Chef Gastel Dillegrout had been awake for three days. He swayed at the front of the enormous kitchen, his eyes not quite focused, and tried to remember all the things he still needed to accomplish. The soup, the glaze, the labyrinth— All around him, cooks shouted, pots clattered, kindling crackled in ovens. The soup, the glaze— People called his name and he ignored them. He pressed his hands into the work table and shut his eyes. The soup, the glaze, the labyrinth, the duke’s ring—
Gastel took a ragged breath and plunged his head into the bucket of cold water he kept beneath the table. Three days without sleep, or was it four? The banquet was supposed to begin in an hour. He still had to raise the labyrinth, glaze the aqueduct, get the soup upstairs, tour the temple. He should make sure Bruet wasn’t panicking, ask if Civvey might be willing to work tonight, see if Mastic needed more bakers. The windows, he still needed to slice fruit for the windows. He had the duke’s heavy ring in his pocket and instructions to hide it somewhere in the temple, where fortune might guide it to the Lord or Lady of the Feast. Gastel didn’t trust fortune. What if a child found the ring? What if someone swallowed it?
Around the work table, the duke’s household cooks had begun to cast uneasy glances. Gastel had been underwater for a long time. They nudged one another, murmured concern. Gastel’s cooks, the cooks of the Golden Damson Feasting Company, did not look up from their work. They knew all about Chef Gastel and his bucket.
The Golden Damson Feasting Company had been in Marudoro three months. Three months for a single dish. The Duke Agrano—a tasteless man, a roast and potatoes man, a boob—was celebrating some family milestone, the centennial of some battle. The duke wanted to make a real show of his magnificence. Centennials didn’t come by very often, and Marudoro’s coffers were full.
After much grave consideration, the duke had decided to throw the grandest feast he could imagine. There was only one worthy dish; the most famous, the most elaborate, the most technically demanding recipe in the known world: Egardouce’s Last Pudding. “There is a proper way,” he told his astonished household, “to mark an occasion.”
For months, the duke had described the dish to his peers. Did they know that only four such puddings had ever been successfully served? That Guillame Egardouce himself, legendary chef of chefs, had prepared it only once and refused to make another, though the Emperor offered him a barony, a barony for a single dish? That the last recorded attempt, eighty years ago, had collapsed, injuring dozens of nobles and resulting in the hapless chef’s exile, physical deterioration, and ignominious death? The duke’s advisors had mulled the cost and fretted. They would need to raise a herd, or several. They would need to expand the great hall. They would need every oven in the city and a hundred more besides. Duke Agrano had waved them off. “There is a proper way,” he said as he signed Chef Gastel Dillegrout’s contract, “to arrange a feast.”
Gastel jerked his head from the bucket and whipped his body up and back, arcing a spray of water across the ceiling. He breathed slowly and held himself still. There was a proper way to avoid crumbling under stress at a banquet. Water dripped onto his apron, the table, the floor.
He had arrived at the apex of his profession. He would never get a better commission than this. He was the era’s most famous chef, preparing the world’s most famous dish. His crew was unequaled in craft or passion. For years, ever since his apprenticeship, he’d imagined what he might do if he ever got the opportunity to prepare an Egardouce’s Last Pudding. He had a suite of flourishes, a whole program of innovations that he hoped would cast new light on the hoary old recipe. Marudoro was swelled to bursting with noble guests, their retinues, their carriages, their appetites. Every guest room was occupied; every tavern was full. Outside the town gate, a vast tent city had filled with freeholders and craftspeople from all over the region, gustatory pilgrims from halfway across the empire, and tinkers and merchants and gamblers and thieves chasing a crowd. Tomorrow morning, after the official banquet had ended, this swarm would pour through the great hall, devouring the leftovers and the spectacle. Their stories would spread across the world. They’d carve statues of Gastel after this.
“Hey! Chef! Mastic needs you!”
Mastic meant pastry. Gastel ran.
He swept past dozens of the duke’s cooks in green and orange livery, past his own scattered handful of cooks in Golden Damson grays, past butter cakes and berry tarts waiting for garnishes, pot after enormous pot of bubbling soup, cauldrons and pans that caught the dim light in copper and oiled iron, scullions slicing carrots into roasting pans already loaded high, through the vast kitchen and out the door to the bare patch of garden where they’d built their pastry oven.
Sheet pans the size of stable doors were scattered across the lawn. Each held an immense panel of hot pastry, billowing steam. Gastel counted four dozen, and maybe a hundred more out of their pans and stacked between towels near the rear door to the Great Hall. Not nearly enough.
“It’s the pans,” said Mastic Porrey, Gastel’s red-eyed head baker. She nudged a nearby pan with her boot. “They’re thin. If we go too fast, they’ll bend.”
The pans were an ongoing concern. The duke’s blacksmiths had never been asked to hammer anything so wide and so flat. They’d experimented for a month, and in the end, they’d had to drag eight anvils together. The pans were the right size and tolerably smooth, but they were also unwieldy, unstable, and monstrously heavy. A gang of sweating household bakers used long hooked poles to haul the pans in and out of the oven. The bakers grunted and the pans groaned.
“What did Civvey say?” asked Gastel.
“She said to talk to you,” said Mastic.
“Where are the frames?”
“Inside. The pastry won’t fit through the door upright.”
“Then send these ones in. We need to get them mounted,” Gastel said. “Keep them coming, even after the banquet starts. I’ll find you more workers.”
Mastic nodded. “Have you eaten?”
Gastel couldn’t remember. He was always tasting, rarely eating. “No.”
Mastic hummed concern. “How’s the glaze?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to the Friaress.”
“Worry about the pastry,” said Gastel. “Or, no, don’t worry.” He took a breath and shook out his head. “You are as steady as a river. You are an army of a cook. I have the utmost faith in you.”
Mastic gave a weary bow, then cleared her throat. “They’re saying there’s going to be a betrothal announcement.”
“Tonight?” asked Gastel.
Gastel let his upper body collapse. “Why not a funeral? Why not a seven-act opera right before dinner? Who’s announcing? We’ll drug them.”
“The duke’s son.”
Matic shrugged. “You don’t throw a banquet without an occasion.”
“The banquet is the occasion, Mastic. Everything else is ambiance. God above the sky, they’re trying to destroy me.”
“Well, I’ve also heard that someone might kill the duke’s son before he can announce.”
“They’d better not. The soup is bright red. Who would eat it after that?”
Gastel had a lot riding on the glaze. It wasn’t a part of Egardouce’s original Last Pudding, but it did have some history. Ancient accounts of the great Imperial feasts described a glaze that would render bread impervious to liquid for hours. In the court of Trulian the Sixth, guests had spent an entire evening on a tall ship made of glazed dough, afloat in a vast shrimp bisque. A myth, some chefs now argued. A lost art from a better time, others despaired. While his peers had argued and despaired, Gastel Dillegrout had nurtured relationships with unscrupulous third-hand book dealers. And so when an ancient tome of recipes went missing from a cathedral basement in Oglia, it made its way, gradually and at great expense, into Gastel’s hands. He couldn’t read a word of it, but it didn’t take long to find an expert.
The Friaress Penidia was a research cleric in the service of Aballas, the providing face of God. Gastel had enlisted her from a friary outside the city to interpret ancient texts and to return a lost and powerful glaze to the world. For months, she had been boiling stones and unfamiliar plants in a lonely corner of the kitchen where she’d hoped her books would be safe from stray flecks of gravy. It was poor form to spill soup on an illuminated text, even if the illuminated text concerned soups.
“Gracious sister,” said Gastel, “I’m told they’re ready to lay the aqueduct. How fares the glaze?”
“This batch has done well,” she said, gesturing to a bowl of soup on the counter. “The word ‘Essend’ must mean a kind of wine vinegar. Some Kilderkin manuscripts use ‘esseg’ to describe verjus, but we hadn’t thought verjus was used in the Kenemlands until the reign of Hausgume...”
She went on like that. Gastel had no head for archival mysteries. The bowl, he saw as he leaned close, was made of glazed pastry. Its interior caught the fading light from the window. He lifted the bowl and turned it, letting the thin soup run from one side to the other. The shine on the bottom of the bowl was pristine, smooth and hard as fired porcelain. “When did you pour this soup?”
“How much glaze did it take? Our aqueduct is as long as the great hall.”
“Less than a spoonful.” Penidia smiled beatifically. They must teach the clergy that smile, Gastel thought, that guileless cheer that just skirted pride. He wondered how it might look on his own face.
Gastel set the bowl back on the table with care. “You are a gift,” he told Penidia. “You are a blessing given flesh and set to walk among the unworthy. May I have the cauldron brought upstairs?”
She nodded. Gastel shouted for help. He turned back to Penidia and lowered his voice. “And I wonder, would you be willing to give a blessing when we open the temple?” At the look on her face, he said, “A brief blessing. A few words.”
She shook her head, face open with nerves. “I have no experience.”
“No, of course. No, but you must at least let me introduce you to the guests, and thank you for—”
She was shaking her head again.
“Will you attend the banquet at all?”
“I should get my notes in order,” she said.
Gastel sighed. “You are a gift,” he repeated, and smiled and stalked away. A shame. A blessing to Aballas would have been just the thing to set the tone. And if Gastel had introduced the Friaress to the guests, that too-rich, wine-warmed throng, they would have surely buried the friary in charity. But some people just weren’t made to stand before a crowd.
What did they have, half an hour until service? Gastel walked with enormous strides, practically leaping across the kitchen, his head swiveling for a new crisis. He wanted to try one last time to convince Cassiette Briscaban, his Marshal of the Feast, to work the banquet. He found her by the corridor that connected the kitchen to the great hall, answering panicked questions from Bruet Flummery, one of Mastic’s apprentice bakers and tonight’s stand-in Marshal of the Feast. What if someone offered him a drink, but he didn’t know their rank? Cassiette recited the Gratitude-For-A-Stranger toast.
Cassiette was the runaway heir of a proud noble house, the Lilies of Briscas. She had a lifetime in court, a voice as soft and rich as gold, the physical gravity of an opera star. She could silence an outdoor crowd of thousands, command the hushed attention of wild children and drunks. It was Gastel’s firm belief that Cassiette could, by announcing an entrée with clarity and conviction, improve its flavor at an alchemical level. Bruet was a massive, earnest oaf with two seasons of courtly training who didn’t know anything about anything. A baker’s son, he was afraid of nobles, and concealed that fear, as he concealed all his fears, behind a bright, obliging countenance that suited his big, fleshy face. He had Marshalled feasts before and had been passable. The thought that any part of tonight’s feast should be merely passable made Gastel’s teeth itch.
The trouble was that Cassiette had developed some notoriety in this part of the world as a runaway. Noble children ran away from time to time, but when an heir did it, it created a lot of anxiety. For two years now, the Lord and Lady Briscaban had dragged a three-quarter-length portrait of their daughter from banquet to banquet for peers and servants to memorize. Her face had become quite famous on this side of the Kenembes River. Cassiette had vague plans to one day return home, but only after she had lived a hundred lives under a hundred names and seen every corner of the world. She would not show her face on this side of the Kenembes River for pride or duty.
Bruet asked, “What do I do if I spill soup and the duke slips on it and breaks his neck?”
“You’ll be thrown in prison,” said Cassiette. “You won’t have to do anything.”
“Good,” Bruet said. “That’s easy.”
Gastel stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Bruet!” he said. “That jacket! You’re a vision. Cassiette, have you given any more thought—?”
“My cousins are on the list,” said Cassiette.
“Civvey says she could build a kind of rolling statue. We could hide you inside—”
“My cousins are on the list,” Cassiette said again. “They would know me at the first syllable.”
Gastel frowned and nodded. He pivoted to Bruet and took him by the shoulders. “You will be wonderful. Have no fear whatsoever. Be enthusiastic. Whisper to some people and shout to others. They love contrast. And remember, they’re all going to be drunk.” He nodded to Bruet and then to Cassiette. They seemed all right.
Half an hour until service. Gastel ran.
Deep in the kitchen, Gastel called across a work table to the thin man splitting time between four huge pots. “Orach! How’s the soup?”
“It’s soup,” Orach, eyes still on his pots. He ladled a little into a bowl and set it at the center of the table. Gastel waited to reach until Orach had turned back to the stove. It was mortally important to avoid touching Orach. He was one of the Untarn people from up in the Grouma Hills, where he’d gotten himself into some kind of grave moral trouble. Fladen Cogner, the Golden Damson sommelier, swore that it had been a revenge killing—a farmer’s bull had gotten loose and killed Orach’s brother, so Orach had strangled the farmer with a cloth. Or maybe Fladen was telling tales. In any case, Orach had taken a four-year vow of no-contact and exiled himself from the Gouma Hills for the duration. He had not touched another human being in two-and-a-half years. Around his neck, he wore a wide red band to warn the rest of the world away.
Gastel sipped the soup and shuddered. “Orach,” he said, “your godawful personal tragedy is the best thing to happen to soup in five hundred years.”
Orach sighed. “I was set in this world to suffer and to teach the low country how to use vinegar.”
Gastel finished the soup and strode away. Not too much left. Civvey could handle the labyrinth. Probably, Gastel had enough time to cut fruit for the windows.
He was in the larder piling fruit into huge baskets when Fladen Cogner, the company’s sommelier, tromped in from the corridor. “Gastel! Hey, chef! I’m at a moral crossroads!”
“What?” asked Gastel. “What happened?”
Fladen poked his head into the small, dim room. When he saw Gastel’s face, he squinted. “Have you eaten?”
“Fladen, what happened?”
“My social betters solicited me to commit a violent act.”
“What violent act?” asked Gastel. “What are you talking about?”
“They asked me to kill the duke’s kid.”
“Who asked you?”
“I don’t know, they were wearing a hood. Pulled me into a closet. Made their voice all raspy.”
“So, a noble,” said Gastel.
Fladen snorted. “Gave me a trick amulet full of poison to slip in the kid’s wine.”
“Well don’t bring it in here.”
“Of course I didn’t bring it in here. I threw it out the window.”
“Was that prudent?”
“It’s prudent if the kid ends up dead and they try to frame me. Still, five hundred marks.”
“Great offer.” He tugged at the little tasting cup he kept on a chain around his neck. “Hey, chef, be honest: do I look like a killer?”
“All cooks look like killers to a noble.”
“You think so?”
Gastel shrugged. “We travel. We have too much money. They’d kill us for a penny and a cold meal, so they have to believe we’d do the same.”
“I’ll see if they’ll front me half.”
“The privy might be a better place to dispose of poison. If it comes up again.”
Fladen did look like a killer, or at least some kind of temple burglar. He had bulging eyes and hollow cheeks that became pits of shadow in anything less than full sunlight. It was a great attribute in a sommelier, Gastel thought. Respectable people liked to get their wine from someone who appeared to understand vice.
Gastel threw a plum into a basket so hard the skin tore. He looked at it for a moment and then ate it in three bites. So someone really was after the duke’s son. The boy—Allos? Allan?—was always being threatened. Sole heir to the wealthiest holding east of the Kenembes River, dozens of potential successors. Since the day of his birth, he had never gone four uninterrupted months without facing an attempt on his life. It would be precisely Gastel’s luck if the boy were finally killed tonight and the miracle pudding instantly forgotten.
He hauled the baskets of fruit to the front table, where anyone in a crisis could find him. He felt a prick of guilt to settle into a mindless chore at this late hour. Slicing fruit was a job for household staff, for a scullion or maybe someone’s child if they were getting underfoot. But if Gastel could find a few unoccupied minutes, he always saved the chore for himself. For a brief span, he thought only about cutting peaches and melons as thinly as possible, as quickly as possible. He set the slices into window frames as he went, brushing them with lemon juice to keep them from browning. Now he held a slice of plum to a candle and watched the thin membrane take the light. They’d need a torch behind each window. It was a spectacle best suited to daylight. But when someone hired Gastel Dillegrout, they expected stained glass, be it blazing sun or dead of winter’s night. There were worse ways for a chef to find fame.
“Where did you get that?” A large stranger was addressing Gastel, shouting really, although Gastel couldn’t blame him for shouting in a busy kitchen.
“What?” said Gastel.
“That blade. It’s a weapon of war.”
Gastel looked down at his knife. “No, it used to be a weapon of war. Now it’s a fruit knife.” The stranger’s doublet was crisp and faded. He carried a sword. Probably, it would behoove Gastel to be polite. “It won’t leave the kitchen,” he said.
The stranger frowned and straightened his back. “My name is Raffold Gaufres. I’m a lieutenant with the house guard. I’m going to take that knife.”
“My fruit knife?”
“It’s not a fruit knife, it’s—” The lieutenant reached for the knife and Gastel pulled it away. Its dark, marbled surface warped the light. “Is that High Imperial steel?”
“It is. Good eye.”
The lieutenant sputtered. “You’re using a thousand-year-old weapon to cut plums?”
“Fifteen-hundred. You should see how it cuts lamb. Those High Imperials knew their business.”
“I’m taking it,” the lieutenant said. “You should be glad I’m not asking where a cook got a priceless artifact.”
“It was a gift. From someone who admired my work.” That was true, although the earl who had gifted it had been, if not insane, certainly gripped by unusual priorities. The Earl Tezelin had demanded brighter and brighter fruit windows, throwing open his ancient armory to find the blade that could make the thinnest slice. Last Gastel had heard, the earl had fallen down a well and his half-brother was on the throne. The new Earl Tezelin ate lamb and potatoes three meals a day and probably wanted his heirloom back.
The lieutenant chewed his tongue. After a moment, he spoke in a low voice. “We have reason to believe that the duke’s family is in danger.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Gastel. He was slicing more quickly now, rushing through the rest of the basket.
“I can’t leave dangerous weapons unattended.”
“I’ll attend it.”
“You can’t carry a weapon into the great hall.”
Gastel gestured over his shoulder. “I’ll leave it with one of my—”
“I’m being polite,” said the lieutenant. “I’m trying to be polite.”
Gastel spoke slowly and sliced at a hummingbird blur. “This knife is older than our empire. It is older than our language. This knife was two hundred years old when King Trulian was born. If I give you this knife, it will be the most precious thing you have ever held in your hands.”
“I have two sons,” said the lieutenant.
“Lots of people have sons. I could go out tonight and make a son by accident. No one has made High Imperial steel in a millennium.”
“I’ll put it in the duke’s vault. You can have it back tomorrow.”
Gastel sliced his final peach, wiped the blade, inspected it, wiped it again, and handed it to the lieutenant. “You are a credit to your profession and to the family you serve,” he said. “Your sons are very fortunate. Please be careful not to stab yourself.”
Another five minutes to work the fruit into window frames. The sun had almost set now, and a pair of buoyant candle lighters from the household staff floated through to ignite the candelabras. Gastel held a finished window to the light and saw a noble leering back through a hazy pane of fruit. When he lowered the window, he saw that the young man was smiling. A terribly innocent face on him, like some prankster had dressed a wide-eyed farm boy in finery to set him up for a great fall. His coat was a shocking green ringed with far too many tassels.
“Will you look at the size of this place?” said the young man.
“Young master,” said Gastel. “What brings you to our noisy workshop?”
The young man stared into the flickering depths. “I wanted to see the preparations,” he said. “I heard Duke Agrano has hired the great chef Gastel Dillegrout.”
Gastel squinted. “Might you, in your charming way, be angling for an early meal?”
The young man frowned. “How would you serve an Egardouce’s Last Pudding early?”
Gastel spread his arms and raised his voice so the front third of the kitchen could hear. “Well, look at the boy connoisseur! So there’s still some taste left in the Kenemlands. And what do we call the young gourmand, when we share the good news with the other chefs?”
“Hidromel Galingale,” he said, grabbing at Gastel’s hand, “from Cambens. I was wondering if I might take a look around.”
The name was familiar. Hidromel was heir of a nowhere family, a couple farms and a pile of rocks on the banks of the Kenembes River. His family could not have afforded Gastel if they’d sold their whole seat. But life had been kind to Hidromel. In his youth, he had been promised to Chiquart Lampern, eldest daughter of an equally poor family with whom the Galingales held ancient bonds. They would have shared a life of happy low-country penury. But when the traitor Earl Ulvos had raised an army in the South, Machet Lampern, the great Bear of the Kenemlands, had outshone a hundred knights, crashing the front on foot to strike down the usurper. The Emperor, in a fit of gratitude, had given Ulvos’s seat to Matchet, and Hidromel now stood to marry into the richest Earldom in the South. A person worth knowing, especially if he appreciated a feast.
“Of course you may tour the kitchen,” said Gastel, “if that’s truly what you want. But I must warn you, many a young connoisseur has had his dinner spoiled when he laid eyes on its rough and belching origins.”
The young man swelled. “The most delicate jelly has its beginning in dry bones. I won’t hold your mess against your art.”
“Look at the wise boy. Bruet!” Gastel called. “Show the wise boy our kitchen.”
Bruet hustled over, and the two paced through the room, slowing here and there to taste batters and question cooks. All around them, servants murmured. Hidromel’s future father-in-law was among the most famous people in the empire, certainly the most famous at tonight’s banquet. Cooks and servers traded stories about the Bear’s legendary size, the cold set of his eyes, his long hair gone prematurely white when he first saw Ulvos’s standards on the horizon.
The murmuring abruptly stopped dead. Gastel turned to see what had happened, and his breath caught in his chest. Hidromel was leaning in close to Orach, beaming, his hands clapped firmly on the soup cook’s shoulders. Orach’s face was blank. Hidromel released him, leaned over a pot on the stove, inhaled deeply, and shook his head in gustatory wonder. He clapped Orach’s shoulders a second time.
Gastel shouted across the distance, “I hate to chase you out, but—”
“Of course,” said Hidromel, holding his hands high. “I’ll return upstairs to wait and salivate.”
Gastel let him go with a bow and a thin smile, then crossed the room at a run. “God, Orach,” he said. “God. I’m so sorry.”
“He touched me,” Orach said. “Twice.”
“I saw. These country lords—they don’t know anything. No one teaches them—”
“That’s two years, Dillegrout. Two more years. I can’t embrace. I can’t dance. I can’t see my family. My mother and father are not young, Dillegrout.”
“I know. I know that.”
“By rights, I could kill him.”
“I was wearing the red band. He could see it. I could kill him twice.”
“I don’t think an Agranan justice would see it that way.”
“No,” Orach said, and turned back to his pots.
Gastel tracked down Cassiette, who had hidden in the back of the kitchen when she heard that a loose noble was wandering about. “Cassiette,” he called, “gentle, soothing Cassiette, summer wind of Briscas.”
“Oh God, what?” she said.
“I have to get ready for service. Please take care of Orach.”
She snorted. “How? He won’t talk to me.”
“Just, be near him. But not too near him, obviously.”
“Because you are lavender in the warm night air and to be near you is to feel peace, and because you’re not doing anything else.”
“I was thinking I could go out in a disguise.”
“As a guest.”
Gastel sighed. “Please help Orach. He’s very upset.”
“Of course he is. All he does it make soup and suffer.”
“That’s exactly what he told me half an hour ago. You could start with that.” He turned and left at a canter. The duke’s heavy ring bounced in his pocket. One more thing to think about. How much time was left? It couldn’t be more than a few minutes. Well, they’d delay service. Keep the guests waiting. Build anticipation. It’s what Egardouce would have done.
As he neared the great hall, Gastel slowed and stopped. Two days ago, he had walked through the floor plan with his sous chef, Civvey Mullein, who was working architect and chief mason on the Last Pudding. When the first brick had come out of the oven, Gastel had set it in the cornerstone position. He’d been too busy to check back since.
There was a terrible friction, he knew, any time you dragged something out of a dream and into mortal life. Things ruptured. Things were scraped away. One felt terribly small, living for so long with a vision and finally settling for an earthbound knockoff. Gastel had carried this vision longer than any other. With three slow breaths, he wished it farewell. He turned the corner into the great hall.
Like many of Egardouce’s latter-day feasts, the Last Pudding was modeled on a miracle. In legend, before he became king, Trulian was chosen by Bartus, the justice-seeking face of God, to rise against the tyrant Pendemain. Things went poorly for a while, as they must in a legend, and Trulian and his friends found themselves under siege in Sutos, a siege so long and merciless that the people of that city boiled their fine boots into soup and sucked the dye from their robes. From the floor of the great temple, Trulian cried out to Aballas, the providing face of God, “Did you raise me up only to starve me in your house?”
And the great altar spoke, “In my house, all things are good. I will make for you a feast of tile and stone.” And the walls and the columns became bread that Trulian distributed to the people, until all that remained of the temple was Aballas’s altar on a bare hill.
Egardouce was drawn to stories of hunger and relief. He was the first culinary theorist to propose that if a chef had the will and the antagonistic genius, he could use hunger like any other ingredient. Musicians used silence, so where was the sin? On the night he served his Last Pudding, Egardouce had led his guests into a temple, where long tables had been set with bare plates. He left them there for an hour without serving them, noble men and women driven to a froth of savage rage by the pain in their bellies, the apathy of their host, the smell of rich food taunting them from just beyond the walls. Egardouce had entered to a roar of indignation. With a pair of silver forks, he had pulled a stone from the wall, set it on a plate, and torn it open to reveal steaming beef, mushrooms, and gravy. “Behold!” he said. “I have made for you a feast of tile and stone!” Oh, the shock of plenty in a barren place. It was said that many of the guests had been moved to tears.
Entering the great hall, Gastel had much the same reaction. He surveyed a brown-gold dream rising toward the murals on the duke’s ceiling. They’d commandeered every oven in every tavern and public bakehouse in the city and many of the larger private hearths, an entire town turning out bricks of stuffed pastry for three days straight, and still Gastel could hardly believe how much they’d baked. The temple was as big as a barn, supported by wooden frames on all sides. The bricks below were cool and stable, the bricks at the very top hot from the ovens and ready for service. Gastel could smell them from across the room, notes of beef and rich gravy beneath the sharper aroma of crisped pastry. Two-tone images in browned egg wash stretched across the temple’s edifice—the duke’s sigil on the left, the Emperor’s on the right, and blessed Aballas above, arms outstretched to welcome her hungry children through the arched doorway below. The roof, for now, was open except for a few long support beams. Footmen on scaffolds were beginning to balance panels of pastry between the beams. Along each of the temple’s exterior walls, torches had been lit to illuminate Gastel’s stained glass windows. He would have preferred to conceal the torches somehow, but he was sure the effect was spectacular from inside the building.
They’d even gotten the spire up. He could weep. This morning, he’d been sure they’d never get it stable enough, not without drilling through the duke’s floor. But here it was, a finger raised in triumph, almost scraping the ceiling. The icon at its tip was a vast globe of candy, turned out yesterday from an enormous mold. It caught the candlelight like holy inspiration. The guests didn’t know anything about candy. They’d have to think it was a gift from heaven. Gastel knew more about food than anyone alive and working, and he wouldn’t disagree.
But in the shadow of the temple there was an unholy mess. Tables and pastry panels were cluttered in a huge flotilla near the garden corridor. “Hey!” Gastel called to the room. “Service starts five minutes ago! We need a labyrinth!”
Civvey appeared in the archway of the temple, and Gastel’s chest caught again. The temple dwarfed her. In the flickering light, it might have been standing here for a thousand years. “We’re waiting on pastry,” Civvey shouted.
“The pastry’s slow. They’ve got bad pans. How short are we?”
Civvey took a dismal look back at the clutter. “Half?”
“Well, we have to put out something. Simplify it. You can add the missing panels as they come in.”
“We can’t change the maze during the banquet. People will get lost.”
“It’s a maze. They’ll feel shortchanged if they don’t get lost.”
Civvey squinted as Gastel came near. “Have you eaten?”
“Of course. A plum.” He hefted a nearby panel with more force than he’d intended. The pastry shook like a heavy curtain but remained fixed in its frame. “Light,” he said.
“Will anyone eat these?”
“I’m sure the swarm will tomorrow.”
Civvey pinched the edge of the pastry and tested the texture. “And what do you think these will look like by then? Giant crackers, or giant soggy crackers?”
“I don’t much care, as long as they’re beautiful tonight. Make sure that the first time the guests see the temple full on, they’re looking at it from the front.” He leapt back and spread his arms. “From tile and stone! Civvey, you’ve raised a miracle. People will show etchings of this dish to their grandchildren. Are you prepared to be an etching?”
“I’m holding out for oil paint,” said Civvey.
“You? Impossible. You’d have to stand still.” Another few panels lurched through the far corridor, still steaming from the oven, footmen sweating beneath. Civvey hurried off to direct them.
There were a few household servants in the temple lighting candles and arranging place settings. Gastel hoped that all of the household staff would have a chance to see the tableau before the nobles rumbled through, soiling it with fistfights and wine vomit. But why should he grumble? Look at this spire, tall as a ships’ mast. Look at these bricks in the wall, each one washed in gold and brown with the careful mark of a local baker eager to join their craft to history. Even hayseed gentry like the Bear would know to hush their voices in a place like this.
Gastel had decided not to give the temple an altar. You never wanted to invite people around an unconsecrated altar, especially if, sooner or later, they would try to eat it. In its place stood a high serving table. Gastel took his position behind it and looked out through his temple, into the echoing hall where men and women in livery were positioning and repositioning enough pastry to bread a small forest. The silverware and plate runners reflected orange, purple, green from the windows. Somewhere nearby, an eight-piece string ensemble was tuning up. Gastel had convinced them to perform from a closed section of the labyrinth, so that their music would seem to drift from nowhere, louder around every corner but never quite visible. After all these years, he had finally managed to imprison a gang of musicians, if only in puff pastry.
Across the hall, Bruet rang the bell for final preparations. Gastel needed to dress. He’d long felt that chefs should wear outrageously stained aprons and sweat-soaked toques to better contrast with their delicate art. But nobles seemed disinclined to agree, especially at a banquet, and especially when they were paying Gastel enough to buy himself a very nice village. He lingered in the archway and glanced back into this empty, perfect room. But the panels ahead of him were being pushed into rows, and if he didn’t leave now, he’d be lost in the maze. He ran.
When Gastel returned to the great hall, there was a labyrinth. Civvey had sent him directions, how to get from the kitchen to the grand doors, from the doors to the temple. Standing in the corridor of pastry that ran from the grand doors into the maze, he could see bits of the temple roof and spire cresting the panels, but only bits. The smell and the mystery would draw guests inward.
Gastel cracked the grand doors and stepped into the waiting hall beyond, where a crowd of glittering, hungry guests were packed too tightly to comfortably lift their wine glasses. The duke’s plump, eminently killable son stood in the front row. Gastel tried to guess who in the room he was set to marry, and who was trying to prevent it.
The duke stepped forward, his glass empty and his eyes bright. “Gentle people,” he said, “the man who will relieve our hunger, Gastel Dillegrout.”
The tapping of impatient hands in silk gloves around the stems of wine glasses was perhaps the smallest sound that could be called applause. Gastel waited until even that muted rhythm had fallen to absolute silence. “Worthies,” he said, “follow me.” He threw open the doors and vanished into the maze before anyone could think to chase after him.
He hoped he could keep Civvey’s directions in his head for at least a few more minutes. Two lefts, a right, middle, middle... He slowed after the first few turns, now deep in the tangle. The nobles were all wearing heels. They would not follow too quickly.
Music hummed in from some hidden place; gentle, pointless music that didn’t insist upon a mood. Gastel was surprised how much sound the pastry swallowed. His footsteps didn’t seem to echo, although the floor was stone and the ceiling so high it deserved cloud banks. He couldn’t hear any of the half a hundred servants he knew to be prowling the room with hors d’oeuvres. The snacks were a concession to the duke, who couldn’t quite bear forcing a mob of hungry peers to traverse a maze for their supper. What if someone got lost and, famished, fainted? Wars had started over less. Fussy nonsense, to Gastel’s ears. Anyway, Bruet would be patrolling the maze with Civvey’s map. He’d make sure no one got too turned around.
There were finger-width gaps between the panels, and several times Gastel thought he could see something moving in a neighboring corridor. The first time he turned a corner and saw a servant, they both jumped. She was nestled in an alcove, attending a pyramid of glasses and a table of stuffed figs run through by tiny silver lances.
There was no way, Gastel knew, that anyone would beat him to the temple. Still, when he passed beneath the arch, when his eyes adjusted to the low, flickering light and he saw that it was only himself and a few busy servants inside the great pudding, he felt relief. He was breathing hard, air as heavy and rich as a cream soup. He pressed his hands into the service table and rested. From here, he could see the full stretch of his design. Soon, the courtyard outside the temple would be packed with hungry pilgrims.
Gastel shifted back and forth and tried to keep his energy from fading. A genius chef was not allowed to be sullen. Wrathful, yes, or manic, or corpulent and absentminded and jolly. But a chef was not a poet or a painter, and there were certain emotional registers his art could not touch, lest they taint the meat. Well, so what? Silly, to envy somber artists. What was better, in all of humanity’s wild invention, than a good meal? Who had ever seen an exquisite painting and not wished they could devour it?
Gastel had eaten a painting once, a pretty good oil painting he’d bought in Oglia. It had been a landscape, some of those big, misty cliffs they had up there. Canvas, it turned out, was as tough as tree bark. All night he’d chewed the stubborn thing, washing down damp clumps with a very acceptable Courmin wine. When he’d explained to Civvey why he was sick the next day, she’d been horrified. Apparently, paint was usually poisonous, one toxic oil swirled into another. Scandalous. People hung these things in their homes. People showed these things to their children.
A few servants passed through the courtyard. One was clearly lost. Another marched with great confidence and a tray of tiny galantines. A noble emerged from the maze with two wine glasses, both empty. Gastel recognized him from a wedding as the Count Wethery. Seeing no table, the count set his glasses on the floor next to one of the panels. He glanced in all directions, straight into the temple where Gastel stood in shadow. Confident that he was unseen, he stood on his toes to tear a stretch of pastry from the top of the nearest panel. He wiped his wine-red mouth, tipped the panel toward himself, and threw his makeshift napkin into another corridor. Only then did he look up at the temple edifice, grunt, and wander back into the maze. Gastel prayed that Aballas would send the count something bitter to choke on, and soon.
Gastel hailed the next servant who passed into the courtyard and instructed him to wait outside and tell any guests who emerged that they weren’t allowed in yet. Over the next half hour, the courtyard filled with gawkers, tipsy lords and ladies staring up with much more appropriate awe. Gastel kept them waiting until they were ready to eat the maze, the floor, the servant guarding the archway.
The untutored layperson, upon hearing about Egardouce’s Last Pudding, generally assumed that its great challenge lay in its size. You could only stack food so high. Beef and pastry and soup were not at all like wood and nails and stone. Anyone who’d ever tried to build a little log cabin from the carrots on their plate could imagine the nightmare of trying to construct a free-standing building out of dinner. No wonder chefs balked. No wonder the dread things always collapsed.
Of course, any chef could see that the real struggle was logistical—to serve so much food at once, to cook elements that could remain beautiful and sturdy and edible for long hours, to render an art form that was usually the work of months or years in just a few days. Egardouce’s bricks were designed for stability and his pattern for stacking them was reliable. That infamous collapse—and there was only one recorded collapse, eighty years ago—had come when a chef tried to cheat the logistics, experimenting with a new stacking pattern that let him cut out a few hundred bricks. Civvey’s brickwork was impeccable. So long as the glaze held and the guests didn’t charge the walls, it could stand for days.
But the guests didn’t know that. They gazed uneasily into the dark of the temple.
Gastel had spent years using arcane theatrical techniques to train his diaphragm. Nobles loved it when artists shouted. It let them know which parts were important. Gastel shouted now, a thunderous call that shook the gravy-thick air. “If you hold your life dear, stand back!”
The guests pressed back in an awkward clump. Hard to tell how far the wreckage might fly.
“Loose the supports!” A gasp from the crowd. What reckless courage from Gastel, to stand alone inside this trap, to live or die by his craftsmanship. Outside, Civvey would be leading the final push. Footmen on the scaffolding would be lowering support frames off of the walls, cutting through the superfluous taut ropes they’d added to make the scene look more dangerous. After a few long moments, the crowd began to applaud. That was it, then.
Gastel shouted, “All who revere Aballas are welcome in my shrine!”
The nobles processed in with slow, somber footfalls, pausing every few steps to taste the air or lean close to examine some exquisitely baked detail. The individual effect was great dignity, but together, they massed under the arch, squinted in the dark, jostled and slowed and looked at everything but their neighbors. They spoke low, but they all spoke at once, so that no one could quite be heard. Soon, they were shouting. Gastel waited until they had packed the room all the way to his table. He craned his neck upward so that everyone followed his gaze to the ceiling, and he called, “What need have we for a roof when Aballas is our shelter?”
Footmen on the scaffold pulled pins from supports, and one by one, the panels of pastry that composed the roof slid down along the beams. The footmen caught the panels and lowered them to the floor. They left behind a gentle snowfall of pastry flakes that irritable nobles shook from their hair and more game nobles tried to catch on their tongues. The temple brightened beneath the light of the great hall’s chandeliers.
“Who will thirst when refreshment pours from on high?”
With the roof gone, nobles could now see four colossal, steaming pots perched like gargoyles over the corners of the temple. At Gastel’s signal, footmen heaved the pots forward, casting a wave of deep red soup into gutters of glazed pastry. The soup ran around the rim of the temple, trickled down clever ramps in the walls, and pooled in a wide, glazed trough that ringed the temple at waist height. Whenever possible, Gastel preferred to feed nobles from a trough.
The footmen on the scaffolding began to lift bricks from the top of the wall and pass them down the ladders at Gastel’s back. Gastel received the first brick on a silver plate and brought it to the high serving table. He raised his knife and sliced through the brick, releasing a cloud of steam and a rush of jus. A brief, theatrical pause. He turned the plate and lifted it to the crowd. “Behold!” he said, “A feast of tile and stone!”
The applause was enthusiastic, but no one wept.
They hadn’t prepared enough table settings. Gastel had assumed that after the initial spectacle, some portion of the guests would return to drinks and hors d’oeuvres, others would carry plates out to the small private tables hidden in the alcoves of the maze, and only a few hundred would want to eat in the crowded temple. Civvey hadn’t even given them seats, on the suspicion that sitting led to lounging and clogged up the whole operation. But the guests were ravenous. They pushed in, standing hip to hip, two and three people’s plates balanced precariously on each runner. Nobles jostled for ladles at the soup trough. Hundreds more waited impatiently in the courtyard. Conversation was minimal and damp. As fast as the footmen could raze them, the walls came down.
Gastel plated the bricks as footmen brought them to his table. Each one had to be sliced and artfully arranged, which meant that each of the hungry, tipsy nobles got a few private seconds at the front of the line with the famous chef. They rambled gratitude, spoke vaguely about future banquets where he might be hired, tried to sound erudite. Gastel answered everyone with, “Perhaps,” delivered laughingly or musingly as the prompt dictated. Ambiguity was the only safe stance with nobles. It didn’t take any work. They already assumed that everyone believed as they did, and there was no profit in challenging that assumption.
Every dozen patrons, Gastel would beg a moment to examine the state of the wall and shout instructions up at the footmen. “Leave that one where it is or you’ll bring down the whole barn!” or “I want artful gaps! Artful! Like an Imperial ruin!” It was mostly for the nobles’ benefit. The footmen seemed to know their business, but there was a proper way to administrate a banquet.
A soreness was building in Gastel’s back, a knot from simultaneously keeping straight for the nobles and bending low over the table. The word “perhaps” had lost all meaning. He squinted out to see how many hundreds of guests were left in line and made eye contact with Bruet, who was wading through the crowd, face rent with panic. He seemed to be headed in Gastel’s direction. Probably, he had forgotten the name of a spoon.
Gastel served another three people before Bruet was close enough to lean in and hiss, “Chef, something has happened.”
“I’m sure you can handle it.”
“It’s a problem of a, uh, violent nature.”
Gastel finished a plate and bowed to the next guest in line. “My apologies. I’ll only be a moment.” He set his serving knives down with a flourish and led Bruet to the corner where the extra plates were stacked.
“I found a body,” said Bruet. And then, lower, “A dead body.”
Gastel tried not to show panic as he surveyed the room. Everywhere, guests were staring, wondering about the holdup. He pulled Bruet further into the corner and whispered, “The duke’s son?”
Bruet shook his head. “The one who touched Orach.”
“Oh, the Galingale kid? Hidromel? Are you sure?”
“I only saw him from behind. But he was wearing—” Bruet gestured to indicate tassels.
“Who else knows?”
“No one, hopefully. He was in the maze. Someone left him all bloody, sealed up behind the walls. That’s how I found him—I was trying to get to the butter tarts, but the map wasn’t right.”
“You left him there?”
“I moved the walls back. No one will go near him.”
“The walls are puff pastry. Soon these drunks will be tumbling right through them. Have you spoken with Orach?”
“No. Should I?”
A beat. Gastel struggled to think. “No. No, I’ll talk to him.”
“What should I do?”
Gastel glanced across the room. Guests were staring. “I’ll make sure it’s Hidromel. Stay sharp, we might be leaving early. You said he was near the butter tarts?”
“Between the butter tarts and the eel pie. But people are moving walls everywhere. All sorts of dead ends. It’s a mess.”
“I’ll find him. You can serve?”
Bruet looked uncertainly at the line of nobles. “What face am I supposed to make? Do I smile?”
“Set your jaw. Like you’re at a stranger’s funeral.”
It was a great undertaking to make a young noble. Two families had to navigate factions and feuds, history and land rights. They had to bribe the right people, draw half the empire to a wedding, and hope that their young champions were healthy and happy. And once the child was born, if a child was born, there were nurses, cooks, tutors, oracles, dance instructors, riding instructors, hunting instructors, guards, physicians, poison-tasters, dozens of people spending good portions of their lives raising this child, and hundreds, thousands more in the workshops and the fields, working for the lord’s table and the lord’s wealth. A nineteen-year-old noble boy, even a poor one, was a vast store of work and love and duty. They ought to wear suits of armor to the breakfast table. They ought to be wrapped in pillows. But they jousted and dueled and waved knives in the dark at parties. What a waste. A wildfire in Cambens, at least, would have been over in a season. It would have left ashes behind.
The butter tarts were easy enough to find. Mastic’s bakers had flamed a preserved lemon peel on each one, and Gastel could navigate by the odor of burnt citrus. Why were they near the eel pie? The duke’s servants, no doubt. Gastel had been so worried about the Pudding, he’d left the lesser arrangements in the hands of towel-folders and candle-lighters. The smellscape was a wreck.
The labyrinth, too, was beginning to fray. Evidently, Count Wethery was not the only feral guest who’d decided that the pastry made an inviting napkin. Golden-brown scraps littered the floor, some of them bearing boot prints. Brightly glazed hors d’oeuvres plates lay abandoned along the edges of the corridor. In the corners of many panels, guests had carved initials, insignia, obscene glyphs.
If this entire hall were to sink into the earth, not twenty worthy lives would be lost.
Everywhere, people were arguing or embracing, peeking between the panels, hoarding cakes and bottles, whispering in alcoves. They all stared when Gastel turned a corner, deer caught at a salt lick. Immured in some unseen place, the musicians sawed on.
The butter tart table was abandoned—just a few scattered confections left for any opportunistic scavenger. Perhaps the servant responsible for the table had left to find more tarts. Gastel began to walk toward the eel pies, tipping panels to look behind them as he went. He moved methodically, and then painstakingly, and then plain slowly.
He had not been given enough time to bask. He had not lived long enough in this moment where he had accomplished a world-historical feat of planning and taste; where he had invited a horde of jaded people to stand inside his art and left them speechless. Under the best conditions, a banquet was a fleeting thing. It had been plans and scaffolding this afternoon, and it would be ransacked by the swarm tomorrow morning. A mayfly at leisure had time enough to watch the spectacle from start to finish. What a waste, to leave it early. What a slog, this new and pressing moment with a cooling body hidden in the walls, with one of Gastel’s crew implicated, the hasty midnight flight, the probable ignominy that would hound him to an unmarked grave.
This would be his last banquet. Even if he gave Orach over to the duke’s justice—an unthinkable betrayal that would no doubt lose him half his crew on the spot—Gastel would be a pariah. A chef, a cook, a food-handler one degree removed from a noble assassination. There would be no more commissions, no more audiences, no more art. A painter could render genius in anonymity. A poet could seal her work away to be discovered and adored centuries hence by some new, compassionate breed of humanity. But a banquet fouled in hours, its only hope for longevity in the stories passed on by guests and servants and the swarm who surveyed the wreckage.
And here it was, a stretch of rearranged wall that concealed a wide, sealed-off space. At its center stood a second, smaller enclosure, mercifully undisturbed. Gastel checked that he was alone, edged a panel inward, and approached the mausoleum.
It was tiny—four panels dragged together into a square. Around its base, the floor was clean. Any blood that might have pooled had been wicked up by the pastry, which was soggy and deep red where it grazed the floor. Gastel took hold of two panels and pulled them apart, opening the space like a wardrobe. Blood, yes, and green velvet ringed in tassels, and a tangle of dark hair.
There was a moment, Gastel knew, that slumped in after catastrophe, when the vague fears and imagined disasters that haunted ordinary life settled into a single, solid shape. There was a hesitance to understand that anything terrible could be real, or that anything terrible and real could belong to you. Gastel stared at the body for too long. “Fine,” he said. “Fine. Alright.”
There was blood, quite a lot of blood. That seemed interesting. Fladen always said Orach had strangled his brother’s killer with a cloth. Gastel had assumed that a murderer would stick with a method, once he found that it worked.
Gastel tore a length of pastry from the wall and used it to cover his hands as he turned the body. Young Hidromel, face slack, mouth slightly open as though in surprise.
And here was a new catastrophe, with understanding trundling along too slowly behind it: a few feet below the messy wound in the boy’s chest, down in his left thigh at the center of a smaller, neater ring of blood, Gastel recognized the ancient hilt of his fruit knife.
Several long moments passed. When a thought finally reached Gastel’s mind, it kicked the door off the hinges. Someone was trying to frame him. Well, that made everything simpler, morally speaking. He guessed he owed Orach an apology. You got in all kinds of trouble, jumping to conclusions.
The knife slid out easily and left behind a narrow gouge, clean through the bone. Had to hand it to the High Imperials. Gastel tore another length of pastry from the wall and used it to swaddle the knife like an infant. Inconspicuous. Great chefs often carried huge wads of puff pastry through banquet halls. He sealed the panels back the way he’d found them, now substantially worse for wear.
The labyrinth had been a trial before; now it was impossible. The revelers had reshaped it to their own purposes, secret chambers for trysts and diplomatic intrigue, panels hauled from one place to another with no care for the larger structure. The maze was choked with dead ends in which confused nobles, so stuffed with food that their dignity was seeping out of them, wandered from one blank wall to another, unable to find a servant who could explain what malign force had imprisoned them. Gastel slipped between panels when he had to, mapping a vague course toward the kitchen by the temple spire at his back and duke’s ornate ceiling above. He still had the duke’s ring tugging at his pocket. A feast without a Lord, how awful. The ring had a ruby the size of Gastel’s thumbnail. Maybe he would keep it. Seed money for his new life as an outlaw.
He peered into a gap between two panels. Before he knew what was happening, strong arms grabbed his collar and hauled him in. The Bear of the Kenemlands stared down at him, a wide smile stained with wine, massive hands tight around Gastel’s shoulders. “I found him!” the great man called. “Give praise to our worthy priest!”
A hundred voices hooted and yelled. A hundred costumed bodies pressed close, jewels glittering in the candlelight. They’d cleared a floor for dancing, dozens of panels shoved aside. It was a shock, after the labyrinth, to emerge into so much space filled with so many turning bodies. They were watching Gastel. He bowed low. “If I have shown you the barest reflection of Aballas’s table,” he said, “I hold myself blessed indeed.”
“But what have you got there?” asked the Bear, reaching for Gastel’s bundle.
Gastel jerked it away and attempted a beatific clergy smile. “Aballas has seen my good works and blessed me with a child. This babe will never leave my sight.”
“To children!” the Bear cried, and the dancers all joined him.
And here was Fladen, tugging at Gastel’s sleeve. He murmured something about the bottle of wine under his arm and pulled Gastel into a corner. “Now they’re saying a thousand marks.”
“What?” said Gastel. “Who?”
“To kill the duke’s kid.”
“Don’t,” said Gastel.
Fladen’s horrible face twisted. “What do you mean, ‘don’t’? You think I’d kill a kid?”
Gastel was struggling to see through the shadows. “Then why are you—?”
“I thought you should know. Someone really wants him dead. It could be a mess.”
“Thank you,” Gastel said, and then, “Good work,” and after another moment, “How do I get to the kitchen?”
“Thank you. You’re not a murderer.”
“I know,” said Fladen. “Soup on your breeches.”
Gastel looked down. His knees were stained dull red.
“Got to be careful around that trough,” said Fladen.
“Fladen, listen, I need you to get the wagons ready. We might be leaving early.”
“But the wine—”
“These people are drunk enough. Please.”
The great hall now held enough dinner to feed a volcano, and still a servant burst into the kitchen every few minutes begging for resupply. More onion tarts! More darioles! An unnamed Earl has taken a servant hostage and swears he will shave the man’s head if more orange blossom mousse cannot be found!
The cooks had all been twelve hours on their feet, many closer to twenty. They had eaten, but not enough. They were carried through their work by momentum and by the meditative pleasure of letting their minds and bodies become simple machines set to simple tasks. Gastel watched them for a moment. It was an act of vandalism to halt a mechanism like this.
He paced through the room, past the tables of outgoing confections, to the first big work table, to his bucket of now tepid water. He plunged his head in and held it as long as he could. The clashing of ladles in pots, the rustling of woodstoves, the cries of the servants reached him muted and gentle. Gastel hated to be underwater, always had. He jerked out, sending a spray into the room. “Damsons!” he shouted. “Outside!”
In the corner of the room, Friaress Penidia was packing up her books. Gastel stopped short. “Blessed sister! Are you leaving already?”
The Friaress nodded. “Your book is in the cupboard.”
“Take it. Please. I can’t read it.”
The Friaress showed no surprise. She nodded thanks.
“Sister,” said Gastel, “as you walk, would you pray for us?”
“Of course,” she said. “For what intention?”
“Do you know the cook’s prayer?”
“Does it begin, ‘May our work today be well received’?”
“That’s right.” Gastel gave a weak smile and ran for the door. The Friaress prayed.
The air in the garden was cool and soft with the smell of the now-sputtering pastry furnace. A few Golden Damsons were occupied in the great hall, but the group gathered in the garden was enough for a quorum. No one was happy to lay their work aside, to pass responsibility for partially cooked food to household cooks and put urgent tasks on hold, but they trusted Gastel. They trusted him, at least, not to be frivolous.
“Right,” said Gastel, joining their circle. “Hidromel Galingale is dead. Bruet found his body hidden in the maze. If the guests don’t know yet, they’ll know soon.”
“Hidromel?” asked Mastic. “The touchy kid? I thought they wanted to kill the duke’s son?”
Gastel nodded. “They still might. But for now, it’s Hidromel. First off, Orach—I’m assuming you didn’t kill him?”
Orach was standing a few steps away from the group. He furrowed his brow, eyes on the dirt. “I prayed for his death. Fervently.”
“But you didn’t put a knife in his chest?”
“Thank you.” Gastel unwrapped his bundle of pastry, taking care not to let the blood that had seeped into the crust brush against his sleeves. “Now, can anyone think of a reason this might have been stuck in Hidromel’s body?”
The cooks all leaned toward the blade, its dark marbled surface barely visible in the low light.
“Is that your knife?” asked Mastic.
“It’s a good knife,” said Mastic.
“It is a good knife,” said Gastel. “It’s an excellent knife. Do we suppose a murderer broke into the duke’s vault, saw this excellent knife, and thought it might be a particularly satisfying thing with which to stab a lord’s son?”
No one answered.
“Do we think the knife ever reached the vault?” asked Gastel. “Or do we think, perhaps, that Lieutenant Gaufres might have given it to the murderer? Do we suspect, perhaps, that Lieutenant Gaufres himself may have been the murderer?”
“Where’s Cassiette?” asked Gastel.
“In the carts,” said Rennet, the apprentice pastry chef. “Getting a disguise.”
“Why does she need a disguise?”
“She wanted to see the banquet.”
“How would I have gotten the knife?” asked Orach.
“Sorry?” said Gastel.
“I couldn’t have had the knife. Why did you ask me if I killed the boy?”
“I didn’t ask you. I said I assumed you didn’t kill him.”
“It was a question.”
“I’m sorry. You did say you wanted to kill him. I thought it was prudent to ask.”
“They’ll try to frame us,” said Mastic.
“Thank you, Mastic. That’s what I suspect.”
“Where was the knife in the body?” asked Civvey.
“Interesting question,” said Gastel. “It was stuck in his thigh bone. What does that mean?”
Civvey shook her head. “You couldn’t do that with an ordinary knife.”
“What if you were very strong?” asked Mastic.
“No,” said Civvey.
“What if you used a system of pulleys tied to a horse?”
“Maybe. You’d probably just shatter the leg.”
“So it’s a wound that could have only been made with this knife?” asked Gastel.
Civvey nodded. “Or a similar knife.”
“There are no similar knives. Do you think they’ll notice? What am I saying! Of course they’ll notice. That mess of warmongers and antiquarian hoarders, they’ll probably probe the boy’s wounds with a shrimp fork.”
“Shouldn’t we tell his family?” asked Rennet.
Gastel blew a breath through his lips. “No. No, we should let them enjoy the banquet.”
That seemed to sit poorly with Thera, the apprentice who worked the roasting ovens. She made a small sound.
“We’re giving them time to build a reservoir of beauty against the tragedy they’re about to face,” said Gastel. “That’s what beauty’s for. You think these people are just paying for expensive bowel movements?” He bent at the waist and exhaled toward the ground. “Of course you’re right. We have to tell them. As soon as we can think of a safe way to do it.”
“Who knows the knife belongs to you?” asked Orach.
“An excellent point!” said Gastel. “Well-considered. Only Lieutenant Gaufres, and he took it. He’d look guiltier than me.”
“What about the new Earl Tezelin?” asked Thera.
“Doesn’t care for food,” said Gastel. “He’d never travel all this way.”
“But maybe he’s told some of the other guests about it.”
Gastel chewed his lip. “Maybe.”
“He’s embarrassed,” said Orach.
Gastel brightened. “That’s true! His brother gave away a priceless heirloom. He’s probably humiliated. He’d never tell his peers.”
“You should get rid of it,” said Civvey.
Gastel held the knife tight. “Is there any way I can keep it? It’s a very good knife.”
“No safe way,” said Civvey.
“No.” Gastel clapped his hands. “Right. So: who should we frame?”
No one spoke.
“It’s the safest thing. Let’s hear some names.”
“Shouldn’t we try to figure out who actually killed him?” asked Thera.
“Who stands to benefit from his death?” asked Thera.
“Probably lots of people,” said Gastel. “Other suitors. His parents’ enemies. The Bear’s enemies. Maybe he insulted someone’s horse at a party. They’re nobles. They’ll kill each other over a bad dream. The practical thing is to just pick somebody.”
Another long silence.
“How do we feel about Count Wethery?” asked Gastel.
Thera balked. “He’s a war hero.”
“So we know he’s killed before.”
“I don’t know,” said Mastic. “Isn’t he supposed to be kind? When there was that drought in Costmary, he sent his personal guard to dig wells.”
“We’re not going to frame his guard,” said Gastel.
“What did he do to you?” asked Civvey. “Complain about the soup?”
“Well then, if Count Wethery is such a living saint, suggest someone else,” said Gastel.
Thera wiped her hands on her apron and squinted in the direction of the ballroom. “Lord Courmi,” she said after a moment.
Mastic hummed dramatically. “Lord of the Pit. He’s a bad one.”
Gastel tried to remember. “Doesn’t he make silverware or something?”
“He holds a silver mine,” said Thera. “A poisonous hive he populates with wrongly accused prisoners and the stolen children of the poor.”
“And worse than that,” said Gastel, “I hear he’s just murdered Hidromel Galingale. Did he have a motive?”
“His land borders Ulvos,” said Thera. “Maybe he wants to marry in. Decided to get the betrothed out of the way.”
“Excellent,” said Gastel. “Classic. Now who has time for subterfuge?” He held out the knife.
After a moment, Rennet took it, holding the very end of the grip pinched between his thumb and forefinger.
“Thank you,” said Gastel. “Tell a servant you’ve been given a letter for the Lord Courmi and you must deliver it yourself. Wink many times. Make the situation feel romantic and scandalous. Ask the servant where Courmi’s room is. Hide the knife in there and don’t be subtle. Bring a bowl of the tomato soup. Splash it around. Get it on the ceiling. Don’t let anyone see you. You are a very brave boy. You’re a thunderhead of courage. If we had a hundred of you, we could march on the bulwark of hell. Be quick. And if anyone catches you, tell them you’re a musician, drink the soup, and run.”
Gastel needed to change his clothes. Bloodstains or soup stains, a visionary artist-cook could not afford to be discolored. He’d run to his room. It wouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
But when he reached the corridor, he could hear a raucous clamor breaking out in the great hall, all crashing and panicked yelling. Only one thing that could mean.
Last chance then, for Gastel to gather his people and flee before the nobles had time to organize an investigation. The carts would be ready by now. They could be through the gate in half an hour. Of course, if they ran they’d be blamed, no matter who found what bloody knife in whose room. Hunted, cursed. But alive and free, at least for a while. No more commissions. Soup every night by the side of the road, a pot full of squirrels and sticks.
Ah, hell. Gastel let his long stride carry him into the great hall.
More yells, and louder. Distant people called unfamiliar names, searching for loved ones lost in the revels. How many bodies were hidden in these walls? Gastel chased the voices. He tipped and tilted panels out of his way, making no effort to follow the labyrinth.
The dread in Gastel’s stomach was softened, slightly, by this—he was not walking toward the smell of burnt lemon peel. But the voices came, high and panicked.
Gastel pulled two panels apart and broke into a clearing. In a wide space, the maze had been levelled, the panels flat on the floor or leaning on one another precariously. Wine and custard seeped from beneath the wreckage. Hollow-faced guests milled about in winish uncertainty, brushing pastry from their costumes or picking at the ruins or staring into the rubble. A young woman cried “Tirel!” into the mess, and two men rushed to the spot she seemed to be indicating, sending more panels crashing as they stumbled.
“What happened here?” asked Gastel. And then, louder, “What happened?”
“Tirel,” someone said. “He tried to lean on the wall and the whole thing—” Her voice caught. “He’s still in there.”
“He’s fine, Your Grace, just fine,” said Gastel. “He’s fortunate my pastry is lighter than air.” Gastel raised his voice. “But do not touch these walls! You see what can happen. Don’t brush idly against them. Don’t look at them, if you can help it.” Now they were all watching Gastel. Even the rescuers had turned from their work. Gastel pointed at them. “And find some wine for these heroes.” He stalked back into the maze.
Someone followed. Gastel could hear footsteps at his back. He turned a corner, then another. Behind him, he could hear the footsteps turn one corner, then another. Gastel paused at a table piled high with candied medlars. The footsteps paused. Gastel held a medlar a foot in front of his face and peered into the reflection in its shiny, candied surface. He couldn’t see anyone.
He dropped the medlar and fled the table at a canter. The footsteps followed. He turned a corner and waited in a low crouch. He’d jump for the knees. All of these nobles wore heels.
“I can see your shadow,” came a voice.
Gastel glanced at the panel behind him. Sure enough, there he was in silhouette, coiled and scheming. “What do you want?”
“You have soup on your breeches.” An accent Gastel couldn’t place.
“Thank you. I haven’t had time to change.”
“A gentleman makes time. I’m going to walk toward you now. Don’t tackle me.”
Gastel made no promises.
A slight, fine-featured young man strutted around the corner. Or, no. Gastel squinted against the shadow. It was Cassiette, with a flowing wig on her head and a thick false beard. “What kind of accent is that?” Gastel asked.
“Commincer,” said Cassiette, rolling the rrr with great dexterity.
“It’s not,” said Gastel.
“It is,” said Cassiette. “I practiced with Thera.”
“Thera would say you were speaking fluent Oglian if she thought it would make you smile. Has anyone seen you?”
“No one recognized me.”
Gastel swiveled in all directions. He turned two panels inward, sealing himself and Cassiette in a tiny room. “A have a job for you.”
“It’s a fun job. I need you to accuse someone of murder.”
Cassiette stroked her beard. “Anyone?”
“We have someone in mind. I want you to go to Lord Courmi’s rooms. You’ll find a knife. My knife, actually, but—” He waved this away. “Wait a little while. Half an hour. Some quince tarts should be coming out of the kitchen around then—wait until you see the tarts, then scream your head off that Lord Courmi is a killer. Or, no, ‘murderer’ is better. There’s a bloody knife in his room, say that. And Cassiette, don’t be subtle.”
“I’m a member of the Golden Damson Feasting Company,” she said. “We’re never subtle.”
“That’s hurtful,” said Gastel, and set the panels back where they belonged.
Gastel was plotting. Partly, he was plotting for self-preservation. There were probably worse things than being framed for murdering a noble, but right now, Gastel couldn’t think of any. Nobles murdered each other all the time, but commoners killed nobles so infrequently that when it happened, it made high society a little rabid. Outraged worthies pushed one another to heights of baroque revenge, casting the accused in bronze to loom in the public square for a thousand years or sealing him in a wine barrel and rolling him off a cliff. Probably, they would try to bake Gastel into a giant pie, something like that. Which would be a sort of legacy.
But more than self-preservation, Gastel was thinking about his banquet. If there was going to be a tragic murder, he didn’t want it to seep out in confused dribs and drabs. That would diminish the evening. Gastel thought he could see a way to elevate it. The refrain he couldn’t knock out of his head was There is a proper way to frame a lord for murder at a banquet.
Lord Courmi was in the temple, leading a debate about the great painters of the day. He was perched at one of the awkward standing tables with grace and ease, as though he’d never eaten a meal sitting down. By happy circumstance, in the entire temple, only Gastel, Bruet, and a few footmen were not visibly drunk.
Gastel approached Bruet from behind and took his elbow. Bruet jumped. “Find our people and get them to the carts,” said Gastel. “We’re leaving soon.”
“But, service—” Bruet gestured vaguely at the service table. His collar was ringed with sweat.
“You’ve done a beautiful job. You’ve fed a thousand people and livened a thousand hearts. Yes?”
Bruet took a breath and nodded.
“Good. Go. And tell the footmen to get off the scaffold.”
It was not difficult to convince Lord Courmi to accept one of the elaborate display bricks from the edifice. He was a dignified man, and there was a proper way to accept an honor at a banquet, no matter how crusty. While Lord Courmi ate, Gastel made himself busy at the other table. A clutch of tipsy gourmands was trying to figure out how Gastel kept the pastry from going soggy. Gastel fielded their hypotheses with good humor but kept the mystery intact. He was just about lost in the conversation when across the room, Lord Courmi bit down hard on the duke’s signet ring. “Who has done this?” he asked, as a trickle of blood wet his lips. “Who has done this?”
“Aha!” cried Gastel. “Lord Courmi, tonight you are blessed in Aballas’s sight. You have found the duke’s lost ring.”
Lord Courmi examined the pastry-flecked ring, his face clouded.
“Where is the duke?” Gastel asked. “Tell him we’ve found our Lord of the Feast!”
Lord Courmi’s eyes went wide and he pointed one long, gloved finger at himself. Gastel nodded. Lord Courmi took a breath and finished his glass of wine. He bowed to his neighbors and finished their glasses of wine. Several civic-minded guests further down the table donated their glasses, and Lord Courmi drained them in turn.
Gastel trotted into the courtyard, where the duke was holding court. “We have found your Lord of the Feast!” said Gastel, and the duke broke off with a thrilled leap.
When they got back to Courmi, he had his eyes closed and the fingertips of his left hand pressed into the table. This was a delicate moment. There was a proper way to achieve apotheosis at a banquet, but it wasn’t the sort of thing you got to practice. The Lord of the Feast had emptied himself of himself. Now the guests waited to see what might fill him. All around him, faithful partiers were praying. It would be an awful thing to lose the feast now.
Lord Courmi’s eyes opened. He seemed lost. With great rolling movements of his head and eyes, he took in the temple, lingering on wine, meat, precious comforts he seemed to recognize in an otherwise strange place. He kept his neck stiff but he let his arms float, and his spine listed at the waist. He reached high and drew his hand in a long arc down, down to a wine bottle held by a young servant. He lifted the bottle with great delicacy, using only the pads of his fingers. Under the eyes of all assembled, he poured a few inches into one of the many glasses gathered at his place.
He took a cautious sip, lifted the glass high, and gazed at the mouthful that remained. He looked to the guests. They were three-deep now, filing in from the courtyard and the far table. “Tell me,” said Courmi, “is this wine, stored away for long years and now happily poured to gladden hearts and loosen laughing tongues? Could this be wine?”
The people shouted that it was.
Lord Courmi finished the wine. Before it reached his belly, he had forgotten it, eyes fixed on his neighbor’s entrée. He reached for the plate with both hands and dragged it across the table. Jaw set, he lowered himself to the meal and sniffed so deeply that the pastry warped. “Tell me,” he said, “is this meat, patiently nourished and artfully prepared, to strengthen the body and quiet the temper? Could this be meat?”
The crowd was adamant that it was. “And the walls, too!” someone shouted, and they pointed and prodded with knives to show their lost lord that it was all meat, a paradise for any appetite. Lord Courmi gazed across his temple in wonder. He returned, at last, to his eager mass of guides.
“And you,” he said. “Tell me, with your fine costumes and your fine spirits, with your voices offered so generously, am I right to call you good company?”
He was right, and they offered their voices very generously indeed.
Lord Courmi threw his arms open. “Then this must be a feast!” shouting the last so that soup trembled in the trough and pastry quaked in the eaves. “I am home!”
It was some minutes before the crowd was quiet enough for the Lord to continue. “And who is responsible for this blessed feast?”
A small hiccup from the guests at the faux pas, to ask such a question with both the genius and the host in earshot. Lord Courmi must really be taken. Gastel made his face pleasant and resolved to keep it that way, come praise or silence. After a beat, the crowd tittered vague enthusiasm in Gastel and the duke’s general direction. Both men bowed, the duke with great flamboyance, Gastel more humbly.
The lord swept past the duke to embrace Gastel. Gastel jerked up as the lord pivoted outward, his arm around Gastel’s waist, and stage-shouted from the temple, “All honor and thanks to my most favorite servant. Tonight, you have built me a heaven from lowly things.”
Gastel spoke to the crowd directly. “It was our lord the duke who built it. Our lord’s cellars, our lord’s orchards, our lord’s herds. It has been my great honor to arrange it prettily, but that is all.”
The crowd murmured appreciation and applauded them once again, the duke for his feast and Gastel for his decorum.
“Nonsense,” said Lord Courmi. And again, letting the nnn hum across his hard palate, “Nonsense! Wine is wine and meat is meat, but you have given us a miracle. People will speak of this until the world is cold and all your guests are names in crumbling records.”
It was a moment before Gastel could think of a response. The guests grew fidgety. “By then, we will all be seated at Aballas’s table,” he said at last, “and this humble offering will seem the barest shadow. Please excuse me. I have pots to scrub.”
He bowed to the duke and left the room at a long, brisk stride. Behind him, the duke tore a length of pastry from the tablecloth and laid it across the lord’s shoulders as a cloak. “Feast!” cried the duke.
“Feast!” shouted the lord, even louder. And everyone feasted.
There was an old chef’s adage about critics: “Praise them when they praise you; scorn them when they scorn you.” Your supporters had to be geniuses and your detractors had to be fools. Gastel grumbled as he walked. It seemed an awful waste to frame a man for murder when he had just spoken of the feast so glowingly. Ah, well. Hopefully the guests were a pious bunch, prepared to distinguish between the dour slaver who had killed Hidromel and the fine-palated spirit that was making temporary use of his body. It didn’t seem likely.
The quince tarts, by now, were browning, or else just beginning to cool. These last rounds of confections wouldn’t be eaten until morning. Their purpose was to show that the cupboards were never bare. The guests had done their best to exhaust the duke’s hospitality and they hadn’t come close. Probably, the swarm tomorrow wouldn’t do much better. It troubled Gastel to think how long the temple might stand. Food survived longer in the memory the briefer it lingered on the tongue. Another chef’s adage. Gastel didn’t know any sage epigrams about leaving a mountain of beef to rot in a banquet hall. Maybe he ought to start composing his own adages.
How long until Cassiette started screaming? Minutes, he hoped. Moments, he feared.
The clearing where the nobles had been dancing was empty except for a few drunk pairs walking along its perimeter. Gastel ducked back into the labyrinth and turned corners until he found a table. No servants, no guests, and a perfect charlotte royale, three feet tall and round as a globe, halved to reveal the duke’s profile baked clean through in green and orange sponge. It had taken Rennet a day to get that mold right. Gastel supposed they’d leave the mold behind. It wouldn’t do them much good outside of Agrano. No one liked to see a stranger baked into their charlotte.
He eased the cake to the floor and climbed up between the glasses and the serving dishes. The table was low, and Gastel’s head only just peaked over the labyrinth wall. From up here, he could see: the Lady Savarin’s plumage, sagging somewhat, but still grand enough to crest the panels; two different territories where the maze appeared to have collapsed, although Gastel could not assess the damage from this distance; the honorable duke and the red-mouthed Lord of the Feast, dancing on the scaffolding of the temple and sloshing bowls of soup into the courtyard below; and a tuft of white that Gastel very much hoped was the verticalmost wisping of wild hair on the head of the Earl Ulvos, the Bear of the Kenemlands.
Gastel leapt from the table and made directly for the Bear, picking between panels and brushing past inebriates. He turned a corner and was blocked by a noisy procession. Dozens of nobles all marched together, cheering and toasting. After a few moments, the duke’s son and a beautifully dressed young woman passed, hand in hand. That would be the betrothal announcement, on their way to the courtyard. They’d have to be quick if they wanted to beat the murder announcement. Gastel squeezed through the mob.
He stumbled into a still-sealed chamber filled with haggard musicians. They stared. He brushed between them without a word. But no, that wasn’t right. He stepped back and said, “Beautiful work, all of you. Tireless geniuses. The soul and spirit of the feast. I couldn’t ask for better accompaniment. Now let’s have a few fast ones, I think. Get them back on their feet.” The musicians nodded their weary heads and lurched into a tarantella.
An extravagance, with so little time. A tiny concession to artistry. Gastel ran.
He found them all together, the Bear and his wife and their once-future-in-laws, laughing quietly and nibbling at cakes and trying to decide if they had strength left to give the song its due. Every few measures, the Bear let his feet idly complete the step. The Galingales were less game, leaning on one another and already half asleep.
At the sight of them, Gastel halted, the whole evening lodged in his chest. He watched this family, this almost-family, live out the last moments of this easy span of their lives, when their son was alive and their future was warm. Gastel felt acutely that he was the wrong sort of person to deliver this message. He felt, also, that this was a terribly small and petty thing to feel, as though he had any right to complain about carrying this burden for such a short distance when these people would be carrying it for the rest of their lives. As though anyone in the world was qualified to bring annihilating news to happy people. Still. He had spent his life learning to give pleasure. Somehow, it seemed like he ought to be excused from having to give pain. But time was short, terribly short.
They saw him approach, and they were congratulating him before he could speak. “A wonderful evening! A magnificent thing!” Gastel bowed low and set his face in the grimmest shape his jolly features would allow. He rose, and his guests fell silent.
“I’m so sorry.” He paused. It was an instinctive pause, his theatrical training taking over, and he broke it, horrified, as soon as he realized what he was doing. “Hidromel has been killed,” he said, rushing now. “Your son. Stabbed. One of my people found his body hidden in the labyrinth. Found it only just now. We haven’t told anyone else. We don’t want a panic. But—”
He stopped. It looked, from their expressions, like their worlds were changing very slowly if they were changing at all. They were waiting for more, for a firm ending, as though any other facts Gastel might divulge could make a difference. If Gastel just kept talking, talking about different kinds of soup and the price of barley in Oglia, they would keep listening, silently, until all five of them starved. If he turned and left, they would keep waiting, frowning and squinting but never really moving, lodged in the tiny runnel of knowledge that connected the old world to the new. But Gastel said again, “I’m so sorry,” and the world changed.
Lady Cambens wanted to see the body. Lady Ulvos thought they should tell the duke. The Bear wanted to bar the doors and begin shaking people. Lord Cambens said nothing but blinked a great deal, his face tensing and relaxing at odd intervals. Gastel nodded at all of this, nodded and looked sympathetic and said nothing. A long way behind and above, the duke and the Lord of the Feast shouted and danced. Gastel glanced over his shoulder at them, just for a moment, and twisted back to the bereaved, apologetic. He waited.
When Cassiette’s voice came, it came from many rooms away. It bumped through twisting hallways and wedged beneath doors, jostling loose consonants and syllables in its urgency to be heard now, right now, even as a wordless howl. Gastel was listening for it and heard it first, but the scream rose and guests throughout the maze began to turn. Room by room, the voice drew near. Excitement rose. It was just the thing, at this late hour of the banquet when spirits were beginning to dip. The drunk and bold clambered onto serving tables, ears cocked. And when the voice broke clean into the hall and finally resolved into one word, “Murder!” a mob of elegant persons gasped. Perfection.
In front of Gastel, the world changed again. The Lord and Lady Cambens had mourned in private for less than the length of a song. Now their loss would be contested ground, an object of intrigue and gossip, retribution and plunder, more violence, more loss, perhaps—some dozen or a hundred collisions from now—a small war. They listened, shoulders low, for the details of their new lives.
Gastel thanked the Lord of Song for Cassiette’s breath and for the long-dead acoustic geniuses who had built this hall. Her voice carried like a bell in the winter. Every guest who wasn’t passed out or shouting heard, “A bloody knife! In the Lord Courmi’s chambers! Someone has been killed! Courmi is a killer!” And on and on. Guests were searching the floor for bodies or looking up at the oblivious Lord Courmi, who was still shouting on the scaffold, his cuffs stained with soup.
The Bear did not hesitate. Some dormant thing in his heart awoke and swelled and drew all the heat away from the rest of him. He ran for the temple. Where there were panels, he charged. Where there were tables, he smashed. Where there were wide-eyed guests, they leapt aside or he knocked them aside, and they held themselves fortunate that he had not looked at them longer.
The Bear reached the temple and began to climb. He was every bit as strong as he’d been fifteen years ago, but he wasn’t half as nimble, and the temple edifice would have stumped an acrobat. Wherever he gripped, pastry slid over meat and gravy. His knees scraped pastry from the wall. But he was in a black fog. He pushed against the wall until bricks shifted inward and he found purchase. He stepped up and flailed at another set of bricks a few feet higher. The neat line of bricks around him warped and jutted at awful angles. High above, the spire teetered.
The betrothal parade arrived in the courtyard and was immediately pulled into the spectacle. The space filled with shouting spectators, more even than had gathered to see the temple opened. They pushed over panels and tromped through fallen delicacies, red and green and orange soup soaking into ostrich-skin dancing slippers. Slowly, slowly, the Bear ascended. Lord Courmi stared down in terror and confusion.
In the entire hall, only Gastel had his back to the Bear. He was striding to the kitchen, loosening his evening dress as he went. It was hard, some nights, to tell when a banquet had ended. How nice to have clarity.
The kitchen was, for a kitchen, clean. The cooks had packed up their own tools and scrubbed the duke’s. A final smattering of pies cooled near the corridor on the off-chance that someone might leave the chaos at the temple with an appetite. Gastel ignored the confused roar that echoed from the great hall, down the corridor, into the kitchen. He had been awake for three days, or four. He had barely eaten. He was prepared to ignore almost anything.
He was two steps from the garden door when Lieutenant Gaufres called his name.
The lieutenant’s voice rang down the length of the kitchen. “I’d hoped you would stay to prepare breakfast.”
“Leftovers, I think,” said Gastel. “To help the guests remember the feast.”
“I’ve seen a few who won’t remember much.”
“That won’t stop them from telling stories.”
The lieutenant snorted and squared his shoulders. “If you’ll wait here, I’ll send someone to retrieve your knife.”
“That’s very kind, but I’ve decided to leave it behind.”
“Are you sure? I’m told it’s precious.”
“Safer, I think, to leave it in the duke’s vault,” said Gastel. “I’m told it’s dangerous.”
The lieutenant paused. “You haven’t heard? It’s not in the vault. We found it in Lord Courmi’s rooms, stained with blood and splattered with soup. The whole room was. What do you make of that?”
Gastel hesitated. “I suppose Courmi must have tried to eat his soup with a knife, and the inevitable happened.”
The lieutenant grunted but didn’t smile. “Of course, you’ll have to wait a few days if you want it back. There’s going to be a trial. Murder.” He gave Gastel a long look.
“It’s too precious for a cook,” said Gastel. “I prefer a knife that’s content to cut fruit.”
Gastel was fairly certain, as he bowed his head and slowly turned for the door, that Lieutenant Gaufres would order him to stop. Maybe the lieutenant was trying to frame him, or maybe he truly believed Gastel was involved in the murder. Either way, Gastel was headed for a spectacular execution. But if the lieutenant felt guilty, of complicity or carelessness or whatever else, might he let Gastel go?
His hand on the doorknob, Gastel tensed himself against the sound of the lieutenant’s voice. The lieutenant said nothing. He turned the doorknob, and the lieutenant said nothing. Gastel stepped into the dark and shut the door behind him.
The pastry chefs had just doused the big oven, and a warm fog lingered in the garden. “How’s the duke’s son?” Mastic called from the dark.
Gastel’s eyes slowly adjusted. “Still alive, last I saw.”
Mastic chewed her pipe in wonder. “With all those people trying to kill him. Must have been born lucky. Some people are.”
Gastel counted the crew. “About ready?” he asked.
Fladen was just checking the harness on the last mule. “About,” he said. His awful face was squashed into a wide grin. Every few minutes, he laughed like he couldn’t help it.
“What are you so happy about?”
“Right after you left me in the maze, some of the duke’s men found me. They’d heard about the plot and they gave me a hundred marks not to kill the duke’s kid.” He shook a heavy bag on his belt and cackled.
“They must have really been terrified,” said Gastel.
“Oh, I’m a dangerous man. I walk into a house and the milk goes sour.”
“And the wine goes sweet,” said Gastel. “If we find the gate locked, you’re bribing the guard.”
Fladen laughed. “I’ll buy him a farm.” He climbed into the front of the first cart and flicked the reins.
The Golden Damson Feasting Company rumbled through the dark, silent streets. Bruet was already nodding off at the reins of the second cart. Cassiette walked alongside, practicing her Commincer accent with Thera. In the seat of the third cart, Mastic and Rennet sat together—Rennet held the reins and Mastic advised. Orach sat on the roof and let his legs dangle over the road. Inside, Civvey sat on a crate of books beside Gastel, who lay on the floor. “There will be paintings,” she said.
“There certainly will,” said Gastel. “If the temple falls, we might get a whole ceiling somewhere.”
“A lot of famous subjects. Earl Ulvos, Lord Courmi, the duke.”
“Do you think they’ll make room for us?”
“They’ll have to,” said Gastel. “We’ll be off in the corner, tearing out our hair.”
He was almost asleep when Civvey said, “You know, we could serve an Egardouce’s Pudding outside if we built it in a barn.”
Gastel didn’t open his eyes. “Where would we put the kitchen?’
“We’d build it. Or we’d cook in a tent. We’ve cooked in tents before.”
Gastel nodded. It was a striking image. They’d have the whole feast at ropes; hundreds, thousands of people, all pulling at the sides of the barn. It would fall all at once in four directions with an almighty crash, revealing the pristine temple within, sunlight streaming through stained glass. They could build it on a hill, like in the legend. Paint the inner walls of the barn so they’d look like marble flagstones once they hit the ground. Run the soup outside the temple, down channels to an aqueduct all around the hill. A different soup this time. Orach could make a saffron velouté that caught the light like gold.
The night was clear and the whole town smelled like pastry. The gate was wide open. In the back of the wagon, Gastel slept, and the hollow place in his heart that had once carried tonight’s pudding began to fill with new and wilder dreams.