The fight had lasted seconds. The woman hadn’t moved at all, her intent gaze had been focused on the skirmish. Recognizing her as the dark-skinned woman I had spotted twice before at the festival, I wondered what she would do now that her goons were beaten.
Regaining some strength, I contemplated my odds of reaching the knife in the tent before she did. The drunk wiped blood off his face. Bodies were littered around his feet.
I tried to stand on shaky legs. The woman’s head snapped toward me as if she had forgotten I was there. Then she started to sing. Her sweet, melodious tune wound its way through my mind. Relax, it said, lie down, be still. Yes, I thought as I sank back down. My body mellowed. I felt as if she were tucking me into bed, drawing the blanket up to my chin. But then the blanket was yanked over my head, pushing against my mouth and nose, suffocating me.
I thrashed, wildly clawing my face to remove the imaginary blanket. Out of nowhere, Valek appeared before me, yelling in my ear, shaking my shoulders. Stupidly, belatedly, I realized he was the drunk. Who else but Valek could win a fight against four large men when armed only with a beer mug?
“Recite poisons in your mind!” Valek shouted.
I ignored him. Lassitude overcame me. I ceased fighting. All I wanted to do was sink into the darkness and follow the music to its depths.
“Recite! Now! That’s an order!”
Habit saved me. Without thought, I obeyed Valek. Names of poisons marched through my mind. The music stopped. The pressure on my face eased, and I could breathe again. I gasped noisily.
“Keep reciting,” he said.
The woman and the knife had disappeared. Valek pulled me to my feet. I swayed, but he steadied me with an arm on my shoulder. I clutched his hand for a second, suppressing the urge to throw myself sobbing into his arms. He had saved my life. When I regained my balance, Valek went back to the men. I knew Singed Beard was dead, but I was unsure of the others.
Valek turned one prone form over and cursed. “Southerners,” he said with disgust. He moved around the others, feeling for pulses. “Two alive. I’ll have them taken to the castle for questioning.”
“What about the woman?” I croaked. Talking was painful.
“Will you search for her?”
Valek gave me a strange look. “Yelena, she’s a southern magician. I took my eyes off her, so there’s no way I can find her now.”
He grabbed my arm and steered me toward the festival.
My muscles trembled as the shock of the attack worked through my body. It took a while for his words to sink in.
“Magician?” I asked. “I thought they were banished from Ixia.” Killed on sight was more like it, but I couldn’t bring myself to say those words aloud.
“Although very unwelcome, some visit Ixia anyway.”
“But, I thought…”
“Not now. I’ll explain later. Right now I want you to catch up with Rand and his friends. Pretend nothing has happened. I doubt she’ll try again tonight.”
The bright firelight stabbed my eyes. Valek and I stayed in the shadows until we spotted Rand near the acrobatics tent. He was searching for me and calling my name. Valek motioned for me to join my friend.
I had taken only two steps when Valek said, “Yelena, wait.”
I turned. Valek waved me closer. When I reached him, his hand reached toward my neck. I stepped back, but recovered and stood still. His hand brushed my skin as he pulled the garrote off my throat. He handed it to me as if it was a poisonous snake. Shivering in disgust, I flung it to the ground.
Rand’s relief, when he saw me emerge from the crowd, rolled off him like a breaking wave. I hesitated. Why would he be so concerned? For all he knew, I had only been lost. I caught a sweet whiff of wine as Rand approached.
“Yelena, where have you been?” His words slurred.
I hadn’t realized he had drunk that much wine, which would explain why he had been so desperate to find me. Alcohol poisoned the mind, exaggerated the emotions.
“The tent was too crowded. I needed some air.” My voice caught on the word air as the horror of being strangled swept through me. I glanced back at the shadows. Was Valek still watching or had he gone to arrest those men? And where was the dark-skinned woman? Earlier, I had been so happy to get out of the castle, but now I wanted nothing more than to have strong stone walls around me, and to be safely back in Valek’s suite. Now, that was an odd combination, the words Valek and safe in the same thought.
“I thought I’d catch up with you later,” I lied to Rand as I scanned the festival crowd. I didn’t enjoy deceiving him. After all, he was my friend. Maybe even a good friend who had been concerned enough to search for me when I had been separated from him, and who probably would have been the only person to be upset by my murder. Despite his fight on my behalf, I was certain that Valek would have only been annoyed at having to train a new food taster.
The fire dance had just ended and people poured from the tent. The rest of the kitchen group waited outside. Dilana had joined them. Rand dropped my arm like a lump of dough and went over to her. She smiled at him, teasing him about chasing after the food taster when he had promised to meet her.
Drunkenly, he begged for her forgiveness, explaining that he couldn’t afford to lose me since I had helped him win the baking contest. She laughed. Throwing one of her heartwarming smiles my way, Dilana hugged Rand, and arm in arm they headed back to the castle.
The rest of us followed. I found myself once again last in the procession, but this time I had Liza as a companion.