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Snippet

Here’s another bonus story from “Coming Home”.  Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you’ve read the entire book, I’d really appreciate it if you could give me a review on Amazon.


Dinner of Danger

 

A smile split the Minivandian’s craggy countenance as he looked down at his youngest son. Elsked had spent the afternoon reading a book of ancient tales and dozing off in a chair while his father and several of the King’s men had argued and debated over a table covered in maps and scrolls. Now, he lay with his head caught in the corner of its cushioned back and his feet over one of the arms. Quiet snores widened the tall Northerner’s grin as he gently touched the young boy’s shoulder and shook him awake.

“My son,” DaddyBear said, “it’s time to go.”

Elsked looked up at his father for a moment, his dreams of a beautiful princess in a high tower lingering into the waking world, then the boy blinked. He yawned and stretched as he closed the leather-bound tome in his lap, sending a puff of air scented with old vellum and dust up his face to ruffle his hair.

“Is mother home yet?” he said between yawns.

“Not yet,” DaddyBear replied. “A messenger came to us just at sundown to say that she would be later than expected.”

“Is she in peril?” Elsked asked, suddenly awake. For a moment, the dread he had felt while listening to Rustle’s story the night before returned, and he felt a shiver run up his back.

“No, but the weather is atrocious,” DaddyBear replied. “Her winged beast has been delayed, but I expect she will meet us at the inn in a few hours.

Elsked frowned at his father. “Are you sure?” he asked hesitantly.

“Have no worries,” the Minivandian assured him. “Someday I’ll tell you the story of how your mother withstood much worse than this little snow and wind.”

“What’s for dinner?” the Young Prince asked as he stood up. He walked over to the bookshelf and carefully placed his book, entitled “Dragons, Wyverns, and Other Winged Beasts: The Definitive Guide,” in its place on the bookshelf next to the chair.

“Well,” said DaddyBear, “that depends on what we wish to eat. There’s a place I know that serves the cuisine of Rhaetia. They’re a cousin to my own folk, and there’s nothing better on a cold night than fermented cabbage, sausage made from the best bits of the swine, and thick beer.”

Elsked considered that for a moment and pictured a wide platter piled high with the pieces of a pig that weren’t fit for his mother’s table and a fragrant scoop of old cabbage. DaddyBear chuckled at the look on his son’s face.

“If that doesn’t sound as good to you as it does to me, I have an idea for something different,” he said, giving the Young Prince a wink.

“Different? How?” Elsked asked. The last time his father had suggested something ‘different’ for dinner, they had gone to a place that served Aztlani cuisine. Elsked had found the food to be flavorful, but he had not enjoyed the fire it had set on his tongue and in his belly.

“Are you brave?” DaddyBear said with a gentle rumble in his voice.

“Of course I am!” Elsked exclaimed. His timidity toward trying new things evaporated when it met his father’s challenge.

“Are you adventurous?” the Minivandian growled in a low roar.

“You know it!” his son cried out, matching his father’s tone. From the other side of the room, the King’s men, who had been chatting over some cheese and spiced wine, smiled at the display.

“Good!” DaddyBear exclaimed, clapping Elsked on the shoulder. “Come. I have something to show you, my brave young man!”

The pair wrapped themselves up in their cloaks and made their way out into the night. The wind was blowing cold and strong from the north, driving pellets of ice and the occasional snowflake across the river. Elsked could hear waves crashing against the levy to his left as he followed his father down the slick cobblestone street. The streetlamps, which some daring soul had lit in the middle of the gale, provided orbs of light which extended for several yards, but there were long stretches between them where he had to watch for glints of light as they reflected from the battle axe his father carried across his fur-covered back so that he did not lose him in the gloom.

Finally, just as Elsked started to think that his feet and nose might actually freeze off, DaddyBear stopped at the entrance to what looked like a well-tended garden. A thick coat of ice lay upon the high, arching gate, but some enchantment or another kept the neat walkway of gray pebbles clear. The Minivandian motioned for his son to precede him, then took care to close the gate behind them.

The Young Prince marveled at the carefully trimmed bushes and meticulously raked beds of gravel and stone which lay to either side of the path. A small tree, which he thought might have been a pine, had been twisted into a curling statue that reminded him of one of the dragons of the Eastern Realms he had seen in his book that afternoon. Brightly painted lanterns, which seemed to float on their own beneath the manicured trees, lit the garden in a golden glow. Soon, they approached a short bridge that spanned a narrow stream. As they walked over it, Elsked looked down to see large orange and white water creatures swimming to and fro beneath the thick coat of ice that covered its surface.

He looked back at his father, who urged him on with an encouraging smile. It was then that Elsked noticed that the wind, which had cut into him ever since leaving the meeting house, was now only a rushing noise that seemed far off to his ears. The air, while still cold enough that his breath came out in long streamers of vapor, was pleasant rather than painful against his face.

Finally, they came to an intricately carved wooden door, tall enough that his father would not have to duck his head to enter and wide enough that three of him could have linked arms and walked through the portal. The Minivandian rapped his knuckles against the door, and it immediately opened for him. The puff of warm air that enveloped Elsked felt delicious, and he hurried inside.

Once he pulled the hood of his fur cloak back, he found himself in an ornately decorated room. Rich red fabric competed with carved gold and bright green in the light of perfumed lamps, while a brazier glowed a dull orange in the corner. A massive glass tank, which would have been welcome in Master Weerdington’s menagerie, dominated the wall opposite the door. Several large fish and other creatures paused in their perambulations to watch as he and his father removed their cloaks and hung them from pegs next to the door.

The scent of meat cooking and luxurious spices struck Elsked, making his mouth water and his stomach gurgle. As he looked about the room, he saw people sitting around several tables, eating from great platters of food or drinking wine from small cups as they laughed and talked quietly.

A woman, dressed in a long, flowing gown dyed the same scarlet hue as the roses that grew in the garden behind the Minivandian’s manor, approached the pair and bowed deeply. Elsked marveled that the trees and grass embroidered onto the back and sleeves of her gown continued to undulate as if they were blown by a breeze even when she stood still.

“Welcome, good sirs,” she said to them in a high, soft voice. “You honor us with your presence on such a night. How may I be of service?”

DaddyBear returned the bow, then glanced over to his son. Elsked tore his eyes away from the woman’s beauty and bowed as well once he noticed his father’s eyes boring into him.

“We have come to sample your wares, my good woman,” the Northerner said as he straightened.

“Ah, good,” the hostess replied with a small, but pleasant, smile. “Would you prefer to eat here or in the fire room?”

Fire room? Elsked thought as he looked up at his father. That sounds interesting.

DaddyBear noticed the way that his son’s face lit up at her words and replied, “On a night like this, I believe that the fire room would be wonderful.”

The hostess nodded and turned toward an arched doorway leading to a dark corridor. Its wooden walls were decorated with portraits of warriors with tall helmets and painted faces. Each carried either a large, curved sword or a bow, and their armor seemed to be made up of the brilliantly colored scales of great beasts. The flickering light of the torches hanging from the walls made it look as if their fierce eyes followed the Young Prince as he walked behind the hostess. He could hear muffled voices and the rhythmic thud of someone chopping something with a large, heavy blade coming through the walls.

The young woman led them into a small alcove at the end of the corridor. It was not as brightly lit as the main hall, but the dim glow from the fire underneath the great slab of iron at the room’s center showed that it was as richly decorated. Bordering the gigantic grill was a counter of dark wood polished to a mirror finish, with hammered silver decorating its edge. The room was very warm, but after the chill of the storm outside, it felt luxurious to the Young Prince.

The hostess motioned them toward two of the pillows arrayed around the slab before turning to the Minivandian.

“Would you prefer tea or wine, my lord?” she asked.

“Tea, please,” DaddyBear replied as he took his seat. “If you have it, I prefer the blood wood tea of the Green Mountains, although I expect that my son would prefer something a little sweeter.”

The hostess smiled at Elsked and asked, “We have honey blossom tea, my young lord, if that better suits your tastes.”

Elsked’s ears perked up at that. He had heard of honey blossom once before after an older boy at school tried it. The young warrior had described it as tasting as if it were the nectar of the gods, and had told of how it was gathered from the side of a volcano far across the ocean.

“May I try it, father?” he asked excitedly.

DaddyBear chuckled as he nodded. “Of course, my son. It will definitely take the chill off your bones.”

The lady bowed once more, then walked into the kitchen. He could hear her high voice calling to someone in a language he did not understand, then heard an answering rumble.

“What manner of food do they serve here?” Elsked asked as he look around the room again.

DaddyBear gave his son a mischievous look. “Let me surprise you,” he replied. “I promise, you will enjoy everything.”

The lady in the silk gown returned, carrying a tray from which steam rose in the warm air. She lay two ceramic cups in front of her guests, then set down two large teapots. One, which was closer to DaddyBear, was glazed a dull green, and its bottom seemed to glow sluggishly as the tea inside brewed. The pot nearer to Elsked, on the other hand, was painted with gold and red flowers against a creamy white background. As he watched, the petals swayed in time to the wisps of steam rising from its spout.

DaddyBear motioned the hostess closer and whispered into her ear. She nodded as she listened to his orders, and occasionally looked over to Elsked and hid a smile or a giggle behind her hand. Elsked’s eyes narrowed at this, and once the woman had left again, he looked suspiciously to his father.

“You’re up to something,” he teased. “Should I be afraid?”

“No, just excited,” the Minivandian said as he filled their cups with tea.

Elsked picked up his drink and saw that the tea was a beautiful saffron color, and he could smell sweet spices in its steam. He blew upon the surface for a moment, then took a tentative sip. An explosion of flavors struck his tongue, first sweet, then rich and spicy. Finally, as the warmth of the tea travelled into his middle, he smiled and sighed.

The corners of his father’s eyes crinkled over his own steaming mug, then he took a sip of his blood-red tea.

“How does yours taste, father?” Elsked asked.

“Oh, a little salty, and its astringent on the tongue,” DaddyBear replied. “This is the kind of tea the hill dwarves drink before battle.”

“Of course,” he added with a chuckle before taking another sip, “they usually add a nip or two of their red whiskey to it. They say that really prepares them for the fight.”

The hostess returned, this time bearing a tray of bowls and small plates. First, she placed a bowl of steaming soup next to each of them. This was clear at the top, with small pieces of mushroom and herbs floating on the surface. At the bottom of his bowl, though, Elsked saw a roiling layer of a thicker substance.

He looked up doubtfully at his father, but the Minivandian did not notice as he helped the hostess lay their first course down on the table. One plate held four small dumplings, their sides grilled a golden brown. The other plate held small bits of rice with different meats arranged upon them.

“Please, enjoy,” the hostess said with smile and a bow. “Your chef will join you shortly.” After checking to make sure that everything was in order, she turned and walked back into the kitchen.

Elsked reached for a dumpling, then stopped when he noticed that some of the meat on the other tray was still moving. As he watched, a tentacle curled up and reached toward him. The young prince recoiled at the sight, then watched in awe as his father took up that piece, and popped it into his mouth.

“Ah, it’s been a long time since I’ve had fresh kraken.” the Northerner said around a mouthful of rice and tentacle.

“Kraken?” Elsked said skeptically. He more closely examined the remaining morsels on the plate.

“Well, it’s either from one of the smaller varieties or a very young one, but yes, this is kraken,” DaddyBear said after washing it down with a sip of his tea. “It’s delightfully chewy.”

“And what else is there?” Elsked said, narrowing his eyes and taking a very close look at the plate.

“Hmmm, let’s see,” DaddyBear said as he surveyed the tray. “This here, with the light-colored flesh, is lagoon creeper. That dark red one there is sea rocket.”

He thought for a moment, then said, “And I’m not sure what that last one there is. I told the lady to surprise us.”

Elsked looked over his choices, then asked, “May I try it?”

“Of course, my son. That’s why I brought you here. You already know what the food from my country tastes like, and I know you’re familiar with Eyrisch cuisine. A young man should be exposed to many different things so that he can tell that which is wholesome from that which is foul.”

Elsked picked up a piece of sea rocket and took a tentative bite. The flesh was soft, yet not mushy, and the flavor, while delicate, was intriguing. He quickly finished the rest of the piece and reached for a pale green piece of lagoon creeper.

Soon, he had sampled everything on the plate, even the spicy fish that his father could not identify. That one, in particular, had been a treat, since each bite caused the Young Prince to breathe out a long burst of golden flames, which had delighted his father. The dumplings were filled with a mixture of meats and spices, and after the exotic flavors of the fish tasted wonderfully familiar.

The Young Prince noticed that his soup had cooled somewhat, so after watching his father take a long slurp from his bowl, he took a tentative taste of it. It was somewhat nutty, with a tangy, almost salty undercurrent that washed away some of the more complex flavors from the other food. His hunger rekindled, Elsked finished his bowl just as the door to the room swung open again.

Elsked was surprised to see a squat man with deep wrinkles around his eyes and mouth enter. He had a serious look in his intense, dark eyes, and his jet-black hair was covered with a white hat. This matched his impeccably clean and pressed white jerkin and breeches, the front of which he covered with an apron dyed the color of fresh blood.

The man stopped next to the iron slab and bowed deeply to the Minivandian, who rose and returned the gesture. To Elsked’s surprise, the man then turned and bowed just as deeply to him. The Young Prince recovered quickly enough to rise and bow to the man before too long, however.

A hint of a smile quirked up one corner of the man’s face as he rose and said, “You honor us with your presence.”

The Minivandian looked to his son and nodded. Elsked, again surprised, squeaked, “The honor is ours, good sir. Thank you for your hospitality.”

This brought a true smile to the man’s face. “I am Master Yoshi, young lord. I will be preparing your dinner tonight, if that pleases you.”

Elsked glanced over to his father, who again nodded to him. “Nothing would please me more, Master Yoshi.” he said, this time getting the words out in an even tone and without stammering.

Yoshi nodded to the Young Prince, then clapped his hand. Two young boys, dressed identically to their master, carried in a large brass tray and set it on a table next to the grill. It was piled high with ingredients, some of which Elsked recognized, but many which he did not. The apprentices bowed first to Master Yoshi, then to his guests, before leaving the room.

“Tonight, I shall prepare for you a special treat,” Yoshi said as he deftly took a tall vial from the tray and poured thick oil from it onto the large metal slab. It immediately began to smoke, but when he passed his hand over it, the smoke transformed into bright green flames that reached up to the high ceiling.

Tatsu!” the chef intoned, his voice deepening as it reverberated from the rafters. Elsked’s eyes widened as the flames coalesced into the head of a mighty green beast that bared its teeth at him before collapsing into the grill’s iron slab. Yoshi chuckled at the Young Prince’s reaction, then reached back to his cart.

“For you, Minivandian, I have brought the haunch of a mighty mizuchi, the water serpent, cooked blood rare and spiced with the bark of the phoenix tree. For you, Young Prince, there are medallions of basan, a fowl rich in taste, but devilish in temperament. This I will sear and then sweeten with honey and herbs.”

As he spoke, low flames danced and changed color several times as they leapt up from the grill. While his guests were watching the display, he heaped meat, rice, and vegetables upon the flames, then began to move them about with two wide and, to Elsked’s eye, wickedly sharp knives. Sparks flew as their edges beat a fast tempo against the slab, now hot enough to make the air above it shimmer in the torchlight. Elixirs that caused iridescent flames to rise above the grill were poured upon the food, along with spices that sizzled and flared as Yoshi sprinkled them into the flames.

As he worked, Yoshi hummed and sang a rhythmic song, timing his movement to the tune. It released some magic into the air, as Elsked found himself swaying to its beat, and he felt his heart leap every time the master chef struck the surface of the grill hard with his knives. He took up a tray bearing small gobbets of what Elsked thought might be fowl of some sort, and began to use his blades to juggle the flesh above the fire. They sizzled and gave off spurts of their own flames as they cooked.

Elsked looked quizzically at Yoshi, who smiled broadly and explained as his knives and the food swirled in front of his face, “This is ebi, young lord, great prawns taken from a magical bay near my home. You will like it!”

Suddenly, a scrap of meat flew up and away from the chef. A long tail of flame and steam trailed behind it as it arced toward the Minivandian. DaddyBear opened his mouth and caught the treat between his teeth, then roared with laughter as he chewed.

“Pay attention, son, it’s your turn!” he cried out as Yoshi readied another morsel for flight.

Elsked looked up excitedly as a bit of meat, which had become a mottled orange and white as it cooked, sailed his way. He lined up his head to catch it, then opened his jaws wide. At the last moment, he closed his eyes, then felt the tidbit bounce off his nose before dropping into his mouth. Both men laughed heartily at the trick, and once Elsked had gotten over his surprise, he joined them.

Soon, their plates were piled high with more food than Elsked had ever been served before. Yoshi smiled and bowed to them once more as the Minivandian and his son thanked him vociferously. Once the chef had left, they dug into their food.

“How is your dinner, son?” DaddyBear asked as he scooped up a spoonful of rice and vegetables.

“No talk!” Elsked replied between mouthfuls. “Too good. Eat first.”

The Minivandian chuckled as he ate his own dinner. “Should I assume you like it, then?” DaddyBear asked. He was answered by the sound of Elsked’s fork scraping against his plate as he munched away.

After a long while, during which their conversation consisted of one or two words about the quality of the food, Elsked popped the last bit of meat from his plate into his mouth, then gave out a loud burp. He jumped at his lack of manners, then looked sheepishly at his father. His fear of a reprimand disappeared when he saw the Minivandian wink at him.

“I’ll take that as a sign that you like the cuisine,” DaddyBear said. “Did you save room for dessert?”

Elsked groaned as he patted his stomach. “Oh, no, father, I’m stuffed like a mid-winter’s goose!” he replied. After a moment’s thought, he added, “But after a bit, I might have room for a cup of chocolate like they serve at the inn.”

The Minivandian’s laughter rumbled to every corner of the room as he left a jingling purse on the table and motioned Elsked toward the door. “Of course, my son,” he said with a broad smile. “How silly of me to think that I could find the limits of your appetite so easily.”

Together, father and son made their way back out into the stormy night and to their room at the inn. His belly full and his spirits lifted, Elsked did not feel the wind quite as much as he had during their walk to the tavern.

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Old NFO

     /  September 14, 2017

    Excellent snippet, and well told!

    Reply

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