Lock and Key

Mike Reeves-McMillan


“The food taster is dead.”

Normally, I liked receiving visits from the captain of the guard, a square-jawed and handsome man with impressive thews, but not when he brought that kind of news.

“Dead how?” I asked.

“Poisoned, of course,” said the captain, looking at me with a tiny knot of puzzlement between his beautiful eyes.

“All right,” I said. “Bring him down, let me have a look at him.”

“Yes, Lady Alchemist,” he said. I try to get him to call me Leila, but he won’t.

* * *

I was up to my elbows in gore when he came back. To his credit, he didn’t seem to mind. I suppose that goes with his job just as much as with mine.

“Anything?” he said.

“Just checking his stomach contents,” I said. I dripped a series of drops into a line of jars I had prepped with indicator substances.

Most of the jars did nothing, as I expected, but two of them reacted. The first bubbled, while the other turned a soft purple colour. The afternoon light, falling through the lattices into my cool basement laboratory, brought it out beautifully.

“Interesting,” I said.

“What?”

“Here’s what killed him.” I tapped the bubbling jar.

“What is it?”

“Extract of a desert plant. We call it the deathbite shrub. Not hard to get, and kills quickly if you give enough of it. How fast did he die?”

“It was over in moments.”

“Foaming at the mouth? Muscles locking?”

“Yes.”

“Deathbite shrub. Which makes no sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was poisoned at lunch?”

“Yes.”

“So someone poisoned the sultan’s food?”

“Obviously.”

“Too obviously. If they knew deathbite, they had to know it wasn’t going to work, that the taster would be killed and the sultan wouldn’t touch it. This is suspicious.”

“Um…”

“I mean suspicious apart from the obvious ways, Rashid,” I said patiently. He was pretty, the Captain, but a little slow at times.

He scratched his head. “You don’t think they were trying to kill the sultan?”

“No. I think they were trying to kill the food taster. The question is, why?”

“I’ll ask around, see if I can find out if he had any enemies,” said Rashid.

“Good idea. There’s another possibility, of course, which is that the whole thing is a distraction. See if you can find out how it got into the food, that might give us some direction.”

“All right, Lady Alchemist.” He walked to the door, then turned. “What about that other jar?”

“Hmm?” I said, beginning to wash up.

“The other jar. The one that changed colour.”

“Oh, that’s just a cross-check,” I said. “Nothing to worry about.”

* * *

Rashid came back a couple of hours later, by which time I had cleared away the detritus of the autopsy and was searching through my reference books.

“Captain,” I said. “What did you find out?”

“Everyone seemed to like him,” he said.

“Odd how often that happens when someone dies,” I said. “I mean, can you name a single living person here who everybody likes? Yet when they’re gone…” I snapped my fingers. “What about how it got into the food?”

“I’ve questioned the cooks,” he said. “They were all working together, and they all swear they would have noticed if any of them had slipped something in the food. And they don’t like each other, so I don’t think they’re conspiring.”

“So it got into the food after it left the kitchen,” I said. “Serving boy?”

“Is missing.”

“Pity,” I said. “I liked him.”

His expression told me that he didn’t get the joke. It wasn’t a very good one, anyway.

“The vizier,” he said, “suspects you.”

“Now, him,” I said, “I don’t like at all. Now even more so. I suppose that’s reasonable, though. What are you going to do about it?”

“It’s going to take some time to find a new food taster,” he said. “In the meantime, you’re it.”

“Whose idea is that?”

“The vizier’s.”

I nodded, unsurprised, though my stomach gave a lurch. “Let me make some preparations,” I said.

“I’m to watch you,” he said, “to make sure you don’t eat anything.”

“Like an antidote in advance? The vizier appears to know something about poisons,” I said, and shot him a pointed look. It bounced off the blank, handsome face under his neatly wound turban.

“Very well,” I said. “I just need to finish preparing this one substance, and then I’ll be ready.”

I scraped the sublimate out of the drying tube and crushed it in a mortar into a fine powder, which I spooned into a small vial. I corked it and placed it in one of the loops sewn into my sash for the purpose.

“Ready,” I said.

* * *

The sultan, the vizier and various other members of the court stared at me when I arrived, escorted by Rashid. I bowed deeply to the sultan and stood in the food-taster’s designated place, near his divan.

Dinner was couscous and lamb. I’ve always liked lamb, but I approached this particular dish with dread. If I was wrong, if the vizier wanted me out of the way too…

I took a bite, chewed, swallowed. Waited, conscious of all eyes on me.

Did not fall down foaming at the mouth. This was good.

However, there was a faint, a very faint, bitter taste at the back of my throat, and I didn’t think it was because the cook had burnt the onions.

“My Lord Sultan,” I said, bowing again, “with your permission, I would like to perform a test on this food.”

“Why?” said the vizier, before the sultan could respond.

“I suspect that it is poisoned.”

“But you appear well,” said the sultan.

“I am perfectly well, My Lord,” I said. “But I have reason to believe that if you eat this, you will not be.”

“Why is this?” the vizier demanded.

“If I may have permission for the test, I will explain,” I said. The sultan waved his permission-granting hand, the one with all the rings on it. The vizier glared.

I took out the vial I had prepared, and sprinkled some of the powder on the dish.

“Interesting,” I said. “You perceive, My Lord, that there is now a red colour on the couscous.”

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“It means that someone very clever is attempting to assassinate you,” I said. “There is a kind of poison that we alchemists refer to as Lock and Key. It has two parts. Either one on its own is harmless, but anyone who consumes both within a single day will die.

“This preparation,” I held up the vial, “tests for the key, the second part of the poison. It is my belief that you have already had the lock administered to you.”

The sultan’s beard might be as white as his turban, but he had been a soldier in his youth, and he took this calmly. “How did you reach this conclusion?” he asked.

“By testing the stomach contents of the food taster. Ever since I learned of the existence of Lock and Key, I bear it in mind when poisoning occurs.”

“So the taster was poisoned with Lock and Key?” asked the sultan.

“No, the taster was poisoned with deathbite. But the reason was that he had already ingested Lock, which meant that a different taster—one who had not ingested Lock—was required to taste this meal. Had the old taster eaten it, it would have killed him, and you would not have eaten it.”

“We have only your word for any of this,” said the vizier.

“My Lord Vizier,” I said, “if you wish to eat this food, I will not stop you. I assume you dined with the sultan when the previous meal, the one containing Lock, was served?”

“In point of fact,” said the sultan, “the vizier has just returned from a trip this morning. He has not eaten with me for several days.”

I lifted my eyebrows. “I see,” I said. “My Lord, there is a test for Lock, and it requires only saliva. If you would be so good as to spit in this vessel, I can tell you for certain whether you have consumed it.”

He looked at me for a moment, assessing, then leaned over and spat, in as dignified a manner as it is possible to spit, into the glass vessel I held out to him. I mixed the contents of another vial from my sash into the saliva, and it turned the same soft purple as the test I had done on the unfortunate taster. I nodded.

“Lock,” I said.

“Again,” said the vizier, “we only have this woman’s word. That could be any substance.”

“In which case,” I said, “I am cleverly plotting to… prevent the sultan from having dinner? Would you care to spit in this other vessel, My Lord Vizier? I have more of the test substance.”

“Do it,” commanded the sultan.

The vizier’s eyes on me were like the desert sun, but he could only comply. I mixed a few more drops from the vial into his saliva, which remained clear.

“My Lord,” I said to the sultan, “is there anyone who shared your dinner last night, but not your breakfast this morning?”

“Most of the court,” he said. “I eat breakfast alone.”

“Might I have a volunteer?” I said.

One of the sultan’s musicians stepped forward, and I tested his spit. It turned colour.

“That simplifies matters,” I said. “The Lock appears to have been in last night’s dinner, so we only need to consider who had access to last night’s dinner as well as tonight’s. What was the menu?”

“Couscous and spiced fish,” said the musician.

“Would someone be so good as to visit the kitchen and bring up the couscous?” I said. “Bring the head cook, too.”

Rashid nodded to one of his men, and we waited. I absently ate a little more of the lamb, then apologised to everyone for eating in front of them. The vizier glared some more.

The head cook, a shaven-headed man with big shoulders, joined in the glaring when the guard brought him in, lugging a cloth bag of couscous.

“If I may?” I said to the sultan, who nodded. I dug some couscous out of the bag and tested it for Key, and it showed positive.

“Clever,” I said. “The cooks taste the sauces, but not the couscous. When did you begin using this bag?” It was mostly full.

“Tonight,” said the cook. “We finished the previous one last night.”

“Who does the procurement?” I asked.

“I do.”

“And where do you get your couscous?”

“From the souk, of course. What is going on?”

“The sultan’s food has been poisoned,” I said. “You are not currently a suspect.”

The cook turned pale, despite my reassurance, and started bowing and stammering. The sultan lifted an imperious hand.

“Rashid,” he said, “obtain the name of the vendor in the market, and visit him. Leila, good work. Please stay and test the alternative meal that the cooks will shortly prepare. I believe rice would be pleasant for a change.”

The cook bowed, and fled the room.

* * *

During the meal of rice and lamb, Rashid returned.

“The market vendor is missing,” he reported. “Nobody has seen him today.”

“Everybody liked him?” I asked. Rashid blinked at me. “Never mind,” I said. “That’s much what I expected. This plot has been organised by someone who is used to thinking things through.” I didn’t so much as glance at the vizier.

After dinner, Rashid accompanied me back to my laboratory.

“Lady Alchemist,” he said, “I would value your advice on this matter. Should I arrest the vizier?”

“Let’s see,” I said. “We’re looking for someone intelligent, capable of planning this out, and educated enough to know about Lock and Key. It’s not common knowledge. They’d need to also be well-travelled, or have access to people who are, because there’s no local supply of the ingredients. It would be someone who wasn’t at dinner last night, and they would need to have enough influence to make the boy and the vendor disappear. The vizier fits all that, but we have no direct evidence yet. He’s more influential than both of us, and he can deny everything. If we move too soon, he’ll move against us in turn.”

“So is that a yes, or a no?”

“I think it’s a ‘not yet’.”

* * *

I rise before dawn, which is good, because I was in my laboratory and fully dressed when Rashid burst in. Not that I would have minded him bursting into my bedroom when I wasn’t fully dressed, something I had in fact daydreamed about, but this wasn’t the moment.

“The Vizier’s gone,” he said.

I cursed, and he blinked, evidently not expecting such language from the lady alchemist.

“How long ago?”

“Not long. If we’re quick, we can catch him.”

“We?”

“I want you to come with me.”

“Oh,” I said. Nothing more intelligent came to mind at the time.

“Gather what you think you’ll need,” he said, “but be quick. I have basic supplies. He took a camel and left by the north gate, so he’s headed into the desert.”

As our camels left the white city and its fields behind and trod into the desert after the vizier, my mind finally got over my surprise at Rashid’s request and put together some words.

“Why do you want me with you?” I asked him.

He looked away, embarrassed. “So far, you’ve been ahead of me in solving this,” he said.

“I also advised you not to arrest the vizier.”

“Your reasons were good ones. We had no way to know that he’d flee in guilt.”

I nodded. “Why just me, though?” I asked. “Why not some of your men?”

“Two people can travel faster than a bigger group,” he said, “and more quietly. He’s not a young man. I don’t anticipate needing more swords, but another mind, especially yours, is valuable.”

I smiled to myself for miles after that.

We stopped at the first oasis to scout and to refill our water skins. I did the latter while he did the former, and he picked up signs of the vizier’s camel—fresh dung and hoofprints—heading northeast. He hooded his eyes against the glaring sun.

“That means he’s headed for Saivana,” he said. “It’s a place where one can hire assassins. He may mean to return with them and make another attempt on the sultan.”

“You’ve been there?” I asked. The assassins of Saivana are not common knowledge outside that city.

“In my youth,” he said, in a tone that told me he didn’t want to discuss it further. I wondered why not.

We had good camels, four of them, and switched off between them. The vizier had only one, and as the heat of the day increased, we drew slowly closer to him, as evidenced by the increasing freshness of the occasional pile of camel dung.

We had to stop near noon, pitch a shelter and wait out the worst of the heat. We shared the provisions Rashid had packed, but talked little, exhausted by the hard ride and the pounding sun. I rubbed balm on my cracked lips, a preparation of my own.

“We need to divert to the spring at the base of the Broken Hills,” said Rashid, as we resumed our pursuit. “The water is running low already.”

I flushed. “Sorry,” I said. “I’ve been drinking most of it.”

“It’s a hotter day than I had expected,” he said. “No blame.”

The broken hills rose slowly out of the flat desert, dark grey rocky outcroppings worn into many cracks and canyons by occasional rapid water and constant sandy wind. At the spring, Rashid found a fresh footprint in the shade, with a splash of water not yet evaporated from it. “This looks about the size of the vizier’s foot, wouldn’t you say?” he said.

“About the shape of his shoe, too,” I said. “He wears those fine leather shoes with the long toes.”

Rashid climbed a nearby rock, scanning the surrounding country while I finished filling the waterskins. I had just looked up when he stiffened, then vaulted to the ground with impressive agility for a man of his muscular bulk.

“What is it?” I asked as he approached.

“I saw a flash up there in the hills,” he said. “Like the sun off a piece of polished metal.”

“You think he went into the hills?”

He didn’t answer this obvious question, just mounted up and waited for me to convince my camel to kneel and let me climb on.

When we were both mounted, we headed up the trail, Rashid going first, hanging off his camel to look for any signs of the vizier’s passage. He pointed some out as we went, not all of which I could see, but I nodded when he looked back at me.

As we neared the top of the ridge, he dismounted and crept forward. He gestured behind him for me to stay in place and slipped over the ridge, keeping low to the ground. Disobeying him, I crept up to where he had been and peeked over.

The game trail we had been following descended on the other side in a series of meanders, following a ridge which intersected the ridge where we had stopped. Rashid wasn’t on the trail, but crept alongside it, hidden, hanging off the steep slope, placing his feet precisely without looking at them. He must be taking note of the cracks in the wind-sculpted, sun-cracked stone, but his attention appeared fixed up ahead. I drew in my breath as I saw, just for a moment between two rock outcroppings, a rider on a camel. The hunched posture and white clothing with a blue turban told me that it was the vizier.

I was mounted again by the time Rashid returned, and had picketed the spare camels so that they wouldn’t slow us down. We hurried down the narrow trail in pursuit. Camels have big flat feet, wonderful for sand, but not so good for narrow, occasionally crumbling stone trails, and more than once a part of the trail broke off and bounced down the side of the ridge. I felt like my whole body was suspended with wires above the drop, and not thick wires, either. My nerves buzzed with tension. Rashid kept his weight over the middle of the ridge, and I tried to do the same.

Beyond the ridge, the trail followed a winding canyon deeper into the hills. We came to a picketed camel, and pulled up.

“On foot from here,” said Rashid. A stone barrier, higher than my head, lay across the trail. Worn places indicated that the mountain goats which made these trails periodically climbed the barrier, but it wouldn’t accommodate a camel. We slung waterskins—the sun still struck like a whip—and began the scramble up.

Rashid, of course, reached the top first, and reached down a hand to pull me up. It was the first physical contact we’d had, and I held it for a moment longer than I needed to. He gave no sign of noticing, but led on.

We rounded a corner and stopped. Halfway up a pinnacle, on a narrow ledge, stood the vizier, his scimitar out.

“So,” he said. “You have caught up.”

“Come down,” said Rashid, “and surrender.”

The vizier laughed. “No,” he said. “Up here, I have some small advantage to offset your several large ones. You are younger and stronger and a better fighter than I. If you want to kill me, you will have to come up here and do it.”

“And if we don’t want to kill you?” I said. He looked at me for the first time.

“I hardly need plan for that eventuality,” he said. “Why do you think I fled?”

“Because you were guilty?” I said, staying beside Rashid as he picked his way to the base of the pillar.

“What?” said the vizier. “Because I was a threat to your plans against the sultan, and hoped I could lead you away from him.”

“Don’t talk to him,” said Rashid to me under his breath. “He’s bluffing.” I nodded.

We reached the base of the pinnacle, and he stripped off his flowing outer robe and dropped it to the ground in preparation for his climb. He took a long drink from the waterskin he carried and drew his sword.

“Be careful, Rashid,” I said, and darted in close, seizing his upper arms and kissing him on the mouth. His mouth opened in surprise, and I slipped my tongue in. He broke my hold after a moment and stepped back, wiping his mouth and looking at me in surprise.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Impulse.”

Without saying anything, he took his scimitar in his teeth and started to climb.

I took a drink from my waterskin and watched him. At twice his own height above the ground, he missed a hold with one hand. A couple of moves later, his foot slipped. Still with his scimitar in his mouth, he turned his eyes on me, glaring. He was an amateur glarer compared with the vizier, but a gifted amateur.

“Yes,” I said, “Lock and Key. A different pair, but the same principle. This will only cause you to become weak. It won’t kill you. I imagine the sultan’s executioner will do that.”

He tried to turn back, slipped, fell. He was limping when he rose, but he came for me with his sword, his face a mask of hatred. “Brought you out here to kill you,” he said. “Should have done it sooner.”

I blocked his strike with the waterskin, and, slashed open, it poured onto the ground. That made it all the easier to manoeuvre, to tangle his blade on the next cut.

“Well done,” I said. “You just spilled the antidote.”

“What?” he said, pulling in vain to free his scimitar.

“Well,” I said, “the Lock was on the mouthpiece of your waterskin, which, if you’ll remember, I filled. The Key was in my lip balm.” I kicked his injured knee, and he slipped on the spilled water and fell to the other knee. He could barely lift his blade.

“That meant, of course, that when I kissed you I was exposed to the combination. So I had to take the antidote, which you just spilled.” I kicked him in the chest, and he went down, letting go of the scimitar. I retrieved it and held it to his throat.

“Now I just have to wait a few more minutes, until the effect is complete, and then I can tie you up and the vizier and I can carry you out of here,” I said.

The vizier, who had been climbing down the rock face as I talked, dropped the last few feet to the ground and turned. “You aren’t his ally?” he said.

“No. I’m the sultan’s. He hired me because he had received word that someone at his court was an assassin. I thought it was you.”

“I thought it was you. When did you conclude that it was Rashid?”

“I suspected as soon as he wanted to bring me out here without witnesses. Then, on the way here, he made the mistake of mentioning the secretive Saivana assassins, which I only know about because my guild does business with them, and he admitted that he’d been to the city. And out here in the desert, his intelligence and ability to observe and draw conclusions seemed to increase all of a sudden, and I thought back and realised that he had reported the disappearance of both the serving boy and the couscous merchant. He was in a position to have caused those disappearances, too. And he doesn’t eat with the court, he eats in the barracks. Then there was the way he was able to clamber along the side of the ridge on the way here. No normal man, not even a guard captain, can do that.

“And finally, of course, you assumed we were working together and were here to kill you to keep you from opposing our strike on the sultan, and I didn’t think it was a bluff.”

“What if you’d been wrong?”

I looked him up and down. “I think I could take you,” I said, “especially with the poisoned dagger in my sash.” I smiled with all my teeth. His weak answering smile told me I was right.

“It’s a pity,” I said, as I started to bind the glaring, helpless captain. “I liked him.”