Marceau breathed a sigh of relief. The dignitaries of Pendi and Timur were all seated comfortably, waiting for dinner to be served. The hectic meeting was over. As long as they got past this dinner, the defence committee could relax, assured that Timur would maintain good relations.
The dinner was her responsibility. She had to ensure that the right people, and only the right people, were seated at that long table. She had to ascertain that this person stayed far away from this other person, or else sparks will fly. She had to check that this person sat beside this other person, for trade talks to casually proceed. She had to find out which people preferred vegetables, beef, or fish.
She circled the long table, ensuring the proper placement of the name tags in front of each dinner setting. She had relayed the food preferences to the kitchen. The bouquets were in their right places.
She gave the signal to commence serving. She took her place beside her brother. She nodded when small talk was directed at her, but her eyes darted at the whole table, and at the arrival of the food onto it.
The first course arrived. The soup was ladled into the bowls at the same time. Marceau peered down at her bowl. It was a fragrant affair, with herbs and pepper.
The head of the defence committee, the highest-ranked official on Pendi’s side, dutifully took the first sip. “AH,” the elder said, taking another spoonful immediately. “Wonderful.” He smiled at Marceau and Claude. “Excellent choice.”
The rest of the dignitaries also took their first spoonfuls. They echoed the compliments.
Marceau was relieved that the elder liked it so much, but did not expect such a great reception. She took a spoonful herself.
Mushroom soup. Choice mushrooms. Onions. Parsley. Excellent cream. A dash of pepper, just right. It was simple, but exquisite. A great cook armed with the best ingredients.
But this was NOT the menu they had agreed on. And she knew that mushroom soup. Anywhere.
She turned toward her brother. He merely enjoyed his first course. He did not seem to notice. Her heart thumped. Surely she was mistaken. She was just mistaken.
A serving of salad came next, drizzled with a vinaigrette she had never tasted before. At least, not that way. Balsalmic vinegar. Olive oil. Lemon. And Orange. Capers. Pepper again, but less than in the soup. It had a foreign twist to it, even if it was distinctly Pendika fare.
Maybe there’s a foreigner making the vinaigrette, that’s all, Marceau thought to herself. But it can’t be the same one who made the soup. That’s impossible.
The main course varied, depending on the preferences given beforehand. But everyone was complimenting the head of the defence committee about the smoked salmon, the beef tenderloin, the vegetable stew, the buttered chicken. Some requested small servings of the other meals, in order to taste them. And they all agreed that the fare was excellent.
Marceau looked at all the satisfied dignitaries incredulously, even as she sampled as many of the main courses as she could.
Finally dessert was served. A cold dish composed of crackers softened by cream, interlaced with many fruits. The head waiter said it was called an icebox cake. It had been improved on, for the benefit of the esteemed dignitaries.
Marceau took a bite, and savored…something improved on because of the good ingredients, but definitely familiar.
There was no mistaking it now.
“Bring out the head chef!” the dignitaries began to chorus.
“Indeed, bring out the head chef,” the head of the defence committee echoes.
Marceau therefore motioned to the head waiter. “Where is the real head chef?” Marceau demanded in a whisper.
“In the kitchen, Miss,” the waiter said.
“No. Where is the head chef we hired?”
“What do you mean, Miss?”
Marceau took a deep calming breath, then bowed politely to the dignitaries. She accompanied the head waiter out of the dining hall.
Once out of view of the guests, she pushed the head waiter to the wall. “A Selati is doing your cooking!” Marceau grabbed his collar. “How did a Selati get past you to do the cooking! As the head chef!”
Marceau dragged the waiter by the collar.
She slammed the swinging doors of the kitchen. “Get the head chef out there to meet our guests!” she declared.
The cooks looked at each other. Most of them looked toward the pantry. “We…can’t…”
Marceau quickly understood, which confirmed her guess. “If you can’t bring out the Selati who’s been leading you tonight, send out the sous chef. The eldest Pendika. Now!”
The head waiter hastily escorted the sous chef back to the dining area, as Marceau marched to the pantry.
She forced it open, and found a sandhaired Selati snoring, his head pillowed by the flour sack.
As the dining area burst in applause, she screamed at the cooks. “How did this happen!”
“The head chef is in the infirmary,” the vegetable cook explained. “Heal programmer Beika said it may be a heart attack.”
“That does not explain why this good-for-nothing is here!”
“Healer Beika gave his name and where he could be found. Sorry, Miss Marceau. We had no time to tell you. He gave us a short demonstration, we agreed that he was good, we told him the menu.”
Marceau held her head and groaned. A Selati had just saved her future career. He took no credit.
He smiled in his sleep. “Is good, Marceau?”
She slammed the pantry door shut.
“Get out of my life, you insane icebox!” she declared, marching back to the dining room, her cheeks a deep red.