I am so focused on reaching the stairs and on the instructions going through my head that I do not see the big oaf who has risen from his bench until I run into him.
“Oho!” he cries as he grabs my arms to keep me from falling. “I’ve found a tasty morsel for my dinner.”
His hood is drawn close around his head, shadowing his face, and his straw hat hangs down his back, marking him as one who toils in the fields. Annoyance flickers in my chest. I have no time for delays; I am eager to try my wings. I start to tell him to get out of my way then realize that he could be part of the test the abbess has set for me. I cast my eyes downward. “Someone waits for me upstairs.”
It works too well, for I can feel his gaze on me growing warm. Interested. Instead of stepping aside, he draws closer, backing me up against the wall. My heart beats frantically at being trapped like this, but I force my mind to calm, reminding myself that he is likely just a peasant who is nothing to me. I shove against the oaf ’s chest, which is as hard as iron from days spent pushing a plow in the fields. “I will get in much trouble if I am late.” I am sure to make my voice waver slightly so he will think I am afraid.
After a long moment, he steps aside. “Hurry back down to Hervé when you are done, eh?” he whispers in my ear. His big, greedy hand slides down and slaps my rump, and test or no, it is all I can do to keep from gutting him then and there. Keeping my eyes down so he cannot see my fury, I nod, then hurry on my way as he returns to his bench.
At the top of the stairwell, a serving maid struggles with a heavy tray. By the time I reach the landing, she has paused in front of a door. First door on the right.
Jean Runnion’s door.
Use the tools and opportunities Mortain places in front of you. It is one of the first lessons we learn at the convent. “Is that for Monsieur Runnion?” I call out.
Startled, the maid turns her head. “Yes. He asked for his dinner to be served in his room.”
As well he might. He has good reason to stay hidden. Bretons have long memories where traitors are concerned, and we do not forgive easily. I hurry forward. “I will take the tray to him,” I offer. “He is in a foul mood tonight.”
The maid is suspicious and frowns at me. “How do you know this?”
I give her a cold smile. “Because his man warned me of such when he came to fetch me for the evening.”
A look of contempt appears on her face. I am torn between pride that she finds my pretense believable and annoyance that she thinks me a harlot. It is exactly as Sister Beatriz said it would be: People hear and see what they expect to hear and see. But just because we have been trained to use that to our advantage does not mean I like it.
The maid shoves the tray into my hands and I have to grab quickly to keep it from tumbling to the ground.
with one last swish of her skirts, she clatters down the stairs, leaving me alone with only a thick oaken door between me and my first assignment.
Three years of lessons crowd my head at once, bumping into each other like an unsettled flock of pigeons. I remind myself that there is nothing to fear. I mixed the poison with my own hand. It contains a slow-acting toxin, one especially chosen so that I will be far away before the traitor dies, giving me enough time to escape should something go wrong. To everyone else, it will merely appear as if he is in a deep, wine-sodden sleep.
But nothing will go wrong, I tell myself. Shifting the weight of the tray, I rap on the door. “Your dinner, monsieur.”
"Entré” comes the muffled voice.
I open the door, then juggle the tray again so I can close it firmly behind me. Runnion doesn’t even look up. He is sprawled in a chair in front of the fire, drinking from a cup of wine. A jug sits on the floor next to him. “Just put it on the table,” he instructs.
The years have not been kind to him. His face is deeply lined and his hair lank and gray. Indeed, he looks almost ill, as if his guilty conscience has eaten away at his soul.
If so, I am surely about to do him a favor. I set the tray down. "Would monsieur like me to refill his cup before I go?” I ask.
“Yes. Then leave,” he commands. His dismissive manner makes me even happier that he will not be able to order anyone else around after tonight.
As I move toward his chair, I lift a hand to the finely woven net around my hair and slip one of the pearls from it. I bend over to pick up the wine jug, pausing to look at his face. There is a great dark smudge around his lips, as if Mortain has pressed His thumb into the blackness of the man’s soul and smeared it along his mouth to say, Here, this is how he will die.
Thus reassured, I slip the pearl into the wine, swirl the jug twice, then pick up Runnion’s cup and fill it.
I hand it to him, and he takes a sip, then another. As I watch, Runnion looks up from his cup and scowls at me. "Where is the other girl?”
I have overstayed my welcome. “She was busy downstairs and asked me to come.”
even as his bleary eyes move to my traveling cloak, I begin heading toward the door. I want to be away from here before his wine-soaked mind begins to draw any conclusions.
"Wait!” he calls out, and I freeze, my heart beating wildly in my chest.
“Leave the jug,” he orders.
I look down and see that I still carry the wine jug in my hand. Careless! “But of course, monsieur,” I say, then set the jug on the floor next to him. I risk another glance from under my lashes, but he’s turned back to the fire.
At the door, I pause one last time, waiting until he takes another sip of wine, then another. I cross myself and bow my head, commending the traitor’s soul into Mortain’s keeping. As I reach for the door, it bursts open. A large form stands there, outlined by the torchlight from the hallway. His hood is still pulled up close around his face, but I recognize the hulking figure of Hervé.
Merde! Could he not have waited till I went back downstairs?
I step away from the door and throw a look over my shoulder to gauge the distance to the window. Hervé follows my gaze and swears when he sees Runnion, who looks as if he has passed out in a wine-sodden stupor. while Hervé rushes to Runnion’s side, I take the opportunity Mortain has provided me and bolt for the window.
It is a long ride back to the convent, but my sense of triumph keeps me warm. I want to crow to the heavens that I have served my god and my convent well, but Sister Serafina has told me many times that pride is a sin, and so I do not.
Plus, it would frighten my horse. I reach down and pat Nocturne’s neck, just in case my exhilaration is making her uneasy.
The one sour note in my triumph is the oafish peasant who came upstairs. Part of me wishes I’d stayed to fight with him, tested my skills against his, for surely he would be no match for one trained such as I. we are allowed to kill in self-defense, whether the opponent has a marque or not, and I could have avenged myself for his overly familiar groping.
However, since the whole point of this first assignment is to demonstrate my obedience, I think I have made the right choice in walking away.
The thrill of success is still humming through my veins when I reach the ferryman — the same one who rowed me out to the convent when I first arrived. Tonight, he takes Nocturne and has his son — who is nearly as ancient as he is — return the horse to the stables. As I climb into the waiting boat, his eyes slide away from me, afraid that if he stares too long, he might come to know what I’ve been up to.
I cannot wait to lay my success at the reverend mother’s feet. I want to prove to her that she was right to take me in, that she chose wisely in offering me a home. I want her to see that I have passed her test.
That I was picked over Annith brings me joy, even as my heart breaks for her. But perhaps the abbess has seen some special skill or spark in me, one that makes me shine brighter than Annith and the others.
The boat crunches up onto the stony beach and I step out, doing my best to keep my fine gown clear of the surf. “Thank you,” I say; I wave goodbye to the ferryman, but he is already rowing back out to sea.
eager to make my report to the abbess, I hurry toward the convent. As I pass the standing stone, I kiss the tips of my fingers and press them to the cold rough surface in a quick prayer of thanks to Mortain for guiding my hand.
The sun is just beginning to rise, but the chickens are already at their morning scratching. The reverend mother too is an early riser and already sits at her desk. I knock on her open door.
She looks up from her paperwork. “You’re back.”
“Yes, Reverend Mother.”
She puts down the unopened letter she was holding and gives me her full attention. “It went well?”
I try not to preen. “Very well. It was exactly as you and Sister Vereda said. The marque was clear upon the traitor, and the poison was just beginning to work as I left.”
“Good.” She nods her head, satisfied. “You are safely returned to us before any will know he is dead. An easy, clean first kill, as it should be. No one saw you?”
“No one. except for the maid, who thought exactly what Sister Beatriz told us she would think.” I hesitate, filled with regret that Hervé has tainted my first assignment but knowing I cannot risk omitting him from my report, in case he is part of the test. “And a farmer from the fields who tried to delay me. For a dalliance, I think.”
The corner of her mouth quirks up in amusement. “I trust you were able to take care of that?”
“But of course, Reverend Mother.”
Her eyes narrow. “Did you kill him?”
“No! He was not assigned to me, nor did he bear a marque.”
“Good.” She seems pleased with my account. “Do you wish to rest for a few hours before joining the others?”
“No, thank you.” I am far too excited to even think of sleep.
She smiles, as if she knows full well why I cannot sleep. “Very well. Once you have changed, report to Sister Thomine in the courtyard. Leave your clothes on the bed, and Sister Beatriz will fetch them shortly.” She gives a nod of dismissal, then cracks open the seal on the letter in front of her. Just before I step into the hall, she calls out, “Ismae?”
“Yes, Reverend Mother?”
“Your second test will come soon,” she says, not looking up from her correspondence. “It will not be this easy.”
I cannot tell if her words are meant as a promise or a warning, so I take them as both. In the dormitory, I change quickly and leave my finery on the bed. As I lace up my plain gray habit, I glance out the window. Sister Thomine is leading the others in evasive techniques. well and good, as I need to discharge some of this pent-up excitement. I hurry out to join them.
Four of the younger girls are grappling together, and Sister Thomine has paired herself with Annith. when she sees me, she waves me over, glad to pass off this duty to someone else.
Annith is highly skilled in this art.
As she steps away, I bow formally to Annith. She returns the bow, then takes her stance. As I take mine, I suppress a snort of laughter. If only that oaf from the tavern could see me now.
And then Annith comes at me in a quick flash of supple muscles and sleek limbs as she steps inside my guard and wraps her arms around my neck. “How did it go?” she whispers.
“Perfectly.” I bring both my arms up and jerk them outward, breaking her grip. “As smooth as Sister Beatriz’s finest silk.”
Annith feints to the side, then grabs my arm and twists it behind my back. “There were no difficulties?”
I grit my teeth against the pain. “None. except for bit of lip from a serving maid and a grope from a drunken oaf, but that was all. I even saw the marque of Mortain,” I whisper.
“But you have not yet received the Tears of Mortain!” she says, relaxing her hold.
“I know.” I try to keep the smugness from my voice, but it is there all the same. To distract her, I step sharply back to knock her off balance, then spin out of her loosened grip and continue moving until I am behind her with my right arm tight against her throat. “Don’t worry, though. I’m sure it will be your turn soon.”
“Girls!” Sister Thomine calls out. "Enough chatter, unless your plan is to talk your victims to death.”
Annith reaches up and pinches a spot at the base of my wrist. My hand goes numb and she slides out of my grasp. I try to hold on to her with one hand, but she is slippery as an eel and evades my hold. “No news of Sybella yet?” I ask as I shake off the numbness.
Annith springs behind me. Like a whipcord, her arm comes around my neck. “No, none of the sisters will breathe a word. And if Reverend Mother talks of her, she does so only when I am asleep and cannot listen at the door. It is as if Sybella has ceased to exist,” she says just before she tries to choke me.
I tuck my chin under to block her attempt. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.” My words are thick and garbled under her grip at my throat. “This is her third assignment, after all.”
Annith grunts, and I know her thoughts turn to their familiar concern — why others have been chosen and she has not. She grabs my arm, spins around in front of me, then levers my body over her shoulder. For one brief moment I fly through the air. The painful landing on my back forces all the breath from my lungs, and I gasp like a caught fish.
“Fourth,” Annith says, looking down at me. “It is her fourth assignment.”
“Careful!” Sister Serafina scolds. “Don’t let it boil or it will turn to resin and be of no use.”
“Yes, Sister.” I keep my eyes fixed on the small flask I hold over the flame. Tiny bubbles have begun to form along the sides of the glass, but it is not boiling. Not yet.