To start from the beginning of this serial story, go here.
Zion took shallow breaths, eyes probing the darkness. There–a flash of light on the edge of a knife–too quick to catch. He forced himself not to look down at the cut that seeped blood in the wake of the blade. It was one of many on his body. He waited, feeling the weight of the blackness press against his ears. There. His knife spun through the dark, a streak of quicksilver, and embedded itself in the heavily padded and armored chest of his attacker. Lanterns blazed to life around the stone cavern, roughly carved into a sort of amphitheater, and revealed the audience. Mostly Brothers with a few other initiates who would be next in the trial. Solas pulled Zion’s knife free and cast off the cumbersome padded tunic. He flipped the blade back towards Zion, who caught it and deftly returned it to the sheath in his sleeve. He knew from the stinging along his arms, legs, and back, that he’d been cut half a dozen times. There were more rents in his shirt and trousers where the knife had not reached the skin.
“What if the blade was poisoned?” Solas asked, hands behind his back as he circled Zion.
“It wasn’t.” Zion crossed his arms across his chest, allowing his face to slip into the arrogant sneer he’d perfected after five years with the Brotherhood. He knew it irritated his mentor.
“How do you know?” Solas asked, continuing his circuit.
Zion followed Solas with his eyes, but refused to turn his head. “I switched the knives before we began,” he said and was rewarded when Solas stopped circling.
A murmur arose from the watchers as Solas pulled the twin, long-bladed knives from the sheaths on his back and examined them. Zion smiled slightly as Solas turned them over to see the Z scratched into the base of each blade. When Solas looked back up, Zion held out the original knives, which had been strapped against his ribs inside his shirt. The metal appeared slightly dulled and Zion knew from the smell that they were coated with wrackweed, which wreaked havoc on the bowels for anyone unlucky enough to come in contact with it. A strong enough dose could kill, but he knew they diluted it for the training sessions.
“When did you do this, boy?” One of the oldest brothers, Brother Mendic, asked.
Zion wondered for the millionth time if the wavering, querulous voice was real or affected.
“While Brother Solas was putting on his armor,” Zion said.
He could hear Solas’ snort of disbelief. “It was darker than the Well of Souls, boy.”
It was darker in the Catacombs, he wanted to say, but shrugged instead.
“Did you switch them last night? Or early this morning, perhaps?” Solas asked, throwing Zion’s blades to the ground, where they skidded and sparked on the stony ground.
“You would have noticed,” Zion said. He knew the Brothers kept their chambers carefully guarded, rigged with small traps to injure or merely detect an intruder’s passage.
“The boy is clearly lying,” Brother Calver said, crossing his arms across his thick chest, lips curling with thinly veiled contempt. “He will forfeit this test.”
Zion moved across the amphitheater with the particular silent walk he’d spent the first year of his novitiate perfecting until he was close enough to whisper in Solas’s ear. He was already almost as tall as the assassin, though he would never have the older man’s bulk.
“Do you really want to know?” he asked quietly.
Solas jerked his head in annoyance, but his eyes were wary.
“They don’t know about the Redheart, do they?” Zion held out the stolen blades hilts first, drawing Solas’s eyes to his hands to hide the assassin’s reaction to his words. Solas took the blades and pretended to examine them closely, giving an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
Zion lowered his voice further and said, “I could smell it on you, smell it in your sweat.”
He had heard of men that grew addicted to Redheart until it turned them into staring shells, no more than mindless sacks of flesh. Small amounts of the extract from the red and white flower would dull pain and ease sleep–the infirmary kept some on hand for serious wounds. Larger amounts taken regularly brought on euphoria and a raised tolerance for pain. There were stories of commanders who fed it to their soldiers before battle, allowing them to fight on through debilitating pain and exhaustion until they dropped dead, bleeding from a hundred mortal wounds.
He turned and walked back to face the Brothers. “If it is forfeit, I claim the right to return before you in a fortnight.”
“The boy passes.” Solas’s voice came from behind him. “Unconventional methods, perhaps, but he not only killed his enemy–” Solas held up the discarded protective tunic with the mark of Zion’s knife clear in the kill spot “–but anticipated and out-thought him.”
Zion stared down at his boots, unable to hide a quick grin at Solas’s words and disgruntled tone. The witnessing Brothers bent their gray and graying heads together and muttered among themselves. Zion could hear Brother Calver’s objections clearly. Calver was no friend of his and Zion knew the Brother did not think he belonged in the Order. He remembered the day Solas brought him to the Citadel, how the gates seemed to dwarf everything, and how frightened he was when brought before the Council for the first time.
The first time Zion saw Brother Mendic, he did not appear any younger or less gray, but his voice did not waver as much when he greeted Solas at the gate, kissing him on each cheek. They had left the caravan once they reached the hills and traveled the rest of the way on foot, spending one night in a small oasis. A lovely, jewel-bright pool surrounded by date trees and leafy palms. Zion thought longingly of it during the rest of their journey. Solas set a hard pace and it was hot and dry, but Zion clamped his mouth over his complaints as he bounced along on the back of a donkey in Solas’s wake. He had no experience with horses but couldn’t help envying the assassin’s mount–a roan stallion so dark he was almost black with the deceivingly delicate legs and arched neck that marked him as one of the desert stallions bred by the nomads who wandered the golden, shifting ocean of sand. He slid off the donkey’s back without being asked as soon as they reached the Citadel. He thought it small at first, until he realized it was the towering trees that dwarfed the building. The stone was black with age, patterned with lacy lichen and green moss, but the great wooden gates looked new, the wood and hinges gleaming as they opened silently. While he was craning his neck to look up at the battlements, trying to see some sign of what lay inside the walls, Solas and the men who had filed out of the Citadel fell silent.
“What’s this?” Mendic asked, cocking his head to the side and immediately reminding Zion of the greedy pigeons that scrounged for scraps in the market place.
“A new initiate, if he passes the first trial, Brother Mendic,” Solas said.
Zion eyed Solas sideways. His tone was indifferent and he did not look at Zion or give him any direction. Mendic shuffled forwards, looking more like an aging Abbot than any kind of assassin. Zion unconsciously straightened, thrusting his chin up and his chest forward, his hands hanging still at his sides. Solas had relieved Zion of all his knives when he drugged him, but his hands were weapon enough in a pinch. Mendic made a noise in his throat that could have been a cough or a grunt of acknowledgement. Zion did not look away as Mendic met his eyes, his gray irises strangely flat. After a few moments he jerked his head and the other Brothers came forward to take the reins of the donkey and Solas’s horse.
“Where did you find this one, Solas?” A younger brother stepped forward
If he had not been dressed in same dark blue cloak as the others, Zion would have taken him for a merchant or a nobleman’s son. He looked soft somehow, even though his shoulders strained the fabric of his cloak and muscle corded his neck.
“I watched him pick over a dozen pockets with no one the wiser. He may not be bright, but he has quick fingers.” Solas’s voice was noticeably cold in response.
“Minds can be quickened in time, Brother Calver,” Mendic said.
Calver snorted dismissively and turned on his heel, following the small crowd back through the gates. Zion looked to his so-called benefactor. Solas’s fingers flickered once at his side–part of the secret hand-talk of the brotherhood– another illicit lesson learned on the way to the Citadel. Zion recognized it immediately. Keep close. The literal command had Zion trotting at Solas’s heels through the gates before the second meaning of the signal struck him. Danger.
Brother Mendic’s phlegm-filled cough interrupted Zion’s apparent contemplation of his worn boots and he wiped all expression from his face.
“We the gathered witnesses,” Mendic intoned with a quaver, “have ruled that the boy has shown quickness of thought in addition to completing the required task. He therefore may consider himself to have passed the test and will continue in his training here.”
Zion wondered if Mendic’s pompous tone was habit or if he ignored the dwindling number of the Order that rendered such formality unnecessary.
“However,” Mendic continued. “Theft from a Brother is not a charge to be taken lightly and the boy will submit to Brother Solas for discipline.”
Zion tried to look contrite, but the expression felt unnatural and he simply looked towards his mentor who nodded curtly before striding past him out of the hall.