Putting the Note on the Tray
Wishing she had said, “No” yesterday, Anya stood outside the door to Gevin’s house and stared at it. She couldn’t go in. Oh, she had every intention of walking right across that street, knocking on that door, and walking right on in, but now... Now, all her intentions were completely forgotten. Would she have to dance with Gevin? Would she ever hear the end of it if she did? She was about to turn around and forget the Ball altogether when Gevin opened the door and jumped back in surprise.
“Hey,” he said. Gevin looked like he had swallowed a live fish, which is a pretty good description of how she felt right about now too. “Mom sent me to come get you.”
Too late to back out now. She went inside.
Ms. Lancaster welcomed her with a warm smile. “Hi, Anya. I wasn’t sure if you were going to show up or not.”
With her hands in her back pockets, Anya glanced over at Gevin. He focused his gaze on the floor and held his hands in his front pockets. She smiled stiffly at his mom.
“I’ve sent Brent over to a friend’s house, so there won’t be any interruptions. I’ve asked Gevin to help us tonight. He’s going to be your partner.”
Oh. Goody. She nodded again.
“Since it’s your first year, no one is going to expect you to do anything amazing. So, don’t be nervous. We’ll start with a simple one that everyone knows. OK?”
No. “OK.” Anya stared at Gevin in a frozen state of fear and shock. Gevin just kept looking at that floor.
“Gevin, honey? Are you ready?”
He raised up his head and nodded slightly.
“Good. Now this one is called the Common Man’s dance. The girls stay on the outside, and the boys stay in the middle. Everyone forms a giant circle. Sometimes there are more circles inside the big one, but don’t worry about that right now. Just follow along with everyone else, and you’ll be fine. Now, Gevin, put your right hand on her waist, and hold her right hand with your left one.”
Gevin fumbled around, obviously uncomfortable with touching her, until his right hand was holding steady next to her waist, his left hand was strangling her fingers, and his eyes were glued to the ceiling. Anya stared straight ahead at the mantle, oblivious to her fingers’ cry for mercy. Her hands were sweating, and her lungs and brain weren’t being cordial to each other.
“Now, Anya. Put your left hand on his shoulder, and both of you raise these hands up.” Ms. Lancaster raised their conjoined hands up as she spoke.
Tiny sweat beads were beginning to pop out onto Gevin’s upper lip.
“Gevin, follow Anya. Anya, step right, together, right together.” Anya took her steps without trouble. Gevin followed along nicely. “Left, together, left, together.” Anya started to feel better. Her breath came almost normally, and she began to think this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
They practiced those two moves a few times. Then Ms. Lancaster said, “Now, Anya, you’re going to twirl.”
Gevin snickered. Anya kicked him. He snickered more loudly.
“Gevin, raise your left arm up. And Anya, you spin under it and come back to him just like before.” Ms. Lancaster guided them through it. “You’re going to spin the other way now. That’s right, under his arm again.
“Now we go step, scuff, step, scuff. No, this way, honey. Yes, there we go! Step, scuff, step, scuff. Four steps back.” The table behind Anya made a loud noise as she fell over it. “That’s OK. That’s OK. Clap, four steps forward, and you’re done!”
According to Ms. Lancaster’s face, they could enter a dancing tournament that very night. Gevin, however, resembled a laughter volcano about to erupt.
His mother continued, “When you come back, you’ll switch partners and dance with a new person.”
“WHAT?” Gevin was no longer laughing.
“That way every time you do this dance, you’ll wind up with someone different. It lets you mingle.” She did a kind of twist and shake with the word, “mingle.”
Gevin dropped Anya’s hands and stepped back. “Oh no! No! Dancing with strangers? There is no way I’m dancing with some wackadoo I don’t even know. What if they smell?”
Anya glared at him. “Like what, a gardenia blossom? Because that’s the only thing I can think of on the opposite end of the odor spectrum as horse manure!”
Gevin took in a deep breath to yell back a retort but was interrupted by his mother. “Now, Gevin, it’s OK. Remember, everyone’s had a first Ball. And everyone’s had a first dance. I’m sure you’ll be too busy having fun to notice anyone’s … smell. Now, practice makes perfect, so off you two go again.”
Gevin turned to Anya. “Try not to knock over any more furniture, OK, Ahnny? Ow!”
They continued to dance on their own for a while, and they were starting to get the hang of it. Either that or Gevin’s feet were so numb he didn’t notice it when she stepped on them anymore. Both were smiling and having fun with it all until Gevin’s mother brought out his attire for the Ball.
They stopped dancing when he looked over and saw what his mother was holding up. “I’m not wearing that!”
“There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s what all the men wear to the Ball.”
“Yes this! It was Clay’s.” She started to tear up.
Gevin shuffled about and muttered, “Fine, Mom. I’m sorry.” He took the attire and dragged it behind him as he slumped over behind a sheet she had hung up while they were dancing.
His mother watched the sheet with her tear-filled eyes. “I know Clay’s been pronounced dead, and that I should move on with my life. But I know in my heart he’s not. He should be going to the Ball! He should be teaching Gevin to be a squire now!”
Anya felt very awkward. She didn’t know what to do or say. Some people wanted sympathy. Some people wanted to be left alone. And some people wanted you to lie to them so they can continue to live in their world of denial. She didn’t know which type of person Ms. Lancaster was, so she just did her best to look sympathetic while nodding her head.
Gevin came out from behind the sheet, looking positively murderous. Anya brought tears to her own eyes by biting her hand to try and hold in the giggles. He wore a midnight blue jacket with black trim that tapered down to his waist and then flared out to his knees. The cuffs of the white undershirt folded back over the ends of the flared sleeves. The wide legs of his black pants fell all the way to his ankles, where they too flared.
Ms. Lancaster had a completely different opinion than either one of them. She threw her hands together and exclaimed, “Oh! It’s beautiful!” Fresh tears of joy gushed out, overtaking the previous ones of sadness. Gevin’s face took on a whole new meaning of horror. Ms. Lancaster stood up and flaunted over her son in the attire that, unfortunately for him, fit perfectly. “You’ll be the most handsome man there!”
After she dried her tears, and had a small debate with her son, she made him dance with Anya a bit more to get used to doing it in his Ball clothes. By the time Anya went home, she didn’t feel sorry for herself anymore. She felt quite confident, actually. She felt so confident, in fact, she went ahead and made plans to tell Taika about how she won’t be working during Ball week before she could find another way to chicken out of it.
When Anya approached Taika about her work schedule, she made sure she had Gevin with her for support. But even Taika agreed being seen in the kitchen on Anya’s day off would be too dangerous. So they opted to move the strategy ahead to a time less risky for Anya.
Still not happy about executing the whole ordeal, Anya wanted to put it off as much as possible. However, the Ball was quickly approaching, and if she wanted to put Taika’s scheme into action before Avaline became her new neighbor, she had to work fast. She added an inside pocket to her uniform and kept the letter hidden within it. She knew trays went up to the royal family for meals, especially breakfast. There was just one problem. Canis was the one who took them.
About the time Anya was discovering the dilemma her work schedule was going to cause, Canis had finally gotten in good enough with the royal maids to start delivering some of the food trays upstairs. Although this gave Anya relief in the absence of Canis, it caused a bump in their exploit. Getting a note on one of those trays was one thing. Getting one on the right tray and past Canis, well that was just impossible.
“I got to deliver the breakfast tray to the Queen herself. She said she was so impressed with me, that she wants me to be her personal Tray Maid from now on!” Ah, midmorning. Just in time for Canis’s daily boasting session for anyone close enough to be cursed to hear it. The kitchen was slow at the moment, so that meant pretty much everybody.
“I got to see what the Queen’s wearing to the Ball!” A few of the workers started to genuinely listen with this announcement. “It’s a laundress’s uniform.” Several gasps and awes could be heard amidst the kitchen staff.
Anya may not have paid attention in history class, and she may not have opened that dreaded book Taika gave her to read, King Reggie Cide and the End of Tyranny; but through several different conversations with several different people she had finally learned the original purpose of the Ball.
At over 200 years old, the tradition of the annual Ball was even older than the spoonpole tournament. The official name for it was the Annual Ball of Cupola, but most people called it the Celebration of the Monarch’s Survival. What the monarch had actually survived was up for debate.
Some of the stories told of a King that defeated a giant monster single handedly, keeping it from destroying Cupola. Others described a plague that wiped out nearly everyone, and the King at the time survived it. But the one legend Anya found the most interesting involved a Queen and her banishment of an internal assassin.
About 50 years after some monarch survived something, there was a tyrannical King, King Reggie Cide the First. After he was … removed from office, his cousin took the crown. A kind and generous man, King Cyrus the Second, decided to start dressing and acting like a regular Cupolian on Ball day, communing with them on the dance floor and everything. Everyone’s story agreed on this part, and this is what the Ball is celebrated and remembered for now. Held the day prior to the spoonpole tournament, the annual Ball now gives the commoners a chance to see the ruling monarch as someone without supreme power. It also allows the monarch of the time to step-down and blend in with the crowd.
Anya wasn’t real sure how blended Queen Pernicity would be in a laundress’s costume if everyone else was dressed all fancy like for a Ball; but seeing as how this was her first one, she assumed it to be like everything else she would understand as she got older. And that’s when Anya froze mid-dish. The Ball dress. She had forgotten all about that. How could she possibly wear her mother’s clothing? They were nowhere near each other’s sizes, especially in certain areas that hadn’t come in yet.
Canis’s annoying voice interrupted her thoughts. “I get to deliver another tray to the Queen for lunch. I’m so glad I don’t have to stay down here in the hot kitchen with my hands inside nasty, smelly dishwater. I guess that’s why they let those who are used to that smell at home do those kinds of jobs.”
As usual, Cook was nowhere to be seen during Canis’s loud, hateful remark. Anya boiled inside. She knew Canis was only trying to make her upset, and the comment itself wasn’t all that upsetting. It was the person making it that angered her so much. She breathed in and out slowly, willing the calm to engulf her and remove the anger. She had to concentrate on more important things than dress sizes or bullies, like getting that note on the Queen’s tray. And this unexpected lunch delivery might just be the moment.
The tray for the Queen currently sat on the counter by the ovens. And Canis stood busy bragging to more of the kitchen staff. Anya quickly rinsed and dried her hands and walked over to the ovens. She checked on the first stove, making sure it was still going strong, something she would normally be doing right about now anyway. She bent over the fire door, cautiously peeked over her shoulders, and reached inside her hidden pocket to retrieve Taika’s letter to Queen Pernicity. When she was sure no one was watching, she closed the fire door of the oven with more noise than necessary and slipped the note under the lid on the Queen’s plate. She knew her face had to be blood red, she could feel the heat. She could also feel the hammering of her terrified heart in her chest, but she forced herself to act like nothing had happened, like she had never been anywhere near that tray.
She checked on the other fire, all the while having to force herself not to keep checking over her shoulder. Finally she went back to her sink, face still pulsing from the fear of getting caught. She hoped to pass it off as red from the heat of the flames she had just checked on. So far so good. Her hands, now shaking from adrenaline, dove back into the dishwater. She kept her head down and tried to breathe normally, all the while waiting for someone to call out her name with what she had done.
With her hateful nose in the air, Canis took the tray up the stairs to its recipient. Anya finished the dishes and leaned against the sink, biting her nails. She tried pacing, but since the kitchen stayed so crowded, she wound up turning in circles. Finally, she resolved to going outside and sitting in the shade to watch the chickens until time to start the next batch.
And that’s when she heard it. “Guards! GUARDS!! Bring me that Tray Maid! NOW!”
Anya stood to better listen to the Queen’s words. They were coming from an open window directly above the kitchen. If she had known her window was right there, she could have gotten the letter to her easily without all of this sneaking around. She was just kicking the dirt in frustration when the entire kitchen staff came outside to listen as well.
“What is your name, Tray Maid?” They had to strain to hear the Queen, now that her voice had lowered.
A sickening sweet voice saved only for those in power answered her, “Canis, your Majesty. Canis Ribsdeg.”
“Well, Tray Maid Canis, what is the meaning of this?”
Canis’s subservient smile could be heard through her placating voice. “To what are you referring, if it pleases Your Highness, so that I may assist you better?” Anya started breathing heavy and lost sense of where she was. She quickly tried to remember every word in the letter Taika had gone over again and again to ensure their anonymity.
Dear Honorable Queen of Cupola,
The Queen was not taken in with Canis’s false assuages. “This letter, girl. This letter addressed to me mentioning a threat to my queendom!”
We fear there may be a threat to Cupola and yourself, our Highness.
“Oh no, your Majesty! I would never threaten you or the queendom! I am a loyal servant of Cupola.” Canis had lost her sweet side and was now pleading.
We have discovered the evil witch Avaline, and fear she may be able to attack Cupola soon.
The kitchen servants could hear no more. The Queen had dropped her voice to a threateningly low level. Everyone but Anya, who strained to hear more, went inside to finish their lunch. After a few more moments of disappointing silence, Anya went back to her sink and tried to drown her anxiety in the dishwater.
A wee bit later, Canis came down, angry and crying. Cook went over to her. Anya used the premise of checking on the fire to listen in.
“But what happened, Canis?” consoled Cook.
Canis’s hateful demeanor returned. “There was a letter under the cover of the dish. It threatened the Queen and all of Cupola. When I couldn’t tell her how it got there, she said I wasn’t fit to be a Tray Maid. I’m never allowed to be above stairs again!”
Cook lowered her voice to a whisper. Anya ducked low and remained silent. “Canis! That’s treason! You could’ve been hung! What did you tell her?”
Canis calmed down enough to enter plotting mode with the Cook. “I told her I had no idea where it came from. I said the tray had been in the kitchen the whole time. Then she got more furious with me about some ‘Field’.”
The magical dampening Field is losing its power.
Canis nodded. “Yeah. Kept asking me how I knew about ‘the Field’ and who else knew. And how we knew it was shrinking.”
It is shrinking.
“What’s she talking about? The fields are shrinking.”
“That’s what I asked her. Told her I had no idea what Field she was talking about unless it was in the gardens. That’s when she sent me away.”
The witch Avaline knows this, and is planning her attack accordingly. Please, your Highness, you must act quickly.
Cook’s face turned white, and she repeatedly clapped her hands together under her nose. “Oooohhhh, she’s gonna find someone to blame for this.”
Anya crept back to her sink. Tears started to well up in her eyes. She knew what was coming.
Anya could feel Cook’s glare boring holes into the back of her head. She turned around to face her accusers.
“How dare you do such a thing! That could have gotten Canis hung! Since you seem to think this job is nothing but a playground for evil tricks, you can lose that week’s pay we talked about before!”
Even if Anya had been as innocent as all the other times, it wouldn’t have mattered. She was guilty no matter what. Cook needed a scapegoat to cover herself and Canis, and she was it. She was always it. Her fists clenched until her nails cut into her palms. Her face reddened as hot, angry tears fell down it. Her teeth gritted and bared, and she shook with anger. Protesting would do no good. She’d played that game before. She just took it, like always, because she had to.
They turned back to talking with each other. What they said, she couldn’t hear. Her ears were thrumming with the sound of blood rushing.
“Anya. Anya.” She couldn’t hear Basil reaching out for her. “Anya, I’m sorry.” Basil touched Anya’s shoulder, bringing her back to her senses.
Anya turned to face her. “It’s not fair! She’s always doing this to me, and I don’t do anything wrong!”
Basil wiped Anya’s cheeks for her. “Shhhh! I know, honey. I know. But there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Anya had to stop herself from walking out of the kitchen and never coming back. “The fields filled all their positions on Selection Day. I can’t go back there now.”
“No. You can’t.” Basil’s face was full of pity.
Anya threw her arms up in frustration. “Why doesn’t anyone defend me? Why don’t you say something?”
“I want to Anya, but then I’d be in trouble too. And I can’t afford that.”
Anya nodded and thanked her for her sympathy. Basil returned to her workstation. She was right. Anya didn’t want Basil in any heat because of her. But she still felt betrayed. She spent the afternoon crying into the dishes, ready to lash out at anyone near enough to get in her way.
Finally, evening came along with almost going-home time. As usual, the passing conversations melded together into background noise for Anya, who remained sulking at her sink. This time, however, a particular conversation stood out.
“Ugh! I hate Ball week!”
What? Anya quit washing to listen more closely.
“Yeah, I know. It’s bad enough not getting to go, but having to work too?”
Anya turned to discover LaQuinta and Teresa, the grain grinders of her shift talking! Work? On Ball week?
“Excuse me.” Anya slowly walked up to them. “What do you mean, ‘work during Ball week’?”
They shared a confused look before answering, “Didn’t anyone tell you?”
She shook her head no.
Teresa said, “During the week of the Ball, both shifts have to work together.”
LaQuinta further explained, “Yeah. It’s the only way we could possibly get it all done.”
Teresa swatted LaQuinta’s shoulder and said with a grin, “Hey remember last year when…”But Anya didn’t hear the rest. She had gone numb.
Anya turned to face Gevin. “Hmmm?”
“What’s going on? You OK?”
“Huh?” She didn’t remember finishing her work that day, or knocking on Gevin’s door, but she must have. She was there, wasn’t she? But why? Oh yeah. “Uh, I delivered the note.”
Gevin stepped outside. “What happened?”
Reality crashed down on her again. No longer numb, she grew warm instead. Fresh, hot tears welled up in her eyes. She shouted through them, “I lost a week’s pay, Gevin! That’s what happened.”
His arms crossed as he leaned against the door jam. He looked furious. “Tell me.”
She told him everything, the sneaking around part, the overhearing part, and then the blaming part. She screamed a lot on that last one.
“Come on. We’re going to have a chat with Miss Taika.”
“She got you into this mess. She can get you out.”
He led her to Taika’s house. She wiped her nose and face, calming down. When they reached the main area, however, he stopped. “Wait a minute.”
He turned to face the castle. “Come on, I’ve got an idea.”
He grabbed her hand and took her to the kitchen’s dead end. His eyes combed the area before landing on the chicken coop across from the kitchen. He opened the doors and went inside. Anya whispered across the cul-de-sac, “What are you doing?”
A short while later he produced a step stool. “Trust me.” He placed it beneath the Queen’s window. “If Cook really wanted to make sure you take the blame for this, she’ll have already told the Queen. We need to find out what’s going on.”
He climbed on top and lowered his hand for her to take. She grabbed it and stepped up to join him. It was a tight squeeze, but they managed. After a while, Anya shook her head and whispered, “I don’t hear anything.”
Gevin shushed her. “Wait.” That’s when they heard a door open. Then footsteps. And then a door close.
Anya held her breath. They remained motionless for ages, straining to hear anything besides the deafening silence. At long last, they heard talking. Both listened to the low conversation as it taunted them with tantalizing tidbits every now and then like, “the Field”, “Tray Maid”, and “Kitchen Elf”.
A gruff man’s voice stood out as the conversation reached a more comfortable volume. “What do you wish for us to do about her, Your Highness?”
Silence. They looked at each other, Gevin angry, Anya terrified.
“Nothing yet. Let me think. How could a simple Kitchen Elf be responsible for such an action? No. That letter was written by someone else.”
“Simple!” Anya whispered in anger. Gevin shushed her. It showed how serious a situation they were in that he didn’t laugh or make snide remarks over the insult.
“Perhaps it was the Cook, Your Highness?”
Anya listened more closely.
“Please! That old windbag couldn’t write a letter to save her life, let alone spell correctly.”
Anya tutted in disappointment.
“Whom else could it be, Your Highness?”
“That Tray Maid is a lot smarter than she wants to appear. Keep an eye on her. In the meantime, check the whereabouts of all the Royal Maids. See if any are known to stray off grounds. And check the stable hands. My husband has a tendency to talk too much. One of them may have heard something, and they have more access than most.”
“Of course, Your Highness.”
Anya looked at Gevin in alarm. He whispered, “That stupid Taika! I’m going to strangle her for this!”
Only his voice got a bit louder than it should have. Anya covered his mouth with her hand. “Shhhh!!!”
Gevin started to fall backwards, Anya tried to stop him. She failed. They fell to the ground. Loudly.