A quartet of rough hands raised fists of wine. Dots of light swam in the cherry liquid, glittered in crystal bowls. "Cheers!" said four voices, thumped the table with as many fists.
"And a warm, fat Hallowtide to all of us," said the head of the table, a shaggy lass with white-streaked hair. There was a chorus of hear, hear, a burble of gulped wine.
Beside the lass, a mouse in leather reached for a hunk of nut bread. "I will certainly become fat if we come here any more often," he said, spitting crumbs. The others chortled, admired their surroundings.
The table resided within a sumptuous parlor, all velvet, gaslights, and paneled wood. Servers wavered about, ferried drinks to and fro. A sound of harpsichord thrummed nearby, nearly drowned out by the boisterous cutters.
"This is the beau monde, friends," said a weird creature beside Stoat. Naught but her lips and green, bloodshot eyes showed under layers of woven silk.
"Damn true, Lilé" said a swarthy man with a scarred nose. "One thousand pounds!" he declared, smiling. The table cheered, raised their cups again. "Bless Stoat for finding the catacomb job."
The lass with the odd hair bowed exaggeratedly. "Please, Gar," she said, showing crooked teeth. "The magistrate was infatuated with me. Would've payed us a hundred crowns just to sweep the stairs, if he thought I'd like it."
"Poor bugger," said the mouse, teeth working at a biscuit. "Would break his heart to hear you're queer."
"Yeah," grinned Stoat, pecked the silk-wrapped girl on her swaddled cheek. Lilé shoved her, grinned back.
The mouse twitched his ears. "If you two would pause your fondling, I believe I hear the cheese."
Eight eyes were drawn to a pair of approaching waiters in black ties. One carried a wriggling white sack. The other; a paper-covered stool and a short, wooden bat. The fellow with the sack approached Stoat. He bowed briefly, placed it on the stool which his coworker had set down. With quick hands, he lifted the corners of the cloth. A blue-spotted lump rolled out, wriggled atop the paper.
"Madame," said the waiter, indicating the lump. He kept it from wriggling off with a firm hand. "Very good," said Stoat, frowning as if impressed. The mouse rolled his red eyes at her.
The waiter nodded, took the bat from his colleague. He pursed his lips, sharply thumped the lump thrice. He paused momentarily, observed a wiggle, thumped it once more.
"Madame," he said again, bowing. Eight hands clapped softly, hungrily. The waiters gathered their stool and bat. They bowed again, departed.
Stoat looked to her friends, raised her glass again. "Le beau monde!"
Long have people dined on species of mold. Certain molds, known as curdles, naturally infest the udders of cows, fleeces, and other such quadrupeds. Ancient Litorans, cunning and hungry as they are, somehow learned the contents of such a hardened, wiggling udder to be delicious. Now, thousands, of years later, the culturing of curdles has become a practical art. Vats of milk are allowed to come alive. Then they are killed, becoming, deliciously, cheese.
The best cheeses come from Faindun and Geselchundt. They graze on bowls of the finest milk, are allowed to pasture freely in the dry caves and cellars in which they are raised.
A soft cheese is kept for only a short while before being sold, whereas a sharp, hard cheese is allowed to grow old and sedentary over a period of many months.
In the end, it is the hard cheeses which are easier to prepare for market. The young, soft ones are hard to catch, and are difficult to club to death. Clubbing* is the accepted method of ending a cheese's life on the pasture, and is thought to contribute to its texture.
In Empereaux, it is traditional to club the cheese immediately before preparation, to ensure absolute freshness. This is done before the dinner table, so that guests may be sure of their host's respect and good taste. The phrase "forgot to club the cheese" is used when describing an individual who has committed a very obvious faux pas upon entering conversation.
Many varieties of cheese exist, depend greatly on country and milk of origin.
“A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what's cheese? Corpse of milk. ”― James Joyce
*The culinary implement used to club a cheese is known as a cheese pin. It may also suffice as a serviceable cosh, in times of strife.