“Rose! That group come through this morning came back out!” Something woke Rose up just in time to hear Kent’s bellow. It was probably the front door clanging shut. The boy always let the springs snap it closed behind him. No matter how many times she told him that’s not what the springs were for, he still did it. It didn’t take her long to give up complaining about that. When it broke, he’d be the one fixing it. “Karen’s in a panic, get up already.”
“I’m awake.” She slipped her feet over the side and sighed as she stepped into her slippers. “Is it wet out or not?”
The young man appeared in the doorway, peering around the jamb like he expected to get in trouble for it. She made him keep his light brown hair cut short, so all she really saw in the dim light of the full moon was his forehead and the gleam of his hazel eyes. “Dry as a bone, but it’s cold.”
“Light me a candle so I don’t trip.” She remembered the ones that came through this morning. They looked like fops. No one in town would’ve guessed they’d survive the day. Brannen Pit wasn’t a kind place, and only the very serious and skilled usually made it back out in one piece.
Kent ducked back out of sight while she grabbed her beige flannel robe and threw it over her shoulders. It covered most of her white nightgown – just an inch or so stuck out at the bottom to cover her ankles – and would keep her warm enough. Hopefully. “There wasn’t any bread left over today, was there?”
Rubbing her eyes, Rose yawned and padded out of the room. A sudden flare followed by a gentle glow announced Kent had no trouble with the flint striker. She could never get the steel to scrape just right, but it always worked for him the first time. She was thankful her younger brother moved in with her a few months ago, it made everything so much easier to have a man around the house. Even if he was only just barely old enough to be considered one. If she told that to anyone, of course, tongues would wag about how she was well past the age where a girl out to be married, a subject she was well past wanting to hear about.
“I set out a loaf for Dee to make stuffing with tomorrow. It’ll be fine with stew, which is probably all Karen has to offer them anyway.” She grabbed her keys from their hook on the wall and took Kent’s arm, letting him guide her up the road in the frigid night. “Were they in good shape?”
“The survivors? I didn’t see them. Karen sent Terry.”
“Of course she did.” Karen’s little boy would eagerly jump at a chance to go running in the dark with an important
message for the town baker from the tavernkeeper. It’s not like her husband would do it. That lazy, good for nothing belly full of beer didn’t work a day in his life since he conned Karen into marrying him. All he did was count money and watch his wife and kids do his job.
It didn’t take long to get to her shop in the frigid night. ‘Rose’s Bakery’ wasn’t the most original name, but it got across the important information, and made sure everyone remembered it didn’t still belong to the dead man she took it over from four years ago. The small building with its carved wood sign stood between the tavern and the general store, sharing a wall with each.
They saved a lot of materials doing it that way. Back when the places were put up, that was a big deal. These days, it didn’t matter so much, but there was no point in tearing them down just to put them back up again different when nothing was wrong with the sturdy structures.
Rose unlocked the door and walked into her own shop to the sound of the four jingle bells hung on the back of the door. It smelled like it always did when nothing was baking: of flour and yeast and wood. She hurried inside, left the door – this one didn’t have a spring – for Kent to shut behind her, which he did by slamming it.
The shop part of the bakery was small. People didn’t come here to eat, they came to buy something and take it elsewhere. She crossed the space set aside for customers in just three steps and lifted the hinged countertop. Behind it were shelves to display what she had and a doorway leading into the kitchen. Her kitchen here was all brick oven, fire, work table, and shelves for ingredients. Aside from a basket full of it, wood for the fire was kept out back, in a lean-to. “Take this,” she tossed the loaf to Kent, “and tell her I’ll be over in a little bit with something to put on her fire for dessert.”
Kent bobbled the loaf a little then caught it and nodded. “Any idea what flavor? You know she’ll ask.”
He was right, she would. Her eyes went for the shelf with dozens of large jars full of fruit preserves and she shrugged. The first hard frost was only a few weeks ago, which meant she had a wide variety. “Whatever they want, so long as they decide now. Otherwise, tell me what’s in the stew and I’ll pick something.”
The boy knew better than to waste time saying anything else and disappeared quickly, slamming the door shut be
hind himself. Rose turned her attention to getting a mixing bowl and measuring cups and spoons. Her mind ran through her options, then ticked down the list of ingredients she had memorized for it. The butter and sugar went in first, getting creamed together by her hand crank beater. No one else in town had one of these beater doodads, it was one of her ‘secrets’ for the pastries everyone in town loved.
The door was thrown open and slammed shut just as she was finishing up mixing the flour in. “Karen told them she’d scrape up whatever she could find, so they’re not ordering.” Kent hurried back to the kitchen, jumping up and down a little to shed the chill from his shoulders. “The stew is pretty boring. Pigeon and vegetables. I couldn’t even tell what herbs she used from a little taste. Barely any salt, either.”
“Something bold and brassy, then.” Rose glanced up at her jars even though she knew exactly what was there. “Ginger and…oh, let’s go with lemon. Get the root first.”
Kent hopped to the task, going for one of her bins. It held a few different roots from her own garden, and he already knew which was which. She still double-checked to be on the safe side before cutting the peel off and grating it into the bowl. “You want the lemon jelly, or should I get an actual lemon?”
“How many lemons do we have?”
Kent found the bin and ducked down. It took him as long to count them as it did for her to finish with the root. “There’s ten.” He held a shriveled one up. “Don’t know how much longer this one’ll be worth keeping.”
“I’ll use that, then.” She caught the fruit he tossed to her. “Did you see them this time?” Using the same grater, she zested the rind.
“Yeah, I took a quick look.” He walked to her and leaned casually against the work table. “They were in good shape. Didn’t see much dried blood or even a lot of dirt. Might’ve cleaned up before coming to eat, though.”
“Knife, boy, I need a knife.” She smirked at the look on his face as he turned to get one, like she just caught him sampling cookies. “And the juicer. Anything else about them?” Everyone was going to be talking about them come morning. All she really wanted was to not be taken by surprise by the basic gossip.
“Three men and one woman.” Kent set the knife down beside her and the juicer next to it. “The woman is really pretty and the men… Two of them are good looking, rugged and square jawed and all that. The third one…” He shrugged and leaned against the counter again. “He’s kind of ugly, actually. Can’t say why exactly, he just is. Must be really good at whatever he does. Looked kinda muscular, so maybe his nose was just broken a few times or something.”
“Mmmm.” The ladies would be all aflutter over the other two men, and the woman would have plenty of attention. Their father would probably even offer his services to her. That third man, though, would be largely ignored. “I’ll take all this over and bake it there. You carry the candle for me.” There was no point ordering him back to bed. The second she got back, he’d pester her endlessly with questions about the strangers and never get back to sleep.
Her hands worked swiftly, rolling the dough between her hands and shaping it artfully on her smallest baking stone. Just because they were getting hasty work didn’t mean they wouldn’t get a stellar presentation. Besides, it was always best to make a good first impression. Kent got thedoor for her as they went out the back and into the back o the tavern. No one was in sight, but the hearth fire was going. She grabbed a rack and stuck it over the fire, then set the stone on top of it. In about fifteen minutes, there would be dessert.
“Get some cream, we’ll dress them up properly.” Things like this happened from time to time, and Rose knew Karen’s kitchen almost as well as she knew her own. While Kent went hunting for cream, a bowl, and a whisk, Rose found plates. By the time Karen flew through her swinging kitchen doors, The cream was almost whipped enough.
“Oh, thank goodness.” Karen dumped a tray full of dirty dishes into her wash basin. She kept her voice down enough so the customers wouldn’t hear it over the light music plucked out by the town’s one and only musician. “Is it almost ready?”
Rose smiled at the exasperated panic in Karen’s voice and on her face. Without having to peer over and take a look, she answered, “A few more minutes.”
“One of the men grabbed my ass a total of five times already. I’m so glad the kids aren’t out there.”
Karen crossed her arms and flicked her head to toss her light brown bangs out of her eyes. After a long dinner hour in this kind of cold, she must have been cleaning up when these people came in. No one would be out for a drink tonight, it was too cold for the walk back home after. The rest of her hair was under a red kerchief. “The one with the green cloak hanging on his chair. Man must think a pretty face means he can do whatever he wants. They can just stew with their liquor until dessert is ready, I think.”
“I’ll go take them something if you like,” Kent offered.
“No, don’t bother. Gavin has them entertained well enough.” Karen fished her personal bottle of brandy from the back of a cupboard and splashed a little into a cup. If she didn’t hide it, her husband would drain it in one sitting. Karen, on the other hand, only had a little at a time, and only when she was stressed or angry. It took her edges off. “But you can take a pitcher out and refill their drinks if you just want to get a look at them.”
Kent jumped at the chance and ran out with a pitcher of water clutched firmly in his hands. Rose chuckled as the doors swung shut again. “You’d think he never saw strangers before.”
Karen took a sip of her brandy and grinned. “Can’t blame him for being interested in people who manage not to die in the Pit.”
“No, I suppose not.” Rose set the bowl of cream down, it was light and fluffy now. Reaching over, she poked one of the overglorified biscuits and was pleased by how it sprang back. “He already said the woman was pretty, though. And he’s seventeen. If she’s of a mind to, she’ll charm his pants right off.”
“And?” Karen drained the rest of her brandy and set the cup in the wash basin. She fished a metal spatula out of a drawer and brought it over to the fire.
Before Karen could do anything, Rose plucked the spatula out of her hands. “And I don’t want him getting hurt. He’s my responsibility.” She waved the utensil to shoo Karen away. “I’ll handle it, I want to see them up close.”
Karen laughed. “Watch out, or they’ll charm your nightgown right off.”
Rolling her eyes and sticking out her tongue, Rose carefully scraped the biscuits off the stone and onto the plates. Each one got a dollop of the cream and was placed on a tray Karen provided, then she walked them out, not caring in the slightest she wasn’t properly dressed for this. These people would be celebrities in the morning, and she wanted to see them for herself before Dee or Ada or Bree tried to tell her their little stories. Everyone would make up some juicy tidbit just to have something to talk about.
Like Kent said, three of them were easy on the eyes. The fourth just wasn’t. Kent was right, something about his face was just off. The rest of him was in fine form, though, all bulging with muscle and straining against his chainmail armor. They must have just come in without going up to their rooms first, because they had packs on the floor and weapons in plain sight. One of the other men wore metal armor, too, a kind of plate he could move about and sit in without difficulty. The other two wore well fitting leathers. In her experience, men in armor swung swords. Anyone else either was good with his hands, used a bow, or was a mage.
She politely set a plate in front of the woman first. Her long hair was all tied up in thin braids circling her head like a tiara. “And what’s this?” The woman smiled politely at her without obviously eyeing up her robe. “It certainly looks delightful.”
“These are lemon roses, m’lady. If you’re interested in anything that comes out of an oven before your foray on the morrow, my shop is next door. I carry a variety of breads and pastries, made fresh every day by dawn.”
The handsome man with the green cloak over his chair (the one in leathers) grinned at her, his eyes flicking upwards from what she assumed was the region of her bottom when she turned to set the next plate down in front of him. “Dawn is fairly late this time of year. We’ll want to be off before then.”
“Of course you will.” She didn’t pause to let him sample any of her goods. All she was willing to offer was the pastries. He still smacked her lightly in the butt. She stumbled a little, but decided to ignore it. “Everything doesn’t magically spring out of the oven at once, m’lord. I’ll have something, at the least, whenever you’re ready to be off.”
The one in the plate armor leered at her when he probably thought she wasn’t looking. The ugly one just smiled and said “Thank you” when she set down his plate.
The woman made a little moan as she chewed her first bite. “Damn, this is good. After that slop of a meal, this is brilliant.”
“Thank you for the compliment.” Rose tried to lure Kent’s eye away from the woman. The boy stood by the bard, leaning against the wall and gazing dreamily. “Just so you know, this is the only place in town to rent rooms from.” Since he didn’t acknowledge her, she dipped into a shallow curtsey and walked over to where Kent was. “Have a good night, lady and gentlemen.”
Gripping his ear, Rose pulled Kent away form the wall and marched him back into the kitchen. “Slop, indeed. What a bunch of asses. Kent, don’t you go getting friendly with them. They might make it a few days, even a week, but they all get swallowed up in the end.”
Kent rubbed his ear and looked at the floor, probably more to avoid meeting Karen’s eyes than out of real shame. “Yes, ma’am. She’s really pretty, though.”
Karen snorted. “Makes her fine to look at and nothing else. Good thing I didn’t tell them the room charge yet. I can still double it.”
“Come on, boy.” Rose picked up the already snuffed candle and took Kent’s arm, herding him towards the door. “Tomorrow morning’s going to come early after this ruckus.”