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DAWN STUDY Chapter One - Yelena
I ghosted through the quiet Citadel streets. Wearing all black. I stayed in the shadows to avoid detection and lamented the necessity of having to sulk about like a criminal. When I'd returned to the Citadel from Ixia two months ago, I'd been arrested and interrogated--back when the Sitian Council ruled Sitia. Now the Cartel has "relocated" the Council for their safety to the Greenblade garrison and Bruns and his people have moved into the Council Hall and have declared martial law throughout Sitia.
The row of Councilor's houses appeared to be deserted. Not trusting the darkened windows or our intell that they were empty, I looped around to the back alley and waited. No signs of movement. Vacant or a professional ambush? If I had my magic, there would be no need to guess. My pulse skittered and Valek's request that I be very careful flashed through my mind. I drew in a breath to steady my heart as I approached Bavol Zaltana's home.
Without the light from the street lanterns, the darkness pressed around me. I knelt by the back door and felt for the keyhole and inserted my tension wrench and diamond pick. Lifting the pins into alignment, I twisted the tumbler and the door swung open into the kitchen--normally filled with heat and light and the scent of jungle spices. Instead a cold quiet mustiness greeted me.
I tucked my tools away and stood, scenting the air for any hint of cologne or shaving cream or anything that would indicate another person or persons crouched in the shadows. Only the dry scent of dust filled my nose. That ruled out the amateurs, but I knew The Mosquito remained a threat and wouldn't make a rookie mistake. He'd been paid to assassinate me and he wouldn't stop hunting me until he finished the job. No surprise Valek wasn't happy about this mission, but due to our limited resources, personnel and time, he'd conceded the need to send me here while he searched Bavol's office in the Council Hall--a far more dangerous task.
We both sought any information on how Bruns Jewelrose's Cartel had been able to procure enough Theobroma to lace the food at the Council Hall, the Magician's Keep, and four military garrisons--so far, turning all those who consumed the sweet treat into compliant and obedient members of the Cartel.
When no obvious dangers materialized, I walked though the house, checking for intruders, including the ceiling. All clear. Breathing became easier as I closed the curtains tight before concentrating on my task. Lighting a small lantern, I started in Bavol's home office, looking in his desk's drawers.
The Zaltana Councilman had been given the assignment of determining a way to mass-produce Theobroma for the Sitian military. Once the Council learned that the Commander had barrels of Curare, they panicked. Curare was an effective non-lethal weapon, causing full body paralysis. The only substance that counteracted Curare, was Theobroma. Problem was that it only grew in the Illiais Jungle and at a very slow rate. Or so everyone thought. Bruns and Owen Moon had managed to not only increase the quantity but also the growth rate by using glass hothouses and grafting techniques. But just how had they learned this remained a mystery.
Finished with the drawers, I moved onto Bavol's cabinet. A couple of the files included diagrams of plants and I stacked them next to me. The last time we visited Bavol, he'd acted...odd. Leif's magic picked up a strange vibe from him, but we hadn't pressed the issue. With Bavol unreachable, I hoped any information we find would help us determine not only where Bruns procured the Theobroma, but how as well.
I collected a nice sized pile, but spent a few minutes checking the living area and his bedroom just in case he had hidden files elsewhere.
Satisfied that I'd covered all possible locations, I grabbed the files and slipped out the back door, relocking it behind me. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness as the air cooled my sweaty skin. I'd left my cloak back at HQ. Being the middle of the warm season, the nights stayed a reasonable temperature a little longer each evening. And being three and a half months pregnant, I stayed warmer much longer as well.
An extra deep pool of black appeared next to me. Without thought, I dodged to the side as metal flashed and a sharp coldness nicked the left side of my neck before striking the door behind me. I dove to the right and hit the ground with a thud. The blackness cursed and followed me. I hissed as a blade seared a path along my left bicep. I kept rolling deeper into the darkness--my only defensive play at this point. Fear pulsed, urging me to hurry.
A narrow beam of yellow light sliced through the darkness. My attacker had come prepared. Lovely. The light swept the ground, searching and then finding me. Caught in the beam long enough to be a target, I somersaulted to my feet as the twang of a crossbow sounded. Debris pelted me when the bolt ricocheted off the ground nearby. Too close. My heart jumped in my chest. Another bolt clipped my right side. The pain a mere nuisance in the grander scheme of things.
I raced for the end of the alley, zig-zagging as much as possible and hoping with all my soul that another ambusher didn't wait for me at the end. Another bolt sailed past. I shot from the alley and increased my pace no longer caring about staying in the shadows. Glancing back, I spotted a black-clad figure aiming a crossbow at me. Ice skittered down my sweat-soaked back. I changed directions, spinning to the left just as the bolt whizzed by my ear. The air from its passage fanned my face. Not stopping to marvel at either my good luck or his lousy aim, I dove for the shadows and ran.
Hours later--or so it seemed to my starved lungs--I slowed and ducked into a dark shadow. Bending over, I gasped for breath. So much for keeping in shape. Although, running for your life wasn't something you could train for. Plus I'd gained a few baby pounds. The thought sent a new spike of fear right through me. I ran my fingers along the gash on my side, seeking its depth. A flesh wound. Then I remembered the others and they flared to painful life. The one on my neck was also shallow, but the cut on my arm would need to be sealed. I sagged against the building in relief. Not only had my life been in danger, but the baby's as well.
Once I recovered, I realized I still clutched the files from Bavol's office. I would have laughed, but the sound might have attracted the wrong attention. I took the most roundabout path back to HQ, ensuring no one followed me. By the time I tapped on the hidden door, the first rays of dawn lit the white marble of the Citadel.
Hilly, one of the Helper's Guild members let me in. She raised an eyebrow at my disheveled and bloody appearance.
"I ran into a bit of trouble," I said.
She quirked a smile. "Not as much as when Valek returns."
Oh no. "Did he..."
"Yep. He stopped in about an hour ago, but when he heard you hadn't returned he took off to look for you."
Hilly took pity on me. "Come on. We'll wake the healer and get you cleaned up before he comes back."
I followed her through HQ. Since the building Fisk'd used to house his Helper's Guild had been seized by the Cartel, he had found another empty structure tucked almost out of sight in the northwest quadrant of the Citadel to use as a temporary base of operations. Except now his people helped us in our efforts to stop the Cartel from taking complete control of Sitia. The so-called resistance.
Barracks occupied most of the lower level. The members of the guild spanned in age from six-years-old to eighteen. The kids didn't mind the close quarters and some happily shared a bed. The extra large kitchen took up the rest of the level. The two upper floors contained Fisk's room and office, a small suite for Valek and me, and a number of guest rooms for our growing army.
The healer was a sixteen year old boy named Chale who recently developed magical powers. Since all the magicians at the Magician's Keep had been conscripted and sent to the Cartel's garrisons, there had been no one to teach him how to use his power. No one except me and Valek. Even though I lost my powers over three months ago, I hadn't forgotten my lessons at the Keep. And Valek only freed his power recently and was reluctant to use it and risk a flameout. Not an ideal situation, but we tried.
I sat at the kitchen table in my undershirt as Chale cleaned my wounds. The gawky teen was all thumbs. He peered through a riot of black hair that my fingers itched to trim. As I suspected, the cut on my bicep needed more than a bandage. At least talking Chale through the steps needed to heal it with his magic distracted me from the pain. As long as he didn't touch me skin on skin, he could use threads from the power blanket to stitch the cut closed.
"I have to keep pulling power to knit the skin together," Chale said in concern. "Something is tugging it away. Is that normal?"
"No. I think what is draining your power is what is blocking mine. Or least, I hope."
"Is it the baby?"
I stared at him. Not many people knew.
He blushed. "Sorry, I just--"
"No, don't apologize. You're a healer, you should be able to sense the baby."
"It's healthy if that helps?"
"It does," Valek said from the doorway. He still wore his black skintight sneak suit that highlighted his long lean and powerful muscles. "Can you say the same about my wife?"
A dangerous glint lit his sapphire-blue eyes, but Chale failed to notice.
"Of course. It's just a couple scrapes." Chale downplayed my injuries. Perhaps he noticed more than he let on. "We're almost finished."
"Good," Valek said, but his gaze seared into mine.
And though his angular face revealed none of his thoughts, I knew he suppressed a whole gamut of emotions. In a few graceful, almost predatory strides, he was by my side. He laced his fingers in mine as Chale completed his work.
Valek let go of my hand as I shrugged on my torn and bloody tunic. He studied the garment without comment--another dangerous sign. But, by this time, the kitchen bustled with the morning crew and soon piping hot sweet cakes were set in front of us. My stomach roared in sudden hunger and even Valek wasn't brave enough to get between a pregnant woman and food.
Only after I stuffed myself, did he reclaim my hand and tug me to my feet.
"Upstairs," he said.
Feeling much better with a full stomach, I trailed after him as we ascended the stairs to the third level and into our rooms. Valek closed the door and I braced for his lecture. Instead he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close. I rested my head on his chest and listened to his heart beating, soaking in his warmth, breathing in his musky scent. At six feet tall, he was eight inches taller than me.
I've known Valek for almost nine years and the only thing that scared him was the threat of losing me. "What happened?" I asked.
He leaned back and lightly brushed the bandage on my neck with his thumb. "Tonight, I found out The Mosquito is in town."
"Did he attack you?" he asked.
"It was too dark to see, but the first strike was aimed at my throat." The Mosquito's signature way to kill was to stab an ice pick into his victims' jugular and let them bleed to death. Nice guy.
"Tell me what happened."
I detailed the attack and the reason it took me so long to return. "But I managed to hold onto the files. Did you learn anything else while you were in Bavol's office?"
"I grabbed a few promising files, but I'm more concerned about what I overheard Bruns and his sycophants discussing in the hallway."
"About The Mosquito?"
"That and the fact he knows you're in the Citadel and has offered a large bounty to the person who kills you."
No surprise. "How much?"
"Yelena, that's not the point."
"It's not the first time that someone put a price on my head." Roze Featherstone, had offered five golds.
"This time is different. You're..."
"Vulnerable without your magic. And it's no longer all business with Bruns. He had taken Ben and Loris' deaths and our escape from the Krystal garrison personal. You need to go someplace safe."
"And what about you?" I asked. "As you said our escape. Did he set a bounty for you as well?"
"How do you know?"
Valek broke away and paced the room. I crossed my arms to keep his warmth close. Plus, judging by the agitation in his steps, I sensed he was working up the nerve to deliver more bad news.
He stopped. "Bruns has offered fifty golds to the person who kills you."
That was a fortune. I whistled and he shot me a glare. "You didn't answer my question."
Another scowl then his shoulders drooped as if in defeat. "Bruns has been in contact with the Commander and the Commander..." Valek paused. "Has promised Bruns that he will send Onora to Sitia to assassinate me."
From DAWN STUDY MIRA Books, January 31, 2017
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