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The Poisoned King

The kingdom was full of poisoners. The young king had executed a hundred poisoners to celebrate his coronation – feckless younger sons and elegant silk ladies, young herblore widows and filthy wild-eyed droppers into wells. But a hundred more soon took their places.

The king’s doctors were the best in the world. They had means and mastery, and being pledged to die when the king died, they had motive to keep him well. They kept busy stocking the palace with antidotes and performing autopsies on the king’s food tasters.

Yet when the king was poisoned at last, they were helpless. All their specifics and tonics, all their elixirs, panaceas, theriacs – all were worthless. In his bed the dying king sweated and burned and cried out.

The doctors had one hope left, for the king and for themselves. Their hope, a man, had been doctor to the king’s grandfather, had left to study with the master poisoners of the eastern mountains, and had returned to save the king’s grandfather when all other hopes were lost. The old king, grateful, had released the doctor from service. Ever since he had lived in the caves outside the palace, refusing to teach his secrets.

The doctors went to the king together to tell him of this last hope. The king, his voice choked to a bubble and a whistle, only nodded his yes. Strong men hoisted the king’s litter onto their shoulders and followed the doctors to the caves.

There they found the master doctor, at home in a cave where thick dry dead branches were planted in the floor, hung with bundles and bags full of dry or drying plants, a cave where holes in the wall had been hollowed out and filled bottle by bottle with all the colors the earth yields, powders from clay and stone and gem. There the master doctor dwelled; there the king was brought to meet him.

The master heard out all that the king’s doctors had to say. Then he knelt beside the king’s litter and whispered: “My lord, I have no art to heal or cure. What I learned from the master poisoners was only the art by which one incurable poison may drive out another. The reward your grandfather gave me was not for saving his life, but for substituting the death of a month for the death of an hour – for giving him time to pass the kingdom to your father in peace.”

“Do this for me,” the king whispered, “for I have no heir and must choose another.”

Then the master went deep into his cave, plucking dry flowers from dead trees and palming bright earths to mingle in a dry bowl hung from a cold tripod. “There is wood in the next cave,” he told the king’s doctors. “Build a fire outside. Do not speak.” When the fire was ready he placed the tripod and bowl over it, then filled the bowl with rainwater. He stirred the water until it was an even yellow, then built the fire until steam rose from the bowl. He sat still, watching, as the liquid inside thickened and darkened. At some secret sign he rushed to the bowl and dipped a coarse cloth into the liquid. Knife in hand he lay the cloth on the ground and scraped a golden paste from it. He carried the paste to the king on the side of his knife. With a finger he spread the poison of the golden paste over the king’s lips. “Take him back to the palace. Tomorrow he will wake as healthy as before. In one month, he will fall asleep and never wake.”

Awed into silence, the king’s doctors attended him back to the palace and left him in his bed. The whole court assembled for his levee; but when the king woke, he scorned ceremony and ordered scribes to attend him. His doctors he released from their pledge, and sent from his presence.

To his scribes he gave orders. Their orders were to scan all the rolls of honor and to command every man whom the king and the king’s father had recognized for merit to be brought to the court, there to be assayed for the qualities of kingship.

But the kingdom was full of poisoners, and merit draws their attention. Most of the men on the rolls were already dead; and though the command to attend the court reached the rest, not one survived the journey.

For the whole month of his reprieve the king searched every corner of his kingdom; but all the men whom the king found were either wretches or poisoners.

The king’s month ran out, but he did not sleep. For three night he stayed awake, refusing fatal sleep, working and hoping for some chance. None came; so the king, alone, visited the master doctor in his cave.

“I need more time,” the king declared. “If I die now war and poison will claim the kingdom.”

The master said: “I can preserve life to your body, but I cannot preserve you. Men will curse what you become.”

“Let them curse,” said the king.

So the king stood and watched while the master moved and worked. He finished with a green powder piled on his open palm. “Open your mouth,” he told the king. The master raised his palm between their faces and blew the powder down the king’s throat. The king gasped, doubled over, coughed. “You may rest now, my lord. You have another month.”

The king, never gentle, grew cruel. His judgments quick and final. He ordered his governors to seek and send men of quality, fit to be kings, or themselves be executed. Many were sent; but the poisoners along the way were many, and none came before the king alive.

After only a week the king returned to the master doctor’s cave. “You must poison me again.”

“You still have time,” the master said.

“You must poison me again.”

“It will make you mad.”

“I, too, am a doctor,” the king said, “and I have long failed to heal this kingdom. I see the cure now. You must poison me again. Do it or I will have you killed. The order is already written and delivered. If I do not live to countermand it, you will die.”

So the master gathered and labored, and returned with a blue liquid. “Lie down and close your eyes.” The doctor pinched up each of the king’s eyelids and dripped counted drops of blue liquid onto the white backs of the king’s eyes.

When the king returned he ordered his soldiers into the streets of the capital and the roads of the countryside to bring him all the firstborn sons of the kingdom. Among them one would be his heir. There was some resistance; but mostly the kingdom let its sons go in peace, each mother and father hoping for the name of mother and father to the king, and the life of the palace.

Once the sons of the kingdom were all gathered in the palace the king went to the master doctor and said: “Poison me again.”

“I will not,” the master said. “My life is not worth it.”

“Did I say I would have you killed? I meant that I would throw you down a dark little stone hole with no name but that of a mouth to feed.”

So the doctor made a silver pellet of poison and placed it under the king’s tongue.

When the king returned from the cave he ordered that all the firstborn should be moved from the palace to the dungeon, there to grow tough. And once they were imprisoned, he ordered that all who failed the tests of kingship should be killed.

When news of the king’s madness reached the countryside, the peasants took to arms. They slaughtered the king’s garrisons and seized all the roads. Soon word came to the palace that the rebels had chosen a leader and were marching on the capital.

The king returned to the cave. The master doctor, uninstructed, made a black bowl of poison for the king to eat. Past tasting, the king never slowed.

His courtiers begged the king to rest, but he refused. He took personal command of the army. He overruled his captains, ignored their strategies, ordered incessant fanciful maneuvers and divisions of forces, planned senseless and wasteful skirmishes. Half his captains thought he was mad; half his captains thought he was brilliant. Half were right. The king had three men for every man of the peasant army; but the peasants won and the king was killed. The peasants freed their sons, razed the palace, and sacked the capital for a month. No roof stood.

After that came civil war, long and cruel. So intent did men become on killing the old way, with edge and point, that in the space of a generation the poisoner’s art was lost.