Therefore, we need a person not skilled in the art of evasion, but who is intelligent enough to bring some challenge to the exercise.”
Valek stood to continue his lecture. “The fugitive needs an incentive for a good chase, yet must return to the castle. I can’t use a real prisoner. None of the servants have any imagination. I briefly considered the medic, but she’s needed here in case of emergencies. I was about to assign one of your soldiers when I thought of Yelena.”
Valek gestured toward me. “She’s smart.” He counted with his fingers to emphasize his words. “She’ll have an incentive to perform well, and an incentive to return.”
“Incentives?” A frown creased the Commander’s face.
“The food taster receives no wages. But for this extra job, and others like it in the future, she can be paid. The longer she evades capture, the higher the payment. As for the incentive to return, that should be obvious.”
It was to me. The daily antidote to Butterfly’s Dust kept me alive. If I didn’t return to the castle by the next morning, they would be searching for a corpse.
“And if I refuse?” I asked Valek.
“I’ll recruit one of the soldiers. But I’ll be disappointed. I thought you would appreciate the challenge.”
“Maybe I don’t…”
“Enough.” The Commander’s voice was curt. “It’s preposterous, Valek.”
“That’s the whole point. A soldier would make predictable moves. She’s an unknown.”
“ You might outguess our fugitive, but the people I’ve assigned to the exercise aren’t that quick. I’m hoping to find someone who can be trained as your assistant. I understand what you’re waiting for, but I don’t believe it’ll happen anytime soon. We need someone now.” The Commander sighed. It was the most emotion I’d witnessed from him. “Valek, why do you constantly undermine my orders to instruct an assistant?”
“Because so far I have disagreed with your choices. When the suitable candidate appears, then all efforts to train him will be fully endorsed.”
The Commander glanced at the tray in my hands. Taking the food, he ordered me to fetch some hot tea. A thinly disguised ruse to be rid of me while they argued. I was more than happy to oblige.
On my way to the kitchen, I mulled over the possibility of playing fugitive for Valek. My first reaction had been negative; I didn’t need any more problems. But as I contemplated the challenge of eluding searchers, combined with the chance to earn some money, the exercise started to look like an excellent opportunity. By the time I reached the kitchen, I hoped Valek would win. Especially since I would be outside the castle for a day, and any skills I learned from being a fugitive might prove useful in the future.
“Something wrong with lunch?” Rand asked, hurrying toward me, concern pulling the corners of his mouth tight.
“No. Just need some hot tea.”
Relief softened his face. I wondered why he was so worried that lunch had been unsatisfactory. An image of a younger Rand rebelling against the Commander by ruining food as a form of sabotage entered my mind. I dismissed the thought. Rand wouldn’t serve inferior food; his ego centered on his edible creations. There must be something else between him and the Commander. Uncertain that our new relationship would survive asking personal, perhaps sensitive, questions, I held my tongue.
I’d known Rand for almost two weeks now, but I still hadn’t figured him out. His moods ran the gamut and changed without notice. Rand liked to talk. He dominated most conversations and asked only a few personal questions. I doubted he really heard my answers before he rambled on again.
“While you’re here,” Rand said, pulling a white cake from one of the cooling racks that hung on the wall like shelves, “can you try this? Let me know what you think.”
He cut me a slice. Iced with whipped cream, the layers of vanilla cake were separated by a mixture of raspberries and cream.
I tried to mask that my first bite tasted for poison. “Good combination of flavors,” I said.
“It’s not perfect, but I can’t pinpoint the problem.”
“The cream is a little too sweet,” I said, taking another bite. “And the cake is slightly dry.”
“I’ll try again. Will you come back tonight?”
“I need an expert opinion. It’s my entry for the fire festival’s baking contest. Are you going?”
“I’m not sure.” When I had mentioned the festival the other night, Valek hadn’t said that I couldn’t go.
“A bunch of us from the kitchen are going. You can come with us if you want.”
“Thanks. I’ll let you know.”
On my way back to the Commander’s office, an unpleasant thought wove its way into my mind. I had been staying close to Valek because Brazell was still in the castle and wasn’t slated to leave until after the festival. If I played fugitive, what would happen if Brazell found out? What if I accidentally encountered him at the festival?
Coming to the conclusion that I was safer within the castle walls until Brazell left, I decided to decline both Valek’s and Rand’s offers. But by the time I delivered the tea to the Commander, Valek had already won his argument. He quoted cash incentives to me before I could say a word.
The sum for remaining “free” for an entire day was a large amount.
“The exercise is scheduled to take place during the fire festival. A busy time for the soldiers. Should we postpone it until after?” Valek asked the Commander.