The Everlasting Rose (The Belles, #2)(6)

Mr. Claiborne, portly and close to losing his eyesight, pops out from behind a curtain. His light brown skin is covered with freckles and moles, and I wonder why he chose to have so many. “Is that you, little flower?” he says. The sound of his voice puts me at ease.

“What if I said no?” I reply.

“I would say that someone was walking around in your skin. There’s a natural perfume you have. Different than ours. You might want to mask it with pomander beads. Le Nez should be releasing their new year’s scents soon. If you don’t, you could be easily caught by a soldier with a keen nose.” His mouth lifts with a smile. “But not to worry, I have several new formulas if you care to take a look.”

“You could’ve turned me in days ago,” I say.

“Why would I do that?”

“The reward,” I counter, taking off the mask.

“I’m in no need of leas. My father left me a boon and this shop. What I needed was a challenge—and you’ve provided it. This is a once-in-a-lifetime type of exploration. Furthermore, my wife—if awake—would have none of it. She’s longed to spend more time with Belles. Always been fascinated by your kind. I think every person in this world believes at one point or another that they’d love to switch places with you all.”

“Only because they don’t know the truth.”

“What is the truth anymore? With the papers profiting from lies and people scrambling to outdo one another. The truth is whatever you say it is.” He turns and whistles. His teacup peacock struts along the counter and places gold lea coins on a set of scales. “Good work, Sona. Well done,” Claiborne praises.

I roll up my sleeve before he asks me to. “You need to dust off your window bulbs. They’re full of cobwebs.”

“Spiders are always welcome here,” he says. “Now... on to the reason for your visit.” He rummages through cabinets beneath the counter, retrieving a small wooden case. He opens it and exposes a set of gleaming needles. “I have some not-great news for you, little flower. I’m loving this puzzle but finding it difficult to crack.”

I sigh with disappointment.

“Well, rather... a challenge to get precise, and I require precision above all else. The items in my apothecary contain promises, and I want this tonic to fulfill your wishes. I’ve mixed nightshade and hemlock, even a bit of strychnine extract, with your blood, and found our elixir continues to be unstable. Too little of my tonic and it does nothing to the arcana proteins in your blood. Too much and it kills them and any other healthy ones around it.”

“What should we do?” I try to keep the desperation out of my voice as part of my plan becomes a post-balloon set off in the wrong direction, unable to be caught and re-sent.

“Let me show you the conundrum first.” He fixes a monocle to his left eye, then takes an optic-scope from a nearby shelf. The apparatus resembles a large beauty-scope—a slender end to gaze through and its opposite stretching out like a horn plugged with glass. “Ready?”

I nod.

He pushes a needle into the crook of my arm and draws a vial of blood, adds a few drops of it to a sliver of glass, and slips it into the base of the optic-scope.

“Look into the oculus,” he directs.

I press my eye to the slender tip. My blood. The blood Arabella said had the strength to grow the next generation of Belles. “It looks like a glittering net holding rose petals.”

“Quite the poet you are,” he replies. “Those oblong-shaped objects—the petals, you call them—are what make up your blood. The net is your arcana. If you were to look at mine, the threads wouldn’t glow. That is your gift from the Goddess.”

“A curse.”

He chortles. “I suppose now it is one.” He uncorks a small bottle and uses a metal dropper to draw out its contents. “Now pay careful attention. One pearl-size bead or so...” He squeezes the top, and a fat drop slides onto the glass, mixing with the blood. The net of arcana threads hardens like bone, then shatters into pieces.

I gasp.

“Keep watching. A little more...” He adds a half drop, and the red circles shrivel and darken like raisins. “Too much of this and someone could die.” He looks up and taps the oculus to get my attention. “You have to be very, very careful, my flower.”

His warning wraps around me and squeezes tight.

He pats my hand. “I will package it with specific instructions while you go and visit my wife.”

“Has she woken?” I ask while glancing into the oculus one more time. Now, the red circles resemble black pebbles.

“Only briefly. But I’m certain she will regain her wakefulness soon. She falls into those deep fits of sleep from time to time. I have to get her balanced and my patent medicines do that. Me and my trusty assistant Sona here.” He ruffles the peacock’s tiny feathers. “We’ll work it out. When she does wake for a longer spell of time, she’ll be happy to see her beauty maintained. I only have you do this for her benefit, you see. I don’t care how she looks, as long as she gets well.”

“I understand.”

“But it’ll keep her invigorated to recover fully and maybe avoid the things that put her in these sleeping spells to begin with.”

I nod at him.

“Sona, will you lead our guest like a good host?” He sets the peacock on the floor and lifts the curtain separating the front of the shop from the back. “Don’t mind the mess, little flower. I’ve been busier than usual.”

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