I’ve got a bit of a treat for you today – instead of some insane rambling from me, I’ve got a very special guest story by Emma Newman! She’s on a mission to release a year and a day of weekly short stories set in her Split Worlds universe, and this is the seventh story.
If you would prefer to listen to an audio version, you can find it here, and you can find links to all the other stories as they are released here. Or do what I did and sign up to the newsletter! You can contact Emma through the Split Worlds site or in the comments section if you’d like to host a story too.
The clock mounted above the door chimed four, indicating an impending customer from the city of Oxenford.
“At least it’s not one of the Londinium lot,” the shopkeeper muttered, slipping his bookmark into place as the clock hands returned to marking one minute after nine o’clock.
The bell jangled as the door was thrust open. “Good morning sir,” he smiled at the young man who strode up to the counter, face pink with anger. It happened to match the dandy’s waistcoat beautifully, but the shopkeeper didn’t remark upon it.
“I wish to make a complaint!” The young man punctuated his statement with a slap on the counter top.
The Shopkeeper removed his glasses to better peer down his nose. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me shopkeeper, I want to complain about that potion. It didn’t work.”
“That’s impossible,” the shopkeeper replied. “You must be mistaken.”
The young man’s rage made his sideburns quiver. “Mistaken! Don’t you know who I am?”
“Of course I do sir. You are Xavier Rubiginosa-Rosa, third and youngest son of the esteemed Oxenford family, recognised by the Collegiate and held in high regard by the Chancellor. I’ve had the pleasure of serving your family and the residents of the Great Cities for several hundred years and I can assure you, in all that time I have never once had a complaint.”
The Rosa spluttered. As a member of the Great Families he had superior status, but it was hard to recall when faced with the age and confidence of the owner of the Emporium of Things in Between and Besides.
The shopkeeper remained calm. “Perhaps you could explain why you perceive a problem, and I will endeavour to resolve the issue.”
“So you admit there may be cause for complaint? Ha!”
“Not at all sir. Since the founding of this establishment, there have been five occasions upon which a customer came with the intention of complaining. Every time, the problem lay with either the interpretation or execution of instructions, or simply a poor choice of product for a certain set of circumstances, stemming from a lack of sufficient information at the point of sale. I can and will assure you, once again, the potion will have worked perfectly.”
The Rosa blinked as he struggled to process the monologue. Over the centuries, the shopkeeper had perfected his delivery; providing just enough detail to make sense to the customer and delivered in just the right tone to lull them into a state of mild confusion. It usually resulted in a sale as the customer avoided the embarrassment of having to ask for something to be repeated. There had only ever been one person it hadn’t worked on. The shopkeeper forced the thought of her to the back of his mind and listened to the young man.
“I followed the instructions perfectly and the girl it was intended for drank it all. It was mixed with orange juice, nothing else, as you said.”
“I see. Go on.”
The customer lowered his voice even though there wasn’t another soul in the shop. “And it did the opposite to what I wanted. She started questioning my motives… realised I wanted to…” he cleared his throat, moving on, “and then she listed, with remarkable eloquence, all the reasons she would never want to spend another moment in my company. She said she’d never had such clarity and then she left.”
Towards the end of the account the shopkeeper plucked out a spotless white handkerchief and polished his glasses. It was impossible for dust to land on the enchanted lenses, he simply wanted something to do as he realised something had gone horribly wrong.
“Does that sound like pliability to you?” The Rosa demanded, the memory of failure reigniting his anger.
The shopkeeper had no doubt the expensive potion would work. Either the Rosa had used it incorrectly, or had not used the correct potion. Then he remembered the other order he’d sent out yesterday afternoon. “Did you personally take delivery?”
“Yes, and I checked your delivery boy’s marque. When will you admit you’re at fault?”
“When there is no doubt,” the shopkeeper replied. “Would you give me a moment to double-check the properties of the potion?”
The Rosa nodded, taking to pacing as the shopkeeper hurried to his back office. He pulled the cord that struck the hammer against the lamp, the clang waking the sleeping sprites trapped inside the glass globe. The tiny creatures flitted in panic, emitting their pure white light once more. The ledger confirmed the new delivery boy had been given two packages, one containing a pliability potion, the other an elixir of eloquence. As both orders were considered sensitive, the bottles had not been labelled, as requested.
“Bloody fool!” he hissed into the pages. He’d asked the Agency if he was fully trained, how could they let such an idiot enter his employ? He could feel a stern letter brewing.
The shopkeeper slammed the ledger shut, he’d have to placate not only the angry youth, but also the Lilium who’d received the pliability potion in error. Hopefully he hadn’t needed that eloquence for anything important.
He went back into the shop, considering all he knew about the Rubiginosa-Rosa family and how best to exploit it. “I believe I have an explanation sir. I recall you describing the young lady as having red hair.”
“Yes,” he said. “Is that important?”
“And that she is of mundane descent, and indeed the potion was used in Mundanus?”
“Ahhh,” the shopkeeper nodded. “I see what’s happened. One of the reagents used in the potion is very sensitive, and can have extraordinary side-effects in a particular set of circumstances. The young lady must have dyed her hair, I understand it’s very common in Mundanus these days, and should she be a natural blonde or brunette, well, the effects of the potion can be quite unexpected.”
“Why didn’t you make that clear when I ordered it?” The Rosa shouted.
“How could I do anything but assume you knew her hair colour sir, would you not have been offended if I’d asked?”
“I suppose so… gosh… you’re telling me she isn’t a natural redhead?”
The shopkeeper put on a mask of sympathy and appropriate embarrassment. “A most unfortunate way to discover such a thing sir, but yes, that’s the only explanation. The side-effect may have inadvertently saved you from investing too much time in one unworthy of your attention.”
“Gosh,” he repeated, tugging at his cravat as he considered the horror.
“Perhaps a soothing bath in restorative salts would be in order. I’m happy to sell you these,” he lifted a box down from the shelf near the counter, “at half price, as a gesture of goodwill so we can put this unpleasantness behind us. These are infused with delicate new hope and a soupçon of optimism. Just the ticket I feel. Yours for the reduced price of a sigh of disappointment.”
The Rosa nodded, no doubt he had plenty of them. The shopkeeper caught the sigh in a silk bag insulated with eider down and apple tree shavings, tying it quickly.
“Thank you shopkeeper,” he said, watching him wrap the box in brown paper and tie it with string. “I’m terribly sorry about the shouting earlier.”
“All forgotten,” the shopkeeper smiled. “Do come again.”
Shortly after the Rosa left, the clock chimed four. He wondered if it was an angry Lilium with the expected complaint, but a lady entered instead. Upon seeing the empty shop, she rushed to the counter, tears streaming down her cheeks. He recognised her as the Lilium’s betrothed.
“Shopkeeper,” she sniffed. “I need something for a broken heart.”
“My love has been sent to India for twenty years! He was certain he’d be able to talk his father round but… but the words failed him, he said.”
“Oh dear,” he said as sympathetically as he could whilst filled with relief. Even if he’d realised what happened, the Lilium was unable to do anything about it. “I’m sure I have something that will help. And please, do stop crying. Time and reasonably priced magic heal all wounds.”