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Excerpt--The Queen's Librarian

© Carole Cummings


Licking Alex right now, Lucas supposed, while a very good idea, was perhaps not terribly wise. One, Lucas would have to stand up and make his way across the pub’s floor to the billiards table where Alex was currently pantsing young master Declan Slade, and the walking part wasn’t exactly a given, considering the standing up part was in serious question. And B, Lucas probably shouldn’t just go about licking people in public places. They might start to expect it of him. Alex probably wouldn’t like it if Lucas just went about licking anyone who asked. Not that anyone else besides Alex would ask Lucas to lick them. Anyway, no one else could possibly taste as good as Alex, so Lucas decided making free with it was probably not in his best interests.

He also decided he was very drunk.

“Here, let me top that off for you,” Parry offered with a grin that Lucas didn’t trust at all, but more dark ale came with it, so he let it pass. “After all,” Parry went on, pouring from the pitcher slowly so as to keep the foam to a minimum, “it’s a celebration, innit?”

Lucas bobbled a nod, just saving his spectacles from taking a swim in his ale, and shoved them more firmly up the bridge of his nose. Ah, maybe he wasn’t so drunk after all; he could see much better now. “Celebration,” he agreed, and raised his flagon to Parry then waved it vaguely over in the direction of Alex and Slade. “God bless good Declan Slade and the—” and the purse he brought with him, Lucas almost said, but managed to cut it off in time. Parry was looking at Lucas with eyebrows raised, waiting for him to finish. Lucas gave him a grin and sucked down half his ale.

One good thing about being a sloppy drunk: people didn’t really expect you to make much sense. Lucas should get drunk more often, he decided. Maybe it would lower his mother’s expectations. And anyway, it made his head all light and swimmy and soap-bubbly, and almost everything seemed funny, or at least amusing. Even Parry. Lucas watched the lamplight flicker over Parry’s disgustingly gold-wavy-thick hair then followed a glittering streamer of its nimbus as it sparked up into the beams of the low ceiling, all colorful and rainbowy and really very pretty, and fanning out—

Oh, wait, that was just a stray ale droplet on his spectacle lens. Should he take them off and clean them? No, he might drop them into his ale. And it really was very pretty.

“So tell me, Tripp,” Parry said as he refilled Lucas’s cup yet again, “will you be stealing this suitor from your sister, too?”

Lucas wanted to growl. It came out a snort. He’d never live that down. Well, he might, if Alex would quit bloody blathering about it every chance he got, how he’d come to court one of Lucas’s sisters and ended up instead pinning Lucas to the wall of the formal parlor halfway through the interview.

“You’ve rather a reputation, Mister Booker,” Lucas had begun the meeting bluntly, blatantly scowling, because Alex’s reputation, as it were, had rather preceded him. Or at least his brother’s had. Lucas might be dying to unload one of his sisters and all the expense that came with her onto some poor, unsuspecting dandy—well, wealthy, unsuspecting dandy; there was a reason Lucas was almost desperate to marry off the remaining four of his six older sisters—but he actually loved them all, and had seen no reason to inflict Alex Booker on any of them. Not that Lucas had ever actually met Alex before. Their social circles didn’t exactly intersect, Alex’s social circle being more or less the entire world, and Lucas’s being his mother, his sisters, a dog that had been mistaken for a pony more than once, and a cat that had just sort of come with the house and who seemed to think mousing was beneath her. Oh, and creditors. Couldn’t forget the creditors.

Still, it was a small village, and That Booker Lad—as handsome as he was rich, Lucas couldn’t help thinking a bit sourly—seemed to have made it his mission to bed everyone in it. Well, all right, three. That Lucas knew of. That Booker Lad was actually Alex’s brother, Anson. But still. Things like that tended to run in families. And the fact that Lucas had no idea if that was actually true was not the point. Neither were Alex’s eyes. The point, that is. The eyes were not the point. At all. And they were not making Lucas weak in the knees. At all. They were just blue. Blue eyes. Nothing more. Blue, blue, blue and deep and merry and intense all at once, and wow, cheekbones that really needed to be licked quite a lot, and…


Lucas had certainly been able to see Alex’s—cough—appeal, much as he tried not to, but the responsibility of finding good matches for all his sisters was a heavy one, and Lucas took it very seriously. God knew none of them did.

Still, Lucas had told himself, it could have been worse—it could have been Anson Booker, who, by all accounts, had discovered several years ago that the thing in his trousers was useful in more than one way, and hadn’t stopped discovering new and interesting ways to use it since.

“Tell me why you want to court Clara,” Lucas had demanded of Alex in his best Master of the Manor tones, and settled an imperious, I’m-cousin-to-the-Queen-and-you’re-not look on his sister’s prospective suitor.

Because, his love of and concern for his sister aside, Lucas had no intention of adding some too-handsome dark-haired, blue-eyed ankle biter born on the wrong side of the blanket to the Expense column of the estate’s books. He was trying to get rid of overhead.

Alex had frowned a little, tilting his head like he’d never considered the question before. “Clara?”

Lucas had stared, trying to decide if Alex was having him on, but when it appeared he wasn’t, the stare turned to a bit of an open-mouthed gape. Not quite the superior image he was trying to project. “If you don’t even know her name,” he’d snapped, “why d’you want to court her?”

“Well,” Alex had replied slowly, genuinely frank, “isn’t it what people… do?”

It had rather gone downhill from there. Well, depending on one’s perspective. Alex had not walked away that night with permission to court Lucas’s sister, but he had walked away with the knowledge that Lucas’s hair was red everywhere, and that he tended to babble obscure languages in the throes of orgasm. Lucas still didn’t know quite how it had happened. One minute, he’d been trying to decide how to tactfully tell Alex that there was no dowry and the expense of both the handfasting and the wedding would have to be covered by the Booker Estate, and the next Alex’s hand was so far down Lucas’s trousers that Lucas wondered if it might not come back out with one of his socks.

Clara made it a point to forgive Lucas quite frequently. Which, of course, meant she didn’t forgive him at all. The you owe me was implicit in every sweet smile she’d given him for the past three years. Which was why it was so important to Lucas that everything went well with the promising young Declan Slade.

Lucas let his somewhat blurry gaze stagger back over to the billiards table where Alex was charming young Slade with a lesson to make up for the obscene amount of silver of which Alex had no doubt just relieved him. Slade was listening attentively, looking at Alex with rapt, ingenuous interest, like most everyone did. Bloody charmer, that Alex. Lucas couldn’t help the grin. It wasn’t just Alex’s looks, with his dark hair and exquisitely trimmed beard, and the shoulders just wide enough, set exactly right on a tall frame that made his subtly expensive coat hang just so, the tails flaring over his perfect, perfect bottom with—

“Hoy, Tripp,” Parry barked, right next to Lucas’s ear, “you’re drooling.”

Lucas blinked, frowned at Parry then somewhat belatedly slapped a hand over his mouth. He scowled. “Am not,” he retorted. Not exactly the sharp, cutting rejoinder he’d been hoping for, but… well.

Lucas + Ale apparently = Squishy Brain² with a remainder of Fuzzy Tongue.

Parry smirked. “You might as well be. I don’t even want to know where you went just now.”

Lucas’s eyebrows went up. “I’ve been right here.” He frowned. Hadn’t he? He didn’t remember going anywhere.

“Riiiiight,” Parry drawled, sat back in his chair and eyed Lucas with a look that was unsettlingly appraising. “So, tell me, Tripp, since you’re seeming a bit more… relaxed than usual…”

He shrugged when Lucas narrowed his eyes, but the smirk was still there, and if there was one thing Lucas knew all too well, it was that one should never trust a smirking Redford Parry. Also, one should never trust one’s older sister to dye one’s ridiculous red hair a much more sedate and respectable shade of brown, but he’d been ten, after all, and Nan had sworn she knew what she was doing, and then sworn it wasn’t quite as green as Lucas kept wailing it was, and anyway, it was autumn and all the lads were wearing hats these days, so she didn’t see why he was being such a prat about—


“What, what?”

Lucas jolted this time, back snapping straight, as he squinted across the table and tried to focus once again on… Parry. Right.

“I asked you if you’d found a buyer for the estate yet.”

Lucas scowled as he watched Parry fill his ale up again, then he took a long slurp before answering, “Who said anything about selling the estate?”

Well, besides Lucas, who’d been begging his mother for bloody years to let him try to unload it. Because they simply couldn’t afford to run it. And the expense of ‘keeping up appearances’ was running it into the ground. The-Queen-your-cousin would never approve, dear, his mother said. We can’t embarrass her by being her ‘poor relations’, can we? You’ll just have to figure something out. You’re the Master, after all.

It was going to turn Lucas’s ridiculously red hair white, and very soon, he just knew it. All being cousin to the Queen seemed to be good for was making it necessary to spend money one didn’t have in order to maintain property one didn’t want. Well, that wasn’t entirely fair—accepting the position of Queen’s Librarian his cousin had offered him in a rather astute moment of mercy had helped. Until his mother started faking fainting-spells every time she was reminded that her only son had taken a—gasp!—job.

If your father was still alive, this would kill him.

Lucas somehow doubted that. Lucas was of the very private opinion that his father may not, in fact, be dead, but merely hiding.

It just isn’t done, love! Just raise the rents, Mother said blithely, like it was just that easy. Like the tenants weren’t scrabbling just as hard as Lucas was. Of course, he’d wager the tenants didn’t have to worry about why there had to be real silk ribbons stitched into each of the four—four!—layers of his sisters’ petticoats, even though no one could see them. At least, no one had better be seeing them.

“I’ve heard the odd mutter now and then,” Parry said with a wave of his hand. “Understandable, I suppose, that you can’t get a buyer, what with the Circle on the eastern downs, and all.”

Lucas’s lip curled. The Stone Circle—or The Bloody Millstone, as Alex fondly referred to it—was the reason Lucas wouldn’t be able to get a buyer, even if his mother let him try. And Parry bloody well knew it. One stupid ancestor invites one stupid Daimin through the portal and causes a tiny little—massive, crop-destroying—flood, and the place is branded forever after. It wasn’t fair.

“The Circle belongs to the Queen,” Lucas muttered, drained his mug and thumped it to the table. This wasn’t nearly as fun as it had been a few minutes ago. Bloody Parry.

“Who dotes on her youngest cousin,” Parry said, nodding like they were conspirators as he refilled Lucas’s mug.

Lucas had to grin a little. “She does, doesn’t she?”

Whoops, he hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Even if it wasn’t exactly a secret, it was a bit rude to just go about trumpeting it. Still, it was nice to be doted on by someone. Well, Alex doted on him for some reason. The grin stretched wider as Lucas cast a hazy glance back over to the billiards tables and shoved his spectacles up again as he tried to focus, but it didn’t help this time. Didn’t matter. He’d know Alex’s shape anywhere. Damn, he looked so good in that blue cravat. It brought out the color of his eyes as they caught Lucas’s, like a pair of cobalt lakes above a soft, spreading smile that made Lucas’s stomach do a lazy little flip, and heat pool down in his—



Oh. Parry again. Still. Whatever.

“I was saying,” Parry told him patiently, “that, if you asked it of her, the-Queen-your-cousin would probably see her way to granting you the rights to the Circle.”

Lucas scowled. “Why would I want to do that?” Just what he needed—one more maintenance expense he couldn’t afford.

“So that you could sell the entire estate,” Parry explained, with the obvious long-sufferance of one addressing the very dim. Or the very drunk. “The Circle would still be a detriment to a good price, but you’ve a full roster of tenants that’s the envy of every landlord in the province, and your vineyards and wineries turn some good coin.” Parry shrugged. “It could even out.”

Terrific. Lucas could make just enough with the sale to pay off all the debts, and then they’d all be homeless, as well as poor. Honestly, did Parry think Lucas hadn’t looked at all the angles? And anyway, now that Lucas thought about it, how was it that Parry seemed to know exactly how taut the Tripp purse-strings were these days, when Lucas had been bloody killing himself to keep it quiet?

Perhaps he was being uncharitable toward and old not-quite-friend, since Parry had introduced Slade to Clara, after all, but none of this was sitting quite right.

Lucas narrowed his eyes. Drat it all, there went the pleasant buzz he’d been nursing. “Parry,” he began slowly, “just exactly what are you—?”

“Yes, just exactly what are you doing, Parry?” Alex asked from just behind Lucas’s left shoulder.

Lucas tried to twist around so he could see—whoops, moved too fast. He thought he managed a grin as Alex gripped his elbow and helped him right himself in the chair again. By the lift of Alex’s eyebrows, Lucas thought perhaps he hadn’t managed it very well. Or maybe he’d managed it a little too well.

“You’ve been hovering about Mister Tripp all evening,” Alex was saying to Parry, his tone a bit on the accusing side. “And that’s the seventh time I’ve seen you refill his flagon.”

He paused as Lucas snorted. “Refill his flagon”—it had a vaguely filthy ring to it.

“What are you on about, Parry?” Alex wanted to know. “Are you going to make me call you out?”

Lucas blinked. He tried to turn around again, but had just as much luck this time as he’d had the last. Meaning none at all. And those smeary streaks of light were flitting about his vision again. He reached for his spectacles, missed, and tried to discreetly turn the idiotic-batting-at-the-head into a suave-smoothing-down-the-hair, but he suspected it lost its polish when accompanied by oops-knocked-the-spectacles-off.

“Mister Booker!” Parry harrumphed, indignant, though Lucas could swear that when Alex retrieved Lucas’s glasses for him and carefully perched them back on his nose so he could see again, Parry was smirking. “I assure you, I have no designs—”

Feh!” said Alex. “I know your ‘designs’ too well, Parry. And I seem to recall Mister Tripp once remarking to one of your more explicit overtures that the only way you’d ever find out if the ‘carpet matched the drapes’ was if you were to get him so blindingly drunk he forgot how to say, ‘Bugger off’.”

Had Lucas said that? Seemed a bit crude, but Alex said so, so he must’ve done. Funny that Alex would remember it when Lucas didn’t, but Alex’s tone seemed almost jealous, so maybe—

Awww, Alex was jealous. Lucas got a little teary. “Parry said I stole you,” he put in helpfully. Alex merely blinked at him, tilting his head in that cute way he did that always reminded Lucas of Bramble, but Lucas hadn’t mentioned that to Alex yet. He was saving it for when Alex pissed him off. “From Clara,” Lucas explained then snorted, puffed out a laugh that was actually closer to a belch and covered his mouth. “Nah y’ll nennah mee fee neh fill—”

Alex gently pulled Lucas’s hand away from his mouth. “Say again?”

“Now you’ll never see the silk ribbons on her petticoats,” Lucas repeated. He held up his hand and stuck up four… five… four fingers. “Four layers of petticoats,” he told Alex, waggling his fingers for emphasis. “Four! And all of them have to have silk bloody ribbons!” He felt like crying.

“Mm, yes.” Alex caught Lucas’s hand and gave it a pat. “Perhaps we shouldn’t be distressing Mister Parry with your sister’s petticoats.”

Lucas’s eyes went wide. “I said that out loud?”

“Petticoats?” Slade put in.

Lucas whipped his head around—he really needed to stop doing that—and felt his cheeks flush bright red. “Oh, Slade,” he said, mortified, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t… Please don’t tell Clara.” Oh God. “Don’t tell my mother!” He turned back to Alex. Damn it, he really needed to stop doing that. “Alex, tell him. I didn’t mean to—”

“Of course you didn’t,” Alex soothed, patting Lucas’s hand again and giving Parry a sharp glance at the same time. “You’ve no head for ale, love. Slade understands.”

That seemed… a little condescending. Lucas scowled and took his hand back. “My head is just fine, thank you.” Except for the part where it kept doing that swimmy thing every time he turned it. “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he intoned, gathering his dignity about him, “I need a piss.”

Well. The dignity hadn’t lasted long.

Scowl going darker, because… well, just because, Lucas hauled himself up from his chair, and pretended not to notice when Alex grabbed his elbow. Because if he didn’t notice, he wouldn’t have to shove Alex off and risk face-planting into his flagon, because whoa, damn, the whole pub was doing loopy things that couldn’t possibly be good for the structural integrity. Lucas gave it a moment to decide which way was up then straightened his… well, he meant to straighten his coat until he remembered it was hanging over the back of his chair. So, he straightened his… blast, where had his waistcoat gotten to? He still had a shirt on, didn’t he…? Whew. That was one in the “win” column.

“Lucas?” Alex said slowly. “All right, there?”

“Was I wearing a waistcoat?” Lucas asked, squinting up to see Alex looking down at him with something between concern and amusement. It was the amusement that made Lucas remember his earlier pique. He’d been thinking seriously about nabbing that lick, now that Alex was handy, but decided it would just send the wrong message, considering. “Never mind,” he snapped, shoving his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and snatching up his coat off the back of the chair. He was still trying to jam his arm into one of the sleeves when he more or less lurched into the door, vaguely grateful that he miraculously hadn’t managed to trip over anyone or anything on his way.

The abrupt chill of the evening hit him right away, ale and cigars and sweat giving way immediately to the warm, friendly scents of woodsmoke and pine and dying leaves on the brittle-sharp air. He hadn’t realized his eyes were burning; now they widened a little, his vision seeping into somewhat clearer focus as he peered up at clots of stars until the lenses of his spectacles fogged with the chill. No faerie-ring about the moon, so that was good; a frost right now would be disastrous. Lucas stuffed that back into the murk of his head with all the rest of his everyday worries, and breathed in deep, found he was hanging on a little too desperately to the knob of the door and so pried his hand away. The spongy path into the yard tried to steal his shoe, and Lucas cursed the stupid weather out of habit as he flailed and windmilled accordingly to keep his balance. Perhaps he should have stuck to the safety of wood flooring.

He hadn’t really meant to come outside. He’d been aiming for the gents’ in back of the pub. But this would do, if he could stay upright. The nip in the air was already doing him some good. Because he should probably be at least a little bit coherent for whatever was brewing between Parry and Alex. In fact, he probably shouldn’t have stumbled out as he’d done. Who knew what might happen if he wasn’t there to step between them, because Parry was a bit of an ass, and Alex was—

Awww, Alex was jealous.

Lucas snorted, swatting at the stray strands that had come loose from the messy tail at his nape, and tried not to feel too smug. Alex—rich, handsome, charming, what-are-you-doing-with-mousey-little-Lucas—Booker was jealous. Filling his lungs with a bracing breath, and redoubling his efforts to get into his coat, Lucas headed off toward the small brake of bushes that enringed the sideyard of The Drunken Duck Inn with a small, smirky grin.

The coat. Would not. Cooperate. Not only could Lucas not get it on, but now he couldn’t get it off, either. Three clumsy-quick moves and he was stuck, one arm half in, one arm half out, trying to windmill them both as he tottered into the bushes, because he needed both hands for his placket, and now that he was out here, and the whole I need a piss thing had been at the front of his mind for several moments, the need was growing a little more needful. And now one tail of the coat was flopping over his head—ah, it was upside-down, that explained a few things—and the bush had sort of snatched at the other and snagged the tail and the right sleeve awkwardly over Lucas’s head. A hawthorne bush, now that he was paying attention. The kind with all those spiky, spiny things sticking out them. The kinds of spiky, spiny things that could take hold of, oh, say, a person’s coat, and pin him up like a somewhat short, bespectacled scarecrow.

Well, then. This was dignified.

Would they hear him if he called to someone for a bit of help? He imagined the picture he must make. Right. No calling for help. He tugged at the sleeve and stopped immediately at a very distinctive riiiip. It was his best coat. One of only two still-wearable coats, actually. And a trip to the tailor’s was just not in the budget this month.

Damn it, he was going to have to call for some help, wasn’t he? He was never going to live this one down. One time he goes pub-crawling, one time, and just look at what happens. On top of that, he was going to have to face that halfway patronizing aw, look how cute my drunk boyfriend is look on Alex’s face again when he came out to find that Lucas had managed to get himself into a brawl with a bush. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t Lucas’s fault, damn it, and anyway, the bush started it!

“Mathlasa thei scontun,” someone said behind him.

Lucas paused. He ran it over in his head, but no, it was just as nonsensical as it had sounded the first time. He sighed. Pinned to a bush, needing to piss almost desperately, and now it seemed he’d lost the power to interpret speech.

He angled a look over his shoulder, caught a flash of platinum hair atop a tall, lean frame, and sighed again. Damn it, it would be Slade, wouldn’t it. Clara was never going to forgive Lucas if her new suitor decided her family was just too bizarre a potential addition to his respectable family tree.

“Slade,” he said, slowly and carefully, because it looked bad enough as it was; he didn’t need to add slurring. “I wonder if you could maybe give me a hand here. I seem to have got myself hung up on—”

“Mathlasa thei scontun,” Slade said again, “Scontun, scontun!”

Lucas’s mouth pursed. Slade hadn’t seemed drunk before. Was Lucas the one speaking in tongues? Maybe the things coming out his own mouth sounded more like Flurgle gurp to the world that existed outside of his head.

“Yes, scontun, whatever,” Lucas conceded, “just, would you please…?” He tugged lightly on his arm, just enough to rustle the bush and get his point across, and tried to angle another look over his shoulder. He frowned. “Hey, you’re not Slade.”

Easy mistake, Lucas thought. There weren’t many about with that platinum hair. But now that Lucas was actually looking, he could see the difference in the features, and the way this man’s face was set in a grim look that Lucas didn’t think had ever crossed Slade’s perpetually pleasant, almost dreamy countenance. And this man was definitely older than Slade.

Oh, no. This couldn’t be Mister Slade, could it? It would be bad enough, Slade catching Lucas—the Master of Rolling Green and pseudo-guardian to his hopefully future bride—drunk and stuck to a bush, but his father….

Lucas felt a little sick.

“Slade,” the man repeated, thickly, like he had gravel in his mouth. He seemed to chew on it for a moment then shook his head, eyebrows snapping down. “Scontun!”

“Scontun,” Lucas echoed blankly. He blinked a bit myopically through his lightly fogged spectacles. “Mister Scontun?”

Scontun, Scontun, where had he heard that name before?  Had he heard that name before? Not someone from the village, Lucas was sure. He didn’t exactly socialize, but he knew all the names, at least. This one didn’t have the familiarity of knowledge, but it was ringing a faint bell in the back of his muzzy head.

“Mathlasa thei scontun,” the man insisted, then went on to babble a string of something that sounded very urgent by his tone, but Lucas couldn’t pick out anything in it that made sense, except the repetition of that one word. The man finally wound down, his hands flopping about at his sides in apparent exasperation, then he reached over, took hold of the tail at Lucas’s nape and gave it a tug. “Libe-aar-in,” he said slowly. “Red. Libe-aar-in.”

Lucas frowned. ‘Red’ he got. It nearly made him roll his eyes, but he at least understood it. The other, though…. “Librarian?”

Ma!” said the man happily, and gave Lucas a thump between the shoulder blades that sent his face into a clump of thorns which, had it not been for his spectacles, very likely would’ve taken out his left eye.

“Hey!” Lucas snapped. “Do you mind—?”

“Libe-aar-in,” the man repeated. “Red liba-aar-in—scontun.”

“Scontun,” Lucas said again, more slowly this time. He frowned as he tried to get a better look at the man from under his arm, but quickly righted himself again. As it were. After his head stopped doing loops, he asked, “D’you mean scounttune?” The man blinked at him. Lucas blinked back, then sighed yet again. “No, of course you didn’t mean scounttune, because that would mean you’re trying to speak the language of the Daimin, and that would make me the most reasonable person here at the moment, although the more you babble, the more that looks like an actual possibility—”

He puffed a dubious snort, and shifted a shrug aborted by confinement. Vaguely, he thought he heard a burst of noise coming from the direction of the inn’s front door, which meant someone was either coming out or going in, which in turn meant that his chances of getting caught by someone else in this predicament were increasing a little too steadily. Annoyed now, Lucas let his chin drop down to his chest, and tried very hard not to whine. He very nearly stomped his foot, though.

“Look, d’you think you could help a fellow out here? We can go over all the reasons why you shouldn’t later, but right now my fingers are starting to go numb and tingly, my stomach is doing things it probably shouldn’t be doing, I think you took a flap of skin off my cheek with your glad-handing, I’m getting colder by the second, and I still have to piss!”

“Who are you talking to?” Alex wanted to know, striding swiftly into Lucas’s view through the hawthorne branches to his left. “And what…?” Alex paused, mouth hanging open, the corners twitching suspiciously upwards.

Yes, Lucas knew exactly what it looked like, thank you, Alex.

“The bush started it,” Lucas blurted.

“I… see,” said Alex. His eyes tracked the position, the upside-down coat, the thorns. “Lucas,” he said slowly. “Love.” He tilted his head. “How—?”

Don’t,” Lucas growled, “ask.” Alex’s mouth snapped shut, but Lucas could tell by the way he curled his lips around his teeth and pressed them tight together that he was not nearly as concerned as he was pretending to be. “Do you really think I can’t tell by now when you’re laughing on the inside?” Lucas snapped. He didn’t wait for Alex to answer. “Just help me get loose, will you?” To his credit, Alex moved immediately to start working at the coat snagged up in the thorns, while Lucas just ranted on, “This Scontun-whoosy-whatsis fellow has been no help, and I don’t care if he does turn out to be the Master of All Things Slade and forbids the family to have anything to do with the battier branch of the Queen’s family tree, I’m going to have— Ah! Alex, you’re a marvel!”

Lucas’s arms flopped down to his sides, immediately queering his dubious balance. Alex caught him before his face ended up in the thorns again, untangled him from the coat and draped it over his shoulders. Lucas just wilted into Alex’s chest, dubiously shaking out his tingling hands before lifting his arms to slide around Alex’s torso. And if Mister Scontun wanted to mock him some more in his babbling pretend-language, “Mister Scontun can just go hang.” Drat, Lucas had had no idea that ale made it so all his inner-thoughts slipped immediately into outer-idiocy. He was going to have to watch that in future.

“Mister Scontun?” Alex asked.

Lucas growled. “Him,” he said, waving a hand vaguely behind him then lifting his head. “The man who— Hey, where’d he go?” Lucas blinked around the empty yard then up at Alex.

Alex’s fingers came up to stroke lightly at Lucas’s cheek. “You’ll need a plaster for this.” He leaned down and dropped a soft, warm kiss to the tip of Lucas’s cold nose.

Lucas’s glasses fogged a little more in the wake of Alex’s warmth. “I’ve not had my piss yet,” he mumbled, and leaned again into Alex’s chest, not even caring when he felt a suppressed chuckle rumble through it.

“C’mon, love.” Alex prodded gently until Lucas found himself semi-upright and pointed toward the inn. Slipping his arm across Lucas’s shoulders to steady him, Alex pulled him in so Lucas was fitted snugly to Alex’s ribs. “I’ve got us a room. Let’s go sleep it off, shall we?”

“Yeah, fine,” Lucas slurred as he leaned into Alex’s side and fixed a death-grip onto the lapel of his coat. He wobbled a bit, but he managed not to actually fall down as he leaned up and finally got his lick—a nice, long, sloppy one right along the cords of Alex’s throat. “But tomorrow we burn that bloody bush.”



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