Cooking Lessons

It was still dark when Willamina was shaken awake. She groaned.

“Wake up.” The voice was quiet, but stern and thickly accented.

She shook her head. Bleary eyed, she saw Mariana standing over her bed with her arms crossed.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Five thirty,” said Mariana. “I let you sleep in, since it’s our first morning. Now get up and get dressed.”

Willamina stared at her before saying, “But… it’s… five thirty.”

“And that is when the work starts.” Mariana raised an eyebrow and stood back on her heels. “Are you going to get up, or stay a child?”

Fully awake now, Willamina sat up. “I’ll be down in half an hour.”

Mariana nodded. “I’ll see you in ten minutes.”

She made it in fifteen, and Mariana counted it as good enough for a first effort. She was pleased to see that her pupil had been wise enough to dress sensibly, or at least had put on what was likely the most sensible dress she owned. She made a mental note to get the girl a set of work clothes.

If she lasted past the first week, Mariana had her orders, but she was skeptical.

“We start at the beginning,” Mariana said, handing the girl a chef’s knife. “You know what this is?”

Willamina gave her a long look. “A knife?”

She handed the girl a pile of celery. “Among other things, yes. Feel the weight in your hand. Feel how it’s an extension of your arm. An extension of yourself. Don’t be afraid of it. Yes, it can cut. But it does not have a mind of its own. It will not act without you. Anything it does, you have done. Even if it is through carelessness. Now chop. But you must do it with intention.”

Willamina began chopping the stalks slowly and deliberately. Her motions were awkward and childish, but she asked no questions and did not complain. This impressed Mariana. After an hour, when breakfast was almost ready, she let her pupil go for the day.

On the second morning, Mariana woke her at five. Again Willamina got up with no complaint, and this time she was ready more quickly. In the kitchen, it was the same thing again: the stack of celery stalks (and carrots this time; Mariana figured she would at least get some use out of the girl and have the mirepoix done before lunch), the knife, and the instruction to cut with intention. There was no conversation between them, no questions, and no explanation. Again, after an hour, Willamina was sent back upstairs. This time, she skipped breakfast to crawl back into bed.

On the third day, the whole affair was beginning to get on Willamina’s nerves. She knew there was more to this than there seemed, but she didn’t know what. She was exhausted, and Mariana frightened and perplexed her, and when the knife slipped and she sliced open her finger, she swore loudly.

Marianna looked at her sharply and said, “I told you, you must always cut with intention.” She opened a drawer and brought out a bandage.

Willamina groaned. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

The small woman scowled, and slammed the cloth onto the counter in front of her. “You are spoiled, but that is not your fault. You are weak, but this we can fix. But if you are going to be willfully stupid there is absolutely nothing I can do for you.” She turned then and busied herself with breakfast preparations, slamming the pots on the stove.

Willamina bandaged her finger, fighting back tears. She picked up the knife again and got back to work. Mariana turned back to her then, frowning. She sighed deeply.

“I told him I would be no good at this. I am short tempered, and I do not like the cold.” She picked up her own knife then, and leaned over the counter, resting on her elbows. “It’s like I said. The knife is an extension of you. Of yourself. Of your will. Your magic, it is the same, you see? Your intention has to be clear. It has to be focused. Like this blade. And you must keep that focus sharp, clear in your mind. Or you will cut yourself. Do you understand?”

Willamina nodded, her eyes wide.

“Good,” Mariana said. She did not smile, but there was an approval in her tone that Willamina appreciated more than any words. “Then back to work.”

That day, she spent the whole morning in the kitchen. After she had done the mirepoix, Mariana showed her how it was used, and began to teach her what herbs to add to make each of the dishes she already knew from the other side of the table. And with each, she told her of its other uses, medicinal and more arcane; how each had to be picked or cut, at what times, and why.

When Mariana finally told her to go rest at lunchtime, she felt her head would explode. She cancelled her plans for the rest of the day and spent the afternoon reading quietly.

That was also the second time, but far from the last, that she came back to her room after dinner to find something waiting for her. It was a bouquet of jasmine, and the heavy scent filled the whole room. She didn’t need its help to sleep this time, as she was out as soon as her head hit the pillow. But she did dream of a quiet garden, where she felt safe and at peace.

By the end of the next week, she was spending almost all of her time in the kitchens. On this particular afternoon, she was cleaning a seemingly endless pile of parsley, and frowning.

“You look displeased, Willamina,” Mariana said. She was paring and slicing apples and placing them into a large earthen crock to make a brandy.

She hesitated before speaking. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful.”

“But?” Mariana prompted her.

“But I was expecting, oh, I don’t know… demon summoning, or fireballs. The things Stephen tells me about.”

Mariana sniffed. “Magician’s magic. Men’s magic. That you can pick up quickly enough from your brother.” She gave her pupil a sharp look. “As if you hadn’t been already. No, I am here to teach you what they can’t. They do magic. We are. We give birth to men, we make them men when they come of age, and when the time comes, we help them to the door and deal with the things that remain. Let them have their circles and trinkets. This,” she said, slapping the countertop with her blade handle, “this is real. It is less impressive, much of the time. But it is more important.”

She smiled then, and for the first time Willamina caught a glimpse of the woman under the hard exterior. Her eyes danced, and she said, “But perhaps it is time to do something a little bit… fun. Run up to my room. Under the bed, in the blue bag, there is a silver bowl. Bring it down. And touch nothing else. We’ll see how far this Sight of yours can really reach.”

Wils brought the bowl down, and they filled it with fresh water from the pump. Mariana showed her which herbs to burn, gave her the instructions on the chant while she took her hair down and unbuttoned her collar. As she did the same, Willamina realized that she would have to revise down her estimate of the Greek woman’s age. Smiling like this, she was a very pretty woman. Her hair was thick and curly, and it fell down almost to her waist.

“Now, we’ll cut straight to it,” Mariana said with a conspiratorial grin. “Who is he?”

Willamina blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Every young girl who tries this wants to see the same thing, the first time. I don’t think it will do any harm. So,” she said, needling her with her elbow, “what is his name?” Willamina blushed furiously. “Come on, out with it. After all, who would I tell?”

The girl bit her lip before smiling a little. “Stian.”

Mariana’s eyes bulged out. “You mean…”

Wils’ blush spread down her neck as she nodded.

Mariana cleared her throat. “Well, I cannot question your taste. But that’s completely out of the question.”

“Why?”

“For one, it wouldn’t work, more than likely. For another, if it did, he’d know, and I like my head firmly attached where it is, thank you. And take my advice, when it comes to that one, many have tried, and all have failed.” Willamina bit the inside of her cheek. “Let’s see what your brother and that old reprobate Casmin are up to, eh?”

Rafe found them there a half hour later, leaning over the bowl and giggling. He had come to speak to Edmund, but drawn by the smell of magic and burning sage, he had wandered back into the kitchen.

“What on earth are you…” His words trailed off as he was the object of two matching glares. He turned right back around and left, although not before making the same observation about Mariana his sister had. She was much prettier than he had realized.

No, he told himself. Still terrifying.

He walked to the study, shaking his head, and found Edmund sifting through a mountain of paperwork.
He looked up as Rafe entered. “What are they up to back there?”

“You don’t want to know,” Rafe said.

“This is ridiculous,” Edmund complained. “I can’t even go into my own kitchen anymore.”

“You never did before, either,” said Rafe.

“Yes, but now I can’t,” said Edmund. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Well, at least she can cook,” said Rafe. Although truth to be told, having gotten a look at her spice rack, he wasn’t sure he wanted to eat there anymore.

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