I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me.
He served me the toxin in his signature cheese stew. It gave me waves of stomach cramps and hallucinations of every horror my young mind could conjure, but left no lasting damage. I learned that day to trust nothing on my plate or in my cup, not even something prepared by my beloved uncle Etan, my Tashi, the most honored and trusted person in my world. Especially not him.
By ten, I could identify the ingredients in most dishes set before me, from the spicy baked fish served year-round in Sjona’s farms and estates, to the flat black bread cooked in clay ovens in every kitchen in the city, to the delicate cheese-and-honey pastries favored in the highest circles of society. I could detect any of the eleven greater poisons hidden in those dishes. Most by taste, some by smell, and one by its unique mouthfeel. I could also, should the need arise, use them myself.
Before his own Tashi died and my uncle Etan inherited his seat on the Council, he had trained as a cook—something of an oddity among the six Credol Families, but not unheard of. No one thought it amiss that he should instill in me the same dedication to the craft. Under his tutelage, foreign dishes and imported spices ceased to be an obstacle to my tongue or nose, and I learned all that had ever been written about the natural and crafted poisons of our land.
Over the next ten years, and hundreds of poisonings, Etan gave me many gifts: immunities, scars, an appreciation of our family’s honorable and secret role, and a memory and mind trained in our craft so I could one day protect the ruling family of Sjona as he did.
As he lay dying before me, none of it seemed enough.
* * *
A well-trained memory is a fine thing, an essential skill for learning and of critical importance to a proofer. Today mine, once a source of pride, revealed itself as a useless trick. I could recall the whole day, an unwilling audience to my own play, but what good could I do, reliving a day of mistakes and inaction? I had gone over it again and again, and still I did not see our enemy. Over and over, I did not save my uncle.
We had sailed home only yesterday morning, not knowing it for the last day of our old lives, smuggled like thieves in the back of a fat little transport ship bringing wood from the Talafan Empire south to the capital. Tain Caslavtash Iliri, the Chancellor’s nephew and heir, future ruler of the country and equal parts my dearest friend, solemnest duty, and pain in my rear, nursed a sore head with infuriating good humor. I nursed a bad temper and a dose of relief. Several days earlier than planned, Tain’s retinue abandoned long behind us in the northern border city, we had both hoped to slip back into Silasta without remark.
A month of meetings and social engagements had left me exhausted and irritable, longing for the familiar comfort of routine. In Silasta, I knew everyone who might interact with my charge, highborn or low, and what they stood to gain or lose. Or at least, so I had naively thought. But in Telasa I had been forced to rely on my judgment alone in assessing new threats and challenges. Who might be tempted to dose the Heir’s kavcha with beetle-eye to fuel careless tongues, or bake hazelnode into his bread to cause a stomachache and absence from a key event?
The boat passed under the north river gate and through familiar white walls, breaking the force of the wind and bathing us in the emerging smells and sounds of our city. While the captain handed over weapons and negotiated passage in a confusing jumble of broken Sjon, Talafan, and simple Trade, I nudged my friend from a doze. He came alert and stood without apparent stiffness. No matter how luxurious his ordinary accommodations, Tain could relax in the most awkward of places. “That didn’t take too long,” he said cheerfully.
I rolled my eyes as I gathered the last of our belongings. “Sure, for someone who slept through most of it, and spent the rest drinking with the crew.” He’d loved socializing with men and women who couldn’t read our tattoos and thought us merely wealthy wastrels from the capital. I had to admit I’d also enjoyed the anonymity and the break from worrying about anything untoward in his cups.
He turned his easy grin on me. “Practicing diplomacy, my friend.”
On deck, we leaned over the rail as the boat negotiated the channel through the marshy north end of the Bright Lake, enjoying the sun’s warmth. The fierce breath of the Maiso had kept us mostly belowdecks on the trip, but Sjona’s harsh winds couldn’t penetrate the walls of the city. I felt comfortable for the first time in weeks.
The magnificent arch of Trickster’s Bridge loomed before us, a grand window into Silasta, the Bright City, with its white stone brilliant against the late summer sky. To the east, domed roofs and zigzag streets rose from the bank, a pale honeycomb against the slope of Solemn Peak. On the western shore, a merry jumble of boats, foreign and local, spilled traders and visitors of all descriptions out to the docks of the sprawling, industrious lower city. Yellow-sashed officials from the River Guild weaved through the crowds. Blackwing gulls swooped unwary workers unloading barges, and their shrill squawks mingled with the distant hoot of oku being unloaded from a barge and the lively orchestra of commerce. It felt like waking from an uneasy dream as we passed under Trickster’s and back into our reality.
We paid our host and joined the mixed and colorful soup of merchants, workers, and tourists moving from the docks into the lower city. Silasta’s younger and less cultivated side was three times the size of its older sibling, a hodgepodge of industry, trade, and residences of varying levels of respectability. The smell of a dozen different spices and frying oils assailed us. Tiny canopied stalls were wedged between elegant old teahouses and subtle gambling dens, and hawkers melted in and out of the shadows with cunning spreads of goods ready to fold up and disappear at the first sign of a Guild official. By the nearest canal, a swaying tourist bickered with a preacher kneeling by an earther shrine crafted of rock and bird bones.
I longed for the peace and space of our family apartments, a pot of proper Oromani tea, and the calming presence of my uncle and sister. “I’ll call us a ride.” I caught the prowling gaze of a litter carrier, but Tain interrupted.
“What’s going on there?”
I followed his gesture. The confrontation between the drunk and the street preacher had escalated. The foreigner had a hold on the earther’s wrist and was shaking his arm, shouting, while the smaller man clutched prayer charms around his neck and half-sung, half-moaned some kind of chant. “It’s a bit early for that, isn’t it?” I muttered. Our local merchants should have known better than to sell kori to a tourist at this time of day. Though from the look of him, he’d perhaps been out all night. He wore a crumpled jacket and wide trousers in a fabric too heavy for our climate, and an air of belligerence far stronger than the smell of alcohol and gaming house smokes.
Tain moved closer and I caught his arm. “Leave it to the Order Guards.” I looked through the crowd in vain; no red-and-blue striped uniform in sight. “Or a Guild official.”
The drunkard had taken offense at the preacher’s rantings and his accented Trade tongue grew to a roar. “—eh, eh, I’m talking to you, bloody street scum! Look at me when I talk to you!” He kicked out roughly at the shrine, toppling one of the balanced piles of stone.
The preacher, who until then had been avoiding eye contact and allowing his arm to be shaken like a loose streamer on a festival day, stopped his warbling chant and snapped his gaze to the bigger man. He said something I didn’t catch, but whatever it was enraged the tourist. He reached into his billowing pants and the glint of a weapon flashed in the morning light. Someone shrieked and the surrounding crowd drew back from the altercation.
“Guard!” I yelled, but as I turned to usher the Heir back to safety, Tain lunged for the man’s knife hand. He grabbed the wrist two-handed and pivoted in a half turn back toward me. The drunkard dropped the preacher and fell backward with the pressure on his elbow and shoulder, and the knife clunked to the ground. “Lem—lemme go!” he bellowed, struggling as much with confusion as pain.
I cautiously shuffled in and kicked the blade out of reach. It was illegal to carry weapons in the city, but fools will be fools, and sometimes the confiscation process at the gates wasn’t as rigorous as it could be. Still no sign of an Order Guard. I edged closer to Tain. My duty was to protect him, but from hidden threats, not violent idiots in the streets. Why he had to make everyone’s duties harder was another matter. The crowd looked on in embarrassed fascination, and a few people had recognized Tain. “We should—” I started.
“Are you finished here?” Tain rested his own knee on the man’s bicep.
His arm released, the man rolled onto his side, shaking his wrist and moaning. Tain turned to the preacher, who was hastily restacking stones and muttering. “Are you all right?” He crouched beside him. “Can I help?”
“The spirits are displeased,” the man muttered, scowling without taking his eyes from the shrine. “This city is corrupt and the spirits are angry. We will be punished.” He shrugged Tain’s hand from his shoulder. “We will all be punished.”
“Let the Guilds handle this, please, Honored Heir,” I said. If hearing the title meant anything to the earther, he hid his reaction, continuing to reassemble his shrine and mutter dark warnings and curses. I sighed. Technically the man shouldn’t be bothering people by the harbor but usually earthers were no more than a mild annoyance. He’d probably cursed the foreigner for drunken behavior or otherwise offended him. Where were the Guards, though? On a busy trade morning the place should have been swarming with them as a deterrent. Silasta was a famously nonviolent city but the Order Guards were a necessary precaution to prevent escalation of any heated trade or tariff disputes, especially with an influx of foreign merchants and visitors who did not necessarily share our peaceful outlook.
I took Tain’s arm and pulled him to his feet, trying to steer him away. “Do I really need to tell you not to—” With a whoof the air was punched out of me as the foreigner plowed into us from the side, sending me to the ground and Tain scuttling back from the man’s tackle and crashing into a canopied stall selling fried glintbeetles. Bright beetles and paper cones crashed everywhere and the woman running the stall shouted in annoyance. By the time I’d regained my feet and my breath, Tain had scooped behind one of the man’s knees and with a kind of awkward shuffle-hop he overbalanced his opponent. The drunk fell into the leg of the stall with a loud curse in a language I didn’t recognize, almost toppling it entirely. Tain fell with him and the two scuffled and wrestled in the pile of spilled food.
I cursed under my breath and circled the pair, looking for a way to help. When the bigger man pinned my friend underneath him, I launched in and locked my arms around his neck. “This is not what I call a homecoming,” I panted as I tried to pull him off. Honor-down, it had been a long time since I’d had to do any martial training. Where were the bloody Order Guards?
The man released Tain and struck me in the solar plexus with his elbow. Winded, I loosened my grip and he pulled free, shaking me off like a bug. He roared, his intoxicated rage-presence making him seem at least twice our size, and swung a fist clumsily at Tain, who ducked it and delivered two short hard punches to the man’s stomach before dancing back out of reach. “He’s full of kori,” Tain said. “Hit him in the guts!”
I felt like giving my friend a whack instead when I saw the enjoyment sparkling in his eyes. I didn’t want to get anywhere near the man’s guts. Around us the crowd continued to scamper back out of the way. The spectacle was either making or ruining their morning, but no one seemed inclined to assist. I dodged a stray blow in my direction and as the man launched himself heavily at Tain again, his drunken focus on this new target of his rage, I chopped into his stomach as hard as I could with the side of my hand. “I just want a cup of tea,” I told him bitterly.
Tain actually laughed. He sidestepped the attack and hit the man one final time; with that last blow he folded in half like a deflating waterskin and sat on his backside by the canal with a sickening groan. “Get back,” Tain warned me, and we skittered out of range just in time to avoid the sudden torrent as the man’s overfull body gave up its contents.
And finally—finally—an Order Guard appeared at a run, errant hair springing out of her Warrior-Guild braid and a sheen of sweat on her brow. She pulled up to a stop and her terse expression melted into shock as she took in the participants. “Honored Heir! Credo! I—my apologies, there was an altercation with a herd of oku and some lutra at the south end of the pier, and … Honored Heir, are you all right?” She looked around us, presumably searching for the servants who should have been there preventing this sort of thing, but who were in fact days away down the river.
“We’re fine,” Tain assured her with a broad smile. “This fellow couldn’t handle his kori cups and was disturbing the poor gentleman by the shrine, there.”
“He had a knife,” I said, and gestured to the area where I’d kicked it.
“No weapons in our city,” the Order Guard barked at the man by the canal, but he was still slumped over and heaving, so I doubted he heard. She looked anxiously at Tain again. “Again, my apologies for the delay, Honored Heir. We’ve limited staff at the moment.”
“Not your fault.” Tain, still all smiles, knelt and straightened the bent leg of the stall they’d crashed into, while I helped the merchant pick up her paper cones and sweep up the ruined beetles. Her earlier agitation forgotten now that she realized who we were, she tried to shoo us away.
“We’ll pay for the food,” I told her as I scooped up the last of the mess.
“No, Credo, that isn’t necessary, not necessary at all,” she said, but I pressed my family chit into the wax tablet on her now-wobbling tabletop with a weary glance at Tain.
“It was entirely our fault getting involved,” I said firmly.
Tain helped the Order Guard haul the big drunk to his feet. As if his stomach contents had been the source of his aggression, he slumped meekly on the spot and let the Guard fix his wrists behind his back with the wire-centered cord hanging from her tunic. “I’ll take him to the Guildhall with you,” Tain offered.
“Of course that’s not necessary, Honored Heir,” the Guard said, her tone anxious. “This’s been quite enough bother as it is.”
“Nonsense!” Tain beamed at her. “I wouldn’t mind a word with the Warrior-Guilder in any case.”
Like a room doused in sudden sunlight I finally recognized his idiotic behavior for what it was. It was very bad manners to roll one’s eyes at the second most powerful man in the country, so I settled for a sigh. A month or so downriver and I’d quite put out of my head my friend’s recent obsession with the Warrior Guild and, more importantly, its coarse, disreputable leader, Credola Aven.
He’d spent the better part of summer training with the Guild, much to the bafflement of his peers and the irritation of his uncle the Chancellor. Unlike them, I knew why. Aven was twenty years his senior and the leader of the least honored and respected of the Guilds, disinterested in art, music, or cultured discourse. Tain’s fascination was unfathomable, considering Silasta was full of interesting, talented women and men, beautiful and clever and contributing far more to civilization than someone whose main skill was the effective use of violence.
But the Guard deflated his hopes in any case. “The Warrior-Guilder’s not in the city, Honored Heir. She’s with the army out near Moncasta, fighting Doranites over the mines again. That’s why we’re low on bodies here.” She ducked her head, her discomfort obvious. “Please, allow me to deal with this. My apologies for your involvement.”
After she left, we rinsed our scraped hands and shins in the canal and Tain took my berating with good humor but no apology. “No one else was helping him,” he pointed out.
I frowned. “No, but that doesn’t mean—”
“Would you prefer the old man got stabbed?” He stood, distracted. “We should check on him. I think I offended him somehow.”
But several yellow-sashed Guild officials now moved about the area, directing the cleanup, and the preacher had long since disappeared either voluntarily or at their direction. It wasn’t illegal to preach the old religion, of course, but it was common to see earthers moved along for disturbing trade or obstructing traffic.
I checked the position of the sun. “We’d better head up. The Chancellor will probably hear about this soon enough.”
He gave me a mournful look. “Let’s walk, at least. Enjoy the last of the peace while we can.” I raised an eyebrow, unsure our morning could be described as peaceful anymore, but then he grinned. “We can have that cup of tea at least.”
We walked south and crossed the pedestrian bridge to the east side of the lake. A calm contrast to its commerce-driven sister, the east shore was all long silvery grass and white sand, dotted with groups of Silasta’s wealthier classes enjoying the morning sun. Bathers splashed in the shallows and daring gulls snatched at unattended food. As we came off the bridge we dodged a stack of squealing children playing “old wooden” on the grass; tottering on one another’s backs and shoulders as they sang the rhyme, they almost collided with us as they shouted the last line: “The great old wooden saved us all!” and came tumbling down in a heap of giggles and cheerfully squashed limbs. Behind them, a knot of men and women lounged about, casually betting on informal footraces on the grass.
This side of the lake was more homogeneous and we blended in easily among crowds of dark heads and bare brown limbs under white tunics or palumas. But our anonymity didn’t last; first we were waylaid by earnest young Credo Edric, eager to share with us his latest song for my sister (called, imaginatively, “Kalina Kalina”) then by a wily couple of jewelers who were working the crowd of young Credolen in the hopes of securing a commission. I was grateful when we finally made it to my apartments.
The tinkle of the tiny hanging bells in the doorway rang out into emptiness. No movement stirred the green necklace of plants framing the curved walls (some decorative, some medicinal, some lethal). A suggestion of Etan’s earlier baking or experimentation hung in the air by way of a faint smoky scent. No sign of him or Kalina.
I changed, grateful for clean clothes—Tain waved off my offer of the same, unfazed by his rumpled state—and had begun to prepare the tea when my sister arrived home.
She froze as she saw us, furtive. Or perhaps it was just an involuntary flinch, as she followed it with several successive sneezes. Tain laughed and sprang to his feet. “There’s a sound I’ve missed!”
“Are you all right?” I blurted out.
“Hello to you, too, Brother.” She smiled to blunt the rebuke and squeezed my hands in greeting, then Tain’s. “Welcome home, both of you.”
“It’s a relief to be back,” I said by way of apology. Up close, her hair was damp and springy, and her skin prickled faintly with cold. “Where were you? Are you well?”
“Just walking. And I’m the same as usual.” Soft voice hoarse, she didn’t meet my eyes as she slipped past us to settle on a cushion by the table.
I checked the color transition of the brew and found it a satisfying rich gold. I settled the pot among the three of us and listened to my sister’s breath over the comforting warm gur-gur-gur sound of the tea pouring into each of our cups. No telltale squeak or rasp. Nothing to be anxious about.
A few sips in, the blanket of routine wrapped around me, it was as though we had never left. Tain entertained Kalina with tales of our trip, somehow turning weeks of monotony and stress into amusing escapades. I mostly sat in peaceful silence. The tea was a new one our mother had sent in my absence; delicate in aroma, but surprisingly pungent and earthy. Mother had never been a proofer, or much of a mother, but the genius of her palate for tea was undeniable.
“Enough about these two idiots,” Tain said at last. He left the table and began rifling through our bags. “Gifts! And you tell us your news. You haven’t been working too hard, I hope?”
“Oh, much of the same,” Kalina murmured vaguely. He’d bought her a set of polished wooden beads. I’d found a Talafan book of children’s stories with gorgeous painted illustrations. “Now you didn’t choose this just so you could scrape samples of the paint colors, did you?” she asked me severely, and Tain laughed at my attempts at bluster, having heard me enthusing in the market about the shade of blue.
“Well, your heart was half in it,” she teased, but her cheeks dimpled with pleasure just the same. Tain wound the beads through her dark cloud of hair—the wood was same warm brown as her skin, and gleamed like dewdrops in her curls—while she pored over the book. Talafan looked nothing like our written language and not much like Trade; indecipherable to me, but no obstacle to my sister. Her fingers stroked the pages and she read hungrily.
“I wish you could have come,” I said quietly, and her hands quivered a moment on the page before she shrugged with artificial nonchalance. I cursed myself for saying it and hastened to change the subject. “Etan’s notes were very short. Has he been busy?”
“I’ve barely seen him,” she said. “First there was the mess with the raids on the mines, then I think there was some kind of problem getting the summer harvest deliveries. Oh, and there was an earthquake that damaged a quarry, and the rains still haven’t come to the rice fields so everyone has been worried about yields.”
“What happened with the mines?” Tain’s voice was a touch too casual. We had longstanding disputes with various Doranite mountain tribes about ownership of some of the mines near the southern border; it wasn’t unusual to see raids in summer, but these had been larger and better organized than in previous years. Tain’s interest, though, had nothing to do with the military implications.
“Some of the attacks started getting close to Moncasta,” Kalina said, and twisted ever so slightly so that Tain’s hands fell away from the beads in her hair. “One of the outskirt villages got attacked. The Council sent the whole army to force the Doranites to either retreat or move to a full confrontation.”
“That’s why Aven’s gone with them,” he said, disappointment rich in his tone.
My sister’s lips tightened around the fine porcelain of her cup, midsip. “Yes, the Warrior-Guilder led the army.”
Tain sighed, and now that we were in the privacy of my own home, I rolled my eyes freely. “Come on, Jov,” he said, catching my expression and giving us an innocent grin. “I’m the Heir, aren’t I? My uncle’s always saying I need to have relationships with all the Councilors.”
“I’ll look forward to you spending the next few months in the Craft Guild practicing your leatherwork, then.” It was unclear whether taking up sparring and weapons lessons at the Warrior Guild, much to the consternation of many of his peers, was the cause or a consequence of his infatuation. I glanced at my sister, who stared down at her cup, the Talafan book pushed aside. “Did the Doranites retreat?”
“I haven’t heard anything.” Her tone had cooled.
Feeling the peace of our reunion breaking away from me, I tried again to reel it in, topping up our teacups with a forced smile. “What did Mother call this blend? It’s very good. In Telasa they said the Talafan Emperor himself is drinking our tea now.”
“It’s called pale needle.” She cleared her throat. “Actually, Mother asked me to come to the estate for a while.”
“What for?” Like all the six Credol Families, our estates in the country were the lifeblood of our family business and the source of food to support the capital, but they were hardly interesting to visit. Nor was there any great compulsion to visit our mother, whose fascination with and ambition for our family’s tea production outweighed any desire she’d had to help her brother raise us. She’d left the city when I was barely walking and we saw her perhaps once a year, if that.
Kalina shrugged, swirling her tea and avoiding eye contact. “I suppose she thought I might be useful there.”
I might have imagined the slightest emphasis on there.
Kalina was the eldest and should have been Etan’s apprentice. She was bright, quiet, unobtrusive, and desperate to please. But when she had not been able to fulfill that role I had replaced her, and neither of us could ever forget that sore spot between us.
I remembered lying awake in bed as a young child while she sat in the corner of our room with a candle, face screwed up in concentration. She studied so hard, memorizing quantities and names and drawing elaborate labeled pictures of plant leaves, trying to impress our Tashi with her devotion to her duty, hoping it would make up for her body’s weakness. I didn’t understand, back then. I’d had my own problems—as a child my compulsions had been overwhelming, and I had lacked tools to fight them. The thoughts I couldn’t stop dwelling on, the seemingly meaningless things that bothered me … My sister had been my anchor, calming me when the anxiety drove me to fits, and helping me develop the patterns and order that would eventually help me manage the problem.
Kalina taught me our family’s secret code of lines and dots almost before I learned to read ordinary language. We left secret messages for each other not just in print but on any tactile surface that could be marked—wax tablets, a beaded necklace, even baked on bread—practicing reading it by feel as well as sight. Sometimes we also left messages in geraslin ink, which would disappear if you sprinkled a certain powder over the text, then reappear under heat and light. Through her I inadvertently learned early the many varied fauna of our country as I held up pictures of plant parts she’d drawn and she named them in turn. I’d loved that game, its methodical calming repetition. I didn’t realize until years later that for her it was no game. She was constantly pushing and testing herself.
But no matter how hard she worked, it wasn’t hard enough.
The first and only time Etan poisoned her, she almost died. Even after years of immunization, her frail body, ever susceptible to every cough and fever, couldn’t cope with the dose. I was so young, then, but I never forgot the loneliness of those dark weeks when I wasn’t allowed to see her, and there was no one to play games and keep my mind operating smoothly. She recovered weaker than ever, her skin tinged gray, her hair dull, her eyes fever bright. Though we still left each other coded messages for fun, never again did we play the card game. She told me years later, in a stiff voice, that she had burned the cards. She had failed, and I had taken the place that should have been hers.
My tea was cold and the conversation had fallen away. The comfort I’d found in the three of us back together had been spoiled, and I could think of nothing to bring it back.
A messenger arrived soon after, sparing us further awkwardness. Our return had been noticed and passed on; Chancellor Caslav respectfully requested his nephew’s presence at a formal luncheon at Credo Lazar’s apartments to welcome a visiting Talafan dignitary. Presumably the nobleman was the passenger on the ornately decorated Talafan boat we’d seen in harbor when we arrived. Tain immediately set to wheedling to convince me to come with him. Back to normal, indeed.
* * *
Looking back, I could have gotten there faster. Entered differently. Spoken to different people. Perhaps I would have seen something different. But all I had was what was done.
The apartments for the six Credol Families were built on the great sweeping drive at the top of the hill, so it was a short walk to the Reed family’s from our own Oromani apartments. The sound of the gathering leaked out into the streets and a retinue of stony-faced Talafan servants waited outside the grounds by an elaborately decorated litter. The visiting nobleman must have been an important man, but it was the height of poor manners—even for a foreigner—to take your own servants into another person’s home, so outside they remained.
Servants dressed more expensively than I ushered us into Lazar’s entertaining suite. The Performers’ Guild’s most celebrated musician played delicate strings in a corner. Hanging silks in the unmistakable hand of the Artist-Guilder herself fluttered in the light breeze from the gardens, and tall spears of blue flowers imported from the Great Wetlands filled cunning alcoves in the walls. All new since I’d last seen this room, all worth a fortune.
“Honored Heir!” Lazar grasped Tain’s shoulders in welcome and beamed. “You’ve returned! Why, we weren’t expecting you for days! I was going to throw you a party.” Our host’s head was a shiny, wobbly teardrop glistening with expensive oils and ending in a weak chin. Extravagant fabric garbed his obese frame. He looked me over, soft face scrunched in polite confusion as he assessed the appropriate response; I wasn’t invited, but I was heir to Etan’s Council seat, and my family outranked his. “Credo Jovan. How pleasant to see you also. Welcome home, lad.”
“My apologies, Credo Lazar.” I shot a glare at Tain, who ignored it complacently. I shouldn’t have given in to his pleading. “I know this is a Council function. I wanted a quick word with my uncle. I’ll just be a moment.”
“Of course, of course, my boy.” Lazar ushered us in, his attention already fading. “You wouldn’t have heard this piece yet, would you? Exquisite. The Performers’ Guild is calling it the composition of the season, you know. I think—” He broke off at a crash across the room; the Stone-Guilder had collided with a servant. Vivid orange soup splashed onto the white tiles like a spray of blood. “Not again!” Lazar’s voice jumped an octave higher. “Please excuse me, Honored Heir.” His perfume didn’t mask the reek of panicked sweat as he darted away. Tain and I exchanged amused glances.
The heads of family and Guilders who comprised Silasta’s ruling Council milled about in small groups, servants weaving expertly between them. We passed the Theater-Guilder, Varina, conversing with a servant carrying cups of cloudy kori, and identified the thin, sunken-eyed Talafan nobleman, a gleaming pale ghost in a bright silk jacket as he stood listening to the musician with Credola Nara and Credo Javesto. At the other side of the room, Etan and Chancellor Caslav spoke with a few other Councilors by the food table.
The Chancellor caught sight of us and beckoned, lips tight. He and Tain could have been brothers, sharing the same slight build, broad nose, and dark curls worn long enough to mask what Tain called “the family ears.” The tattoos circling Caslav’s bare arms were a more elaborate version of Tain’s, signifying his role as Chancellor. He was a handsome man, but unlike his nephew’s his face was solemn and humorless. Beside him, Etan faded into the background: a plain, bearded man in his fifties, shorter and stockier, with gentle eyes. I’d heard him called meek. I knew better.
Tain breezed up to Caslav, ignoring his uncle’s frown, and gave the older man a warm squeeze of the shoulders. “Glad to see you. I’m starving. Are those fish cakes?”
“You are three days early,” Caslav said, and I could have sworn the temperature dropped. “And am I to understand that you have returned without your retinue? I received a rather distraught bird from your cousins.”
“Well, it’s a very long journey, Tashi, so I imagine the poor thing got tired.” Failing to generate an answering smile, Tain switched to his most sincere manner. “I’m sorry, Uncle. They were a little over-zealous and I saw a way to come home a fraction early without the fuss. But at least it’s given me a chance to help greet our guest. I learned a little Talafan in Telasa. Shall I go and introduce myself?”
I shuffled back to stand beside Etan as they continued their conversation.
“Jovan,” Etan said, raising a brow.
“Tashi,” I replied with a shrug. A corner of my uncle’s mouth twitched.
In front of us, a big man in an ill-fitting paluma who had been waiting for food also stepped politely backward, trying not to intrude on the conversation between the Chancellor and his nephew. So out of context was his presence here that it took me a moment to recognize Marco, the head of training at the Warrior Guild. He’d taught me in compulsory classes years ago, and had been tutoring Tain for his recent sessions. He was not on the Council, but he must have been assigned temporary Warrior-Guilder status while Aven took the army south. Like a great tree stuffed into an ornamental pot, the soldier stood out in the refined company, his balding head well above the rest, muscular chest and shoulders straining the normally loose paluma. The garb constricted his movements as he tried awkwardly to accept from an unsympathetic servant a bowl for soup with one hand and a flat circle of bread with the other.
Credo Bradomir—second only to the Chancellor’s family in honor and wealth—swept past in a cloud of fragrant oil and folds of white silk to accost Marco before he could be served any soup. “My dear man, my dear Guilder.” Bradomir snatched the soup bowl and held it between manicured fingernails as though Marco might have infected it. “Doubtless there are no such niceties in the army, but here there is a certain standard of behavior. The Chancellor is always offered the first serving at a gathering.”
Bradomir replaced the bowl with a chink of expensive ceramics. Marco wiped his forehead and took another step back, head down and eyes searching for an exit. I gave him a shrug in solidarity. I had little in common with Marco or his ilk; though they provided a necessary service to the city and the country more broadly, their skills and values were at odds with the rest of peaceful, cultured Silastian society. On the other hand, Bradomir was indisputably a sanctimonious ass.
“I’m sorry, Credo Bradomir,” Marco said, his voice an uncultured rumble, faintly accented despite his many decades in the city. He extended an uncertain hand, offering his bread to Bradomir as well.
At that, Tain stepped between the two men. “Don’t be ridiculous,” the Heir said. “Please keep your bread, Warrior-Guilder.” He raked Bradomir with a contemptuous glance and nodded to the sweating servant, who served two bowls of the bright soup. Tain made a show of handing one back to his uncle and smiled apologetically at Marco. “There, no harm done.”
Marco moved away, clumsy and silent as he pushed his way to the back of the group. Bradomir’s heavy-lashed gaze lingered on the back of Tain’s head as he allowed himself to be served. I stepped closer to Etan and we took our turn next. “Anything I should be worried about?” he murmured.
I shook my head. “You?” We were close to, but turned at an angle from, the Chancellor, who was now engaged in a discussion with the Stone-Guilder about road paving materials in the lower city.
“No. Well. Later.” Etan set down his bowl of soup next to the Chancellor’s to adjust the cording on his paluma, then, moments later, seemingly picked it up again. The switch of the bowls was so subtle, so effortless, it was all I could do to keep my eyes averted. Hard as I trained, I couldn’t imagine matching his skill as a proofer.
I wanted to ask him about Kalina, and Mother’s invitation, but a screech from the other side of the room interrupted my thought.
“What now?” Credo Lazar pushed through to the source of the disturbance: a servant dancing about on the spot, engaged in some kind of weird spasm with her arms slapping her own back. When her strange hopping spun her about to face us a few more people let out shrieks. A creature clung to her hair, gray and about the size of her head, and nimble enough to avoid her panicked slaps. As several other servants moved in to help her, the animal sprang from her hair onto one of the painted hanging silks dangling nearby and scrambled up it as effortlessly as a large spider.
“Not the silks!” Lazar moaned. “Get it down! Someone get it down!”
“What in all the hells is that thing?” Tain’s voice was a blend of horror and fascination as the animal sprang like a tiny acrobat between the fluttering silk panels. “Is it flying?”
It was, almost; with each leap of the lengths between panels a concertina of dark skin stretched out like wings between the creature’s front and rear legs then folded back to nothing as it landed. We were treated to an excellent view of gleaming black underwing as it flung itself from the silks onto a nearby cushioned stool.
“A gift for the Chancellor from our most generous guest, Lord Ectar,” Etan said, and added in an undertone, “It’s called a ‘leksot,’ I believe. It’s some kind of Talafan pet. It wasn’t received quite as well as Lord Ectar might have hoped; one of the servants fainted when he took it out, and another was convinced it was some kind of bad spirit given form. Oh, and it drooled on Credo Lazar.”
Herded by our anxious host, three servants closed in to capture the animal, while the Talafan nobleman Lord Ectar protested from the side. “It is just playful,” he was saying. “It does not hurt anyone. Please, allow me, allow me.…” Beside him, a servant moaned and mumbled as her gnarled arthritic fingers caressed the earther pendant she wore. Through it all, the leksot bounced on the cushion on light paws, tail coiled in a spring, like an athlete about to begin a race. It cocked its squashed head and regarded us speculatively.
“Perhaps our new Warrior-Guilder could dispose of it for us.” Bradomir’s sly tone raised a few titters in response.
One of the servants, prodded by Lazar, sprang forward to grab at the leksot, but it was far too swift, flattening itself to duck under grasping hands and scrambling up through the sea of legs, right into our group. Amidst shouts and a sudden crush of fleeing bodies, and the rising volume of the earther servant’s prayers, the creature emerged suddenly on my uncle’s bare legs. It scaled him as easily as the silks, faster than he could snatch at it, then leaped from Etan’s shoulder to the Chancellor’s. The flurry and panic intensified as the leksot hitched itself to the back of his paluma and let out a guttural grunt. The absurdity of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful men and women all attempting to rid the Honored Chancellor of the animal plaguing him while also being too afraid to touch it themselves might have been funny in other circumstances.
Lord Ectar himself extracted the creature in the end. The Talafan stammered apologies as he pushed through the crowd and scooped the leksot from the Chancellor’s clothing. “Forgive me, Honored Chancellor,” he said. “I do not know what happened. The cages should have been locked.” He looked about helplessly and then, perhaps remembering that his own servants had been forced to wait outside, carried the leksot himself back to the gilded cage from which it had escaped.
Once clear, Lazar’s army of servants swooped in to fuss over the Chancellor and brush hairs from his paluma while the sweating host himself panted behind them like an overfilled sponge. Honor was as important a currency in Silasta as wealth, and embarrassing the Chancellor would cost Lazar deeply in Council politics. Credo Bradomir and the Theater-Guilder, Credola Varina, made a grand show of dusting themselves off, and Credola Nara took great delight in pointing out the damage the creature had caused to Lazar’s hanging silks with its claws and drool. Marco, free from Bradomir’s scrutiny and unfazed by the commotion, had taken the opportunity to tuck into his soup and bread at last.
The cause of all the excitement, the leksot, shrunk to docility now that its adventure had ended, grunting happily and nestling up against the Talafan’s arm as he put it back in the cage. “It is just excited,” he tried to explain, to nobody in particular. “They like play. They are the most beloved pet in the Emperor’s court.”
Tain elbowed me, deadpan. “Think it’ll catch on here?”
I did my best not to laugh.
The family ears apparently conferred additional functionality, because Chancellor Caslav’s gaze snapped over to his nephew. His tone was unamused as he said, “Credo Jovan, I wonder, would you be so good as to take my fine gift to the Manor? I think perhaps we’ve had sufficient excitement for one gathering, and you did mention you were heading back that way shortly.” Over his shoulder, Tain made a pained expression.
“Certainly, Honored Chancellor.”
“The glass garden will do.”
I inclined my head. A job for a servant, perhaps, but given the reaction most of Lazar’s were having to the animal it probably wasn’t wise to leave it to one of them. I masked a shudder. The thing might have been harmless, but it was messy and smelly, and my skin itched just looking at it.
Etan patted my shoulder. “I’ll see you at home later.”
Across the room, Tain gave me a mournful wave as I struggled out the door with the unwieldy cage.
* * *
At home, I washed my stinking, fur-sprinkled paluma and scrubbed myself clean in the bath. My back ached. I’d left the leksot leaping around the glass-walled garden in the Manor to wreak its mischief, and sent a silent apology to the gardeners there.
I’d finally settled down to a pot of tea and a book when Etan came home. The wooden beads hanging from my doorway clicked as he entered; I glanced up and my chest compressed as I took in my uncle’s swollen lips, shiny skin, and puffy eyes.
“Time to go, Jovan,” he said.
I sprang to my feet.
Etan shuffled gracelessly into the kitchen and pressed the underside of the stone bench, activating the mechanism that moved a section of cupboard and revealed our hidden proofing room. My heart rate increased as we packed a satchel full of antidotes: charcoal, sea snake scale powder, atrapis, panshar balls from the digestive tracts of wild lutra. “How long since you noticed?”
“I came straight here from the wharfs,” Etan said. I marked how many bottles and jars he took, and the lack of precision made me anxious. “Less than an hour. Dizziness first, then swelling, then perspiration. No stomach pains or nausea, but pressure in my chest.”
My throat dried. “The Chancellor?”
“At the Manor.”
“Sit down,” I told him, and took over packing the satchel, my stomach knotting. There had been other attempts to dose the Chancellor with various substances over the years, but never had I seen my uncle this way.
“Have you eaten since lunch?”
“You proofed everything at Lazar’s?”
He might have been feeling ill but it hadn’t dampened his spirits entirely; the look he fired at me stung.
“Sorry, Tashi. I just know these functions are difficult.” Etan himself prepared the majority of the Chancellor’s food, or else proofed it long in advance. But functions like today’s were the bane of our profession: shared food, someone else’s kitchens, staff we didn’t know, and the scrutiny of canny eyes under which we must secretly test. Visibly proofing would expose open distrust and weakness—much like bringing one’s own servants to another’s home, or being surrounded by openly armed guards—something custom and honor dictated that the Chancellor must never do. Etan had to proof everything on the spot, before the Chancellor, without being noticed.
Etan tilted his head in acknowledgment. “I got into Lazar’s kitchens this morning and tested everything they’d prepared. I noticed nothing, and there were no masking flavors.” Food with a naturally bitter, sour, or acidic taste, or food so heavily spiced as to hide subtler flavors, would never be passed on to the Chancellor unless it had been proofed well in advance. “I don’t know much about Lord Ectar the Talafan, so I took no chances.” We knew of only two toxins that were effectively undetectable in food, even to a trained proofer; petra venom and a complicated compound known as Esto’s revenge. If Etan had consumed either of those, he’d be dead already.
I waited while he purged his stomach contents into a basin, and gave him two of the most generalized antidotes—charcoal and a panshar ball—after he had cleaned himself. “Without any stomach pain, the only thing that matches your symptoms is maidenbane, but obviously you’d have tasted that,” I said. That plant was so bitter even an untrained person would detect something amiss. “It might be an illness?”
Etan shrugged. He suddenly seemed so diminished. Older. Frailer. “I hope so.”
We hailed a litter but asked the men to move slowly. Up here, between the Credol residences, the streets were the original unpaved pathways, with no heavy wagon traffic to drive ruts into the packed surface. It made the journey smoother, but still fear and concern dogged me as we traveled in silence. The white azikta stone walls of the buildings around us glowed warmly in the afternoon light as we made our way up the heavy gradient pathway to the sprawling Chancellor’s Manor.
Argo, the Manor doorkeep, noted our passage in his visitors’ tome in silence, solemn as he stared at us through spectacles in need of repair.
“We have urgent business with the Chancellor,” Etan told him.
Argo pulled a cord hanging from the wall behind his desk and a middle-aged woman appeared through the beaded arch to escort us beyond the entrance hall. She had served the Chancellor for years and knew not to question the purpose of our visit. Her eyes followed me as she left the study, brows drawn together; it was rare for me to accompany my uncle here in daylight hours.
The Chancellor came soon after. His dark gaze swept over Etan, and I fancied a little color left his face. A slow-acting, undetected poison was our greatest fear: more than one Chancellor had lost his life that way.
Etan strode forward with renewed energy. “How do you feel?” He checked Caslav’s skin, eyes, mouth, and nose in turn. The Chancellor sat, mute, as Etan checked his temperature and smelled his breath. My mouth felt dry. No poison attempt had ever passed my uncle. Not one.
“I feel well,” Caslav said slowly.
I finished my own visual scan, and my breath—unconsciously held—hissed out. The Chancellor looked fine. Rattled, maybe, but healthy. Etan settled back on the desk and regarded his old friend with open relief.
“Take these, in case.” He handed the Chancellor a few small dark squares of charcoal to block the absorption of poison through the system. “But it looks like I’m just ill.”
“I’ll send someone to fetch a physic,” Caslav said. “I’d rather you didn’t go to the hospital.”
Etan nodded. Privacy and secrecy were the cornerstones of our role.
“Thank you.” The Chancellor rocked back on his chair and folded his hands into his armpits, a gesture that reminded me strongly of his nephew. We left him there, but the feeling of unease stayed with me.
* * *
Etan stayed behind in a guest suite at the Manor in the care of Thendra, a square-jawed physic with the gleaming black skin of a western wetlander, who often treated Kalina. She knew my need for order well, and watched without comment with her slanted, unblinking eyes as I checked over Etan one last time. She even moved carefully so as not to disturb the arrangement of cloth, drinking glass, and book I had set on the bedside table.
My compulsions always grew in proportion to my anxiety, so sitting in a room berating myself and becoming increasingly erratic would help no one. Instead, I borrowed a Manor messenger and sent for my sister to watch Etan. Our family duty was our greatest honor and my first responsibility. Etan might merely be ill, but we could never assume that. Walking, I pictured the Council lunch, recalling the room, the food. There had been two courses I had seen—fish cakes eaten by hand, and the soup and bread. Etan had mentioned two more, plus drinks: pre-poured cups of kori and kavcha and, at the end of the event, tea served individually from the pot. He’d proofed it all. I counted my steps down the corridor—left, right, left, longer step right to dodge a crack in the stone, longer step left to compensate—out of the visitors’ wing and back through the entrance, nodding to Argo on the way past. There had been no seated meals and no plates designated for a particular person. Unless everyone at the lunch had been poisoned—and Etan was the first to show symptoms because he had proofed the food earlier in the morning—then any poisoner must have been there personally to directly tamper with the Chancellor’s food once he had selected it.
The Talafan nobleman was the obvious starting point. While the Empire was a valued trade partner, partners maneuvered against each other all the time, and Etan had said he knew little about Lord Ectar personally. Certainly the nervous, embarrassed man I had seen didn’t appear a likely poisoner, but looks, of course, meant little.
And if a poison attempt was targeted only at the Chancellor, our Talafan visitor wasn’t the only possible enemy. Most of the Council had been there—all six Credol Families had been represented, as well as four of the six Guilders. Beneath the overt civility of the Council always rippled quiet plays for power and influence; while the rules of honor kept ill feeling masked, the Chancellor had as many enemies as friends, particularly among the Families. A diminution of influence in one family left an opening for another, and this wouldn’t be the first time a subtle poisoning had been attempted. Indeed, our family’s historic role had developed out of a past with more aggressive maneuverings, when the Families jostled for power and quiet, civilized murder was a common tool. These days such things were far rarer, but not unheard of. I was a month behind on current politics, but Etan would know who stood to gain and lose if the Chancellor were harmed.
And of course, Lazar’s servants would bear closer examination; at least one was foreign born, because I remembered seeing a Doranite man in house colors serving kori to the Theater-Guilder. For Silasta’s wealthiest families, invisible servants had better access than the closest friend or lover.
I stopped outside the Reed apartments. The buildings loomed aggressively over the promenade, crowding the land. Unlike the elegant, classically-designed neighboring apartments, Lazar’s expanded buildings were the product of his considerable fortune and his grandiose and, in places, garish taste. Around the side of the narrow garden, my head ducked low, I crept past the veranda where several singers and two pale northern jugglers were entertaining the Credo and his family for the afternoon. Explaining my presence here would create unwelcome issues. Instead, I used the kitchen entrance at the back of the property. Etan’s well-known love of cooking gave me a pretext to study techniques and the opportunity to visit every kitchen entrance of the Families’ apartments, the Guildhalls, and every building the Chancellor might conceivably enter. So although the serving staff looked up, quizzical, upon my entrance, no one seemed displeased.
Lazar’s head cook greeted me jovially. “Credo Jovan!”
Cardamom and honey hung in the air, and something thick and sweet boiled on the great stove. “Nice to see you again.”
The little woman returned my smile. “I am at your service.”
“I’ve come to ask a favor,” I told her. “My Tashi complimented your luncheon and wants to use it as a lesson for me. I was wondering if there were any leftovers—a small sample of each course?”
The cook looked over her shoulder at the swarming kitchen. A stack of clean bowls stood beside several large kori bottles on a bench, and a crumb-scattered platter and two empty soup tureens waited to be washed. In the corner, a long clawed kitsa prowled around underfoot, snatching up spills and crumbs with its quick pronged tongue. “We’ve packed up from lunch, I’m afraid, though there might be some of the sweet left—I was going to leave it for the staff.” She clicked her fingers and a servant sprang to her side. “Boy, serve a sample of the goa confection for Credo Jovan, here.”
I thanked her and accepted the small bowl. “The Credo’s been keeping you busy,” I said, casually stepping out of the way of some of the workers and closer to the tureens. “I stopped by the lunch on an errand for the Chancellor and it looked like the whole staff was in there. Did you have to bring in extra people?”
“No, but the Honored Credo pulled every member of his staff for this lunch,” she said. “And the family has had guests and entertainment out on the porch all afternoon—no one will be allowed a break until tonight.” She added hastily, “Hard work for an honored family is the path to our own greater honor, of course.”
I smiled. Behind my back, I scraped a spoon across the edge of the inside of the tureen. “The Credo is lucky to have you. Thank you for the sample. My uncle will be delighted.”
“Please thank Credo Etan for the compliment. I’ve the recipes, too, if that would assist.” She turned to find the papers and I slipped an empty kori bottle into the folds of my paluma. Then, sample and recipes in hand, I excused myself and returned up the road to my family apartments, where the dessert sample, kori bottle, spoonful of soup, and handful of fish cake crumbs joined Etan’s saliva and vomit. However unlikely, I would test it all for poison.
Some basic things I could do immediately. I made a solution from a lichen powder and tested the food samples; the presence of some corrosive poisons would turn the solution red. Etan’s saliva generated an extremely pale pink, which was to be expected, but there was no response with any of the food. I examined his partly digested stomach contents; the color and smell, while unpleasant, seemed normal. Thendra had taken blood and urine from him and I would need to do the same.
After a thorough visual examination under Etan’s best glass—nothing looked abnormal—I tasted the food samples myself. The soup was a well-made but simple root affair, the only detectable additives salt and two seed-based spices. The dessert was crushed nuts and bindie egg, whipped with goa berry syrup. Only crumbs remained of the fish cakes, but the ingredients list provided by Lazar’s cook matched the smell, texture, and taste of the sample I had. The kori was standard cloudy liquor from the southern Losi region, with no additives that I could detect.
Replacing the sliding panel in the kitchen wall that hid Etan’s workroom, I shook my head. Etan had trained me too well. There was no call for me to be more worried than my uncle. But then the front doors thrust open and Kalina darted in, sweat sticking her hair to her face and her eyes wide. I stopped, unable to take my next breath.
“Jov,” she said, and before she could say another word, I knew my sister’s news.
* * *
My uncle was dying, and so was the Chancellor. For all that my entire life had been built around this very scenario, faced with it I now felt incompetent. Unprepared. Unworthy.
When the Chancellor fell ill, the physics shifted their attention from Etan to Caslav, and Kalina and I made it through the burgeoning chaos in the Manor without difficulty. Half the Council flocked about and the Manor staff looked fearful. No one paid us any heed as we were escorted to the suite adjoining Caslav’s.
We sat there now, silent, trying to get fluid through our uncle’s puffy lips. The physic Thendra darted in occasionally, her voice sharp as she barked instructions at her apprentices. Tain broke from his uncle’s bedside only once, to briefly check on the three of us. None of us spoke of poison, but with the physics feeding both men purgatives and emetics it must have been suspected. All we knew for certain, though, was that with every moment that passed, they grew worse.
“Home,” Etan murmured. “Go home.”
“Shh, Tashi.” Kalina patted his hand gently. “Just rest. We’ll take you home when you’re well.”
“You…” His lips worked silently, then he slumped back again. “Home. So—sorry.”
I could not bear to make eye contact with my sister. My sense of failure was so intense I could barely breathe.
Our family’s great proofing tome lay under the bed, hidden from immediate sight, and the satchel of antidotes we’d brought earlier now bulged with every remedy we had. We had tried ingested antidotes and absorbing creams, sometimes the same ones in powder, liquid, or raw plant form. When Etan could no longer swallow, Kalina propped his weak body up against her while I poured teas down his throat. While the physics were occupied with the Chancellor, she stood guard by the door as I used a hollow needle to inject our only blood-borne antidote.
Nothing stemmed the tide against him.
As evening deepened, Etan was conscious less and less, his breathing weakening. Earlier, he had detailed his day for us as best he could while Kalina took notes. Even then he had struggled to force the words from his thickened tongue. Having spent much of my life drawing calm from my Tashi when the compulsions seized my body and my brain, the sight of unflappable Etan swearing in frustration at his lack of control over his own body set me off.
My problems were manageable in everyday life if I kept things in order, stuck to a routine, stayed calm. But in times of high stress, a storm of panic and fear and speculation built in my head. My usual physical calming exercises—breathing, pacing—themselves became part of the problem, and I ended up stuck in a recurring pattern. After we’d tried the last of our antidote options, I’d paced in sets of eight until my legs wobbled with exhaustion. I’d never resented my weakness so much as today, when my uncle and my sister needed me the most.
Thendra, too, grew visibly frustrated as the hours passed. “Both men say they were in perfect health this morning, yes,” she had told us. “Their symptoms are the same. Credo Etan’s manifested sooner, but the Chancellor’s are escalating faster. I fear their bodies cannot continue with this pressure, no, but since I do not understand what ails them, I cannot treat it.”
She had suggested maidenbane as a possible poison and Kalina and I feigned ignorance, but the antidote had had no effect; we knew it would not, not only because Etan would never have missed such a basic poison, but because we had already tried it, just in case. Nor did any other remedy offer any improvement in either man. In private, we had attempted every antidote for the greater and lesser poisons in our secret stores, to no effect. Ideas thinned, as did our hope.
Kalina leaned against me now, her frail form a light, even weight against my back and her hair a dark shroud between us. “What are we going to do?” she asked, her voice bleak, and though I wanted to reassure her, no words came to me. The weight of my failure crushed me.
“We’ll manage it together,” I assured her.
She stayed silent.
Etan stirred and we both started. Kalina rose and leaned over our uncle, touching his hand with hesitant fingers. “Tashi, can you hear us?”
I stared at Etan, mute. What could I say to the man who had raised us? Something lighthearted, to take his mind off the inevitable, or something sincere and thoughtful that represented all we had shared? Instead, my mind cranked through its usual gears, noting pointless details, counting breaths, evaluating symptoms.
We are who we are, I told myself. It wasn’t a comfort.
Etan coughed, making a sound like water sucking down a drain, and blinked furiously. His lips moved.
“Tashi?” I leaned close. He was trying to say something.
Etan’s gaze moved between us and he clutched at his chest. I turned to grab the cup of water from the table but, at Kalina’s gasp, the cup fell out of my hand and spilled water over my lap.
Etan’s dark eyes were still open, his lips parted, but some spark, an animation that had been there before, was gone.
Whatever knowledge our uncle had wanted to impart, he’d taken it with him.
Copyright © 2018 by Sam Hawke