Emanuel looked out the front window, his gaze barely taking in the winter dormant trees and not taking in the glazed window at all. Here in a minute or two he would blink his eyes and try to bring them into focus, when he noticed that they were out of focus at all. Still, he wasn’t too far gone, his gait was steady, there was no palsy in his hand as he reached for the wine bottle sitting on the desk. The good stuff. He half smiled. His father had always had it, and now that secret stash was Emanuel’s. But it wasn’t bottomless and some part of him knew that at the rate he was going he’d run out.
But the wine was working, maybe not as well as it once had, but it worked well enough. He sighed and sat down at the desk. Not the scarred table that his father had taught him to read and write and count at, this one was new with nary a scratch or scar in sight. That old table was long gone. Burned when they burned his shop.
Blake had given this one to him for a midwinter gifting, the mellow dark wood silky smooth under his fingertips. It showed the carpenter’s careful attention to detail, all the edges rasped smooth and fine. It was a beautiful desk. One that he might, before the plague, have been able to afford when he was a tottering old man. And what had Emanuel given Blake? Herbs. Various remedies and such, some that he’d been making for years, many more that had been dictated to him by the lady doctor.
But he didn’t want to think of her, not when the wine was so pleasant and making his head foggy. He thought perhaps that there was something that he was forgetting. something else that he was supposed to be doing, but damned if he could think of anything that it might be.
Through the siren song of the wine sloshing in his glass as he picked it up, there was a faint call of something, but his slightly soggy brain couldn’t pick it out. Only that it didn’t involve the king or one of the nobles. And it probably didn’t have anything to do with the ladies, so he took a long draught of the wine and felt the pleasant rush to his head as the twilight crept into the house and coiled in eddies around the furniture and around Emanuel.
What was I supposed to be doing? It didn’t have a call of urgency, so maybe that was why the decanter called louder than the responsibility. He reached for the wine and the release it held in it’s depths.
Fox pushed open the gate to Emanuel’s house and paused at the foot of the stairs. The house was mostly dark, but that told him absolutely nothing. Even if Emanuel was up and around the house would have been dark. The porch light was lit, which said that he had been up when dusk had started in, but beyond that, the cottage told Fox nothing.
So he steeled himself, wondering what he’d find when he walked into the house, wondering if this time he’d find Emanuel drunk, or passed out, or maybe this time dead. He hoped not, by the gods, he hoped not. Shadowcrest didn’t need another death, not now.
The door opened when he tried the knob and swung to reveal velvet dusk wrapped around the edges, held barely at bay by a few candles. Fox’s eyes swept over the gloom before alighting on the settee. Emanuel. A drunken snore ripped through the gloom, followed by a barely audible exasperated sigh. The former was of course Emanuel’s, the latter was Fox’s.
Passed out again. Thankfully the decanter was still on the desk, Fox barely refraining from grabbing it and pouring it out. It wouldn’t do any good. Emanuel had a stash somewhere and all that pouring it out would was make the apothecary pissed at him. Instead he made his way past the stack of books on the floor, a stack that worried Fox. Emanuel was nothing if not neat. His books were put away, always, so either he’d taken this stack of half a dozen down for reading tonight and fallen asleep before he made his way through them, or he’d forgotten the past couple of nights to put the books away and not noticed them.
He had heard that heavy drinking could lead to dementia… The tailor breathed a small prayer to the gods that it was just the books weren’t a symptom of something more. That Emanuel had just forgotten that he was supposed to come to dinner tonight. That it was just the drinking.
Fox knelt down by Emanuel’s prone form and gently shook the other man’s shoulder. Impossibly blue eyes blinked at him, disoriented.
“Fox?” The slightly gravelly voice seemed to creak like a gate hing in need of oiling. Emanuel sat up, rubbing at his eyes which looked thick and gummy even from the outside. It was really no surprise that the house was dark, though Fox sometimes wondered how the man avoided tripping over things. “What–what are you doing here?”
“You were supposed to come to dinner, when you were late, I was–concerned.” Fox said. There were other ways to say that, but one of the unspoken agreements between the two men was that Fox would leave his flowery charming speech on the sales floor where it belonged and Emanuel wouldn’t lie. It was a small thing, but it was all that Fox could get. And with Emanuel small concessions were about all one could ever get.
“Oh, dinner. I knew I was forgetting something.” Emanuel murmured.
“Well,” Fox laughed, faintly. “Have you anything to eat here?” I don’t fancy trying to make sure you get to my house and home even if it isn’t that far, stayed behind his teeth. But if he didn’t make the apothecary eat, then it was likely to be the next noon before he did eat anything.
Emanuel didn’t answer right away, instead making his way to the water bowl to splash water on his face. Fox wondered yet again at Emanuel’s ability to be too drunk to see straight but be as steady on his feet as any man Fox had ever met. Maybe it served him well, but the tailor thought, perhaps a little too well. You couldn’t always tell if he’d been drinking and the herbs that he worked around could easily mask the lingering smell of alcohol on his breath.
“There should be stew in the larder.” Fox almost jumped when Emanuel answered. The apothecary turned as if to make his way to the larder, but Fox really didn’t trust the other man around flame right now and the hearth fire was half dead and the candles half guttered, so he waved Emanuel away, it wasn’t as if Fox didn’t know his way around Emanuel’s cottage.
They were both silent as he pulled out the pot of stew, a quick sniff told him that Emanuel hadn’t made it. It was probably Ren’s, and that meant that it was more than likely traded. Even after all those months that they had lived all together, Fox was fairly sure that Ren and Blake didn’t know the extent of Emanuel’s problem with the bottle. He was also sure that that was at least a portion of his fault.
Knowing how much it would hurt Emanuel to have the others lose their faith in him, he’d kept Emanuel’s secret as best he could. Drunk or sober Emanuel was still a very good apothecary and the only one they had. and besides…
… besides he was Fox’s friend. So many of Fox’s friends had died in the plague. So many people he’d known. He’d be damned if he’d just abandon Emanuel to the bottle.
The stew didn’t take long to heat up, it wasn’t a big pot of stew. He dished a bowl and set it in front of the apothecary, then dished one for himself and sat down. The only sound was the clanking of spoon against crockery. Fox racked his brain for something to talk about, something, anything but the swirling thoughts in his head.
“Thank you.” The sound of Emanuel’s voice startled him.
“C’mon, Fox, you don’t have to play dumb. I’m a drunken mess and you don’t have to be here with me, except if you walk out the door without seeing me eat you’ll never know if I did or not.”
“Ah, but there you’re wrong.” Fox said. Emanuel’s fiery brow spoke eloquently for him. “You’re my friend. That is what we are supposed to do for others. Is that not what the Gods have said?”
“I think you have a far longer backlog of holding my head while I empty my guts into a pot than I shall ever be able to repay you for.” Emanuel said quietly.
“I don’t do it for repayment, Emanuel.”
“Still, no one would blame you if you gave up on me.” The apothecary looked down into his bowl and poked at a floating piece carrot.
“I would.” Fox said just as quietly. Then the sounds of eating once more overtook them until Emanuel pushed his chair back and headed for the door leading to the outhouse. Fox finished up his last bite or two of stew and put the pot back in the larder, washed the bowls out. Emanuel came back up the stairs and into the house. After the bowls were dried and put away, Fox turned to see Emanuel sitting on the settee, head in his hands.
“I wouldn’t.” Emanuel said. It took Fox a minute to realize that he was picking up their previous thread of conversation.
“Emanuel, it is no hardship to do something for someone who you know will be able to repay you. It requires nothing of you, not really. But to do something for someone who cannot?” Fox shook his head. “That requires much more of you. Besides, even if you can’t repay me, perhaps there’ll be someone else along down the line.” Or perhaps there already had been.
Fox knew that Emanuel had done far more during the plague than he ever let on that he had. Knew it because of the things that Lord Gray and King Lachlan had told him, but knew it all the more because of what Emanuel was doing to himself.
You didn’t get the kind of crushing grief that left you clinging to a bottle if you didn’t care, you didn’t drink yourself to sleep at night if those you hadn’t been able to save didn’t matter to you. If Fox had to guess, knowing Emanuel, he’d done everything he could and run into the wall of his own capacity.
“Oh, aye.” Emanuel shook his head. “Like who?”
“Your children, perhaps.” Emanuel shrugged, pulling himself out of his thoughts.
“Oh, aye.” Emanuel’s sarcasm practically cut the air like a knife.”Like I will ever have children. That requires a wife, you know.”
“And what woman would take me? She won’t. I have nothing to offer her.” Fox didn’t bother asking who. He knew who. He thought about reminding Emanuel that he had as much of a chance with Lady Kennedy as anyone did. Perhaps more! “She doesn’t need me, Fox. What could a man like me offer a woman like her?”
“Perhaps it isn’t about need, Emanuel? Have you thought of that?” Emanuel shook his head sharply, unhappiness splayed across his face. “Lady Kennedy may not need you, not like we’re used to a wife needing a husband, but perhaps that’s for the better. Because it means that she may take into account what she wants.” And if he had to lay money one way or another, he would guess that Lady Kennedy wanted Emanuel.
Emanuel sat in silence, staring into the darkness over Fox’s head.
“I should get to bed.” Emanuel said suddenly. “If I sit here too much more, I won’t make it to bed on my own and you’ve half carried me to bed too many times already.”
“Alright. Perhaps you can come over for dinner tomorrow, then?” Fox asked, standing up.
“Trying to make certain I eat?”
“No, just that I made more soup than I need for myself and don’t fancy eating it for the next week.” Fox said blandly as he got his feet. Emanuel laughed and turned with his usual grace to his room. Fox smiled faintly and blew out the candles before taking himself off into the night.