By A. C. Williams
I have never seen a vegetable like this in all my days. Is it a vegetable? A fruit? So purple! Oblong with a fibrous green stem. And there’s a crate of them on the tavern’s loading dock.
Tobias probably traded for them. He always does this—trades junk to some tinker out of the Fifth World in exchange for something shiny. If it’s even potentially edible, he dumps it on me.
But there’s nothing shiny about this smelly purple doorstop. It’s soft, almost squishy. Saints, what am I supposed to do with them?
I toss the strange vegetable back with its brothers and lift the awkward crate with a grunt. The worn wooden flooring creaks beneath me as I duck under the low door cut into the side of the tavern. Down the dark, narrow hallway I go until it empties into the main hall. The tavern’s golden warmth is a welcome reprieve from the foggy gloom of the Veil—the gray world between worlds.
The Emberstone’s fiery molten skin brightens the central hall, though nobody knows exactly what it is. Not even Tobias, and he’s been here the longest. All we know is it brings light and warmth to this dismal shadow-world and keeps our little island floating in the sky.
Plus, it’s not a bad tourist attraction. The twelve waygates around the island’s perimeter supply us with a steady stream of visitors from the other worlds. Some come to trade for magical goods. Others come to disappear, since nobody guards the waygates. Most are just passing through.
And believe you me, they pass through much quicker if they’re well fed. That’s where I come in. I’ve been the cook here since Tobias roped me into his service two decades ago.
The kitchen doors sway on crooked hinges, beckoning me out of the dining area with its sticky tables and rowdy card players. My old fingers are going numb from carrying the old rough crate, so I step twice as quick to reach the offered haven.
I push through the doors, drop the crate on the floor, and breathe the savory scents of buttered pastry, roasted meats, and fragrant garlic. Then, grabbing my trusty knife, I slice one of the strange vegetables neatly down the middle.
“Ugh.” Its insides are yellowish gray and smell like souring milk.
I twitch my mustache in disgust.
As purple as it is on the outside, I expected something similar inside. But no. It’s dull and fleshy and striped with veins of translucent reddish-brown seeds.
“What is this?”
A wild mop of frizzy brown hair thrusts into the kitchen from the dining hall. “Monty, I got a special order.”
“No special orders, Lavinia.” I chop the vegetable up and toss it into a hot pan with some oil. It doesn’t smell as sour once it’s frying. That’s a good sign.
Lavinia marches up to me with her hands on her hips. “Make an exception, Plum.”
“This guy’s some bigwig airship captain, and he’s making my shift a nightmare.”
“No special orders.” I stab one of the fried gray chunks with a fork, blow on it, and chew. And I gag.
So—sautéing don’t work.
I fire up the grill pan, the scent of charred onions and peppers still strong on the cast iron.
“He wants a pot pie. And he wants it with edamame.”
I slice the curious vegetable and drop a strip on the grill in a whoosh of fire and smoke. “What in the heavenly realms is edamame?”
Lavinia shrugs and adjusts her corset. “You got me, but he’s insistent. What’s that?”
“Tobias traded for something again?”
I flip the slice and scowl as its grayish insides go softer than before, almost disintegrating. I manage to get it on a plate, but it’s mostly goo now.
I spoon some into my mouth and choke.
“Gah! Grilling don’t work either.”
“No special orders, Lavinia.”
I pause, holding the other half of the purple vegetable as old Bast meows loudly from her perch on the bookshelf against the wall. The giant black cat flicks her long tail, eerie green eyes sparkling with more personality than a cat should have.
She bats at a book on the nearest shelf before she jumps down.
“Bast is trying to tell you something, Monty.” Lavinia brushes past me.
“About how to cook squishy purple vegetables?” I snort and stab my knife into the cutting board.
Lavinia pulls the book off the shelf and thumbs through a few pages before she gives a triumphant laugh. “When are you going to learn, Plum? Bast knows everything.” She shoves the book into my hand.
I take it from her. “No special orders. Grab a pot pie from the warming rack and tell your sailor to get lost.”
Lavinia huffs in my face and struts away, and I turn my attention to The Modern Lebanese Housewife’s Essential Cookbook. What is this even doing in my kitchen?
According to the book, the sour-smelling purple vegetable is something called an eggplant.
Because that makes perfect sense.
Apparently, all that’s required is garlic, lemon juice, sesame paste, and olive oil. It should magically transform it into something called baba ghanoush.
If it tastes as good as it sounds, I might use it as wallpaper paste.
I chuck the recipe book on the opposite counter and gather the required items. Scraping the disgusting goo left over from the roasted eggplant, I mash it up with the rest of the ingredients.
There. Now it’s vaguely beige instead of yellowish-gray.
I scoop out a spoonful and take a bite, chewing cautiously, its texture gummy and thick and still sour.
“Saints save me!”
I choke it down with a gulp of water and kick the crate into the corner of the kitchen.
“Wallpaper paste it is.”