(The Devil's Kitchen, Part I)

In the stir of activity surrounding the castle, Anthian was given one of the rare opportunities to wander about it with an excuse. His duty was strictly to the third floor, but during holidays and special occasions everyone in the castle was subject to a great stirring, like a stick had been inserted and had rattled them around and around the perimeters. Anthian met strangers from the aviary, strangers from the courtyard, the stables, the nursery, and strangers with an extra rigidness in their spines who worked close to the royal family– direct handmaids and footmen of the king, queen and the young prince Fliss.

The occasion was the beginning of the sculpting of the king, the time during his reign in which he was to be immortalized, baptized in alabaster as a legend. Anthian thought it a romantic tradition, but his favorite part was its direct effect on him, allowing him a role in the collective preparation of the castle. It was clothed in worship, shined in a glitter of adoration; the castle became like a maiden in love, flushed and exalted to the full extent of her beauty.

Anthian was exploring a long corridor bathed in sunlight and gold tapestries, which ended with the kitchen. Upon pushing open the swinging doors, though, he found it to be a detached place, unconcerned as it steamed with cooking and rattled with the clatter of silverware being ushered back and forth like a metal river.

"What do you want?"

Anthian wheeled around, finding the face of the owner of the voice. It was dark, hidden in a greasy drapery of black hair shuffled messily over the place where his eyes must have been. Anthian saw no eyes, though– only felt the eerie suggestion of them aimed at him. The face loomed over a large black pot which hissed with a hot steam simmering upward like gasping breath, mixing with the bitter tinge of smoke from the cigarette drooping from his loose mouth. Standing behind this veil, Anthian thought the man looked like the devil cushioned in smoke from hell's flames.

"What the hell do you want? We have work to do here."

A part of Anthian withered like a blue bruise, but it was a pleasant, awakening kind of pain, like the kind reminding a fallen soldier that he was still alive.

"I– came to see the kitchen," Anthian offered pathetically.

"What do you want, a damn escort? Here's the food, here's the silverware, now get the fuck out."

Anthian winced at the cursing like a kitten splashed in the face with water, feeling a knife-sharp cold cut through the heavy heat of the kitchen. He dodged a man carrying a large cake, just barely, and felt a lash of harsh words sting his back for it. The man behind the gurgling pot looked suddenly sickly pleased, a grin slicing his expression in the most obscene smile Anthian had ever seen.

"C'mere, poor little lost lamb," the man said, his voice greasy like his hair. Anthian, thinking the man to have mistaken him for a lost member of the rush of strangers that had come with the sculpting ceremony, allowed him to think so, for it was much less embarrassing than admitting he worked in the castle.

"Don't worry," the man said as Anthian skirted passing silver flashes of trays to approach the pot, standing on the other side of the steam wall, facing the dark man. He'd expected to see his eyes, but even in his new proximity there was only a glinting white flash when the man moved his head a certain way. Anthian also saw in this closeness that the man was much younger than he'd first assumed– he looked no older than twenty-one.

"We won't cook you," he continued, "We have a surplus of food as it is."

The sincerity of the man's malice gave Antian the same feeling he remembered from childhood when his older brother told him scary stories before they went to sleep, a practice he'd been banned from after it had given Anthian horrible nightmares. Anthian had begged for them anyway, in a sick thrill of a feeling that the man's grin seemed to embody.

"Oh, I'd taste bad, anyway," Anthian said, using extra effort to breathe around the steam that clouded his lungs. "Boring and tasteless, actually."

The man stirred the pot laxly, his muscle swelling and relaxing with the rhythm of the movement. The pleasant circling softened the blade-tip of the man's expression.

"I bet you'd taste tender, like lamb meat," the man said in a warm, simmering tone that tickled Anthian's skin.

Anthian smiled with uncertain politeness, trying not to feel as if the man had shoved his hand into a soft, cushioned, safe place in him without asking.

"Would you?" the man asked seriously in response to the dismissive smile.

Something stirred in Anthian with the movement of the man's arm. "I should at least be introduced to you before you know how I taste."

The man's grin sharpened to a slim, perverse smirk.

"Says who?"

Anthian laughed nervously, shrinking his hands up into his sleeves. "In any case, I'm Anthian."

"And I'm Jaerve. Now we're introduced."

"We are..."

Jaerve's free hand moved to pluck his cigarette from his mouth, pinching it between his forefinger and thumb, and he abandoned his stirring with the other to cup the back of Anthian's neck with sudden force. Anthian found himself being dragged over the curls of steam swelling from the pot, hovering there with the man's face against his own.

"Go back to where you belong, little lamb," Jaerve's voice hissed in Anthian's ear, hot breath smothering his skin, "or I'll eat you up."

Anthian knew he should struggle so he did, half-heartedly. As he did, there was a sudden pain on the curve of skin where his shoulder met his neck, a searing sting that made him straighten away from Jaerve with a cry. He clapped his hand against the spot just in time to crush soft ashes between his fingers, causing them to trickle between them and fall behind the cigarette butt into the pot.

"Why in the world...!"

Jaerve grinned nastily. "Go, little lamb."

And as Anthian shuffled hurriedly out of the kitchen, a crash of trays clanging in his wake, Jaerve could tell he would be back.