She stood over the ovens; the heat was blistering. But she took some sense of pride in the work. Thinking back on her earlier years she never would have thought her life would land here. Swelting over and in ovens, she melted into the work. Today she was making crisp tarts from apples that the men had gathered from the orchards. The banquet was planned for two days from now, and she was tasked by her masters to cook for the festivities.
The guest list ran long, some two hundred people may in fact present themselves before the local baron at the banquet. And that meant that she had to cook enough food, and deserts to feed them all. She had been cooking and prepping for three days, she still had two days to go. She woke up early every morning and worked in the kitchens until dusk every night. Still she wondered if she was preparing too much. Her Lord would not be happy if she wasted food. It was so hard to know how much all the guests would eat. She didn’t sleep at night fearing the wrath that would fall upon her and her staff if they displeased the Lord.
The day before the banquet, Aalis posed the question to her, “Does he really expect us to make this thing?” Aalis was not pleased with the impossible request, as rightly she should not be. Her thoughts wandered on as she stood listening. “We have never made this before; we don’t even know what this bean is. Is it a bean? They tell us to crush it and make a sweetened treat with it, but clearly this cannot make a desert?”
She nodded to herself, and carefully looked around before speaking. “Aalis, you have made all the preparations, have you not? You created the food stores, and have secured the horses? We must be ready to go if the baron is not pleased with our work these days. All five of us must leave, for whoever stays they will surely put to the question to discover where the rest have gone.”
Aalis face darkened and saddened, “Rohesia, you worry too much. The baron will be pleased with what we do here.”
“After you just explicitly said you have no idea how to cook or bake with this new bean? Yet your confidence is that you will please our Lord? We must be ready to flee, I will not let them kill another one of my charges. Do you, Aalis, forget Roland so easily?”
Aalis lowered and own voice and looked around, for all her confidence she still searched the room carefully for prying ears. “Be at ease Rohesia. We have made the preparations. We can flee should we need to. We have taken some of the food we have been preparing and salted and stored it, it will keep for several weeks. It is secured and hidden in the stables. We have also secured five mounts and a pack horse for the journey. If we need to flee, we will be prepared.”
She nodded. Aalis was a good steward and had served her faithfully for years, she was one of the few people that Rohesia would bring herself to trust. She didn’t trust easy; she wore the stripes of too many beatings from her childhood to trust the likes of her masters. In the darkest hours of the night she would sometimes plan her retribution. Of course, none of her stewards knew of her plans for the banquet. They must not know. If they were discovered they would be tortured severely as it was, but perhaps they might live if they didn’t know the true details. The was the best Rohesia could offer them, a chance at life.
She was thinking out loud when she spoke, “You know, they call it the ‘food of the gods’—this small bean.” She picked up a handful and tossed them into the mortar. “In the isles, so it is said, that they seek it as a mystery and a gift of life.” She worked the pestles expertly, slowly grinding the beans. “They say it came from the west, used as a great elixir to save lives. It does not seem such a great thing does it?” She quirked an eyebrow toward Aalis at the question. She dumped the partially ground beans from her set of mortar and pestle into the one closer to Aalis that was for more fine grinding. “Our Lord says that it makes exceptionally tasty pastries, and we are to make a kaka from it.” Aalis was silently grinding away at the beans that had been profited to her.
Aalis knew it was best not to interrupt Rohesia when she was in a reflective mood. “Apparently it has a somewhat bitter taste to it on it’s own, so the only advice they gave us is that we need to sweeten it. That is why I tasked the men to bring so many different types of fruit. Not much to go on.” She shook her head; it was not necessarily a completely impossible task. But the likelihood of them making a successful desert that pleased the guests was not good.
Aalis looked over, she could see the doubt that was in Rohesia’s eyes. “It will be well Rohesia. Even if it is not, we shall flee and then that shall be well.” The sadness was still upon Aalis though, and she spoke further. “It is sad though, you realize. This has been my home for these twenty years. Even if it has not been the best home, I still think I shall miss this place.”
“So, you are certain we shall fail, and we will be forced to flee?”
“You have taught me to always prepare for the worst. We have prepared, now let’s see what we can do with this small magical wonder they say is the harbinger of the future.”
And so, they worked. Two more of the young lasses that were Rohesia’s stewards finished other chores and returned to the kitchens. And the four of them ground the beans, and various fruits. They tried different combinations, tasted, and tried more. The mixed in flour and other ingredients and started baking and cooking various combinations. For hours they put all their culinary arts to the test.
Their Lord, the baron, was not a well-liked man. In fact, he was well hated across half his domain. A poor ruler, and a most despicable human, he had made many enemies of those he ruled and quite a few of those that would consider him an equal. But he had some manner of skill to retain his position of power and in the functional running on his lands. He had skills in engineering that had done marvelous things for his lands. Even his worst detractors would grant him this praise.
The chateau was a legend within the region. Of particular interest to the kitchens were that they shared their fires with the blacksmith’s forges. The baron had engineered the fortress to then transfer the residual heat from both to ducts that moved hot hair throughout the primary castle residences. No one went cold in the winter months at Chateau Juolburgh. All the heat was used and leveraged, no wood or coal was wasted when it was used in the fortress.
The ingenuity spread to the water system that worked throughout the chateau. And perhaps not least, the defense of the chateau also had many of the same clever enhancements. Perhaps this is was one reason why the baron had not been removed, his enemies did not think they could defeat his defenses.
Deep into the night they cooked and tested the foods. Aalis and Rohesia stared at one another, unsure of the final product. They both thought the kaka had turned out to be quite incredible. They had taken careful notes of the four different varieties they had created. Two of them didn’t turn out well, and those were already being distributed to the stable men by one of the stewards. They were still eatable, but they certainly would not have been appreciated by the Lord. The other two though, were remarkably luscious.
“Have we done it, Rohesia? Will this please our master?”
“It must. It pleases us, but that is never a standard with that man. We both know this. But, still, it must. We have no time for anything else. Let us replicate these two, we need to make at least a dozen of each of these.”
Their work continued, yet deeper into the night.
The stewards and Aalis didn’t know that one of the lemon tarts, the master’s personal favorite, had been poisoned. Rohesia had decided some months ago that she would finally free herself from the baron. She would kill him. She had prepared the poison by her own hand and the lemon tart as well. The banquet was tomorrow, or perhaps the day had changed and it was now today. It would be the baron’s last day, for Rohesia would make sure that her master ate the tart that was made just for him.
Rohesia didn’t sleep at all that night. She tossed and turned on her hard cot, in her small quarters adjacent to the kitchens. They had finished so late in the night there wouldn’t have been time for much sleep anyway. The banquet, to be held at noon, would require still hours of cooking this morning. She would need the kitchens in full production before the sun crested in its morning jubilation.
Her nervousness arose her in the early hours of darkness and she went to work. She lit the fires; the ovens and stoves started their slow warming. This would be the day that she would kill a man, and then she would leave the world she had known for her entire life, never to return. As her mind wandered about the consequences of the day, she started cooking the potatoes and started prepping the soups.
“Socks and rabbits, Rohesia! Did you even go to bed?” asked Aalis.
“Don’t curse Aalis. I have taught you better than that. I laid down for a bit, but honestly it sure doesn’t feel like I’ve slept at all.”
“What are we going to call it?” asked Aalis.
Rohesia stopped and looked at Aalis with a bewildered look on her face. Perhaps she was indeed more tired than she had imagined. “What? What do you mean?”
“The desert. It is our creation, certainly we must name it. No one has ever tasted it’s like. Surely we must name it something.”
Rohesia shook her head. “I didn’t occur to me, honestly. They call the beans xocoatl. We made it into a kaka. I guess, it is a xocoatl kaka, in a pure sense. I don’t suppose that is a clever enough name.”
Aalis was slicing up all the deserts and pastries prepping them to be carried out at the end of the meal. The stewards were starting the task of taking out the first course of the meal to various guests that had arrived early. “I’ve heard it called chocolate by some of the traders,” Aalis said. “You’ve heard that some now call kakas as cakes if they are lighter and fluffier.”
“True.” Rohesia commented as she diced more veggies and threw them into a soup. “Perhaps we stick to the old names of things too much. Our ways are ways of tradition, there’s a history, a heritage in what we do in these kitchens. Lessons I learned from my mentors, and those that I have taught you. When I am gone, those you will teach. A rich tradition. We shall call it chocolate cake, then?”
“It seems a fitting name, does it not?” asked Aalis. “Come, we have a bit of time. Should we not enjoy the work of our hands and our labors? Would you not share a slice of this chocolate cake with me?”
“It does seem fitting at that,” Rohesia commented. As she walked over and sat next to Aalis. Aalis pushed a slice over to her and started nibbling on a slice of her own.
“It truly is remarkably good, isn’t it?”
“Not that we should brag, but we did pull off amazing work with this.”
Rohesia savored every bit of the delicious delicacy. After they were finished, her and Aalis started working on the dough for fresh bread. Aalis kept glancing over to Rohesia. Rohesia hand slipped and she almost fill into the dough she was kneading.
Aalis words were haunting as she spoke them. “It is true you know, Rohesia. I will teach what you have taught me to those after you. You should not have thought to poison our Lord. For now, you have partaken of the fate you wished upon another. It brings me no joy, Rohesia. But I could not permit you to harm our master.”
Rohesia jerked and thought to run. Perhaps she could purge her system or drink enough water to dilute the poison. She looked in utter horror at Aalis. She realized she didn’t have the strength to get away from the other woman.
“Be easy now Rohesia, be easy. It won’t be long now. Please sit.”
Rohesia sat and rose no more.