Poison Study Page 20

I was at the bottom of the stairs when I spotted a diagram of the castle’s layout. It had been wedged into the corner of a picture frame hanging on the right wall of the staircase. Finally, something I could use. As I examined the map, I felt as if a translucent mask had been lifted off my face, allowing me to see the castle clearly.

Postponing my explorations of the rooms upstairs, I retrieved my journal. The map was displayed in full sight. Valek wouldn’t be upset that I had seen it. He’d probably be happy that I didn’t need to ask for directions every time I had to go somewhere new. I cleared a space on the couch, wormed into a comfortable position and began to copy the map.

I jerked awake. My journal slammed to the floor. Blinking in the candlelight, my eyes searched the room. I had been dreaming of rats. They had poured down from the walls, welled up from the floor and swarmed after me. A sea of biting rodents that seized clothes, skin and hair in their sharp little teeth.

A shudder shook my body. I lifted my feet off the floor as I scanned the room. No rats, unless I included Valek. He was halfway around the room, lighting the lanterns.

As I watched him finish, I thought about Valek being a fellow rat. No. Definitely not. A cat. And not just any ordinary, household cat, but a snow cat. The most efficient predator in the Territory of Ixia. Pure white, the snow cat was the size of two massive dogs fused together. Quick, agile and lethal, the snow cat killed before its prey even suspected danger. They stayed mostly in the north where the snow never melted, but had ventured south when food grew scarce.

No one in the history of Ixia had killed a snow cat. The predator either smelled, heard or saw the hunter before he could get close enough to strike with a handheld weapon. They bolted like lightning upon hearing the twang of a bowstring. The best the northern people could do was feed the cats, hoping to keep them on the snowpack and away from populated areas.

After lighting the last lantern, Valek turned toward me. “Something wrong with your room?” He picked up a tray and handed it to me.

“No. Couldn’t sleep.”

Valek snorted with amusement. “I see.” He gestured toward the tray. “Sorry your dinner is cold. I was detained.”

Automatically testing for poisons, I took a couple of small spoonfuls. I glanced at Valek to see if he was offended by the gesture. He was not. His face still held an amused expression. Between bites, I asked Valek if anyone else had a key to his suite.

“Just the Commander and Margg. Will that help you sleep better?”

Ignoring his question, I asked, “Is Margg your personal housekeeper?”

“Mine and the Commander’s. We wanted someone we could trust. Someone instantly recognizable. She was with us before the takeover, so her loyalty is beyond doubt.” Valek sat at his writing desk, but turned his chair to face me. “Remember when you were in the war room?”

Confused by the change in subject, I nodded.

“There were three Generals in the room. Brazell, you knew, but can you identify the other two?”

“Tesso and Hazal,” I answered, proud that I had remembered.

“Can you describe them? Hair color? Eyes?”

I hesitated as I thought back. They had worn Generals’ uniforms, and they had been eating lunch. I shook my head. “I think General Tesso had a beard.”

“You identified them by their uniforms and didn’t look at their faces. Correct?”


“That’s what I thought. That’s the problem with the uniform requirement. It makes a person lazy. A guard will see a housekeeping uniform and just assume that person belongs in the castle. It’s too easy for someone to sneak about, which is why I keep the Commander surrounded at all times by loyal people. And why Margg is the only housekeeper permitted to clean the Commander’s and my suites and offices.”

Valek’s tone made me feel as if I had been transported to a classroom. “Why not dismiss all the servants in the castle and use your own people?”

“Soldiers make up the majority of our army. Civilians who joined prior to the takeover were made advisers or given other prominent positions. Some of the King’s servants were already on our payroll, and the others we paid double what they earned working for the King. Well-paid servants are happy servants.”

“Does the entire castle’s staff get paid?”


“Including the food taster?”


“Why not?” I hadn’t even thought about receiving wages until Valek mentioned it.

“The food taster is paid in advance. How much is your life worth?”

Chapter Ten

Not expecting an answer, Valek swiveled back to his desk.

Ah, well, he had a point. I finished the cold food. When I set the tray aside to go to my room, Valek turned back to me.

“What would you buy with the money?”

A list rushed from my mouth, surprising even me. “A hair brush, nightclothes, and I’d spend some at the festival.”

I wanted nightclothes because I was tired of sleeping in my uniform. I didn’t dare sleep in my undergarments for fear I’d have to run for my life in the middle of the night. And the annual fire festival was approaching. It was sort of an anniversary for me. It had been during the previous fire festival that I had killed Reyad.

Although the Commander outlawed all forms of public religion, he encouraged the festivals as a form of boosting morale. Only two annual festivals were permitted.

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