Arthur had expected to see something like the community kitchens back in his village. Thinking of old Yuma and how she sat on her stool and threatened kids with her wooden spoon gave him a pang of homesickness.
Instead, Freyja led him down three winding blocks and turned sharply. Arthur found himself standing in front of a business labeled, “Salt and Spoon”.
“It’s an inn?” he asked, hesitantly.
“It’s a restaurant,” she said, “And despite all appearances, it’s the best one in this corner of the city. Come along, Arthur.”
With that, she strode confidently forward through the front door.
The inside was much like a lobby of an inn. Only instead of tables for gaming and chatting, people only sat and ate. There were no stairs leading up to the upper rooms, either.
Freyja brushed past a lady who asked if she wanted a seat and headed straight back toward the kitchens.
Though the front of the restaurant was quiet with only a few people sitting and eating, the kitchens were a flurry of activity. People ran back and forth, chopping vegetables and meats, and there had to be a dozen different pans simmering with sauces. It smelled amazing, but also overwhelming.
Arthur was used to kitchens by now, but none were so busy or… professional. Everyone wore white smocks and looked utterly focused on their jobs. The youngest was a good ten years older than himself.
He tried to stay out of the way as Freyja walked up to a rotund man who was peeling potatoes along with three others.
The man saw her coming, put down his potato, and scowled.
“Don’t bother, Freyja. I’m full up on dishwashers and garbage boys, especially if this new one is as useless as the last.”
“You’re having problems with Horatio.” This was a statement rather than a question.
The man huffed. “That boy is so sour, I don’t keep him near the meat for fear of him putting it off.”
Freyja's expression sharpened. “Is he disrespectful? Failing to do his duty?”
The man pulled a face and raised his hand to rub at his chin, but then remembered it was dirty with potato skins. Lowering it, he shrugged. “No, he does the work, though he’s surlier than a broken man three times his age. It ain’t right to see it in a squirt of a kid.”
“Give him time,” Freyja said. Then she turned and gestured to Arthur. “Let me introduce you to our newest intake. Arthur says he has experience cooking for a large number of people back at his farm.”
That hadn’t been precisely what he had said, but Arthur walked forward anyway.
“Arthur,” Freyja said as the man looked him up and down. “This is Barlow. He is the head chef here and often takes in young men and women looking to earn shards.”
Barlow looked Arthur up and down and snorted. “Garbage boys earn one Common shard at the end of every month. You won’t find a better deal than that around.”
“How many shards does it take to make a Common?” Arthur asked.
The man looked briefly surprised. Freyja hid one of her slight smiles. “It depends on the card and the pieces, but usually it’s around twelve. Twice that, or twenty-four for Uncommon shards.”
A year at least build a common card and three times that for an Uncommon. That wouldn't do. Arthur looked at Barlow. “What would it take to earn Uncommon-shards?”
“Only cooks earn Uncommon-pay.” The man rolled his eyes. “What’s going on, Freyja? First, you give me a boy who resents all work and now you’re offering me one whose too big for his britches?”
But Arthur wasn’t put off. Second was a much scarier man than Barlow, and Arthur had learned to deal with him.
“I can cook,” he said.
“It’s not about cooking boy. It’s about doing it well.”
“I can prove it.”
The man made a face and then looked at Freyja who spread her hands.
“Fine, but only because I happen to be short-staffed tonight. It’s the only reason I’m helping with the prep. LUK!” he bellowed to a man who was perhaps ten paces away.
The man must have been used to it because he didn’t flinch. He turned.
“You’re on sauces. The kid’s taking over your station.”
The man didn’t look surprised, which showed he had been eavesdropping. By the sudden quiet hush that fell over the kitchen, he wasn’t the only one.
“Yes, chef.” Luk hustled off to another roaring woodstove cluttered with pots. Meanwhile, Barlow gestured for Arthur to step up.
“You know what this is?” he asked.
The counter was so high that Arthur had to stand on his toes to look at all the ingredients. “Soup makings?”
He only guessed that thanks to the big soup pot sitting on the stove.
“Chicken soup,” Barlow corrected. “Even an idiot can make chicken soup. Are you an idiot, boy?”
“No,” Arthur said. “But I can make chicken soup.”
This was the plain truth, and he didn’t know why the man barked out a laugh. “You have until the dinner rush. Tell Luk over there if there’s anything you need.”
Arthur could think of something right away. “Do you have a box I could stand on?”
This was a high counter with deep drawers meant to store big pots. He couldn’t reach.
Arthur hadn’t leaned on his Apprentice Meal Preparation skill so hard since that night he first cooked a meal for Red and his Father.
Unlike then, he was familiar with the majority of the ingredients. The weeks in the caravan had been instructive and he had eaten at half a dozen inns.
In addition, his mother used to make chicken soup for their small family. Arthur had never helped her out at the time, but he remembered the scents and the tastes. She’d had only simple ingredients, but they had been delicious.
He leaned hard on his skills for the rest.
Much like his Stealth skill, his meal skills had not gained many levels. It seemed it was easy to grow at first, but unless he pushed himself to learn new things within that skill, the level remained the same.
As a result, he had been stuck on Apprentice level 14 for a couple of weeks. That had been fine when he was throwing prepared ingredients into a big pot for the nightly stew out on the road. Now, he had to stretch his cooking muscles a little.
He started with the pot. It had already been filled with water and set to the fire. The vegetables and meat had been laid out, though none of it had been prepared.
Arthur checked the chicken and pinched off a few pin feathers he found stuck to the skin. Then he split the joints, cleaned out and parted out the rest of the carcass, and threw it in a bigger pan with bacon fat and some salt.
While the meat browned, he cut the potatoes, using his knife skills to slice them into equal cubes. He cut up the carrots and the celery the same way. A whisper of wisdom told him that equal sized vegetables would cook evenly.
The chicken was starting to brown so he carefully took it off the flame and worked on cutting it up into smaller pieces. It all went into the pot to start a broth along with the herbs he found lying nearby. And of course more salt.
“Did you forget the potatoes and carrots?” Barlow snapped from behind him.
Arthur jumped in place, almost falling off the wooden crate that had been brought in for him to stand on. He hadn’t realized the man was behind him.
“No, Chef,” Barlow corrected. “Tell me why you haven’t added the potatoes.”
“Because if I add them now with hours to go, they’ll get all mushy. Same with the carrots, uh, Chef,” he corrected. “Right now I’m working on the broth. That’s why I put in all the chicken, parts, and all. I’ll skim out the bones and the skin when it's done."
Barlow stared at him and, trying not to fidget, Arthur continued. “I’ll be cooking some of the vegetables in the chicken fat. Not all of them, but I thought it might be good… for… variety…?” He trailed off, unnerved as the man continued staring.
“Fancy,” Barlow said drolly. “You are focused on textures, but…” He let it hang.
Arthur looked around for help. None materialized. All the men and women in the kitchen were busy and Freyja had long since disappeared back to her work at the orphanage.
“But?” he asked.
“How does it TASTE?” Barlow practically roared the last word, making Arthur flinch.
“Uh…” Hurriedly, he took a spoon and tried the broth. It was fine. The vegetables were next, though he didn’t expect much.
Then the combined flavors hit his tongue and he realized that something was missing. A vegetable that even his mother had access to.
“It needs onions and garlic?” he guessed.
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
Arthur straightened his shoulders and met the gaze of the cook… though he had to look up, even standing on a crate. “Where do you keep your garlic and onions?”
Barlow pointed and Arthur scrambled to go fetch the ingredients.
Minutes later, he was frying both in the pan until the onions had turned soft and translucent. After scooping out the skin and the bones from the broth, he cut up the largest pieces left of the chicken and then added the ingredients one by one into the pot, starting with the potatoes. They would help thicken the soup further.
He had barely added fresh peas in by the time Barlow came up again.
Without a word, the man dipped a spoon into the pot, blew on it, and tasted it.
“Needs more ginger and pepper,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s acceptable.”
Arthur let out a breath. “Really?”
“I still reserve the right to kick you back down to garbage boy if you’re as useless as SOME brats around here.” He roared the word at a dark-haired boy Arthur hadn’t noticed before. The other boy was skulking in the back of the kitchen as if hoping not to be seen.
Before Arthur could react, Barlow turned back to him. “Tell Freyja you’re hired at half apprentice cook rates.”
Immediately, his heart fell. “Half?”
“While in school, kids work only half the day. That’s half the pay. It’s still five copper a week and one Uncommon shard at the end of every month.”
Arthur brightened again.
“You’re to report here straight after your classes. You understand?”
“Good. Now get.” After protecting his hands with a couple of thick towels, Barlow grabbed the sides of the pot and moved it to another fire on a different stove top. One where the other cooks could easily ladle it into bowls.
Arthur grinned. His soup would be going towards feeding people tonight.
And speaking of food: He was hungry. He had been so focused on his task that he hadn’t even sneaked any bites, other than tasting.
He walked out, still grinning, and ignoring the dark looks of the other kid who was washing pans over a huge sink.
One Uncommon-card shard a month. It wasn’t much, but those weekly coppers would add up. Thanks to his Gambler class, Arthur already had plans to make those coins work for him.