Poison Study Page 73

True to his word and much to the Commander’s annoyance, Valek didn’t leave the Commander’s side. Ari and Janco enjoyed a change in routine, but I made them work hard. Whenever I wasn’t tasting the Commander’s meals, I had Ari drill me with knife defense and Janco give me more lessons on picking locks.

The Generals’ departure was scheduled for the next day, which meant it was time to do some of my own reconnaissance. It was early evening and I knew Valek would still be with the Commander until late. I told Ari and Janco that I was going to bed early, and bade them good-night at the threshold to Valek’s suite. After waiting an hour, I slipped back into the hallway.

The corridors of the castle were not as deserted as I had hoped, but Valek’s office was located off the main throughway. I approached his door, scanning the hallway for activity. Seeing no one, I inserted my picks into the first of the three keyholes, but my nerves made popping the lock impossible. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried again.

I had two locks sprung when I heard voices approaching. Standing, I pulled the picks out of the keyhole and knocked on the door just as two men came into view.

“He’s with the Commander,” said the guard on the left.

“Thanks,” I replied and started to walk in the opposite direction with my heart beating like a hummingbird’s wings. I glanced behind me until they were gone, then raced back to Valek’s office. The third lock proved to be the most difficult. I was covered with sweat by the time I popped it. I hurried into the room, locking the door behind me.

My first task was to open the small wooden cabinet that held my antidote. Perhaps Valek had locked the recipe in there. I lit a dim lantern to peer inside. Glass bottles of various shapes and sizes gleamed in the light. Most of the bottles were marked Poison. A growing sense of urgency consumed me as I searched. All I uncovered was a large bottle containing the antidote. I poured only a few doses into the flask I had hidden in my pocket, knowing that Valek would notice if I took too much.

After relocking the cabinet, I began a systematic search of Valek’s files, starting with the desk drawers. Even though his office was strewn with books and maps, his personal dossiers were well organized. I found files on Margg and the Commander and was tempted to read them, but I stayed focused on finding any folder bearing my name or a reference to Butterfly’s Dust. Valek had written many interesting comments about my tasting abilities in my personnel file, but there was no mention of the poison or the antidote.

When I finished with the desk, I moved to the conference table. Books on poisons were interspersed with files and other espionage documents. I sorted through the piles. My time was running out. I had to be back in Valek’s suite before he escorted the Commander to his apartment.

I suppressed my disappointment as I finished with the table. There was still half of his office left to search.

I was halfway across the quiet room when I heard the distinct sound of a key being inserted into the lock. One click, then the key was withdrawn. I snuffed out the lantern as the second lock clicked open. Diving behind the conference table, I hoped the boxes piled underneath would hide me from view. Please, I prayed to the forces of fate, let it be Margg and not Valek. A third click made my heart squeeze.

The door opened and closed. A light tread of footsteps crossed the room. Someone sat at the desk. I didn’t risk peeking, but I knew it was Valek. Had the Commander retired early? I reviewed my meager options: be discovered or wait Valek out. I eased into a more comfortable position.

A few minutes later, someone knocked on the door.

“Come,” said Valek.

“Your, ah…package has arrived, sir,” said a male voice.

“Bring him in.” Valek scraped his chair on the stone floor.

I heard the rustle of chains and a shuffling step. “You’re dismissed,” Valek said. The door clicked shut. A familiar rancid smell of the dungeon reached my nose.

“Well, Tentil. Are you aware that you’re next in line for the noose?” Valek asked.

My heart went out to the doomed prisoner. I knew exactly how he felt.

“Yes, sir,” a voice whispered.

Pages crackled. “You’re here because you killed your three-year-old son with a plow, claiming it was an accident. Is that correct?” Valek asked.

“Yes, sir. My wife had just died. I was unable to afford a nanny. I didn’t know he had climbed under.” The man’s voice was pinched with pain.

“Tentil, there are no excuses in Ixia.”

“Yes, sir. I know, sir. I want to die, sir. The guilt is too hard to bear.”

“Then dying wouldn’t be adequate punishment, would it?” Valek didn’t wait for a response. “Living would be a harsher sentence. In fact, I know of a profitable farmstead in MD–4 that has tragically lost both the farmer and his wife, leaving behind three sons under the age of six. Tentil will hang tomorrow, or so everyone shall believe, but you will be escorted to MD–4 to take over the operation of a corn plantation and the job of raising those three boys. I suggest your first order of business should be to hire a nanny. Understand?”


“The Code of Behavior has been excellent at ridding Ixia of undesirables, but it is somewhat lacking in basic human compassion. Despite my arguments, the Commander fails to grasp this point, so I occasionally take matters into my own hands. Keep your mouth shut, and you will live. One of my associates will check on you from time to time.”

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