Being a mere visitor to Asardi, I had no idea what to expect in the way of cuisine.
The war in my home city-state of Sopul had driven me to seek refuge with my cousin, Lorlas. She was always a free spirit; she was constantly looking for trouble as a kid. I hadn’t seen her since we were both children, so I had hoped that she had dropped her tendency to be reckless. I was dreadfully wrong.
“Abane! Welcome to Asardi!” Lorlas called to me.
“Hey Lorlas. Long time, no see!” I called back, dodging my way through the crowded loading station. There had been three caravans that had unloaded at the same time. All had come from Sopul to escape the war. I briefly wondered why Sopul was doing nothing to stop the mass exodus. It probably had to do with the fact that the mayor was a complete lunatic, which is probably what started the war on the city-state in the first place. Lorlas beckoned me to her and gave me a bear hug, lifting me off of my feet. My eyes bugged until she set me down.
She held me at arm’s length and studied my face. She took in my waist-length blonde hair and my blue-gray eyes, my sharp chin and my high forehead, my slender figure and my ample height. She was almost my opposite: short, fiery red hair, piercing green eyes, quite short, and rather rotund. She smiled a stunning smile and said, “Abane, you would make even the stars jealous in your beauty. C’mon, let’s go get something to eat to celebrate!”
This was how she first introduced me to The Poison Kitchen. She dragged me down the cobble stone streets filled with merchants hawking their wares until we came upon an old wooden building. It looked solid, but some of the shingles just barely hung on, like they were about to plunge into the crowd below. A sign, black around its edges with mold proclaimed the building as “The Poison Kitchen.” I shuddered. I could only imagine what they served there. Stepping into the restaurant, I was astonished at the size of the room. It was very spacious, and the vast windows provided all the light needed. The earthy color of the walls complimented the oak furniture— little tables and chairs scattered in little clusters throughout the room.
Lorlas led me to the back of the room where the host sat. She smiled at Lorlas. “Hello again, Lorlas. Thank you for gracing us with your presence tonight. Who is your friend?” she said, turning to me.
“This is my cousin, Abane, she hails from Sopul, and has come here seeking refuge.” Lorlas answered.
“Ah, but of course!” she smiled at me, “And what will you two be having tonight?”
“Wait just a moment, Shiznie; I haven’t explained how you do things here to Abane yet.”
“Oh, then by all means, take your time, we are in no rush.”
Lorlas turned to me and gestured to one of the empty tables near us. “Why don’t we sit over there?” she asked. I nodded and we sat. “This is a very unique restaurant, Abane,” she started, “As you can tell from the name, poison is involved. Every item on the menu has some sort of poison.”
“You mean if I eat anything, I’m going to die! Why did you bring me here?” I shouted as loudly as I could without drawing the other customers’ attentions.
“No, no, settle down. There’s only one item on the menu that you can die from, and Shiznie or the other hosts try to dissuade you from buying it. The other items have… other effects. I’ll tell you which ones you don’t want to get, and you’ll have a grand time here!”
“So, anything I eat here will have some sort of effect on my body?”
“Or mind, that’s right!”
“I don’t know if I want to eat here, Lorlas…”
“C’mon, you’ll love it! Let’s go order,” she said, yanking me back up to the counter.
“Have you ladies decided what to order, or shall I give the menu to Abane?” Shiznie asked with a smile.
“You’d better give her the menu,” Lorlas responded. Shiznie took the nondescript book placed neatly in front of her and gave it to me. In it I found only the name of food and price.
“Where are all the effects?” I asked, incredulous they would leave out something so important.
“That’s the best part,” Shiznie practically squealed in delight, “It’s a surprise!”
“But- But, what if something bad happens!” I was panicked.
Lorlas leaned over and muttered in my ear, “I won’t let that happen, cuz, now just pick something.”
I looked at the menu. It had about 25 items—main dishes, side dishes, drinks, and deserts. “Maybe you can suggest something,” I said weakly.
“Listen, I’ve got your back, if you pick something bad, I’ll just tell you to pick again, otherwise, just order like you are at a restaurant, okay?” Lorlas gave me a little squeeze around the shoulders.
“Okay… How about the calzone…?” I turned to look at Lorlas for guidance; she winked and gave a thumbs up. “With a side of carrots…?” She grinned at me. “To drink… Soda.” She nodded, “And for desert… apple pie.”
“Wow!” Lorlas exclaimed, “Those are all perfectly fine things! No death or even extra acne!”
Shiznie smiled again, “And Lorlas, am I to expect you want the regular?”
“Well,” Lorlas started, looking regretful, “Yes, I do want it, but I think it would be best to have exactly what Abane is having, so she doesn’t freak out… I will miss that cheesecake though.” She licked her lips at the memory.
“Will that be all?” Shiznie grinned. What is it about this woman and grinning? I thought.
“Yes,” Lorlas responded, “no need to show us to our seats, I already have a special place in mind.” She led me to a door on the back wall. “This is where the really Poison Kitchen addicts eat,” She said.
Beyond the door was a smallish, musty, dark room. The only light came from candles illuminating every table. Most of the tables were full, but Lorlas led me to one in a corner, a booth table.
“This is where I had my first Poison Kitchen food. They had run out of space in the front so the host gave me this table all to myself. And I’m glad I did come here all by myself, unfortunately, I wasn’t as lucky as you were in picking my first meal. I broke out in acne, had unbearable itching, became uncomfortably warm, and couldn’t bear to see what horrors my final dish would bring. Then the host, who know what I was in for and knew it was my first time, kindly brought me some mints that fix any problems caused by their poison. I was no longer itchy, covered in acne, or warm, but I did have the dessert left, staring at me from its plate. It looked so good. So I took a bite. Unfortunately, it was the one item on the menu that is addicting. Abane, unless you want to waste all your dessert money at The Poison Kitchen, do not buy the cheesecake. It messes with your mind; it gives you pleasant hallucinations and makes you always crave more. Do not buy the cheesecake.” With this warning, we sat down.
In just a few minutes, the waitress brought out our first course—the calzones, the soda, and the carrots—and set them down in front of us. I gazed wearily at the food, unsure as to what each would bring me. Lorlas, seeming to sense this said, “I’d try the calzone first. Just eat like this is normal food. Here, I’ll go first.” She took a huge bite out of her calzone. “Mm. Delicious! I haven’t gotten this in quite a while!”
I watched her carefully: nothing seemed to change. I looked down at my calzone, and my stomach rumbled. I hadn’t eaten since this morning. I picked it up with the acute sense of jumping off a cliff, and took a bite. Flakey crust, melting cheese, and tomato sauce were bursting with flavor in my mouth. This was perhaps the best calzone I’d ever had. I swallowed and took another bite. With each bite the room seemed to get brighter and brighter. That must be the poison, I thought. I looked closely at Lorlas’s eyes; they were dilated more than they should have been, even in this dark room. I laughed.
“So is that what the calzone does? Dilates your eyes?” I asked her.
“Very observant! It took me quite a while to figure that out for myself.” She answered.
“I thought the effects would be a bit more… extreme,” I said.
“This is actually the most harmless one on the menu,” Lorlas said with a sly grin, “shall we move on to something a little less safe?”
“Alright,” I gulped. I reached for the soda, and took a sip. Immediately, it felt as if my foot fell asleep, except it was like that with my whole body, and a little less painful. “Whoa!” I exclaimed, touching the top of my head, a place that I didn’t know could even tingle.
Lorlas who had taken a sip at the same time as I did smiled and rubbed her hands together, said, “I know right? Pretty intense, but harmless.”
The tingling subsided after a few moments and I eyed the carrots. I picked one up, turned it over in my hands, and ate it. It took a while to finally grind it down to the point where I could actually swallow it, but once it was gone, I felt no different. I looked at Lorlas who had not eaten her carrot. She was looking at something above my head and snickering. I looked up, but could see nothing. Then I reached up and my hand bumped into something sticking out of my head! I felt the two furry protrusions, and it took me only a moment to realize that they were rabbit ears. “Are these permanent?” I asked, agape.
“Only if you want them to be,” Lorlas had started on her carrots and was quickly sprouting tawny ears. “I once kept mine for a few weeks before I decided that I liked wearing hats and these ears like these got in the way of them. Then I went back here, asked for a mint, and they were gone! Poof! Like I said, those mints are the antidote for any of the poisons here. Except for death, of course.”
We finished up our food. The room got considerably brighter, and I noticed I could no longer see any color around Lorlas’s eye. “I’m glad you decided to seat us in this room,” I said, “The other one would have been too bright after eating that calzone.” I decided not to finish my soda, seeing as I wasn’t all that thirsty, and I wasn’t all that keen to tingle. However, Lorlas chugged hers down in a couple gulps. Then she began to visibly vibrate.
“A-a-aban-n-ne! I-it’s-s li-ike bub-b-bles a-a-are b-burstin-ng i-in my ve-eins!” she cried, grinning with pleasure. “I-it fe-e-els good! Tr-y-y i-it!”
She did look like she was having the time of her life, so I gulped down the rest of my soda. If you’ve ever sat on one of those vibrating chairs on a carriage with limited suspension, while you have your blood aerated, you know kind of how it feels to drink The Poison Kitchen’s soda in one gulp. It was like someone was boiling my blood, except I wasn’t hot at all. I could hardly see my surroundings were shaking so much. It wasn’t painful as much as just a sensory overload and I was glad when it was finished.
“Whew!” Lorlas sighed, “That was fun!” I nodded noncommittally.
“Are you ladies done? May I take your plates?” The waitress had snuck up on us unannounced, “Your desert will be out shortly.” True to her word, a few minutes later, she brought out two generous slices of steaming apple pies. “Would you like some water or some mints?” the waitress asked.
“Both please,” Lorlas responded.
“That will just be a moment. Enjoy your pie!” She said as she walked away.
“You heard her, dig in,” Lorlas said, and shoveled the pie into her mouth. She looked somewhat disappointed, “It’s just not the same as that cheese cake.” She sighed, and looked up at me. “Sorry, the pie is delicious I just can’t stand not having that cheese cake. It’s a problem, I know, but at least I admit it.” I sat watching her, looking for the effects of the poison. I could see none except for regret, but that was for the longing of cheese cake. I took a bite.
The apple pie was simply delicious. The warm apples with a gooey cinnamon sauce incased in fluffy crust was so delicious, I could practically put my fork down. Somewhere between my fourth and fifth bite, the waitress returned with a glass of water and a mint for both of us. Lorlas thanked her and took a big swig of water. I realized that I hadn’t stopped to see what the effects of the pie were. I noticed nothing out of the ordinary except that I had rabbit ears sprouting from my head and everything was almost painfully bright.
“Yes?” She said, looking up.
“What effect do the apple pies have?”
“Oh none really, other than the fact that they’re delicious and warm and can sate your hunger.”
“But, I thought you said everything had a poison.”
“I did. But what I really meant was everything except the apple pie and the water.”
“Oh, so the water’s okay too?”
I took a few sips of water before finishing up my pie. “Thank you for taking me here, Lorlas, I’ve had a fun time, but how can you just eat something without knowing if you’re going to regret it later? What if you died?”
“Oh, but honey, I’m not going to die. You see, I’ve made pretty good friends with Shiznie, and one day she told me that the dish that’s lethal is the blood sausage. I wasn’t going to try that anyway, and now I never will! The rest of the food can be a nuisance, but it can all be repaired with a mint. There’s always fun in a surprise. And it’s hard to find fun in Asardi these days. Our Mayor has banned any activities that aren’t necessary, so all you can do for fun these days is eat at The Poison Kitchen, because he has deemed eating as a necessary activity.” Lorlas looked troubled, then she smiled slyly, “And next time we eat here, I’m not going to stop you from getting any of the dishes.”