From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

September 3, 2011

Subtle Poisons

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in Quantum Kiss, November 2008. Full story behind cut.

* * *
In my dream, it is raining. Rain sweeps through the ruins of the Aktun, pools over broken paving stones, runs in sheets down skeletal roofs.

A woman kneels in the water. Her hair drips in a black curtain around her face; cold digs into her skin like icy fingers. She bends over something in her cupped hands, sheltering it with her body. Every rigid muscle says this thing, this precious treasure must not get wet.
I am a poisoner, and I know that what she holds is poison.

I stand over her, and the drops pelting me are like heavy, ice-cold pebbles. Between the two of us, we can keep it from the rain. I cannot protect it from her tears.

* * *

“No rain tonight,” Sacnite said, her sand-colored eyes reflecting the clear blue of the sky. They were wide and heavy-lidded, with a slow way of moving that should have made her look dull. It didn’t.

“Were you expecting it?” I asked. My left hand tangled through her oil-black hair as it blanketed the lap of my gown; my right floated on the surface of the courtyard pool beside me. The water felt slimy beneath its film of dust. “Or do you have plans that you don’t want interrupted?”
She lifted my hand out of the water, tracing the wizard’s brand on its back with an almost prayerful look. Despite her sharp natural bent, she’d never accepted training in magic; the scars webbing her hands came from other, less mentionable duties. “Plans,” she said. “Ones that wouldn’t take kindly to the rain. Though I’m surprised at you, darling. You should at least have a guess at what I’m up to; you’re Balme’s poisoner.”

“You’re his genius. He hasn’t told me anything since you came here.”

Sacnite laughed and turned her head to kiss my thigh. “Do you blame him? You’re sleeping with his wife.”
I winced at the lightness in her voice—it had taken me months to admit that I was in love with her, even to myself. Still, she could afford to be flippant. If we were caught, she wouldn’t be the one burned for treason.

As if she sensed my thoughts, Sacnite reached up and lay a comforting hand against my cheek. “You’re also his executioner,” she said. “Are you worried about being asked to kill yourself?”

“Stop it.” I brushed her hand away. “I know we’ve been here too long when you start turning vulgar.”

“I started being vulgar about three hours ago.”
The huskiness in her voice had nothing to do with desire. She was teasing me, mimicking the accent of the Aktun, the slum where we had both been born and raised. My magical bent had brought me to the Chumuk when I was fifteen; Sacnite’s cleverness and subtle, dusky beauty made her Ajaw Balme’s wife at twenty. Our origin was one of few things—aside from a calculating nature and a penchant for female lovers—that we had in common.


I started and nearly leapt to my feet, much to Sacnite’s amusement. It was only Muwen, her lady’s maid, and an accomplice to both of us in this affair. “What is it, lovely?” Sacnite asked, her voice a satisfied drawl.
“Ajaw Balme is asking to see you. Both of you.”

“Does this have something to do with your ‘plans,’ sweetheart?” I asked, catching the raise of Sacnite’s elegant eyebrows.

“Most likely. Muwen, take Ximara first. It wouldn’t do to let Balme know she’s been visiting my courtyard.”
Though her face remained composed, I saw the slightest twitch in Muwen’s coral-colored lips. Not for the first time, I wondered how often the courtyard provided a setting for Sacnite and Balme’s romantic exploits…and pushed the thought aside with a shudder.

“Come on, Ix Poisoner,” Muwen said, helping me to my feet.

I paused as she lead me through the Serpent Gate. In the courtyard behind us, Sacnite smiled to herself and lifted a handful of water from the pool. It ran through her fingers, beading in the reddish dust like drops of blood.

* * *
“So what is Sacnite planning to do?”
I shrugged and leaned against a cool limestone pillar. We were meeting in the Hall of Feathers, a dark, six-sided chamber deep in the bowels of the Chumuk. Balme claimed it was the oldest part of the palace, but I had my doubts. Not that the Hall was old—even without the crumbling ceiling and moss-stained walls, the intricate architecture alone made it several centuries out of date. But I doubted it had been built as part of the Chumuk.
“I don’t know,” I said, turned my attention back to Muwen. “Sacnite never tells me her plans.”

“And yet you trust her with your life.”

The bitterness in her usually fluid voice caught me off guard. I wondered who it was meant to condemn—me, or Sacnite. “I trust you with my life, too,” I said. Muwen shrugged, her face shadowed. I narrowed my eyes. “You forget your place.”

The first time I met Sacnite, it had been in this hall. I smiled in spite of myself, looking up at the Jaguar Throne where she’d stood, remembering the play of torchlight across her honey-golden skin. It was an effect we had never managed, in her sun-drenched courtyard, to mimic satisfactorily.
It was strange to see the hall so empty, to be the only one bowing as Balme entered, Sacnite on his arm. I felt the warmth of my hair falling around my shoulders, a gnawing reminder that I hadn’t asked Muwen to replait it. Ah, well. It wouldn’t be the first time I had met privately with Ajaw Balme, Sacnite’s touch still palpable on my body.

“Ix Poisoner.” Balme’s low voice echoed in the dimness. When Muwen used the greeting, it was only to tease; I hadn’t yet determined how many of Balme’s mannerisms were mockery.

“Present as commanded,” I said. That was mockery. I heard Muwen choke back a laugh.

“I’m glad to see Muwen found you. My wife…” He paused to place a kiss on Sacnite’s palm, as if I needed reminding of who his wife was. “Sacnite thinks she knows how to win the Bone Crown from Ajaw Sasil, and I need to know if her plan is feasible.”
I raised my eyebrows at Sacnite, but either she ignored me purposely or it was too dark for her to notice. For the past seven years of my life, I’d been little more than a tool in Balme’s hands as he steadily climbed to the top ranks of the Chumuk. The Bone Crown would lift him out of the Chumuk and the world of wizard’s squabbling entirely. It would also make Sacnite a Queen.
I wondered what the sentence would be for adultery with a Queen, and pushed the thought aside with a wince. “I can only help you if her plan involves poison.”
“It does,” Sacnite said. It was her court voice, high and sharp. “A rather large amount.”

Balme shrugged. “Enough to poison every cistern in the Chumuk.”

At least that explained her interest in rain. “It wouldn’t be too difficult,” I said. “If the drought continues, there’ll be so little water left that I could taint each cistern with a sprig of poison manioc. Muwen and I could accomplish it in one night.”

Muwen stiffened beside me, but I ignored it. She couldn’t have expected to sit in on a conference with Balme and not be drawn into his scheming.

“But the obvious problem, Ajaw, would be finding water for ourselves.”

“I don’t plan on turning the cisterns lethal, Ximara. Use only enough poison that your victims will sicken, and you can eliminate the worst of them however you see fit.”

His tone, every bit as flippant as Sacnite’s, was enough to make me consider slipping manioc in his next drink. “And if I’d rather not sicken, Ajaw?”

“Don’t drink the water.” He smiled again, showing a row of teeth as straight as paving stones, and kissed Sacnite on the cheek. The expression of pride on his face, like a parrot-trainer whose prize bird had learned to sing on command, made my gut feel like boiling oil. “Are you free tomorrow, Ix Poisoner?”

“At your command.”

“Good. I want you to go down to the manioc fields—gather what you need.” His hand moved to stroke Sacnite’s hair. “I have asked my wife to meet you there. Clean air would be good for her health.”
If he cared about Sacnite’s health, Balme wouldn’t have kept her like snake in a too-small jar. But before I could wonder what he was playing at, I saw the glimmer in those sand colored eyes, and began to wonder what she was playing at.

It was a much greater danger.

* * *

I left for the manioc fields early the next morning, when even the Aktun still slept and only the most rustic farmers were at work. I enjoyed the freedom outside the Chumuk, the escape from wizard’s brands and jade-and-obsidian hair beads and the overwhelming smell of musk. In place of my usual fine linen gown, I wore a slack cotton tunic trimmed with ribbon. Even my hair was loose, smelling of sun rather than oil and amber.

I found the northern edge of the field, the dry stretch of land that ostensibly belonged to the Chumuk. One of the farmers looked up as I passed.

“Good morning, sister!” he called.

“Good morning,” I said. His eyes widened, and I realized, stupidly, how my voice must sound to him. Like all the wizards trained at the Chumuk, I’d controlled my speech so rigidly and for so long that I couldn’t have mimicked the deep, rumbling accent of the Aktun if I’d tried. For the first time, I wondered if even Sacnite could have returned to her childhood tongue with enough ease to fool the manioc farmers.

As I knelt on the cracked earth and began to pluck the fingered manioc leaves, I continued to watch the farmers move through their fields. Their efficient movements and plain, unexpressive faces reminded me intensely of Muwen. Though their coloring was the same as Sacnite’s—smooth and golden, rather than the rich, chocolate duskiness of Muwen’s skin—their thin lips and hard eyes were nothing like my lover’s.

And yet, I thought as I shook dust from my basket, it would be wrong to call Muwen plain. Her face, like everything else about her, was efficient—each feature just as large as it needed to be, a delicate balance between bone and flesh. I guessed her to be around nineteen years old, still young enough to be pretty without needing to work at it.
“What are you thinking about, darling?”

Sacnite’s voice. I looked up to see her standing in the vacant stalks of manioc, skin gleaming in the sunlight, and wondered why I was thinking about Muwen in the first place.
“You should wear your hair loose more often,” I said. She laughed and brushed its silken weight back behind her shoulders.

“You should be thinking about how to finish off those Chumuk bastards once they’ve succumbed to manioc.” A sudden chill ran down my back as she knelt behind me, blocking the sun. “Balme says the magic wouldn’t be a challenge for you, lovely, but I’m not so certain.”

When it came to magic, her raw strength far exceeded mine. We both knew it. If she had received training as a child, Balme would almost certainly be dismissing me as redundant. But she hadn’t, and he wasn’t, and I knew it rankled her like a poisoned wound.

I felt her arms twine around me, and the warmth of her breath in my hair. “Come on, darling. You have enough leaves to murder every wizard from here to Uxmalé.” She stood and tugged me gently to my feet.
“Where are we going?”

She took my hand and pulled me down the rows of manioc leaves, towards the arching emerald roof of the forest. “I was going to talk politics with you, actually, but I find myself distracted.” Once we were far enough in that no one could see us from the manioc fields, she found a clearing filled with leaves and soft grass and knelt, pulling me down after her. “Besides, you’ve never had a head for intrigue.”
That’s not true, I thought as she tugged me towards a pile of leaves and pushed me down on my back. Her long-fingered hands made quick work of my tunic’s laces. I did have a head for intrigue—once.
Sacnite knelt over me, sliding out of her own robe like a snake shedding its skin. Her lips and tongue were hot against my body, tracing a line down my throat and across my breasts, leaving a cochineal-stained path like the mark of a knife against my smooth flesh. Her own chest and back were mottled with scars. It was the reason, she told me once, that she only dueled with obsidian blades.

Obsidian doesn’t scar, she’d said, raising my own branded fingers to a deep gash along her shoulder. I reached for it now, opening cuts on her back with my nails. I knew it hurt her, just as she’d known her words would hurt me.

“I used to be his poisoner,” I whispered, hardly knowing I said it, as her firm weight pressed down on my stomach.

“You used to be his genius, until I came.” A fleeting kiss; her mouth was bitter as manioc. “Come on, darling. Leave the thinking to those who can.”

Her hands spiraled downward, tracing patterns across my thighs.

“At your command,” I gasped, and did.

* * *

“He wants us to do it tonight,” Muwen said. Her lips formed each word like a mason’s chisel, slow and precise. I wondered how, just the day before, I could have thought her plain.

“Good,” I said. “I’m ready.”

We sat on the steps of the bathing pool in the Courtyard of the Moon. The water, shallow and warm as metal, lapped around our legs with each passing breeze.
Muwen ran a comb through her hair, making it smooth and manageable before she braided it with amber beads. “I’m not,” she said. “And I’m sick of doing things I’m not ready to do."
“Such as?”

“Such as hiding your affair from Ajaw Balme.” Nothing changed in her face; it didn’t need to. All the poison was in her voice. “If it’s discovered, I could be burned right along with you, Ixė. It isn’t worth it.”

I frowned and slipped down further into the pool. I wanted, so badly that I could taste it, to tell Muwen she was wrong, that it was worth it; but I couldn’t. Not yet.

“As soon as this is over, I’m leaving for Uxmalė,” she continued. “I was wondering…I thought you might like to go with me.”
What?” I turned to her so fast, I sprayed water up around us. “Why would I?”
Muwen’s skin was too dark to show a blush. “I don’t know. I just thought that maybe you had better things to do than burn on the steps of the Tėmple.”
“No one’s discovered our affair so far,” I said, fighting to keep my voice low. “What makes you think they’ll discover it now?”
“You’re not stupid, Ximara, no matter what Ix Sacnite says. I’m not talking about your affair.”

“Then I think I am that stupid, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Muwen made a show of checking for eavesdroppers. It was the first inefficient thing I had ever seen her do, and it chilled me like a downpour of cold rain. “Ix Sacnite plans on assassinating Ajaw Balme the moment he takes the Bone Crown.”

“No.” I gaped idiotically. Not only would such an act be heresy; it would also be damnably stupid. “She couldn’t expect to get away with it.”
“She does, but I don’t. If I stay here any longer, the best I can hope for is that someone kills Sacnite before she gets us all executed.” She tossed her comb aside in disgust. “And unless you want to be the hand behind those executions, you should think about leaving, too.”

I covered my mouth with both hands, afraid of speaking, afraid of what I might hear myself say. The water suddenly seemed a thousand times colder. I was reminded, vividly, of the rain in my dream.
I had been the woman, I realized. The poison was mine.
But what had I intended to do with it?
“I can’t leave,” I said, surprised at the sound of my voice. I didn’t remember taking my hands from my mouth. “I couldn’t live without Sacnite. I love her.”

Muwen shook her head, her dark eyes creased at the corners. “She doesn’t love you, Ixė.”

I scowled and pulled myself up out of the pool. A pile of fresh linen towels lay at the foot of a pillar; I wrapped one around my shoulders and used another to dab at my hair. “Once again,” I said, “you forget your place.”

“But I know yours; in Sacnite’s bed.” Muwen leapt to her feet, coming over to take me by the shoulders. To my surprise, tears rimmed her eyes. Her voice cracked as she spoke. “Tell me, Ximara, when did Balme’s genius become a whore?”
I stepped back as if she had slapped me. Not because of her words; I knew she didn’t mean them, knew the anger was only a mask for what she was truly feeling. I stepped back from the intensity of her gaze, from the way her grip on my shoulders was almost—would become, if I allowed it to—a caress.
“How long, Muwen?”
“How long have I loved you?” She covered her face with her hands and turned away from me. “Does it matter? You don’t care.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“No; you didn’t.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Sacnite would have. And if that isn’t reason enough for you to leave her, nothing I can say will change your mind.”
I wanted to apologize, to be gentle, but I had lost the right to the moment I flinched from her touch. I pulled my gown on with shaking hands and left her alone in the courtyard.

* * *
“You’re not going tonight.”


“Our plan was betrayed. Ajaw Sasil saw you in the manioc fields, Ximara.” Sacnite shifted her grip on my shoulders, pressing me harder against the corridor wall. Anger etched lines across her face like a new web of scars. “He told Balme I have until tonight to get out of the Chumuk, and I am not leaving alone.”
She made as if to drag me down the hall, but I stood firm. “Sacnite.”

The look she gave me was nearly a snarl.

“Do they know my name?”
“Fool. Of course they don’t.” She dug her nails into my wrist. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“If I’m not in danger, there’s no reason for me to leave with you.” I twisted out of her grip, running a thread of magic through the motion. She leapt back with a cry of pain, staring at her burned fingers. “I know what you planned for Balme, Sacnite. Why should I expect you to treat me any better?”
“Because, sweetheart, you’re useless.” Her own magic engulfed me, heavy and dry like a cloud of sand. I tried to fight it, but it dragged me to her, clouding my senses until my mind didn’t know why I was fighting her in the first place. “I have no reason to kill you. Now come back to my rooms, darling; I have arrangements to make.”

Sacnite’s magic tightened like chains around my wrists, forcing me to follow her through the halls of the Chumuk. It wasn’t a trained working, but the brutal strength of her natural bent took direction from her anger. I tried every spell I knew to break the effects of another’s magic; nothing worked.

“You can’t fight me,” Sacnite said, “because you don’t want to fight me.” We were at the door of her chambers; she opened it with a push from her fingertips.
As we stepped into her rooms, the magic seemed to fall away. I could still feel it, a pulsing like the echo of my heartbeat, but it wasn’t brutal or angry any longer. I couldn’t imagine why I had been frightened by it, much less why I had been fighting Sacnite.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked, glancing around the room. There was very little we could manage to take with us.
She turned to me, surprise etched in the raise of her eyebrows. She no longer looked angry; she seemed exhausted, like a slab of forest limestone broken by the roots of some gigantic tree.
“Sweetheart,” she sighed, wrapping her arms around my neck. I returned the embrace. “Come on. We’ve a few hours left. Let’s have one last time in the courtyard.”
She lead me through the Serpent Gate, to the low shelter in the middle of her garden. The thatch roof covered a mound of cushions and soft rugs. She pushed me down, knelt beside me, and began to loosen the beads from my hair.
“I’m going to miss this,” she whispered, her breath hot against my cheek. I rolled the delicate fabric of her bodice down around her waist and kissed the scars on her golden skin, starting at her collarbone, moving up along and her neck and biting gently, teasing with my lips and teeth.
She laughed throatily; I could feel it through my caress. She took my shoulders and pushed me flat against the cushions. The few beads still remaining in my hair jingled as they rolled down and along the pavement. Sacnite kissed my cheek and whispered harshly in my ear.

“Who told you about Balme, darling?”


“Try for a moment to think about something more important than yourself.” She pulled away, disgust imprinted in the narrowing of her eyes. “Who told you what I planned for Balme, slut?”

Something cracked like a whip through my chest, and the veil fell away from Sacnite’s magic. I could feel her spell like a shard of glass in my mind, numbing my reason, telling me I wanted nothing but Sacnite’s touch, nothing but to make her happy. “You—”

“Be quiet for a moment.” She raised her hand to my throat in a touch that was almost a caress—until I felt a sharp prick, the touch of an obsidian blade. “You have two choices, Ix Ximara. You can tell me who’s been betraying my confidence, so I can kill the fool and the two of us can vanish back into the Aktun. Or you can die.” She raised her eyebrows, a mockery of her elegant expression. “To be honest, I don’t have a preference.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I tried to keep the tears out of my voice and failed.
“I’m ambitious, darling. Like every damn wizard in this place. Like you used to be, before my pretty eyes turned you into a blundering idiot.”
Maybe I was, I thought. Maybe I used to be every bit as grasping and false as you are. But I never would have hurt the woman I loved—or the woman who loved me.

“Where’s Muwen?” I hissed, barely moving my mouth for fear of the knife at my throat. “What did you do to her, Sacnite?”

“Muwen? Nothing. Simply said I wanted some time alone with you.” She pressed one finger along my cheek, digging the nail deep into my skin. “And you know what? She seemed almost upset. Almost…jealous.” That was mockery in her voice, not concern. Sacnite couldn’t imagine I would ever betray her—and she was right.


I screamed.

Sacnite brought her knife down, hard, but I’d already slipped a hand up by the blade, and I managed to take the force of the blow across my palm. Blood spurted, making her grip on the handle slippery and uncertain. One swipe of my magic sent the knife flying across the courtyard.

“Bitch!” Sacnite slapped me across the face. I screamed again, focusing all the power into making that sound heard across the Chumuk.

Someone would come. Someone had to come.

I rolled out from beneath Sacnite’s body, pressing on my injured palm with the fingers of my other hand to slow the bleeding. The cut throbbed strangely, and I wondered if the blade had been poisoned.
A blow from behind stuck me down as I crawled toward the pool. I turned, but Sacnite hadn’t moved from her place beneath the canopy. The blow came from her magic.
“Help!” I cried again, covering my head with my arms, as if a mere physical shield would protect me. Sacnite’s next strike felt like obsidian shards driving into every inch of my skin.
“What’s happening here?”

Balme’s low voice, as welcome as rain in a drought. Sacnite’s magic vanished, leaving a cold emptiness in its wake. I pulled myself up into a crouch and turned to see Sacnite standing in the shelter, arms folded serenely across her bare chest. She had hidden the knife; my blood was the only trace of our fight, dark and sticky against her skin.
“Husband,” she said. “Ix Ximara attempted to seduce me. I acted in self defense.”

Balme gave a characteristic shrug, a light lifting of his cloaked shoulders, and turned to me. “Is this true?”
He couldn’t believe it. Not with the way Sacnite stood, her exposed body a challenge rather than a weakness. Not with the firm harshness in her voice. She didn’t look, or sound, like a woman who had just been attacked.

But if she had come to me willingly…
Ajaw,” I said, “I know the laws. I know a married woman cannot be executed for committing adultery—”
“This isn’t a matter of adultery,” he interrupted. “Sleeping with the wife of your lord is treason, Ixė.”

“I know. But so is poisoning the wells of the Chumuk.”
For the first time in my life, I saw Ajaw Balme’s face go dark with anger. “Your attempts at cleverness grow tiresome.”

“And her attempts at power don’t?” I stood and pointed to Sacnite, dripping blood from my hand onto the paving stones. At least the gushing had slowed. I told myself to be grateful for small favors. “She was willing to kill you, Ajaw.”
“Which is why she will be returning to the gutter where I found her.” He stepped closer, blocking my view of Sacnite’s face, and took my chin in one hand. “But I won’t let you execute her, Ximara.”
“Am I expected to execute myself?”

Behind me, someone gasped. I turned to see Muwen standing in the Serpent Gate, both hands clutching the stone pillars as though they were the only things keeping her up. “No,” she said, her flat voice at odds with her expression. “Ximara, you don’t have to take the blame for this.”

“What do you mean?”

She ignored my question and kept her eyes on Ajaw Balme. “When Ximara asked me to, I introduced her to Ix Sacnite, knowing full well your wife’s…inclinations. I would have been surprised if she hadn’t attempted to seduce your poisoner, Ajaw. It’s clear she only married you out of a gutter rat’s ambitions.”
Muwen was trying to anger Balme, I realized. Every trace of Sacnite’s sweet-speaking lady’s maid was gone. “You can hardly blame Ximara for falling to your wife’s obvious—though poisonous—charm. If you need someone to punish for this whole squalid affair…” She shrugged, emphasizing the submissive spread of her arms.

“No!” I would not allow Muwen’s love for me to become her undoing. “Ajaw, please. It is my transgression, and I will pay for it.”
“With your death?”
“If that is your command.”
He released my jaw, flinging me towards the gate where Muwen stood. “It is.”

“Use manioc.” I hardly recognized Sacnite’s voice; it held all the bitter harshness of the Aktun, and more besides. “We certainly have enough.”
I bowed to her, putting into the motion all the mockery I couldn’t fit in my voice. “At your command, Ixė.”
Muwen clutched at my arm as I walked past her, but I shrugged her off. The manioc leaves sat in a basket at the foot of Sacnite’s bed. I grabbed a handful, stuffed them into the pouch at my waist, and left the shadows of the Chumuk.

Outside, the sky became a deep, sickly gray. As I followed the path to the Aktun, it began to rain.

* * *

So this was what my dream had been trying to tell me.

I steered away from the inhabited parts of the Aktun, the teahouses and brothels and gambling houses. Drought and disease had left more than half of it uninhabited, and it wasn’t hard to find an empty courtyard where I wouldn’t be interrupted.

I knelt on the broken paving stones, shivering as the water soaked into my skirt. I took the poison from its pouch and held it cupped in my hands, close to my chest where it was protected from the rain. The virtue of manioc poison goes into any water it touches, leaving the leaf worthless. Like the woman from my dream, I could not let it become wet.
You don’t have to do this. The voice in my head sounded curiously like Muwen’s. I imagined her, the look on her smooth, stone-like face as she tried to convince me. Neither Balme nor Sacnite would have any way of knowing if I survived, and as for my own honor…well, I had precious little of that left.
But I also had precious little left to live for.
Muwen was right; Sacnite didn’t love me, and she probably never had. I would find no help in that direction. My only skills came from my training at the Chumuk, and I knew poisoning and court wizardry would be useless in the Aktun. The only work open to me in the slum would be prostitution—to become a whore, as Sacnite had been, and hope a man or woman with influence would find me and want me for more than my body. It was a bleak, hopeless future, and I knew I couldn’t face it.


Water splashed up around me as someone ran across the courtyard. I clutched the manioc tighter and turned in the direction of the sound.

It was Muwen.

“Put it down, Ximara,” she said, kneeling down beside me. Her body sheltered my hands, so I could ease my grip on the poison. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Can you offer me an alternative?” I winced from the sound of my voice; it was just like Sacnite’s.
“A thousand alternatives.”
Tears I was too weak to hold back began to mingle with the rain on my cheeks. “Give me one.”

“At your command.” She dried my face with the back of her hand, brushing carefully at the scratches Sacnite’s nails had left. “Rain.”
“Rain?” I snorted.

“Yes. Instead of killing yourself, you could stay here in the rain. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And it makes your hair look like obsidian, glossy and iridescent.”

“What are you, a poet now?” No matter how hard I tried, the words didn’t sound cruel. Muwen smiled, catching the hint of teasing laughter in my voice.

“And there’s more. Water-lilies, for example. You told me once that there were men who could make poison from water-lily bulbs, but you never learned how.”

I remembered telling her that story, as we sat at the edge of the pool in the Courtyard of the Moon. “Muwen…”

“And there’s this.”

Gently, as though trying to touch a butterfly’s wings without startling it, she took my face in both hands and leaned over to kiss me.
Her hold on me was loose, her kiss unhurried, allowing me to pull away if I wished. I didn’t wish to. Her mouth moved deliberately, but with no trace of Sacnite’s forcefulness. I reached out to pull her closer, tasting the rain on her lips, twining my fingers in her wet hair.
Water rushed over my palm. The motion reopened the cut on my hand, and a dark mix of blood and rainwater soaked into the manioc leaves. Lost in Muwen’s caress, I barely noticed when the poison dropped from my hand.
By the time I ended our kiss, the rain had lessened to a soft mist clouding the world around us, tinged honey-gold along the eastern horizon. Muwen took my hands and raised them to her lips, kissing the tip of each finger. “Come to Uxmalé with me, Ximara.”
“What will we do there?”

“I have no idea.” She smiled, her lips wavering as though she struggled to hold back laugher. “I hear it’s a wizard city. You and I could make a living selling poison—or antidotes. Those would be in even higher demand. Or we could start a school, teaching children how to use their magical bent before they lose everything but their ambitions. Whatever you want to do, Ximara, I’ll do it. Just come with me.”

“Is that your command?”

“No,” she said. “Only a wish.”

I pressed my hands to hers, then rose and glanced around the ruins. There, the pink-tinged path beyond the northern arch—it would lead us to Uxmalé.
“I’ll come,” I said. She smiled and kissed me again.

Hand in hand, we set off into the rain.


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