Poison Study Page 8

Exhausted, I stretched out on the bed. It felt lumpy. I turned in my blankets, hoping to find a comfortable position. What if Brazell’s soldiers came back? Asleep in bed, I would be an easy target. I had cleaned myself up so there was no need to drag me to the baths. The room smelled like disinfectant, and I had forgotten to put the chair under the doorknob.

Imagination kicked in, a vivid scene of me manacled to the bed, helpless while the soldiers stripped me slowly to heighten their anticipation and savor my fear.

The walls of my room seemed to thicken and pulse. I bolted out into the hallway, expecting to see Brazell’s soldiers lurking around my door. The corridor was dark and deserted.

When I tried to reenter my room, I felt as if someone pressed a pillow against my face. I couldn’t get my feet to move past the doorway. My room was a trap. The paranoia effect of My Love or common sense? I wondered. Indecision kept me standing in the hallway until my stomach growled. Guided by my hunger, I searched for food.

Hoping to find the kitchen empty, I was dismayed to see a tall man wearing a white uniform with two black diamonds printed on the front of his shirt mumbling to himself as he lurched around the ovens. His left leg didn’t bend. I tried to sneak back out but he spotted me.

“Are you looking for me?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I was…looking for something to eat.” I craned my neck back to see his face.

He frowned and shifted his weight to his good leg as he studied my uniform. Too thin for a cook, I thought, but he wore the proper clothes and only a cook would be up this early. He was handsome in a subtle way, with light brown eyes and short brown hair. I wondered if this was Dilana’s Rand that Margg had talked about.

“Help yourself.” He gestured toward two steaming loaves of bread. “You just won me a week’s wages.”

“Excuse me,” I said while cutting off a large piece of bread. “How could I win you money?”

“You’re the new food taster. Right?”

I nodded.

“Everyone knows Valek gave you a dose of My Love. I took a chance and bet a week’s wages that you would live.” He stopped to take three more loaves out of the oven. “A big risk, since you’re the smallest and skinniest food taster we’ve ever had. Most everyone else had wagered that you wouldn’t pull through, including Margg.”

The cook rummaged through one of the cabinets. “Here.” He handed me some butter. “I’ll make you some sweet cakes.” Grabbing various ingredients from a shelf, he proceeded to mix up a batter.

“How many food tasters have there been?” I asked him between bites of buttered bread. Working alone didn’t seem to suit him. He seemed glad to have some company.

With his hands in constant motion, he said, “Five since Commander Ambrose has been in power. Valek loves his poisons. He poisoned many of the Commander’s enemies, and he likes to keep in practice. You know, testing the food tasters from time to time to make sure they haven’t grown lazy.”

The cook’s words crawled up my spine. I felt as if my body had liquefied and pooled into a giant mixing bowl. I was just a puddle of ingredients to be beaten, stirred and used. When the cook poured the batter onto the hot griddle, my blood sizzled along with the sweet cakes.

“Poor Oscove, Valek never liked him. Testing him constantly until he couldn’t handle the pressure. The ‘official’ cause of death was suicide, but I think Valek killed him.”

Flip. I stared as the cook deftly flicked his wrist, turning the cakes over. My muscles trembled in synch with the sound of frying sweet cakes.

Here I was worried about Brazell, when one misstep with Valek and…Flip. I would be gone. He probably held a couple of poisons in reserve just in case he decided to replace the taster. Glancing over my shoulder, I imagined Valek coming into the kitchen to poison my breakfast. I couldn’t even enjoy talking with a chatty cook without being reminded that tasting potentially poisoned food wasn’t the only danger of my new job.

The cook handed me a plate loaded with sweet cakes, took three more loaves of bread out of the oven and refilled his bread pans with dough. Piping-hot sweet cakes were such a rare treat that I devoured them despite my unsettled stomach.

“Oscove was my friend. He was the Commander’s best food taster. He used to come to my kitchen every morning after breakfast and help me invent new recipes. I have to keep things interesting or the Commander will start looking for a new cook. Know what I mean?”

I nodded, wiping butter off my chin.

He thrust out his hand. “My name’s Rand .” I shook his hand. “Yelena.”

I stopped at an open window on my way to Valek’s office. The rising sun was just cresting the Soul Mountains to the east of the castle. The colors in the sky resembled a ruined painting, as if a small child had spilled water on the canvas. I let my eyes feast on the vibrant display of life as I inhaled the fresh air. Everything was in full bloom, and soon the cool morning breeze would warm to a comfortable level. The hot season was in its infancy. The days of sweltering heat and limp, humid nights were still a few weeks away. I had been training with Valek for a fortnight, and I wondered how long My Love had held me unconscious.

Tearing myself away from the window, I walked toward Valek’s office, arriving at his door just as he was leaving.

“Yelena! You made it.” Valek smiled. “It’s been three days. I was beginning to worry.”

I studied his face. He seemed sincerely glad to see me.

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