The Princess and the Apothecary by Melissa Basinger Green
Book 1 of The Perfect Fairy Tale Series
Chapter 1: A Plague of Mimic Rats
Years later, she would think of her leaving as the easiest part of the trip. She was able to get in, pack up her britches and loose shirts, one skirt and two dresses, just in case, some potions and ointments she had made up and a few other odds and ends she felt she would need, including all of the gold coins she had saved up, not knowing if it would be needed or not. She had stopped and contemplated the sword and shield she had inherited from Asher when he outgrew it, and finally grabbed just the sword, begrudgingly leaving behind the bulky, heavy shield. The note she left for her parents was very simple, and did not give away her real plans or direction of travel.
Dear Mother and Father,
I am sorry for my sudden departure, but I have come to realize that I need to pursue my own hopes and dreams. I love you both and my siblings dearly, but my future is not here, not in finishing school and not as a princess. Yes, I am also denouncing my Royal Title and all that goes with it. Do not worry, Emerille is going with me and, as you know, he will protect me with his life; speaking of which, since he will no longer be in the Eastern Forest, you need to add extra patrols to keep the ruffians and bandits from entering our kingdom. When I am at my destination, I will write and let you know where that is. Please do not come after me, as I will not return.
Your Loving Daughter,
The servants were so used to her coming and going from the forest with miscellaneous items, none of them did more than give a quick bow or curtsy and go about their business. That was just one more thing that Gabi would not miss, she hated being bowed and curtsied to. Emerille and Amerin were waiting for her at the forest’s edge, and they quickly relieved her of her baggage, even though she protested. Finally she sighed and gave up, knowing that she would just fill her arms again once she was finished in her little hidden valley.
In the valley, which Amerin was so impressed by that he quickly searched every nick and cranny, she packed up the rest of her medicinal supplies and the one skirt she had stored there earlier. Once it was all packed up into easy to carry bundles, the three, with the horse following and loaded down with the bundles, set off for the trek to the cabin where Amerin was staying.
Though it was late when they got there, Steph was still up waiting for Amerin. He was tickled to see Gabi, his green eyes wrinkling up even more than usual. “Gabi! It has been a while, and you have grown up!”
“Thank you,” Gabi gushed as she gave him a bear hug, “sorry I was away for so long, my parents threw a fit when they discovered that I was traveling this far away, even though it took me far less time to travel it than most people. Emerille has always known all the best short cuts. When they started sending the soldiers to follow me, I knew I had to quit wondering so far away. Anyway, how are you doing?”
“I am great, though I will miss my apprentice now that he is leaving me. So, what are you doing here and so late?” His gentle voice gave that question a hint of curiosity with no accusations or judgements attached.
“I am going with Amerin that is what I am doing here.” Gabi put bluntly. “Actually, Emerille and I are both going with him. It sounds like the dragons he is going to help have a problem similar to Emerille’s, so I think we might be of some help. Also, my parents are now trying to send me away to Mother’s Maiden and, if I am going to go away, it will be to go where I want to go and do what I want to do.”
“Ah,” Steph admonished, “That is not always true, but I will admit that Mother’s Maiden is the last place I would want to see you sent off to. As for your choice in company, I greatly approve. Amerin is a wonderful gentleman whom I know will take good care of you and Emerille is formidable enough to satisfy even the Cloisters idea of a permissible chaperone.”
The relief washed over Gabi, this was one worry that she had, that Steph would put a stop to their plans. “Thank you.” She replied. “Now I just need to convince my heart that I am making the right decision.”
Steph’s wrinkled hand took hers in a comfortable hold as he said, “My dear, you have been coddled and protected your whole life, yet you have a spirit that needs to fly. Most people would be thrilled by the gilded cage that holds you, but you can only see the bars keeping you in. Emerille will protect you, and Amerin will teach you all that you thirst to learn. My old bones tell me this is the right decision for you. Now, let us go in, warm up by the fire, and eat some porridge. We can squeeze Emerille inside with us and discuss medicine and dragons until we are all too tired to stay awake.”
With that, the four of them retired to his cottage and feasted on a simple, but hearty, meal of porridge and warm bread. They settled down by the fire-discussing dragons, allergies, and medicines until they all drifted off to sleep, Gabi resting in an overstuffed chair with her feet propped on Emerille as he curled around the chair with his head pillowed in her lap. She had expected to not sleep well that night, but actually slept deeply and dreamlessly, waking early with the sun, ready to go.
After a simple breakfast of fruit and fresh, warm goat’s milk, the four of them walked to the carriage house, a long, low building in the center of town. The sounds of the blacksmiths and woodworkers were already filling the crisp morning air as they entered the building and set eyes on the newly finished carriage of which Amerin was so proud. He had used most of this money earned as an apprentice commissioning a carriage that was perfect for a traveling apothecary. It was about twice as large as most carriages; the very back of it a tiny room with a small sitting area with benches and a table fastened to the floor. Behind that was a long, thin aisle with one side completely covered in drawers. Inside the drawers were pigeonholes that held all sorts of vails of liquids and powders, each one carefully labeled. Along the other wall were nothing but scrolls and books, all strapped in so they did not fall should the road be rough. Gabi stood in the middle of the carriage, looking in wonder at the titles and knowing she would not be bored for a long time with this at her fingertips.
Amerin stepped past her and opened a long, thin door at the end of the aisle, showing her a cupboard with just enough room for a soft mattress for sleeping. “Here is where you will sleep, and the door locks from the inside, so you should be safe enough. And above it,” he opened the doors above that cupboard, “here is storage for food and cooking pots and linens.”
Gabi looked at him, perplexed, “Oh, but where will you sleep?” She inquired.
He grinned back at her and asked her to step back to the table. He then leaned down and pulled out a long drawer at the bottom of the bookshelves and it contained another mattress, making the aisle into a bed for him. “I thought I might end up with company on the trip, so I had them add this to the design. This way, if anyone should try to get to you, he would have to go through me first. “Oh,” he added, “and should you need a quick getaway, here are two escape hatches in your sleeping chamber.” He closed the drawer, re-opened her cupboard and showed her the latches that kept the escape hatch closed and locked on the inside, but provided an escape out either side of the carriage.
“This is perfect!” Gabi exclaimed. “You thought of everything.”
Amerin beamed with pride. “Since both of my parents are apothecaries, I have been planning this carriage for many years. I even sent the plans back to my parents and they are planning to have one built for them, too. I also have a special name for it, I call it my Apothecarriage!”
“Apothecarriage?” Emerille questioned from the door, since he was much too large to fit inside it. “Oh, I get it, a carriage for apothecaries, an Apothecarriage!” He finished by laughing until he was gasping for breath, his long frame jiggling to and fro. This led to all of them having a fit of laughter, since the sight of a dragon laughing is quite humorous.
When they had finally collected themselves, they quickly packed up the items Gabi had brought with her and hooked the two mules up to the carriage. Gabi had inquired as to why they did not use horses, but understood as soon as they started moving, as the carriage was almost too heavy for the mules, and would have been impossible for all but the largest of the horses. Their leave taking was almost non-eventful, as the only person to see them off was Steph, who patted the mules with affection and waved them off with barely a word, in a hurry to return to his hut and, more than likely, at least one patient waiting for treatment.
“So, are we going through Maroland and taking a ship across to Druentea?” Gabi asked as they headed down the road out of Harmony Village.
“No, we are going the long way.” Amerin replied, “First, we will be going to Calwood City to see my parents and pick up a few more supplies, then we will head south to the Raging River and follow it to the Vatan Sea. We will not be going across the sea by ship, though, as taking the apothecarraige and mules on the ship would be too dangerous. Instead we will go around the sea and the Dragon Breath Mountains. I know that sounds like the long way, but it will keep us out of the summer heat of the North. It will also take us through many of the smaller villages and the more villages we go through on the way, the greater chance we have of being able to help with sick animals, and securing our reputation for the next villages.”
“Oh, I should have thought of all of that.” Gabi suddenly felt sadness wash over her, reducing her excitement. “I wish I could have said goodbye to my family, but I know that would not have gone well. Father might have been okay with this, but Mother would have a fit! I could see her now, weeping and pleading with Father to make me stay. The twins would be sabotaging the Apothecarraige and my sisters would all be attempting to switch out my clothing for fancy dresses! Why can’t I just have a normal family?”
Amerin laughed, “You do have a normal family, Gabi, just as normal as any family. The important thing is, do they love you? From what I have heard, I believe your family loves you very much. They may not understand you or support the decision you are making, but only because they fear for you. One day, though, they will come to, if not completely understand, then at least to accept that you are not like them and must forge your own path.”
Gabi gave the man a thin smile; not sure she believed what he was saying. Nor did she answer, instead she just watched the fields and trees and farms slip past, feeling the wooden bench bounce along beneath her. This carriage had a leather lap belt, due to the front seat being so high off the ground, and she worried the belt with her hands until they hurt. Finally, she gave up thinking about her family and started asking Amerin questions about the potions and tools he had and how to use them. Since this was a topic that interested both of them, it carried them all the way to Calwood City.
Emerille had spent the day drifting among the clouds above them, but as night moved in, he flew lower and lower until just before they entered Calwood City. The thump of him landing on the roof of the carriage caused Gabi to jump with a startled gasp. She turned to glare up into the glowing, amber eyes of the dragon perched like a spoiled cat above her. “Emerille, please give us warning the next time you do that!” The deep chuckle emanating from Emerille’s throat vibrated the carriage.
Amerin chuckled beside her, also, and added, “If he warns us, he won’t get the reaction he is looking for.”
Gabi glared at him, too. “I bet the citizens of Calwood City will be just thrilled that there is a large red and purple dragon riding on top of a carriage through their city.”
“Actually,” Amerin stated, “they will not be surprised at all if they recognize me. I have always been rather known for dragging around odd and, sometimes, dangerous animals. Since my parents own one of the largest apothecaries in town, many people figured out that I cared just as much for the animals as my parents did for people. My mother told me that many of them were disappointed when I moved to Harmony Village for my apprentice work.”
Just as Gabi was about to respond, the mules came to an abrupt stop in the roadway. Ahead of the carriage in the middle of the dark street was a large, fat, green rat. He stared at them for a moment, chattered his teeth at them, then, in a high pitch, squeal, yelled, “That’s my red ball! My Ball!” As it ran off into an alley beside them, they could hear it still yelling “Mine, mine, mine!”
The trio sat for a moment, just staring at the spot in the road where the creature had been. Amerin finally stuttered out, “What is a Mimic Rat doing in Calwood City?”
Emerille tapped his claws on the top of the carriage and answered, “Well, that is a new dilemma for us, isn’t it?” His thick, scaly eyebrow raised up in thought, “I wonder if that was a one-time incident, or if this is an ongoing problem?”
“Well, if it is a problem, my parents have not informed me of it.” Amerin stated. “We are not far from there apothecary, so I have a feeling we will find out soon, though.”
The next fifteen minutes, as they made their way through the darkened roads around the edge of Calwood City, they were stopped twice more by mimic rats, one screaming about someone looking at him and the other simply crying like a baby. Both times, Gabi felt the hair on her arms rise up and gave a little shiver down her back.
“Creepy, I know.” Amerin stated after the third rat. “I bet every mother of small children is about ready to go insane. Fortunately, though, this is my parent’s place, so no more rats bothering us and hopefully, we can find some more information about this pestilence.”
They rolled under an archway into a large courtyard. The stone house to the side was lit up with candles in most of the windows and, as they came to a stop, people started pouring out of it. Amerin quickly secured the mules and then turned to greet his family, as Gabi stayed put on the carriage bench. Emerille leaned over from the top of the carriage and rested his chin on her shoulder. His warm breath gave her comfort as he spoke in a low voice. “I am so happy you chose to come on this trip, Gabi. I think we both were starting to grow moss inside. Dragons need to be moving and I sometimes think you are part dragon, too.”
Gabi smiled, reached up and scratched under his chin. “I’m glad I came, too. If I am part dragon, though, it is your fault.” She scratched once more along his jaw line, then moved out from under him. “We’d better climb down and meet his family before they think we are rude.”
Gabi was used to crowds, so she was not shy about meeting Amerin’s family, even though there were more people around than could possibly be in one family. Once they got sorted out, though she realized that Amerin had a large clan for support. He was the oldest of eleven children, but there were also household servants and their families, who were obviously as close as family members themselves. The whole estate, though it reminded her more of a small castle, was home to a total of forty-five people.
She soon had his siblings names floating through her head; Rowan, Maddie, Brechet, Henley, Bain, Callon, Ainsley, Sula, Ezra and little Dalten; the youngest at age three and completely, adorably charming. He immediately latched onto the edge of her britches and, with one thumb in his mouth, and big brown eyes that held her captive, refused to leave her side until he had to go to bed. Dinner, which had been held for them with the exception of the youngest kids, was a noisy affair with fun and laughter making it last longer than usual. Gabi was far too preoccupied with the older kids to get a chance to talk to the adults.
Finally, it was time for the youngsters to head to bed and the older siblings and adults all retired to a front sitting room, where a fire was lit and comfortable chairs were provided. Amerin did not wait long to bring up the mimic rats.
“Those rats are a nightmare!” His sister Sula replied after his inquiry. “They started appearing at the beginning of the planting season and have nearly driven all the mother’s insane. Do you know how difficult it is to concentrate when you keep hearing your children’s voices arguing or crying from various locations?”
Amerin’s mother, Ameria, walked in as Sula was speaking and threw her hands up in the air and sighed, “Those silly rats! At least we have enough hands here that we can assign someone to each child so we know when to be concerned or not. But all the poor mother’s without this much help, they are ready to pull their hair out!”
“And all of the usual methods of ridding yourselves of rats are not working?” Amerin questioned.
“No, none,” replied Sula. “They even tried tripling the size of the Rat-a-way candles, but they just don’t work. And inquiries to other cities and kingdoms have not found any infestations of Mimic Rats.”
Emerille, whose head was snaked through a window and resting on a chair snorted out, “Mimic Rats hate lavender.”
Everyone in the room looked confused until Gabi repeated his words. “Mimic Rats hate lavender? Is there much lavender planted around here or used in candles?” The second question was for Ameria.
“No, the queen spoke out her distaste for lavender several months ago, so it has quite gone out of fashion.” Bain replied, leaning forward and studying his nails. “In fact, wasn’t it about that time that the Mimic Rats started entering the city?”
“Well,” added Sula, “it looks like the queen will just have to get over her distaste for lavender.”
Ezra snorted at that, “Hmm, since my betrothed’s family makes candles, maybe they can profit off this interesting information.”
With a general noise of consensus, the talk then turned to the trip that the trio were leaving on the next day, with a question from Amerin’s father. “So, how are you going to make this trip with a rather large dragon going along?”
Amerin smiled, but Gabi quickly jumped in to answer, “That’s easy, Emerille flew above the carriage for most of the trip here, only coming down in the evening to join us. He also hunts on his own, so we are not burdened with feeding him.”
“Ah, so now I am a burden, eh?” Emerille replied, allowing just a tiny puff of smoke to slip out and drift her way.
Gabi quickly batted the smoke away and reached over, hugging Emerille’s long neck. “Of course you are not a burden. It just takes a lot to feed you, is all.”
When she turned back to the room, all the women were looking at her like she was an adorable kitten. Ameria smiled and asked, “So, how did you and Emerille meet? Since humans and dragons tend to avoid each other on this side of the world, unlike on the Eastern side, your relationship with Emerille is quite well known. I have heard several stories about how you two met, but I would like to hear the real one now.”
Amerin snorted, “Quite well known, you mean quite scandalous, don’t you, mother? Not that any of you would look down upon it, but I have heard the snide remarks. I don’t agree with them, by the way,” he addressed Gabi and Emerille with this, “I think we would do better off to befriend the dragons myself, but who listens to me? Anyway, I also want to hear this story.”
Gabi, settled into her chair and thought for a moment about how to start the tale. “Well, I guess that story begins similarly to yesterday, with me being mad at my parents and running off to the forest.”
“Why the forest?” interrupted Bain, “Most of the girls I know would rather be anywhere but the forest.”
“I don’t really know,” Gabi shrugged and stared into the fire, “I always felt safe in that forest, like it was one place I could just be myself. When I was young, seven or eight, I would barely get far into the trees, staying within view of the castle and grounds, but by the time I was nine, almost ten, when this occurred, I had started going further into the woods. I don’t even remember what I was upset with my parents about, but I had run into the forest, crying and not paying attention to where I was going.”
She looked up at Emerille and he carefully added, “And I was sitting in the middle of a clearing, crying myself, because I was broken out in hives and itching all over.”
Gabi laughed, “And I ran right into him. He was about half the size he is now, so about the size of an ogre, and I just hit him and bounced back, landing on my rear end in the dirt.”
“We were both so surprised, that neither of us thought to be scared.” Emerille stated.
“I immediately jumped up and tried to comfort him, not knowing, of course, what was really going on.” Gabi added.
Emerille chuckled, “That was before I could speak human, so we did a lot of pointing and pantomime that first year. Gabi was so patient with me.”
“What did your parents think, Gabi?” Ameria asked.
“Honestly, they didn’t know for over a year. They had heard rumors that there was a dragon in the woods and kept trying to keep me out of them but I would not listen. Then one day my brother, Asher, was in the woods returning home and he heard me talking to Emerille and came to investigate. He was amused, but he still told on me. My parents tried to forbid me from having anything to do with “that dangerous creature” but I just snuck out and visited him anyway. Finally, they just gave up, or so I thought…” Gabi trailed off into sadness as she remembered her mother’s words from the day before.
Ameria reached over and patted her shoulder. “It’s never easy when a child takes a different path than the one their parents envisioned for them. But I am sure that your family will come to accept your choices soon enough.”
Ezra chimed in, changing the subject once again, “Amerin, I hope you are not planning on being gone for too long, Bain’s wedding is less than a year away and we need your help making sure we get him and Lizzie married off correctly.”
Laughter and chatter filled the room then as talk turned to the upcoming nuptials. Amerin was quick to assure them that he was hoping to be back in the early spring, leaving enough time to participate in the ceremonies.
As the talk continued among the men of the family, Sula motioned to Gabi to follow her. Once out of the room, she turned and confided, “I thought maybe it would be time to sneak out and let the men discuss whatever they discuss when we women are not around. Plus, from the circles under your eyes, I imagine you are looking forward to a good bath and a nice bed.”
Gabi agreed wholeheartedly and followed Sula up the narrow steps to the large room the girls slept in. Though there were only three girls in the Lecarze family, the room held eight beds, with six of them being taken at that time. In whispers, Sula explained that the other girls in there were daughters of the people who worked and lived with them and were as close as sisters. Once in the bathing room, where they could talk more freely, Sula explained that her mother had never taken with the idea that the family was better than those hired by them and had included the children in tutoring and made her own children help with the chores.
They were soon joined by a few of the other girls and talk turned to rumors and gossip. One of the biggest discussions was that of the sudden betrothal of Sir Dunston and his beloved Anita just the day before. Gabi was relieved to hear nothing about what had occurred to them in the forest and she hoped that it would stay that way.
That night, as she lay listening to the other girls sleeping, she thought back and realized that the encounter in the forest was only two days before, though it seemed a lifetime away. She wondered what her family was doing at that time and if they were looking for her. She suddenly felt her throat closing and her eyes tear up, so she buried her face in her pillow and made herself think about what she needed to do to prepare for their departure the next day.