Poison Study Page 86

I was allowed to join the group going to the plant. This surprised me almost as much as the fact that none of the Commander’s advisers made a protest or comment about Brazell manufacturing Criollo instead of the livestock feed he had reported on his permit. They munched on bars of Criollo, content to nod and agree with Brazell that the factory was a marvelous invention.

As we walked through the building, sweltering heat pulsed from the gigantic roasters that were continuously fed with Sitian beans. Workers, streaked with sweat and black dust, shoveled coal into the massive fires under the ovens. Once roasted, the beans were conveyored to a large area where other workers cracked their shells with mallets, extracting a dark brown nib. Steel rollers crushed the nibs into a paste. The paste was spooned into a five-foot-wide metal container to which sugar, milk and butter were added. Using steel pitchforks, workers stirred these ingredients until the mixture became a smooth, thick liquid, which was then poured into square and rectangular-shaped molds.

A veritable shop of delightful smells and flavors, the place was, however, a joyless environment. The dour employees, uniforms soiled with Criollo and sweat, grunted and strained under the physical exertion. During the tour, I searched the various work areas for poisonous or addictive ingredients that might be slipped into the mix but found none.

When the group returned to Brazell’s manor house, I watched the animated expressions on the advisers’ faces leak away, leaving behind the same blank look that had taken over the Commander’s face. Which meant that there must be a link between eating Criollo and succumbing to Mogkan’s magic. Mogkan’s show would end as soon as he had gained control of the advisers’ minds, and when that happened my accommodations would change for the worse.

That night, under cover of darkness, I dropped my cloak out the window of my room and banged on the door, calling to the guards.

When the door opened, I declared, “I need a bath.” Without waiting for a response, I strode with purpose down the hallway. The guards followed.

At the baths, one guard stopped me in the hallway while his companion looked around inside. Only when he was sure I would be alone did he nod and step back.

As I went through the entrance, I said in an authoritative voice, “I don’t need an audience. Wait here, I won’t be long.”

To my delight they remained outside. I scurried to the far wall where, hidden from view, there was another entrance. The guards might work in the manor house, but I’d grown up here. With a child’s curiosity and free time, I had been able to explore almost every corner of the house. Only Brazell’s private suite, office and Reyad’s wing had been off-limits. Unfortunately once I turned sixteen, Reyad’s wing became my daily nightmare. Pushing away the thought, I concentrated on the present.

I pulled the handle of the door and encountered my first unwanted surprise. It was locked. No problem, I thought, reaching for my picks. The mechanism popped with ease, the door swung open, and I discovered a second nasty shock. One of the guards waited in the hallway.

He smirked. I rushed him. Using my momentum, I shoved him off balance and punched him in the groin. A dirty Valek move, but I didn’t care as I raced down the corridor, leaving the guard far behind.

Slipping out the south entrance, I retrieved my cloak, and then headed west to find my pack and bow. Bright moonlight illuminated my path, and I could see where I was going; however, my true path was less evident. I knew I couldn’t help the Commander from a locked room, but I was unsure what I could do from the outside. I needed to talk to Valek. Deciding it would be too risky to go to the barracks, I took to the treetops. Only Valek knew this trick. Once he learned of my escape, he would track me.

When I reached the open area reserved for the annual fire festival’s visit to MD–5, I stopped for the night. Shivering in my cloak, I huddled against a tree trunk, blowing clouds of steam from my mouth. Once, I heard the baying of dogs and distant shouts, but no one came close to my makeshift bed in the tree. Sleep eluded me; I was too cold and nervous. Instead, I envisioned the bright fabric of the festival tents in the clearing, hoping to warm myself by remembering the hot energy of the festival nights.

I imagined the big tops in their proper places. Dancers, singers and acrobats lined up in the middle of the clearing. Food stands huddled in and around the big tents, scenting the air with mouthwatering treats. I went to the festival every hot season when I had lived under Brazell’s roof. It had been the highlight of my existence. Although my memories of those last two years, when I had been Reyad’s laboratory rat, were dreadful.

Unable to resist, I climbed down from the tree and walked through my imaginary festival. I stopped where the acrobatics tent had stood, wondering if I could still perform the tumbling routine that had won me first place and the fire amulet. Without thought, I tossed off my cloak and started a warm-up. In the back of my mind, I knew I should be hiding, that it was stupid to be this exposed to discovery, but the desire to relive my one moment of true joy was too strong to deny.

Soon all thoughts of Brazell, Reyad and Mogkan were banished as I spun and soared through the air. My mind settled into the mental zone of pure concentration I used when I fought. I relished the release, brief as it might be, from my days of tension and threat.

As I performed my routine, I discovered that I could push my heightened awareness beyond my body to encompass the trees, even sense the animals in the forest. An owl, perched high on a branch, tracked the movements of a field mouse. A family of possums slipped without sound through the underbrush. A woman, crouched behind a stone, watched me.

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