Chapter 3: Engaged

Cordelia and Gabrielle walked quickly and quietly back to the apothecary. Cordelia sensed Gabrielle was deep in thought, and left her to pruminate quietly.

Cordelias apothecary was a modest three-story with two balconies. It was thin compared to the surrounding buildings. The entire width of the building was only about three doorways wide. The lovely red brick exterior was highlighted by giant inviting ferns hanging from the delicate decorative iron archway overhang that framed each balcony. A large showcase window displayed light golden lettering painted in an easy-to-read script. ”Holistic Apothecary. Teas, Salves & Medicinal Herbs. ” Painted underneath in smaller lettering were the times and days the small apothecary was open. Dried herbs, flowers, and twigs hung in the showcased window. Bottles of varying sizes, shapes, and colors lined the shelf in a simple, organized pattern. A simple wooden sign hung from the balcony above the door – Closed.

Two older women were waiting outside, hidden under the balcony, as Cordelia and Gabrielle walked up.

”I was wondering where you were! Weve been waiting out here forever. ” A thin, frail woman with perfectly coifed grey hair clicked her tongue disapprovingly. The other small woman was hunched over a cane and said nothing. She only smiled and waited for Cordelia to invite them inside.

”Good morning, ladies. Im so sorry to keep you waiting. We found ourselves quite busy at the market. Please come in. ” Cordelia opened the door for the two women, flicking her wrist slightly, and the closed sign above them flipped to open.

Gabrielle quickly ran inside after her and started attending to her responsibilities.

The day at the apothecary went by in a blur. Gabrielle worked twice as hard as usual. Every bottle and surface glowed and shined under her dutiful hand. She did not bring up marriage or Damas for the rest of the day.

They had a relatively busy day. With the weather warming and the rains of the vernal (spring) equinox approaching, people were more likely to catch colds and coughs. The nice weather also meant daily work was resuming to normal, and there was an endless amount of bruises, sprains, and cuts that needed tending.

As the sun reached the afternoon horizon, streaks of orange sunlight cast a comfortable, warm glow from the front window. Light cascaded through the half-filled glass bottles of varying colors and caused a mirage of color to dance along the wooden floor.

Cordelia was busy grinding dried leaves in a large stone mortar and pestle on a long wooden counter that ran the entire length of the narrow store. A piping hot kettle and half-filled teacup sat next to her. A simple feathered quill scratched methodically in a ledger all by itself on her opposite side.

The narrow building had a warm and cozy interior. Modest wooden bookshelves lined the entire wall length from floor to ceiling behind the counter, a rolling ladder fixed sturdily to the top of the bookshelf. Each shelf housed meticulously organized bottles, baskets filled with goods, medical supplies, and old leather-bound books. Everything was neatly labeled. Not a speck of dust could be found. Crystals, rocks, and bones of unknown creatures were placed strategically in a glass cabinet at the end of the back counter. A brass lock glinted, protecting its contents. Three comfortably padded leather bar stools sat on the opposite side of the counter.

In the back corner, a small brick fireplace fit comfortably in the crook of the wall. A ball of fire burned inside despite no wood being present. The flame blooming like a flower hovered in the center of the arched fireplace over a small red glowing stone. It cast light and a comfortable warmth evenly through the apothecary.

The store smelled strongly of herbs, iron, sweet flowers, wood, and leather. The bouquet of slightly disheveled flowers they had bought earlier that day was carefully arranged in a deep blue and white vase and sat next to a large brass cash register near the front door. On the opposite wall, more shelves lined the upper half of the wall. Various plants hung from the ceiling to dry.

A large glass paned french door opened up to a back patio. A white staircase on the lefthand side spiraled around to the second and third-floor landings. They opened to the upstairs living quarters and storage room. The deck opened up to a narrow but spacious courtyard. There wasn a single inch not covered in plants. Flowering vines, ferns, and moss grew naturally up either side of the adjacent buildings. A green-tinted glass greenhouse was tucked snuggly in the back of the courtyard. Four chickens scratched at the cobblestone floor and pecked at the edges of wooden garden beds hunting for bugs and insects. Exotic plants and flowers of every variation grew. A soft rain had started to fall, filling the air with the refreshing smell of earth and sky.

Gabrielle was busy pulling clean sheets and towels down from the line that hovered between the adjacent buildings. Her hands moved expertly to gather everything into a large basket before disappearing upstairs.

As the sun set further and the light outside grew dim. Cordelia looked up from her task grinding herbs. As she did, the oil lamps outside her shop flicked alive at her glance. As she tapped a single finger on the wooden counter, orbs of light sprang to life throughout the apothecary, filling the space with a welcoming glow. A gentle ding rang out at the front door.

A short-haired black cat with two unnaturally long tails and large golden eyes slinked inside as the door opened. It hopped delicately onto a barstool before stepping onto the counter and walking towards Cordelia, purring viciously. A fat brown rat was clutched confidently between large fanged canines. It placed the dead rodent on the counter, rubbing affectionately into her outstretched palm.

”Benoni… There you are. ” Cordelia ran her fingers over the cats silky fur. ”What a fine catch… but please, not on the counter. ”

As if he knew what she was saying, he gently licked the back of her hand in apology before grabbing the rodent and disappearing out the open back door and up the winding stairs.

She heard the man who entered with Benoni clear his throat before speaking. She had known it was Damas as soon as he walked up to the front door, true to his word that he would be by that afternoon. Cordelia looked up at him and smiled before releasing the wide stone pedestal she was using the grind the herbs. It continued moving on its own in repeated movements even after she let go of it. Cordelia wiped her hands on her apron before walking over to a small red box sitting on a shelf behind her. She took two bags of tea out of the box before facing him.

”Good evening Damas. Thank you for stopping by. How was your day? ” She placed a tea bag in two small white cups and poured water from the kettle over them. He glanced around, his eyes searching, looking for Gabrielle.

”Shes not in the apothecary, Damas. ” Technically, Gabrielle was upstairs, but Cordelia decided a little white lie wouldn hurt.

He let the air out of his lungs with a small sigh of relief mixed with frustration, sat down on one of the stools, and slumped over, his fingers rubbing his face in fatigue. It was as if he was trying to knead away the dark circles under his eyes like his face was made of dough.

”She hasn talked to me for weeks, Madame. I feel like I finally screwed this thing up. She wasn ready for marriage. I knew that. Im such a weak and impatient fool. ” A deep sigh escaped his lips before gingerly hitting his forehead on the counter.

His voice was barely a whisper, ”Now she hates me…. ”

”Hmm… ” Cordelia looked down at the boy, overcome with grief and overthinking. She was slightly taken aback by how readily he had confessed this to her. It was apparent since that morning that he was distraught over the whole situation, and she found it slightly tiring.

Cordelia had already lived a very long life. Far longer than the average human, and unless she sustained a life-threatening wound, she would live beyond Damas and Gabrielles great-grandchildren. She was perplexed by how most humans seemed to get hung up on the tiniest things—blowing ideas and miscommunications far out of proportion and making their lives harder than needed.

She felt their short time on this earth didn warrant beating around the bush. It was something she was slightly annoyed of and was also kind of envious of. It was as if humans were determined to feel as much as possible in their short lives- the good and bad all wrapped together in a chaotic bow called life. Some humans even lay on deathbeds, regretting unsaid words and missed opportunities. Despite the knowledge that they would die of old age in only a few short decades if they were lucky, they all seemed to ignore it. They acted as if they had all the time in the world to sort out their issues.

It was apparent Gabrielle and Damas loved each other fiercely. Marriage or not, there was no reason in Cordelias mind for them to be acting in such a way. To hell with tradition. They simply needed to find a solution and do what was best for them. Why waste any time getting caught up on the details?

But she felt bad for him. Gabrielle could be quite a lot and often needed some time to sort out her feelings. She usually came around after a few days, but for her to spend weeks avoiding her favorite person? Not even mentioning this to Cordelia in the last few weeks? Cordelia knew Gabrielle was running away from the uncomfortable situation, and she knew the longer she avoided it, the harder it would be to confront it.

She heard the soft patter of Gabrielles feet come down the stairs stopping before she reached the bottom step, still out of view. Damas was too engrossed in his thoughts to notice.

Sneaky child, Cordelia thought to herself. She supposed giving them a little push wouldn hurt. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.

”Damas, you could marry any young lady in Ville Marais. Perhaps Gabrielle never wishes to settle down. Maybe its time for you to move on? ” Cordelia knew she was being mean. She could feel Gabrielle burning with anger from her hiding place as the words left her lips.

”No… ” Damas spoke with silent conviction as though he had already had this conversation countless times before. His head still laid on the countertop in defeat, ”I could never. It has to be her. It has always been her. ”

He continued, ”I didn even want to ask her to marry me yet. I knew it was too early for her. She told me countless times she didn know if she was ready. She told me she wanted to continue working for you – to keep learning about healing in the apothecary. If we married, they would pressure her to come work at the cafe… I told her that was fine. I would wait for her… but…. ”

Cordelia had always figured Gabrielle would eventually move on as her apprentice. If married, she would be responsible for maintaining her new household and helping with her husbands family business. She had grown quite fond of Gabrielle, who was not only an irreplaceable help, but the girl felt as close to a daughter as Cordelia would ever have. The thought made her sad.

Gabrielle was brilliant, thoughtful, detail-oriented, hard-working, and self-sufficient. She even left her in charge of the apothecary for a week during the slow winter months so Cordelia could take a much-needed break. It would be a loss for Cordelia, professionally – and if she were being honest with herself – emotionally. But not once did Cordelia ever pressure Gabrielle to stay. She made it clear to the young girl she was never to feel obligated to remain as her apprentice forever. Gabrielle was free to do as she wished.

”My parents had been buggin me non-stop. When are you going to ask her? You aren getting any younger. Whats stopping you? ” He rolled his eyes, ”They even went as far as saying they would arrange another girl to marry me if I didn lock down an engagement to Gaby soon. ”

Shame darkened over his face, ”I tried standing up to them… But they were so insistent. I finally agreed, thinking they would let me handle it… but then they went and decided to have this stupid dinner! ” He threw his hands up, tearing his fingers through his hair. He sighed as if the world were crumbling around him. ”They invited her over. Made a huge deal over it. Acted as if she had already said yes. They started making wedding plans… talking kids… talking about us taking over the cafe. I hadn known they would do that, and I hadn even talked it over with her. It completely caught her off guard. She eventually ran out in tears…. I couldn stop her; she hasn spoken to me since. ”

Cordelia quietly listened as he spilled his woes. She set the white cup down gently in front of him. He picked it up, cupped it in his hands, and stared endlessly into the steaming golden liquid. Gabrielles current emotional state over the last few weeks had been precarious. Her listlessness flip-flopped with frazzled anxiety, dark circles under her eyes, and her unusual disregard for her appearance all lined up with Damass confession.

”Drink it. It helps calm nerves…. ” Cordelia brought her dainty cup to her lips and took a small sip. Damas copied, and she watched as his shoulders slowly melted downwards.

He took a deep breath before closing his eyes and whispered, ”She smells like your apothecary. I miss her. So much. ”

A quiet moment was shared between them as Damas continued to drink his tea. Cordelia could feel Gabrielle tense up in the stairwell.

”I just want to tell her that I didn care about all that… That I just want to be hers. I don care about getting married, having kids, or even the cafe… She could keep working here… She wouldn need to step foot in the cafe if she didn want to. She could do whatever she wanted! Just as long as she let me stand next to her. ”

Cordelia didn say anything and just looked out the window. These children were so innocent, so filled with life and love. Willing to give and do anything. Going mad with desire and need for one another. She wondered what that felt like – it was a feeling she had never experienced. Not once in the vast generations, she had lived.

”Ugh. I love her so much. I feel like my chest will burst open. Im going crazy! ” He smacked his head on the counter again, harder this time. It left a sizeable red mark that he rubbed gently.

”Do you mean that? ”

Gabrielles voice was small from the stairwell.

Damas shot his eyes over to the open door in the back. He gazed shockingly at Cordelia before whispering at her.

”You said she wasn here! ”

”I said she wasn in the apothecary, never that she wasn upstairs…. ” Cordelia shrugged, unaffected by the slight anger and fear that washed over Damass face. She watched the blood drain immediately from his flushed cheeks – going white like a ghost.

”I wouldn waste this moment. ” She added in a small whisper, glancing at him from the corner of her eye.

Damas looked at her and nodded, placing the empty teacup down before standing up firmly in summoned confidence. He moved with such purpose as if he were trying to forcefully overcome his fear and apprehension. He walked over to the back door, peering carefully around the corner and up the stairwell.

”Gaby? Can we please talk? ”

She heard uncontrollable sobbing from around the corner and suddenly felt heaviness wash over her.

After giving them a moment, Cordelia had finally had enough of the drama. She shepherded Gabrielle and Damas out the front door. She told Damas to walk Gabrielle home.

”Take as much time as you need. I want this sorted out before you come back. ” She had said, pointing a threatening finger at the two of them. She closed and locked the door before Gabrielle could interject. Immediately after the pair stepped out the front door, Cordelia waved a finger. The oil lamps flicked off outside, the open sign flipped closed, and the white curtains of the front window drew shut in a single swoop.

The last few sun rays had disappeared beyond the horizon, and the temperature was dropping. Owners and tenants began lighting the lamps outside, giving the street a hazy golden glow. The smell of wood burning in fireplaces filled the air. Cordelia didn know why, but she suddenly felt exhausted. After closing downstairs and guiding the chickens back into the greenhouse for the night, she climbed the steps up to her third-floor living quarters. The second floor was for storage and Gabrielles workstation and study room.

As she walked through the door, a crystal stone in the hearth glowed red, and fire sprang to life. She quickly tore off all her clothes and threw herself under the covers. Benoni was already asleep at the edge of her bed. Seeing her collapse in a heap, he snuggled up next to her, purring softly.

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