I slapped my hand on the bar, barking laughter and coughing out lungfuls of smoke. The men around me cackled along, trying to remain atop their barstools as assistant chef Bodairo pantomimed Lady Pentoray’s strange and lewd flirtations.
“Chef Vondal, you certainly need to visit my garden. I pay outrageous prices keep it lush and in full bloom. My gardener enjoys such the life, and the fruits are the juiciest and tartest berries to be found inside Absalom.”
Bodairo batted his eyelashes at me, pretending to flutter a fan in front of his face. I wiped tears from my eyes and coughed the last wisps of smoke from my lungs. The rough hole-in-the ground bar we were holding court in was poorly-lit, stank of sweat, smoke, and spilled beer. We loved it, even if the worst musician ever sat twanging away in the corner on a gittern missing half of its strings. I was surrounded by my kitchen workers, my Troglodytes, and we were drinking after our evening of serving merchants and lesser nobles high-class food at the Chelcedian. I was the Named Chef, running the kitchen and employing my most trusted workers, knife, and grill-men. My name and feats brought in the curious, the daring, and the rich. Their work kept them coming back again and again.
I leaned back against the bar as the Trog Squad all made suggestive comments and called for more alcohol. The barkeep Gogen sidled over, grinning in amusement as he ran a bottle of spirits across the hastily pushed forward row of glasses. Gogen was Good People, for a half-orc.
Gogen’s Trick was located a few blocks away from the Chelcedian in the Merchant’s Quarter of Absalom. We have been coming here long before Gogen had won the place (by trickery, of course), but the change of ownership didn’t bother us. We liked his style.
This was a typical end to the week. We had knocked out over seventy high-quality meals that night, and had few complaints. Nobles and rich folk are picky and liked to whine. The Chelcedian’s owner, Seret Valdus, was a genteel noble’s son himself, and he generally knew how to deal with those kinds of people so I didn’t have to, even when some overfed, finger-sucking fool demanded to give his compliments or complaints to the chef, excepting Lady Pentoray, unfortunately. She and Seret were grand friends, so I had to suffer her attentions.
I repacked my pipe and lit it with a tindertwig, passing the short stick to the others of the Squad doing the same. I glanced over at the threesome that had come in some time after we did, and only one of them was drinking. I was still jumpy from the dinner service and had noticed them entering the bar shortly after us. Gogen had sent one of his spectacularly ugly waitresses over to get an order, and she had brought a glass of wine back to the trio, but nothing else. Considering the regular glances I was getting from at least two of them, I was betting they wanted to talk to me about something. The third burly figure was obviously a bodyguard for the well-swaddled man in the middle who occasionally sipped the terrible wine from the scarred table in front of him.
Seeing me give them a thorough look over, the fellow on the opposite side stood up and approached. He was unhealthily thin, as if the fat had been boiled away from beneath his drawn, pale skin. His hands flexed under the long cuffs as his eyes darted between the Trogs, who had all turned interested looks at the man encroaching on their drinking.
Wizard, I thought, noticing the heavy sleeves and adding that to the twitching, discolored fingers poking out from them.
“Are you the Chef Vondal Daine? My Lord would like to speak with you,” the wizard said.
The Trogs oooohed at me and whispered at each other. I gave the nervous wizard a lazy smile. “I am. Buy the boys a round and I’ll talk to your Lord.”
The wizard blinked at me, and then reached into a pouch. The Trogs grew quiet, and I could easily imagine their hands resting on their sharp hidden knives, ready to draw if he pulled a weapon or tried to cast something at us. It was simple gold he drew from the pouch though, and as it clinked onto the counter, they roared approval, calling for Gogen.
I stood up and bowed with a flourish, sauntering over to the table. I dropped into the chair in front of the supposed ‘Lord’ and peered under the cowl that hid its owner from across the bar. A heavy jawed face peered back at me, cheekbones jutting from layers of powdered fat. A nose girls could only ignore for money dominated his face, and his mud-colored eyes rested in a nest of thick pale wrinkles. When he spoke, his voice was surprisingly cultured and smooth, making him seem younger than his appearance.
“You are Master Chef Vondal Daine. The man who served princes poisonous flesh that tasted divine and made not one guest ill; the innovator of bunyip-head soup and who serves linnorm steaks as standard fare. You braved the wilds of Varisia to hunt and cook various types of linnorms to determine which one tasted best.”
I waved his compliments away. “Quit blowing smoke at me, stranger. What is it you want?”
He leaned forward and his eyes seemed brighter. A little drool collected at a corner of his mouth and I was suddenly leery of him.
“I have a commission for you, Vondal Daine. I want your services for an exclusive dinner I am planning for a select number of my fellow nobles. The fare for this Feast will be, one could say, unique. Your talents would be called upon as never before.”
I smiled. “What haven’t I prepared already?”
The noble leaned back, face sinking back into his cowl. “We will be serving such delicacies as harpy and flank of centaur, with a dizzying array of side dishes with the most exotic ingredients money could buy. Our main course will be whole roasted halfling.”
My stomach roiled at the thought. I can cook damn near anything if I had the right spices and ingredients, but the thought of carving up and serving other talking races made my stomach contract and smacked of the profane festivals of Urgathoa.
My face hardened and the bodyguard’s mailed fists creaked as he caught my change of demeanor.
“Not interested, you croaking boggard.”
The bodyguard made as if to surge to his feet, but the fleshy hand of the nobleman held him back with a touch. The noble smiled and chuckled, blinking rapidly before taking a sip of wine. He grimaced, having forgotten how bad it was. “I haven’t even made an offer to you. Why would you refuse when we haven’t even discussed gold?”
“I was raised by centaurs. My sister was a halfling. What does it matter? This isn’t some fetish-worshipping Kellid mud-town. I’m not serving food to chattering goblins. You can buy any damn thing over in the Coins, but that doesn’t mean I’ll carve it up and cook it for you.”
The man’s smile slipped a little. “Twelve thousand gold for one night’s work plus one hundred gold for each of your servants . You will never see this kind of offer again, I can assure you.”
I paused. That was a lot of money.
Still, one had to have standards.
“Stick it, nosebeak.” I gave him a mean little smile.
The noble shook his head, mouth turned down as if he tasted something rotten. He stood to leave, and his bodyguard stood with him. He glanced at the wizard and the man’s hands twitched as he mumbled something. I felt a spell slide across my face, and the world began to fade at the corners for a moment, before it fortunately passed.
The wizard, his voice low and doubled as if he were whispering with two voices, murmured “You will forget we ever had this conversation.”
I smiled stupidly and replied “What conversation?”
The trio exited, with the bodyguard glancing meaningfully at me before they exited the bar. I maintained my blank smile until they left and it slipped into a scowl.
Bodairo took the few steps over to the table as I toyed with the stem of the barely-touched wine. His eyebrow cocked, he asked “What was that about?”
I thought quickly, tapping a ragged nail on the thick wine glass. “Noble garbage, murder, and more gold than I’ll see in a year. I think I choose to be insulted. The wizard tried to cast a spell on me.”
The eyebrow dropped into a glaring position. “Do we need to follow them and pull a Bloody Barber Special in an alleyway?”
I thumbed the butcher knife at my belt, its worn handle familiar as a lover’s skin. “Not yet. Get the Troglodytes out though. I can’t be the last Named Chef he’ll try to get. Find out who else he talks to and anything we can find out about this nose-beaked noble and his special dinner.”