Emmy was about to commit murder. Closing her eyes, she counted to three as a familiar and unwelcome figure entered Madame Krodge’s Apothecary. Before she opened her eyes again, Emmy began a silent chant. I must not kill, I must not kill... It should have been easy. But it wasn’t.
Mr Amra Bose strode straight to the counter, other customers stepping aside to let him pass. He was middle-aged, perpetually puffed by his own self-importance, wearing clothes typical of the husband class. He wore colourful fabrics, draped from the shoulder and kept in place by brooches of coloured glass. The hem of his cloak was pinned by enamel work, raising it from the common filth of the streets.
Bose laid his elaborate hat on the counter and peeled off his gloves, one claw at a time. His two companions, other husbands that trailed on his spiked tail, hovered at his shoulders, their chins stuck high in the air. As Bose unsheathed his final claw and slid the gloves aside, the bustle of the apothecary quieted.
‘Well?’ Bose asked as he drummed his talons on the counter.
The sight of his smug face made Emmy want to retch. Regardless, she stretched her lips into a thin smile.
‘How may I be of service today?’ she asked.
The words threatened to break her teeth.
‘Madame Bose is returning from Linvarra tomorrow, providing all is well,’ Bose said. He turned to appreciate his companions’ sympathetic nods and added, ‘the Goddess be blessed. You know what it’s like. Home from fighting in the King’s Service, bravely protecting us from the Masvam threat, she deserves to be looked after.’
Mr Bose’s eyes widened and he brought one hand to his thin lips. He glanced over his shoulder, before returning his watery gaze to Emmy.
‘Oh, I misspoke,’ he said. ‘You don’t know what that’s like, do you?’ He chuckled. ‘Despite coming of age, you’ve still never entered the service, never had to risk your life to keep the wicked Masvams out.’ Bose grinned, showing two lines of sharp teeth. ‘Well, I suppose not all females can be as good and brave as my beauteous wife. There are always...exceptions.’
He looked Emmy up and down, lips curling in disgust.
Emmy tried to let her mind escape her body, to flee from the pulsing thoughts that invaded like knives. The effort was futile. All she could think of was pulling Bose over the counter by his nose slits, then stomping on his head until... Best not think about it, she thought. Heart pounding, she balled her claws into fists.
‘What is it that you need from me?’ she snapped.
‘If there’s no one else available to assist me,’ Bose said, glancing over her shoulder into the rooms behind, ‘I suppose I can put up with you.’
Emmy clenched her jaws. There wasn’t anyone else, and Bose knew it. She was the only one who worked in the apothecary—apart from the mistress upstairs, of course. It had been that way for all of Emmy’s sixteen cycles.
‘I hoped you would have some powdered garba root,’ Bose continued, ‘but I’m sure that, as usual, you don’t.’ He turned to his companions again and rolled his eyes. ‘One does appreciate the great power of a healing paste mixed with such a rare commodity, but...’
‘Actually,’ Emmy said, ‘I ordered some just for you, as you’re always telling me how useful it is. It’s fifteen bickles per measure.’
She kept her face as straight as possible, but on the inside, she was grinning. Bose’s mouth opened and closed several times as he contemplated the information, knowing other customers were staring at the back of his head.
Emmy’s face twitched. Bose cleared his throat, trying to regain composure.
‘Madame Bose, of course, did not mention any wounds,’ he spluttered. ‘She writes to me so often. I would know immediately if there was something wrong—even if she did not say so outright. Thus, I shan’t need your overpriced goods.’
His companions shook their heads and tutted as other customers murmured. In truth, fifteen bickles was an agreeable price for a valuable commodity.
‘I would be pleased if you would, instead,’ Bose continued, ‘provide me with five measures of sicklestem juice.’ He simpered. ‘I add it to Madame Bose’s tea for its relaxing properties.’
Before she could respond, Emmy forced her tongue into her mouth and clamped down with her teeth. Sicklestem juice was hardly just relaxing. It made a powerful sleeping draught. It could kill.
Without speaking, she spun around. Her spiked tail swept objects from the under-counter shelves. They scattered across the clean rushes on the floor. Don’t kill him. Don’t kill him, she thought. You’re enough of a villain in this place already. Don’t add murder to your list of ‘wrongs.’
The idea of killing him was fanciful stuff. She wouldn’t actually take his life. Or at least, she probably wouldn’t. Taking a deep breath, she looked for the sicklestem juice.
Behind the counter stood Emmy’s pride and joy. Stretching across the length of the shop was a set of glass-fronted cupboards that cost the moon. Each vertical sweep was organised into categories. There were sections for medicines and remedies of course. Others were for cooking, for cleaning. The most colourful shelf was devoted to buttons, thread, and beads.
Krodge’s provided everything a husband needed to make a comfortable home for his wife. Roots, juices, sap, dried insects, live insects, fungi, herbs, animal bones... The list went on. Everything was locked in an ordered prison, behind glass doors more valuable than most of the contents. Krodge valued extravagance and, Emmy knew, some of the items held inside were deadly. There was a whole shelf dedicated to poisons.
Emmy lifted a thick-bottomed decanter from its perch, and turned back to Bose.
‘Has sir brought his own phial?’ she asked.
Mr Bose smirked and reached into his bag. His claws moved with ease at first but soon began to scrabble. His face twisted with frustration, then darkened with embarrassment.
‘In my haste to prepare for Madame Bose’s return, I have neglected to bring one.’
‘Very well,’ she said, ‘you may buy a phial for one bickle or you may borrow one for three cren, to be returned tomorrow.’
Mr Bose’s eyes bulged.
His compatriots nodded in agreement. However, when Bose looked away, they cast anxious glances at Emmy.
She held the decanter aloft, swirling the amber liquid, and raised an eyeridge. Bose glared at her, before he huffed his answer.
‘Fine. I shall rent one.’
Emmy fetched a thin phial and measured the sweet-smelling nectar, corked it, and placed it on the counter.
‘That will be one bickle and a cren.’
Glowering, Bose reached for his purse. He tossed two coins—the bickle large and thick, the cren thin and pierced with a hole—across the counter.
‘There,’ he said.
Emmy, with painful slowness, set each on her money scale. She stopped short of testing them with her teeth. Bose’s face was in a satisfactory blaze of fury. Satisfied, Emmy bowed.
‘Thank you for your custom,’ she said.
Bose deposited the phial into his bag, then snatched up his hat and gloves.
‘Good day,’ he spat.
He turned and, as he did, his friends marched to the door. Bose swept off, but stopped on the threshold. He half-turned.
‘I detest being served by such a half-breed,’ he hissed.
The following silence hung like lead.
Neck scales pulsing, Emmy ducked under the counter, then pushed her flat face into Bose’s.
‘One more comment,’ she growled, ‘and you will leave this place with no sicklestem juice and eight broken claws.’
The veins in Bose’s temples pulsed. His tiny pupils darted, searching her face for a lie. Finding nothing but truth, he fled. His friends followed in his wake.
Neck scales retracting, Emmy slipped under the counter, back to her post. Her job. Her existence. She closed her eyes, took a breath and, at length, spoke again.
‘May I assist anyone else?’
Inside, she sighed. It’s going to be a long day...
When the sun finally painted the sky orange and sent the customers home, Emmy locked the door. She surveyed the shop, her shoulders drooping. Grime glimmered in the fading light. One of her eyes twitched at the sight of her prized bitterberry plant lying on its side, soil spilt in clumsy waves. She grumbled as she righted it. No one has any respect, she thought. And they call me a beast…
Afterwards, she fetched a broom and began to sweep. As the shop returned to its tidy state, Emmy’s insides fell into order. Maintaining cleanliness was an endless task. In moments of madness, she wanted to leave the place to its filthy demise. Emmy shuddered. No, she thought. I couldn’t live with it—and if the mistress ever came downstairs again, she would beat me halfway to the Dark and back.
The mistress was Madame Krodge, proprietor of the only apothecary in the port of Bellim. Emmy’s earliest memories were of watching the broad female dole out powders and liquids with an expert flick of the wrist. But the memories were not gilded ones. While other younglings frolicked, Emmy was forced to work. It had always been that way.
Emmy shook off the memory and wound her way to the back yard. The air was salty, scented with the fish-tinge she was so used to. Wisps of light from the three moons slipped out from behind dark clouds. They were the goddess’s three faces, watching over the world as the inky night spread towards the horizon.
Emmy had lived with Madame Krodge all her sixteen cycles, though she was not her mother. Krodge delighted in telling folk that, at first, she thought the little bundle on her doorstep was a meal. To her unending disappointment, instead, she found a youngling—a deformed youngling.
No one in Bellim looked like Emmy. It felt like no one in the world was like her. Emmy had the same long body, the same long legs, the tall crest of horns, the pointed ears, the long tail, complete with spikes. Yet, there was one inescapable difference.
The folk of Bellim were typical Metakalans, with brown skin and red armour—thick scales that ran across the skin in patterns. Their fronds—a mane of thinner, longer scales atop the head—were coloured anything from palest moons’ light to darkest wood. But Emmy wasn’t like that.
Setting the broom aside, she raised her arm. Even in the darkness, the difference was clear. Her skin was sickly blue, her armour deep purple. Her fronds were straight and sable. These were differences that no one could, or would, ignore. Folk stared. They whispered. A demon. A Darkwitch. Emmy was something different—and entirely unwelcome.
She pulled herself from the murk of thought again. There’s no point in dwelling on something you can’t change, Emmy thought. I wish things were different, but they aren’t. So I just need to get on with things. Shaking her head, she finished cleaning and went to the kitchen.
After stoking the fire that blazed in the pit, Emmy filled a heavy kettle with water and hung it on an iron hook. Its thick bottom hovered over the smouldering wood. Krodge would want tea, and it had to be on time. Every night was the same. Too young to strike out alone, too strange to be accepted anywhere else, Emmy stayed with Krodge, even though it was torture. What choice do I have?
As the water boiled, Emmy sat on the stool by the fire and folded her arms. She closed her eyes and breathed out. Another day over...
Sudden hammering sent her heart into spasm. Emmy leapt up and loped to the shop, keys jangling. A dark hand cupped against one of the gleaming window panes. A red eye peered underneath. When it spied her, the familiar face erupted with relief.
Emmy ran forward, fumbling for her keys. When the door swung open, there was her only friend, Zecha. He was cradling a body.
A dead body.
‘Emmy, I need your help. Please!’ he cried.
He pushed his way into the shop. He laid the body on the ground. Blood pooled on the clean floor.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish