Chef Svetlana continued to scold the men for being too rough, but one still had a grip on Valerie’s arm so strong that pain radiated into her fingertips. She was led down what felt like a corridor, then made to turn a few corners. The air grew warmer, stuffier. The snug hood muffled the world—footsteps and voices and clatter came together into a cacophonous stew.
“You will leave us now,” the woman said.
“Leave. Us. Now.”
Nothing. The woman huffed out an exasperated breath. “Four should be in the kitchen. She will take care of you.”
The footsteps retreated. After they’d faded back into the mélange of other sounds, she heard the click and snap of a door closing and locking. The hood was withdrawn and her hands unbound. Valerie winced at the sudden light, however dim. Then blinked away the remaining blurriness, possibly from the drugs, and swiped a hand across her eyes.
“Well.” The chef crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re looking no worse for your journey.”
What the—? “Journey?” All the fear and anger from the last however many hours burst out. “Journey?” Valerie sputtered. “I lost my home and family, I fought my way to a refugee camp, where I was taken prisoner for a bogus crime. Then kidnapped and drugged and taken…here, wherever the hell here is, and you talk like this was some lark to a tropical island?”
The chef shook her head. Was that horrible woman actually smiling? “It’s a new day, princess. Time to change. Or you will be continually suffering.”
“Where is Tomás? What have they done with him?”
A knock rattled the door. The woman turned her head toward the noise, a distasteful pinch to her mouth. “We are fine, gentlemen. Leave us to get acquainted.”
She flicked a glance over Valerie, as if evaluating her condition, and sniffed. “I know nothing about this Tomás person. We have all given up something in this war. In all wars, we sacrifice. But if you want to survive, you will do as I tell you.”
Valerie opened her mouth, readying another volley, but nothing came out.
“Silence is your best choice,” Svetlana said close to Valerie’s ear, the stale clove breath flowing over her. “No questions. Now, you will listen.”
The weak lamp above her head flickered. Valerie attempted to swallow the dryness from her throat. Svetlana pressed a glass of tepid water into her hand, as if she’d known.
At the Culinary Institute there’d been rumors about Chef Svetlana. They said she was from European royalty. They said she’d been a political prisoner, left to rot in a nasty Soviet-era jail. That the scars on her forearms covered her entire body. They said she was a lesbian. Or that she was once a man. Or had killed one. The gossip varied depending on the hour and the amount the other students had had to drink.
Valerie didn’t believe any of it; from her father she’d learned not to trust rumor, nor to presume about anyone’s background. But the woman had scared the crap out of her back at the Institute, the way she stalked the test kitchens, correcting students’ techniques. Several times, Valerie was near tears by the end of the class. Svetlana was legendary at bringing new students to their knees, frightening the weaker ones into different paths of study, sometimes even during orientation. During one practicum, Chef Svetlana made Valerie poach seventeen quail eggs until one was cooked to her liking.
She hadn’t eaten an egg since. Even when the scavenger boys found a nest of duck eggs, she’d poached them perfectly but let the boys have them all.
She waited for the chef to speak. Svetlana paced the sparsely furnished room, her strong, stubby-fingered hands clasped over her solid belly. She wore black trousers, a white chef’s jacket, her short, spiky hair sticking out at angles, half-white, half-dark, like her outfit. In Valerie’s mind she tidied the woman’s hair, corrected the shade of her harsh lipstick, softened her sharp angles, and erased the scars that disappeared into the sleeve of her left arm.
The mental legerdemain didn’t soothe her.
“You will work in my kitchen,” she said finally. “I need a new sous-chef. Beggars can’t be choosers, and there’s a war on, so. There you are.”
Valerie began to protest, about free will and that it was only a bottle of olive oil, not even hers. But she bit her lips tight. She’d never rat out Tomás. The boy had lost his mother, his home, and only wanted comfort, wanted to bring her a gift so she could use it to make food that tasted like Mrs. Angela’s. If they’ve done anything to that sweet boy… She stewed in her hatred of the men who’d invaded her country. And now she was being asked to cook for them?
Svetlana drew closer, as if sensing Valerie’s turmoil. “You would prefer I return you to the general’s men?” She snorted. “It won’t be to make their meals, I can tell you that right now.”
Valerie lowered her gaze.
“It’s good work, in my service.” Her voice was a notch softer and contained a touch of pride. “It’s honest work. It’s hard work, I won’t lie. We have challenges.” She spread her arms wide. “We cook with what we are provided, what we can bargain for.”
Valerie thought a moment. If the general had pardoned her because Svetlana needed a sous-chef, perhaps all he knew about her background was that she’d been a cook in one of the camps and could be useful here. Or Svetlana remembered her from the Culinary Institute and was behind her release. Either way, surely the general would command better ingredients than she had in the mess hall, better than stale rice and bland, half-rancid cheese and lentils and wilted bits of whatever the boys could find. Or kill. Valerie salivated at the thought of good cuts of meat, fragrant herbs, fresh vegetables… “You mean black mark—”
Svetlana gave a savage look that dried Valerie’s throat. Like it always had in the Institute. “We do not use those words here. I thought you would have learned that in the camp. Or is whatever they injected into you still addling your memory?”
“No, Chef.” But she was a bit woozy from the drugs and shook her head in an attempt to clear it.
“All right, then.” Svetlana gave a vague flip of her hand. “Let it not be said that you are completely without free will. As I see it, and I tell this to everyone who chooses to give in to servitude—”
Valerie flinched. Servitude?
“Although you have been banished from the camp for your transgression, you can go back to their charming prison. That is a choice. You can walk out our door and off into the night. That is another choice. Even this late, the grounds are patrolled by bored, lonely men with guns who would make quite a game of hunting pretty young quarry. You can most likely figure out for yourself the consequences of that. Or, you can work in my kitchen. You will work hard. But you will have room and board and some semblance of dignity.” She lifted a square shoulder. “Most of the time.”
Valerie tried to absorb all that. Service was one thing. Servitude another. A small voice inside her said to run. Her thighs tensed. She glanced at the door. She wondered how far she could get. Although without shoes, and in the dark, and not knowing where the hell she was, and hunted by men with guns…no.
Svetlana slid her a knowing grin and came right up to her face. “You are thinking it, no?” Her voice was barely above a whisper. She tipped her chin toward the door. Her eyes were a deep brown, her cheekbones sharp, her nose patrician, her lips thin and tight. Years ago, Valerie imagined, she might have been stunning. She was still stunning, but in a different way. Hard. Commanding. Daring you to look at her. “You are weighing your odds. You are thinking how far you can get before they catch you. Or you step on a land mine.” The woman reached for the doorknob. “Maybe I will put you in the soldier’s brig for the night,” she said. “And let you sleep on it.”
“No!” The word came out more forcefully than Valerie had intended. Then she cleared her throat. “No. I will do this.”
Svetlana laughed, a brittle sound. She patted a rough palm on Valerie’s jawline. “Yes. An excellent choice. Fine, then. You will join us.” She cracked open the door, barked a command in Russian to the guard outside, and turned back to Valerie. “I’ll come for you soon. Just stay right there.”
As if there were anyplace else she could go.
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