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Authors: Charlie N. Holmberg

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet (10 page)

BOOK: Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet
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A soft breeze tousles my hair. Fyel waits.

“Steel,” I say.

He hovers closer.

I drop my hands from my head and blink the sunlight from my eyes. Grasping my cane with both hands, I ask, “Do you know what steel is?”

He doesn’t answer.

“I do. I know what it is, but no one else does. And I don’t know how I know. I would think . . . I don’t remember my childhood. Nothing. Not my family, not my friends, not where I lived . . . I must know regladia from that time, but not steel. No one knows what steel is. Not in the Platts.”

“You forgot,” he says, quiet as the breeze.

I meet his eyes, still unable to determine their shade. I feel along the edges of that dark pit within my mind, searching for breaks, but it’s as sound as Allemas’s cellar.

Fyel is very somber, his lips a flat line, his eyelids droopy, his shoulders soft.

The only question I can put together is, “How?”

“You fell.”

“Fell?” Did I hit my head? But that wouldn’t explain the steel. No—that wouldn’t explain anything. Not that it matters; I know Fyel will not explain. The gooseflesh on my skin hardens into briars, and I tromp away from the regladia unevenly, passing the wall of trees, searching the woods for the path I took to get here.

Fyel follows me.

I turn on him, breathless. “You said I knew you. From before.”

He nods.

“When did I meet you? Can you tell me
that
much?” My eyes water again, and I scrub the back of my hand over them before any tears can fall.

His shoulders soften even more. All of him does. “I met you many years ago,” he says. “I have known you for a very long time.”

I wait for more, but he doesn’t give me anything. Nothing specific. Even when I murmur, “Please.”

He guides me wordlessly back to the dilapidated house. I’m grateful for the silence, for every part of my body is wound tight and ready to snap. My fingers itch and my mouth is dry. I don’t even notice the pain from my leg until I’m back at the half-finished gingerbread house, and all I want is to be alone on the bug-eaten bed with regladia leaves crushed between my teeth.

“Please trust me,” he says again. He’s faded into a white shadow.

I don’t say anything, only watch him disappear.

He asks me as though I have a choice.

Hurts.

CHAPTER 10

“Good heavens, child!” the woman cries as she spots me on the side of the road. Hers is the first real voice I’ve heard since . . . I don’t know. I must look terrible to her, all scrapes and mud- and tear-streaked cheeks. I try to piece together if I know her, if her face is familiar, but my thoughts hit a wall of shadow. I try to push past it, to feel around its edges, but it’s a spherical pit that won’t be breached.

My gaze shoots to the breadbasket in her hands. My stomach roars, shaking me down to my hips. I try to swallow, but my mouth is so dry. When was my last meal? I can’t remember.

I meet her eyes, hopeful. There’s nothing around us but wild growth, and beyond that, farmland. A dirt road stretches through it. I’ve been following it, but I can’t remember why.

She crosses the wide lane to me, kicking up rust-colored soil as she goes. She kneels beside me, dirtying her skirt, and takes my face in her hands.

“Are you all right?” she asks, looking me over, tilting my head this way and that. “Are you running from someone?”

Am I? I touch one of the fading bruises on my body, this one below my ear.

“I don’t know,” I whisper. “I don’t . . . I don’t remember.”

Her face falls, yet her brow and eyes tighten. “This won’t do at all. Come with me. Can you walk?”

I eye her basket again and nod.

She notices. Without hesitation, she reaches for the top loaf, a beautifully baked bread with braided crust, and rips off the heel. When she hands the still-warm bread to me, I shove it into my mouth before I can think to thank her.

“Come on.” She takes me by the elbow and heaves me to my feet. “My house isn’t too far from here. Let’s clean you up and figure out what’s what. Come on, dear. What’s your name?”

“It’s . . .” What was it? Something like . . . “Maire.”

“My name is Arrice. Don’t worry; you’re safe now.”

I lie on the battered bed in the broken house, staring at the hole-ridden ceiling above me. I press against that darkness in my mind, sometimes tricking myself into thinking it’s shifting, but I still can’t see beyond the shadows. Arrice is my earliest memory. Arrice, and the forest.

I brush an ant off my arm. The insects have started to become a nuisance. They’re attracted to all the sugar, though they only forage for the food inside the house. They leave my gingerbread sheetwork alone, which is good, I suppose. I may leave a pile of sugar on the other end of the glade for them, to distract them from my labors.

Though I dreamed of Arrice, my thoughts wander to Fyel.
You fell
, he had said. I trace my hairline with my fingertips, all the way back to my neck, feeling for dents or scar tissue. I run them through my hair, searching for evidence of an injury that might explain my missing memory. I find none.

There were bruises all over my body the day I met Arrice. The bruises had faded to ugly yellow and green things marring my skin, so they were at least a couple of days old. Were they from this fall Fyel spoke of? A fall down a flight of stairs, maybe? There were so many bruises, like I had tumbled from the sky and hit every forest branch on the way down. Like a baby bird with featherless wings.

I wonder whether Fyel intended it as an allegory. I can’t grasp his meaning if so, though I’m sure Cleric Tuck could translate it. Maybe, someday, I’ll get the chance to ask him.

I close my eyes and take in deep breaths, soothing the swirling of my head and chest. Everything that’s happened over the last few weeks confuses me. Every word, every deed. Every half-formed clue to the past.

Regladia. Steel. My head hurts.

I bathe myself as best I can with a bucketful of water from the well before setting to work. Today it isn’t hard to focus on what I need to influence this cake into brick. I don’t
want
to think about the other things spiraling through my life. Just cake.

Alger comes late: about an hour before noon. He brings more supplies, and among them is a crate of vegetables. I still have no idea how he gets so much through this thick forest and out to the glade, especially since I haven’t seen the donkey with him since that first day, but at the moment I don’t really care.

I shove a raw carrot in my mouth and munch. If Alger notices yesterday’s lack of progress, he doesn’t mention it.

“Don’t forget the door,” he says, glancing at the slab of wood I had torn off its hinges on my first day out here. “It has to have a door.”

“I’ll make a door,” I answer between bites. As for the hardware to install it . . . this customer will have to figure that out on her own.

“Good. Good, good. I’m a good master, yes?”

I eye him. “Are you looking for my approval?”

He grins.

I sigh. “I hardly have anyone to compare you to.”

He shrugs and turns to his load of groceries. “I’ve brought licorice. She wants the—”

He chokes on the word and shudders, then grasps his chest and wheezes, hunching over.

I drop the carrot. “Are you all right?”

“No no no no no no,” he groans, but he’s not talking to me. He falls to his knees and hugs himself, squeezing his eyes shut. “No no no. Stay in stay in. Mine mine
mine
!”

My pulse picks up. I step closer to him, but not close enough to touch him. He’s shivering and grunting, and despite everything he’s done, I feel sorry for him. “Alger?”

He doesn’t respond, but whatever pains him passes a moment later. He relaxes and takes a few uneven breaths.

I chew on my bottom lip, eyeing him. “Do you need to lie down?”

He doesn’t answer. He grips the vegetable crate and hoists himself back to his feet. His eyes have gone crooked. Dark rings circle them, and one corner of his mouth slackens.

“Stay,” he orders, and he stumbles from the glade, disappearing yet again.

I stare after him, then focus on the indent he made in the grass. What just happened? I’ve never seen an illness like that. I do not want Alger to die, regardless of what he’s done. Can I help him? Perhaps bake him a cookie of health? I sold those at the bakeshop.

Shaken, fingering the crystal beneath my shirt, I return to my baking.

In between bouts of coaxing ingredients to become more than what they are, I start to write a mental list of questions for Fyel, for I’m sure he’ll visit again. I think of simple questions, philosophical questions, riddles, and questions that can be simply answered yes or no. Surely if I hit him with a broad enough barrage, he’ll have to concede
something
that I can use to patch together this hole in my life.

I glance at the roof, examining its gaps and missing shingles. How similar we are, this damaged roof and I. I can’t help but smile at that.

I whip up more icing, switching off between my left and right hand. I’ll have the arms of a man with all this work soon enough, though the thought doesn’t disgruntle me. I think of Alger. I wouldn’t mind being stronger.

I cut the gingerbread straight out of the oven, while it’s still hot, so that the cake shapes easily. I cut corners and prepare smaller slabs to border the windows. If Alger brings me the right equipment, I might even be able to spin sugar for the windowpanes. Fitting them with glass this far away from any port would be difficult.

Remarkably, I finish one side of the house up to the roof and get the foundation caked for two other sides. I take measurements with a piece of string and rethink the roof. Biscotti would be strong—and cute, yes—but also time consuming. I’ll do the roof with gingerbread sheets as well, then coat them with icing that will harden in the coolness of night.

The day has grown late when Fyel reappears, this time in the center of the glade as I’m taking my last measurements. He’s not as solid as usual—his torso is nearly transparent. I wonder if it’s because of the frequency of his visits. After today, I have a feeling it will be a while before I see him again.

But I’m ready for him. Pinching the string with my fingers to keep track of my latest measurement, I march up to him and begin my assault.

“How did we meet?” I start.

He doesn’t appear surprised by my forwardness. In fact, he tilts his head to one side, just slightly, in an almost endearing fashion. He doesn’t answer.

“You are an increasingly frustrating apparition.”

“I must be careful,” he answers, his voice smooth and low, like a lullaby.

“You say you want to help me, yet you won’t,” I counter, and the endearment leaves his countenance. I feel like that’s a small victory, for some reason. “How did you find me in Carmine? Before the marauders attacked?”

“I cannot say.”

“There is a difference between ‘cannot’ and ‘will not,’” I retort, and for a moment I sound very much like Franc. “
How
do you know me?” I try. “Are we related?” We don’t look it. “Were we friends? Lovers?”

He twitches ever so slightly but doesn’t answer.

“Roommates? Coworkers? Did you own me like
he
does?” I thrust my finger toward the forest.

“No,” he says, firm, almost cold. I’ve hit a nerve.

Deep breaths. “Where are you from?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Not Carmine.” A pause. “Not Dī,” I say, naming the continent. “Not
Raea
?”

No answer.

I fold my arms, still pinching the string, and think back to my first conversation with Alger. “How old am I?”

Nothing.

Something simpler, then. “What color are your eyes?”

His lip quirks at that. “Gamre,” he says.

I feel another little thrill of victory for having gotten a straight answer from him, but it’s short lived. It’s not an answer I can use.

I pace for a minute, feeling his “gamre” eyes on me, before asking, “Why can I bake the way I do? This”—I gesture to the house—“why can I do this? Do you know that much?”

“Because you created it,” he says, soft and gentle, his tone contrary to mine. But the riddle only makes my head hurt.

I sit on the earth, heaving my splinted leg in front of me.

Fyel hovers a little lower. “Have you found it?”

The other crystal? “No. It’s not here.”

He frowns. “Keep looking, as will I.”

I glance up at that. “It’s so important?”

He nods.

“Thank you, then,” I say, and my frustration ebbs. I laugh at myself for a moment, the kind of laughter that borders on tears. “I really am a nice person. Or I was.”

“I know.” He’s faded more, all outlines and weak shading. Through his shoulder, I see a woodpecker deepening his nest.

I glance over to the vegetable crate. “I think Alger is sick.”

He nods, and I wonder if he ever watches us when we’re not looking. I’m not sure how I’d feel about it if he did.

Heaving a sigh, I claw the ground with my cane and push myself back to my feet. I’m getting less clumsy in my movements, in part because my leg doesn’t ache so fiercely—the regladia has helped with that—and also because I’m used to the splint.

I glance at the lowering sun, the house, and finally back to Fyel. Our gazes meet, and a cool spiraling sensation fills my chest, smoky and prickling. A sensation that makes me think, briefly, of Cleric Tuck, but . . . different. Stronger.

I study his face for a moment, then let my gaze travel down his white-adorned body and back up again. His pale lips. His gamre eyes. That look of endearment, and it strikes me. “We were lovers, weren’t we?”

His lip quirks again. “Would you deny it if I said yes?”

The forest rustles, and I turn to see Alger trekking into the glade. I glance back at Fyel, but he’s already gone.

Alger claps his hands, looking much recovered from this morning. “Oh good, good! It will be done soon!”

I knead the palm of my hands into my chest to dissipate the twirling sensation there.

The crystal pendant rocks against my stomach.

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