Poison Study Page 31

She scowled at me. “I don’t know what Rand sees in you,” she said.

Not a friendly way to start a conversation. “Excuse me,” I said, keeping my tone neutral.

“He missed the fire dance looking for you. And ever since you came around, the kitchen routine has been destroyed. The staff’s flustered.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Before you showed up, Rand’s mood swings were predictable. Cheerful and content when Dilana was happy and the gambling was profitable, moody and sullen when they weren’t. Then…” Liza stressed the word. Her plain cornmeal face creased into an ugly expression, which she aimed at me. “You befriend him. He starts snarling at the kitchen staff for no reason. Even winning a big payoff, Rand’s still depressed. It’s frustrating. We’ve come to the conclusion that you must be trying to steal him away from Dilana. We want you to stop, leave him alone and stay out of the kitchen.”

Liza had picked the worst time to accost me. Having just escaped a brush with death had put matters into perspective. I wasn’t in the best frame of mind. Pure rage flared; I grabbed her arm and spun her around to face me. We stood nose to nose.

“ You have concluded? The combined brainpower of the kitchen staff probably couldn’t light a candle. Our friendship is none of your business. So I suggest you rethink your hypothesis. If there’s a problem in the kitchen, then deal with it. You’re wasting your time whining about it to me.” I pushed her away. I could tell by her shocked expression that she hadn’t expected such a fierce response.

Too bad for her, I thought as I hurried to catch up with the others, leaving her to walk alone. What did she want me to do? Had she assumed that I would meekly agree to stop talking to Rand just to smooth things in the kitchen? I wasn’t going to let her unload her problems on me; I was already overloaded with my own. Like why would a magician from Sitia want to kill me?

At the castle, I said good-night to Rand and Dilana and rushed to Valek’s suite. As much as I wanted to be inside, I cajoled one of the outer-door guards to check Valek’s rooms for intruders before I went in. Murder attempts combined with an overactive imagination made me jumpy, fearing ambushes. Even sitting on the couch in the middle of the living room with every lantern blazing, I didn’t feel safe until Valek arrived near dawn.

“Haven’t you slept?” he asked. A fist-size, dark purple bruise on his jaw contrasted against his pale skin.

“No. But neither have you,” I said peevishly.

“I can sleep all day. You need to taste the Commander’s breakfast in an hour.”

“What I need are answers.”

“To what questions?” Valek began to extinguish the lanterns.

“Why is a southern magician trying to kill me?”

“A good question. The very same one I was going to ask you.”

“How should I know?” I shrugged in frustration. “Brazell’s guards I could understand. But magicians! It’s not like I’ve been going around making southern magicians angry.”

“Ahhh…that’s a shame. Since you have a real talent for angering people.” Valek sat at his desk and rested his head in his hands. “A southern magician, Yelena, a master-level southern magician. Do you know that there are only four master magicians in Sitia? Four. And since the takeover, they’ve stayed in Sitia. On occasion they send a minion or two with minor magical abilities into the Territory to see what we’re up to. So far each spy has been intercepted and dealt with. Commander Ambrose will not tolerate magic in Ixia.”

The magicians of the King’s era had been considered the elite. Treated like royalty, they had been quite influential with the King. According to the history of the takeover, Valek had assassinated every one of them. I wondered how, especially since he couldn’t capture that woman tonight.

Valek stood up. He grabbed a gray rock off his desk. Tossing the stone from hand to hand, he paced around the living room.

Remembering Valek’s near miss with the last rock he’d held, I pulled my feet off the floor and hugged my knees to my chest, hoping to make myself a smaller target.

“For the southerners to risk one of their master magicians, the reason has to be…” Valek shook the stone in his hand, searching for the right word. “Momentous. So why are they after you?” He sighed and sank down on the couch next to me. “Well, let’s try to reason this out. You obviously have some southern blood in your heritage.”

“What?” I had never thought about my heritage. I had been found on the street, homeless, and been taken in by Brazell. Speculation about my parents had only been on whether they were dead or had just abandoned me. I had no memories of my life prior to my arrival at the orphanage. Mostly, I had been thankful that Brazell gave me shelter. For Valek to make such a matter-of-fact statement stunned me.

“Your coloring is a bit darker than the typical northerner. Your features have a southern quality. Green eyes are very rare in the Territory, but are more common in Sitia.” Valek misread my frozen expression. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. When the King was in power, the border to Sitia was open to commerce and trade. People moved freely between the regions, and marriages were inevitable. I would guess you were left behind right after the takeover when people panicked and fled south before we closed the border. It was complete mayhem. I don’t know what they were expecting when the Commander came to power. Mass killings? All we did was give everyone a uniform and a job.”

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