The bitter apple is fatal. Only in large quantities, though, and its offensive taste makes it nearly impossible to eat enough of them to kill a man. As the sun dips below the horizon, I eat one my first night in Sandar Land, barefoot and sweatsoaked. The juices sting my chapped lips and give no comfort to my throat. It’s the first food I have eaten in three days. While I chew, I try to imagine it as something less noxious, but with each bite I nearly retch and lose it all.
Swallowing the last, I hold up the slender core, stem poking out the top, seeds near the heart of the fruit, and nod at the man who had dared me.
His friend nudges him in the ribs. “Make him eat the core, too, eh?”
The man hesitates a moment, looking me over. I will eat the core if that is what he demands. I have come too far not to keep going; have yielded what little I was born with except my honor in my attempt to rescue Rose, whose father betrayed her. If I stop now, I will retain nothing.
There’s a flash of something in the man’s eyes—pity, most likely, though I prefer to think of it as sympathy—as he reaches into a soft cloth pouch and tosses three coins at my feet.
Farther into Sandar Land, I come to a village at a crossroads. I have been told to wait here for news on where to proceed but not how soon the news will come. I take work at an inn. The innkeeper is old and gruff, and the fare her staff are served is rarely better than that slopped to the pigs she keeps. But I have a place to sleep and food to keep my body alive while the days pass by.
One night a merchant dines with her traveling party. From the corner of my eye, I see her gaze at me several times as I serve the food and keep the guests’ glasses full. By the time of evening when I pour the cheapest wine, she acts as drunk as all the rest. But I know I haven’t filled her glass since before the food was served.
I pass close by her and she reaches out an unsteady hand, placing it on my thigh.
“You’re quite the young man,” she slurs.
I hesitate, unsure what to say. She continues, saying: “You have a healthy look to you. Like the roses I’ve seen in the capital city.”
My heart quickens at the mention of Rose’s name. “I have never been to the capital.”
“But surely you have seen a rose?”
She drops her spoon to the floor. I bend to pick it up and as I do so her lips brush my ear. “My room,” she says, in a voice totally sober. “After midnight.”
I hand her the spoon and she reaches out with a morsel of sweet melon between her slender fingers. She pushes the fruit to my lips. I accept it and let its sugary taste fill my mouth before giving her the slightest of nods.
When I arrive at her room, moments after the midnight bells have tolled, I find her naked on her bed.
“You’re quite the young man,” she says again. “Now close the door.”
I hesitate, but only for a second. Surely Rose would forgive me.
Afterward, the merchant tells me what I need to know.
The jangofruit is grown today only in one Sandar valley. There used to be many orchards, when the land was still ruled by the Kaglamen; they viewed the fruit as holy. But that was centuries ago. The valley where jangofruit is still grown is home to one of the last communities of unassimilated Kaglamen.
I go to one of their prophetesses, and she breaks open a jangofruit as I sit at her table. Together we pick out all the seeds and place them in a cup. Then we eat the fruit, and when each of us has consumed our share she places her hand on top of the cup, shakes the seeds, and spills them across the table.
“You have traveled far,” she says. No great insight there; my rust-colored skin marks me as an outsider throughout Sandar.
“You are losing hope.”
I stay silent. The prophetess runs fingers, bent with age, over the seeds. Then she looks at me.
“But you are on the right path. If you turn back now, you will regret it.”
I wait, hoping for more, but she sits back with a deep sigh.
“Is that all?” I ask.
She smiles. “Yes. But it will be enough.”
“More prophecy?” I ask as I pull coins from my leather purse to pay for her time.
“No. It’s what I see in your eyes.”
As I shut the door behind me, I think I hear her softly say “Good luck.”
In the capital city, where I have lived now for six months, I wait for my brother to arrive. I had called for him as soon as I’d confirmed that Rose was indeed here, that day when I heard the Baron’s odious assistant bragging about his master’s newest concubine—her hazel skin, her grey eyes. And all the rest, all that she had sworn would be ours alone.
The room I rent is above a tanner’s shop. Across the street a fruit vendor sets up every day, and each morning I buy a spirit orange from his stall.
My brother was to have been the first attendant at our wedding. My father accepted the offer of a minimal dowry from Rose’s mother and uncle. But before the wedding day her wretched, drunken father returned from battle alive. Rather than give even the two horses and twenty gold pieces Rose was to bring to our marriage, he spirited her off in the night and sold her to a man two towns over while my father and brother and I were away on a hunt.
I went after her as soon as I returned home and heard the news. The man in the other town, I found, had sold her to another man who had, in turn, sold her to the Baron.
I eat my spirit orange each day and stow the large central seed away in a pouch. The fruit’s color reminds me of the central color from my family’s crest.
The pouch bulges from all it holds. Soon, when my brother arrives, I will hire a young boy out in the street and have him deliver the pouch to the Baron.
The starberry is not native to Sandar Land. I acquired three of the berries, red with bright white stars at the spot where they had been plucked from their vine, in Puran, before I even made it to the Sandar border.
I stand under cover of darkness outside the cabin along Lake Sandar where the Baron and Rose are sleeping. Eight men guard the cabin, four outside and four within; enough that the Baron surely thinks himself safe.
I take the three berries and pop them into my mouth. They are the sweetest of all the fruits I have eaten in Sandar Land.
Within seconds, I feel their power well up inside me. My pulse beats heavy in my head and my breaths come fast as I sprint toward the cabin. The lapping of waves on the shore has slowed to a low murmur and the trees’ leaves barely rustle. The guards outside the cabin look as if they are almost standing still as I tear across the field. My lungs burn and I feel the skin of my feet flay against the ground.
My brother waits among the trees; to him I must look like a blur.
I burst through the door with a bang that echoes lazily off the walls, past the inside guards who are playing dice at a table. Clack... clack... clack... The cubes bounce only thrice as I run across the room to the inner door.
Inside, my fiancée lies in bed, asleep. I take just a moment to crush the Baron’s neck before I scoop Rose up in my arms and hasten for the outside, my heart going faster with each step.
Beyond the trees, gasping for what breath I can still take in, I place her at my brother’s feet.
My vision blurs and I fall to my knees. Then, with a hot rush inside me, everything is back to normal pace.
I topple the rest of the way to the ground, next to Rose, our faces only inches apart. Her eyes are open and I see fresh tears in her eyes.
“I love you,” I whisper with the last air in my lungs.
My chest explodes in pain, and I close my eyes.
The starberry is fatal.