Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for mature content.
For those of you just joining us: Kerani (a counterassassin) was poisoned at her betrothment party from investigating a war that is threatening to destroy her main source of information: underground crime. She's been unusually and severely sick despite her high resistance to poisons, and they discovered it's because she was poisoned with the second-most severe poison known to man— and the two more severe types are the same type of poison, just stronger. She's just barely gotten out of the stage two antidote after effects when her father called her to his study.
Appearing in a standard Guard uniform, consisting of a rough white cotton shirt with turmeric-dyed trim to denote Palahira alliance, instead of my usual muslin and silver-embroidered shirt of a noble among guards, had potentially been a mistake. Suraj wore enough jewellery he could have passed for a Tijal in line for the Imperial throne, and Father was in the full-saffron robes of the Raja.
If they thought I was going to let that intimidate me, they were very, very mistaken.
Suraj looked me over as I sat. “Are you still sick, Kerani?”
I smiled at him out of pure politeness. “Unfortunately this was not an illness and instead a poisoning attempt, and I will need to continue with the guard—“
“The palace healers will supervise your care,” Father said curtly, looking down at something he was writing. “I have already made arrangements for you to spend time in their wing, as you should be.”
I paused long enough to let him think I was considering it. “Their antidotes and methods will kill me.”
His mouth opened and closed a few times. “You’re still feeling poison’s effects, that means their—“
“The Guard antidotes took me from being barely able to move or sense or think to being functional enough I can appear before you.” I inclined my head towards Suraj, addressing the one who was supposed to know the least. “Snakesblood comes in multiple potencies, and I only received the weakest stage’s antidote. It’s much safer to use a lower stage and increase it, for how too much can equally cause death. Palace antidote treatments usually involve afeem, as treatments are excruciatingly painful. Snakesblood is designed with this in mind and will dissolve anything in its path upon contacting afeem.”
His jaw slacked. “How… can you even tell?”
I laughed. “I was still sick after a day, to begin with. I proceeded to sprinkle afeem powder on cloth soaked in my blood and it dissolved. I should have known that the speed at which it did indicated something more potent than the first stage.”
Desperate to keep some grip on me, Father found his voice. “They will administer it here in the healer’s quarters. I will not have a princess of this province with guards.”
This was wearing my already thin patience down. “I’ll be better protected with them. And better monitored.”
Suraj, sheltered as he was, asked a question that sounded like it came from an Imperial visitor than somebody in my home province. “Are there… men, among Guard healers? Or will you be with women?”
Only now did it dawn on me I had been completely nude around two men, something commonplace among Guards but unheard of among the caste I was now mingling with. “Both.”
Even with dulled senses, their shock and horror pressed down on me. I hoped to Sandhin that I hadn’t transmitted what I had just done— not like it was a risk, for how they could sense I hadn’t played with the men around me at the guards.
“The contract,” Suraj stammered. “Specified…”
I lifted a finger. “You would have an Imperial wife when possible barring the guards’ authority and expertise. The head healer among Guards is a man, and he is the only man in the palace able to dose antidotes of this potency.”
Father’s cheeks darkened, matching flint in his eyes. He stood with such force papers rustled; sorting through his papers produced far more noise than was necessary. “That was not the original statement of the contract.”
I inclined my head in acknowledgement. “I edited it and you signed the edited version, not the original, making it the binding contract.”
He found the contract, beckoning Suraj over to read it. They found the passage in moments, Suraj’s jaw dropping and Father’s tightening. The tightening went down to his hands; my heart leapt to my throat when his grip shifted—
Suraj’s voice stopped everyone in their tracks.
He exhaled. “No. The contract is not worth destroying over this. She’s right. If the Guard healers saved her life, then she should be allowed to return to them for treatment, no matter what the Empire says. They’re not monitoring us constantly.”
Maybe I had chosen right, after all.
Father paused with that, releasing the contract and revealing folds in the paper from his fingers.
“Is that all you wanted me for?”
Suraj looked at me, properly. “Are you still… requiring treatment?”
I tilted my head to the side, actively forcing my eyebrow not to arch. “Considering I still require stage two of the antidote, yes.”
He leaned towards me, uncertain but in a way that said kindness instead of weakness. “May I… escort you?”
It took equal effort not to shake my head in surprise. Jalil and Ranya did that for me, when they weren’t busy. Chandi, sometimes. Nitika, sometimes.
I could only get out, “If it pleases you.”
He smiled. “It would.”
Before I could quite get my bearings to stand, he had his hand outreached so I could use him as a brace— something I did not want to admit I needed. Whatever strength I felt prior had evaporated. Perhaps the thought I had pushed Father too far did it. Perhaps it was antidote. I couldn’t think straight to tell.
I was, however, thinking straight enough to be cautious of this offer, heart quickening at why Suraj wanted me alone.
As we walked, my hand on his arm, I got an answer. “I had always considered you the prickly sort, growing up.”
I snorted. “Oh, really?”
He frowned. “You sound as if you knew.”
I laughed, now. “I’m an empath. I’ve been a good one since I was ten. Don’t ever forget it.”
“Would you forgive me if I had?” He waved a hand, cutting off my reply. “Most empaths are so obvious about it. Tipping their hand eventually. You make it easy to forget.”
“If you’re under the impression empaths make a habit of being known, then you’ll never make it in politics.”
I should not be having this conversation. My inhibitions were far too lowered for me to be that blunt. But now that I had started it, I couldn’t stop. “You’re an elemantalist, correct?”
“Good. A magistrate should be, so they can sense the impact their policy has on the land.” I paused to gather my thoughts, energy dropping dangerously low. I leaned on him a little more. “But most politicians are empaths, either in impact or in passive. They play games you should be very familiar with.”
He bristled. “I’m aware of them. That’s what makes it obvious.”
So he was smarter than I thought. “Except some of them are purposely like me, for the same reason I keep my abilities quiet.”
His spine lost its rigid edge. By the time we made it to the courtyard, he was back to more curious. “That doesn’t answer why you’re not surprised I considered you prickly.”
I shrugged. “I consider myself prickly.”
He didn’t have a chance to reply before Aydin and Sakari ran up, Sakari slinging my arm over her shoulders. Something inside of me relaxed I didn’t have to continue this line of questioning. I’d never been noble. I’d never been particularly polished. I was far too aware that my position improved his, and that was the primary reason he agreed to marry me.
I was too valuable to give up, above anything. Any merits I had were measured in dowry and breeding, not day to day skill.
Aydin took Suraj’s place beside me as my betrothed backed up, trying not to get dirt on his immaculate robes. It didn’t take more than two steps for Aydin to carry me, rushing to reach the barracks.
Giri’s “Yer lucky I planned for this” made me laugh, even as Aydin putting me on the bed made me wince.
Giri took the bandage off my arm, finding the scab from my cut just a few days ago. I hadn’t healed it in case I needed to open the vein again, and now I was even more thankful as he tightened a band around my arm and lined up a needle with the slice.
Sakari’s hand found my free one as I closed my eyes, bracing myself for the world of pain I was about to experience.
The liquid going in made me gasp, stomach dropping out. Giri’s hand stabilized my shoulder. “Easy. It’s alright.”
He replaced the bandage and I could breathe again. And feel again.
If this didn’t work… I didn’t want a simple poison to kill me, no matter how special this poison was. Was this how the Rat had died, in the mountains?
He released the band.
Burning heat hit me in the chest with enough force I lost my breath.
Unknown hands eased me back down on the cot, maneuvering me so I was under the blankets. This was the burning of a fever, my hands already starting to freeze and my joints aching. My senses went from too sharp to dull; maybe they had circled back from too much.
“Once antidote treatment starts, it needs to continue in quick succession.”
A damp cloth smoothed over my forehead. I flinched.
“We keep this poison quiet to avoid giving others ideas. It’s the safest in the temples.”
I tried to breathe through my nose and coughed from the lack of air.
“Leave her be.”
I stirred to find out what that had been about, only for the light outside to feel closer to a searing flame.
A hand quickly went over them. “Rest. Yer still alive, don’t worry.”
My laugh was more of a breath.
It didn’t feel like this fever broke so much as receded like melting snow. Heavy blankets on top of me. My head like cotton wool. Closing my eyes and opening them again made it feel better, but I had changed positions and hadn’t remembered. Had I fallen asleep?
The next time I opened my eyes, I knew I had fallen asleep. I actually felt like myself for the first time since the party, the low hum of the world around me registering again. As much as I cursed that ability on a good day, I’d never truly been robbed of it before. Being aware of Ihit in the room with Giri, Sakari and Aydin training with— Suraj.
All examination of the world stopped at that discovery.
Ihit chuckled. “Your betrothed wished to see what you lived through, when we mentioned his training for the hunt might be… inadequate.”
I rolled my eyes. “So that was his problem? Thinking hunting and military campaigns were enough?”
“Seems to be,” Giri muttered. “He’s already been in here twice askin everything we know.”
The voices from my fevered state came back. “So that was him asking about the treatment?”
Giri crossed his arms. “Thinkin he owned the answers to everything. Boy needs to learn why he’s a separate caste.”
I tilted my head. “That I’m a part of.”
Giri’s lopsided smile was the type I wished my uncle gave me. “If you think we give you all our secrets, you’re still fever-dreaming.”
That brought a full bodied laugh out of me. “And here I thought it was cause I’m young.”
He ruffled my hair. “Course it is. Yer still green until yer thirty, I’ll tell ya.”
Ihit laughed along with us. “You’re more Guard than noble, Cat. You would’ve dragged his ass out to the yard and sent him here, for how he talked.”
I had kept part of my attention to the training yard, and knew just how close Suraj was to being sent here. “Don’t tell me he has padding.”
“Only way he’d agree to it.”
I rolled my eyes again. “I’m still going to drag his ass out and send him to the healer’s wing, if that’s the case.”
Giri had a full-bodied smile, now. “Atta girl.”
I stretched, muscle and bone shifting back into its proper place. “How long was I out?”
“Nearly a day,” Ihit said quietly. “You reacted the same way I did to the first stage, so it’s likely you’re healed. I would suggest petitioning the Raja for a visit to the temple, to ensure it.”
I rubbed my face. “Then I’m going this week, the last conversation be damned.”
“Do we even want to know.”
I looked down at my lap, weaving my fingers together. “He nearly destroyed the marriage contract upon realizing I’d edited a clause that let me be tended here. He would’ve had Suraj not…”
Giri clasped my shoulder. “You’re a smart girl, for a kitten.”
I laughed softly. “Can’t tell if… garükh yunu fell, for him telling me I’d done something wrong…”
Ihit nodded. “Likely. Aydin said he sensed… something other than the poison.”
That got me to look away. “Strong enough even he could, was it…”
Aydin wasn’t an elementalist. Or an empath. Not really—not enough to be listed as a specialist Guard in our reports to the Emperor. I rarely admitted how comforted that made me. I rarely admitted how I was sure part of the reason… they had been sent away was their skill. Rajat could’ve been one of the best bodyguards we had seen in our generation. Zhir could’ve been the best ranged attacker, the best healer. Nailn’s wards were envy-worthy. All of them…
Garükh yunu hadn’t ended yet. That contract ripping, the same gesture that cast away.
I shook my head. “Every time I try to take a step forward, Father makes sure to send me five back. That’s not even counting the case.”
I didn’t even know if I’d get to marry Suraj. I didn’t know if I’d get to stay helping the Rat. As much as I dreaded the possibility of marriage, at least I had set the terms. At least Suraj seemed to be interested in letting me keep my cases. And if Father was angry at me for setting them, then my recourse was minimal. Or larger than I dared unleash.
Ihit looked towards the door. “I think your betrothed will be more your ally than hindrance.”
I snorted. “A year younger than me with what feels like half the education.”
“And the Raja’s approval,” Giri said, not unkindly, but his actual intention was half muddled behind a few screens. From what I could pick out, it was a warning note, a finger pointing towards opportunity.
The Raja’s approval. But immediately after thinking of the possibilities, I remembered it was something he could lose if he sided with me too much. Jalil always had to be careful. We had learned to walk a rope bridge between canyon points, careful not to stretch any one part too much.
Playing along with him had its risks.
But so did going against him.
I sighed and got up, stretching my legs. “I don’t know if I feel like myself, right now.”
Giri beckoned for me to show my arm; I did, watching with mixed fascination as he peeled the bandage off. Black, sticky fluid formed threads between my skin and the cloth, smelling like part antidote, part blood, and part something else.
He placed it in a dish and wiped my arm, that now-dirty cloth getting its own dish. He sprinkled kalisi on the wiped cloth, first. Lacework almost immediately materialized.
“Could be old blood…” he murmured, uncertain.
I did not like it when healers were uncertain, not in the slightest.
He repeated the process for the cloth, carefully placing the white powder in the center— where the stickiest, freshest liquid was.
For a moment, I thought nothing was going to happen. Straining my ears, on the other hand, brought about a subtle… bubbling.
Almost as soon as I registered as such, lacework started to spread.
Giri turned his head away as if he’d been slapped.
“You need stage three.”