I held my breath so hard I saw spots. This was such a bad idea. "The exalted ser knows this 'un?" I managed to squeeze out.
"Yes... Minakas Akam, the writer, right? That's why he invited it... he was talking about it the other day, how it's only seventeen when he thought thirties or forties for sure. Come on in."
"Writer, ay ser..." Breathe! Breathe! "Thenk the gracious ser fer his rememb'rence of this 'un, ser." He showed me in while I yanked my heart back down out of my throat. A number of the house dogs came barking up to greet whoever was at the door and a lovely brindle hound sat politely behind the pack, waiting its turn to be petted.
Once we were out of the entry hall with its cleverly disappearing closet doors, he lead me around to a very nice little dining room... well. Little if one were used to the Marble Palace. One of the walls was mostly glass doors open to the roofed-in central garden with potted paila trees almost brushing the glass ceiling. Two parrots... one scarlet, one blue and gold, obviously not allowed into the room while food was being brought in, pacing sentry back and forth along the door-sills.
The dogs found their way through from somewhere else and lined up behind the parrots, gazing hopefully into the room with the food. A blue-pointed wing cat, hung from his tail from one of the potted trees, pretending he was not coming in just because he chose not to, licking his belly fur.
The chandeliers above were partly lit and above them, drifting in the rising heat from the candles, was the ceiling hung moyawa that he entered Arko with to conquer it. It was the Banner of Yeola-e in wing-form, the blue and green with the seven white stars... scorched here and there where an ember had caught it from the burning city. I dropped my eyes to the chaos around the table, which was round and could easily seat more than a dozen with an odd circle of miniature wheeled carts set up in the centre. Everyone was coming in from a door at the back, obviously a kitchen, with things in their hands, the children trotting back and forth with eating utensils of all sorts.
The youngest little boy walked in, carrying only an eating pick but was directed by Skorsas as we came in. "Set that on this side, Roshten," he said and the toddler did his work proudly before scrambling up into a children's chair already set up for him. The muscular dark-skinned woman must be Niku. She wore an eye-burning pink pareo over black trousers and a black sweater tight to her chin and wrists. Her wavy hair was almost shoulder length now and held in place, apparently by a flower that matched the hip-cloth. She placed a glass dish with a cover into one of the little carts upon the table and settled Roshten into his chair with a tray clipped before him.
The other Arkan in the room must be Kallijas. His hair was tied back and loosely clubbed up so it was impossible to see the length. He stood and marshalled the older children at what had to be the kitchen door, blocking the red parrot's sneak attempts to walk in, with his foot. "No, Pitpit. I see you there, stay out."
Tawaen and a girl who must be a near-age sister were filling the animal's bowls along one wall and a dark-skinned - but with Aitzas blond hair -- little girl poured water into holders on perches for the birds. Each bird had several pieces of fruit and what looked like whole nuts the size of my head... like the Haian's tree nuts... apparently nailed for them to gnaw upon. Chevenga himself came out with a glass pan balanced on each hand... on a hot pad, with a blond Arkan boy about Tawaen's age following him... he had the look of Kallijas about him.
It was like a shock every time I saw him. Each time reminding myself that he was no longer that flesh puppet the fat guy had made. I ducked my head. "Kere Chevenga, hello." I reminded myself to speak Yeoli. Nothing but Yeoli, he never heard me speak it... I didn't know it then. I'm safe from any recognition as long as I spoke it.
He set his glass bowls into two more little carts and pointed at one of the seats. "Have a seat - say - this one."
"Should I help?" A fessas would help.
"Sure, if you like. Come with me." He led me into the kitchen, much smaller than the ones I'd seen in the Marble Palace but big enough to easily feed a ball or large party. Only one of the four stoves was lit and glowing. Two other Yeolis, a woman and a man split around us with baskets of bread in their hands. "We're almost set, Chevenga, not much left to carry," the man said.
"Thanks Etana." I was handed a cool, clear glass bowl of butter and a stack of face towels and a pepper mill, while Chevenga scooped up a lone tray of full glasses of water and juice of various colours. A Haian just entered, drying his hands, from another door. "I'm here Chivinga. My last patient just left."
"Good, Kaninjer can you please bring the salt cellar?"
From the dining room there was a general cry of 'Begone Bird!" echoed by a squawk and a bird-voiced repeat. "Rawk, Begone, Begone, Begone."
"Your Yeoli's very good for an Arkan your age."
"Thank you, ke... Chevenga. I had friends in Asinanai who taught me."
It smelled so good in the kitchen, my stomach rumbled loudly enough to make me blush. "It smells so good."
"Krisinga here..." his hands full, he nodded at the man untying an apron and apparently preparing to join the family at table. ".. has his work cut out for him, trying to satisfy all these different tastes."
"Oh, Krisinga, can you bring a set of Arkan eating tools for our guest?" His and my hands were both full.
It was a little overwhelming, all the people and the friendly, happy noise and the smell of food. It all mixed together as things were rapidly sorted out at the table, minor squabbling among the children whose turn it was to call the animals in to eat.
"You called them in yesterday!"
"I did NOT! That was Vitara!"
"Did not! That was Vriah!"
"No, it was you."
Vriah appealed to her father. "Aba, tell them to stop. It's hurting my heart."
"Ah ah ah - it was Vitara yesterday, Vriah the day before - it's Kila's turn."
"You're welcome love."
The girl stood up and whistled. "COME COME COME EEEEEEEEAT!" And there was a muffled thunder of furred feet, a whirr of wings, a whine or a bark or two and then the sound of a slobbing lot of high-speed eating from all corners of the room.
"Who's leading the Haian prayer tonight?" Chevenga continued.
"Too much praying, not enough eating!" I was amazed that Roshten would speak up like that.
"Shush!" One of the girls... Kima I think, said. "It's how you learn to be MINDful, stupid."
"I will Aba," Vriah said. And I watched Skorsas just take Chevenga's hands on one side and a child's on the other, but Kallijas and his son both raised their hands to pray and people took hold of their elbows. There was a short round of a prayer in Haian, Niah, Arkan and Yeoli expressing thanks for the food. Then I found why the food dishes all had wheels. The lids were clipped down and people would wheel them across the table to the person requesting it, but the person on one side or the other would stop the dish -"more gently, please, Kila-" and serve the person asking, so no one ever had to serve themselves.
Kaninjer, on my left, offered something I did not catch to Tawaen who offered it to me and I recognized a braised vegetable seaweed I'd eaten on Haiu Menshir. "Thank you, yes. I like that."
Two dogs circled Roshten's seat and I could see why. He kept leaning over to drop food down to them. "Roshten, you keep your food on your tray," his mother said to him.
"But I like feeding dogs!"
"Feed yourself first," she said. "Here, taste this."
"Give them the parts you can't eat - the gristle, the bones. That's the parts they like the most." Chevenga saw me looking at the odd serving dishes... the one in front of me was a miniature copy of an Arkan brewer's cart and had some kind of creamy coloured bean dish in it. "I got the idea of rolling dishes from Arkan faib skates."
"That's a wonderful idea for a big table," I said.
"It's a test of skill. If someone doesn't pass it with enough strength and it stops in the middle of a really big meal, someone has to fetch a broomhandle or quarterstaff to liberate it. But you don't want to push hard enough to splash the soup even with the lid clipped on!"
"Or bash two together if you didn't hear someone call at the same time," the Yeoli woman said.
"That's how the asparagus mango dish was invented!" Chevenga was smiling.
"Two dishes collided on the table," Niku said. "What a mess! Pitpit thought that was permission to land upon the table and help us clean up."
"We should introduce ourselves to our guest," Chevenga said turning to his right. "Skorsas, why don't you start?"