A Cook's Errand
A short fantasy story in which a cook attempts to source a rare ingredient on the day of a big feast.
The sun had scarcely risen on a crisp autumn day, but the Château Bourrange kitchens were already hot enough to bring sweat to Valentin’s brow as he rushed to roll his pastry before the butter melted and ruined the dough. That was the way of these old châteaux; always too hot or too cold. The same massive hearth fires that were such a boon in the depths of winter made for sweltering conditions the rest of the year. Valentin had several times petitioned to have one of the stone larders repurposed for the bakers so they could more easily manage temperamental doughs and confections, but had been turned down with one ridiculous excuse after another. The truth of it was that the master cook couldn’t stand the idea of anyone being out from under his critical eye for even a moment. Maistre Thierry was a culinary genius—which was precisely the reason Valentin had first come to apprentice in this kitchen all those years ago—but the Maistre possessed a tyrannical streak that matched and often overshadowed the artful brilliance he brought to his work. Thierry insisted on inspecting each stage of every dish that was prepared in his kitchen. This was little more than an annoyance to which Valentin was well accustomed, but on a feast day like this, it wreaked havoc on the kitchen’s ability to get through the immense menu without a considerable amount of teeth gnashing and cursing behind their Maistre’s back.
“You’re overworking that pastry.”
“Yes, Maistre,” Valentin said without looking up. In fact, he was not overworking the pastry, but one did not contradict Maistre Thierry in his own kitchen.
“Have Noélie take over. I need you for something else.”
Valentin nodded curtly and went to fetch Noélie from where she was whisking eggs into a lemon curd. Wiping buttery hands on his apron, he crossed the kitchen to where Thierry was now hovering over young Herve while the boy made a mess of trussing a chicken with shaky hands.
“Relax, Herve,” Valentin said, laying his hand on the boy’s shoulder before their Maistre’s presence could rattle him any further. “Remember, careful is calm, and calm is quick. Start over and take your time.”
Herve unwrapped the mess of twine and began again, considering each next move before executing it with deliberate care. This was enough to satisfy Thierry, who motioned for Valentin to follow before marching over to his own workstation where he picked up a knife and steel. The sharp kish kish of blade sliding across steel punctuated his words when he said, “You coddle them too much, Valentin.”
“The boy has potential, but he lacks confidence. Trial by fire isn’t always the best approach.”
Thierry set into a side of lamb, breaking it down for a crown rack that would later grace the Duke’s table. “It worked with you.”
“And it has sent dozens more running for the hills after we invested a year or more into training them.” Valentin lowered his voice. His years of service had earned him some privilege of familiarity with the Maistre, but not so much that he could flaunt it in front of the other cooks. “They’re not all chickens to be roasted over the coals, Thierry. Take Noélie for example; the girl does wonders with cakes and confections, but she was a timid thing when she first came to us, was she not? She’s since proven her mettle, but it took gentle encouragement to build that fortitude.”
“Pah,” Maistre Thierry flicked a piece of gristle off his thumb. “Even the most delicate mousse must be firmly beaten.”
Valentin suppressed a sigh. They’d been having this same conversation in one form or another for nearly a decade. A pot of butter buried under a mountain of winter ice would soften before Thierry ever did. That didn’t mean Valentin would give up on advocating for his people, but it did hasten the onset of the dull ache in his temples that didn’t typically set in until after midday.
“You said you needed me for something else?” Valentin asked by way of changing the subject.
“We’re out of sormillaux. I need one to finish the eel and onion tart.”
“That’s not possible. Silouane was by just two days ago. I bought three large sormillaux, and we only used the one for last night’s duck en croûte.”
“And yet, they are gone.” Thierry set his knife down, then leaned heavily on his knuckles. “If someone has stolen them, we’ll deal with it tomorrow. For now, the only thing that matters is getting through tonight’s menu, understood? Take a purse of fleurines and run to Silouane for another. Two if they look good.”
Valentin looked around the kitchen where nearly forty men and women were working their hardest to produce the hundreds of dishes required for that night’s feast. It would take every single one of them giving their all to get through it. Valentin couldn’t afford to run off and leave them shorthanded. But neither could he trust any of them with a purse of gold fleurines and the selection of Silouane’s best sormillaux. The old woman knew well the power she held over even a man as highly placed in the Duke’s favor as Maistre Thierry. Sormillau hunting was more akin to mystical art than a learned skill, and the woman was the sole supplier of the finest kitchens in the kingdom. She only ever dealt with Valentin or Thierry himself, and would certainly rid herself of her worst stock for a princely sum should some hapless young apprentice come begging on the night of a feast.
There was nothing to be done for it. Valentin untied his apron and threw it over the back of a chair as he hurried for the door. The cool autumn air was a welcome relief on his face after what had already been a long morning in the kitchen. He briefly considered deviating to his room for a coat, but it would only waste time he couldn’t spare. Silouane’s cottage was two miles from the chateau, and he kept up a brisk pace. When he began to shiver a little during the last half mile, he reminded himself that it was mainly uphill on the return trip, and that the oppressive heat of the kitchen fires would be waiting to roast his bones and make him long for the chill air once more.
A slender tendril of smoke drifted lazily from the chimney atop Silouane’s cottage, easing Valentin’s worry that she might not even be at home. The door creaked open when he was still ten paces away, and Silouane stood leaning against the doorframe, blue smoke from a stained bone pipe streaming from her nostrils.
“Come for a roll at last, Valentin?” she asked with a wry grin.
“You’d break me in half, and I have too much work yet to do today.”
“I promise I’ll go easy on you and have you back to Maistre Thierry before he misses you.”
She never failed to make the word sound like an insult, especially when speaking directly to Thierry himself. The woman was twice Valentin’s age, but he admired her boldness so much he almost considered testing her to see if her offer of a quick dalliance was earnest.
“I’m sorry to be blunt, but I’m in a rush,” he said instead. “I need more sormillaux. We both know you have me over a barrel here, so I’ll be clear; I’m willing to pay a premium if we can sidestep the dickering for once.”
“You’re too late, I’m afraid. I’ve not one sormillau to give. Parted ways with the very last of them just this morning.”
Valentin swallowed the lump in his throat. He hadn’t even considered that she might not have anything to sell. “Could you go out and find another?”
Silouane barked a laugh, then shook her head, smiling at Valentin as though addressing an addled fool. “If it were as easy as all that, you’d not need me to hunt them out and sell them to you, would you? It takes weeks to find new sormillaux ready to pick. Besides, Rodi stuck his nose into a porcupine’s den and got a face full of quills out by Meunier’s field this morning. I just finished plucking the last of the damn things out a few minutes before you got here. Poor thing won’t be able to hunt again until his nose heals.”
Rodi was the shaggy gray dog that shambled along beside Silouane wherever she went. How exactly he was able to sniff out the rare and difficult-to-find sormillaux was known only to Silouane. Playing on the Duke’s love for the exquisite delicacy, Thierry had once convinced the Duke to have his gamekeeper train a sormillau-hunting dog of his own, but the mutt had only ever run off after ducks and squirrels, never finding so much as a chanterelle or morel, never mind a sormillau.
“Let me guess,” Valentin said, knowing exactly who lived out past Meunier’s field. “You sold the last of your supply to Oderac.”
“He might sell one to you if you ask nicely.”
“Oderac despises the Duke, and he knows me too well to believe I’m asking for any other reason. Won’t you go and ask him yourself?”
Silouane drew on her pipe, but it had gone out. She tapped the ashes onto the ground as she said, “I care not who has my sormillaux, and I’ll not trudge all the way back out there to beg a favor for Thierry or his royal Dukeship who cares about me only insofar as it relates to sending his tax collector after my profits. How about truffle? I have a nice plump white truffle I was saving for myself, but I’ll let you have it at the regular price.”
“You of all people know that even the finest truffle is no substitute for even the poorest of sormilleaux.”
Silouane nodded sympathetically. “If you don’t want to ask Oderac, you could try Aurele down in the village. She did me a rather discreet favor recently, and this morning I repaid it in goods. If she hasn’t eaten it already, she might prefer your coin to the sormillau I gave her.”
Valentin raised an eyebrow at that. “What sort of favor did she do to earn her such repayment?”
“That’s between me and her, and I advise you not to go pestering her about it unless you’re eager to find the Duke’s kitchens removed from my delivery rounds. Have you any idea how often these fat merchants offer double or even triple if only I’d sell to them instead?”
The idea of offending Silouane to the point that he risked the Duke’s access to his beloved sormillaux was so terrifying that Valentin raised his palms and shook his head defensively. “Your business is your own. Where did you say this Aurele woman lived?”
“Two doors south of cobbler Laurent. You’ll know it by the herbs drying out front.”
Valentin gave a deeper than necessary parting bow, then hastened back to the road. The village was yet another half hour of walking in the opposite direction of the château. With the time he’d already wasted bantering with Silouane, it was doubtful he’d make it back to the kitchen by noon even if he ran the entire way back. Not that running was even an option. Despite the toll working with Maistre Thierry had taken on his nerves, life in the Duke’s kitchen had left Valentin with a round belly and stout legs that could stand behind a workbench for hours. Yet they grew quickly tired when walking any farther than the pantry was required. Even strolling downhill had him huffing and puffing by the time he arrived in the sleepy little village. He’d purchased boots from Laurent the previous summer, and easily spotted the little hut with bundles of herbs hanging from drying racks out front. Rosemary and sage kissed his nose as he walked up to the door. He knocked firmly, the lush herbal scents distracting him with thoughts of the rabbit he’d left soaking in wine and thyme. If he didn’t get back soon, Farron would likely take it upon himself to begin cooking it. Given a roast of pork or beef, Farron was capable enough. But the man had never learned the knack of cooking rabbit, resulting in overcooked dry meat, the blame for which would likely fall upon Valentin since rabbit cassoulet was his specialty.
A young woman in a threadbare apron opened the door. “Yes?”
“You’re Aurele?” Valentin asked impatiently.
The woman shifted backwards, looking ready to slam the door in his face. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve just come from Silouane,” Valentin said, forcing himself to smile and rein in his frustration. “I have rather desperate need of sormillaux, and I understand you may have one in your possession. I’m willing to pay handsomely for it. Say, eight fleurines?”
The woman’s eyes widened. Eight fleurines was likely more than she made in a year of selling herbs. It was also double what he’d have paid Silouane under normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances, and Valentin had no time to waste.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” Aurele said, looking ill as she pushed the door closed.
Valentin slipped his fingers into the doorframe, yelping as the door slammed shut on them. It had the desired effect, though. Aurele yanked the door open and glared at him.
“Are you touched in the head?” she asked. “I don’t want your fleurines. Go away.”
Valentin clutched his injured fingers to his chest, involuntary tears of pain blurring the edges of his vision. “Please, I’m begging you. Ten fleurines. It’s everything I have with me. I can bring more tomorrow if you demand it, but I simply must have that sormillau.”
Aurele glanced over her shoulder to something in the shadows of her house that Valentin could not see. When she looked back at him, her eyes shimmered with unspent tears of her own, and she dropped her gaze to the floor before speaking.
“That money would relieve me of too many burdens to count, but I simply cannot give you what you ask. I made a promise that’s more important than gold. There is nothing you could offer that would entice me to renege on that promise. Please leave now… unless you intend to take it by force.”
Valentin was so aghast at the idea, he took an involuntary step backwards, nearly tripping over the uneven paving stones behind him. “Madame, I would never do you harm over such a thing. You have nothing to fear from me. But please, I must ask you to reconsider. Speak to whomever it is you made this promise and ask if they might not rather have a full purse over a single meal enhanced by sormillau. Surely Silouane will sell you another for a fraction of what I’m offering!”
Aurele clenched her jaw a moment, then swung the door wide and stepped back. “Ask him yourself.”
Valentin stepped into the hut. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim interior light, and once they did, he beheld a sickly man laying on a raised pallet near the warmth of the hearth. The man made to speak, then coughed wetly into a soiled scrap of cloth that came away speckled with fresh spots of blood.
“Easy now, papa,” Aurele said, rushing to crouch by his side and mop his brow with a cloth that had been soaking in a bowl beside the pallet.
The man gathered his strength before croaking out, “Take the money, dear heart. You’ll need it when I’m gone.”
“Hush, now. I’ve told you I’ll be just fine. Madame Grouane told me just this morning that I can pick up a few days of washing, and cousin Jaquard says there’s room for me to come live with them should it come to that.”
The man tried to speak, but only devolved into another coughing fit. Valentin kept a quiet and respectful distance while Aurele tended to her father, pacifying him until he slipped into an uneasy sleep.
“He worked for the Duke his entire life,” she said as she stood up, brushing her hands on her dress. “Until a few months ago when he fell ill. Then he was dismissed without so much as a kind word. Forty years serving at table, sometimes even the Duke himself, and what does he get for it? Nothing. The Duke has a private physicker who sits on his ass doing nothing in the event the Duke might require a tonic for having eaten or drunk too much, while I’m left to scrimp and beg for medicines to supplement what herbal remedies I can make to ease my father’s pain.”
Valentin stepped closer and took a better look at the old man.
“Pascal?” he said in disbelief. The pale ghost lying before Valentin scarcely resembled the jovial footman who’d been such a fixture in the castle until recently. Valentin was struck with a pang of remorse at never once questioning where the man had disappeared to.
“Year upon year of serving the Duke his precious sormillaux, and never once was he allowed to taste anything. The Duke fed his scraps to his dogs rather than let people like my father eat anything left over. Not that my father even once complained about it. He’s as loyal to the Duke as ever. But one night shortly after he took ill, he spoke wistfully of wishing he’d had a chance to taste a dish adorned with sormillaux.”
Valentin now understood the source of her stubborn refusal to sell. Poor Pascal looked like might not last the night, let alone the weeks it might take for Silouane to find more sormillaux.
“What are you going to prepare for him?” he asked.
“In what dish will you use the sormillau?”
“Oh.” Aurele looked down at her dying father. “I still don’t know. He always loved a good beef and wine stew, but he can’t chew meat or tolerate its richness anymore. I wanted it to be something special like what was served to the Duke, but I can neither afford the ingredients nor be certain he’ll even be able to eat it.”
Valentin considered the old footman a moment, then came to a decision. “Do you have eggs? And fresh chervil?”
“I do, yes.”
“Also a dash of cream and an anchovy or two?”
“Cream I have, but I’d have to ask a neighbor for the anchovies.”
“Do that. I’ll also need your sharpest knife.”
Aurele eyed him shrewdly, then seemed to come to a decision, gathering what cooking implements and ingredients she had before setting off in search of anchovies. Meanwhile, Valentin set to work. Aurele’s knife was better kept than most, but the edge was not as fine as Valentin preferred. After a minute of rooting around her kitchen, Valentin located a whetstone and began further sharpening the blade. In the Duke’s kitchen, they kept special blades just for sormillaux. Slender little things that could slice the delicate fungus into translucent morsels that melted on the tongue. He was still sharpening the knife when Aurele returned bearing a small clay pot.
“Dried or preserved in oil?” he asked.
“Grind one up with a mortar and pestle,” he said. “Fine as you can.”
“Butter?” he asked after inspecting a heavy iron pan that was surprisingly well seasoned.
“In the cold chest with the cream.”
Valentin retrieved the butter and cream, then cracked six eggs into a bowl. He would have preferred to use the fine wire whisk he had back in his own kitchen, but by using the handle of a wooden spoon, he was able to beat the eggs to a frothy uniformity. To this, he incorporated a dash of cream and the powdered anchovy before setting the iron pan at the edge of the hearth where it would heat slowly.
While the pan warmed, he asked Aurele for the sormillau. From a hidden pocket in her dress, she produced a cloth-wrapped bundle that contained a single sormillau the size of an acorn. Aurele hovered close by and watched over Valentin’s shoulder as he meticulously sliced the sormillau into dozens of delicate little wafers.
He held one of the slices out to Aurele. “Try it.”
She took the piece of sormillau, sniffed it, then placed it on her tongue before chewing with careful deliberation.
“It doesn’t really taste of anything,” she said. “Faintly of dirt and wet wood, I suppose.”
“That’s the marvel of sormillau,” Valentin explained. “On its own, it’s so bland as to be almost unnoticeable. But combined with any other ingredients, it enhances the flavors in ways that cannot be explained.”
Sormillau sliced as well as could be managed with Aurele’s knife, Valentin made quick work of the chervil, then scooped a palm-sized knob of butter into the warm pan where it melted into a shimmering yellow puddle flecked with white foam. He swirled the pan around a few times to fully coat the bottom, then poured the egg mixture on top. Since the pan was barely hot, Valentin was able to stir the eggs into the butter, swirling the wooden spoon back and forth through the mixture with great patience until a layer of silky, fluffy curd began to form. Throughout the process, he held the pan well above a patch of gently glowing coals, lifting the pan higher or lower in order to prevent it from getting too hot.
Aurele watched in silence, sitting on a low stool with elbows propped on her knees and fascination evident on her face. She seemed to be memorizing his every action as he set the pan down away from the heat and layered the slivers of sormillau across the middle of the eggs. He then shook the pan to loosen the egg, and with the aid of his spoon, quickly folded it over on itself two times before sliding it onto the cutting board. After setting the pan back down by the hearth, he sliced the egg into two unequal pieces, slipping the knife beneath each and dishing them onto small wooden plates before sprinkling them with the chopped chervil.
“That’s it?” Aurele asked.
“It’s better when it’s still hot, but I’m guessing your father will be able to eat it better once it’s cooled down a little.” He nudged the larger portion towards Aurele. “Go on, I’ll bring this to Pascal in a moment.”
Aurele seemed uncertain about eating before her father, but at Valentin’s urging, she spooned a small bite into her mouth. Unlike with the sliver of unaccompanied sormillau, her reaction was instantaneous. Her eyes widened, then she closed them and seemed to deflate a little as she chewed and swallowed.
“It’s magnificent,” she said reverently as she went for another spoonful. “Truly beyond description. I can taste everything, the egg, the cream, the anchovies, the chervil… but somehow more so?”
She paused. Then added, “It’s like eating music.”
The stress of Thierry’s constant criticism and a kitchen that would be near to crumbling beneath the mounting pressure of the Duke’s feast was momentarily forgotten as Valentin watched Aurele eat. Though he’d tasted similarly enhanced dishes hundreds of times in the intervening years, he still vividly remembered his own first taste of sormillau. It was an experience best enjoyed in quiet contemplation. For several moments, the only sound in the small hut were soft sounds of contentment that accompanied each subsequent bite.
Aurele’s father stirred when Valentin kneeled by his side. Confusion fogged the man’s eyes at first, but alertness flared brightly, and Pascal began pushing away the covers and trying to sit up.
“What time is it?” he mumbled. “Orineiere will be furious I’ve overslept again.”
“Be easy, Pascal,” Valentin said. He placed a hand on the man’s chest to prevent him from trying to get up from his pallet. “You’ve not slept in. You’re home with Aurele.”
Pascal blinked a few times then looked at his daughter.
“Valentin?” he asked after returning his attention to the visitor. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to make you this.” Valentin used the edge of a spoon to cut free a piece of the now-cooled egg, then brought it to Pascal’s mouth so the man could taste it.
“My goodness,” Pascal said after swallowing his own first bite. “Is it…?”
“Yes, papa,” Aurele said, arriving at his side. “Isn’t it the most marvelous thing?”
Pascal ate another bite. His face seemed to flush with vigor, and he smiled wistfully. “It’s the strangest thing, but it brings to mind your mother, Aurele. She was a terrible cook, mind, but I can see her so clearly. She was never more beautiful to me than when she was picking herbs in the garden. The way the sunlight used to wreath her hair. It was just like yours, sweetling. She was taken from us too soon. Too soon by far.”
Tears laid glistening tracks down Aurele’s cheeks, but she too was smiling as she held her father’s hand and watched him finish the rest of his small meal. No one spoke for some time, then Valentin rose to his feet and begged his leave. The day had worn on considerably, and he still had another stop to make.
“Please take this,” he said, shoving a gold fleurine into Aurele’s hand as he clasped them at the door. “Your father deserves much more, but I have to pay a visit to a man who bears the Duke no love, and I fear I may need all my coin if I’m to procure another sormillau before this day is done.”
“I don’t know how to thank you for the kindness you’ve shown my father today. Should you ever have need of anything, please call on me as a friend.”
“Take care of your father, I’ll do my best to come see him again soon.”
Aurele simply nodded, not needing to add that any longer than soon would be too late.
Whatever warmth and good spirits Valentin had felt during his unexpected stopover faded away as he made his way to Oderac’s estate. The sun was high and hot now, a searing reminder of how furious Thierry would be at Valentin’s over-long absence. By the time he was being shown to a sitting room after requesting an audience with the master of the estate, Valentin felt downright ill. Even if Oderac did agree to sell him any sormillaux, he would almost certainly draw out the process, toying with Valentin until he barely had enough time to return to the château before the sormillau had to be added to the Duke’s food.
“Valentin!” Oderac said as he entered the room. “What a coincidence. I was planning to seek you out later tonight, and now I find you conveniently on my doorstep.”
“I’m sorry?” Valentin said, entirely forgetting the formalities due a man of Oderac’s status.
“I know you’re loyal to Thierry, but I have been consistently unsatisfied with any of the cooks I’ve brought in to run my kitchens. Thierry takes all the credit, but it’s widely known you’re the one doing all the real work these days.”
“I…” Valentin trailed off into confused silence.
Oderac walked to a sideboard and poured amber liquid into two crystal goblets that rivaled anything the Duke had at his own table. He pressed one into Valentin’s hand, then took a sip before saying, “I’ll endure not a word of false modesty from you. Thierry is past his prime, and in my estimation, that makes you the finest cook in a thousand miles. I’m prepared to offer you the full run of my kitchens, an annual salary of two hundred fleurines, and a cottage of your own here on my property. What say you?”
Valentin sipped his drink to buy time for his thoughts to catch up to what he was hearing, nearly choking on the fiery liquor when he heard what Oderac was willing to pay. Under Thierry, he had a room of his own, but it was scarcely larger than his simple bed and the single chest in which he stored his clothing. To say nothing of the fact that two hundred fleurines was more than Thierry himself was likely earning in the Duke’s employ. It was more than ten times what Valentin himself was paid.
“This is all very surprising,” he managed to stammer out. “You must understand how much I owe Thierry for teaching me everything I know.”
“Pah! The old bastard would toss you over the battlements in a heartbeat if it served to bolster his own glory. There’s no honor in devoting yourself to a life in the darkness of that man’s shadow. I’m asking you to step out into the light here, Valentin. Think about it; your own kitchen! Complete creative control over what’s served each night. The events I host here may seem quaint in comparison with the Duke’s if sheer volume is to be the qualifying factor, but I assure you the caliber of guest at my table rivals that of any noble lord who only commands attention because he just happened to be born into the right family.”
Valentin didn’t know what to say, and so he said nothing. Becoming Maistre of his own kitchen had been the original goal once upon a time, hadn’t it? Before Thierry? A man like Oderac wouldn’t spare a second thought for Valentin had it not been for the knowledge and skills he could not have acquired anywhere but under Maistre Thierry’s tutelage. No one else in the kitchen knew Thierry’s tastes and moods like Valentin. The kitchen would devolve into chaos without him there to act as a buffer between the brilliant, yet implacable Maistre and the rest of the staff. That Valentin owed loyalty to Thierry was beyond question, but what then of the loyalty between Valentin and those like Noélie, whom he’d nurtured and shielded from the worst of Thierry’s wrath when things didn’t go exactly to excruciatingly precise plan?
“I admire your unwavering allegiance,” Oderac said. “But think on my offer and hold your answer until you’re certain you’re making the right decision. Now, if I recall, it was you who came to see me. What was it you wanted?”
“Sormillaux,” Valentin said, snapping out of his distracted thoughts. “Just one, really. Silouanne told me she sold the last of her supply to you, and I’ve come to purchase one for tonight’s feast.”
Oderac raised an eyebrow at that. “You must be desperate if Thierry has you coming to me for such a favor.”
“He doesn’t know I’m here. Not yet, anyway.”
Oderac quaffed the last of his liquor, then set the glass down where some servant would no likely snap it up for cleaning the moment the room was empty.
“I might be willing to part with one of my sormillaux for the right price. Say, fifty fleurines?”
Valentin nearly dropped his glass, but in remembering it, he tossed the remainder of its contents back in one fiery gulp. “Fifty fleurines is far more than I have to give.”
“How much do you have?”
Oderac shrugged. “Seems a reasonable price, given the circumstances. I’ll take it all.”
Already wincing at the tirade he’d hear from Thierry over paying so much for a single sormillau, Valentin produced the purse and handed over every last coin.
“Excellent. My man will bring your sormillau to you on your way out.” Oderac tossed the coins in his hand a few times, then held them out for Valentin. “I’d like to offer you an enticement of nine fleurines to consider my offer. No strings attached. Simply tell Thierry I took great pleasure from wringing every last coin from you, and pocket it for yourself.”
“I… I couldn’t possibly.”
“And why not? The alternative is that I keep them. Do I look like I need more money? Go on, do something for yourself this once. If you don’t look out for yourself, who will?”
Valentin eyed the coins. It was a life-changing amount of money. Seeing Pascal on his deathbed had brought to mind his own aging parents. He’d already sent back most of what he earned, but this would be enough for them to hire someone to come in and help around the cottage. They deserved to live their elder years without strain, did they not? Then again, if Valentin accepted Oderac’s offer, his parents would never want for anything ever again. He’d have little need for most of his annual salary beyond the purchase of a new knife and perhaps some new clothing for the rare days he wasn’t in the kitchens.
“You have my thanks for this gift,” he said, closing his fist around the coins and dropping his hand to his side. “I’ll think on your proposal, but in the meantime, I really must be on my way.”
On their way out, Oderac summoned a servant to fetch the promised sormillau, and Valentin was soon on his way back to the Duke’s castle. The day had progressed beyond the point of redemption as far as his work for Thierry was concerned, so he allowed himself one more quick delay in his return journey. It was only a slight detour to return to the village, and after a brief contest of wills, he’d won out and convinced Aurele to take all nine of the fleurines he’d been gifted by Oderac. Thus it came to be that he returned to the kitchens with scarcely an hour to spare before the Duke’s eel and onion tart was to be served.
“Where the fuck have you been all day?” Thierry shouted upon seeing Valentin hurry towards him.
“It’s too long a story to bother with now, but I had no choice but to purchase a sormillau from Oderac.”
A brief look of confusion passed across Thierry’s features before he reverted to sour annoyance. “Oh, that. I found the sormillaux shortly after you left. They were beneath a bundle of dill on my worktop. Either way, you shouldn’t have been gone more than an hour. I should have sent Herve for how useless he’s been to me today. What are you still standing around for? There’s a basket of oysters that need to be scrubbed and shucked immediately if we’re to have any hope of not embarrassing ourselves tonight!”
Valentin held his tongue, donned his apron, and began tackling the basket of oysters. He smiled despite loathing this particular job, his happiness not even faltering when his knife slipped from a stubborn oyster, gouging a small chunk of flesh from his palm. He’d agonized over Oderac’s offer during his walk back from the village, but Thierry had made the decision easy just by being his usual vexatious self. As Valentin shucked oyster after oyster, pausing frequently to wipe blood from his palm onto his now thoroughly stained apron, he was already dreaming up dishes for Oderac’s table. It was true that Valentin owed much to Thierry, but the Maistre seemed content to play tyrant of his own little domain for as long as he yet lived. The notion of tiptoeing around the Maistre day after day was laughable when measured against the freedom of running his own kitchen. The more Valentin thought on it, the more clearly he saw that it wasn’t even a choice. He’d be a fool not to take this new opportunity.
And though Oderac’s estate no doubt boasted a magnificent garden replete with every vegetable and herb that could be grown in the region, Valentin’s thoughts drifted to Aurele and her meticulously-tended little garden. He decided to visit her and Pascal in the morning. It would be easy enough to abscond with a basket of food left over from the feast. It would also give him an opportunity to gauge whether Aurele might be interested in coming to work for Oderac once her father passed. Poor pascal was on death’s door. The money Valentin had given them would only last so long, and tending Oderac’s garden had to be preferable to taking up washing and relying on the charity of her cousin. As Maistre, Valentin could ensure she always had a place both in the gardens and in the comfort of the kitchens once winter came.
And if it meant Valentin was able to spend more time with her, well then that wasn’t such a bad thing, was it?
Somewhere in the kitchen, Thierry was screaming at someone who’d had the misfortune to ever so slightly overcook a squab on the spit. But Valentin wasn’t listening. He was thinking that he would find also find places for people like Noélie in his new kitchen. Valentin was nothing if not loyal. To those who had earned it, anyway.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this story, please consider sharing it with a friend. Updates may be sporadic while I focus on revising The Traveling Librarian, so until then, I’ll see you Among the Stacks!