Dawn Study

By: Maria V. Snyder



1

YELENA

I ghosted through the quiet Citadel streets well after curfew. Dressed in black from head to toe, I stayed in the shadows to avoid detection and lamented the necessity of having to skulk about like a criminal. The row of Councilors’ houses appeared to be deserted—we’d received intel that the Cartel had “relocated” the Sitian Council for their safety. Not trusting the darkened windows or the info that the houses were empty, I looped around to the back alley and waited. No signs of movement. Were the houses vacant, or did a professional ambush wait inside?

If I still had my magic, there would be no need to guess. But the baby in my belly was blocking my powers—or, at least, that was the current theory. My pulse skittered with the thought of the baby. Valek’s request that I be very careful echoed in my mind. I drew in a breath to steady my heart as I approached Councilor Bavol Zaltana’s home, located in the middle of the row.

Without the light from the street lanterns, the darkness pressed around me. A cool night breeze diluted the stink of garbage left too long in the sun. I knelt by the back door and felt for the keyhole, then inserted my tension wrench and diamond pick. Lifting the pins into alignment, I twisted the tumbler and the door swung open into the kitchen that during my previous visits had been filled with heat and light and the scent of jungle spices. Instead, a cold, quiet mustiness greeted me.

I tucked my tools away and stepped inside and to the right. Standing in the threshold, I would have been an easy target. I sniffed the air for any hint of perfume, 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 such a rookie mistake. He’d been paid to assassinate me, and he would hunt me until he finished the job. No surprise that 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. Since Bruns Jewelrose and his Cartel had moved into the hall, Valek had the far more dangerous task.

We both sought any information on how Bruns’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. Their magicians then used magic to turn all those who consumed the sweet treat into compliant and obedient members of the Cartel.

When no obvious dangers materialized, I walked through the house, checking every corner for intruders, including the ceiling. All clear. Breathing became easier as I drew the curtains tight before concentrating on my task. Lighting a small lantern, I started in Bavol’s home office, looking in his desk drawers.

Bavol 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’d panicked. Curare was an effective nonlethal weapon, causing full-body paralysis. The substance that counteracted Curare was Theobroma, which wasn’t ideal due to it rendering a person vulnerable to magic, but it was better than being paralyzed. The other problem, however, 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 increase not only the quantity but also the growth rate, using glass hothouses and grafting techniques. But just how had they learned this technique remained a mystery.

Finished with the drawers, I moved on to 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. Now, with Bavol “housed” at the Greenblade garrison and unreachable, I hoped any information we found would help us determine not only where Bruns had procured the Theobroma but also how.

I collected a nice-size pile, but spent a few minutes checking the living area and his bedroom, too, just in case he had hidden files elsewhere.

Satisfied that I’d covered all possible locations, I grabbed the stack 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. It was the middle of the warm season. The night air remained a reasonable temperature a little longer each evening. And since I was three and a half months pregnant, I stayed warmer as well.

An extra-deep pool of black appeared next to me. Instinctively 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.

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