‘And I yours, Mistress Pol,’ he replied, ducking his head slightly in a sort of bow. ‘I’ll take you up to meet Faldor. We can hope that his column of figures all added up today.’
‘Does he have trouble making them come out?’
‘All the time, Mistress Pol. All the time. Faldor’s a very good farmer and the best master in this part of Sendaria, but arithmetic’s not his strong point. He gets grouchy when his numbers don’t add up.’ Durnik pointed at the main house. ‘His quarters are upstairs over the kitchen and dining-room. I don’t envy him that. The smells coming out of the kitchen lately haven’t been too appetizing.’
‘That’s sort of what I’m here to talk with him about, Goodman Durnik.’
‘Are you a cook, perhaps?’ His brown eyes grew hopeful.
‘I can boil water without burning the bottom of it, if that’s what you mean.’
‘Praise the Gods,’ he said fervently. ‘Poor Nala can’t even manage that any more. Can you imagine what burning water smells like?’
We both laughed as we crossed the compound to the large kitchen door. ‘Wait here,’ I told my goat. I knew that it was probably a waste of breath. She’d go exploring as soon as I was out of sight, but I was sure that I could find her again.
The kitchen was well-designed, I saw, with work-tables and cutting boards in the center, stoves and ovens lining the walls, and the storage bins and pantries at the back. It was very cluttered, however, with knives and pans littering the work-tables rather than being hung back up where they belonged. There was definitely a problem here, and its source was snoring in a chair by the stove. It was fairly late in the afternoon, but supper hadn’t even been started yet The kitchen was disorganized, and the kitchen helpers were wandering around aimlessly while the head cook snored. It was clear that Mistress Nala wasn’t taking her job seriously any more.
Farmer Faldor was a tall, lean, horse-faced man with a long nose and an even longer chin. As I was to discover, he was a devoutly religious man who felt it to be his duty to look after the well-being of his employees, physical as well as spiritual. When I first saw him, he was struggling with a column of figures. One glance told me where he was making his mistake, but I didn’t think I should point it out to him until I got to know him better.
This is Mistress Pol, Faldor,’ Durnik introduced me. ‘She wanted to speak with you about the possibility of employment in the kitchen.’
‘Mistress Pol,’ Faldor greeted me, politely rising to his feet.
‘Farmer Faldor,’ I replied with a little curtsey.
‘Have you had much experience working in kitchens?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I replied, ‘a great deal of experience.’
‘Our kitchen certainly needs help right now,’ he said mournfully. ‘Nala used to be very good, but she’s older now and putting on a lot of weight. It’s slowing her down. She just can’t seem to get started any more.’
‘It’s an occupational hazard, Master Faldor. It has to do with tasting.’
‘I didn’t exactly follow that, Mistress Pol.’
‘A good cook has to check the quality of what she’s preparing. The only way I know of to do that is to taste it. If a cook isn’t careful about that, every sip or nibble goes straight to her hips. How many are you feeding currently?’
‘Fifty-three right now,’ he replied. ‘There’ll be more when we get into the planting. Do you think you could handle that big a kitchen?’
‘Easily, Master Faldor, but why don’t we wait until after supper before we make any permanent decisions? You might not like my cooking, and it’s good business to examine the product before you buy it.’
‘That makes sense, Mistress Pol,’ he agreed.
Just then Garion started to fuss a bit. I put him over my shoulder and patted his back to make him burp.
‘Your baby, Mistress Pol?’ Faldor asked.
‘My nephew,’ I replied sadly. ‘His parents died.’
Faldor sighed. ‘Tragic,’ he murmured.
‘Yes. I’ll step around Mistress Nala rather carefully, Master Faldor,’ I promised. ‘From what I gather, she’s served well and faithfully here, and it wouldn’t be proper to just push her aside.’
‘I’m glad you understand that, Mistress Pol,’ he said gravely.
‘That’s assuming that my cooking doesn’t make everyone sick,’ I amended with a slight smile. ‘How many kitchen helpers are there?’
‘Six – counting Nala herself. Would that be enough?’
‘More than enough, Master Faldor. Is there someplace where I could put my belongings? It’s a little late, and I’d better get to fixing supper if we want to eat before midnight.’
‘Why don’t you show her to that vacant room up on the west side, Durnik?’ Faldor suggested. Then he sighed with some resignation. ‘And I guess I’d better get back to my addition here. This thing refuses to come out even.’
‘Would it help at all if I told you that twelve and nine makes twenty-one and not twenty-two?’ I asked him mildly.
He stared down at his figures and then carefully counted it out on his fingers. ‘Why, I do believe you’re right, Mistress Pol,’ he said. ‘It does, doesn’t it?’
‘It always has before.’ Then Durnik and I left.
‘Is he usually that pliable?’ I asked Durnik as we went on downstairs.
‘I didn’t quite follow that, Mistress Pol.’
‘He didn’t ask where I’d worked before, he didn’t really ask if I knew anything at all about cooking, and he didn’t even ask where I’d come from.’
‘Mistress Pol,’ Durnik said, ‘the kitchen here is sort of a continuing disaster – like a fire in the barn or an epidemic of cow-pox. Faldor’s not pliable so much as he’s desperate. If Torak himself showed up claiming to be a cook, Faldor’d hire him without a second thought.’
‘I see. Well, I guess I’ll have to fix that’
I dropped off my bundle in the small room Durnik showed me, asked him to round up my goat and put her in the stables, and then I went back to the kitchen. Nala was still sleeping, and the other kitchen helpers were sort of aimlessly going through the motions of getting ready to start on the evening meal. ‘I’m the new kitchen helper, ladies,’ I told them. ‘My name’s Pol, and I think we’d better get started on supper, don’t you?’