(Finalist for the Eugie Award, 2019)
Appetizer: An Egg, in the Bala Style
Leu was in the chicken coop when the wall was breached. At the very moment of which I speak, he was facing down Black Dragon, the largest and most homicidal of the barracks’s surviving hens. She’d bloodied his hands in a frenzied attempt to get at his eyes. Now, as shouts of terror echoed in the distance, the two combatants stared each other down over a mass of trampled reeds. Behind Black Dragon (at this point I usually gesture to the diners, who sit as you do, an expectant plate before them): two eggs, the last ones available for Lord Fio’s breakfast. Behind Leu (at this point I gesture outwards, to the world): the wrath of Lord Fio, a spoiled young man with a penchant for poached eggs and a nasty habit of whipping his servants.
If it had been merely Lord Fio’s wrath that had sent Leu out on that day, the War of Light and Shadow might be raging still. But although Fio had purchased Leu in the refugees’ market, Leu was no mere cook. He had trained under the fabled Haf herself in the kitchens of the Singing Court, where he had learned the dance of knives and the scent of every spice in the Five Realms. He had earned his craftsman’s tattoo a year before the Iron Crusade began, a year before the Singing Court itself was set aflame and all its harpers and songsters sent mute and bloody-fingered into the ash-strewn fields.
Now, in the middle of yet another siege, would Leu do as other more sensible servants had done and flee under the cover of darkness? No. Lord Fio had requested a perfect egg, and it seemed to Leu that this request was a challenge to him, a chef of the Singing Court, to prove what he could do. And so, though the Bala fort itself was filling with smoke and chaos, Leu would craft Fio a dish of divine textures and fragrant aroma.
Leu was an artist, which is also to say, he was not entirely sane.
(I always pause here, to invite laughter, and also to invite us to forget that memory that rustles behind my words. The acrid choke of burning. The damp cold of fear. Tastes that must be cleared from the palette, before the meal can be enjoyed.)
(Watch how I flourish my hands for the next part. It is a story I am telling you. Stories can be set aside.)
Ignoring the clatter of weaponry around them, Dragon puffed up her feathers, until she appeared nearly twice her size! Leu, too, was deaf to the swirl of noise as he lifted the plain-sack. Ah, but this time, as Black Dragon sprang forward, he succeeded in hurling the sack on top of the raging hen. So! As she thrashed in fury, he removed the delicate eggs and, cradling them in his bloody hands, edged his way to the coop’s door. Behind him, Black Dragon found the mouth of the sack and exploded into furious freedom, but Leu was already pushing through the wooden doorway, safe from her murderous wrath.
He was not, however, safe from the enemy soldiers who now surrounded him.
(I like to pause here too, to let a different note creep into my voice, now that we have laughed, now that we have agreed to forget. This is not only a story.)
The fort had been overrun swiftly. Lord Fio’s remaining soldiers, demoralized, had swiftly surrendered to the Iron Crusade. Even at that moment, Lord Fio was expiring from a sword wound on the muddy turf outside the Officer’s Quarters. He never did get to taste the egg of ultimate perfection that he had commanded, and he died unwitting of his role in history.
(A sigh. And then, the flourish.)
“What’s this?” An old, battle-scarred Agfad, leaning on his voulge. “A thief?”
“A thief with bad timing.”
“I am not a thief,” Leu spluttered. “I am the personal chef of Lord Fio, commander of this fort, first son of the Eastern-“
“Commander’s chef, eh?” said the Agfad. “Bala’s got a different commander now. What do you think, cousins? Does Commander Eres want a chef?”
(One day, when you create this meal yourself, you must think of what story to tell and how to tell it. Before the war, I was apprenticed to a masker, and so the rise and fall of voices comes easily to me. Had my legs not been shattered, perhaps I too could one day have danced the Eleven Swallows before the Shining Temple. But the war changed me, as it changed all things. And now I drop my hands, I alter the angle of my face. I look thoughtful.)
More so than Chef Leu, the person on whom this history turns is Commander Eres. She was the gear that slipped out of place; the unexpected element.
Those who knew Commander Eres at that time did not expect it of her. She was, by all accounts, a solid wall of an Agfad, gray-haired and perennially frowning. She had been conscripted from the western farmlands as a child, but until that moment she had displayed no signs of rebellion against the Iron Crusade. If anything, she was perhaps a little too attentive to the regulations, demanding that her officers always wear their regimental colors, even though on the summer plains the uniforms were hot and itchy.
At this moment Eres was surveying the fort amid the blood-stained straw of the upper bailey. She was pleased with the lack of damage it had sustained. The battlements sacrificed by Lord Fio’s incompetence would now guard the supplies of the advancing horde.
A group of Agfad approached her, some of them suppressing laughter. They were in a good mood; easy victories will do that, especially to soldiers who had spent the morning contemplating the possibility of death.
“We have a prisoner for you, commander! Lord Fio’s personal chef.” They pushed forward a blinking, dazed-looking Atlan, clutching something protectively to his chest. “We found him in the chicken coop, looking for the lordling’s breakfast, he says.”
Commander Eres shook her head in amazement. How removed from the world did one have to be, she wondered, to install a personal chef in your fort and care nothing about repairing its battlements? She would have laughed, but the memory of Lord Fio’s bloody thrashings stopped her. Fool or not, the man had died like any other, and he had earned a better death than some.
She looked over the trembling servant before her. He should be sent with the other prisoners for the blood mages to harvest, or, if Eres wanted to be merciful, killed now. She felt tired at the thought.
“What is it you have there?” She pointed at the man’s cupped hands, the knuckles of which were lacerated and blood-crusted. She felt a flash of irritation at her soldiers, at their casual cruelties.
The servant looked afraid, but he opened his hands carefully. Cradled there were two eggs, pale and lovely.
“Excellent,” Commander Eres said. “Make me some eggs.”
(Have you ever cooked an egg as though your life depended on it? The difference between cooked and overcooked is so slight; the seasoning so important. So simple, an egg. And so easy to get wrong.)
Leu stoked the kitchen fire to get an even heat and checked again the simmer on the copper pan. In the background, he could hear a guard whetting the blade on his dagger. Shhr. Shrr.
The egg at least was very fresh. He cracked it and held it close to the water before letting it fall in. Immediately he pushed the white over the yolk with his wooden spoon and held it for a few seconds. Only a small amount of pale liquid fell away from the white.
The plate the guard brought was crusted with old food. Leu wiped it clean—his eyes on the pot—and then, swiftly, like a bird plunging into water, scooped the egg free with a slotted spoon. From the spice pouch around his neck he took a pinch of Fera sea salt to bring out the flavor.
(I always slow my hand as I lower the last flake of salt, to draw out the moment, to make the diners lean forward. When, at the end of your first year of your apprenticeship, you recreate this dish, you must think how you wish to present your egg, what part of the war you wish this dish to tell.)
Eres accepted the plate with a slight frown. With her knife, she cut the egg. It slid apart perfectly, oozing bright orange yolk. The white wobbled lightly on the blade. And the taste—
A perfect egg is a slash of light on a gray day. The yolk tastes of sun-riched earth, the pale chalaza like a slice of rain-damp cloud, a taste so mild you might miss it but unmistakably there, lingering, insisting on its presence.
(The dish in front of you is but a pale recreation of Leu’s egg. To understand what Eres tasted you must cast your mind back to when you were young, to the days of war and misery. You must remember how it was then, the boring slog of days, the ugliness of everything. And in the middle of this numbness, a flood of color.)
Eres finished the egg. And then she uttered the unexpected words, the sentence that would change everything.
“That was good,” she said to Leu. “You will cook for us.”
Second Course: A Camp Stew
They installed Leu in the center of the fort, in what had been an old dignitary’s quarters, with a handful of aristocrats they were holding for ransom. The aristocrats eyed Leu’s tattoo and muttered at the dishonor of being stabled with a cook. If Leu made any reply, I have not heard of it. In my version of this story he said nothing but sat for a while in the space of his own thoughts, trying to grasp what had just happened. There were many such silences in those days. In the end, Leu did what many of us did. He turned instead to the task at hand.
The first thing Leu did was survey the camp’s supplies. With a guard watching over his shoulder, he examined the captured chickens, the moldy wheat, the corrupted salt. The camp supplies had been packed and re-packed, pilfered and dropped, rain-soaked and sun-baked. Most baffling of all was the tack, the infamous tack, the hard thrice-boiled salted meat and fat brick that formed the base of the Iron Crusade’s diet. It lasted well, and withstood harsh treatment, and was, compared to many army supplies, fairly edible. But it was also monotonous, and very salty. If he could find a way to vary its flavor, Leu would have solved what, from a culinary perspective, was one of the Iron Crusade’s main challenges.
(When Chef Berlian tells this story, she speaks of Leu as a hero, working determinedly in the shadows to advance the cause of Light. Though I admire Berlian’s dishes, I have never believed in this version of Chef Leu. I have no doubt that, like many, Leu had some vague and ill-informed opinions about the powers wrestling for control of his world, but his actions show he was not willing to die for them. He had worked for Lord Fio; now he would cook for Commander Eres. Secure in the belief of his own insignificance, it never occurred to him—as it does not occur to most of us—that his actions might change the world.)
In his dignitary’s cell, Leu unwrapped a slab of tack and studied it with interest. It was an unpleasant-looking substance—a kind of mottled white, with the odd tuft of hair or twigs protruding from it. Gingerly, he broke off a corner. Despite its appearance, the tack was not unpleasant. Underneath the salt was the round smoothness of fat. He held the taste in his mind and paired it with vinegar, with honey, with the deep flavor of slow-cooked beef, with the graceful note of a fresh pea shoot. He could work with this. But what could he scrounge on the battlefield? What would he need?
The other prisoners studied him suspiciously. One of the lordlings spoke up. “They will kill you, you know,” he said. “The commander has let you live for her amusement. But soon she will kill you.”
(Here, I look up startled. It is important to draw out the humor of this moment, so that the diners do not think about their own imprisonments, their own brushes with execution.)
Leu did the best thing he could under the circumstances. He ignored his possible fate and said, “Do you know where the army is heading next?”
The guard hissed, and the aristocrats shrugged, but the irritable lordling replied: “Kagua. They will need to take the town to hold the valley.”
Kagua! Leu thought not of the town’s strategic position beside the river but of its rich farmlands and, on the hills above the valley, its famous vineyards. Perhaps he thought too of people he knew there, of houses he loved and would soon watch burn. But if he did, there is no record of it in his notes. In those battered pages, he discusses only how the full-mouth taste of the tack might pair with a light wine sauce and perhaps the astringent tang of a char leaf. At this time, only the peasants of Kagua cooked with char leaves. Leu knew the taste well and thought that, with some luck, he could produce a meal well-balanced.
“Excellent,” he said. The aristocrats looked at him strangely. Later, one of them would report that he thought Leu mad.
But Leu was already conceiving the dish that he would become known for: that fragrant stew, that Kagua.
The next day was Leu’s first attempt at cooking for the entire camp. In his own eyes, it would be a failure, though the soldiers would remember it fondly as the first day the food actually tasted good.
The most common dish in a marching army is cold tack, served hard and raw. Many of you may have eaten it this way as children, if you were lucky enough to have a camp-follower as a mother, or if you were quick and clever in your thefts. But while Leu had to admit the practicality of serving the food raw, his chef’s sensibility revolted at this brutal treatment of both eaters and food. Looking over the stores collected from the raids, he had seen a bag of fresh Chajeu vegetables, whose leaves can also be consumed raw. And then there was the hard flock biscuit.
He retrieved the bones of one of the unfortunate chickens killed in an orgy of violence and boiled up a stock. When concentrated, the stock was poured over the biscuits, and he crushed them down with repeated beatings of a hammer. When the biscuit was reduced to rubble he used a torn scrap of screen to strain it. The tack, on the other hand, he wrapped in the rana leaves and steamed, before serving it on top of the mash. When you taste the tack before you, it is therefore not quite the same as the tack you gnawed on as children but something finer. The faint hint of rana leaf in the fat takes on a hint of freshness and greenery, an unexpected breath of summer.
Food is one of the areas in which a soldier feels her powerlessness, and so all change is regarded with suspicion. It was a sign of things to come that most ate the dish eagerly and spoke well of the new cook. Morale was lifted. Commander Eres took notice.
(Leu’s camp stew is not a dish we serve often, but it is one, as chefs, that we cannot forget. It is a testimony to what one may do with even the most rude of ingredients. It is a reminder of what we had to do to survive.)
Third Course: A Taste of Ocean
Kagua fell in smoke and ruin. Leu, bent low over the sweating acrid smoke of the firepit, saw none of it. Distantly, perhaps, he heard the shouts and screams from the wall, but war can be a strangely silent affair, a terror invisible even when it is almost on top of you. Whatever Leu thought of the battle, he kept his thoughts between himself and his cooking fire.
Sometime that evening, when the victory was complete and only the burning remained, Leu approached Commander Eres, standing among her officers.
“Now that Kagua has fallen,” he said, and collected himself.
Eres watched him curiously, the way a cat watches a mouse it may yet decide to kill.
“Now that Kagua has fallen—” Leu said, as though it meant nothing to him, the fall of Kagua—“I wonder if the cooks might not collect the char leaves from the Fragrant Alley?”
“A char leaf?” said Eres dubiously. “A shrub?”
“The leaf of a most fragrant and delicious plant,” Leu explained hurriedly. “It is... a taste that comes at you slant, bitter at first, but it mingles with the other flavors you see, and produces that most memorable sensation. A thing that lingers.”
“Your bushes are not our concern,” said the Second Lieutenant. But the First Lieutenant, who was standing nearby, and who had visited the city in better days and knew the taste of char, said, “I will send some soldiers to collect some.”
“If I can,” Leu said hurriedly. “If I can, I would go with them—it is a delicate business, you see, the picking of a char leaf. Too green, and the flavor prickles the tongue. Too old, and—”
“Do it,” said Eres, and added to the Lieutenant, “If he looks like he’s trying to run, kill him.”
(Here I must pause this meal’s progress, for while the legend tells us one thing, I have often wondered if Leu had other motives for his request. He had, after all, been stationed in Kagua a couple of years before, had spent time walking its leafy streets and conversing over the game-boards in the square. It is possible that he hoped to search for old lovers among its rubble, under the guise of picking char leaves. Char: even the word summons the agony of the burnings, in a city that has never truly come back from the war.)
But whatever was in his heart, Leu went out with the patrol that night, into the still-burning city. In the light of flames and madness he showed the soldiers how to pick the precious leaves. Not the delicate young leaves that fascinate young children—not the old, waxy leaves that are the easiest to see and pull—but the just-darkened leaves that still clutch the branches with grace.
(When I lead my own picking teams, I wonder sometimes of what the soldiers thought who accompanied him that night; whether they bristled at this distraction from their duties, or whether, in the middle of smoke and terror, there was a kind of relief in the collection of leaves.)
The next day, Leu began to make a stew. He was lucky: the butchers had still been operating when the army invaded, and so all the meats he could dream of were available. The trade from the coast, too, had come through.
With a small knife he slit each large piece of beef stew meat and slipped inside a small strip of pork fat, garlic, and chopped parsley. These would add flavor to the meat from the inside out. He put this meat in a bowl to marinate in the Vaua wine for which Kagua is justifiably famous. His stew would be moist and tender; it would be memorable. He directed one of the scrub-cooks to start a stock with the bones. The officers would have meat; the solders would have a version of the stew with tack and char leaves. None of this, of course, would be ready before the next day, for a stew needs time to develop flavor.
For that night, the night of the fall of Kagua, he turned instead to the clay pots brought fresh from the sea. Fish lay listlessly in their depths. In one, small black sea urchins circled in his shadow, their slow-moving spines testing the waters.
With a feather blade Leu sliced the sea urchins, holding their hard bristling bodies with a cloth so not to gouge his fingers. With each death the smell of ocean opened up around him. He spooned out the spongey orange roe and mixed it with the chopped whitefish his scrub cooks had prepared. He then forced the mixture through a sieve, one dab at a time. (When you make this dish at the end of your third year, you must use the sieve with similar patience, for this is a dish that speaks of slowness, of contemplation.)
The doorway of the kitchen was clustered with idle soldiers. Nominally, they had come to guard Leu. Increasingly, soldiers and camp children stopped by to see him work. It was clear even to them that this was cooking of a different order. Much of what I know of what happened in Leu’s kitchen I learned from them, the watchers.
After making his roe paste, he chopped some nuts and combined them with some whisked egg. This mixture he then poured into an earthenware dish lined with the delicate white flesh of summerfish. He folded the summerfish over the mixture to create a loaf, and put more of the paste on top. Then he put the dish inside a water-casing, so that it would cook more slowly.
The ocean dish was the beginning of the end, though no one could yet see the end coming. The officers shifted forward when the dish was brought into the room, already scenting the light lemony smell of the summerfish. The vibrant colors of the urchin paste offset the pale color of the fish. The approximation in front of you does not do this dish justice, but you can still see, as they did, the easy way the fish parts under your knife and taste in the airy urchin paste the deep sorrow of the ocean.
It was a beautiful dish. Some of the wilder officers thumped the table with the palms and called for the chef. Eres nodded, and Leu was brought in to receive their praises. Leu stood awkwardly, one hand clasping his arm, and smiled and bowed, his face shining with sweat from the kitchen or from fear, and he answered their questions about the stew he would serve tomorrow, for which the char leaves had been plucked.
“Picking leaves?” Heilyn, the Third Lieutenant, spoke sharply. Heilyn the Bold, she was called, a small-boned but fierce fighter, renowned for wearing the scalps of her enemies about her belt. “Our guards were sent leaf-picking?”
Someone made a joke about other “leaves” they could have picked instead, and the company laughed. Heilyn persisted. “Why were our soldiers used for such a task?”
“You ate, didn’t you?” said the First Lieutenant, who didn’t like being questioned.
Heilyn eyed Commander Eres, who had, she thought, been strangely silent these last few weeks. The news from the front had not been good, and the orders for bodies to harvest had been becoming with increasing urgency from the Iron Tower. This was yet another sign of the commander’s inattention, Heilyn thought, and it was a dangerous inattention.
So Heilyn did something she wouldn’t normally do. She spoke back to the First Lieutenant. “This was not a good use of our cousins,” she said. “Picking leaves on the whims of a prisoner?” She could see by the set of their faces that her fellow officers were shutting out her words. She tried again, a different tack: “What if he had escaped? He could have betrayed our position to the Silver Ones. There are rumors they march for the New City by way of the grass river.”
Even before Commander Eres smiled, Heilyn knew those were the wrong words. Sure enough, the First Lieutenant said, “But he didn’t escape, did he?” The others laughed. Heilyn fumed, most of all at Eres, stick-up-her-ass Eres, who always before had been a stickler for the rules. Something was shifting here, and Heilyn didn’t like it.
Fourth Course: A Kagua Stew with a Pasta
That night, Leu layered the ingredients for the stew in a grand earthenware pot. The marinated beef went in, as did chunks of pork rind, carrots, onions, mushrooms, sharply acidic reddens, and of course, the precious char leaves. He poured over the stock and sealed the lid with a strip of cloth soaked the peasant way, in water and flour. He ordered the pot buried in the ashes of the kitchen fire, where it would cook slowly, overnight.
That morning he began work on the pasta, blending together the flour and water, and also some nutmeg, for its subtle flavor. When the dough was formed he kneaded it and chilled it on a flat stone.
While the dough was cooling, he left the kitchen—a grand room in one of the Kagua’s appropriated mansions, claimed by the army for its uses—and walked up the sunny slope, guards in tow. He was going to talk to the sullen-eyed townsfolk about the vegetable gardens they might have hidden, when he heard a noise. The thud of several axes against wood. Instantly he knew what they were doing.
He found the commander in her tent. Ill-fond of houses, Eres liked always to camp outside of the towns she had conquered, as open spaces are easier to secure. Now she crouched at its entrance, studying the three scrolls that had just arrived. The first referenced a defeat in the North; the second called for more prisoners to be sent to the Iron Tower for bloodharvest; the third reported the execution of Lord Gazar for treason. Eres had trained under Lord Gazar. She rolled up that scroll tightly and crushed it in her hand.
She looked up as Leu entered. “What is this?”
“The olive trees,” Leu gasped. He’d run up the slope. “They’re cutting them down.”
“Yes,” Eres said. It was policy, in those days, for the Iron Tower to destroy as much of the area around conquered towns as possible, to make sure the resisting forces could not live off the land. In the West, this had been easy work, for Eres’s force had been marching through fields already stripped and burned by the retreating forces of the Silver Ones. These fields, however, were rich and beautiful, their destruction a painful effort.
“Spare them,” Leu said.
Eres looked at him, disgusted. She thought Leu had learned to mind his tongue. To hear from a prisoner now these words of protest meant he’d have to be re-taught his place. And that would be unfortunate.
“Spare the trees,” Leu begged. No doubt he himself could hear how ridiculous it was, in a world where so many children had had their throats cut, where so many men and women had been raped and tortured and killed, to plead for a tree. He put his hands over his face and said, “The trees were not planted for this generation but for the next. If you kill them, no olives will grow here for a hundred years. No Kaguan will know the taste of olives. No...”
“Enough,” the commander said angrily. A hazy memory was stirring in her mind: the waving longgrass of a western farm, the green, peppery taste of olive oil on a hot day. She looked down at the scroll crumpled in her fist. “Leave the trees.”
The guards looked at their commander, startled. When Heilyn found out, she’d be appalled.
“Leave the trees,” Commander Eres said. “That’s an order.”
That night, Leu served his Kagua stew. The pot was carried from the fireplace to the officer’s table. With a knife, Leu broke the seal formed by the floured cloth and removed the lid.
A Kagua stew should announce itself with a burst of steam, a rush of fragrance. You smell it first, and then see it, as its rich liquid is tantalizingly spooned over the pasta, which is set on the table with the stew. Examine the meat. It should be, like the meat Leu prepared, tender and packed with flavor. From time to time one bites through one of the tiny pockets of parsley and garlic, and their unexpected flavors burst in your mouth. The faint hint of nutmeg is there but always eluding you, like a sound from another room. And in the broth one can taste the deep flavor brought by the char leaf, something powerful and dark and strange.
(The first time I heard of Leu’s Kagua stew, it was a tale of well-fed enemies, repeated in the dark cellar where we had gathered to hide. It was meant to be a tale of anger, but there was a hint of wonder in it. That stew, I was told—this from one of the prisoners escaped from Oon—that stew tasted like the heart of a fire, a deep meaty taste that burned you from the inside, glorious and terrible.)
(When I heard this story, I had not eaten in three days. I was in pain, from my broken legs, yet survival burned in me like a fever, dragging me from day to day without me ever choosing to live. The world had no color in it, the food had no taste, the words people spoke were empty of meaning. It was a dark place, and there was no way out.)
(When I heard the story of Leu’s stew, a thought came to me through my haze of pain: I wanted to taste that stew. It caught me by surprise, so used had I become to the routine misery of exhaustion and fear. The idea of wanting anything more had long disappeared. I lay in that cellar amazed as the thought bloomed in me. There was something beyond survival. And with this stew, it had come back into the world.)
There is no doubting that the stew was a triumph. A version of it now cooks in every hearth in Kagua, and each one is said to be from the recipe of Leu himself, hastily pressed into a fleeing hand in those last horrible days of the war.
In his cell, Leu was growing ambitious. After the triumph of Kagua, he was beginning to plan ahead, forming lists of ingredients. Or, perhaps he was plunging himself into his work as a way of not thinking about the corpses on Kagua’s streets, as a way of not grieving for those he must have known among the dead. Whatever his reasons, Leu’s devotion to his cooking took on an air of madness.
The revelation burst on him like a flaming phoenix. On the other side of the green cliffs was the town of Carzo, a beautiful, fair town whose cellars housed deep rich wine and whose trees at this time of year bore the alatia—a lovely, yellow-skinned fruit whose robust flesh harmonized with most dark meats. It was the high note in the symphony he wished to play; the thing he must have.
He went to see the commander.
“You again,” Eres said.
“When the orders are given to march,” Leu said. “Might we go to Carzo?”
It was a ridiculous request. Eres stared at him blankly.
Leu began talking in a rush. “Let me tell you about this dish,” he said. “It combines the sweet and the savory, the high and the low. When you smell it, your mouth will water, as your tongue can already anticipate the sour bite of it, its unexpected sweetness, your whole mouth rounded by this taste which you know and you don’t know at the same time. A rich, smooth sauce. A surprising note of delicacy from the green leaf that interrupts what you had thought was rich and full but now you see is also sweet and subtle.”
“Those are not our orders,” the commander repeated, but already she was thinking of the dish Leu had described and remembering a far-off memory, a meal eaten in better days. Food tastes of more than its ingredients; it gathers in the people around you, the atmosphere of a place, and also your own hope and grief; it welds them into memory, and it was this that Leu had summoned back into the room. For a moment, the commander felt as though she had walked through a door into a different time. The past, perhaps; or else the future.
To all who thereafter found the commander’s actions foolish, I will say only that not all people wish to be rebels. For those who have striven to conform, and who have weeded the garden of their mind of any ill-strewn thoughts, rebellion may not come with a boldly raised flag. It comes in inexplicable, secretive ways.
It comes, for example, with Commander Eres folding her orders and saying, “Why not? Let us march to Carzo.”
Heilyn the Bold felt like her feet were dangling over the abyss. She knew the army was marching the wrong way, away from the front. She’d heard the excited chatter about Carzo. She feared the worst.
Being a loyal lieutenant, she went in search of her commander. She found her seated in the gold tent, staring abstractly at one of the spice maps pulled from the flames of Kagua’s merchant houses.
“Have you ever tasted a spice called Haspit?” the commander asked as she entered. “There was a guard in my training camp who used it to brew tea. The tea came out a pale yellow color, and the flavor was so mild you might think you were drinking air. She died in the siege of Gaspal, that woman, with four arrows sticking out of her. I can’t remember her name.”
“Commander,” said Heilyn. “Have we truly been ordered to march on Carzo?”
Eres looked at her. “I cannot speak to our orders,” she said. “You know that.”
“But commander,” Heilyn said, and her heart was breaking. “We have not been asked to march on Carzo, have we?”
The map in Eres’s hands rustled; she turned to study it. It would have been easier, Heilyn said later, if she had lied.
Heilyn strode out under a dimming sky. She shouldered her kit bag. Nobody called out for her to stay. She walked away from the camp, from the fire, from the soldiers gathered around the messpit, from the pleasant smell of frying fish, and headed into the dark.
Dessert: Carzo Apples Braised in Butter and Alatia
And finally, the army arrived at Carzo. Usually, the Iron Crusade would sweep down upon the undefended farms in blood and carnage, but this time, Commander Eres ordered the men into a column to march up to the wall. The town’s speaker met them, blue-dyed hands twisted into a knot of worry.
“We wish to collect the surplus of your winter stores,” Leu said. “That which you would have sent to the Silver Ones before the fall of Sacao. The pigs you set aside for the slaughter. Fifteen barrels of wine. And three earthenware cauldrons for stew.”
“And if we cannot supply your needs,” the Speaker asked cautiously. “What then?”
Leu looked back at the bristling line of pikes and shrugged. “We can offer twenty pieces of gold in compensation.” In peacetime, it would have been a poor price. For a town in the path of the Iron Crusade, it was a generous offer.
The speaker gave the only answer he could: “Then you are welcome, and may the goddess look with favor on you.”
The soldiers watched with approval as the giant wine barrels were rolled from their storage places in the limestone caverns that wormed their way through the surrounding countryside. Leu watched, a different kind of pleasure in his mind, which was already racing on recipes.
(And what did Commander Eres think? Could she already see their deaths storming at them over these hills? Was she already thinking of a swinging rope, of trials and harvests, of the frenzy of bloodshed that would come in the Iron Crusade’s last desperate days? Or was she thinking merely of the wine?)
Leu assembled his scrub-cooks: the light-fingered Flay Roos, of the delicate pallet; Grinner, who knew how to work with knives quickly and brightly. There were others there whose names I have never learned, but these ones I know, and these ones I give you.
Of the dishes Leu crafted that night, one was apples simmered whole in dry white wine, baked with a small dab of butter at its center. The alatia jelly is beaten with the wine and apple juice until the sauce is thick enough to coat a blade. Then it is spooned over each baked apple. The familiar taste of the apple is there but transformed, and all round it, the alatia gathers you in, making you taste the apple anew. It tastes of something you have lost and something you have found again.
The alatia dish made its way around the camp, the taste of it, the rumor of it, and into the town too, and all who partook of this marvel—an army that had not come to destroy, a chef who could recapture lost memories—looked at the world anew.
(This is a good place to end your story, with the triumph of Leu’s dishes with Carzo, and the dawn of hope on the horizon. It is a good place to end, but I cannot.)
Somewhere, miles away, Heilyn the Bold watched the flicker of lights in the distance. The damp had crept into her, and she was weary. She had no regret for what she was about to do, only a kind of infinite sadness.
Even as Heilyn found her way to Hazak, even as she made her report, the forces of what we like to call the “Army of Good” were pressing their desperate advance on the Iron Tower. The Iron Crusade battled furiously, but when the Silver Ones appeared on the crest of the hill and swept down on the Crusade, Commander Eres’s brigade was not there to harry their flank or to block the small party of heroes who had, unseen by the Iron Lord, made their secret way out of the dreaded tower, carrying his most precious weapon, the Sleeping Gem. You all know that story and how the loss of that magic halted the Iron Crusade in its tracks.
Leu never discovered that he had changed the world. He would die three months later, trampled into the mud of the marsh of Oon while gathering fiddleheads for a dish he’d never make. Commander Eres would die not long after, hanged for treason. She never gave a final speech on the scaffold; at that point in the war the Iron Crusade was conducting its hangings en masse, so that the blood mages could increase their harvests. From the yard, her accuser, Heilyn the Bold, would watch her Commander’s death with a clear, hard gaze.
Heilyn the Bold would die later that month on the Western Wall, fighting for the Iron Tower to the last. Her body was thrown in one of the open pits they used for mass graves, and there it moldered along with the soldiers and the civilians, the children killed by the pestilence, the women starved to death in the village, the gnawed bones of dogs hunted down for their meat. It moldered along with all the people whose bodies no one knew to look for, the ones whose names we never knew. They died too.
(Now, the apple before you is soft and sweet; it tastes of things you remember. The alatia, I think tastes of loss, and loss also should be remembered.)
If you persevere and earn your tattoo, then one day you will stand in my place, in a kitchen of your own, and cook a version of this meal for your apprentices. You will decide on that day how you wish to tell the story of the war of Light and Shadow. Even the worst wars fade from memory, and when you have apprentices of your own, it is to be hoped, and feared, that they will have had no wars of their own to shape them. Think carefully about what heroes you give them. Think carefully about the flavors you teach them to desire.
For us, the survivors, our meals come with long shadows. I could have told you a different story about this war, and you could have told me one. We have carried our griefs a very long way.
I ask you now to lift your wine with me in a final toast to those like Leu, like Commander Eres, like our own lost loved ones, who died and never did reach the other side. To the meal we have eaten, to the drink we have in our hands. To our craft, and to the friendships that will bind us together. To art. To love.