Poison Study Page 6

“It’s amazing what a difference a bath and a uniform can make,” Valek said, absently chewing on a slice of bacon. “I’ll have to remember that. It might be useful in the future.” Placing two plates of an egg-and-ham mixture before me, he said, “Let’s get started.”

Feeling dizzy and flushed, I blurted out, “I’d rather start with the antidote.” Another long pause from Valek caused me to fidget in my seat.

“You shouldn’t be feeling any symptoms. They won’t arrive until later this afternoon.” He shrugged and went to his cabinet. He used a pipette to extract a measure of the white liquid from a large bottle, and then locked the antidote back inside the cabinet. My interest in the location of the key must have been obvious because Valek used some type of sleight of hand to make the key disappear. Handing me the pipette, he sat down on the opposite side of the table.

“Drink up so we can start today’s lessons,” he said.

I squeezed the contents into my mouth, cringing at the bitter taste. Valek took the pipette from my hands and exchanged it for a blue jar. “Take a sniff.”

The jar contained a white powder, resembling sugar but smelling like rosewood. Gesturing to the two plates cooling in front of me, Valek asked me to pick the one sprinkled with the poison. I sniffed at the food like a scent hound nosing for prey. A faint odor of rosewood emanated from the left plate.

“Good. Should you pick up that aroma from any of the Commander’s food, reject it. The poison is called Tigtus and a single grain of the powder will kill within the hour.” Valek removed the tainted food. “Eat your breakfast.” He indicated the other plate. “You’ll need your strength.”

I spent the remainder of the day smelling poisons until my head ached and spun. The multitude of names and aromas began to confuse me, so I asked Valek for some paper, quill and ink. He stilled.

“I don’t know why you continue to surprise me. I should have remembered that General Brazell educates his orphans.” Valek flung a book of papers, a quill and ink down in front of me. “Take them back to your room. We’ve done enough for today.”

I silently cursed myself for reminding Valek why I had been the next person to be executed as I gathered the book and writing implements. Valek’s hard, unforgiving expression revealed his thoughts. Taken off the streets, fed and educated by Brazell, I had repaid Brazell’s kindness by murdering his only child. I knew Valek would never believe the truth about Brazell and Reyad.

General Brazell’s orphanage was a topic of ridicule from the other Generals. They thought he had gone “soft” after the takeover of Ixia fifteen years ago. This impression suited Brazell. Seen as a kindly old benefactor, Brazell could continue unchallenged in his administration of Military District 5.

I hesitated at the entrance of Valek’s office, noticing for the first time the three complex locks on the thick wooden door. Absently fingering the locking mechanisms, I lingered in the doorway until Valek asked, “Now what?”

“I’m not sure where my room is.”

Valek spoke as if talking to a slow-witted child. “Ask the first housekeeper or kitchen maid you find, they’re always scurrying about this time of day. Tell her you’re in the west servant wing, ground floor. She’ll show you.”

The kitchen maid I snared into helping me was more talkative than Margg and I took full advantage of her good nature. She guided me to the laundry room to obtain some linens for my bed. Then I had her show me the way to the baths and the seamstress’s work area. Dilana’s piles of uniforms might come in handy someday.

In my room, I opened the shutters to let in the fading light from the setting sun. Sitting down at my desk, I wrote exhaustive notes on what I had learned that day, including a rough map of the servants’ corridors. I considered more exploration of the castle, but Valek had been right, I needed my strength. I hoped I would have time to explore later.

During the next two weeks, the training proceeded in a manner so similar to the first day that I lapsed into a routine, arriving at Valek’s every morning to train. After fourteen days of sniffing poisons, I found that my sense of smell had heightened. But then Valek announced I was strong enough to begin tasting poisons.

“I’ll start with the deadliest one,” he said. “If you don’t die from it, the other poisons wouldn’t kill you either. I don’t want to waste all my time training you only to see you die in the end.” He placed a slender red bottle on his desk. “It’s nasty. Affects the body immediately.” Valek’s eyes lit up as he admired the poison. “It’s called Have a Drink, My Love, or My Love for short because the poison has a history of being used by disheartened wives.” He squeezed two drops of the poison into a steaming cup. “A larger dose would definitely kill you. With a smaller dose, there is a chance you’ll survive, but you’ll become delusional, paranoid and completely disoriented for the next few days.”

“Valek, why do I have to taste My Love if it has immediate results? Isn’t that what a food taster is for? I taste the Commander’s food. I keel over, dead. End of the tale.” I tried pacing around the room but kept tripping over stacks of books. Frustrated, I kicked two piles into their neighbors, scattering books into a messy heap on the floor. Valek’s gaze pierced me, draining the odd feeling of satisfaction I had gotten from kicking the books.

“A food taster’s job is much more complex than that,” Valek explained, pulling his hair back from his face. “Being able to identify which poison taints the Commander’s food can lead me to the poisoner.” Valek handed me the cup. “Even if you only have a split second to shout out My Love before passing out, it would narrow down the list of suspects. There are a number of assassins who are partial to My Love. The poison is grown in Sitia, the southern lands. It was easy to obtain before the takeover. With the closure of the southern border, only a handful of people have enough money to purchase it illegally.”

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