Magic is a fickle entity. It exists as abilities scattered throughout the population of Haiathiel. Mine was a gift I never wanted. Still, I never would have discovered it if that man hadn’t come to Master Aturia for help.
My master built her cottage on acres of mixed swamp and forest. There the rarest herbs and fungi grew: a great resource for a doctor of her skills. Years of research unearthed thousands of plants with medicinal uses, and as her apprentice, I decided to carry on that knowledge into the future. Well, that had been the dream anyway.
That day, I hid inside wooden walls with a summer breeze for company. Master Aturia left me to attend to a tincture while she collected supplies. Occasionally, when distracted by a finding, she would leave me alone for days, but today, I didn’t like how long the routine errand was taking her.
As if my uneasiness had invited trouble, a sudden slam shook the sturdy walls of the cottage. An animal? Or a thief? The stone pestle between my fingers had slipped, splashing the alcohol extract of tinin in the ceramic mortar. I stood to dab at the black liquid splotched on the worktable and then froze at the sound of breaking glass. Someone, something was determined to break into the cottage. The place only consisted of three rooms, all furnished to a minimum. Not worth the trouble of stealing from.
“Master Aturia?” I wondered if the noise was her returning home to trouble. Walking through the compounding room, I ignored the bundles of colorful plants hung from the ceiling. Most of the time, I would pause to review their names and properties.
Now annoyance made me stalk to the kitchen to open the door. Its inner glass lay in pieces under the feet of a handsome stranger. He was taller than Master Aturia but rangy like a starved dog. His knuckles were raw and bloody, his clothes of fine cut and his eyes…they were unlike anyone’s I had ever seen.
I still remember how blue and empty they were.
This man had punched through the door, but I managed to be polite and relinquish the grip on the knife tucked in my pocket. “No, sir. She’s out on an errand. I am her student, Jasmyn Voltaran.”
“What errand is that?”
Before I could respond that she had gone to gather more tinin, he continued, “I was told she lives here. The other doctors only bleed me. I won’t let them have any more. Aturia can help me...but she isn’t here! Why the hell is she not here?” His voice became a growl, and my palms went sweaty. Most patients I dealt with were too sick or too grateful to pose any sort of threat.
He was ill back then.
“She is on an errand to find medicine,” I repeated. To be clear and calm….that was the doctor’s way.
The man glared as if my master’s absence was my doing. “I knocked twice. Why didn’t you open the door?”
“I didn’t hear it.” The tinin extract consumed the entirety of my attention after all.
“You ignored me. A common girl like you should not keep a lord waiting.”
“Lord of what, may I ask?” His utter rudeness I hadn’t encountered in the worst of my relatives, wealthy though they were.
He stepped forward until his sandy hair almost tangled with my bangs. “Lord Eli Calpurnius of Haiathiel.” He was the king’s nephew! This close, his eyes held a new clarity. No, this man was not insane.
I wish I had never met him.
Bowing, I stepped back. “I’ll go find Master Aturia right away.” I could recognize a patient beyond an apprentice’s help.
“Where is she?” He bellowed the question. “Tell me, and I will go find her!”
Fool that I was, I shook my head. “You’d get lost in the swamp.” A fist slammed into the wall to accentuate his anger, and I flinched. A figurine, a cherub which made me question Master Aturia’s taste in décor, dropped onto a lower shelf and shattered. I felt a ricocheting piece graze my forehead and then a trickle of warmth.
“You stupid girl, why won’t you help me?” He lunged forward to clutch my hands, and I resisted the urge to pull away from the crushing grip. “Help me before they kill me! They want to see me dead!”
“Please calm down. Please, please, be calm.” His hands were slippery and hot with blood, his beastly strength born of desperation. Then he dropped his head against my shoulder as if exhausted. It was heavy and uncomfortable. Too warm. Feverish? I didn’t dare move to check.
He was shaking. He was terrified, but I didn’t know what I could do for him other than support his head and stand still. Once his breathing slowed, I spoke again softly, like a mother to a sleeping child. “No one will try to kill you here. I will find Aturia for you.”
“No need.” My mentor stepped through the open threshold, crunching glass. She plopped her hands on her generous hips and considered us. Despite my gasp, she poked the man’s back. “You came a day early, my lord.”
Lord Eli relinquished his hold and turned to Aturia with military precision, not wasting a single motion. His words came out as a slow drawl. “Is that so? I’ve lost track of the days.” He frowned. “Aturia? You’re older than I imagined.”
Aturia patted her white bun. A basket overflowing with blue tinin at her side indicated her mission had gone well. “That means I have more knowledge. Right, Jasmyn?”
I nodded, hands numb from gripping Lord Eli’s.
“Well,” Master Aturia said, observing the door with a wry smile, “I suppose we should start treatment right away.”
Aturia had kept it a secret from me: the existence of stratera, a medicine produced by rocks, not by a plant. For someone I trusted, she kept far too many secrets.
She guided Eli to sit at one of the kitchen stools. I followed, taking note of my master’s authoritative aura. She gave me a side glance and a significant look towards the cabinets lining the walls of the room. I scurried over to pull open the closest one for gauze and an antiseptic.
“Can you truly help me?” Lord Eli held his hands cradled to his chest. His eyes were squeezed shut.
Aturia gave me another glance and then a sigh. “Your temper was cut short, my lord, and I fear...” She trailed off and then accepted the supplies to bind his wounds. After pouring a bit of stinging antiseptic onto a bit of linen, she wiped the cut above my eyebrow clean. “You’re all right now. It’s shallow.”
Without prompting, I hurried away to wash my hands and fill a bucket with lukewarm water. That way, I could hide tears of relief at having Aturia here to tame this man.
I placed the bucket on the table in front of Lord Eli. With a tenderness hidden from all by her no-nonsense demeanor, Master Aturia washed the man’s torn knuckles with water and then flooded the wounds with antiseptic. Finally, she wrapped the linen around his hands.
“You won’t be punching through glass any time soon.”
The man crossed his arms and chuckled. The laugh was warm and husky: perhaps a bit rougher than usual due to his previous vocal exertion. His gaze wandered from the floor to me as I kneeled to grab the bucket with soiled water. “I scared your girl.”
“Girl? She’s a woman at twenty-two.” Aturia gave me a friendly whack on the back that almost tipped me over. “She’s probably never met a man like you before.”
I exhaled. They spoke as if they knew a secret I didn’t. It was irritating. I was prepared to say so when Lord Eli tipped my head up with a finger.
When he wasn’t having an episode, he tended towards cruel mockery.
“A country woman, is she? She dresses like one.”
“She is Senator Mativ’s niece.”
Yes, my uncle was one of the senators who reported to the king of Haiathiel. In fact, he was the king’s trusted advisor. Unlike the royal whelp in front of me, Uncle Ion had earned his position with the votes of the people of Monteler.
Meanwhile, I had heard rumors about Eli, the son of the king’s deceased sister. They were rumors I didn’t even dare think of with the man himself in the room. He continued to stare at me as if trying to guess my thoughts. As I removed the bucket, I met his gaze with what my mother would say was passive aggression.
“Well, it doesn’t matter who she is. I came here for your aid, Aturia.” He flashed my master a grin, and she flushed like a smitten girl! Handsome maybe but if rumors were true, a murderer as well.
After that, Master Aturia and I left her lovely cottage behind for Lord Eli’s manor. I learned more about the medicine stratera than I ever wanted. This meant that when Aturia passed away, as ones who have lived out their time will, I remained the sole caretaker of Eli Calpurnius.