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Uprooted(7)
Naomi Novik

I took it up the stairs carefully, but too late I realized I didn’t know where the library was. If I’d thought about it a little, I might have reasoned out that it wouldn’t be on the lowest floor, and indeed it wasn’t, but I didn’t find that out until I’d wandered around carrying the tray through an enormous circular hall, the windows draped with curtains and a heavy throne-like chair at the end. There was another door at the far end, but when I opened that I found only the entry hall and the huge doors of the tower, three times the height of my head and barred with a thick slab of wood in iron brackets.

I turned and went back through the hall to the stairs, and up another landing, and here found the marble floor covered in soft furry cloth. I’d never seen a carpet before. That was why I hadn’t heard the Dragon’s footsteps. I crept anxiously down the hall, and peered through the first door. I backed out hastily: the room was full of long tables, strange bottles and bubbling potions and unnatural sparks in colors that came from no fireplace; I didn’t want to spend another moment inside there. But I managed to catch my dress in the door and tear it, even so.

Finally the next door, across the hall, opened on a room full of books: wooden shelves up and up from floor to ceiling crammed with them. It smelled of dust, and there were only a few narrow windows throwing light in. I was so glad to find the library that I didn’t notice at first that the Dragon was there: sitting in a heavy chair with a book laid out on a small table across his thighs, so large each page was the length of my forearm, and a great golden lock hanging from the open cover.

I froze staring at him, feeling betrayed by the advice in the book. I’d somehow assumed that the Dragon would conveniently keep out of the way until I’d had a chance to put down his meal. He hadn’t raised his head to look at me, but instead of just going quietly with the tray to the table in the center of the room, laying it out, and scurrying away, I hung in the doorway and said, “I’ve—I’ve brought dinner,” not wanting to go in unless he told me to.

“Really?” he said, cuttingly. “Without falling into a pit along the way? I’m astonished.” He only then looked up at me and frowned. “Or did you fall into a pit?”

I looked down at myself. My skirt had one enormous ugly stain, from the vomit—I’d wiped it off best as I could in the kitchen, but it hadn’t really come out—and another from where I’d blown my nose. There were three or four dripping stains from the stew, and some more spatters from the dish-pan where I’d wiped the pots. The hem was still muddy from this morning, and I’d torn a few other holes in it without even noticing. My mother had braided and coiled my hair that morning and pinned it up, but the coils had slid mostly down off my head and were now a big snarled knot of hair hanging half off my neck.

I hadn’t noticed; it wasn’t anything out of the usual for me, except that I was wearing a nice dress underneath the mess. “I was—I cooked, and I cleaned—” I tried to explain.

“The dirtiest thing in this tower is you,” he said—true, but unkind anyway. I flushed and with my head low went to the table. I laid everything out and looked it over, and then I realized sinkingly that with all the time I’d taken wandering around, everything had gone cold, except the butter, which was a softened runny mess in its dish. Even my lovely baked apple was all congealed.

I stared down at it in dismay, trying to decide what to do; should I take it all back down? Or maybe he wouldn’t mind? I turned to look and nearly yelped: he was standing directly behind me peering over my shoulder at the food. “I see why you were afraid I might roast you,” he said, leaning over to lift up a spoonful of the stew, breaking the layer of cooling fat on its top and dumping it back in. “You would make a better meal than this.”

“I’m not a splendid cook, but—” I started, meaning to explain that I wasn’t quite so terrible at it, I’d only not known my way, but he snorted, interrupting me.

“Is there anything you can do?” he asked, mockingly.

If only I’d been better trained to serve, if only I’d ever really thought I might be chosen and had been more ready for all of it; if only I’d been a little less miserable and tired, and if only I hadn’t felt a little proud of myself in the kitchen; if only he hadn’t just twitted me for being a rag, the way everyone who loved me did, but with malice instead of affection—if any of those things, and if only I hadn’t run into him on the stairs, and discovered that he wasn’t going to fling me into a fire, I would probably have just gone red, and run away.

Instead I flung the tray down on the table in a passion and cried, “Why did you take me, then? Why didn’t you take Kasia?”

I shut my mouth as soon as I’d said it, ashamed of myself and horrified. I was about to open my mouth and take it back in a rush, to tell him I was sorry, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean he should go take Kasia instead; I would go and make him another tray—

He said impatiently, “Who?”

I gaped at him. “Kasia!” I said. He only looked at me as though I was giving him more evidence of my idiocy, and I forgot my noble intentions in confusion. “You were going to take her! She’s—she’s clever, and brave, and a splendid cook, and—”

He was looking every moment more annoyed. “Yes,” he bit out, interrupting me, “I do recall the girl: neither horse-faced nor a slovenly mess, and I imagine would not be yammering at me this very minute: enough. You village girls are all tedious at the beginning, more or less, but you’re proving a truly remarkable paragon of incompetence.”

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