Poison Study Page 5

A sharp stab of loneliness struck me as an unwanted image of May and Carra, who still lived at Brazell’s manor, flashed before my eyes. My fingers twitched to fix Carra’s crooked braids and to straighten May’s skirt.

Instead of Carra’s silky ginger hair in my hands, I held a stack of clothes. Dilana guided me to a chair. Kneeling on the floor, she put socks on my feet and then a pair of boots. The boots were made of soft black leather. They came up over my ankle to midcalf, where the leather folded down. Dilana tucked my pant legs into the boots and helped me stand.

I hadn’t worn shoes in seasons and I expected them to chafe. But the boots cushioned my feet and fit well. I smiled at Dilana, thoughts of May and Carra temporarily banished. These were the finest pair of boots I’d ever worn.

She smiled back and said, “I can always pick the right-size boots without having to measure.”

Margg harrumphed. “You didn’t get poor Rand ’s boots right. He’s too smitten with you to complain. Now he limps around the kitchen.”

“Don’t pay any attention to her,” Dilana said to me. “Margg, don’t you have work to do? Get going or I’ll sneak into your room and shorten all your skirts.” Dilana shooed us good-naturedly out the door.

Margg took me to the servants’ dining room and served me small portions of soup and bread. The soup tasted divine. After devouring the food, I asked for more.

“No. Too much will make you sick,” was all she said. With reluctance I left my bowl on the table to follow Margg to my room.

“At sunrise be ready to work.”

Once again I watched her retreating back.

My small room contained a narrow bed with a single stained mattress on a stark metal frame, a plain wooden desk and chair, a chamber pot, an armoire, a lantern, a tiny woodstove and one window shuttered tight. The gray stone walls were unadorned. I tested the mattress; it barely yielded. A vast improvement over my dungeon cell, yet I found myself somewhat dissatisfied.

Nothing in the room suggested softness. With my mind and eyes filled with Valek’s metal face and Margg’s censure, and the harsh cut and colors of the uniforms, I longed for a pillow or blanket. I felt like a lost child looking for something to clutch, something supple that wouldn’t end up hurting me.

After hanging my extra uniforms in the armoire, I crossed to the window. There was a sill wide enough for me to sit on. The shutters were locked, but the latches were on the inside. Hands shaking, I unlocked and pushed the shutters wide, blinking in the sudden light. Shielding my eyes, I squinted beneath my hand, and stared at the scene in front of my window in disbelief. I was on the first floor of the castle! Five feet below was the ground.

Between my room and the stables were the Commander’s kennels and the exercise yard for the horses. The stable boys and dog trainers wouldn’t care if I escaped. I could drop down without any effort and be gone. Tempting, except for the fact that I would be dead in two days. Maybe another time, when two days of freedom might be worth the price.

I could hope.

Chapter Three

IVeyad’s whip cut into my skin, slashing my flesh with a burning pain. “Move,” he ordered.

I dodged ineffectively, hampered by the rope tied to my wrist, which anchored me to a post in the center of the room.

“Move faster, keep moving!” Reyad shouted.

The whip snapped again and again. My tattered shirt gave no protection from the stinging leather. A cool, soothing voice entered my skull. “Go away,” it whispered. “Send your mind to a distant place, a warm loving place. Let your body go.”

The silken voice didn’t belong to Reyad or Brazell. A savior, perhaps? An easy way to escape the torment, tempting but I held out for another opportunity. Determined, I stayed, focusing on avoiding the lash. When exhaustion claimed me, my body began to vibrate of its own accord. Like an out-of-control hummingbird, I darted around the room, avoiding the whip.

I woke in darkness soaked with sweat, my crumpled uniform twisted tight around my body. The vibration in my dream replaced by a pounding. Before falling asleep, I had wedged a chair under the doorknob to prevent anyone from barging in. The chair rattled with each thud.

“I’m up,” I shouted. The racket stopped. When I opened the door, Margg stood frowning with a lantern. I hastened to change my uniform and joined her in the hallway. “I thought you said sunrise.”

Her disapproving stare seared my lips shut. “It is sunrise.”

I followed Margg through the labyrinth of the castle’s hidden hallways as the day began to brighten. My room faced west, shielding me from the morning sun. Margg extinguished the lantern just as the scent of sweet cakes filled the air.

Inhaling, I asked her, “Breakfast?” A hopeful, almost pleading, note crept into my voice, galling me.

“No. Valek will feed you.”

The image of breakfast laced with poison did wonders for suppressing my appetite. My stomach tightened as the unwanted memory of Valek’s Butterfly’s Dust came to mind. By the time we had reached his office, I had convinced myself that I was about to collapse, soon to be vanquished by the poison if I didn’t receive the antidote.

When I entered the room, Valek was in the process of arranging plates of steaming food. He had cleared off a section of the table. The displaced papers balanced in messy piles. He gestured to a chair; I sat, searching the table for the small vial of antidote.

“I hope you’re…” Valek studied my face. I stared back, trying not to flinch under his scrutiny.

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