Once, in a neighboring galaxy, not so long ago, in the space between two sister stars, there spun a station.
It was a station like any other. Many different peoples passed through on their way to other realms, whether for pleasure, profit, or other deeper purposes. Many lived and worked upon the station. Some never ventured beyond the unseen boundaries of the station’s space.
But there came a time when the station took upon itself the burden and the honor of hosting a most profound and prestigious feast. A feast that would celebrate a long-sought but fragile new peace between the peoples of a nearby world.
Among the many workers who would provide delights to the guests was an unrenowned cook who won a contest to prepare a dish for the feast.
He was a stellar elf, whose family had lived upon the station but for one generation. And his name was Fiorenzo.
For many revolutions, the station’s leaders and its inhabitants prepared for the grand feast. But amidst the excitement, there was also worry, even outright fear.
For though the peace had been formally codified, there were those on both sides who opposed it and still sought to ruin it in some way. So the station’s leaders ensured that the station guard was prepared, trained, equipped, and drilled until they left no gap through which a saboteur might strike.
The special attention paid to the station kitchens ensured that every ingredient, every cook, every assistant, and every dish was inspected for the presence of poisons and toxins according to every species of people who would be in attendance at the feast.
Enchantments to bind. Machines to detect. One guard to perform checks. And another to check those checks.
So careful were the guards, it was a certainty that no one would be poisoned.
This gave the feast cooks much comfort, for their own lives, of course, but also for the food they would prepare. For the guests of honor at the feast possessed a most unique sense. They could taste the feelings of the one who prepared the food they ate. All in attendance at the feast would expect that the food would taste of love and good will. And with the station guard so well-prepared, the cooks need not be filled the worries and fears that would surely have turned their dishes bitter and foul otherwise.
But while their actions may have affected the quality of the feast food for the good, the station guard was not directly concerned with safeguarding the good flavor of the food.
And so they left a gap for a would-be saboteur after all.
Yet, the gap was filled by others. For the cooks who would prepare the feast food had guards of their own, some who were loyal and longtime, some newly hired. There was, however, one cook who did not have such protections.
Fiorenzo had earned his place among the feast cooks. But he did not have the means to hire his own guards. Nor was he granted such means by the feast master, who only gave him enough coin to buy the spices, flours, broths, bowls, herbs, and such that he required to make his dish.
For this reason, it came to be that he was watched by distant eyes.
Fiorenzo was watched when he practiced preparing his own secret recipe, star-bread shaped into a bowl, in which he ladled a thick hearty stew. The distant eyes noted the packages he brought home to his own kitchen. They read upon his lips the words of the songs he sang as he cooked, even though he was too far to hear. They watched the strange blue ball with long thin limbs, a creature that the residents of the station simply called a “spider,” climb upon the stellar elf’s shoulder, and cast its large round eyes down at the pot as it bubbled over with blue foam.
Fiorenzo was watched when he took enchantment lessons from his friend, the Handsome Young Wizard With One Arm, whose name was only noted when it was certain he was a favored acquaintance. The two often wandered over to the nearest eatery for refreshments after their lesson. The wizard, Zephyrin, had a thick black beard, making it difficult to read his words from afar.
And so, the distant eyes wandered closer one day, averting themselves, aiming ears instead. There was a third who had joined the elf and the wizard this day, someone new whose name was yet of no consequence.
“Can’t you conjure another arm to replace the one you lost?” this stranger asked. The voice must have belonged to the stranger, for Fiorenzo had no need to ask such a question.
“I was born this way,” said a smooth and forceful voice, deep and sparkling. A wizard’s voice. “And yes, I could, but it would take time and energy. Perhaps I will one day. But today, I’d rather conjure a profound thought.”
“Could you conjure in me a profound calm?” a third voice asked. It was a deep voice, clinging to cheer even as it spoke the weary words. That then was Fiorenzo’s voice.
“I would be entirely terrified of failure if I were you,” the stranger replied.
“You don’t need my conjurings,” the wizard said, loud and with force. “Your secret stew is enchanting on its own. If you hadn’t promised I could taste a batch sometime, I might be inclined to invite myself to the grand feast.”
The elf’s laughter came then, sparking and pulsing like a star. “I should like to see you baffle the station guards. But worry not, we will have our own feast soon enough.”
The intruding ears stopped listening and moved away, before any suspicions were pricked.
Fiorenzo was watched when he settled a minor quarrel between the dancing dragon brothers, whose aerial swooping and twirling, and feats of smoke and fire, were meant to amaze and delight at the feast.
The spying eyes and prying ears came close again, for there was worry in this acquaintance. The dragon brothers were renowned and wealthy. They certainly had the means to lend some portion of their personal guard away and still be well-protected themselves.
Their names were near-impossible to pronounce except when spoken by the tongue and throat of a dragon, so they were known on the station as Brother Rose and Brother Lime, according to the coloring of their hides.
“You must spit seven flames and then somersault,” said Rose. “To do the reverse would make us a laughingstock. Tell him, Fiorenzo.”
“And if they laugh, is it not well?” said Lime. “I would that my wings could glide upon gusts of giggles. Is that not best? Tell him, Fiorenzo.”
The stellar elf gave no certain answer. He only assured the brothers that their great skill and keen judgment would guide them as they practiced their feast dance. In the end, they would know what to do, without the need for Fiorenzo to tell them anything at all.
Fiorenzo was watched when he joined the floating fairy, so called because she kept her excursion suit donned when she was outside of her dwelling quarters. She was only as tall as Fiorenzo’s head and could stand upon his shoulder when she wasn’t floating. Only her gleaming feathery wings were unprotected. So while the spying eyes never saw her face, they was certain that she was a terrestrial fairy.
She worked as an engineer, her stature an advantage when repairs were needed in the smallest spaces, using the tiniest of tools. Her name was Lucine, and Fiorenzo would join her in floating above the main concourse of the station, gazing down at all the people passing through. At times they would speak of their work, each even teaching the other in bits and pieces, so that Lucine learned to bake little loaves of bread, and Fiorenzo learned how to repair the three broken switches on his messaging mirror. At times they would float above one of the stations docks, and tease each other over the dashing captains they were smitten with at the moment, commenting that it was lucky their tastes did not overlap.
By this time, though the spying eyes were distant, they had grown somewhat careless. They must have. For they were seen. Fiorenzo himself noted the figure who flitted away when he caught them looking up, not for a moment, as most did, not in curiosity, as a few did, but with earnest and purposeful gaze.
The spying eyes hid themselves from the stellar elf’s view, holding so still that Fiorenzo relaxed, though only a little.
Fiorenzo turned to Lucine, and his mouth made shapes that troubled the spy, for Fiorenzo himself spoke of being troubled. And he spoke of feeling that he was being followed in recent days, as the night of the grand feast neared. He had dismissed what he believed were foolish and nervous thoughts. Lucine went with him to report his worries to the station’s guard. But they told him that he need not worry. His safety, and the safety of the dish he would prepare, was all but guaranteed.
Having thus aroused the fairy cook’s caution, the eyes that once spied, and ears that once pried, gave way to hands that thieved.
Mere days before the day of the feast, Fiorenzo was given his space in the station kitchens. He filled it with the sacks and packages and bundles full of the ingredients he needed for his dish. And with the few tools that were not already provided by the well-equipped kitchen.
But when Fiorenzo arrived at the kitchen to practice his dish one more time before the night of the feast, so that he might become familiar with a kitchen that was not his own, he opened the shiny silver cupboards and found horror within.
Half the shelves were empty, where all had been stuffed and brimming when he locked the cupboard the night prior. Having no time to investigate or cast accusations, Fiorenzo said nothing to the other cooks, who practiced their own dishes in their stations around him. He still had enough coin to replenish what was lost and return in time to practice his dish. Only afterwards would he question his fellow cooks. Only after would he proceed with a thorough check of the locks upon his cupboard, perhaps with some help from Lucine.
He checked the locks and informed the head cook that some of his items had gone missing and he was off to restore them. Fiorenzo summoned as much calm as he could manage, but he must have appeared agitated, for the head cook lay a hand upon his shoulder and told him there was time, and all would be well.
He restored what was missing, and he practiced his dish, feeling all the while, a figure looming over his shoulder. Not a spying figure, but a heavy one, and a cold one, whispering doubt into his ears. The stew he made was too salty, the star-bread too dense. But what Fiorenzo feared even more was what he could not taste, but others surely would. A sour fear.
The next morning, Fiorenzo returned to the kitchen, having bolstered himself and renewed his courage. He would try the dish again, going slowly, as if he had never before kneaded sticky star-bread until it was smooth and springy, or never before simmered a stew.
But again, he found the cupboard half-empty. Again he checked the locks and they did not appear to be tampered with. This time he asked his fellow cooks if they had seen anything or anyone. He lamented of his misfortune, and while they sympathized, and even let him borrow some of their stock, they could not restore all of what he had lost, what had been taken.
This time, he went right away to the station guard, and he asked them to return with him to the kitchen and inspect the lock upon his cupboards. This they did.
When the cupboards were opened, the shelves were full and brimming.
Fiorenzo’s eyes went wide, and he glanced about at the cooks. There was one who had helped him most, and who had seen his empty shelves. She told the station guards that Fiorenzo’s claim was true. Yet in the time he had gone to fetch the guard, the stock had been restored. No one but the cooks had been in the kitchens in that time. And none of the cooks had approached Fiorenzo’s cupboards.
The stellar elf eyed the shelves, and he wondered if there was anything behind them. Perhaps the thief had no need to pick the secure locks.
When he suggested such to the guard, the guard helped him to clear the shelves. The guard inspected the cupboard, banging upon the shelves and the back, even trying to cut through with his laser torch. But the back of the cupboard would not yield.
With no evidence of theft, and with the items being of little value on their own, the station guard could not help.
After the guard left, Fiorenzo returned all the items to the shelf, his brows crossed in frustration. He paused at a sack of flour that looked off to his practiced eye, when a small cloud of it puffed into the air before him. He set the sack down upon the table and opened it. He peered inside and knew right away that it wasn’t flour. He pinched a bit of it and tasted it. It was sublimated sugar!
With a lurching of his gut, Fiorenzo checked each of the items in his cupboard, one by one, checking twice, sometimes thrice. Some of the items were switched about. Some were not. By the time he was done checking them all, no time was left to him to practice making his feast dish.
At last, the day of the feast had come.
With dread, Fiorenzo arrived at the station kitchens and approached his cupboard. He was meant to have made the stew the night before so that it could settle and meld, becoming rich, its colors deepening, and flavors growing hearty, its spices sparking.
But he had not managed the feat.
He had told the head cook and feast master of the trouble. He would bow out of the feast, for he must. But the feast master told him that he could not. His dish was upon the menu. The guests of honor would consider it an insult if the star-bread and stew was not served. And yet, the head cook understood Fiorenzo’s fears. For if the drippings of his fearful and anxious heart were to season his stew, and if the weight of worry upon his mind were to flatten his bread, their guests would surely taste that fear and worry. They would surely still be insulted.
There was no choice but for Fiorenzo to summon a stalwart heart, a carefree mind, and to pour that good will into his dish.
The head cook could allow only one mercy, the serving of Fiorenzo’s dish would be near the end of the feast. Perhaps their guests would decline, having feasted to fullness.
Fiorenzo could only hope it would be so.
He opened his cupboard, finding it almost completely cleared out. He was left with enough to make a bland version of the dish he had sought to make. A flush of shame swept over his face.
News of his failure would spread.
Some saboteur had done this, a saboteur who had stalked his steps and watched him, who knew which cupboard would be his, and dared what they would not dare with the other cooks, sabotage.
If he made the dish now, it would be seasoned by his anger, dismay, panic, and spite. And perhaps that would be enough to shake, if not shatter, the new peace. Yet he had no choice but to present a dish.
Fiorenzo did not know what to do.
So he did nothing.
While the other cooks rushed about at their stations, while the kitchens filled with the scents of spice and herb, and sounds of sizzling and crackling, bubbling and pouring and the clinking of dishes, a strange coating of silence covered Fiorenzo.
The kitchens emptied out, for the final preparations were to be made in the adjoining room, large and full of light, where the cooks could decorate and garnish.
When at last he was alone, something pierced the silence that lay over him.
A strange spider emerged from the cook’s hat, which lay on the floor. Fiorenzo saw the spider. It was the same one from his home. It must have hidden in his hat and ridden with him to the kitchens. The creature approached Fiorenzo, slowly, gently.
Fiorenzo smiled and greeted the spider, for he found them charming, where others thought them to be pests. He knelt down and held out his hand, and the spider climbed atop his palm and gazed up at him with its large round eyes.
“Alas, my friend, it is a ruinous day,” he said. “But even so, you have cheered me.”
The spider suddenly dashed over his arm and onto his shoulder, startling him. It jumped onto the tabletop and approached a tuber that would have gone into the stew. There was only one tuber, where there should have been a bag full, half as heavy as Fiorenzo was.
The spider pushed at the tuber, but was not strong enough to budge it. The spider backed away. Fiorenzo sighed. But then, he watched as the spider slinked toward the tuber again, this time wedging its feet underneath and flicking its limbs like a lever.
The tuber rolled toward Fiorenzo and fell right off the edge of the table.
Fiorenzo picked up the tuber. He looked at the spider again, who was now peering over the edge of the table. Fiorenzo chuckled.
“If the food is plain,” he said to the spider, “it will be forgotten. And if I am cheered by you, even as I am full of dismay, perhaps some balance may be struck.” He smiled as the notion became clear in his mind. “Perhaps the feelings in the food will be plain too.”
He nodded to himself. Fiorenzo had not sought to ask favors when he was steeped in sorrow. But now he was becoming resigned to steadiness, to working slowly so he might calm himself, and preserve—for his part—the newfound peace. Now, he would seek help. For the spider had cheered him. But he needed more than cheer.
From his station, he called upon Lucine, and asked her if she might do him the favor of picking up a few needed items.
He went to work, with the spider riding atop his shoulder. Its constant shifting weight amused Fiorenzo.
“Can you not settle?” he teased. “If the cook is anxious, the stew will taste sour. And you do wish to help me cook, don’t you?”
To his surprise, the spider settled, shifting only if Fiorenzo bent low or turned quickly. He began to work faster as the feast approached, and then started.
Lucine arrived and was allowed into the kitchens by the guard after they checked her and the packages she brought.
She had not brought all he asked for, but Fiorenzo was so grateful, and so heartened by the sight of her flickering blue wings and gleaming visor, that he would have embraced her if she weren’t so small.
“Rest easy, my friend,” Lucine said, floating towards the spider and offering her hand in greeting. The spider slapped it, and through her helmet came the sound of the fairy’s twinkling laughter. “The rest is coming,” the fairy assured.
What she did not tell Fiorenzo is that the rest would be delivered by wizard.
Zephyrin breezed into the kitchens as the stew began to simmer. He had brought the flour that Fiorenzo needed to make the star-bread. “May I aid you by conjuring a steadier flame?” the wizard asked.
Fiorenzo gazed upon the already steady flame. The spider upon his shoulder dropped a chunk of tuber into the stew. “I wonder if I might need more onion salt,” he mused aloud.
And before his face came a cascade of bright white grains. Fiorenzo gaped. He glanced down at the pot and up at the fairy hovering above his head, wielding a shaker of salt.
“Onion salt,” Lucine said. “As you requested.”
Fiorenzo gazed down at the pot again, just as the wizard pointed his wooden wand at the pot and conjured a sparkling blue cloud that streamed around and into the pot.
Fiorenzo took a breath, lips parted and poised to beg his friends to stop helping him while he gathered his wits.
But in that moment, two more entered the kitchens.
Panting, the dragons scrambled toward Fiorenzo.
“Are we too late?” asked Rose. “I made us late. Forgive me, friend. And forgive me, brother,” he said, turning to Lime.
“If we’re late, the fault is mine,” said Lime. “But there is no sense in lamenting. Here, we have brought you the last of what you need.”
Upon their bustling arrival, Fiorenzo had turned his gaping gaze toward them.
He held that gaze but for a heartbeat longer.
Then he threw back his head and laughed.
He felt tears prick his eyes, but he blinked them away. He would let them come later. But for now, he had a stew to finish, and a bread to bake.
He shook his head. “You are not too late.”
A blue froth bubbled over the stew.
“Oh no!” Zephyrin cried. “What was I thinking? I only wanted to help, but my conjured flame has burned the stew.”
“I think I might have let too much salt fall in,” Lucine said. “I am sorry, Fiorenzo. I don’t know what possessed me.”
Fiorenzo chuckled, and held up his hands. “I do,” he said to the fairy. “I know what possessed you all.”
Beaming, he glanced up and around. “I asked for your aid, and I welcome it.”
And give him aid they did, until the dancing dragon brothers were needed upon the stage. Fiorenzo insisted that Lucine and Zephyrin go watch the spectacle. But the two remained with him, helping him to knead out the dough, flour the pans, prepare the oven, and clean the station.
With apologies to the creature, Fiorenzo bid the spider to hide under his hat. But it seemed he need not have asked. The spider was shy and hid away before he finished speaking.
Zephyrin and even some of the other cooks, helped Fiorenzo to carry his dish into the adjoining room, to decorate and garnish, and pass the plates over to be served.
Lucine floated about the feast, returning more quickly than Fiorenzo would have expected from the curious little fairy. She returned because she had seen something she knew would gladden his heart.
“One of the guests noticed that someone was lurking about, trying to pour powders into drinks,” she said. “The guard seized the intruder. The powders weren’t poison, of course. They were just some bitter-tasting medicine. Twice bitter, being made by a bitter heart. I think it might be your saboteur, Fiorenzo.”
Fiorenzo breathed in deeply and released a sigh. “Perhaps it is. Perhaps not.”
The saboteur’s capture brought no relief. For his dish was yet to be served, and while he had tasted the stew and the bread and found them to be quite good, he did not know what feelings the feast’s guests of honor would taste.
He only hoped that the presence of his friends, the true joy and delight and relief their arrival and their aid had brought him, would have found its way into the stew, canceling the twisting bitterness of fear and doubt, and all the ill feelings he still clutched to his heart when first he began to cook that night.
He held his breath as the first spoon was scooped and brought to mouth.
His heart froze when quiet gasps and a shifting in seats passed among the guests of honor.
One of them rose and spoke, and even from where he stood, a a distance, Fiorenzo heard that she was asking for the cook who had made the stew.
The feast master gestured for Fiorenzo to step forth. She had a smile upon her face, but Fiorenzo felt the heaviness of doom upon his heart. On his head, he felt the shifting feet of the sweet little creature who sat perched there, the spider who had cheered him and bolstered him.
Fiorenzo stood before the guests of honor. In their eyes he glimpsed the gleam of delight. Still, he held his breath.
“You alone made this food?” asked the one who had summoned him.
Fiorenzo smiled. “No, honored Ambassador. I was meant to. But I…struggled. And so, many others came to my aid.”
“These others, you are dear to them.”
Fiorenzo’s smile faltered. It was not a question, but he answered nonetheless. “I believe I am. They are certainly dear to me.”
“That explains why there is such a flavor of frivolity in this stew,” the Ambassador said.
Fiorenzo allowed himself a chuckle.
She continued. “That is why it is steeped in the sweetness of solidarity.”
Fiorenzo caught his breath, and for a second time, he blinked to keep his eyes dry.
“All the dishes we have tasted this night were made with love given,” the Ambassador said.
Fiorenzo wanted to ask if he might summon his friends, those who helped him to cook. But when he opened his mouth, he felt a catch in his throat. And then he realized, as two dragons landed beside him, and a fairy floated above, and a wizard glided to his side, that there was no need for him to speak.
“Yours was made with love received.” The Ambassador bowed her head. “It is most delicious. And it honors us all.”
Happily then, they ate. And happily they would live upon their planet, of swirling soft clouds and clear green oceans, and two peoples joined in peace.
And on the station that spun between two sister stars, many nights of feasting were to come, humble feasts in the home of a stellar elf, who cooked enchanting food for his five faithful friends.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel