“Just a little closer,” Louella thought as she stretched her fingers. The knife was so close. If only her arm was a smidge longer...or the knife a little nearer...
“Where are our drinks, Lou?” Winston, Louella’s stepfather, called from the living room. “Prince Ramsey is not used to being kept waiting.”
Louella didn’t answer. This was the closest she’d gotten to a knife in ages. She wasn’t about to let it slip through her fingers.
As her fingertips brushed against the handle, she heard a knock at the backdoor.
“Come in,” Louella called, her ankle aching from the pressure of the surrounding shackle. “Almost...there.”
“Hello?” a soft voice said. Louella looked up. A man about a head shorter, wearing simple garb, stood a few feet into the kitchen. He held a basket overflowing with food.
“Who are you?” Louella asked, standing straight, the knife forgotten for the moment. He wasn’t one of the normal delivery people. Perhaps he was new? Not that it mattered. All had been warned against helping her, so what did she care if the delivery person was new or old?
Louella’s stepbrother, Garrett, stuck his head into the kitchen. “Where are those drinks? The prince is tired of waiting and you are making us all look bad.”
She glared at Garrett. As always, he looked ridiculous in what he called his “finery.” Whereas Garrett thought he appeared striking in his bright yellow tunic and black linen pants, Louella thought he looked like a confused bee. Yellow washed out his skin, making him appear more ghost than person, but who was she to stop him from looking his “best”?
“They’re coming. If you want them, why don’t you deliver them yourself?”
“Just get them out here. Father is getting tired of making excuses for you.”
As Garrett disappeared, Louella mumbled, “I’ll deliver you, you self-serving piece of scum.”
Noisily dropping the simple pewter goblets onto the plain pewter tray, she filled three of them with dirty water and the others with the wine they drank for dinner. The wine was so watered down Louella didn’t know how her stepfather could stand the stuff. If it hadn’t been cleaner than the water from the well, she never would have touched the stuff it was so disgusting.
But then her so-called family was so fond of the watered down drink she wouldn’t have been surprised if her stepfather wasn’t helping support the monks who made it. There was no accounting for taste.
“If you want, I could carry those for you,” the short man offered.
Louella was startled for a moment. She’d forgotten all about the quiet man’s presence. Was she so used to her own company that the appearance of another made such a small impact?
“I’ve got this. You go on doing whatever you’re supposed to be doing.” She picked up the tray and strode into the living room, being sure her chain made as much noise as possible. The clunk...scrape...clunk...scrape against the stone floor was enough to wake the dead, and it made Louella’s point perfectly. She loved pointing out that she wasn’t there voluntarily, especially when guests were present.
Prince Ramsey, with his entourage of pretty peacocks, gazed at her with surprise when she entered the room. Whether it was her dirty, ragged dress or her manacle which astonished him, Louella didn’t know, or care. He was just another vapid person wishing to commission a shoe from her stepfather.
She slammed the tray onto the table between Prince Ramsey and her stepfather Winston, spilling the liquid in the goblets. After setting the prince’s goblet in front of him, she looked at her stepfather, grabbed his dirty water, and spit in it, right there in front of everyone. With a sickly sweet smile, she carefully set it before her stepfather. Winston’s normally pale face was beet red, which perfectly matched his red tunic and the red, custom-made shoes he’d created just for this outfit.
Turning away from Winston, he’d say nothing in front of the prince, she looked to Opal, her stepsister, who sat to his right. Opal wore a robin egg blue dress with silver high-heeled shoes. Louella smiled as she spit into Opal’s dirty water before handing it to her.
Louella suppressed a mean grin even as glee went through her. Opal hated those shoes. She complained they hurt her feet and back, but her father insisted she wear them to meet new customers.
And what father wanted, father got, no matter how much anyone else complained.
Wasn’t Louella lucky that she didn’t have shoes?
Lastly, she handed the spit-in dirty water to her bee-imitating stepbrother. Garrett’s shoes were heeled also, but not to the same extent as his sister’s, much to Opal’s displeasure.
After the rest of the peacocks received their drinks, Louella, again doing nothing to hide her ankle chain, left for the kitchen.
Upon her return, she was surprised to see the short man still there. She’d thought he was delivering something, but no, he was tending to the fire in the oven. Evidence that he’d been chopping something green was laid out on the counter.
“What are you doing?” Louella asked, walking toward him until her chain pulled her back. “Damn chain. It never lets me go where I want.”
And the bloody knife. The one she’d been reaching for was farther away than before she’d left the room, curse the gods. Could nothing go right today? Maybe one of her step relations would die from their dirty water. There was always hope in that. “Who are you?”
“I am Henry, Prince Ramsey’s cook,” the short man said.
When the fire was to his liking, he returned to his chopping. It was only then that Louella realized there was a delicious smell emanating from the pot on the stovetop. Louella hasn’t smelled anything so good in ages. Opal couldn’t cook worth a damn, not that Winston and Garrett complained. They’d eat whatever slop was put before them. They had no higher sensibilities, like for good, tasty food.
“Wherever he goes, I cook his meals,” Henry said.
“Afraid someone will poison him, is he?” Louella asked. If she’d been a prince, poison would have concerned her.
Though, if she were the prince, she wouldn’t be chained and forced to be a slave to her stepfamily, so really, she’d take the poison concerns any day. It had to be better than what she endured daily.
Henry shook his dark mop of hair. “No. He can’t stand other people’s cooking. He swears only I make edible food.” Henry put another couple handfuls of something into the pot. “Do you cook, miss?”
Louella shook her chained leg. “It’s Louella and I haven’t cooked since the last time I tried to poison my family. It was mushrooms that time.” She smiled. “I’d found them on one of my outside days. I knew they weren’t the eating type of mushrooms and that’s when I got the idea of using them to kill my family.”
Louella let out a sigh. “It would have been perfect, but alas, Opal caught me. Since then I’m not allowed to touch their food. They’re too scared I’ll succeed, or worse yet fail, because they’ll suffer the consequences of my failure for days. Or maybe even weeks. Either way, they don’t do well when confronted with agonizing pain, dry heaving, and fluids coming out of every orifice.
“And then there are always the knives. Can’t let me too near the knives or we’ll have a repeat of what happened on Garrett’s twentieth birthday.”
“What happened?” Henry asked.
Louella studied the short man. Instead of being disgusted with her actions, he looked merely curious. She wasn’t used to curious looks. All the normal deliverymen were either disgusted or petrified.
“They’d left the knife used to cut boar’s meat too close to where my chain allows me to go and I went for Garrett’s neck. I didn’t inflict more than a few cuts before Winston ripped the knife out of my hand.” She grimaced. “That beating kept me out of commission for a few days, but it was worth it. Garrett’s kept his distance ever since.”
“Where are the bowls?” Henry asked as he stirred whatever he had cooking.
“I’ll get them,” Louella said.
“Why do you hate them so much?” Henry took the bowls and set them out.
“Why do you care?” She didn’t have contact with many people, what with her being a chained prisoner in her own home, but those she did see didn’t care about her. She didn’t make the shoes they put on their feet. She didn’t pay their bills. She was nothing to them. So why did this cook want to know more about her?
Henry shrugged. “I don’t know. You seem like a pleasant enough person. You haven’t cursed me or kicked me out of your kitchen or done a million other things other people have done when I invade their space. If you don’t want to talk, you don’t have to.” Henry returned his attention to ladling the soup into the bowls. “I’ve just found that talking things over with others helps me solve my problems.”
Louella snorted. “Nothing’s going to solve my problem unless you know how to cut through chain.”
Henry frowned as he gazed at the chain. “I wish I could, but I am nothing but a cook.”
After washing the tray Louella used, he put the half dozen bowls on it and left the room. Louella would have offered to help, but she knew Winston would throw a fit. Last time she’d offered food to a guest, he’d jumped to his feet screaming right there in front of his customer and made such a mess that it had taken her all afternoon and half the night to clean up. Even though the memory brought a smile to her lips, and a warm glow of satisfaction to her heart, she had enough cleaning to do. She didn’t need more added on.
Speaking of which...
“You’d better be cleaning up after yourself,” Louella said the moment Henry returned.
Henry’s eyes went wide, and he paled a tad. “I would never think of having you clean up after me, miss. You have much more important things to do than other peoples’ dishes.”
“I don’t, actually,” Louella said as she sat at the small table. She was allocated the chair closest to the center of the house mainly because that was the only chair she could reach. The others were slightly out of her reach, something her stepbrother and stepsister loved taunting her with when they were in foul moods.
“When I’m not slaving away trying to keep this place clean, I’m consigned to stay in the kitchen and wait for the ungrateful wretches to summon me. I’m not allowed near anything sharp or I might cook every once in a while. It gets boring with nothing productive to do.”
“Seems like such a waste of your talents. If you could do anything, what would it be?” Henry asked as he cleaned the pot he’d used.
An idea flowed into her mind, but she quickly squashed it. Dreams were for when she was free, not before. “Doesn’t matter. Unless you want to pass me a knife, then I would be happy to share with you whatever you want to know.” Louella gave Henry her best smile.
“I’m afraid I cannot,” Henry said as he placed the clean knife in its place in the woodblock. A woodblock so far away there was no way Louella could reach the knives. “Prince Ramsey needs the shoes your step relations are making. He would beat me if I allowed you to escape.”
Louella shrugged. She didn’t blame Henry for looking out for himself. “What are the shoes for?”
“You haven’t heard? The announcement was made months ago. The prince is having a ball in a month’s time. Every eligible woman of means is invited so he may find himself a wife.” He paused. “Prince Ramsey is allowing me to cook the meal served at his ball, in addition to creating the cake for dessert.” Henry’s eyes lit up and a tiny bounce entered his step.
“Congratulations,” Louella said. She could see how excited he was at receiving such an honor. “I bet you’ll do a great job.”
“Thank you, miss. I never thought he’d give me the job. There are cooks in the palace who have been there much longer.”
“He must see something special in you.”
Henry blushed and returned to wiping down the counters. She watched his every move, noticing how meticulous he was, never wasting a single motion. By the time he finished, the kitchen appeared much cleaner than Opal ever made it.
Their comfortable silence was destroyed with Winston’s bellowing. “Lou! Come clean up this mess. And bring that cook. The prince is leaving.”
“That was fast,” Louella said as she stood. “Usually the consultations take hours.”
“I believe the prince and your father –”
“Sorry, stepfather, have been corresponding for some months,” Henry said as he came to her side. “After you, miss.”
Louella felt her lips curl into something which might have been a smile. It had been ages since she’d met a true gentleman.
No. Wait. Had she ever met a gentleman?
Gentleman...gentleman...nope. Never met one.
Louella had the urge to inform Henry of his special status as a true gentleman, but she refrained. She didn’t want to embarrass the poor man.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, repeating her ghost in chains impression all the way to the front room. The prince and his followers were huddled together. They were excited until her appearance. Then she received dark looks and noses thrust in the air. “You rang?” she asked when she stood before her stepfather.
“Clean up this mess,” Winston said as he pushed past her to see his customers out. Opal and Garrett followed their father, though they were more careful to stay out of her reach. Experience had not been their friend where she was concerned.
“Would you like me to help?” Henry asked in a low voice.
Louella whipped her head around. “You’re still here? Don’t you have to leave with the prince?”
Henry began to speak, but Prince Ramsey’s voice drowned out all else. “Come, my friends, we have much to do for the ball.”
Henry and Louella watched as everyone left the house for the waiting carriage, which had a plethora of horses, feathers, and flags. By the gods, there were so many flags and feathers on the carriage, Louella wouldn’t have been surprised if that were all the carriage was made out of.
“You need to go before they leave you behind,” Louella said.
“I do. The prince would hate it if I didn’t feed him at their next stop.” As Henry walked away, he said, “I shall see you next week.”
“Next week? I thought this ball wasn’t for a month.”
“The prince decided that he shall a have a fitting every week until the ball. He wants everything to be perfect,” Henry said as he passed through the doorway.
“Then I’ll see you next week,” Louella said, feeling oddly pleased that she’d see him again.
Henry glanced over his shoulder one last time before rushing to the back of the carriage as it started rolling away. He barely made it onto the running board before the carriage gained top speed, though he did give her a farewell wave as he passed by the still open front door.
“What a sweet man,” Louella murmured as she gathered up the dishes.
The sound of her stepfather slamming the front door, however, turned her bright mood black.