Poison Study Page 97

Questions hovered on my lips. I wanted to know more about this family, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. There was the possibility that I wasn’t a Zaltana. I guess I would find out when I reached Sitia. Irys wanted to start my magical training right away.

Uneasiness hovered in my chest whenever I thought of leaving Ixia. I changed the subject. “How’s the Commander?”

Irys confessed her frustration. “He’s different from the children. There’s nothing in their minds, but he’s retreated to a white place. If I can only find where he is, then I might be able to bring him back.”

I considered this for a while, and thought back to a time in the war room when I had fallen asleep. “May I try?”

“Why not?”

I made sure Janco was comfortable and had everything he desired. Irys accompanied me to the Commander’s room. The bodies had been removed and someone had attempted to clean up. I perched on the edge of the Commander’s bed and took his cold hand in mine. Following Irys’s instructions, I closed my eyes, sending my mental awareness toward him.

My feet crunched on ice. A cold wind stabbed my face and filled my lungs with tiny daggers. Dazzling white surrounded me. Diamond dust or snowflakes, it was hard to tell. I walked for a while and was immediately confused by the sparkling blizzard. Stumbling through the storm, I fought to remain calm and to remind myself that I was not lost. Whenever I took a step forward, the icy wind drove me back.

I was about to admit defeat, when I remembered why I had thought I could find the Commander. Focusing on the scene of a young woman exalting over a slain snow cat caused the wind to stop and the blizzard to clear. I stood next to Ambrose.

She was dressed in heavy white hunting furs that resembled the skin of the cat.

“Come back,” I said.

“I can’t,” she said, pointing into the distance.

Thin black bars surrounded us on all sides. A birdcage was my first impression, but upon closer scrutiny I could see that the bars were soldiers armed with swords.

“Every time I tried to leave, they pushed me back.” Fury flamed in her face before dying into weary.

“But you’re the Commander.”

“Not here. Here I am just Ambrosia trapped inside my mistake of a body. The soldiers know about my curse.”

I searched my mind for a reply. The guards didn’t belong to Mogkan, they belonged to her. My eyes were drawn to the snow cat’s carcass. “How did you kill the cat?”

Her face came alive as she recounted how she had bathed in snow-cat scent and spent weeks cloaked in snow-cat furs, pretending to be one of the animals until they allowed her to be part of their pack. In the end it was only a matter of time and the perfect opportunity to make the kill.

“Proof that I was really a man. That I had won the right to be a man.”

“Then perhaps you need to wear your prize,” I suggested. “Skins will not help you against that lot.” I jerked my head at the ring of guards.

Comprehension widened the woman’s golden eyes. She gazed at the slain cat, then morphed into the Commander. Her shoulder-length hair shortened into his buzz cut, fine lines of age growing on her face as he emerged. The white furs dropped to the ground as his wrinkle-free uniform materialized. He stepped away from the skins, kicking them dismissively.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I said. “She’s a part of you. You might need her again.”

“And do I need you, Yelena? Can I trust you to keep my mutation a secret?” the Commander asked with a fierce intensity.

“I came here to bring you back. Isn’t that answer enough?”

“Valek swore me a blood oath of loyalty when I carved my initial on his chest. Would you do the same?”

“Does Valek know about Ambrosia?” I asked.

“No. You haven’t answered my question.”

I showed the Commander Valek’s butterfly. “I wear this against my chest. I’ve pledged my loyalty to Valek, who is faithful to you.”

The Commander reached for the butterfly. I stood still as he removed it from my necklace. He took a knife from the skins and sliced it across his right palm. Holding the pendant in his bloody hand, he extended the knife toward me. I held out my right hand, wincing as the knife bit into it. Our blood mixed as I shook his hand with the butterfly wedged between our palms. When he released his grip, Valek’s gift was in my hand. I returned it to its proper place over my heart.

“How do we get back?” he asked.

“You’re the Commander.”

His eyes rested on the dead cat. Looking around at the ring of soldiers, he drew his sword. “We fight,” he said.

I pulled the spear from the cat’s side, and wiped the blood on the snow. Feeling the weight of the weapon in my grip, I swung it around in a few practice moves. It was lighter than a bow, and a bit off balance by the metal tip. But it would work.

We charged the men. The circle of guards tightened immediately around us. Back to back, the Commander and I fought.

The men were skilled, but the Commander was a master swordsman. He had bested Valek and killed a snow cat. It was like fighting with five more defenders by my side.

When I sunk the spear’s tip into one guard’s heart, he exploded into a shower of snow crystals that floated away with the wind.

Time slowed as I hacked at one man after another, until finally time snapped to the present. I whirled around searching for an opponent only to discover that we had dispatched all the men. Snow swirled around us.

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