Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for 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. She's treated herself and is still sick, only to realize the poison used is a mythical, rumoured-to-be-fake poison known as Snakesblood.
Walking through the underground passages that connected the nobility to the guards felt vaguely surreal. I had walked these cold, deep tunnels before, sometimes just to draw from the ancient familial magic embedded in every speck of dirt, but this time they seemed to be any other stone. The wards and emergency stores were almost completely invisible to me unless I searched for them, and normally they were at my call within a moment.
Now that I knew what to look out for, I was surprised I hadn’t noticed the most obvious symptoms. I’d read about Snakesblood before, with its chief marker being isolation. Where I could normally feel the world around me, there was nothing but a blank, fuzzy feeling. I knew I should be terrified, but its other effect of dulling the mind was in full force. It was primarily subconscious routines that kept me walking in the same direction, as agonizing as it was.
I had forced myself to sense Nitika previously, and my energy to force myself was dwindling. My willpower to even consider doing the act was dwindling. This poison worked by wearing down all resources, all possible ways to fight it. Every other poison, every other toxin, could eventually be cast away by powerful enough individuals. Except this.
Snakesblood was more expensive than the finest perfumes to make. I couldn’t help but feel complimented whoever targeted me had taken the best.
In longer time than I would’ve liked, I emerged in the barracks near the healer’s wing. Even this place felt only marginally better, training partners and active movement of humans nagging at me but unreadable. Giri appeared within moments, taking one look at me and ordering me to bed.
I willingly obliged, curling up on one of the thick cots that felt like sleeping on lush field. The beds were not that soft. My word was more self-reasoning than answer to an unspoken question of what had brought me here. “Snakesblood.”
His eyes widened. Within moments he returned with a small black vial, helping me sit up before handing it to me. “I’m surprised you’re walking.”
I snorted and uncorked the cap. It was hard to remember legends of this poison, but I remembered enough to know how most people couldn’t leave bed, let alone do anything. “I want to say I’ve been through worse, but I don’t think from a single attack.”
The smell of this antidote was unmistakable, even with nothing registering to my senses. I’d smelled it exactly once, when somebody had wasted a small fortune on attempting to assassinate Ranya— Ihit himself had taken that hit while I was busy with an accomplice. He had been in the healer’s barrack for three days as the antidote ravaged him, otherwise too weak to leave the bed.
This was not going to be pleasant.
Knocking back the full vile was an exercise in willpower. My body wanted to reject it halfway through; I forced it to take everything, and kept my mouth shut as it sat in my stomach. My hands clenched and unclenched in an unpredictable rhythm, sweat already beginning to make itself known on my forehead.
There was commotion on the outside, somebody calling my name and Giri growling with the strength of a lion to leave. I made a small moan in the back of my throat, knowing my eyes were open and I was looking at the polished dirt floor but not able to register anything around me.
His hands— I thought they were his hands— gripped me gently enough I thought my father had returned and was easing me to bed with the care he had given me as a child. Blankets over top of me felt like sheets of ice, but that was preferable to the unbearable warmness beginning to take over my body.
Malaria hadn’t been this bad. No illness I could name had been this bad. I whimpered and curled up on the bed, wanting to claw at my skin but not managing more than gripping my arms.
Utter chaos at the entrance to the healer’s barrack just made me hide deeper under the blankets. Those sounds hurt with the antidote, my already sensitive hearing overwhelmed by blood rushing in my ears. Ihit hadn’t ever described this because he wasn’t a sensor— but here I was, feeling everything more intensely. I could hear my heart beating relentlessly, the compass letting me know I was alive.
Familiarity was my other anchor, Aydin and Sakari bolstered me. They were my guards above all else, as much as I protected them. Their presence gave me a break, as much as I still wanted to throw up. Their energy didn’t rush through my fingers like my own, giving me a heated spear to hold in a raging storm.
Ice stabbed me in the chest, the shock to my system bringing instant lucidity.
I was still covered in blankets.
I flung off soaking wet sheets, sitting up and peeling off my shirt in the same motion. I hated fevers breaking more than I hated being sick; when sick, at least, I could forget what it felt like.
Giri handed me water once I no longer had dampness against my torso; I downed the whole skin in a single breath. The faint taste of salt and chai relieved my parched throat, the taste far too associated with healing for me to grimace at the otherwise-odd liquid.
He stood and went towards the curtain sectioning off my area. “Once you’re decent, Suraj wants to see you. The Raja is… impatient to have you in the palace.”
I paused before pinching the bridge of my nose. “So that’s what that was.” Before he could say anything, I raised a finger. “If he issued one order for any of you to get flogged, I will tell him exactly why I couldn’t be disturbed.”
I’d take it in their place, if that’s what it took.
He waved a hand. “No need. Ihit spoke with him already.”
That made me rake a hand through soaking wet hair. “How long…?”
“You’ll be walking by moonlight.” He tilted his head to the side, set of his mouth soft. “I’m impressed with ya. Was expecting you to be here a day, maybe more.”
I gave him a humourless smirk, standing to test my legs and get more wet clothing off. “I get some reward for dosing myself with poison monthly.”
He shook his head, beginning to strip off the sheets. “That doesn’t matter, with Snakesblood. It’s made to take out people like you. Have every mind to keep you here till morning.”
I stretched my neck side to side, a loud snap greeting the attempt at movement. I hadn’t realized how stiff I felt when the poison running through me. “I have every mind to come back… don’t trust palace healers farther than I can spit, when it comes to this.”
I had too much blackmail on them, too.
I would have much preferred to tell Father I would stay overnight. My body didn’t feel right, yet. My skin felt too tight, joints too loose— and I felt weak. Even though I could sense again, nothing felt properly connected, yet. Fever still raged just under the surface, temporarily kept at bay.
Afraid to reach out to Father, I settled for the next best thing. “Does the Raja know I’m… conscious?”
Giri pulled out a replacement mattress once he’d determined the old one was soaked through. “Had a page in here who ran back the minute you threw off the blankets.”
Before he could continue— or I could curse— Sakari poked her head in. “How’re you feeling?”
I took the towel she handed to me, rubbing off the sweat still pouring out of my skin. And I had just taken a bath. “My senses are still fuzzy, I now know how training dummies feel, and the Raja wants to see me anyway.”
Her hands joined mine, rubbing away with more firmness than I could muster. “Is that better or worse?”
I snorted. “Better.”
“Does she need anything in her water?” Aydin asked from somewhere.
I forced myself beyond the veil of poison, gritting my teeth. He was just behind the curtain, out of lantern light reach. I could follow the page’s trail from where Aydin had been standing to Father’s office, which contained Suraj— impatient but worried— and Father— impatient, worried, and angry. Guards along the wall keeping watch. The undertow of servants blending together in an ebb and flow of normalcy, the odd patches of worry there had been an attack. Everyone was on edge but it didn’t press down on me like it normally did; there wasn’t the concern of wild horses who had just been leapt on, wondering if they would be next.
Everyone seemed to know I was the target.
Either that, or I plain old couldn’t feel it.
“Yer lucky we have stage two antidote,” Giri said from behind me, thumping the new mattress in place. “If you need a third stage, you need to go to the monks.”
Stages of Snakesblood. I had forgotten, temporarily, about stages of Snakesblood. Almost nobody needed to know about the stages— it was expensive enough to produce stage one, let alone any of the worst. They stopped making antidotes at stage four, and reached for a blade, instead; it was a more merciful death.
Ayden finally came into sight, parting the curtain and quickly looking me over. I tugged the shirt he offered over my head. “Flattering, really.”
He shook his head at me. “Leave it to you to take poison as a compliment.”
I grinned. “If you knew the prices of this stuff, you’d take it as a compliment, too.”
Ayden rubbed his mouth, going over the attack. “They completely bypassed us. Then had a diversion. And had a backup guard. Whoever this is…”
I hung my head, elbows on my knees as I sat on the new mattress. It still didn’t feel as firm as it normally did. “They were strong enough to take out a whole squad of Rats. I knew they were good. I didn’t realize how good.”
Giri shook a water skin. “We’re still better. No worse than a scratch.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about.”
I hadn’t heard news in weeks. There was still nothing from the farmers. Bahij hadn’t gotten a messenger through, even with Rat help— not like they wanted to provide much, between his loose lips and their own self interests. The lush season was ending, most people’s focuses turning to harvest and surviving the winter.
I was running out of time to get news.
My temples throbbed, Father’s impatience and anger turning to demands to end his moods. I needed to remember the time of day didn’t matter— if he wanted to see me late at night, he saw me.
I dragged a hand down my face. “I’ll be back later.”