The table is long and laden with ornate silver platters of food. There are oysters nestled in beds of gleaming ice, warm loaves of fragrant herb bread, and plates of dainty bacon-wrapped dates. Tall, thin candles flicker between the dishes. A towering croquembouche looms in the center of the table, threads of golden caramel gleaming in the candlelight.
No one is eating.
The guests seated around the table, all dressed in heavy, richly colored velvets, watch the man at the head. He stands on his chair, hands on his hips, chin tipped up. He strikes a regal figure, with his billowing burgundy shirt and gleaming gold belt buckle. “I have gathered you here today,” he says to the four men and women seated at his feet, “because I trust you.” He smirks, “and because I would like to make a proposal to you all.” He hops down from the chair and begins to pace at the front of the room. The curious eyes of the guests track him. “Of course, this proposal is an important one, and if any of you decline it,” he stops, meeting the gaze of each of the guests, “I’m afraid I will have to kill you.”
They shift in their seats. The woman seated to the right of the head laughs, “Alexander, you can’t be serious.”
Alexander shakes his head, “Oh no, Penelope, I am quite serious. But you need not worry.” He smiles at her, something tender in his eyes, “I am sure you will accept. You see,” he says, addressing the group again, “I want to kill Matthias. And I need your help.”
There is silence.
Alexander chuckles. “Oh, don’t act so surprised. I know it has been on all of our minds. He is a thorn in each of our sides.” He winks at the man on Penelope’s other side, who wears a yellow jacket, a spot of brightness in the dark room. The man grins.
Alexander is unperturbed by the quiet. “Don’t forget,” he says, “it is do this, or die. And he will be killed whether you participate or not. Do you really want to do that to yourself?”
The man in the yellow jacket folds his arms behind his head. “I’m in.”
Tossing a ringlet curl over her bare shoulder, Penelope is next. “Me too.”
Alexander looks pleased. “Henry, Penelope, thank you.” He twists the gold signet ring on his middle finger as he turns to the other side of the table, less of a nervous habit and more of a threat. He raises an eyebrow.
The woman raises one back, “What do you need?”
“Loyal as ever, Jane. Now, Rudolf.”
Rudolf is red-haired, red-faced, and twitchy, eyes flicking from Alexander to the table and back again. “I can’t, Alexander.”
“Rudolf,” Alexander gives a deep sigh, turning his face down and staring at him through his eyelashes, “are you sure?” Rudolf nods, swallowing. “Oh well,” says Alexander, shrugging one silk-covered shoulder, “Every man to his own, I suppose. Although, I will have to kill you now.” He glances over his shoulder, “Guards?”
Rudolf jumps, eyes going wide and terrified, and Alexander laughs, “I’m only kidding.” He pauses for an elegant moment as Rudolf settles back into his seat, breathing hard. As though to confide a secret, Alexander leans forward and whispers, “I would never kill you with ladies present.”
Rudolf gapes, then splutters, “You’ve just roped them into an assassination scheme—to kill the king’s son, no less—but you won’t kill someone in front of them?”
“The king’s illegitimate son,” Alexander corrects, “and they won’t see his death. They’ll just help me orchestrate it.”
Rudolf is speechless. He puts his head on his plate. Alexander stares at him for a moment, pursing his lips, then turns to the rest of the guests. “Well, now that I have your loyalty, I’m going to tell you the plan. We will gather in my study, all of us and Matthias, and a servant will send around a bowl of candies. These candies will all be coated in a layer of deadly, slow-acting poison, but we will all take one.” Seeing the wide eyes of his guests, Alexander chuckles, “You look like you think I’m trying to kill you, too. Don’t worry, we’ll all have taken the antidote beforehand.”
Penelope chews her fingernail, “I don’t understand, why-”
“What don’t you understand, my dear?” Alexander cuts her off, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“If you’ve got this all planned out as it seems that you do, why do you need our help?” She continues to gnaw on her nail as she speaks.
“Yes,” says Henry, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees, “I was wondering the same thing.”
Alexander covers his mouth with one hand as he smiles, the other still resting on Penelope’s shoulder. “I need you in case this gets traced back to me.” When Jane opens her mouth to speak, he shakes his head, “Which it won’t. But in case it does, I need to be able to say things like ‘but four other people ate those same candies, and nothing happened to them!’ to the authorities.”
The guests nod. “How long after Matthias eats the candies until he dies?” Henry asks.
As he answers, Alexander begins to pace again, grinning, “Eager as ever, Henry,” he mocks. Then, lowering his tone, he adds, “Around three days. This poison is very rare. Extremely deadly but close to untraceable. I had to have it imported.”
A butler, dressed in stiff black and white, slips in the door behind Alexander and steps up to him. He stands on his tiptoes to whisper in Alexander’s ear. As he speaks, a smile spreads across Alexander’s face, one that speaks of anticipation and cruelty. “Wonderful, thank you. Make him wait five minutes, then send him in.” The butler gives a curt nod and slips away again.
Alexander claps his hands together, smiling at his guests, “I have just received wonderful news.”
The guests wait, leaning forward in their seats.
“Matthias has just arrived at the door,” he announces. “It is time to enact the plan.”
Eyes wide and lips parted in surprise, Penelope asks, “Right now?”
“Yes, of course, right now.” He chuckles, stepping forward to squeeze the back of her neck, “You thought I was going to wait any longer than I already have to kill him?” He glances over his shoulder, “Where is Myrtle? Why isn’t Myrtle here yet?”
“Who’s Myrtle?” Henry rests his cheek on his hand as though bored, but his eyes are bright with excitement.
“Myrtle is an herbologist. She’s an expert on poisons and antidotes.”
A small, dusty-brown haired woman in a grey dress steps into the room carrying a pewter tray with five small vials on it. “This is what you needed,” she addresses Alexander, “yes?” Despite her small stature and forgettable features, she carries herself in a way that commands attention, straight-backed and unsmiling.
“Yes, thank you.” Lips curled in a smile, Alexander takes the tray from her and sets it down on the edge of the table. She, like the butler, nods and slips away.
Alexander picks up one of the vials. “Rudolf?” He glances up at the man as he holds the vial beside the flickering flame of the nearest candle, letting the light play in the golden liquid. “Last chance to save yourself.”
Rudolf looks slightly green, avoiding Alexander’s eyes, “I can’t have his blood on my hands. I’m sorry.”
“Alright,” Alexander sighs, “I guess we won’t be needing this anymore.” With a flick of his elbow and wrist, he hurls the vial against the floor, where it shatters, creating a small puddle of golden liquid and glass shards. The small cork rests in the middle. Rudolf flinches, though Alexander ignores him.
“Now, everyone,” Alexander grabs another vial and pulls out the cork, “drink up, and head to the study.” He downs the antidote like a shot. Jane, Penelope, and Henry each grab a vial and drink theirs too. Rudolf has his head in his hands.
Eyes bright, smiling wide, Alexander claps his hands as he ushers his guests into the next room. “Places, everyone,” he stage whispers, earning a laugh from Jane and a clap on the back from Henry, “the show is about to begin.”
As he follows his guests out, he turns back to Rudolf. “I’ll miss you. You were a good friend.” He pauses as Rudolf looks up, then turns away. “And if I hear that you so much as tried to escape,” he says over his shoulder, “I’ll cut up your sisters into bite sized pieces and use them to train my dogs.” The door clicks as he locks it behind him.