A Cook, a Chef, and a Snow Leopard walked into a pub.
The grizzled human barkeep, crumpled on the bar like a well-used dish rag, opened one eye, grunted, and closed it again.
“So what’s for lunch?” Cookie asked, way too cheerfully for the bartender, or for that matter the decor of the rather dingy pub. They were the only patrons at the moment. There may have been a reason.
A wrinkled arm uncurled from the heap of bartender resting on the bar, his eyes still closed, and a finger pointed at an aged and dust covered sign.
Daily Special: Slow Meat 25 C
The sign was so old the paint had mostly peeled off. All that is, except the price, which had been painted over sometime in the last decade or so. Apparently this had been the Daily Special for many, many days.
“So what is Slow Meat?” asked Cookie, still sounding cheerful and obviously not taking the hint from the bartender.
The bartender groaned, then forced himself off the bar to a more or less upright position.
“Me an’ Betty B. Buckshot there - “ he angled his head toward an ancient blunderbuss hanging over the back door “- we go out every morning first thing. Whatever don’t get itself hid or gone is slow meat. Could be most anything. The little lady always makes it taste just fine, though.”
“And just what is the Slow Meat of the Day today?” Cookie asked.
“Got me a Siamoth this morning. Wifey done cooked up a batch of Siamoth Slaw.”
It was Misty’s turn to ask questions. “Isn’t Slaw usually a vegetable salad?”
The old geezer looked at her for a moment and replied “The veggies were too fast.” His tone implied that Misty might be significantly slower than the vegetables.
The Snow Leopard responded to the barkeep’s tone with a look that seemed to ask the question of just how fast the barkeep himself might prove to be. Misty’s hand grasped a handful of neck fur as she intuitively read the big cat’s intent. “Steady”, she whispered, and turned toward the door.
“We’ll have two of those.” piped Cookie cheerfully, clearly oblivious to the dynamics of the conversation, the room, and implied quality of the meal. “With Hunter’s Ale.” He was hungry.
The barkeep raised one eyebrow, as if to ask if Cookie was kidding, then shrugged and bellowed “Two Specials” loud enough to cause the glasses on the shelf behind the bar to rattle. Somewhere below the bar there was a rattling of glass, and eventually a pair of tankards of ale appeared. Then he muttered “siddown” and returned to his “pile of rags on the bar” position and appeared to go to sleep.
Misty looked back, obviously not pleased with Cookie speaking on her behalf. Cookie missed the look, like everything else this morning, but Misty finally shrugged and turned back into the bar. Cookie snagged the ale as they found a table in a corner facing the door and sat on the worn chairs at the sturdy but well-used table. There were initials carved in the tabletop that had to be from several generations of the entire local population, along with a few symbols and words not generally found in polite company.
“Homey kind of place, don’t you think?” asked Cookie while looking around at the memorabilia of forgotten hunts, battles, and events of lost importance nailed to walls and collected on shelves around the room.
“No, not really.” was Misty’s reply as she looked at the accumulated dust, worn floors, and aged furnishings. The big cat crouched at her feet surveying the room, expecting a rat or some other plaything to appear at any moment. Dust motes danced in the light of a window that may have once been transparent. Or not.
The room suddenly brightened as the door to the kitchen swung open and a brightly clothed lady with a glowing face and smile entered the room. She looked like everybody’s grandmother, round and warm and friendly with an apron covering a dress patterned in bright flowers, grey hair tightly up without a stray strand, carrying two generous platters of steaming food. “Well hello there! I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Are you new to town?” Just the way she said it made you feel like a kid again.
“Just passing through.” said Cookie as he instinctively sat straighter in his seat and moved his elbows off the table, his earlobes remembering the lessons of his youth.
“Exploring, mostly.” said Misty, who suddenly felt a need to join in the conversation.
Foggy Mist, the Snow Leopard, just sniffed at the plates with interest.
“Well then welcome to you all, make yourselves comfortable, and eat up!” came the reply as the plates slid into place in front of the two travellers. Eating utensils appeared from the folds of the apron, and “grandma” stepped back as if to appraise her masterpiece. She spied the big cat on the floor, grinned and said “I’ll be back in just a moment” and whisked back to the kitchen with a wink at the cat, who suddenly became quite alert with anticipation.
A moment later she was back with two large bowls, one with scraps of meat and fish, the other with milk, which she placed on a towel on the floor in front of the table, then backed off a step and clucked her tongue at the cat. Foggy looked at the bowls, then up at Misty with a look of pleading that would melt any mother’s heart. Misty smiled and nodded, which was all the approval the cat needed. A loud purr and sloppy sounds filled the room as the bowls began to rapidly empty.
“I’m Edna, but most folks around here just call me ‘Granny’ ” said the glowing Granny as she slid into the seat next to Cookie, “and that over there is Edward. I don’t suppose he introduced himself. Folks around here just call him ‘Grumpy’.”
A “Hrumpf” came from the direction of the bar.
Granny ignored it and went on, “So tell me about yourselves and your adventures. Where are you from? I don’t get many chances to get out and explore any more.”
Misty explained briefly that they were looking for new recipes and foods for the Queen, and had been on the road for a while now.
Cookie, meanwhile, was trying hard not to be rude but drooling slightly as he examined the pile of steaming, sweet and spicy meat on a sliced roll placed in front of him, accompanied by a pile of thin crispy wafers that sparkled with crystals of salt and spice. His mind and attention was fully engaged in strategizing an attack on the plate without it resulting in a massive mess.
“Oops! I forgot! Just a second!” Said Granny as she scooted from the table to the bar, returning with what looked like a couple of large towels. They had a couple of dangling strings, and Granny deftly shook them out and tied the strings around Misty and Cookie’s necks, leaving an apron-like expanse of tough fabric that extended to their knees. “It can get a little messy, but it’s worth it.”
Misty tried to use a fork and knife on one of the thin orange wafers. It wasn’t cooperating, as Granny smiled, pointed at it, and said simply, “Fingers, Dear”. Misty looked doubtfully at the wafer, then shrugged and picked it up to nibble daintily on the edge. It was surprisingly complex, crispy and chewy at the same time, salty and savory and sweet. She looked at Granny and raised an eyebrow as she munched. “I call them ‘Chips’, spiced and baked slices of Sweet Potato.” said Granny.
“Humumm..” replied Misty as her pile of “chips” began to disappear.
Meanwhile Cookie, giving up on any semblance of a strategy for neatness and falling back to his Charr table manners, ignored the utensils and simply picked up the messy bread and meat pile and stuffed a good part of it into his mouth.
It was good. Really good. It had a sweet yet spicy taste and a certain chewy texture that appealed to his animal side. The bread did its best to contain the saucy shreds of goodness, but there just wasn’t any way to keep a bit from escaping. Occasionally some rolled down the covering to where Foggy Mist, Misty’s Snow Leopard, was now enthusiastically doing duty ensuring that nothing soiled the floor. The snapping jaws in close proximity to Cookies, uhm, legs, encouraged him to keep the bulk of the overflow on his plate. Chips alternated with mouthfuls of tender spicy meat and bread washed down with swigs of ale as his once mighty pile of food was rapidly reduced to a wasteland of well-polished plate and a few smears of sauce across face and hands.
Foggy looked disappointed as he polished off the last of his plateful.
Misty just couldn’t bring herself to pick up the shredded meat and bread, and instead attacked it with knife and fork. The first forkful of the savory meat caused her eyes to widen, and she studied the next forkful as she chewed. “There is something in here besides Siamoth..” she stated, her Chef senses now on high alert as she mentally disassembled the complex flavors bursting on her palette.
“Grumpy Edward over there doesn’t like vegetables, so I have to sneak them in on him. I call them ‘Skelk Veggies’ after the way those Skelks sneak up on you. One second they are there and the next they are gone. That ‘Siamoth Slaw’ is about a quarter vegetables. It stretches the meat, gets Edward to eat a few veggies, and adds a bit of flavor and texture.” Granny explained. “We have a whole group in the Grandma’s Information Network hereabouts that shares ‘Skelk Veggie’ recipes to keep our little Carnivores in check.”
“Grandma’s Information Network?” Misty asked, somewhat curiously.
“DId you ever wonder how your Mom and Grandma knew what you were up to, sometimes even before you did? That’s the Grandma’s Information Network. The fastest form of communication in the universe.” Granny’s smile widened as she winked at Misty.
“Oh, Really?” Misty’s mind went to her second, and more important mission of gathering intelligence. “Can I ask you a few questions?”
The discussion went well into the evening, with pauses as Granny returned to the kitchen as new customers drifted in. Cookie had moved away from the table and was sitting on the floor reclining against Foggy Mist, his head resting on the huge Snow Leopard and third tankard of ale close at hand. Both were purring contentedly. No one seemed inclined to intrude on their personal space.
Within the first hour of chatting with Granny, Misty knew more about what was happening in Queensdale than the local Garrison Commander. By the end of the evening she was quite sure that the entire Order of Whispers had scant information compared to the Grandma’s Information Network. It would take weeks to complete her dispatches to Queen Jennah.