“I’m new to the hunt-and-chase game,” I told the Commander. “For someone untrained, trying to spot a tail in a noisy, crowded festival is a difficult task. It’s like asking a child to run when she has just learned how to walk. In the woods, alone and trying to avoid everyone, picking up a tail will be easier and within my abilities.” I stopped. No response from the Commander, so I continued, “If we can lure this magician out, maybe we can discover why she wants to kill me.”
The Commander sat as still as a frog that watched and waited for a fly to come closer.
I played my last card. “And Valek has assured me he will be following.”
My use of the Commander’s word was not lost on him.
“We will proceed as planned. I don’t expect you to get far, so I doubt we’ll see this magician.” He said the word magician as if it left a foul taste in his mouth. “I do expect you to keep quiet about this entire affair. Consider it an order. You’re dismissed.”
“Yes, Sir.” I left his office.
I spent the remainder of the day collecting and borrowing provisions for the exercise, which was scheduled to begin the next morning at dawn. I visited Dilana’s workroom and the smithy. Just mentioning Valek’s name produced remarkable results from the blacksmiths, who hurried to procure the items I said Valek needed.
Dilana would have given me anything I requested. She seemed disappointed that I only wanted to borrow a leather backpack.
“Keep it,” she had said. “No one has claimed it. It’s been underfoot since I started.”
I kept her company as she mended uniforms, told me the latest gossip and fussed about how I needed to eat more.
My last stop was the kitchen. With the hope of finding Rand alone, I waited until after the staff had cleaned up dinner. He was standing at a counter, working on menus. Each week’s menus had to be approved by the Commander before Rand could give them to Liza, who made sure the required food and ingredients were available.
“You look better than I feel,” Rand said in a soft tone. He held his head like a full cup of water, moving slowly as if to avoid spilling over. “I don’t have anything for you to taste today. I haven’t had the energy.”
“That’s okay.” I noted his white face and the dark smudges under his eyes. “I won’t keep you. I just need to borrow some things.”
Interested, Rand almost returned to his jovial self. “Like what?”
“Bread. And some of that glue you invented. Medic Mommy used it to seal a cut on my arm. It’s wonderful stuff.”
“The glue! One of my best recipes yet! Did she tell you how I discovered it? I was trying to make an edible adhesive for this mammoth, ten-layer wedding cake and—”
“Rand,” I interrupted, “I would love to hear the story, and you must promise to tell me another time. But we’re both short on sleep.”
“Oh, yes. You’re right.” He pointed to a stack of loaves and said, “Take what you need.”
While I collected bread, he rummaged around in a drawer, then handed me a jar of white glue.
“It’s not permanent. The glue will stick for about a week then it loses its grip. Anything else?”
“Um. Yes.” I hesitated, reluctant to make my last request, which was my main reason for wanting to be alone with Rand.
“I need a knife.”
His head jerked. I could see a spark behind his eyes as the memory of how I had killed Reyad flashed through his mind. I saw the gears in his head turning as he weighed our fledgling friendship against this unusual request.
I fully expected him to question me as to why I needed a knife. Instead he asked, “Which one?”
“The scariest-looking one you’ve got.”
The next morning, I headed out the south gate just as the sun crested the Soul Mountains. Soon a glorious sweep of sunlight rushed over the valley, indicating the start of the Commander’s exercise. My heart pulsed with excitement and fear. A strange combination of feelings, but they fueled my steps. I scarcely felt the weight of my backpack.
I had worried that the items contained in my knapsack could be considered cheating. After much thought, I decided that a prisoner intent on escaping from the dungeon would save some of her bread rations, smuggle a weapon from the guard room and steal the other items from the blacksmiths. And if I was stretching things a bit, then so what. No one had told me I must flee with nothing.
My determination to “escape” had increased since the plan had first been proposed. The money was merely a bonus at this point. I wanted to prove the Commander wrong. The Commander, who thought I wouldn’t get far, who had been concerned my death would jeopardize his exercise.
Before leaving the castle complex, I had stopped for a moment to view the main building in the daylight. My first impression was that a child had built the palace with his toy blocks. The base of the castle was rectangular. It supported various upper levels of squares, triangles and cylinders built atop one another in a haphazard fashion. The only attempts at symmetry were the magnificent towers at each corner of the castle. Streaked with brilliantly colored glass windows, the four towers stretched toward the sky.
The castle’s unusual geometric design intrigued me, and I would have liked to view it from other angles, but Valek had instructed me to leave the complex at dawn as I only had an hour’s head start. Then, the soldiers and dogs in pursuit would try to discover which gate I had exited, tracking me from there. Valek had taken one of my uniform shirts in order to give the dogs my scent. I had asked him who would taste the Commander’s food while I was gone, and he’d given me some vague reply about having others trained in the art of poisoning who were too valuable to be used on a regular basis. Unlike me.