Poison Study Page 62

Draping my cloak over a stool, I helped myself to a late dinner. Rand finished spinning his pigs and pulled up a stool beside me. My mouth watered at the smell of roasting pork.

“What’s the occasion?” I asked. Pork roast was a rare meal, requiring an entire day to cook and served only at special times.

“Generals coming to visit this week. All my special dishes have been requested. I’ve also been ordered to prepare a feast for next week. A feast! We haven’t had one of those since…” He shook his head, pursing his lips. “Actually, we’ve never had one with the Commander in charge.” Rand sighed. “I won’t have any time to experiment.”

“Would you have time to look at these?” Pulling a handful of the mystery beans out of my pocket, I handed them to Rand. I had been waiting for the perfect opportunity to show them to him. “I found them in an old storeroom, and I thought maybe they were your coffee beans.”

He immediately ducked his head and took a deep sniff of the beans. “No, unfortunately not. I don’t know what these are. Coffee beans are smooth and have a rounder shape. These are oval. See? And bumpy.” Rand spread them out on the table and picked one up. He bit into it. Chewing, he cringed at the bitter taste. “I’ve never seen or tasted anything like this. Where did you find them?”

“Somewhere on the castle’s lower level.” Oh well, I thought, it had been worth a try. My disappointment pressed on my shoulders. I had hoped to solve this puzzle for Commander Ambrose, but it looked as though I had hit another dead end.

Rand must have sensed my frustration. “Important?” he inquired.

I nodded.

“Tell you what,” he said. “Leave these here and after the feast I’ll work on them for you.”


“I’ll try grinding, cooking and boiling the beans. Ingredients can change their flavor and texture when you add heat, and these might turn into something I recognize. All right?”

“I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

“Nonsense. I like a challenge. Besides, after the feast, it’ll be back to my daily routine anyhow, and this will give me a project to look forward to.” He funneled the beans into a jar, and placed it high on a shelf full of other strange edibles similarly encased in their own glass jars.

We discussed menu options for the feast until Rand needed to turn his pigs again. A quarter turn every hour, he said, reminding me that my time to meet Margg was fast approaching. A small pang of nervousness touched my stomach as I bade Rand good-night.

I stopped by the baths, intending to retrieve Nix’s knife, but there were too many people there. Maybe being unarmed would be for the best, I told myself as I tried to calm the butterflies in my stomach. Maybe they would search me. If they found a weapon, I might be in more trouble.

Margg wore her usual expression of distaste when I met her just past the south gate of the castle complex. We exchanged insults by way of greeting and continued the walk into Castletown in silence. I hoped Valek was close behind, but I knew better than to glance over my shoulder and make Margg wary.

Stars decorated the night sky, and the full face of the moon shone brightly, casting shadows. The road to town was grooved with ruts from wagon wheels and worn smooth by the passage of many boots. I took a deep breath of the cool night air and felt a sense of renewal as the heavy scent of earth and dried leaves cleansed my lungs.

At the outskirts of town, I saw neat rows of four-story wooden buildings. I was struck by their symmetry. I had grown so accustomed to the wild, asymmetrical style of the castle, with its windows of every geometric shape, that the ordinary plainness of the town seemed bizarre. Even the placement of businesses among the residences had been planned in a logical manner.

The few townspeople that I spotted on the street walked with a purpose. Nobody hung about, or talked, or looked as if they were out for a casual stroll. Nobody, except the town’s guards.

Soldiers who had once played a major part in the takeover had been reassigned as policemen for the towns throughout the Territory of Ixia. Enforcing curfew and the dress code, they dealt justice in accordance with the Code of Behavior by checking papers, arranging transfers and making arrests. Every visitor to each town was required to report to the main station to complete the proper paperwork before seeking lodging.

Our meeting had been carefully scheduled to give us time to return to the castle before our presence on the street would be viewed with suspicion. The pairs of soldiers stationed on the streets followed us with their gazes. I felt my skin prickle under their scrutiny, and I had myself half convinced that they would swoop down on us at any moment.

In the middle of a street free from guards, Margg came to a stop at a house indistinguishable from its neighbors. She knocked twice on the door. After a pause, the door swung inward and a tall, red-haired woman in an innkeeper’s uniform poked her head out. Glancing at Margg, she nodded in recognition. She had a sharp, sloping nose, which guided the movements of her head as she pointed her face at me. Her dark eyes rested upon me with an intensity that made me want to fidget. A bead of sweat trickled down my spine. Finally, she pulled her nose away to look down the street. Sniffing for a trap, I guessed. Apparently satisfied, she opened the door wider and let us in. Still no one spoke as we proceeded up three flights of steps.

The top floor of the house was ablaze with light, and I squinted in the harsh brightness. A profusion of candles ringed the room on multiple levels, heating the air with the smoky scent of apples. I glanced at the window. With the amount of light in the room, I was sure it would spill out into the street, but black curtains covered the glass and pooled on the floor.

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