The Kinder Poison – Natalie Mae

ALL good stories start with bad decisions. This is the questionable mantra I repeat in my head as we watch the boat come in. It’s a beautiful vessel, so unlike the plain wooden canoes that always flock Atera’s river docks. The hull is glass, and through it I can see the dawn and the orange sands of the desert; the water and the reed-choked shore. As it draws nearer, the sun ignites along its edges like fire, the deep blue canopy above seeming to flutter in the heat. Guards with golden leopard masks and sickle swords patrol its railings, and in the river, the magic propelling it glows like a trail of fading stars. It is a ship where legends are made. It’s also a ship where poor choices will be made, but Hen said I have to stop focusing on that part. I’ve lain on this roof a thousand mornings, imagining myself sailing to all the incredible places the desert travelers speak of, and not once has playing it safe helped me follow in their footsteps. Their adventures never start with, “Well, I waited patiently at home for something to happen, and it did!” No—proper stories start with risks. Switching identities, drinking unlabeled potions, trusting mysterious strangers. I’m not sure any of them ever started with lying to a priest, but again—I’m not focusing on that right now. “There he is,” Hen says, pointing to said priest: a shirtless bald man standing near the front of the boat. We’re lying atop the roof of her house, one of the many flat-topped homes that line the river’s shore. The second story gives us a perfect vantage point of the ship without it being too obvious we’re here.

The priest’s gaze stays low, on the children who whoop and run on the muddy bank, their colorful tunics like flags. The tattooed prayers circling his pale arms and the pure white of his tergus kilt would have given him away even if Hen hadn’t pointed him out. He’s the one carrying the ledger we need. No one boards that boat if their name isn’t listed, and if I don’t get to the palace now . Well, there won’t be another chance. This is the first time a royal boat has ported in Atera in six hundred years. “That’s the one we’ll really need to watch,” Hen says, pointing to a woman in a stunning blue jole—a formal wrap dress favored by the nobility. Hers is embellished with pearls and real lilies, and I squint, trying to make sense of my friend’s warning. There’s absolutely nothing daunting about the woman. In fact, compared to the armed guards and the scowl I now see on the priest’s face, she looks delightful.

“Who is that?” I whisper. “Galena of Juvel,” Hen growls. “Royal Materialist, and thorn in my side. She’s the one who made lotus boots into a thing.” I glance at the woman’s feet. Her sandals look no different from the ones Hen often wears, but instead of ending at her heel, black lotus flowers twist up her brown legs to her knees. “I think they’re cute,” I admit. “Of course they are! They were my idea!” One of the guards looks toward the roof, and we both duck down. “We’ve been over this,” I whisper. “Just because you get a weekly update on the lives of famous people doesn’t mean they have the slightest idea of who you are.

I’m sure it was just a coincidence.” “Was it?” Hen says, glaring as the woman drifts past. “Or was it conspiracy?” “Well, when you’re the Royal Materialist, you can ask her.” “Oh, I will.” She grits her teeth. “I will.” I snicker at her response. One of my favorite things about Hen is her absolute confidence, as if rising from a simple—albeit distinguished—young Materialist in Atera to the person who crafts the latest fashions for the queen is only a matter of time. Though really, she’s already on her way. Now that we’re sixteen, this summer marks our last as apprentices, and Hen has already received dozens of letters from Orkena’s nobility, commending her creativity and requesting her services upon her transition to Master.

Soon she’ll be traveling the country, using her rare ability to combine unusual materials, even fire or light or a stream of starlit water, into clothing for the elite. She can make dresses out of moonglow, and cloaks infused with dew so they stay cool even during the hottest afternoons. Meanwhile, the number of people excited for me to become a Master is one: my father. Which I appreciate, but it’s not the same. Hen’s name is already on that ledger. I’m trying not to think too hard about why mine isn’t, and how that’s one of the many ways our lives are about to diverge. “Just please don’t talk to her about the boots today,” I say, recognizing the glint in Hen’s eyes. Her black hair swings as she looks over. “I make no promises when it comes to war.” “And I’d be happy to help you plot later.

But can we focus right now on the bigger task I’ll probably come to regret? They’re almost at the dock.” Hen’s brown eyes narrow, tracking her mark. She taps a finger against her lips and shoves to her feet. “Follow me.” She disappears down the ladder in the roof. I follow in haste, earning a splinter when I slide too fast down the wood, and drop to the tiled floor of the upstairs hallway. Cool air emanates from the enchanted mudbrick walls, the spell that chills them hidden beneath a layer of creamy plaster. Within the hour, the house will feel drastically cooler than the summer air outside. I try to absorb as much of it as I can through my thin working dress. The stable is never unbearably hot, but it definitely doesn’t hold on to the cold like Hen’s house.

Rainbow-hued mats line the floor, and I smile as we pass rooms I know as well as my own. Hen’s bedroom with her towers of dark, shimmering fabric, and her mother’s nearly as cluttered, its walls and dressers covered in the rare items she accepts in trade for her potions. A bright weaving from the river country ripples with the light; a giraffe carving made of sandalwood and ebony sits upon the nightstand. Before my mother got sick, she and Hen’s mother used to travel all over, selling potions and drinking in the world. I used to tell her that would be Hen and me someday, before I understood the magic I was born with wasn’t the kind that would help me leave Atera. Apparently the ability to talk to animals doesn’t actually impress anyone—including most animals—hence the lack of my name on the ledger. But even our mothers had never been to the palace. And though tonight’s party will only encompass one glorious, wonder-filled night, it will be my chance to experience a sliver of the life I thought Hen and I could never have. I cannot miss that boat. “We’re going to go with the ‘distract and dominate’ plan,” Hen says, the hem of her green wrap dress flaring as she starts down the rosewood stairs.

“You’re going to provide the distraction, while I sneak the ledger from the priest’s bag. I’ll slip out of view and add your fake name. Then I’ll put it back, and when they go to check people in later, aha! You’ll be there.” “And you’re putting me down as a Potionmaker, right?” I ask. We decided it would be safest if I assumed a false identity to get onto the boat, to avoid anyone recognizing a Whisperer absolutely shouldn’t be there. It seemed only natural to use my late mother’s name, as well as her (and Hen’s mother’s) power. That way I know some basics about the magic if anyone asks, not to mention potionmaking would be entirely impractical to demonstrate on board, unlike the elemental magics that can be conjured from the air. “Yes,” Hen confirms. “And you’re sure they’re not going to make me prove it?” She waves me off. “Let me worry about the details.

You worry about the fantastic party awaiting us. Jeweled gardens, live peacocks, a dance floor the size of a town . ” “Hen, if I end up as the human sacrifice because you were thinking about dance floors instead of contest regulations—” Hen stops, leaning solemnly against the wall. “This is not my first time, Zahru.” Meaning not her first time breaking the law, and I force myself to smile. It may appear I’m taking this all in stride, but I’m also the girl who had a moral crisis once after a merchant gave me too much change, and I’m ignoring that this lie will probably haunt me forever. “My associate looked into it,” she continues. “The officials have so much else to deal with that even if we’re caught, we’ll just be removed from the palace grounds. And you know the sacrifice is actually a holy honor, right?” “Right,” I say, fidgeting as Hen starts down the stairs again. But I’ll admit some of my excitement is dampened by the reminder of what tonight actually is.

Atera has been so abuzz since His Majesty, the Mestrah, announced the Crossing, it’s easy to forget that after the parties and celebration, real people will risk their lives for the sake of Orkena’s future. Today, the royal boats will bring much of the nation’s upper class to the palace— one per household—including a select group of Master magicians who will actually participate in the contest. While these contenders split off to compete for a spot on a prince or princess’s team, the others like Hen (and hopefully, me) will get the run of the palace, including a viewing area where we can watch the selection process. Then tomorrow, their teams chosen, the royal heirs will start on a weeklong race across the desert, where they’ll battle the elements and each other and gods know what else to reach the sacred Glass Caves. Where the winner, destined to be our new Mestrah, will have to secure their victory by taking a human life. The gods haven’t called for a Crossing in centuries. I know I must trust the Mestrah, and that I should feel nothing but pride for the contest’s reinstatement. But I also can’t forget that the very reason it was discontinued was because a prior Mestrah deemed the race too brutal. I wonder what changed the gods’ minds. “Going out?” calls Hen’s mother as we reach the bottom of the stairs.

As is typical for the mornings, Hen’s mora sits on a cheery yellow carpet in the main room, eyes winged in lines of kohl, plump legs crossed as she readies her wares for the market. Potion ingredients spread around her like a rainbow: yellow vials of palm oil, blue scorpion claws and orange beetle wings, pink lotus petals and green desert sage. Focus dots circle her beige wrists, drops of liquid gold that steady her hands and center the magic she’ll use in the potions. “Oh, just heading out to lie to a priest and crash the palace banquet,” I say, trying to sound clever. I want to embrace this daring new lifestyle, and Hen’s mother seems like the best place to start because she won’t take me seriously. “Oh, good,” she says—taking me completely seriously. “I’ve been scheming ever since that sour messenger told me only one of us could go.” “She told him she had two daughters,” Hen says, glancing at me. Her mother scowls. “And you know what he said? ‘Send the prettiest one.

You’re too old.’ The cod. I hope he doesn’t find himself in need of my services anytime soon.” She smiles as she pours green liquid into a rounded vial, coating the dried tarantula at the bottom. I have to admit she’s the one person in the world who scares me more than Hen, which is why I’m very glad that when my mother passed, and Hen’s father decided he felt “too tied down” and left the country without them, the broken edges of our families sewed into one. I even call her Mora to honor what she means to me. I’m fairly certain this woman would poison someone for me. “Be safe, my hearts,” Mora says, pinching gold flake atop the now-bubbling potion. “And let me know if you need my help.” “We will,” we promise, kissing her cheeks.

We duck around the sapphire curtain shading the doorway and into the morning sun— and into the backs of a massive crowd. “Sorry,” Hen says, slipping around two younger boys. I follow her between the richly dyed wrap dresses and gem-laden hair of Architects and Dreamwalkers, through a handful of sandy kilts and the dirt-streaked working slips of Gardeners and Weavers— lower magicians like me. It seems the entire town is converging on the shore for a glimpse of the priest and his magical boat. My bare feet press against polished brick as Hen guides us to a side street. Not that it’s much better. People cluster here, too, leaning over iron balconies to ask if the boat has arrived, placing bets on which Aterian contender will actually make a team. Our town has six of them, I think. The Mestrah declared that every upper-class Master aged sixteen to nineteen is eligible to contend, as they’re in the prime of their magic and thus the heirs’ strongest options. With just two moons of training left, Hen missed the cutoff by a hair.

Snippets of conversation flutter past me, and I hang hungrily on to their words. “—thought the Mestrah was going to name Prince Kasta his heir,” muses a man with rich brown skin and rings glittering across his fingers. “Strange the gods would call for a Crossing after so long. Do you think there’s more to it?” “—a human sacrifice! I thought we’d moved past that—” “—really should clear these dirty peasants from the street,” complains a woman with porcelain skin and a gaudy gold headdress. “Why are they even here? None of this is for them.” “Don’t worry,” Hen whispers when the woman curls her lip at me. “I have a lot of dirt on her. Want me to tell her husband about her boyfriend? Or her clients that she’s only been erasing half their wrinkles so they have to hire her again the next week?” I gape at Hen. “How do you know these things?” “It’s my business to know.” “It’s your business to design clothes.

” A shrug. “Rich people like to talk. I like to listen.” She grins. “Hurry, we have to catch him before he gets to Numet’s temple. After that, the list will be much better guarded.” Numet’s temple: the grandest of Atera’s three places of worship. I’d be suspicious of how she knows the priest’s schedule as well, but it only makes sense a priest would want to spend time honoring our sky goddess—the deity from which our Mestrahs are descended—before taking the long ride back to Juvel. We navigate around the baker’s daughter pulling her cart of fresh breads, and past the Gemsmith’s shop, though the Gemsmith herself isn’t in—instead it’s her wife who nods to us over displays of gold chains and jeweled dragonflies. Down an alley choked with barrels we go, where the tantalizing smells of spiced onions and cooking fish drift.

Finally we stumble onto an empty street where the upper district meets the lower, and the ground changes from paving stones to packed dirt. Children play at the corner where the houses meet the road, but everyone else must be clustered toward the shore. We hurry to the end to watch the procession coming up the road. The priest and Royal Materialist are in front, flanked by their leopard-masked guards, and behind them, half the town. Maybe we do need to watch the woman. While the guards keep their gazes forward and stiff (though, who knows what they’re looking at under those masks), her restless eyes shift to the streets and the celebratory flowers strung between buildings. As if she can sense Hen’s irritation with her, her gaze suddenly moves to us. “She knows,” Hen says, crossing her arms. “Memorize this face, Galena. It’ll be the last you see when the queen discovers you’re a fraud.

” “Keep your voice down,” I say. “And your imaginary vendettas on hold. What do we do now?” “How should I know? I’m just here to grab the ledger.” “All right, but I’m not used to this life of crime. Do I run at them like a religious fanatic? Scream in agony and pretend I broke my ankle?”

.

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