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A Thousand Bites. And One

Calie Voorhis is a lifelong fan of the fantastic with work published in four countries. She's an Odyssey Workshop alum with a M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University.

A feast loomed on the sagging oak table, but Manda's mind was on her impending doom. Her mouth watered at the rising steam off the verdaki carcass, the aroma of fresh-baked pila fluff. Jewels of fresh kharma root beckoned, swift-melting mousses tempted, her childhood favorite--vanis-spice cardamom pudding beckoned. "Just one bite," the morsels said. A phalanx of guards surrounded the table, pressing her forward into the chair.
"Eat," the inquisitor, now in his rich burgundy judge's and jury's garb, said. He flipped his cowl back, letting the velvet stream down his neck, like chocolate sauce.
Her stomach rumbled. "Or?"
He twitched a hand, gesturing. "Starve," he said. "I've made my judgement. This feast is yours, all one thousand bites."
"Or one," she said, taking her seat. She sank into the cushion, her weight pressing her down against the soft minerva wool, homespun and lighter than flassis, a fortune for one cushion.
He tilted his head to one side. Candlelight flickered against his face, illuminating deep laughter lines, yet he did not smile. Not for her, the sentenced.
The question then became, because she did not have the patience for the slow cramping agony of famine, where should she start?
Her fork hesitated over the globes of merinth. Sweet and yet tart, freshly ripe with dusk from the mountain orchards. Normally a dessert course, yet in this room today, she would start with them. Her fork trembled and she swiftly shoved the fruit into her mouth.
He did not blink. Either that meant this bite, or this morsel was safe. Or he didn't blink. She didn't know. Yet.
The fruit exploded in her mouth. She breathed out the amber mist in a quick puff, still waiting for a blink. Or.
Neither occurred. She stabbed another fruit and finished the bowl quickly, gorging herself.
She wiped her mouth, her hand steadier now, and followed the tartness with a slow slug of elder wine, letting the sweet and tart mingle. "Is there no other way? No room for compromise? Atonement?"
Had he blinked, even as he shook his head? "There is no bribery here." He reached across the crowded table and plucked up a slab of verdaki, still dripping warm fat. He let the juices stain his mouth, run in a rivulet into his trimmed beard.
She used her fork to stab the neighboring slice. This bite was the perfect bite, the absolutely right mixture of fat and tender sinew, softer than roasted servant baba.
"It did not occur to you that by the nature of my position, that I am inoculated daily?"
She stopped chewing, the mouthful sludgy. When she tried to swallow, the meat gagged in her throat, and even after a gulp of water, she could feel a chunk lodged in her throat. After she stopped coughing and had her treacherous stomach under control, she raised her glass to him. "Of course," she said.
But he'd blinked as he ate the bite, so she finished off the verdaki, savoring, and taking her time, with swift precise cuts of steady knife and fork. "How did you come to this?" she asked, at the same time slipping the knife into her lap with a casual flick of her hand, a trick she'd learned from her thieving mother.
This time the laugh lines did deepen and he leaned back, just a hair's span of relaxation. "Much the same way you did, else I could not judge you."
"If you came from the same path," she said, following his lead after fixedly watching his dark blue eyes for any flicker of the eyelid and taking a spoonful of pila fluff, "then you are a traitor."
"Perhaps," he said, after swallowing some vanis pudding from the next tureen. "But I have already been judged and served. Won't you try some pudding? It's based on your Mother's recipe."
"My mother was an awful cook," she said. "I'll stay away."
"Some improvements have admittedly been made." He contemplated for a second, the spoon still in mid-air, before he slurped the yellow custard, licking the spoon when he was through. "I altered much. This tastes the way it should, the way your memory tastes."
Together they finished a course of salads, alternating bites in an almost companionable silence, Manda checking for the twitch each time before venturing a taste of her own.
They traded few barbs as she set her eating speed to match his. In the steady silence of the empty room, her fork clattered against the fine plates, her saucer rattled when she set her teacup down, and her knife screeched when she pressed too hard. Silence reigned on his side of the table.
The vanis pudding was all that was left on the table now, and the knife was steady in her left hand underneath the table.
When he dropped his napkin, she took the moment, her bulk thrusting up, she lunged across the table, sliding through the empty platters, bowls, plates, and tureens.
She was at his throat with the knife while he was still bent over in his chair.
"You move more swiftly than I would have thought," he said. His vein beat steadily agains the glowing edge of the blade. "I imagine that was a useful skill for a thief." He straightened, ignoring the knife. "You will eat," he said, moving the tip away, leaving a sharp red cut on his finger, white-striped with the cuts of a thousand such meals.
The guards pulled her back to her seat.
"As you wish," she said, and saluted him with her spoon. The mound of pudding jiggled all the way to her mouth, and she swallowed in triumph, just a moment after him.
She'd already switched the plates.
"Touche," he said, his hands grasping the table. The poison, swift, left him with only one last breath. "But did you ever think of how one becomes the inquisitor?"
The vanis pudding soured in her stomach.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 1st, 2021

Author Comments

"I love a good feast..."

- Calie Voorhis
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