Ice Study

By: Maria V. Snyder

Part 1

The scent of lavender woke me.

Kiki what’s wrong? I asked my horse through our magical connection.

Bad smell, she thought.

Keeping my eyes closed, I reached out with my senses, searching for trouble. A man crept along the side of my house. Since it was the middle of the night, I doubted he had come for a social visit. His surface emotions flipped from nervous energy to anticipation.

I dug a little deeper into his thoughts and encountered a strong barrier. He was a magician.

Opening my eyes, I rolled over to wake Valek. He was already gone. The blanket settling to the mattress and his musky scent were the only evidence of his recent presence. How does he do that without magic?

Thanks, Kiki. We’ll take care of the intruder, I said as I slipped out of bed and into my red silk robe. A gift from Valek. Made from the finest Sitian silk, he had it designed just for me--sized to fit my body, hand embroidered, reversible and included various hidden weapons.

Smells, Kiki said with alarm. Many bad smells.

How many? I asked. A sudden barrage of scents filled my mind. Sharp. Tangy. Rank. Earthy.

Grain. Five intruders not one. I pushed my awareness out further, past the barn and pasture and into the woods surrounding my cottage. An owl. A raccoon. A mouse. No others. Which meant…

I snapped my focus back to the man and concentrated. He protected his companions with a null shield, which blocked my magic. An icy wave flushed through me. This was no longer a simple problem. I raced down the stairs.

Metal picks scraped in the lock, I grabbed my switchblade and took a position next to the door.

Between the faint moonlight and the glow from the embers in the hearth, there was enough light to discern the bigger shapes in my living room. A couch. An overstuffed chair. An end table. No Valek. Good. If I could see him, they could as well.

The door swung toward me. I waited as the five snuck in. They didn’t talk to each other as they fanned out. My heart did a little foxtrot in my chest. The last one was the magician. When he reached to shut the door, I moved.

Stepping in close behind him, I triggered my weapon. No snick sounded—another one of Valek’s gifts. I grabbed the man’s hair, pulled back hard and pressed the blade against his neck.

“Don’t move or I’ll slit your throat,” I whispered in his ear.

The man froze, but called out, “Found her.”

The others spun, but didn’t draw weapons. In fact, they held their hands out and away from their bodies.

“Easy Yelena,” my hostage said. “We’re not here to hurt you. We have some business to discuss with you.” He must be the leader of the group.

“In the middle of the night? And cloaked with a null shield? Try again.” The comment about the shields was for Valek’s benefit. He had to be nearby, waiting to see what develops.

“Both are precautions. We don’t want anyone to see us here.”

“And the null shield?” I asked.

“To protect my men. If I had wanted to surprise you, I would be behind the shield as well.”

Good point. “But your thoughts are blocked from me. All I’m getting is surface emotions.”

Which were rather calm for a man with a knife against his throat. I could search his soul, but that seemed extreme right now. Perhaps later.

“I will reveal everything in time. Is the Ixian assassin here?”

“You’re not in the position to ask questions.” I felt a swell of magic, and before I could react, the handle of my switchblade turned red hot. I yelped as it seared my skin, dropping the smoking weapon.

He twisted away and drew his sword, aiming at my chest. The other men pulled their weapons.

“I know you don’t realize it yet, but I am in charge. Answer my question.”

Instead, I stretched to claim his soul and encountered an obstruction. He had moved the shield and now stood behind it. Magic could not pierce a null shield from either direction. I was safe from his magic and he from mine, but physical objects, like the tip of his blade remained unaffected. Breathing became harder and beads of sweat rolled down my chest.

I crossed my arms, and located the darts hidden in the fabric of my robe with my fingertips.

“Valek isn’t here.”

“She could be lying,” one of the men said. “How do we know for sure?”