Light drifts of dust and shell debris hovered in the heavy air, borne aloft as Nisa pried apart the smooth-grained husks to expose the delectable meat within. Ingram headed off the undercurrents of a sneeze with the back of her arm and steered herself away from the island, lest she contaminate their food preparations.
She held herself exceedingly still against the back counter until the tickle in her throat settled into a mild, throat-clearing cough. She was hardly surprised that the merchant was adept at navigating her pantry from the get-go: the order of her kitchen was impeccable; copper pots, iron pans, and sterling cooking implements dangled resplendently from the walls, arranged in multi-tiered rows of increasing size and metallurgical composition.
However little credit she gave Nisa for her ability to sort through the nuances of her cabinets, Ingram was quite impressed by the woman's efficiency at cracking open the pecans. The shells were brittle and liable to splinter to tiny, glass-like pieces if they were split the wrong way. Rarely did she ever feel so pleased to watch another person accomplish a task she had intended to finish herself, but Nisa had a knack for instilling confidence and calm in every domain of her life; so much so that during the merchant's previous visits she had even resorted to inventing chores and side projects just so they could spend time in one another's company, engaged side-by-side in solemn, patient work around the castle.
It was then Nisa chanced to speak, "It might be best to take a break at some point."
"No," she said at once. A silence descended on the room, interrupted by the popping sound of burst shells. Ingram reinstalled herself by the wood-burning stove, stubbornly firm in her movements as she snapped open the isinglass door and slid quartered logs into the fire chamber. Orange flames tapered upward and wreathed the kindling-wood in plaits of avidly flickering fire. Irresistibly warm air rushed out and washed over her arms and face. "But please do not overtax yourself for my sake. Rest if you are tired. I have been awake since six this morning, cooking and preparing for the festival. For twelve hours it has just been me and the stove. The stove and I. And I am sure we can finish...