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Posts Tagged ‘cyanide poisoning’

Joseph’s journal: 45

19 Kislev, 4808 (November, 1059)

I am somewhat reluctant to record this next incident in the saga of my father but it is necessary to provide a complete picture of who he was. On numerous occasions King Idris III of Malaga showed himself treacherous and lacking in moral character. During recent times, he was our ally, but only for the moment. Father was acutely aware that Idris was not a man to be trusted. Father understood that Idris was certain to betray Granada the first time it appeared advantageous for him to do so.

Father worried about a multitude of possible threats to the kingdom. One of these constant concerns was the possibility of someone using poison to eliminate him, or worse in his mind, King Badis. A plot could be promulgated by high-ranking Granadian functionaries but this was not a huge concern, although vigilance was essential. Poisoning was the most likely method to avoid exposure for the person actually responsible. For this reason, father made it known to all of the physicians in the city of Granada and its territorial holdings, that if they knew of any new poisonous substances, or if they heard of, or developed antidotes to any poisons, he was to be informed immediately. One day, a physician from Jaen showed up at our door and was admitted to Father’s study.

After the physician told my father why he had come, Father sent a servant to tell me to stop whatever I was working on and come immediately to his study. When I arrived Father turned to the physician.

“This is my son Joseph. Joseph, this is the physician David ben Noah of Jaen. Dr. ben Noah has come to us with interesting information. Please, ben Noah, tell us again about what you have discovered.”

“Of course, Ha Nagid. The powder is made from fruit pits, cherries, apples, apricots, any or all of them. The pits are crushed into a fine powder, a very fine powder. When you have a full cup of the powder you add hot water and, while keeping it warm, stir until the powder is in solution. The water must not boil, however. After the powder is completely dissolved, you spread the liquid in a shallow container and allow it to evaporate. It can be put out in the sunlight to hasten evaporation. The powder that remains after the liquid evaporates is the poison. If the poison is mixed with wine or vinegar it will emit a gas that is also poisonous.”

“And you have some of this powder?” asked Father.

“I have it here,” said ben Noah. He extracted a small glass container with a cork stopper from the pocket of his cloak and handed the flask to my father.

“And what is the antidote for this?”

“There is no known antidote, Ha Nagid.”

“No antidote?” My father’s brow furrowed as he rested his chin in his hand. “How fast does it act?”

“That depends on the size of the person and upon the amount consumed or inhaled. One fourth of the powder in the flask you are holding will kill a horse.”

“Thank you, ben Noah. I assume you are doing experiments to find an antidote to this poison?”

“Yes, of course, Nagid, but so far none of the antidotes have an effect, even when given to a test animal prior to exposure.

“Well, I want you to continue to work on the antidote.” Father handed the physician a pouch of gold coins. “This should enable you to continue your research for the antidote. Please keep me informed of your progress on a regular basis. Is there any way to detect this substance so a person would be able to prevent it being used to kill someone?”

“Yes, Ha Nagid, it seems about one of every three persons can smell it. They detect a faint odor similar to the smell of almonds. It would be wise to have someone with that ability available to smell food or beverage offered by someone you do not know or trust.”

“Is it safe to sniff this?”

“Yes, as long as it is still a dry powder.”

Father removed the cork from the flask and sniffed tentatively then again, more strongly. He replaced the cork stopper.

“I smell nothing,” he said and handed me the flask.

I removed the cork, took a sniff and recognized a faint aroma of almonds.

“Yes, I smell almonds, it seems to be a bitter scent, but still of almonds.”

Father smiled broadly. “From now on Joseph you will give the smell test to everything on my plate before I take a bite,” he teased.

“Even food my mother prepares?” I responded, serious.

He laughed. “Especially food prepared by your mother.” He reached over and rubbed my head. “I’m teasing you, Joseph. You take everything so seriously, therefore it amuses me to tease you. Put the flask away in your safe place, Joseph. “

Two weeks later, as we were finishing our evening meeting, my father addressed me.

“Before you retire this evening, Joseph, please bring me the flask the physician ben Noah brought to this house.”

I looked at him, raised my eyebrows and waited.

“Never mind, that is all you need to know for now. I have a plan I must discuss with the king. Just bring me the flask please.”

“Of course, Papa.”

I did as he requested, but even when I withheld the flask for a moment with a questioning look on my face, he told me nothing more about what he wanted the poison for. The evening of the following day he handed the flask back to me. About a third of the powder was gone. Again I looked at him, questioning.

“Badis has agreed to my plan with considerable enthusiasm. He gave me a solid gold wine cup, exquisitely decorated. He also provided a small flask of his very best wine. We are going to send Idris of Malaga the cup and the wine as a special present.”

“And the poison that is missing from the flask?”

“That has been dissolved and all the liquid is being evaporated from the cup. When all is ready I will send the gifts to Idris as a token of our appreciation for all he has done recently as our much valued ally.”

“And who will you send to bring him these presents?”

“Our king has suggested Ishak ibn Mohammed, chief of the Bani tribe.”

“Ishak ibn Mohammed? Isn’t that the same man you told me about a month ago? He has been whispering evil about you to the king.”

“Exactly so.”

I shook my head. “And the king has approved this plan, and even recommended ibn Mohammed for the task?”

“Yes. This is yet another harsh lesson for you, Joseph. Say nothing. Watch events as they develop. You must observe what people say, and more importantly do, as the plan unfolds.”

Late that same winter of 4802 (1053) I learned what happened. As he was instructed, ibn Mohammad delivered the gold cup, and the flask of wine to Idris III. Much later I heard, from a tribal chief who was present, that ibn Mohammad gave Idris his testimony as to the fine quality of the wine.

He said to King Idris, “I was summoned to King Badis and he told me he wanted me to bring to you two very special gifts. He handed me the gold cup you now hold in your hand. I think you must agree it is one of the finest, if not the finest, such drinking cup in existence. The decorations are exquisite. My lord, King Badis also gave me a taste of the wine in this cask I’m holding. He told me it is the finest Granada has to offer. I agree, it is the best I have ever tasted.”

“Well then,” said Idris, extending the gift gold cup he was examining, “let’s have a taste of this jewel of the wine maker’s art.”

Ibn Mohammad poured some wine into the cup. Idris raised the cup to his lips and sniffed, then sniffed again, inhaling deeply.

“It smells of almonds.”

“Yes excellency, I have been told as much but could not detect that smell when I was given a taste.”

Idris became pensive, perhaps thinking back to his own long history of treachery. He took another, longer and deeper, sniff of the cup and wrinkled his brows. Then held out the cup of wine.

“Ibn Mohammad I want you to drink from this cup. Tell me if it is the same fine wine you were given prior to coming to me.”

“Yes, of course, Excellency, as you wish.”

He took a sip of the wine then gazed into the cup.

“Not quite as I remember it but still very good, Excellency.”

“Drink the whole cup. We will fill it again, then I will drink.”

Ibn Mohammad shrugged and finished off the contents of the cup handing it back to Idris. Idris took the cup then turned it slowly again in his hand examining the intricate carvings. He looked inside the cup then studied ibn Mohammad who seemed to be getting dizzy. Idris waited, … smiling.

Ibn Mohammad sank to his knees and bent over. He tried to push himself upright again with both arms. He managed to get up on one knee then collapsed, rolled to his right side in the fetal position and died. Foam came from between his lips. The nobles of Idris’ court who witnessed this charade, rushed to their king.

“How did you know?” asked one of them.

“I didn’t, but I suspected. This is the work of the Jew, I’m certain of it.”

However, Idris was not aware of the deadly toxic fumes released from the poison by the wine. That afternoon he complained of being weak and short of breath. He seemed confused and kept dozing off. He roused with a start, and exploded into a ranting rage at a blameless servant, for no discernable reason. The next morning, he was slow to awaken, and seemed even more confused. His skin was a bright pink. He was breathing very fast, almost panting, while at the same time complaining that he couldn’t catch his breath. That afternoon, despite frantic attempts at treatment by his physicians, he was comatose. One of the physicians reported he smelled bitter almonds on his ruler’s breath. Late the next morning, he died.

Granada’s complete takeover of Malaga was initiated the day after word of Idris’ death reached Granada. I am still attempting to reconcile my father’s role in this.

Meanwhile, King Mutadid of Seville was still plotting and planning. He was finally ready to set in motion his strategy for the coming summer’s military campaign. He instigated the invasion of Granadian territory by the kings of Moron and Arcos, promising them financial, military, and logistical support. They were to attack Granada in early spring, as soon as the weather permitted.

Mutadid anticipated correctly that King Badis would respond to this attack as usual, by retaliating and invading Seville’s lands. Once Granada was committed, Mutadid arranged for the king of Ronda to attack our forces from the rear. This time he followed through on his promises. He sent two regiments of his army to support Moron and Arcos, and three regiments to support Ronda. He also sent considerable gold and silver as well as the promised logistical support in the form of long lines of mule-drawn wagons loaded with provisions, arms, and supplies.

This previously tried and proven strategy of getting Granada to commit, then attacking them from the rear, was once again effective. The Zanhadja were soon fighting on two fronts with significant numbers against them on both. During that summer, both sides managed to avoid any large confrontation, but continuous small encounters occupied both armies. The general outcome of the skirmishes was that Granada’s forces retreated, but they always pulled back disciplined and in good order. During the whole summer’s campaign, neither side was willing to fight a pitched battle so neither side suffered devastating losses.

My father engineered the strategy of orderly retreat by convincing Badis the combined forces of Seville and her allies outnumbered our forces significantly. He explained that Granada could easily lose an all-in confrontation. He also pointed out that any relief coming from Granada was likely to be ambushed along the way. The wisest course was to avoid any significant large-scale clash, abandon those territories they had already lost, and retreat to Granada. They could use what was left of the fall, and the fast approaching winter months, to rebuild their strength, remobilize, and be in a position to exact vengeance early the following spring.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mutadid seemed content with this outcome. He recalled most of his troops, leaving only token forces with his allies. What my father didn’t realize until later, was Mutadid’s grand strategy had never been a final and extremely dangerous confrontation with Granada. His strategic goal was to expand and consolidate Seville’s territories.

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