Well. Here he was.
Reisor adjusted his tunic, double-checking the map. Right across the bridge…memory mushrooms to the left…he folded the map, inhaling deeply. This was it.
He ran a hand through his blonde hair. The door stood right there…smooth wood, dark against the morning’s shadows. He raised a trembling fist—then rapped the door twice.
No response. Reisor tucked the map in his blue tunic with unsteady fingers. He put his hands behind his back, shifting his feet.
No one was coming. Should he knock again? Reisor blew into his hands, rubbing them against each other. Still pretty cold for the morning.
The door burst open—and Reisor jumped back, nearly tripping. A portly man with a curled mustache grinned at him. The man crossed his arms, sleeves rolled up. “Well hello! You’re my new apprentice?”
“Uh—yes. Yes, I’m Reisor.”
“Wonderful! Simply wonderful.” The tutor extended a hand. “I’m Mr. Hylan. Pleased to meet you.”
“Uh, I’m—” Reisor choked on his next words, swallowing, “thank you. I’m here for—”
“The apprenticeship! Of course. I’ve been eager to meet you.” Mr. Hylan beckoned him in, closing the door behind them. He brushed his hands together, making his way down the hall. “Don’t mind the mess. Always this way when I’m preparing.”
It was a mess. Cauldrons tipped over, cookbooks littered everywhere—what was going on? Reisor stepped over fallen utensils, following Mr. Hylan to the kitchen.
“Alright. Now we’re in the safe spot.” Mr. Hylan kicked an empty dish out of the kitchen, letting it roll across the wood. “If your kitchen isn’t clear, your life’s a mess.”
Reisor raised his eyebrows. The kitchen was immaculate. Countertops gleamed, sunlight filtered through clean windows…and no smells. Reisor’s muscles relaxed a little.
“See, you need a haven. Without a clean kitchen, what do you have?”
Reisor nodded, swallowing. “I see.”
“Now—” Mr. Hylan rubbed his hands together, then indicated a large cauldron on the puffer stove. “Make me something.”
What? “Make—make you something?”
“Ah! Of course.” Mr. Hylan patted his apron down, then reached into a pocket. He thrust a folded piece of paper at Reisor. “Your recipe.”
Okay. Reisor’s shoulders relaxed. He could do this—a recipe was fine. He unfolded it, fingers trembling. “I don’t have much experience—”
“I’m aware of that. But we’ve all cooked, right?” His tutor indicated the cauldron with an open palm. “You know the basics. Therefore, you can follow a recipe.”
Reisor hadn’t expected this. It was a test—on the first day! “Mr. Hylan, I—I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
“Sure you do! You’ve studied, right?”
“Um—yeah. Yeah, I studied a bit.” Reisor rubbed the back of his neck, trying to smile. “A month?”
“Excellent! Then you’ll know most of what you’re doing. It’s a basic recipe.”
Most of that month had been settling into Misty River. And trying to figure out why he couldn’t remember his past. “Yeah. I guess.”
“You guess?” Mr. Hylan ran his fingers along his mustache. “I think you can. Go ahead and read it.”
Reisor scanned the recipe. A few basic ingredients…mostly vegetables—what was this? There were four blank lines under the spices section.
His eyes darted up to see Mr. Hylan studying him. The tutor leaned in, eyebrows raised. “Any difficulties?”
“There are—Mr. Hylan, sir.” Reisor tapped the page, swallowing. “There are blanks here.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.”
“I’m, uh…” What could he say? “What am I supposed to do with these?”
Improvise? On his first day? Reisor stared at the cauldron, gripping the recipe. He couldn’t do this. Improvisation—it wasn’t his thing. He would fail! He would fail, and that was it. No more catering—no way to provide for his siblings. “Is there any way I can just—just follow a new recipe?”
Mr. Hylan shook his head. He placed his hands behind his back, raising his chin. “Not a chance. That’s the recipe you have.”
“Right.” Reisor pressed his lips together, setting the recipe on the counter. He ran his thumb along the counter’s edge, considering. There had to be something he could do…how could his tutor expect this?
“You’re forgetting something.”
Reisor closed his eyes. Spreading his fingers on the counter, he let his lips part. “What.”
Apron. Of course. Reisor opened his eyes, scanning the room. He spotted a stained apron hanging on the door—and snatched it, jaw clenched. Lowering the strings over his head, he expelled a trembling breath. This was fine. Everything was fine. He just had to…make something up.
“Relax.” Mr. Hylan placed a hand on his shoulder. “This isn’t life and death. I’m only trying to see your style.”
His style? “What do you mean?”
“Every caterer has their own quirks. Their own choice ingredients.” Mr. Hylan winked. “What you choose to fill in those four blanks says a great deal about you. In fact—” he raised a finger, “—I’ll wager I can guess your entire personality based on the ingredients you choose.”
Really. Reisor tied the apron with unsteady fingers, nodding. “Okay.”
“So what’s your first ingredient?”
Reisor reached for the carrots—then withdrew his hand, closing it into a fist. Those were already on the list, right? He might as well start with them.
“Going for an item stated on the list?” The tutor nodded. “You prefer the safe route. That, or you’re sense-oriented. You want the soup to be full before improvising spices.”
Both of those could be true. Reisor wasn’t sure himself. He ran a hand through his hair, gritting his teeth. Was this the right choice?
His eyes darted over to the recipe. Carrots, onions, turnips…alright. He licked his lips. No reason not to start with the carrots after all.
He grabbed the batch of carrots, seizing a knife with his other hand. He poised the first stalk under his blade—
“One moment.” Mr. Hylan put his palm on Reisor’s wrist. “I’d like you to improvise first.”
Great. Reisor’s one piece of security—and it was gone. He swallowed, craning his neck back. What could he do? His tutor was doing this on purpose. It was obvious. “If—if that’s what you want.”
“It is.” Mr. Hylan gestured toward his cupboard, one hand stroking his mustache. “Fill in the blanks first.”
Fine. Reisor was going to fail anyway—might as well do it sooner than later. He took a step toward the cupboard—then rubbed his chin, eyes scouring the shelves. He didn’t even recognize half the ingredients. But they were mostly in jars—so he could smell them, at least…
“What is it?”
Reisor focused on Mr. Hylan. The tutor was studying him, arms crossed. “You’re tense—like this is life and death.”
“I—” Reisor looked away, swallowing. He opened and closed his fists. “I need this job.”
“And you’ll get it. Everyone makes mistakes.”
Reisor lowered his eyes, staring at the ground. So much was at stake… “I need to provide income.”
“And you will.” Mr. Hylan placed both hands on his shoulder. “Reisor. Close your eyes and listen.”
Reisor closed his eyes. His ears perked…but nothing. He couldn’t hear—wait.
There. Very faint, a bubbling. Like water boiling. Why hadn’t he heard it before?
Reisor opened his eyes. “Where’s it coming from?”
Mr. Hylan jabbed his thumb at the cauldron. “See for yourself.”
Reisor stepped toward the cauldron—and looked inside. Water was boiling—bubbles rose to the surface, popping softly.
“Now stare at the pot.”
Reisor obeyed. Not much choice anyway. “Okay.”
“Do you feel that?”
Feel what? “Um…I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You will.” Mr. Hylan came up beside him. Stroking his mustache, he peered into the pot. “You see, I’ve turned the soup down to a simmer. It awaits your commands.”
His commands? “What are you talking about?”
“This soup is your masterpiece.” Mr. Hylan tapped the cauldron’s rim. “You have complete control over it—like nothing else in your life.”
Controlled…that sounded good. “Okay.”
“You see, that’s what the kitchen is to me. Peace. Control in a world without it.” Mr. Hylan took Reisor’s hand and set it on the carrot. “When the world around me can’t be controlled, I retreat to the kitchen. And that’s where I find my peace.”
Reisor felt the carrot beneath his palm. Cold, hard—but a little comforting, now that he thought of it. “You’re saying I can do what I want.”
“Anything you want.” Mr. Hylan indicated a cabinet labeled “spices” with his chin. “Provided you understand flavor combinations, the kitchen is your workshop. You have no need for fear here.”
No need for fear…Reisor’s muscles loosened. “Okay. So I—I can choose anything?”
“Just choose what you want.” Mr. Hylan spread his hands. “This kitchen is yours to command.”
Reisor nodded—then took a deep breath, chest rising. “Okay.” He could do this…it was fine. “That’s not a bad deal.”
“It’s a wonderful deal.” Mr. Hylan pressed his thumb and forefinger to his lips and kissed them. “It’s what cooking is all about. Creating your own world—peace.”
Peace. Reisor let his shoulders relax. This didn’t sound bad at all. “So I can start with any spice?”
“Any spice you choose. I’ll go ahead and add the turnips now—” Mr. Hylan grabbed a couple turnips sitting by the cauldron, “and you can think of your first spice.”
Reisor rubbed his chin, staring at the cabinet. Any spice. A smile tugged at his lips. “Cumin.”
“Ah! Savory.” Mr. Hylan dumped in the turnips with soft splashes—then brushed his hands, making his way to the cabinet. “Earthy and warm. One of the safest ingredients in Ayphae.”
It was a “safe” flavor? That was good. Reisor put his hands behind his back, raising his chin. “Okay.”
“Now what this tells me about you,” Mr. Hylan reached into a shelf, rummaging between jars, “is that you are very solid—you don’t like surprises. You’re reliable and protective of those around you.”
That was a lot to assume from one flavor. Reisor suspected more of it was about his body language than anything else. But he would humor the tutor. “Uh-huh. That’s right.”
Mr. Hylan gingerly handed Reisor a jar. “Next flavor?”
Reisor bit his lip. It could be anything… “Ginger?”
“Ginger?” Mr. Hylan’s eyebrows shot up. “Now that I was not expecting. Evidence of a sweet yet fiery side. What an interesting dish you’re turning out to be.”
Sweet yet fiery. Reisor rubbed the back of his neck. Was Mr. Hylan right? Reisor didn’t imagine himself as the wild type… “Whatever you say.”
“Indeed.” Mr. Hylan chuckled, handing Reisor a jar. “Next?”
This was kind of amusing. Reisor wasn’t sure if he should just suggest a random ingredient to throw the tutor off—but no. He should be honest about his preferences. “Oregano.”
“Ah. I wondered if that was next.” Mr. Hylan spun to the cupboard, reaching into an upper shelf. “You see, oregano balances out ginger’s wilder elements. It brings depth to a dish.”
Depth? That sounded more accurate. Reisor arched an eyebrow. “Okay. Nice.”
“Oregano almost cancels out ginger in the first bite.” Mr. Hylan pulled out a jar, tossing it in one hand. “But subsequent bites show that the oregano enhances the ginger. And you—” he pointed at Reisor, “—strike me more as the type who holds deep convictions.”
Fair enough. Though honestly, Reisor wasn’t sure what they were at the moment. That was the problem with losing one’s memory.
“You want to be stable, like this soup.” Mr. Hylan grinned, indicating the cauldron with his jar. Then he lowered his voice. “But my dear student, you can’t let go of what you value most.”
Mr. Hylan handed him the jar with both hands. “Last flavor.”
Really? The tutor was relying on that to tell him Reisor’s deepest values? Reisor shrugged. “Basil.”
“Ah!” Mr. Hylan clapped. “Of course.”
What did that mean? Reisor put his hands behind his back, shifting his feet. “What is it?”
“Simple. You don’t happen to have any siblings, do you?”
Reisor bit his lip. Would it be wise to answer? He figured Mr. Hylan already knew…and it’s not like the tutor was a threat. “Yeah. Two of them.”
“Tell me more, Reisor. How do you feel about them?”
Reisor inhaled deeply, chest rising. What possible importance could this have? “Feselea is very studious. But Dane’s reckless—always getting in trouble.”
Mr. Hylan arched an eyebrow, drawing out his words. “But how do you feel about them?”
Reisor got the sense his tutor already knew. He set the jars on the counter, lowering his voice. “I value them.” He licked his lips. “I mean, they’re family—right?”
“And I’m sure their flavors are as exquisite as yours.” The tutor plucked a jar from the lowest shelf and hefted it. “Your siblings are what matter most to you.”
Reisor blinked. Okay. That might be true, for all he knew. It seemed right. “Fair enough.”
“You want to protect them—but you can’t always let go of them.” Mr. Hylan placed the jar in Reisor’s outstretched hand—then closed Reisor’s fingers around it. “And your greatest fear is that you’ll wake up one day—and find you’ve failed them, and they’re doomed because of you.”
The hairs on Reisor’s neck stood up. This felt true…so true. He swallowed loudly, clutching the jar. “I see.”
“Not too bad for a middle-aged tutor, eh?” Mr. Hylan tapped his temple. “I know what I’m talking about.”
It certainly wasn’t bad. A smile tugged at Reisor’s lips. “If you say so.”
The tutor chuckled. “Of course I do. And what an interesting flavor you’ll have.” He indicated the cauldron with an open palm. “Cumin, ginger, oregano and basil. Such a fascinating combination.”
Reisor shrugged, running his thumb along the jar. “Thanks for the compliment.”
“Now—” Mr. Hylan jabbed a finger at one jar. “Start with the cumin.”
Might as well. Reisor gripped the lid, holding down the jar with his other hand. It was very tight, and he grunted just to get it open. “Okay. Spoon?”
“Use your fingers. I assume you washed your hands before coming?”
“Yeah.” Reisor reached in, letting the smooth grains rub against his fingers. A deep, earthy scent filled his nostrils, and he closed his eyes.
“There, see? Using your hands is much more enjoyable. You get to feel what you’re creating.”
Reisor lifted the granules, letting them slide into his other palm. “But I can’t measure it.”
“Ah, but do you need to?” Mr. Hylan wagged his finger. “I want you to go by intuition. This is your soup—your flavor.”
Reisor swallowed, keeping his eyes on the cumin. He hoped Mr. Hylan would let him measure ingredients in the future…but maybe that wasn’t the point.
He narrowed his eyes. Maybe the point was to simply let go.
“Do what you want to—have fun.”
Reisor lifted his palm over the cauldron. Cumin slid off it into the boiling water, hissing. Steam rose—and he inhaled it, eyes closed. This wasn’t the way you were supposed to cook—the spices came last—but he wasn’t worried. This was his show.
“I’ll let you move on to the carrots now. Although—” Mr. Hylan raised a finger. He opened another cupboard—and after rifling through it for a few seconds, turned to Reisor with a small mushroom. “Your soup needs one final ingredient.”
Reisor studied the mushroom. It seemed to change colors the more he looked at it. Or was that a trick of the light? “Is that—”
“A marvel mushroom.” Mr. Hylan raised it so the morning light glinted off its cap. “Just concentrate in its presence—and it becomes whatever flavor you wish.”
Reisor had read about these. They could read one’s mind…and change their taste to suit their eater’s preference. “Okay.”
“I want you to take it home.” The tutor tucked the marvel mushroom into Reisor’s apron. “And think—long and hard.”
“About what you want its flavor to be.” Mr. Hylan grinned at him, fists on his hips. “And after a year of training from me, you’ll find yourself quite capable of tuning it to that flavor.”
“Not quite. You must invent a flavor.” Mr. Hylan pressed a finger into Reisor’s chest. “One that is uniquely you. I expect it will be quite distinct.”
Reisor would invent a new flavor? “Um—interesting. Okay.”
“Also, the apron is yours. Consider it a gift.” Mr. Hylan jabbed a thumb at the cauldron. “But not until you make me that soup.”
The soup. Reisor’s arms tingled with excitement. He would invent his own flavor! He could make this soup—he could learn…he could do this. “Got it.”
“You should have no difficulty making it with your ingredients.”
That statement had to have a deeper meaning. Reisor inhaled deeply, grabbing the knife—then, knuckles white around the hilt, poised it above the first carrot. “I’m—I’m doing fine, right?”
Mr. Hylan stroked his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “Quite. Don’t be afraid.”
“Thanks.” Reisor nodded—then expelled a breath. He could do this. He’d passed the first test—and he would pass the others. He pressed his palm against the carrot—and started chopping it. Piece by piece, slices piled on the cutting board. The rhythmic slicing was oddly comforting.
A smile tugged at Reisor’s lips. He might just enjoy cooking.