Blackness from above pressed down on my meager light as I ascended the staircase. Curving to the right, the stairs ended in a sitting room. Piles of boxes, books and furniture were scattered throughout the room in a haphazard fashion, casting odd-shaped shadows on the walls. I maneuvered with caution around the heaps. My blood slammed in my heart as I shone my lantern into dark corners, searching for an ambush.
A flash of light caused a yip to escape my lips. I spun, only to discover it was my own lantern reflecting in the tall thin windows that striped the far wall.
Three rooms were located to the right of the sitting chamber. A quick heart-pumping check of the box-filled rooms revealed they were empty of ambushers and identical to the three off the downstairs living area.
To the left of the upstairs sitting area was a long hallway. Doorways lined the right side of the corridor opposite a smooth stone wall. The hall ended in a set of locked double wooden doors. Carved into the ebony wood was an elaborate hunting scene. By the thin coating of white powder on the floor beneath the doors, I guessed this was the entrance to Valek’s bedroom. The powder would show footprints, alerting Valek to an intruder. I breathed easier seeing the powder undisturbed.
As I systematically checked the remaining rooms along the corridor, the growing realization that Valek was a true pack rat struck me. I had always imagined assassins as creatures of the dark, traveling light and never staying in one place for too long. Valek’s suite resembled the house of an old married couple who had filled their rooms with all the things they had collected over the years.
Distracted by these thoughts, I opened the last doorway. It took me some time to properly register what I saw. Compared to the others, the room was barren. One long table lined the back wall, centered under a large, teardrop-shaped window. Gray rocks streaked with white—the same stones I had been tripping over in Valek’s living room and office for the past month and a half—were arranged by size on the floor.
A thick layer of dust scrunched under my boots when I walked into the room. On the table, carving chisels, metal sanding files and a grinding wheel occupied the only dust-free spots. Small statues in various stages of creation were interspersed among the tools. To my delight, I realized that the gray rocks, when carved and polished, metamorphosed into a beautiful, lustrous black, and the white streaks transformed into brilliant silver.
Setting the lantern on the table, I picked up a finished butterfly with silver spots sparkling from its wings. It fit into the palm of my hand. The detail was so exquisite that it appeared the butterfly might beat its wings and lift into the air at any moment. I admired the other statues. The same devoted care had been applied to each. Lifelike animals, insects and flowers lined the table; apparently, nature provided the artist’s favorite subjects.
Stunned, I realized Valek must be the artist. Here was a side of Valek I never imagined existed. I felt as though I had intruded upon his most personal secret. As if I had uncovered a wife and children living up here in happy seclusion, complete with the family dog.
I had noticed the figurines on Valek’s desk and, at least once a day, I glanced at the snow cat in the Commander’s office, attempting to understand why he had selected that particular statue for display. I now understood its significance. Valek had carved it for the Commander.
The shuffle of feet made me whirl around. A black shape rushed me. My knife was yanked from my grasp and pressed against my neck. Fear clenched my throat tight, suffocating me. The familiar feeling triggered a sudden flashback of soldiers disarming and dragging me off Reyad’s dead body. But Valek’s face showed mirth instead of wrath.
“Snooping?” Valek asked, stepping back.
With effort, I banished my fear and remembered to start breathing again. “I heard a noise. I came to…”
“Investigate.” Valek finished my sentence. “Searching for an intruder is different from examining statues.” He pointed with the knife to the butterfly clutched in my hand. “You were snooping.”
“Good. Curiosity is a commendable trait. I wondered when you would explore up here. Find anything interesting?”
I held up the butterfly. “It’s beautiful.”
He shrugged. “Carving focuses my mind.”
I placed the statue on the table, my hand lingering over it. I would have enjoyed studying the butterfly in the sunlight. Grabbing the lantern, I followed Valek from the room.
“I really did hear a noise,” I said.
“I know. I knocked a book over to see what you would do. I didn’t expect a knife, though. Is it the one missing from the kitchen?”
“Did Rand report it?” I felt betrayed. Why hadn’t he just asked for it back?
“No. It just makes sense to keep track of large kitchen knives, so when one goes missing you’re not surprised when someone attacks you with it.” Valek handed the knife back. “You should return it. Knives won’t help you against the caliber of people after you.”
Valek and I descended the stairs. I lifted the botany book from the couch.
“What does the Commander think of the pods?” Valek asked.
“He thinks they’re from Sitia. He returned them to me so I could discover what they are. I’ve been doing research in the library.” I showed Valek the book.
He took it from me and flipped through the pages. “Find anything?”
“Your actions as our fugitive must have impressed the Commander. Normally, he would have assigned this sort of thing to one of his science advisers.”