As soon as I took a sip, I realized it was poison.
This meant that the two other cups in front of me were not. As a competitor for the spot in the Poisoner Trials, I knew one of the rules as Poison Tester was to not let the poison show –at least until the tester had alerted somebody discreetly. I looked at the three other girls around me, sniffing and sipping on their own cups.
Each of three chalices were the same for every girl, but leaving every chalice unmarked meant that nobody knew who was drinking what –besides the Overseers, of course.
In front of the cups were three kinds of plants, antidotes, if you knew what plant worked for which poison, but taking the wrong ones often resulted in a deadly combination.
I sucked on my tongue to get a stronger sense of the more bitter notes. It tasted like cherries that were soaking in red wine for too long, but then I knew what it was. They had put cherry pits in the wine to make cyanide. Watered down cyanide would only be fatal in much larger quantities than what this golden goblet held, I would most likely have nothing more than a stomachache later tonight.
I glanced at the other girls who looked wary and frightened, and downed my cup whole.
After a few moments, everybody was still looking at each other wearily. We were all safe.
I picked up the second cup with an elegant kind of grace –we were being rated on appearances also– put it to my lips and breathed in. I smelt… nothing. I glanced down into the cup and saw only an unsavory reflection of myself, but the liquid was clear. I took a sip and waited for either taste or death to hit me.
One girl with waist-length blonde hair took big gulps until her cup was empty, another quietly sipped at hers, her large brown eyes watching to see what would happen, while the last didn’t touch anything, and instead was staring straight at me.
The first girl panicked, and reached for one of the antidote options. She chose a piece of Manchineel. A deadly plant by itself that killed by burning the mouth and throat.
Being carried out by some of the guards, scared the girl with brown eyes. She quickly dropped her goblet to the floor, letting the liquid spill out, and raised her fingers to her mouth, to make herself vomit.
If she had been poisoned, vomiting wouldn’t do much to save her, since it would through the rest of her body in seconds. My eyes were glued to the liquid pooling on the ground. It was clear, meaning she had only drank the water like I had, but was too frightened to realize it. She could have made it to the final round, but instead was taken outside by more guards, as the last girl drank her cup wholly.
Nobody knew what happened to girls who failed the Poisoner Trials on purpose, and I wasn’t intending on finding out.
The last cup sat in front of me and my opponent. She hadn’t touched any of her antidotes, so either she had been preparing for immunity for years or by some twist of luck, we had chosen the same drinks and possessed the same knowledge.
As my hand brushed one of the antidotes, the back of it was scratched by a thorn, and started to bleed.
Thorns. They looked like they were from a rose bush. Roses weren’t an antidote for anything. I picked up the last cup and smelled of strong mint and nuts, meaning it was Vrumane.
The antidote for a poison like Vrumane wouldn’t come to mind. It was a special kind that was invited by a Poisoner and was intended for warfare, so its antidote wasn’t well known. I looked back down at the table before me and with a sinking feeling already knew nothing would work. Vrumane was poisonous as soon as it hit your tongue, and without the antidote, would be fatal in minutes.
Before I had the chance to decide, the girl next to me drank her cup, letting it spill down her cheeks and neck, changing the front of her white gown to an ugly mauve. As she set the cup down, her eyes flashed to mine and I knew she was had drank the Vrumane with no sign of the antidote in sight.
She started to choke, and quickly put a hand to her throat as she took long rasping breaths, making eye contact with me right before she collapsed to the floor.
My opponent dying didn’t mean that I had automatically won the title, as I still had to make the correct choice and not die. Years had gone by where there were no young Poison Testers anymore. All that remained were old women who studied and created new poisons, whose bodies were already immune to everything imaginable. That would soon change.
I took another sip of the Vrumane and held it in my mouth without swallowing. Eyeing my options again, I picked up the roses and pressed the thorn into my finger until blood began to drip down steadily. The prick had stung, but not as much as dying from Vrumane would have. I let a few drops of blood fall into my open mouth and felt the warmth hit my throat and tongue.
I’m lucky to have remembered in time, blood was the antidote, because Vrumane was a blood thinner. Had I downed the entire goblet like my opponent, I would need more blood than I got from my thorn prick.
The king stood from his throne and projected his voice from far. “Congratulations Collete, you have gained the title of Champion Poison Tester. Your duties and further training will begin immediately.”
Pride washed over me, but as I looked out among the small crowd of Overseers, guards, and servants, they didn’t quite look me in the eye.
Instead, they looked as though they had just witnessed a death sentence.
By Hope Barajas