The Apothecary’s Help

The human girl was getting annoying. She had been dithering in front of the stall without actually buying anything for half an hour, and I was beginning to seriously get tired of her. Collins looked even more harassed, but still managed to be polite as the girl leaned far over the counter and batted her eyes at him.

“Have you worked here long?” the girl asked, brushing her hair back and revealing a dark S shaped mark on her cheek.

Collins attempted a smile. “Yes, I’ve worked here since the shop opened,” he replied.

“Ooh.” The girl leaned closer and stage whispered, “So is he a real apothecary? You know, your boss?”

I resisted the urge to snort with derision as Collins answered her. “Yes, Ashton is a real apothecary, as you put it.”

The girl widened her eyes. “Is he scary?”

Collins snorted. “Absent minded? Yes. Annoying? Yes. Scary? No.”

“Oh.” The girl looked a bit crestfallen. “So why do you work for a scary magicker?” she asked, twirling a lock of hair and smiling slyly at him.

“Oh, you know, reasons.” Collins sounded a bit exasperated. He pulled up the hem of his shirt and pretended to wipe at something on his face. I saw the girl tense as she spotted the glossy black mark spiraling across his abdomen.

“Well, I better get going,” she said, suddenly aloof. “I wouldn’t want to distract you from your work.” She hurriedly turned and walked away.

“Finally!” Collins groaned.

“I was beginning to think you’d never get rid of her,” I said.

Collins gave me a reproachful look. “You could have helped, you know. The tent will stay up just fine without you leaning against that pole.”

“I’m sunbathing,” I said haughtily.

Collins glared. “My mother always told me how dangerous magickers were. And what sort of magickers do I meet? An absent minded but harmless apothecary and the world’s laziest blood-magicker.”

“I’m not lazy,” I protested. “I just don’t want to get beheaded because I flashed fangs at some flirtatious human twit.” I settled back against the tent pole and closed my eyes while Collins muttered something under his breath.

Ashton, the magicker apothecary that ran the shop, had gone out on some house call or something and left his human bondee, Collins, in charge of running the place. Chase and I had come into town a few days ago, and Ashton had let us stay at the shop since humans had this tendency to run away screaming when a blood-magicker showed up. Which wasn’t really a reason to avoid humans, but the problem was they usually returned, still screaming and wielding sharp implements. So, the village hotel had been ruled out as a place for us to stay on the off chance someone figured out I wasn’t totally human and decided to hold a stab-the-magicker convention.

Thankfully Ashton and Collins were friends of mine and had agreed to give us food and board at the shop. The only thing Ashton had asked in exchange was that I more or less be a hired henchman to go out and hunt down people who didn’t pay him for his goods. I didn’t know if he’d told any of his customers of this, or if most of them just didn’t want trouble with any sort of magicker, but so far the most strenuous job I’d had to do was hold up the shop tent—which Collins did not consider work for some reason.

An old man hobbled up the road between the merchant shops toward us. Collins must have known him, because he hailed the man cordially. The newcomer stopped at the counter and began discussing herbs and tinctures with Collins as the latter pulled stuff off shelves lining the inside of the tent and set them on the counter.

“Well, who’s this? Friend of yours?” the man asked in a gravelly voice. I flicked open one eye again and saw he was watching me.

“No, that’s our new tent decoration. Very lifelike, isn’t it?” Collins said.

“Very funny,” I growled, and curled my lip up at Collins, but he ignored me. He seemed to know the threat was an empty one.

The old human eyed me with more wariness as I pushed off the tent pole and sauntered over to lean against the end of the counter. “What are you, boy?” the old man asked me.

“Magicker,” I said noncommittally. The look the man gave me said he’d already figured that out. “Speaking of which,” I added before the human could say anything else, “I believe the master of the shop has arrived.”

The other two looked up to where a tall lanky figure was hurrying up to us with an assortment of bags and satchels slung across his body. Ashton Sinclair looked even more frazzled than usual, with his hair in a state of complete chaos as he rushed to the back of the tent and came through to stand behind the counter. Collins arched an eyebrow as Ashton proceeded to dump the contents of his packs onto the countertop.

“Been out shopping?” Collins asked.

“We were out of foxglove root,” Ashton said, pawing through the mess on the counter. “And I thought we might be low on some other stuff but I couldn’t remember so I got some just in case.”

Collins gave a long sigh. “Ashton, you’ve got enough stuff there to stock a whole new shop! And we weren’t even out of foxglove, we still have a whole jar full.”

Ashton blinked. “No we don’t. I looked this morning and I couldn’t find any. I searched the whole top shelf!”

Collins pinched the bridge of his nose, a sign that he was trying to keep his patience. “The foxglove has never gone on the top shelf. It goes on the middle shelf.”

Ashton frowned at his bondee. “I distinctly remember putting it on the top shelf last week.”

“Well that’s the first time you’ve distinctly remembered anything,” Collins replied. “And anyway, I was the one who put it away last so I put it where it is supposed to go. I even labeled all the shelves, because you swore that would help you find things!”

“Oh.” Ashton looked a bit deflated. “I guess you did. I…forgot.” Collins rolled his eyes.

The old man watched the squabbling pair with patient amusement, seemingly used to this kind of behavior from them. This wasn’t surprising, since Ashton and Collins seemed to squabble about nearly everything, especially Ashton’s memory.

Ashton suddenly broke off from his inventory of the items he’d bought and snatched up some papers and a pencil from the end of the counter and began scribbling furiously on them. He tore off the piece of paper he’d written on and handed it to me. “Here, I have an errand for you to run. Nitwit called Kleinman. He wanted some herbs to cure some digestive upset of his. I rather suspected it was something in his diet and didn’t really need my assistance, but, oh well. Anyway, the fellow won’t pay me. Said he didn’t have but a dollar when he came to get it, and still hasn’t paid me the other nine dollars after a month!”

I eyed the piece of paper with trepidation. “I take it you want me to go find him and procure the herbs then?” I asked.

Ashton nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes. The herbs are in a poultice form, and kept in a jar like this.” He reached over and snatched a dark bottle of something off a shelf.

“Ah.” I looked back at the paper in my hand, which apparently held directions to Kleinman’s house, although it was hard to decipher some of Ashton’s messy handwriting. With a sigh, I pushed off the counter and shoved the piece of paper into my pocket. Might as well get it over with.

People milled and eddied past me as I made my way toward the auctioneer’s platform in the center of the market square. Merchants selling everything from charm bracelets to cookware to children’s toys hawked their wares at the tops of their lungs, lending a general air of cheerful chaos to the market area. I managed to weave through the crowd until I reached the auctioneer’s platform, which thankfully was empty at the moment. I mounted the steps and went to stand under the awning that was meant to shade the auctioneer from the sun as he conducted business. A few curious passersby looked up at me, but soon wandered off. From up here, I could see over the heads of the people in the street, and the tops of the merchants’ tents.

I slid two fingers under the lightweight fingerless black glove I wore on my right hand and pressed my fingertips against the smooth surface of the mark on my palm. Before I had been bonded, the spiraling mark on my hand had been a dark grayish color, rough to the touch like skin with goosebumps on it. After I had bonded to Chase, the color had deepened to pure black and the texture became glassy smooth like obsidian. Marks even felt hard like rock, although when I flexed my hand the marked skin stretched and contracted just like normal skin.

Chase and I had also discovered that we could use the marks to communicate with each other after being bonded. If I touched the mark on my hand, Chase would feel the contact as though I had pressed my fingers against his own mark, and vice versa. We’d worked out a sort of Morse code to communicate using the marks when we were separated. I didn’t know if this ability was specific to bonds involving a magicker or if human to human bondees could also do it.

There were different kinds of marks depending on the sort of bonds one would form; the Ϩ (flipped S) mark represented female to male bonds, while female to female bonds got a ؏ (reverse 3) mark, and the Ꭷ (spiral shaped) mark was for male to male bonds. One could only bond to someone who had a matching mark, which was probably why the girl from earlier who had been flirting with Collins had left after he rather pointedly displayed the spiral mark over his ribcage.

A few things about the marks also seemed to be specific to either humans or magickers. For unknown reasons, the flipped S shaped marks were most prevalent among humans and rarely showed up on magickers. The other marks showed up in roughly equal proportions in magickers and humans, which was a good thing for magickers since they often preferred bonding to humans as opposed to other magickers.

Humans seemed to forget about this 50 – 50 ratio though, and were exceedingly suspicious of anyone without a flipped S mark. Because of this a lot of magickers (and humans) tended to cover their marks if they were around other humans; hence the fingerless black gloves I currently had on. Of course, sometimes trying to cover a mark aroused as many suspicions as it assuaged. A pair of gloves was nothing people looked twice at, but depending on where someone’s mark was, trying to cover it could get interesting.

When I had first met Chase he’d been obsessive about wearing long sleeved shirts. When he couldn’t find any or it was too hot out, he’d wrapped a white bandage cloth around his left elbow. Since most people did not wear cloth wrappings around their elbows, Chase had gotten questioned a lot about it until he finally gave up on the practice.

From my place atop the auctioneer’s platform I caught sight of a figure weaving quickly through the crowds in the market thoroughfare. Reaching the foot of the platform, Chase ran up the steps and looked around. Spotting me he came over, eyebrows raised in question.

I pushed off the support post I’d been leaning against and handed him the piece of paper Ashton had given me. “Apparently those are directions to the house of someone named Kleinman. Ashton wants me to go retrieve some potion he let Kleinman have because the fellow hasn’t paid up for it.”

“Hmm.” Chase looked the directions over before handing them back to me. “One question: If Kleinman hasn’t paid him for it, why did Ashton give him the potion?”

I snorted. “Absent mindedness and a good heart, I suppose. Sometimes I think it’s better to just do as instructed and not ask questions when it involves Ashton.”

Chase laughed. “Good point. So, are we going now? Or was there something else you wanted?”

I smirked at him. “I believe I could think of a lot of things in answer to that last question. But…duty calls. If we don’t clean up the Kleinman mess by tonight, Ashton might throw us out.”

“If he remembers,” Chase said.

“If he remembers,” I agreed.

“Very well.” Chase gestured toward the bustling market place. “Lead the way.”

*          *          *

Kleinman’s house (if I had read the directions correctly and it was his house) was more of a shack from what I could tell. The boards of the house were old and weathered, and it had a general air of being about to fall down. A few hens clucked in the yard, giving us suspicious looks as Chase and I walked toward the front steps.

Chase tested the worn bottom step cautiously with his foot. “This place seems pretty sturdy, for all it looks a mess,” he observed, eyeing the house warily as he walked up to the porch. I followed him up the steps until we both stood before a heavy door.

“What do you think we should do?” I asked, suddenly feeling nervous. I didn’t like barging into the house of strange humans, especially not when I was going to be demanding they give up something, even just a bottle of potion.

“Let me handle the talking,” Chase said, seeming to pick up on my mood. “You just do your usual slink around in the corners thing. And if things get nasty, steal the potion and run.”

I glowered at him. “I don’t slink around in corners like some sort of malevolent blood-magicker,” I complained. Chase sniggered. “Not funny,” I snapped.

He grinned. “It is too. But I’ll agree you’re not malevolent, or even mildly nefarious.” He stepped over and kissed me, making the mark on my hand itch as hot thrills raced through my body. “In fact, I think you’re rather sweet,” he murmured, stepping away.

I huffed indignantly at him, and he flashed another grin. “Come on, let’s go deal with some delinquent humans.”  Chase turned and banged the knocker against the door.

Footsteps sounded in the house and a few moments later the door was pulled open by a tall burly man with a distrustful expression. “Aye, what’d you want?” he growled, looking from Chase to me and back again.

“Are you Mr. Kleinman?” Chase asked, the picture of politeness.

“Yeah.” The man eyed him narrowly, his gaze catching on the sheathed dagger Chase wore on his belt.

“We’re from the Sinclair & Firth Apothecary shop, down in the market place,” Chase started.

“Hrmm.” Kleinman looked Chase over again, then flicked his glance to me. I didn’t have to read minds to tell he was trying to find a mark on one of us and figure out if we were magickers. I tried to look as innocent and un-magickerish as possible.

“There seems to have been a bit of a mix up over a potion you bought from Master Sinclair,” Chase continued. “My friend and I were dispatched to come clear up the matter.” Kleinman grunted again, still giving me a mistrustful look.

“Darling, who is it?” a voice called from somewhere in the house. It was followed by a buxom human woman in an apron with her hair in a bun.

“Couple of youngsters sent from that apothecary,” Kleinman replied sourly. The woman, apparently Kleinman’s bondee, looked us over.

“Why darling, let them in! It’s rude to keep visitors outside.” She beamed at us while her taciturn bondee scowled.

“Don’t you remember what happened last time we let strangers in, Bertha?” Kleinman demanded.

“Oh never mind that dear,” she said. Kleinman grudgingly moved aside a few inches and allowed Chase to walk into the house. Kleinman leaned in and glared at me as I passed him, and I had to resist the urge to recoil and hiss at him.

Chase was looking around the room we stood in as I stalked over to stand next to him. Bertha bustled about at a counter where various articles of food were spread out while Kleinman stomped over to a large wooden table and stood glaring at us. “Well, what’s your problem?” he snapped.

Chase again took the lead in the conversation. “I believe about a month ago Master Sinclair sold a potion to you on credit—that is, I believe you paid him a dollar then with the promise you would pay in full at a later date.” He looked questioningly at Kleinman.

I saw the flicker of movement as the man’s eyes shifted toward a spot on the counter before darting back to Chase. “What of it?” Kleinman demanded. “That slimy magicker want his payment, does he?”

“Do be polite, dear,” Bertha scolded from where she was industriously chopping something and mixing things into a pot. Kleinman ignored her.

A look of annoyance flashed across Chase’s face, but he quickly controlled his expression. “Well, considering that you have not had any contact with Master Sinclair since, that seems a reasonable request.”

Kleinman crossed his arms and jutted his chin out stubbornly at Chase, while I drifted toward the counter unnoticed. “I said I’d pay him,” Kleinman growled, “and so I will. When I’m good and ready!”

“I don’t think that’s quite how it works,” Chase said, an icy edge creeping into his voice.

“Yeah? Then how does it work?” Kleinman leaned away from the table to better glare at Chase. I paused in front of a row of bottles on the counter, reaching over to pick one up with my right hand.

“I believe one month is plenty of time to come up with nine dollars,” Chase snapped, his patience obviously fraying.

“Well I don’t!” Kleinman spat. His hand shot out suddenly and grabbed Chase by the left elbow. Chase flinched violently away with a yelp of surprise and pain. Hot stabs of agony raced up my arm from my hand. I whipped around and lunged at the human that had hold of my bondee, lips curling back from extended fangs.

There was one rule of magickers that no one broke, not even other magickers. Never mess with a magicker’s bondee. Never. Especially never let bare skin touch a bondee’s mark. For bonded humans, having a third person’s bare flesh come into contact with a mark caused excruciating physical pain to both bondees and usually ended with the third person getting a black eye. Such contact with a magicker’s bondee was a death sentence. Magickers don’t like pain, and they’re extremely territorial.

Kleinman released Chase’s arm, clamping a hand over his wrist and backing away as I stalked him, still snarling furiously. Blood dripped from Kleinman’s wrist where Chase’s fingernails had gouged deep furrows in his attempt to escape the man’s grasp.

“I don’t think that was a very good idea,” Chase said tightly, clutching his left arm against his body. I hissed at Kleinman for emphasis, making the man flinch. At least the stupid human had some modicum of self-preservation instincts. I stalked a few more paces forward, wanting very badly to sink my teeth into the bastard’s neck and rip his throat out. I usually didn’t have the same violent tendencies as many of the blood-magickers I had met, but I still had the instincts, and right now my territorial instincts were telling me this human had to die.

I felt a hand brush against my arm, breaking my concentration on Kleinman long enough for me to flick a glance over at Chase. His blue eyes stared into mine, warning me. Don’t do it. I glared back at Kleinman and moved another pace forward, putting my body between him and Chase. Kleinman glared back, his eyes challenging me, but I could sense he wasn’t going to get any closer to me. Not when I was staring him down with slit-pupiled eyes and bared fangs.

“Here now!” Bertha’s voice cut into the tension. “We don’t want no trouble. I’m sure deary didn’t mean no harm.” I glanced over at her and noticed she was holding the knife she’d been chopping vegetables with in a white-knuckled grip and was staring at me with hard eyes. Her hand was trembling though.

“Come on,” Chase said quietly. He put his hand on my arm again and moved toward the door. I hissed at him in annoyance. I won’t kill him, just bite him. He deserves it! I could have actually spoken, but it was hard to talk with my fangs down because I couldn’t close my mouth properly. Besides, Chase knew me well enough to read what I meant by my body language and vocal tone.

Chase glared at me and tugged on my arm again. I growled at him. You’re just going to let him get away with that? Chase tugged harder, and I reluctantly let him pull me toward the door, keeping my body between him and Kleinman.

“Good riddance,” Kleinman muttered. “And don’t you come back!” He took a menacing half step forward and jabbed a finger in our direction as he spoke. I struck at him, snapping at his hand with an angry hiss. The scoundrel jumped back with a yelp and stayed by the table as Chase yanked open the door and hooked his fingers though my belt. I hissed warningly at Kleinman while Chase hauled me through the doorway, slamming the door behind us.

I gave Chase a disgruntled glare and a final rebellious hiss. Most humans would have run screaming or cowered in a corner if confronted with an enraged blood-magicker. Chase just crossed his arms and glared back at me. “Would you calm down?” he asked. “I’m fine. And you know you can’t go around biting humans unless you want to get thrown in jail.” I growled half-heartedly, but I knew he was right. Unfortunately.

Chase turned and stalked down the porch steps. With a last glare at the house, I slunk down the steps and followed him across the yard. We walked in silence until we were out of sight of the house, me trying to relax enough to retract my fangs.

“The one thing that irks me is that we went through all that trouble and didn’t get the damn potion,” Chase finally said.

I reached out and caught Chase’s elbow, pulling him to a stop. Even with the thin fabric of my gloves between our marks I could feel heat fizzing up my arm, making my heart beat faster. I felt Chase shiver slightly, but he didn’t pull away.

“Did you see when I went over to the counter, with all those bottles?” I asked.

Chase blinked. “I knew you’d wandered over that way…” he said slowly. “Did you get the bottle of potion then?”

I grinned. “I didn’t have to. What makes an apothecary’s potions strong is mostly their power, not just the ingredients. I siphoned off the magic in the potion so it won’t work anymore.”

A grin spread across Chase’s face. “Viper, you’re amazing!” He threw his arms around my neck and kissed me. I didn’t argue with that statement. I just kissed him back.

Isabel Nee loves reading, writing, science, birds, and mythology. She sporadically practices archery, and is known to research bizarre genetic disorders which she then inflicts on her characters. Isabel has had prose and poetry published in elementia magazine and Showcase Selections ~ 2016. She is currently writing a YA fantasy novel, and hopes to some day become a professional novelist. Isabel lives in Kansas where she hatches chickens and (she would like to think) great ideas.

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