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Tasting Notes on Three Vintages of Poison

Matthew Bailey is a professional ghostwriter who spends his free time huffing, puffing, and plinking on several different instruments, the saxophone first and foremost. He also loves stargazing and visiting national parks with his wife and three sons. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and other places. You can read more of his stories at matthewjordanbailey.com.

"...and this one, sigliare, is a red widowmaker from the Uvaldi region," Maggio explains, as the client raises yet another glass to his lips with exaggerated care. A young nobleman of the third rank, Gonyaire was warned not to swallow any liquid that touches his lips while inside the vault.
"Aged for seventeen years in only the finest oak casks," Maggio continues. "It tastes of plums and marzipan, with just a hint of quill-ink and pine needles." He watches Gonyaire swish the liquid before spitting into a silver carafe. "The finish, however, is long with bitter failure and broken dreams, tempered with just a bit of Oh-God-What-Have-I-Become. It is very popular for use on young, ambitious junior executives and unruly minor princes."
Gonyaire's face is as blank as a card player's. The flavors each client detects depends largely on his own experiences and character. Plainly, Gonyaire is a man who has no real dreams.
"It's too weak," he says. "I need something stronger."
"Eloquently put, sigliare, I can tell you are a man of refined taste." Maggio produces a fresh snifter. It would not do to let the dregs of one poison mix with another. At best, it would ruin the tasting experience. At worst, well... he has no desire to spend his evening sweeping up exploded glass.
Gonyaire sips, and Maggio knows instantly this is the one. The young sigliare gags and spits violently, not even bothering to aim for the carafe.
"Helpless asphyxiation," Maggio says, watching Gonyaire touch his throat, "blended with a healthy dose of Does-My-Wife-Know? A fine choice." In truth, it is an indifferent vintage. Gonyaire must have a secret mistress.
"Will it be a quick death?"
"By no means, sigliare," Maggio says. "The finish is long; your enemy will suffer."
The chink-chink of stud-boots coming down the stairs prompts them both to turn. It is Delgrevio, wearing eight garnet rings and his finest evening cloak, probably on his way to the theater.
"Moguliare!" Gonyaire cries. "What an honor to meet the master of this illustrious house."
Delgrevio bows. "Sigliare. I trust you are finding everything satisfactory?"
The two turn their backs ever so slightly on Maggio, a cue that he is to pay no further attention. He sneers. Do they truly think he cannot hear them?
"--yes, yes," Gonyaire is saying, "the old man has insulted me for the last time. He tasked me with overseeing the quarantine of that ghastly new cholera. 'A fitting challenge for a man of my talents,' he called it. Scoundrel!"
"Terrible, terrible," Delgrevio murmurs.
Maggio sees his opening. From a sideboard, he brings a palate-cleansing platter of wine, bread, and cheese. Thanks to their nattering, it's easy to whisper a few razor-sharp words over the tray.
"My lords," he says.
Gonyaire takes a glass, then hesitates.
"It's only wine, sigliare," Delgrevio says. "Maggio here wouldn't dare poison a client. I'd throw him back on the street where I found him, and poisons are his life."
"On the contrary," Maggio says. "It's the art of revenge that fascinates me. These vintages are merely the canvas on which I work."
Gonyaire looks scandalized. "I am not looking for revenge, but to avenge -- as in, to right a great wrong. What do you take me for? A common assassin?"
He takes a bite of bread, winces.
"Sigliare?" Delgrevio says.
"Bit my lip," Gonyaire says. "Damn!"
Maggio instantly offers a cloth to mop up the blood streaming down his chin. Gonyaire takes it, uses it, then tosses it at Maggio's feet. He storms up the stairs, muttering about sutures.
Delgrevio glares. "In the future, you will not speak to clients except when answering technical questions. Understand?"
"Back on the street where you found me?" Maggio hisses. "This house was my idea, my creation."
"Backed by my investment," Delgrevio says. "Which is why my name adorns the entryway. Now, clean this place up."
Maggio waits till Delgrevio leaves before picking up the rag. He takes it to an anteroom, then squeezes a few drops into a bubbling retort. The taste of petty insults and patronization, added to just desserts, poetic irony, and a hundred other flavors collected from clients over the years, will blend nicely.
There is indeed a fine line between avenge and revenge, Maggio reflects. Just as there is between investing and embezzling. One implies shared profit; the other, personal gain.
Maggio dips a vial into the retort, then sips and spits. How easy it would be to poison Delgrevio now. It's only wine, he'd said, and the man did love his wine.
But no. The best vintages are given time to age, for every aspect to come together.
It's the only way to ensure a lengthy finish.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Author Comments

I have a weird fascination with whisky reviews. Because the florid descriptions, or "tasting notes," can be so fantastically over the top, I've always wanted to use them as the basis for a story. This particular piece was written for Codex's 2018 Weekly Warrior Contest. Every week for five weeks, contestants are given several prompts to choose from. The prompt I chose was to rummage through my closet to see what strange objects I could find. I was surprised by the range of emotions this exercise provoked--regret and nostalgia, embarrassment and pride. Coupling this with the "tasting notes" idea, I soon found myself in a dimly lit cellar filled with innumerable vintages of poetic death. I chose three, and the resulting distillation was "Tasting Notes on Three Vintages of Poison." Cheers!

Special thanks to Vylar Kaftan and my fellow Garnets for making this story possible.

[Whisky! DSF Webmaster and special friend Christopher Gronbeck runs a Whisky Bar in Seattle called The Barrel Thief. No wonder we were drawn to this tale! -Jonathan and Michele]

- Matthew Bailey
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