The Care of Flowers – 1/3

As seen from the outside, the shop might have seemed utterly innocent.

A tea room hunkered on the inner slope of San Marino’s hill, sitting on the very crest of the rock tide; on the one side large dark table that looked onto the cobblestone road, on the other the astounding view of trees and flowerbeds giving way down to the sea of grass at the feet of the fortress-city. The shop was built on two floors and from the upper one spilled down a cornucopia of plants, from roses to willows, to orchids. Their sweet smell danced with tangy hints of resin and wood, echoing the scent of teas and drinks settled on the tables outside as the mixture of tourists and residents took a well-deserved break.

On the inside, Artemisia as well might have seemed a perfectly-normal waitress. The depressing code of her shop was somewhat relaxed, so she wore a simple linen apron, and a yellow blouse. With her naked feet covered by wooden clogs, the large silk ribbon on her chest and the wide straw hat shading her young and freckled face, she looked perfectly the part. Just a pretty Italian girl, maybe a little young to be the owner of such a renown shop, but still perfectly believable.

As she got ready to finish her next order, she drew a few strands of pale gold hair back behind her ears, just to make sure. Then she rummaged through her bowels, picking up a mixture of herbs and spices that she had worked on personally. Putting them in the palm of her hand she poured scalding water right onto her skin and through the spices as ribbons of vapor rose to hide her face and spread beneath her hat. The water spilled onto the teacup below and not one drop rested on her skin, rolling down like oil on glass.

She put the teacup on a tray and looked up, a smile pulling up her lips. Another order ready to go. Outside, sunlight cut through the profiles of her customers, each or them lost in their own world: those reading from a book or from a tablet, lazy couples sitting together, and a mother holding her cub to her breast. It was moments like these that told her everything she did was worth it: she set the stage and allowed them to recite their play until the end.

She completed her order with a serving of small pastries, olives, two small glasses of water a square cut of focaccia – as it was supposed to be – and carried it over to the table with the mother and the cub, her clogs tapping on the wooden floor.

“Adele,” she addressed the redhead girl who was also serving. She was a bit lost in conversation with a couple of tourists, her skin glistening with summer sweat, “could you go pick up hawthorn on the terrace? I think we’re almost all out of it.”

“At once lady Artemisia,” she replied, excused herself with a smile and went back inside.

A redhead, Artemisia mused following her with her emerald gaze. She didn’t have a redhead one in a while. Maybe her tastes were changing in her old age. She turned to the mother and her cub.

“Here is your infusion,” she chirped, setting the tray on the table without raising the smallest sound. “A mixture of cinnamon and other herbs. It’s a special blend, as I told you.”

“What an incredible scent! Do you like it Tommaso? Here,” she pulled the tray a little closer to the cub, making sure the little one was safe in her hands. Inside herself, Artemisia’s smile widened a bit. They were as frail as the earliest winter roots. The cub took in a whiff and curled his nose in disgust.

Artemisia chuckled.

“It’s likely an acquired taste. I can bring him a simple cold tea, perhaps?”

“No thank you, it’s perfectly fine. Heeeave-ooh! We sit now, like big boys,” she set him on the nearest chair. He turned his hazel eyes up to her and, quick as a hornet, grasped on her straw hat.

“Do you like it?” Artemisia tittered at his tiny fist crumpling the straw. Even under the uncaring summer sun, her forehead did not show the tiniest hint of sweat.

“Tommaso!” The mother pried his fist open and gave her hat back. “I’m truly sorry. He’s at that age where he has to put his fingers inside everything…”

“It’s nothing,” she replied, putting on her ruined hat. “I have others in the backstop.”

“I mean it. Put it on my tab.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Just enjoy your infusion.” She said goodbye with a tilt of her head and went back inside.

Paying for her hat. What a silly notion.

Once behind the counter and hidden from prying gazes, she passed her hand over the crumpled hat and the fibers smoothed out. Just as new.

“There we go,” she hummed setting her hat back on her head. Now, for the next order…

A shadow filled the entrance. Artemisia turned and welcomed the new customer with a smile, but that was just because her mouth was quicker than her eyes.

“Wel… come…” her words died on her lips.

The newcomer was a young blonde woman, who strode confidently up to the counter, setting there on both elbows and leaning forward. She wore designer clothes – a white blouse and tight black trousers, ending in a pair of black heels that glistened like spilled ink. She grinned at just a few centimeters away from her face.

If she let out a breath, they would have mixed like the herbs in her infusion. In her blue eyes flashed a bright-less light.

“What is this? Another tea shop?” She commented with sickly-sweet voice, like honey mixed with glass shard. “Next time you’ll set up an orphanage.”

“Dulcamara,” she replied. She tried to keep her gaze level, but she hesitated for a moment. Adele was upstairs on the roof garden. She couldn’t even run to tell her to stay there. Not with Dulcamara that close. Maybe a distraction might come in handy. “Can I tempt you with an infusion? I have a great cinnamon mix.”

The blonde stuck out her tongue like a snake tasting air.

“… nono. I’m really not in the mood for sweet stuff. You know, I was just passing by – a little bout of curiosity. Not that you might know what having an inquiring mind means, you poor poor dear.” She clicked her tongue, tapping her long, hard nails on a teacup. “Thirteenth germination, and what do you have to show for it? Tea shops.” Artemisia frowned, but she was met with an even wider grin. “No sweetie, no such thing as temptation coming from you. I was just on my way to the Sabbath. Atropa Belladonna summoned the Table Twenty and you know how antsy she gets if we’re not there on time.” A chuckle. “I mean, you wouldn’t really know.”

“I wasn’t informed.”

“How weird,” Dulcamara pouted. “Now tell me dearie, are you all on your own here? Where’s your Familiar?”

“She’s not here.”

“You don’t say.” Those azure eyes moved past her shoulder and towards the flight of stairs going up to the roof. “What a pity.”

“If you did not come here for a drink, wouldn’t it be better for you to be on your way? Given you have your Sabbath to attend to, and this is not even your own Stravaganza. I also have customers to serve.”

“I wouldn’t hinder you from serving, not in a thousand years,” she quipped, walking back from the counter, raising her hands as if to look harmless. “This was just a courtesy, dearie. A pity I couldn’t meet you Familiar.” She covered her lips with one finger. “Maybe next time you’ll be the one to visit me. I’d be delighted to show you Palermo. And my collection.”

“Wouldn’t count on it.”

“Too busy serving, I gather.” Dulcamara chuckled once again. she turned waving her hand on her way out. “Alas! I really have to go. I hope to see you soon sweetheart.”

Artemisia watched her disappear out of the shop. And then she leaned back. How did the Children of Men do it? Hold their breath and then release?

From behind her came a sound of steps.

“Lady? I heard someone came and I thought…”

“Come here,” she pulled her in an embrace. Adele, tame as ever, welcomed it. She passed her hands through her rusty hair. She smelled like Hawthorne, freshly-moved heart and that tangy scent of sweat. That human scent of red blood and pumping hearts. Artemisia set a quick kiss on her forehead. “What did you hear?”

“I… think I heard something about one of your…”


“She sounded different from the other one. The one who came for a drink in January: that one was a polite customer.”

“Datura,” Artemisia reminded her. She pulled out of her hug and held her hands in her own. “Listen well. Not everyone of us is as kind and polite as Datura. The one you heard talking is Dulcamara. Remember the name. If you hear her name or her voice again, come to look for me at once. Do not speak to her, do not listen to her. Even if she were to order you to.”

Her eyes darkened.

“Yes, but… we are in your Stravaganza, Lady. It’s not like she can command me. Can she?”

“It’s a matter of hierarchy. Are we clear?”

“Yes, Lady.” Adele licked her lips, thinking. “Anything else I should know about? You are always pretty vague about…”

“Nothing, for the time being. Ignorance is a good defense in such cases.” A pause. She set Adele’s dress straight. “You can go out tonight. If you want.”

“Really?” She beamed. “Can I? For real?”

“You earned it. You took the right choice staying upstairs. You can take tonight off. Go visit your family. Friends, whoever. Spend as you like.”

“Thanks Lady!” She hugged her back and for a moment Artemisia came back to that moment when she poured tea – when everything seemed to be in its proper place.

“Now finish cleaning up the hawthorne. I’ll go ask for more orders.”

Adele nodded as Artemisia picked up an empty tray. Maybe just to clean up a few tables. Think about important stuff. Pull Dulcamara and the Sabbath and the rest out of her head.

“Lady… who is Atropa Belladonna?”

Artemisia froze. Her tray trembled slightly.

“This is one of those things you do not need to know about,” she whipped her replied between tight lips. “The less you know, the less you can worry about. Now get back to work.”


She left her to her job, walking outside and picking up empty glasses and teacups.

The afternoon was quickly rolling down the slope to sundown, as shadows lazily stretched. Cicadas cried out in the heated air, seemingly echoing the chattering coming from the tables where the Children of Men went on with their ordinary lives, completely oblivious, sitting outside of a normal, innocent tea shop.

“Atropa’s new Sabbath, hmmm?” She murmured, closed her eyes and tried to banish that thought.

And for a few glorious moments, Artemisia could take off her hat, adjust her unruly hair and coddle herself in the delusion the worst part of the day was over.


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