“A woman? The next prisoner to be executed is a woman?” His voice was icy. My body trembled on hearing the word executed aloud. The calm I’d established earlier fled me. I would have sunk sobbing to the floor if the guards weren’t with me. The guards tormented anyone who showed any weakness.
The man tugged at the black ringlets of his hair. “I should have taken the time to reread your dossier.” He shooed the guards away. “You’re dismissed.”
When they were gone, he motioned me to the chair in front of his desk. The chains clanged as I perched on the edge.
He opened a folder on his desk and scanned the pages. “Yelena, today may be your lucky day,” he said.
I swallowed a sarcastic reply. An important lesson I had mastered during my dungeon stay was never to talk back. I bowed my head instead, avoiding eye contact.
The man was quiet for a while. “Well-behaved and respectful. You’re starting to look like a good candidate.”
Despite the clutter of the room, the desk was neat. In addition to my folder and some writing implements, the only other items on the desk were two small, black statues glittering with streaks of silver—a set of panthers carved to lifelike perfection.
“You’ve been tried and found guilty of murdering General Brazell’s only son, Reyad.” He paused, stroking his temple with his fingers. “That explains why Brazell’s here this week, and why he has been unusually interested in the execution schedule.” The man spoke more to himself than to me.
Upon hearing Brazell’s name, fear coiled in my stomach. I steadied myself with a reminder that I was soon to be out of his reach forever.
The Territory of Ixia ’s military had come to power only a generation ago, but the rule had produced strict laws called the Code of Behavior. During peacetime—most of the time, strangely enough for the military—proper conduct didn’t allow the taking of a human life. If someone committed murder, the punishment was execution. Self-preservation or an accidental death were not considered acceptable excuses. Once found guilty, the murderer was sent to the Commander’s dungeon to await a public hanging.
“I suppose you’re going to protest the conviction. Say you were framed or you killed out of self-defense.” He leaned back in his chair, waiting with a weary patience.
“No, sir,” I whispered, all I could manage from unused vocal cords. “I killed him.”
The man in black straightened in his chair, shooting me a hard look. Then he laughed aloud. “This may work out better than I’d planned. Yelena, I’m offering you a choice. You can either be executed, or you can be Commander Ambrose’s new food taster. His last taster died recently, and we need to fill the position.”
I gaped at him, my heart dancing. He had to be joking. He was probably amusing himself. Great way to get a laugh. Watch hope and joy shine on the prisoner’s face, then smash it by sending the accused to the noose.
I played along. “A fool would refuse the job.” My voice rasped louder this time.
“Well, it’s a lifetime position. The training can be lethal. After all, how can you identify poisons in the Commander’s food if you don’t know what they taste like?” He tidied the papers in the folder.
“You’ll get a room in the castle to sleep, but most of the day you’ll be with the Commander. No days off. No husband or children. Some prisoners have chosen execution instead. At least then they know exactly when they’re going to die, rather than guessing if it’s going to come with the next bite.” He clicked his teeth together, a feral grin on his face.
He was serious. My whole body shook. A chance to live! Service to the Commander was better than the dungeon and infinitely better than the noose. Questions raced through my mind: I’m a convicted killer, how can they trust me? What would prevent me from killing the Commander or escaping?
“Who tastes the Commander’s food now?” I asked instead, afraid if I asked the other questions he’d realize his mistake and send me to the gallows.
“I do. So I’m anxious to find a replacement. Also the Code of Behavior states that someone whose life is forfeit must be offered the job.”
No longer able to sit still, I stood and paced around the room, dragging my chains with me. The maps on the walls showed strategic military positions. Book titles dealt with security and spying techniques. The condition and amount of candles suggested someone who worked late into the night.
I looked back at the man in the adviser’s uniform. He had to be Valek, the Commander’s personal security chief and leader of the vast intelligence network for the Territory of Ixia .
“What shall I tell the executioner?” Valek asked.
“I am not a fool.”
Valek snapped the folder closed. He walked to the door; his stride as graceful and light as a snow cat traversing thin ice. The guards 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 that had been draped around me since I’d been arrested.
Raw bands of flesh circled my bloody wrists. 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.