It is said the magician imbued the empress’s soup with a secret elixir that granted strength of mind, of body, and of character.
The soup had to be eaten once a day. Its effects would grow, until the one consuming it obtained powers that even the magician could not predict or fathom. The magician claimed it was a spell that he had uncovered in old texts that spoke of many “gifts” that fell from the heavens when the gods warred among the stars long ago. These gifts were not truly gifts, for they were not given on purpose. They were never meant for mortal sight to see, and mortal minds to know. Among these was the elixir. Magicians of old discovered its secret and used it, but mortals too were wont to war, and when they did, the secret was lost.
The magician believed the elixir was the same one that gave the old gods their powers. But the formula found or perhaps deciphered by the magicians of old was incomplete. It worked, but not as it worked for the old gods.
If the soup was eaten by one, the magician said, then it would retain its powers. But if ever it was shared, then its power would be split by as many times as it was shared. And if it was split too far, then it would come to possess no greater power than that of any ordinary bowl of soup.
When the empress, who had requested that all the members of her court bring her wonders that she could share with her people, asked the magician why sharing the soup would sap it of its powers, the magician only said that that was the way the spell was woven.
This troubled the empress, who decided that she must not eat the soup, if only she could benefit from it.
The magician explained that it was a delicate spell, and he had done his best to weave it, to understand its subtle parts, to come as close as he could to knowing its unknowable secrets.
“Is it not better for one in your realm to have the strength of the soup, than for none to have it?” the magician asked.
The empress thought there was wisdom in the magician’s words. Yet she was still troubled by the limits of the soup.
“Honored Empress,” the magician continued, “if I may be so bold, you do not share your wealth with your subjects. You do not share your home with your subjects. And as we speak of soup, you do not bring your subjects to your table to share in your meals.”
At this the empress’s furrowed brow relaxed and rose. Her eye twinkled, and the magician held his breath, for he feared he had given his empress an idea he would find disagreeable.
“That’s it!” the empress said. “You’re right. One is better than none. But if it must be only one, it should be one who is worthy, and not just worthy, but the most worthy, the most deserving of such a precious gift.”
“But have we not already found the most deserving in you, noble one, since you bear the burden of governing the realm entire?”
But even as the magician spoke those last words, the empress was already dictating a letter of declaration to one of her attendants.
The magician then employed a tradition that was typically used only in the direst of times. He fell to his knees before the empress in the formal gesture of final entreaty.
“Honored Empress,” he began, “you must know what I have done to devise this elixir. It is my grandest of works. I tried one hundred times. One hundred times, Honored Empress, and I failed. So I tried one hundred more times. And still, I failed. And you might think that after three hundred times, I would cease and concede defeat. But I did not. But surely, after four hundred times, I must believe that it was not to be, or that I was not clever enough. But still I did not stop. And again, and again, I tried, I studied the scripts. I studied my own failures. I tried, and I tried. And I saw my attempts approaching five hundred.” He grinned then. “They approached, but did not surpass. For it was on my four-hundred-and-ninety-ninth try that I succeeded in brewing the right elixir and boiling the right soup, and imbuing that soup with the elixir.”
The empress listened to the impassioned plea of the magician. She considered his words. And she answered with the same calm conviction she applied to all her imperial decisions.
“Then we must be all the more certain,” she said, “that the one who drinks such a powerful and precious potion is truly worthy of it.”
Contests were devised by the members of the imperial court and the imperial household, by the emperor, and by the empress herself. The call of seeking went to every corner of the empire. Challengers would be assessed on their sharpness of wit, calmness of temper, strength of muscle, keenness of intellect, and nobility of character, among dozens upon dozens of other measures of excellence. Local contests were held, and the winners advanced to regional contests, then on and on, until a small contingent of the finest challengers made their way to the capital city.
Among the number of those who contended for the chance to drink the most wondrous soup were merchants, farmers, warriors, scholars, lords, maidens, sages, and crafters. The empress welcomed them all to her palace as her guests.
They endured more contests. They answered questions that tested their knowledge of their empire’s history. They were challenged to ascend a steep mountain. They were pitted against each other in debates both philosophical and practical. And after several more contests, they were at last tested in the kitchen. They were asked to bake the perfect bread to accompany the magician’s precious soup.
One young man, whose name was Phimanoc—though he was called Manoc by all—proved the winner of the bread contest by far. Even his rivals sat silenced by the pleasure of chewing upon the soft and crusty, warm and buttery, fragrant and hearty bread he had baked. It was a bread that needed no companion. The soup was soon forgotten!
But just as soon remembered, when the empress rose from the table and declared Manoc the winner, not just of the contest of the kitchen, but the winner of the magician’s soup.
Hard won was Manoc’s victory. And none knew better than he how unfitting it was to deem his rivals the losers of the contest. Indeed, they too won precious prizes, for their empress was so impressed by their prowess, and so proud that they were citizens of her realm, that she sent them home with many treasures, some chosen by her, and some named by the challengers themselves. And though the contest had been grueling, the challengers went home recalling only the generosity of their empress.
Each challenger had been allowed to bring one companion with them to the capital, to aid and to comfort them. Some had brought spouses, children, partners in business, or even hired aids. Manoc had brought the person he deemed most capable of overcoming any obstacle in life, for in his regard, she already had done so even before he was born.
He had brought his mother’s mother, whom he called “Gamma,” according to the way of his native region. She was a respected magician in their home city at the southern border of the empire.
Much to the disappointment of the people in the capital, there was to be no great ceremony or celebration around Manoc’s actual consumption of the soup. The magician’s secret recipe had to be kept secret. They could take no chance that even a drop of the soup might fall into the hands of someone who might study it and try to copy it, thereby dispersing its power.
So when it came time for Manoc to receive his prize, the only people present in the private chamber were the empress, the magician, Manoc’s gamma, and Manoc himself.
Manoc and his gamma were members of the imperial household now. As such, they were invited to dine with the empress that same evening. And they would receive such invitations on occasion from thenceforth. The dinner was as jolly as his lunch of magic soup was sober.
Manoc did not yet feel the effects of the soup. The magician had warned that it would take some days for the effects to manifest, and many more days—perhaps even weeks or months—for the true powers of the soup to crest.
When the topic turned to the magician’s soup, and how it came to be, the magician told the gathered company briefly what he had told the empress, about finding the formula for the elixir in ancient records. About the knowledge that the empire already held, but had long forgotten.
“If the elixir were to be taken in its pure form,” the magician said, “it would destroy the one who took it. We are made of weaker stuff than the beings who invented that formula. So I needed a way to…temper its effects. As I studied it, I determined that the effects would not be tempered if simply diluted, as by water, or wine, or beer. And solid foods would not be able to ‘hold’ the elixir as a liquid would. The best way was to use a liquid, but one that had many elements. Something hearty and strengthening.”
“Soup,” Manoc’s gamma said. “How clever!”
“How does it taste, my boy?” a visiting noble asked. Among the gathered company, few beside Manoc’s gamma seemed interested in the magic behind the soup.
As Manoc would be the only person in the realm to ever taste it, he felt compelled to be honest. He turned to the magician.
“It’s not very good, is it?” he dared to say.
The magician chuckled. “I fear my training is in magic, not in cookery.”
“I know a thing or two about cookery,” Manoc said. “And I love soup.”
“It’s his favorite,” his gamma added, as she bowed her head to the empress.
The young man nodded. “Perhaps I can improve the flavor.”
“Master Phimanoc, I do believe you are insulting my magician,” the empress said, though she had a charmed smile upon her face.
“In that case,” the emperor said, “you are welcome at our table any time.” He cast what seemed a teasing glance at the court magician, who gave a slight nod to the empress.
“I care not how the soup tastes,” Manoc’s gamma said. “I am intrigued by the elixir that is woven into it. Surely one day, Master Magician, you will pass on the secret.”
The magician grinned. “One day, of course. But we have yet to test the elixir’s effects, or its merits.”
“I wonder if I might watch you prepare it,” the elder woman said, a brow raised in expectation.
The magician inhaled and glanced at the empress. “Perhaps…a portion of it.”
Manoc exchanged a happy glance with his gamma. He had never dreamed of such a life. He had only hoped to learn magic like his gamma, or cook in the luxurious kitchen of a lord or lady, like both his mother and father.
He felt a surge of warmth in his blood. He was not sure if it was the magician’s soup, or his own glorious mood.
In the following days, Manoc began to feel the change within himself from consuming the soup. His vision, which had been no keener or poorer than any other man’s, became sharp enough to see the southern mountains from the high tower of the palace without a scope. His wit became quick enough to rival that of the empress’s world-renowned imperial jester. His mind formed a net that could catch the stray thoughts of the court scholars, and bind them together into new thoughts. The muscles of his body felt stronger, his limbs more lithe, his voice sweeter, and even his hair seemed to turn darker and shinier. The children of the court began to call him “Night-hair” out of admiration for his gleaming locks.
As the empress had hoped, Manoc was already making good use of the gift she had granted him. The soup was already transforming him, and he was transforming the court. And soon, he would transform the empire. Through him, she would grant her empire great progress.
One day, as she watched Manoc arguing with the scholars in the courtyard as she strolled through the imperial gardens, she called the court magician to her side and complimented him on his greatest work.
“Such a simple thing as soup,” the empress said. “You have made it your greatest triumph.”
“Your greatest triumph, Honored Empress.”
“And we have yet to see the peak of his powers.”
They walked in silence for a few steps. Then, as it was no formal occasion, but a leisurely walk through the gardens, the magician dared to speak first.
“Perhaps it would be of benefit for the soup to be shared, at least between two people,” he said.
The whisper of a smile fluttered across the empress’s face. “You were fiercely opposed to the very idea.”
The magician gazed at Manoc. “You have swayed me to your way of thinking.”
“I recall your impassioned entreaty. Your revelation of the four hundred and ninety-nine trials you endured before perfecting the soup.”
“Yes, and that is why I deemed it so precious. But now that I see what wonders the soup can do, it pains me to see the gift wasted on any other than the one who is our empire’s strongest and ablest.”
“If I am already strong and able, then what need have I for your soup,” the empress countered.
The magician bowed deeply, conceding the end of his argument. He fell away from the retinue and peered across the courtyard at the young man and his little grandmother standing proudly beside him. She raised a hand of greeting to the magician.
The magician smiled to her, sighed, and dropped his gaze.
How and when the fire started, no one knew, and it did not matter, for it was burning through the inn, and sparks were leaping toward the surrounding shops. People stood upon roofs throwing buckets of water out in a desperate attempt to keep the fire from spreading.
Manoc should not have been able to see the fire from where he stood in one of the lower towers of the palace. None else could, but his vision had grown farseeing and sharper still as he ate the magician’s soup day after day. A full season had passed. His powers still grew, but they grew in small increments.
But that night, he longed for a surge of strength so he might leap from his tower straight to the street in the capital where the inn was burning. He called for help, but he knew that none from the palace could reach the fire in time.
His gamma was in the tower, keeping watch with him. She gazed from the balcony and saw nothing.
“What can I do, Gamma?” Manoc said, pacing the chamber. He had a sick feeling in his gut. The inn was burning so quickly, there were surely people trapped, people dying inside. If he were there, he knew he was quick enough and sharp-eyed enough to find them—at least some of them—and bring them out. His lungs were strong enough to hold breath for far longer than a normal man, for almost half an hour now.
“How strong are your limbs?” his gamma asked him. “Can you make it from this tower to that roof there?” She pointed to the roof of the guard tower.
Manoc frowned. He had not practiced leaping across roofs. He had only practiced running, for he’d always loved to run. But it did not seem such a great distance. He looked beyond the guard tower to the roof of a manse just outside the palace grounds. He could go that far, he thought, and he would still be high enough to see the fire.
He turned to his gamma. He told her where the fire was and asked her to have the palace send help. Then he climbed the ledge of his balcony, peered at the roof of the manse, knelt, and leapt.
Manoc gasped as he soared up through the air, and he huffed as he reached the peak of his leap, and began to rush downward. He did not have time to fear that he might have miscalculated before he landed with a crashing thud upon the roof of the manse, cracking the tile and the wood beneath.
He rose and ran across the roof, fixing his eye on the next roof. He leapt, and landed. He glanced at the fire, and deemed he had half a dozen more leaps before he reached it. He leapt again and again.
He did miss once, landing on the street among the startled evening market-goers. He came close to crushing a man’s foot. Fearing he might kill someone with the force of his landing, he slowed enough to assure that he would land where he was looking, and that where he was looking was empty of any moving, living things.
He reached the blazing inn, landing on the roof next to it, where several people—brave and foolish—were splashing water onto the roof. Manoc tried to warn them away, but they were the family who owned the shop on whose roof they stood, and who owned the inn that was burning. He asked them if anyone was left inside the burning inn. Before they could answer, he heard screams from within it.
Manoc turned, ran three strides, and leapt. He crashed through a window of the inn. He felt the great heat around him. Heat so dense it was like a wall forcing him back, trapping him within. Fire rolled and rippled across the ceiling of the room in which he’d landed. Flames roared and raked at him like an enraged beast. There was no one in the room. He listened for the sounds of screaming. He heard them, and he heard beyond them.
He heard the beating of hearts.
They were trapped. Three above him. Four below. He heard the fire, and he knew he did not have much time left to save any of them, but the three above were in the most danger. And two of them were children. He ran into the hall, holding his arms in front of his face to guard himself from the fire. His skin felt seared, but he felt no pain yet. He leapt up the stairs, up and up, until he reached the people who were trapped.
When he reached them, he hesitated. He had not planned how he might help them escape. They were trapped in a corner of the room. The fire surrounded them. Two children huddled in the arms of a woman, who had placed her hands over their eyes. Manoc knew they could not run through the fire as he had.
He leapt through the fire to reach them. It was so hot that all three had their eyes closed now. They did not see him. He had been holding his breath, but he knew he had to use it now. For it was the only way he could think of to save them. He touched the woman’s shoulder so she would know someone had come. She did not open her eyes, but let him guide her arms around his shoulders. He grabbed a child in each of his arms. He turned around to face the fire.
He blew with all his breath.
And the fire, the unrelenting fire, retreated from his breath. He walked, too slowly he thought. He walked forward as he blew his breath to hold back the fire. And when his breath was spent, he leapt again, crashing through a window, and landing on the roof that he had spotted through that window.
The woman and children would be cut and bruised and battered by the crash. But they would heal, he hoped. And they would live.
He took a gasping breath, and choked on smoke, for the wind had shifted and blew the black smoke of the fire toward them.
He gathered up the woman and children again, and leapt again and again, until they were clear of the smoke, and they stood upon the ground, where others rushed forth to help.
Manoc’s lungs burned now. He took a few shallow breaths and coughed. He raced back toward the inn to save the others.
And save them, he did.
Two people were badly burned. They would, no doubt, lose a limb, or a sense. They might still die if their wounds were severe. But Manoc would send the court healers to help them. He had such a privilege now.
He allowed himself a few breaths of fresh air. The inn was gone. All could see that.
But the fire could be halted from spreading. Manoc stayed, and he aided those who kept watch through the night, soaking the nearby buildings, keeping the hapless from wandering too close.
And though no one spoke of it in the midst of the catastrophe, most who were present knew who Manoc was.
In the days that followed, Manoc healed quickly. He felt the surges of strength that the soup granted him. His reddened skin peeled away and the skin beneath was not scarred. His smoke-filled lungs coughed up gray phlegm and then cleared. His sore and aching muscles, warmed by the soup, grew limber again.
Soon, his friends brought him news of what the people were saying. The tale of his heroics had spread, and as it spread, it had been embellished. Some tales said he marched into the inn, glaring at the fire, which gave way to his fierce gaze, so he could rescue those within. Some tales said he blew the fire to extinction. Some said that his skin did not burn or even scorch.
The people began to call Manoc by many mighty names. Springfoot and Stoneskin. Falcon-eye and Fierce-fist. Manoc’s gathered friends—those he had made at court and those who often visited from home—had been kind and gentle while he healed. But once they saw he was recovering, they began to tease him again.
One day, they gathered in his bedchamber, coming up with their own heroic names for him.
“How about Childsaver?”
Everyone stopped speaking and turned to the one who had suggested “manservant.”
“Well, he is a servant to men is he not? He has served this man well, too well some might say.” The young man slapped Manoc on the shoulder and the others all roared in agreement.
Manoc turned to his gamma, who stood by the door, her hands perched on her cane, one atop the other. She was calmly watching the spectacle before her.
“What about you, Gamma? What new name would you give me?”
His gamma tapped her cane on the floor once. “How about Foolnick?”
They all began to laugh again. All his friends voted his gamma’s name to be the best.
“Gamma fears the soup will go to my head.”
“Let’s hope it does,” someone said, “for if it’s going to your head, it is probably putting brilliant ideas in there.”
Laughing, Manoc’s friends left the chamber.
Manoc crossed his arms and smile fondly at his mother’s mother. “Don’t worry, Gamma. I will not let the gifts of the soup go to my head. If ever it starts to happen, I will remember that sour look you have upon your face now.”
His gamma scoffed. “My face is ever sweet and never sour. That soup must be getting to your eyes.”
Manoc laughed. “Yes, sweet Gamma. Of course. Forgive my ill-mannered eyes.”
“You are forgiven, sweet nano. Now give your gamma a kiss and rest well tonight. Sleep a hero’s sleep.”
Manoc’s eyes widened. Many had called him a “hero,” including the empress herself. But hearing his gamma call him that…
He was overwhelmed as he absently kissed his gamma’s cheek. He was still in shock as he settled into his soft bed. And his heart leapt above every star in the sky as he slipped into sleep.
The empress, filled again with pride for her people, and one among her people in particular, held a celebration for Manoc.
Many attended, including all seven of the people he had saved from the inn.
That evening, as the revelers danced and ate, the empress called the court magician to her side.
“I will do it,” the empress said. “I will share in the power of the soup. For even if it is diluted by sharing among two, it will still grant both of us great powers.” The empress gazed across the room. “Powers to save and to aid our people.”
The magician nodded. “I will need a few days to determine the proper proportions for a double batch.”
“Take your time,” the empress said. “Tonight, you must celebrate as we all do. For this is your victory as well as it is his.”
The empress called all to attention then and reminded them who had granted Manoc the powers he had used to save seven lives.
And all present hailed the magician.
The empress announced that she too would be drinking the soup and serving her people as Manoc was doing.
And all present hailed their empress.
A few days later, Manoc’s gamma barged into his quarters just as he was reaching for the door on his way to lunch. He stepped back as she stood before him, huffing.
“Do not eat the soup, my darling. And do not let the empress eat it!”
She quickly turned, closed the door, and locked it. She pushed her grandson further into his chamber and knocked her cane a few times on the floor.
“He might have spies about,” she said, as a spell rippled out from the tip of her cane.
Manoc frowned. “Who, Gamma? What has happened? Please, sit.” He was troubled by the sight of his gamma. He had never seen her appear so. She glanced about the room, her eyes darting. She gripped his hand with a strength that he was startled to discover she possessed. And she breathed hard, as if she had run to his chambers. His gamma never ran anywhere.
“He did not think I would follow the lesson,” she said, after she had caught her breath somewhat, “as he taught me a bit about how he made the elixir. He hid it well, but I saw it anyway. We are not as foolish as he thinks, we outer city magicians.”
Manoc gulped. He felt a touch of dread and anger toward his gamma then, even as he felt the pulses of strength in his blood from that very elixir. He shook his head to dispel his anger. “What have you discovered?”
Manoc and his gamma marched into the conferring room, where the empress and emperor sat at the head of a great oak table. Around the table sat their advisors and an assortment of invited capital citizens who were all gathered to present, propose, and persuade.
All noted the scowl upon the hero’s face as he strode toward the court magician, who sat beside the empress.
He stopped before the magician. “What a foul thing you have done with such a fine food!”
“Honored Empress,” his gamma said, “we beg your leave to reveal a great folly done at your court. But I fear it will reveal that you have placed your trust in one who has betrayed it.”
She placed her hands upon the head of her cane, one atop the other, and she told the gathered assembly what she had discovered about the soup.
Grant her grandson powers, it did. But it did not give without taking. Even as it strengthened his limbs, sharpened his mind, fortified his bones, and toughened his skin, it was sapping him of years upon years of his life. Even if he stopped drinking the soup, the effects would continue. Manoc was going to die sooner than he should have, sooner than his mother and father, sooner perhaps, than his mother’s mother.
All looked to the magician, who seemed as puzzled and shocked by the revelation as everyone else.
“What reason would the magician have to harm your grandson?” the emperor pointed out.
“No particular reason,” Manoc’s gamma said. “But my grandson was not the intended recipient of the gifts that the soup would grant.”
All eyes shifted then to the empress.
“Hero you may be, Master Manoc,” the empress said calmly. “But you and your noble grandmother may not stride into this chamber casting accusations without proof.”
“The proof is in the soup, Honored Empress,” his gamma said. “Have any other magician study it, or even the ancient formulas that inspired its making.”
Manoc had readied himself, for he expected the magician to resist, to attempt fleeing, to attempt attacking the empress or his gamma or anyone else in the chamber. He curled his fingers into fists as the court magician rose slowly from his seat.
The magician sighed. “You once said, Springfoot, that you did not care for the taste of the soup. But you have never asked after the preparation of it, as you noble grandmother has. And I have only shown her a part of the grueling and painstaking work of making it.” He sighed again, and straightened his back, and it almost seemed as if he were releasing a great burden that weighed upon his shoulders.
The court magician turned to the empress.
“I have no particular malice toward or grievance with my Honored Empress. I only wished to remove her in as gentle and heroic a manner as could be, to make way for another family’s rise to the throne. And I needed to do it soon, before the Honored Empress and her Emperor could produce an heir.”
As he spoke, the chamber guards advanced toward the table.
“What family?” someone asked.
“Have you been coerced to do this?” the empress asked. Her expression was calm, but Manoc’s eyes were keener than those of the others gathered in the chamber. He caught the flicker of desperate hope and disbelief in the slightest twitch of her cheek.
“You are no magician,” Manoc’s gamma said, her eyes narrowing. “No magician would pay the price for power with the currency of life.” She raised her cane and tapped it on the ground.
A wave of force burst from the tip of the cane, rattling the chairs of all who were seated, unbalancing Manoc and the standing chamber guards, and knocking the court magician off his feet.
“It’s not in the natural order for a grandmother to lose her grandchild to death,” his gamma said, her voice cold. She raised her cane again.
The magician lay on the floor, stunned. He gazed up at her with wide eyes, holding an arm before his face as if preparing to ward off a blow.
Manoc gasped, and gaped at his grandmother, for he had misjudged who among them was the danger.
The air filled with an awful and heavy pressure. No one spoke. No one moved.
Suddenly, the pressure lifted. Manoc’s gamma lowered her cane gently to the ground. She turned her attention away from the magician, toward Manoc. As she did, Manoc heard several exhales of relief. The empress rose from her seat and pointed to the magician, though she did not look at him.
“Seize him, guards!”
The chamber guards surged forth and roughly brought the dazed magician to his feet. They swept him out of the chamber.
Manoc put his hands on his hips and stared at his mother’s mother. “Gamma, what did you think you were going to do?”
He expected a defiant stare in return, a declaration of vengeance against the purported magician who had doomed her grandson. But instead, her shoulders began to shake, and she bowed her head.
“I will lose you to death,” she said, and a tear stream down her face.
Manoc rushed toward her and gathered her in his arms. The force of her magic had left her. She was just his dear gamma again.
Again, the chamber was silent for a moment as all gathered themselves. The empress approached Manoc, and set a hand on his gamma’s shoulder.
“We can save his life,” the empress said. “If we eat the soup as well, we will share in its burdens, even as we share in its gifts. Is this not so? Or did the ‘magician’ lie about that as well?”
Manoc’s gamma raised her head and sniffed. She turned to the empress and nodded. “That might work.”
There was no calm in the empress’s face now. She gazed at his gamma with a firm but gentle smile. “And if enough of us eat it, then it will lose its magic. It will only be soup. No one will die.” She glanced at Manoc. “Though I fear you will lose your powers and all your heroic names.”
“But who will make it now that we cannot trust that warlock?” the emperor asked.
Manoc smiled and gazed down at his gamma.
Her eyes widened. “He did not show me the entire preparation. If I ruin it…no, I cannot make the soup.”
“To save your grandson’s life,” the empress said, “you must.”
Manoc’s gamma made the soup. But she did not make it alone. The empress gathered the best magicians in the capital city. There was no need to keep the elixir’s formula secret any longer. Now, it was vital that the formula be shared with as many as possible.
When news spread of the court magician’s ruse to poison the empress by strengthening her, of the doom that their hero faced, nearly all the people in the capital lined up to drink the soup, to be heroes for their hero.
And the gathered magicians measured the effects of the elixir. And all waited.
Day after day, more and more soup was made, more and more consumed. And one day, Manoc woke up, and he felt drained of energy. His limbs were sluggish. His sight seemed blurry. And he most certainly did not have a spring in his step. The powers of the elixir were fading.
And so was the doom of the elixir.
The day came at last, when Manoc and his gamma told the empress that they would be leaving the court and returning home to their city. The empress invited them to stay, for Manoc was a hero, with or without the elixir and the soup. And the court was in need of a new magician, one as fierce and formidable as his gamma.
Grandson and grandmother bowed deeply to their empress then, and they respectfully declined her offer. For the same path that brought them to the imperial palace now called them back home.
It was a cold autumn morning when Manoc and his gamma prepared to depart. The empress, the emperor, and their court had come to bid the two farewell.
“It seems we are entering soup weather,” one of Manoc’s friends jested as they embraced.
“I’ve had enough of soup,” the empress said. “I fear I must give it up.”
“I pray that isn’t so, my Honored Empress,” the Manoc said. “For it is a most wondrous food. One cannot subsist on cider and tea alone in the coldest season.”
The empress’s expression was calm, and Manoc could no longer read any other expression—if there was another—beneath that calm.
He smiled at her. “I’ve left a pot of something special in your kitchen, and taught your cook the recipe. Lay a slice of tart cheese upon it, if you please. There is no magic in it, only carrots, potatoes, leeks, and mushrooms. Broth and rice, spices and herbs. And salt, but not too much.”
“It is superb,” his gamma said. “And now that we have promised each other that we will never die…”
Manoc grinned at his gamma. “…I will be making it for her forever.”
“Did you leave any new recipes for sweets?” the emperor asked.
“I’m afraid not, dear emperor.”
“Then I have no further thanks to give you, wayfarers. Happy journey to you.” And with that, the emperor turned and walked away, his retinue following.
All others remained and waved to the two as a fine and sturdy wagon pulled them away from the palace, onto the great southern road.
As for Manoc’s soup, the empress did indeed try it, and she was indeed impressed. And the soup did indeed bring her and the members of her court comfort and warmth in the coldest season. It became a favorite dish at court during the empress’s time. It became a favorite dish among her children as well, including the next empress.
It is still eaten in the palace, and the rest of the capital and surrounding regions to this day. And it is still called by the name that the empress named it, though few remember the story of how the soup came by that name.
Gamma’s Forever Soup.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.