by Michael O. Varhola
Following is “The Dinner Party,” a fun piece of short fiction I wrote about a party of adventurers going out to eat one evening! It is set in the heart of the world described in my just-released Swords of Kos Fantasy Campaign Setting, at a Dwarven restaurant called Moira’s located on the outskirts of Kos City. This short story originally appeared in d-Infinity Volume #5: Full Circle, and I am having it republished here because it ties in with a 5th Edition D&D adventure I will be running at ConClave.
Desdinova lay on his bunk, hands behind his head, and stared up at the ceiling. A gentle, salty breeze wafted through his room in Proteon’s House of the Thundering Sea, the hostel where he currently dwelled, and took the edge off the afternoon heat. It had been somewhat more than two weeks since he and the others had gotten back from their adventure on the nameless little island and he was in the recuperative middle ground between being glad to have one quest complete and becoming eager to set out on the next.
That latter phase, he reflected sagely, seemed to grow more imminent as material resources garnered from the last expedition waned, and he and his companions were still pretty flush. There had not been a whole lot in the way of gold or gems, but some of the armor and weapons they had collected had been of masterwork quality, and they had managed to liquidate those that interested party members had not claimed for a tidy sum.
Gods, there had been so much blood! Too bad they couldn’t have sold it for anything, he thought with a little smirk.
It would be another two or three weeks or so, he guessed, before any of them started keeping their ears to the ground, much less looking in earnest, for another quest. Something unforeseen might turn up in the meantime, of course, and he was always subject to getting an assignment of some sort from the mysterious order of which he was a member.
He and his companions had not, in any event, tired of each other’s company too much since arriving back in Kos. They all had their own business to attend to, of course, and sometimes he would not see any one of them for a day or two at a time. Most nights, however, those of them who were hanging around the moldering rooming house went out to the Four Winds Bar and drank into the wee hours of the night, regaling each other and their fellow patrons with stories of strange places and fascinating events. Desdinova would sometimes produce a lute and sing a song or two, and that was almost always good for a few drinks … and sometimes even some interesting companionship.
But this evening he wanted to do something a little different.
“Let’s go out for dinner tonight,” he said, sitting up on his bunk and addressing his companions, who lounged around the plain, equipment-cluttered room engaged in various activities. Zoltar, the skinny, middle-aged Human wizard, was perusing the pages of an arcane tome at the room’s lone table. Kord, the zealous young Human cleric, was sitting on the edge of his own bunk and performing maintenance on his coat of mail. Loleda, the Halfling rogue, who kept her own room down the hall, was nestled in the corner, smoking some pungent herb from a small hookah. And Trodecarn, the stout Dwarf soldier-engineer, was sitting on a pile of his gear and sharpening the edge of his deadly waraxe. Shovelless, his companion from the Scythera adventure, often stayed at the hostel as well but was off on some other business at the moment.
Trodecarn glanced around at the group, pointing first at himself and then at each of the others with a thick finger as he counted one-two-three-four-five and then turned to Desdinova.
“Isn’t the auspicious number four?” he asked warily.
“I should certainly hope the optimum number of participants for a full-blown adventure shouldn’t apply to our having dinner out!” Desdinova said in response to the Dwarf’s concerns about the well-known superstition. “You’ve never expressed such concerns when we’ve gone out drinking.”
“This somehow seems different …” the Dwarf observed uncertainly.
“Maybe,” Desdinova agreed equitably. “But none of that applies if I am one of the people in said party, as a bard is always an acceptable fifth and provides an exception to the ideal of four. Besides, these others set off with a party of four to that horrible little island, found me along the way, and only benefited as a result.”
Trodecarn accepted this expert judgment and gave his acceptance to the venture. Discussion ensued as to where the culinary expedition should be directed. Someone suggested Attikis Harvest of the Rocks, located not too far away on one of the small peninsulas projecting into the Bay of Kos, but everyone ultimately agreed that they had eaten a lot of seafood lately and that it just didn’t sound very good at the moment. A number of other ideas were similarly dismissed.
“How about Dwarven?” Desdinova ventured. Even as people started to chime assent, however, Kord made a disapproving sound.
“Ugh! Not Dwarven!” he said with a scowl on his face.
“What! What’s wrong with Dwarven?” erupted the stout Trodecarn, his sturdy frame tensing.
“Huh? No, no, it’s not that, it’s just …” the village cleric sputtered as he tried to clarify himself and calm his annoyed compatriot. Wise but uncultured, he often inadvertently revealed his rural roots in conversation with more urbane company. “It’s just that Dwarven food isn’t … a good value.”
This prompted a new a new spate of grumblings and protests, not just from Trodecarn but also from the little Halfling rascal, who was often strikingly hungry after one of her herb-smoking sessions.
“What do you mean it isn’t a good value?” pressed the annoyed Dwarf.
“Well, for you it is, but for anyone else there’s the surcharge to have the food blessed by one of your own clerics …” the priest explained.
Some further discussion followed the popular assertion about this hidden cost — it being agreed that Kord was simply being a cheap bastard and that everyone else would cover the surcharge for him if needs be, a suggestion he rejected in shame — and the party resolved to eat at a well-known Dwarven restaurant in the hilly neighborhood clinging to the inner slopes of the mountains that ran along the southern edge of the island.
And so the fellowship set off, wending their way through the industrial quarter of warehouses, maritime outfitters, and cheap boarding houses that choked the narrow strip of land between the southern end of the bay and the hills rising up a few hundred yards inland. In short order they passed through the Mountain Gate and, after greeting the guards on duty so as to reduce the chance they would have trouble reentering the city later that night, exited Kos as the sun disappeared beneath the hills to their right.
The party chatted as they went along the steadily ascending road, reiterating their last adventure together, comparing its details to those of quests that they were only able to individually recount, and before long reached a hamlet of low, sturdy homes and workshops.
Trodecarn led them straight to the restaurant that was the object of their journey, and the five companions stopped and regarded its hillside entrance, which consisted of a pair of heavy iron doors set into rune-carved stone lintels.
“It looks like a mine!” Loleda exclaimed.
“It is,” said Trodecarn, a bit of racial pride slipping into his voice. “It was worked out years ago and, Dwarves being a thrifty lot, they decided to convert it into a dining establishment.”
Zoltar regarded the most prominent words cut into the uppermost part of the stone doorframe, sounding out the characters as he translated them.
“Moira’s?” he asked.
“Yes!” replied the Dwarf. “I’m impressed. It’s the name of its founder. Or the mine’s owner. Something like that.”
“What about the other runes?” the wizard asked.
“Hmm? Oh, they refer to the establishment’s policy of refusing service to those not properly attired in footwear and tunics. Mostly to discourage barbarians, Orcs, and other riffraff.” Not wanting to descend into an argument over Dwarven racism, the party accepted this explanation in silence.
Pushing open the doors, they moved into the entryway beyond, unconsciously falling into the formation that they would have used if they had been entering a hostile dungeon.
“Friends!” heartily exclaimed the formally-clad Dwarven maitre d’salle standing a short distance within. “Welcome to Moira’s.” The party advanced, Trodecarn and Desdinova in the lead, and confirmed that there were five in their party.
“Would you like to sit with two other guests?” the Master of the Hall asked. “This would allow you to split the costs of the traditional surcharge amongst the six of you.”
“Sure!” the five chimed in as if one. “And we’ll be splitting the surcharge seven ways in that case,” muttered Desdinova diplomatically. We’re a unified party.” Trodecarn glumly nodded his assent to this.
The maitre d’ led the party down a set of stairs into a long, low hall illuminated dimly by luminous globes that rested in metal brackets mounted on the walls. A half dozen long, heavy tables filled the hall. Thick tapestries depicting scenes from familiar Dwarven tales hung on the walls, some of them screening small private dining alcoves or passageways that led further into the hill. Some distance down one of these, apparently, a minstrel played some percussion instrument and another Dwarf, presumably, chanted, filling the dining chamber with a low, ambient music.
A table near the back of the hall was filled with a party of foreign merchants. Seated at one of the nearer ones, however, were a Human and a Gnome, both men and, both being characteristically over-armed-and armored, obviously adventurers like Desdinova and his companions. (Any idea of going out in public without at least light armor and two or three weapons was generally rejected out of some supernatural fear that these items would be required only if they were not present.)
The pair rose as the party approached, the two groups sizing each other up, and introduced themselves as Reddog, mercenary fighter, and Osboodle, a “locksmith.” Everyone then maneuvered for seats, and Loleda and the Gnome ended up next to each other at one end of the table.
“Let the two of ‘em pick each others’ pockets!” Trodecarn whispered slyly to Zoltar, who chuckled appreciatively.
A server presently appeared and explained to the combined party that, in short, one menu was offered, and all the party needed to decide was whether they collectively preferred a light repast of two courses or a banquet of up to seven. After the various options and costs were explained to them — the flat-rate non-Dwarf surcharge remained the same regardless of which option they chose — the party opted for a substantial but relatively modest four-course dinner.
The first course, an aperitif of sorts, consisted of cool, pitch-black beer served in heavy stone mugs. Trodecarn gave a traditional Dwarven toast and then took a heavy slug off his drink while the others sniffed and more timidly tasted theirs.
“It’s like drinking rock!” Kord exclaimed. “In a good way …” he added quickly so as to avoid offending his Dwarf friend again.
“There’s actually quite a bit of rock in it,” Trodecarn said musingly. “Dwarven beer uses toasted moss and lichen as a base, and different types are flavored with various sorts of mineral. I’m picking up on some volcanic ash and maybe a little obsidian.”
“Are you kidding?” asked Zoltar in horror, his mug dropping to the table. “That can’t be good for us!”
“I suspect that is what the surcharge is for,” said Desdinova. “My guess is that it is not just an extraneous prayer or a means of padding restaurant bills, but that it is a functional ritual purification of the food and drink, which would otherwise be largely inedible to non-Dwarfs.”
“That is correct,” said Trodecarn gravely.
“That makes sense,” said Desdinova. “Dwarfs are not just short, hairy Humans, they are a different species altogether, even have organs that other species do not. So, while there are many things that are mutually digestible by most races, there are others that one or the other can’t process properly. Dwarfs tend to cope badly with raw vegetable matter, for example, while Humans need a certain amount of it and Elves thrive on such fare.”
Conversation continued along these lines for a time, while their server topped off their mugs of beer as needed. Their talk was presently broken, however, by a rumbling sound coming from one of the passageways.
Their server appeared behind a heavy iron mine cart, metal wheels rattling across the stone floor, its covered top filled with an array of plates, utensils, and, in its center, a large, black, steaming mass.
“It’s a bug!” three or four of the party members cried out all at once. “It must weigh at least twenty pounds!” added Kord.
“It is an Anatolian cave beetle!” said the Master of the Hall in a deep and affectedly somber voice as he appeared beside the table. “It has been prepared by our master chef in accordance with the finest culinary traditions of our people, and in a special oven that exactly replicates the effects of magma-heated rock, the preferred method for cooking such a delicacy.”
The maitre d’ then proceeded to expertly dismember the immense coleopteran, using a series of tools that looked like tiny versions of picks, mauls, spades, and other mining tools.
“This is a bit kitsch!” Zoltar said quietly to Desdinova, a quiver of mocking glee in his voice.
“Just because we have hairy ears doesn’t mean we can’t hear out of ‘em!” Trodecarn said menacingly, prompting everyone else to laugh cheerfully.
His task completed, the maitre d’ explained the merits of the various parts of the beetle on the platter before him, pointing in turn to a large pile of translucent brown flesh and various smaller mounds of meats, goos, roes, shell fragments, and appendages. He then served up portions of each of these things to the diners, identified the different sorts of colorful sauces that could be used to complement the dish, and bid the diners enjoy their main course.
“I thought Dwarfs ate things like meat and bread. Cow meat, I mean,” said Kord.
“That’s a misconception,” said Osboodle the Gnome. “How would they raise cows or grow wheat in the subterranean areas that are their preferred habitation? There are many ethnic and regional variations, of course, and Hill cuisine features many porridges and surface meats. What we are enjoying tonight is much closer to a Deep style.”
Talk soon turned, as it generally did, to discussion of past and future adventures, and Zoltar observed that he would much rather face any number of Orcs than a similar number of Hobgoblins, the latter monsters being much better organized and, therefore, commensurately more dangerous.
“Orc, Hobgoblin, same thing!” Reddog the young warrior stated flatly. Everyone at the table other than Trodecarn turned their gazes toward him incredulously, but the Dwarf just kept tearing into his entrée and simply muttered “Fool!”
“All, right, fine, what’s the difference then?” the abashed Human swordsman asked.
Desdinova considered the question briefly, but not so long that anyone else could venture a response and mostly to mask that he had by coincidence formulated an answer to this very question some time before.
“I think I can explain this pretty well,” he said slowly. “But I will defer to the wisdom and experience of brother Trodecarn and would thank him to correct me if I deviate from accuracy.” Trodecarn grunted amicably in response, to which the bard nodded thanks and turned back to the younger man.
“Alright, I think the differences between Orcs and Hobgoblins can be explained pretty well by considering what a typical member of either race would do with a pouch full of loot like gems and coins,” Desdinova said.
Everyone was more-or-less paying attention to the bard now, dividing their concentration between him and their dinners. The Dwarf servitor made his rounds, topping off their mugs with fresh draughts of mineral-fortified beer.
“If an Orc finds a bunch of gems or coins, he is most likely going to find a way to affix them to his gear in an ostentatious manner. He’ll take the biggest gem and glue it to the front of his helmet, do the same with some of the coins, jam a bunch of the other items onto his weapon in the same, way, etc. Or, he’ll convert them into some similar flare. In any event, his main concern is flash and showing off his wealth.” Desdinova glanced toward Trodecarn, who grunted his approval as he gnawed the connective tissue off a chunk of black shell.
“If a Hobgoblin were to obtain the same hoard of coins and gems, on the other hand, he would likely be inclined to use them to improve his equipment to the greatest extent possible, maybe upgrading his armor or buying a masterwork shield or obtaining a better weapon. He’s not going to give a damn about putting on a flashy appearance.”
“So the Hobgoblin doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him?” Zoltar asked.
“Oh, he cares!” Desdinova answered. “He just cares that he is perceived as being well-armed, intimidating, and common-sensical.”
Zoltar smiled a little and everyone else seemed intrigued.
“OK, so what would a Goblin do with the same hoard of gems and gold?” Reddog asked, trying to redeem himself a little and realizing that asking questions actually revealed his ignorance less than making proclamations.
“Give it to a Hobgoblin!” Trodecarn barked, his beard spattered with beetle meat, and everyone erupted into brief laughter, Desdinova nodding his own approval.
“OK,” Reddog continued, somewhat encouraged by the results of his first query and still trying to demonstrate his own savvy. “What about an Ogre?”
“Ogre’s just a type of giant,” Desdinova said flatly. “And he is going to be inclined to simply hide it somewhere in his cave and not either make good use of it or show it off to the world!” Chuckles of approval followed this assessment as well.
“OK, so what about a Bugbear?” Reddog queried next. His question met with baffled silence.
“What’s a Bugbear?” Desdinova replied with a somewhat impish tone that most of the other people at the table probably didn’t catch.
“Um, it’s a big hairy Hobgoblin,” the young Human responded uncertainly. “Right?”
“No!” and other sounds of protestation followed around the table.
“I don’t think so …” Desdinova said. “Why would a big hairy Hobgoblin be called a Bugbear? That doesn’t make any sense at all. And even if that were the case — my not wanting to go on the record as saying that a rich vocabulary is not important — why would being big and hairy make him spend his money any differently than any other Hobgoblin?”
“Well, an Ogre is just a big hairy Human, and they behave differently don’t they?” Reddog recklessly countered.
“No!” came the howls of protest over every false premise in the young man’s response and the fellowship shouted the freshly-chastened warrior into submission as its members continued to pick at the chunks of meat and shell on the trenchers before them.
Conversation continued in a similar vein throughout the evening, as the remnants of the mangled cave beetle gave way to a frothy mousse of light clays sweetened with sweet-and-sour cave cricket honey and, finally, an oily golden liqueur that signaled the end of the meal. The repast came to a full but pleasant end.
Under Desdinova’s guidance, everyone deposited the requisite amount of gold on the table. Then, while the bard personally thanked the Master of the Hall and presented him with a fairly generous but not exorbitant gratuity for him and his staff, the other members of the group staggered groaning toward the door leading out to the street.
“So, Trodecarn,” Desdinova said quietly as he and the slow-moving Dwarf took up the rearguard of the party during its procession back toward the city, the other five clustered together about twenty feet ahead of them. “What would a Bugbear do with that bag of gems and coins?”
Trodecarn glanced up at the taller man and then chuckled lightly as they made their way along the cobbled streets toward the port district and their modest dwelling place.
“I honestly don’t know!” the burly warrior said musingly. “But I certainly hope we learn the answer before the day we end up facing any of them. I have heard that they are some pretty mean and cunning sons-of-curs, to say the least.”
“Hey!” exclaimed Kord suddenly from ahead of them. “Maybe next time I’ll save us some money and just purify the food myself!”