"Secret Recipes" by Costi Gurgu for Aurora Award Nomination Consideration

For your nomination consideration.

Eligible in the BEST SHORT FICTION – ENGLISH category
in The Prix Aurora Awards

Nominations must be made by 11:59PM Eastern Time, Saturday, April 12, 2014.

"Secret Recipes" appears in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast, edited by Colleen Anderson and Steve Vernon, EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2013.

Click on the link for A Full List of Eligible Works

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Secret Recipes
by Costi Gurgu

The stench oozed from the archive's walls like spider oil. Morminiu choked, and covered his mouth with a scarf. Raising the lantern filled with a fresh swarm of glowworms, he studied the subterranean repository. Rows and rows of shelves ran the length of the long room, all overflowing with documents. Apparently everything seemed to be in order. But something had putrefied among the documents—overnight.

He moved between the shelves, checking each aisle. The closer he came to the secret entrance to the vyr units room, the stronger the smell. His eyes watered.

He moved straight to the secret entrance. The smell came from there. He was afraid of what that might mean.

He knew by heart where the hidden door was. He bent and spat on a spot covered by brown moss. Seconds later his spit was recognized and the mechanism inside the stone wall slid aside. Morminiu pushed the door open and stopped on the threshold, staring in confusion at the scene before him. When his lungs remembered to do their job, he bent over and threw up.

Only the day before, he had configured and then hide the new vyr brain he'd bought from a phril who claimed he was a swamp pirate from the Far South. Morminiu had paid three of his own original Recipes for it. The unit was such an advanced piece of technology that he suspected it was more than a vyr. Its external structure was completely different and it was too fast for a vyr brain. Hitissh Plabos should never find out about the bargain.

Eventually Morminiu turned toward the nutritive basins. Considering the result, he should have told Plabos; it was for his master to make such decisions. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he tried to breathe normally, and focused.

Corbeni Castle had four nutritive basins, carved into the stone floor. Three of them held the old vyr brains, each containing a copy of the entire Recipes archive, the whole Essential Book of Plabos, in triplicate for insurance against corruption. The Book represented the Master Recipear's fortune, the reason for his existence and in the end, even Morminiu's, as Plabos' last and only disciple.

Morminiu had configured and connected the vyr brain to the other three's network and transferred into it the same Essential Book, along with his own Recipes, which practically doubled the length of Plabos' masterwork. Somehow his new unit, the technical marvel from the Far South, from outside the Green Kingdom, had vanished from the fourth basin with all the Recipes.

The green nutritive liquid filling the basins had been corrupted to a blood-red slime that spread up the basin walls. At the bottoms lay the flesh of the vyr brains, covered in mucilaginous sores. The crystalidic swarms that gave them life, and trafficked the information floated in a putrefied state in the red liquid. The transitive vurms stretching from one basin to another to connect the vyr brains into a local network had swollen until their skin cracked and white foam billowed over the lips of the wounds.

The carcasses of Master Plabos' vyr brains—the corpses of his Recipes archive— were the source of the stench. The master's life, his art and that of nine generations of Master Recipears before him—everything, destroyed. And the new brain gone.

Premeditation, Morminiu realized immediately; not only had the swamp pirate sold him an infected brain, but he'd sold it to him with the goal of stealing Plabos' fortune. That vyr brain's contents were now worth more than half the king's wealth.

But the castle was too well guarded. The pirates had somebody inside. Someone that Plabos trusted, who could access the vyr units without raising concern. Someone who knew the swamps well enough to be able to rendezvous with the pirates and receive payment. All this must have happened recently as traces of moisture still surrounded the basins.

Morminiu ran from the archive. He had to act fast, before Plabos found out—but more importantly, before the traitor could get away.

"Morminiu!"

The Hitissh's voice froze the blood in his veins.

Plabos stood on the uppermost step of the kitchen entrance. "What are you doing? And what's that smell?"

Swallowing, Plabos' disciple closed the archive door behind him and looked uncertainly at the old phril.

"Are you mad?" Plabos continued. "You have your final examination today! Master Julslou should be here at any moment. I thought I'd find you properly dressed for the ritual and preparing your kitchen!"

Morminiu fought for breath. In the wake of his discovery, he'd forgotten about the exam! Now Julslou would also be here. He gave a tortured smile. He mustn't make Plabos suspicious; nobody must find out about the disaster he'd brought down on Plabos' house—on the master himself. "I'm coming." His voice quavered.

"What did you say, boy?"

This time his voice was firmer. "I'll be right there, Master. I'll be in the kitchen, ready for examination." He smiled broadly and straightened his back in a triumphant posture, learned the hard way from the master at arms, Tathes; it worked every time with Plabos. The old phril grumbled unhappily, but returned to the kitchens.

Morminiu felt faint. He leaned against the closest wall. This is the last day of my life! How can I take the examination and hunt down the traitor at the same time? Should I ask Tathes for help? He's the greatest swordphril in the Swamps; he could deal with any pirate. No, nobody must find out about this. I'm as good as Tathes...

He ran to the cage beside the smith's shop that held the three hunting bropses, bred to be the biggest and most ferocious in the entire province. Double the number of venomous spikes as found on a regular brops protruded from their wide, muscular backs. White skin stretched over the heavy bone of their massive skulls to hang in folds at their necks. They regarded Morminiu with small red eyes surrounded by yellow fangs.

Morminiu opened the gate. He grabbed their collars as the bipedal beasts hopped out and pulled them into the archive. There they sniffed the the wet spots on the stone floor. He returned with them to the courtyard, and spoke the hunting orders. "Find! Tear!"

The three beasts bounded toward the castle gates and Morminiu nodded at the guard to let them out. There was a good chance they'd catch the traitor inside Plabos' domain. Morminiu entered the kitchens.

#

All the drapes were pulled over the windows in the central salon. Swarms of glowworms were tethered around the stone pillars, creating friezes of light and a dusky atmosphere. The first notes of a thangshu song filled the room, reflecting well the passionate and dramatic spirit of the phrils of the Southern Swamps.

Master Taster Julslou sat on a couch wearing his usual severe expression, his tiny, darting eyes noting every detail. Although Julslou was corpulent, his head was small and his face bony, as if it had been attached to his body later. His harsh demeanour communicated that first impressions were rarely forgiven, and mistakes, never.

Plabos had chosen his famous Vermih in Plabos Sauce for Morminiu's final examination, a classic Recipe tasted by kings and aristocrats throughout the civilized world. In nine out of ten cases, Recipears failed in its execution. Only a limited circle of masters in the whole world could coordinate the perfection that this Recipe required.

The sauce was simmering in a kettle over the fire. The fragranced vermih had been hung for two days, until the hunger it had endured had enlarged its stomach to exactly three times its normal capacity. Morminiu placed the famished crawler on a fat, juicy moamoam leaf. The creature devoured it. Finally Morminiu bent the leaf so the vermih had to crawl to reach the stalk, where a second moamoam leaf waited to lure it over the kettle of simmering sauce. As the vermih moved along the stalk, the spicy steam rose from the sauce and cooked it alive.

The sauce Morminiu had prepared was a new version of Plabos' sauce. He'd added two ingredients not mentioned in the Recipe: a desert grass to round out its aroma and some crushed seeds brought all the way from the northern part of the kingdom. Plabos had panicked when he'd seen his disciple adding them. Morminiu had known the Hitissh wouldn't allow changes to his masterpiece, especially during the graduating examination. Julslou started, realizing there was something different about this Course. Maintaining his posture, Morminiu continued to tell the Recipe's story: about the vermih's road, its torments, its crushing destiny.

The final act arrived. The hungry vermih represented the essence of this Course. If the steam hadn't penetrated enough, its flesh would stay too tough to complete the transformation. If it died a second too early or if the sauce softened its skin a second too long, the Course would be spoiled.

The crawler reached the end of the stalk. Its pink skin, swollen with the moisture from the steam, dragged behind it like a blanket. Its whiskers vibrated, feeling the air before it. Morminiu inhaled. It was ready.

The creature hesitated a finger's length from the second moamoam leaf. The music died on a lonely, wailing note that floated through the air, drawing everybody's attention to the vermih's path. The last musical note vanished as the main character of the Recipe stretched toward the fat, green leaf, then jumped. Silence.

Morminiu pulled the leaf away and the vermih fell into the Plabos sauce and started its fatal descent toward the hole in the bottom of the kettle. With long-practiced gestures, the disciple rotated the kettle, lifted it from the fire, and held it above the plate of the taster.

A bellow broke the silence. Morminiu's heart froze. The pain-filled cry of a brops reminded Morminiu of the theft. He hesitated, his trembling hand shaking the kettle and causing the vermih's body to curve in its descent. Shocked shouts rose in the salon. Even Master Julslou straightened his back and watched Morminiu's face. Morminiu focused again on the kettle.

The crawler had already died and these few seconds of its fall should have cooked it to perfection. The two ingredients Morminiu had added subtly strengthened the classic taste of the Course and sped cooking. Morminiu suddenly lifted the kettle and slid the cover from the bottom hole above Julslou's plate. The vermih's body splashed onto the plate in a sparkling pool of Plabos sauce, at least nine seconds sooner than dictated by the traditional Recipe. Plabos grunted his disappointment. Julslou looked from disciple to master, then to his plate, intrigued.

Morminiu put down the kettle. From the castle yard the brops bellowed again—weaker, closer to death. Thangshu music insinuated itself back into the room. Clenching his teeth, Morminiu used a pair of pincers to lift a pot of boiling, spicy sequ-tulapa oil fragranced with brown-butterfly wings. He sniffed the oil, watched it in the light, the golden colour perfect. Morminiu turned back to the taster's plate and said the last words of the Course's story.

The vermih's flesh, though still recognizable, had melted into a creamy pink mass in the centre of the pale, hot Plabos sauce. On its top, the vermih's souleida blinked, still alive inside the protection of its crystalline shell. The souleida was the life force of the vermih. Morminiu gently poured the sequ-tulapa oil directly over the bitter-tasting shell. As the hot oil touched it, the shell disintegrated, sizzling, releasing the bitterness from the Course. The souleida blinked a final time, then died with the final notes of the thangshu.

The room was dark and quiet. Death. Then the glowworms shone again, in time for everybody to see Morminiu sprinkling glittering pollen from the Night Daughters flower over the souleida. Master Julslou watched everything with a curious expression. He looked over to Plabos, who seemed lost in thought.

Morminiu bowed respectfully and withdrew with small steps, while Plabos hurried to the taster's table. Although the fragrance and the appearance of the Course were perfect, Morminiu was sure that the two masters believed that the added ingredients and those few missing seconds had cost him the examination.

He didn't wait for the result. He slipped out the service door, grabbed a live bird from the morning's hunt, and exited into the garden. He ran to the old tree next to the northern wall, its enormous trunk completely enveloped in a silky, silvery web that stretched toward several other trees. Morminiu touched one of the taut threads and walked his fingers over it in a certain rhythm. From the centre of the silver web in the shadow of the trees, a giant spider as big as a brops, its chitinous armour full of thorns, crawled into the sun.

"Hux," said Morminiu and threw the bird. The spider caught it in mid-air and wrapped it rapidly in silver threads. Morminiu whistled a specific note, then turned and ran to the castle's courtyard.

Hux the spider followed.

#

Deep cuts gouged the brops' thick skin and one of its eyes was punctured, the fangs around it smashed. Pink foam trickled from the circular mouths around its eyes. Most of the sheaths on its back were empty; it had managed to sting the traitor, perhaps the pirates as well.

Morminiu called for his friend, the son of Plabos' shield-bearer, and asked him to quickly bring him a sword, a bow, and arrows. Sorthast came back armed and equipped.

Hux had already cleared the gates, hurrying into the swamps. Morminiu slung his sword over his back and ran after the spider, followed by Sorthast. From time to time the spider left behind a silver thread that they followed.

The spider had cut directly through the water, far from the well–travelled roads. They slowed. The terrain was deceptive and although they were still in Plabos' domain, this was a wild, perilous area, far from any settlement.

The trail led south, deep into the swamps. The traitor really wanted to reach the southern border.

After another hour they reached an area where they used fallen tree trunks as bridges, or waded through deep water. The trees were smaller and sparser here, and the reeds rose above their heads. Morminiu stopped. He'd seen his spider in one of the trees, laying still, looking south.

Ducking behind a tree trunk, he peered over the reeds. Sorthast knelt next to him. Ten steps farther an island rose above the fetid water. A phril lay in the grass, next to two brops corpses. Four pirates stood over them, poking them with the tips of their swords. A fifth lifted a leather rucksack from the grass next to the fallen body. He opened it and grinned, then pulled out the stolen vyr brain. Morminiu recognized him—he had sold Morminiu the unit.

The two friends readied their bows. Their training had been only with wooden targets. Morminiu swallowed heavily and looked at Sorthast, saw the determination shining in his eyes. They loosed their arrows, and two of their opponents fell. The other three yelled in alarm and drew their swords, withdrawing into the reed thicket beyond the island.

Not wanting to lose them, Morminiu drew his sword and ran after them. He crossed the water on one of the toppled tree trunks and pounced upon the nearest enemy. Sorthast hesitated only a moment before he followed.

Metal ground on metal. The young phrils grunted, fending off their stronger adversaries.

Morminiu parried, hacked, parried again, and sliced the arm of the fattest and slowest pirate, who staggered back in surprise. The other two attacked, covering their wounded mate. The one that had sold him the corrupted unit stabbed, then rolled to one side to avoid Morminiu's blade. The third pirate rushed him, swinging wildly. Morminiu ducked under his blade and took the pirate's legs out from under him. Then, in a single fluid movement, he filleted the fallen phril with his sword from neck all the way down.

Then, he threw up, the sound of slicing flesh still fresh in his ears.

He heard shouts and turned. A short distance away, Sorthast attacked the pirate chief. The leader easily fended him off and backed him toward a tree where the wounded fat pirate waited. Leaping from behind the tree, the fat one chopped off Sorthast's sword hand. As Sorthast gaped at the stump, his eyes wide, the fat pirate swung again toward his belly.

Morminiu jumped in and blocked the stroke. The force of the blow wrenched the sword from his hand. Now he faced two enemies empty handed. The leader grinned, drawing his dagger. With sword in one hand and dagger in the other, he closed on Morminiu.

Hux appeared from the opposite side of the island and jumped on the fat pirate's head. Thrusting its thorns into the hapless pirate's neck to anchor itself, the spider picked out his eyes with the claws on its front legs. The phril shrieked.

Morminiu took advantage of this diversion to retrieve his sword from the grass, but before he could rise, the chief attacked, stabbing with his dagger. Morminiu rolled toward the water, but his adversary cut him off. Scrabbling on his elbows, Morminiu crawled toward the centre of the island, where the fat pirate was still writhing in the grass.

As he ducked a rock thrown by the last pirate standing, Morminiu felt his sword being wrenched from his hand. He froze with the tip of the pirate's sword at his throat. He lay on his back, propped on his elbows.

His opponent smiled. Then Sorthast crashed into him and both fell in the grass. Morminiu rose, picked up his sword, and sliced the throat of his last adversary before this one could rise.

Sorthast had fainted, his severed arm spurting blood. Morminiu tore a strip from his shirt and bound the wrist, trying to stop the bleeding. He needed to get his friend home quickly.

But before that, Morminiu walked over to the traitor. When he saw who it was, his knees buckled and he sank to the ground. Master Tathes! Plabos' own master-at-arms had betrayed him!

Bropses' spikes covered the old phril's left arm. Before his arm was paralyzed, he'd probably had seconds to kill two bropses. Then the last attack had embedded spikes in his back and he'd only had time to wound the third brops before the venom had circulated into his spine and paralyzed his entire body. He'd probably died when the venom reached his heart or lungs.

Morminiu fought for breath. He had been closest to Tathes, closer than he was to Plabos. Trembling, he reached out to brush ants from the still face, and started. He'd felt Tathes' weak breath on his hand. The master-at-arms wasn't dead!

Morminiu found the waterskin in his rucksack, uncorked it, and dribbled a few drops of water on the master's dry lips.

Tathes swallowed and opened his eyes.

"Master Tathes, why?"

The phril closed his eyes and sighed. Morminiu raised him from the grass and held his head against his chest.

"Plabos knows?" asked Tathes.

"He didn't when I left. Maybe I'll be back in time to cover the whole disaster without him finding out."

"No, I hope he finds out and it hurts him. The pirates?"

"Dead."

Morminiu fell silent, surprised. Tathes had always been loyal. "If Plabos discovers the killing of his vyr brains and your theft, he'll know everything happened because of me," he murmured.

"You're the last phril I wanted to hurt, Morminiu. I would've brought you back the last brain ..."

Morminiu knew this was true. He stroked the old phril's hair. "I'm sorry I sent the bropses. If I'd known ..."

"You did right." The swordsman's eyes shut. His head felt heavier.

"Tathes!"

The old phril opened his eyes. He looked at Morminiu. "Your mother was my wife..." Tathes exhaled and died.

Morminiu sat stock-still for a few moments. His mother had been Tathes' wife? Plabos had taken him when Morminiu was only a child, and he had never seen his mother again. And he'd always considered Plabos his father.

He rose, swung the rucksack containing the unit onto his back, and moved over to Sorthast. Morminiu helped him to his feet and put his arm around his back. With Sorthast leaning on him, they began to walk. Hux followed.

#

Long before they reached the castle they met one of the parties looking for them. Plabos had fallen sick. They'd found him lying on the cold stone of the archive next to the corrupted vyr brains. He hadn't talked or opened his eyes since.

Morminiu passed through the castle gates. He'd been determined to confront Hitissh Plabos, but now ... He'd just killed three phrils. The hurt numbed the panic he felt.

His entire childhood was a lie. Nothing made sense.

Plabos lay under several sphere-fish wool blankets in his bed. His eyes were shut, his mouth stretched into a thin line. But for the trembling, he looked like a corpse.

Morminiu sat on the bed and took his master's hand in his. He'd forgotten his fury, the hate he'd briefly felt. At his touch, the Hitissh opened his eyes. Morminiu swallowed, dry-mouthed, released his hand, and lifted the rucksack from the floor. He pulled out the vyr brain and showed it to Plabos. "I brought it back."

"The Essential Book?" wheezed the old Master Recipear.

"It's here."

The old phril breathed deeply. He didn't shiver anymore. He regarded his young disciple with a severe expression.

"Was Tathes my father?" asked Morminiu.

"Tathes?"

"He died in my arms. Telling me that my mother was his wife."

"Tathes destroyed the archive?"

"Yes. Who am I?" said Morminiu.

"All have betrayed me," the Hitissh moaned.

"Why didn't you tell me the truth?"

Plabos shut his eyes. Morminiu knew that the Hitissh spoke of people from his youth; the ones who had plotted with his enemies to have him banished from the royal court where he'd been the second most important phril in the kingdom.

"What's the truth?" he asked again.

Plabos looked at him—for the first time in many, many years—with kindness and with that shine in his eyes that Morminiu had associated in his childhood with love. "Your mother was the one. But she was only a ..." He stopped and released a sigh that ended in a wheeze.

"I couldn't bury myself in the Swamps for her sake," he continued. "Tathes married her at my order. They had never been ..." He stopped again, fretting, his breathing rapid.

His wife had stayed behind when he'd been banished from the royal court. Plabos had loved her passionately. And now he'd just discovered that both his phriliras hadn't been what he'd hoped. Although Plabos himself hadn't exactly been what both of them hoped for, either.

The old Recipear regained his composure. "The important thing is that you're my heir: Hitissh of Corbeni, Recipear, brilliant disciple of the brilliant Plabos. Never doubt that. You passed the examination."

He paused and fought for breath. "I thought I lost you," he added simply.

"I'm sorry," said Morminiu.

"Me too," Plabos wheezed, every word draining him of energy. "I need you to prepare yourself for the Death Ritual. We need to do it tomorrow, or I won't make it.

"After my death, take The Essential Book and go to the Royal Carami. Enter Hitissh Leomi' service, as we discussed. Our plans stay the same."

"Yes, Master."

"I have great expectations for you, my son."

Morminiu lowered his head. His mother had died far from him. Tathes' life had ended in the swamps. Now Plabos would be dead by midnight, and he'd have to perform the terrible ritual alone.

And yet, he realized what Plabos had just said: my son. For the first time! He bent and kissed his father's forehead.

THE END


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