Alenka watched Efrosina disappearing into the marketplace. The blasted woman shouldn’t be here. She had left town two months ago. Alenka stepped toward the door, hesitated, and stepped back. She couldn’t leave the diner. She needed to cook. Besides, Efrosina had the rights to be anywhere. Soon she would come here and ask for her usual Sunday basilisk steak.
“Damn that crafty old hag,” Alenka muttered as she peeled and sliced. The furious staccato of her knife on the wooden board echoed her anger. Two years ago, she had bought the place from Efrosina, poured all her savings into it. The old crone stipulated one rider: for the next two years, every Sunday, she would come to the diner and have a basilisk steak for free.
Alenka had agreed, even though basilisk meat was terribly expensive. The diner meant her freedom. It meant Alenka would never be a slave again.
Today was the last Sunday of her two-year contract, but Alenka hadn’t ordered basilisk since Efrosina departed the city a few months ago. That’s why the old shrew returned—to catch Alenka on the breach of contract and get the diner back. Alenka should’ve kept ordering the accursed basilisk until the end, but Efrosina’s leaving had lulled her into complacency. Now, she would lose the diner. And then what? Back to slavery? Despite the heat of the oven, she shivered. What to do?
She chopped and kneaded, stirred and served like a wooden doll, her guts twisting with dread. The threat of slavery hung over her like the stink of rot.
“Alenka, my dove, why so glum?”
Alenka shook off her stupor. She always chatted with Perun’s priest Agafon and his buddy, shoemaker Gavril. The delightful old geezers often lunched here, and today was the first time she failed to welcome them.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “I was distracted. What were you talking about?”
“I told Gavril about my latest baby naming,” Agafon said. “There was such an uproar. You know the cats’ mewing sounds exactly like baby’s cries.” He chuckled.
“Ah,” Alenka said absently. She unloaded their borsch and garlic buns and started back to the kitchen, when an idea scratched in her head, so outrageous she stumbled. “Naming,” she whispered and whirled back. “Agafon, do you name only babies? Could you name anything else? A turkey?”
Gavril guffawed. Agafon looked surprised.
“A baby turkey?”
“No,” Alenka said. “A plucked turkey, gutted and marinated.” Disregarding Gavril’s mock-turkey clucking, she leaned on the table and told them about Efrosina.
Gavril stopped teasing and swore viciously. Agafon listened in silence. When she finished, he nodded.
“I will help you,” he said.
A few hours later, Efrosina marched into the diner, a triumphant smirk distorting her jowls. “Do you have my basilisk?”
“Of course.” Alenka set the full platter of steak and mashed roots on the table. “Today is the last Sunday of our contract. I was expecting you.”
“You were?” Efrosina frowned and tried the steak. Then her smirk returned. “This is not basilisk. This is turkey. You’ve cheated on the contract. The diner reverts back to me.”
“No, it’s Basilisk,” Alenka said coldly. “Priest Agafon named it just before I cooked it. He issued me a naming certificate, signed by two witnesses. If you go to court, I’ll present the certificate, and you’ll lose the case. It’s Basilisk steak. My contract is valid.”
“But it is turkey,” Efrosina spat.
“It was born turkey,” Alenka said. “Now it’s Basilisk. The contract said I should serve you basilisk steak. It doesn’t say the steak should’ve been born basilisk. I keep the diner.”
Original cover art by Auguste de Mersseman