Poison Study Page 84

“Lying would only worsen your predicament,” Valek warned.

“Kangom,” she said through clenched teeth. “He wore a basic soldier’s uniform with MD–8 colors.”

“General Dinno,” Valek said without surprise.

“Describe Kangom,” I ordered, knowing that Kangom was another name for Adviser Mogkan, but unable to tell Valek how I had come by this information.

“Tall. Long black hair in a soldier’s braid. An arrogant bastard. I almost kicked him out, but he showed me a pile of gold I couldn’t refuse,” Star said.

“Anything else?” Valek asked.

Star shook her head. Valek snapped his fingers. As the camouflaged men escorted Star back toward the castle, I said, “Could it be Mogkan?”

“Mogkan?” Valek looked at me as if I had sprouted antennae. “No. Brazell was far too happy about the delegation. Why would he jeopardize the treaty? That doesn’t make sense. Dinno on the other hand was furious with the Commander. He probably sent one of his men to hire Star.”

I tried to fathom the reason why Mogkan would endanger the treaty negotiations when trade with Sitia was to Brazell’s benefit. Unable to deduce a logical answer, I wondered how I could convince Valek that Mogkan had hired Star.

I began to shiver. Blood soaked my uniform shirt and stained my hands. I wiped the blood on my ripped pants. Retracing my steps, I found my cloak, but before I could swing it over my shoulders, Valek said, “You better leave your clothes here. There would be quite a fuss if you showed up for dinner soaked with blood.”

I retrieved my pack from behind the tree. Valek turned his back while I changed into a clean uniform. I wondered if he had any more sneaks in the woods as I wrapped my cloak around me.

We set out for the camp.

“By the way, nice work,” Valek said as we passed the second dead body. “I saw the fight. I wasn’t close enough to help. You held your own. Who gave you the knife?”

“I bought it with Star’s money.” A stretch of the truth, but I wasn’t about to get Janco into trouble.

Valek snorted. “Fitting.”

When we arrived, Valek melted into a group of soldiers while I rushed to the Commander’s tent to taste his dinner. The entire Star episode had taken only an hour and a half, but my battered body felt as if I’d been gone for days.

As I sat by the campfire that night, my muscles trembled in reaction to the fight. Grief for Rand surprised me as melancholy thoughts filled my mind. The flames of the fire wiggled accusing red fingers at me. What do you think you’re doing? they asked. Three men are dead because of you. How are you going to help anyone? Pure conceit, the flames admonished. Go south. Let Valek worry about the Commander and what Brazell’s up to, you silly girl. The fire pulsed, making shooing motions at me.

I pulled my gaze away, blinking into the darkness. Was it my imagination or was someone trying to influence me? Summoning the mental image of my protective brick wall cooled some of the doubts, but not all of them.

Rand’s disappearance wasn’t noticed until the next morning. Thinking he had run away, Major Granten sent out a small search party, while the others continued deeper into Brazell’s district.

The rest of the journey was uneventful except for the disturbing fact that the closer we drew to Brazell’s manor house, the blanker the look grew on the Commander’s face. He had ceased to give orders or to take an interest in the events surrounding him. The intelligent, piercing glint that had made his gaze lethal faded with each step, leaving only a vacant, dull expression in its place.

In contrast to the Commander, I was beginning to feel rather warm. My hands left slick prints on my bow as we neared Brazell’s. I scanned the woods for an ambush as dread hovered behind me like a pair of hands waiting to wrap around my neck. The ground felt soft and sucked at my boots so that each step required an extra effort. Big mistake, big mistake, coming to Brazell’s, I thought as my mind whirled on the edge of panic. To calm myself I imagined my brick wall, and focused my thoughts on survival.

An hour away from Brazell’s, the rich aroma of Criollo hung heavy in the air. As a precaution, I slipped into the forest off the main trail and stashed my backpack in the crook of a tree, hiding my bow nearby. Taking only my picks from the bag, I pulled my hair into a bun, using the thin metal tools to hold it in place.

At the outer buildings of Brazell’s manor our pace slowed. A collective sigh of relief rippled through the soldiers. They had safely delivered the Commander. Now they could rest in the barracks until it was time to return home.

I experienced the opposite of the soldiers’ ease despite my mental protection. I found it difficult to breathe as I followed the Commander and his advisers to Brazell’s office. I heard the liquid slamming in my heart, and felt light-headed.

When we entered, Brazell rose from behind his desk, a large smile adorning his square face. Mogkan hovered behind Brazell’s right shoulder. With my mental shield in place, I remained near the door, hoping to be inconspicuous. As Brazell recited a formal greeting, I surveyed his office. Lavish in its decoration, the room had a heavy, brooding feel. Black walnut wood framed hunting scenes, and crimson and purple velvet draped the windows. Brazell’s oversize ebony desk seemed a barrier between his high-backed leather chair and the two overstuffed, velvet seats facing it.

“Gentlemen, you must be tired from your trip,” Brazell said to the Commander’s advisers as a tall woman entered the office. “My housekeeper will guide you to your rooms.”

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