A Little Taste of Poison (Excerpt)

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 , 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 devastatingly bad. Sweat prickled beneath her collar and she fumbled open the top button of her coat, but it didn’t help much. 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 started to rise 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.”

— From A Little Taste of Poison
Copyright 2016 by R.J. Anderson
All rights reserved

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