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The Art of Poison 

Esme wasn’t a particularly pleasant person when she was woken from her sleep, especially in the middle of the night. But when she saw an acolyte looming over her, draped in lavender robes and a hood pulled down to her brow, she held back any bitter remark. Her initial irritation dispersed into a giddy little thrill. The acolyte said nothing, simply jerked her chin implying for Esme to follow.

This was the final assessment she’d need to complete to become an official member of her coven, a feat she’d been trying to accomplish for two years now during her stay at the Nerium.

Esme hadn’t known when or where or how they would call on her, only that it was the last step she needed to take as an initiate.

And now that time had come.

The acolyte led her down a narrow hall and stopped in front of an anciently ragged tapestry, woven with decorative fabric and muted colors. Esme had never paid much attention to the especially dusty fabric, but when the acolyte swept the material to the side, revealing a half-rotten wooden door, Esme was immediately intrigued.

The secret passageway led down a winding set of stairs, so dark, that she needed to run her fingers along the cool stone to keep from falling.

Eventually, the passageway opened up to a room that reminded Esme very much of a dungeon, though she wouldn’t let the sudden flood of anxiety take hold. The damp walls were lined with acolytes — all here to witness if she would live or die. In the center of the room stood their High Priestess, Cataleya, who Esme both admired and feared. A small table was placed beside her.

Amongst these women in elegant robes and embroidered shawls, Esme felt suddenly quite naked in only her evening wear. The silk slip hardly reached her knees and the draft in this dungeon-like room made her shiver.

“Esme,” Cataleya said by way of greeting. Now Esme was shivering for an entirely different reason.

“High Priestess,” she replied, lacing her fingers together and bowing her head.

“The time has come for you to complete your final assessment,” Cataleya said. “Are you sufficiently prepared?”

“Yes, High Priestess,” Esme said.

Cataleya nodded. “Blindfold her.”

One of the acolytes stepped forward, tying a black cloth over Esme’s eyes and guiding her to the table for her to sit. Esme could see nothing, only heard the soft clatter of plates being set before her.

“There are two dishes before you,” Cataleya said. “Which is poisoned?”

Esme fumbled blindly for the two plates, feeling the leafy texture of mixed greens on both. She brought her nose to each. The left dish smelled exactly as you would expect a salad to smell, earthy and crisp. However, the plate on the right was different, tainted with the aroma of raw parsnips, one so faint it couldn’t be detected unless one knew what to look for.

“This one’s been mixed with cicuta maculata,” Esme said. Water Hemlock.

“Are you certain?” When Esme nodded, Cataleya said, “Then take a bite.”

And so she did.

“Tell me, Esme. What would happen if you had chosen wrong?”

“It would begin with painful convulsions, abdominal cramps, and nausea,” Esme replied. “And then death.”


“But if I didn’t consume a lethal dose, I would be plagued with amnesia once the other symptoms had passed through my system. Forming the perfect poison to make your target forget what they’d witnessed.”

“Excellent,” Cataleya said. “You may remove your blindfold.”

Two glasses of wine were placed in front of Esme, both identical in every way.

“Atropa belladonna,” Esme said immediately, pushing one of the glasses aside. Nightshade was commonly used to poison wines, its delicate scent was difficult to detect over the already overpowering floral or citrus aroma. And when the berries were crushed, it nearly matched the color perfectly.

“Are you certain?” Esme nodded. “Then take a sip.”

And so Esme did. The rich flavor spilled over her tongue, and she couldn’t help the contented smile that slipped across her lips.

“The berries cause paralysis in the involuntary muscles, eventually targeting the heart.”

Cataleya nodded and three vials were placed in front of Esme. She knew immediately what the poison was intended to be, but detecting which were infected was the challenge. This herb held no aroma, no tint.

“Nerium oleander,” Esme said. Knowing she was correct in identifying the deadliest herb used in the coven, the only difficulty now was surviving. “Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, erratic pulse, seizures, coma, and finally death.”

Cataleya said nothing as she studied Esme, waiting for her next move. Uncorking each little vial, Esme gently dabbed a drop of each on her wrist, one of which reacting as water would. But two held a slightly stickier texture.

Esme recorked the three vials and placed one forward.

“Are you certain,” Cataleya asked, and Esme nodded. “Then drink it.”

There was no hesitation, no doubts as Esme downed the little clear vial.

“You have successfully passed your final assessment. Please stand and recite your oath.”

Esme stood.

“I swear to fulfill the desires of our goddess, to respect my sisters as they respect me. To not be ashamed of the practices we perform. To remember that there is an art to medicine, yet also an art to death.”

A cruel, satisfied smile curled her lips. “Welcome to The Language of Flowers, Esme.”  

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