“Tickets please.” The guard at the entrance of the dining hall frowned. He didn’t look at the old man when he presented his ticket, only took it from his dirt-stained fingers and checked it against the list. “Hm. Welcome, General. I’ll call a server for you.” Ding went the bell, and not three minutes later, a maid stepped out from behind the double doors, dark eyed and expressionless. “Table for one?”
“Indubitably!”, the General boomed.
Rolling his eyes, the guard took the man’s coat, cane, and hat. The General wanted to ask where he was taking them, but before he had the chance, he was ushered into the hall.
The dining room was, like the rest of the ship, splendorous. Like a rectangular interpretation of the dance hall, plants sprouted sporadically from the marble floor, and pink lamps hung from a coffered ceiling. Here, though, tables littered the floor in a seemingly random manner. And there was no chandelier – instead, scented candles set on every table lit the room in discrete pools of light, and filled it with the smell of lavender, honey, and excess. The General followed the maid to a spiral staircase in the back and together they ascended to a second story much like the first. Here though, instead of the coffered ceiling, a large glass roof opened to the four balloons and dying day above.
“Your table, sir,” said the maid, as she led him to a small table near the centre of the room. “And your menu. Your courses have already been decided for you, for the ease of our kitchen crew, as have the drinks. But you may choose the entrée.”
“You have my gratitude, young man!”, boomed the General, loudly enough to startle the nearby diners. “Fine young people like you give me faith in our country! I will be sure to compensate you for your, uh, graciousness.”
The maid shifted uncomfortably. “Well. That’s very kind of you, sir. We’re not allowed to take compensation directly from our guests, but I’ll take it as a compliment.” She smiled. “Also, I’m a woman.”
“Ah! Well.” They stared at each other for a few silent moments before the General hurriedly broke eye contact and buried himself in the menu. After standing around awkwardly for a few minutes, the maid shuffled away quietly.
As he looked through the menu, the General felt his stomach drop. The pages were completely incomprehensible. All the words bled into each other and jumped around the page; the tiny text gave him a headache just by being near him. This was hopeless. Frustrated, he threw the menu down and buried his head in his hands. He didn’t know what he expected. It wasn’t like looking at a menu would teach him how to read. While he stewed, he examined the plate set before him. Inexplicably, they’d given him three different sets of forks and spoon, each nearly identical. Why was it so difficult to eat a meal here?
While he groaned in frustration, diners began to ogle at the strange old man who’d stumbled into their lives. Everything about him they found odd, from his absurd manner to his disgusting beard to his outrageous clothing. The ridiculous powder-blue suit had so many frills and decorations it looked more fitting on a clown than a refined gentleman. But there was nothing gentlemanly about him.
Their hardly supressed giggling must’ve finally gotten to him because he looked around nervously and tugged at his obvious wig. And when it became clear his distress only drew more attention, sweat began to bead on the General’s forehead and panic lodged itself in his throat.
When the maid returned, she found the man on the verge of tears. “Sir?”, she asked, concern barely entering her voice, “Are you feeling alright?”
He shot up and blurted “Yes! Perfectly fine, thank you very much! Just an, ah, old injury acting up. From the war.”
The maid shrugged. “If you say so. I can take your order now.”
The General held up the menu and blindly jabbed his finger at a line, desperately hoping it described food.
Miraculously, the maid smiled and said “An excellent choice, sir. I’ll run this down to the chef.”
He watched her go and sighed in relief. He’d somehow cleared that hurdle, now just to get through the rest of the dinner. Everything in him demanded to leave the awful room, but he’d promised himself he’d act natural. And nothing was more unnatural than seeing a gentleman flee in the middle of dinner. He just prayed it would be over soon.
Not ten minutes after the first maid left, another approached, brandishing a large, covered metal tray. She set down a glass of opaque pink liquid and unveiled the plate, revealing a pile of suspiciously slimy lumps. “Our appetizer, sir, is fresh bridge tongue, served raw with salt sauce and a glass of bloomberry wine. Please enjoy.”
He eyed the lumps suspiciously. If they tasted as bad as they smelled, he might not survive the night. The wine, though, went down smoothly. It tasted sweet, tangy, and oddly creamy. Before he knew it, he’d finished the glass. Now he just had to stomach the food. Hesitantly, he chose a fork at random and speared a small tongue. Immediately it shrieked and twitched, translucent juice oozing from its wound. The General nearly screamed himself, doubly so when it started seizing violently as the salt sauce seeped into the cut. Incredulous, he looked around at the others casually slurping up their slugs between quiet conversation.
“Well. Here goes,” he muttered as he tentatively placed the creature into his mouth. Immediately the thing exploded against his teeth, releasing far more oily juice than it appeared to hold. He gagged and held a hand to his mouth, struggling not to vomit. There was no way he could swallow this thing; the stress would surely kill him. Desperately, he looked around, and when he thought no one was watching, bent over and spit the thing into a neighboring bush. The rest of the plate he slid away too. Then he sat back and sighed. There was no way the rest of the meal could be that bad.
Looking up from the empty plate, the General became aware of another patron seated across the room, glaring at him. Suited in a dark tuxedo and blessed with a single, greasy cowlick of black hair, this man sat as straight and rigid as a grandfather clock. Something in his expression reminded the general of a rabid wolverine he’d seen when he broke into a zoo some years ago – almost frothing at the mouth and ready to kill. Nervous, the General smiled and waved at the man. If anything, the gesture drove him further into a rage, and the old man could only watch horrified as he rose trembling from his seat and started storming towards him.
“Your main course, sir,” said the maid, who’d just then entered baring a huge covered metal plate. “You ordered the live murderbeaste-” She was cut off by the panicked General leaping from his seat and making for the stairs, away from the approaching man. The man, realizing how inappropriately he was acting, returned to his seat and stewed instead.
Finally free from the dining hall, the General took his first relaxed breath all evening. He didn’t even notice the guard staring at him until he asked “How was your meal, sir?”
“AH! Uh, good, very good, yes. Absolutely scrumptious, sir, very good indeed.” He bowed low to the confused guard and ran as casually as he could from the whole situation. He no longer cared that they’d stolen his coat, hat, and cane. It was a small price to pay for his freedom. The General swore never to eat there again.
Ten minutes later, the General found himself strolling through the ship’s botanical garden, trying to ignore the complaints from his stomach. The garden, he remarked after pushing through the surrounding wrought-iron fence, was one of the strangest places he’d been. At least in the flesh, that was. Though small, what it lacked in size it made up for in color and variety. Like a good fever dream, bizarre plants sprouted and curved like demon architecture, and spores tinted the air in a thin, yellow haze. No two plants were the same, and each bore surreal fruit. Here was one that smelled like feet, and another whose patterns made the General dizzy when he stared for a moment too long.
His stomach grumbled again and he winced. He’d been counting on dinner, he hadn’t eaten all day. Not after missing most of it caught in a poorly timed dream. It almost made him miss the skyship as a result. The General sat on a stone bench and sighed. He was so hungry, even the foot fruit looked appetizing. Then he had an idea.
A walk later and he found a fruit he wanted. Reaching up, the General picked the lumpy prize off its branch. It felt soft and oddly warm, and up close, he could see it was covered in short, soft bristles. Though the bristles made his hand itch as he held it, he was too hungry to care.
Just as he was about to take a bite, though, a voice suddenly cried “Stop! Don’t eat that!” Spinning around, the General was surprised to see one of the most gorgeous women he’d ever laid eyes on. So beautiful was she and so absorbed was he in her that he didn’t notice what she screamed next. Fumbling, he reflexively bit into the fruit, half out of panic and half out of an attempt to appear casual.
Seven minutes later, the General finally came to. He was lying face up on the cold stone bench, a horrible burning in his stomach and esophagus.
“Don’t move! It’s still in you. Just sit still and give me a minute.” Completely ignoring the advice, he turned to face the voice and was immediately hit by a wave of pain arcing down his neck and into his chest. “What are you, an idiot? I said don’t move!” The girl finished chewing what she’d been chewing for the last five minutes and spat into her hand. “Alright, now drink up.”
If the General wasn’t paralyzed, he would’ve screamed when the girl forced her spit into his mouth and made him swallow. But when it turned out that, against all his expectations, it didn’t immediately kill him, he was left feeling confused and a little violated. But he didn’t complain when, a minute later, relief hit him like a freshwater wave. “There. Now you can move.”
Gingerly, the General sat up on the bench. And immediately doubled over. Vomit exploded from him, dark red and thick and putrid smelling. The girl deftly stepped out of range, but the General himself was not so lucky, spilling the sludge all over his suit. Where it landed, it hissed and burned and frayed the fabric. Finally, when it was over, the General was shaking, heaving, and sweating in his ruined suit.
“Alright, now that it’s out, mind telling me what in the sky possessed you to eat that thing?” She pointed at the half-eaten fruit, or what he thought was a fruit. On closer inspection, he realized it looked an awful lot like a giant squirming maggot, though one covered in fur and with a big bloody bite taken out of it.
“Oh my stars, what is that thing!?”
“You don’t even know what it is? And you still took a bite out of it??”, cried the girl incredulously. “It’s an Adam’s tick, dingus. They’re normally pretty rare, but this garden’s crawling with them for some reason.” The tick by the General’s feet twitched intermittently, each movement sending blood spilling onto the soil. “Also, they’re ridiculously poisonous. Seriously, what were you thinking?”
The General almost fainted, but the girl slapped him back to consciousness. “Gah! Okay, I’m awake!” He studied a small plaque on the bench, trying his hardest not to look at the ‘tick’. Curiously, the plaque only had a number inscribed on it. A small, cursive seven.
“I was just really hungry…” he said, “I thought it was a fruit or something…”
“Really? You were hungry?? How did you survive this long on your own?? You should thank the stars I’m here!”
The General scratched at his hand, which still itched after holding the tick. Looking more closely, he realised that it had grown swollen and red, and the beginnings of a rash had begun to spread. “Back there, what did you do? What did I swallow?”
She smiled proudly, and held out a handful of seeds. They were small, withered, and smelled weirdly minty. “You had a bunch of the tick in you. You know, after taking a big bite out of it and all. I had to get it out as fast as possible. Luckily, I happened to have some boombean seeds on me, so I ground a few up. That’s what you ate.”
He blinked. “Boombean seeds?”
“They’re mostly used as an anaesthetic, but if you take enough at once, they can make you vomit.”
“And you just carry these things on you?” He cradled his swollen hand. “Did you really have to chew them?”
“Yes. They’re activated by saliva. Easier to grind and activate them at the same time.” She tucked the seeds back into a small felt pouch before remarking “Also, you’re welcome. For saving your life and all.”
“Huh.” They stared at each other awkwardly, the old man in his blood-stained suit and the elegant young woman in her flowing green dress. She looked about seventeen or eighteen, her red hair pulled into an elaborate flower hat. This hat was so incredibly detailed that it looked like she had a small garden growing from the top of her head. Realizing he’d been staring for far longer than appropriate, the General blinked, blushed, and looked away. “So. Now that we’re acquainted. What’s your name?”
She laughed. “Cynthia Home. But please call me Cynthia. What’s yours?”
“Uh,” the General panicked, suddenly drawing a blank. “General Clint Queen. I mean Lady. General Clint Lady. But call me Clint?” He resisted the urge to go drown himself. “So, uh. Cynthia. Pretty name.”
She rolled her eyes and got up from the bench. Holding out her hand, she said “Come on. Let’s get you to your quarters. You’re in need of a bath.”
As the couple limped out of the gardens, she supporting the General’s frail form with her own, the dinner crowd had begun dispersing from the dining hall. Again, the old man drew stares ranging anywhere from curiosity to horror and disgust. He tried to ignore the stares, but found he couldn’t escape the furious eyes of the man who’d tried to approach him during dinner. The dark-suited man pushed his way through the passengers to stare the general dead in the eyes.
“You, sir,” he cried, in a voice trembling with rage, “are a disgrace of a man! You’re a dimwitted buffoon with no propriety, form, or grace! I can smell your low blood from an island away. You think you can act so outrageously and humiliate me? I will not stand for this.” With a bestial snarl, he tore off a glove and threw it at the dumbfounded general’s feet. “If you have any honor, unhand that lady at once and face me, scoundrel!”
Clint looked from the man to the glove to Cynthia with mouth agape. But before he could say anything, the young woman cried, “A duel?? Are you mad? This man can barely walk!”
The man’s expression turned from rage to confusion, before returning to an indignant anger. “Quiet, girl! You would never understand a man’s honor. This man has challenged me, and I will not lie quietly at his feet!”
“If you had any honor, you wouldn’t fight an obviously injured man! He’s covered in blood, for stars’ sake. What would you prove by killing him, other than your own cowardice?” At this, the man’s eyes flashed so dangerously that Cynthia almost faltered for a moment. “Yes. Your cowardice. Who would beat an injured man, incapable of defending himself, but a coward?”
He glowed with so much anger that Clint was worried he’d explode. After a tense minute though, the man actually backed away.
“Fine. We’ll postpone the duel until next Noonsday, twelve noon. That’s the longest I’ll wait.” Without another word, the man in the dark tuxedo walked past the two, into the dance hall and passenger quarters beyond.