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Authors: Leah Cypess

Death Sworn

BOOK: Death Sworn
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Dedication

To Aaron

 

This is the first book I started and finished while we were married.
Also, I’ve decided to scrap the book with the
red-haired scientist character.
So this one’s for you.

 

Chapter 1

T
he first step should have been the hardest. The cave entrance angled so sharply that one step was all it took: plunging her from light to darkness, from the fresh scent of snow to the smell of musty earth, from the touch of the breeze to the weight of dank stone. Ileni stopped for a moment, and not only to allow her eyes to adjust. Melted snow trickled down her hair and dripped on the back of her neck, and her skin was chapped by the wind, but inside the entrance to the Assassins’ Caves, the air was dry and still. She could hear the slow drip of snow melting off rocks, but with her next few steps, she would leave snow and wind—and sunlight, and falling leaves, and everything she had ever known—behind her forever.

She took the second step, ignoring the screaming desire to run back outside and keep running. She would not allow her determination to crumble now. She had spent the past few days concentrating solely on getting here and not on where she was going, keeping her focus on following the Elders’ directions through the thick forests and narrow paths. She had faced every challenge in her life with exactly that fierce determination.

But what was the point? All along, she had been driving herself toward a future that no longer existed. Her shoulders slumped, and suddenly her foot felt too heavy to lift. She was seventeen years old, and she felt as ancient as the rocks surrounding her.

And there was nowhere to go except forward, deeper into those rocks, where her death lay waiting.

On the third step, the darkness deepened. Ileni clenched her fists so hard that her fingernails dug into her palms. She had known exactly what she was getting into when she accepted the Elders’ mission; she had faced it, unflinching, the moment she said yes. She would spend her life within the Black Mountains, surrounded by assassins, with no defense when they decided to kill her. If she could agree to that, she wasn’t going to falter now just because she could feel the stones closing in around her. She forced herself forward.

A shape hurtled silently out of the shadows and slammed her against the rough stone wall.

Ileni screamed once, short and shrill, then gasped into silence. A muscled arm pressed against her chest, and something sharp and cold whispered across her throat. A knife blade.

But she was still alive. The knife was only touching her skin, not slicing into it. Ileni’s heart pounded against her chest, and she instinctively reached for her magic before remembering that she shouldn’t. Instead she brought her hands up and pushed with all her strength at the arm holding her prisoner. She might as well have tried to move the wall behind her. Her assailant didn’t so much as acknowledge the attempt.

Ileni forced her hands back to her sides and said, in her coolest voice, “The knife seems unnecessary, then, doesn’t it?”

As she said it, she called up a magelight.

The effort made her shoulders clench and her eyes sting. A few months ago, she barely would have felt a spell that small. She ignored both pains and focused on the face of her attacker, illuminated by the ball of white light hovering above.

It was a sharp, almost triangular face, with high cheekbones slicing from his chin to his coal black eyes. He looked slightly younger than she was, but something hard lurked in those eyes, something that marked him as an assassin.

“I’ll decide what’s necessary,” he said. His voice was terse, with a gravelly edge. “How did you find the entrance to our caves?”

It took great effort to act cavalier with that knife’s edge on her skin, but Ileni rolled her eyes. “How do you think? The Elders told me.”

He stepped back so abruptly that Ileni lost her balance. By the time she steadied herself, the knife had disappeared beneath his gray tunic.

Ileni drew in a deep breath, relieved to feel cool air instead of steel against her skin. Not that he couldn’t kill her with his bare hands, of course . . . and nobody knew exactly how Absalm and Cadrel had died. “I’m a Renegai sorceress,” she snapped. “Who did you think I was?”

“I didn’t—” His dark eyes narrowed. “The Renegai have never sent a woman to serve as our tutor before.”

“Is there something in our agreement that forbids it?”

Her words hung in the air like a challenge.

Melted snow crept from her neck down her back, curving lazily along her spine, and she itched to reach back and rub it away. She restrained herself from saying something just to break the silence. Finally the assassin turned and said, “Come with me.”

Ileni drew in a deep breath and hoped he hadn’t heard it. She followed him down the dark corridor, the magelight hovering at her shoulder, wondering if it made sense to feel as relieved as she did. Not getting killed within two minutes of arrival was . . . well, it was something. It was a start.

It was probably better than anyone back home expected of her.

The Elders had explained, kindly but bluntly, that they were sending her because she was expendable. If she managed to find out who had killed her predecessors, that would be helpful, but if not—and they didn’t hold out much hope—at least she would buy them time. She supposed she should feel grateful to them for not lying, for granting her that much respect, but she couldn’t quite manage it. Her bitterness was a barrier against any conciliatory thoughts.

More than anything, she was tired of being bitter. Bitter, and sad, and angry. She missed her former self—a self she barely remembered, even though it had vanished only six months ago—and a life that had been happy and filled with purpose.

The assassin walked with a steady, implacable stride. Ileni refused to go faster to keep up with him, so within seconds he had disappeared into the blackness ahead of her. The magelight traveled with her, casting enough light for her to see jagged rock walls on both sides of her. Stalactites jutted from the low ceiling, like blades, just high enough that they didn’t touch her head—but low enough that she worried they were going to. They had probably been designed this way on purpose, to frighten anyone who dared enter the Assassins’ Caves. She did not duck her head.

Around the next bend of the tunnel, the darkness disappeared. She stood at the threshold of a large cavern filled with a maze of unearthly pillars and lit by dozens of glowing stones set into the arching walls. Fingers of multicolored stone hung from the ceiling and rose from the ground, reaching toward each other. It was like a majestic hall, except that the eerie shapes of the stones and their unexpected shimmering colors were nothing a human mind could have invented.

The assassin crouched atop one of the shorter, thicker pillars, his body a curve of taut muscles beneath nondescript gray clothes. He looked more like a weapon than a person. “Pretty, isn’t it?” he said. “Didn’t the Elders tell you about this?”

“Of course,” Ileni said stiffly, letting the magelight vanish. (What they had said, actually, was,
Parts of the caves are very beautiful, but don’t let that distract you from the evil within them.
) “I didn’t realize I would see it so soon.”

“We built the entrance here on purpose,” he said. “It impresses the . . . impressionable.”

“Such cutting wit,” Ileni said. “You had better take me to my rooms so I can recover.”

He blinked. Perhaps the other tutors, despite their status and supposed immunity, had been reluctant to openly insult trained killers. But Ileni had been riding a fatalistic recklessness for the past six months. A large part of her didn’t care if he killed her.

The rest of her was greatly relieved when he merely inclined his head and said, “Of course. I’ll walk more slowly this time, but let me know if you have trouble keeping up.”

She lengthened her stride as he hopped from his perch, and when he reached the other side of the cavern, she was only one step behind him. She flicked her fingers against the back of his neck, pulling out a tiny strand of hair. He whirled with lightning swiftness, one hand clamped around her throat before she even realized he was moving.

His fingers curled around her neck without exerting any pressure at all, but she could see, in his merciless eyes, how easy it would be for him to tighten his grip. It took every ounce of courage to keep her voice not just even, but irritated, distracting him while she slipped the piece of hair into the sleeve of her tunic. With luck, he would think she had only flicked him to get his attention. “Attacks at knifepoint are one thing. Impudence is another. I won’t tolerate that from my students.”

He released her, his hand falling back to his side. “It is not wise to surprise an assassin.”

“Sometimes I’m not wise.”

He evaluated her coldly, as if deciding whether to kill her after all. Then he turned his back on her and resumed walking.

Ileni touched her throat gingerly and followed. “Are you taking me to . . . to the master?”

He bowed his head slightly without turning to face her. “No. I am taking you to your room.”

Ileni shivered in relief. The Elders had warned her about the master of the assassins, who knew everything that happened in these caves and wielded absolute control over his disciples. He was so old nobody knew when he had been born, and was called by many names—the Wielder of a Hundred Living Blades, the Puppetmaster, the Architect—but when people said “the master,” everyone knew who they meant, even among the Renegai. He was the most dangerous man alive.

Ileni didn’t want to face him. She knew she would have to, eventually . . . but not right now, when she had just entered his caves. Not yet.

Three passageways opened at the end of the majestic cavern, and the assassin swerved smoothly to lead her down the one to the right. “Afterward, I’ll show you the training room, where you will be teaching those of us who are skilled at magic.”

“Will you be one of them?”

“I will.” He left the
of course
unspoken. “I showed the most skill at magic under your predecessor.”

It could be true. Ileni couldn’t sense much power in him, but sometimes even people with little power possessed great skill. As she should know.

“That doesn’t mean much,” was all she said. “He wasn’t alive long enough to do any meaningful testing.”

The assassin’s smooth stride faltered, for less than a second. Because she was behind him, Ileni allowed herself a smile.

He glanced over his shoulder. The way the light hit his hair made it look as golden as Tellis’s—which made her heart first leap, then hurt. “I also showed the greatest skill under
his
predecessor, who lasted much longer. And was a better teacher besides. The quality of our tutors seems to be continually declining.”

“Along with their lifespans, perhaps,” Ileni said. “These caves have become a dangerous place for sorcerers.”

“These caves have never been a safe place for anyone, Teacher.”

Was that a warning or a threat? “My name is Ileni,” she said finally.

“Mine is Sorin.”

The walls on either side of her were smooth and even, inlaid with glowing stones that cast a soft white light through the tunnel. Except for the dryness of the air and the oppressive sense of heavy stone suspended over her head—both of which might easily be products of her imagination—she could have been in a completely man-made structure. Like the stone prisons within the Empire where, she had been told, anyone who opposed the emperor was sent to never see sunlight again.

She was too tired to keep track of the numerous turns they took, through arched doorways and smooth rectangular openings that led to yet more curving corridors. By the time Sorin stopped in front of an actual wooden door, she felt they must be buried deep in the earth, with tons of solid rock pressing down above her.

“This will be your room,” Sorin said, pushing the door open. No lock, Ileni noted—but she felt the wards thrumming through the wooden door, layers of interlocking spells, reinforced over and over by the succession of sorcerers who had lived here. One of the tasks of the Renegai tutors was to ward the Assassins’ Caves against magical attack, but these wards, smaller and tighter, were directed against anyone and anything. Once she was inside, nobody else would be able to open the door.

She swallowed hard, unbearably grateful for a place of safety—however small, however confined.

Of course, Cadrel had lived in this room a few weeks ago, and Absalm before him. The wards hadn’t kept either of them alive.

To her surprise, the room was decorated, with a brightly colored rug thrown over the stone floor and a tapestry hanging on the wall by the bed. Nothing elaborate, by any means—to most people, the room would probably have appeared sparse—but it was opulent compared to her room in the sorcerers’ training compound, which had been a rectangular cell with a bed, a clothes chest, a small window, and nothing else. And the introduction of beds had been fairly recent, hotly contested and eventually allowed only because mattresses on the floor were more quickly infested by insects. Austerity, they had been told, was necessary for the development of their magic.

She felt her lip start to curl, and turned to Sorin for distraction before the bitterness could come flowing in. She caught him watching her speculatively, and once again had the sense that he was deciding her fate. She met his gaze, feeling like prey. She had seen how fast he moved. If he decided to kill her, she probably wouldn’t realize it until she was already dying.

Maybe that would be a mercy.

But he only leaned back against the doorpost and said, “I’ll show you the training area now. You start teaching tomorrow.”

“In a little while. I’d like to unpack first.”

Sorin looked at her pack, which was barely the size of a cooking pot, and then at her. Ileni smiled blandly.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll return after I report your arrival.”

Ileni waited until he had shut the door behind him, then pulled a roll of clothing out of the pack and emptied the rest of its contents onto the floor.

Twelve flat black stones thudded onto the rug. Ileni tossed the empty pack onto the bed, dropped into a cross-legged position, and carefully arranged the rocks in an asymmetric pattern around her. She worked fast, half her attention on the door, but took an extra moment to make sure the pattern was exactly right. No point in accidentally blowing up her room on the first day. Later, maybe, if it seemed called for.

BOOK: Death Sworn
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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