“Mayda said that my veal tart was the best thing she had ever tasted,” Koravi said, waving the knife she held to emphasize her point. “It melted in the mouth, Stilton, it melted.” There was a beatific expression on her face.
“Ha!” her companion retorted. He was a plump young man a little too fond of consuming his own delicious creations; Stilton could never resist a sweet, whether it was made by himself or one of the other cooks.
They were presently engaged in dinner preparations in the kitchen of Dargon Keep. The oblong room was filled with the smells of cooking, smoke, and sweat. The two of them stood next to one another in one corner, Stilton before a fire where a pot hung from its stand, and Koravi before a counter where she was chopping vegetables. She was somewhat younger and slightly taller than he and thin as a broomstick.
As he replied, Stilton’s attention was more on her face than on the pot he was stirring; he liked to draw Koravi into forceful discussions more for the pleasure of watching her eyes widen and her face redden as she argued than for the sake of the argument itself.
He said, “My blueberry tart! When I baked it for my Lord and Lady Daeton’s wedding, the bride’s mother complimented me, imagine that!
“And the rissoles: they were magnificent. I used only the fruit, with just a dash of cannell, did you know?” He drew a deep breath, awed as always by his own ingenuity, for he liked to change ingredients just to see what would come out. “Each one was a perfect round, and you could taste every single fruit. Try to match that. You couldn’t make a decent sweet if the duke begged you to.” He privately admitted that Koravi’s veal tartlets were sublime, but he had never told her so.
“Says the man whose stew isn’t fit to be served even to the duke’s retainers, unlike mine, which is truly fit for even the king,” came the prompt answer from Koravi. Stilton grinned, appreciating the deft insult. He had always felt that she enjoyed their rivalry as much as he did.
Koravi continued, “Just you wait until you taste my rabbit.” She wielded her knife to good effect. Her chopping motions were so fast that the eye could not keep up; only the sound alerted the casual watcher to her efficiency. She finished and shoved all the pieces into a big pot. “This is going to be the most wonderful stew you have ever tasted; it will be sweet, and it will be sour, and it will be just perfect. I used to make it especially for the Lady Myrande. She loves it, and she has told me so, many times.”
Her voice rose abruptly. “Where’s the verjuice? You took it, didn’t you? Slug-catcher! Scum-bucket!” Her vocabulary often surprised Stilton; it contrasted sharply with the image of a well-raised girl that Koravi liked to project. Her brown eyes widened expressively as she spoke, and she waved her hand in the air again.
“Where is my verjuice?” Koravi enunciated each word separately, her annoyance reverberating in the hot, stuffy air of the kitchen.
Stilton smiled at her sweetly and turned back to the fire; he was stirring the contents of the pot, for he had just added some spices. He knew that his lack of response vexed his compatriot, but the reason for his deliberate silence stood sixteen hands tall behind the two of them, a small smile on her face as she listened to their conversation.
The person standing behind them spoke in a soft voice that was as gentle as the first flower of spring. “Is something the matter?”
Koravi whirled around to face her: it was Mayda, the keep cook.
“Er … I’m sorry, Mayda, but I think Stilton took my verjuice. It was right here,” Koravi said in a rush.
“It’s there.” Mayda pointed to the other side of the kitchen where there were small shelves with jars of spices; pots of lard were stacked one on top of another right next to the counter.
“Oh,” Koravi said sheepishly.
Stilton had to grin at the look on her face. He didn’t know whether he liked her best when she argued with him, competed with him, or conceded to him.
Mayda smiled at them both, and Stilton concentrated on his work, seeing a teasing glint in Mayda’s smile, for she was well aware of his feelings for Koravi.
Mayda said softly, “Stilton, be nice. And Koravi, don’t be so quick to point fingers at Stilton. He would never hurt you.”
“He teases me all the time,” Koravi said hotly. “He –”
“Yes, he does, doesn’t he?” Mayda tapped her foot and Stilton turned to see her giving him a quizzical look. “Perhaps you ought to ask him why he does that, Koravi,” she said and went away.
Koravi silently attended to her stew and Stilton grinned. It had taken him a long time to understand why he teased Koravi, and he wondered if Mayda had known of his feelings before he did. Perhaps one day soon Koravi would realize what their competition meant …
It was coming up on the fifth bell the next day, and Stilton was sitting on a stool in a corner of the kitchen pitting fruit with a knife. A huge bowl of fresh, cleanly washed cherries sat on the counter in front of him to his left. Another bowl, the same size, but with a tiny pile of pitted ones sat to his right.
“Stilton, Mayda sent me to help you,” a high voice piped up from his side.
“You? I don’t need any help, Oriel,” he said.
“Sure you do. You’ve only just begun to pit the cherries,” the girl said, dragging another stool next to him. She was about twelve years old, with long, bright yellow hair that hung down her back in two neat braids. The child’s mother, a cook, had taught her some of the art before she had died, and Oriel herself had recently been apprenticed to Mayda.
“Straight. You can help me,” Stilton said, nodding at the bowl before him. He watched as she carefully picked up a fruit and a knife. “But mind, no eating them.”
She grinned at his admonishment and asked, “What are you going to make?” She imitated Stilton at a much slower pace.
“Never pitted cherries before?” he asked. She looked up at him, smiling, and shook her head. “Be careful then,” he warned. “I’m going to make cherryseye.”
“Will you teach me how to make it?”
“You don’t even know what it is, do you?” Stilton chuckled. “Well, it’s a sweetmeat and it’s for Aimee’s birthday. Do you know Aimee?”
Oriel nodded, her eyes wide. “Yes, I saw her yesterday. Her father works for the duke.”
Stilton laughed at the awe in her voice. “Yes he does. Where did you see Aimee?”
“She came to see Mayda and Mayda gave her a sweetmeat, you know.” Oriel glanced up at him briefly before turning back to her task, biting her lower lip as she focused on wielding the knife. “How do you make it?” She looked up a second time before popping a cherry into her mouth.
Stilton gave her a mock-frown. “Now, now, I said no eating the cherries!” She grinned but did not answer and he continued, “First we pit them, and then we grind them into a paste.”
“Will you save the juice?” Oriel asked, the concentration on her face faltering as a seed flew out and hit her arm. Stilton swallowed a smile at the picture. He remembered his own early apprenticeship with Mayda. She had been very nice to him then. She was always sweet to the children, he reflected. Seeing Oriel open her mouth, probably to ask another question, he hurried to reply.
“Yes, we save the juice, and put the ground mixture into a pot. Mix in a little butter, lots of wine, and a little bread. I boil it, and add a secret ingredient. When it is cooked, I decorate and serve. Ah, it shall be delicious, my child …” Stilton became momentarily incoherent at the thought of how wonderful the dish would taste. He began to embellish on his description. “It will be so delicious that everyone will love it; it will be so delectable that they won’t be able to stop eating it; it will be so divine that –” he stopped as he realized that Oriel was laughing. He grinned back sheepishly.
The two of them continued to work in companionable silence for a few menes. As she grabbed the last fruit and began to pit it, Oriel said, “A secret ingredient? Is it an herb?”
Stilton rose from his stool and reached for a grinder. This was a wooden ladle, but with a small, cylindrical, metal base. He began to mash the pitted cherries. “Oriel, Oriel,” he sighed dramatically. “It’s a secret ingredient. Secret means I can’t tell you, or anyone.”
“No buts.” He silently concentrated on grinding the fruit until he was finished. “Grab that pot from there, will you?”
Oriel watched in wide-eyed fascination as he poured the mashed cherries into the huge pot she dragged over to him. Next he added a small pat of butter. “Mince this bread for me, child.” He placed a small cutting board, a knife, and a short stack of dried bread on the counter. Oriel climbed back on her stool and began to work obediently.
Stilton grabbed a bottle of red wine and poured. When it was three-quarters empty, he corked it, returned it to the shelf, and picked up a small jar from the spice rack. Oriel turned her attention to him. “Mince,” he said, pointing to the bread. She grinned and ostentatiously turned her back to him and her attention to the bread. He opened the jar and added a pinch of its contents to the pot. Then cautiously, almost hesitantly, he added another pinch. Satisfied, he returned the jar to its spot in the spice rack.
“Won’t you tell me what it is, please?” Oriel begged.
“No,” he said, grinning at her. “When Mayda allows you to cook, you’ll be able to create your own recipes and then you’ll have your secrets. Until then, hands off mine!”
He added the bread to the pot and placed it on the fire. Oriel didn’t leave his side, watching him stir it with a wooden ladle. He lifted the pot off the fire when he deemed it had cooked enough. He poured the cherryseye into two serving bowls. The mixture, a deep red in color, settled into the bowl with a pop, air coming out in a bubble on the top as it began to harden immediately. He smoothed the surface gently with his ladle. “We need flowers to decorate it,” he murmured. “White flowers that will look beautiful against the red.”
“I know, I know,” Oriel replied, jumping up. “There are some lilies in a small bush in the second row in front of the keep. Can I go get them, Stilton, can I?”
“Yes. Come back quickly,” he replied, smiling as she rushed off. He eyed the kitchen thoughtfully, wondering where he could hide his creation. The fact was that Koravi would try to ruin his masterpiece; he knew that as well as he knew his own knife. He paused guiltily, because Koravi wouldn’t really destroy his creation, just make it look less than perfect. Mayda probably didn’t care, but ironically enough, he wanted to make sure his dish remained pristine so that Koravi would be impressed with his work. He had to laugh at his logic but knew that he would hide his sweet anyway.
Oriel returned just then, interrupting his thoughts. “Here,” she said breathlessly, handing him a small bunch of white flowers. He took them and went to a corner of the kitchen to rinse them.
Returning to where Oriel awaited him, he said grandly, “Now, let’s decorate. Anything we serve *must* look pretty. A good chef doesn’t simply cook: he creates. Remember, any masterpiece that is created must look beautiful.” He took one lily and plucked out each petal. Then he laid them on top of the contents of the serving bowl so that the petals pointed toward the center. He took another lily and, placing it on the cutting board, slammed the grinder down on it.
“What are you doing?” Oriel cried.
“Watch,” was his only response. The flower was now flat; the sides had folded down upon themselves, and the center was crushed. Stilton carefully plucked out the stems and placed the folded petals on top of the contents of the other bowl. “There,” he said proudly. “Doesn’t that look nice?” He wasn’t expecting an answer and was surprised when he got one.
“Yes, but you shouldn’t have done that,” Oriel said. “You should have left the petals on them.”
“Well, this is my creation,” Stilton began. His eyes caught those of Oriel, and he had the grace to blush. He chided himself; he was arguing with a twelve year-old. “Never mind that. Now, I must hide this. I think …” his voice trailed off. “Go, child. I need to hide this.”
He grinned. “You see, Oriel, I have a friend named Koravi who also works in the kitchen.”
“Yes, I know her. She gets angry very quickly, doesn’t she?”
He nodded. “She always wants to make something grander than I make, better than I make. If she finds out what I made, she’ll make her honey cakes, and they are very good.”
Oriel nodded so violently that her braids flew around her. “Oh yes! Last sennight, Mayda gave me one. It was wonderful.”
Stilton did not know what Oriel saw in his face but the girl paused and continued, “But I’m sure I’ll love your cherryseye, Stilton, really.”
He laughed. “I’m sure. Now run along, sweetling, so that I can hide this.”
It was almost time for Aimee’s birthday party and Stilton was ready to bring his masterpiece out of hiding. He went into the rear room where a long table stood already bearing fruits of various kinds. Mayda herself was supervising the small army of apprentices and maids who were scuttling back and forth from the kitchen bearing breads and meat.
“Stilton, where is the cherryseye?” she asked as soon as she saw him. “I’ve saved a place in the center of the table for it. And where’s Koravi and her honey cakes?” Her gaze fell on one of the cook’s helpers, and she continued, “You there, put the breads at the other end of the table. Idiot!”
Stilton smiled as the poor apprentice muttered an apology and moved the bread. He remembered a time many years ago, when he had been the apprentice who got yelled at. He knew that Mayda never meant anything by her epithets; in her kitchen, only she could chastise her apprentices, and anyone else who tried got the sharp edge of her tongue.
Abruptly Mayda’s words sank in. “Honey cakes! Koravi made honey cakes!” He couldn’t believe it. She had made her best sweet. Of course he should have expected it, but why hadn’t he? He had hoped that she wouldn’t, and then he had simply convinced himself that she wouldn’t.
“I asked her to, Stilton, because Aimee loves them,” Mayda said with a pointed note of patience in her voice.
Stilton said in outrage, “But you didn’t ask *me* to make cherryseye. You just told me to make a sweet.”
“That’s because I knew the gardener had brought in the cherries last night, and I saw you putting them away. I knew you would make it.”
“Enough, Stilton. Where is it?”
“I’ve hidden it, Mayda. Let me get it.”
“You hid it! Why?” she asked, staring at him in astonishment.
“It’s because I didn’t want Koravi to know what I made. The only sweet she makes well is honey cakes and I didn’t want her to make them.”
Mayda began to laugh. “Stilton, when are you going to understand that your best work is with sweets and Koravi’s is with savories? The pair of you are enough to –”
Suddenly there was a loud scream from the corridor. Mayda and Stilton ran out. Koravi stood near an open door rocking on her feet and crying, taking big gulps of air.
“What’s wrong, child?” Mayda, for all her harsh words, was a tenderhearted woman, Stilton knew. She reached Koravi and patted her hand. Koravi threw her arms around Mayda and wept on her shoulder. Stilton walked around the two women and looked into the closet … and chuckled, trying unsuccessfully to hide his amusement.
“What are you laughing about?” Mayda asked, unable to see the cause of his merriment.
Koravi stiffened at the sound of his mirth and straightened. “You! It’s all your fault!” she exclaimed.
Mayda peered into the closet. Stilton watched her face change as she laughed softly. The honey cakes, so lovingly prepared by Koravi, were now a thing of the past. Rats had been at them, and what remained was a sorry sight. The pastries had been arranged in circular fashion one on top of the other; the entire plate had been disturbed, and each cake nibbled so that not a single one remained whole.
“It’s because of you,” Koravi wept.
“Nonsense, Koravi. Don’t be silly,” Mayda said briskly. “Stop crying. I can’t imagine what you were doing, putting the sweets inside this closet. Stilton’s fault indeed! As for you, Stilton, where is your sweet? And wipe that grin off your face this instant!”
Stilton wiped. After all, there was no sense in angering Mayda more than necessary. He led the way back inside the room where the festivities were being held.
“It’s in here.” He opened the door of the closet where extra dishes and cutlery were stored … and stared down, stunned.
Koravi’s sobs turned to gusts of laughter.
Mayda smiled gently at the occupants of the little room. “Sweetling, what are you doing in here?”
Aimee Taishent and her dog Karl stared up innocently at the adults. Massive inroads had been made into the two large bowls of cherryseye. Aimee’s mouth, and indeed almost her entire face, had been stained red, and the bodice of her dress was pink as well. She had grabbed a spoon from one of the shelves and enjoyed herself. The dog Karl had been given free rein at the other bowl, and he had done it justice.
“No!” Stilton howled.
The ten year-old shrunk back against Karl, and Mayda said sharply, “Control yourself, Stilton.” Her voice softened as she addressed Aimee. “Come along, Aimee. You shouldn’t be in here. Everyone will be here for your party soon, and look at you! Let me find your nurse.”
The little girl rose and placed a sticky hand trustingly in Mayda’s, who led her out of the room.
“It’s all your fault,” Koravi said, frowning.
“How do you say that? My creation was ruined too,” he pointed out, feeling a laugh bubbling up as he thought of what his expression must have been when he had first glimpsed the destruction of his dish.
She grinned briefly at his reminder but said, “When I think of the trouble I took to make my sweet! If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have hidden it, and it wouldn’t be ruined. And now Mayda is angry with us, and we’ll get punished.”
Stilton sighed, and stepped back into the closet, out of the way of a hurrying apprentice. He tugged at Koravi’s elbows and pulled her in. “Look at me, Koravi. It’s just some food. At least Aimee, and the dog, and the rats appreciated the desserts.”
Koravi giggled, and he continued, smiling down at her, “And Mayda isn’t really angry with us … I don’t think so anyway.”
“Really? She won’t make us wash dishes as punishment for the next month?” Koravi turned the statement into a question as she looked up at him with her dark eyes that looked like twin pools of honey.
He caught his breath and murmured, “Yes … no … probably.” Then he bent and kissed her.
Stilton wasn’t sure how much longer it was, but a long time later, someone coughed loudly. And again. He lifted his head and turned.
Mayda stood at the door, leaning against the jamb, a slight smile on her face. “What do you think you’re doing?”
He wasn’t sure if the question was addressed to him or to Koravi, who answered before he could gather his thoughts.
“Kissing.” Koravi smiled vaguely at them both.
Mayda laughed. “Well, that’s nice, I’m sure.” She paused for a moment to survey their faces and repeated, “I’m sure that’s *very* nice,” and Stilton watched as Koravi blushed. He wondered if he were blushing too.
“But you two have behaved irresponsibly. I’m going to have to punish you.” She tapped her foot against the jamb several times and then stopped as Stilton spoke.
“I know, I know. Wash dishes for a sennight.” He was resigned to it, because he didn’t really care. All that he could concentrate on was Koravi.
“Make that two sennights, and you aren’t released from cooking duties. I want you both to wash dishes after luncheon and dinner time. But you can do it together.” Mayda smiled at them both. “And if I were you, I would get myself to the washing pens before my punishment was increased.”
Stilton laughed as Mayda left them alone. He turned Koravi to face him and began to kiss her again. The washing pens could wait while he concentrated on the charming armful he cuddled.