I am, sir,” said Agabyzus with a bow, and Caina quickly followed suit, gripping the edges of her skirts. “I presume you are…ah, our host?”
The strange sorcerer offered a thin smile. “There is no need to worry over my name.” He spread his hands, his rings flashing. “You may simply call me the Curator.”
“The Curator, sir?” said Agabyzus. “That seems…peculiarly informal.”
“Not at all, Master Tamirzid,” said the Curator. He offered Caina a perfunctory smile, but he turned his attention from her. Perhaps she should have worn a dress with a lower neckline after all. Still, if he saw her as a merchant’s empty-headed daughter, that would make it all the easier to have a discreet look around his palace. “I am a collector of the rare and the exotic, a student of all that is strange and beautiful. I gather items of power and beauty, and find them for others in exchange for a modest fee.” He clapped his hands together, his bracelets jangling. “In short, I am the Curator.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you…Master Curator, sir,” said Agabyzus.
“Master Curator, then?” said the sorcerer, pleased by the compliment. “I am glad to make your acquaintance.” He gestured at the gleaming white bulk of his palace. “I am, as you can see, quite fond of Cyrican marble. The Kyracians like to boast of the quality of their marble, but it simply not the equal of the Cyrican stone.”
“I should be most glad to discuss it with you, Master Curator,” said Agabyzus.
“I look forward to it,” said the Curator. “Later, I fear. One must attend to business before pleasure, and I must greet my other guests.”
“Of course,” said Agabyzus with another bow, and Caina followed suit. The Curator offered another thin smile and strolled away, his hands tucked into the small of his back, his long coat swirling around him.
“Be careful around him,” said Caina in a low voice.
“Those rings and bracelets are enspelled?” said Agabyzus.
“All of them,” said Caina.
“What sort of spells?” said Agabyzus.
“Wards, sensing spells,” said Caina. “Necromantic, too.”
“Necromantic?” said Agabyzus. “Necromancy is forbidden in Istarinmul.”
“I think the Curator has enough powerful friends that it doesn’t matter,” said Caina, watching the Curator move among his guests. “And at least some of those gems on his fingers are bloodcrystals.”
“Bloodcrystals?” said Agabyzus, a flicker of shock going over his bearded face. “I thought those were a relic of ancient Maat. You’ve encountered such potent sorcery before?”
“Once or twice,” said Caina. “It wasn’t pleasant.”
“I imagine not,” said Agabyzus. “We shall have to exercise caution.”
Caina nodded, looking at the palace. The Curator had bloodcrystals in his rings, and he lined his eyes in the same manner as the priests of ancient Maat. She wondered if there was a connection.
More to the point, she wondered what secrets he concealed in his palace.
Perhaps within she would find a secret that would lead her to Morgant the Razor and the Staff and Seal of Iramis.
The banquet hall of the Curator’s palace was as opulent as Caina expected.
The Curator’s favored Cyrican marble covered the floor, gleaming beneath the enspelled lanterns overhead. Delicate pillars of the same white marble supported balconies along the walls, and slave musicians played soft music in the shadows. Plinths stood in niches below the balconies, holding statues, ancient weapons, stone tablets carved with Maatish hieroglyphs, pieces of damaged armor, and other curiosities. Laminated wooden plaques denoted the significance of each relic – a sword from an ancient battle, a helmet worn by a long-dead king, the decree of a Maatish pharaoh. Beautiful slave women in gleaming silver collars and close-fitting tunics of white silk circulated through the crowds of guests, bearing trays of food and wine. Even before Caina had started terrorizing the Brotherhood of Slavers, that many female slaves of that age and attractiveness would have cost a fortune. Now their selling price would be astronomical, which was a sour thought. Her actions had inadvertently made the Curator and other owners of slaves richer.
That enraged her, but she accepted it with weary resignation. There was always evil in the world, no matter what she did. Perhaps the best she could hope was to ameliorate it.
And to prevent greater evils from occurring.
“The fifth floor,” murmured Caina.
“You’re sure?” said Agabyzus.
“Entirely,” said Caina. “I eavesdropped on the slaves. They talk freely when they think no one’s listening. The fifth floor is the Curator’s domain. They say their master keeps all his greatest treasures on the fifth floor.”
“I suggest,” said Agabyzus, “that you wait until the dancing begins. That will last for some time, and will allow you to enter the fifth floor, find the Razor’s sword, and escape unseen.”
“What if there are wards you cannot penetrate?” said Agabyzus. “Or locks you cannot open?”
“Then I’ll withdraw,” said Caina. “Or I could return later and break in when the Curator is absent.”
“He will likely have guards,” said Agabyzus. “With his wealth, he would not leave his treasures undefended.”
“I know,” said Caina.
Agabyzus sighed. “I admire your intellect and boldness, but you are nonetheless the most singularly reckless young woman I have ever met.”
“You should have seen some of things I did before I met you,” said Caina.
The musicians changed their song, and the men and women among the guests paired off and began to dance. Caina watched them with a flicker of regret. She loved to dance, and it had been a very long time since she had enjoyed the opportunity. Corvalis had always found dancing tedious, but he had been willing to indulge her. Caina pushed aside the regret. With the guests focused upon dancing, Caina had the perfect opportunity to slip away and make her way to the palace’s fifth floor.
She turned her head. A Cyrican merchant approached Agabyzus and bowed. Like many Cyricans, he wore a mixture of the fashions of both the Imperial capital and the Cyrican provinces – a long white coat and shirt, black trousers, gleaming black boots. A belt held a short sword and a dagger of expensive make. He was in good shape, and the white coat fit him well. He looked to be in his middle thirties, with dark eyes and curly black hair.
“Yes?” said Agabyzus.
The man bowed. “I am Aydin Kirshar, a merchant of Cyrioch. It is always a pleasure to find a countryman here in Istarinmul.”
Agabyzus smiled. “Well, we Cyricans are quite common in Istarinmul. Perhaps we ought to buy the city and have done with it.” He bowed and Caina followed suit. “I am Tamirzid Kolarzu, and this is my daughter Azarma.”
“I would enjoy talking business with you, sir,” said Aydin, “but first I have a question I must ask.” Agabyzus nodded. “Might I dance with your daughter?”
Caina blinked several times as she considered Aydin. What did he want? He didn’t look like a Teskilati agent, and she didn’t think that he was an assassin of the Kindred, but both the Kindred and the Teskilati were adept at the arts of disguise. Perhaps he was a freelance assassin who had realized that she was the Balarigar. She didn’t feel an arcane aura around him, so he wasn’t a Silent Hunter or one of the other creatures of the Umbarian Order, but it was entirely possible he was an agent of the Umbarians nonetheless. She didn’t see any concealed weapons on him…
“My daughter can answer that question, I think,” said Agabyzus.
Aydin smiled at her and extended a hand.
Or, Caina realized belatedly, he simply wanted to dance with her.