The recipe is hundreds of years old. He knows it by heart. Not the ingredients, of course, but the aroma. He knows the shimmer on the surface of the soup as light plays at it, the steam that rises from its depths as the winds try their hardest to have a taste, he knows these things as well as he knows the fields and flowers of his village, the crannies and nooks of his home, the depths and shallows of his soul. The soup is magic in its purest form.
And this particular bowl is completely wrong. Nun’banek knows this. The aroma is wrong, the shimmer is off, and the steam rises without indulging in any curling or twisting or dancing. As he carried the bowl to the table he shivered, was this done knowingly? Or did a new chef bungle the recipe? As a simple servant, he could not know the ingredients of the soup, that was part of its magic, but he was familiar enough with it to know something was very wrong. His hands trembled as he carried it over to the patrons — a group of emissaries hoping to seek foreign wisdom on foreign problems. They were surely told that this place was a good place for wisdom, a good place for understanding. They had indeed come to the right place, but Nunba regretted that they had come on the wrong day. It was too late now.
He placed the bowl, gently, onto the table. It was a large bowl, meant for all the table members to eat from. There was no individuality to the soup, though he did place smaller bowls before each person so that they may pour the soup into their own bowls if they so desired. The ladle was bronze. He did not know why, he always thought bronze tasted funny when he used it to serve other foods, but perhaps on this soup it had a different effect. He did not know, he had never tasted it.
Nun’banek watched from his position near the kitchens as the emissaries consumed their soup. No respect, no decorum, no consideration for the focus and soul that went into creating the meal. The mages in the kitchen trained many years to make this particular soup, for it was the essence of magic. Did they not understand that? Surely they didn’t, else they would revere every spoonful, and pray before eating. They ate with gusto, however, as all who had it did. It tasted delicious. Like things just beyond the veil of man’s greatest delights. A hair’s width away from divinity, every drop of the soup tastes of the sublime — the infinitely expansive wonder of infinitely small things, the infinite smallness of infinitely large things, and the deepest pain a human may experience: the realization that we are not meant to have divinity, only its shadow. But that is okay, Nun’banek thinks, because even divinity’s shadow is brighter than the morning sun. These are simple truths, so simple he sees them in the shimmer of the soup as he delivers it to others. He has never had the soup, and he wonders if he should. That is the trick of the soup: you cannot cook the soup until you’ve had it, and you cannot properly have it, until you have within you what is necessary to make it.
And so, though he trained as a chef for a decade, and though he trained as a meal mage for many more, he fulfilled himself in the service of delivering the soup to others. The smell, the shimmer, the steam. What more can a man like him ask of life? He would not taste the soup until he was certain that he had learned everything he could from just those things. Only then would he do so.
“Waiter,” beckoned one of the emissaries. He was a short fellow with a funny hat. Traces of the soup dribbled from his mustache as he called him over. Nunba walked over with trepidation. Surely there could not be an issue with the soup? Oh but the smell was off, and the shimmer was off, and the steam did not rise as it should have.
“May I be of service, sir?” Nun’banek asked, his hands fiddling behind his back. Did the meal mages mess it up? How could they mess it up?
“The soup is delicious! But my companions and I, we were told that there is wisdom to be had in the soup, and yet we found none. Should we ask for a new bowl? Or perhaps this is the wrong soup. You wizards have such confusing names for things.”
The name of things. Nunba pondered it for a moment. “Yes, sir, the soup is supposed to provide you with wisdom. Have you contemplated its aroma? The shimmer of the light on its surface? Have you observed the steam as it dances into the sky?”
The emissaries furrowed their brows, looking at one another. “No we have not, we expected that the soup would grant us wisdom. Is this not the way it should be?”
Nun’banek nodded. “Indeed it is, but it is not this way today it seems. Would you like me to ask the kitchen to prepare you another bowl? Magic is not always perfect.”
They nodded their assent and gave him their thanks, and continued to enjoy their soup. It was good, though it offered no wisdom for them. Nun’banek made to leave, but he watched them for a moment, serving themselves with the bronze ladle. Often, as he took the bowls of soup to the tables he served, he found himself in the substance. He saw his reflection in the shimmering of the surface, he felt the aroma of distant places — the places he ought to be, and he saw the dancing of the steam, the ceaseless climbing into the heavens where it truly belonged. He saw these things and saw himself. But they did not!
It occurred to Nun’banek, for the first time, to consider the bronze ladle. He pondered it, with his own brows furrowed. It was not supposed that wisdom be found in the ladle, but today he found it. For the soup was blundered by the meal mages. The ladle was the means by which the soup was served, and could never taste it for itself. Only carry it from one bowl to the next for the enjoyment of others. Oh, how like the ladle Nunba was.
He turned to the emissaries and said: “Before I bring you another bowl, I might offer to you the wisdom that your meal lacked today. It might do you a service, and whatever issues you need the counsel of cooking on, to consider the details of a situation. You spend too much time thinking of the soup, when you should think about everything that accompanies the soup. The smell, the shimmer, the steam.”
Nun’banek turned around and returned to the kitchen. He left the emissaries to contemplate his advice. He wondered if today he had been the ladle, or the soup.
He returned to the table and found it empty. The emissaries had left a generous payment and a lovely note.
Nun’banek sat down where the man with the mustache had sat, and served himself some soup.