“You double promise?”
“I…will promise twice if that matters. Which it does not.”
“Erin told me double promises are better than single promises. Like crossing one’s heart or making a promise with a pinkie.”
“I see. We do not have…pinkies. Our hands are not pink. Nor do our hearts cross, generally. But I promise.”
Bird relaxed. Garry stared down at him and cleared his throat, which sounded like a bunch of rapid clicks. He looked down at the immobile Worker. Bird was missing limbs. Missing part of his body, really. He lay propped up by a few pillows. His partially demolished left side was covered in a green substance that the Antinium used to heal wounds. Garry stared at the pillows.
“Where did you get those? And what are they?”
“These? This is my fortress of fluff. Erin gave it to me when I got my room in her inn. When she heard I would be staying here, she sent them to me.”
There were a hundred things Garry could ask. He opened his mandibles, and hesitated. He glanced sideways up at the Queen of the Free Antinium. She was staring at him, too. Garry hesitated, but he had to know.
“…What do the pillows do?”
“They are for lying on. And they are very soft. See?”
Bird fluffed a pillow. Garry stared at it. Words could not express his desire to touch the partially gel-covered, fluffy pillow. But then the Free Queen spoke.
He stiffened, nervous and afraid. The Free Queen had been far kinder to him of late. She had even learned his name. But she still terrified him. He wondered why Bird was not afraid of her, then realized the question was an answer. Bird was Bird. Garry looked up.
“Yes, my Queen?”
“Do not delay. I have granted you this ‘time off’ for you to go to the inn with the other Antinium. The Worker…Pawn, I believe. But you are to bring me back the choicest morsels. Speak with Bird later.”
“Yes, my Queen.”
Chastened, Garry lowered his head. He scuttled from the Queen’s chambers as Bird called out to him.
“Ask Erin if she will send me a bird!”
Oh joyous day. Or night, rather. Garry scuttled through the Hive, following the streams of Workers and Soldiers, barely able to contain his excitement. Time off! He hadn’t had time off in…ever. Since he had been assigned to the Queen’s chambers to cook for her, he had worked and slept. Worked and slept.
It was necessary of course; he was the only [Chef] in the Hive. What other Antinium did to produce the nutritious paste the Antinium ate couldn’t be called cooking, even charitably. But it meant Garry had worked while the other Workers had visited Erin. He hadn’t. And that was distressing.
But after much daring, and more importantly, after Bird had taken up residence in the Queen’s chambers, Garry had plucked up the nerve to ask. And perhaps it was Bird talking about the food Erin made, or the way he distracted the Queen with his stories and songs, but she had granted his request.
Garry had never been happier in his life. No—wait. He had been just as happy the first time he’d eaten Erin’s cooking, and played chess with her. Now, he hoped to do the same. Garry hurried towards the barracks where Pawn had his growing unit of Painted Soldiers and now, Individual Workers. None of them were quite like Anand, Belgrade, or Pawn—certainly not like Bird—but some of the Workers resembled the ones Garry had known.
Knight, Calabrian, Milner-Barry, and all the others…they had lived with their names for less than an hour. They had died fighting Skinner and the undead. But Garry never forgot.
Garry reached the barracks and hurried inside. He was overjoyed. He could learn from Erin at last! He was a Level 17 [Cook], and had leveled exponentially fast. But of late, he’d felt like he was slowing down. After all, he had learned which recipes suited his Queen and he just mass-produced what she wanted most. He had no inspiration. And he had no one to learn from. But Erin was the best at everything. He could eat her cooking and learn. Maybe she would even teach him?
Such dreams kept Garry awake when he should be sleeping. And now they would be realized. Garry walked into the barracks and saw Yellow Splatters supervising some Soldiers reading books. He saw Klbkch, speaking with Belgrade and Anand around some kind of table with a map on it. But no Pawn. Garry hesitated, then hurried over to the Revalantor and two [Tacticians]. There he waited.
It was a fact that Garry was the most timid of the five Individual Workers. Even Belgrade was more decisive. All of the other Workers were leaders in some capacity. Well, Bird didn’t lead, but he was an outlier to any data set you made. But Garry worked alone and he preferred isolation. As such, he waited around Klbkch until the Revalantor looked up. And when he did, Garry flinched.
“What is it?”
“Revalantor Klbkch, I have come to accompany Pawn to Miss Erin’s inn.”
The two-armed Antinium stared blankly at Garry. The Worker nodded, looking around.
“My Queen gave me permission.”
“She did? Well, I was not informed and neither was Pawn. He has already departed.”
Garry’s heart sank. Klbkch half-turned back to the map. It was of Liscor and both Anand and Belgrade were staring hard at it. The Revalantor spoke distractedly.
“They have left, and the Floodplains are crawling with Goblins. It is inadvisable to leave the Hive. I only permitted Pawn to leave to scout the inn and Erin’s condition. Your presence is unneeded.”
Garry felt something sinking in his stomach. He stared at Klbkch. The Antinium stared at the map. At last, he sighed.
“If you wish to go, you may attempt to find Pawn before he exits the Hive. He was leaving through the hidden auxiliary tunnel located near the inn.”
Garry turned and practically ran out of the barracks. No one watched him go. Only Anand, Belgrade, and Klbkch even knew his name. Garry was alone. More alone than the others. But they didn’t matter because she knew his name. And she would be there. He had to go. Even if Pawn had already left. He had to go.
An inn full of marvels. Food, the likes of which they had never seen. Peace between the Flooded Waters tribe and the Redfangs. Cave Goblins! And, most miraculous of all, adventurers that weren’t trying to kill them. Honestly, the Goblins camped around The Wandering Inn could have done without that last bit, but they’d take anything they could get.
And right now, they were living a dream they didn’t know they had. Goblins waited in a huge queue outside the inn, looking up at the bright windows, and seeing Goblins entering and leaving every minute. The Goblins who left did so reluctantly, but did so with bellies full of good food. In fact, the reason they left was purely altruistic; they did it so other Goblins could enter and sit and watch. And also so they could tell those waiting outside what they had seen and heard.
An [Innkeeper] playing chess with a Dwarf, a half-Elf, and Noears! Redscar, Spiderslicer, and some adventurers debating who would win a battle. Alcohol, being rolled out by the keg. A talkative Drake who would give you anything you asked for to eat! And what food! What taste!
It was enough to make any Goblin who heard of it salivate, although the actual taste of the food in Erin’s inn was unimaginable, no matter how the Goblins outside tried to convey it. It was literally something they had no reference for.
After all, while a Goblin might have in their possession flour and water and salt and spices and so on, rarely did they go to the effort of cooking such ingredients together. They had no kitchens, and even if they stole Human food, it was almost always on the road and thus rations or stale. And if you raided a home, or attacked a caravan? You scarfed down food that was sometimes bloody over the dead. This was different. This was…clean.
But not all the Goblins could eat the wonderful food. In fact, most would just have to imagine, or share scraps taken from the inn. The majority of the Goblins, tens of thousands of them, had to eat food. And feeding a host this large was proving to be a challenge. Not insurmountable, but a challenge nonetheless.
Both tribes and the Cave Goblins had their supplies of food. The Redfangs had rations, though they were few since they moved fast. They also had to feed their Carn Wolves, which was an issue. Horses happily ate grass, which even the Goblins didn’t like to eat usually. On the other hand, the Flooded Waters tribe had left their wagons and most of their foodstuffs in their panicked flight from Reiss’ army. As such, they had scraps. And the Cave Goblins?
They were rich. In monster parts. The Cave Goblins had an innumerable supply of the weaker sorts of monsters they’d killed in the dungeon. After all, even without their Raskghar overlords, they could still wipe out some of the monsters. Like the giant, vile caterpillars which hatched into horrible killing machines in time. There were dozens of the bloated bodies, only slightly rotten, wet and muddy from being hauled out of the dungeon. And dead Face-Eater moths, a few mangled Raskghar bodies badly decomposed, dead Goblins…
In situations like these, a dead pig would be the height of fine cuisine. The Goblins could eat, but they wouldn’t be happy. They were resigned to it, though. Right up until the doors of the inn on the hill opened and she strode forth.
Pebblesnatch. The Goblins looked up as she descended the hill. Not because she was a Hob, or particularly impressive by herself. Pebblesnatch was a scrawny, young Cave Goblin. But it was what sat on her head that drew the eye.
The hat. It was a big, white, chef’s hat. Of such things were legends born. And it was Pebblesnatch herself who shouted, who called the Cave Goblins who were part of Rabbiteater’s faction to order. She pointed at the lakes in the valleys and screamed.
And then there were fish. Fish, and salt from the supplies the Cave Goblins owned. Fat in the form of oil, sizzling as the [Cooks] grilled the meat, and of course, salt, turning the roast fish into something that much better. No acid though; the acid flies weren’t in season yet. But there were other ingredients too.
Bits of bread, cheese, sauces—all of it was the product of the Cave Goblin’s experience with cooking and Erin’s donations to their tribe. The Flooded Waters tribe and the Redfangs stared and began to smell something actually pleasant fill the air. Their stomachs growled and they smiled.
“Cook! Fry! Stir! Whip! Bake!”
At first, Pebblesnatch marshaled the [Cooks] of all three tribes with unquestioned authority. After all, she had been appointed by the [Innkeeper] herself and she wore the hat. She directed the Goblins to make cooking fires on the tops of hills and the raw ingredients were sent up to them, to be prepared as each Goblin knew best. Pebblesnatch’s authority was unquestioned. That was when the problems started.
“Bad! Bad food!”
Pebblesnatch shouted at a Hobgoblin stirring a stew of caterpillar parts and onions, seasoned with some fish heads. Obviously the eyeballs had been plucked out and served separately. The Goblins stared as she harangued the poor [Stirrer] in question. True, he was a low-level cook, not even at the [Cook] class—which happened when a Goblin got to Level 10—but he was doing his best. The caterpillar soup looked halfway edible, but halfway wasn’t good enough for Pebblesnatch. She grabbed a big wooden spoon and smacked the cauldron with it.
The Hob looked askance. He offered the little Goblin a spoon to taste and Pebblesnatch did so. The soup came right back at the Hob as she spat it out. Her body language told the hungry Goblins waiting for their food everything.
Ridiculous! Pebblesnatch brought down her spoon like the wrath of cuisine itself on the Hob. Since she couldn’t reach his head, she smacked him on the arm instead. She half-gestured, half shouted in Goblin a series of insults too foul for actual transcription as she pointed at the pot. Translated, it meant something like ‘you should eat it, poop it out, and then serve it because it would taste better that way!’
The Hob turned beet red. He glared at Pebblesnatch, but his height, familiarity with the broadsword, and age meant nothing. She kicked his cauldron, and hopped away, cursing. The next [Cook] she came across fared no better.
He was a Cave Goblin and unlike the Hob [Stirrer], he had obtained the [Cook] class the instant he’d gotten it, thanks to lessons from Erin Solstice himself. But his fried fish was a bit burnt owing to him having to hold the frying pan over the fire. Pebblesnatch slapped the fish away when it was offered to her.
“Not raw! Not raw!”
What kind of a Goblin wanted burnt fish? Raw was better! The [Cook] should have lightly grilled the fish, rather than wasting its potential by burning it! The dismayed Goblin tried to object that some Goblins liked uncooked food, and got a smack across his head with the spoon.
“You bad! And you bad! All you bad!”
Pebblesnatch turned in place, shouting at the other cooks. They weren’t up to her high standards and thus she was merciless in her critiques, overturning cooking stations, smacking hands, and spitting. The hungry Goblins watched. And then began to get annoyed.
The little Goblin with the hat was overstaying her welcome. Everything getting in order was fair play, but they wanted to eat! Never mind her standards for cooking, which, since they were based on the food she ate at Erin’s inn, were very unrealistic. If things had continued, perhaps Pebblesnatch might have ended her night crammed in an unused cauldron or sent fleeing by an angry mob armed with ladles. But it was not to be. Because he appeared.
“Oh no. Oh no. I am lost. And I think I am dead.”
Garry hurried through the Goblin camp, flinching as Goblins turned and exclaimed at the sight of him. He was making for the inn, but he was alone. Pawn had already left the Hive and Garry, in his desperation, had followed him. No one had told him about the Goblins. Or rather, how many there were.
The Antinium’s progress was halted as a group of wary Redfangs rode towards him. After all, there were still monsters about and Redfangs never let their guards down. They eyed him, remembering the other Antinium. Garry raised all four hands and trembled like egg-larvae jelly.
“Please don’t kill me! I am a [Cook]. I am not food! Or an enemy. I am trying to go to Miss Erin. I mean no harm. Please?”
The Goblins looked at each other. They lowered their weapons, much to Garry’s relief, but then a thought seemed to strike them. They turned and one shouted something. Garry froze. Then he saw her at the same time she saw him.
Pebblesnatch froze when she saw the Antinium Worker and heard what he was. A [Cook]! And Garry saw her hat and knew. She had to be a [Chef]! The two locked gazes. And the other Goblins all had a thought.
When two cooks enter, only one can leave. When a critic critiqued, they had better be able to back up their words. They looked at each other and then began to shout.
“Cook! Cook! Cook!”
“Oh no. What is happening?”
Garry looked around, terrified. He raised his hands as the Goblins surrounded him, but they did not tear him limb from limb. Instead, they grabbed both him and the Goblin [Chef] and towed them over. A few other Goblins appeared, a Hobgoblin, a Redfang Warrior, and two Cave Goblins. They took their places as Goblins dragged over firewood and began to start fires. And then Garry realized what was happening.
It was a cooking competition. The first Antinium-Goblin competition in the history of the world. Pebblesnatch shouted insults at the jeering Goblins as they egged her on. Garry stared at the inn. Of course. To him, it all made sense. They were competing for the right to enter Erin’s inn. How could he, a worthless low-level [Cook] ever be worth her time? He bowed his head, then stared as the Goblins tossed frying pans, knives, and other cooking utensils onto the grass. No. He had to win. He had to prove himself.
The cooking competition had a few rules which were obvious to everyone but Garry. The contestants had thirty minutes to cook, access to any utensils they needed, and help from other Goblins if they needed hands to kill or carry things. But they had to make something out of the food provided. Fish, monster parts—it couldn’t be a dish made solely of ingredients from Erin’s inn. It had to be Goblin cooking. And with that knowledge, the contestants ran into the night.
Garry looked around as all the Goblins ran off. He stared about as he sensed the eyes of the Goblin audience fall on him. He stared at them.
“Um. What am I supposed to be doing? Are we starting? Oh dear.”
Pebblesnatch ran down the hill, keeping one hand on her hat. A competition? She was determined to win. She shouted insults at Goblins in her way, looking for the best thing to cook. She passed by the dead caterpillars at once. They were rotten, stinky, and tasted awful. She knew; she’d eaten enough over her lifetime.
No, what Pebblesnatch wanted was fish. Fresh fish! The other contestants were already grabbing fish out of the lakes. One of the Cave Goblins had some Quillfish—an excellent pick for taste, but it took time to get rid of the quills and they were small. The Goblin judges, a panel of Hobs and regular Goblins from all three tribes, looked askance, clearly wondering if the prospective [Cook] had enough time to prepare a meal for all eighteen of them. Naturally, there were eighteen judges. If you couldn’t cook in large portions, what was the point?
The second Cave Goblin had paused and came up with a lucky find. Razorbeak eggs! He raised them triumphantly to a roar from the audience. One of the Flooded Water tribe Hobs nodded authoritatively. His body language conveyed that fried eggs—or an egg drop soup—would be far more pleasing to the palate than just fried fish alone. Pebblesnatch growled as the Cave Goblin scurried past her, eggs in hand. She debated tripping him, but then saw something that made her heart sink.
The Redfang Warrior and the Hob had joined forces to kill a Lurkersnatch fish with several other audience members. The huge, black, octopus-like creature died hard, but the Hob was already hacking bits of it off. That had to be good food! How would Pebblesnatch ever outdo that? She looked around. The competition was stiff. Everyone except for the stupid Antinium. He was staring at the caterpillars and poking one to make sure it was dead.
Originality! Creativity! Fresh ingredients! Pebblesnatch clutched at her head, trying to figure out what to make. Time was running out! She was just about to get her audience to grab some fish for her when she saw it. A moving shape. A huge rock, crawling across the Floodplains, sneaking up towards her from the side. A Rock Crab.
Pebblesnatch’s face lit up. She pointed and screamed. The Goblins turned. The Rock Crab hesitated. There was a lot of food on the Floodplains. Of course, it had been buffet season ever since the rains had started. All of the other Rock Crabs were mating, having gorged themselves, but this Rock Crab was a bit hungry. It scuttled closer to the many morsels of food before it had a thought. It was a lot of food out there. A lot of food that began to surround it. The Rock Crab clicked uncertainly and backed up. The food grinned as one, and their eyes gleamed red.
Garry was cutting pieces of half-rotten caterpillar away when he saw the Goblins swarm the Rock Crab. To be fair, it never really had a chance. It was outnumbered, and, for once, outgunned. Unlike how the Flooded Waters tribe usually hunted Rock Crabs—getting under the shell and killing it at great cost—the Redfangs were big-game hunters and experts on tackling dangerous prey.
They roped the Rock Crab, forced it out of its shell, and sliced it to bits. And the little Goblin with the hat stood proudly over the dead Rock Crab as its blue blood dyed the ground and began to shout orders. Garry backed up as the Goblin audience dragged something up the hill.
“What are they doing? And where is the seasoning? Oh no. There aren’t any good utensils here. Um. Do I have to use this fire? I normally have an oven…”
He looked around. The Hob who was spit-roasting chunks of Lurkersnatch fish shrugged at him. Garry scrambled for pots and pans while the Rock Crab’s shell was planted in the ground. Upside down. The giant, hollow shell was huge. And as Goblins piled wood around it, the awestruck judges understood.
Pebblesnatch was going to make soup in the shell! Had such madness, such audacity ever been contemplated? The Goblins were agog as Pebblesnatch began tossing in parts of the Rock Crab. She filled the bloody mess with water and started a fire. And then the real cooking began.
“Frying pan, frying pan…”
Garry was worriedly coating the slabs of caterpillar with a marinade. He tossed it in a pot as he grabbed a loaf of stale bread for some reason. One of the watching judges opined that stale bread was good, but not at this level of cooking. The audience agreed in general; they weren’t really paying attention. All eyes were on Pebblesnatch.
The Rock Crab’s shell was huge and unlike metal, it didn’t convey heat as well. Given the rapidly winding down clock, this was an issue, and the Redfang cook smirked as he began his own soup. But Pebblesnatch just kept adding fuel, and then shouted a word. The Goblins watching gasped as bubbles began rising from the blue soup with crab parts in it.
[Quick Boiling]! Pebblesnatch had a Skill! The other [Cooks] looked up and began using their own Skills. The Cave Goblin with Quillfish was ripping out spines bare-handed, ignoring the points. He had [Glove Grip]. The Hob meanwhile was perfecting his roasted Lurkersnatch kebabs with a handy [Extra Spice] Skill, which gave him an additional spice to work with when cooking.
As one judge explained to the audience, it wasn’t so much that the Hob magically conjured up more spices from nothing, but that he always seemed to find an extra something to add to his repertoire. Where other Goblins found salt, he would find a bit of pepper in a pouch lumped at the bottom of the cooking sack. If they had all kinds of ingredients, he’d trip over a bit of nutmeg on the way to the bathroom.
And right now, the spice was adding heat. Literally. The Hob’s dish was spicy hot while the Cave Goblin with the eggs was indeed making an egg-and-fish soup. Garry was panicking.
“Um. Okay. I can do this.”
The Worker coated a sizzling piece of pan-seared caterpillar with dried bread crumbs and a bit of egg the Cave Goblin cook had given him in a moment of pity. Then, to the audience’s horror, he turned one of the hot pans upside down and pressed the bottom to the mixture! What was he doing? Garry pressed the pan flat as the judges groaned and shook their heads. And Pebblesnatch crowed atop her boiling shell of Rock Crab soup. Because she’d won, right?
The Rock Crab’s blue blood turned the mixture a dark color. The water bubbled hot, and the Rock Crab’s meat was boiling nicely. Pebblesnatch threw in a bag of salt, pepper, a lot of butter, some fish meat, the Gnollish sauce, and, as a special extra, some carrots. She proudly scooped up bowls of her soup and rushed them over to the judges’ table with the others. Hot and ready!
Garry was the last to arrive. The [Cook] timidly put his dishes in the last position. The panel of eighteen judges sniffed the air, smiling and rubbing their rumbling bellies. Then the judging began.
The first to be presented was the Goblin with the Quillfish. He’d done a classic chop-and-fry, trusting to the little fish’s taste to carry the day with salt and butter. It went down very well among the judges, although…the portions were a bit too small. The Cave Goblin’s face fell and he shuffled his feet. The Quillfish’s de-quilling process had indeed taken its toll. However, it was a strong start.
The next Goblin to present his food was the Redfang Warrior. He offered the judges bowls of his Lurkersnatch Fish soup, but before he could serve it, one of the tentacles in his bowl latched onto the face of a judge! It took a minute for the other judges to pry the severed tentacle off the face of the judge. And after that, despite the soup tasting quite good, the result was unanimous. Food that fought back wasn’t worthy of the coveted title of ‘Good Cook’. The Redfang Warrior walked back to his tribe, heartbroken.
Next, the second Cave Goblin. His fish-and-egg soup was tasty—but it was far, far too fishy and not enough eggy! One of the Hobs reduced the Cave Goblin to tears with a single claw, pointing out the miniscule bit of egg in his bowl. What good was a special ingredient if you couldn’t taste it?
Pebblesnatch rubbed her claws together, delighted. So far the field hadn’t been full of strong contestants. But her face fell as the Hob walked forwards with his kebab Lurkersnatch and other fish bits. The judges poked the bits of tentacle, but it was well and truly cooked this time. They bit into the dish and shouted.
Literally. The dish was spicy hot! The Hob beamed as the Goblins shouted and scarfed down the food, shouting for water. His entry was the best, no question about it. Although…it might have been a bit too spicy. Not every judge was a fan of burning tongues. Still, it was enough to make both he and Pebblesnatch eye each other as she pushed her heaping bowls full of Rock Crab soup forwards.
The judges looked at each other, murmuring and appreciating the unique blue color of the soup, and the floating bits of Rock Crab meat in its shell. They sipped at the soup, pried the meat out of the shells and chewed it down, and swallowed. The audience held its breath and Pebblesnatch straightened expectantly. The judges looked at their soup, looked at her—
And shook their heads. Pebblesnatch gasped along with the crowd. But the judges made their verdict clear. Pebblesnatch’s soup was…barely edible. Which, to be fair, was decent Goblin cooking. But by the standards of this competition, it was the worst entry so far! Even worse than the tentacle attack soup!
Her faults were many and varied. Firstly, the Rock Crab’s blood did not taste good in the water. Secondly, the fact that Pebblesnatch hadn’t removed the meat from the Rock Crab’s shell made the cooking uneven, as did the use of the shell itself. It hadn’t even been cleaned of dirt! Which, to be fair, was a nitpick. And lastly, her extra ingredients hadn’t exactly added any unique flair to the soup.
Pebblesnatch’s knees buckled and she sat down as the Hob raised his arms to wild cheers from the crowd. He stepped forwards, looming over the small Goblin, when everyone realized there was one last dish to be served. Garry’s. The Antinium Worker looked around, petrified as the judges dubiously regarded his dish and sampled it. And then—
He won. Obviously. It wasn’t even close. The eighteen Goblins found on their plates a pan-fried, marinated piece of caterpillar flesh, breaded in an egg-and-stale-bread mixture. The outer breaded part had been crisped in a style Erin could have called ‘panini’. Garry had intentionally used the pan to sear the dry bread crumbs, creating a crisp exterior.
Meanwhile, the caterpillar had been pan-fried and covered in a garlic-and-fish sauce that was strong, but not overpowering. The heat of the food made each bite the judges took hot and fresh, and best of all the caterpillar didn’t taste like caterpillar.
It was a triumph. And of course Garry was equal to the task. He explained to the dumbfounded judges that it was a dish he’d made before.
“I uh, make many dishes for my Queen. Out of monsters that are killed. So I knew how to make the caterpillar dish. I would have added Face-Eater Moth eggs too, but I ran out of time. Um. Can I go now?”
The Goblins licked their plates, looked at each other, and nodded as one. Garry jumped as the Goblins around him burst into cheers and began duplicating his dish while the other contestants went up to him to slap him on the back. Goblins weren’t big on handshakes. The Worker was completely confused—and then Pebblesnatch walked forwards. The other Goblins fell silent and watched as, with trembling claws, she held the big chef’s hat out to Garry. He looked at it slowly, and took the hat.
Pebblesnatch pointed at Garry with tears in her eyes. The Worker watched as she turned and walked away. He stared at the Goblins who were cheering him and looked at the inn.
“…What just happened?”
Erin Solstice was watching Dawil competing in what was perhaps the most entertaining drinking competition she’d ever watched and scowling about her lost game of chess when she saw the Antinium duck into the inn. He was wearing a huge floofy hat, only slightly stained by blue Rock Crab blood. The sound of wild cheering precipitated his entrance. Erin got to her feet.
The Worker jumped. He looked at Erin and his newfound confidence vanished in an instant. He stepped back as Erin strode over to him, beaming.
“Hello Miss Erin. I am terribly sorry if I’m bothering you, but I won the competition, so I was allowed to come here. I did not go with Pawn, but my Queen said it was alright. I can go if—”
He froze as Erin gave him a huge hug. The [Innkeeper] beamed at Garry.
“Don’t be silly, Garry! I haven’t seen you in ages! Come on in! How’s my favorite Worker doing? Pawn didn’t say you were coming! Where’d you get that hat? Pebblesnatch has one just like it, you know.”
Garry found himself swept into the inn. He sat at a table as Erin sat with him, calling for food. In short order he had a bowl of borscht in front of him, a mug of cider, and Erin was giving him her undivided attention. She laughed as he told her how he’d gotten here.
“Oh, Garry! You don’t have to win a competition! That was just Pebblesnatch and the other Goblins being…well, I’d have wanted to watch that! Not judge it, though. I don’t eat caterpillars. But you did a great job by the sounds of it!”
The Worker shook his head.
“I am not nearly as good as you, Miss Erin—”
“Erin. Say it with me, Garry.”
“…Erin. I actually came to see if you would teach me your recipes. If you are willing. I have so much to learn.”
Erin looked shocked.
“Of course! I always have time for you! Any time! In fact, how about now? I can show you how to make some of my dishes—I’m running out of pre-prepared food anyways. You and me, Garry! Master [Chef] and apprentice!”
She rose and beckoned Garry to the kitchen. He rose in a daze and followed her. All of his dreams were coming true! He was so happy, he didn’t even notice Pawn sitting at a table across from them. The Worker looked around as Ceria rattled some dice in a cup and Pisces bet three silver coins. Pawn looked at Purple Smile.
“Her favorite Worker?”
“So, you say you’re a bad cook.”
“Yes. I am quite inferior to you. I know I may never catch up, but I hope you will share with me your recipes and much experience.”
“Right. I uh, well, the thing is, Garry—I’m an [Innkeeper]. And you’re a [Cook]. My abilities are sorta in cooking, but I do a lot of other things.”
“Yes, you play chess too. You have many Skills.”
“Uh huh. But that means I’m not as—as focused as you, Garry. I don’t have as many Skills in the same area. And maybe I’m actually not that good.”
“No—I think I just realized that now. I was never much of a cook back home. I microwaved a lot and boiled water, mostly. And uh—you just reminded me why I’m not actually that good.”
Garry looked incredulously at Erin. She nodded. Their entire conversation had been punctuated by a single, repetitive sound. That of pure, unadulterated skill.
Chopchopchopchopchopchopchop—Erin stared as Garry’s knife flashed across the board, dicing the onions in moments. His other two hands weren’t idle either; they were busy peeling another onion, then sprinkling the chopped onions on the sauce-covered pizza. He sprinkled the toppings around in a perfect pattern, added cheese, and inserted the pizza into the little oven in a flash. Garry looked at Erin and she blinked.
“I taught you how to make a pizza a minute ago. Verbally. And you just made one.”
“I am sure it is not as good as yours, Erin.”
“No—I am. Garry, I think you’re better than I am. Really, I do.”
The [Cook] was shocked.
“I cannot be! Otherwise, who else would I look up to?”
Erin scratched her head.
“Someone else? Garry, you’re better than you think you are! No wonder you won the competition single—I mean, four-handedly. I want to hire you! I would if your Queen wouldn’t tear my head off.”
Garry held very still.
Erin smiled at Garry and the Worker’s heart and mind lit up. She leaned against the counter and shook her head.
“You know, you’re so good, I should ask you for help. Tell you what. Instead of me teaching you, why don’t we cook together? We haven’t talked in…forever. And I can tell you about all the things I can’t make while we make the things I can. Okay?”
“I would like nothing more in the world.”
Garry spoke truthfully. Erin smiled. She stood up, took a spot next to Garry, and began making another pizza. He helped her, cutting, offering ingredients, and listening as Erin began to ramble. To chat.
“So, there’s this pasta soup called ramen, but it doesn’t actually taste like regular pastas. I used to have instant ramen, which is really unhealthy, but I tried the real stuff once, and let me tell you, it’s good. Still probably unhealthy, though. I was trying to make it, but I have no idea what the ingredients could be, aside from pork cutlet which is one of the toppings. Say, have you had a hamburger? It’s great, but there is this bread component that makes it hard to serve to Antinium.”
“What if we replaced the bread with another substitute? There is a sweet potato that I can make a type of bread out of.”
“Garry, I could kiss you! Hold on—don’t run away! You have to show me right now. Drassi! I need potatoes! Sweet ones! Now, where was I?”
“You were talking about other foods.”
“Right! Hey, if you can fix hamburgers, then I need to get you on Asian cooking! There’s ramen, sushi…a lot of these dishes involve rice, which isn’t sold around here. Heck, it might not even exist! But anyways, I was also trying to make pumpkin pie, but while I know pumpkins and I know pie, putting the two together isn’t something I ever saw someone do. And I’ve also been working on recreating the turducken for Relc…”
Erin chattered as Garry listened, his four hands moving constantly. He cooked and she cooked, and it was the same as usual. The same, but different. Because he wasn’t alone. The Drake called Drassi came by to shout at Erin that she had no idea where she could get sweet potatoes at this hour. A few Carn Wolves came by to beg for food, which Erin and Garry fed them. Pawn appeared to seek assurance that Erin did not, in fact, have favorites. Dawil came by and passed out in the kitchen, drunk as a skunk. Erin assured Garry skunks could get quite inebriated.
And the night passed too fast. The Goblins ate happily in the inn and outside. The adventurers laughed and talked and the Goblins spoke as equals briefly. Embria and Relc stood and talked on the battlements of Liscor. But such stories do not revolve around cooking. And in the end, it was cooking that mattered in this moment.
Pebblesnatch stood outside the inn, by her huge shell-pot of Rock Crab soup. She was humbled. Goblins were eating Garry’s dish and the other ones presented. Hers too, but only because they were hungry and it was there. She had let her arrogance get ahead of her, become a critic before learning how to cook well herself.
She glumly sipped from her bowl of Rock Crab blood stew and then brightened. You know, it really wasn’t that bad. All it needed was a pinch more salt. And maybe some pig lard. And pig. And an egg?
And then Garry went home. He arrived in the Queen’s chamber of the Hive, delirious with happiness, tired, and pulling a small cart behind him. Bird tried to sit up as he and his Queen turned.
“Garry, you promised to bring me back food. And the Queen. Was it a lie?”
He looked at Garry, betrayed since he couldn’t see the cart from where he was propped up. Garry shook his head.
“I did not lie, Bird. My Queen, as promised, here is your food. I have pizza, sweet potato hamburgers, and cake!”
“Well done, Garry.”
The Queen rumbled approvingly, her mandibles opening as she regarded the prizes Garry had brought back with her. Bird looked at the frosted cake and clicked his mandibles together happily.
“Ah. The cake is not a lie. And it is cake. And very tasty. Even though it makes my stomach hurt.”
“You must not have the cake, Bird. It is filled with gluten, which you cannot eat. So Erin has told me.”
Garry spoke sharply to Bird. The Worker looked hurt.
“But I wish to! And I want to. I will cry if I cannot have any. And if I cannot, the Queen cannot.”
The Free Queen bent to peer at the sugary treat. She regarded it, wondering if they came in bigger portions as she addressed Bird and Garry.
“Chemical imbalances were allowed to exist in the recreation and modification of Galuc’s form as a necessity. Such imperfections do not extend to Queens. Give me the cake.”
Garry gave her the cake. The Queen lifted it up, until she heard Bird make a small wailing sound. She hesitated, and then broke off a tiny bit of the cake.
“He may have one small piece. You will share it. Here.”
She lowered the piece. Garry caught it, and fished a fork out from the cart. The Queen needed no forks, but it was enough for Bird. He opened his mandibles and Garry fed him a piece.
“Aah. Mm. Sweet. Give me another.”
Garry looked up as the Queen discovered sugar in its concentrated form for the first time. He looked around the chamber and realized he was back. He had left the inn. Erin was far away again. All too soon. But somehow, he felt better, as if he’d carried the warm food and happy moment out of the inn and into the Hive. So he sat, feeding Bird and himself morsels of cake while the Queen gobbled down her food.
And everyone was happy. Until tomorrow, that was. But for one night—
They were happy.