For a woman whose mother was a whore and whose father was presumably a sailor from abroad (or possibly the Friar, since everyone always said I had his ears), I came to lead an incredibly privileged life.
It started off not so well. As you can imagine, children were not exactly welcome in the whorehouse. I spent much of my childhood either under my mother’s bed while the springs above me squeaked and strained, or in my little bed inside my mother’s clothes closet, on top of her winter coat. To keep me quiet, she’d give me sweets—anything I asked for.
As a result, I can’t really say I wasn’t a remarkable child, but I wasn’t remarkable because I was especially sweet or pretty. I was remarkable because I grew soft and fat in a way none of the other children were. Their spindly legs poked out under their too-large smocks while I filled mine like a full sack of flour, huge and round. Their big eyes stared out of sharp, thin faces while mine were buried deep in my cheeks.
Everyone called me ‘Little Piggy’, but I didn’t care. They were just jealous of my sweets and the fact they went to bed hungry at night. In the end, those sweets were the best gift my mother could have bought for me.
When I was somewhat older (and starting to attract the sort of attention of men that led me to worry mother’s madam would start the bid for my virginity soon), I was browsing the morning market for lunch when two soldiers came marching towards me.
Guards and whores’ gets don’t typically have the best of relationships, so naturally, I ran for it.
I wasn’t particularly slow for my size—in fact I gave them rather a good chase. I thought!—but they eventually caught me and held me still.
To my surprise, a noble I recognised as the King’s hand came wandering up behind them at a very leisurely pace. He was old and rather unpleasant to look at.
“Like to eat, do you, girl?”
A sly smile spreading slowly and obsequiously over his crackled old lips “How would you like to eat all the delicacies in the world?” he asked, in the sort of voice I’d often her customers talking to Mother in. “Pork roasts with crackling, steaming beef stews, dumplings, cakes, and every single tasty dish you could imagine for every – single – meal?”
Honestly, he was making a good case for whatever it was that he wanted from me. I had thought he was probably after my virginity (for those things, I’d considered giving it up for him), so I was surprised when I nodded and he simply said, “Good. His Majesty’s old taster has suffered an unfortunate…. accident. We’re in the market for someone who can eat on command.”
So that was how I become the King’s Taster.
Honestly, it was wonderful. Our King was well-liked so the danger to him was quite low. He also had the same sweet tooth as I did, which meant I was able to enjoy spiced fruit cakes with marzipan icing, beautifully sugared oranges and sherry almost whenever I wished. On most occasions, he liked to try everything on the table which meant that I was able to as well, and sometimes, when the Queen wasn’t looking, he’d ask me if there was anything particular I liked the look of and he’d order it for himself when she wasn’t paying attention.
It ended up being him who took my virginity. Shortly after my nineteenth birthday he ordered some supper in his bed chamber and had me escorted up there for it. It was ice cream, so I was disappointed when instead of actually eating it, he seemed rather more intent on consuming me. Before long, my dress was on the floor and I was on the bed, and he was whispering all sorts of sweet words to me as he bounced heavily on top of me. He finished rather quickly and then spent a curious amount of time burying his face in all of my soft bits and rejoicing the roundness of them. Then, once he’d tired himself out, he bid me leave before we were caught.
I think the Queen suspected because after that, she slept in his bed chamber. Truth be told, I wasn’t that sorry. He was nice enough, but he was fifty and I had everything I wanted in the world already.
I was more sorry about what had happened when the following month, however: I didn’t bleed. Nor the month after that, nor the month after that. Having been brought up in a whorehouse, this was little more than an annoyance to me—just as it had been to my mother and the other women I’d grown up around. I knew how to hide my sickness and fix my dress to conceal a bump; not that a bump was really my biggest problem. I was lucky enough to be plump in a way that would conceal the fact I was with child, possibly indefinitely. The birth itself was more of a concern; I’d have to do it by myself, of course. There was no way that I’d be able to sneak out of the castle and find Mother. I just hoped my waters wouldn’t break while I was standing beside the King at the supper table.
I was into my fifth or sixth month when everything took a sudden turn.
It was the Queen’s birthday, which was something she was growing increasingly less keen on celebrating. Every year brought her closer to a time when she wouldn’t be able to produce an heir at all, and people were beginning to worry than she would run out of time. However, despite that, the King obviously loved her and insisted on throwing a big party for her. The banquet hall was decorated, all the court and several foreign visitors were invited, and the kitchen was abuzz for days with all sorts of people preparing all sorts of food. Guest cooks meant new dishes, and so I hovered around the edges, trying to figure out what sort of exotic culinary art they might be creating.
I didn’t get to try any of them at all until the actual day of the banquet. Even then, the King had made an effort to provide his Queen with all sorts of entertainment and had allowed the nobles to offer her gifts, so I had to stand quietly through an hour or two of those being presented until he finally decided to eat.
The first course was not was as exciting as I’d hoped. The King was too distracted to guess the things that I’d like to try, so I ended up just testing rotten old mushroom soup, roast meat and vegetables. These were things I’d ordinarily have on any given night. There were so many dishes with fine-cut pasta and fried breads and things that I’d scarcely had the opportunity to try before that it seemed a cruel turn of fate that he didn’t even want to try them.
I suffered through two courses where he didn’t eat a single thing, until he finally finished with a crème brulée. I’d enjoyed those many times before, and I expected I would enjoy it then.
How wrong I was.
The moment the innocent-looking crème brulée passed my lips I knew something was awry. I’d had no more than a tiny mouthful but I could already feel a tingling on my tongue. The court, milling about and entertained by the Jester, didn’t notice my surprise. They certainly didn’t notice the knife-point pressed against my side or the red, red lips at my ear whisper, “Swallow it and smile, honeypie.”
Paralysed by shock, I could do nothing but obey. In a moment, she was gone.
The King threw only a cursory glance at me before returning to enjoy the Jester’s keen impersonation of him. He broke the seal on his brulée, selecting one tiny shards of sugar glass with the tip of his spoon and chewing it.
In my mouth, I could already feel the burn setting in. I wanted to gag, to cough, to spit out whatever remnants of it were in my mouth, but I was too afraid of that woman with the knife. What if she came back? Instead, I pressed my lips desperately together, staring intently at the King.
Don’t! I willed him, hoping he’d be so distracted by the jester that he’d discard the dish. Don’t eat any more!
Oblivious, he picked another shard, then another. Then, while the jester bowed to thunderous applause, the King looked back toward his dessert, chuckling to himself. He took a big scoop of crème. I watched him slowly lift it to his mouth place it on his tongue and then swallow, and time seemed to slow.
He took a big gulp of sherry, pausing for a moment to salute the jester with a silent toast.
Then he took another mouthful of the dessert.
He was on his fourth when I saw his spoon freeze mid-air and his brow crinkle.
Swallowing, he placed the spoon down on his plate and took a big, long gulp of water from his goblet. When that didn’t help, he licked his lips, cleared his throat and then, from deep inside him came this terrible retching gag.
The cheering fell silent, and everyone turned in horror toward him. He stood in panic, throwing his heavy chair back and spilling his sherry, clutching at his throat.
It was when he finally looked in terror at me that I could hold it no longer and fell to my knees, spluttering and gagging myself. I knew it was over.
“Poison!” The Queen exclaimed, her voice straddling two octaves. “My King, he’s been poisoned!”
What happened next, I struggle to remember. Someone shouted to seize me, and I was grabbed by my shoulders, tied at the wrists and pigeon-marched out of the banquet hall. I was already sweating and somewhat delirious and couldn’t fathom where I was going—just that there were so many corridors—but then there was a dull thump and a gargle beside me. Warm liquid splashed across my arm, and it took me a couple of seconds to realise it was blood.
While I was staring at my arm and hoping the blood wasn’t mine, a woman’s small hand grabbed me. “Come, honeypie,” she said, grasping my jaw firmly with her other hand and pouring something cool into my mouth. “Swallow.” She held it shut until I did. “Good girl. Let’s go.”
I fell unconscious.