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"He did it! That little scrub of a mathematician did it!

" Assim threw himself do wn on a couch in the common room. His fellow students gathered around him. "Oh, what a sight. Twelve master culinary aestheticians, all tasting and analyzing wi th all their might." "Wait," interjected a jet skinned girl where she sat entwined with a girl as fai r as she was dark, "are you talking about Taleb? He's back?" "He's back," confirmed Assim, eyes dancing. "And he cooked the masters a meal?" "Yes. I was pressed into service at the last moment to pour beverages. Never bef ore have I carried greenberry juice in one pitcher and stonefruit lassi in the o ther." His fellow culinary students regarded him in astonished silence. "Still no wine in Taleb's meals, then?" hazarded one. "But how did he get the masters to sit for a meal, much less let him come back?" asked another. "An old rule," said Assim, leaning back, obviously pleased to be the center of a ttention. "A candidate may demonstrate a basic panel of skills, then produce a m eal for twelve judges who, if they unaninomously agree, may confer a culinary li cense on him. They eat themselves and observe the reaction of public diners of g ood taste eating the same meal on the far side of one way glass. It's for certif ying foreigners and professionals from family traditions, you understand, when t here were still enough around to make a difference." "Taleb's basic skills are certainly sound," the jet skinned girl allowed. "His c ooking skills, anyway. I still haven't forgiven him for telling me I'd suffer le ss in the kitchen if I lost three kilos." "Fortunately he never emerged from the kitchen," Assim told her. "Well, how did it all go?" "A disaster!" Astonished cries and a few laughs met Assim's declaration. "The fo undations of our aesthetic tradition are well and truly shaken. I believe old Ma ster Ruyval may have to be taken to the infirmary." "Taleb's managed to subvert the scent complex?" "No, no," nothing so concrete, Assim assured his audience. "No, our dear Taleb w orked within our scents, our five tastes, our familiar ingredients and technique s. He began with a pairing you all will know--" "He didn't begin with scallops under black lentils with mayonnaise followed by a mint pesto salad!" cried the jet skinned girl's companion. "Not Torihei's meal the viceroy again!" "He did. That famous meal, one we all know so well. And," Assim continued, grinn ing lazily, "he followed it with a shrimp soup." Again, blank astonishment. Then, "Oh, subtle, subtle Taleb," a plump boy, more historian than cook, said, b eginning to giggle. "Shrimp soup! An exercise set by Torihei to his student Golu sh. The palest of white shrimp soups!"

"Wait, Golush who--?" "Yes, Golush," Assim said, "who formulated the theory of holistic meals and laid down the formulas by which we organize our succession of dishes. The masters we re commenting on it, you may be sure. Not the public diners on the far side of t he one way glass, of course. They were too enamored of the white pepper." "Yes, Taleb did have a deft hand with pepper," the jet skinned girl agreed sulle nly. "But shrimp soup after Torihei's opening," the plump boy said. "There's only one way to follow--" "Yes, so our masters were saying," Assim assured him. "A splash of orange next o r the color balance to the whole meal cannot be saved. And what do you think cam e out?" They all hung on his words as Assim smiled and took a deep breath. "Spin ach with a filet of a snapper atop it, all doused in clarified butter." "But orange!" was the general cry. "There are only so many permutations of the m ain colors which are balanced!" "Unless he was choosing an intentionally one colored meal," offered the plump bo y. "It has happened--" "No such luck," Assim told him. "The spinach and snapper were served with pomegr anate juice. I poured it myself. And then came carrots lightly pickled with ging er and the weakest of iced mint tea." "The masters must have been furious," someone remarked. "There isn't a permutati on of a small number of dishes that will restore color balance to that, or flavo r balance, or any other criterion Gulash formulated." "No, and they were saying as much," Assim agreed, "all the while gorging themsel ves on the carrots." "What were the public diners doing?" the plump boy demanded. "Chatting companionably while being gluttons." "They weren't bothered?" "Apparently not at all. And when the semisweet white pudding came out and I was pouring greenberry juice and stonefruit lassi, the masters almost had a coniptio n while the public diners cried for the chef to come out and be toasted." This brought on another shocked silence while Assim regarded his audience with a smile. "Discering diners dislike unbalanced meals," said the jet skinned girl at least, untangling herself from her companion. "We've seen it. It's why we have the the ory." "And yet," answered Assim, waving his hand airily. "While the masters were argui ng, I dropped by the kitchen on my way out and asked Taleb about it." He fell to regarding his fingernails. "And what did he say?" prompted the plump boy as last. "I didn't fully understand the answer, but it appears that there have been some advances in the study of symmetry since Golush's day. Something about approximat

e subgroups or the like." "So we have more plans for meals? How many?" "I asked Taleb that myself." "And?" "He shrugged and handed me some pudding." They all contemplated this for a momen t, until at last one of them broke the silence. "Goddamn mathematician and his existence proofs," muttered the jet skinned girl.

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