Best served cold - A Hemlock short story
The night mist was just beginning to creep into the arteries of the city when Lord Gundar Alonzo reached the front doorstep of his manor. It had been a busy, irritating day, composed of firing erring employees at his clothing shops and investigating discrepancies with his accountant. ‘Damnable storekeeps,” he muttered as he fumbled with his keys. “Always skimming off the top. I should throw out the lot of them.”
The burly buffalo opened up the front door and was immediately struck by the pervading silence. No scurrying footsteps from his servants, no clanking armor of saluting guards, no aroma of whiteleaf tea being brewed to welcome him.
“Merion!” he shouted for his butler. “Must I serve myself in my own home?!”
No answer. If they were all napping, he would flay their backs till they bleed to death. He stalked to the dining room, grabbed the doorknobs, and threw open the double doors.
The room was submerged in darkness, save for two candles on the dining table where a dinner for two had been arranged. A figure sitting on the opposite end raised its head. In the flickering candlelight, Alonzo couldn’t be sure what he was looking at—round dark eyes like black moons, a crow-like beak, and bags hanging down near the cheeks. Then he realized what it was: a gas mask.
“Good evening, Lord Alonzo,” said the muffled voice of the stranger. “Do sit down.”
Alonzo made to backpedal out the door, but the intruder raised a hand crossbow and pointed directly at the buffalo’s heart. “Sit.”
Alonzo forced his meaty legs to carry him forward to the chair opposite his uninvited guest. “I don’t know who you are,” he intoned, “but you are threatening a very dangerous man. If you leave now, I will consider the matter over and not inform the Watch.”
Alonzo heard a dry hacking sound, and realized the stranger was laughing beneath his mask. At that moment, he realized just how alone he was in that dark room. “Where are my guards? What have you done with my servants?”
The stranger waved a hand. “No need to worry about them. They won’t be bothering us tonight.”
Alonzo’s palm itched. “Damn it, just tell me who you are and what you want!”
“Would you even recognize me?” The stranger pulled off the gas mask and Alonzo’s breath stilled in his chest.
He stared into the slanted grey eyes of the rat before him, at the half-corroded face, the nose as pink as a fresh scar, and the dagger-sharp grin that lay beneath. “Ortus Venin.”
“Ah, you remember my name at least. Was a time when you and your friends would just call me and my brother ‘vermin.’”
“I assure you,” Alonzo said as he showed both his palms. “I have never wished you and your brother any ill. What I said before, I was just trying to drum up business for my stores. You know how it is here in the capital.”
“Indeed, I know how it is,” said the rat. “There is a fetid pile of garbage in the world called Vanguard City. And you sit atop it like a king. Of anyone You had much to gain by having me out of the way.”
“My brother died two months ago, on a night much like this. I can still see the way his face contorted as his head plunged into that poisoned bowl of soup. I see it every night before I sleep. I died that night as well. Do you know how it feels to lose everything you hold dear—your family, your name, your fortune—in one fell blow?”
“Please, Venin…if it’s money you need….”
“I came here to play a game.”
Alonzo goggled at him. “A—”
“Game. Over dinner. Here and now.”
“And if I don’t play?”
Venin raised the hand crossbow. “Then I have a poisoned bolt for your heart—a slow, painful death.”
“Alright, alright.” The buffalo wiped the sweat from his broad forehead. His right palm itched terribly. “What do you want me to do?”
“I knew you were reasonable.” Venin motioned to the table before them, where twelve different sumptuous dishes on golden plates lay spread across the cloth. “As you see, I have prepared for the evening. There are twelve dishes before you. Nine of them are poisoned.”
“You and I will take turns sampling from them. In order to win the game, you only need to sample three different plates. Do so and you may walk out that door whence you came.”
“And you give your word you will not harm me in any way?”
“Finish the game and you will be as free as air, this I guarantee.”
Alonzo stroked his chin. “Anything else I should know?”
“The rules. I will ask you three questions. You must answer them correctly, truthfully. Do so and I will sample from a dish first before you take a turn. Fail, and you will choose a plate first before I do. Do you understand?”
Alonzo said, “And will you allow me to sample from the same plate you do?”
The rat showed his palm. “I am no glutton to finish it all. Of course you may.”
The bull nodded, mentally calculating as he surveyed the spread laid before him. Each sumptuous dish gave off a delectable scent, but his mouth felt dry as a sunbaked bone. Which three were safe?
Logically, all he needed was to answer each question correctly, then choose the dishes Hemlock selected for himself. Then he would be alright.
The nobleman said, “Ask your question, then.”
The rat said, “What Province did my brother and I hail from?”
Alonzo did not answer. He now realized what this game was all about. Venin would try to prove his guilt by getting him to reveal what he knew of the murder!
When the rat saw him hesitate, he leveled his crossbow once more at his heart. Alonzo was forced to blurt out: “Zennegar! You came from Zennegar. I knew that much, based on the rumors.”
Venin put the crossbow back down. “Indeed you did,” he said. “You people hate anyone from outside your little globe of affluence. My brother and I were such convenient targets for your ire.” He then picked a plate to his left, speared a piece of fish with his fork, and popped it into his mouth. Alonzo watched him chew and swallow. The rat’s eyes glinted in the candlelight. “Your turn.”
Again, Alonzo hesitated, watching his adversary for signs of poisoning. But the rat just gazed back at him impassively. After several long moments, Alonzo gingerly picked up his fork with a shaking hand. Under Venin’s watchful eye, Alonzo picked a slice of fish for himself, nearly dropping it as he drew it close to his mouth. He shut his eyes and ate it. It tasted like sand.
The next two minutes were the longest he had ever waited in his life.
“As you can see, I spoke the truth,” said Venin. “Three plates free of poison, and you have found one.” He tossed the plate on the ground and Alonzo winced at the crash. “I will ask my next question.”
He’s insane, thought Alonzo. I’m locked in a room with a madman. No, I must get through this. I must survive. His mind flashed back to all the battles he fought trying to stay afloat as a tradesman, all the bribery and underhanded deals to curry favor with local authorities, everything he did to get to where he was now. He would not be taken down by this foolish rat from some backwater Province full of inbred barbarians. He will survive this.
He nodded to Venin.
“Tell me,” Venin said, “the name of the waiter who served us our fatal meal.”
Alonzo blinked, his mind momentarily blank. “I…I cannot possibly answer something I don’t know!”
Venin motioned to the table. “Pick a plate.”
“No! No, wait. L-let me think. The name of the restaurant you dined at was the Seafront, correct? I go there often. I know the waiters. Wait a moment, wait…” He screwed his eyes shut, sweat pouring down his face. His hand itched again and he scratched at it viciously. Of course he knew all their names—they had all spied for him one time or another. And he knew one in particular…
“Creed,” he finally responded. “Artemius Creed, a ferret.”
Venin inclined his head. “If you were guessing, that’s a very good guess.” He stabbed his fork into a dish to his right and chomped down on a part of a cabbage. He washed it down with a gulp of wine. “Artemius Creed now floats in the sewer of the city, never to be seen by his family again. Your turn.”
Alonzo watched him carefully, but with no sign of any problem, he took a piece of cabbage for himself. The food tasted of paper despite the sweet sauce. As Venin threw the plate onto the ground, Alonzo imagined himself running down the street from his manor, shouting for the City Watch.
“Final question, then. You are ready, I presume?”
“Very well. What is the name of the poison slipped into our food?”
Alonzo’s jaw dropped. This one he knew the answer to, intimately. But he could not make his mouth say the word.
Venin raised his crossbow, aiming for his heart. “Your answer please, Lord Alonzo.”
And Alonzo replied, “Hemlock.”
For a long moment, Venin said nothing. He merely gazed at Alonzo with eyes like black pits sinking into the earth.
He said, “I knew that very night when I felt the poison freeze my legs, then my arms, then very nearly my heart. Half-dead, I dragged myself home and took an antidote. But I could not save my brother.”
He chose a slice cake of cake and ate from it. Alonzo waited several moments more to see if poison would take hold, but seeing no effect, he grabbed the plate and shoved the cake into his mouth.
Venin regarded him silently, then said, “You have answered my questions truthfully. And now I know for certain—it was you behind it all along.”
Alonzo stared back stonily. “You have what you wanted, all under duress. I trust you will keep your word.”
“As I said, you are free as air.”
“And what will you do?”
Venin reached for the bottle of wine. “I will have myself a drink. I don’t much care what you do.”
Alonzo stood up so fast his chair toppled over. He backed away to the door. “Then I suppose I should thank you for sparing my life.”
“Sparing your life? I did no such thing, my lord. I killed you ten minutes ago.”
Alonzo froze at the doorway. “What do you—”
Venin gestured to a space behind Alonzo. “The doorknobs. I applied a coat of sumac poison on them. Takes a several moments to reach your heart, but it is quite thorough. Still, I played fair. I gave you a chance to save yourself. The antidote is another poison—rabican mucus. The same one I put in the other nine dishes you hadn’t tasted.”
Alonzo’s hand burned. He looked at his palm, where a red spherical mark shaped like a doorknob had imprinted itself on his skin. “You…betrayed me…”
“If you have not known the details of the murder, if you had answered the questions incorrectly, you would have taken the antidote and saved yourself.
“But you wanted most of all to live, even if you had to implicate yourself. After all, it was only the truth you were telling. It’s not like it could kill you.”
Alonzo staggered forward. His vision had blurred; all he could see was Venin’s face in the candlelight. Never mind him. All he needed was to reach the food on the ground. If he could only take a bite, he could survived this. He must survive this!
“Hemlock,” said Venin. “I believe I will make that my name from now on, as a reminder of what the world is capable of. I thank you, Lord Alonzo. You have taught me much. I leave you to your reward.”
Alonzo crashed to the ground in a twitching heap. It felt like his hand was on fire, but his legs were turning to ice. Still he crawled, trying to get to the dishes on the floor.
Finishing his glass of wine, Hemlock said, “Farewell, Lord Alonzo.”
And the last thing Alonzo saw was the rat snuffing out the candles, plunging the room in complete darkness. -Written by Mark Aragona