Rathwan’s in Kur district is a study in white on white, the floor tile and tables arranged in a tessellation of rectangles whose sides matched the holy ratio of seven to three. Rathwan’s is empty today, save for one table, one lone guest — the Gedt general whose soldiers now pillage and loot the silk strewn arbors of the district.
Rathwan himself serves the dish to the general. The first course, serving to awaken memory, served on a square of carved bone. The conflict of square and rectangle is played out in the arrangement of paper thin shavings of smoked river fen. The delicate pink flesh of the fish is accompanied by thin curls of plum rind, their astringency balancing the inherent sweetness of the fillet.
The general’s arm is swift as a sword thrust, scattering the plate and the subtle shavings of fen into the air. One of them lands on Rathwan’s lips, hanging open in surprise. The general gets up and leaves, a smirk on his lips. At the door, he turns his head slightly toward Rathwan.
“So much effort for a plate of food, and so little when our swords clashed. That is why you have lost your city.”
Rathwan watches the general melt into the sea of soldiers outside, and shudders.
While the first course awakened a wash of memory, the second course was always of the now, living in the extremity of experience. Few Mahaali attend tonight’s meal. Once the soldiers slipped away, the rats came, the rabble of Gedt nobility, hungry for property. They purchased the stacked quarters and marble tiled avenues of the district, famed for its brightly colored pennants and exquisite cuisine.
Rathwan serves Rakh es Fatai to a quizzical Gedt. Small orbs of seared rabbit skin filled with garlic smoke, tied by an aromatic twist of herbs. The textural transition when the orb bursts inside one’s mouth is intended to signify moments in one’s life when shifts and changes happen on the instant, like Kur district the day after the general left. So soon were the old banners and pendants hidden away. So quickly were the ceremonial candles of the great temple snuffed.
The Gedt customer complains to his friend as Rathwan walks away.
“I was told this was the finest establishment in the city, but it’s so tired, so traditional. A little Gedt touch couldn’t hurt, perhaps even more than a little.”
Wine addled laughter follows. Rathwan watches the disappearing flower of Mahaali tradition, its petals peeling off into the wind.
The Mahaali citizen is dressed in the Gedt style, but the cut of his hair and the tattoos along his wrist signify his cultural heritage. He seems nervous. All of the old Mahaali are in these times. They disappear, slowly, with no cause. There is talk of a pogrom. But it is a quiet pogrom, a silent ghostly pogrom. The third course is always a pause, a place to breathe before the weight of the next.
Rathwan serves him a rendition of Mahaali rice, stewed with smoked nettles. Rathwan has altered it to serve the tastes of his clientele, now mostly Gedt. He replaced the artistry of structure and form with a striving for essence, attempting to adopt the Gedt philosophies of cuisine while retaining the origins that belied the dish.
The citizen looks at the dish, and then looks into Rathwan’s eyes. There is judgement there, anger as well, but the hardest of all for Rathwan to stomach, is the pity. The citizen bends down again, his brief flaring of passion over. He whispers almost impercetibly,
“And yet more is lost.”
Rathwan sits in his empty kitchen. A plate of gelled tuber sits before him, lightly salted translucent cubes mirroring the color of spring moss. It is a Mahaali dish in color, in form and in its historical allegory, touching back to the time when Mahaal was occupied by neighboring Sahwat. The dish had been served in back rooms and passageways, created to remind the Mahaali of their own history with the most simplest of preparations. There are none but him to eat it in Kur district today. None but Rathwan to appreciate the weight of the dish’s long past. Tomorrow the Gedt general would come again to Rathwan’s.
Puffer fish has always been a stalwart of the fourth course. The poison sacs of the fish are a deadly toxin, prized in dilute quantities in rougher districts as a mild hallucinogen. Cleaned of the poison, the fish is quite sublime, a subtle balance of texture and flavor.
Rathwan looks at the flayed fish on the wood board before him. There is no one to assist him anymore — it is he alone who prepares the fish. It is Rathwan alone who cuts the poisonous sac instead of lifting it, who lets the colorless and odorless death wash over the meat.
The fish is served raw, in the purest Gedt style, accompanied by little more than a mild puree of tubers. A true fourth course would have presented the fish in riotous constructions of color and form, but the new Gedt nobility have subsumed the old ways. The Gedt do not see the roots of the dish, the tension of life against death. They see merely fish, blind to history.
Rathwan walks out of the kitchen and hands the dish to a servant. He watches the little death wander its way between the patrons before finding purchase on the general’s table. The general does not look at him, their first encounter long forgotten. The general has gone to fat, descended into complacency, no longer concerned of the thought of Mahaali around him. Rathwan returns to the kitchen and puts on his coat. He walks through the back alley, between the crates of imported fruits, across cobbled stone long worn down. The roots of his city are fading, and like a ghost, Rathwan slips away.
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the author.
© Naru Dames Sundar, 2015