When I regained my composure, I noticed Valek now stood beside his desk pouring two drinks. An opened wooden cabinet revealed rows of odd-shaped bottles and multicolored jars stacked inside. Valek placed the bottle he was holding into the cabinet and locked the door.
“While we’re waiting for Margg, I thought maybe you could use a drink.” He handed me a tall pewter goblet filled with an amber liquid. Raising his own goblet, he made a toast. “To Yelena, our newest food taster. May you last longer than your predecessor.”
My goblet stopped short of my lips.
“Relax,” he said, “it’s a standard toast.”
I took a long swig. The smooth liquid burned slightly as it slid down my throat. For a moment, I thought my stomach was going to rebel. This was the first time I had taken something other than water. Then it settled.
Before I could question him as to what exactly had happened to the previous food taster, Valek asked me to identify the ingredients of the drink. Taking a smaller portion, I replied, “Peaches sweetened with honey.”
“Good. Now take another sip. This time roll the liquid around your tongue before swallowing.”
I complied and was surprised to taste a faint citrus flavor. “Orange?”
“That’s right. Now gargle it.”
“Gargle?” I asked. He nodded. Feeling foolish, I gargled the rest of my drink and almost spat it out. “Rotten oranges!”
The skin around Valek’s eyes crinkled as he laughed. He had a strong, angular face, as if someone had stamped it from a sheet of metal, but it softened when he smiled. Handing me his drink, he asked me to repeat the experiment.
With some trepidation, I took a sip, again detecting the faint orange taste. Bracing myself for the rancid flavor, I gargled Valek’s drink and was relieved that gargling only enhanced the orange essence.
“Better?” Valek asked as he took back the empty cup.
Valek sat down behind his desk, opening my folder once more. Picking up his quill, he talked to me while writing. “You just had your first lesson in food tasting. Your drink was laced with a poison called Butterfly’s Dust. Mine wasn’t. The only way to detect Butterfly’s Dust in a liquid is to gargle it. That rotten-orange flavor you tasted was the poison.”
I rose, my head spinning. “Is it lethal?”
“A big enough dose will kill you in two days. The symptoms don’t arrive until the second day, but by then it’s too late.”
“Did I have a lethal dose?” I held my breath.
“Of course. Anything less and you wouldn’t have tasted the poison.”
My stomach rebelled and I started to gag. I forced down the bile in my throat, trying hard to avoid the indignity of vomiting all over Valek’s desk.
Valek looked up from the stack of papers. He studied my face. “I warned you the training would be dangerous. But I would hardly give you a poison your body had to fight while you suffered from malnutrition. There is an antidote to Butterfly’s Dust.” He showed me a small vial containing a white liquid.
Collapsing back into my chair, I sighed. Valek’s metal face had returned; I realized he hadn’t offered the antidote to me.
“In answer to the question you didn’t ask but should have, this—” Valek raised the small vial and shook it “—is how we keep the Commander’s food taster from escaping.”
I stared at him, trying to understand the implication.
“Yelena, you confessed to murder. We would be fools to let you serve the Commander without some guarantees. Guards watch the Commander at all times and it is doubtful you would be able to reach him with a weapon. For other forms of retaliation, we use Butterfly’s Dust.” Valek picked up the vial of antidote, and twirled it in the sunlight. “You need a daily dose of this to stay alive. The antidote keeps the poison from killing you. As long as you show up each morning in my office, I will give you the antidote.
Miss one morning and you’ll be dead by the next. Commit a crime or an act of treason and you’ll be sent back to the dungeon until the poison takes you. I would avoid that fate, if I were you. The poison causes severe stomach cramps and uncontrollable vomiting.”
Before full comprehension of my situation could sink in, Valek’s eyes slid past my shoulder. I turned to see a stout woman in a housekeeper’s uniform opening the door. Valek introduced her as Margg, the person who would take care of my basic needs. Expecting me to follow her, Margg strode out the door.
I glanced at the vial on Valek’s desk.
“Come to my office tomorrow morning. Margg will direct you.”
An obvious dismissal, but I paused at the door with all the questions I should have asked poised on my lips. I swallowed them. They sank like stones to my stomach, then I closed the door and hurried after Margg, who hadn’t stopped to wait.
Margg never slowed her pace. I found myself panting with the effort to keep up. Trying to remember the various corridors and turns, I soon gave up as my whole world shrank to the sight of Margg’s broad back and efficient stride. Her long black skirt seemed to float above the floor. The housekeeper uniform included a black shirt and white apron that hung from the neck down to the ankle and was cinched tight around the waist. The apron had two vertical rows of small red diamond-shapes connected end to end. When Margg finally stopped at the baths, I had to sit on the floor to clear my spinning head.
“You stink,” Margg said, disgust creasing her wide face. She pointed to the far side of the baths in a manner that indicated she was used to being obeyed. “Wash twice, then soak. I’ll bring you some uniforms.” She left the room.