Valek’s words made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t convinced that I could discover the origin of the pods and beans. The idea of failing the Commander made me queasy. I changed the subject. “Where did the caravan go?”
Valek paused, undecided. Finally, he said, “Brazell’s new factory.” If Valek had been surprised by his discovery, it didn’t show on his face.
It occurred to me that despite all the discussion about Brazell’s permit, I didn’t know what he was planning to make. “What’s the product?”
“It’s supposed to be a feed mill.” Valek handed the book back to me. “And I don’t know why he would need those pods and beans. Maybe they’re a secret ingredient. Maybe they’re added to the feed to enhance the cow’s milk supply. Then every farmer would buy Brazell’s feed instead of growing his own. Or something along that line. Or maybe not. I’m not an expert.” Valek pulled at his hair. “I’ll have to study his permit to see what I’m missing. Either way, I assigned some of my corps to stake out the route and infiltrate the factory. At this point I need more information.”
“Brazell left the castle this afternoon.”
“I passed his retinue on my way back. Good. One less thing to worry about.”
Valek crossed to his desk and began sorting through his papers. I watched his back for a while, waiting. He didn’t mention my moving out. I finally worked up the nerve to ask. “Should I return to my old room now that Brazell’s gone?” I berated myself for my choice of words. I should have been firmer, but it was too late.
Valek stopped. I held my breath.
“No,” he said. “You’re still in danger. The magician hasn’t been dealt with yet.” His pen resumed its course over the paper.
Strong relief flushed through my body like a hot wave, alarming me. Why did I want to stay with him? Remaining was dangerous, illogical, and, by every argument I could muster, the worst situation for me. The book on magic was still hidden in my backpack, which went with me everywhere because I feared Valek would pull one of his stunts and surprise me.
Damn it, I thought, angry at myself. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about. I shouldn’t miss Valek; I should try harder to escape. I shouldn’t figure out the bean puzzle; I should sabotage it. I shouldn’t admire and respect him; I should vilify him. Shouldn’t, should, shouldn’t, should. So easy to say but so hard to believe.
“Exactly how do you deal with a magician?” I asked.
He turned around in his seat and looked at me. “I’ve told you before.”
“But their powers…”
“Have no effect on me. When I get close, I can feel their power pressing and vibrating on my skin, and moving toward them is like walking through thick syrup. It takes effort, but I always win in the end. Always.”
“How close?” Valek had been in the castle both times I had unknowingly used magic. Did Valek suspect?
“I have to be in the same room,” Valek said.
Relief washed through me. He didn’t know. At least, not yet. “Why didn’t you kill the southern magician at the festival?” I asked.
“Yelena, I’m not invincible. Fighting four men while she threw every ounce of her power at me was exhausting. Chasing her down would have been a fruitless endeavor.”
I thought about what he said. “Is being resistant to magic a form of magic?” I asked.
“No.” Valek’s face hardened.
“What about the knife?” I pointed to the long blade hanging on the wall. The crimson blood gleamed in the lantern light. In the three weeks I’d lived in Valek’s suite, it hadn’t dried.
Valek laughed. “That was the knife I used to kill the King. He was a magician. When his magic couldn’t stop me from plunging that knife into his heart, he cursed me with his dying breath. It was rather melodramatic. He willed that I should be plagued with guilt over his murder and have his blood stain my hands forever. With my peculiar immunity to magic, the curse attached to the knife instead of me.” Valek looked at the weapons wall thoughtfully. “It was a shame to lose my favorite blade, but it does make for a nice trophy.”
JVly lungs blazed. Flushed and sweat-soaked, I lagged behind the main group of soldiers, my throat burning with every gasp. It was my fourth lap around the castle complex. One more to go.
I had hovered by the northeast barracks right after tasting the Commander’s breakfast. When a large clump of soldiers ran past, I spotted Ari, who waved me to join in. I worried that the other guards would resent my presence, but there were servants, stable boys and other castle workers mixed in with the soldiers.
The first two laps quickened my pulse and shortened my breath. Pain began in my feet during the third lap and traveled up my legs by the fourth. My surroundings blurred until all I saw was the small patch of ground right in front of me. When I limped to my finishing point, ending my agony, I found a thick row of hedges and threw up my breakfast of sweet cakes. Straightening, I saw a grinning Janco give me a thumbs-up as he jogged by. He didn’t even have the decency to look winded, and his shirt was still dry.
As I wiped vomit off my lip, Ari paused beside me. “Training yard, two o’clock. See you then,” he said.
“But…” I said to nobody as Ari jogged away. I could hardly stand, I couldn’t imagine doing anything more strenuous.
In the training yard that afternoon, Ari and Janco leaned against the fence watching two men sparring with swords. The loud ring of metal striking metal echoed. The fighters had drawn the attention of every soldier. I realized with surprise that one of the men was Valek. I hadn’t seen him since early that morning, and I had assumed he was resting after being up late the night before.