Dessert and Dispute

Moss Bay was not a city threatened by scarcity. Some early civilizations that followed the destruction were deeply wary of demonkind; they did not embrace the primal gods that had resurfaced after the skepticism of global civilization was washed away, nor did they accept the aid of benevolent spirits that only looked for a home.

Most such civilizations had collapsed once more: they devoted their time and effort and resources to combating demons through powerful weaponry, and did not leave enough time for subsistence, let alone for the luxuries that motivated the world’s oldest, who had survived the destruction and yearned for comfortable beds, bright lights, and sweet snacks.

Moss Bay had confronted different concerns: how to negotiate with gods and demons, how to decide which to negotiate with, and how to prevent any of them from having absolute power over the city.

As one example, the rusalka living in the nearby lake provided the city with clean water, but so too did the turtle god of sea, Mora. Were the rusalka to depart, Mora could turn his attention from providing passage across the ocean to providing water for the city’s citizens. It would be a painful shift, one that would stymie trade for some time, but Moss Bay’s people would endure.

By navigating the world of the supernatural, creating ties to it, and most of all, avoiding single points of failure, Moss Bay had prospered. The end result was exemplified by the Woodmark, a classy restaurant in the heart of its downtown core. It was so named for its highly-polished wood, with auburn floors, bright oak ceilings, and rounded table edges with glossy black paint.

It was further exemplified by the late-hour diners at the Woodmark: only one table of more than a dozen was filled, but filled it was. Mem, a woman who wore a white and red dress so puffy and frilly the servers could barely see her feet, sat next to Eleanor, an imposing woman with blue hair in two curly tails, dressed in a black button-up coat with an elaborate capelet, a matching corset, and a short, flared skirt.

“And then,” Eleanor said between fits of laughter, “she said ‘I’ve taken your darkness unto myself… and with it I shall banish you!’ Can you believe that?”

“Yes, I can believe that.” Mem, as she often did, began a long expository spiel. “Vivianne is fundamentally a very passionate person, and acting the way that she does, without revealing her identity, is a way for her to show the people of Moss Bay that there are heroic witches aiding them from the shadows. In her case, the shadows are very literal.”

“Never would’ve thought negative energy would make for a good magical girl, but that’s what she’s doing, isn’t it?” The final diner, C, asked from his seat between the two. He was wearing a suit -- one that wasn’t too pricey, both for the venue and for him, but one that still looked appropriate. It was navy-coloured, with golden buttons.

“Nobody can escape their own shadow. Not unless they want to die in the sunlight.” Eleanor motioned to the nighttime blackness outside. “Fortunately, not many opportunities for that in Moss Bay.”

“That is true, as daylight is only present in Moss Bay for a few hours each day at its peak. Despite that, it is generally believed that the city is not a popular home for vampires.”

Eleanor stuck her tongue out at Mem, whose placid smile remained on her face as her only response.

“You know what I meant, “Eleanor retorted. “Or maybe you don’t. Hey, do you even feel fear?”

Mem’s smile grew, just slightly. “As a matter of fact, I have a fear microprocessor. It is not used to create an active fear response within me, but to determine what situations would induce fear in humans. The data it processes is forwarded to other parts of my hardware, which determine whether the resultant fear response would be accurate and worth listening to.”

“Wow, look at you.” Eleanor retracted her tongue, and gave the two of them a lopsided smile, first directed pointedly at C, then back at Mem. “You’re just a perfect girl in every way, aren’t you?”

“Actually,” Mem said.

C thought about elbowing Eleanor or Mem, to get their attention, but decided that might push a little too far into the territory of rude. So instead, he just spoke up. “Nobody’s perfect.” That, he figured, should get ahead of Mem’s spiel about how she has self-modifying code.

“Whatever you say, C,” Eleanor said. “Bet all those churchies and other guys’d be disappointed to hear you think that, though!”

“Well,” C said, “I try to keep my opinions out of my job. And my tastes, for that matter. I don’t get what I’m ordering here on the clock, that’s for sure.”

“You seem excited, which is a relief to me. I understand that paying for the meal is not always convenient for you, so I am glad that you will still be able to enjoy it,” Mem said, scooting her chair over slightly to shoulder up next to C.

“If I don’t get the chance to enjoy it, then all that money’s definitely wasted,” C replied with a shrug of his other shoulder.

Eleanor, however, felt like following Mem’s motions. It was a bit chilly that evening, and she hadn’t dressed as heavily as Mem, so she was within her right, she thought, to get some body heat from C.

When the server came back, a tall but young man with deep brown hair, pale skin, and freckles, he decided not to ask any questions. He’d already had a few about the dressup the night’s customers were engaging in. They looked like two princesses, two very different princesses, and their shared butler. And now the two princesses were within clinging distance of that very same butler.

But they were spending the same amount three tables normally would on a night like this, and that meant the server and his boss had no reason to complain. Instead he ambled, carefully holding a large tray with both sides on either side of it, towards their table.

What he set down was a panoply of desserts and a token attempt at real food. A wobbly dome of vibrant pink pudding was the most striking item on display, but there was also half of a chocolate mousse cake, chilled coffee flavoured with vanilla and practically oozing whipped cream, and strawberries with fondue. Next to this army of desserts was a simple BLT sandwich, hold the mayo, and a paper cup full of soda.

With curiosity written across her face, Eleanor turned her attention to Mem once again. “What the hell is that?” she asked, jabbing a finger at the pudding.

“Bubblegum pudding,” Mem said. “After careful analysis of their menu, I determined that they had access to bubblegum flavouring for other dishes, and asked them by email if they could make bubblegum pudding. They informed me that I would have to order it ahead of time, so I did. That is why you did not hear me list it off when we ordered here. I apologize for startling you.”

Eleanor’s eyebrows dipped as she looked at Mem. “Oh, you think you startled me, do you? Exactly the opposite. I want a piece of that pie. Or pudding.”

C’s tastes were hardly extravagant, as evidenced by what he’d ordered. He’d thought that if he decided he wanted dessert, he could probably convince the girls to give him a slice of the chocolate mousse cake. But for now, he wanted nothing to do with the bubblegum pudding, least of all to be offered it! So he took his sandwich onto his plate and began chowing down. Salty, and a little dry, but sporting grains, vegetables, and meat: just what he needed.

Meanwhile, Mem politely cut out portions of the mousse cake and the pudding, took exactly six strawberries, and put a small amount of the fondue on her plate in a circular pool. Then she began to eat, opening her jaw wide and square and inserting the largest pieces of food that it could comfortably accommodate.

Eleanor pointedly did not stare at Mem; she was starting to think the other girl thrived on the attention! Instead, she made her own play of sorts, cutting out a full half of “Mem’s” pudding and a good chunk of the cake, too. When there was no reaction from Mem, she consoled herself mightily, ripping into both desserts at the same time and in equal measure.

C was able to keep his head down until the desserts were dead and gone, to skirt Mem’s likely generosity and Eleanor’s likely followup attempt to outdo her. When the server next came by, he asked if they had peanuts, pretzels, or some other kind of packaged snack, and to his good fortune they did. He’d grown so used to this basic, on-the-go nourishment that in some ways, it hit better than the BLT.

But now the meal was done, and they all sat back. C was both happy and relieved to find that Mem and Eleanor both wore large smiles; they’d immersed themselves in the occasion and, maybe, just maybe, would improve the ways that they verbally elbowed each other, at the very least!

“So,” Mem rotated her head to face Eleanor, “what did you think of the dessert? How did it taste?”

“Like bubblegum,” Eleanor told her. “You sure you shouldn’t be asking about the texture or something instead?”

“Yes, you’re correct,” Mem said. “I’d enjoy all of the data you can provide. My tastebuds may be too advanced to properly mimic the flavour experience you had.”

Eleanor snorted, leaning forward on the table. “You call that advanced? My tastebuds are tough enough to keep eating spicy peppers when everyone’s dropped out of the competition.”

Mem looked owlish for a moment. “Is that true? That is quite amazing. I would also appreciate gathering data on the tastebuds of those linked to the underworld. We should have a pepper-eating competition as soon as you are available.”

Eleanor glanced at C, flashing a sharp grin pocked with tiny strains of pink gelatin. “I’d say we’re available now. Wouldn’t you, C?”

C paused to consider the situation, only to become aware that the server was fast approaching with the bill. The bill he’d have to pay on credit, of course. With a calm smile on his face as he addressed Eleanor, he ventured, “I hope you have hot peppers on hand already. With how late it is, we might not even be able to buy them.”

Fortune smiled on C that day.

“Of course I do,” Eleanor told him. ‘I eat those things like potato chips. Sometimes with potato chips. Mem, you’re gonna try that too!”

“I would have likely broached the idea myself. The flavour combination may either dampen or enhance the spice of the peppers,” Mem mused.

The server set the bill down on a cheque book in front of the odd party, and then turned to look at C. “Here’s the bill. Do you have any other plans for tonight?”

C’s smile broadened. “I guess we do, now.”