Not used to getting blog posts so close together anymore, are you, O readers? I'm sorry about that. These last couple months haven't been the best time for me. But you knew that, and I'm working on getting back on track, thanks to yesterday's news (YAY for working from home!) and a few other things that are making life easier to handle.
The title of today's Fiction Friday post means roughly "until midnight", but we're not following quite the same plotline as usual in this little story. Of course, this is me, so when did I ever do exactly what was expected of me? Except for my happy endings. I do tend to insist on those, though even they don't always come quite the way the characters, or the readers, anticipated that they would.
Please enjoy today's post, and here's hoping that the next time I put fingers to keyboard here on Anne's Randomness, it's with some good news about other forms of writing than just these little tidbits. Send encouragement, and thanks as always for reading!
Also, do let me know if you understand exactly what Asha is bargaining for in this story. Or if you don't. I'll give you a hint—they're all definitely things that students find very useful, or common augmentations to those things!
Asha drew her cloak more closely around herself to hide the holes in her skirt she hadn't had a chance to mend and splashed along the puddle-lined street, looking for the mortar and pestle hanging above a doorway which signified an apothecary's shop within. She'd never been to this part of town before, but it was here her godmother had told her to come, and she wasn't about to give up her chance of escaping her least-favored-daughter status at home for something as silly as going to the wrong shop for the necessary items.
"Amo, amas, amat," she murmured to herself, matching her words to her steps. "I love, you love, he loves. Amamus, amatis, amant. We love, you all love, they love." She shivered as a gutter sent a splash of cold water onto the top of her head. "Non amo pluviam. I do not love rain. Second conjugation. Doceo, doces, docet, I teach, you teach, she teaches..."
At last she sighted the small, thick-sided bowl and its matching round-ended tool, carved out of a block of wood, hanging above a door whose dull red paint had begun to peel. With a sigh of relief, she hurried to the door and pushed it open, ducking inside out of the rain.
"What do you want?" snapped a voice from the rear of the dimly-lit shop, which was filled with the sights and scents of herbs. Bundles and bunches of leaves and flowers hung from every rafter, bags and boxes crowded one another off the shelves, and locked drawers lined the back wall, in front of which Asha could now make out the figure of a small, bald, glowering old man seated on a tall stool behind a counter. "We're not a rain shelter, so if you haven't come to buy something—"
"But I have come to buy things," Asha interrupted. "Or at least, to trade for them." She adjusted her cloak to show a brief glimpse of sparkle. "My godmother sent me. Mistress Pepo is her name."
The old man straightened up on his stool, though Asha couldn't be certain whether it was the sight of what she carried or her godmother's name which had turned the trick. "Well then, well then," he said, rubbing his hands together. "And what might you be needing on this far-from-fine day, young mistress?"
"A supply of the leaves of the Cathayan camellia, to begin with." Asha cast her mind back to her godmother's lessons. "Then oil of bergamot and the roasted seeds of the bunnu plant, from the lands around the Inland Sea. And perhaps, if you can manage it, the dried liquor of the god's food bean, from the lands beyond the Sea of the Titan."
"Expensive things, all of them." The apothecary rubbed his thumb against his first two fingers suggestively. "Might I see closer what it is you have to trade, young mistress?"
With a silent apology to the spirit of her mother, Asha produced the first pair of items she had brought with her. "They're mine by right," she said, watching as the apothecary fingered the soft white trim. "But I have no place to wear them, and no time or strength to use them properly, not with all I have to do at home."
"And these things you're asking for will help you with your work, indeed they will, young mistress." The apothecary nodded. "Giving you that extra bit of strength, to carry on when you might otherwise fail. For these pretty things, I can get you a small supply of everything you've asked for. Perhaps enough for a month, or maybe two for the camellia leaves and the bergamot." Producing paper and a wood-mounted charcoal stick from under the counter, he began to write. "But if you should need more than that..."
"I may have another set to offer," said Asha slowly. "Trimmed a bit more fancifully than these."
"I thought you might." The apothecary chuckled under his breath. "Even sparkling glass would have its worth, but it's not glass you have under that cloak of yours, now is it?" His eyes widened at the shining stones ornamenting Asha's second set of bargaining tools. "Indeed it's not. Six months' supply of your goods at the least for these, young mistress. Perhaps a year, if I can negotiate a discount for such a large order. Have we a deal?"
"Put it in writing, and we have." Asha hid a smile at the industry with which the apothecary began to scribble, and laid her mother's diamond-set slippers on the counter beside the ones lined with squirrel fur. She would miss the shoes, but they had no power to help her stay awake until midnight to fit in a study session with Mistress Pepo after a day of housework, and the herbs and spices she was trading them for would do that very thing.
"Going to a ball in a pumpkin carriage and dancing one's way to a crown is all very well for the stories," her godmother had said the night before. "But provided one has an education, honest work is easier to find than an honest prince." She'd smiled, shaking out her wings. "Trust me. I've seen it time and time again."