Valek moved next to the Commander. I stood behind them. The debate made me squirm because I couldn’t help imagining myself as the poor soul being hunted.
I pictured myself running through the woods, out of breath, and straining to hear the sounds of pursuit. Unable to blend into a town because a new face would alert the soldiers on patrol. Bored soldiers whose only job was to watch, who were familiar with the town’s inhabitants.
Every citizen of the Territory of Ixia had a specific job. After the takeover, everyone had been appointed an occupation. A citizen was allowed to move to a different town or Military District, but proper forms were required. A completed transfer request needed approval from the supervisor, and proof that a position was being held at the new address. Without the proper documents, a civilian found in the wrong neighborhood was arrested. Visiting other districts was acceptable, but again only as long as the proper papers were obtained and shown to the soldiers on arrival.
While working in isolation with Brazell and Reyad, I had obsessively thought about escape. Thinking of freedom had been better than dwelling on my life as a laboratory rat. With no family or friends outside the manor to hide me, though, the southern lands were my best option, assuming I could penetrate the well guarded border.
I had created elaborate fantasies of stealing away to Sitia, finding an adoptive family and falling in love. Corny, sentimental rubbish, but it was my only elixir. Every day when the experiments began, my mind would focus on Sitia, finding bright colors, loving gestures and warmth. Holding those images in my mind, I endured Reyad’s tests.
But even if I had been given the opportunity to escape, I don’t know if I would have seized it. Although I remembered nothing of my birth family, I did have a family living within the manor house. The other lost children who had been taken in. My sisters. My brothers. My children. I learned with them, I played with them and I took care of them. How could I abandon them? To think of May or Carra taking my place was too much to bear.
I bit on my finger until I tasted blood, and dragged my thoughts back to the present. I had escaped from Brazell. He would leave the castle in two weeks and return home, probably to the next round of experiments with a different laboratory rat. My heart went out to her, whoever she was. Brazell was brutal. She was in for a rough time. But I had saved her from Reyad.
Pulling my hand away from my mouth, I inspected the bite mark. Not too deep, it wouldn’t scar. I traced the network of semicircular scars that covered my fingers and knuckles. When I looked up, I caught Valek staring at my hands. I laced them behind my back.
The Commander raised his hand. Quiet descended in an instant. “Excellent points from both sides. We will put your theories to the test. Two teams.” Pointing to the two main debaters, the Commander said, “You’ll be the Captains. Assemble your team and organize a plan of attack. Recruit as needed. Valek will supply a fugitive from one of his men. You have a fortnight to prepare.”
The noise level rose as the Commander headed toward his office with Valek and I close behind.
Valek shut the office door, muffling the commotion. “Is Marrok’s escape to Sitia still bothering you?” he asked.
The Commander frowned. “Yes. Sloppy work, that pursuit. Marrok must have known you were in MD–8. You really need to train a couple of prot?g?s.”
Valek looked at him in mock horror. “But then I wouldn’t be indispensable.”
A quick smile graced the Commander’s face, before he spotted me lingering near the corner. “Well, Valek, you were right about this one. She survived your test.” Then to me, he said, “Come here.”
My feet obeyed despite my hysterical heart.
“As my official food taster, you’re to report to me with my breakfast. I’ll give you my daily itinerary and expect you to be present at each meal. I will not accept tardiness. Understand?”
He glanced at Valek. “She looks fragile. Are you sure she’s strong enough?”
The Commander appeared unconvinced. His golden eyes tracked from me to Valek as he contemplated. I hoped with desperation that he wasn’t looking for an excuse to fire me.
“All right. Since I missed lunch, Valek, you will join me for an early dinner. Yelena, you start as my food taster tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, Sir,” Valek and I said in unison. We were dismissed.
We returned to Valek’s office to gather my extra uniforms and journal. Valek escorted me to his living quarters, located in the central part of the castle. As we traveled the main hallways, I noticed that the bright areas of stone on the wall outnumbered the darker zones. A vast array of paintings must have been taken down. We also passed several large, colorless rooms that had been redesigned as either offices or barracks.
It occurred to me that the Commander’s functional style and stark standards had robbed the castle of its soul. All that remained was a dead stone building reassigned to purely utilitarian purposes.
I was too young to remember what life was like before the takeover, but I had been taught in Brazell’s orphanage that the monarchy had been corrupt and its citizens unhappy. The takeover had been just that; to call it a war would be inaccurate. Most of the King’s soldiers had switched loyalty to the Commander. They had been disgusted with promotions based on bribery and blood ties instead of hard work and skill. Orders to kill people for minor infractions because a member of the elite was angry caused sour feelings among the men.