"Oh by the Lion!" With a cry of frustration, Susan slammed the book shut.
This will be a disaster.
A diplomatic disaster.
Peter's worried query was followed by Lambert's "My Queen?"
She shoved Mastering the Art of Faun Cooking aside, pushing it next to its kin, and already rejected, The Dwarf Kitchen, The Silver Plate and Joy of Cooking For 30. Susan reached next for Recipes for Man: Omnivore, Carnivore or Herbivore? For now, she would leave Offal Not Awful. That dreaded book was one of the last alternatives remaining and she didn't think she was that desperate, yet.
"It's this Eastern Sea delegation arriving in two weeks," she replied, steeling herself for another futile search of exceedingly unappetizing recipes. Whatever appetite she'd had disappeared two books ago with the instructions on the ways to skin and eat squirrels and how to roll out bark biscuits with the fewest possible splinters. "Our guests are most vexing."
"That they are." Peter gestured to the stack of petitions from the island principalities and kingdoms. They were all clamoring for better terms and the negotiations promised to be lengthy and painful. The demands made an impressive pile in their own right, even when compared to The Better Dens and Gardens Official Cookbook. "Do you want to switch again? You can try parsing through their proposals and I can go back through the recipes for something palatable, unobjectionable, and not lethal?"
Peter's pity upon her frustration was generous but her brother would have no better luck than she. "Thank you, but I am nearly done. And have nearly run out of options." She pushed her depressingly meager list across the council table to her brother. "When I look at what our guests can eat, as compared to what I know is available to us in our stores or Beruna, the list of acceptable edibles is appallingly short."
"Baked apples, baked onions, potatoes and carrots?"
"Potatoes and carrots mashed, baked, or roasted," she added with false cheer. "But with no butter."
"Sounds delicious." Peter shook his head. "And for the ten-day they will be here, it's monotonous, as well. Not the ideal means to impress and show Narnia to her better advantage, is it?"
"No," Susan replied shortly. He wasn't being critical of her effort for he had shared in it. The High King took very seriously the importance of having Narnia put her best hoof forward and this diplomatic effort was a sore trial for them.
"Do you suppose they are being deliberately difficult, as a test?" Peter mused, then went on to answer his own question. "Of course, to prove it, we risk, at best, deeply offending and at worst, causing a life-threatening allergic reaction."
"That is Edmund's theory, of course. He suspects a grand plot to accuse of us of attempting injury to our guests, thereby embarrassing Narnia and providing an excuse for provocative action."
"Well…" Peter temporized. "Given the current state of our relationship with members of that delegation, there might be some merit to the position."
"Which gives us all the more reason to not poison our guests inadvertently."
Susan took the dreary list back from Peter, thinking it reminiscent of a gray time in that other place where, as best she recalled, carrots figured prominently. "Lucy said that given all this fuss, we should ask them to bring their own food if they cannot eat ours."
"We cannot do that!" Peter exclaimed, sounding gratifyingly horrified at the lack of propriety.
"No, we cannot." Wearily, she opened Recipes for Man. There was a whole chapter on how to prepare and eat insects. Susan closed the book. Maybe Offal Not Awful would be better. Though surely it was all animal- product-based which was the only positive in this morass of culinary diplomacy.
Her Wolf Guard paused, then spoke with ominous care, "I know that you seek to avoid this but perhaps it is time to present the problem to Cook?"
The dismay on Peter's face surely mirrored her own.
Her brother swallowed and glanced at his Guard. "Dalia? What say you?"
The Cheetah blinked and flicked her tail, then calmly added, "I concur with Lambert."
They decided that Susan would approach Cook alone, first. If she failed, then Peter would be available as backup.
Mustering her courage and clutching the many demands and her meager list that satisfied them, she cautiously knocked at the doorway leading to the kitchens. Cook was bent over the big table that occupied the middle of the space and was kneading a mound of dough the size of a boulder.
The dough didn't stand a chance against her powerful arms. The table quivered with the force as she slapped the dough down, pushed it forward with her palms, folded it, slapped it, and pushed it again.
She was humming to herself and timing the kneading to the rhythm of a song.
Crush, Crush, Crush the dough
Make it nice and smoooooth
Smack it over, smash it out,
And do it all agaaaain…
Susan straightened her shoulders. I am Queen here, even if this is Cook's domain. At a pause in the violent kneading song, she cleared her throat. "Excuse me? Cook? Might I have a word if convenient?"
"Yes, Queen Susan?" Cook didn't look up – she wouldn't have needed to for she had surely smelled Susan from the corridor. Minotaurs had an excellent sense of smell; their eyesight was less reliable. "And yes, it is convenient, so long as that Wolf stays out my kitchen and keeps his hair out of my food."
"Lambert is in the hall," she replied calmly. Susan could see little hairs already in the bread dough – not an uncommon occurrence given Cook's gray, hairy arms.
Needlessly clearing her throat, she began, "We have a delegation arriving…"
"In fourteen days."
"Won't be a problem. It's still early in the season, but we've got stores and greens will be up by then in the garden. The game will be lean, but we can hunt…"
"No!" Aslan help her, she was blurting.
Cook finally looked up. The little white cap, normally wedged securely between her horns, was tilting precariously. With an elbow, Cook impatiently shoved it back into place, centering the dainty cap back on the top of her enormous head.
Susan nodded and proffered the scrap of parchment clutched in her hand. "One of our guests does not eat animal flesh."
Cook squinted at the paper, shrugged, and a cloud of hair settled in the dough. "That says animal products." She resumed her vigorous kneading. "So that also means no eggs, no milk, no butter, no cheese. And probably no fish and shellfish."
She hadn't even thought of everything else that would be excluded. Susan's heart sank and her anxiety rose. "I apologize for the inconvenience. This is a very important trade delegation representing Eastern Sea interests. Can we accommodate no animal products in the menu?"
"Of course we can. Many Narnians don't eat other animals. Write back and find out if they object to honey." She jerked her head toward the sideboard. "I'll make a note to send a buyer to the Archenland market next week for extra sugar, just in case, and Calormene olive oil. We'll use the oil instead of butter with the bread…"
"No!" Susan blurted, again.
Cook slammed the bread dough onto the table with a rattling thunk that shook dust from the ceiling.
"One of the guests reports becoming violently ill whenever he eats bread."
"Probably the wheat. We can keep wheat flour out of everything. Use corn, oats, and buckwheat, so long as they aren't Horses or Goats."
Susan was curious in spite of herself at Cook's seemingly very eclectic knowledge. "But Horses and Goats eat corn and oats?"
"But not buckwheat. It's bad for them."
"Oh. Well, no, all the guests are human."
"We should buy rice, too," Cook said. "Everybody eats rice." She began shaping the loaves, one by one, pulling off a huge chunk of dough, turning it over in her hands, and setting each on a paddle dusted with meal. Her hands moved swiftly through a cloud of flour, hair, and corn meal.
Susan politely turned her head to cough discreetly into her shoulder.
"We can also substitute nuts…"
Startled, Susan blurted, "No!" again.
Cook carefully wiped her floury hands on a towel and inspected her crisp, white apron that was spread across her enormous torso like a ship's sail.
"So, someone's allergic to tree nuts?"
"Deathly, according to the letter," Susan admitted.
"And you don't want to kill her?"
From a wood block, Cook withdrew one of her carving knives – it was as large as Lucy's short sword.
"Certainly not!" Susan answered, wondering if perhaps Cook might be a useful addition to their Northern Ettin campaigns. She was very accurate when lobbing cabbages for distance. On the other hand…
"With no nuts, we'll have to go to dried beans and seaweed. Tell the Mermaids to harvest some. They did that a lot in the Long Winter. They know what's edible."
"I shall," Susan said, feeling a little meek and very relieved, even if the prospect of seaweed was disconcerting. Perhaps it tasted like very salty salad? "I do apologize for the inconvenience of all these demands."
Cook began running her sword-like knife along a sharpening steel, so rapidly and hard, it sparked. "Queen Susan, to remind you, we Narnians fed ourselves through very lean times for 100 years of Winter. 'sides, plenty of things that you eat are deadly poison to Narnians, and the same going the other way. Any of the Dogs eat grapes or cocoa and it might kill them. Onions are bad for Horses and Cows – I'll cook with 'em but I'll never eat one myself. You'll never see the Maple Dryads near the Horses because the Foals might eat the leaves. Chokeberries can kill Goats. You cook for Narnians, you'd better know whose coming to dinner so you don't kill anyone. Unless you mean to." She gave her knife a final, scraping swipe down the steel and shoved it back in the block.
"Now if you ever do mean to kill someone, you just let me know, and I'll see it done. We can do it quietly or with lots of gasping, frothing, and turning blue!"
Cook completed the picture of maniacal, murderous glee by grabbing a giant mallet from the sideboard.
"Yes, thank you, but no, we will never want to poison a guest, ever," Susan said firmly. "Thank you so much and we shall dispatch buyers to the market to fetch whatever you need."
Cook began beating a piece of glistening meat on the table with the mallet.
Liver, Susan recognized with dismay.
"And Queen Susan, when you write about the honey, ask them about insects."
Susan knew she hadn't been able to conceal her chagrin because Cook snorted so loudly, the golden rings in her ears quivered.
Cook scowled as bits of liver splattered onto her pristine apron.
"Lots of Narnians eat insects. Lots of humans do, too. Ant eggs, mealworms, crickets. We should get extra oil and salt, just in case, to fry them up. Have to be careful with ant eggs, though. They're very delicate – disintegrate if the oil is too hot when you cook 'em."
"Yes, of course, I shall do so," Susan lied. She had seen the illustrations and recipes in the insect chapter of Recipes for Man. The book had promised salty, tasty crunchy beetle goodness. Wouldn't insects be swept up in the no animal product prohibition? Surely. Indisputably.
Susan left Cook to her enthusiastic pummeling of the liver.
Lambert met her in the hall. "That went very well!" Better than expected!"
"Yes," Susan replied, having to raise her voice over the battering in the kitchens.
"Cook is correct," Lambert said. "During the Winter, I found that certain worms taste…"
"Just like chicken?"
"Indeed." The Wolf was happily wagging his tail. "And the Hounds say that grasshoppers…"
"Can you tell me one thing a Hound will not eat?"
The Wolf fell silent and followed her into the cellar for an apple.
Syrena_of_the_Lake has written a lovely conclusion regarding Cook and what happens after the Four leave. The Last Test and Proof
Also, Syrena did a picture of Cook: