Short Story: Rising to a Challenge

Two months in and she was still adjusting to having not only a full kitchen, but an entire restaurant under her command. Every day began to feel like a series of disasters.

"Owning your own restaurant is a great opportunity," her master said when the position was offered to her by a retiring chef. "It will open up doors for you in the future," Master Landry added. "It will give you a leg up when you're promoted to master," he promised. What wasn't said, though later she realized was implied pretty hard, was "Please get my son out of my house."

Nina glanced over at said offspring and let out a groan. Ostensibly, Feren was reading. In actuality, while the books were open on the table in front of him, his attention was directed towards the group of young Protectorates walking through the door. She found it unsurprising that Feren scowled at them. At least Nina assumed he was scowling. His hair had grown in a bit after he had hacked off his braid and it hid much of his face, including the scar that was his reason for discarding his braid in the first place. Feren always scowled at the Protectorates who walked in the door, which was stupid since the restaurant was across the road from the training ground and they always came here for lunch.

This wasn't something she wanted to deal with right now. One of her younger cousins was handling the till since Feren was "busy" and the dubiously helpful help manning the place would have to do for now. That was one of the negatives she'd learned too late of running a business as a novice. If she had waited until she was a master, at the least she'd have a reasonably competent apprentice to help. All she had at the moment were a handful of younger siblings and cousins- frequently busy with their own apprenticeships- and a few adults she was able to keep on the payroll. And Feren, of course. She suspected that he was the reason most of the original help had left after the old owner retired, although they never said as much.

Nina pushed open the door to the kitchen and slunk down onto the lone stool in the room. Today had gone wrong from the moment she came downstairs to begin prepping for the day. She recognized that she was overwhelmed. Two months in and she was still adjusting to having not only a full kitchen, but an entire restaurant under her command. Every day began to feel like a series of disasters. In just the five hours since sunrise, her newest help managed to burn the breakfast eggs and the muffins she'd prepared the night before were discovered to be stale. Then her cousin miscounted the till and had a minor panic attack before Feren eventually come downstairs to double check this for him, which Feren made out to be an incredibly big deal. Nina refrained from pointing out that this was Feren's responsibility simply because she was too busy trying to extinguish the fire on the stove.

And to make matters worse, the dough wouldn't rise. Still. It was nearly a week since it had last risen. At first she thought the conditions were wrong or someone forgot to add the yeast, so she took over this job. Baked goods were supposed to be her specialty and when she couldn't get it to work, she had to admit to herself that there was a problem. She feared she was the problem. Her weaving felt weaker and she assumed it was from stress. Without as much arcane flavor to add to her ingredients, no wonder things were burning that shouldn't and prepared food was going stale almost immediately. No matter how inept her help, fire should not have been possible. Any food she touched should stay fresh for at least a week. That was how her weaving worked and after seven years of training, it should function reliably.

Undependable weaving didn't explain the dough, however. Did it?

Nina lifted her head from her hands when she heard familiar footsteps thud across the floor. She winced. Feren no longer dressed as a Protectorate, so how he managed to continue to make noise in soft shoes was beyond her guess. It would be just like him to have something loud and uncomfortable in the soles solely to create melodramatic entrances.

Feren boosted himself up to sit on the counter, something she told him wasn't professional at least three times a week. She didn't have it in her to argue right now. Instead she leaned her forehead against his thigh. At least the Artisan clothing he wore now was soft. If she had tried this a few months ago, she would have bonked her head on the sheath of a knife and had rough, heavy trousers as a pillow. The velvet robe was nice, if entirely impractical for a kitchen environment.

Feren ran his fingers through her short hair in a gesture she found to be soothing. Oddly enough, this haircut had corresponded with Feren's. In her case, though, it had simply been easier and cooler to have it short. Feren had lopped his off as the symbol of renouncing his position of bodyguard after deeming himself a failure.

They sat in silence for a moment or two before Feren spoke. "You know, you don't have to do this alone. You can ask for help. I'm sure my father would come out for a week or two if you asked."

He was right. She wasn't a master yet, so she could technically ask for help. And her former master would help without hesitation. That thought made her grind her teeth. How would she show herself ready to be a master when she couldn't even last a season before begging for aid? She must have made a sound because Feren squeezed her shoulder and said "hey" to get her to look up at him.

"What do you need me to do?" he asked.

She could count on one hand the number of times he'd asked this without first being assigned a task to do, then usually proceeding to grumble the entire time he worked. He had been in such a lousy mood since he changed careers. She hoped this question meant he was feeling more positive.

"Help out more without complaint, I guess. Be here when you're here." That was what bothered her most, now that she thought about it. He'd grown so distant. While he was always a little grouchy, this level of disinterested antagonism was new.

He nodded once. "You got it."

It was that easy? She looked up at him with a raised eyebrow and pursed lips.

"You're running yourself ragged. Anyone can see that." Feren reached down to take her hand. "I'll help more. My test is on Daegurn. After that I have a month before the docents resume class. Then I'll be more helpful. I promise."

Nina could hold out for three days, assuming he kept his word after this round of testing ended. She held out her index finger to seal the promise. It gave her reassurance that he hooked his finger around hers without hesitation.

"Now what brought you back here?" she asked. "I assume it wasn't just to check up on your artist."

Feren rolled his eyes and tilted his head in the direction of the door. "I needed to get away from those lumbering oafs."

"A few months ago those 'oafs' were your friends. You were fine with them then."

Feren gave one last frown in the direction of the dining room before turning his attention back to her. "They're always hanging around here. I know, I know, they've always done that, but I just don't like it, okay?"

"Can you at least be civil to them even if you can't be friendly?" When he only gave an uncommitted grunt in response, she could feel a headache coming on. "I don't get it. What's the problem, anyway?"

Feren crossed his arms over his chest. "They're not good enough. I know they're not good enough. If they keep hanging around, one might get it into their head that they want to be your sentinel. You deserve better than them."

Oh. Ohhh. Now it made sense. Feren had filled that role for several years. Of course he was hyper critical of what he saw as competition. Nina stood up and pulled Feren from his perch on the counter so that they could stand face to face. This was important. "Ren, you know we need to find a sentinel within the next few years. If you keep chasing them away, how will we ever know which one is a potential match for us?"

Feren brushed the hair out of his face with the back of his hand. She could tell this gesture meant he was uncomfortable with the direction of their conversation. He normally touched his hair when the subject of finding a new bodyguard came up. Like any Protectorate, sentinels included, a braid was once a large part of his identity.

He let out a sigh that momentarily blew his hair out of his face. Nina reached up to tuck this behind his ear before he finally answered. "It's too soon, okay? That isn't the type of third I'd expected to ever have. I need to get used to the idea of being guarded, I guess."

His voice was soft and the truth of it stung her heart. Back when Feren had been her bodyguard, he'd filled this role for another artist, as well. Not all young would-be triads worked out and theirs was included in that number. Adair had left to find his own path after Feren renounced his role as sentinel. She wasn't angry at Adair for this. He knew as well as she did that three Artisans with no sentinel wouldn't work, so he'd left her and Feren free to find the one they needed. The problem she faced now was that somehow her once-guard needed to grow accustomed to the fact that he would have a sentinel in his life sooner rather than later.

She caught both of Feren's hands in hers and squeezed them. Later she was sure he would complain about her getting flour on him, but right now he didn't mind. "We have time. Focus on completing your studies and doing what you can here. I'll see about more training for the staff. If things are still crazy in a few days, I'll send a letter to your father. We'll make this work."

For once Feren had no snide comment; his smile was purely genuine. If he was willing to work at being more present, this would work. Nina felt confidence and optimism rising in her heart for the first time in days . Now if only she could figure out how to make the dough rise alongside her spirits.

(I used the prompt of "A story about rising to a challenge" for this one. I decided to make this a play on words since one of my minor characters is a chef and all I could think was something involving bread not rising. This takes place at about the same time Colorweaver [book 1] starts, but away from the main characters.)



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