1-5 Strawberry Pie and the Winter Prince

Ezra did not go with Marjorie to her ‘Moonflower Market’ that night, or the next. It wasn’t out of lack of curiosity or laziness. He already felt restless and ill at ease knowing he had no steady income, as while servitude under Hamilton Tooth had been unbearable at times he at least didn’t live in fear of missing a meal.

Rather, his pride simply wouldn’t allow him to show up at a bazaar selling only a single pie, even if that pie could be sliced up to feed a good 20 humans according to Marjorie. “It’s preposterous,” he’d insisted at the time. “If this is to be my ‘debut’ as a baker here in the Center of the Universe, and if I’m to attract customers as you seem to think I can, I won’t do it with subpar work! Certainly not with cold cheese and mushroom pie.” (He’d already eaten a slice of the other pie for supper.) “At least let me prepare a decent strawberry pie. As soon as I can find strawberries…”

It took a week, in fact, to gather the ingredients and prepare for his ‘debut’ at the Market. During that time he made several discoveries about life on the surface. Forests in particular were absolutely teeming with life. On the Sky Islands, the plants that grew there did so in organized ways, sending their roots down into the translucent surface of the cloud and blooming to produce brightly colored fruits or perfumed flowers. Here the plant life seemed determined to spread across every inch of land available, vines choking trees and lichens feasting on their fallen corpses. Where the enormous fir trees didn’t choke out the sunlight, patches of grass formed carpets studded with toadstools and weeds. Insects buzzed about, many too tiny to see until they’d landed on his nose or left his wrists with itchy bites.

In the Sky there had been birds, and only birds; no other animal seemed to thrive on the Islands unless it was a pampered pet, and even Enlightened land animals showed no interest in trying. The priests of the Sun theorized that this was because birds were the favored of the Sun, the ones among the animals who hadn’t turned their backs on Her and thus could still fly far higher than the insects could. The scientists thought it had something to do with the kinds of plants grown in the Sky, pointing out that even flightless birds like chickens did just fine. Whatever the reason, it led to birds being enormously popular with the Sky Folk as livestock or pets. The massive Capital Island of Vox, hovering perpetually over the ocean, was said to hold a glorious menagerie with one inhabitant: a phoenix, one of the last in the world.

Yet even in Mielle, Ezra could not recall the flocks of birds which woke him every morning with gentle chattering and warning calls. Swarms of them sat on the branches of a dying tree until they gave it the illusion of leaves. Birds lived in the Islands, but they thrived on the ground. What he was to make of that, he didn’t know.

Marjorie, for her part, went about her business privately as she promised she would, answering questions only with some needling. She cheerfully told him where to find wild strawberries and edible mushrooms, possibly just happy to have the place to herself while he went out gathering. It took pressing her a bit more to find out that they were currently on the outskirts of the Ever Empire, a human-ruled nation that was in her words, “of no concern to us as they don’t send tax collectors out here.” He also learned there weren’t any terrestrial villages within a week’s travel, leaving Ezra to conclude that this Market was the only way he could continue living as a baker instead of inevitably going mad as a hermit with a chatty freeloader. He found himself wondering what exactly G. Chulainn did to cause so much terror if he was so far away from anyone at all.

He also learned from her how sacks of flour and sugar, bottles of milk and eggs would show up every other morning without explanation. “A little birdie brings them,” she said with a coy look. “And I may have told that little birdie that I have an ailing grandmother. But he wouldn’t bring it if he couldn’t spare it, right?”

One afternoon he sat gathering strawberries in the meadow, kneeling next to the plant and plucking them with his chubby fingers as delicately as he could. He’d discovered that blueberries were a lost cause; tiny as they were, they’d end up squashed and smeared on his hands no matter how careful he was. “I suppose I’ll have to learn how to shape dough more delicately as well,” he muttered to himself as he wiped sweat off his brow, the sun beating down on him. “No wonder humans think they’re the default for everything. It’s all sized perfectly for them down here. Well, except for the trees, and the bears…”

He thought he heard a rustling in the surrounding woods, freezing on instinct and wishing he’d brought his cooking pot. Had merely mentioning bears jinxed him in some way, bringing them down on him? Didn’t they love sweet things like fruit? Certainly he was larger than a bear or a wolf, but that didn’t mean he wanted to run into one.

For a brief second he thought he saw two sets of eyes peering out at him, one bestial and one more human. Then he saw a flash of movement and both disappeared, leaving him standing and staring in the heat and feeling a little foolish.

“The giant has returned!” Basil burst into his cabin with so much energy he could have torn the door right off if he weren’t careful. “I knew it!”

Lavender paused in her sweeping and looked up at the young prince, smiling gently. “That’s wonderful, Dear. You can bring him a housewarming gift later. Help me get the corners here, won’t you?”

Basil took the broom without even thinking about it, too distracted to be of much help sweeping. “He’s got legs like tree trunks! Big yellow eyes! I imagine he could throw a boulder the length of the forest. I KNEW that maiden was in trouble!”

“Maiden?” Lavender raised an eyebrow, setting herself down on a wooden chair as Basil rushed past her, imitating the battle he dreamed of in broom-handle pantomime. “You mean that girl with the sick grandmother in the old giants’ cottage?”

“And a fishy story it is, right? Why would a girl with high-class manners be out in the woods with her grandmother for no reason at all?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Why would a prince be out in the woods with his fairy godmothers? One of whom he did not kiss when he came in, might I add.”

“Ah…” Basil rubbed the back of his neck with a gloved hand and bowed his head. “Sorry, Grandmother!” He gave her a kiss on the wrinkled cheek she presented and set the broom aside, still too excited to notice how his booted feet were already starting to warm up. “Just got a little excited. And I see your point, but I mean…I have a reason. Which is why I thought she had to have reason, too. And now I know what it is! She’s actually a prisoner of that giant, and she can’t say or he’ll crush her bones to make his bread! Or whatever giants do. Didn’t one of them kidnap maidens some time ago?”

Lavender just pursed her thin lips together and made a ‘hmm’ sound.

“You don’t believe me? I-hooo.” The cold was creeping through Basil’s limbs again, and he quickly sat himself in front of the fireplace, burning perpetually thanks to fairy magic. The same magic kept the inside of the cabin warm as a steam bath for his sake, something the godmothers insisted they didn’t mind in the least. He wrapped his heavy coat and cloak around him, letting the warmth surround him until the terrible chill had passed.

But he forced a smile and shook his head, letting his long brown hair fall loose from its braid. “I’m fine now. Honest! Toasty warm. And I’ll feel warmer once I save that maiden.”

Lavender pressed a bowl of hot chicken soup into his hands, the heat from the clay bowl soothing instead of burning. “Do you fancy that maiden?”

“What? No!” Basil wrinkled his nose, and then remembered that a Prince Charming never spoke that way about a young lady. “I mean, she seems nice enough but I don’t ‘fancy’ her in that way. Why do you keep asking that whenever I want to help someone?”

“A fairy godmother just wants to see her boy settled and happy, that’s all.”

“And a prince has a marriage arranged for him, right? I mean, eventually. After de-cursing.” He found the idea a little relaxing. Without having to worry about his eventual marriage, he could concentrate on becoming Prince Charming and fighting dragons. Surely he could still do that after his parents married him off to some foreign princess, right? “I just want to save someone. I mean, that’s what princes…do.”

“The princes in the stories do, sure.” Lavender started brushing his hair, a habit he couldn’t convince her to stop doing even if it left him feeling like a little kid again. “Now you’re really convinced this is a wicked giant we’re dealing with, or do you just want a wicked giant to fight?”

How did Lavender manage to make Basil feel like a chastened child even now that he was a young man? “I want a problem to solve. I want to help people, like my brother and sister do. When I get to play that role, the person who swoops in and saves the helpless, it makes me feel, I don’t know. Useful. Important.” He looked down at his hands, the fingertips still cool despite the crackling fireplace and hot soup. “It warms me, I guess.”

After another ‘hmm,’ Lavender went back to brushing his hair. “I think if you go out tonight and keep an eye on the Moonflower Gate, you’ll find someone in distress. Fairy intuition. Just remember, the situation might not be what you think it is. You can’t always trust your eyes, because your mind lies to them.”

“And how could my own mind possibly lie to myself? But-thank you, Grandmother.” Basil turned around and smiled. “I’m going to brush the burrs out of Aurora’s fur. You don’t think she’ll be too tired to go out tonight?”

The old fairy woman chuckled. “Aurora’s been sleeping and eating quite enough. I think the exercise will do her good.”

“And if the giant isn’t wicked but is a great warrior, you think he’ll let me challenge his strength?” Basil couldn’t hide the eager smile on his face, ignoring how Lavender rolled her eyes.

“Go check on your bear.”

That evening, Ezra followed Marjorie down what seemed to be the most meandering forest path possible. She was wheeling a rickety wooden cart with her carved miniatures and glass baubles, he a larger but equally unstable one stacked with freshly baked strawberry and custard pies. She seemed to be in a particularly good mood, chatting the entire way; Ezra didn’t mind, as it distracted from the distant howls and hoots of the dark woods.

“I swear it, dear Mr. Kettle, those pies smell heavenly! I still think that cheese and mushroom bit was good enough to sell on its own, but I see you have a nose for quality. A nose for it!”

“Well,” Ezra murmured, “fragrance is important. It interacts with taste, you know. And the crust is a family recipe…!”

“And if I live long enough with you I’ll be too round to fit in that house for certain. I’m glad you’re selling those things and keeping them out of my way!” Marjorie hummed as she toted along her cart. The road was worn smooth with footsteps, provided one avoided the occasional jagged rock or puddle. “But yes, Moonflower Market. Oh, what a glorious place, Moonflower Market! There’s simply no fairy market like it. It’s where you go to get something unusual. Say you want to cast a spell? Well, some witches use miniatures for that purpose, though I don’t know the true process. Say you want a tiny recreation of the throne of King Theodore the Warlord? I have no idea why you’d desire such a thing, but I sold one I made with enough to buy myself a new dress.”

“Art collectors, I’d imagine.” Ezra held his head a bit higher. “It’s good to know even people down here appreciate the hard work of an artisan.”

Marjorie just shrugged at that. “Whatever you mean by that. You know we’re not all luddites down here, right? We manage just fine without fancy blue apples and rocs.”

Realizing he might have said the wrong thing, Ezra colored in his cheeks. “And it’s wonderful work you do down here,” he added hastily, eager to change the subject. “What sort of things do they sell?”

“Rarities. I know, you’re about to point out that a pie is not a rarity, but Sky cuisine is not exactly common down here! Just emphasize your family’s legendary baking prowess and people will buy it just for the experience, even if a strawberry pie is just a strawberry pie in the end. Then they can brag that they’ve tasted the sorts of foods only royalty get to try. And giants of course, but maybe that’s part of the novelty.”

“I don’t know how I feel about being a ‘novelty,’” Ezra said. He had an odd feeling in his stomach about this whole affair. What if one of his kin was there, recognizing him as a criminal exile? What if his presence really did scare off humans who weren’t as odd as Marjorie? He already felt big and out of place outside of the cabin, his makeshift cart dwarfing hers and still feeling like a child’s toy. Would his customers just gawk at him, or worry he’d be a violent lout like other Sky exiles?

Marjorie hadn’t heard him, or pretended she hadn’t. “The best thing to do is to flatter your customers just a little bit. ‘You look like you have a healthy sweet tooth!’ I’d say. Or perhaps, ‘the redness of the strawberries suits the blue of your eyes.’ Or perhaps you can’t sell pies the way you can jewelry…”

“The blue of your…what?” Ezra stared at Marjorie.

“Eyes.” She pointed at her own. “People like when you compliment their eyes. Windows to the soul and all that.”

Ezra scoffed. “Eyes are gold. …Right?”

“Well, yours are! Quite unusual; human eyes usually don’t come in that color. Or, wait.” She pondered for a second, tapping her lips with her finger. “Let me guess. Your kind all have gold eyes, right?”

“Yes, because that’s the color eyes are!” Ezra fumed, sensing she was making a fool of him again, until he realized what he was arguing about. “Wait, humans don’t have…excuse me for a second.”
He knelt down to examine her face a little closer, squinting until he could make out the irises. It wasn’t easy in the dark. “You have green eyes,” he finally concluded, marveling.

Marjorie stared up at him and then laughed. “Of course! Our eyes are small compared to yours, so even when you’re making eye contact you don’t always register the iris color. No offense, but your kind does seem to have trouble seeing past your own noses, metaphorically speaking.”

Feeling rather humiliated and at the same time frustrated with humans for being as small and complex as they apparently were, he turned away and continued on the path. “Eye color doesn’t matter.”

“Not unless you’re complimenting a lover, no. I agree.” Marjorie chuckled again and moved on. “Oh, but the things they sell there. Enchanted soups, love potions, spell artifacts, magic plants. Once I saw a cauldron that produced noodles with one word-oh, mind that branch!”

She’d been a little late with the warning, as the tree branch had already smacked Ezra in the face, but he was too stunned to notice the stinging nosebleed that resulted. “Did-did you say magic plants?”

The human stood still for a moment, as if thinking, and then cleared her throat. “Sorry, just lost my train of thought! Yes, you get those from time to time.”

“Say…anything like magic beans?”

“Beans? Hmm. Perhaps? Maybe? I see so many things, it’s hard to recall. What’s a baker want with beans, anyway? You know how to make a cassoulet? I do adore cassoulet…”

“Uh, nothing. I mean, yes. Sort of.” Ezra was hardly in the mood to explain the whole story to Marjorie now of all times, but already his mind was racing. He’d thought he could use any success he gained at the Market to spread word of his talent around among the humans, finding himself prestige in the Center of the Universe. Were he well-known and beloved enough down here, perhaps he’d have more success appealing his unfair sentence.

But if there was someone selling magic beans, like the ones which had created the monstrous beanstalk, maybe they could lead him to Jack. And if he could find the real culprit, be it that seemingly innocent human boy or the one who had sent him…

“We’re here, Ezra!” Marjorie snapped him out of his own thoughts. They’d arrived at a perfectly circular clearing, the grass well-worn and flat in places. It was completely deserted and lit only by the light of the full moon.

He glanced around, rubbing his chin in concern. “Are we very early? I thought you said it started at midnight, and I’m sure it’s nearly that time.”

“It is! And we’re not but a few minutes early. And yes, this is the place.” Marjorie pouted up at him, patting him on the thigh. “Have a little bit of faith in me, my large friend! Just give it a few minutes…”

The rustling around them would seem to confirm Marjorie’s words. “Oh! That must be them now. I guess they’re all arriving at the same ti-” Ezra felt a tug on his shirt and looked down at Marjorie, whose smile had vanished and been replaced with a wide-eyed stare. She was holding her finger in front of her mouth to shush him, pointing outward.

There were no merchants emerging from the woods. Instead, dozens of gold eyes emerged, dark shapes shuffling out with lowered heads and hunched forms. Wolves, Ezra knew from pictures; though the wolves he’d seen had been far less menacing and hungry-looking than these. He also imagined them being much smaller, like large dogs. These were at least a head taller than Marjorie, and she was a tall human.

“Marjorie,” he whispered down to her. “Get a bit closer. I could probably take one or two of them just fine…” One or two he might be able to handle, but there were at least nine. “Is this normal?”

“No it’s not normal!” she snapped, reaching for a dagger she’d apparently hidden in her dress. “I’ve never seen wolves like this before. This is supposed to be an enchanted glen. You know, protected.”

He swallowed, clenching his hands into fists and mustering up willpower. He had to have some courage in there somewhere, didn’t he? “You can probably make a run for it while they go after me. I’m sure between the two of us, the fat giant is the more tempting target.”

“Oh, I will not! I said I’d get you to the Market and I’m going to do that! Somehow, yes…”

The wolves hunched and then growled, the largest one with an enormous, shaggy mane and blood red eyes. It was big enough to reach Ezra’s chest, and he could already imagine it tearing into his throat. He’d die in total obscurity after all, without any surviving ancestors to even return his body to the sky…

The wolf growled and lunged, jaws out.

Acting on instinct, he swung a fist and miraculously connected, nailing the beast right beneath the chin. It stumbled back, yelping and snarling, as Ezra stared at his own arms. “I…how did I do that?!”

“You’re a giant, silly! However you were up there, you’re quite strong in comparison down here!” Marjorie had somehow managed to climb onto his shoulders, and he couldn’t blame her under the circumstances. “Think you could do that, oh, about 40 more times? Because there’s more coming…”

“N-no, I don’t,” Ezra admitted, backing up against the carts as the wolves closed in on them. The big one was uttering strange noises, almost as if it was passing on orders to its hungry brethren. One after another they lunged, leaped…

And were flung yelping away.

Ezra opened his eyes. He was sure he hadn’t done that. Instead there was a great bulky form, fur white as the moon itself, swatting the beasts away with long black claws. A bear, Ezra recognized from the shape, though he’d never seen one that color in the paintings. Riding atop it was a figure in a thick, fur-lined cloak over an equally heavy coat, face wrapped in a scarf and long black braid trailing behind him. He had a sword hanging in a scabbard at his side and pulled it out to fight off the rest of the wolves, sending them running back into the woods in a matter of minutes.

The bear rider turned to face Ezra in particular, silhouetted by the moonlight. He dressed for far colder weather than the warm night necessitated, a golden amulet hanging from his neck. The young warrior pulled the scarf down so he could speak. “And now, Giant…”

“You saved me,” Ezra blurted out before feeling incredibly foolish for even speaking to such a person. But no one had ever saved him before. Not when his family was sinking into debt, not when his parents were dying, not when he was on trial for something everyone knew he hadn’t done. It was an indescribable feeling.

“Ohhh, thank goodness you’re here,” Marjorie added as she appeared from behind Ezra. She wiped blood off the tip of her dagger; apparently she’d gotten a few blows on a wolf herself. “You always are helpful, my little birdie. Basil, this is Ezra Kettle, the new owner of the cottage. He’s helping me take care of my sick grandmother.”

Ezra would only later realize she’d mentioned a nonexistent grandmother; he was too busy staring at the bear rider, apparently named Basil.

“Ezra, this is Basil, Prince of…um, hello?” She poked at him. “Hello?”

Basil looked down at Marjorie, then up at Ezra, dismounting from his bear and giving the latter a baffled look. “A pleasure to meet you, sir,” he said in a voice that didn’t sound quite sincere. Had Ezra committed some kind of offense? Was he expected to offer something in recompense? What was the etiquette regarding being saved by a handsome prince?

Marjorie gave Ezra a strange look and then shrugged. “Mr. Prince of the Blue Forest, could you stick around and escort us to the Market once the gate is open? You know, in case more weird wolves show up.”

That seemed to excite the prince, whose eyes lit up like the stars. “Escort you? Of course, my lady! My large…sir.” He bowed to both of them, tipping his wide-brimmed hat with fur gloved hands. “The gate should open any moment now, and I shall ensure your safety from all ills.”

“You can have some pie,” Ezra interjected, and then wondered why he’d been so insistent about it.

“Uh, thank you.” Basil gave Ezra another awkward look up, confirming it in Ezra’s mind that he’d already made several major social fumbles with the prince. “Though we’ve never seen wolves like that in the forest before either. Strange! I wonder if that means something terrible’s afoot…”

“You’re a little too excited about something terrible being afoot, Highness,” Marjorie mock-whispered at him. Ezra would have agreed, but he was distracted by the dizziness he felt when he looked at Basil.

A gentle, warm breeze blew into the clearing. The grass turned from dark green to a bright blue, lit by a circle of periwinkle-blue, bell-shaped flowers glowing like morning stars. The glow increased in intensity until it bathed them in blue light, the surrounding woods warping and rippling out of view. Ezra reached to steady his cart by instinct, even though nothing was actually moving, thanking the Sun that he’d only lost one pie in the fracas and the wolves had mostly ignored the cart. That was strange, he’d realize later; why would wolves be picky?

In the storm of light and the strange, static sensation it brought on his skin, Ezra couldn’t help but notice something that was of great importance to him at that moment.

Basil had brown eyes.

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