Raicha stood on the terrace and stared at the crocodile. It was a gift from Kanjire. Apparently Kanjirians considered ill-tempered predators an appropriate gift for foreign royalty. Crocodiles were the symbolic guardians of their royal family, fine. Still. It was fifteen feet long and had made a spirited attempt to kill the men who had unloaded it; Camilia had been extremely impolite privately about the need to find somewhere to put the damn thing. It was also, very clearly, a statement about the relative fitness of the ruling families of Kanjire and Tacar. Tamedijl, who had been Kanjirian royalty before her marriage, had looked smug all day.
It’s time for this month’s blog round with Let’s Lunch! I’m happy to be back after a couple of months of kitchen catastrophes and life crises, and just in time to celebrate the release of The Marijuana Chronicles, the brand new anthology including a short story by Let’s Lunch’s own Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan!
Despite the fact that I went to plenty of parties during college, I managed to never lay eyes or nose on marijuana at any of them, so my experience with munchies is limited entirely to the eternal non-chemical allure of a good French fry. (I would say that the lack of non-alcoholic recreation was because we were all so law-abiding but I suspect it was largely because we also took ourselves way too seriously.)
I do, however, feel totally confident in recommending scallion pancakes for anyone feeling the urge for a little snack. Hot out of the pan, they’re crisp, salty, and entirely delicious. I use Martin Yan’s recipe because a) Martin Yan’s good cheer and enthusiasm for cooking never fail to delight me, and b) it’s a damn good recipe. I have made these many times for parties, and they always get eaten down to the last crispy triangle. Always.
Camilia gave a gurgling laugh at the sally and laid a hand on the Lord Magistrate’s shoulder. She saw him appreciatively following the line of her neck and long bare arm and smiled. He had known her father too well to be genuinely swayed by her femininity, but she found that very few men actually minded being charmed by the Empress. She crinkled her eyes at him in parting, and turned away to find the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
He was standing on the balcony, the last echoes of sunset on his face. He was, as ever, slim, tall, and elegantly dressed, the note-perfect performance of a man who had been at court since long before she’d been born. He had been appointed to his position by her grandfather and had not been young then, but of course that was nothing for the Tevalle.
He sat on a stump in the village square, leaning on his knees and turning his face up to the sun. It was finally warm, and he felt a smile blooming. The interminable northern winter felt like a crushing blow every year, but he could never remember being more grateful for spring.
A delighted shriek pierced the air. A dark-haired toddler was staggering after a fluttering scrap of yellow just out of her reach, waving her chubby arms and babbling as she went. She had managed to take off her shoes, he noticed ruefully, and her feet and legs were coated with mud. He levered himself up and went to the rescue.
They sailed down the main corridor talking about the class schedule. As always, James let Lise set the pace, trailing just slightly behind despite the difference in height. Lise stopped dead as a teenager wearing glittery lip gloss reeled past, juggling a bubble full of barely-contained flame between her hands.
“Hey!” Lise bellowed. “Get that out of the hallway.” She stabbed a finger at the door of a workroom. The student giggled, God help her, and stumbled through the door, the flame surging dangerously as she went. Lise pulled the door shut behind her emphatically.
“After all, Vahl is almost five, and planning a naming ceremony takes time.” Dahla gestured elegantly with a piece of candied fruit before popping it into her mouth.
Cahlila, expression unchanged, took a sip of wine. A sitting room full of her husband’s other wives might be hell, but it was a form of hell she was accustomed to. She was mildly surprised by Dahla’s latest move, although she shouldn’t have been. A naming ceremony, to designate Dahla’s son as the Emperor’s heir. Of course she was pushing for one, indecently early. Dahla was that sure she’d won. He should have married Dahla first.
She was waiting when he wandered in, stupidly lost. The trees here all seemed taller than they should have been; he was hot, tired, and he couldn’t imagine how it could be taking him so long to find his way out. And then, in the clearing, an incongruous sight: a dark-haired woman sitting on a great rock with her knees drawn up, the green light of the leaves on her face. He drew up, startled. It was his kingdom, it was all his, but she looked at him with a detached curiosity, like a piece of interesting mold on a rock she had just turned over.
“So you finally came.” Her voice, light and clear, took him off guard after the hour of wandering and shouting for his men. He opened his mouth, but then she gave a smile that struck him dumb. “Do you know where you are?” He scowled. Lost. He was idiotically lost on his own lands, a ridiculous indignity for a man like him.
It was an understood fact that no matter how many lessons and social commitments Raicha had to juggle, she was mysteriously available for anything Camilia invited her to do. They had no illusions; it had nothing to do with Raicha’s personal preferences and everything to do with encouraging the Emperor’s heir to remember that she was an Ameru on her mother’s side.
It worked for everyone, especially the girls, but they tried not to be too obvious about their exploitation of it. There were only so many painful teas with Aunt Chenna that could be coincidentally preempted by shopping emergencies before Looks started being passed around and someone got sat down and stared at by Raicha’s grandfather or Lady Cahlila. Nobody wanted that.
“What are you missing this time?” Camilia was curled on a silk sofa with her feet under her.
Her feet carried her slowly, unwillingly, down the forest path. A hush had fallen, and the gentle clatter of branches and the quiet squeak of the fresh snow under her boots were the only sounds she could hear. The wolf was pacing her out at the edges of sight, no more than a grey whisper among the grey trees. It wouldn’t come any closer, not yet, but she could feel it waiting.
She pulled the crimson cloak closer around her against a cold she barely felt. It had been a gift from her grandmother, a token of an affection that now made her skin crawl. Under the sun, the cloak flamed, impossible to miss. Here, under the trees at the last tail of dusk, it faded to the color of old blood, melting into the dark as if it belonged there. The obscurity was strangely comforting.
Worn-out shoes. That’s what it came down to. He was risking his life for worn-out shoes. He shifted back on his heels in the mud, and raised his fingers to the place where a thorn had torn a sticky gash in his neck. He’d had far worse, but it was all of a piece with this whole night.
The thing had stank from the beginning. Find the secret in three nights or be put to death? What sort of offer was that? But the king was a father and fathers got desperate. He hadn’t been far from desperate himself — out of a job, out of money, about to exhaust his options. No one seemed to want his nicked and battered sword or equally battered self.