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Authors: Leah Cypess

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BOOK: Death Sworn
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She shook her head and turned back into the dark, trying to remember the way she had come.

Within seconds, she was completely lost.

After a turn that she
thought
would take her back to the staircase, she found herself instead in a large cavern full of knives, hundreds of them, hanging on racks stretched across the back of the room. Targets hung on the wall, heavy cloths cut into the shapes of people, with circles drawn over various body parts. One of the targets was child sized. She stared at them, feeling her stomach tighten. Then she turned back to the doorway, and collided with a bare, muscular chest.

She shrieked and raised her hands. Large hands gripped her upper arms, hard enough to hurt, holding her motionless. She looked up into Irun’s rugged face.

“Teacher,” he said, his tone a mockery of respect. “What are you doing here? And without your guardian, too. Not very wise.”

She didn’t bother to struggle, vividly recalling how he had leaped obstacles with a stone slab on his back. She didn’t bother to reply, since she had nothing to say. She met Irun’s hard almond-shaped eyes and did not move.

His thick eyebrows lifted. Then he let her go, though he didn’t move from the doorway. Ileni used every bit of willpower she possessed and did not step back. The marks of his fingers were painful on her arms.

“Good,” she said, hoping her haughty tone would disguise her fear. “I’m glad you’re here. You can lead me back to my room.”

Irun laughed. “I don’t think so. This is a good opportunity for the two of us to talk.”

Ileni tried to look past him, to see if anyone else was coming. The entrance to the cavern was empty. It was just her and Irun in a room full of glistening knives.

With an effort, she hung onto her haughtiness, though she doubted it would fool him. “Talk about what?”

Irun’s smirk made her attempt seem infantile. “Two weeks before you arrived,
Teacher
, I returned from a successful mission. Do you know who I killed?”

She didn’t trust her voice, or her expression. She shook her head.

“The high sorcerer at the emperor’s court.”

She blinked, shocked despite herself. Irun shifted position and nodded. “Nobody truly believed it could be done. Certainly not that I could do it and survive. But Absalm’s lessons . . . they came in very handy.”

“Did you kill Absalm, too?” Her voice shook, which she hated, but Irun obviously liked. His eyes glittered.

“No. Nor Cadrel. And I won’t kill you, either, if you cooperate.”

“With what?”

“Next time I kill a sorcerer, I don’t want to just take his life. I want to take his power.”

Ileni choked. Irun waited, with exaggerated patience, for her to regain her composure. Then he added, “I want you to tell me how to do it.”

“I don’t know how!”

“That’s . . . unfortunate.” His disbelief was palpable. “Because it means you serve no purpose here.”

He moved with swift, brutal efficiency. All at once she was flat on her stomach on the stone floor, her wrist screaming in pain, her face crushed into the black stone.

“Perhaps your successor will be more amenable,” Irun said, stepping back.

Her mouth filled with pieces of grit. She pulled up her power, but it was so little, so weak.

This would make three Renegai killed in these caves. She wondered who the Elders would send next.

“None of the Renegai know how!” She pushed herself up from the ground, craning her neck back to look up at him. “Taking magic from others is evil. Only the imperial sorcerers practice that sort of perversion.”

“Perversion? My, what strong language.”

“Hunting down those with power, breeding them as slaves, keeping them in cages, and harvesting them for their magic? That’s how the Empire gathers its power. We don’t—we would never—” She had to stop talking then, because she had run out of air and couldn’t seem to draw in another breath.

Irun laughed, a harsh triumphant sound. “I don’t believe you. When one of your sorcerers dies—of old age,
of course
—you let his power die with him? You don’t transfer it to another sorcerer, or into a lodestone?”


No.”
She had to croak the word out, but she was past caring. “We let our people die in peace.”

“You waste their deaths, you mean. And none of you are tempted, is that it? None of you ever think about what you could do with your power multiplied by two, or three, or four. . . .”

Ileni rolled over and sat up. “No.”

“You’re lying.” Irun leaned forward. Despite herself, she cringed. Irun noticed, and smiled. “But I suppose I’ll wait and see what the next tutor says.”

“The next one?” Again, she couldn’t quite hide the sob of fear. Not that it mattered. “Do you think my people will keep sending tutors if we all meet the same fate? The master won’t be happy with you if you cause us to break the treaty.”

His face twitched. With one stride, he stood over her. “You don’t understand much about us, if you think I would ever risk interfering with the master’s plans. Your people will do whatever we tell them, or risk annihilation.”

“Did your master command you to do
this
?” Ileni said desperately. There had been a slight hint of hesitation there, when she brought up the master. Very slight, but it was her only hope.

“The master expects us to think for ourselves. Most of our missions are half a world away from him. What he needs—what we strive for—is to understand what he
would
want even when he isn’t there to tell us.” Irun laughed softly. “When he commands, of course we obey. But the best of us obey even before he commands. I know what he wants. He brought me to these caves to do just this.” He leaned back slightly and kicked her in the ribs.

Agony exploded through her chest. She groaned and fell over on her side, curled up into a ball. Irun knelt beside her. “The pain makes it difficult to call up your power, doesn’t it?” he said, and closed one hand over her mouth, clamping her jaw shut. He placed his other hand on her forehead and slowly, inexorably, tilted her head back.

She struggled to open her mouth, to scream out a spell—
any
spell, to make him stop, even if it was only long enough for a breath—but she couldn’t.

She could have had all the magic in the world, and it wouldn’t have helped. The room went black around the edges, and the back of her neck was about to crack. She writhed and flailed, too panicked now to aim her blows. Through the ringing in her ears, she heard Irun laugh.

Then his hands were gone, and air came rushing into her lungs again.

She gasped and gagged and scrambled to her hands and knees. She tried to stand—
run, run, RUN
, her instincts screamed—and fell over, the room turning around her. Dizziness rushed through her, and the world went black.

But air kept coming in, and she concentrated on that, crouched on the ground like a beaten animal, breathing in long, desperate sobs. It was a few moments before she could see again.

And then she saw who had rescued her.

Sorin and Irun were locked in battle, moving so swiftly she could barely see what they were doing. There was nothing dance-like about
this
fight: it was fast and vicious and brutal. Sorin jabbed his thumbs into Irun’s eyes; Irun twisted his head beneath Sorin’s arms and thrust a knee at his groin; Sorin dodged low and grabbed Irun around the knees, and the two fell to the ground. They continued attacking each other as they fell. Aside from the crash when they hit the stone floor, and the thuds when their blows connected, they fought in absolute, eerie silence.

They rolled over, and then over again, their limbs in constant motion. Ileni could only catch the occasional move: Sorin’s arms encircling Irun’s neck, Irun’s elbow slicing into Sorin’s side, Sorin’s heel slamming against Irun’s jaw, the arc of Sorin’s body as Irun flipped him over his head. She should help Sorin somehow, but the idea was so obviously ridiculous that it barely formed a thought. She forced herself onto her knees and watched, trembling.

The sudden sickening crack of bone echoed through the cavern. The two assassins sprang apart and faced each other, and now she could also hear their quick harsh breaths. Blood spread across the lower half of Sorin’s face, dark red on his mouth and jaw. Irun’s hand hung limply from his wrist.

Irun made a movement toward Sorin, who stepped back and grabbed two knives from the nearest rack. Irun stopped.

“Dangerous,” he observed. Despite his broken wrist, his voice betrayed not a hint of pain.

Ileni didn’t see Sorin move. She saw a lock of Irun’s black hair flutter to the ground, and then the knife Sorin had thrown slid neatly into a crevice between two rocks and stuck there, quivering.

“Very,” Sorin agreed. For all the clipped precision in his voice, something wild ran in the tense lines of his body. Ileni had the odd impression he was on the verge of laughing. “But more so for the one who can hold only one knife. And what’s life without a little danger?”

Irun drew his lips back in a snarl, and Ileni was sure he was going to attack again. Instead he inclined his head, turned, strode right past Ileni, and vanished through the doorway.

Sorin didn’t waste a second before he whirled on her. “What are you doing here?”

A drop of sweat slid with excruciating slowness down the bridge of Ileni’s nose toward the inner corner of her right eye. She knew it would burn when it hit but couldn’t summon up the strength to raise her hand and wipe it away. She couldn’t summon up the strength to lie, either.

“I was looking for your room.”

“Why?”

“The knife,” she whispered.

His black eyes narrowed into barely visible slits. Ileni tasted blood in her mouth; she had bitten her tongue. Now it would all come out, her lack of power, the trick her people had played. Now they would all know how helpless she was. Every single assassin in the caves would feel free to use his strength and skill against her, to reduce her to prey, as Irun had.

Or maybe she would be lucky, and Sorin would kill her now. He would do it fast, she thought. He wouldn’t enjoy it the way Irun would.

“There
is
a spell you can use to find out who threw it,” Sorin said tightly. “You wanted to use it without me watching.”

Her head came up. She said, slowly, “Yes.”

“Why?”

Suddenly it seemed she might live after all. Her hands still shook, her breath still hurt the inside of her throat, but Ileni’s mind started working again.

“I don’t trust you,” she said, as if it should have been evident.

Sorin laughed. Its harshness reminded her of Irun’s laugh, and she cringed despite herself. “I would say that was smart. But you’ve proven that you’re not very smart at all. Don’t you understand that my task is to
protect
you?”

Ileni sat back and pulled her knees into her chest. Her hands shook, and she pressed them against her calves to still them. Sorin rubbed a hand across his chin, smearing blood on his knuckles.

“I hope you understand now,” he said grimly. “Get up, and follow me. No more secrets. We’re going to find out who killed Cadrel.”

Chapter 9

“N
o more secrets,” Ileni agreed—as if she had a choice in the matter; as if Sorin cared whether or not she agreed. She forced her back straight, but didn’t get off the floor. “So tell me this. Did the master order Irun to kill me?”

Even locked in battle with Irun, Sorin hadn’t looked so angry. “No. If Irun was acting on the master’s orders, he wouldn’t have left until you were dead. Or he was.”

Ileni hugged her legs tighter. “He acted against the master’s instructions?”

“Of course not.” Sorin glanced at the blood on the back of his hand, then spat on his sleeve and, with a few practiced, efficient movements, wiped his face clean. “At our level, instructions aren’t always . . . explicit. Sometimes we don’t know we’re being tested until the test is over.”

“Why would Irun think the master wants me dead?” She rested her head on her knees for a moment, then raised it. “He said he was brought to the caves just for this. What does that mean?”

For a moment she thought he was going to ignore the question, yank her to her feet, and march her to his room. She wondered if her ward would interpret that as a threat, and doubted it. She knew, now, what it felt like to be truly threatened by an assassin.

Sorin glanced swiftly at the entrance to the cavern—still empty. Then he turned to her. “When the master ordered Irun taken, sixteen years ago, no one knew why. It was the most dangerous mission we had ever attempted, so daring I’ve heard the story even though it happened several years before I arrived. The master sent four assassins. Three of them died on the mission, and the fourth died of his wounds shortly after arriving here with Irun. It wasn’t until this year that part of the master’s plan became clear, when Irun was sent on a mission that only someone who looks like him—like one of
them
—could possibly accomplish.”

She lowered her hands slowly to the ground. “Killing the high sorcerer.”

Sorin nodded, a quick jerk of his head. “But the plan goes back farther than that. The master’s last kill, before he became our leader, was also a sorcerer.”

Ileni braced herself on the floor behind her. “The previous high sorcerer?”

Sorin’s eyes slid away from hers, then back. He reached out—unconsciously, she thought—and rested a finger on the hilt of one of the knives. “No.”

A few days ago, she would have thought his face blank. Now she saw the expression on it, but couldn’t tell what it meant. “Then who?”

“Not within the Empire,” Sorin said. He took a deep breath. Though his face was almost clean, there was still blood between his teeth. “The sorcerer he killed was a Renegai.”

Ileni started to push herself up, then thought better of it and remained on the floor. “That’s not—”

“It was many years ago,” Sorin said. His voice was almost sympathetic. He nudged the knife straighter, then turned away from the blades and faced her. “He pretended to be one of you, and he made it look like an accident. None of the Renegai ever found out.”

“One of us,” Ileni repeated numbly. Her fingers dug into the rock, gravel wedging beneath her fingernails. “And what was the purpose of that murder? How was killing an innocent Renegai going to help you bring down the Empire?”

Sorin rubbed his eyebrow. “None of us knew that at the time, either. But as it turned out, it was crucial. He showed that it can be done.”

Ileni blinked at him, remembering what he had said earlier about chipping away at the Empire’s foundations. She knew—everyone knew—what the true foundation of the Empire’s power was: sorcery.

If the assassins were able to bring down the imperial sorcerers—a ridiculous thought, but
if they could
—the Empire would fall with them.

Could it be a coincidence that while the assassins were targeting sorcery, the two sorcerers within their own caves had been murdered? Had Absalm and Cadrel been killed for
practice
?

“You knew,” she said slowly. “You knew Absalm’s and Cadrel’s deaths might have been part of some test, or some plan.”

Sorin’s arm knotted, but his voice remained even. “Everything that happens here is part of the master’s plan. What happened to Absalm and Cadrel, what happened to Jastim, what Irun did . . . it’s all part of a pattern, and the master is the one weaving the pattern. But I can only see pieces of it. I don’t understand the whole thing.”

“Even I can see this part of it. The part where I’m going to be the next sorcerer to die.” She said it without feeling much of anything at all. A film of clammy sweat covered her forehead.

“No,” Sorin said, with a fierceness that surprised her. He sounded as if he really cared.

But she was only surprised for a moment. The master had, after all, assigned him to keep her safe. Had given him permission to care.

Which meant it somehow fit into the master’s plans that he care. But she couldn’t think about that right now. Her fear receded, very slightly, and that was all that mattered. He was on her side. Perhaps she did have a chance after all.

“Thank you,” she said, and Sorin looked at her sharply.

“I can’t be with you all the time, Teacher. I think it’s time I taught you to fight.”

She stared at him as if he had started spouting poetry. “What? No.”

“Why not?”

“I’m a Renegai. We don’t fight.”

He laughed. “You threw me into a wall the day you arrived. What was that?”

“A defensive spell!”

“Fine. I’ll teach you defensive maneuvers.”

She could still feel Irun’s hands on her mouth, and her complete helplessness as she struggled for air.
Defensive maneuvers
. . . But she was forgetting something. She said, as haughtily as she could, “I’m a sorceress, remember? I have certain defenses of my own.”

“They didn’t do you much good today, did they?”

And how was she going to explain that? “I was overconfident. I thought I had time, once he stopped talking. Next time I won’t make that mistake.”

“Neither will Irun,” Sorin said. “He must be able to sense it when you draw upon your magic, or he wouldn’t have
talked
at all before he attacked. But does it matter? Two weapons are always better than one, especially when neither has to be carried. The more skills you hold within yourself—”

“Spare me the pithy one-liners of assassin philosophy.”

“It’s one of the master’s teachings,” Sorin said stiffly.

Despite herself, Ileni thought of the fighters on the training floor, the deadly graceful dances she walked past every day. As a child she had been athletic, outstripping most of the others at races and games. She had left all that behind, of course, when it came time to focus on her truly important skills.

Sorin was watching her with smoky coal eyes. “You could never match one of us, but any ability at all would give you the advantage of surprise. And what if you were fighting another sorcerer, one more powerful than you? A physical attack wouldn’t be expected among your kind. It could give you an edge.”

She would never fight, or even meet, another sorcerer again. It came back to her in a second, how it felt to be surrounded by people who thought the way she did, accepted her, respected her. And then, just as fast, the memory rushed away, leaving a dull ache behind.

“All right,” Ileni said abruptly.

“How gracious of you to agree.” He walked over and held out his hand. “But first things first. Are you calm enough to use magic yet?”

“Yes,” she said, hoping it was true. Ignoring the hand, she pushed herself to her knees, then to her feet. She swayed a little bit, but he didn’t try to steady her. Instead he stepped back.

“You’re not even bruised,” he observed.

She wasn’t? Ileni held up her unblemished arms, white but for some faint brown freckles, and saw that he was right. She still felt hurt, but that was just memory.

Healing magic had always been a focus for the Renegai, and those spells were so well practiced and so ingrained that using them was an instinct. She had used the healing spell without even realizing she was doing it. It had taken so little power she hadn’t felt the difference.

“Of course not,” she said, but despite her best effort, her voice didn’t sound even slightly confident. “I’m a sorceress.”

“Then let’s get that knife.” He held out his hand, and she stared at it until he dropped it. “You’re going to do the spell, and I’m going to see the results. Don’t even try to trick me this time.”

“I won’t,” she whispered.

Sorin hesitated, and she thought he would say something else. Instead he turned and led her out of the cavern.

It was a long walk to Sorin’s room, and on the way they passed numerous boys Ileni had never seen before, most of them younger than her students. Some were mere children. She should have pitied them—would have, an hour ago—but every time one of them glanced at her, her skin shrank inward. One was a child who looked no older than six, his face round and unformed, in contrast to the determined set of his mouth. She looked at him, at his smooth cheeks and soft chin, and thought,
Enemy
.

Despite the healing spell, she still felt as if her whole body was damaged from Irun’s attack: her neck, her jaw, her side. Her sense that there was something sacred and inviolable about her own skin.

Was
attack
even the right word, when it had been so easy for him?

She found herself drawing closer to Sorin, even though he was the same: a killer, strong enough to snap her neck, trained to do so without compunction. Her ward might protect her, but she had no doubt he could find a way around that, given time. The only difference between him and the others was a command. And that command could be withdrawn at any time.

She drew near to him anyhow, until she was so close her sleeve brushed his. He moved his arm away, and she felt briefly bereft. For a ridiculous moment she wished he would take her hand in his, hold it tight, and make her feel protected.

It would be an illusion, but it would be better than nothing.

A few seconds later they were in his room, which was even smaller than hers. No tapestries or rugs softened the austerity here. The entire inside of the room was smooth black stone.

Sorin knelt, reached under his bed, and pulled out the knife. For some reason, the fact that they had the same hiding place struck Ileni as funny. She giggled, hearing the edge of hysteria in it, and Sorin turned and looked at her.

“Never mind,” Ileni said, though he hadn’t asked. “Are you going to tell me now how you got the knife?”

He nodded. “We keep all our blades in the knife-training room, and rotate them so they can be regularly sharpened. Any missing one would have been noticed eventually, so I knew the one that killed Cadrel had to have been returned there. I used a spell to find out which one was blooded at the time Cadrel died.”

He sounded very proud of himself. It was an easy enough spell, but Ileni didn’t find it difficult to say, “Very good.” If he had asked her to do it, she might not have been able to.

She went to his washing bowl and spilled some of the water onto the stone floor, where it spread slowly and irregularly. Then she knelt and used her finger to trace a pattern around the shallow puddle. “Give me the knife.”

Sorin knelt beside her, knife hilt out. Ileni laid it carefully in the center of the puddle and waited until the ripples had subsided.

“Absalm never showed us how to do this,” Sorin said.

Ileni gathered in her power, pushed away her fear that it wouldn’t be enough, and unleashed it with a word.

The puddle shrank in toward the knife, gathering around it as if toward a whirlpool. They both leaned forward at the same time, and their heads almost cracked together. Sorin pulled back just in time, but remained so close she could feel his breath on her cheek.

For another moment the water was still again, and then it rippled and shimmered, gently at first, then so violently the knife began to shake. Ileni leaned closer, frowning, and the water spurted from the floor and hit her directly in the face.

It wasn’t a lot of water, but the surprise knocked her backward. Sorin reacted with a single leap that took him to the corner of the room, but by then the water was gone, splattered all over the floor and walls. A drop fell from the ceiling and landed on Ileni’s shoulder. The knife remained where it was, motionless on the floor, completely dry.

“Was that supposed to happen?” Sorin inquired, from his position in the corner.

“No,” Ileni said, and burst into tears.

It was difficult to say who was more horrified, her or Sorin. Ileni tried to gain control of herself, but it was all too much. Nothing,
nothing
, was going the way it was supposed to. She wasn’t supposed to be this helpless, or this scared. She was supposed to have her magic to protect her. She wasn’t supposed to be forced to the ground like a hunted animal, waiting to find out whether she would suffocate before her neck snapped.

She pressed her hands to her cheeks as she sobbed, her humiliation drowned in the enormity of everything else. She could be humiliated later, when she was less terrified and frustrated. The only tiny bright spot was that Sorin looked as helpless as she felt.

How to throw assassins off balance: cry in front of them. She would have to find a way to pass that along to the next tutor.

When it was clear that she wasn’t going to be able to stop crying within the next few seconds, she decided to talk through her sobs. Sorin would have to deal with it. “It was supposed to show the hand that threw the knife. Instead it showed me, as best it could, what threw the knife. It wasn’t a human hand.”

Sorin was still watching her as warily as if she might explode. “What was it?”

The wild movement. The controlled outburst of power. She recognized it in her blood.

“It was magic,” she said. She turned her head away, feeling her sobs begin to die as a cold horror wormed its way into her. This was even worse than knowing a regular assassin was after her. “A very complex spell. Nobody in these caves should have been able to perform it, but someone did. Cadrel was killed by magic.”

BOOK: Death Sworn
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