The guanciale sizzled on the skillet as it lightly browned and rendered steadily. The steam and aroma from the pork fat wafted towards the exhaust vents near the ceiling but not before they had tantalized Ageha’s senses. He never got tired of the fragrance despite being enveloped by it daily.
He sprinkled in the minced garlic and gave the pan a quick toss. The boiling spaghetti was just about al dente, so he removed the pan from the flame. He roughly chopped the parsley as he waited for the pan to cool. After that, he cracked several eggs into the pan, using only the yolks from half of them. The young chef then whisked parmigiano into the mixture, slightly thickening it.
“This scaloppine goes in the bin. Thirty seconds too long in the pan. Rin, apologize to the customer and offer them a glass of wine on the house,” said the head chef.
““Yes, chef!”” said the two in unison.
Matsunaga always loses concentration when we’re in the weeds. It’s unfair that Rin has to take the flak for his amateurism.
Ageha listened to the usual ruckus in the kitchen as he lifted the pasta basket from the boiling water, gave it a shake, and then slid the contents into the liquid gold mixture. A splash of bianco was added for the finish. He adjusted the seasoning and gave it a taste.
Everything rolled to the plate followed by the herb garnish.
“Spaghetti Alla Carbonara is ready!” shouted Ageha, his voice reverberating in the kitchen. He brought the plate to the counter and dutifully presented it to the head chef.
The head chef slid the plate to the other end of the chef’s counter without tasting it and a waiter gracefully whisked it up and into the front of the house. Ageha could feel Matsunaga’s glare despite being at the other end of the kitchen.
“Don’t mind him. He’s just jealous,” said a fellow line cook.
“Why? He works at a better station. Sapore is better known for its secondo than its primo.”
“Because you’re a decade younger?” The cook’s mildly wrinkled face contorted into a wry smile.
“You are not like that though, Yama-san.”
Yama donned a proud smirk.
“I’m like wine, you see. Given enough time-”
“It becomes vinegar.”
Stifling his attempt to laugh, Yama elbowed him in his ribcage. They exchanged wry smiles and Yama returned to his station. As if to fill the void, the head chef promptly approached Ageha.
“You’re up,” said the head chef as he cocked his head towards Rin.
“Chef Kirishima?” Ageha quizzically looked at the head chef, then the waitress.
“The guest is asking for the chef who prepared the carbonara. Table twelve.” Rin’s bright voice travelled well. It fit her lively aura.
Ageha pondered the reason for the summons. He was confident in his dish.
“Stick your chest out if you think so,” said Kirishima.
Guess it showed on my face.
He shed his apron, wiped his hands on it, rounded the counter, and headed to the tables. He puzzled over what the customer would have to say until he reflexively halted his feet and almost lost balance.
Why is she here!?
Table twelve was at the center of the dining room, and seated there was a girl with a mien that implied that the world revolved around her. Their sights crossed. Ageha made the most polite smile he could. He knew the chance was miniscule, but coincidence was a possibility. Pretending that this was their first encounter, he walked naturally towards the table and introduced himself with a slight bow.
“Hello. My name is Ageha Shikimi. I prepared your pasta for tonight.”
“Looks like it’s my win, Saya.”
Ignoring him, the little girl spoke to the young woman across her while giggling. Her bare shoulders shook slightly in her formal, lilac dress.
“It is not really a bet if only you get to pick a side,” said the woman in a vest, her face sans emotion.
Ageha was lost in the sudden exchange. A crack ran through his mask.
“We wagered whether you would pretend that this is our first meeting or not, and I won decisively,” said the small girl as if reading his expression.
That expression instantly shifted to a much sharper one. Any traces of a smile were ripped away, leaving only the image of a snake staring at a rat. Ageha readied his ARMS for activity as he gradually lowered his center of gravity. Saya slowly backed her seat up in response. Ageha moved his gaze to Saya once he noticed this. He knew a fight here would end his career, but that would be better than being disposed of one-sidedly. Saya began to stand up while she continued to analyze Ageha’s every move.
“Why are you so upset over a loss? I can forfeit the bet if it’s that important to you.” The little girl’s jab doused the smoldering flames. The butler reseated herself.
“And you, is this any way to treat a guest at your ristorante?”
“It is, for people who don’t even introduce themselves.” His speech lost its politeness.
“But you already know who I am?”
He did not, but with her clue that was no longer the case. He blamed himself for letting the girl’s youthful appearance dictate his profiling.
“Perhaps you wanted Saya’s introduction?” Kaika turned to her butler.
“I apologize for the late introduction. My name is Saya Saionji, and I serve as Kai-Ojousama’s aide.”
Ageha ignored the formality and interrogated Kaika.
“How did you find me?”
“I was impressed with how quick on the uptake you were. Should I reverse that evaluation?”
My custom knife, he inferred and kept silent.
“I’m glad I can keep your grades up.”
“You’re actually worried over that?”
“He makes good blades.”
“Excellent. I’ll give you one more point.”
“How much weight does that have?”
“Irrelevant, since I arbitrarily decide the passing mark.”
Ageha felt exhausted at the seemingly pointless prodding and drooped his shoulders. He reverted to his daytime demeanor and dropped the scowl.
“Still hammering away. I don’t really see the value of his method though. Shouldn’t molded alloys be more durable?”
“You really have to feel it to know the difference.”
You’ll find out once I stick one inside you.
Ageha removed his gaze from Kaika’s coal-black eyes and contemplated if Shizan betrayed him but then stopped that train of thought. He realizedthat it would not technically be a betrayal even if Shizan had divulged information because they had never agreed on confidentiality in the first place. Shizan did not know the knife’s purpose.
“He didn’t tell on you. Saya just handed the knife to him and fooled him into believing it was found dropped somewhere. He accepted it, so we just waited for him to contact you, but he sent the knife to you via courier instead. It should arrive today.”
Kaika snuffed out his doubt as if she had read his mind. She sounded disappointed, as if expecting a more challenging hunt.
“The restraint is appreciated.”
Ageha did not bow despite the words of gratitude. Kaika could have resorted to more violent and efficient means to track him down.
“It wasn’t restraint. It was an issue of elegance. Also, despite what you think, we’re not here as enemies.”
“That’s hard to believe after what happened.”
“You mean what you did? Don’t speak about it like it was an act of god. I’m in fact very displeased, but vindictiveness should be selective or else it becomes petty.” Her cherubic smile never broke.
Ageha sensed fury in her words, but it was veiled so completely by her overt actions and speech that he doubted himself.
“Anyway, shouldn’t you be returning to the cucina now? Sapore can’t be missing a chef during a full house, right?”
As if her words directed fate, a loud crash reached the dining room. Ageha peeked at the direction of the kitchen and saw Matsunaga bowing over and over to the head chef.
“We can talk later. Go here tomorrow morning.”
While Kaika was convincing him to go back to the line, Saya handed him a slip of paper. He reluctantly received and crumpled it into his right trouser pocket. He turned on his heels and briskly marched back to what was now a battleground. His absence of only a few minutes had already damaged the service for that night.
“The carbonara was delicious. Guanciale with white wine is genius.”
Kaika’s words tickled his pride. He almost paused but resisted. He felt that the last comment was likely the only genuine thing she said, but that feeling might have been his arrogance rearing its head, or worse, him being victim to the girl’s verbal maneuvering.
He saw Rin on his way back to the cucina.
“Was it a complaint after all?” said Rin as she agilely put plates on her tray.
“Oh, no. She said it was delicious. And that I’m a genius.” Ageha remembered to smile.
“That’s great! I was worried after seeing your face just now.”
He admired the sincere concern on her fetching face. Her eyes clearly conveyed her honesty.
“I was just feeling guilty that I left my post so long while we’re so busy.”
Ending their short exchange, they quickly turned away from each other. Rin’s high ponytail swung and brushed Ageha’s back as if giving him a push. The primo chef swept all thoughts of the ominous pair from his mind and dove into the chaos.