There’s a rhythm to a kitchen waking up in the morning. The slaughterhouses work at night, and we get the pigs, calves, and turtles maybe an hour after they’re killed and drained. Then the carts pull up: eggs, fruit, vegetables, and so on. Things start slow, but they don’t stay slow. Like most Xac restaurants in Arrat, breakfasts are almost half the business for the Mountain Pine. Xac refugees need a big meal at the crack of dawn, because the jobs they work don’t give many chances to stop and eat.
Getting up early enough to open a kitchen hurts. Leaving a warm bed before second watch makes your head ache, and you can feel the chill going from the cobbles through your feet and into your soul. When it’s wet on top of the cold, it’s the nearest thing to hell. But once I’m there and I’m in the rhythm, it just moves. I check the carcasses as they come in, kick up a fuss if they try to give us short weight or diseased animals, and then I lift them up, bring them in, and take them apart. Hook and cleaver work for two, sometimes three hours.
A lot of the Xac refugees working at the Mountain Pine are Sisori, so the hour before dawn, they’ll do their prayers out in the garden. I don’t mind, even though it slows us down when we need to speed up; I’d rather work with people who stop for prayers and stagger through fast days than with children glittering on juice, or gangs, or spirit.
Just after the Sisori came back from morning prayers one of the dishwashers ran in, bloody and yelling. My first thought was one of the gangs had taken a knife to him. Uncle Cestin owned the Mountain Pine and he paid protection most months, but sometimes not, and gang kids have more glitter than sense. But the washer was bloody, not bleeding, and he was yelling in Xactan about a girl named Meica.
He’d come from out back, so I went out back. There was a dead girl on the cobbles behind the back door, her guts lying in a tangle between her legs. A couple of the kitchen staff had followed me out, and the egg guy was sitting there in his wagon, trembling.
“Gods and devils,” I said, in Xactan. I had come over to Arrat when I was eight, so I don’t even think in Xactan much, but there are times when it’s the only language that’ll do. I looked at the staff who had come out with me. “Merinec, Aama, go unload the eggs. Beian, get that washer cleaned up, and then take charge of the kitchen until I’m back.”
They looked at me like I was insane. “Go!” I yelled, and they went.
“What do I do?” asked Latan, who was my second in the kitchen.
I gave a short nod towards the girl, and he went pale. “Get my tools,” I said. “Hook and cleaver.”
The egg man heard that and started shaking worse. “What is this?” he yelled, also in Xactan, but one of the northern dialects that are almost incomprehensible. “It is forbidden what you do!”
If he made a run for it, donkey braying and bolting, eggs scattering across the streets, the police would be sure to notice, and we’d all be done for. I went over, put a hand on his shoulder. “We have to,” I said.
“The police?” he asked. “They are to find criminals.”
“You have immigration papers?” I asked. “Your family have papers? What about a license for your farm, for the cart? They see a dead Xac, they deport everyone nearby, and assume that they got the killer.”
He didn’t say anything, just stood shivering in the cold before the dawn.
“You have, what, two more deliveries to make?” I asked.
He wanted to leave. He could have left, if he had turned the cart around as soon as he saw the dead girl. Now it was too late. If he ran, and the police got interested in the girl, someone was going to tell them that there had been an egg cart at the scene, and that it had fled. He’d be lucky if he didn’t hang.
“Yes,” he said. “Two more deliveries. I go to—”
“Good,” I said. “Latan will go with you, help with the deliveries. He’ll take care of some business at the farm, too.”
He went paler, turning almost as white as a local. “You can’t,” he said. “There’s no room in the cart for a... they’ll notice legs, arms—”
Latan came back out. “Are you sure about this, Xan?” he asked, passing me my hook and cleaver. He looked like he was on the verge of vomiting, and I couldn’t blame him. But what else could I do? If the police got involved, we’d all be facing nooses and firing squads, either here or in Xacta.
“Get him some soup,” I said to Latan. “His cart’ll be ready in a few minutes.”
They went inside, trying not to see what was lying on the cobblestones behind them. Hell, I wished I couldn’t see what was lying on the cobblestones behind them. I wished like anything that it hadn’t happened, and that the police would help when things happened. But it had happened, and I’d seen the way the looks on the faces of the police when they had to deal with Xac. I’d seen people packed into wagons bound for the border after someone knifed a guy two tenements over.
Call the police in, I get deported along with half the kitchen. Those of us who didn’t get a shallow grave five feet from the border might last a year or two in a People’s Committee labor camp. Do nothing, same thing happens. I wished I couldn’t see it, but I could, and I was on the spot. So I got to work.
The Arratap think that the Xactan neighborhoods are pits of violence, and they’re not wrong. There are gangs, and there are people who’ve run out of hope and gone sour with juice and dust and spirit and wine. But before that day I had never seen a dead person close up. I lifted the girl up with the hook and started working with the cleaver. Bones are bones, and joints are joints.
It didn’t take long. She was lighter than the calves I had been working with, and wasn’t as solid. I took her apart, wrapped what was left in the rags that had cushioned the eggs, and then the cart was ready to go. Nobody would look twice at a couple of Xac headed to a little patch of farm on the outskirts. There, she’d be bone meal and pig slop, and that would be it.
I went inside, where the kitchen was filled with warmth and cheerful noise, and told Latan what he had to do. He wasn’t happy, but he didn’t argue, and he got the egg man moving. I followed and watched the cart leave.
I could have let it go there. The first customers were already coming in, and the kitchen was falling behind on the orders.
I couldn’t do it. That girl was a child, and she had been ripped all to hell, legs spread apart and intestines spilled out between them. I had cut her up and sent what was left of her corpse on its way; no Sisori grave, no Tauki pyre, no nothing. If she had parents, or someone else waiting for her, they’d be in hell, and I was leaving them there. I couldn’t have done anything else. But I had to do more.
The body couldn’t have been there long; washers and cooks had been coming in, and there were deliveries. Sometimes waitstaff came in early, to pick up a little extra cash working in the kitchen. Or she could have been killed after closing the night before, and just dumped in the morning, or... or anything, really.
I poked at the rotting bits of cabbage and burdock that had fallen off the cart when the trashmen had made their rounds. The sky was light enough that I could see pretty well. There was blood on the cobblestones, but there was always blood on the cobblestones from the carcasses.
One of our table knives was glinting in the gutter, handle and blade slick with blood. I picked it up, ran my finger on the blade. It wasn’t sharp, and the cuts in the girl had been ragged. It could have done it. I wiped the knife off and slipped it into my apron.
What else? Just the usual trash. Juicers had left jars smashed against the cobblestones, and there was a spirit vial in the gutter. The dragon stamp on the vial’s seal was still sharp, not worn down by days of being kicked and trampled.
I held the vial up to my nose, sniffed, and felt bigger than I was. I could feel the glitter in my eyes. I had expected it to be empty when I had taken that sniff, but that vial was still half full. Two, three doses left, not counting the one I had just gotten. I popped the cork back in, tucked the vial in my apron along with the knife.
I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I hadn’t looked as long as I could have. But I couldn’t afford to spend the rest of the morning poking around in gutters. I went back into the kitchen with a spring in my step that was spirit and nothing else. I had snorted up a full day’s wages, and I had another two tucked into my apron, easy.
We were behind, but I took control, and we started catching up. The soup and bread started going out fast enough to meet orders, fishes started getting oiled, cubes of turtle and porpoise went into pans of vinegar and brandy.
Beian had started work on the star dumplings, and had made a mess of it; he had done a third as many as we needed, and he had made them lopsided, beef spilling out into the broth. I took over, square of dough in my right palm. Half a spoon of meat, quarter spoon of mango and mint, then close the hand to seal the dumpling with a five-pointed star.
My father had taught me how to make star dumplings, back in Xacta. We had them for the festivals, and I could remember standing on his feet to reach above the rim of the pot, his hand folding around mine as we squeezed the dumplings into shape.
“Meica was like that,” said Aama from right behind me, and I damn near jumped out of my skin. I don’t go up on spirit much; in addition to everything else, it made me jumpy as hell. Aama was lucky she hadn’t come up on me when I was holding a knife, or I might have had a second dead girl to deal with.
“Like what?” I asked.
“She was made into a five-pointed star,” she said, grabbing one of the dumplings from the broth with her sticks. “It’s a Tauki symbol.”
“Great,” I said. “So there aren’t people out there waiting for stuffed bread? Because if there are, what the fuck are you doing by my station?”
“Ask him!” she said, gesturing towards one of the dishwashers. “Ask him what he knows!”
“Stuffed bread!” I bellowed, hopefully loud enough to keep people from thinking too much about what she had said. “And if you use the black tree fungus again, I swear Young Shuan will hear about it.” It was traditional in stuffed bread, but it was far too bitter for modern tastes.
Aama stalked back to her station, and after a quick glance at the dishwasher, I turned back to mine. He was a skinny fellow, who wore a long jacket all year round, even in the summer when it was too damn hot even when you weren’t in up to your elbows in a tub of hot water. I hadn’t really thought about it before then, but it could have been that he wore the jacket and his checked headband to keep Tauki scarring hidden—some of the Tauki higher-ups had scars and symbols burned into their flesh.
Could have been that’s why he dressed like that, could have been something else. So long as people got their work done, I didn’t ask questions. He hadn’t given anything away in response to Aama; just looked up when she started yelling about him, then went back to grinding burnt dough off an oven pan.
If that had ended it, it would have been fine, even though we were limping through breakfast like a three-legged dog. The problem was that Aama was right. Maybe not about the dishwasher, but about the way the girl had been laid out. Arms and legs spread, and that mess of stomach and intestines between the legs. Not just that, but the way she had been opened up. The cuts had been rough, but it was clear enough; a five-pointed star had been cut out of her stomach, and her guts had been pulled out through it.
The five-pointed star was a Tauki symbol. That’s why we had star dumplings for festivals—Tauki was the royal religion, and the state festivals had all been Tauki. The dead girl had been Sisori. I had seen her at the lunchtime prayers.
In exile, the Tauki and Sisori mostly got along, but if that girl had been killed as part of a Tauki ritual, we’d see the Sisori Wars fought out in our kitchen. If history was any guide, the ensuing revolution would kill about half of us, a quarter of those left alive would become refugees, and the rest would be under the thumb of a People’s Committee. More to the point, if there was a riot, the police would find out, and I’d swing for what I had done to Meica’s corpse.
I looked back at the star dumplings and saw what I was doing. They were more or less right, but there was a twist that I had never used, and they were heavier on the mint than I had learned. I remembered my father teaching me how to make them, and I also remembered that my father was the sort of atheist who hated the festivals and never let us make star dumplings.
The man I was remembering as my father looked a bit like the picture I had seen of my great-grandfather. Hard to tell, because he wasn’t stiffly posed and looking blank, and also because all the memories that came riding in on spirit would’ve been family of one sort or another. I shook my head, tried to clear it of my grandfather, or great-grandfather, or whoever’s spirit I had borrowed, and went back to making the dumplings like I had learned from Old Shuan. Then Young Shuan came in and started yelling.
When Old Shuan died of winter fever, Young Shuan had been a junior line-cook, and one of the older chefs tried to get Uncle Cestin to put him in charge of the kitchen. Young Shuan didn’t bother with that. He just came in and started running things, and when that other fellow came back, Young Shuan cracked his jaw with a head-butt and chased him out of the kitchen with a cleaver. Hell of a cook, but not the type to let it slide when things were as bad as they were for this breakfast.
There was spittle in his beard and rage in his eyes when he made it over to my station. I kept making the dumplings, because there wasn’t anything better for me to be doing.
“You run a kitchen like this?!” he screamed. “Get out. Get out, and don’t come back, you hear?”
I spent my mornings picking up three-hundred pound carcasses with one hand, and taking them apart with the other. If he tried to throw me out, I’d break him, head-butt or no. “Someone killed a waitress,” I said. “I had to deal with it.”
For a while, the only sounds in the kitchen were cooking. Young Shuan’s hands clenched and unclenched. He wasn’t used to being argued with, and he wasn’t used to a kitchen running behind, but I hadn’t been wrong to do what I did. “Tell me about it,” he said, finally, and I did, as the clamor of the kitchen picked up again.
“It’s done,” he said, when I finished. “You can’t waste any more time on this.”
I didn’t argue, because he wouldn’t listen, but it wasn’t done. Either the Sisori would try to take revenge for Meica’s death by killing a dishwasher, or the Tauki would decide to preempt the retaliation, or someone else would get laid out as a star. And for all that it was Young Shuan’s favorite way of dealing with problems, he couldn’t fire anyone for any reason; give someone a grievance, and maybe they go to the police and start talking about a dead waitress.
It wasn’t done, but Young Shuan didn’t want to hear it. It wasn’t done, but maybe it’d simmer down rather than flare up. I couldn’t do much about it either way. The problem was, when I tried to work, I couldn’t help thinking about that girl, how she had looked out there on the cobblestones, how she had moved on the hook when I had taken her apart.
It had been a hell of a morning, it was a hell of a lunch, and the afternoon wasn’t great either. Young Shuan tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, which left me holding everything together. When people take their breaks, they start to clump up as Tauki or Sisori, so I stopped letting them have breaks—no matter how well run a kitchen is, there’re always gutters to flush and ovens to scrape clean, and so on and so on.
That didn’t make anyone happy.
Then there were fights. Two that I broke up when it was still just yelling, and one a proper brawl out back just after lunch. By the time I got out there, Aama and the dishwasher were about to go at it with knives.
I got behind her, tossed her clear.
“You idiot!” she shouted. “He killed Meica!”
“You have proof?” I asked. “You have proof, we’ll deal with it.”
“Look at his shoulder!” said another of the Sisori. “That scar, those lines—”
I looked. The dishwasher’s jacket had gotten ripped in the fight, and he had a hell of a lot more tattoos and scars than most Tauki. Great. Some sort of higher-up. “Don’t see any proof that he killed Meica,” I replied.
“He’s the King of Xacta, you idiot,” said Aama. She surged forward, trying to get at him, and he brought his knife back up, and the whole thing started again.
“Enough!” I yelled again, but nobody was listening.
Then the pan I had wedged into place to keep the back door closed got knocked loose, and Young Shuan came out. His lips were pulled back, and he was shaking with rage. I was twice his size and on his side, but I had to fight back the urge to flee or beg forgiveness.
He was carrying one of the big soup pots. When those were full, they were as heavy as a calf; heavier, because of the way the water sloshed, and he was carrying it like it was full. Young Shuan threw the contents out over the brawl.
If it had been cats or juicers, he’d have used hot water and scalded them, but judging from their reactions, it was cold water. It did the job. The people out on the cobblestones went from wanting to kill each other to being confused, wet, and cold. Young Shuan pointed at the door, and they shuffled past him, back into the kitchen, like recalcitrant schoolchildren. Maybe the dishwasher was the rightful king of Xacta, but Young Shuan was the king of the Mountain Pine, and it wasn’t wise to forget that.
I joined the line heading back into the kitchen, but as I passed Young Shuan, he grabbed me by the shoulder. He didn’t say anything, but there were all sorts of things in his look. Rage, fear, confusion, and a plea for help that he could never voice. Young Shuan had an ailing mother and three sisters, and he relied on the job to support them. More than that, the Mountain Pine was his life. It was falling apart, and he didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t either.
Most days, during the run-up to dinner, I did more supervising than actual work. A word here, a stir there, that sort of thing. The staff was good enough that most days, even that wasn’t necessary. That day, it was. They needed to know that I was hanging over their shoulder, so they’d keep their minds on the food, not on other things. Me, I was mostly thinking about other things.
If that dishwasher was the king, it could be that some Tauki had decided to cut up a Sisori in his honor. There were fewer sacrifices in the royal calendar than there used to be, and all of those had been shifted over to animals during the Sisori wars. But there were still old-school Tauki who blamed the fall of the monarchy on the reforms in the Imperial cult, and if one of those had found out where the rightful king was hiding, I could believe a sacrifice on his behalf.
Or on his orders. I didn’t know a damn thing about this Prince Telac. Propaganda against him poured out of the Xactan Republic, and Xac royalists in exile printed out propaganda supporting him, but neither side was heavy on facts. Smuggled out when he was seven, then disappeared, more or less. Could be that he was just getting along, or could be he had become someone who could see a girl cut all to pieces in the hope of it bringing him luck.
As I worked my way through the kitchen, I did my best to look over at that dishwasher from time to time. There was a big Tauki who stuck to his side—had been there during the fight, and had knocked a couple of Sisori flat—and I didn’t try to separate them. I didn’t want to see Telac dead before I knew who had killed Meica. And it was Telac. Those bumps on his shoulder... traditionally, the crown jewels of Xacta were sewn into the prince’s body when he was still in swaddling clothes. My father had a yellowing newspaper clipping about that in his collection of ‘idiotic barbarisms that destroyed Xacta.’ That star-shaped lump on his shoulder was either the five rubies, or it was a replica that someone had undergone a lot of pain and effort to produce and then hide.
Course, just because he was the king didn’t mean that he had killed Meica, or that Meica had been killed for his benefit. Could have been that someone stuck a knife in her, and decided to mock it up like a royal Tauki sacrifice to keep people from figuring out who had done it. Since you needed the king around for that sort of sacrifice, it’d have to have been someone who knew that the rightful king of Xacta was washing dishes in the Mountain Pine, anyway. Otherwise it didn’t make sense.
None of it made sense, so I decided to see what the dishwasher had to say. He was elbows-deep in water so hot it was almost boiling, trying to get goose fat from the clay pots before it went rancid. His large friend looked up at my approach, hands dipping down into his apron. I gave him a short nod, didn’t make any sudden moves.
“How many people knew?” I asked.
“I don’t—” he started.
“How many knew, before this morning?” I needed to know, and king or not, he was going to tell me.
He shrugged. “Reitan,” he said, nodding towards his friend. “I don’t think any of the others, but sometimes the headband slips. There is always the chance that someone will see something.”
I hesitated. Two of the line chefs—Aama and Beian—were watching us, and there were other dishwashers closer, and there were still runners bringing trays of dirty dishes back from the lunch. It was the closest we’d get to privacy.
“Was this for you?” I asked.
He was a skinny guy, nose like a beak, and eyes that were older than his face. He recoiled at that, just slightly. “I hope not,” he said, quietly. “Too much has been.... I hope not.”
Maybe he was lying. He didn’t sound like he was, but living that sort of life, he’d have had to learn how to lie. Hell. I wasn’t even sure why I had asked, anyway—if he’d done it, he wasn’t going to just tell me.
“You should leave,” I said. Whoever had killed that girl, having the king in the kitchen wasn’t helping things.
“I can’t.” He shook his head, put the pot he was working on to the side, started in on the next one. “There aren’t enough who can be trusted, and on short notice... it isn’t safe here, but it wouldn’t be safe to run.”
Maybe that’d be true for some provincial official or former judge, but not the king. Go out into the street in any Xac neighborhood, and half the people you’d meet would be willing to give up their lives for their king. Tauki mostly, but there were plenty of Sisori who blamed the Sisori wars on the king’s advisors rather than on the king. All Xac refugees loved the idea of the king. He was all they had.
I must have let some of my disbelief out onto my face. He turned away, looked back down at the pot. “Everyone has family,” he said. “People will cross lines for their family.”
The Prince Telac didn’t have any close family—there had been detailed accounts of the trials and executions in the broadsheets. But I took his point. Everyone had relatives left behind in Xacta, and telling the embassy where to find the king might get a grandfather out of forced rustication, or a mother from a labor camp. Hell, for all that my father had fought against the People’s Army, he’d have a hard time not giving the People’s Committees anything they wanted if it’d get my Aunt Ari out of whatever hell she was in.
“Besides,” continued Telac. “If I leave, everyone thinks I was involved.”
That was stupid, but made more sense than the other reasons. He didn’t seem to have anything else to say, so I gave a snort, and turned away. When I got back to my station, I saw what I had done.
Plum wine vinegar for the marinade, instead of sorghum vinegar. I swore under my breath. It’d take an expert to taste the difference, and it cost five times as much. The last of the spirit. Great-grandfather wouldn’t have used sorghum. It would’ve been worse if that vial of spirit had taken me up with someone who couldn’t cook, but this wasn’t great either. I swore again, louder, slammed my handtowel down on the counter, and went back to the privy.
Coming down from spirit is like being drunk; like being two drinks past drunk, when the joy has faded but the sick is still there, and you’re not sure if you’re going to puke or not, and your thoughts chase each other around without getting anywhere.
I squatted over the privy, and I could see the dead girl, head turning to the side as I took a cleaver to her, and I could see the fight out behind the restaurant. I could see it spreading, I could see faces I knew split open by knives, I could see other heads turning to the side, with that same looseness of death in them.
It didn’t make sense. The king, or whoever’d done it—they’d have to have known that throwing the dead girl out on the cobblestones like that would cause trouble. There was no reason for it. Once they’d done the sacrifice, they could have dumped her in a rain barrel, or in with the trash, or the king’s giant friend could’ve stuffed her in the fire under the big stone oven. They hadn’t even tried to hide her in a corner or anything. Only reason to leave her public like that would be because they wanted someone to find her, to see what they’d done.
Because people had seen her, the king was going to get killed. Either by the Sisori in the restaurant, or one of them would tell someone else, or something. So, maybe there was a Sisori who wanted to kill the king, and thought killing a waitress was easier than killing a dishwasher. No. Didn’t sit right. Go to the Xactan embassy, tell someone about the king, and he’d die. No need to kill a waitress and hope for the best.
Not Sisori, and not Tauki. I reached that point where I was sure that I wasn’t actually going to vomit, cleaned myself up, and headed back out.
I had an idea. Nothing I could prove. Hell, I wasn’t even sure it made sense. But when I went back out into the kitchen, I slipped the spirit that was left in the vial in my apron into the jug of water that Aama kept near her station. If I was wrong, I wouldn’t lose much. If I was right, it still might not do any good. But it was all I had.
I hadn’t been gone long. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. But the mood had changed when I came out of the privy. Whatever Young Shuan had accomplished with that pot of water was gone, and what I had been trying to do all day was falling apart. Yeah, they were tired, and yeah, they were working on dinner, but the lines were hardening. Then the Sisori left for their evening prayers, and there was nothing more I could do. If we tried to break those prayers up, even those who weren’t inclined to riot would riot, but if we didn’t, those who were inclined to riot would be ready to break faces when they came back.
Everyone knew it. A couple of the Tauki left, but most of them weren’t backing down. There were knives tucked into aprons, chair legs rolled up in towels and kept close to hand. It was going to be a goddamn bloodbath if I was wrong, or if my plan didn’t work.
Aama was still at her station, braiding pastry dough, fig honey, and candied almonds with a sort of dreamy intensity. It wasn’t anything on our menu, but it looked good. I had given her more spirit than I had taken, and I weighed two and a half, maybe three times what she did. That woman was as far up as spirit could take you.
As the Sisori service came to a close, I drifted over to where Aama was working. “They’re going to kill our king,” I said, as the Sisori came through the garden doors in closed ranks. I tried for an old-fashioned accent, but I don’t think it mattered. Aama nodded, put the pastry down to the side, and walked out to meet the Sisori as they came in.
They were headed for Telac, and I had to give the little guy credit— he didn’t let it fluster him. He kept on with washing the dishes from lunch, one platter after another, his jacket soaked through and his headband down on his forehead.
Aama got in between the Sisori and the king. She was unarmed, and there was the glitter of spirit behind her eyes. Could be that they’d just knock her to the side, and the whole goddamn kitchen would wind up drenched in blood, and....
“How dare you,” she yelled. “You’re still Xac, despite this religious idiocy. In Xacta, or in exile, you are still Xac. How dare you raise your hand against your king? By the scepter and the signet, I order you to disperse!”
It stunned them. Aama had been the one who had blamed the king for Meica’s death, she had been the one leading them, she had been the one driving them to kill the king. They must have been confused when she hadn’t come in for the prayers, but this was a step further than any of them had expected.
“He killed Meica,” said one of the Sisori.
“Him?” she spat to the side, furious. When you’re up on spirit, no matter how high up, you’re still there, even when your ancestors are talking, even when you remember things that you never saw. I could see Aama, underneath the spirit, trying to will herself not to speak. “If he had attended to the sacrifices, none of this would have happened. He’s weak-hearted, and we suffer for it.”
The leading rank of the Sisori were confused, but the rest were still pushing up behind. They came at Aama, and whoever it was that was talking through her didn’t seem to understand what was happening. “No!” she said, trying to hold them all back, her arms stretched out. “No! He is weak-hearted, but he is all we have left of the blood!”
“No!” she cried, as she was knocked to the side. “Twenty-three more sacrifices, and he will be strong! Just leave him be, and I will do the rest. Twenty-three more. Meica was willing in the end, I swear it!”
It wasn’t enough to stop the fight; it had already started, and it was about more than just Meica. But it certainly took the fire out out of the Sisori. Aama had been one of their leaders, and, well, sure if the king hadn’t been there it wouldn’t have happened, but they weren’t willing to start stabbing for that.
Young Shuan waded in with a ladle and rolling pin, and I helped with pulling the Sisori off the Tauki and the Tauki off the Sisori, and we managed to stop it before anyone got hurt worse than a cracked nose or a broken tooth. Nobody wanted to apologize, but nobody wanted to do anything irrevocable. Once we got them back to work, they all threw themselves into it, doing their best not to look at each other. Not the people who fought with them, not the people who fought against them. Seemed to help the cooking, anyway.
There were a couple of people who left their stations before dinner. Latan left early, because I sent him to get Uncle Cestin. Cestin owned the place, so I figured he should hear what had happened. Aama hadn’t left on my orders, but I couldn’t say I was upset when I saw that she was gone. She had killed Meica, and tried to get Telac killed.
If it had just been the spirit, maybe we could’ve found a way to understand. Spirit’s a bad idea, but she wasn’t the first who’d thought it was a way out. Leaving the body like that, that had been her. It must have been hard to kill for the king as an ancestor, and hate him as yourself, but trying to hide her guilt by spreading it around like that... if she had stayed behind, it wasn’t like the police would have listened to our version of what happened. The only thing we could have done would have been to send her out to the chicken farm, or somewhere like that. I should have done it, maybe. Caught her, kept her from leaving, and then dealt with her. I’m glad I didn’t.
The king didn’t run. His friend ducked out, once it was clear that the Sisori weren’t going to commit regicide, but he stayed at his station through it all, washing the dishes as they came in. My father had a lot to say about monarchy, none of it complimentary, and mostly I agreed with him. But I had to admit that as far as the Prince Telac—King Telac IV, really—went, there could be worse men in charge back in Xacta. In fact, there were worse men in charge in Xacta.
When the dinner rush slowed, I went over to where he was working. “By the scepter and signet?” I asked.
“Those were the symbols of the Lord Chancellor,” he said. “That office was abolished seventy years ago, so it must have been someone from before then who came back riding on the spirit. How did you know it was her?”
“I saw the spirit vial.”
Worse men then him were in charge of Xacta, and probably men with worse eyesight.
I looked up; nobody else was interested. “It had to be,” I said. “Only made sense if a Tauki did the killing, and then a Sisori tried to get you killed. Spirit could explain why those two were working together like that. Had to be a Sisori taking the spirit, and a Tauki ancestor coming back on the spirit, because Sisior hadn’t been preaching long enough ago for a Tauki to have Sisori ancestors. Aama knew that you were the king, so I guessed it was her.”
There was also the way she cut the bones from pike, the way she kept putting black tree fungus in stuffed bread. No question that she went up on spirit more than was good for her. But no point in mentioning that—maybe he was the king, but he was just a dishwasher; he wouldn’t understand.
Telac nodded, and turned back to his washing, and I turned to go back to my station. “Don’t leave,” I said, not looking at him. “I know that too many people know who you are, and if you stay here, the embassy will be sending knives after you, but give us a night. Uncle Cestin will... just a night. No more.” Then I left. Either he’d stay or he wouldn’t.
He stayed. Cestin came in, red-faced, with blue envelopes of cash for Young Shuan, for me, and for the other senior cooks, like it was a holiday or there was a funeral. Then the waiters chased out the remaining customers, locked the doors, and drew the shades over the windows. And then the kitchen staff went out into the restaurant, which we never did.
The tables were set for us; blue and gold settings, red tablecloths. There wasn’t much call for Xac banquets in Arrat, but even if it’d just been the king showing up for a meal, tradition dictated a full-course affair. As things were, there was more to celebrate. It seemed like Young Shuan had hoped that I’d set things right, and had planned accordingly. Stupid. But he had done it, and they sat me up between King Telac and Uncle Cestin. Tauki and Sisori cooked, and Tauki and Sisori served, and Tauki and Sisori ate together. Young Shuan himself made the five-pepper sauced shrimp, and the rest of the kitchen outdid themselves with steamed and fried turtle, with white porpoise and everything else you could imagine, everything of the best.
Uncle Cestin was embarrassed and pleased to be sitting at that table, and while I did not know King Telac well, I could see that he was deeply moved. To live as a king and as a dishwasher at the same time—to see what he meant to the Xac in exile, Sisori and Tauki alike—had to have touched him deeply.
As for me, perhaps I misread Cestin and Telac’s reactions, but if I did, it was because of the tears that I was shedding. I hadn’t really thought about how much the Mountain Pine meant to me, what a proper Xac banquet in Arrat meant, what my place here was and how people saw me. Even then, I couldn’t face it, not without almost falling apart.
Maybe I should have tried harder to catch Aama. I didn’t, and for all I knew, she’d go up on spirit again, and make more sacrifices. Maybe I should have seen what was happening earlier, headed it off before anyone got sacrificed. I hadn’t. But I had fought for the Mountain Pine, and I had won, and they were honoring me for it.
There’s a seal that you’ll sometimes see on signs for Xac restaurants. It’s in the old script, which most Xac couldn’t read even in the old country, and it’s become so stylized that even someone who could read the old script probably wouldn’t be able to parse it. It says, “By Appointment to the Throne,” and it is almost always bullshit. A few days later, they put it up on the sign of the Mountain Pine, and that’s the only place I know where it’s nothing but the truth.
I probably should have left. There were a lot of people in that kitchen who knew what I had done, and there was Aama, who must have figured out that I had been the one who had slipped her the spirit. Any one of them could have said something to the police, or to the Xactan embassy, and I’d have swung for what I’d done, or worse. I didn’t.
I was Xactan, sure. But I hadn’t grown up there, and while I speak the language, I can’t read it. I wasn’t Arratap, as everyone native to Arrat made sure to let me know. But I guess the cold and damp had gotten into my brain somehow, because despite the immigrant tax and the police and the constantly failing gaslights and everything else, I wasn’t going to leave. There’s not much to love about Arrat, but it’s what I know, and it’s the place I have. Hell, if Telac ever got put back on a throne in Xacta, I’m not sure I’d leave then, either.
Lifting those carcasses and cutting them apart doesn’t get any easier. There’s the money that we get on holidays and for funerals, there’s the little bit that I can save from my pay, and what my father gets for translations. Could be that it’d be enough for a place in the country, maybe invest the rest to get a living. And I have been looking at investments. Buildings down in the Xac neighborhoods, with good street traffic. Could be someday soon there’ll be another place in Arrat where that seal isn’t bullshit. It’d mean more work than anything, but it’s who I am, and it’s what I do, and once a kitchen gets into its rhythm, it just moves.
Return to Issue #155