by Syouryuushi (翔琉子)
When Connell returned from his travels to become the Adair household’s librarian, he had not expected the young master to request tutoring in geography. As he accepted the task, the only thought that ran over and over in his head was, “Damn.”
Unlike the tutors for various other rich families, Connell reacted this way not because the young master was an ignorant, spoiled brat but because he was quite the opposite. Connell had been in awe of Noin ever since the boy was born. The young master simply radiated a sense of unchallenged superiority, and every time Connell returned home from a mission, he found that Noin had mastered a new subject–be it math, sorcery, or calligraphy. Add in the fact that Noin could unleash powerful spells without the slightest move of his lips (had he occasion to do so), and Connell had more than enough cause for grave intimidation.
The librarian fumbled and nearly dropped the ancient manuscripts in his arms. “I, uh…sorry! What did you say, Master Noin?”
“I said not to call me ‘Master,'” Noin repeated in a firmer tone. “I considered you a friend when we were young–I still do–so call me by name.”
“I understand, Mas–I mean, Noin,” Connell amended. “Did you mention something else as well?”
“Yes, about the geography lessons. I would like to start our first session tomorrow morning in the library.”
Connell’s eyes widened. “To–tomorrow? But I haven’t prepared anything yet!” He would need to do a thorough review of the subject, as well as plan out lessons, if he wanted any hope of not sounding like an idiot to the vastly more intelligent Noin.
“You are a cartographer with impressive field experience,” Noin said with a questioning look. “What do you need to prepare?”
“Well, there are references that I must go through first, to…refresh my memory,” Connell muttered, feeling two feet tall even though he towered a good eight inches over Noin.
“Then do it this afternoon. I’m sure it won’t take you long,” Noin said as he gave Connell a firm, reassuring pat on the shoulder. The finality left no room for argument, not that there had been any to begin with, really. “No need to agonize over it. It’s only going to be a casual discussion.”
Connell flushed slightly as the young master removed his hand and left the room. The spot he had touched felt foreign, almost as if it were burnt. Paradoxical though it was, Connell had to admit that mingled with his dread was pleasure at being the one Noin chose. If he were completely honest, he might even admit that this was the sort of thing that persuaded him to give up the itinerant life of a cartographer to stay with the Adair family.
Lost in such ridiculous thoughts, Connell almost failed to notice when the study door opened again. Lady Andrea stuck her head inside the room, her long hair tumbling down over one shoulder.
“Connell, did you see Noin?” she asked when she caught sight of the librarian.
“Lady Andrea.” Connell made a quick bow and busied himself with sorting various manuscripts into the appropriate cabinets. “Master Noin was here just a moment ago,” he said. It had been some time since this woman, who looked after much of the Adair household, had last spoken to him, and it would not do to be caught slacking off now.
“What did my godson want with you?” Lady Andrea asked, curiosity coloring her tone.
Connell found it odd that she knew the young master had made a request of him, but he thought better than to mention it. “He simply asked me to teach him geography.”
Lady Andrea’s brows furrowed. “Is that all?”
“Yes, that’s all.”
“Well, if you say so,” she said doubtfully.
The lady was nothing if not observant, and Connell understood the implication at once. Under such watchful surveillance, he did not dare even to think about Noin again until long after he was left alone.
The episode in the study convinced Connell that his stuttering attitude toward Noin had attracted suspicion over the years. It was true that he felt drawn to the young master, enough to settle down just so he could be close to him, but Connell knew his place. It was absurd for anyone to imagine he would lay a hand on Noin. Nevertheless, he must be more careful from now on.
And so, it was not until late in the evening that Connell finally found time for his research. He kept his trips between his room and the library discreet, so that no one would know how much effort he was putting into the whole business. He rushed about, cobbling together books, charts, maps, scrolls, journals–any references he could think of that related to geography.
Armed with these materials, Connell worked through the night at the back of the library. By daybreak, he had jotted down most of the important information. Stretching out his stiff muscles, he cleared away the mess and moved to a more open area to await the young master’s arrival.
He must have drifted off at some point because before he knew it, he was being startled awake by Master Noin’s voice.
“Connell? Why are you sleeping here?” were the first words out of Noin’s mouth when he walked through the double set of mahogany doors.
Connell hastily stood, feeling a rush of dizziness when his blood failed to follow his brain. “Noin! I’m sorry, I must have dozed off.” He was amazed that he had remembered to omit the “master.”
Noin’s eyebrows lifted slightly, but otherwise his expression was as unfathomable as ever. Without a word, he strode over to the pile of scribbled notes on the table. “Did you write all this last night?” he asked, flipping through the parchments as if weighing their worth.
“Um…yes. I thought it might be useful to write the lessons down,” Connell said, trying hard not to fidget with the corner of his shirt. Having things written down on paper was more for his own benefit–that way he could just methodically go through each item on the list–but he didn’t see any point in sharing that information with Noin. “Of course, I still need to revise them,” he added.
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself. I’ll read over what you have.” Noin stacked the notes up and set them on another table. “Sit down, Connell.”
Connell obeyed, at a loss for what to do as he watched his lesson plans being moved beyond his reach. He had the vague impression that he wouldn’t be seeing those notes again, at least not for any of their future sessions. Noin cleared a few more things from the table before taking the seat directly across from Connell.
“Now, as I said before, this is going to be quite casual,” the young master began. “Would you happen to know anything about this?” He flipped open a dark navy notebook, which Connell just now noticed that Noin had brought in with him.
Of course Connell recognized the journal immediately. “What about it?” he asked, staring down at his own hand-drawn map and travel logs in confusion.
“Is this your work?”
“Well…yes. I wrote this when I was in Adorista.”
“Then tell me about it,” said Noin. “You never used to have time to tell me about your travels. I want to know all about the places you’ve been.”
As on countless previous occasions, time seemed to pass differently for Connell when spent with the subject of his admiration. The minutes did not fly during his meetings with the young master, nor did they drag on forever. Rather, he felt something akin to suspended animation, with life moving on as normal while his own vital functions slowed to a crawl.
One example occurred near the end of their first session. Noin, standing on tip-toe to retrieve an atlas from a higher shelf, fell backwards to bump into Connell’s chest, effectively stopping his heart.
During another lesson, they pored over a map that Lester had compiled during a trip across the western desert six years ago.
“It’s hard to imagine,” Noin said as he traced a finger over the sandworm territory, his right elbow pressed against Connell’s left, “that you went through this all by yourself at my age.”
“I can’t explain it, but alone in the wilderness, I have more confidence,” Connell mumbled, the simple contact making speech difficult. “I…I don’t look very capable, do I?”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean that I need to get to know you better.”
And get to know Connell better he did. The young master had either done a massive amount of independent study, or else he had thoroughly memorized Connell’s notes. Whatever the reason, he had no trouble understanding all but the most difficult technical terms and diagrams, and importuned Connell only with demands for personal stories. In fact, their time together began to feel more and more like afternoon tea, complete with fancy tea sets and strawberry scones in the sunny garden.
Eventually, even Connell, dense as he was, began to wonder if Noin was seeking his company rather than knowledge, not that a bashful fool like himself could be very good company. In fact, he wondered where Noin could possibly find the patience to deal with him.
“Noin, if you don’t mind my asking, why did you ask me to teach you?” he finally built up the courage to ask one day. “I mean, you already know all the basics. There’s nothing I can teach you that you can’t read from the journals.”
Noin’s hand paused in the act of bringing his teacup to his lips. He carefully set the cup down on its china plate instead. “Because I want to hear it from you,” he murmured, his eyes dark beneath the veil of his lashes.
Connell swallowed hard at the sight of that inviting expression. He had never heard the young master use such a tone before. If Connell were to wrap an arm around Noin at that moment, the boy would probably melt into his embrace…
Only Connell did no such thing because, at that moment, Lady Andrea strolled into the courtyard with a watering can.
“Ah, Noin, there you are,” she chirped. “Orla thought you went to town. She’s been testing out her potions all morning. I think Fergus left a message for you to stop her.”
Testing out her potions. Connell knew that Noin’s sister was more likely causing widespread terror, so he watched in apprehension as Noin chuckled and walked into the house.
“Connell, why don’t you come with me to the greenhouse?” Lady Andrea said with a bright smile. “It might be a while before Noin comes back.”
Connell was not half as cheerful–he had nearly been caught doing something inappropriate to the young master, after all–but what could he do but nod and follow her?
The two of them made their way down the cobblestone road and into the sparkling, three-story greenhouse. It was forbidden even to approach the doorway except under the direct supervision of Lady Andrea. This rule was set for the visitors’ own good. There were plants and insects within that, while more beautiful and colorful than precious jewels, could gnaw through steel if provoked. After her two godchildren, the glass castle was Lady Andrea’s pride and joy.
“I’ve tried teaching Noin how to care for the plants,” Lady Andrea said as she watered a row of planters, “but he just isn’t interested in this kind of thing. I’m glad Orla takes after me, though.” She laughed merrily.
Connell, for his part, was too busy watching small tendrils creep across the floor toward his legs to manage any small talk.
He found his voice when they came to an enormous abomination covering the west wall. This section of the greenhouse opened up all the way to the roof of the third floor, and a tentacled plant with gigantic pouches crawled up a sturdy frame along the glass panels. “Excuse my rudeness, Lady Andrea, but…may I ask what that is?” He was completely, absolutely certain that thing had not been there a few months ago.
“Magnificent, isn’t she?” Lady Andrea said with a sigh. “This is the Fly Feeder that I asked you to fetch from Princess Ellen of Adorista.”
Connell remembered then. It was that cute little cactus-like plant that he went through no end of trouble to obtain. Now he shuddered to think he had ever held it in his hands.
“You mean it feeds on flies?” Connell asked, surprised. Lady Andrea kept a swarm of flies, but they were her beloved pets, not plant food.
“Goodness, no! It attracts flies by catching prey for them. Watch this.”
Lady Andrea walked to the tool shed and came back with gloves and a bucket full of scrap meat and bones. With practiced aim, she threw a sizable chunk of flesh toward the plant.
The Fly Feeder seized the meat in midair with a crushing vine and deposited it into one of its pouches. Instantly a sizzling sound erupted from within, as if the meat were being dissolved, accompanied by a rotting stench. Seconds later, streams of insects rushed out from all corners of the greenhouse, descending from seemingly nowhere to dine on the proffered feast.
“In exchange for food, the flies act as pollinators,” Lady Andrea said passionately. “The Fly Feeder is the Queen of Plants. They can easily turn a human into soup.”
Departing from the greenhouse, Connell staggered into a chair just in time to see Noin return. The garden was still warm under the afternoon sun, but he felt cold and miserable.
“Connell, are you all right?” Noin asked as he studied his tutor’s pale face.
Lady Andrea was the only thing on Connell’s dazed mind. That grotesque demonstration was no doubt a warning of what could happen to him if he got any closer to Master Noin. Why else would she choose to show it to him at that exact moment? He had escaped from creatures much more terrifying than the Fly Feeder in his travels, but one word from Lady Andrea would be enough to send him to his death.
“I–I’m fine,” he managed.
Clearly, Noin could not be any less convinced. “No, you are not fine. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”
Connell was grateful that Noin did not pressure him to talk. He needed some time alone to gather his thoughts.
That night, wrapping the bedclothes tightly around himself, Connell wondered how he could have been so careless. He knew Lady Andrea was keeping an eye on him, but he had still accepted the afternoon tea setup as if he were simply having a good time with Noin. There were also the occasional sidelong glances, the brush of hands here, and the lingering touch there that perhaps–just perhaps–made them look a bit like a courting couple.
Connell buried his face deeper into his pillow. No wonder Lady Andrea had issued a death threat. For the good of all involved, the tutoring sessions would have to end.
But first he needed an excuse. Noin would expect that much at least. Connell supposed he could travel back to Adorista for more plant samples, but it seemed irresponsible to leave so soon after taking up his post at the library.
Alternatively, he could tie himself up in a project, committing so much of his time that he had none left to spend with Noin. He could suggest it to Sir Fergus, who had always valued Connell’s contributions to his research. As long as it was reasonable, any proposal from Connell would most likely be accepted.
Biting his lip in resolution, Connell slipped out of bed and into the library, and he did not sleep again for the rest of the night.
“So basically, I’m to piece together Void Magic documentaries in the basement bookstacks.”
Noin narrowed his eyes. “Why so suddenly? I haven’t heard anything about it.” The young master was most definitely not pleased.
“In any case, it has already been approved by Sir Fergus,” Connell said, hoping that would settle the matter. In the house of Adair, Sir Fergus was the only person Noin respected too much to question.
“Surely you can’t hole up in the basement all day.”
Connell stood up a bit straighter. “I have other duties to attend as well,” he said.
Noin’s glare bore into him. For a moment, Connell feared his defiance might make him the next victim of the Black Fire spell.
To his relief, however, the young master nodded curtly. “If my uncle thinks the research is worthwhile, then it must be.”
And that was how Connell ended up in the dark and sober basement of the Adair library, reading on a couch with books stacked neatly on the table beside him. The atmosphere was much heavier than that in the reading room, but it was not unpleasant. The only unbearable part was the complete absence of Noin.
Connell silently harangued himself, wondering just what was wrong with him. It was only after he grew used to Noin’s presence that he missed it when it was gone. His thoughts of the young master were far less frequent when he was riding a camel in the middle of nowhere.
But Noin had been much younger back then, too young to brush suggestively against Connell’s arm, or his leg. Actual physical contact was difficult to forget. Connell could not help but run his own fingers over his thigh, imagining how it might have felt if Noin had gone a bit further.
I want to hear it from you.
The memory of that arousing voice encouraged him to brush his hand over the front of his trousers, then cup the hardness he found there.
“Noin…” he moaned softly, sliding his trousers down to pool around his ankles. Normally he would never be so bold, but here in the seclusion of the bookstacks, he may as well have been in his own room.
Or so he thought.
“If this is the kind of research you do, I should come down here more often.”
At the sound of Noin’s voice, Connell froze. Then realization hit him, and he scrambled to pull his trousers back up, only to trip and fall to the carpet.
Noin strolled out from a poorly lit aisle of history books with his arms crossed. “Oh, don’t mind me,” he said. “By all means, keep going.”
“No–Noin! I swear, this isn’t what I usually do in the bookstacks,” Connell sputtered, drawing his knees up to his chest. At least the oil lamp was running low, so his huddled form could not be clearly seen.
“I don’t understand,” Noin said with an exasperated sigh as he walked over to the librarian. “I give you ample opportunity to molest me, but you’d rather have the company of your left hand. Or am I wrong, and you just don’t like me after all?”
“You know that’s not true. It’s just…we shouldn’t. I’m not allowed…” When Noin simply crouched down and looked at him expectantly, Connell added, “Lady Andrea will have me for insect food.” It almost came out as a whine.
There was a long-suffering silence. Then, “Connell?”
He gulped. “Yes?”
“I’ll turn you into insect food if you don’t undress me this instant,” Noin hissed in his ear.
In the end, his body overruled his brain in deciding that it was a lost cause. If one was to die anyway, one may as well die a happy man. Everything seemed to happen all at once. Fingers fumbled, shirts unbuttoned, trousers came undone–all faster than Connell could recite the four continents of Ere. Their arms and legs were still tangled up in their clothes, but with Noin frantically grinding against his stomach, Connell could not have gotten rid of them if he tried.
They kept at that for a while, one wishing it would never end, the other apparently having something else in mind. Noin shifted to slide his own trousers off completely, at the same time pushing Connell the rest of the way to the floor.
For one confused moment, Connell asked, “Noin, what are you…?” as he felt something slick being rubbed onto his shaft.
An empty vial dropped and rolled away into the darkness.
Understanding now, Connell gasped, horrified, and tried to stop Noin by grabbing his hips. “You aren’t ready! It’s going to hurt.”
“I am ready,” Noin gritted out, impaling himself with one thrust. “I’ve been ready since the day you came back.”
Connell thrashed his head to one side, biting down on his collar as if it were the end of the world.
More grinding. Ragged breaths. Clenching fists. And then, as the last shudders finally subsided and taut muscles gradually relaxed, Connell found himself staring at the ceiling with his legs sprawled out and his back against the foot of the couch. Noin lay limp on top of him, his face nuzzled into the crook of Connell’s neck. They were sticky and no doubt in need of a bath, but something else was troubling Connell at the moment.
“Noin…” He nudged lightly at the weight straddling his thighs, then looked down at the state of their clothes. “How are we going to get out of here?”
The boy hardly stirred. “How? We walk out, obviously.”
“But what if someone sees us?”
This time, Noin lifted his head a bit. “Connell, I seriously doubt there is an idiot on the estate who hasn’t noticed how you feel about me, so just hush.”
“Everyone knows?” Connell choked out.
“Well, except perhaps my uncle, but he isn’t an idiot,” Noin added as an afterthought.
“What about Lady Andrea?” Connell asked weakly, the image of the Adoristan Fly Feeder surfacing in his mind.
Noin scowled as if about to say something unpleasant, then seemed to decide it wasn’t worth his while and settled back down.
“You really need to get reacquainted with us if you don’t understand her temperaments,” the young master of the Adair family said at last, in a sleepy voice. “Who do you think gave me the oil?”