A Little Taste of Poison
ISAVETH SAT STIFFLY in the leather chair, hands clenched on the brim of her hat and heart pounding in her throat. The reception room was hot and smelled of baccy; a clump of snow melted off her boot and plopped onto the diamond-patterned carpet. She longed to take off her coat, but the wool was too damp to lay it on her lap, and she could see nowhere else to put it.
On the opposite wall, a brass plate trumpeted the name of the man Isaveth had come to see: J. J. WREGGET, PRESIDENT. Meanwhile his personal secretary, lean and elegant in a brown suit that nearly matched his skin, shuffled papers while speaking to the call box on his desk: “I’m sorry, Mister Wregget is in a meeting. . . . Pardon? . . . No, he’s booked until next Mendday.”
Isaveth shifted uncomfortably. This sumptuous ultra-modern office, the inner sanctum of the Glow-Mor Light
and Fire Company, was no place for a stonemason’s daughter from Cabbage Street. Especially one barely thirteen years old. What could the president of the biggest spell-factory in Tarreton want with her?
True, she’d invented a magic-resistant paper that was perfect for wrapping spell-tablets, and once Mister Wregget had seen it he’d been eager to buy the recipe. But that was months ago, and Isaveth had nothing more to offer him. Even the five imperials he’d paid her—half a year’s wages for poor folk like herself—was spent now, gone to pay off old debts and buy her family warm clothes, boots without holes in them, and other long-overdue necessities. In fact, if Papa couldn’t find better work than the odd jobs he’d been doing, they’d soon have to apply for relief again.
Dread clutched at Isaveth’s chest. What if the president wasn’t pleased with her invention? What if he’d called her here to demand his money back?
Perhaps she’d been reckless, coming all the way to the Glow-Mor office by herself. But Papa hadn’t been home when the message boy delivered Mister Wregget’s summons, and Isaveth hadn’t felt comfortable showing it to her older sister, Annagail—let alone the younger girls, Lilet and Mimmi. After all the troubles they’d been through since their mother died, she hated to tell them
anything until she was certain it was good news.
Right now, though, she’d settle for it not being too crushingly bad. Sweat prickled beneath her collar and she fumbled open the top button of her coat, but it didn’t help. She felt ready to faint by the time the outer door swung open at last, and a balding, ruddy-faced man in a striped waistcoat strode in.
“Miss Breck!” he enthused, engulfing her hand in his big pink one. “What a pleasure. Tambor, take the young lady’s coat.”
Isaveth struggled out of her winter things and piled them on the secretary, then hurried to catch up as Mister Wregget marched into his office. He sat down, gesturing her to the chair in front of his desk.
“I’m a straightforward man, Miss Breck,” he said as the privacy door swung shut, “so I won’t bore you with a lot of preamble. How would you like to go to Tarreton College?”
Isaveth goggled at him. Tarreton College was the most exclusive upper-grade school in the city, where the children of the nobility and wealthy merchant families received the finest education—general and magical—that money could provide. He might as well have asked Isaveth how she’d like to fly. “I—I’ve never dreamed of such a thing, sir.”
“Then you need to dream bigger, young lady! Because I’d like to offer you this year’s Glow-Mor scholarship.” He leaned back, smiling beatifically. “I know it’s a mite unusual to start partway through the year, but you’re a bright girl, and I’m sure you’ll soon catch up. And if you make it through fallowtime and planting terms with good marks, we’ll renew the offer next harvest: full tuition, with all books and materials included. What do you say?”
He couldn’t be serious. Or if he was, he must be losing his mind. The magic taught at Tarreton College was Sagery, an ancient craft very different from the spell-baking Isaveth had learned from her mother. Instead of recipes using magewort, binding powder, and other cheap ingredients, Sagery relied on precise formulations of precious metals and gemstones to create the kinds of charms only wealthy folk could afford. Its secrets had been jealously guarded for centuries, and some even considered it sacred; it was no craft for a commoner, as the proud masters and mistresses of the college would surely agree.
“Sir,” said Isaveth faintly, “I’d be honored, but they’ll never—”
“I know what you’re thinking,” interrupted the president, wagging a finger at her. “Don’t worry, Miss Breck, I wouldn’t be making this offer if the college wasn’t willing
to accept you. I know you come from humble stock and your family’s had more than its share of troubles, but to my mind that just proves what a resourceful young lady you are. That’s the sort of brain I want working for my company, the kind of boldness and sharp thinking that will give Glow-Mor the edge!”
His confidence was buoyant, and Isaveth’s hopes rose with it. Maybe this wasn’t a mistake after all. Maybe this was what she’d been praying for ever since Mama died and Papa lost his business, a chance to make something of herself and lift her family out of poverty. . . .
Except for one hard fact, dragging her back to earth like an iron anchor. If she’d merely been poor, then Mister Wregget’s offer might be seen as an act of charity, a way to enhance his company’s good name. But as far as most people in Tarreton were concerned, Isaveth was much worse off than that.
“It’s kind of you to say so,” she said, forcing the words past the lump in her throat. “Only you don’t seem to realize . . . I’m Moshite.”
Even as she spoke, she braced herself for his reaction: the hiss of breath, the lowering brows, the frown. But to her surprise, Wregget threw back his head and laughed.
“Honest to a fault, Miss Breck! I see I haven’t misjudged you.” He folded his hands across his belly, still
smiling. “True enough, your . . . er . . . religious background did raise a few eyebrows among the masters. But as Spellmistress Anandri pointed out, there’s nothing in the college charter to prevent Moshites from attending. As long as you work hard, obey school rules, and pass your exams, they’ve got no right to turn you away.”
Isaveth had only met Spellmistress Anandri once, and only because her friend Quiz—otherwise known as Esmond Lilord, youngest son of the Sagelord himself—introduced them. Still, the woman had seemed impressed with Isaveth’s skill at Common Magic, and even helped bring her magic-resistant paper to Wregget’s attention. With such a respected member of the college on her side, perhaps Isaveth’s acceptance wasn’t as unlikely as she’d thought.
Still, just because the school had no grounds to refuse her didn’t mean Isaveth belonged there. She might not even be safe, if anyone recognized her from her last visit, when she’d posed as a cleaning maid to investigate the old governor’s murder. . . .
Especially since the current governor of the school, Hexter Buldage, had been part of the conspiracy to kill him.
“I can see you have doubts,” said Wregget, “and I can’t say I blame you. I’m sure it all sounds a bit too good to
be true. But I’ll tell you a secret.” He leaned closer, voice dropping to a confidential rumble. “Buying that recipe of yours was the best decision I’ve ever made. Thanks to Resisto-Paper, we’ve become the leading spell-tablet manufacturer in the city, and orders are pouring in from all over Colonia. You’ve earned that scholarship, is what I say, and anyone who thinks otherwise will have to deal with me!” His hand smacked the desk, making Isaveth jump. “So what’s your answer, young lady?”
Isaveth twisted her hands together. Yes, going to Tarreton College would be risky. There were plenty of people, including Esmond’s villainous older brother, Eryx Lording, who wouldn’t want her to succeed. If Isaveth failed, she’d not only bring disgrace on her family, she’d be confirming what most Arcan and Uniting folk already believed—that Moshites were worthless troublemakers, and everything bad that happened to them was their own fault.
Yet she wouldn’t be alone at the college: Esmond would be there too. Isaveth still wasn’t sure how to feel about the charming rogue of a street-boy she’d befriended four months ago turning out to be a noble in disguise, especially since they couldn’t spend time together anymore without causing a scandal. But at least she’d be able to see him now and then, instead of only writing letters.
Besides, she wanted this. Inside her, beneath the worries and doubts, lay a simmering excitement ready to bubble over at any moment. To face the odds and defy them, to bravely march into danger instead of shying away—wasn’t that what her favorite talkie-play heroine, Auradia Champion, would do? There was no guarantee Isaveth would succeed at the college, but if she didn’t at least try, she’d regret it for the rest of her life.
Isaveth took a deep breath and smiled at Wregget. “Thank you, sir. I’d love to accept.”
* * *
Dear Isaveth, I’m afraid I’ve got bad news. . . .
Esmond rubbed his forehead, staring at the freshly penned words. How was he going to tell her? He was still struggling to get over the shock and disappointment himself. All those weeks spent hunting for the evidence that would prove Eryx guilty of murder, and now . . .
A throat cleared behind him, and Esmond jumped. He flipped the paper over, though he had a sick feeling Eryx had already seen it, and twisted in his chair. “What do you want?” he snapped.
“Mother sent me to call you to supper.” As always, his older brother’s voice was rich, mellow, and maddeningly calm. “The bell rang five minutes ago, but it seems you were . . . distracted.”
He’d come up on Esmond’s blind side, and not by mistake: the illusion-charmed lens Esmond usually wore lay unheeded beside the ink blotter, and the scar that ran from brow to cheekbone was plain to see. Not that Eryx would be likely to forget which eye had been injured, seeing as he was the one who’d done it.
Inwardly Esmond seethed, but he kept his expression neutral as he studied the young man who’d made himself the most trusted politician in the city, even as he secretly bribed, blackmailed, and—if necessary—murdered anyone who dared to get in his way. Eryx Lording, Sagelord Arvis’s favorite son . . . and for all that they both pretended otherwise, Esmond’s most bitter enemy.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
Eryx’s brows arched. “Considering your usual rampaging appetite, I find that difficult to believe. To whom were you writing, may I ask? Surely not that Breck girl. I thought we had an agreement.”
He hadn’t read the letter, then. Or maybe he had, and he was just toying with Esmond. With Eryx, you could never tell.
“Well, you know,” said Esmond, “I’ve been thinking about that. You already burned my street clothes, and Father made me charm-swear not to dress up like a commoner or sneak out of the house again. Then you warned
me that if I tried to see Isaveth, you’d have your thugs pay her family a visit—”
“Thugs?” Eryx gave him a pitying look. “Really, Esmond, you sound like that ridiculous Auradia show you love so much. I merely remarked that after all Urias Breck had been through since he was arrested, and how hard young Isaveth had worked to clear his name, it would be a shame if they had to endure any further misfortunes.”
“Yes, quite,” said Esmond. “I’m sure you’ve lost whole seconds of sleep worrying over it. But it’s occurred to me that you could have kept me in line more easily by telling Father about Isaveth, instead of making vague remarks about me ‘keeping low company’ and ‘disgracing the family name.’ ”
He cocked his head to one side, studying Eryx through his good eye. “Only you don’t want to tell him, do you? Because that would mean admitting you botched up, and Urias Breck’s daughter caught you framing her papa for a murder you helped commit.”
Eryx sighed. “We’ve talked about these delusions of yours before, Esmond. Is there a point to this?”
“Maybe not,” said Esmond. “But it’s an interesting thought. After all, if I’m not allowed to talk to Isaveth anyway, what’s to keep me from telling Father the whole story?”
Eryx regarded him steadily for a moment. Then he snatched up Esmond’s sheet of writing paper, crumpled it, and tossed it into the fire. “I think you’d find that less satisfying than you imagine,” he said coolly. “Remember what happened the last time you accused me in front of Father?”
A dull heat spread beneath Esmond’s collarbones. He wouldn’t soon forget the agony of Eryx’s fencing sword lashing his eye, or the keener torment when Esmond realized that no one—not his mother, not the Sagelord, not even his sister Civilla—was prepared to believe it had been anything more than an accident.
That was the curse of having a silver-tongued demon for a brother. If it came to his word against Esmond’s, Eryx would always win.
“In any case,” Eryx went on, “if you want to sulk over missing your girlfriend, that’s your business. But you know how Mother feels about family dinners. You wouldn’t want to upset Mother, would you?”
Esmond was tempted to treat that question with the scorn it deserved. Lady Nessa’s fragile nerves were notorious: She’d always be anxious about something, whether her youngest son came to dinner or not. But Lord Arvis was also waiting, and defying him was another matter.
Grudgingly Esmond picked up his half glass, hooked it into place, and rose. He was taller than his brother when
they stood side by side, but Eryx didn’t allow him that satisfaction; he turned and strode out, leaving Esmond to trail after him like a servant—or a dog.
I’m afraid I’m a stinking failure as a detective, which means the men who killed Governor Orien and nearly got your papa hanged for it are never going to pay. Also, Eryx caught me writing to you, and if he tells Father I’ve been “fraternizing with commoners” again I won’t have to worry about his dodgy liver—he’ll die of apoplexy instead.
But that was black humor, and self-pitying besides, and Isaveth wouldn’t think much of either. She’d watched her mother die of a wasting illness and her father get dragged off to jail, and it had only made her more determined to stand up for justice and protect the people she loved. Esmond’s family might not need him—or even care about him—the way that Isaveth’s did, but he could do better than that.
I’m afraid we’ve had a bit of a setback, and by “a bit” I mean “I just found the only evidence we had
against Eryx burned and smashed to bits,” which is the opposite of what I’d hoped to tell you. But I haven’t forgotten what my brother did to your family, and I promise that somehow, I’ll make him pay for it. Don’t lose heart.
P.S. Have you decided if I can kiss you yet?
That was better. More like Quiz, the jaunty street-boy he’d pretended to be when he first met Isaveth, the bold and funny part of him that she liked best. Even if the last thing he’d said to her had been so embarrassing that he could only recover by turning it into a joke, they were still friends and he hoped to keep it that way.
For now, though, writing Isaveth was out of the question. It could be weeks before Esmond’s brother stopped watching him, and if one of Eryx’s spies found their secret letter drop it would be disastrous. He could only hope she’d be patient, and not worry too much that he hadn’t replied.
“What do you mean, boy, keeping us all waiting on you?” demanded Lord Arvis as Esmond came into the dining room. His father sat at the head of the long table, a big man whose muscles had long ago turned to fat, eyes deep-set in a sallow and blotchy face. Esmond’s mother had once remarked wistfully that in his youth
the Sagelord had been handsome, even dashing. But that was hard to imagine now.
“I apologize, sir,” Esmond answered, chin up and voice strong. The Sagelord hated slouching, mumbling, and all other hints of cowardice. He also despised excuses, so Esmond added, “I should have been paying attention.”
“I’ll say you should,” growled his father. “Sit down and let’s get on with it.”
He snapped his fingers and the footmen leaped to attend him, filling his wineglass and whisking a cloth napkin into the scant space between his belly and the table. A platter of bread, pickled vegetables, and cheese was set before him—Lord Arvis would have nothing to do with soup, though his wife ate little else—and the evening meal began.
“My darling,” Lady Nessa murmured as her husband raised the glass to his lips. “Your liver . . . ?”
Lord Arvis slammed down his wineglass, sloshing red onto the damask tablecloth. “Take this away,” he barked at the servant. “Are you trying to poison me?”
Stammering apologies, the footman rushed to obey. Esmond pitied the man; if he hadn’t poured the wine, the Sagelord would have lambasted him for forgetting it. Lord Arvis’s healers had warned him not to drink alcohol, but whether he chose to heed them depended on his mood,
who else was drinking, and how well he happened to be feeling that day.
The healers had also recommended a strict diet, but as Lord Arvis slathered his bread with butter and helped himself to two kinds of cheese and a pickled egg, it was plain that he had no use for their opinion. “And I don’t need you fussing over me either,” he told his wife, who shrank back and said no more.
“So,” the Sagelord went on when the silence around the table had grown unbearable. “What did you do with yourself today? Something useful for a change, I hope.”
Esmond froze with his soup spoon halfway to his mouth, but for once his father’s glare wasn’t leveled at him. He was looking at Civilla, who cleared her throat and patted her lips with her napkin before answering.
“Of course, Daddy. I met some friends for tea at the Women’s League this morning, and in the afternoon Mother helped me pick out the invitations for my ball. They’re the prettiest shade of ice blue, and I was thinking—”
The Sagelord stopped her with an upraised hand. “None of that. I’m paying enough for this party of yours without having to listen to a lot of fluff-headed talk about decorating as well. Did you hear anything I might actually care about?”
Civilla’s smile thinned. She was undoubtedly the
family expert on gossip these days, with plenty of social engagements and visits to the leading families of the city. But though she was usually quick to share any rumors that would interest Lord Arvis, she had her pride, and he’d ruffled it.
“Well,” she said, “I don’t know. Have you heard that J. J. Wregget’s finally handed out this year’s Glow-Mor scholarship?”
Eryx frowned. “What, now? Harvest term’s nearly over. Why would he wait so long?”
“Seems he wasn’t impressed with any of the students who applied, so he went out and found his own candidate. But he won’t say who she is, only that she’s a ‘deserving young lady’ who prefers to remain anonymous.” Civilla gave a little shrug. “No doubt her family was ashamed to admit they needed the money.”
Esmond watched Lord Arvis out of his good eye. His father’s face was set and the corners of his mouth turned down, but he said nothing until Eryx asked, “Father?”
“I don’t meddle in Wregget’s business,” snapped the Sagelord, stabbing a forkful of pickled beetroot onto his plate. “It’s bad policy.”
Which made sense, because Wregget’s wife, Perline, was a close friend of Lady Nessa’s, and Glow-Mor’s recent “discovery” of Resisto-Paper had made it one of
the most successful spell-factories in the city. Of course Esmond’s father would want to keep such a valuable acquaintance happy—with unrest still brewing among Tarreton’s workers, and a string of disastrous political blunders making the merchants and even some of his own nobles restless, Lord Arvis needed all the powerful allies he could get.
“Even so, you must know who his choice was,” Eryx persisted. “As chief patron of Tarreton College, you would have received a copy of the masters’ decision.” But the Sagelord only snorted and waved the topic aside.
Esmond could guess why. The notice must have arrived on one of his father’s bad days, when he was too busy groaning and dosing himself with stomach powder to care about paperwork. He probably couldn’t remember the name of Wregget’s candidate and didn’t want to admit it.
“Perline says,” Lady Nessa spoke up hesitantly, “that the girl’s a commoner. It sounds like Wregget found her selling homemade spell-tablets on the street.”
Esmond’s heart did a triple somersault and dropped into his belly. There couldn’t be more than two or three girls in the city who fit that description, and only one that J. J. Wregget knew well enough to reward. . . .
“Agh!” Lord Arvis doubled over, and the Sagelady
leaped up in panic. She whisked off her napkin and began dabbing his sweat-beaded face.
“I’m so sorry, darling, I didn’t mean to upset you. We must get you lying down at once—”
“Upset?” Even through clenched teeth, his father’s voice was loud enough to echo across the room. “I’m not one of your wilting lilies! Bring me some Propo-Seltzer. I’ll be fine in a few minutes.” Gripping his abdomen, he lurched upright, and the footmen helped him out of the room.
“A commoner!” exclaimed Civilla when they were gone. The Sagelady hovered in the doorway, gazing anxiously after her husband, but Lord Arvis had been having these attacks for weeks and the rest of the family no longer worried about them. “That should please you, Eryx. You’re the one always making speeches about equality and better opportunities for the poor.”
Eryx said nothing. He took a roll from the basket and began slowly tearing it to pieces, while Esmond bit the inside of his cheek and resisted the urge to whoop and dance around the table. Whether by accident or the Sagelord’s grudging permission, Isaveth Breck was about to become a student at Tarreton College. Soon Esmond would be seeing her, maybe even talking to her, every day. . . .
And this time, Eryx couldn’t do a thing about it.