Poison Study Page 54

“Does coffee taste sweet?” I asked.

“No. It’s bitter. My mother used to add sugar and milk to half of her finished pots, but I liked it plain.”

My beans were bitter. I couldn’t sit still any longer; I had to find out if Valek remembered coffee. I felt uncomfortable asking Rand, unsure if Valek wanted him to know about the southern pods.

After bidding farewell to Rand, who stared morosely into the failed batter as he drank his wine, I rushed back to Valek’s suite. The sound of slamming books greeted my entrance. Valek stormed around the living room, kicking piles of books over. Gray rock debris littered the floor and clung to impact craters on the walls. He clenched a stone in each fist.

I had wanted to discuss my coffee hypothesis with him, but decided to wait. Unfortunately, Valek spotted me staring. “What do you want?” he snarled.

“Nothing,” I mumbled and fled to my room.

For three days, I endured Valek’s temper. He vented his ill humor on me at every opportunity. Thrusting the antidote at me, speaking curtly, if at all, and glaring whenever I entered a room. Weary of avoiding him and hiding in my room, I decided to approach him. He sat at his desk, his back to me.

“I may have discovered what those beans are.” It was a weak opening. What I really wanted to say was, “What the hell’s the matter with you?” But I thought a soft approach more prudent.

He swiveled to face me. The energy of his anger had dissipated, replaced by a bone-chilling cold. “Really?” His voice lacked conviction. The fire in his eyes had extinguished.

I stepped back. His indifference was more frightening than his anger. “I…” I swallowed, my mouth dry. “I was talking to Rand, and he mentioned missing coffee. Do you remember coffee? A southern drink.”


“I think our beans might be coffee. If you don’t know what coffee is, perhaps I should show them to Rand. If that’s all right with you?” I faltered. My suggestion had sounded like a child pleading for a sweet.

“Go ahead; share your ideas with Rand. Your buddy, your best friend. You’re just like him.” Icy sarcasm spiked Valek’s words.

I was stunned. “What?”

“Do as you like. I don’t care.” Valek turned his back on me.

I stumbled to my room, and then locked the door with shaky fingers. Leaning against the wall, I replayed the last week in my mind to see if there had been some clue to Valek’s withdrawal. I could remember nothing that stood out. We had barely said a word to each other, and I had believed his anger had been directed toward the Commander—until now.

Maybe he had discovered my magic book. Perhaps he suspected I had some magical power. Fear replaced my confusion. Lying on my bed that night, I stared at the door. With every nerve tingling, I waited for Valek’s attack. I knew I was overreacting, but I was unable to stop. I couldn’t erase the way he had looked at me as if I was already dead.

Dawn arrived, and I moved through my day like a zombie. Valek ignored me. Even Janco’s ever-present good humor couldn’t snap me out of my funk.

I waited a few days before bringing the beans along to show Rand. He was in better spirits. A big smile graced his face, and he greeted me with an offer of a cinnamon swirl.

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

“You haven’t eaten in days. What’s the matter?” Rand asked.

I dodged his question by asking about the Criollo.

“Your plan worked. I informed the Commander that Ving’s recipe was wrong. He said he’d take care of it. Then he inquired about the kitchen staff: were they working well? Did I need more help? I just stared at him because I felt like I was in the wrong room. I’m usually greeted with suspicion and dismissed with a threat.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good relationship.”

Rand stacked a few bowls and straightened a row of spoons. His smile faded. “My interaction with the Commander and Valek could be considered rocky at best. Being rather young and rebellious right after the takeover, I attempted every trick of sabotage possible. I served the Commander sour milk, stale bread, rotten vegetables and even raw meat. At that point, I was just looking to be a nuisance.” He picked up a spoon and tapped it against his knee. “It became a battle of wills. The Commander was determined that I cook for him, and I was determined to either be arrested or be reassigned.”

Thump, thump, thump went the spoon, and Rand continued his story, his voice husky. “Then Valek made my mother the food taster—that was before they implemented that damn Code of Behavior—I couldn’t bear to have her taste the garbage I served the Commander.” Old sorrows pulled at Rand’s features. He twirled the spoon in circles between his fingers.

Words failed me. Dread crept up my spine as I contemplated the fate of Rand’s mother.

“After the inevitable happened, I tried to run away, but they caught me just shy of the southern border.” Rand rubbed his left knee. “They shattered my kneecap, hobbling me like some damn horse. Threatened to do my other leg if I ran again. And here I am.” He snorted, sweeping all the spoons off the table. They clattered on the stone floor. “Shows you how much I’ve changed. The Commander’s nice to me and I’m happy. I used to dream of poisoning the bastard, of taking that final step in our battle. But I have this weakness of caring for the food taster. When Oscove died, I promised myself never to care again.” Rand pulled out a bottle of wine. “Only I failed. Again.” He retreated to his rooms.

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