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The Poison-Thief

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Jean Tannen had served The Lady Most Kind for exactly two weeks when the visitor came to Revelation House. Jean had by that point scaled cliff faces, watched three other initiates tumble off the stairs to their deaths in the murky waters below, and been closer to a larger and more varied array of poisonous snakes, insects, and sea creatures than he would have liked. Yet none of these terrors compared with the fear he felt when he walked into the audience hall that day, and saw exactly who the visitor was.

The man was quite obviously a noble, and judging by his dress a wealthy one at that. He wore a crimson doublet with a hem of mink fur, and slashed sleeves that hinted at an undershirt of ivory brocade. Lashaini freshwater pearls from Lake Amathel winked silver at his collar and cuffs, and a trio of quail plumes sprung up from the satin band of his wide brimmed hat. The contrast between him and the priests swathed in midnight robes and silver masks was almost comical. A peacock among crows.

Gritting his teeth, Jean resolved to slam Locke’s head onto the page of his dictionary that explained the meaning of the word ‘circumspect,’ with varied repetition and force until he got the message across.

One of the priestesses turned to face him, bowing slightly in greeting. “Initiate Callas, Master Asino has journeyed here to become more deeply acquainted with The Lady Most Kind. If you would show him to the guest wing?”

Not for the first time, Jean was grateful that his mask hid his emotions from the other priests. Nodding automatically, he began to walk out of the chamber, not checking to see if Locke was following him. He managed to keep his composure about him until the door swung shut behind them, at which point he spun around with a hiss. “Are you mad? Has some pitiful idiot possessing fewer wits than even you taken over your head?”

“That,” replied Locke, “Is no way to speak to one’s boon companion.” He raised an eyebrow in mock reproach.

Jean shot him a glare, though he imagined that his silver initiate’s mask dulled the effect. “You do realize what coming here means? People come here to die. The priests put a poison pellet in one of three goblets, the priests drink two and you get the third. Someone ends up dead, and considering how often you spit in the faces of the Gods, it’ll probably be you.”

Locke puffed out his chest and planted his fists against his hips, the very picture of an offended yet manfully restrained noble. “The Gods love me! I provide them with endless entertainment!”

“Let’s be honest, Locke. Is there a single god or goddess other than the Crooked Warden you haven’t pissed off?”

Locke fiddled with the quail feathers on his bonnet. “Iono perhaps? I haven’t been on the water recently…”

“You bet Calo and Galdo you could hit a Jereshti devilfish with your piss stream when you were at the Shifting Market last month.”

“Ah, but I missed.”

Hells, was everything a joke to him? “I sometimes wonder if the only reason you’re still alive is that none of the gods can decide who gets the pleasure of killing you.”

Locke artfully bit his lip. “You wound me.”

“You don’t need my help with that.” Anger leaving him in a sudden rush, Jean suddenly found he was no longer in the mood for jokes. Not when he thought about what the coming hours might bring, not when he imagined the blood frothing from Locke’s mouth as his body twitched on the cold, cold floors of Aza Guilla’s halls.

Locke seemed to sense his shift of mood and favored him with what was most likely meant to be a reassuring smile. “Jean. I’ve got this. You see,” he said with an exaggerated smile, “I have what us thinking types like to call a plan.”

“Your plans end with either gross inflation of ego or societal collapse.”

“But they’ve never ended with me dead, so you should have no cause for concern.” Locke winked, a motion made ridiculous when the movement caused his hat to slip down over his face.

Jean’s posture must have betrayed some of the fear that was knotting up in his throat, or perhaps his fingers had started to clench and unclench the fabric of his robes, for Locke’s eyes softened. “I’ll be all right,” he said quietly. “I’ll take care of the poison; all you have to do is serve the wine. Don’t trouble your limited upstairs hardware more than you have to.”

Jean was almost glad he reverted back to banter; actually thinking about the possibility of Locke gasping and vomiting blood made his own stomach roil. “You will be deader than dead. The most dead. The deadest. You will be a pile of self-righteous bones and then I’ll have to touch them and-“

Locke batted his eyelashes. “My dear Jean, if you wanted to touch my bone all you had to do is ask.”

Jean stared back at him. “…Really?”

“You don’t think I’m drop-dead gorgeous, then?”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Jean muttered, trying in vain to turn in a dignified manner without tripping on his initiate’s robe. “Aza Guilla is more than welcome to you.”

***

Jean walked into the Chamber of Her Infinite Mercies just after dusk. In truth the room was undeserving of its grand title; it was unadorned, with only a simple marble plinth in the center by way of furnishing. Alchemical globes hung at odd intervals from the ceiling, casting the floor and walls in flickering silver light. Dedicate Martiria, Dedicate Anguista, and Locke all stood roughly equidistant from the central plinth, staring at the three simple silver goblets that rested atop it, each filled to the brim with murky black liquid.

Just looking at the goblets and their deadly contents seemed to make the air around Jean contract; he found it suddenly difficult to breathe. The odds were one in three. Only one of the cups was poisoned; temple doctrine was quite clear that that the ultimate choice as to who lived and who died must remain in the hands of the Goddess. Death was her gift to give, not that of her mortal servants. One in three. They were not bad odds, compared to some of the shit the Bastards had pulled they were practically good odds-

But all he could imagine was Locke dying, Locke’s breath hitching as a wet cough began to rumble in his chest, Locke convulsing like a dying fish in his arms, Locke’s sweat-sheened fingers clutching at Jean’s and then finally, excruciatingly, relaxing and letting go.

By the time he reached the goblets, Jean thought he very well might die himself.

It was a testament to his will and his training both that he managed to grasp and lift the silver platter with unshaking fingers, and walk towards Dedicate Martiria with smooth and even steps. He did not look at the goblets themselves, or the trembling, shifting liquid inside. He focused on the echoes of his feet against the floor, and the diminished weight of the platter as the Dedicate lifted one of the goblets away from it. Then he walked to Dedicate Anguista, who took her goblet with the same calm manner. Then it was Locke’s turn.

Lifting the last goblet from the tray, Locke brushed Jean’s fingers with his knuckles, seemingly by accident.

Jean knew better, but the touch shook him more than it reassured him. Would that be the last time he felt Locke’s flesh warm against his? Would it be chilled the next time he felt it, ice-cold like the marble of a crypt?

Locke had said he had a plan, but Locke’s plans had failed before, would fail again. Might fail now.

One-in-three, one-in-three. They were not bad odds, but in the agonizing corridors of Aza Guilla’s domain they became the worst odds, the kind of odds Jean hoped he never found himself up against again.

He looked to Locke for reassurance and realized that Locke was staring down at the wine in his glass like a parched traveler, parting his lips, licking his teeth.

Jean felt as if he had been plunged into the heart Shifting Market during winter, could almost feel the ice water fill his lungs. Was that why Locke had come here? Did he actually hunger for death? The possibility that there was no plan, that Locke actually wanted The Lady’s gift, crashed into him. But was Locke really so cruel as to seek death in front of him? Was he so oblivious that he didn’t know what it would do to Jean to watch him die in his arms?

Dedicate Anguista’s voice cut through the panicked spiralings in his head, ringing calmly through the chamber. “Dedicate Martiria, may you be chosen to learn The Lady’s mysteries this night.”

Dedicate Martiria nodded deeply, her Sorrowful Visage showing only the flickering reflection of the alchemical globes. Twisting the edge of her mask to the side, she raised her glass with reverence and tilted it back so that the potion flooded into her mouth. Two lines trickled from her lips and met at the point of her chin before dripping down onto the floor before her. She drank until the goblet was empty, then set it down.

Jean watched frantically for tremors in her hands in her hands, but there were none, none at all.

One-in-two, one-in-two. Just as likely to lose him as not, these were bad odds, bad odds-

“Dedicate Anguista, may you be chosen to learn The Lady’s mysteries this night,” said Dedicate Martiria.

Jean was going to be sick.

Dedicate Anguista raised the goblet to her lips, let the murky ochre liquid drip down into her mouth. Jean watched, heart hammering in his chest, as she swallowed, and set her goblet down on the table. A moment passed. Then a second. A third. There were no tremors in her hands. They were still as ice, still as death.

The two dedicates turned as one to face Locke. “Master Asino,” they intoned. “May you be chosen to learn The Lady’s mysteries this night.”

He couldn’t watch, didn’t want to watch, but he had to watch. His eyes were shackled to Locke as the boy raised his glass, tilted it back, and drank deeply. Jean could see his throat swallowing; it felt as if he were the one holding the goblet, drinking the poison, drowning in the blackness of the drink. He could almost feel the sting of it in his throat, burning stronger and stronger as Locke’s hand dropped from his mouth-

-And set the goblet back down on the plinth with a resounding clink.

He tilted his head for a moment, as if thinking. “Tasty,” he remarked. “Reminds me of my Mother’s marzipan.”

The two Dedicates were murmuring about the miraculous hand of The Lady, intoning praises, but Jean barely heard them. He was hurrying out of the room, not caring what it looked like, not caring what questions would be asked later because Locke was alive, damn him damn him damn him-

Locke caught up with him in a small storage alcove halfway to the Guest wing and wrapped him in gentle arms.

Jean heard him murmuring calming noises like one might whisper to a panicked animal. They were drowned out by strangled cries; with a start he realized that they were coming from his own lips. He ripped the initiate’s mask from his face and felt wetness, realized his cheeks were streaked with tears.

“You…B-but how…?”

“I am favored by the thirteenth,” Locke whispered against Jean’s ear, the words warmed by his breath. “I can steal anything. Even death.”

Jean yanked himself out of Locke’s embrace. “Is that what this was then? You just had to show off? Prove to me what a magical fucking thief you were? You could have died, you fucking pompous fuckwit-“

Locke cut him off before he could come up with any better epithets by pulling him back into a crushing embrace, smothering the insults against the velvet of his doublet. “Careful with the swearing; it’s unbecoming of a gentleman.”

Not to be silenced, Jean continued mumbling insults into the fabric. “-shitfaced son of a shark-fucking-whore-”

Locke waited patiently until he was done, then reached down to brush a lock of hair away from Jean’s eyes. “You idiot. I came to see you.”

“…To see me?”

Locke nodded, as if he was being quite reasonable. “I missed you.”

It really wasn’t fair how Locke had this much power over his emotions, how he could strike him dumb with nothing but a single string of words. “Oh.”

Laughing, Locke released him and smoothed his robes back into a semblance of order. “Although I love that you think I’m magical, it sets my heart all aflutter.”

They stood in the alcove for a few moments, until Jean’s eyes had dried and his breathing had evened out again. Taking a deep breath, he turned to face Locke. “But really, how did you do it? Did you switch the pellet beforehand? Or slip in an antidote? Or was it a fake-stomach, like on the Caligieri job?”

Locke grinned as he took Jean’s hand and pulled him down the corridor, towards his quarters. “I’d tell you. But a magician never reveals his secrets, you know.”

“You’re a fucking bastard, I hope you know that.”

“A Gentleman Bastard. And I love you too.”