The Study of Poisons - Excerpt

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After checking that all was well at the gates, Valek headed to the training yards to watch the Commander's soldiers. The yards sat in front of the L-shaped barracks that were tucked into the northeast and southeast corners of the complex.

He leaned on the wooden fence and scanned the soldiers. Valek recognized most of them, having sparred with many. The ones that wore green and black were from MD-5, General Brazell's district. The general had arrived with a full retinue of soldiers, advisers, and servants. Interesting how the Commander's people avoided interacting with Brazell's soldiers.

At this point in their careers, the Commander's special units of soldiers were all well trained and didn't have a set training schedule, but most worked out each evening and morning to stay in shape and keep their fighting skills sharp. New recruits were sent to the other military districts for basic training. No one but the best was assigned to the Commander. Of course, that led to a number of inflated egos. Valek grinned. He enjoyed deflating those egos.

A man spotted Valek and approached. "Fancy a challenge, sir?"

He wore the standard training uniform of a sleeveless tank top and short pants. Wiry and lean, the man sported a goatee and a smirk. A scar ran from his right temple and replaced the lower half of his right ear.

Valek straightened. "It depends."

"On what?"

"Whether or not you can offer me a challenge." His gaze slid to the man's companion—a big brute of a guy with short curly blond hair and enough muscles that it'd be difficult to fight the man hand to hand. "Perhaps your friend would prove to be more of a challenge."

"I think I've just been insulted!" The goateed man pressed a hand to his chest.

"You were insulted, Janco. Don't think. It's not one of your strengths," the big man said.

Janco shot his friend a glare, before he said to Valek, "In order to defend my honor, I, Lieutenant Janco, challenge you, sir."

"A challenge challenge?"

"Yes, sir."

Valek suppressed a sigh. The Commander had been bugging him for years to promote or hire someone as Valek's second-in-command. To appease his boss, Valek had issued a challenge to everyone in Ixia. If any person could beat Valek in a fight, they would become his second. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and he did enjoy getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of the soldiers. While it kept him in shape, there were times when it was damn inconvenient.

Unbuttoning the top of his adviser's uniform—an all-black shirt with two red diamonds stitched onto the collar—he laid it over the railing. The air had cooled and it felt good against his bare shoulders. Janco stared at the C-shaped scar in the center of Valek's chest. It was a "gift" from the Commander sixteen years ago when Valek swore his loyalty to the man.

"Weapon?" he asked Janco.

"Swords, sir."

Well, then. This shouldn't take long. Valek pulled his broadsword from its scabbard and hopped over the fence.

He faced his opponent, who held a long, thin rapier. Interesting choice. The weapon certainly matched the physique of the man. At six feet tall, Valek was the same height as Janco, but Valek's build was more athletic than wiry.

The big man acted as referee. "Begin."

Janco moved like lightning, crossing the distance between them in a heartbeat. Valek sidestepped, blocking the thrust of Janco's rapier with the flat of his sword. And then again as Janco quickly parried. Perhaps Valek had been too hasty in thinking the fight wouldn't last long. Staying on the defensive as Janco continued to attack, Valek studied the man's technique. Quick and relentless, Janco knew how to maximize the advantages of his weapon.

The rapier was lighter and longer than a broadsword. And the dangerous part was its sharp tip, which Janco tried to get past Valek's defenses by lunging forward. After a number of attempts, the tip slipped through and nicked Valek's torso, drawing first blood. Good thing the challenge ended when there was a clear winner.

"Blood runs even for the infamous. Too bad he now has a C minus," Janco sang as he increased the pace of his lunges.

"Do you have a death wish," Janco's friend hissed at him.

Valek suppressed a smile as he backed up, drawing Janco closer.

"He's on the retreat. Soon he'll be beat," Janco called.

He'd never had an opponent rhyme before. Valek almost wanted to keep fighting just to hear what else the man had to say. Almost. It was time to go on the offensive.

The broadsword was heavy and wide, but both of its edges were sharp. It was a cutting weapon and he had to swing it to strike. Effective for chopping off heads or lopping off arms, the broadsword wasn't the best choice of weapon in a friendly duel. Or for an extended match. Janco's speedy thrusts kept sneaking past his blocks.

"He might be light on his feet, but soon he'll be tenderized meat," Janco sang.

That was enough. The next time Janco thrust forward, Valek twisted his shoulders and stepped forward. Janco's blade just missed, but Valek's didn't as the edge of his sword cut right through the rapier just before the hilt.

"He has a big mouth, but can he fight without?" Valek asked.

"That doesn't rhyme," Janco said.

Valek rested his blade on the man's shoulder. "Want to try that again?"

"Uh, it's close enough."

"Better. Do you concede?"

He glanced at the remaining stub of his blade and opened his mouth.

"Janco," warned the big man.

Janco closed his mouth, swallowed, and said, "Yes, sir."

"Good." Valek pushed his shoulder-length black hair out of his face. He wished he had a leather tie to keep the annoying ringlets out of his eyes, but he hadn't expected to spar today.

Their fight had drawn a crowd and before any others could issue challenges, Valek turned to the big man and said loud enough for everyone to hear, "I've time for one more match. You in?"

"Yes, sir."

"Your name?"

"Lieutenant Ardenus, sir."

"No one calls him that," Janco said. "Besides, do you know how hard it is to rhyme words with Ardenus while fighting? Almost—"

"Janco." Ardenus just about growled.

"What do people call you, then?" Valek asked.

"Ari, sir."

"All right, Ari. Weapon of choice?"

"Swords, sir."

Valek approved of Ari's broadsword. The question remained if all those muscles and his extra four inches of height would slow Ari down.

"Begin," Janco said.

Unlike his friend, Ari took a defensive stance, preferring to block and counter versus attacking right away. The answer soon became apparent that the man was also flexible and strong. Not as quick as Janco, but Valek doubted anyone was as fast as Janco.

And Ari was smart. Instead of wasting his breath singing out rhymes, he watched and waited for the perfect opportunity to strike.

When Ari went on the offensive, Valek's arm almost went numb from the clash of their swords. Another block knocked him to the ground. The crowd cheered. Valek rolled to his feet before Ari could press his advantage.

The match lengthened. Valek kept his distance and picked up the pace, hoping Ari would tire. He didn't. It was time for Valek to switch to a higher skill level. He liked to give the challenging soldiers a sense that they did well against him. But some people like Ari were just too good for his more casual fighting style.

Valek drew on his years of experience and changed tactics. Instead of fighting straight on, he sidestepped and dodged. No longer blocking with his sword, he used his flexibility and speed to move in to strike and then dash out of Ari's reach by the time the man countered. Still, it took much longer to get past Ari's defenses than he'd expected.

Ducking under one of Ari's powerful swings, Valek dove to the ground, rolling into a somersault, and then hopped to his feet right behind the big man. In a flash, he tapped Ari's back with the tip of his sword.


"Yes, sir," Ari said.

The crowd grumbled with disappointment and dispersed.

Valek pulled Ari aside. "Well done, you almost had me."

Sweat streamed down Ari's face, but he wasn't winded. "I don't believe that."


"I think you could have ended that match a few moves after it started."

This confirmed Ari's intelligence. "Still, you have the skills. What's your current position?"

"Janco and I are scouts."

Valek's opinion of Ari rose another notch. Big muscular men normally didn't do well creeping through the forest. "You impressed me enough to earn an invitation to become a member of my intelligence network."

"You mean work as a spy?"


"What about Janco?"

"He's good, but not ready for my corps."

Ari's gaze slid to his friend. Janco was gesticulating wildly as he talked to another soldier.

"No, thank you," Ari said.

Ah, they were a package deal. Valek waited. Would Ari offer an explanation?

Ari grinned. "I'm going to train harder and challenge you again. Next time, I'll become your second, sir."

"And Janco?"

"Will be your third."

Valek laughed. "Good luck with that."

Worldwide Release Date: April 15, 2023 Maria V. Snyder Publisher

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