She struggled, alone, by one of the hearth fires of Falfa's kitchen, nestled in the bottom levels of the huge city-palace of Soira. The rest of the cooks were in constant motion, but she sat still, stirring slowly and methodically as she added each ingredient. Periodically, the youngest and most minor cooks – still far more knowledgeable than she – would try to take the bowl from her, as people who see a task done poorly always seem want to do, but she stood firm.
"I want to do it myself," she would tell them. "Where there's a will, there's a way, Amalea says. I can find the way."
"That's true, child, but everyone needs help sometimes." A reassuring hand rested on her shoulder, and she looked up to see a round, pleasant face smiling down at her.
"At least let me tell you how," he said.
Though she would not let him touch the cake in progress, together they were able to slide the pan into the oven before the torches had burned to the halfway mark. She wandered around, trying to keep her eye on her cake and the torch and all the activity in the room at once. The other cooks were not afraid to tell her what a nuisance she was being, but she ignored them and progressed happily through the room, trying to absorb as much knowledge as she could. The tall woman was able to slip in unnoticed, though she did not remain that way for long.
"EMMA!" she cried, and the girl jumped.
"Oh, hello, Amalea!" she chirped, turning to her friend. "It will be ready when the torch is all the way down."
"Oh? What are you making? I mean, we have to go now! Yl Ciara wants you!"
"But, my cake—"
"Don't worry about it, dear." It was the cook from before, paused in his work. "If yl Ciara wants you, nothing should keep you!"
Emmaline laughed at his reverent tone.
"Mama is used to me being far later than this! Please, Amalea, cannot I stay?"
Meanwhile, the cook was having an epiphany. "Yl Ciara is—you're yl Emmaline!" All movement in the room had slowed down, though not stopped, with the realization that there was an yl in their midst.
The cook swept her a deep bow.
"Yd Falfa at your service, my lady." The rest of the staff, putting down their assorted utensils, bowed in turn, many offering apologies for their earlier treatment of her.
"If you had told me you wanted a cake, my lady, I could've had one brought out for you, a far grander one, and already ready." Falfa told her.
"But I did not want a cake. I just wanted to make a cake. And now that I have—" In all the commotion, the torch had burned down, and her cake was being removed and carefully checked by three apprentices (three more, she was sure, than it would have ordinarily afforded). "—you can keep it. In fact, please do. You've been so very kind." She smiled, trying to be as reassuring as she could.
"I—thank you, yl Emmaline." Falfa bowed again, thinking desperately. The cake was surely not good enough to sell, but it was baked by an yl – it would be a deadly insult to throw it away. Someone must eat it… "My son's hundredth birthday is tonight. With your permission, I will serve it at the feast."
Emma clapped her hands with delight, a child once again, and not a lady.
"Oh, yes! And tell me if he likes it. I will come back as soon as I can to try again. Or…would that be okay?"
"Of course it will be, Emma dear," Amalea assured her. "The question is, will yl Ciara ever let you leave your room again if you don't show up sort of close to almost being on time?"
In twenty-nine minutes exactly, Emmaline stumbled out of her room in a new gown. Her face and hands had been scrubbed, her hair hastily braided and pinned. The silver bracelets around her wrists jangled as she jogged through the glowing corridors.
The thick mahogany doors swung open with a creak, revealing a stately woman at a grand desk, swathed in iridescent fabrics of white and silver and blue which shone in the glow-light from the ornate chandelier above her head. Icy eyes seemed beautiful at the first glance, but terrifying as her gaze lingered on poor Emmaline's face.
A sweeping curtsey's rustling of fabric and a cheerful chirp of, "Hello, Mama!" later, Emmaline was seated on the most luxurious of the plush chairs.
"I think I've told you before not to call me 'Mama,' yl Emmaline." came the smooth voice.
"Yes, yl mother." she replied with an impertinent grin. Ciara frowned, and the grin disappeared, though not the mirth.
"Now. I'm not sure if you heard, but there's another conference at the end of the season—"
Emmaline rolled her eyes, bored already.
"I don't care about—"
"You will attend this conference."
"I—Wha—Why in the world do I have to go?"
"Yl Eldegor and I have decided it's time you settled down and got married. We were hoping someone suitable could be found among the ambassadors from Ralxa."
"Oh. Oh…um. That is, all right. I guess."
Ciara raised a skeptical eyebrow at her daughter, expecting a protest. But Emmaline, having decided that if it did not bother her she did not need to act like it did, moved on.
"When do we go?" she asked.
"As soon as the snows melt. I've drawn up a list of things to bring…"
Ciara lingered a while longer on particulars, but Emmaline escaped to her bedroom before she completely died of boredom, her mother's extensive list in hand. Amalea fell upon her at once:
"What did she say? What did she say?"
"I'm going to the conference."
"Oh, is that all?" A disappointed sigh blew her dark bangs out of her face, and she turned to undo the tight lacing up the back of Emmaline's gown.
"And I'm getting married."
"What?!" Amalea grabbed the girl's shoulders and spun her around so they were face-to-face again. "When? To whom?!"
A peal of laughter.
"You should have seen your face, Amalea!" She stifled a few more giggles. "It's not so big a deal! Everybody gets married sometime."
"I suppose so…" admitted Amalea, still skeptical. "But aren't you a bit…well, young?"
"I'll be one-nine soon, and Mama was only one-three when she married!"
"And we all know how well that turned out…" Amalea muttered.
"Be nice. I am sure Mama is very fond of yl Eldegor. And he is very fond of Mama!"
"But wouldn't you rather be violently in love, not just…just 'very fond'?"
Emmaline just shook her head.
"Please, let's not argue. Mama said we had to pack tonight."
"Whatever you say, Emmaline yl Soira, my most distinguished mistress. Your wish is my command."
Amalea's mock-bow induced more giggling, and it was several minutes before the girls even realized that they did not have the bags necessary to start packing.
Emmaline shrieked as she sprinted through the halls. She was in the lead, barely, but as she turned the corner she slammed into another elf. Amalea dashed by, and touched the door.
"I win!" she exclaimed. "That means you have to carry them back to the room. Nyah!"
"No fair!" shouted back Emmaline, scrambling back to her feet.
The tall, dark elf maiden just stood and stared.
"Oh, um, I'm so terribly sorry, ma'am." Emmaline said to her, suddenly remembering that she had, in fact, hit someone. "Are you all right? I-I did not mean to…"
"What in the world are you doing?" she demanded.
"To yl Ciara's private chambers?!"
"Well, yes. Er, that is, we needed bags…for the conference, you see…"
"Aren't you a bit young to go to a conference?"
"I'm one-eight, not twenty!"
"Could've fooled me…well, go on then. Ask yl Ciara for whatever trifle it was you said you needed. I have work to do."
She brushed past Emmaline, holding her head high above her burgundy robes. Emmaline thought she must have been a very wealthy, grand yl, but if she had looked harder at the receding figure, she would have noticed that the wavy, brown-black hair had only a single plait falling between the curls, and the gown bore almost no embroidery – a stark contrast to Emmaline's hair and gown, dripping with pearls and auna shells.
Amalea saw, and saw also a subtle streak of charcoal, meaning the girl's rooms were lit by burning torches, not the gentler, more expensive glows. She was shocked by the impertinence of a woman she saw as being at most an yn.
"What's her problem?" she demanded of no one in particular.
But Emmaline was not especially observant of such things, and re-entered her mother's room slightly cowed. She was spared the need of coming up with something to say as her mother glared, because Amalea stepped out in front of her and curtsied so low that she was almost sitting on the ground.
"Ciara yl Mandase-Soira, I have a request."
Emmaline giggled at Amalea's sudden transformation into a "lowly servant," and Ciara sighed.
"Very well then, what is it?"
"We were packing, as instructed, but discovered we did not have enough bags. Would it please you, mistress, to inform us of the proper type to use, and the way to acquire them?"
Ciara glared for a moment at Emmaline, whose clasped hands were not serving their purpose in hiding the grin on her face. She was turning red from cheeks to ears as she tried not to laugh out loud at her friend's transformation. Ciara's extended gaze quieted her, however, and the meeting proceeded.
"Since yl Emmaline will be riding--"
"Really? You mean it? Which horse?" interrupted Emmaline excitedly, leaping forward. She faltered, and fell back in place, subdued once again by her mother's stern expression.
"As I was saying, since yl Emmaline will be riding, you should put all things you will wish to access during the journey in saddlebags. Others can go in assorted suitcases, which will be stowed in the luggage carriages. Talk to yn Gred about that. Yd Rahall here will show you the way."
She waved her hand at a young boy, barely in his fifties, who bowed to Ciara, then the girls, and scurried off. Amalea hastily curtsied a few more times, thanking Ciara, and Emmaline dashed up and gave her mother a kiss before the two hurried out after the boy.
Ciara looked at the closing doors, raising a hand to her cheek. She touched it lightly, and smiled.