Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
How was one meant to kill a ghost? Despite the impossibility of such a task, dozens came to the Master of Assassins, cloaked and anonymous and requesting the death of the most invisible person in all of Reindale. The money the Master of Assassins would’ve received upon killing the Ghost would’ve made him richer than a king. Made the assassin who carried the blade richer than a prince.
But no matter the money offered, the job was impossible. Until now.
Hidden in the shadows of night, slinking along tiled rooftops, Zain felt the flimsy paper burning a hole in his pocket. An address and window placement. The location of the infamous Ghost.
If he completed this task, it would be his last. He could pay off any debts owed and be free of the Master of Assassins once and for all.
The Ghost was said to be the plague of Reindale. A wraith of hidden death and a thief of secrets. Zain himself had never been in contact with the person of interest—if he had, any secrets he carried would’ve been revealed to an anonymous buyer—but his master had been the unfortunate one. The secrets they held made his master all the more eager to have Death delivered.
No one knew how the Ghost stole their secrets. Perhaps they indeed carried magic within their veins that allowed them to blend with the shadows and spy on the public. Perhaps they had ears placed all across the city—desperate folk paid with gold to listen for anything of interest. Whatever the case, the Ghost stole the secrets of the most well-guarded of men and sold them to the highest bidder without a care for the consequences. Possibly because of the consequences. It was almost more dishonorable than Zain’s profession.
Zain leaped to the next roof, nearing the address. Despite the death that would stain his palms that night, curiosity pricked the back of his mind.
He hadn’t met the client who had disclosed the location of the Ghost; hadn’t been told who held that information and how they had come across it. Whatever the case, he wondered… Wondered who could steal secrets as the Ghost did and how they had come to reveal their identity.
His questions would never be answered. Not when his job was to slit the Ghost’s throat, sealing the secrets behind their notorious loose lips.
Zain arrived at the location and peered through the directed window on the building across from where he knelt. There had to be a mistake.
It was a brothel—the most expensive of them in all of Reindale at that. With marble pillars lining the front and rows of crystal windows, warm light flooding from within, it was very obviously a place of great wealth.
His brows drew low, furrowing. Perhaps the Ghost chose the brothel for their housing because it was inconspicuous. Because no one would think to look there.
Although when he saw the smooth, oak door within the labeled room creak open, he knew that was a foolish thought. The Ghost was a woman. And a whore.
She stepped into her room, tucking a strand of dark, wavy hair behind her ear. She wore the typical thin gowns of a courtesan that revealed most of her back but was modest in the front. A ploy to entice any buyers with the mystery of what was hidden beneath. Her caramel skin, smooth of any blemishes, automatically labeled her as Bahajadi. By objective standards, she was quite possibly the most beautiful woman Zain had ever seen.
Thoughts flooded his mind—questions he didn’t have the answers to. With beauty such as hers, she likely made money far surpassing many of her fellow courtesans. So, why sell secrets?
He supposed, though, that her side profession dealing in knowledge would be easily acquired. Especially when the well-guarded men invited a beautiful courtesan into their home with no suspicions of the secrets she may steal.
Shoving those thoughts aside, Zain’s hand drifted to the knife at his side. He dragged his fingers across the worn, unadorned hilt. He had killed women before. Though those hires weren’t as common as men, they happened on occasion. Women could have just as many enemies as a man, and he wasn’t one to segregate. Blood came out red no matter the sex of the bearer.
And if any woman deserved to die, it was the Ghost. He had heard rumors. Whispers riddled with fear echoing on every street. Stories of a man who’s plans and deals with illegal businesses were revealed, causing him to lose every last coin in his coffers until he was just another beggar. Stories of lords who dappled in dark magic—their secrets so well kept that it took a week after the Ghost revealed them until they were confirmed. When they finally were, they lost not only their position but their lives as dark magic of any kind was forbidden.
The worst stories were of the secrets the Ghost planted. When she snuck into homes of powerful men, finding nothing ill-fitting, she hid evidence of criminal activity. Evidence that was always found, tearing apart any good reputation those men had.
With a profession like that, along with her powerful standing as a courtesan, the Ghost should’ve been the wealthiest woman—person—in all of Reindale. Perhaps even matching the king in riches.
Yet, as Zain watched her from the shadows of the rooftop, she didn’t appear to be swimming in coin. As she clicked her door shut behind her, she leaned her forehead against the smooth oak. The jewelry adorning her tanned biceps tinkled loudly enough for him to hear through the open window. Her lean shoulders rose and fell with a sigh as she finally turned, her face once again visible to him. Her manicured brows and full lips were set in a blank expression.
That resolve broke as she smiled softly, her eyes directed at something he couldn’t see. She took a step forward, her movements graceful and practiced, and her lips moved, her words too quiet for him to hear.
One strike. He could nock an arrow to the bow strung across his back, striking the place between the woman’s breasts, piercing her heart. She would die before a healer arrived even if she called out for help. Or, he could sweep into her room and slit her throat before she had the chance to scream. Both were effective, though the latter was cleaner if more personal.
He palmed his knife, preparing himself for the blood that would soon stain his hands when a small girl stepped in front of the courtesan. Only a child—though he supposed the Ghost was hardly an adult herself, appearing to be only eighteen at most. Though he couldn’t see her face, the child had the same dark hair as the courtesan—though it was thicker and frizzier—and the same warm brown skin. They were related—sisters, possibly.
Zain didn’t have many rules in his profession. He killed who he was hired to kill and took his blood money without much grief. But the rules he did have were basic and few. He didn’t torture his victims, and he never killed children.
While he could easily accomplish his task with the girl in the room, he was hesitant. Hesitant to make young eyes experience something so ruthless. Though he didn’t doubt the girl had already experienced much if she was living in a brothel.
The courtesan cupped the girl’s face in her hands, tucking her thick curls behind her ears. They spoke in hushed whispers, the Ghost’s face serious. Rising from her stooped crouch, the young woman glided towards her open window, peering out at the street with sharp eyes. Satisfied with her assessment, she slid the window shut, slipping the lace curtains before it, therefore obscuring any detail from view.
Zain hissed a curse under his breath, sitting back on his haunches. He had hesitated too long, and now his chance was gone. It wouldn’t be difficult to find the courtesan again—not when he knew the location of her room—but he doubted he would find her alone. It seemed her sister lived with her.
There were other ways to get the courtesan alone. Ways that didn’t sit well in his stomach. Though should he hire her, he would never touch her but to slit her throat, yet… He would try to find another way.
Rising from his crouch, he graced one last look at the closed window and the fragmented light shining through the lacy curtain before disappearing into the shadows. Death would have to wait.
“Is the task completed?” The Master of Assassins voice rose from the ornate chair he was seated upon. He didn’t bother turning to meet Zain’s eyes. How he had known who entered his study—as Zain hadn’t declared himself—was a mystery, though not a shocking one.
“Not yet. There wasn’t an opening. I will start again tomorrow.”
At his words, Master Rune turned in his seat and met Zain's gaze. “Not an opening? She had a window.”
So, he had known who the Ghost was. Had known who he was ordering Zain to kill. He filed that information away. It had no use now. “There were… complications,” he said.
“What kind of complications?”
“Complications I’d rather not risk trying to work around. Don’t worry. She will be dead by tomorrow night.”
Stroking his pointed beard, Master Rune settled his sharp, dark eyes upon his hired assassin. His slave in every way but name. Zain straightened his spine under the scrutiny, knowing the man saw each weakness within his soul with sharp clarity.
“By tomorrow night,” he finally agreed, though his tone was clear. If Zain didn’t complete the task, his fate wouldn’t be much better than the Ghost.
Zain stood before the brothel in broad daylight, the marble pillars bright under the warm, midday sun. Men drunk on lust stumbled from the open doors, tinkling giggles following them like music. The entrance opened onto a secluded cobblestone street—public enough to be accessible, but private enough to allow men to enter without eyes marking them. Not that hiring a courtesan was in any way illegal. Nor was it even frowned upon. Not when it was a man frequenting the pleasure houses.
Straightening the seams of his loose tunic, he readied himself to enter. He had forgone his usual cloaks that obscured his identity, instead donning typical civilian clothes that would allow him to stroll the brothel without suspicion. Despite the casual facade, he had a knife tucked into his boot and another strapped to his thigh, hidden beneath his trousers.
The plan was simple. Scope out the brothel and the girl he was hired to kill. The knives were only a precaution, as he had no intention of killing her during his excursion. No, he would do that later after he requested her to attend to him at a private location. A location where they would be alone and her body could be found the next morning, her blood already cooled and any sign of him, gone.
His request would have to be anonymous, and while it would’ve been easier to send a letter to the Madame of the brothel, there was always the possibility that her time for that evening had already been booked. So, with gold heavy in his pockets, bribery would be the path he would have to take.
With a deep breath, Zain stalked inside.
Unlike the poorer pleasure houses, wealth was prevalent in every aspect of the brothel. The thick, woven rug was spun with golden tassels, and there wasn’t even a whisper as the silk slippers adorning the courtesan’s feet brushed against it. Women were sprawled on cushioned settees, their curves visible through their thin, colored gowns. Pungent floral perfume clouded the air, masking any unsavory scents issued from the men that led their hired whore into secluded rooms.
Zain spotted the Madame immediately. It wasn’t hard when she was dressed so extravagantly, and age marked her flawless face. She was busy speaking in hushed tones to what appeared to be a novice courtesan, the girl’s eyes attentive as she memorized her boss’s words. He glanced over the room, not finding the tanned face of his target. Only powdered, light faces stared back at him with predatory intent. Judging him and the coin he had to offer.
A hand landed on his shoulder, light as a feather. It dragged over his chest as a voluptuous woman stood before him, her thick lashes lowered in a sultry gaze. “I wouldn’t mind having a little fun with you. Shall we find a private room?”
Zain gently extricated himself from her grip and shook his head. “I’m here in search of another courtesan.”
“Already picking favorites?” The woman pouted her full lips. While her acting was decent, he could pick out a mask when he saw one. If she was disappointed in his words, it was only because of the coin she missed out on.
Zain didn’t respond, and the woman sighed dramatically before gliding towards her next victim—a red-faced, portly man. His eyes were so wide, Zain knew she wouldn’t find it difficult to lure him to an empty room.
Turning his eyes away, he spotted the door of a private chamber opening. A man exited, his eyes half-lidded in lingering lust, followed by the Bahajadi girl. In her hand was a leather pouch of coins.
Her expression was blank as she floated towards her Madame. Her eyes darted towards him, meeting his stare. He was startled briefly by their hue. They were like warm honey. But before he could be sure he had seen them correctly, she turned away, observing the space around her. Analyzing the room.
Deciding he looked far too conspicuous in the center of the room, he turned towards a man who had just entered and had yet to have a woman sprawled on his arm.
He stalked towards the man, palming a gold coin. And now he commenced his plan.
The obviously Bahajadi man who had entered the brothel was not of the normal type. Amani knew it upon a single glance. If the deep scar upon his face—dragging from his left brow across his cheek then to his chin—was not an indication, then his stance was. His shoulders were stiff, his spine uncomfortably erect. And his stare… It was not uncommon for men to stare—they came to the brothel after all—but he didn’t watch with pleasure and lust. Rather calculation.
She turned away from him before she drew attention to herself, but kept her attention directed his way. From the corner of her eye, she saw him approach a man, speaking softly. Unless he knew the man, that was another warning sign.
“Is that for me?” Madame Bastelle asked, reaching out a hand to grab the pouch of coins before Amani answered. “You have another appointment scheduled for tonight. I have arranged your carriage.”
Amani nodded. She already knew this as Madame Bastelle had told her only that morning after she finished her small breakfast of plain porridge and dry toast. She didn’t like the prospect of her little sister alone in the brothel while she was gone, but the Madame knew better than to touch her. Not when Amani held so many of her secrets.
Secrets. It always came down to that. A far more powerful weapon than gold or influence. In some cases, more powerful than a knife held at one’s throat. While Madame Bastelle was the true dealer in secrets, Amani was the extractor. And she remembered them all—each and every menial secret, true or forged. That included the long list of secrets hidden beneath Madame Bastelle’s painted smile and dyed blonde hair.
The Madame raised a hand to dismiss Amani, turning her attention elsewhere. Away from the source of all her gold. Amani was in no way troubled by her dismissal. If anything, she was relieved.
Turning delicately to return to her rooms and check on her sister, she spotted the man the Bahajadi stranger had been speaking to. He was strutting towards the Madame, a gold coin in his fist and a triumphant smile upon his lips. She trailed her eyes away from him, and they landed upon the Bahajadi man. He was sprawled upon a settee, Jade—one of the more successful courtesans—draped across his chest. Though she smiled delicately up at him and spoke sweet nothings in his ear, he seemed wholly uninterested as he watched his friend intently.
Amani slipped into the shadows of a curtain to further examine him without being noticed. He was muscled and toned, indicating he was physically active—perhaps as a profession, as his scar suggested. And that scar… It was a horrid thing with raised scar tissue puckered upon his skin, contorting on his cheek as he frowned. Without it, he may have been considered handsome, but with it, he appeared gruesomely dangerous.
Amani wasn’t one to care about beauty. She utilized her own—one of the weapons in her limited arsenal—but upon others, she had forgone placing importance on it. While a pretty face could come in handy, it changed nothing about the person inside.
But this man… Whatever was inside him was dark and deadly. His eyes were not alit with compassion but with secrets. With death.
He lifted a hand to scrub through his coarse, curly dark hair. Her eyes darted to those hands. They were spotted with scars—stark against his tanned skin. A violent lifestyle he held. Perhaps he had chosen to frequent the brothel to bring some of that violence with him. She wondered who was meant to be at the reciprocating end. With her history, she could already guess that answer.
Concluding her inspection, she began to push away from the shadows and up the winding staircase towards her room when a cluster of royal guards strutted into the brothel. Though they looked upon the women with grins and excitement, they were not there to enjoy the pleasures the brothel had to offer. Not dressed in their pressed red and silver uniforms, Arlan’s emblem emblazoned upon their chest.
Madame Bastelle brushed away from the man that had seemed to be bargaining with her with a handful of gold and hurried towards the guards, her painted brows drawn together. She hissed a chorus of heated words before ushering the men away from the main room. Royal guards were never good for business.
Despite her sister in the upstairs room, Amani trailed after them, hoping to catch a glimpse of the conversation about to be had.
She followed them easily to Madame Bastelle’s study, pausing before the large oak door that had been shut and locked behind them. But a door was hardly a hindrance.
Slipping out of the hall, she darted to the following passageway, shadows obscuring most of the doors from view as no lanterns lined its walls. She stopped before a large still-life painting and lifted it gently, setting it upon the floor. A small hole had been drilled into the wall, and she placed her ear upon it.
“—by request of King Marcell Averen of Arlan, Amani Rose is to be brought to the palace immediately.”
“And do I have the privilege of knowing why?” Madame Bastelle’s entitled voice sounded. When it was met with silence, she continued. “Ms. Rose is my most prized asset. So, you see why I am hesitant to rescind her service to me upon a single order.”
“It is by law,” a guard said, his voice prickly with barely repressed annoyance. “The king has ordered—”
“Yes, yes. You have no need to repeat yourselves. I am merely asking why. I would like to know if my best employee will soon be returning.”
“Madame, if this is a refusal of the king’s direct orders—”
“Not a refusal. Have I once refused?” A pause. “No. I have not. But I think I would like payment for my troubles. If you cannot grant me answers, then perhaps you can grant me coin.”
Silence met her demands. Only Madame Bastelle—greedier than a crow—would attempt to bargain with royal orders.
“Madame,” one of the guards finally responded. “I don’t think you understand—”
“Oh, I understand perfectly. But do you deny I deserve to be compensated for my lost investment?”
“If you would like to take up matters with the king—”
“But you are here, right now. Here’s a deal for you. Stay a while longer and enjoy yourselves—half price, of course. Always a discount for our royal protectors. After, you can have the girl. And in exchange, I would like ten golds.”
“Ten! Are you insa—”
“I would stop that sentence before you truly set off my temper.” Amani imagined Madame Bastelle’s smile—a snake’s smile, seductive and sinister. “Do we have a deal?” When she was met with silence, she prompted, “I assume that gold in your pocket came from the royal treasury, no? It will be hardly missed by the king.”
Several beats of silence ensued, and Amani already knew. They would agree. Because who could deny Madame Bastelle when she smiled and batted her lashes and offered complete bliss?
Before she could hear the yes that would utter from their mouths, Amani mounted the painting back upon the wall and hurried up to her room.
“Amani!” a voice called out when she slammed the door behind her. Amani hurried to her sister, Shadya, and drew her from the chair she had been studying upon.
“The royal guards have come to take me to the king,” she explained quickly. “I do not know why, but you must accompany me. The guards will refuse, but we mustn’t back down. And we mustn’t let Madame Bastelle know.”
Shadya’s eyes went wide, but it was less with fear than surprise. “How will you hide me from Madame Bastelle?”
Gnawing on her lip, Amani collapsed in her plush armchair. “She must be distracted. She will not allow you to accompany me, no matter how strongly we demand it so.”
“I know,” Shadya murmured. Despite her young age of only eleven, there was little that could spark fear in her small heart. Amani wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad.
Amani’s mind spun. The Madame would relish in her departure despite the money that she filled the woman’s pockets with. While Madame Bastelle was greedy for coin, she was also greedy for power. And power laid within her sister’s blood. The only thing that stood in the way was Amani herself.
The thought of Shadya in her hands… No. Amani wouldn’t allow it. It was why she did the things she did.
She had always known the options that lay in the future for them. Either Amani’s worth would run dry and Madame Bastelle would end her once and for all, or Amani and Shadya would finally free themselves from the grips of the Madame’s manicured hands.
She hadn’t predicted the option where the King of Arlan summoned her. Not once even had she imagined that as a possibility.
She didn’t contemplate the reasons for the summoning. Not when there were more important matters at hand.
And she only knew one way that she could get the Madame to ignore her long enough. One dangerous, unpredictable way.
“Thank you, again,” Amani whispered within the shadows of one of the brothel’s many halls.
Katya waved a hand in dismissal. “I owed you a debt. It will be a relief to finally pay it.”
Coming from Styrka, Katya placed heavy importance upon life debts. When she had announced to Amani that she owed her one upon saving her life from a rather violent customer, Amani had filed that knowledge away, waiting for the moment when she could demand payment. Now was as good a time as any.
There were many flaws in the quick plan Amani had constructed. Katya’s acting had to be perfect for the Madame to fall for it; her timing had to be exact so she and Shadya would be gone before the distraction was forgotten; the enticement of lost gold had to be enough for the Madame to momentarily forget about Amani’s departure. But when Katya’s eyes began to fill with tears, her face crumpling, Amani knew she hardly needed to worry about the first issue. Or the third, for that matter.
After a quick glance into the open foyer below, she saw no sign of their red uniforms, meaning they were tucked away in private rooms. After questioning Katya, she knew they had been there for half an hour.
Meaning it wouldn’t be long before they found their time spent and their orders were once again prioritized.
Katya swept down the winding staircase, stumbling and sobbing through gritted teeth. After a quick tousling of her mouse-brown hair, she was a perfect picture of a distressed girl. She slammed into the Madame, stumbling back a step. Amani saw one of the private room’s doors open and a flash of red inside.
“M-m-madame!” Katya gasped, clutching her full chest as she heaved. “Th-the, the…” She stuttered out a few more incoherent words, and Madame Bastelle placed her hands on her round hips, her lips pursing.
“Spit it out,” she ordered.
“He had a knife. H-he told me to show him to the vault where y-you keep your gold. I-I had to. He was going to kill me!”
Madame Bastelle narrowed her eyes. “And he let you go free?”
“No! I ran. He is going to break into it, I know! I had to warn you, but I worry… he may have already gotten the money!”
A weak alibi. One Amani was not at all proud of. Had she the time, she would’ve constructed a far more believable one. So many flaws… But as she had hoped, the Madame cared for her money far more than she cared to look too deeply into the words of one of her assets. If her money was in danger, then she would go to it.
After she disappeared down the hall, weeping Katya on her heels, Amani grabbed Shadya’s hand in her own and hurried down the staircase. The guards were stumbling from their rooms, their face’s dirtied with the cosmetics painted upon the courtesans’ faces. They straightened their uniforms in an attempt to reinstate their authority and glanced around for the Madame.
Amani hurried forward, keeping her head low and her shoulders curled in. Shadya followed suit just as Amani had taught her. “Madame Bastelle instructed me to depart with you. I am Amani Rose,” she whispered.
“Who is this?” one of the guards asked, his eyes lingering upon her face and form before dragging to Shadya.
“This is my sister. I was told she was able to accompany me.”
“The Madame insists.” At those words, the guards glanced between one another. “I will take the blame should the king disapprove of her presence.”
A guard shrugged. “I don’t see the harm,” he finally concluded.
The other guards nodded in agreement, and they led her from the brothel. The other courtesans watched her as she left, but she didn’t spare them a glance.
As they began making the trek towards the palace—situated in the direct center of Reindale—eyes followed the horse she had been given. Wondering. Pondering. What use were two Bahajadi girls to the king?
Amani finally let herself consider that question. Not a single explanation eased her mind.