Red Bark and Ambergris

Issue #232

After she was taken, Sarai lived two years with a cloth bound over her eyes, learning scent and touch and taste, never once seeing the island that was her prison. When the day came for the blindfold to be removed, she thought at first her eyes must have failed. Home was a world of blue waters and red-bark trees, of jewel fruits and opal-bellied songbirds. Even the sand shone honey-gold and glittered where it clung to creases in the rock, tucked there by a warm south wind. Here on Felas, isle of the essence-eaters, there was only gray. Gray stone and gray water, gray robes and gray faces.

Jarad laughed when she asked what was wrong with her and turned her by her shoulders toward the sea. He stretched out one finger, the tattoo that marked his Mastery stark against his skin. “See that? The crimson at the peak of the ocean’s curve. That is the isle of Verakis, seat of our beloved queen and her court of misers. They hoard gold and joy in equal measure, and do nothing of value with either. That’s where all the color’s gone, little seabird. There’s nothing wrong with you, only with this place.”

She squinted, but her eyes were weak. She couldn’t see and couldn’t ‘sense that far. Still she stared. That far and farther, on and on past Verakis, over a gray sea and then a blue one, far beyond where the eye could reach, there waited red-bark trees and opal-bellied songbirds; there waited her sisters and her brothers, her mother and her father. “I want to go home,” she said. “I will go home.” Defiant. A fool, but what child wasn’t?

A croaked laugh from Jarad brought her chin up. She looked to the structure behind her, the once-fortress, now-prison that dominated the island. Even blind, she had known it was the largest building she had ever encountered. With her sight returned, she could scarcely bear to look at it: half carved from the island’s rook-black rock, the rest a lighter stone stacked high enough that not even the narrowest spit of shore on the island escaped its shadow.

“Don’t tell me this is my home now. It isn’t. I won’t stay here.”

This only made Jarad shake his head. “This rock is no one’s home, girl. But only the best of the poison-tamers can leave it, and only to go to Verakis and live in a prettier cage. The rest of us—scent-makers, stone-tellers, all—we must get used to the gray, for we’ll never go home.”

“Then I will be a poison-tamer,” she said. She would go south, and then farther south, however she could. Over the gray sea to the blue.

“Verakis is no home either,” he said. “And you are no poison-tamer. It is not your talent. Take this.” He pressed a sachet into her hand, tapped it. “What do you ‘sense?”

“Vanilla,” she said instantly, scent and ‘sense telling her true. She could feel the faint tug of it below her ribs, almost imperceptible—a gentle essence, not a powerful one. “A Nariguan strain.”

“And what do you smell?”

She lifted the sachet to her nose, inhaled. “Vanilla,” she said again, not understanding the lesson.

“For me it is home. It is the cook-fires in the field at harvest, it is the lines in my father’s face. Take this.” He took the sachet from her, gave her another.

“Red bark,” she said, and lifted it to her nose without prompting. Closed her eyes. She saw her mother’s hands, stained from working the bark. Heard her auntie’s laughter and the rumble of her father’s voice. Felt the slanting sun on her skin as she ran, ran, over the dry earth of the forest toward the beach, toward the shore. “Home,” she whispered.

“The scent has power to you because of your memories,” Jarad said. “Poison strikes us all the same, but scent is individual. A scent-maker must know the moments of their client’s life, must know what scents define them. And then they can summon any emotion, evoke any memory. That is where our power lies.”

“Scents are for a rich man’s fancy,” she said, echoing the scorn she’d heard from the other essence-eaters on the island. “There’s no power in them at all.”

She held out the sachet. He shook his head.

“Keep it,” he said. “Your true training begins tomorrow.” He left her on the southern cliff above the colorless, crashing waves, the red-bark sachet clutched in her palm as she tried to pick out a spot of crimson against empty sky. If she could get that far, she could find a way to go farther. To get that far, she would need to be a poison-tamer; she would need to be the best. And so she would.

The wind snatched at the blindfold in her hand. She let it go. The wind flung it back toward the island and crushed it against the rocks.

The day Sarai was taken, she had left her chores and her scolding father behind and gone to wander the shores. She was careful to go to the south, where the leathery tortoise her mother’s mother’s mother had ridden on as a child spent his days staring out to sea; the north shore hosted the black-stained bows of the queen’s ships, here to collect what was owed the thrice-slain undying queen, and Sarai had been warned away.

She had little notion of what being a queen meant. No one from Sarai’s island had stepped foot on the queen’s, nor had the thrice-slain queen ever laid eyes on the shadow-green treetops of Sarai’s home. Sarai knew only that her kinfolk gathered abalone and resin and red bark once a year and were given a stamped iron disk in return, which they added to the pile at the center of the village. Twenty-seven iron disks, twenty-seven years under the queen’s rule. They did not tell the sailors or the gray-cloaked official that they kept, too, the thirty-four copper ingots stamped with the hatch-mark lettering of the Principalities. The island lay at the lip of the kingdom. No navies defended them, no soldiers rattled lances on their shores. The queen and the Twelve Princes had bloodied blades before just to shift a thin black line a centimeter across a page; they would do it again. Then her kinfolk would bury the iron, they would dig up the copper; all would continue as it had before.

Sarai understood none of this. She understood that the sky was vast and the sea was blue, and her feet were made for wandering. She sang to the old tortoise and turned cartwheels in the sand. She skipped among the shallows and picked up ruby starfish, prodded the translucent tops of jellyfish with her fat finger. And then she turned toward the tug.

A little thing, it was. Like a fishhook just under her left rib, minnow-nibbled. Tug-tug-tug, and something else with it, a deep sense, a dark sense. When she focused on it, the world seemed impossibly large, and so did she.

She found it nestled in the sand. A rock, black and yellow, the size of her father’s fists closed and pressed together. Ambergris. She’d seen it before; her mother wore a piece of it, the size of a child’s finger, on a cord around her neck. Proof that her mother was lucky, for she had found it the day Sarai’s father asked for her to be his wife. She’d walked away from him to think, and found it, and smiling walked back. She told him yes and broke the ambergris in half, one piece for her and one for him.

This was tradition, not generosity. Half of what you found, you gave to the first person you met, or else misfortune fell on you. But if you did, you’d have great luck. The best luck. And the sailors and the officials always traded so much for even a small piece—and this piece was not small at all.

This will be my luck, she thought, and ran to share it.

Felas had no guards; only the sea. Its doors were never locked. There was nowhere to go. This dull-edged, lifeless place was where every essence-eater lived from discovery to death—if they were allowed to live at all.

Under Jarad’s tutelage, Sarai made scents for the other apprentices. There were sixteen of them always, the apprentices; no more and no less. Gem-singers and stone-tellers and steel-weavers. The wind-kenner girl who huddled in the bitter cold to catch the taste of harvests and battles hundreds of miles away. The sea-breaker boy with his feet ruined from standing in the waves and ‘sensing storms before they rose, with his master, more broken still, her hand always on the nape of his neck as if she feared the waves would snatch him away from her. The quiet, hungry pair who took up the poison-tamer’s path.

Every year, one or two or none of them achieved their Mastery, earned their ink-stain brand, began whittling away the years they had left making trinkets and weapons and wonders for a far-away queen. Every year, one or two or more of them failed.

They did not speak of the dead. One child’s fall was another’s chance, and there were always more sails on the horizon.

Sarai listened to the other apprentices’ stories, choosing dragon’s blood or sandalwood, rose or lilac, moss or bryony. It did not always come readily, the work, but she could lose herself in it, could lose hours and days to the service of a single scent, and when it was done, satisfaction suffused her. The day one of her scents drove a girl, weeping, to confess that she had planned to throw herself from the bluffs, Jarad smiled.

“This is your talent,” he told her.

But scent-making was the province of the unambitious. To serve the senses, to serve pleasure and whimsy. She would not win her way over the ocean with perfume-stained fingertips. She needed power, and for the essence-eaters, power was in poison. None of them were kept from the path to poison-taming, none forced to it; the queen trusted ambition more than coercion.

The best of the essence-eaters served one purpose: to keep the queen alive. There were six always, two and two and two to stand beside her, fingertips touching skin every minute, tasting and testing the essences inside of her. Three essences in particular: tarsnake venom, gillem oil, maddarek. Three times poisoned, not yet dead, because the essence-eaters kept the poison tame and still.

As Sarai would learn to do, and leave this catacomb behind.

Alone, because Jarad would not teach her, Sarai learned the ways these poisons killed, how quickly—six hours, three days, twelve hours. Boils, blackened skin, convulsions, liquefying lungs. She carried vials of them against her skin, fed pellets to rats and frogs and lambs so she could ‘sense the way they moved in the blood.

She learned to ‘sense new poisons. Hundreds of them. Dozens she ingested herself, to feel the racking shivers, the scorching fevers, the roiling sickness, and to alter them, ease them, draw them out. Some of the poisons, anyone could survive. Some could be endured if the effects were stretched out over days instead of hours, months instead of days. To be one of the six, to be even one of the eighteen who lived in Verakis in case one of the six fell, there were one hundred and sixty-three essences to consume and survive.

Jarad taught her tinctures to heal old friendships, to ignite new ideas. He taught her how to soothe, how to inflame. How to, again and again, bring simple pleasure, hardly noted, for some unseen courtier.

She grew to hate him. It was not talent that held her back, she thought; it was that her teacher dealt in scent and pleasure, not in blood and poison. She attended her lessons with him in his workshop, weathered tables carved with the names of apprentices who’d come before, learning to balance the over-sweet of honeysuckle with the damp earthiness of moss, to turn the rank stink of musk into pure silk. And then she scuttled to listen to the poison-tamers’ lessons, to learn how the beating of the heart sustains and destroys, keeping the subject alive while pumping poison through them. To learn how to stop the poison without stopping the heart.

The rocks below her room were littered with the fragile corpses of birds, her windowsill scattered with poison-painted seeds. She had survived sixty poisons. She was thirteen years old.

After Sarai had found the ambergris, she raced up the beach. Her mother would be at the north bay, because she of all of them spoke the queen’s tongue the best. Sarai wanted the first piece of ambergris to go to her, so that they would all be doubly lucky, and so she dodged the village, running through the thick trees instead with birds flitting above her, crying out so raucously she could not hear her own panting breath.

She burst from the trees onto sand and thudded to a stop. There, in front of her, was a man. A dust-skinned man, colorless compared to her own complexion, dressed in weather-worn clothes that might have once been blue. He turned to her with an eyebrow raised. His face was crooked, a slash running through it; he had only eight fingers and one of those half-gone. A queen’s man, here to collect the queen’s taxes, here to spoil her luck.

“Hullo,” he said in a voice like water churning gravel. “Who’s this?”

She sighed and stamped and split her ambergris in two, and handed him a piece. He turned it in his hands.

“What is it?” he said.

“Whale puke,” she said, because she was feeling petulant, and because she didn’t speak his language well. But it wasn’t right, calling such a marvelous thing by such crude words, so she tried again. “Can you feel?” she asked. “It’s all the way deep and all the way dark. For hours and hours, and then breath again.” She moved her hand like a whale beneath the water.

“What do you mean, feel?” he asked.

Feel,” she insisted, and tapped two fingers to the spot beneath her ribs where the tug always came.

“Come here,” he said. “Follow.” An odd tone to his voice. Sad, maybe. She followed, because he was going down to the shore and there was her mother up ahead anyway, and her mother would be so pleased. So very pleased.

It was the last time she saw her mother at all.

Jarad knew what she was doing, sighed over her. “It isn’t your talent,” he said when she lay in bed in her gray stone room with her muscles agony-tight, her joints hot as a bellows-fed forge. “You’ll kill yourself like this.” He read to her of distant places, of the scents that were found there. He told her of methods of distillation. He drilled her on accepted pairings, challenged her to create daring ones.

A new child was brought to the island, blindfolded and weeping. She made him a sachet of cloves and cassia bark, the scents of his mother’s palms. He crept into her bed at night and she held him while he dreamed. His skill was slight, the island small. “I want to go home,” he said. Three months after he’d arrived, he did; she was called to pack the cavities of his body with funerary herbs for the journey.

She swallowed wine laced with karagal and vomited blood for six days. “You have no talent for this,” Jarad said, and set a folded note beside her bed: her next assignment. On the seventh day, when she knew she would survive, she took the note and went to their workshop, where Jarad already sat absorbed in his own task. She was sixteen years old; she had survived one hundred and fifty-nine poisons.

“Four left,” she said. Jarad said nothing. She set to work.

The scent was for a woman from the Principalities. Sarai imagined the wrists the woman would dab the oil against, deep brown and delicate. Imagined her long neck, the pulse-points at the curve of her smooth jaw. Imagined her sprinkling oil-scented water on her blue-black hair, so that when her lover leaned close he would catch its scent and think—

Think what? Scent was individual. It sparked emotion, teased out memory. No scent spoke the same language to two people. It would mutter nonsense to one, sing sorrow to the next, laugh joyfully to a third. Sarai saw with satisfaction that Jarad had included in his instructions two tightly-scripted paragraphs—one for the woman, one for her lover. Where they were born, where they had wandered. Where they first kissed, where their hearts had been broken.

Sarai had set foot on two shores, the golden and the gray, but her workshop was a scent-map of the world, and she had memorized it all. Wintergreen from the frost-glazed north, pebbles of balsam resin from the west, cinnamon and sandalwood, cloves and bergamot, amber and rose. She knew which flowers grew in the spring on sun-drenched hills, which clung to shadows; which towns made garlands of poppies and which of forget-me-nots during the festivals and feasts of marriage, and which woods they would burn for the bonfire when they danced.

They had met in the winter, this woman and her lover, and kissed in the spring. They had fought once beneath the boughs of an oud-wood tree, and even though such wood was the most precious in the workshop, she twined its scent through, subtly, so they would not know the scent but would feel it—the fight, and the forgiveness afterward.

And in among the notes that sang of his life and hers, she hid the scent of red-bark trees, which grew only on the golden shores. A scent they would not know; a scent to make them reach for unfamiliar things, so they would not be caught up forever in the past.

When she was done she touched it to her skin. It would tell her little; everyone’s skin was different, and the scent was not for her. But it bloomed like a promise, if only a promise for another, and she nodded in tight-curled satisfaction.

Jarad caught her wrist in his bony fingers and inhaled. “This is your talent,” he told her. “And this is what you love.”

“Four left,” she repeated, and staggered on weak legs to bed.

Sarai would have stayed below decks the morning after she was taken, crying into the rough blankets of her new narrow bunk, but the scarred sailor who’d recognized her for what she was came to collect her.

“You’ll want to watch,” he said. “You’ll want to see your home. Memorize it. You won’t see it again, and you’ll start to forget.” He spoke like he knew, and so she went with him back up to the deck. The wind had caught their sails already; the island was slipping away fast, so fast. She leaned against the rope that ringed the deck, trying to see every detail one last time.

Was her mother there? Was she watching? There were figures on the rocks, the cliffs that ringed the entrance to the bay. Figures in white, the color of mourning. A dozen of them, three dozen—the whole village it seemed, climbing, standing, lifting something in their arms—baskets.

They lifted the lids of the baskets, and birds flew out. Not the opal-bellied singers of the forest but the delicate white birds of the shore. Dozens. Hundreds. Flying up, stretching wingtips toward the free open air, calling out in raucous condemnation. Flooding the sky. They wheeled and wailed, and the whole village called to her from the cliffs.

Come home to us, they called. Come home.

“They never even watched me go,” the sailor said, but it was too old a wound for sorrow.

She watched until the island vanished; watched until the last bird vanished, too, and the sea turned dull and gray.

She was in bed again, recovering, in the small room above Jarad’s workshop where she lived. They roomed alone, ate alone, wandered the gray halls alone; they were too uncertain of their fates for friendships.

The seizures this time had been short but brutal. She had very nearly not survived. Two left.

“What is my next assignment?” she asked, voice raw as reef-dragged flesh.

“No more assignments but one,” Jarad said. “You’ve finished your training. You need only make your Mastery.”

She scowled. How could she have thrown herself so thoroughly into the poison-tamer’s arts, so thoroughly neglected her scent-maker’s studies, and still reached Mastery in the latter before she survived her final poison?

“It’s your talent,” Jarad said, as if he knew what question she wanted to ask.

“It’s useless,” she said. “If I become a Master scent-maker, I’ll be stuck here forever. I will never see the court.”

“You don’t want to see the court,” Jarad said. “It’s more comfortable but far more restricted. You would not go poling down the waterways or wander the museums. You would not attend the dances, except to prowl the edge and ‘sense the drinks of fops, the soups of debauched heiresses. You would never leave your room except to ‘sense. You would be poisoned a hundred times.”

“I have already been poisoned a hundred times.”

“You would never see your golden shores,” Jarad said. “Never.”

“What does it matter?” Sarai demanded. “Why do you care which cage I lock myself in?”

“Because I cannot abide loneliness,” Jarad said, and rose. “Or the waste of true talent.” He left her to her weakness.

Sarai did not ask for her Mastery. She did not even think of the task, or what Jarad might choose for her. She focused on poisons. She had two left, only two, but these were the worst of all. She would not be asked to consume tarsnake venom, gillem oil, or maddarek—even the very best poison-tamer could not survive their ravages, only delay them, and a ‘tamer would be no use to the queen if they were too busy keeping themselves alive to see to her.

Still, the poisons were deadly enough. Varash powder killed slowly; the key was to burn through it quickly, three days and nights of horror instead of the three months it took for the poison to unweave the body. It was one thing to survive by lengthening and lessening the body’s suffering; another to intensify it so extremely and yet maintain the focused will necessary to continue for three full days.

Bellman’s Sigh was the nearest to the deadly three that could be ingested and still purged from the body. Only hours to kill, sometimes minutes if the heart or lungs were weak. It could not be survived alone, and in this the poison-tamer proved they could work in tandem with a partner, trading off seamlessly when they must rest, when they must sleep. A single second of failure would cause irreparable damage, such that even with the poison purged, the body would fail within the year.

It was customary for one’s teacher to be the poison-tamer’s partner, but Jarad would not do it for her, even if he had the skill. And so Sarai went to the ‘tamers on the island one by one, accepting their refusals with bowed head and no argument.

There was one more. Nissa, who had stood at the queen’s shoulder for twenty years before an assassin ended her career—not by poison but with a blade, slid toward the queen’s spine and only Nissa close enough to stop it. She had seized it, turned it, sheathed it in her own thin frame. She lived, in pain. Spasms that came on without warning. Not often; quite rarely, in fact, but even an instant’s inattention could cost the queen her life, and so she had sent Nissa away.

Nissa had been young the day the snake reared up and bit the girl who would be called the thrice-dead queen; on that day she began her work, but now she was old, and older still for grief. She was not like the rest of them, seized from fields and villages and distant cities. The court had been her home.

Sarai found her as she often did at the southern bluffs, wrapped head to toe in gray silk seven times as fine as any the others wore.

“I know why you’re here,” Nissa said. “Jarad told me you’d come. He told the others, too, and told them not to help you, but I will, if you wish it. If you’ll risk it.”

“It takes only two days,” Sarai said. “You’ve lasted months without the spasms, before.”

“And sometimes only hours,” Nissa said.

“I’ll risk it, happily,” Sarai assured her.

“Did you see the ship that came yesterday?” Nissa asked.

Sarai hesitated, not because she didn’t know how to answer but because she didn’t know why the question had been asked. Ships came, ships left. They brought supplies, brought food since Felas grew none of its own; they took away the goods the essence-eaters crafted, scents and gems and weapons. Sometimes they took a student away, one who’d achieved the poison-tamer’s Mastery. Or one who’d failed, who like the boy she’d comforted in the night would be sent home at last, with only Sarai’s herbs to keep the scent of rot at bay.

“I saw it,” she said at last.

“It brought news,” Nissa said. “The Principalities are displeased with the queen’s trade agreements. They tire of sending holds stuffed with gold and goods for a few small crates of red-bark and oud wood, abalone and ambergris. Not when they have so recently owned the source of such goods.”

She was talking about Sarai’s home. Sarai had never really thought about how valuable it was, that little island. The only place the red-bark grew. Host to stands of oud-wood trees. The home of the largest abalone with their prized shells. The island called by some Whale-Caller, since they came so often and left their ambergris upon the shore.

“What will they do?” I asked.

“They might war,” Nissa said. “But it is more complex than that. They give the names of goods, but what they mean is—as long as only one of us can own it, one of us will be angry.” She smiled thinly. “The queen means to burn it. When all is ashes, there’s no need for war. Though it’s more for spite than peace she wants it done, I’d guess.”

“What?” As dull and startled as a seabird’s cry.

“There are other sources for oud-wood and abalone and ambergris,” Nissa said with a shrug. “Not as good, of course. And the red-bark would be lost, but what good is it for anything but rich ladies’ perfumes?”

Sarai couldn’t answer, couldn’t think. Gone the golden sands, the red-bark trees, the opal-bellied birds. Gray instead—ash-gray, ash over everything, choking the lungs and coating the skin.

“I need to begin,” Sarai said. “The poison, I need— It needs to be today, now.”

“There’s still the Varash,” Nissa said. “And you will need to recover from that before the Bellman’s Sigh.”

“Three days. One to recover,” Sarai said.

“You need more than that,” Nissa said.

“I don’t,” Sarai insisted.

Nissa stared at her levelly. “And to what end? When you are Master, you will be presented to the queen. Do you mean to poison her, with her ‘tamers at her side? Or put a knife in her? Have you ever used a knife to cut into a living thing?”

“Yes,” Sarai said, thinking of the rats and birds and toads she’d vivisected, to watch the way they died as poison rotted them inside out or tightened their veins to threads.

“One that could resist you?” Nissa asked, and Sarai’s mouth closed. “Have you ever concealed a weapon? Have you ever looked a man in the eye before you killed him? Hm. No, child, not a knife. But perhaps you’ll find a way.”

“If I can only meet her,” Sarai said. The rest, she would fill in.

Nissa nodded. “I’ll help you, I already told you that. But if you do intend to use the access you win to kill the queen, perhaps you could refrain from telling me. She is my sister, after all.”

Sarai left Nissa on the bluffs. Nissa was only so casual because she did not believe Sarai could harm the queen. But no one had believed Sarai could come this far. She was not the best, but she was the most determined, and she would do what she must.

She returned to her chamber, where Jarad waited. “Nissa has agreed to help,” she said.

“How fortunate for you,” he said without expression, and indicated a slip of paper on the table at her bedside. “Should you change your mind about killing yourself, your Mastery awaits.” He left. Sarai tossed the slip of paper onto the floor. She went to her shelf, where she had already placed the Varash pill. There was no point, on an island full of essence-eaters, in trying to kill one another with poison, and anyone careless enough to ingest it by accident was better off dead; she need only ask, and she had been supplied with it.

She swallowed it dry and sat to wait for the pain to begin.

She was aware, from time to time, of a cool cloth on her brow and a dry, soft voice, but when she woke on the third day, Jarad was gone. She was dressed in clean clothes, her skin was washed with citrus-scented water, and her hair had been brushed and braided. There was a vial on the table beside her bed, and a slip of paper. She took one in each hand. The left: the poison. The court. Perhaps a chance to save her home; perhaps a chance to return to it.

Perhaps a certain death.

This is not your talent, Jarad’s voice whispered, but she shut her heart to it. She crumpled the paper in her palm, made to toss it away.

Then stopped. She would look, at least, and then she could say her choice was made eyes open.

The name at the top stilled her heartbeat for half a second. The queen. A scent for the thrice-slain queen. If she liked it, Sarai would have her Mastery; if she did not—well, scent-makers were not killed by their failures, or for them, so readily as the rest. She would have another chance, in a year, that was all. It was the safe path. The coward’s path.

This is your talent.

She would not fail the scent-maker’s test, she knew that. She had fierce hope and belief when it came to the poison, but she was not fool enough to call it certainty. But what good was certainty, when it was toward such a useless end? To craft luxuries, amusements? Scents to spice a kiss or a dance, to cover up the stench of wounds, to give stale air the illusion of fresh breezes.

To summon memory. To conjure distant places. To stir passion.

She had once made a girl burst into tears, suddenly wrenched back home by a single jasmine-muddled breath. She had started a love affair, and ended one. She knew the people here from days and years of trading stories like scraps of cloth, grown more faded and made more precious by every pair of hands that touched them. She could distill in a single scent the long thread of their lives or a single instant.

The righthand path: to make life brighter, but not for her. For her, always the gray.

The lefthand path: to chance death for freedom. Perhaps, to save her home.

She shut her eyes. Opened them.

Come home to us, her mother said, and she went to find Nissa.

“You’ll still need a way to kill him, even if you survive,” Nissa said, when Sarai told her what she’d chosen. “There are ways to kill at a touch. Poisons that seep through the skin.”

“The poison-tamers would ‘sense any poison,” Sarai said. Every poison had its distinct essence; she could feel them buzzing in the supply room down the hall, where they were kept, their malice clear. Just as she had felt the ambergris, just as she felt the wind-salt-earth of the red-bark she kept in a sachet above her bed. No harmful substance would be allowed within fifty steps of the queen.

“We are only speaking hypothetically, of course,” Nissa said. “But theoretically, you have learned a great deal of poison, but you have also learned a great deal else. How to mask a scent, how to alter it. How to disguise one thing as another, how to balance something noxious into blandness, how to make the unremarkable exotic.”

“You’re speaking of scents, not poisons.”

“I’m speaking of essence,” Nissa said. “Have you never noticed how your scents alter the essence as well as the physical perception of a substance?”

Sarai stared at the waves. “Why would you tell me this? She is your sister.”

“Sweet can be transformed into bitter. Love can be transformed into hate,” Nissa said. “I had a home once, too. My sister turned it to ash.”

“Was she always the way she is now?” Sarai asked. She had trouble imagining the queen as a real person. Sitting next to the queen’s sister, seeing the lines of her face, she had to acknowledge it.

“Of course not. But one can only live stewing in the fear of death deferred for so long before one starts to rot,” Nissa said.

“What was it like with her, before?” Sarai asked.

“Is that what you want to hear?”

Sarai considered. “No,” she said at last. “Not exactly.”

“Then what do you need to know?”

“Everything,” Sarai said.

When Nissa was done, long after the sun set and stole the barest hint of color from the rock, she clicked her tongue against her teeth. “There’s one more thing you need to know,” she said. “You need to know if you can truly do it. Kill someone. Be killed in turn. They’ll know it was you. You might be able to conceal the poison long enough for it to do its harm, but even if the queen dies they’ll guess the source, and they’ll kill you.”

“At least I’ll get to see the court,” Sarai said. She imagined she could see the spot of crimson at the edge of the horizon. It was too dark, of course, but she had stared at it so many times it appeared like an after-image in her vision.

Nissa spat. “You will at that.”

At dawn they would begin. Sarai could not sleep. She would suffer, she would survive. She would create the poison that could kill the queen, and when Sarai touched the queen’s skin to prove herself by ‘taming the poison in the queen’s veins, she’d pass along a new poison. A masked poison. She thought she knew how to do it. Which poison to use, which essences to blend with it to make it ‘sense harmless.

The queen would die, and Sarai would die.

But first, she had to live.

She stared at the vial. Bellman’s Sigh. One ‘tamer in twenty earned Mastery. Most gave up before it, accepted lesser tasks on the island, other Masteries. Or died.

A knock on the door signaled Jarad’s entry.

“Come to argue me out of it?” she said.

He sighed. “No. I came to sit with you. One way or another, I lose you in a few days. I’d like a little time with you while I can have it.”

She looked up at him, surprised. She was hardly his first student. Not even the first he’d lost.

“But you are my favorite,” he said, as if he knew what she was thinking. “And you are the best.”

“Not at poison-taming,” she said.

“No,” he agreed.

“You think I’ll die.”

“Yes.”

“It would be worth it.”

“It would help no one. Least of all your kin,” he said, and when he said it she thought he hid himself within the echo of that last word. “Please, Sarai. It is not your talent,” he said, and said no more.

It is not your talent.

She set her jaw. It was true; she could not let it be true.

She held the red-bark sachet to her nose. She saw golden sand, heard her mother calling her home. Saw ash and smelled charred wood.

You’ll never go home.

She let the halves of her hope fall away from one another. Jarad was right. It was not her talent. She would fail. She could not go home.

She took up the slip of paper, on which was written the queen’s name.

This is your talent.

She could not go home. But perhaps she could save it.

The day the someday queen had felt the tarsnake’s bite, she was walking with her sister along a disused path, the scent of lemongrass twining around them. They did not see the man by the river until they were quite close, did not think he could be anything but a laborer until they were steps away. And the young girl who would someday be queen did not think, until the man turned and flung the snake, that anyone might fail to love her.

The someday queen’s sister, ten minutes younger but already less loved, killed the snake with a rock. The palace guards killed the man. The queen’s sister clutched her close and quelled the poison, and the soldiers carried her home. They wrapped her in linen cloth, and her sister lay beside her, hugging her long, bare arms around her body. The queen’s sister smelled of spices and the loamy earth by the river. The not-yet queen’s physicians packed her wound with compresses, sharp and medicinal, full of herbs the poisoned girl could not name. The queen’s sister whispered stories to her, reminding her of the salt-tang scent of their summer home, of the flowers that grew on the hillsides there. Of every place she had felt safe.

The queen’s sister did not sleep for days. That day and for twenty years after, she kept her sister alive with her craft and her devotion. And when the assassin’s blade robbed her of her usefulness, the queen kissed her brow once and sent her away.

Other moments, other stories—the death of an advisor, the lilies in the blood-choked water of her first war. Nissa told Sarai them all; she had been at her sister’s side every day, nearly every hour, keeping her alive and watching her wither. Sarai picked among them. Salt-tang, honeysuckle: the scents of bliss. The day that destroyed it: lemongrass and loam, linen and spice. The scent of the husband she loved and who betrayed her: bergamot and amber.

She built up joy, shattered it; brewed a tincture of love and the loss of it, of security turned to rank fear. And she made it beautiful.

She went to Jarad with the vial in hand three hours past dawn. She had not slept; neither had he. He looked at the vial pinched between his fingertips, looked at her. “What is this?” he asked.

“My Mastery,” she said. “There is a ship down at the dock. Send it with them.” She walked away, and pretended she had not seen that he began to weep with the violence of relief.

Sarai returned the Bellman’s Sigh to the supply room and went to her room to wait.

A week later, she had her Mastery, a dark tattoo on the back of her hand, indelible. “The queen is pleased,” Jarad said, a strange tone in his voice. “The queen is, by all accounts, entranced.” He gave her a look that was fear as much as satisfaction. She smiled to try to ease his worry, but he only shook his head and left her.

It was another two weeks before Nissa came. “She isn’t dead,” she said without preamble.

“She was not meant to die,” Sarai said. “It isn’t my talent.”

“She won’t leave her room. She won’t speak. She’s fallen into a melancholy mood,” Nissa said, voice almost sweet. “She mutters of deceit and death and shoves even the poison-tamers’ hands away. Not that they let her, of course. They’ve plied her with poppy to make her sleep, and our brother sits the throne in her place. For now, they say, until she’s well.”

“A great misfortune,” Sarai said, nodding.

“They suspected you,” Nissa said, and Sarai tasted something bitter in the back of her throat. “But when they gave the scent to others, it did nothing. It smells lovely, that’s all. Some don’t care for it at all. One man said it reminded him of his brother.”

Sarai smiled. “There was nothing of poison in that scent,” she said. “Only memory.” Distilled and woven to lift the spirit, to shatter it.

“You will never leave this place, now,” Nissa said, but even then she was wrong. When Nissa left, Sarai took down the sachet from her wall and pressed it to her nose. Red-bark and ambergris, salt-tang and oud-wood. Memories leapt and sparked and danced. She was on the golden sands again, the red-gold cliffs. In among the green-shadow trees, bare feet flying.

Come home to us, her mother called, and, eyes shut to the endless gray, she did.


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Kate Marshall lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and several small agents of chaos disguised as a dog, cat, and child. She works as a cover designer and video game writer. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless SkiesCrossed Genres, and other venues, and her YA survival thriller I Am Still Alive is forthcoming from Viking Children's. You can find her online at katemarshallbooks.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Stone Prayers” by Kate Marshall
“Bakemono, or The Thing That Changes by A.B. Treadwell

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2 Comments on “Red Bark and Ambergris”

2 Responses to “Red Bark and Ambergris”

  1. LEN EVANS JR says:

    I really liked this story. It was very intense, the character development was well done. I felt very much like I knew Sarai by the end. I also love the ending.. it was not just satisfying but also very appropriate. A very well done to the author.

  2. John Van Pelt says:

    Love it. Sarai’s determination. The essences. The resolution and ending. Thank you.

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