Over a Slow Fire
DISCLAIMER: "Jane and the Dragon" belongs to Martin Baynton and company. This is merely a whimsical piece of fan fiction made for no other profit than the joy of receiving reviews.
This is a companion piece to "A Lingering Notion". But you don't really have to read that to understand this.
I can cook a little but I am certainly nothing to Pepper. So please forgive me if I misuse cooking terms or twist concepts in the wrong way.
---Set after "Mismatched"---
Pepper licked her lips and smile with satisfaction and pride at the delectable new stew she had just concocted.
The new recipe she had tried today was a success and would surely be a hit with the royal family as well as the rest of castle staff. She stirred the mixture in her cauldron for a little while more before covering it up and leaving it to cook for a bit longer. She estimated the time it would take for the mixture to reach its full potential and decided she had enough time to take a little break before she was to serve the dish for dinner.
Wiping her hands on her apron, Pepper left the kitchen and decided to take a stroll in the courtyard.
She came upon Jane and Gunther sparring as usual, each squire determined to best the other in battle. Dragon lay on his usual spot near the castle walls, and he was enthusiastically cheering Jane on and teasing Gunther as well.
The cook smiled mischievously as she remembered the latest issue in which the two knights-in-training had been involved.
They had almost declared love to one another! It had been so potentially romantic.
But alas, both squire somehow slipped back into denial and the whole matter came to nothing. She had been rather disappointed with the results.
Jester had seemed greatly relieved at how things turned out though.
Pepper thought she could understand the young man's uneasiness and to a certain extent, she felt sorry for him. She knew that he and Jane were great friends but she could also see that Jane did not care for him in the same way that he did for her.
Tales of unrequited love were always so tragic, Pepper thought with a sigh. It's a wonder that he was still able to keep such a jolly and cheerful disposition.
But as much as she liked Jester, Pepper could not help but stand firm in her belief that Gunther and Jane would soon be sweethearts. All the tell-tale signs had been there but they were both too blind or stubborn to see these.
Nevertheless, life in the castle went on as it did, with no romantic excitement whatsoever.
She sighed as she watched them continue their training. Perhaps she had gotten too carried away by her notions and then jumped to a very hasty conclusion.
Pepper pouted slightly. She was usually very accurate about things like this. And she hadn't felt like it was a silly thing to believe.
After all, Pepper thought, even relationships had tried-and-tested recipes for success.
It was all a matter of mixing the right ingredients and applying just the right amount of flames.
And, of course, Pepper was an expert at successful recipes.
So she had found it difficult to believe her assessment of Jane and Gunther to be completely wrong. It was a blow to her pride as a cook (and as a matchmaker on the side).
She sighed, and decided to leave the two squires to their staves.
The raven-haired cook was just about to return to the kitchen when something caught her eye.
Jane and Gunther had just stopped sparring and Jane had won that match.
As the red-haired girl said something or other to her favorite giant lizard, her opponent gave her a curious look.
Gunther was staring at Jane admiringly and he had a small smile on his face.
Pepper was quick to notice this.
And it was just as well, since the moment passed just as suddenly.
Recollecting himself, the dark-haired squire shook his head and stalked off, muttering and berating himself about something.
Jane watched curiously as her sparring partner walked away bitterly. She looked at Dragon for an explanation but the latter only shrugged in reply.
"Short lives," he muttered dismissively, eliciting a laugh from his favorite girl.
Jane took one more glance at her fellow squire's retreating figure before going to patrol on Dragon. The fiery-haired knight-in-training did not want to bother figuring that one out.
Pepper grinned with satisfaction, realizing what she had missed in the previous occasion.
She had miscalculated, but she would not commit the same mistake again. At least it looked like her efforts had not been completely in vain.
This time around, Pepper thought resolutely, she would perfect the execution of this recipe.
She returned to the kitchen with a more inspired air, even humming a little ditty.
From the garden, Rake observed as the cook made her way back to the kitchen, obviously in a very good mood. The timid gardener smiled and knew somehow that dinner that night would be especially tasty.
Pepper always came up with her best creations when she was in such a cheerful mood.
The cook in question had resumed her stirring of her stew, all the while thinking of what she had just seen.
It was exactly as she had suspected, at least for Gunther's part.
She knew that if she probably questioned the dark-haired squire now about his feelings towards Jane, he would not be as adamant as he was.
There was a slight air of uncertainty about him now, and it showed whenever he interacted with his fellow squire. Slowly and surely hew was realizing the depth of his own feelings.
Pepper mused over these developments with great gratification. She now knew why her initial schemes had failed and she almost slapped her forehead at the simplicity of it all. She had been too hasty.
It was just like ruining a perfectly good stew or any dish, for that matter. She had acted too quickly, fanned the fire too much, and had allowed the dish to get overcooked, almost burnt even.
Everything had moved too fast for Jane and Gunther so their feelings ended up being more suppressed than ever.
Impatient as she had been to see them together, Pepper now knew that she should have been a little more subtle in her approach. Instead of spreading the word of their love so clearly and openly, she should have first dropped little hints.
The two squires would have to come to that fateful realization on their own. She would guide them, but she must not push them.
Everything had been too rushed, too sudden. The fire had grown too hot for any of them to handle.
She needed to let the idea sink in, to let them start thinking more and more about each other and the possibility of those emotions, before they started demonstrating such sentiments.
Those two needed to be marinated in that possibility before they could even recognize their own hearts, she thought.
But she was glad that the dish had not been completely ruined. Some of it could still be salvaged, and improved. Seeing Gunther's awkward glances at Jane that day confirmed Pepper's suspicions.
He had not forgotten about the "sweethearts" incident. And it seemed that he had been carefully considering it.
True, he was still in denial, but that was always the most difficult hurdle to overcome.
With some encouragement, Pepper thought, he will soon act on his feelings.
But not yet.
Jane would be a more challenging project. The girl was too focused on her knightly duties than anything else. But she was certain to come around sooner or later.
Pepper was not going to ruin this second chance at bringing them together. This would be her new project.
The dark-haired cook resolved to remedy the situation, now that she knew the proper approach. She was the only person who could be relied upon to achieve such a result. No one else in the castle could understand.
She certainly could not rely on Smithy or Rake to help her with this. They might not understand its importance.
The princess would appreciate it, but she was too young to be subtle. Her exuberance and over eagerness might even endanger the project.
And to bring Dragon into the picture was even more perilous. Lovable though the giant lizard may be, he could not keep his mouth shut.
And this was exactly that kind of thing that Dragon would love to tell the whole world, over and over again.
No, she would do this alone.
Pepper would make sure to keep her thoughts and plans to herself for the time being. Spreading rumors was obviously not the way to go.
But whatever else she had to do, the foundation had been laid. Gunther was thinking and Jane was clueless but hesitant.
At least, she would not be starting from scratch. All the necessary ingredients were at her disposal. She had only to mix them accordingly.
She was excited about the future but restrained herself. All in good time, Pepper thought cheerfully, all in good time.
As the castle cook continued stirring her stew, she contemplated a new and more interesting recipe to apply. The cook grinned with great anticipation.
This time, Pepper thought, I will be more careful, and patient. I know that it will all pay off in the end.
Pepper knew this well.
Such delicate dishes were best cooked over a slow fire.