Poison Study Page 53

The theory behind the puzzle was that secrecy would prevent someone from staging a rebellion in support of the chosen heir, since the heir was unknown. The added risk that the inheritor might be even worse than the Commander was another deterrent. As far as I could see, a change in the chosen General probably wouldn’t affect day-to-day life in Ixia. We didn’t know who had been originally selected, so the switch would have no bearing until the Commander died.

I approached Commander Ambrose’s desk. He read his reports, unaffected by Valek’s rage. I performed a quick taste of his dinner; he thanked me for the food then ignored me.

On my way back to the baths, I wondered if the information I had just overheard would fetch a decent price from Margg’s contact. I quenched my curiosity; I had no desire to commit treason for money. I just wanted to get out of my present situation alive. And knowing Valek, I had no doubt that he would discover any clandestine meetings with Margg. For that reason alone, I had to prove that, no matter what Margg believed, I was not a spy. Just the mental vision of Valek’s burning eyes focused on me sent a hot bolt of fear through me.

A long soak in the bath eased my sore ribs. As it was still early in the evening, I thought it prudent to avoid Valek for a while. I stopped in the kitchen for a late dinner. After helping myself to the leftover roast meat and a hunk of bread, I carried my plate to where Rand worked. He had an array of bowls, pots and ingredients messily spread out on his table. Dark smudges rimmed his bloodshot eyes, and his brown hair stuck straight out where he had run his wet hands through it.

I found a stool and a clean corner on Rand’s table and ate my dinner.

“Did the Commander send you?” Rand asked.

“No. Why?”

“I finally received the Criollo recipe from Ving two days ago. I thought the Commander might be wondering about it.”

“He hasn’t said anything to me.”

Two large shipments of Criollo, sans the recipe, had arrived for the Commander since Brazell had left the castle. Each time, the Commander had responded with a “thank you” and another request for the formula. As the quantity received had been plentiful, the Commander had given Rand some Criollo to play with. Rand hadn’t disappointed. He had melted it, mixed it into hot drinks, invented new desserts, chipped it and remolded it into flowers and other edible decorations for cakes and pies.

I watched Rand stir a mahogany-colored batter with tight agitated movements. “How’s it going?” I asked.

“Horrible. I have repeatedly followed this recipe, and all I’ve gotten is this awful-tasting mud.” Rand banged the spoon on the bowl’s edge to knock off the pasty residue. “It won’t even solidify.” He handed me a sheet of once-white paper smeared with brown stains and flour. “Maybe you can see what I’m doing wrong.”

I studied the list of ingredients. It looked like a normal recipe, but I wasn’t a cooking expert. Tasting, on the other hand, was becoming my forte. I took a scoop of his batter and slid it onto my tongue. A sickeningly sweet flavor invaded my mouth. The texture was smooth and the batter coated my tongue like Criollo, but it lacked the nutty, slightly bitter taste that balanced the sweetness.

“Maybe the recipe’s wrong,” I said, handing the sheet back to Rand. “Put yourself in Ving’s position. Commander Ambrose loves Criollo, and you hold the only copy of the recipe. Would you give it away? Or would you use it to manipulate a transfer?”

Rand plopped wearily onto a stool. “What do I do? If I can’t make Criollo, the Commander will probably reassign me. It’ll be too much for my ego to stand.” He attempted a weak smile.

“Tell the Commander that the recipe’s a fake. Blame Ving for your inability to duplicate the Criollo.”

Sighing, Rand rubbed his face in his hands. “I can’t handle this type of political pressure.” He massaged his eyelids with the tips of his long fingers. “Right now, I’d kill for a cup of coffee, but I guess wine will have to do.” He rummaged around in the cabinet and produced a bottle and two glasses.


“You’re too young to remember, but before the takeover, we imported this absolutely wonderful drink from Sitia. When the Commander closed the border, we lost an endless list of luxury items. Of all those, I miss coffee the most.”

“What about the black market?” I asked.

Rand laughed. “It’s probably available. But there’s nowhere in this castle that I could make it without being discovered.”

“I’ll most likely regret asking you this, but why not?”

“The smell. The coffee’s rich and distinct aroma would give me away. The scent of brewing coffee can weave its way throughout the entire castle. I woke up to it every morning before the takeover.” Rand sighed again. “My mother’s job was to grind the coffee beans and fill the pots with water. It’s very similar to brewing tea, but the taste is far superior.”

I sat up straighter on my stool when I heard the word beans. “What color are coffee beans?”

“Brown. Why?”

“Just curious,” I said in a calm tone, but excitement boiled within me. My mystery beans were brown, and Brazell was old enough to know about coffee. Maybe he missed the drink, and planned to manufacture it.

My efforts to ferment the pod’s pulp had resulted in a thin chestnut-colored liquid that tasted rotten. The purple seeds inside the pulp had been sopping wet, and covered with flies. I had closed the window and dried the seeds on the windowsill. As they dried, the seeds turned to brown and looked and tasted like the beans from the caravan. Thrilled to link the pods with the beans, my excitement had faded when I hadn’t been able to learn anything further.

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