Poisons - I know them all.
I heed physicians’ accounts of the painful, drawn-out deaths of murdered noblemen.
I listen to the kitchen-gossip: talk of intrigue and betrayal; of princes poisoning their fathers; of witches with powerful potions that bring on a trance, from which none return.
I dress as a poor peasant when the fairs come to town and steal, unnoticed, between the stalls where the herbalists sell their wares. I listen as they give instructions to childless women or ailing old men: half a pinch of mandrake for infertility; garlic to ward off the lurking plague. I listen even more closely when a woman glances nervously over her shoulder and lowers her voice or when a man with shifty eyes draws out a large bag of coins. For these are the ones who have come to buy more than mere garlic.
I am Roderick, King Stephen’s food-taster and I listen because my life depends on it.
Tonight is the second banquet in celebration of the King’s birthday. Ever watchful, I position myself behind the main table while the servants push benches and tables together and bring in the goblets. From the Main Hall I hear the soft strains of the flute and harp, as the musicians entertain the guests.
Soon the Banquet Hall’s doors are flung open. I watch warily as the people enter. Many are the King’s friends, whose positions depend on Stephen’s kingship. Yet, there are others who claim allegiance, but would benefit from his death. My eyes find them in the crowd: Lord Anville; Duke Beurhart; the King’s own brother, Prince Richard. Do they exchange a fleeting glance? Does a word pass between them?
King Stephen has other powerful foes. These men are not here tonight, but a host of discontented servants are. Any one of them would take a bribe to add the fatal drops or sprinkle the lethal powder.
As the King arrives, the guests rise and applaud dutifully. I glance at his small frame and pale, sullen features. Only the purple, fur-trimmed robe and thick gold medallion around his neck, give him any semblance of royal bearing. My eyes rove over the crowd again and come to rest on Prince Richard. He is a tall man with a deep voice and hearty laugh, a fearless soldier. Unlike Stephen, he is popular with the people. He looks like a king. Not for the first time, I curse the gods for their choice of first-born.
As the King’s goblet is filled, I feel the usual prickle of anxiety. The top of my lip is beaded with perspiration. The King, speaking to a guest, does not immediately call for my service so I use the time, as always, to take inventory of the poisons that could lace this wine.
Belladona, also called Devil’s cherries, causes confusion and fever, a loss of voice and jerking of the hands and fingers, before death. Its berries, full of dark juice, taste sweet.
“Taste.” The King speaks without even glancing my way. I doubt the man I may die for tonight, even knows my name.
Platters of food are brought to the tables. The people drink and feast as I recall my deadly list.
Wolfsbane’s roots and seeds will bring on uncontrollable spasms.
Excess mandrake will make you thirsty and fevered before stealing your breath.
Hemlock causes dullness, stumbling and falling before the paralysis that kills. It smells of bitter almonds.
At the end of the long night, I am still standing. Still breathing. My hands, as usual, tremble at my fearful flirtation with death, but no greater spasms than that have taken control of my body. The relief is great - I am alive. For today.
I startle as a figure, face shadowed by a hooded cape, steps into the dimly-lit passage.
“You fear the poison,” he whispers, “I see it in your eyes.” He pushes a small leather pouch into my hand. “Think - if, after tasting, your hand is the one to slip it in, you will be free. In my court you will never need to taste for poison again.”
A few steps down the passage, he turns back to me. “Roderick, if you won’t, know that somebody else will.” His tone is solemn. “And you will die in vain.”
Through my discordant thoughts, strangely, only one truth surfaces: - Prince Richard knows my name.
Shakily, I open the pouch. The smell of bitter almonds wafts through the air.
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