In the bright rays of dawn, Princess Andelusia entered her small kitchen and donned her apron. The first order of the morning would come soon.
Meanwhile, she busied herself cleaning utensils that any reasonable person would deem spotless. Her master, however, had an eye sharper than an eagle, and a nose for sniffing out halfhearted efforts, besides. Which was precisely why Princess Andelusia scrubbed the filters and polished the measuring spoons again, even though she’d gone through the entire process after using them the day before.
The apparatuses which occupied every corner of the kitchen’s floor, most of the counters, and a goodly amount of the ceiling’s hanging space, looked to the uninitiated like the rambling, monstrous fever dream of a mad alchemist: the glass tubes and alembics, the metal canisters and beakers and mesh filters in a dozen grades of fineness, the compressing wheels and steaming vats and double-thick drums for boiling water to preset temperatures. All of these devices, together, offered endless opportunities to experiment and perfect the various decoctions her master might request.
Even as she approached the end of her two week trial period for employment, Princess Andelusia felt at home in the daily quest for perfection, the constant challenge of her master’s stratospheric standards of taste. She’d been quite adept in the nuances of brewcraft prior to beginning here, but this position offered an ever-evolving test of her skills, what with the uncommon ingredients her master kept on hand.
“Tell him it’s already started,” Andelusia answered as she went to drag the press, the size of two wine casks stacked atop one another, out from its corner.
Princess Lucretzia hurried through to the adjoining chef’s kitchen in a butterfly-patter of silken footsteps, gave direction to the cooking staff, and flitted away. Despite the need for haste and efficiency, quiet was equally important at this time of morning.
Andelusia poured a healthy measure of the appropriate roast—half an army’s worth, it felt like—into a large grinder. She hauled back on the grinding bar that was so thick she had to curl both arms around it to get it to move. It stuck on a gristly bit, so she threw her full weight against the bar to shift it.
Princess Lucretzia reappeared. She took a ragged breath and said, “Italian roast!”
“Italian? But you said French.”
“French press, not roast.”
“The master’s preference in the past has been for only French roast in a French press. Or does he want French pressed and Italian brewed? And if so, in what proportions?” Their master had a penchant for peculiar yet precise requests, and Andelusia did her best to anticipate the whims of his palate. He had every right to demand the exact brew he desired; after all, he roasted every blend himself, in small, sometimes singular, batches.
“Um.” Lucretzia winced, then disappeared.
Andelusia waited for the response, fighting the grinding bar with all her strength until the gristly bit gave way and the bar flung free, nearly sending her staggering into a counter full of tasting cups.
Lucretzia dashed back in, eyes wide as though she feared forgetting the instructions before she had them out. “Both roasts.” Gasp. “French pressed and Italian brewed.” Gasp. “In the same pot.”
Andelusia considered her equipment. An interesting proposition and a decided challenge at the same time, to achieve perfect temperatures, tastes, and timing on all sides. She did quick calculations to determine her first step. “Tell him it will take a bit longer than usual.”
Lucretzia nodded and hurried off again.
Andelusia opened the door of the grinder’s lower chamber, poured the coarse grounds through a chute and into the French press, then wrestled the press over to the other side of the kitchen and turned a spigot to pour boiling water into the cylinder. Once full, she closed the press and began to whistle a tune that would finish just as the brew reached optimal flavor.
From the adjoining kitchen, the smells of cooking blended quite nicely with the potent fragrance of the brew. What was that doughy, bakery scent? Danishes? And something rich and sweet—filled with Bavarian cream, perhaps? The lord did have quite a passion for regional flavors.
While she whistled, Andelusia ground the far less gristly Italian roast to a powder before tipping it into her finest mesh filter and running a metered stream of boiling water evenly over the grounds. Then she returned to the French press, clambered up a set of handholds built into the side, and perched atop the plunger to let her weight do the pressing.
Both brews were ready almost at the same moment, and Andelusia poured equal amounts, via a self-made hand-pump system, into a gleaming samovar set upon a wheeled cart for ease of transport.
She added a perfectly measured touch of cream and sugar to the mix as sounds of movement came to her. The grumbling and lumbering. The other princesses fretting and fussing over him.
The claws on stone.
A low growl shook the cavern all around. Then came the bellow that always made her blood freeze with anxiety and burn with pride simultaneously: “Is it ready?”
She pushed the cart down the hall to her master’s sitting room, a great nest of stone lined with furs ten layers deep. Arrayed around him stood his princesses. A few had been offerings from influential families to ensure peace in their all-too-flammable lands. Others, widows with no inheritance and nowhere else to go.
Andelusia herself had heard of the lord’s high culinary standards and, after sending her resume by pigeon and receiving a reply via hawk, just so happened to be riding alone in the meadows with her cookbooks on a day when he was flying the same way. Her parents wouldn’t have approved of her chosen profession, much less her place of employment, if they’d had a say in it.
At this time of morning, the lord’s eyes remained clenched against the bright sun and his wings drooped like sodden banners.
“Here you are, Great Vilemaw, Lord of the Mountain.” Andelusia curtsied.
“About time,” he grumbled.
Claws sharp enough to eviscerate a horse brushed past her to raise the samovar without sloshing its contents.
He took a sip. His eyes cracked open and his wings fluttered. After a few more gulps, his neck quills perked and his tail twitched with life.
“Ah! Nothing like a good strong pot to put a fire in one’s belly.”
“I’m glad milord is pleased,” Andelusia said, curtsying again.
“More than pleased, it is perfect. Delicious. Just what I needed.” The drink enlivened him to a more conversational degree than usual. “Why, it’s impossible to get a brew this exquisite back home. Italians are rare enough, but properly pressed Frenchmen? Nothing compares to the real thing.” He held the cauldron under his nose and savored the aroma. “Back home, you can be sure that nine out of ten pressed Frenchmen are actually Flemish. Or Dutch. The discerning palate knows better.”
“Dutch!” One of the princesses scoffed.
Vilemaw glared her into silence. After a moment he continued. “And pressed? No one knows how to do a proper pressing anymore. Even if one is lucky enough to get a Frenchman, it’s more likely he’s been squeezed. Or pulped.” He shook his horned head. “At that point, you might as well opt for a juiced Swede. Thus the reason I keep my own kitchens.” He gave a great snort that gusted through Andelusia’s hair. “So few these days understand the respect owed to the terroir of every ingredient, and how transformative that respect can be.” A puff of smoke escaped his nostrils. “Consider your trial period over, my good princess. You are hereby the Barista of the Mountain!”
“I am glad milord is pleased,” Andelusia said, and held down a grin as her heart burst with victory and delight.
Hurried footsteps interrupted them. All eyes turned to the approaching princess. “Milord,” she yelled. “Hurry!”
“What is it?” Vilemaw bellowed.
“A man,” she gasped. “A knight—come to challenge you—and rescue us—”
The women exchanged worried glances.
“What will we do?” some muttered.
“But I have nowhere to go,” others moaned.
A few grinned and whispered, “Freedom!”
Princess Andelusia frowned, fretting over her equipment. She had to begin washing and rising before any scaling occurred. Not to mention, Italian was famously difficult to get out of the filters.
“Quiet!” the Lord roared. When silence fell, he turned toward the messenger. “Did you inquire from whence this knight hails?”
A long claw rasped against the lord’s chin.
Andelusia paused in her subtle retreat to the kitchen, and sidled back into view. “I have, milord, much experience brewing in the Turkish style. I’m sure I could, er, employ my old recipe. After you’ve done the roasting, of course.”
The claw paused in mid-rasp. “A fine idea. Princess Priscilla, prepare my armor.”
One of the princesses strode out, leading a dozen others. It would take all of them to carry the massive steel plates.
Lord Vilemaw finished the samovar with an appreciative growl, then turned a toothy grin on those who remained. He looked ready to take on a score of knights, if need be. “Princess Lucretzia, would you be a dear and find out when those Belgian waffles will be ready?”
As a fine art professional, Marissa James has wielded katanas and handled Lady Gaga’s shoes. As a writer, her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Mysterion, and many other publications. She provided the coffee knowhow for this tale, and can be found tweeting about writing at @MaroftheBooks.
Matthew McPike was a biochemistry student, avid gamer, and reader and writer of fantasy, especially if it involved dragons. He was Marissa’s older brother, and the one who provided the dragon for this story. He passed away in 2018.