Poison Study Page 38

I took a deep breath. “I started reciting poisons. I tried to push the pain away. Then the attack stopped, and she said you were getting too close. When I opened my eyes she had disappeared.”

“Why didn’t you wait for me in the clearing?”

“I didn’t know where she had gone. I felt safer in the trees, knowing you’d be able to find me.”

Valek considered my explanation. I covered my nervousness by sorting through my backpack.

After a long while, he grinned. “We certainly proved the Commander wrong. He thought you’d be caught by midmorning.”

I smiled with relief. Taking advantage of his good mood, I asked, “Why does the Commander hate magicians so much?”

The pleased expression dropped from Valek’s face. “He has many reasons. They were the King’s colleagues. Aberrations of nature, who used their power for purely selfish and greedy reasons. They amassed wealth and jewels, curing the sick only if the dying’s family could pay their exorbitant fee. The King’s magicians played mind games with everyone, taking delight in causing havoc. The Commander wants nothing to do with them.”

Curious, I pushed on. “What about using them for his purposes?”

“He thinks magicians are not to be trusted, but I’m of two minds about that,” Valek said. He gazed out over the forest floor as he talked. “I understand the Commander’s concern, killing all the King’s magicians was a good strategy, but I think the younger generation born with power could be recruited for our intelligence network. We disagree on this issue, and despite my arguments the Commander has—” Valek stopped. He seemed reluctant to continue.

“Has what?”

“Ordered that those born with even the slightest amount of magical power be killed immediately.”

I had known about the execution of the southern spies and the magicians from the King’s era, but imagining babies being ripped from their mother’s arms made me gasp in horror. “Those poor children.”

“It’s brutal, but not that brutal,” Valek said. A sadness had softened his eyes. “The ability to connect with the power source doesn’t occur until after puberty, which is around age sixteen. It usually takes another year for someone other than their family to notice and report them. Then, they either escape to Sitia, or I find them.”

His words had the weight of a wooden beam pressing down on my shoulders. I found it difficult to breathe. Sixteen was when Brazell had recruited me. When my survival instinct had started to flare, defending against Brazell and Reyad’s torture. Had they been trying to test me for magic? But why didn’t they report me? Why hadn’t Valek come?

I had no idea what Brazell wanted. And knowing now about my power only added yet another way I could die. If Valek discovered my magic, I was dead. If I didn’t find a way to go to Sitia, I was dead. If someone poisoned the Commander’s food, I was dead. If Brazell built his factory and sought revenge for his son, I was dead. Dead, dead, dead and dead. Death by Butterfly’s Dust was beginning to look attractive. It was the only scenario where I would get to choose when, where and how I died.

I would have sunk into a deep, brooding bout of self-pity, but Valek grabbed my arm and put a finger to his green lips.

The distant sounds of hoofbeats and men talking reached my ears. My first thought was that it was an illusion sent by the magician. But soon enough, I saw mules pulling wagons. The width of the wagons filled the entire path, saplings and bushes thwacked against the wheels. Two mules pulled one wagon, and one man dressed in a brown trader’s uniform led the team. There were six wagons and six men who conversed among themselves as they traveled.

From my post in the tree, I could see that the first five wagons were loaded with burlap sacks that might have been filled with grain or flour. The last wagon held strange, oval-shaped yellow pods.

Snake Forest was just bustling with activity today, I thought in wonder. All we needed was the fire dancers to jump from the trees to entertain us all.

Valek and I sat still in our tree as the men passed below us. Their uniforms were soaked with sweat, and I noticed a few of them had rolled up their pants so they wouldn’t trip. One man’s belt was cinched tight, causing the extra material to bunch around his waist, while another’s stomach threatened to rip through his buttons. These poor traders obviously didn’t have a permanent residence. If they had, their seamstress would never have permitted them to walk around looking like that.

When they were out of sight and hearing range, Valek whispered, “Don’t move, I’ll be back.” He dropped to the ground and followed the caravan.

I fidgeted on my branch, wondering if the other two men Irys had said were tracking Valek would find me before he returned. The sun was disappearing in the west, and cooler air was replacing the day’s heat. Muscles stiff from inactivity throbbed as the last of my energy faded. The strenuous day of climbing caught up to me. For the first time the possibility of spending a night alone in the forest made me apprehensive; I had never imagined staying free this long.

At last, Valek returned and waved me down from the tree. I moved with care, fumbling with the rope around my waist as my abused muscles trembled with fatigue.

He carried a small sack, which he handed to me. Inside were five of the yellow pods that had been stacked in the last wagon. I took one out. Now that I could see it up close, I noticed that the elongated, oval pod was about eight inches in length, with close to ten furrows running from one end to the other. It was thick around the middle. With two hands wrapped around its center, my fingers just overlapped.

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