Poison Study Page 74

I huddled behind the boxes, frozen in disbelief. Hearing Valek use the word compassion was as incomprehensible to me as the thought of Margg apologizing for her rude behavior.

There was another knock on the door.

“Come,” Valek said. “Perfect timing as always, Wing. Did you bring the documents?”

I heard a rustle of papers. “Your new identity,” Valek said. “I believe our business is concluded. Wing will escort you to MD–4.” Chains clanked to the floor. “You’re dismissed.”

“Yes, sir,” Tentil said. His voice cracked. He was probably overwhelmed. I knew how I would feel if Valek offered me a free life.

After the men left, a painful quiet descended. I feared the sound of my breath would give me away. Valek’s chair scraped. Two faint thumps were followed by a loud yawn.

“So, Yelena, did you find our conversation interesting?”

I held still, hoping he was guessing. But his next statement confirmed my dismay.

“I know you’re behind the table.”

I stood. There was no anger in his voice. He lounged in his chair with his feet resting on the desktop.

“How did you…” I began.

“You favor lavender-scented soap, and I wouldn’t be alive today if I couldn’t determine when someone had picked my locks. Assassins love to ambush, leaving dead bodies behind mysteriously locked doors. Fun stuff.” Valek yawned again.

“You’re not angry?”

“No, relieved actually. I wondered when you would search my office for the recipe to the antidote.”

Sudden fury welled in my throat. “Relieved? That I might try to escape? That I rifled through your papers? You’re that confident that I won’t succeed?”

Valek cocked his head to one side, considering. “I’m relieved that you’re following the standard steps of escaping, and not inventing a unique plan. If I know what you’re doing, then I can anticipate your next move. If not, I might miss something. Learning how to pick locks naturally leads to this.” Valek gestured around the room. “But, since the formula has not been written down and only I know it, I’m confident you won’t find it.”

I balled my hands into tight fists to keep them from wrapping around Mr. I-Know-Everything’s superior neck. “Okay, so there’s no chance for escape. How about this? You gave Tentil a new life, why not me?”

“How do you know I haven’t already?” Valek put his feet on the floor and leaned forward. “Why do you think you were in the dungeon for almost a year? Was it only luck that you happened to be the next in line when Oscove died? Perhaps I was merely acting at our first meeting when I seemed so surprised that you were a woman.”

It was too much to bear. “What do you want, Valek?” I demanded. “Do you want me to give up trying? Be content with this poisoned life?”

“Do you really want to know?” Valek’s voice intensified. He stood and walked over to me.


“I want you… not as an unwilling servant, but as a loyal staff member. You’re intelligent, quick-thinking and becoming a decent fighter. I want you to be as dedicated as I am at keeping the Commander safe. Yes, it’s a dangerous job, but, on the other hand, one miscalculated somersault on the tightrope could break your neck. That’s what I want. Will you be able to give it to me?” Valek’s eyes seared deep into mine, searching for an answer. “Besides, where would you go? You belong here.”

I was tempted to concede. But I knew that if I wasn’t poisoned or murdered by Brazell, the wild magic in my blood would eventually explode, taking me with it. The only physical mark I would leave on this world would be a ripple in the power source. Without the antidote, I was lost anyway.

“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s too much…

“That you haven’t told me?”

I nodded, unable to speak. Telling him about my magical abilities, I thought, would only get me killed faster.

“Trusting is hard. Knowing who to trust, even harder,” Valek said.

“And my track record has been rather horrendous. A weakness of mine.”

“No, a strength. Look at Ari and Janco. They appointed themselves your protectors long before I assigned them. All because you stood up for them to the Commander, when their own Captain wouldn’t. Think about what you have right now before you give me an answer. You have gained the Commander’s and Maren’s respect, and Ari’s and Janco’s loyalty.”

“What have I earned from you, Valek? Loyalty? Respect? Trust?”

“You have my attention. But give me what I want, and you can have everything.”

The next morning, the Generals prepared to leave. It took four hours for eight retinues to assemble. Four hours of noise and confusion. When everyone had finally passed through the outer gates, it seemed that the castle breathed a sigh of relief. In the wake of this sudden release of tension, servants and guards milled about. They grouped together in small clumps, taking a break before cleaning the eight guest suites. It was during this lull in activity that the Commander informed the rest of the castle staff that the Sitian delegation was scheduled to arrive the next day. His words struck like lightning. A flash of stunned silence was followed by a frenzy of activity as servants dashed off to make the proper preparations.

Although happy to see the backs of Mogkan and Brazell, I wandered listlessly about the castle. I hadn’t given Valek his answer. To live, I had to go south, but without the antidote, I wouldn’t survive. Dread filled my heart as the reality of my inevitable fate filled my mind.

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