Savory steam rose from the spoon hovering next to her mouth. She pursed her lips, and then took another sip of the red broth. Something was in her soup.
The first note was perfect, a peppery bite of turmeric followed by the woody warmth of cinnamon. Lemon, and ginger came next, exactly as she’d intended. But clumsily placed, where there should be the quintessential after burn of cayenne, sweetness affronted her tongue. She let the wooden spoon drop back into pot with a splash.
Lenore stepped off the stool and looked around the kitchen. The wide windows let both a breeze and the sun in. Even if the staff had been here, and Lenore had seen little of them this afternoon, they knew better than to meddle when she or her brother was cooking.
She pulled the apron over her head. The sleeves of her yellow cotton gown had a few crimson spots from splatter, but nothing a laundering wouldn’t fix. Folding the apron over a chair Lenore looked around the kitchen with growing unease. She was alone. Lenore swallowed, trying to work the taste of the soup from her mouth.
Memories of dark horses, dark carriages, and dark gowns accompanied the chill spreading through her chest. She remembered the dew under her shoes and how the grass had looked too green next to the black of everyone’s clothes. Her eyes widened, feeling her stomach churn. Lenore choked on a short sob, a hand at her mouth. Before her knees could buckle under her, Lenore reached out to grip the counter with bloodless fingers.
What she was feeling was fear, Lenore told herself. If the hollow tightness of her stomach was the poison, she was dead and there was nothing she could do about it. So, she reasoned, best to assume she had time.
No one knew of her culinary pursuits. That she and her brother, the remaining nobles of their house, cooked the household’s food as often as not was a fact never advertised to outsiders. An assassin would not know of Lenore’s refined chef’s palate. More so, the poison would have to delay itself to get to dinner and its aristocratic targets there, lest a dead common cook betray the plot.
Lenore was nearly up the short kitchen stairs before she stopped, a single bare foot on the main floor landing. Behind her the soup still simmered on the stove top, warming the already sunny kitchen air.
Now full, the pot was almost too heavy for her to lift. Lenore hissed as she burnt her forearm hauling the soup to the backdoor. A moment later the vegetable laden broth splashed over the stones of the yard. Her breath came a little short. Just exertion, Lenore told herself and hurried from the kitchen.
Like all noble households of the city, they kept their pantries and medicine cabinets well stocked with antitoxins, syrups, and antidotes as politics here were played with cloak, knife, and poison. Two years ago, upon her twelfth birthday, her parents tasked her with memorizing the sparkling crystal bottles and vials kept in their washroom.
Lenore tore open the door now, thoroughly surprising the maid who was within dusting the marble. “Miss—“
“Mary. Find Hann. Now please.” Lenore interrupted and made a mental note to apologize for her brusque tone upon surviving. Mary picked up her already rolled skirts and fled.
Lenore opened the shelves hard enough to make the crystal within shake. The little bottles caught the light from the windows, sending multicolored slivers everywhere. She swallowed a shaky breath and reached for the first bottle, this was going to be unpleasant.
Hann found Lenore half folded on the washroom floor, propped up by a shaking arm. The yellow dress hung halfway off a shoulder and her normally silky hair was sweaty and plastered to her round face. Half a dozen vials lay empty around her bunched skirts.
The lady looked up at her bodyguard, a weak smile on her pale lips. “Someone needs to tell my brother dinner is cancelled.”