“Cheating is the only way of winning in this world.”
Her mother’s words were already engraved in her, echoing endlessly in her mind walls. Even before it was announced that for the last Cooking Round of the Acornia Purifying Match, all ten of them would be allowed to do any type of immorality or in other words “cheating”, Eraline was very much prepared to cheat her way into glory, or in their case, survival at least.
King Huxley II was the worst ruler in the history of the slowly collapsing, isolated country of Acornia. Instead of focusing all his energy on rebuilding the broken bridges and tons of deteriorated buildings or establishing a better educational system, he enjoyed his “spare” time organizing all sorts of silly contests that truly had no objective, other than for his entertainment purposes. But Eraline was not a fool.
Almost everyone in town knew about the struggles of maintaining the rapidly increasing population of Acornians, and of course, it resulted much easier to just choose some random teenagers for some random contest. And if they were not up to the level of the tests, which usually were not, they would be ruthlessly killed and thrown into the Lava Pits. So in other words, the supposedly “Purifying Match” was not to cleanse your spirit, but Acornia’s one.
And now here she was, standing among the nine other finalists who were trying not to crumble under all the built-up pressure from the previous rounds. Each one of them was spread throughout two rows of five tables facing each other, in the largest stadium of the nation. All around them were shelves of every possible ingredient they could need to prepare the most delicious meal the King had ever tasted. At the end of the round, he would choose only one winning plate and the rest would say goodbye to their lives forever.
With a smirk on his greasy face, Huxley II motioned one of the two guards behind his throne, to push the button on the gigantic round clock.
“You’ll have an hour to make the most delicious plate ever or die. Don’t forget that everything and anything is allowed in here. But please, do not kill yourselves. That is my job. If you dare try to be like me… Good luck!” A loud beep from the clock shook everyone and all chaos broke loose.
Eraline fell to her knees rapidly as a wooden spoon flew over her head and hit the forehead of an innocent-looking boy, just at the table next to her. On the other side of the stadium, she saw a stern-faced girl running to the far end of the shelves, looking for spices and punching anyone who tried to block her way. When she had everything she needed, she went back to her table. Unfortunately, on her way, a sneaky foot appeared out of nowhere and made her trip, throwing her jars into the floor and shattering them all. She screamed in rage.
Heating a pot of water, Eraline decided to focus and stop observing the mayhem around her. She was going to use the wonderful chicken broth, she had brought from home, hidden in her pocket. After all, that was the most classical way of cheating.
She hurriedly went to the shelf with a basket and selected some fresh green onions, celery, dried noodles wrapped in wax paper, and of course, the two most important elements of her soup: red chili pepper and ginger.
A most reliable source had told Eraline that the King was such a lover of highly spiced-up foods. She felt so relieved to hear that, since she worked perfectly fine with most spicy preparations and noodle soup was her specialty. Not to mention the secret ingredient she was saving for the end, which made her very eager to try on her recipe.
When she thought no one had bothered her yet, some guy had thrown in his hands into her basket and snatched the ginger she had carefully picked up, running away with it. She was caught off guard and instantly, felt enraged. Her vision turned an angry chili red.
Dodging the oily puddles all over the floor, she made her way back to her table, left the basket, and took the sharpest of knives. It didn’t take her long to find the disgraceful thief of the ginger.
He was so invested in preparing whatever junk he had in mind, that he didn’t see Eraline lurking behind him, with a murderous look on her face. Snapping into action, she grabbed his left arm and pressed the handle of the knife into his sweaty palm.
“What are you-?” His voice betrayed surprise and confusion.
“Help me, please! Help! He’ll hurt me!”
Everyone’s gaze turned on a compromising image: The trembling guy with an extended knife to Eraline, who seriously looked threatened. The guards lurched forward and took out their clubs. In a matter of seconds, they knocked out the ginger thief and carried his limp body out of the contest.
It couldn’t have been easier, Eraline thought, as she retrieved her coveted root. Making her way back, once again, she saw many awestruck faces, giving her a larger load of the confidence she already had.
Finally, at her cooking area, she carefully unwrapped the blocks of dried noodles and threw them into the boiling broth of chicken, which was a rich golden color. She kept hearing her rivals screaming and chasing after each other, while more jars fell, crashing and spilling their contents, a burning scent covering it all. After several minutes of cutting all her vegetables and adding them, as well as other spices, into the roiling mass of goodness, she realized with relief, that the noise had subsided and there was no more shouting.
As it seemed, many other annoying contestants had been eliminated. It was quite weird that something like that had happened since cheating was allowed, but Eraline gave no second thought to it and was grateful for being in, still.
The remaining participants were a pretty girl, called Clamaris, who had tears falling down her cheeks; Kadir, a plump boy with fast hands and sweat trickling down all over his flour-covered face, and her. The fact that both of them had fluids running over their faces, made Eraline wonder what was running across hers. She guessed probably a mixture of both.
Her heart skipped a beat when Huxley II stood up and announced: “One minute left, you rats! Before I get to eat… and kill!” He chuckled at this, perhaps thinking he was funny. Eraline, for instance, was getting nervous.
Her soup was smelling heavenly and the previous golden color it had, became spotted with shiny, little specks of orange, thanks to the chili pepper. She took a sip of it and almost died of pleasure. It was the most perfect meal she had ever done. But it was not enough, she reminded herself. It needed the last touch; her secret ingredient that was going to guarantee her the victory.
“Times up!” Declared the King.
But since she was supposed to cheat, she didn’t pay attention to that. Instead, she slowly took out her special item and with a flick of her wrist, she emptied the little container into the soup and stirred. It seemed to glow for a few seconds. She turned off the stove and served the soup into a bowl. Her meal was ready to win.
Huxley II called Kadir first to the front table. From what Eraline could see, his plate was a dessert: Strawberry shortcake with weird-looking chocolate chip cookies sticking out of it. If she had not been exhausted, she would’ve craved it, but now, all she could think of was puking.
Kadir walked confidently toward the front of the stadium, only to slip in one of the troublesome oily surfaces of the floor. He fell backward, hitting his head lightly and throwing the cake all over himself. The King burst out laughing and quickly stopped. Clamaris was trying hard not to laugh, as well. And Eraline felt like evaporating at the spot.
A guard came up to the fallen boy and lifted him; which meant elimination. But Huxley raised a hand to stop him.
“Don’t take him out just yet. Let him come back to himself before the great finale. Meanwhile, Eraline will please me with her interesting bowl of…”
“Spicy noodles soup.” She added, self-conscious of her every move as she successfully reached the King’s table. With firm hands, she set her bowl down just beside the fine cutlery of the King.
Huxley breathed in the scent. “This has got to be the greatest smell ever. Also, it really smells… spicy.” He raised his bushy eyebrows. “Let’s see if the taste sums up to it.”
Holding a golden spoon, he tasted the broth and ate a few noodles. His expression was incredibly mesmerized as if nothing had ever compared to that particular moment. And then, he tilted his head and looked pensive.
“It is an exquisite soup, I must admit. But sadly, the level of spice in this is not enough. I’m sorry to tell you that…”
Huxley’s voice was cut off as if his throat had suddenly closed up. His face had turned red and his breathing was ragged. He couldn’t stop his body from shaking and sweat was showing on his shirtfront, forehead, arms, and neck. Swaying from side to side, he ended on the floor, falling like a heavy sack of rotten potatoes.
The guards were paralyzed in their spots, their eyes wide, not knowing what to do. Kadir was still confused, and Clamaris looked like laughing and crying at the same time. They were all going insane.
Blood was coming out of the King’s mouth as he muttered to Eraline. “You… impossible… to the king… no…”
“What was it that you called us? Rats, right? Well, take a look at what is killing you right now.”
She took out the little vial from her pocket and rolled it across the floor, slowly, so that when it stopped, the words RAT POISON in huge letters, could be read clearly.
King Huxley II was dead before he could say anything else.
Centuries had passed and still, the name of Queen Eraline filled everyone with strength and confidence. There was not a single citizen in the prosperous nation of Acornia, that didn’t know of her and the clever way with which she had won the last Purifying Match ever to exist (since she, of course, had banned them forever). She was not remembered as a cheater, but as an inspiring, good-reasoning role model.
To those who loved her story, spicy noodles soup became a delicious and significant symbol of power, which was perfect enough without the secret ingredient we all know about.