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Authors: Jonathan Moeller

Ghost in the Hunt

BOOK: Ghost in the Hunt
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GHOST IN THE HUNT

Jonathan Moeller

Description

CAINA AMALAS is the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, the leader of the Emperor's spies in the city. With the aid of mysterious allies, she fights to stop the sinister plans of the ruthless Grand Master Callatas.

But Callatas has spent two centuries preparing to remake humanity, and he will exterminate any who dare to oppose him. 

CLAUDIA ABERON DORIUS was once a sorceress of the Imperial Magisterium, yet now she is the wife of a high noble of the Empire. Civil war rips the Empire, and the rebel sorcerers have targeted her beloved husband for death. Claudia has no choice but to work with Caina, the woman she despises most in the world, to save her husband's life.

But a danger comes that neither Caina nor Claudia have foreseen...

KALGRI is the Red Huntress, the centuries-old assassin of legend. She has killed kings and princes, sorcerers and alchemists, young and old and rich and poor, and laughed at their screams and rejoiced at the tears of their families. She has slain countless innocents, and no one has ever stopped her.

And her next target is Caina Amalas. 

Ghost in the Hunt

Copyright 2014 by Jonathan Moeller.

Published by Azure Flame Media, LLC.

Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.

Ebook edition published September 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 - Shadow Knives

 

The men who sought the enormous bounty upon her head thought that she was a man, so Caina dressed as a woman. 

It was almost refreshing. Since coming to Istarinmul a year ago, Caina had spent most of her time disguised as a man, both for the freedom of movement and to add an additional layer of deception against her enemies. She rarely went out in women’s clothing, not since she had disguised herself as Natalia of the Nine Knives during the Master Slaver Ulvan’s grand ascension.

Considering what she had done to Ulvan after that, disappearing had seemed prudent.

“I appreciate this,” said Caina, adjusting the fold of her blue dress. 

“It is hardly a difficulty,” said Damla, owner of the House of Agabyzus, the most prosperous coffee house in Istarinmul’s Cyrican Quarter. “After all you have done for my family, you could ask me whatever you wish. The loan of a dress and a headscarf is nothing.”

Caina nodded and considered herself in Damla’s mirror. The borrowed clothing fit well enough, though too loose about the hips and the chest. Caina had cut off her hair in a fit of grief a year past, and had kept it close-cropped to make disguises easier. Her face was pale and increasingly gaunt, the cheekbones sharper and the blue eyes colder than she remembered. Still, the dress and headscarf made her look like any other young woman of Istarinmul, albeit one of Nighmarian or Szaldic birth. 

At least until someone looked into her eyes. Killers had eyes like hers. 

“Do you not have any women’s clothing?” said Damla. “I have seen you wear any number of disguises.” 

“I do,” said Caina, buckling a belt of black leather around her waist. A single dagger rested in a sheath at her hip. The weapon was distinctive, and she had stolen it from the laboratory of the Grand Master Callatas himself. If she was caught with it, it would mean her death, but the nature of her enemies meant she wanted to keep the weapon close at hand. “I suspect Teskilati informers are watching the nearest safe house. I don’t dare go there, at least until they stop watching so closely.” She pulled on a pair of sturdy leather boots. Sandals were more comfortable in Istarinmul’s blazing heat, but sandals did not offer hidden sheaths for daggers. “So Marius the courier enters the House of Agabyzus, and a random young woman leaves.” 

Damla snorted. “If Marius keeps disappearing into the House of Agabyzus for hours at a time, that will be suspicious.”

“Actually,” said Caina, hiding sheathed knives beneath the dress’s loose sleeves, “the Teskilati think you are having an affair with Marius.”

Damla sniffed in disdain. It was not implausible that a courier would fall for her. Widow she might have been, but she was still fit, most likely from remaining on her feet all day. Any number of merchants, both her junior and senior, had made polite indications of interest, and Damla had just as politely declined them. Caina suspected that Damla would remarry at some point. It had been three years since her husband had fallen during Rezir Shahan’s attack upon Marsis.

Some wounds took a long time to heal, or never healed at all. 

Caina knew that too well.

“A disgraceful rumor,” said Damla. “I am a respectable woman. For the Living Flame’s sake! You are not even a man.” 

“A scandalous tale,” said Caina, giving her reflection one final check. “But it is better than the truth. If the Teskilati knew who I really was, they would kill us all and burn the House of Agabyzus to the ground.” The Padishah’s secret police were not merciful, and Caina was a Ghost, a spy of the Emperor of Nighmar. “A bit of salacious gossip is a flimsy shield, but an effective one.” 

“True.” Damla sighed, her black dress and headscarf rustling as she shook her head. “If my part in the defeat of the Grand Master’s evil is a tarnished reputation, so be it. The price could be far higher.”

“It could be worse,” said Caina, turning away from the mirror. “Innkeepers and coffee merchants always have seedy reputations. But you could be an actress. Or a circus girl.”

Damla shuddered. “I did that once before, and I have no wish to do it again.” She grinned. “Though if you wish to don a skimpy costume once more and parade before a crowd as Natalia of the Nine Knives…well, you are the circlemaster. I shall not gainsay you.”

Caina laughed. “Not today. I wish to avoid attention.”

Damla’s smile faded. “Is this dangerous?”

“No more than usual,” said Caina. “There is a bounty of two million bezants upon my head.” Six months ago it had only been a million, but Caina and her growing network of allies had been busy. “I am in danger any time I set foot outside. But this should be safe enough.”

“The courier,” said Damla. “Do you think it is a trap?”

“I don’t know,” said Caina. “I have been circlemaster of Istarinmul for almost a year. I would have expected instructions from the Emperor and the other circlemasters long ago, but I have heard nothing but silence.”

“And rumors,” said Damla.

A dozen different contradictory rumors about the state of the Empire rebounded through the coffee houses of the merchants, each one darker than the last. They spoke of civil war within the Empire or a plot against the Emperor, the eastern provinces rising in revolt against Malarae. Others claimed that the Imperial Magisterium, the magi of the Empire, had splintered into warring factions, each faction seizing as many provinces as it could hold. Others whispered that the Ashbringers of old, the pyromancer-priests of the Saddaic provinces, had risen from the dead to wage war upon their ancient enemies. 

But every rumor agreed upon a civil war within the Empire. Caina had received neither news nor instructions for nearly a year. A new Lord Ambassador to the Padishah’s court had not even arrived from the Empire.

And now, after a year of silence…a courier had arrived from Malarae. 

Perhaps the courier was real. 

Perhaps the courier was a trap. Two million bezants was a lot of money, enough to draw the attention of bounty hunters skilled enough to execute such an elaborate ruse. 

“If it is a trap,” said Caina, “even a trap has its uses. Especially when turned back upon the man who set it.”

“You will be careful?” said Damla.

“Of course,” said Caina. 

Damla shook her head. “Lies. You are never careful.”

“True,” said Caina.

“You will make Agabyzus be careful?” said Damla, her fingers brushing the side of her skirt. “I have already lost him once. I have no wish to lose him again.”

Caina nodded. “As careful as I can make him.”

It was only half a lie. Agabyzus would masquerade as the circlemaster and talk to the courier while Caina listened from the shadows. Damla’s elder brother had been the circlemaster of Istarinmul, at least until the Teskilati had destroyed the circle and imprisoned Agabyzus in the Widow’s Tower. After Caina had rescued him, Agabyzus had relinquished control of the Ghost circle to Caina. She doubted that the courier would believe that a twenty-three year old woman was the circlemaster of Istarinmul, even if Caina knew all the proper code words and signs. 

If the courier was a trap for Caina, the deception might give them an edge. 

“We should both return by midnight,” said Caina. 

“Wake me when you return,” said Damla. She sighed. “Though I will not get any sleep until you return, I confess, and shall instead lie awake wondering if the Teskilati are about to fall upon us.” 

“I am sorry,” said Caina.

“Do not be,” said Damla. “You did not bring the danger into our lives. If you had not come, I would have lost both my sons and my brother.” 

“Then I shall strive to keep you from losing them again,” said Caina.

She left the House of Agabyzus and headed into the streets of the Cyrican Quarter.

 

###

 

It was harder to run and fight in dress than in the various male disguises she employed, but Caina admitted that the clothing of an Istarish woman had one advantage over that of a man.

It was so much cooler. 

 A mercenary’s leather armor or the fine robes and coats of a wealthy merchant were often damnably hot. Beneath her skirt the air felt pleasant against her legs, and she wished she had been able to wear sandals. Still, the sheathed daggers in her boots made for a reassuring presence.

The reassurance helped, because Agabyzus had picked the worst possible place for the meeting.

In the months she had known him, Caina had grown to respect Agabyzus’s considerable intellect and rely upon his counsel. He knew how to set up and maintain a network of informants. He also knew how to disguise himself well, and understood the intricate maze of power among Istarinmul’s nobles, magistrates, wealthy merchants, slavers, and Alchemists. 

But the man had absolutely no tactical sense, and so had picked a half-constructed building for the meeting. When Caina had asked why, he replied that he had always met the couriers at deserted buildings since there were no witnesses at hand. 

Caina wanted witnesses. The best place for this sort of meeting was the heart of a bazaar at noon or a coffee house in the early evening, a place crowded with hundreds of people. With so many witnesses, it was much harder to spring a trap. Far easier to kill someone in an abandoned building or a deserted place. Caina had done that herself a few times.

A half-finished building was even worse. With a proper bribe to the stonemasons or the carpenters, a corpse could be buried in the cellars with no one the wiser.

Caina had done that a few times, too.

She left the Cyrican Quarter behind and made her way to the Old Quarter at the heart of the city. To the north of the Old Quarter rose the towering domes and spires of the Masters’ Quarter and the Emirs’ Quarter, the gleaming domes of the Padishah’s Golden Palace standing only slightly taller than the domed towers of the College of Alchemists and the palace of Callatas himself. The Old Quarter lacked such ostentation, and Istarinmul’s more settled merchant associations based themselves here, men who bought and sold ores and gems and lumber and cheese. Their halls rose tall and solemn, built of gleaming white marble and fronted with delicate columns, the walls adorned with colorful mosaics of animals and forests. Merchants emerged from the halls as the sun went down, sober and paunchy middle-aged men in respectable robes and graying beards, and headed to coffee houses to discuss the day’s business. A few cast admiring glances Caina’s way, but she kept walking. 

She came to a half-built merchants’ hall. The timber merchants had commissioned it to replace their old hall, and the cellars had been dug and the walls of stone and concrete raised. The marble fronting and columns and mosaics would come later. Nothing of value was within the building, so no fence stood around it, and no one had bothered to secure it.

Caina walked past the scaffolding and stacks of cut stone and into the entry hall, her hand straying to the sheathed dagger at her belt. One day the entrance hall would be a grand open space, with a skylight overhead and fountains bubbling upon the floor. Now it was just a rough space of cut stone and concrete, dust gritting beneath her boots, the roof open to the twilight sky. Supplies stood against one wall, hammers and chisels and planks and amphorae of lamp oil. A layer of rock dust covered the floor, marked with hundreds of footprints. Some of the tracks had been made by bare feet, which struck Caina as odd. Slaves often went barefoot, but the slaves of masons and builders almost always wore sandals since a jagged rock or a broken nail could slice open even the most callused foot. 

BOOK: Ghost in the Hunt
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