A bitter film of ziko root coats the inside of my mouth. I run my tongue over my palate to rub out the taste, though I know it won’t work. Nothing dislodges ziko bitterness; not water, not bread, nor goat’s milk. If I’d been planning ahead, I might have brought a mint leaf to chew, but I’ve had more important things on my mind.
The ziko pulp, which I’d sorted by smell and chewed mouthful by mouthful, now sits in a pot over a fire. It won’t be long until the whole mixture boils, and I wonder if I should take it off the fire now, just to be safe. The hotter the ziko gets, the stronger its protective properties — but only up to a point. A perfect potion is brought to boiling and immediately cooled, but letting it boil a few moments longer ruins it all. Perhaps I should be cautious today, when my future is at stake. Perhaps it’s better to present a passable effort than to aim for perfection and fail.
A bead of sweat rolls off my brow. As I wipe it away, I see my master, Kaylah, sitting between two other healers. If I’ve added a spoonful too much water or built my fire too high, missorted the roots or chewed my mouthfuls to the wrong degree, she will have seen it. Many times before, Kaylah has stopped me to gently correct my technique, but today she is an impartial judge like the others. The sight of her strengthens my resolve, and I dismiss my thoughts of playing it safe. Kaylah has taught me well, and I know I can do this.
The first bubble forms at the surface of my mixture and pops, sending droplets of potion hissing into the fire. Immediately, I grab some washcloths and lift the pot off the flames. Then I stir the contents briskly until the entire mixture is cool enough to drink, murmuring the ritual prayer. “Goddess, let your touch come through the craft of my hands. Let your breath come through mine to those you’ve placed in my care.”
I bow deeply toward the judges.
Doron, the head judge, rises to his feet and comes to stand in front of my fire. “Tell me what you have made, apprentice.”
“Ziko potion, to protect against the bite of the soulstealer snake.”
“And what does it protect?”
“The mind. It keeps the victim from losing his memory.”
“When may it be safely used?”
“The potion causes no harm unless used alongside valerian root, in which case it may cause the victim to fall into an unwakeable sleep. But the potion itself will only protect the mind if taken before the bite, or within a quarter hour after if the brew is extremely potent.”
Doron nods in approval, then turns his attention toward the pot. He stirs the ziko pulp, observing the way his spoon moves through the mixture. He dips his finger and licks it, his forehead creasing as he works the mixture with his tongue. For a moment, he frowns, and my heart skips a beat. Does it taste wrong? Did I wait too long to take it off the flames? No, I’m sure I’ve done everything correctly.
“Well done,” he says. “Perfectly done.”
I cannot suppress my smile, nor my deep sigh of relief. I glance behind Doron to see Kaylah’s eyes sparkling.
Doron clears his throat. “You have passed all the required tests to earn a healer’s sash. You may stop now and serve Dara as an herbalist, or you may take one more test to become a high healer, but that trial carries by far the greater risk. What will you choose?”
His words are ritualized, but my throat tightens nonetheless. For the briefest moment, I hesitate. If I back out now, I wouldn’t be the first apprentice to do so. But I’ve worked ten years for this.
I find my courage. “I will undergo the final test.”
“So be it.” Doron looks to the door, where a messy-haired apprentice stands at attention. “Bring in the cages.”
The boy bows and walks outside. When he returns, two other apprentices follow him. All three carry long bamboo poles — like fishing poles, except small cages dangle where the hook should be. The apprentices line up solemnly in front of Doron, taking care not to let the poles swing near themselves or any other person. A forked tongue flicks out between the bars of the middle cage. From the closest cage comes the barely detectable click of thin, hard, legs on bamboo. A tingle goes up my spine. There’s a reason why these are called the cages of death.
Doron speaks loud enough for all to hear. “As a healer, you must walk ahead of your patients into death. The sources of our art are not always safe. Are you willing to brave the fangs of deadly creatures to harvest their venoms and bend them to your will? To take vehicles of death and transform them into agents of life?”
“I am, and I have prepared myself.” But there is no way to know if my preparation has been enough.
“Then may the Goddess judge your worthiness.”
Doron unhooks the first cage from its pole and pulls out a green serpent as thick as his finger and long as his forearm, with a violet square marking the top of its head. I tell myself I shouldn’t be fearful. I’ve tended snakes for years and injected myself with larger and larger doses of venom to prepare for this day. But that doesn’t quiet the knowledge that the purple-crowned serpent can fell a horse within a half hour. Any one of these creatures in front of me will kill a normal person in several heartbeats, and now I must survive three bites at once.
The test of the deadly venoms is more than just a test of my body. It is a test of dedication and discipline, an embodiment of the principle that one who safeguards the lives of others must first be able to heal herself. The venom injections I took to develop immunity were painful and sometimes made me sick, but if I wanted to become a full healer, I had to push through. I had to follow directions precisely so that I would neither kill myself with too much venom, nor cheat myself with too little. And I had to keep it up year after year alongside the rest of my studies.
The serpent slithers docilely up Doron’s arm. At the head judge’s low whistle, the snake anchors its tail on his wrist and raises its violet head, ready to strike. With his other hand, Doron draws my arm toward him. It’s all I can do not to pull away.
Doron’s whistle changes pitch. Pain flares in my arm as the snake embeds its teeth into my skin. For a long moment, I stare dumbly at the fangs locked onto my flesh, and then Doron grabs the creature’s head and carefully pries it off. Invisible flames spread down the length of my arms. Though I’ve worked hard to develop resistance against the venom, there is no way to protect against the pain.
Doron coolly examines the wound, peering into the punctures to make sure the venom has entered my bloodstream. I resent his clinical gaze, though I’m in too much pain to move. Finally, Doron nods in satisfaction and returns the snake to its cage. The first apprentice sneaks a worried look at my face before he leaves. He’s Zad’s apprentice — one year older than my seventeen, but he won’t take the trials until the usual age of twenty. In the few times we’ve met, we’ve had a friendly rivalry, but today I sense his wholehearted wish that I succeed.
The blackarmor scorpion comes next, with its paralyzing sting. Doron goads it with a stick, and soon enough, its tail plunges down next to the snakebite. As Doron inspects the wounds, the edges of my vision cloud and I sway on my feet. Doron directs a sharp gaze at me and commands me to sit. He helps me down with the steady hands of a seasoned healer, and I’m unable to reconcile his gentleness with the fact that he’s just goaded two deadly creatures to kill me.
After that comes the red-ringed spider. This one’s the worst, not because it’s any deadlier than the others, but because I’ve never completely rid myself of my fear of these creatures. My mother says a leaf spider bit me when I was very young, but I have no memory of it. I look away when Doron coaxes the creature onto my arm, and the bite is mercifully quick. Then the last apprentice leaves, and I am alone with the judges.
Fire from the three bites spreads through my chest, and the room itself fades in and out of view. Doron catches me as I list to the side. There’s a sleeping mat on the floor, and I wonder when they’d laid it out for me. Heat envelops my body. My vision clouds red, then black. Voices echo in my head, climbing like vines up the underside of my skull and threatening to burst me open. When I scream, Kaylah’s face appears in front of me, only to morph into the head of a snake. I’m suddenly thirsty, unbearably so, and I ask, then beg, for water. But no one comes to my aid.
Gradually, the sensations lose their strength and fade away. The torturous sounds collapse back into familiar voices, and the room stops wavering in front of me. The heat ebbs too, but not the all-consuming thirst. By the Goddess, I’d give up my healer’s sash for something to drink.
Footsteps shuffle up next to me. It pains me to turn my head, but when I see Kaylah holding a cup of water, I lunge for her. I don’t make it far, not even to sitting, but Kaylah catches me before I fall and holds the cup to my lips. It empties all too quickly. Kaylah sets it aside and wipes my face with a damp cloth.
“I’m proud of you, Zivah,” she says. “You are now the youngest high healer Dara has ever seen.”
* * *
Once it’s clear that I will survive, my judges aid the rest of my recovery. Now the healers who’d so relentlessly tested me all morning refocus their considerable experience toward nurturing me back to health. Doron mixes three drafts in quick succession — one to clear the remaining venom from my blood, another to help me regain my strength, and a third to rehydrate my parched body.
Zad, the third judge, applies a salve to my wounds. “You’ll have scars,” he says as he wraps the bandage with his long bony fingers. “But you want these scars. They are a mark of all you’ve worked for.”
And after he’s finished, Kaylah helps me out of my sweat-soaked clothes and wipes down my skin. When I feel human again, she takes me by the arm.
“Ready?” she asks.
I nod, and she opens the cottage door. It was dawn when I stepped into the cottage for examination, and now it’s late afternoon. Sunlight filters through the bamboo groves that surround our village, and the paths are mostly empty. Most of the people are still out on the crop terraces, finishing the spring planting.
I turn as my younger sister, Alia, throws her arms around my waist. “They told me you survived, but I had to see for myself.” She clutches me so tightly that the air rushes out of my lungs.
I laugh. “Are you trying to squeeze the remaining life out of me?”
My older sister, Leora, moves in for her own embrace. Her wise eyes shine. “Father and Mother had to return to the terraces. They will see you at the feast.”
Alia flings a thick black braid over her shoulder and grabs my arm. “And it is our job to prepare you.”
With that, she pulls me down the dirt path, giggling. The paths are uneven, curving with the slope of the valley. They are tricky to navigate on the best of days, and after this morning’s trial, it takes all my concentration not to fall on my face. Alia’s enthusiasm is infectious though, and I make a gamely effort as Leora makes more stately progress alongside.
We take a wandering hen by surprise as we careen around a bend. The poor bird squawks and flaps her wings, and Alia squeals in turn, windmilling her arms to keep from trampling the creature. Leora comes to the rescue, catching Alia’s waist from behind. For a moment, we are a wobbly tangle of arms and legs, and it’s only by some miracle that we don’t collapse altogether. Alia’s crying from laughter now, and I’m smiling as well. But Leora’s expression sobers suddenly, and I turn my head to follow her gaze.
A cluster of Amparan soldiers lounge by a stand of bamboo. One is a blond northerner. Another is a brown-skinned recruit from the southern territories, while others have the honey-colored complexion of the central empire. All of them, though, wear arrogance like mantles over their shoulders, and far too many look at my sisters and me in a way that makes me want to scrub their gazes off my skin. Leora squares her shoulders and deliberately resumes walking down the path. Alia and I follow her lead. After a few moments, the soldiers return their attention to their dice game.
When the Dara people surrendered peacefully to Amparan forces a generation ago, one of the stipulations, besides the yearly tithes, was that we would house battalions of soldiers that passed through our lands. One such group arrived five days ago. As always, our village leader split the battalion into groups to be hosted by each family. My mother, father, sisters, and I moved our cots to one side of our house so three foot soldiers could roll out their bedrolls on the other. It’s never pleasant, having the soldiers about. Feeding all these extra mouths stretches our supplies, and not all the soldiers follow the Imperial Army’s code of honor. Some have fingers that all too easily sweep valuables into their pockets, while others are aggressively friendly with the women. But the alternative is worse. The empire might be strict with those who surrender to them, but they are absolutely ruthless against those who resist. Those peoples have their homes burned to the ground, their people enslaved and shipped to the central empire. It’s the thought of these stories, carried back by those who travel beyond Dara’s borders, that makes me swallow the resentment in my chest as we walk by.
We’re quiet the rest of the way. Leora pauses just outside our bamboo cottage, and I know she’s wondering if the soldiers lodging with us are inside. But when she pushes the door open, the house is empty.
Leora smiles, regaining a bit of her cheer, and pulls me inside. “Come. You’ll be the most beautiful healer Dara has ever celebrated.”
They set to work immediately. Alia weaves colorful ribbons through my long black hair as Leora takes out my best silk dress, which she’s washed and pressed. Then Leora pulls out a red sash, and my breath catches. Healer’s sashes are usually plain red, the color of life, but this one has been embroidered with purple and green threads. Repeated along its length, subtle enough to avoid attention but clear enough to be seen, are images of the purple vel flower. It is said that the First Healer was taught the art of potions by the Goddess herself, and that the first lesson was vel tea for flu. Once the First Healer mastered the healing arts, the Goddess sent him forth to guard the curtain between life and death and ensure that none pass through before their time.
“Kaylah will present this to you at your ceremony,” Leora says. The embroidery is fine and even, clearly the work of Leora’s patient hands. For the second time today, my eyes prickle with tears. Soon my hair is pinned up, and my dress caresses my skin like a blessing. Leora smooths some berry juice onto my cheeks and lips, and then we’re back out the door.
We smell the roasting meat before we see the bonfire. A shout greets my arrival, and people crowd around me. My neighbor, whose belly swells large with her first child, embraces me and tells me she wants me to be present at her baby’s birth. Others follow in quick succession, taking my hand, offering their well-wishes. And then, I see my mother and father waiting by the bonfire.
My mother’s face breaks into a smile when I reach her. She pulls me close and rubs my back as if to assure herself that I am in one piece. “You passed your trial.”
My father, his face lined by years on the crop terraces, clasps my shoulders. “My daughter, a full healer at seventeen. The Goddess smiles on our family.”
The ceremony itself is short. Head Healer Doron calls me forward and reads vows for me to repeat, the very ones that the Goddess gave to the first healer. I will use this sacred knowledge to heal and not to harm. I will brave the jaws of death to save those the Goddess has chosen. Then, with the village watching, my master Kaylah ties the sash around my waist.
The feast starts in earnest after that. Wine is poured, and after everyone has had their fill, some village boys pull out tambourines and pipes, and the dancing starts. I’d been worried about Amparan soldiers intruding on the festivities, but surprisingly few of them show up. It’s curious, since they must be able to smell the venison roasting, but I count it a blessing.
Much later that evening, I’m sitting at the edge of the festivities when Kaylah comes to join me. “Is the day catching up to you?” she asks.
Indeed, my limbs ache as I move over on the bench to make room for her. Kaylah sweeps her heavy black hair over her shoulder as she sits down.
“If I’d only been bitten by one creature this morning,” I say, “perhaps I’d still be dancing.”
Excerpted from Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne. Copyright © 2017 Andy Marino. Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.