Songbird in the Kitchen 5: Customer Service

The tradition of the bride price has not caught on among most of the more egalitarian of countries.

— Richol dea Lamaster, The Tarsan Influence

Karin moved stiffly as she came around the corner toward Lilard's. Her leather armor, repaired and prepared for battle, creaked with each step. No doubt that Tristoh expected her to come back.

Her ex-husband always said she was predictable.

The usual crowds in front of the restaurant were gone. There was no one swaying in time to music, no one reading books while enjoying Lilian's voice. Tristoh's corruption had already taken root and it was obvious that the restaurant's fate was on a knife's edge.

With a second look, Karin realized she was wrong about the street being empty. The old lady who had pointed out the empty table to Karin remained on her bench. She knitted quietly, her head bowed with concentration.

Karin slowed to a stop near her.

“Looking for Lil?” asked the old woman. Her eyes were narrow as she glared at the glass window, to Karin, and then back to the bakery.

Head already throbbing from her liquid courage, Karin took a moment to process the unexpected question. She nodded. “Yes.”

“She's in the back.”

Karin turned to face the woman.

The old woman bent over and dug in her knitting bag. When she sat back, she held up an impressively large knife in a sheath. There was a name carved into the side, “Sindil Lilard”. Flipping it over, she held it hilt-first to Karin. “Need a weapon?” she asked cheerfully.

“W-What?” Karin couldn't help but smile. She peeked into the opening of the bag to see if there was another weapon, but didn't see anything. The bag had the same name embroidered on the inside.

“You obviously are going in with a plan,” said Sindil.

Karin shrugged. “Well, more of a vague idea. I was just going in to… make sure she knew she had an option.”

“That's good. The girl needs to know her options. Even if it takes a woman to have the balls to speak up.”

Karin smirked.

“After what Jon did, it isn't our place anymore. Most of the regulars have abandoned us. The ones left are going through the motions. It's a shame,” she said shaking her head. “Lilard's has been in our family for five generations. Thanks to Jon, there won't be a sixth. He should have just told me. I would have helped, but he always had too much pride and slippery fingers when it came to coin.”

“Is there anything you can do?”

The older woman held up the knife again in a silent answer.

Karin shook her head. A weapon would be nice, but that would make everything worse if she got caught. The city guard never responded well to obvious weapons.

Tossing the knife back into her knitting bag, Sindil picked up her needles again. “Three of his men are at tables one, seven, and fifteen. Two on the right when you come in, the other is by the window behind you.”

Suddenly things seemed brighter. “Thank you,” Karin said. “Who are you?”

The old woman smiled sweetly. “Just an old widow who is severely disappointed in her greedy son. He's family though, so please don't kill him?”

“I won't.” Karin turned, took a deep breath, and started for the restaurant. She stopped. “Are you a hunter?”

Sindil shrugged. “The men who fell for me were always mean drunks. Once I was done with them, I needed a little encouragement to send them on their way.”

Amused, Karin shook her head and headed into the bakery.

Jon, Lilian's father, looked up from where he was serving food. “You aren't wanted in here.”

Karin glanced around, spotting Tristoh's three men sitting at different tables. They were all minions, armed with short swords and leather armor. As one, they turned toward her and dropped their hands to their weapons.

She looked at the counter leading into the kitchen and then to him. “I just want to talk to Lilian.”

Jon stepped toward the center of the room and held the metal tray with one hand at his side. “Get the hell out of my place. You aren't welcome here.”

Karin shook her head. On one of the tables nearest to the door, she spotted a metal pitcher. She reached over and grabbed it. Her energies flowed through her hand as she focused on the rim to sharpen it while she spoke. “I'm going to talk to her.”

“She's on her way out. You don't need to.”

“Your daughter is not something to sell. Tristoh is going to hurt her and you know it.”

Jon's jaw tightened. “At least the restaurant will survive. You don't understand how close I was to losing everything. Everyone came to listen but not enough people paid for the seats they warmed.”

“She was your daughter!” Karin stepped forward. She flipped the pitcher and held it upside down. Water poured out across the floor.

One of Tristoh's men lurched out of his seat.

She backhanded his face with the pitcher. It collapsed from the impact then she followed up with a left hook.

He fell backwards, his foot catching her elbow before she could bring down the sharpened rim into his thigh.

She missed. The pitcher rim caught caught the edge of the table and sheared off the corner. The impact shattered the supernaturally sharp edge.

Before the hunk of wood hit the ground, Karin was attacked from the other side. The second warrior swung his sword down, the blade whistling through air.

She jerked back, slipping on the water and ice. Desperate, she funneled her energies into the pitcher's edge again. The metal screeched as it was rapidly flattened and sharpened again. Heat radiated through the metal and burned her fingers. She threw all her weight into blocking the blows.

Karin managed to parry with the opening of the pitcher. The blade sliced into the brittle metal but her magic kept the edge long enough for it to gouge out a large hunk of the forged weapon.

The remains of the sword smashed against her hand before it shattered from the blow.

Karin's knee hit the wet ground. She pulled back with her free hand, balled it into a fist, and punched the man in the balls with all her might.

His eyes almost popped out of his head. A low gurgle escaped his lips.

She released the ruined pitcher to uppercut him. Her knuckles slammed into the bottom of his chin, throwing him back.

Staggering to her feet, she stepped out of the puddle. She should have known better than make the fight worse by spilling water across the floor. Roal could never know she had made such a beginner mistake.

Jon gulped as he inched back.

She grabbed the serving tray from his hand.

He flinched and held up his hand to block the blow.

Karin shoved him out of the way and stalked toward the door. As she walked, she sharpened the edge of the serving tray.

The last warrior stood up, drawing his sword.

She threw the tray at him. The metal edge sliced through his sword and armor to embed itself into his chest. Blood sprayed across the ground.

Karin pointed at him. “Sit,” she commanded.

His ruined sword clattered to the ground as he sat.

She slammed the door into the baking area. “Lil!”

Lilian stood in the center, trembling as she stared at the door. Her eyes widened. “Kar? Is that you?”

At the sight of the frightened young woman, all the speeches and things Karin planned to say slipped out of her mind. She rushed over and caught her hand. “I know this is stupid, but I had to tell you this: you don't have to go with Tristoh.”

“I-I do. I'll lose the restaurant if—”

Karin interrupted her. “You've already lost this place. If you stay, you are going to rot with it. If you go with Tristoh, he's going to take you to Tarsan, and you will never return here. I know him, there is nothing good about him.”

Tears sparkled in Lilian's eyes. “W-Where would I go?”

Karin inhaled and shook her head. She hadn't really planned this far. “I don't know where. Pick a place and I'll send you there. I have enough money, I swear.”

“What about you?”

Karin stared at Lilian for a long moment, fighting her urges. Then she lurched forward to kiss her. The touch of her soft lips to Karin's was everything Karin had fantasized about. She let out a moan and inched closer to slide her arms around Lilian's waist.

Lilian gasped, her body still trembling. Her hands lowered to catch Karin's hip. She didn't pull or tug but held herself still.

There was no passion, not even a hint of quickened breath or trembling limbs.

Karin broke the kiss with a soft sigh. “Not a peach,” she whispered.

Lilian shook her head. “I'm sorry.”

Karin shrugged. She turned to hide her embarrassment. Spying a stack of trays, she hurried over them. “Pick a place.”

“Even though…?”

Karin took a deep breath to calm herself. She put on a smile before looking back. “I promise you, I will send you anywhere you want to go. Your voice is something that should be treasured as one of this country's wonders, not something Tristoh will use to enrich himself.”

Lilian smiled broadly. “I… I always dreamed of singing at the Harmony Opera. So maybe Stone Over Moon Waters?”

“Done.” Karin picked up the now sharpened trays. “Come on, let's get you on the road.”

Lilian looked nervous and pale. She looked around the stone hearths and ovens. “Just leave?”

One of Tristoh's men grunted as he crawled up on the counter between the front and back rooms.

Karin spun and threw one tray at each end of the heavy wooden beam over the counter. The sharpened rims easily cut through the wood. One side caught on the angle and held but the other plummeted, crushing the man's hand against the counter.

He screamed out in agony.

She threw another tray to finish the job.

The rest of the beam collapsed.

The warrior looked up and then yanked back to avoid being crushed to death. His hand wasn't as lucky when the beam slammed heavily on the counter.

Karin grabbed another tray and kicked open the door between the two rooms.

The door bounced off one of the warriors hiding behind it.

She kicked it again as she entered the restaurant side of the building. To her relief, the man with his chest impaled by a tray was still alive but sitting down. The one that she punched in the balls wasn't visible, so she swung the tray hard and slammed it through the door.

Stalking forward, she headed straight for Jon.

The older man gulped and backed away.

Karin held up her fist inches away from his face. “If she wants to leave, she's leaving. Do you understand?”

He nodded violently. Then his eyes widened as he looked toward the kitchen.

Karin didn't look back. She focused her attention on the last warrior in the room who was blocking the door. It was the first man she had attacked. She pulled back her tray and smiled at him.

He held up his hands and dropped his sword. “He doesn't pay me that much.”

“Get out of here.”

Karin followed after him.

Outside, the street was empty except for Sindil, who still knitted on her bench, and the retreating warrior. The old woman had a smirk on her lips as her needles clicked together.

Adrenaline surging through her veins, Karin stepped away from the door and prepared for another attack.

Lilian came out after her. She hurried for the old woman. “Nana? I'm so sorry, but I have to leave—”

Her grandmother put down her knitting and hugged her tightly. “Go, my love. Right now, I trust her more than your father.”

“I'll write. I promise.”

“You better. Now go.” Sindil stood up and gave Karin a hard look. For all her words, there was a threat from the spry old woman.

Karin smiled grimly and nodded. “Yes, Mother,” she said in a deferential tone.

The grandmother gestured with one gnarled finger at the window. “Run. I need to have a long talk with your dad.”

Lilian wiped the tears from her eyes and then headed for Karin. She held out her hand.

Karin took the soft palm firmly. Together, they hurried in the opposite direction of the fleeing warrior. She didn't know where to go or how she was going to get Lilian there, but she had hoped that Roal would turn up. That's what he did.

Three streets and two alleys of frantic running later, she came around a corner to find Roal sitting on a wagon with a horse already harnessed into place.

Karin gasped in relief. “Oh, thank the Couple. Roal!”

He didn't seem surprised to see her; his talent was to show up when he was needed. Slipping off the bench, he came around to open the back of the wagon and held out his hand to Lilian. “Just her or both of you running away?”

No question of what had happened. No hesitation. No doubt. Roal showed up knowing that Karin needed him, and answers would be given later.

Karin worried her lip. “Just her. If I run, the Rat Hunters will pay the price. The best thing is if I surrender.”

Lilian gasped. “You're staying? No, you can't do that. Come with me.”

Karin looked at the beautiful woman. It was heartbreaking but she knew Lilian would never be her peach. Without that passion, going along would just be torture for both of them.

Groaning, she turned to Roal. “Draw ten thousands crowns from my pay and give it to her. That should be enough to pay for room and board for a year. And find her someone to take care of her in Moon Waters. Someone trustworthy that won't take advantage of her.”

Roal grunted and nodded. He helped Lilian get into the wagon and then underneath a heavy canvas tarp. He crawled over to the bench and sat down. “I'll come back for you.”

“Roal? She's not a peach or an apple. Please?”

He nodded without looking at either of them. “Of course.”

Karin nodded grimly and looked around. It was going to get messy but she could trust Roal to take care of Lilian. She smiled at Lilian who was peeking out of the tarp. “Be beautiful and never stop singing.”