Friday, February 24, 2012

Brunch of the Living Dead

It’s not every day that you get to dine with a dead man, but here I am, sitting down to brunch with a living corpse.

Only in E-Ra.

Travelers who pass through the venerable city of Egrezi Ra — a place that is so ancient, in fact, that even the Salumar of old regarded it as a relic of a long-lost past— know that one should observe a few basic rules. One, do not eat or drink anything outside of the designated sanctuaries, no matter how hungry or thirsty you are; two, do not sleep with anyone, no matter how alluring they may seem; and three, do not under any circumstances permit yourself to die here. It is not even noon yet and I have already broken Rule Number One, or am about to at any rate, having accepted at the behest of my newfound agent Heinrich an invitation to dine with one of E-Ra’s most well-respected civil servants.

“His name is Graal,” my instructions read. “He’s been chief magistrate in Egrezi Ra for the past three thousand years, and he’d like to do brunch.”

After my revelation of a breakfast on the streets of Iskandalon I’d been waiting for Heinrich’s next charge with no small amount of excitement and a renewed sense of adventure and purpose. But when I received marching orders to follow the River Moruz down from I-Town’s silted banks to the fetid marshes of E-Ra’s delta I couldn’t help but pause. People may come to this ancient city to visit its enclaves of mathematical mystics - such as the Order of the Null Set, who are reputedly responsible for the invention of the zero - or to attend a gala premiere at one of the city's venerable opera houses. But no one ever comes to Egrezi Ra in order to dine... not even an incorrigible gourmand such as myself!

The reason is simple: nothing ever dies in E-Ra. It sounds impossible, I know, but it’s the truth nevertheless. Countless aeons ago the inhabitants of this city made a deal with powers too old now even to be called gods, the Sphinxes which stand silent watch over Egrezi Ra, so that anyone that expires within the course of its walls is preserved in a state of living death, in order that they might protect their city until the end of time. Or at least this is what my host Judge Graal explains to me as we sample from his collection of Salumar brandies and his chefs prepare a meal that I am not so much anticipating as I am dreading.

From a distance you wouldn’t even know that the magistrate was a dead man, but sitting across from him at his table you can’t help but be painfully aware of this fact. Once upon a time it was clear that Graal was a powerfully-built individual, but all that remains of this physique are his broad shoulders, any trace of muscle long having since withered beneath skin as dusty as the dried leather binding of some ancient tome. The judge’s skull, although covered in a ceremonial hood, betrays the same sunken features - hollow cheeks and skin like parchment, with naught but puckered holes where ears and nose once were, and black orbs for eyes that burned like the sun during an Eieronian eclipse. He gesticulates with his slender bony fingers as he tries to explain to me the inexplicable.

“Anyone who dies here is fated to serve The City Below,” Judge Graal says, swirling his dark brandy in a crystal snifter. I sip mine ever so slightly, as this is no ordinary Salumar vintage, but a bottle from Old Salumaria, before the coming of the Raynar Horde. Imagine the taste of an aged balsamic vinegar, sweet and impossibly acrid - now take that taste and draw it out a thousandfold. It is like drinking the ichor of a forgotten demon prince, with a bouquet that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The dead man must line his crypt with this stuff, because there are several bottles on the table that seem to have been opened for this meal alone.

“The City Below?” I try and notice if my host is drinking the brandy, or whether he’s simply breathing deeply with the cup beneath what remains of his nose. Wait, do the undead even breathe? It seems a terribly impolite question to ask of the deceased, so I concentrate on the judge’s reply rather than wonder who will drink all of this wine.

Graal smiles in a manner that causes his mummified skin to crack; despite the early morning desert heat, I feel a chill run down my spine. “It is how we refer to ourselves. Much better than the Underworld, wouldn’t you say? After all, we abide in harmony with the living.”

“What about the ghouls?” I ask, somewhat timidly. Even those who’ve never been to Egrezi Ra know about the ghouls, who roam the ancient alleys in bloodthirsty packs after nightfall. Those travelers with enough sense in them know full well to seek shelter in one of the city’s many temples long before the sun sets, but there are still those who either do not believe in the local superstitions or who believe that such ghost stories do not apply to them - both groups are doomed to join the ranks of the ghouls themselves, unless they are very lucky.

Judge Graal shakes his head at this. “A most unfortunate situation, to be sure. Not all whom the city preserves heed the call to service. Indeed, some are driven mad by the calling. You refer to them as ghouls, but we think of them as lost souls. Such a senseless waste. No mortal army has dared violate the walls of Egrezi Ra since before I was born — even the Raynar Horde knew better than to make the attempt — but the day will come when the city will need every last one of its inhabitants, living and dead. It may be centuries from now, or even millennia, but believe you me it will come. For nothing lasts forever, young Master d’Allamitri. Not even E-Ra.”

I contemplate this as a bell rings and a procession of eleven skeletal waiters emerge from the kitchen through a swinging set of double doors, each of them bearing a covered platter of polished silver, followed by a pale-skinned maitre d’ dressed in black who observes their actions while maintaining a suspicious distance from the sunbeams shining through the dining room window.

Usually I can divine the core components of a meal solely from the initial aroma that washes into the dining room when a meal is served, but this time I am at a total loss. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t smells, but they are those more suited to a mortuary than a restaurant. Although death is by no means a stranger to the kitchen, a skilled chef is able to transmute dead matter into something wonderful. While clearly some kind of transformation has taken place in Judge Graal’s kitchen, I can’t help but suspect that the results will be less pleasing to my still-living taste buds.

For it is not just human beings who cannot die within the walls of Egrezi Ra, you see, but all living things. No sooner would you kill and begin to butcher a hog than its constituent parts would rise from the slaughterhouse table and make good their escape; the same would be true for any grain, fruit, or vegetable harvested under the Sphinxes’ watchful gaze. As a result E-Ra’s mortal population is wholly dependent on food imported from abroad, and the delta of the Moruz is thick with floating butchers and kitchen barges that work round the clock to feed the denizens of The City Above.

I hear that the food from these riverbound chefs is quite good, and often feature the natural bounty of the delta’s flora and fauna, but alas, this is not the cuisine I am about to sample. Nor am I to taste the curries and stews that are brought into Egrezi Ra en masse for the nourishment of the mortal populace, or the posset served within the city’s many temples and shrines to travelers seeking shelter.

In my travels across the Three Continents I have sat down to many a strange meal, from racks of smoked brontosaurus ribs so big that the Oguntak build houses with the bones to lobster bakes in the Aeedian wastes where the spiny crustaceans are driven by song to despair in order to make their flesh more succulent. I’ve sampled puffin sashimi with Cebalese pirates, devoured giant sea turtle eggs cooked on the broad catamarans of the nomadic seafaring tribesmen of Horlun, and nibbled on Cherin blood sausage drawn freshly from the veins of my hosts. I have watched in mute horror at the court of the Ogre King as the grandsons of Orgas snacked on a bowl of freshly-plucked human heads as though they were crisp apples, and listened to the piteous final cries of gladiators as they died in the Great Arena of Axotep as pre-dinner entertainment for the masses. I’ve tasted the ethereally sublime cuisine of Belil’s hidden eateries and the impossibly bland fare of Metanoë before its walls were pounded into dust by the risen Ogumi, the equally intricate and subtle recipes of the Elvish table, and the scorching madness of the clockwork monks of Saint Xandolo.

Without trying to boast I can say that I’ve consumed more than any mortal’s share of sustenance; never in these journeys, however, have I eaten the food of a dead man. I suppose that there’s a first time for everything — even for this jaded gourmand!

For how many centuries have these kitchen servants brought the judge his meals in this manner? Their white bones gleam as if they’ve been polished -and for all I know they have been buffed especially for the occasion — and they set platter after platter before us with a grace that seems surprising for the living dead, whom I’d always imagined to be a lurching, shuffling lot. My host is quick to dispel this misconception, as much as a point of pride as a warning to me not to trust in such received wisdom about the undead.

“For example, take vampires,” Graal says, gesticulating with a desiccated finger in the general direction of our maitre d’. "You probably think that they can’t walk around in the daylight.”

I am waiting for Judge Graal to elaborate, but his impromptu lesson is interrupted as the last serving tray is deposited on the table and the skeleton crew reveals our meal with an obviously well-rehearsed flourish by removing the covers in one silent coordinated action prompted by a nod from the pale head servant in black (who seems somewhat pleased to have cut his boss’ discourse short). I try not to gasp as I look upon my meal. To try and describe all eleven dishes at once would be obscene, so I will recount each course as it is served to me in turn.

The first is a carpaccio of wild boar, or so I think it is until the maitre d’ informs me otherwise as he springs to action to carve a paper-thin ribbon of flesh from a haunch that is vermillion in color.

“Dugong,” he says, transferring the lacy meat to my plate with the tongs in his free hand without taking his eyes off the still-moving knife. “They are manatees native to the delta.”

I am mesmerized by the head waiter’s voice and the practiced subtlety of his knifework, but the Judge clears his throat in anticipation of his own serving and I am aware again of the food on my plate. At first I think the delicate chiffon of raw sea cow is settling on the fine china, but then I notice that the ribbons are vibrating. I have eaten live squid and sampled steaks so freshly-butchered that the meat still quivered in my mouth, but this is something altogether different. I look at the wriggling appetizer and realize that my curiosity is now getting the better of me. As Graal watches me with a polite smile on his taut and ancient face I take up my fork and twirl the dugong carpaccio around its tines—once, twice, three times—then pop the writhing whorl of thinly-sliced undeath into my mouth.

The taste is not at all what I expect it to be. Instead of something raw and gamey, the meat has a cooked aroma that floods the palate. No, not quite cooked, but rather more like a hunk of meat which has been left out in the sun. Suddenly I recognize the taste. It tastes like fish sauce. I spent years gutting fish for the Tsien Tsien saucery in my home village of Ma Hua Lin, and although I never dared sample the putrefying contents of the stone vats as they bubbled under a hot Southlandish sun this is what I would have imagined that rotten flesh to taste like on my tongue. It is suddenly overwhelmingly ripe to my taste buds, and if it were any more substantial I would probably gag and retch right there on the spot, embarrassing myself in from of my host. But instead the impossibly thin strips of zombified sea cow actually melt in my mouth before I can even chew them, leaving a gummy marrowlike film that tickles on its way down.

“The secret is in the carving,” Judge Graal explains to me as the pale maitre d’ readies another taste of the dugong for the both of us. But already I am eagerly anticipating the next silver platter, on which several small black sausages steam enticingly atop a bed of pickled sea beans. As if he could read my mind, our server deftly changes gears and produces a long tined fork from the shadows, spearing one of the tubes with several beans and depositing them all on my plate in one fluid motion.

“Vampire blood sausage.”

I cut into the black casing diagonally and feel it yield satisfyingly under my knife. The sausage is almost opalescent and smells of rosemary and dark vitality, like tripe but far more concentrated. I expect an explosion of flavor again like the sea cow carpaccio, but am surprised to discover that this taste is more subdued, a smoky balance of the dried herbs and blood...

Wait a minute — vampire blood? I am by no means versed in such matters, but even I seem to remember some ancient injunctions about drinking the blood of the undead, lest you become one yourself. I panic visibly in mid-swallow, eliciting a minor chuckle from the maitre d’. “You have nothing to worry about. Cooking the blood renders it inert.”

Relieved, I allow myself to gulp down my first bite. But just as I am reassuredly tucking back into my sausage, the head server leans in even closer and whispers into my ear. “If, however, you’d ever like to sample the real thing, I can always arrange a private tasting for you.”

I blush at this and spend the next few minutes trying to avoid eye contact with either the head server or the Judge. Here I have discovered one of Egrezi Ra’s most dangerous truths: its legendary hospitality is so overwhelming that it is far too easy to forget that you are no longer entirely in the land of the living. At the outset of this visit it seemed to me to be impossible that a traveler would even consider eating, drinking, or sleeping with the undead (unless specifically instructed to do so by their agent!), but as my server’s suggestion lingers in the back of my mind I begin to apprehend how relentless a seduction E-Ra represents to mortal senses and sensibilities. I crunch my sea beans and try not to think of how hot vampire blood would taste on my tongue.

The Judge, perhaps sensing my unease, makes conversation as our wine glasses are refilled with a vintage appropriate to the next tasting — poached quail eggs in the traditional Southlandish style, with the eggs having been fertilized so that each egg contains a half-developed embryo within. That this partially-formed dead quail chick is still attempting to peck its way out of the egg should perhaps unsettle me more than it in fact does, but after my first two courses and almost a bottle of Old Salumaria’s finest I crunch into the embryo with a zeal that is even more unsettling.

“So how long have you known Heinrich?” my host asks me. It takes me a good minute or two to masticate the unliving embryo into submission, and I think I swallow it a little too quickly in order to answer, getting a tiny little quail bone stuck in my throat in the process.

“Ever since I came to the City. He helped me get started there. So perhaps twenty years?”

The Judge smiles at this. “I have deliberated individual cases for longer than twenty years! Twenty years ago feels like this morning to me. How strangely time passes when you know that you cannot die.”

I swallow again, trying to dislodge the bone. “I cannot even begin to fathom such a perspective. Even Queen Cariebasa, whom I served briefly, was but nine centuries old! If you don’t mind telling me, Your Honor, how is it that you came to know Heinrich yourself?”

Graal laughs at this. Not a chuckle, not a snort, but a genuine laugh, and briefly I fear that this sudden attack of mirth will cause his jaw to fall out or some other such unraveling of the eldritch sorcery that holds him together. “I first met Heinrich when I still lived in the City Above.”

I choke at this, and not on the quail bone that refuses to budge from my esophagus. What? I had always suspected something was unusual about my on-again, off-again, and now very much on-again benefactor.

The skeletal crew clears away what remains of the poached quail eggs and sets the next course before us: it is a soup, the perfect intermezzo for a marathon brunch such as this. The smell is like a block of peat hewn from some forgotten highlands bog of the Great Lakes, and amid the dark greens and grayish browns of the broth I can discern myriad lumps that gleam like pearls and move through the bowl on their own.

“They are made from bone meal,” the maitre d’ announces. “The chef calls this dish Dancing Dumpling Soup.”

“And the stock?” I am trying to focus on my meal, and not the revelation that the person currently minding my kitchen back in Varo is likely older than the City itself.

There is a mischievous smile on the vampire’s bloodless lips. “Guess.”

I draw a spoonful of the strange murky broth to my mouth and sip inquisitively. I can taste centuries of decay, layers upon layers of death, all of them variations on a theme that bubbles up from beneath. Both the maitre d’ and the Judge are looking me, waiting to see if the famous gourmand can figure out what the mystery ingredient is. Even if I hadn’t figured it out by this point, their pregnant pauses would have given it away.

This is not the first time I’ve sat down to a dish featuring my fellow man. Though I have refused to partake of the barbarously civilized meals of human flesh in the court of the Ogre King, you may be aware of the Malem Hristoi, the culinary mystics of Belil, that city of ten thousand restaurants which lay nestled amid the peaks of the World’s Spine, along the foggy shores of the Inner Sea. The Malem Hristoi are such devoted gourmands that they insist that a man has not truly tasted everything unless they have also dined upon their fellow man, and to this end they willingly allow their bodies to be brined and pickled after their death, or have their bones reserved for stock.

I have tasted both of these things in some of the most secret eateries of the Cloud City - although the pickled toe of a Malem Hristoi is a bizarre taste indeed, I’ll never forget the savor of the huge pot of human bones that simmered in the kitchen of a recently deceased member of Belil’s most celebrated gastronomic order. Gout-ridden and plump beyond the limits of his mortal frame, Brother Taster Tovar had been hovering on death’s door for years, long enough to have invited pretty much anyone who was anyone in the culinary world to his inevitable funeral banquet, where he insisted that his bones provided the base of the third soup course. Those chefs among us had drawn straws to see who’d receive the honor of preparing the Malem Hristoi for his final meal, and as Eieron would have it the task had fallen to me.

I chose only the simplest ingredients for Brother Taster Tovar’s stock — some stalks of fresh anise, Shan-li peppercorns, and a handful of sea salt from the deceased’s home village on the Inner Sea’s far shore — as I did not wish to let my artifice detract from the singular nature of the main ingredient.

It was this simple mouth feel that overwhelmed my palate for a second time, here in the Judge’s dining room. For those of you who will never have the opportunity to discover for yourself, we as a species tend to taste like pork, only more so. The flavor is dark and intense, but not at all gamey, and depending on one’s diet there can be all manners of over and undertones as well. Whereas the Malem Hristoi was almost like sampling a cookbook of all he had ever consumed along the twisting dreamlike alleys of Belil, the broth I am sipping now in Egrezi Ra tastes of dishes that I have never heard of nor never will, centuries of forgotten recipes and lost ingredients. Every sip I take of this dark stock haunts me, and yet I cannot seem to put my spoon down until I have consumed every last drop, even going so far as to lift the bowl to my lips in order to slurp what remains.

“Deep beneath the city,” Judge Graal explains over his own bowl of soup, “lie those who died before the Sphinxes worked their terrible protective charms. Although they did not rise like those of us who came afterwards, they did not perish either.”

I try to make sense of this. It is as if the City had preserved its sons and daughters, like a Brother Taster of the Malem Hristoi in a jar full of vinegar and spices. Brined by sorcery. I can’t imagine that this is a meal that is served often, and I am quietly humbled that I have been chosen to receive such a privilege. But who am I to receive such a rare honor, some gourmand with a sharp knife and book in desperate need of flogging? Surely Judge Graal in his three thousand years has stumbled upon mortals more deserving of this largesse. Then I remember at whose bidding I am here at this table right now.

“Heinrich,” I whisper over my empty bowl. “Who… or what… is he?”

Graal merely smiles, and bids the maitre d’ to clear this course and continue with the tasting. The next few dishes are a blur to me — though each is as provoking to my senses as it is to my sensibilities, I am not so much overwhelmed by the artistry of the judge’s chef (exquisite though it may be) as I am consumed by my own thoughts. How well did I know Heinrich anyway? As I sample my way through a smorgasbord of the dead, the mostly dead, and the undead, I begin to wonder how it could have ever seemed like a rational decision to leave my precious eating palace in the tiny hands of this stranger.

Sure, Heinrich had shown me nothing but kindness from the moment when I first set foot in his curiosity shop, all those years ago. I was fresh off the boat, as it were, and not having the slightest clue as to where I was going I’d hopped on the first ferry-boat plying its way up the Grand Canal. Though I’d convinced myself I spoke my father’s native tongue quite proficiently, in Varo the words poured out of each Canalsider’s mouth in a barely-comprehensible torrent, and after misinterpreting one after another’s directions I found myself not in the courtyard of a restaurateur friend who’d offered me a job as chef in his kitchen but in a grey piazza filled with suspicious-looking locals who’d just as soon rob me blind than explain where I was.

As I blundered around in the failing light, heavily-laden and ever more panicked to be lost in this city of a million souls — none of whom seemed particularly friendly at the moment — I found myself standing before an odd limestone tower whose architecture seemed most incongruous in this neighborhood of dull brick and rickety clapboard. The shingle hanging above the door read “Heinrich’s Curiosities,” and I figured if nothing else I could take a moment or two within this man’s shop to catch my breath and compose myself even if the proprietor proved as rude and predatory as his fellow parishioners.

No sooner had I stooped to knock on the door, however, than it opened to reveal a man who couldn’t have been much taller than one of the Ka Zaa Rii, the savage pygmies of the Great River in the Southlands. As the rain began to fall, the wizened gnome gave me the once-over atop his spectacles and grunted unceremoniously: “You’re late!”

At the time I had believed Heinrich’s proffered excuse when he explained what he’d meant — that he’d recently hired a cook from Shan-li Town to help cater a family reunion, who apparently was a no-show. Never mind that at no point after this initial meeting did I meet anyone who was even remotely related to the man, nor to my knowledge did the alleged chef for hire ever turn up. The motley crew that did eventually shuffle into Heinrich's tower was like a series of characters ripped clear out of ancient Salumar fantasies and creatures from mythological bestiaries. Was it just the strangeness of the City that made every guest seem like a caricature of humanity, or did this little man truly consort with beings who were not entirely of this earth?

As I nibble on the pulsating unliving brains of a local variety of howler monkey poached in its own skull with a curry sauce the likes of which I’d never before sampled, I reflect on how deftly Heinrich had managed to insinuate himself into my life under pretenses that were as implausible as that of our first meeting.

Live in the City long enough and you will inevitably share a gondola with everyone, or so the saying goes, but whereas I had before assumed that my newfound benefactor and I were just serendipitous (albeit somewhat incongruous) business partners, now I am worried that something much more sinister is afoot.

“What does he want from me?” I ask the Judge as the skeleton crew removes the monkey skulls and replaces them with a platter of beetles in aspic. The maitre d’ seems particularly pleased with this dish, explaining to me that the beetles had been raised on a strict diet of ghoul flesh before being suspended in an aspic made from the marrow of their undead bones and a powerful aquavit brewed by the Order of the Null Set, those fabled monks who had invented the zero and given birth to the discipline of mathematics.

The beetles are therefore alive, but powerfully drunk, and as I crunch one whole it explodes into several different flavors and textures at once — from the gooey alcohol-infused innards that burns like phosphor to the bolus of the insect’s final meal, which fights with a life of its own on my tongue, to the spices of the aspic itself, which plays off of the curry of the previous dish with spikes of cardamom and tincture of oba root. I can’t help but agree with my server that this may be the finest dish of the meal thus far, and I am now sad that there is but one beetle on my plate. Graal must have noticed the ravenousness with which I was consuming my portion, for he motions to the maitre d’ and has his beetle, which he’d left untouched, transferred to my own plate.

“A breach of good table manners, to be sure,” Judge Graal says with a dry wink as I dig into my second beetle. “But so much more of a compliment to the chef! And besides, I haven’t been able to make it through one of these brunches since I was alive.

“As for Heinrich, you are wise to be concerned, as his kind do not take a special interest in mortal affairs without good reason.”

I pause in mid-chew. “His kind?”

Graal laughs again, but this time it is a nervous laughter that unsettles me profoundly. I wish I could do justice to describe the sound that he makes, a timbre that is as hollow as it is ancient, but I find myself in the rare circumstance when words truly fail me. “Surely you have figured it out by now, Maestro d’Allamitri! Heinrich is one of the Fen.”

The Fen! The first generation of Mankind, or so the legend goes, tricksters whose motives are as inscrutable as their power is unbounded. My eponymous ancestor had made a deal with a Fen, many centuries ago, unwittingly trading his inspiration as a chef for a special wok that would never tarnish or rust — a cherished heirloom that I have carried with me in my travels ever since my mother gave to me as a young man. Twenty years collapse in an instant as I remember how Heinrich examined the item with more than a casual interest after spying it hanging from my pack, his tiny fingers tracing the runes as if he were reading them by touch in the dim light of his shop. I recall the questions he’d asked about the wok and how it came to be created, and how odd I thought it that he’d laughed when I told him the elder Van’s tale.

How did I forget these things? Had Heinrich ensorcelled my mind not to remember? Perhaps more importantly, was he doing it again here and now, with this bizarre culinary quest he had saddled me with?

I want to ask my host all of these questions and more, but he waves them off with a gesture of mock solemnity that I almost allow myself to be comforted by until I realize that the dead man is shaking. Preserved by fell magics older than civilization itself, Judge Graal can’t help but tremble now at the very mention of my benefactor’s name. Clearly he believes that he has revealed more than he perhaps should have.

Not wishing either to offend the magistrate or to see him literally fall to pieces in his agitated state, I beg off from this line of interrogation and return my attentions to brunch, only to find that I have eaten my way through each and every course at this point. Nevertheless the vampire maitre d’ ferries a large crystal decanter to my place in front of the table with what I notice is an extra amount of care, but when I sniff at its clear liquid contents I smell nothing.

“What is it?” I ask, fully expecting anything by now. Is it the pressed liquefied remains of a barrow wight, or maybe the spinal fluid of some long-forgotten city father? Perhaps it is the clarified and preserved piss of one of the Sphinxes itself!

The maitre d’ smirks. “Holy water.”


Judge Graal answers my question. “It is holy water, my child. Blessed by some high-ranking prelate of the One True God in the Holy Pentapolis of Korum, I’m sure. I suggest you try to drink the entire container, no matter how full you feel. Otherwise you may experience some… unpleasant side effects from this morning’s meal.”

No sooner has my host finished his sentence than I am quaffing the liquid as if I’d been stranded at sea for weeks without water, emptying the carafe and asking for seconds, to the amusement of the vampire and the spectral judge. Is it my imagination, or do I already feel the preternatural squirming of food that cannot die in my gullet?

“Do not worry,” Graal tells me. “We will have a whole amphora sent up to your quarters.”

“My quarters?” This comes as a total surprise, as I thought I was only calling on the House of Graal for a midmorning meal. Leave it to my benefactor to omit the details of my itinerary!

The Judge smiles again, having regained his composure now that we are no longer talking about Heinrich. “But of course! For after all, what would a visit to Egrezi Ra be without a night at the opera?”

Something deep inside me tells me that I should run screaming from E-Ra right here and now, run from Varo and forget my humble eatery in Anzo parish, run from my book and its eldritch promoter cum agent and whatever devious plans he might have in store for me, run south past the Great Locks and through the Middle Kingdoms, run all the way straight home to Ma Hua Lin, where even if my mother would not accept me back with open arms she might very well hide me in her wine cellar for the next several decades or however long it takes for Heinrich to lose interest in me. What’s the attention span of a Fen anyway?

At the same time, however, something even deeper within me tells me the exact opposite: that despite all outward appearances and the mortal terror which is now coiling around my bowels — or is that just the vampire blood sausage? – I believe that this strange little man is actually trustworthy. At first I thought he was merely trying to get me to rediscover my appetite as a gourmand, but now I’m beginning to suspect that this was merely the first course. Where this culinary odyssey will ultimately take me is anyone’s guess, but I am satisfied in the meantime with a bellyful of what is easily the most unusual food I have ever eaten and the Judge’s box seats on opening night. I understand that at this critical juncture a leap of faith is called for, so I do what I have always done best.

I close my eyes and jump.

“The opera sounds lovely,” I tell my host. “But first may I ask to visit your kitchen? I’d like to pay my compliments to the chef.”

Friday, February 17, 2012

Breakfast in Iskandalon

I am walking the sand-blown streets of Iskandalon at dawn, looking for something good to eat. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and my feet are hurting after shuffling from one disappointing meal to another. How did I end up here on this fool’s errand in the City of Letters, you ask? Simple enough: I wrote a book.

No one ever told me that writing was the easiest part of being an author. Had I known this, I probably would never have set stylus to papyrus in the first place, but more than two decades later it was far too late to unwrite what I had written. For better or for worse, Confessions of a Gourmand was a completed manuscript, a copy of it residing deep within the bowels of the Great Library itself, fulfilling a promise that I had made long ago as a child. I wonder if the book would ever be called up from its resting place at a scholar’s bidding, or would it lay there until its unread pages crumbled into dust? Only time would tell.

Even after I’d written Confessions, it didn’t even occur to me to try and sell it at first. Varonians aren’t exactly known as the literary type, and besides, I didn’t know the slightest thing about the bookseller’s trade. I’d been content to give an occasional reading to select friends and visiting chefs, scholars, and other connoisseurs when after one particular gathering I was approached by a curious diminutive fellow by the name of Heinrich.

Heinrich is a wizened gnomish man of indeterminate yet undeniably old age who owns an emporium of sorts in the parish of Marilia, a tower crammed full of exotic imports and curiosities from all over the Three Continents and beyond. As his beady eyes shone from behind a tiny pair of spectacles, Heinrich waxed enthusiastic about my reading and inquired as to whether or not I had representation for my manuscript. After splitting a few bottles of Salumar brandy and sealing the deal with a clumsy drunken handshake, I had myself an agent.

“Go to Iskandalon,” my agent told me a few weeks later. “Find something nice to say about their food.”

“Why?” I asked over dim sum. It was a busy morning at my eating palace, but I’d reserved a booth to meet with Heinrich to discuss his progress in selling my book.

Heinrich stabbed a curry pork bun with a chopstick and wagged it me. “Because you totally savaged Iskandalonian cuisine in your manuscript, that’s why!”

“But it’s awful.”

“That’s too bad. Do you know who buy books? Iskandalonians.”

I watched as Heinrich nibbles at the speared pastry like a piece of skewered street meat. I wondered if I’ve made a mistake in agreeing to let this weird little man be my agent, and if it’s not too late to call the deal off. But truth be told, ever since Heinrich came to me with promises of a wider audience for Confessions I’ve been almost giddy with excitement at the prospect. It’s not that being one of the City’s most celebrated chefs wasn’t fulfillment in and of itself, but my writing scratched an itch that I never even realized that I’d had, and the idea of being some kind of Varonian man of letters (a contradiction in terms, if there ever was one!) appealed to me.

But what Heinrich was asking me now, this went too far, and I told him as much. I was willing to do many things in order to sell my book, but lying wasn’t one of them.

“So you mean to tell me that you’ve never eaten a meal in I-town that you enjoyed?”

I grimaced, remembering every dish in excruciating detail. Because that’s what Iskandalonian cuisine is- details, details, details. It’s as if their chefs had combed through three thousand years of cookbooks in their beloved Great Library’s stacks in order to find a few more extraneous ingredients to add to their saucepots. ‘Take a pheasant’s tongue, royal jelly from the nest of the Tiglarnan wasp, and the tincture of Rhasmodeus, which is pounded from the following fourteen elements…’ Bah! I’d sooner eat a moldering manuscript.

“Can’t say that I have.”

“Well then, that’s your first mission.”

“Mission? Whatever are you talking about!”

Heinrich’s eyes sparkled mischievously. “I’m talking about sending you back out there—out into the world whose food you’re so eager to pass judgment on. Why, on page three of your own book you say it yourself: ‘Some things need to be seen with one’s own eyes, smelled with one’s own nose, tasted with one’s own lips and tongue.’ Tell me this, when’s the last time you left the City?”

The gnome had a point. It had been quite some time since I’d left the comfortable surroundings of my own eating palace, let alone Varo herself. It was easy enough to make excuses for such complaisance—after all, I had a business to run, didn’t I?—but it was hard to explain why I’d always been able to make time to explore before. Maybe I was just getting old.

Before I could offer up this or any other lame rationalization, however, Heinrich continued. “Then it’s settled. You will go to Iskandalon. I forbid you to return until you have found something worth eating. Capisce?”

I half-nodded before sputtering out the obvious objection. “B-but my eating palace. Who will run it in my absence?”

“I’ll keep an eye on the place, don’t you worry. I’m sure your chefs would be thrilled to have you out of town for a spell anyway.”

Knowing full well what kind of dragon I can be in the kitchen, I could only sigh in agreement at this. With me refusing so much as to take one night off it was a miracle that any of my staff returned every morning. If my mother could only see how much of her son I had truly become!

“Fine. When do I leave?”


The passage from the City to the mainland seemed to take forever. Our passenger ferry had set out from Terminalia at ebb tide, which surely didn’t help, and failing to find a favorable wind we were obliged to tack a roundabout northern course to the Varony. The sea was glassy and opaque, almost as if it is made out of obsidian, and throughout the voyage we were harassed by mosquitoes and greenheads, those ubiquitous bloodsucking insects that inhabit the shifting dunes along the islands of Alandi. We swatted and swore and sweltered in the unexpected heat of a sunny late Spring day, wishing for a downpour to drive off the insect swarms and cool our bodies for a spell. But alas, the rain that you could almost set your clock by in Varo never came, nor did the wind, so it was well after dark when we finally crossed the bay.

Putting in at San Sebastiano, those of us who are bound for parts further inland were obliged to spend the night. I was cranky and sunburned at this point, and the last thing I wanted to do was waste several additional hours waiting for the next riverboat, so I was in a foul mood indeed when it comes time to eat. I wanted to be comforted by the rich and rosemary-scented lamb stew I am offered by the inn’s proprietor cum head chef, but all it did was remind me of how much better a job I think I could do in my own kitchen. Questioning the wisdom of this journey at the outset, I could only shudder at what horrors awaited me on the road ahead. There’s a reason that people don’t leave the City, I told myself as a kind of affirmation, even as my tongue told me that this stew was in fact something special, something worth praising, something worth coming back to someday when I’m not feeling like the World’s Greatest Snob. Disculpa me, kind innkeeper of the Bear and the Boar. The next time you are in Varo, the pork buns are on me.

My crawl up the River Varo was no more pleasant than the previous day’s sea voyage. Had it always taken so long to travel from one place to another? No wonder I didn’t travel anymore! To see the world takes a certain kind of tolerance I had all but forgotten-- like a gourmand who loses his tongue for spicy food, every thing I bit into on this trip seemed like an irritation, not a pleasure, my only solace coming from dreaming up the various insults I would heap upon Heinrich when I returned for making me leave my eating palace in the first place. Days blurred into one another as we traded our riverboat for a canal barge and continued our slow progress for the Iskandalonian frontier. As the vineyards and orchards of the Varony gave way to ever more broken hill-country, we abandoned our barge and took an overland stage coach to the so-called Golden Road, which wends through the mountains and connects Iskandalon to its vassal states and the distant outpost of Wildwaters’ Meet.

I used to live for the chance to sample road food whenever I traveled, but now I was approaching each opportunity with equal parts apprehension and disgust. How had I ever relished such things? I tried my best to be polite, but couldn’t help but mutter my various misgivings to my travel companions, who by that point had decided the best strategy for dealing with me was not to respond to a word that I say, lest I interpret their answers as some kind of invitation to continue. Before my hapless fellow travelers lost their patience with me entirely and abandoned me in the desert, however, we arrived at Wyvern Pass-- the last waystation before we crossed into the broad arid valley of the River Moruz, where the city of Iskandalon is situated.

In previous centuries, the fortress at Wyvern Pass was a bulwark that held back the savage tide of Raynar hordelings or whatever other nation’s armies were on the march, but nowadays it merely gave weary passengers the opportunity to stretch their legs and wet their parches lips from the waters of its deep, cold springs. My own companions were almost weeping with joy at the prospect of being able to escape from my finicky tirades, and I was left to wander the dusty courtyard of this ancient keep alone. There was a small market hawking useless trinkets and a bored-looking old man carving cold greasy hunks of an animal whose name I couldn’t quite make out but tasted gamey and overcooked.

“You are most fortunate,” a guard decked out in full Crusader bronze informed me as I tried to swallow my lunch. “The last stage was attacked by wyverns!”

I blinked at the man, whose grin was friendly, not mocking. “Come again?”

“Wyverns,” he nodded for emphasis. “They are migrating across the Sea of Deltaine right now, on their way up to the Cliffs of Pocaal. Hungry as sin as well. One of them plucked the stage driver right off of his perch and carried him away for dinner!”

I’d always wondered why they called this notch in the mountains Wyvern Pass. Now I knew!

We made our descent to the plain amid a dry storm that hurled sheets of sand at us, blinding our horses and reducing our progress to a crawl. If such a thing is possible, I was in an even fouler mood than before, as one of the chief pleasures of approaching the city of Iskandalon is the view of the Great Library towering above all, and we had been cheated of even that. Obliged to keep the windows of our stagecoach tightly shut, we barely registered that we have arrived until there was a loud banging on the side of the door and we were disgorged en masse into a large sandstone portico. Before I could decide whether I should apologize to the other passengers for my rude behavior they had disappeared to a man, and I was all by myself-- I slung my wok over my shoulder (I told you I never leave home without it!), adjusted the knife on my belt, and ventured into the City of Letters in search of a decent meal.

I had high hopes for my first stop—Bibliovore, a restaurant I had heard about near the Inkwell, an area where for centuries artisans ground various materials into the red and black pigments used in the Great Library’s Scriptorium. Owing to its proximity to the acropolis on which the Library complex stands, the Inkwell had become one of Iskandalon’s more fashionable neighborhoods, displacing the pigment makers to the ghettoes along the Psellian Wall, the outer marker of the Old City. Bibliovore had opened during this minor urban renaissance and was the first name on anyone’s lips whenever someone dared to mention fine dining and Iskandalon in the same breath, its owner a former Priest of Truth who had decided to forsake his holy calling at the Library for an even more sublime vocation in the kitchen. Or so I’d hoped.

Alas, it was but a sweet mirage. While Father Tireisias’ food aspires to break out of the baroque Western Salumar mold, it does so by being overly clever. The décor of Bibliovore is the first of many warning signs, as the restaurant is so cluttered with reproductions of fine art that one fears that he’ll knock over a priceless vase when reaching for his drink. The menu itself arrives in the form of a tome heavy enough to kill a wyvern, and is replete with extensive commentary not just on the menu items but the provenance of their component ingredients as well. Is this all some carefully crafted joke, I wondered as I browsed the critical apparatus, where the owner/head chef offers his own learned theories on the proper pronunciation of the High Salumar word for oregano.

Indeed, as the dishes were brought out I did detect a strong sense of humor at play, but time and time again each attempt to lighten the palate failed to escape the overwrought foundation of traditional Iskandalonian cuisine. Even in a sublimely deconstructed meal such as Father Tireisias’ Cyclopean Pears in Aspic there was one too many spices, just a shade too much artifice. It is almost as if the head chef knows what he has to do and almost pulls it off, only to lose heart at the very end and retreat to what is known and comfortable. Perhaps the good Priest of On will one day see the Truth and dare to cook without the footnotes of his culinary forebears, but until then I’m afraid Bibliovore is just an old book in an attractive new binding.

The evening continued in a similarly depressing fashion as I moved from venue to venue, sampling what I could while grilling my fellow diners for that elusive something better. Time and time again I would get my hopes up by a furtively whispered culinary secret, only to end up in a bistro serving the same old heavy sauces, the same kaleidoscope of overused spices.

‘Try Ismail’s,’ a fellow gourmand avowed.

‘The quail eggs at the Desert Rose!’ said another.

Blue dragon steaks at Kharamlambos’ sounded promising, but the eatery named after Iskandalon’s most celebrated food critic served up its signature dish in a glaze so thick it was like eating some kind of weird candied dragon brittle.

The night ground along and I kept following my leads with taste buds that grew ever more weary with every stop. My breaking point came at a place called The Sultan, an underground catacomb dating back to the Raynar invasions which claimed to serve authentic Ashlan Cherin cuisine. As the Ashlan have been in Iskandalon for several centuries, I thought if at least I could eat a decent meal at The Sultan I could accord the city some culinary honor, even if it would be on a technicality. But no, the food there was only remarkable insofar as it was not Iskandalonian. No self-respecting man or woman of Cherin blood would call The Sultan’s blood soup worthy of their ancestors’ veins.

So here I am. I have failed, just as I told Heinrich when he sent me on this damned fool mission in the first place. So much for making nice with the Iskandalonians. So much for rekindling my love affair with the world’s cuisine. My worst fears are confirmed- I have been a Canalsider for too long.

So much for selling any books.

My stomach is rumbling. How can it be that after a night of aimless gourmanderie I can still be hungry? But I know the reason why- although I have eaten my fill several times over, I have yet to satiate my appetite. Now that the night sky is giving way to a purplish desert dawn, I’m despondent that I will be able to satisfy that latter deeper hunger as long as I stay within the valley of the River Moruz.

I am sorry, Iskandalon, but this time you can’t say I didn’t try.

On the way back to my guest lodging near the Gardens of Fire, where the fountains run with burning liquid naphtha, my nose is struck by an enticing aroma. Someone is boiling chickpeas. I follow the breeze back to its source, where an Iskandalonian woman is stirring a huge alabaster container above a brass jet of natural gas (one of the more infuriating things about Iskandalon is that its entire city is a kitchen waiting to happen, its undercity a complex of gas pipes capable of firing a million cooking ovens if it so chose!). She smiles as I approach and greets me warmly in Salumar.

“Come for breakfast, young man?”

I blush, as I am hardly young anymore, but I nod nevertheless as I draw even closer. Next to the stone kettle of chickpeas is a series of pots containing all manners of fresh and cooked ingredients—sesame paste, crushed chilies, cumin seed, capers, pickled turnips, chopped coriander, and soft-boiled eggs of different shapes, sizes, and colors. I take a strong draught of the boiling chickpeas and can smell a generous amount of garlic. After binging on the overly-complex dishes of Iskandalon’s finest restaurants, this simple smell is a tonic for the body and soul.

Without saying another word the woman draws a generous ladle of chickpeas and broth from the kettle and pours it into a large earthenware bowl similar to those in Shan-li noodle shops. She then hovers next to the smaller pots and looks at me expectantly.

“Opoio thelete, Kyria.” I say. Whatever you wish. She smiles again and dresses the bowl quickly but deliberately. A dollop of sesame paste, followed by a sprinkling of chili, a handful of turnips, then not one, not two, but three different eggs, which ooze their semisoft yolks over the mound of chickpeas as they break. One is a quail egg, I’m certain, and another I identify as the Death’s Head Peacock from its copper-colored yolk. But the third? I point and ask.

“Drakoulion,” she replies. Wyvern’s egg. I have never eaten such a thing, and already I am licking my lips in anticipation.

Another handful of this, another pinch of that. When she reaches for one of the saucepots at the end of the bench, however, I wince. This is where the magic ends, I tell myself. Another potentially delicious Iskandalonian meal ruined by a twenty-ingredient finishing sludge. I want to stop her, but after telling her to make the meal her way that would be an unforgivable insult. I will simply smile, eat my breakfast, and do my best to imagine what might have been.

She sticks a wooden spoon into the mound of food, then hands the bowl over with a curtsy. I sniff at the chickpea mixture and am surprised that whatever the woman added at the end doesn’t immediately overwhelm my senses. Still cautious, I taste a spoonful just as the dawn breaks over the sandstone cityscape-- it is nothing short of a revelation. The al dente stewed chickpeas are seasoned in a manner that is quintessentially Iskandalonian yet not overbearing in the slightest, the bite of garlic harmonizing perfectly with the Western Salumar curry. The egg yolks have mixed with the sesame paste to form a velvet-textured sauce that soaks up the other flavors effortlessly and gives the chickpeas a more substantial heft.

As I gulp down mouthful after mouthful, the woman hands me a flatbread loaf of psomi still hot from the open oven and enjoins me to mop up the sauce with it, which I do, thanking her with my mouth full much to her mirth. I finish the bowl and immediately start plotting a second helping, but something is still eluding me here.

“That last sauce,” I ask the woman in Salumar. “What was it?”

The woman laughs and her preternaturally blue eyes twinkle. “It is nothing.”

I almost choke on my flatbread. “Nothing?”

She nods and laughs again, inviting me to examine the empty saucepot.

“But why?”

“Because they expect it. And who I am to tell them that it is better without it?”

I laugh at this, because it’s so perfectly Iskandalonian. But where Father Tireisias failed, this street-vendor has succeeded. And breakfast is served. I will have three bowls in total before I settle my tab and waddle back to the guesthouse. My feet are still sore, but my belly is full, and for the first time since leaving the City my hunger is truly satisfied. Mission accomplished. I look forward to sending Heinrich a letter from this City of Letters, informing him that I have succeeded in doing the impossible and that I eagerly await his next culinary challenge with open arms and reinvigorated appetite.