Chapter One

Yaone hummed idly to herself, watching translucent fluid coil itself slowly down the spiral of glass tubing and drip into the phial at the bottom. There was always a certain pleasure when it came to exercising personal skill -- no, in some ways it was art rather than skill -- and especially in a good cause. The theory was sound, and it was a pleasure to see that the practice was effective.

She waited for the last drop to fall, and stoppered the phial of pure nicotine. It was such a small thing in her hand, no larger than the grenades which she liked to use, and quite as lethal.

Of course, the best thing was that nobody would ever expect her to do anything so dishonourable. But she was learning. It was just another step.

First she had learned that it was permissible to kill dishonourably, if it was in her master's service. Mix poison with their food. Kill innocents if necessary to make sure you dispose of your targets. Just get the job done.

Then she'd learned that living to serve was more important than dying with honour.

She liked to think that she was a good learner.

And now, after that hideous day when she'd lost both of them, both Lirin and Kougaiji-sama, she'd learned that sometimes a loyal servant had to take action before being commanded to do so. Without being commanded to do so. The blow across Dokugakuji's face had been as much at herself as at him. One little action earlier, one tiny bit of bloodshed, one blow at the people who she knew were dangers to her lord -- to all of them -- and it would have been different. All of it would have been different.

The glass phial in her hand had warmed itself to her body heat by now. With a bit of imagination, she could conceive it to be a living thing. I am a mother who births poisons . . .

There was a whisper of air and sound behind her, scented with fire and copper. She stiffened, caught herself, and carefully set down the phial before turning around. As she had expected, Kougaiji-sama was standing there.

"Yaone," he said.

"Kougaiji-sama," she replied. His eyes were frozen, a hundred miles deep in madness, and no longer recognised her in the way that they had once done. She wondered who they saw. His servant? His slave? His apothecary?

He glanced at the small container that she had just put down. "Who for?"

"Who would you like me to poison, Kougaiji-sama?" There was a time that she would never have asked him that, because he would never have set her the question in the first place. Everything changed. Another lesson.

He didn't quite smile, but she could sense his approval of the answer. She bowed her head so that she would not have to meet those dreadful eyes.

"Maybe later," he said, ambiguously.

She nodded, head still lowered.

He left the room silently, slippered feet soft against the tiled floor. She knew that he walked the corridors at night, that he always came to the statue of his mother, and that he stood there looking at it with his face deadly blank and empty, the fierce sorrow which had been there before all gone, drained away to leave space for this new Kougaiji-sama, the true son of Gyumaoh.

The battered, half-full packet of cigarettes was hidden among her stocks of acids, where nobody would be foolish enough to pry.

Put that down now, Lirin! It's dangerous!

She didn't use all the cigarettes. That was unnecessary. Just a few from the pack, carefully injected with some of the nicotine and left to dry, then slid back in with the others again. The dose made the poison, turning them from minor insults to the body into little fragments of death that would go from lungs to brain. Nicotine was three times as poisonous as arsenic, twice as poisonous as strychnine.

It should be enough to kill Nii Jieni.

She hadn't told Dokugakuji. What good would it do to tell him? He'd . . . disapprove. He wouldn't necessarily say so out loud, but she knew that she'd see it in his eyes, and she was selfish enough to want him still to think of her as the little sister who he could trust and shelter. Not that he can. The nice girl. Nice girls don't poison other people. Except if Kougaiji-sama says to. The loyal servant. Loyal servants don't go round killing without reason.

I've got some excellent reasons, Dokugakuji. Beautiful reasons. Reasons I take out at night and think about to warm myself. Stopping the resurrection. Saving Lirin. Helping Kougaiji-sama. Aren't those good reasons? And there's personal hate, but that's a personal reason, and we're not talking about personal reasons here.

Yaone slid the last cigarette back into the pack.

It was a good thing that Nii Jieni was so untidy. His workplace was a clutter of half-finished mugs of coffee, used cigarette packets, scrawled sticky notes, computer disks, and other impedimenta. Howan-hakase avoided looking at it. She'd seen the female scientist deliberately swivel her chair round so that she could get her back towards the mess, and avoid looking at anything associated with Nii. And Nii had . . .

Yaone frowned. Nii had turned and looked at her, and his mouth had curled in that private smile of his. She'd forgotten that till now. He hadn't said anything. He'd looked at her, and she'd wrenched her eyes away and finished her errand and walked out of the room, boots tapping on the tiles, mouth pressed shut in furious disgust.

Of course, one of these might not kill him immediately. There were doubts in the castle as to whether he was quite human in any respect.

She'd just have to make sure that she was in the vicinity, to tidy up any little loose ends that might remain.


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