Poison Study Page 48

Valek was liquid in motion. As I watched him, one word came to my mind: beautiful. His movements had the speed and cadence of a complex dance performance. In comparison, his adversary resembled a newborn colt, lurching and jerking his arms and legs as if this were his first time on his feet. Valek’s smooth lunges and graceful parries disarmed his opponent in no time.

Pointing with his sword, he sent his beaten foe to a small group of men, and motioned for another to attack.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Valek’s challenge,” Janco said.

“What’s that?”

“Valek has declared a challenge to anyone in Ixia. Beat him in a fight with the weapon of your choice, or hand to hand, and you can be promoted to his second-in-command.” Ari gestured to Valek, now engaged in combat with a third man. “It’s become a sort of graduation from basic training for the soldiers to fight Valek at least once, although you can try as many times as you like. The Captains watch the matches and recruit the more promising soldiers. And if you manage to impress Valek with your skills, he may offer you a post in his elite intelligence corps.”

“How did you guys do?” I asked.

“Okay,” Ari demurred.

“Okay!” Janco snorted. “Ari came close to beating him. Valek was pleased. But Ari would rather be a scout than a spy.”

“I want all or nothing,” Ari said with a quiet intensity.

We continued to watch. Ari and Janco made technical comments about the different fights, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from Valek. With the sunlight glinting off his sword, he dispatched two more men. He tapped them with the flat of his weapon, just to let them know he had broken through their defenses without shedding any blood. The next opponent approached with a knife.

“Bad choice,” Ari said.

Valek put down his sword and unsheathed his blade. The match was over in two moves.

“Valek excels in knife fighting,” Janco commented.

The last challenger was a woman. Tall and agile, she wielded a long wooden staff. Ari called it a bow. She held her own against Valek, and their sparring lasted longer than any of the previous six fights. With a loud crack, her bow snapped in two, ending the match. As the crowd dispersed, Valek spoke with the woman.

“That’s Maren,” Ari said. “If she doesn’t disappear into Valek’s corps, you should ask her to teach you the bow. With your smaller size, it would extend your reach against a taller attacker.”

“But you can’t conceal a bow,” I said.

“Not around the castle. But if you’re hiking through the woods, you wouldn’t look out of place holding a walking stick.”

I looked at Maren and considered the possibilities. Would she agree to help me? Probably not. What would she stand to gain?

As if reading my thoughts, Ari said, “Maren’s aggressive and encouraging. Every new female recruit gets her personal attention whether they want it or not. Since so many women fail due to the rigors of training, she tries to coach them through. We’ve more women in the guard now than ever because of her. We tried to get her to teach us—a bow would make a good weapon for a scout—but she has no interest in training men.”

“But I’m not a new recruit, I’m the food taster. Why would she waste her time with me? I might be dead by tomorrow.”

“Aren’t we grumpy today,” Janco said cheerfully. “Too much exercise this morning?”

“Shut up,” I said. Unfazed, his grin only widened.

“All right, that’s enough. Let’s get started,” Ari said.

I spent the rest of the afternoon learning to punch someone without breaking my hand and practicing the proper technique of kicking. The first two knuckles of both hands turned bright red as I punched into a training bag over and over. Mastering the front kick was a challenge since my stiff thigh muscles hindered my flexibility.

When Ari finally dismissed me, I aimed my battered body toward the castle.

“See you in the morning,” Janco said with a gleeful sound in his voice.

I turned to tell him where to stick it and came face-to-face with Valek. I held my breath. He had been watching us. I felt self-conscious.

“Your punches are slow,” he said. Taking my hand, he examined the bruises, which were starting to purple. “At least your technique is good. If you hold weights in your hands while you train, your punches will be much quicker without them.”

“I can continue?” I asked in disbelief.

He still held on to my hand, and I couldn’t summon the will-power to pull it back. The warmth of his touch coursed through my body, temporarily vanquishing my aches and pains.

With the memory of his stunning physical display fresh in my mind, I gazed at his strong face. His flashing and dangerous blue eyes had always taken my attention. I had learned to read his facial expressions as a survival tactic but I had never really looked at him in this way before. He was a study in contradiction. The man who carved delicate statues was also capable of disarming seven opponents without breaking a sweat. My interactions with Valek resembled a performance on the tightrope. One minute I was confident and balanced, and the next insecure and unstable.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” he said. “How did you get the power twins to agree to teach you?”

“Power twins?”

“Combine Ari’s strength with Janco’s speed, and they would be unbeatable. But, so far, I haven’t had to test my theory since they haven’t tried to fight me together. No one said I couldn’t have more than one second-in-command. You’re not going to give me away, are you?”

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