New York Times bestselling author Maria V. Snyder wowed readers with Poison Study, the unforgettable story of poison taster Yelena. Now she's back with a new tale of intrigue.
Once, only her own life hung in the balance
Oddly enough, when Yelena was a poison taster, her life was simpler. But she'd survived to become a vital part of the balance of power between rival countries Ixia and Sitia. Now she uses her magic to keep the peace in both landsand protect her relationship with Valek.
Suddenly, though, they are beset on all sides by those vying for power through politics and intrigue. Valek's job and his life are in danger. As Yelena tries to uncover the scope of these plots, she faces a new challenge: her magic is blocked. She must keep that a secretor her enemies will discover just how vulnerable she really iswhile searching for who or what is responsible for neutralizing her powers.
Yes, the days of tasting poisons were much simpler. And certainly not as dangerous
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By Maria V. Snyder
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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U'gh, mud, Kiki said as she splashed through another puddle. The wet muck clung to her copper coat and dripped from her long tail. It packed into her hooves and coated the hair of her fetlocks with each step.
Through our mental connection I sensed her tired discomfort. Stop? I asked. Rest?
No. Images of fresh hay, a clean stall and being groomed formed in Kiki's mind. Home, soon.
Surprised, I glanced around the forest. Melting piles of snow mixed with black clumps of dead leaves—signs that the cold season was losing its grip. Rain tapped steadily on the bare branches. The light faded, turning the already gray woods leaden. For the past few hours, I'd been huddling under my sopping-wet cloak, trying to keep warm. With my thoughts fixed on my rendezvous with Valek, I'd failed to keep track of our location.
I scanned the area with my magic, projecting my awareness out to seek life. A few brave rabbits foraged in the soggy underbrush and a couple of deer stood frozen, listening to the squishy plodding of Kiki's passage. No souls haunted these woods. No humans within miles.
That wasn't a surprise. This remote area in the northeastern Featherstone lands had been chosen for that very reason. After Owen Moon ambushed us about four years ago, Valek and I had decided to move to a less well-known location near the Ixian border.
I leaned forward in the saddle. We were getting close and my wet cloak no longer pressed so hard on my shoulders. At this pace, we'd reach our cozy cottage within the hour. Valek's involvement with our friend Opal's rescue from the Bloodrose Clan and the aftermath had kept him busy for months. Finally we would have a few precious days all to ourselves before he reported back to the Commander. He should already be there waiting for me. Visions of sharing a hot bath, snuggling by a roaring fire and relaxing on the couch once again distracted me.
Kiki snorted in amusement and broke into a gallop. Behind the clouds the sun set, robbing the forest of all color. I trusted Kiki to find the path in the semidarkness as I kept a light magical connection to the wildlife nearby.
In midstride, Kiki jigged to the right. Movement flashed to the left along with the unmistakable twang of a bow. Kiki twisted under me. I grabbed for her mane, but a force slammed into my chest and knocked me from the saddle.
Hitting the ground hard, I felt all the air in my lungs whoosh out as pain erupted. Fire burned with each of my desperate gasps. Without thought, I projected again, searching for the ... person who had attacked me. Despite the agony, I pushed as far as I could. No one.
Kiki, smells? I asked. She stood over me, protecting me.
Pine. Wet. Mud.
Not good. The person had to be protected by a magical null shield. It was the only way to hide from me. Null shields blocked magic. At least it also prevented the magician from attacking me with his or her magic since it blocked magic from both sides of the shield. But it wouldn't stop another arrow. And perhaps the next one wouldn't miss.
I glanced at the shaft. The arrow had struck two inches above and one inch to the left of my heart, lodging just below my clavicle. Fear banished the pain for a moment. I needed to move. Now.
Rolling on my side, I paused as an icy sensation spread across my chest. The tip had been poisoned! I plopped back in the mud. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on expelling the cold liquid. It flowed from the wound, mixing with the blood already soaked into my shirt.
Instead of disappearing, the poison remained as if being refilled as fast as I ejected it. With pain clouding my thoughts, the reason eluded me.
Kiki, however, figured it out. She clamped her teeth on the arrow's shaft. I had a second to realize what she planned before she yanked the arrow from my chest.
I cried as intense pain exploded, blood gushed and metal scraped bone all at once. Stunned, I lay on the ground as black and white spots swirled in my vision. On the verge of losing consciousness, I focused on the hollow barbed tip of the arrow coated with my blood, reminding me of the danger. I remained a target. And I wasn't about to make it easy for my attacker to get another shot.
Fix hole, Kiki said.
I debated. If I healed myself now, then I'd be too weak to defend myself. Not like I was in fighting condition. Although I still had access to my magic, it was useless against arrows and, as long as the assassin hid behind the null shield, I couldn't touch him or her with my magic, either.
Kiki raised her head. Her ears cocked. We go. Find Ghost. I groaned. How could I forget that Valek was nearby? Smart girl.
With the arrow still clutched in her teeth, Kiki knelt next to me. Grabbing her mane, I pulled myself into the saddle. Pain shot up my arms and vibrated through my rib cage when she stood. She turned her head and I took the arrow. It might give us a clue about the assassin's identity.
I crouched low over Kiki's back as she raced home. Keeping alert for another twang, I aimed my awareness on the surrounding wildlife. If the animals sensed an intruder, I'd pick up on their fear. A sound theory, except I'd been in contact with the deer when the arrow struck. I'd be impressed by the assassin's skills if I wasn't in so much pain.
It didn't take long for us to reach our small stable. The main doors had been left open. A warm yellow glow beckoned. Kiki trotted inside. The lanterns had been lit and Onyx, Valek's horse, nickered a greeting from his stall. Kiki stopped next to a pile of straw bales. Relieved to be safe, I slid onto them then lay down.
Kiki nudged my arm. Lavender Lady fix hole.
After Ghost comes. I suspected I would drop into an exhausted sleep once I healed the injury and I knew Valek would have questions.
She swished her muddy tail and stepped away. Ghost.
Valek appeared next to me. His confusion turned to alarm as his gaze swept my blood-soaked shirt. "What happened?"
No energy for a detailed explanation, I filled him in on the basics and handed him the arrow.
All animation dropped from Valek's angular face. Fury blazed in his sapphire-blue eyes as he examined the weapon. For a moment, I remembered our first meeting when he offered me the job of the food taster. Poisons had brought us together at that time, as well. But I'd never expected it to last. Then I'd wanted nothing more than to escape from him as quickly as possible.
Clear liquid dripped from the hollow shaft. He sniffed it. "Did you expel all the poison?"
"I think so." Hard to tell for sure, but I wouldn't add more fuel to his anger. Valek's hard expression already promised murder.
He smoothed the hair from my cheek. "How bad is it?"
"Not as bad as it looks. Now go, before the assassin gets away." I shooed.
"I'm not leaving you unprotected."
Kiki huffed and flicked her tail, splattering mud on Valek's black pants. I yanked my switchblade from its holder, triggering the blade. "I'm far from unprotected. Douse the light before you go."
"All right. I'll station Onyx outside the stable. Stay here." Valek opened Onyx's stall and the black horse trotted out. After he extinguished the lantern, Valek disappeared into the blackness.
I lay there listening for any sounds. My shoulder and left arm throbbed. Each inhalation caused a sharp stab of pain in my chest. To ease the discomfort, I pulled a thin thread of magic from the blanket of power that encompassed the world. A mental picture of the injury formed when I focused on the wound. My clavicle had been broken. The arrow had sliced through my muscles on impact, and the metal barbs in the arrow's head had ripped chunks of skin when Kiki had yanked it out. Lovely. I used the ribbon of power to lessen the pain—a temporary measure.
Once more sending my awareness into the surrounding forest, I kept a light contact with the nocturnal creatures. Too bad my bat friend was hibernating over the cold season. His unique senses would have helped with finding the assassin in the dark. The wildlife conducted their nightly hunt of food and showed no signs of agitation—not even from Valek. His immunity to magic prevented me from keeping track of him. I hoped he stayed sharp.
As time passed without incident, I wondered who had attacked me. That line of thought didn't go far as all I could deduce at this point was the person was a magician who had the power to form a null shield, who favored a bow and arrow, and who might have an affinity with animals. Either that or he/she was really quiet and had masked his/her smell.
Unfortunately, pondering why I was attacked generated a longer list. As the official Liaison between the Commander of the Territory of Ixia and the Sitian Council, I'd created at least a dozen political and criminal enemies in the past six years. As the heart mate of Valek, the infamous Ixian assassin, for the past eight years I'd been a target for anyone who hated Valek, which included most of Sitia and probably hundreds of Ixians. As a magician and Soulfinder, I made many people nervous, worrying that I'd turn rogue. These people were under the mistaken impression that I could create a soulless army when in fact all I did was find lost souls and guide them to either an eternity of peace in the sky or an eternity of suffering in the fire world, depending on their deeds while alive.
A slight squish jolted me from my thoughts. Careful of my injury, I sat up and swung my legs over the bales of straw. Then I slid off. Better to stand and fight than be caught lying down. The darkness outside was one hue lighter than inside due to the faint moonlight. It illuminated just enough to see shapes.
I kept alert for any movement, peering through the door. When Kiki stepped between me and the entrance, I startled. Even though she was sixteen hands high she could be really quiet. Her back was taller than me and she blocked my view.
Granted, I reached only five feet four inches, but she was a big girl like most Sandseed horses.
A few more squishes set my heart to beat in double time. I tightened my grip on my switchblade.
Ghost, Kiki said, moving away.
I sagged against the bales. A Valek-shaped shadow strode into the stable. He lit the lantern. One look at his grim expression and I knew he'd lost the assassin's trail.
"The guy's a pro," he said. "He used magic to erase his footprints. They just stopped. And without leaves on the bushes, it's harder to track him, especially at night. I'll go out again in the daylight."
"He? How do you know?"
"Big boots, deep prints. We can discuss it later. Let's go inside and take care of you."
"Kiki first." And before he could argue, "She saved my life. If she hadn't moved, the arrow would have pierced my heart."
Valek's shoulders dropped. Knowing I wouldn't leave, he worked fast. He removed her saddle and knocked the dried mud off her legs and stomach. After he cleaned out her hooves, she walked into her stall and munched on hay.
"Guess she's happy enough," Valek said, tossing the pick into a bucket. "Now, let's get you warm and dry, love."
I removed my muddy cloak and left it on the bales before I wrapped my right arm around Valek's shoulders. He wanted to carry me, but I worried he might jar the broken bone out of alignment and I wouldn't have enough strength to heal it.
The sharp pain returned by the time we reached the house. I made it as far as the couch. A bright fire burned in the hearth and a bottle of wine sat on the end table with two glasses and a plate of cheese. Valek must have arrived a few hours before me.
Tilting my head at the food, I said, "That's lovely."
"We'll indulge after you're healed and rested. Do you want to change first?"
Just the thought of moving my left arm hurt. "No."
"Then what are you waiting for?"
"A kiss. I haven't seen you in months."
Valek transformed when he smiled. The sharp angles of his face softened and warmth radiated from him. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine. Before I could deepen the kiss he pulled back.
"No more until you're better."
"Yelena." His stern tone would have made my mother proud.
"All right." I reclined on the couch and closed my eyes.
Reaching for the power blanket, I gathered a thick thread of magic. I wound this ribbon around my broken clavicle, fusing the two pieces back together. A second thread knitted the muscles and a third replaced skin. The effort exhausted me. Drained dry, I passed out.
By the time I woke, afternoon sunlight flooded the living area. Besides the green plaid couch, a couple of oversize nubby brown armchairs and a matching love seat made a semicircle in front of the hearth. In the center, a dark brown deep-pile rug covered the floor—soft on the feet and ... other body parts.
All that remained of the fire was ashy coals and half-burned logs. The wine and glasses waited—a promise for later. No sounds emanated from the rest of the cottage, but moving without a sound was second nature for Valek. I called his name just in case. No response.
I opened my mind to Kiki. Is everything okay? I asked.
Quiet. Nap time, she said.
If the horses could sleep, then all should be well. Ghost?
My left shoulder and upper chest ached. The muscles would be sore for a few days. I sat up and examined the wound. Purple bruises surrounded an angry red circle. Another scar to add to my collection. I'd stopped counting three ... or was it four injuries ago? Stretching with care, I tested my range of motion. Not bad.
The cold had soaked into my bones. My blanket had fallen to the floor. A hot soak in the tub should cure it in no time.
Stiff with blood and poison, my shirt reeked. All the more reason to bathe. But first a quick check of the rest of the cottage. It wouldn't take long. I palmed my switchblade, but didn't trigger the blade.
The ground floor consisted of a living area, kitchen and washroom. The living area spanned the left half of the cottage while the kitchen and washroom occupied the right half. The hearth sat in the middle of the building so all the rooms could share its warmth.
I peered into the kitchen. A layer of dust covered the table and chairs, but the wash sink, cold storage box and water jugs had been cleaned. Nothing appeared out of place.
The washroom's entrance was to the right of the hearth. I smiled. Valek had filled the large water tank near the back wall. Hot coals glowed underneath—one of the benefits of having a stone floor. I tested the water with my finger. Almost perfect.
Excerpted from Shadow Study by Maria V. Snyder. Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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