Poison Study Page 15

“Unless the Commander doesn’t like honey in his tea, I wouldn’t reject this breakfast.”

“Then eat it.”

I hesitated. Was Valek trying to trick me? Unless he had used a poison I hadn’t learned, the breakfast was clean. I ate every morsel, and then drained the tea while Valek watched.

“Not bad,” he said. “No poisons…today.”

One of the medics brought another tray to Valek. This tray held four white cups of an olive-colored liquid that smelled like mint. Replacing my breakfast tray with the new one, Valek said, “I want to go over some tasting techniques. Each of these cups contains mint tea. Taste one.”

Clasping the closest mug, I took a sip. An overwhelming flavor of mint pervaded my mouth. I choked.

Valek grinned. “Taste anything else?”

I attempted another mouthful. The mint dominated. “No.”

“All right. Now pinch your nose tight and try again.”

After some fumbling with my bandaged arm, I managed to gulp the tea while holding my nose. My ears popped. I marveled at the taste. “Sweet. No mint.” My voice sounded silly so I released my grip. Immediately, the mint eclipsed the sweetness.

“Correct. Now try the others.”

The next cup of mint tea hid a sour taste, the third had a bitter flavor, and the fourth was salty.

“This technique works for any drink or food. Blocking your sense of smell eliminates all flavors except sweet, sour, bitter and salt. Some poisons are recognizable by one of those four flavors.” Valek paged through his folder. “Here is a complete list of human poisons and their distinct tastes for you to memorize. There are fifty-two known poisons.”

I looked through the inventory of poisons. Some of them I had already smelled. My Love was at the top. The list would have saved me from the dizziness, nausea, headaches and occasional delusional effects of the poison. I brandished the paper in the air. “Why didn’t you just give me this list instead of making me sample My Love?”

Valek stopped paging through his folder. “What would you learn from a list? Kattsgut tastes sweet. What does that taste like? Honey sweet? Apple sweet? There are different levels of sweetness and the only way to learn them is to taste them yourself. The only reason I’m giving you this list is because the Commander wants you working as soon as possible.” Valek snapped his folder shut. “Just because you aren’t going to taste those poisons now doesn’t mean you won’t in the future. Memorize that list. Once the medic releases you from the infirmary, I will test your knowledge. If you pass, then you can start work.”

“And if I fail?”

“Then I’ll be training a new taster.”

His voice was flat, monotone, but the force behind it caused my heart to lock.

Valek continued. “Brazell will be in the castle for another two weeks. He has more business to attend to. I can’t have you guarded all day, so Margg is preparing a room for you in my suite. I’ll come back later to see when you’ll be discharged.”

I watched Valek walk to the door. He glided across the room, balanced and athletic. I shook my head. Thinking about Valek was the absolute worst thing I could be doing. Instead, I focused on the list of poisons clutched in my hand. I smoothed the paper out and hoped my sweat hadn’t smeared the ink. Relieved that the writing was legible, I began to study.

I barely noticed when the medic came to check on my arm. She must have taken the tray of teacups, because it disappeared from my lap. I had blocked out all the noise and commotion of the infirmary so that I jumped when a plate containing a round pastry was thrust under my nose.

The arm that held the plate led to Rand. His grin was gleeful.

“Look what I smuggled past Medic Mommy! Go ahead. Eat it before she comes back.”

The warm dessert smelled like cinnamon. Melted white icing dripped down the sides, causing the cake to stick to my fingers when I picked it up. I examined the pastry closely, inhaling the aroma in search of a foreign smell. One small bite revealed multiple layers of dough and cinnamon.

“My God, Yelena, you don’t think I’d poison it?” Rand’s face was pinched tight, as if he was in pain.

Exactly what I’d been thinking, but admitting it to Rand would offend him. His motives for being here were unclear. Seeming nice and friendly, he could be holding a grudge over his friend Oscove, the previous food taster. But then again, he was a potential ally. Who better to have on my side? Rand, the cook, whose food I’d be eating on a daily basis, or Valek, the assassin, who had a nasty tendency of poisoning my meals?

“Occupational hazard,” I tried.

He grunted, still put out. I took a big bite of the pastry.

“Wonderful,” I said, appealing to his ego to give me another chance.

Rand’s face softened. “Good, isn’t it? My latest recipe. I take a long strip of pastry dough, cover it with cinnamon, roll it up into a ball, bake it, and then spread the icing on while it’s hot. I’m having some trouble with the name though. Cinnamon cake? Ball? Swirl?” Rand stopped his rambling to find a chair. After quite a bit of twisting to compensate for his unbendable left leg, he finally settled into a comfortable position.

While I finished the pastry, Rand continued. “Don’t tell Medic Mommy I gave you that. She doesn’t like her patients eating anything but a thin gruel. She says the gruel promotes healing. Well, of course it has an effect!” He threw his arms up, exposing several burn scars around his wrists. “It tastes so terrible that anyone would get better just to get a decent meal!”

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