Jerica settled down at the kitchen table with a piece of paper and a pencil in front of her, trying to think of what she wanted to say to Derik. Aerik had agreed far easier than she’d expected, and now she realized she wasn’t quite sure what it was that she wanted from Derik.
Hey Derik –
She hesitated. Solid start. She glanced up at where Aerik was starting prep for dinner, seeming to ignore her entirely. What could she even ask Derik that would convince her that it was really him answering her letter? If Aerik knew Derik’s tone and handwriting, she didn’t doubt he could replicate it with magic. She needed something that Aerik couldn’t reproduce.
I am here with Aerik. He claims that you want me to stay here with him. Is that true?
Please also tell me something that only you would know, so I know it’s really you.
She looked at it another moment then nodded. It was simple, and maybe a bit too-formal, but it said what it needed to. She stood up and strode across the kitchen, holding the letter out to Aerik. “Will you please send it?”
Aerik dried off his hands and took the letter, glancing down at it for a moment. Then he folded it, and it vanished from his hands. He nodded. “Fair request. What do you think he’s going to give you as evidence?”
Jerica snorted. “If I told you that, there’d be no point in me asking for it at all.”
Aerik chuckled. “Fair enough, didn’t think about that. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Go grab some potatoes from the pantry, will you?”
Jerica looked at the door off the kitchen that he gestured at, then she shrugged and started towards it. A wall of scent met her when she pushed the door open. The room was small but packed with food. There were crates filled with potatoes along the wall opposite her. Spices hung on strings from the ceiling. Apples were in baskets on a shelf on the left wall. There were onions and peppers, and a few little jars of salt and sugar.
She walked over to the crates and piled several potatoes into the crook of her arm, enjoying the aroma of spices that hung overhead. She turned around as she heard Aerik shuffling in through the doorway. He was holding a huge knife and a lamp. She eyed him, gut still vaguely uneasy at him being armed when she wasn’t, even though she getting progressively more convinced that he wasn’t going to hurt her.
“Smells good, huh?” He walked towards the corner, to another doorway. He grinned at her. “Meat’s back here. Come see, if you’d like.”
Jerica followed him to the door, then wrinkled her nose. This room stank with frozen flesh. Cold air hit her face. The room was dark, the only light coming in from the doorway where she stood now, and from the lamp in Aerik’s hand.
The walls were lined with ice blocks that were bigger than she was tall. The corpses of several deer were in the back-left corner, body cavities stuffed full of ice. There was a goat hanging from its rear legs directly in front of her, in the right corner of the room. There were a few plucked fowl in the corner to her left. They were various sizes. She guessed some of them were probably chickens, but others had to be game birds, maybe some ducks and quail.
Aerik lifted his knife and drove it into the back of one of the deer. He hacked at the stiff meat for several moments, before transferring the knife to his left hand along with the lamp and reaching forward to grab a chunk of meat from the shoulder with his right.
“Easy as that,” he said, holding up the meat. It was about the size of two of his fists. He started back towards the door. Jerica walked ahead of him, through the pantry, and then into the kitchen once more. Aerik walked to the sink but gestured at the table. “Wash the potatoes and slice them up for some fried vegetables.”
Jerica dumped the potatoes into the bowl of water Aerik had left on the table for her. She scrubbed the skins, using her fingers to wipe away the dirt that clung to each of them. She set them next to cutting board in front of one of the seats, then picked up the small paring knife sitting next to the board and brushed her thumb across the edge to test the sharpness.
Then, she picked up a potato and stared down at it. She’d never noticed how awkwardly shaped potatoes were before that moment. It’d be impossible to slice it into equal-sized pieces. And she realized she’d never quite noticed exactly how potatoes were sliced when… well, ever. It wasn’t something she ever had to worry about before. It can’t be that hard to figure out.
“You’ve never fixed your own dinner before, have you?”
Jerica looked up as Aerik set another cutting board down on the table. He had the chunk of venison and a clean knife sitting on top. She looked back to the potato and knife she held, a prick of embarrassment rising in her. “Of course, I have.”
And it was humiliating to admit that she was seventeen years old and didn’t even know how to feed herself. She usually prided herself in being self-sufficient. Lyiaza and Levi would both shrivel and die within a week if they were tossed out of the palace and actually had to take care of themselves – and she’d made a point of not being like them. But apparently, she’d forgotten to learn how to cook.
When she was in the Palace, she tended to take the food for granted. It appeared when she was hungry – or, she could simply go down to the kitchens and beg until the chef relented and gave her a snack to hold her over to the next meal. When she was on the road, she was either traveling with her soldiers and simply ate the food they prepared; or she was traveling alone to be stealthy, and couldn’t afford a fire to cook if she’d wanted to.
And now she didn’t know how to cook.
“Right, well…” Aerik picked up one of the potatoes and set it down on her cutting board. “Then you’ll remember that you cut the potato long ways once like this, then like this so you’ve got quarters, and then like this to make chunks.”
Jerica watched as he demonstrated. “Of course, I remember that.”
Aerik smirked and walked back to where he’d set his own cutting board. “Of course.”
Jerica offered a small smile, grateful that he’d spared her ego when he taught her, then sat her potato down on the board in front of her and sank the tip of her knife through the center. The potato wobbled, and the blade sliced through so that the potato was now cut into unequal sized halves. By a lot. She glared at it.
“It’s okay,” Aerik said encouragingly. “Try again.”
Jerica slid the smaller section onto the cutting board, flat side down, and held on to it. This long cut went a lot better. She turned her knife and sliced the strips into chunks. A strange sense of pride bubbled up in her as she cut through the next potato and did an even better job.
When she finished, Aerik demonstrated how to peel a carrot, then passed her several to finish up. He sliced thick steaks and seasoned them, then set them in a skillet to begin cooking. Then he came back to the table and sliced up some onions and snapped some green beans.
They settled at the table as they waited for the food to cook. Aerik took a deep breath and yawned, then nodded at her. “Good teamwork.”
Jerica smiled at him. It was good teamwork. And left her feeling strangely accomplished. Despite her best efforts to be self-sufficient, it sometimes felt like her extraordinary combat prowess came at the cost of basic competence at things normal humans knew how to do. She couldn’t sew more than being able to sloppily patch up ripped clothes, only vaguely knew how gardening worked, couldn’t take care of a child to save her life. Cooking felt nice.
A letter materialized.
Aerik plucked it from the air, then passed it over to her without unfolding it. Anticipation built in her chest as she took it. She took a deep breath and unfolded it, eyes flicking over the words.
It’s so nice to hear from you – yes, I most assuredly asked Aerik to keep you there with him. The war has taken an interesting turn. Nothing horrible, don’t worry – Rek, Akeno, Kieran, and I are all fine.
“Kieran’s okay!” she exclaimed, a sense of relief washing across her like she couldn’t believe. She didn’t even notice all of the tension she was holding in her shoulders until it released all at once. She grinned, looking over at Aerik. Then sobered when she realized he was merely looking at her curiously, eyebrow raised.
“My squire, I thought he—” She shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. He’s okay!”
“I’m glad.” Aerik smiled at her.
Jerica was glad, too. She looked back at the letter.
Things just took an even more political turn than they started, and we’re sort of locked into a stalemate for now. More just fighting with words than weapons at this point, although they insist on keeping an army on our doorstep. I’m keeping Rek and Akeno well away from the wall to ensure they don’t get targeted by an archer. And I feel much, much better about you being up there with Aerik instead of locked in the city with us.
And something no one else would know? When you were nine you had a toad named Knave Neville McCroakers –
She felt heat rush to her face before she even finished reading what he was about to say. Oh no. This was definitely Derik, and not one of the memories she wanted to relive just then. She took a deep breath and read on.
- that you kept in a makeshift cage in one of the cells in the dungeon, and each day you’d take him out for ‘A Hop’ as you called it, and then tell him stories that you improvised on the spot. My personal favorite was when you told him that he used to be a prince, because only the very best princes ever got to be toads when they were kissed. But he wasn’t a talking toad, because boys were better when they didn’t speak, and he was the very best boy there ever was.
Anyway, be good for Aerik, will you? He’s doing us both a favor letting you stay there.
Love you bunches, Jer-Jer.
She rubbed her face, almost-regretting asking him to prove his identity. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting him to say – maybe a reference to her dyscalculia, or one of the mean nicknames she had for Lord Biryn that she only spoke behind his back. But, no. He went straight to a memory from her childhood that she’d happily forgotten existed.
“Convincing proof, I take it?” Aerik asked with a smirk in his voice. She looked up and saw the smirk was on his face too. “What’d he say?”
“Nothing.” Jerica crumpled the paper in her fist.
Aerik raised an eyebrow. “Well, now I’ve got to know.”
Jerica clenched her fist tighter, glaring at him, even as she slowly realized that he could just Transport it from her hand to his own if he wanted to. “You really don’t.”
“I mean, you’re right, I don’t,” he agreed. “But I want to know.”
“Well, I want to know how you came to be a Dragon Keeper,” she retorted. “So, I guess we’re both out of luck.”
Aerik was silent for a moment. “So, if I tell you about Kaidren, you’ll let me see?”
Jerica stared at him in a horrified silence. He was going there. He knew fully well she couldn’t – wouldn’t – ever pass up an opportunity learn more about him and Kaidren. Even if it meant her humiliation. She groaned loudly.
“Is that a yes?” Aerik was still smirking. “Go on, then. What was his proof?”
She planted her left arm on the table and leaned forward to rest her forehead on it, sighing loudly as she held the crumpled paper out to him with her right hand, too embarrassed to actually explain it for herself. She groaned, “McCroakers.”