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Old 01-28-2018, 10:19 AM   #8
Benny Mon
 
Join Date: Jul 2011
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Default Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Almarka’s body bounced and jiggled as she rode a Procurement Team wagon down the streets of Qala. Her body had grown in the months since Heskaya’s arrival: while Tahar had had fewer opportunities to sneak away and feed her, Heskaya continued to invite the Sous-Chef into her room for small feasts, and Almarka herself had never been a dainty eater. Before, she had been solidly fat, but now she looked slightly overblown, a notch above her previous weight. She tried to take in the sights as the wagon rolled forward: it was fall, and the trees were turning as the air grew chillier. But with every bump in the road she lost focus and her body jiggled in several directions at once. She grabbed a nearby rail to steady herself but could not control the multifarious undulation of her fat.

She wouldn’t have made a trip like this on her own, but she had promised to be Tahar’s eyes and ears in the arteries and capillaries of the city. A strange job for the Sous-Chef, to venture into the city on routine procurement runs, but these were strange times. Sadesh once again sat on the throne of Lajjar, and Heskaya of the Riverine Kingdom of Geta was his Queen. Almarka’s Queen.

Almarka’s world had been upended. When news of Sadesh’s reinstatement had spread, the city had erupted in joy--reportedly even the countryside thrilled to the news--but the castle Kitchens became unnervingly quiet. Tahar had sunk into a malaise, and Almarka herself worried whether she would keep her job--she had only secured a position in the kitchens upon Garun’s ascension to the throne. Somehow, she did, even as the rest of the senior staff, including Tahar, were replaced with old Sadesh loyalists. Perhaps Heskaya had lobbied to keeper her on. Tahar now worked for Garun as Head Chef, managing his meals in the castle and in his city residence, while his replacement as Head Chef turned out to be one of the Queen’s Red Guard, a man named Hatsukh. Hatsukh was implausibly talented in this position, every bit as good as Tahar had been, which he attributed to his time working as a baker before joining the royal guard in Geta. But Heskaya let Almarka know that, while this was true, Hatsukh had also developed a friendship with the Getayin royal kitchen staff over the decade of her imprisonment, learning her tastes, communicating them to the kitchens, gradually picking up skills of his own and using them to bring her midnight snacks. This was an unusual man, a paragon of the entire Guard’s devotion to Heskaya.

And then there was the wedding. Almarka had never seen something so opulent, not even Muzara’s Name Day Feast. Heskaya wore a white dress - sprawling, and yet somehow elegant, as always - that fell in straight lines from the widest points of her massive belly, with elaborate lace sleeves covering the vast tracts of her arms. Following Lajjari tradition, Sadesh, in full, red regalia, crowned the ceremony by feeding her a fermented red cherry, sweet and intoxicating, before a crowd of nobles, their families, and most renowned notables of the castle and the surrounding city. And then the city feasted for three days. Not just the castle - the entire city. It was customary for the nobility to join the newly weds in a daylong feast after a wedding, but Sadesh expanded the affair, inviting the notables for the first time, extending the feast to three days, and in fact feeding the entire city. He hired scores of new chefs, hundreds of new staff, and sent countless meals out into the city for commoners. No one went hungry. Long-time city-dwellers feasted on bread and roast meats; the city’s merchant class laid out opulent tables for their families; the noblewomen assembled in the castle slogged through course after course; and Heskaya, sitting at the center of it all, only stopped eating when she slept - which she did but rarely over those three days, and not at all the first night. Sadesh ate little more than a normal man would and mostly kept to drink. His noble peers, however, ate with abandon.

Almarka was jolted from her reverie as her belly flew into the air at a bump in the road. She remembered little of the feast anyway: she spent the majority of it drunk as a fish and stuffed with bread and cheese, due in no small part to Tahar, who hadn’t yet had to cede his place. Almarka placed her hands on her belly to steady it. In many ways, the festivities had been a sign of things to come.

Finally, the wagon pulled up to the back of a building, nondescript. Almarka lowered herself carefully to the street while the procurement team leapt into action, carrying sacks, baskets, and barrels of food into the building. She waddled in behind them.

Inside was a kitchen, one of hundreds of new sites throughout the city, that felt as busy as the Royal Kitchens on a feast day. The procurement team bustled about, dropping off the new supplies, while chefs and sous-chefs directed the work of the rest of the kitchen staff. Almarka recognized them well by now: these were just a few of the chefs Sadesh had hired for his wedding day. He’d kept them all on permanently. But they weren’t enough to staff kitchens outside the castle by themselves, and so Sadesh had turned to a more radical solution: the eastern nomads. For as long as anyone could remember, Lajjar had maintained a defensive policy toward the nomads who roamed the plains east of the Lajjari plateau, protecting the kingdom’s border and defending against raids. The new policy was more aggressive: the army began taking in raiders as prisoners of war, enslaving them and forcing them to work as servers and low-level cooks in the kitchens of the castle and the city. The King had also increased military recruitment, all but conscripting common men into the army. It was a departure from the previous balance of power, a risky foray into a new world, all to support these kitchens.

Almarka walked through the kitchen, edging awkwardly through small passages past nomads hard at work, and then stepped through a set of swinging double doors into the dining hall, the reason for this entire project. The ceilings were low and the room long and wide, filled with dozens of women--not noblewomen or even the wives of generals, but common women, the wives and daughters of laborers and craftsmen and clerks. Many were still skinny, a large minority were visibly plump, and a handful were genuinely fat, but all were stuffing their faces as though they hadn’t eaten in weeks. It was like nothing Lajjar had ever seen. It was a revolution.

Sadesh and Heskaya had announced the new policy at the end of their long wedding celebration. The time had come, said the returning king, to bring his old work to fulfillment. He had guided the kingdom to discovering the fertilizer that made them so prosperous, but they had not known what to do with their newfound prosperity. There was too much food even for the nobility to consume, and the outlying estates needed fewer and fewer laborers to produce it, sending a steady stream of landless, unoccupied peasants into the city. At the same time, Heskaya now graced the realm as its Queen, and her generosity, her need to share plenty and gluttony with those around her, was truly boundless. She inspired the king to share the ever-growing produce of the kingdom not just with the nobility but with every family, no matter how lowly. Hence, the public kitchens: a means to spread the wealth. They would assuage the social unrest that the influx of peasants had caused and maintain the power of the nobility and the King, who sat atop this system of benevolence, directing it and taking credit for it. Sadesh declared it a fulfillment of Lajjar’s glory, not a departure from the old ways of doing this but their perfection.

Of course, it was a departure in some ways, too. Heskaya’s vision of communal gluttony trailed after it the gender norms of her old kingdom, where obesity was exclusively feminine and men sought trim and martial physiques. On the one hand, common men, already skinny, embraced this new fashion wholeheartedly, walking the streets with a new pep in their step. The drafting of more and more men into the military to fight on the frontier only reinforced the trend, and the common man’s investment in it. The nobility, on the other hand, were slower to get in line, slower to lose weight and adopt the physique of the king. At first, this made those who resisted the king’s new program easy to identify, and Sadesh marginalized them by assigning them responsibilities in the distant countryside. The rest quickly realized that corpulence was too visible a marker of resistance and chose to slim down, too. And that made things murkier: those who feared the new systems, who saw the public kitchens and the rising obesity rates as an encroachment on their sacred privileges, became harder to identify. But their resentment continued to bubble beneath the surface.

Almarka just stood there and surveyed the room, unnoticed by diner and nomad alike. Her eyes lingered over a middle-aged woman who shoveled soup into her mouth and then sat back in relief; then a girl on the verge of adulthood, plumper than even just a week ago, knawing away at a leg of lamb; then the wives of two clerks from a nearby warehouse, distractedly nursing cups of beer while their hands unconsciously settled on their small, newfound bellies. The thought crossed Almarka’s mind--not for the first time--that even if she had lost her job in the castle, she would still be able to grow fatter by eating here. But she would lose Tahar that way, too. He would never speak to her again if he thought she endorsed this new project. And it wasn’t like she needed it, either - the new queen continued to invite Almarka to dine with her in her private quarters. Sometimes they talked about their childhoods, sometimes about the differences between Lajjar and Geta. And they both continued to grow. Almarka had already had new clothes made in the months since Heskaya arrived, and she suspected she would need a fresh set before long. Of course, Tahar wouldn’t exactly approve of this growing bond, either, but she saw him now so rarely there was little time to discuss it. The man would only be satisfied by a return to the status quo ante. In his eyes, the new queen was evil, the public kitchens an abomination.

Still, she thought, plucking a wedge of cheese from a tray just being carried into the room, no harm in snacking as long as she was here.

* * *

Halfway across the city, back in the central district, Tahar walked the halls of Garun’s private residence. Garun had shared it once with Sadesh, years along, long before he was king. Each brother had had a separate country estate, but they stayed together in the Melekia urban residence, one of the largest in the city. Tahar had been with Garun even then, just a mid-level chef but one quickly earning the trust of this future king. But Garun and Tahar had lived in the castle for years, and returning to the Melekia house felt wrong, like brushing hair against the grain. The house felt large and empty.

Tahar was now Garun’s Head Chef, and from time to time he prowled the halls of the house, making sure his staff adhered diligently to their responsibilities. He passed now by Muzara’s chamber, the door half open. She was sobbing--she had sobbed every day since the end of Sadesh’s wedding. Tahar could hear the voices of several of the serving staff in there with her, comforting her and offering her various sweet delicacies. Tahar had insisted that the kitchen turn out meals just as glorious as those Muzara had eaten in the castle, and he truly outdid himself: Heskaya would be jealous of Muzara’s diet if she knew what was being served in the Melekia house. And Muzara accepted these offerings with gusto, eating her feelings, growing even larger. Tahar could see just a fraction of her huge body through the half-open door; her neck and shoulders were now so fat they looked like they would strangle her. But her throat still allowed constant sobs to leave her lungs, and copious quantities of cakes and creams to pass into her belly. Two endless streams.

Tahar moved forward, rounding corners and peeking in rooms until he reached Garun’s study. He knocked on the door, again half open, and Garun waved at him to enter. It pained Tahar to see the former king these days: the man had fully embraced the new fashion, restricting his diet and engaging in military training exercises that left him looking thin, haggard even, though not much more muscular. He sat at his desk, an ink pen in one hand, a blank page before him.

“How are you, my Lord?” Tahar asked. The new style still pained him every time he addressed Garun.

Garun placed the pen back in its well and turned his chair around. “Fine,” he sighed. “Preparing a response to Lord Hatha. Tahar, will you close the door?”

“Of course, my Lord.”

Garun leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Still Hatha is not content. I have assured him that there is no political activity in the kitchens, no challenge to our rule. Your eyes and ears in the city have told you as much, no?”

Tahar nodded.

“But he does not believe me. He still thinks these kitchens are a first step toward the chaos of democracy, that the people will not stop at eating this food but only be satisfied when they can command it.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “I do not agree. I trust my brother. I trust your eyes and ears. It almost pains me to say it, but Lajjar has never been more glorious. I only wish it could have come at my hands…”

“My Lord, if I may, you should trust yourself more than you do now. The glory of the kingdom has indeed come at your hands! You took the great discoveries of your brother and brought them to fruition. The nobility, the Lady Muzara - they had never seen greater heights. You are right to trust your brother the King, but I do not trust the foreigner Queen. She has brought us a dangerous experiment that is still young. We cannot yet know its effects.”

“Tahar, you have always been loyal to me, but I am no longer the King. My brother is our rightful ruler, and your ultimate loyalty must be to Lajjar. Not to me.”

Tahar remained silent, biting his lip, almost as plump as he had been during his time in the castle. Garun said things like this more and more, even as he seemed to waste away. Tahar didn’t know what to do. He said as much as his station allowed, and he would not speak out of turn. But Garun seemed to be losing his resolve and his independence. It was as though Heskaya was feeding on him, body and soul, and he slowly faded to nothing as she grew larger and more solid.

“You are in a difficult position, my Lord,” said Tahar. “Lord Hatha and his allies remain displeased with Sadesh’s rule, and they see you as the rightful king. They want you to lead. They will not change their minds. But King Sadesh thinks you his closest ally, sees your loyalty, your willingness to sacrifice everything you had as the clearest validation of his return to the throne. You are wise, and kind, to try to reconcile these factions, but it is clear now that this cannot last; you cannot continue in both roles at once. Sooner or later, someone will be disappointed.”

Garun looked Tahar in the eye, earnest, disarmed. “You are right, of course, my dear Chef. You do always see these things clearly. I must make a choice.”

“Think carefully on it, My Lord.”

* * *

Time passed. Fall wore on, and the leaves turned from red and gold to brown, and they fell. The winds grew colder. The first snows couldn’t be far off. Almarka continued to visit the public kitchens, usually the same kitchen, but she couldn’t quite say why. Tahar asked for reports less and less, as there was little to report anyway. But still she went. She watched the middle-aged woman continue to drink down bowls and bowls of soup, her aging almost reversed as her wrinkles and loosened skin were plumped with newfound fat. She watched the girl become a woman, her limbs and cheeks growing rounder and rounder as a growing crowd of young men charmed and courted her. She watched the two clerkwives spend more and more of their days at the kitchen, their bellies and bosoms growing with every visit till they filled their laps and pushed them ever farther from the edge of the table, forcing them to lean forward as they delivered heaping bites of food to their mouths. But most of all, Almarka grew. On top of her visits with the queen, she began taking meals during her kitchen visits, ostensibly to test the quality of the food. She sat in the kitchen itself, steadily munching on breads and butter and roasts, watching the chefs and cooks and servers mill about tirelessly, filling her ballooning belly and the bellies of the women of the city.
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