Poison Study Page 92

He ignored me as he unlocked the door. “Trust me. This is the perfect hiding spot. The mess we left will soon be discovered, the open doors proof we’ve fled.” Valek pushed me ahead of him into the cell. “Search parties will be sent out. When all the soldiers have left the manor, we’ll make our move. Until then, we lay low.”

Valek made a makeshift bed of straw in the far corner of the cell. After extinguishing and hiding the lantern, he yanked me down. I curled on my side with my back to him, shivering in my wet clothes. Valek pulled some straw on top of us and wrapped an arm around me. He drew me close. I stiffened at the contact, but his body heat warmed me, and I soon relaxed into his grip.

At first, every tiny noise made my heart race. But I shouldn’t have worried; the commotion that ensued when our escape was discovered was deafening.

Angry and accusing voices shouted. Search parties were organized and dispatched. It was agreed that we had an hour head start, but Brazell and Mogkan argued on which direction we had taken.

“Valek’s probably retreating west to well-known territory,” Brazell stated with authority.

“South is the logical choice,” Mogkan insisted. “We have the Commander; there’s nothing they can do. They’re running for their lives, not toward some strategic position. I’ll take a horse and scan the forest with my magic.”

Valek harrumphed in my ear, and whispered, “They actually think I would abandon the Commander. They have no concept of loyalty.”

When the prison had been quiet and empty for a few hours, I grew bored and anxious to be gone. The door to the cells had remained wide open, allowing a faint light to illuminate our surroundings.

“Can we go now?” I asked.

“Not yet. I believe it’s still daylight. We’ll wait until dark.”

To help pass the time, I asked Valek how he had become involved with the Commander. I thought it an unintrusive question, but he grew so quiet that I regretted asking it.

After a long pause, he spoke. “My family lived in Icefaren Province before it was renamed MD–1. A particularly harsh winter collapsed the building that housed my father’s leather business, ruining all of his equipment. He needed to replace his equipment to stay in business, but the soldiers who came to our house to collect the tax money wouldn’t listen to reason.” Valek’s arm tightened around me.

A minute stretched longer before he continued. “I was just a skinny little kid at the time, but I had three older brothers. They were about Ari’s size and had his strength. When my father told the soldiers that if he paid the full tax amount he wouldn’t have enough money left to feed his family—” Valek paused for several heartbeats “—they killed my brothers. They laughed and said, ‘Problem solved. Now you have three less mouths to feed.’” The muscles on Valek’s arm trembled with tension.

“Naturally, I wanted revenge, but not on the soldiers. They were only messengers. I wanted the King. The man who had allowed his soldiers to murder my brothers in his name. So I learned how to fight, and I studied the assassin’s art until I was unbeatable. I traveled around, using my new skills to earn money. The royal upper class was so corrupt they paid me to kill each other.

“Then I was commissioned to kill a young man named Ambrose, whose speeches called for rebellion and made the royals nervous. He’d become popular, gathering large crowds. People started to resist the King’s doctrines. Then Ambrose disappeared, hiding his growing army and employing covert operations against the monarchy.

“My payment to find and kill Ambrose was significant. I ambushed him, expecting to have my knife in his heart before he could draw breath to cry out. But he blocked the blow, and I found myself fighting for my life, and losing.

“Instead of killing me, though, Ambrose carved a C on my chest with my own knife. The same weapon, by the way, that I later used to kill the King. Then Ambrose declared himself my Commander, and announced that I now worked for him and no one else. I agreed, and I promised him that if he got me close enough to kill the King, I would be loyal to him forever.

“My first assignment was to kill the person who had paid me to assassinate Ambrose. Throughout these years, I’ve watched him achieve his goals with a single-minded determination and without excess violence and pain. He hasn’t been corrupted by power or greed. He’s consistent and loyal to his people. And there’s been no one in this world that I care for more. Until now.”

I held my breath. It had been a simple, innocent question. I hadn’t expected such an intimate response.

“Yelena, you’ve driven me crazy. You’ve caused me considerable trouble and I’ve contemplated ending your life twice since I’ve known you.” Valek’s warm breath in my ear sent a shiver down my spine.

“But you’ve slipped under my skin, invaded my blood and seized my heart.”

“That sounds more like a poison than a person,” was all I could say. His confession had both shocked and thrilled me.

“Exactly,” Valek replied. “You have poisoned me.” He rolled me over to face him. Before I could make another sound, he kissed me.

Long suppressed desire flared to life as I wrapped my arms around his neck, returning his kiss with equal passion.

My response was a delightful surprise. I had feared, after Reyad’s abuse, my body would clench tight in horror and revulsion. But the intertwining of our bodies linked our minds and spirits together.

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