"You'll never replicate my recipe." Madame DuBois handed over the treasured terrine with a determined pout.
Zhaban smiled. "I wouldn't dare try, madame."
Satisfied with his answer, she went on to her other deliveries. He watched her disappear around the lane, noting the first tinges of autumn in the bushes.
The cry of a hawk hunting echoed over the misty, rolling hills of vines. Zhaban surveyed the vista, and took in the cool morning air before going back inside to the kitchen.
He abruptly stopped in the doorway, breathing a sigh of relief. He'd just missed stepping into a gooey mess. "Make it so, Number One," he grumbled, pointing to the steaming heap.
Number One looked up from a nearby chair and tilted his pudgy head, the picture of innocence.
Zhaban didn't buy it. "Little assassin, I know what you're about."
Scooping the number two into his dustpan, he disposed of the business. What a relief his other charge didn't step in it. Then Zhaban would have more shoes to clean and grumpy tempers to boot. Mud on its own was enough. Mercifully, Laris talked the owner out of keeping chickens.
It had been his wife's idea to get the animal for their charge. They both had enough to do keeping up the chateau without contriving excuses to walk the vineyard every morning and evening, to ensure somebody got enough exercise … without that somebody realizing he was being exercised.
"Only yesterday," Laris told him that morning, "he was going on about 'Jack and the Beanstalk' and the vines not growing high enough."
"I think he wants to go back to space."
"He always has one eye on the stars," she agreed.
The dog was one more pair of eyes to help them in their task. The only downside were these piles turning up in the oddest of places. And then cleaning people's shoes afterwards. Some people didn't wipe their feet before charging through the house after inspecting the pinots.
Wrinkling his nose, Zhaban remembered the last time he'd cleaned the rug in the hallway. He really wished they'd stop feeding the dog from the table. The animal didn't digest people food well. No one listened to him. After all, what did a "thick-headed northerner" know?
The Romulan shrugged. There were worse things, he supposed, worse messes he'd cleaned up in his lifetime.
As he unwrapped the terrine, Number One nudged his leg.
"No," Zhaban told him firmly.
With a pathetic whimper, Number One rested his head on his paws, his little ears drooping down the sides of his face.
It was Laris' fault, all of this. She was the one who slipped him food from the kitchen as well as under the table during meals. The old man did it, too. Now the dog expected the same from him.
Laris specialized in chemistry, among other things. She'd once crafted some of Romulus' finest beverages. That was her official job, at least. Until suddenly, like most of their people who survived the fall of the Empire and the following diaspora, she found herself out of both her jobs.
Her skills landed them on Earth of all places, at a prominent vineyard estate. Meanwhile, Zhaban, former bodyguard or assassin – depending upon which way the solar winds blew – found himself in the roles of cook, housekeeper, grape picker, shoe cleaner, poop scooper – depending on which way the winds of La Barre blew.
In reality, it was all a ruse. They'd secretly taken it upon themselves to look after a certain admiral who'd fallen out of favor with Starfleet. Picard was a good, decent man, and Zhaban and Laris cared about him. It wasn't right that Starfleet didn't appreciate all he'd done, that his work ended before its time. He'd stood up for evacuating the Romulan people, and it costed him his career.
Zhaban's pointy ears detected movement in the main hallway.
"What a piece of work is man," mumbled a voice. Then the front door creaked open. Number One bounded out of the kitchen toward the noise.
"Here we go..." Well, now Zhaban could finish preparing lunch in peace. And, he noted with satisfaction that Picard had taken the cane with him like he was supposed to.
All these years later, the admiral had grown old and stubborn, unwilling to admit he needed looking after.
"He has suffered much," Laris said that night, after she'd put their charge to bed. "I'm afraid he might do himself a harm before the Tal-Shiar ever could. He's forgotten who he is, all that he's done."
"We'll look after him. "Zhaban put an arm around her. "We won't forget. He'll always be the captain we remember."