This is a short story written from the perspective of Iman, stewardess to House Arlbond. It is set during Part One of Sand Dancer and contains only mild spoilers up to chapter twelve. Enjoy!
The Piemaker and the Fox
A trial of tiny white paw prints led Iman to the kitchen counter. Crumbs were scattered atop the surface among the flour; the remnants of what should have been a steaming-hot pie. She snatched a knife and stomped into the dining hall, following the trail to a darkened corner.
A fennec fox sat cleaning its paws on one of the cushions.
“You dirty rat!” Iman bellowed. “I’ll cut you in half!”
The fox screeched and darted between her legs. Iman chased the orange blur into the hall and swung her knife with labored chops until the effort proved too much. She bent over and recovered her breath. Swinging a weapon wasn’t as easy as it used to be back in her sandsea days. She didn’t intend to kill the little rat, just scare the damn thing away from her kitchen. How many times had she complained? Yet her complaints had fallen on deaf ears.
The source of Iman’s woes came bounding down the stairs and scooped up the yipping beast. “What are you doing to my fox?”
“Oh, so it’s your fox now, is it?” Iman gulped a breath. “What have I told you, girl? Keep your pet out of my kitchen. It stole a perfectly good pie.”
“He’s not a pet.” Mina allowed the creature to climb on her shoulder, oblivious to the flour it spread up the girl’s tunic. “He’s called Fez. He’s probably hungry, it’s only a pie.”
“Only a pie! It took half the morning to make! If it’s your pet, you can clean its mess—”
“I’ll do it later.” The girl jogged out the hall, cradling her pet, and called over her shoulder. “Talin’s taking me riding.”
“You better!” Iman yelled after her. She shook her head and returned to her kitchen. The girl found any opportunity to shirk her duties, and Talin only encouraged such behavior. Building discipline indeed.
White paw prints painted her kitchen along the tiled floors, the counters, and the chopping boards. Gods, what a mess. The trail led to a sack of grain leaning beside the larder door. The fox had gnawed a tiny hole through the cloth and scattered seeds. Worse, tiny brown pellets mingled with the grain.
Iman ground her teeth. It was one thing to steal her pie, but to foul her kitchen as well? The larder contained a few choice ingredients which would render pests cold. Foxes had short life spans, didn’t they? She could make it look like an accident; poor little fox choked on its own stolen goods. The girl would get over it. Wild foxes shouldn’t be pets. And they certainly shouldn’t be entering her kitchen.
“Rats,” a shadow said behind her.
She jumped, startled from her thoughts. “You scared me half to death, you fool.”
Jonan leaned by the doorway and nodded toward the larder. “Rat droppings.”
“A rat all right, a fat juicy one that’s going to find itself in a pie.”
Jonan cocked his head. “They’re not fox droppings. Rats.”
“And you’re an expert on rat dung?”
“Met many rats in Solus. When you sleep rough, you get acquainted. Had a pet rat. Rani, I named him. Friendly little man. One night, I got hungry. Burned him in my hands and ate him.”
Iman roared a laugh that shook her belly. “What do rats taste like?”
Jonan stared with a blank expression. “Desperation.”
Her chuckles fizzled out into nervous laughter. Jonan never spoke of his past surviving on Solus’s streets, and she’d never dared ask. “By Rahn, you’re serious.”
“Don’t use poison. Not unless you plan to murder the fox.”
“Murder’s a strong word,” she murmured.
“Talin wouldn’t be happy. Not if you upset our guest.” Jonan smirked and swaggered into the hall.
Well, she supposed he spoke true. Once the girl chose to join their House by bond, she’d soon learn who encouraged her pet to reach the afterlife. And if rats had infiltrated their kitchen, then Iman had bigger problems than an ill-trained fox. The last infestation in Arlent had depleted their stocks, and they’d suffered through a drought with no ingredients to bake.
Gods curse all rats and would-be rats.
This problem she’d leave for the girl to tackle later. The pile of scrolls and notes sat in the study couldn’t be ignored for much longer, and as Talin liked to remind her, Iman’s first duty was to serve House Arlbond and its people, and not her belly.
She entered the study and hissed a curse. The neat pile of papers on her desk were scattered across the floor. Tiny white paw prints smudged the intricate ink.
“That gods-damn fox,” she seethed.
Iman heaved herself into the chair and grappled with the bulk of papers within arm’s reach. They were all out of order and would take half the afternoon to organize. Most were bills of sale for wares the town needed. Some were Talin’s hand as evidenced by his awful scrawl; the finalization of the girl’s adoption by the king’s law, a receipt for the girl’s new clothes, new horse, and commission for a sword.
A sword? He’d kept that quiet.
Too much gold left their hands. Oh, Talin spoiled that girl. But like Jonan, the poor thing had grown up with nothing but the rags on her back, and she’d arrived in Arlent covered in dirt and dust with not enough meat on her bones to feed a fox. She’d been skittish like one too, and it had taken time to earn her trust and fill her belly. A few trinkets here and there wouldn’t do any harm if they balanced their books.
Iman shuffled the papers into a fresh pile and spied a scroll tucked under her chair with fancy lettering bearing the Solaran royal seal. Admission to the Academy.
She leaned back in her seat and scanned the document. So, this was Talin’s hasty trip to Solus. Not just to find the girl a horse and a sword, but to petition admission? The King would never accept a girl, the stubborn old goat. Rahn knows she’d tried. And this girl cut too sharp. She’d offend half the Keep in her first morning. There were practical reasons for a girl to learn the sword, especially a tribe rat, but training in the Academy held another path altogether and those Houseman snobs would never accept her. Not a tribe rat. Not a woman. Not… her.
What was Talin thinking? Was playing the role of doting dada worth risking their House’s precarious position? Enough Housemen disliked sharing a Council table with tribal blood. Even if Talin had proved himself and earned a place by the King’s side.
House Arlbond had earned its place. They’d fought in Houseman wars. They’d paid their way. And yet they’d all come from nothing; from dirt and dust.
The girl was no different.
Mina had an edge, yes, but she could be honed, if that’s what she wanted. She had the blood for it.
Iman had tried to steer the girl towards more feminine pursuits, to teach her cooking, crafting, art and beauty, but the girl hesitated, as though indulging a female thought would somehow undo her sword training. Talin didn’t understand the bad habits he encouraged, but Iman didn’t want to interfere with their relationship. She nudged and prodded where able, but feared it a lost cause. Even Jonan kept his distance. They all tip-toed about the mansion, fearful of scaring the girl off. Sending her to the Academy wouldn’t fix that.
Give it time, Talin had said.
Knuckles rapped on the door. Talin poked his head in. “Am I disturbing anything?”
Iman thumped the pile of papers. “Have you lost your senses?” She waved the Academy application. “When were you going to tell me this?”
Talin lingered by the doorway. “We’ll discuss it later.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Later?”
He wore a sheepish smile. “I’m taking Mina out to the valley and teaching her to ride.” His eyes were lit with the youthful energy of their Academy days. It gave her pause. He hadn’t smiled like that in seventeen years. He pulled a bottle from his sahn and placed it on the one part of her desk not covered in scrolls. “For putting up with me.”
A good vintage, Solus stock, but not the Solander swill they sold in the capital. A Gaisland brand. Expensive, too. She’d need to lecture her dear brother on his recent frivolous purchases. “Later, then. The pair of you are nothing but trouble.”
Talin chuckled and skipped away. She couldn’t fault his giddiness. He’d earned a little happiness. Hadn’t they all?
She searched for a clean wine glass and poured her own happiness. The flavor smelled full and fruity. It reminded her of those late nights when the mansion filled with laughter thanks to a good bottle and good company. It had taken one fateful night to cut through House Arlbond in a blur of steel and blood, and that laughter had been struck down. Never to rise again.
No one remained to indulge her tales or her pies. Talin had lived half a life, closed off to her for most of those seventeen years, a shadow in their home. And Jonan was… Jonan.
She swirled the wine. Seventeen years.
It had taken all that time for Talin to crawl out of his own personal darkness and move on. Shouldn’t she? It wouldn’t have been fair to seek company and pleasure whilst their House still mourned. Iman gulped the wine and its warmth bloomed through her. If she began reminiscing now, then well… she’d need a lot more wine.
The girl didn’t know it, but she’d burned through the darkest clouds of their House with the energy of Rahn’s sky fire during Lune’s Shadow. Mina’s arrival had shaken them all out of their stupor, and laughter had returned to the mansion once more. Iman had felt the conflicting feelings of what that meant through the bond; as though none of them deserved it.
As though they each needed to earn it.
A screech sounded by the door. Iman glanced up. The fox had sneaked its way back inside the mansion, no doubt uninterested in playing with horses and looking for an opportunity to raid her larder. Why put effort into hunting rats when House Arlbond provided everything a fat little belly needed?
Iman raised her glass in toast. “Come back to grovel, have you?”
The fox screeched and leaped on her lap.
Iman cursed and dropped the wine glass, spilling precious red down her beige tunic. “What in Rahn’s name?”
The fox darted out the study, knocking the glass bottle aside. Iman dove and caught it before wine splashed the mountain of paper.
“That’s it! I’ve had it with you!” She chased after the fox.
It led her back into the kitchen and the larder, now wide open, and more paw prints led a trail inside. If that dirty beast touched anything else…
Iman yanked the door open. The fennec fox sat with a fat rat in its mouth. A collection of dead pests by its feet.
“You hunted these?”
The fox dropped its prey and screeched.
“Well, I suppose you can stay if you earn your keep. We don’t take freeloaders in this House; do you follow me, cub?”
The fox named Fez made an odd cooing sound and rubbed its head against her leg. She stroked a few fingers across its soft fur.
Perhaps her kitchen could make use of a rat-hunting fox.
Lune had brought a Hawker girl and a fox cub into Iman’s life for a reason, and she couldn’t deny they hadn’t livened up the mansion. Whatever they brought next was destined to be fiery. And if they were headed for the Academy, then… House Arlbond would need to stock up on wine. The vintage kind. Their coffers would manage.