Poison Study Page 66

“Good job! Damn, Yelena, you’re a fast learner.” Janco paused, his brow creased in concern. “You’re not going to use this to do something stupid, right? And get us into trouble?”

“Define stupid,” I said. When Janco’s eyes widened, I added, “Don’t worry. I’m the only one who would get into trouble.”

He relaxed, and I practiced on another lock. We were in the lower level of the castle where no one would surprise us. It had been four days since the night I had learned about Rand. Valek’s orders had been to act as if nothing had happened. He wanted to discover the full extent of Star’s organization before exposing them. Valek was a true predator, I thought sourly, eyeing his prey before pouncing for the kill.

I knew I wasn’t ready to play the friend to Rand, so I had been avoiding him, which wasn’t hard to do. The castle crawled with Generals and their retinues, making every worker in the complex busy, including Rand.

Brazell was another reason I was glad to be out of sight. His black-and-green soldiers had infected the castle, and keeping away from them was becoming difficult. Although, I didn’t mind hiding in Valek’s suite. He had stolen a box of Criollo, and I was contented to munch a piece each time I tasted the Commander’s food.

Ari, Janco and I had postponed our training sessions for the duration of the Generals’ visit, but I had managed to rope Janco into teaching me to pick locks. Giving him the gold coin from Star had provided an added incentive. Valek had said I could keep it since working undercover wasn’t part of the food taster’s job. But the heavy weight of it in my pocket had been a constant reminder of Rand’s treachery, so I decided to put it to good use.

“This last lock has ten pins. If you can open this one, you’ll be able to handle all the pin-tumbler locks or key locks in the castle. Except the dungeon bolts. They’re complicated, and it’s not like we can practice on them.” Janco’s forehead furrowed. “You’re not going to need that skill, are you?”

“I sincerely hope not.”


After several failed attempts, I managed to pop the lock open.

“Now you need to practice. The quicker you can spring a lock the better,” Janco instructed. “I would let you borrow my picks, but I never know exactly when I might need them.” He winked, a mischievous glint sparkling in his eyes. “So…” He pulled another set from his pocket. “I used that coin you gave me to buy a set for you.” He handed me a black cloth case.

“That money was for you.”

“Oh, there’s plenty left. Even after I bought you this.” He flourished an ebony-colored wooden rod as long as my hand. It was decorated with a bright silver button, and silver symbols were engraved on the side.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Push the button,” he said with glee.

I pressed down with my thumb, and started when a long gleaming blade shot out. It was a switchblade.

Amazed, I stared at my gifts. “Thank you, Janco. But why did you buy these for me?”

“Guilt, I suppose.”

“Guilt?” Not the answer I had expected.

“I called you a criminal. I was once a criminal, but I’ve gone past it, and no one has held it against me. Besides, I have a terrible feeling you may need them. General Brazell’s soldiers have been swaggering around the barracks, bragging about who is going to ‘take out’ Reyad’s killer. They’re quite imaginative, and I had to hold Ari back from challenging the lot a couple of times. Ten against one isn’t good odds, even for Ari and me.”

“I’ll stay away from them,” I said.

“Good. I’d better get moving. I’ve drawn the night shift. But, first, I’ll escort you to your room.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“Ari would kill me if I didn’t.”

We walked together toward Valek’s suite. When we reached the corner before the main doors, Janco stopped just out of sight of the guards.

“Almost forgot,” he said, reaching into his uniform pocket. He pulled out a sheath for the switchblade. “It goes around your right thigh. Remember to make a nice big hole in your pants pocket, so when you pull the weapon it won’t get caught in the fabric.”

He was about to leave when I stopped him. “Janco, what are these symbols?” I pointed to the silver markings on the handle of the knife.

Janco smiled. “They’re the old battle symbols used by the King when he sent out messages and orders during war times. It didn’t matter if the enemy intercepted them, because they were unintelligible to anyone who didn’t know how to decipher them. Some of the soldiers still use them. They work well in military exercises.”

“What do they say?”

His grin widened. “Too easy, Yelena. I’m sure you’ll figure it out…eventually.” Always the prankster, Janco laughed with delight.

“Come here,” I said, “so I can punch you.”

“I’d love to oblige you, my dear.” Janco dodged beyond my reach. “But I’m late.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

After hiding janco’s gifts deep in my uniform pocket, i went into valek’s suite. he was working at his desk, but he looked up as soon as I entered the room, giving me the impression that he had been waiting for me.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“With Janco,” I said. But I was wary. As long as I arrived at the scheduled times during the day, Valek didn’t ask about what I did with my free time.

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