"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." - An‡helme
Dusk approached Kitchen Heptagon. Within the hour, fireflies would flare to one another in the salt marshes to the south, the bone-white expanse of dry Moghra'yi to the west would don a cloak of indigo to reflect the wheeling empyrean above, and to the east the shadow of evening would creep up the Spindle as the earth it rose from occluded it further. But all those who packed the stands of the kitchen arena were heedless to such beauties, for they awaited a far grander spectacle. It would unfurl before them shortly.
Uniformed assistants bustled on the arena floor. The customary layout was changed this evening - each half of the arena sported its own island of ovens, grills, and preparatory surfaces on raised platforms. Around the edges of the crater, beached skiffs laden with chests and cabinets lay on the fused glass floor. Several of the assistants ferried supplies into them.
In the announcer's booth, E'Beth, Seeker of the Sightless Way, conferred quietly with the figures to her right that shared her perch - a plant, an ape, and a hindren. An empty chair sat to her left. As daylight died, the arc sconces and speakers that ringed Kitchen Heptagon crackled to life. It was time.
E'Beth leaned into the microphone before her, speaking with a reverent excitement. "Five years ago, a woman's fantasy became reality in a form not seen since the time of the Eaters: a cooking arena in the heart of the Glass Crater. Kitchen Heptagon!"
Descending from the heavens astride a hoversled, half lit by the setting sun, Baroness Farouun crossed the lip of the arena and entered her domain. Her regal mane billowed around her. Her scorpion tail had been buffed and oiled until the chitin gleamed. An iridescent lacquer graced her horns and outstretched clawtips. These were but her natural accoutrements. Her deep burgundy greatcoat cascaded over her hips, embroidered with gold-threaded panels depicting scenes of culinary triumph in an asymmetrically alternating pattern. Chains of brass and bronze coiled around her biceps and dangled down from her elbows. She was every inch an unassailable force.
E'Beth continued. "That woman was the Baroness Farouun, and her means were gained by the betrayal of her 3 greatest competitor-barons, who perished. The motivation for spending her truly obscene water wealth to create Kitchen Heptagon was to encounter new original cuisines, which could be called reflections of the true creation."
The hoversled landed at the base of the grand dais that held Farouun's throne and the banner-bedecked alcoves below it. The Baroness dismounted and bowed to the arena. As she held the bow, an assistant deposited a ripe hoarshroom in her outstretched claw. She winked at them, drew herself back up, and began her ascent to the throne.
"To safeguard the honor of this ideal, she called to her four chefs of great power, and she bid they be named her Carbide Chefs, the invincible Sapphists of culinary skill."
Farouun's voice pealed like thunder through the arena. "Carbide Chefs, I call you!"
The bandbots struck up the brassy chords of the Carbide Chefs' theme. Hidden platforms within the dais ferried their formidable passengers to the light of the arena and the exultation of the crowd. E'Beth named them one by one.
"Carbide Chef Ekuemekiyye is Bajiko Ki!" Lights beneath the True Kin in the far left sconce flared, sending reflections scattering from the fluted chrome cybernetics that adorned her body. Both her hair and her chef's coat were a scintillating emerald hue. She held a dreadroot tuber before her, regarding it with the twin eyes of a cyborg and a horticulturalist.
"Carbide Chef Phyta is Emberlily!" The neighboring sconce illuminated to reveal the chestnut-coated slynth standing with a barely-repressed energy. Ghostly flames wreathed the leafy hands of her upper pair of arms, while her lower pair sharpened a butcher's knife. Today, a faint but unmistakable smile graced her fly-trap mouth as she stared into the middle distance.
"Carbide Chefs 0th are Imet, Whose Broth Is Causality!" Illumination spread rightwards along the alcove tier, revealing an esper clad in a gunslinger's duster hovering several inches above the platform. Their psyche was a great engine of awe and terror, though all it bent to at the moment was the simple act of levitating a spatula above their open palm.
"And Choraler Jathiss is Carbide Chef Six-Day Stilt!" The rightmost sconce lit. Photons swirled through the snow-speckled tarantula fur that coated the Chef's massive lower body, drawing out the iridescence hidden in every strand. She held her twin spider heads bowed in prayer.
The Baroness now reached her ornate throne. With her Carbide Chefs standing to attention in their sconces below, the entire dais resembled nothing so much as an opulent wedding cake. Farouun turned to the crowd, casting her steely, hungry gaze across the stands and the announcer's booth. Seemingly pleased, she turned her attention fondly to the hoarshroom in her grasp. She sifted its scent, then took a luxurious bite. The bandbots crescendoed as Farouun metabolized the hoarshroom. Her organs began to glow through her skin. The panels of her greatcoat seemed to come alive as the turquoise light spilled through them.
E'Beth continued. "The Kitchen Heptagon is where these legends test their skills against challengers from across Qud and beyond. Both the Carbide Chef and the Challenger have one hour to explore the theme ingredient of the evening. Using all their senses, skills, beliefs, and abilities they shall demonstrate their unparalleled artistry in destruction and recreation to the Baroness and her honored paramours and celebrity guest judges. Should the Challenger win, their deeds shall resonate through the fabric of this world to be preserved forever."
"Beloved comrades," rumbled Farouun, her voice as strong as the ancient tides as it washed over all assembled, "Face my Chefs. Test your mettle. Sate me. Breathe deep the breath of eternity, and cook."
E'Beth plunged into the climax of her speech, giddy with fevered energy. "We peddle in reputations, for here, legends are reforged. Best our Carbide Chefs and write your name in the cosmos. For here, we are gathered to truly test the limits of edibility and reality. This is Kitchen Heptagon!"
The crowd howled in excitement. Farouun bowed once more and her mane cascaded extravagantly around her. She rose, and signalled for silence. The crowd obeyed.
"If memory serves me right," she began, pacing in front of her throne with a liquid grace that defied her bulk, "We have been starved of challengers lately. My loves, I am famished. Lest we resort to relitigating old challenges, I have begged of our judges past and present to call upon all they know and to spread the word of our need. Tonight I am thrilled to announce that our fervent networking has borne the sweetest fruit. But before we unpeel the suspense from this succulent spectacle and let you all gorge yourselves sick..." She trailed off, then swept her claw to the announcer's booth. "Tell me, my dear E'Beth, who joins you in the booth tonight?"
E'Beth nodded, a blush seeping out from beneath her crimson blindfold. "I am your host and color-commentator, Seeker E'Beth. And I am yours, my Baroness. Even should the stars fall and the Spindle crack from crown to foundation, I will always be yours. With me are our celebrity guest judges. To my right, Asphodel, Earl of Omonporch."
"Thank you, love," Asphodel buzzed. The alluring blossom sat next to her in a clay pot perch. Xyr dazzling contours were immaculately symmetrical. "And good heavens, we hope the Spindle doesn't crack. We're awfully fond of the thing - it's ours, you know."
"To xyr right," continued E'Beth, "we have Mayor Nuntu of Kyakukya."
"It's a delight to be here," said the toga-clad albino ape seated next to Asphodel. Nuntu rested his elbow upon the table to prop his chin on a muscled fist in a pose of classical contemplation. His voice was deep and affable. "It's always a stimulating experience, not simply for the appetite, but for the intellect as well."
"And finally, we have first-time guest and leader of the Cervine Meadow, Hindriarch Esk of Bey Lah."
"Thanks," said the hindren at the end of the long table, her deer torso seated upon a specialized chair reserved for four-legged guests. A painted vest of plastifer draped over Esk's shoulders, and a weathered walking stick leaned against the table next to her. Beneath her bead-adorned antlers, her ear flicked nervously. "There - ah - there are a lot of people here. I'm hoping to learn more about kendren food."
Farouun smiled broadly and bowed deeper than ever. "On behalf of Kitchen Heptagon, let me extend our warmest of welcomes, Hindriarch."
Esk put a hand over her breast. "Well, you're a charmer. I think I like it here."
"I like it here too!" cried a dog-sized moth who crawled out from under the table through a freshly-chewed hole in the tablecloth. "You can move in if you want, there's plenty of room. Oh, right! I'm Clactobelle! I'll be reporting on the action from the arena floor!"
"That's all of us," said E'Beth, reaching down to scratch between Clactobelle's antennae. "Now, who challenges us tonight, my Baroness?"
"I am thrilled to announce that our call to find challengers was answered by the Barathrumites! As our longtime guest judge Q Girl's fate has often intermingled with our own here in Kitchen Heptagon, so too has this challenger mingled fates with her own. A tinker, a traveler, a soldier, and now, as the winds have rumoured, a chef. My loves, please welcome this Journeywoman of Grit Gate. Enter Kitchen Heptagon! WEARY PAW MARA!"
The bandbots trilled as the tremendous chrome gates embedded beneath the announcers' booth groaned open. A line of arc sconces crackled to life from the gates into the arena. Two figures emerged from the mists that billowed from the open gates. One was the stocky, quilled ursine form of Q Girl. She threaded her arm through the lower right arm of the other figure as they promenaded proudly into the light.
For the other was Weary Paw Mara, a four-armed verdant warrior with the lower body of a mutant tiger. Her four striped paws padded softly through the mists and over the black glass arena floor. She wore four swords in battered sheaths at her front hips. Two were forged of glimmering crysteel and two were curved, ornate khopeshes that hummed softly. Bulging saddlebags draped over her flanks, while over her four-armed upper torso she wore a supple nanoweave vest. Her fur was green with chloroplasts and striped. Delicate leaves sprouted from her vinelike hair. It framed her tiger's muzzle set in an expression of fierce determination.
"We wondered why our dear Q Girl wasn't joining us this time," mused Asphodel.
"Conflict of interest," replied E'Beth. "But there's still a space for her up here next to me. We would love another color-commentator."
Baroness Farouun descended from the dais to meet them in the center of the arena. She clasped her massive claws around Q Girl's many-jointed bear paw, then around one of Mara's upper hands in turn.
"Q Girl. Mara. Thank you for being here."
"You're quite welcome," said Q Girl.
Mara craned her head up slightly to meet the gaze of the Baroness. "Heavens, look at you," she breathed. "Your mane is a hypernova of radiant alabaster."
"Quetzal!" chuckled Q Girl. "There's that honeytongue of hers."
Farouun bent to kiss Mara's hand, still clasped in her unshakeable grip. "And your exploits, Mara, are legend enough to fill this crater thrice over. It is an honor to host you. Q Girl, my thanks for bringing her."
"If I didn't know any better I'd say you were propositioning her," said Q Girl.
Farouun simply raised her eyebrows at the urshiib as a knowing smile flickered across her furred snout. "What dalliances the night may hold can wait until after the match. But now! Weary Paw Mara! My Chefs stand before you."
"Yes," nodded Mara, sweating slightly.
Farouun's snout cracked into a hungry grin.
"The choice now falls to Mara," narrated E'Beth. Q Girl gave Mara a good luck kiss and made her way to the booth. "Will it be Carbide Chef Ekuemekiyye Bajiko Ki? Or does she fear that the former horticulturalist would be wise to her plant-based strategies? Speaking of plants, will she challenge our formidable photosynth, Carbide Chef Phyta Emberlily? Would the resultant dishes operate on a logic incomprehensible to two-thirds of our judges?"
"Oh, please," Earl Asphodel purred.
"Will she face Imet, the Chefs 0th? Who dares face Imet? Or will Mara test herself against Choraler Jathiss in a 16-limbed scrum?"
The bandbots at last dropped the tense drumroll they had carried through E'Beth's entire speech. Mara opened her four arms in a gesture that was equal parts welcoming and questioning. Her voice rang out clearly.
"Emberlily, if you please!"
Emberlily started in her sconce, then pointed at herself with a smoking hand, seeking confirmation in the eyes of the challenger. Mara nodded. Emberlily's face split into a fanged grin and she nodded back, emphatically.
"Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you," said Asphodel, pounding xyr fronds on the table with every syllable. Xe grew conscious of the spectacle after a moment and fluttered xyr petals smoothly. "That is to say, in the words of the great bard Willow Shakesprig... 'A pairing sweetly sought as vine abranch seeks vine / Must glimmer and besot the lot while fates entwine.' "
"Shakesprig really had some laser-focused metaphors, didn't they?" muttered Esk.
Emberlily ambled down the staircase that ran the central length of the dais excitedly. Farouun met her on the way up. The Baroness clasped her claws around the slynth's upper hands, heedless of how their ghostly flames caused the decorative talon-lacquer to bubble.
Farouun bent to touch her forehead to that of her Carbide Chef. Her voice came as a gentle rumble. "Emberlily..."
Emberlily threaded a lower hand up through their embrace to brush against Farouun's cheek. She kissed her. "How's this for your gift tonight? Only question is, what did you get me, ‘Rouun?"
"Wait and see, my love." Farouun kissed her back, then resumed her climb to reach her throne. Emberlily took up position next to Mara on the arena floor.
"Sets the heart aflutter, doesn't it?" said Q Girl. She was panting slightly from the climb as she took the empty seat next to E'Beth in the announcers' booth.
"Q Girl!" Farouun's voice thundered through the arena.
Q Girl yelped in breathless surprise. "What?"
The Baroness smiled as silence fell. "Just as your deeds furnished us with a challenger, so too were your words a muse for our theme ingredient. I speak of your Disquisition on the Malady of the Mimic, which I had the chance to revisit recently. A moving treatise, and one that has soothed the doubts that grip even my soul on occasion when the night grows long."
"Oh! Quetzal! That's why I wrote it, to help. Wait, is the theme ingredient-"
Mara and Emberlily shared a worried glance, then began furtively analyzing their surroundings for out-of-place kitchen appliances.
Farouun held up a hand to still their concerns. At that moment, a subtle vibration that suffused Kitchen Heptagon escalated into the range of perception. It came from below. "Tempting," she rumbled. "But too obvious. No, for those who set foot in Kitchen Heptagon cannot help but belong here in fullest sincerity and authenticity. But Qud is harsh. It chews up the fraud and the savant alike. I sought an ingredient that reflected the cruel bite of materiality."
At another gesture, hidden sluices embedded in the arena walls groaned open. The redirected briny waters of an ancient subterranean canal gushed forth. Mara and Emberlily scrambled for the raised kitchen platforms as the waters rose swiftly past their ankles. Farouun stepped forward as the stairs of her throne dais rose one by one to form a uniform chrome platform. The thundering waters couldn't drown out her voice - if anything, she seemed to resonate with the cataract.
"I speak not of mimics but of their fabled foe! We unveil it to you now!"
As the platform locked into place, it revealed a gate embedded below at arena-level. Even as water poured into the gap, blurred shapes hued a jaundiced yellow barreled against the current and slipped into the half-submerged Heptagon. Furiously questing fangs churned the waters into frothing wakes.
"Tonight's theme ingredient: MADPOLE!"
The bandbots hammered upon their gong. Baroness Farouun lifted her mighty claw to the heavens.
"LIVE AND COOK!"
"Bang a gong, we are on!" called E'Beth as the Baroness took her throne. "Kitchen Heptagon is flooded, sealed, and infested with our theme ingredient. Our contestants tonight now have one hour to best these voracious pseudo-amphibians and transmute them into a legendary meal for us to enjoy!"
"Madpoles," shuddered Nuntu. "This is why I rarely leave my village these days. The river Svy is rotten with the things and I value my feet."
"Why don't you teleport to the other bank?" mused Asphodel. "It's quite simple."
"I won't dignify that with an answer."
Assistants watched the struggle begin from the safety of their skiffs, now afloat in the artificial lake. Mara had reached her kitchen island where she shrugged out of her saddlebags and vest. From a larger pack, she withdrew four sparking gauntlets and a complicated full-body suit of insulated rubber, custom made to fit the contours of her multi-limbed body, and began the tenuous process of donning it.
"Usually I help her with that," said Q Girl. "I hope she can put it on alright."
On Emberlily's side, the waters roiled and steamed. A school of madpoles had cut her off before she could reach the island, and now her flames were all that fended off their hunger. She hurled jets of flame, nets, and curses into the pack as she tried to circle through waist-deep water closer to the island.
"I don't envy Emberlily's position," said Esk. "And her tactics seem questionable. This is a bit nerve-wracking. Do these matches always start like this?"
"Nearly always," said Q Girl, ruefully.
"E'Beth!" Clactobelle alighted upon the booth's railing.
"Go ahead, Clactobelle."
"I asked Emberlily if she was doing okay! She said it gave her a chance to start the madpole broiling early!"
"That's a bold answer," said Nuntu.
Clactobelle wrung moisture from an antennae with her unoccupied forelimb. "Sure, but she sounded really stressed!"
"I can't blame her," said E'Beth. "What about Mara?"
"Well, I asked her what those gloves were and she said they were overclocked ulnar stimulators! I didn't see any clocks on them so I guess she really is over them. She was still putting on the suit so I'm not sure what she's gonna do with them but they look dangerous!"
"Oh, quetzal!" said Q Girl. "I've got a standard pair of those. They're great for fine-detail work. Though I have to say, if Mara's ever had a factory warranty, she's voided it now."
Now fully garbed, Mara donned the stimulators and slipped gracefully into the water. Her four tiger legs half-stepped and half-paddled through the lake, buoying her towards a madpole pack that had congregated in her sector of the flooded arena.
"She's headed right for them!" cried Esk. "Is she mad? They'll take a leg off!"
"No, look," said Nuntu, furrowing his brow. "Their patterns aren't hunting patterns. Intriguing."
The school circled aimlessly around Mara as she slipped into their midst. Her expression remained untroubled save for a passing grimace as an occasional madpole tried an exploratory nibble. At the right moment, she spread her four arms around her and plunged her hands into the water. Pulses of electricity surged into the circling school and stunned madpoles floated to the surface all around her. She retrieved a wide woven basket from a nearly-submerged counter nearby and scooped madpoles into it.
"Amazing!" said Nuntu. "How did she do it?"
"Perhaps they've no palate for vegetables," ventured Asphodel.
"Taxonomically speaking," corrected Q Girl, "my girlfriend is closer to an herbaceous perennial."
"Apologies," xe murmured.
"Take it, Clactobelle."
"I asked Mara how come the madpoles weren't eating her alive! She said a while back, while delving in a ruin, she found an entire folio of Schrödinger pages from the Annals of Qud! She said she had been so weary of death and fighting that she Entangled them all on the spot, and ever since then, fish have liked her!"
"Schrödinger pages..." E'Beth said, uneasily.
"Something wrong with those?" asked Esk. "I feel like I'm missing some context. I don't think I've ever even seen one, in fact."
"We..." started Q Girl. "We had a challenger a couple years ago who tried to Entangle their way to a victory in the arena. It was very contentious."
"Sweetest dromad you'd ever meet," E'Beth sighed. "Really fond of their respect for the solstice and their help with the festival of Ut Yara Ux. But it took a lot of time, effort, and sphinx salt to untangle that win. You can't rely on retroactive causality alone to conquer Kitchen Heptagon."
"But don't worry!" said Q Girl. "Mara would never do that."
Back on her kitchen island Mara set down the basket of twitching madpoles and made an emphatic gesture of agreement to the booth. On her throne, Farouun rubbed her chin in contemplation, then nodded. Q Girl and Mara alike heaved a sigh of relief.
"What about Emberlily?" asked E'Beth. "Did you catch up with her?"
"I lost her," Clactobelle said, miserably. "There was too much steam. It was too dangerous."
"I think I can still hear her in there," said Esk, cocking her head towards the cloud of steam obscuring a quarter of the arena. "She's quite vocal."
"Oh, there!" said Asphodel. "She's made it out!"
Emberlily limped onto her kitchen island and dropped a bulging net to the floor with a wet slap. Her handsome chef's coat was soaked and singed and her vines were bedraggled.
Esk gasped in shock. The same reaction rippled through the stands. "Her arm!"
A madpole had latched itself around her upper left hand. It twitched once and slid from her forearm. The bloodthirsty neonate fell to the floor with a muffled sizzling and lay still, quite dead. Emberlily's hand was gone.
"Ach," the Carbide Chef spat. Her voice carried in the arena's sudden silence. "The damned indignity."
Baroness Farouun leapt up from her throne, but froze in chagrin, claw outstretched. Keen-eyed observers could have noted how her jaw shuddered with an unvoiced cry.
"Fifty-five minutes remain," E'Beth announced. Waves of sympathetic agony thrummed at her temples. She flexed her fingers subtly to remind her body they were still attached. Her voice shook. "The subdual phase is over."
Skiffs docked at the islands and assistants disembarked to begin the process of butchery. Mara clambered into the stern of one nearby and rummaged in the cabinet. She emerged with a lover's blossom and took it to a countertop along with some scrap she pulled from one of her saddlebags. After a moment of delicate activity, she bundled up a gleaming tube, gave a few instructions to her assistants, then slipped into the water to swim to the other island.
"She works remarkably fast," said Nuntu. "But then, this isn't for a dish, is it?"
"Looked like an injector of some sort," said Esk. "Kendren don't eat those, do they?"
"It's not out of the question to congeal the contents and spice up a dish with it," said Q Girl. "I can remember a few offerings from previous challenges that fit that bill."
"Ayvah," said Esk. "That's decadent."
"It barely scratches the surface of decadence, my dear," buzzed Asphodel. "Wait and see."
Emberlily sat on the edge of her island, leaning against a counter as she held a towel soaked with blood and sap to her stump with a lower hand. She gave instructions to her assistants, but sat up as Mara approached. Emberlily waved her up onto the island. Mara pressed the bundle into her grasp with a few quiet instructions. Emberlily nodded and pulled out a gleaming injector, then sunk it into her left arm as Mara slipped back into the water with a wave.
"Oh, quetzal!" said Q Girl. "That looked like ubernostrum, perfect!"
"Well spotted," said Nuntu.
"E'Beth!" the glowmoth returned, breathlessly, to the booth.
"Yeah, that was an ubernostrum injector!" Even as Clactobelle explained, a new hand erupted from Emberlily's stump. It was the chartreuse of spring leaves and still dripping with sap. She flexed it experimentally even as flames uncoiled from her freshly-sprouted digits. "Mara told me that she felt bad about it since the madpoles weren't a danger to her. She thought it was an unfair advantage. So she whipped one up to help out Emberlily!"
"She's so sweet," sighed Q Girl. Emberlily scratched the back of her head distractedly as she watched Mara swim back to her island.
Clactobelle continued. "Before Mara came over to her I heard Emberlily say 'on tonight of all nights!' But after Mara left I asked Emberlily about it and she looked very wistful and said that it was the nicest thing a Challenger has ever done for her! She's back in fighting trim!"
"Thank you, Clactobelle," said E'Beth. "It's a load off all our minds, sincerely." She could sense a soothing relief spreading through the collective emotional psyche of the stands. Soon it would return to excitement as the chefs could finally start cooking.
The arena floor filled with the precise, wet sounds of paring knives in the grips of a small army of chef assistants. Mara began pruning particularly shapely fin specimens to set aside. Emberlily bent with a heavy ceramic dish and scooped up the madpole that had claimed her hand. The waters stilled, and the flickering glow of submerged arc sconces rippled from below.
Asphodel spoke in xyr customary sultry buzzing. "One notices dear Mara availing herself of Kitchen Heptagon's knives. This, despite the formidable cutlery with which she entered the arena."
"You ever tried to clean a fish with a broadsword, Earl?" asked Esk.
"Don't be asinine," said Asphodel. "They spend their lives in water. Why do they need to be cleaned?"
Q Girl cleared her throat diplomatically. "It's true that nothing cuts like a vibrokhopesh. If the theme ingredient were something like, say, basilisks, then it would make more sense to use one for trimming the meat. But they'd just cut right through madpoles. I don't think Mara wants you to have to replace your cutting boards. Or your counters."
Clactobelle fluttered to her perch on the balustrade of the announcers' booth in a cloud of shimmering moth-dust. "E'Beth!"
"I asked our contestants what they thought about our theme ingredient tonight! Mara said it was a challenge since she hasn't worked much with madpole meat before, but it was a challenge she felt honored to face!"
"Fresh fish is just quetzal," sighed Q Girl. "But for most of the time we've been together it's been too dangerous to bother catching any. I wouldn't want her to risk herself for my sake any more than she already has."
Clactobelle continued. "I asked Emberlily if she liked cooking with madpole and she said 'Are you japing? I hate the gristly little bastards! Every ounce of flesh is saturated in condensed spite.' She said it was an acquired taste but one that she'd try to make accessible!"
Nuntu leaned forward and squinted. "Emberlily is using them," he observed.
"What?" asked Esk.
"Vibroweapons. Is she not?" The albino ape pointed with a stubby finger to the arena below. "Two of them. She's awfully quick with a knife."
"Oh, quetzal! That's the vibrodagger I made for her!" Q Girl clapped excitedly, then stopped just as suddenly. "Oh. And that's the one she got from Agate."
Emberlily paused her butchery to twirl Q Girl's vibrodagger with an elaborate and blindingly fast flourish, ending with a kiss to the pommel and a wink to the booth. Then she spun the other vibrodagger, ending with a four-armed shrug and an apologetic grin.
"It's subtle," said Esk, "but I think it comes down to confidence and training. Mara's knife technique is beautiful, but there's a part of her, I reckon, that wishes it was a sword. But Emberlily looks like she was born with a knife in each hand."
"Born?" murmured Asphodel.
"Germinated. You ken what I mean, kendren."
Nuntu mused on the topic at hand. "Is there truly such a difference between sword and dagger that the mere absence or presence of a bit of blade length could shape someone differently from the mere practice of it?" He scratched his fur-tufted chin with a heavy hand. "I would have thought the underlying philosophy to be the same. But then, I've never been one for martial pursuits."
"No, wethinks our dear Hindriarch has the right of it," said Asphodel. "It's a subtle thing, but made no less real should one lack the context from which to observe it."
Across the arena, the Baroness shifted in her throne. "Forty-five minutes remain," Farouun rumbled.
Down in the arena, Mara's knifework stopped. Her chest rose and fell gently as she stood, eyes closed, at her counter. An assistant approached her for further instructions but stopped uncertainly as they found her asleep.
"What's Mara up to now?" asked Esk.
"Dreaming, very rapidly," answered E'Beth. Her voice carried a wistful tone. "They're lovely."
"Quetzal!" said Q Girl. "She falls asleep sometimes - it's a consequence of her narcolepsy - but I had no idea it was instantaneous REM sleep!"
"Still, it's eating into her time, isn't it?" said Esk. "Damn shame."
Emberlily spared a glance across to the opposite island. Her wide and usually expressive face was set into something unreadable. Her focus returned to her assistants as she called a few more directives out to them. There came a fluttering of moth wings.
"Carbide Chef Emberlily is planning four dishes for us tonight! She said she'd try for five if she had time but she also said not to get your hopes up."
"Thank you, Clactobelle," said E'Beth. "What about Mara?"
"I tried to ask her, but she was asleep!"
Down below, Mara jolted awake. After a moment of uncertainty, she finished cutting the ingredients laid out before her. She set her knives to the side, craned her face to the open sky, and steepled the fingers of her lower hands below her chin in contemplation. The assistant returned to pose their question. She answered, never looking down, then shooed them away encouragingly with an upper hand.
"Now's your chance, C," said Esk, nodding her antlered head at Mara's island.
"What?" asked Clactobelle. She spun herself in place on her railing perch to follow Esk's gaze. "Oh! Miss Mara! Miss Mara!"
Clactobelle launched free of the booth and glided down to the floor to resume her interrogation.
"I know that look," said Q Girl. "Mara's about to work through something."
"Come to think of it, I know that look too," said Nuntu. "I don't like to boast, but I believe I was the one to introduce her to the possibilities of cooking."
"Quetzal! When was this?"
"Oh, ages ago, now." Mayor Nuntu's brow furrowed in recollection. "It was before her fame had spread near as far as it has these days. She was a newcomer to Kyakukya. I didn't know of her at the time, though you don't forget a being like her. She was gracious enough to earn my recipe for Mulled Mushroom Cider."
"Fascinating," said Q Girl. "She's known at least the basics of cooking for as long as I've known her. To think she learned it from you, Mayor!"
"I believe she was simply subsisting on photosynthesis previously. Not-" he hastened to add at an irritated rustling from Asphodel, "-that there is anything whatsoever wrong or inadequate with photosynthesizing."
"There's simply no substitute, dear Mayor," huffed the Earl.
"E'Beth!" cried Clactobelle, returning breathlessly to the booth.
"Go ahead, Clactobelle."
"Four dishes for Mara, too! She said she finally worked out the last one during her nap! But she also said it was delicate and she'll have to keep it under wraps until plating."
"We'll wait warmly for it," said E'Beth.
"I must admit to being sorely drawn towards speculation," said Nuntu. "There's little else to do from here. What is Mara stoking that oven with?"
"Witchwood," noted Asphodel.
The ape sighed. "Yes, Earl, which wood is she stoking it with?"
"Clumsily worded, but correct, dear Mayor."
"I simply asked-"
E'Beth cleared her throat. "Mara appears to be making witchwood charcoal. Whatever she smokes in it should gain a frisson of mild psychotropia."
"Ah," said Nuntu. He lapsed into a bashful silence.
"She wasn't kidding about keeping it under wraps," said Esk. Down below, Mara had draped a large cloth over her counter space and ducked her head under it to cut hidden ingredients. Her assistants nearby peeled and grated thorny roots to form into shredded, starchy pancakes. On Emberlily's side, she used her multitude of limbs to stir saucepots and shake a tremendous sizzling wok simultaneously. A fungal-encrusted assistant with a dour expression waited patiently as two other assistants fussed over them and gently pruned particularly shapely specimens from their body.
"Welcome back, Clactobelle. You hardly left!"
"I work fast! Well, since I couldn't ask her about what she was working on under there, I asked her how she felt about the match! She said she was honestly very nervous to be here but she felt buoyed on by the presence of her girlfriend! She's doing it for her!"
Q Girl clamped her long-fingered paws over her ursine snout as a flustered blush bloomed across it. "Oh, I love her," she said.
"Thank you, Clactobelle," said E'beth. "Did you happen to get Emberlily's ingredients?"
"I did! The saucepot on the left has a glaze of honey and a variety of aloes. On the right, she's melting down some creamed waxflab. In the wok, we currently have madpole and an assortment of pickled vegetables frying in dogthorn oil, herbs, and a bit of asphalt, for texture."
"Sounds exquisite," said Nuntu. "I don't suppose you have the same cucumber provider as my village?"
"Our providers are a matter of public record," said E'Beth. "We have done business with Yurl of Kyakukya in the past."
"Oh!" Asphodel started. "That odd little perv- that... aesthete? We suppose his singular fixations must ever seek larger audiences."
"I think it's enterprising, selling your own cucumbers," said Nuntu. "Perhaps I've never considered it from a plant's point of view."
Asphodel sighed. "Well, he pays his Consortium dues regularly. It seems one can no longer put off experiencing the fruits of his endless fussing and germinating."
Across the arena, Baroness Farouun stretched in her throne, her mane ruffling in the faint breeze. "Thirty minutes remain."
Esk leaned forward and looked down the length of the judges' table, propping her head up as she rested an elbow on the table. "Q Girl," she said. A smile both sweet and wry graced her split-philtrum lips. "I'm curious. What do you love most about Mara?"
"You can't simply ask me to split a single trait from her entrancing totality, Hindriarch," Q Girl replied, without any hesitation.
"Please, call me Esk."
"Esk. As I was saying, every last bit of her - the way she moves, the words she weaves, the way she protects me and everyone I love, the way she flows through my space like it's just as much hers and she belongs beside me - it's all so quetzal that I simply can't pick."
"Sounds a lot like my warden," Esk said, wistfully. "My Neela."
"I'd love to meet her," said Q Girl. She thought for a moment, then continued. "Honestly though, Esk, if there's one thing I truly cherish about Mara... it's how much of her there is."
"She's really a drink and a half, isn't she?" agreed Esk.
"Quetzal! She's like two girlfriends in one."
Down below, Mara emerged from under the opaque cloth sporting a furious blush of rose across her verdant tiger's face. Clactobelle swooped back to the announcers' booth.
"I asked her about what Mara said and Emberlily just relayed to me 'It's a big mistake to think you're the only one competing for love tonight! I've got at least four lovers here whose names I uphold in the arena!' Then she got a very faraway and lovey-dovey look in her eye and said 'Ahh, but tonight it's all for one. They understand.' She didn't say why, though!"
"Thank you, Clactobelle." E'Beth knew full well which of Emberlily's lovers that one must be. The why of it spilled from the slynth Chef's psyche like the light of a sheltered bonfire in the depths of midwinter night. But if Emberlily wouldn't say just yet, then E'Beth's place was to respect her secret. "Would you like to take a quick break so I can pet you?"
"Would I ever!" The glowmoth barrelled into E'Beth's lap in a shower of glimmering motes. E'Beth lavished her to show her appreciation of Clactobelle's hard work. After a moment, the temptation grew too great, and Q Girl joined in petting the glowmoth as well. The contest continued around them.
Emberlily seemed to ricochet between the stations of her island, testing sauces, stirring pots, trimming cutlets and rattling off directives at a blistering speed. Meanwhile, Mara demonstrated to her assistants the process of completing her mysterious dish such that it could stay smoking in the witchwood for the rest of the match. Satisfied, she left them to it and returned to the pile of her discarded saddlebags. She withdrew a large tubular bundle of rough burlap.
"What is that?" asked Esk. "A bedroll? Is she preparing for her next catnap?"
"Her bedroll is bigger than that," said Q Girl.
"I'm trying to sense what's in the bundle," said E'Beth. "It's something... fractal. I can't wrap my head around it. There are depths that feel as though they could pull me in."
Mara carried the bundle to a nearby countertop where she began clearing space. She cast about the kitchen island for some uncertain implement and found what she sought in the form of a deep baking dish. She began to unroll the burlap, revealing first a parchment roll of waxed paper, and then, below it, a long layer of moist soil.
Asphodel gasped, but Esk spoke before xe could muster a statement. "It's just dirt?" she asked.
"Madame," rebuked Earl Asphodel. "What dear Mara holds in that roll is undoubtedly a sample of sporesilt. Only the most luxurious of topsoil, saturated with delicate networks - societies, even! - of tender mycelium. Sporesilt, harvested from the heart of the Rainbow Wood. Just dirt, madame? And sapphires are just rocks, one supposes?"
"Ayvah, I get it," Esk groaned. "I'll never doubt dirt again."
"Go ahead, Clactobelle."
"The Earl has it pegged - that's sporesilt! Mara said she carried it all the way here because she didn't know if we had any stocked."
E'Beth nodded. "I believe we used the last of our sporesilt supply in the Battle of Theme Ingredient: Agolzvuv. We haven't had the chance to muster an ingredient gathering expedition to the east lately."
Clactobelle picked up her thread of narration. "When I told Emberlily, she said 'WHAT? She's got sporesilt? I'll have to bring out the big guns!' She didn't say what she meant but she's been rummaging around in her ichor cabinets since I got back up here to report!"
"Thank you, Clactobelle. Wait-" A claustrophobic shiver played down E'Beth's spine. It was the sense of a narrowing future as parallel causalities snuffed out, one by one.
A sickly radiance filled the arena, spilled out by the fulgurating phial clutched triumphantly in Emberlily's smoldering grasp. Mara turned and froze. Her chest rose and fell imperceptibly with her shallow breathing, lost against the flickering shadows of a chained star.
Esk shielded her eyes and winced. "What is that?"
"Neutron flux," breathed Q Girl. "There are fates beyond death for the engines of the heavens."
"Is this tablecloth satin?" asked Asphodel, running a frond along the judge's table. "If we're to die here we'd rather be crushed against something beautiful."
Emberlily beckoned a spindly esper from amongst her bevy of assistants. The two of them squared up in front of a marinating bowl of immaculately-trimmed madpole cutlets. E'Beth gave a silent prayer and quested her psyche forward. She would bolster her fellow esper's psyche as they slithered through the crumbling maze of unraveling temporality.
Nuntu's pensive rumble came to E'Beth through her concentration as if through a layer of gauze. "Should we evacuate? There are failsafes for particularly hazardous ingredients, are there not?"
"There are," E'Beth grunted. "I'm one."
"What kind of hazards are we talking about, here?" asked Esk. She swallowed nervously, her body tensed as if to flee.
Asphodel answered her. "One hears of the occasional foolhardy ichor merchant whose slipshod ambition outpaces their grasp of common-sense safety procedures. One artless jostle of a flux-phial and suddenly their distillery fits on a pinhead, or ends up crushed under the weight of a thousand suns. Neutron flux mistakes are excessively fatal." Sensing that xe had done nothing to assuage Esk's fears, nor the same fears that bubbled up from the audience, xe continued. "That said, Emberlily is no greenhorn. Before she was the Carbide Chef Phyta, before even she was the dear Baroness's personal chef, she earned her fame as an ichor peddler unparalleled. She knows her way around a spot of flux."
Beads of sweat gleamed on Emberlily's brow like diamonds in the flux-light. She held the phial at a canted angle and hovered a lower hand over the stopper, poised to unstopper it and pour the star-stuff into the marinade. Her body vibrated with nervous energy. Poised. Something loomed in E'Beth's precognition - a death so sudden and total it seemed as though death itself was but a single facet of this cessation. And there, outracing the wave - the organic impulses of muscle and neuron rising within Emberlily that ushered it in.
She spiked the esper assistant in warning. A moment before Emberlily would have moved, the assistant clutched her forearm, shaking their head with a haunted gaze. Emberlily nodded. E'Beth could taste the ghostly tang of sphinx salt sieved from the assistant's senses. Their eyes burned with it, as if in attempt to outshine the orphan remnant of an undead star.
Smoke rose from Emberlily's collar. Still as she was, the feverish energy that constantly churned within her body had nowhere to vent. She burst into flames. Emberlily grimaced in pain but held fast to the phial. But there, within the flames, E'Beth sensed a path to the future. Her will entwined with that of her fellow esper and together they coaxed a tunnel of flame between the lip of the flux-phial and the mixing bowl below. Within that vortex, the flames devoured the atmosphere and left a perfect vacuum. The esper assistant released their grip on Emberlily's arm and nodded.
A swift movement. A single dram of furious radiance freed from its prison, viscous as honey as it fell. The fire seemed to eat away the very sounds of the arena.
Then flux met flesh and soaked reluctantly in.
Futures blossomed past E'Beth, lofty and free of the shadow of critical gravitational collapse. She laughed at the sheer joy of it. Down below, Emberlily whooped and dove off the kitchen island into the artificial lake. Wisps of steam rose from the waters around her as she resurfaced and sighed in doused relief. The esper assistant dipped a washcloth in the lake, laid down in a nearby skiff, and draped the wet cloth over their eyes and brow. The match proceeded.
"We had the utmost faith in her, of course," Asphodel fluttered. "Never a single doubt crossed our prodigious intellect."
"Twenty minutes remain," the Baroness rumbled.
"You were fertilizing your pot," snorted Esk, visibly shaking.
"Yes," fluttered Asphodel in irritation. "Yes, we were. We were acutely aware of our own mortality in a way such as we haven't felt since dear Mara was involved in that incident at my Spindle some years back. It was unpleasant. Are you satisfied, now that I have voiced my discomfort?"
Mara, on the floor, flicked a glance at Asphodel but returned it to Q Girl. The two had locked eyes from the moment the danger passed.
"I am, actually," said Esk. "I don't like lies and I don't like people lying to themselves."
"One wonders why we let ourselves be dragged to these events with Mara," buzzed Asphodel ruefully. Xe waved a frond down the table. "That was in jest, dear Hindriarch. We do so enjoy her company."
E'Beth switched off the microphone in front of her and leaned towards Q Girl. "She-" said the esper in hushed tones, "-she's holding this huge feeling over the fact that both of you could have died-"
"Don't tell me," said Q Girl. "Get me to her. Even if you have to be there, even if we have to do it through you. Ask her and then get me to her. I know you can."
E'Beth nodded, then took up Q Girl's paw and psyche in a singular movement. She quested her psyche down the astral lattice that flowed through arena and booth. She brushed in cordial inquiry against the steelwound, sunny verdancy of the psyche of Weary Paw Mara.
Her intent was understood immediately and Mara bid them across the threshold of her selfhood. Qud unspooled around them in a warm wash of photons, streaming in the glory of an eternal sunrise. The vista was not of the canyons and flower fields that ringed the Kitchen Heptagon, but of gracefully moldering ruins and the jungles beyond. E'Beth knew well Kitchen Heptagon's vista, that of her Baroness, but this new vista was unknown to her.
"The roof," breathed Q Girl, "at Grit Gate." Her paw was clasped in E'Beth's hand. At the esper's other hand, Mara twined a lower hand with hers. Their egos flowed and thrummed through her.
"Q Girl," said Mara. "I thought of you in mortal danger. It was a danger I couldn't prevent. And I froze. I couldn't - I couldn't protect you from it."
"Oh, Mara." Q Girl sobbed, stepping forward, flowing through the photon wash, pressing herself to Mara's breast. "Mara, I couldn't stop thinking that my last words to you weren't ‘I love you.’ Mara I thought that my every word to you wasn't ‘I love you.’ I clung to that thought through the flux and it seared me."
"Q Girl," gasped Mara. She wrapped Q Girl in her arms, in her vines. "I won't lose you. I won't face that. We have so much life left together."
"Quetzal," said Q Girl. E'Beth unfurled her memory into them. How along with the esper she had snatched localized reality from the brink of gravitational annihilation. The tang of sphinx salt that still resonated through the syrupy wash of memory. That they lived, and that life was a triumph. Relief coalesced in the photon wash and poured over them like precious warm water.
Q Girl laughed, and kissed Mara. Where their psyches flared against each other there was a brief and sublime oneness that E'Beth was not witness to. Psychic reverberations of their emotions thudded against her chest. Then Q Girl parted from their kiss.
"I love you, Weary Paw Mara," she said. "Now, you have a match to win."
"I make no promises," laughed Mara. "I love you too, Q Girl. But what in the blazing luma am I supposed to do to hold a candle to neutron flux?"
Then they parted, and Q Girl unclasped her paw from E'Beth's hand. Around them was the arena, in all its life and fervor. Mere moments had passed since they had linked grasps in the first place. Q Girl wiped a tear from her eye. "Thank you, E'Beth," she said.
"You know that I would do anything for you. Both of you," said E'Beth. "This is why I'm not judging."
On the floor, Mara started as if awake from sleep. Clactobelle landed on the railing. "E'Beth!"
E'Beth reached forward and switched on her microphone, then turned to greet her glimmering comrade. "Go ahead, Clactobelle."
"I've just got the ingredients in that marinade bowl of Emberlily's. It's just madpole cutlets, lightly seared, and marinated with neutron flux! It's nearly ready to plate. She's relying on the simplicity of the dish and its application of heat and mass to be enough to reveal its hidden depths!"
"We're going to eat that?" asked Esk.
"The decadence!" crowed Earl Asphodel. "The utter decadence! A star!"
"Thank you, Clactobelle. I'm glad we're all still here."
The match pitched into the escalating intensity of the final stretch. Emberlily plated her madpole sashimi. Some she transferred with her cool lower hands and some by her flaming upper hands as the result of their earlier searing necessitated. Mara, meanwhile, donned insulated kitchen mitts and pulled free her sporesilt casserole. It bubbled with residual heat, and delicate strands of spore and pollen rose in helices within the steam wisping from the dish.
"Oh, that's marvelous," purred Asphodel. "This is the match. This is the one."
"The glaze on that looks incredible," said Nuntu. "Rich in texture and nutrients. And taste."
"E'Beth!" cried Clactobelle.
"Go ahead, Clactobelle," replied E'Beth.
"That glaze is made out of concentrated psychal gland paste fermented from a memory eater, sap, and pollen. It should be very complex."
"Seems like it'll be... gritty," Esk said.
"Have you had psychal gland paste before?" asked Nuntu.
"Never. But, I mean, it's made from an organ, right? Organ meats and organ products tend to be gritty, in my experience." Esk poured herself a refill from the nearby water carafe. "I'm not saying it's bad."
"What's in those dessert bowls?" asked Q Girl. "Over on Emberlily's side."
"Looks like that fungal pudding and the aloe sauce she was working on earlier," said Nuntu. "She's adding a garnish. Is that mumblemouth? There's something stuck in them."
Q Girl lifted a telescopic monocle to augment her gaze. "Teeth?"
Esk set down her water cup. "Teeth."
"Teeth?" asked Asphodel.
"Fangs, I guess," noted Q Girl, adjusting the focus, "but-"
"Teeth?" asked Asphodel.
"Madpole fangs!" said Clactobelle. "Arranged decoratively in ripe mumblemouth nodules!"
"Thank you, Clactobelle," said E'Beth.
"One doozy of a dessert offering," said Esk. "Y'all are really expecting me to eat dirt and stars and teeth, huh."
"Sporesilt!" Asphodel buzzed.
"Sporesilt, yes," Esk waved a hand downtable at the ruffled blossom.
Across the arena, Baroness Farouun snapped shut an ornate antique timepiece. "Five minutes remain," she rumbled.
In the final rush of the match, the labor of chefs and assistants ushered dishes from preparation to plating. As the spreads blossomed, assistants ferried them from the kitchen islands to a central display barge bobbing softly in the flooded crater's heart. Parfaits, stir fries, casseroles and puddings fanned out from the barge's mounted platters. Mara covered the mouth of the witchwood-smoking oven with her heavy cloth and emerged from it with a wide covered platter before passing it to an assistant on a nearby skiff. Emberlily, meanwhile, revealed the centerpiece of her evening's thesis as she pulled from an oven the heavy roasting dish and its perfectly-browned contents.
"I know I've been making a lot of noise this match," said Esk, "but I want you all to know that I am anticipating these dishes with an appetite I haven't felt since the old Hindriarch kicked me and my sisters out of Bey Lah."
"Oh, this sounds like a juicy bit of gossip," tittered Asphodel. "How ever did you depose her?"
"Well, you're probably already thinking that it wasn't a purely internal affair, right?" Esk scratched the back of her head. "She kicked us out for being inconvenient to her rigid orthodoxy. On top of that, she got greedy enough to pin the theft of Bey Lah's ancestral treasure on us after the fact. Truth be told, it was Weary Paw Mara who ambled into town, got to the bottom of the whole mess, and cleared my name."
"No shit!" said Q Girl. "Quetzal! How has it taken us this long to meet each other?"
"I'm wondering that myself," replied Esk. She croaked suddenly and grasped her antlers. "Wait, this means Mara is to thank for my position. Can I truly be impartial? Why did I have to realize this five minutes from tasting?"
"Two minutes remain," rumbled Farouun.
"Two minutes!" wailed Esk.
"It's a smaller valley than you might think, Hindriarch," said Nuntu in a slightly consoling tone. "With a being as storied as Mara, it's hard not to have crossed paths with her at some point."
Q Girl nodded. "Even Agate's met her. Don't sweat it, it's impartial enough for the Heptagon."
"I'm glad for that," said Esk. She heaved a sigh of relief. "I'm hungry."
On the floor, Mara focused on seasoning a thick stew in front of her, a blush on her cheeks and sweat on her brow. Emberlily chuckled silently then resumed sampling the roast madpole before sending it off to the barge.
"One minute remains," Farouun intoned. She hopped up from her throne and began pacing atop the platform of raised stairs.
On Mara's side, an assistant braced their stew in a skiff and hunkered around it. Mara dove into the water with the skiff's tow-rope clasped in her lower hands. She surged through the lake, with the skiff spraying a wake behind her.
"Gracious, she's fast in the water," remarked Asphodel.
"Being on good terms with fish has its perks, you know," said Q Girl.
"With Mara's last skiff-load, all dishes will be submitted," said E'Beth. "Good timing and planning from both teams."
"Thirty seconds!" cried Farouun.
"Still, she doesn't need to be going that fast. She would have easily made it at the skiff's regular pace," said Asphodel.
"It's been a long match for her," said Q Girl. "Let her cut loose, alright?"
Mara dropped the tow-rope and spun, bracing all four arms against the oncoming bow of the skiff. She guided it smoothly to the barge's side, masterfully redirecting and absorbing its momentum in mere moments.
"She's made it!" cried Esk, pumping her fist in triumph. "Go, Mara!"
"Fifteen seconds!" Farouun's voice howled through the riotous stands. This was her element.
Emberlily kicked back in her skiff as the esper assistant leisurely propelled it towards the central barge with their psionic prowess. The Carbide Chef trailed her flaming hands in the water and crossed her lower hands behind her head, gazing at her Baroness with undisguised fondness. Mara, meanwhile, struck a swift series of sword forms in the waters by the barge while her assistant placed the stew with the rest of her dishes. The crowd was rapturous.
"Five! Four! Three! Two! One!" The bandbots gonged.
"And that's it!" cried E'Beth. "The Madpole Battle is over!"
Clactobelle flittered to the barge to seek out her interview subjects. Mara stood in a softly localized rain from the waters she had kicked up in her sword forms. Clactobelle alit on her shoulder, her glittering wings protected under the shelter of a lacquered parasol crooked in the glowmoth's forelegs.
"Wow! I've never seen anyone do swords like that!" the glowmoth said. A magni-drone circled them softly through the misting rain. "I was supposed to ask you something but I'm completely blown away!"
"Thanks," said Mara. She was scarcely breathing hard. "I used that form to fell a leering stalker, once. In the Deathlands."
"Wow!" said Clactobelle. "I've got family there! Um, how do you think you did?"
"Tonight? I honestly have no idea. I'm not a professional chef. I'm probably pretty good at it, but like." She sheathed her swords and ran a hand through her vinelike hair. She took up the microphone that Clactobelle offered her. "I'm a legendary hero? I know it's gauche to acknowledge it but I've been out there for a long time and I have seen enough things that I feel confident in asserting this bit of self-aggrandizing metacommentary. I have never done competitive cooking before. I have no idea what's going to happen."
"Wow!" said Clactobelle.
"I've seen... a lot." Mara lowered the microphone, looking slightly haunted.
"No kidding, didn't you go to space once??"
Mara lifted her microphone again and looked up at the traveling announcers' booth. "I'm doing this for Q Girl I love you Q Girl"
Farouun's chrome dais melted into stairs and she descended to the arena floor even as the announcer's booth began its half-circuit of the arena walls on massive rails. Clactobelle fluttered to the skiff where Emberlily still lounged.
"Carbide Chef!" the glowmoth cried. "Why have you been so tight-lipped all evening? What is this secret that has been burdening you all match long?"
"I'm glad you asked, Clactobelle, because it's no secret." In a blink, Emberlily stood and snatched her coworker's outstretched microphone. She vaulted atop the helm of the barge. The crowd gasped as all arc sconces in the arena snapped off, leaving only the torches that ringed the barge's helm to light the slynth.
Carbide Chef Emberlily sighed. Nostalgia gleamed in her gaze. "Tonight's our anniversary."
Below, cyan light seeped up through the waters. The submerged bulk of the Baroness slipped under the length of the barge and out to circle the waters before the torchlit Chef. Farouun's organs glowed from a freshly-ingested hoarshroom. Her beastly presence dominated attention from the shadowed stands. Emberlily continued.
"It was two decades ago that I came into the service of my Baroness as a dedicated chef to sate her particular and bottomless appetites. It was six and ten years ago when we consummated the bond between us. Twelve when we pledged ourselves to each other in the Rite of Chimarraige, and it's that date we honor tonight."
Farouun surfaced. The arc sconces immediately surrounding her reactivated with a muffled thrum and illuminated her. Emberlily hopped from the helm of the barge and onto Farouun's outstretched palms.
"Jathiss, Bajiko, Imet, I love all of them but I met them through you, ‘Rouun. Tonight's been all for you. Wait til you see my dishes."
The arena lights returned. The Baroness set Emberlily to the side and cracked her neck and clawed knuckles in preparation. Clactobelle arrived once more to the rotating booth to relay the finished dishes to E'Beth. The booth itself had nearly completed its half-circuit of the Kitchen Heptagon, approaching its destination behind the throne atop the dais complex. E'Beth heard Esk quietly chatting offmic with Q Girl next to her. The hindren had trotted over as soon as the match ended.
"Do the Chefs usually get that, uh... flashy?" Esk asked.
"In the wrap-up interviews? Not usually," said Q Girl. "But Emberlily is the first Carbide Chef. She likes to run her spots like this."
"The first, huh? I wouldn't have guessed."
"I mean, you heard her. She's been with Farouun since this whole place was a twinkle in her eye. I think it's fun. That they're both, you know, like that. Quetzal!"
"I ken what you mean, like-" Esk struck a dramatic pose, then giggled herself out of it. "It's good."
E'Beth switched her microphone back on and leaned forward. The magni-drones began orbiting the platters atop the display barge, projecting the products of culinary combat on the screens anchored to their chrome. In a moment, they had to adjust vertically. Farouun lifted the entire barge from the arena waters and hefted it over her head. The dishes atop remained pristine and perfectly-balanced.
"Challenger Weary Paw Mara opens with a dish we still can't show you, due to its apparent sensitivity. We'll take her word that her appetizer platter contains witchwood-fired lag-latke topped with madpole filet and young ivory. Her next dish is an exercise in decadence - Sporesilt and sweet madpole tripe casserole with pollen and psychal gland glaze. Note the interplay of flavors and textures between the layers. Her centerpiece this evening is a more liquid entree: Madpole and shaved limestone in primordial stew. Highly decorative and almost alive in its vibrancy. Finally, her dessert is a lignin matcha parfait topped with madpole fin crisp. Savory, earthy, and thick, with a complex profile that can't easily be called sweet."
Emberlily and Mara followed Farouun up the stairs to the throne, where the other Carbide Chefs busied themselves with setting up the tasting tables. They trailed at a distance so the barge's hull didn't drip on them.
"Carbide Chef Phyta Emberlily's anniversary dinner leads with a madpole and pickle stir fry, mountain-style spices. A dish, she informs me, with a special personal history. For her next dish, madpole sashimi, lightly seared, flux marinade. Much has been said and felt over this dish tonight. All that is left is to let it speak for itself. Her centerpiece for the evening is whole roast madpole, stuffed with Carbide Chef Emberlily. Her still-burning limb trapped in its belly cooked it from within as the oven cooked it from without. Her anniversary dessert is a fungal masterpiece of aesthetics. Waxcream mumble-maw pudding with honey-aloe topping."
Farouun reached the top of the stairs. She hesitated momentarily, barge still held above her head. E'Beth heard Emberlily's soft chuckle as she fell in behind her Baroness.
"You didn't think this through, did you?" Emberlily teased, too quiet for the microphones. "You just wanted to show off."
Farouun bared her fangs in a smile. E'Beth rose from the table and made her way forward. With one hand, she held her microphone. The other she flexed for the sake of physicality as her mind levitated Mara's platter from the barge to a nearby table. Imet, the inscrutable Carbide Chefs 0th and a fellow esper, took responsibility for retrieving Emberlily's platter. E'Beth continued her narration.
"Weary Paw Mara has come from afar. Q Girl has shown her the way and brought her here. Here, to Kitchen Heptagon. She is a legend among legends. Does our hallowed arena have the power to bend her destiny? If ever there is a night to do so, let it be tonight. Let it be with this feast." She clasped her hands to her breast. "It is the moment of truth."
The decorative chains on her arms clanked as Baroness Farouun flexed her arms, then heaved the empty barge back into the center of the arena with a guttural roar. The barge crumpled magnificently into the lake. Skiffs bobbed up and down in the impact's wave. The Baroness dusted her claws in satisfaction, then plucked the microphone gracefully from E'Beth's grasp.
"Comrades," she rumbled. She pulled Emberlily to her side and dipped into a deep kiss with her. She surfaced and huffed happily through her fangs. "This is my mate! I love her!" Her dripping mane caught the arclight in a prismatic burst. "But now comes judgement. Don't you dare go easy her."
The two parted and Farouun settled into her throne. She nodded to Mara. The tigertaur nodded back and prepared to serve her dishes. First, she unveiled her secretive lag-latkes. Slivers of fish and curiously stable slices of ivory root topped the fried pancakes of shredded lagroot. A delightful iridescence accentuated it from the witchwood charcoal it had luxuriated in.
"Oh, like okonomiyaki!" clapped Mayor Nuntu.
"I must ask you to hold off on commentary until everyone has tried it, sorry," said Mara. She served one to each judge, Farouun, and Q Girl. Each tried it and each cycled through a gamut of facial expressions (or floral arrangements in the case of the Earl) before settling on a surprised appreciation.
"Oh!" Esk laughed. "Oh it isn't even real! That's so playful, the faundren would love it!"
"The young ivory slices - they were holographic young ivory slices," said Nuntu. "The witchwood tricks you into tasting it, and then the layer of lagroot banishes it with its sheer reality."
"Suddenly we appreciate madpole in the simplification, the recontextualization, the realization that the ivory was never real at all." Asphodel ruffled xyr fronds thoughtfully. "Quite a niche tasting experience you've concocted. We can grasp the appeal."
"And plus, this pancake?" Esk flicked her ears in satisfaction. "Fried perfectly. I think you've earned the secrecy."
Mara laughed graciously. "That's a good sign! My next dish is the sporesilt casserole." E'Beth cleared away the latke dishes so that Mara could serve the casserole plates.
"Earl, I must warn you," said Mara. "The glaze does contain my own pollen."
"You know we're no strangers to it, dear Mara," buzzed Asphodel. Xe sampled it deliberately. "You know we take precautions. Thank you for your consideration, darling."
"Ayvah, this dirt," said Esk. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back slightly. "Are you tasting this dirt?"
"It's everything we hoped for," Asphodel fluttered, too satisfied to care to correct the Hindriarch.
Farouun finished her serving in her customary silence, then finished her plate with a crunching of ceramic. Mara prepared to serve her main course. The cartilaginous pseudo-skeleton of the madpole bobbed in the stew of primordial soup, tender madpole flesh, and flakes of limestone. It looked a fossil granted life.
As the judges sampled her stew, Nuntu paused thoughtfully between bites. "Mara. I feel as though you've been anticipating this question for the last hour. I must ask it." He scratched his furred chin, then stirred the stew idly. "What is the nature of this dish we eat? Or of the act itself?"
Mara laughed. "You're right, I was expecting that from you. This dish is a sort of meditation on life cycles on a grand scale. The limestone is life that has come before us, made into the structure of our world. The primordial soup is where life springs anew. The madpole is, I suppose, the most metaphorical aspect of the dish, since it represents that life. But also, I can confirm that madpoles don't come out of primordial soup fully-formed, so that's why it's still a metaphor."
"Kind of crunchy," said Esk, through a mouthful of stew. "Nice flavor."
"Thank you, Esk. Nuntu, you also meant more broadly than the dish, didn't you?"
Nuntu spooned himself another taste and nodded. Mara took a deep breath and spread her four arms slightly.
"Cooking is holy," said Weary Paw Mara. "For myself, it is unnecessary, voluntary. I give this time and labor and skill to you freely because it nurtures and strengthens you. I give thanks to all that gave of itself for your sake. I pray for the understanding of all that I took from to bolster you. This is my choice. I choose for your favor, for you, all of you."
Nuntu finished his stew and smiled. "I'm glad you were prepared."
Finally, Mara served her parfaits. They were a deep, vibrant green, similar to the hue of her darker stripes.
"You know, I've never had a parfait before," said Esk, plucking free the crisped madpole fin that graced the lip of the glass and sampling it.
"That's so sad," said Q Girl. "Someone get this girl some more parfaits."
"This is maybe a difficult introduction to the concept of parfaits," Mara winced. "There's a lot going on. They don't usually have fish in them."
"Oh, but it works," remarked Asphodel. "Matcha has a sort of brine to it sometimes, don't you think? You've merely teased it forward. And your lignin is such a shapely addition to it."
Mara blushed. "I'm glad you've all enjoyed my spread. I'd like to cook some more with each of you sometime. Oh! And, happy anniversary, Baroness Farouun."
"Thank you, my dear," rumbled Farouun, picking a stray shard of parfait glass from between her fangs. "You have availed yourself with the honor and skill that we find synonymous with the name Weary Paw Mara. But tonight, you face the first Carbide Chef. Emberlily, my love, let us witness your dishes."
E'Beth and the Carbide Chefs who had not competed that evening cleared the remains of Mara's dishes. Emberlily started doling out her stir-fry. She launched into a yarn as she served her dish, speaking in her quick but clear cadence.
"Sixteen years ago ‘Rouun and I were holed up in an old snapjaw fort some long ways to the north, in canyon country. Old Baron Mumthaz and his hired dogs had us besieged. He was out for our blood, for we had just betrayed the Barons Incarnadine. But what he didn't know was the fort sat on a feeder-vein of the mighty river Svy. For a week, we had it dammed while the mercenary jackals waited below. The backwaters filled with hungry madpoles and the barrels of pitch we floated over them. Of course, the fish weren't the only ones hungry. It was a siege."
The judges, Q Girl, and Farouun all had a plate before them now. They ate in rapt attention.
"At last, we breached the dam and sent the floodwaters ravaging through their camp. A river unshackled, alive and angry with fangs and burning pitch. Mumthaz had no answer. This was the dish I cooked for ‘Rouun that night, to celebrate our victory. Ahh, my Baroness was a vision in fire and blood that night. I loved her then as I love her now."
Farouun tasted her portion with remarkable restraint, savoring every bite.
"It's delicious," said Esk. "The heat on it! The spices are masterful."
"The flavor profile is smoky and tangy in an enticing way. I think something starchy would be unparalleled in here," said Nuntu. "It's wonderful as it is, of course, there's just an opportunity in this dish for a certain..."
"Dreadroot?" asked Emberlily.
"You want fucking dreadroot?"
"... ingredience," Nuntu finished his wistful thought.
"I would have given my pistil for a dreadroot. It was a siege. This is what we had and it's what I wanted to cook again." She rubbed her verdant chin with a lower hand. "Damn, I think you're right."
Next came her sashimi. Each cutlet had a hint of charring, but beyond that, each sat on its plate with an undeniable presence. They practically glowed. There was one for each plate, and five plates in all.
"This is the one we nearly died for?" fluttered Asphodel. "Marvelous. At last."
"It might help you actually eat it if you just think of it as a cutlet of madpole," explained Emberlily. "It might be hard to lift it otherwise. It probably doesn't help to explain."
"I think I get it," said Esk. She lifted her serving of sashimi with only slight difficulty, then ate it. "Oh. It's - it's full of star."
Asphodel tipped over backwards in xyr chair with a fluttering moan.
"I can't even voice this," said Nuntu. "It's so far outside my experience. I'm amazed my body knows what to do with this."
Emberlily scratched the back of her head. "Well, I thought of Farouun's love and I thought that I'd like to contain it. It is as the sun. This dish was the truest metaphor. Each of you contains just that much more of a sun, now."
"I certainly feel denser," said Q Girl. "Quetzal!"
"What could follow this?" Asphodel asked from the floor. "What could possibly follow this?"
"I'm glad you asked," said the Carbide Chef. Emberlily strode to her main course and began carving portions from the roast. The tender roasted flesh parted like butter before her vibrodagger, revealing cross-sections of Emberlily’s own severed hand lodged in the beast’s belly. "I'm about to serve you something no one outside this dais has had before." She turned from the serving table, a plate grasped in each arm, one for everyone at the announcers' table. "Me."
She returned to the serving table and brought one last plate to Farouun. She set it on the lacquered folding table pulled up before Farouun's throne. She rubbed the back of her head against Farouun's mane.
"You gave me this opportunity, you sentimental fool. I love you. Savor this."
Farouun purred. E'Beth helped Asphodel's chair upright so xe could sample the next course.
"You're a little bit gamey, but sweet," Asphodel buzzed, having now tried the dish. "Roasting has done you some real favors, dear Emberlily. It's such a nice texture to nestle in this fish."
"What kind of a chef would I be if I didn't already know that before I served it to you, Asphodel?" replied Emberlily.
Nuntu cleared his throat. "Carbide Chef. I'm sure you have some thoughts of your own on the question I posed to Mara. I'll repeat it: What is the nature of this dish we eat? Or of the act itself?"
Emberlily grinned, cleaning her vibrodagger for something to fidget with as she talked. "I'll not retort anything the Challenger said, for Mara was true of it, every word. Here's what I think."
The soft clatter of cutlery on ceramic accompanied Emberlily's philosophy.
"All food is sex. Sex is that what helps us reproduce and thrive. All sex is death. Death is a surrender of the self. All death is food. We are all of us feasting upon entropy of a scope that we can scarcely grasp. And everything we ingest shapes us. In times of scarcity, this, too, is a surrender of the self. In times of abundance, it is an expression of the self."
She paced around her serving table and switched her cleaning attentions to her steel butcher knife. "Cooking exists within this grand cycle as erotic slaughter raised to an art. This grand cycle is as old as life and older still. This cycle has been painted across our universe in the very foundations of reality and matter. It is a totality of incalculable brutality and unimaginable tenderness."
She reached into the roast with her freshly-grown hand and pulled out a roasted green tendon from the belly. She tasted it, finished it. "This hand is proof. We are shaped by what we consume as much as by what consumes us. Even as we shape in turn. Let us never shy from this responsibility. Let us revel in it."
Nuntu nodded and patted his stomach in appreciation. "Thank you, Carbide Chef. I believe I am ready for dessert."
Emberlily brought out her pudding to end the night's feast. The garnish of mumblemouth nodes bristled with madpole fangs, still twitching in the evening air from obscure fungal impulses.
"One never thinks of these as dessert mushrooms, does one?" asked Asphodel. "Yet there's such a sweetness you've coaxed out of them. It's very rich."
Esk crunched through the fangs in the garnish. "Ohh. That's really good bonestuff. I needed some of this."
Nuntu cocked his head to his plate and blanched. "I regret to inform you that my pudding just told me the location of the lair of a legendary chrome pyramid."
"See? It's educational, too," said Emberlily.
Asphodel settled blissfully into xyr pot. "Ahh, it was all we could have dreamed of. All of it and more. Have you ever photosynthesized from within, darlings?"
"There's nothing like it, isn't there?" agreed Emberlily. She draped herself in Farouun's lap, heedless of the dampness lingering from the chimera's swim. Farouun curled her bulk down into a lingering kiss with the slynth chef in her lap. Then she rose, lifting Emberlily and setting her down next to her.
"Dear judges," Farouun rumbled. "Tonight, Kitchen Heptagon has witnessed the raw stuff of destiny spun on the lathe of our arena. I can think of no finer way to spend my anniversary. I ask you to confer among yourselves and determine what shape destiny has taken."
Mara crossed the dais to reach Q Girl's side and threaded a hand into the urshiib's rainbow hair. "I'll see you in a moment, my love," the warrior said. Then she descended the staircase with Emberlily to await the final decision. As Esk, Asphodel, and Nuntu conferred, Q Girl joined E'Beth and Farouun in looking out across the arena. It was a candid moment away from the microphones.
"We'll be staying the night as usual, Baroness," said the urshiib tinker.
"As usual for yourself, Q Girl," replied Farouun. "It is your lover's first visit here, is it not?"
Q Girl smiled. "Honestly, I don't know why it took so long for me to bring her out here. I think she was worried about stacking up to the competition."
"She did well. We would have her again."
"Speaking of having her," said Q Girl, sizing up the Baroness. "I remember my first stay at the Kitchen Heptagon. If you have anything like that planned for her, you have my blessing. I think you might be a match for her and I think that would be really good for her. She likes to cut loose."
Farouun smiled hungrily.
Q Girl nearly interrupted her own thought. "Oh! But if you and Emberlily wanted a special night together tonight, I don't want to pull you away from that-"
"Q Girl," rumbled Baroness Farouun. "Could we impose upon the two of you to extend your stay?"
"That would be just quetzal," nodded the tinker. A grin graced the bear muzzle of her face.
At the foot of the steps, Emberlily sat and cooled her ever-burning upper hands while Mara watched barge wreckage lap against the chrome and fulcrete that ringed the arena.
"Those lag-latkes," said Emberlily. "Clever, clever. You're really not making my anniversary dinner easy."
"Thank you," said Mara, graciously. "About your flux sashimi..."
Mara's voice grew quiet. "If you ever put my girlfriend in mortal peril again I will strike you down."
Emberlily rose swiftly. "I'm sorry. Truly sorry for the distress I've caused you. Ach, after all you did for me."
Mara said nothing, but kept watching the soft waves.
"We have espers for things like flux," continued Emberlily. "You wouldn't have known."
"E'Beth showed me," said Mara. Strength slowly returned to her voice. "Right after. It looked desperate."
"It always does, but we're still here," said Emberlily. "I hope you'll be able to trust us in future matches. What can we do to make this right?"
Mara rolled her shoulders one by one. "You could let me win. Massage my ego."
Emberlily barked a laugh. "What can we do to make this right that isn't throw the match?"
"I'll think of something," said Mara. After a moment, she laughed as well.
Silence and darkness swept across the arena as the arc sconces dimmed to signal a decision. Baroness Farouun loomed at the top of the stairs. A ring of sconces around the top of the dais complex lit her from below like a living monument. Esk, Asphodel, and Nuntu took up position on her right flank as E'Beth and Q Girl stood to her left. The other Carbide Chefs returned to their sconces.
Farouun clapped her claws together, then stretched an open claw to gesture at Mara. "Weary Paw Mara. You have honored us with your presence tonight. You have honored us further with your offerings. You have given a worthy challenge to my beloved Emberlily. Emberlily, first of my Chefs, first to my banner, first by my side." Her mane shimmered like plasma. "We will announce the verdict."
E'Beth launched herself into the air with a flex of her psionic prowess, hovering gently down from the top of the dais to the next tier down. As she narrated, the bandbots offered melodramatic pianos, yearning and thunderous.
"Challenger Weary Paw Mara faced off against Carbide Chef Phyta Emberlily in a photosynthetic fracas that nearly crushed our kitchen stadium under the weight of a thousand suns! They have transmuted these madpoles caught fresh from the mighty Svy into a feast worthy of Emberlily and Baroness Farouun's anniversary! You've seen them fight, bleed, and cook for us, but now comes true reckoning! Who takes it? Whose cuisine reigns supreme?"
The bandbots finished their strain. As their last harmony sustained into nothingness, true silence fell over the arena. Farouun wore it like a mantle of divine authority. At last, she snapped her head back and swept her arm towards the victor. Her roar pealed across the stands.
"CARBIDE CHEF EMBERLILY!"
The arena roared back in exultation. Emberlily whipped her head around in disbelief, then burst into full-throated laughter. She turned to shake Mara by the lower hands, but Mara reached past her and wrapped the slynth into a complicated hug. The Carbide Chef returned the embrace warmly and without hesitation.
"Astounding!" cried E'Beth, touching down on the next layer of the dais. "Emberlily takes it! There's just no substitute for flux! But she'd be wise not to rest on these laurels - it's only a matter of time until the next challenge. What a night!"
"Hey, the beetle moon still waxes, doesn't it?" asked Esk, ambling to the edge of the dais with her fellow judges. "The night is young."
"For you, maybe!" Clactobelle fluttered onto E'Beth's shoulders and clung to her crimson shawl. "I'm exhausted!"
Baroness Farouun sped down the stairs to scoop Emberlily up into a crushing embrace. Q Girl followed at a more leisurely pace to seek her own lover for congratulations. E'Beth, sagging slightly under the weight of the glowmoth, smiled and waved to the stands.
"From all of us tonight in Kitchen Heptagon," said E'Beth, "We wish you safe travels, sweet dreams, shade and vittle, friends."
She gestured theatrically with her upraised hand, and teased Clactobelle's glittering glowdust into a galaxy above her head.
"Live and cook."