‘And what seems to be the problem, Mrs…?’
‘Whittemore. Devona Whittemore, of the Lancashire Whittemore’s. Perhaps you’ve heard of my family. We’re rather big in the automotive industry.’
Mr Shikhandi shrugged in apology. ‘I can’t say I have, though I don’t get out much.’ He waved a hand, gesturing to the dimly lit workshop around them. ‘As you can see, my work keeps me rather busy.’
Violet peered out from behind her aunt to take a look around. She’d heard much about Mr Shikhandi, or ‘The Alchemist,’ as he was usually known. Several tables were scattered randomly around the room, some holding bubbling cauldrons of all shapes and sizes, others covered with all manner of ingredients. Some, such as ginseng, turmeric, mint and chamomile, Violet recognised. Others, with labels such as Nightblood Flower or Dragonflame Seeds, were unfamiliar.
Stranger still were the ingredients hanging from the ceiling. Exotic snakeskins, buffalo horns, and many other organs and appendages from animals Violet had never seen or even heard of. She could quite understand why people came here for help, and why many even claimed that Mr Shikhandi could perform real magic.
Still, for all its strangeness and lack of natural lighting, there was something welcoming about this place. Perhaps it was the warmth coming from the cauldrons. Or maybe it was Mr Shikhandi himself, whose vibrant yellow robes contrasted with his brown skin and who seemed to smell faintly of chocolate and cinnamon. Yes. If it weren’t for the reason they were here, Violet would have rather liked this place.
‘And who do we have here?’ Shikhandi smiled at Violet, his brown eyes warm and welcoming.
‘This is my niece, Violet,’ Devona said. ‘She’s the reason I’m here. I understand you have some experience in helping’—she hesitated, searching for the right word— ‘troubled people.’
Shikhandi’s eyebrows rose. ‘Oh? A sweet little thing like this?’ He crouched down so he could talk to Violet at her level. ‘What ailment plagues you, young one?’
Violet didn’t dare answer. Aunt Devona had made it clear that she was not to speak and must leave everything to her. Of course, most 13-year-old girls, even ones as small as Violet, wouldn’t think twice about disobeying their aunts. But then, most aunts weren’t Aunt Devona.
Before Shikhandi could question her again, Devona intervened. ‘We hear you’re particularly talented at dealing with problematic conditions where modern medicine often falls short of the mark.’
Shikhandi nodded. ‘Yes, I do have some small skill in such matters. Many customers find my elixirs greatly help chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and even Alzheimer’s.’
‘What about unnatural desires?’
Shikhandi frowned. ‘Behavioural matters are more complex. What sort of desires are we talking about here, Mrs Whittemore?’
‘This is rather delicate,’ Devona said, wringing her hands. ‘Do I have your assurances that this conversation stays between us?’
Shikhandi looked a little offended. ‘Please, Mrs Whittemore. If you know of my reputation, you already know the answer to that.’
‘Good, good.’ Devona said. Reaching into her designer handbag, she took out Violet’s English exercise book, showing it to Shikhandi. ‘The first worrying sign was this awful rainbow sticker. At first, I didn’t think too much of it. I assumed that she put it there as a misguided show of support. You know these sorts of political statements are all the rage these days. But then I saw this.’ She opened the book, showing Shikhandi the back page, where Violet had drawn a heart with two names inside. Violet and Rose.
Mr Shikhandi beamed. ‘Ah, young love. So sweet. I’m struggling to see the unnatural behaviour here. Are your niece’s feelings unrequited? Do you wish me to make a love potion of some sort? I will warn you now, that is not the sort of thing I dabble in. It is my personal and professional opinion that love must be allowed to run its course. If it’s true and pure, it will always find a way.’
‘That is not the reason I am here. I want you to fix her.’
Shikhandi blinked, his face blank. ‘Fix her? But Mrs Whittemore, your niece isn’t broken.’
‘That is not your decision to make,’ Devona snapped. ‘I want you to correct her deviance, and I am willing to pay you handsomely.’ She took out a chequebook. ‘Name your price.’
‘It isn’t a question of money, Mrs Whittemore, but of principles. As I said, I don’t meddle in matters of the heart.’
‘Well, that’s good, then. This is not a matter of the heart, but of sin and twisted morality.’ Devona smiled the sweet smile that had won over the hearts of many young men in her youth. Violet knew that few could resist that look, but she also knew the cruelty hidden behind it and the danger that Mr Shikhandi was in if he tried to refuse her. Whatever happened next, it wasn’t going to be pretty.
‘Mrs Whittemore, really. I don’t feel comfortable with this.’ He gestured towards the door. Please, I must ask you to—’
Devona’s smile dropped. ‘Before you finish that sentence, I suggest you think very carefully. Shikhandi… that’s not an English name, is it? Where are you from? Where are you really from?’’
‘I was born in India, but my parents moved here when I was six. I am a British citizen.’
Devona snickered. ‘Citizenship is no more than a piece of paper. Papers can be lost or altered, especially when you have the friends, I do. And what would happen to you then? A foreign national, accused of masquerading as a doctor.’
Violet cringed as Mr Shikhandi’s brow creased. ‘What? I don’t pretend to be a doctor. My elixirs are a perfectly legal example of alternative medicine.’
‘Really? You prescribe treatments for serious illnesses and diseases, and you don’t have a medical license? It sounds like you’re pretending to be a doctor to me, and I guarantee it will sound the same to Superintendent Roberts at dinner next week. So, what do you say you help me out, and I don’t have to bring this to the authorities?’
After glaring at Devona for several seconds, Shikhandi’s shoulders slumped. ‘There may be something I can do for you. I’ll prepare you a potion. Come back tomorrow.’
‘I have your word?’
‘You do. I will make your potion, and may my ancestors forgive me.’
The Whittemores ate their meals in a large dining room under the watchful eyes of their forefathers, whose paintings hung on the walls. Violet’s father, Richard Whittemore, sat at the head of the long table, with Violet to his right and Aunt Devona to his left.
‘Where did you two go today?’ he asked his sister. ‘Baxter told me he drove you into town.’
Devona continued cutting into her fillet of roast salmon, not even looking up from her plate, ‘Oh, us girls did a little shopping. There’s a new dress out that Violet wanted to look at.’
Richard turned to look at his daughter, taking in her pale complexion, rapid blinking, and the slight tremble of her chin. He frowned. ‘You don’t look very happy about your trip, Violet. I thought you liked shopping?’
Before Violet could answer, Devona said, ‘Oh, she’s just disappointed, is all. The dress had sold out before we arrived.’
Richard knew his daughter better than that. She wasn’t one to sulk over such small things. He placed his hand on hers. ‘Violet, tell me. Where did you really go?’
This time, Violet got as far as opening her mouth before Aunt Devona cut her off. ‘We went to see the alchemist.’
Richard frowned. ‘That Shikhandi fellow? The man who Mrs Battersley claims cured her husband’s baldness? What on earth were you doing there?’
‘I’ve been feeling some pains in my chest lately. The doctors claim it’s nothing, and I didn’t want to worry you, but after what happened to Papa, I just wanted to be safe. Violet was sweet enough to come with me. I’m sure she’s just a little shaken by the ordeal.’
It was a convincing lie that would have worked on most people. But, just like he knew his daughter, Richard knew his sister. She was the least sentimental person he’d ever met. Claiming their father’s heart attack bothered her was unbelievable enough. The idea that she’d have wanted Violet to go with her was simply preposterous. He fixed her with an icy stare. ‘You’re lying. What were you really doing there?’
Devona huffed. ‘Fine. I didn’t want to tell you until everything was sorted, but I took Violet to see if Mr Shikhandi could fix her.’
Richard narrowed his eyes. ‘Fix her how?’
‘You know. Her urges.’
‘I’ve made my feelings on this clear,’ Richard said through clenched teeth. ‘Violet’s romantic preferences are none of my business, and they’re certainly none of yours. Except, of course, to tell her that we love her and will support her no matter what.’
Devona finally put her cutlery down. ‘I know you said that, but we both know that you didn’t really mean it. It’s just one of those things people say, isn’t it?’
‘No. I said it because it’s the truth. I love my daughter, and who she does or doesn’t have a romantic interest in will never change that.’
‘Brother dear, I can’t help but feel that you’re being a little short-sighted. All of this free-love nonsense is all well and good for the masses, but people of our calibre have always played by different rules. What would our business partners say if they learned about Violet’s behaviour.’
‘I don’t know, and I don’t care. It’s none of their concern.’
‘You have to listen to me—’
Richard slammed his fist onto the table, making Violet and Devona jump. ‘I don’t have to do anything. When you offered to move in with us after Alice died, I thought you were coming to help me, not to lecture me on how to raise my daughter. I will not have you taking Violet to some kooky old man who wants to pour God knows what down her throat, and that’s the end of the matter.’
Devona’s eyes bulged. ‘But the family name—’
Richard raised a hand to silence her. ‘Continue to push me on this, and the family name will be none of your concern because you’ll be banished from this house for good. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes, brother,’ Devona said tartly, a scowl on her face.
Richard ignored her furious glare. ‘Good.’ Smiling, he turned back to his daughter. ‘Now, Violet darling, are you looking forwards to school tomorrow?’
Violet sat in English class, tuning out Mr Wilkins’ colourless monotone as she watched the clock’s hands slowly but surely turn towards the hour mark. Next period, she had Science with Mrs Dewksbury, which she hated, but she got to sit next to Rose, which she loved. Maybe, they’d get to work in pairs so they could chat without getting into trouble. Plus, they always worked so well together. Rose was super smart, and Violet always learned more when they worked as a team.
The door to the classroom swung open, snapping Violet from her daydream. The head of Miss Philips, the kind old lady who worked in reception, poked through.
‘Sorry to bother you, sir, but I wonder if I could borrow Violet for a few minutes.’
Mr Wilkins absentmindedly muttered his assent, so Violet rose to follow Miss Philips.
‘Best bring your things, dear,’ the old lady said.
After packing her books and pens into her rucksack, Violet followed Miss Philips through the school’s winding corridors. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked.
‘Your aunt’s here to pick you up, dearie. Best I let her explain.’
As soon as Violet stepped into reception, Aunt Devona rushed forwards and swept her into an embrace. ‘Oh, Violet, dear.’
Violet’s jaw dropped as she fought back a gasp. Aunt Devona never hugged her like this, especially not in public. Something terrible must have happened. ‘What’s wrong,’ she asked.
‘It’s your father, dear. He had an accident at work, and they’ve taken him to the hospital. He needs to have an operation, but he wants to see you first. Come along. We have to hurry if we’re to make sure we don’t miss him.’
Taking Violet by the hand, she practically pulled the girl towards the doors. For the first time in her life, Violet went with her aunt willingly, pumping her little legs to keep up.
Minutes later, they were in Devona’s car as it raced through the suburbs. Violet began to think about what life would be like without her father. Who would take her fishing or skiing? Who would look after her when she was sick? Aunt Devona? She shivered. And what about when she was grown? Who would walk her down the aisle? Who would she share her first dance with? Who would she go to for advice about her own children?
She was so caught up in these horrible thoughts that she didn’t notice they were driving the wrong way until they’d already been in the car for several minutes. ‘Wait, this isn’t the way to the hospital.’
‘No, it isn’t, is it?’ Aunt Devona flicked a switch, and the car’s locks thudded in place. Violet was trapped.
‘Er, boss,’ said Richard’s assistant Dale, stepping into his office. ‘Your daughter’s school just rang. They wanted to know if we had any news about your accident.’
‘What? I haven’t had an accident.’
‘That’s what I told them. They got pretty worried after that. Apparently, your sister turned up and took Violet out of school. Supposedly to take her to see you at the hospital, but, well, obviously, that isn’t true.’
Richard sprang out of his desk chair. ‘She did what? I have to go. I have to go now.’
As he rushed past dale and towards the elevator, his assistant called after him. ‘But what about the Burlington account?’
‘You deal with it.’
As usual, traffic was awful in London. By the time Richard reached the alchemist’s shop, it was over an hour since he’d left the office and even longer since Devona had kidnapped Violet from school. Leaving his car in the middle of the road, he dashed inside the shop, ran past the cheap trinkets that served as the front for Shikhandi’s real business, barged a shop assistant out of the way, and burst into Shikhandi’s workshop.
The scene in front of him almost ripped his heart in two. The alchemist, Shikhandi, stood beside his daughter, holding an empty potion bottle. Violet herself was staring into space, a slight frown creasing her brow. To Richard, she looked stunned, shell-shocked. And there, crouched in front of her, with her back to him, was Devona.
Clenching his fists, Richard took a step forwards, but Shikhandi darted forwards and placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Mr Whittemore, I presume? I’m afraid must ask for your forgiveness.’
Richard’s nostrils flared as he fought the urge to spit in Shikhandi’s face. ‘Forgiveness? Forgiveness? After you forced your toxic sludge inside my precious little girl.’
‘Mr Whittemore, I think perhaps you’re confused.’
‘I’m not confused about anything. Now, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of my way.’
Shikhandi stepped aside, smiling. ‘Of course. Though, if you’d allow me one small indulgence…’ he tapped Devona on the shoulder. ‘Mrs Whittemore, your brother is here. Don’t you want to say hello?’
Devona whirled around, a grin on her face. ‘Richard, dear. How wonderful to see you.’
‘What in the…’ Richard barely recognised his sister. For a start, she was smiling. A real, genuine smile, not one of her cruel or deceitful smirks. But beyond that was the rainbow badge pinned to her blouse. It was the sort of thing that Devona usually scoffed at and called a ‘Useless gesture in support of a twisted cause.’
Richard shook his head. ‘Are you feeling alright?’
Devona’s smile broadened. ‘Of course, brother dear. Never better.’
‘What’s with the pin?’
‘Oh, this? Mr Shikhandi was kind enough to give it to me. I thought it was about time I started supporting my niece.’
Richard looked past Devona and cocked his head at his daughter. ‘Violet, are you okay?’
Violet, though clearly shaken, nodded. ‘Yes, father. I’m alright.’
Beaming, Mr Shikhandi clapped a hand on Richard’s shoulder. ‘She’ll be fine. I can give her a little something to take the edge off if you’d like.’ With his other hand, he pointed at Devona, who was cooing over a stuffed rabbit on one of the tables. ‘It seems that your sister misunderstood our arrangement. I promised I would make a potion for her, so I did. I made a potion for her.’
Richard howled with laughter. ‘That’s why you were apologising? For doing this to my sister? You didn’t give anything to my daughter?’
‘Indeed. Love is a difficult emotion to change, even for me. But hate, that’s not so hard.’
Richard pointed at his sister, still babying the stuffed rabbit. ‘And how long will… this last.’
Shikhandi shrugged. ‘Forever, I hope. My elixirs are not cheap tricks, Mr Whittemore. They target the very source of a person’s problem. For your sister, that was her obsession with status and image. Now, thanks to my “toxic sludge”, every time she starts thinking about what the neighbours will make of your daughter’s lifestyle, she’ll see nothing but sunshine and rainbows.’
‘Really? I don’t suppose you have anything you could give to my mother? She has a bit of an issue with immigrants.’
Mr Shikhandi grinned. ‘I have just the thing.’
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This story is fantastic! The characters are wonderful, each different and with clear goals and motivations. The story reads with a developing plot and a sense of urgency towards the end. Very well crafted
Thanks, Edward! Glad you liked it!
Fun story and loved how well you were able to flesh out the characters so well in a short time :)
Thank you, Emily!
What a great story! So well constructed , the characters are fully fleshed out, and of course the ending is brilliant. Wish we had some of that potion to pass around! Great story. Keeping my fingers crossed for a win.
Thanks, Wally! Glad you enjoyed it!
This story really is a mashup of fantasy elements, conflict, coming-of-age drama, and family relationships all with a clever twist! Smooth writing as always :)
Thanks, Aeris. Glad you liked it! Also, congratulations on your Writing Battle win! I saw their announcement on Twitter.
AH! Thanks so much, Daniel! Yeah that competition was equal parts exciting and stressful, but I really enjoyed it. I saw your name in the forums too! Were you completely stoked to pull HF as a genre?
I was! I actually got Cyberpunk as my first draw, but I decided to gamble and was so happy to get HF! Cannibal comedy would have been my nightmare.
Well, I found Devona to be pulse-quickeningly infuriating, so she was well written :) The twist with the potion is nice, and a very literal interpretation of the request. That seems fitting for magic, and reminds me of the danger of genie wishes. The only minor thing I wonder about is, how did he get Devona to drink it? Surely, she knew this wasn't what she had in mind. Well, I assume it was some sort of trick. Beyond that, I love how much conflict is loaded into this. The story is crammed with it. There's the whole point of the visit - ...
Thank you, Michał! Yes, that's a good question. I think Shikhandi probably has lots of tricks up his sleeves for getting unwilling patients to take their medicine, so I'm sure he wouldn't have had too much trouble convincing Devona to drink hers! I appreciate your feedback, as always!
What a fun story, Daniel! A creative potion request, but one the whole world needs truck-fulls of! As usual, the writing is intriguing and flows smoothly. This was a delightful and brilliant read to start my morning, well done!
Thank you very much! I'm glad I could help get your morning off to a good start!
Loved it - great twist! :)
Thank you! Glad you liked it!