“No! Idiot!” The cook rapped hard on Ciila’s hands with a metal spoon. “I told you to cut them this way! It’s ruined! Now,” the blobby old cook pinched Ciila’s ear between two spiny fingers, “You’re going to tell your master why the Jandarra ceviche he’s been craving for a week is no longer on the menu! I’m certainly not going to lose any fingers over it!”
Ciila winced, but held her tongue. She knew by now, after a week in the scullery, that trying to explain would only yield harsher punishment. The fingers of her unbruised hand curled protectively over her throbbing knuckles. “Yes Cook, I’m sorry Cook,” she whispered. Her neck was starting to ache from being held at the vicious angle Cook kept her ear.
Cook flung her toward the scullery door. It led to a hallway which ended with another door. Ciila had only ever glimpsed past this door, the living quarters for her master, Tark Mano. Surely… surely he wouldn’t cut off her fingers. Would he? It was just a silly vegetable. But the taste she’d snuck before Cook could notice was divine, the most delicate thing she’d ever tasted. …maybe he would.
Ciila padded barefoot down the hallway and silently cracked the door open. Big green eyes peered into the dimly lit, lavish quarters. It was silent. Quiet as a Rock mouse, Ciila crept across the threshold, hitching her sack dress up on her shoulder as she looked about.
There was a man in the next room, snoring quietly on a sofa. Ciila stopped, staring at him, her toes digging into the plush carpeting. It felt lovely.
Suddenly, everything was moving and suddenly she couldn’t. Something had a grip around her neck, but she couldn’t see it, it had only been a blur in the corner of her eye. And the man was wakening now, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “…Baikh? What?” He looked on Ciila, and she shrank away. His eyes were dark and dangerous. He smiled, but it made Ciila sick, deep down in her stomach, the way it felt when she hadn’t eaten in a very long time.
The man, Tark Mano, it had to be him, laughed, a low chuckle. “Let her go,” he chided… whatever it was that had her. “I don’t think she was sent to assassinate me.”
The cold, leathery grip around her neck loosened and Ciila stumbled sideways away from it. Of course. It was Tark Mano’s Noghri bodyguard, the one he was so proud to have gotten. She’d heard the other servants talking about it.
Ciila began to shake. He really was going to cut her fingers off.
“Well?” Mano pressed her, his eyes roving down to her skinny, bare legs. “Why have you come into my parlor? Surely you know the rule. It must be dire for you to risk it.”
Terrified, Ciila shook her head. “I, I, I… I’ve only been in the kitchen a week, m-my master. N-no one… the Cook… she said to come.” Maybe, maybe he would listen. At least he’d asked, hadn’t he? He hadn’t just struck her on sight. Maybe he would be kind… despite his dark, hateful gaze.