An Invasion in Seven Courses
by Rene Sears
Amuse-bouche: Take one remote coastal castle. Add sea-raiders. Drain the blood of one king. (Arrows, cut throats, or beheadings are all acceptable--ask your butcher.) Send one princess into hiding, garnished with a daring midnight escape.
Reserve one queen for later.
Salad Course: Lettuce, silphium, and dandelion leaves, in a dressing of wild carrot seeds, white wine vinegar, and pennyroyal.
"I need herbs." The queen's fingers pinch tight against the gold-chased chatelaine at her belt, the tools on their chains gently clinking as she moves.
The cook glances over her shoulder. The raiders don't come often to the kitchen, but you never know. "I'm happy to discuss this week's menu," she says loudly.
"The raider-lord wishes to marry me," the queen says carefully. Her fingers pause on the little knife strung on its chain to the chatelaine. "In three weeks' time. He will want his wedding night."
"Ah," the cook says. "So any offspring...?"
"Would be heir, since there is none other." The queen's fingers tighten further on the little blade, until her bones and sinews press against the skin. "There can be no offspring."
"I see." The cook considers the rows of herbs growing neatly outside the kitchen door, some grown from seeds preserved by her mother and grandmother before her, and their mothers and grandmothers before them. Some of them have properties beyond the flavor they can lend a soup. "A salad from the garden will be just the thing."
Fish Course: crab stuffed with goat cheese, thyme, and garlic, rolled in breadcrumbs; to be fried in melted butter.
A knock at the kitchen door startles the cook into wakefulness. She was nodding over her notes for the festivities. The raider-lord insists on a proper feast, as if it was a real wedding. Course after course after course, with the poor queen on display, as if her husband wasn't killed by the bridegroom not a fortnight before.
The cook shuffles her papers to the side and goes to the door.
"You shouldn't be here," she hisses, and pulls the cloaked figure into the kitchen and a fierce hug at the same time. "If you were found out--!"
"I won't be." The princess shakes back her hood and the homely firelight reflects off shining black curls and a proud nose--her father's. "I want to see my mother."
"You can't," the cook says bluntly. "The raider-lord sleeps in the doorway of her room, and will till her monthly courses--and the wedding." The princess flinches.
"Tell her she won't have to marry him." The princess glares upward like she can see through the floor.
"I wish that were so--"
"Tell her!" The princess' face contorts, like she wants to yell or cry, but in the end she does neither, but pulls a net from under the cloak. The net wriggles as she sets it on the table. "I caught some crabs. They're her favorite."
Fowl Course: One wild-caught swan baked in a coffin, to be stuffed with a mourning-dove, to be stuffed with a starling, to be stuffed with boiled eggs soaked in red wine, studded with cloves and sultanas.
The cook's arms are floury to the elbow when the raider-lord comes to the kitchen. He watches her roll out the dough, fold in butter, roll the dough out again. His eyes on her hands make her uncomfortable, but this is her kitchen, her domain. She waits him out.
"Witch," he says, finally.
Her hand is on the rolling pin without conscious thought, muscles built from hours of lifting sacks of grain and punching dough already tense--conscious thought would say don't do anything threatening around a warrior; this warrior in particular, who has killed so many she knew and loved, who killed her king.
But instead of killing her too, his mouth quirks up at the edge. "Wise woman," he amends. "That's how we say it in the islands."
"What do you want of me? My lord," she adds hastily, but he's already taken her measure and seen that bowing doesn't come to her naturally.