On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. This week’s in shorter to round out the chapter. While Vorgell safeguards Gillja, Madd engages in a bit of petty thievery.
Thick as Ice, Chapter 4b
The kitchen was even hotter than the stone courtyard outside and even the basilisk was unhappy. Petal didn’t like being leashed—which had been necessary to get her to leave Vorgell—and being forced to wear a hood made her surly. She dug her claws into the fabric of Madd’s linen shirt and grumbled in his ear. Her presence on his shoulder wasn’t exactly his idea of fun, either. He lacked Vorgell’s size and broad build. The damn basilisk was heavy.
The cook’s name was Barto. Rotund and sweating, he banged yet another pan down upon the grate.
“How much cookware do you break a month?” Madd asked.
A single eye the color of milk turned his way. The other was sunken and lidded. “None. How many poor souls does that creature of yours turn to stone?”
So that was it. Barto was unhappy the servants had run off. Basilisks had that effect on a room. “None,” Madd said, though that was patently untrue. He’d never considered lying a truly bad practice. “Mostly she wants things alive, so she can eat them. Do you have any rats about?”
He had the cook’s attention. “Rats?”
“Mice will do. Believe me, the rat population of this city would be even worse than it is if not for Petal. The part of town we live in is practically rat-free.”
“If anyone is still alive in it.” Barto threw cuts of meat into the heated pan and began stirring. All of his help might have run off, but he was still charged with feeding the Duke and his guest. “Watch all you want, you won’t see me being underhanded.”
“Trust you completely,” Madd said. Another lie. He didn’t trust him at all. “But I do notice you are wearing several lidded rings. I especially like the skull one.”
“Oh—compartments, you mean? Spices. Pepper. Cardamom. I like having them on hand.”
Magic against poison was tricky. Madd had learned a few spells from his Gran that neutralized the most common ones, but a truly proficient poisoner could defeat all but the most skilled witch. He narrowed his gaze and wondered yet again why Gillja had thought him even remotely suited for this job. The only possible answer was that she didn’t truly fear the Duke meant her harm.
So far, at least, none of his spells had detected danger.
He looked around at the wide assortment of foodstuffs on the tables. “You’re certainly going all out for this little lunch. Is this the usual fare? I’m surprised the Duke isn’t a fatter man.”
Barto laughed. “He’s a vain man, is what he is. Likes to show off at the table. Only the best. He does so for all the ladies, to be sure, but this one… for this lady he ordered the rarest and finest. Dove hearts. Little fish eggs from the east. Scurrian cherries dark as night—”
The cook continued to ramble on, but Madd had stopped listening at the mention of Scurrian cherries. Vorgell talked about the fruit as though they were the favorite treat of the gods. Of all the things Vorgell missed about his native land, the local cherries were top of the list. A quick scan of the table turned up a bright yellow bowl heaped with big, plump cherries of a red so dark they were nearly black. He reached to try one for himself.
A cleaver came down within a hair of his hand and buried itself beside the bowl. Madd snatched his hand back and glared at Barto, who stood over him and was the very picture of fury.
“It’s a fucking cherry!”
“It’s the Duke’s cherry. Each one cost him as much as a goose egg. Far too fine for the likes of you and me.” Leaving the cleaver, the cook picked up the bowl and moved it across the room, setting it on a pedestal near the window where they could warm to optimal sweetness in the sun, the way his Gran had always done with peaches.
That did it. Madd no longer cared if the cherry tasted like the best damn thing he’d ever put into his mouth. He was going to get some Scurrian cherries. They were… perfect. Beautiful, plump, rare… he could already see in his mind Vorgell’s smile when they were put before him.
“You know,” he complained to Barto, “that wasn’t very nice, calling me a thief.”
“For all I know, you are one.” He was back at his stove, spooning some tiny bits of meat into a sauce. “Thievery is a preferred occupation for a witch.”
“Nothing worse than what dukes do, just not on as large a scale.”
“Pay me for my labor and I shall call you whatever you wish.” Barto lifted a cup and trickled cream into his pan. Whatever he was making required great attention to timing.
Madd cocked an eyebrow. “How about it?” he murmured to Petal. He untied and removed the hood from her pointy head. “Time for you to hunt some rats.”
Petal seized her freedom immediately and leaped from his shoulder to the table, and from there to the floor, where she bounded toward the pantry, leash snaking behind her.
“Basilisk!” Barto screamed. With amazing grace for so fat a man, he jumped onto a chair.
“She excels at escape! Save yourself!” shouted Madd. “I’ll get her!”
“My dove hearts will overcook!”
“Then for the sake of the gods, tend them.”
Madd dove to the floor—though in the opposite direction of the basilisk, but who was paying attention—rolled toward the window, and—as he leaped back onto his feet—pocketed two handfuls of the cherries into the pouch he always carried. They made a bit of a bulge, but… he took another handful. He made another dive and ended up sitting on the floor with his back to the cabinetry, which suited him quite fine. Doing so better concealed how round his pouch had become, and was cooler besides.
Petal emerged from under a cupboard, rat in jaws. The cook, who had scrambled back to the stove to tend his simmering dove hearts, shot her an anxious glare. She darted back under the cupboard with her prey.
“See?” Madd assured him. “Best ratter in Gurgh.” The loop of her leash lay within reach, so he planted his heel on it. “Got her.”
“Don’t make her angry. Not until I am done with my dove hearts and present the Duke and his guest with their lunch.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“At least down there, you are away from the food.”
True. Not that it mattered. Madd waited until Barto was bent over his oven and arms deep in pies before he teased out a cherry and popped it into his mouth. He bit down, the fruit splitting between his teeth, and all the wine heady sweetness of Scur’s short summers burst across his tongue. He closed his eyes with a happy smile.
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