I’ve decided to make this story available at least temporarily on my blog. I may take it down if I want to sell it as a reprint again. Mostly it’s just to say thanks to my followers, whom I hope will enjoy it. This story won Runner-Up Honors in Baen’s inaugural Adventure Fantasy Award. It’s how I met Larry Correia, who told me he voted for it to win outright. It was published the next year in Sword and Sorceress 30.
Since putting this up, I have discovered that WordPress is notoriously unfriendly to the concept of “indentation.” This isn’t the cleanest copy. I’ll try cleaning it up when I have some time. For now, enjoy as much as you can!
Phoenix For The Amateur Chef
The phoenix fell.
Its sobbing death cry silenced by a coat of ravening flame, it corkscrewed to earth,
bleeding dirty white fire across the dusk.
What struck the cliff face above our heads was a ball of charred meat. We ducked the
searing gobbet of flesh. Only a little pile of ash and bone was left, rapidly whitening, like
I looked at Tywin, who stood sucking his teeth and polishing his great stonebow. He
dropped the remaining stones to the earth, unanointed by Trelesta’s unguent.
“Well, shit,” I said finally.
The memory snapped me out of my fatigue-induced daze. I was still in the Imperial Kitchen. For the hundredth time, I looked at the cage that held my plucked phoenix, safe in its enchanted sleep, lest it should suddenly have combusted into a pile of inedible ashes.
Shaking, I laid out the four eggs I had prepared last night, and Tywin fetched the small pot of marinade in its ice water bath. I had calculated the ingredients over and over since noon, and Tywin had pronounced it good. But I wasn’t worried about the entrée. That I had tested.
For the plucked phoenix that would be my main course, there could be no test except the one that I had to pass or die.
I groaned. The dishes were already more prepared than I was.
The only reason I was still alive was that His Imperial Majesty didn’t kill people at Family Dinners. They were his favorite custom: Every month, the Master Chef arrayed the Great Hall for an immense supper. And the entire staff of the palace ate whatever the Emperor was having.
It was a meal dreaded by all.
His Imperial Majesty prided himself on his refined and delicate palate, while loathing common tastes. He wished to delight his palace “family,” and when His Majesty wanted people delighted, they damn well were delighted. So I had sat with my fellow sorcerors, trying to look delighted.
I grew up in a seaport. A Fellowship in the College of the Wise had meant a chance to get away from the things that poor people could do to seafood. But even the poorest of us knew that jellyfish were for tossing back, not for serving with fine vinegars in thin, cartilaginous slices. They now writhed in my stomach. I had managed to down the steamed scarabs by squinting and pretending they were bad lobster. The bird’s nest soup was what did it. And I might have made it even through that if I hadn’t happened to say idly, “There aren’t as many twigs or grasses as I would have expected from bird’s nest soup.”
Chief Diviner Ghislane looked over with a little smile. He was the only one at the table who actually enjoyed the Family Dinners.
“My dear Hanael, these bird’s nests are from the cave swallows of the Eastern sea-cliffs.”
“And they don’t have plants there?”
“No. The male cave swallow constructs his nest of regurgitated fishbone. Thus the subtle undercurrent of sea salt, augmented by the kelp…”
“Bird vomit?” I was eating bird vomit? “Well, when do we get to the urine course?” I asked, desperate to distract myself. The Archmage Trelesta shot me a quelling glare.
I looked up, and there stood Master Chef Angwy, immaculate in jacket and toque. The platter she held was laid with pale yellow, white-flecked spheres. The cheese course! A bite of cheese would be just the thing to soothe my injured stomach.
“Casu marzu, from the islands of Sardica,” she intoned, eyes ablaze. Oh, yes, the Emperor’s favorite had heard me. I looked down. When she reached me, I snatched at the very soft cheese, and popped a bite into my mouth.
The flavor wasn’t just sharp; it was stinking! And then I felt the wriggling. My eyes popped open. The platter still hovered before me. The white flecks on the pale yellow balls… moved.
The tiny maggots crawled across the cheese, and even as I stared, one jumped off the dish, and landed on the bridge of my nose.
My stomach rose faster than I could, and all five courses of my dinner splashed over the table, the cheese, and Master Chef Angwy’s spotless front.
The vomiting seemed to go on for hours. At last, the only sounds in the great hall were my own agonized coughing and spluttering… and the laughter from the lower tables.
Angwy had dropped the tray and stood looking in disbelief and rage at her clothes, dripping with the contents of my stomach. But beyond her, at the high table, white fury on his face, His Majesty stood.
“My Lord,” Master Chef Angwy said, icy tones ringing clear in the dead stillness. “It seems that Sorceror’s Apprentice Hanael wishes to critique your choice of menu.”
The Emperor raised his hand. Before I could think, two guards were at my shoulders, taking me, not away to the dungeons, but ever-closer to His Imperial Majesty, himself.
I collapsed before him.
“Your Majesty,” Angwy said. “For the crime of lèse-majesté, in showing contempt of your great gift, only death can answer.”
His Majesty opened his mouth. Then Archmage Trelesta said from behind me: “Your Majesty, my apprentice’s insult was not to you, as the Imperial Chef pretends, but to her. It is no injury to Your Majesty if her cooking sickens some.”
I stared back at her. What was she doing? I heard Angwy sputter and then say, “Are you giving me the lie, Archmage?”
“Of course not,” Trelesta said smoothly. “Apprentice Hanael is. Aren’t you?” I felt her nudge me sharply.
Grasping at the hint, I managed to gasp, “Yes. Yes.” Didn’t Trelesta know that accusations of lying were tantamount to challenging the accused to a duel?
“So be it, filth!” Angwy snarled. “A duel it shall be.”
And that as the challenged party, Angwy would have…
“Choice of weapons?” His Majesty rapped out. His face was thunderous with rage at me, but his gaze was on Angwy.
A slow, evil smile spread across her face. “Kitchens,” she said.
Kitchens? I heard my own bewildered voice. “What shall we do? Slice each other into bits and cook one another?”
Angwy’s mouth curled. “Of course not. You called lie on my word and insulted my art. Should you outdo me, you shall live. Should you not, you shall die, in the manner of my choosing. Do you know that I sometimes talk shop with the Chief Jailer? We use many of the same techniques. He only gets to use them when His Majesty is… especially displeased. We have taught each other much. What shall we prepare for Your pleasure, Your Majesty?”
His Majesty hesitated. Then he, too, smiled. “Master Chef Angwy, I believe I have always wanted to try… phoenix.”
“As Your Majesty desires,” she purred.
But now Angwy stormed up to me, eyes blazing.
“What is this sick joke?” Her eyes shifted from me to the plucked bird in the cage between us. “That’s not phoenix,” she growled. “What are you cooking here?”
“I beg your pardon?” I said. “It most certainly is phoenix. And you haven’t shared your proposed menu either.”
“You wouldn’t comprehend my art, you…”
“Excuse me, madam,” snapped Tywin. We both whirled on him. He spoke in the crisp tones of an officer. “Do you mean to give me the lie? This bird is a phoenix, shot a day ago, by me.”
Angwy fumed. “Keep your tricks to yourself, then.” She stalked off, screaming at an underling.
“Now what’s got her frightened?” asked Tywin.
“Her?” I asked in disbelief. “Frightened?”
“Scared as a soldier before battle. One who’s finding out the enemy isn’t going to run away. I’ve seen it.” The clock sounded. Fifteen minutes. Our escort appeared. My life now depended on me and Tywin and the phoenix.
Archmage Trelesta had introduced me to Tywin. I clutched her summons in one hand and the Imperial Order in the other.
“Why did you have me challenge her?” I shrieked.
“It was the only way out,” she said. “If the Emperor had charged you with lèse-majesté, you would be dead now. Now, you have a chance to live.”
“By learning to cook phoenix?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t say it was a good chance.” She rapped at the door.
I stared at the Imperial Order:
His Imperial Majesty requests and requires your attendance upon the day after tomorrow at half-past six of the clock:
You shall prepare for His Majesty and two guests a simple three-course meal, consisting of an entrée, a main course, and a dessert, equaling or surpassing His Majesty’s accustomed manner of dining. All courses shall prominently feature the flesh of the phoenix. The nature of the courses shall be registered with His Majesty’s majordomo by noon, at which time you will be granted the use of the Imperial kitchens.
Cooking of the meal will be done in His Majesty’s private audience chamber, with what ingredients you please, within a space of two hours. You will be granted the assistance of one (1) sous-chef. Stoves shall be provided according to your needs. Fail not in this charge at your peril.
Peril. That word was so horrible my brain skipped right over it and fixated on the next most terrible word.
“Dessert?” I howled. “How can you serve a phoenix dessert?”
“How can you serve phoenix at all?” asked Trelesta. “If anyone will know, he lives here.”
Chief Huntsman Tywin opened the door. He was bald, about fifty, and he nodded to Trelesta.
“You here for breakfast?” he asked.
“For two, please,” she said, and we entered the lodge. Amazingly, it smelled like the best breakfasts of my childhood. My stomach growled. She passed the Order to Tywin. “What do you make of this?”
He read it, then spat: “I can make a pile of smoking ash. Burn it and bake the ashes in a pie. Say it’s phoenix. No one’ll know the difference.”
“I’ll know,” I gulped.
Trelesta sighed. “She is most skilled. It would be quite vexing if I had to train another apprentice, just because this one is no cook,” said Trelesta. “Please see what you can do.”
Tywin stared at me. “You ever cooked anything?” he asked, doubtfully, crossing to where potatoes and herbs crisped on a black stove.
I blushed. “Sort of.”
“My family ran a fish-fry stall. By the seaport.”
He started. “You mean one of those dockside shacks that sells fried everything?”
“To everybody. Sailors are starving because they’ve worked so hard, and passengers are starving because they’re not throwing up for the first time in a week.”
Tywin smeared something on two plucked birds and plunged them in a pot of bubbling oil.
I blinked at them. “That… that’s how we always did fringe fries.”
“What? Those crispy potato-peels? Did people actually buy those?”
“You’d be amazed.” Suddenly, my mouth was watering. “Those smell wonderful. Are… are you a real cook?”
“Faugh, no. Just a soldier and huntsman who has to cook what he eats.”
My heart sank. “But how do you get it to smell that way?”
“Ah, that’s the eleven herbs and spices. Don’t even fry-stalls have a spice jar?”
“Everyone says that, but they eat there anyway…”
“No, we bought the spices in a vial. Pre-made.”
“Pssht. I do that, too. Can’t hunt wild sage, basil, onion, garlic and marjoram every day.” He took the basket out of the oil and drained it. “But sakes, girl, Royal Cheffery isn’t any different! Your fry-stall knew what people want. Angwy knows what the highborn want. A vant-guard, they call it. Stuff you can barely stomach. Eat.”
He handed me a pheasant. I bit into it. The rich, dark flavor filled my mouth, sage and onion dancing along my tongue with an undercurrent of honey and something stronger.
Trelesta bit into hers as well, and sighed. “But the principal problem Tywin, is…”
He sighed. “You want me to shoot Phoenix.”
“You owe me a try, Tywin. I do have a potion that induces sleep the instant it strikes the blood. Can you smear it on your arrows?
“Sure,” said Tywin. “Will it let a bird survive being skewered through the breastbone?”
Tywin snorted. “I’ve a stonebow for pigeon and such. Fires smooth bullets; couldn’t you enchant one of them with a sleep spell or something?”
“Hardly,” Trelesta said. “Hanael?”
“Spells can only be held by living things.” I explained one of the basics of sorcery. You can’t ‘pass it on’ through dead wood or stone,” Then a thought struck me. “These stone bullets. Could you put points on them?
“They’d wobble all over the sky. No hunter in the world could do that.”
My heart was pounding in my chest. “And if you could?” I picked up the stonebow.
“You just said you couldn’t enchant anything not alive.”
“No, I just can’t transmit a spell through anything not alive.” I enchanted the stonebow and passed it to him.
“What’d you do to it?” Tywin growled.
Stole an Imperial military secret, I didn’t say. But Trelesta nodded. I handed him a bullet. He placed in in the groove, and it began spinning like a top.
Eyes wide, he carried the bow outside.
He test-fired it. Twice. Then he looked at me.
“That triples the aimed range. You’re giving this to me?”
I smiled. “I think not. It’s your salary. For being my hunter. And my sous-chef”
“You know, stones kill. Wounding your bird is still a slim chance.”
“It is a chance we shall have to take.”
Watching the calcined remains of the chance “we” had taken, I imagined how I’d write the recipe down:
One (1) medium-sized phoenix
One (1) skewer (arrow, javelin, etc.)
One (1) vocabulary (filthy)
Place phoenix on fireproof surface. Skewer phoenix. Allow phoenix to cook in resulting 3100 degree flame for about ten seconds (as if you had a choice). Employ vocabulary. Scrape ashes into a pile.
Out of the blue, an idea struck.
Let stand one minute, then make Scrambled Eggs Phoenix! (q.v.)
A gentle wind struck, too, and I turned to Tywin, panicking. “Your cloak!” I yelled. He gave me a quizzical look. “Your cloak! Hurry!”
He cast aside the bow, and my hands flew to the clasp of his cloak, which I immediately flung over the ash.
“Hunted much phoenix?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Naw. My brother shot one just to see ‘im flame. Da whipped ‘im. For cruelty. Well, and you could burn down a whole damn forest that way. Fortunately, it was fall and rainy then, too. If this were high summer, I’d have told you and the old witch to bugger yerselves.”
I felt the cloak, and was rewarded with a faint thrill of triumph.
“Then you probably haven’t had to study their biology.” I raised the cloak. The faintly golden egg shone up at me. And a few more of these might just save my life:
Scrambled Eggs Phoenix
One or more (>1) medium-sized phoenix eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat oil in frying pan. Break phoenix eggs into pan. Scramble eggs. Until cooked. Hope. Serve.
“No, you may not serve Scrambled Phoenix Eggs to His Majesty,” said majordomo Selzden Grammel. His fussy little mustache twitched as if something smelled bad. Actually, that was probably me. Burnt feathers stank, and I hadn’t had time to wash.
“But sir,” I bowed. “The eggs are phoenix eggs. Logically, they must be the same thing as phoenix meat. The order states that phoenix must be in all the dishes. They do not say in what form.”
“Sorceress,” Grammel said, looking down his nose. “As any scullery maid in the lower kitchens could tell you, eggs are dairy products, while phoenix is…” he looked me up and down, “fowl.”
He continued. “Did you have any other ingredients for this dish, or were you just going to scramble a mess of eggs on something hot and hope? Master Chef Angwy is preparing Slow-Roasted Phoenix for His Majesty. I think she would suggest you taste-test some… other options. Aconite, perhaps.”
“Aconite is a poison!” I blurted.
“Precisely. But faster than what the Master Chef intends for you,” he grinned.
I fled, his laughter echoing behind me.
Now we entered the Emperor’s lavishly-appointed private audience room, but I found that I could look at nothing but the ovens and stoves that had been provided, and the judging table.
On the left sat the Prime Minister, a Court favorite. On the right sat a slight bald man I didn’t know with a fussy mouth and trimmed beard. His Majesty sat in the center. He favored me with a blank, closed look, and then broke into a beaming smile.
Angwy had just entered behind me.
I slumped. I was doomed. All Tywin and I could do, was for nothing. If I made a brave enough show of it, the Emperor might “only” banish me. Or make Angwy kill me quickly. I’d never had a chance.
And there was an audience. One row of seats, for the Royal Court. There was Chief Diviner Ghislane; it probably killed him he wasn’t a judge. Tywin’s boss, the Imperial Forester. And Archmage Trelesta, looking resigned but alert. I supposed I was glad she was there. I had enjoyed working with her. I had enjoyed the whole job. Except the vomiting, obviously.
Majordomo Grammel rose. “My Lords and Ladies, Your Imperial Majesty,” he bowed. This was it. “Today, for our entertainment and culinary edification, a contest between The Imperial Master Chef, Dame Angwy Sabachka, and her most vocal critic, Third Assistant Sorceress Hanael Letzterhoff.”
There was a smattering of applause and muted laughter.
Grammel continued. “Assisting His Majesty in adjudging tonight’s contest: the Lord Prime Minister Willifred Moscum, and His Majesty’s most admired guest, Sir Graam Ewesprach Bastich, whose Grille d’Inferne has such a following here in the capital.”
I swayed. The Bastich? The cooking legend? I glanced at Angwy, who frowned. Was it possible that she’d not expected to find herself measured on such exacting scales? Then I shook myself. If she was worried, I ought to be petrified. Except I already was. And there was no time for more thought. Grammel was already speaking: “Ladies, you may begin!”
I reached forward, but Tywin restrained me. “Hasty cooks ruin meals. You’ve got two hours. Slow down. One thing at a time.” I nodded. Methodically, I placed the three eggs in the basket. Grammel spoke again,
“To whet our distinguished judges’ appetites, Master Chef Angwy has elected to begin with a course entrée of chilled phoenix pate de foie gras with truffles and armagnac, cold salad and baguettes grilled.”
Gods be good, I had an appetizer with a cooking time of two minutes and the bitch was still out the gate in front of me! Cold entrée! Her sous-chef was serving the Emperor, who was licking his lips. And, with an amused curl of his lip, looking at me.
The candlelight in Trelesta’s Library could not keep out the chill of the fall night, nor was it bright enough to ease the ache in my eyes.
It was all in front of me. Everything about the phoenix in Trelesta’s Library, and therefore everything in the Imperial Library, and therefore, quite probably, everything that was known in the entire world. In this one book by Alfredus Maximus, an obscure thaumatobiologist.
Why phoenix? Why couldn’t it have been, say, manticore? Sure, its sting or flesh would kill a man in three heartbeats, but the poison was child’s play to neutralize if you just had a mandrake root and three colors of cloth! The tiny entry mocked me with its archaic diction. I imagined what I would say to Alfredus if I’d had him in front of me:
Lytle is knoun of the lyfe and powers of the phoenix (you don’t say!). The byrd is gretely magyckal (what was your first clue?), and nigh ympossible to captvre whyle lyvinge, because unlesse handled with grete care, the phoenix tendeth to die (the news just gets better!) and vpon deathe, to yncandesce in a torrent of flaume, such that the whole byrd be redvced to ash.
Vpon mine own captvre of this most rare byrd (it’d kill you to mention how, wouldn’t it, you poxy dead bastard?) I plvcked a single fether. Thys prooved vnwise, as the byrd died at once, sending up a grete conflagration which bvrnt many valuable materieles (serves you right!)
Examination shewed that the fether was indeed, in greter part of finest metal, which alchemie revealed to be magnesivm. In the 4 or 5 moments elapsed before the carcase spontaneously combvsted, fearfvl heat emanated from the byrd, the which, I believe, was the cause of the ignition. As the bones and viscera were distinguishable upon very close examination, I dedvce that the grete heat doth originate in the byrd his skin.
My examination seemeth to have hindered, but not prevented, the formation of the phoenix egg, which took a fortnight to hatch (so much for sitting on the thing tonight and tomorrow) and did produce a byrd like unto the firste.
Yt cannot be saide of a certantie, whether this be the same byrd, or an offspring, yette if it be the same, then immortalitie is among us. But even yf it be notte the same, then surely the phoenix his defence is as nigh perfect as may be, for what hunter would dare another such deadlie morsel, yf once it survived the unwisdom of attempting such preye?
How could Angwy slow-roast a phoenix? According to Maximus, even plucking the bird would kill it. And magnesium burned hot enough to melt lead! Was it really possible that the bird’s skin got hot enough to ignite the feathers? Sorcerors knew metals, and that would be nearly twice as hot as the hottest oven I’d ever heard of.
There was only one answer. I would have to discover what Angwy had in her kitchen. Because even if I had a plucked phoenix in front of me right now, all I knew to do with it was heat it and hope. So you think I should look into other options, bitch? How about yours?
Angwy had taught me not to make an enemy of a chef. It was time to teach her not to make an enemy of a sorceress. The secrets of high gastronomy were her weapons. To steal them, I would rely on the lowest magics, known to every student mage who had ever haunted an n-dimensional library. Her notes would be in her kitchen. And while I didn’t dare try breaking into the Imperial Kitchen, I could always Goggle it.
I fished out my Glass Goggles and wound up the clockwork on the side. I hoped there was enough power in their surge engine. When it started humming, I began my chant.
Slowly, the great kitchen swam into my view. Guiding the Goggles, I peered through walls and into her office, where stood three shelves of books. I browsed titles: The Art of Fringe Cooking for Masters. The Viceroy of Cooking. The Brutal Gourmet. Now:
“Phoenix,” I sang.
And the library went dark. Not a glimmer of arcane light showed.
As I feared. No one knew how to prepare phoenix. There was no recipe here. Like many master mages, Chef Angwy kept her most cherished secrets in her mind alone.
Nevertheless, if I did come up with a way to capture Phoenix, I would need actual recipes. A Phoenix was about the size of a large duck or goose.
“Duck OR Goose entree,” I sang. And half the tomes on the shelves lit. I peered within: Bacon Stuffed Goose Drumsticks. My Goggles memorized the recipe. Pate de foie gras. Goggles. Brandied duck tongue. Goggles. Balut, whatever the hell that was.
“Game birds” lit up almost every tome on the shelves. I Goggled a dozen. Then the most vital encanta: “Goose OR duck AND dessert.”
A single small volume lit in three places. Two featured foie gras, cream and sugar, and one said “Chocolate tongue profiteroles.” Goggled.
I had the recipes, but no clues about phoenix. Could the kitchen tell me anything? “Slow Roaster,” I intoned, winding the surge engine tighter.
A largish box lit. I examined it.
Perhaps it was special, but as far as I could tell, it was an iron box, with a rotisserie and a handle to turn it. Would she use it for phoenix? Likely. Especially useful for phoenix? I couldn’t know. Angwy had mastered a sorcery I couldn’t hope to learn in a night. I was done.
Back in my chambers, though, I had to face facts: what did I have? One phoenix egg, and a collection of recipes.
I couldn’t think like a chef, so I thought like a research student: Start basic.
I scribed the recipes from my Goggles into a book. Then: “Eggs,” I said. Three titles appeared:
Crème Brulee de Foie Gras au Chocolat
Chocolate Tongue Profiteroles
I looked out the window where stars burned. Start with the weirdest one, you’ll only get more weary as the night drags on.
I brushed the last entry with a finger… and read salvation from the pages:
This island entrée is for only the most discerning gourmand, as the hoi-polloi are uniformly incapable of developing a palate necessary to appreciate the interplay of flavors resulting from a proper preparation of this dish.
Harvesting the eggs presents difficulty, as one must precisely gauge the development of the egg required. Of course, any common avis domestica can be used, but the truly distinguished palate can accept no substitute for the wild partridge or pheasant.
Once, chefs selected eggs approximately 7/10 of the way through the incubation period, but today’s gourmets prefer chicks matured for at least 4/5 of their incubation, cultivating tender but defined bones. The higher quality dining experience results from the unique crunch thus obtained. Traditional balut is marinated in the style…
Phoenix eggs would be good for one of the dishes… maybe. It was a meat dish and an egg dish. It was definitely haute cuisine.
If only I had the eleven days to incubate it. If only I had more time! I cursed myself. I should have cast a time extension spell on myself while I’d had the chance; I could have made this night last twice as long for myself. Of course, I’d have needed a willing substitute: the Law of Conservation of Time meant that for me to double my subjective time I’d have needed someone else to halve theirs. But Gods above, I could have bribed any of the guards or maids to do that, and all it would have cost them would have been feeling a little tired the next day! When I had studied at the College, we had Timeshared with each other so that everyone got two nights to cram the day before they faced the Examiners. Perhaps if I waked Trelesta, she’d be my Time Sink for the night. Or not.
Still, I had little choice. I couldn’t extend time for myself for the eleven days it would take the egg to mature for balut…
I stopped. Oh. As simple as that, was it?
I snatched the pair of scales from my desk, weighing the egg: two ounces. Multiply by eleven days. For the egg to age 264 hours in one hour, The Law of Conservation of Time stated that I would have to experience only one hour in 264. I would appear to be in a coma for eleven days.
But now I got to factor in the Law of Conservation of Mass. The egg weighed less than a thousandth of what I did. In the hour of the spell’s duration, I would experience a mere 15 minutes.
Trembling, I scribed the runes around the egg, and up the side of my arm, and then spoke the words of power. The candle flame shifted toward a greenish yellow. I saw the moon begin crawling across the sky with visible speed.
When the light returned to normal, I picked up the egg. The ink had faded considerably. Steeling myself for failure, I cracked it.
I should have been steeling my stomach. The gray, twitching flesh inside writhed like a worm. Then the egg began to grow hot in my hand.
I barely spilled it in the crucible in time to avoid severe burns. But it had no feathers. It didn’t burn with the dirty-white heat of the adult phoenix. Instead, the flesh sizzled with the aroma of cooking meat and burning egg.
Shit! I would have to burn it hotter or I’d lose this egg! Swiftly, I pried open my own jar of magnesium dust and sprinkled a pinch. The crucible went up in an inferno. At the end of it, I had a pile of fine white ash coalescing to form another egg.
So. I could do balut. I wouldn’t even need a stove. The marinade would have to be chilled, to keep the heat of the dish from actually burning it, but the Emperor always had ice.
I still needed an adult bird, though. I couldn’t have that and the egg. And I couldn’t project the whole phoenix forward in time, anyway. At the rate I’d have to age it, it would starve to death seconds after hatching. And I needed more eggs, obviously. Which meant I still needed Tywin. But now I was thinking like a sorceress.
It was dawn, and I’d had an hour’s sleep plus two cups of the strongest coffee I could stand when I swept into Tywin’s lodge. He raised his eyebrows at my bulging pack.
“Come on, Tywin, we have a lot to do this morning.”
He bent back over the weapons he had laid out on a table.
“I’m sorry, lass, but it’s over, I won’t risk forest fires for nothing.”
“But today we can bring down live phoenix.”
He gave me a grim stare. “Even Trelesta couldn’t do that.”
“No. But I have motivation she doesn’t.”
“You had the same motivation yesterday. What’s changed?”
“I’m thinking like a good sorceress instead of a lousy cook.” I held up the fertilized chicken egg filched from the royal coops, now reticulated with the calligraphy of a sleep spell. “Eggs are alive. You get me a half-dozen more phoenix eggs, and you shoot this at a live phoenix.”
And now Angwy was already putting her phoenix into the famous slow roaster. I could see her bird from here, and it looked identical to mine, except for a different and thick dry rub smeared over the skin in an intricate pattern.
It was then that I realized that her roaster was heating! She wasn’t using the bird to cook itself. Somehow, she had neutralized the skin of the phoenix. How?
Now Tywin gently turned my head away from Angwy’s confident preparation. He was right, of course. Focus on the task. I set the eggs firmly in the basket and sliced open the tops. Immediately, the whites began to bubble. I plunged them into the chilled olive oil, and began a slow count of thirty. By the end of it, the fragrance of browning bird had filled the air. I then immersed it in the second pot, the one full of the vinegar marinade. It was done. I removed them and placed the basket on the cloth. Now the moment of truth.
Yes. The phoenix chicks had stopped cooking. Once the skin was cooked through, it couldn’t generate heat any longer, regardless of whether it had succeeded in reducing the bird to ash. I nearly wept with relief, but there was no time. Quickly, I put the eggs in their cups, while becoming aware of a deep, surprisingly strong voice:
“…rich flavor, and complemented superbly by the truffles and liqueur. The slow-cooking locks in the fatty flavor without making it cloying. Excellent presentation as well.”
I looked up, wincing. Angwy’s plates looked like little works of art! Reaching for some of the green salad that Tywin and I had prepared earlier, I arranged dandelion leaves in little sunbursts around the egg cups, trying not to look at His Majesty. Fury was written on his face. He was expecting Scrambled Eggs Phoenix, I knew it. Balancing carefully, I walked past Grammel. His Majesty was rising, and inhaling to have me seized and taken away, when Grammel said,
“Mistress Letzterhoff’s entrée is Phoenix Balut in the style adobo.”
His Majesty froze. Then another voice broke in.
“This is balut? Phoenix balut?”
“Yes, Sir Bastich,” I managed.
“Have you ever made balut before?”
He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Rather a challenge for the first time out,” he said. “I hope I don’t regret your choice in the morning.” He flipped open the top, scooping out the sad, grey morsel of birdflesh.
“Perfectly aged,” he said. “I can feel the bones on the tines of my fork. The white hasn’t gelled.” He chewed. I could hear the bones popping between his teeth. “Incredible flavor,” he pronounced. And the yolk has just the right solidity. Talent or luck, Ms. Letzterhoff, is yours.”
The Emperor sagged in his chair, dumbfounded. Mechanically, he began to eat and a thoughtful expression crossed his face. I beat a retreat to my stove. I had done it. The worst, however, was yet to come.
By afternoon, we had only four phoenix eggs. Tywin looked at me and said in a dry voice, “I’d better have that egg now.” Wordlessly, I passed the enchanted egg over.
I had gambled. Yesterday we had seen three phoenix in four hours and hit one. Today, we had seen six and brought down four. Now we had an hour of light left, but the sky was clear of birds.
Fatigue and the afternoon sun sent me into a fitful doze. Then Tywin rose from the reeds. Almost too high to see, a reddish-yellow fleck dived. Tywin raised the bow. Fired.
The egg rose, spinning out of sight.
The phoenix continued its dive.
It splashed into the pond, scattering ducks.
I didn’t remember diving into the pond. All I remembered was Tywin pulling me out, pulling me to shore, shouting, “It’s all right, lass. You’ve got it!”
And my hands locked around the neck of the sodden, sleeping phoenix.
Flash-Glazed Phoenix Under Glass
One (1) ensorcelled phoenix, plucked
One (1) gill Old Genius Dark Beer recommended by an experienced drinker of same
One-half (½) gill orange juice
One (1) tsp. orange zest
Eleven (11) very specific herbs and spices mixed by annoyingly close-mouthed drinker.
One-half (½) gill single barrel bourbon from His Imperial Majesty’s stores
One-eighth (1/8) gill same bourbon
One (1) gill lilac honey
2 gallons lard, solid
1 pair heavy leather gloves
Mix marinade (beer, juice, zest, garlic, pepper) together; divide in two and chill until nearly frozen
Divide lard in two; place half in deep pot
Pour one-eighth gill of bourbon into chef for confidence
The phoenix slept in my hands, as it had throughout the plucking. Feeling no pain, it had felt no need to die. “Good,” said Tywin, who had the pot and lard laid out. “Now remember, just like we practiced it.”
From dawn until noon, he had drilled me in the killing strokes. I had no doubt this man had been a soldier. I held it as firmly as I could.
Tywin skewered the bird through with his dagger. I picked up the knife and sliced from the tail to the breast. The crowd groaned softly as the blood spattered across Tywin, but he reached quickly in and wrenched out the offal.
I turned away, already feeling the bird heat. I placed it in the roasting pan to sear. Then I slapped the amorphous masses of near-frozen marinade onto the sides of the bird. They began to melt instantly, sending up fragrances of orange, beer, bourbon and honey. Half the marinade gone now, gloves heating up. I flipped the bird, slipping the remaining lumps under the skin of the breasts. It sizzled loudly now, fat spattering. Lifting the phoenix in both hands, gritting my teeth against the pain, I dropped it in the fryer and flinched from the roaring geyser of melting fat, covering it with the rest of the lard. It erupted in a storm of noise to the “Oooh,” from the audience.
Now dessert. Tywin was already trimming the liver. So, another correct guess, and I blessed old Alfredus for showing that the organs didn’t catch fire on their own.
Phoenix Liver Crème Brulee.
Eight (8) ounces heavy cream
Three (3) ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate
To taste fresh ground black pepper
Eight (8) ounces phoenix liver
Three (3) hen eggs
One (1) egg yolk
One-half (½) gill fine cane sugar
Melt chocolate over water bath
Heat heavy cream and sugar in saucepan until it begins to simmer.
Pat phoenix livers dry and add to heated cream, remove from heat and let steep for 4-5 minutes
Strain the liver out of the cream and puree with part of cream
Stir together blended cream and remaining cream.
Pass liver cream mixture through chinois, mix in the eggs and yolk (don’t heat too much!) and melted chocolate
Pour into dish. Bake in a water bath in oven until just set
Sprinkle sugar and torch until sugar melts
Tywin shouted. “Get that bird out!”
Carefully, I pulled the phoenix from the hot fat. It was still hot, but no longer burning. I drained it, then set it aside to rest.
I turned back to Tywin, but now we had time, and he knew it.
“Now what’s she so fixated on?” he asked. I followed his gaze to where Trelesta was sitting. And staring. Staring at Angwy, who was brush-basting her slowly roasting bird with intricate strokes that were somehow familiar, almost as if she were…
I locked eyes with Trelesta. She nodded. Angwy was enchanting the bird! While I had been thinking like a chef, she had been thinking like a sorceress. But what spell? Then I recognized it. It was a Gustatory Magnification Spell: the common flavor-enhancer! We’d used cheap versions all the time to make up for our ingredients. Master chefs held GMS in nothing but disdain!
Should I call her on it, though? The Emperor… even Chef Bastich, had noticed nothing. It would be my word against theirs. Or Trelesta’s and mine, and the Emperor would never believe both of us over his favorite.
But she was cheating!
Tywin carved and covered the bird, and this was good because I was shaking too badly to hold a knife. I carried the glass-domed plates to the table.
“Mistress Letzterhoff presents Flash-Glazed Fried Phoenix Under Glass.”
This time the emperor watched the Bastich before making a move.
“Mediocre presentation,” he began. “So let’s hope it tastes better than it looks. No sauce, even.” He took a bite. Chewed. Paused. Put down his fork.
“To be frank, I was dubious about this dish, but it is elegant in concept, the sear is perfect, and the marinade bold and exciting. That’s another mark in the ‘talent’ column, Mistress Letzterhoff.”
Shaking, I withdrew. Now it was Angwy’s turn to glare at me, but what could she do? She couldn’t hurry slow roasting by definition. For me, only the dessert mattered, and we couldn’t serve that before Angwy’s main course.
When it was presented, the Bastich spoke. Would he taste the spell?
“Superior presentation, brilliant sauce, but… slow roasting is one of the most pedestrian ways to serve a bird, flawlessly done though it is. Your competition has been bolder than you, chef.”
The crowd oohed, but I felt sick. If the Bastich hadn’t tasted the spell, what hope did we have? The Emperor was devouring Angwy’s phoenix with every sign of enjoyment.
Last chance. The crème brulee came out of the oven, and I sprinkled the sugar, just as Grammel announced, “For dessert, Chef Angwy has prepared Chocolate Phoenix Tongue Profiteroles.”
And thank the gods I hadn’t stolen that recipe! I summoned fire from my fingertips and played it across the sprinkled sugar.
“Foul!” Angwy strode over and planted herself across the counter from me. “Foul! This is a contest of cuisine, not of sorcery! It’s unfair!”
I almost lost my head, but managed to keep my hiss quiet. “If that’s so, why are you using GMS?”
Angwy whitened. “You can’t prove that!” she whispered.
“Want to ask my boss, the archmage?”
“Well,” roared the Emperor, rising. “Is there foul play or not?”
“Sire,” said Sir Bastich. “I believe your Chef is protesting that magic should not be used, but if I may, broiling a crème should be child’s play for anyone cooking at this level, and it’s hardly a serious violation. I for one am intrigued by Mistress Letzterhoff’s dessert.”
Trembling, I plated it.
“Phoenix liver chocolate crème brulee,” announced Grammel.
Sir Bastich broke the crust. “Perfect thickness. Rich, without being overpowering. Your majesty, you have a very talented young chef here. Were she not already a sorceress, I should offer her an apprenticeship myself. How did you manage to cook phoenix, which until now I have never encountered?”
The Emperor interrupted. “Sir Bastich, are you… do you mean to say that you intend to find in favor of this… of the challenger?”
“Sire, Master Chef Angwy is a brilliant professional; of this there can be no doubt whatsoever. And technically her performance might be superior. But I myself prefer a fresh approach, an exciting approach, and Mistress Letzterhoff has given us that. So yes, my vote is for her.”
I swayed, and Tywin steadied me. Could it be?
“And you, Prime Minister?” the Emperor demanded.
“Oh, Sire, I must vote for Master Chef Angwy. Who could doubt the Royal palate?”
The Emperor looked from Angwy to me. Then at Graam Bastich, who stood there utterly unconcerned, supremely confident in his judgment.
The Emperor opened his mouth.
“No!” screamed Angwy, in rage. “I will not be beaten by a scheming, cheating, bitch of a sorceress! She used sorcery. And that dried up old archmage helped her. Your Majesty, I…”
“Have gone too far at last!” thundered Trelesta, rising. “I was willing to let my apprentice stand or fall by her own merits and mouth,” she intoned. “But I will not see her slandered by a hypocrite! Your Majesty,” she pointed. “Chef Angwy has used GMS upon her main course!”
There was a gasp from the crowd, and a silence. The Emperor’s jaw worked.
And then Trelesta continued. “But that is not the worst of it, is it, Chef?”
Angwy’s eyes went wide. “No! You can’t have! How did you..?”
Trelesta sang a high, clear single note of disenchantment. I could feel the spells in the room break.
“Taste her phoenix again, Sir Bastich.”
Curiously, he did so, chewing thoughtfully. His jaw froze and he spit the bite on his plate. He fixed Angwy with a stare. “This,” he said, “never did taste quite like Mistress Letzterhoff’s phoenix. I wondered. But now the taste is unmistakable. Despite popular lore, chef, everything – let alone phoenix – does not taste like chicken.”
“WHAT?!” cried His Majesty, and Angwy collapsed to the floor.
After Angwy had been dragged away, screaming, by the Imperial Guards, I found myself ushered, politely, to a much more private sitting room, and holding a glass of His Imperial Majesty’s single-barrel bourbon.
“You have quite a future in the gastronomical arts, you know, Mistress Letzterhoff,” the Bastich was saying.
I didn’t answer. I was still getting used to having a future at all.
“The offer of an apprenticeship is sincere, by the way, should you want one. And I’d very much like to buy your secret of hunting phoenix, not to mention your recipes. Shall we say 50,000 royals, in round numbers?”
I nearly spit out my bourbon.
“Come child, it has to be worth that much,” said Trelesta, “if even Angwy had to cheat to comply with His Majesty’s order. No wonder she panicked when she saw you actually cooking phoenix.”
“And you’ll have a position in the Imperial Kitchens when you return,” said His Majesty.
I looked down. “Is that an Imperial order, Sire?” I asked. So much for returning to my beloved sorcery…
“Naturally,” he boomed.
“No, Sire,” the Bastich said, “I advise against. Talent is a great gift, but if the desire of the heart is not there, she will never develop it to the fullest.”
His Majesty hesitated. But he had, perhaps, been enough of a fool tonight. “Oh, very well,” he said.
I nodded gratefully to the Bastich, who winked. He understood. And would get all of Angwy’s stolen recipes for no extra charge.