Thursday, April 29, 2010

Servant of the King Chapter 16

Wow. Two days: two chapters. 

You, dear readers, are either very lucky or you enjoy torture. 

Here you go. Total word count now is 32,000. 

Chapter 16

Ree padded down the granite stairs, her eyes fixed fast on the light streaming through the doorway at the bottom. As she descended the gloomy staircase, she extended both hands to the side so that her fingers were lightly brushing the walls. Her father had told her she should use the main staircase, but sometimes she liked to take this shortcut to the royal kitchen. With snow on the ground and the air outside cold enough to freeze a flying bird's feathers, she was looking forward to the ever-present heat of the kitchen. It was so cold that she could feel the chilly stone beneath her feet even with her leather shoes on.
As she approached the doorway, the voice of Agmoda, the head cook, echoed up to her ears.
"Hush now, Lina. That's quite enough out of you."
A voice that Ree guessed must belong to Lina, responded. "I'm sorry mistress. It's just my brother—he's out of his mind with worry."
"We all know that Mastopo is always out of his mind. If his son's gone missing, it's probably because of a girl," Agmoda chided, her usually high-pitched voice muffled.
Ree stopped, catching herself by leaning on the wall. Who's Lina? And Mastopo? Her brother?
"But little Fim is only in his tenth year," Lina said. She sounded as if she had been crying.
"I said that's enough." Agmoda's voice hinted at punishments if Lina's complaining continued.
I wonder what's going on, Ree thought.
"Yes, Mistress," Lina said as the sound of something heavy and dense hitting a wood table commenced.
Ree realized that if somebody left the kitchen to climb the servants' stairs, she would be discovered. She descended the final steps, coughing loudly as she hit the landing and passed through the doorway.
The warmth of the multiple hearths in the long kitchen enveloped her before she had taken two steps. An aroma of baking bread filled the room, the warm sensation contrasting with the cold stones under her feet.
"Mistress Ree," Agmoda said, not missing a beat as she violently kneaded a huge ball of bread dough. She lifted the dough high, then slammed it down to the table with a loud thump. "You know your father doesn't want you in here."
"I know Aggi- Agmoda," Ree said, trying to hold back her smile. It never failed. She had known Agmoda her entire life and had even played in the kitchen as a little girl. The cook had been trying to get Ree to stop calling her Aggie for what seemed like years.
"Then you'd best be moving along," Agmoda said, her voice stern but the laughter in her eyes belying the feigned anger.
Ree approached the heavy wood table Agmoda was working on. She leaned her elbows on the table and tried to keep her search casual. At least ten other women were working in the kitchen, all of them wearing the same kind of brown dress and rough apron. Which one is Lina?
The bread dough slammed onto the table again, making Ree's elbows twitch involuntarily. She glanced at Agmoda. The cook's thin frame seemed too small to be able to wrestle the huge ball of dough she was now breaking into smaller wads. Not for the first time, Ree wondered how Agmoda had stayed so thin while spending most of her life working in a kitchen. "Can't I have some fresh bread before I go? And an apple for Titan?"
Ree cast her eyes about the kitchen again.
"Of course," Agmoda said. "Doba! Bring a loaf and an apple!" Agmoda's voice cut through the hubbub of the kitchen like a sharp knife through chicken meat.
Lina had sounded like she was crying, Ree thought. She scoured the faces in the room. One particularly small woman, a girl really—she couldn't have been much older than Ree—turned and Ree got a look at her face. Red-rimmed eyes. That had to be Lina.
"Looking for something, Mistress?"
Ree turned at Agmoda's question, pushing a smile onto her face. "Just wondering where you're hiding tonight's dessert cakes."
"You will never know," Agmoda said, smiling with mischief.
This was the Agmoda that Ree loved. Behind her stern demeanor and the rigidly organized kitchen staff, Agmoda loved to play word games and talk about almost anything. It's terrible, but Aggie's my only real friend here. Ree's smile fell at the thought.
"What's wrong?" Agmoda asked.
"Nothing," Ree said.
"Is it another nightmare?"
Ree wished she hadn't shared the nightmare she'd had a few weeks ago. Agmoda seemed to put a lot of stock in such things and had spent what seemed like forever trying to interpret its 'symbols.' Ree just wanted to let the images fade.
She hadn't told Agmoda about Shule. She worried that Agmoda would worry and talk to her father about it.
"No. It's nothing." Ree glanced around, trying to catch sight of Lina again. Maybe I can find a way to talk to her sometime and find out what happened to the boy she was talking about. Lina had disappeared. She was probably carrying food to the dining table.
A large woman, her apron bursting around her midriff, approached with a loaf of bread in one hand and an apple in the other.
Agmoda gave Ree a look, then turned back to the dough balls she had made. She began to form them into flat discs. "Set them on the table, Doba."
"Yes, Mistress," the large woman said. She breathed loudly as she turned and made her way back to the other end of the kitchen.
"And you, Mistress Ree," Agmoda said, indicating the bread and apple, "are better off eating the apple too. Give your old horse a handful of oats and that'll be fine. You need more than bread for your breakfast."
"My old horse?" Ree asked, feigning offense. "Titan is not just an old horse. He's a nobly bred warhorse with more battles under his saddle than any man living today. He probably killed a thousand Usurpers himself."
"You mean he was a warhorse. Now he's a doddering nag."
            "A nag? Doddering? Are you sure you're talking about my horse?" Ree grinned as she snatched up her bread and apple.
            Agmoda offered a quick smile, her eyes twinkling. "Actually I was talking about you by the time you wed if you don't learn to brush that hair of yours!"
            Ree flounced away. "I don't want to get married anyway! I just want to work in a kitchen my whole life." She took a bite from the still-warm loaf as she turned and used her foot to push open the door that led outside. A blast of cold air seemed to freeze her front side even as her back was still enjoying the heat of the kitchen.
            She sucked in a breath and forced herself all the way through the doorway. She crossed the courtyard quickly, the frozen mud feeling rough and sharp beneath her feet. I should have brought my shawl. Knowing that the stable would be warm from all the horses and cows in there, she hurried faster, tucking her food close to her chest.
            She shouldered the stable door open and ducked into the low, stone building. No torches burned, but there were enough cracks around beams and tiles in the ceiling that she could see as well as she needed. The straw underfoot felt much more comfortable then the rough ground outside, and the smell of horse and cow filled her with a sense of comfort and warmth, despite still being able to see her breath.
            Ree strode forward, taking another bite of the bread—the crust of which was now cold. The short entryway ended at a long passage that stretched a long way to the left and right. The stable held over a hundred horses and half as many cows, and it was one of her favorite places to spend time. She could spend hours running her hands on horses' noses and brushing them down.
            The cows she could do without. She was glad she had never had to milk one; she had seen servants milking them and the things just seemed smelly and clumsy. Once she had seen a cow casually knock over a servant then put its hoof in a bucket of fresh milk. The servant had been lashed and sent back to milk the cow properly.
            Turning left, Ree walked down the passage made of stall doors that now stood closed. After a couple of minutes walking, she arrived at the section where retired warhorses lived. Approaching Titan's stall, she whistled softly and called him. "Titan. Dear Titan?"
            A whicker floated above the stalls.
            "I've got something for you."
            She stopped in front of one of the last stalls on the left. The head of a massive horse, its neck and chest a deep chestnut, quested out. Titan blew loudly through his nose.
            "You can smell this, can't you?" She tore a bite out of her bread and tucked it under one arm. Holding the apple tightly, she whacked it sharply on the edge of the stall door. Titan's head bobbed at the noise. His long-lashed eyes blinked and he tossed his head again. "It's okay, I just forgot my knife." Now, using both hands, she dug her fingers into the apple and broke it in half. "There."
            Ree offered one of the halves to Titan. The horse sniffed her hand, his soft lips brushing her fingers. The apple disappeared.
            "You're so greedy," Ree said, unlatching the stall door and slipping inside.
            She wrapped her arms around the huge horse's neck. "But you're great. You don't give me rules. And you don't tell me that I should be preparing to get married already."
            She handed over the rest of the apple. "Married," she muttered, chewing on bread and reaching for the stiff brush hanging above the stall.
            Munching on her breakfast, Ree held the bread with one hand and brushed with the other. Her mind went back to the conversation she had overheard. That sounds awful. Lina's little nephew going missing. She wondered if Lina would be willing to talk to her about it. But why should I bother her about it? It's none of my business.
            She snorted. Titan snorted back. "Exactly." She pressed herself up to the warm horse, his muscular chest and forelegs firm and steady against her. "When have I ever minded my own business?"

1 comment:

Dyslexic Mystic said...

Never trust a skinny cook.