An Old Knives Tale

This week the Debs are sharing deleted scenes, shifts in their books and all sorts of behind the curtain tidbits. 

When I began writing FEAST OF SORROW, I was writing a very different book, about a celebrity chef with a special set of magical knives. I wanted an origin scene for those knives and this is what happened. I kept some of this in the book, but most of it went snip, snip. But these are the scenes I fell in love with, that caused me to scrap the other book entirely and only tell the story of Apicius. It’s funny to look back at this, because Apicius by this point in the book is a very different person that portrayed here. Some of this may also feel out of context, but I swear, if you read FEAST OF SORROW, it will all make sense.

Apicius went into town, alone and unaccompanied by his usual entourage of slaves and assistants. Thrasius was consumed with the compilation of a new scroll of recipes, including some new ones that had been cooked during last night’s cena. Apicius thought this was all well and good. He didn’t want company on this trip. He had in mind a way to solve his monetary dilemma and did not want to share the details with any others, for fear they may turn him from his cause.

Malleolus, a small man with dark hair streaked with white, had his shop in the front room of the large residence that he owned. He lived in a luxurious apartment in the back and rented out the upper insulae to Roman plebs. Apicius was glad to see that the doors to his shop were open. Malleolus sat on a stool behind a long counter that displayed a variety of shiny swords and knives. polishing an amber encrusted dagger on his lap. Apicius greeted his old friend with a firm arm clasp and a large smile. The arms dealer seemed equally pleased to see him. Their fathers had been good friends and they had played together as children.

“What brings you to my shop, Apicius? I sell no delicacies, no peacocks, no figs or onions! Only knives and swords, my friend.”

“Then I am in the perfect place, Malleolus. I am in the need of knives.”

Malleolus wrinkled his brow, causing the long scar on his forehead to slightly whiten. “Are you in trouble, Apicius? Why do you need protection?”

Apicius was initially taken aback by the question, worried that his fellow Romans knew about his dwindling coffer. Then he realized the truth of what Malleolus was asking. “No, no, it is nothing like that,” he laughed nervously. “No one wants to harm me! I am looking for knives for a gift.”

“Ahhh, that makes more sense! Now tell me, what kind of knives are you looking for? I have a new shipment in from Alexandria. There are some very fine blades being made there that may suit your needs.” Malleolus turned and pulled something off the shelf behind him. He pulled off the burlap wrapping and unveiled a rosewood box which contained a delicately carved bone-handled dagger.

Apicius lifted the knife from the box and examined it, noting the fine detail of the ivory antelopes and snakes that adorned the handle. “Whomever carved this handle has great talent,” he said. “But no, Malleolus, I don’t need a dagger. Not today at least. I’m looking for a very special set of cooking knives.”

Malleolus repacked the dagger in the box and put it away, not speaking for a moment. When he turned back to Apicius, he tried to hide his disgust, but the raise of his right eyebrow gave him away. “I do not sell cooking knives, Apicius.”

Apicius chuckled, understanding what that facial gesture meant. He would have felt the same had he been in Malleolus’ place. He was not a common merchant, but a merchant that carried only the finest goods sought after by the richest and most elite. “I realize that. But I am not looking for anything ordinary. I’m looking to have a set made, to my specifications, with the highest quality materials. I want, in short, the finest cooking knives you have ever imagined. I want them able to slice through paper, cloth and bone with equal measure. I want them to be so well-constructed that they will last for a thousand years. And I want you to help me find the man to make these knives.”

“The finest cooking knives ever?”

“Yes,” Apicius nodded. “I will pay one million sestertii to find and acquire these knives. One third of that is your fee,” he said, hoping that the nervousness that he felt at offering such a sum wasn’t evident.

Malleolus gasped. He placed both hands on the counter and leaned toward Apicius. “One million sestertii? For cooking knives? Has Juno struck you mad?”

“Perhaps. But this is a gift that will fulfill a lifelong debt. I’ve thought long and hard about this. I have sought the blessing of Honos and Sancus and I feel that the cost of these knives is the least that I can do to give honor where it is due. I came to you because I trust you to help me find the man who will make these knives. I need a master and you are the one who knows how to find those masters. I also know that you won’t cheat me.”

Malleolus reached behind the counter and pulled out a flagon of wine. He uncorked the vessel and poured the wine into two red clay cups, topping it off with a measure of water from another nearby pitcher. His hands were shaking and several drops spilled onto the counter. “Falernian, sweetened with honey,” he said, handing a glass to Apicius and raising his own in a toast.

“I’m impressed! This is very fine wine, my friend. And so, you will take on my quest to find me the finest knife maker in the world?”

The arms-dealer smiled. “Yes, I’ll find him for you. You will have the strongest and most beautiful knives that you have ever seen.” He swirled the glass to mix the flavors then sipped the wine with closed eyes and a serene smile. “Ahhhhh. This is very good.”

Apicius took a long draught. Falernian was a sweet wine that aged well and without bitterness. It was hard to come by and he always enjoyed sharing a bottle with friends.

“I’ve heard rumors of a man in Damascus who knows how to make swords of a metal that is nearly unbreakable,” Malleolus said, breaking their wine-soaked moment. “I hear tale that they are so strong and flexible that they can cut a piece of silk in half as it falls to the ground. They can slice right through our bronze swords, and even rock, without a dent or without losing its edge.”

“That sounds too good to be true.”

He nodded his head. “It sounds rather fantastic, but I have heard this from not one but three merchants, respected men who would not have cause to tell tales. In all cases they did not have the swords to market because the cost was too high. They say that the blades are forged with a pattern of turbulent water that is beautiful to behold.”

“If that is true, how long would it take to find out?”

“Tonight I will leave votives for both Honos and Fortuna that this will be a journey of both honor and great success. In the morning, I will leave for Damascus. Bring me the fee in the morning at dawn. I will find this man, impress upon him the importance of this commission and will oversee the making of your knives. I will take your payment to me only after you are satisfied that I have done right by you and by the gods. I will return when I have found our smith and he is hard at work on your new knives.”

“I can lend you slaves for the journey, if you need an escort. That is a long trip and I don’t want anything to happen to you or my money.” Apicius found that he was shaking as well. This was a great risk but he had faith in Malleolus. He was known across the land for the quality of his work. And the fact that when they were 12 and Apicius saved his life from a wolf also went a long way to forge a bond between the men.

“No, do not worry. I’ll take two men with me and that should be enough. More would only draw attention to me. Better that I travel as I always do when riding a trade route. I am well-known and will be safe.”

Apicius reached into his tunic and pulled out a small scroll. He unrolled it and set it on the counter in front of Malleolus. On the parchment was a series of illustrations of the knives that he wished to have made. There were two, one with a slightly curved blade the size of a man’s hand and the other a straighter blade with a length somewhat shorter than a woman’s hand. In the margins he had included notations of the full dimensions.

“I am less concerned with the handles than I am with the blades. I am serious when I say that I want these knives to last until far in the future. I want this knife to be passed down through my beneficiary’s family. Handles can be replaced. The blade needs to remain indestructible.”

Malleolus downed the rest of his wine. “This commission may take some time. Such craftsmanship shouldn’t be rushed. Do you have time?”

Apicius nodded. “Yes I have time. This gift must be perfect. I’ll wait.”

“Good, we are settled then.” The arms dealer stood up and moved around the counter, knocking off a dagger to the floor as it caught on his robe. He picked it up and waved it playfully at Apicius. “Now go, get out of my shop. If I am to go away for the next month then there is much I need to do to prepare. I’ll see you in the morning,” he said, pointing the knife toward the door.

Apicius bowed slightly and retreated. His palms were sweaty and his heart was pounding. He had done it. Now the clock would tick slowly down.

~~

Biton raced around the table after his little dog, Kepa. The sleek black hound loved this game nearly as much as Biton. Kepa held a short stick in her mouth and Biton would chase her around until he caught the dog and could throw the stick once again. His mother hated when they played the game indoors. “You’ll break something!” she would always say. This afternoon neither his mother or his father were home and the slaves were tending to the garden, leaving Biton and Kepa to race through the house and the yard at will.

Biton had almost caught her when she raced around the doorway into the room where his father kept his forge. Biton expected Kepa to run through the open wall into the courtyard but she was too smart for that, opting instead to run Biton in circles around the room. After one or two near misses, Kepa changed direction, causing Biton to stumble and fall, his shoulder jolting the small table next to his father’s slack tub. From the floor he heard a crash above then the splashing of water against water.

“Oh Kepa, now we’ll be in trouble,” he muttered, pulling himself off the rushes to survey the damage. Kepa sensed that something was wrong and stood tentatively in the opening between the forge and the courtyard, nervous that shouts might suddenly be aimed in her direction. Biton brushed off the dust and shavings from his clothes and looked to the table he had crashed into.

The table was well-used and the surface worn and smooth. His mother had spent many hours here, mixing her potions over the nearby firepit and enjoying the company of his father while he forged. She was a well-known sorceress in the town, both respected and feared. She would be furious at him for playing in this room and even more furious when she saw that two of her potions had drained into the water of his father’s slack tub. He picked up a nearby rag and began to wipe up the mess on the table. Fortunately, the little clay bottles had not broken. However, the corks had popped off and the silvery contents emptied into the forge water where his father cooled the steel of his famous swords. He picked up each bottle to replace the cork, hoping that his mother would just think that she had failed to fill them. On one was scrawled in charcoal the symbol for memory. The other bottle was charcoal-marked as well, with the symbol for ambition. He set them upright and stood back. Once the liquid on the table had dried, hopefully his mother wouldn’t be able to tell that someone had been in the room. That is, of course, unless she noticed that the bottles were empty. She’d been rather absent-minded of late–the baby’s fault–she always said. Biton wasn’t sure how the baby in her stomach could affect her memory but he hoped that it was true this time.

Biton raced past his dog into the courtyard. “C’mon Kepa, let’s go outside.”

~~

Nearly two years passed before Malleolus sent word to Apicius with the news that his knives had been completed and that the blacksmith had traveled to Rome to present them personally. His note requested a meeting the next morning. Apicius read the scrap of parchment down with a shaking hand.

“Is there anything you would like for me to carry back?” asked the slave who had delivered the message.

“Tell him that I’ll be there as requested,” he said, dropping a copper coin into the boy’s hand.

That night was mostly sleepless for Apicius. He couldn’t stop thinking about his decision and about the knives. He was worried that he had wasted his one million sestartii on a trickster. Last night Thrasius had gone over the books with him once more. He had estimated that there was close to 11 million sestartii left in the city coffers under his name. Only 11 million! Gone were the days of lavish feasting. Gone were the days of heavy patronage to schools and the arts. Gone were the expensive gifts that each guest received upon leaving his domus. He was nearly a pauper and it wouldn’t be long before all of Rome would know.

That thought steeled his resolve. He decided to forgo his morning meal in bed, instead rushing his slaves through his morning rituals. When he left the house with a large bag of gold aureas tied beneath his toga, he felt, for the first time in the last two years, in control and powerful. He knew how this would end and it wouldn’t end with all of Rome seeing him as a pauper.

When Apicius reached Malleolus’ insula, he dismissed the four slaves he had brought as bodyguards before knocking on the door. Malleolus himself answered, a broad smile on his tanned face.

“My dear friend, today is a very happy day for you! Come inside and meet Sayyid, master of swords.” He ushered Apicius into his apartments. The curtains were drawn on the eastern windows and the sunlight gave the room a warm glow.

Sayyid waited in the courtyard where he was lounging on a long chaise that Apicius recognized from the interior of Malleolus’ rooms. A large tray of grapes and cheese sat on the table in front of him, untouched. He was a tall man with a close cropped beard of thick dark hair. Not a Roman citizen, he did not wear the traditional toga but instead wore trousers and a dark shirt as was befitting a foreign merchant. Apicius caught a flash of gold from a long chain hidden underneath his tunic.

Introductions were made and Apicius took the bench opposite Sayyid. He was pleased to find that he was not nervous but instead felt an excitement that he had never thought possible. These knives were crucial to his elaborate plan and he found that he was anxious to have them in his own hands.

Malleolus waved a slave over to clear the table. From under the bench, Sayyid brought forth a box of dark mahogany and set it in front of Apicius. “My lord,” he said, his Latin heavy and punctuated with northern accent, “I believe that you will find great pleasure in these knives.”

With a deep breath, Apicius reached over and opened the box. Inside lay two beautiful ebony handled knives, both made in the shape he had specified. One was longer, meant for carving and the other shorter, designed for smaller kitchen tasks. The metal of each blade contained a beautiful and delicate pattern that looked very much like flowing water. He touched his finger to the flat of the larger blade, expecting to feel a raised impression but instead found that it was smooth.

“Pick them up,” Malleolus urged.

Apicius did, pleased at the weight of the instruments. And oh! The blade was very sharp. He knicked his finger with the slightest test.

One thing that would have happened if I had used this section in the other book I had been working on…forging the knives in that magic-imbued water would have centuries-long consequences. I still may write that book yet!
FEAST OF SORROW is available on April 25th. You can pre-order in all these fine places: Amazon | B&N | BAM! | Google | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo

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Crystal King is a writer, culinary enthusiast and social media expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and an obsession with the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught writing, creativity and social media at Grub Street and several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University. Crystal received her masters in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives with her husband and their two cats in the Boston area.