The Lorne Stories are several shorts I never developed into good, cohesive plots and don’t plan to at this point. 3 vignettes and a short story. 11.5k.
1: Lorne and the Amstead Apothecary
Lorne stomped his boots on the edge of the step, trying to dislodge the mud caked in the tread. Checking the bottom of his boots, he sighed. He sat on the cold wood step and worked the buckles on his worn leather boots open. The buckles felt like ice, and his fingers stung from prolonged contact. A very little bit of light fell from the lantern at the door, but most of the light came from the bright full moon high in the sky. He pulled off his left boot, and then the right. He’d tracked mud in once—never again. The chill in the air and ground quickly permeated his threadbare socks, so he grabbed the day’s collection and scampered inside.
The bell on the door chimed as it opened and shut. During the day customers would go in and out, the bell tinkling incessantly. Somedays Lorne thought he’d go mad. Of course Alton loved the sound of those damn bells. People coming to the great Amstead Apothecary for remedies to what ails them and leaving their coins in return. Only half of the remedies definitely worked. The other half, Alton said, probably worked, but could just as easily be colored water and a dream.
“Is that you, Lorne?” Alton’s voice drifted over him.
“Yes, Master Amstead.” Lorne draped his cloak over his arm and went to stand in the doorway of Alton’s study. The room comfortably—and intentionally, Lorne suspected—could comfortably accommodate one person. Alton’s extensive library took up two entire walls. A small desk and chair were tucked tightly into a corner. Lorne should be grateful, he supposed. Before Lorne came to apprentice, his bedroom had been used as Alton’s study. Lorne would happily sleep in the smaller room, however, if it meant that both he and Alton could fit in Alton’s study. As it was, Lorne had to do all reading and transcribing elsewhere, away from Alton.
Alton was hunched over his desk writing furiously, his golden hair glistened in the candlelight. Lorne didn’t interrupt Alton’s focus, and waited to be acknowledged. Eventually, the scratching of the quill ceased. “What is that infernal smell?” Alton raised his head to glare at him.
Lorne frowned, pulled the bottom of his cloak to his nose, and sniffed; his face twisted at the stench. “Um, willyhock dung, sir.”
Alton set down the quill and sat up straighter. “And why, in God’s name, do you smell like willyhock dung?” His mouth pulled down in a disgusted frown that made Lorne wither a tiny bit inside.
“Well, you sent me for red-spot mushrooms, and they like to grow in willyhock dung. So I found a nest of willyhocks,” Lorne stated matter of factly. They often had conversations similar to this one. Lorne would come home reeking, and Alton would demand an explanation. And every time the explanation was Alton sent him on smelly errands. After a good year of this, Lorne could recite the conversations by rote. It was tiresome and discouraging. Lorne desperately needed to bathe, and the whole thing could be avoided if Alton would wait until afterwards to chat.
But it was nice to see Alton’s face and hear his voice after returning home. Often, as Lorne trudged back to the shop, he’d imagine returning home to Alton as a lover. Opening the door and being greeted by an embrace, a kiss, warmth, affection.
Alton narrowed his eyes and held his hand under his nose. “Well, go get cleaned up. Dinner will be ready soon, and then, provided you can get rid of the stench, I’ll show you how to store the mushrooms and their spores.”
Lorne turned and couldn’t keep the little smile off his face as he went to the workroom and deposited the sack of mushrooms on the large wooden table. Alton’s lessons in preparation and storage were a very special kind of torture.
When Lorne first arrived eight years ago, the novelty of learning by doing—so contrary to his father’s method of teaching—changed how Lorne thought about knowledge. Going outside, working with the plants, talking with Alton, Lorne learned more about the world and potions in one month with than he’d learned in the 6 years his father had tried to instruct him. Now that he was older, lessons held even more appeal.
Sometime around the age of fifteen, Lorne started noticing Alton in a new way. Perhaps it was because he saw Alton every day. Perhaps it was because Alton was the most beautiful man Lorne had ever met. But Lorne came to want Alton. And Alton made it very clear he did not want Lorne. Not in that way, at least. Fifteen year old Lorne was a bundle of dejected sexual frustration. Twenty year old Lorne was determined to enjoy every bit of Alton he could… even if he had to do so with a tiny bit of innocent deception.
Lorne walked into the washroom, peeled off his clothes, and tossed them out the window; he would boil them on his next free day. Some people had nice clothes and everyday clothes; he had smelly and non-smelly clothes. The water in the bath was tepid, but it smelled citrusy, and if he intended to get Alton close, he needed to rid himself of the stench. He scrubbed twice with citrus soap and a coarse cloth to make sure the filth of the day was gone and rinsed. He dried off quickly and pulled on his clean clothes that also smelled vaguely of citrus. He gave his clothes a final sniff and hurried off to the dining room. He had a lesson to look forward to.
* * *
The plates mocked him. His plate was empty. Alton’s plate was half full. Lorne had already finished his meal, wanting to get dinner over with and move on to lessons as quickly as possible. And now he stared at his empty plate while Alton slowly ate with all the decorum he possessed. Lorne secretly suspected that Alton somehow knew Lorne lived for their lessons and was intentionally stretching the time that Lorne had to wait.
The regular click-clack of Alton’s fork stopped; Lorne looked up, hopeful that Alton was finished. He wasn’t.
“Lorne, you cleaned your plate too quickly. If you ever want to be taken to social events you must eat civilly.”
“Sorry, Master Amstead,” Lorne mumbled. He didn’t care about social events or being civil. He wanted mealtime over. He wanted a candlelit workroom and Alton instructing him on the proper way to prepare ingredients.
“As your mentor, I am responsible for all aspects of your education, including your manners. It is well past time that you be taken into society.” Alton never talked with utensils in hand. This supper would never end.
“But Master Amstead, you rarely go. Why should I need to?”
Alton frowned. “I’ve been remiss in my duty to you.” Alton’s frown deepened, and Lorne noted the moment Alton came to some sort of decision with a tic of his mouth. What that decision was, Lorne didn’t know. “Are you still hungry?”
“No, sir.” Lorne stared at Alton’s fork until it was picked up and put back to use. Swallowing a sigh, Lorne mentally went over everything he knew about red-spot mushrooms. If he wasn’t sufficiently prepared, Alton would hand him a book instead the tools to prepare the mushrooms. He didn’t know much—only how to recognize them and harvest them.
Finally Alton set his fork down. “Thank you for dining with me.”
“A peaceful meal.” The traditional end of dinner words spoken, Lorne stood and began gathering the dirty dishes from the table.
“Meet me in the work room when you have finished the dishes.”
Lorne nodded and set about the task of cleaning up dinner. He took the leftover food scraps to the animals and put forth only the minimal amount of effort required to wash the dishes. Once everything was clean enough, he gave his hands one last scrub with citrus soap. Just to be safe, he put a dab of citrus soap on his neck. One lesson had ended early because Alton claimed he smelled bad.
* * *
Alton was sitting at the work table scraping the gills out of the mushrooms, which had already been separated by some mysterious system unknown to Lorne. Two candles sat on the table, making Alton glow in the dim light.
Lorne sat on the bench opposite Alton. The work table and its benches were high off the ground. Lorne was almost as tall sitting at the table as he was standing. Alton started explaining how he had separated the mushrooms—it was by intended use—and why. Lorne made mental notes on what to followup on later. After explaining the basic preparation and storage process, Alton looked up and asked Lorne if he felt up to trying. Lorne nodded, not trusting his voice to be steady and calm.
Lorne held himself still as Alton pushed back his bench and walked around to stand behind him. The burning in his lungs forced him to exhale and take a deep breath.
“Are you ok?” Alton asked.
“Yes. Of course. Why do you ask?”
“I thought you coughed.”
Lorne shook his head quickly. Alton must have heard him breathe. It wouldn’t do for his pathetic love sighs to be audible. If Alton suspected Lorne still desired him, he might stop instructing Lorne in their usual manner.
“To prepare the mushroom for storage, it must first be cut into cubes like so.” Alton took a sharp paring knife and cut the mushroom into cubes by making criss-cross strokes on the head. Beautiful, perfectly cubed pieces fell apart onto the table. “Understand?”
“We’ll see. Now you try.”
Lorne took the paring knife from Alton’s fingers, brushing them softly. He would deny it was intentional. Cutting the mushroom caps would be a piece of cake. Lorne had mastered all the common, and some of the not so common, cutting patterns years ago. But succeeding on the first try would be no fun. He felt the balance of the knife and fit it correctly into his hand, then placing the knife tip into the mushroom he started slicing, emulating the criss-cross pattern Alton had used.
“No, no, no.” Alton huffed. “You need to cut it like this.” Alton leaned over Lorne to put another mushroom cap in front of them. He wrapped his arms around Lorne, and then put his hand over Lorne’s. “You need to place the flat of the knife on the cap when you make the initial cut.” They were nearly cheek to cheek and Lorne could feel the breath from each of Alton’s words. Lorne’s heart picked up its pace, ready to beat out of his chest. Alton moved their hands and arms together to produce the same perfect cubes from the first mushroom. Alton stood back up, and the cooler air of the room separated them once again. “Honestly, Lorne, I’m surprised you are still making that mistake.”
“Sorry, sir. I’ll do better next time.” Next time Lorne would have to figure out some other reason to need assistance. Alton would be mad if he knew Lorne was feigning a lack of skill.
“This next technique is one you haven’t tried before. It’s a little tricky.” Alton picked up a stem and twirled it against a knife, causing long curls to fall to the table. He repeated with another mushroom, doing something with his wrist Lorne couldn’t quite understand. “Shall we try together?”
“Yes, please. I don’t understand what you’re doing with your wrist.”
“Yes.” Alton once against placed his hands over Lorne’s. “That’s the trick of it all.” This time, Alton’s cheek did brush Lorne’s, his late evening stubble scratching Lorne’s smooth skin. Alton had to demonstrate three more times before Lorne could force himself to focus on the mushroom. The wrist movement, it turned out, was intended to cut a groove in the coil.
“Why are we making these coils?” Lorne asked as they cut their fifth stem.
“No idea. This is how my father taught me. When I asked him the same question, he told me it was because this is how his father taught him.” They continued to cut the stems together. “One time I did simply slice the stems, and they weren’t as potent. You might try to figure out the reason on your own; it would be good to record a reason better than ‘dad said so’.” After many more spirals, Lorne understood the movement enough that he could relax and pay attention to Alton again. He could pretend that Alton was embracing him out of affection, or at least lust. That this Alton would use the lesson as an excuse to seduce Lorne into a different sort of lesson.
The light dimmed as the candles shrank to their base. Alton stepped back quietly. When he didn’t speak Lorne turned to look at him. It could be the dim light, but Alton’s cheeks looked slightly flushed. Lorne thought if only he knew what to do next, he could make Alton see him—want him. But Lorne didn’t know what to do next. He didn’t know what to say, or how to act. He had no idea how courting or seduction worked. After his fifteen year old self had been rebuffed, he gave up any attempt and decided Alton was unseducable. He stared at Alton, willing him to do something. Touch me. Hold me. Kiss me. Alton left the room silently.
Lorne sat at the table several more long moments. The lesson was everything he wanted. Now that it was over, though, Lorne was left in a dark room getting darker with each breath he took. He rubbed his cheek where it tingled from being scratched by Alton’s stubble. Would they go on forever in this manner?
No. There were only six months left in his apprenticeship. Normally, apprentices remained with their mentors to become business partners or more. Deep down, Lorne knew that Alton would set him back into the world rather than keep him as a partner. They weren’t really friends. Alton displayed no regard for him, and it didn’t matter what Lorne felt.
Only six more months. When did their time draw so short?
Lorne stood, cleared his mind, cleaned up their tools and worktable, and went to bed.
2: Lorne and the Prickled Pear
Lorne whistled a random cheery tune as he picked lemons from the trees in the greenhouse. He was almost out of soap, and it was only a matter of time before he had to go fetch ingredients for Alton again. He figured the lemons and oranges were essential to their continued coexistence. Without them to take away the odors Alton found so offensive, Lorne was pretty sure he’d be exiled to the barn.
He pulled the last ripe lemon off a branch and picked up the basket to move on to the orange tree when the door opened and slammed shut again. “Lorne,” Alton called.
“Back by the lemon tree, sir.” He put down the bucket and dusted his hands off. He sniffed his sleeve—he still smelled normal. What did Alton want? It was Lorne’s day off—also known as laundry day, soap making day, and write-to-family day.
“Good afternoon, Master Amstead,” he said when Alton emerged through some monstrous aloe.
“Lorne. I need you to fetch something for me.”
“Of course, sir. What is it?” Lorne plucked an orange off a branch.”Prickle Pear. And I need at least five.”
Lorne clenched his jaw to keep it from going slack. He was sure he paled several shades closer to white. “Pr-prickle pear?”
“Yes. It doesn’t haven’t to be today, but sometime this week, please.” Alton turned and strode out of the greenhouse, Lorne apparently no longer needed.
It was several minutes before Lorne could push back the panic and move. He had read about prickle pears only two nights ago. If this was a test, it was a cruel one… even for Alton. Prickle Pear grew on river banks, and only after a fertile flood season. Luckily the fertile floods had come, so there should be prickle pears… but the river? Alton knew Lorne couldn’t swim.
He couldn’t think about that now. He could deal with his little fear of water at the river. Alton needed prickle pears. Lorne would obtain them.
He needed to pack. In order to pack he needed to move. He took a deep breath and then another. He could do this. He was capable of climbing trees safely, he could certainly navigate a river bank safely.
Lorne returned to his room. Slowly and methodically he prepared for his errand. In addition to his normal knives and bags, he added sturdy rope, iron spikes, and several hooks to his pack. He put on clothes that clung to his body like a second skin so the water wouldn’t drag him down by the cloth on his back, he chose a sturdy pair of light shoes that would take him over land and in water.
The sun looked to be high in the sky. If he hurried, he could make it to the river and back by midnight. And then it would be over and behind him.
* * *
Lorne slowly made his way home from the Great Green River. The moon had set hours ago, but he knew the way to the apothecary by heart and soul. It was remote, but it was home. He had spent five years coming and going, and it called to him like north to a compass needle. Gradually the cottage wisped into sight. It was a beautiful sight. A lone light burned in Alton’s study, and he felt a sense of warmth and belonging returning to someone—even though that someone was not waiting for him.
His clothes were a soggy weight in the pack. He’d had to remove his shirt when his nipples bled. His shoes came off when blisters broke on his heels. And he’d lost his gloves in the river. He was shaking head to toe, but he was almost home.
Left foot forward. Right foot forward. The short quarter mile felt like forty, and he wasn’t sure if the cottage was getting any larger. Left foot. Right foot. On and on it went. He was so cold that it was all he could feel.
“Ouch!” His toes mashed into something cold and grating. He was concentrating so hard on forward motion, he didn’t take into account vertical motion required to scale the hard wood steps. Toes throbbing, he slowly dragged himself into the cottage. Distantly bells tickled, but he kept walking to the work room to deposit the prickle pears. The light was too bright, and he was still stiff from the cold.
“Lorne, is that you?”
“Yes, Alton.” His voice came out hoarse. He needed a bath, some ointment, and two days of sleep. He hoped Alton would be pleased with him.
“Of course it’s you. The stench follows you like a shadow,” Alton said, his voice sounded closer than it had before—which didn’t make sense because Lorne kept moving away from Alton’s study.
Prickle pears safely on the table—all eight of them—he hobbled into the washroom. Slowly, he peeled his breeches off and threw them out the window, along with the rest of his soggy pack. He lowered himself inch by inch into the surprisingly hot water. Lorne sighed. This is what heaven must feel like.
“What did you say?”
“Huh?” Lorne blinked and focused on Alton standing in the doorway. What had he said? “I didn’t realize I spoke. But um, maybe this is what heaven feels like?”
Alton’s eyebrows rose. “I see. Are you all right?” As if Alton cared about his well-being. Well, he probably did. If Lorne wasn’t hale, he couldn’t run errands.
“Yeah. Can I use some ointment?” He was going to be in bad shape tomorrow. In the tepid light of the room, Lorne could see the bruises that had formed on his body, and he hoped he’d be able to stay home for a couple of days.
“Of course.” Alton left and returned with a jar Lorne knew to be full of oily smelly salve that would soothe the raw patches on his skin. The odor would also keep Alton away. It wasn’t fair. He wanted to be near Alton, but Alton sent him into situations that made him intolerable. It was almost as if, just like Lorne pretended to not know how to handle ingredients during the lessons—a subterfuge that allowed him to achieve his goals—Alton made Lorne perpetually unattractive. Lorne cracked an eye open and watched Alton. His normal arrogant stance was relaxed, and he almost looked concerned.
“Alton?” Lorne closed his eyes, the warm water lulling him closer to sleep.
“Do you make me smelly on purpose?”
Lorne peeked up at Alton through a cracked eyelid. Alton’s face screamed incredulity a little too convincingly. He took a step back into the workroom and asked, “Are you sure you’re well?”
Lorne sighed and sank further into the water. “Yes, Alton. Just blistered and raw. The salve will help.” It was so unfair. No matter what he did, what he needed, he ended up repulsive to Alton at the end of the day.
“Why? What happened?”
“Nothing, I just didn’t have time to dry my clothes.” Lorne stretched his legs out and looked at Alton. “I should have just gone naked. And I fell into the river a couple times.”
Alton frowned and ran his eyes over Lorne’s body. “Why didn’t you wait for your clothes to dry? Start a fire? You probably have a cold festering.”
He must really need sleep—Alton’s attention didn’t even stir the smallest beat of lust. “You asked for prickle pears, and when you ask I fetch.” Lorne opened his eyes and smiled at Alton. “Thanks for the hot water and ointment. Your pears are on the work table.”
Alton opened his mouth as if to speak, but turned and left instead.
3: Lorne and the Swamp
Turned out Alton was right. Three days later, Lorne found himself dragging with a mild cold, and after Alton snapped at him to “stop that infernal sniffling”, he retreated into the greenhouse to read. It was warm and humid in there, and the plants didn’t care if he sniffled. He settled on a bench with a pillow, and his sore feet were happy to be propped up and put out of use.
Alton’s books were much more interesting than the books he grew up learning from. It took Lorne two years to realize this. Alton’s books had useful information unlike the useless ones of his childhood. For example, his father maintained that learning ancient Goraghish was important. Lorne had yet to see or hear anything Goraghish outside of those books. But Alton’s books, completely different. Useful.
Today Lorne had chosen a book on mood remedies. Things to make one happy, things to make one sad, he scanned the table of contents. Things to make one courageous, and—hang on—things to make one aroused. Well that would be interesting to try on Alton… assuming Alton could become aroused.
Lorne was unsure Alton had any mood other than impatience lately. He hadn’t mentioned the prickle pear expedition—not a “wow eight pears”, or a “thank you”, or even a “how are you this morning”. Lorne sighed. Alton only saw him as the errand boy who he sometimes taught bits and pieces of his craft to. It would be nice to feel just a little appreciated once in a great while.
It was getting harder to be around Alton. Just this morning Lorne caught himself about to put his arm around Alton’s waist while he made breakfast. It was obvious that Alton didn’t find him attractive. But that didn’t stop Lorne from wishing. He glared at the cottage through the window, about where he imagined Alton to be. See me, he willed through the walls. When no Alton came running towards the greenhouse arms open wide, Lorne looked back at the book.
Arousal potions were all well and good, but Alton would probably focus his arousal on a customer. He turned the page. This one was even more promising than the arousal potion—a love potion. He looked at the two recipes. They were almost identical except that the love potion called for swamp guts. Lorne tipped his head back and glared at the translucent ceiling. Why did it have to be swamp guts?
He could probably get swamp guts. He got the prickle pears, and that was even more impossible than swamp guts. At least getting swamp guts didn’t involve swimming.
* * *
It took a week for his cold to subside and his skin to heal enough to go out again. He had studied swamp guts and where to find them, and had packed a bag with the supplies he’d need—the same supplies needed for the prickle pear expedition. He went to Alton’s study to make sure Alton wouldn’t miss his presence.
“Do you need anything from me today?”
“Hmm?” Alton kept his head buried in a letter he was writing. “Not now, Lorne.”
“Then I’m going for a walk.”
He wasn’t sure Alton even realized he was going out. Lorne flung his pack over his shoulder and set off from the cottage. There was a swamp only several miles from the cottage. He walked east for a mile then descended a gentle hill into the lowlands. A large, untamable swamp took up most of the area, and it was a fertile ground for some of the more unusual ingredients Alton used in his potions. Typically Alton would go into the swamp alone. Sometimes he would take Lorne, but only if they were staying near the edge.
Lorne felt up to the task. The prickle pears were ten times harder than this. The verdant meadow gave way to forest and then to the dark swamp. The tree canopy blocked all light from the sun. Under the canopy, shrubs and dead trees littered the ground, Large, dark trees grew out of the murky water standing and moving about.
Carefully and slowly, Lorne picked his way over limbs and around the pools of water. The darker it got, the more eerie the swamp became. Animal chirps and chatters came at Lorne from random directions. A lone bird called and then wings flapped. He nearly fell back over a log when a large rat ran across his path, startling him terribly. The rat gave him a mean hiss before disappearing into the brush.
He stopped and cut a bunch of swamp guts from the edge of the water—it smelled terrible. Bitter and putrid and like vomit and cookies all rolled into a soggy gooey root. He exhaled as he placed it carefully in his collection bag.
The love potion better work, or Alton would never forgive him for smelling this bad. These clothes would have to be burned.
He stood up and brushed the mud from his knees. He lost track of time in the perpetual dimness of the swamp. At one point he thought it was getting darker, but then an eerie inexplicable glow lit the forest from the water. He collected enough swamp guts to fill his sack, but when he tried to return home, nothing looked familiar. He followed a path of intuition. Time to test that feeling of being able to find the cottage regardless.
He walked and walked and walked and then instead of moving forward his foot caught on a root and he flew into the ground. He spit mud onto the ground and braced his hands and feet to get up. Pain radiated outward from his left ankle and he collapsed back onto the ground. He tried again and managed to fall on his injured ankle. Then inexplicably his right leg fell into pain so sharp and intense Lorne thought it was on fire. Bile rose in his throat and he threw up.
He crawled over to a nearby fallen tree. His left ankle was surely sprained. Something was wrong with his right leg; it was deep crimson and throbbing. Walking was impossible for the moment, so he would just close his eyes for a minute; wait for the pain to pass.
* * *
“Lorne, open your eyes.” Something tapped his cheek, and he tried to swat at it, but his arms wouldn’t move. He tried to open his eyes as the voice said, but his eyelids wouldn’t lift. He was cold, so very cold that he was shaking, and desperately thirsty.
“Water,” he croaked. The opening of a canteen pressed against his mouth and water trickled onto his lips allowing them to part. The water poured slowly in, and he drank all that he was given.
“Lorne?” The tapping on his cheek was back. “Lorne, please open your eyes.”
Lorne forced his eyes open. The light was dim, but he could still make out Alton’s features. His arm still wouldn’t move, and when he tried to move his legs he gasped with the pain.
“Thank God.” Alton’s hand smoothed repeatedly down Lorne’s cheek. “I was so worried.” Alton didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes, just touching Lorne’s face and smoothing his hair out of the way. “I think you sprained your ankle… and your right leg looks like it was cut by a Tilc plant. Can you move them at all?”
“It really hurts.”
“I know, but I can’t carry you. I can wrap the ankle, but you have to help me get you back.”
Lorne concentrated on moving his arms again, and finally they followed his command. His hands were covered in dirt—so were his clothes for that matter. Alton must hate being so close to him. He probably reeked of swamp.
Alton wrapped his ankle, and Lorne wished he could pass out again. “Come on Lorne, you’re burning up. We have to get you home.” Alton pulled Lorne to his feet, taking as much of his weight as possible. They were about the same height, but Lorne was heavier than Alton. “I left the horse and cart at the edge of the swamp. We just have to get that far. You’ll make it.”
If Alton said he’d make it, he would. It took hours. It felt like days. Dark swamp became dim swamp, and finally light crept in until they were back in the meadow. Jules, the work horse they kept, grazed happily in the sunshine. The cart was the most beautiful thing, beside Alton, that Lorne had ever seen. Alton helped him to sit on the cart, and then the world became black again.
* * *
Warm. He was warm. His hand was really warm. Awareness eluded Lorne as he floated hazily in a soft cocoon. Slowly thoughts began to intrude, and it occurred to him something was not quite right. He was in a bed. A wonderfully comfortable bed. But it wasn’t his bed. And someone was holding his hand. He cracked an eyelid open and closed it immediately. Alton was holding his hand. He must still be dreaming.
He floated in that wonderful place between sleep and wakefulness for a time until the warmth around his hand went away. He was waking up now. He took stock of his body. His legs throbbed something terrible, but other than that he felt all right. The hand returned and his eyes shot open. “Alton?”
Alton looked startled, but that slowly melted into a gentle smile. “Good morning. How are you feeling?”
“I would imagine so. It’s the size of a grapefruit.” Alton sat back against his chair and sighed deeply, but still held Lorne’s hand.
“Um, why are you holding my hand, Master Amstead?”
“I prefer it when you call me Alton.” Alton gave his hand a squeeze. “I was so scared. I had no idea where you went. You’d been out there for two days before I found you.” Alton’s grip became tighter and more painful. “What made you go that far into the swamp alone? Do you have any idea how dangerous that was?”
“Alton, you’re hurting me.” The pressure on his hand relaxed immediately.
“I apologize.” Lorne hesitated. Did he really want Alton to know he was trying to assemble a love potion? “I was looking for swamp guts.”
“Which you found in abundance. But why?”
Lorne looked away, blushing. “Love potion,” he mumbled.
“A love potion?” Alton snatched his hand away. “And who were you planning on using this love potion on?”
Lorne pulled the covers up around his face, but Alton tugged them back down, glaring. “Um,” Lorne twisted the fabric between his fingers. “I was going to use it on you.”
He might as well get it all out. Alton would probably throw him out, anyway. “You make me feel good and happy and I want to hug you and kiss you and make you happy and make you proud of me and you don’t seem to think I exist half the time and the other half of the time you’re just Amstead the Apothecary and you don’t see me that way and I want you to see me that way.” Lorne took a deep breath and continued more slowly, “I see you every day, and it’s impossible to ignore my… my… feelings for you.”
Alton’s face was slack and his body still.
“Are you going to make me leave?” Lorne asked.
Alton leaned forward, placing his elbows on this knees, and propped his chin up on threaded fingers. He smirked at Lorne. “One, love potions don’t make people fall in love. Two, you shouldn’t endeavor to manipulate people’s emotions.” Lorne flushed, and Alton continued. “Three, I am proud of you and you do make me happy.”
Alton climbed onto the bed and carefully arranged himself around Lorne. “I kept thinking of you as the boy you came to me as, waiting for you to grow up. I missed the fact that you have grown up. And now, through my own neglect, I almost lost you.”
Lorne brought his hand to Alton’s arm and held it there. Was he allowed to touch Alton like this? Alton kissed his forehead and then kissed Lorne’s lips softly. The kiss zinged from his lips to his heart, which set about fluttering happily.
Alton laid his head back against the headboard. “A lesson on swamp guts. One of many.”
A lesson? Now? When Alton was finally in his bed? “Swamp guts? Ok?”
“Swamp guts typically make a potion more potent. Did you notice that the love potion and the arousal potion were identical except for that ingredient?”
“The love potion is just a much stronger, and much more effective aphrodisiac.” Alton gave a low laugh into Lorne’s chest. “Actually, I tried it once when I was younger. My parents had gone away and I thought it would be the perfect time to experiment, alone. Which, in hindsight, probably was not the brightest thing I’ve ever done. Anyway, since you got the swamp guts, we could make a batch once your legs have healed. What do you think?”
“And do what with it?”
“You’d drink some.” Alton traced little random patterns on Lorne’s shoulder. “I’d drink some.” He leered at Lorne. “We probably wouldn’t leave the bed for a week.”
Lorne couldn’t find his ability to speak, so he nodded instead.
4: Lorne and the Warm Bed
Lorne hobbled towards Alton’s bed. He’d told Alton at least three times he could sleep in his own room, but Alton wouldn’t hear of it. Walking wouldn’t be half so difficult if only one of his legs had been injured. But it was just his luck that the Tilc Plant got him on his right leg, and he’d sprained his left ankle.
“Lorne, what are you doing out of bed?” Alton hurried in, face angry and body tense. He put an arm under Lorne’s arms to help take the weight off. Lorne would have said thanks if Alton wasn’t speaking to him like he was five. “Well? I told you to stay in bed.”
“I had to piss.”
“Which is why there is a pot under the bed.” Despite Alton’s sharp tone, he carefully guided Lorne back onto the mattress.
“Oh, come on. I can walk.” Lorne adjusted himself until he was comfortable, hampering Alton’s efforts to pull the covers around him.
“Barely.” Alton finished tucking in the last bit of blanket. “We’ve been over this twice. You should know better. If the Tilc toxin spreads any more than it already has that fever you had will look like a warm flush.”
“But Alton,” Lorne groused. “The fever’s gone. The toxin is probably almost gone too.”
“Does it still hurt?”
“That’s what I thought. Stay. In. Bed.”
“You’re overreacting.” And he was. This was absolutely ridiculous. Lorne should be able to move around by now. The fever was gone. He felt confined, antsy. He wanted to get back to his greenhouse and soap making. His laundry needed laundering, and those oranges weren’t zesting themselves.
“You took ten years off my life in that swamp. Humor me and stay in bed. Write to your parents.” Alton waved at the nightstand. “You have at least five letters from your family that I know you haven’t replied to.”
“Fine.” Lorne crossed his arms. He looked at the nightstand. There were more like eight letters. Somehow his mother had found out about the swamp and the river. Those incidents required a letter each, apparently.
“Good. Now, I’m going back to the shop. I’ll be back with lunch in a couple of hours.”
* * *
Lorne spent the morning carefully wording replies to the various letters from his family. First, he assured his parents that he was fine—he had not drowned nor had he wasted away in the swamp. After his letter to Pitt, he leaned back against the three overstuffed pillows Alton had given him.
Alton’s room was comfortable. Unlike Lorne’s room, it had a large southwest facing window. The window was cracked open and a gentle breeze caused the dark brown curtains to flutter. The breeze carried the smell of the farm with it. A subtle odor of livestock, the fragrant aroma of lavender, and the sweet scent of cut grass taunted Lorne with all the places and things he couldn’t see. The outside air cooled the room and Lorne snuggled under the covers.
Before his fever, he’d rarely been permitted in Alton’s room. It was sparsely furnished, but the furniture present was exquisite in its design. The bed was a massive, sturdy dark oak with vines carved out of the headboard and footboard. Lorne was curious to know where Alton had acquired it. The night stand and dresser had similar decoration. As did the rocking chair. The worn wood floor was lighter in color and the walls were a soft cream. No other furniture or decorations adorned the room. It was plain and functional. When Lorne was still ill with fever, the plain walls had been soothing. Now they were boring. Alton needed a clock, at least.
Lorne closed his eyes and enjoyed the feel of the sun and breeze on his face. Two birds called back and forth to each other outside, singing sweet melodies that spread joy in Lorne’s heart. He was lost in the birds’ song when the door opened.
He cracked an eye open and watched Alton bring in a tray with enough food for two. Lorne grinned. Alton didn’t eat lunch with him every day.
“Did you finish your correspondence?” Alton asked as he spread butter on a thick slice of bread. Lorne wondered which of the villagers had brought it. Normally Lorne made the bread. He picked up his own slice and inhaled the fresh aroma. It reminded him of the way the Cleary’s kitchen smelled.
“I did. I have assured Mother that I am alive and well, Father that I’m keeping up on my studies, Pitt that I haven’t tried to go swimming again, and Avery… well, we just gossip.” Lorne took a bite of the bread and groaned. “Did Mrs. Cleary bring this?”
Alton nodded. “How did you guess?”
“The smell reminds me of their kitchen. Certainly not Mr. Cleary’s butcher shop.” He took another bite. “I need to start trading soap for bread, this is too good to go without.”
The corners of Alton’s mouth twitched upwards. “If you wish. Your bread is strong competition.”
Lorne blushed. “Thanks,” he said while chewing on a bite. His bread was nowhere near as good, but it was kind of Alton to say so.
Alton tapped some books sitting on the corner of the food tray. “Since you seem to have such an affinity towards mood remedies—”
Lorne blushed more.
“—I thought you might be interested in the theory behind them. They are, for the most part, either mild sedatives, system accelerants, or, in the case of your love potion, aphrodisiacs. Or some combination of the three. These books should keep you entertained for the next week.”
“The next week! Exactly how long am I supposed to humor you?”
“The next week.” Alton cut several slices of cheese and chewed one slowly.
Lorne grabbed a slice for himself. “Alton. I can’t do it. I will go mad here by myself. Please, can’t I just go sit in the greenhouse?”
Alton shook his head. “Sorry, Lorne. Maybe this will teach you not to go places you know to be dangerous by yourself.” Alton picked up a napkin and dabbed at he corners of his mouth. “How about this: I’ll ask some of the customers to come keep you company.”
“Wait, what? But—”
“I really must get back to the shop. Keep a list of questions, and we’ll go over them after dinner.” Alton nodded to the book. He stood, picked up the tray, and walked quickly from the room.
Lorne sighed and threw himself back against the pillows.
* * *
The book on sedative theory was mildly interesting. It would have been much more interesting in the green house. Or in the sitting room. Or in the kitchen. Or better yet, outside. Lorne has made a sizable dent in his reading when his first visitor arrived. Mrs. Veck was a widow of around seventy years. She was still spry and came by the apothecary every Wednesday for an energy tonic. Perhaps it was a system accelerant? Lorne made a mental note to ask Alton later.
Mrs. Veck pulled over the rocking chair and settled herself in. “Aren’t you cold in here?” She tightened the shawl around her shoulders.
“No, ma’am. I’m very comfortable.”
“Hrmph.” She looked around the room with interest, but nothing seemed to catch her eye. “Got yourself in a bit of a pickle, I see.”
“Yes ma’am.” This was going to be the longest week of Lorne’s life.
“Young Master Amstead says you are confined to bed for the week.”
“Yes ma’am.” Young Master Amstead clearly hated Lorne and was completely lying the other day about liking Lorne.
“You know who else is in a pickle?” Mrs. Veck raised an eyebrow, and continued before Lorne had a chance to answer. “Young Alec Sirit.”
That was surprising. Alec Sirit was the son of the village pastor. He spent most of his time studying in the hopes of following in his father’s footsteps. Of all the people to not be in a pickle, Alec Sirit was at the top of the list.
Mrs. Veck nodded, even though Lorne hadn’t said anything. “That’s right. Alec Sirit. No one knows exactly what happened, but Mrs. Johnston swears on her husband’s grave that he’s been hexed!”
“Hexed?” Lorne kept the incredulity from his face only through extreme will.
“Yes. He has these large purple boils all over his body. They fester, ooze, and burst and then more sprout in their place. I tell you, Lorne…” She leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. “It’s unholy. It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Why does Mrs. Johnston think it’s a hex?”
“Well what else could it be?”
It could be any number of things. And Alton didn’t believe that hexes were real. Neither did Lorne. There was no evidence that it was possible to fundamentally affect one person without affecting the person doing the original affecting.
“Well, anyway.” Mrs. Veck sat back and spoke normally again. “Pastor Sirit is beside himself. He’s blessed Alec with holy water and called in the bishop from the city. His wife is absolutely distraught, poor thing.” Mrs. Veck leaned forward again and even closer this time. “I think—and this is just the opinion of an old woman, mind you—that Alec Sirit took up with a demon.” Mrs. Veck nodded. Lorne held in his laughter, just barely. “A demon straight from hell.”
A throat cleared by the door, and Lorne looked up to find Alton staring at them in confusion. “Mrs. Veck,” Alton said. “What are you doing in here?”
Lorne’s eyes widened. Didn’t Alton send her? If people were just coming in of their own volition, he was in for a very tedious week. Lorne stifled a groan. Since Mrs. Veck had come, all the old women in the village were bound to follow.
Mrs. Veck smiled sweetly at Alton. “Oh, I was just visiting our young Lorne, here. When I heard he was laid up for a whole week, I said to myself, Cassie, you must go keep him company—it’s the neighborly thing to do.”
Alton pressed his lips together and nodded. “I see. Well, I have your tonic ready. And Lorne,” Alton gave him a pointed look, “needs to get more rest. He says he doesn’t—but you know how they are.”
Mrs. Veck nodded. “Yes, of course. Never can stay still very long.” She placed her hands on the arms of the chair and heaved herself up. “Get well soon, Lorne. It was lovely chatting with you.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you for visiting.”
Mrv. Veck accompanied Alton out of the bedroom, commenting on what a polite young man Lorne was.
* * *
“Wake up, Lorne.” Alton shook him again. “I’ve brought dinner. And then we’ll go over your reading.”
Alton tugged the covers down and a cold wind caused goose bumps to spring up all across Lorne’s skin. The only reason he opened his eyes was to glare at Alton. The room was dim, lit only by an oil lamp on the dresser and an oil lamp on the bedside table where Alton had set the tray of food. There were two bowls of some kind of stew that smelled heavenly. Lorne wondered who had made it. In addition to a thick meaty broth were chunks of carrot, potato, and onion. There were also two chunks of bread, each the size of Lorne’s fist, and a hunk of cheese. Lorne’s stomach growled. He sat up and adjusted the bed covers so he could properly eat.
“Much better,” Alton said. “Mrs. Veck sent over some rabbit stew. I admit to sneaking a taste, and it’s quite good. We must get the recipe.”
Alton set his dishes on the bedside table then passed the tray to Lorne. He picked up the spoon and filled it with the stew. He groaned when the rich flavor of rabbit, herbs, and vegetables hit his tongue. “So good.”
“Don’t talk with food in your mouth.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled, still chewing. He ripped the crusty bread in half and dunked it into the broth before taking another bite. “You’re right,” Lorne said, “I’ll get the recipe from her next time I’m in town. Who knew such a sweet old lady was hiding this from the world. She could sell it and have enough gold to tempt a dragon to the village.”
Alton laughed. He hadn’t laughed since before the swamp, and Lorne grinned in response. “Well,” Alton said. “Were dragons to actually exist, yes, I suppose she could.” Alton took a bite of cheese. “Can you picture Mrs. Veck facing a mythical fire-breathing monster?”
It was a funny image. She was old. Really old. Plump and hunched over by the years. But her tongue was wicked and her cane made a good weapon. “My coin’s on Mrs. Veck.”
“Mine as well.” They grinned at each other. The light from the oil lamp washed over Alton’s face, accentuating his smile and adding a twinkle to his eyes. Alton’s eyes widened, and the smile abruptly went away. It was such a typical Alton-ism. In time would such things cease? Would Alton grow more comfortable with him? Would they be able to gaze at each other for hours with just a smile between them? That might be pushing things, Lorne thought.
Lorne moved the conversation along hoping that it would make Alton feel more comfortable. “Mrs. Veck said that Alec Sirit is ‘hexed.'”
“Yes, I heard.” Alton sounded as impressed about the “hex” as Lorne had been. “It’s utterly ridiculous. Something is wrong with Alec, but a hex? Rubbish.” He sliced another piece of cheese and handed it to Lorne. “Once you’re up and about again I’ll pay the Sirits a visit. But until then…” Alton shrugged.
“You don’t need to stay here to watch me.” Lorne would happily take advantage of the situation to go outside for 10 minutes.
“Yes I do. And someone needs to mind the store.”
“So, it’s not me you’re worried about, but coin flow?” Lorne hid the amusement in his voice.
Alton looked up at Lorne, startled. “It’s both.”
“Mm Hmm. Do you know what’s wrong with Alec?”
“No. The description from his father did not single an affliction out. If it’s very bad we will have to send to the city for a physician.” Alton dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “Now, enough about things outside of our control. I’m going to clean the dishes, then we’ll talk about mood changing potions.”
Lorne quickly wiped his mouth with his napkin. While Alton was gone, he snuck out of bed and conducted a few ablutions and took care of his other personal needs. Despite being back in bed when Alton returned, somehow Alton knew. He gave Lorne a stern look. “Can I see your leg?”
“Which one?” Lorne pulled aside the covers so both of his legs were bare. Alton looked closely at the Tilc toxin infection and prodded around it. The area was still sore, but the soreness was not spreading.
“Everything looks as good as can be expected.” Lorne was about to ask if that meant he could be up sooner, but Alton anticipated. “You are still confined to bed for a week.” Alton began unbuttoning his shirt.
Lorne’s blood rushed between his head and his middle and back and forth. “What are you doing?”
“Your mattress is lumpy. I don’t know how you sleep on the thing. You’re well enough to share. But.” Alton turned and gave Lorne a stern look. “There will be no hijinks. We will go over your lessons and sleep. Only sleep. Is that clear?”
“None of them.”
“Okay.” Lorne assumed that Alton meant no touching. He couldn’t believe Alton was actually going to sit next to him in bed. Under the covers. Holy moly. What if he hit Alton while they were sleeping? Or drooled on his hair? Or just drooled? He probably looked ridiculous while sleeping.
“Tell me about mood relaxers.” Alton continued to disrobe down to his sleeping shirt and socks. Lorne looked out the closed window to avoid the distraction of Alton. He gave a halting account of what he had learned about relaxers. They spent the next several hours going over the nuances of relaxing moods. What plants and meats and minerals could be used to best effect. Which ones did not work. Which ones reacted poorly with other tonics. By the time they went to sleep, Lorne’s mind was fuzzy with the amount of knowledge and discussion they had covered. He went to sleep repeating “no hijinks, no drooling” over and over in his head.
When he woke in the morning, Alton had shifted over to Lorne’s side of the bed. Alton’s body was pressed tightly to Lorne’s side with an arm draped across his chest. Alton’s chin rested atop Lorne’s head, and with every one of Alton’s breath Lorne could feel hair move. He closed his eyes, enjoying the morning song of the birds and the warmth of finally being held in Alton’s arms.
* * *
Several hours later, judging by the angle of light into the room, Alton brought in a tray with breakfast. Lorne was starting to feel uncomfortable having food brought to him all the time. Usually they shared kitchen duties, and Lorne wasn’t used to not contributing to meals. He pulled the tray onto his lap and nibbled on a bread. After they had finished eating, Alton gathered the plates and such onto the tray.
“Today, you should move on to the mood stimulants. I’m sure since Mrs. Veck was in to see you yesterday, the rest of that group will be in today.” Alton sighed. “At least the shop will get a nice increase in business.” He smiled. “It all works out quite well, really. If you weren’t actually hurt, I’d say we should try this more often.”
Lorne laughed. Alton was teasing, but they both knew he liked to pull in a good day’s profit. “Sorry to disappoint you, but this is awful. Next time, you get stuck in bed.”
“Not very likely. I, at least, have the common sense not to be attacked by a Tilc plant.”
“Someday, I hope you will take me through the swamp. There are so many useful things in there.”
Alton nodded. “You’re right. We should have started that bit of your education a year ago.” Alton stood up with the tray. “But, today, mood stimulants.” Alton made to leave but stopped in the doorway. He looked back at Lorne. “And see if you can find out what the Sirit boy has been up to.”
“And don’t get out of bed.”
Lorne didn’t respond. He was leaving the bed as soon as Alton left the room.
“I mean it.”
“I know you do.”
Alton left. After several minutes, Lorne carefully went about his morning routine. The Tilc infection barely hurt, but even so, he was careful not to jar the injury too much.
* * *
Mrs. Johnston bustled into Lorne’s room about fifteen minutes after the store opened. She pulled the chair up to Lorne’s bedside and settled herself in the chair. The dull buzz of customers could clearly be heard from the hallway, so Alton was doing great business today. Lorne very much appreciated that Alton would be in a good mood the rest of the day.
Mrs. Johnston carefully took off her gloves and set them on the arm of the chair. “I see Cassie was right to send me over. You poor boy, how long are you in bed?”
“The next week, ma’am.”
“Poor poor boy. Cassie, of course, made it sound like you were on your death bed, but you look fine enough to me. What’s wrong with you anyway?”
Lorne couldn’t wait until he was an octogenarian and allowed to speak to others so bluntly. “I have a wound from a Tilc plant.”
“Tilc plant?” Mrs. Johnston sat up straighter. “Where on earth did you encounter one of those?”
“In the swamp, ma’am.”
“Hrmph. Alton should be watching you better. Tilc plant. Of all the stupid things to get injured by.”
Lorne blushed. “Alton wasn’t with me, ma’am. I got myself into this.”
Mrs. Johnston swatted the side of Lorne’s arm. “For pity’s sake, were you trying to get yourself killed.”
“No. But speaking of illness, Mrs. Veck said that Alec Sirit is ill, too?” Lorne prayed that Mrs. Johnston would take the subject change. He didn’t want to hear about how idiotic his trip to the swamp had been from anyone other than Alton. And his mother. And Pitt. And Avery. Lorne stifled a sigh.
Mrs. Johnston nodded, and her lace cap fluttered around her face. “That’s right. But he’s not sick. He’s hexed!”
“I… see. Do you have any idea who hexed him?”
Mrs. Johnston tapped her chin. “I believe it was a demon. I’ve seen Alec—the Sirit’s are my southern neighbors, you know—sneaking out at night in some sort of demon-worshiping garb—”
“I’m sorry, demon what?”
Mrs. Johnston gave him a sharp look at the interruption. “It’s the hat. It’s a red hat. The only one’s I’ve seen were when the blood debt ceremonies were performed.”
Lorne stiffened. “The debtor hat?”
“And back then, all the school kids knew that the hat used to be use to summon demons.”
Demons. Right. So Alec sneaks out wearing the debtor hat and then he’s hexed by a demon. Fewer things were more unlikely. “How often did he sneak out?”
“Oh it was all quite regular. Every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday just like clockwork.”
Someone knocked on Lorne’s door then slowly opened it. Mr. Chartly. He ran the hardware store. Well, his son ran the hardware store; Mr. Chartly sat on the front porch and talked with customers. He cleared his throat. “Why good morning Sarah.”
“Morning Geff,” Mrs. Johnston said back, all chipper and bright. “You’re looking well this morning.”
“Indeed. Morning Lorne.”
“Good morning Mr. Chartly. I’m surprised to see you this morning.”
Mr. Chartly looked around and leaned against the wall.
“I was just telling Lorne about Alec sneaking out at night in his demon summoning hat.”
Mr. Chartly rolled his eyes. “Don’t listen to her, Lorne. Alec wasn’t wearing that awful hat. Demon summoning my foot.”
“Well,” Mrs. Johnston said, “If he’s not demon summoning, what’s he doing then?”
“It’s just a normal hat. I think it’s a red-brown. Anyway, he’s got a gentleman friend he’s seeing in Prusset.”
“A gentleman friend!” Mrs. Johnston sniffed in disdain. “He has no such thing.”
“He does, I tell you. He’s always in the hardware store buying little presents an able-bodied young gentleman would appreciate. And I’ve seen him out at night heading on the road to Prusset. He usually has a handful of wildflowers. That’s courtin’ behavior if you ask me.” Mr. Chartly looked over and Lorne. “Demons! Can you imagine?”
“When did Alec get ill?” Lorne asked.
Mr. Chartly and Mrs. Johnston looked at each other. Mr. Chartly answered, “About four days ago.”
“And he’s covered in boils? Already?” Lorne asked.
“Yes, nasty thing it is…” Mr. Chartly paused for what Lorne assumed was ill-timed dramatic effect. “The puss spreads the infection.”
“What sorts of things was he buying at the hardware store,” Lorne asked.
“Well, not that Young Master Amstead would be appreciating these things, but I suppose it’s good to know how to woo a gentleman friend.” Mr. Chartly drummed at his leg with his fingers. “A couple weeks back he bought a fine wood planer. I asked Paster Sirit about it, and he’s not seen it. Then Alec bought a good, sturdy coffee grinder.”
“A coffee grinder is a courting gift?”
“Sure is, lad. And then,” Mr. Chartly’s voice rose and his eyes widened, “Then, this past week he bought the largest bottle of sewing machine jelly we sell.” Mrs. Johnston’s eyes widened. She turned to look at Mr. Chartly as he turned to look at her. They nodded at the same time.
“Yes,” Mrs. Johnston said, still nodding. “That’s very interesting.”
“You don’t think he bought the sewing machine jelly for a woman?”
Mr. Chartly snortled. “Please. An unmarried man buys the largest bottle of sewing machine jelly, it’s for one reason, and one reason only.” Lorne waited for the reason. It seemed like he was going to have to ask.
“…And that reason is?”
Mrs. Johnston patted Lorne’s hand. Her skin was cool and dry. “To court a gentleman friend.” She nodded. Lorne still couldn’t figure out what sewing machine jelly and courting men had to do with one another. It was a terrible choice for bodily lubricant, and normal household oils would raw far less attention. The conversation turned to more mundane gossip. Ladies who wore the same outfit to church, Mrs. Yates’ latest barrel of wine.
Lorne was exhausted by the time Alton tactfully expelled his visitors from the store. There were so many customers that Lorne was given a lunch tray and a book to read on his own. The silence was welcome after the incessant prattle that emanated from Mr. Chartly and Mrs. Johnston. But it was useful prattle. Lorne was now almost certain what Alec’s ailment was, and it was most certainly not a demon hex.
* * *
Lorne heaved a great sigh. “There’s only one person I want to see tomorrow, and if you let anyone in besides him or her there will be repercussions.”
Alton stopped slicing and looked up, eyebrows raised. “I can’t imagine what you think you have in terms of repercussions.”
“I will stop bathing.”
Alton laughed and resumed doling out portions of cheese and bread. “Then you’ll sleep in the barn.”
Lorne narrowed his eyes. “We’ll see.”
“So what did you learn?”
“Alec Sirit has been courting someone who either lives in or on the way to Prusset. He has bought that individual a planer, a coffee grinder, and the largest tub of sewing machine jelly that Chartly’s sells.” Alton raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Lorne continued, “Now, last time I went to Prusset there was a lovely bunch of Fringe Nettle in bloom. And correct me if I’m wrong, but sewing machine jelly is made from Creekcumber extract.”
“Yes. I see where you’re going with this. The Fringe Nettle spores are released around now.”
Lorne nodded. “I only need speak with the object of Alec’s affection to figure out what the catalyst was, and we can help him. Do you know who he might be ‘courting’?”
Alton looked out the window and chewed his bread slowly. “I think I do. Very good, Lorne. No more gossiping.”
Lorne touched Alton’s hand. “Thank you.”
Alton smiled. “The shop did well today.”
“Indeed. What we normally make in a month—all today. And all from people who are not our regulars.”
Lorne passed the dinner tray back to Alton and leaned back into the pillows. “I’m glad you’re happy.” And then Alton did something completely unexpected. He leaned forward and kissed Lorne.
* * *
Lorne had two days of peace where no one visited him. He read about mood accelerants and aphrodisiacs and even about mixing combinations of all three types. He couldn’t wait to be up and about and try his hand at mixing a mood remedy or two. When he had two days left of his confinement, a soft knock sounded on his door. He was surprised that Alton would send someone to speak to him again. He set the advanced aphrodisiac theory book aside and called for the person to enter.
A tall young woman with long, straight black hair stuck her head in. She had a narrow face and pale complexion. Lorne had never seen her before.
“Hello,” he said with a smile. “Can I help you?”
Lorne barely heard her when she said, “Yes. M-master Amstead asked me to see you. He had me fetched, I should say.”
“And may I ask your name? I’m Lorne.”
“And please, pull up the chair and have a seat. I would do it, but Master Amstead forbids me from getting up.”
She walked with the grace of a swam. The chair didn’t make a sound as she moved it next to the bed. “My name is Grace.” How fitting. “Alec Sirit is my fiancé.” She frowned. “He’s very ill. I can’t see him because no one knows of our engagement.”
“I see.” Lorne was dying to ask why no one knew, but it was not his business and he could find out from Mrs. Veck once the town knew, anyway. “Grace, Alec is very ill. He will die within two weeks if we can’t cure him.” Grace gasped. “But Master Amstead believes he can, we just need to know a few things.”
“I don’t know how I can help, but I will.”
“Did Alec bring you sewing machine jelly?”
She nodded. “He’s helping me set up my dressmaking store. He’s helped me build the tables I need and the jelly. That was thoughtful of him. He noticed I was running low…” She wiped a tear from her eye. “And he brought me more than I can use in a year. He’s so sweet and notices things like that. I hate how we have to be so secretive.”
“I see. That is very kind.” Lorne was getting impatient. “You see, the jelly probably mixed with something in the air. Normally nothing happens, but if they come into contact with something acidic or spicy to the taste, they can form a nasty little poison. Do you have anything acidic or spicy?”
Grace pressed her lips together. “I don’t think so… Wait. Yes. He etched a design into my machine. A heart with lines that curled into our initials. He used, oh I don’t remember what it’s called exactly. Frellic or Crellic or Mellic or—”
“Froltic Acid? Came in a powder he had to mix with distilled water?”
“Yes! Froltic Acid.”
“Can you ask Master Amstead to come in?”
She nodded and left the room. Frintic poisoining. It was easy to counteract, thankfully. Grace and Alton returned several minutes later. “Froltic Acid. Alec has Frintic poisoning.”
“Ah. And how should that be cured?”
“A tonic of Carnation water and soda paste with Pinch Root.”
Alton smiled. “Very good.” He turned to Grace. “Miss Stevens, if you could wait just fifteen minutes, I will prepare the necessary items and you can bring them to the Sirits yourself.”
“Oh no, I—”
Alton had left. He could be tactless at time.
“It will be fine. You should tell his parents. I’m sure they’d like you.”
“I don’t know… He’d have to move. And I don’t practice any religion, so his parents could hardly approve…”
“Well, all hiding has got you two is a severe case of Frintic Poisoning and half the town thinks Alec is a demon summoner.”
“A demon summon…?”
* * *
“…And Mrs. Veck tells me the boils have disappeared completely.” Alton unbuttoned his evening jacket and then dropped cufflinks onto a little bowl on his dresser. “And, apparently Alec has a lady friend from Prusset.”
“Is that so?” Lorne laughed quietly. “I’m glad they told people. Demon hex. For the love of all things rational.”
Alton pulled on his dressing robe and stood at Lorne’s bedside. “I know. All right, Lorne. Last day. Let’s see.” Alton pulled back the covers to expose Lorne’s legs. About two days ago Alton had stopped being so interested in the Tilc poison and more concerned with the sprained ankle which was still swollen. “I think these look good. But the ankle… we’ll see. Walking on it will help. I think…”
Alton left the room, much to Lorne’s puzzlement. He returned with a clear tonic. “I think it’s time to reduce the swelling. The Tilc toxin prevented using this before, but I think we can now. Here.” Alton held out the vial. “Drink up.” It was bitter and Lorne shuddered. “Every day for a week.”
“But you’ll be out of my bed and walking around.”
“Oh.” Lorne hadn’t considered that once he was allowed up he needed to move back to his room. It made sense. Just because he woke every morning wrapped in Alton didn’t mean anything.
“And you have mountains of laundry to do. I moved your old bed into the barn. Your floor is filled with clothes and linens.”
“I have to sleep in the barn now?” Lorne was becoming more confused by the minute.
“What?” Alton stilled climbing into his side of the bed. “Why would you sleep in the barn? Oh. No, of course not. I thought you were happy here?”
“I am. Okay. Laundry room. Great.” Lorne burrowed under the covers and rolled over onto his stomach to get into his preferred sleeping position. That conversation was done. Sometimes, the best communication was no communication.
He was almost asleep when he felt Alton wrap around him. “I thought there were no hijinks?” Lorne said. It came out slurred and groggy.
“From you. I get to produce all the hijinks I want.”
Lorne yawned. “Unfair.”
Alton ruffled Lorne’s hair and Lorne fell into happy dreams.