The human’s name had been Jack.
If one was to ask any given resident of the Cloud Island of Mielle, one would hear a story about how that resident’s sister worked for a jeweler who was married to a peach farmer whose great grandmother had seen five humans in her time. There were the gold and black-clad merchants who traveled down to the human cities, their rocs carrying down baskets of blue Heavenly Apples and fabric woven from crystallized sunbeam and returning with furs, minerals and meat on slabs of ice. But the masked merchants were a society unto themselves, as secretive and closed off from the citizens of Mielle as the were to their wealthy human customers below.
But for one of the Sky Folk outside of that profession to see a human in the flesh was rare indeed. There were laws on the books forbidding it, supposedly the result of conflicts and non-aggression treaties too old for anyone to remember, but they were seen as artifacts. It was like declaring it illegal for the moon to fall from the sky. The merchants searched their wares for stowaways with the same care they examined marbled meat. For reasons nobody quite understood, the rocs apparently wouldn’t listen to humans who tried to tame them the way Sky Folk pilots had. Unless humans learned how to fly, they couldn’t access the soft, gray terrain of the Cloud Islands which drifted lazily over the water and terrain of the Center of the Universe where the diminutive beings lived.
So Ezra thought of humans the way most of his kind did-not much at all, except as a distant source of goods found only on the land. Certainly he had dreams of attaining the heights of fame to match elder Kettles of the past, masters at their craft who were said to have made wedding cakes for empresses and the nearly impossible 40 Blackbird Pie for human kings. (Humans had those sorts of ranks, he’d been told.) But he wouldn’t meet those empresses or kings. It just wasn’t done.
Besides, he had enough to worry about on a daily basis. He could not be sure he heard whispers and saw heads shaking in pity in the corner of his vision when he walked around the circular market to pick up flour and sugar, but he’d grown so used to them that perceived them almost constantly. Once in a while he’d walk past a conversation between a tailor wearing her brightly-clad goods and a tinkerer, and over the bang of pots and swish of translucent satin he’d hear snatches of “…grandmother told me their works were quite impressive” and “really a shame, but it let it be a lesson to you, I say.” They would avoid eye contact as he passed by.
That was to be expected, he would tell himself, and hold his head at a proper angle while being sure not to spill a single drop of milk or grain of flour. The Kettle name was no longer respectable, and the man to whom he was indentured was. So anything Ezra did would be attributed to the moral decline of past generations; Hamilton Tooth was merely ‘unpleasant, but one cannot ignore his talent,’ as many would say. Tooth was the one who sold the glazed fruit tarts and wedding cakes now, though for a less grand audience.
Ezra was not making a wedding cake the fateful night he opened the door for the human. He was working late into the night, hair tied back and face splotched with flour, kneading wheat dough to be baked in the morning. His master had thrown out the last batch in a drunken rage, declaring it ‘sour’ without even looking at it. Hamilton Tooth’s snoring still sent the walls shaking, and Ezra did his best to ignore it. No matter how far gone Master Tooth might have been in dreamland listening to that damned harp, he’d always manage to wake up at the worst moment and blame his apprentice for it.
So loud was the snoring that Ezra almost didn’t hear the faint, hoarse call right outside the door. All he could make out was ‘let me in!’
Letting the dough fall to the flour-covered table and wiping his hands off on his apron, Ezra stood up to listen. There it was again, plaintive and exhausted. Was that person in danger? And if they were, why would they go to a bakery?
Hesitantly, Ezra opened the front door a crack. He winced at the groan of the wood, but Master Tooth remained asleep. “I’m afraid we’re closed at this hour,” he whispered. “But you can…hello?”
There was nobody there. Not in front of him, at least; the town was as dead as one might expect it to be so close to midnight, the only light coming from the full moon and a few candle-lit windows.
Ezra let out a breath and scowled. “I’m being pranked again,” he muttered. “Some brat’s probably going to steal a pie from the windowsill. Which means…”
Something ran past Ezra, something that reached just past his thigh and about to his waist.
At first Ezra thought it might have been a small child, but the thing moved far too quickly for a toddler’s wobbly gait and the shape was all wrong. It certainly wasn’t a large vulture, even if the tattered cloak it wore suggested it. Ezra shut the door behind him and grabbed a candle, holding it up to try to find the thing.
“…Hello? Who are you? Whatever you are, you can’t be here!”
A bundle of rags in the corner moved and slowly emerged. As the first layer of rags fell away, it became apparent that he was looking at a very small person with black hair and freckled skin, thin and underfed-looking. They barely moved, gawking up at Ezra. While Ezra couldn’t discern the being’s gender, their proportions suggested someone a few years younger than Ezra himself.
“You’re a human, aren’t you.” It sounded ridiculous the moment he spoke the words, yet he knew immediately what he was seeing. Ezra very slowly knelt down onto one knee in order to better address the intruder face to face, realizing he probably loomed in comparison. “There, is this better?”
The human slowly nodded and took a step closer. The voice that came out sounded male and young, hoarse and exhausted. “You’re all so big.”
“I know what it’s like to be loomed over.” Ezra was on the short side; Master Tooth most definitely was not. “But you can’t be here. I mean, you really can’t! How did you even get up here? You didn’t steal away in a roc basket, did you? It’s just…this is unprecedented.”
The boy shook his head, still reluctant to get any closer. “Climbed a beanstalk, sir.”
“A…beanstalk?” There were beanstalks climbing through gardens throughout the Island. They were bigger than the kind that grew on the land, but not by that much.
“Magic beanstalk,” the boy said as if to explain it all. “Old man sold me the beans.”
“Ah. Of course. Why didn’t I think of that.” Ezra rubbed his temples, trying not to dwell on the implication that humans could apparently grow ladders to the heavens out of plants. “Well, you’re here either way. This is…really pretty incredible. A human…! I don’t suppose you have any recipes you wish to share from the Center of the Universe?”
“The Center of the…What?”
“Nevermind. I just thought I’d ask. I’m a cook. Ezra Kettle.” Ezra extended a hand for a handshake, then remembered he had to crouch down again for it to be of any use to the boy. The human shook several of his fingers awkwardly.
“You’re not going to cook me, are you…?”
“…Cook you!?” Ezra remembered the fateful snoring of the Walking Mountain himself down the hall and covered his mouth, repeating himself in a more hushed tone. “Cook you, lad? What sort of creatures do you take us for? We don’t eat humans! You’re intelligent and you’ve got…a face. I mean cows do too, but it’s not the same. What’s your name?”
The ragged boy shuffled his feet. “Jack. I’m Jack Nimble.”
“Jack.” Ezra stood up again and started pacing, giving a worried glance down the hall. “Look. My boss, well, my Master is asleep right now after having drained half the wine stores as usual. If he wakes up and see you, I can’t guarantee he wouldn’t try to bake you in a pie or turn you into bread filling out of sheer sport. I’ve got to put up with him until my family’s debts are paid, but there’s no need for a human to…” He squinted at Jack, noticing the boy’s hollow cheeks.
Sighing, he reached onto a rack and pulled out one of the golden egg custard tarts that hadn’t sold the day before. It was small enough to fit in the palm of Ezra’s chubby hand, its metallic sheen and sugary glaze glinting in the moonlight, but Jack took it eagerly with both hands. He stared up at Ezra in wonder.
“I can eat it, sir? I mean…is this food?”
Ezra rolled his eyes. “Yes, of course! Consider it a free sample.” He sat down at the table and sighed, glancing alternately between the lump of bread dough and Jack eating the tart as if it were a king’s feast. Had it been his own recipe, Ezra thought, Jack would be brought to joyful tears with one taste; then again, he reminded himself, the very hungry rarely had discerning palates. “Listen, Master Nimble. I’m serious when I say you can’t be found when my master wakes up. I’ll give you someplace to sleep nice and hidden, and in the morning I’ll tell him I need to pick something up from the market and bring you to the constables. They’ll send you home with one of the merchants and take care of that beanstalk thing.”
“Won’t be necessary, sir. I can climb back down on my own.” Jack had already finished off half the tart, though he was starting to slow. “Never had something like this! Is there really gold in it? Do giants eat gold?”
“Shh, keep your voice down! It’s…well, the goose lays eggs like that. I don’t think there’s really gold in it. The yolks just look gold and taste sweet on their own. Nobody bred Golden Egg Geese like the Kettle line.” Ezra held his nose up proudly for just a moment before a thundering snore reminded him of his situation. “Well, we did, anyway.” There was no need to explain the technicalities of family debts to a human boy who had bigger problems to deal with.
“Did you lose your geese?”
“We lost our fortune. It’s a long story and I won’t burden you with it. Everything in the Kettle name belongs to Hamilton Tooth now, including my foreseeable future ‘til I work off those debts. But never you mind that. I’m learning the craft and I’m more than well fed as you can see; would be petty of me to wish for more.” Ezra imagined the more he told himself that, the less resentful he’d feel. “And whatever kind of person Master Tooth is, he’s talented and productive. So the rest doesn’t really matter, or shouldn’t…”
Jack licked the last of the tart off his fingers and leaned back against the cupboard, sighing and looking distant. “We lost our cow. We lost everything else too, but I really loved that cow…”
Ezra felt shame burning his cheeks. “See? This is what I mean! You don’t need me burdening you with my problems. But-but think of it this way. You can go back down and brag that you were able to reach the Sky Islands on your own. Get some of the beans growing off that beanstalk and sell ‘em and make yourself rich. There’s plenty of glory to be found for you now! Just…not here in this miser’s house. I wouldn’t trust him not to do something awful and…” He shuddered, imagining Tooth looming like a hairy old mountain over poor Jack. “You need anything else to eat? I know you’re small, but it was just one egg tart…”
Jack shook his head. “If I eat more I’ll be too sleepy. Don’t like staying still long.”
“Well, you moved fast enough to sneak into Hamilton Tooth’s bakery. That’s something. He catches birds that sneak in with glue traps and has me bake ‘em in pies. He’d be spitting mad if he found out I let you in.” Ezra caught himself smiling despite himself (and the misfortune he’d face should just that event occur) and cleared his throat. “Fair enough. I’ll just let you rest in the supply closet. Sun and Moon know he never sets a foot in there if he can send me instead to…”
He fell silent as the dulcet tones of a soft, androgynous voice echoed from Tooth’s room. The harp was awake again, singing its wordless, discordant song that fell somewhere between a voice and the pluck of strings. Ezra shuddered; he hated the way it sounded.
“Just ignore that damned thing. Master Tooth doesn’t believe me when I say it turns on by itself, but you hear it. At least it’ll keep my master out better than the wine will…”
But Jack wasn’t listening to Ezra. He was standing up alert, staring off in the direction of the song. “What is that, sir?”
“It’s a harp. Just a harp. Apparently that’s one of his family’s heirlooms. It’s got some kind of mechanism that causes it to play and sing on its own. Damned if I know how it works but I’m no tinker. Ghastly awful thing with this grinning face, but that overgrown lout can’t get enough of the stupid toy. Claims it makes the wine taste sweeter and the money shine brighter or something.” Ezra spoke quickly, unnerved as always by that damned song. “As if having money isn’t enough! But this is a fine chance to get you into the closet; he won’t hear me shuffling around here over that Moon-damned noise. Jack, are you listening?”
Jack had a glazed-over look in his eyes, and Ezra told himself it was just from eating too much sugar on an empty stomach. The human boy nodded up at Ezra, who led him into the supply closet and hid him behind bags of salt and flour. He was eerily complacent; perhaps, Ezra thought, the boy was just exhausted after his ordeal.
“Just be sure to stay still and try not to snore,” Ezra told his guest. “We’ll see about that beanstalk mess in the morning. Goodnight, Jack.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Kettle.” Jack had a peaceful smile on his face, and Ezra set himself at ease. There was nothing dangerous about a human, certainly not one so young. They were just smaller people, and this one had enough problems to deal with. And a harp, he reminded himself, was just a harp.
He worked late into the night to make up for the time he’d lost, and didn’t get to sleep for another two hours. When he did he slept like the dead, not even dreaming.
The next morning he woke to find the closet door open, with both Jack and Master Tooth nowhere to be seen. The back door was hanging off its hinges and the garden had been trampled, footsteps digging into the soft, grey cloud terrain and stomping rotten blue apples into mush. The hutch where the Golden Egg Goose lived was empty, and the harp was missing. There was already a crowd gathering behind the bakery, whispering and staring at Ezra.
Within the hour the constable arrived to arrest him for aiding in the murder of Hamilton Tooth, who lay dead on the surface of the Center of the Universe near the root of an impossibly huge fallen beanstalk.