Chapter Twenty Six
In Which Lucia Sets Out To Do Something That She Meant To Do A Long Time Ago
Lucia left the mansion in the early morning. The sun had not yet risen, and along with her mother's cloak, the scarcity of light was enough to provide cover. She silently shut the great wooden door at the front of the mansion and then paused for a moment, just to feel the wind in her hair. And then, she set off. Quietly, she crept further and further away from the towering stony walls that had so quickly become her prison. Step after step, out into the coldness of morning, she ventured. In all directions around her, purple clouds rolled along the horizon, creating the impression that the town was nestled in the protective barrier of some vast mountain range. But such cover would soon be gone as the sun climbed ever higher into the sky, and when it became bright enough, Lucia's attempt at a mask would vanish as well.
Therefore, she hurried. Down the road, and along a twisting side road. That was what John had said. Lucia patted her apron pocket for what must have been the hundredth time, and for what must have been the hundredth time, she felt the hardness and coolness of the dark green bottle that lay there.
From somewhere in the distance, Lucia heard a startling noise. She whirled around just in time to see a merchant dropping a heavy crate in front of his shop. Then the great burly man dusted off his hands and marched back inside. The door, despite one of its hinges so loose that it was nearly broken, wavered shut.
Lucia sighed. She felt her heart beating much quicker than its usual pace, and she had to remind herself that all would be right again soon. It would only be a matter of time until she reached the apothecary. Then, then, she told herself, everything would be sorted out. Although she wanted very much to pull out the strange green bottle that she had found in – and taken quite accidentally from - Princess Evangeline's room, she dared not to. Already, she had examined it all she could from within her own bedroom, and could determine nothing more than the liquid's physical characteristics. What she needed to know was its purpose. The label, surely, would tell of its effects on the human body, but seeing as Lucia could not read and had quite limited selection when it came to asking people who could, she decided that the apothecary would be her best choice.
To take her mind off the strange medicine, she patted the other object in her pocket; a bright, round apple. This she could take out and examine without fear. An apple, after all, was nothing suspicious, and its cheery red colour was a reminder of warmer summer days. It smelled delicious as well, and Lucia hoped that it would be suitable enough to serve its purpose.
Not having even a single coin to her name might prove problematic. Even though she had no intention of purchasing anything, she did not know if the apothecary might charge for explaining the purpose of any given substance. Just to be on the safe side, she selected the finest apple she could find. That way, Lucia decided, if the apothecary expected a fee, she could pay him with the apple. If he did not expect anything for his troubles, then Lucia would present him with the apple anyway as a gesture of thanks for his kindness.
Soon, she reached the edge of the main road. There, a smaller path pulled away and twisted off into the distance, just as John had described it. At the very moment that Lucia stepped off the main road, she felt a tremendous relief. Even though she was still very much a target of the prying eyes that would soon fill the street, at the very least, she knew she was on her way to somewhere safe.
This secondary road was made from thinner gravel. It was muddier, marshier, and much less convenient to walk on. It reminded Lucia of the roads in her own home village, and this thought made her feel quite homesick. Somewhere in the distance, a toad croaked. Lucia pressed onwards. Out here, there were more trees and shrubs, and fewer people. Tiny buildings were still scattered here and there, but the arrangement was nothing like the wall of shops and businesses that lined the main road. How different the world could become just by walking a few steps.
At long last, she reached her destination. She recognized it as a proper apothecary because of the many bottles that lined the back shelf, quite visible even from the outside, through the window. Bundles of herbs hung from the ceiling to dry. This building was larger than most of the others that Lucia had seen in this town, and it made her imagine what it must look like when it had a great many customers. Of course, she hoped it was quite a rare occasion that this place of healing was occupied to capacity, for that would be a terrible state of affairs indeed. Still, Lucia was quite glad that she had arrived so early in the day. Having love for all mankind was easy enough in an abstract and moralistic sense, but when those in question were the very people who had tried to murder you only a few days previous, one might find one's sympathies running dry.
But fortunately, that would not be an issue today. The building was vacant, save for the apothecary himself, who was only just settling in behind the counter. Through the window, Lucia could see that he was a slender, brown-haired man whose long limbs gave him the impression of tallness. It was hard to judge from such a distance, but he appeared to be of average height, and only seemed tall when he stood upon a stool and reached around in the highest cupboards. His long arms stretched out and retrieved a jar of yellow powder. The man consulted the label on this jar, then shook his head, and returned the yellow powder to its place in the high cupboard. He jumped down from the stool and foraged along a shelf. Soon, he came across an almost identical jar, but this one seemed to be precisely the one for which he was looking. Lucia began to realize that being able to read labels might actually be a beneficial skill to have after all.
The apothecary sat the jar down onto the counter and unscrewed the lid. As he did so, a small amount of yellow powder fell onto his leather vest and took up permanent residence in the creases of the material. The apothecary paid no attention to this, as he was busy tapping out a small amount of the yellow powder onto a scale. Now that he was turned facing the front of the shop, Lucia could see the look of youth on his face. If she had to guess, she would say he was no more than eighteen years of age. At this moment, Lucia realized she was standing outside for no reason. She pushed the door open – for a thick wooden door, it moved more easily than expected. Its hinges must have been kept in good repair, as they hardly made a sound as she entered. The only sounds inside the apothecary shop were the apothecary himself humming merrily and the jingling of the bell that hung above the door. Upon hearing this sound, the apothecary set down the jar of yellow powder, adjusted something on the scale, and greeted Lucia with a smile.
He reached under the counter and pulled out a floppy brown hat. In the hat's early days, its dome was covered in peaks of stiff fabric that have since worn down and fallen together. The apothecary gave the hat a shake, fluffing up the tired fabric, and he placed it on his head. It looked like a loaf of bread that had been repeatedly trampled upon, and its red-brown colour appeared bloody against his golden-brown hair. Still the man seemed quite happy to greet his customer while wearing it.
"Hello, there," said the apothecary. "How can I help you?"
The man's warm, rich voice sounded like sunshine. The way he stood reminded Lucia of her eldest brother. He was leaning slightly forwards, fingers spread above the countertop, but he only allowed the very tips of his fingers to make contact with its surface. Lucia very nearly slipped up and called him by her brother's name.
Instead, she merely bade him a good morning and asked if he could answer a question for her.
"I can," he replied. "I can and I did."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You asked me if I could answer a question for you, and I told you yes. So I did."
Lucia squeezed her eyes shut in a comical sort of exasperation. Her next-eldest brother had also made that joke with her numerous times. If not for her new surroundings, Lucia might have sworn she was back home.
The new surroundings, Lucia noticed, were quite interesting indeed. Save for the bottles made of glass and the measurement instruments made of copper, everything else in the apothecary was made out of different types of wood. Wooden floors spanned the space between wood paneled walls, they themselves interrupted by wooden support beams that rose to meet wooden rafters along a wooden ceiling. The overall effect made Lucia feel like a squirrel in a hollow tree.
It was then that Lucia became aware that the apothecary was drumming his fingers on the countertop while he waited for her to say something.
"Right," she said, snapping back to focus on the task at hand. She reached into her apron pocket and retrieved the bottle made of green glass. Gingerly, she set it down on the counter. As soon as she opened her hand again, she felt as though a weight had been lifted from her, in addition to the very real weight of the thick glass bottle.
"I would like you to please tell me what this is."
The apothecary cast a fleeting sideways glance at the item in question.
"It's a bottle."
Lucia blinked. The apothecary chuckled behind a poorly suppressed smile.
"Er… What I meant was…"
Lucia trailed off, wondering if perhaps she had asked the question in the wrong way. She had never dealt directly with an apothecary before and she wondered if perhaps there was a specific way of obtaining information. However, the apothecary was still laughing, and stopped himself only when he noticed the confused expression on Lucia's face.
"It was a joke," he explained quietly.
Lucia sighed. "You'll have to excuse me," she told him. "It's been a very tiring past few days."
The apothecary coughed to clear his throat. He straightened out his ugly trampled bread hat and then picked up the bottle to examine it in earnest.
"Where did you get this?" He asked. His tone was calm, almost monotonous, while he read the label.
Lucia did not know how to answer that question, and after a moment's thought, she replied as truthfully as she could by telling him, "I can't quite say."
"Well, it's a sedation solution," he told her. "A powerful one. I don't make anything like this here."
Lucia nodded and remained silent, hoping that this would prompt him to tell her more. It did. Unfortunately, all he told her was a list of herbs and alchemic solutions that might as well have been described in a foreign tongue.
"But what does it do?" Asked Lucia. "How does it work? What ailment is it used to treat?"
The apothecary silently read the label once more.
"Again, I'd like to know where you got this," he said. "I'd certainly explain it if I were administering such a treatment."
"I don't remember your face," he continued. "Are you from out of town?"
"Yes," said Lucia, grateful for a question she could answer honestly in a manner that would not arouse suspicion.
"So, in that case, did you get this from a different apothecary?"
Lucia debated saying she couldn't recall, although if this "sedation solution" were really as powerful as the apothecary said, then it seemed like the sort of thing that no one would forget.
"Please, sir," she said. "I just need to know." She wished terribly that she had a handful of gold or diamonds or anything more impressive than an apple that she might place onto the counter in exchange for more answers and fewer questions. Dishonest though that was, these were desperate times.
"Ah, well…" said the apothecary. He trailed off. He paced along his side of the counter, stopped only to absent-mindedly reach toward a corked blue bottle and pluck it off its shelf. He compared the two bottles side by side, and then returned the corked blue bottle to its place.
"Thomas," said the apothecary. He gestured towards the lettering on the sign outside his shop. "Thomas Dee, Apothecary, is what it says."
"I cannot read," said Lucia, who was beginning to feel exasperated. "That's why I need your help."
"Why didn't you say so?" Said Thomas Dee, Apothecary. He leaned over the counter, holding the bottle's label up so Lucia could see it. It was as though he thought that this would somehow help her understand what its wording meant.
"This is a sedation solution," he said, running his index finger below the large words. "It's a sedative, meaning it calms the nerves and sedates behavior. A little of this will calm a patient suffering from too much excitement, primarily, but it can also be used to treat anything from fits to ague to any number of ailments that were previously thought to be caused by demons."
"There's no such thing, I assure you. However, there are all sorts of imbalances that can be set right by this medicine. In severe cases, when nothing else will work, a larger dosage will put the patient to sleep so that nature can sort it out herself. All in all, it induces a more phlegmatic state."
Lucia nodded. "So, then, someone who drinks this medicine might be suffering from any number of ailments?"
Her heart sank. She was so sure that Thomas Dee would be able to tell her what exactly was plaguing Princess Evangeline.
"Drink it?" Thomas laughed. "Heavens, no, one should never drink this. The proper dosage of this medicine is tiny drops added to water, one little drop at a time."
"And what might happen if one were to drink a larger amount?"
Thomas' smile tightened into a straight and thin line.
"Never do that," he said, dropping all joviality from his voice. "Such a quantity can stop the heart."
"I see," said Lucia. She considered this information to be quite important, although perhaps not the most useful in relation to the matters at hand. Deciding to give it one last try, she asked him again,
"If you were to prepare this medicine for someone, what ailment would it be for?"
"Whatever the patient is suffering from, provided it requires treatment by a strong sedative."
"So, if you were to make one such medication…"
"But I did not," said Thomas. "I am terribly sorry, but you'll get better answers from the apothecary who initially made the solution. Having never met the patient in question, I'm afraid I can't give you more information."
Hesitantly, Lucia told Thomas she understood.
"If it helps," said Thomas, showing her a friendly smile, "it hardly matters what ailment the patient is suffering from, so long as they are receiving the appropriate treatment."
Lucia nodded again, wondering if her journey to this place had been for nothing. Sensing her disappointment but not the reason behind it, Thomas assured her she had nothing to fear.
"The patient is in good hands," he said. "That solution is quite difficult to make, so we can believe that he or she is being treated by a skilled professional."
"Yes," said Lucia. Already, she was envisioning her return to the mansion. She planned to slip into the oak room and climb through the secret tunnel, bypassing Claudette and reappearing in her room where she could sleep away the heaviness in her head. Lucia accepted the bottle from Thomas' hands. It felt colder and heavier than it did before. Before dropping the bottle back into her apron pocket, she retrieved the apple and set it on the counter before Thomas.
"What is this?" he asked her.
"It's an apple," she said with a hollow laugh.
"Well done," he said. "But why?"
"Please take it as a token of my appreciation," she said. "Thank you for your time."
"No, no," he said. "I never accept payment for dispensing information."
"As do I," he said, placing the apple into Lucia's hands. "Besides, I have an apple with me for my lunch, so I will be eating that one shortly."
"Shortly?" Lucia repeated. She whirled around to look out the shop window. Indeed, the sun had climbed nearly to the apex of the sky. "I've been here all morning?"
"Yes," said Thomas. "Time certainly rushes by when you're talking about medicinal properties, I always say."
Lucia groaned inwardly.
"Thank you again, Thomas," she said. "Please excuse my abruptness, but I must be going immediately."
Scarcely waiting for Thomas' reply, Lucia thrust the apple into her apron pocket and hurried out the door. Immediately, she regretted her haste, as she had forgotten to hide her face or check if there were any townspeople outside. She stopped in her tracks, startled at the sight of the small group outside the blacksmith's shop that sat between her and the main road. One of the townspeople took notice of her. He furrowed his brow as he looked her way, and then nudged the man standing beside him. The two conferred and nodded, and in a heartbeat's time, the entire group began to advance in Lucia's direction.