Nyles, Cova-Wrehn. Within Fort Ardok.
It was the eve of Orianne’s fiftieth birthday, and her grandson Cyril wanted to make it something special. It wasn’t every day that people made it to fifty! Grandfather Laurent only made it to forty-seven before he passed, the Lord bless him and protect his spirit. Caught the plague that swept through here.
Of course, Lady Peletier was not aware that her laundress’s birthday was today, which worked out in Cyril’s favor. Orianne would be busy helping Lady Peletier looking her best with clean clothes all afternoon, and the hound master, who was supposed to be teaching Cyril how to take care of the dogs, was bound to be sleeping off his drink for the better part of the morning, at the very least.
Cyril ran down into the kitchens, where Cook Ameline was elbow-deep in preparing the Lady’s lunch. “Good morning, wolf boy,” she said to him.
“Morning Cook Ameline!” He answered back. She was one of the nicest people in the whole fort. She even snuck him sweets from time to time. But Cyril turned suddenly bashful nonetheless; Grandmother Orianne said it wasn’t nice to demand things of people who were busy, and Cook Ameline definitely looked busy. “I was wondering…”
She didn’t stop kneading, but Ameline gave him a stern look and said, “Cat got your tongue, wolf boy?”
Father always told Cyril that asking and being told no was better than not asking and miss out on being told yes. So he puffed out his chest and said, “It’s Grandmother Orianne’s birthday today and I would very much like to make her a cake.”
“Oh you would, would you?” Cook Ameline said with a laugh. “Well, I’m a bit busy at the moment, but if you go fetch Miryam, she’ll show you a recipe and some leftover ingredients you can use.”
Cyril broke out in a wide grin and spun around to go search for the scullion.
“Cyril!” Cook Ameline called after him. He stopped in his tracks. “Don’t you mess with the ovens on your own, do you hear? When you are ready to cook it, you let me or Miryam kow, and we’ll do that part for you.”
“Yes, Cook Ameline,” he replied dutifully. Then off he ran, first to the washing station and then next to the pantry, where he found Miryam making a list of all the things they had in stock. “Hello, Miss Miryam!”
She jumped a little at the sound, then looked at him over her shoulder. She was almost ten years older than Cyril and nowhere near as nice as Cook Ameline. “What do you want, wolf boy?” Cyril didn’t like how she called him wolf boy; it felt like a joke between Cook and him, but with Miryam, it just sounded like an insult.
“Cook Ameline says to ask you for a cake recipe and for some spare ingreebaints to put in it.”
“Do you mean ingredients?”
“Yes!” Cyril said, remembering that was exactly how Cook Ameline had said it. “It’s my grandmother’s birthday, you know. I’m going to make her a cake.”
Miryam, to his surprise, snickered. “Like you’d actually be able to bake a decent cake.”
Cyril’s shoulders fell. Miryam was not nice at all. He would make the best cake in the world, though; he would prove her wrong.
“Come on, wolf boy,” she said with a shake of her head. “Let me show you what we have.
Cyril dutifully followed her, and the young woman skillfully rounded up some small bowls, kitchen utensils, and cooking supplies. She then departed, glaring at the boy on her way out, as if to say, you’d best not bother me anymore.
Of course, Cyril didn’t know how to read the recipe that Miryam left for him, but he had been taught his letters and could sound out some of the words. On a table not far away, Cook Ameline listened and watched, laughing quietly to herself as she worked on the final preparations for Lady Peletier’s lunch.
Cyril had seen Cook Ameline bake cakes before. In fact, he liked to watch her cook whenever he had the time. So he knew that eggs and butter and sugar were all very important to baking. He cracked two eggs just like Cook had shown him, wiping the splatter off his face and wincing at the small brown bit of shell that had fallen in with the yoke. Then he tossed some butter in and squished it down. It didn’t stir into the eggs the way he thought it would, but Cyril only shrugged and moved on to the next item on the list: sugar. That helped thicken up the mixture, certainly.
Then he saw the sack of flour and remembered all the sweets and breads that Cook Ameline had made. It was an important part of baking, but he had no idea how much to put in. Cyril stuck his finger into the flour, then licked the dust. His faced scrunched up at the taste; it did not taste good at all! He dumped a small handful in and then, just to be safe, dumped a little bit more. His cake batter was no longer gooey, but was instead mostly just a slimey, damp mixture of sugar and flour.
This was where things got interesting, because Miryam had given him a whole bunch of small packets of things that smelled quite good, like cinnamon and nutmeg that reminded him of that one special Christmas where Cook Ameline had given his family a dish that had been meant for Lady Peletier, until it burned just a little too much to be royal fare. He added a dash of some, and then a little bit of another, until the cake batter smelled heavenly. Then Cyril took his bowl and hurried over to Cook Ameline.
By the time the cake was finished, Cyril was more than impatient. It came out of the oven in all its lopsided glory, and the smell of cinnamon settled heavily on Cook’s kitchen. He was certain it would taste delicious. Grandmother Orianne would be thrilled.
With one last round of thank-yous, Cyril sprinted out of the kitchen. Down the hall shuffled the hounds master; if he saw the boy, Cyril would not be able to deliver the cake until later tonight. Or perhaps the hounds master would take it from him and eat it. He dodged the hounds master by slipping down another hall, taking a shortcut to the laundry rooms.
Grandmother Orianne was elbow-deep in hot water, scrubbing a pretty blue pair of divided skirts. She looked up from her work as Cyril came thundering in, and smiled at him. It was a rare smile, one that his sister never got to see, because she got a different, more common one. Then Grandmother Orianne saw the plate and its contents, and her eyebrow quirked up.
“What did you bring me, Cyril-loo?” She asked, the water crashing against the side of the basin as she rose and dried off her hands.
He presented her the cake and said, “Happy birthday, grandmother! Cook Ameline gave me some extra ingreebiants. Ingredients! And I made a cake all by myself! Well, she helped me with the oven, because she said I mustn’t go anywhere near that on my own, but I did the rest all by myself.”
“Cyril…” Grandmother Orianne began, not sounding nearly as please as he’d expected her to. She shook her head. “It was very kind of you to think of me, but you shouldn’t have wasted the cook’s time, or the Lady’s good ingredients. I mean, look at this cake. There’s a reason boys don’t belong in the kitchen, Cyril-loo.”
Cyril, suddenly crestfallen, found the plate to be very heavy. “Won’t you try it?”
She gave him a kind smile, although her next words didn’t feel like they quite matched her expression. “Perhaps it’s just best if you feed them to the dogs, don’t you think? They’re probably waiting for you anyway.”
Swallowing hard, Cyril nodded. Grandmother Orianne gave him a firm hug, but it only barely helped to keep his tears at bay. He left the laundry room and trudged through the fort until he came to the kennels, empty save for the dogs. He broke his lumpy cake up into pieces and tossed them through the bars, only hesitating when he got to the last little clump. It can’t taste that bad, Cyril thought determinedly, and tossed it bravely into his mouth.
The texture and taste, however, was nothing like anything Cook Ameline had ever made. Grandmother Orianne was right. There was no place in the kitchens for him. Even Miryam agreed.
The bits of cake disappeared quickly, so that when the hounds master returned, there was no evidence of the dogs’ special treat.