Poison Study Page 4

The overpowering desire to bathe flashed like fire on my skin. Energized, I ripped the prison robe off and raced to the washing area. Hot water poured down in a cascade when I opened the duct above my head. The Commander’s castle was equipped with heated water tanks located one floor above the baths, a luxury even Brazell’s extravagant manor house didn’t have.

I stood for a long time, hoping the drumming on my head would erase all thoughts of poisons. Obediently I washed my hair and body twice. My neck, wrists and ankles burned from the soap, but I didn’t care. I scrubbed two more times, rubbing hard at the stubborn spots of dirt on my skin, stopping only when I realized they were bruises.

I felt unconnected to the body under the waterfall. The pain and humiliation of being arrested and locked away had been inflicted on this body, but my soul had long since been driven out during the last two years I had lived in Brazell’s manor house.

An image of Brazell’s son suddenly flashed before me. Reyad’s handsome face distorted with rage. I stepped back, reflexively jerking my hands up to block him. The image disappeared, leaving me shaking.

It was an effort to dry off and wrap a towel around me. I tried to focus on finding a comb instead of the ugly memories Reyad’s image called forth.

Even clean, my snarled hair resisted the comb. As I searched for a pair of scissors, I spotted another person in the baths from the corner of my eye. I stared at the body. A corpse looked back at me. The green eyes were the only signs of life in the gaunt, oval face. Thin stick legs looked incapable of holding the rest of the body up.

Recognition shot through me like a cold splash of fear. It was my body. I averted my eyes from the mirror, having no desire to assess the damage. Coward, I thought, returning my gaze with a purpose. Had Reyad’s death released my soul from where it had fled? In my mind I tried to reconnect my spirit to my body. Why did I think my soul would return if my body was still not mine? It belonged to Commander Ambrose to be used as a tool for filtering and testing poisons. I turned away.

Pulling clumps of knotted hair out with the comb, I arranged the rest into a single long braid down my back.

Not long ago all I had hoped for was a clean prison robe before my execution, and now here I was sinking into the Commander’s famous hot baths.

“That’s long enough,” Margg barked, startling me out of a light doze. “Here are your uniforms. Get dressed.” Her stiff face radiated disapproval.

As I dried myself, I felt Margg’s impatience.

Along with some undergarments, the food taster’s uniform consisted of black pants, a wide red satin belt and a red satin shirt with a line of small black diamond-shapes connected end to end down each of the sleeves. The clothes were obviously sized for a man. Malnourished and measuring only four inches past five feet, I looked like a child playing pretend with her father’s clothes. I wrapped the belt three times around my waist and rolled up the sleeves and pant legs.

Margg snorted. “Valek only told me to feed you and show you to your room. But I think we’ll stop by the seamstress’s first.” Pausing at the open door, Margg pursed her lips and added, “You’ll need boots too.”

Obediently, I followed Margg like a lost puppy.

The seamstress, Dilana, laughed gaily at my appearance. Her heart-shaped face had a halo of curly blond hair. Honey-colored eyes and long eyelashes enhanced her beauty.

“The stable boys wear the same pants and the kitchen maids wear the red shirts,” Dilana said when she had stifled her giggles. She admonished Margg for not spending the time to find me better-size uniforms. Margg pushed her lips together tighter.

Fussing around me like a grandmother instead of a young woman, Dilana’s attentions warmed me, pulling me toward her. I envisioned us becoming friends. She probably had many acquaintances and suitors who came to bask in her attentions like cave dwellers drawn to a blazing hearth. I found myself aching to reach out to her.

After writing my measurements down, Dilana searched through the piles of red, black and white clothing stacked around the room.

Everyone who worked in Ixia wore a uniform. The Commander’s castle servants and guards wore a variation of black, white and red color clothes with vertical diamond-shapes either down the sleeves of the shirts or down the sides of the pants. Advisers and higher-ranking officers usually wore all black with small red diamonds stitched on the collars to show rank. The uniform system became mandatory when the Commander gained power so everyone knew at a glance who they were dealing with.

Black and red were Commander Ambrose’s colors. The Territory of Ixia had been separated into eight Military Districts each ruled by a General. The uniforms of the eight districts were identical to the

Commander’s except for the color. A housekeeper wearing black with small purple diamond-shapes on her apron therefore worked in Military District 3 or MD–3.

“I think these should fit better.” She handed me some clothes, gesturing to the privacy screen at the far end of the room.

While I was changing, I heard Dilana say, “She’ll need boots.” Feeling less foolish in my new clothes, I picked up the old uniforms and gave them to Dilana.

“These must have belonged to Oscove, the old food taster,” Dilana said. A sad expression gripped her face for a moment before she shook her head as if to rid herself of an unwanted thought.

All my fantasies of friendship fled me as I realized that being friends with the Commander’s food taster was a big emotional risk. My stomach hollowed out while Dilana’s warmth leaked from me, leaving a cold bitterness behind.

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