"So," Filia began in the morning, gesturing to the empty chair. "I believe these things usually start with a recruitment speech. Explain why I should spend one more day here, let alone let my son work for you."

"It doesn't concern you," he said with an attempt at cordial, and held his plate out for a slice of cold pie. He'd had one of the pages prepare them a picnic table overlooking the hedge maze, and the dew was already hazing away.

"But I agree with her," Solace smiled, serving him. The smile, oddly enough, was not at all creepy. Zel didn't eat, though; he wanted his head clear.

"You it concerns. Isn't your brother coming?"

"He'll be up at noon, maybe. So?"

"So actually we usually start with why you want the job, Mr. Val Copt."

"Ah," Solace said, and took a viciously blissful bite of pie. "Now, this is very good, Mr. Greyweir."

"I think you're biased," he pointed out, amused.

"You may be right," he confessed blithely. "Do you want that heated up?"

"That's all right," Zel assured him without an expression. He didn't want to be distracted. "They tell me vengeance is best served cold."

"My thoughts exactly," Solace nodded gravely, and grinned at him. The world stuttered. There was something heartbreakingly eager to please about that smile, about the rising bottom lip and the wide eyes above it. Clearly, he half-expected to be shot down. An uncertain expression on that face made gravity turn upside down and the summer air turn to frost.

When Zel could hear again, Solace was saying "...think I may be biased about all my cooking. I mean, most of the people who eat at my restaurant are either local and think I'm too cute to shoot down-"

Filia raised a skeptical eyebrow, but it wasn't amusement across her face. She looked unhappy, and a little guilty.

Either oblivious or ignoring her, Solace finished, "-or they've been walking all day and they're really hungry. How am I supposed to get real criticism out of friends and hungry people? I think I'm good, but I might be just highly adequate and nobody's gourmet enough to break it to me gently."

"I think you may relax on that count," he drawled. "Lina would tell you."

"Aunt Lina'll eat anything," Solace drawled right back at him.

"No, she won't," he said, and had to smile. "Filia, do you remember the time that undercook tried to pass off troll meat as lake dragon?"

The temperature went subzero.

"I guess that was before your time." After a full minute of arctic eyeball had passed, he said, annoyed, "Monkey brains have in fact been served here in living memory, all right?"

Filia didn't look very mollified, but Solace asked, "With scrambled eggs?"

"In coconut shells, I think."

"Eyuch! You'd get shell fiber in your teeth! They're not as smooth inside as you'd think, you know. And that flavor bleeds like anything. Coconut-and-cardboard flavored brains, bleah."

Allowing himself a half-smile at the face he made, Zel returned to the topic. "So you want a more discriminating audience."

"Also, I want to try more stuff. I have all these really interesting recipes, but I can't serve them at the Experiment. Even if I could afford the ingredients, it'd be ridiculous."

"Such as?"

Almost ten minutes of rapture later, Zel cut him off, amused. "I can see you've thought about this." Why was Filia glowing at him like that?

"I was going to conscript the next fifteen or so starving penniless scholars to reorganize my recipe book," Brenner said happily, "but if I had an actual staff it could be done more consistently."

"I see," he said, still amused. "You want more people to boss around."

"What I really want, I think," he was answered seriously, "is different people and a new setting. I've done what I can with the Experiment; they don't really need me anymore and because of what it is I can't take it any further."

"Explain that."

The thick, plum-glossed eyebrows furrowed. "I don't know what's to explain. I had a good idea and I put it into practice, and now the staff knows how it works and all they need me for is recipe experimentation, which I could really do by pigeon. Rainproofed, of course."

Zel eyed him dourly, but he was too much on the wrong end of that snipe. "I mean about taking it farther."

"Oh! Well, see, the setting is all wrong. You come in, you have a main course, maybe an appetizer or dessert, you leave. Also the most important things that happen there are romantic entanglements and the occasional business meeting. What am I supposed to do with that?"

"Serve food?"

"Yes, but most of the time it's the wrong food!" His hair was long and down, and he looked like he wanted to be pulling at it. "The little fools order it themselves, and half the time it's completely wrong!"

Zel stared at him for a minute. "You've lost me."

"I mean, some heavy-handed git wants to court a girl, so he takes her to a nice restaurant, and even if he's clever enough to avoid the garlic trap, they load up on noodles 'cause long things in sauce are sexy, and then they wonder why they're spending the rest of the night feeling bloated and unromantic. Or a traveler who's been craving real food for weeks stumbles in and orders roast chicken, and is surprised when he gets hungry again an hour later. People don't have any sense."

"Pet peeve?" he asked Filia dryly, and was rewarded with a 'give me strength' expression.

"Don't underestimate food," Solace said with grim emphasis, and Zel blinked at the arc of crust aimed between his eyes. "When I feed you, I can get you inclined to feel anything I want. I am an invaluable resource. You tell Her Majesty that."

"Invaluable," he repeated dubiously.

"Picture this," he gestured with his fork, and a slice of egg went zooming off it like a discus into the hedge maze. "You have two diplomats you want to take advantage of to dinner. You know that one of them gets more careless when he's complacent, and the other is apt to lose his head when he's annoyed. The first, of course, has a seamless, pleasant meal. But the other-well, he winds up in a state because the server keeps nearly dripping on him, his meal is over-spiced or annoyingly bland, his cutlery's not suited to his hand, his wine's over-watered, his custard's too sweet or too bitter, the main course has been prepared with such a presentation as to dance on the edge of insulting his country-in fact the dish from the other ambassador's country was exquisite and his has been Sailoonized... and that's even without my being in collusion with the minstrels!"

Zel stared at him, fascinated, and told Filia, "He doesn't get this from you." Turning back to Solace, he said, "I doubt they'd even notice."

"Courtiers are alive to nuance!" he practically sang. "They know how to evaluate a twitch, or the color of your sash! If your lady's any good at directing a conversation and she tells me what she wants out of a meal, I can orchestrate it on a course by course basis, with sufficient time to plan it out! I'm brilliant and bored, dammit," he pouted, laughing helplessly through it, "and I want a better canvas!"

After a moment, he added calmly, "Actually, Mr. Greyweir, the danger is that they would notice; it's in being so obvious that they'd feel justified in making a scene. Which they probably would if I did all of that, but I wouldn't. I'd be more subtle."

After another moment, he said, "You don't want your pie?"

"Save me another slice," Zel said, standing up with the one he'd been wrapping. "I'm taking this one to Amelia."

"You haven't tried it," Filia pointed out.

Zel locked eyes with the echo of a ghost and said, "I don't really have to, do I?"

[fin]