The chair that Keenin stood on tottered dangerously as he tied the twine of another plant bundle to the rafters. Emily had arrived unexpectedly with a delivery that morning and Keenin had to stay behind to clean up while Alaban went to the market. Keenin cursed his clumsy fingers and slow progress because for once he knew what he was missing, namely girls in blue dresses.
Tess had started to visit him at work and had even lent him a guidebook on plants. The chair wobbled underneath him again and Keenin scolded himself for day-dreaming about meeting Tess, as it slowed his progress.
When he sloppily tied the last herb bundle Keenin jumped down and ran for the door, shutting it tight behind him and locking it with the key around his neck. He heard a rip of fabric when he pulled away. The sleeve of his colorful vest had caught in the door. Keenin cursed and again unlocked and locked the door to get it out. Free of the house he ran down the street faster than he could imagine. The villagers did not seem to notice his passing. In the past they might have frowned at him for he had been a poor child always suspected of thievery, but since he had been seen working in the market the people no longer seemed to mind him.
He arrived at the stall out of breath. The table had already been arranged with the best-selling potions.
“A little late,” Alaban observed. “But since there are no people I think I can let you off.”
“Emily came over. She told you to give her the money later,” Keenin explained.
“Did you mark down what I got?”
Alaban had taught Keenin how to count the inventory and receive payments in case he was ever away and because Keenin was to take over the shop in the future.
“I wrote it all down and she signed it to confirm,” Keenin said proudly. “Though, I don’t see the point.”
Alaban and Emily were friends so why could they not agree on prices later.
“Because business must be taken seriously and children are not the only thieves around here. Not to say that she has or ever will cheat me, but she complains so often that I wouldn’t put it past her.”
Maybe Emily would give him the money to pay back Alaban for some side work, Keenin thought to himself. Of course Keenin didn’t say this, instead he took his seat on a blanket beside the stall. His ripped vest hung sadly off his shoulder.
“What happened to your sleeve?”
“It caught on something,” Keenin said reaching for a bag of loose herbs that needed to be sorted into their components.
“It looks terrible. You need to learn how to stop damaging things.”
And you need to learn how to not be grumpy Keenin thought back. He took the vest off and tied it around his head in an attempt to satisfy the old man.
“Does this look better?” he asked.
A girl laughed. He saw that it was Tess who had just approached the stall. Today her dress was charcoal with puffed sleeves and flowers stitched along the hem. The thin leather strap of a satchel crossed her chest and the bag rested against her left hip. Keenin pulled the patched vest off his head and hid it behind him.
“You certainly like to stand out,” she told Keenin.
“Uh, ya,” Keenin said. “But I think you’re doing that better.”
Her pause made him wonder if he had said something wrong.
Alaban cleared his throat.
“Did you need something Tess?”
She looked up.
“Oh, yes,” she said digging in her satchel.
She pulled out a folded piece of paper and a small bag of coins that she held out to Alaban.
“The payment for the medicine you’ve been giving me,” she told him. “I’m sorry for the trouble before. The doctor came to see her and mother is doing better.”
Alaban took the note first and left her with the money as he unfolded the paper to read. Tess held the money close to her and looked down nervously as Alaban read. Keenin felt for her. He noticed a thin book in her satchel.
“Are you reading that one?” Keenin asked in distraction.
“It’s…,” she paused seeing his face, then smiled.
Tess pulled the book out to hold in front of him.
“Probably not your type of book.”
He examined the title, but couldn’t read it. It reminded him of their position. He was still a boy who could do so little.
“Looks like your right,” Keenin said to satisfy her.
“I am sorry Tess,” Alaban finally said. “I still can’t accept your money.”
Tess looked up.
“But there should be enough.”
Keenin also looked to Alaban. He did not understand what was going on between them, only that it involved not letting Tess pay.
“How about another favor,” Alaban told Tess. “My apprentice just ruined his vest. Do you still sew?”
At first Tess said nothing. Then she looked at Keenin who had not expected Alaban to give her another free trade.
“Oh,” she said.
She replaced the money into her satchel and rummaged until she pulled out a spool of black thread with a needle stuck into it.
“I forgot it was in here,” she admitted. “Mother said that good wives should never be without a bit of thread.”
She looked to Keenin and now he felt embarrassed.
“You’ll need to hand over the vest,” Alaban prompted.
Keenin reaching behind for the crumpled vest that he had been trying to hide.
“Actually, could you put it on. It’s easier,” Tess explained.
Keenin put the vest on and turned to the side so she could sew up the sleeve. He tried not to think too much as she tugged at the fabric. He wondered how long Tess had been purchasing medicine for her mother for Alaban to stop charging her.
“I’ll get you more medicine,” Alaban said unclipping his case.
Turned as he was to face down the street, Keenin saw a dangerous looking man making his way through the market. The man wore leather armor decorated with strips of fur and a sword tucked into the left side of his belt. The man stopped in front of their stall to address Alaban and Keenin noticed a red painted bird with a cutout heart on his shoulder pad. Tess stopped her work to stare along with him.
“Is this what people call magic these days,” he said picking up one of the little bottles from Alaban’s table. “Can something this small even fix a paper cut.”
Alaban let his potion case close to address the man.
“It certainly can’t cure that attitude, but it might ease digestion,” Alaban said.
“Really,” the stranger said. “Anything to stop a man from bleeding out?”
“Depends if your paying,” Alaban told him.
Keenin had never seen Alaban so defensive. The stranger reached into his coin purse and tossed a copper coin to the counter.
“Here, one for one.”
Alaban regarded the coin.
“I’m afraid that potion costs twenty percent more,” Alaban informed him.
This shocked Keenin even more. Not because he knew the worth of the potions, but because it didn’t seem like a good time to make enemies. The stranger smiled as though he had heard this joke before. He pulled a hand from his pocket to reveal a knife which he twirled between his fingers in a display of skill.
“Perhaps you can spare a loan,” the stranger threatened.
Keenin and Tess stood in shock and awe, one stitch left between them.
“Tess. You go on home,” Alaban said still watching the stranger. “I’ll have your medicine delivered.”
Keenin’s vest was almost off his shoulder as Tess was holding the needle and thread attached to his sleeve in a death grip. Now Tess turned back to her work. She silently knotted and cut the thread and stuffed everything into her satchel before walking away back to her home. Keenin couldn’t blame her for not saying anything as he watched her go. He did not understand how Alaban kept so calm or how this had happened.
The stranger also watched the girl leave, then looked to Alaban and ended his knife twirling display with the tip pinched between thumb and forefinger as though readying to toss it.
“So where’s your money?” the stranger asked now.
“Here,” Alaban said pulling up his bag of coins.
The bag rested on the counter. Keenin locked his eyes on the money. Just last week he had watched Alaban pay off his thieving friends. This was certainly not something that the old man could afford.
If Alaban had a problem with this guy, Keenin didn’t understand why the old man didn’t use his fighting skills to knock him out. Hadn’t Alaban been so confident? Keenin was going to tell Alaban to stop and that he didn’t have to give away any money when Keenin saw that the money was a distraction.
The stranger reached for the coin purse, only to have Alaban grip his forearm and stand to pull him forward over the stall. Using his free hand, Alaban slammed the stranger’s head against the table. Dazed, the knife fell from the stranger’s hand to the ground behind the stall, while Alaban continued to hold him down against the hard wood.
“Time to leave,” Alaban told him. “I won’t have a warmonger in my town.”
The stranger shot a menacing glance at Keenin. Alaban shoved the stranger away from the table so that he stumbled back free, but before the stranger could think of retaliation, Alaban pulled a gun from behind his back and pointed it. They gazed angrily at one another.
“I think I’ll come back tomorrow,” the stranger said flatly.
“You better not,” Alaban said setting the man’s knife on the table. “The guard will be here tomorrow.”
The stranger snatched back his knife, but not the bag of coins, and left. Keenin looked from the stranger back to the gun in Alban’s hand.
“Who was that?” Keenin questioned.
“A criminal, a head hunter who chose the wrong side in the war,” Alaban said, tucking the gun away behind his back. “But he won’t find what he’s looking for here.”
“Magic. Elemental magic. The sort you read about in stories, but rarely see. But instead of that, don’t you have something more important?”
Alaban held out three small glass vials of the healing potion which Keenin had learned was a general energy booster to help in recovery.
“Right,” Keenin said.
By the time Keenin made it to the library, he was less concerned about the incident and was instead feeling nervous to meet Tess in her home. It had been a few years since he stood at the library’s arched wooden doorway and he found that the place looked smaller then he remembered, a sign of his growing up.
As a child he had sat on the front steps while his thief friends discussed the next target to steal from or what they would do after leaving the village. The books had interested him too, though he didn’t tell the others. For a while Keenin waited for the library to open early in the morning and would flip through the text to look at pictures of heroes and distant places, but when books began to disappear and some children started to chip away the gold painted wood on the arch Keenin felt ashamed and no longer returned.
It had never occurred to him before, but maybe his small leaving at that time had been what made him so different. Keenin shook away stray thoughts and knocked on the door, only to correct his absurd act, by gripping the metal latch and pushing the door open. The door stopped it’s swing as Tess grabbed hold.
Tess had a stack of books tucked under her arm for shelving and must have come forward at the sound of his knocking. Keenin smiled.
“Sorry,” Keenin said. “I forgot that you could come in uninvited. I brought the medicine.”
He held up his hand with the vials. Tess put the books down on the floor and accepted them.
“Are you alright?” Tess asked.
“Huh, of course,” Keenin said. “You should have seen the way Alaban beat the guy up after you left. His skill makes me jealous. We’re you worried?”
He wanted her to feel better.
“It’s just… I’ve heard rumors of a war and that guy had a crest. I don’t know what will happen if our village gets involved in another fight. Last time it became only me and my mom. What if it becomes only me or just my mom.”
She gripped tightly to the glass vials.
“I didn’t realize,” Keenin said.
Now that Tess mentioned it Alaban has said the word warmonger, but why would one soldier be all the way out here?
“But what am I saying,” Tess said. “You made it work by yourself so obviously I can.”
It seemed the rumor about him moving down from the city to be an apprentice had spread.
“Tess, you’re thinking about this wrong. Our village has everything you need. Water, food and shelter, and we live close to the city. Besides, Alaban and I would find a way to support you if you needed help.”
She remained quiet and then looked up.
“I made things so serious,” Tess said. “I’m sorry you should get back to the shop.”
“It’s fine,” Keenin said. “Friends can talk.”
As he said it he thought of Lester. He had not seen his old friend in weeks and was worried that now they might not be friends at all.
“Actually, Keenin if you still have some time?” Tess asked. “My mom wanted to thank you.”
“I think, for putting up with Alaban. She was worried there wouldn’t be another potion maker to take over after him.”
Was it really alright to see Tess’s mother? What if she was too unwell?
“It will just take a minute. Come on,” Tess said holding out her hand.
She must have recognized his hesitation. Her hand was reassuring so he decided to take it, though as Tess led him up a flight of curving stairs to the upper floor balcony he felt nervous. This was Tess’s mom and she was sick. Keenin felt scared to know what the ill woman would look like. The hollow thud of the steps stopped when they reached the top of the balcony. Tess let go of his hand and pulled open a wooden door.
The room inside was bright, lit by numerous lamps of odd designs. The wood paneling of the walls had been left unstained. A four-poster bed took up most of the space while a dressing table was crunched against the back wall. Under a set of old lavender sheets rested Tess’s mother. Unlike her daughter’s dark brown hair hers was a light chestnut and she watched them through bright green eyes. Tess approached to retrieve a used plate while Keenin stood in the doorway.
“So this is your friend?” the mother said.
Tess looked back at him.
“Why are you standing so far?” Tess scolded.
The woman laughed.
“Any boy would be nervous Tess. I bet you dragged him up here for me.”
“I…I did not.”
She laughed again, but it turned into a wheezy cough and she covered her mouth.
“I apologize. I have a persistent sickness in my lungs that flares up sometimes. I wouldn’t mind working more, but the doctor told me that keeping rested will cure it faster.”
Tess handed the plate to Keenin who had no choice but to take it, and she went to the window to push it open.
“So will keeping the window open for fresh air,” Tess noted. “You keep closing it.”
“The neighbor’s dog wouldn’t stop barking.”
“Keenin,” Tess said turning to him. “Tell this mom of mine that fresh air is worth a bit of noise.”
“But uh… I think both of you are right,” Keenin said.
“What?” Tess accused, but her mother smiled.
“Thanks for putting up with my daughter,” the woman said. “She worries a lot.”
“Mom,” Tess argued.
“And Keenin, come borrow books anytime you want.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that. I should get back now,” Keenin said.
He wondered if she would let him borrow a book if he was still an unkempt thief. Tess led his way back down the stairs.
“I’m sorry for making you visit my mom. She kept asking about you,” Tess said walking down the steps.
“It’s alright. I know what it’s like to worry about your family,” he said awkwardly, following down the stairs.
“Then what’s your family like?”
Tess reached the front door and turned to face him to wait for an answer.
“My…family,” his words trailed off as she stood waiting.
To her it was a normal question and she didn’t realize the problem, but what was he to say. He had grown up with thieves. Yet, even so, he wanted to be proud.
“In my family,” Keenin said. “I have a lot of amazing siblings. I’m going to prove that I can be just as successful and I want to be there to look out for them. So I should really get back.”
Tess was looked at him with silent admiration.
“Tess,” he prompted.
“Ah, right,” she said, snapping free of her trance.
Tess opened the door for him to pass through. “Good luck with everything.”
Feeling that enough was said, Keenin stepped out and Tess shut the library door behind him. He sighed with relief. Talking to girls was difficult.
Having been delayed, Keenin was prepared for Alaban to scold him when he got back to the stall, but Alaban was not there. Instead, a note telling him to go back to the house had been left on the table.
Back at the house, Keenin pushed the door open to find Alaban trying to boil a small pot over the fire in the hearth. It smelled like porridge and the spoon in his other hand seemed to enforce this.
“Are you cooking dinner?” Keenin asked in confusion.
He had leaned that despite being a potion mixer, the old guy didn’t cook and was more than happy to take payment in the form of meals.
“No,” Alaban said. “I was thinking about the threat we received today. I wanted to be prepared.”
Keenin looked at the two jars sitting on the kitchen table and picked up the yellow one.
“But this is lemon powder. You said it’s flavoring.”
“And today,” Alaban said turning with the pot full of boiling liquid. “It’s plant food for the screaming moss bacteria. Can I have that lemon powder?”
Keenin decided not to ask about the screaming moss and approached to hand over an opened jar of lemon power. Alaban proceeded to dump a third of the jar into the liquid concoction in the pot. It definitely looked like porridge and now smelled faintly of lemon.
“I thought you said not to worry about that stranger,” Keenin said.
Alaban handed back the lemon jar.
“I might have said that, but I still like to be careful. When the liquid cools we can put in the screaming moss from that other jar. Then you get to make a horrid mess pouring it in front of the door.”
As Alaban stirred his mixture, Keenin picked up the jar of black powder that must have been screaming moss.
“How exactly does this make an alarm?”
Alaban placed the pot on a flat stone resting on the table and took the jar of lemon back to the shelf.
“Like I said it’s bacteria. The moss is full of invisible creatures that make a screeching noise when stepped on.”
He shuffled around the jars to make room and bring better order to the overcrowded shelf.
“Travelers thought so too. Especially since the moss is slimy and grows in swampy areas.”
“How much do I put in?” Keenin asked.
“A spoonful,” Alaban mentioned.
Keenin eyed the dirty spoon now resting beside the pot. He picked it up and rubbed it clean against his pant leg while Alaban was still intently trying to organize his collection. Keenin held a hand over the pot to feel the temperature.
“So how cool should this be? And does it screech right away?”
Alaban turned around.
“And that,” he said pointing to the spoon in Keenin’s hand. “Is why you are not mixing potions alone.”
“But you said one spoonful.”
Alaban sighed to himself. He moved to the table to pick up the pot and proceeded to the front entrance where he poured the contents onto the rough wooden boards.
“Now it’s one spoonful.”
“Oh,” Keenin said.
Chapter: 5: Stalling in Close Quarters