Uncle Ezriyon watches with his keen little brown eyes as Stellia devours another slice of warm rye bread slathered with butter.
He pours more milk into the large bowl she has already emptied twice. On a small plate to the side, two sugared rolls await her tremendous appetite. It is wonderfully warm in the bake-house, compared to the chilly dawn she has spent in the olive grove outside the village. Uncle Ezriyon is done baking for the morning, but the oven is still hot, and he is sweating. Loaves of bread, heaps of oatcakes, and immense sheets of flatbread dotted with crispy brown speckles cool on wooden racks along the walls, and on a second table, a mass of rolls is piled high, waiting to be dusted with sugar and ground aniseed before aunt Tammora will take them to the shop in the front. Already she has filled a large wicker basket to sell to the first customers. Oraxas is helping her in the shop, while Yakkon, Stellia’s older cousin, is sweeping out the bake-house after the morning’s work.
Beyond the back door, left open to let out some of the brick-oven’s fierce heat, the morning sun is already turning the grass in her uncle’s backyard into gold.
“So you’ve taken to riding, have you?”
Uncle Ezriyon is a heavy-set man, taller than her father, with huge hands and forearms made muscular from kneading mountains of dough most of his life. When he was a young boy, barely nine years old, he became apprentice to the baker in Phoros, and worked there until he was old and skilled enough to set out on his own. It so happened that just around that time, the old baker in Godossas was killed by brigands on the road to Maltaros, and Uncle Ezriyon took the opportunity that offered itself—and in the process, found a wife as well: aunt Tammora was the old baker’s daughter.
“An early hour it must have been,” he says, “for you to set out and get here just after the crack of dawn. Still dark, was it?”
“Father almost didn’t let me go.” Stellia washes her mouthful of buttered bread down with goat’s milk. “Mother was terribly worried, of course, and wanted me to stay at home altogether.”
“Understandable. The road is still fairly safe, north of Phoros. But there are few patrols these days. No doubt the brigands will take note, and grow bold once again before long.”
It takes Stellia an effort not to remark just how bold they have grown already. Telling him about what happened in Phoros, of course, would give rise to far too many questions.
Her uncle sighs, and looks past her toward some distant point. “When Emperor Thedric was still alive, even the southernmost roads were patrolled regularly. Perhaps it is time that the Guardian gave up her search for Prince Ansil, and chose a successor. Not that I’m saying bad things never happened back then, but still…”
He trails off.
Stellia responds with a solemn nod. “Of course.”
“Well.” Uncle Ezriyon clears his throat and puts on his cheerful smile again. “Don’t fill up too much on bread and rolls. I trust you will stay for the midday meal?”
“I wish I could,” Stellia says. “But I promised father I’d be back by noon. He needs Phylia to visit customers in the afternoon.”
She feels ashamed. How easily the lies come to her!
“Ah, that is too bad,” Uncle Ezriyon says. “Yakkon would have been happy to spend some time with you later on.”
Stellia glances at her cousin, who is busy sweeping the flour and rushes out into the backyard. She can’t see his face, but he is probably blushing. She blushes, too, a little; Yakkon is handsome, tall, with his father’s well-muscled arms, and long black curls to offset his sea-blue eyes. Their parents would consider him and Stellia an ideal match.
But handsome as her cousin may be, that is not something she is ready to think about.
“It is a shame,” she says. “But you see, if I prove to father that I can make the journey here and back safely and in good time, he may allow me to visit more often. It’s so much quicker riding, than to come by wagon.”
“Much quicker, indeed.” Uncle Ezriyon smiles. “Well, then, we’ll do what we can to speed you on your way, if it means we’ll have you back here the sooner, and more often.”
Stellia can’t help but be a little proud of her clever story. But the feeling lasts only an instant. She despises herself for the lies she is telling.
“And how are things at home? How are your parents? And little Till?”
Stellia takes a big bite out of the sugared roll. It buys her time before the next falsehood. She tells Uncle Ezriyon that all is well at home, that Till is the cheerful little rascal he always was, that her mother is content, and her father’s business profitable—the latter being the only part of her account that is true. After she is done eating, her uncle gets up to finish dusting the rolls heaped on the other table.
“I do have enough time for a little chat with Yakkon,” Stellia tells him. “Before I need to go.”
Her uncle smiles, visibly pleased. “I’m sure he would enjoy that.”
Stellia steps out into the backyard, hoping that the end she pursues really does justify all the means she must employ.
NEXT: Hot on the Trail