CHAPTER ONE H. L. Burke / www.hlburkeauthor.com
The scents of roasting cliffpigeon and potatoes wafted around the kitchen like beckoning fingers.
I’ll get my turn once the evening rush is over, Lizbete thought. She bent over the cauldron of fish stew, stirring furiously. Her metal spoon clanked against the sides of the cast iron cooking pot—her guardian’s favorite, heavy as a boulder and black as the caverns that honeycombed the mountain side.
The two village boys, who acted as table runners, rushed from the steaming hot kitchen to the more breathable common room. Every time they pushed through the swinging doors, they allowed them to clack noisily back into place. Every time, Lizbete winced. Did it take so much effort to ease the door into place rather than let it swing as wildly as a sheepdog’s tail?
Steam rose off the stew and twined up her arms. She paused to savor the heat. Her eyes fell shut, and she swayed on her feet as the warmth trickled into her. It had been a long shift.
A particularly drizzly day had drawn more than the usual clientele into the tavern. Of course, there were the regulars. Fishermen lounged by the fires, thawing out after a day being battered by the cold ocean spray. Tradesmen crowded tables, eager to relax with a dose of burning wine. Auntie Katryn considered this liquor the tavern’s signature drink, brewed from potato mash and caraway seeds and carrying a delightful taste of citrus and licorice.
Today, though, a group of merchants had stomped their way over the In-Land plains from the distant capital to make the last of the season's trades. The village had swarmed the fresh faces, begging for outside news. Like as not, the winter snows would have the high passes closed before the end of the week. While the village was self-sufficient in terms of food and shelter, luxuries from the lands beyond the coastal peaks were greatly prized, as was any gossip from the larger villages with their scandalous politicians and occasional feuds. Lizbete could do without both. After all, the luxuries rarely came the way of a cook’s foundling assistant, and it wasn’t as if the village of Brumehome didn’t produce enough gossip without outside assistance.
Lizbete raised the spoon to her lips. The steaming liquid stung her tongue for a split second, but she’d found out long ago that she was immune to burning. Her blood absorbed the warmth, turning the broth to the perfect temperature. She concentrated on the way the individual flavors played off each other: warm butter, mild white fish, aromatic onions, and a bit of crisp white wine she’d stolen from behind the tavern’s bar. While the recipe was Auntie’s, Lizbete enjoyed making things her own by throwing in something unexpected, in this case, the wine. She just had a feeling that the oily fish and creamy base needed something to brighten it up, like sun shining through the edges of a cloud.
The warmth rising from the pot continued to ease its way into her bones. Her head nodded, though she continued stirring. True, down-to-the-marrow warmth was a rare treat. The villagers harnessed energy from volcanic steamvents to warm their houses and power some basic machinery. Still, Lizbete never felt the warmth of the steam made a dent against the inclement weather and the constant freezing winds that swept off the sea.
Oh, to be truly warm…
The stew began to push against her stirring. Brow furrowed, she opened her eyes. Had it simmered too long and begun to thicken and burn? Horror filled her chest. The top of the stew crusted with ice crystals.
She let go of her spoon and staggered back. The fire beneath the pot still crackled. She cast a frantic glance around the kitchen. Auntie Katryn had left her in charge of the stew so that the older woman—and owner of the tavern—could see to her guests. The serving boys still dashed in and out, but neither gave Lizbete a second glance.
Trying to force her body to draw heat from the steam floating around her rather than through her hand, Lizbete poked at the frozen surface of the stew with the tip of the spoon. Maybe the broth would thaw before it was needed? The few times she’d allowed her attention to lapse to the point of freezing food items, there’d always been time to thaw it. Having it happen in the middle of the dinner rush was inconvenient, but it would thaw. It had to thaw. If only they didn’t need it soon.
“Hey, Ash Lizard!”
She jumped and spun about, the spoon clattering on top of the ice in the pot.
A blurry figure approached her. Her near-sighted eyes only perceived an indistinct red face topped with a blur of flame she assumed to be hair. He stepped right up to her, finally coming into focus as Tieren, the older of the two serving boys. Tieren gave her a mean-spirited grin. Severe wind and sunburn scorched his otherwise pale cheeks, nose, and forehead, almost matching his flame-orange hair. He was perhaps a year younger than her, but like most of the villagers, far taller and stronger than she could ever hope to be.
Frail and thin, Lizbete sported ashen skin that resembled the silver-scaled cave lizards that lurked in the warmth of the steamvents, only emerging from their caves to eat flies. The comparison of her complexion, combined with the unfortunate first syllable of her name and the way she always clung to sources of heat like a lizard, had been the cause of her cruel moniker. As much as Auntie had tried to discourage “Ash Lizard”, not allowing it to be spoken in her presence, the town was more like to call Lizbete that than her actual name.
A shiver cut through her. If Tieren saw the frozen stew, he’d ask questions, questions she couldn’t—or at least didn’t want to—answer.
Moving to block his view of the icy stew, Lizbete squared her shoulders. “Madam Katryn doesn’t like it when you call me that.”
His lips curled back over yellowed teeth. “Madam Katryn isn’t here now, is she?”
Lizbete opened her mouth to snap that she’d tell on him, only to immediately clamp it shut.
Tieren was only a temporary employee, on loan to Katryn while her usual waitress, Falla, was abed after childbirth. The threat of firing didn’t hold much fear for the boy in the short run, and in the long run, he would likely remember the ill-turn and use it as an excuse to torment Lizbete. His father was the local butcher, someone she had to do business with on Katryn’s behalf on a regular basis. The likelihood of seeing Tieren outside of Katryn’s protection was too high to risk his wrath.
“Whatever.” She’d put up with him, but she didn’t have to be pleasant about it. “Did you want something?”
“The guests are hungry and the roast ewe is almost gone. The boss wants you to get the stew ready to serve, then put what’s left of the ewe in the big pot to boil down for stock.”
Lizbete’s shoulders tensed.
“All—all right,” she stammered.
Tieren narrowed his eyes. “Get a move on it, Ash Lizard.” He turned away.
Lizbete fished the spoon out of the pot, an easy enough task as the utensil lay on the frozen surface of the stew. She hit the spoon against the top of the stew, breaking off ice crystals. If she could crack the broth into smaller pieces, it might thaw faster. “Blast it all …”
Auntie Katryn would never serve cold stew, let alone frozen stew. Why did those vent-blasted patrons have to eat so much so quickly? The spoon clinked against the solid stew, barely denting it.
“Oh, Skywatcher, not now!” she groaned. If the Skywatcher deity was listening, he didn’t immediately answer. She tossed log onto the flames beneath the pot. The fire roared to new life, but while the edges of the chunk of stew began to sweat, the middle remained unchanged.
“Three orders for fish stew!” Dori, the other serving boy, shouted from the door.
Lizbete groaned inwardly. She needed to get Katryn.
Setting the spoon in a bracket attached to the hearth, she crept through the kitchen towards the noisy, smoky common room. Her shoulders hunched towards her ears. Auntie Katryn wouldn’t be mad. Auntie was rarely mad, but the frozen stew would set the evening back a bit. Customers might complain, forcing her to compensate with free food, which would cost her money. Auntie already put up with enough inconvenience and local derision for having Lizbete under her care. Lizbete didn’t want to cause her more trouble.
Still, the longer Lizbete waited to tell her guardian, the worse things would get. With a deep breath, she pushed her way through the swinging double doors and out into the press of the dinner rush.
She bounced off Tieren’s chest. The young man dropped the stack of empty wooden bowls he’d been rushing to the kitchen to fill. He staggered back a step, scowling.
“What are you doing out of your steamvent, you dirty, sooty thing?”
Eyes darted to them, and a hush fell across the room. Lizbete cringed. She had hoped to sneak through unnoticed. A murmur of “Ash Lizard” rose from the nearest table at a volume they probably assumed would go unnoted—and for anyone but Lizbete, they would’ve been right. For whatever reason, Lizbete’s senses had decided to compensate for her awful eyesight by giving her acute hearing. As someone often on the receiving end of malicious whispering, she could’ve done without this ability.
The majority of Brumehome villagers had ruddy complexions and tall, broad-shouldered frames, but with Lizbete’s poor vision, they blurred together into one intimidating swoosh of browns, reds, pinks, and the occasional blond. From the patrons close enough to see, however, she could tell that everyone was staring at her.
Behind the bar, the rounded shape of Auntie Katryn stood out from the rest of the throng, made further visible by the red kerchief she constantly wore in her hair. She paused in her work of pouring burning wine into wooden tumblers for the line of boisterous guests.
“Lil’ Liz!” The middle-aged woman bustled around the bar. The various patrons scattered to avoid being mowed down by her considerable girth. By the time she reached Lizbete, she was red-faced and puffing. Her blue eyes watered and her graying brown hair was coming loose from its braids. Auntie stopped short of bowling the much smaller Lizbete over, worry furrowing her brow.
Lizbete dropped her gaze to the stone tiles of the floor. Warmth filtered through the thin soles of her skin shoes. Like many of the finer homes and businesses within Brumehome, the tavern was heated by steamvents that traced throughout the town like veins through flesh. Lizbete concentrated on this warmth and tried to find her courage.
“There’s a problem with the stew,” she said in a hoarse whisper.
Auntie set her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “A problem is only a solution waiting to happen.”
They entered the kitchen. Tieren craned his neck over Auntie Katryn’s head, trying to look around her. She shooed him back into the common room and let the door snap shut behind him.
Together they crossed to the hearth. Lizbete prayed that when she looked this time, the frozen stew would have returned into bubbling, steaming liquid. No such luck. Auntie tapped at the brick of iced food with her finger and gave a low whistle. The stew ice sank a little bit, squelching within the pot.
“I see.” She clicked her tongue. “Lil’ Liz, Lil’ Liz, how did you manage …” Her gaze fell on the spoon in its bracket. “Ah, you used a metal spoon to stir it?”
Lizbete flushed. Of course. She had been so panicked, she hadn’t even considered that detail. “The wooden ones all needed to be washed after the afternoon’s cooking. I thought it would be all right since the room is so warm.”
“Metal draws in heat, and your body always takes from the easiest source. If you’d used the wooden spoon, yo