Wilmot Barclay is a culinary explorer traveling the world to help define the cuisine of his fledgling country: Liberia. He thinks he has tasted it all until he lands on a mysterious island off the coast of Japan, harboring all the ingredients of the world within an incredible castle. Earth’s greatest cooking competition is just about to begin there, but some of what’s on offer is leaving a most suspicious aftertaste.
(reading time: 1 hour, 25 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 2 hours, 7 minutes)
Countless words are lost in the ecstasy of a good meal, their structure overpowered by much more ancient and instinctive sounds. Exquisite becomes ehhnnn. Scrumptious becomes sfffshh. Magnificent into Mfff! In this way it can be extraordinarily difficult for a master of cuisine to receive helpful criticism. They know their work is good, so good it can’t be put into words, and that prevents them from progressing in their passion.
This presents a culinary ceiling. The barrier where words fail, where the tongue cannot be tamed enough for syllables, was the threshold Wilmot Barclay set for himself. He would need to perfect a number of dishes that made words fail, and they had to fail in a room full of equally fresh diplomats and statesman… but he was getting ahead of himself.
First he had to destroy the linguistic capacity of one Hillary Dare, who, unable to reject him with words, would be forced, ironically by her word, to usher him into the halls of the new and hopefully ripe government of Liberia. She was the head chef to the upper echelons, and without her approval his proposal would never make it to the president.
It had to be a multifaceted dish, one that could sparkle more than the finest diamond inlay. It needed to be something only he could come up with, otherwise he couldn’t make the argument that he was the only man capable of the task.
It needed to be American. As the freeborn and the freed and self-liberated made their way back to Africa they took with them notes of the food they’d known all their lives. Tomatoes. Okra. Rice.
It also needed an African spirit, an avatar of flavor that could bring all of these elements together into the most persuasive argument of Wilmot’s life. That avatar would be jollof rice. It was a robust dish, spiced with Scotch bonnet peppers and deeply colored with tomato paste. It did magnificent work, and was capable of supporting a filet of fish and sauce with all the vigor of Atlas adjusting the globe on his shoulders.
The key would be sweet potatoes. They were not to be mere features in the exhibition of the rice, like the diced vegetables, no. They would be ingrained within the foundation itself. Equal to the rice. Completely equal. They would mirror Liberia’s struggle for legitimacy by demonstrating their adaptability.
Pieces of sweet potato would appear identical to white rice, and would be indistinguishable thanks to the bloody spray of tomato, the internal color of all mankind. Hillary had to miss them on inspection, sense them only in the nostrils and on the tongue, and for that time was the first thing that needed be consumed.
Wilmot made a custom cutter out of a tiny bent scrap of steel molded around a single grain of dry rice. With it, and the finest sweet potato he could get his hands on, he constructed the foundational starches of his dish.
After cutting the potato into handkerchief thin layers he stamped out grains with the force of just one finger. They bathed in cold water to remove excess starch, and each time he heard a tiny splash he placed one dry grain of rice on an adjacent saucer. The final product would be in perfect harmony, one grain of sweet potato for each one of rice.
For hours and hours he stamped, not feeling even a single grain of boredom in that time. Each repetitive motion was just another step on his journey to see the world, and to bring it all back to this African coast of possibilities, more people and experiences arriving with every tide.
He cooked both types of grain, mingled them in the same pot, adding the Scotch bonnet, the other vegetable chunks that would act as diversion, and the tomato paste that disguised the grains as each other. To that he added a beautiful, light, juicy piece of whitefish and a generous pour of a thick spicy red sauce that had been stewing almost as long as he’d been stamping, counting, and recounting.
Obviously such efforts were not repeatable on any scale aside from the interpersonal, but he knew Hillary understood that was the true scale of cooking. It was an intimate relationship: one person trusting another with something that would not only be taken in, but dissolved to join the very substance of the body. Every moment he spent on it was affection for their connection, and it would enhance the flavor even if chemists could never confirm the exact compound responsible for doing so.
She tried to pretend she didn’t have the time to see him, but he would not be denied when he showed up in her kitchen on a slow morning, covered silver dish in hand, ambition burning a hole in the palm holding it up.
“You again Mr. Barclay? Alright, show it to me. We’ll have a look and a whiff, but no promises beyond that.” He said nothing, but the silver of the dish sang as he lifted the lid, and the steam seemed to ride the sonorous tone all the way to the ceiling in dancing curls. Only a minute amount made it into Ms. Dare’s nostrils.
“This is jollof rice.” She smelled again. There was a flicker of realization in her eyes. Yes. She found the sweet potato, but not with her eyes. She was vexed… enough for a bite. Wilmot whipped out a spoon, which was more than sufficient to cut a filet so perfectly cooked that it had the consistency of cloud gelatin.
Even in tasting she demonstrated her expertise, spoon sliding through all elements in equal amount: sauce, fish, and rice. She even smelled the bite to see if disturbing the dish had altered the scent in any way, ruptured any hidden pockets of aroma. That was the beauty of the grains; they were small enough to avoid her cutting edge. Th sweet aroma was still light, still mystifying.
Wilmot was celebrating before she swallowed. Hillary had discovered the gimmick on the first bite, as he suspected, but she went back for several more, even having a few sans fish or sauce to wrap her head around the technique he’d applied more effectively.
“Any food could be treated as a grain with enough dedication and patience,” she noted when she finally set his half-eaten accomplishment aside. “You still want that audience with the president? I can give it to you in one week, at midday meal. I trust you’ll have something equally impressive to convince them?”
He promised that he did, and she left him to bask in his success. Wilmot picked up the plate and finished his own creation while it was still warm. When there were but two grains left he pressed them with a fingertip and brought them up to his eyes. He couldn’t tell the difference, and popped his lips after sending them to join the rest.
The president and those accompanying him were not the real test; that had been Hillary. It was much easier to impress those who were not chefs themselves. Even in the highest offices, these were still people who might be perversely satisfied in finding a bit of their lunch left in their teeth around dinnertime.
For them Wilmot created savory miniature cassava cakes filled with diced shrimp, topped with an exotic looking sauce of translucent lime green. They were a wild success, and so was his proposal, which went something like this:
Liberia is still young. It is a country broken free from shackles, with the freedom running wild in its heart the most responsible. This freedom, now that it can see the world, is obligated to do so. All other countries, with their histories often spanning centuries, have an incredible advantage in their food worlds. Culture has been stewing all that time, recipes proliferating and cross-pollinating and hybridizing until distinct and admirable cuisines formed.
If Liberia is to have its own rich tradition, a Liberian cuisine must be firmly established, but there is not enough history to draw from, only ingredients. So it is the duty of its citizens to draw inspiration from elsewhere, to find all the ways these ingredients may be used to tie national dishes together, to drop them onto local menus with the permanent and cratering force of bombs.
The president was in agreement. Wilmot, as the chef desiring to define Liberian cuisine, would receive national funding in order to undertake his quest. With a generous stipend of gold, to help him navigate the economies of multiple nations, he would travel far and wide, drawing on every culinary corner, to return in three years’ time with a tome bursting with recipe ideas and a unified theory of Liberian cooking.
Wilmot had already crossed the sea once, and so did not have a strong desire to do so again right away. Instead he traveled east, across the beating heart of Africa, stopping to cook with local masters to make sure his foundation of African fires, grains, sugars, and meats was strong.
From there he went northeast, through Egypt and into Arabia, and from there to India. Sometimes he would stop for several weeks because a single bite had left him paralyzed. He absolutely could not continue until he learned how the Egyptians had made locusts palatable, turning a plague into a harvest. Could not go on until he knew what those Arabian lambs were eating atop that sacred peak that gave their flesh such a distinctly clean and nutty flavor. Could not move one toe until he saw the Indian dessert masters turn cold cream and butter into the most spectacularly colorful and enlightening sweets he’d ever had with a maddeningly small number of steps and ingredients.
When those desserts were as much a part of his mind as his stomach he moved on… to China. Most of the people there had never seen someone with skin as dark as his, and some reacted with suspicion, even fear. They were not forthcoming with the secrets of their food, especially when they learned he planned to integrate them into another land’s identity.
He was only able to crack the place open like a duck egg when he turned to the smallest of vendors. China was bursting with a diversity of ingredients. One woman, set up alongside a dreary body of shallow water, taught him that such places could hide entire vegetable gardens under their dull surface tension. It made him dream of riverbed versions of all his favorites. Was there a freshwater tomato out there in the world? A freshwater courgette? A potato that might be mistaken for a clam?
Wilmot had only a handful of Chinese words at his disposal, but was able to communicate with the universal language of food that had gotten him that far. He engaged in a sort of conversation with the old woman, each sentence taking hours as they took turns at her cooking equipment.
He expressed his imagination and curiosity by offering a plate full of experiments using the plants she had pulled up from the pond for him. She responded with a traditional dish, correcting him, reining in his flights of fancy.
Not to be silenced, Wilmot reinvented her own dish before her very eyes, fully aware he could be offending her and ending the exchange. Her sense of duty required her to taste it, though its appearance put her off, and she found the traditional flavor, but taken in a new direction. With one mouthful she knew exactly how he felt, like the first cook to discover there was more than one way to cook an egg.
She brought him to the market with her, and thanks to their association he was allowed to see all the ingredients the merchants kept under the table, reserved only for those who knew how to handle them. Without knowing its name, he was taught a set of techniques that roughly translated to ‘the secret menu of the Chinese food dynasty’.
Five months he trained with her, never learning her name. By the end of it he could walk into a shop with a hundred wooden drawers, each filled with a different dried leaf, spice, or animal part, and identify them all by scent. In fact she required it of him, making him draw pictures of each ingredient.
His training was complete on the day he got it right, drawing all the subtle differences between dried gecko liver and dried water dragon liver. She told him there was nothing more she could teach him by making the same traditional dish from the pond. No adjustments in spice, not even in the length of the noodles. They’d come full circle.
His teacher handed him off to her son, a sailor aboard a rather large vessel. Wilmot discerned that he was to pay his way by acting as the ship’s cook. Carefully he stuck to traditional Chinese fare; these were not the sort of men who had any interest in his vision. They wanted comfort to remind them of home when there was nothing but unpotable water in every direction.
He’d already fed them for a week before the thought even occurred to him that the ship was probably heading somewhere, but he’d lost all sense of global position. He was deep in the woods, lost to foraging for scraps and suffering through rations. There was doubt, swinging him in his hammock as he slept, and each time he swung back it asked him if he had perhaps misinterpreted one of his teacher’s meals.
If so she had stranded him in purgatory as punishment. If they went ashore he might not be allowed to depart. Wilmot felt a twinge deep in his heart as buried memories tried to claw their way out. He wasn’t always a free man. He had spent his youth fully in the shadow of the great hope of the United States, hearing not joy, but only the boots squeaking on the floorboards above him, the boots of men who would call themselves master and not mean it the way the old woman by the pond would.
Liberia was liberation. There were no liars there, not yet. None of the exploiters of freedom. He couldn’t keep them out of everything, but he could keep them out of food. Another week passed. To keep himself from going mad, Wilmot finally confronted his teacher’s son, shouting at him in English despite knowing it was fruitless, demanding to know where they were going.
He said nothing in return, but they changed course. It was a test, to see if he would accept menial food work and disappear, but they couldn’t make Wilmot Barclay disappear. Wherever he went he would just found a new country and put himself on the map if he had to.
Their exact location eluded him, but he got a rough idea from the sorts of creatures the nets pulled out of the sea. They were approaching, or already in, the waters of Japan. That isolated place had only recently, in the year 1854, been forced to open its borders. Surely it was full of foods the rest of the world had never seen.
The thrill of the possibilities overwhelmed him to the point that he no longer cared if they tossed him overboard, as long as the nearest shore was Japan. They didn’t make it all the way there though. Instead they made land, very briefly, on an island so small that its only notable landmark was a castle.
America was the land of forts, not castles. It wasn’t old enough for such things. Still, he had seen illustrations of English, French, and German strongholds. This place was none of those either. Yet he knew the Japanese would call it a castle as its towering shadow swallowed their boat. The shadow had swooping spines, pieces of the many small roofs that extended away from the main structure, like the wing tips of birds about to take off.
Wilmot was given a rope over the side, onto the sand, and not so much as a goodbye. He took it gladly, already knowing the place wasn’t abandoned. There were other boats circling, small groups disembarking and rowing their way in. The ships were both familiar and foreign, clearly coming from places even more distant than the United States.
Everyone coalesced onto the first trail they found, winding its way off the beach and into a magnificent wall of bamboo, more vibrantly green than the brightest lily pad. This quickly turned into opulent gardens, with plants draping themselves over stone macaque statues like capes and cloaks.
He couldn’t explain it, with his best guess being something about their scents, but he knew every plant there had at least one edible part to it. The flowers smelled of pepper, the leaves of tea. He took a handful of the soil and inhaled, getting notes of mature wood as if the whole island was a cask for aging that had been split and set adrift. This could not have been a natural assortment of flora; it was meticulously curated down to every grain of pollen.
The journey there had earned him several behavioral quirks, so he fully expected to receive strange looks when he scooped up the earth to smell it, but many of the others there were busy doing the same thing. Some were even brazenly tasting, plucking petals and chewing them. He noticed they chewed forward, with puffed lips, adding drafts of air with each motion to make sure to experience the flavor throughout every zone of the mouth.
Here were people who knew that the lips could tingle separate from the taste on the tongue, separate from the caress of the palate, separate from the intimate slide down the throat. Something was happening on this island, and his teacher had known to send him. Wilmot was eager to find out what, hopefully before they entered the castle doors.
There was a woman walking ahead of him. He guessed she was European by her dress, and approached her with English. In many places of the world he might’ve been knocked to the ground for such brazen behavior with a white woman, but he counted on the passion of these people overriding bigotry they might harbor in any other harbor.
“Excuse me, madame? I wonder if I might have a moment of your time.” The question of his skin turned out irrelevant, as she didn’t even spare him a glance as she spoke. Her eyes were glued to the castle heights still ahead of them.
“Once we get through those doors I belong to nobody but the chairman, so speak quickly,” she offered sharply. “The Japanese do have doors yes? I heard they were a touch strange, made of paper or some other such flimsy nonsense.”
“I confess I only made my way here incidentally. I don’t know what is about to transpire. Could you enlighten me?” Before she could answer a man in a silken green chef’s jacket, double-breasted as was tradition, shouldered by Wilmot aggressively and nearly knocked the woman over. Without apology he continued on swiftly, breaking away from the group.
“He,” she began, “is one of the men I am here to judge. I believe his name starts with a Y, but I would never even attempt pronunciation of any of these foreign names. There should be two others back behind us somewhere. It’s disappointing; I was hoping for a more robust field of competitors.”
“Competitors in what?”
“The Chairman’s Banquet. He is the greatest chef in all the world, and this is his home: Ingredient Island. It has no government beyond him, for he is the lord of the castle. I’m surprised someone who has never heard of Pantry Castle Salamander or the chairman was able to reach this place.”
“Yes, well, I’m as fresh as my nation. I come on behalf of Liberia.”
“Then I expect you shall be welcomed. The chairman likes to make connections. You won’t be allowed to judge of course. His process is even more set in stone than the castle’s foundations.”
He had plenty of questions left, but they came to a stop at the foot of the fortress. A new plant caught his attention: a vine draped over the main entryway in thick layers. Underneath it he could see the castle’s center was in fact gray stone, while the other layers were some sort of canvas he’d never seen before.
The vine blocked the stone archway allowing entry, hanging only that low because it was overburdened with clusters of an unusual berry: purple-blue orbs somewhere between deep sunset and an equally deep bruise. Those who had more experience with the place did not hesitate to step forward and pluck single berries.
They consumed one each, and only one, then started speaking to each other. Wilmot’s ears weren’t as sharp as his nose or tongue, but he recognized what was wrong immediately. These conversations should have been impossible. French was arguing with Spanish. Chinese was listing, and Welsh was nodding along.
Wilmot stepped forward and took a berry of his own. He tested its pliancy between his fingers, and found he could sense something under its tense skin, eager to burst forth. He gave it what it wanted, chewing thoroughly. It broke like a blueberry, but gushed like a watermelon thrown into the ring with a champion boxer.
The flavor of its juice was indescribable, and he thought that word more literally than he ever had before. Taste buds couldn’t keep up as the sensation rushed over their head, penetrated his jaw, and moved into his mind before any of it reached the back of his throat. Juice seemed to transform into words, like he’d ingested some minuscule variant of Pandora’s box.
New sensations popped in his ears, like numerous changes in altitude. He hadn’t gone anywhere, but the chemical reaction in his mouth had somehow given him the world. The man next to him was speaking a Slavic language, but the true meaning popped in Wilmot’s ear canal and turned into an English thought in his own voice. None of the languages there proved impenetrable any longer. Excited talk flooded his awareness, and as he listened he found the answers to most of the questions he was going to try and squeeze into the annoyed woman’s ear.
According to the chatter this competition occurred once every three years, with the chairman, whose name was Igarashi, delivering invitations through a secret network of associates all over the world. How he managed to deliver them all simultaneously was yet a mystery, but, Wilmot supposed, the same sort of mystery as where he found a berry that imparted universal understanding along with a delicate flavor.
Ingredients as foreign as the guests grew on the island, allowing the competitors untold bounties. They were kept in sealed huts scattered around the castle, each one a miniature version of a distant land, mimicking that place’s seasons, temperatures, light levels, and other even subtler factors as well.
Wilmot stepped away from the group and peered over the wall of the path they’d just climbed. In the distance, marking various crossroads in the garden paths, he spotted the huts as dark domes with vines growing over them. It looked like there were nearly fifty, and he was merely viewing the grounds from one side.
The purpose of the Chairman’s Banquet was twofold: to ascertain whether new living ingredients needed to be added to his island collection and to crown a winner with a culinary award above those known to the blunt palates of the commoners. This award was a medal, always to be worn within the chef’s clothing rather than on the outside.
It was called the forbidden lobster: a crustacean of pure silver. It was forged as fresh as the ingredients the day the winner was announced, from the tips of all the judge’s eating utensils. The award could be received only once, and was only to be shown to the sorts of people who got invited to participate as judges in the first place.
He learned exactly what each language’s echoes sounded like a few moments later, for once most of the berries were plucked, and the vines freed of their weight, the plant receded out of their way and everyone walked through the narrow stone passage that led ultimately to the courtyard.
On the way he overheard the names of the three chefs who would be competing this time, coincidentally all hailing from Japan. They were Yanagidate of the blue tomato, Michifude of the bite most excellent, and Kandagawa of the cowering dough. From what the woman had said Yanagidate must have been the one fellow in green who pushed past them all.
Once in the courtyard they were met by a servant who greeted them and escorted them inside to the chamber where the competition would take place, with the festivities to begin the following day.
This was the one chamber where there was room for everyone to spread out, its stone ceiling nearly as high as a cathedral. There were three wooden tables at its sunken center, each a different color, all loaded with shining kitchen equipment of every type. At their end was a fourth table holding a pyramid of produce fifteen feet high, dotted with tropical fruits like Christmas ornaments.
Wilmot was overwhelmed. He’d seen nothing like this on his journey so far, or in his entire life back in the states. Here was a place built solely of passion, with no consideration for anything else, for better or worse. It was a place that would drink one’s blood, sweat, and tears, and give nothing in return. Yet someone always left triumphant, and that triumph was so deep there was no need to show the trophy to doubters.
All along one wall there was a counter cut into the stone that opened into some sort of long fire pit. Red flames could be seen at the back of it through a narrow opening as they were fed up and around to a metal grate just two feet above the counter where they tried to rise and broke like ocean waves.
That must have been where the castle got its name. Though its construction was unorthodox, he recognized the counter and overhead heating and warming device as something called a ‘salamander’, no doubt after the mythical lizard creature that nested in campfires. He assumed it had its place next to the preparation tables so that dishes could be kept warm while others were being judged.
On approach he found the flames extremely hot, pulling sweat out of his skin when he was still several feet away. They burned with a speed and intensity that had him curious about their fuel, and he was nearly overcome by a strange sensation when he stepped yet closer. All the other languages fell out of his ears and he heard something else. Snapping crackles. Hot whooshes. Was the fire speaking? Did the berry grant him the languages of nature as well?
Before he could try to interpret it someone stepped in front of him, and he immediately knew he was looking at Chairman Igarashi. The man was of middle age, but his skin was smooth, pale, and aglow like someone who had just become a father. There wasn’t the slightest trace of facial hair, and his confident smile looked as unbreakable as diamond.
Wilmot had also never seen such a hairstyle in his travels: a relaxed bouncing cut going down to about the man’s ears. It suggested he lacked discipline, but not the authority needed to get away with such an attitude.
His purple vest and ruffled shirt clashed with the black gloves over both his hands. The Liberian couldn’t help but wonder if they hid scars, perhaps from indulging the same fascination with the flame he himself was about to fall victim to. Perhaps Igarashi had just saved his life, and all by stepping into view.
“You sir do not have an invitation,” the chairman said without dropping his smile. He put one hand on Wilmot’s shoulder and squeezed, more inquisitive than aggressive. He spoke Japanese, but Wilmot heard it as English, in his own mind, in his own voice.
“No. I do not mean to intrude; I was sent this way however. I’m a chef myself, and I’ve been on a journey to define my newly born country’s cuisine. I’ve only just learned what is happening here… and I’d like to stay and participate as much as you will allow.”
“Where is it that you now call home?”
“Interesting.” His black eyes darted back and forth, not to people, but to items on the tables behind them. “Come with me.” Wilmot followed him through the crowd, taking note of the elegance with which the man moved, gloved hands clasped behind his back. He looked as if he could stir a pot of chunky stew without his spoon hitting anything but broth.
At the end of the chamber, one level above the work tables, there sat a large box of black wood, rather square in its construction considering that it was meant for observers. Something rectangular seemed to fit the space better, but it was still clear it had been crafted by an expert carpenter.
Igarashi opened a small door on its side and ushered Wilmot into its rows of seats. Two flagpoles marked the box’s upper corners, but they flew nothing at the moment. The chairman gestured toward one of the seats, and his guest sat down. Gently Igarashi reached around his head, grabbed a piece of wood connected to a hinge on the chair’s side, and pulled it over Wilmot’s lap, creating a small table with several obvious indentations for plates, glasses, and silverware.
“This is where the judges will observe, taste, and make their decisions,” the chairman explained in a soft reverent tone. “Then, after the first day of judgments, my servants will collect their implements and melt them down, to be forged into this year’s forbidden lobster. By rights you shouldn’t even get to know what that is.
You should have to glimpse it at the apex of your career, as only a mysterious sparkle under a chef’s hat as it tilts from its proper place atop their head. It should haunt you, but you shouldn’t even have the courage to ask what it is.”
“Again, I meant no disrespect Chairman. I merely went where the smell of food took me. It is neither crime nor sin. The rumble of the stomach is the true universal language, not whatever illusion these berries create.” That seemed to please the man who, despite being three inches shorter than Wilmot, exuded much greater power.
“This is not where you will sit,” he said, lifting the little wooden table so Wilmot could stand once again. Together they exited the judges’ box and went one level higher, to the lord of the castle’s personal table, with room only for three. “Instead you will be sitting at my side.”
“I… I’m honored… but why?”
“In all the time I’ve run the banquet, we’ve had but two challengers from Africa. Your arrival is fortuitous. I have recently changed my mind. Japan has been forced to open its borders, and though I am sovereign from them I have decided I must do the same. Eventually the world will come for me, so I think it better to open up to them on my own terms.
You will be like a journalist. I want you to write up an account of this year’s banquet and take it back with you to Liberia. Light my fire on your continent. Bring forth the roasted flavors that have eluded me. Can you do that Mr…”
“Barclay. Wilmot Barclay. Yes chairman. It will be my turning point. Once this is over I will return as swiftly as I can.”
“I’ll make it even swifter,” Igarashi assured him with a chuckle. “You will need accurate information, so while you will not be judging, you will be tasting the dishes offered as I do. Go now, I’m very busy. Mingle. Talk to the contestants. When we take our seats tomorrow be in position.”
With that the man was gone, flitting about the chamber like a hummingbird visiting different flowers for a single sip each. The air in the hall grew more jovial, and he felt everyone bobbing in relaxation like dumplings in a steamy pot. He thought cornering the chefs for a quick conversation would be easier than anything else he’d done that day, but they proved nearly impossible to pin down.
Only Kandagawa granted him an audience. He was the oldest contestant, likely in his fifties, and he had smiling eyes, probably to make up for a mouth that never did so. His thick chest made his voice resonate as if out of a cask. The colors he wore, in shining silk, were pinkish-burgundy and white.
When they shook hands Kandagawa left a thin skin of flour on Wilmot’s palm. The man never stopped moving, and most of the time he was moving he was cooking, and most of the time he was cooking he was baking.
The lone woman, Michifude, likely the youngest of the three, wore a longer version of the chef’s coat, though the dress bottom of it was wide enough to allow her complete freedom of movement. She had stoic lips and a very small nose: a face that suggested a tilt of the head was the most focus you would ever get from her.
And that was all he got. When he approached the woman in light silky blue she acknowledged him briefly, but refused to answer any questions, instead choosing to converse with people she had met several times before.
The man in green, Yanagidate, was nowhere to be found, leaving Wilmot to conclude he was already in private quarters preparing for the next day’s competition. That meant Wilmot was already disobeying orders, and the last thing he wanted was to be cut from the seat he’d just learned he had earned.
To make up for it he interviewed as many of the judges as possible, and some of the servant staff, directing his questions toward competitions past so he could gain a mental picture of what to expect. The details served him were utterly unbelievable, if not for the completely straight face of every person that offered them.
At the first banquet ever held, before the castle even had the surrounding ingredient huts, someone had transported their own, alive, in glass aquariums. One such aquarium was even connected to a pedal-powered machine that maintained artificial pressure, which was vital to keeping the deep sea fish alive.
The creature they ate was so sensitive to the surface environment that its filets, right after cooking and presentation, lost their constitution and melted into liquid. The meat became the sauce. The sauce, displaced by the flooding filets, was forced into the center of the plate where it congealed into a giant droplet. The sauce became the meat. The two elements switched states at exactly the same rate, polite strangers shuffling past each other in a cramped hallway, not noticing they exchanged hats.
The chef had claimed he’d only ever caught three of those animals: one he studied, one he experimented upon, and the third was on the judges’ plates. He claimed that, for all he knew, they may have been the only three in the depths and the species might now be extinct. This man, he didn’t even claim victory in the first banquet.
No, that honor belonged to a woman who claimed to know the recipe for Manna, the foodstuff that appeared in the bible and saved the starving Israelites as they wandered through the desert. She boasted that consuming it guaranteed one’s soul entrance into heaven, even if it was wicked. No such thing was demonstrated, but the taste of the small white cakes that she served was only describable in the abstract. Like sunlight through the eyelids. Like infatuation in the heart. Like weeping at the sight of buds blooming rapidly across a field.
After that banquet Chairman Igarashi had instituted a new rule that the contestants could not make claims they could not reasonably demonstrate before the judges’ eyes, as their expectations may have been coloring their palates.
Still, even without the wild surrounding stories, the dishes spoke for themselves. Wilmot had never salivated so much in his life as he listened to them read off history’s secret menu like a bedtime story: tortillas made from corn grown in a substrate of shredded gourmet tortillas, clams kept alive in salty broth for days before one final sting of heat so that their flesh had fully absorbed its flavors, and desserts where chemical concoctions caused sugar to crystallize upward, as it was served, in various stained glass colors atop the royal icing.
Wilmot figured the memories of the previous banquet would be freshest, so he asked after that menu and was told there were five contestants, and thus three days of competition, with three qualifying in the first round and two in the second. The five offerings, merely the opening salvo of the first day, were as follows:
1. A sausage goulash where the sausage was made from the dwarf pigs of a tropical island and long-smoked over the lava rocks from that island’s active volcano. Served with a garnish of mysterious ‘losing herbs’ tied in a bundle. They were so-called because once they were mixed into the goulash they disappeared in everything but flavor, even the bundle’s tie absorbed into the dish.
2. A ‘suspended’ seafood soup in which all solid ingredients refused to either surface or touch the bottom, even when gently swirled with a spoon, even when ladled out. Judges reported a complete stratification of flavors, with the sunlight-infused fast sport fish of the sea’s shallows represented with upper level meat chunks and bottom-feeding crustaceans represented with lower level slices gliding in the broth’s depths almost like stingrays.
3. Living bamboo salad. The shoots were tender, steaming. There was no doubt they had been fully cooked, yet somehow the plant retained enough life to grow. As one of the fastest growing plants in the world, the bamboo could be felt in the stomach and the throat, its stupendous flavor creeping upward for hours until it finally succumbed to the gastric acids.
4. Butter-basted steaks. The beef was medium-rare, cooked to perfection, basted in brown butter, rosemary, and candied garlic. Served on a potato, celeriac, and yellow carrot puree. Gourmet, but the judges did not believe it was up to the standards of the Chairman’s Banquet, until the chef informed them that none of them were eating beef. One had lamb. Another bear. Another duck. Crocodile. Ostrich.
The preparation tables bore this out. Various animal bones and carcasses sat right where they’d been butchered. Somehow they had been made to resemble perfect cuts of beef, and taste identically to it and all the others as well. The secret was not shared.
5. A tower of pickled then poached fruits, standing more than a foot high on each plate. Utensils could glide through the entirety of it, all fifty layers, without it so much as leaning. One judge described it as ‘consuming an expertly aged rainbow that had been pulled like taffy for countless hours’.
Childlike glee kept Wilmot from sleeping that night. A servant had shown him to a private room with a very comfortable bed, though it was little more than a mattress upon the floor. Try as he did to shut his eyes they kept popping open again, sure they would see someone standing over him with a serving tray.
His stomach rumbled, berated him for not being more adventurous. After all, a castle that size was bound to have mice. The mice were bound to have holes, and in those holes countless crumbs stored away for inclement weather that never seemed to come to this place. Many of the offerings were still here, in one form or another, and it would only take the indignity of crawling around on all fours and reaching into cracks and crevices to get a taste of them.
Wilmot reached a compromise with the more ravenous parts of his stomach and imagination, getting up and taking a lantern from its hook next to the sliding door. He’d seen a few lights go back and forth through the canvas walls, and from conversation he knew them not to be servants.
From that he thought it safe to assume that the guests were allowed to freely roam the grounds no matter the hour. After all, the chefs may want to make use of the many ingredients growing outside, and he was willing to bet several of them were best to harvest in the dead of night.
That logic was crucial to his decision, because he wanted to go inside those huts most of all. He needed to know if it was the island’s unique climate that allowed such bounties, or if it was the soil, or if each hut held some kind of proprietary machine that enabled it, perhaps with designs based on the pedal-powered pressure device he’d heard about earlier.
Several servants saw him leave, and said nothing, so he asked one of them to show him the way to the huts outside. He didn’t understand their answer, but then they offered him one of the berries, dried from a drawstring pouch. It seemed their effects wore off after about seven hours. Wilmot took it and chewed.
He made a mental note that a dried berry seemed to make the voice in his head sound a little more snobbish and prudish, but he was still able to take directions just fine. The servant told him which paths to follow to make it outside and onto the eastern field, and to not go further than the final hill unless he wanted to tumble into untamed thorns.
There were a few other lanterns bobbing about in the darkness, but he followed his own instincts and stopped at the first round hut he came to. It had a curtain for a door, and that curtain was the flag of a distant principality he was not familiar with. His theory about pressurization went flying out the window, as there was clearly no effort to make the structures airtight.
With his free hand he gently raised the curtain, bowed under, and stepped inside. The smell within struck him like the slap of an angry peacock’s tail, not because it was rich, or exotic, or multifaceted, all of which it was, but because of the sense of transportation it gave him. Wilmot was left questioning if someone had borrowed his feet while he was lying down earlier, for they suddenly tingled as if he’d walked many miles instead of across a field.
This was the air of somewhere else. Not the sea. Not Japan. He guessed somewhere in India by the smell of turmeric and cumin seed. Perhaps it was somewhere near a river, as the space was filled with tall and thin plants like those found in muddy shallows. Flowers hung from the ceiling, some of them dripping a sweet-scented fluid.
Wilmot took a step, and immediately understood there were vegetables rooted just under his feet. They didn’t behave as they should have though, swimming out from under his sole and vanishing, diving deeper like a humpback whale that had just taken the next hour’s breath. A few more steps put him in the middle of the hut, but not exactly, for that circular patch did not look safe for stepping.
He saw dry soil, but it bubbled and churned as if liquid. An occasional clod was spit straight up and then swallowed again. Whatever it was, it was the secret of the huts. It might still have been a machine of some sort, but buried, and Wilmot did not feel it would be appropriate to try and uproot one. Instead he decided to move along and see what other wonders were on offer in the other huts.
Each one bore a different flag, and some were so covered in various symbols and crests he had to assume they were specific to individual towns, the sort of place where one family might run the whole show and where one particular dish’s origin could be traced. Each a different overpowering foreign atmosphere. Each a miniature garden of someone else’s Eden, but always with that swirling pool of soil in the exact middle.
The ground was a different color and composition in each, but even those that should not have behaved like liquid regardless of how much they shook, like clay and gravel, did so anyway. Without leaving the island he set foot on every continent, breathed in every wind, and felt their humidity on his tongue and inside the folds of his ears. Each hut knew the ingredients of one place the way his Chinese teacher had known her region.
But how? He was still in search of the answer, opening yet another flag, when he got a chance encounter with the final chef instead. Yanagidate stepped out and startled him, though the man did not look the least bit surprised. A square black basket hung on one of his forearms, leading Wilmot to suspect he was harvesting ingredients for the competition.
“Mr. Yanagidate, hello. I did not have a chance to speak with you earlier. My name is Wilmot Barclay.” He said nothing in response, but Wilmot saw that he understood. “Chairman Igarashi has assigned me as a correspondent of sorts.” Still no reaction, except perhaps an expectation this was leading to something he should react to. “I’ll be writing up the story of the competition, so I was hoping to ask you a few questions about your art.”
“Will you be tasting?”
“Yes, yes I will,” he blurted, excited and surprised to finally get a word out of the tight-lipped man. “Tasting but not scoring-” Yanagidate turned as if to brush by him. “-But in a sense I am the sole judge when it comes to what I write, and I believe the chairman intends for the whole world to read it eventually.” That stalled him.
“I have more work to do, you may ask while we walk. I may answer one or two of them.” With that they were off to the next hut on the competitor’s shopping list. Wilmot, ever the thinker, examined the selections currently hanging out of the basket to try and get a sense of both the man’s intentions for the following day’s games and his state of mind. Doing so might help him narrow his queries, and thus annoy the man less and get higher quality answers.
Much of what he had was obscured from view by the greens of a very large white radish, which hung over the side. Wilmot had already been inside the hut where those were growing and had seen several pulled from the ground and set aside. They were of very irregular shapes, but the one Yanagidate selected was almost perfectly cylindrical.
That suggested his intent was to utilize the simple shape, either by hollowing it out and using it as a cooking or presentation vessel, or, as seemed more likely, slicing it into impressively large and even circles, perhaps to float atop a soup like heavenly lily pads. Wilmot aimed his first question in that direction.
“I see you have an eye for vegetables. You were very particular when selecting that radish, weren’t you? What is it they called you… Yanagidate of the blue tomato? Please, tell me something of your vegetable expertise.”
“You will not be seeing the blue tomato this year,” Yanagidate said, stepping over a rock without warning Wilmot about it. The other man was forced to catch up after stumbling. “I can make any vegetable grow in any shape, with any color, and any flavor within its natural possibilities. Blue tomatoes are a cultivar of my own invention, delicate in flavor, cooling on the tongue, and brilliant in hue, brighter than blueberries.”
“Is this achieved by breeding alone?”
“Trade secrets Mr. Barclay. However, you can look forward to seeing one of my creations tomorrow.” They entered a hut that Wilmot guessed held Mexican ingredients. Bundles of dried chilies hung from the ceiling by twine, most so darkly red that they looked like blood splashed upon lumps of coal. From these Yanagidate selected just two, which he opened with a knife so small that Wilmot barely saw the blade flash before it disappeared again.
From the sliver in the chili he extracted one tiny yellow seed, flat as an empty tick and about as large. He placed it on his tongue, showing no reaction. Then he extracted another and offered it to Wilmot, who accepted and did the same. The heat was instantaneous and incredible, like he’d run and dived head first, mouth open, into a roaring fireplace.
Try as he did he couldn’t suppress the sputter. Tears filled his eyes, but through the blur he saw Yanagidate was leaving already, trying to shake him off. Wilmot stumbled after him, still determined, but he had to get rid of the cough before he could speak again. That took several minutes, and probably cost him three questions.
“I can’t see how you’d use an ingredient that potent,” he eventually rasped when they were in yet another hut, this one filled with shelf after shelf of cheese wheels, some growing mold so aggressive that it bloomed into bundles of mushrooms.
To his surprise the man in green did not begin smelling the cheese or testing their rinds for moisture and oiliness. Instead that small nearly-invisible knife flashed out of his sleeve several times more and he cut the mushroom caps from their stalks, adding them to the basket in neat stacks of three like they were coasters. Such a thing would only be possible if he had, by eye alone, picked out caps of identical size and weight.
“Using it directly would be suicide,” Yanagidate admitted, “or murder rather, but I will only use its twice-separated essence. I will boil some seeds, then use the resulting water to hydrate some noodle dough, which will then be rapidly dehydrated before cooking.”
“What is the flavor like once properly tamed?”
“Award-winning,” Yanagidate claimed. It was almost sly, perhaps the closest thing to happiness he would ever hear the man express. It was already time to move on again. Back in fresher less cheesy air Wilmot was free to realize something. Yanagidate had pulled the secrecy excuse, but still told him about the chili noodle technique.
That meant he considered that method below the threshold for secrecy. To him it was common knowledge in this new world of cooking that Wilmot was only beginning to discover. He almost stopped dead, seeing all his years of work, his success in convincing the Liberian president to sponsor him, as nothing.
He couldn’t even handle a pepper seed.
“What will you do with the forbidden lobster if you are victorious?” he asked when Yanagidate stopped at the threshold of yet another hut. The smell of cured meat drifted out, likely from a menagerie of different animals. “I’ve gotten the impression it is considered tawdry to flaunt it, so what does one do with the prize?”
“Clean the tines of eating utensils,” the man answered plainly. This puzzled Wilmot, which must have been obvious. “The claws of the little lobster are open, just enough to run tines through. The lobster is purest silver, and thus carries sterilizing properties.
Chefs are so careful to keep their food free from contaminants they rarely think about improperly washed utensils. A quick stroke through the lobster ensures there will be no sickness when-” He stopped when the flap to the hut opened from the inside. Out stepped Chairman Igarashi.
What he wore had to be his nightclothes, though they were the most flamboyant Wilmot had ever seen, only marginally quieter than what he’d worn earlier that day. Black silk enriched with shining pink flowers and vines in the fabric, practically taking it over. There was a flexible cap on his head that looked like it could be pulled down and made into a sleeping mask. He was beaming, not an ounce of sleep in his eyes.
“Gentlemen,” he greeted them. “Using your time here wisely I see. Excellent. I look forward to both of your work.”
“May I ask what you’re doing awake at this hour?” Wilmot queried, glad for a more receptive target than Mr. Yanagidate.
“Just preparing for a good night’s sleep,” he answered. “Some of the climates in these repositories agree with my constitution and put my mind at ease, like a less fortunate man stepping out onto his porch to feel a breeze as it rolls through. If you gentlemen will excuse me, tomorrow is my favorite day!”
The chairman strolled off, arms held behind his back, clenched knuckles locked together like a set of champing teeth. Wilmot watched the pink flowers fade into the darkness, and by the time he turned back Yanagidate was already inside the hut.
“He’s quite the-” Wilmot started, but the thought slipped and tumbled out of him when he was hit by a wall of sweaty heat. The hanging meats inside, some in casing and some exposed, were wet aging in open air, another unfamiliar technique. The hut was like a sauna, the swirling dirt at its center occasionally belching steam with a flicker of orange twisting flame at its core like the cursing tongue of a hot air balloon.
“Yes he is,” Yanagidate replied as he cut small samples from a hanging slab of something in the cow family and tasted them, likely looking for fat pockets. The heat didn’t seem to affect him, but that was just composure; he was no more immune to its drawing effect than was Mr. Barclay. Both of them were quickly coated in a slimy skin of sweat.
“This is the climate that agrees with his constitution?” Wilmot puffed in disbelief, pulling at his collar in the hopes a cloud of his body heat would escape, though it just seemed to let more of the hut’s heat scramble across his skin like a long-toed lizard squeezing under a door. “I suppose it must be… I didn’t see a drop of sweat on him. What do you suppose the trick there is?” Yanagidate paused, perhaps lost in thought, odd considering he didn’t seem the type to get lost in anything.
“Experience,” he eventually answered, cutting a piece from the beef shank at the same time. He left swiftly once more, only this time he was completely gone from sight when Wilmot stepped out just a moment later. It seemed their interview was concluded.
The first day of the banquet was set to take place in the early evening hours, but Wilmot and the judges were kept out of the dining area for preparations the entire time. He spent several of those hours with a man who worked for a food periodical who was more than willing to give him writing tips, as he’d never actually written articles or reports prior.
At first the man was offended that he hadn’t been asked to write the piece, but then he figured that through tutelage he could have his say anyway, so he held onto Wilmot’s ear even more than was desired.
“And another thing, make sure you don’t ever use words like tasty, delicious, or scrumptious. You’re already writing up food, which means it was either magnificent or heinous, and whichever one it is should come across fully with your choice of other adjectives. Consider rich versus overwhelming, salty versus caustic, and warm ver-”
“If you all will follow me please; it is time to begin,” one of the servants announced to everyone in the waiting area. Wilmot broke free of the overly helpful advice and waded away from the man with some rambled thanks. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so excited, but it was certainly when he was a child.
Luckily the child within him did not have to suffer through a long or stuffy opening ceremony. They were all allowed to take their seats immediately, judges tightly packed into the black box with the flagpoles and Wilmot to the side of the empty seat that would in moments hold the chairman, who very well could’ve been the king of food, if there could ever be such a thing.
Servant musicians played to quiet everyone, and the chairman stepped into view at the far end of the chamber. Kandagawa, Michifude, and Yanagidate filed in and stood behind him while he made a brief speech. It was rousing, but nothing could be so rousing as the snarling dragon of a jacket he was wearing, fur eyebrows on the shoulders, crimson eye buttons down the center, and claws of real ivory peeking out of pockets to shred any greedy fingers trying to steal their contents. Atop it all his luscious, shining, black hair was just long enough to bounce, and it did as he addressed them.
“Today we are gathered for the eleventh Chairman’s Banquet. I am Chairman Igarashi, and I do not know if there will ever be another with my title, as I think the anticipation of the delicacies had here keeps me alive in the interim. We do not age while we dine on the best.” Wilmot thought it an interesting statement to make, given that he had scolded the contestants in the first banquet for saying things that could not be proven.
“There are three competitors today,” he continued. “All hail from Japan, but they have mastered many other cuisines. We have Kandagawa of the cowering dough.” The oldest entrant bowed. “Yanagidate of the blue tomato. And Michifude of the bite most excellent. The rules of our competition have changed from the last iteration.
Each contestant will make one dish, but this time they must all use a theme ingredient, and highlight its flavor. They have been told the ingredient with plenty of time to prepare, and you fine judges will learn it in a moment.
Dishes must be completed within four hours, thought contestants were free to request early preparation for anything that required aging or extended cooking time. Each of the twelve judges has one point to award to one dish, while I, as the chairman, have three. At the end of tonight’s tasting the contestant with the least number of points will be going home, and the remaining two will compete tomorrow with a new theme ingredient for the title and the forbidden lobster.”
He held out his hand; the contestants moved past him and descended the stone stairs to the three long cooking tables. Some pots were already bubbling, which Wilmot guessed to be items that needed days or perhaps even weeks to cook. That meant they had stayed over a flame the entire time, even on whatever vessels had brought them to the island.
His eyes were drawn back to Igarashi as he marched past the tables, to the fourth one, smaller and sitting at the foot of the jury box. Upon it sat a great silver dome with a handle, and Wilmot knew once the gloved hand of the chairman gripped it that the supply of the theme ingredient was resting inside. His stomach growled in anticipation. Igarashi smirked.
“The theme ingredient of the first round of the eleventh Chairman’s Banquet is… sheatfish!” He lifted the dome away with a ringing metal note to reveal a circular tank, containing water just deep enough to cover the back, but not the dorsal fin, of a fish that was easily as long as a grown man’s reach, from one arm to the other.
Wilmot leaned forward in a way that was surely lacking in decorum, but he couldn’t have cared less in the moment. He needed to know. The fish was still alive, but lethargic, to preserve freshness it seemed. From what he could tell it was a type of catfish, but not an American or African variety.
Its tail was long and snaking, and the barbels on its lips were shorter and less numerous than what he was accustomed to. Perhaps a European variety. Servants rushed in as Igarashi stepped aside, started ascending to his seat. They removed the small tank containing the single fish and whipped away the table cloth underneath it, to reveal a much larger tank positively filled with them.
Once the glass cover was removed the three contestants came in with bamboo nets, plunging them into the water and seeking out specimens they’d picked the moment they were visible. As nets clashed Wilmot realized for the first time the adversarial element of the competition. These obsessed masters were sharing the same space, the same time, and the same ingredients. Conflict was inevitable. They would be running into each other, glaring, bumping, taunting, and perhaps one of these things could even make it into one of their offerings as a flaw in flavor.
They couldn’t just cook; they had to cook aggressively. The first subjects of that aggression were the sheatfish. Mercilessly they were plucked from the water, taken straight to cutting boards as thick as dictionaries, and dispatched with knife strikes between the head and body. From there most of the pieces were plunged into baths of ice water to shock the flesh and skin, prepare them for what was to come.
“What an odd ingredient…” Wilmot muttered to himself, two fingers playing his lower lip like a banjo string.
“You think so?” the second voice gave him a start. He hadn’t noticed that the chairman had taken his seat and overheard. Each contestant was joined by castle servants, now dressed to serve as sous chefs, two apiece. The sunken kitchen developed into a flurry of noise: the smack of knives on wood, the ting of metal bowls rearranging, the sizzle of fats in hot pans, and the crisp sound of vegetables separated from their top greens.
“Chairman, I apologize,” Wilmot stammered. “I was just thinking aloud.”
“Tell me, what do you think is so odd about my choice of ingredient?” His stare communicated both that the question was friendly and also that he was required to answer, as well as do so thoroughly, like a student describing the method by which he solved a math problem.
“This sheatfish… it is a catfish, yes?” Igarashi nodded once. “Though I’m not familiar with this variety I do know a fair amount about American catfish. My family cooked with them often. Frying was the most common method, as the flavor could be called muddy. They are bottom-feeders, which imparts their flesh with notes of… well… bottom.” Igarashi knew there was more, and expected it.
“Additionally, if everyone were to fry the fish it would result in a bland competition, no matter how tasty each dish was… Also… These fish are very large. I’m under the impression that a larger, and thus older, catfish is far less palatable than a young one. They grow densely fatty with age.”
“All correct,” Igarashi admitted, “but the work ahead of them is actually even more difficult than you might expect.” Wilmot blinked, powerfully enough to move his whole head. “The sheatfish can live fifty years, and every specimen provided here is at least thirty. It is recommended fish this old not be eaten for two reasons.
One is, as you say, the concentration of unpalatable fat in the tissues. The other concerns this fish’s place at the top of its food chain. Toxins, often introduced by human pollution, are eaten by small prey animals, which are eaten by larger, which are eaten by the sheatfish. This causes the toxins to accumulate in its flesh to worrying degrees.
One problem I have addressed. These come from a farm, and so have no toxins. As for the fat, that is up to the chefs to solve. You see, over the years, I have seen the apex of cuisine when it comes to the finest ingredients, but there is yet more to explore.
It is arguably a greater challenge to elevate a poor ingredient, so, for the foreseeable future, that is what the banquet will require of its participants. I don’t doubt their ability. Tell me, Mr. Barclay, if you were down there, how would you deal with the conundrum of the fat?”
Wilmot thought hard. His first instinct was to meticulously, with the sharpest knife imaginable, cut all the fat away, the same way he had characterized his jollof rice with time-consuming effort, but with only four hours from beheading to plate this would never be possible. He also now realized it was an embarrassingly childish solution, a clumsy act of brute force like trying every key on a ring in a lock until the correct one was discovered.
“I can see the cogs in your mind turning,” Igarashi said gleefully, “but there’s no need to strain yourself. If this was a problem you could solve, you would have been invited to compete already. Now relax, and enjoy the show.” The chairman sat back and crossed his arms, but Wilmot could not maintain such a reserved energy. He leaned even further forward, ready to sacrifice himself as an ingredient should he tumble out and into the battlefield.
Each chef had a style all their own, and to Wilmot each style looked like it could be the curriculum of an entire culinary school. Miss Michifude was the most traditional in terms of her equipment, but he did see her wielding a small ivory horn, which must have been carved from a larger piece, as no animal had such small tusks.
She put it to her ear and brought her head close to whatever she currently had over a flame, presumably to listen to the tiniest sounds of it cooking for any signs of readiness or abnormalities.
Her method came across more in technique. She had taken the smallest fish of the three, and had taken only one on top of that. That meant there would be no mixing of fishy flavors to confuse her measurements: one fish, one fat level, one consistency, one age, and one flavor. It allowed her focus, as did the sparing amount of other ingredients.
Altogether she was using less food than would fit in the basket he had seen Yanagidate loading things into the previous night, and that was with the curled fish taking up more than half of it. He recalled her title: Michifude of the bite most excellent. Would she really offer them something that was just one bite? Such a strategy would be at least a double-edged sword, for while there would be no opportunities to linger on imperfections there would also be no way to savor it beyond the swallow. She risked making her food forgettable.
Yanagidate’s personality came out in full force only when cooking it seemed. Wilmot saw the man smiling to himself, and to the judges, as he flitted about his table using many things that the Liberian did not recognize, in both the categories of tool and ingredient.
On the tool side of things, his knife collection was unusual and impressive. Some of his cutting boards had attached devices that looked like they were more suited to cutting paper. Dozens of blades were lined up, close together, and all attached to a hinge and handle, allowing him to place a vegetable underneath, pull down once, and slice all of it to identical thickness. The blades could even be adjusted to change the number and size of the slices.
Sometimes he didn’t bother with the hinge, using a ten-bladed but single-gripped knife. Confident in his precision, he would shout and smack down with it, pulling away without so much as a smear on the blades, even when cutting something with slimy innards. Wilmot watched in amazement as he attacked a corncob with one chop and then walked away. It didn’t seem to have any effect on the vegetable, until fifteen seconds later when it collapsed into slices.
And this was no ordinary corncob either. As he had warned Wilmot, there were no blue tomatoes to be found that day, but there was a covered basket placed conspicuously on his table before everything started, very close to the judges in order to tantalize them. They knew full well that was the ace up his sleeve for the evening, something from his personal laboratory greenhouse.
When the time came to use it he even spent precious seconds bandying the basket about in an almost seductive dance before whipping the away the cloth covering it, which revealed a pyramid of stacked ears of corn, every plump kernel a luscious uniform red, like lipstick. The color was such a shock that it drew gasps from the audience. Even one of his sous chefs paused to ogle it, and had to be smacked back into action with a dish towel.
“It seems today he is Yanagidate of the red corn,” Igarashi commented idly. The chef basked in the admiration, but he didn’t get to do so for long. His smile died when the sous chefs for Kandagawa disappeared into a different chamber and returned carrying a large piece of wood between them.
Most Americans and Liberians would not recognize such a thing, perhaps thinking it a small coat tree that couldn’t decide which height its branches should hold, but Wilmot knew what it was from his extended stay in China. It was a wooden dummy used to practice martial arts, each peg-like branch meant to withstand blows dealt with the forearm. What use Kandagawa had for it right now, Wilmot couldn’t even hazard a guess.
A clump of dough as big as a man’s head flew through the air just as the dummy was set down. Both sous chefs dived out of the way; it smacked wetly against the top of the post and started to roll down. Kandagawa, who had tossed it with flour-covered hands, closed the distance with a flying leap and began his kneading assault.
Much like the martial artists Wilmot had seen, Kandagawa’s blows were fast as lightning, making a distinct clacking sound against the wood each time, but his real opponent was the dough as gravity forced it to slither toward the floor. The man’s strikes kept it up, flipping it over branches, stretching it, pounding it until it adhered to the main post.
“Excellent showmanship, but it doesn’t serve a culinary purpose,” Wilmot said.
“Don’t be so sure,” the chairman cautioned, prompting him to look again, not at the man grunting and shouting as he fought with his creation, but at the dough itself. Something was changing as the process went on. The color darkened slightly, perceptible only to the trained eye, and the consistency became a touch stiffer.
Wilmot tried to see intent in not just the process, but each individual strike. If it wasn’t just a show, then each strike was calculated, so what was the man aiming for that would hide away in a blob of dough?
“Air bubbles,” he realized aloud. Igarashi clapped his gloved hands three times. “He’s looking for air bubbles, and forcing them out each time he finds one. Whatever he bakes it into will have a different texture as a result.”
He refused to express any further doubts during the cooking, so as not to embarrass himself further. Instead he turned his mind to predicting the final form of the various dishes. He already knew Yanagidate’s offering would involve the chili-hinted noodles, and he spotted the man adding squid ink to the noodle dough to turn them a deep lustrous black. He also cooked them lightly in eel fat.
The giant tubular radish appeared, and it was cut into thin slices, though not so thin that they could be seen through. Curiously, a small circular hole, about the size of a quail egg, was cut in each of the slices, but not centered.
As for the required sheatfish, Yanagidate seemed to avoid the problem of the fat by dicing the fish as small as possible and only selecting the least fatty shreds of flesh, which he then mixed in a bowl with herbs, whisked egg, breadcrumbs, and kernels of his crimson corn sliced fresh from the cob. These were dropped in oil and fried into meatballs. Wilmot guessed a soup was the final goal, as fish meatballs rarely mingled with noodles that were simply sauced.
Kandagawa’s dough eventually became small circular pastry shells, which had to be filled with some kind of savory mixture in order to utilize the fish. Wilmot saw egg, but couldn’t identify many of the small vegetables getting added to it.
The shells were placed on small wooden pedestals, structures like sparse miniature spiral stairs on the serving plates. Each one got three shells, so Wilmot guessed that the crusts or fillings would be slightly different for each one: a three course meal in six bites.
Michifude was indeed plating up single bites of what looked like a layered terrine. She surrounded them with a veritable garden of garnish, much of which was so aromatic that the scent made its way up past the judges and to Wilmot’s nose. Two bites, at least in a sense, he realized. The smell of the garnish was meant to be the appetizer, pleasant in itself, and also preparing the palate for the specific flavors on approach.
The dishes were coming together, but the competition did not finish without incident. With less than twenty minutes remaining Yanagidate and Kandagawa crossed paths, bumped into each other. The older man yelped and threw up one of his arms; a trickle of blood ran all the way to his elbow and started to drip.
“He cut me!”
“I’m sorry; it was an accident,” Yanagidate claimed coolly, waving a knife to indicate it had been sitting idly across one arm moments ago. Wilmot’s suspicions were roused. There was no blood on the knife, and he had witnessed the previous night how much of a master of hidden blades the chef in green was. Still, it didn’t seem his place to speak up.
“Are you alright to continue Mr. Kandagawa?” Chairman Igarashi asked. Without a word Kandagawa marched over to the long salamander set into the wall, its flames blazing behind its cast iron grills. He placed his forearm against one of the grills, well away from any of the warming food, and barely winced as the heat cauterized the wound, sending up a steamy scent trail of seared Kandagawa filet. The judges gasped at his stoic face and stance.
When he returned to his table he gave more orders to his sous chefs while he plunged his forearm into a bowl of ice water. Apparently he trusted them enough to finish the plating while he treated his wound. A single drop of blood on the plate likely would have been his end in the competition.
A large unseen bell rang when the time was up. The tasting was to proceed without delay, while the foods were at the optimal warmth or chill, with those who didn’t present first allowed to continue working, solely to manage temperatures until it was their turn.
Michifude had first honors. The sous chefs delivered every judge’s portion to them, and then one each to the chairman and Wilmot. Protocol was to let Igarashi taste first, so everyone turned their seats around to watch and do as he did. First he leaned in and took a deep breath. Wilmot copied him, and was quickly overwhelmed.
The dense foliage ring of garnish surrounding her dish was more than a scent. It was a journey, deep into the heart of a very specific kind of swamp that Wilmot recognized, though he had no idea how someone like Michifude would learn to conjure the exact smell of mangroves. It was the only swampy smell that could be called clean or refreshing, and when paired with catfish created the mental image of one that was not a bottom-feeder, but a decorative aquarium fish.
The bite most excellent in question was a cylindrical terrine of just two gelled layers. Michifude stood at the chairman’s side and described it to the judges as they prepared to taste it.
“I call this: Sheatfish after a walk, under an umbrella of flowers. Please do not eat any of the garnish, and I ask that you consume the terrine in one bite and savor before chewing.” Igarashi obeyed, and then so did everyone else. Even Kandagawa and Yanagidate were provided with samples. “The bottom layer is sheatfish essence mixed with the more pleasant fats of trout skin, chilled and set. The top layer is made from flowers, used in lieu of black pepper.”
The top layer was bright pink, hiding the dull brown-gray of the catfish layer. The idea of mixing floral and fishy flavors alarmed Wilmot, but once he started to chew he quickly understood. The note of flower was nearly undetectable, serving only to further clean the fish’s image in their minds, brightening its skin and putting a soulful coat of wobbling tears over its eyes.
The petals she had reduced truly tasted very peppery, the spice making up for the chilled nature of the dish. Wilmot had to purposefully remember he was eating cold food, as the fact kept trying to slip out of his fingers like a wriggling newt. He didn’t want it to get away, so he yearned for more chances to catch it, but when he looked at his plate he realized another prey-fact had escaped him: there was only one bite, and it was a bite most excellent.
It left him feeling like he’d just suffered a missed connection with an old flame, and all the specifics of the ingredients kept eluding his senses the more he tried to remember what he had eaten not thirty seconds ago. She had made them forget the unpleasant qualities of sheatfish with a dish that tasted very much like fish.
“What did you think?” Igarashi leaned over and asked slyly as the judges were all desperately taking notes of their fleeting impressions.
“I don’t even know,” Mr. Barclay admitted, “and I’m certain that was the point. I don’t know as I’ve ever had food that confounded me so much. I… I want to write that dish a letter to express my feelings, but I have writer’s block!”
“Well said,” the chairman chuckled. “I might’ve already forgotten the fish’s name myself, if I hadn’t been the one to select it.” Michifude bowed after Igarashi initiated some spreading applause. Wilmot didn’t think her a very expressive woman, but perhaps that was just the contestants trying to be professional, as none of them acted exuberant. He caught a flicker of a smile as she returned to the work area below. It was lovely on her face.
Next came Kandagawa. They were all served his small staircases, giving Wilmot his first good look at the completed offering. To him they looked almost like quiches, but there was a whole world of filling on the inside, evidenced by enticing swirls of green and yellow, like a whirlpool in a seaweed forest.
“These miniature meat pies are filled with sheatfish meat and a variety of vegetables,” Kandagawa explained. “You’ll find that the top one has the densest crust and filling, so I ask you eat them in descending order. That is all.” Igarashi and the others followed the instructions. Wilmot took his time chewing, crossing his arms to figure it out.
But there wasn’t anything to figure out. He wasn’t looking to put them off their guard the way Michifude had. This was comfort food, and that it did. The piping heat in the middle was suppressed by the surrounding layers, and the spot where it was concentrated was too small to burn but not too small to feel, leaving his inner cheek feeling like a tent tarp basking in the warmth of a campfire.
He guessed that Kandagawa had cooked as much of the fat out as possible, replacing it with the fats of egg yolk and a little lard. When it came to the vegetables he could place only bamboo shoots, which had been steamed to the exact consistency of the fish. The flavors were rich, robust, and assertive, but the plushness of the pastry cradled their blows.
Each pie was lighter than the last, riding the cumulative impact of those swallowed before. It prevented any part of the experience from becoming overwhelming, kept them from getting tired of the flavor or feeling full. The fish never got too fishy, the egg too eggy, or the pastry too dry. Wilmot respected the dish, and the man, and the eating experience, and it was not more complicated than any of that. It served as a reminder, after Michifude’s experimental take, that food was still food, and they didn’t have to worry about it going anywhere.
Wilmot suspected it was a deliberate counterpoint, and if so that put Yanagidate in something of a tough position. If Michifude mystified them, and Kandagawa reassured them, what was left for the surly fellow in green? They would find out momentarily, as there was no need for any whispered discussion of Kandagawa’s food. It contained sheatfish and was very pleasing, end of discussion.
There was much more nuance, but less so subtlety, in the hostile glare the two men gave each other as they passed by on the steps. The last shreds of cowering dough crust were wiped away to make room for bowls of soup. Once Wilmot had his he examined it, but he could only do so through a small hole. The thin slices of radish, exactly as wide as the bowl, floated atop the soup and blocked view of much of what lurked beneath; they needed the man himself to explain it.
“What you’re looking at is ice-fishing soup. The perfect temperature is maintained just under the radish ice. Two prizes await the patient and skilled fisher, one much more rewarding than the other. The ice must remain in place, but it can swivel. Please, go fishing.”
All of the judges were smart enough to recognize that the provided chopsticks were the best utensils for the job, and switched over if they had been using cutlery before. Wilmot’s training in China meant he was more than accustomed to them, and as it happened he was the first one to successfully fish something out, a something long and lustrous black.
“Mr. Barclay has landed an eel,” Yanagidate said. “The lesser and more common of the two, but fulfilling all the same. If you please.” All eyes were on the Liberian as he grabbed the tip of the noodle with his lips, sucked it down, and chewed. His ensuing expression sent all the others diving down their fishing holes in search of trophies.
Incredibly, Yanagidate had transformed the noodle into an eel, not only in appearance thanks to the squid ink, but in flavor with the combination of eel fat and the essence of the pepper seeds, which were so subtle that they forced the tongue to assume a stronger version of the present flavor rather than the sensation of spicy.
And this was the understudy of the dish. Wilmot went hunting for the star. He found it when its red eyes stared back at him through his fishing hole: sheatfish meatballs studded with red corn kernels. It barely fit through the radish hole, and it was so heavy on his chopsticks that he raced to pop it in his mouth before it could splash back down and send the radish ice flipping through the air.
So that was his game. He had gone for dazzling. There were too many flavors dancing on the palate for Wilmot to count. The fish had its own seasoning, the breadcrumbs, hidden in the center to keep them from getting too soggy, had their own seasoning, and the corn did as well. He was walking through an aquarium under conflicting fireworks shows.
He went back for more, having to slurp his way through many more eels before he could find a second one, and while they were indeed lesser they were still the work of an expert. Wilmot was reading a pulse-pounding novel as he waited in line to ride a bucking bronco. By the time his bowl was emptied, and he was permitted to eat the radish, he absolutely needed its comparatively mild bite to calm him down.
Yanagidate’s food was stimulating and dizzying, packing enough punches to satisfy anyone who mistakenly wandered in expecting a boxing match between a spider and an octopus. Only when Wilmot’s breathing began to even out did he detect something in the aftertaste: iron. Strange. It was a genuinely unpleasant note, only present at the very end, but there all the same. He couldn’t imagine what purpose it served. Could the most aloof of the three actually have made the most obvious mistake?
He scanned the faces of the other judges to see if any of them noticed. A few seemed to, their puckered lips lingering on it, and he guessed others did as well but had trained themselves not too betray their reactions until it came time for scoring.
That time was nigh. All three competitors lined up at the end of their work tables, standing proud and ready. If there was a lack of confidence among them anywhere it was neutralized even more than the fat of the thirty year old sheatfish.
The hidden bell rang again, prompting the judges to pull out slips of paper and ceremonial quill pens. They each wrote down the winner of their single point and handed the slip to one of the servants, who collected them in a small tortoiseshell box. When it was full it made its way to Chairman Igarashi, who would award the only three points that weren’t anonymous at the end of the tallying.
“The first point of the eleventh Chairman’s Banquet is awarded to…” He let the anticipation build, grin sweeping across them all as his gloved fingers danced on the edges of the strip. “Michifude of the bite most excellent.” She showed no reaction; it was only the first of fifteen after all.
As the chairman read them off one by one Wilmot tried to pick his own personal winner. If not for that final note of iron, Yanagidate would have been in the running, but as it stood only Michifude and Kandagawa seemed to operate without error. Even with only two choices he found it exceedingly complicated to choose which metrics to judge them by.
If the lobster should go to the dish he would like to eat most frequently, Kandagawa would win. If the standard was invention Michifude would take it. Best use of the key ingredient? Kandagawa. Most variegated experience? Michifude. Presentation? Kandagawa. Olfactory presentation? Michifude. He hadn’t reached a decision by the time Igarashi was finished with the slips.
“So,” he told the chamber authoritatively, “we sit at five points for Kandagawa, five points for Michifude, and two points for Yanagidate.” Wilmot hadn’t imagined the iron aftertaste then, and it had doomed the ice-fishing soup to fracture and collapse. “The chairman’s bounty of three points goes to… Yanagidate.”
There was much muttering amongst the judges; this was unexpected. The chairman was known to have the most refined palate of them all, given his palace sat on parceled out farmlands containing every ingredient known to man. He was expected to know which region a Swiss cheese came from by licking the empty air in one of its holes. Wilmot had even heard an anecdote earlier where Igarashi had claimed to taste the difference between a lamb slaughtered while happy and one that died afraid.
“We are left with a three way draw,” Igarashi said, quieting everyone. “This means that all three contestants will advance to the second day, but it will remain the final. The chairman’s bounty of three points will be increased to five, creating a total of seventeen, which is not divisible by two or three.
After tomorrow’s vote the contestant with the least points will be eliminated and then there will be a second vote among the remaining two if necessary. Then the forbidden lobster will be awarded. Tomorrow brings a fresh theme ingredient. Go now, all of you, get some rest. Rekindle your hunger. I bid you good evening.”
The chairman excused himself, and did not linger with the judges. The chefs too excused themselves for preparatory purposes, which Wilmot didn’t dream of interrupting, so he stayed with the judges to discuss.
And much discussion was had, with judges rotating out of it to take several laps around the exterior of the dining arena: exercise to speed the digestion process. Wilmot stayed glued to the judge’s box however, leaning over its side, not so presumptuous as to take a seat even outside the competition.
Everyone had tasted the iron afterthought in Yanagidate’s soup. The chairman’s decision made no sense to them either, and they couldn’t remember the last time such a thing had occurred. Such people might have spent all night concocting theories for it, but the servants shooed them out of there after a couple hours so they could begin cleaning up and arranging the next round.
Many chose to stay up a while longer, wandering the corridors or grounds, admiring the immaculate state of the castle. Most ended up migrating to a balcony decorated with orange paper lanterns: a cozy atmosphere made all the cozier by the tea trays the servants provided. Mr. Barclay never made it there.
It was a consequence of not taking the earlier opportunity to walk his meal off. He was brimming with energy well into the middle of the night. After winding his way through the huts again, and walking the gardens, and walking down to the docks and back, he found his weary feet forced him to stop randomly, somewhere outside what he guessed to be the laundry, judging by the warm wet air and the smell of soap.
“Excuse me,” someone said from behind him, leading him to realize he was taking up the whole corridor just letting his feet rest. He put his back to the wall and apologized, seeing what he assumed to be a servant carrying a tall folded pile of white towels so warm that they were steaming. The woman kept walking, but stopped past him and came back, lowering the pile enough that he could see her face. It was Michifude.
“So what did you think?” she asked him, leaning on the wall next to him.
“Of what exactly?” he asked, trying to maintain composure.
“Of my bite.”
“Most excellent.” It was genuinely all he could think to say, but she smiled all the same. “Are the towels somehow for your next dish? Nothing would surprise me at this point.”
“No… although I did hear about an item served here once: a broth that had to be sucked through a silk screen.” She dispelled the humorous image of slurping choking judges by smelling the fresh towels. “These are just for me. I like to lay them out and sleep on them while they’re still steamy.” She didn’t quite giggle, but Wilmot could sense a bubbly flutter in the air just in front of her lips.
“Childish, I know.”
“I was going to say charming,” Wilmot corrected. “It sounds delightful.” She slipped two of them off the pile and handed them over, implying he was free to try it himself, or perhaps to encourage him to keep his hands to himself, if that’s what he was thinking. “You seem much happier than you were earlier. Relaxed as well.”
“Now I know I can compete with the other two. I was never sure, even as we were cooking. The judgment bears it out though.” She clicked her tongue. “That was a real bastard of a fish.” They laughed, trying to keep it quiet for those who were asleep. She asked where he was from, which gave him the opportunity to explain Liberia, which was still largely unknown outside of the continent. His passion for narrowing down its cuisine emanated off of him, more than the towels’ steam.
He wasn’t too lost in it to notice how she reacted. Very positive. Her eyes were alive, lit up, deeper with each sentence. Mr. Barclay did not consider himself skilled with women, though there were two women in his past who would have vehemently disagreed, one even attempting to leave America for Liberia with him. Despite his attitude he was sorely tempted indeed.
It was impossible to tell if Michifude was beautiful, but not because of some generally confusing combination of features; it was because he already knew too much about her. Her passion for food was inspiring, her style elegant, her decisions measured, but she still knew how to enjoy herself. All of this in combination overwhelmed the simple notions of her face and body. Her soul was beautiful to his.
Though she seemed to be enjoying herself, she also noticed he was leaning closer and closer as their conversation went on, and with a smile dismissed what would eventually become an advance.
“I must go,” she said. “These towels are getting far too cold. You can have one more bite of me tomorrow.” With that she walked off, hips swaying, small feet bouncing like popping corn kernels. Once she was out of sight Wilmot wiped the thrill off his face with one of the towels, which was cool compared to his hot collar.
The man started making his way back to his room, with the quickest path, if he had mentally mapped the confusing papery walls of the castle correctly, passing through the dining arena. Drowsiness was finally overcoming excitement, like a heavy woolen blanket pulled over the head, when a new sensation stopped it.
Was it heat? It was difficult to tell. There was something heated about it, but heat always had a source, and no part of Wilmot’s body responded more to it than any other. He thought he heard crackling, but it echoed in his mind, as if it was just an artifact of his imagination’s interaction with the lingering influence of the speech berries. The compound was trying to make something in the castle speak so that he could understand, and was failing.
As little as he grasped what he heard, once he rounded a stone corner and saw the arena he was even less capable of deciphering what he saw. By then the heat sensation had sapped him of energy and he was leaning on the wall, scraping along it as he stumbled forward. Hot drool pooled in his mouth, descended as ropes from a slack swollen lip.
His vision was distorted, like someone had painted the room on cloth and then proceeded to stretch the sides in opposite directions, back and forth. All of it was coming from the salamander; he could feel that now. Wilmot stumbled closer, but it was set in the wall, so he couldn’t tell what the objects lined up on the metal grates were.
They hadn’t been there at the end of the match; that much he remembered. The twin smells of meat and fat hit his nose. Hams? Beef shanks? Ostrich legs? Wilmot had to abandon the wall to get a better angle, but he barely held himself up in something like an indecisive stagger. The salamander was lit. Not just lit. Roaring. Flames poured out the top of it, clawing at the gray rock, but leaving not a single black scorch.
Something dark and red danced lower, behind the grates, among the fires. They looked like forearms and hands, but not of men or apes. The wrists were bulbous with bone, like chicken leg nubs just popped out of the thigh joint. The fingers were impossibly long and thick, tipped in raking cat claws. If they were wrapped in skin it was not a skin he’d ever seen before, and he’d plucked a hundred exotic birds down to the hide.
The mind-crackle grew louder. Was it their voices? Were they begging he free them from their fiery torture pit? No. They weren’t angry. Impatient. They couldn’t quite reach far enough through the black bars of the salamander to snag the meat roasting on its edge.
Wilmot tried to focus, even with his eyes seeming to roll in independent directions. What was that food, exactly? He used his hands to steady his head, his neck barely able to hold it up. It was good enough to bring the smorgasbord into partial focus. The cuts came from more than one body, but it was now impossible to mistake them for any other ingredient.
The Liberian’s nose was full of the scent of roasting human flesh, crisping human skin, and simmering human bone marrow. There was a head, cheek flat against the scalding iron, eyes scooped out, all the hair burned away. The shriveling skin was slowly peeling back along the scalp.
Torsos male and female took up the most space, a slit up the middle indicating they had been gutted. There were limbs as well, all the nails pulled out, oils and fats bubbling at the pinkish edge of their beds. The hands were reaching, pounding, thrashing. The red fingers couldn’t quite make it through, couldn’t carve up the feast. They wailed at him to open it, to let them out, to do it or else join them.
They were banging on it now, and Wilmot could no longer bear the overwhelming stimulus. He collapsed, hands trying to cover his eyes, pinch his nose shut, and seal his ears all at the same time. He whimpered at the crackle-speech, begged it to go away and leave him in peace.
“Mr. Barclay! I’ll leave if you want me to!” His head shot up. The sounds were gone, along with everything else that accompanied them. The salamander was dark, nothing but shadow within, and there wasn’t even a bone anywhere on it. The only sign of life nearby was Michifude, who stood at the same corner he had rounded moments ago.
She was holding more towels, all freshly steaming again. Their conversation had lasted so long that they lost their potency, so she must have gone back for more and was now attempting to return to her room as well. She asked if he was alright.
“Miss… I’m… I don’t know!” Wilmot stood as his head cleared; he wiped sweat away with his hand. This made him realize he had dropped the towels she had so graciously given him upon entering the arena. They sat twisted, and clearly-stepped on, at the foot of the salamander near her. “I’m sorry. I… I saw something. There were fires in there, and hideous hands with claws. There were carved bodies! Human bodies! Sitting right there, cooking. I could smell them… and hear them!”
She stared wide-eyed, eventually setting her towels on the floor and approaching the iron instrument of torture. Leaning, she scoured every shadow in search of something, but she came back with a shake of her head. Her hands were resting on it, so it wasn’t even warm.
“It… It must have been a hallucination,” Wilmot said, unable to accept his own sentiment. “Could be an adverse reaction to these translation berries.”
“No,” she said, certain. “They don’t cause hallucination, and if they did it would only be auditory.”
“It was no dream!” Wilmot insisted, but he didn’t have the energy to argue further. His feet ached, and they were shouted down by everything else that suddenly ached more. Michifude looked at the crumpled towels he had abandoned, and then back to him.
“I believe you,” was all she said, and he believed her in turn. Without another word she picked up her towels, held them awkwardly in one arm, and grabbed his bicep with the other. She escorted the weary man to his room, helped him into bed. Then she wrapped him in the steaming towels. Their suffocating warmth destroyed his ability to remain conscious; the last thing he saw was her leaving. Her small feet had lost their happy bounce. His last coherent thought was that he had damaged her chances for the banquet. Without that pep she might not have everything she needed to elevate her dish, and all because he had some snap horror of the one food that was truly and rightly forbidden.
As he plunged into sleep an irrational fear gripped him: that his lost appetite may never return. It had bolted into the forest like terrified venison.