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The Counter Poison Pigment

For all the many hues of death Cinna faced every day, today's task began with white. Cinna spread the powder out as evenly as she could.
"Careful, that's dangerous stuff," her master said. "White lead."
As if she didn't know. As if she hadn't scraped it herself from the equally deadly ore. As if the room wasn't full of death, one way or another. One powder catching fire might destroy the whole room, but there were subtler deaths than fire. Gasses that might knock her out. Pigments that were fine on their own, but let a bit of mildew take hold, and the air would turn into a weapon.
She thought of the slaves who mined the ore for the king, of the way the ore in those tunnels shortened the lives of the miners, inevitably and without any remedy.
But she didn't say any of that. She only nodded and watched the powder roast.
"Afterwards, too. Don't breathe too close. That stuff is poison."
Which was why she wore her mask, even if he refused one. Her mask covered her mouth and nose, pushing her cheeks up toward her eyes. "Yes, master." She kept her eyes on the powder. When it began to turn yellow, he left the room. Yellow lead. She could stop and use this for a cheery color, but it wasn't what she was after this time.
The color deepened as it roasted, a sliding scale of vibrance. As soon as it turned a deep orange-red, she pulled the pigment away from the burner. Red lead.
Poison. Once cooled, she could mix it into a paint, which would also be poisonous. And with that paint, illustrate a book full of poisonous words. The poison of those words was a far deadlier type.
"With this codex, Your Majesty," Cinna's master said, "you can finally subjugate and rule alone. Armies will fall, would-be kings surrender, and your lesser subjects accept their place without dissent."
"Power that is mine already. That is mine by rights."
"Yes, Your Majesty. But...." Her master lowered his voice. "On its own that power is weakening, as we both know. This will restore it, shore it up. As it should be, by rights."
Cinna knelt out of sight of the king where she could see her master through a doorway. Her knees ached with the thought of others who had knelt, before the soldiers, before the throne itself, awaiting the king's punishments. While here to the side, she acquiesced meekly, part of the same hierarchy. If her master needed something, she could fetch it without intruding on the delicate discussions, without disrupting the balance of the realm's power.
"Well done." The king's voice seemed to come down from the past, ancient and accustomed to power. "Let's see what it can do." There was the sound of a page being flipped. Cinna pictured the king leaning over, poring through the text. He would see the words that bound his subjects, the words that robbed them of power, sentences that kept any malcontents securely within his control. Cinna had to force her body to keep its submissive pose as she imagined those words.
"It is nearly finished, Your Majesty. My assistant will paint the initials and miniatures. Then I will bind it with a special thread that seals in the magic. I intend to present it for your use within a month."
"Show me the thread. And the pigments."
Cinna fetched the minium ink that would be her primary color. Also called red lead, its reddish-orange pulsed with the same vibrance it had when she was roasting its powdered form to the perfect shade. She added other colors to the tray, the pigments that would add details to her miniatures.
Only her master knew the location of the thread. Likely on his person. Certainly nowhere Cinna might stumble across. Even if he didn't know her thoughts and sympathies, he knew to keep such power to himself. She held out the pigments through the doorway, her eyes lowered.
"Ten days. We've waited too long already to enforce our rule."
Ten days to paint all the necessary flourishes? Cinna bit back the protest.
Cinna had tried before to change the words on the pages. There were so many poisonous words of anger and superiority, of resentment, of conquest. Where it spoke of the king's might, she'd tried to make it speak of the people's power. Where it spoke dismissively of the lowly subjects the king would control, she'd tried to switch the words to lift them up, to weaken the soldiers' weapons, to siphon away the might of the king.
The paper of her master's codex did not let itself be changed. Her pen marks lasted until she blinked, then the original words reappeared. It was a terrible codex, built to make that ancient voice cling to ever greater power.
But how could anyone counter a poison that was words? What antidote was there? A mere apprentice like herself had no power to undo them.
Cinna stirred her paints and sketched the initials. Her task did give her power over those beginning letters, one for each portion of text. That meant she might change a single word for each section. That initial could be switched for something different. But there didn't seem to be the right mix of words for such minor changes to undo the damage. Swapping one letter for another, once per page or so, was too little. She would end up with nonsense on most of the pages, a minor change on the other pages to words that weren't even the source of the true poison.
Poison against poison. Toxic paint against toxic words. Cinna dipped her brush into the bright orange-red minium and outlined a figure. A commoner with power. A subject rising against a king. Dignity given to those whose dignity was denied by the text. She'd learned something as an apprentice, some of how her master's magic worked.
Would he notice? He would look through her work, but only see the bright colors, the way they set off the text.
She hoped.
Then he would bind the codex with his magic thread, and the words would be true. And so too would her pictures, the backdrop and margins of the text.
Furiously for ten days she painted the figures that would undermine the words of power. Looking over her shoulder, sure that the sedition in her figures would be reflected in her face, in her body language. Her master said nothing as each page became its own antidote to the words within.
When the time came to present the words to the king, the master looked through the pages. Cinna held her breath. Oh, may the illustrations satisfy him. Finally he turned over the last page and placed the board over the stack of paper.
With a flourish, he bound the codex and handed it to her to carry to the king. As she walked meekly behind him, Cinna peeked inside. The poisonous words were coming undone, rearranging themselves into new words to match the poisonous pigments of her illustrations.
A start, to undo the king's might. It would take more illuminated manuscripts and other powers for her to learn, further magics to find and strengthen the ones whose dignity was threatened, so she could lend sufficient power to those who might rise up to take down the king.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 11th, 2022
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