By Jonathan Blackbow
Oyez! Oyez! the herald cried against the sleepy backdrop of a late summer afternoon. Various clumps of people resolved themselves into individual groups and headed for the feast hall, knowing the announcement that was coming.
"Feast will begin in FIFTEEN MINUTES! Those gentles interested in at-large seating..." the herald trickled off as he was nearly run down by a swarm of people rushing past him.
"...never mind," the herald grumped.
"So what's so great about this cook chef crat dude?" Scott was a newcomer, at his first event, and hadn't yet learned the word feastocrat. He was clutching a burlap bag holding God knew what, wearing a white polyester T-tunic, ratty gray sweats, and tennis shoes (the last because somebody had told him that tennis shoes were period and not to worry about it). Marie turned and glared at him, hands on her hips, and said "feastocrat, Scott. It's feastocrat."
Too new not to be intimidated by the Awesome Power of the Seneschal(TM), Scott dug his toe in the wooden floor and muttered, "yeah, feastocrat, already. So what's so great about him, milady, an it please thee to deign to inform this unworthy one?"
Marie looked at Scott with a much less severe scowl on her face; she didn't know Scott knew enough Forsoothspeak to get a complete sentence out (and truth be known, she didn't know enough Forsoothspeak to be sure whether or not she was being insulted, much less whether the sentence was grammatically correct). Finally deciding to give it up, she told him, with just the right amount of HairFlip, that this feastocrat had been getting insanely rave reviews all up and down the East Coast, and that they were darn lucky to get him at an event with only a hundred attendees or so, and that she'd heard that his feasts were so exquisite that people talked about them afterwards for days. And that Scott, as an almost-unwashed-heathen, had better appreciate it.
They arranged themselves, with four other members of their canton, at the only table remaining with space enough for them all; it seemed none of them had bothered to make on-board reservations. Rather than dwell on that Most Embarrassing Fact, Marie launched into an animated recounting of the day's happenings with the Usual Suspects:
- Marko, 29, black hair still damp from the shower, about five feet ten, almost too skinny to fight in heavy armor (but the canton's best heavy fighter nevertheless), shifting unconsciously in his seat every few seconds to ease the magnificent bruise that was developing on the back of his right thigh...he'd never fought a lefty before, you see...
- Yasmeena, 21, a senior at the local college; she'd never managed to drop the Freshman 15...or the Sophomore 15, or the Junior 15, or the Senior 15 that was on its way, and aware of the fact but not sure what to do about it. She and Marko were of the idea that they were boyfriend and girlfriend, although that theory would be shot to hell in the not-too-distant future. For now, though, they were only uneasily aware that something wasn't right, but maintaining appearances anyway.
- Arundel, 35, a gypsy/pirate/samurai/Highlander wannabe wearing bits of costumery from all three subcultures and doing his best to speak with a Conor Macleod-type accent (which, truth be known, wasn't a bad imitation). He was a lead computer operator at the local college, was intensely aware of Yasmeena, easily had the most money of anybody in the canton, and had no social life that didn't involve a computer.
- Robert, 45, resident doumbek player and resident World's Authority on Everything and Nazi to Boot. The rest of the canton had nicknamed him "FunBane" but hadn't yet succeeded in ostracizing him, mainly because he knew where to buy rattan, leather, buckles, spices, natural dyes, and all the other requirements so essential to the practicing SCAdian. Robert also knew that he wasn't well liked but he spent so much of his time reigning in smug superiority over the rest of the canton that he just didn't care.
Their remaining dinner companion had placed his dinner setting (and a NICE one at that) with a handwritten placard on the dinner plate that nobody had bothered to read. Probably somebody just like Funbane, so they'll have a good time showing each other how wrong they are, Marie thought.
"All right, Funbane-" Marie started off. Glaring, Robert snarled at her, "I've told you NOT to call me that, ever! But especially not in PUBLIC!" He instinctively performed the Picard Maneuver (unconscious straightening of the clothing around the torso by pulling down on both sides briskly - ed. ) as a way of reestablishing his dominance over the group. This, of course, made the entire table fall apart laughing, which didn't help matters any. Still grinning, Marie said, "all right, Robert, since you asked so nicely, what can you tell me about that dinner setting over there?"
Robert, happy to have one of his ON buttons pushed, began spouting what he knew about the entire setting, which wasn't a lot, and wasn't terribly accurate, as it turned out, but provided a minute or two of distraction from the gentle approaching quietly behind him. "So you can see, right here, the maker's mark in the - oh, I'm sorry, senor, I didn't see you there." Robert turned the plate right side up and just about broke bones putting it down in a hurry. The plate made a happy thump as it settled back into place, which covered Robert's pulse nicely. One did not touch another gentle's possessions without permission.
The stranger smiled benignly down at him. "Seignore, actually, but no harm done. What did you say your first name was, Mr. Fahnbain?"
Grimacing at the use of his nom de moquerie but unable to rebut in a sufficiently wilting way, Robert extended his right hand, saying "Robert, seignore, Il mio nome Robert."
The stranger smiled and extended a hand gloved in some fairly impressive calfskin, but since the rest of his outfit was also stunning, that wasn't surprising. "Almost, Mr. Fahnbain. Il mio nome Roberto is technically correct. But a good effort nonetheless." He ignored the openmouthed gazes of everyone at the table and seated himself, removing the nameplate in the process.
"And your name is..." prompted Marie, attempting to steer the conversation back to something she could interact with. For some reason the late-middle-aged stranger (the person, not the outfit, although the outfit was too) gave the impression of power being held deliberately in check, and she wasn't sure she wanted anybody sitting at her table that had more power than she did.
"I would have thought that the nameplate would give ample notice, my lady, but allow me to apologize for the oversight. Il mio nome e - oh, wait. I've done it again. My name..is Asclepius." He pointed to a small enameled symbol on his left shoulder and smiled gently. "Just so you don't forget."
"I don't get it, " said Marko, staring at the emblem. "What has one of those medical symbols got to do with it? I thought his name was Hippocrates?" You could see his confusion growing by the second. Asclepius rescued him. "Close, my young friend, very close," he said, still smiling, "but this symbol is one snake wound around a rod, not two. Asclepius' staff is symbolized by one snake, where the caduceus, which is what you're thinking of, is symbolized by two intertwined snakes.
Marie looked over at Robert, waiting for him to launch into a confirmation or denial of Asclepius' narration, but Robert, for once, was shaking his head. "Not my department, I'm afraid. Richard would have known all about it, but he's not here. Come to think of it, I haven't seen Richard in a week or so. Anybody know where he is? You'd think that if nobody had seen him that they'd at least have heard from him in one of the chat rooms." He looked around for confirmation, but quickly realized he was just exposing his geek side by talking about a chat room that nobody else in the canton would care about, let alone have enough time to waste talking in it.
Then Asclepius spoke just about the last words anybody expected to hear him say. "What was his handle, Roberto?" If he had jumped up and danced a Russian jig on the table he couldn't have dropped a bigger bomb. At least the jig would have been period.
Robert's mouth twisted derisively. "IMGR8," he muttered. "Not that he was that great at anything." He realized he was defending himself for no reason and settled back into a sullen lump.
"Ah, yes. I spoke- or chatted, rather- with Richard just last week. He was very passionate about defending what he believed to be right. Unfortunately for him, I was able to prove my points most convincingly."
"About what, Asclepius, if I may ask?" Marie couldn't believe that this cultured stranger and a boor like Richard would have anything in common to discuss. Maybe Robert and Asclepius, or Richard and Robert (more likely), but Asclepius and Robert? The mind boggled.
"Certainly you may, my dear lady. It was a long, convoluted, emphatic discussion about the merits of La Boheme vis-à-vis the political schools of thought of the time." Apparently unaware that he had just left his entire audience in the dust, intellectually, Asclepius launched into a spirited narrative in which Richard was revealed to be much more of a bon vivant than any of them had ever suspected. Over the next few minutes, as the bread/herbed butter/honey butter came out and was parceled around, the description of the discussion took on mythic proportions. Marie didn't understand most of the discussion but was starting to think that maybe Richard had just been the victim of bad press; he certainly hadn't ever been as loquacious around her as he apparently had been in his online discussions with Asclepius. Hesitantly waving a hand, she was able to interrupt Asclepius in mid-diatribe. Smiling at her, he stopped, looking expectant. "If you wouldn't mind, Asclepius, I'm sure we'd all like to hear more, but I have two requests."
Nodding his head, Asclepius said, "Anything, my lady. Within the bounds of good taste, that is."
Marie waited a beat to give the flirtation time to breathe (and incidentally have everyone else notice that this handsome stranger was flirting with her), and smiled. "One, the first remove is coming out, and somebody needs to get it picked up, or we'll never eat." When no one made a rush for the kitchen she none-too-subtly nudged Marko in his sore thigh. Stifling an ouch! he made his way towards the kitchen, limping slightly. "Two, as charming a name as Asclepius is, it's rather a mouthful for me, at least." She waited until Asclepius had smiled and bowed in her direction to indicate that he'd caught the return fire. "So I'll ask.is there another name we might know you by, Seignore? Something more...um..."
"Modern, my lady? Certainly. You may...no, I think I may go so far as to say you all may call me Geoffrey. Yes, that will do nicely." Settling back into his chair just a bit, the newly named Geoffrey looked at Robert and smiled. "It may interest you to know, Mr. Fahnbain, that Richard and I were normally on the same side of those chats of which you are so inordinately fond. Did you spend much time in them, with Richard, or any other people?"
Robert recovered as much as he was ever going to. "I did, for a time, Geoffrey. I'm afraid I haven't had much time for it lately, though. Too much work piling up, new servers coming in, setup, et cetera. Work does take us away from the activities we would rather be doing. I'm afraid that's why it's called work." Robert nodded his head just a bit to acknowledge the quiet laughter circling the table.
Geoffrey was shaking his head slightly, though. "Not in my case, Mr. Fahnbain. I am one of those lucky enough to be able to play at my work, and work at my play, and ever the twain shall meet." When no one fed him the straight line of asking him what he did, he waited just another beat, then said, "I am lucky enough to be a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu."
Marie was shaking her head. "You're not. You are!" She looked at the rest of the table for confirmation and got pretty much what she expected: dumbstruck faces. "This is incredible, you people! This is the feastocrat."
"Please, dear lady, I prefer the term 'head cook'...I've never liked the SCA's insistence on using substitute terminology merely to please its own sense of le mot juste." Smiling at the table en masse, Geoffrey rose from his chair. "And now I must return to the kitchen to see to the second remove. If you'll all excuse me?"
"Geoffrey, wait!" Robert piped up. "I'm curious. I thought I knew all the people in the chat rooms. What was your handle?"
Smiling inscrutably, Geoffrey began to walk away as though to keep the mystery just a little longer, then threw back over his shoulder, "It is Dee Are Aitch, Underscore, Ell Em Dee."
Robert puzzled it out, then nodded. "I recognize it. Thank you, m'lord Geoffrey."
Arundel hadn't said much of anything since they'd sat down, and he made up for it now. "DRH_LMD. Wow! So that's Geoffrey! He's that guy that's been all over the canton and baronial and kingdom email lists for the past few months. You could see it on the lists. He'd write about a paragraph, and the rest of the list would...well, it looked like they were just sitting there digesting what he'd written! And you know that never happens... somebody's always got an opinion."
Scott was nodding his head, waiting to get a word in edgewise; Yasmeena looked blank, and Marko was back in the kitchen getting the second remove and missed the entire discussion. Lucky him. Scott looked at Yasmeena, clearly not believing that he knew something about the SCA she didn't, and laughed. "Gee, Yasmeena, and here I thought you were out of shape because you sat at a computer all day!"
Scott didn't get out much.
Once again the entire table (except Marko, who, thank goodness, wasn't there to beat up Scott for maligning his girlfriend, and except Yasmeena, of course, who was mortified) broke apart laughing. Just as Yasmeena was about to rip Scott a new one, Geoffrey swept in from the kitchen and announced that while the second remove would be coming out shortly, he'd like to propose a toast. Since he'd clearly been working hard, the entire room obliged him, toasted Their Royal Majesties, Their Royal Highnesses, and then looked at him expectantly. To say that the room became quiet in anticipation would have been a vast understatement.
"My dear gentles all. First, I would very much like to thank you for the opportunity to serve you, and your friends, this evening." He paused as though savoring a thought, and continued.
"Your feast this evening has been prepared with the utmost care from ingredients completely authentic to the period. I cannot tell you what a joy it has been to serve people like you, who put such a high importance on authenticity. In the short time I've been among you, I've come to know some of you very well indeed, and many more of you not nearly as well as I'd like to.
"I announce this toast because my career will take me away from this area in the near future--"
Quiet exclamations littered the room. Geoffrey inclined his head as though accepting homage, and waited for the murmuring to die down.
"I'm afraid that my career waits for no man, my lords and ladies, and rest assured that I shall always remember you fondly. But for the nonce, I can say nothing more than... a toast (as he lifted his glass), to our absent friends who were socially unable to be here with us tonight! May their lives be fulfilling! And may each of you remember them forever!"
He drank. The entire room followed suit, then broke out in applause. Smiling, Geoffrey dodged back into the kitchen with all eyes on him, not a few of them envious, not a few others openly smitten. There was, however, a minor murmuring buzz of bemusement, as though something Geoffrey had said didn't quite make sense. It died down very quickly, however, when the second course came out.
"I'm not quite sure what this is," said Robert, picking through his plate. "Obviously that's rice, but these look like beans of some sort? Everybody knows beans aren't period! I've got half a mind to-"
"Obviously," glared Marie. "Robert, for once, just sit down, shut up, eat this wonderful food, and don't ruin the meal for the rest of us. Or else."
"Or else what, you little twerp?" Robert spoke sotto voce just in case Marie really did have something she could damage him with.
Speaking just as softly, Marie hissed, "or else I'll sweet talk Arundel into getting on that computer of his and finding out where you get all that stuff, and then you won't be the only place to get it any more, and then nobody will put up with you any more, and you'll be alone."
Robert thought about it, and stopped talking. Still obviously miffed, he picked up the menu that had been left at Geoffrey's place -- much to everyone's dismay -- and began to read it.
Yasmeena had been eating, but in a distracted sort of way. "Where's Marko?" She finally piped up. After nobody answered her, she went back to eating, apparently figuring that Marko would show up sooner or later, and if he didn't, she'd eat his share, so it was all good. And the food was good, too.
The rest of the second course was quickly dealt with, and the third remove -- a series of sorbets -- was being consumed when Marko finally came out of the kitchen and resumed his seat. He tossed something on the table.
"Geoffrey asked me to give you that, Robert." Robert was still engrossed in the menu, though, and since Robert wasn't overly fond of Marko, Marko was ignored. Every so often, from Robert's side of the table, there had been a bit of sputtering, the likes of "not in Europe, I'm sure!" and "no way he's right about that." Which, since it was par for the course with Robert, had been ignored.
Marko looked at his empty plate, eyed Yasmeena, grunted something to himself, picked up a sorbet, and started eating it like ice cream.
Marie had heard Marko, but since the envelope was open, and since she'd just squashed Robert (metaphorically speaking, of course) like a bug, she figured there wouldn't be any harm in reading whatever it was Geoffrey had to say to Robert. So she reached across the table, grabbed the envelope, pulled a sheet of parchment (oooh, parchment, even) out, and started reading.
Then Robert looked up. Everybody else at the table saw him seeing Marie reading his mail, and waited for him to explode.
But he didn't. He just said, completely out of the blue, "I know where Richard went. And, according to the Knowne Worlde Handbook, there's at least one kind of bean that's period." And he got up and left the table.
Arundel watched him go, shaking his head. "That boy's just not right. Whatever medication he's taking, he needs to take more of it." This drew a laugh from Yasmeena, Marko, and Scott. Marie, however, had become completely silent.
Marko picked up the menu Robert had left and began puzzling through it. "Rice pilaf. I saw that. That's the stuff that had rice on the bottom of it, right, Yaz? I mean, I would have gotten to at least taste it, but since you ate all of mine, I only saw it when I dished it out."
Suddenly Marie fell off her chair under the table where everybody nearby could hear loud sounds of somebody being very messily sick. The chirurgeon rushed over with his first aid kit but for about a minute he couldn't even touch Marie, as badly as she was thrashing around. The only comment audible above the general hubbub was Marko's "I guess she didn't like the pilaf after all."
Finally the chirurgeon got Marie sitting up on the bench, facing away from the table. Her face was white as a corpse's. Yasmeena, concerned, leaned over and said "Marie, what happened, hon?" Marie was speechless and could only shudder. Finally she pointed at the table where the parchment was sitting. "Somebody go find Robert. Now." When nobody moved, she said, "Before something worse happens."
Arundel stared at Marie. "Worse than what? You horking up your dinner? So what?" Marie didn't answer. She picked up the parchment and handed it to him. Arundel was a much faster reader than Marie. Then Arundel fell down and was noisily sick. The chirurgeon left Marie and went to Arundel, but again, there wasn't much he could do except make sure Arundel didn't injure himself.
Marko, amazed, picked up the parchment and began reading aloud. The penmanship was a handwritten copperplate and beautifully executed.
Dear Mr. Fahnbain,
It's possible by now that you have puzzled out the meaning of my chat room handle. It's also possible that you haven't. I must confess as a point of amusement that it truly doesn't matter at this juncture.
When I confronted your friend Richard a few nights ago, the conversation ended with me asking him what he wanted most in the world. He replied that he wanted, more than anything, to be revenged on yourself, Marie, Scott, Marko, Arundel, and the rest of your local group, since he felt that he had been poorly treated, and knew no way to counter it.
So rather than continue to see him suffer in such intolerable conditions, I gave him what he wanted most. I'm sure that your group eating tonight's dinner will more than compensate Richard for the relatively painless way I chose to end his life. I would wish you buon consumo but since your Italian is so atrocious, I will instead wish you
Dr. H. Lecter, M.D.