The Study of Magic - Excerpt

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Valek followed Commander Ambrose right into the heart of their enemies' lair. Well, lair might be a bit of an exaggeration. Might. He would see how this visit played out.

A row of trumpets played a welcoming blast as the Ixians entered the great hall of the Sitian's Council building. The Commander would consider the greeting pretentious, but Valek thought the Commander deserved a little pomp. Of course, the Sitians had no idea the Ambassador was the Commander in disguise. He'd made a complete transformation to Ambassador Signe, supposedly the Commander's female cousin.

Signe's long straight hair flowed down her back. Appearing as a woman in her mid-forties, her relation to the Commander was evident only in her eyes. They had the same gold-colored and almond-shape. Signe wore an adviser's uniform with real diamonds on the collar, a sign of her rank. Valek also wore an adviser's uniform, but his red diamonds were embroidered. He'd also straightened his hair, added a soft fat nose, softened his sharp jaw, and rubbed some makeup on his face and lips. All to appear as the dull-witted aide to Ambassador Signe.

As the Ixian delegation neared the line of people waiting for them, Valek scanned the room. The great hall was three stories tall and decorated with fifteen colorful banners. They hung between the long thin windows, which let in the bright afternoon sunlight. Overall, an impressive space and appropriate for receiving them.

All the Sitian members of the government stood in a half-circle. Valek noted the eleven Sitian Councilors, each representing one of the clans. They all wore formal silk robes with silver embroidery. And the four Master Magicians were hard to miss. They wore ceremonial robes and animal masks. Valek was already familiar with the hawk mask that Irys Jewelrose, Fourth Magician wore.

And standing next to Irys--Yelena. Valek's heart jumped so hard in his chest, he swore it cracked his sternum. It thudded, demanding that he cross the room and sweep Yelena into his arms. Now, it thumped. It took all his will to keep his bland expression and to keep his feet in place. This was the closest he'd been to her in over two-hundred and forty-six days--not that he was counting--and his soul ached with longing. Seeing her made it almost unbearable.

Since he couldn't break character, he drank in the sight of her. Yelena wore a pale-yellow apprentice robe with wide sleeves. A rather plain garment considering the others in the room, but it didn't matter. To him, she was the most beautiful person in the world, and she outshone all the others. His heart once again thumped its displeasure at Valek's inactivity. Later, he promised it. He just needed to survive until later.

Yelena's attention was focused on Signe and only Valek noticed the classic widening of her eyes and slight dropping of her jaw as she recognized the Commander. There was his clever fox. He wondered if her loyalties had changed in the last three and a half seasons. Would she inform the Sitian Council of the viper in their midst?

Her gaze then searched the rest of the Ambassador's entourage. She dismissed him immediately and moved on. Huh. He'd mixed feelings about that, but in the end he was glad his disguise held up. No doubt she would recognize Ari and Janco among the soldiers. It was dangerous for the Commander to be here, and he and Ambrose had argued about it for days. As a concession to Valek's concerns, he'd assigned the best guards for this trip.

Yelena fingered the lump on her chest under her robe as her gaze continued to sweep the delegation. He hoped she still wore the pendant he'd carved for her. Valek focused on the others in the room, counting guards, and noting the presence of a young blond man with a beard. An aide? A page? A magician? The blond scowled fiercely at the Ixians. Valek would have to discover his identity.

A tingling brushed his skin and he turned, meeting Yelena's intense gaze. This time, her flash of recognition included a bit of triumph. Once again his body demanded action, especially below the belt. Keeping his bored expression took every bit of self-control. He looked away, focusing on the political formalities.

After a few minutes, magic pressed on him and he briefly glanced at Yelena. Later, love, he promised with his gaze.

The introductions dragged on forever, but finally the meeting ended with refreshments. To keep his cover, Valek stayed next to Signe, who chatted with the Second Magician, Bain Bloodgood. But Valek tracked Yelena's every movement. As soon as possible, she headed toward Ari and Janco, but was waylaid by one of the Councilors, who handed her a small scroll.

Once the man moved away, Yelena read the message in the scroll. She closed her eyes as if it was bad news. He longed to pull her close and find out who upset her so he could kill them. Drawing in a deep breath, he tried to calm the caveman living inside his body. Yelena was more than capable of protecting herself.

Yelena opened her eyes and shook her head as if to dismiss the news. She headed toward the Ixians and caught Signe's eye. Ah, time for the true test.

Bain stopped speaking and gestured Yelena closer. "Ambassador Signe, this is Apprentice Yelena Liana Zaltana."

Would she give the Commander away?

She shook her hand in the Ixian greeting, then bowed in the Sitian way of salutation. Interesting.

Signe bowed in return. "I have heard much about you from my cousin. How are your studies progressing?" she asked in a pleasant soprano.

"Very well, thank you. Please extend my best wishes to Commander Ambrose."

It appeared Yelena planned to keep Signe's real identity a secret. At least, for now.

"I will," Signe said and then turned to Valek. "This is Adviser Ilom."

Valek extended a limp hand and muttered a polite hello. Her touch sent a shock of lightning up his arm, but he acted as if she was beneath him and glanced away. It about killed him, and it was a relief when Bain led them to meet another Councilor. However, he kept an eye on her and was happy to see her talking to Ari and Janco.

He paid particular attention when Janco gave Yelena the snake bracelet Valek had carved for her. The captains hadn't been informed who they were really guarding. The fewer people who knew the better. So Valek had given the bracelet to Janco in order to support the fiction that Valek had reluctantly stayed behind in Ixia.

Her face lit up over the gift and warmth spread through him. He'd carved a snake because her love would forever be coiled around his heart. And the sapphires for the snake's eyes was to remind her of him even though Janco was the one who slipped the bracelet onto her arm. Jealousy flared briefly. The caveman wanted to thump his chest and grunt mine. Valek sighed. He hated the circumstances that kept them apart.

After the endless rounds of introductions and welcomes, Valek ceased to pay attention. Instead, his thoughts raced, planning the moment he could slip away from the Council Hall and find Yelena.

That moment came a couple hours before sunset. In the visitor's quarters, Valek removed his disguise and changed into the plain gray tunic and pants that the servants at the Magician's Keep all wore. His spies had reported that Yelena lived in the apprentice wing in the Keep, so he headed in that direction.

Gaining entrance to the Keep was easier than he'd expected. Either it was due to arrogance that the magicians could handle any threat or it was a false sense of security that no one would try to sneak in. The flow of people in and out stayed steady, and he just joined the flow.

He'd memorized the map of the Keep before leaving Ixia. He found the two apprentice wings. They faced each other like a set of parentheses. Yelena's unit was the last one on the left wing. The door was locked and she didn't answer his knock, so he headed toward Irys Jewelrose's tower in the northwest corner of the Keep. Similar to the Commander's castle, the Keep had four tall towers in each corner.

As soon as he passed the bathhouse, he spotted Yelena in the pasture across from the stables. She groomed a beautiful copper-colored horse with a white blaze on her face and blue eyes. The young blond from the great hall stood next to her. And two armed guards waited nearby.

Who were they guarding? Yelena or the blond?

Valek stepped into the bath house's shadow. From their body language and the few sharp words that reached him, it appeared Yelena and the blond were arguing. Was he a fellow student? Or an instructor? A friend? The blond gazed at Yelena with an intensity that wasn't friendly. Valek fingered the hilt of his knife. Yelena finished grooming the horse and tossed the brushes and combs into a bucket. Then she led the horse into the stables. The guards followed her, abandoning the blond in the pasture. He stared after her for a few moments before striding away in another direction.

The sun hung low in the sky, deepening the shadows. Valek remained in place as he considered the implications of Yelena's guards. It could be for any reason, so he decided to wait and ask her. Later.

After she left the stables, she headed toward the bath house, then went inside. Valek returned to her apartment, picked the lock, and entered. In the semi-darkness, he scanned the small living room and bedroom, seeking hiding places. If her guards were any good, they'd find him regardless. If they weren't, they'd only look in the obvious spots.

There was a couch, two chairs and a table, some books, and an interesting statue of some type of monkey on the table. Otherwise, it appeared that Yelena didn't spend a lot of time here.

When the key rasped in the door's lock, Valek stood on the back of the couch in order to reach the dark wooden beams that crossed the ceiling. There was a gap between them and the roof they supported. Enough so Valek could wedge his body on top of the beams.

The door swung wide and one of the guards entered. He did a cursory search, checking under the couch, bed, and in the armoire before declaring the rooms safe. Yelena came inside. She smelled of lavender soap and her hair was wet. She shut the windows, locking them before starting a fire in the hearth.

While her back was turned, Valek swung from the rafters and eased down to the floor without making a sound. Well, if he didn't count the thumping of his heart, which was so loud he worried her guards would rush in. Not wanting to scare her, he sat in one of the chairs and put his feet up on the table, trying to appear calm and not look like a love-sick idiot. He picked up the statue to examine it.

When the flames caught and crackled in the hearth, Valek said, "That's better."

She spun and studied him in surprise for a moment. "How did you--"

"Fool your guards? They're not very good. They forgot to check the ceiling for spiders." He grinned. That was his favorite place for both hiding and ambushing. No one ever looked up.

"This is dangerous," she said.

"I knew falling for you was dangerous, love."

"I meant coming to Sitia. Being here in the Magician's Keep with guards just outside my door." She gestured wildly.

If she thought to chase him away, she was in for another surprise. "It's only dangerous if they know I'm here. According to them, I'm just Ambassador Signe's lowly and dull-witted aide." No longer able to stand being apart, he stood and stretched his arms wide. "See, I'm not even armed." He tried to appear innocent, but all he really wanted was for her to be in his arms.

Instead, she asked, "Should I guess how many concealed weapons you have or should I strip-search you?"

Ah, a challenge. Desired flared. "A strip-search is the only way to be absolutely certain."

She stepped toward him. Finally she was pressed against him. In that moment, Valek was complete again.

Worldwide Release Date: April 2024 Maria V. Snyder Publisher

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