Poisoned Honey
rating: +43+x

There is a term among your people: wreik’mádha, heath-honey. In early summer, when the azalea bushes bloom, they seem to blanket whole plateaux in vibrant pinks, creamy whites speckled with wine, sprays of peach-flesh and buttermilk yellows and oranges like the heart of crucibles. It is a glorious sight, to ride to the uplands and behold them all, a bright ocean rising to the flanks of one’s mount. And bending closer, one may glimpse the gloss of green leaves still peeping from between the blooms, and the fine threads of the stamens - and clambering among them many industrious bees, the clamour of whose drone is as the waves washing against the shore.

But to take the honey they lay down in this time, gathered from this sudden glut of nectar, is dangerous - it bursts the heart, burns in the veins. For the first taste of it is sweet, and only grows bitter once swallowed. Some fear enough to eat no honey at all during this time, but most - most could not live with that avoidance, and so count the threat acceptable.

And so it is for people too: there are some who are poison, some who twist all relationships to serve themselves and themselves only, leach what they can and discard the remaining carcass when it is no longer satisfying.

Of course, admitting to being heath-honey would rather defeat the whole concept, and so you have never been called such aloud. But just because things are not spoken does not make them less true.

More than one man has died in your bed, when your mother has requested it. The truth about her children can be hidden from no mother, and so she asks you to do nothing beyond what you would do already, with cause. She knows you are strong enough to cradle death against your chest. She knows you are charming enough that no-one will ever suspect.

The son of Matriarch Yamijuta may or may not wish to be used as a bargaining piece against your sister Pūraśana, but his mother certainly thinks so, and will not be denied. Of course, it would not benefit Pūraśana any to be wed to him, nor your own house, nor indeed the two of them, for they cannot be allowed to think they hold more sway against your mother, sit higher in her favour than they in truth do.

You do not speak of him at all - rather the horses, and the trade in jewels that has increased its output recently, a new silver mine to the west that should make its first export this year - but in the way your mother calls you by your names - “Pūlarja, Helerqatar” - and Pūraśana calls you “váser”, you understand completely.

And so the next night, you paint your mouth and you smile at him at dinner; laugh and blink and lead him back to your own rooms. You ask to show him something, and you see in his eyes that he knows what you mean. (Or at least, the meaning you had painted inside yourself for that very purpose like the ochre on your lips.)

When the cassia tree had been planted beneath your window, the gardeners had not thought that it would grow. Its branches now weave up the wall, and you may step out onto them, one hand closing around the bough so you do not fall and the other trailing behind, to guide his. And then you are running on a memorized path, ducking underneath bushes and swerving around trees, clambering over the low drystone wall that marks the edge of the estate proper, and down, where it drops off into a steep hill. Dry leaves crunch under your feet, and twigs grab at the hems of your skirts as you descend it hurriedly, taking pleasure only in the moving of your limbs until the canopy opens out and the ground slowly rises to meet your steps, and you are finally slowed and stopped by the friction of the growing light ahead.

He laughs, and you match it, quietly.

Here, the river takes a wide, slow turn around a basalt shelf that overhangs the water, surrounded by lush mosses and ferns. The branches that are black slashes against the stars almost dip their heads into the flow, ensuring that anybody looking across from the other side is unlikely to notice you - especially on a moonless night such as this one.

You guide his hands to your shoulders and hips. The ferns brush cold against your knees, thighs, back. When you are through, he curls up next to you on the still-warm ground, one hand flung over his head.

You count your heartbeats in groups of sixty until you can be sure he has drowsed off, and then slip a hand inside your boot and pull out the small blade nestled against your ankle. The starlight washes out all the colour from the bands of agate, but not the clamshell lines of the flakes fractured off. You frown down at his sleeping body, weighing the silence of his larynx against the speed of his intercostal space. But it is not a particularly quiet night - you hear someone yowling across the water within the lower city and myriads of buzzing cicadas that have resettled on every tree branch since you have disturbed them. So you move your fingers down over his ribs instead.

You count, five, angle the biface, and drive with the heel of your hand.

You shall see who attempts to pressure your mother after this.


The wax is split and the missive is read before you all, sisters and brothers gathered at your mother’s table for the morning meal. The seal is that of Matriarch Tvaišaratha, and the messenger also wore her colours. The word insurrection feels strange in your ears, flutters like copperfly-wings over the lips of your brothers as they whisper to each other. Some strange intrigue brewing between the slaves in the cities and the peasants in the frontiers of her territory - taxes are going unpaid, and when soldiers ride out to collect they come back to report villages empty, swamped in peat or in the scent of rot. (When they come back at all.) Merchant ships waylaid, nomadic clans found slain to the last, the houses of ladies and lords set to flame in the night.

She begs your mother’s support, as a longtime ally and your mother’s friend from youth.

And you know what your mother expects, so you give the orders, you send the companies, and you curse and weave magic and make the sacrifices to Tívash and Isukuré asking them to strengthen your will, nerve the arms of the slavecatchers and soldiers riding northwards.

But the months turn into seasons into years, and the responses you get trail off, the number of those returning grows fewer, the territories sliding further into that mysterious black hole. You catch your mother’s lips pursing at you as she passes in the corridor, and that stings worse than any curse.

And by the point that you walk into your own rooms at the end of another fruitless day, already pulling out your hairpins, and hear the door closed behind you by someone else’s hands, you almost want to fling up your hands and say of course. Of course you would have failed at this too, that you couldn’t even keep your own adversary from sneaking in to -

(What you would do, in his place, would be to take you as a weapon. Scourge your mind with sorcery and tell your mother you would only return it if she gave you the land you wanted.)

But you still have some pride. “If I call,” you say, “I could have a dozen guards in here within one heartbeat.”

“You could,” he agrees, turning away. “But I do not believe you will.”

Indignation wells up like sudden flame. “Why not?” How dare this half-blood, upstart claim to know anything about you, least of all to venture to predict any of your actions.

“Because you are curious,” he says. “How far does your mother’s land extend? And how many people does she rule, with all their disputes and quarrelling? Yet I have not even stepped over your borders - surely, you could be forgiven for allowing Tvaišaratha” - and you do not miss the absence of the title - “to handle me. Break a little of me on her first, before you come to steal the glory.

“And even then, you are God-daughter. There are spells that could burn us all to ashes, and you would not even have to leave this room to cast them." Well, it is true. "Why bother, to try and take me alive?

"But you want to know how I have resisted you this long. More than that - you want to know why."

His eyes are grey as a midsummer storm, and it is on the very edge of breaking, sending the hammering rains and howling winds across the land.

“You wish to take me as hostage,” you say.

His grin is a slash in a dark, utterly mirthless. “No.”

“You wish to kill me, and are just taking your time to gloat before -“

“Even less.”

“Then what,” you hiss, and let your fingers creep towards the knife hidden beneath the folds of your skirts, “do you think to force me to do?”

His eyebrows lift in surprise. “I think not to force anything,” he says. “If it is truly your desire, we may go back to the lot-throw of war; you can sacrifice all the human lives you want on my spears, and I will leave you to live your life within a walled garden, believing it to be the universe entire. Day after day in the gilt stockades of your traditions and rituals and pleasures until your own soul is gilded too, until the crown grows into your skull, the chain into your hand. Until this shell of jewels and images is too thick to ever shed, and you wither and die within it and no-one will notice, not even the gods you claim to serve.

“Or break it now. Come with me, and I will show you the world as it is in truth. How, outside of this refuge” - a gesture encompassing all the walls and furnishings in sight - “the universe really treats thinking creatures, even of your own blood. Out there, the gods answer no-one. I promise; you will be abandoned to hunger and pain and grief, torn bone-deep by thorns, forced to see death face-to-face, and you will be more alive then than in all the years you have already passed.

“You want a true adversary? You want to fight a war? Come then, and earn it yourself.”

He lifts his chin, and something flashes white across his cheek. Spaced as your fingers would be, if you held them up against his skin.

You curl your hands into fists. “I cannot -“

“Can’t you? You are not your mother’s heir, nor destined like your brothers for marriage. A younger daughter - you are free."

The threat is implicit: remain thus.

“Come with me," he says, "and live."

Unbidden, a memory wells up before you: the preparation for the veriveti, when your aunts had led you out at nightfall, taken you down, down, on stairways barely used, until the stone grew cold and stale - although now you know that at their base is only the warm and holy well that only your age had kept hidden from you before, when first you had felt yourself step beyond the bounds of the sun's domain, you had halted, thinking: I am walking into my tomb. The walls would have sealed themselves over you, the stone slid and fallen, and you would have been bound there eternally. Young, and sacred, and unchanging in your skyless sepulchre. Had it not been for their grip, one on each of your younger hands, you might have bolted; flung yourself back up the stairs and out, out through the palace corridors and into the garden, into the grey and storm-swept horizon -

Your heart is very good at lying. You had always told yourself that that was only what it had done - for of course, you are not dead, had emerged like a wasp from its old skin and been named woman -

Now, you wonder.

His mouth at your throat burns, like the first stroke of lightning.

He watches you, when it is over, getting up and pouring out water to clean the amber from between your legs. Like a leopard, or a wolf: something languid and fearless of the night, for it knows there are no greater dangers there than it.

You pull on your trousers, and then, as an afterthought, the padded linen tunic and corselet that had been bestowed upon you at your veriveti. Every girl of sufficient birth received one in the ceremony, though of different materials depending on her family’s means, bronze or horn or leather. It was the final symbol of the authority you stepped into, the strength of will each daughter of Daevon was expected to have developed by the time she came of age, that you be garbed as a commander of armies, as one who would and could defend Daevon against all its foes. The weight of its layers of gleaming scales settles comfortingly down over your breasts, hugs the curve of your back. You feel strangely vulnerable, like a mayfly that has just shed its carapace, still soft and pale underneath; wanting some kind of protection until your new skin hardens. Something to shelter under.

Or perhaps that is just that steady gaze, pressing against your back.

You pick up your comb, begin scraping the wisps of your hair back. For something to say, you ask, “What did you do with my slavecatchers?”

A small, wry laugh. You turn in time to see him offer an equanimous shrug. “Not all of them are dead.”

For some reason, this is very funny. You are bent double with laughing. “Come on,” you say, when you can breathe again, and lead him to your window, fling open the shutters onto the blood-red sunrise. The heavy, rich smell of the oleander vines and cassia flowers drifts in, and you take his hand and pull him out into it, palms wrapping around bark, ankles pressing into clefts. Your anklets ring as you drop down onto the ground; he cocks his head at the noise, then drops to a crouch and unhooks them with deft fingers, asking no permission.

Minutes ago, you had opened your body to him, drunk serum from his lips. This feels far more precious, the gold sliding off into the dirt.

Nonetheless, you are not righteous. This is made very clear, when first he drags you through a shiver of space and out into a sprawling camp, a labyrinth of tents built from hide or sclerotia or still-living branches, woven tight in webs. In every movement, every word, every look from those who inhabit it. Home, you may have been Pūlarja, lady of the fortress, but it is a fortress constructed entirely of sand - perhaps impressive in outwards appearance, but underneath so unformed that even a gentle rain could wash it away.

The followers who rename you aright - Lowyatar, weak one - are pale and stocky, scarred, closed-down and untrusting. An army made up of people who never before deserved to be people.

The difference - they don’t have to say; their entire existence cries this statement, as you walk along the trampled use-trails and receive a thousand glass-sharp stares - is that you deserve to not deserve to be a person.

Your mirror is made of burnished bronze, and turns all colours fire. Even the moonlight flooding in through your window it can warm to a faint yellow, as you shed clothing and boots, unhook your belt and drop it and all your tools whole onto the sleeping-platform.

It is startling, to catch your face in it.

Other women would kill to have hair like yours, you were always complimented. Rarely have you ever needed to dye it; only once, you think, before your veriveti, and then only to fulfill the traditional preparations. The copper-ash tone considered most desirous, that most women scrub walnut and hina into their scalps, day on day, to acquire sprouts for you effortlessly. Other women would kill to have eyes like yours - does not all poetry speak of heroines whose eyes are dark as ink, rich as oiled wood? Do not all tales spend lines upon them?

And of course, the deer and horses, leopard and corsac and wild ram still gambol and dance over your shoulders, forearms, down onto your ankles, wound about with the lily and the rose, and that no-one else could achieve at any price, killing or no, for the life in them is yours and yours alone. A history. A name. An identity.

All brought with you, out of the past you said you had relinquished but hadn't, haven't yet because there it is before you, in burnished bronze reflection.


Courtesy of niramniram

Your knife parts from the platform. The blade opens up the wall of stylized thorns wrapping above your elbow as easily as if they were in truth new shoots, writing weak one where you were once ramparts, then raises itself to your temple. The strands do not snap cleanly, scraping over the edge, pulling on your scalp, but it is enough. A lock slithers down to pool on the blanket; then another, and another, until a cloud of copper-ash surrounds you.

The blade has just settled in the crease of your eyelid when the door relaxes.

Kārym?” he asks, in your own tongue. But you are silent, and do not move, until he repeats "Äcce," in his, because your tongue is sinful and cruel. “What are you doing?”

What does it look like, you want to snarl. Your bones leak, your heart beats Daevon – systole, diastole: return again to systole. Gold, drawn and spooled and melted and drawn again. They cannot be cut out like you should, like he needs you to lest you end up poisoning his entire revolution. You opened a butterfly cocoon once - only recently has the memory brought any guilt, the thing so small, so undefended - and found nothing. Only a black and sticky mess of tissue that bore no resemblance to any insect you knew. Must you not be remade entirely too, stripped down like a broken cart, digested into nothing like the caterpillar? Is it not wrong that anything remain of what you were? But you cannot do this - once you split your nerves the blade will drop too soon from your hand, and will not be able to reach entrail and bone.

You want to say you should have killed me. You could even turn it into a demand - make up for that, then, kill me now. After all, it wouldn’t be like killing a real person, just that shell of greed and violence - you were too late, I already withered, am already gone.

What your truth can destroy, it should. Even - especially - if that’s me.

But he won’t. That’s true too and you hate it, that he’ll force you to keep existing like this. He runs a hand through the new-cropped frizz covering your scalp; you feel him smudge something warm and sticky, and when he lifts his palm away it is marked with honey, bright in the firelight.

(You should no longer bleed gold - you have been eating his food, drinking his water for moons now, and the gods of Daevon will surely have withdrawn their favour from you. It should be red again. Why is it not?)

In time, his domain expands like dodder across a field, and the tents grow, and remodel, and become citadels with mineralized walls and chitin-smooth faces. You are walking through the corridors of one when, suddenly, you are seized and thrown into the wall. A glimpse of pale, bone-threaded braids resolves itself into a flint knife pressing itself to your larynx. Ion’s newest rescue (he collects you like a pack of hunting hounds): the half-blind guard.

A variety of instinctual things panic, at the smarting of your shoulder and your face, at the touch of that blade. (But a small, savage part of you is glad, for the pain feels like justice.)

“I ought to kill you,” he snarls.

It might, somewhat, discredit Ion to claim that this moment is more a moment of perfect clarity than that oleander-scented dawn. But calm pours through you like a stream loosed, and you think – yes. This is the test. Here finally I shall be weighed, shall be struck on the touchstone and then shall know, whether I am good or bad, no longer have to deal with this fog of uncertainty.

“Then do it.” If you live, then he accepts that you have been redeemed: and you may say truly to yourself that you are clean, hands no longer oil-slicked. If you die, you never were, and so your killing will be merciful: you shall not have to live any longer in your degradation, your own pollution. There is no possible unjust end to this.

(Besides, Ion shall forgive him. Your käsek truly, deeply enjoys forgiving people - honestly, he will probably be grateful for the opportunity.)

Orok leans harder onto you; your collarbone grinds painfully. The edge bites, and you feel the splitting of your skin, the blood trickle down into the hollow of your throat. The dragonfly flutter of your heart threatens to break out of your ribcage.

He snarls, yanks the edge away, then turns and stalks wordlessly off. Your fingers brush over your wound, and lift away a warm smear.

It is a bright, bright garnet, and entirely yours, and you laugh.

Your eldest sister is a reflection of your mother, now. Or perhaps she always was, and it is you looking at her with new eyes now, made clear in your last ecdysis. You had not ever thought to return to these pillars and corridors, but perhaps you should have - everybody is a tale, fundamentally, written by the gods into stone and flank and time. It is appropriate, that the midpoints should call back to the ends, that everything should turn in cycles at the last and draw you back to the home you abandoned for a deliverer in which you had not yet believed and a deliverance for which you had not yet known your need.

Her eyes are terrified and wide, as you have backed her up against the sandstone. There is a guard sprawled between you, the sword that did not defend him fallen by his hand. It would be nice to be able to say you regret this, tearing down your own past, but it wouldn’t be accurate.

You don’t look, as a wet organic sound behind you heralds your mother’s death. Your käsek does what he must; it is not to be questioned.

But your sister screams, and seizes the dropped sword, and flings herself at his back.

When you blink, you are straddling her hips and the gold in her plaits cutting into the heel of your hand. Amber squeezes out between your knuckles, covers your wrist and her face and neck and runs in rivulets out onto the floor to mingle with the sludge that is no longer her brain, now that it is dashed upon the flagstones. For good measure, your palm loosens again and comes down on her temple - sutures and new-made joints crackle under the force.

He raises one eyebrow at you, when your hands are finally willing to relinquish their hold and you lift your head. “No-one touches you,” you say, in explanation. You are too precious to me, for that.

At least, not until -

The messenger has barely left before you go to your knees, howling.

You want your mouth to shape no, want to be able to indulge even one moment of denial, claim that it can't be true - were it not for that perfidious heart of yours, which is so good at lying and yet will not deign to it now. It says with adamantine certainty that yes. Yes, they have taken your lord from you, and put him to death on their machines, and you were not there you couldn't even witness it as they sawed off the heart of the empire - savages, barbarians, there is no curse to encompass this. Let their names be struck out, and the names of all their family unto sixty generations, let them never to have been -

But your curse dissolves only into wordless wailing again. What use is it? It cannot bring back your hope, your light. And when you had been offered the darkness and the suffering of the world along with the sweet you do not think this was what was meant, because this is more than darkness, this is -

(Not describable. For who would create a word for an utter nothing? Who could impose meaning on the complete absence thereof, because all the meaning there was was in him, he was everything and all your life, and therefore the existence you are agonizingly aware still continues wretched and wrong cannot be life -)

But not even you can weep forever. So eventually, your lungs expand and draw one deep shaking breath, and without much of your input a hand lifts itself and brushes clear your vision - and fully emptied, with nothing more to cling to -

You simply… accept it. The Truth he always wanted you to know.

You are not righteous, and never shall be. You have always been poison, ruthlessness to your enemies. Never redeemed, because there is no price high enough to match the monstrosity embedded in you since your creation. What is beneath your violence, your dominion?, he had asked you, and here is the answer: it is dominion all the way down.

With the Deathless, you hated Daevon. Before, you hated all lands but. There is no one in the world who has not, at one time or another, been your enemy. And now that the only leash that ever held you is no more…

Why should they not all burn?

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