4120 words, short story, REPRINT
The Banquet of the Lords of Night
Severin de Rais hurries through thistledown light, with the dangerous parcel clutched close to his heart, hoping that he won’t turn a corner and come face to face with an Unpriest. He’s already late, and the Isle de Saint Luce is forbidden territory. Yet even in the midst of his terror, de Rais still thinks it’s a pity that he can’t pause and marvel, for the Isle is, by old decree of the Lords of Night, the only place in all Paris where light is permitted at this hour. But de Rais cannot stop to admire the lamps; he’s running out of time, and if an Unpriest should find what he is carrying . . . de Rais does not even dare think about it. A death sentence, surely. He glances with swift unease up at the shattered stump of Notre Dame, imagining it as it might have looked five hundred years before, filled with candles and prayers and light, before the Lords came and brought the darkness with them, conjuring the great shell which covers the world. The shell lies above the churning stormclouds, too high even to be seen, and de Rais drags his quivering attention back to the present. The metal cover of the precious, precarious parcel is sharp against his chest; the unspells which protect it burn his skin. He wonders in a delirious moment if it will rust if the rain touches it; rust and crumble into nothing more than red ash, like old blood.
The growing rain blurs the lamps of the Isle de Saint Luce so that they look like dandelion clocks, their down blown away on the wind. The light makes de Rais squint and peer, but the parcel warms his breast, in spite of the rain. Heat seeps through him like the taste of honey. The world spins briefly to summer, leaving raindrops scattered in the void. De Rais blinks at this first taste of a season he has never seen, and clasps the parcel even more tightly to his chest. Crossing the bridge which bisects the Seine and leads into the Rue Moins Pitie, de Rais pauses reeling for a moment to catch his unsteady breath. The Seine runs fast with rainswell: a mass of branches tumbles in the current, turning the water to bramble and briar. The risk that he is about to take makes de Rais wonder for a moment if it would be wiser simply to drop the parcel in the river and let the torrent carry it back to the sea, but then he turns away. Above de Rais’ head, the curfew bell begins to chime out through the darkness, telling seven o’clock through the gloom. De Rais hurries on towards the Palais.
Behind him, the lights of the Isle are soon lost as he crosses onto the familiar territory of the right bank. De Rais makes his way through dark streets, following his path with meticulously counted steps: along the Quai, down the Tuileries, into the heart of the Lords’ Quarter. Should he deviate from that path, he runs the risk of becoming lost in the maze of the city. Occasionally, he detects the faintest gleam of light upon the wet surface of a wall; neon in a blacked-out basement, a candle flickering in a secret room. And then his fears come true. Hastening around the corner into the Rue de Louvre, de Rais runs right into a group of Unpriests. Their long leather coats rustle against the pavement; their heads swivel from side to side. They are clicking like insects in a termite mound, and de Rais shrinks back against the wall, his heart hammering. But their gaze, concealed behind their black lenses, does not turn his way and in a moment they are gone. Why should they challenge him, after all? He’s only a lowly pastry chef, and he’s not on forbidden ground any more. He’s entitled to be in this quarter, the honor signified by the ribbons on his coat. Breathing a long and tremulous sigh, de Rais continues on his way.
He reaches the kitchens of the Palais shortly afterwards, and his lateness is rewarded by a bellow of rage from the head chef. Mumbling insults and excuses beneath his breath, de Rais sidles through the outskirts of the kitchens to collect his work clothes from the store. He fastens the midnight jacket around himself and adjusts the tall smoke-colored hat in the dim reflection of the mirror. His pinched, pale face seems a picture of guilt, but the parcel remains for now in the pocket of his overcoat. De Rais plans to remove it surreptitiously when things quiet down, and hide it at the bottom of the little bread oven in his own small domain. Stepping around the corner of the table, he picks up the chopping board and begins work.
De Rais is a methodical pastry chef, who believes in preparation and planning. The ingredients for today’s desserts and pastries have been assembled the night before; the last chores performed by de Rais before he made his weary way homewards. On an ordinary day, tonight and tomorrow would follow the same pattern: home to the attic room in the old Latin Quarter; a few hours’ snatched sleep, broken by the sounds from the dingy café downstairs, then back to the Palais early in the morning, with perhaps a stolen hour towards twilight when de Rais can go to the library or snatch a pastis in one of the dreary licensed cafes. But today, things changed. Today, de Rais went to meet the girl: the terrorist, the rebel, the one who gave him the parcel, and perhaps because of that tomorrow will be different too, de Rais thinks with a sudden uplift of his spirits that must surely be noticeable clear across the kitchen. He starts guiltily, and thinks careful, neutral thoughts, but it’s not easy to see the expressions on the faces of those who inhabit the kitchens. The head chef jealously guards the ration of candles; everyone else must work in the cold glow of the ovens or simply by touch. It isn’t as though they haven’t had practice, after all.
Opening the refrigerator, de Rais takes out a container and places it on the table. He opens it carefully, not wanting the essence to escape. The container is full of ice: glassy dark ice from the seas near the southern pole, a place that de Rais knows only from legend. It seems to hold its own glow: it’s almost green, like the stories the old folk tell about dawn. With a sharp scalpel, de Rais touches the edge of the sheet of ice, so that it splits and cracks into a nest of slivers. De Rais arranges the shards of ice in the center of each of the twenty seven sorbet dishes, then reaches back inside the refrigerator for the ingredients of the sauce. He plans a complex, subtle accompaniment to the simple ice: a touch of fragrant Indonesian darkness, gathered close to midnight, redolent of cinnamon and incense and spiced smoke. Placing the darkness in a bowl, he adds a pinch of flavors: twilight from Japan, warm and clouded, with a hint of star anise. Then a touch of evening from the Sinang Delta, water-clear and cool. De Rais stirs all of these elements nine times with an ebony spoon, then pours the swirl of darkness into a silver pan and lights the chilly flame beneath it. He waits, frowning, as a drift of smoke begins to rise from the sauce and then he casts it in a spiral around the little columns of ice and claps his hands imperiously for the serving staff to take it into the dining hall, where the Lords of Night are waiting. The head chef looks up, once, as the procession passes by, and gives a single grudging nod of approval.
Having dispensed with the appetizers, the responsibility for the meal passes on to the head chef for a time, while de Rais busies himself with the desserts. He hopes to get the chance to take the parcel from his overcoat pocket and slip it into the oven, but the head chef has got the apprentices out of his fevered way by sending them over to work in de Rais’ corner, a not-uncommon occurrence. Frustrated, de Rais gets on with his own tasks. He prepares fondants of gloom, sorbets of shadows, and sherbets of dusk; each one gathered from the far and unseen corners of the Earth. Then de Rais wipes his weary hands on his apron and steps back to admire his handiwork. Behind him, the booming voice of the head chef says,
“Not bad. Perhaps there’s some promise in you after all.”
De Rais jumps like a tortured hare. Turning, he snaps, “Don’t do that! You startled me.”
“Why?” The head chef thrusts his cadaverous face close to that of de Rais. “Nervous? Been doing something you shouldn’t? Been gobbing in the fondants again?”
De Rais bridles; he’d never dream of doing such a thing and the head chef knows it.
“Get over there, boy, when you’ve finished. I want some help to scrub the floors.”
The head chef’s head jerks in the direction of the apprentices and they scramble after him as he ambles back towards the cold crimson glow of his own territory. Heart pounding, de Rais sidles into the store, retrieves the parcel at last and slides it underneath the iron floor of the little oven. The package is still warm. It seems to radiate its own heat, and de Rais is relieved when at last it’s safely out of sight. Then, he goes to where the head chef is waiting and begins to rinse the stone floor clean of blood. He keeps thinking about the package lying in the oven. Once more he rehearses the plan that has been steeping in his mind ever since the girl gave him the parcel.
Once the kitchens are quiet, and everyone has left for the night, de Rais will take the package out of the oven. And then, he will begin to cook. He’ll prepare a special dish for the next banquet of the Lords of Night, which will take place tomorrow, on a day that was once called Midsummer. De Rais thinks of the eternal, plunging rain, which he fancies he can hear beating on the pavements above the dungeons of the kitchen, and he shivers as he swabs the bloodstained floor. Mechanically, he goes over the plan once more in his mind, but in the next few minutes, he realizes it might be too late to even think about executing it. The Unpriests have arrived.
They slither down the kitchen stairs, boot-heels clicking on the expensive tiles. De Rais risks a glance, and the nape of his neck grows cold. The people in this group are no ordinary Unpriests. Their long coats bear the Lords’ own insignia, and there is a woman with them, dressed in black velvet riding breeches and a leather cuirass. A single dark pearl dangles from one ear, like a bead of jet. Her eyes are hidden behind thick dark lenses. Her head swivels from side to side. This is the closest that de Rais has ever been to one of the creatures of the Lords of Night, and she makes him feel hollow and numb. He stares grimly down at the high, polished heels of her boots. The language that she speaks is archaic, formal, and barely intelligible; she enunciates slowly, evidently for the benefit of the head chef who, as a mere servant, might not be expected to understand her.
“The Unchurch has had word that an attempt is to be made on the lives of the Lords of Night, by non-persons, by dream-sellers, by ghosts. The servants must submit to be searched.”
“An attempt on— ?” The head chef’s thin face quivers in shock. “By whom?”
“I told you. Non-persons. Those who deny darkness, who seek That which is Not.”
“By what means?”
“Unknown,” the Unpriest says, stiffly, then concedes “By myself, at least. The Lords, of course, know all, but in their black wisdom they have not divulged the answer to one as lowly as myself and were I to know that answer, I would be no more likely to divulge it to you. Now. Prepare to be searched.”
From beneath the folds of her coat, she takes a device that de Rais has never seen before. It consists of an extending tube, at the end of which is a round, glistening lens. The woman raises it to the level of the head chef’s face, and passes it down his body, from the crown of his head to his toes. Fascinated, de Rais nonetheless stares straight ahead, afraid of attracting undue attention, but he glimpses from the corner of his eye the chef’s cadaverous form, surrounded for a moment by black energy; an aura of unlight. One by one, the woman passes the device along the rows of apprentices: darkness crackles and snaps. At last she reaches de Rais. She stares at him for a moment, and, swallowing, he raises his gaze to hers but sees nothing. Her eyes are entirely concealed behind the thick obsidian lenses.
She says, caressingly, “You look alarmed, boy. Are you afraid?”
De Rais says what is no more than the truth. “Yes. I am afraid. I have been afraid ever since I can remember.”
A thin charcoal brow arches above the lenses. The woman says, “Indeed? Of what?”
Boldly, de Rais answers, “Of not matching the expectations of the Lords of Night. Of not meeting the standards that I myself set to serve them.”
“You talk like an artist,” the woman says, brows still raised.
“I am an artist, madam,” de Rais says, with the bravery of absolute fear. “I am an artist of culinary color and its absence, a master of texture and shade, of monochrome uniformity. I drain the delicacies that I prepare of the touch of light and fire and brightness that is bestowed upon them by the flames on which they are conjured into being, so that the palates of the Lords of Night may not be seared for one moment by the tiniest spark of light.”
To de Rais’ infinite surprise, the head chef turns his head and says, “It’s true, my lady. The food that this man prepares is a paradigm of unlight. His concoctions are as dark and smooth and rich as the galaxy’s core itself.” His glance catches that of de Rais: I don’t like you. But you’re still one of us.
The woman bows her head in mocking acknowledgement. “Well, then, I am honored. But you must still be scrutinized.”
She raises the device once more and the lens rotates along its appointed track. The woman puts her head on one side, studies him.
“You absorb light, you say? You purify the foods of darkness?”
Something long and thin whips from the tube which holds the lens and lashes de Rais across the face. The impact spins him around and he sprawls backwards, stunned. The Unpriest says, “It shows. There are cracks and flickers along the edges of your soul. It is dangerous work that you do, M’sieu—?”
“My name is de Rais,” he says, through bleeding teeth.
“M’sieu de Rais. I had not thought that the life of a pastry chef would be so fraught with hazard. Take care that you visit the Unpriests more regularly, to purge your soul of traces of light as effectively as you purify the foods that you prepare.” She turns away.
The rest of the kitchen is searched methodically, and de Rais’ heart skips and hops as an investigation is made of his work area, including the little stove. The Unpriest lingers as she examines the pastries and sorbets, and de Rais hides a bruised smile as he sees her stealthy fingers creep out and flick a piece of brittle icing to her mouth. But the metal binding of the package remains secure, hidden beneath the iron floor of the little oven and guarded with unspells. The woman heads for the stairs with an angry flounce and de Rais inclines his head until the beetle-click of her boot-heels betrays her absence. No-one says a word after that, except the head chef, who turns to de Rais and says brusquely, “You. Have you finished?”
“The floor is clean. I have my preparations to complete for tomorrow.”
“Go and do it, then.”
One by one, the apprentices leave the kitchen. De Rais hovers over his tasks, lingering on slicing and molding and freezing, until the head chef snaps a curt goodnight, along with instructions to lock up. De Rais listens as the chef’s heavy footsteps pound up the stairs and the door slams behind him, then he runs to the stove and takes out the package. It’s so hot that it burns even de Rais’ callused hands. Cursing beneath his breath, he drops the package on the table and flicks open the complex locks until the inside of the package is revealed. He stares for a moment. The girl who gave the package to de Rais has told him: you will see nothing. Do not expect to be witness to miracle. It is latent, nothing more. But you will be able to touch it. Cautiously, de Rais reaches inside the hot metal binding and feels something smooth and soft and warm. He lifts it from the binding, and to his surprise it comes away easily. He feels it glide across the table and has to put out a hand to stop it from falling onto the floor.
Then, working quickly in case it dissipates, de Rais takes his sharp knife and begins to chop, his hand moving faster and faster with a chef’s practiced speed until the contents of the package are in tiny pieces. And then de Rais begins his final great work; the last work that, if all goes well, he will ever perform in the palace of the Lords of Night. He begins to sculpt the substance into sugars and candies, into creams and shadows. At last he passes his hand over the surface of the chopping block and finds only a minute sliver, like a splinter of glass. De Rais is sorely tempted to pop it in his mouth, but he resists the temptation and drifts it onto the curling pinnacle of a sugar tower instead. And then he slips everything into the darkest, coldest recesses of the refrigerator, to wait there till morning. As he turns to leave, he fancies that when he next opens the door of the refrigerator, it will have begun to glow.
Early next morning, before the waking bells toll out across the city, de Rais rises from a troubled night, bundles himself into his clothes and hurries back to the Palais. The rain has stopped, but a thin wind rips down the Tuileries, snatching at de Rais’ untidy hair. He does not think he slept, and yet his head is filled with dreams that defy the darkening day; dreams of something that flickers golden down the rainy air. When de Rais reaches the Palais, the head chef greets him with a grunt and a tilt of the head; their yesterday truce still fragile as spider silk.
Quietly, unobtrusively, de Rais slides into his chef’s jacket. He takes a deep, shaky breath and opens the refrigerator. It is still and dim within, and undisturbed. De Rais relaxes a little, and his breath mists cold metal. He rests his hands on the top of the refrigerator for a moment, to steady them. Then, he goes about the remaining preparations for this evening’s banquet; the less critical, less dangerous things, a frenzy of slicing and molding for the hundred guests of the Lords of Night.
When evening comes, everything is ready. De Rais stands back and exchanges triumphant glances with the head chef, whose face is blue with cold. De Rais dispatches perfumed bowls of dusk to the dining hall, and joins the apprentices for a surreptitious glimpse of the guests as they arrive. His hands are trembling again. He watches as something glides through the great double doors at the end of the vast hall. It stands seven feet high and its armored head drifts from side to side. Its mandibles exude a faint and musty fragrance. Huge smooth claws rustle beneath its midnight robes. It moves with ponderous, swinging slowness down the hall, and in its wake the air seems suddenly thin and darker, as though it breathes in health and light, and gives out nothing. Another follows through the double doors: female, this time. De Rais catches sight of the long out-thrust jaw and the slotted vertebrae of her throat beneath her hood. She places a delicately jointed foot on the thick carpet and teeters forward. De Rais melts back into the shadows. Three hours to go, before the clock strikes midnight.
Downstairs again, and silent in his corner of the kitchen, de Rais watches as the dishes of the main course are carried upstairs. The head chef has excelled himself. The foods he has prepared are rarefied to their finest extreme: all blood and essence. De Rais does not like to think where such food has come from, but he doubts that it has been produced by the meatracks at the edges of the city. Wild things, he thinks, reared in the deep growth of the forests which surround Paris, hunted down. The clock ticks on. The seemingly endless parade of dishes is borne from view. At last it is time for dessert.
De Rais hovers anxiously as the sorbets, each one with its cool, deceptive pool of night around the incarnadined ice, are taken upstairs by the serving staff. Then, still in his dark jacket, he waits for a frozen moment until he is certain that the attention of the head chef is elsewhere, and slips after the serving staff. Apart from a pair of servitors at the far end of the hallway, their glacial gaze fixed on the great bronze doors, the hallway is empty. De Rais hastens to the dining hall, his footsteps muffled by the carpet. He puts his eye to the crack of the dining room door. He knows the risk, he thinks, but he still has to see.
Inside, it is almost dark. A faint phosphorescence illuminates the high, echoing vaults of the hall. Beneath, the shadowy presences of the Lords of Night dine on the last of the meat essences. There is a susurrus of anticipation as the desserts are passed around the hall by the silent serving staff, who then troop from the hall. De Rais, his hearing fine-tuned by anticipation, hears the tiny crack as the first silver spoon touches the first sorbet, and the minute crunch of mandibles upon ice. De Rais takes a single breath. Followed by the rest of its companions, the Lord swallows a single spoonful of captured evening. And explodes.
Latent light, ingested by perfect darkness, electrifies every filament of the Lord’s body before it flares up into a great column of brilliance. De Rais, thrown back against the wall, can see nothing but the shattered form of the Lord branded upon his retinas, but he can taste the light which streams out from the dining hall: the hard, clear sunlight of mountain peaks; the roseate depths of sundown over ocean; the golden, glittering brightness of the sun at midsummer noon. It has worked. The Lords are gone in a moment of fire, consumed in the forbidden, latent light so carefully concealed in darkness and ice by the skilful hands of Severin de Rais. And in the eye of his mind de Rais sees that light pouring up from the heart of the banqueting hall, gilding every wall in Paris and running liquid into the river, distributing itself in immaculate proportion until the shell of shadow that covers the world is broken and the hidden sun revealed. Darkness and light, night and day, in balance once again, for everyone.
Except de Rais. For he knows, as soon as that first blaze of magnificence has passed, that the light has been too much for his shadow-born eyes. Once the flashing echoes have faded from the ruin of his sight, there is only night once more: familiar, relentless, and cold. But as de Rais turns to grope his way along the hallway, he is smiling, for in his imagination and his heart and his soul there is nothing but the sun.
Originally published in Asimov’s, June 2002.