NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.
Beryl listened patiently as her potential customer – a well-dressed woman with a good name and a respectable address – explained her symptoms in great detail. Apparently the woman had already been to see four Market District physicians, seeking relief for her rheumatism, and she must not have been satisfied with the treatment she had received, because now she and her young son were standing at the counter of Beryl’s shop.
The woman must have been in a lot of pain, Beryl knew, if she was willing to turn to a Nameless apothecary for help.
She was the only customer Beryl had had all day. Beryl had been considering closing early when the well-dressed woman had entered brusquely through the open door, sweeping inside with the little boy in tow. After a perfunctory introduction, the woman had jumped straight into explaining her condition. Her son fidgeted next to her, hiding behind his mother’s purple dress while staring up, gape-mouthed, at Beryl.
Beryl could feel the weight of the boy’s eyes on her, but she tried to ignore him, and to focus on his mother instead, because she needed to make a sale. Business had been slow, and her till was all but empty. She had already missed payments to three of her suppliers, and just that morning the baker had paused for uncomfortably long before extending her credit to buy the loaves of day-old bread which were now the only food in her pantry.
Looking at the fine weave of the woman’s dress, Beryl tried to decide how much she could reasonably charge. She guessed that she could double her usual price and still seem like a bargain compared to a Market District apothecary. But rheumatism also dangled the prospect of repeat custom if things went well, and Beryl wondered whether a low introductory charge might improve her prospects of keeping the named woman’s business in the future.
“Is there anything at all that can be done to ease the pain?” the woman asked, giving her head a final, exasperated shake. “Nothing I’ve been prescribed has made the slightest difference.”
Reaching below her counter, Beryl retrieved a small clay jar with an oiled wooden stopper. “The first thing I’d try is willow bark and salamander paste,” she said, handing the jar to the woman. “Apply it three times a day – morning, noon, and night. Just rub the paste over the affected areas, and be sure to give the mixture time to absorb through the skin.”
The woman removed the stopper from the jar, and held the little container of reddish-brown paste beneath her nose. She inhaled a breath, then recoiled in horror, a look of disgust on her face.
“It smells positively vile,” she said, wrinkling her nose as she replaced the stopper. “I couldn’t possibly go out in public smelling like that. Imagine what people would say.”
“The salamander is a bit… aromatic, I’m afraid,” Beryl admitted, before hastening to add: “I could blend in some lavender, or oil of cloves, which would mask the smell without diluting the mixture.” Sensing then that she had the woman’s interest, Beryl took a risk. “That would increase the price slightly, but I’d be happy to offer a discount.”
The woman seemed to consider that. Behind her, her son tugged on the hem of her dress, once, then twice, before she swatted his hand away.
“How quickly does the mixture work?” the woman asked, as she studied the little jar.
“Almost immediately,” Beryl said. “You should feel a warming sensation, followed by a gradual numbing.”
The woman looked skeptical. “It won’t stain fabric, will it?” she asked. “I am attending a formal ball, and—”
Breaking off in mid-sentence, the woman looked daggers down at her son, who was again pulling on the hem of her dress.
“—for the love of the Gods, what?” she snapped at the boy. “What is it?”
The little boy looked up at his mother. “Mama,” he said, pointing a finger at Beryl, “what’s wrong with her face?”
For a horrible minute, the boy’s question hung in the air like a leaden balloon. The room was so silent, Beryl thought she could hear the beating of her own heart. As she watched, the all the blood seemed to drain away from the mortified mother’s face, even as Beryl felt her own cheeks burn.
Annoyed that his question hadn’t been answered, the boy turned to face Beryl herself, and he asked again: “What’s wrong with your face?”
Helpfully, the little boy pointed a finger at his own eye, and he gazed at Beryl with an expectant stare.
Beryl had to look away. She stared down at her counter. Without meaning to do it, she reached up to rub her forehead, and her hand lingered over her ruined, milky eye and the violent red scar around it, partially shielding both from view.
“…the paste can be a little oily,” Beryl stammered, breaking the awful silence. She angled her head slightly down, and to one side, so that her long black hair concealed more of her face. “But any stains should wash out.”
The little boy looked like he was about to speak again, when his ashen-faced mother clamped a hand over his open mouth.
“We’ve taken enough of your time,” she said, setting the clay jar down on the counter. Then she took a small step backward, dragging her muffled child with her. Putting her free hand on the boy’s shoulder, she angled his body towards the door.
“I can prepare a sample with the lavender,” Beryl said frantically, leaning forward across the counter and reaching out with her arm, as though she might take hold of the woman and prevent her from leaving. “It’ll just take me a minute – you can take it with you.”
The well-dressed woman just shook her head, and she turned her back on Beryl.
“I’m sorry,” she said over her shoulder, as she hurried her son out the door, “but we really must be going.”
Before Beryl could say anything, the woman and her son were gone, and the door slammed shut behind them.
Alone in her shop, Beryl’s shoulders slumped. With trembling fingers, she picked up the unsold jar, and she returned it to the shelf beneath her counter. Then she walked quietly across her store to stand in front of the door. She stood there and listened for a moment, one hand resting on the latch. Outside, she could hear the named woman excoriating her son, who offered the occasional confused protest, but seemed to be struggling to get a word in edgewise.
Beryl closed her good eye, and she sighed. She felt sorry for the boy. He was only a child.
Everyone she met stared at her maimed face. Everyone she met secretly wanted to know how it had happened. Beryl wasn’t stupid. She knew that they stared. She knew that they wondered.
The only difference between adults and children was that adults tried to pretend they hadn’t noticed her scar. The children didn’t know they were supposed to lie.
Beryl locked her door, and she closed her shop early.
She couldn’t bear the thought of being stared at anymore that day.
She couldn’t take any more lies.
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