The day of the summons.
Eryn and I walked through the front gate of the castle into the courtyard. In my hand was a box containing what I would need for the cooking exam.
Although the note had mentioned that everything that I needed would be provided through the royal kitchen, my secret ingredient required a bit of time to prepare beforehand. Making sure that I kept the box stable, the sound of glass jars lightly clinking could be heard as I walked.
After entering the castle, some guards directed us to a waiting room along one of the main hallways. While we waited, Eryn impatiently tapped her foot with worry.
“Are you sure about this?” She asked me again. I had forgotten how many times it’s been.
“Yes. I think they’ll get a kick out of it.” I smiled back. I wasn’t sure, but what did I have to lose?
In contrast, Eryn was more worried than she had let on. She didn’t want Claude to put on a poor performance. If things went badly, it would surely reflect negatively on her as well. However, she couldn’t use her reputation as an excuse to turn him away. She had an image to keep up in front of him.
On the other hand, what would she do if he was successful? Would he leave her to become a royal chef? The job itself was highly sought after and led to a luxurious life. What she could offer him paled in comparison to that. If he left, that would put a heavy burden on her current plans. She wrestled with these problems in her mind, all while trying to maintain a neutral facade.
The door knocked, and a footman showed up, leading the two of us into the grand ballroom. We had been here before during the celebration banquet, but it had been full of people at the time. The ambiance had been bright and warm, reflecting the cheeriness of the event. Now, the vastness of the empty ballroom felt strangely cold to me. As I saw three people sitting at a table in the middle, a bit of stage fright developed, causing me to stiffly walk forwards. I could feel goosebumps dot across my arm.
The three men, presumably my judges, stood up and introduced themselves to me one-by-one.
The first one, I had met before, as he was the head royal chef. Wearing a fancy uniform indicative of his position, he was a middle-aged man who was neatly groomed. He looked at me with a welcoming smile, no doubt remembering my previous visit. Since he had already experienced my style of cooking before, I was rather confident that he would see eye-to-eye with me.
“Head chef Duncan. Good to see you again, Chef Evers. I look forward to what you have to offer this time.”
The next man was in full body armor, save for the helmet that had been set aside on the table. He had a bright expression and short blond hair. His eyes brimmed with a youthful fire and pride as expected of a man leading many. Giving me a short wave, his voice projected forward.
“Captain of the Royal Guards, Roderick. Can’t wait to test your grub. Though I may be a soldier, I’ve traveled all around sampling the kingdom’s cuisine. You won’t find me easy to please.”
The last man had a sharp expression, one that suggested that he was sizing up his prey. Though he appeared to be in his mid to late thirties, he emitted an aura of youthful craving. His mannerisms invoked a sense of ambition and greed, something that I took an immediate disliking to.
“Duke Charlemagne. Dabbler of many interests. I hope you live up to my expectations.” He gave an eerie smirk.
Aside from the head chef, the other two seemed like strange choices for judges. Well, the captain did say something about traveling around a lot, so I wondered if he was also responsible for scouting promising candidates. And the Duke…I didn’t know what that position entailed. It sounded important though, so maybe that was why he was here.
After their introductions, the Duke then turned towards Eryn who was waiting beside me.
“Why, nice seeing you again, Miss Faulkner. I take it that things are going well?”
For Eryn, that had been an uncharacteristically blunt answer. Glancing over, I could tell that something bothered her, but I had no time to inquire before the head chef continued the summons along.
“Chef Evers, as explained, you are to create an original and impactful dish for us to test. Please keep in mind that you will be graded on your efforts, which will determine whether you are fit for a coveted position in the royal kitchen. You will have free range over our kitchen, as well as the aid of many able assistants.” A small group of chefs walked in at that moment. “Please endeavor to show us a glimpse of yourself as a chef. You have two hours.”
Nodding in agreement, I started following the group of chefs to the kitchen, only to look back as I had noticed Eryn still fixed in place. As if my eyes had shocked her, she quickly perked up and caught up to me.
“Anything wrong?” I asked her quietly as she shuffled past me.
“It’s nothing,” she replied bluntly, looking forward the whole time.
Scratching my head, I could do nothing but follow.
After I left the room and was guided to the kitchen, I felt a distinct change in temperature. Apparently, it had not been my imagination that the room felt cold. I smiled to myself thinking that this would be one more thing I could take advantage of.
Seeing the chefs assigned to me lining up at attention, I set down the box I was carrying. I pulled out a single jar from within, containing a deep red liquid with dregs sunken at the bottom. The men looked at me questionably.
“Gentlemen, this will be the star attraction for today!”
Eryn peered over at the group of chefs from one corner of the kitchen. Normally, she would have no interest in what they would be planning. However, this was a special case. Claude would be presenting his cuisine in front of highly important people.
While she was not so worried about the head chief or the Captain, the Duke was another matter. Duke Charlemagne held significant sway in the kingdom’s operations. Having a hand in commerce, education, and finances, one would hardly be able to do anything in this kingdom if they met with his disapproval. Furthermore, his position as Duke made him very close in power to the King, as he had the support of many nobles under his wing.
Being a merchant and lower ranked noble, Eryn was particularly careful about drawing any ill thoughts from someone of such high position. She had never expected someone like him would be a judge for a mere chef examination, so naturally she had been caught off guard by his presence.
She watched Claude rolling out thin sheets of dough, instructing the others to imitate his process. Next, he had taken seared meat and shredded it, adding some of the red liquid in a pan before tossing it together. Afterwards, he took a fresh pan, along with another batch of meat and a different glass jar of liquid this time.
Seeing this process, she had no idea what he had in store as a dish fit for royalty.
Over the previous days leading up to the summons, Claude had been busy working on preparations for his dish. Peeking in whenever she had the time, Eryn’s worry steadily grew as not once had he demonstrated a final product. Instead, Claude had focused his attention on taking the peppers that he had acquired from the shipment in Gibraltar and creating that red liquid. He had large jars lined up in a row, filled with the stuff. Small bits were left to submerge and sink to the bottom, where they clustered together in a pile.
As the days continued, she noticed that the number of jars had only increased, each giving off a slightly different shade of red. What had he been planning all this time? She could only hope for the best as she continued watching his collection of red liquid grow. Curious at one point to know what lied in those jars, Eryn snuck in while Claude was gone and dipped a finger in to taste it, only to bolt out of the kitchen screaming bloody murder.
In the end, all he had brought with him had been those small containers of red liquid.
If the judges reacted as badly as she did, what would she do? She certainly didn’t need any nasty attention directed to her by the Duke. In the past, she felt that he had taken a peculiar interest in her already. At first, she thought that maybe she had captured his eye with her talents. But the more she watched his gaze, the less comfortable she felt. His gaze held a sense of predatory anticipation when he looked at her, but for what reason? She had her suspicions, but no definite proof.
“It’s finished!” Claude yelled out to the group of chefs.
Having been awoken from her internal conflict, she looked over anxiously at the final product.
She could only stare at it dumbly.
On each plate was a set of 20 small dumplings, each set on top of a small spoon and laid out in a spiral pattern. As you traced along the spiral, the reddish hue of the dumpling gradually grew darker and richer. A small dish of yogurt adorned the top left of the tray.
“What kind of dish is that? Is this your idea of a joke?” Eryn couldn’t help but blurt out, seeing that the dish was far from anything she knew of high-class cuisine.
“Joke, huh? Perhaps. Some may see it that way. But I see it as a challenge. Even if I fail, that means that I wasn’t suited for the job in the first place,” Claude said nonchalantly.
Eryn’s jaw dropped. He had no idea of the gravity of the situation. She tried to reach out to stop him, but the team of chefs were already marching out of the kitchen, dishes in hand. Seeing that she lost her chance, her hand limply fell to her side.
“It’s over. Isn’t it? Maybe I should think about running away to another country.” She laughed nervously.
If her greatest fears did happen, then that really would be her last resort. All she could do was follow along and watch the events play out. Escaping would wait until the last shred of hope was lost.
“I really should have told him not to do it.” Eryn left the room with regret weighing on her mind.