“How long do I have?” I asked.
“One year. Maybe a little more if you can control yourself. After that you’ll be beyond our help. And we need you, Yelena. Powerful magicians are scarce in Sitia.”
My mind raced over my options. Her display of power had convinced me she was more of a threat than I had ever imagined and that I would be a complete idiot to trust her at all. However, if I didn’t go, she’d kill me where I stood.
So I delayed the inevitable. “Give me a year. A year to find a permanent antidote, to find a way to escape to Sitia. A year free from worrying that you’re plotting my death.”
She stared deep into my eyes. Her mental touch pressed harder in my mind as she searched for a sign that I might be deceiving her.
“All right. One year. My pledge to you.” She paused.
“Go on,” I said. “I know you want to end this meeting with some kind of threat. Maybe a dire warning? Feel free. I’m used to it. I wouldn’t know how to deal with a conversation that didn’t include one.”
“You put on such a brave front. But I know if I took another step toward you, you’d wet your pants.”
“With your blood.” I brandished my knife. But I couldn’t keep a straight face; the boast sounded ridiculous even to my own ears. I snickered. She laughed. The release of tension made me giddy, and soon I was laughing and crying.
The magician then grew sober. Cocking her head again, she listened to her invisible companion. “Valek is close. I must go.”
“Tell me one more thing.”
“How did you know I’d be the fugitive? Magic?”
“No. I have sources of information that I’m unable to reveal.”
I nodded my understanding. Asking for details had been worth a try.
“Be careful, Yelena,” she said, vanishing into the forest.
I realized that I didn’t even know her name.
“Irys,” she whispered in my mind, and then her mental touch withdrew.
As I thought about everything she had told me, I realized I had many more questions to ask her, all more important than who had leaked information. Knowing she was gone, though, I suppressed the desire to call after her. Instead, I dropped to the ground.
With my body shaking, I replaced my knife in the backpack. I pulled out my water bottle and took a long drink, wishing the container was filled with something stronger. Something that would burn my throat on its way down. Something to focus on besides the disjointed and lost feeling that threatened to consume me.
I needed time to think before Valek and the two men caught up with me. Taking out the rope and grappling hook, I searched once again for a suitable tree and reentered the forest canopy. Moving south, I let the physical effort of climbing keep my body busy while I sorted through all the information the magician had given me.
When I reached another path in the forest, I found a comfortable position on a tree branch within sight of the trail. I secured myself to the trunk of the tree with my rope. The magician had promised me one year, but I didn’t want to tempt her with an easy target. She could change her mind; after all, what did I know about magicians and their pledges?
She claimed I had power. Magical power that I had always thought of as my survival instinct. When I had been in those dire situations, I had felt possessed. As if someone else more capable of dealing with the crisis took temporary control over my body, rescued me from death and then left.
Could the strange buzzing sound that erupted from my throat and saved my life really be the same as Irys’s power? If so, I must keep my magic a secret. And I had to gain some control of the power to keep it from flaming out. But how? Avoid life-threatening situations. I scoffed at the notion of evading trouble. Trouble seemed to find me regardless of my efforts. Orphaned. Tortured. Poisoned. Cursed with magic. The list grew longer by the day.
I didn’t have the time to resolve these complex issues that circled without end in my mind. Focusing my thoughts on the present, I studied the trail below. Small saplings threatened to retake the narrow forest path; it must have been one of the abandoned roadways used to trade with Sitia.
I waited for Valek. He would demand an explanation about my encounter with the magician, and I was ready to give one.
My only warning of Valek’s arrival was a gentle rustling of the branch above mine. I looked up to see him uncoiling from the upper branch like a snake. He dropped soundlessly beside me.
Green camouflage seemed to be the outfit of choice today. Valek’s was skintight and came equipped with a hood to cover his hair and neck. Brown and green paint streaked his face, causing the bright blue of his eyes to stand out in stark contrast.
I looked down at my own ragtag outfit. Some of the leaves had frayed at the edges, and my uniform had sustained many tears from climbing through the trees. Next time I planned to flee through the woods, I’d persuade Dilana to sew me an outfit like Valek’s.
“You’re unbelievable,” Valek said.
“Is that good or bad?”
“Good. I assumed you would give the soldiers a good chase, and you did. But I never expected this.” Valek pointed at my leaf-covered shirt and swept his arms wide, indicating the trees. “And to top it all off, you encountered the magician and somehow managed to survive.” Sarcasm tinged Valek’s voice during his last comment.
His way of asking for an explanation, I supposed.
“I don’t know what exactly happened. I found myself tearing through the woods until I reached a clearing, where she was waiting. The only thing she told me was that I had ruined her plans by killing Reyad, and then pain slammed into my skull.” The memory of her attack was still fresh in my mind, so I allowed the full horror of it to show on my face. If Valek ever suspected what had really happened, I wouldn’t live the year the magician had granted me. And mentioning Reyad’s name supported one of Valek’s theories about why the magician was after me.