Poison Study Page 26

While Rand changed out of his stained uniform, I watched a small group of people talking among themselves as they waited for him. I knew them all by sight and reputation, but hadn’t spoken to any of them. Occasionally, one or two glanced warily in my direction. I suppressed a sigh, trying not to let their nerves bother me. I couldn’t blame them. It wasn’t a secret that I had killed Reyad.

Of the group, Porter was the oldest. He was in charge of the Commander’s kennels. Another holdover from the King’s reign, he had been deemed too valuable to be replaced. He scowled more than he smiled, and Rand was his only friend. Rand had told me stories about Porter in an “I can’t believe anyone would believe such nonsense” tone of voice, but wild rumors that Porter had mental links with the dogs made him an outcast.

The uncanny way the dogs responded and understood Porter seemed abnormal. Almost magical. The suspicion of magic was enough for everyone to treat Porter like he had a contagious disease. Still no one had proof, and his rapport with the animals was useful. Something the Commander prized.

Sammy was Rand’s fetch boy. A thin child of twelve, his sole purpose was to obtain anything Rand needed. I’d seen Rand yell at Sammy then hug him in the space of a heartbeat.

Liza was a quiet woman only a few years older than me. She was the castle’s pantler, in charge of the pantry’s inventory. Liza plucked at her uniform sleeve like she was nervous, but I guessed talking with Porter was better than being near me.

When Rand emerged from his rooms, we left the castle. Sammy raced ahead of the group, too excited to stay with us for very long. Porter and Liza continued their discussion, while Rand and I trailed behind.

The night air was refreshing. I could smell the clean scent of damp earth tinged with the distant aroma of wood smoke. It was my first trip outside in almost a year, and before we went past the gate in the immense, stone buttress that surrounded the castle complex, I peered back. Without a moon it was too dark to see any detail besides the few lighted windows and the towering walls. The complex appeared deserted. If Valek followed, I couldn’t spot him.

When we cleared the gate, a breeze greeted us as the day’s hot air cooled. I walked with my arms held slightly away from my body, allowing the air to flow past me. My uniform rippled in the wind and my hair blew. I inhaled, enjoying the fresh evening scent. We walked through the grass field that surrounded the guard walls. No buildings were permitted within a quarter mile of the castle. The town, once named for Queen Jewel, was renamed Castletown after the takeover. Jewelstown had been built by the King in the valley south of the castle complex as a gift for his wife.

The fire festival’s tents had been set up in the fields just west of Castletown.

“Isn’t Dilana coming?” I asked Rand.

“She’s already there. Some big emergency came up this afternoon. When the dancers opened the costume boxes they discovered that some animal had eaten holes in all of the outfits. They called Dilana to help mend them before the opening ceremony.” Rand laughed. “I bet the panic that reigned after they opened the boxes would have been fun to watch.”

“Fun for you, but not for the poor woman in charge of costumes.”

“True.” Now silent, he limped beside me. Because of our slower pace, we fell farther behind the others.

“Where’s your cake?” I hoped I hadn’t ruined his good mood.

“Sammy ran it down this morning. The baking contest is judged on the first day so they can sell the entries while they’re fresh. I want to check the results. How come you’re not entering any competitions?”

A simple question. One of many about the festival that I had been avoiding with some success since Rand and I became friends. At first I suspected his interest to be an attempt to gain some insider information for the next round of betting. But now that the gambling was finished, I realized his interest was genuine.

“No money for the entry fees,” I said. The truth, but not the entire story. I would need to completely trust Rand before I would tell him about my history with the fire festival.

Rand clucked his tongue in disgust. “It doesn’t make sense not to pay the food taster. Otherwise, what better way to obtain information about the Commander than to bribe the taster?” He paused, then turned to me, his face serious. “Would you sell information for money?”

Chapter Twelve

Ishivered at rand’s question. was he asking just to ask or was he offering to pay me for information? i imagined valek’s reaction if he discovered that I had taken a bribe. Having no money was better than facing his wrath.

“No. I wouldn’t,” I said.

Rand grunted. We walked in an unnatural silence for a while. I wondered if Oscove, the old food taster, had taken money for information. It would explain why Valek hadn’t liked him and why Rand suspected Valek of killing Oscove.

“If you’d like, I’ll pay the entry fee for you. Your help has been invaluable, and I’ve certainly won enough money on your resourcefulness,” Rand said.

“Thanks, but I’m not prepared. It’d be a waste of money.” Besides, I was determined to enjoy the festival without money just to prove to Valek that it could be done.

Despite promising myself I wouldn’t, I glanced back over my shoulder. Nothing. I tried to convince myself that not seeing Valek was a good thing. If I could spot him, then anyone could. Still, the nagging feeling that maybe he had decided to let me take my chances wouldn’t quit. Stop it, I told myself. Don’t worry. Then again, I’d be an idiot to walk around the festival blind to danger.

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