Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Wait for the color to change.
Antidotes were always the worst to make. Precise measurements, rare ingredients, finicky brew times. You couldn't even make them in large batches, lest the consistency in one part of the potion be different from another. Any one of a hundred factors could turn a life-saving elixir into an even more potent poison than the one it was meant to save you from.
Of course, that was just for your average anti-toxins. Basic stuff you might find around any town and village: snake bites, toadstools, nightshade, and rooksbane.
Then there was Chimera venom.
Crafting this one order had taken Asami most of the morning. Carefully dicing the wild garlic into equally sized cubes. Holding her breath as she powdered the dried nirnroot, praying that she not inhale too much of the dust the process created. Last thing she needed was to pass out and have to start all over again from scratch. The dent this had made in her supplies was bad enough, already.
Three dreadflies, two salamander legs, seven leaves of Everoak. A full half-unit of dragon bile! One mistake and she'd be set back a week's good business, just to break even.
Not that business wasn't good. Rather, it had been clipping along wonderfully all year. The end of the war in the east meant trade had started flowing, again. With trade came caravans. With caravans came exotic ingredients from lands beyond the mountains, travelers in need of her wares and services, and a few familiar faces.
Coin flowed, and so did stories. Men bragged of fights won and lost, women told of fierce beasts and cunning bandits. The merchants relayed memories of deserts and seas more vast than the brain could imagine. Adventurers spoke of dark dungeons, vile Lich's, and treasures immense enough that a bare fraction being hauled out to the light of day was enough to propel mere peasants to the rank of Lord.
And here she was, chin resting on her workbench, waiting for the liquid in her glass boiler to turn from yellow to amber. Too long and it would go completely gold, making it the world's most expensive laxative. Too soon and the acidity of the bile would melt right through the drinker's jaw. And the floor beneath them.
“Hah,” she sighed, brushing a strand of ebony hair out of her eyes. When it had worked its way out of her tie, she couldn't hope to imagine. Long ago her mind had went numb from boredom or the fumes. “I want tea.”
But tea would mean leaving her post, risking both her livelihood and her contract. Such a hefty contract. With just ten vials Asami would make enough silver to hire an apprentice. Someone to do these menial tasks for her while she experimented with new, fantastic ideas. Or, at the very least, watch the door.
Dingaling! The bell on the entryway chimed it's happy tune.
Customer? No, customers. The wood rattles on a second patron's arm as they hold it open when it swings back to its frame.
With practiced care, the alchemist turns her head so the breath of her speech wouldn't blow out the faint, even flame she had stoked, whilst keeping her eyes well fixed on the simmering liquid within. “Welcome to Alchemia Draconis, I'll be right with you!”
Brew faster, you stupid potion!
“No rush,” a familiar voice called back, bringing an instant smile to her lips. When she blinked she saw amber eyes, slicked back dark hair, and a little scowl that drove the other girls of Salney wild. The brothers were back!
“Yeah, we've got aaaalll day!” the younger told her, cheerfully. On his face, he likely wore that boyish grin of his. Every time they'd ever dropped by her door, he'd been smiling about something, all the way back to when they were kids.
“Just come on back,” the brewer instructed, noting how the bubbles had started their third ebb in the cycle. It wouldn't be long, now. “I've got something going that I can't leave on the burner.”
“Sure, be right there,” Mako answered for both of them, before talking in a more hushed tone to his sibling.
From the storefront, Asami heard the sounds of clinking bottles as her displays were shuffled to allow passage behind the counter. Still hadn't found the right place to put them now that they were filled with product. Didn't really help matters that she left out the back door most days. The little back-alley behind her was so much quicker to get in and out of than the crowded square out front.
It did make having guests just the tiniest bit awkward, however.
A thud, a clatter, and a thunderous crash followed each other in short order. Bo had just knocked something over. Again.
“Sorry,” the youthful adventurer apologized, sticking his head 'round the corner with a light tinge in his cheeks. “I tripped over the-” he flicked his gaze back over his shoulder for a second “I actually don't know what was in those. It's either the clotting herbs or the numbing tea.”
Asami sighed, unsurprised. If she had known the boys would be dropping by, she would have tucked everything away in a more organized manner. Just because she found it easy to get around, didn't mean anyone else did. “I'll just add it to your tab,” the businesswoman hummed, calculating what the cost of replacing both sets of medicines and the jars that held them. Neither would really change the total much. If she ever felt so cruel as to call in her friend's debt to her, she could comfortably retire on a decent sized farm in the country.
“You want me to clean it up?” he asked as his brother squeezed passed, flattening himself against the door-frame to avoid her pile of outgoing packages.
A coin flip in her mind. Risk further damage to her wares, or take the chance and avoid spending time she could better put to other, more lucrative, purposes. “You know where the broom is,” she decided, ever so gently stirring her mixture to remove the excess bubbles obscuring her view.
Wince. That persistent twitch in her brow returned. So long as it wasn't the potions. Anything but the potions.
“It's okay,” Asami groaned, pinching her brow. It wasn't like she didn't have enough to do today.
While Bo began to carefully pick shards of glass out of the smashed remains of her bestselling products, the Alchemist returned most of her attention to the antidote on her workstation. “So, what brings you two to my shop, this time?” she quizzed Mako, tension building as the shade of her payday began to subtly shift. With a gentle flip of her wrist, the Alchemist turned her minute glass over, letting the sand fall. When the last grain fell, it would be done. “Just a social call or do you want me to whip you something up?”
“Actually,” the swordsman replied, really sinking his teeth into the 'c' like he did every time he was afraid to pass something by her, “I was wondering if you might want to help us with a little job?”
Hmm, how long had it been since he had asked that? Ah, yes. Six months. The Merling incident. A river town infested by a hoard of terrifying fish monsters, so busy eating people's pets and livestock (and attempting to eat the villagers once those ran out) that they didn't notice a party of adventurers sneaking into their lair to destroy their eggs. Until they tried coming out, again.
The boys had come home more stitches than flesh, with barely enough coin in their pockets to cover that week's expenses.
Yeah, none of that, please. “I'ma go with no,” Asami hummed, slipping on her padded glove. “No offense, but getting eaten by goblins is really going to mess with my plans for the weekend.”
“What plans?” her old friend asked, a playfully accusing tone in his voice.
“Not getting eaten,” she revealed, lifting the rapidly cooling vessel and readying the little receptacles in a row. “Do me a favor and cork these,” Asami requested, starting the first, gentle, pour. It was a thick liquid, like sap or honey once taken from the heat. That in mind, it took exactly four seconds for each bottle, at the same rate, for the perfect dose.
Rough, maddeningly grubby, hands followed behind, sealing her payday from the air that would spoil it. “What is this stuff?” Mako inquired, once he'd completed the line.
“Chimera antidote,” the alchemist said, pouring the excess doses into a pair of less gaudy containers. Her client had been very specific: ten doses, no more, no less. Unfortunately, that meant she ended up with spares. Expensive spares. Spares she wouldn't be getting rid of until the next caravan came through. Only a select few locals had enough coin to buy for themselves such luxury, and she could count on one hand the number that would have need for it.
A hum of concern from over her shoulder. “Sir Bosworth giving it another go?”
Spin on her chair and nod. “He seems to be,” the potion-crafter sighed, sliding off her glove and tossing it to the side. “Can't imagine why, though. How many men has he lost at this point? A dozen?”
“Thought it was a score,” Mako hummed, lowering his head in respect for his fellow adventurers. Not all of them had died, but the wounds from such a monster rarely healed well, condemning the unfortunate soul to a half life of dependency and begging. “Did you try and talk him out of it?”
“Of course, but you know how he gets,” the green-eyed shopkeeper mused, letting her hair down.
Carefully, Asami gathered the bottles and packed them in a little box, padded by straw to keep them from shifting. Someone would be by later for the exchange. A box of silver for a box of medicine. Money for food, for help, and new books to line her shelves. Books that may contain that which she didn't already know. Odd brews from the Elven lands, or from times long forgotten. Beyond the Great Sea, if needs be.
Nowhere was far enough away, no language too hard to decipher. Any lengths to further her studies. So long as there was hope of a cure.
That task dealt with, she took a casual glance at her traveler friend. Taller and thinner than his brother, features sharper. Bright amber eyes, cunning and observant. Scuffs and smudges on his garments betrayed his profession, showing the hard life he often led, and the recentness of his return. Dried mud on his boots, poorly mended tear in his sleeve. On much of his exposed skin there were cuts at varying levels of healing. Some of the balm she'd given them for that very purpose could be seen on the more recent of his scrapes.
He looked… good. Better than she had expected. Apparently, the last job the brothers had taken up had ended rather poorly, with a rushed retreat from a crumbling tomb, which, ironically, saved them from the pursuing undead horde.
“Look,” he said, leaning on her workbench. His face looked determined, unwilling to let go.
Well, at the very least, I can humor him. “Looking.”
“We need an alchemist with us on this,” the swordsman insisted, hand gesturing with every word to express how emphatic his request was. “It's a simple thing, just a fetch quest for some rare herb. All we'd need you to do is identify it and keep it safe on the way back.”
Brushing a stray hair out of her face, Asami sighed. “Mako...”
“I know, I know,” her oldest friend apologized, bringing his hands up to hold her off. A common tactic of his. Trained into him during their younger years, when she would often force her refusals onto the brothers with fists. “You can't leave your mom. But, just think about it, okay? The reward for this is the biggest I've ever been offered, and the deposit is probably enough to buy that entire box you've got there.”
“I highly doubt that,” she hummed, pushing the order a little farther from the edge of the table when she heard the sound of glass scraping along the floor outside. It seemed Bolin had finally grown tired of eavesdropping.
Jingle, jangle of coins. Bag hefted from his larger pouch. More swollen than his usual purse, that was to be sure. But, by her standards, it looked to only be enough to pay for a modest bulk shipment, with a little extra for rush service. That assumption was turned on its head, however, when he drew the string and emptied the contents on her cluttered desk.
Gold glinted in the smudged light from the window.
Asami had seen gold coins, of course. Even been paid in them, from time to time. But never had she seen so many in one place. Twenty, thirty, she counted in awe. Forty, forty-five.
Fifty-two. Fifty-two Gold Crowns. As much as she made in a fortnight-and-a-half, if she was extraordinarily lucky. More than that precious morning’s work was likely to earn her, considering the old Knight’s habit of short changing her on the slimmest of grounds.
She did the math in her head. Actually, it was double her price. Over a thousand silver. Ten-thousand copper. Enough to buy a five-acre farm. Actually buy it. Not rent it off some stingy Lord or Baron for the rest of your life, only for your children to have to buy it again upon your death. And this was the advance. How much were they being offered for their work? Standard rate ‘round these parts for a big job was ten-percent.
“That,” he pointed, just as enamored with the coin as she, “is for ‘travel expenses’.”
Holy Mother. The thought of what she could buy with that amount of coin is exciting. Forget books, she could afford to purchase ingredients she’d only ever dreamed of. Do her own research, for once. Might finally make the breakthrough she needed.
No. No, she was needed here. “It’s a really tempting offer.” Eyes track back to the mound of coins against her will. “But, I’m gonna have to say no.”
“Oh, come on!” the younger brother calls from the front room, sound of the broom clattering on the floor. His head pokes around the corner, again. His face is almost comically screwed up into a frown. He’d always had the most entertaining and animated facial expressions. “You’ve gotta come. What are we gonna do? Bring old Jan along? Geezer’s got two bad hips and one good eye.”
“And he hates travelling even more than you,” Mako added, backing up his brother while gathering up their coin. Jingle, jangle, back into the bag that had spawned them.
The argument didn’t impress her. Rather, she only just managed to not groan at its weakness. “That’s because the last time he left town he lost an eye, and got thrown off a cliff by a rockslide,” the brewer deadpanned, grabbing her sealing candle and stamp. One quick strike of her flint later and the wax began to melt. “That’s how he broke his hips, or don’t you remember?”
By the look on their faces, they did. Once she had reminded them.
“Yeah, that’s something I’d really like to avoid, thank you very much,” Asami concluded, dripping some of the molten substance onto the seal of the box and pressing her makers mark into it.
An ouroboros, winged serpent eating its own tail. Unique, so far as she knew, in her craft. Dominating it were sphinxes, griffons, and all manner of chimeric beasts. You’d find the occasional oddball: a pisces here, a lion there, even the rare newt. But the Drake fit the name of the store her mother founded. The one she kept until the founder was able to take it over, again.
That, and it looked great on the banner outside.
“Sure you won’t change your mind?” Bolin asked, giving her his best pleading, puppy-dog eyes. It almost hurt to tell him.
“Yes,” she said, flashing the pair of adventurers an apologetic smile.
The brothers turn to silently converse with each other, like only family could. Little gestures and facial expressions fly back and forth. A couple hand signs she recognizes from her talks with wanderers, a few she doesn’t.
Shrugs all around and they return their gaze to her. “Well, if you change your mind, we’ll be down at the Broken Axe, spending a bit of this,” Mako offered, shaking his bag of gold.
Jingle, jangle. Each coin enough to buy everyone in the place a pair of drinks, or get a small party completely hammered for the next few days. She wouldn’t mind being a part of that for a while. Specially if the beer was free. Maybe even get herself some elderberry wine once the liquid bread started to turn her off.
“Yeah, see you around, Asami,” Bo chimed in, waving as he turned to leave. Hopefully more elegantly than he had entered. “Sorry ‘bout the herbs!”
Oh, thank the Mother.
“Don’t worry about it!” she called after him, not able to help the smile on her face. How could she stay mad with him? He was the closest thing to a younger sibling as she’d ever had. “I’ll just add it to everything else you owe me!”
Sound of boots rushing to the door, fleeing from the idea of losing his recent payday to her outstanding debt. “Sorry, can’t hear you!”
With the slamming of the door, he’s gone, leaving just the two of them. The elder brother shrugged, tucking the coinpurse away in his satchel. “You want me to pay for it?” he asked, tipping his head in the direction of the mess. “It’s the least I could do for taking up your time.”
Asami laughed at the idea. “You know I’m never, actually, gonna make you pay me back, right?”
“Just tell your dad you are?”
She smiled, he smiled back, awkward silence stretching out between them. The alchemist could tell he wanted to ask something else, or say something, at the very least. Then, his better judgement seemed to restrain him from forming the words.
Instead, he waved his hand in silent goodbye, making way to follow his junior out the front.
As he went, curiosity pulled at Asami’s brain. Her greatest failing when it came to these kinds of things. Never liked to say no unless she knew exactly what she was refusing. “Say, what herb are you two going after, anyways?” she questioned in as disinterested a voice as she could pull off. “Can’t think of many plants worth how much you’ve got there, let alone more than that.”
The swordsman shrugged as he passed through the portal to the shop proper, not even bothering to turn around. “Something called a ‘White Lotus’,” he answered, not seeming to grasp the severity of the words he spoke. “Apparently it’s tucked up in some old ruins somewhere here in Dirwen. Guy who hired me said it was worth any price.”
Yeah, and he wasn’t wrong, either. Alchemists have killed for far, far less.
The holy grail of alchemical ingredients. An actual, true panacea. Not the snake-oil peddled out by unscrupulous traveling salesmen, but a miracle made petal. More myth than fact surrounded the plant. Its size, characteristics, and genus were all in debate by most scholars. The only thing they could agree on was the flower itself.
White, purer than fresh fallen snow, with the faintest of sweet scents. A nondescript thing, the kind you wouldn’t think twice about passing on the roadside.
And, most importantly, rare.
Purged by overharvesting a dozen generations ago. Each plant blooming only once every century. Extinct, if any of her research was worth the hours, days, spent diving down the rabbit hole in desperation. Hope crushed by each dead end the investigations brought her. The most recent one she had heard of was found somewhere in Mondo just over two hundred years prior.
“Did you say a White Lotus?”
“Yeah,” the man replied, voice fading as he neared the street. “See you at the Axe?”
Blink dumbly, fall back in her chair, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. Mind filled with possibilities previously less than a fever dream. More madness than fantasy. “Yeah, sure,” she agreed, now truly feeling an urge to drink.
Before she can question him, the door swung wide with his exit, bell singing its merry tune. He was gone and she was left with nothing but her thoughts. The prospect of adventure, a world beyond the walls of home. Tall mountains, raging rivers, trees as tall as the sky. Fantastic beasts and elaborate magecraft, ancient castles and forgotten crypts. Excitement, treasure, glory, and who knew what else, waiting for her outside the Gates of Iron and down the Western Road.
And then, the bell chimed, again. Silly thoughts were brushed aside as a customer announced her presence.
“Are you in, Miss?” the little voice asked, that of Tina, the baker’s girl.
“Be right there!” the Alchemist promised, swiftly clearing off her desk. In her hands she gathered the likely cause of her presence. Bottles of herbs her father baked in his more special loaves and a digestive for his weak stomach.
Who needed adventure?
Who needed cure-alls that might not even exist outside the ramblings of the senile?
She was needed here, and plenty busy to boot.
That, and her studies could not, for a moment, be allowed to slip in intensity. Not if her mother was ever to be well.
Maybe after she’d found her cure?
Yes, maybe then…
But, for now, a trip to the Axe would have to do. Catching up and catching stories floating in the air from loosened lips. That would be enough adventure, for now.