I had been in the dungeon during the last ice festival, missing the indoor event where artists and craftsmen displayed their work. The ice festival was always held during the cold season when there was nothing to do but huddle by the fire and make crafts. It was a local event with each town hosting its own festival.
The fire festival was a massive carnival that traveled from town to town during the hot season. The festival began in the far north, where the warm weather lasted a few short weeks, and then wound its way south.
Traditionally, additional performances and contests were scheduled for the weeklong celebration at the castle in the middle of the hot season, and I was hoping I might be permitted to attend. Valek had indicated to me that he would be teaching me additional tasting techniques in the afternoons, but the rest of the time between meals had, so far, been mine.
I had always loved going to the fire festival. Brazell had given the children in his orphanage a small allowance so we could go each year. It had been the most anticipated event at Brazell’s manor house. We would practice all year to qualify for the various contests, and save every penny possible for the entry fee.
Valek’s practical voice interrupted my thoughts. “You can get some nightclothes from the seamstress, Dilana. She should have included them with your uniforms. As to the rest, you’ll have to make do with what you can find.”
Valek’s words brought home the realities of my life; meaning fire festivals were not included. I might get a chance to see the festival, but I wouldn’t be able to sample the spicy chicken steaks or taste the wine.
Sighing, I picked up my journal and went into my room. A dry, warm breeze caressed my face. I cleaned the rest of the dust, but I only wiped away half of Margg’s message. She had been right in a way. The noose did wait for me. A normal life was not in my future. Her message would serve as a reminder to me to not get too comfortable.
I was either going to screw up and be replaced as the food taster, or I was going to foil an assassination attempt with my own death. I might not technically die from a broken neck, but the haunting image of an empty noose would always plague me.
The next morning I hovered outside Dilana’s workroom. She sat in a small patch of sunlight, humming and sewing. Her golden curls gleamed. Unwilling to disturb her, I turned to go.
“Yelena?” she called.
I stepped back into view.
“My goodness, girl, just come in. You’re always welcome.” Dilana put her sewing down, and patted the chair next to her. When I joined her in the sunlight, she exclaimed, “You’re as thin as my finest thread. Sit. Sit. Let me get you something to eat.”
My protests didn’t stop her from bringing me a large slice of buttered bread.
“My Rand sends me a steaming loaf of honey bread every morning.” Her light brown eyes glowed with affection.
I knew she would stand over me until I took a bite. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I suppressed my desire to taste the bread for poisons. Only when my mouth was full was she satisfied.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
Between bites, I asked about nightclothes.
“My goodness! How could I have forgotten? You poor dear.” She bustled around the room, assembling quite a collection.
“Dilana,” I said to stop her. “I only need a few things.”
“Why didn’t you come sooner? Margg should have said something to me.” Dilana was genuinely upset.
“Margg,” I began, then quit. I wasn’t sure how Dilana felt about her.
“Margg’s a mean old grump, a spiteful hag and an overgrown bully,” Dilana declared.
I blinked at her in surprise.
“She instantly dislikes anyone new, and she’s basically a plague on the rest of us.”
“But she was nice to you.”
“She hounded me for weeks after I first arrived. Then I snuck into her wardrobe and tightened all her skirts. It took her two weeks of physical discomfort to figure out what was happening.” Dilana swooped down next to me, smiling. “Margg can’t sew a stitch, so she had to tuck in her pride and ask for my help. Since then she’s treated me with respect.”
Dilana grabbed my hand in hers. “Unfortunately, you’re her new target. But don’t let her get to you. If Margg’s nasty, be nasty right back. When she sees you’re not easy prey, she’ll lose interest.”
I had trouble believing that this lovely woman was capable of such underhandedness, but her smile held a glimmer of mischief.
She draped a pile of nightclothes over my arms, and added an array of brightly colored ribbons.
“For the festival, my dear,” she said, answering my quizzical look. “To augment your beautiful dark hair.”
“Have you found a fugitive for the exercise?” the Commander asked Valek as soon as Valek arrived in his office for lunch.
I was tasting the Commander’s food when Valek once again destroyed my tentative sense of well-being. Granted, I had been working as the official food taster for the last ten days, but my stomach had finally stopped its painful contractions whenever I was near the Commander.
“Yes. I know the perfect person for the job.” Valek settled into the chair facing the Commander.
“What!” Having given up all pretense of minding my own business, my exclamation echoed the Commander’s.
“Explain,” the Commander ordered.
Valek smiled at his reaction as though he knew all along what the Commander would say. “My people are trained to avoid capture. Assigning one of them wouldn’t be fair to the search party.