The chilled autumn wind poured through the openings in my cardigan as my shoes tapped against the old cobblestone streets. The piles of red and gold leaves left behind half-denuded branches winding towards the gray overcast sky. My heart sank as I thought about the harsh winter that lumbered closer with each passing day. A boy of maybe ten or eleven years old, already dressed in a winter jacket and a wool hat yelled to the passersby, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Crown Prince Charming marries Ella of Perrault Province!”
I pulled a half-silver from my purse and handed it to the boy.
“Thank ya kindly ma’am.” The young boy said beaming through a freckled smile, but as his gaze met mine, his expression melted, and his eyebrows furrowed with confusion.
A single red-gold lock of my hair had come loose, revealing the slight point of my right ear, a legacy of my grandmother’s heritage.
I casually replaced the lock, careful to cover the point on my ear, and not draw attention to myself, pretending to the boy that nothing was unusual, while my heart raced against my chest.
I smiled as I graciously retrieved the newspaper from his small hand.
“Thank you!” I said with a slight bow.
He smiled and blushed a little before continuing his hustle.
The paper contained the story that the entire kingdom was talking about. A common girl from a distant village in some obscure province was marrying the prince, and being given a grand life of wealth and luxury. The image of my cousin smiling at, and waving to the reporters with her white-gloved hands, was not something I’d ever imagined in my wildest dreams.
Later that evening, I was assisting a couple with powdered roots in the apothecary where I worked, when the bell rang announcing the entrance of a customer.
I turned for a second, catching a brief moment of his conversation with the store owner, but all I could see was the back of his coat through the gaps in the shelves. The voice was familiar, but I could not quite place him.
“So I take the yellow blend in the morning to help with the nausea, and the white in the evening to help me sleep?” The woman’s voice broke through my distraction.
“Yes,” I answered, wondering about what I’d just heard. “And the white blend should also help with the muscle cramps, especially at night.”
I finished explaining how to prepare each of the blends, before assisting the couple at the register. I used the conversion table behind the register to calculate the exchange rate since they only had Seaside currency.
As they were leaving, one of our vendors entered, a small old lady who supplied us with eighty percent of our mushrooms.
I called to the couple, “Please let your mother know that I am still looking for a supplier for the red mandrake.”
The man nodded in confirmation and the woman smiled. The man’s mother was looking for the plant, but we were yet to find any reference to it in any of our books.
The old lady who had just entered smiled through her thick-rimmed glasses.
“How is it that you’ve become so knowledgeable about medicinal herbs?” She asked.
“I’ve always had books on the subject…and I learned from my family.” I answered vaguely, not wanting to reveal too much.
“I see.” She said, regarding me through those thick glasses.
“How are you doing today?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“I’m doing well child. Question is, how are you?”
She was obviously referring to the recent turn of events for my cousin.
“I…” I started to say. “I am happy for Ella. It’s certainly not something I could have expected.”
She nodded, knowingly. “She’s a pretty girl. I have no doubt she will be an excellent wife and a phenomenal mother to her future children.”
Her smile shifted, just barely. “But I did not ask ‘How is Cinderella doing?’ The whole kingdom already knows the answer to that question. I asked ‘How are you?’ How’s Ember doing?”
I was taken aback by her casual use of my cousin’s derogatory nickname. And why did she call me “Ember,” instead of “Autumn?” “Autumn” was the name given to most people, but my real name, the name I was called within my family, was “Ember.”
Her words still hung in the air. “How’s Ember doing?”
I didn’t want her to ask that question, especially not here, and not now. Yet my face betrayed the answer.
The old lady nodded. “She was a wonderful woman, your grandmother.”
That was a surprise. “You knew my grandmother?”
She nodded again. “We were friends for what must have been ages, and she lived many many wonderful years!”
She raised her eyebrows. “She was a lot like you ya know.”
I tilted my head, but her smile only grew wider.
“For one thing,” She said, in a hushed tone, “she definitely knew her way around a crossbow.”
I thought immediately of the steel side-piece I carried hidden on my right side.
“How did you…?” I started to ask but then thought better of it.
She regarded me through those bright eyes as she chuckled.
“Like I said, you are so much like her. Following in your grandmother’s footsteps.”
“It’s been a rough year.” I admitted.
She nodded. “Yes, and that’s okay.”
She slowly reached out to rest her hand on my upper left arm. “It’s okay to hurt my dear. These things are supposed to hurt. Pretending they don’t doesn’t change that.”
I took a deep breath, holding back my tears. “Even with all that’s happened in our family, I am truly happy for Ella. But I don’t…”
I took a glance at her, almost wanting permission for what I was about to say. She did not stop me.
“I don’t want to have to depend on a man to save me. This world is a harsh place, and there are only so many handsome princes to go around.”
She listened attentively and waited a moment before answering. “You are a smart young woman Ember, you are meant for great things. Your cousin has had her day, and you will have yours too.”
She leaned in. “But don’t be afraid to let the right man rescue you someday. Even if you do not need saving, it can be a wonderful thing. Your grandma knew this, and that was part of how she enticed your grandfather when they were both young.”
She laughed, but then added. “Don’t be afraid to pursue greatness. Not for a man, but for yourself.”
She waited and rolled her eyes, “Oh, my dear look at me. I’m just an old woman prattling on.”
I took in her words, wondering if she was right, then turned for a second, to see if the store owner was still on the phone.
“What’s on your mind, girl?” The old lady asked.
“The man who was in here before, his voice sounded familiar. I wanted to ask who it was.”
“You mean the one who left just as you were taking that young couple to the register?”
“Yes, that’s the one. Did you see him?”
“That was Dr. Uva.”
I froze for a second. “Do you mean Dr. Akio Uva of Moyo University?”
“One and the same. I take it you’ve heard his radio show?”
“I’ve heard him on the radio and read most of his books and columns. What was he doing here?”
“He is searching for apprentices, students who can enroll in his program, and take on the world of Medicine and Science.”
She sighed, “But alas, very few young men have any interest in these things these days. So now, he’s headed to the train station to move on to some other province in his search.”
She watched me through those spectacles. The eyes of the innocent old lady had been replaced with eyes like fire that dared me to take action.
She did not have to say a word. Her eyes said it all, but she chose to say those words anyway.
“Don’t be afraid to pursue greatness.” She repeated in a whisper.
Like a cannon being fired, I bolted out the door, leaving my cardigan behind in the apothecary, as my feet carried me through the cold air and cobblestone streets towards the train station. People stared on the sidewalks as I darted past them, running faster than I’d ever run in my life.
I stood atop a hill near the train station, finally seeing the face of the great doctor in the crowd, only a few steps from the entrance to one of the passenger cars. I wasn’t going to make it!
“Doctor Uva!” I yelled, as loud as I possibly could.
He hesitated, and I called again. “Doctor Uva!”
Now a few heads turned in my direction, and the man collecting the tickets looked toward me. Dr. Akio Uva turned his head in response, finally looking at me, but with his frame still facing the train entrance, only two steps away from it.
“Doctor Uva!” I called out once again, tearing the clip from my hair, and shaking my head.
Shocked looks grew on the faces of those watching, as the cold autumn wind blew my hair to the side, engulfing my long gold-red locks, like flames in the breeze, and revealing my pointed ears.
“Doctor Uva, my name is Ember Ama of the lost Forest Mountain Tribe. I’ve studied science and medicine my whole life, and I have knowledge of thousands of herbal remedies, both known and unknown to the world of modern science. If you agree to take me as your apprentice, then I promise you, I will be a great physician, and will strive to add to the great wealth of knowledge that your university has achieved.”
All heads turned at this point, all voices quiet as every pair of eyes in the station darted from me to Doctor Uva. Everyone held their breath as they waited to hear his answer.
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