Poison Study

Page 23

“No. The added commotion will increase the level of difficulty for our pursuers.”

“Well, Yelena, that gives you only a few days to prepare. Fair enough, since some prisoners plan an escape route, while others see an opportunity and bolt. Are you interested in the challenge?” Valek asked.

“Yes.” The word sprang from my gut before the rational “no” in my mind could escape. “On the condition that Brazell not be informed of my participation.”

“Isn’t having a room in my personal suite an indication that I’m properly concerned with your well-being?” Valek’s voice huffed. I realized that I had insulted him.

When I had offended Rand, I quickly tried to make amends. With Valek, I tried to think of another comment to annoy him further, but I couldn’t produce one that quick.

“Speaking of Brazell,” the Commander interrupted. “He gave me a gift. A new dessert that his chef invented. He thought I might like it.”

Commander Ambrose showed us a wooden box full of thick, brown squares stacked on top of each other like tiles. They were smooth and shiny, but the edges looked as if they had been cut with a dull knife, ragged and shedding brown flakes.

Valek picked up a piece and sniffed it. “I hope you didn’t try any.”

“It’s too blatant, even for Brazell, to be poisoned. But, no. I didn’t.”

Valek handed the container to me. “Yelena, take some pieces out at random and taste them.”

I sorted through the squares and selected four. They were each about the size of my thumbnail and all four fit on the palm of my hand. If I hadn’t been told they were a dessert, I probably would have guessed they were pieces of brown candle wax. My fingernail left an impression on the top, and my fingertips felt slightly greasy after handling them.

I hesitated. These were from Brazell, and I didn’t remember his cook being especially inventive. I shrugged off my trepidation. I had no choice.

Thinking wax, I anticipated tasting wax. I bit into the hard cube expecting it to crumble between my teeth. It must have been the expression on my face that caused the Commander to rise, because I didn’t say a word. The sensations in my mouth had me enraptured.

Instead of crumbling, the dessert melted, coating my tongue with a cascade of flavor. Sweet, bitter, nutty and fruity tastes followed one another. Just when I thought I could say it was one, I would taste them all again. This was unlike anything I had ever encountered. Before I knew it, all four cubes were gone. I longed for more.

“Unbelievable! What is it?”

Valek and the Commander exchanged puzzled looks.

The Commander said, “Brazell called it Criollo. Why? Is there poison in it?”

“No. No poisons. It’s just…” The proper words to describe it failed me. “Try it,” was all I could manage.

I watched the Commander’s face as he bit into one of the squares. His eyes widened and his eyebrows arched in surprise. His tongue dashed along his lips and teeth as he tried to suck all the remaining flavor from them. He grabbed another piece.

“It’s sweet. Different. But I don’t taste anything unbelievable about it,” Valek said, wiping the brown flakes from his hands.

It was my turn to exchange looks with the Commander. Unlike Valek, he had an appetite for fine cuisine. He recognized excellence when he tasted it.

“I’ll bet that little rat won’t last an hour,” Margg’s muffled voice said through the kitchen door. I had been about to enter when I had heard her.

“I’ll give fifty to one to anyone stupid enough to think the rat’ll last the day. And one hundred to one to the sucker who thinks she won’t be caught.” After Margg called the odds, the room erupted with sounds of betting.

I listened with growing horror. Margg couldn’t be talking about me. Why would Valek tell Margg about the exercise? It’d be all over the castle by tomorrow. Brazell would find out.

“I’ll bet a month’s wages that Yelena stays free all day,” Rand’s voice boomed out. The rest of the kitchen staff grew quiet.

My emotions seesawed from betrayal to pride. They were betting on me, and I couldn’t believe Rand had bet a month’s wages. He had more confidence in me than I did in myself. I tended to agree with Margg on this one.

Margg’s laughter echoed on the tiled walls. “You’ve been in the kitchen too long, Rand. The heat’s cooked your brain to mush. I think you’re starting to like the little rat. Better lock up your knives when she’s here or she may…”

“All right, that’s enough,” Rand said. “Dinner’s over. Everyone out of my kitchen.”

I moved down the hallway and out of sight. Since I had promised Rand I would taste his cake, I looped back to the kitchen after everyone had gone. Rand was sitting at one of the tables chopping nuts. There was a slice of his raspberry-and-cream cake on the table.

He pushed the plate to me. I tasted it.

“Much better. The cake is incredibly moist. What’s different?” I asked.

“I added pudding to the batter.”

Rand was unusually quiet. He didn’t mention the betting. I wasn’t going to ask.

He finished chopping the nuts. After cleaning up, he said, “I better get some sleep. We’re going to the festival tomorrow night. Are you coming?”

“Who’s going?” I stalled. I hated to miss out on the first night of the festival. Hated to let Brazell ruin the only fun I’d have. Although, if Margg was going as well, I’d stay with my original decision.