In all of his troubles, all of his dangers, all the nights he spent sleepless clutching his knife under the covers … Milo never thought he would be reduced to this.
A fine set of rooms furnished by a king, a fine set of duties to afford him a good name and good prospects, a fine stipend to keep him fed and warm and dry … and yet here he was of an evening, going to his fine bookshelf full of fine volumes, and selecting a cookery book to keep the boredom away.
Well, that and to maybe learn something so he did not kill himself with his own cooking. That, he thought, would be an even less fitting to his adventures than the one he had thus far found for himself. Wouldn’t the Reman uncles laugh to hear that Sir Milo Carpenter, the recreant knight they had successfully driven from Glasonland and dashed his chances of stealing the throne from their nephew, had finally ended by burning himself to death in his own kitchen?
He flopped onto the cushy couch, grabbing a throw pillow that was kneading into his spine. Throw pillows! He had spent months running for his life, and now he had an apartment with throw pillows! It was almost like a woman lived here, although in truth the throw pillows came from the good offices of his aunt, the Queen, who had decorated the apartment.
A woman …
The book fell open, but though his eyes flickered across the page, his mind comprehended it not.
He ought to get a woman about the place. His stipend allowed for a cleaner to come every day — Milo may have been a man, but he was not so messy to need live-in cleaning — and it would probably stretch to afford a cook. Lamorak had suggested as much, the day he took him up to the north of the kingdom “to visit Will” and just “happened” to ride past the whorehouse. Whores were one thing, but a live-in servant … his mother had been such a servant. No. Milo would not turn into his father. If he got a cook, it would have to be an apple-cheeked grandmother, who would only be concerned with his stomach, not his …
Milo’s hands fell and he no longer even pretended to attend to the book.
Why couldn’t he think of his stomach and his heart together without his mind going to that bewitching Nicole?
She’d offered to help him. Other than Tom — who had known him before, and who could be said to owe him one for all the information Milo had passed on — she had been the only one to do so. He’d been a boor to her and still she had wanted to help him. How many women were that generous, that true? Even Erica would have sheered off after that first brusque reply.
But Erica was a lady, as unused to rudeness and sharpness as a fish was unused to the forest. Whereas Nicole … Nicole was of hardier stock …
Stock like him …
The rosy, slanting light of the setting sun danced into the apartment, and Milo let his book fall shut.
He ought to light the candles before it became too dark to see. But he was too busy to think.
He was insane. He would become his father — and so that only left one viable option, if he were to pursue this path. Or did it? He certainly wouldn’t force her or anyone into … anything … and what was the harm of getting to know a pretty lass? And if she and he got along, well …
And he was so bored …
That did it. Milo threw his book to the sofa and ran up the stairs to his bedroom.
As his hands pawed through the chest of drawers, he found another cause to bless Tom. “And make sure you keep those rags,” Tom had said at the end of his long spiel about Milo’s new post and new duties. “Your prince, if I may say so myself, is, besides being handsome, clever, charming, deadly in battle, and modest, rather eccentric. You never know under what circumstances you may be asked to serve him.” It had been all Milo could do, at the time, to keep a straight face — which seemed to rather disappoint Tom more than the opposite. But now …
Now he had a disguise.
But it wasn’t as if he wore it to — to deceive the young woman, or anything like that. Will of Wright, no! It was only, he would be robber bait if he dared to walk into the Spring Onion in his armor or any of his finer tunics. Yes, of course, that was all there was to it. Once he got to know Nicole better, then he would be … more forthcoming. Yes, of course.
And she knew his name. Milo did not consider his head to be half as inflated as it might be, all things considered, but he wasn’t stupid. Albion was a small place. It didn’t get a new knight every day. There must have been rumors — gossip — if Nicole didn’t put two and two together, well, that was on her, wasn’t it?
His conscience soothed — or at least quieted — he dashed over the glass.
Damn — that wouldn’t do at all! No real peasant would have his hair so pristine, so styled!
Milo, however, had not been born a boy for nothing. What would take a woman ages to fix just so, it took him only a few seconds and a quick wiggle of his fingers to mess up.
Perfect. Milo grinned at his reflection, put a hand to his beard — but unfortunately there was no making a beard raspy and ill-kept on such short notice, not if he didn’t want to shave it off to make it well-kept again — and shrugged.
He was unkempt and dirty enough to pass muster as a peasant. He would have to do, for now. Now for his horse–
No, nobody as ill-looking as him could be expected to be able to afford a horse like his. He would hire one from the Wesleyans’ stables. On the off-chance that Master Wesleyan or Rob’s elder brother was there and recognized him, Milo could just say he was on the Prince’s business. Tom wouldn’t mind his name being taken in vain.
Well — not this once, anyway.
An hour and a half later, his rented horse tethered to a post outside the Onion, his heart in his throat, he mounted the steps, pushed open the door, and gathered his courage.
The place was crowded with the smells of ale and bread, peat smoke, stew and unwashed bodies. Dim candlelight gave it the picturesque air he remembered from his first visit, not the sordid and disgusting one he remembered from his second. The floor was swept clean, and if there were any sticky, smelly stains on the chairs or tables, the candlelight hid them well. The host shambled up to greet Milo.
“Well, m’lad,” he said in the deep, slow voice of a true peasant, “what can we do fer ye ternight?”
“Er — just a — just a good meal, please.” And a word with your pretty waitress. Is Nicole here?
“Ah! Well, if that’s what yer wantin’, ye’ve come ter the right place fer that. Have yerself a sit-down anywhere, an’ someone’ll take care o’ ye.”
Milo nodded and threw himself down in a seat with a clear view of the kitchen. After all, if she was here tonight, she would have to come in and out of the kitchen at some point, wouldn’t she? And if he saw her …
Well, he’d burn that bridge when he came to it, as the Remans said. Did the Remans actually say that? He could ask Nicole …
The door opened! But all he could see was a sink. Worse, it was a man who came out, no lithe maiden with silky brown hair. Even worse … the man was heading for the host, who nodded him to Milo’s table.
“Good even, sir!” said the waiter in a tone of cheerfulness that could not fail to grate on Milo’s last nerve. “What can I be gettin’ fer ye this night?”
“Er …” Milo bit his lip. “Well — what — what is it that you have?”
“Ale, small beer, some spirits from Reme-way …” The waiter continued to rattle off the drink list, which, to Milo’s ear, seemed to only contain variations on the theme of ale, beer and cider.
“I’ll — uh — I’ll just take an ale,” he interrupted. “The best ale,” he added at the last moment — after all, a waiter was bound to feel bound to the man who gave him good custom, wasn’t he?
“The best, sir? Right ye are! An’ what else can I be gettin’ ye?”
“Er … what else do you have?”
“Oh, ye picked a fine night ter come ter us, sir, ye have! Other than bread an’ cheese, why, we’ve got pork pie ternight! An’ we’ve got a — well, sir, it’s but porridge, an’ I know ye’re thinkin’ there ain’t nothin’ so special in porridge that ye can’t be gettin’ at home, but ye’d be wrong! Fer this is special porridge, it is. Got some good spices from Reme-way in it. Near burned the roof off me mouth! But in a good way, mind.”
Spicy porridge? He’d never heard the like. “Er …”
“Half-price it is, ternight! We’ve got a waitress who fancies ter be a cook. So’s we’re tryin’ ter get folks ter try it.”
“Has … anyone else made the attempt?”
“Oh, aye, sir! Our lass, she can hardly ladle it out fast enough!”
Well, dying from spicy porridge at a down-at-heel tavern would only be slightly less embarrassing than setting fire to himself in his own kitchen … but at least he would be able to say it was done in the pursuit of a fair lady. “I’ll take it, then.”
“Right, sir! Anythin’ else I can get fer ye?”
“Er — er, yes!” After all, this was his chance, right? “There — I saw a waitress here the last time I was here … her name is Nicole … I don’t suppose she still …”
The waiter’s eyes grew hooded, suspicious.
“… works here?” Milo squeaked. Good Lord, what if he was talking to her brother? Or worse, her sweetheart? Or worse, her husband?
“Look, sir,” replied the waiter in a growl that would probably have fitted brother, sweetheart or husband, “this ain’t that kind of establishment. We’re a nice, clean place, we are, an’ if ye’re wantin’ any o’ that, the whorehouse ain’t that far.”
“Oh, no, no! I just … she seemed … pleasant …”
The waiter sniffed and without a further word, turned and left him.
Well, I guess I stuck my foot in it that time … though if he was her husband, surely he would have just clocked me and made an end of it, wouldn’t he have?
So Milo contented himself with Sim-watching — and more importantly, kitchen-watching — until his food came.
But no matter what happened, whenever the door opened, he could never catch sight of her. Perhaps she wasn’t on duty? Or perhaps her sweetheart or brother had told her that some uncouth peasant was asking for her, and ordered her to stay out of sight. That was probably more likely — if she had merely been absent, why not say as much?
The waiter came out with his food, slapped it onto the table, and stomped away before Milo could so much as say, “Thank you.” After that display, he wasn’t sure he wanted to anyway.
He tucked into his food with a will — and had to gasp and reach for his ale. It was spicy, that was true. Porridge he mainly remembered as a nursery breakfast staple, and he remembered his dour nurse informing him that if he had been born to peasant stock, he’d be eating this breakfast, lunch and dinner. This — this was no more porridge than the nag he’d rented from the Wesleyans was a lion.
But it was good. He took another spoonful, more cautiously this time.
Suddenly, as he continued to eat, he heard the kitchen door swing open. He looked up — and almost choked.
There she was!
And suddenly the room rang out in cheers. Was he that indiscreet? Or was he not the only one to try to claim Nicole’s affections? No wonder that other waiter was so possessive of her —
Then a dark-skinned man in a guard’s uniform banged his mug on the table and shouted, “All hail Nicole, Queen of the Kasha!”
“Hear, hear!” came the one cry audible over the banging of mugs on tables. Milo looked around to see that his was not the only half-full (or less) bowl in the room. Some men had more than one bowl before them.
Milo added his mug to the din and smiled broadly even as he continued to eat. So she could cook! His mother had been a good cook of simple dishes — sometimes, when his stepfather had been in the capital, his mother would chase the cooks away from the kitchens and make a meal for her children like the ones she had been raised on. This — this kasha was like that, only … different.
Nicole beamed under the applause and curtseyed. Milo was surprised — it was no country girl’s half-bob, but something more akin to the deep sinking one saw at court. The girl had grace. He’d never expected that out of a tavern maid.
“Will you come back for more?” Nicole asked the crowd, blushing.
She continued to beam as she made her way to the all the tables where someone was eating her kasha. And then …
She came to Milo’s table.
“And how do you like it, sir?” she asked, all politeness, all artlessness. It was like she didn’t even remember him and what a boor he had been.
Maybe she didn’t …
He swallowed, a few grains sliding down his throat whole, but he scarcely noticed them. “Nicole.”
“Oh? You know me, sir?”
Damn, she was going to pay him back, wasn’t she? He probably deserved it … all right, he did deserve it, but she didn’t have to rub it in. “Aye — er, I’m Milo. In case you don’t remember me.” He grinned and stood, bowing. “And — I’m safe enough, now,” he added, in case she did.
Most peasant girls would titter if you bowed to them. Nicole scarcely blinked. He thought, however, that he saw relief flash across her eyes. “Safe enough to claim your name?”
“Aye — it’s Milo Carpenter. Again.” He grinned ruefully and tried to avoid his conscience pricking at him, reminding him that he had forgotten what some men would call the most important part of it — the Sir. But he’d just found her again; there was no use scaring her now!
“Milo Carpenter, of the Glasonlander army?” Nicole asked.
“Yes! Er — well, not any more. The Albionese army, now.”
She blinked. “You’re a mercenary, sir?”
“Good Lord, no!” he gasped. “What –” But she blinked up at him, clearly taken aback. He remembered that she was from Reme, whose borders were so long, and whose citizens were so steeped in laziness and luxury, that it needed mercenaries if it stood a hope of surviving. “Er — that is, I … well, I suppose you could call me a turncoat, if Albion and Glasonland were ever at war, but they’re not, and they never have been. I … well, I had to leave the country, that’s all.”
“Oh?” She was doing it again — that little trick of the head, inviting the confidence if he cared to share, ready to pretend she hadn’t invited it if she didn’t. He’d seen women with pedigrees as far superior to hers as the sun was to the stars not act nearly as ladylike. Yes, there was something in what his mother had always said.
But could he tell her in this crowded tavern, where who knew who was listening? No, no — because telling her would entail telling her who he was. But he could … “You remember how I told you that my father was … a lord?”
“Well, things aren’t … going so well for him right now,” he said, completely truthfully. “And because of that … they’re not going so well for his relatives. If you catch my meaning?” Surely she could — the worst the Glasonlanders would do to a traitor’s relatives was confiscate their goods, or imprison them, or slaughter them if the monarch was feeling truly irked. The Glasonlanders had no salt mines.
Nicole gasped, her hand flying to her mouth. “Oh — oh, Lord! You — you –” He would have given a great deal to know what she was about to say, but something made her catch her lip between her teeth and look around. “Are you safe here?” she murmured.
“Oh, aye,” he replied. “Here, I’m … well, out of sight, out of mind,” he hedged. It would do as well as anything else, he supposed.
“Good! Good, I hope it’s so. I mean …” She started to blush as she looked away.
Milo gulped and tried to change the subject. “Say — are you the cook of that — that porridge?”
“Aye …” Her eyes lit up. “You — you liked my kasha?”
“Aye! Aye, it was …” A sudden mad idea swept into his head, and before he quite knew it, it had grabbed his mouth and run away with it, laughing hysterically. “You know, they don’t serve food half that good at the mess hall. If they won’t let you cook here, you should come by the fortress — I’m sure I could wrangle a job for you.”
Nicole blinked. “That … that wouldn’t be right … you don’t understand, everyone here at the Onion –”
“It’s your patriotic duty!” Milo retorted. “Well, practically your patriotic duty,” he backtracked, slightly. “You’d be doing your newfound country a service.”
And if she worked in the mess hall … he could see her every day. Hell, he’d eat there with the common soldiers for breakfast, lunch and dinner if it meant he could see her.
“I really don’t think it was that good …” she demurred, blushing adorably.
“You’ve never eaten mess hall food, have you?”
She giggled. “My brother …” But her voice died and she looked away.
“Your brother?” Milo asked.
“He — he was — in the army,” she finished, staring at the trailing hem of her skirt.
Well, Milo could guess how that had gone. A brother in the army whom she didn’t like to speak of … yes, there was only one way that could have gone.
But he owed to her to cheer her up, didn’t he? “Well, then you’d know all about how Nicole, the Queen of Kasha’s, services are needed — wouldn’t you?” He seized her hand on an impulse. “Mess hall food is much the same everywhere, don’t you know? And hands that can make something half as divine as your kasha …” He kissed her hand. She gasped and jumped — but she smiled!
He looked up and released her hand. Her eyes sparkled even as she grinned. Milo felt himself leaning closer — she rested a hand over her heart and leaned away in a manner that only convinced him to come closer —
“A-hem,” the host snarled. “Sir — I’ll be axin’ ye, if ye insist on flirtin’ with our good girls, that ye not be flirtin’ them out o’ a job, eh? We’ll keep our little cook right here — won’t we, Nicole?”
“Oh! Oh, of course, sir. Er — it was nice seeing you again, Milo. But I — I really have to get back to the kitchen …”
That was it? He’d see her no more? Well, his belly was full, and his heart … he’d think about his heart another time. For now, he took a silver coin from his purse and flipped it to the host. “That’ll settle the reckoning, won’t it?”
“Sir! Aye, an’ more! Let me –”
“Keep the change.” As the host gaped, Milo leaned closer to Nicole. “Think about it?” he murmured.
“Milo, I –”
“Try out and you’ll get the job. I promise. The quartermaster will owe me a favor.”
“Will?” asked Nicole with that adorable little head-cock.
“Aye — once he tastes your kasha, he will.” He grinned broadly at her, winked, and sauntered out the door before the host could dare to speak again.
And all in all … well, he’d certainly never spend a boring evening again, now, would he?