Poison Study Page 65

His use of the past tense jabbed like a knife’s point between my ribs.

“How long have you known?” I asked.

“I’ve suspected for the last three months, but only procured the hard evidence this month.”

“What tipped you off?”

“Rand and his staff helped me with that poison test I gave you. He stayed while I laced the food with poison. I left that goblet of peach juice on my desk to keep it clean. It was a fair test. Blackberry poison was in that cup, but I didn’t put it there.” Valek paused, letting the information sink in.

“An interesting property of blackberries is that only when they’re prepared in a special solution of grain alcohol and yeast and cooked with extreme care to the proper temperature are they poisonous. Most cooks, and certainly not their assistants, don’t possess the skills or the knowledge to achieve that result.” Valek sounded as if he admired Rand’s ability to brew the poison.

The full understanding that Rand had tried to poison me almost knocked me off my feet. I stumbled as a surge of nausea boiled in my stomach. Dashing to the side of the road, I vomited into the bushes. Only when my body had ceased its convulsions did I realize Valek was supporting me. One of his arms was wrapped around my waist, while a cold hand pressed against my forehead.

“Thanks,” I said, wiping my chin clean with some leaves. With trembling legs, I let Valek lead me to the castle. If he hadn’t continued to support me, I would have curled up on the ground and called it a night.

“There’s more. Do you want to hear it?” Valek asked.

“No.” The truth, but as we drew closer to the outer wall of the castle complex, I made an ugly connection. “Did Rand set me up at the fire festival?”

“In a way.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“The goons that nabbed you waited for you near the baking tent, so I suspected that Rand had told Star you would be there. But then he wouldn’t let you out of his sight. It was as if he was protecting you. Remember how upset he was when he couldn’t find you. How relieved he was when he spotted you alive and whole?”

“I thought he was drunk,” I said.

“I suspect Rand is an unwilling participant. At the time of the poison test, he hardly knew you, but as your friendship grew, I imagine he finds himself in a difficult situation. He doesn’t want to hurt you, but he needs to pay off his gambling debt. Star has an extensive organization, with plenty more thugs to replace the ones I took care of, thugs who would be willing to break a few bones for their boss. Does that make you feel any better?”

“No.” My reaction to Rand’s betrayal seemed extreme even to me, but I couldn’t switch it off. It wasn’t the first time someone had played false with me and it wasn’t going to be the last. Brazell had deceived me. I had loved him like a father, and been loyal to him. In the end, it took almost a year of enduring his experiments before my feelings dwindled to the point where I could see him as he really was. But I had always known my young devotion to him was one-sided. Since he had never given me any reason to think he cared for me, his actions had been easier to stomach.

Rand’s friendship, on the other hand, appeared genuine. I had begun to feel as if I had finally made a decent-size hole in the stone barricade I had built around myself. Big enough for me to slip through and enjoy our time together. Now the wall was crumbling. I felt stones pelting me and burying me deep beneath the rubble. How could I trust anyone again?

“Anything else you want to tell me?” I asked Valek as we stopped a few feet short of the castle’s south entrance. “Did Ari and Janco set me up for Nix’s attack? Do you have another test of loyalty for me up your sleeve? Maybe the next time, I’ll actually fail. A prospect that seems appealing!” I pushed away Valek’s supporting arm. “When you warned me that you would test me from time to time, I thought you meant spiking my food. But it seems there is more than one way to poison a person’s heart, and it doesn’t even require a meal.”

“Everyone makes choices in life. Some bad, some good. It’s called living, and if you want to bow out, then go right ahead. But don’t do it halfway. Don’t linger in whiner’s limbo,” Valek said, his voice gruff. “I don’t know what horrors you faced prior to your arrival in our dungeon. If I had to guess, I would think they were worse than what you have discovered tonight. Perhaps that will put things into perspective.”

He strode into the castle. I leaned against the cold wall, resting my head on the unyielding surface. Maybe if I stayed here long enough, my heart would turn to stone. Then betrayals, tests of loyalties and poisons would have no effect on me. But the cold eventually drove me inside.

“Apply a force on the wrench. Not too much. You need a firm yet gentle touch,” Janco said. With healing hands still sore, I clumsily placed the tension wrench into the keyhole and applied pressure.

“Now use your diamond pick to lift the pin that’s trapped by the tension, lift it until it breaks,” he instructed.

“Breaks?” I asked.

“Reaches alignment. When you put a key into a lock, the metal ridges push the pins up so you can turn the cylinder and open the lock. The pins hold the cylinder in place. You’ll need to do one pin at a time, and continue the pressure.”

I slid the pick into the lock past the wrench. I maneuvered the pick, lifting each of the five pins. I could feel a tiny vibration in my finger joints as each pin broke with a subtle yet distinct click. When they were all aligned, the cylinder turned and the door unlocked.

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