Book Chapter 2
"We may as well start the next chapter as there is still some time until lunch."
Valek snapped the folder closed. He walked to the door; his stride as graceful and light as a snow cat traversing thin ice. The guard waiting in the hall snapped to attention when the door opened. Valek spoke to them, and they nodded. One guard came toward me. I stared at him, going back to the dungeon had not been part of Valek's offer. Could I escape? I scanned the room. The guard spun me around and removed the manacles and chains than had been draped around me since I'd been arrested.
"How are we meant to trust this Yelena person, she just agreed to be my food taster and is already looking for an escape route?"
"She wouldn't be able to escape me and that is part of the reason we use the Butterfly Dust poison as a safety measure," Valek reassured the Commander.
"Do you think she will realise there is something in the drink you offer her?"
"Probably not, but the only way we are going to find out is through continuing reading"
Raw bands of flesh circled my bloody wrist. I touched my neck, feeling skin where there used to be metal. My fingers came away sticky with blood. I groped for the chair. Being freed of the weight of the chains caused a strange sensation to sweep over me; I felt as if I were either going to float away or pass out. I inhaled until the faintness passed.
"That's one of the problems with using prisoners as a food taster: they spend so long in the dungeons that they are really weak when they first start."
"Well, do you have any better ideas? They tend to gain health quite quickly if someone doesn't decide to kill them off," the Commander said pointedly.
"We can't have untrustworthy people around, especially when they sell your secrets to potential enemies."
"I know what you are getting at but you have no proof that it is Rand selling secrets. Also he is the best cook we have here," stated the Commander calmly.
"I will get proof it is only a matter of time," Valek declared determinedly.
When I regained my composure I noticed that Valek now stood beside his desk pouring two drinks. An opened wooden cabinet revealed rows of odd-shaped bottles and multicoloured jars stacked inside. Valek placed the bottle he was holding into the cabinet and locked the door.
"While we're waiting for Margg, I thought you could use a drink." He handed me a tall pewter goblet filled with an amber liquid. Raising his own goblet he made a toast. "To Yelena, our newest food taster. May you last longer than your predecessor."
My goblet stopped short of my lips.
"They are always shocked when they hear that. What do they expect? To live a long and fruitful life," Valek asked sarcastically.
"Relax," he said, "it's a standard toast."
I took a long swig. The smooth liquid burned slightly as it slid down my throat. For a moment I thought my stomach was going to rebel. This was the first time it had taken something other than water. Then it settled.
Before I could question him as to what exactly happened to the previous food taster, Valek asked me to identify the ingredients of the drink. Taking a smaller portion, I replied "Peaches sweetened with honey."
"Not bad, she seems able to identify different flavours quite easily."
"Good. Now take another sip. This time roll the liquid around your tongue before swallowing."
I complied and was surprised to taste a faint citrus flavour.
"That's right. Now gargle it."
"I don't see many food tasters gargling drinks," the Commander commented.
"Then they are not doing their jobs properly. There are some poisons that will only be identified by gargling the drink."
"Gargle?" I asked. He nodded. Feeling foolish I gargled the rest of my drink and almost spat it out. "Rotten oranges!"
"Eww, sounds disgusting!"
"As long as you have a competent food taster you shouldn't have to taste it. The rotten orange taste is the poison," Valek explained.
The skin around Valek's eyes crinkled as he laughed. He had a strong, angular face, as if someone had stamped it from a sheet of metal, but it softened when he smiled. Handing me his drink, he asked me to repeat the experiment.
With some trepidation, I took a sip, again detecting the faint orange taste. Bracing myself for the rancid flavour, I gargled Valek's drink and was relieved that gargling only enhanced the orange essence.
"Why would she be relieved there was no rotten taste? That means there is a difference between the two drinks. She should have realised then her drink was spiked with something."
"She probably just didn't like tasting rotten oranges. I am sure she will be able to realise what has been spiked with poison after being trained by you."
"Better?" Valek asked as he took back the empty cup.
Valek sat down behind his desk, opening my folder once more. Picking up his quill, he talked to me while writing. "You just had your first lesson in food tasting. Your drink was laced with a poison called Butterfly's Dust. Mine wasn't. The only way to detect Butterfly's Dust in a liquid is to gargle it. That rotten-orange flavour you tasted was the poison."
I rose, my head spinning. "Is it lethal?"
Valek smirked to himself. Everyone always fell for his ruse. Not even the commander knew the truth.
"A big enough dose will kill you in two days. The symptoms don't arrive until the second day, and by then it's too late."
"Did I have a lethal dose?" I held my breath.
"Of course. Anything less and you wouldn't have tasted the poison."
My stomach rebelled and I started to gag. I forced down the bile in my throat, trying hard to avoid the indignity of vomiting all over Valek's desk.
"I would like to avoid that situation happening as well. I have lots of important documents near my desk."
Valek looked up from the stack of papers. He studied my face. "I warned you the training would be dangerous but I would hardly give you a poison your body had to fight while you suffered from malnutrition. There is an antidote to Butterfly's Dust." He showed me a small vial containing a white liquid.
Collapsing back in my chair, I sighed. Valek's metal face had returned; I realised he hadn't offered the antidote to me.
"At least she managed to pick up on that so she might actually have some intelligence."
"In answer to the question you didn't ask but probably should have, this-" Valek raised the small vial and shook it "- is how we keep the Commander's food taster from escaping."
I stared at him trying to understand the implication.
"Yelena, you confessed to murder. We would be fools to let you serve the Commander without some guarantees. Guards watch the Commander at all times and it is doubtful you would be able to reach him with a weapon. For other forms of retaliation, we use Butterfly's Dust." Valek picked up the vial of antidote, and twirled it in the sunlight. "You need a daily dose of this to stay alive. The antidote keeps the poison from killing you. As long as you show up each morning in my office, I will give you the antidote. Miss one morning and you will be dead by the next. Commit a crime or an act of treason and you will be sent back to the dungeons until the poison takes you. I would avoid that fate, if I were you. The poison cause severe stomach cramps and uncontrollable vomiting."
"It is lucky you found that poison. The time delay of the symptoms is useful in making sure they don't run off or at least don't get very far."
Before full comprehension of my situation could sink in, Valek's eyes slid past my shoulder. I turned to see a stout woman in a housekeeper's uniform opening the door. Valek introduced her as Margg, the person who would take care of my basic needs. Expecting me to follow her, Margg strode out the room.
I glanced at the vial on Valek's desk.
"Come to my office tomorrow morning. Margg will direct you."
An obvious dismissal, but I paused at the door with all the questions I should have asked poised on my lips. I swallowed them. They sank like stones to my stomach. Then I closed the door and hurried after Margg, who hadn't stopped to wait.
Margg never slowed her pace. I found myself panting with the effort to keep up. Trying to remember the various corridors and turns, I soon gave up as my whole world shrank to the sight of Margg's broad back and efficient stride. Her long black skirt seemed to float above the floor. The housekeeping uniform included a black shirt and white apron that hung from the neck down to the ankle and was cinched tight around the waist. The apron had two vertical rows of small red diamond-shapes connected end to end. When Margg finally stopped at the baths, I had to sit on the floor to clear my spinning head.
"You stink," Margg said, disgust creasing her wide face. She pointed to the far side of the baths in a manner that indicated she was used to being obeyed. "Wash twice, then soak. I'll bring you some uniforms." She left the room.
"She is a bit blunt, isn't she? Couldn't you find someone a bit more helpful to show her around?" Commander Ambrose asked.
"I like her. She is loyal and can't be bought by anything."
The overpowering desire to bathe flashed like fire on my skin. Energised, I ripped the prison robe off and raced to the washing area. Hot water poured down in a cascade when I opened the duct above my head. The Commander's castle was equipped with heated water tanks located one floor above the baths, a luxury even Brazell's extravagant manor house didn't have.
"I like those baths. Hot water is definitely essential after getting back from a long mission."
I stood for a long time, hoping the drumming on my head would erase all thoughts of poisons. Obediently I washed my hair and body twice. My neck, wrists and ankles burned from the soap, but I didn't care. I scrubbed two more times, rubbing hard at the stubborn spots of dirt on my skin, stopping only when I realized they were bruises.
I felt unconnected to the body under the waterfall. The pain and humiliation of being arrested and locked away had been inflicted on this body, but my soul had long since been driven out during the last two years I had lived in Brazell's manor house.
"Finally we are back on hearing about Brazell. We might find out some interesting information now."
"It certainly doesn't sound as if she was treated well at Brazell orphanage," the Commander agreed.
An image of Brazell's son suddenly flashed before me. Reyad's handsome face distorted with rage. I stepped back, reflexively jerking up hands to block him. The image disappeared, leaving me shaking.
It was an effort to dry off and wrap a towel around me. I tried to focus on finding a comb instead of the ugly memories Reyad's image called forth.
"She clearly has a lot of issues with this Reyad person. Pity we seem to be back reading about her in the bathroom though. I don't see how that is going to give us any useful information."
"Stop being so impatient. I am sure we will find out more soon. Wasn't Reyad the person she killed?"
"I believe so," Valek answered frowning thoughtfully. "I will have to check her file when we have a break in reading so I can refresh myself on the details."
Even clean, my snarled hair resisted the comb. As I searched for a pair of scissors, I spotted another person in the baths from the corner of my eye. I stared at the body. A corpse looked back at me. The green eyes were the only sign of life in the gaunt, oval face. Thin stick legs looked incapable of holding the rest of the body up.
Recognition shot through me like a cold splash of fear. It was my body. I averted my eyes from the mirror, having no desire to assess the damage. Coward, I thought, returning my gaze with a purpose. Had Reyad's death released my soul from where it had fled? In my mind I tried to reconnect my spirit to my body. Why did I think my soul would return if my body was still not mine? It belonged to Commander Ambrose to be used as a tool for filtering and testing poisons. I turned away.
"That's a bit odd."
"Yeah, why does she think her soul is somewhere else?"
Pulling clumps of knotted hair out with the comb, I arranged the rest into a single long braid down my back.
Not long ago all I had hoped for was a clean prison robe before my execution, and now here I was sinking into the Commander's famous hot baths.
"That's long enough," Margg barked, startling me out of a light doze. "Here are your uniforms. Get dressed." Her stiff face radiated disapproval.
As I dried myself, I felt Margg's impatience.
"I see why you like her: she is as impatient as you are," the Commander commented.
Along with some undergarments, the food taster's uniform consisted of black pants, a wide red satin belt and a red satin shirt with a line of small black diamond-shapes connected end to end down each sleeves. The clothes were obviously sized for a man. Malnourished and measuring only four inches past five feet, I looked like a child playing pretend with her father's clothes. I wrapped the belt three times around my waist and rolled up the sleeves and pant legs.
"Can't she even give the appropriate sized clothing?"
"She isn't the friendliest of people but she has worked for use for a long time."
"I would never have guessed she wasn't friendly from reading this chapter," the commander replied sarcastically.
Margg snorted. "Valek only told me to feed you and show you to your room. But I think we'll stop by the seamstress's first." Pausing at the open door, Margg pursed her lips and added, "You'll need boots too."
Obediently, I followed Margg like a lost puppy.
The seamstress, Dilana, laughed gaily at my appearance. Her heart-shaped face had a halo of curly blond hair. Honey-colored eyes and long eyelashes enhanced her beauty.
"You can stop complaining about how unfriendly Margg is now. Yelena is with Dilana. She is really friendly so will sort her out in no time," Valek said.
"The stable boys wear the same pants and the kitchen maids wear the red shirts," Dilana said when she had stifled her giggles. She admonished Margg for not spending the time to find me better-size uniforms. Margg pushed her lips together tighter.
Fussing around me like a grandmother instead of a young woman, Dilana's attentions warmed me, pulling me toward her. I envisioned us becoming friends. She probably had many acquaintances and suitors who came to bask in her attentions like cave dwellers drawn to a blazing hearth. I found myself aching to reach out to her.
After writing my measurements down, Dilana searched through the piles of red, black and white clothing stacked around the room.
"She is much more helpful."
"I told you she would be." Replied Valek sounding bored.
Everyone who worked in Ixia wore a uniform. The Commander's castle servants and guards wore a variation of black, white and red color clothes with vertical diamond-shapes either down the sleeves of the shirts or down the sides of the pants. Advisers and higher-ranking officers usually wore all black with small red diamonds stitched on the collars to show rank. The uniform system became mandatory when the Commander gained power so everyone knew at a glance who they were dealing with.
"It does make it much easier to know who is who."
Valek disagreed, "Only if they are wearing the correct uniform. I have found it encourages laziness. People only look at the uniforms and not the person's face. It makes it easier for spies to infiltrate the castle."
"I can't see anyone managing to infiltrate the castle for long while you're here."
Black and red were Commander Ambrose's colors. The territory of Ixia had been separated into eight Military Districts each ruled by a General. The uniforms of the eight districts were identical to the Commander's except for the color. A housekeeper wearing black with small purple diamond-shapes on her apron therefore worked in Military District 3or MD-3.
"I think these should fit better." She handed me some clothes, gesturing to the privacy screen at the far end of the room.
While I was changing, I heard Dilana say, "She'll need new boots." Feeling less foolish in my new clothes, I picked up the old uniforms and gave them to Dilana.
"These must have belonged to Oscove, the old food taster," Dilana said. A sad expression gripped her face for a moment before she shook her head as if to rid herself of an unwanted thought.
"How long do you think it will be until he dies?" The Commander asked.
Valek thought for a minute. "I imagine it will be fairly soon. If I remember right Yelena is fairly high on the list of people to be executed. Probably in the next few weeks."
All my fantasies of friendship fled me as I realized that being friends with the Commander's food taster was a big emotional risk. My stomach hollowed out while Dilana's warmth leaked from me, leaving a cold bitterness behind.
A sharp stab of loneliness struck me as an unwanted image of May and Carra, who still lived at Brazell's manor, flashed before my eyes. My fingers twitched to fix Carra's crooked braids and to straighten May's skirt.
"They must be other children from the orphanage maybe we will be able to get some information from them, if the book doesn't give it."
"I am sure the book will give more information soon. We are only on the second chapter," reminded the Commander.
Instead of Carra's silky ginger hair in my hands, I held a stack of clothes. Dilana guided me to a chair. Kneeling on the floor, she put socks on my feet and then a pair of boots. The boots were made of soft black leather. They came up over my ankle to midcalf, where the leather folded down. Dilana tucked my pant legs into the boots and helped me stand.
I hadn't worn shoes in seasons and I expected them to chafe. But the boots cushioned my feet and fit well. I smiled at Dilana, thoughts of May and Carra temporarily banished. These were the finest pair of boots I'd ever worn.
She smiled back and said, "I can always pick the right-size boots without having to measure."
Margg harrumphed. "You didn't get poor Rand's boots right. He's too smitten with you to complain. Now he limps around the kitchen."
"Don't pay any attention to her," Dilana said to me. "Margg, don't you have work to do? Get going or I'll sneak into your room and shorten all your skirts." Dilana shooed us good-naturedly out the door.
"At least she has finally got her clothes sorted now."
Margg took me to the servants' dining room and served me small portions of soup and bread. The soup tasted divine. After devouring the food, I asked for more.
"No. Too much will make you sick," was all she said. With reluctance I left my bowl on the table to follow Margg to my room.
"At sunrise be ready to work."
Once again I watched her retreating back.
My small room contained a narrow bed with a single stained mattress on a stark metal frame, a plain wooden desk and chair, a chamber pot, an armoire, a lantern, a tiny woodstove and one window shuttered tight. The gray stone walls were unadorned. I tested the mattress; it barely yielded. A vast improvement over my dungeon cell, yet I felt myself somewhat dissatisfied.
"Why would she feel dissatisfied at least she has another chance at living? Not everyone gets that."
"We will find out more if we carry on reading."
Nothing in the room suggested softness. With my mind and eyes filled with Valek's metal face and Margg's censure, and the harsh cut and color of the uniforms, I longed for a pillow or blanket. I felt like a lost child looking for something to clutch, something supple that wouldn't end up hurting me.
After hanging my extra uniforms in the armoire, I crossed to the window. There was a sill wide enough for me to sit on. The shutters were locked, but the latches were on the inside. Hands shaking, I unlocked and pushed the shutters wide, blinking in the sudden light. Shielding my eyes, I squinted beneath my hand, and stared at the scene in front of my window in disbelief. I was on the first floor of the castle! Five feet below was the ground.
Between my room and the stables were the Commander's kennels and the exercise yard for the horses. The stable boys and dog trainers wouldn't care if I escaped. I could drop down without any effort and be gone. Tempting, except for the fact that I would be dead in two days time. Maybe another time, when two days of freedom might be worth the price.
"Marvellous, she is planning her escape already," complained the Commander.
"She isn't going anywhere," replied Valek "She is too worried about the poison killing her. It is clear she wants to live."
I could hope.
"Shall we continue with the book or come back to it later?"
"It is nearly time for lunch so I think we should wait for a bit. The current food taster wasn't on the list of people to read the book anyway."
"I am not surprised, I don't trust him," replied Valek
"You don't trust anyone."
I have really had time to work on my stories for a while. Hope you enjoy.