Ascot hung back as people started towards the tables laid out with food, giving the dishes a suspicious look. Practically all of them had at least a hint of the vivid colour of the spices Caldina used when she cooked - possibly unsurprising, given this meal was being hosted by the Chizetan Princesses, but still… worrying.
He’d always had a suspicion Caldina used the painful heat of that stuff to keep from having to taste what she’d attempted to cook - Caldina herself had walked into the Castle dining hall for the first time, all those years back, and happily declared ‘now we don’t have to put up with my cooking ever again!’.
Still, everyone else was starting, taking little bits of the food in the rich sauces on their plates and wandering aside to the seating area to settle down. …Except for LaFarga, and now he thought about it, LaFarga had also experienced Caldina’s culinary, uh, skills, back when the three of them had first become their strange little family unit and he had (unwisely) suggested they take turns cooking dinner once a week, just for the three of them.
As Ascot’s ability to cook had been non-existent (unless a detailed knowledge of which plants were edible and which really weren’t counted) and Caldina’s consisted of trying to blow the roof off your mouth, LaFarga had lasted one week before declaring he was just going to do the cooking himself. He’d ended up teaching Ascot, over the last few years, but Caldina had grinned and said that was what she had them for, so why should she learn?
He didn’t trust Caldina not to laugh if he asked what of this was safe to eat. Or to declare that if she hadn’t managed to kill him, none of this would.
…None of this was getting Ascot any closer to the food, though he was pretty hungry. Until Zazu, coming away from the far end of the table with a plateful of food which smelled delicious and looked terrifying, came over to him.
“Haven’t had Chizetan curry before?” Zazu asked, with a curious tilt of the head. “Or had a bad experience?”
“The second, I think?” Ascot muttered, glancing over at where LaFarga was poking at one of the bowls. “I don’t know what any of this is, either, I don’t know - where to start?” The tables were arrayed in a line, large plates of flatbreads and little pots of condiments interspersed between a dizzying number of dishes.
“Well, it’s not easy when you’ve got a full royal banquet of spiciness thrown at you for your first real go. Here, I can give you a, uh, tour?” Zazu grinned at him - and at LaFarga, who had looked up at that promise. “It’s okay, nothing this end of the table is that hot. Here, grab a plate, and you can just take a little of a few things to try and see if you like them, come back if you do - you can use the flatbreads to eat with, they aren’t spicy, they’re just slightly herby, so if you grab one of those - right.”
Picking up a plate, Ascot followed as Zazu walked closer. LaFarga wasn’t the only one listening in; a number of the other Cephirans who had been close were wandering back across.
Zazu didn’t seem to notice them, but he spoke up clearly as he waved at the three tables. “They’ve arranged everything by how spicy it is, because at introductory meals like this people tend to start with less spicy and work their way up, if they’re sampling a lot of stuff they aren’t used to. This end is really mild, the other end - up where the Guru and Umi and Princess Tarta are - is the kind of things which will make your mouth go numb if you’re not used to it, so I’d stick to this table? The little pots like this one are all tangy fruit spreads, they aren’t spicy at all but can clear your tastebuds between different dishes. Or they just taste good on the crackers. Everything on the left is vegetable or fruit based only, the things on the right have meat in them as well.”
“What about those?” one of the bystanders asked, pointing at one of the plates of little golden-brown pastry which also dotted the tables.
Zazu smiled. “Those are little fried parcels of drier spiced food - they’re a little spicier than most of the stuff on this table, but if you’re good with the stuff on that end you’d be fine to try them.”
Glancing at them, Ascot decided to leave them alone, even as a couple of people stepped forward with interest. But Zazu was still at his side, contemplating the table.
“If you tried… say, a little of this,” Zazu pointed to one gently golden coloured dish on the left, and Ascot gingerly scooped a little onto his plate, “then maybe - that one, and this one over here? So the first is really creamy, both of these have a bit more of a tang to them, but in slightly different ways - most of the dishes are variants on the flavours in those three, with more heat as you get up the table, so if you did want to try something a little hotter you can look for the things in the same colour dishes.”
Ascot hadn’t even noticed that the bowls containing the main dishes were all patterned in three colours, repeated again and again up the table. The patterns were variations on three themes, as well, presumably for those who couldn’t distinguish between the colours. “Are they actually different flavours, or just spicier?” he asked, curious now.
“Oh, they’re different, but - its like those dishes are all siblings, taste-wise, whereas the three different base flavours are more like…. cousins to each other?” Zazu grinned up at him. “This is just food from the capital, you see. There’s a huge variety of food on Chizeta as a whole, but those three dishes you have on your plate are the three ‘signature meals’ of the Capital, where the Princesses live. This is a display of how much you can do with just the three starting blends of spice. It’s really good stuff, too! Not that I’d expect anything mediocre from the Royal Cooks, but- come on, there’s some space over here, you can try those and decide if you like them enough to have some more, or if we need to get you some more bread and then raid the kitchens later. I can finish off anything you don’t eat, so don’t worry about that.”
Glancing at Zazu’s plate, he had a lot more food than Ascot - and it looked distinctly like the stuff from the last table. “But you like this food,” Ascot said, confused, as he let himself be ushered away (past LaFarga who was putting the same mix onto his own plate). “Why would you need to raid the kitchens?”
“Entertainment?” Zazu offered, with a grin. “I ran out of work on the NSX this morning, and we’ve only been here a day and a half. I need to keep busy somehow.” Then he turned his attention to his own food, with every semblance of enjoyment, leaving Ascot space to try his without being watched.
Ascot tore a corner off the strangely spongy flatbread, and tried just a corner of that, first. It was a different kind of texture to the normal Cephiran bread, a lot chewier, but… good, he decided, taking a slightly larger bite, and then contemplating the three small spoonfuls of sauce and vegetable on his plate.
He dipped the corner in the light gold sauce, and checked that no one was watching, before he licked a tiny bit of the sauce off, shoulders tensed. He trusted Zazu to tell him the truth, but it was entirely possible his notion of ‘not spicy’ was far out of Ascot’s normal sphere… only, no. The sauce was - gently sweet, and rich, and - he didn’t have words to describe it. There was no tingling on his tongue at all, his lips didn’t react - it really was okay. His shoulders dropped as he relaxed, and actually bit off the corner of the bread he’d soaked.
Now that was shockingly tasty. The savoury background of the bread brought out the subtle, almost fruity flavours in the sauce, and he scooped up the bits of well marinated vegetable from that part of his plate before trying the other two dishes. Which were - interesting, but he’d liked the first one best by far.
Zazu had managed to clear his plate, too, swallowing down the last bite of his bread and wiping his hands on one of the napkins laid out on the table they’d taken over. “Would you like some more?” He asked, and then he saw Ascot’s clean plate and - well, he grinned so much it was like he lit up. “Hey, did you like it?”
Nodding, Ascot unfolded his legs as Zazu bounced up. “Especially the, uh, the pale one?”
“You have good taste, that’s my favourite of the three. There were a couple of variations on the first table, I can point them out too?”
Zazu headed off - but Ascot reached out, caught his arm - then realised what he’d done and let go, staring at the ground as his face heated. “I - sorry, Zazu.”
“What is it? Is something wrong? Or-”
“I just - thank you,” Ascot glanced up, and back down again. “For - helping. I wanted to say thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Zazu told him, voice warm, and when Ascot managed to look up Zazu was smiling at him. “But it’s no problem. Geo did the same thing for me, the first time we stopped by Chizeta, and he only knew because Eagle had told him. Things weren’t so neatly set out, either. …And then I ignored his advice and snuck something so hot it made my ears hot. I ended up pouring a flask of water over my head, which made a terrible mess, had Geo yelling at me, and didn’t even help.”
Ascot had to laugh at the image, and he let himself be ushered back to the table, where - with his new confidence - he managed to choose a couple of other dishes to try, but also to take a good portion of the one he knew he liked. By the end of the evening, highly daring, he even tried a little of one of the versions from the middle table; just a little of the sauce from the edge of Zazu’s plate. And though there was a little bit of a tingle to it, an edge he could feel lingering in his mouth, it was tasty.
And he was never, ever letting Caldina cook for him ever again.