The dining hall was little more than a dimly-lit, sparsely decorated subterranean chamber. Upon the walls were hung several tapestries that reeked of mold and and an era long buried by time. At the centre of the chamber was a single, large, legless table about which pillows had been placed providing those dining the opportunity to recline and lounge once they’d been sated. The arrangement could comfortably accommodate two dozen, roughly their full complement, but for now the chamber was vacated save for Thomas. He alone occupied a small corner of the room where a counter of upended wooden crates about an open flame provided a place to prepare their meals.
With his long, coarse hair pinned back and his coat hanging on a hook, the prince of the Dunsany whistled as he stirred some minced herbs into a half cup of melted butter, simmering in a bowl hanging on a hook above the flame. ‘Epicurus may have been a bore in life but he became such an interesting fiction in death,’ Thomas mused aloud, dipping his fingers into the melted butter then bringing them to his lips for a taste.
“He is here!” a gruff voice called from the far side of the chamber, giving pause to the Prince’s culinary mania.
Thomas looked up and spread his arms wide. “My dear Master Harlequin,” he smiled in invitation, but the lad drew back, interpreting it more a leer. “How wonderful you could join us on this fine summer morning.”
“Bloomin pis… hammerin it down out there, but yer welcome,” replied Tepic, glancing first at Mortimer then to Leviticus.
“Mortimer, Leviticus, go fetch the others; I want no stragglers. I will entertain Master Harlequin until you return.
Thomas turned to Tepic after the others had departed. “Master Harlequin, would you care for some wine?” he said, indicating a rack containing several bottles. I have a lovely chardonnay that should complement breakfast rather nicely.”
“Naw thanks, makes me windy…” said Tepic, narrowing his eyes so as to better see what it was that Thomas was cooking.
Thomas smiled as he reached for an already opened bottle and took a drink from it directly. “I always prefer red myself, even when the dish calls for white.” He took a step closer to Tepic. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like any? This one happens to be a cabernet—an excellent vintage.”
“I’d rather just wait for breakfast,” said Tepic, trying to peer into the pots and pans. Along with spices and oils, the aroma of something fatty filled the air. “errrr….. Ain’t nothing in that pot that ever spoke, writ, or drawn, is there?” he asked with much concern.
Thomas smiled, “Not this morning, young Master Harlequin. Come,” Thomas took a step forward, taking Tepic by the arm and leading him closer to the pot. He then ladled out a thick gelatinous looking glob. “Mortimer and Leviticus have taken to strolling the North Fells by moonlight. Last night they returned with this sweet delicacy.”
Tepic swallowed, then swallowed again. “What is it?”
“A worm of some sort, most remarkable, really,” said Thomas as he reached the ladle deep into the pot to stir the contents. “Over six feet long and a foot and a half thick.”
“Heard about them,” Tepic wrinkled up his nose but continued to peer into the pot as Thomas stirred the contents. “Didn’t reckon they ever came this far south though.”
“You are in for a treat,” said Thomas, “I saved you the tip.”
“The right end I hope,” said Tepic.
“Indeed,” Thomas replied, reaching for and removing a large cloth that had been veiling a basket of eggs. “Master Harlequin, may I ask you a personal question?”
“Don’t know,” said Tepic, turning again to watch the pot. Much to his surprise he was finding the blend of spices to be producing an appetizing aroma. “I reckon it depends on the question.”
“Does your philosophical inclination lean more toward predetermination or free will?” asked Thomas taking an egg from the basket.
“Yer wot?” Tepic replied, returning his gaze to Thomas and the egg he held.
“Pick a date, any date at random,” said Thomas as he began to slowly rotate the egg in his hand.
“Um, okay,” Tepic scrunched up his face in thought for a moment then said: “August 14th.”
Thomas pursed his lips as though he were most disappointed. “Pick another.”
“How about September 27th?” suggested Tepic.
“Pick January 12th.”
“Okay, January 12th,” said Tepic.
“January 12th,” repeated Thomas with a reverential tone while commencing to weave the egg in and around his fingers in a smooth steady pattern that created the illusion of incredible fluidity. “An interesting choice. Do you know that it was on January 12, 1833—the very date of my birth— that Marie Antoine Carême died at the age of forty-eight?”
“You were born in 1833?” said Tepic. “Yer ancient!”
Thomas stopped handling the egg. He looked at the boy, and though he wore goggles to protect his eyes from the glowing light of the flame, there was a sense of an intense, penetrating focus. He held the egg close to the boy’s face, his raspy voice dropped to barely a whisper, “Have you ever wondered why the chicken never crushes her eggs?”
“I reckon it wouldn’t be too long before there wouldn’t be no more chickens left if she did.” Tepic shrugged.
Thomas wrapped his long fingers evenly about the egg and began to squeeze. “The perfect shape; carved over time’s trial and error to withstand increasing pressure. Great pressure, Master Harlequin; pressure from all sides at once. Do you know what the pressure represents?”
“Fraid not,” said Tepic.
“OBLIVION!” Thomas took a calming breath then relaxed his grip. “The egg survives for a time but it only takes a slight shift in the status quo and the egg’s fragile nature is revealed.” Thomas curled his middle finger inward breaking the shell at once; yolk and egg white seeped through his fingers and into the cookpot below. “See, it had a weakness; and now it is food for us.”