Poison Study Page 70

“Ha,” I said rather loud. “You were so stiff at that meeting I thought rigor mortis had set in.”

Valek snorted with amusement. “I doubt you could have looked any better sitting in that uncomfortable dress uniform all night. I imagine Dilana sprayed on extra starch with malicious glee.”

Then he grew serious again. “Do you know Adviser Mogkan? He eyed you most of the evening.”

“I know of him. He was Reyad’s primary adviser. They also hunted together.”

“What’s he like?” Valek asked.

“Same kind of vermin as Reyad and Nix,” I said. The words poured off my lips. I slapped both hands over my mouth, but it was too late.

Valek studied me for a moment. Then he said, “There were a number of new advisers at the meeting. I guess I’ll have to check them out one by one. It seems we have a new southern spy with magic abilities.” He sighed. “It never ends.” He dropped onto the edge of the couch as weariness settled on him like a coating of dust.

“If it did, you’d be out of a job.” Before I could stop myself, I squeezed behind Valek and started to massage his shoulders. The alcohol had taken complete command of my movements, and the tiny sober section of my brain could do nothing but yell useless admonishments.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Valek stiffened under my touch. Was he expecting me to strangle him? I wondered. As my hands kneaded his muscles, he relaxed.

“What would you do,” I asked him, “if suddenly the world was perfect and you had no one to spy on?”

“I’d be bored,” Valek said with amusement.

“Come on, seriously. A change in profession.” I dug my thumbs into the muscle at the base of his neck. “A fire dancer?” A rush of warmth radiated as brandy pumped through my blood.

“No. An arms teacher?” Valek suggested.

“No. It’s a perfect world. No weapons allowed.” I moved my hands down his back. “How about a scholar? You’ve read all these books lying around, haven’t you? Or are they just to make it difficult for someone to sneak in?”

“Books serve me in so many ways. But I doubt your perfect society would need a scholar on murder.”

My hands paused for a second. “No. Definitely not.”

“A sculptor? I could carve extravagant statues. We could redecorate the castle and liven things up. How about you?” he asked as I pressed my fingertips into the small of his back. “What would you do?”

“Acrobatics.” The word flowed without conscious thought. I had thought I left acrobatics behind with my fire amulet, but it seemed my excursion through the trees had reawakened my desire.

“An acrobat! Well, that explains a lot.”

Aroused by my contact with Valek’s sculpted body, I slid my hands around to his stomach. Reyad be damned. The brandy had relaxed me past fear. I started to unfasten Valek’s pants.

He grabbed my wrists, stopping me. “Yelena, you’re drunk.” His voice was hoarse.

Valek released my hands and stood. I sat, watching him with surprise as he swooped down to lift me from the couch. Wordless, he carried me to my room and laid me on the bed.

“Get some sleep, Yelena,” Valek said softly as he left the room.

My world spun as I stared into the darkness. Placing a hand on the cold stone wall next to my bed helped to steady my thoughts. Now I knew. Valek had no interest in me other than my job as the food taster. I had allowed myself to get caught up in Dilana’s gossip and Maren’s jealousy. The ache of rejection throbbing in my soul was my own fault.

Why hadn’t I learned by now? People turned into monsters. At least the people in my experience. First Brazell, then Rand, although Reyad had stayed consistent. What about Valek? Would he transform into one or had he already? Like Star said, I shouldn’t be thinking of him at all, not as a companion, and not to fill the dead place in my heart.

As if I could. I laughed. A drunken sound, tattered and ragged, the music of my thoughts. Look around you, Yelena, I chided myself. The poisoned food taster who converses with ghosts. I should be thankful that I breathed, that I existed. I shouldn’t long for more than freedom in Sitia. Then I could fill the emptiness. Dismissing all sentimental, weak thoughts, I focused on the business of staying alive.

Escaping to Sitia would break no bonds with Valek. Once I obtained the antidote to Butterfly’s Dust I could set my plans into motion. Determined, I reviewed lock-picking techniques in my mind until I fell into a deep alcohol-induced sleep.

I woke an hour before dawn with a pounding head. My mouth felt like an abandoned spiderweb. I imagined dust blowing from my lips with each exhaled breath. Moving with extreme care, I inched out of bed. Wrapping my blanket around my shoulders, I went to get a drink. Valek liked cold water and always kept a pitcher outside on the balcony.

The crisp night air blew away the lingering fuzziness of sleep. The castle’s stone walls glowed, eerily reflecting the moonlight. I located the metal pitcher. A thin film of ice had formed on the top. Breaking it with a finger, I poured the water into my mouth, gulping.

When I tipped my head back for a second drink, I noticed a black spider-shaped object clinging to the castle wall above my head. With growing alarm, I realized the shape was descending toward me. It wasn’t a spider but a person.

I searched for a hiding spot, but stopped when I realized that the intruder had probably already seen me. Locking myself in the suite and waking Valek seemed a better plan. But before I could enter the pitch-black living room, I hesitated. Inside, the intruder’s dark clothes would be hard to see. A locked door no longer gave me a sense of security since my lock-picking lessons with Janco.

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