Just a sample from a new story I’m working on. (Context? What’s that?)
This was amazing food. All of it was amazing food, Gordon Ramsay worthy, and she had to remind herself not to swallow just in case she hadn’t caught the bad things.
There were a lot of bad things.
It wasn’t every other plate or anything like that, but it was a lot; two on the first table, five on the second, just one on the third, but by table four, Liza was tired of rich broth and cherry pie crusts, of Caraway seeds and juniper berries, of saffron rice or risotto or paella, and she found herself staring at a whole roasted pig next to a multi-layer lasagna, and her stomach briefly lurched.
A glance in the spit-bucket did not help matters.
“You okay there?” said James, who was leaning against the door, arms crossed.
“Just need a minute,” she murmured.
“What are you tasting?”
“Dumb stuff like Rohypnol and GHB, not that they’d do anything to a Night Child,” said Liza, wiping her mouth and looking anywhere other than at food. “Much scarier stuff like wood particles mixed in with dough crusts. That’ll do some damage. That soup over there has finely crushed glass in it, for some stupid reason, but most of the poisoned things have wood. So they were definitely aimed at her.”
James stared at her as though he’d never seen another person in his life.
Liza sighed. “Gimme a minute.” Palate-fatigue usually didn’t last too long.
“What’s your deal, anyway?” said James softly. “Why’d they pick you? There’s always a reason we get picked.”
“That’s awful personal, ain’t it?” Liza covered a burp with her hand. Maybe she had swallowed something, after all.
“Sure. But I been watching you chew and spit for half an hour, and if that don’t already make us quaint and kinky, I don’t know what does.”
She snorted. “I think it was the papers.” It was funny to think back to all that – to a day when the printed word, at least twenty-four hours old, was the newest news she could get. “My folks were…” She glanced back.
James stood there, arms crossed, watching her.
Well, what could be the harm? “My parents were part of the Windrush generation, yeah? Came from the Caribbean, and got scared by the way things were going. They wanted me to succeed. So they kept trying me out for things, gave me lots of things to do, hours of practice every day.” Another shrug. “Gymnastics. Chess. My homework. It was actually a lousy childhood, especially since I wasn’t really good at any of it.”
James didn’t respond. He watched her, unreadable.
“I was good at tasting things, that’s all,” she said. “Contests started out as a joke, I think. Which milk came from France, which came from Scotland, all that. But I got it right every time.”
James was making a face now. “What?”
“I could tell where the milk came from based on what the cows ate,” she said. “It’s different.”
Ah, there was the familiar skepticism.
“Think what you like,” said Liza, and pointed. “Each of these has wood dust in them, and each of these is poisoned as I’ve stated, though why anyone would try to use drugs like that on a vampire, I have no idea.”
“Because they don’t know what will work,” came from behind her, right behind her, so close that warm breath tickled her neck, and Liza jumped.
There was Ravena.
The Blood Queen was petite, but that took nothing away from her presence. A foot taller and many years younger, Liza forgot composure. “Uh,” she said. “Wotcha?”
Ravena laughed – making Liza for some reason think of grass on skin and sweet, distant bells – and smiled. “Hello yourself. How goes the tasting?”
I could look at her all day, Liza realized, and took a judicious step back to keep her wits clear. “Got this far. Palate fatigue. I can finish it soon.”
“I hope so. The dinner is in an hour, so that is all the time you have.” Ravena smiled again. “After that, no more chances.”
Well, that wasn’t frightening at all, was it?
Liza swallowed and lifted the next dome. Chicken paprikash. That wouldn’t be overwhelming at all.
“Take your time,” said Ravena, as if Liza could.
She only then realized James had vanished. Strange. Well, on to tasting: bite, chew, concentrate, spit. “Ugh,” said Liza.
“Bad cooking or bad will?” said Ravena.
“Both,” said Liza. “Wrong broth. Far too much salt. Also, it’s laced with flying ointment.”
Ravena tilted her head. “Are you serious?”
“Mm.” Liza wiped her lips again, making a face. “Belladonna, opium, weird fat that better be pork, mandrake, jimson weed -”
“You can taste all of that?”
“Well, yes.” Liza looked boldly at Ravena’s forehead – not her eyes, for that would be foolish. “I can always taste ingredients. I could before I was turned, even.”
“Remarkable,” said Ravena softly. “And he keeps you locked away?”
“Not even a little,” said Liza, fist on her hip. “What are you on about? Nobody’s locked away.”
“I wonder,” said Ravena. “Flying ointment. What was Táltos thinking?”
“Hell if I know,” said Liza., and went back to tasting. Time was ticking fast. She owed a favor, and that prophetic payment would be worth every chewed piece of meat, every cooling spoonful of soup.
Ravena stayed and watched. James never came back. Liza wasn’t sure what to make of that.