- Pages: 432 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Razorbill
- ISBN: 9781984835222
An Excerpt From
The Kinder Poison
“The gods have woken Sabil’s knife, signaling their desire for this contest, and the promise of unmatched power for the heir who would win it. As it did for the Mestrahs of old, this knife grants an ability to a new leader above and beyond the magic they already possess: the divine gift of Influence, the power to bend the will of enemies and allies alike. That said, the Mestrah would remind anyone who would desire this magic for themselves that though the knife has been reunited with its altar, it is heavily guarded, and its spell will only work for those of royal blood.” The announcer casts a purposeful look across the crowd, who snicker and whisper. “But this power is not free.” She waits for the muttering to quiet. “Representing the many difficult decisions a ruler must make, taking a human life is a seal between gods and leader. A promise to do whatever is commanded, and to realize that with each gain is a cost.” She turns to me, sweeping a dramatic hand at the stairs. “Our sacrifice.”
Reverent silence falls over the crowd. I’m not given a name. I’m a symbol, and I know they think I was chosen for this, but it’s eerie to see them look at me with such blind conviction. I can’t help but feel it was too easy to fool them.
“Go on,” whispers the woman in pink.
Like I’m being too shy in marching to my death. Gods, everyone is watching. Do I go like I’ve accepted this? Do I run? I don’t think I’d get far in the crowd. The nobles won’t risk disobeying the Mestrah to help me, if there’s even anyone here who would. I can’t go back the way I came. My guard will drag me screaming down the stairs or mark me to walk against my will. I can’t stomach the thought of either.
And I really can’t believe that yesterday, I was watching a glass boat come down the river and dreaming of being here.
Breathe, I tell myself. This isn’t over yet. Jet may have failed epically as my rescuer, and Hen may have finally met a challenge she can’t overcome, but maybe that means that in this story, I have to rescue myself. It’s at least a week’s ride to the finish. That’s plenty of time to get used to the desert and whatever team I’m with, and make Fara proud by coming up with a plan.
I can do that. Of course I can do that.
I take a troubled step forward. The pressure of a thousand eyes on me thickens the air, but I force myself to keep my chin high, my shoulders straight. People bow their heads and cross their arms over their chests as I pass. I almost choke at the irony of being surrounded by so many people when there are only three I want to see in the entire world.
“The Mestrah has awarded the advantage to Princess Sakira,” the announcer says. “She will be the first to leave, and shall begin with the sacrifice in her possession. Following her, after the span of an hourglass, shall be Prince Jet, and an hour after, Prince Kasta.”
I’ve reached the platform. I don’t want to walk past Kasta and his monstrous First any more than I want to walk through fire, but I grit my teeth and move without looking at them, though I feel Kasta’s gaze as I go. Jet still won’t look at me, no more than a glance and back at the crowd, and I bite back some choice words for him as I pass. At last I take my place beside Sakira, who glances at my dress and then has the decency to look sorry for me. And gives me hope my chances of escape are better than I thought. Maybe once I tell her what happened, she’ll be horrified and let me go. You would think that among three siblings, one of them has to be reasonable.
Her Healer looks as uncomfortable to be here as I am. She also looks like she wants to say something, but I have to confess I’m rather irritated with her right now, too, and I turn away before she can speak.
“So by the will of Numet, Rie, and Sabil,” booms the announcer, “and all the gods who have called for this occasion, we wish luck to the heirs and everlasting life to our future Mestrah!”
The horns blast again, and the people cheer and roar, chanting the name of their favored heir. The platform vibrates with stomping, the air with sparks and light and water, and I startle when enchanted fire bursts overhead, blasting us with heat as the flames swirl into the shapes of grinning jackals and charging horses. And then it doesn’t matter what else is happening, because Sakira has snatched my wrist and yanked me toward the front of the platform.
“Jump!” she shouts.
“Gods!” I yelp.
We plunge into the masses, who clear for us at the last second, my ankle rolling painfully as I land. Sakira drags me down the stairs, through the parting crowd, and toward a fountain where three desert horses toss their heads: two bay geldings and a buckskin mare the color of wheat, who tries to pull her handler’s arm out of its socket when she rears. And by that I mean that’s literally what she was thinking when she did it.
The mare sees us coming and swivels her head, ears flat against her skull.
You, she thinks, her dark eye on Sakira. She’s harder to read than the cows at the stable—I’m not as familiar with her movements as theirs—but her anger is so strong, my magic translates it to words easily enough.
No ride, she thinks. I’ll kick. I’ll kick and hurt!
I dig my heels into the sand and jerk out of Sakira’s grasp.
“Up!” Sakira yells, pointing toward the mare.
“Are you drunk?” I shout. “She clearly wants to hurt us!”
“I know. That’s part of the fun.”
“You realize I’m not allowed to die until we reach the caves?”
Sakira turns around, gripping my shoulders. She’s practically a twin of her mother, though her sleek hair is black like the Mestrah’s, and her blue eyes are her father’s, too.
“You have a week left to live,” she says. “You want to spend it plodding along on an old nag?”
“That would be ideal, yes.”
“Sorry.” She shoves me at the mare. “If you’re with me, you’re going to have fun.”
Two servants hold the mare now, one on each side of her bridle. They’re trying to look cheerful about it, but I think they’re just hoping I’ll be fast and they can leave.
“All right,” I tell the mare, pushing back the heat of her anger with every thread of calm I can summon. “I know you’re not excited about this—”
Whisperer, the mare spits. Let me go. Let go!
“Look, I told them I didn’t want to ride you, but this is the princess. She’s like our alpha. And she’s saying—”
“Are you talking to a horse?” Sakira asks.
“I’m a Whisperer,” I say. And to the mare, “Just don’t kill us for the first few minutes, and you’ll be out of here. No more crowd.”
Mm, the mare snorts. No crowd?
“No crowd, no noise. Just the desert. Wide, open desert.”
The mare trembles and looks around, but she finally lowers her head. Fast. Be fast.
“You have magic?” Sakira studies the side of my head, but I don’t dare look away from the mare. “You just speak Orkenian to her? That’s seriously all you do?”
“We communicate through emotion,” I say, grimacing as I take hold of the saddle. “My magic turns the words into something she can understand, and likewise.”
The mare stays still, but now that I’m touching her I can feel her impatience and fear flood my body as strongly as if I’d been doused in water. It amplifies my own nerves, and I try to ignore the shiver in my fingers as I push onto her back. Oiled leather gleams beneath my hands. Lilies and swords decorate the saddle’s neck, and the small hope that I might get my own horse dies when I see the seat’s long enough for another rider.
“That’s the most useless talent I’ve ever heard of,” Sakira says, pulling into the saddle behind me. “No wonder the gods are sacrificing you. Yah!”
Off we plunge, the mare cursing, Sakira whooping in my ear, and me clinging to the front of the saddle, my mother’s jewel clutched in my hand. People dart out of our way, small animals fear for their lives, and I try to think of the path ahead as the first part of my escape, away from the royal city, away from Kasta. The desert rises before us like the back of a slumbering beast. The crowd thins. Shops yield to houses and then huts, and the beat of the mare’s hooves overtakes the shouts. A glance back reveals Alette and the Healer are close behind; the priest’s shining hair whips behind her cloth headband, the Healer’s face is slicked in sweat. Sakira whoops again in my ear, and the mare whinnies in response.
Freedom, she’s thinking. Freedom. Freedom.
The last of the huts slides by, and the path changes from paving stones to packed clay.
Freedom, I agree as the royal city shrinks into the haze.
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