Gant's Pass is a barren rock.
No sane person would choose to live there. Life forms that were too simple to be insane – plants, bugs, lichen and bacteria – refused to make the attempt.
Nothing had grown on that rock in recorded history, except for one crop. The barren rock that was Gant's Pass grew money for those crazy enough to live there.
But Gant's Pass was the only way to cross the Spine of the World within a thousand miles, so anyone who lived there controlled the access between eight different kingdoms. Once there was a city, with guards at the gates, anyone who would cross the mountain had to pay for the privilege.
Gant's Pass weathered the centuries well, and outlasted many kingdoms and even a few religions. Payment was accepted in precious gems and metals, or tradable goods only. Anything backed by the promise of a king had value as fleeting as the king himself, and the people of Gant's Pass built for keeps.
Harsh environments encourage thrift, and in the right circumstances, in a very harsh environment creativity can blossom. The Ganters, as they came to be known, had no native food crops. Anything that appeared on a Ganter plate was brought in from elsewhere, purchased from afar, or tendered as payment from even farther. A rich variety of foods could be found in the Ganter stores.
Nourished by this variety of goods, Ganter cooks became very skilled, and very creative. Eventually, over centuries, elite chefs in Gant's Pass developed their craft to a high art – the food poem.
An array of dishes, carefully composed, carefully prepared, and exquisitely arranged, combined to produce a rich experience for the diner. Flavors, aromas, textures, and many other factors would be combined in a succession of compliments and contrasts. In the most rarefied forms of the food poem, the chef herself would guide the diner through each dish and each combination of dishes, to make sure everything was enjoyed in the proper order.
Over the centuries, the skill of the Gant food poets had become such that a food poem could evoke moods and feelings, both powerful and subtle. To experience a master-class food poem was to scale the heights of emotion and to emerge profoundly changed.
Gantish chefs are in great demand in royal courts, and can pretty much name their terms of employment. They are a feather in the cap of any court for which they work, and can be an asset in other ways as well.
History records a time when war was narrowly averted following a banquet prepared by a Gantish chef named Kyria.
The king of Mylstein had dinner prepared for the kings of two neighboring lands, as part of a last-ditch effort to avoid a full-scale war. The heralds had been negotiating with each other for two weeks, and their kings had attended in person for the final two days. In the end, Karnheg to the east had refused to budge, and armed conflict seemed inevitable.
It had been hoped the banquet would be to celebrate a peace treaty. Instead, to many it had the air of whistling past an empty graveyard. The graveyard would be filled, all too soon, bodies from three kingdoms.
Kyria would not allow circumstance to affect her plans. She had created a rich food poem for her guests, and was determined to follow through. Step by step, she guided her guests of honor through the succession of dishes. Perfumes and music escorted each dish to and from the table, and servants adjusted the lighting and setting as needed to make the experience complete.
The chef did her work very well indeed. Even those who did not partake directly, but sat at the lower tables felt the effect. The longing for peace, for a long tranquil life on the part of tens of thousands who till the soil could not be ignored. Yet the king of Karnheg steeled himself against all the craft the Gantish chef could bring to bear.
The following morning, his delegation rode with grim silence into the morning fog. His departure was observed by witnesses from two kingdoms, equally grim.
Few indeed are those who know the full extent of the craft of a Gantish food poet. Those who have experienced the direct attention of such an artist know that, over the course of a meal, one can be carried to the heights of passion, to the almost unbearable extremes of joy or sorrow, or plummet to the darkest depths of despair.
A Gantish food poet draws from the rich palette of human emotion to work her art. Those who have experienced a food poem know this in a way no other can. Yet even among those with such visceral knowledge of a food poets craft, the vast majority share one belief: they assume the influence of a food poet ends with her meal.
In most cases, they're right. In the case of a grand-master, such as Kyria, the effect of a food poem can linger. A grand-master of the food poem can even arrange for the lingering traces to combine with each other, in a planned sequence that continues to be felt days later.
To lay out traces so they would combine after a longer period of time, for example, eight days, takes great skill. To have them build to an effect as strong, or even stronger, than the diner experienced at the food poem, takes skill that is greater still.
Kyria was extremely skilled at her craft. She was worth every ounce of gold and every gemstone her patron gave her. But she was paid for much more than her skill. She was rewarded for her loyalty to a king she had come to love. When she learned of the heralds' failure to reach a peace agreement, she undertook to remove a barrier to the agreement.
The official histories do not record a cause of death for Pyllo IV, king of Karnheg. They do record that he died eight days after he left the court of Mylstein, and one day before the gathered armies of Karnheg would have begun their attack on Mylstein.
They also record that on his coronation, Phyllo V ordered the armies to stand down and his heralds to return to the negotiating tables, and this time, certain items would be negotiable.
The official histories do not record – indeed, never can record – how Phyllo IV died. They can never note that in the still of the night, in the privacy of his own dreams, Phyllo IV experienced the final crescendo of emotion induced more than a week before in a food poem. The lingering influences, added at nearly the last hour by a food poet of consummate skill, did her bidding in the dark of night, in a locked and guarded room, miles away from where they had been created.
All the food served at the final banquet – indeed all the food served to Phyllo IV at any time – had been sampled by trained tasters. But the tasters did not experience the foods in the sequence Phyllo did, nor in the surroundings he did. Kyria's craft was not aimed at them, and her weapon passed them by. In Phyllo IV, it struck home.
Though no poison crossed his lips, Phyllo IV was killed by something he ate.