Almost lost among the professional certificates hanging on the dingy wall was a hidden gem. A single sheet of vellum, covered in elaborate calligraphy, bearing several signatures of dignitaries, and the seal of the university.
The frame was unassuming, to better fit with the lack of tasteful or current decor.
Dust was on most everything, and somehow a splash of an unknown redish liquid obscured the name of the university, leaving a visitor to uneasily get the impression of a learned but careless person.
Little would they know that the splash was concealing a vastly more prestigious name than would ordinarily be seen in such a dingy setting. Or for that matter, that there was a slight difficulty with the dates and names on the vellum. Not at all that they were incorrect, or that the document was forged. More that neither the document nor its owner bore the appearance one might expect for the age implied by those dates.
Both were remarkably well preserved, but Michel well knew that simply placing that treasured document in plain sight was the best way to preserve it. Nobody would look closely, and those who did would see exactly what they wanted to see. People are funny that way.
The scene laid out before me was a rush of sound, colors, flavors, and smells.
At the center of the storm was a man dressed in crisp chef whites. He hardly needed to speak as his kitchen operated like a well-oiled machine around him. As he reached for each part of the elaborate dishes he assembled, they were always at hand. The choreography perfect, the timing impeccable, and the finished presentations works of art. At the outer fringes, interns worked frantically, hoping one day to be noticed and brought into the inner circle.
Almost as an afterthought, the finished works of art were whisked away by the perfectly attired staff for delivery to the patrons.
No movements were wasted. Each player knew their part in the larger dance, and each arrived on their marks exactly on cue.
And yet, somehow, each managed to make room for the kitten that wandered from station to station as if inspecting everyone’s work, and who seemed to be giving the final approval to each dish served.
I knew without asking that no one would admit the kitten was there, that the kitten was the real master of this kitchen.
The aroma of the pond was the first thing you noticed. Slightly earthy, with strong notes of algae and decay, the aroma set a mood that was hard to ignore. Many hate it. A few love it. Hardly anyone who has stood in a swamp comes away without an opinion.
The pond, although very present in our memory, is not why we were there.
We were after a rare opportunity.
The swampy pond was the perfect place to pursue it.
Despite its stagnant appearance, such ponds are teaming with life. And that life is interesting. It was a similar sample of water that van Leeuwenhoek chose to examine when he invented the microscope. They are breeding grounds for insect larvae, and for the fish and amphibians that feed on them.
This pond was no exception to all of that.
It was a striking example. Dappled sunlight falling through the heavy leaf cover from the moss and lichen laden trees at its border. Signs were there of a long abandoned beaver dam that likely had created the pond when it was new. Someday the pond would be a marshy meadow. Until then, it was a lovely backdrop for our work.
We just weren’t expecting the thing that was looming in the shadows.
For a long time, we preyed on just enough travelers to keep us fed and clothed without being greedy.
But lately, the temptation to take more was always there.
And who better than to foment that temptation than the wandering bards and itinerant teachers who filled the heads of our younger members with grand ideals, tempting them to stray from our proven path.
And to think that we had been kind to them in their time of need.
My rule had been absolute. Take only the fat merchants, and then, only their purses and some of their goods. Take as little of their dignity as practical, lest they be motivated to do more than band together for protection.
Then we rescued that teacher from starvation.
And let him repay us in kind.
And now our youths are wondering if we have the right to prey on travelers. If we have the right to live as we have for decades.