It only took a few weeks for Amira to get used to the daily routine. By the third week, her aunt didn't even have to force her out of bed, much to Mistress Hatrian's surprise. She looked forward to work, something she had never expected.
Jonathon and Ismani, the dark haired woman she had also met on her first day, were now her two firm friends. There three tables, postioned to form a triangle, meant that they could spend a large section of their day gossiping while they worked.
Halfway through her third week, Amira was going to face her first royal banquet. If she'd thought preparing dinner for the royal court on a normal day was tough, a banquet was going to be much worse.
In honour of the King's birthday, every noble had been invited to court for a day of festivities, jousting and fighting, both with swords, spears and hand-to-hand. The day would end with a massive feast and dancing. Months had been spent planning this day.
On the King's birthday, Amira rose as normal, going through her usual routine of washing and dressing. She walked with her aunt up to the castle, their pace a little faster than normal and found her own way to the kitchens.
The only word to descrive the scene Amira walked in on was chaotic. Half the kitchen was preparing breakfast, while the other half was getting the meats ready for lunch in eight hours time. People were running around like headless chickens and the room was unbearably hot. Amira dived in, pulling on an apron and starting on her bread. Jonathon was working opposite her as usual, his face flushed so red he reminded Amira of the ripe tomatoes her mother grew back home.
'Ah, Amira you're here.' Mistress Armstrong descended upon Amira's bench, the lines on her forehead even more pronounced because of the added stress. 'I need you to bake ten more loaves for me today. There are a lot more people than we were expecting and Mister Miller still thinks we can prepare enough food to feed everyone.' Mister Miller, Amira had discovered, was the man in charge of everything that went on in the castle and although Mistress Armstrong protected her kitchens like a lioness protecting her cubs, she still had to answer to Miller.
'Of course Mistress Armstrong, I'll get the extra ingredients from the parlour.' I headed towards the small room where we kept our food and was surprised when Mistress Armstrong followed me.
'There is one more thing Amira. They're running short on servers for the feast tonight, so I told Mister Miller that I could spare you for the evening. You report to him at six for your instructions.' Amira felt an anxious knot form in her stomach. She was about to be moved from her comfort zone and she didn't like the feeling it was giving her. When she returned to her table Jonathon could tell something was different.
'What else did she want?'
'I'm a server tonight. I have to go to Miller for my instructions before the feast starts.' Jonathon winced.
'Good luck with that one. I'm sure it will be an experience.'
Amira worried about her new job for the rest of the day as she kneeded bread and ran around the kitchen doing any other odd jobs she was told to do be more senior members of the kitchen. As she helped with the preperation for the feast, she could feel six o'clock getting closer and closer, until Mistress Armstrong came up to her and told her to stop.
'I can't have you being late for your duties. You are still a member of this kitchen and I expect you to behave impeccably while you are up there. Not that I should worry about you Amira, you are a good girl.'
'Thank you Mistress Armstrong.' Amira reluctantly left her station, pulling off her apron which had protected her dress from most of the mess that went with working in a kitchen. There was a bit of flour on her sleeves but that was easily sorted.
Amira walked down the corridors, checking and double-checking her appearance until she reached the great hall. It was decked out beautifully for the feast. Tables were arranged in rows along the length of the space, making it seem bigger than it already was. Triumphant red and gold banners were hanging from the ceiling, giving the room a sort of canopy and making the room look like it was alight. The same red and gold cloth was spread over the tables and the throne behind the only horizontal table in the room was covered in more gold than Amira had ever thought she would see.
'Are you the girl from the kitchens?' A firm voice made Amira start and she turned around to come face-to-face with the man she had been dreading.
'Yes, sir.' She hurriedly bobbed a curtsy, not sure what else to do. 'Are you Mister Miller?'
'Yes. I don't have a lot of time so we'll have to do this fast.' Miller set off at a fast pace across the room, checking things as he went and talking over his shoulder to Amira. 'You will be in charge of the royal table. Your job is to make sure everyone has what they need and to get them anything they ask for. Understood?' Amira nodded, not daring to stop his flow. 'Now you need to smarten up. Go to the laundry and tell Mistress Luther that I have sent you to get a dress for the feast.'
'Thank you sir.'
'Well what are you waiting for? The feast starts in an hour, I need you ready in half an hour. Get moving!'
Three hours later and Amira had got the hang of serving the top table. When she wasn't needed she hid in the shadows by the wall and watched the rest of the room as everyone enjoyed themselves.
Amira had never thought there could be so many people in one place, she couldn't count them. She thought there must be more people in this room than there had been in the streets on the day she arrived.
In the light from the torches flickering around the hall, the room did truely look like it was on fire. Amira watched the faces as they laughed at something a companion had said, their eyes creasing up and their mouths opening wide as they let it out. She also saw Miller lurking in corners, making sure everything was going to plan.
He wasn't what Amira had expected. He was very thin and tall, with a sharp nose and long face. She could already tell that he liked things being done his way and wouldn't let anyone else take any sort of control over anything. Amira wasn't sure what all the fuss was about, people saying he was evil, at least she hadn't seen any evidence of this.
When the meal had ended and the servers had cleared away the plates, Amira was allowed to go home but she waited, wanting to see the dancing. Tables were moved out of the way to form a dance floor and musicians began to play.
Amira's eyes widened at the women's dresses, their jewels glittering in the light of the flames as they swept elegantly across the dance floor. She stayed later than she meant to, hypnotised by the moving figures. It wasn't until the King rose from his chair and the room fell silent, that Amira snapped out of her trance.
'My lords, ladies and gentlemen,' the King began. Amira didn't dare move now in case she drew attention to herself. She would have to wait until the speech was over before she left. 'I want to thank you all for being here this evening. As you know, I've never been one for speeches so I'll keep this short.
'It has been a wonderful year and Bayen has continued to prosper. But none of this could have happened without all of the people here tonight. You have all served me faithfully and I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your loyalty.' The room filled with deafening applause as the King paused.
'All that I have left to say is enjoy your evening and I hope to have another prosperous year as your king.'
As the dancing started up again, Amira slipped out of the great hall, leaving the laughter, dancing and flickering light behind her.