No one for a second serving

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

This years harvest festival will be one for the Blackstone history books.

Arkam entered the grand hall, alive with music and the hum of conversation. Candle light barely reached the vaulted stone ceiling that loomed overhead. Tapestries of long past battles and records of his family’s history covered the stone walls. Tables arranged in long rows filled the room. His entire family was in attendance, gathered together from all their holdings. Even his little sister had arrived, to his disappointment. He had not seen her since her marriage. Otherwise all was as he had planned. 

Their duty as the head family was to host the annual harvest feast to celebrate a successful year’s harvest and pay the associated costs. The Emperor’s leeches had arrived, representatives and tax collectors here for their cut. He wasn’t sorry they had come this year. All the notable figures from their holdings and the surrounding region had arrived. Arkam thought little of them, a bunch of thin-blooded scum more red than blue. Even the serfs feasted this night, outside the castle grounds at least. A waste, they had common taste but his father would not listen to sense.

Arkam’s family sat at the head of the room, their table on a raised platform at the hall’s end. So many members that they spilled out and took up the close ends of lower tables too. They were the Blackstones. Their heraldry, a red rose on midnight black. An old family, their roots stretched back into the forgotten past and so wide spread almost any lordling in the region could trace back to one branch or another. The Blackstones had bowed and sworn fealty when the empire came. Unlike the other kingdoms, who in their wisdom had resisted. For their reward, they had kept their lands and their heads. As ever, the Blackstones lived on.

Arkam had never been fond of feasts. He pretended well, but the idle chatter and the self-important nobles bored him. How he hated dancing. A feast was always closed with a dance. He moved to his seat before someone could snag him in banal conversation.

“Still sneaking food from the kitchen?” A deep, familiar voice said. “I thought you would’ve grown out of that by now, boy.”

Arkam held in a sigh, prepared a smile and turned to face uncle Jarund. A large round man with a long thick beard that covered his double chin and a jovial temperament. Jarund had been a good soldier in his youth and had served his father well, but Jarund was a fool. He was also the next in line to rule the Blackstone house, and with Arkam’s father’s condition, that time would be soon. The Blackstone succession worked on seniority, which ensured a constant line of doddering old fools only a few feet out of their deathbeds. There was a long line of elder uncles, cousins and second cousins in Arkam’s way and not a capable man among them.

“I was ensuring the servants were not slacking, Uncle,” Arkam said. The lie came easily.

“Ha, I’m sure you were, boy. Mayhap I will check on them as well,” Jarund winked and laughed as he pushed past into the kitchens.

If Jarund were to lead the Blackstones would recede further than their position had under father. Their lands had fallen into disrepair, outlaws were common, and the serfs grew bolder with every passing year.

Arkam made his way to his seat at the table. The table sat all the higher members of his family, with his father and mother at the centre. Arkam’s seat was next to his sister and close to the end of the table. His placement, a subtle reminder of his position within the family. She smiled at him as he approached. He returned a smile, genuine in it’s warmth and sat next to her.

His father stood slowly, audibly wheezing from the effort. He put on a brave face and attempted to appear regal but his father’s sickness was plain to all. His mottled skin hidden under a thick layer of paint fooled no one. It was an open secret that he was dying. His father waited for silence.

“Welcome one and all to the harvest feast.” He cut off in a fit of racking coughs. He wiped at the spittle with a handkerchief. “It is at this time every year I find myself grateful. To the emperor’s wise rule. To my family who fill my days with love. To the peasants who we look over and their hard works and to the gods who grant us their blessings.” His speech again interrupted with wet coughing. “We have had a good year, and those have been in short supply. So, for this night we shall feast and be merry.”

A cheer erupted from the guests. Servants brought in plates of roast meats and vegetables covered in a thick, brown gravy. The musicians played and chatter again filled the hall. Arkam played with his food, eating slowly. He avoided the gravy as much as possible but he would need to have some. He checked his hip flask. For this to work he must not be first, but also not last. The servants and guards would not eat until after the feast. A side bonus. He would find out how many were stealing food from the kitchen.

“You’ve grown very serious since I saw you last brother,” his sister said. “You didn’t even come to greet me when I arrived.”

“No, it is nothing sister,” he said, “I have not been feeling well is all.”

"You said you would write," she said.

He watched her fill her plate with a pang of regret. Her new home so far on the other side of the empire, he had thought she would not come. An idea came to him. He took a swig from his flask, he acted like he was trying to hide it.

“What do you have there?” She asked, a sly look on her face.

“Some medicine.” He allowed a smirk to creep on his face. Maybe all would be well. He had always liked his sister. They both shared a disdain for their family.

“Give it over,” she said smiling.

He took a long drink and handed it over. She drank from it.

“Ugh, this is foul, what’s in it?” she asked.

“Just herbs, sister, I told you I was sick. Have more, it will do you well.”

“That was a nasty trick,” she said, in mock outrage.

"Trust me. Drink."

She eyed him, confused, then shrugged and drank again.

He watched the crowd of people for a long, stressful while. Nothing happened. Then Uncle Jarund stood from his seat. He held his stomach, his face pained. “May I be excused, my Lord?”

Arkam’s father nodded his ascent and waved him off. Arkam’s heartbeat drummed in his ears. He scanned the crowd of people watching for signs. He saw pale faces in the crowd. A well-dressed merchant vomited. A woman in her finest dress covered in sick ran from the room. Others gagged and retched, and soon the hall smelled of bile. The music stopped. A man cried for a healer. Poison another yelled. Then moans of the dying.

Guards and servants moved about in a panic. Arkam felt it inside him, fear grasped at him. He felt the bile rising in him. His stomach heaved. What if he hadn’t had enough? He gagged and vomited. Acid burned his throat and his stomach ached. There were others around him, but he paid little mind to them. He was going to die. Thick mucus caught in his throat and he heaved again, but there was nothing to heave. He wondered whether the gods would forgive him. He couldn’t breathe.

Arkam woke a time later. He did not remember falling. Someone shook him. His throat was raw and chunks blocked his nostrils. A guard hovered over him, the man’s face ashen. He pushed the man aside and got to his feet to survey the room. All around him people lay still in pools of blood streaked vomit. Only guards and servants moved through the room, they checked the corpses. He looked along the table and saw his family still and silent. His sister lay where she had fallen, her body limp. She was dead. The poison must have got into her before the antidote had time to work. Tears stung his eyes, he hadn't had cause to cry in a long time. Even in death she was the most useful of the Blackstones.

“My lord,” a voice said.

Arkam turned from his sister to the guard.

“I think someone poisoned the food, my lord.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Arkam snapped, “see if anyone has survived it.”

“We have my lord, there is only you.” the guard said. Tears cut lines in his hard face. 

Arkam forced down a smile that battled to form on his lips. He had not dreamed to think it would go so easily. A shame about his sister, but progress came only with sacrifice. Things would be different from now on.

“Guard,” he said, “send word to the Emperor and inform him of the great tragedy that has befallen my family this day. Ask him for his advice in this trying time.”

He studied the hall, his handiwork.

“Have the kitchen servants rounded up. We must find who did this.”

With the right motivation, he could make them confess to anything.

Submitted: October 09, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Alan Novak. All rights reserved.

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