Valek went over to the mess on the floor and started restacking the books. His movements were so graceful that I wondered if he had been a dancer, but his words betrayed to me that his fluid gestures were those of a trained killer.
“Yelena, your job is very important. That’s why I spend so much time training you. A shrewd assassin can watch a taster for several days to discover a pattern.” Valek continued his lecture from the floor. “For example, the taster might always cut a piece of meat from the left side, or never stir the drink. Some poisons sink to the bottom of the cup. If the taster only sips off the top, then the assassin knows exactly where to place the poison to kill his intended victim.” He finished picking up the books. The new piles were neater than the rest of the stacks on the floor. It seemed an invitation to Valek to continue straightening the books. He cleared a bigger path through his office.
“Once you drink the poison, Margg will help you to your room and take care of you. I’ll give her your daily dose of Butterfly’s Dust antidote.”
I stared at the steam drifting from the tea. I picked up the cup, the heat warming my icy hands. When Margg entered the room, it felt as if the executioner had just mounted the dais, reaching for the lever. Should I sit down or lie down? I looked around the room, seeing nothing. My arms started to tingle as I realized I had been holding my breath.
I raised the cup in a mock salute, and then drained the contents. “Sour apples,” I said.
Valek nodded. I had only enough time to put the cup on the table before my world began to melt. Margg’s body undulated toward me. Her large head sprouted flowers from her eye sockets. A moment later her body filled the room as her head shriveled.
I sensed movement. The gray walls grew arms and legs that reached for me, trying to use me in their fight against the floor. Gray spirits rose from under my feet. They dived, poked and cackled at me. They were freedom. I tried to push the Margg thing away, but it clung and wrapped itself around me, digging through my ears and pounding on my head.
“Murderer,” it whispered. “Sneaky bitch. You probably slit his throat while he slept. Easy way to kill. Did you enjoy yourself as you watched his blood soak the sheets? You’re nothing but a rat.”
I grabbed at the voice, trying to make it stop, but it turned into two green-and-black toy soldiers who held me tight.
“She’ll die from the poison. If not you can take her,” the Margg thing said to the soldiers.
They pushed me into a dark pit. I plunged into blackness.
The stench of vomit and excrement greeted me when I regained consciousness. They were the unmistakable odors of the dungeon. Wondering how I had ended up back in my old cell, I sat up. A surge of nausea demanded my attention. I groped around for the slop pot and encountered the metal leg of a bed, which I clutched as dry heaves racked my body. When they stopped, I leaned against the wall, grateful to be on the floor of my room and not back in the dungeon. Beds were a luxury not included with the subterranean accommodations.
Summoning the strength to stand, I located and lit my lantern. Dried vomit caked my face. My shirt and pants were soaking wet and smelled foul. The liquid contents of my body had collected in a puddle on the floor.
Margg took good care of me, I thought sarcastically. At least she was practical. If she had dumped me on the bed I would have ruined the mattress.
I thanked fate that I had survived the poison and that I had awakened in the middle of the night. Unable to endure the feel of my sodden uniform any longer, I made my way to the baths.
On my return, voices stopped me before I reached the hallway leading to my room. Extinguishing my lantern in one quick motion, I peeked around the corner. Two soldiers stood in front of my door. The soft light of their lantern reflected the green-and-black colors of their uniforms—Brazell’s colors.
“Should we check if she’s dead?” asked one of brazell’s soldiers. he held the lantern up to my door, his overloaded weapon belt jingling with the motion.
“No. That housekeeper checks every morning and gives her a potion. We’ll hear about it soon enough. Besides, it stinks in there.” The other soldier waved his hand in front of his face.
“Yeah. If the smell don’t kill the mood, taking off her vomit-soaked uniform would make any man gag. Although…” The lantern soldier’s hand briefly touched the manacles hanging from his belt. “We could drag her down to the baths, clean her up, and have some fun before she dies.”
“No, someone would see us. If she survives, we’ll have plenty of time to peel off her uniform. It’ll be just like opening a present, and definitely more entertaining when she’s awake.” He leered. They laughed.
They continued down the hallway and were soon out of sight. I clung to the wall and wondered if what I had just witnessed had been real. Was I still having paranoid hallucinations? My head felt as if it had soaked too long in a pool of water. Dizziness and nausea rippled through my body.
The soldiers were long gone before I worked up the nerve to go back to my room. I pushed the door wide and thrust my lantern in front of me, shining the light into every corner and under the bed. A harsh, acrid odor was the only thing to attack me. Gagging, I unlocked the shutters and threw them open, taking deep breaths of the cool, cleansing air.
I looked at the noxious puddle on the floor. The last thing I wanted to do was clean up the mess, but I knew I would never be able to sleep while breathing in that foul smell. After raiding housekeeping’s supplies, and stopping for the occasional bout of nausea, I managed to scrub the floor without fainting.