Three women were seated in front of the glowing fireplace in the princess of Gondolin’s study, scrolls scattered over the tabletop as Idril checked off items on the list in preparation for the grand Midwinter Feast, an annual occurrence in the city.
“Presents for the children?”
“I have finished with that,” Aredhel said.
“That’s been done. I’ll supervise putting them up tomorrow.”
“Invitations—I sent them out. Meleth, the seating arrangements?”
“I have the plan here.” Meleth, the chief of Idril’s ladies-in-waiting, pushed a list over to Idril.
“Thank you. Auntie, the music?”
“Ecthelion’s hunting up talent.”
“The Midwinter cake?”
“I instructed the servants to mix the rest of the honey in and wrap it up before I came,” Meleth replied promptly.
Idril heaved a sigh of relief, for the cake was the crown of the feast, and had to be made a month (or two weeks, at least) beforehand, and stored away. Any mishap with it would result in disaster.
“I ordered the main bulk of food weeks ago, and the menu is set; the cooks are all buy with the feast. We’ve taken over Rog’s kitchens and his cooks are being wonderful. The wine?”
“Will be ready,” Meleth replied.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Idril called.
The door creaked open slowly, and one of the palace maids entered. “My princess...” She trailed off, twisting her hands together and refusing to meet Idril’s eye.
“I...I...” Almiel stuttered, and stopped, shifting from foot to foot.
Aredhel smiled kindly. “We won’t blame you for any bad news, child, spit it out.” Idril nodded encouragingly, backing up Aredhel’s words.
“Well...my princess, the...cake, the special cake...” The maid hesitated, closed her eyes, and then, taking a deep breath, continued, “Is gone.”
Several things happened at once: Meleth’s hand flew to her mouth, Aredhel jumped to her feet, and Idril said, in a small, strangled voice, “I beg your pardon?”
Almiel looked down. “I...I’m sorry, my princess.”
“You didn’t...lose the cake, so don’t be,” Aredhel said, her voice coming out more snappish, possibly, than she intended it to sound. Then, frowning: “But—how can so much cake just go missing?”
“I don’t know, princess,” Almiel muttered, shuffling nervously, her eyes still downcast.
“Almiel,” Idril said quietly, “Did you check the other storerooms? All of them?”
“Yes, princess.” Almiel nodded vigorously.
“And who else knows?”
“The head housekeeper, princess. She sent me, and said I was to tell you that she was the only one who knows.”
“Keep it that way, please. Is there anything else, Almiel, that you noticed or were told to report to me?”
“Nothing else, no, princess.”
“Then you may go.” Idril took a deep breath, and let her eyes flutter shut for a moment. Then, turning to the others: “Should we check the storerooms?”
“I don’t understand,” Aredhel snapped, “How could happened. I half-disbelieved Almiel, but this room really is empty.”
And so it was. The storeroom was bare of anything except piles of straw which had previously cushioned and insulated the boxes of cake.
“Which means someone would have seen people taking the boxes out, since there were many of them, and reported it,” Idril pointed out. “It’s strange that no-one has. This is the busiest part of the castle.”
“They took the cake out the window?” Aredhel questioned half-heartedly. But she glanced at the small window, set deep in the stone, and shook her head. “No, that’s impossible.”
There was a silence as the three women walked through the storeroom, poking and prodding, looking for clues that simply weren’t there.
“Soldiers,” Meleth offered. “They’re moving in and out of rooms these days, working on preparations for the feast, so no-one would think anything of it. And they could have taken the cake by accident; there’s a store-room for grain next door.”
“Well...” Idril considered this. “On one hand, yes. On the other hand, the grain is in sacks—and the sacks inside bins—and they would have noticed the difference, I think, and stopped to consider.”
“Unless, of course, we’re talking about Rog.”
Idril rolled her eyes. “Shame on you, Auntie, he’s perfectly nice and intelligent.” But she was giggling. “No, Meleth, it’s not possible, I think.”
“Probably not,” Meleth agreed, “But who would want to take so much cake, unless by accident?”
Aredhel had been peering out the window, but now she turned to the other two. “I have it—Salgant!”
“Shush,” Idril frowned. “Auntie, I’m trying to think.”
“Sorry, sorry. But I do think Salgant is the most obvious person.”
“And why would he steal cake? He has perfectly good cooks of his own if he’s desperate.”
“I know,” Aredhel shrugged, “But there’s no accounting for him.”
“No.” Idril shook her head sharply. “It’s not him.”
Meleth had been silent during this exchange, poking through the straw near the door, but now she started visibly, her voice trembling with excitement. “Look at this!”
They crowded around her; she was holding the sole of shoe, extremely large and a small silver ‘S’ attached to the back of the heel—a noble’s shoe.
“Salgant!” Aredhel said, and this time, no-one disagreed with her.
It wasn’t Salgant they were led to by the servant who answered the door, but Neniel, his wife, sitting in a study and surrounded by books and paper, spectacles perched on her nose. When she saw the three of them, she stood up hastily and curtsied. “Princess Idril, Princess Aredhel, Lady Meleth.” Then, “Come to the parlor and sit down. I must hunt up refreshments—I was working, I didn’t expect you.”
“We came unannounced, it was our fault,” Idril smiled. “And I just want to ask a couple of questions, and we’ll be off, so it’s probably best to stay here.”
“I’m afraid I’m glad of that,” Neniel laughed. “I’m in the middle of a book on the history of the people of Iathrim descent who now live in the city, and I don’t have much time for anything else.”
“You’ll attend the Midwinter Feast, though?”
“Of course, Aredhel! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Actually,” Idril said, “We came about that. There has been a problem, and...I suppose you haven’t seen any sign of the slabs of Midwinter cake, have you?”
“It’s missing?” Neniel grimaced. “What a disaster, I don’t envy you. No, I’m afraid not.”
“Well...I hate to say this, but has Salgant...” Idril trailed off, knowing what the accusation would sound like. “I don’t mean to offend you, but...”
“Oh!” Neniel shook her head, and her eyes were sparkling. “No, Idril. Salgant’s a bit too fond of his food, I know, but I assure you that no cake has passed through the doors of this house. There’s a large quantity, and I think I would have noticed in spite of my current preoccupation.”
“I’m sorry, Neniel, I know you have nothing to do with this, but there’s only this shoe-sole as a hint,” and here Idril held up the offending item, “and since there’s an ‘S’ on it—”
“—you assumed it was Salgant’s. I would have, too,” Neniel shrugged.
“And it still might be,” Aredhel said. “The cake was in crates, and then in boxes, then wrapped in paper and cloth to keep the damp out, so...”
“Crates?” Neniel blinked.
“You’ve seen them?”
“I was at the palace yesterday, for a permit to burrow into some of the more confidential texts in the library, and noticed Rog’s soldiers carrying crates past—food, I assumed.”
Idril, Aredhel, and Meleth exchanged glances. Then Idril spoke. “You’re probably right in your assumption, Neniel, but we can’t risk it. Thank you—and please don’t tell anyone!”
Rog’s kitchen was a bustle of soldiers and palace cooks running about, smells wafting through the air which made Aredhel shiver in delight. There were too many people for the arrival of the three women to cause even the slightest ripple, and Idril moved to talk to one of the soldier, but Aredhel shook her head slightly. “Wait,” she mouthed, moving to where two of the men were discussing an apparently urgent issue in low voices, their expressions heated.
“But the feast—” one soldier, the taller of the two—and quite large and well-built—was saying.
“Do you really want to know what the princesses will say when they find out? Or worse, Rog?” the other soldier hissed.
There was a shudder. “Well, yes, but—”
“Excuse me,” Aredhel interposed with her sweetest smile, “But I couldn’t help hearing your conversation, and...”
“My princess!” The two of them bowed hastily.
“No, stop, I just want to know about what you were discussing.”
The two exchanged glances. Then the shorter one spoke, “N—Nothing that’d be of any interest to you, my princess, just simple soldier’s concerns.”
Simple soldiers’ concerns indeed. Aredhel snorted to herself. “Humor me, please, I’d like to hear.”
The taller one had been shifting uneasily, and now he suddenly burst out: “My princess, we...actually made a mistake, and...it’s a terrible mistake...”
“I’ve made plenty of those,” Aredhel responded (and quickly pushed away the thought of her Niélë, lost so long ago). “And, as you see, I’m still living and breathing. I may be able to help you.”
“Well...” the taller man sighed. “My princess, we...we accidentally brought the special Midwinter cake instead of the grain we were instructed to fetch, and, of course, we couldn’t—”
“Of course not,” Aredhel agreed, “And I’m not blaming you. But I’m glad you told me, um—your name is...”
“Saeros, my princess,” the man said. “And thank you, my princess!”
Aredhel bestowed another smile on him. “Of course. If you could show me where you kept the crates of cake.”
“Of course, my princess, and...we’ll take them back to the palace for you, my princess?” the man said, elbowing his companion, who scowled a surly scowl, but nevertheless grunted in acquiescence.
“Thank you,” Aredhel said, “Now, if you could.”
“This way, my princess.”
Saeros. Aredhel permitted herself a private laugh as she beckoned the other two to follow.
“But how,” Idril mused later, “Did the shoe come to be left behind? And whose was it?”
“It actually belonged to Saeros,” Meleth said. “I asked him, and he was terribly embarrassed, the poor man, it was a present from his parents—minor nobility, apparently—on his begetting day. Speaking of which, do you still have the sole, Idril?”
Idril nodded. “Yes. I’ll call on him and give it to him, soon. And I’m glad there weren’t any...complications. A relatively smooth mystery to solve, considering.”