Writing Ghosts as my NaNoWriMo novel for 2017 - Advance apologies for the copious amounts of typos and errors that will no doubt be all over the place until I get around to the editing process. I hope you can overlook the errs and enjoy the story as it happens! Ghosts is the 4th book in The Sirin Chronicles and introduces a different side to the world of Sirin.
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Candles flickered in the chandeliers above as the tempo of the music picked up for a quickstep, the flickering light moving in time to the dance as the vibrant colours of silk and tulle ball gowns swayed in and out of sight among the swirling and prancing of their partners, all dressed in their finest for the mejran ball and rage celebration of the khali tree coming into bloom.
Astraea eyed them cautiously, keeping an eye on where her husband was at all times as she delicately picked up a rib coated in sticky sweet sauce and balanced it above her other hand as she attempted to eat it without dropping the brown sauce over her own gown. Her sister was animatedly talking about the firework display that would be set off presently.
“Why aren’t you dancing with Deoliaeth? You know it would make father happy and he’s the most gorgeous man here...”
“Nikita! Why on Sirin would I dance with that beast?” Astraea moaned, looking again to see where he was so as to not accidentally catch his eye. She could see her sister was herself desperate to have a dance as she kept swaying in her own muted lime and teal dress that their stepmother had chosen - it was the height of fashion with frilly ruffles and bows all over and yards of tulle beneath an asymmetrical taffeta overskirt; all considerably more flamboyant than her muted dress of tulle and chiffon. She felt that was an attack against her identity as she would much more have preferred black and silvers over the mauve and chiffon with fancy flowers attached to the silken bodice and sheer sleeves.
“Oh come on, you never dance and he is obliged to dance with you at least once. Just pretend it’s not him and you might enjoy yourself!” She knew Nikita meant well, but she just couldn’t bring herself to dance with Deoliaeth even though a small part of her not fixated on her work did want to be danced around the ballroom to the magic of violins and pianos. She scoffed and started attacking another rib, licking the sauce off as she noticed a strange among the midst of everyone. Unlike the others in a motley of brocade and flock coloured suits, he alone was simple black trousers with gold piping and a white shirt absent of any frilly attachments. His eyes, in particular, caught her attention as they caught the light from time to time - pinkish coral set among soft and delicate features and skin tanned to dark mocha.
“Astraea, are you even listening to me?” Mouth full of pork, she looked back at her sister who was tapping her foot impatiently. “Your husband is coming towards you.” Astraea almost inhaled the mouthful of food as she wiped her mouth and looked for an escape. She was only seventeen and had been forced into an arranged marriage at her birth with the man she had grown to despise.
“May I have this dance?” Astraea jumped slightly at the soft voice and rich Draelan accent, turning to see the stranger who had snook up on her while she had been distracted. She nodded her agreement and took a quick sip of her mead to wash away the taste of pork and plum sauce, taking the stranger’s arm just as Deoliaeth caught up to them. She ignored him and took to the floor as the pace of music changed again, threatening to be a polka. She grimaced slightly as the stranger took her in his arms, she wanted to ask him so many questions as her instincts nudged at her, but there’d be no chance of that to such a high spirited dance, she could only just catch her breath as it was in the constricting bodice she’d been practically bullied into.
Astraea gazed into her partner’s arms as they hopped and stepped in time, feeling as though she were falling through time and space as he looked back at her. Who was he? And why was her gut warning her to get far away from her while her heart wanted nothing more than to stay in his arms cocooned by enchanted light and distant music, his hand warm against the small of her back.
She felt the stranger move closer to her, the music changed again into her favourite waltz. Eight minutes, she had eight minutes at least to talk to him. Instead, she felt herself leaning back in his arms and closed her eyes, her heart pounding insanely as the room around her faded away and all she was aware of was the body pressed closely against hers and the questions that had been pressing at her consciousness were silenced by the enchantment.
“Excuse me, but do you mind if I dance with my wife?” Astraea’s whole body tensed in searing anger at the audacity of Deoliaeth interrupting anyone halfway through a dance, the magic shattered.
“Of course.” The stranger bowed stiffly and Astraea curtsied in return, then sighed and took her husband’s arm, refusing to meet his eye.
“If I had known how good a dancer you were, I’d have danced all night with you.” Deoliaeth mused as he held on to her tightly, allowing no chance of her spinning out of his arms and leaving prematurely.
“Oh don’t bother with false pleasantries, we all know you’d rather be dancing with that yellow-haired beauty from Nirin.” She hissed back, wondering how and why her mother had allowed this engagement to happen before she died.
“That’s not true, you’re the most beautiful lady here.” Astraea scoffed and almost stamped on his foot, but managed to hold back the urge and continue looking pleased for the benefit of everyone present. “You know, after this dance they’re going to call everyone outside for the fireworks. We should sneak out now and get the perfect spot beneath the flowering khali tree on the lawn, it’d make for a romantic spot, don’t you think?”
“No thank you, you know I hate fireworks.” She lies through gritted teeth, longing to get away from him. The truth was that loved fireworks and had done all her life, and she had the perfect solitary spot where she watched them in peace. She had started the lie to him shortly after their engagement and had put it down to one firework going astray and launching to the side of the crowd as a fool-proof way of getting away from him at every formal event. She’d actually found the event amusing as the women shrieked and hoiked up their skirts and hoops, scattering about and frantically floundering around, but then she was hardly like other girls her age and only followed proper courtesy and etiquette in public as it was expected of her as a princess.
“You know there’s no chance of being hit by a firework anymore, after that misfire, they moved the launch spot to the lower terrace.”
“I don’t care, it’s the sound I hate.” Another lie, she found the explosive boom thrilling.
“You really are no fun are you?”
“No, I’m dreadfully boring and could get myself killed with my work. Wouldn’t you prefer to divorce me and marry someone else?” She hoped and prayed. Every time he pointed out a negative trait she’d try for a divorce.
“And lose the most exquisite and deadly beauty in all of Astasi?” The music finally stopped and she broke away from her husband, executing a wooden courtesy before rushing away from him. She paused only briefly to pick up a pitcher of mead and a cup, then continued her swift exit from the ballroom. Checking that no-one was following her, she turned a candlestick bracket upside down and slipped through a door concealed behind a statue of some long forgotten warrior, letting out a long sigh of relief as she leant back against the soft stone behind her in the refreshing darkness of her escape and calmed her breathing and her temper down before making her way up the tight spiral staircase towards the Arcania in the reaches of the western tower.
As Astraea stepped out of the narrow stairwell and on to the final and smallest stage of the tower, she could hear the sound of voices distantly below her as people spilt out of the palace to await the imminent fireworks. She grinned to herself knowing that beneath the domed roof and so high up, she’d have the perfect and unrestricted view of them as they bloomed right before her eyes and made the stone dragons shiver on the buttresses below her.
She poured a cup of mead and perched on the parapet wall as the first rocket exploded right above her in a fleeting and vibrant starburst of red and gold, followed by another of purple and silver, and endless cacophony of booming and rumbling as they echoed all across the valley while transitory flowers bloomed all around her, the remnants falling slowly back towards the crowds below like dying stars, to be replaced by more.
In the briefest pause of rockets being launched, she heard the faintest slither of material rustling in the stairwell. Only the guild used the Arcania and none of her family would bother to check on her all the way up at the top, only Nikita knew for certain she’d be up here, and she was never masterful of stealth. Astraea silently put the cup down and pulled her skirts up so she could retrieve the dagger from her thigh, grateful that her stepmother only forced her to remove the concealed darts from her wrists and never checked anything else but her choice of boots. She was ready to pounce as well as she could in a ballgown as the stranger from before stepped out and immediately raised his hands, looking Astraea up and down curiously.
“What are you doing trespassing up here?” She hissed, her dagger still ready in her hand. “You’ve no right to be anywhere near this tower.” She continued, watching him beadily as he, clearly unfazed, walked to the parapet and sat on it.
“Your sister mentioned it to me, and gave me directions.”
“She did, did she? And why would she do that?”
‘She thought it might hold some answers for me.”
“Uh-huh?” She continued studying him. She was certain he wasn’t wearing any armour beneath his clothes, nor was he making any move to retrieve any weapon.
“You can search me if you like. If you’re worried I have any weapons hidden on me.” He said as though reading her mind and grinned cheekily at her, his hands still resting openly on the stone wall.
“Hmf.” Astraea finally lowered her hand, hesitant slightly in case he merely wanted her to lower her guard. “So, what were you looking for in a pile of dusty old tomes?” That was point that still had her wary, the books of the Arcania contained the oldest secrets and mysteries of the entire arcane world which is why it was placed near the top of the rearmost tower of the palace. Somehow he’d have made it past the guard's position on two floors below that, not to mention the huskies that wandered the upper levels of the palace.
“Promise not to laugh if I tell you?” She raised her eyebrow at him and gestured for him to turn around so she could pretend to put her dagger back in its holster while instead carefully tucking it into the laces of her boots. She wanted him to believe she trusted him as she tried to figure him out. “I was looking for information on ghosts.” He continued, his back still toward her so he missed the fleeting look of concern that passed through her eyes, was he playing her too?
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, that’s nothing more than a romanticised story created by people who long for magic to be real.” She laughed sincerely as she could, grateful for her training, and even more grateful that anything on ghosts was only ever passed down by word of mouth, or at the very most, a magically sealed letter that would be burnt immediately afterwards. Even so, she decided she would need to search her father’s office in the morning to check on the Leto diamond she had concealed there.
“Is that so? I heard a crowd of people by the temple being built talking about them as though there is one in this city.”
“Who are you?” Her earlier instinct about him was obviously correct, and now she was even more concerned. Only the highest metsaeri’s of Liretika and her guildmaster knew of the ghosts and the Leto diamond. She’d need to inspect the members of the newly founded Sykajuman faith to find out what was being said as well. While the basis of their faith seemed well and good, they were starting to cause a lot of trouble.
“My name is Mitra, princess.” Mitra. Contract. He was clearly well aware of who she was too and everything about him screamed danger, yet once more she felt herself move towards him as though magnets pulled her until she stood barely a hand’s length away from him, the smell of exotic spices filling her nose. “Your eyes are pretty, did you know they glow slightly?” Damn, I forgot about that… She inwardly cursed herself as her heart started to pound again. His do too, he’s another like me…
He was leaning towards her, head tilted to one side as a hand reached around her waist, it was like a spell being cast around her again. The flowers continued to bloom around them to dance with the stars, though everything seemed entirely muted as she felt herself being pulled closer to Mitra as his lips met hers.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She mumbled as thumbs of excitement and fire spread throughout her body to be answered only by his kiss again and her own inability to resist him. She felt her hands slide towards the soft, hot skin at the back of his neck and her fingers twisted into the black hair as she gave into temptation, not caring or even remembering that she was married and now being as unfaithful as the husband she despised. There was nothing left but silence and the intoxicating magic of his lips against hers while his hands held her waist tightly.
The silence was shattered by the loud cheers and applause below jolting Astraea entirely to her senses as she opened her eyes to see the last fading embers of her favourite flower. She glared at Mitra and untangled herself from his embrace before turning on her heel to rush back down the stairwell and find her sister. She was furious at herself for allowing herself to become so unguarded, and even more so with a stranger who she didn’t trust one bit.
Astraea looked through the window of the breakfast parlour trying to block out the incessant bawling of Xeta, her youngest half-sister, and the bickering of Otso and Buer, her twin half-brothers that had just turned five and utterly quarrelsome seemingly overnight. She was still trying to form a plan of what to do about Mitra and how best to investigate him without yet alerting the guild of her suspicions until she had something solid to provide them, but the clamour over breakfast was infuriating her and clouding her mind while her step-mother, Mujitsu, seemed ignorant of her children’s noise and talked plaintively to her father about some trivial event from last night.
Sighing in indignation, she prodded Nikita in the side to draw her attention from the book she was reading and drummed her fingers on the table waiting for her sister to finally say anything after her unnatural silence over the last couple of hours.
“Are you still mad at me for letting that merchant into the Arcania last night?” Nikita said warily, her hand suspended in mid-action of lifting her cup of tea to drink from.
“Only a little, and I am sorry for shouting at you… I was just shocked to find a stranger there. That’s not what’s bothering me, really. I don’t trust him. I don’t understand why father invited him here and not to the Merchant’s Guild, and I don’t know why a simple merchant would even be interested in the books that are in the Arcania.” Astraea hadn’t shared everything that happened at the top of the western tower with Nikita, especially the kiss, and she'd spent all night thinking about Mitra after her sister informed her that he was a merchant and a guest in their home for an unknown amount of time with total free-run of the entire palace except the bedchambers. “Do you think you would be able to talk to Mitra? Casually try and find out what business he has here?” She was starting to hope that Nikita would be enough of a distraction to both her and Mitra to keep them apart, right now she didn’t trust herself to be alone in his presence.
“I can try, but he’s really difficult to speak to. When he asked about old books... well it was just odd. I couldn’t engage him in any other topic and any answer was as mono-syllable as you can get.” Nikita’s voice lowered as they both noticed their father trying to break conversation with Mujitsu to listen to theirs. “Anyway, I have to run some errands in town for the guild today so I can’t help you with your assignment from them.” Nikita winked and returned her attention back to ephedra book.
Astraea wanted to laugh at Nikita’s cover as she finished the dregs of her tepid coffee. All though it was there standard get-out comment for anyone listening in, this time her sister’s words were unintentionally so close to the mark. What happened with their guild was top secret at all times and she knew her father wouldn’t ask anymore, especially after the time he almost drank poisoned tea when he was trying to pry on her. These days the guild frightened him. They were assassin hunters, after all, and even more deadly than most assassins, which brought her thoughts straight back to Mitra.
She stood up suddenly, fists clenched at the edge of the table as her swift movement shocked the children into silence. She hadn’t meant to let her confused and violent emotions take control of her as she remembered their kiss too vividly. She longed for a real assignment from the metsaeri that would take her out of Eidolon, the focus of the task would bring her back together as she became no more than a subtle shadow cloaked by nightfall.
“Astraea?” Mujitsu asked as she nervously twiddled with her glossy black hair.
“Sorry, Mujitsu.” She mumbled, wondering what her father saw in such a soft and nervous creature when compared to her own mother that was so strong and fierce. “It’s just everything going on in town right now. I hate that I’m being pushed to the eaves when I should be helping.
She sighed and started walking slowly out of the breakfast parlour. It was true, there had been several assassinations of prominent merchants in the last few weeks and the guild hasn’t found the culprit yet, and for some reason, they weren’t letting her or Nikita do more than run errands and dig for information. That suited Nikita. Invaluable to the guild as she was, she was no killer, and sometimes their work required being even more deadly than the assists they hunted. But for Astraea, the constant mundane work was vexing. She was one of the best at the job, and yet more and more over the last couple of years, she had been given less and fewer contracts and hadn’t even been able to get out of the city in the last year without Deoliaeth having her brought back by someone from the bounty hunters - the worst insult, it was as if he’d placed a permanent conditional bounty on her head.
Her mind full of thoughts and half-strung plans, she reached the top of the stairs and turned towards the bedchambers as she mentally recapped what she needed to do before anyone returned to the chambers. As she reached the next flight of stairs, she’d barely reached the second step when she collided with someone else, and entirely distracted her emotions swung like a pendulum between dread that Deoliaeth had found her and wouldn’t leave her alone for hours, then relief that it was Mitra, then back again to dread and anger that it was Mitra who she was currently trying to avoid. She lost her balance, automatically reached out to grab the black shirt of whoever she’d bumped into and realised a second later she’d landed in Mitra’s arms again with him flashing her a cheeky grin.
“Looks like I missed you at breakfast, that’s a shame.”
“Yeah? Well, next time wake up two hours earlier instead.” She scolded while ducking out of his arms and continuing her tempestuous pace up the last flight and right into the bedchambers where she could have a locked door between her and him.
Once inside her father’s room, Astraea moved straight to the solid oak bed and slid underneath it on her back, counting the slats across until she found the one she was after, and raising her palm to the coarse grain, she felt for her glamour and let out a small sigh of relief when she found it untouched. Even though no one had touched the hiding place of the diamond, she removed the spell and carefully peeled the parchment envelope from the wood and cracked the wax seal open to remove the Jewell. Many years ago when she first started with the guild, her metsaeri raised concern over the safety of the diamond and instructed her to move it to a safer hiding place without her father knowing, she wondered what he’d think if he found out he’d spent the last five years sleeping above it.
As she held the diamond in her palm, the marvelled again at its beauty. It was the size of a nutmeg and was far more brilliant and alive than any other diamond she’d ever come across, always whispering, searching, questioning voices inside of her mind that didn’t belong to her… Astraea looked away from the diamond and deftly placed it in the holster next to the dagger. The Leto diamond had been in her family since the first engels had left Vosundelr in Suhilan and was perhaps the strongest of all the ghosts, though she had never come into contact with another and she shivered thinking of one more powerful than the one she already possessed.
Taking a deep and calming breath she pulled a ball of wax, candle and her seal from a small pocket inside of her dress; and after whispering to the candle which burst into flame, set about reapply her seal to the envelope. Though the diamond was now hidden with her, she decided it would be best to make it look like she had never been here herself and diligently recast the glamour over the envelope, making a note to check on it intermittently for any sign of tampering or intended theft.
Once she was satisfied with the glamour and protection magic around the now emptied envelope, she slid back from under the bed and eyed the pile of correspondence on his bureau and made her way towards it listening intently for any sound of someone coming back, though if her father and Mujitsu followed their normal routine, neither should be back from their morning walk through the town for another half hour. Certain she was safe for a while longer, she started thumbing through the letters and only found one referring to Mitra that had been sent from a prominent merchant in Daehilu that wanted to open up a trade route to Astasi and the capital via the Eidolon Canal and opening up trade deals.
There were no specifics of what the merchant from Draelah’s capital wanted to trade, in fact, there was very little to go on. Again she thought it incredibly strange that this was a matter going directly to her father and not being instigated through the guilds. She copied every detail from the letter on a scrap of parchment and placed that with the dagger before carefully placing her father’s letters back on the spike.
Leaning against the bureau and contemplating what to next, she heard the faint whoosh and fwump of something falling from the underside of the bureau. Curiously, she crouched on the ground and saw another bundle of letters lying there which she could tell by the colour of the parchment just how old they were. What had her father wanted to keep hidden yet not destroy? Her fingers start trembling with the paper as her eyes scan the first letter, reading and re-reading the zaffre inked words in shock and disbelief, her breath catching with the beginnings of panic as the world around her threatened to turn inside out. She was looking at an old contract between some unknown person and the assassins with an obscenely high price for the death of her mother.
Forcing herself to remain composed and focussed she started with the next enveloped, shocked to see it addressed to her in her mother’s fine handwriting with the letter missing. She felt the wild anger rising within her at the betrayals she held in her hand and read the next and final letter addressed to her father which detailed everything known about Deoliaeth and his extended lineage, yet nothing out of the normal. Astraea jumped and bumped her head on the desk as she heard the sound of excited barking two flights down that slowly moved higher towards her.
Head spinning and panicking slightly, she replaced all of the letters together and searched the underside of the desk to see where they came from only to find perfectly smooth wood without any clue of where they had been stashed. Knowing she had only minutes before someone returned to the bedchambers and would see or hear her leaving her father’s room, she clutched the bundle of letters to her chest as she took another deep breath to clear her head and scanned his room.
Looking defiantly at herself in the antique mirror Mujitsu had brought in with her, Astraea walked purposefully towards the hearth and squirmed through the narrow crawlspace. She was relieved to see it wasn’t just a small room to hide in, but had a stairwell going down; and by the rush of cold, dank air coming up, she knew it led down to to the forgotten subterranean city - a place she was sure only she knew about.
As she sat in the cold dark space to calm her nerves and catch her breath, she heard her father come into the room muttering to himself about the failings of the city guards and their suspicious nature. She heard him furtle through the recent correspondence and remove a letter. Several down, she was certain it was the one about Mitra. She could hear the curious sniffing of one of the huskies and realised she had to get out before her father became suspicious. She held her breath and stealthily stood back up, treading softly towards the stairwell aware that her father had noticed the huskies curiosity and was moving towards the hearth. Did he know about the crawlspace? He was still reasonably fit and agile, would he crawl through? She didn’t wait to find out. With her fingers brushing the wall beside her, she made it fifteen steps down in absolute silence before taking off into the darkness, her leather boots barely making a sound as she precariously stepped off the edge of each step she touched running deeper into the abyss of an old world.
When she finally reached the bottom, found herself in the plaza and with it, the light of day that filled in from the ventilation shafts high above in the cliff facing the palace grounds. She collapsed to the ground and rolled onto her back, her chest rising and falling as she breathed the cool fresh air deep into her lungs, the bundle of incriminating layers still clutched in her hand and the blessed sound of silence that meant she hadn’t been pursued.
“Yoru,” Astraea whispered to the air, warmth filling her as she felt the soft fur of the Astasian fox brush against her cheek. “Will you hold on to these for me for now?” She held the bundle of letters up to the brilliant white fox which opened its mouth to reveal absolute darkness and swallowed the letters, its glowing amethyst eyes looking back at her curiously as it let out a soft mewing sound and nestled on her chest. Astraea scratched behind Yoru's ears as she felt the little fox’s serenity start to well up within her. “Thank you, Yoru. I’ve no idea what is going on now.” She continued, staring passed the subtle glow of the fox, following the perfectly smooth column up to the high ceiling with its fan vaulting and tracery of indistinguishable patterns. They acted as a labyrinth to her mind as each breath in and out carried a thought to the myriad of interesting lines above.
What final words had mother wanted to pass on to me? Did she know someone was coming for her? Was that what was in the letter? Breathe.
What was father’s part in all this? Did he take out the contract? If so, then why? Just breathe.
Why is father so intrigued in Deoliaeth? What part does he have in this? Is he safe? Is Nikita safe? Breathe.
Mitra. Who is he really?
“Yoru, I need to find a way to get father, Mitra and Deoliaeth out of the city. I’ll need Nikita’s help in this…” She sighed, her hand still clutching the soft fur of Yoru as she felt his eyes bore into her mind, knowing every thought she had just had, and probably the contents of the letters stored inside. “Will you and Yume take turns watching her? There’s poison spreading in this city of dreams, I sense fire and disorder will soon be upon us.” The crown of amethyst jewels in the fox’s forehead glittered like starts as it mewled at her again before disappearing back into the aether to call its twin to action. Thank you, Yume and Yoru… The air sparkled above her, a sign from the fox that one of them was close to Nikita now.
The twinned Astasian foxes had come to her when she was five, just after her mother Lilin had died. She always felt they had been a sign and a gift from her as she crossed into the Shynasekae. The foxes had never been far from her side in the twelve years that past since and had taught her the magic of both the unelmalin and the fethralin, gifts and secrets that gave her the power and mastery of the skill and art required to track an assassin. She smiled as she remembered that, and that Mitra, whoever he was, was no match for her.
Astraea sat up and retrieved the diamond from the holster and gazed into its fractal depths, focussing her mind and searching for Nikita. She could see her walking through the hanging gardens not far from where Astraea was concealed in the heart of the mountain. Nikita was chatting with Mitra who walked solemnly two steps behind with his hand shoved into the depths of his trouser pockets. Astraea focussed her mind more intently, feeling the swaying and ethereal realm of the unelmalin open around her, and keeping her eye on the image in the diamond, she stepped forward and walked towards them where she knew the path would turn sharply back up the hill and past an ancient and wide-trunked cherry tree.
With a breath of relief, Astraea stepped from the unelmalin and steadied herself against the tree, waiting for Nikita and Mitra to come to her as she gazed out at her proud and strong Eidolon spreading at all around her with the smoke of industry pluming into the air.