“Magic doesn’t work on Valek. He’s resistant to its effects.”
Before I could ask for more information, she hurried on. “I don’t have time to explain everything. Valek will be here soon so I’ll make this brief. Yelena, I’m here to make you an offer.”
I remembered my last offer, to be the food taster or to be executed. “What could you possibly offer me? I have a job, color-coordinated uniforms and a boss to die for. What more could I need?”
“Asylum in Sitia,” she said, her tone tight. “So you can learn to control and use your power.”
“Power?” The word squeaked out of my mouth before I could stop it. “What power?”
“Oh, come on! How could you not know? You’ve used it at least twice at the castle.”
My mind whirled. She was talking about my survival instinct. That strange buzzing that possessed me whenever my life was in serious jeopardy. My body numbed with dread. I felt as if she had just told me I had a terminal disease.
“I was working undercover nearby when I was overcome by your screaming, raw power. Once I was able to pinpoint the source to Commander Ambrose’s food taster, I knew a rescue effort to smuggle you south would be impossible. You’re either with Valek, or he’s been one step behind you. Even now, I’m taking an extraordinary risk. But it’s too dangerous to have a wild magician in the north. It’s amazing you lasted this long without being discovered. The only choice left was termination. A task that proved more difficult than I’d first imagined. But not impossible.”
“And now I’m supposed to trust you? Do you think I’d meekly follow you to Sitia like a lamb to the slaughter?”
“Yelena, if you weren’t playing fugitive, which brought you out of the castle and away from Valek, you’d be dead by now.”
I wasn’t sure if I believed her. What would she gain by helping me? Why go to all this effort if she had the power to kill me? Something else must be motivating her.
“You don’t believe me.” She grunted in frustration. “Okay, how about a little demonstration?” She tilted her head to the side and pressed her lips together.
A searing, hot pain whipped through my mind like lightning. Wrapping my arms and hands around my head, I tried in vain to block the onslaught. Then a fist-size force slammed into my forehead. I jolted backward and fell to the ground. Sprawled on my back, I felt the pain disappear as fast as it had arrived. Through vision blurred with tears, I squinted at the magician. She still stood near the edge of the clearing. She hadn’t touched me, at least not physically. The weight of her mental connection felt like a wool cap encompassing my skull.
“What the hell was that?” I demanded. “What happened to the singing?” I was dazed by her attack, the air on my body feeling as if it had liquefied, and when I moved to a sitting position the dense air swirled and lapped at my skin.
“I sang at the festival because I was trying to be kind. This was an effort to convince you that if I wanted you dead, I wouldn’t be wasting my time talking to you now. And I certainly wouldn’t wait until you were in Sitia.” Her head cocked as if she listened to an invisible person whispering in her ear.
“Valek has dropped all pretense of stealth. He’s traveling fast. Two men pursue him, but the men believe they’re chasing you.” She paused and her mouth settled once again into a hard line as she concentrated. “I can slow the men down, but not Valek.” She focused her faraway gaze on me. “Are you coming with me?”
I couldn’t speak. The thought that her idea of kindness was singing someone to death had left me quite distracted. I stared at her in complete astonishment.
“No.” I had to force the word out.
“What?” It wasn’t the answer she’d expected. “You enjoy being the food taster?”
“No, I don’t, but I’ll die if I go with you.”
“You’ll die if you stay.”
“I’ll take my chances.” I stood, brushed the dirt off my legs and retrieved my knife. The last thing I wanted to do was explain to the magician about the poison in my blood. Why give her another weapon to be used against me? But with her mental link to me, I only had to think about the Butterfly’s Dust and she knew.
“There are antidotes,” she said.
“Can you find one before morning?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. We would need more time. Our healers would need to understand where the poison is hiding. It could be in your blood, or in your muscles or anywhere, and they would need to know how it kills in order to banish it.”
When she saw my complete lack of understanding, the magician continued, “The source of our power—what you call magic—is like a blanket surrounding the world. Our minds tap into this source, pulling a slender thread down to enhance our magical abilities, to turn them on. Every person has the latent ability to read minds and influence the physical world without touching it, but they don’t have the ability to connect with the power source.”
She sighed, looking unhappy. “Yelena, we can’t have your wild power flaring uncontrolled.
Without knowing it, you’re pulling power. Instead of a thread, you’re grabbing whole sections and bunching the power blanket around you. As you grow older you will have amassed so much power that it will explode or flame out. This flameout will not only kill you, it will warp and damage the power source itself, ripping a hole in the blanket. We can’t risk a flameout and soon you’ll be untrainable. That is why we have no choice but to terminate you before you reach that point.”