The Book of Poisons, A Merlin's Gate Story excerpt:
An old woman called Becuma sold rare and unusual things. Her shop was tucked away in a dark corner off the main market street. Many went there out of curiosity, many left with something strange they did not know they needed or wanted until they entered Becuma’s narrow and crowded aisles. Tuila knew what she needed and she knew Becuma would have it.
The old woman sat behind the counter at the back of the shop reading from a large book. She looked up when Tuila entered. She smiled, exposing stumps of yellow teeth. She held up her palm and spread her fingers in the sign of the Holy Five, Tuila returned the greeting gesture.
“Good morning! Mother Tuila!” Tuila was half the old woman’s age, but everyone called her mother. As wife of the Domun she represented the mother Goddess Mayb, just as Abram represented Haill, King of Heaven. Becuma closed the book and pushed it under the counter before Tuila was close enough to see what it might be.
“My condolences on the death of your son,” said the old woman. Tuila flinched at the blasphemy, but the sentiment was comforting nevertheless.
“He was immoral and deserved to go to the Pit,” Tuila recited. She could not make herself say “deserved to die” no matter how correct it would have been.
The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “No one deserves the Pit,” she whispered. Tuila gasped and almost turned to go, but stopped herself. Tuila knew Becuma despised the gods and fought against them. In spite of that Becuma’s Holy Mark—five radiating lines representing the Five Holy Gods—was always fresh and black. Mark Makers were mas-tech devices and illegal for any but the clergy to possess. Tuila suspected that the old woman owned one. Becuma would ignore that illegality as blithely as she ignored other laws. Tuila only maintained a friendship with the old woman because of days just such as this one.
“Please do not say such things to me,” said Tuila. The old woman grinned, deepening the wrinkles in her cheeks, and nodded.
“And who will say them to you if I do not?”
“No one would dare,” said Tuila.
“Of course,” said Becuma. She tilted her head and looked way. “I have some wonderful Endorian scarves you should look at, Mother Tuila. They have strands of crystal woven into them.” She stood and made to lead Tuila over to the tangled racks of clothing.
“No, Becuma. I want to look at your books. Not the ones you keep on display out here, but the ones that you keep hidden in the back.”
“I have no books in the back. Where did you get such a notion?” Tuila wasn’t sure, but there may have been a tiny glint of fear in the old woman’s eyes. It could have been a hint of defiance. It was hard to tell.
“I am the wife of the Domun,” Tuila said simply. “I have many friends.”
“Your friends have steered you wrong,” said the old woman caustically. “I don’t own any secret books.”
“In that case you won’t mind if I invite the MPs to search your shop. Were you at worship this morning? Your Holy Mark is very fresh.”
Becuma stared at Tuila, her mouth tight. “Come,” she said. She stood and with her twisted walking stick for support, she led Tuila to the back room, a place as crowded and chaotic as the store itself. Tucked away in the very back was a dark alcove lined with books floor to ceiling.