Poison Study Page 51

“Why do you do it?” Maren asked.


“Run till you’re sick.”

“Five circuits were assigned. I don’t like to fail.” I received another measuring look. With my words coming out as huffs, I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain a conversation for long. “I watched you fight Valek. I’ve heard you’re the best with a bow. I want to learn to use one.”

Her pace slowed. “Who told you that?”

“Ari and Janco.”

Maren snorted as if she thought a con artist had duped me. “Friends of yours?”


Her mouth formed a small o as she made a mental connection. “They found you in the forest. It’s rumored they were training you to fight but you quit. Are they foisting you off on me?”

“The problem with rumors—” I panted “—is the difficulty in sorting the truth from the lies.”

“And the reason I’m willing to donate my time?”

I had anticipated this question. “Information.”

“About what?”

“You want to beat Valek, right?”

Her gray eyes focused on me like two sword points pressing against my skin.

With the last of my breath, I wheezed out, “Come to the east entrance of the castle this afternoon at two and I’ll tell you.” Unable to keep up with her any longer, I slowed down. She pulled ahead. I lost sight of her in the press of soldiers.

Throughout the rest of the morning, I replayed the conversation in my mind, trying to guess her response as I tasted the Commander’s meals. At two o’clock, I waited in the castle’s east doorway, chewing on my lip. Ari and Janco had spread a rumor that my training had stopped. I’d taken a considerable risk by indicating to Maren that this might not be true. When I spotted a tall figure carrying two bows heading in my direction, my anxiety eased a little.

Maren paused when she entered the corridor. She spotted me leaning against the wall.

Before she could comment, I said, “Follow me.” I led her to a deserted hallway where Janco and Ari waited.

“I guess gossip is not to be trusted,” Maren said to Ari.

“No. But there are certain rumors we would like to keep as is.” A thinly disguised threat laced Ari’s words.

Maren ignored him. “Okay, Puker, what’s your information? And it better be good or I’m walking.”

Ari’s face reddened and I could see that he bit back a remark. Janco, as always, grinned in anticipation.

“Well, as I see it, the four of us can help each other out. Ari, Janco and I want to learn how to fight with the bow. You want to beat Valek. Working together, we may be able to achieve our goals.”

“How’s my teaching you going to help in a match against Valek?” Maren asked.

“You’re skilled with the bow, but your fighting tactics need work. Ari and Janco can help you with that.”

“One week of training and the Puker thinks she’s an expert,” Maren said to Ari with an incredulous voice. He remained mute, but his face darkened.

“I’m not an expert, but Valek is.”

She shot me a cold stare. “He said that? About me?”

I nodded.

“So I teach bow, and Ari and Jan teach tactics. What’s your contribution?”

I gestured to the four of us. “This. And…” I hesitated, unsure if my next statement would have any sway. “I could teach you some flips, and help you to gain greater flexibility and balance that might benefit you in a fight.”

“Damn.” Janco was impressed. “She’s got you there. And four does make for a better training group than three.”

Annoyed, Maren shifted her focus to Janco. He smiled sweetly at her.

“All right, I’ll try it on a temporary basis. If it doesn’t work, I’m walking.” Before anyone could interject, she said, “Don’t worry. I may listen to the rumor mill, but I don’t participate in it.”

Once we shook hands on the arrangement, my apprehension dissipated. We showed her where we had been meeting for the last week.

“Cozy,” Maren said as she entered our training room.

Ari had found an abandoned storeroom on the lower level in the deserted southwest corner of the castle. Two windows near the ceiling let in enough light to work by.

We spent the remaining time practicing the rudiments of bow fighting.

“Not bad, Puker,” Maren said at the end of the session. “I see some potential.”

When she picked up her bows to leave, Ari placed a large hand on her shoulder. “Her name’s Yelena. If you don’t want to call her by her name, then don’t come back tomorrow.”

I could see my astonished expression mirrored on Maren’s face, but she recovered quicker than I did. Nodding curtly, she shook off Ari’s hand and walked away. I wondered if she would join us again.

She returned the next day, and showed up without fail for the next two months as we trained together throughout the cooling season. The air held a fresh crisp scent, and true to the season’s name, each day grew cooler than the last. The bright flowers of the hot season wilted while the trees turned orange, russet and finally brown. The leaves dropped to the ground and were blown away by the frequent rainstorms.

My research on the pods had stalled, but Valek appeared unconcerned by my lack of progress. On occasion he observed us training, and he would comment and make suggestions.

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