Chapter 5:

Personally Invested

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess

We bunked down behind an inn. The innkeeper knew me of old; I’d sold him some jam and pickles for a few years. He didn’t ask me why I’d left the employment of the inn up north. Certain people just had a reputation.

He also didn’t ask why I’d stolen the man’s son. I would have questioned the situation more, but I was tired and didn’t want to press.

Duran had wrapped the blade handle well in what looked like bandages. I didn’t know where he’d gotten those, either.

He was still avoiding my eyes. The silence was uncomfortable. I should probably apologize. I’d been angry at him before, but always over something related to the kitchen. This felt more un-called for, somehow.

I couldn’t make myself say it. I didn’t know how to tell him why I was overly sensitive about the goddess of bees. Behind us, the stable door closed as the inn owner went back to pour more drinks.

I coughed. “The blade looks well. Good job.”

He nodded. He wasn’t meeting my eyes.

“You’ve done well,” I added. “Today.”

He nodded again.

“If you want to return back north,” I said, “I have some money. I could buy you some space on a cart-”

“I’m still coming with you,” he said. “I don’t want to go back. I want to be the best cook in the country. You can try to get rid of me. Try to send me away! But I won’t leave.”

Well, he was with the wrong cook for that. I didn’t correct him, though. That sword might come in handy.

He folded his arms, turned away from me- as if he could avoid me, we were in a stable- and turned, stomping towards the end of the stables where the innkeeper had set up a bale of hay and a blanket.

I watched him for a moment more, but he’d curled up around the blade and closed his eyes. He was attempting to pretend sleep. His chest rose and fell in an uneven pattern.

I decided not to press. How did anyone manage children?

“I’m going south for personal reasons,” I said to the quiet barn. I heard Duran shift on the hay bale, still pretending to be asleep.

The statement was loosely true. I was personally invested in not dying.

“I can’t disclose more. Once we’re south, if you want to, I can try and find you another apprenticeship.” I coughed. “I mean, I would find Duran another apprenticeship. If he was interested in one.”

There was no response from Duran. He stayed still and silent, curled around the massive sword. I watched for a moment more, wondering what exactly went through the mind of a kid like that, before I blew out the candle and curled up on my own bale of hay across the stable.

Inns trickled away with the days. We had to go south, south, south. Why had I decided to hide away in the furthest foxhole I could find? Why couldn’t I have found a tiny, horrible town just outside of the capital?

I hid behind my glass of ale at the latest inn and tried to ignore the way I could tell it had been brewed improperly. You know why.

Next to me, Duran fidgeted. He’d been given his own glass of ale, but his face had screwed up as soon as it had hit his lips. His father always watered it down, even for high spenders. It was probably the strongest drink he’d even tried.

If I was a better teacher, I would have warned him. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He wasn’t swaying yet, at least.

“You need a room tonight?” Said the bartender. We were close to the center of our great nation now, the attitudes getting snottier and the cloth turning from cotton to watered silk. I’d seen a man wearing armor the other day.

Too close for comfort. I shook my head. “Mind if we bed down with the servants? I can make a mean oatcake.”

He looked me over. Once upon a time, that wouldn’t have worked. I noticed the way his eyes lingered on my hands. The trace of dirt, the callouses. I had grown up with oil massaged into every cuticle. The first time I’d shown up in a kitchen, they’d laughed me out.

Now he gave me a short nod. “Go back when you’re ready, ask for Liv. She’ll see what you’re made of.”

I didn’t rush. I leaned into my barstool, let the sub-par ale wash in my mouth. I gave Andrena a half-hearted thanks. It was warm, that was the problem; it reminded me of that pickle, with no crunch, too sweet.

I put the ale down. I wasn’t thirsty anymore.

Before I could push back my stool and go ask for Liv, the doors to the inn swung open. Outside it was half-raining, an autumn squall. The woman in the doorway wasn’t sheltering herself. Next to her, a servant held an umbrella. Her clothing was all silk and velvet.

Behind her, another servant held up her train.

She stood in the doorway for a long moment. Her lip curled, for just a moment. I knew her face like it was my own. I had learned to do cosmetics on her eyelids. We had exchanged notes in school for seven years. Lady Sylvia.

Next to her, a second person appeared. This one I didn’t recognize. He only came up to Sylvia’s shoulder, pale hair uneven and frizzing in the damp outside. The servant assigned to hold an umbrella over him must have been slow, because he leaned in to speak to his mother as the droplets of rain fell upon the velvet of his overcoat.

He must have been around Duran’s age. I recognized the shape of his face, the nose. His eyes weren’t as cold as his sire’s, at least. There was a note of mischief in them- although that may have been my own wishful thinking.

“I thought we were going somewhere interesting,” said the boy. Wishful thinking, then.

“We’ll be back on the road once it dries out,” said Sylvia. She turned to her son before she could recognize me. “Here, you’ll catch something. Come inside and I’ll get us a room.”

Before she could step inside, I fled. Duran nearly slipped stepping off the stool, but a well-placed hand on his elbow stabilized him. I hoped he would have a good headache in the morning; that was a better teacher than any lecture from me.

In the warmth of the kitchen, oven steaming in the humidity, Liv had her sleeves rolled up. I didn’t need to ask for an introduction. I knew her at once. Everyone else was part of the chaos of the kitchen; she was a single stone in the river. Everything flowed around her.

“I said I could do the oatcakes,” I said.

Her eyes dragged over me. She nodded, once. “Fry one up for me,” she said. “We’ll have a snack.”

Duran stared at Liv. “You don’t trust her?”

“Watch me work,” I said. I rolled up my sleeves, too. It had been too long since I’d made an oatcake properly. “You should take notes. It’s been too long since I’ve had you practice.”

The kitchen was mostly cleared out, the bar only serving drinks this time of night. I half-expected a late order to come in from the Honorable Lady Sylvia, but it seemed that even she and her son weren’t hungry at this time of night.

Instead, I was able to fall into a comfortable rhythm of oat, flour, water. Just enough spices to make it tasty. A little applesauce to make it bloom.

I spiraled oil into a pan, watched it crackle. As soon as I could feel the heat off of the surface, I dropped the first cake in. The crackle of the batter against the surface was the first thing that had felt right today.

This was finally something I understood. The simplicity of an oat-cake. Filling. Uncomplicated. Warm.

When I looked up, Duran was gone. “He won’t even learn about oat-cakes?”

“I told your apprentice to go wash dishes with mine,” said Liv. She smiled and leaned back against the counter-top. “He was swaying. Had a little too much tonight?”

“They water it down up north,” I said. She laughed. She had a bright laugh, easy.

“That’ll do it,” she said. She held out a hand. I deposited the oat-cake there, not worried about how it had just come off the griddle. She had a cook’s hands, just like me, well-calloused.

“Mmm,” she said. “I like the pepper. Bold.”

“You didn’t need to test me,” I said.

“Ah,” she said. “But I did need an oat-cake.”

Outside, the rain came down even harder. I could just barely see Duran out the window, hiding under an awning. If any dishes got washed, I would be surprised.

The oatcake added to the pleasant warmth in my veins from the ale. I wasn’t sure I cared. The dishes could stay dirty. I wasn’t the one running this place.

That was how I spent my thirty-sixth birthday. Eating oatcakes and laughing over incompetent apprentices with Liv. She had some tips on my pickle recipe. I swallowed my half of oatcake, circled in the warmth of the kitchen, and very carefully didn’t think at all about the sound of Lady Sylvia’s retinue above.