by M.K. Caudle
A potion delivery gone wrong has a wealthy socialite in love with an apprentice potioner.
|“Love potions,” Ms. Victoria shook her head, her white curls falling about her soot-smudged face. “Always love potions.” She bent over a large silver kettle inspecting its contents, after a moment she dumped in several more ingredients. The instruction card lay abandoned under the various implements and scraps of herbs scattered on the worktable. Ms. Victoria made this potion many times before, it was ingrained in her memory. The card was more of a companion than anything else, a comfort. “You'd think we made nothing else. If you'd have told me 50 years ago that I'd be dealing in love potions, I'd have melted my kettle down and gone off to Ireland. Lived like a wisp in the woods for the rest of my life.”
A flash of light erupted from the kettle with a snap. Leona jumped back, knocking into a table. Something metal clattered as it hit the tile floor and was immediately lost to the darkness.
Qetesh hissed indignantly and retreated to the wooden mantel of the hearth. The sandy-colored cat all but disappeared against the yellow brick of the chimney, with only its green eyes shining vividly through the smoke and firelight.
Ms. Victoria rolled her eyes, “Steady on, it's not a hex." She waved a dry and withered hand at the apprentice, "get the strawberry leaves, the dried ones. Great love needs strawberries.”
Leona scanned the lines of jars and pots along the back wall. The shelves were a mess, with no particular rhyme nor reason as to where the ingredients were placed or what kind of vessel, they were kept in. High John, orris root, linden, ginger, burdock, strawberry leaves…She retrieved an old jam jar filled with pale green leaves and passed it to Ms. Victoria, vowing silently to organize that shelf, alphabetically.
“I used to make a lot of hexes, messy business that.” Ms. Victoria kept her eyes on her work as she chatted away. She was a talker. It didn't seem to matter whether anyone was talking back, or even listening, she was always babbling about something. “Hexes, the ones I know anyhow, use broken glass, urine, animal blood, snake venom…or some combination thereof. Nasty things. They even smell evil; I didn’t know evil had a smell until I started with hexes.” She moved her hand through the steam, the tendrils twisting about her fingertips and up her bare arms. “And of course, when you're dealing in hexes people start asking about talismans, and protection powders. They're much nicer to mix up. Mind protection spells use a lot of salt, so they dry your skin out. If you're not careful your hands end up looking like old onions.” She beckoned Leona to the kettle with a nod, “I'd like you to watch this bit.”
Leona moved to the hearth for a better view. There were herbs of all manner dancing around in the kettle, rolling from bottom to top and back down again.
“Grab that orris root and tie a string around it,” Ms. Victoria commanded. “Orris root, you might recall from your studies, is for an old love. We get a lot of this you see, older folks not as comfortable with their appeal to one another, a little guarded after a life lived, and not as willing to fall in love. The orris root gives them a little push, a little boldness. Young love has all the boldness it could need.”
Leona nodded and took the root in her hands, turning it over, it was wholly unremarkable. Just a plain root you might find in a roadside ditch. But in the hands of someone who knew what it was, magic.
“Now you can simply carry around a chunk of the stuff, but then what would we do, eh? Go on pop it in."
As she did so, the liquid in the pot turned from honey gold to a deep purple.
Ms. Victoria took a white stone and dropped it into the kettle, “Take it off the flame and look for the stone. When the liquid is so dark that the stone can't be seen it's done and we need to yank the root out quick."
Leona swung the crane and kettle out from the hearth, staring intently at the stark white stone as it seemed to shrink away.
“You don't want to let it over steep or the love will become too bold, and nobody wants love to be too bold. They might say they want a bold love, brimming with passion and fire, the thrill of being chased… But trust me, over steep the orris root and you'll have an exhausted woman begging you to break the spell. Now. Now's the time."
Leona pulled the root up out of the potion and set it on a rack to dry.
“Good, good." Ms. Victoria gestured to the bottling station across the room. “Let's get it in the bottle, a plain-looking one, nosey neighbors you know."
Leona poured the purple elixir into an empty wine bottle. She dug around in the drawer for a cork or a cap of some kind and sighed. She'd have to organize the bottling station as well. How Ms. Victoria found anything in this mess, Leona did not know. "Is that all for today?”
“I've one more, but it's a little involved. I think it's best I do it myself.” Ms. Victoria tied her tresses back tightly into a bun and pushed a clear space at her work table. “I need to concentrate,” she said. She produced a small red-bound book from her apron and flicked through the pages. “You can start the deliveries if you'd like. Qetesh and I can manage the shop if need be.” Qetesh pricked her ears at the sound of her name. “Watch out for the bath in the blue bottle, it contains personals."
Leona's fingers, finally, landed on a cork. She sealed and labeled the bottle. She picked up her clipboard and read over the deliveries, “Who's it for?”
“Oh, it isn't in your ledger. There's a scrap of paper on top of the register down in the shop with the address." Ms. Victoria put the red book down on the worktable and studied a page while she spoke. “It's just some socialite after another socialite. She's chasing Corbin Fox, he's the to be king of grain storage or something fool thing like that.”
Leona pursed her lips but said nothing. She gathered the day's labors into a tan leather messenger bag and started for the stairs, annoyed to be chasing down scraps of paper. The chaos and clutter of the place vexed Leona. Every surface was loaded with piles of something: scraps of paper, dried or drying herbs, receipts and coins, empty pots and jars…the place was a collective heap covered in ash. It would take her weeks to set it right, and longer still to get the mistress to stop making new piles.
As Leona stepped out of the stairwell onto the main floor she was greeted by the mid-afternoon sun fighting its way in through the layer of dust on the windows. After being shut up in the potioner's den all morning, the sunlight stun her eyes but it was welcome all the same.
The shop was in much better shape than the den, at least there was nothing on the floor, and it was swept up quite recently. There was still work to be done, what with Ms. Victoria's filing system consisting mainly of sticky notes and the backs of envelopes, but it was getting better.
She rummaged through a stack of papers: a weigh bill, the electric, a Chinese food menu, and a corner tore off of a tea box inscribed with red ink 95 Hackamore Path. Leona groaned it would take her at least an hour on a bus and a tram to get to that end of the city. Moreover, she could be sure of a cold reception showing up without an appointment, and not even a name to make one.
Leona wrote the address down on her ledger and tucked it neatly in her messenger bag, beside her transit pass. She went through the back into the alley started for the bus stop to catch her first bus.
Leona was feeling sluggish. She considered stopping at one of the numerous cafes for a coffee but resisted the temptation. She'd be fine once she got on the bus. It was just that this neighborhood made her hungry. The street was lined with so many cafes, bistros, pubs, and restaurants, that the air smelled at all times of coffee and cinnamon and frying oil. A person could eat in a different establishment for every meal the whole year long and not get to try them all.
The lamp posts were littered with flyers: lunch specials, lost kittens, gyros, temp agencies, koulouri, roommate wanted, falafel, take-out menus, karaoke night all overlapping and pasted on top of one another.
The bus pulled into the stop and people poured out. Leona squeezed in behind the last deboarding passenger and swung into an empty seat. As the other passengers found places to sit and hang on, the bus plunged forward into traffic. Leona disinfected her armrest, or rather she wiped down a yellow pipe that they called an armrest.
Leona noticed a middle-aged man across the way. He had a paper cup in his hand, and as he raised it to his mustache, she regretted not stopping for coffee. She envied him for the warm, bitter liquid. There was nothing, however, to be done about it now.
Leona retrieved her ledger and a ring-bound notebook from the messenger bag. She began to write out her new route, now that the fortune hunter on Hackamore Path was on her call list.
The rest of her deliveries were in the old town. She could walk between most of them, catch the tram up to the castle, and then a bus to the socialite. Maybe she could take a rideshare back to the shop. She might get back in time to take a shower if she did.
She silently resigned not to count on it and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. Working late. Start without me, I'll be there as soon as I can. Lydia wasn't going to love that.
Leona stuck the phone back in her pocket. One word replies usually meant Lydia was busy, one letter…she's either entertaining the Prime Minister or she's angry. The apprenticeship was taking up a lot of Leona's time, and her friends were the ones paying the price. She couldn't keep bailing, and she knew that. Leona wondered if it was too late to call on that enchantress position. The enchantress' shop closed at 4, and really how much clean-up could there be? You could just enchant a broom to do the sweeping or freeze time while you did it.
The bus jerked as it rounded a corner into the old town. Leona pulled the yellow cord behind her, and the bus slowed to a stop.
The old town deliveries went well. She delivered two new love baths, a love maintenance tea, and a sexual encounter talisman. The orris root bath was gratefully received, by a woman in her late 60's. Connie was beautiful in that kind of jovial way. She had round cheeks and a lovely smile. Her shoulder-length hair had turned pure white, and it suited her. Leona imagined she knew a great deal about baking.
As Leona explained the instructions, Connie took notes and blushed a bit.
Connie spoke fondly of a man in her building, a widower named Joe, who lived two floors up. The postman mixed up their mail sometimes because his address was 4-2 and hers was 2-4. He was very friendly and kept a small dog. She gave Leona a coffee in a travel mug, she had a whole drawer full of the things, and a banana muffin. Leona's first bite of the banana muffin confirmed her suspicions: Connie knew a lot about baking.
With her coffee and her muffin, Leona dashed the tram. She smiled and wished Connie and Joe long-lasting happiness.
The city had electric trams, which for no apparent reason were made to look exactly like a city bus. It was a shame, there's something romantic and exciting about the words, “I'm going to catch the tram.” But there was nothing romantic or exciting about these electric trams. They slid along smoothly and without the noise of an engine were excellent places to gather one's thoughts. Which was nice, unless of course what you were thinking about wasn't very pleasant. Then it was probably best to take the bus and let your thoughts be drowned by the roars of a diesel engine and the hissing of air brakes.
Leona checked the time on her phone. It was five, and still a half hour before she'd be at Hacklemore Path.
She opened a message from Lydia. Tess is coming too. We're having apps at the Arms, 7ish. I will save you pickle spears.
She sighed in relief. Maybe Lydia was entertaining the Prime Minister after all. She sipped her coffee and watched as the world zipped by the windows. The sidewalks were lined with sleepy disheveled people. Men with ties in their hands and women with their heels in shopping bags, loafers on their feet.
Leona cast a glance down at her red hightop sneakers and felt rather underdressed. Her overalls and plaid were great for the shop and thanks to the hipsters, old town, but if she had known she was going uptown, she would have dressed up a bit. She's not sure who exactly might see her, certainly no one she knew, but she knew she was embarrassed to be seen.
Leona sipped the last of her coffee and closed the lid. She reached deep into the messenger bag for an empty freezer bag. She sealed the empty travel mug inside like evidence from a crime scene and being certain that it was properly sealed, placed the mug in her bag.
Her stop was approaching and as she raised her hand to pull the cord, she heard the ping and let her hand fall. When the tram came to a stop she got up from her seat and stepped off the tram.
Even the transit stops were fancy up here, complete with benches and bus schedules. The light posts were made to look like wrought iron and painted black. Not a single flyer was stuck to them. The sidewalk was mostly empty, save for a young woman walking a tiny dog. There were no shops, or restaurants, just lines of manicured hedges and stone gates.
Leona stopped at a gate flanked by two very large, rather fierce-looking stone elephants. The elephants scowled disapprovingly of her attire.
“93…," she read aloud. She continued down the way and opened her bag to retrieve the potion. She turned it over in her hand to read the label. It was another bath, she always thought of potions as things you drink, but so far it seemed that Ms. Victoria made more baths and powders to sprinkle on window cills more than anything else.
She tripped and dropped the potion, the bottle shattered. “Oh, no.” Leona dropped to her hands and knees trying desperately to put it back in the bottle. She took off her plaid overshirt and tried to blot up the precious liquid. It was of course a fool's errand.
A dark blue pickup truck stopped on the side of the road. The driver stopped and got out, “Are you all right?”
Leona looked at her bleeding hands and the blue glass scattered across the sidewalk. “I dropped a perfume bottle, I was looking at the elephants and…I tripped on, my feet I guess," she stammered. “I was just trying to pick the glass up.”
The driver of the blue truck gave her a side-long look, and rolled up the sleeves of his black gingham dress shirt, "Well, I think we can find something better for the job than your shirt." He stuck his head back into the truck and emerged with a small cordless vacuum. “You know, I laughed when the dealer told me this had a vacuum built into it. Didn't think I'd come across too many vacuuming emergencies, but you have proved me wrong," he crouched down and sucked up the glass of the sidewalk. It clanked against the inside of the canister.
“Thank you,” Leona whispered. “I just couldn't believe I dropped it. I was almost there.” She pointed to the gate just ahead, it couldn't be a dozen steps away.
He smiled a warm kind smile. Leona couldn't help but notice that his teeth were perfectly straight, “Let's take care of your hands, and then we can have you on your way.”
Leona sat on the grass while her rescuer traded his tiny vacuum for a first aid kit. He opened it and sat on the grass beside her. “You must think I'm very clumsy,” she grimaced.
“No, I don't. I think you dropped something.” He plucked a piece of glass from Leona's finger. His eyes were dark brown, focused, he removed a second shard. He took an alcohol wipe from the kit and cleaned her palms. “I think that's it now, Miss…”
“Leona,” she felt heat prickling her face. She was only now noticing that she was sitting next to a very large man on the grass with no one else around. He had twice retrieved objects from his truck. She felt very strongly that she was a letdown to self-defense instructors everywhere.
“Leona," he repeated. “A beautiful and unusual name, for a beautiful and unusual woman.” He brushed back his blonde hair, “Leona it's been a pleasure to meet you." He held out his hand and Leona shook it, “I'm Corbin. Corbin Fox.”