Once, in a far land, there lived a magician whose great passion was not her studies but her food. In her youth she had applied herself passionately to her studies, but her particular school of magic emphasized asceticism and long hours of meditation. However, once she left her teachers and founded her own tower (she was enough of a traditionalist to prefer a tower, and humane enough to call it out of the earth’s bones in a remote location where it wouldn’t trigger seismic disturbances or ghost-plagues), her discipline began to slip. Away from her teachers and her solemn fellow students, it was not long before she began dreaming up feasts of custard and roast goose, couscous and eggplant, quail eggs and minty lemonades.
Traders soon learned of the new tower from far-wanderers and dream-seekers. The first ones brought the usual goods favored by magicians: whirring jeweled orreries, dried plum petals gathered from cloud-veiled peaks during the new moon, crystals brimming over with their own iridescence. Although the magician was too kind to say so outright, none of these tools of her trade interested her much. She bought some of this and that so that the traders would see some profit for their journey, and bid them come back next time with exotic foods.
The traders went away well-provisioned and laden with the kinds of small gifts that only a magician could provide, such as charms of trebuchet-warding (very useful in certain siege-ridden parts of the world), bat-binding, and may-your-sewing-needles-never-break. And then the magician settled back into her existence of meditations broken by the occasional galloping thunderstorm, and the even more occasional fantasy of chicken stuffed with rice, jujubes, and chestnuts, or tea-of-quinces.
The magician was not entirely idle during this time. Her mechanical servants gathered rarities such as firefowl eggs (the yolks had an unfortunate tendency to overcook) and mistfruit and the milk of dragons. At first these foods pleased her, but after a while her palate grew jaded and even these palled.
A year passed and the traders returned. This time there were three-fruit marmalades and rose liqueurs; a herd of plump, comically nearsighted goats ready for the slaughter; kumquat pickles in jars painted jewel-bright. The magician took in the goats but did not have the heart to roast them.
The traders had yet one more surprise for the magician: a jar of chopped dried pepper, piquantly red and to be handled only with gloves. (The magician had plenty of those.)
“A pepper?” the magician said, a little dubiously. It wasn’t that she disliked spicy food—she liked it very much indeed—but she wasn’t sure how far a single pepper would go.
“Its taste is very subtle,” said the oldest and wisest of the traders. “But chop it fine and sprinkle a little of it over each meal you wish to make special, and someday it will reward you.” More than that they would not say.
Years upon years passed. The magician experimented with the pepper, and found its taste so subtle that she could not detect it at all. Nevertheless, each year when the traders stopped by, she made use of it in preparing the welcome dinner so that they would not think her unappreciative.
At last illness came upon the magician, and she knew that death would overtake her before the traders came again. Moved by whimsy, she made herself a simple meal and seasoned it with the mysterious pepper. But this time, when she ate, all the memories of those previous dinners came back to her: not just the savor of roast boar or rare slices of beef alternating with candied ginger, but the traders’ convivial stories of seas where squid danced paeans to the kelp-gods, and the way they had laughed at the antics of her mechanical servants, and the pleasure of company after long months alone. And so it was at the end of her life that the magician finally understood the true value of what the traders had brought to her in their yearly visits.
For cohomology. Prompt: recursive pepper.