“Just one more?” I confirm.
“That’s it,” he says. “You make your decision at the far side of the room. There will be a bell. You’ll know when the time comes. You don’t need me.”
I acquiesce, and the man leads us into a courtyard. It’s like walking into an oven. The contrast from the cool air inside is terrible, almost physically painful. I cross the courtyard alone, sweat accumulating on my forehead, and pause at the French doors. I steel myself to walk straight through the room, find my paper, and be done with it all. Then I fling open the doors and plunge forward.
It’s a feast. Like something from a fairy-tale. Like something a long-ago King would request after victory in battle. I am faced with a majestic dining room, long tables laden with food and drink. The room appears to be organized by course, appetizers right next to me, then entrees, then desserts. I feel lightheaded at the sight of such extravagance. Foods I’ve read about, foods I had as a child. Dishes I have never even heard of or imagined.
I don’t remember what I was thinking when I opened the doors. I pick up a large china plate, and try to calm my racing heart. I go in order, starting with the appetizers. There are too many choices, and before long my plate is full with lightly fried Risotto balls and prosciutto wrapped dates, silky hummus with warm pita, skewered shrimp, and decadent deviled eggs. I try to take only a bite or two of each delicacy, but it’s nearly impossible. There is a whole table of cheese that I promise myself I will come back to, as I move on to the entrees. I take another plate and select coq au vin, sweet glazed meatballs, eggplant parmesan, penne in vodka sauce, and little bites of rare steak. And the sides, good lord. Buttery mashed potatoes, roasted carrots as sweet as candy, creamy goat cheese polenta. I’m taking another plate when a shrill bell suddenly rings.
It can’t be. I’ve only sampled a fraction of the dishes. Why, I’ve only just begun. But servants are descending, and they’re taking everything away. All my lovely food. A heady, unfamiliar hatred courses through me as I watch them whisk the dishes into an unseen kitchen. But maybe hatred isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s panic. Immeasurable panic, and helplessness, like I’m watching the life drain from someone’s eyes and I have no power to stop it. I can’t bear witness any longer, and so I make my way to the end of the large room. I walk dejectedly through an archway and there, at last, is my contract. One single page, placed in the middle of a table. The aromas from the dining room waft towards me, rich and seductive. I wonder vaguely if they do that on purpose. If they somehow control the flow of air so that the scents are carried through. But it doesn’t matter. Slowly, I pick up the fountain pen.
The exit leads to another courtyard. All of my thoughts are on Grace. The sun is setting, casting long shadows across the stone. Several people wait for me. The same man from before, as well as a bevy of servants, all dressed in crisp white uniforms. One woman hurries forward and presses a glass of