The carriage driver pulled the reins hard, making the pair of gray stallions stop moving in an instant. “We are here, m’lady!” he called to me inside. I pushed open the carriage door and stepped down, gathering my skirts as I stepped into the cobblestone street. I gave the stallions a gentle pat on the withers, and gave two guineas to the driver. He bit them, nodded, and flipped the reins, forcing the stallions forward. I took in a deep breath as the carriage rolled down the busy street, steeling my nerves as I stared into the dingy windows of the small apothecary building, the only one still in town.
I stepped inside the doorway, the chime of a bell sending a small clockwork contraption whirring and tinging. It was the only cheerful sound in the stifling silence of the shop, which had become nearly overgrown with all kinds of foliage, most tropical in origin. My heels clattered against the smooth slate floor, echoing and then fading into the eerie quiet.
“Hello?” I called into the back of the store, my voice loud and bold despite my trepidation. Cobwebs clung to the corners of the walls, netting across various plants. I continued walking forward, my heart in my throat.
The druggist was seated in a darkened corner of the room, goggles on for safety as he fiddled with a mechanical contraption—it was supposed to grind leaves and dried herbs into a fine powder much better than any mortar and pestle, then insert the powder into dissolvable capsules.
I felt something soft brush against my ankles as I walked toward him. I paused and stooped down, expecting to pet a cat.
I nearly fell backward in shock and shrieked as an immense tarantula skittered across the floor and hurried under a miniature canopy of ferns and mosses.
The druggist stood, let out a loud, disappointed sigh, and removed his goggles. He turned around to see who had stumbled into his shop, and folded his arms across his chest, shaking his head.
“You scared Horatio!” the druggist tsked as he approached. He was short and of slender build, with a strong jawline, amber eyes, receding wispy brown hair and brown muttonchops. He wore a long-sleeved pinstripe shirt with a waistcoat, and suspenders held up a pair of tan pants which ballooned at his leather boots. He raised an eyebrow at me, and retrieved a pair of reading glasses from inside his waistcoat, grumbling as he took my paperwork. “So! What ails you, eh?”
The tarantula had decided it was safe to continue crawling across the floor, its legs delicately needling across the cold slate as it made its way through a patch of sunlight where I was once standing.
I smoothed my dress nervously, my gaze falling to the floor rather than meeting his. I nodded, and he stared at me, trying to meet my eyes.
“Bouts of mutism, refusal to meet a stranger’s stare,” he read my writing as best he could. I felt tears spring to my eyes as he continued to read aloud. “Connection to animals and plants rather than people,” he went on. “Well, that much I can agree with,” he grunted sympathetically as Horatio skittered up his pant leg.
I had become fixated on a hanging fern’s leaves, marveling at how they faded from a light translucent green to a darker emerald, even in the poor light the musty windows offered.
“Peculiar fascination with sounds, especially music,” the druggist read on. A distant set of chimes rang out, announcing the hour like a miniature bell tower, and I smiled. He smiled, too, still eager to meet my gaze and make my acquaintance proper. I met his eyes for an instant, and then quickly looked away, turning, my dress swirling with the movement. “Easily distracted, only takes direction if given…gently…”
Here the druggist paused, and the tarantula had finally reached his shoulder. It perched there obediently.
“And I need clear instructions, too,” my voice cut through the awkward silence.
“Hmmm!” the druggist scratched his dimpled chin, his eyes alight. “Any difficulty in other faculties?”
“No,” I replied. “Well…I mean, I am a bit clumsy, and my thoughts can become…macabre at times…although my schoolmasters always labeled me as smart, perhaps too smart for my own good!”
“Hmmm…” he turned around, heading back toward the corner where his workbench was located. The tarantula ambled off his arm and made its way toward a dark nook. “Well! I think I have something that might help!”
The druggist removed his goggles, set them down on the bench, and turned toward me, smiling, with the contraption he was messing around with in his gloved hands.
He pushed a button on the back of the brass cylinder, and a small door on a hinge swung open, revealing a small, neatly filled green capsule inside.
“The outside world is a dangerous place, my lady,” he offered the capsule to me as if he were a knight in waiting, bowing slightly. “Taking this might assuage your fears in finding that future husband of yours, hm?”
I removed the capsule, took the flask filled with bourbon that he offered as well.
“The following plants and fungi are within: Syzygium aromaticum, Liquidambar orientalis, Ginkgo biloba and a touch of Poria cocos with Cinnamomi ramulus.”
“Ummm?” I asked, confused. The druggist smiled. He went over to his workbench, dipped his quill in ink, and wrote up the amount due in a dramatic flourish.
“That will be twenty guineas, please!” he handed the paperwork with the scientific names scrawled on it back to me. I handed him my coin purse, sighing deeply. “Pleasure doing business with you!” He offered a hand for me to shake. I tilted my head, and he did the same, realizing I couldn’t decipher the proper social cues.
I hope this concoction works…I thought as I sipped the flask, waiting for the carriage to return outside the shop. The party is tonight, by the mausoleum…