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Authors: Leah Cypess

Death Sworn (10 page)

BOOK: Death Sworn
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Chapter 10

T
he next morning, Ileni began testing her students for magical skill. She couldn’t really believe any of them had the ability to throw a knife with magic—while random throwing spells were easy enough, aiming and throwing a blade was as difficult with magic as without it—but she couldn’t think of any other possibility.
Someone
in these caves had done it, and she had to find him before she became his next victim.

Despite the urgency, she put off testing Irun until she had no choice. On the fourth morning, after she had found every other student lacking, she finally called him up. Her skin shrank in on itself as he crossed the floor toward her, his wrist still wrapped in a tight white bandage.

In the four days since his attack on her, Irun had not changed his behavior in the slightest, and she had been doing her best to return the favor—mostly because she didn’t know what else to do. Her chest constricted as he came close. She wanted to hurt him, to make him pay for what he had done. And she couldn’t. She couldn’t do
anything
to him.

But when his knife bounced off the far wall, hilt first, then skittered across the floor back to him, she allowed herself a faint sneer. “Clearly, this skill is too advanced. We’ll go back to the basic exercises we practiced last week, and I’ll try to think of a simpler technique to start with.”

Irun had stepped on the knife hilt to bring it to a stop. Complete silence fell while she waited for his retort. If she had targeted any of the other students like this—even Sorin—there would have been at least a snicker. If it had been Bazel, everyone would have been smirking. But the cavern was completely silent.

“This is the first useful thing you’ve taught us,” Irun said at last. He flipped the knife up into the air and caught it by the hilt, all without looking at it. “You do know what it is we do, don’t you, Teacher?”

“I know.”
Magefire.
She should have been more careful. All the students were watching them, and she couldn’t think of a way to back down from this confrontation. All the respect she had gained was slipping away. “But you’re not ready. Eventually—”


Eventually
,” Irun sneered. “How typically Renegai. You know, sometimes waiting is wise, but only—”

“—if you know what you’re waiting for.” The students on their mats chorused it together.

Ileni turned and stared at them.

“One of his teachings,” Irun explained, as if she should have known.

Ileni wanted to match his sneer with one of her own:
Quoting other people is fine, but only if you actually have the ability to think on your own.
It was on the tip of her tongue. But all at once she could feel his hand on her jaw, the helpless panic burning through her chest.

Irun was enjoying himself, she could tell. Enjoying her fear.

“Basic exercises,” she said. “Now.”

As soon as she said it, she was sure that he—that all of them—were simply going to ignore her. But after a long, insolent stare, Irun sauntered back to his mat, dropped gracefully onto it, and closed his eyes. The other students did the same, except Sorin. His eyes met hers, and then he, too, closed them.

They were all sitting in what she had once thought was the exact same pose. But now she could see how Bazel’s shoulders were just the tiniest bit hunched, how Irun’s chin was tilted a fraction higher than everyone else’s, how Sorin’s body was coiled as if about to explode off the mat.

Ileni knew they could hear her, but she couldn’t help a small sigh as she began to walk through the training room, checking and correcting them as they went through the exercises. She might have lost their respect, but she still had their obedience.

For now.

 

This time,
Ileni thought grimly as Sorin came toward her, his fist aimed at her jaw,
I’m going to throw him against the wall.

She didn’t, of course. Just as she hadn’t the first three times that afternoon; just as she hadn’t gotten anything right in the four days since they had started these ridiculous fighting lessons. The only difference was that this time, she failed more spectacularly than before, ending up flat on her back on the rock floor, sweat stained and frustrated and with a sharp pain shooting up her wrist.

One of these days, I’ll forget that this is practice and my wards will react.
Somehow, the thought didn’t give her as much satisfaction as it should have.

Sorin sighed and lowered his arms. He looked as composed as if he had been sitting on a mat for the past hour, not a drop of sweat on his skin. “You do realize what the problem is?”

“There’s only one?” Ileni said sourly, sitting up. She didn’t even feel her usual surge of satisfaction when she made a crease appear in the corner of his normally grim mouth.

“The problem,” he said, adjusting his tunic, “is that you don’t believe you can do it. If you believed it, you could.”

“Inspiring,” Ileni said, getting to her feet. Muscles she hadn’t even known she had ached. “Is that another of your master’s teachings?”

His mouth flattened, and he sighed again. “Let’s try those stretches one more time, and then we’ll give it another try.”

Or we could give up,
Ileni thought, but didn’t say. She didn’t know why she should care if Sorin looked down on her, but when he stretched one leg in front of him and leaned down to sweep his hand along the floor, she followed suit. Even though she was only able to reach the middle of her calf.

Sorin swiveled his legs neatly so that he was facing forward, bending low and resting his elbows on the black rock. As always, Ileni was struck by the effortless grace of his movements. He fought the way he used magic, with something wild and unpredictable always on the verge of breaking through his perfect precision.

Except it never did break through. And he fought a lot better than he used magic.

She tried to copy him, but she lost her balance and fell flat on her face. Sorin looked at her over his forearm and managed to make it very obvious that he was not smiling.

Ileni gritted her teeth and struggled to her feet, hating her body for being so weak and unwieldy. The Renegai did not train their sorcerers in anything physical, because they had no reason to. A person who had magic had no need for any other skills. If she’d had her full powers, Ileni would never have agreed to this humiliation. How could Sorin possibly not realize that?

But then, it was probably hard for him to imagine she wouldn’t care that she could be physically bested by almost anyone. He moved through the stretches with such obvious physical enjoyment that, watching him from the corner of her eye as she struggled to follow, Ileni felt a rush of envy.

It was too easy, sometimes, to view what he did as a pure skill, and forget the purpose of it.

She tried to move faster so she could finish the series of stretches and be done with it, and her back twinged dangerously. Her body was a collection of throbbing bruises, none painful enough to warrant stopping, but enough to make her feel constantly battered. She felt herself reaching for a healing spell out of habit, and pulled back sharply. They were easy spells, but still required power. So she forced herself to endure the aching muscles and dull bruises—and, even worse, the unending itch of magic that wanted to be used.

Most depressing of all, that morning she had woken up and realized that she was looking forward to this; that these fighting lessons, for all their physical pain and embarrassment, were the only true bright spot in her day. She tried to tell herself it was because she was learning something new, because she had something other than magic to focus on, but she knew it was more than that. It was Sorin.

That was clearly not good. But at least she
had
a bright spot in her day; why should she give that up? She would just have to be careful that Sorin never guessed how she felt, or he would certainly find a way to use it against her.

She finished the stretches—perfunctorily and badly, but she finished—and sat up. “I finished testing the students today,” she said. “None of them have the skill to have killed Cadrel with magic.”

“Unless they’re hiding it,” Sorin pointed out.

“Magical skill is not an easy thing to hide. No.” She had been thinking about this all morning. “It isn’t one of the students, which means it must be one of the teachers.”

Sorin vaulted to his feet and began a series of punches, blocks, and kicks, his slow grace masking the controlled violence of the movements. “Why would a
teacher
want to kill the Renegai tutors?”

Ileni didn’t know. But there was a lot she didn’t know. “Did Absalm spend a lot of time with any of the other teachers?”

“With all of them,” Sorin said. He leaped into a double kick and landed in a light crouch. “He sat at their table, after all.”

“You brought out the small table just for me?” She had intended it to sound light, but even she heard the bitterness in her voice.

Sorin straightened. “No. Cadrel sat alone.”

“Then why didn’t Absalm?”

“Absalm had the master’s favor from the beginning.”

“Are you saying I don’t?” she asked, and surprised a laugh out of him.

“Perhaps not at the moment.” He was still poised to continue his exercises, but hadn’t yet moved. “In time, you’ll be accepted, too.”

“I don’t want—never mind. It’s not important.” Ileni got to her feet. “It’s not as if Absalm was teaching magic during mealtimes.”

“He wasn’t giving the teachers lessons at any other times, either,” Sorin said. “No one here has much free time.”

“You have time to give me these lessons,” Ileni pointed out.

He gave her an inscrutable look. “Officially, you are giving me private magic lessons.”

“Only you? Doesn’t that bother the others?”

He looked away, his shoulders stiff.

“It
must
bother Irun.”

“Irun,” Sorin said, “has his own suspicions about what we are doing with this time.”

Heat flooded her face. “Oh.”

Something flashed deep in Sorin’s eyes, something that made her wonder if he wished Irun was right. He stepped toward her, and her skin tingled all over with sudden anticipation.

Then he rushed her.

She was so startled, she reacted without thinking. She grabbed and twisted as she had been taught, and Sorin slammed down on his back.

A thrill of pure, fierce joy ran through her. She grinned savagely as Sorin rolled smoothly to his feet, and her sense of triumph didn’t die until he grinned back. Then it drained away in a flash.

“You let me do that.” Without the adrenaline coursing through her, it was obvious.

“Of course,” Sorin said. He balanced on the balls of his feet. “But if I had let you do it last week, you still wouldn’t have been able to.”

Ileni stepped away from him, eyes burning. “This is stupid.”

Sorin blinked. “What?”

“This is
stupid
.” She glared at him, breathing hard. “And you know it. Four days of intense training, and I can manage to throw you one time,
when you let me
. I’m not going to be able to defend myself against any of you.”

“Well,” Sorin said, stretching his arms above his head and twisting his neck from side to side, “four days is not long. We have years to practice.” He let his arms drop. “I guess that’s a good thing.”

No, it wasn’t. She was
supposed
to die. That was why she had come here. And here she was, buried beneath the earth, practicing pathetic new skills against someone she could never really fight. Someone whose body would never betray him the way her magic had betrayed her, someone who had no idea what it was to be ordinary.

Someone who’s going to die, too,
she thought, and a pang twinged through her. It wasn’t right that he should die. That all his skill and physical prowess, all his fierce devotion and simmering wildness, should be so temporary. One command and he would be gone, just like Jastim.

“I don’t have time for this,” she said, dropping out of her fighting stance. “I have to . . . to talk to the teachers.” Would any of them even talk to her? So far, they all completely ignored her. “I have to figure out which one of them might have magic.”

Sorin nodded. “Arkim is the only possibility I can think of.”

Ileni had been prepared for an argument. “What?”

“Arkim. He’s the one who summoned Ravil for his mission—he always does the final preparations for missions. He spent forty years in the emperor’s court, his one and only mission, and the knowledge he gained during that time was too valuable to lose. So he became a teacher. I suppose he could have learned magic during his time in the Empire.”

He could have . . . but when he had walked into the dining cavern, Ileni hadn’t sensed a trace of power in him. Then again, she hadn’t been paying attention. She had been too busy watching Sorin. “What sort of mission took forty years?”

“He was gaining the trust of the emperor and his family.”

“And what he did with that trust was kill one of them?”

“The emperor’s brother,” Sorin said calmly, “the last time the emperor was considering attacking us.”

“Nice.”

Sorin’s fingertips curled slightly inward. “That warning kept the Empire’s army out of these mountains for the past half-century. Ensuring the Renegai’s safety as well as ours. One death in exchange for avoiding hundreds.”

“I’ll bet the emperor’s brother didn’t see it that way.”

“I don’t think his opinion was requested.”

“It’s not
funny
!” Ileni pressed her knuckles against her mouth, then let her hand drop. “Do you truly think all the people you kill deserve to die?”

“That would be an easier belief, wouldn’t it?” Sorin’s face was cool and remote. “But no. We are trained to make accurate observations, not to be blinded by lies. If we allowed ourselves to believe that, we would falter when we realized some of our targets are innocent. We face the truth, Sorceress: not that they deserve to die, but that their deaths serve a greater purpose.”

He stood poised on the balls of his feet, every line of his body thrumming with easy power. Ileni shook her head jerkily, her body tight. She knew he was wrong, but she was certain that if they argued, he would win.

BOOK: Death Sworn
10.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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