When the poisonous mushrooms emerged, the girls flocked to them like birds to a field of ripe wheat. There was a fine line between poisoned to death and poisoned to dream, and Madame had taught them to find that line and to ride it for the good of humanity. And ride it they did, as often as they could.
Amanita wouldn’t eat the mushrooms, but she advised the other girls on which ones to try and how much to use. And she brewed the antidote, which kept them from slipping fully into oblivion.
The girls either ate their mushrooms or brewed them into a tea. Every time, they debated which way was more bitter, and whether taking it as bitterly as possible made your dream rides all the sweeter. They giggled and chattered about what—or who—they wanted to see in their dreams. Then they arranged themselves prettily, propped up with pillows in the main dormitory sitting room, and waited for the poison to overtake them. They knew they kept the dreamless ones at bay, but they could not help but make a game of their task.
Amanita waited until the other girls were dozing, some snoring softly in spite of their assurances that proper young ladies of breeding never snored. She’d done her job well. They would all dream ride pleasantly, and then wake as anticipated.
But they only recalled their dream rides if they received a second dose, the quick-growing mushrooms cultivated within a human mouth or a recently slaughtered animal’s entrails. On a typical day, Madame would bustle into the room any moment now and administer it herself. Amanita listened for Madame’s approach, but the lower levels of the dormitory were silent. She stepped out onto the landing, listening more closely, and still heard no trace of Madame.
Amanita considered her options. She had watched Madame administer the second dose every time the other girls rode their dreams. She could do it herself, though she would risk taking her own dream ride if she did.
There was not enough time to traverse the long stairs to the fungiculture garden. And thus, there was no real choice. The other girls were not the sort to take disappointment well.
One of the mushrooms the girls had collected was particularly strong, and Amanita had steered them away from consuming it. Now she brushed her fingertips along the underside of the cap and touched them to her tongue. She sorted through the others and repeated this practice, speckling her tongue with the spores of half a dozen different varieties.
The spores grew in the damp darkness of Amanita’s mouth, just as they would in a rotting tree stump or carcass. Their effects were undeniable as they mixed with her saliva. She saw colors unlike the muted pastels that surrounded her, heard sounds like a cacophony of symphonies played by mice and bats. She drifted for a time, lost in the sights and sounds, but maintained the constant awareness that she could not stray too far.
It was only when the sensation of fullness in her mouth distracted her that she had the presence of mind to come back to herself. Amanita plucked the freshly sprouted mushrooms from her tongue even as her own dream ride swirled around her. There was no pain, as the mushrooms were never fully part of her. She was only the mother of these mushrooms, as Madame had been for so many years.
She crept to each of the girls and recalled what they had wished to dream about. Opening their mouths, she placed a new mushroom under each of their tongues. The girls always woke tasting fresh bitterness. Only Amanita and Madame knew why, and both were silent on the matter. And the girls didn’t mind, so long as they woke from pleasant dream rides with promises and prophecies side by side with the bitterness, the reward for their otherwise thankless task.
Madame stood in the doorway, watching Amanita as she finished her rounds. She looked neither dismayed nor satisfied, simply observing, cold and serene. “All clear?”
Amanita scraped the remaining spores and mushrooms from her tongue with the flat of a blade, careful to waste none. She wrapped the remnants in her lacy handkerchief and presented it to Madame. “A good crop today, I think.”
Madame nodded. “Still none for you?”
“A clear head and a willing pen,” Amanita said. “Just as you taught me.”
A gentle squeeze of Amanita’s shoulder, and Madame was gone to plant the spores that remained for next week’s foraging.
Madame needn’t say a word. Amanita knew she had done well. It was another unannounced test passed, another step toward making a name for herself. Another step closer to cultivating her own group of dreamers, more minds to keep the dreamless ones subdued.
About the author:
Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-runs a small press, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk adventure series, Brass and Glass, is available from DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com or on Twitter @historyneverwas.