When I woke the next morning, there was a blurry white blob standing at the end of my bed. It moved. I blinked and squinted until the image sharpened into the short-haired medic.
“Did you have a good night?”
“Yes,” I said. The first night in a long time free of nightmares, although my head felt as if wool had been shoved into it, and a rank taste in my mouth didn’t promise for a good morning.
The medic checked my bandages, made a noncommittal sound and told me breakfast would be a while.
As I waited, I scanned the infirmary. The rectangular room held twelve beds, six on each side, and spaced so that they formed a mirror image. The sheets on the empty beds were pulled tight as bowstrings. Orderly and precise, the room annoyed me. I felt like rumpled bedding, no longer in control of my soul, my body, or my world. Being surrounded by neatness offended me, and I had a sudden desire to jump on the empty beds, knocking them out of line.
I was farthest from the door. Two empty beds lay between the three other patients and me on my side of the room. They were sleeping. I had no one to talk to. The stone walls were bare. Hell, my prison cell had more interesting decorations. At least it smelled better in here. I took a deep breath. The clean, sharp smell of alcohol mixed with disinfectant filled my nose, so different from the dungeon’s fetid air. Much better. Or was it? There was another scent intermixed with the medical aroma. Another whiff and I realized that the sour odor of old fear emanated from me.
I shouldn’t have survived yesterday. Brazell’s guards had me cornered. There was no escape. Yet I had been saved by a strange buzzing noise that had erupted from my throat like an unruly, uncontrollable offspring. A primal survival instinct that had echoed in my nightmares.
I avoided thoughts about that buzz because it was an old acquaintance of mine, but the memories kept invading my mind.
Examining the past three years, I forced myself to concentrate on when and where the buzzing had erupted, and to ignore the emotions.
The first couple of months of Brazell’s experiments had merely tested my reflexes. How fast I could dodge a ball or duck a swinging stick, harmless enough until the ball had turned into a knife and the stick into a sword.
My heart began to pound. With sweaty palms I fingered a scar on my neck. No emotion, I told myself sternly, flicking my hands as if I could push away the fear. Pretend you’re the medic, I thought, asking questions to gain information. I imagined myself dressed in white, calmly sitting next to a fevered patient while she babbled.
What came next? I asked the patient. Strength and endurance tests, she answered. Simple tasks of lifting weights had turned into holding heavy stones above her head for minutes, then hours. If she dropped the stone before the time was up, she was whipped. She was ordered to clutch chains dangling from the ceiling, holding her weight inches above the floor, until Brazell or Reyad gave permission to let go.
When was the first time you heard the buzzing? I prompted the patient. She had released the chains too early too many times and Reyad became furious. So he forced her outside a window six floors above the ground, and let her hold on to the ledge with her hands.
“Let’s try it again,” Reyad said. “Now that we’ve raised the stakes, maybe you’ll last for the whole hour.”
The patient stopped speaking. Go on, tell me what happened, I prodded. Her arms had been weak from spending most of the day hanging from the chains. Her fingers were slick with sweat; her muscles trembled with fatigue. She panicked. When her hands slipped off the ledge, she howled like a newborn. The howl mutated and transformed into a substance. It expanded out, enveloped and caressed her skin on all sides. She felt as if she was nestled in a warm pool of water.
Next thing she remembered she was sitting on the ground. She glanced up at the window. Reyad watched her with his face flushed. His perfect blond hair an unusual mess. Delighted, he blew her a kiss.
The only way she could have survived the fall was by magic. No. Absolutely not, she insisted. It had to have been some strange wind currents or landing the right way. Not magic.
Magic, a forbidden word in Ixia since Commander Ambrose came to power. Magicians had been treated like disease-riddled mosquitoes. They were hunted, trapped and exterminated. Any hint or suggestion that someone had magic was a death sentence. The only chance to live was to escape to Sitia.
The patient was growing agitated, and the other occupants of the room were staring at her…Me. Small doses, I told myself. I could handle the memories in modest quantities. After all, I hadn’t been hurt by the fall, and Reyad was sweet to me for a while. But his kindness only lasted until I started failing his tests again.
To distract myself from the memories, I counted the cracks in the ceiling. I was up to fifty-six when Valek arrived.
He carried a tray of food in one hand and a file folder in the other. I eyed the steaming omelet with suspicion. “What’s in it?” I demanded. “More sleeping pills? Or another new poison?” Every muscle in my body had stiffened. I tried unsuccessfully to sit up. “How about giving me something to make me feel good for a change?”
“How about something to keep you alive?” Valek asked. He pulled me to a sitting position and offered a pipette filled with my antidote. Then he placed the tray of food on my lap.
“No need for sleeping pills. The medic told me you picked up on that taste last night.” Valek’s voice held a note of approval. “Taste your breakfast and tell me if you would allow the Commander to eat it.”
Valek hadn’t been exaggerating when he said I’d have no days off. Sighing, I smelled the omelet. No unusual odors. I cut the omelet into quarters, examining each for any foreign material. Taking a small piece from each section, I put them into my mouth one at a time and chewed slowly. Swallowing, I waited to discern any aftertaste. I sniffed the tea and stirred it with a spoon before sipping. Rolling the liquid over my tongue, I detected a sweet taste before I swallowed.