At last he had all the components needed for his greatest masterpiece yet. Grinning like an evil warlord in an old legend, Alex Roth gloated over the fruits of his labour.
From outside this place of incredible heat, he heard groans of misery. Students had dragged themselves from their beds at midday, most worse for wear from partying the night before. Wine bottles filled the tables, benches and ground of the courtyard, where a muttering groundskeeper was cleaning up.
The hungover students wandered toward the eatery or other places but—most importantly—they avoided the insula’s kitchen.
Alex would need it for his ultimate project.
His ingredients lay before him.
Finely ground flour. Fresh custard and apples. A large cut of mutton. Two whole chickens. Salt. Pepper. Vegetables. Condiments and spices both familiar and new. He was ready.
It was pie time.
The first thing he’d started was the gravy.
He’d placed meaty mutton bones in one large cauldron and chicken bones in another, filled them with fresh water, and set them to simmer yesterday afternoon, until the two pots of broth were done. Now, that the meat was falling off the bones, he’d restarted the pot and began adding herbs, spices and vegetables: garlic, onions, and other root vegetables.
In the meantime, he’d stacked wood under a grill in preparation to start a fire. He spooned flour into a large cast-iron pan and set it on the grill, then gathering flint and tinder, set the wood on fire. Soon, a roaring flame blazed beneath the grill and he began stirring the dry flour. He stirred slowly and carefully to avoid whipping the fine dust into the air: flour was flammable and if enough kicked up in an enclosed space, it would explode. Blowing up the insular kitchen probably wouldn’t be very well received.
McHarris had driven the need for extra-care into his head; he always remembered the baker’s warnings whenever he was cooking. As he stirred the browning flour, he wondered if other students knew how important it was to be extra-careful in the kitchen: the last thing that needed to be mixed was airborne flour and the flame-magic in the ovens. An image of drunk students having a flour fight came into his head. Maybe he could ask the residential assistant about caution signs for the kitchen.
Using The Mark, he watched both dishes cooking as it fed him images of previous triumphs in the kitchen. It had years of memories to pick from and Alex was revelling in his food preparation and seeing all of the successes—large and small—he’d ever had cooking or baking, paraded in front of him.
This time around, The Mark’s intrusions were only beneficial and would help him feed his guests with the best food he could create for them.
Watching the flour, he stirred it until it had toasted to a nice brown, dry roux, then he set it aside for later.
Next came the pie crust.
“Do you need me yet?”
“Aaaargh!” he screamed, shattering his absorption in his cooking.
He looked behind to see Theresa giving him an amused, crooked smile. He hadn’t heard a hint of her entering the kitchen.
Was it his imagination or had she somehow gotten quieter?
He looked her over critically. “You’re sure you’re up to this?”
From the way Theresa blinked bleary-eyed, and the slight scent of soap from her hair, it looked like she had just woken up and bathed. It was becoming a pattern.
Ever since she had gone to Life Enforcement I, she had acted like a woman possessed. She’d taken her textbook and had been devouring the thing like a wolf over a fallen doe. All day she would hunch over it at the dining table and then wordlessly get up and go onto the balcony.
She would sit, cross legged, with her eyes shut and stay that way with a bucket close by.
Her breathing would grow quiet—despite her breaths being slow and deep—and she would stay that way for an hour at a time. Then, she would suddenly stand, looking exhausted even though she’d only been sitting, and then start pouring over the book again.
Some days she’d keep it at until she suddenly made a horrible sound, reached for the bucket then coughed up stuff that smelled absolutely nasty. It was only a little bit each time, but she’d always be exhausted afterward.
Yet, no matter how many times he asked if she was okay, she always said-
“I’m fine. Better than fine, what do you need me to do?” she asked.
Sighing, he looked over to the kitchen supplies. Well, if she said she was fine, he’d just have to trust her. She had said that the coughing and exhaustion was all part of the beginning processes—according to her book—so all he could do was believe her.
“If you could cube this mutton and rub some flour on it, that’d be great. Oh, and debone the chicken. Oh, and cut the apples too if you get a chance.”
“You got it.” Theresa rolled up her sleeves.
The two of them stood beside each other in front of the counter top. Theresa cut meat and peeled and chopped fruit, while Alex started to make two sets of dough for the pie crusts—buttery for the apple and custard, and a potato-wheat, and herb crust for the mutton.
They stood in contented silence, listening to the sound of crackling fire and boiling broth.
“Is your friend from your class still coming tonight?” Alex asked.
Theresa nodded, her ponytail bouncing as she did. “She won’t talk much…we’re still figuring out the language thing, but she was excited. Are all yours?”
“I think Isolde—that second year—might be the only one that might be a no-show. Thundar was really looking forward to it, and well…if Khalik doesn’t show, I can just go bang on his door.”
She chuckled. “It’ll be a full house. Just like back home.”
“Yeah.” He smiled.
“Have your parents written back yet?”
“Not yet.” She finished cubing a chop of lamb. “But the post station said my letter might take time to get there. Then it might be longer to get a reply…I wish it were faster.”
“A little,” she admitted. “And…I miss them.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“What’d you think they’ll say about me?” she looked at him. “You know, following great-grandfather’s path?”
“I have no idea. You think they’ll be happy?”
She shrugged. “They were never really interested in that kind of stuff, even when grandfather was alive and would tell the stories about his father. I have no idea what they’ll say.”
“How about…‘Oh Theresa, please don’t split the heavens’?”
She stifled a laugh. “I told you, Professor Kabbot-Xin said that wasn’t true.”
“Ugh, so what good is it then?”
“Oh you have no idea,” she said, a wistful look coming across her face. “It’s like this this…warmth. Like…you know how good you feel when you just get over being sick? You spend a week not being able to breathe through your nose and then you can?”
“It’s like that but better.” Her eyes grew distant. “Each time I get a little farther, it’s like getting over a sickness you never knew you had. The book says I’m expelling years of built up impurities, and starting to replace it with the lifeforce of the world itself. Can you imagine that?”
He chuckled. “You’re really enjoying it, aren’t you? Listen to you, quoting the book. Miss: ‘a lot of books are more boring than the trees they’re made from’.”
She winced, recalling an incident at the church school a few years ago. “I still can’t believe I said that to the teacher.”
“I can. I just can’t believe she let you live,” he laughed. “Think about it, if you’d put this much effort into learning back in the church school, I think she would have liked you a lot more.”
“Yes, but,” she paused. “Ugh, I wish I could have taken it all a bit more seriously but…a lot of books just made me want to sleep. It was fine when we were learning about other realms or more practical stuff, but ‘the philosophy of Uldar’s sects’? I just couldn’t.”
“Hey, you don’t like cabbage, right? Well, to me it was like eating the cabbage so you could have dessert.”
“Maybe I just needed to find the right kind of cabbage then,” she said. “Like this course. It hasn’t even really started yet and I already wish it would never end.”
He smiled, watching her from the side. “I’m glad you’re happy.”
“I am happy.” She smiled. “Very happy. And you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah I really am.”
Another period of peaceful silence passed.
“Hey, could you pass me that cleaver?” Theresa asked. “Gotta split this bone before I can cut it out.”
Concentrating, he slowly built the spell array for forcedisk. Focusing on the parts of the array that were growing more familiar with practice, he completed the mana circuit in about twenty seconds.
The forcedisk came to life: a lot more solid than it had been when he’d conjured it for the first time.
Willing the crimson glowing disk into the air, it floated across the kitchen, slid beneath a cleaver hanging from a hook high on the wall, and balanced the blade on top of itself. It floated over to Theresa, who took the cleaver and then—seemingly unsure—gave the disk a gentle pat like it was a small cat. “Er, thanks,” she said. “Hey, you’re getting better with that. It’s a lot faster than it was earlier in the week.”
She split the bone.
“You noticed? Awesome.” He felt a little flutter of pride. “I’ve been practicing a lot with it. It’s pretty similar to my forceball spell. That’s the thing with studying spells from the same school, different parts of the spell arrays are the same, so if you-”
She nodded, listening intently despite the fact he’d excitedly told her that part a half a dozen times already. A little smile touched her lips.
“-once I got the initial parts down, it’s been pretty easy to figure out the rest.” He kneaded the dough into a nice consistency, following and building on all the most successful little movements of his hands that The Mark showed him. “Even with…distractions.”
She nodded, understanding what he meant by ‘distractions’.
“Has…” he changed topics. “Has Selina said anything to you that I should know?”
“No.” She shook her head. “She’s still into her book, still talking about how excited she is for school.”
“She didn’t say anything about the beastarium?”
Theresa shook her head. “She seems…fine.”
“Yeah, that’s all she said when I talked to her about it too.”
“She’s okay, Alex. She’s tough.”
“Yeah, I know, but I worry.” He set aside one disk of dough to be kneaded later, and started on the next. “At least she seems happy.”
Hopefully, things would stay that way. At least, for a while.
A very stiff knock sounded from the door, and Alex rushed to pull it open.
“Isolde! I didn’t think you’d make it!”
The tall young woman shifted awkwardly. “As I said, it would have been rude to refuse. Here, I have brought this for your table.” She held out a jar to him. “Strawberry marmalade, sent from the countryside near my home in the Rhinean Empire. Do enjoy it.”
“Oooo, I think I will.” He smiled excitedly at the stuff. “Now, come in! Come in! Everyone else is here!”
The fairly small apartment was bursting with life.
To make room for everyone, Alex and Khalik had hit upon the idea of bringing Khalik’s chairs and dining table from his apartment and putting it together with Alex’s to get more space. The muscular young man was seated across the table from Thundar, and both were talking about combat festivals from their homelands.
Shishi had arrived first, and was sitting between Selina and Theresa. The two young women were having a conversation in a mix of slow Common and Tarimite. Each of them had to concentrate and repeat themselves to make sure they were understood, but they looked relaxed in each other’s company.
Selina’s heart had been completely captured by Najyah, who rested on a tall perch that Khalik had brought over. The gigantic bird of prey preened herself and leaned into the young girl’s caresses as she pet her feathers.
Brutus sat beside Theresa, letting one of his heads be pet, while the others looked at Selina and Najyah with something like jealousy.
“Everyone!” Alex got their attention. “This is Isolde Von Anmut, the mighty storm wielder who struck down a bonedrinker with a single spell!” Alex cheerily introduced her to his best friend, Selina and Shishi.
“I…” She stiffened. “I did not strike the creature down.”
“You hit it with your lightning, right? Struck it, even?”
“And it fell down, didn’t it?”
“I, technically yes, but-”
“Then you struck it down, congratulations! It getting up after that is no big deal.” He waved off her objections. “Now have a seat, have a seeeeaaat.”
He dragged out a chair beside Thundar and across from Theresa.
Isolde cleared her throat. “Erm, greetings, everyone. I am Isolde Von Anmut. A pleasure to meet you all.” She stiffly sat in the chair and exchanged a nod with Thundar.
Theresa eyed Isolde’s stiletto hanging from her belt. “That is a beautiful knife.”
Isolde blinked in surprise. “Oh my, you mean this old thing?”
The tall woman drew the thin-bladed knife from her belt. “It is quite plain, my father wanted me to have one that is more ornamental. Jewels in the hilt and all. I decided for something more practical.”
“Practical is beautiful,” Theresa nodded. “And I can see its sturdy construction from here.”
“How marvelous!” Isolde smiled. “I am no practitioner of the weapon arts, but a blade is a beautiful thing. Do you admire such things?”
Theresa got up from the table and fetched both her hunting knife and her great-grandfather’s sword. “This one my father had made for me when I turned fifteen.” She held up the massive hunting knife, which drew Isolde’s widening eyes.”
“How remarkable,” Isolde said. “Very solid construction in that. It’s almost a sword. On its own…and the sword.” She looked at it like a chef might look at the finest cut of meat.
“Yes, that is a beautiful blade, Theresa,” Khalik agreed, and Thundar leaned forward, interested as well.
Shishi was staring at the sword, and then started saying something to Theresa that Alex couldn’t understand…for now. Another language he’d work on with The Mark.
But that was a later issue.
“Right! No more blades at the table,” he said. “Unless they’re table knives. The pies are ready. Today we have chicken pie and mutton pie, followed by baked apple and custard pie for desert. You shall all eat like royalty today!”
“Hoho! I cannot wait!” Khalik grinned.
Thundar licked his lips, his nostrils flared at the scent coming from the balcony which they’d been enjoying for awhile now.
Alex grinned, fetching the cooling pies from the balcony, and got prepared to serve everyone.
His guests gasped at the dishes, while Theresa gave a knowing sigh.
The pies were monsters: as deep as he could make them and so wide, they could barely be simply called ‘pies’ anymore. Maybe mammoths might be a better name.
Alex had confirmed that there was no limit on how much he could take from the student’s market, then completely threw away all notions of restraint. He overstocked on ingredients, and the results were six massive pies—two of each kind—ready and waiting for devouring. The aromas from each had his guests’ mouths watering, much to his delight.
He gave an evil laugh. “They’re going to have to take you all home in wheelbarrows by the time you’re done. Well, let’s get you all sorted.”
Masterfully cutting a thick slice of their preferred savoury pie for everyone, he served them a still steaming piece. Once they had their first portions, he sat down at the end of the table and held up his cup.
“To all of us,” he said cheerily. “We all went through hard times to get here. Study, practice, hard journeys. All of it tough. Theresa and Shishi passed the test for Life Enforcement and we passed the test for COMB-1000. Selina survived me kicking her off the bed on our journey here, Brutus survived me in general, Najyah survived Khalik not roasting her for scaring him, and I just want to toast all of that. Here’s to a good year!”
“To a good year,” the rest echoed.
After a few first bites of pie, everyone began oohing and aahing and tore into the meal with a vengeance. Even Theresa and Selina—who were accustomed to his cooking through years of experiencing it—completely lost themselves in the meal.
Sounds of conversation mixed with scraping forks across plates filled the room.
Even Alex lost himself in the delectable flavours of the pies. It was true what cooks said: good ingredients made good food. The Mark had improved his cooking quite a bit since they had all arrived in Generasi, but using high quality ingredients really made for a lot of the extra flavour in the meal.
They all found themselves going for seconds and Theresa and Khalik each had a third, with Thundar eating five slices on his own.
Even Brutus and Rajyah were taken care of: Alex had roasted some lamb for the cerberus and eagle to feast on while the others had supper and dessert.
Over the course of the evening, the conversation shifted to all sorts of topics.
“-and then!” Khalik said. “Thundar cast a body strengthening spell and just picked up Alex and Isolde like they were two babies!”
Alex and the guests laughed while Isolde turned red despite a small smile playing on her lips.
“I am glad not many were around to see that,” Isolde said. “It was most unseemly…though better to be unseemly than to be dead. Or worse, a failure.”
“Speaking of failures. So.” Thundar placed his cup on the table. “I asked around, and found out what happened to the last group who got eliminated.”