It was the 15th spring of the torrential downpour that washed over Verbandy, drowning crops, souring moods, and imprisoning even the most ardent magic practitioners in the kingdom, for the rains were not ordinary. The rains carried the curse of poison. The rains burned the skin beyond recognition and had taken one too many unsuspecting children who did not know better than to catch the first drops on their tongues. The early years had passed into faded memories of what once was, and now the people of Verbandy hid within the walls of the castle, nearing starvation, accumulating disease, and losing more than they gained with the passing of each year this dark magic could not be undone. Many had died trying, with the greatest loss being the magic users sent to their unwilling deaths in attempts to remedy the curse.
A knock at the bed chamber of the king, Lord Landolan, widened his eyes as the hour was late, evidenced by the deluge outside his window casting shadows through the flickering torches surrounding him. His queen, Lady Katala, slept soundly, lulled into stupor both day and night from the endless cascading water, poisoning her once bright spirit, too. Lord Landolan grabbed his robe and walked to the chamber door at the second gentle rap, barely sounding through the rain. It was the Lord’s counselor, Rendon.
“Rendon, what is it that would make you disturb the sleep of the night’s stars if not mine?”
“Sir, I promise you, I bore witness to something you need to hear in haste.”
Lord Landolan took a deep breath and turned his head back to see if Lady Katala had stirred as the rain grew louder, thumping against market canopies many feet below, ominous drums now.
“Well come in and let’s sit by the fire. I think nothing can disturb my lady.”
As they sat, sipping brandy poured generously by Rendon, a story unfolded of a plot to kill the king and free Verbandy of the rain curse. Rendon spoke of a prophecy by which magic practitioners would come to power again as they had in times long ago on this land. Rendon paused, looking out the window and shaking his head.
“The plot is thick, and none of your subjects, even though you provide them comfort and sustenance through the poison deluge speak to your favor this year. I fear their patience has expired.”
Lord Landolan stood and started a steady pacing in front of the fireplace as if carried by the stream of rain outside.
“Rendon, how can I blame them? This is the 15th year, and we are no closer to freeing our people or knowing the reason for why we suffer. We have sacrificed many lives, including our magic bearers. We have questioned everyone, using torture and unspeakable acts, as to the nature of this curse. Perhaps this is destiny. You know prophecies are the gold of fools.”
“My lord, you mustn’t give in to these dark thoughts. Do you think Verbandy will be any closer to freedom if you are gone? You will leave it in ruin, no heir to replace you, causing chaos, internal warring, and destitution. You have done well to at least plan for the rain each year. It is no small feat to host a kingdom in a castle.”
Lady Katala shuffled, causing the men to look back as she made the mew of a kitten.
“I will not be acquiring an heir anytime soon, not a legitimate one anyways.”
“We need to plan for your survival. No one faults you or your court for seeking manly comfort during the infernal rains that trap us each year. I just wish you would be more discreet and gentile in your pursuits.”
“Your wisdom and loyalty keep me from walking into the poison water of my own doings, Rendon. Please share your thoughts on how I might survive.”
Rendon carefully walked his lord through the potential for death by poison. There were enough witches within the castle to have knowledge of poison, and they had lost one too many of their own, so there was motivation. The witches also held a special allure for the king in his nighttime wanderings. The kitchen staff would willingly participate for they were imprisoned in the kitchen during the long months of rain, toiling away at feeding everyone on an impossibly tight supply of food. Rendon sat up straighter raising a finger to the air. There was only one solution. A young woman, a witch who just came of age, was rumored to have a rare magic that could save the lord’s life without costing her own.
“Lord, there is a Taster that was born a year before the curse. She is not any Taster though. She will not die ingesting the poison that is meant for you. I have heard whispers, too, that she can taste magic that has been cast by tasing the air itself around the spell or curse. A prophecy suggests she might be the one to save us from this curse, too.”
“Enough with prophecies. Will she be loyal to me, Rendon? You can’t trust magic.”
“I already have her mother imprisoned. Their bond is fierce. You die, then her mother dies as she watches.”
Lord Landolan smirked, emerging from his dire moment. The rains were not his fault. He suffered from the curse just like everyone else, even more so with his duties as their lord. He deserved loyalty and protection from their treachery in return.
“Very well, Rendon. Fetch me the girl in the morning. She will start at breakfast. Lady Katala will not be pleased. Her descent into madness does not prevent petty, dangerous jealousy. Watch her, my hawk, around the Taster.”
Rendon paused while walking to the door of the chamber with his lord. He pursed his mouth, willing words to come out of it.
“I need to suggest something that does not come from a place of disloyalty, but rather the deepest loyalty I can give.”
Lord Landolan let out a brandy-laden breath. “Enough with all of these troublesome words tonight. Speak plainly.”
Rendon stepped close to his lord, lowering his voice to a hiss. “I would suggest we save the Taster’s skill for your security and longevity only. Lady Katala does us no favors in her current state. Perhaps it is time to find a queen who can produce an heir.”
“Rendon, you are both loyal and wise.”
Rendon smiled and nodded, closing the door with quiet precision as he exited.
Lord Landolan walked to the chamber window, staying far enough away as not to feel the burn of cursed raindrops on his skin. He smiled, for he had known the Taster’s mother, Vareena, on many occasions. Vareena was not very accommodating during his vists, but Rendon could fix that if commanded.
In the steady downpour of the morning, Rendon walked through the castle, posture high, on task. He wound down several staircases to servant quarters. Even magic providers had to perform other duties while sheltering in the castle. The Taster’s duty was a maid to the lower royalty housed on the upper floors of the castle.
The young woman was standing by a wash basin, fiery hair pulled neatly into a plait at her slender back. Rendon startled as she turned around before he could announce himself, for her azure eyes, dewy skin, and raised cheeks, were remarkable. She was her mother’s child.
“Master,” she bowed ruggedly for a lady, “how may I serve you?”
“I seek loyalty and truth for the lord, our king, Miss Carenna. You bear the magic of a Taster, do you not?”
Carenna’s eyes answered before she did. There was a pride in magic that spoke truth through the glint of her eyes. Her youth had given way to magical womanhood this year. Rendon remained serious as others quietly worked around them, pretending not to listen.
“Yes, Master Rendon. I am a Taster. I am new to the skill though.”
“Wonderful for that was the only correct answer. You have a new role in our cursed lockdown then. You are to be the Lord Landolan’s Taster. People have grown restless from our collective rain-filled nightmare. You must ensure his safety, whether it be from his food or the air around him.”
Carenna walked closer to Rendon, bringing her delicate, opal skin out of the rain shadows.
“Master, if I may be so bold, I prefer my current duties.”
Rendon now decreased the distance between them, red in the face, making a show of it to curious eyes.
“I do not present this as a choice. Your mother is imprisoned until you get the king through this test to his power. If you are not successful, then I do not need to speak of what this means for her.”
Carenna stood still, glance forward, narrowed eyes and a stiff back.
“Very well, Master Rendon. I shall start with breakfast.”
“Ay, I will lead you to the chamber. One more small matter. You serve our lord, not our lady. You will do well to remember this with each taste of his food and the air around him.”
Carenna nodded. As she walked behind Rendon, winding upward, she let her ginger hair loose behind her back, and straightened her maid’s frock, tightening it around her waist and chest. When Rendon led her into the chamber, she was greeted by Lord Landolan’s glowering countenance. As tight as her dress was now, her resolve was tighter.
Carenna performed her duties well for weeks, catching two poisonings and a weak attempt at a long-term sleep spell cast on the lord at a choral performance in the music chamber of the castle. When Lady Katala was awake and present, which was rarely, she glared at Carenna. It could be that Lord Landolan stared at Carenna too long as she was performing her duties. Lady Katala, during an unusual spoken moment, even implied that Carenna was her mother’s child with a bite and click to her tongue. Carenna took pleasure that she was not asked to protect the lady for the queen had quietly slunk to the shadows while magic practitioners were sent to their rain deaths to save the kingdom.
Carenna had earned the trust of even Rendon, stalwart in his distrust of most. His trust came in the form of a quiet respect and space to perform her duties even when he was not present. It was, however, time to perform her real duties to the kingdom and her people. It was the sixth unbearable week of the cursed rain, halfway to when the people of Verbandy could return outside. There was a celebration in the hall with abundant food and wine for subjects than on typical days. Carenna had not been allowed to see her mother at all during this time, but she did not need to see her to know her heart’s charge.
Carenna dressed in an emerald green velvet gown with beaded bodice, a gift from the lord for her service, whispering words that inspired the steady rains of the day to become a cacophony of large drops on the castle, soaking it and creating an impossibly damp chill in the corridors.
When Carenna finally arrived at the great hall, she was pleased the din of the party was muffled by the glorious torrent outside. She pushed her red ringlets to her back, pressed her chin and chest high, and walked into the hall, catching the faltering torch lights on her hair and face. There was a hush at each table as she walked to the front center of the room. From the back of the cavernous hall, she could see Lord Landolan’s mouth agape. Lady Katala was awake and at his side, her eyes narrowing on Carenna as she came closer.
Carenna reached the front and bowed, “What a lovely gathering for our people, my lord and lady.”
“Please, join us at the table. Lady and I hope you enjoy the festivities after your duties. The night is for the young ladies and gents of Verbandy, even during our solemn rain tomb of Spring.”
Lady Katala snickered and looked away while Lord Landolan made a sweep of his arm to invite Carenna to the table to taste. Rendon was nowhere to be seen, but Carenna knew her lord would let her proceed without him. This was what weeks of saving his life and fluttering about him with her feminine wiles earned her. Rendon also helped with his consistent praise. She arrived at the table and tasted the lord’s food and drink, she strode around the table, far enough to taste the reach of magic. The lord watched closely for he enjoyed watching her like he had enjoyed watching her mother and other beautiful witches too often, eventually forcing them to partake of his brutal pleasures. He preferred to watch her from the neck down, and this along with the now clamorous rain provided cover for the words she whispered next.
It only took five minutes, a few bites of food, and a trickle of wine for the lord and lady to slump forward to the table, unquestionably dead. It took another five minutes for the rains to stop and everyone in the hall to pause in recognition of the end of their watery prison. Carenna raised a glass and tapped it gently with a knife, waiting as stunned faces turned towards her.
“People of Verbandy, the curse has been lifted. I am Carenna, daughter of the sorcerer Rendon and his lady love, the witch Vareena, from this day forward, your king and queen. The curse arrived after my birth as prophesized and lifted with my coming of magical age this year. Magic shall once again rule this kingdom, never to be abused again. Women shall also not be abused by men of power. You know the suffering of which I speak,” Carenna paused as two large men removed the lifeless, treacherous bodies from the table. “If you respect magic, its users, and the women of this kingdom, you will never suffer the rains again. And always, without compromise or hesitation, believe in the prophecies of magic.”
The hall erupted in cheers as Carenna raised her glass. Shortly following, her witch mother, as red and alabaster as her daughter, was escorted in on the arm of her father to join her at the table.
For years, Spring came to pass with normal, gentle, crop growing rain. Children could catch the first rains on their tongue and dig up worms from the mud in the days following. The use of magic was controlled by its users and not the selfish, shadowy whims of magicless lords and ladies, and there was peace and prosperity in Verbandy. Carenna in the 10th year following the end of the curse, gave birth to a girl of fire and marble who would be a Taster, a witch, and a queen like her mother.