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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

Peppercorn Diplomacy

Updated: Jul 6

You hold in your hand the list that will ruin your life.

Prince Xavier Bonsai and his entourage will be dining on the estate within ten hours. The prince is not known for his wisdom, for his looks, or even for his politics. He is called the Picky Prince. His preferences are as meticulous as they are banal. You are the head kitchen assistant.

The list in your hand has seventy-three inane tasks. It’s heavy with ink. Lifting it to your bespectacled face counts as a daily workout.

You cross the first task off your list: absolutely, under no circumstances, should there be any bananas on the table. Easy. Your chef is not known for serving bananas or plantains or any other elongated fruit, unless you count cucumbers, which you don’t.

“What’s next on the list, boss?” Hubbard and Kaydel squeeze in close from either side. Hubbard says the word “boss” ironically, with a tang on his tongue. They pretend to read the list. Neither can read.

You rattle off a few of the simpler tasks, ones they can handle. They go about it jokingly, playfully. They are your comrades, in a sense. They don’t respect you, but they like you. Until three months ago, you were all equals working under Head Kitchen Assistant Gayle. When Gayle left, you were foisted into her place. Not because you were any more qualified than the others in terms of cooking, cleaning, or managing a kitchen, but because, as is apparent while you read the list aloud to a dozen apron-ed staff, basic literacy is in high demand. You can actually read. Kinda.

Your semi-literacy puts you at a disadvantage, however. You don’t want this position.

Especially not now. Especially not when you have a list of tasks from the pickiest eater in the six kingdoms, while working under the proudest chef in history.


************


Chef Gohmeeda is a broad man, the full shape of a doorway. His hair is gentle gray-blond, darkened by constant sweat, matted flatly forward like the last line of defense against his receding hairline. His nose is wide. He has the eyes of a bull, unblinking.

Chef Gohmeeda is difficult to work for, difficult to be around. Not because of his behavior, but the lack of it. He is a hard wall, masterful at the art of ignoring. If he doesn’t like your opinion, your taste, your appearance, he removes you mentally from the room. He takes all of the space. You become a crumb of nothing under his feet, small and weak and sad. It’s said that if a king should visit the kitchen, Chef Gohmeeda wouldn’t notice, and the king would gracefully duck into the pantry to give the man his space. He’s allowed to be this way because of the culture of your kingdom, but also because he is the greatest chef to have ever lived.

You handle the logistics—make sure Chef Gohmeeda’s kitchen is stocked, his staff is paid and fed, his cookware is cleaned and oiled. Sometimes you do this by timidly issuing orders to your peers. Sometimes you stay awake until dawn, scraping congealed pork fat from a copper pot with the stiff heel of your boot.

Speaking of copper, there should be no copper. None. 

“No copper,” Hubbard says. “For the cooking, or for the serving?”

You pull the list closer to your face, mouthing the symbols, making sure you read it right. It doesn’t specify. Best to be safe, and just remove copper wherever possible.

“If the Picky Prince don’t want copper, then the Picky Prince don’t get copper.” Kaydel loads a crate with copper ladles and pans. “I’m more worried ‘bout what Chef thinks.”

You are sweating. But, so far, the list is paring down nicely. The most difficult task—one concerning peppercorn—is too much to worry about just yet. Tackling the simplest tasks first, as is your usual method, has reduced a whopping seventy-three to a much more manageable... fifty-two? You count again. Your throat tightens.

Squire bowels.

You adjust your spectacles. Any soup must be served in squire bowels? You can’t be reading this right.

No, square bowls! You tell Clive to check with the serving staff about square dishware. Your voice squeaks as you shout the order over the shuffling hum of busy boots.

Kaydel places her hand on your shoulder. “Deep breath, boss. We’ll get through this.” You attempt a smile. “What’s next for our picky guest?”

You lead Kaydel and two others to the pantry, squinting at the list. Some words are above your reading level, but you can usually understand food terms fine. 

All celery must be cut in twain. Wallets chopped fine? No, walnuts. Plus, the walnuts shouldn’t get mixed in with the almonds. To be safe, you have the complicated or unwanted ingredients carted to a spare room down the hall, away from the kitchen. If one of the prince’s advisors or tasters decides to take a tour, it’ll be easy if you don't have much to explain. Get them out of sight, save the hassle.

Kaydel and the others seem to agree with this course of action. You feel a little better, a little more respected.

You stumble over a few more phrases, taking it a few words at a time. What are nut beround eggs? The Prince can nut... Oh, browned eggs. Nut-browned eggs? You tell Hubbard to toss all of the brown eggs.

“I’ll give’em to the pigs,” Hubbard says. “No sense wastin’, ‘specially with supplies gettin’ sent out to the soldiers. The pigs’ll get nice and fat on ‘em.”

“How brown we talkin’?” Kaydel is palming three eggs, each a different shade. “One of these is definitely white, but this middle one is only kinda. None of ‘em are nutty.”

Over the next ten minutes, every member of the kitchen crew passes by the pantry, giving their two cents on which brown egg is too brown and which brown egg might pass as white on a sunny day. You side with error. Seventy eggs are tossed to the pigs. Only four left.

“Chef ain’t gonna like this,” Kaydel says, biting her lip a little too hard. “I’m already preppin’ the rosemary bread.”

“Ain’t no eggs in that,” another crew member says.

“It’s for cloud toast. Bread dipped in whites. Notta ‘nuff eggs, now.”

“We have fifty mouths—at least!”

“I got it.” Hubbard removes his apron. “Street market should still be open. How many eggs we need?”

You do the math, account for some losses, and then give Hubbard a small sack of coins. He’ll be back in a few hours. The kitchen feels less on your side without him, but you’re glad to have one less task to think about. Fifty-one tasks remain.

You take a deep breath. All you have to do is follow the list, help Chef Gohmeeda work his magic on the Picky Prince’s entourage, and by the end of the day, if everyone’s satisfied, you’ll have put an end to the war between the two strongest kingdoms.


************


You haven’t been looking outside the castle windows as often. Not since the fortifications turned the hills muddy, replaced the townsfolk with iron suits.

For hundreds of years, this western kingdom and its neighbor had been separated by the wide flow of the Rio Surain. There was never quite peace, but the line was clear. The river was their border.

Until last year.

Something immense shook the ground. Some believe it was a giant being born for the first time in a millennium. Others blame a hidden source of eternal fire deep underground that moves slabs of earth as it escapes. The common tale, mostly for children, is that the king and queen of the Mar de Maracuja had reorganized their undersea furniture. Whatever the case, many homes were lost by shifting soil, flooding, and fires. Blankets of jungle wrinkled, patches of farmland sank. After the damage was assessed, the fires put out, and the people set to reconstruction, it became apparent that the Rio Surain had changed shape and position. It had taken a mountainous bite out of the eastern kingdom and fed it here, to the west.

Two unfamiliar faces enter the kitchen. The tall one is wearing a gown with a hood, her wrinkled eyes covered by a thin blue shadow. Behind her is a younger man, perhaps your age, clutching a stack of paper to his chest. You guess they come from the eastern kingdom.

“You be holding the list,” the hooded one says. She introduces herself as Itha, the prince’s primary physician and trusted advisor. Her Eastern accent sticks to her teeth like wax. “I be touring the castle, ensuring instructions be followed.”

“Your prince is in capable hands,” one of the cooks shouts while scrubbing a countertop. The rest of the staff chuckles, but you don’t get the joke. In fact, your hands are trembling. Perhaps that was the joke. 

You provide a quick tour of the kitchen, as well as the pantry. The advisor snorts and sniffs. Every few steps she looks to her helper who, without a word, lifts a sheet of parchment to Itha’s face for her to nod or grunt at.

“The list not be completed yet?”

You tell her no, not yet, but there is still time. Some of the demands are difficult. For example, you have never heard of a killy power tunic.

The advisor hisses. “You must find this all very humorous.” She turns her nose up at the workers, folds back into herself as if she were surrounded by something too gross to touch. “I know how your people be talking ‘bout us, and ‘bout the prince. The Picky Prince, you be calling him.”

There is a weak chuckle. Everyone has slowed their cleaning and organizing, not sure if they are meant to react or not.

You are shaking your head in refutation. Your hair is so damp with sweat it sticks to your cheek.

“No sense in denying it. However, it not be relevant what the riff-raff say or think. We must attempt peace. It be pertinent we do so. No one be wanting this blasted war.” She comes in close to your face, sniffs you. Her eyes burn black within the blue shadow. “Joke all you like. Just make certain the so-called ‘Picky Prince’ be having his chili powder tonic, as well as every other detail written on that list. If you do not, this castle will be the first to fall.”

The advisor leaves. Her assistant looks back at you, shrugs, gives a sad, helpless smile. It’s probably true; no one wants this war. In that way, everyone from the ministers to the waitstaff to the simpleton who kills the rats are all on the same team. You’re embarrassed that the advisor knows about the “Picky Prince” nickname. But more than that, you’re embarrassed that you misread chili powder tonic as killy power tunic.

You pull the list to your nose. You check and double-check all the tasks you’ve done so far. What other mistakes have you made?


************


You aren’t originally from here. 

Where you were raised, in one of the far, northern kingdoms, cooks are cooks. They are people who make food, like professionals of any other sort: tailors, growers, hunters, fisherman. But here, in this nation, cooks are beloved, and chefs are revered.

There is a distinction. A cook can be anyone who makes a meal. But chefs are special. They have no allegiance, they follow no rules. They appease lords, feed the masses, redefine agriculture. Chefs in this land are warriors for hire. They wander the country with a knife on their belt and a pot on their back, searching for mouths to feed and food to feed them. The famous Chef Haissen sailed to the frozen south with a crew of nine to master the art of preparing the pinguim, a rare shuffling bird with flesh like freshwater fish and eggs that are worth a loaf of pure gold. Chef Ca Mala was famous for serving every royal kitchen in the kingdom for a year each, and then retiring to the jungle where she is currently cultivating a strain of banana that tastes like roast deer. 

You recall the fable—or was it?—of The Lord and the Oats. A young lord tasked his chef with making chocolate pudding to be brought to him in an ivory saucer every night in bed. After seven days of this the chef grew bored, instead surprising the whole estate with a divine bread pudding created from leftover dinner loaves. The lord’s retainers applauded the chef’s newest sweet. The treasurer bowed deeply, always happy when money could be saved on ingredients. The young lord had the chef killed on the spot. But when he tried to find a replacement, no one would serve him anything other than warm oats in water. The young lord would beg, threaten, torture, and no one would fall in line. Oats every morning, oats every evening. He would pay his staff in silver and opals, and yet go to sleep with oats as dessert. For the rest of his life, he never tasted another cooked meal. This simple story, which varies from mouth to mouth in humor and sincerity, embodies a pervasive ethos.

You can force anyone to cook. But you cannot force anyone to cook well.

And so, a chef, when presented with a distasteful situation, will not suffer bribe or threat. A true chef will walk away.

You often wonder what keeps Chef Gohmeeda here, in this particular castle. His reputation as a peacemaker has inflated his worth beyond the construction of a new temple, beyond a field of coffee and workers, beyond a ship and crew. And yet, this castle is not among the best of the best. At its location, especially near the neighboring kingdom where supplies could run dry through feeding and outfitting soldiers, Chef’s kitchen would only have access to second-rate ingredients at even the best of harvests. Trade routes made certain ingredients impossible to procure altogether, such as deep-sea marlin or horseradish. And yet, he has been lingering here for years.

“I hear it’s a bruxa curse,” says Tomatchy. “Keeps chef bound here by a length of rope unseen to the eye. It’s around his ankle; it’s why he limps.”

“My cousin got cursed, y’know.” Foon is organizing the flour by coarseness—another demand from the demonic list. “When young. She had the colors sucked from her eyes. She can’t tell if an apple is green or red.”

“That can’t be true,” Kaydel says.

“It is. Also, a friend of my aunt knew a barmaid who was so cursed, she couldn’t eat yellow things.” Tomatchy scratches his chin. “Or green, I can’t remember.”

“That’s nothing,” says Hota. “I knew a fella from the prayer-men, a real righteous type. He took to the cloth after a bruxa cursed him so hard he couldn’t eat nothin’ that grew from the ground. Nothin’! Cassava, tapioca, potato. You dig it up, he’ll choke on it. Figured it out after shelling a groundnut. His skin fluffed out like an angry cat’s fur. He went strawberry red.”

“Good thing Tomatchy’s cousin wasn’t there. She wouldn’t have noticed the color!”

They all laugh. You’re busy with the list.


************


Hubbard returns, but there are not enough pure white eggs. Anywhere. He bought as many as he could find from the market, but you need at least a dozen more.

You curse. Down in the stables, fourteen pigs are slapping their lips together, slurping up the seventy brown eggs you were so eager to hide. Chef Gohmeeda makes cloud toast for every important function, and thus requires eggs. There’s no way around it. You send Hubbard down with instructions to collect any that have somehow evaded their hungered gaze.

But all of these little egg issues are nothing compared to the problem you’ve been putting off: the problem of the peppercorn. The Picky Prince has requested that the chef’s infamous cauliflower peppercorn soup not have any white peppercorn. He prefers black peppercorn.

This issue is going to break you. You’ve known this since you first held that paper between moist fingers. 

Chef Gohmeeda only has a dozen signature dishes. This is remarkably less than most famous chefs. So long as he can execute his signature dishes, he is happy—or what appears to you, with an anxious stomach, as at least being not unhappy. If the chef saw this disregard for his cauliflower peppercorn soup, there would be hell.

An important official once asked for olive oil in his caju asparagus, instead of the appropriate goat butter that Chef Gohmeeda had himself churned two days prior. Chef Gohmeeda, upon hearing this, removed his hat, wadded his apron, and left. He said no words. It took three weeks of searching to bring the chef back. They found him in a countryside inn where he quietly baked rosemary loaves in a back room. He said that the small village appreciated his work, and no one asked him to change a thing. According to rumor, the king himself begged on one silken knee for Chef Gohmeeda to return.

It’s important to note the complete reliance the current king has on Chef Gohmeeda. He is a peacemaker. The western kingdom has had, over the last decade, no less than seven horrifying, bloody disputes with the other kingdoms. Each one had been resolved over a dinner. Each dinner had the king as host, and Chef Gohmeeda’s unparalleled recipes as the mediator. It’s unclear to you how this works, but you’ve seen it happen. No one leaves their plates uncleaned, and everyone leaves shaking hands.

But only if Chef Gohmeeda is happy.

You make sure there are enough ingredients available for a backup soup. A tomato-based root-and-herb soup would be divine, or even a carrot and squash puree. If there are good alternatives, he can be persuaded. But, he might ask what the persuasion is for. He might see through it, and think maybe a guest has requested another meal. At this, he might resolve to cook the cauliflower peppercorn soup no matter what, at which point he will certainly add white peppercorn instead of black, and the Picky Prince will be offended. The chef will then pour the soup on your head, and you will die a cauliflower death.

You task Tomatchy with measuring the roundness of the tomatoes—a petty standardization demanded by the list, not the chef. Then you get Hota to peel the carrots, which is both a chef demand and a list demand, a rare item of agreement between your two tormentors.

Your lips are dry. You are dehydrating from worrying, from sweating. Worse, you hear the chime of the temple bells. You hear those heavy, steady, distinct footsteps. Only three hours remain before dinner. You hide the list in your pocket.

Chef Gohmeeda is coming.


************


You go to the pantry. There are two small glass jars of white peppercorns. You slide one into your sleeve.

The chef enters the kitchen. He calls everyone to attention with a powerful three-tone whistle. Shur-shuh-SHWEET! 

All of the kitchen staff, previously laughing and gossiping, have taken on a fresh demeanor of fear and respect. There is no more messing around. It’s time to cook.

Chef Gohmeeda is already giving orders to cut the cauliflower, onions, and garlic. Your plans to divert the menu to a non-signature soup have died before birth. Your fingers graze the second jar of peppercorns as he asks, from across the room, if all the preparation is ready. You answer yes, and say Hubbard is out getting the eggs from the market (a half lie; he is plucking eggs from a pig trough), and there are plenty of ingredients for whatever soup you decide on. You really emphasize the “whatever soup” part. He says he decided on cauliflower peppercorn already, and does not thank you for the extra prep. You slip the other jar into your other sleeve, then pretend to adjust the wooden shutters as you drop one out the window, a six-floor drop. As you prepare to dispose of the second, you are startled by the chef—shur-shuh-SHWEET!

You almost drop the second jar on the floor. It shifts from sleeve to pocket.

The chef is at the pantry, plucking boxes and jars of herbs and spices. After his three-tone whistle, everyone knows to listen. His voice emits at a flat volume, loud enough to be heard clearly across any room, with no tone of anger or joy, no slurring, no mistakes. Clear, precise, and unhurried.

He says, “Explain what happened to the white peppercorn.”

You walk slowly towards him, worried that the little pearls in your pocket will jingle against the glass, loud as hammering iron.

You are sabotaging his work, and now you must lie about it.


************


“Don’t worry,” says Hubbard, “I got more eggs.”

Chef Gohmeeda turns his calm, icy gaze to Hubbard, looking him up and down. “Explain what happened to the eggs.”

You rush over to Hubbard and take the crate from his arms. There is nothing to worry about, you tell the chef. You’ll handle the eggs. Is the cloud toast still a part of the menu?

“Cloud toast pairs perfectly with my cauliflower peppercorn soup.” This is all he says, as if the conclusion is evident. He turns to the crew and starts issuing orders. You gulp. You seem to have avoided the peppercorn confrontation... for the moment.

You take a risk: you crack open the brown eggs, put them in a bowl, and dispose of the shells as fast as possible—back to the pigs, Hubbard! If Itha decides to tour the kitchen again, there must be no sign of brown eggshells. This, at least, is a trick you can handle. The eggs will taste and look the same no matter the shell, satisfying the chef and list. Everything you do must satisfy the chef and the list.

The white peppercorn, however, will be harder to conceal.

“Here.” Chef Gohmeeda is holding a long, wooden device: a pepper grinder, imported from the northern kingdom, at the head of the Rio Surain. “There is a mix of black and white peppercorn in here. I need someone to divide the black from the white.”

You blink. You had forgotten there was a blend of peppercorns in the peppercorn grinder. You offer to perform the separation.

“Explain why Hubbard had to bring in more eggs.”

You say one of the crates had gone rotten, was stinking up the pantry. Hubbard offered to bring more from the market.

Chef Gohmeeda doesn’t hesitate. “Explain what happened to the white peppercorn.”

This is a more difficult lie. It’s hard to figure out how two jars become zero without sounding completely useless as a head assistant. Stocking the kitchen is your job, and pretending you made a mistake will lose you that job. But you also can’t blame your colleagues or they will never respect you, they will stop following orders, and you will lose your job. You can’t blame the list, either—the chef must never know about the list. If the chef learns he is being manipulated by the list, then the chef walks out, and you lose your job all the same, with the added side effect of a continued war. So you blame weevils.

You feel his eyes burning into your forehead.

“I hate weevils,” he says with the first ounce of passion you’ve ever registered in his tone. He gives the three-tone whistle. “I need someone to divide the black from the white.”

You offer again, but he says no, your task is to make sure there aren’t weevils in any of the other ingredients. The weevil lie is backfiring. He tasks Hota with handling the peppercorn. 

Hota accepts the grinder. She walks towards a counter, unscrewing the top. You can’t allow her to succeed. She is about to ruin all of your list preparations.

You see your life flash before your eyes. 

Without thinking, you stick your foot out. Hota trips. She puts her hands out to protect herself. The grinder stays lightly gripped in one hand during the fall, slamming against the tiled floor, busted to pieces by her body. Her teeth smash against the stone. Blood shoots in seven directions. Peppercorns roll everywhere. Hota’s hand is bloody, splinters of wood embedded in her palm like a starry night sky. 

Hota gets helped to her feet, dusted off, and sent to the medico. She is shaken. Her front teeth won’t survive the encounter. She’ll never eat an apple the same way again. But you’ll have time to regret your impulse later, on another day, when two kingdoms are at peace. Even if the white peppercorns could be salvaged from the dirty floor, most of them are pink now, Hota-colored.

You have succeeded.


************


Music is playing. You can hear it faintly from the dining room. Everything is going according to plan. 

The bells have rung. The guests have arrived. The Picky Prince himself is wheeled in on a golden chair. He has wide shoulders, but his arms are thin and his legs thinner, like felled birch trees. He surprises you with his moonlight paleness. Everyone else from the East glows with natural sun-skin, yet his complexion ripples like watery oats.

Your list is complete. You have it folded safely in your left pocket, next to an errant jar of secret peppercorn. Every item on the list is checked and double-checked. Chef Gohmeeda, having no other recourse, has prepared to use black pepper when the time comes, but has sent three of the fastest kitchen boys around town, knocking on the doors of every merchant, every inn, every grower, in hopes of bringing back white peppercorn. You know it’s hopeless. White peppercorn is a rare import. Plus, trade has slowed to a crawl due to the war. You smile.

The first course is plated, a simple salad of wild flowers and honey, imported from a place you can’t pronounce. It will be served on a tiny square plate with blue floral patterns around the edges.

The second course is the less-than-signature dish, Chef Gohmeeda’s cauliflower peppercorn soup, sans peppercorn. The soup that saves nations. The soup that stops war. The soup that will defy the gods’ tussling with the Rio Surain—served in a square bowl with blue floral patterns around the edges.

Mid-way through the soup course is the cloud toast. These are slices of Chef Gohmeeda’s rosemary bread, one side lightly dipped in egg whites, seasoned, toasted over oak, garnished with three leaves of spinach. The spinach wilts slightly with the heat of the toast, melding the flavors in real time. Square bowl, blue floral pattern.

The third course—

Shur-shuh-SHWEET!

Chef Gohmeeda grabs you by the collar. The fabric cuts against your windpipe. His nose is against your ear, his breath wet and heavy, but calm. You feel his lips part.

“Explain. What happened. To the white. Peppercorn.”

You swallow and mutter. Saliva on your lips. You try to tell him again about the weevils, those little bugs that eat everything. He covers your mouth with a calloused palm.

“I told the grower to explain the weevils in the pepper. You lied to me.” He says this in a whisper that echoes. “Pepper repels insects.” 

He has you pinned, as if trapped under a fallen oak.

A moment passes. Your mind is blank. If there is something to say, you can’t say it. You are sweating again, more than before—more than ever.

Then, you’re let go. Chef Gohmeeda wipes his palms on his apron, takes a deep breath. He wrinkles his brow, as if caught for ages in a soft rain. You watch as he empties a sack of carrots, then, moving clockwise around the room, fills the sack with his favored utensils: a large wooden spoon, a saucepan, a northern frying pan, a set of leather-bound knives. He walks into the pantry, hand-picking seasonings—tarragon and saffron and nutmeg—dropping them into the sack without ceremony.

He’s packing up. He’s leaving. The freedom of a wandering chef.

You see no other way, now. No way out. You show him the list.


************


The atmosphere of the dining hall is buttery and warm. Between the two groups of people, there are a myriad of conversations. Much of the discussion is political, bordering argumentative, yet agreeable, a canopy of enthusiastic amiability.

The Picky Prince has, so far, done very little picking. He has been easy to please. The serving staff—quick gossips, all of them—report only an intelligent man, weak and pitiable, but sharp and friendly. According to further gossip among the retainers, diplomacy is going well. Even the prince’s hooded advisor, Itha, has relaxed. She stays close to her prince, sipping a small cup of sugarcane rum, blushing and laughing with an ease unexpected of her status and role.

The western king is being praised for the lighting, the music, the honey salad, the plating (square, which the Picky Prince seems surprised by?), the service, the conversation. A dream for a host. Naturally, due to the culture of his kingdom, the king takes credit for everything but the food, instead honoring Chef Gohmeeda and his kitchen staff. 

You watch from the corner, right outside the kitchen door, but take no solace in the pleasantries. Every one of your muscles is as tight as a rock, ready to crumble. 

Your earlier confessions of list-based sins on Chef Gohmeeda’s ears were met with silence. He never blinked, never spoke. His breathing stayed at a perfect rhythm as he listened to all the hoop-jumping and cat-wrangling that went into ensuring the Picky Prince had a perfect meal. He learned about the eggs, about the peppercorn, about the flour coarseness and copper removal and herb organization and milk salting and fat rinsing and seed harvesting and ornate cutlery boxes—and even your blunder with the “killy power tunic.” After you were done, nothing left to say, he removed his hat, wadded his apron, and left.

The first course dishes are being cleared, the cauliflower soup ladled into square bowls in the kitchen. The chef, nowhere to be found. 

If you had any water left inside you, you’d cry. You’d cry and cry. There is nothing left to be done but to watch the evening play out and then, on the morrow, receive the king’s reprimand for displeasing his head chef. You’d be found out as a foreigner, you’re certain. Tortured, deported, left to starve in the muddy, shit-streaked streets.

The music starts up again, a little song known throughout the kingdom as “The Wordless Carrot,” an inelegant bar song that has made its way into the upper echelons as a piece of deceptive art. It gets people dancing. Not the Picky Prince in his golden chair, but most others.

The soup bowls come, cradled in the arms of a dozen servers. The music swells and pauses, accenting a triumphant chord: the beginning of a course. All the guests wait patiently for the napkins to be laid, the cutlery to be oriented. The western king stands, tapping his wine glass with his soup spoon. “This is, of course, Chef Gohmeeda’s signature dish, and it would be improper to carry on without giving this special chef the opportunity to introduce it.” There is an inviting applause.

But the chef doesn’t come.

Dry coughs. Awkward ahems. The king whispers into an ear, and that ear’s mouth whispers into another, and another, until someone is asking you where the chef is, and all you can do is shrug. You sip some wine.

The king frowns. You wonder what thoughts lay beneath his vine-woven crown. Will this dinner ensure peace? Can war be averted without his trusted culinary diplomat?

Chef Gohmeeda appears from the kitchen. Your knees buckle a little. The room itself sighs in relief. His square face, bullish expression, looks around the room, meeting every pair of eyes, person by person.

Hope is restored! He’s here!


************


Chef Gohmeeda starts his speech. 

“My signature dish,” Chef Gohmeeda says, “constructed with full heart and mind, is not something to be tampered with. Like the wind, it can’t be stopped, or else it cannot be called the wind. To request an alteration is a dishonor upon me and every chef before me—persons of great dignity and a noble tradition.”

This is not going how you had anticipated. You sip more wine.

But Chef Gohmeeda continues in this vein. With each word, a sourness fills the air. You aren’t the only one to think so. People are confused, searching the king’s face for an idea of how to react. The king, brow furrowed, does not have any answers. In the western kingdom, a chef is free to speak his mind, but it is unlikely the kingdom of the Picky Prince will tolerate a man so bold.

Chef Gohmeeda removes his necklace, a leather strap with a wooden box on the end. A hinged amulet? It rattles. “I have with me six white peppercorns. From the kingdom to the north, far from the Rio Surain, months by horse and ship. Each one is hand-carved by a prayer-man. Each carving is a symbol—the laws of the wandering chef. I was gifted these treasures for saving a village from hunger. I have kept them near my heart, around my neck, in this teek chamber. It is because of these that I created a dish that would properly utilize the taste of the white peppercorn. A dish to show honor, to show pride. My cauliflower peppercorn soup. And you”—he points, full force, at the Picky Prince—“would have me defile this dish by removing the most important ingredient!”

The Picky Prince’s face is cold stone. But you can see, standing where you are, a tremble in his thin arms. His golden chair lurches slightly on its massive wheels. His pale skin reddens.

“But,” the chef continues, “there are things more important happening here today. I’ve been blind to that. The moving of the Rio Surain has left us all angry, confused. All of our recipes, so to speak, have been tampered with. We need to adapt. I am willing to do so. I am willing to adapt.”

Chef Gohmeeda crosses the dining hall. Servers and guests alike move aside, no one willing to even brush against his thick, bearlike arms. In his hand is the leather strap, which you know to be his necklace. The hand-carved peppercorns. He presents it, palm up, to the Picky Prince in his golden chair.

“This is to be crushed onto the cauliflower soup. It is what makes the soup have true flavor. It gives it spirit. To eat the cauliflower soup with this spice would do me great honor. However,” says the chef, lowering himself for the first time onto one knee, a position of submission, of humility, “if you wish not to use it, I will speak no more.”

The Picky Prince’s face folds down, a budding scowl. His advisors whisper in his ear, her green eyes flashing to the chef, to the soup, to the king. The Picky Prince nods once. Twice. He says nothing.

You’re in disbelief. The great chef, the man who loomed above you like a mountain, like a titan, is unmoving, head bowed, eyes closed. He’s clumped like cloth, shoulders barely above the table, doglike in demeanor. If it weren’t so quiet, you’d laugh.

But, then, something surprises you. The Picky Prince smiles.

“Chef,” the prince says, “you are a brave man. In my home, you would be dragged to the dungeon, fed to the dogs. But here, there is a different law, and a different culture. I see what you are offering me is a compromise. As an intellect and a gentleman, I know that compromise is the only thing that will settle the dispute between our two kingdoms. And so, I will eat the soup exactly as you like.”

While he speaks, his hooded advisor, Itha, mixes various liquids and chalky powders, stirring, shaking. A small cup bubbles and foams. You wonder if there is chili powder in there.

Meanwhile, the crowd sighs. People are speaking again, but also waiting. They must wait until the prince and the king take the first bite, as a matter of course. But also, after all this, everyone, including yourself, is excited to see how the Picky Prince will react to an ingredient he specifically asked not to be served.

The Picky Prince drinks his tonic. The chef, back on his feet, has loaded a grinder with his sacred white peppercorns, and—grind, grind, grind—has added the final touch to his signature dish.

The Picky Prince takes a gentle slurp, spoon dangling from his deformed hand. His lips curl. He smiles.

“Chef Gohmeeda, perhaps this is the best food I have ever eaten.”


************


The dinner party is back in full humor. The laughter is contagious. You hear murmurs about the scary chef, of the absolute wild courage to have spoken to the prince that way. For the moment, any notion of a war seems impossible.

Chef Gohmeeda has donned both hat and apron, and is back in the kitchen ordering crew around. They are pulling the egg-dipped rosemary bread—cloud toast—from the ovens, plating them with spinach. You have been told to oversee the serving staff—a code the chef uses when he wants a particular person out of the way. The serving staff has no need of your guidance. At least he is talking to you, looking you in the eye. Maybe you are useless for the rest of the night, but tomorrow, the day after, you will still have a place in the kitchen. This makes you smile.

“Good work,” Itha, the prince’s advisor, says. Her wrinkled eyes smile at you from beneath her blue shade. “Your chef be leaving quite the impression.”

You relax your shoulders. Maybe it’s the light atmosphere, or maybe the pride of having completed your job, or maybe the little sips of wine you’ve been stealing, but you feel confident enough to ask about the list. Why so demanding?

“I be both his physician and advisor,” she says. “You see, the prince not always be so weak and deformed. As a young man, he be vibrant. His father believed him the next Warrior King, a legendary title few rulers in our kingdom be fit to hold. But...”

You follow her gaze. The Picky Prince. Prince Xavier Bonsai. You see now his simple form, his weak legs, his golden chair fitted to grant mobility to his crumpled body.

“He be cursed. By a bruxa. Or so they say, I not be ‘round at the time. Others say he simply fell off a horse. Others say he be born this way, and stories of his youth be fabricated. Perhaps he had been cursed by bruxas before birth. Whatever the case, we must be very careful what he eats. Many things ache his sensitive insides. Worse, the wrong spice, the wrong ingredient, and he be dead.”

You hadn’t thought of this before. It explained so much. The tonics. The chalky mixture she had prepared before he took a sip of the soup. And their nickname for him, “Picky Prince”... perhaps this was nothing more than a story.

You pull the crumpled list from your pocket. What looked so daunting, so oppressive before now looks like what it is: a way to keep the prince safe. A way to keep the peace.

“You’ll have to forgive me for that.” Itha half smiles. “Many of those demands be pointless. To reveal the foods he truly cannot consume would be to reveal his weaknesses.”

You ask about the other nonsensical demands: the square bowls, the removal of copper, the fabric roses, the meticulously measured coarseness of the flour, the wax napkin rings. So many tasks, so much of your day sweating and crying about things that couldn’t possibly affect the prince’s wellbeing.

Itha laughs—a naturally wicked, yet playful sound. You wince.

“Oh, you simple kitchen creature. It all be part of certainty that you followed the rules. I cannot be ‘round the kitchen all day, over your shoulder every minute. But I can check your final work. The square bowls, the fabric roses—I can see, just by looking ‘round, that you be taking great care in doing what has been asked of you. If even one thing were out of place, I would not be able to trust that—”

Before she can finish, there is a clatter.

People are gasping. Wine glasses are falling over.

Itha becomes lightning. She rushes to the prince’s side. He is choking, his skin bloating, bubbling. He is as red as a strawberry, sucking wildly at the air.

“He’s dying!” Itha shouts. “Move! To the medico! He’ll die!”

Everyone is up, scrambling. The king is barking orders. Servers are catching falling dishes, ushering platters back into the kitchen. Only two people remain perfectly still: you and, from the kitchen entryway, Chef Gohmeeda, his arms folded.

The prince spasms as he’s lifted, his body a wet blanket in the arms of noblemen and soldiers. His eyes have rolled completely back into his head. His lips are swollen, wet, and speckled with chunks of cloud toast.

The bruxa’s curse.

A meaty hand clamps your shoulder. Chef Gohmeeda leans in.

“Explain what you did wrong.”

You say nothing. You are reading and re-reading, trying to understand the symbols, the shapes, the nonsense—desperate to figure out where you went wrong.

The war. It will continue, harder than ever before. You have poisoned the prince of the eastern kingdom. You will be tortured, and you aren’t even smart enough to understand why.

You hold in your hand the list that ruined your life.




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