So, this technically isn’t a preview “chapter”, since it’s combining scenes from different sections of The Valley of Appraisal — but those scenes do form a contiguous storyline.
Also, my Christmas gift to you: this is going live a couple hours early.
J.B. Norman: greatest living author, stand-up guy.
Amara turns to Estelle. “Mrs. Darkstone, would you terribly mind if I borrowed Dunstana for the day?”
“Borrowed for what?” Dunstana asks, emerging from around the corner.
Amara leads Dunstana just out of earshot and looks gravely down at the little pirate. “Now,” she declares. “What I have in mind is simple. There is no doubt in my mind that Katherine will pass this test with flying colours. She will be in need of congratulations. Thus, I propose that we bake her a cake.”
“Okay,” Dunstana says with a nod. “But I didn’t know you knew how to bake, Amara.”
“Of course, I know how to bake,” Amara insists indignantly. “Goodness, what kind of helpless fool do you think I am?’
“It’s just that if we’re going to be baking, we should get Ginger to help us,” Dunstana notes.
Granted, Amara has never actually baked anything, but she is confident that she has a more than adequate grasp of the theory behind the process. After all, she spent days in the kitchens, observing the cooks at work and feverishly taking notes about every conceivable act of cookery and bakery.
One single cake can’t possibly be some great feat. Besides, she will, of course, be giving her utmost effort for the sake of her best friend. Amara Valda absolutely, resolutely, unequivocally refuses to be made a fool of by a mere cake.
Even so, Amara is well aware that Dunstana’s best friend is the youngest child of a family of bakers. Loathe as she is to admit it, she probably knows more about bakery than Amara does, despite being only half as old.
Since Amara’s long years of etiquette school have trained her to be magnanimous and gracious. She tells herself that it would be utter foolishness to turn down an offer of such assistance.
“I suppose we should take all the help we can get,” Amara concedes. “Lead on.”
Amara knows the Breadman family only by reputation. They are regarded as some of the finest bakers in Porthaven, and she has heard that their pastries have made it all the way to the Prince’s dining room. She has never met any of the Breadmans personally, rather surprising given that the family’s youngest daughter is the best friend of her own best friend’s sister.
As it happens, Amara’s first introduction to Ginger Breadman is a flash of red hair tumbling to the floor with a yelp as Dunstana bursts through the bakery door.
“Ow,” the girl says, readjusting her glasses. “Hi, Dunstana. Did you need — hey!”
“Ginger!” Dunstana exclaims, eagerly pulling the other girl up to her feet. “Come on, we need your help!”
“Let the poor thing catch her breath, Dunstana,” Amara says.
She takes a step forward and smiles gently down at the girl.
“My name is Amara. I’m a friend of Katherine’s,” she tells Ginger. “I want to bake her a cake to celebrate her completion of the Guild Authority test.”
“Oh. O-okay,” Ginger stammers. “I can help with that.”
“Do you have everything you need, Miss?” Mr. Breadman asks from behind the bakery counter.
“Yes, thank you,” Amara answers. “I’ve made sure that I am quite prepared. Katherine deserves but the best.”
“Well, in that case,” he says proudly. “Ginger’s the perfect person to help you.”
Upon their return to her family’s manor, Amara is surprised by how quickly Ginger takes charge of the kitchen. The heretofore shy and quiet red-haired girl takes to the kitchen like a Turboshark to water, moving from cupboard to cupboard with resolute efficiency to assemble the necessary pots, pans, measuring cups and whisks. By the end, the stack of cookware she has assembled is almost taller than she is.
Granted, Ginger is not particularly tall to begin with, but, as far as Amara is concerned, it remains a quite impressive tower of cookware.
“Now,” Amara ventures. “What can we do to help, Ginger?”
“I’ll get the eggs!” Dunstana eagerly volunteers.
Ginger immediately grabs Dunstana by the sleeve to stop the little pirate, her stack of cookware swaying precariously as she does. She looks up at Amara. “Could you get the eggs?” she asks.
Theoretically, yes, Amara could get the eggs. The obvious practical problem is that Amara has never actually had to use the manor’s kitchen for herself. She doesn’t actually know where anything is. Amara diplomatically decides to keep this to herself, and instead smiles and nods down at the girl.
“I can help!” Dunstana insists. “What about the sugar? We need sugar, right? I can get that!”
“Dunstana,” Ginger sternly warns her friend. “I have a spoon, and I’m not afraid to use it. So please, just sit still and wait until I have a job for you.”
Dunstana cautiously eyes the large wooden mixing spoon in Ginger’s hand and begins creeping safely out of its reach.
“But if you want to help, you can help me set up the mixing bowls,” Ginger offers.
“I’m bored,” Dunstana moans, not for the first time, gazing forlornly at the oven.
“It’ll be done baking soon,” Ginger promises. “And then we can start decorating the cake. That’s the fun part, I promise.”
“Let’s just make the oven hotter,” Dunstana offers. “If we make it twice as hot, it’ll bake twice as fast!”
“That’s not how it works, Dunstana,” Ginger informs her.
“But what if —”
After being so thoroughly stonewalled by her friend, Dunstana decides that she needs to try a new approach to fixing the problem of the seemingly-unending wait for the cake.
Good pirates are adaptable, after all.
“Hey, Amara, you can do magic, right?” she notes, looking hopefully up at the Elf. “Can’t you just, like, make time go faster, or something?”
“Yes,” Amara answers. “Why don’t I just go ahead and alter the fundamental fabric of reality, tear apart the very substance of the universe, shatter causality itself, and rearrange the essential nature of the cosmos for the sake of sparing us half an hour?”
“Really? Dunstana exclaims. “Awesome!”
“No, Dunstana,” Amara answers, wearily rubbing her forehead. “Not really.”
Chapters of The Valley Appraisal will start going live within the next couple weeks, right here —
— on realmgard.com!
In the meantime: Merry Christmas from Dunsanta Claus and the Katrampus: