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Naomi Novik

I was so surprised myself that I didn’t move, just stayed there gawking at him helplessly, and he recovered quick; outrage swept over his face and he heaved me off him onto my feet. Then I realized what I’d just done and blurted in a panic, before he could speak, “I’m looking for the kitchen!”

“Are you,” he said silkily. His face didn’t look at all soft anymore, hard and furious, and he hadn’t let go of my arm. His grip was clenching, painful; I could feel the heat of it through the sleeve of my shift. He jerked me towards him and bent towards me—I think he would have liked to loom over me, and because he couldn’t was even more angry. If I’d had a moment to think about it, I would have bent back and made myself smaller, but I was too tired and scared. So instead his face was just before mine, so close his breath was on my lips and I felt as much as heard his cold, vicious whisper: “Perhaps I’d better show you there.”

“I can—I can—” I tried to say, trembling, trying to lean back from him. He spun away from me and dragged me after him down the stairs, around and around and around again, five turns this time before we came to the next landing, and then another three turns down, the light growing dimmer, before at last he dragged me out into the lowest floor of the tower, just a single large bare-walled dungeon chamber of carven stone, with a huge fireplace shaped like a downturned mouth, full of flames leaping hellishly.

He dragged me towards it, and in a moment of blind terror I realized he meant to throw me in. He was so strong, much stronger than he ought to have been for his size, and he’d pulled me easily stumbling down the stairs after him. But I wasn’t going to let him put me in the fire. I wasn’t a lady-like quiet girl; all my life I’d spent running in the woods, climbing trees and tearing through brambles, and panic gave me real strength. I screamed as he pulled me close to it, and then I went into a fit of struggling and clawing and squirming, so this time I really did trip him to the floor.

I went down with him. We banged our heads on the flagstones together, and dazed lay still for a moment with our limbs entwined. The fire was leaping and crackling beside us, and as my panic faded, abruptly I noticed that in the wall beside it were small iron oven doors, and before it a spit for roasting, and above it a huge wide shelf with cooking-pots on it. It was only the kitchen.

After a moment, he said, in almost marveling tones, “Are you deranged?”

“I thought you were going to throw me in the oven,” I said, still dazed, and then I started to laugh.

It wasn’t real laughter—I was half-hysterical by then, wrung out six ways and hungry, my ankles and knees bruised from being dragged down the stairs and my head aching as though I’d cracked my skull, and I just couldn’t stop.

But he didn’t know that. All he knew was the stupid village girl he’d picked was laughing at him, the Dragon, the greatest wizard of the kingdom and her lord and master. I don’t think anyone had laughed at him in a hundred years, by then. He pushed himself up, kicking his legs free from mine, and getting to his feet stared down at me, outraged as a cat. I only laughed harder, and then he turned abruptly and left me there laughing on the floor, as though he couldn’t think what else to do with me.

After he left, my giggles tapered off, and I felt somehow a little less hollow and afraid. He hadn’t thrown me into the oven, after all, or even slapped me. I got myself up and looked around the room: it was hard to see, because the fireplace was so bright and there were no other lights lit, but when I kept my back to the flames I could start to make out the huge room: divided after all, into alcoves and with low walls, with racks full of shining glass bottles—wine, I realized. My uncle had brought a bottle once to my grandmother’s house, for Midwinter.

There were stores all over: barrels of apples packed in straw, potatoes and carrots and parsnips in sacks, long ropes of onions braided. On a table in the middle of the room I found a book standing with an unlit candle and an inkstand and a quill, and when I opened it I found a ledger with records of all the stores, written in a strong hand. At the bottom of the first page there was a note written very small; when I lit the candle and bent down to squint I could just make it out:

Breakfast at eight, dinner at one, supper at seven. Leave the meal laid in the library, five minutes before, and you need not see him—no need to say who—all the day. Courage!

Priceless advice, and that Courage! was like the touch of a friend’s hand. I hugged the book against me, feeling less alone than I had all day. It seemed near midday, and the Dragon hadn’t eaten at our village, so I set about dinner. I was no great cook, but my mother had kept me at it until I could put together a meal, and I did do all the gathering for my family, so I knew how to tell the fresh from the rotten, and when a piece of fruit would be sweet. I’d never had so many stores to work with: there were even drawers of spices that smelled like Midwinter cake, and a whole barrel full of fresh soft grey salt.

At the end of the room there was a strangely cold place, where I found meat hanging up: a whole venison and two great hares; there was a box of straw full of eggs. There was a fresh loaf of bread already baked wrapped in a woven cloth on the hearth, and next to it I discovered a whole pot of rabbit and buckwheat and small peas all together. I tasted it: like something for a feast day, so salty and a little sweet, and meltingly tender; another gift from the anonymous hand in the book.

I didn’t know how to make food like that at all, and I quailed thinking that the Dragon would expect it. But I was desperately grateful to have the pot ready nonetheless. I put it back on the shelf above the fire to warm—I splashed my dress a little as I did—and I put two eggs in a dish in the oven to bake, and found a tray and a bowl and a plate and a spoon. When the rabbit was ready, I set it out on the tray and cut the bread—I had to cut it, because I had torn off the end of the loaf and eaten it myself while I waited for the rabbit to heat up—and put out butter. I even baked an apple, with the spices: my mother had taught me to do that for our Sunday supper in winter, and there were so many ovens I could do that at the same time as everything else cooked. I even felt a little proud of myself, when everything was assembled on the tray together: it looked like a holiday, though a strange one, with just enough for one man.

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