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Deleted Scene – The Birthday

AKA We’re All Going to Die, So Let’s Eat Cake

Note: No spoilers here, but I do recommend reading the book first so you know who everyone is.

“You came!” Virian leaves a ring of flour all over my fine dress, and remains unapologetic about it. There’s flour in her hair, and on her nose, and Dayen is spooning pure sugar into his mouth.

“Of course, its Dayen’s birthday and I promised.” I do not feel festive, but for them, I try on a tired smile. 

The kitchen staff glances at the trio of us now and again, and keep their distance. There are eggshells strewn around the counter Virian commandeered, and the bangles on her wrists are glued together with dough.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I ask Virian. I’m no baker, but I don’t think that sugar in your hair is part of the recipe. 

Virian sniffs. “Just you wait. It will be amazing.”

“How did you even manage this?” I ask. Two of the three long prep tables are busy with activity, but one small portion is ours. It’s cozy here, and smells of yeast, fish sauce, fragrant steamed rice, and frying oil. The scents don’t go well together, but they remind me of what I think a home should smell like.

“I traded a favor for when I become Reyna,” Virian flings open cabinets and rummages drawers, looking for either a weapon, or a cooking ingredient. It’s hard to tell with her. But she climbs down from a counter, triumphantly holding a jar of soft butter. 

Dayen jabs me in the side, ever so tentatively. I have noticed how he usually keeps Virian between us, is careful that we do not touch by accident. “So far my bet is that the special ingredient is sweat.” He holds out a spoon. “Sugar?”

I push aside the spoon, “Save some space for the cake.”

“There’s always room for cake,” he says. “Especially, we could die tomorrow cake.” 

I tighten my lips. “No one is dying tomorrow.” 

The room quiets, and the serving staff empties in a flurry, but Dayen’s eyes brighten. “Teloh! Come join us. It’s my birthday! I can’t guarantee you won’t be poisoned by Virian’s cooking though.”

“You will delight,” Virian grunts, slamming a pan into the oven with so much force that I’m afraid for the oven. “Now we wait.” 

I do not want to look at Teloh, though Virian and Dayen seem entirely at ease with his presence.  

“I…” Teloh hesitates. He pauses beside me and rubs the fabric of my skirt between his fingers, as if he’s thinking. “We must talk, but not here, not now.” It’s hard to wipe the memory of the kiss from my mind, though it already feels like just a dream. My pride still bristles at being dragged away from the trial. 

I lift my head a little to watch Dayen and Virian together. Virian explains the finer points of Rythian baking, while Dayen nods and I fully expect an exam afterwards. 

They seem entirely at ease together and I am envious. My entire posture is rigid, and my hands are in my lap. Teloh too, seems acutely aware that he’s not alone. I have a sense that this is strange for him, something new, and I brush just one finger against his, and all that I trust myself to allow. I feel him tense beside me, like a coil winding.

“So I was talking with Nen earlier…” 

I groan. “You really aren’t choosy about your friends.”

“Well I was asking about Arisa’s marks.” Dayen wrinkles his nose, and I catch the subtle twitch in his fingers. Beside me, Teloh has gone still, and that usually signals danger. “He was saying how people believe all sorts of things. Did you know that in Malago, birthmarks are considered a sign of power?” 

I did not. I wonder what life would have been like if I’d been born Mala instead of Amani.

“Anyway,” he looks apologetic. I understand what he’s trying to say, but he falls silent when he sees the pain in my expression. 

“You gossip more than my aunties, Dayen,” Virian sighs. 

When the cake is pulled out of the oven, and onto a plate, it looks a little lopsided, leaning to the left, and lumpy around the edges. “If you feel unwell, please report yourself to the infirmaries.” Virian propels Teloh towards the table. 

“You are a fearless little thing,” Teloh says. “Arisa would not find you wanting if she chose you for her assassin instead.”

Virian grunts, pleased. Dayen coughs on a chunk of cake, but nods composes himself when she asks him how it tastes. I take a forkful of my own cake and I think I chew something crunchy. It’s vaguely sweet, and I don’t think it should be quite so doughy.

“What birthday are we celebrating?” I blink. I don’t think I even know how old Virian is. I just assumed.

She just grins toothily. “It’s a secret, just like my ingredients.”

“I still think the secret ingredient is sweat,” Dayen whispers and ends up with a fistful of flour in his face. Soon Virian’s running away, and I have crumbled cake in my hair, and Teloh has cake all over his tunic, and there is sugar everywhere, and I think the kitchen staff will likely murder us. 

I unwind my scarf to shake the crumbs out and spy a butter stain that’s going to be a pain to remove, but I haven’t felt so light in days. I stop grinning when I notice Dayen staring at my marks.

“So what do you think the curse is?” he asks.

I stiffen. “I don’t really know, only that my auntie would blame me for everything that ever displeased her, including the rain on one day, or the heat on another, or the baby refusing to take a nap. My mother never believed it was dangerous.” 

“A sensible woman.” Virian snorts. “You Tigangi are so superstitious. No one thinks twice of those things back home and I’m quite sure it’s not catchable like the pox. If I ever become Empress, I swear I will pardon your mother,” Virian says, but her eyes are distant, her thoughts gone somewhere I cannot follow. 

Beside me, Teloh turns abruptly and his hand reaches for my forearm. His body is half-crouched in front of mine, but I dart around to see why. Reshar fixes his gaze upon us from the doorway. I see the edge of his mouth twist upwards and I know he has seen everything, including Teloh’s hand upon my arm. I hastily wind the dirty scarf back around my neck. 

Reshar turns without a word and disappears down the hall.