Cookie was in a meeting with the pastry chef (or at least Rosalyn assumed that’s who it was, as the woman’s apron was streaked with pink and yellow icing), the royal butcher (his apron was also streaked with pink) and the royal baker (his face had a dusty tinge). They were standing at one end of the kitchen on a raised platform like four generals strategizing, studying a wide sheet of paper unfurled on the marble work surface. They looked up from time to time to survey their respective sous-chefs working intently in the din of chopping, sizzling, clanging, pounding and slamming. It almost sounded like a battlefield.
Robert sidled up to the four chefs, nervously twisting his fingers while he waited to be noticed, since he dared not interrupt four of his superiors.
Cookie suddenly said, without looking at him, “Take her back to my quarters. Then get dressed and start serving. Well done.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” Robert flushed with pride.
Robert led her to the door of Cookie’s room, but there was no long farewell—he gave a friendly nod and dashed off down the hall before she could adequately thank him. She knocked and entered, and was enfolded immediately by Nora and Marcella in a rib-crushing embrace. It was funny that they didn’t even come up to her shoulders today. Everyone said how glad they were to see her and looked up at her with real affection. The spartan room felt cozy and safe. She could hardly believe it was only yesterday that she had eaten and napped in here.
“We were so worried when Robert told us what had happened,” Marcella said.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” asked practical Nora, looking her over carefully. “Your cheeks are scraped, and your wrists are raw.”
“Hungry?” asked Gaétane.
At all this caring concern, Rosalyn burst into tears. It was okay to cry at last.
“There, there.” Marcella stroked her back. “You’ve been very brave.”
Sniffing and wiping away tears, Rosalyn nodded. Nora handed her a lace bordered handkerchief, Marcella made her sit in the armchair and put a cup of tea in her hand and Gaétane placed on her lap a plate of thick sliced bread slathered with deep yellow butter and purple-black jam. She thanked them profusely and tried to smile. Though she knew the day was far from over, at least with something in her stomach she might have the courage to face what new perils lay ahead.
When Cookie returned for a brief check-in some time later, she listened thoughtfully to Rosalyn’s story. “Now, we have to gamble on when Scalamandre will interrupt the ceremony. My guess is he will wait until after Josephine has finished her performance in the pageant—his new lady love—did you hear?” Gaétane’s lip curled in disgust. Rosalyn wondered if that was the woman who had been giggling last night.
Cookie continued: “This year the ceremony has three main parts: first, there’s the pageant to tell the story of the boy’s disappearance, second, the king and queen make their speeches, and third, the knights are sent out again to look for the prince. Each one pledges his allegiance and makes a show of leaving in haste. Scalamandre’s too vain to interrupt his own play—he wrote the script this year—so we have an extra hour. A few trusted staff can be counted on to help, but Scalamandre has got the Commander-in-chief of the king’s guards on his payroll.” Cookie was speaking so fast it was hard to take it all in. “I’ll have you three serving hors d’oeuvres—spare uniforms are in the linens room. I’ve got Robert distributing flasks of hot tea and sandwiches to the guards at the forest gate. They’ll soon be groggy. I was inspired by what I heard Scalamandre did to your brother last night.”
“You’re drugging them?”
“Why not? If the barbarian hordes decide to invade today, there are enough other guards on duty.”
The plan was simple enough. Nora and Marcella, posing as servers, would be stationed at the buffet. A number of trusted kitchen staff would be ready to get in the way of anyone who tried to block Rosalyn and Jason’s escape. The children were to run like crazy around the back of the castle to the rear entrance where Robert would have the gate to a single narrow bridge to the forest open for them. Once in the forest, they would follow the paths downhill, always downhill, to the river and wait there to be picked up by Gaétane, who would sail them back to the Manor. From there, presumably one of them had a plan for getting them home, though no one had mentioned it.
Rosalyn’s size was a major consideration today. Towering over the adults, she was too conspicuous to dress as a server and stand at the back of the assembly. Plus, Scalamandre would no doubt be on the lookout for her. She would have to hide, and no one could think of a better spot than under one of the tables, since the tablecloths reached to the ground.
“Can I at least wear my own clothes?” she asked, pulling them out of her fluorescent pink backpack. “They’re so much more comfortable and better for running. It would make my weird story about coming from another world more believable, too.”
Cookie agreed, though she said Rosalyn must take a different pack, something she had already thought of. She fetched Rosalyn a dark green pack with leather straps containing two cloaks for warmth and concealment, two gourds of water, and a cloth-wrapped bundle of sandwiches. There was no map of the forest. Cookie assured her that as long as the path was always going downhill, she couldn’t miss the river.
As she changed, Rosalyn felt uneasy. It sounded too simple, like when her grandmother tried to tell her a recipe and didn’t mention half the steps because she did them so automatically she forgot a beginner would need a more detailed explanation. The thought of seeing the Marquis of Scalamandre again also made her feel sick. She hoped the young footman, Vincent, wouldn’t be there. Even if he had shrunk, she wasn’t sure she could outrun him. But with no other options, she knew that she had to make this plan work.
“Will you take my backpack with you?” she asked Gaétane. “Oh wait, let me just take out my other stuff.” Before handing it over, she unzipped the front pouch and transferred her iPod and earbuds to the side pocket of the dark green one. The photos might be useful.
Cookie rose to usher them all out of the room. “Now, listen carefully. The boy may not recognize his sister. In either case, we must protect them and block Scalamandre’s men. He won’t give up without a fight. They say food is medicine, but I say, food is war.” With these cryptic words, she turned on her heel and led them briskly down the corridor.
While the women changed into their serving uniforms, Rosalyn put on a large black apron that covered most of her clothes and put up her hair under a white bonnet.
A bell rang in the kitchen and the bald, moustachioed butler called out “Atten-tion! Serving time!” In no time, a procession of servants carrying silver platters piled high with every delicacy imaginable (mountains of cream puffs, pyramids of skewers of meat, towers of little brioche buns) began filing out of the kitchen. Rosalyn hunched down as much as she could between Nora and Marcella who stood on tiptoe to make themselves as tall as possible. Cookie took up the rear and they all stepped out into the castle courtyard.
In the flurry of activity around the long tables, it was easy for Rosalyn to slip under one, though once she was underneath she realized that it was going to be a long, cramped wait. The tables were fairly low, in proportion to everyone’s height, and she couldn’t even sit crossed-legged. Balancing on her hands and knees, she removed the bonnet and apron and laid them under her so the gravel wouldn’t dig into her so sharply. She stretched out on her stomach and saw that her legs were extending far past the length of one table. She would have to be careful to keep her legs still so as not to ruffle the tablecloths. Peeking out from where two tablecloths overlapped, she was able to see the layout of the festivities. She was on the far left of a white tent with open sides that sheltered seating for about two or three hundred nobles. Elegant folding chairs with gold trim were arrayed in rows in front of a long stage flanked by red velvet curtains for a makeshift backstage. Several yards back from the tent, two mirror image L-shaped lines of tables framed the space where the lords and ladies would gather to fill their plates. Mostly she saw black trouser legs and long skirts, the top halves of whom, she assumed, were putting the finishing touches on the display of food.
A trumpet sounded from afar and silence fell on the whole assembly. Rosalyn could hear servers scrambling into place behind the tables. Melancholy music began playing and a long line of nobles entered, mostly clad in subdued greys and blues—the whole party looked like a reflection of the overcast skies. When they were seated, another trumpet sounded and they all rose and turned to face the centre of the tent. The trumpet solo continued as a man and a woman wearing golden circlets on their foreheads slowly entered on a long blue carpet that stretched up the centre of the tent to the stage. The man looked grave as he led the woman up the carpet, holding her hand aloft in his. The woman wore a black dress, with great frills of cream-coloured lace at the neck and wrists. The processional ended and a voice welcomed everyone and invited them all to partake of the refreshments. A string ensemble began playing again but was soon drowned out by the sound of voices and footsteps crunching on the gravel. Though the king and queen had entered looking subdued, the mood quickly became more cheerful as people swarmed the tables like bees and chattered like birds.
Just as she was thinking how unfortunate it was she couldn’t have any of the amazing food positively causing the tables to sag above her, a hand (Marcella’s?), lifted up the tablecloth behind her and placed a plate on the gravel.
There were five plump pink shrimp, a golden brioche bun with a fluted bottom, two lettuce leaves wrapped around flakes of crab meat and a few chocolates with a boy’s face silhouetted in white chocolate. Just as she was biting into a shrimp, she heard a familiar voice. “I think I’m being quite modest when I say it will be a roaring success,” came the oily tones of the Marquis of Scalamandre himself. She froze, the shrimp between her teeth, not daring to chew or swallow, feeling her heart pound in her chest.
“We simply adored Josephine in Markmen. Such a voice,” said a woman.
“I hear there’s to be a surprise ending,” said her companion with his mouth full.
“Rumours do fly,” the Marquis rejoined. “But I must get backstage. They’ll be on in moments.”
The sound of his feet grew fainter and fainter. Rosalyn swallowed her bite of shrimp and put the plate down. That was close. What if she had sneezed or choked or coughed? What if someone’s foot had strayed under the table? And what did the other man mean by a surprise ending? Scalamandre was being coy and not giving anything away. She inched herself toward the end of the table facing the stage careful not to stir up the gravel, and lifted the hem of the tablecloth ever so slightly. From that vantage point, she would have a clear view of the left side of the stage, and if no one stood outside of the tent, she would be able to see half of the action. Nothing had really started yet, so she let the table cloth drop and carefully shifted onto her back, using the backpack as a pillow. It was hard waiting like this. Jason had to be hidden nearby and it seemed silly for both of them to be hiding in two different places. But he was probably even more heavily guarded than he had been last night. And he had maybe been drugged again, drugged to make him forget that he was her brother, drugged so that he would accept the king and queen as his new parents. As frustrating as Jason could be, the thought of losing him made her frantic. She forced herself to breathe deeply and rolled over again. Lying on her back, she felt too exposed.
Another fanfare sounded and she heard everyone move toward the tent. It was beginning. She clenched her fists and wished for success with all her might.