It’s been a while since I’ve talked about the Dreamless City, my steampunk urban fantasy work-in-progress. I haven’t forgotten about it (or our other short story project). I wanted to get back to what is most important to me, which is writing. (Not that I don’t enjoy the other stuff, but I do have a magpie’s fascination for shiny things and can be easily derailed.)
Here’s another excerpt from the Dreamless City. I thought it might be nice to see Nissa with someone who wasn’t a troublesome lad. She isn’t always trying to cause trouble. ;)
It was a quiet evening in the Stagunner kitchens. Most of the fires were banked for the night, and even the scullery lads had departed for their beds. No one bothered Annette and Nissa in their cozy corner by the remaining lit oven. The overhead coglights filled the air with a low buzz as the gears unwound themselves and gave off a gentle light.
Nissa sat on one of the benches at a large trestle table, head on her knees, munching on an apple. Annette had given her tall friend the apple to keep her from pilfering fruit slices from the bowls on the table.
“Why did you want to be a chef?” Nissa asked the dark-skinned girl. “It seems like they have you working all hours of the day and night in this stuffy kitchen.”
Annette paused from the pie dough she was rolling out as she considered the question. “They don’t have me running around any more than you. Up at the crack of dawn to feed the horses, outside in the cold or rain, cleaning up after the animals. No thank you. I’ll stay in my cozy and dry kitchens.” Resuming her rolling of the pie dough, Annette added, “I enjoy what I do. It doesn’t always feel like work. The Stagunners are easy to work for, and there’s lots of parties, so there is always something new to plan for.”
“Seems awfully dull to be stuck inside all day,” Nissa said.
“Seems rather smelly to be with the lads and horses,” Annette countered.
Nissa shrugged and took a big bite of her apple, conceding the point to the young chef. Juice ran down her chin, and she wiped her face with the back of her sleeve. “You never did say why you wanted to be a chef.”
Annette picked up one of the rounds of pie dough, smoothing the thin circle of dough out into a pie tin. “My momma was a spice trader, and I have five brothers who are helping her with the business. Sometimes it was a struggle to get enough dinner for everyone on the table. You know how it is, money always tied up in some shipment, and trading kept getting more difficult. Momma said the wyverns and other beasts didn’t used to be so unpredictable.” Annette crossed her arms, staring down at the empty pie. “Momma used her connections to find me an apprenticeship here.”
“How old were you?” Nissa asked.
“Nine years old. I’ve lived here for as long as I was with my family. It’s odd when I think about it that way.”
“I was eight when my mother died,” Nissa said quietly. She felt her heart clinch inside her chest.
Annette nodded but did not press her with any questions.
“Do you ever see them?” Nissa asked after a long moment.
“My family? No, they had to move on a few years back. They were getting squeezed by some of the elements in the Cobblecourt,” Annette said, grabbing a bowl of fruit and scattering the slices over the dough.
“Oscar Darrow,” Nissa said, her lips forming a grim line.
“The same,” the young chef agreed. “I received letters from my eldest brother for a few years. They were doing okay and making ends meet for a while, but I think that something happened. His last letter said they were joining a caravan and leaving Rivenloss.” Her voice dropped off, and she shook her head, setting the ends of her bright kerchief fluttering. She reached for one of the canisters of spices with too much force, knocking it over. A woody, spicy fragrance filled the air as the powdered spice scattered across the table.
Nissa grabbed the container as it rolled towards the table edge. The spice inside was a warm reddish-brown color, not unlike Daschel’s horse, she thought. “What is it?” she asked.
“Ground cinnamon bark. Very expensive if you want the real stuff. Spirits preserve me, this reminds me of my mamma. She used to put this in everything.” Blinking back tears, Annette turned to find a brush to clean up the mess.
“Eating bark doesn’t sound very tasty,” Nissa said, taking another sniff before handing the canister back. She supposed it smelled okay if you did not think about what it was.
Sweeping the cinnamon back into the tin, Annette added, “Mamma put it into everything. I used to complain that all our food tasted the same. That was when she told me I could start cooking if I wanted to.”
“I’d learn to cook too so I didn’t have to eat tree bark,” Nissa agreed.
“You’ll love my fruit pie when you try it. I am a master chef, after all.”
“How did you get the Stagunners to agree to send you to study under a master chef? Isn’t that rather expensive?” Nissa asked.
Annette hesitated before responding. “You know about Tristan, right?”
“Tristan Stagunner, Daschel’s older brother? No, I don’t really know anything about him.” Nissa stifled a big yawn brought on by the late hour. The chef’s story was getting interesting.
“The Matriarch found out about us and didn’t approve of our relationship. Tristan told her that if she dismissed me from service, he would leave with me. He said he would renounce his ties to the Stagunners. It shocked her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so surprised.”
“I can imagine,” Nissa murmured, not wanting to interrupt the story.
“Fortunately for us, the High Archon stepped in. We all agreed we did not want Tristan to ruin his future. The dear lad has the heart of a true romantic and couldn’t see reason.”
“So what happened?” Nissa asked.
“In exchange for breaking off the relationship with Tristan, the High Archon agreed to send me away to study under a master chef. We had hoped that time and distance would give my dear lad some perspective.”
“I saw you at the lawn party,” Nissa said, not sure if she wanted to ask the obvious question.
Annette pursed her full lips together, clearly unhappy.
“I’m sorry,” Nissa said, running a hand through her shaggy blond hair. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine with me.”
“No, it’s not you I’m upset with. It’s my wonderful, stubborn lad who held a candle for me these last three years. He just won’t see that I’m no good to him.” The dark-skinned lass sighed heavily.
“He seemed quite happy to see you had returned to the estate,” Nissa said. Giving the young chef a huge hug in front of everyone had been shocking, even to a disreputable lass like Nissa.
“Tristan is like a huge puppy, loveable but not very trainable. If he doesn’t give up on me, I’ll have to find a new position with another Highborn family. I hear the Auralae’s pastry chef is so old she can’t even manage to make meringues with her weak hands, never mind a soufflé.” Annette pushed the assembled pies into the oven and turned back to the table. “But I’d rather not have to leave the estate.”
Nissa nodded in understanding. She was facing some lad troubles of her own.
Again, this is my work-in-progress, so constructive feedback is greatly appreciated. Thanks!
And you can check out some of my previous writing excerpts about Nissa and the Dreamless City here if you are interested.