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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Master of Poisons

Andrea Hairston





We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence or imminent destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own. Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky? So we twist every story to preserve our faith.

Djola thought to steer the Arkhysian Empire away from this terrible yet mundane fate. He was forty-three, handsome, and fearless—arrogant, even—the Master of Poisons and in the Arkhysian Empire, second only to Emperor Azizi. When poison desert appeared in the barbarian south and the free northland, didn’t he warn Azizi? For twenty years as it crept through river valleys and swallowed forests, Djola pleaded with Council and begged good Empire citizens to change their ways. As long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night wind, everybody promised to change—tomorrow or next week. Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust. Good citizens now feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible. Who could fight the wind?

This morning, despite being fearless and arrogant, Djola retreated into a cave overlooking the Salty Sea as half-brother Nuar calmed his warhorse, a gift from Djola. Samina, Djola’s pirate wife, had urged him to ride out with Chief Nuar and discuss his map for the future, since he’d refused to share secret plans with her. Sand swirled beyond the cliffs, a storm brewing, blunting the sunrise. Nuar wore pale cloud-silk robes over a lean muscled body, flimsy protection if the storm was fierce or poison, clothes for ceremony and celebration, not travel.

Mist got tangled in Nuar’s crown of gray hair then drizzled down craggy cheeks. He gestured at the rising sun with an eagle claw, an official exchange, not a brotherly farewell. “Your map to tomorrow won’t persuade Azizi’s Council,” Nuar shouted over the wind.

“You haven’t even read it.” Djola groaned. “You always imagine the worst.”

“You should too.”

“I do. My map is an escape route.” Djola stepped deeper into the shelter of the cave. Bats clung to the ceiling, clicking and chirping like drummers calling protective spirits.

Nuar stroked his dappled horse, who shied away from a mound of bat dung. “Council is weak men who can’t talk to rivers, read a poem in the dirt, or catch the rhythm of roots in their bones.” Nuar had been singing the same song for days.

“Council has me for that.” Djola forced a smile. “I seek ancient conjure that would guide us.”

“You’re a tame savage to them, an Anawanama who can’t tell what storm is coming till it smacks your face. Council won’t accept ancient conjure from you.” Nuar mounted the horse and nodded at cathedral trees clutching the south edge of the cliffs.

“Ancestors still smile on you here.” Frothy red crowns heralded new growth. Midnight berry bushes spilled purple blossoms over the edge. “Poison storms spare this cove and the canyons beyond.”

Djola pointed at a sand squall skipping in from a new inland desert.

Nuar grunted. “A bit of bluster and not poison. It won’t last.” The horse glared at Djola and strained against the reins, eager to trot off.

“No one has tamed me,” Djola declared.

“Azizi is a coward.” Nuar never liked the emperor, never understood how Djola could be a friend to their old enemies. “To preserve the Empire, Azizi and Council will sacrifice Anawanama, Zamanzi, and all the other northern tribes. They’ll sacrifice their own citizens, just like in Holy City.”

Djola spat. “High priest Hezram bleeds children for gate-conjure in Holy City. Azizi does nothing like this.”

“You’re a fool to trust any of these men.” The horse snorted agreement.

Djola stared at plump dark shadows swaying above them. He wanted to shout, but why disturb bats drumming themselves to sleep? “Of course I don’t trust them.”

“When we were young, you wanted to charm elephants and jackals, pull fire from the air, even ride behemoths and sink pirate ships.” Nuar’s voice cracked. “To protect our villages, like the heroes of old.”

“No shame in that.”

“Unless you’re the buffoon who betrays his own people.”

“A clown and a traitor? Is that how you think of me?” Djola hugged himself. Their mother had died when he was nine. He’d never met his father and grew up on the run, till half-brother Nuar found him. No People to hold him, just Nuar. “I chose a different path, brother, but am guided by the same spirit as you.”

“Huh.” Nuar scratched a scar on his chin from a blade meant for Djola. An old wound, it shouldn’t itch. He’d always defended his younger half-brother against other chiefs, even when Djola joined the Empire’s warriors. “You’re no traitor, but…” Nuar gazed out. “They call this Pirate’s Cove now.” Water sparkled. Red rock-roses drank the mist and enchanted hummingbirds. Green and purple wings blurred as the birds dipped beaks into eager blossoms. Nuar sighed. “Anawanama and Zamanzi roamed here once, free.”

Copyright © 2020 by Andrea Hairston