Just then, Sophie arrived at the alley. She marveled at the new shelves and table.

“The twins did this? This alley is overflowing with talent,” she said.

Joshua introduced her to the Mudd girls and they sat down to eat. The soup was deep and filling with little bits of vegetable mixed in with the thick broth. The beans in oil and salt were sweet and sharp. The spinach was rich and smothered in sweet browned garlic.

What had happened before? Had he been mistaken? Perhaps he let his anger cloud his taste somehow. Deep down he knew that couldn’t be the case. But even deeper than that, something told him he wasn’t entirely wrong.
After the meal, Sophie put aside her plate and told them story of the Alexander Minimus, the prince turned highwayman who lead the constables on a chase throughout the city and beyond.

“He led them through the sewers, through the streets of the Old City, across the docks of Vistamar, out into the Bungle Downs, then just a few dozen squatter’s huts and into the thorny forest beyond. The exhausted constables refused to follow him in there, so they sent for the world’s most devious assassin, a man who could blend in with the shadows and move without sound.”

The others all huddled close in a semi circle and listened intently as Sophie spoke. They were all huddled next to the grill for warmth. The fire had died down to warm orange coals. Smoke curled up the walls of the alley and past the spindly form of Hodmedod who stood atop the wall and looked down at the children in the alley.

Hodmedod walked across the crumbling, foot wide ruin without sound or visible effort. He strolled as if he were on a smooth sidewalk. He still wore the flour sack over his face and his red eye focused on the boy down below, the oldest who sat between the plump girl and the tall string bean.

He remembered Chef Gorgette’s command; if the boy proved to be anything more than an ordinary street rat, he was to take him. He’d wasted a whole day tracking down the child. Now, that he’d found him, he could see that this boy was no ordinary orphan. He almost burst out with laughter when he saw him cooking over his own grill.

He thought about it, the greatest (or second greatest) chef in the city had hired him to kill his rival. And then this chef had him track down a boy who apparently was also a chef. What it all meant he could not guess. Hodmedod had no idea food could be so important.

He would wait until they all went to sleep and then snatch the boy from his friends. Of course he didn’t even have to wait that long. He could simply leap down and take him. Woe to any of these urchins if they got in his way.
But as he was about to step off the wall and land in their midst he paused.

It bothered him that he didn’t know what Gorgette was up to. What was the feud between him and Cippolini? And how was the boy connected? How did he learn to cook? Was he secretly a student of Cippolini? Then why did he live on the street? Was it his parents who taught him how to cook? But then this was all a gigantic coincidence. Hodmedod couldn’t believe that.

Then Hodmedod came across an idea that intrigued him. Did Cippolini somehow pass his knowledge onto the boy? Could he do that?

He thought about Gorgette and how much he hated him. He’d worked for kings and premiers but Gorgette was more insufferable, more arrogant than all of them put together. And what was he but a mere cook? Sure, Gorgette had hinted broadly that the great chefs were more than they appeared. And most certainly his feud with Cippolini involved much more than a recipe for soup. But these great chefs were just one step up from the ratty men who sold fried bread and roasted eels from pushcarts.

Or are they?

With all of Hodmedod’s other clients there was at least a hint of respect; respect born out of fear. But when he looked into the eyes of Gorgette he knew the chef had no fear of him and thus no respect. Up until now he thought the man was just a fool but now he wondered. His own profession had many dark secrets to it. Did the chef’s craft contain even darker secrets? Had Cippolini passed these mysteries from his old wrinkled body to the body of this boy? Could that be it? Was that the secret of the great chefs?

The sun began to fall and the party below broke up. Three of the girls left the alley. Two headed for a hovel across the street while the golden haired one headed north. The rest of the children huddled into their little corners to go to sleep. Now was the time he could take the boy and no one would be the wiser. He’d take him and deliver him to Gorgette.

And then I’ll never know.

He’d never find out Gorgette’s secrets or what this boy knew. He’d never know what had happened to this boy to change him. And he wanted to know. Always when he’d been sent to kill someone it was over something valuable. This time was like all the others except the thing of value was hidden from him. That made it more desirable to Hodmedod than gold coins or a sharp dagger.

But what to do about it? If I don’t give the boy to Gorgette, at least not right away, then what?

He decided to sit back and observe. The boy had been impressive and certainly unusual. No ordinary street rat could have done all this. But maybe, if he stayed in the shadows and just watched, maybe this boy would do something even more remarkable. Then through that, he’d learn the secret that gave Gorgette his awful smug smirk. That was it. He’d sit back and observe.

Maybe even lend a hand.

After all, the boy was as good as in his power. Why not be charitable?


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