Valek gave my hand a small squeeze, and then released his grip. “Good. They’re probably the best instructors at the castle. How did you meet them?”
“They were the men who found me in the forest. The Commander promoted them, and I took advantage of their gratitude.” My hand tingled where he had touched it.
“Opportunistic and underhanded, I love it.” Valek laughed. He was in a good mood as he walked beside me to the castle. Probably a rush from beating so many opponents. Before we reached the east entrance, he stopped. “There’s one problem.”
My heartbeat increased to double time. “What?”
“You shouldn’t train so visibly. Word spreads quickly. If Brazell finds out and makes a fuss, the Commander will order you to stop. And it’ll make the Commander suspicious.”
We entered the cool, dark air of the castle. It was a relief to be out of the hot sun.
“Why don’t you make use of all those empty storerooms in the lower level of the castle? You can still run laps in the morning for exercise,” Valek said.
Great, I thought sarcastically, jogging was the one aspect of training I would have been willing to give up. However, Valek was right, working with Ari and Janco in the middle of the yard had already attracted negative attention. Mainly Nix, whose scowls and nasty glares burned on my skin.
Valek was quiet as we traveled through the castle. I was headed to the Commander’s office to taste his dinner. He walked with me.
“Mentioning Brazell reminds me that I’ve been wanting to ask you about that Criollo that the Commander enjoys. Do you like the taste of it?”
I chose my words with care. “Yes, it’s an excellent dessert.”
“If you stopped eating it, how would you feel?”
“Well…” I hesitated, unsure where this conversation was leading. “Truthfully, I would be disappointed. I look forward to eating a piece every morning.”
“Have you ever craved the Criollo?” Valek inquired.
I finally understood where his pointed questions were leading. “Like an addiction?”
“I don’t think so, but…”
“I only eat it once a day. The Commander has a piece after every meal, including his evening snack. Why this sudden concern?” I asked.
“Just a feeling. It might be nothing.” Valek was silent during the rest of the trip.
“Well, Valek, any new promotions?” the Commander asked as we entered his office.
“No. But Maren shows promise. Unfortunately she doesn’t want to be in my corps or even be my second. She just wants to beat me.” Valek grinned, delighted by the challenge.
“And can she?” the Commander inquired. His eyebrows rose.
“With time and the proper training. She’s deadly with her bow; it’s just her tactics that need work.”
“Then what do we do with her?”
“Promote her to General and retire some of those old wind-bags. We could use some fresh blood in the upper ranks.”
“Valek, you never had a good grasp of military structure.”
“Then promote her to First Lieutenant today, Captain tomorrow, Major the next day, Colonel the day after, and General the day after that.”
“I’ll take it under advisement.” The Commander flashed me an annoyed glance. I was dawdling, and he had noticed.
“Anything else?” he asked Valek.
I finished tasting, placed the Commander’s tray on the desk, and headed for the door.
Valek grabbed my arm. “I’d like to try an experiment. I want Yelena to taste the Criollo every time you do for a week, then the next week I’ll taste it for you. I want to see if anything happens to her when she stops eating the dessert.”
“No.” The Commander raised a hand when Valek started to argue. “I recognize your concern, but I think it’s misplaced.”
“We can try your experiment once Rand duplicates the recipe from General Brazell. Acceptable?”
“Good. I want you to join me in a meeting with General Kitvivan. We’re just starting the cooling season, and he’s already worried about snow cats.” The Commander’s eyes found me. “Yelena, you’re dismissed.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said.
After stopping at the baths to wash, I visited the kitchen to borrow a large sieve and bowl, which I carried to the library. The remaining four pods had turned brown and were starting to rot, so I opened them, scraped out the browning pulp and seeds into the colander, and placed it into the bowl. Its bottom and sides were suspended above the inside of the bowl by the metal handles. The strong odor from the seeds permeated the room. I set the bowl on the windowsill, and opened the window to air out the smell. My experiment wasn’t based on any scientific research; I just wanted to see if the pulp would ferment. Maybe Brazell was using it to make some kind of alcoholic beverage.
My careful reading of the various botany books hadn’t revealed anything useful so far. The poison books, while interesting, had made no mention of Butterfly’s Dust. In four different volumes on poisons, I had discovered missing pages. Poking up from the binding were ragged edges where the paper had been ripped out. Valek had probably removed all pertinent information long ago in anticipation of the food tasters’ keen interest in Butterfly’s Dust.