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Author's Note: Chronologically, this story takes place very early in Mag's career
When she was working alone in the kitchen, Mag liked to imagine what it would be like when she is Cook.
The first thing to go, of course, would be those dull old menus. Always the same food, always prepared the same way, week in and week out. Although she’d only been promoted to cook’s helper a short time before, she was quick to notice that familiarity had led to boredom had led to carelessness. Greenstuffs weren’t quite as fresh as they could be; meat that had gone a bit grey was disguised with a too-salty sauce; green spots in the cheese were spooned away. There didn’t seem to be any real wrongdoing that she could see; it just seemed as though no one really cared.
No, she thought as she chopped heaps of soft carrots and sprouting potatoes, she would run things quite differently. First off, she would borrow a corner of the garden at the Houses to grow her own fresh herbs for the kitchen – basil and fennel and the oddly scented coriander she had discovered down in the Eastern Market. Each week she would discreetly introduce something new – a spicy sauce of tomatoes and peppers for the breakfast eggs; a crusty bread topped with rosemary and cheese for luncheon.
“You, girl! Where is Cook?” The Chamberlain’s voice interrupted her reverie. It wasn’t that she was afraid of the Chamberlain; she had very little to do with him at all. She just hadn’t expected to see him in the kitchen – he always dealt directly with Cook. Cook, actually, was ill; had taken to his bed suffering of the head cold that seemed to be running rampant throughout the household. Second Cook had taken to her bed, too; not with a head cold but with the Stablemaster. “You can mind the kitchen for a bit, that’s a good girl,” she had said airily, as the Stablemaster was pulling her by the arm down the hallway toward her chamber. And so Mag was in the kitchen alone when the Steward’s own Chamberlain arrived.
“Chicken soup, and be quick about it. My Lord Ecthelion is ill, and his lady is tending him herself.”
“There’s none ready, sirra, at the moment, but..”
“None ready? Where is Cook? I’ll have his head for this. This whole great kitchen and no food when it’s called for? Preposterous.”
Mag gripped the edge of the table, fighting to control the wobbling of her knees. “I can have soup ready in half an hour, sirra. Perhaps you could take up some ginger tea for him, instead, and explain to his lady that we will have soup just as soon as may be?”
“Ginger tea, eh?” The Chamberlain paused, peering closely at the freckle-faced young girl. His mother had always made him ginger tea when he was a boy with a stuffy head. Perhaps…
“From Lebennin, are you?” The girl nodded vigorously. “Ginger tea it is.” He watched approvingly as the she quickly chopped a knob of ginger into the teapot, slicing in half a lemon before adding boiling water from the kettle on the hob. Deftly she prepared a tray, linen mat and teapot and two cups, a small pot of honey and a plate of sugar biscuits. The girl had poise, that was for certain. “I’ll be back in an hour for the soup. Good job on the tea.”
Mag was speechless for a moment, but only a moment, for she had much to do. Before she left, the Second Cook had set the chickens to simmer, but now Mag noticed to her dismay that that was all Second Cook had done – in her haste she had forgotten the seasonings, the clove-studded onion, the leafy celery tops, the carrot and thyme. All Mag had to work with was chicken, falling off the bones, and bland looking broth.
Take a deep breath, and think, girl, she said to herself, and as she breathed she remembered a little tavern on the third level, the aroma of roast chicken and rosemary. She had stopped and ordered a meal, the first time she had ever done such a thing, a young girl on her own in the City. The man and woman running the tavern had set her at a small table under the rose arbor, and brought her cold white wine and chicken and flatbread and tangy greens with bits of red onion and salty ham. But before that, a bowl of soup –
Chicken. Lemon. Garlic. Dill. A bit of rice, left over from luncheon; finally, an egg beaten into the hot broth, turning the soup silky and golden.
The Chamberlain lifted the lid of the tureen, sniffed appreciably, nodded; then, with his customary dignity, carried the tray off.
“This kitchen smells good. What have you been up to?” Cook had dragged himself back to work; sensibly, he was supervising the dinner preparations from his seat by the fire. Second Cook had reappeared, straightening her skirts, just moments before he had.
Mag had prepared as much as she could of the dinner, leaving the final tastings and seasonings to Cook, as was customary; though because of his stuffed head he graciously appointed Second Cook the honors. Second Cook had added the sprinkle of pepper and the slice of lemon, the same seasonings and adornments that Mag had seen added to the baked fish, week in and week out, the four years she had been there.
Later that evening, they were all stunned when the Chamberlain himself stopped by to return the tureen and tray.
“Excellent soup,” he said to Cook, and rightly so, because Cook was responsible for everything that came from his kitchen.
“I thank you,” Cook replied graciously, nodding toward Second Cook. “She prepared it,” because, for all he knew, she had. Second Cook curtseyed, trying desperately to conceal her confusion.
“Well done, then,” the Chamberlain murmured, and bid them good-night.
Mag bowed her head, chuckling to herself. Only she had seen the Chamberlain’s broad wink as he left.
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