I. Iona — Harvest
Iona inhaled deeply, closing her eyes to appreciate the world around her. The crisp morning air bore base notes of redwood and cedar, grounding a grassy aroma perfumed with top notes of rose and lily. Her face bloomed into a wide grin as she trekked along the Syon Vista toward Kew Royal Botanic Garden’s iconic Palm House. Like most halflings, Iona was stocky with hazel hair and cheerfully shining brown eyes. She was tall at three and a half feet, her sun-soaked skin a confused patchwork of tan and red. Her uniform of groundskeeper greens were a colour that would cause the gaze of most guests to slip off her even without the Wise veiling her appearance. At this hour, the world was still waking and the gardens would be empty of outsiders for quite some time.
She arrived before the tropical Palm House, the verdant foliage of its rainforest inhabitants hazily visible through the condensation-coated glass. Reaching up to the handle, she pressed her thumb firmly into the circular switch, whilst levering it up until it clicked, down twice, and up again. She paused as the glass shimmered grey and then emerald, then opened the door into Poison House.
The inhabitants of Poison House varied from the mundane on the left — hemlock, oleander, death lily — to the rare and esoteric on the right — blightrose, ironrose, lichbriar. The central workspace was filled with trays of root extracts for processing: bloodroot, malyss, mandrake, and terinav. Iona first checked the covered black lotus collection, then the yellow lotus and cybella. The dusts and pollens from each of these plants had to monitored carefully to avoid accidental inhalation by the gardeners. There were plenty of medical staff available to resolve the occasional mishaps, but it required closing down and ventilating the House, which would set them back by a day or more.
As her colleagues began to arrive, Iona stacked the crates with yesterday’s extracts and ordered a young forest gnome to take them through to the lab at the southern end of the building. He hoisted the crates and set off with a little too much enthusiasm, stumbling and catching his balance; the crates teetered but did not fall. Recovering, he looked backed sheepishly before proceeding through to the back room.
II. Korvak — Production
Korvak peered closely at a bubbling alembic, his slitted pupils darting around as a clawed finger tapped at the glass. One of the lizardfolk, Korvak wore white robes over his glossy black scales, which reflected the firelight from a burning athanor in an iridescent rainbow. A red-skinned fire genasi tended the furnace which, together with a large copper still, took up half of the lab. These were used for bulk preparations whilst the scholars’ workstations, with neatly stacked crucibles, a row of ceramic aludel pots and assorted alembics, were used to produce small-batch concoctions.
A forest gnome burst loudly through the doors, which swung violently behind him. If he noticed Korvak’s tongue clicking irritably, he did not react. He nodded to the scholar and deposited a stack of trays on an empty workstation. Korvak shuffled toward the new delivery, his clawed feet clattering aggressively against the floor. The gnome, finally sensing the room’s atmosphere, backed toward the doors and made a hurried exit. Korvak separated out the trays and jotted down a list of the fresh root extracts. He pushed two trays toward the fire genasi for roast-drying, before returning to his alembics.
Most were gently bubbling but two of them were still, having completed their distillations overnight — a torturously slow process under low heat to avoid denaturing the active ingredients. He removed the beakers from beneath the condensation tubes and tagged the apparatus for cleaning. He carefully measured out the viscous liquid into a series of vials, sealing them with stoppers and wax, before labelling them and placing them in a padded box. Once he had filled two boxes, he noted down the batch numbers in a ledger then pulled the bell cord on the wall.
At this sound, the gnomish porter reappeared, this time entering quietly with timid deference. Korvak turned away. The gnome approached the boxes, checking that they were tightly latched and then lifting them by the handles. He exited the room and then the Poison House, the door depositing him in the fresh mid-morning air outside the Palm House. He orientated himself west down Pagoda Vista and set off, navigating past the vast Temperate House, which was beginning to fill with the morning crowd of visitors. The ten-storey Great Pagoda seemed to grow rapidly in size as he neared, its spire piercing the sky as dozens of carved dragons in green and gold peered down from the rooftops. As he approached the entrance, he began to whistle a refrain from a Japanese song “Shura No Hana” — “The Flower of Carnage”. The closest two dragon carvings withdrew their elongated tongues, closing their mouths. Pushing open the door with one shoulder, he stepped into the multi-storey shopping emporium that funded much of the Royal Botanic Gardens’ more esoteric work and began to climb the spiral staircase inside.
III. Sefate — Sales
Sefate scratched a pointed ear as she listened to the customer before her, adjusting her top which had begun to slide down one exposed shoulder. Sefate was dressed casually in black, her t-shirt emblazoned with a crown of thorns. Her customer was a flame-haired woman wrapped in a dark blue cloak with purple trim. Many of Sefate’s customers were adventuring assassins but their preferred weapons and proficiencies demanded subtly different considerations. Her skill was to ensure that each customer felt they were receiving a bespoke recommendation, even if half of them ended up buying substantially the same products. Her sharp elvish features added to the impression of someone concentrating intently on the vividly self-aggrandising story being woven by the customer about an encounter with an owlbear.
In fact, Sefate already knew the appropriate poison to recommend but their stock was depleted with a new batch due that morning. Playing for time, she introduced the rogue to a range of applicators, cloths stitched into leather backs, where the inside could be treated with a poison and folded, then threaded through a holster like a grenade belt. This allowed for safe, rapid access to the cloths, which could be applied to a blade even in the heat of a fight. Gloves were, she warned, still essential.
As the customer browsed the shelf of applicators, Sefate’s gaze drifted to the window and she marvelled at the view from the seventh floor of the pagoda. A forest gnome entered from the stairwell, panting and out of breath. He was carrying the products Sefate had been anticipating, and she waved him over with a smile. She took the two boxes from the gnome, sliding one behind the counter and placing the other on top. Her fingers rapidly manipulated the dial locks, and the latches released with a satisfying click that caught the attention of her customer. It was all part of her performance.
“Fresh arrivals,” she smiled conspiratorially, “that I think will be right up your lane. Prepared on site and finished just this morning.”
The sight of neat rows of wax-sealed vials, each pressed into a separate padded recess within the box, had the desired effect and Sefate watched the dilation of the rogue’s pupils. After a beat, she returned to her practised sales patter, listing the effects, potency and average duration.
“I’ll take a dozen. And the charcoal grey applicator set.”
“Of course, madam. I’ll ring those up. Good hunting, and thank you for choosing Kew.”