by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
“Those close to the court get honour; those close to the kitchen get food.” –Chinese proverb
It wasn’t as though the new kitchen boy, or stablehand, or tailor’s apprentice ever actually fooled anyone.
“We are expected to treat him as we would each other,” the First Cook said, in a tone that threatened rigorous retribution on anyone gormless enough to take him at his word.
The Head Cook was even scarier, fixing them all with the gimlet eye of a woman who had risen to one of the most trusted positions in the land while raising seven children and outliving two husbands and a wife. “Every year, there is one person who takes Yule too far. This year, that person will not be from my kitchens. Do I make myself clear?”
The emphasis made Evan wonder what had happened last year; there was some shuffling and a muffled snicker, but he couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from, and in any case the Head Cook’s gaze came down on the group like a killing frost.
“They don’t mean you can’t enjoy the festivities,” one of the Third Cooks said later, taking pity on Evan as she dropped an armload of dirty mixing bowls beside his sink of soapy water. “Just don’t throw up in the Great Hall.”
The new kitchen boy appeared the traditional seven days before Yule, wearing a work smock made from linen finer than the best shirt Evan had ever owned. Up close, he looked…ordinary, but a splendid version of ordinary, with eyes that were green instead of brown, almost-black hair that tried to curl where it had been combed back from his face, hands that were callused where one might hold a pen rather than a scrub-brush. He was introduced as Patrick, which technically was his name, or at least one of them, though it was pretty far along in the string, just before the hyphens started.
“I suppose I’ll be helping you with that,” he said cheerfully, gesturing to where Evan was elbow-deep in one of the stewpots, trying to scrape a crust off the bottom.
The Second Cook who was showing him through the kitchens nearly swallowed her tongue. “Oh, no, no, Your–you,” she said, catching herself in time. “Not at all. Never. May I suggest we go this way….” She glared at Evan behind Patrick’s back as they left the scullery, as if he’d done or said anything at all.
The morning stuttered along in surreptitious stares and sudden silences and a great deal of fierce whispering. At the dinner table, normally as raucous as it was allowed to get, the conversation sounded like everyone were in a play and had half-forgotten their lines. Patrick, seemingly at effortless ease, complimented the bread, the pease porridge, the small beer, and the apple pudding, and ate like a page who had gotten up too late to have had breakfast. By the end of the meal, half the table was in love with him.
Predictably, Laurel, one of the undercooks, took that sentiment rather too literally and unsubtly, and as a result was at the sinks with Evan the next morning, trying to scour half-dried porridge out of the servants’ wooden bowls and the court’s porcelain ones.
“They said to treat him like a real person,” she grumbled, clacking bowls hollowly together. “Isn’t that what the Yule drawing is all about?”
“Is it?” Evan said doubtfully. “Anyway, he has a fiancé.”
She snorted. “Do you think Henry of Tyra keeps it in his pants during Yule, any more than anybody else?”
There was a thump near the scullery door. Mason, another of the undercooks, leered in at her. “You’d know, wouldn’t you?”
The subsequent shouting brought everyone within a two-room radius, including, unfortunately, the First Cook himself. Mason was at the sinks with Laurel, shoulders around his ears and scrub-brush in hand, in the time it took the First Cook to cross the room.
“And you, Evan,” the First Cook said, flicking a hand at the large sack Mason had been carrying, “take that over to Second Cook Shoshanna and tell her you’ll be working for her for the rest of the day.”
“M-me, First Cook?” He hadn’t even graduated from scullery boy to kitchen boy yet. He had assumed it would be years before he was permitted to touch anything edible.
One of the First Cook’s eyebrows crawled towards his thinning hairline. “Are you expecting me to repeat myself?”
“N-no First Cook, sorry First Cook, thank you First Cook.” Evan scrambled out of the room, staggering under a hundred pounds of flour.
As he left, he saw the First Cook pinch the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, and thought he heard, “…week gets longer every year,” but he probably imagined that.
In the bakery, Shoshanna looked him over and put him to work beside Patrick, who was hairline to boot-heel with flour, flexing surprisingly muscled forearms as he pushed and pulled a heap of dough the size of a fattening pig back and forth in the kneading trough. Working at his shoulder, it was hard for Evan not to fall into a rhythm with him, hands and breathing a shared cadence, the sticky dough turning gradually smooth and silken under their touch.
“How long do we do this?” Patrick murmured after a while.
“Until I say you can stop,” Shoshanna said from the other table, without looking in their direction.
Patrick grinned as though he were enjoying a delightful holiday. He was only a few years older than Evan, who was a grown man of seventeen, despite his title of boy and the fact that he’d been in the kitchens for under a year, while Patrick had been–not a kitchen boy–for as long as Evan could remember. In the old days, Evan would have started in the kitchens at eight, as his great-aunt had done, but that was before the old king, the present king’s father, had established all the village schools. Nowadays only people like Patrick, it seemed, worked from the time they were children.
The next morning, Evan was back in his scullery, but in the afternoon he was drafted to help Patrick pit a barrelful of dried cherries, and the following day they spent the hour before dinner pounding the tall, sand-coloured cones of sugar into powder. It was a refreshing novelty to not be the newest arrival, the one who didn’t understand all the in-jokes and who had to be shown how to do the simple, tedious tasks that were beneath all the undercooks. Patrick seemed to be charmed by every task, deft with the knife and forceful with the mortar and pestle. Nonetheless, he wasn’t told to help Evan with the washing-up, though there were mountains of that, even more than usual, and Evan was expected to have it all clean and draining every night before he was allowed to stagger off to the attic dormitory he shared with all the other unranked kitchen servants.
Despite all the extra work and the dearth of sleep, there was an undertone of excitement to the week. Even in the workrooms, decorations appeared, the spare greenery and ragged ribbons and stubs of candles that were deemed unfit for the Court and the Great Hall. Treats appeared at meals, the inevitable fallen cakes and the over-browned biscuits from the corners of the trays. One afternoon Evan snuck up the stairs with some of the undercooks to the Great Hall–where they were not permitted to go, but the rules were different at this time of year–to get a glimpse of Nicholas, the kitchen boy who had drawn the red-dyed straw that had put him on the throne for the week before Yule. He looked chilly and a little bored. Though Evan had crossed his fingers when drawing his own, completely unexceptional straw, he found himself glad that he hadn’t had that honour, that he was spending the season where he belonged, in the low-ceilinged, spice-scented warmth of the kitchens.
The day of Yule Eve he barely had time to haul in fresh water and dry his pruney fingers between stacks of baking trays and roasting pans. But at dusk, the First Cook himself walked the warren of the kitchens, calling them all together in the servants’ hall.
“If it’s not done by now, it’ll never be,” he said, rolling his sleeves down over scar-speckled forearms. “Finish what you’re working on, and be gone with you. I’ll see you all bright and early” –there was groaning laughter at that– “in the morning.”
Tomorrow would be the feasting and the music and all the rest of it, and then at midnight the lawful king, crowned with holly, would appear to brandish his sword at the pretender and take back his throne. No one in the kitchens would see most of that, but Yule Eve was also called Servants’ Yule for a reason.
Evan heard oven doors slammed and pans clattered onto tables, heard the others call farewells to one another, heard the kitchens gradually quiet as he worked. Then there was no sound but the scour of his brush. He still had a tower of cutting boards and saucepans and tasting spoons to finish. None of it would be easier to clean for having sat dirty all night, and anyway he knew there’d be plenty of plates waiting for him in the morning from the cold supper that had just been set out in the Great Hall. He drained the sink, and filled it again with hot water he fetched in a bucket from the boiler.
“You’re not leaving?” asked Patrick, from the doorway.
“When I’m finished.” He poured in a dribble of mutton-coloured soft soap, and whirled his brush in the water until suds rose.
“I’ll keep you company, then.” Evan turned to stare at him. Patrick looked sideways, into the shadows. “Unless you’d rather I didn’t.”
“It’ll be dull.”
“You’ll be done quicker if I help you.” He watched as Evan washed a handful of spoons and slid them into the second sink to rinse. Patrick pulled them out of the water, shook them, and put them on the wooden draining rack. “I think you’ll need more room. These bowls at the end are dry. Where should I put them?”
The work did go faster with two, and although they didn’t talk much, they moved as though they’d been working together for years–or as though Patrick were watching more closely than he seemed to, recognizing what would make the work go more smoothly and doing it without comment. He restacked the dirty dishes so all the bowls or all the cutlery could be washed together, wrung out the sodden cloths under the drying racks, brought in another candle when the stub Evan had started with began to gutter. He would have made a very good scullery boy, Evan thought, and only barely stopped himself from saying it aloud.
At last Evan pulled the stopper from the sink for the last time, and wiped his hands on the least damp towel he could find. “Thank you.”
Patrick began to say something, but broke off at the sound of running footsteps in the corridor.
“Hey, Evan, here you still are,” said Julia, one of the undercooks, poking her head in the door. “Some of us are going up to the–” She broke off when she caught sight of Patrick. Evan could guess what she’d been about to say; the section of old attic where the junior kitchen staff gathered in defiance of all rules wasn’t something anyone wanted the new–temporary–kitchen boy to know about.
There was a moment of silence. Patrick’s smiled tilted. “You go with your friends,” he said.
“Maybe I’ll be up when I’m finished here,” Evan lied. Julia waved and ducked back out of the doorway, and they heard her pelting away down the corridor.
Patrick turned a quizzical gaze on Evan, who shrugged. “We are finished.” No one must have thought to invite Patrick to anything, or else why would he be here in a dark scullery, one night before the longest night of the year? “They’re having a bonfire in the stable yard, and all the inns are open. Unless you…”
“I don’t have anyone to spend the evening with,” Patrick said, and then, softly, “do you?”
Evan shook his head. Pairing off was as traditional on Yule Eve as setting fire to things and getting drunk, but there had been no one on the kitchen staff he’d felt that way about until very recently. “Don’t you have–I mean, do you have a fiancé?”
Patrick’s expression pinched a little. “We have…an arrangement,” he said.
“Oh,” Evan said, and was still trying to decide how to ask what that meant when Patrick leaned forward and kissed him.
Evan had done things, of course, with boys from the village, in fields or haylofts or the copse of trees behind the schoolhouse, but there had been no kissing, because nobody’d been anybody’s sweetheart, just friends who’d known one another all their lives. Kissing, he decided, was nice. So was putting your arms around someone as though you liked them, as though it was part of what you were doing together, not just to keep your balance or fit into the narrow shadows. Patrick’s arms were strong and firm; his hands made warm wings where they settled against Evan’s back. Evan slid one arm around his waist, laid his hand flat against the knobs of Patrick’s spine; the other arm he twined around Patrick’s neck. They were closer, now, as though there were a knot wrapped around them that tightened with their movement. Patrick’s mouth opened over Evan’s, and Evan made an embarrassing noise and sagged in Patrick’s hold as his knees turned to water.
Patrick backed him against the wall and let his hands roam down Evan’s sides. Evan pulled his hands back and put them on Patrick’s chest, sliding the cloth of his shirt over muscle. One of Patrick’s knees nudged between Evan’s thighs; Patrick’s mouth moved along his jaw, paused at the dip behind his earlobe, nuzzled down the side of his neck. Evan knotted his hands in Patrick’s shirt. Patrick’s tongue found the hollow at the base of Evan’s throat, and Evan gasped as a thrill raced straight down to his cock.
Patrick lifted his head. “Do you want–”
“Yes,” Evan interrupted him, because whatever Patrick was proposing, he wanted it so badly he could barely see.
Patrick made a little helpless sound in the back of his throat, and his hips rolled against Evan’s. “Yes,” he echoed, and then, “Here?”
Patrick laughed low and breathily. “Well argued.” He dropped another kiss on Evan’s mouth, and his hands went to the buttons of Evan’s trousers. Evan could only stand there, trembling, and hope he didn’t shame himself by spending the moment Patrick’s hand was on him. The look on Patrick’s face, as he pushed down Evan’s trousers and wet his own lips with a flick of his tongue, was near enough to do it on its own.
Evan recollected himself and went for Patrick’s buttons in his turn–his trousers were a wool as fine as his shirt–and drew his cock out, hand shaking a little on that hot velvet length. Patrick tipped his head back and thrust into Evan’s hand. Then he groaned and went still.
“Like this,” he said, and pulled Evan’s hand out of the way. He put his forearms on the wall on either side of Evan’s head and rocked his hips into him.
This was more familiar territory, cock against cock, though this had a spark to it that he’d never experienced before, as though light were fizzing along his skin. Evan put his mouth on Patrick’s chest, then on his collarbone. All he could hear was his own heart booming, and Patrick’s breath in his ear. When Patrick finished, he bent and pressed his face against the side of Evan’s neck, muffling his cry. Then he pulled back and wrapped his hand around Evan’s cock and stroked him, watching, and Evan’s climax blazed through him like a lightning bolt.
After they’d tidied up, Patrick, to Evan’s surprise, gathered Evan into his arms again and let his head fall to Evan’s shoulder. Evan stroked his back, and after a while, Patrick stepped away.
“Would you like to go see the bonfire?” Evan asked. “The king always has cider and cakes sent down.”
“Yes, I know,” Patrick said, and they walked side by side down to the stable yard.
The next morning, almost everybody had a sore head, and not a few were looking bleary-eyed in yesterday’s clothes. The stacks of dirty dishes were as high as Evan had anticipated. He didn’t see Patrick anywhere. At midnight, they all trooped up to the highest gallery of the Great Hall to watch as Nicholas, with an expression of dazed relief, stepped down from the throne, and the king mounted the dais and sat in his rightful place with his naked sword across his knees.
In the new year, Prince Henry of Tyra came to visit to his fiancé.
There were hunting parties planned, and musicales, and more feasting. Mason, who snuck upstairs to see the welcome dinner, made a point of saying in Evan’s hearing what a beautiful picture they made sitting side by side, the king with his dark hair and Henry so golden. Evan applied himself to his pots. He’d always have a nice memory to revisit every Yule Eve, but a scullery boy knew as well as anyone else how this story ended.
On the third day of Henry’s visit, just as Evan was putting the last of the breakfast dishes away on their shelves, Nicholas skidded into the scullery.
“First Cook says come,” he said breathlessly.
Outside the First Cook’s little office stood a woman in page’s livery. Evan swallowed, and presented himself at the door.
“You’re wanted,” the First Cook said. “Take off your shoes.”
“…What?” Evan asked, certain he’d misheard.
The First Cook’s eyebrow had only begun to twitch when someone poked Evan in the back. He turned to see Julia. “Shoes,” she repeated.
Beginning to suspect that this was actually a dream, Evan bent to untie the side strings of his shoes. As soon as he got them off, Julia grabbed them and disappeared.
One of the undercooks popped in the door and dropped folded cloth onto the First Cook’s desk. “Good,” the First Cook said. “Shirt.” Evan blinked at him. “Shirt, boy, the Court is waiting.”
Evan pulled his damp smock, which smelled of dishwater, over his head. The First Cook shook out the new bundle. It was a fresh shirt, and, Evan discovered when he pulled it on, a nice one, with polished wooden buttons at the front placket and cuffs. The shoulders were a bit broad on him, the arms not quite long enough.
Julia dropped his shoes beside him. They had been gone over with a damp cloth and were no longer water-spotted and scuffed. Evan fastened them up, and when he straightened, Laurel was there to drag a wooden comb through his hair and tie it back with a green ribbon rather than the scrap of twine he’d been using.
“You’ll do,” the First Cook said, with a nod. “Don’t look so worried, boy. Just mind your manners and you’ll be fine.”
His mind roiling with a giddy mixture of confusion, apprehension and hope, Evan followed the page up the kitchen steps, around the courtyard, and into the Great Hall.
He’d never before realized how many people the Great Hall could hold. Hundreds, probably thousands; the hall itself was leagues long, and possibly as wide as the country itself. The page pointed to an indistinguishable spot on the threshold where Evan should stand, and said something in a low voice to the Hall Master. The master stamped his iron-bound staff on the stone at his feet, and ten thousand faces swivelled towards Evan.
“Evan, scullery boy,” the Hall Master pronounced.
There was an eternal moment of silence, and then murmurs rose like dry leaves skittering across stone.
“Approach, Evan,” said the man on the throne at the opposite end of the hall.
On legs that seemed both unnaturally stiff and ready to buckle, Evan walked past a million pairs of eyes towards the end of the room. The king’s dais was there, and, down the aisle in front of it like boulder in the middle of a stream, a table. Two rows of sturdy, cushioned chairs lined it, facing one another, so that no one would put his back to the king. In the seat nearest the dais was a handsome man with hair the colour of sunlight. Despite his grandly embroidered blue satin tunic, he didn’t look terribly comfortable. Standing beside him was an older, narrow-faced man with unfashionably short hair and an ostentatiously severe black coat.
Evan stopped several paces before the table and bowed, because he knew that much. The man on the throne nodded to him, and just for a moment, Evan caught a glimpse of Patrick looking out from the king’s eyes.
The golden-haired man lifted a hand as if in a schoolroom. “Why don’t we move this to a, a more private…”
“No, my prince,” said the older man, without looking at him. “Let this be said before the Court, in the cleansing air.”
He must be the Prince’s Hand, Evan supposed. His advisor, that was to say, though the closer one got to royalty, the fancier the titles got and the pricklier people got about having them used.
“Very well, let’s have this out,” the king said. His voice was mild, and he wore a polite, meaningless smile, which is how Evan knew that he was angry. He was surprised that Henry and his Hand couldn’t see it.
The Prince’s Hand scowled at Evan. “This past Yule Eve, boy, tell me–”
“That will be enough, Gracious Hand.” The king cut the Hand off without raising his voice. “Evan, a question has arisen. I regret that you are subjected to this, but the Prince’s Hand has invoked the Law of Mirrors, which means that you must speak the truth. Did we or did we not spend Yule Eve together in an intimate fashion, you and I?”
Evan felt his face go hot. He swallowed. “We did, Your Majesty.”
The Prince’s Hand made a noise like a spitting teakettle. “As I was told! The rumour is true! A commoner–betrayal–insult–” It was difficult for Evan to hear him through the roaring in his own ears, though he couldn’t help thinking that the Hand was putting on most of that bluster like a cloak.
“Henry,” the king said, leaning forward with his voice lower now, so that all of the Court went still and silent in an effort to hear it. The Hand sputtered to silence. “I thought we had an arrangement.”
Prince Henry, whose face had gone as red as Evan’s felt, slid his gaze sideways to his Hand, then flickered it up to the king and away.
“It was your idea,” the king said.
“I, um.” Prince Henry made an inconclusive gesture.
The king leaned back against his carved throne. “Well argued.” His voice was as dry as a cake forgotten overnight in the ovens. “I would say our way seems clear.”
“Your Majesty, for the honour of my prince and our land I must insist–”
The king pitched his voice to carry the length of the hall. “Our engagement must be rescinded at once.”
“I–we–” The Prince’s Hand looked like a man who had just tripped over his own feet. Prince Henry bit his lip, though Evan thought it was pained relief that crossed his face.
“Of course, I am sure we agree that our personal regret and sorrow should not affect the peace and prosperity between our nations.”
“Of course,” Prince Henry said. He stood like a man who had had a weight lifted from him and couldn’t quite believe it. “Bowen, let us go.” He looked up at the throne, and hesitated. “I’m…sorry.”
“You could have just asked,” the king said softly.
Prince Henry ducked his head and nodded, and preceded his Hand down the long aisle and out of the Great Hall. Both of them passed within a hand’s-breadth of Evan as if he weren’t there.
Before the whispers of the Court could rise to the rafters, the king stood. “We will have a recess until after luncheon,” he said. “Evan, attend me.”
Behind the king’s dais was a door, almost concealed in the panelling of the walls. The king held the door open for Evan, and closed it behind him. The room was a comfortable one, with blankets thrown over chairs, and a desk awash with papers in front of the wide glass windows, and a fire burning in the hearth. The king probably thought it was a small, intimate place.
Patrick took off the crown that bound his brow, and hung it on a silver hook shaped like a dragon’s head beside the door, the way another man might hang up his rain-soaked hat. He ran his fingers through his hair.
“I must apologize for that,” he said. “I thought it best to address the rumours directly, and it seems to have gotten rather out of hand. I hope you don’t get teased too badly.”
“Are you…all right?” Evan asked.
Patrick grimaced. “If Henry’s the worst mistake I ever make, I’ll consider myself the wisest ruler in history. Bowen, now, he may become a problem.” He pursed his lips. “Though not as much as if I’d actually married Henry, I suspect.”
“I’m sorry.” Though Evan wasn’t, really, and if he’d known on Yule Eve what was going to happen today, it still would have been a struggle to turn Patrick down.
“Don’t be. That wasn’t really about you and me, no matter what it looked like.” Patrick sank down on the closest piece of furniture, which was a footstool embroidered in royal blue and purple. “I’ve always known that Henry had his eye on… someone else. He just didn’t have the gumption to tell me how serious it was. It’s just as well he’s only eighth in line for the throne.” He sighed. “Perhaps treaty marriages are another old tradition we should reconsider.”
“As long as we don’t reconsider Yule Eve,” Evan said, daring.
“The heavens forfend.” Patrick reached for his hand. “May I give you something to remember me by?” he asked, as if Evan would not remember that night all his life.
“I-if it pleases you.”
“It does.” Patrick released Evan’s hand. His smile had something resolutely cheerful in it. “I’ll have it sent to you. Now, I’m afraid I have work I must attend to. Will you give my regards to everyone in the kitchens?”
Evan spent a lot of time over the next few weeks wondering what the king might send him, worrying over whether it might be a fine horse or a purse heavy with gold or something else he would have trouble keeping, or even worse, an honour like a promotion to undercook, which he wouldn’t be able to refuse and would never hear the end of. But when it came, it came in the form of a small bag of royal purple silk, carried by a page in the king’s own livery. She drew most of the kitchen staff in her wake, so that by the time she arrived at the scullery, everyone was there to watch Evan work open the bag’s glossy cord and upend it into his palm.
It was something strung on a braided cord, the kind of ornament a scullery boy could wear and not be accused of thievery. A pendant, wooden, rectangular, about the length of Evan’s thumbnail: a sculpted scrub-brush, the head polished to a fine gloss, a suggestion of bristles cunningly carved below. Looking closer, Evan saw that engraved into the top of the brush was the outline of a crown.
“You’d think he could have at least given you a horse, or a purse full of gold,” Laurel said, disappointed.
“I guess he got his money’s worth,” sneered Mason.
“Everyone back to work,” the First Cook said, hauling Mason in the direction of the doorway by his ear. “It seems the king is pleased with you, lad. Work hard and there may be an opportunity for you as a kitchen boy in a year or two. Perhaps even undercook in time, though I make no promises.”
When he’d stopped laughing, Evan hung the pendant around his neck. The wooden charm nestled in the hollow of his throat, smooth and cool, and warmed as it sat against his skin. It would darken over time, the gloss deepening, the corners rubbed blunter by the absent-minded caress of his thumb. Future lovers would remark on it; he wore it to the end of his days.