The Poisons of Caux: The Hollow Bettle (Book I)

BOOK: The Poisons of Caux: The Hollow Bettle (Book I)
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to my father,
the Winds of Caux

If you drink much from
a bottle marked “poison,” it is almost certain to
disagree with you, sooner or later.

—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll

Contents

Part I:
Of Poisons and Tasters

C
HAPTER
   1
Mr. Flux Arrives

C
HAPTER
   2
Poison Ivy

C
HAPTER
   3
The Deadly Nightshades

C
HAPTER
   4
Soup

C
HAPTER
   5
Aqua Artilla

C
HAPTER
   6
The
Field Guide

C
HAPTER
   7
The Worse of Two Tasters

C
HAPTER
   8
Rowan Truax

C
HAPTER
   9
The Trestle

C
HAPTER
10
Axlerod D. Roux

C
HAPTER
11
The Cinquefoil

C
HAPTER
12
The Doorway

C
HAPTER
13
Pimcaux

C
HAPTER
14
The Return of Shoo

C
HAPTER
15
Repose

C
HAPTER
16
Flight

Part II:
Elixir

C
HAPTER
17
The Director

C
HAPTER
18
Arsenious

C
HAPTER
19
The Terrible Tonic

C
HAPTER
20
Southern Wood

C
HAPTER
21
The Bettle Boar

C
HAPTER
22
Underwood

C
HAPTER
23
The Amber Room

C
HAPTER
24
Poisonry

C
HAPTER
25
The Dungeon

C
HAPTER
26
The Royal Cobbler

C
HAPTER
27
Prisoner No. 11,802

Part III:
The Winds of Caux

C
HAPTER
28
The Potion

C
HAPTER
29
Bearing Stones

C
HAPTER
30
Windwhippers

C
HAPTER
31
The Mildew Sisters

C
HAPTER
32
The Lien

C
HAPTER
33
Departure

C
HAPTER
34
Skytop Glory

C
HAPTER
35
The End of the Line

C
HAPTER
36
The Mines

C
HAPTER
37
The Hollow Bettle

C
HAPTER
38
The Gate

C
HAPTER
39
The Hanging Gardens

C
HAPTER
40
The Maze

C
HAPTER
41
The Hedgehog

Part IV:
Templar

C
HAPTER
42
Sorrel Flux

C
HAPTER
43
The Knox

C
HAPTER
44
The Estate

C
HAPTER
45
Mithrodites

C
HAPTER
46
Peps D. Roux

C
HAPTER
47
The Invitation

C
HAPTER
48
Not One, but Two

C
HAPTER
49
Arrivals

C
HAPTER
50
Preparations

C
HAPTER
51
The Guest of Honor

C
HAPTER
52
The Tapestries

C
HAPTER
53
The Hunt

C
HAPTER
54
The Menu

C
HAPTER
55
Poppy

C
HAPTER
56
Axle

C
HAPTER
57
The Kitchen of the King

C
HAPTER
58
The Wind

C
HAPTER
59
The Prophecy

C
HAPTER
60
Reunion

E
PILOGUE
Final Words

A
PPENDIX

Part I
Of Poisons and Tasters

The bereft souls from whom nature has withheld the legacy of taste have dour expressions upon their sallow faces, their countenances speak of deprivation, and they are forced at every turn to wonder at their plate—is it …poisoned?

—The Field Guide to the Poisons of Caux

Chapter One
Mr. Flux Arrives

t’s an astonishing feat that young Ivy Manx was not poisoned during Mr. Flux’s tenure as her taster.

These were corrupt times in Caux, the land being what it was—a hotbed of wickedness and general mischief. The odds were stacked against anyone surviving their next meal, unless they had in their employ a half-decent Guild-accredited taster. A taster such as Mr. Flux maintained himself to be.

The day of Mr. Flux’s arrival was a day like any other, devoid of goodwill and cheer (and befitting the taster’s disposition). A fire burned glumly in the grate within the small tavern Ivy called home, and beside it a few disinterested regulars took their drinks in tedious silence. Hidden in her secret workshop, Ivy Manx found herself hoping for something thrilling to happen—perhaps a particularly rousing poisoning. She had been ignoring her studies in favor of one of her experiments when Shoo cawed softly.

“Never you mind,” Ivy admonished the crow. “Cecil will never know I was using his equipment unless you tell him.”

She proceeded to strain an evil-smelling mixture through her uncle’s sieve. Ivy worked with a look of great concentration upon her face, and when the task was finished, she set the vessel on a burner to boil. Almost immediately the syrup discharged a clingy cloud, and a sickly sweet smell filled the small room, forcing the crow to alight dizzyingly on a coatrack to avoid it.

This was greatly disobedient, she knew. Her uncle wished her to be a learned apotheopath—a healer—yet tinkering with her noxious brews was much more satisfying. Like most of Caux, Ivy preferred not the well-meaning herbs, but the darker, more potent ones. Apotheopathy seemed ancient to the ten-year-old, from a time when plants were used to heal, not harm. Her uncle’s collection of dusty books and scribbled parchments made her yawn—both to Cecil’s and Shoo’s great disappointment.

“There. Let’s see what that does when it’s done.”

As she stepped back in the workshop, Cecil’s top shelf caught her eye. He was still in the habit of putting his secrets up high, thinking they remained safely out of her reach. There was quite a lot to see, for as Ivy knew, there is no such better display of a person’s ideals and deficiencies as a bookshelf. (Cecil tended toward being an untidy person and the shelf illustrated this fact well.) Her eyes narrowed at the sight of the small leather case that contained his apotheopathic tinctures.

She pushed over a three-legged stool, and as Shoo grew ever more agitated, Ivy climbed up, reaching.

“Just a peek, Shoo. It’s his remedies. Clearly, this counts as studying.”

The black crow, longtime resident of the Hollow Bettle, knew better. The ampoules were strictly off-limits at this point in her studies, and the crow began pacing excitedly. With her uncle set to depart the tavern in the evening, Ivy was reminded that this trespass would better wait until then.

“But he’ll take them with him,” she told Shoo. “And, if you’re lucky, you, too.”

The stool was proving to be insufficient. Ivy considered climbing up the rickety shelves themselves. She wanted nothing more than to examine the delicate glass-stoppered medicines within the case and had long ago given up asking. First she must complete the long memorizations of herbs and plant lore—so completely bookish and boring.

“Anyone can produce a potion that will make you sick,” her uncle would remind her, his eyes gleaming with enthusiasm. “But it takes much learning to use plants to cure! Which would you rather be, then, a common poisoner or a respected healer?”

Interestingly, Cecil never seemed to wait for an answer.

Testing a bowed shelf for sturdiness, she gingerly began scaling upward, with Shoo now flying about the room squawking excitedly.

Ignoring the bird, Ivy was quite nearly there when the worst happened. Her foothold gave way and the entire contents of the overburdened unit—her uncle’s medicinal books and priceless notes, his scales and workshop essentials, important-looking mahogany boxes containing powders and infusions—all came crashing down, nearly taking Shoo with it.

In the silence that followed, Ivy and the crow waited nervously for Cecil’s appearance. Her straw-colored hair and flushed cheeks were streaked with her uncle’s pitch. She brushed something white and gritty from her shirtsleeve while considering what an appropriate punishment would be—and wondered if he’d forbid her from her experiments. (Just how this would be enforced in his absence she wondered, too.) Shoo, rumpling his sleek feathers, settled in front of the narrow door that let out into the tavern area.

“Don’t be in such a hurry. He’ll hold you responsible, you realize.”

When a remarkable amount of time had passed and her uncle had failed to respond, Ivy grew curious.

The workshop door was veiled from sight by dust and shadow, a sly entrance cut in the middle of an enormous blackboard in residence upon the tavern’s far wall. It was further
obscured by the simple fact that the shadowy wall was never regarded—the menu on the blackboard was long obsolete. When Cecil was seeing his patients or when the workshop was hosting Ivy’s nefarious experiments, a sharp eye might discern a flickery crack of amber light slicing through the darkness. It was here that Ivy put her eye, wondering what might be keeping her uncle.

It was fortuitous timing. Ivy watched as a scrawny and particularly unimpressive stranger crossed the threshold, pausing right in front of her to scrape the caked mud from his tatty boots. He exuded from him a sour sense of disinterest, and clinging to him, although unseen, was an odd sort of melancholia—the kind that affects the bearer not at all, but those who behold him feel instantly cheerless.

Having just passed through the Bettle’s creaky front door, Mr. Flux—for indeed this was he—made a beeline to the bar. He ordered and consumed an unusually expensive brandy and then quickly ordered another, requesting Cecil leave the bottle before him.

Surveying the room, Ivy gave the lone traveler five minutes in the midst of this group of scoundrels and found herself eager at the prospect of his gruesome end.

“At last,” Ivy whispered to Shoo. “Something exciting.”

The room grew deeply quiet; there was nothing but the sound of coals settling, shooting off a vicious whip of sparks. The tavern’s regulars, with a great distrust of outsiders, ceased
their chatter. Ivy watched the stranger smirk as he took a bored look around the silent room. His pasty face, tinged an odd yellowish hue, was half hidden by an unusual hood. With no one to meet his eye, he returned to an idle consideration of his glass.

Ivy was perplexed. The rule of the land was poison or be poisoned, and such a haughty entrance seemed to shout out for a lethal dose of attention. Yet everyone seemed intent on avoiding the man’s eyes—a few chairs creaked uncomfortably, and Ivy frowned as Curtains, one of the tavern’s more notorious regulars (and one of her best clients), sidestepped it to the door.

She examined Mr. Flux closer. Something about the man’s threadbare cloak seemed familiar, although even in the dying light of the tavern it was plain to see that the robes were ill kept and patched with an unsteady hand. Ivy tried to place it. Her thoughts turned to her neglected studies, and with a start, she realized what it was she was seeing.

“A graduate of the Tasters’ Guild—Shoo, can you believe it? A real taster, here at the Hollow Bettle!”

Indeed, it was so—Mr. Sorrel Flux was the first Guild-accredited, educated palate to call upon the services of the small forgotten tavern. A true taster! Theirs was normally the territory of the rich and royal, and surely only the very well-to-do might employ one.

Yet there was something oily about Flux, and his carefree
way of pouring her uncle’s fine brandy down his gullet seemed to be anathema to a taster’s training. His collar was askew—and worse, stained with marrow and puddles of grease. Much less refined than Ivy thought a taster should be, he looked as if he’d been dragged by his scruff through a thornbush.

Since her uncle cared little or nothing for the Guild or its graduates, she waited expectantly for Cecil to show him the door. Instead, to Ivy’s great astonishment, they began conversing in low, hushed tones.

Ivy pushed Shoo aside for a better look, receiving an indignant squawk.

The taster’s eyes alighted upon a high shelf behind the bar. There a stocky bottle made vague with dust and grime sat alone. Inside, amid the amber brandy, a twinkle of red from a small stone.

“Perchance that be your bettle, sir? Of which you’ve named your fine establishment?”

Cecil followed the taster’s gaze. “That it is.”

“Priceless, they are.”

“I suppose. To some,” he allowed.

“To those who wish to ward off the ill effects of poison,” Mr. Flux scoffed. “May I?”

As the taster licked his thin lips, Cecil retrieved the bottle from its perch and placed it upon Mr. Flux’s yellowed palm.

“What an odd twinkle it possesses! I see now how one might think it hollow—although, of course, that’s an utter impossibility.”

The bottle clinked appealingly as Flux angled it for a better look. He fingered the coil of golden wire that sealed it. A moment passed, at the end of which the taster put the bottle down haltingly, tearing his eyes away, swallowing what remained in his chipped glass.

“If you don’t mind—” Cecil was attempting to return the bottle to its shelf, but the taster’s fingers still gripped it tightly.

“Yes, yes, of course.” Mr. Flux dismissed the bottle with a wave. “I see now it is but a clever fake,” he said. “A hollow bettle! A fine example of wishful thinking.”

Mr. Flux was close enough for Cecil to smell his sour breath and appreciate a protruding vein in the man’s left temple—a proximity that Ivy’s uncle wished to change immediately. He was prevented from doing so by the following statement.

“Word has it, you’re off to cure the king,” the taster hissed.

Cecil froze, bottle in hand.

“Perhaps,” he finally allowed.

“Never mind that none have succeeded before you. Yours is not their unfortunate destiny, now, is it?”

From the workshop, Shoo let off a low throaty call. Ivy’s uncle had said nothing of the dangers of his travels.

Suddenly business-like, Mr. Flux produced a packet of papers, which he proudly called his credentials.

“You’ll find everything in order,” he assured Cecil in his nasal voice. “Normally my fee is—well, how to put this? Unaffordable.” His eyes strayed back to the red bettle. “But in light
of your honorable errand, I find it my duty to be of whatever service I might in your absence. In times like these, I’m sure you’ll agree, the well-being of the little girl is of great concern. I am, of course”—and here he allowed a slight crooked grin to rise unsteadily upon his face—“Guild-accredited.”

It was the way Flux spoke the word
Guild
that sent an odd prickle up Ivy’s spine, and a profound feeling of dread settled in—as sure and heavy as the dander upon Flux’s weak shoulders. The feeling, not at all a pleasant one, would remain there in its way for quite some time.

It was quickly decided.

For a surprisingly small fee—a few minims and a scruple only—Mr. Sorrel Flux would reside at the Hollow Bettle and assume tasting responsibilities for Cecil’s niece. Since the apotheopath expected to be gone no longer than a week at most on his errand, it was arranged.

BOOK: The Poisons of Caux: The Hollow Bettle (Book I)
10.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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