“Oh good. I can barely stay awake now from all the boredom.” My voice dripped with sarcasm. Only Valek would consider an attempt on my life a fascinating diversion.
He ignored my remark. “It’s your choice, Yelena.”
My choice wasn’t contained in one of Valek’s scenarios. My choice was to be someplace where my life wasn’t in danger. My choice was to be where I didn’t have an assassin for a boss, and some unknown person trying to make my already intense life even more complicated. My choice was freedom.
I sighed. The safer course of action was the most tempting, but it wouldn’t solve anything. I had learned the hard way that avoiding problems didn’t work. Run and hide were my trademark impulses, which only led to being trapped in a corner with no recourse other than to blindly strike out.
The results were not always favorable. The lack of control unnerving. My survival instinct seemed to have a mind of its own. Magic. The word floated at the edge of my mind. No. Someone would have noticed by now. Someone would have reported me. Or would he if that someone was Brazell? Or Reyad?
I shook my head, banishing the thoughts. It was in the past. I had more immediate concerns.
“Okay. I’ll dangle on the hook to see what fish swims out. But who’s going to hold the net?”
I let out a slow breath. The tight feeling around my stomach eased.
“Don’t alter your plans. I’ll take care of everything.” Valek picked up the paper with my name on it. He dipped the corner of the page into a lantern, setting it on fire. “I should probably follow you to the fire festival tomorrow night. Unless logic has made you decide to turn down Rand’s offer and stay in the castle.” He let the burning paper float to the floor.
“How did you—” I stopped. I wasn’t going to ask. It was well known that he didn’t trust Rand, so I shouldn’t be surprised that Valek had an informant in the kitchen.
Valek hadn’t said I couldn’t go. I made a sudden decision. “I’m going. It’s a risk. So what? I take a risk every time I sip the Commander’s tea. At least this time I might get a chance to enjoy myself.”
“It’s hard to have fun at the festival without money.” Valek crushed the dying embers of the paper under his boot.
“Would you like an advance on your wage as fugitive?”
“No. I’ll earn the money.” I didn’t want Valek to do me any favors. I was unprepared for thoughtfulness from him. For Valek to soften even a little might destroy our strange tug-ofwar relationship, and I was reluctant for it to alter. Besides, thinking kind thoughts about Valek could be extremely dangerous. I could admire his skills, and be relieved when he was on my side in a fight. But for a rat to like the cat? That scenario ended only one way. With one dead rat.
“Suit yourself,” Valek said. “But let me know if you change your mind. And don’t concern yourself about the books. Read all the books you want.”
Heading back to my room, I paused with my hand resting on the doorknob. “Thanks,” I spoke to the door, unwilling to look at Valek.
“For the books?”
“No. The offer.” My eyes traced the wood grain.
The castle hummed with activity. Smiling servants rushed through the corridors, laughter echoed off the stone walls. It was the first day of the fire festival, and the castle’s staff hurried to complete their chores so they could attend the opening celebration. Their excitement was contagious, and even after a restless night of sleep, I was beginning to feel like a child again. Determined to push the ugly image of someone stalking me at the festival to a far, dark corner of my mind, I allowed myself to savor the anticipation of the evening’s events.
I fidgeted through an afternoon lesson with Valek. He was trying to teach me how to spot a tail. It was mostly commonsense advice, and some techniques that I had already read about in one of his books, and my mind wandered. I wasn’t planning on looking over my shoulder all night. Sensing my mood, Valek ended the session early.
Soon after, I grabbed a clean uniform and the colored ribbons Dilana had given me and headed toward the baths. At this time of day, the steaming pools were empty. I washed fast, and sank into one of the baths. Inching my way into the hot liquid, I let each muscle relax, oohing and aahing until the water reached my neck.
Only when the skin on my fingers began to wrinkle did I leave the water. I had been avoiding the mirror for a month. Now, curious, I scanned my reflection. Not as skeletal, although I needed to gain some more weight. My cheeks were hollow and my ribs and hipbones poked through my flesh. What had once been dull, uncombable black hair now shone. The scar on my right elbow had turned from bright red to a deep purple.
Swallowing, I looked far into the mirror. Had my soul returned? No. Instead, I saw Reyad’s smirking ghost floating behind me, but when I turned around he was gone. I wondered what Reyad wanted. Revenge most likely, but how would you confront a ghost? I decided not to worry about it tonight.
Changing into a clean uniform, I braided the brightly colored ribbons into my hair, I let the ends fall past my shoulders and loosely down my back.
When I reported to the Commander to taste his dinner, I expected a tart comment on my unmilitary hairstyle. All I received was one raised eyebrow.
After dinner, I raced to the kitchen. Rand greeted me with a huge smile. The staff was still cleaning, so I helped scrub the countertops and floors to avoid the awkwardness of just standing around waiting. Rand reigned over an immaculate kitchen, and only when the kitchen was spotless was the staff dismissed.