Assassins’ Academy II

         When the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palpable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
         “There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
         He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
         “Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
         Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls. Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
         When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
         “And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
         “Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
         “What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
         “The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
         “But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
         Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
         “That wasn’t one of the rules.”
         Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other, minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long. Zion knew he was lying, had seen the tremor that ran through Calver’s hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. He knew Calver lied and he knew why.
         Brother Calver was afraid of him.

Assassins’ Academy

This is part of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning so you won’t be confused.

         Zion sat on one of the narrow cots that ran the length of the infirmary, gritting his teeth as he carefully stitched up the thin slices on his arms and legs. One of the first lessons he learned was stitching his own wounds. Brother Garth handed him a bowl filled with a thick brown paste and he smeared the healing ointment over the gashes before stitching them. Brother Garth treated the Brotherhood for serious wounds and illnesses when they arose, though most brothers could equal his skill in healing more minor complaints. Zion wondered if Garth knew of Brother Solas’s penchant for Redheart. It was unlikely. If he knew, he’d be forced to bring it before Mendic and the other Elder Brothers. Garth was silent as he worked with his herbs and salves; the knife that took his tongue left him with no other speech than the sign language of the Brotherhood. Zion finished his stitching and sat for a moment, enjoying the cool quiet of the Infirmary.
        The noises of sparring outside were muffled and the smell of fresh herbs and ungents was soothing.  Zion had imagined once that the building where assassins trained would be dark and dank, but the sandstone floors were always swept clean and the walls freshly whitewashed each spring. The different training arenas–most of which ran underground–were more suited to his imaginings. He shut his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall and letting his mind empty. It was the first lesson the Brothers taught them–to seek the quietest corner of their own mind and enfold themselves in it. Calm and control were the marks of a focused mind and only with that focus could they perform their duties for the Order. It was difficult to believe five years had passed. Sometimes it felt like only moments, other days he could hardly remember his life before Solas and the Order. The nights when he woke bathed in a cold sweat after dreaming that Rael had found him and planned to gut him like the fish he used to steal from nets at the docks came rarely. Zion couldn’t decide which was worse–the nightmares about Rael or the nights he dreamed about his mother and sisters, dreams that left a strange ache beneath his ribs that no amount of food or distraction could erase. He tried to regain the void, but his mind was filled with his most recent past time–imagining Rael’s face when he killed him. He focused instead on the gentle rustling as Garth sorted herbs and folded bandages.

         When he first met Garth, he did not understand how Garth maintained his cheerful silence. Now, he sometimes wondered if he would forget to speak.  So many of the interactions between the brothers in the Order were silent–not merely the hand-talk they used almost without thinking, but the body language and facial expressions. They studied these as well. Knowing someone’s thoughts was as easy as reading their face, the way they walked, what they did with their hands. Change your face, your walk, your gestures, and you could become anyone. Zion had learned that lesson more quickly than the other boys in his year–not only because it built on the skills he learned with Rael, but because he soon found that the circumstances in which he came to the Order were unusual and brought a level of notice from the other boys he could have happily gone without.  Most boys came to the Order well before their thirteenth years. Zion had been old for a novice. Brother Calver insisted he be placed with the seven and eight year olds and fought against moving him up to train with the older boys for months, despite his quick advancement. Solas finally stepped in one afternoon during Zion’s third month with the order. He was sparring with the younger boys and barely containing his anger. It had been a long day and fighting with boys half his size and age was wearing on him.
         “You could have killed them all,” Solas had said after calling a halt to the hand-to-hand fighting.
         The younger boys were sprawled, panting, around the training yard. Many were nursing bruises and aching heads and one boy was still cross-eyed from the minutes he spent unconscious.
         The next day, he was moved into the room where the fourteen-year-olds lived. Brother Calver’s expression at breakfast when he sat with his new year almost made the three months of humiliation worth it. Training was more challenging but he also endured months of taunts, of finding his clothing stolen or soaked with water or urine, of having his food snatched away from him. He knew fighting them would only make the tormenting increase, and it was no worse than what he had experienced from Rael and the sewer rats in the catacombs. Eventually the pranks ceased as the training drove all else from their minds and they fell into bed too exhausted to even mock one another. In addition to the individual trials, which took place every few months, they began group trials. These pitted all the boys in one age group against each other and were meant to weed out the unfit before the individual trials. In the first few years of training, boys often died in the trials. As they grew older, those who failed but survived were ejected from the Order. When the time came for his first group trial with the older boys, there were only ten including Zion, left in the fourteens.  The group trials were less likely to end in death or serious injury, but, as the Brothers always reminded them, the trials were still meant to test them to the breaking point.

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