Poison Study Page 41

“Thanks,” I said.

“The Commander awaits your report.”

I nodded. Etta left to rejoin her unit, and I headed toward the office. I hesitated in the doorway; I was used to the semidarkness of the throne room, and the lantern light stung my eyes.

“Come in,” Commander Ambrose ordered.

I stood before his desk. He sat immobile and impassive as always, his smooth, ethereal face barren of wrinkles. A stray thought plucked at my mind, and I wondered about his age. Gray streaks painted the Commander’s short hair. His rank alone suggested an older man, but his slight build and youthful face made me guess his age was closer to forty. About seven years older than Valek, if my estimation of Valek’s age was accurate.


I described my actions for the day in detail, including my tree swinging and the magician. Giving the same version of my encounter with the southerner that I had told Valek, I concluded my report with the caravan and Valek’s orders that I return. I waited for the Commander’s questions.

“So Ari and Janco didn’t capture you?” he asked.

“No. But they were the only ones who even came close. They passed right below a tree I hid in, and were skilled enough to track Valek for a while.”

The Commander stilled for a moment. His golden eyes looked past me as he absorbed the information. “Where are the items Valek procured?”

I opened my backpack, and placed the pods and beans on his desk.

He picked up a yellow pod and rotated it in his hands before returning it. Grabbing a handful of beans, he hefted them, feeling their weight and texture. After sniffing one, he broke the bean in half. The inside was as unrevealing as the outside had been.

“They’re not native to Ixia. They must be from Sitia. Yelena, take them with you and do some research. Find out what these are and where they’re grown.”

“Me?” Stunned, I had expected to dump them on the Commander and forget about them.

“Yes. Valek is constantly reminding me not to underestimate you, and once again you’ve proven yourself. General Brazell gave you a good education. I’d hate to see it go to waste.”

I wanted to argue, but I was curtly dismissed. Sighing, I dragged my unwilling body to the baths. Painfully peeling off my leaf-covered clothes, I washed the mud from my face and neck before submerging into a steaming pool.

There, I luxuriated in the warmth, stretching my aching muscles under the hot water to loosen them. Hoping to dissolve some of the glue from my hair, I dipped my head back, pulled my bun apart and let the long black strands float on the surface. The gentle sounds of lapping lulled me.

Strong hands grabbed my shoulders. I jerked awake under the water. Liquid filled my mouth and nose. I pushed the hands away in a panic. They released their grip for a second. I began to sink. Instinctively, I clutched my unknown assailant’s arms. Before I could curse my stupidity, I was yanked out of the bath and dumped onto the cold floor.

I sprang to my feet to meet the next assault. But there stood Margg with a disgusted expression anchored on her broad face. Water dripped from her hands and had soaked her sleeves. I shivered and pulled wet clumps of hair off my face.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I yelled.

“Saving your worthless life,” she snarled.


“Don’t worry. I took no pleasure in it. Frankly, I would have rejoiced to see you drown. Justice finally served! But the Commander ordered me to find you and see to your needs.” Margg grabbed a towel from the table and threw it at me. “You may have the Commander and Valek fooled into thinking you’re smart. But how smart can you be to fall asleep in a deep pool of water?”

I tried to think of a rude retort, remembering Dilana’s advice to be nasty right back. Nothing. My brain felt waterlogged with fatigue. The idea that Margg had just saved my life kept sloshing around in my head. It was such a foreign concept that I couldn’t find a proper place to dock it.

Margg snorted, hatred oozing from her. “I followed my orders. Some might even agree that rescuing you was beyond the call of duty. So don’t you forget it, rat.”

She spun around to leave. Her skirts wrapped around her legs, and she stumbled through the door. So much for a dramatic exit, I thought as I toweled dry.

I felt no gratitude toward Margg for saving my life—assuming that was what she’d done. She might have pushed me under in spite, then “saved” me. And I didn’t owe her a favor. She had left me in a puddle of my own vomit after I had taken My Love, had refused to clean out my room in Valek’s suite, had written me a nasty message in the dust, and even worse, was probably leaking information about me to Brazell. If she had saved me from drowning, then, in my mind, it was a payback for some of those indiscretions, but not for all. As I saw it, she still owed me. The hot soak helped restore some flexibility to my muscles. I peeled the leaves from my hands. Although green still clung to parts of my hair, I thought with some artful braiding I might be able to hide it.

The walk back to Valek’s suite seemed endless. In a zombie-like state of mind, I passed through countless hallways, intersections and doorways. My steps were fueled by the single-minded desire of getting to bed.

For the next few days I fell into a routine. I tasted the Commander’s meals, went to the library for research and took a daily walk around the castle complex. My day as a fugitive had caused me to crave the outdoors, and if I couldn’t swing through the trees, at least I could explore the grounds.

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