Maxwell gets a lesson. Sort of. (Toffee 8. Spoonful of sugar)
Maxwell raised his hands above his head. He felt the prickle of power gathering, washing across his arms and down to the circle around the base of the cauldron, pooling in the tiny blue flame and being propelled back into the cauldron’s iron belly.
He could see Justine out of the corner of his eye, bustling over her own cauldron on the other burner. She hadn’t wanted to tell him what she was working on. Of course, she usually didn’t. He turned his head the tiniest bit, trying to get a better look at the neatly sorted ingredients. She’d turned the labels of the jars so he couldn’t read them. It didn’t help that most everything in the house wound up in a container saved from when it had held something else- jam jars, butter tubs, shoe boxes. Justine tied her bundles of herbs with shoestrings. She hated to throw things away. Max turned a little bit more, and
“KRACKOOM!” Distracted by his Master, the Apprentice had gotten sloppy with the eye of newt. (Hey. It was gross and slimy. He sure didn’t want to look at it too closely.) An extra dollop of the golden eyeballs slid out of the fat glass jar, bypassed the spoon, and plopped into the boiling froth. Immediately, the alchemical balance shattered, and the cauldron’s contents exploded upward.
“Well. That’s just... wow.” Justine brushed a few stray hairs off her forehead, staring up at the ceiling, now liberally coated with gray-green slime.
“I’m in trouble again, aren’t I?”
“What were you doing, that you weren’t watching the pot like you should have been?”
“I- nothing?” Maxwell suggested with a winsome smile. Justine planted one fist on her hip, the other stirring the pale beige stuff in her cauldron steadily- once clockwise, twice counterclockwise, once clockwise, repeat ad nauseum.
“Maxwell Delacroix. Don’t you even stand there and pretend you were paying attention to your work. Now what was so fascinating that you didn’t think you needed to be watching those newts’ eyes?” Stir, stir stir, stir.
“I- Why won’t you tell me what you’re making?”
“Because it isn’t any of your business, Apprentice Delacroix.” Her jaw was set in a hard line. “You don’t get to ask me what I’m doing, demanding answers for my every move.” He tried to hold her gaze, but she stood unblinking until he looked down at the floor. There were globs of the failed potion raining slowly down, plopping sickeningly on the bare wooden floor. Justine glared, and he could feel her eyes burning holes in his skin.
“Sorry, Justy.” She held firm for a moment longer before she sighed, and the hostility that charged the air dispersed.
“Dammit, Max. You’re gonna get us both killed one of these days. You have to learn to focus, little buddy. Now go get the mop and clean this up, so you can try again.”
“Aww. Can’t you just use magic?”
“I could. But would that teach you a lesson? I do not think so.” Justine turned back to her workstation, dumping a pre-measured amount of dark red powder carelessly into the cauldron. “Go on. You’re not getting supper until you get that stuff off the ceiling.”
“... That’s a punishment? I’ve eaten your food. I barely survived!”
“Alright. Clean it up or you’ll only get my cooking.”
“For a week.” Maxwell bolted to the closet for the mop. Justine chuckled as she sprinkled a dash of lavender buds into the mix. You could always get more with a kind word and a 2x4 than with just a kind word.
Maxwell spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning up the mess as it descended casually to the floor- and the table, and the chairs, and the counter, and once or twice on his head. Justine stirred, contentedly melding her ingredients into a thick, cream-colored paste. She emptied the countertop next to her with a casual flick of the wrist, and scooped out a fat wad of the stuff, thudding it on the counter. She hummed as she worked, pounding the thick goo into a flat sheet.
“Can I know now?”
“You’ll know when I tell you, and not a minute before.” She opened the drawer and pulled out a blunt knife. She started tracing designs into the slab, lifting out sections and arranging them carefully on the flat metal sheet beside her. She hummed contentedly as she worked, her ponytail bouncing. She popped the tray into the oven and started washing out her bowls and spoons.
“Can I know now?”
“Ask again and I’ll spank you.” Justine went over the board on the back wall and sliced a chalk line through one of the bulleted items on her ‘Do Today’ list. Maxwell fumed a little as he scrubbed, wishing he could read her encrypted script. But she had only taught him a handful of symbols, not nearly enough to decipher a grocery list, let alone one of the fat leather grimoires on the bookcases. She dusted fine white powder off her hands and studied the list, pondering her next task.
“Well, those are in for about... twenty minutes. Can’t do that in time... No, I’d get dirt all over myself, can’t be mixing those up... Hmm. Oh! Still haven’t fed the cats!” There is a popular myth about witches and cats. It’s popular because it’s a bit true. Not because cats are any more magical than anything else, but because a higher percentage of sorcerers than normal people lived alone in old houses on hills. ‘Crazy cat lady’ just went with the territory. What was magical about the myth was that cats were more likely than most other animals to pick up magics of their own. Simple, subtle magic, but magic.
Justine whistled as she grabbed the enormous bag of cat food out of the pantry and slung it over her shoulder. She hauled the massive thing out onto the back porch and a choir of feline voices howled for attention. Justine poured the kitty kibble into the row of metal bowls and, with whisper soft steps and ear splitting shrieks, the cats came out from their hiding places to feed.
“Aw, man.” Justine scooped up a gray tabby out of the milling herd around her ankles. “Kittens. Again. Guys, is it really so hard to not get it on, huh?” She cuddled the irate feline and sat her back on the floor with her confederates. She played with the cats some more, scratching ears and twining tails through her fingers until the stove ‘ding’ -ed. Justine scanned Maxwell’s work as she washed her hands, scrutinizing the ceiling. She nodded to herself as she dried her hands and flipped the towel over her shoulder.
“Alright. Good job. You’ve earned a reward.” She opened the oven and pulled out the flat metal sheet. The space between the hot pan and her bare skin flared with flue light as the layers of magical protection shielded her fingers from being burned. She set the pan on the cooling rack and picked up her chalk. She drew a symbol on the message board and pointed to it.
“Do you know this one, Maxwell?”
“No, ma’am.” He leaned across the counter for a better look. “What does it mean?”
“Oh, no. I’m not giving it away that easily! Come on, you can figure it out! Complicated symbols are made from smaller, related symbols layered on top of each other. What smaller symbols do you see here?”
“Um. Food.” He took the chalk from her and traced the symbol next to hers. “And that one is... um. Bread? Right?”
“Spot on. Next?”
“That’s...” He tried to see her’s without the ones for ‘Food’ and ‘Bread’. “I- it looks like this. I just don’t know what that means.” He sketched it out, and she clapped her hand on his shoulder.
“That’s an underused and oft neglected ingredient. I’m fond of it, though- and not just in potions. It can go a long way toward smoothing out all sorts of issues, in relationships and social situations. Just don’t, for the love of crud, burn it.”
“What is it, Justy?” She grabbed one of her jars and a spoon, and spooned out some of the grainy white substance.
“Open up.” He eyes the spoon warily.
“It’s not gonna, like, turn me green or something?” Justine smiled sweetly.
“Would I tell you if it did?” Max opened his mouth and closed his eyes. Justine rolled her eyes and shoved in the spoon.
“Gah!” Max’s lips puckered as his taste buds were assaulted by the sheer sweet in his mouth.
“Good, huh?” He swallowed desperately, trying to clear out his mouth. Tiny grains clung stubbornly to his tongue.
“You just shoveled sugar in my mouth!” Justine chuckled.
“Well. Now you know. So what do you think it means, hmm?”
“Food bread sugar? It- You spent today making cookies, didn’t you?”
“Penny for the smart lady.” He glared at her.
“Still not a girl.” She laughed as she put the canister away.
“You sure spend enough time in the bathroom. More than me.”
“That doesn’t give me ovaries!” She laughed and started transferring the cookies from the pan to a plate.
“You’re too stressed, Maxine.”
“I- You know what? Just shut up and give me a damn cookie."