Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence and mature content.
For those just joining us: Kerani is a counterassassin who has discovered a large plot that impacts her main source of information— underground crime— but her father is insisting she start to give up her counterassassin ways so she can get married. She was just attacked during the middle of her betrothment party for her working on stopping the people attacking underground crime
Poison antidotes always wiped me out for at least a day. I was able to keep watch for danger, and if pressed I could have fought off an attacker, but otherwise I stayed in bed. I hadn’t figured out if it was because I didn’t need them, so my body reacted as if I had been poisoned, or if I took too little and I wiped myself out picking up the slack.
Considering my options were to keep my current regiment or death, I put up with the consequences. I would build tolerance eventually.
The sense of somebody else in my suite had my under-pillow dagger in my hand and halfway out of its sheath before Nitika’s signature registered. Caught between a relieved exhale and about to yell at her for being in my poison-filled room when pregnant, I dragged myself out of bed, peeling off sweat soaked pajamas. I was lucid enough to tell she was drawing a bath in my large pool, so I headed there.
I didn’t want to admit how difficult it was to use the winding ramp spiraling around the basin as stairs, but was too prideful to loop around it with Nitika in the room. Even though the ramps existed for exactly when I was too weak to walk and needed to relax in water.
She barely even glanced over her shoulder at me as she ran her hand under the water. “I figured you were smart enough to keep your poisons contained for me to come inside.”
I sat heavily on the edge of the large basin, toes barely brushing the water as they dangled into the pool. “What’re you even doing here?”
Now she did glance at me. “You didn’t even lecture me on airborne poisons. What is it?”
I rubbed my forehead. “Figured you of all people would be smart enough to know that.”
She made a small noise at the back of her throat. “To answer your question, the healers want somebody to look you over, Bahij wants to stick his nose into what you’re doing, Suraj wants to stick his nose into what you’re doing, and you need to relax before facing any of that.”
I exhaled. “Thanks…” The water was up to my ankles, now, the basin filling up remarkably quickly. I started carefully unhooking my breastband so as not to have the small throwing knives fall out of their precariously clasped sheaths.
Nitika stared at the clank of wooden handles on tile as I set it down, blinking at the blades. “Are you always armed?”
I nodded and slid out of my loincloth before entering the water. “When I can’t wear the band, they’re sewn to the sides of my bodice.”
Her eyes flicked to my body and I dulled my senses as much as I dared, waiting for her to take in my skin. I had given up figuring out which scars were worse— my back, overcrowded from not enough skill and too much cowardice; or my front, full of near-fatal plunges in moments of weakness.
I dove under the surface to ignore everything she could possibly say next, giving both of us time to think. The blissfully warm water eased the ache still deep in my muscles, an ache that was returning with a vengeance after only a short time moving.
By the time I’d surfaced, I had forgotten Nitika was staring at me. It was only a clearing of her throat that reminded me I was even in the same room as somebody else. Despite the scare, despite logically knowing such a lapse could get me killed, my heart rate barely elevated. My mind was barely registering that was even a problem.
I needed to do more tests on my reserve blood.
She let silence hang again while I wiped water from my eyes. “I hadn’t realized your service had been so… active.”
I chuckled deep inside my throat. “I might as well have been retired the past six months.”
She frowned. “Just six?”
I nodded and swam over to my underwater bench. It was easy to pick out a vial of my favourite oil displayed on the extra-wide rim of my basin; each scent and type of oil had a different shape and texture, creating a tapestry of glittering glass and stone.
I had taken particular interest in designing such a luxurious bathing space, the various vials and jars making the room look like a proper princess’. Something I had dreamed of being at the time. “Jalil’s suites are less active than the rest of the palace. Ranya leaving stopped the worst of it. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think there was another woman vying for Suraj’s hand.”
She snorted. “I always wondered why tasters in the harems was so tightly controlled.” Her pause wasn’t open to somebody else breaking into the conversation. “Speaking of Suraj, he sent you a letter.”
“Of course he did.”
I paused. “He did?”
“Well…” She sighed, waiting for my sigh to die down before she continued. “He apologized then said you would have to work on a compromise for the future.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, now. The oil still on my hands left a slick impression, perfume so close to my eyes making them water. At least I could blame any tears that began flowing on that.
I ran the oil back through my hair, working on scrubbing the sick-sweat off my scalp. Within a few moments I had reached for salt to aid the process, mixing it with a different oil to produce the scrub my skin needed. The mosaic under the water glistened in the lantern-light, shining gold and pink tiles matching the rest of the room. Mixing the solution in a separate bowl was something I could do in my sleep; I tried to have something simple in muscle memory, something to remnd me I didn’t just know how to handle a blade.
“It’s never a good sign when you go this quiet.”
My hands lowered from rubbing my shoulder raw. “Compromise never means anything good. Compromise means stop being a guard.”
“Do you want to stop?”
I looked away sharply. Nobody had ever asked me that.
When the silence dragged on a bit too long for her comfort, she continued. “Well?”
“I don’t want to stop because somebody else would rather I be pregnant,” I murmured. “They can’t just tell me when to start and stop.”
She dipped her feet in the water, sari pulled up to avoid getting it wet. “Did they force you to start?”
“So this is rebellion.”
I smirked, now. “They asked for it.”
She laughed softly, the sound echoing in the mostly-marble room. “It’s unusual, for a woman to be forced into any one path, in the Empire. We’re kept out of some of them, but not… stopped or forced, for what’s available.”
I shrugged, pushing myself out of the water and glad the stone was elementalist-heated. “We can’t stop bandits, in the mountains. We can’t stop assassinations in the mountains. The fact I can sense everyone in the family so well… it was only natural, I be the guard. Especially as we started getting rid of them. I was somebody you couldn’t remove.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
I raised an eyebrow, pausing with another glob of salt on my fingers. “Have you ever even guessed at how the Empire keeps its provinces from rebellion?”
She looked at me like I had just asked the stupidest question in the world. “Army size lim— oh.”
I nodded, rubbing the dead skin off my back. “And considering the army and guard are the same organization— which, I might add, is a further method of limiting army size imposed by the Empire— it becomes impossible to keep our family protected without me. I don’t even want to think of the death toll other provinces had at trying to be selected for the next Empress. Or what they had to hide to keep their girls safe.”
She shuddered. “So they let you kill each other instead of even thinking about looking at their power.”
We were quiet for awhile, me returning to rubbing sick-sweat off my skin. I was definitely still tired, and I couldn’t tell if it was from trying to fight poison, or another one of the poison’s effects. The room was starting to feel overly-warm, now, while I felt overly cold. I slid back in the water to try and reach balance, not knowing if this was a symptom of exhaustion or a sign I was about to wear out my antidote.
The fact I even doubted that pointed towards poison.
A swish of water from a lazy kick brought my attention back to Nitika. “Does the Empire know about you?”
“Not officially.” I shrugged. “Unofficially every political organization knows more than it lets on. But how much they know I can’t say.”
Her feet kept moving, flicking water halfway across the pool. “I don’t recall my father mentioning you.”
That brought a smile to me, despite it all. “I tried to be invisible.”
She laughed. “I hardly even knew you existed my first few months here!”
“Good.” I dragged myself off my bench, returning to an uneasy swim. For once the depth of the water, barely allowing me to stand and keep my head above it, scared me. “It meant you had no reason to know me.”
She kept watching, keeping an almost maternal eye as I worked tired muscles. “You’re not really part of the family, are you?”
It was hard not to sink at how cold that made me feel. The water was still warm; I had to remind myself of that. “I am sworn to protect my own.”
“That didn’t answer my question.”
I glanced back at her.
She looked away. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
I forced my way back to the edge, finding a rough stone that I wouldn’t slip off. “No. You shouldn’t have.”
I pushed myself out of the water near the towels, rubbing my skin down and glancing at the scabbed-over cut on my arm. The blood had streaks of clear liquid and sickly black woven into it, something I never particularly considered good signs.
Nitika stood to offer me a hand up. “How often does this happen?”
I took it begrudgingly. “Poisoning? Every few months. Feeling like this after poisoning? Almost never.”
She froze. “Few months?”
I nodded, stepping from rough stone to rough stone as I tried to talk and walk out of the bathroom at the same time. “I had just recovered… before…”
She hooked her arm around me. “Kerani?”
I scrunched my eyes shut, rubbing my temple and leaning against her. “Headache… I need to… test this.”
“I’m staying while you do.”
I didn’t protest. She hovered as close as possible. I would have honestly forgotten to get dressed if she hadn’t shoved clothing in my hands, something I could easily wrap around my body.
I knew parts of what poison they had used thanks to some field tests, but obviously I had missed something. Only a handful of poisons— all incredibly expensive— were even possible to miss on the tests I had performed.
I dragged out my rarer supplies, Nitika slipping on one of my spare masks. “Should I get the palace chemists?”
“And hand them my possible assassination on a silver platter?”
Brilliant she may be, political she was not.
They were noble. While they themselves were so far removed from the throne they would only directly inherit with five coups, their relatives might only need two. And two removed from the throne was the most dangerous group of all. I had blackmail on too many of them to trust they wouldn’t lie to me about the results.
I could test for the poisons I had missed. Vy had made sure of that. She could test it, but I would have to deliver it myself and I didn’t trust I could stay alert enough. I’d reserve a third of the blood to make sure she had enough.
On a hunch, and wanting to rule out the most deadly of the lot first, I cut a patch out and dusted kalisi on the blood stain.
Pinholes in the fabric appeared almost instantly. They spread like smoldering fire, quickly eating away the whole scrap.
It took everything in me not to scream.
Thank Palanhaar the guards never used kalisi in our antidotes for exactly this reason. Palace healers, on the other hand, did.
I needed to get to the city. Immediately.
Standing up as quickly as I did stopped that plan in its tracks. I needed to get to the guard healers immediately, instead.
Nitika had backed away at the embers. “I thought Snakesblood was a myth.”
I shook my head. “I wish. Trust me, I wish.”
“I’ll stall should anyone come searching for you.”
I tipped my head in gratitude and slipped away.