The entire world was composed of porridge. Sarah stared at the bubbling pot and wondered briefly if it would ever run out, or if the pot would be full when the world fell down in shards.
"Stop dreaming, girl! Stir that pot or it'll end up sticking. The porridge must be of an even consistency!" Spritch bustled by the bank of stovetops taking up the left wall. He tasted the contents of a pot that was being stirred by a brownie and nodded. In the back wall were ovens that were recessed into leviathan bone, and a gigantic hearth on which an entire goat carcass roasted. He ducked as a tray of pastries was taken out and placed on the bench, clapped his hands together and raised his voice. "SERVICE IN TEN. LOOK LIVELY."
The kitchens stirred in a flurry of action. Steam formed clouds in the air and the pungency increased to a point where Sarah could no longer smell any one thing. Teams of sprites flew strapped stacks of plates the length of the vast benches, nearly braining a brownie as they dipped to avoid the rib bones that buttressed the room. The sprite's harnesses briefly became entangled in the clockwork which lead from the throne room to the pits, but they tore free with a high-pitched chitter of annoyance. Cogs rained down on a gremlin, bouncing off his sparsely haired head and plopping into the bowl of custard he was stirring, and Sarah ducked at the screech of rage as a hastily flung ladle sailed over her head. The ladle bounced off a rusalka, who hissed, turning to reveal an impressively pointed set of teeth.
"We'd better get this out. Here, I'll help." Hoggle had appeared at her side, without her noticing.
"Thank you, Hoggle! You're a life-saver!" Sarah braced herself to lift the pot down from the stove. "Got it?" At Hoggle's affirmative grunt, she released one handle onto his upstretched hand and wheeled around. The pot barely cleared the ground as they began laboriously shifting it towards the dining hall. They staggered to the side to avoid a minotaur with a platter of roasted meat and finally lurched to a halt in front of Head of Hall Truckle, who ticked an item off a long list without looking at them and said "Over there!"
They deposited the pot in front of a harassed looking wolf-girl who pushed it into place with one hand while lifting a platter of eels over their heads with the other. Sarah stared briefly in amazement, and then staggered sideways as Hoggle tugged her out of the way of a tray of steaming leek and blackbird pies. She grabbed two off the tray as they passed, dodging the korrigan's snap, tossing them to Hoggle. If she could just get outside! The sun had just risen over the clouds and it was going to be a glorious day. Whirling and sidestepping as Hoggle ducked under the tables and ran the length of the hall, Sarah bumped into the Fuath.
"I'm sorry, Fuath." Sarah ducked her head and stared at the hem of the Fuath's green dress, edging away. No one wanted the Fuath's attention.
"Young…" the Fuath stared into the middle distance as a young hob whispered ingratiatingly in her ear "Sarah. Sarah Williams. You are a kitchen drudge, are you not? But not for ever, oh no. Why, we see great things for you, Sarah Williams. Walk with me."
Sarah's eyes almost flicked up to meet the horror of the Fuath's noseless face, but she remembered herself and fixed her gaze firmly on the Fuath's spiked tail. A nixie snickered the expression on Sarah's face, probably because Sarah could feel the terror freezing her features. Sarah leaned as far away from the Fuath as possible.
The Fuath dropped a webbed hand on Sarah's shoulder and Sarah stifled a shudder as the clamminess penetrated through her thin shift.
"You see, Sarah, I don't think you quite understand the... exigences of keeping a leviathan such as the Goblin Kingdom running. Why, his Majesty himself said to me the other day—"
Riders swept by and the Fuath and Sarah squeezed to one side. The Fuath opened her mouth to continue when a young goblin came running up.
"Your Fuath-ness. You need to be seeing this. You need to be seeing this right now."
The Fuath looked at the goblin consideringly. "What is it, Runcle?"
"It's that Ludo! The dhole boys cornered him again and—"
The Fuath swore venomously and turned to go. Sarah heaved a huge sigh of relief and then the Fuath looked back. "Sarah Williams."
Sarah couldn't help it. Her gaze flicked up to the Fuath's face.
"—it was hilarious." Hoggle drained his tankard. Sarah looked around. She was in the servants' Common Room and judging by the shadows, it was late afternoon.
"That bitch," said Sarah.
"Eh?" Hoggle sniffed, and then blew his nose on his sleeve.
"I—it was morning, and now it's not. That BITCH. She took the whole day!"
Hoggle gestured for a refill. "She's the Fuath. You know what she's like. One step from the Teg."
"That doesn't make it right. It's not fair."
A wood-may leaned over the table and sneered at Sarah while re-filling Hoggle's tankard. "That's right, Princess. It's not fair."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Shut up, Ruslana." Ruslana propped the tray she was carrying on her hip and dumped a bowl of stew and a bread roll in front of Sarah, deliberately brushing Sarah with her thorn-encrusted elbows. Sarah just as deliberately didn't wince, and leaned forward. "Hoggle, why doesn't somebody do something? They've got no right to just take like that!"
"We don't do anything because they can take like that! It's only a day!"
Sarah opened her mouth again and then closed it as Toby ran in and flung himself at her. "SARAH! You should have seen it! It was awesome! We were testing the rigging on Melchior, the new dragon and then Sir Didymus took me up. We did loop the loops and everything!"
"Toby, it's very good of Sir Didymus to take you up, but you have to remember not to bother him." She hugged Toby tight with one arm—after ten seconds he started to squirm and she released him with a kiss on his forehead. Toby scrubbed at his forehead and then at his dripping nose with the same hand.
"'Twas no bother at all, fair maiden!" A short ginger kitsune with wiry hair bowed low over Sarah's hand and kissed it. "The lad is most valiant and would prove an asset to the Brotherhood of Riders."
Sarah withdrew her hand sharply and lowered her voice "He's also human, not one of the Teg. You know they'll never let him—it's a miracle they let you, and you're not human! It's not fair to give him false hope like that."
Sir Didymus gestured in the air and presented the flower that had just appeared in his hand to her with a flourish. "My lady, the only false thing about hope would be not to have any."
Toby grinned at them. "I'm going to ride a dragon, Sarah. I won't be stuck in the pits!"
Hoggle snorted into his beer, but Sarah ignored him. "Sir Didymus—"
Sir Didymus flashed Sarah a charming smile. "Thomas. I insist."
"Thomas, then. You simply cannot ignore the reality of life in the Castle like that. As humans, we're too valuable to risk. If we die out there, our lux animae is wasted."
Hoggle laughed out loud "Who was protesting that life wasn't fair and they had no right a second ago?"
Sarah flushed "I don't think it's right. But like everyone else here, I keep my head down so it doesn't happen to me."
Thomas arched an eyebrow knowingly at Hoggle. "Ah. The Fuath?"
"A whole day." Hoggle sipped his ale.
"My lady, you have been most greviously used. I can only ask that you allow me to make amends in some small way." Thomas began patting down his pockets exaggeratedly. "Now, where did I put that—?"
Sarah waved her hands desperately in front of her face. "Noble Knight," she began. Thomas's face lit up and he pulled a scarf out of his pocket. And then his face fell, as he continued to pull a conjoined string of scarves. "Sir Didymus!" Sarah sharpened her voice, but Didymus still didn't appear to notice. He threw the scarves onto the table, and Sarah grabbed the pile of material and pushed it to the middle. Thomas pulled a toad out of another pocket and gave it a startled look before setting it on the weathered wood. "Please, Sir Knight—" she said, pleading.
"Fair maiden, I have it this time. Just let me—" said Didymus.
Hoggle pulled Sarah back cautiously. "Hoggle! This never ends well. I have to stop him!" said Sarah.
"Because everyone else has been so successful? You'll never stop him," said Hoggle.
"That doesn't mean I shouldn't try."
Sir Didymus pulled a clockwork rooster out of his doublet, sighed, and threw it on the table next to the toad. It started ticking, and then ruffled bronze neck feathers and crowed a coarse clash of metal. Toby reached out excitedly, and in doing so jostled the lantern on the table. A bit of lux animae wafted out and onto the table. The rooster bent grindingly and drank from the puddle, then straightened, looking much more alert. He strutted a step or two, and appeared to catch sight of the toad. The toad phlegmatically shuffled to the left, and the rooster followed, an actinic light shining from his copper eyes.
Hoggle drank deeply from his ale. Sarah regarded the toad and the rooster dubiously. Sir Didymus was still muttering and patting his pockets, and she reached over and took his hands. "Sir Knight, you are valiant and chivalrous, but this offense is not yours to make reparations for," said Sarah, smiling at him.
Sir Didymus looked touched, and then bowed deeply over her hands, pressing a kiss to the back of them. "Fair maiden, your kind heart is only exceeded by your wisdom," said Didymus.
The rooster sidled closer to the toad, and Hoggle signalled for Ruslana. "A meal for the boy, and ale for the lot of us."
Sarah frowned. "Juice for Toby."
Toby looked up in protest and Sarah frowned at him fiercely. He puffed a breath of air that briefly raised his blond bangs, and poked at the toad, which ignored him stoically. The rooster arched over the toad and pecked it. The toad looked sour, Toby looked fascinated, and Sarah sighed.
There was a crash as the door flung open and a group of a dozen Riders strode into the room. "Wench! Mead!" Sir Owain, the tallest of the group, flashed a charming smile. A beetle girl raised her iridescent elytra, letting the filmy wings underneath partially unfold, leaning forward onto the table with excitement. Serafima poked a head covered with feathery flames out of the kitchen, saw the Riders and rolled her eyes. Sarah caught Serafima's eyes; they shared a conspiratorial smile. The Riders strode over to a table. The sprites occupying it hastily grabbed plates and bowls as they could manage and vacated. Sir Gaheris swept the table clean, half-finished bowls clattering and spilling their contents on the floor. There was a mutter among the sprites, and Sarah heard a hissed "Let it go!" A green hob rushed forward to lick up the spilled food, and a gremlin bustled around collecting the bowls and hurrying them into the kitchen.
"What are they doing in here, anyway? They've got the Dining Hall! Not like they have to eat down here with us common folks." Hoggle said, watching the Riders with a sour expression on his face. Sir Didymus looked at Hoggle steadily, and Hoggle said "Beggin' your pardon there, Sir Knight. I always think of you as one of us."
Sir Didymus bowed deeply "And I, for one, could wish nothing more than to be counted as such."
Ruslana came forward with serving tray, bearing hastily filled goblets of mead. She moved around the table dispensing them, hastily putting down the tray as she was pulled onto Dinaden's lap as he seized both her and a goblet with equal greed. Owain looked at Ruslana and then looked away with a set expression. Ruslana stared at Owain murderously for a second and then forced a smile onto her sharp face. Sir Didymus muttered "Here now. That's not chivalrous!"
Sarah laid an absent hand on his arm. "Hush. Ruslana can take care of herself," she said. Hoggle chuckled earthily. The inhabitants of the Common Room appeared to hold their collective breath.
Serafima flickered out of the kitchen, and placed a jug unobtrusively next to Ruslana. Ruslana grinned and refilled Sir Dinaden's goblet, and shifted her weight until she was hanging off the edge of his lap, held by his hand across her hips. Sir Dinaden absently drained his cup and put it down on the table, where Ruslana refilled it.
Sir Dinaden shifted in his seat, then winced, putting his free hand on his belly. He belched sonorously, which was greeted with cheers from the other Riders. Sir Dinaden released Ruslana to use both hands to hold his stomach. Ruslana slipped down from his lap and went over to the kitchen, where she stood in the door.
Sir Owain raised his goblet. "Riders!" The Riders raised their own drinks back and yelled raucously. Sir Owain got up and stood on the table, and goblins scurried to clear the brass lanterns full of precious lux animae off the table before Owain's gold-inlaid boots kicked them over. "My Lords!" The Riders yelled louder and waved their goblets. Fae at nearby tables ducked to avoid the flung mead.
Sir Dinaden had fallen sideways onto the bench and was clutching his gut and moaning. His gut was starting to writhe alarmingly. Sarah regarded Sir Dinaden with caution and said quietly "Toby. We'd better go."
"But Sarah, I haven't eaten yet!"
Sarah broke open her roll, slopped some stew into it and handed it to Toby. "There. Now we have to go." She loaded their dishes onto the tray in the centre of the table. A small speckled troll trundled over to collect it.
"The lass is right, young Toby. You should listen to your sister." Hoggle displayed his usual survival instincts by going to the wall, to give as wide a berth as possible to the table of Riders.
Sir Didymus bowed deeply and said, "Fear not, My Lady! I will protect you!"
Sarah ignored the fact that she towered head and shoulders over him and curtseyed as she got up. "Your chivalry becomes you, Sir." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Toby reach back to the table, but by the time she turned around he was staring at her innocently, standing beside the empty table and dribbling stew down his arm. She grabbed Toby's other arm and pulled him after her, following Hoggle as they skirted the floor.
Sir Owain was still speaking on the table. "And it is on this very day, this glorious day, that we lead the raid on Drowned Ys and did what no other city has done in a hundred years!" Sir Dinaden sat bolt upright, turned a peculiar shade of greeny-grey and clutched the edge of the table. Sir Owain continued. "We rode our dragons right into the bitch and we TOOK HER HEART!" He brandished an organic-looking bundle the size of a large dog, that was glowing blue-white. "Enough lux animae for the whole year! And you know what's better?"
"What?" the Riders chorused, drinking deep.
"Why, that we—bitch Goddess." Sir Dinaden had leant forward and vomited all over Owain's feet. Half-digested fish-heads slimed Owain's gold-inlaid boots, and the entire room recoiled from the stench. Ruslana laughed so hard she had to grip the door frame to remain upright. Owain looked down at the wreck of his fancy boots with narrowed eyes and then over at Ruslana. He flicked fish-heads off his boots as he went, scattering Teg and lesser fae alike with ichthyic slime. An echo of power started to sound around him and Sarah thought desperately Shit, he's calling on his dragon, ducked lower and hurried Toby along the wall.
Ruslana waited in the doorway, still laughing, until Owain was almost within arm's length (harm's length, whispered a voice in Sarah's mind) of her. She cast her lashes down, and swept a deep curtsey. "Fath—I mean, Sir Knight. I see that your great feats do not extend as far as your feet. Unless the raid on Drowned Ys was accomplished by smell? Certainly, I can see that such a thing would make them quail." Ruslana looked at Owain's thunderous face and burst into gleefully vicious giggles. "In case it is not plain, bathe thyself, thou reeky fen-sucked hedge-pig!"
Owain gave a strangled roar, and reached for Ruslana. Giggling helplessly, she ducked back into the kitchen. The aura of power around Owain increased, and his hand dropped to the knife at his side.
"Oh, balls," said Hoggle. Hoggle grabbed Toby's right hand, Sarah grabbed Toby's left hand, and together they ran for the door out of the Common Room, to the Cloisters, Sir Didymus trailing behind them. Almost to the door!
There was a crash and a clatter and a crunch and then Sir Owain was flung backwards out of the kitchen, landing on the floor with an audible thud. The light in the Common Room changed from dim blue-white to a warmer, more dangerous orange glare. Serafima appeared in the door of the kitchen, her alated arms growing longer until the pinions of flame touched each wall of the Common Room (a good fifty yards each side. With the portion of her brain that wasn't taken up with Get out, get out, get out GET OUT GETOUT, Sarah wondered how big Serafima actually was). Serafima's crest raised and the air sizzled. She paced forward and mantled over the unfortunate Owain.
"What are you doing in my kitchen?" Serafima's words came out as a wash of heat. The entire Common Room seemed paralysed. Sarah weighed up the advantages of moving and not-moving for a minute and then prodded Hoggle into motion. The group edged towards the door. Ten yards!
Sir Owain rallied. Sarah tried desperately to shut him UP, goddess, just let him apologise, Herne the Horned One, how can bravery lead to THIS MUCH STUPIDITY stealthily make the door before he opened his mouth, but she was too late.
"I? I was merely trying to discipline your kitchen wench!" Owain had raised himself up on his elbows, and didn't appear to notice Serafima's hackles rising. "Your staff is in need of a firmer hand than they receive! Your girl poisoned one of my Knights!"
Serafima's voice rose in a screech. "First of all, Sir Knight, I take responsibility for my own. Secondly, are you accusing me of serving poisoned food?" Flames shot from her wings and Owain fell back against the floor, eyes wide. Serafima raised her head. Her eyes were white, and Sarah flung herself forward, landing over Toby in the doorway and stuffing her fingers in her ears as a fireball expanded from Serafima.
There was a tremendous boom, and then the flame was gone as quickly as it arrived. Sarah raised her head cautiously. Gremlins huddled on the floor. The Riders appeared stunned. Serafima looked vaguely shocked too, which was—good?
Sarah turned her head and saw a pair of calves encased in leather boots. Oh. Not good.
"What," said a calm voice above her head, "Is this."