Poison Study Page 82

I settled into the tent while Bria warmed herself by the fire. Lighting a small lantern, I pulled out the book on war symbols that I had borrowed from Valek. After we had deciphered the name of the new successor, I hadn’t had a spare moment to interpret Janco’s message on my switchblade. There were six silver markings etched into the wooden handle. I began with the top and worked my way to the bottom. My smile grew wider with each translation. Janco could be so annoying, but underneath he could be so sweet.

When Bria entered the tent smelling of wood smoke, I shoved the book into my pack.

Disturbing dreams made for a restless night. I awoke tired in the gray fuzz of dawn. With the amount of time the procession took to eat and reassemble, plus the shorter hours of daylight, I estimated the excursion to Brazell’s manor house would take about five days.

On the second night of the trip, I found a note in my tent. A request for a rendezvous. The next evening while the soldiers set up camp, I was to follow a small, northbound trail that intersected the main road just past our campsite. The message was signed Janco, in a lavish hand. I examined the signature in the fading light, trying to remember if I’d ever seen Janco’s writing.

Genuine note or a trap? Should I go or should I stay in camp where it would be safe? I worried the question in my mind throughout the night and all through the third day on the road. What would Valek do in this particular situation? The answer helped me to form a plan.

When the signal to stop for the night sounded, I waited until everyone was occupied before leaving the clearing. Once out of sight, I swept off my cloak and turned it inside out. Before departing the castle I had procured gray cloth from Dilana, which I had then sewn into the inside lining of my cloak just in case I needed to hide in the winter landscape. I hoped the improvised ashen camouflage would be adequate in concealing my presence when I neared the meeting site.

I strapped my bow to my back, sheathed my switchblade on my right leg, then grabbed my rope and grappling hook from my backpack. I found the northern trail. Rather than walk down the narrow path, though, I sought a suitable tree and tossed my hook up into its branches. My first concern was the potential noise of my passage through the treetops, but I soon discovered that trees without leaves only creaked under my weight as I followed the trail.

Maneuvering close to the meeting site, I spotted a tall dark-haired man waiting at the prearranged location. He seemed restless and agitated. Too thin for Janco, I thought. Then the man turned in my direction. Rand.

What was he doing here? I circled the clearing. Discovering no threat lurking in the bushes, I climbed down to the path, leaving my rope hanging from the branch. I tucked my backpack behind the tree’s trunk.

“Damn,” Rand cursed. “I thought you weren’t going to show.” His haggard face had dark smudges under his eyes.

“And I thought Janco was supposed to be here.”

“I wanted to explain, but there’s no time, Yelena.” Rand’s haunted eyes bored into mine. “It’s a trap! Run!”

“How many? Where?” I demanded, pulling the bow from my back. I scanned the woods.

“Star and two goons. Close. Leading you here was supposed to pay off my debt.” Tears streaked Rand’s face.

I spun on him. “Well, you did a good job. I see you’re actually following through on this assignment.” I spat the words at him.

“No,” he cried. “I can’t do it. Run, damn you, run.”

Just as I moved to go, Rand’s eyes widened with fright.

“No!” He shoved me aside. Something whistled past my ear as I fell to the ground. Rand dropped beside me, an arrow in his chest. Blood welled, soaking his white uniform shirt.

“Run,” he whispered. “Run.”

“No, Rand,” I said, brushing the dirt from his face. “I’m tired of running.”

“Forgive me, please.” He clutched my hand as his eyes beseeched me through tears of pain.

“You’re forgiven.”

He sighed once, then stopped breathing. The shine in his brown eyes dulled. I pulled his hood over his head.

“Get up,” a man’s voice ordered.

I looked into the dangerous end of a loaded crossbow. Leaning on my bow, I rose. With my weight balanced on the balls of my feet, I rubbed my hands along the wooden staff, finding my zone of concentration.

“The area is secured, Captain,” the man called out to the woods. “Don’t move,” he said to me, leveling his weapon at my chest.

Footsteps approached. The man took his eyes off me to look for his companions. I moved.

My first bow strike landed across his forearms. The crossbow sailed from his hands, firing into the woods. My second strike went to the back of his knees. I knocked his feet out from under him. Lying flat on his back, he blinked at me with a stunned expression.

Before he could draw breath, I slammed the point of my bow straight down onto his neck, crushing his windpipe.

A quick glance over my shoulder revealed Star and another man rushing into the clearing. Star shouted and pointed. Her goon drew his sword. I raced down the trail, his heavy footsteps thundering after me. When I reached my rope, I tossed my bow into the woods before scrambling up into the tree. The man’s blade stabbed at my legs. Cloth ripped as his sword cut through my pants. The brush of cool steel on my thigh spurred me on.

He cursed as I leaped to the next tree. Moving fast, I swung through the treetops. When the sound of his crashing through the underbrush was far enough behind me, I found a good place to hide. Wrapping myself in my cloak, I hunkered down on a low branch and waited.

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