Cast of Wonders 366: The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections (Part 1 of 2)
Many thanks to associate editor Alexis Goble for the episode photograph!
Benjamin C. Kinney’s Smell, Taste and Emotion #NeuroThursday
The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
by Tina Connolly
Saffron takes her customary place at the little round table on the dais of the Traitor King. Duke Michal, Regent to the Throne is his official title, but the hand-drawn postered sheets, the words whispered in back alleys all nickname him the same. She smiles warmly at the assembled guests, standing poised and waiting by their chairs, ready for the confections and amuse-bouches that have been a mainstay of the high table for the last year.
Saffron has been Confection Taster all that time, her husband Danny Head Pastry Chef. Their warm smiles have been perfected as the Traitor King’s power grows, inch by inch, as those who object to his grasp fail and fall, as the printers are vanished, as the daughters disappear from their homes. The little prince still sleeps in his nursery—but for how long? That is the question on everyone’s mind in the last year. Not a question uttered, but a question that stays poised on the tongue, and does not fall.
The Traitor King takes his place. He looks sternly around the table, watching to see if anyone dares sit or talk or breathe before him. Then he breaks into a jovial smile, and everyone exhales, and there is careful laughter: the Duke is in a good mood tonight. There will be candies and conversations, alliances formed and favors exchanged, perhaps a juggler hung for dropping the pins, but who minds the jugglers?
Saffron minds. She minds very much.
The first course! bids the Duke, and around the table the white-coated servants set down the gilded plates, each bearing the first bite-sized course, showcasing Danny’s skill. An identical plate is set next to Saffron, the Duke’s own plate, this one bearing a pastry twice as large as the others, so the Duke shall not lose any of the delight of his food to caution.
The Duke barely flicks his eyes Saffron’s direction. She knows what to do, and smiling, she cracks the thin toast in two with her fine silver fork, and takes her bite.
Rosemary Crostini of Delightfully Misspent Youth
Saffron knows this moment instantly. The angled sun falls in clean lines on the bakery floor. Daily Bread is the name on the hand-carved sign of the shop, for it is an ordinary bakery still. A younger Danny stands at the counter, just turning with flour-dusted chin to notice her. She has come here so often with the rosemary crostini that she has what the lords and ladies do not: an instant of double-memory, of twinned lives, as she breathes, and lets herself go, and tumbles five years into the past.
Her sister Rosie pushes her forward, hisses, “Your turn,” in teasing tones, and Danny and Saffron’s eyes lock.
Saffron swallows. Two girls on a rare free afternoon, on a mission to see who can charm the most treats out of willing young shopkeepers and clerks. Rosie is the younger by a year but the older in daring. Her funny, loyal sister has transformed this morning into a different girl, all curls and honeyed tones, a girl on a mission. So far she has acquired: Item (1) length of green velvet ribbon, long enough to tie back her gold-brown hair. Item (1) scrap of lace, to finish the wrists of the gloves she is making for Saffron. Surely Saffron could manage a chocolate, a tartlet, a bun?
And yet here she is, with the sinking feeling that she does not know how to flirt.
The kind-eyed young man—for now she no longer knows his name, she has the faint feeling that she has forgotten, there is something teasing at the back of her mind—well, he leans on the scarred wood counter and asks again if he can help.
“A. . .a rye bun, please,” she says at random.
“Just one then?” he says with amusement, and he reaches for it. The young man, so quiet on other occasions Saffron has come in, seems rather more self-possessed today, but who would not be at a girl stammering “bun”?
“Yes. No.” She can’t remember anything Rosie did to charm that ribbon off of the shopkeeper; all her wits have fled. “I mean, I may have forgotten my coins?”
“It’s a fine day when a beautiful girl comes into my grandfather’s bakery with no money, but only wants one poor little rye bun,” he says. “Hardly seems worthwhile to charge her.” She flushes; he understands the game and is teasing her.
Rosie elbows her; she should make her move. Say something pert in response; acquire the prize. Her coin is her flirtation, her smiles, she sees now that she and Rosie are paying after all, in a different kind.
But instead, behind the baker she sees a small waif, silhouetted in the back door to the shop. Saffron nods at the baker, points over his shoulder. “Do you have company?”
He turns, drops his teasing manner. “Jacky,” he says affectionately, and scoops several buns and a long thin loaf off of a different shelf. The small creature holds open his bag hopefully, and the day-old bread is placed inside. Jacky pulls out a single copper cent and gravely hands it to the baker, who as gravely accepts it. “My best to your mother,” the baker says, as the waif scampers off.
The young man turns back to the counter, and the kindness in his eyes is replaced by a different kind of warmth for Saffron, one that is gentle and interested, and possibly could be the same kind of warmth as for that little boy someday if she lets it, if she begins as she means to go on.
Saffron puts the coins on the counter for the rye bun. “Will you have coffee with me?” she says, clearly and calmly and forthrightly.
The flour-dusted young man takes her money and hands her the bun. Rosie snickers in the background, but the baker’s smiles are all for her. “Aye, and more.”
Saffron returns to herself, the delight of the memory still sharp on her tongue. Her eyes clear, she smiles warmly at the crowd. “This has always been one of my favorite recipes of Danny’s,” she tells them, and her gilded plate is passed to the Duke. He does not look at her as he picks up the second bite of golden-crusted toast, redolent with rosemary and crystals of sea salt. Danny was an excellent baker long before he started experimenting with the rose-thyme plant that causes the memories, and this crostini is no exception.
Around the table the noble sycophants follow the Duke’s example, and Saffron watches in amusement at seeing the whole table go slack, their eyes staring off into nothing as they remember.
At the edges of the room the white-coated servants, the red-coated guards go on alert. Saffron knows, for he has told her, that the commander of the guard dislikes these little interludes. But the Duke will have his perks, and further—she is told—it amuses the Duke to watch the lords and ladies squirm. Not all the confections Danny makes evoke pleasant memories, and during their time in the Duke’s palace, he has been encouraged to experiment. An invitation to a Temporal Confections dinner is equally coveted and feared, but never declined.
Around the table the diners slowly shake off the residue of the memory, come back to themselves with foolish smiles on their faces. Good, she thinks. Danny is outdoing himself tonight. Is that a hint of things to come? They are kept apart, in the castle, and she wishes they had some way to communicate, other than through memory. A memory can be directed, a little, if the eater has practice. Saffron knows what she wants to see with the Rosemary Crostini, and she knows Danny knows she will see it. It was a gift to her this night, that first flush of meeting, that moment trapped in time like a fly in amber.
A salad course of watercress and arugula is served, and wineglasses filled with a dry white. The Duke’s regular taster is given his salad, a fresh fork. She is a perpetually frightened-looking girl with honey-colored hair, but she is no milkmaid from the countryside. She is eighth in line to the throne, the granddaughter of kind Lord Searle, that same Lord Searle who would make a remarkably good regent—if he had not been accused of treachery by the Duke and disappeared into the maze of dungeons under the castle.
The girl retains many of her daytime privileges, but at dinner she sits at the Traitor King’s side, yet another hostage for others’ behavior. She tastes the requisite bite of the peppery greens, and then the plate is relayed to the Duke, and he picks up his own silver fork. Around the table the others join in, and Saffron and the girl fold their hands in their laps, and wait.
Fennel Flatbread of Sunlit Days Gone By
The sun is sparkling on the snow on the day Danny gets his first temporal pastry to work.
It is a Seventhday, and the shop is closed. They have been married for a year now; Danny’s grandfather has passed on, and the little bakery is all Danny’s. A small inheritance has allowed him to experiment; a small inheritance and a smaller glass bottle of dried rose-thyme that Danny’s grandfather gathered as a youth in the distant High Reaches. Despite its name, rose-thyme does not taste precisely like either; or, more correctly, it tastes like many more things than just those two flavors. It is a changeable plant; the method of preparation is key to bringing out a particular aromatic strain. More importantly, the method of preparation is key to evoking certain visions. As a child, Danny’s grandfather and his chums would chew on the flowers, which, when eaten plain, give brief flashes of déjà vu. He also told Danny that those who had once lived in the High Reaches had actual recipes that they swore could evoke glimpses of longer-ago memories, and indeed, at winter solstice every year, there was a certain currant cake made with the rose-thyme that would make everyone remember the previous solstice’s currant cake, and back and back, cementing the continuity of a long line of years.
All that was long ago, and Danny’s grandfather’s people were mostly scattered and gone, driven forth by the last king’s brother, whose dukedom was in the High Reaches, at the border of the country. He and his son, Michal, were reputed to be cold and cruel. Certainly they had destroyed Danny’s ancestral home. But the current King was kind, if perhaps a bit soft, and he had not taken steps to control his distant cousin anymore than his father had controlled his younger brother.
All this runs through Saffron’s head while she stands at the back of the shop, slowly kneading a mass of dough that will rise overnight for tomorrow’s buns. Watching the sky slowly darken, the snow clouds massing once more. Why is she thinking of the old king? But perhaps it is because of the clock tower bells. They have been ringing all morning, and she has not heard them ring like that since she was a child. Their slow pealing is an eerie counterpoint to the silent snow, the warm, empty shop. A cheerful whistle floats out occasionally from the other room of the bakery, punctuated with the sharp smell of dried fennel being crushed with mortar and pestle. Danny is experimenting yet again.
Someone bangs on the back door, and she opens it to a snowdrift. Little Jacky, older now. He comes in, stamps his feet.
“The King is dead,” he says, “Did you know?”
Of course, she thinks, the bells, and behind him the flurries have started again, the spangles of sun replaced by fat dots of white.
“Ma says they’ll make old Searle the regent. He’s a soft touch, that’s for sure. Gives out coppers to kids anytime you see him in the street. Hey, maybe he’ll give out silvers if he’s got a whole treasury.”
Saffron shakes her head. She saw the King speak, not two months ago. He was grieving for his wife’s death in childbirth, and the city grieved along with him. But. . . “He was so healthy.”
“Bloody flux,” Jacky says with certainty. “Got my cousin last month.” He holds out his palm. “I got five coppers for you this time. Been working for my uncle. What can I get with that?”
She ruffles his snow-dusted hair and hands over a hearty round loaf that didn’t sell, and several currant buns, only a little burnt.
He shouts his thanks and hurries off, running through the falling snow. His bit of red scarf flaps behind him; he shrinks smaller and smaller in the vanishing white. The king is dead, the poor little prince an infant. There will be change. Change is hard to weather. Change makes everyone skint, and keep their coins in their pockets.
But the people will still need bread, she thinks, as she watches the diagonal drifts. And there has been peace for so long. How can there not still be peace? Power will transfer, the reins will change hands, but she and Danny will have their bakery, their dough, their bread. They will focus on the rising of the yeast and the pounding of the dough and if they have to cut out currants for a time, well, plain buns sell nearly as well.
The clock tower bells ring all day and all night for the end of the king, the ending of the old era. She stands for some time, looking at the falling snow, until behind her Danny shouts, I have it, I have it, Saffron, I have it.
She turns to see the exult on his face, and he scoops her up and swings her around. He has been parceling out the last few sprigs of rose-thyme for months, trying recipe after recipe, running right through the last of the dried leaves.
Now he hands her a round circle of flatbread on a plate. It looks like any of Danny’s homey flatbreads, but smaller. A few bites only, and one bite is missing.
She knows already that there is something special about this moment. It is the sort of memory you recall for years after. A moment when the world changed around you. A moment etched with both beauty and loss, a moment that you leave behind as you move away from it, a moment you can never reach again.
Except, with what Danny has now made, perhaps you can.
Saffron takes the first bite ever of a temporal confections creation and falls back further still.
The world shifts around her. She is seven, and her mother is still living. The sun drifts golden onto a dew-spattered morning, and she shakes a magnolia tree onto Rosie, watching her sister laugh as the droplets spray—
“Another masterpiece,” says Saffron, and the same white-gloved servant passes her plate to the Duke. She shivers, deep inside, for she is not lying. Danny has been working on that linked memory trick for years. She has seen the Fennel Flatbread creation memory before, but she has never seen that magnolia tree memory within it. Usually the scene ends the moment Danny hands her the flatbread and she takes a bite.
Around the table eager hands reach for the plates, barely able to wait for the Duke. A Fennel Flatbread of Sunlit Days Gone By sounds delightful; not like any of the Duke’s nastier tricks. They all could use a moment of nostalgia, of respite from their grown-up cares. They eat, and Saffron watches them, still wondering how Danny triggered the second memory. Perhaps it was in the mashed fava bean dip served alongside, perhaps it is something in the flatbread itself. He has been working on reductions, on methods of increasing the intensity of the herbs. But of course, he has not been able to share anything with her since coming to the palace. And truly, it is better if she does not know. She has never been very good at dissembling, though she has been practicing in this last year. Readying the skill for the moment she needs it.
The words rise as the memories dissolve; the voices filled with emotion, with wonder.
—I was climbing a tree; it was cut down long ago
—I saw my mum, I haven’t seen her in years
—My boy was young again; he ran to me
The Duke scoffs. Whatever he has seen, it has made little impression. “Puerile fantasies,” he says, and swivels to eye Saffron. “I hope the next course will be more suitable to an. . . advanced palate.”
“Danny’s skill at arranging a balance of flavor and memory is unsurpassed,” Saffron says evenly. If she wished to gently push the Duke she would remind him of previous banquets; the one that ended with the nobles in tears; the one that ended with them overcome with patriotism, swearing oaths to the Traitor King. But she does not want to disturb the fragile balance. Danny is building to something, she is more and more certain. Which means that she is to taste, and be ready. Timing is critical in baking, and here so tonight.
Another course is served; a delicate shellfish bisque, but the nobles barely notice what they eat, lost in recounting, reliving, those long-ago moments, made real again for an instant. If the Duke were more observant, he would notice how even the sweetest memory has an edge, for it is something that is lost and will not come again. But perhaps Danny is lulling him, downplaying his skill with the more complicated memories; the ones that linger like the mold on cheese, the yeast in the sourdough, the bitter in the wine.
The bisque is finished—Saffron sometimes feels guilty that the main cooks no longer receive the attention they ought—and the servers return with the next pastry course.
Ah, thinks Saffron, who recognizes it immediately. Here we go into the darker turn.
She could almost be angry at Danny, but she knows whatever he plans tonight has a purpose. The Duke will feast on her tears, but so be it.
The silver fork cuts through the pastry and she takes a bite.
Join us next episode for the conclusion.
About the Author
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards.
She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs Toasted Cake.
Find her at tinaconnolly.com.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a voice actress, and a force of nature. She is responsible for creating the epic fairytale fantasy realm of Arilland, and dabbling in a myriad of other worlds beyond. Her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups across all genres. Host of “Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants” and Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow every year at Dragon Con, Alethea also narrates for ACX, IGMS, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. Born in Vermont, Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and the magic, wonderful world in which she lives here: https://www.patreon.com/
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.