The Second Cipher, story by Elizabeth Hoyle at

The Second Cipher

The Second Cipher

written by: Elizabeth Hoyle



Light flickered from under her wedding chamber door. Mari took a deep breath, gathering her courage to enter. What should she say, aside from the Seer’s greeting between new spouses? The traditional words would express how she hoped their union would allow both their gifts to grow, but they seemed too stiff, too impersonal. Should she say that she’d enjoyed his singing during their ceremony? That he was handsome, even though he hadn’t smiled enough on this, their wedding day? Not that she’d done much smiling either. Seer weddings were more solemn than joyous celebrations, more about the fulfillment of the elders’ visions that brought the bride and grooms together and the continuation of their gifts rather than the joining of hands, hearts, and bodies.
Mari wriggled her toes; her bare feet were turning chilly against the stone floor. She heard the waves crashing against the nearby shore. She’d been living in this seaside Seer community for seven years and had never completely grown accustomed to the sea’s relentless roaring. She was grateful for it tonight. Perhaps it would fill the silence that was sure to settle between her and Xandros. Would he get angry if she admitted how nervous and how tired she was? Or would his stern face relax and his full lips break into his first smile of the day as he confessed he felt the same?
She sighed at her cowardice, squared her shoulders, and entered the chamber. The scents of peonies and the fire that danced in the hearth washed over her as she took in the sight of the marriage bed, its curtains already closed. Had he been waiting long? There was only one way to find out. She approached the bed, clearing her throat to alert her husband to her presence.
“I advise you to commit whatever sweet nothings or Seer prayers you have to say to memory. Your husband has been delayed. Not that I’m offering to take his place, of course.”
She wrenched the bed curtains back and started laughing in spite of her nerves and confusion. “It’s a good thing your name is pronounced writhe because hearing your voice makes me want to do just that right now.”
“That’s what all the ladies say,” Rith replied, winking at her from where he lay against the pillows. “Though I wish my dear mother, the queen, would have pronounced my name correctly after I was born. Being Richard instead of Rithshard would have saved me many awkward explanations.”
“The name given to a person is as sacred as the child itself and must be honored as such right from the beginning, pronounced correctly or not. You know that.”
“As nice as it is to hear your sage Seer wisdom, I don’t have much time to make my offer. Please.” He sat up and held out his hands to help her up next to him. She climbed up onto the bed, taking care to tuck her nightdress so it covered her cold feet.
The seven years since she had left the palace had changed Prince Rith. His face was more angular and his fair hair was much better kept. Fine stubble grew across his jaw and he towered over her now when they had always been of a height as children. An involuntary shiver worked its way up her spine, setting her chin wobbling. He took off his scarlet overcoat and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“Before I hear any kind of offer from you, I should ask about Xandros. Where is he? Is he alright?”
“He’s still in his chamber downstairs. He thought to take a glass of wine before coming up here but little did he know that I slipped something into the wine to make sure we could talk first.”
“Is he going to be alright?”
“Your husband will awake normally tomorrow morning. It was just a sleeping draft like Iskis taught us to make.”
“How is Iskis?” The mention of the palace’s healer distracted her, memories of learning how to concoct different medicines at the old man’s side rising to the forefront of her mind. Iskis had spent hours training her and Rith how to cultivate herbs, constantly quizzing them on their medicinal uses. He said that an adult who had no knowledge of basic healing was as good as a big-bodied infant. When Mari had shown particular aptitude and patience, he had taught her even more: the basics of poisons and antidotes, brewing, and how to read, write, and speak multiple languages, including several Iskis had made up himself. He was the person she missed most from her years in the palace, aside from Rith and the rest of the royal family. She was ashamed that she hadn’t thought of Iskis in a long time.
“He disappeared at Year’s Turn. No one has heard anything of him since, which is one of the reasons I’ve come to see you.” Rith scratched his nose and looked away. “I need your help. There’s no one else I can trust with this request.”
Her heart brightened at the sincerity in his voice while apprehension made her stomach sink. “What do you need?”
“Do you remember how my father would ask Iskis every so often about concocting an absolutely untraceable poison?” Mari nodded. “I think he did it. I asked Iskis to try again after Father died. I have no way of proving it, though. Iskis left behind a tome of notes but they’re all in a cipher no scribe or scholar I’ve shown them to can solve. I’d like you to look at it. He always said you were the best, most skilled apprentice he ever had. He regretted that you left before he could officially complete your training.”
“The circumstances of my departure were beyond my control,” she interrupted, hoping he wouldn’t press her for particulars.
“I understand. If anyone can solve it, I’m sure it’s you. He stopped giving me ciphers to puzzle over long before he despaired of my skills as a healer.”
“Which was when we were about nine, I believe,” Mari teased. “Setting aside the issue of the cipher, why do you need a traceless poison?”
“Why do I have bodyguards, who are no doubt in hysterics that I left the palace unprotected? Why do I have tasters? Why was it drilled into me to always saddle my horse myself to be sure that no weapon is concealed in the tack or that the horse won’t throw me? I am soon to be king and I need as many forms of protection as I can muster, especially after⸺” He loosened his cravat, pulling his collar away to expose his throat.
Mari gasped at the sight of a jagged, still-healing scar from the hinge of his jaw to the hollow at base of his throat. “Who did that? It’s a wonder you didn’t bleed out!”
“We’re still not sure. It happened soon after my extended family came for my father’s burning. My cousins, especially Caram, and my uncle would love nothing more than to take this opportunity to seize the throne. They’ve all pretended to be concerned but I know they’re lying. Theo is in league with them, I am sure.”
“Your little brother would never feel that way or do this to you!”
“I can’t be sure, though,” he growled, his face haunted with a dark memory. He looked up at her, tears rimming his eyes. “That’s why I need this poison, to make sure I can stay alive until my coronation in three weeks. And to protect Delphina.”
He winced as he retied his cravat over his scar. She closed her eyes. She had forgotten he was engaged to a princess from a far-off, wealthy kingdom. Her long-ago vision of him swam in her mind. Was it right to hold on to her fear when the stakes were so high?
“You know I want to do all I can to make and keep you safe,” she said. “But I don’t think I can do this.”
“Why?” He wiped his eyes. “I’ve given an official Letter of Summons to the elder Seers to let them know that you are acting in my service. They did not object to meeting with me earlier or to me coming up here to speak with you. And don’t tell me your reluctance is because of your great love for your husband. If you really loved him you’d be furious with me for interrupting your wedding night. So what is it? Talk to me, Mari.”
He took her hand in both of his, shocking her with how warm they were. She kept her eyes on the rumpled sheets beneath her legs, calming her mind and heart as if it were any other vision she was reporting to her fellow Seers. Her usual techniques did not work.
“You know I had my first Seeing just before I left the palace, right?”
The bed creaked beneath them, Rith nodded so vigorously. “Iskis told me when I asked him where you were.”
“He and I were working on a fertilizing mixture to help your mother’s flowers stay in bloom longer. I had been feeling dizzy but suddenly the world tilted back and I fell with it.” Mari swallowed. She could hear the breaking of the bottle she’d been handling as if it were happening all over again. She made herself look up at him, take in the concern in his green-eyed gaze. She squeezed his hand. “I saw myself, looming over you. You were suffocating and I wasn’t doing a thing to help you. I didn’t want to. It didn’t matter that we had run races across the palace to hide from our teachers or that we’d held each other during tantrums or injuries. I wanted you to die with every string of my heart and every other fiber of my existence. You finally breathed your last and I gasped with relief. I can still feel it all now as I tell you this. You want me to help protect you but it’s clear that you need to be protected from me.”
Rith’s eyes widened but he didn’t look away or let go or show any signs of anger or distress like she’d imagined he would if he ever found out. Silence grew heavy between them. Mari couldn’t think of what to say.
“That explains why you left so suddenly, without waiting for one of the elders to examine you,” he finally said, his voice barely above a whisper. “You must have been frightened out of your wits for your gifts to have started manifesting that way. What a terrible way to begin what you were looking forward to with such hope.”
His understanding was almost as unbearable as his anger might have been. Mari tried to answer but all that came out was a sob. Then another. Then his arms were around her and tears burned her face and gasps wracked her body. “I knew I couldn’t stay, not after such a beginning! ‘A Seer’s first vision shows them a shape of their path,’” she quoted, a saying everyone almost everyone knew, Seer and non-Seer alike. “I’d never forgive myself if I let that happen to you! Never!”
“It’s alright, Mari. I’m glad you told me. It makes things much clearer.” He let go of her, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a handkerchief. He dabbed under her eyes and nose like he used to when they were little. “I know you were and are frightened. But consider the facts. Aside from my intruding on your wedding proceedings, do you have any reason to wish me harm?” Mari shook her head, wiping her nose on his coat sleeve. “And have you had any similar visions?”
“No. My visions since then have only concerned storms or other aspects of the weather. The other Seers have been glad to have me here. I’ve helped save over a dozen ships.”
“That’s good to hear. I know you Seers place a lot of weight in the beginnings of things but isn’t it possible that your first vision was the only one that won’t come true? Maybe it was an accident. I know most of what the gods show Seers doesn’t come to pass.”
“I’ve considered it over and over but since I’ve had no other visions of people to compare it to, determining its meaning becomes difficult. Seeing the weather and the currents is entirely different than seeing people.”
“Should you choose to come with me, I won’t keep you in the palace long. I just want you to translate as much of the book as possible and concoct whatever it describes. If the poison is there, that’s wonderful. If all he wrote were recipes for rare types of mead then we’ll drink all of them together while you can upbraid me for disturbing an important day in your life. No one but me will need to know you’re there. And I’ll keep out of your way, though I might ask you to make an additional salve or two if Temna, our new healer, is busy.”
Mari took a few deep breaths, considering. Iskis’s ciphers were exceedingly difficult, even his simplest ones. She hadn’t looked at one in years and it would likely take at least a day to remember how to translate. Assuming all went well, she could be back here in a week. Her elders would know where she was. She wondered briefly what Xandros would say before forcing him out of her thoughts. He might now be her husband but he had no say in where she went to exercise her gifts, especially when she would be helping one of her oldest friends.
“Alright. I’ll come with you. I’m glad you want this kept quiet. I wouldn’t want an official return under normal circumstances anyway. Your cousins used to tease me and your uncle did nothing to correct them. Time obviously has not made them into better people. I doubt anything could improve Caram. I would love the chance to reunite with your mother, though.”
“Queen Madrigal has missed you, especially when she tends her garden.”
“I’ve missed working with her, too.” Her throat thickened at memories of tending the herb beds and pruning fruit trees beside the queen. She’d always treated Mari like another child, ever since Mari’s parents, both Seers in service to the king, had died when she was little. “How is she since⸺” Mari trailed off, unable to finish her sentence.
“King Lucien’s death has been hard on her. Though he was the one who fell ill, she’s been the one convalescing.”
She wanted to ask more but decided against it, standing instead, taking off his coat. “I’ll be just a moment getting ready. If we leave now we can make it to the palace by midmorning.”
“Do you want to sleep a little? I bet it’s been an exhausting day for you.” Rith lay back, smoothing the sheets invitingly. Mari felt her face heat up.
“No, we should leave now.”
Rith shrugged and got up. “I’ll go see about my horse.”
She was about to insist on taking her own mount, Darter, but realized that an unexplained new horse would cause gossip in the stables. She hurried downstairs to her chamber, braided and pinned back her brown hair and put on woolen riding breeches and her favorite green embroidered tunic. She wrapped up in her blue cloak, taking care to fashion her large, eye-shaped broach on her shoulder where all could see it. It designated her as a Seer, not to be hindered or trifled with though she was at the service of whoever required her abilities, regardless of age, wealth, background, or creed. Rith had drawn on a black cloak to hide his garish coat, his hood covering his long yellow hair. The horse whickered as he boosted her into the saddle. He mounted up behind her, sliding his feet into the stirrups. She adjusted so she sat straight as a needle to ensure they didn’t touch. His breath warmed her neck as he chuckled.
“There’s no need for that, Mari. You’ll balance much more easily if you lean against me. You can sleep if you like.”
He kicked the horse into motion and they sped off. Mari relaxed against him and eventually fell into an uncomfortable, bumpy doze. She woke then fell back asleep several times before Rith told her they had arrived at Three Rivers, the city surrounding the palace. People stopped whatever they were doing and stared as they road past. No doubt she and Rith made an interesting sight. She pulled her hood up, though she doubted many would look at her and see the girl who ran around with the royal retinue when the queen chose to frequent the market. All too soon the packed earth of the city roads became the smooth stones that paved every route to and from the palace grounds. The castle itself had not changed but it seemed somehow completely different from how she remembered it. New colored glass had replaced the ordinary windows in the pronunciary, where all court business was heard and conducted. Several of the outbuildings had wooden roofs now instead of the thatched ones that had caught fire more than once during Mari’s childhood. The change that was most noticeable were the different banners. When King Lucien lived, they used to display two vines twined together, one flowering into a lily, the other sprouting a leaf shaped like an arrowhead. The deep blue field remained the same but was now dominated by just one vine, spouting three thorns.
Rith pulled on the reins outside the stables and two liveried lads emerged to take the horse. Mari dismounted, grateful the grooms ignored her as they led the lathered beast away. If they knew it was Rith they were serving, they gave no indication of it. She followed him into the palace, taking some unfamiliar servants’ stairs until he opened a door onto a familiar corridor. Late morning sunlight streamed through the high windows, glinting off the burgundy rug that stretched from one end of the hallway to the other.
“How many times did we race down here?” Rith asked.
“How many times did you try to trip me, you mean?” She replied with a chuckle. They walked past the doors to King Lucien’s private library, the family sitting room, and the nursery. Mari stopped instinctively outside the door to her old chamber. Seer Aldea, who had come to serve at the palace after her parents died, had objected to her staying up here but Queen Madrigal had insisted.
“She keeps it empty still,” Rith told her. He crossed the hallway to his own door and opened it for her. Mari trailed after him, her gaze sliding to the double doors of the King and Queen’s suite. Maybe she should go and see the queen after all.
Just then the door opened and out came a thin, gangly boy with coppery hair. Rith grabbed her shoulder and shoved her into his rooms before she and the boy could get a proper look at one another.
“Good morning, brother,” he said; his voice had the creaky quality of a growing boy.
“Theofric,” Rith replied.
“Where have you been? Mother’s been asking for you.”
“I had a late night ride to think some things over. I only just got back.”
“Who was that?”
Mari was about to whip around from behind the door to greet the younger prince, who had been only six when she left, but Rith pulled his chamber door shut before she could.
“No one you need to be concerned with.”
“Delphina was looking for you, too.”
“I’ll pay her a call as soon as I’ve cleaned up and seen our mother. Where are you off to?”
“The finance ministers and the palace stewards are meeting to discuss your wedding, among other things.”
“I won’t keep you, then. Be sure to take good notes for us both.”
After a handful of breaths, Rith opened the door and slipped inside.
“That was Theo? He’s gotten so tall!”
“Yes and even more serious than when he would insist on having our toy soldiers try to make peace before battle.”
“You were always patient with him when you played together.”
“He requires even more patience now, I’m afraid, when one can find him. He’s all around the palace these days, speaking to people who need to get on with their work and sitting in on meetings that don’t concern him.”
“He’s got to prove himself somehow. You can’t fault him for trying.”
“No.” Rith hung up his cloak on a peg by the door. Mari took hers off, too, keeping it with her. She looked at the three familiar doors that branched off the tiny entrance room of his suite.
“You have access to the bath and privy at any point. Should you need it, I smuggled one of Seer Aldea’s scrying bowls up here before I left.” He gestured to the door on the left then opened the door on the right. His sitting room was half an artist’s studio, half an alchemist’s laboratory. “I’ve procured fresh supplies. I think I have everything you’ll need.” He pointed to a stack of crates of vials and jugs of powders, oils, and extracts by the table in the far corner. A small iron cauldron rested on it, along with an enormous gray leatherbound volume she recognized as Iskis’s. A pallet, two pillows, and a folded blanket rested in front of the dormant, ill-kept fireplace. Rith went over to it and started kindling a fire.
“I’ve instructed the maids to deliver an extra bucket of wood and two pitchers of water every morning and night. I’m usually in and out throughout the day so if there is anything else you need, please tell me.”
“You’ve thought this through carefully.”
He sat back on his heels, the fire catching and spreading from the kindling to the logs he’d arranged. He stood.
“I’ve had to learn to be careful quickly, especially with what I want to hold close.” He pulled Mari into an embrace and they remained entwined for a long moment before he let go. “I’ll leave you to get started. I better see my mother and my fiancé before they come looking for me. May your sight be clear, Mari.”
“And yours,” she replied, surprised he knew the old Seer expression for wishing someone luck. As soon as he was gone, Mari rebraided her hair and set to unpacking the crates before examining Iskis’s book. Her eyes soon adjusted to reading his loopy, spidery writing. The first third of the book were his notes written in the common tongue concerning different herbs and recipes for specific distillations or concoctions. One type of cipher took up most of the rest of the book. A second cipher took up the tome’s small last section. She was still examining each part of the book hours later when Rith appeared with a supper tray in one hand, a nightgown and a robe in the other.
“How’s it going?”
“Both well and poorly. I remember enough of his ciphers to guess that a lot of this middle part as ingredient lists and brewing instructions. Other parts of it appear to be notes on different chemical equations and equipment. But I have no idea what is in this last part.”
“Maybe you’ll have a better idea after you have some supper.” He lifted the silver cover from the tray to reveal a plate of roast fowl and tender vegetables in pear wine sauce. Mari sat in one of the armchairs before the fire, balancing the tray on her knees.
“How were your mother and Delphina?”
“The latter was much livelier than the former though both were glad to see me.”
“And did Theo keep good notes?”
“Exceedingly good. They’re on the desk in my bedchamber. The finance ministers and palace stewards would prefer it if Theo were to be king. He is much more attentive in some ways than I am.”
“They’ll get no arguments from me,” she teased around bites of bread, regretting the words as soon as they were out of her mouth. Such fears were nothing to joke about. He did not seem to mind, though. He made a face at her and wandered over to an easel with a canvas perched on it in the corner opposite the door. Mari had examined it while taking a break from the ciphers earlier. It depicted beams of sunlight pouring through one of the palace’s stained glass windows.
“It’s quite good, Rith.”
“Thank you. Iskis always used to tell me that if an artist finds their subject fascinating then the viewer will, too. If the artist does their job right. He was not much of a teacher in that subject but he did have his moments.”
“He used to tell me ‘Not that much pigment, Maris Reyae. You want to show the viewer color, not drown them in it!’”
Rith laughed, looking at her. “Is it terrible that I forgot your full name?”
“No. He’s the only one who ever used it, aside from my superior Seers. I had to remind myself that they were talking to me during my wedding yesterday.”
“It is so odd to think that you’re married. That I will be soon.”
Mari shrugged, ignoring the fear deep in her belly at the idea of reuniting with Xandros. “Growing up happens to everyone and marriage is a necessary part of that for royalty like you and Seers like me. We couldn’t avoid it forever.”
“Speaking of things we cannot avoid, I have some letters to write before I go to bed.” He stepped over to the hearth and heaped more wood on it, lighting more candles for her before taking her now-empty tray.
“Thank you for taking such good care of me,” she said.
He bowed his head. “I know you’ll return the favor.”
He left and Mari changed into the nightgown and robe he brought for her, bringing the book over to her pallet. Iskis’s ciphers were often unlocked by a scrambled keyword. Once you had the keyword’s letters in the proper order, you could use them to unscramble the rest of the cipher. Iskis almost always used a person’s name as keywords as opposed to things like place names or titles of books or songs. It was safer that way, he taught her. Anyone could look at a map or a list of titles and eventually figure it out. Hardly anyone could pick out who was important enough to a person to use their name that way. Mari alternated between the keyword pages at the start of each cipher until she fell asleep with the heavy tome on her chest. She woke up briefly in the darkest hours of the night. She thought she heard a shriek but she was not sure if it was real or if it was just her dreams.
She awoke to the scrape of a bucket of wood being set outside the sitting room door. She waited until she heard the maid retreat before she retrieved the bucket and the pitcher of water that had also been brought. She went to the bath across the entrance room to Rith’s chambers to clean up before rebuilding her fire. Breakfast was waiting for her when she returned, along with a note from Rith that he would check on her at midday.
She ate, dressed, sat down, and started working on the keywords again. It felt odd not to do her meditations and exercises meant to keep her Sight clear. Some days she did not mind the process and other days she hated every minute of the two hours all of that took. She did not have that time to spare now.
“Please tell me that you’ve made some progress,” Rith said as he came in with her lunch tray. Mari threw her small stack of fully translated pages at him. He scooped some of them up, smiling. “This is wonderful, Mari, but do you think the recipe for the poison is here? This all looks to be notes for a book of remedies. Is this from the first cipher? Maybe you should concentrate on the second cipher?”
She had been intending to do that after she ate but hearing him suggest it irked her. “May I be permitted a humble repast before I carry out your lofty commission, Prince Rith?”
His eyes narrowed in anger and he let go of the tray, shattering the pot of tea he’d brought her. He swept the remaining pages out of the liquid’s reach and helped her mop it all up. “I’m so sorry, Mari. I should know better than to let my temper get the better of me. But I am exhausted. Theo told Delphina that he saw a woman going into my chambers yesterday. She was distressed and wanted to come in here last night until she let me…distract her.”
Mari thought back to the scream she thought she heard and felt a blush rise up her neck. Her covered plate had survived its fall so she applied herself to her food as Rith read some of the pages, pacing absently across the room.
“Don’t worry, Rith. I’ll do my best as quickly as I can.”
“I know you will. I just can’t have anyone knowing you’re here. It would look terrible and I can’t imagine what would be said. Gods know what my family would think or do to you should they find out about this. Or about you.”
Mari fought to swallow the last of her meal. “You’ve never paid attention to gossip before. But then again it was never wholly about you. It was mostly about your parents.”
“If you think about it, what you’re doing for me is no more than if I were to order the smiths to make new swords for some of the local battalions. But it looks like an act of impending war and an open threat to those who don’t care to or want to look too close at my reasons.”
“Namely your family. As I said, try not to worry. There are a few recipes I want to try from those pages and if they are remedies then I’ll stop and try the other cipher. This would be so much easier if he had thought to label things. He knew the order of his work and that was enough for him. The keyword for the first cipher was ‘Prince Rith’ and the second keyword has the same number of letters. That should make the task easier. Now you’d better go before you pace a hole through your rug.”
He took the tray away, closing the door behind him. Mari thumbed through the book, relieved he was gone. Seeing him so agitated made her nervous and oddly made her miss Xandros. Rith had been right when he said she did not love him. But Xandros had a calming, solid presence that rooted her heart when it wanted to take flight with fright and anxiety. Rith was the exact opposite; he was already soaring when she was just taking off, always hurrying her along with him even if she could not keep up. She translated a few more likely-looking passages before gathering what ingredients she needed to start brewing each recipe.
The fifth one proved to be what had to be the poison. It was a mixture of henbane, nightshade, and a combination of half a dozen herbs Mari had never thought to use together. Provided she measured everything correctly, the poison would be finished brewing by the evening. She kept watch over the cauldron as if it were an infant, constantly checking Iskis’s notes to make sure she hadn’t done anything wrong.
She tried any number of names to unlock the second keyword at the back of the book. She thought at first it was simply “Prince Theo” or Iskis’s full name, Iskis Garik. Neither of those worked. She shook her head, blinking hard. Why make the recipe for this deadly poison so easily found but be so secretive with the rest of his notes? She wished with all her heart that she could see him again to ask him about it.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Rith, who brought a cage full of live rats along with her dinner. Her expression must have betrayed her disgust because he laughed at her.
“We have to test your efforts on something, don’t we? These were destined for the palace cats, anyway.”
“Leave them outside, please, at least while I’m eating.”
Rith complied, gave her the tray, and went over to the table. He stirred the mixture, lifting the spoon up to sniff. “It’s completely odorless, just like I wanted. For all its peachy color, it’ll dissolve totally in food or drink, won’t it?”
“That’s what Iskis’s notes say.”
He took the saucer from under her teacup, poured some water into it and mixed in a few drops of the poison.
“I’ll put this in the cage and put it outside my room so you won’t be bothered by it. I have to go see Delphina. Goodnight.”
He left without another word, the tails of his black coat swishing as he hurried away. Mari finished her dinner and tidied up her tray, ignoring her ruthlessly curious urges to go check on the rats to see if the poison had worked. She sank into one of the armchairs before the fire, wishing she were stealthy enough to attempt stealing something from the library. The room was suddenly too quiet. She piled more wood on the fire until all she could hear was hissing and popping. A pang of homesickness struck her and she wanted nothing more than to be back on the coast with her fellow Seers, walking along the shore. She took a deep breath, let her heart fill up with that yearning. She envisioned her feelings as different boats. One by one she untied them from the dock of her consciousness, letting them go for now. She needed to focus.
She retrieved the book, determined to guess that keyword. She stared at the first page of the second cipher for a long time before an idea crept into her mind and her face heated with her foolishness. She should have tried this from the first. She wrote out Maris Reyae, her full name that she had never liked. It allowed her to unscramble the keyword. Her fingers flew; the next word was all she could see. Before she knew it, a fifteen page transcription of the last pages of Iskis’s tome lay before her. Her hand ached as if a fire had been lit under her skin. She started reading, pausing several times to blink the drowsiness from her eyes. The first ten pages were the same instructions for the poison. The first two words after the recipe ended were “Hello, Mari.”
“I inscribe this to you personally because of all those Prince Rith might call onto help him overcome this challenge I’ve set him, only you will succeed. My intent is not to make extra work for you. I am doing this to ensure I can communicate my fears safely, without easy discovery or threats of treason. As soon as I finish setting down these words I am fleeing the palace. I fear for my life that much.”
Mari turned the page so quickly that the corner of the page sliced her finger. Blood welled but she licked it away, ignoring the pain. “Prince Rithshard, commonly called Rith, has always been interested in many things. His interest, however innocent-appearing, is often limited in those things to the extent they can be useful to him. And he has been incredibly interested in the possibility of this poison. He started seeking me out after King Lucien died. He wouldn’t say anything, just sat and watched me work or perused my shelves and take a book or two. He’d always come back the following day with questions about the properties of plants and what effect could be achieved through different combinations and mixtures.
One morning, when he had been watching me longer than usual, he asked if there was or could be such a thing as an absolutely untraceable poison. He then shook off the idea as hypothetical nonsense, an impossibility his father had nevertheless hoped for, and apologized for wasting my time. All I could feel at the time was that I was the healer who had failed his king, the teacher who had not been patient enough with Rith when he was a boy. I did not want to fail him in this, especially when two assassinations had already been attempted in the short time since his father’s death. One of those attempts left a terrible scar he will carry the rest of his life. I told him I would try again. He smiled and said that’s all he wanted. Gods damn my naive heart.
Concocting the poison and getting the measurements correct was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The difficulty lay in getting the work done for Rith would not leave me alone.”
Mari chuckled cheerlessly, a feeling of unease turning her stomach as she kept reading.
“He would constantly ask questions, check my measurements, add in extracts that he felt would work. He kept stealing my notes so I started to write them in my special cipher, a system I have spoken of to no one since you left, Mari. Once I did that, he left me alone for the better part of a week, during which I was able to perfect the formula he wanted so desperately. I told him this and I thought he would be satisfied knowing it was there should he ever need it. Then he started bringing me test subjects. Rats, cats who had been in fights, birds that had been injured, we tested it on all of them. Every time it worked perfectly. I had no qualms about the tests we did because the subjects were either vermin that needed to be exterminated or creatures that were on the brink of death. I called a halt to all our work when Rith brought me Prince Theo’s puppy. Queen Madrigal had given it to him as a reward for taking on so much of the palace’s running while King Lucien waned.
Rith insisted we needed to try it on something healthy to judge its effectiveness. I refused and ejected him from my chambers. I came back from tending a patient to find a bottle of my favorite brandy with a note of apology from the prince. I went into my storeroom to put away the potions I had needed for my patient when I saw that the little bit of poison I had left was gone. The brandy went into the plants I kept in the workroom. I have never seen anything shrivel and perish that quickly, not even the animals we tested it on. I cannot imagine the horror it will wreak on the human system should it be ingested or get into the eyes or an open wound. I hope I never see such death or Rith or the palace ever again. I am so sorry, dear.”
The last page fell from Mari’s hands. “What have I done?” She whispered. She reread the last three sentences and tied her handkerchief around her finger so her cut would be protected. The door to Rith’s suite opened.
“Rith?” There was no mistaking that voice, even though it had been years since she’d last heard it. Caram, Rith’s oldest cousin and Mari’s worst childhood tormentor, was in the entrance room. “Where are you?”
Mari’s heart hammered and ran as quietly as she could to the door. She peered through the keyhole. Caram was even bigger than she remembered but he still had the same haughty, condescending expression. The hilt of his dagger gleamed in his belt. Carrying weapons in the presence of royalty in places such as bedchambers and other family rooms was forbidden. The penalty for doing so was death. He opened the door to the bath and closed it when he found no one there. His lip curled with disgust when he spotted the cage of rats. He knocked on Rith’s bedroom door.
“Are you there, cousin? I wanted to apologize for our disagreement earlier today. I had no right to question your authority as my future king. I humbly ask your pardon.” He knocked again, opened the door then closed it. “I graciously apologize and you aren’t even here to receive it, you paranoid ass. You’ll listen quite well later, though. I will make sure of it.”
Mari backed away from the keyhole, flattening herself next to the door’s hinges so Caram would not see her right away if he opened it. She heard him spit on the floor then his heavy boots thunked away. She did not even breathe or blink until she heard the suite door slam shut.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” she whispered, taking small, slow steps to the armchair before collapsing into it. She forced herself to settle into a round of calming, sight-clearing exercises. It was difficult but she felt a little better by the time they were done. She gathered the scattered pages with shaking hands, wondering how she could leave the palace without alerting anyone to her presence.
The door to Rith’s suite opened again and she slid the pages between her back and the back of the chair, unable to stop the loose papers from crackling loudly. She would have to make something up to explain why she was here. She did not have the strength to hide again. She heard a few footsteps and the door to his sitting room opened.
“So you are here. I didn’t dream you up the other day.” Theo stood in the doorway, his nightshirt barely tucked into a pair of breeches, his hair tussled from sleep. He had a sealed letter in one hand, the cage of now-dead rats in the other. Mari rose, took the cage, and pulled him into a hug.
“It’s good to see you, Theo. It’s been so strange, not seeing you while I’ve been here.”
“I thought for sure that was you the other day but it was all so quick. I doubted my senses until a messenger woke me.” He handed her the letter. “She was insistent about giving it to me in person and that I was to give it to you myself immediately. She wouldn’t hand it over until I promised on my life that I would.”
Her heart sped up as she saw the image of a crow flying over a lidless eye impressed in the sealing wax. Xandros’s personal seal. She opened the letter, which was far too short to justify such a fuss.
“It is no longer safe for you there. Return to the coast with all haste. I await you eagerly. -X”
Relief flooded through her that he wanted her to return and that she could use him as an excuse to leave. She could be free of this windowless room, free from fear. Free from Rith.
“Is all well?” Theo asked around a yawn.
“Yes. I need to return to my husband. Do you know where Rith is?”
“He had dinner with Delphina. I saw him leave her chamber but I don’t know where he is. Why were those rats outside his bedchamber?”
“There’s a good reason for all of this but I don’t know that I should tell you. Could you hail a guard and ask that a horse be saddled for me? I’ll make sure it gets returned to the palace.”
Theo left. She poured the poison into the three bottles Rith had washed and prepared for her. She gathered all the notes and translations, piling them on the worktable.
“They’ll have one of the hunters ready for you soon,” Theo said, leaving the door open as he reentered the room.
“Excellent. Thank you. Keep these safe.” She gestured to the papers, which he took, folded, and slipped into his pocket. “The last few are addressed to me but you need to read them. Burn all of them once you have. And whatever you do, don’t let Rith know⸺”
“Don’t let Rith know what?” Rith asked as he came in. He looked from the cage of dead rats on the floor to Mari to the bottles of poison on the table before his gaze finally settled on his brother. “I was afraid it would come to a moment like this. It had gone too smoothly. That second cipher was a message to you wasn’t it?”
Mari’s silence must have been assent enough because he nodded in resignation. Theo’s gaze darted between them.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“And you never will.” Rith lunged, grabbing one of the bottles of poison, yanking the stopper out with his teeth. He wheeled around, running toward his brother, his eyes afire with rage. Mari jumped between them, grasping Rith’s wrists. He kneed her in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She dropped to the floor. Theo barreled into Rith in an attempt to push him down. Rith stumbled but did not fall, poison sloshing over his hand. He grabbed Theo by his hair, pulling his arm back to pour it down his brother’s throat. Mari got to her feet and kicked the back of Rith’s knee with all her might. He buckled with a yell, the bottle smashing on the rug.
“Stay back!” Mari ordered Theo. “Don’t let that stuff get in your mouth or your eyes. Go get help!”
“No you don’t!” Rith caught his brother’s ankle and yanked. Theo fell, his jaws clacking together. Mari kicked Rith in the stomach, stomping on his wrist until he let go of Theo. He scrambled out of the room, blood gushing from his mouth.
“You are out of your mind! Your brother is not your enemy!”
“Not yet!” Rith spat, scooting back from her, cradling his hurt wrist. “I have to protect myself from all threats, like I told you! My family, the ministers, the court, and all the palace are waiting until he can challenge me for the throne once he turns sixteen.”
“Then become the better leader!”
He leaned back against the worktable’s leg, looking at her as if she’d suddenly sprouted wings. “Do you honestly think I can? With all of these vipers masquerading as people around me?”
“Once I might have said yes without hesitation. But now I can’t be sure. I’ll make sure the Seers know it when they come to foretell for your coronation.” It probably was unwise to threaten him but she had to keep him talking until Theo arrived with guards. Rith shook his head.
“I was wrong.”
“About attacking Theo? We’ll explain the situation; we’ll make him promise not to tell anyone⸺”
“No, not about that. I was wrong not to attack you first.” He reached up, grabbed another bottle, and sprang for her legs. She toppled, twisting at the last second so she landed on her side instead of her back. She rolled on top of him, weighing down his legs. He bucked against her, pulling out the cork and flinging poison in her face. She turned away just in time, the liquid drenching her hair. She summoned her strength and punched his eye, using his moment of pain to pry the bottle from his grip. She held the bottle above him threateningly.
“Go ahead! You won’t!” He spat, his blood landing on her lips. “Don’t think I’ll ever forget this. You will pay, even if I have to hunt you for the rest of our lives.”
“Killing me won’t make you safer. Nor will killing Theo. Or killing anyone else.”
“This was always about making my reign secure forever. If you can’t do that you don’t belong here! You never did⸺”
She flung poison at him. The liquid went into his open mouth, right to the back of his throat. He coughed beneath her, trying to stick his finger down his throat so he could vomit. Mari leaned forward, pinning his arms down so he couldn’t. He had to stay still until the guards got there. Such a small amount shouldn’t do too much damage though she desperately wished it would. She stayed splayed across him as he choked and squirmed and writhed until his coughing quieted, his body stilled, and his breathing stopped. Theo and twelve guards arrived and found her that way.
“What’s happened here? Prince Rith, are you alright?” One of the guards asked. Theo knelt, keeping his back to the guards. He felt for his brother’s pulse, using his body to block the sight of him taking the now-empty poison bottle from her hand.
“My brother is dead. It looks like he was having some sort of fit. You were trying to revive him, weren’t you, Seer Mari?” Theo’s eyes were old in his young face. She nodded, pulling back and sitting on her heels.
“When did you get here, Seer?” Another guard asked.
“Just now,” she lied. “Prince Rith wanted to consult me on some matters of his future.”
“Must’ve come on suddenly, to take down one such as the prince,” the guard said.
“It was quick. There was nothing I could do.”
“Men, summon the palace Seer, an undertaker, and my mother’s lady’s maid. She needs to be told gently. The rest of you wait outside.” The guards left but the room still felt too crowded. Mari couldn’t breathe. She backed away on hands and knees until her back hit the opposite wall.
“Theo, I⸺”
“My correct title is Prince Theo. I am heir to the throne now.” The harshness in his voice shocked her into looking at him. Tears streamed down his stone-like face. “T-thank you for defending me earlier. Your reward for your loyalty to me is your life. No one will ever know what has truly happened here. Don’t make me regret my mercy.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out the transcription, and tossed it into the fire. He picked up the remaining bottle of poison and threw it against the wall. It smashed. “You have nothing to fear now, Seer Mari. Return to your home. I hope I never see you again.”
She bowed her head and walked toward the door.
“I do mean it when I say thank you,” he whispered. “There was no one to help me the past two times he tried to kill me.”
She wanted to run back and hug him but she kept walking.
The journey home was both too long and over far too soon. Xandros was waiting for her outside the tower the other Seers had given them to live in. His stern brow was knit in concern. He embraced her after she dismounted. He pulled back to kiss her but stopped to wipe her mouth. Rith’s blood was still on her and the poison was still in her hair. She turned around and ran down the cliff to the shore, submerging and soaking herself in the ocean until her wet clothes felt heavier than her heart and her exposed skin felt clean.
Xandros helped her to their home and into a nightgown. He brewed her a mug of tea and coaxed her into drinking all of it before carrying her to bed. The sheets had been changed since Rith’s visit. She curled into a ball on her side. She heard her husband’s boots clunk to the floor and he settled beside her. His hand was warm when he touched her shoulder.
“I had a vision about you yesterday. I saw what Rith had asked you, what could happen. Theo might have changed his mind about showing you mercy had you lingered. That’s why I sent the note.”
She turned to him, sobs choking her. His talk of visions made her remember her first. It had come true. She’d not only killed Rith but had wanted it to happen. Her first flight from the palace, all those years of fearing her gift and what it could do were for naught. Worst of all was the sense that she could have prevented all of it had she stayed at the palace and discredited her first vision as Rith had done. But the Seers held beginnings as sacred for a reason. What would Rith’s rule have become, since it would have begun with the blood of his brother and possibly the blood of others? She had saved at least one life and who knew how many more in killing Rith. That thought was a speck of light in the storm of tears and screams that raged through her into the small hours of the night. Xandros was her anchor through it all, holding her when she wanted him to, and remaining quiet while she pummeled her pillows.
Sleep did eventually come and she dreamed. Most Seers thought dreams were the gods’ way of communicating individual messages to people, each special and unique. Mari dreamed of green banners flying above the palace, golden, flowering trees embroidered upon them. She walked through a hall of hundreds of statues of royalty, knowing instinctively that she’d find Theo’s at the beginning of it. Royalty had never been enshrined in stone before but Theo would be the first. She saw her and Xandros’s tower on a sunny day. His black hair billowed back from his smiling face as he hung the dresses of two little girls out on the clothesline to dry. Mari saw herself speaking to the captain of a ship she’d saved with her gift. There was a baby boy sleeping in her arms.
She awoke in her husband’s embrace. The sky was lightening outside. Sitting up to look out the window drove a knife of pain through her head. She fell back onto the pillow, tears already pricking the corners of her eyes. She thought about her dream. Someday when she felt less ravaged, confused, and heartsore, she would like that to be made real. She did something that felt dangerous then. Just for a moment, she hoped.

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