CHAPTER 1: Tea & Slugs
ON FOOL’S Day 1746, in the very small kingdom of Sudland (so small it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry and good luck finding it on a map), King Gregoire the Poisoner, whose two brothers, one nephew, five cousins, one uncle and all four wives perished under mysterious circumstances, lay sick in bed. Meanwhile, his three grandchildren received an invitation to tea.
The youngest, Prince Argus, grabbed the invitation out of his sister’s hands. “The witch wants to see us?”
Princess Wilhelmine gave him a look and grabbed it back. “We will, of course, decline spinster Princess Maud’s invitation.”
“But I want to go and it’s my birthday.”
“That was last week, Gus.”
“Exactly, and nobody celebrated.” Gus crossed his arms and would have stomped his feet as well, but he thought eleven-year-olds did not do such things.
His sister sighed. “I explained that to you Gus. A large celebration would have been unseemly given Grandpapa’s illness.”
“All the more reason to go. It’s so tedious—how long are we supposed to wait around behaving properly? Let’s go and see what the old lady has to say.”
Wilhelmine shook her head. “You know very well Grand-papa has forbidden us from seeing her. He says she’s dangerous.”
“You do know, Willa,” said the eldest Prince Rudolf, lifting his head from his sketchbook (in which he was drawing Roman columns). “You’re taking the word of a man who is known throughout Europe as a power-hungry despot who poisons people for spite.”
“I refuse to listen to rumours, and you shouldn’t either Rudy,” Willa said. “She’s the one who’s dangerous and we’re not going.”
“You’re such a worrier, Willa!” Gus piped in. “You never do anything interesting.”
“I have duties, Gus. I manage the household. I have work to do,” she said. “Besides we’ll get in trouble.”
“Oh there you go again, worry, worry, worry. That’s what I’m going to call you from now on, ‘Willa the Worrier Princess.’”
“Better than Gus the Fuss!” Willa shot back at him.
Gus felt his face turn red when he heard that old nick-name. He flung himself into a chair, kicking and knocking a handful of books from a side table. “What’s the use of being a prince, if you always have to do what everyone else says? Might as well be a servant! I’m going.”
“I’ll go with you, Gus. I want to take a closer look at the medieval stone work in that wing of the palace anyway,” said Rudy, and then added when Willa frowned. “It’s the polite thing to do. She’s our great aunt and our only living relative other than Grandfather.”
Ah, that’ll get her, thought Gus.
Willa took her time agreeing, but finally said in that bossy tone Gus hated: “All right, but we shan’t stay too long. And under no circumstances should we drink the tea or eat the biscuits.”
By mid afternoon, the siblings had found their way into the oldest, most neglected part of the palace and were standing at the door of Princess Maud’s rooms. They were greeted by a servant girl, short and skinny with hair like yellow frizz poking out of her mop cap. She eyed the three of them with a frankness Gus noticed, and ushered them in. She led them to a circular sitting room where their great aunt sat at a little table by a blazing hearth.
“Good afternoon,” Rudy murmured, and then bowed, nudging Gus to do the same. Willa curtsied.
“Leave us, Anna.” Maud waved the servant out. “Come here children. Let me look at you.”
Rudy and Willa stepped forward, but Gus didn’t budge. He just stared. Usually, he saw his great aunt maybe three or four times a year, on state occasions with many other people around, and very little opportunity to talk to her. This was different. This was up close and in the witch’s lair. She was an old wrinkled thing. She wore a faded brown gown and her grey hair in a messy bun. Her knobby hands were stained with ink and some sort of yellowish substance. A dark wooden cane was propped against her chair. Gus looked around the room. Except for the bright fire, it was dim. Heavy curtains at the window blocked the daylight. There was a writing desk and shelves full of books, jugs, jars and bottles. A large basket strapped shut stood in one corner. Metal instruments with gauges and tubes littered the side tables.
“Sit here, Rudolf,” Maud ordered, pointing to a frayed armchair on the other side of the table. Rudy did as he was told. “And you my dear, beside your brother,” she said to Willa, indicating a dainty wooden chair. Willa took her seat. “And you,” Maud said, eyeing Gus. “What are we to do with you? Fetch that stool and bring it up beside your sister. Go on, boy! Do what I say.” Gus snapped out of his staring and did as he was bid. It was only a footstool and so when he sat down he was very low to the table. “You’re not very tall,” she said to him—unfairly, thought Gus. He could feel his temper bubbling and was about to say something to her—witch or no witch—when she dismissed his plight with a curt: “Well, it can’t be helped. Never mind. Rudolf, there is something you need to know, that you all need to know.”
Surprised, for he had been studying the stonework around the fireplace and not paying attention at all, Rudy stammered, “I…would be happy to hear it, Ma’am.”
“You used to call me Auntie. Do you remember?”
Rudy smiled. “I do. What do you wish to tell us, Auntie?”
“My brother, King Gregoire, will die tomorrow.”
No one spoke. Gus looked at his great aunt, his anger towards her now replaced by wonder. How did she know that? Was she really a witch? Could she see into the future? He looked at Willa. She had her polite princess face on. He looked at Rudy, who was trying hard not to show his distress.
Gus jutted out his chin. “Is this a jest for Fool’s Day?” he said in a loud voice.
Maud shook her head. “Oh, I never jest. Of course, you will now ask me how I know this.” A green porcelain tea service was laid on the table. Maud positioned the strainer on the rim of a cup and took up the pot to pour. “Don’t worry. There is no sorcery involved. Your grandfather has been dying for close to a decade. A chronic overabundance of black bile, I believe, made worse of course by the terrible accident that took your parents.” She moved the strainer from cup to cup and poured. “Do you like your tea sweet, Wilhelmine?”
“No, thank you. We cannot stay for tea,” she replied.
Maud smiled at her adamant tone. “Not stay for tea? Of course, you can. And you Rudolf? As I recall, you liked a bit of sweet.”
“Yes, please, Auntie.”
Maud put down the pot. With little silver tongs, she reached into a bowl and pulled out a fat plum-coloured slug. Gus watched the thing wriggle. “You look skeptical, Rudolf. If you don’t believe me, you could consult Dr. Amply. One squirt or two?”
Maud dangled the slug upside down above one of the cups. With the tongs, she gently pinched both sides of the slug just behind its head. Milky slime squirted from its porous skin and landed amid the tea in the cup. She gave the slug another pinch.
Gus watched intently. He had never been allowed slug squirt before.
“I talk to Dr. Amply all the time and the other doctors called in to consult,” Rudy said. “They confirm that grand-father is dying, but even they cannot tell when it will happen.”
Maud turned to Gus.
“Three squirts please Auntie,” he said right away.
She peered at him. “One, I think.” She gave his cup a tiny squirt, and then squirted her own cup two times. She dropped the slug back into the bowl.
“How is it, Ma’am, that you can know so precisely when Grandpapa will die?” Willa asked.
Maud wiped her fingers on her linen napkin. “I visited the king yesterday. I gave him some of my slug jelly. He was able to swallow a couple of spoonfuls. I believe he enjoyed it.” She stirred her tea. Gus looked at Rudy, who was stirring his tea too and so Gus also took up one of the silver spoons and did the same. Willa sat staring at her cup.
“The king was a putrid shade of yellow,” said Maud. “It is most startling. You can trust me when I say it will happen tomorrow. Children, why aren’t you drinking your tea?”
Rudy cleared his throat. “Where is your food taster, Auntie?”
“Oh, I cannot be bothered with such creatures.”
There was a pause.
Maud looked at them. “Children, I assure you, despite your grandfather’s reputation, there hasn’t been a verified poisoning at the palace for years.”
There was another pause.
The old lady sighed. “I could ring for a taster.”
There was a third pause.
“No, no, thank you,” said Rudy, yet he still did not drink. Willa hesitated as well, but Gus, eager to find out what squirt tasted like, shrugged, swung back his cup and gulped.
“Gus, stop!” said Willa. But it was too late. The scalding liquid raced down Gus’s throat and he began to sputter. Finally, he got some words out.
“UGH! How does anybody drink squirt! It’s horrible! Too sweet!”
Maud cackled. “It’s an acquired taste, Argus. Devilled egg?” She picked up a platter. “Or perhaps a pickled toad-stool?” He took an egg and she took a mushroom. Willa declined any sort of food, while Rudy nibbled on a biscuit.
Finally Maud said, “What will you do when you are King, Rudolf?”
“Anything he wants, of course, because he’ll be King!” Gus piped in before his brother could answer.
Aunt Maud skewered Gus with her eyes, before turning to Rudy. “Do you believe that Rudolf? That kings can do what they want?”
Rudy cleared his throat. “I hadn’t really thought —”
“Of course you’ve thought. I’m sure you’ve thought of nothing else since Gregoire took to his bed. Well? What will you do?”
Rudy stammered. “I . . . I want to rebuild the palace and the city. Make it as grand as old Rome.”
“To what end? To put on pantomimes in the evenings? Play cards with pretty fellows who make sure you win every hand?”
“No, no,” Rudy said, shaking his head.
“That is unfair, Ma’am,” said Willa. “You cannot expect Rudy to know everything he ought to do right away.”
“But he must know, Wilhelmine. And he must have the courage and strength to carry out his wishes if he is to be king, and not their puppet.”
“Whose puppet?” asked Rudy.
“Your ministers. Your advisors. They will push you every which way, if you do not know your own mind,” Maud said.
“I’ll be nobody’s puppet,” said Rudy. “I’ve got great plans Auntie. I want to bring the greatest minds to the palace: artists, architects from Italy, thinkers, philosophers from Paris and Amsterdam.”
“And if your lords oppose you? How will you keep them in line? Poison everyone who disagrees with you?”
Gus slammed down his cup. “Rudy would never do that! I know he likes Italian art and all that dull rubbish, but that doesn’t mean he’s a coward.”
His older brother sat rigid. “It’s all right, Gus. Don’t —”
But Maud had not finished. “What happens if there is . . . another accident? How will you defend yourself and your family? You will be king, Rudolf, and a king has many enemies. How will you keep the peace with the neighbouring kingdoms? What will you do if Westdowns attacks across our border again?”
“He’ll fight them, of course,” Gus answered, his temper bubbling. “Face to face like men should in honourable battle. And I’ll be there too.”
Maud turned to Gus and laughed. “Honourable battle? Argus, you are far too short for honourable battle!”
Gus jerked off his stool. The plates and cups rattled in his wake. “I AM TALL ENOUGH!”
“Ma’am, please, stop this!” said Willa.
“But children, you must be prepared. You must keep each other safe. I can help you.”
All three were standing now. “Thank you so much for the tea, Ma’am,” said Rudy, pulling his brother away. “But we will be fine and we do not believe your predictions. We’re leaving now.”
Maud looked as if she was going to argue, but instead she sighed. “Well, ’tis no matter, my dears,” she called after them as they left. “You’ll believe me when the King dies tomorrow.”
The next day, King Gregoire the Poisoner died.