“Yes, Sir,” Valek said and headed for the door. I followed. We wound our way through the tangle of desks. When Valek stopped to consult with another adviser, I glanced around. A handful of the Commander’s advisers were women, and I noticed two female Captains and one Colonel. Their new roles were one of the benefits of the takeover. The Commander assigned jobs based on skills and intelligence, not on gender.
While the monarchy preferred to see women work as maids, kitchen helpers and wives, the Commander gave them the freedom to choose what they wanted to do. Some women preferred their former occupations, while others jumped at the chance to do something else, and the younger generation had been quick to take advantage of the new opportunities.
When we finally reached Valek’s office, Margg was dusting around Valek’s piles of papers on the table. It looked to me as if she was spending more time reading the papers than straightening them. Didn’t Valek notice? I wondered what Margg did for Valek besides cleaning.
Margg turned a pleasant face to Valek, but as soon as he walked away she glared fiercely at me. Must have lost a lot of money betting against my survival, I thought. I smiled at her. She managed to control her outraged expression before Valek glanced up at us from his desk.
“Yelena, you look exhausted. You make me tired just looking at you. Go rest. Come back after lunch and we’ll continue with your training.”
I didn’t really feel tired, but rest sounded like an excellent idea. As I moved along the hallway, Valek’s comment wormed its way through my mind. My pace slowed and I dragged my feet toward my room. I was so preoccupied with the physical effort of walking that I bumped right into two of Brazell’s guards.
“Lookie, Wren, I found our rat!” one guard exclaimed, grabbing my wrist.
Alert, I gaped at the green diamonds on the guard’s uniform.
“Good for you,” Wren said. “Let’s show your catch to General Brazell.”
“The General isn’t fond of live rats. Especially this one.”
The guard shook me hard. Pain coursed up my arm to my shoulder and neck. In a panic, I searched the hallway for help. It was deserted.
“That’s right, he prefers them skinned alive.”
I’d heard enough. I did what any good rat would do. I bit down on the guard’s hand until I tasted blood. Yelping and cursing in surprise, his grip lessened. I jerked my arm out of his grasp and ran.
Iwas only a couple of steps away from brazell’s guards when they recovered from their surprise and began to chase me. being terrified and unburdened of weapons, I had a slight advantage. It wouldn’t last. I was already puffing with the effort.
The corridors were mysteriously empty as I ran through them. If I did find someone, I wasn’t really sure they would or could help me. Like a rat, my only hope of escape was to find a hole to hide in.
I ran without a plan, caring only about keeping ahead of the guards. The corridors blurred together until I imagined I was running in place and it was the walls that were moving. I slowed for a moment to get my bearings. Where was I?
The light in the hallway was waning. My pounding steps kicked dust up from the floor. I had headed toward an isolated part of the castle, a perfect place for a quiet murder. Quiet because I wouldn’t have enough air in my lungs to scream.
I made a quick right turn into a corridor that led off into darkness. Momentarily out of the guards’ sight, I pushed against the first door I encountered. Groaning and creaking, it yielded slightly under my weight, and then stuck tight. A gap big enough for my body, but not my head. Hearing the guards turn down the corridor, I threw myself against the door. It moved another inch. I tumbled headfirst into a dark room, and landed on the floor.
The guards found the door. I watched in horror as they tried to muscle it open. The gap began to expand. I scanned the room. My eyes adjusted to the gloom. Empty barrels and rotten sacks of grain littered the floor. A pile of rugs was stacked against the far wall below a window.
The door surrendered a couple more inches to the guards’ efforts before lodging again. I stood, and stacked the barrels on top of the rug pile. Scrambling up them, I reached the window, only to discover it was too small for me to fit through.
The door cracked ominously. I used my elbow to shatter the windowpane. Pulling the ragged glass fragments out of the frame, I tossed them to the floor. Blood ran down my arm. Heedless of the pain, I jumped down, pressed myself against the wall next to the doorway, and fought to stifle the harsh sound of my breathing.
With a loud groan, the door stopped mere inches from my face as the guards stumbled into the storeroom.
“Check the window. I’ll cover the door,” Wren said.
I peeked around the edge. Wren’s companion walked to the pile of rugs and barrels, crushing glass beneath his boots.
My plan wasn’t going to work. Wren blocked my escape route. The broken window would only delay the inevitable.
“Too small, she’s still here,” the guard called from above.
My rough breathing had accelerated into fast gasps. I felt light-headed. The rat trap had sprung. I was immobilized in its metal jaws.
My thoughts jumbled into a cloud of images. I clutched at the door, trying not to fall. A buzzing sound burst uncontrolled from my throat. I was unable to suppress the drone. Trying harder only caused the sound to grow louder.
I staggered out from behind the door. With all the noise I made, the guards didn’t even glance in my direction. They seemed frozen in place.