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    Volume 6, Issue 1 February 28, 2011
    Message from the Editors
 The Untold Story of an Executioner by Dawn Lloyd
 End User by A.L. Sirois
 Birth of a New Day by Fredrick Obermeyer
 What Eats You by Sara Kate Ellis
 Touch of Poison by Jaelithe Ingold
 Special Feature: Author Interview with Mario Acevedo
 Editors Corner Getting Lucky by Lesley L. Smith


A Touch of Poison

Jaelithe Ingold

         The rusty lock disengaged from the first set of barred doors, and footsteps echoed on the floor above. Not just the single set from her regular guardsman, but a group of people shuffling down the thirteen stone steps to her cell.
         Visitors. How unexpected.
         Arys smoothed tangled hair back from her face and rubbed her sooty hands against the thin fabric of her skirt. Her efforts made no difference. Grit coated every pore on her body, from the tips of her raw, bony feet to her itchy scalp.
         The fools thought dirt could protect them from her touch.
         She backed away from the door, retreated to the corner where she'd scraped nine winters' worth of hash marks in neat rows. By their footsteps, she counted five people. On rare occasions, when Callum deigned to visit her, there were as many as two. Never five.
         Arys watched the heavy, bolted door which had kept her from the rest of the kingdom for so long. She'd known this day would come. There was only one reason to lock her away while the others burned.
         Someday, she might be useful. And Callum believed he could control her.
         The footsteps halted.
         "Back away." The raspy voice belonged to her usual guardsman. He never smiled, never made eye contact, but seemed to have no fear of her. It had been so long, perhaps he didn't recall what she was. Or what it used to mean to wear green.
         She leaned against the cool stone and tucked her hands out of sight as the tumblers in the lock groaned. The door hadn't been opened since the day she'd been escorted inside surrounded by a ring of swords. Everything else had gone through a small hatch on the upper half of the door. A bucket could be squeezed inside, but nothing larger.
         Arys held her breath as the door swung open.
         As expected, five men stood outside. Four of them were guardsmen, whose presence she dismissed immediately. The fifth was Callum.
         She let her breath out on a sigh. Lean and handsome as always. The black doublet only emphasized his broad shoulders. His swarthy skin lay tight against the aristocratic bones of his face, and his eyebrows were thick slashes. Even now, she could recall with perfect clarity the feel of those wiry brows when she'd traced them with her fingertips.
         While she studied him, he returned her regard, but she refused to feel shame. If she was somehow less than what she'd once been, it was his fault more than any other. More than the Queen for making the decree. More than the peasants who'd demanded death for her kind.
         "Arys." His voice still held a trace of accent from the village they'd both grown up in. "It is good to see you."
         "You want something." She couldn't bring herself to smile. It was always like this with him. A favor. A simple favor that would make everything better for both of them. Accompanying him to court had only been the first. Then he'd asked her to take the test for the Catevari. Just to show her support for the kingdom.
         She'd been such a foolish girl.
         Callum turned to the guardsmen. "Leave us."
         The guards exchanged glances, but one stern expression from the Queen's favorite consort had them retreating. Once they closed him inside, Callum returned his gaze to her. He stepped closer, foolish man, unafraid that she'd do anything to him.
         "I have come to offer you something. A bargain."
         "A bargain?" She rolled the word over her tongue, marveling at the taste of it. No one had offered her anything in years.
         Whatever he'd come to ask of her, she was bound to despise it.
         "What do you have to offer me? Fresh linens?" She pointed to her soiled pallet. "Better clothing?" She pinched the threadbare fabric covering her chest. "Or perhaps some edible food?" She kicked the bowl which had contained her daily rations. "And what would I have to do to earn such kindnesses?"
         His eyebrows drew together. "For one simple task, you could earn freedom."
         "Freedom?" The word felt as though it had been torn from her throat. "Don't lie to me, Callum. There is no freedom for a Catevari."
         "There could be." His voice was little more than a murmur as he drew even closer. "For you, at least." Callum reached out and trailed his index finger along her jaw.
         Manipulative as usual.
         Even so, Arys closed her eyes at the sensation. So familiar, and yet unreal. Because he was touching her again. How many years had it been since another person touched her? Long before she'd been imprisoned, people had avoided contact. When she'd passed down hallways and streets, men and women alike had given her as wide a berth as possible. They'd stared at her hands like they would a viper in the sand. Like the poison she'd wielded as a weapon for the kingdom was somehow contagious.
         Superstitious peasants.
         "The kingdom is a different place now. Most have forgotten all about you."
         In spite of everything, Arys smiled. "Not the Queen, I'd wager."
         His hand dropped, and a strange expression crossed his face.
         Arys understood immediately. "Ah. It's the Queen then, isn't it? That is my one simple task, yes? To save your bitch. How apt."
         His cheeks flooded with color. Protective, even after all this time. "Were it just my lady Queen, we would not consider using you. But as it is, a child's life is at stake too. Her unborn successor."
         And Arys knew. With blinding clarity, she knew it was his child. His child.
         She tried not to let the agony show. The child might have been hers - should have been hers - once upon a time. If things had been different. If the Queen hadn't loved Callum too. If Callum hadn't been so ambitious. "There are no other heirs?"
         Callum shook his head. "My lady Queen has been unlucky."
         Or perhaps it was punishment for all her sins. Satisfaction widened the smile on Arys's face, while his expression turned wary. As well it should.
         She was a different person from the one who'd accompanied him from their village to the court of the Queen. From the girl who'd become one of the Queen's handmaidens, to the woman he'd once intended to marry.
         The moment she'd been tested, everything had changed. The Catevari had claimed her.
         She'd gone from wearing blues, reds, violets and yellows to green. Nothing but green. Callum had called it a sacred duty, so she'd accepted the robes to an office she'd never wanted to acquire a life she hated.
         While the life she'd desired with all her heart disappeared. And so had Callum.
         "You know what I require?" She watched him carefully. If he so much as flinched, she'd turn him down.
         But he didn't. He only nodded. "We have the gem. And we also have a volunteer."


         She was taken to an empty room on the ground floor of the castle. Once there, she was brought several hip baths filled with steaming water, along with a fresh change of clothing. Not for her comfort, but for the Queen's. Only a sweet-smelling person was worthy to place her hands upon royalty.
         The garment was more like one worn by a lady's maid than a lady herself, but Arys did not complain. The fabric felt soft against her newly washed skin. The lemon-scented soap was sharp enough to make her eyes water and her nostrils sting, but at least it had cleansed the sticky grit away.
         But for how long? Freedom was still a lifetime away, no matter how today turned out. Callum had never been good about keeping his word.
         A short rap sounded at the door, and her captor returned with his retinue of guardsmen. He'd left her in privacy for the short time she'd been given to bathe and don her new clothing. After everything that had happened between them, his propriety was misplaced.
         Of course, unlike most of the kingdom, Callum knew she was harmless without the stone. Had he believed her dangerous, he wouldn't have left her alone.
         "You look much better." His eyes passed over her, and she resisted the urge to brush against the skirt or to smooth back her combed hair. "Are you ready?"
         Arys nodded. "Where is it?"
         He beckoned to someone behind him, and the guardsmen parted. Another moved between them, holding a wooden tray with gloved hands. A wooden box bound by rusted locks rested on top.
         Even though she couldn't see inside, she could feel the gem throbbing within its prison. It fell into rhythm with her heart. Its humming energy coursed under her skin, like an itch she needed to scratch.
         The jewel was happy to be near her again.
         The sentiment was not returned.
         The guardsman gently set the tray on top of a table. Then he backed away. Callum made a gesture, and the remainder of the guardsmen surrounded her with weapons held out in warning.
         A precaution, of course. Just a precaution. But she wasn't offended.
         As she drew closer to the box, her heart seemed to triple its beat. Her palms began to sweat and shake, and Arys had to force herself to release the locks and lift the lid. A collective hush fell over everyone as she reached inside.
         Her fingers wrapped around the thin chain and withdrew the amulet from its prison. So ordinary in appearance. So deadly in reality. A dark, vivid green stone shot through with white and yellow swirls. The stone wasn't regularly shaped like a cut gem, but smoothed into an oval from the press of hundreds of fingers harnessing its power for the good of the kingdom.
         Arys draped the stone over her neck so it fell between her breasts. It pulsed with energy and warmed against her skin. A burning sensation streaked through her blood as the poisons of the gem sought death for their holder, only to be disappointed.
         She was immune, like all Catevari. Not because their gods had found her worthy like the peasants had once believed, but because the Catevari sisters had picked Arys. At the behest of the Queen, no doubt. What better way to rid herself of a rival for Callum's affection?
         The Catevari had trained her body to move the poison. To harness the stone. To take from one and give to another. A secret skill, not a gift. The stone, like her, had been asleep for so long, but it wanted to be alive again, to feed again. The painful streaks subsided, and the gem settled its trembling, content to wait for now.
         She turned to Callum. "Once I've done this simple task for you, what assurances do I have that you'll let me go?"
         He frowned. "I've already given you my word. You'll have your freedom."
         "Convince me." She clasped the stone in her hand, and his eyes followed the movement. "And don't play games. I know you too well."
         One of the guards twitched, and Arys smiled. Before nightfall, the gossip about their history would begin making the rounds again, and Callum's life would be more difficult to defend.
         And she would be gone. One way or another, she wasn't going back in that cell. ~

         The Queen was ensconced in the middle of a massive bed draped with red canopies; her swollen belly formed a mound beneath the coverlet. She'd grown fat over the years, no doubt stuffed with divine pastries and meats while Arys survived on the dregs from the kitchen.
         Her face was yellowed and sweaty, her breathing was shallow and quick, and her eyes were closed. Sickness poured from her in waves. The stone purred at being close to such a wellspring of disease. "How long has she been like this?"
         "A few weeks," Callum murmured. "None of our doctors have been able to help. But they all believe she's dying." He reached up to smooth away the Queen's hair from her face.
         Affection? After all this time?
         Arys struggled to control her emotions. She'd always believed Callum's affection for the woman had been a means to an end. A method to gain more power by a man who'd only ever had one goal. A consolation that even if he'd never loved Arys, he'd never loved the Queen either.
         But if that wasn't the case....
         Then this awful woman really had taken everything from her. Her life. Her freedom. Her Catevari sisters. And Callum most of all. How was she supposed to squelch the desire to flood the Queen's veins with all the poison contained within the stone? Unbearable. Unbelievable. Unthinkable. Unfair.
         Freedom. A life outside that cell. Freedom from the kingdom, from Callum and the Queen. She had to do it.
         She took a deep, calming breath. "Where is the volunteer?"
         Callum's gaze returned to her, and he seemed oblivious to her inner struggle. "On his way."
         Arys nodded and kept one hand clamped around the stone, which was trembling in her grasp. So eager to take from the Queen. "I'll need privacy to do this."
         He shook his head. "I'm staying."
         She gritted her teeth. "Of course you're staying. I meant the guards should leave. No one other than you, me, the Queen and the volunteer."
         His brow furrowed.
         "The lack of guards is my only proof that you intend to keep your promise once I've finished. And if that isn't enough to persuade you to do as I ask, then I'm perfectly willing to return to my cell. And just as willing to allow your Queen to die."
         At that moment, his beloved moaned in her sleep, and Callum immediately clasped her meaty hand in his. "You'll feel better soon, my dear. I promise." His eyes returned to Arys. "Fine. No witnesses, then." He dismissed the remaining guards, and continued murmuring encouragement into the Queen's ear.
         Out of nowhere, pain sliced through her stomach. Arys had never felt the gap between them so acutely. They'd started in the same place. Had come here at the same time. His entire adult life had been spent in this court, near this Queen, where he'd earned the love of so many.
         While she was no better than a servant. Or a criminal.
         Minutes passed before a new set of guards escorted a malnourished, grizzled man into the chamber. His clothing was tattered and manacles were locked around his wrists and ankles. The man's widened eyes kept flitting from object to object in the room.
         A thief, perhaps? That was the way her volunteers had been selected in the past. A jailed criminal would be offered a lord's ransom in money to be given to his family, in exchange for accepting the diseases and poisons of an aristocrat.
         Take from one and give to another.
         The way of the Catevari.
         While Callum sent the volunteer's guards from the room, Arys moved toward the prisoner. A sour scent rose from his skin. He hadn't been given the chance to bathe, because it didn't matter. Only Arys would touch him.
         And he was a dead man.
         She met the thief's eyes. "Do you know what will happen?"
         The man twitched. Sweat glistened on his dirty brow, and he kept rubbing at the skin on his wrist. "I die to save her." He nodded towards the enormous bed. "My daughters get all the money they need."
         "And you accept this of your own free will?"
         He hesitated, and then he nodded once.
         Arys looked to Callum, who was frowning. He'd never understood why the question was important to her. The volunteer had a family. People would mourn him, even though he was a criminal.
         The Catevari had claimed it was better to take a volunteer. Someone who understood the sacrifice, but Arys disagreed. Why take the life of a good person, even if that person was a criminal? Why take the life of someone kind or loving enough to make that kind of sacrifice? Why not take the life of someone who didn't care about anyone else? Why not take the life from someone who wouldn't know what they were sacrificing? Why shouldn't the Catevari decide which kind of person was worthy of life?
         She bit back her arguments and thought of freedom. All she had to do was this one simple task. Save the Queen. Kill the thief.
         She beckoned the volunteer to the bedside, being careful not to touch him. Callum moved to his Queen and took her hand again. With the other hand, he stroked her swollen belly.
         His child.
         Callum's son or daughter would sit upon the throne. The only reason he'd asked for her assistance, the only reason he'd risk bringing her back into the kingdom. For the child to live, the Queen had to live.
         In that moment, she hated him more than she'd ever hated the Queen.
         "Don't touch her." Arys glared at him. "Unless, perhaps, you'd like to volunteer yourself."
         He didn't remove his hands immediately. Merely stared at her with that insolent expression. Then he slowly lifted his hands away. His decision. Not hers.
         So easily, she could reach out and touch him. She could send poison through his veins, but it wouldn't work fast enough. She wouldn't incapacitate him before he'd take her head off with his sword. And even if that weren't the case, how could she kill him?
         She'd loved him once.
         So she grabbed the thief by his wrist and placed her other hand against the Queen's fleshy neck. Satisfied heat flashed through the stone. Burning pain filled her as the toxins from the Queen's illness surged into her body and coursed to her other hand, where it slipped into the body of the thief.
         The volunteer groaned as the first wave of sickness slammed into him. When he staggered, Arys pushed him against the wall for additional support, but kept her grip on both bodies. The Queen's yellowed color warmed to pink, and Arys felt the life moving within.
         A daughter.
         Arys's arms turned yellow as the disease passed through her and to the thief, who accepted it into his body. He groaned again when his skin flushed with that unhealthy color. His legs gave out, and he fell to the ground.
         Arys held onto him even when the Queen's eyes began to flicker with new life. The thief's heart began to stutter, and breathing became more difficult. His mouth opened on a sigh. A final sigh, perhaps.
         Death was another kind of freedom. For him and for her.
         Callum's daughter upon the throne. What would happen to the kingdom then? His influence had always been felt upon the Queen, but at least she had been strong enough to make her own decisions. What could he do with a child under his control?
         She might not be strong enough to kill Callum, but she could still hurt him. She could still hurt the Queen. And she could still hurt the kingdom.
         Take from one and give to another.
         So Arys changed her focus. She willed the illness out of the thief's dying body and into another, younger soul. A body which wouldn't know the difference within its mother's womb. A life which could be claimed and trained before Callum could do anything about it.
         At the same time, Arys took her own ability to harness the stone, to move the poisons, and she gave it to Queen's unborn successor, Callum's unborn daughter.
         Her new Catevari sister.

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