A Pinch of Phoenix
Lailu scrubbed a thick coating of her own homemade finish into the mark burned onto her cherrywood floor. The scent of beeswax and wine filled the air, drowning out the sweet aroma of her cockatrice cooking in the kitchen. But no matter how nice it smelled, or how hard she scrubbed, the burn remained. Taunting her. Reminding her of Wren’s threat and her exploding spi-trons.
“One . . . two . . . three . . . die!” Lailu shuddered, remembering the way that creepy metal spider had chanted at her before exploding, leaving behind metal parts and the black streak now scarring her floor. Wren’s little present, which apparently was here to stay.
“It’s no use,” Lailu sighed, sitting back on her heels. “It’s not going away.”
“Well, I think it looks much better,” Hannah said. Hannah had been living with Lailu and helping out at Mystic Cooking for
several months, but she had been Lailu’s best friend for far longer. They had grown up together in the same snowy little village in the mountains before chasing their separate dreams to Twin Rivers, Lailu to attend Chef Academy and Hannah to enroll in Twin Rivers’s Finest, a school for hair and fashion.
Unfortunately, school hadn’t worked out too well for Hannah, who couldn’t resist the temptation of all those glittery hair combs and had gotten caught “re-homing” one. Luckily, their sneakiest friend, Ryon, had noticed her light-fingered talents and had recently taken her on as an apprentice spy. Lailu still wasn’t sure what that entailed, and she preferred to keep it that way. Spying was trouble, but she was very glad Hannah had stayed.
“I doubt any of your hungry customers will notice a little scar on the floor,” Hannah continued. She took a sip of tea, then set her mug down on her table. “Not when they’re enjoying your tasty cooking.”
“Master Slipshod will notice.” Lailu’s former mentor had left Mystic Cooking to return to his old job: cooking for the king. However, he’d promised to drop in from time to time, and she didn’t want him to see how she’d already let the place get damaged, not after he’d just turned it over to her.
Hannah shrugged. “It’s not really his business anymore, is it?”
“I guess not.” Lailu tossed her scrub brush into a wooden bucket, then subtly stretched her hands, her fingers stiff and achy beneath their thick bandaging.
“Still bothering you?” Hannah’s forehead creased.
“It’s not so bad,” Lailu lied. She’d thrown one of ?Wren’s spi-trons
at Starling in self-defense. When it exploded, the blast had killed Starling and burned Lailu’s hands. The constant pain felt like a reminder, both of the battle she’d fought and the war to come. Lailu knew Wren’s attack last night was only the beginning, and she hoped her poor restaurant could handle whatever came next.
Lailu stood and stretched her back just as the bell over the front door rang.
A tall, well-dressed man entered the room. A man with the cold green eyes of a killer.
Lord Elister the Bloody.
Lailu’s chest tightened. “L-Lord Elister,” she greeted him. “Welcome to Mystic Cooking—”
“No need for pleasantries,” he said. “I’m not here to eat.”
Lailu gulped. She knew she was not his favorite person right now. Not after her hand in the death of Starling Volan, the talented scientist who had been working for him. True, Starling had been trying to kill Lailu and her friends at the time, but did that fact matter to someone like the king’s executioner?
Elister looked the restaurant up and down, his gaze lingering on the burn mark.
“Search it,” he said. Four guards swarmed inside, one of them stationing himself at the door while the other three made straight for the curtain that separated Lailu’s dining room from the rest of the restaurant.
“Hey, stay out of my . . .” Lailu stopped. This all felt eerily familiar. On her opening day, her restaurant had been invaded by both the elves and a shady loan shark. She hadn’t been able to stop them,
either. She let her outstretched arm fall limply to her side and took a deep breath as the sounds of crashing and things falling came from her kitchen. Those guards weren’t just searching her restaurant; it sounded like they were tearing it apart brick by brick.
She glanced at Elister. His face was as expressionless as one of Starling’s automatons.
Until Lailu’s mother came storming through the door, her fury swirling around her like one of her brightly colored skirts. “Eli!” she snapped. “What is the meaning of this?”
Lord Elister took a step back, then caught himself. He straightened. “Lianna,” he said, almost pleasantly. “Since we appear to be dispensing with titles and formalities, I’ll get straight to the point. Mystic Cooking is a business with ties to the elves. As you well know, due to the pandemonium they caused on the final day of Masks and their ‘involvement’ in Starling’s murder, the elves have been banished from my city.” He glanced at Lailu when he said “involvement,” and she shuddered.
It was true that the elves had created fear and mayhem during the final day of the Week of Masks. Their magic had turned many of the citizens of Twin Rivers into the monsters they were masked as, but they had nothing to do with Starling’s death. Elister knew that, Lianna knew that, and Hannah . . . Hannah had also been there when Starling died. The only ones who didn’t know the real cause of Starling Volan’s death were the guards. So . . . who exactly was this show for?
“Therefore . . . ,” Elister drawled.
“Therefore what?” Lianna narrowed her eyes. “You’re not shutting
us down. We don’t belong to the elves, we just owe them money.”
Lailu noticed how her mother said “we,” and her heart filled with warmth. Even if that warmth was surrounded by cold terror. Elister wouldn’t really shut her restaurant down, would he? Could he?
Of course he could. He basically ran this city. Technically he was acting as joint regent with the queen until the king came of age, but everyone knew he was the real power behind the throne.
“I’m not shutting you down. I’m just ensuring that no elves are being harbored here.”
“Why would we harbor any elves?” Hannah asked.
“Or anyone of elven descent,” Elister added pointedly.
Hannah looked away, her cheeks reddening. Ryon was half elf. It was supposed to be a secret, but Starling had found out, so clearly Elister knew as well.
“There’s no one here but us,” Lianna said, her face giving nothing away. “As I’m sure you know. This really isn’t necessary.”
“Perhaps it would be less necessary if there were someone I truly trusted nearby. Someone who still worked for me, for instance . . .”
“Oh, stop with the weighty pauses,” Lianna snapped. “You might intimidate everyone else, but you forget, I’ve known you a long time. And my work is here now.”
Elister studied her, taking in the apron tied over her skirts, the flour smudged on the side of her neck. “I see that. I suppose that is . . . understandable,” he said in a tone that suggested it was anything but. “Just as I’m sure you’ll understand that part of my work
is to search every business that has a connection to the elves, just in case.” His lips curled back in a cold, hard smile. “For your own safety, of course.”
“Of course,” Lianna said blandly.
“And we’ll continue to enforce our ban by any means necessary,” Elister continued.
“Hey, there’s a trapdoor in here!” one of the guards in the kitchen called, followed by the sound of more crashing and then, a moment later, the tinkle of glass shattering from below.
Hannah gasped. “Your wine cellar!”
Lailu clenched her sore hands into fists.
“If you use this display of force with all the businesses, you won’t be making any friends on this side of town,” Lianna warned. Pretty much every business near Mystic Cooking had some connection to the elves, who lived in the Velvet Forest just outside of this part of the city and regularly loaned money to the citizens in the poorer districts.
“My job is to make the city safe, not to make friends.”
“Then maybe you should be more worried about this.” Lianna pulled a newspaper out from one of her skirt’s voluminous pockets and shoved it under Elister’s nose.
All Lailu could see was the back advertisement about LaSilvian’s special roast.
Elister snatched the paper from her hands. “I told them not to put that on the front page.”
“My lord.” One of the guards poked her head out from behind the curtain. “You’d better come see this. We’ve found . . . well. Something.”
Elister rolled up the paper and tucked it under his arm. He looked at Lailu over Lianna’s auburn head. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”
Lailu felt the color drain from her face like water from a colander. Was there something to tell him? Ryon did have a tendency to lurk around here. For all she knew, he was close by now. She really, really hoped he wasn’t, but if he was . . .
Lailu shook her head.
“Very well. Come.”
Lianna started forward.
“Not you,” Elister snapped at her. “Or you.” He pointed at Hannah. “Just Lailu.”
As Lailu followed Elister, she caught Hannah’s dark, worried eyes and wondered if it would be the last she saw of her.