When the otherworldly visitors arrived, I had my hands full with their unusual needs: no salt, everything baked or boiled until it was pure–what did that mean?–and only cream to drink. While the rest of the castle whispered about their motives and admired every nuance of their behavior, I rushed about the kitchen, commander of an army of cooks and cutlery. I was as curious as the next person, but I had a job to do.
After a welcome feast of venison curry and roast peacock, I slumped in my chair by the servant’s courtyard and wished I could make myself move. Sticky summer air pressed down on my body, settling into the same places the heat of cook fires had blasted earlier. I thought about stripping, but it was too much effort to reach the ties.
“Are you all right, Verel?” a raspy baritone asked. “I heard bloodcurdling screams from the direction of the kitchen.”
I sat up sharply, feeling hot in a third, not entirely unpleasant way. Delin stood in the stone archway, outlined by the moonlight–lean, perfectly proportioned, a face like rock. We had been friends for years, and when I first realized I was attracted to him, I had stared at that face, hoping to remind myself of our friendship in the familiarity of hazel eyes. Then I discovered I enjoyed staring too much.
“If you wish to know if there was blood in the red velvet cake,” I said, “the answer is yes. How else do you think I achieved that color?”
Delin laughed. “That will put me off my dinner.”
“Tell me about the feast,” I said.
He dropped on the well-trod dirt of the courtyard, absently fingering a hoof print. “The best of the known world–especially from the kitchen,” he added with a nod to me. “But all the guests were tense, trying to be better than their natures.”
“And…?” I prodded.
“Our visitors are beautiful, but not in the way of anything human,” he said. The excitement came off him in waves. I basked in it as I listened. “Their speech is–sometimes I cannot be sure it is words at all, and we choose to hear the familiar. The king tried to get them to agree to an alliance,” he continued. “But they said we were primitive and crude, with our iron weapons and our deafness to the natural world.”
“That was rude of them,” I said.
“No–they’re right.” Delin sighed. “But there’s hope. They want to take a few people with them, to live in their cities, learn their ways, and bring that wisdom back.” He fidgeted as if he could hardly hold the thought in. “I want to be one of them.”
My heart took a step off the castle parapet. “But people abducted in the past were gone for decades,” I said. “They left and returned only when their friends had become old and grey-” when I was old and grey, I wanted to shout, “-and the world they knew had crumbled to dust.”
“But young,” Delin countered. “And still with all the possibilities in the world to pursue. And the chance to see their home realm!”
“You’re needed here,” I said. I wasn’t sure who perturbed me more: Delin or these mysterious visitors. The question of the unknown and the imagined–cities of glass, places where everyone flew on gossamer wings; powers that could cure any sickness–was as heady as the king’s anniversary wine… but I was sobered by the idea of how much one would leave behind. Delin, apparently, had no such concerns.
“Needed?” He shook his head. “I’m the junior healer, and there are plenty of young faces waiting to replace me. Anyhow, it’s not assured. They want to pick from a group of candidates.” He slid forward, catching my hands. “I want you to come stand with me, Verel. For support, and maybe…” He hesitated.
It was foolish, but the little catch in his voice turned everything the other way around. He wanted me with him, and a journey into the unknown with a good friend–never mind more–was less daunting, even conceivable. As long as they let me cook, and who knew what arcane ingredients and obscure techniques the visitors might use for their food?
“Of course I will,” I said. Meanwhile, a portion of my brain wondered how long I could hold onto him before he noticed. I waited until the last to free my hands.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll feel better with someone I can trust at my side. Not so inclined to run away, maybe.” His smile was sheepish.
He was trying to make a joke, but he was anxious. “I will be there for you,” I said firmly. “Even if you run.”
He laughed. “With a show of confidence like that, Verel,” he said. “What could go wrong?”