Poison Study Page 81

I did as she instructed, and heard a distinct tone as each brick was laid. A wall formed in my mind.

“Stop,” she ordered. “Open your eyes.”

My wall disappeared.

“Now block me!”

Loud music vibrated in my head, overwhelming me.

“Imagine your wall,” Irys shouted.

My brick defense flashed complete in my mind. The music stopped midnote.

“Very good. I suggest you finish your business and escape south. With that kind of strength, if you don’t achieve complete control of your magic, someone else might grab it and use it, leaving you a mindless slave.” Annoyance quirked her face as she spun on her heel and left the training room.

The moment the door clicked into place, Ari and Janco ended their conversation and blinked as if they had just woken from a deep sleep.

“Done already? How many katas?” Ari asked.

I laughed and put my bow away. “Come on, I’m hungry.”

When the Sitian delegation left three days later, I had a sudden panic attack. What the hell was I doing? My one perfect opportunity for escape had slipped away to the south, while I remained behind, preparing to leave for Brazell’s manor. Irys had been right; I was crazy. My breath hitched every time I thought of the trip. The Commander’s retinue was scheduled to depart in the morning.

I rushed around the castle, packing my own special provisions for the journey. Dilana’s sorrowful face greeted me when I stopped by her room for some traveling clothes. Rand’s paperwork had been finalized, she said. He was coming with us.

“I requested a transfer, but I doubt it’ll be approved,” Dilana said as she searched through her piles of clothing. “If only the lout had married me, then we wouldn’t be in this predicament.”

“There’s still time to submit the application. If it’s approved, you can travel to MD-5 for the wedding.”

“He doesn’t want to let anyone know how much he cares for me. He’s worried that my safety might be used as leverage against him.” She shook her head, refusing to be cheered even when I told her that the new trade treaty with Sitia would allow silk to be imported.

The southern treaty was a simple exchange of goods. Specific items were listed. Only merchants with the proper permits and licenses would be able to buy and sell these items at a fixed price. All caravans would be subject to inspection when crossing the Ixian border at the approved locations. Rand’s cup of coffee was only a few months away, but I doubted he would brew some for me since I hadn’t spoken to him since our argument in the kitchen. I couldn’t get him more beans, and I couldn’t explain why.

The morning of our departure was gray and overcast, hinting at snow. The cold season was beginning, which usually indicated the end of travel, not the onset of it. The snows would most likely keep the Commander’s retinue at Brazell’s until the thawing season. I shuddered at the thought.

Valek stopped me before I left our suite. “This is a very dangerous trip for you. Maintain a low profile and keep your eyes open. Question thoughts in your mind; they might not be your own.” He handed me a silver flask. “The Commander has your daily dose of antidote, but if he forgets to give it to you, here’s a backup supply. Tell no one that you have it, and keep it hidden.”

For the first time, Valek trusted me. The metal flask felt warm in my hands. “Thanks.”

A feather of fear brushed my stomach as I packed the flask into my backpack. Another danger I hadn’t recognized. What else had I missed?

“Wait, Yelena, there’s one more thing.” Valek’s manner and tone were strangely stiff and formal. “I want you to have this.” He extended his hand. On his palm sat the beautiful butterfly he had carved. Silver spots on the wings glinted in the sunlight, and a silver chain hung from a small hole drilled into its body.

Valek looped the necklace around my neck. “When I carved this statue, I was thinking about you. Delicate in appearance, but with a strength unnoticed at first glance.” His eyes met mine.

My chest felt tight. Valek acted as if he would never see me again. His fear for my safety seemed genuine. But was he worried about me or his precious food taster?

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Commander ambrose’s traveling entourage consisted of nearly fifty soldiers from his elite guard. Some led the way, others walked beside the Commander and his advisers atop their horses. Guards also bracketed the small group of servants, who preceded the horses. The remaining soldiers followed behind. Ari and Janco scouted the Commander’s planned route and were hours ahead of the procession.

We advanced at a brisk pace in the crisp morning air. The vivid colors of the hot season had long since drained from the forest, leaving behind a barren, gray-hued simplicity. I had tucked Valek’s butterfly underneath my shirt, and found myself fingering the lump it made on my chest as we traveled. Valek’s gift had caused my emotions to roil. Just when I believed I had figured him out, he surprised me.

Carrying a pack, I also held a walking staff that was a thinly disguised bow. A few of the guards cast suspicious glances my way, but I ignored them. Rand refused to meet my gaze. He stared straight ahead in stony silence. It wasn’t long before he lagged behind; his leg prevented him from maintaining the pace.

After a stop for lunch, we continued until an hour before sunset. Major Granten, the official leader of the expedition, wanted to set up camp in the daylight. Spacious tents were raised for the Commander and his advisers, and smaller two-man tents were erected for the servants. I found I would share space with a woman named Bria, who ran errands and served the Commander’s advisers.

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