Poison Study Page 67

“Doing what?” Valek demanded, standing with his hands on his hips.

The comical image of a jealous husband popped into my mind. I stifled a smile. “Discussing fighting tactics.”

“Oh.” Valek relaxed his stance, but moved his arms awkwardly as if he felt he had overreacted and was trying to cover it up. “Well, that’s all right. But from now on, I need to know where you are at all times, and I suggest you stay in the castle and keep a low profile for a while. General Brazell’s guards have set a bounty on your head.”

“A bounty?” Fear pulsed through my chest.

“It could be a rumor or just drunken soldiers’ talk. But until they leave, I want you protected.” Valek’s tone was firm, but then he added, “I don’t want to train another taster.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“No. You’ll be paranoid. You’ll move in a crowd, keep to well-lit areas and you’ll make certain to have an escort with you whenever you’re walking down empty hallways late at night. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. The Generals’ brandy meeting is scheduled for tomorrow evening. Each General will bring a bottle of his finest brandy to share as they discuss Ixian business late into the night. You will be needed to taste the Commander’s drinks.” Valek lifted a box of eight bottles from the floor. They clinked musically as he set the carton on the table.

Pulling out a small drinking glass, he said, “I want you to sample each brandy once tonight and at least twice tomorrow, so you know how each tastes clean of poisons.” He handed me the glass. “Each bottle is labeled according to the type of brandy, and which General brings it.”

I grabbed a decanter at random. It was General Dinno’s cherry brandy made in MD–8. Pouring a mouthful, I took a sip and rolled the liquid around my tongue, attempting to commit the taste to memory before swallowing. The strong alcohol burned down my throat, leaving behind a small fire in my chest. My face flushed with the heat.

“I suggest you use the ‘slurp and spit’ method so you don’t get drunk,” Valek said.

“Good point.” I found another glass for spitting, and then worked my way through the remainder of the bottles.

On the day of the meeting, I tasted each brandy twice more in Valek’s suite, and then tested myself with a third round. Only when I could pinpoint by taste alone which cordial belonged to which General was I satisfied.

That night, I waited for Valek to escort me to the war room. He came downstairs decked out in full dress uniform. Red braids draped his shoulders; medals were lined up six deep over his left breast. He oozed dignity, a man of stature. I would have been impressed, except for the uncomfortable and peevish look he wore. A petulant child forced to wear his best clothes. I covered my mouth, but was unable to block my laughter.

“Enough. I have to wear this damn thing once a year and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one time too many.” Valek tugged at his collar. “Ready?”

I joined him at the door. The uniform enhanced his athletic body, and my thoughts drifted to how magnificent he would look with his uniform puddled around his feet.

“You look stunning,” I blurted. Mortified, I blushed as a rush of heat spread through my body. I must have swallowed more brandy than I’d realized.

“Really?” Valek glanced down at his uniform. Then he set his shoulders back and stopped yanking at his collar. His cross expression changed to a thoughtful smile.

“Yes. You do,” I said.

We arrived in the Commander’s war room just as the Generals assembled. The long, slender, stained-glass windows glowed with the weak light of the setting sun. Servants scurried around the circular chamber, lighting lanterns and arranging platters of food and drink. All military personnel were attired in their dress uniforms. Medals and buttons sparkled. I knew only three Generals by sight; the rest I deduced by the color of the diamonds on their otherwise black uniforms. Scrutinizing their faces, I memorized their different features in case Valek tested me later.

Brazell glared when I made eye contact. Adviser Mogkan stood next to him, and I shivered as Mogkan’s eyes slid over me with cunning appraisal. When Brazell and Reyad had performed their experiments on me, Mogkan had always hovered nearby. His presence, sensed but unseen, had given me violent nightmares. Brazell’s usual advisers were missing; I wondered why he had brought Mogkan instead.

The Commander sat at the tip of the egg-shaped conference table. His uniform was simple and elegant with real diamonds stitched onto his collar. The Generals, flanked by their advisers, seated themselves around the rest of the table. Valek’s chair was to the Commander’s right, and my stool was placed behind them, against the only stone wall in the room. I knew the meeting would last all night, and I was glad I would be able to rest my back. Another advantage to my position was that I wasn’t in direct sight of Brazell. Although I could avoid seeing the poisonous looks he might flash my way, I couldn’t hide from Mogkan’s pointed stares.

The Commander pounded a wooden gavel on the table. Silence fell. “Before we launch into the scheduled topics,” the Commander said, indicating the detailed agenda which had been distributed earlier, “I have an important announcement. I have appointed a new successor.”

A murmur rippled through the war room as the Commander walked around the table and handed a sealed envelope to each General. Inside the envelopes were eight pieces to an encoded puzzle that would reveal the new successor’s name when deciphered by Valek’s key.

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