The smells of banquet food drifted from the castle kitchen to Anala’s nose, and she inhaled deeply. As was her habit, she was headed to the kitchens to make small talk with the head cook, a person who would not think less of her for her Western accent, which had never seemed to dissipate in all her long years away from Harbourtown.
Nobles and courtiers found the Western accent uncouth and barbarous, the shortened slang of sailors and harbour folk. They regarded her with a barely veiled contempt, saying nothing to her face, only to gossip about it around the next corner or behind the nearest curtain. Within weeks of her first appearance at court, when she’d become a Bellica, all the castle knew, and most laughed. She’d done the only thing she could―she’d stopped speaking in public, except carefully rehearsed sentences. She had her major, Aro, do all public speaking for her, and quickly her reputation had changed from “barbarian Anala” to “taciturn Anala”. This suited the Bellica of the Second Regiment just fine. ‘Taciturn’ suggested level-headedness, and as she was far more rational than foolhardy in battle, better the court see her as the former.
Her steps quickened as she drew nearer to the kitchen. The smells were mouthwatering. That was the one thing Anala liked about court―the food was splendid. Decidedly different from the fare she’d endured in childhood, save for the meals at her aunt’s, but those had been few and far between, ending when she was fifteen. Entering the kitchen, she saw all the cooks abustle, hastily readying tonight’s Midwinter Day feast. It was only 1250 hours, about half an hour to noon, but Midwinter Day was one of the biggest feast days of the year at the castle, and anyone who was anyone in Atherton would be present. A lot of mouths to feed. Anala did not envy the head cook on this day, although, at another time, she might.
Anala stood unobtrusively in the doorway, waiting patiently. She would be noticed in due course. A few minutes passed, and a young cook of about eighteen years looked up and saw the bellica. She nodded at Anala and headed to the back of the kitchen, towards the icebox. The icebox in the castle kitchen was the envy of every tavern and hostel in the city―and of a few of the better charnel houses as well. It stood taller than Yarrow at two and a half metres, was four metres wide and fifteen metres deep. It kept meat edible for most of the year, except in high summer when the cooling technology couldn’t compete with the heat of the day. Along with the grain silos in the southwest of the castle grounds, it could store enough food to outlast a siege, providing everyone in the castle rationed reasonably. Which’n they wouldnae, thought Anala uncharitably. She’d seen the eating habits of courtiers. They ate till they were stuffed, drank till they made fools of themselves, and left little for the servants―and that was on a good night. Such gluttony was not permitted in the army, and especially not in Anala’s Regiment.
Rousing herself from her thoughts, she saw Tenea, the head cook, walking in her direction. There was a smile on the ample woman’s face, and Anala realised that she hadn’t been down in the kitchens since before the East Campaign. Hastily she returned the smile, just in time to be brought into a huge embrace from Tenea.
“Bellica Anala! We ain’t seen ye around for a while yet, girl! Reckon’d ya mighta forgotten us humble folk down in da kitchens.”
“Mmmfh,” was Anala’s dignified response, and a second later the cook’s big, strong arms let her go and she was stumbling backwards, gasping for breath. Tenea let out a raucous laugh and patted Anala on the back, which did nothing to help her recover her lost breath. “Ye know, Tenea, if’n ye weren’t me aunt, I’d be fit ta kill ye.”
Tenea laughed some more, unperturbed. Anala would never pull through on the threat. The bellica relaxed enough to chuckle a bit with her aunt, realizing that it was, after all, Midwinter Day and one for celebration, not one for being as stern as she usually was. She grinned and gestured for Tenea to lead her to a place where they could chat, namely the rough wooden table in the back of the kitchen, reserved for such a purpose.
When they were somewhat comfortably seated on the two wooden stools at the table, Tenea started off the long-awaited chat with her niece. “Anala, ye came back on the thirteenth of Novena and ye haven’t yet come to see me till now. Have ye forgotten yer family obligations?”
Anala smiled politely. Getting home had not signalled an end to her work. The first night was spent with a few soldiers in her Regiment whom the healers had deemed incapable of surviving the night. Anala sat vigil with them, staying with them until their last minutes, not even letting the healers take a look at her own injuries until each of her soldiers had passed. Then she’d had to inform the families of the deceased. She hadn’t slept much. Her work had ended three days ago, and she’d just waked up from her rest at midday on Midwinter Eve. But there’d be no reason to be bothering me aunt with that, she decided. “Ah, but Aunt, I came only now outta respect for ye―I figured ye’d be busy enough with cooking for injured soldiers and the nobles without having me to deal with.”
Tenea gave her a mock-serious glare. “Anala, it’d be the biggest feast day o’ the year today. I’d be busy now―just when ye decide to visit. Five days ago woulda been better.” Anala shrugged. There was no longer anything she could do about it.
Tenea had apparently come to the same conclusion, because now she was talking about all Anala had missed in the four months she’d been gone, an equal mix of news from the family in Harbourtown and the castle gossip. Anala listened politely, not caring much for the former, the latter interesting her only mildly. It pleased her aunt to talk about these things with one she could trust; so Anala humoured her.
Something Tenea said sharpened Anala’s interest, and she listened more attentively.
“Tha’ morning after ye arrived, in truth, one o’ the Empress’ guards came down with ‘er morning meal, untouched, and said ‘e’d been ordered ta make sure tha one who’d made tha meal ate it ‘erself. Young girl, cannae recall ‘er name―she’d been new ta the kitchens, ye ken―came forward. She ate the meal; woulda been done wit’ it but the guard said the tea, as well. She drank the tea and it dinnae take more than a few seconds―dead, on tha floor, face pale, mouth foaming.” Tenea paused and shuddered at the memory; Anala shared the reaction at the vision it conjured up. “The guard looked relieved.” Tenea lowered her voice even more. “Like’n his life was hanging on the young cook’s compliance, but we haven’t seen ‘im around for a while, neither. I dinnae ken who tol’ her ta poison the empress’ meal, but scuttlebutt says it’d be the treecat.”
Anala shivered. Everyone knew who the treecat was―servant’s code for Zardria, the empreena everyone feared and silently loathed. Maybe not everyone, she thought, thinking of Yarrow. Anala didn’t know where Yarrow stood with her sister. All evidence said that Zardria hated her twin with a passion, but maybe that was a ruse so Yarrow could win people’s trust and then sell them out to her sister once they spilled their true feelings. Anala shook her head. If that was true, then Yarrow would have lost half her Regiment already. Which she had, but only in battle.
Besides, Anala had worked with Yarrow on numerous occasions and, while they didn’t talk much anymore except to discuss battle plans, Anala had seen nothing but pain in Yarrow’s eyes whenever the empreena was mentioned. More likely Yarrow loved Zardria and did not understand why her sister hated her so. Anala felt a pang for Yarrow, but still, she didn’t trust the princess-turned-bellica.
The bellica realised she’d been silent for a long time, Tenea just staring at her. She cleared her throat and hastily thought of something to say. “I’m sorry that ye lost a cook, Tenea, but I’d be a mite more grateful that ye dinnae lose yer own life.”
Tenea waved her hand, as if dismissing the issue. “Nae,” she answered. “I let the empress give me a truth serum. I dinnae ken anything about it, so I stayed safe enough.” Anala knew her aunt wasn’t telling the whole truth, but she didn’t press the issue. Tenea had her secrets, just like everyone else. The head cook respected her niece enough not to pry into the bellica’s secrets; so Anala would return the courtesy.
Suddenly remembering the second purpose of her visit to the kitchens, Anala reached into her belt pouch and pulled out a small wrapped gift. At Tenea’s quizzical look, she blustered, suddenly embarrassed. “Jus’ a small gift, that’d be all. Something for Midwinter, ye ken.” A wide smile broke over Tenea’s face as she started to undo the string that held the cloth on the gift. Anala held her breath, awaiting her aunt’s reaction. She’d searched for this gift before leaving on the East Campaign, hiding it in her room and hoping she’d be alive and able to give it to her aunt when she got home―though, like every good bellica, she had a contingency plan for that possible outcome: Aro would have delivered the gift safely to Tenea, and if not he, then Fanchone, her Chief Medical Officer. A small cry of delight escaped her aunt’s lips as she took the wrapping off and saw her gift: a small vial filled with a clear fluid, attached to a chain so she could wear it as a necklace.
To anyone else, the gift might have seemed strange, but Anala knew her paranoid aunt would appreciate a poison detector. Whenever poisoned food got near the vial, the liquid inside turned red. It was a rare gift, and difficult to find even in apothecary shops, but Anala had persevered, wanting the perfect, most practical gift for her aunt this Midwinter.
Looks like me perseverance paid off, she thought, as usual. Remembering her other obligations, she got up to go, but not before pulling the other gift from her belt pouch and placing it on the table. Tenea frowned. “Anala, ye’ve already gotten me the best gift ye could’ve. What more could I possibly want?”
Anala shook her head. “It’d be from Ghia in the hospitalis, Aunt. She reckoned that it was a complement to what the empress had given ye.” Tenea turned pale and nearly dropped the vial, but caught herself in time. Concerned, Anala grabbed her shoulder. “Aunt? What’s the matter?”
Tenea gave her a shaky smile. “Nothing’d be the matter, child. Let’s see what Ghia saw fit to give me, shall we?” She reached out and grabbed the gift, her hands shaking as she pulled off the wrapping. Anala was still concerned, but she respected her aunt’s privacy as usual and said nothing.
The wrapping came away and revealed a jar of some sort of ointment. Confused, Anala came to her aunt’s side of the table to read the label. Written in Ghia’s neat handwriting was one sentence―a prescription of sorts.
Healing salve―for your back.
At once Anala understood. The truth serum would have revealed more than just her aunt’s ignorance of the poison. It would have also revealed Tenea’s true feelings about the dead Queen’s sister―and that would have earned her the death sentence from the capricious and fickle woman who held the Sceptre. Whatever had spared her that hadn’t spared her the lashing she’d obviously received. Anala’s face tightened in anger. She had never agreed with the Empress’ decisions as ruler, and less so Zardria’s. Today their malice had hit Anala where she lived. Someone had to stop them. Or die trying, she thought vehemently.
Looking down at her aunt, who was smiling at Ghia’s gift, she realised that it could not be she. She had too much at stake.
She sighed, realizing her time with her aunt had gone far past the time she could spare. She bent down and kissed Tenea on the cheek. “Bye, Aunt. I’d best be going now.”
Tenea smiled at her. “Thank ye kindly fer stopping by, Dear. Tell me how the feast is, ye ken?” Anala nodded and turned to go, but her aunt grabbed her and held her fast. “And…and tell Ghia I be sending me thanks, alright?” Anala nodded again, slowly, and left. She’d be giving the healer her thanks as well.