Ezra was astonished at how blank he felt as he fiddled with the key he’d found waiting for him on the porch steps. None of it felt real, and it was all being drowned out by the more immediate sensations around him. The air was filled with fragrances sweet and earthy, nothing like the yeast and frosting he’d smelled day in and day out in his former life. The ground didn’t give under his feet the way he expected, nor did it ripple gently the way the Island would as it sailed through the sky. It threw off his balance, and he had to lean on the cracked wooden doorway to regain his bearings.
He suspected the horror of it all would strike him sooner or later, fall upon him like sacks of flour from above. That was how horrors tended to go; they were kind enough to give one a period of numb denial in which reality felt theoretical. He thought he ought to take advantage of the shock to unpack what few belongings he’d brought while he had the chance.
“I mean, I should feel something, right?” Ezra supposed talking to oneself was a fine habit to develop when one was living alone, and now was a fine time to start. “He’s…dead. It’s awful to feel relieved that someone was dead even if that person was awful themselves. Isn’t it? I mean, not on my worst, but…”
The Moon is a trickster, so went the myth, and if She hears one take delight in the suffering of an enemy She will cast upon one a worse fate. Thus it had become common to say ‘not that I would wish that on my worst enemy’ when one could not otherwise sympathize or mourn. Over time it had become ‘not on my worst.’ Ezra found himself saying it more frequently than he liked to admit when it came to Hamilton Tooth.
“He’s dead, and I’m not much better off. I’d almost think he did it on purpose! Found a way to make even his death ruin my life. Well, I won’t let it! Well, that’s the attitude I’d like to take. When I have more willpower…”
Looking around the cottage revealed wooden furniture, much of it covered in dust and cobwebs. Creatures that moved too fast to be identified skittered out of the way, some out the window and another up into the roof. He lowered himself carefully into a rocking chair that was both too tall for him and felt too unstable to support the weight of a child, and sat there with his head in his hands.
He felt a brief itch on the back of his hand; he looked at it just in time to see the large moth which had landed on him flutter away in panic. “Oh, right. There are ‘insects’ down here too. I’ll have to get used to that…”
The feeling of something having landed on him left him antsy, and he went back to unpacking. There, hidden carefully inside of his pack and protected by layers of cloth, were two wrapped packages. He carefully set them on the counter without unwrapping them. Inside were the last two things he’d ever been allowed to bake he departed-two perfectly golden brown, cheese and mushroom pies. He still had the Kettle pastry dough recipe, which he supposed should come as a comfort
“Not a single one of them came to see me off! None of them even contested my trial. Was that really what they thought of me? Were they just too fond of the story going around about Ezra Kettle striking back on behalf of his family by colluding with a human murderer and thief?! It was just a show for them.” There was something exhilarating about shouting instead of whispering for once, knowing it would echo in the woods and no one of consequence would hear it. Hamilton Tooth could do nothing more to him; he had nothing left to take away, and Tooth was dead. “Just a show for them. First murder trial in decades and resolved in a matter of days. As if any of them weren’t just as happy to see Tooth go…!”
The worst had been the looks of gentle, but distant pity. What a shame, he’d heard them whisper to one another. For the Kettles to have fallen so far, such a shame! But we should have expected it. What would the Kettle boy have left other than jealousy?
He realized there were tears in his eyes, and blushed from the embarrassment even knowing no one was around. “Well, fine. It’s mine, anyway. Isn’t it? This little pile of wood. Perhaps this is just what I need. Hard work and isolation, and finally a chance to decipher those recipes. They’ll regret sending me away when I’m more prestigious than any of them could hope to be. Trying to sour the name of Kettle like that…! Serves them right. I have the whole Center of the Universe to explore! If I ever somehow develop the urge to travel. And I’m alone…!”
Something rustled behind the bedroom door.
Ezra froze in mid-chair rock, listening. There it was again; a rustling of cloth. Raccoons, he told himself; unsanitary, but they could be dealt with. A bear was a less pleasant possibility. He’d eaten bear meat before, finding it tough and unpleasant, but even the Sky Folk would whisper in awe over what sort of creature would produce that much meat and claws that big.
Tension clung to that idea and he became increasingly certain there was a family of bears hiding in his bedroom, or possibly a small dragon. Dragons liked caves, didn’t they? Was there really that much difference between a cave and a one story cottage? He stood slowly to his feet, holding his big cooking pot in both hands just in case he needed a blunt object to defeat the bears.
The bedroom door gave easily, though it creaked in protest. What he saw when he opened it nearly caused him to drop the cooking pot.
Unlike the rest of the cottage, the bedroom was perfectly clean and the wood in good repair. There was a tiny pot cooking over the fireplace; Ezra smelled onions and mushrooms. Glass ornaments hung on strings, colorful orbs glinting in the light of the fireplace and an oil lamp. On a clean wooden crate sat a remarkably detailed doll house, a meticulously painted two-story affair which would have been far too small for even a Sky child’s toy. A larger glass orb sat on another, filled with water and housing a brightly-colored fish swimming idly about. A white fur rug sat on the floor next to the bed, a luxurious affair built for two Sky folk and laden with quilts.
The sound he’d heard had been scraping wood; specifically, it had been the sound of the black-haired human whittling away at a work desk made of more crates, apparently oblivious to him.
Unsure of how to approach a situation like this one, he cleared his throat and remained standing in the doorway.
She turned around, peered up at him through the hair falling in her face, regarding him with jet-black eyes, and then yawned. “So, you’re back. You don’t mind that I redecorated here, do you darling? Cobwebs just aren’t my style.”
‘Ah well,’ Marjorie thought as she looked at the giant looming over her. ‘It’s been a fine run, and I like to think I did my best when it suited me. I probably should have expected something, taking over a giant’s cabin.’
Accordingly, she gave the giant the most calm and relaxed look she could manage. “Well, if you’re going to smash me with that pot you ought to get it over with.”
“Smash you with…I wouldn’t do that!” The giant set the cast iron cooking pot aside and went back to staring down at her. He was a chubby, stout sort with messy black hair and light brown skin, dressed in a loose-fitting coat and baggy pants. He also appeared to be half-panicked; the overall impression Marjorie got was one of a large, nervous sheepdog.
“But,” he continued, “but you’re in my house. Or, this house I’m supposed to live in now. I was told it was vacant. And you’ve…and this is all…are you a witch?”
Marjorie lifted a lock of hair from her eyes, raising an eyebrow. This was a new development.
“You’re not G. Chulainn? That was the name on the front door.”
“His name’s still on the door? And no! No no no no. He’s dead. I think so, anyway. I hope they didn’t send me to take over his house.” The large youth shuddered, sitting down on the armchair next to the bed and blinking in surprise when he did. “Oh, this is a lot more comfortable…”
“Do you like it? I couldn’t do much about the inconvenient size of the furniture. Inconvenient for me, I mean. I hardly intend to imply there is anything inconvenient about the natural size of your kin! But this was all present when I got here. Honest. All of this was, save for the dollhouse and the fish. And obviously myself. I hope you don’t mind what I did with the place. It desperately needed a clean. And let me tell you, when you’re too small for the furniture cleaning is quite an adventure!” This was her way of saying, ‘you had better appreciate how I’ve been living rent-free in your home as if I own the place.’
“It’s very nice,” the giant agreed as he sank into the armchair. She could see now that he was a bit on the short side compared to the cabin’s previous inhabitant, as he looked much smaller in the chair. “The rug is a nice touch. So all of this used to belong to G. Chulainn? But the kitchen is…and the garden…oh bother. I can’t worry about it now.” He rested his head on his hand. “I don’t know how you managed to scrub all the dust and cobwebs off. I already found a dead wasp nest in the kitchen, or at least I hope it’s…wait.” His eyes narrowed. “Wait, I’m getting off topic. You’re in my house and apparently made a castle room of my sleeping quarters. Why? And I repeat, are you a witch?”
Well, it was nice being able to distract him while it lasted. Marjorie sighed and lay back on the over-sized pillow. “My life would be much more convenient if I were a witch, young man! I confess, you would call me a squatter. I had no idea this house belonged to anyone anymore, and it was clear G. Chulainn hadn’t been by in quite some time. You see, things had gone a bit sour back home.”
How best to explain this. “Imagine a maiden, innocent and pure of heart, targeted by those she ought to trust and driven from her home with almost no one to turn to.” Marjorie was sure to keep her voice properly sorrowful and plaintive, and her eyes downcast. “If you were that girl, you’d seek a safe place too. Even if it was a very big safe place…”
She paused to gauge a reaction, and saw the giant staring wide-eyed at her. Good, so he either believed her or thought she was mad. She could work with both options.
As he said nothing to interrupt her, she continued. “So you understand why a girl would flee into the Blue Forest. Granted,” she added quickly, “I am not exactly that girl in question. But I’m in the business of helping her and that’s what’s got me kicked out of court. Did I mention I held a position at court? Quite enviable, and-”
The young man squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Yes, I’m sure it was. I can’t really keep up with your…Blue Forest?”
“Stay around long enough and you’ll figure out why it’s called that. But, at any rate! When things go south, sometimes you’ve got no choice but to go where no one will find you, reassess and figure out what to do next.”
“I think I understand that,” the giant said with a frown and a distant look right past Marjorie. “More than you’d know. So you fled here to a Sky Folk-built shack and moved into the bedroom?”
“I don’t know how to build a house myself, and I wasn’t exactly in a place to be picky. Abandoned cottage is abandoned cottage. And I need ed a private place to do my work, for my lady’s sake.”
“And just the bedroom.”
“Why it’s as big as a small house to me!” Marjorie laughed. “You’ve got to look at things from another perspective, my lar-tall friend.” She realized ‘large’ might be construed as a dig against his weight. Did giants think of themselves as gigantic? She’d heard of a few wanderers who bragged about their enormous size, but this one kept using the term ‘Sky Folk.’
If he was from one of the cloud cities, she was more in luck than she thought.
The giant blushed and coughed into his fist. “I didn’t mean to cause offense. Not used to talking with, erm, humans. Only did it once. Anyway, I do feel for you. But this is my house now. It’s no longer a vacant place you can just ‘squat.’ If I could give it up to you and move to town I would! But I’m told that’s inadvisable?”
Marjorie considered. “Yes, that’d cause quite a fuss.” Still, this giant was a stubborn one! Perhaps he’d react to the damsel act.
“Of course, if you want me to leave I understand completely. I will just pick up my things and go. Alone. Into the forest. Which is absolutely crawling with bears, might I say. And witches. Some of the witches can even turn themselves into bears. Terrible place for a girl to wander around alone.”
She gave the giant the most pitiable look she could manage, only to see him return it with one of disbelief and skepticism.
“Fine.” Marjorie rolled her eyes. “Let’s try a different tactic. Aren’t you the least bit curious as to why I’m carving miniatures and blowing glass in the middle of nowhere?” She held up her latest project to demonstrate, a tiny and detailed round table. “And where I could have gotten fine linens, and where I’m getting my food? And the fish?”
The giant frowned. “I…was curious about that, yes. Exceedingly so. That’s why I assumed you were a witch.”
“Don’t know much about witches up there, do you? No, no. Not a speck of magic in so much as my fingernail. But how’s this for a deal.” Marjorie leaned forward, leaning her tall, lanky frame against her work desk. “You let me stay here as long as I like, and I show you my secret. It’s a secret that could be very useful to someone like you who’s just starting out here.”
The young giant still appeared reluctant, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “You mean give up my bedroom in a place that’s not very big to begin with, for some kind of ‘secret?’”
Marjorie blew out her nose. Perhaps he wanted more immediate benefits. “And I’ll help you clean the other part so it’s more livable.”
“Okay, fine. Done. But-but remember!” He pointed a big finger down at her. “I have had my trust broken by humans before, and if it happens again I’ll-I’ll-” His eyes were wide and his hand was shaking, and he couldn’t quite look Marjorie in the eye.
That, Marjorie told herself, is a boy who has never tried to give a serious threat before in his entire life and doubts he could go through with it even now.
“Done! I shall live up to your trust, young master.” She gave a low curtsy. “Allow me to introduce myself first. Marjorie Snow, former court jester.”
“Ezra Kettle,” he muttered. “I suppose ‘cook’ works for now, though I’m not sure that-wait, jester?!”
“Ah,” Marjorie jumped in before he could ask further questions, “shh! No time to worry about little details, my tall and generous friend! We have to prepare ourselves for tonight.”
“Tonight? But what’s tonight?!”
“The reason that this place is called the Blue Forest. Drink some tea to keep yourself up and don’t exhaust yourself cleaning too much!” She peered up at him again through her curls to make sure he was paying close attention with those big, gold eyes of his. “Tonight, we go to the Moonflower Market.”