From underneath the leeks, Rosalyn could tell they had come indoors. Soon she heard a new voice exclaim, “Marcella!”
“Welcome, my ladies.”
“How’d you do?” said Nora and Gaétane.
“Very busy today. Can’t talk just now. Come to my rooms and wash up for dinner. Need ice for anything?” Without waiting for an answer, the unseen speaker led them quickly down a long, echoey passage. Rosalyn hoped that this was truly the last, the very last lug in the basket. Would she ever stop smelling of onions?
“Right. Leave you to it. Dinner’s at one-thirty. Just dessert to serve upstairs, and then it’s our turn. Remember where?”
“Yes, I’ll find you. Thanks.”
Heels tic-tacking down the hallway and the whirlwind woman was gone.
“Can I get out now, please?” said Rosalyn through the leeks and apples.
The lid flipped open and Gaétane and Nora reached in to unpack the produce and help Rosalyn out. Her legs were so stiff she had to sit on the floor and stretch before she could stand again. They were in a large room, though all the rooms were relatively large to accommodate their changing heights. A simple bed was against one wall, with its ladder by the foot, sheets tucked in so tight there was not a wrinkle. A writing desk, a chair, a dresser and an armchair were the only other furniture in the tidiest room Rosalyn had ever seen. A few books were arrranged in descending height on the dresser. A comb and brush lay side by side on its dustless surface, perfectly parallel.
“Who was that?” asked Rosalyn.
“Cookie? Her real name is Nonette, but everyone downstairs calls her Cookie. She’s head cook for the royal family, and an old schoolmate of mine. We were at cooking school together before I went into service with the Bonvents. She went into the navy as cook and now look how far she’s come.” Marcella sighed. “But I wouldn’t trade places with her. No, not for the world. Supervising ten or twelve-course meals and satisfying the whims of the most difficult guests.”
Rosalyn was still confused. “Your other friend couldn’t help us, so how will she get me any closer to my brother? If anyone could help, wouldn’t it be you,” she said looking at Gaétane, “since he’s your cousin?”
“Second cousin,” corrected Gaétane. “Our mothers were cousins. And he’s the last person who’d help me.”
“Cookie has eyes in her back and three pairs of ears. She doesn’t look like your typical busy-body, does she? Yet I’d bet she knows more juicy gossip than anyone. She herself doesn’t talk much, so people let their tongues loose around her. We always have a good laugh when we’re together.” Marcella glanced sideways at Nora and Gaétane, “Not that I have anything to say, of course, but I do enjoy hearing about the foibles of the upper crust.”
Nora pretended not to hear and Gaétane’s eyebrows only rose slightly.
“But we already know where my brother is,” said Rosalyn, “so why do we need any more gossip?” She was tired of being shunted from place to place with no greater progress toward finding him.
“We may know where he is, but how to get him?” Marcella’s eyes sought confirmation in the faces of the other women. “With all due respect to a member of your family, but what exact reason could a self-serving, vain rapscallion like him have for keeping the boy, much less bringing him to town when he’s bound to be involved with the Renewal of the Search?”
“He won’t hurt him, will he?” cried Rosalyn.
“Keep your voice down,” said Gaétane coolly. “I doubt he’d hurt the boy, not until he’s served his purpose.”
“ ‘Served his purpose?’” Rosalyn yelped, cold fear taking hold of her. She sat down on the floor and leaned back on the bed frame.
Nora said, “You saw him alive and looking well only a few hours ago, so I’m positive he’s all right. Nonette, from what Marcella has told us, is a brilliant strategist. She was privy to so many war room discussions she will be able to devise some kind of plan for rescuing your brother.”
“Let’s not get too excited,” said Gaétane. "But it’s true, every sailor from the cabin boy to the captain confides in the cook.”
“Will we talk about it at lunch?” asked Rosalyn
“I mean, dinner?”
Marcella said, “Directly after. Cookie’s got an hour off to herself afterward and we’ll tell her all about it then. In the meantime, you’ll be perfectly safe here, provided you keep the door closed.”
“I’m not eating with you?” Rosalyn's queasiness had vanished once she and the leeks had parted company, giving way to growling hunger.
“You’ll eat with us, dear,” said Nora. “We may have come down in the world, but Marcella keeps us in our place and wouldn’t think of us eating in the servants’ hall, even in disguise.”
Marcella looked unmovable. “We’ll all feel more comfortable this way.”
There was a knock at the door. Gaétane stepped in front of Rosalyn to hid her behind her long skirt. “Shh,” she whispered.
Glancing back to make sure the girl was out of sight, Marcella opened the door.
“With Cookie’s compliments, miss,” said a young man.
“Thanks very much.”
Rosalyn clenched her eyes tight, as if by not seeing him she herself wouldn’t be seen. It sounded like furniture was being moved around and dishes and silverware placed on a surface. Marcella thanked him again and she heard the door click shut and felt Gaétane’s skirts move off her legs.
“Well, I call this very generous,” said Marcella, admiring the white tablecloth on which gleamed several domed silver dishes. Marcella pulled the desk chair up to the table. “You’ve got three chairs but you’ll have to make do with two plates. Good appetite to you all and I’ll see you after.”
She left the room and the three of them sat down to a splendid meal of thinly sliced roast beef, small golden potatoes, vegetables cut into shapes of fish and flowers, and cream puffs drizzled with chocolate. There was even a small bottle of ruby red wine for the women, served in glasses etched with bees. Rosalyn could hardly speak the food was so delicious and the women, accustomed to extreme frugality, kept exclaiming over the flavours and presentation of the food. Putting down her napkin at the end of the meal, Gaétane sighed with contentment. “Beef. It’s been so long.” Rosalyn had never seen her this relaxed, almost happy.
A loud knock at the door startled them out of their post-prandial bliss. Rosalyn dived under the writing desk and Gaétane swung the chair back in place. Nora had the presence of mind to toss a napkin over the side plate off which Rosalyn had been eating. “Enter,” she called, after what they hoped didn’t sound like a suspiciously long pause.
It was Marcella, followed by the young man who said cheerfully, “I hope that was to your satisfaction, madams.”
“Yes, delicious! We’re never had beef like that.”
He seemed mildly surprised. “That so? Well, between you and me, I found it not up to Cookie’s usual standard. To be expected with all the prep for tomorrow going on. Well, enjoy your visit. I’ll be off.” As he spoke he loaded the dishes, tablecloth and folding chairs onto a wheeled cart. Last, he folded the table, tucked it under his free arm and departed.
When he was gone Marcella sniffed, “Not up to her usual standard. What cheek!”
Nora smiled, “We’ll have to drop in at a less busy time if that’s the case.”
“My mouth is watering already,” said Gaétane.
“Can I come out?” whispered Rosalyn.
Just as she was about to push the chair away and crawl out, the door knob turned and the three women all flapped their hands at Rosalyn to say, “Stay down!” She squeezed herself into a tiny ball once more.
“Yes, thank you, Nonette,” said Nora. “Sorry to make extra work for you today. The meal was magnificent.”
Before anyone could make a move to block her, the tall, broad-shouldered woman pulled out the desk chair concealing Rosalyn, swung it around to face her visitors and sat down with a sigh.
Marcella, sounding falsely cheery, said “What a day.”
“Just the markets and then home?” asked Cookie.
“Yes and no. We wouldn’t have bothered you on such a hectic day if we hadn’t had a thorny problem to consult with you about.”
“Ah?” said Cookie, interested.
“Two days ago, Miss Bonvent came home with an unusual find after her day of birding. It seems a young girl had landed on a cloud which was in danger of breaking up. She said her younger brother had fallen much farther and had possibly been taken up by a ship below, though none of this was visible to her. We thought we might hear of a strange boy’s arrival in town today, but before we ever had to ask, the girl saw her brother riding in a certain Marquis’s carriage, worse luck.”
“The very one. And we’re certain the blackguard is up to no good.”
“Where’s the girl?”
“Under your desk, I’m afraid.” Marcella sounded embarrassed. “Didn’t want Robert to see.”
The swivelling desk chair rolled out away from the desk and the cook’s curious face peered down at Rosalyn, who stared back, feeling very small.
“Cramped in there. Come on out,” invited Cookie. She held out a hand for Rosalyn to shake. “Pleased.”
“Pleased to meet you, too.”
“Her name is Rosalyn,” said Nora, “and her brother is an adorable blond boy of seven years.”
“We assume so.”
Cookie’s eyes narrowed as she sat thinking. “Have to get the boy tonight,” she finally said. “Marquis’ll be dining here.”
“We can’t exactly stroll up to the house looking like this, let ourselves in and walk out with the boy,” protested Gaétane.
“No,” agreed Cookie, “Back door’s the way.” She went to the door and called down the hall, “Robert!”
Footsteps came pounding toward them.
“Walk, don’t run. Bang into the majordomo one of these days, silly lad.”
“Yes ma’am,” said an out-of-breath Robert.
“Come in and keep quiet.”