Danis woke up in the middle of the night and lay with her heart pounding, trying to convince herself she had only imagined the sound that had woken her. She had waited for that sound for five years, prepared for it day after day, dreamed of it night after night. Yet now that it had come she didn’t know what to do. A part of her wanted just to close her eyes and drift back into sleep. She would never know, then, whether she had really heard it or not . . .
. . . and never feel the knife sliding between her ribs if she had.
With a twist of her body, Danis was out of her hammock and onto the floor, her bare feet light on the cold stone. In the corner, her sister Esta twisted and grunted in her sleep. Her other two sisters lay still as stones in their hammocks near the wall. Danis’s day clothes were all the way on their side of the room; after a moment’s hesitation, she turned toward the door. Whether she was right or wrong about the sound, she would need no more covering than the short tunic she wore to sleep. She fingered the rat-tooth necklace that hung around her neck, then swallowed hard and forced her feet to move.
Out in the hall, all seemed still. To her right, a cacophony of snores emanated from the room her brothers slept in. To her left, her parents’ room was equally still. . . but her parents worked hard and slept soundly, and it took a lot to wake them. Danis listened for a moment and heard nothing—but then, the priests’ assassins weren’t called the Silent Blades for nothing. Not bothering to tiptoe, she walked into her parents’ room.
It felt odd and wrong to see them asleep—two lumps in a bed rather than the authoritative rule-givers she knew. Behind the bed, a dark figure was just straightening. He looked at her, his expression hidden by the darkness.
“Hello, Dani,” he said, his voice completely calm.
“Hello, Renn,” Danis said to her oldest brother.
Renn smiled—even in the darkness, she could see his teeth flash white. “I’m glad you’re here. Were you the one who put that bag of pebbles in the tree?”
“Yes,” Danis said.
“How did you know I would climb it?”
“I used to spy on you,” Danis said. “You would climb in that way whenever you didn’t want Ma and Da to know you were out.”
Her eyes had adjusted to the light, and she could see now how he had changed. Not very much . . . his shoulders were broader, his chiseled face a bit more filled-out. He looked just like the brother she had worshipped for the first eight years of her life. She had thought his eyes would have changed, but they were the same, direct and merry and ever-so-slightly wild.
Right now there was nothing in those eyes but grudging admiration, and she felt some tension drain out of her body despite herself. “I know what you did when you snuck out, too,” she said, even though there was no real reason to. “I even saw your knives.”
Renn grimaced slightly. “I underestimated you, didn’t I?”
Did he mean then, or now? Danis tensed again. “Ma always forbade you to take lessons from that man. She would never say why.”
Renn made a face. “Oh, she said why. She gave a million reasons. It took time from my chores and studies. She was afraid I would get hurt. On and on. None of them was the real reason, of course.”
She wouldn’t have dared say the real reason. It was supposed to be an honor to have a child chosen to be a Silent Blade, killing at the gods’ command. It guaranteed you a high rebirth, especially after he . . .
Danis raised her head suddenly and said, “It almost killed her when you disappeared.”
Something flickered in Renn’s eyes. Sensing her advantage, Danis added, “You were her favorite. She was always afraid the slavers would take you because you were so handsome.”
He didn’t react at all, and that clinched it. Danis felt her heart sink. Renn’s one fault, even in his adoring younger sister’s eyes, had always been his vanity. He had been as proud of his chiseled looks as a peacock was of its feathers. But judging from the expression on his face, his good looks meant nothing to him now. They were irrelevant . . . valueless.
During the initiation, after their final tests, the Silent Blades were said to scar their faces horribly.
“It wasn’t slavers who took you, though, was it?” Danis said.
Her brother just looked at her for a moment, then walked around the bed and came toward her. He moved differently—smooth, graceful, his feet making no sound at all. He had never been able to manage that before. In their secret midnight escapades he had always been the clumsy one, stepping on branches, knocking over chairs. Usually the noise hadn’t been enough to get them caught, but she would see the look on his face and begin to giggle, and then they would both laugh hard enough to wake up even their parents.
Renn came to a stop in front of her. He was wearing black silk—Danis had only seen silk from a distance before—and the shimmering tunic clung to a body that was muscled as it never had been before. But his eyes were the same, and she felt her fear disintegrate under their steady gaze.
“Come outside, Dani,” he said.
Outside. Farther from everyone else sleeping in the house. That would be good. Danis nodded and reached for his hand.
For a moment he seemed startled. Then he smiled, a real smile, and Danis smiled back.
She had forgotten. In all the years of waiting and fearing, she had forgotten how much she loved him. Her brother who shared with her and taught her and protected her. Who didn’t make fun of her even when she cried, and hugged her even in front of his friends. Who kept her secrets and took her problems seriously.
He held her hand until they were out in the empty street, a sliver of moon nestling in the black sky just over her house. Then he pulled his hand away, looked her up and down and said, “Gods, you’ve grown. How old are you now—twelve?”
“Thirteen,” Danis said. “Renn—what happened to you?”
There was a moment of heavy silence, and then Renn said, “You know what happened.”
He had been eleven when he disappeared. The Silent Blades looked for children between the ages of nine and twelve, old enough to show signs of skill but young enough to be trained. Tales of what those children went through—of how many died during their training period—were whispered even in remote villages like this one. Children who survived the training would be deadly assassins, weapons in the hands of the gods. Skilled in every weapon imaginable, fast and cunning and completely without mercy or remorse. Once initiated they would be scarred so that their faces were barely recognizable, and then they would never wear anything but black silk again.
But before the initiation—and at this point whispers would grow even lower, hardly audible—there was a final test. To ensure not just competence but remorselessness.
“I’m sorry,” Danis whispered.
He laughed harshly. “It was my own fault. Ma was right. The old man must have been scouting for them. I thought they were slavers at first. Maybe it would have been better if they had been.”
“Was it—terrible?” Danis asked hesitantly.
He shivered. “You have no idea.”
Silence. Danis reached up and fingered her necklace again, not knowing what to say. She couldn’t come straight out and ask him. The necklace broke, and she looked down with dismay at the strand of teeth in her hand. Her fingers were shaking.
Renn solved her dilemma by looking at her and saying, “You’ve heard of the final test?”
She dropped her hands to her sides. “Yes. Rumors.”
Rumors said that as a final test, before becoming true Silent Blades, the trainees were required to assassinate their families.
“Rumors,” Renn repeated, sounding almost giddy. “Well. It’s good to know that even they can’t control everything. It’s supposed to be a deep secret.”
“Are you going to do it?” Danis whispered.
He looked up sharply, and she felt something tear through her heart at the pain in his eyes.
“Ah, gods, Dani, how can you ask me that?”
Danis closed her eyes and felt tears squeeze through her lashes. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
“I have to come here. They don’t give you choices, Dani—not until now. Now I have my choice. Now I either succeed or fail.”
Danis opened her eyes. The night was slightly blurry. “Did you ever kill anyone, Renn?”
His answering silence was too long. When he finally spoke, he sounded as if he was about to cry. “Please don’t ask me questions, Dani.”
Her brother. Laughing with her, holding her when she cried. Fighting with her, too, but he was always the first to want to make up afterward.
“You don’t know,” Renn said. “You don’t know what they do to you, if you don’t do what they want. Follow orders. Any orders. I know I . . . I know what I’ve become, Dani, but don’t look at me like that. You don’t have the right!”
Danis took a deep, shaky breath. “What did they do to you?”
“I’m not going to answer that, little sister. And you don’t want to know.”
“I do.” Danis took a step closer to him. “Is it magic?”
He blinked. “Magic?”
“Do they suck the soul out of you, to make you capable of—”
Renn choked out a laugh before she could finish. “Oh, gods. Not all rumors are true, Dani.”
“No magic. Not even a lot of torture. Just . . . talking. No, not even talking. Just being in a place where everyone thinks a certain way, and before you know it you’re thinking that way too. And they’re kind, sometimes, when they’re not . . .” He broke off and shook his head. “You can’t understand unless you’ve lived through it.”
Not a lot of torture, he had said. Danis felt slightly sick.
“How could they get anyone to kill their own family?” she demanded.
Renn smiled sadly. “That part I still don’t understand. But what you don’t understand, Dani, is that it’s going to hurt me not to do it. I’m letting them down, you see. Betraying their trust. It’s the most despicable thing a Blade can do, to throw away his final test without even trying.”
“More despicable than killing his family?” Danis said in disbelief.
“I know you don’t think so. I don’t think so. But I feel it. It’s like pride or guilt or shame . . . it doesn’t matter what you think. It’s not what I think that’s stopping me. It’s what I feel . . . other things I feel. They won’t let me do it.”
“You climbed into their room,” Danis said.
“I thought I had to try. I knew I would fail, but . . . still, I’m glad you came in, Dani. When I saw you, I couldn’t even draw my knife.”
Was he admitting that he had nearly succeeded? Danis shivered and thought, He’s not even my brother anymore. Not the one I knew. But his eyes hadn’t changed.
“Danis,” Renn said. “Listen. You were always the strongest. You’re going to have to kill me.”
“What?” she said sharply. “Why?”
“Because that would be an acceptable sort of failure, in their eyes.”
“What sort of—”
“Don’t argue with me!”
Danis hesitated for a long second, scared by how easily she knew that she could do it. He was the same brother who had cleaned her scrapes and taught her to climb trees.
How could his eyes be the same when he was now a murderer?
“Danis, listen. You have to do as I—”
She felt herself rushing forward, throwing her arms around his neck and burying her face in his chest. The strand of teeth still clutched in her hand must have bit into his neck, but he didn’t flinch. After a surprised moment, his arms went around her. She felt the tears tracking down her cheeks, even though she wasn’t conscious of crying. Her insides felt dead. She had hugged Renn hundreds of times, but she had never touched silk before.
Then he staggered back and she let go of him. There was a dagger in his hand. She looked at it steadily, then up at him.
His eyes were like chips of stone. Killer’s eyes.
After five years as a Blade, if his eyes were the same, it could only be because he was a very good actor. She had known that, much as she had wished it wasn’t true.
“Why didn’t you just kill me at once?” she asked, surprised at how steady her voice came out.
“There’s an order,” he said flatly. “Parents first. I had to get you out of the way—” And then he staggered again and reached out to touch the back of his neck, the spot where she had dug the teeth of the necklace in. He smiled.
“I underestimated you again, didn’t I?”
Danis just watched him fall to his knees. His eyes never left her face.
“Gods, little sister! You’ve been wearing a poisoned necklace for the past five years?” He laughed, and it turned into a cough. “But if you think you’ve saved them, you’re wrong.”
“What do you mean?” Danis asked, watching him closely.
“You asked how they could make someone kill his own family. Here’s part of the answer. If the trainee fails, they come after his family anyhow. Part of his punishment, even if he’s dead. And they kill them, painfully.”
“I know,” Danis said. “The rumors were very complete.”
He was turning white. It was a very fast poison. “Then what did you think you’d accomplish? They’ll come to get my body and then they’ll kill—”
“Unless they have a reason not to,” Danis told him. “Unless they need them to stay alive . . . for a future test.”
His eyes widened, and for a moment she actually saw horror in them. Then they went blank, and he toppled over onto his face. Danis walked over to his corpse, looked at it for a moment, then knelt and removed the dagger from his hand.
Thirteen was old for a recruit, but not unheard of.
No magic, he had said. That was the important part. She had no defenses against magic. But brainwashing . . . she thought she could stand up to that.
Even though Renn couldn’t? a voice in her mind whispered, and her lips tightened.
Yes. She was going into this prepared. Into a culture where assassins trained other assassins, and then relied on feelings like guilt and shame and honor to keep their students in line. To make them obey.
To prevent them, once they were skilled enough, from turning on their trainers.
Give me strength, she prayed, turning the dagger over in her hand. Then she sat cross-legged on the ground next to her brother’s body and waited for the Blades to come.