(c) Nin Harris 2014 — . All Rights Reserved.
Deiranetta stared at the basket of pastries. They were warm from the oven, and the yeasty fragrance hinted at gustatory temptations that would ensure a very pleasant afternoon spent underneath the sheltering orange trees.
“What does the Kitchen Witch want?” she asked of the assistant pastry chef who stood before her, nervous as she smoothed her large lavender palms repeatedly on her starched white apron.
“The Kitchen Witch did not send you this, Lady Deiranetta,” the Mishgalen answered, her head bent downwards so that Deiranetta could meet her eyes.
The birds sang overhead in the fruit-laden trees that shaded this particular courtyard. It was a peculiarity of Domus Exsulis that there were many courtyards here. Each courtyard had trees and plants that could have come from anywhere, and from any world. Deiranetta was rather fond of this particular courtyard because of the citrus trees and the sweet-smelling herbs that stained her bare feet as she walked. There were no roses here, but sometimes, even Deiranetta tired of roses. They evoked far too many memories that were not always pleasant.
“If she did not send me these pastries, then who did? Did you?”
The Mishgalen shook her head once more, and said, “Only look inside, Milady Deiranetta. It is a gift.”
“I do not trust mysterious gifts, even less so if they are edible gifts,” Deiranetta said, fixing a hard stare at the Mishgalen. Perhaps the Deiranetta of twenty years past would have been intrigued by the mystery and romance of it all, but this Deiranetta had learned the hard way what it meant to be betrayed, and to be exiled from her own home.
“It’s not poisoned,” said the Mishgalen.
“Oh, if you’re not going to eat it, I will. I’m hungry, and all this dithering over a basket of pastries is annoying,” said Elise. Elise moved out of the shadows, her movements tight as a whip-crack as she strode towards Deiranetta and the Mishgalen. Her feline eyes appraised the Mishgalen assistant cook as she approached, and extracted a butter-rich croissant from the basket. Her hazelnut-brown hands, so efficient at garroting spies and unwanted salesmen now tore into the croissant. She bit into it with disproportionate pleasure.
“Mmm. Yrejveree butter is the best butter I have tasted on any world,” Elise finally said as she licked the crumbs of the croissant off from her long fingers. The Mishgalen seemed hypnotised by this very expressive display of enjoyment.
Deiranetta stared at her cousin. “Any world? What do you mean, cousin? We’ve only been in Gaeirn and this world.”
“You have only been in Gaeirn and now in Yrejveree.”
“Oh Elise, more secrets? How many do you have?”
Deiranetta looked at her cousin. Elise had grown her hair since they left Gaeirn but it was still short, a page-boy cut that contrasted with the hard angles of her face. Deiranetta privately thought it was not as flattering on Elise as the sleek look she had in Gaeirn, when her head was shaved smooth every morning. She was a well-oiled killing and espionage machine then, and Deiranetta never felt safe without her presence. But, Elise seemed happier these days despite still being poised for danger like a cobra waiting to strike. She no longer needed to be Deiranetta’s bodyguard, but she had not lost her guarded air, nor her hyper-vigilance.
“It’s not poisoned,” she now said to Deiranetta, completely ignoring the other question. There were many questions that Elise ignored. Many. For instance, she never told Deiranetta why she always had to taste Deiranetta’s food first, nor how she always knew if a dish was poisoned or not. There were many mysteries to Elise, Deiranetta mused. She had learned to accept that she would never know everything there was to know about her cousin.
The Mishgalen moved backwards, discreetly, her smooth lavender visage looking both pleased and slightly guilty.
“There’s a note in the basket,” she now offered to both Elise and Deiranetta.
Deiranetta reached into the basket to pluck out the note. She opened the thick and coarse piece of paper to read a message scrawled in a rude, bold script. She took out her reading glasses and perched it on the end of her nose.
With Love and compliments from an old friend.
Wordless, she passed the note to Elise.
“Do you recognise the handwriting, Cousin?”
Elise shook her head. “No,” she said. She took a chocolate snail out from the basket and bit into it. Chocolate oozed out of the pastry snail and coated her lips momentarily before she licked them, with greedy gusto. It amused Deiranetta to see her cousin like this. Perhaps she was not as hyper-vigilant as she had been in Gaeirn. This Elise reminded her of the Elise she grew up with, the one with whom many secrets were shared.
“Mmmph. This chocolate. Divine. Belgian, isn’t it?” Elise directed this remark at at the Mishgalen, who nodded, mute and shy in the presence of Elise. Elise remained poised and deadly in a black velvet vest, and a leather kilt,even when her lips and chin were smeared with rich chocolate.
“What’s Belgian?” Deiranetta asked distractedly as she started pacing, fretting. obsessing again.
“It’s something that originates from Belgium, a country in Terra Cognita. And I can tell you one other thing. It’s not from him. You know it. We left him in Gaeirn, quite assuredly…,”
“Elise!” Deiranetta said hastily, gazing with meaning at the Mishgalen girl.
“Right. Well, as I was saying, we left him tied up with affairs of the state, did we not?” Elise winked at her cousin before marching up to the Mishgalen.
“You’re going to tell us who sent you now, aren’t you? This pastry is divine, even if it was pilfered from the Kitchen Witch’s stores, but that’s not the point. Even un-poisoned gifts can seem threatening if we know not the source.”
The Mishgalen shrugged, obviously bored of the questions. Deiranetta suspected the girl was not the sort who could keep secrets for too long, at any rate.
“It was the old minstrel,” she said. “He promised to come and play for my family for my Nanna’s birthday next week in exchange. But now that you know, he probably won’t.”
The Mishgalen girl slumped as she said this.
Deiranetta threw Elise a panicked look. Elise rolled her eyes, clearly annoyed at her cousin’s one-track mind.
“Was he a Gaeirnic minstrel?” Elise asked the girl. The girl shook her head.
“Noo..ooo. He’s always been here. Years and years. Moving around down at the Mykologos. Sometimes he sleeps dockside. He asked me to make you these pastries, and to write the note. He didn’t say why, though.”
Elise reached into the basket for a third pastry, a rich orange Danish. She bit into it, and her eyes almost rolled back. Deiranetta began to wonder about the pageantry that was going on. Elise was not normally so forthcoming in her expressions
“You baked all of these? You have the hands of an angel, my dear.”
The Mishgalen looked pleased.
“Thank you, it was my pleasure.”
Deiranetta looked at the basket again, her resolve wavering despite her worry about the minstrel. It was not her minstrel, definitely.
“It’s an un-poisoned gift laced with a mystery, Cousin. And if you don’t take something now, I’ll finish the whole basket before everything turns cold.”
Deiranetta could not let that happened, naturally. She reached for a chocolate croissant.
“Oh my.” She said, and then took another bite. “Oh my.” She looked thoughtful.
“Perhaps a gift like this does not require too much examining,” she said to the Mishgalen girl. The girl beamed, very obviously flattered.
“Are you on duty at the kitchen now? And what’s your name?”
“Lilac, Milady. And I’m done for the day.”
Deiranetta smiled. “Well then, Lilac, how about you join us in emptying this basket before Elise finishes everything?”
Lilac hesitated a split second before saying, “I would like that very much, Milady.”
Above them, the skies of Yrejveree remained blue and cheerful, while starlings sang in the orange trees. The bounty of the basket was enough to feed one very hungry Gaernic assassin and bodyguard, an exiled Lady, and an assistant pastry chef who had baked a basket of pastries so that her Grandmother could have the best birthday party ever.
Somewhere near the harbour, a minstrel started practising Mishgalen tunes for a family concert, a cunning smile playing about his lips.
Perhaps the true mystery lay in the making of the gift itself.