“A toast!” Duke Morgan announced, standing with goblet raised, “To His Royal Highness, Francis, king of Alathaya. Long may you reign!”
Leaning against the wall, I watched as the revelers at the king’s table stood, drank to his health, and sank back into their chairs.
Only Prince Michael, ensconced between the king and the duke, failed to regain his seat. As we watched, the prince swayed, staggered, and collapsed facedown across the table.
Complete silence filled the hall.
Then, as pandemonium broke loose, I turned and fled, knowing I’d be the first one they’d seek.
A soldier nabbed me at the door. “Halt, cupbearer!” he snarled, dragging me forward and flinging me to my knees before the table.
I cowered there, trembling, listening to the shouting people all around me. Finally, Duke Morgan yelled, “Clear the room!” And the guests began to leave.
Glancing up, I saw the wizened old apothecary hovering over the prince, checking his pulse. I held my breath, hoping, but the man shook his head sadly.
Beside him, the stricken king tottered, reaching out for his dead son. “Michael!” he wailed, sobbing, clutching the prince.
Duke Morgan jabbed a finger at me. “Arrest that boy!” he bellowed. “He’s responsible!”
From over my head, a voice replied, “All in good time.”
Startled, I whirled around to find Wulfric, the king’s steward, towering over me, regarding me with calm eyes.
Wulfric nodded at the apothecary, who grabbed the prince’s goblet, sniffed it, tasted the wine, and quickly spat it out.
“Poison,” the apothecary growled. “Not a doubt.”
“You see?” the Duke cried. “I told you. This is the cupbearer’s fault.”
Wulfric’s intense gaze held mine. “So, Thaddeus,” he said, “what do you know of this … disastrous, event?”
“I don’t know anything,” I said, trembling.
“Come, come,” Wulfric frowned, tapping his long white fingers together. “Lying will do you no good. After all, if the cup is poisoned, you should be dead by now. Surely you’ve been performing your … duties?”
“I didn’t murder the prince!” I yelled.
“Of course you didn’t,” Wulfric snapped. “Do you think I’m a fool? I want the truth, Thaddeus.”
“As if we could believe him,” Duke Morgan scoffed.
I swallowed. “You want the truth? Fine! I didn’t murder the prince, and I didn’t taste his wine before I served it.”
Wulfric nodded. “So I thought. May I ask why?”
“I was afraid.”
“Of this. Of poison.”
“Then you knew the prince’s cup was poisoned?”
“No! I mean, I knew it could be, and I’ve gone on tasting it all the same.”
“I couldn’t stand it any more!” I cried, staring at the dead prince. “I haven’t tasted his wine in days. And now it’s too late, too late!” I started to sob.
Just then the door burst open and a tall woman strode in, flanked by two soldiers, and dragging a little girl along by the hand.
“If you please,” the woman said, stomping towards us, “I’m one o’ the cooks in the kitchens yonder, and my little Minnie just come t’ me with some news you should hear.”
Wulfric stooped down till he was eye-level with the girl. “What … news, do you have for us, child?”
Little Minnie pointed at me. “Please, sir, that man didn’t drink from the prince’s cup, but,” and here she swallowed, “I did.”
“You?” the king gasped.
“Impossible!” the Duke bellowed.
Minnie’s lower lip quivered. “I just wanted a sip,” she whispered, “and I put it back before he,” (pointing at me), “took it away to the table.”
“Which means,” the king said slowly, “that the cup was poisoned AFTER it reached the table. And the only person close enough to put the poison in was--”
“The duke,” Wulfric said, nodding to the guards, who surrounded Duke Morgan and yanked him from his chair.
“And I’d do it again!” the duke laughed hysterically, as they dragged him from the room. “Again, and again, and again, and again….” His voice trailed off.
The king groaned. “Our business here is finished. Now I will mourn my son.”
“And the cupbearer?” Wulfric asked. “Shall he be … punished?”
“No,” the king said, after a moment. “Release him. Though we have found him unfaithful, yet for my son’s sake he is pardoned. Let him live in peace.”
I bowed my head, tears filling my eyes.
“It appears,” Wulfric said, as the king left the room, “that you have tasted our master’s mercy.”
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