Author's Note: I am not a cook, and know very little about cooking. Please excuse me if I make any mistakes about anything pertaining to it. ^__^ Now, for the story.

1 Part One

Her Royal Highness, the Lady Clarisse Hermengart Rosemonde Dalialah of Verbonya, was a very pretty young lady, and she knew it very well; this was the root of all her problems. Her hair was as black as the volcanic glass traders brought from the southeast, her skin was the color of coffee with cream, and her eyes were as blue-green as turquoise; or her father's eyes, for that matter. Except for the one trait, she took after her foreign mother, who'd been the color of cinnamon and who had killed herself shortly after Clarisse was born. Of course, Clarisse didn't know this. It was considered a scandalous thing, though some people did murmur to themselves behind closed doors that they didn't really blame the poor dear. But everyone universally agreed it was much too horrible a thing to talk of to the young princess, and she was pampered terribly by pitying nurses.

So Clarisse grew up ignorant of her mother's death and, in fact, of most things that mattered. Politics—boring. History-- just a bunch of dead people. Courtesy—she was a princess; she didn't need to be courteous to other people. Other people were supposed to be courteous to her. She didn't care much about things not centered on her. The only thing that really bothered Clarisse about her life was the fact that her father was a bit of a miser, to put it nicely, and didn't provide her with things quite as fine as she would have liked. But the king was not easily bullied, wheedled, or persuaded, so Clarisse was left permanently disgruntled. She once punched a visiting lady in the nose for lording her new white ermine coat over her, when Clarisse had nothing but her old mink-edged cloak. It had already been worn for half the season, and Clarisse was very touchy about it.

The king, who really wasn't a very nice person either, was very pleased when his whiny young daughter grew up into an exotic beauty, something that he knew would get her off his hands for a very good amount of gold. She was pretty enough, in his opinion, that all her suitors would be blinded to her…thorny… temperament, and marry her directly. So when Clarisse turned sixteen, he sent news far and wide about his intent to marry her off to a rich young nobleman. And obliging young noblemen appeared from all over the lands adjacent to the king's, eager to see the beautiful princess Clarisse Hermengart Rosemonde Dalialah of Verbonya. Unfortunately, Clarisse wasn't very eager spend a great deal of time with them once she had met them.

Clarisse was spoiled, vain, snotty, and unpleasant, but she was also very smart and was unable to completely hide this, no matter how hard she tried to drown her brain in a pit of vanity. The gathered young, and not so young, men were clever, genial, funny, and handsome, though the traits were spread out evenly among them. But they weren't nearly as rich as she would have wished, so none of them caught her eye, and that was saying it nicely. Clarisse walked up and down among them, insulting them with skill and ingenuity. The men were, accordingly, very insulted, and left. The king had been wrong. Nothing could blind a man to his daughter's horrendous people skills. This vexed the king a great deal, so he became determined to find a man that he could give the young princess to.

Being the less than wonderful person he was, the king knew exactly what kind of man would be willing to marry his daughter; a sadist that enjoyed breaking the spirits of his women, or perhaps an evil mage who would be able to use the girl in one of his spells. The king didn't particularly care. So, he sent out word again, but on a slightly different channel. And an assortment of obliging old evil mages, necromancers, kings, and ogres and the like came. The king didn't bother informing Clarisse this time; he picked the lucky groom himself. It turned out to be a horribly ugly wealthy old sorcerer king with a taste for brunettes (literally). He promised Clarisse's father a great deal of gold for Clarisse, and the marriage was arranged. The groom went back to his castle to prepare, and the king called Clarisse to his chambers, where he informed her of her impending marriage and showed her a picture of her fiancée so she might recognize him when they met. Clarisse was not extremely pleased with his choice.

"Father. Must I repeat myself? No. He looks like something the scullery maid scraped off the kitchen floor. I'd rather marry a warty green troll."

"Really? That can be arranged." The king smiled, having developed a very amused attitude toward the whole business. Clarisse sent her father a withering glare.

"Father," she tried a different approach, " I'll marry this man the day you commission me a dress as golden as the sun, one as silvery as the moon, another as shining as the stars, and a fur coat softer than silk, warmer than wool, and glossier than wing of a starling as wedding gifts." Clarisse knew what a pinchpenny her father was and was confident the demand would make him break off the engagement.

"Alright. Now go away."

And Clarisse was left gaping as a footman swept her out the door. The king, on the other hand, was rather pleased with himself.

It took a month for Clarisse's wedding clothes to be made, the seamstresses working as fast as they could and the hunters and traders searching for fur as fine as she had demanded. Clarisse was left plenty of time to formulate a plan, because she was determined not to marry the old toad her father had chosen for her. And lost in thought, the gilt looking-glass on the princess's bedside table became dustier and dustier, less and less used. The jars of cosmetics on her dressing table went almost untouched for the entire month and Clarisse didn't notice the worn spots on her favorite slippers from pacing. Perhaps it was just a byproduct of her preoccupied mind, but the servants noticed the change with wonder and more than a little thankfulness. She didn't snap at them when her lipcream ran out or snarl when they forgot to add perfume to her bath water every morning.

But for all her thinking, the only solution Clarisse could come up with was that her father couldn't possibly fulfill her demands, and she simply had to refuse to be wed due to the state of her trousseau. She was very dismayed when, on the night before her wedding, all four of her gifts arrived in her room. A brocaded dress more golden than the sun; a satin dress more light and silvery than the very moonbeams shining through the window; a white silk dress sewn with diamonds and metallic thread to make it more shining than the stars; a coat made of the fur of the black forest panther that stalked at night, fur long and soft and silky, and more glossy black than the wing of a starling.

Panicking, Clarisse did something she had never thought seriously of; she prepared to leave the warmth and comfort of her home at the castle. The ugly old king will probably beat me, for heaven's sake, she thought. Never having been at the mercy of the elements, nature was preferable to this. So Clarisse took her four new dresses and bundled them up into a canvas sack a servant had left in her room, something she usually did not tolerate. Then she took from a shelf three things of her mother's; her most prized possessions, in truth. A tiny porcelain figurine of a cat with golden spots and jeweled eyes, a silver ring set with a fire opal carved into a rose, and a cunningly crafted little golden clockwork frog that hopped when you wound it up. She tied these in her bundle as well. Then she locked the door, found her plainest dress, ripped all the decoration off of it and put it on. Looking at herself in a mirror with a bemused expression, she put on her black coat, put the bundle under it, and fled the castle through a series of small passages and one conveniently placed window.

And so Clarisse escaped the clutches of an evil old sorcerer-king. When her father found out what had happened, he was furious. But not quite so furious as the Clarisse's would-be husband was. He became absolutely enraged, deciding that the little slip of a girl wasn't worth the time needed for a search. Instead, he locked her father into a tower in his castle and forced him to spin a pile of straw into gold to save his life, which he miraculously did. But that's another story.

Clarisse traveled as far as she could that night. It was snowing quite hard; all traces of her flight through the forest were destroyed, luckily. But the going was not at all easy. She was not used to traveling in the snow, or in the forest, or at night, or really any traveling at all. She stumbled many times and her face was quite scratched before the night was over. But she did the best she could, and, after she had made it a mile or so from her father's palace, she nestled herself into a hollow by a tree to sleep, her fur coat keeping her warm. She had not thought to bring any food, a problem that had not occurred to her before she fell asleep.

The next morning, Clarisse was jostled awake by something rather hard poking her and loud voices.

" Hey now, look what I found, Ben. Not a panther at all; just a little tatterdemalion in a raggedy fur coat!"

Clarisse opened one eye and saw a bearded man standing over her, wearing livery and carrying a bow in one hand. Though she didn't realize it, her castle was standing extremely close to the border of her kingdom. Clarisse had crossed over the border the night before.

"I think you're right. I wonder where she came from." The other man, Ben, had a considerably less raucous voice. Another face appeared next to the bearded man's, peering at her owlishly. They were foresters, by the look of them.

"Well now, lass, you alright? What's your name?"

Clarisse frowned at them and stood up shakily, joints aching from a night huddled up on the ground.

"I am…Dahlia, thought it's hardly any of your business," she said haughtily, using a fragment of her third middle name as an alias.

"Oh, a polite one we've got here, Ben! Now, your Highness, perhaps you might consider getting yourself up and coming with us? This here is the king's forest, and you might just be mistaken for an animal and shot if you ain't careful, to be served for supper in the Great Hall, God forbid!" The middle-aged forester was clearly laughing at her, but the other, Ben, elbowed him on the ribs and held out a hand to help Clarisse up. Clarisse stood, cramped muscles groaning as they stretched.

"Don't mind Peter, over there. He has a sense of humor only he can understand. Now, where do you live, mistress? Perhaps we could escort you home?" His voice was hopeful.

"None of your concern."

"A runaway, then?" asked Ben, half to himself. Peter snorted.

"More like a beggar. Come on, Ben, if she doesn't want any help, I'm certainly not going to help her. We've got a job to do, that doesn't involve coddling prissy young ragamuffins."

"Come on, miss. If you come with us, we'll find a place for you at the castle."

Clarisse sniffed. Ben sighed, glanced at her, and then started walking away with Peter. The princess watched for a few moments, hugging her coat around her, shocked. They… they were just going away? She stood there until they were almost out of sight, not believing that they would really just leave her there. When she realized that they weren't going to come back or wait, she ran through the brush towards the two foresters. They stopped and looked back when they heard her.

"A… job, you said? Something to eat and a place to stay?"

"Decided you want to come back, then?" Ben's voice was skeptical and Peter just ignored her.

"Well… it isn't as if I had anything better to do."

The younger forester smiled, Peter shook his head, and Clarisse followed them through the snow to the castle of King Josef, who ruled the country next to her own.

At the time, kingdoms in Clarisse's area were little more than city- states. King Josef ruled one of the most powerful of all, centered in a large city called Marit. But at the time, he and his court were staying at a winter palace in the woods, which was where Ben and Peter were taking Clarisse. It was a squat, stolid block of a building that could fill-in as a fortress in times of need, and when they finally reached it, Clarisse was less than impressed.

"That is the ugliest building I have ever seen in my life," she stated in disgust. Peter glanced back at her in surprise and burst out laughing.

"It is! It looks like someone took a huge big square hunk of rock and poked a few holes in it for windows, then plopped it down in the middle of a perfectly good forest."

"I'm sure you're quite the master architect, Miss Dahlia, ma'am," he said with a grin. It was Ben's turn to shake his head wryly. Clarisse fell back into a sulk. She hated people laughing at her.

"Don't worry, you won't be seeing too much of the palace from the kitchens," he added.

"And speaking of the kitchens, here we are. Dahlia, stay with Peter. I'll go find the head cook and he'll find a place for you."

Clarisse reluctantly watched him go off as they arrived in a courtyard in the rear of the palace. It was full of people bustling around, most carrying food or buckets or brooms. A short door was located in one gray wall, leading into a smoky room. Clarisse shuffled her feet in the dust and waited. She wasn't quite sure what a job in the kitchens would require. Cooking, she would think, but there seemed to be more people in the courtyard than needed for that. And a lot of them just seemed to be cleaning. For once in her life, Clarisse felt truly out of her league, and that bothered her. And she realized, at that moment, how completely ignorant she was.

Ben returned a few moments later with another man in tow, this one with disarrayed blond hair and a smudged apron. He had the look of someone who was sure that he did not have time to be doing this one thing, but had been dragged off against his will. Once they stopped next to Clarisse and her forester companion, he redirected his glare to the princess.

"A job, you want?" he asked curtly. Clarisse glowered back at him sullenly without answering.

"Teenagers," sighed Peter. "Yes, she does need a job. We found her out in the woods and she refused our offer to take her back home. It's our opinion that she's a runaway, so we just took her back here before she froze to death out in the forest."

"Well, what ever. You have any skills, girl? D'you cook decently? Sew?"

The princess shook her head defiantly, but her confidence had begun to wilt at the edges.

"Alright, then. Go inside and find a large black-haired woman named Miriam. She'll tell you what to do."

He strode off without another word. Clarisse sniffed again and Ben shrugged at her.

"He's always like that. Don't mind him, he's more bark than bite. But we should be going now. Good day, miss. Nice to meet you." He nodded politely and turned to leave. Peter saluted her half-mockingly and followed suit. They tramped out of the snowy courtyard without looking back, leaving Clarisse to face her new life alone. She didn't relish the prospect.

The inside of the kitchen was one of the most unpleasant places Clarisse had ever been. It was hot and smoky and full of people, turning spits and rolling out dough. It was also rather filthy; Clarisse shuddered to think that the kitchens where she had gotten her food were as dirty as this one. She turned her mind from that train of thought quickly and wondered whom Miriam was. The description had not been very particular; lots of women were large and black—Oh.

Clarisse's eyes set upon the tallest woman she had ever seen in her life, and she knew that that must be Miriam. She was easily larger than all of the women, and most of the men, in the room. The princess pulled her mud- spattered fur coat around her more tightly and marched up to the woman's side.

"Are you Miriam?" she said in her best princess voice. Miriam didn't even turn around to look at her. Clarisse cleared her throat and tried again.

"Excuse me, madam." No answer.

"Lady! Are you completely deaf, or just ignoring me?"

That got a reaction. A scullery maid nearby gasped at Clarisse's tone and skittered away. Miriam turned around to look down upon the princess with a face like a thunderhead. Clarisse raised her chin imperiously.

"Might you be Miriam?"

"I might be, and am Miriam. My question is, who do you think you are to use that tone of voice with me? I don't recall seeing you before." Her voice was icy.

"My name is Dahlia." The lie came without hesitation now. "The," she grimaced, remembering the man, "head cook sent me to you. I am looking for work, and he said you would tell me what to do."

Miriam was silent for a moment, and then got a mischievous twinkle in her eye. She relaxed visibly.

"Yes, I know the perfect job for you. We've been needing another drudge to turn the spits. One of ours fell into the fire and burned to death, so we need a replacement for her. I think you will do nicely."

The girl's eyes widened, but then narrowed into a suspicious glare when someone close by hastily stifled a giggle. Miriam grinned fiendishly and beckoned Clarisse to follow her.

"Come, Dahlia. I'll show you where you'll be staying. And I'll get you some proper clothes; Anise won't need them any more, surely. And you'll have to take off that coat of yours. You'll get hair in the soup, and then what will the king say?"

She led "Dahlia" out a passage and up a narrow stairway, until they came to a low hallway lined with doors, numbers carved above each. Miriam opened number 27.

"And lucky you, a room all to yourself." She walked in and opened a drawer under the bed. Two nicely folded dresses and various underthings were there, and two stained aprons.

"There. Change, put your things away, and come back downstairs immediately. We have feast to prepare; the young King has just turned twenty, and people from all over are coming to the ball. It will take days to get everything made."

Clarisse made a face at Miriam's retreating back, then sighed when the door closed. Why was everyone at this place being so unpleasant to her? Everyone seemed to be scowling all the time. The princess had long ago begun to wonder whether running away and becoming a servant was a very intelligent move. She had gotten the impression in her few minutes here that servants didn't leave very nice lives, and nobody was ever polite to you if they thought you were one of them. Clarisse thought over all of this and more as she changed into her new clothing. She certainly had enough time; the girl wasn't used to dressing without help, and it took her quite awhile to button up the back her gown. When she came back to see Miriam, the bigger woman pursed her lips and shook her head.

"I see you finally came down to join us. Now, here's what you need to do. See over there? Those are the spits, where we cook whole pigs, chickens, and the like. You know that. What you'll be doing is turning the handles to get them cooked evenly, making sure the dogs don't filch them, and calling for more wood when you need them. From the look on your face, you've never done this before. Mari, the girl already working over there, will help you if you need it. Now, shoo. I've got work to do." She shoved Clarisse lightly in the right direction and walked away, leaving the princess feeling half angry, half forlorn. Everybody kept handing her off to someone else. She wondered who else she'd have to talk to before the day was over. She went over to Mari, who told her to wait a moment. A few chickens, part of what would be the day's dinner, were put in her care. Clarisse turned the spit sullenly, eyes locked on the ground surrounding the fire. Why would there be dogs around the kitchen? She didn't want to think about that.

A few chickens later the firewood became mostly ash and Clarisse called, sullenly, for more. A few hours after that, the food was sent up to be served and the food-preparers wandered off for their own midday meal. Clarisse looked around, hoping to discover where she would find food waiting for her, then turned and, sullenly once again, asked Mari where they were fed. Mari lead her to another room connected to the one they worked in. They picked up a few slices of bread, a few scraps of meat, and a tin cup of water. Then she led her out into the hall, where a few other servants had sat down to eat. The princess and the kitchen-girl slid down to crouch by the others. Clarisse did it as sullenly as she could, listening to Mari and the other girls chatter happily. The sound of their cheerful voices left her in an even more sullen mood than before. Buy the time lunch was over, the other servants were taking one look at Clarisse's face and going back in the opposite direction. If she had not looked so ill- tempered, more than a few of them would have come to talk to her.

So life, continued one for days. Clarisse got up before dawn—after having been awakened by a bucket of cold water three days in a row, Clarisse learned to mind the wake-up call—,helped warm left over meat for breakfast, helped to roast the new(er) meat for dinner, and reheated the meat from dinner for the evening meal. She got short breaks for her own food and got a chance to wash her clothing once a week. Clothes washing had been a new experience for the runaway princess. The washerwoman were almost all large and red-faced and built like blacksmiths. They frightened her out of her wits.

"What do you mean, girl?" said one called Sally, squinting down at the princess. "What do you mean, you don't know how?"

Clarisse mumbled something incoherently. Sally sighed heavily and showed her the proper method for scrubbing clothing. The girl mimicked her motions ineptly.

"Good enough. Now you take them out, see, and hang them on the line to dry."

Clarisse wrestled her sodden woolen clothing out of their vat of hot water—now weighing more, she was sure, than a small child—and hung them on a clothes line. Sally patted her on the back, nearly knocking the girl to the ground.

"See, not so hard after all, eh? What kind of house did you come from, girl?"

Clarisse went to bed that day feeling as if she had survived a great ordeal. She was strangely proud.

Days turned into weeks, and Clarisse had had enough of the spits. Between the broiling heat, the pups that patrolled the kitchens for both scraps and rats, and the monotony of turning a spit hour after hour after hour, she felt like she was about to go insane. But she knew she couldn't return home to her own palace, where both her father and her bridegroom awaited her—though the thought did cross her mind from time to time. She remembered the silken dresses, the gorgeous jewelry, the hot perfumed baths and the delicious meals wistfully, but the picture of her almost-husband tainted all her memories.

So she decided to stay in the kitchens, though not in the spits. Luckily for her, winter had just turned to spring and several of the cook- assistants' assistants' assistants were leaving to marry and there were job openings preparing food. Clarisse leapt at this opportunity avidly. But it would mean going to see the intimidating Miriam again. She approached the tall woman with caution and mental note to be scrupulously polite.

"Excuse me, ma'am," she said respectfully when she sighted Miriam in the kitchen one morning. Miriam turned around, eyes widening slightly when she saw Clarisse standing before her.

"Dahlia, is it? I'm glad you finally have a civil tongue in your head. What is it?"

"Um. I heard that there were job openings for a cook's assistant position, and I was wondering if I might have the job?" She said it very fast. Miriam looked at speculatively.

"Do you even know how to cook?"

"Well, not really. But the third level assistants don't really do any cooking, right? Just chopping and grinding and sorting herbs. I'm a fast learner." Secretly, Clarisse was just thinking, oh, please, take me take me don't make turn the blasted spit anymore please. Miriam shrugged.

"Oh, fine. Just as long as you stay polite, though. If anyone complains about your work, or your rudeness, you're out. Alright?"

The princess nodded quickly. Miriam gestured toward another part of the kitchens, where the third level assistants—there were more than fifteen of them—were busy working.

"Tell the assistant-in-charge that I sent you. She'll tell you what needs to be done." Miriam turned back to her own work. Clarisse, more elated about her promotion than she had ever been about a new dress, dashed over to her new station. The assistant-in-charge gave her directions, and she set about chopping carrots and potatoes and apples serenely. She hoped that by the time the king and court returned to the capital city, once true spring arrived, that she would have moved up to second level assistant's assistant.

The kitchens had a huge, intricate caste system all its own that had taken Clarisse many weeks to understand. At the very bottom were water-carriers and wood-choppers, followed by spit-turners and dish-washers. Then came the third level assistants, all 22 of them(including Clarisse!). After that it got complicated. The third-level assistants-in-charge were higher than second level assistant's assistants, but the latter was an apprentice that would eventually become second-level assistant, which was higher than both. The second level assistant-in-charge was only a dream for most of the kitchen workers, but the first-level assistants were higher still. There were only five of them, and they answered directly to the Head Cook, Constantin, the impatient blonde man who Clarisse had talked to her first day at the palace. Then there were the kitchen overseers, like Miriam, who were another system entirely, keeping each room running smoothly—Clarisse's head spun as she chopped vegetables and imagined her rise through the ranks.

"What? Done already? You can help me." asked a voice, shattering her reverie. She saw one of the other assistants looking at her. He pushed a huge bowl toward the princess, full of eggs, and two slightly smaller empty bowls.

"Eggs needed to be separated. Whites in one bowl, yolks in the other." He started on the huge pile, and Clarisse watched out of the corners of her eyes to learn what he was doing. She took an egg, hesitantly, and copied his movements. After three eggs, she got the hang of it. After ten, she was working faster than the other assistant was. Soon the egg bowl was empty.

"Lord, what were you doing as a spit turner? You're better at this than me," noticed the other, whistling softly. Clarisse shrugged, slightly embarrassed.

Before midday, she learned how to whip the egg whites and the finer points of kneading bread dough. By evening, she had, with horrified fascination, learned how to pluck feathers from fowl and to remove the innards, keeping the organs used for cooking. She went to bed that night thoroughly pleased with her new assignment.

Before Clarisse knew it, a month had past and the king was leaving his winter palace to return to the capital. It was a time she both looked forward to and dreaded: it was a time when workers where either promoted and brought along, sent to other castles, or fired. The first option was the one she hoped for, the second was bearable, and the third was terrifying. She had no idea where she would go if they sent her away. Not home; her hands were red and rough, her arms muscled from her work. She didn't look so much like a princess anymore, not after so long washing her own clothes and turning spits and kneading dough. Just an uncommonly pretty kitchen maid who would give you the rough side of her tongue if you displeased her. Three months in the kitchens had expanded her vocabulary exponentially.

And so, the anticipated day finally arrived when all the inhabitants of the kitchen, from the lowest water-carrier to the first assistants, crowded into one room. The Head Cook stood in the front with all the kitchen overseers, including the easily-identified Miriam. Clarisse stood towards the back, leaning against a wall in her cleanest dress and least patched apron. The crowd murmured nervously, until the Head Cook called for quiet.

"Ahem. Well. It's that time of year again, as you know," he seemed, as always, somewhat distracted. Clarisse had learned that this was his habitual demeanor and didn't necessarily have anything to do with his mood at the moment.

"Some of you we'll bring with us, some will stay here until we come back late next fall, whether you like it or not." Some of the lower servants lived in the village and were only hired on as extras when the king was in residence at the winter palace. "Your friendly local overseer has kindly provided me with a list of recommendation to keep with us." A brief, nervous chuckle swept through the crowd. The overseers were brusque, commanding, intimidating, and respected, but not friendly. "Let's see. All the first assistants are coming, as you know. Section one, second assistants…" Clarisse let her mind drift off. She was in Section Four. It would be awhile until they got to her. She waited, impatiently, for over half an hour until she heard the words, "Section Four, third level assistants." Her attention riveted itself to the front of the room.

"Let's see. Assistant-in-Charge Dana is coming along in her regular post; Tom Carver, being transferred to Lord Rayne's castle; Karla, staying here until next winter; Dahlia, coming, promoted to second assistant. Good job. Verne, coming; Jacob…" Clarisse stood stock still as she heard her alias called out. When she heard her new post—straight to second assistant, not even being assistant's assistant first—an enormous, silly, jubilant grin spread over her face. Someone patted her on the shoulder amiably, others whispered surprised congratulations. The princess-turned-servant went through the rest of the day with huge smile on her face, working and packing her possessions mechanically. She just shrugged mildly instead of replying sharply when her coworkers remarked, sardonically, that they had never seen her so animated before—she seemed almost pleasant. Nothing could damage her good spirits.