The Sweet Yet Bitter

The hessian sack over Parro’s head was clean, not dust ridden and mildew stained as she had expected. Then again, the soldiers guiding her and the rest of the group of potential royal poisoners were of the King’s personal guard.

Under her soft faux leather boots, she felt the firm evenness of flagstones. It was a welcome change from the three miles of cobblestones they’d just walked, and also a sign that they were finally nearing the castle. Perhaps they were already in the courtyard.

She felt herself being marched through a maze of sharp turning corridors, hearing the guards bark at any servant who wasn’t quick enough to scurry from the path. Eventually the party came to a stop. Then the clink of heavy chains, the grinding of a door that was not often used being opened, a sharp push forwards so that everyone stumbled against each other, and the same door being closed behind them.

The sacks were removed from everyone’s heads as the chains were being strung back across the door, and Parro got her first look at the King’s private audience chamber. The room was windowless, the light coming entirely from bright torches held in iron sconces on the walls. The floor was tiled with grey granite, and was devoid of decoration other than the royal banner at the far end, underneath which the King was sitting in a silver filigreed throne. His manservant stood next to him, still to the point that one might have mistaken him for a statue.

The King’s gaze was fixed on the poisoners, but none looked him in the eye except Parro. She examined him closely; his expression was flat and disciplined, but his eyes stared back at her with a keen intelligence. She quickly dropped her head; it would not do to give herself away just yet.

The captain of the guard made the poisoners stand in line, facing the interior of the room, where a table adorned with various apparatus was being set up for the demonstrations that Parro presumed would shortly take place. She caught sight of another group of people gathered in a dark corner. She focused her vision, and saw that they were shackled together. Prisoners. At least that answered the question of just how the demonstrations were to be carried out.

‘I presume they have all been checked, Captain?’ the King said when the preparations had been completed.

‘Of course, sire. I personally checked each candidate, only one of them had any marks pertaining to either spy or assassin guilds, and I dealt with him as soon as I found it,’ the captain replied, tapping the hilt of his sword meaningfully.

The King raised a bushy eyebrow. ‘Oh, from which guild?’

‘The Oens, sire.’

The King grunted. ‘The Oens? I’m surprised one of theirs made it as a candidate at all. It seems our selection protocol has become rather lax of late.’

The captain stiffened. ‘I shall see to it that proper disciplinary action is taken, sire.’

‘Good. Now, I think we should proceed, don’t you?’

The captain bowed, and turned to address the poisoners. ‘I shall call your names one at a time to present your skills. You may request as many prisoners to use for your demonstrations as you wish, but do not bore us with flowery words. Be direct, be swift, and be thorough. Once your presentation is complete, you must take your place back in line and wait while the other candidates present their skills.’ He took a scroll from his belt pouch and unrolled it, reading out the first name on the list. ‘Lector Heeny, please present yourself to His Royal Majesty, King Theroux the Second, Ruler of all Mentrolis.’

A thin, trembling man stepped forwards to the centre of the room, carrying a neat wooden box in his skeletal hands. He set it down on the table and opened it, taking out a myriad of vials and boxes, as well as a bottle of clean water, and began mixing various ingredients together with the apparatus that had been provided.

Parro stifled a yawn. The man’s poisons were basic and the shudder in his hand as he called for his first prisoner betrayed the fact that he had not once stayed to watch his victims die.

The prisoner, a middle-aged woman whose threadbare pantaloons were stained with fresh urine, struggled against the guards as they dragged her towards Lector Heeny. The poisoner gave a stammered speech to the King as to what the poison he had mixed would do, and then asked the guards to hold the woman’s head so he could poor the miniscule measure of green liquid down her throat. The pitiful man could hardly bare to look at her as he instigated her death.

The woman choked and tried to cough it up, but already her muscles had begun to seize. Within a few brief seconds, her entire body became stiff and she fell to the cold floor. Lector Heeny shuddered and turned away, already mixing the next poison for his demonstration.

So it went on. Poisoner after poisoner was called to display their lacklustre skills, while the bodies of their victims were hauled away and covered with a dark sheet. The King neither displayed his displeasure, nor acknowledged the candidates in any way… until Parro was called.

She walked to the table, putting her deep case up on its surface, and with her other arm, swept the apparatus laid out for her onto the floor. ‘Excuse me, your Majesty,’ she said as they shattered.

The King raised one bushed eyebrow. ‘It is unusual for a woman to be in your line of profession,’ he remarked.

‘I assure you that my skills are not lacking. In fact, to be worse than these other candidates would be impressive indeed, you Majesty,’ she said.

The King snorted in amusement. ‘I hope for your sake that your confidence is not unfounded.’

Parro smiled, and snapped open her case. From within, she pulled out two serving trays with domed metal covers, concealing the contents inside, and laid them on the table with a deft flourish of her arm.

‘What is this, woman?’ the captain snapped, rushing forwards. ‘His Majesty has called for poisoners, not a serving wench. How dare you waste his—‘

‘Captain, stand down,’ the King said, holding up his hand. ‘Let her proceed.’

The captain stepped back, his expression incredulous. ‘But sire—‘

‘Captain, if you disobey me, it will be your tongue on which this woman’s poisons will fall. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, sire,’ the captain replied, his face turning grey. He turned to Parro. ‘Proceed, woman.’

‘Why, thank you, Captain,’ she said. She took a bottle from her case, and placed it next to the first serving tray. Then she turned to address the King directly. ‘Your Majesty, there are a vast amount of poisons in this world and, while effective, a great many of these now have known antidotes. Though these antidotes are only available for a substantial sum, they are not out of reach for those of a high societal standing. It has also become expected now that when hosting a feast, someone is sure to be the target of a poisoner’s deft hand, so people are being more cautious than ever. Even the ambassadors of Importa and Tlousin, whom I believe have recently lost your favour, have prepared themselves for such.’

Surprise flickered across the King’s face, but he regained his control instantly. ‘You have kept yourself well informed, woman. However, what is your point on this matter?’

‘My point is simple, your Majesty. There is a growing need for new poisons, and I have concocted one that I believe you’ll find most interesting.’ Parro lifted the domed cover from the first tray as she spoke, revealing a curried dish boasting a hue of deep orange. The fine use of spices in the sauce made the dish so aromatic that it almost chased away the stench of the prisoners. Almost.

‘That is Umbren, is it not? A staple served widely in Tlousin,’ the King remarked.

‘And a favourite of Lord Enru, the ambassador of Tlousin,’ the captain added. ‘He requests we send for ingredients for it all the time.’

‘Indeed,’ Parro said. ‘The first poison I wish to demonstrate only reacts with certain seasonings, which means to say that if administered in any other food or drink, it will be harmless. It also merges with the ingredients so well that it becomes untraceable; even a practiced healer examining the stomach contents of the victim would not find it.’

She clicked her finger to the guards. ‘Two prisoners,’ she said. As the guards brought them to her, she undid the cork on the bottle, adding several drops to the curried dish and then pouring a measure onto a spoon again taken from her case. ‘Observe, your Majesty.’ Forcibly opening the first prisoner’s mouth, she let the poison drip straight onto their tongue from the spoon. Then, washing the spoon in water to remove any saliva, she used it to take a level scoop of the curry, which she then forced into the second prisoner’s mouth. Satisfied, she stepped aside so that the King could see the effects in full.

While the first prisoner made a face of disgust, the second fell to the ground without so much as a cry.

‘As you can see, with this poison, there is no violent frothing, convulsing or bleeding. The man might have died naturally of a brain clot, for all anyone need know.’

‘I see you were not merely boasting after all,’ the King said.

Parro inclined her head, acknowledging the compliment, and turned to the second serving dish, again removing the dome to reveal the contents. On the dish was a glass gravy boat, but instead of holding brown liquid, it was filled with a tart yet honeyed smelling condiment. ‘This is a popular new sauce for meats that has made its way here from the continent. I am sure your chefs are already perfecting the recipe to serve it to you. What they do not know, however, is that this sauce is a poison far more deadly than any you have seen today. The reason why no one realises it, including your chefs, is that by themselves, the ingredients are harmless, just as other spices and herbs. It is only when mixed do they become so potent, and they kill very, very slowly. Not only that, but the taste is believed to be so divine that the consumer quickly becomes addicted.’

The King stood up abruptly. ‘Are you trying to tell me that someone from the continent is bold enough to poison me, woman?’

Parro walked around to the front of the table, facing the King directly. ‘That is exactly what I’m telling you, your Majesty.’

‘What makes you so convinced that my chefs are indeed planning to serve me this… relish?’

Parro’s gaze moved to the King’s manservant, who statue-like demeanour was diminishing by the second. ‘If someone were to sample even a spoonful of this sauce, it would leave certain traces,’ she said, turning back to the King.

‘Which are?’

‘A distinct greening of the cuticles and yellowing of the eyes,’ replied.

The King turned to his manservant, whose hands were shaking as he examined his fingers, seeing that Parro was correct. ‘Will I… will I die?’ the manservant said.

‘Yes, unless you take the antidote. Fortunately, I have it with me, but I need to examine you and the kitchen staff thoroughly to determine the dosage.’

‘Of course, lady, I—‘

‘No,’ the King said. ‘If my staff were foolish enough not to realise what this relish truly is, then their fate is of their own doing. I see no reason to save anyone so careless.’

Parro raised an eyebrow. ‘Careless? What an interesting thing to say, your Majesty.’

The King stared back at her, his eyes cold. ‘Woman, from the moment I first laid eyes on you, I have felt that you have been hiding something. At first I was intrigued, but now you are testing my patience.’

‘Your Majesty, I am but a humble poisoner. My standing is so lowly that in your eyes I am sure it must feel as though I am from a completely different world, however, I have nothing to hide.’

Suddenly, a look of dawning crossed his face. He turned swiftly and pressed a jewel on the arm of his throne, to which a section of the back wall shifted forwards and then to the side with a deep grinding. In its place was a slight opening. ‘Guards, remain here. Woman, follow me,’ he snapped, and disappeared through the gap. Parro followed.

After a short tunnel, they entered into a small square room, sparsely adorned with a simple desk, chair, and a thin bookshelf. As soon as Parro passed the threshold, the King shut the door. ‘Who are you?’

In reply, Parro took a small pot of balm from her belt pouch and, rolling up her long sleeve, spread a thin layer onto the pale skin of her left arm. Instantly, iridescent numbers appeared on the surface.

‘An android,’ the King sniffed. ‘I should have known. From the agency, I presume?’

‘Yes, and so far they’ve tracked you across three different dimensions. You’ve interfered with the development of every race you’ve come into contact with, and now are even posing as King. What did you do with the real one? Erase his memories and copy his form before deserting him in yet another dimension?’

He didn’t answer her. ‘Why are you here, android? I can’t believe the agency would have you go through this charade just to arrest me,’ he said at last.

‘You were about to be poisoned by the joint concoction of three different countries on the continent, and as you’re the foremost expert on dimensional shift technology, the agency thought it unwise to let them proceed, tempting as it was. Proving myself as a candidate was the easiest way to gain your attention, with minimal disruption to this world.’

‘The poisoned sauce was real, then?’

‘Yes, and soon I will have to give the antidote to your manservant and your kitchen staff, as well as revive the prisoners your silly poisoners supposedly killed,’ Parro said curtly.

‘Supposedly? I watched the life leave them!’

‘No, you only thought you did because that’s what you were expecting. Before we were all marched here, I drugged everyone and substituted their ingredients for ones that would give the expected reaction, but not be lethal,’ Parro said. ‘Now, I have to send a message to the agency telling them that the first part of my mission is complete.’

‘There’s more to your orders?’ he asked.

She nodded. ‘I have to make sure that you restore the real king to his throne, as smoothly as possible. Make no mistake, though, your actions won’t go unpunished.’

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