(After a long absence, I'm putting up another story here on Steemit. For those of you familiar with my writing, this is set in the same fantasy world of anthropomorphic lions as the tales "In the Days of the Witch-Queens" and "Irula's Apprentice," though this is a more "civilized" part of that world. Let me know what you think! Comments, upvotes and resteems welcom!!)
Carea looked at the stack of greasy wooden trenchers and sighed. She took the top one off the pile, scraped gristle, fat and cracked bones into a slop bucket, and set the trencher to soak. She took the first one from her soak pile, scoured it with sand, rinsed it and set it to dry. Scrape, soak, scour, rinse. Her tail flicked in time with the rhythm of her work. The task would go faster if she could sing, but she would never sing again. Not after...
Best not to focus on that now. The young lioness had a new life here in the Ducca's palace, even if she was only a lowly scullery maid. She didn't expect the soldiers of the Ducca's Cohort to be dainty eaters, but judging by the trenchers, their table manners were little better than a wild hog's. She needed to focus on the task at paw and finish with the trenchers before Mistress Lavare found some more unpleasant task for her.
"Cub! Where are you, new girl?"
Carea swallowed a curse and dried her paws on her apron. The garment was woven of unbleached homespun edged with the slightest band of purple. If there were a member of the Ducca's household any more junior than Carea, she hadn't met her.
"Coming, Kitchen Mistress!"
Each time Carea came before Mistress Lavare, she was surprised again by the lioness's bulk. Not much taller than Carea, the older female was almost as wide as she was tall. It was hard to tell where her apron ended and the folds of skin began. Still, who would trust a skinny kitchen mistress? And the female was just. She was equally disappointed in everyone.
"Well, let's have a look at you."
Carea lowered her eyes under Mistress Lavare's inspection. The older female clucked her tongue at the stains on her apron and licked a paw to smooth out the fur around her ears.
"Priya is tending to her sick mother and Valora is out doing Ancestors know what. That leaves you to serve the Duccetta her tea."
Carea's eyes went wide. The Kitchen Mistress was making fun of her. But there was no humor in her face. "Mistress... I'm just a scullery maid..."
"I know that, and you know that. But keep your eyes downcast and your mouth shut and maybe the Duccetta won't realize the fact until after you're gone." She squeezed Carea's wrist, the closest thing to a sign of affection the female had ever shown to her.
Carea's nostrils flared as she took a slow breath. "I'll do my best, Mistress."
"There's the spirit. Get a clean server's apron out of the cupboard while I finish with the tray. I'd go myself, but I'd never make it up all those stairs."
Carea willed her paws not to shake as she took out one of the starched linen aprons with their purple lace and floral embroidery. The fabric smelled of roses and lavender as she shook it out and tied it around her waist. It felt stiff and strange around her. Mistress Lavare gave her a final inspection, nodded her head and handed her the tray of tea things.
Carea headed for the door out of the kitchen. As she did, she caught sight of herself in the bottom of one of the big copper kettles. She looked ridiculous in the frilly apron, like she was playing a part in a village pageant, or a cub playing make-believe. But then again, her entire apprenticeship in the Ducca's kitchen was playing a part, was it not? She was a young lioness of fourteen summers and already her life was being forced down paths she did not want to walk.
She bit back a sigh and hurried up the servants' stairs. What did she think she would look like in the server's apron? She was just a village girl, exiled from her village for what she had done -- it seemed like a lifetime ago now. Her clan mother had said it was because her house could no longer support Carea with five other siblings and another on the way, but the stares the villagers had given her gave no doubt as to the real reason. If it had not been for the intervention of her sire's eldest sister, Carea wouldn't have even gotten the position here at the palace. She would have had to find some way to support herself among the city's masses.
Valora and Priya talked a lot in the cramped bedroom Carea shared with them. Silly, stupid chatter. The impossible dreams of servants. How they weren't going to be kitchen maids the rest of their lives. They were going to become a lady's maid, and some handsome lieutenant of the cohort was going to notice them and claim them as mates. Then they wouldn't have to answer to Mistress Lavare's barked commands any more.
Carea knew better than to spin such fantasies for herself. The life of a palace maid wasn't a bad one, or so she kept trying to convince herself. It was better than working as a house drudge for a family out in the city or having your services sold to the Breastless Ones. Certainly better than being thrust out into the wilds to fend for oneself as she heard they did to unwanted young females on the Northern Continent.
The stairs ended in a narrow corridor. She almost jumped as she came across a lean young male lounging against a wall. More handsome than any male had a right to be. His leather kilt and the short sword in his belt showed him to be a soldier of the Cohort. He winked at her.
"Better hurry, youngling. The Duccetta gets testy if she doesn't have her tea."
Carea nodded and crept past him, her ears flushing as she caught his masculine smell and felt the heat coming off his body. She was proud that she didn't spill anything on the tray. At last she reached a door carved with a relief of the city upon it. The wood of the carving had been stained a warm orange and polished until it glowed. She almost didn't dare set a paw on it to knock, but she did. And this was just the servants' entrance to the Duccetta's parlor.
"Come in, come in. What took you so long?"
She stepped into another world. Her crisp linen apron had seemed so wonderful, and now she felt every inch again the dirty peasant girl who had turned up months ago on the back steps of the palace.
Gauzy silk curtains hung from the ceiling. Ostensibly such curtains were for keeping out insects, but Carea felt that here they were used as much for effect as protection. Sunlight from windows high on the ceiling hit the shear fabric and colored everything in a soft, ethereal light. The figures in the room wore silk as well, the weave of their clothing almost as translucent as the insect curtains, but dyed the purple permitted only to members of the Ducca's household. Silk whispered against silk, the garments permitting tantalizing glimpses of young lions and lionesses, most but a few summers older than Carea.
Both males and females were among the most beautiful creatures that Carea had ever seen. Not that she was ugly, just...plain, and she felt more plain the longer she stood in the room.
Someone prodded Carea in the back and hissed in her ear. "The Duccetta is waiting. Pour."
Carea swallowed and made her way forward through the curtains. For a brief moment, she imagined the gauzy lengths tangling her up like a net. She pushed her way through to a dais piled high with purple cushions on which lounged the Duccetta. Amela fi-Marilona, heir to the high seat of Astra Citadel.
The young lioness was beautiful, but she would not remain so for long if all she did was lounge on cushions all day (as were the rumors). Carea shoved the thought down to the bottom of her mind, knelt at the edge of the dais and poured out the Duccetta's tea.
"Cream, fool." Carea almost jumped at the hiss in her ear. She added cream to the tea and a dollop of honey for good measure and then raised the lacquered handleless cup above her head without lifting her eyes. The cup was taken from her paws and she risked a look up. Another female, perhaps the one who had guided Carea forward, took a sip from the cup, nodded, and passed it to the Duccetta.
The room grew silent as the Duccetta drank, or at least seemed so to Carea. What if she had made it too weak with the cream or too sweet with the honey? What would this female do to her? At last the Duccetta lowered her cup, wiping her lips with the back of her paw.
"About damned time. Pour the rest and serve the snacks."
Blood rushed back to Carea's face. She filled a dozen cups with tea and cream and honey, exactly as she had done for the Duccetta. The chatter of the previous atmosphere returned to the room. One of the young males picked up a long-necked lute and began to pluck out a merry tune as Carea passed out the cups.
Carea smiled and hummed to herself as she finished with the tea. She lifted the cloche from the steamed buns that Mistress Lavare had provided. Carea closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the spicy aroma curling from the meat-filled pastries. Her humming gave way to wordless song as she felt for the plates to serve the pastries.
She did not realize anything was wrong until she heard the first gasp. Then came the Duccetta's strident voice.
"What by all the hells is this?"
Carea's eyes snapped open just in time to see a swirl of pastries dancing in midair in time with the music. Or rather, dancing in time with her song. Not again. She clasped a paw over her mouth, and as her song stopped, so did the pastries' flight. They fell to the floor. Two of them broken open on the Duccetta's face.
The lute player let out a strangled giggle. Duccetta Amela's ears flushed a deep crimson. She let out a furious shout.
Not bothering with the tea things, Carea ran from the chamber. She stumbled down the servants' corridor, tears filling her eyes. First her singing had gotten her kicked out of her village, and now it had dealt the Duccetta -- the Duccetta! -- a horrible insult. Perhaps if she threw herself on Mistress Lavare's knees... No. She had seen other servants whipped for much smaller offenses than hers. She couldn't dream what the Duccetta would think up for her punishment. And if word got back to the Ducca...
She ran into something solid and felt paws take hold of her shoulders. She looked up to see the same young male as before, his face in a deep frown.
"Here now. What's all this fuss?"
Behind her, Carea heard what she thought was the Duccetta's voice. "Guards! Guards!"
The male looked back along the corridor and then down at Carea. "Mayhaps you should find a quiet corner, lass. Run along."
He headed off in the direction of the shouting, leaving Carea to wonder why he was being so kind to her. But she didn't wonder long. She flew back down the stairs, pausing only to untie her server's apron and hang it on a knob on the linen cupboard door. Mistress Lavare was tending a roast in the great open hearth. Walking on just the pads of her feet, Carea slipped out the kitchen door into the palace yard.