Anaria’s reaction to the news of her castle assignment was much as Sarah had predicted. After being reassured she wouldn’t be on view or required to do anything other than the simplest food preparation she sighed.
“Martha’s going to love having yet another thing to be superior about.”
“You might want to point out you’re doing her a favour by taking on the more basic tasks.”
Anaria gave a small smile and turned to check the window again.
“I doubt he’ll be back before the Summoning Spring festival love. His home is hit harder by this weather than we are.”
“I’m sure he’s doing important work, it’s just that, well, they have girls there as well don’t they. Girls around his age that he’s known for ever and who understand him and fit in.”
She pinched herself, hard and looked sheepish at Sarah’s surprise, “It reminds me I’m being an idiot. He’s known them for ever and never handfasted with any of them, he’s not about to suddenly change now. I just miss him.”
After Anaria went to bed that night, Sarah charged her husband with a very stern message for Liam, John shook his head.
“He’d be back in a heartbeat if he could be love. There’s some to-do they’re not talking of that’s keeping him well and truly tangled at the moment. I’ll let him know you’re worried though.”
“And tell him she’ll be at the castle for Summoning Spring.”
All too soon, the day of the festival, and the castle ball arrived. The village group started out early, most hitching a ride in Ingrid’s wagon for the trip.
Anaria was shown to the kitchen, with Martha swaggering behind her.
The cook asked some pointed questions, then assigned Anaria to the chopping board and Martha to bread.
A couple of hours and a mountain of carrots and potatoes later, the cook stopped by to review progress.
“Good. I’d heard you were thorough in your work, go and get yourself some lunch.”
Anaria followed her direction to the servant’s eating hall, leaving behind an intense discussion on the relative merits of different herbs being added to bread dough. At least someone was in their element.
She found a number of the other villagers in the hall, along with some castle servants, curious about the new girl from the forest and doubly so when they discovered she was actually from the town.
“I recall the young Master going to one of the town dances a while back, you know how he likes to go where people don’t know him. Said the girls there were the rudest and most dismissive he’d ever come across in any town or court he’d been to.”
Anaria blushed but defended her friends, “It’s the town boys, they only ask you to dance to have an excuse to squeeze and grab and pinch and they’re so rough they leave bruises and red marks everywhere. And then our parents say it’s our fault.”
“Well, he never said that.”
“He probably didn’t know.”
“Apparently one of the girls told him he had a beard like a bird’s nest.”
Anaria turned beetroot. Thankfully her reaction went unnoticed in the general amusement that followed.
The afternoon followed a similar pattern to the morning, with an occasional break to stir, rather than chop. Anaria was sent to an early dinner with instructions to eat well as the busiest time was still ahead and she’d need her strength.
Martha went with her this time and surprised her with grudging but polite conversation, “Maggie says you think I could do well in town.”
“I do. Your bread is exceptional and I believe the baker in the town square would be interested in an apprentice with your gifts.”
She fixed the other girl with a hard stare, “Make no mistake though, you’d be there as an apprentice. There’s more for you to learn and you could undo all your talent by trying to get ahead too fast.”
Martha looked disdainful, “Know about that do you?”
“I’ve seen a number of apprentices lose their positions and their chance of success by being arrogant and impatient”, she held up a hand, “I’m not saying you would be either, I’m just telling you what I’ve seen.”
Martha gave a reluctant grin, “Maggie wouldn’t agree.”
“Maggie probably sees you as grumpy toddler, I know she does me most days.”
Both girls smiled, a cautious truce wordlessly called.
The cook had not exaggerated, the following few hours were frantic and Anaria found herself racing from one side of the kitchen to the other as she chopped, stirred, dished, arranged and garnished.
Finally, there was a pause and she drew breath.
Martha was off to one side, preparing dough for the guests’ breakfasts the following morning.
The cook smiled, possibly for the first time that day, “You’ve done well – kept up and kept your standards up. I’d be pleased to have you back in my kitchen for future events.”
She motioned Anaria to a bench, “Take a rest, I’ll just need you for a few little things shortly and then you can be finished. We’ve only got the dessert course to prepare and it’s mostly done.”
“Finished? But it’s early yet isn’t it? I would have thought the party would be going for hours.”
“Oh it will be, and me with it. But you and Martha have me far enough ahead that I don’t need to be calling on you once dessert’s done. You can enjoy a bit of time watching the dancing, or exploring the plants in the conservatory, or somesuch.”
Anaria had a huge, audacious and overwhelming thought.
“Do you think I would be allowed to look at the library? I’ll be terribly careful, but I do so miss my books, it would be lovely to just see some.”
The cook had taken some of Anaria’s background over the course of the day and, indeed, had grown unexpectedly fond of her determination and furious pursuit of knowledge.
“Lay out and decorate these trays of treats and I’ll give you directions to it.”
Anaria nearly hugged the woman, but contained her joy and turned to doing the most perfect job she could possibly manage on arranging the bite-sized sweets.
Finally, she was done and, with a number of the sweets tucked into her apron pockets by the cook, she set out in search of the library.