Authors: Charlie N. Holmberg
ALSO BY CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG
The Paper Magician
The Glass Magician
The Master Magician
Followed by Frost
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 Charlie N. Holmberg
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by 47North, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and 47North are trademarks of
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Cover design by Joan Wong
To Caitlyn, who’s a little bit spicy and a little bit sweet.
I craft influential cake.
The people of Carmine don’t realize this, and for that I’m glad. I wouldn’t know how to explain it to them, and I’m not sure they would appreciate the truth, no matter how positive my influence.
I bake inspiration into specific flavors to make it easy for those who frequent my little bakeshop to find what they need. Those with a taste for the olive oil cake crave strength, while those who come back for the berry tarts are, unknowingly, seeking wisdom.
Today I am mixing the batter for love, which I flavor with cocoa beans and pepper. Love is my most popular confection, as well as my favorite to make. Everyone deserves a taste of love. My soul drinks in a deep sense of peace as I steady the wooden bowl in the crook of my left arm and whisk with my right, leaning against the long counter that stretches nearly the full length of the narrow back room, lit only by sunlight.
I think of the scent of corn roasting in Arrice’s oven and the perfume of sun-warmed leaves. I imagine the soft fur of a hare under my fingers, the sound of children laughing as they clash sticks together down the street, and Franc, Arrice’s husband, plucking the strings of his mandolin by firelight while stars twinkle overhead. I remember warm embraces and diving into cool ponds until my fingers brush the silky earth at the bottom. I ponder the affection between mother and son, man and wife, friend and friend.
These thoughts vibrate over my arms and shoulders as I sprinkle salt and cream butter. I know the ingredients absorb it. I’ve witnessed the sternest of men smile as they savored this cake. My food has been this way since I started baking four years ago, first in dear Arrice’s kitchen, then in this small bakeshop at the end of Wagon Way, a few blocks from the village square. I make enough to pay the rent on the shop, and to repay what Arrice and Franc spend to keep me.
I can’t explain why. All I know is that four years have passed since I first baked something I knew to be extraordinary. Four and a half since Arrice and Franc gave me a home. Beyond that, I don’t remember anything.
There is a gap there, though perhaps that is the wrong word. A gap insinuates that there is a beginning, and I do not recall one. My mind is like a pan of cake torn apart by eager hands, leaving only the outer crust. It’s strange, this story of mine. A tale that starts somewhere in chapter twenty and ends who knows where.
I force myself to release the spoon and step back from the bowl as the thought of all of those memories hiding in the shadows of my mind sends a chill down my skin. Squeezing my eyes shut, I try not to dwell on the who-am-I’s and what-ifs of my dark and uncertain past. I don’t want that coldness, that emptiness, to influence my cake. I don’t want to have to throw it out before I’ve even baked it. Arrice was once the unfortunate recipient of such a cake, and she didn’t speak to me for two days after eating it.
Slowly, surely, the chill recedes, replaced by the heat of my awaiting oven. I smile, for smiling instantly brings me cheer.
It’s not so terrible. I remember the more important things, like my name, and I’m fairly certain of my age. I also remember arithmetic and baking and everything else a person needs to get by. I did try to bake a cake of memory once, and while it was sweet and tangy, it did nothing but fill my belly. I suppose I can’t bake what I don’t have.
My heritage is uncertain. My eyes are pale enough to perhaps dub me a Runian, though my skin is too dark, and I don’t know why I would have walked far enough to end up in Carmine, where memory catches up for me. It would be a two-month journey, at least. A merchant once asked me if I were from a place called Andorra across the channel, so perhaps I hail from there, though Andorra is even farther. While I have never admitted it out loud, I desperately hope I am not from either of those places. Knowing my family—whoever they are—could be so far away makes it difficult to hope.
I’d like to think I’m from Carmine, or somewhere in the Platts. I consider this as I sweep batter from bowl to pan, dipping in my knuckle to sneak a taste. I look like Carmine: my skin matches the ruddy, rust-tinted soil of its earth after a hearty rain. My hair is a darker shade of the same color. Arrice was the one who first pointed it out to me, though she and the others in the area have much paler complexions. Even the larger city-state of Amaranth, which Carmine belongs to, has very few people who look like I do.
“Is it hot enough, Maire?” Arrice asks, arranging the last of the eggs in the basket atop the counter where my petit fours and biscuits are displayed in the square front room. Thrice a week she brings extra eggs in to sell, along with bowls of whatever vegetable is currently abundant on the farm. Today there are radishes and carob, the latter of which I use in cookies of luck and fortune.
I crack the oven door a hair and close my eyes, feeling the heat of it on my face. “Mm,” I say in confirmation, then slide the pan in. I add an extra quarter log to the fire.
I clean up my small workspace and slice into another cake cooling on the end of the counter—this is a lavender cake, one that I infused with hope. Lavender cakes take me the longest to bake. They always make me wistful, which slows my hands and induces daydreams of faraway places I’ve never been. Or, at least, places I
I’ve never been.
It’s after I take the confection to the front of the shop and set it beside its foxberry counterpart that I hear the heavy wheels of a wagon roll outside. I glimpse out the windows, between the drawn lace curtains Arrice herself stitched together, but it is no customer of mine. The bulky wagon outside looks like a tradesman’s, complete with a large cab guarded by chains and locks. He’s pulled up to visit either the cobbler next door or the blacksmith a few doors down.
What draws my eyes is not the armored vehicle, but the man sitting at the end of it. He struggles down from his narrow seat. Even through the wall, I hear the clank of his chains when he lands on the road. He wears no manacles about his wrists, but they carry the print of them, the skin worn nearly to rawness. He is a slave, shirtless and whip-scarred. He has the build of a man meant to be strong, but his muscles have been starved and his shoulders seem almost too heavy a load for his torso to bear.
Arrice notices, too, and meets my eyes, frowning.
I shiver despite the warmth of my oven-heated shop. I wonder how the slave met with such a fate. Was he born into it? Stolen from another city-state over the mountains and sold? Perhaps he came from across one of the isles, a refugee from an unknown war, easily taken.
I rub my arms until the prickling sensation ceases. There have been wars between city-states to the north, as well as rumors of raids in the Platts. Tomorrow I will bake more cakes of hope and serenity.
Rolling my lips together, I turn from the window and look over my shelf. I have no cookies of luck, but I doubt they’d be of much help to a slave anyway. I hurriedly decide on a chocolate petit four made last night—a small, square-cut piece of cake coated in a hard vanilla glaze. A cake I made while thinking of Arrice and rain and the touch of Cleric Tuck’s hands. Love.
Palming the sweet, I glance out the window once more to get a look at the wagon’s owner, but I see no one nearby. I slip out the door and approach the slave, who stands half a head taller than me. I try not to stare at the circular brand burned into the center of his chest.
I offer him the confection. “It isn’t much, but take it,” I say.
He eyes me, brow skewed. I can tell he’s been in servitude for a long while.
I offer him a smile.
, I will him, though I know people don’t heed me like my baked goods do. “I promise it will make a difference.”
Hesitant, he lifts a hand and takes the bite-sized cake from my palm. After studying it for long enough for the glaze to absorb his fingerprints, he places the petit four into his mouth and chews deliberately.
“Gods watch over you, my friend,” I offer, touching three fingers to my forehead. I hurry back inside before the stranger’s master can spy me. I hear him outside my window a few moments later, and when I peek through the curtains, the slave stands a little straighter, a slight smile on his lips.
This is why I rent a shop in the village center, and why I am so intimate with my baking. Regardless of my shadowy past, I
this is what I was created to do. My heart swells to see the difference my treat has made to his broken countenance.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Arrice says once the wagon pulls away, “but I’d have done the same.” She wipes her hands on her apron before tugging it off her wide hips. She means the law, of course. Feeding a slave without his owner’s permission is a fineable offense, and we couldn’t afford their price. But Arrice’s heart is far softer than my own. It’s the reason she took in a stray like myself.
She reaches into her pocket for her coin purse, and as she counts its meager contents, she says, “I’m off to the mercantile. I think I’ll go home after, before my knees give out on me again.” She pulls away from the purse to rub the base of her spine. “Don’t wait until sunset to walk home, Maire. I worry about you.”
I nod. Another man approaches the shop and holds the door open for her as she leaves. His work boots are caked with mud. He takes a step into the shop before noticing and immediately steps back out to shake the wet earth free. Upon reentering, I notice the sling over his back, upon which are tied two hens with broken necks. I try not to cringe at the sight of them. They’ll make him and his family a hearty meal, but I cannot help seeing them as a void where life once thrived. I’ve eaten meat only once, and when I learned of it, I emptied my stomach into the latrine.
Behind him toddles a boy no more than three years of age, who holds the base of the sling. I smile at him.
“Hello.” I clasp my hands in front of me. “You’ve come here before, yes?” I recognize the child, though I don’t think he and his father live in Carmine. Sienna, perhaps.
“Indeed I have,” the man replies with a grin. He glances over my selection. “Could you bag three honey biscuits and a half dozen of those eggs for me?”
Nodding, I hurry behind the shelves to grab a long strip of cloth to bind the eggs. He hands me a small satchel already containing cheese, a book, and a compass, and I arrange the eggs and biscuits atop it. With permission, I hand the little boy a petit four. He examines the treat closely before shoving it into his small mouth all at once. I laugh. Had I children of my own, they’d all be roly-poly and stout, I’d feed them so much.
The father hands me two coins—I don’t charge much beyond the cost of ingredients—and heads for the door.
I have a few more customers that day, including the cobbler from next door, who often comes in for a treat after his lunch hour. I sell him a slice of lavender cake as the chocolate one cools. When I cut the chocolate, I take a sliver for myself, feeling its caress as it travels down my throat and swirls in my stomach, like I’ve swallowed a dance. It warms me to my fingertips and toes.
To avoid missing any stray customers, I close shop a little after the cobbler does. It’s before sunset, so at least Arrice won’t worry. Before leaving, I toss the confections that are growing stale into a small satchel to take home. Cleric Tuck takes the fresher bits to the unfortunate within the city. Whatever is left after that I either snack on myself or feed to the birds and tree squirrels.
I take a deep breath once I’m outside. The air smells of faraway rain and forest, a mixture of a dozen different leaves fresh and decaying. To me,
is Carmine. I relish it, saving the feeling for a later creation. Peace, perhaps. Or maybe something that simply tastes like home.
The walk to Arrice and Franc’s farm is a long but simple one, comprised of three straight lines. The first is littered with shops and a few houses. The second cuts through a bit of forest and opens onto swaths of long, yellow grasses and larger homes. The third curves back south, where the farms begin, and shapes a fertile bowl of soil, edged by distant pine forests and the far-off Shadow Peaks.
It’s on the second line, near the shrine to Strellis, that I see a glimmer of white, like the ripple of light on the surface of a brook. It emanates from a personage I’ve never before beheld—a man, judging from his size, looming far off in the yellow grasses beyond the settled property, his back turned toward me. I can see the edges of the pine forest through his torso, as though he were a ghost.
My stomach tightens, and a surge of
rises up in me. Not fear, but it moistens my palms and quickens my heart. It tugs on the muscles in my legs, urging me to run to him and see his face. He’s nearly as clear as glass, and his feet don’t touch the earth. Something bows outward from his arms. He can only be a spirit, some sort of lost soul, perhaps searching for a lost home.
I blink, and the apparition disappears. I blink again, clearing my vision, and step to the side of the road, squinting over the grass. I’ve had too much sugar today, perhaps, or maybe I’ve simply spent too long on my feet. My pulse thumps in my head. A long drink of water should do me right.