Monday, October 3, 2016

Excerpt from The Ghost in Exile, a high fantasy novel

Today, I'm giving you a pre-view of my novel that is coming out late next month. Read the first chapter of The Ghost in Exile. Kindle copies are available for pre-order from Amazon, and you can pre-order an autographed paperback version for only $10 from my website. I'd love to hear your comments.


Chapter One
The Ghost sat in the temple district of Argos staring at the Temple of Ares, the god of war and of killers. Due to the disguise he now wore, people passed without exhibiting the fear that his own features usually invoked. With the aid of wax and cosmetics, he’d hid his numerous scars and remade his face in the image of a Saloynan mercenary, a persona he’d never thought to assume again. He pulled his cloak more tightly around him to protect against the chill. It was mild for mid-winter, but still the cold was biting. Ares’s temple looming in front of him deepened the cold. It was constructed of black marble and decorated in blood-red stone with sharp lines and geometric shapes, conjuring images of the horrors of the battlefield.  He looked from the red and black temple to his fingernails. During the three-month crossing from Korthlundia to Saloyna—the rough winter sea making the crossing take longer than usual—he’d succeeded in scrubbing the blood out from under his nails, but it hadn’t been easy. When he’d been the world’s most notorious assassin, he’d owned a brush specifically for that purpose. But after he’d knelt at Sulis’s holy altar and made the vow never to kill again, he’d thrown that brush away. He guessed he’d need to find a new one.
The Ghost rose abruptly. There was no point in delaying any longer. He’d broken his vow, and it was past time to admit that making it had been foolish to begin with, as if such a small act could cleanse his blood-drenched soul. He’d long ago earned his place in the seven hells. Now, he must embrace the fact that he had one skill and one purpose—to kill those who needed to die. For a brief time he’d tried to forget that, and because he hesitated to kill a monster, the man had nearly destroyed his homeland and his daughter. Some people’s deaths were a thing to be celebrated rather than mourned, and because he was forever tainted, forever a killer, he should be the one to kill them. He hoped the high priest had an appropriate target for him. Zotico was a ghoul, but he’d always been reliable in ferreting out the fiends whose deaths were most needed.
As The Ghost entered Ares’s temple, an oppressive presence settled over him. He seemed to be alone in the huge sanctuary, but he knew the acolytes of Ares watched through hidden panels. Rumors claimed they waited for someone with signs of weakness to enter. Then they would pour forth, seize the unfortunate, and sacrifice him to their god. The Ghost had found no evidence to support such rumors, but he knew that animals and criminals were regularly sacrificed on Ares’s altar, bleeding out their lives into the bowl at the foot of his statue. It was a hard death, both the blood and the pain feeding the magic of Ares’s priests.
The Ghost knelt at Ares’s feet, where the stench of blood was nearly overpowering. The altar was stained with it, and the bowl at the god’s feet was full from a fresh sacrifice. The power present in this place was undeniable—dark and forbidding, far from the peace and serenity in Sulis’s temples. But he was no longer worthy of Sulis’s blessing. The Ghost drew his dagger, held his left forearm over the sacrificial bowl, and sliced a new cut alongside his numerous scars. As he bled into the bowl, he felt the magic of the place coalesce around him. His blood sizzled as it hit the bowl, and the wound on his arm healed instantly, signaling that The Ghost truly belonged to the Saloynan god.
A door opened behind him, he stood and faced the high priest. Zotico was completely bald and looked no older than he had when The Ghost had first met him ten long years ago. He had small, beady eyes and a typical Saloynan narrow nose. “Pandaros! How wonderful!” the priest beamed, calling The Ghost a name he’d decided he must take up again. He could no longer be either “Ahearn” and “Darhour”; they were both dead. “Rumors said you were no longer among the living. Come in, come in.” Zotico gestured toward the doorway. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”
Zotico’s enthusiasm seemed excessive even for him. Warily, The Ghost followed Zotico down the corridor to the high priest’s office. It was large, the walls covered with instruments of war—swords, shields, battle axes and plaques ornamented with what looked suspiciously like human ears. The ears were new. Zotico caught The Ghost looking at them and swept his hand over a plaque that contained five ears nailed side by side. “Do you like the new decor? Sacrifices, all of them. I had them moved from our private sanctuary so I could better remember the devotion demanded by the god I serve.”
Zotico may not appear to age, but his ghoulishness grew with each passing year. The Ghost carefully schooled his features to avoid betraying any sign of revulsion.
 In the center of the office was a large desk with one chair behind it and two large, comfortable chairs facing it. Zotico gestured The Ghost into one of the facing chairs. The Ghost sat, and the high priest offered him a glass of oenomel, a sweet mixture of honey and wine. Zotico poured himself a glass from the same pitcher and sat behind the desk. “Pandaros, my friend. Why have you neglected your obligations to Ares?”
The Ghost waited for Zotico to take a sip of his drink, then took one of his own. It was cloying in its sweetness. “I’ve been distracted.”
Zotico smiled sadly. “A true tragedy. There’s no one better with a blade.” The priest mimed drawing a knife across his own throat. “I’ve had acolytes scouring the city more than once looking for you, but I gave up years ago when not the slightest sign of your whereabouts could be found. Tell me, my son, where have you been?”
“Away.” The Ghost had no intention of ever letting Zotico learn anything about Samantha, who was both his daughter and his queen. Because of his careful disguise, Zotico believed The Ghost was a Saloynan.
 Zotico laughed. “Long have I wished for the power of Delphi to penetrate your secrets. Is there a person in the world who knows even half of them?” Zotico looked expectantly at him, but The Ghost didn’t answer. “I see my curiosity shall have to be contained. Ares is a harsh master and not attentive to trifles. Still, I can’t tell you how happy I am that you have now returned to his fold. His temple has truly felt your absence.”
The Ghost grunted, “Do you have a job for me?”
Zotico’s eyes gleamed. “Do I ever! I’d nearly despaired of finding a capable assassin, but your fortunate arrival proves that Ares will never fail those who serve his name.”
“Who do you want dead?”
“I think it would be best explained by the one in need of Ares’s assistance, but I assure you it is your sort of kill. May I tell the client you’ll meet?”
The Ghost nodded.
Zotico’s entire body relaxed. “Good, good. The client would prefer not to be seen here. I’ve an arrangement with the high priestess of Aphrodite. The two gods were lovers, after all. Enter the goddess’s temple tomorrow morning and choose the acolyte wearing the pendant of a vulture.” Zotico smiled broadly. “Pandaros, my friend, it is a great day for you to have returned.”
“You are not my friend.” The Ghost left with Zotico laughter ringing in his ears.
* * *
 Desperately needing the distraction, The Ghost went for a walk after his supper at the Green Sandpiper, an inn that catered to mercenaries and other unsavory types. The falling of night deepened the cold, but he didn’t cut short his walk. He wandered the filthy streets of the poorer section of the city, thinking about past kills—those in the distant past, not those connected with his daughter. He couldn’t think of her ever again. The few short years he’d spent with her had been the best in his life, but he hadn’t deserved them. The only thing he deserved was to rot in the seven hells. He wondered how many had died at his hands. Two hundred? Three? More? He’d never kept count.
Few of the street lights were lit in this part of town, but that was no hindrance to The Ghost. When he’d been the Saloynan king’s personal assassin, he’d had an enchantment performed on his eyes, giving him the ability to see in the dark, even the complete darkness of a cave.
Passing an alley, he heard a commotion. He turned to see a young woman pleading with two men. “Don’t make me go with him,” she begged. “He hurts me.” The Ghost recoiled when he heard her Massossinan accent. He hated Massossinans.
The first man slapped her across the face, and The Ghost saw the iron slave collar around the woman’s neck. Her red hair confirmed her nationality. She wore a low-cut, red bodice trimmed with black lace and an extremely short red skirt. She had to be freezing in this weather. “You’ll do as you’re told and like it, or . . .” He drew a knife and ran it across her right breast, drawing a thin line of blood.
The second man grabbed the woman. “You know you like it rough.” He too drew a knife. “Maybe I’ll slice you open when I’m through with you.”
“That will cost you extra,” the first man warned.
The second man shrugged. “I’m good for it."
He imagined his daughter being similarly assaulted. He stepped into the alley. “Let her go.”
The man pulled the woman closer to him. “You can have a turn when I’m done with her.” He grabbed the woman’s breast, and she tried to squirm away. She looked older than he’d thought at first, nearly thirty—old for a whore. Most didn’t live that long.
The Ghost drew his sword and stepped forward. “I said let her go.”
The woman’s master stepped between The Ghost and the other man. “Mister, you have no right to interfere with lawful commerce. She’s mine, and I’ll do with her as I see fit.”
“Not tonight you won't. Move aside.”
It must have been too dark for the man to see the menace in The Ghost’s eyes. Few men dared stand up to him after they’d gotten a good look at the coldness he held there. The slave owner, however, crossed his arms. “Go away.”
The Ghost raised his sword and struck the man on the head with the flat of his blade. He went down, and The Ghost stepped over him and addressed the customer. “I said let her go.”
The man placed his knife at the woman’s throat. “She’s mine, or she’s no one’s.”
The Ghost surreptitiously palmed a knife with his left hand while he continued holding his sword with his right. Even more than he hated Massossinans, he hated those who preyed on women’s flesh.  He looked at the woman. “Your choice. Does he live or die?”
* * *
For an instant, Brigitta was too shocked by the stranger's actions to answer. Saloynans were nothing but godless barbarians. She'd once been raped in the street, and not a single Saloynan had done anything to help her. The few men who had even deigned to notice merely did so to applaud her rapist and to vilify her homeland. Still, if he was offering help, she wasn't about to turn him down.
"Kill him," she hissed. Antero would not use her again.
She never saw the stranger move, but Antero toppled over, taking her down with him. He rolled off her, screaming and clutching at his face. She barely had time to notice the knife in his eye socket before the stranger had moved again and plunged his sword through Antero’s throat. Frigg preserve me!
Fearfully, she scrambled to her feet and glanced in her rescuer's direction, but she was too late to call out a warning before her master hit the stranger from behind with a rusty pipe. She cried out as the stranger fell to his knees, dropping his sword. After Damien killed the stranger, he would punish her horribly. She looked around for a place to run, but she knew it was useless. There was nowhere in this savage land that her master couldn't find her.
To her relief, the stranger survived the blow, and he somehow had another knife in his hand. He twisted, and before she'd realized what was happening, Damien was on the ground as well, his entrails exposed to the night air. The stranger's sword was next to her foot. She grabbed the heavy sword with both hands and rushed the man who'd made her life a living hell. Her rescuer rolled aside and allowed her access to the ogre. She raised the sword over her head.
Damien flung up an arm. "No, please!"
"You kidnapped me!" she screamed, as she rammed the sword into his heart. She raised the sword and plunged it over and over again. "You raped me! You made me a whore! You left my children motherless!"
The stranger grabbed her arm. "Enough. He's dead." He took the sword from her and wiped it on her dead master's clothes.
He stumbled as he slid it into its scabbard and put his hand to the back of his head where Damien had hit him with a pipe. His fingers came away bloody. He tore off Damien’s shirt and pressed it against his scalp. “Damned fool!” he muttered, seemingly to himself.
Brigitta thought she should offer her rescuer assistance, but she looked down and saw her master’s blood covering her legs.  Her legs buckled, and she sank to the alley floor. Slaves who killed their masters were subjected to the cruelest deaths. "I killed him," she whispered. "I killed the bastard. Dear gods, what will they do to me?"
Her rescuer threw her master’s shirt aside and held out his hand. "Come with me."
She scrambled away from him and grabbed the knife from Antero's eye. She pointed it at the stranger. "Stay away from me. Before you people made me a whore, I was an honorable wife and mother. I'll die before being used again."
The stranger dropped his arm. "I don't intend to use you."
But Brigitta knew better. Saloynans were worse than the trolls that peopled the bard's tales of her land. She got to her feet, her trembling hand holding the knife. "I'm leaving now. Going home to my little ones. Move out of the way."
She knew the situation was hopeless. She'd tried to fight when Damien's squad had invaded her hut, but it had done nothing to stop them from raping her in front of her children. She was certain that this stranger could disarm her without even trying.
“I can’t do that,” he hissed through his teeth as if trying to convince himself of something. “You're covered in blood. You're collared. You're dressed like a whore. You'll never make it out of the city on your own, probably not even out of this neighborhood. They'll capture you and torture you to death. I can’t let that happen. I'll find a way to get you home, and I won't touch you without your permission. I give you my word."
Brigitta laughed. "And a Saloynan's word is worth ever so much."
Brigitta's mouth dropped open as the stranger switched from Saloynan to her own language. "I'm not Saloynan." The light was poor, and the stranger was wearing a large hood. Was it possible that one of her countrymen was here in the heart of the enemy's capital? Was there hope for her after all?
Her entire body trembled as she lowered the knife and answered him in the language she'd despaired of ever speaking again. "Do you swear on Frigg that you'll do as you promised?"
"You have my word. I'll get you home."
"May Frigg curse you with barrenness if you lie."
The stranger took off his cloak and draped it around her shoulders. She wrapped it tightly around her, grateful for the added warmth.
* * *
The Ghost looked down at the Massossinan woman sleeping in his bed. What in Sulis’s name have I gotten myself into it? He’d been able to break into a blacksmith shop and use his tools to remove the slave collar from the woman’s neck. He’d sneaked her up the rear staircase of the Green Sandpiper, but she’d hardly stayed awake long enough to wash off her master’s blood. She was still dressed as a whore and unmistakably Massossinan. For Sulis’s sake, the very sound of a Massossinan accent made his stomach heave. Without provocation, he’d come close to stabbing the Massossinan prince who had courted his daughter. He rubbed his arms. They felt as if insects swarmed over them. He’d been tortured, coated in honey, and staked over an ant hill by a Massossinan officer, the same officer who’d eaten Phelix’s heart. And he’d promised this woman to take her home to her husband? Had he lost his mind? He’d come to Saloyna to be a killer again because it was the only thing he’d ever really been good at. He’d barely set foot in the country, and he was already acting like a knight in shining armor from the worst of the bards’ tales, rescuing damsels in distress. Just how was he going to keep his promise to both Zotico and this woman? He should know better that to get involved in things like this. He was not a good man.
He groaned and collapsed on the chair in front of the mirror. He picked up a poultice of crushed cabbage leaves and parsley he’d made in the inn’s kitchen and held it to the back of his head. Phelix would probably have had better advice on what to use to treat the ridiculous injury. No, Phelix would have cursed him for brainless twit for allowing an enemy to get behind him. He’d lost his edge.
He threw down the poultice and turned to the mirror to remove the wax and cosmetics from his face. As he did so, he revealed the extent of his facial scarring, horizontal lines carved every inch from his forehead to his chin. The scars gave him a fearsome look, one that Samantha said could make men piss themselves if he so much as glanced in their direction. They also made him look far older than forty as did his gray hair and beard. He wondered what the woman would do when she saw the scars. Perhaps she’d run screaming from the room and relieve him of his responsibility to her. 
When he’d cleaned his face, he looked back at the bed. The woman slept exactly in the middle, leaving no room for him on either side, and he was sure the woman wouldn’t welcome his company. He arranged his weapons and settled down on the floor in front of the door with the poultice. He stared at the wall for a long time, holding the poultice to his head and reminding himself that he was a killer, not some knight errant hero.
* * *
Brigitta woke in a panic, at first not remembering where she was. The weak light of early dawn streamed through the window, and a male voice muttered in his sleep in a language she’d never heard. She sat up and noticed that the weight of her slave collar was missing. She put her hand to her neck, and the entire horrible memory came back to her. She’d killed her master. If she was found, she’d be tortured to death. Her children would grow up without a mother’s love, and she knew how little they could count on their father’s. Worse yet, the man who rescued her seemed to have lied to her about being a countryman. She couldn’t see him well in the thin light, but the language he was speaking was certainly not Massossinan. If he’d lied to her about that, what else had he lied about? She heard her husband’s voice telling her how stupid she was, and it was true. Only a true idiot would have gone with a man that had proven himself to be as good at killing as the stranger obviously was.
To make things worse, he was sleeping in front of the door, evidently to stop her escaping, but the his sword rested on the floor near his hand. If she could get grab his weapon, maybe she could force him to let her go. If not, well, she’d already killed one man. She’d kill another if that’s what it took to get back to her children.
She slipped silently from the bed. She tried to move across the floor without sound, but the boards creaked under her weight. She froze, but the stranger continued to mutter without waking. She crept forward more carefully. The stranger stopped muttering, but he remained still and didn’t seem to be awake. Not even daring to breathe, she took the last few steps and put her hands on the sword. She tried to draw it from its sheath, but she’d forgotten how heavy it was. Before she’d cleared it more than an inch, the stranger’s hands grabbed hers. How had he moved so fast?
“Let’s put that away before someone gets hurt,” the stranger said.
As she pulled her hands free from the stranger’s grasp, Brigitta wanted to cry. She was certainly no match for this barbarian. The sun’s light streamed more brightly though the window, and she gasped at the sight of the stranger’s face. Someone had carved it into mincemeat. She backed away from the nightmare. “You’re not Massossinan. What kind of monster are you?”
Brigitta expected the stranger to sneer at her stupidity in believing him, but instead, he stretched, as if shaking off the last of his sleep. “The worse kind of monster.” He got up from the floor and towered over her. She’d always been small, and this man was huge. “I’m also Korthlundian.”
She wondered if this were some kind of demon she’d never heard of. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The stranger leaned against the wall, keeping his distance from her. “Korthlundia’s a small country, a great distance from here.”
Brigitta decided that where he was from didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was standing between her and the door.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said in a gentle voice completely at odds with his appearance. “I haven’t even tried to touch you.”
Brigitta had to admit this was true. If he was going to do something to her, why had he slept on the floor? Still, she shuddered at the horrible scarring. “Let me go.” She was ashamed that her voice trembled.
For a moment, the stranger looked like he was considering stepping aside, but then he shook his head. “You don’t need to be afraid of me. Despite how I look, I’m a man of my word. If you trust me, I’ll get you home.” He left his place by the door and sat at the vanity in front of the mirror. He picked up some wax and began spreading it over his scars. She inched her way toward the door, not believing he would truly let her go. But he ignored her movements and continued to work on his face.
She opened the door, and he still did nothing to stop her. She heard male voices speaking Saloynan coming from the common room below. She closed her eyes and imagined what would happen if she walked into that room alone, dressed as she was. She closed the door and looked back at the stranger, who was applying cosmetics. He didn’t look quite as frightening now, but how could she trust a man who killed so easily?
“Who are you?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.” He said nothing more as he continued his transformation. She stared as the scarred monster became a normal looking Saloynan man, just like the hundreds who had used her against her will.
The stranger stood, got out his purse, and handed her some coins. Her eyes widened as she saw the glint of gold among them. It would take half a year on her back to earn this much for her master. If the man had this much money, what was he doing staying in a dive like this?
“I have an appointment to keep. If you truly think you’re better off on your own, leave when I’m gone. But if you have any sense, you’ll still be here when I get back. I’ll bring you some new clothes, and we can make plans.” He buckled on his sword and stowed his knives all over his body. She couldn’t see a one of them when he was finished.
When he was gone, she sank on the bed. Please, Frigg, what should I do? she prayed. My children need me. She thought of the huge smile that had appeared on Elva’s face every morning when she woke and caught sight of her mother. That smile had brightened Brigitta’s entire world. But Elva had run to her and hid her face in Brigitta’s skirts when her father came home drunk. Dear Frigg, protect Elva and little Vigi until I can get back to them.  She curled up in a ball, clutching the coins in her fist and hugging the pillow to her. She was so tired of trying to be strong.
* * *

The Ghost rubbed the back of his head as he went down the back steps of the Green Sandpiper. It still hurt, but not too badly, making it clear that he’d suffered no serious injury. Still, what had he gotten himself into with the woman? I tried to reform; it didn’t work. I’m a murderer. Nothing more. He had no idea what he would tell Zotico about the job they’d discussed. If it truly was his type of kill, should he turn it down to help a woman whose name he didn’t even know? He saw Samantha’s face. He knew what his daughter would expect, but she’d never the murderous depth of his soul.
He blocked her out of his mind and focused on his surroundings instead. Five years had dulled his memory of the horrors of the Saloynan capital. Beggars were everywhere—young children and old men and women, emaciated and covered in running sores. In the poorer sections of the city, sewage ran down the middle of the streets. Whores far younger than his daughter plied their trade. A few bodies of those who’d frozen in the night hadn’t yet been gathered up. The capital of Korthlundia was not without problems, but poverty was nowhere near this widespread or abject. In Saloyna, King Salome, like his father before him, cared nothing about his people. They starved while he lived in luxury that would empty the Korthlundian treasury.
The Ghost was relieved to reach the temple complex, which was kept clean and free of beggars. In sharp contrast to Ares’s temple, Aphrodite’s shone a brilliant white with carvings of lovers frolicking in every imaginable position. While The Ghost had seen Aphrodite’s temple every time he visited Ares’s, he had never been inside. The only thing a woman’s love had ever done for him was ruin his life and send him into exile when he had been only eighteen years old. 
When he entered the temple, he was greeted by soft music and delicate perfume. Young women and men—acolytes of Aphrodite—in sheer robes that concealed nothing danced in celebration of the goddess. Worshipers watched the dance until they found an acolyte to their liking. They gave the priestess the proper donation and disappeared with the acolyte into one of the private rooms that lined one wall of the temple, where they worshiped the goddess in a more intimate manner. Some of the acolytes danced near him. He examined their necks until he saw the one wearing a vulture pendant. He took the young woman’s arm and led her to the priestess. “I’ll take this one,” he told her.
The priestess looked him over and nodded. “Chrysante, make sure this gentleman receives our special treatment.”
Chrysante led him toward the rear of the temple. She opened a door, and they entered a room with nothing other than an altar. Climbing onto the altar, Chrysante purred, “Would you like to take your pleasure on Aphrodite’s altar before meeting your guests? Ares’s high priest said you might, and it will bring you luck with the young woman who accompanies him.” Chrysante arched her back, making her breasts stand out beneath the sheer fabric.
Embarrassed, The Ghost felt himself harden. “I would not,” he snapped.
The acolyte paled and jumped off the altar. Sulis curse it! It isn’t her fault the Saloynan gods are twisted.
 “Right this way, sir.” She scrambled to the door on the opposite side of the altar and opened it. Following her, The Ghost entered a corridor. She took him to the end of the corridor and stopped before another door. “They await you in there. I’ll leave you now.” She fled back down the corridor. He must have sounded even harsher than he thought.
When the acolyte had disappeared, The Ghost knocked on the door, and Zotico’s voice bid him enter. Zotico luxuriated on a sofa decorated with nymphs doing things The Ghost would rather not imagine. Two easy chairs flanked the sofa, and a table in the middle of the room was covered in breakfast food. A woman stood on the opposite side of the room with her back to him. She was studying a tapestry. “Do you think this is even possible?” she asked of the act the tapestry depicted.
Zotico waved his hand dismissively. “I’m sure it is. Those who worship Aphrodite are quite talented.”  The priest looked at The Ghost. “But considering how quickly you arrived, I take it you didn’t avail yourself of their expertise. I assure you, young Chrysante can—”
“I didn’t come here to ‘avail’ myself,” he snarled. “I came to tell you I may not be able to take the job after all.”
“You what?” the young woman whirled around, and The Ghost gasped and hurriedly bowed. Last time The Ghost had seen her, Princess Acantha had been a gangly girl of fourteen with a fondness for horses. Now, she’d filled in her womanly shape. She was tall, with dark hair flowing around her head, deep set eyes, and an extremely narrow nose. “You would refuse to do a service for your queen?”
The Ghost blinked. “I hadn’t heard of your father’s death.”
“He’s not dead yet,” Zotico answered for her. “But I’m sure shortly you will help spread the good news. The monster has ruled for far too long, and at the rate he’s going, he soon won’t have any heirs left. He had the last of his sons executed just last month.”
The princess glared at The Ghost. “How long before he decides I, too, am a threat?”
“A true lover of his country wouldn’t let such atrocities continue,” Zotico said. “Besides our land will be plunged into chaos if he dies without an heir. We’d be completely vulnerable to those heart-eating fiends.”
The Ghost sickened as he remembered the sound of the Massossinan officer taking a bite out of Phelix’s heart. But it wasn’t the thought of the Massossinan menace that moved him. He thought of the children starving in the streets and of the Salome he’d known when he worked as his father’s assassin.
You could tell a lot about a person by the way they treated animals. When The Ghost had been the king’s assassin, his cover was as assistant master of the horse. Salome had been brutal to his horses. The Ghost had spent countless hours doctoring the injuries the prince inflicted on his beasts and in calming their agitation after he’d ridden them. But his most vivid memory of Salome involved the young stable boy, Paulos.
Paulos hadn’t been quite right in the head. He was slow catching onto things and needed any order explained slowly and carefully before he was sure what to do. But once he understood, he was reliable, and he was always smiling. The Ghost had never known how the lad had gotten a place in the king’s stables, but he assumed he was the bastard of someone important.
The Ghost had been on an errand for the king and had just finished cleaning the blood from under his fingernails. As he was returning to the stables, Prince Salome and some of his hanger-ons—Salome didn’t have any true friends—were leaving. Salome had laughed. “That will teach him to obey his lord and master.”
The Ghost had assumed the prince was referring to his stallion, who had developed an intense fear of Salome and resisted all of Salome’s attempts to control him. But when The Ghost entered the stables, it wasn’t Aquafire the others were gathered around. The Ghost pushed through the stable hands to find Paulos staring sightlessly at the ceiling with bloody stumps where his hands and feet used to be. Blood dripped onto Paulos’s face, and The Ghost looked up. The missing appendages hung above him.
“Dear Gods, what happened?” he asked.
One of the stable hands lifted his head from the carnage. His face was white, and his entire body shook. “You know Paulos. He didn’t get the prince’s horse saddled fast enough.”
The Ghost had wanted to kill Salome then and there, and he should have. Frare had been a horrible tyrant, but Salome made his father look like a saint. He clenched his fists. Damn all of Massossina to the seven hells! I don’t owe her anything.
He berated himself for his initial hesitation to take the job. He’d hesitated when he should have killed his daughter’s enemy, and he couldn’t bear to think of the pain that had caused. He wouldn’t fail another young woman who should be sitting on a throne. He’d keep his promise to the Massossinan woman, but she could wait a day or so. And who knew, maybe he’d be lucky, and she wouldn’t be there when he got back.
“When do you want it done?”
“As soon as possible.”
“Tell me your father’s habits, as thoroughly as you can.”
Zotico gestured to the table. “Please, let us do this over breakfast.”
The Ghost and Acantha seated themselves in the easy chairs on opposite sides of the breakfast table. Princess Acantha poured herself a glass of wine and sipped it as she detailed her father’s routine. She ate nothing. “He has everything tasted before he eats or drinks. He wears amulets protecting him for all kinds of magic, and he has guards with him constantly, except at night when he sleeps with two large boarhounds. They’d tear a man to shreds at the slightest provocation.”
Excitement built in The Ghost as he continued to ask questions and a plan formed in his mind. “I’ll need the livery of a palace servant,” he said. He closed his eyes and savored the rush. If he was destined to be a killer, he might as well enjoy it.
* * *
After leaving the temple district, The Ghost went to a nearby apothecary. The man behind the counter looked at his weapons warily. “Can I help you?”
The Ghost nodded and rattled off a list of ingredients.
The man frowned. “There’s only one thing you could be making with that lot—Uttvos serum.” Uttvos serum was a powerful sleeping potion, one The Ghost had made frequent use of. He preferred to kill no one but the target.
The Ghost put menace in his eyes. “Is that any concern of yours?”
The man shrugged. “No, but I could save you the trouble. I have some already made up.” The man took out a vial containing a thick liquid. “First class quality. Knock out your strongest stallion so you can castrate it without the least fuss.”
The Ghost nodded in acknowledgment. “I prefer to make my own.” Only in that way could he ensure the proper strength.
The man shrugged and assembled the ingredients.
Next, The Ghost went to a second-hand clothier and bought two gowns for Brigitta. He thought he could guess her size, but he was unsure what colors and style to choose. Just what class had Brigitta been in before she’d been enslaved? He settled on two wool dresses—one a midnight blue and the other an emerald green, both with minimal embroidery. He also bought a black cloak with a large hood and a veil like those worn by all respectable women in Saloyna. He hoped Brigitta liked his choices. He’d never purchased clothing for a woman before.
When he returned to the Green Sandpiper, the Massossinan woman was asleep in the bed. He set the package containing his purchases beside her and quietly began making the serum over the fireplace. He made it extra strong on account of the boarhounds. As he stirred, he played over in his mind his intended trek through the palace and King Salome’s death at his hand. Part of him thrilled at the idea of Salome’s life in his hands. The rest of him knew his excitement meant his soul was forever lost.
He’d come back to Saloyna to take up his former profession because it was the country that had turned a simple stable groom into an assassin whose reputation spanned the world. Still, he wondered, Holy Sulis, Mother of us all, could Ahearn have taken a path that didn’t leave a pile of corpses in his wake? Or was the choice taken from him when a na├»ve young queen chose him as her lover?.