Ghost in the Inferno - Jonathan Moeller

Chapter 1: Something Always Goes Wrong

Caina Amalas expected something to go wrong.

No matter how carefully she planned, no matter how thoroughly she prepared, something always went wrong. It was simply the nature of her business. She was the Ghost circlemaster of Istarinmul, the leader of the Emperor’s spies in the city, and she played a deadly game with millions of lives at stake. At any moment disaster could fall upon her, and she had to be ready to improvise.

So Caina was not entirely surprised to see Nerina Strake sprinting past the brothel at full speed, her bodyguard Azaces running after in grim silence.

Caina was not surprised…but that made her no less alarmed.

She cursed and pushed away from the window, her boots sinking into the room’s lush carpet. Today she was dressed as a Cyrican merchant of middling prosperity, clad in a bright robe of blue and red, a fake beard and makeup adding fifteen years to her age. She had started growing out her hair, but since her turban concealed it entirely, it didn’t matter. A scimitar and sheathed dagger rested at her belt, and she had throwing knives hidden up her sleeves and daggers in her boots.

The disguise made her look exactly like the sort of merchant who would frequent the Crimson Veil, the most exclusive brothel of Istarinmul’s Old Quarter.

The room was richly furnished with crimson curtains hanging from the walls, a thick carpet, and a large bed. It would have been impressive had Caina not seen the opulence of the Padishah’s Golden Palace and Grand Master Callatas’s palace, and the scent of incense could not quite drown out the odor of sweat and other things. The room possessed one unusual feature, installed by the brothel’s owner to deal with troublesome patrons. A large wardrobe stood against the wall, and it concealed a secret door into the next room.

The room, as it happened, that her target had rented for his enjoyment.

Unfortunately, if Nerina and Azaces had been forced to flee, something had gone wrong. Caina cursed again as she hastened across the room and opened the door. The hall beyond was quiet. The Crimson Veil did not transact much business during the day. One of the brothel’s guards, a towering, grim-eyed man in chain mail, looked down at her. His chain mail, turban, and scimitar looked expensive, but he had the thick arms and callused fingers of a man quite comfortable killing with his own hands.

“Your girl hasn’t been brought up yet,” he said. “Guests are to remain in their rooms.”

“Bad fish,” gulped Caina, breathing hard. “Ate some. Going to be sick. I…”

A disgusted look came over the guard’s face. “Damn it. Out the back.” He jerked his head at the end of the hall. “Go in the alley. If you throw up on the carpet we’re adding it to your bill.”

Caina nodded, lifted a hand to her mouth, and sprinted down the hall. She raced down the stairs and pushed open the door to the alley. The alley was much less opulent than the Crimson Veil, and lacked incense to cover the underlying stench. The door closed behind her, and Caina abandoned the pretense of illness and dashed into the street. The Crimson Veil itself had a modest exterior of whitewashed stone, a single lantern with panes of red glass hanging over the door. On either side of the street stood more respectable taverns and coffee houses where the merchants and factors of the Old Quarter went to conduct their business. It was not yet noon, but already the harsh Istarish sun blazed overhead, so hot that the street beneath Caina’s boots seemed to give off waves of heat.

She looked around, trying to spot Nerina.

The plan had been straightforward enough. Nerina would wait until the emir Kuldan Cimak entered the Crimson Veil. Caina would then drug Kuldan into unconsciousness once he had taken his pleasure with the Veil’s prostitutes. After that, Kylon and Morgant would take Kuldan prisoner, and Nerina would then fire a specially-prepared quarrel from her crossbow, shattering the jar of oil Caina had hidden on the roof last night. In the chaos over the cry of fire, Kylon and Morgant would disappear with the real Kuldan Cimak, while Caina disguised herself as the emir and joined the Immortals awaiting their new commander in the Old Bazaar.

It was a bold plan, but if it worked, Caina would march south with the Immortals and gain access to the Inferno.

But the bolder the plan, the more easily something