Cover Reveal: THE KINDER POISON by Natalie Mae, Plus Excerpt & Giveaway! (US/CAN)
Hi YABCers! We're super excited to reveal the gorgeous cover for Natalie Mae's THE KINDER POISON. Read on for a note from the author, the cover, an excerpt, and a giveaway!
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
All that changes when the ailing ruler invokes an ancient tradition known as the Crossing. It's a death-defying race across the desert, in which the first to finish--and take the life of a human sacrifice at the journey's end--will ascend to the throne and be granted untold powers. Much of Orkena's elite is invited to the capital to witness the epic event, and Zahru intends to be a part of the crowd.
As preparations and celebrations for the Crossing ramp up, Zahru jumps at a chance to sneak into the palace, ready for a taste of the glamour the travelers always speak of. There, she indeed meets a charming stranger: the king's youngest son. She also meets a calculating villain: his elder brother. And when she speaks to the wrong prince at the wrong time, she finds herself chosen to participate in the Crossing itself--as the human sacrifice. Now Zahru has one week to use the mouth that got her into so much trouble to get back out of it, before her adventure ends on the edge of a blade.
Natalie Mae is an ex-programmer, dark chocolate enthusiast, and author of young adult novels. She has also been a freelance editor and Pitch Wars mentor, and feels it notable to mention she once held a job where she had to feed spiders. When not writing, Natalie can be found wandering the Colorado wilderness with her family. Visit her online at nataliemaebooks.com.
READ A SNEAK PEEK!
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. Switched 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 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 tapestry 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?”
“Both good options. I’ll see you in a few.” She darts back the way we came.
“Wait!” I whisper. “Where are you going?”
And she’s gone without an answer. Leaving the fate of the entire evening to me.
All right, Zahru, focus. If they were riding horses, I could have easily introduced myself as the town Whisperer and spent an excessive amount of time tending to their mounts. I could ask for the priest’s blessing, but I think the guards would stop me before I could get close. They’re almost here. Gods, maybe I should run out howling about my ankle.
I move for the street, imagining the look on my father’s face when the priest’s guards drag me home. What am I always telling you, Zahru? he’ll say as the guards untie my hands. You went in without a plan, didn’t you?
Yes, Fara. I went in without a plan.
“Are those lotus boots?” I shriek, praying the Royal Materialist is half as obsessed with going over the details of her work as a certain local one is. “Wait, you . . .” I put my hand to my heart. “You’re Galena of Juvel.”
The woman smiles. “Yes, I am.”
“Move off,” a guard snaps, shoving a spear at me.
“Oh, let the girl be,” the woman says, beaming as she steps around him. “What’s your name?”
Her tone is a little patronizing, but I have to say I’m impressed by her friendliness. “Zahru. I’m a huge fan of yours.”
“Zahru, it’s nice to meet you. I—”
“Galena,” the priest grumbles.
“A minute, Mai. She’s only a girl.” She turns back to me, her pretty violet eyes—powdered with gold and lined with swirls of kohl—darting once down the plain linen of my dress to my bare feet. “You like fashion, Zahru?”
“Yes, adel. I know all about bronze eyelets and Luck shawls.” Not a lie. I know too much about them, if she’s really wondering.
“Another of my fine inventions. That Luck shawl got me this job.” She winks, and over her shoulder I catch a flash of green.
“Where did you get the idea for the lotus boots?” I won’t pretend I’m not fishing for an answer for Hen, and I think I see that green flash pause.
“On a summer walk under the stars. The palace has several beautiful pools covered with lotus flowers, and when I went wading, the idea came to me.”
A whisper that sounds very much like “Lies” drifts through the crowd.
“That seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation,” I say loudly.
“Did you know I’m from a town even smaller than Atera?” the woman continues, and now she has my true attention.
“My mother was a Materialist, but she passed when I was born. My father was a Gardener. Without her we had only his trade to live by, and I went many years of my life without any shoes at all.”
I swallow and scrunch my toes in the sand. This just got much more personal than I ever intended it to, and I know I said I’d side with Hen on pretty much anything, but she didn’t tell me Galena grew up without her mother, too.
“Here.” She begins unlacing her boots. The crowd gasps, and when I understand what she’s doing, my heart jerks. Oh gods, I hope Hen is finished—
“Take these,” she says, handing me the boots, which are several times more expensive than anything I will ever own. “And remember, no matter what you’re born to, you can be more.”
She smiles and starts off, and I can only stare after her, my heart like a dragonfly in my chest. I should probably be taking an important life lesson away from this about honesty and hard work, but all I can think of is how similar our stories are, and how she now travels on a glass boat at the side of a priest. It has to be a sign. That I’m meant to do this, and everything will work out, and maybe it will be even more amazing than I first imagined.
It’s only after the last guard has passed and the crowd wanders in, ogling the lotus boots and whispering, that I remember I’m on a mission. Someone asks to touch the shoes, and under normal circumstances I might have stayed and shared them, but now I clutch them to my chest and dash to the end of the street where I saw Hen disappear. My blood thrums through my body, fitful and restless. I pass through the alley and back into the upper district, around a corner—and right into the crossed arms of Hen.
“Gods!” I yelp, juggling the boots. “Hen! Did you get it?”
Her brown eyes narrow. “It’s done.”
I scream and throw my arms around her. I know exactly what she’s going to say next, but I’m too thrilled to care. We’re leaving. We’re actually leaving Atera to go to the palace, where there are trees that bloom jewels and golden rooms as big as towns. We’ll eat all the chocolate we can stomach. We’ll trail mysterious strangers and find secret passages and witness at least one spectacular rescue, because in all of the travelers’ best stories, someone is always saving someone.
And when we return, Hen and I will bring back with us a memory just like our mothers’. Maybe it’ll be the last one we have before Hen leaves at harvest. Or maybe, I think, squeezing the boots, it will be the first of many.
“You are touching me with her shoes,” Hen complains.
“Sorry,” I say, pulling back. But I can’t stop from grinning. “I did what the mission called for.”
A sigh. “You were really very good.”
“I suppose.” But even with her enemy’s contraband in my hands, she can’t stop a small smile. She gives my shoulders a shake. “We’re going to the banquets.”
I let out another squeal, and this time she joins me.
“There’s just one thing left to do,” she says, a new gleam in her eyes.
“Don’t tell me you’re going after Galena now.”
“Oh, she’ll get hers, but there are more immediate needs at hand.” Her smile quirks. “It’s time for phase two.”
I blink. “There’s a phase two?”
“Yes. One your delicate conscience won’t be able to handle.” She smirks. “Say goodbye to your father, and I’ll find you as soon as I can.”
I’m very quiet as I slip in through the stable door. But as anxious as I am to admit to the man who raised me that I’ve turned into a petty con artist, my fara is not inside. The animals stir in their stalls; a camel chews noisily on her cud. My father must be in the pasture.
Gods, please let him give me his blessing.
I flex my grip on the small sack I’m holding and start down the aisle.
Fara’s veterinary clinic is the biggest stable in town, not because we have the most money, but because we need the space. The Mestrah allows us free rent as long as we prioritize his soldiers’ horses on the rare occasion they come through. Half the stalls are reserved for large animals like cattle, gazelles, and camels. We’ve converted the other half into keeps for small animals like cats, dogs, falcons—sometimes monkeys, when needed. Some of the animals simply need boarding while their owners travel, while others need medical care. Most of them have quite an opinion about being left here like, well, animals. But Fara is kind and patient, and I’d like to think I am, too, and after a day most of their complaints have subsided.
Twig girl, snorts a cow in the second stall. This food. Bad.
Except for the cows. Who seem to think they’re entitled to royal treatment, and who find the stable and its caretakers infinitely lacking.
“I don’t have time for you right now,” I say. “It’s fresh. Just eat what I gave you.”
Sensitive thing, thinks her companion, eyeing me.
Human on bad food, too, remarks the first. Can’t make grain, can’t make anything.
I grit my teeth. “For the last time, you’re on a diet. Your masters specifically told me not to give you honey.”
The second snorts. Always on diet when here. Food bad as chewed cud.
“Oh, you ungrateful—”
“You know it’s no use arguing,” Fara says, squeezing in through the far doorway and making me jump. My father is dressed today in his usual working slip, a sandy fabric that nearly matches his skin in the mild winter months but is now several shades lighter than his summer tan. A herding dog wiggles in his arms, one leg wrapped in palm leaves where a salve covers a scorpion sting. The other three legs thrash when she sees me.
Human! Human human human, can I see her? Please please please! I need down. Down down!
She licks Fara’s face with the last request, and he smiles and strokes her side. “Yes, you did very good. We’ll go back outside again soon.”
No, down! Human! Play! Play—cat? Cat! Cat cat!
My heart clenches as Fara lowers the dog into a converted stall. As with most magic in our world, his abilities have faded with age and use, the same way muscles weaken over time. Fara was lucky to make it twenty-nine years with his. That’s the only advantage of the lesser magics: they take far less of a toll on our bodies, and so we can use them longer. But many would agree ten years as Orkena’s most powerful Firespinner far outshines thirty as Orkena’s best Whisperer.
Two moons ago, Fara went deaf to the animals completely, and they stopped being able to understand him as well. And while it hasn’t affected his medical expertise, he can no longer ask his patients what ails them or sense their fear, and so the weight of the stable has slowly shifted to me.
“You’ve been gone awhile,” Fara says, wiping his hands on an old rag. “Was the market very busy?”
“I—yes,” I say, hastily handing over the bag. “But I found everything we needed. I even got acacia and aloe. And that snake bite salve we liked so well.”
Fara stares. “Zahru, that salve is expensive. We can make do with the honey poultice.”
“It’s all right. Hen covered it.”
A small lie. The lotus boots covered it. Hen wanted me to get rid of them, so I did.
Fara tsks. “She shouldn’t have. She and her mother have already done far too much for us.”
This is the point where I should move on to the reason I splurged on so many fine medicines, but being the awkward and half-ashamed daughter I am, I just stand there while Fara takes the bag to the dusty cabinet. I’m still not sure how to tell him what I’ve done. Oddly it’s not even the priest-conning part of it I’m worried about. It’s that I can see how diligently he’s working despite the excited shouts outside the stable; how focused he is even as the rest of Atera leaves their work to blow horns in the streets. He isn’t even annoyed with it, just . . . accepting. To him, our place is here, and the idea of me keeping company with Dreamwalkers and Airweavers is absurd at best. I couldn’t stand to hear him say I don’t belong with them at the palace.
But more than that, I don’t want him to see how badly I want to leave.
“Zahru,” Fara says in the tone he uses when he’s been trying to get my attention for some time. He’s holding a jar of numbing cream from the sack, another small treasure I splurged on.
“Are you sad about Hen’s invitation?”
My stomach clenches. I wasn’t even sure he knew she’d been invited. “No. Well, I was at first, but then . . .”
“I’m sorry about it, too,” Fara says, fidgeting with the cream. “I feel . . . it’s my fault. If you had your mother’s magic, maybe—”
“Fara!” My chest constricts, and I rush to him, shaken he believes that’s the reason I’d be sad about not going. Fara has always taken pride in our abilities, even if our work is not as celebrated as others’. And it’s not like he had any control over my fate—I inherited his Whisperer magic the same way I inherited my mother’s fair skin and amber eyes.
“Don’t say that,” I say, leaning my head against his broad chest. “Our work is important, too.”
He’s quiet a moment, his hand warm on my back. Then he pulls me gently away and holds up the cream. “You’re going to try to get in, aren’t you?”
Heat flushes my neck. “I . . .”
“That was a very long hug, and these are a lot of expensive products.”
How does he do that? “I was really close to telling you, I promise.”
“Zahru, what if you get caught?”
“Hen looked into it. They’ll just escort us out. It’s only bad if you try to sneak in as a contender.”
“And if you’re in Juvel? Will they send you home?”
“Hen will be with me the whole time. She’ll buy our passage back if they won’t return us.” I press my hands together. “Please, Fara? It’s just a night. I’ll be back in time for supper tomorrow, and then I’ll be here. Forever.” I don’t mean to say that last word aloud, or in the ominous tone a priest would use to impart a deadly omen, but Fara understands. He kisses my head and sighs.
“You are my world, kar-a. I want you to be safe.” His smile is sad. “I also want you to be happy. It’s only for a night? You’ll be protected?”
“They’ll have guards. And literally all of the country’s top magicians will be within a kilometer of us. If we’re not safe there, we’re not safe anywhere.”
A grunt. Leave it to my father to consider even that might not be enough. “All right. You have my blessing.”
I squeal and hug him again. “Thank you, Fara! I’ll bring you something from the royal city.”
He shakes his head. “Just bring yourself back.” He pauses to think. “Though I wouldn’t mind some chocolate, if you can manage it.”
I smile. “Of course.”
I help Fara put away the remaining salves, excitement bouncing through me. My fake name is on the ledger. I have Fara’s blessing—now I just need to hear from Hen. But just as I’m starting to worry that “phase two” will involve me negotiating her release from jail, quick footsteps beat outside the stable, and she comes bouncing in.
“Zahru!” she wheezes.
She’s in a green jole, her arms bare and her deep beige skin glowing with pearl dust. Swirling golden circles—Numet’s symbol—curl around her bicep, and her short hair jingles with beads of gold and emeralds. She carries a bundle of garnet-red cloth wrapped over something that chimes as she moves.
“You look amazing,” I say.
“Storeroom!” she says, jogging past me without a glance.
“Is everything all right?”
“No time to chat. Phase two is complete, and they’re boarding the boat.”
She disappears behind the storage room’s tan curtain, and I nearly trip on the water jug as I hurry after her. “As in, boarding now?”
“Has it been an hour already?” I pull my arms out of my sleeves and tug the slip off, while Hen sets the red bundle on a grain sack. “Wait. How did phase two take you an hour?”
“Less talking, more dressing!” Hen gathers the red dress into a loop and gestures for me to raise my arms, then pushes the bundle over my head. The shining fabric spills down my body, flaring from red to gold with the light. It’s sleeveless like Hen’s, but the top gathers in the center instead of the side, forming rippling pleats that overlay the dress all the way to the floor.
“Hen, this is . . . stunning,” I say, looking over my shoulder. The back opens to the base of my spine, where fine chains connect the fabric on either side. Hen flits behind me and mends a torn chain with a press of her fingers.
“It’s boring, is what it is,” she says. “But Mora wouldn’t let me dress you in only river reeds, so this is what I have to work with.”
“Is this fire silk?”
“Look straight ahead.”
I do. Hen grabs one of the things that had been bundled in the dress—a thin brush and a jar of black pigment—and holds my jaw with her free hand. “Close your eyes.”
“I already lined them,” I say as the brush kisses my eyelid.
The brush trails out to the edge of my eye and loops beside it.
“You better not be drawing anything gross.”
The brush retracts, then starts on my other eyelid.
“There’s no phase three, right?” I ask. “Remember when I asked if I’d have to prove I was a Potionmaker? And you didn’t answer?”
This side of my face doesn’t get the same loop as the first. Hen has me look up and starts lining the bottom lid.
“The others had to prove their identities at the temple,” she says. “We don’t.”
“What does that mean?” The brush lifts, and I open my eyes. “You . . . made a deal with someone?”
Hen considers this, a small smile in her lips. “Yes?”
“See, when you give me an answer that sounds like a question, it makes me think you’re lying.”
“When you ask me a question you already know the answer to, it makes me want to lie.”
“You blackmailed someone.”
Hen just grins and lets down my hair, threading crystals into the brown waves around my face, then lifts a delicate tangle of chains from the grain sack. It separates into three fine loops in her fingers, a garnet pendant dangling from the place they connect. A protection rune flashes from the gem’s face. I realize what it is just as she lowers it, and I grab her wrists.
“I can’t accept this,” I say.
“But it’s yours.”
“No, it was my mother’s, and now it’s your mother’s, after mine gave it to her on her deathbed.”
“Mora wants you to wear it.” She secures the last hairpin so the jewel dangles by my left eye, and starts taming flyaway stands of my hair. A new wave of appreciation for everything she’s done floods through me.
“I’ll take care of it,” I say.
She grabs my hand and tows me from the storage room. Fara turns from where he’s mixing a poultice, and smiles as he takes us in.
“You look royal, girls,” he says. “But is everything all right? Did I hear the boat is boarding now?”
“Yes, Fara, sorry,” I say, darting to peck his cheek. “I love you. See you tomorrow!”
“Love you, too,” he calls.
I think he might also say something about making good choices, but we’re already out the door, me holding a hand to my head chain and Hen holding her skirt. The desert sun burns hot on our shoulders.
“Rie,” I swear. “I can’t believe we’re doing this. I can’t believe we’re actually going!” I laugh as we turn a corner, as fleet as antelope. “Can you even imagine what the contenders are going through? I’m nervous just to watch! I bet they’ll be judged on their every move. One wrong smile and that’s it, no eternal glory for them.”
Hen shrugs. “But also no untimely death.”
“Death?” We swerve to avoid a mother holding a baby. “The royal siblings aren’t supposed to kill each other, are they?”
“Oh, no. But I’ve been reading all about past contests, and sometimes death just happened. Rogue assassins, hungry hyenas, starvation . . .”
My stomach tightens in pity. I guess I assumed royalty would have divine protection against such things, especially considering the way people have been celebrating the contenders all week. Everyone seems much more concerned with the prizes for being chosen: their name in history, a suite at the palace. I never stopped to consider why the prizes were so grand.
“Gods, and they’re out there at least a week, right?”
“If they don’t get hopelessly lost.”
“That would be awful,” I say as we cross into the upper district. The road ahead is packed with people, and Hen tugs me toward a gap at the side. “Can you imagine? Going through all this fuss and stress, just to get buried under a sandstorm?”
“Well, they will have spells and such. But just think.” Hen’s eyes flash, and we press between a man in a brown tunic and a pigtailed girl. “If Gallus gets chosen, we can picture him being chased by all kinds of rabid things.”
I snicker at the thought of my ex pompously fighting a rattlesnake while trying to keep his hair perfect. “I hope something bites him in the rear while he’s sleeping.”
“I hope it bites him in the—”
“Shh,” I say, giggling and clasping my hand over her mouth. The ground under our feet has shifted from hot brick to cool wood. “You can’t say that here. At least wait until we’re on the boat.”
The mesh of people thickens as we excuse ourselves through, until it suddenly yields to the dock, a long structure of waterproof wood and iron posts, upon which ropes tether all sizes of boats to the shore. Guards stand in a wide semicircle around the priest and his assistants, giving them space. The nearest guard takes one look at our elaborate joles and nods us through. The crowd grumbles in envy. I admit the attention sends a shiver of satisfaction down my spine—I’m usually the one watching everyone else leave.
Galena stands at the base of a wide plank, and it takes me a moment to realize that plank doesn’t lead to the glass boat. It leads to one made of a strange wood instead, something swirled with black and golden tones that looks like an enormous version of the giraffe from Mora’s collection. A deep red canopy shades its deck, under which dozens of people mingle in their finest, their small crowns of gold and gemmed rings glinting like sparks in the sun. I recognize a young man who tutored Hen in writing, and the Gemsmith—no wonder her wife is tending her wares. The plank to the glass boat is by the priest instead, blocked by a particularly burly guard.
The Mestrah must have sent one boat to carry spectators and another for the contenders. I’m slightly disappointed Hen and I won’t be riding on glass, but honestly I’d be happy to take a leaky canoe at this point.
“Here’s something we didn’t think about,” I mutter, looping my arm through Hen’s. “The entire town is staring at us right now, including the Apothecarist I just bought salves from and your nemesis, who might remember handing me her shoes this morning. The punishment for getting caught is seriously ‘go away,’ right?”
“Don’t worry. No one’s going to recognize you. Your makeup has been done correctly for once.”
I snort. “I can do my makeup correctly.”
“Mm hmm.” She adjusts her hair and smooths a pleat near my hip. “Like I said, they don’t care about spectators. They only strip your name away and shame your family if you try to sneak in as a contender. So relax, you’re wrinkling the silk.”
I exhale, trying to draw on even a sliver of Hen’s confidence. I don’t need to be so nervous. This will either work or it won’t, and if it doesn’t, at least I will have tried. Maybe I’ll even gain some semblance of infamy. I think I’d like people looking at me sidelong, worried I might do something unexpected and daring at any moment.
“Cutting it close, aren’t we?” the priest says, his usual scowl in place. The words inked into his shoulders glisten with embedded gold. “Lucky for you, we’re all happy to stand around in the heat while you decide whether you’ll bother to show.”
“Apologies, adel,” Hen says, bowing with her arm over her chest. I do the same. “We lost track of time.”
“Which of you is Hen, and which is Lia?”
“I’m Hen,” Hen says.
Galena steps forward with a smile. She nods to me as well, but Hen must not be exaggerating about my makeup, because all Galena’s gaze holds is curiosity, thank the gods. She’s still shoeless, and I still have an undefinable urge to hug her.
“Hen, I’m Galena,” she says, nodding in greeting.
“I know who you are,” Hen says, crossing her arms. I clear my throat, and Hen mercifully says nothing more.
Galena raises a brow but gestures to the plank. “Would you come with me?”
I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from screaming Yes! I can’t believe we did it. After the uncertainty of this week, after all our worrying, now we can finally relax. We’re here. We’re here, and with Hen having already done . . . whatever she did . . . to get our identities cleared, there are no more hurdles. We’re going to the palace, and it’ll be a night that’s just ours; a treasure no one can take away.
A memory I can unfold anytime I’m missing her, and remember what we used to be.
We start for the plank—and the priest grabs my arm.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he says.
My heart lurches. He knows. Gods, he knows, and of course he’d wait until the worst possible moment to reveal it—
“That boat’s for the spectators,” he says. “The contenders are over here.”
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