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Ward Against Death
Chronicles of a Reluctant Necromancer
By Melanie Card, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2011 Melanie Card
All rights reserved.
Even in death, Celia Carlyle was beautiful. Sculpted features framed by a pool of blue-black hair gave her an unearthly appearance. Her long eyelashes rested dark against skin that was likely pale before death.
Ward gripped his physician's bag with both hands, but they kept trembling. He could wake her. He had to. He'd spent his last quintaro this morning, and while his room was paid for ten more days, he still needed to eat. And there was no way he was going home to face his family as a failure twice.
Sweat dripped from his jaw, and the copper-rimmed spectacles he wore to make him look older than his twenty years slid down his nose. He tugged on his red velvet physician's jacket and brushed a quick hand along his hairline to ensure his curled and powdered wig was straight. Despite the slight breeze blowing in from the open windows, Brawenal City's summer nights were too hot for such things, but he had an appearance to maintain and a job to do.
He sucked in a quick breath.
An important job. One that could establish his fledgling career. If he just focused on the details, turned the situation into an intellectual problem, he might be able to forget her father waited across the hall.
He concentrated on the young woman swathed in silk sheets on a monstrous canopy bed.
How heartbreaking that someone his age could fall sick and die. Because of her beauty, her death must have been an emotional, political, and possibly financial blow to the family. In his summons, her father, Lord Carlyle, said she had died of a sudden illness. But there was no abnormal discoloration on her cheeks or around her eyes, nor any dried mucus around her lips or nose, which would have suggested an imbalance of her yellow bile. There were so few clues to this fascinating puzzle.
Ward set his bag at her feet and reached out to push back an eyelid.
He jerked his hand back. This was not a necropsy on a body he'd stolen from a graveyard. He hadn't been hired to determine her cause of death. This was a wake. All of her family—her very powerful family—waited a wing away for word that they could have a final fifteen minutes with their beautiful and cherished daughter. Besides, when he woke her, he could just as easily ask what her symptoms were before and during the illness—even if that was cheating.
With another breath, he opened his bag and removed a vial of cow's blood. He eased the stopper from the vial, dipped his little finger into the dark liquid, and drew an open goddess-eye on her forehead.
He could do this.
He imagined the power of the cow's spirit igniting the innate gift within him. Grandfather said it felt as if his entire body tingled, but Ward had never experienced that sensation, or any sensation related to his gift for that matter. He was blind to it, unable to sense the ebb and flow of life energy, but still able to manipulate it. Maybe that was why he struggled to perform anything more difficult than a wake.
Or better yet, maybe he wasn't destined to be a necromancer, but a surgeon. Surgery, however, had yet to be made legal, and his expulsion from the physicians' academy had ended his prospects of becoming a doctor.
And that was just the way things were.
Unclenching his jaw, he resigned himself, yet again, to his situation. He placed his left hand over her heart, his right hand on her forehead, and closed his eyes. He called on knowledge from the Light Son, power over the dead from the Dark Son, and grace and well-being from the Goddess. He envisioned the veil between worlds, a gauzy film of writhing mist—or so his grandfather said—opening, and the spark of her spirit flying back through it to her body.
She gasped. Icy blue eyes flew open and examined him, her gaze jumping from his face, to his wig, to his jacket, and back to his face. Her eyes narrowed and her hand snaked under her pillow. "It's not wise to enter a lady's bedchamber without her consent."
Ward plastered on his calmest, gentlest expression. The newly wakened dead often assumed they had just roused from sleep. "You've been unwell."
"Unwell? Is that what my father told you?" A hint of dark colored her tone.
"Yes, well ... in a manner of speaking." She wasn't acting the way she was supposed to. Noblewomen, particularly those around his age, were usually demure or aloof. They weren't ... suspicious.
"Well, I'm fine, and I'm sorry my father troubled you." She threw back the covers, sat up, and stepped onto the thick rug. "Now go, be a good doctor, and tell my family I'm healthy and sleeping." She punctuated her last word by pulling her nightdress over her head, revealing a slim waist, athletic muscles, and pale skin marked with the purple bruises of livor mortis along her back. And no other clothes.
"But—" He flushed and spun around to face the wall. "What are you doing?" No. Wait. What was he doing? He'd seen a dead naked woman before. Just never like this.
She chuckled. "I'm going for a walk."
"A what? No—You can't." She really wasn't acting the way she was supposed to.
"I beg to differ."
The situation was spiraling out of hand. Damn it, he had to take control. He was the necromancer, she the newly awakened. She was supposed to listen to him.
He turned to confront her. Thankfully, she was fully dressed—in men's clothes, but at least she was dressed. "Listen, I—"
She slipped her hand under her pillow and removed a sheathed dagger.
Great Goddess! She kept a dagger under her pillow? Ward inched toward the door to block her escape without appearing obvious, although he had no idea what he'd do if she fought him. Why did he always get stuck with the difficult corpses? Grandfather never mentioned anything about noblemen's daughters with daggers who insisted they were alive.
She shoved her feet into well-worn boots, grabbed a bulging rucksack from a nearby chair, and headed to the window.
He scrambled after her. "No, wait." His voice cracked and he gulped air, doing nothing to still his rising panic.
She hopped over the sill into the shadow of a lilac bush.
"Please. Stop. You're dead."
"I don't feel dead," she said over her shoulder in a singsong voice as she eased through the leafy branches.
Ward scurried out the window and crashed through the bush to keep her in sight, but tripped over an ornamental rock covered in dark moss. He landed on his hands and knees in the coarse grass at her feet. The sharp chirp of crickets and the high-pitched buzz of cicadas suddenly stopped, leaving his ears ringing at the silence. Behind her lay the dark rim of a reflection pool, its semi-circle pressed against the stone wall of the tiny garden and guarded by red and white roses.
"You took ill," he said, before she could climb the garden wall.
He nodded. "You were sick. Do you remember?"
She stared at him as if unable to understand. His heart pounded, and he waited for her to say something, anything. She sagged onto the rim of the pool, her expression stunned.
A breeze rustled the leaves on the rose bushes, making them hiss and sigh, whispering secrets.
"Then they've done it already."
A cricket gave a shrill chirp.
"Excuse me?" What an insensitive thing to say. She'd just said she'd been murdered.
Her expression softened. She knelt before him and cupped his chin in her hands. "I need your help."
"You what?" He'd barely worked his mind around the thought that she'd been murdered, and now she wanted help. His help. No. This was all wrong. She was all wrong. One moment she was suspicious, the next begging for help.
Her bottom lip quivered. She was so close, her breath caressed his forehead, and her subtle, heady perfume intoxicated him. Was it roses or lilacs? It was difficult to keep his thoughts straight. He'd never had such a beautiful woman pay this kind of attention to him before.
"Please. The Goddess sent you to me. She must have." She grabbed his hand and held it tight. "There isn't much time. My father will discover we're gone and ..." A single tear traced a line down her cheek.
His head swam, a wave of dizziness numbing all sensation, as if he was suspended in a dream. A beautiful, mesmerizing fantasy, but her words didn't fit. There was something wrong with them; he just couldn't concentrate enough to figure out what that was. It seemed preposterous she'd ask him for help.
"You were ill," he said, one final, weak protest.
"I wasn't, and you know it. Do I look ill?"
He shook his head, although she also didn't look as if she'd been beaten, or strangled, or stabbed. Some illnesses showed no signs or symptoms, but as soon as he thought it, he knew it wasn't true.
"Please. My father is sly," she said as if reading his thoughts. "Probably a rare poison, but I need proof."
He swallowed. It broke his heart to say it, but she had to know the truth. "You'll only be awake for fifteen minutes."
"I can prove it." Her eyes shimmered with more tears.
Goddess, how could he say no?
She was just so beautiful and so desperate, he had to do something. "There is another spell, a Jam de'U."
"Then cast that."
"It requires time and components." That, and he'd never attempted it before. He didn't even know if he could cast it, but he had to try.
An angry yell from within the house made him jump.
"What am I saying? If I'm caught—"
She pressed his palm to her cheek, her eyes wide and filled with fear. "Please. You have to believe me. I'm the only one who can bring me justice. My father is too powerful."
Could she really prove her own murder? This was ridiculous. She had to go back to her room. If they found her in the garden they'd accuse him of trying to steal her body, and he didn't want that kind of trouble ... not again. He reached for the goddess-eye brand on the back of his neck. It burned with remembered pain. Was there room for another Inquisitor's brand, or would he lose a body part this time?
"You're a doctor, right? You've taken the Oath?"
"Yes." But at the moment he was a necromancer, not a physician.
"I ask on your Physician's Oath."
His breath caught in his throat. Did the Oath he'd taken in the second-to-last year of his apprenticeship apply when the person was already dead? It said he couldn't refuse any soul in need, but surely the Master Physicians had meant soul in a literal sense. Of course, they didn't have the mystic senses of a necromancer. Would the Goddess see the distinction when it was his turn to cross over? If he refused Celia and her soul counted as part of his Oath, he'd face an eternity of torture for being an Oath-breaker.
"Don't let me die a tormented soul." She stood and met his gaze. Her eyes were still desperate, but there was a hardened determination there as well.
His heart contracted. He was ten times a fool and there was nothing to be done about it.
He nodded. Up down. Side to side. It didn't matter.
He followed as she climbed the garden wall, his hands finding holds in the stone, his body, of its own volition, dragging him up and over. All the while his mind, like a chorus in a mummer's tragedy, jeered and moaned the end of his career on the slim chance he'd saved his eternal soul.CHAPTER 2
Celia dropped from the wall, compensating for the sharp incline below with practiced precision, and crouched low in the tall grass.
Well, the boy ... necromancer ... whatever, couldn't be a player. It'd been too easy to convince him to come with her. She hadn't even had to bring up the anonymous note claiming an assassination assignment had been handed out on her life. Unless that was his plan. Perhaps whoever was after her had hired him to keep track of her in case she ran.
Which she had every intention of doing.
The problem was, she had no idea who was after her. Telling the necromancer it was her father just made it easier to leave since there was no guarantee she was safe under his roof. For all she knew, it really was him. As the Dominus of the Gentilica, lord of all illicit activity in Brawenal City, she wouldn't put it past him. She wouldn't put it past any of her fellow assassins or other family members either, since most were somehow involved in the family business.
She had thought her identity had remained a secret, but someone could have let it slip, and now her options for who was trying to murder her had blossomed to anyone in the city.
The evening breeze cooled her skin and teased her loose hair, and the waist-high grass tickled her face and hands. It smelled of salt and fish and kitchen smoke. Under her foot was a rock the size of her palm, a possible weapon—though not as effective as her hands, and messier.
A thud made her glance over her shoulder. The necromancer lay facedown in the grass, his ridiculous wig askew on his head and his spectacles hanging off one ear. If he got rid of those and the old man's coat, he'd probably be handsome.
Nope, he couldn't be out to manipulate her. He'd melted when she spun her lie and called on the Physician's Oath. A little pout, a few tears, and he was hers. Which meant—
She really was dead. But she didn't feel dead. Wasn't there supposed to be warmth and golden light when she crossed the veil?
She slunk down the hill on the east side of her father's estate, wading through thick grass and wildflowers. With eyes and hands brushing over dirt and rock, she felt for the nearby sewer grate. If she was dead, it was fortuitous she'd tricked the necromancer into coming with her. She'd have to keep him around, at least until he did that Jam de spell thing or she'd proven him wrong.
The necromancer scrambled to his feet and staggered down the hill toward her.
"So what now?" He folded his glasses and put them in an inside jacket pocket.
Someone yelled on the other side of the wall. She grabbed the necromancer's lapels and pulled him down.
"First," she said, taking his wig and throwing it down the hill, "we try not to stick out."
"That was my father's—"
She pressed a finger to his lips and strove to keep her voice even. She needed him compliant, and the damsel in distress card was the one easiest played. "We need to escape and hide."
"But my father bought that wig from a Yarbonian physician in Kaltreck," he said, his voice soft and sad and small.
Goddess be damned. She felt like she'd just kicked a puppy, but the wig was conspicuous. Too dangerous to keep if they wanted to escape. It was better off left in the grass.
But his gaze stayed on the wig, and something inside her squirmed. She had very few things of sentimental value, but those she cherished the most she kept on her person so they'd never be lost. She had a pair of knives from her mother—guess the necromancer had a wig from his father.
She bit back a growl. So much for being a cold-hearted assassin. She dragged him down the hill, grabbed the wig, and shoved it at him. "Keep it hidden."
He crammed it into the front of his jacket and opened his mouth, but she glared at him and he closed it. If they had to keep the wig, they could at least be quiet about it.
She continued her search for the sewer grate until her fingers struck the coarse bumps and pocks of old metal. Just where she remembered it. She found the hinges, braced her feet on either side of the grate, and, with it groaning in protest, heaved it open.
She didn't feel dead at all.
Which meant the necromancer had to be a player assigned to keep an eye on her.
His jaw dropped, and his eyes grew wide, as if he'd never seen someone force open a rusty sewer grate before.
A very good player. As much as she disliked the idea, she'd have to dispose of him before they got too far.
Straddling the hole, she placed her hands on either side of it, stretched her legs down, and felt with her feet for the ladder carved in the wall. Her toe caught something, and she shifted to get a better foothold. She put on her I'm-a-helpless-woman expression and looked at him. "Please. This is our only escape."
The necromancer swallowed and ran his hands down the front of his jacket. "In there?"
More yells from the direction of the house. Closer. Her father's men were likely scaling the garden wall at that very moment.
Excerpted from Ward Against Death by Melanie Card, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2011 Melanie Card. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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