Poison Study Page 16

The wild gesture caused the other patients to glance our way. Rand leaned in closer to me and asked in a quiet voice, “So, Yelena, how are you feeling?” He looked at me as though he was appraising a selection of meat, determining which one would make the best roast.

I was wary. Why would he care? “Gambling again?” I asked.

He leaned back. “We’re always gambling. Gambling and gossiping is all we servants do. What else is there? You should’ve seen the commotion and betting that went on when you were spotted being chased by Brazell’s goons.”

Appalled, I said, “Nobody came to help me. The hallways were deserted.”

“That would be involvement in a situation that doesn’t affect us directly. Servants don’t ever do that. We’re like cockroaches scurrying around in the dark.” Rand’s slender fingers waggled. “Shine a light… poof! ” He flicked his long fingers for emphasis. “We disappear.”

I felt like the unlucky cockroach that got caught by the light. Always scrambling to stay one step ahead while the shadow of a boot crept closer.

“Anyway, the odds were against you. Most lost big, while only a few—” Rand paused dramatically “—won big.”

“Since you’re here, I suppose you won big.”

He smiled. “Yelena, I’m always going to bet on you. You’re like one of the Commander’s terriers. A tiny, yappy dog you wouldn’t look at twice, but once it grabs your pant leg, it won’t let go.”

“Poison the dog’s meat and it won’t bother you anymore.”

My sour tone deflated Rand’s grin. “Trouble?”

Surprised that the castle’s gossip network hadn’t already started laying odds about Valek’s test, I hesitated. Rand liked to talk, and he could get me in trouble. “No. It’s just being the food taster and all…” I hoped that would satisfy him.

Rand nodded. He spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between reminiscing about Oscove and digressing about potential new recipes. When Valek appeared, Rand stopped talking, his face paled and he mumbled something about having to check on dinner. Lurching from his chair, he almost toppled in his haste to flee the room. Valek watched as Rand staggered out of the infirmary.

“What was he doing here?”

Valek’s expression remained neutral, but the stillness of his body made me wonder if he was angry. Carefully choosing my words, I explained to him that Rand had come to visit.

“When did you meet him?”

A casual question, but again there was an undercurrent to his words. “After I recovered from My Love, I went in search of food and met Rand in the kitchen.”

“Watch what you say around him. He’s not to be trusted. I would have reassigned him, but the Commander insisted he stay. He is a genius in the kitchen. Some kind of prot?g?. He started cooking for the King at a very young age.”

Valek stared at me with his cold blue eyes, warning me away from Rand. Maybe that’s why Valek hadn’t liked Oscove. Being allied with someone who had been loyal to the King could cast more suspicion on me. But letting Valek scare me off rankled. I stared back at him with, I hoped, an indifferent look.

Valek looked away. I was jubilant. In my mind, I had finally won a round.

“You leave the infirmary tomorrow morning.” Valek was curt. “Get yourself cleaned up and report to my office to take the test. I won’t think you’re ready even if you pass, but the Commander ordered me to have you available by lunch.” He shook his head in annoyance. “It’s a shortcut. I hate shortcuts.”

“Why? You won’t have to risk yourself anymore.” I regretted the words as soon as they had left my mouth.

Valek’s gaze was lethal. “In my experience, shortcuts usually lead to death.”

“Is that what happened to my predecessor?” I asked, unable to stifle my curiosity. Would Valek confirm or deny Rand’s theories?

“Oscove?” Valek paused. “He didn’t have the stomach for it.”

Chapter Eight

When i awoke the next morning, Valek’s list of poisons was still clutched in my hand. I reviewed the poison inventory until the medic discharged me.

Bruised muscles protested every movement as I headed for the door. I should have been happy to leave the infirmary, but my nerves preoccupied me. My stomach felt as if it contained a live mouse, trying to chew its way out.

The guards stationed outside the infirmary door startled me. But they weren’t wearing Brazell’s colors, and I belatedly remembered that Valek had assigned them as protection until I reported to his office.

I glanced around to get my bearings, but had no idea which direction led to my room. I had been living in the castle for eighteen days, but I was still uncertain of its inner layout. The basic shape of the castle itself eluded me, having never seen it from the outside.

The prison carriage that had brought me to the castle had been a square box with airholes. I had refused to peer out like some caged animal. When I reached the castle, I squeezed my eyes shut in an attempt to block out the anguish of being chained, groped and dragged to the dungeon. I guess I could have focused on potential ways to escape, but I had accepted my punishment when I had killed Reyad.

As much as I hated to ask the guards for directions to my room, I had no choice. Wordlessly they guided me through the castle. One walked in front, the other followed. Only after the lead man inspected my room was I allowed inside.

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