Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!
If one were to ask for a description of Prince Ralph of Riviera, the universal answer would be “perfection.” Graced with extraordinary good looks from his mother, along with a noble and refined demeanor from his father, the Rivieran crown prince had long been the most sought after young man in the world. There was no courtier who met him that failed to praise him, no lady whose heart did not quicken upon meeting him, and no Rivieran who did not speak of him with pride and respect.
That said, even this model prince of Riviera experienced the occasional difficulty. The first time he truly experienced anxiety was when Princess Valeria of Amaranta told him she would be returning home. He solved that issue with an offer of marriage, which she accepted. The second time he encountered a real problem was when Winifred and Effie, Princess Valeria’s personal handmaids, informed him that Valeria’s seventeenth birthday was coming in two weeks. He had yet to figure out what he should bestow her with.
A pearl necklace? A silver filigree bracelet? Or maybe a new dress of silk and lace? He had seen his father present such gifts to his mother, and she had seemed pleased, but he doubted that Valeria would show the same appreciation. She didn’t care for fine gowns or jewelry. She had once complained that she would rather wear a plain, homespun gown every day because she was always getting her clothes stained from sauce and cream.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Effie said, impatience in her voice. “Just get her the most de—lee—cious cake you can find! You can have one imported straight from Tintagel. Her Highness herself said that Tintagel desserts are of the highest quality of all kingdoms.”
Ralph did not reply. Effie’s suggestion was practical, but truth be told, he would rather not order Valeria a gift from Tintagel. He still hadn’t forgotten the scene of Valeria happily dancing with the Tintagel prince, Felipe, at his birthday ball. Nor had he forgotten how her face lit up when she toured Tintagel’s palace kitchens. No, he would much prefer not to have anything to do with that kingdom.
Winifred, seeing the look on his face, guessed what was on his mind. Having been around Valeria and Ralph long enough, she had noticed that whenever Valeria mentioned the word Tintagel, Ralph’s expression darkened.
But honestly speaking, Effie’s suggestion was the best anyone could imagine. Other kingdoms—such as Amaranta—were far too distant for desserts to stay fresh enough when they were imported. They could ask Pat to prepare something for Valeria, but the baker was still dependent on Valeria’s food-tasting skills. Plus, how would they keep it a secret if Pat were to make Valeria’s birthday present? The princess worked in the kitchens almost every day.
Importing a cake from Tintagel seemed the only solution. Unless…
“Your Highness, how about you try your hand and bake something for Princess Valeria?” Winifred said.
Effie’s jaw dropped. Prince Ralph stared.
“Him…bake?” Effie spluttered. “Winifred, you can’t be serious! No offense, Your Highness, but our princess is so hard to please, even with the best cooks in Riviera! I know you excel at many things, but baking…I don’t think it’s a good idea! What if he blows up the kitchen?”
Winifred shook her head. “I’m not asking Prince Ralph to act as Pat’s substitute. I just think that Princess Valeria would be less critical if it were His Highness baking. If she just wanted an outstanding dessert, she can always order Pat to bake one or have it imported from Tintagel. Those are easy to come by. But it isn’t every day you can get a homemade dessert from the prince of Riviera.”
Ralph listened with great interest. He had balked at the idea of baking—the closest experience he had was painting smiley faces on cookies with Elaine—but Winifred’s explanation appealed to him.
“I’ll go down and ask Pat teach me,” he said, rising from his chair.
“Wait!” Effie cried. “You do want it to be a surprise, don’t you?”
Ralph paused, reflected, and nodded. If any disaster should happen, he’d rather that Valeria not be present.
“Well, don’t go to the kitchens right now. Valeria is still there,” Winifred said. “We must corner Pat when he is alone and find a spare oven that His Highness can use when she isn’t around.”
“Oooh!” Effie rubbed her hands together. A conspiracy! What fun!
Ralph, however, looked rather apprehensive. He was more used to handling swords than spatulas, but if this special birthday gift would make Valeria happy, then so be it. He loved seeing her face brighten when she found something desirable—usually a new dessert, of course.
* * *
Getting Pat alone was difficult. The baker was constantly surrounded with assistant bakers, serving maids, and errand boys, not to mention Her Royal Highness Princess Valeria. Normally, Ralph could just summon Pat on the orders of the king, but it would be difficult to do so without Valeria’s knowledge. She would be certain to ask Pat what Prince Ralph wanted with him.
In the end, Princess Elaine came to rescue.
“Easy! I’ll distract Pat so you can talk to him!” she offered. “Oh, and you can set up the oven in a small storage room that no one ever goes to. You just slip in through this trapdoor and go through this tunnel…”
“Elaine.” Ralph dealt her his “standard stony glare,” a term coined by Valeria herself. “Is this what you’ve been doing when you’re not at your lessons?”
Little Elaine had the nerve to stick out her tongue and pretend to walk away. “Fine, if you don’t want my help, I’ll just go.”
“Wait.” Ralph caught her shoulders and spun her around. “We’ll talk about your education later. Where is the storage room? And how are you going to distract Pat?”
“What will you give me if I help you?”
Effie and Winifred, who were hiding nearby, looked at each other and shrugged.
“That Elaine,” Winifred muttered. “She has the face of an angel, but the heart of an opportunist.”
Poor Ralph was forced to bargain with his little sister. Under normal circumstances, he would come up with a better way to negotiate, but sometimes he couldn’t be bothered when Valeria was concerned.
“All right,” he conceded. “I’ll take you down to Market Square when they have a holiday fair. But you must promise to behave.”
“Deal.” Elaine held out her little finger to make a promise. Nothing pleased her more than sneaking out of the palace.
* * *
A few days later, chaos erupted in the palace kitchens.
“Snakes! Aaaaargh! Get out of the way!”
“They’re not snakes!” Ferdinand shouted, as the kitchen staff squealed and shrieked at the sight of slimy black eels sliding across the floor. “Someone upset the barrel of eels! Gastien, David, don’t stand on the table like a pair of fools! Get down this very instant! We have to get the eels back to where they belong!”
“Your Highness!” Winifred rushed to Valeria’s side and grabbed her arm. “Quick, let’s get out of the kitchen!”
Valeria, who was sampling a new batch of blueberry muffins, reluctantly rose. She was not afraid of eels, but her appetite had completely vanished with the chaos. When she reached the door, she thought she glimpsed a small figure vanishing into an adjoining room.
Was it Elaine who let out the eels? Given the little princess’s mischievous nature, it seemed possible. Valeria knew that seafood was usually kept under lock and key in another room, so it couldn’t be an accident that the eels were spilled into the main kitchen area. But why would Elaine want to wreak such havoc? Usually the little girl just stole goodies, so why would she want to scare people now?
Valeria sighed. Sometimes she still didn’t understand the workings of the little princess’s mind. She decided to question Elaine later.
Effie, who was terrified of eels, hid outside, but she couldn’t resist peeking in the kitchen. She was satisfied to see Pat run screaming out of the kitchen, still brandishing a large rolling pin in hand. It was fortunate Effie kept her ears open while she was around the kitchen. She once heard Pat telling of his terror of snakes, so she passed the information to Elaine, who subsequently concocted the plot to release live eels.
Once Pat rushed out of the door, a hand shot out and grabbed his arm, bringing him to another room.
“What the…” Pat blinked. Prince Ralph and Princess Elaine both stood in the room, looking calm and composed as though they were out on a morning stroll.
“Shh.” Ralph made a gesture for him to stay quiet. “Elaine, shut the door.” After she closed the door, Ralph continued with, “My apologies for bringing you here. I need your help.”
“Me?” Pat pointed a finger at his chest.
“Ralph needs a lesson in baking!” Elaine said.
Pat was dumbfounded. Then realization dawned on him.
“Are you planning to bake something for Princess Valeria?”
“Oh…” Pat sank on the floor. Was His Highness out of his mind? Did he not realize how demanding the Amarantan princess was when it came to food? If she could find fault with the desserts professional bakers offered, what would she say to a complete amateur’s work?
“Well…” Pat said weakly, trying to find something encouraging to say. “I…I am sure Princess Valeria will be delighted to receive whatever you make, Your Highness.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Elaine said, folding her arms. “You’d better make sure he doesn’t cause the cake to burn. Or the whole kitchen.”
Ralph pretended not to hear her. “The thing is, I want to keep this a secret. I don’t want Valeria to know until I’m done. I’ll need a spare oven in an unused room, and I need you to teach me when she isn’t around. Can you do it?”
Pat would have really preferred not to accept. But it was a request he could not refuse. In the end, he decided to blame everything on Ralph should anything go astray.
“I will do everything I can to assist Your Highness to make a satisfactory cake.”
* * *
Valeria walked—or rather—waddled to the small balcony right outside her private dining room. Since she missed her own balcony back in Linderall, Ralph had requested that a room with a balcony be assigned to her. They usually had afternoon tea there once a week—a time that both of them looked forward to. Valeria would bring the latest desserts that Pat had made, order the maids to brew a nice strong pot of tea, and they would sit, talk, and eat in leisure. Even though they were officially engaged, it was rare that they had any time alone together. Valeria’s duties in the kitchens had expanded to her venturing outside the palace and handpicking raw food and spices, while Ralph was spending more and more time in the throne room, poring over state affairs and trying to offer the best solutions, as his parents wanted him to be prepared for his future role as the king of Riviera.
Valeria loved the afternoon teas they had. She would force her beloved to rest and relax. She made it a lifelong mission to make him laugh, and there was nothing she loved better than seeing his eyes crinkle and a smile form on his lips.
“Where’s Ralph?” she inquired. He never missed their afternoon teas. In fact, he was usually the one waiting for her.
“We haven’t seen him all day, Your Highness,” the maid said. “Perhaps His Highness has left the palace?”
Valeria frowned. Ralph occasionally went out hunting or on some other mission, but he always informed her in advance if he would be unavailable to meet her.
A quarter later, and still no sight of Ralph. Valeria decided she would have to start her tea without him. The scrumptious-looking raspberry cheesecake that Pat had prepared the night before did not taste good.
“Pardon me, Your Highness,” the maid announced, breaking Valeria out of her thoughts. “Lady Lydia has come to see you.”
This was strange indeed. She rarely saw Lydia anymore. Even when they were roommates at the Academy, they were never close friends. What could Lydia now want with her?
“Show her in.”
Lydia promptly entered. Her hair, which was once dyed a fiery red, was now restored to its original golden luster. She was elegantly dressed in a form-fitting light blue gown. Valeria couldn’t recall a single incident of Lydia wearing a dress before.
“Your Highness,” Lydia started to curtsy, but Valeria waved her off.
“Valeria, please. You used to call me by the name. I see no reason to change.”
“Valeria,” Lydia smiled. “I’ve come to inquire if His Highness Ralph may be so kind to grace us with an archery lesson tomorrow.”
“I’ll be sure to inform him tonight,” Valeria replied.
“Is he not around? Can you tell me where to find him?”
“I have no knowledge of his whereabouts at the moment.”
Lydia looked surprised. “You’re his fiancée, and you don’t know where he is?”
Valeria shrugged. “I’ll just ask him when he comes back.”
“Oh. Please pass along the message for us, then.”
Lydia headed towards the door, and then paused. “Just a bit of advice, Valeria. Better keep an eye on what Ralph does. There’s no telling when someday he might—er—want a change.”
Valeria kept her expression pleasant. “Thank you, Lydia. But I believe that is a matter between Ralph and me.”
When the door clicked shut, Valeria put a hand on her forehead and sighed.
She didn’t think Ralph was tired of her. She trusted him. Still, when she recalled of Ralph’s behavior for the past week, he did seem rather distant. During breakfast yesterday, she had asked him to pass her the butter knife, and he didn’t respond until she asked him a third time. Also, he arrived several times at the last minute for dinner, when he usually made it a habit to be early. When she asked what had kept him, he had answered that the Academy and state affairs had been keeping him busy. Valeria sensed that he was withholding something. She didn’t think he was lying, but he wasn’t telling her everything either.
Perhaps she had better go to the king and queen. No, she didn’t want to trouble them about her problems with Ralph. This was something she ought to solve by herself. She also considered Elaine, but decided that the little princess ought to concentrate on her lessons. Finally, she decided to seek Prince James, Ralph’s younger brother and closest friend. He would not lie if she questioned him about Ralph.
But then she glanced at the cinnamon and raisin buns that were fresh out of the oven. She had to finish them first. It would be a pity if they went to waste.
Valeria popped a bun in her mouth and promptly coughed. There was too much cinnamon sprinkled on the bun.
“I just knew that new assistant cook wasn’t paying attention when I told him about using a moderate amount,” she mused. “I ought to ask him swallow a tablespoon of ground cinnamon and see if it will cure him of his obsession.”
Feeling no more desire to continue with her afternoon tea, Valeria stood up.
“I’m going to the kitchens,” she announced. “I must have a talk with Pat.”
* * *
“There.” Pat set a wooden mixing bowl on the table. “I have measured the amount of butter and sugar for you. Now mix them together until they become a smooth lump.”
Ralph looked askance at the block of butter and the mound of sugar.
“Are you sure they will form a lump?” he said. The task seemed incredible. He could understand mixing liquids together, but the solid substance of the butter didn’t seem to be compatible with the grains of sugar.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Pat said, trying not to groan. “Just cream the butter and sugar together long enough, and they will definitely mix together. Or do you want me to cream it for you?”
Ralph shook his head. Pat had already assembled the ingredients and measured the amount needed—if he let the baker continue, it’d end up with Pat doing all the work. Then what would be the point of him hiding—er—temporarily working without Valeria’s knowledge?
“I’ll do it.”
Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead. He could challenge ten men in a single duel, he could hold his own confidently when dealing with his father’s group of elderly advisors, and he had braved the jungles of Makani alone with his crossbow when he once visited Prince James. But even this most fearless of men, the most popular man among ladies, the heir apparent to the most powerful kingdom of all, could not help feeling nervous as he rolled up his sleeves, preparing to cream butter with sugar.
“Oh, Ralph,” Elaine said, her voice thick with disdain. “Just pick up the spatula! You can lift weights as heavy as elephants!”
Ralph started to mix.
At first it seemed impossible. The butter, as he instinctively anticipated, was solid and heavy, but as he continued to work, the ingredient combined evenly with the sugar, turning into one nice sugary lump.
“Very good, Your Highness,” Pat said approvingly. “Now break the eggs, and add them one by one into the mixture.”
Ralph had never broken a raw egg before. The first and second eggs were ruined because he smashed them against the table, creating a mess of the egg yolk and egg whites.
“Ralph, you’re hopeless,” Elaine grumbled. She went to fetch some more cloths to mop up the table.
“Now it’s time to melt the chocolate,” Pat said, looking like he wanted to slip away unnoticed. “Here’s a block of Amarantan chocolate, Your Highness. You have to melt it over the stove until it turns to liquid. Remember to keep stirring, or the chocolate will stick.”
It took some time before Ralph produced a sufficient amount of liquid chocolate. He splashed chocolate on his velvet tunic, which resulted in Pat insisting that the crown prince put on a full apron, one that covered him from shoulders to knee. Pat would have had a hard time controlling his laughter if he wasn’t so worried about the cake.
“Oh, I wish Father and Mother could see you now,” Elaine said, giggling as she tied the apron strings.
“Elaine,” Ralph turned and glared. “Don’t you dare say a word.”
“Your Highness!” Pat cried. “The chocolate is burning!”
Finally, the cake was ready to go into the oven. Pat dipped a finger into the batter and tasted it.
“Not bad,” he said. “Princess Valeria always said you can’t go wrong with chocolate.”
Ralph looked relieved. He sank down on a bench and let out a long breath.
A sudden patter of footsteps preceded Effie bursting into the room.
“Her Highness is back! And she’s asking for Pat right now!”
“What’s wrong?” Pat jumped to his feet. “I thought I had sent her off when she was baking cinnamon buns with Thomas.”
“Oh, I don’t know, but she seems really mad,” Effie said, biting her fingernails. “Do come quick, Pat. Is His Highness’s cake coming along all right?”
“Take the cake out when the hourglass is up,” he instructed Ralph. “You can tell the cake is ready by inserting a skewer into it. If the skewer comes out clean, then it’s ready. When it’s out of the oven, leave it on the tray to cool, and when it’s warm but still safe to touch, flip it over and put it on a clean plate. Decorate it whatever way you like, I believe Princess Elaine can help you with that.”
Ralph nodded. “I am much obliged to you, Pat.”
Pat actually grinned, perhaps relieved that the thankless job was over.
“Always pleased to serve you, Your Highness.”
The young baker set his toque on his head and rushed out. Even though Princess Valeria was easygoing and cheerful, she still ruled the kitchen like a queen. No one defied the one person whose advice Cook Ferdinand listened to.
“Well,” Elaine bounced up to stand on a stool, so she could reach the icing bag. “What do you want to draw on the cake, Ralph? How about ‘For my sweetie, who loves sweets?’”
Ralph chose not to reply. He stared at the oven as though it were a cauldron that brewed spells. Would the liquid-like batter really turn into a solid, spongy cake with actual crumbs?
After what seemed like an eternity of enduring Elaine’s teasing, the sand in the hourglass finally completed trickling to the bottom.
“Time’s up!” Elaine said, jumping up and down. “Come on, Ralph. Take the cake out of the oven!”
By now, the rich, warm smell of chocolate completely permeated the room. Trying to steady his hands, Ralph opened the oven door.
He couldn’t believe it. That bowl of deep brown liquid really had materialized into a cake. With his left hand still balancing the cake pan, Ralph used his right hand to pick up a skewer and inserted it into the cake. The skewer came out perfectly clean.
A voice pierced his attention. “Ralph?”
Valeria stood at the doorway, her skirts so large that they brushed either side of the door frames. Pat stood behind her, visible only by his white hat.
The cake that Ralph had so painstakingly produced crashed to the floor, miraculously escaping his feet.
Ralph felt like stabbing himself with the skewer. Could he be less stupid?
Valeria crossed the room in quick strides.
“Are you hurt?” she asked, grabbing both of his hands and turning them over, checking for burns. Concern was written over her face.
“No.” Ralph gently withdrew from her. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what? Oh, you mean the cake.”
To everyone’s astonishment, Valeria squatted down and picked a piece of cake right off the ground.
Both Elaine and Pat gasped.
Too late. She had taken a good bite from the cake and chewed away.
“Not bad,” she said thoughtfully. “A bit on the sweet side, and it could use some more dark chocolate, but oh my, this is good.”
“Valeria.” Ralph laid a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to. The cake is ruined.”
“It most certainly isn’t,” she replied, indignant. “Do you think I’d let the cake you baked go to waste? I’d rather have this than all the Tintagel desserts put together. And what are you waiting for?” Valeria gestured at Pat, who still looked like he wanted to faint. “Come and help me pick up the remaining pieces. Break off the parts that got dirty, but save the rest.”
A dazed Pat completed the job, gathering what seemed edible of the chocolate cake and depositing it on a large dish.
“Thank you.” Valeria smiled at him and then turned to Ralph. Her gaze fell on the long, full apron he was wearing, and she burst out laughing.
“Oh, Ralph.” She leaned against him, shaking with laughter. “This…is…the best birthday…ever…”
Red-faced and frustrated, Ralph yanked off the apron and tossed it on the table.
Valeria finally stopped laughing. She grabbed the dish containing Ralph’s chocolate cake, and held out her hand to him.
“Would you like to join me for tea?”
Ralph answered by taking the dish from her and lacing his fingers through hers.
* * *
They walked hand in hand to the balcony. Several maids blushed and giggled when they passed. A couple who knew Valeria well stared at the broken cake Ralph was carrying.
“Pat told me everything,” Valeria said, pushing the door open. “Including the part when you smashed the eggs on the table.”
Ralph’s shoulders sagged. “I should have found someone else to teach me.”
“No, it’s all right. I’m just too perceptive.” Valeria smiled. “And to think that I suspected you had found another girl,” she said with a mischievous wink. “Some nice young lady who doesn’t consume a pound of food a day.”
Ralph knew she was teasing him, but he still couldn’t help feeling irritated. To think that he went through all that trouble, only to hear her telling him that she doubted his fidelity?
He still had her hand in his. Setting the dish of cake on the table, he pulled her into his arms.
“Don’t ever suggest such a thing,” he said, with an undertone of authoritativeness that befitted a future sovereign. “What kind of fiancé do you take me to be? You’re the best thing that has happened to me.”
“I know,” she said, wrapping her arms around him. He smelled of butter and chocolate. “And you’re the reason why I’m staying here.”
Ralph took hold of her chin and tilted her head upwards. Valeria couldn’t help a thrill of anticipation. She closed her eyes and awaited his kiss.
The two of them broke apart.
Effie, who was carrying a pot of freshly brewed tea, gasped. Her face scarlet, Effie set the tea tray on the table and scurried away, muttering that she hadn’t seen anything, hadn’t heard anything, and would the prince and princess please forgive her for interrupting.
Valeria and Ralph looked at each other and laughed.
Nearby, a robin chirped and a few sparrows joined in. Sunlight poured on the balcony, engulfing both of them in the balmy warmth of spring.