Listen closely, for I tell you this story to save your life.
Many years ago, there was a girl called Mitta, who worked in Depur’s kitchens and was skilled at cooking many foodstuffs. She kept her master’s favor by making delicious meals for him to gorge upon, and always keeping a supply of sweetcakes in the kitchens to be sent to Depur the moment his stomach began to growl. But it was not to please Depur that Mitta managed herself so - her goal was to always keep him sated, and content, and distracted.
For Mitta also cooked foodstuffs for the other slaves: porridge mixed with fruit for those who fell ill, hearty stews for those constantly kept busy, and of course, dry things that would last and last and last, to be secreted away and eaten when no overseer was in sight. Mitta was very crafty in how she stretched supplies, and with Depur’s favor kept upon her, no one ever realized when she snuck extra grains and roots and such from the palace larder.
But that was not all Mitta cooked.
She also made dumplings, and miniature sweetcakes, and flavored meat sticks that Depur allowed her to sell, the money from which Mitta hid in a purse buried in the darkest corner of the palace grounds. Through three celebrations of the Marokeppu she did this, until the purse bulged with the weight of the credits inside.
Now, the girl thought, she held enough to buy her freedom.
It was not to be.
The night before she planned to approach Depur with her offer, a terrible, raging storm came up out of the desert. Everyone took shelter from it - Depur in his luxurious rooms, the overseers to their barracks halls, and the slaves to their hovels at the base of the palace walls. One hovel alone out of the many dozens there suffered a rending in its roof, allowing the wind and sand to spiral down inside.
This was the home of Mitta.
She was not frightened by the storm, however, for the wind whirled around her, and the voice of Ar-Amu came from it, whispering a warning.
When the suns next rose in the sky, Mitta went to work in the kitchens. She did not go to retrieve her purse all day, or ask to speak to Depur.
At nightfall, there came a cry from the fields. Soon enough, an overseer was seen hurrying to the palace, holding a linen-wrapped bundle with a look of distaste upon his face. Not long after that, a summons came for Mitta.
In Depur’s great hall, he beckoned her to his side. “My dear little cook, I have a task for you,” he said. The bundle from before was placed in her hands, and to her shock Mitta realized it was a half-starved infant. “I want you to feed up this child, to take good care of him,” Depur ordered. “Give to him your best foods, so that he will grow up to be big and strong, and I can make much money when I sell him.”
“Yes, Master,” Mitta replied, bowing low. “Would you also care for some sweetcakes now, Master?”
“Mm, yes,” Depur agreed. After promising to have a batch sent up right away, Mitta left, clutching the babe to her chest. Down in the kitchens, she nestled him in a half-empty crate of pikot roots, which she then set close to the cooking fire. Then Mitta fetched a bowl of blue milk, and some herbs to grind into it. She spent all night crouched beside that crate, dipping a twist of cloth in the milk for the infant to suckle from. When the stars faded and the sun next rose, his color had improved, and he slept with less trouble breathing than before.
The other kitchen slaves gathered around, both to get a look at the newcomer and offer their condolences to his chosen caretaker.
“Such a weak infant,” they all said. “Should he die, then you will surely lose your favor with Depur, little Mitta.”
“It matters not. If he dies, I will endure.” She said no more, and they all dispersed soon enough to their tasks for the morning. Mitta chopped and mixed, pinched and rolled, grilled and roasted, preparing Depur’s morning meal with the ease of long practice. By the time all the dishes were prepared and sent off, she’d decided on a name for her new charge.
“You can always change it later, if you like,” she told the babe, slowly stirring the pot of milk and grains that would be breakfast for two dozen slaves. “But I am going to call you Dakka, for strength is what you’ll need to survive.”
Dakka did indeed grow into a healthy boy. He helped Mitta in the kitchens, preparing feasts for Depur, and stews for the slaves, and sweet things to be sold at market - and to hide away their hard-earned money, in two different pouches kept buried in separate corners of the palace grounds. Through ten celebrations of the Marokeppu they did this, until the purses bulged from the weight of the credits inside.
“Now,” said Mitta the woman, “We hold enough to buy our freedom.”
It was not to be.
The night before she planned to go to Depur with her offer, a pair of overseers entered the slave quarters to fetch Dakka and Mitta, and take them to a cage erected by the palace gates. There, Depur waited, smiling as if he were a kindly Grandfather.
“You have done well for me, little cook,” he smiled, while the overseers locked Dakka inside the cage. “The child is healthy and of a good size - I will be well-paid when his new owners arrive in the morning.”
Mitta bowed her head, not as a gesture of subservience to Depur, but to hide the tears that gathered in her eyes.
Later, when all others had gone to sleep, she left the slave quarters, and through the shadows crept in order to retrieve her purses.
She gave one of them to the slave who forged all of Depur’s cages, in exchange for a tool that could unclasp door hinges. Clutching it close, Mitta hurried to where Dakka was imprisoned, and soon set him free. Then they returned to their quarters, so that she could take two of her cooking knives and carefully remove the boy’s transmitter from his shoulder - Mitta knew precisely where it was, as she remembered the redness of his skin as a babe when it was first implanted. As soon as the device was out and Dakka recovered from the pain-numbing drink Mitta had given him, she pressed the second purse into his hands.
“You will take this and you will run,” she told him. “You will only be safe if Depur’s bounty hunters never find you.”
Dakka did not dare to argue, only taking the time to hug Mitta goodbye before he vanished into the desert beyond the palace.
When the suns next rose, and the outlanders who’d planned to buy Dakka arrived to find an empty cage, Depur was furious. He ordered his overseers to search both the palace and the slave quarters, to tear apart every possible hiding place. All through the day they searched, and no one could find any sign of Dakka.
Finally, Depur commanded that Mitta be brought before him. She came with lowered eyes and a look of terror on her face, and honestly told her master she had no idea where the boy was hidden.
For all that he bestowed Mitta with his favor, Depur came very close to ordering her beaten then and there. But, the smith spoke up first.
“Master, I did not think much of it at the time, but when I was putting the pieces of that cage together, a red bird came and perched on top of it as I worked.”
Murmurs spread through the crowd of slaves, and then one of the dancer’s added their words as well. “I too, Master, saw a red bird last night, gliding about the spires of your magnificent palace as the stars emerged.”
Depur heard them, and grew furious. “Ekkreth,” he growled. “That Trickster must have robbed me of my slave! Bah! Well, I too can rob something from that fool!” And he activated the detonator for Dakka’s transmitter.
Mitta said nothing, but continued to kneel upon the ground.
“Hear this, then! Any slave who spies a red bird must come and tell me immediately, or else all food rations will be diminished by half!” The slaves all bowed and grovelled and agreed, until Depur was satisfied enough to send them away, Mitta included.
She nodded to those who had spoken, a silent promise to return their help in kind, and then returned to the kitchens.
Others tried to speak to her, to offer their sympathies and advice. “You must not let Depur see your grief, young Mitta. Dwell only on your happy memories of Dakka, and be comforted that though he died, it was in freedom, not slavery.”
“It matters not. He is gone, and I will endure.”
And Mitta continued to cook.
She made snacks and meals and feasts for Depur, and for his guards, and for the other slaves. She slipped small handfuls of nuts and fruits from the palace larder, to share among those who needed the extra strength, and prepared many batches of sweet things to sell. She hid away her collected credits, first in three, then in seven, then in ten different purses, each buried in a separate corner of the palace grounds. Through twenty-five celebrations of Marokeppu she did this, until every purse was overfilled, each bulging from the weight of the credits within.
“Now,” Mitta the old woman told herself. “There is enough.”
And it was.
Every morning for the next ten days, a different mother came to see Depur, her child in one hand and a purse with enough credits to purchase their freedom in the other. Grumbling, as he never liked freeing slaves, their master nonetheless accepted the payments, for he was greedy and could not resist the allure of a bulging purse.
And down in the kitchens of his palace, an old woman smiled as she cooked.