Poison Study Page 76

Valek frowned. “It might be too soon. The Criollo could still be in your bloodstream. You’ll inform me if something happens?” “Yes.” “Good. I’ll see you tonight.”

Poor Valek, I thought, stuffed into his dress uniform three times in as many days. Elaborate decorations had been hung in the dining room for the feast. Crimson and black drapes hung along the walls, and red and gold streamers twisted and dipped from the ceiling. The room was ablaze with light. An elevated platform had been constructed to support a head table where the southern delegation, the Commander and Valek all wore their finest clothes. High-ranking officers and upper-level advisers were seated at round tables circling the room, leaving the middle empty. In the corner a twelve-piece band played sedate music, which was a surprise since the Commander frowned on music, considering it a waste of time.

I sat behind Commander Ambrose so he could pass his plate to me. As predicted, the food was marvelous. Rand had outdone himself.

My dark uniform blended in with the black drapes along the wall, and since I doubted anyone beyond the dais noticed I was there, I watched the others as I waited between courses. Ari and Janco sat next to each other at a table by the door. Attending their first formal function as Captains, they were clearly uncomfortable. Knowing them, I was sure they would rather be drinking beer with their comrades back in the barracks.

Irys and her retinue were seated to the Commander’s left. Their formal robes had swirls of color and glittered in the firelight. Irys wore a diamond pendant shaped like a flower, which sparkled on her chest. She ignored my presence, which was fine with me.

After the servants cleared the meal from the tables, they extinguished half of the lanterns. The band quickened their tempo until a pulsating rhythm vibrated the glassware on the tabletops. Costumed dancers burst into the room, holding blazing staffs high above their heads. Fire dancers! They performed an intricate and complex routine. Watching them whirl and spin to the beat left me gasping for breath. I understood now why their festival tent had been so packed with enthusiastic fans.

At one point, Valek leaned back in his chair and said to me, “I don’t think I would have made it past the audition, Yelena. I probably would have set my hair on fire by this point.”

“What’s a singed head for the sake of art?” I teased. He laughed. The mood of the room was energetic and elated. I hoped the Commander wouldn’t wait fifteen more years before having another feast.

The dancers finished their second encore and exited the room. Irys rose to offer a toast. The Sitians had brought their finest cognac. Irys poured a glass for the Commander, Valek and herself. She didn’t seem offended when the Commander’s goblet passed to me.

I swirled the amber liquid and inhaled the sharp odor. Taking a small sip, I rolled the cognac around my tongue, then spat it onto the floor. Gagging and retching with the effort, I tried to expel every last bit of it from my mouth. Valek stared in alarm.

I choked out, “My Love.”

Valek knocked over the other two glasses, spilling their contents on the table. As my body reacted to the poison, I watched Valek turn into a black ink spot, and the walls run with blood.

I floated on a crimson sea, colors dancing and whirling around my head. The sound of broken glass raining on stones created an odd melody in my mind. I drifted on a raft made of curly white hair, carried along by a strong current. Irys’s soothing voice spoke amidst the tempest of colors, “You’ll be fine, just hold on to your life raft. You can ride out this storm.”

I awoke in my room. A dim lantern had been lit, and Janco sat in a chair, reading a book. This was much nicer than the last time I had tasted My Love. A soft bed was preferable to lying in a pool of my own vomit. Although this habit of waking in my room without knowing how I got here had to stop.

“Why, Janco, I didn’t know you could read,” I teased. My voice was hoarse, my throat sore and a dull ache resided deep in my head.

“I’m a man of many unknown talents.” Janco smiled. “Welcome back.”

“How long have I been out?”

“Two days.”

“What happened?”

“After you turned into a madwoman?” Janco asked. “Or why you turned into one?”

I grimaced. “After.”

“It’s amazing how fast Valek can move,” Janco said with admiration. “He pushed you out of sight onto the floor while corking the tainted bottle and using some sleight of hand to swap it for another. He apologized to everyone about being clumsy, and proceeded to pour three new glasses so that southern witch could make her phony toast. The whole incident was smoothed over so quick that only the people on the dais knew what really happened.”

Janco scratched at his goatee. “Well, they and Ari. He had his eye on you all night, so when you went down, we were on our way. We slipped behind the head table during the toast and he carried you here. He’d still be here, but I forced him at knifepoint to get some sleep.”

Ah, that explained my curly-haired raft. I sat up. The ache in my head intensified. A water pitcher rested on my night table. I poured a glass, draining it dry.

“Valek said you’d be thirsty. He’s been here a couple of times, but he’s been busy with the southerners. I can’t believe that witch had the audacity to try to poison the Commander.”

“She didn’t. Remember? She poured three glasses from the same bottle. Someone else must have,” I said. But the culprit eluded me as the effort of concentrating made my head pound.

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