Behind its walls, the Convent of Sweet Mercy has trained young girls to hone their skills for centuries. In Mystic Class, Novice Nona Grey has begun to learn the secrets of the universe. But so often even the deepest truths just make our choices harder. Before she leaves the convent, Nona must choose which order to dedicate herself to—and whether her path will lead to a life of prayer and service or one of the blade and the fist.
All that stands between her and these choices are the pride of a thwarted assassin, the designs of a would-be empress wielding the Inquisition like a knife, and the vengeance of the empire's richest lord.
As the world narrows around her, and her enemies attack her through the system she is sworn to, Nona must find her own path despite the competing pulls of friendship, revenge, ambition, and loyalty.
And in all this only one thing is certain: there will be blood.
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There are many poisons that will induce madness but none perhaps quite so effective as love. Sister Apple carried a hundred antidotes but she had drunk that particular draught of her own free will, knowing there was no cure.
Thorn and briar tore at her, the ice-wind howled, even the land opposed her with its steepness, with the long miles, the ground iron-hard. The Poisoner pressed on, worn, feeling each of her thirty years, her range-coat shredded in places, the tatters dancing to please the wind.
When the deer-track broke from cover to cross a broad and rutted track Apple followed without hesitation, eyes on the ranks of trees resuming their march on the far side.
"Stop!" A harsh cry close at hand.
Apple ignored it. Kettle had summoned her. She knew the direction, the distance, and the pain. Kettle had called her. Kettle would never call her from her watch, not even if her life were in danger. But she had called.
"Stop!" More voices raised, the dialect sharp-angled and hard to attach meaning to.
The treeline stood ten yards away across a ditch. Once she reached the shadows beneath the branches she would be safe. An arrow zipped past her. Apple glanced along the road.
Five Durnishmen spanned the width, their quilted armour salt-stained and mud-spattered, the iron plates sewn on shoulders and forearms brown with rust. Apple could reach the trees before the men caught her-but not before the next arrow or spear did.
Cursing, she reached both hands into her coat pockets. Some of the obscenities she uttered had probably never been spoken by a nun before. Even the Durnishmen seemed surprised.
"Don't kill me. I'm worth more to you alive." Apple tried not to sound as if she were lecturing a class. She drew her hands out, a wax capsule of boneless in one, a wrap of grey mustard in the other, and a small white pill between finger and thumb. She popped the pill into her mouth, hoping it was bitterwill. She had all the antidotes ordered inside the many inner pockets of her habit, but reaching in to recover one would be asking to get shot, so she chanced to memory, feel, and luck, fishing in the outer pocket of her range-coat.
"You . . . are nun?" The tallest of them took a pace forward, spear levelled. He was older than the other four. Weathered.
"Yes. A Holy Sister." She swallowed the pill, grimacing. It tasted like bitterwill. The four younger raiders, all with the same dark and shaggy hair, tightened their grip on their weapons, muttering to pagan gods. Perhaps one nun in a hundred was anything other than a Holy Sister but with the stories told in Durn they couldn't be blamed for thinking every woman in a habit was a Red Sister, or a Holy Witch just itching to blast them to smoking ruin. "A nun. From the convent."
"Convent." The leader rolled the word around his mouth. "Convent." He spat it past frost-cracked lips.
Apple nodded. She bit back on her desire to say, "With the big golden statue." The men had to walk into the trap themselves. If they sensed her leading them she would be dead in moments.
The leader glanced back at his men, gabbling out words that so nearly made sense. Durnish was like empire tongue put through a mincer and sprinkled with spice. She had the feeling that if they would just speak a little more slowly and change the emphasis it would all become comprehensible. Apple caught the two words that might keep her alive though. "Convent" and "gold." She broke the capsule of boneless in her fist and rubbed her fingers over her palm to spread the syrupy contents before wiping the hand over the back of her other and her wrist.
"You. Take us to convent." The man advanced another two paces gesturing with his spear for her to move.
"I won't!" Apple tried to sound scared rather than impatient. She thought of Kettle in danger, injured maybe, and fear entered her voice. "I can't. It's forbidden." She had to get them close. She couldn't do much if they prodded her ahead of them at the point of a spear. She let her gaze flit between the faces of the men, offering a wavering defiance. A defiance that they might enjoy breaking.
The leader motioned and two of his men advanced to grab Apple's arms. A third kept his bow ready, half-drawn, arrow pointing her way, daring her to run. The last leaned on his spear, grinning vacantly.
Apple feigned panic, raising her hands to intercept those that reached for her, but offering too little resistance to invite blows. One of the pair seemed to need no excuse and slapped her anyway, a hard, callused hand across the face. She spat blood and cried out for mercy. Both men were smeared with the clear boneless syrup now, sticky on their fingers.
The slapper twisted one arm behind her while the other made to open her coat, perhaps forgetting that the Ancestor's brides take a vow of poverty. Knowing he would find her array of poisons and cures rather than any gold or silver Apple wailed piteously, raising her clenched fist to remind them she had something more obviously hidden.
Slapper grunted incomprehensible syllables to Robber and the man abandoned the coat-ties to pry Apple's hand open. In taking hold of it he got a second dose of boneless wiped across the palm of his hand. With the bitterwill to counter the poison Apple felt only a numbness where the syrup coated her, the strength in her arms untouched.
Apple began crying out, keeping her fist clenched against Robber's weakening efforts. Slapper tried to twist her into submission and it hurt like fire but she managed enough resistance to stop him breaking the arm behind her. At the same time Apple threw herself left then right, her progress always towards the leader and the archer though she never once glanced their way. The Durns' hobnails slid on the mud. The remaining subordinates laughed uproariously at their comrades' efforts, making no move to help. The leader, snorting in disgust, motioned the archer forward then jammed his spear-butt into the mud and followed to intercept the group as they made a weaving approach.
Neither Slapper nor Robber yet seemed to understand that they had been poisoned, presumably believing instead that Apple was an abnormally strong woman, perhaps drawing some animal strength from the depths of her terror. Apple wrenched her fist to her face as the officer reached them. She blew through her closed hand, a short sharp puff, and a cloud of powder from the crushed wrap bloomed around the man's head. The edge of the cloud caught the archer just behind him.
True terror loaned Apple the strength to throw herself backwards, falling from the Durns' clutches to the rutted mud. She had seen what grey mustard could do and nothing in her array of antidotes would reduce the pain and disfigurement of it to an acceptable level.
The officer's screams shattered the air, the breath for his second cry sucking mustard spores into his lungs. The archer fell back, scratching at his eyes. Slapper and Robber staggered away, tripping and stumbling. Which left Apple empty-handed, on the ground, with one able-bodied foe just yards away, spear in hand.
Another person's distress exerts a certain fascination; the man stood in slack-jawed horror watching the officer claw his face to ruin. Apple glanced at the shadows between the trees. So close: a quick scramble could see her safe in their embrace. The need to be speeding towards Kettle drew at her even more strongly than the desire to escape. But Sisters of Discretion swear more than just vows of piety and poverty. Suppressing an impatient snarl, Apple drew her knife. She rose slowly from the mud amid the officer's bubbling screams, the archer's curses, and the struggles of the other two Durnishmen trying and failing to get to their feet. Her headdress had come loose and red hair spilled around her shoulders. The last of her coat-ties gave and her range-coat opened about her like the dark wings of a raptor. She held her knife ready to throw, a pouch of ground deadruff in the other hand in case she got the chance to take the spearman alive.
The raider saw her at the last moment, dragging his gaze from the frothing officer, now fallen into the ditch. As he lowered his spear Apple's hand rose in an underarm throw and an instant later the hilt of her knife jutted beneath his chin. He sat down, clutching his throat in confusion.
The archer stumbled close by, blinded with tears and blood. Apple took up a dropped spear and ran it through the man's chest. Next she went to offer mercy to the officer, now a twisting thing of mud and grass in the icy ditch water. She left him in a crimson bath and considered the two fallen Durns, Slapper and Robber. One had his face towards her and tracked the bloody tip of her spear with his eyes. Apple frowned, her gaze wandering to the treeline again, eager to be off. She had no stomach for killing helpless foes. In truth she had no stomach for killing. She had always been a better teacher than a doer.
Apple crouched. "Sisters of Discretion are supposed to pass unseen and be impossible to take unawares." She took two purple pills from her habit, brilliant groundwort. She had cured and prepared the roots herself, pressed the pills and sealed them in wax. "It's all very embarrassing. I won't tell if you don't." She peeled the pills quickly and popped one into the mouth of each man then rolled them so they wouldn't choke. "If nobody finds and kills you before you can move again-and believe me you deserve to be found and killed-then my advice is to run all the way back to your boat."
She wiped her hand on Slapper's cloak. The groundwort would make them sick for a week. A month if they swallowed too much. She considered leaving her dagger in the spearman's neck, but went to retrieve it, pulling the blade free with a shudder of revulsion. In the next moment she was moving, running for the trees, red blade in hand.
Apple had always been a teacher first, lacking the iron for the darkest shades of grey-work. Kettle though, she would never fail to do what was required, without relish or complaint. A perfect weapon. When duty called her she had the capacity to put her sweet nature in a box, ready for collection when the mission was complete. The thought of what it would take to get her to call for help made Apple shudder. Kettle would never willingly make Apple abandon the abbess's orders. Arabella Jotsis stood alone in the wild now, unwatched.
Apple pressed on, using all her resolve to pace herself rather than to sprint. Miles lay ahead. She dodged around trees, following a deer track for a while then leaving it to pursue a stream, rotten with ice.
Kettle had been watching Nona. Had something happened to the child? She was fearless, fierce, and quicker than thinking, but there were more dangerous things out in the Corridor than Nona Grey. Perhaps it was Nona that needed help . . . Apple shook the thought away: the pain had been Kettle's, and the fear.
A swirling fog came in, lifted somewhere by the moon's focus and carried perhaps for days in the ice-wind. The forest clutched at her, sought to trip her at every step, tried to lure her from her path with easier tracks. In the blind whiteness Apple found her way, following the faint echo of Kettle's cry through the shadow.
Many miles became few miles and, as the fog cleared, became a singular remaining mile. The land had opened up into heath where the soil stood too thin and too sour for crops. Farmsteads lay scattered, raising sheep and goats; few houses stood close enough to see one from the next. Apple picked up speed, running now as she crossed rough ground, divided here and there by grassed-over lanes and collapsed walls of dry stone. Ahead the land dipped. In the broad valley a stream threaded its path between stands of trees before losing itself in a thicker extent of woodland. Kettle waited among those woods, Apple could feel it; her nearness tugged at the scar her shadow-cry had left.
Apple slowed as she approached the first trees. She had been careless before: her haste had delivered her into the hands of men she could have stepped around unnoticed if she had kept her focus. She moved between two elms and the shadows flowed around her, raised with both hands. Shade-work had always come easy to her. Darkness pooled in her palms. When the shadows answered her will it felt as if she had remembered some name that had long escaped her, or recognized the solution to a puzzle, a sort of mental relief, joy almost. Other shadow-magic had been worked within the woods. The empty spaces shivered with the echoes of it. Kettle's cry lay there, sharp and deep, but other traces too, the sour workings of Noi-Guin. Apple had tasted their like before, back at Sweet Mercy on the night Thuran Tacsis had sent two of them to kill Nona. Quite how they had failed in that task was beyond her.
Apple wrapped herself in darkness and sought the patience of the Grey Sister. Mistress Path had taught her the mantras twenty years ago and Apple had made them part of her own foundation, woven through her core. Today though, with Kettle's distress throbbing through the shadow, patience came hard.
The undergrowth scratched and tore and rustled with each step Apple took. She felt as raw as any novice, her woodcraft rusty with disuse, certain that her advance would be heard by any foe within a thousand yards. Bait the trap. A tactic as old as killing. Leave a comrade, a friend, a lover wounded, then wait and watch. A Noi-Guin could be resting among the branches of any tree, crossbow ready, bolt envenomed.
Kettle wouldn't have called me if that were true. Apple advanced, leaving patience behind her but bringing the shadows.
All that drew her eyes to Kettle was the bond between them. The nun lay at the base of a great frost-oak, the length of her body fitting around the rise and fall of roots. Leaves covered her range-coat, leaves and mud, her headdress gone, the spread of raven hair showing the paleness of her face only in thin slices. She lay sprawled like a dead thing, a part of the forest floor, a work of camouflage of which any Grey Sister would be proud.