336: Coming Up Short

on December 29, 2008 in Book 12

In Which Honey Has A Rising Premonition

Kyle was the last person to come forward, with a thick, plain white envelope that would be the final gift of the party, unless Steff showed up with her hand-made deck.

“Here,” he said. He shrugged. “I’m not sure if this counts as wrapping.”

“Thank you. I’m not sure, either,” Two said. She opened it up and it was a stack of gift certificates… for White House.

“You gave her gift certificates for the place she works at?” I asked. “Don’t you guys get free food anyway?”

“One free meal for every shift,” Two said, nodding.

“She won’t take anything more than she’s entitled to,” Kyle said. “It drives me freaking crazy the way she stares at the ice cream dispenser sometimes.”

“Is that everyone, then?” Hazel asked, looking around the room. Her eyes stopped on Amaranth and me. Amaranth cleared her throat.

“Steff will probably be coming by later,” Amaranth said. She turned to Two. “She had some important things to take care of, but she loves you very much.”

“I know,” Two said.

Dee had slipped around to stand beside me.

“Is Steff’s absence simply a bit of unreliability, or is something amiss?” she asked quietly.

“Um… something might be amiss,” I said. “But hopefully not too badly.”

“Your reassurance would be more effective if it were not for your record of badly underestimating the magnitude of problems in the recent past,” Dee said.

“It‘s really not that bad this time,” I said. “She does have a weapon that‘s probably evil, but we’re pretty sure this one’s not possessed by anything. Or at least, we don‘t have any reason to think it might be.”

“Is there any chance whatsoever that I’m simply failing to understand your strange surface humor?” Dee asked.

“Um, sorry, but no,” I said.

“And what is being done about this?”

“Viktor’s out looking for her,” I said. “Amaranth didn’t want to cancel the party for it.”

“Is that the best response, considering the potential threat to life?” Dee asked.

“I think Steff’s really more of a danger to herself right now than to anybody else,” I said.

“How so?”

“She’s got a life-stealing knife that heals the wielder in equal measure to the wounds it inflicts, and she was using it to cut herself and feel it heal,” I said. “We’re mostly worried about what it might do to her mentally or emotionally.”

“If that is truly the case, then I must agree with Amaranth,” Dee said. “Perhaps I am not as good a friend to Steff as I should be, but I would not subtract this small amount of joy from Two’s life to pull her out of the peril she has placed herself in.”

“That’s a little harsh,” I said.

“Perhaps my keen elven senses have failed me, but it appears to me as though you are here enjoying the party and not out searching for Steff, ” Dee said. “I may have stated it a bit baldly, but I believe Steff herself would not approve of canceling the celebration on her behalf.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I admitted. “Amaranth said she’d hate herself for missing it, but she’d hate it even more if everybody else did.”

“Alright, then,” Hazel said loudly, getting everyone’s attention. “We’ve decided to forego the traditional candles… or the candles that would be traditional for a birthday party, anyway… in order to head off arguments from the guest of honor. So, in lieu of that, Two, love, would you like to cut the cake?”

“Yes, I would,” Two said.

“Wonderful. Now, I spent a lot of time decorating this, so let’s all gather around and have an admiring look at it before we start the slaughter,” Hazel said. “Oh, actually can we get the cake onto the table and then we can spread out the rest of the spread on the counter?”

The cooking students jumped to work, moving the big cake box over to the card table. Hazel pulled out a chair and hopped up on it.

“You want to do the honors, Haze?” a pretty black-haired girl asked, gesturing to the lid.

“Are you kidding me? I barely got it on,” Hazel said. “You do it, and I’ll just give a little flourish or something.”

The girl said, “Okay,” and then went to lift up the lid while Hazel posed like she was presenting a prize..

When the box came open, I could see why she was so proud of the work… and why she’d been so cautious about how it was transported. It was a big sheet cake covered with pale blue frosting, with slightly darker blue roses made from mounds of frosting as a border around the edges. They almost doubled the height of the cake. The runes from Two’s forehead, from which she had approximated her own name, were also rendered in blue icing across the center.

“Oh, Hazel, that looks just lovely,” Amaranth said. “Very pretty… and I’m sure the people who eat it will agree it’s delicious.”

“Are you sure you can’t have a piece?” Hazel asked. “I promise you no animals died for it.”

“No, I’m afraid I really can’t,” Amaranth said. ”Butter, milk, and eggs are all animal products, even if they don’t result in death when they’re harvested.”

“Alright, then,” Hazel said. “I won’t argue with anything that leaves more for me.”

While Two started measuring the sides of the cake with her fingers in the air next to it, Hazel hopped down and went over to the counter, where she scaled a barstool and then pulled herself up to get the rest of the food arranged. She pulled a towel off a multi-tiered silver tray which held a bunch of delicious looking tidbits and unstacked and uncovered a bunch of plates that had sandwich makings on them.

“Nothing on these trays has wheat in it,” Hazel said, pointing to the silver tower, which held things like bits of fudge and cheesecake, and candied fruits and nuts. “And nothing on the bottom one has animal bits.”

“These look interesting,” Dee said, gliding over and looking at the candied fruits on the bottom shelf. She picked up a ring of sugar-glazed pineapple. “Is this a bit of confectionery which has been made to resemble fruit, or fruit which has been made into confectionery?”

“Er, the latter,” Hazel said. “Crystallized pineapple.”

“Crystallized?” Dee repeated.

“Preserved with sugar,” Hazel said. “There’s also orange peel, cherries, and apricots there, and toasted almonds.”

“Interesting,” Dee said. She picked up a cherry. “This appears to preserve the fruit’s shape to a degree, as well.”

“Well, yeah. They shrink a little as they lose their water, but you can still tell what they are.”

“Indeed. I considered and rejected the idea of sending some jars of plum jelly home because I did not believe the end product resembled plums well enough to have the same effect,” she said. “Is there any reason why plums could not be subjected to this process?”

“Er, none at all,” Hazel said. “Some folks enjoy candied plums. Me, I never trusted plums after I learned where prunes come from.”

“I see,” Dee said. She popped the cherry into her mouth, then made a surprised face and hurriedly swallowed it.

“Is something wrong?” Hazel asked.

“It was a somewhat stronger taste than I anticipated,” Dee said. She looked at the ring in her hand. “I do not wish to give offense, but I’m not quite sure I trust this.”

“Oh, I’ll take it if you don’t want it,” Hazel said, taking it from her. “Try the cheesecake squares… they’ve a smoother, richer taste. The fudge might be too rich, if you don‘t fancy strong flavors.”

“Forgive my trepidation, but are you certain this ‘cake’ was made without wheat flour?”

“No flour of any kind,” Hazel said. “It being called a cake is more a matter of function than of form.”

“You should try it, Dee,” Two said from the cake table. “It’s made from milk.”

“Is it, now?” Dee asked, picking up a red-and-white marbled square in a foil cupcake wrapper. “I sometimes think that if the surface has nothing else to teach us, we could learn quite a bit about a varied diet from the cultures here.”

“That one’s raspberry swirl,” Hazel said. “I was feeling experimental and I was cooking in small batches, so I made a bunch of different flavors. The brown ones are chocolate, of course, and the green and brown ones are mint chocolate swirl. The ones with crushed nuts on top are maple nut. The orange are… well, they aren’t purple-flavored. The reddish-pink are strawberry, and the white with specks is vanilla bean. The plainish sort are plain, just in case none of my experiments turned out.”

I’d headed towards the line to get a piece of cake once Two finished cutting it into exact perfect squares, but Hazel’s description of the cheesecake cups pulled me over. It seemed like it was going to take Two a while to get the cake cut to her satisfaction anyway.

“I think I’ll try an orange one,” I said, reaching for one.

“Oi, everybody’s being so dainty,” Hazel said. “Isn’t this a party? Don’t just take one, try a few… I didn’t make them for looking at!”

“Well, okay,” I said, and I took one of each. Hazel’s exhortations got the rest of the guests moving, and soon people were making sandwiches and eating cheesecake and popping fruit and nuts into their mouths. Two, meanwhile, was almost finished cutting. I’d finished my sampling of the cheesecake… the raspberry swirl and vanilla bean were my favorites, the other kinds all tasted like they had too much flavoring overpowering the taste of the cheesecake itself or not enough to stand out above it… so I wandered over to wait behind Kyle and Honey, who had patiently stood there while Two did her work.

“That’s very… exact,” I said to Two, watching her slowly draw the knife through the cake to finish the last line.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m trying to make the pieces fair. Though, they don’t have the same amounts of frosting on them.”

“Well, maybe different people like different amounts,” I said. “If everybody gets their own choice, that’s fair, too.”

“Yes,” Two agreed. She looked at Honey. “Which piece would you like?”

“Oh, I’m not particular,” Honey said. “But I guess, if it makes it easier to get started, that you could give me a corner piece.”

“Okay,” Two said.

Honey was right about the convenience of starting at the corner, but I had little doubt in mind that it was exactly what she wanted. Not only did the corners have frosting down two sides, but they had the thickest concentration of flowers on top. Kyle just asked for the next piece on the side, but when Two got to me I asked for a corner without hesitation. After all, she had just agreed that it was most fair if everybody got what they wanted.

Still, some people deserved special consideration, and while there were plenty of edge and center pieces, there were only two corners left.

“If you’re going to serve everybody else first, maybe you should pick your piece now and put it aside so you get the one you want,” I told Two. “After all, it’s your cake.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, and she took one of the other corners and put it on a plate.

I took my cake and went to stand next to Amaranth, who was talking about the logistics of dairy farming with Dee.

“The main problem, as I see it, would be feeding them,” she was saying. “I don’t know how well cows would take to fungus and mold. There are reindeer, of course, that eat lichen supplemented with small birds and rodents, which sounds a lot closer to the diet of your lizards, but… well, I don’t know if they’d be adaptable to the dark. It might take something like your orchard island before you could get a viable herd of anything going, and then… well, it takes more land to grow crops or grass for cattle than it does to just grow crops.”

“It is a puzzling problem,” Dee said. “But one I would not be in a position to solve in the near future, goddess willing. I will have to give it more thought, and reflect upon it in my meditations.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” Amaranth said. “And even if you can’t get a steady supply of fresh dairy, cheeses keep pretty well, if you want to expand the trade… smoked cheeses, especially, might work well. How‘s the cake, baby?” she asked, noticing I’d joined her.

“It‘s very good,” I said, after taking a big frosting-laden bite. The underlying cake was marbled chocolate and white. “People smoke cheeses?” I asked. I was picturing a bunch of cheddar slices hanging up next to a slab of bacon in a smokehouse. It seemed funny to me.

“Oh, yes, baby,” Amaranth said. “I think it’s done more for the flavor it imparts than anything else, in this day and age, but it’s not that uncommon. You’ve never heard of smoked gouda?”

“Oh, I guess I have,” I said. “I guess I just thought it was a type of… I mean, I never thought about what it meant, you know?”

Amaranth clucked and shook her head.

“People don’t understand where their food comes from,” she said. “You’ve probably never had cheese that didn’t come in slices or melted on top of something.”

“Yeah, but you’ve never even tasted cheese,” I said, a little defensively.

“No, but I’m sure there’s a difference between a big corporate dairy farm that churns out a million identical hunks of cheese and a little craft shop that produces individual wheels of cheese in distinct styles,” Amaranth said.

“Oh, there certainly is,” Hazel said. “We used to have cheese parties back in the shire. Everyone would bring their best for judging. Goat cheese, mostly, of course, but there’re a few folks who can afford to keep cows.”

Ian joined us, with a very plain-looking piece of cake from the center.

“Oh, did we run out of side pieces?” I asked.

“No, I asked for this one,” he said. “I don’t like a lot of frosting.”

“Hey, Hazel… what do you call these?” Celia asked, holding up half a boiled egg.

“Deviled eggs,” Hazel said. “You boil an egg, cut it in half, pull the yolk out, mix it up with other stuff and put it back in.”

“Awesome,” Celia said. “What do you do with the shell?”

“Well, you throw that out.”

“Oh, lame,” Celia said. “Hey, you should break the shell up and put it in the yolk with whatever this green and red shit is.”

“Er, I’ll do that next time, just for you,” Hazel said.

“You should,” Celia said. She popped the deviled egg into her mouth, closed her jaw, and then held it for a few seconds before swallowing. “Oh, fuckin’ A, usually I like my eggs whole because the inside’s nothing special, taste-wise.”

“Well, it’s just a little mustard and celery and seasoning,” Hazel said. “My mum used to make them when we went to visit my cousins downriver, and we’d sit out on the deck and have a little picnic in the sun…”

“Eggs and sun,” Celia said. “You’re talking my language.”

“Hazel, please, you’re making me seasick,” Honey said, and she did look a little green. She took the deviled egg she had been eating and folded it up in a napkin.

“What, just mentioning the boat makes you queasy now?” Hazel said. “Sorry if I’m not properly ashamed of my upbringing, but ’boat’ isn’t a four-letter word, you know.”

“Yes, it is,” Two said.

“It isn’t that,” Honey said. “Maybe something I ate? All of a sudden, I’m just… I don’t feel… I’m not quite…”

“Oh, don’t you dare throw up, Honey Callaway,” Hazel said. “Nobody loses their lunch when I’ve cooked it.”

“Believe me, if it were up to me…” Honey said, before putting a hand to her mouth. Her cheeks puffed out a bit and she ran for the door.

“Oh, fuck, what else did she eat besides the eggs?” Celia asked.

“Bit of everything,” Hazel said. “But it’s not my cooking.”

“Um,” Ian said. “Should somebody…?”

“I will go and see to her,” Dee said. “I believe I stand the greatest chance of finding her and of rendering aid, if it proves to be more serious than a simple stomach upset.”

“Hey, you can use your divine whatsit to make sure it wasn’t my cooking, right?” Hazel asked.

“Well, if you are not confident that such is the case…” Dee said.

“Er, no, I am,” Hazel said. Don’t go out of your way on my account.”

“Thank you. Now, if you will excuse me,” Dee said, giving the room a bow before heading for the door.

“What happened?” Feejee asked, coming up to us.

“Dee’s going to check on Honey,” I said.

“You mean Hazel?”

“No, I’m standing right here,” Hazel said.

“The other gnome,” I said.

“Both gnomes were here?” Feejee asked.

“The gnomes are here?” Iona asked, a piece of ham in her mouth.

There was a tiny noise, and we turned to look at the door and see Honey there, clearing her throat and looking rather sheepish. Dee was right behind her.

“Sorry,” she said. “False alarm, I don’t know what came over me. One moment I was fine and the next, I just… I looked over at Hazel and I started to feel quite nauseated.”

“Oi, first it’s my food and now it’s my face?”

“I’m sorry,” Honey said. “Like I said, I don’t know what came over me.”

“Well, at least now we know… I mean, now we all know… that it wasn’t the food,” Hazel said. “Because the day someone throws up after eating my cooking is the day… is the… is…”

She didn’t get anything else out.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. She didn’t get any more words out. Everything else, everything she’d just eaten… that got out just fine.

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15 Responses to “336: Coming Up Short”

  1. BMeph says:

    Just a helpful pointer:
    “Er, no, I am,” Hazel said. Don’t go out of your way on my account.”
    (Needs an open quote before “Don’t”.)

    Current score: 1
  2. pedestrian says:

    lets see now, where have I heard this before from women.
    “I just don’t know what made me nauseous. It must have been something I ate.”

    Every single time they get knocked up.
    So, what was the point, of what the two of you were doing, in the backseat of the car?

    Current score: 0
    • Zukira Phaera says:

      usually when that is the case I rather “innocently” suggest that maybe it is more of the nature of something they should have ate, and didn’t that might be the the cause of their gastronomical distress.

      Current score: 1
      • pedestrian says:

        Hilaristurbing Zukira!

        Current score: 0
      • Athena says:

        Yes, women will often jump to some other conclusion than ‘pregnant’ in the first stretch of morning sickness… but I would note that they aren’t pregnant *every* time they say that.

        Food poisoning, stomach flus and gastrointestinal distress from other causes (such as intolerance, allergy or other disagreements) are all way, way more common than pregnancy. Hell, I’ve been pretty damn careful since my first run-in with food poisoning and I’ve *still* dealt with that alone more often than I have pregnancy.

        So it’s not women being naive, or slow, or foolish, or anything like that. It’s a perfectly logical assumption to make – even if you’re sexually active. Even if it’s unprotected. Hell, even if you’re *trying*, there’s still a good chance it’s something else. I’m trying right now and have gotten at least 3-4 bouts of nausea for a few days in a row for no terribly apparent reason, all followed not long after by negative pregnancy tests.

        Current score: 1
  3. Anthony says:

    Does anyone else find Amaranth’s vegan dietary requirements a bit odd? I mean, she’s a nature spirit, and as Mother Khaele herself pointed out, death is one of the most natural things there is. Eating animals for food is a part of the Circle of Life, so to speak…

    Current score: 0
    • The Chosen One says:

      I thought the odd part was that she is herself a divine representation of a grain field. Her eating only plants is akin to any of the other characters eating only meat. Which, when you consider the less-than-civilized races, isn’t really that odd; it really is just another cultural difference thing.

      Current score: 1
  4. capybroa says:

    Everything else aside, I’m glad to see that this story understands and accurately portrays the politics of cutting and doling out cake slices at a party. Things can get seriously tense if proper protocol is not established early on.

    Current score: 7
    • MentalBlank says:

      Well, personally, if I don’t get a corner piece, there’s going to be trouble…

      Current score: 1
      • Leila says:

        You’re welcome to them, I can’t eat that much sugar at once.

        Current score: 1
        • zeel says:

          Depends on the icing in question. Some I could eat by itself – other, I scrape off the top.

          Current score: 0
  5. tijay says:

    Pooh I always wanted a nap flavoured cheesecake

    Current score: 0
  6. Jechtael says:

    If Amaranth can’t have eggs, how does she have wheat toast? I’m not aware of any kind of sliced bread that doesn’t contain eggs as a binder.

    I wonder if purple-flavoured cheesecake would taste like “purple stuff” (some call it “purple drink”; it’s ostensibly grape-flavoured, but it very much isn’t).

    Current score: 1
    • Nathan says:

      Most store bought breads contain no egg, in my experience, although most do contain small amounts of dairy. Vegan bread is very doable, though.

      Current score: 0
    • Laural H says:

      Interesting, I’ve never heard of bread with eggs as standard. Milk sure, not eggs…

      Current score: 0