He had never meant to poison her. That’s what he kept telling himself.
“You are my best student,” he always told her. She was so very lovely when she blushed.
She first came to the apothecary as a girl no older than twelve, just a little younger than him, running an errand for the housemistress at the orphanage. He had never seen anyone quite as angelic as her – large round eyes deep as night, and a shock of dark curls framing her face like a halo.
There was no one at the counter. The Alchemist (he went by no other name) had gone to the docks to inspect a new batch of Alpian devil’s root, and Ferdan had no intention of revealing himself to her, not with his wounds still raw and smarting after a fresh whipping from the Alchemist. He could still hear his guardian’s high, cold voice calling him a “useless fool” as his whip sliced through the air and then his skin.
Ferdan brushed the old scars on his face. The ridges were still pink and tender to the touch, and his new wounds were bleeding. What a sight he would be to her! He pressed close to the shadows of the storage room, praying for her to leave.
But she was adamant about completing her errand, pressing the bell once, twice, thrice and staring at the ajar door of the storage room as though she knew he was hiding behind it – until, finally, he stepped out into the light.
“Two pounds of talcum powder and one pint of rainflower’s essence, please,” she said. Her voice carried a sweet lilt, and he wanted to hear more of it.
He kept his head bowed, letting his mop of black hair drape his face. “Still too early for rainflower’s essence,” he muttered.
“That’s okay, we’ll have it green,” she said.
He studied the frayed upper of his shoes. “Could be dangerous. Unripe essence can cause unpleasant side effects, even death.”
“But they also make the strongest medicine.” She leaned closer over the counter, and he caught the faintest whiff of powdered flowers in her hair. He had no memory of his parents, only the lingering scent of powdered flowers on his mother’s hand. He remembered clutching it so tightly until the very last moment, when she abandoned him at the doorstep of the apothecary.
He looked up at her now despite himself. His hair fell away from his face, and he caught sight of his grotesque reflection in the glass bottles on the counter.
She flinched, just for the briefest moment, and he ducked his head again. But then her hand crept up to his face and landed, cool and soft, like the air after a spring shower. He gasped. No one had ever touched him so gently.
He straightened, slow and hesitant, and caught her gaze, sad and wide. His eyes, for some reason, filled with tears.
It was a Saturday afternoon, the first of many where he stepped out of the shadows and welcomed the light.
Merise left the orphanage when she turned sixteen.
The Alchemist had died a month ago (an easy slip of the hand with powdered devil’s root as Ferdan prepared his tea) and left behind no will. So Ferdan declared himself the successor and took over the business – and what a roaring one he did. He nurtured the most verdant herbs, created powerful brews and the sweetest medicine, the gentlest salves, that had his customers coming back for more.
Some called him the Scarred Doctor. Some called him a young genius. They never dared to chat with him or even look him in the eye, but they bought from him all the same. He cared nothing for their whispers behind his back and the names they called him. There was one person who truly saw him, and that was all that mattered.
She came by on a bright May morning, bringing the sun with her. Warm light trailed behind her as she stepped into the empty apothecary, navigating her way around the workspace with practised ease.
He watched her for a moment behind the storage room door, letting his gaze linger. He sometimes found himself thinking about trailing his fingers down her smooth fair skin and inhaling the scent of her thick wild hair. He wanted her, but what could he offer in return?
“I know you’re here,” she said, staring at the door. He stepped out, wearing the hint of a smile.
“I’ve been emancipated from the orphanage,” she announced.
How long he had waited for this day! She could come work at the apothecary, he told her, and live with him in the backhouse. She had always loved the nasturtiums in the garden; now she could tend to them all day if she pleased.
“I will be your assistant, if you will have me,” she said.
From then on, he taught her all he knew – how to turn moonlight to music and crush night-roses to make sweet wines. How to bottle dreams and set wishes free. He even shared his special concoctions and most potent mixtures with her, ones that made her enter different worlds and see things in another light. He gave her his magic, and in turn she unknowingly performed the sweetest alchemy on him.
They spent their days tending to the apothecary and garden. In the evenings, he would school her in botany and alchemy, or she would read in the garden by lamplight while he invented new elixirs and tonics in his workroom. Days stretched on like this and it felt like his heart had found peace, at last, in the promise of forever. He even bought a ring from the jeweller’s down the street.
But one day, everything changed.
The young man came knocking in the small hours of dawn, before Ferdan was awake. Merise was in the garden, and she let him in and sold him half a pound of gallow’s weed for his father’s cough even though the apothecary was not open for business yet.
After he left, she described the visitor to Ferdan with a wistful gaze. “His eyes are the colour of a summer sky, and his smile lights up his entire face when he talks. He was concerned about his father’s health, though, and I helped to assuage his worry.”
“Sounds like he bought more than gallow’s weed,” Ferdan said. “Your heart,” he explained when she sent him a questioning look.
“Oh,” she said, dipping her head. “No, of course not. Caspian is just a customer.”
Even his name sounded like an aspiration. Caspian, like the sea, vast and majestic, a salt-tanged promise of freedom. Everything Ferdan did not offer.
Caspian came by several more times in the weeks after, each time leaning over the counter to speak with Merise and leaving with an obligatory bag or two of herbs or potions. Ferdan saw the way they looked at each other, as though no one else in the world mattered. He saw how she would blush and laugh and later hum to herself when she was alone again.
They seemed to never run out of things to talk about. Even when Ferdan loitered around them, making his presence unmissable, or when he ordered Merise to do the chores to break up their conversation, they would gravitate towards each other again, conversing as though they had known each other all their lives.
Each time Ferdan glanced over at them, the seed of spite grew bigger in his heart. He longed to carve that easy smile off Caspian’s flawless face, make him go through the pain he had once endured. How easy it was for this stranger to sweep in and steal Merise’s heart, to not have to earn it day by day like he had.
He overheard their conversation in the garden one day, when they thought he had gone out to inspect new supplies.
“Your employer makes me uneasy,” Caspian was saying.
“Ferdan is my teacher, my friend,” said Merise. “Nothing more.”
Ferdan retreated into the shadows, a chill washing over him. Nothing more. The words left him bereft. All these years they had known each other, she had regarded him as merely a mentor, not a lover. Never a lover. She would never look at him the way she looked at Caspian.
“I don’t like the way he watches you like he owns you.” Caspian took her hands in his. “Come away with me. We can travel the seas, see the world together. You’ve always wanted to do that, haven’t you?”
“I do,” she said. “But Caspian, I can’t leave Ferdan behind all alone.”
She would, Ferdan knew. Her longing to roam beyond the confines of this town had grown over the years. She would give in to her wanderlust in the end, like he always feared.
“Why not? You’re not obligated to him,” said Caspian. “He’s a successful businessman, he will be fine.”
Rage coursed through him, a molten wave that blinded him. He was barely aware of the rose he was crushing in his fist. How dare this presumptuous stranger decide what Ferdan was capable of?
The lovers made plans to meet next evening, at the harbour where Caspian’s ship was docked, where he would no doubt persuade Merise to leave with him.
Ferdan could eliminate Caspian like he had the Alchemist. But even if he removed Caspian, another suitor would come along. Another man Merise would give her heart to. Not to Ferdan. Never to Ferdan.
He prepared the tea with his usual meticulousness, calculating the components to the exact ratio, and brought it to her room, where she was fretting with her hair at the dressing table. She jumped when he entered.
“You seem nervous,” he remarked.
“Just tired, I suppose.” She turned away from the mirror to look at him. “Ferdan, I….”
“Shh, say no more. Have some tea and go to bed.” In the mirror, his smile appeared thin and cold, garish as the browned scars on his face and hands.
“You are my best student,” he whispered as she put her lips to the cup. “The very best.”
She was too distracted to respond to his compliment this time. But she looked so very lovely when she slipped off the chair and fell dead into his arms.
Until the very end, she was his and his alone to claim. Never would she give her heart to another man. He pressed his lips to hers, tasting the remnants of the tea in her mouth.
It was masked under the sweet scent of chamomile, tart but faint, almost easy to miss. Rainflower’s essence. Green and potent, just as she liked it.
Author’s note: The Phantom of the Opera musical was in town lately and I’m back in a Phantom mood. So I guess it’s obvious where this story got its inspiration from!
About the Author
Joyce lives in the tropical island-city of Singapore, where she spends the perennially sunny days writing YA novels and short stories. She holds a B.A. in English and her YA contemporary novel, LAMBS FOR DINNER, won a nationwide novel-writing competition organised by the National Arts Council and was published by Straits Times Press. She subsists mainly on green tea and toast, and blogs about books, writing, and TV shows at The Writes of Passage in between writing her next novel. You can read all of her short stories here.