The great iron gates of Dusi were as imposing as their name suggested. They were wide as they were tall and decorated by elaborate engravings of peacocks, one on each gate.
“Who goes there?” A man shouted from the top of the wall that surrounded the Dusi grounds.
“I come to do the emperor’s bidding,” I replied. “I am here to deliver a package to Lord Dusi.” I took out the emperor’s seal as well as that of my clan and lifted it over my head.
The guard on the wall stepped down and disappeared. Moments later, I heard the sound of the iron gates being pushed open. It took ten men, five on each, to open the iron gates of Dusi – their muscles strained and their faces distorted by the labour. I urged my horse forward and rode on towards my fate.
Father’s chamber was dimly lit. He sat, cross legged, on his enormous gilded chair. From the four corners of the room, veiled in darkness, I sensed the presence of his guards. I approached and went down on one knee before him.
“Today’s your eighteenth name day,” he said, his voice soft but authoritative. “Today you will prove to me that you are ready to join the men of our clan. Today you will prove that you are ready to become one of the emperor’s ghosts.”
I lifted my gaze towards him and answered, “I will not fail, Father.”
The merchant lord Dusi was considered to be the wealthiest among the merchant lords in the emperor’s kingdom. The size of his land, a week’s ride south of the capital, almost rivaled that of the emperor’s. I rode past the many storage houses, past stables, and towards the merchant lord’s immense mansion where a servant stood waiting. I got off my horse and the servant approached and greeted me with a half bow.
“I hope your journey here was without any complications, my lord,” he said.
“It was uneventful,” I replied.
“That is good to hear.” We walked up the stairs to the front doors, he always remained a half step behind me. “May I inquire as to the purpose of your visit, my lord?”
“I come as commanded by the emperor.” We entered the main hall where guards with spears stood beside thick, lacquered pillars. “The specifics is for your lord to know.”
“My apologies, my lord, forgive this foolish man’s unwarranted curiosity,” he said, his voice catching. “Lord Dusi awaits you beyond those doors.”
I simply gave a nod. Beyond me two guards pushed open the doors to the merchant lord’s receiving chamber.
“Recite to me the duties of the ghosts,” Father said.
The room was warm. From the open windows on the right, past the veils of sunlight, came the sound of neighing of horses and chirping of summer birds.
“We are the eyes of the emperor. He sees his kingdom through us and so we look,” I started. “We are the ears of the emperor. He hears his people throughout the kingdom through us and so we listen. We are the mouth of the emperor. His decrees exit our lips and so we speak. We are the hands of the emperor. We move the kingdom for him and so we stand ready. We are the legs of the emperor. He surveys the entire kingdom through us and so we ride strong. We are the sword of the emperor. We are the deliverers of his justice. And so we kill.”
Father nodded his approval.
The merchant lord’s body was draped in the fur of varying animals. All ten of his fingers were adorned with golden rings. The markings of the Dusi clan were tattooed on his bald head. He smiled.
“Welcome, young ghost,” he said. “I hope you will forgive me for not standing up to greet you. The gout is a terrible disease that can only come from the deepest parts of hell.”
“You need not speak any apologies, my lord,” I said to him, kneeling on one knee. “I know too well how painful your condition is.”
Dusi let out a throaty laugh. “How fares your father? You are the son of Marik are you not? You have his eyes.”
“I am, my lord,” I replied. “I am his third son. Father is well, gods be blessed.”
“I haven’t seen the Ghost Lord for quite some time,” he said, a slight change in the tone of his voice. “Which begs the question, why send his son now?”
“I come to do my emperor’s bidding, my lord.”
“The emperor commanded the Ghost Lord to send someone, the Ghost Lord chose you.”
Dusi’s receiving chamber was twice as large as my Father’s though not as heavily guarded. Two swordsmen stood behind me, by the doors, and another two waited on the other side. By the merchant lord’s right stood his personal bodyguard, the mute Caronian.
“Father wishes to test me, to see if I am ready to earn the title as one of the emperor’s ghosts.”
“And what kind of test is this?” At this, the Caronian took a step forward as if understanding some code hidden in Dusi’s words.
“I came here to deliver a package and a message from the emperor himself.”
“I did not know that it is so easy a task to earn the title of ghost,” Dusi remarked. “Even my lowly couriers can be ghosts then!” The merchant lord laughed and I could hear the faint snickering of the guards behind me.
Dusi signaled one of the guards. I took out a small wooden box from my satchel and handed it to the guard. He ran to Dusi and handed the box to his lord. The merchant lord started to untie the string around the box.
I watched him do this and I said, “For the past months, the emperor’s tax collectors have been reporting some discrepancies in the taxes being collected. Not much at first, a few bolts of silk here, a few hundred silver coins there, but steadily the discrepancies grew until, eventually, one specific tax collector was apprehended. He was submitting only a quarter of what he was supposed to collect.”
Dusi finished untying the string. He eyed me, his face void of emotions. Slowly, without looking, the merchant lord opened the box.
I continued, “The tax collector was questioned until, eventually, he confessed. We were wrong in thinking he was stealing the taxes he collected. His collections always come up short because he purposely, for a price, skips a name from his list. Your name, my lord.”
Dusi looked down at the box’s contents. Fury broke free on his face. “You dare?!” He grabbed what lay inside the box and threw them at my direction. They lay scattered on the carpeted floor–tiny bones, the sign of death. “You dare?!” He repeated. The two guards rushed to my side, their swords drawn. The Caronian drew his battle axe.
“I dare nothing, my lord,” I said. “I merely act the will of my emperor and the emperor wishes for your head.”
“Kill him!” The merchant lord shouted, pointing a ringed finger at me.
Before the guards could act, I spun around to my feet, grabbed hold of one of the guard’s sword arm, pulled it, and plunged his sword to the belly of his comrade. I grabbed hold of his neck and twisted sharply. As his body fell to the floor, the Caronian charged towards me. I swiftly drew a needle, a foot in length, hidden inside my right boot and, with a flick of the wrist, sent it flying towards Dusi. It struck him right at the center of his throat, burying deep in his flesh.
I ducked low to avoid the Caronian’s axe and picked up the sword of one of the fallen guards. The doors behind me opened with a thunderous roar followed by the rushed footsteps of the other two guards. On his great seat, Dusi gurgled in his blood, chocked, and eventually died.
I easily eliminated one of the guards with a blade to the face while the other guard I used as a human shield against the mighty swing of the Caronian’s battle axe. The Caronian dislodged his axe from the guard’s back and swung it downwards in my direction. I raised my sword to block the attack but the Caronian’s strength proved too great. His axe shattered the blade of my sword in two. He delivered a fierce kick to my gut which sent me sprawling backwards. The Caronian capitalized on this and tried to crack my head open with his great weapon. I rolled to the side and swept his legs with my foot. The mute brute fell on his back. I grabbed another sword and planted it in the Caronian’s chest, twisted it, and watched the life vanish from his eyes.
“You will journey to the lands of Dusi and deliver a package,” Father said.
I stood up and went to him. He handed me a small box tied with a red string. “What is inside, father?”
“Death,” Father simply said.