Excerpt 7, The King Trials
Posted on May 26, 2017
Disclaimer: Some of this content may be NSFW. The subject matter is intended for mature audiences, as it deals with the sometimes unpleasant realities of life in the medieval ages, which helped inspire this fictional fantasy novel.
Zur felt uneasy in the kitchens.
Danger was everywhere. Inside hearths, spits overflowed with greasy spittle that fell to explode in the fires. Long sharp knives slashed and hacked through slabs of beef and pork and rabbit and tender quail, sounding much like a hundred boots stomping in the gatehouse. Milled flour dust and grease smoke pervaded the brick chambers, drawing hacking coughs and loud stuttering grunts from the hundred servants, Commoners, and Casaanites there to prepare the feast.
Yet no one complained. Butchers and bakers, scullions and sauciers, they all toiled at their wooden tables, brimming with excitement. The king hadn’t asked for a Remembrance Day feast like this one in two years, not since his sons left for war and Prieslenne Edenia returned to the Lonely Isle. The evening promised a new pace at the Silver Walls.
Everyone labored at some task or several all at once, he saw. Apron-clad men barked orders to apprentices, dashed strings of white fat from meat, and unhooked spits with a finesse that somehow left them unscathed. Women kneaded mounds of dough, whipped colorful pastes in stone mortars, and stuffed roasted pigs with apples.
Zur stayed close to a corner in the furthest archway. He missed his books. Mistress Johanna had pulled him away from Drexan, who was busy with one thing or another at court. Yet he was at a loss for how to help. He watched as one woman, a Commoner by her looks, sprinkled a handful of spices into her rabbit stew, and then churned it with a ladle.
Watching her, he reflected on his uselessness. He could probably recite the names of the spices she used. He could follow the recipe if she rehearsed it with him. He wasn’t sure if he could ladle her stew without scalding his wrists.
He caught a fleeting glimpse of Johanna. Seeing him, too, the Casaanite servant navigated a sea of cooks to reach his archway. Vanishing in a flurry of smoke, the stout woman reappeared so suddenly she startled him.
“Zuran, I didn’t take you out of the South Tower so you could watch and do nothing, eh?” she piped in that heavy, halting accent that often made her sound as if she were asking a question.
“I’m sorry, milady,” he said. “I’m just not sure what to do. I’ve never worked in the kitchens before.”
Shorter and less lithe than Liyanna, the woman wore a forest-green dress that brought out her brown eyes and the rolls of her stomach. Her skin was darker than his, her palms tan and leathery from hard-won callouses.
“That’s because they reared you here, in the tall towers of Loran, eh,” she said, hands on her wide hips. “Maybe had you known Casaan, you would be more like me, eh? Used to cooking and not idling?”
He felt a familiar sadness tug at his chest. Unlike Johanna and Hexar’s other Casaanite hostages, Zur had no memory of his homeland that didn’t feel like a fleeting dream. His mother had traded him in his infancy for an iron pot, some wine, and three colorful quilts, or so Johanna had once told him. All he had ever known was Loran, and even then the strictures of life behind the Silver Walls. Liyanna was the only other Casaanite to grow up rudderless in that fog.
“I’m not familiar with the kitchens,” he said. “Can I return to the South Tower now?”
Johanna made a baffling nod. She was famous around the Walls for her perplexing and indecipherable facial tics, so much so the king himself lamented about it. “Her nods mean no, and her headshakes mean yes,” Hexar often complained.
Zur decided to pretend he didn’t know this. “So, I can go?”
The woman responded as if she hadn’t heard him. “Eh? You come with me and I shall put you to work, eh?”
What more was there to do? Zur followed her dutifully through the smoke and tables. He didn’t fail to notice the gazes he, Johanna, and other Casaanites attracted. Castle hands paid them no mind, but the Commoners rarely laid eyes on Elzura’s Children, the ebony-skinned folk condemned to live their lives as hostages.
Johanna led him to a corner table piled high with yellow flaky onions. A pale-skinned man with short oily brown hair cleaved an onion in two.
“Sir, excuse me, eh?” she said. “Your name again, eh?”
The man promptly set down his knife, cleaned his hands on his apron, gave a loud sniff, and introduced himself. “Caleb Bard, of Rosbury, my lady, at your service.”
Zur knew Rosbury, a small village just east of Southpoint and north of South Farcombe. Yet the man had a Westlander’s accent and highborn’s manners.
“Ah, yes, Caleb, eh, would you like help here?” she piped.
“Yes, actually, if it please you. My little princess here and I are doing our best, but we still have a few hundred onions and I’m told they’re in high demand.”
“Very good, eh.” Johanna escorted him by his shoulders to a bench opposite Caleb and made him plant himself, as if he needed her guidance. “You help them, eh? I will be back, eh.”
With that, she left, disappearing once more into a haze of flour and smoke.
The onions were overwhelmingly pungent. Zur tried not to gag on the bitterness. He rarely even ate onion; to sit amid so many all at once bordered on intolerable.
Caleb didn’t seem to notice or mind his apprehension. He smiled warmly. “And who are you, sir knight?”
Zur stroked his arm nervously. “You must be mistaken. I’m no knight. My name is Zuran, of Tribe Nuur.”
“Oh, I know, I just like to give all my friends highborn titles, Zuran,” he said with a grin. “Except for Sara. She is a princess, don’t let her or anyone else tell you any differently.”
He hadn’t noticed the little girl who sat on the bench beside Caleb. She wore a humorless gray wool gown and a starchy white wimple that covered her hair, although a few strands of brownish blonde hair clung to her temples. She had the pale skin and pink cheeks typical of Ansarans, and amber eyes that didn’t shy away when their gazes met.
“Zuran, do you know how to slice an onion?” Caleb asked. When he shook his head, he added, happily, “Well, let me show you then! I promise you, it’s easy, but you must take care. One wrong slice and—“ He lifted his right palm to show Zur a long scar that ran from his thumb to his pinkie. “You don’t want one of these, or you may never become a knight, little sir.”
Zur didn’t like his knight references, mostly because he did want to be a knight. One of the things he liked about serving Drexan was that he could often sneak glances at the melees Sir Connor Tomas organized below their window.
“I can’t become a knight,” he said morosely, eyes in his lap. “I’m a Casaanite and the king’s hostage.”
“What does that mean, hostage?” Sara inquired. Her eyes hadn’t left him since he sat down.
“Work now, questions later, Princess,” Caleb intoned. He grabbed a fresh onion and set it down in front of Zur. “Now, watch closely.”
Seizing his knife with a sleight of hand, he went to work on the onion, slicing off the root and stem before making an incisive groove in the side. Off came the flesh, and then he flipped it on its side and reduced it to a stack of flimsy ribbons.
“See? Not so bad.” He scooped up the ribbons and heaped them into a large pewter bowl by Sara, and then set another full onion in front of Zur, along with a short knife. “And if you want to, you can cut this in the water basin we have. That’s what Sara has been doing to keep from crying.”
“I wasn’t crying,” she protested.
Like that, they returned to what they had been doing amid the sounds of the kitchen. Zur placed his onion in the basin and went to work. The water wasn’t enough to keep his eyes from stinging with tears, and he frequently wiped them with his arms.
He also struggled with his cutting, and it was obvious. Caleb found onion peels that still had the remains of roots and stems; others flaked with waxy flesh. He was showing him how to improve when a Common woman approached. She was the same one he had seen ladling stew earlier. She was pretty for a peasant, with a slender oval face, gold-flecked green eyes, and soft brown hair visible about her wimple.
“Oh, Caleb, I’m not sure what I’ve done wrong, I need your help,” she moaned. “I’m not sure if there is too much salt or pepper, or if the rabbit is overcooked. It’s a meal for the lords and it must be right.”
“Mother, can I help?” Sara squeaked.
“No, you stay here,” she responded curtly.
Caleb placated Sara’s mother and assured her he would see to her stew. “Princess, I leave you in charge. Show Zuran what I’ve taught you.”
The two departed into the haze. As soon as she couldn’t see them anymore, Sara loosened the knots in her wimple and ran her hands through her matted hair. Zur watched her oddly.
She looked up at him, as if she had forgotten he were there. “Shh, I’m not supposed to show the men my hair,” she said in a strained voice. “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
He shook his head.
“Ooh! What fur do you wear? It looks so soft. Can I touch?”
Sara reached with grasping grubby fingers. Zur swatted her hand away, and she withdrew with a hurt look. The chop and crackle of the kitchens made the awkward silence a little more bearable.
“Do you want me to show you how to cut the onion?” Without waiting for his response, she reached for his, took her knife, severed the stem and root, and peeled ribbons again. “See? It’s not hard.”
He disliked her tone. She was a Commoner, after all. Not that a Casaanite hostage had much to be up-jumped about, but the Commons were beneath the feet of even merchants, and anyone below that surly lot typically had ticks and fleas. He watched her hair nervously to see if any would pop out.
Soon he tried his hand at another onion, shearing top and bottom before tearing at the flesh with his fingers. “No, no,” she interjected, making him flinch. “You’re doing it all wrong again. Here, let me see—“
He steered the onion away from her. “I can do it just fine.”
“Nuh uh, I’ve seen you try to peel the flesh. That’s what you’re doing wrong. And your slices are too thick. Much too thick. They need to be thin like blades of grass.”
“I don’t need a Commoner to tell me how to cut an onion.”
Her mouth fell open. “You are most unkind! I am trying to help you. And I’m a princess.”
Zur crossed his arms, chuckling. “Is that what your father tells you?”
Sara slammed the table with her fists. The basin leapt up, spilling water that leaked through the table’s planks. Looking like she might cry, she bit her lip and straightened her face.
“What did that word mean earlier?” she asked coyly. “The one you said. Hosta . . . It began with hos. And then ta.”
He furrowed his brow. “Why don’t you know? I thought you were royalty.”
She sucked in her breath, offended. “STOP IT! Stop being so mean!”
Her shout turned heads across the kitchen.
Leery of drawing Johanna’s wrath, he shushed her with a finger and motioned for her to sit back down. “Okay, I’m sorry. Okay? The word was hostage. It’s what I am.”
Seemingly satisfied, the girl eased back onto her bench with the exaggerated decorum of a highborn. “What does it mean?” she persisted. “And where is Casaan?”
“A hostage is someone the king holds to make sure his enemies keep faith. And Casaan is across the sea.”
“Why would the kingdom of Casaan need to keep faith?”
“Casaan isn’t a kingdom; it’s many different kingdoms.”
He wasn’t sure of the rightness of his comparison; tribes weren’t kingdoms, not like those found in Ansara. Casaanites lacked high towers and walls, and even kings and knights, they said. He wasn’t even aware of where his own tribe of Nuur was on the maps; Johanna said Casaanites never stayed in one place but migrated with seasons like birds.
“Okay, but why would the kingdoms of Casaan need to keep faith? Is it because you’re Elzura’s Child and Elzura broke the king’s line when she cast that spell that made King Eduard kill his children?” She sat forward with big eager eyes. “Can you cast spells?”
Zur was appalled. He wanted to shake the fool girl by her arms. Did she know what the priests did to accused sorcerers? Priestkings of yore had burned the Barefoot Knights into ruin on such accusations. Such lies had rendered Drexan an outcast with all but the king and his council, yet he was chancellor of the chancery. He couldn’t imagine what eavesdroppers might do to a Casaanite hostage and Common girl.
Looking around to make sure no one had heard, he leaned close and hissed, “Are you an idiot?”
Sara bristled. “I am not an idiot! I am not like Praise. You, you’re so mean! I hate Elzura’s Children, I hate them!”
“I am not one of Elzura’s Children.” He hated that name, more than anything the lords and clergy called his people.
“You are too!” She stood and chanted, “Broken lines and thirteen crowns, that’s what Elzura the Witch begot; she cast a spell on Old King Eduard, and we love her children not.”
He went to his feet so fast he slammed the table with his knees. Sara recoiled immediately, eyes wide. Triumphant, he was about to scorn her with a few choice words when a hand clasped his shoulder.
“Zuran, I’ve been searching for you,” came a voice.
He spun to find Drexan, snug in his dark bearskin robe and listing on his staff. His green irises glinted in the firelight.
“My lord, I—I’ve been helping in the kitchen, Johanna told me to,” he mustered.
The reddish-brown beard spread with his smile. “Ah, but these caves are no place for a servant of the King’s Crow. Come, I have need of you at the feast. Besides, I’ve sung your praises to men of the Worthy Assembly, and they’d like to meet you.”
He blushed fiercely. He didn’t know what to say. “My lord, you, you do me too much honor.”
“Well, they’ve heard of your prowess as a handler of the Worthy Assembly’s gifts for the king,” Drexan added wryly. “I’ll have you wash your face and dress for the occasion.”
But of course, he thought to himself. I am one of Elzura’s Children. I must serve and handle gifts, and put up with stupid Common girls.
Turning, he expected to find Sara exultant. Instead, he found that she was gone.