Clatan 16, 1014
“Er … Nicole?” Clarice hesitantly stuck her head into the kitchen, then just as hesitantly the rest of her followed. “Do you need … help?”
Nicole looked up in some surprise. Help? In her own kitchen? The day she needed help to fix a dessert as simple as this would be the day she hung up her apron (so to speak) for good.
But before she answered, Nicole got another look at Clarice’s face. The ladies outside had thought it would be most polite to offer help, and Clarice had been the one to volunteer — Nicole would bet her best saucepan that that was how it went. And now she looked half-terrified that Nicole might take her up on the offer. Poor thing! Nicole remembered her friends back in Reme, how none of them could understand why she might want to spend her time downstairs in the boiling kitchens, covered in flour up to the elbows and grease to the eyebrows. They lived in terror of coming over to her home one day and Nicole asking them to help out.
She wondered how they were doing now …
Nicole swung the spoon around the bowl and did her best to laugh. “Oh, no, no thank you! Unless you’d like to keep me company.” She eyed the syrup. It was coming along nicely now. A little bit more stirring and she’d be good to go.
But she’d better check up on the crepes first.
Clarice sniffed the air. “That smells lovely — may I ask what you’re making?”
“Crepes,” replied Nicole, “with a … special syrup.” She flipped the crepe — good, it was cooking evenly on both sides. “Most of them are done — I’m just waiting on this last one.”
“Crepes,” Clarice murmured. “That’s a Gaulish dessert, isn’t it?”
“I think so, originally. But all roads lead to Reme,” Nicole laughed. “You can get just about every kind of food in the city, although it won’t always have the same ingredients as it does in its homeland. There have been times when I’ve had Sminese rice and noodles and Glasonlander sauerkraut and fish loaded with garum in the same day.”
“My goodness!” Clarice murmured. “And here I thought Camford was an international city …”
That ought to about do it for this last crepe. Nicole eyed it carefully, flipped it one last time, and deposited it on the plate with its brothers. As she added the chopped strawberries and oranges, she asked, “It’s not?”
“Well … not in terms of food. The food wasn’t much different than the food here. Although … we mostly ate at home, of course …”
Nicole laughed, ducking past Clarice to get the syrup. She started to drizzle it over the crepes. “Eating at home is the easiest way to not find out what a city has to offer!”
“I know,” Clarice replied, sounding almost apologetic. “But we would go out to pubs sometimes, and the pubs there would serve just what the pubs here would serve. At least … I think …” Clarice bit her lip. “I’ve never actually been to a pub here.”
“I’m not surprised,” Nicole replied. “Most gently-reared young women haven’t.” Nicole’s own mother had been furious whenever she found out that Nicole had snuck out with the slaves or with her friends to go to a taberna. Clarice didn’t seem like the type to be pushing boundaries in that way.
She then picked up the plate and the bowl with the remains of the syrup. “Well, I think this ought to do it!”
“It smells even better now,” Clarice chuckled.
Wait until it’s done, Nicole thought, but didn’t say.
Clarice preceded her out of the kitchen and into the dining room, where the rest of the ladies — Princess Gwendolyn, Princess Jessica, and Lady Garnet — awaited. Nicole knew she ought to be on a first-name basis with all of them — well, except maybe Lady Garnet — but somehow, she just couldn’t manage it with the princesses. She could stammer it out when she was speaking aloud, but in her own head, she would take refuge in formality. Even in Reme, her family had never been so lofty as to allow Nicole to be on a first-name basis with princesses.
“That smells wonderful,” said Princess Jessica, turning around in her seat — and yelping. “Sorry. The baby kicked.” She patted her protruding stomach. “I think Baby’s hungry too.”
Lady Garnet sighed. “I almost miss being pregnant … able to eat anything I wanted …”
“Well, I hope that you won’t skip this on account of not being pregnant, L–Garnet,” Nicole hazarded. She started to pour the rest of the syrup. “Because this ought to be a real treat, I hope.”
“I thought you were …” Clarice started, then continued to watch in fascination as the rest of the syrup poured.
“Ladies,” Nicole said, “your full attention, please, for a sight you probably have never seen before …”
And if this doesn’t work, Nicole thought, reaching for the flint she had hidden in the folds of her dress, one that you’ll probably never see again!
She struck the flint — the spark caught and flew to the syrup —
The ladies oohed as the syrup caught fire, sending up lovely blue and purple flames.
And best of all, Nicole still had her eyebrows — which was more than could be said for Milo when he had tried to “help” her in the kitchen and they had mutually discovered this little trick.
Garnet was the first to speak as Nicole dished out the still-flaming crepes to each of them. “Nicole, if this is what you do for a treat for an afternoon visit — what on earth could you have up your sleeve for a full-length feast?”
Nicole laughed. “That’s my secret.” She winked at Clarice. “Although perhaps a ‘world tour of cuisine’ might be enough to top this.” Clarice grinned.
Nicole finished serving and finally took the seat she had brought from the chess table to sit at the head of the table. This was the real reason why she wasn’t worried about spoiling a later feast: with a table that only seated six at the very most, she couldn’t see many full feasts in her future. Intimate dinner parties would have to be her style for the foreseeable future.
And, in Nicole’s opinion, there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. But she had a devil of a time convincing Milo.
“World tour of cuisine?” asked Garnet. “Do say on.”
“Oh …” Nicole tried to smile. “It was just something Clarice and I were discussing — how you could get food from just about anywhere in Reme, but elsewhere …” She shrugged.
“Including Camford,” Clarice added. “Which is a bit odd, when you think about it.”
“Why would you look for food from different places in Camford?” asked Garnet, slicing a corner of her crepe and popping it into her mouth. “Hold that thought — Nicole, this is amazing!”
“Thank you!” Nicole grinned. Well, if she had won Garnet’s approval on this, perhaps it would not take her long to win her approval in other things. On the other hand … since Lady Babette Gwynedd was still standoffish and often rude when she and Nicole met in public, was Nicole utterly mad to think that she would be accepted that easily by the new Countess of Dyfed?
Nicole could do more than wonder about that, for Clarice could hold onto her thought no longer. “Well, isn’t Camford supposed to be the — the very navel of the earth? Where everyone goes to encounter learning and holiness? You would think that, with so many people there from so many different places, there would be so many different types of food … but the most is that one Gaulish restaurant where –” Clarice broke off with a blush.
Nicole didn’t have time to wonder why before Princess Gwendolyn chuckled. “Where Freddy proposed to you,” she filled in, tapping her sister’s hand.
“Aye. But that’s about it …” She glanced around the table. “Isn’t it?”
“Well, there’s the pub fare,” Princess Jessica replied.
“Can we not discuss the pub fare?” asked Garnet — then the table shook and she yelped. “Ow! Jess–”
Then came silence. And every eye turned to Nicole.
Oh, bloody hell! Now they were afraid they had offended her — her! Even Garnet looked contrite. How was she supposed to defuse the situation now?
… She could always own it. Her past. After all, she’d done nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody had to keep body and soul together somehow. At least she had had the skills to do it honestly.
“Well,” Nicole answered, “when I worked at the Onion …”
There was a general raising of eyebrows and dropping of jaws, much as the ladies tried to hide it. Nicole swallowed and pressed on. “I learned — I learned very quickly that the establishment made most of its money from the drink. Now, the Onion was a little different, because we wanted to make some good, filling food because …” It keeps the drunks from getting out of hand, she almost said and backtracked. “Because it keeps the customers coming back. We had an older clientele — a lot of merchants and yeomen, people who worked all day and wanted someplace to unwind and maybe get a hot meal if they didn’t have a wife or mother to make one for them at home. But I can imagine that with a young, college-going clientele …”
Princess Jessica saved the day by chuckling. “My brothers have theories about what the food is for — but it’s nothing I can repeat in polite company.”
“Oh, no,” laughed Princess Gwendolyn.
Garnet poked Princess Jessica — perhaps harder than was strictly necessary, perhaps in revenge for her earlier kick. “How is it that they told you, then?”
“Apparently to the Pendragon young men, I do not count as polite company,” Princess Jessica pretended to sigh.
“Brothers!” laughed Nicole.
She expected every young woman around the table to laugh with her. They all had brothers, didn’t they? Garnet’s and Princess Gwendolyn and Clarice’s youngest brothers were perhaps all too young to partake in that kind of crudity — but they all had brothers who were of an age to do so. But none of them laughed. Princess Gwendolyn and Clarice smiled nervously, and Garnet played with her crepes.
Then Garnet gave a mirthless chuckle and looked up. “Well, congratulations, Nicole, now you’ve stepped right in it — I wonder whose turn it will be next?”
“I’m sorry,” Nicole said, “I didn’t mean to offend –”
“No–no, you did not offend, Nicole,” replied Princess Gwendolyn. That was most forceful speech Nicole had ever heard out of her. By the looks on the other women’s faces, it seemed that it was the same for them. “You–you could not be expected to know that … that …” Princess Gwendolyn gestured vaguely.
“That, unfortunately, it seems that you and I are the only ones in the room with normal brothers,” came Princess Jessica to the rescue. “I bet you never thought that would happen!”
Nicole laughed. It was easier to laugh as she remembered how her brothers had been than to sigh remembering what had happened to them. “No, never!”
“Anyway,” Princess Gwendolyn stumbled on, “it–it really is very odd about Camford, isn’t it? With the food? You would think that — that as students brought their servants, that there would be … greater variety …”
“Well–there probably is, in private homes,” Nicole replied.
“Aye!” Princess Jessica agreed. “That would make the most sense.”
“And that would explain why everyone comes to Camford and eats only their favorites from home,” Garnet replied. “And then they bring their servants back home with them, and that’s an end of it.”
“But not everyone can afford to bring servants to Camford,” Clarice pointed out. “I mean — none of us did. And I don’t think any of the boys did, either.”
“Well, it was easier to hire maids and cooks there, for us and the boys,” Garnet agreed. “It’s not like we were going far. And we all spoke the same language. Besides, I don’t think our food would have been any different than native Camford cuisine — if there is such a thing.”
“If there is, it’s probably the leftovers from the Lion and Llama,” muttered Princess Jessica.
“No wonder the monks and nuns fast so often,” snorted Garnet.
“Milo still talks about the Lion and Llama sometimes,” Nicole chuckled, before the topic of conversation veer out of what was considered acceptable for polite company.
Princess Jessica coughed, hard enough that Nicole briefly thought to slap her on the back before she spoke. “Lies!” she choked.
“Lies! All lies! We never got drunk one night and decided to put on an impromptu musical performance — right, ladies?”
“Right!” said Clarice while Princess Gwendolyn and Garnet looked confused. Then Princess Gwendolyn’s eyes widened and Garnet … still looked confused.
“And Lynn never got up on stage and danced on the stage there when she was drunk!” Clarice added.
“Actually, I think I wasn’t quite drunk when that …” Princess Gwendolyn paused. “Didn’t happen.”
“All the more reason for it not to have happened!” Princess Jessica nodded. “And, by the way — those silly stories about the chugging contest between my brother and me? Those are utter falsehoods.”
“Oh, are they?” asked Nicole, trying not to laugh.
“Yes, yes, they are.” The way Princess Jessica nodded — so strange and solemn! How was Nicole to keep from laughing? “For one thing, if it had actually happened, I would have won. However, if he ever tells you a story about Dannie Fer–Dannie Wesleyan now challenging my brother to a game of darts while the two of them were roaring drunk and how my brother managed to miss the board completely and hit the poor waitress right in the rear — that happened.”
“Oh, no!” laughed Princess Gwendolyn. “If you’re going to have to start down that road, Jessie, I shall have to mention the time your husband decided to join his brother in a duet for the whole pub to hear!”
Garnet’s eyes widened. “Will did what? Where was I when this happened?”
“Still here, luckily for you.” Princess Jessica winced. “I don’t know how the boys got him home after that … I don’t know how Will stayed upright long enough to finish …”
“That’s–that’s the worst he ever did?” asked Nicole. “Sing with his brother? What’s so bad about that?”
The women around the table exchanged glances. Princess Jessica was the first to speak. “You’ve never heard Galahad sing, have you?”
Princess Jessica patted her hand. “Do yourself a favor, Nicole — don’t.”
“Amen,” breathed Clarice, and if sweet, kind Clarice was going to say something like that about a good friend’s singing ability, Nicole decided she would take her at her word.
“So …” Nicole looked around the table. “What might my husband have most emphatically not have done when he had a bit too much to drink at the Lion and Llama?”
Princess Gwendolyn chuckled. “Well, he certainly would never have been following where my husband was leading.”
“He never would have joined in on Tommy’s scheme to sample every wine, ale, and spirit in the house in one night,” Princess Jessica added.
“They survived that?” asked Garnet, eyes wide.
“They each took a sip of each cup — or would have, if that had happened,” Clarice filled in, winking at Nicole.
“And they most assuredly never all got completely drunk and went to St. Agnes’s Chapter House and serenaded the nuns with the saltiest ballads they knew,” Princess Jessica winked.
“And they did not bring Galahad with them and let him sing the lead when they did that,” Princess Gwendolyn added.
“And they certainly didn’t have to run home with the constables on their tail, trying to avoid an international incident,” put in Clarice.
“They also didn’t dive into the pond in front of our house and have to hide in the reeds to keep the constables from finding them,” finished up Princess Jessica.
Nicole looked around the table, glad that every face was as pinched as she imagined hers was. “Well,” she murmured, “I’m glad none of that happened. Because — because I used to think that the one thing most likely to have killed my husband before I got a chance to meet him would have been the–the situation in Glasonland. And–if all of that had happened, I would have had to realize that the thing most likely to get my husband killed was your husbands!”
“That’s our boys!” agreed Princess Jessica. “Although — if any of those things had happened — they would have all been Tommy’s fault.”
Princess Gwendolyn sighed. “I should defend my husband’s honor …”
“But we all know she’s right,” Garnet finished.
“Aye. Although!” Princess Gwendolyn pointed her fork at Princess Jessica. “Your brother-in-law could get them all into some very … sticky situations, and while he was completely sober, mind!”
“But that’s Galahad!” Princess Jessica protested. “He’s …”
“Galahad,” every woman in the room chimed in, except Nicole. And, well, technically Marian, still asleep in her crib.
“So you see,” Princess Jessica said to Nicole, “all of our husbands were paragons of virtue and sobriety when they were in college — as were we — with the possible exception of Galahad, who isn’t anybody’s husband now and so was allowed to be a paragon of vice and drunkenness.”
“Indeed, he’s just a monk now,” replied Garnet.
Nicole laughed. “Well, at some point, ladies, you will have to tell me all about all the things my husband didn’t do when he was at Camford and didn’t have me to keep an eye him.”
“Oh, I don’t think having you to keep an eye on him would have made a difference,” Princess Jessica pretended to sigh. “I doubt we would have done any better with our husbands-to-be.”
“But they have us now,” replied Clarice, “and we can keep them in line — can’t we, ladies?”
“Most of the time,” agreed Princess Gwendolyn.
“I’d think that most of the time was plenty!” protested Garnet. “After all, if they never screwed up, you’d never have to get into arguments (or if you did, it would be because you were in the wrong, which is simply unsupportable) … and if you never got into arguments, you’d never get to make up if you know what I mean …”
The women all nodded. And Nicole, as hostess, took it as her duty to speak for the table: “And what a horrible world that would be.”