Poison Study Page 56

“You’re dead,” I said. “Aren’t you supposed to be burning in eternal damnation?”

Reyad wasn’t banished so easily. “Teacher’s pet,” he said, waving the book in the air. “If only you had worked this hard for me, everything would have been different.”

“I like the way it turned out.”

“Poisoned, pursued and living with a psychopath. Not what I would consider the good life. Death has its perks.” He sniffed. “I get to watch your miserable existence. You should have chosen the noose, Yelena. It would have saved you some time.”

“Get out,” I said again, trying to ignore the touch of hysteria in my voice and the trickle of sweat down my back.

“You do know you’ll never get to Sitia alive? You’re a failure. Always were. Always will be. Face it. Accept it.” Reyad rose from the bed. “You failed all our efforts to mold you. Do you remember? Remember when Daddy finally gave up on you? When he let me have you?”

I remembered. It had been the week of the fire festival, and Reyad had been so preoccupied with General Tesso’s visiting retinue, especially Tesso’s daughter, Kanna, that he hadn’t bothered to check on me. Since I’d been meekly obeying his every command to gain some trust, he was smug in the assumption that he’d cowed me into submission. As a result, it was more than a month since he’d locked me into my tiny room that was next to his suite.

But the festival had once again tempted me into disobeying Reyad’s instructions to stay away. The beatings and humiliations of the year before were insufficient to deter me this year. In fact, I felt a stubborn pride in refusing to be intimidated by him. I was terrified of getting caught, knew deep down in a small corner of my mind that I would get caught, but I threw all caution to fate. The fire festival was a part of me. The only time I tasted true freedom. Even though it was for but a few moments, it was worth the consequences.

My defiance added an edge to my acrobatic routines, making me bold and reckless. I sailed through the first five rounds with aplomb, dismounts steady, flips tight, energy level unlimited. I advanced to the final round of competition, which was scheduled for the last day of the festival.

I scrambled to put the finishing touches on my costume for the competition, while Reyad guided Kanna and a group of friends on a hunting party in the countryside.

I had scrounged around the manor for the preceding two weeks to acquire the necessary supplies for my attire. Now I stitched scarlet silk feathers onto a black leotard, and then outlined them with silver sequins. Wings tied to a harness completed the outfit, but I folded them small and flat so they wouldn’t impede my motion. Braiding my hair into one long rope, I wound it tightly around my head and secured two flaming red feathers in the back. Pleased with the results, I arrived early at the acrobatics tent to practice.

When the competition started, the tent bulged with people. The crowd’s cheers soon dimmed to a dull roar in my ears as I performed my routines. The only sounds reaching me were the thump of my hands and feet on the trampoline, the creaking of the tightrope as I launched myself in midair to execute a two-and-a-half twist and the crack of the slender rope when I landed on it without falling.

The floor routine was my last event. I stood on the balls of my feet at the edge of the mat, breathing deeply. The heavy earthy smell of sweat and the dry scratch of chalk dust filled my lungs. This was my place. This was where I belonged. The air vibrated like a thunderstorm poised to blow in.

Energized as lightning, I started my first tumbling run.

I flew that night. Spinning and diving through the air, my feet hardly touched the ground. My spirit soared. I felt like a bird performing aerial tricks for sheer delight. At the end of my last run, I grabbed my wings with both hands. Pulling them open, I raised them over my head as I somersaulted and landed on my feet. The bright scarlet fabric of the wings billowed out behind me. The crowd’s thunderous cheers vibrated deep in my chest. My soul floated with crimson wings on the updraft of the audience’s jubilant praise.

I won the competition. Pure uncomplicated joy consumed me, and I grinned for the first time in two years. Face muscles aching from smiling, I stood on the platform to receive the prize from the Master of Ceremonies. He settled a bloodred amulet, shaped like flames and engraved with the year and event, on my chest. It was the greatest moment of my entire life—followed by the worst, as I spotted Reyad and Kanna watching me from the crowd. Kanna was beaming, but Reyad’s expression was hard and unforgiving as suppressed rage leaked from his twitching lips.

I lingered inside the changing room until everyone had gone. There were two exits to the tent, but Reyad had positioned his guards at both. Knowing Reyad would take my amulet and destroy it, I buried it deep under the earthen floor of the room.

As I expected, Reyad grabbed me as soon as I stepped from the tent. He dragged me back to the manor. General Brazell was consulted. He agreed that I would never be “one of his group.” Too independent, too stubborn and too willful, Brazell said, and gave me over to his son. No more experiments. I had failed. That night, Reyad just managed to control his temper until we were alone in his room, but once the door was closed and locked, he vented his full anger with his fists and feet.

“I wanted to kill you for disobeying me,” Reyad’s ghost said as he glided across my room. “I planned to savor it over a very long period of time, but you beat me to it. You must have had that knife tucked under my mattress for quite a while.” He paused, creasing his brow in thought.

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