Having started in the food stalls, where they nibbled, sipped, and sampled the best of the Grand Exhibition, the fashionistas then headed for the bazaar, where the dear old bat flirted not only with the salespeople demoing this year’s crop of innovation--their eyes, wide with optimism and fear, meeting hers, winking only with poorly-concealed salacious intent--but with her junior partner, who at half her age was finding it difficult to pour out such milky tones for no-names without curdling his carefully-cultured flattery and souring his long-distilled ambition.
While he leveled eyes darkened not only by eyeshadow, but by unrecognized malevolence, he yet loved her, the first to believe in him and bear his projects to the world. That said, if he deigned to leave his memoirs, he would set the record straight: sycophancy was hard work. While he mirrored her sneers as they turned their noses up at subpar creations, his scorn snarled at its edges. He smoldered as she treated every location as a setting, every person an extra, and every object her prop, all theatrical effects basking in her magnanimity. She condescended to the world, as if she thought herself not only the center, but the zenith of creation.She still thinks herself beautiful, he snorted. She is venerated only because of her great venerableness. They allow her to act precious because she is ancient, delicate china.
As if responding to his train of thought, in one curious booth, contrary puppets spun and reeled their masters, and by ventriloquism, threw their voices to embarrass the dangling puppeteers.
Another’s air-sown seeds rested in the palm with their feather-weight of gravity, but when cast in the air, hung there, sprouting all directions, so that until the blossoms budded, there was no way of knowing the roots from the fruits. At this point in the demonstration, the bristling seeds bobbed mid-air like aerial caltrops. Venos took mental notes, for they had immense potential as pratical jokes, if they were only mildly interesting as an agricultural advancement. Until they could not only grow in the breeze, but root there as fixed as in soil, a garden sown in Vanoor might be blown to Klyrn.
Three tents down, an orrery represented not only Lamuna as a gleaming brass orb with continents in raised relief, and crowned by revolving circlets begemmed with its satellites and every planet known to astronomers, but circuiting in a very close orbit, a tiny copper fleck to stand for the cloud island Wysaerie, and a few fabulistic satellites, like the dragon Adomavok. The mythic monster was sculpted larger than Wysaerie from bushy silver filaments flowing into bow-tied wings. It was obviously not rendered to accurate scale, as the western hemisphere was currently eclipsed by the dragon’s outline; despite that impressive visibility in miniature, no one had seen Adomavok in centuries.
While a clever sophomore project, this pipe dream had no practical application in the world it represented, other than a hopeful bid to gain the attention of investors, so that its mythical realism was a kind of makeshift religion ready-made for a single angel investor, one already aglimmer with this starry-eyed point of view.
While Lucina did not linger at the booths advertising youthening cream, they turned her head for a fraction of a second,until she angled her chin up, adamant and proud.
Flirting, sycophancy, and biting sarcasm proved to be such hard work that they allowed themselves to be tempted by another row of food vendors, having been allured by the warm, yeasty aromas of cracked bread; thick, oily soups fragrant with rosemary and sage; and the sweet, syrupy zest rising from liquored decanters, wineglasses, and snifters, tangy scents that urged a huge thirst.
“We’ll eat here.” Lucina promenaded to the largest available table and waited for Venos to pull back one of nine chairs. Seating herself side-saddle to prop her feet on the crossbar joining the legs of a neighboring chair, she thumbed through the menu, a handwritten publication bound by a single leathern cord at top left.
“This is rich fare, indeed.” While Venos daintily pinched the menu corner to turn its page, one might wonder how he could evaluate the bill of fare with his sardonic pout turned to Lucina. “They tried too hard. This rabble will never order anything but the plainer entrees, leaving a half-dozen untasted rarities.”
“That is precisely why we must order them, Venos. Well, not the orange-infused mussels--the idea is too nauseating for me to appreciate its taste. Is it good? Is it bad? No one shall ever know.” She tittered. “Moreover, spare me dracoil belly pie, griffin-liver pate, and whatever is worlds within worlds.”
Either by an accident of bad taste, or simply to spite Venos, Lucina had anticipated the very items which Venos singled out as culinary curiosities. Tilting his head in an indifferent nod, he said, “while the rest is dross, we must try the worlds within worlds.”
“We are already gods, Venos.”
“Having declined the dreams of too many upstart magicians today, I would move from devouring mere worlds to savoring their offspring.”
“Very well,” she sighed. “Not more than a taste.”
“Why should you? With so much to sample, what deserves to be eaten in its entirety?”
Having placed their order, they reposed like statues, neither akcnowledging nor speaking. Having contemplated curiosities, displays, and demonstrations all day, he now winnowed them away one by one, until he was left with the unforgettable commodities. As invention and inspiration were a common grace in Ardem, what distinguished the bright stars from the mob of geniuses were not their contraptions or enchantments, but their faces and personalities. Having burned away the chaff, the only bright spot of the day was the red-headed Vanoori bumpkin who had so excellently singed Lucina’s ego. When their samplers and entrees were served, this rustic’s wide-eyed expression remained superimposed on every delicacy, so that the worlds within worlds first had to be peeled from her freckled image.
Venos supposed he must revise his top twenty of the Grand Exhibition to accomodate this clever appetizer, if only somewhere at the bottom, for it tended toward the inspid, its chef having declined to be as adventurous with the spice as the substance. And this was a missed opportunity, for having already injected an omelet into an apple, all of which had roasted chestnuts at its core, and a buttery crust for its outer shell, it seemed to simply be an experiment in textures, not a creation of a new taste. While he admired it involuntarily, he savored it just as reluctantly and could not bring himself to appreciate it.
“Well,” said Lucina. “One bite, and I’m no longer hungry.”
“You always find something nice to say.” Venos rested the rest of the bizarre dumpling on his plate. “Was it baked on a dare?”
“Baked? This is some new method of cooking, for the egg is more cooked than the apple, but not as much as the crust. This isn’t food, Venos. It’s just another demo.”
She was right, of course. This was new food not only in its conception, but in its preparation. Venos was also thinking along those lines moments ago, but had said baked because he lacked the energy to coin a new word, and now latched onto the opportunity to take another bite, which he could excuse as exploratory research. He didn’t know how the old bat could be indefatigably bitchy after walking around the Grand Exhibition all day. While he was famished, weary, and so cranky that his polished sycophantic exterior was beginning to crack, he only said, somewhat more hoarsely than usual, “you’re right, Lucinia. How clever. ”
“Clever? You mean showing off. Is this vendor slated for any demonstrations? While I would never recommend this trash, I’m curious to know how it was wrought.”
Venos raised an eyebrow. Lucina, as usual, sized things up quicker and more thoroughly, which is why he was the more gracious interviewer, having genuine questions he aired to satisfy his curiosity. As Lucina already knew everything on first sight, on first hearing, on first taste, or from a single touch, she often dismissed applicants out of hand, and rarely deigned to waste time on an explanation. From Lucina’s point of view, having her ear was a privilege, and currently one reserved for Venos.
“Are we done grandstanding? I’m sure this poor food scientist needs this table,” said Venos.
“I’m never done grandstanding. The whole world’s a stage and all that.” Lucina’s tipsy giggle jingled on Venos’s eardrum like an alarm. “Escort me to the tavern, if you must.”
“All the way to the tavern?”
“Whatever passes for one in a Grand Exhbition.”
“Look, Lucina. Here are two couches. We’ll continue our refreshment there.” With luck, Venos might leave the besotted harpy to sleep it off, not that he would trust these foodies with a harpy, or any mythical poultry, without expecting it packed into a pie. Even if he was only half sure he could trust them with his drunken friend, they had much more inspired limits than he did. Even a mad chef might know where the line was between epicureanism and cannibalism, and the old bat had bitten off his own head more times than he liked.
The old cronies cackled until their laugh lines cracked, as if they were folded paper, not flesh and blood. While the bumpkin had landed a few hits, even the most fertile soil was dirt and hayseed until sown and cultivated, and they dug the ripest remarks they could, then mined deeper, venting their weariest, gassiest material, not caring if the stinkweed was there to air her own defense.
Lucinia sank into the divan as she reached for the flagon. Its neck noodled like a flamingo, and the wine followed the winding glass. Under her buzzing scrutiny, the bottle externalized her frustrated guts, which had been stopped-up by the rustic wench, to whom she was transparent as glass. It wasn’t just that Lucinia felt shattered everywhere, it was a subtler fixation.That smile had flashed like red satin drawing back from apple-white. Purity cloaked in knowing.
She blinked, and Venos vanished. Bringing her lips sloppily together and hamming up the alliteration and the hissing half-rhyme, she murmured Venos vanished several times, appreciating the sound in the way only drunks do. Though her head sloshed left, then bobbed right, she saw only lonely drunks whispering to themselves, a monocled fat man with two snoozing beauties drooling on his rounded shoulders, a skinny young student with a half-dozen books in reach of his mad eyes, and hands that scuttled nervously, and the bartender, nodding off at the booth counter. How long had she slept?
She didn’t rise to her feet so much as slosh and sway, then teetered as she straightened her gown and swaggered out the tent, much too inebriated for the mincing step appropriate to her condescending status.
Hadn’t she only had one glass? Bless her wiry, wrinkled crone fingers--which she lotioned and oiled to no avail--for not relaxing their grip on the stem as she slept. She was holding it even now. Had the vintner spiked her glass? Had Venos? Her eyes were so fuzzy that they tingled. Now she could only see hazy bodies milling between foggy tents, and the sky was a blinding, wispy field. It was like walking into a cotton ball. Her hands shook, her heart stammered, her knees knobbed together, her bladder welled painfully, and her bowels swelled with such a hot, undeniable urge to void that only shame kept her on her feet, and by some witchery she didn’t know she had, she screwed up all her orifices with one prunish grimace.
While she didn’t know their tent by sight, by chance her hand fell on the tapestry,
a brocade picked not only for visual appeal, but the fineness of the weave. Having rejected many craftsmen until she found this fabric, she knew it as intimately as the short list of what she took pride in: her fine features, her girlish figure, the admiring eyes of her students, and the lying eyes of the lustful.
“Who’s there?” Lucinia asked. While the exhibit was not only just as hazy, but dimmer, she guesed she was not alone from the rippling tapestry.
“Is that you, Venos?”
Silence. Lucinia groaned. “Help,” she gasped.
It felt like she was wading in a wintry river. When her feet became numb, her knees clacked like ice. Unable to reach their makeshift workroom behind the tapestry, she collapsed on the sofa they rented from the dormitory, ostensibly to allow attendees a quiet space to admire the display, but primarily as a kind of stage, the better for Lucinia and Venos to mock them from their vantage point behind the tapestry. When she seemed to hear their catty whispers now, she realized that she had never had such an easy target on the couch.
The light passing through the tent was so spotted, and the sofa so soft and cool,
that, for a moment, Lucinia thought herself laying in a shaded woods, with sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy. Sbe despised the artifice of the effect. It must all be remodeled. There was still time, she assured herself, before drifting off.