“By accepting this challenge when you are so obviously unready for it, you are jeopardizing the peace meal—“
“No, you’re jeopardizing the peace meal,” Jae said, as she took a step toward her challenger. “By your obvious poor example of what peace means. There is no graciousness or humility in your demeanor. There is no generosity or compromise in your attitude toward those who have been chosen—or even those who did the choosing. By questioning me, you are questioning, doubting, and disrespecting those who chose me.”
Jae paused to observe the effects of her words on her fellow baker, and now, it seemed, her rival. He inhaled, and as he did, his chest and shoulders rose with the fullness of the breath he took in. She had not intended to prickle him. But nor had she expected that he or any of the other bakers who had made it to the final selection round, would so challenge the decision made in good faith.
In the core of her own chest, she felt a chill. She too pulled a breath from the warm air of the state kitchen, where five ovens were actively baking the test batches she had prepared. Her breath filled and warmed the chill in her core.
“If you are troubled by the choice of the Five Leaders,” she said, “I suggest you bring your concerns to them directly.”
Brade exhaled and crossed his arms, but his taut expression relaxed into the hint of a smirk. “It is appropriate for me to bring my concerns to you first. Otherwise, I would be disrespecting you. And the Five Leaders are not the only ones who have the power to change their choice. You can change it as well, by stepping down. By admitting you are not yet ready. Not yet worthy. Perhaps you will be, someday. But not today. And especially not on this most auspicious anniversary of a great and lasting peace among these nations, a peace upon which others have been modeled.” He uncrossed his arms and swept them to the sides, as if indicating his surroundings. “Can you not see that this is too important a task? It is not the time for experimentation, for the trial and testing of a young baker—regardless of whatever her potential might be?”
Jae narrowed her eyes. “I ask you then, when would be the right time? When no one is watching?”
“Well…yes. That way you can make your mistakes and perfect and hone your recipes.”
“And you believe I have not already done so?”
“To some extent, I’m certain. Otherwise your name would not have found its way onto the list. But you must admit that your acquaintance with the Chef Supreme at the Academy has granted you advantages that others do not have.”
Jae smiled a smile that did not reach her eyes. “As your acquaintance with Lord Lawrent has granted you?”
This time, she all but saw the hairs at the back of his neck prickle, though he held composure in his expression.
Jae folded her hands before herself. “You will not see matters as I do. And I will not see matters as you do. We are at an impasse.”
“Then what shall we do?”
“I will do my work. And you will accept that you are not the Baker Prime for this year’s Feast.”
Four nations warred. And they warred. And they warred. And some suppose that they might be warring still if not for the firm but humble interference of a fifth nation. Mensulamare was a lengthy name for such a small nation. “The Little Table in the Sea” it was called, for the isle floated in one of the world’s vast oceans, surrounded by four nations much greater in size and power, and much fiercer in fury. The leaders of the four nations despised each other, but there was one for whom they had enough respect and admiration—even affection—to come together for talks of a truce. Perhaps it was time. Perhaps the leaders were wiser than their predecessors had been. Perhaps their people longed to set aside weapons and take up tools of trade.
Perhaps it was all of these ingredients and more that brought about the perfect recipe for a truce that became a peace, a peace that endured to the present.
To solidify the precarious truce, the Mensulamari ambassador proposed a celebration, a congratulatory meal, where signature foods from each of the nations were brought to the table. The fifth nation was just supposed to attend, but the others insisted that they also bring something to the table, dessert, a cake to signify a sweet end.
For two hundred years, on the anniversary of that first meal, all five nations continued to hold a celebration. The bicentennial meal approached, the meal that had come to be known both as the “peace meal” and the “piecemeal” (the latter indicating how slow and incremental the treaty process was). The meal had become more of a stately and fashionable affair. The five nations now had friendly political and cultural relations, and relatively equal power dynamics.
The only real tension that remained seemed to be among those who prepared for the momentous event. And among the most prestigious roles, fleeting though it may be, was that of the Baker Prime. A baker of Mensulamari heritage would be chosen to bake the cake for the main event in that nation’s capital, the cake that would be eaten by the five leaders of each nation.
For the two hundredth Feast of Mensulmare, the Five Leaders had chosen Jae.
“Envy, plain and simple,” Lyn said.
Jae turned to her assistant as they stood in the state kitchen, leaning side by side against the table where the test cakes were cooling. Since meeting Brade, Lyn had been put off by him. “A walking hurdle,” she called him, “tripping up those who were not expecting to deal with him.” She had predicted that he would cause trouble if any name but his own was announced as Baker Prime.
“If so, that’s no cause for worry,” Jae replied. “I would have envied whoever was chosen if it hadn’t been me.”
Lyn shook her head. “He won’t let it rest at an impasse.”
“If he brings his case to the Five Leaders—“
“You know he won’t do that. It would make him appear to be an ungracious loser. It would damage his future prospects to be known as one who questioned the decision of the Five Leaders.”
“It should not. It is his right to do so. And my right to defend my position if he does. The Five Leaders are wise and worthy, but they are not all-knowing.”
“Yes, but it will perceived that he is…well, that he is envious.”
“Maybe he will enlist someone else to speak on his behalf, Lord Lawrent perhaps.”
Lyn shook her head. “I don’t think so. I think he’ll be more direct. Watch, he’ll come here every day until the Feast just to pester you, wear you down.”
“Then I shall have to bolster myself up, with those who say the opposite of what he says.” Jae gave Lyn a friendly nudge with her elbow. “And if he interferes with me in any way that breaks the rules of conduct, he will be reprimanded, maybe even removed from consideration for being Baker Prime in future years. I doubt he would risk that.”
“Ah, but he is not concerned with future years. This year is the one that counts. The most important anniversary to date. Two hundred years without blood and tears.”
“Don’t keep reminding me,” Jae said, feeling a slight flutter in her gut, “or I’ll have to report you for interfering with my best efforts. I’m trying to keep it out of my mind, so I can just do what I was chosen to do. Bake!”
“But what if the weasel is right?” Lyn said. “What if your best cake is not acceptable? Aren’t you worried about that? Or worse, what if your best cake offends in some way?”
Jae cocked her head and smiled. “If this peace is so fragile that it can be broken by a single bite of cake, then it is not a true and lasting peace.”
She turned and pulled a chunk of unfrosted cake from one of the rounds that were still cooling. She held it up. “I should be able to bake the plainest of cakes, and still see the looks of joy upon the faces of the feasters. For they should be so busy enjoying each other’s company, that even a cake baked only with flour and water should taste rich with butter and honey.”
Jae grinned and popped the chunk of cake in her mouth.
“But our cake actually is rich with butter and honey.”
Jae shrugged at her assistant’s riposte and nodded in approval at the taste of the cake. “All the better.”
When Jae arrived at the state kitchens on the morning of the Feast, all was ready. The recipe had been refined. The equipment was in place and in working order. The raw ingredients were ready and available in the proper measure. Lyn had checked the night before. And Jae would check once more before they began baking.
Jae began to check the ovens, the pans, and the recipe, as written for each station where the state kitchen staff would work to help Jae and Lyn prepare the cakes that would be served to the other attendees of the capital feast.
All was as expected at first, but when she started to check the stock of ingredients, she began to notice something odd. The jars of honey had a different mark on it, and upon closer inspection, was from a different region than the honey she used and had ordered for the occasion. She checked the butter in the cold storage room. It too appeared similar but bore the markings of a different dairy than the one she ordered from. When she melted a pat and tasted it, it tasted slightly different as well. Some of the ingredients in the kitchen, the pantry, and the cold storage room, were as she expected. And all ingredients were available in more than sufficient quantities. But some were different from the ones she had been using for her test batches. If she baked the peace meal cake with the ingredients currently at hand, it would be a good cake. But it would not be the cake that she wanted to offer the Leaders and the other feasters.
When Lyn and the state kitchen bakers came in, Jae questioned them. Lyn insisted that when she performed the inventory the previous night, all was as it should be. And her blame for the mysterious appearance of different ingredients (and the accompanying disappearance of their chosen ingredients) flew directly toward Brade.
Jae warned her against reaching conclusions before they investigated the matter. She believed that Lyn was honest in her accounting of the inventory. That meant the ingredients were switched sometime during the night. Jae was not presently concerned with solving mysteries or casting accusations. Perhaps she would be once the feast was done. But for the present, she only wanted her original ingredients back.
She had given herself some time. She assigned Lyn to bake a test batch of cakes using the new ingredients, while she questioned the kitchen staff and the guards in the hopes of finding out who took her ingredients and where they had gone. She felt flashes of anger toward Brade, in moments when she succumbed to the same suspicions as Lyn. But succumbing to such anger would do her no good for the time being. And for all that she knew, her rival baker had nothing to do with the strange incident.
In less than an hour’s time, all that she knew changed. And she discovered that Brade had indeed taken away the original ingredients and left the new ones.
Jae informed the kitchen staff of what had happened and how she would pay Brade a visit and instruct him to return their ingredients. She expected Lyn to burst into a full outrage and offer to come with her, but her assistant only said that if Jae was not back within the hour, or if she failed to convince Brade to surrender the ingredients, then they would carry on with the ingredients they had. For if Brade was trying to sabotage them, it was not obvious from the taste of the test batches.
“They’re not the same,” Lyn said. “But they would do.”
No doubt her eye was upon the clock. They were supposed to have started baking the actual feast cakes already. But Jae wanted them to hold off for just a bit longer, so that if she managed to recover the original ingredients, they would not have wasted the proper ingredients they already had by baking “hybrid” cakes containing some of Jae’s chosen ingredients and some of Brade’s.
Jae found her fellow baker in his own kitchen within the finest lodge in the capital.
When she asked Brade if he was responsible for switching her ingredients, he admitted he had. He had noted on his visit to the kitchen that she was using inferior ingredients. And he sought to help by delivering ingredients of the finest quality.
“How soon can you return the original ingredients to the state kitchen?” Jae asked.
“Don’t tell me you have yet started. If not, then the fault is yours, not mine. You have sufficient quantities of your ingredients to bake more cakes than you need.”
Jae glanced at a clock on the wall. “Would you be able to deliver all the missing ingredients by hour eleven?”
“You really should have started by now.”
Jae furrowed her brow. “I’m curious. You have explained why you supplied the ingredients you supplied. But why did you remove the ingredients that I had chosen?”
“So your assistants wouldn’t use them by accident.”
“But it would not be an accident for them to use the ingredients that I have specifically chosen and tested.”
“As I said, the ones I provided are better. You can still do your own recipe, but using the best ingredients.”
“I chose the ingredients I chose because they all come from our nation.”
Brade shook his head, his eyes widening. “But our nation doesn’t produce the best vanilla, or the finest flour. And nobody is going to cry ‘favoritism’ in this day and age if the butter you use is from a farm in this nation, and the eggs you use were laid by chickens from that nation. And so on. The feasters will expect to see a spectacle. They will expect to see if their current Baker Prime has outdone the last one, all to honor the Five Leaders and the peace. How can you make a cake that tastes the best if you do not use the best ingredients to make it?”
“It matters less that the ingredients are the best, and more that they do their best,” Jae said, “especially when working together. And it was the task of our nation’s leader to see the strengths and weaknesses of the other leaders, and to put them together—to put together what he had at hand—to create something that was stronger and worthier than the separate parts.”
“The most talented baker in the world could not take poor ingredients and make something worthy out of them.”
“Perhaps not, but my ingredients are not poor. They are simply unsatisfactory to you.”
“And so they will be unsatisfactory to the Five Leaders and the other feasters.”
“Nevertheless, I did not ask for your contribution, Brade.”
She was within her rights to report his tampering. There was plenty of proof. But if she did report his meddling, she would jeopardize his chances to be Baker Prime in future years. She took a moment to consider this. It was not her place to exercise such leniency, nor her responsibility to protect his chances. He had acted of his own accord. And she was honor-bound to guard the integrity of the post she had been granted. And to protect herself, Lyn, and all the other bakers who were helping her prepare for the Feast.
“I must report your interference,” she said.
Brade’s expression did not change. He must have expected her response, and was ready with one of his own. “You realize that you will be perceived as weak and whiny if you lodge a complaint about your ingredients and they are found to be not just sufficient, but superior.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “Deliver the original ingredients by hour eleven.”
“And if I do, will you abandon your report?”
“No, I must will still report what has happened, but if you restore the ingredients, I will not classify the report as a complaint, but as a notification.”
Brade’s brow twitched. “But that’s as good as a complaint!”
Jae shook her head. “Why did you do as you did, if you knew it violated the rules of conduct?”
“Because—because I did not think that you would deem it a violation when you realized that you had been supplied with better ingredients. What if your assistant had taken such action without your knowledge?”
“But what if she had? Would you report her?”
“I would decide upon my course of action according to what has actually happened, as I do now.”
“So then, you demonstrate that you are unable to foresee and adapt to changing circumstances.”
Jae let a long and silent breath pass before answering. “The only thing I demonstrate is a reluctance to speak with you further.”
She turned and left his kitchen to return to her own. It was growing late, and she had work to do.
And work she did, apologizing to Lyn and the other bakers for her absence as she wrapped an apron around her waist. Starting her work gave her the strength to put the morning’s conflict out of her mind. She did not believe that Brade would return her ingredients. The cakes would taste the same nonetheless, more likely even better, as he predicted. And by the time she wrote her report and made her complaint, it would perhaps no longer matter, for word would spread that Brade had provided the ingredients she had used. And that the story was nothing but the usual rivalry among bakers that in the end was set aside for the good of the Feast. She would not jeopardize the Feast for her own pride. And for the time being, she would not allow her rival’s pettiness to mar the most exhilarating experience of her life as a baker.
She had only ever worked with one person, Lyn. It was strange but gratifying to direct the efforts of several bakers, all of whom worked in both concert and chaos to complete the cakes. They encountered several hurdles, from the failing of one oven, to a burn suffered by one of the younger bakers that was serious enough for Jae to dismiss him with her thanks.
But the one hurdle that Jae was certain they would face, the first hurdle, was removed before it could hinder them. It was removed by hour ten. That was when Brade himself arrived at the state kitchen, bearing all of Jae’s original ingredients, all of them in excellent condition.
Jae nodded to him, but then dove straight into the task of arranging for the ingredients to be taken to the kitchens, tallied, and put to immediate use.
Jae watched as the table containing her cakes was wheeled out into the main dining hall. She had expected to feel nervous, to feel doubt about the cakes she had chosen to bake, to feel a sudden panic about the sparse decorations she had chosen. The Baker Prime in the previous year had assembled a cake with a fountain of chocolate flowing in neat streams along the sides of the precisely stacked tiers. The Baker Prime in the year before that had baked cakes shaped like busts of the Five Leaders. And in the first year that Jae had seen a prime Feast cake with her own eyes, she had seen a cake that appeared like a bejeweled crown, with the various jewels being made of cleverly candied fruits.
She had always dreamed of how she would awe and delight the Five Leaders and the other feasters when she revealed the feast cake she had baked for them. She dreamed of making cakes that looked like castles in the clouds, a cake that depicted the very feast in which it centered, and cakes that represented the flavors of all five nations. Her cakes would taste as good as they looked, she had decided. For she had often heard that the many of the cakes served at the capital Feast were all spectacle and no sweetness.
For all these reasons, she had expected to be shaking with nervous energy as her cakes were rolled out. But she felt an unexpected calm. She had met each of the Five Leaders and thanked them for choosing her. Perhaps it was seeing them at their ease that put her at ease too. They spoke of being eager to taste her cake, but they also spoke of the other dishes they would try or had already tried. They teased her with last-minute notifications of allergies they did not actually have or flavors they despised. And Jae found herself teasing back that it was far too late and perhaps it would humble them to eat something they did not prefer.
Here, at the official feast, there were dignitaries and delegates. But there were feasts or festivals being held in the capitals of all the nations, and in cities, towns, taverns, and homes.
When Jae’s cakes were revealed, the cheers and applause were sincere. But talk of tasting them started as soon as everyone realized there was nothing special to see. The cakes were lovely, but each was frosted in only one color—rich and vibrant though that color might be. When the cakes were cut and the patterns and shapes inside were revealed, there were gasps of admiration. The guests of the feast were delighted. But none were awed.
Every cake was more…interesting on the inside than it was on the outside. There were thin layers of custard and curd and freshly made jam. Or different flavors of cake baked inside each other, their flavors complementing each other. If they were not awed by the sight of the cakes, the guests of the feast were certainly pleased by the tastes and textures of the cakes.
Plain on the outside but rich and beautiful on the inside. Jae had meant for her cakes to be symbolic of the Peace of Mensulamare as it was in her time. It did not need to be showy on the outside, because it was solid and true to the core.
Jae and Lyn made their rounds among the guest tables, serving cake and receiving compliments. The other bakers who had made the final round were in attendance. They too praised the taste of her cakes, and her “courage” in making them so plain to the sight. Among them was a face she had not expected to see. Perhaps he hoped she would change her mind about submitting her report now that all was done and the Feast was going well.
Brade asked to step aside with Jae and speak to her. Lyn tried to pull Jae toward a table full of actors and entertainers who had put on a variety play earlier that day.
“I’ll join you in a moment,” Jae said, and watched Lyn throw a chilling glance toward Brade before turning away.
“You were right,” Brade said. “I should not have interfered. I was wrong.”
“Thank you. I accept your apology.” Jae waited a moment, for it seemed from his expectant expression that he had more to say.
“Enjoy the feast,” she said at last. She nodded and began to turn.
She turned back to him. “Yes?”
“Well, I suppose I was expecting you to say you were wrong too.”
Jae raised her brows. “Was I? For what?”
“For—“ He stopped himself. Jae waited for him to continue, but he did not.
“For being chosen?” she asked.
He sighed. He shook his head. He laughed. “I thought you had taken what was rightfully mine. I thought you had taken my place.” He peered at her. “But you didn’t, did you?”
She cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing.
“What you were taking was your place.”
Jae nodded, unsure of his sincerity. She considered confirming that she would be submitting her report the next day, in case he had any hopes that she wouldn’t.
Instead, she held out her hand. As he reached out, she grasped his hand and shook it. She stepped away then and rejoined Lyn. They had their dinner later than everyone else. So by the time Jae was ready for cake, the crowd in the dining hall had thinned by more than half. Jae moved away from the floor where people were still dancing, toward the edge of the wall, where the cake table was now set. She waved to Lyn, who was laughing with new friends.
Jae served herself a piece of her own cake, one of the cakes she had so loved baking. She savored a generous forkful, swallowed, and said, “Delicious.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel