Poison Study Page 99

“Yelena,” he began in a formal tone, “you have saved my life and, for that, I thank you. But you have magical abilities that are not tolerated in Ixia. I have no choice but to sign an order for your execution.”

Valek placed a warning hand on Ari’s shoulder to prevent him from charging the Commander. Ari stayed still, but his outrage was evident in his face. When the Commander held a paper out to Valek, coldness crept along my skin, leaving behind a numb feeling of dread.

Valek didn’t move. “Sir, I’ve always believed that having a magician work for us would be beneficial and could have prevented this particular situation,” Valek said. “We can trust her.”

“A valid point.” The Commander drew back his arm, resting it on the desk. “Even though we trust her, even though she saved my life, I must follow the Code of Behavior. To do otherwise would be a sign of weakness, something I can’t afford right now, especially after this business with Mogkan. Plus, the Generals and my advisers will not trust her.”

Once again the Commander extended the execution order to Valek. In my frantic mind I heard Irys telling me to flee. She would attempt to slow Valek down. No, I told her. I would see this to the end. I would not run away.

“I won’t take it,” Valek said in a flat voice. He betrayed no emotion.

“You would disobey a direct order?” the Commander asked.

“No. If I don’t take the order, then I won’t have to disobey it.”

“And if I make it a verbal order?”

“I will obey. But it will be my very last task for you.” Valek pulled a knife off his belt.

The ring of steel sounded as Ari unsheathed his sword. “You’ll have to get through me first,” he said, stepping in front of me. Ari had a better than average chance of beating Valek, but I knew he wouldn’t win. And I didn’t want him to try.

“No, Ari,” I said. I pushed his sword arm down, and stood next to Valek. Our eyes met. I understood that Valek’s loyalty to the Commander was without question. His blue eyes held a fierce determination and I knew in my soul that Valek would take his own life after he had taken mine.

The Commander gazed at us with a quiet consideration. I felt time freeze under his scrutiny.

“I’ve signed the order, per the Code,” the Commander finally said. “I will assign someone else to carry it out. It may take a few days for me to find a suitable person.” He looked at me and Irys. A hint that we needed to get on the road as soon as possible. “This order is valid in Ixia only. You’re all dismissed.”

The office emptied in a hurry. I was giddy with relief as Ari swept me into one of his bear hugs and whooped with joy. But then my heart seized with pain as I realized that I would be parted from Valek so soon after we had joined. After Irys and Ari left to organize the “escape,” Valek pulled me aside. We kissed with passion and a desperate urgency.

After we drew apart to catch our breaths, I said, “Come with me.” It wasn’t a plea or a question. It was an invitation.

Valek’s blue eyes closed with pain. “I can’t.”

I turned away, feeling like one of Valek’s black statues, but he drew me back.

“Yelena, you need to learn, you need to find your family, you need to spread your wings and see how far you can fly. You don’t need me right now, but the Commander needs me.”

I clung to Valek. He was right, I didn’t need him, but I wanted him to be with me forever.

We left that night. Irys led our ragtag group. Eight girls and two boys from Brazell’s orphanage followed Irys through the forest toward the southern border. I took the rearguard position to make sure everyone stayed together, and to make sure no one tailed our group.

We hiked for a few hours until we found a suitable clearing to camp for the night. More than adequate provisions for our journey had been provided by Ari. I smiled, remembering his lecture to me about staying out of trouble. Just like an over-protective brother, he wasn’t content until I promised to send him a message if I needed help. I would miss him and Janco dearly.

We set up six small tents in a circle. Irys amazed the children as she set fire to the kindling with a magical flourish. After everyone had gone to sleep, I sat by the fire, stirring the dying embers. Unwilling to join May in our tent, I gazed at the single flame that erupted when I poked at the fire. It danced by itself for an audience of one. I wondered for the hundredth time why Valek hadn’t come to say goodbye, fingering my pendant.

I sensed movement. Jumping up, I drew my bow. A shadow detached from a tree. Irys had created a magical barrier around our tents. According to her, the barrier would deflect a person’s vision, so all he would see was an empty clearing. The shadow stopped at the edge, unaffected by the magic, and smiled at me. Valek.

He held out a hand. I grasped his cold fingers with both hands as he led me away from the tents and deeper into the forest.

“Why didn’t you come before we left?” I asked him when we stopped at the base of a tree. The roots of the massive oak had broken through the ground, creating small protective hollows.

“I was busy making sure the Commander would have a hard time locating someone to carry out his orders.” Valek grinned with vicious delight. “It’s amazing how much work there is cleaning up after Brazell.”

I thought about what that cleanup would entail. “Who is tasting the Commander’s food?” I asked.

“For now, I am. But I believe Captain Star would make an excellent candidate. Since she knows who all the assassins are, I think her help will be invaluable.”

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