“Do you think he’ll like it?” Sheen of sweat on his face. Not just due to the heat of the kitchen. No sinecure being head chef. His predecessor’s head sat on a spike on the inner gate.
I picked up a small cake. Light brown. Faint smell of spice. Bit through the sponge crust and chewed. Freshly baked. Nothing different to what I’ve tasted many times before. A perfectly normal cake. No poison in it.
He trembled. At any other time it might have been funny. Big man, all in white nearly fainting at my words. But not today.
“Too bland. The General likes things more powerful.”
“More spices. Yes. Yes. We’ll triple it.”
“More like quadruple it. These need to scream money is no object.” Fingered the crumbling cake in my hand. Focus on the objective, Maria. “The cases are too ordinary. Need to look special.”
“But there’s a shortage of paper. There’s a war on.”
You don’t need to remind me. “Paint their family shields on the General’s, his bride-to-be and her father’s. Use plain for everyone else.”
“Yes. Yes.” He nodded in time. “Andrew, paints. Now.” The little kitchen boy shot off, his hobnailed feet banged on the flagstones.
“And they need to be iced. Sugary.”
“Agreed.” Chef ran a cloth over his forehead. “Get to work all of you, now.” His team of white clad underlings sprang into action.
“I’ll stay and check the batter. Be quicker that way.”
Chef nodded. “Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mixed spice. Hurry.”
Hot kitchen. Sweaty bodies. Furious activity. Sounds of mixing. Soon it will be time.
Walked to the window. View of the prison yard. Eight armed guards. Grey uniforms. Smart. The General doesn’t tolerate sloppiness. Four emaciated begrimed men slowly, very slowly, dug pits. No energy. No hope. To have to do that so close to the kitchen. The smells. Thin grey gruel and water doesn’t emerge from here. That’s prepared, if that’s the word, in the main camp. Not the General’s quarters.
Luck or ill-fortune? Previous food taster keeled over dead. Cyanide. The General chose me. They trained me thoroughly.
Infamous. That cyanide attempt. One of his own did that. No prisoner. And none of my people could have infiltrated. He’s evil. A rapist. I rubbed my chest. Takes pleasure in pain. And about to be rewarded. Father-in-law-to-be’s got him appointed General of the Southern Army. Impressive promotion. He’ll be leading the front against Valencidina.
Turned back to look at the kitchen scene. Creamy brown batter filled glass bowls. Walked over, my black uniform stood out against the white. Bent down and sniffed. Pungent spices. Picked up a spoon. Dug it in and sampled.
Five anxious faces. Chef and some underlings.
“Adequate for everyone else. But for him?” I shook my head. “Put enough for those three in one bowl. No need to give the others more.”
Chef gave a wobbly smile. Fresh bowl. Three large dollops of thick batter.
“I’ll help. Use my sense of smell.” I picked up the bowl and spoon. Stirred in a little more nutmeg and dolloped out two neat blobs into the cases adorned with reared red lions. “The General’s needs a bit more sugar.” I carried the bowl back to the wooden side table.
The rest were focused on their work. Slipped my hand into my pocket and brought out a little paper twist. Opened it over the bowl and scattered in white powder, hand shaking slightly. Stuffed the paper back into my pocket. Glanced back, heart racing. No one saw. No one. Vigorously churned until the white dust was completely mixed in. “Ready.” Spooned it carefully into the General’s case. Distinctively marked. White horse on green. Hands steady. Don’t give yourself away.
Tray upon tray pushed into the fiery oven.
Traditional three tier stands. White swirled icing. Refined. Three distinctive cases.
Usual chair three paces behind the General’s. He sat almost bursting out of his dress black uniform. Gold buttons gleaming. Bald pate shining. Light eyes glittered as he raised his glass in a toast. White sparkling wine. No poison. Not in the juicy roast beef with thick brown gravy either.
His brunette fiancée simpered at a compliment. Fashionably dressed. Considerably younger. Well, he was extremely wealthy.
The cakes were brought forward. Three plates. Three distinctive shields. I stood and took the General’s. Cut a small slice. Held it in my fingers. Sticky butter icing. Sniffed. Pungent. Gingery. Took a small bite. Moist. The spice masked it perfectly. Sickly sweet icing. Swallowed the remainder. Handed the plate back to the General with a nod.
He picked up his cake. Ran his finger through the icing and licked. He paused. My heart stuttered. Then three bites. Gone.
“My compliments to the Chef. Exactly as I like it.”
My heart slowed down. Done. He won’t show symptoms for hours. By the time they realised it would be too late to make him sick, to try to get it out. Wouldn’t work anyway. Lethal. No antidote. He’ll never be General of the Southern Army. Never lead the front against Valencidina. Instead, dead by morning.
Attic room. Away from the noise of the ballroom. Not my room. Hidden away. They wouldn’t find me until it’s too late. No symptoms as yet. Fingered the smooth capsule. Won’t ever feel them.
The ground’s illuminated outside. To prevent a break out. Tall towers. Guarded walls. Well there’s more than one way of escaping.
I’ll go quicker, much quicker, than him. Won’t be pleasant. But fast. Better than his death.
Two mistakes, General Anson. Never show an enemy, even a defeated enemy, where your poison cupboard is. Wasn’t difficult for me to pick the lock. And never have a prisoner of war as your food taster. Valencidina. My country.
I put the pill in my mouth and crunched down hard.
Claire Morgan loves reading and owns far too many books to count. Claire enjoys writing speculative and fantasy stories. Claire has attended the University of Oxford Summer School for Adults (OUSSA) Creative Writing Course.