The blue fog gradually gave way to a cloud of shapes and forms, which in turn grew more visible in a matter of seconds. When the light dimmed to a gentle blue glow and the skin tingling subsided, Basil and his companions stood at the outskirts of a crowded marketplace built on a circular plane of white stone. Behind them was a glassy barrier, a dome encompassing the entire, village-sized area. When one looked up, one could only see stars. Past the wall, endless fields of those luminescent blue flowers.
It never ceased to dazzle him, even though it was a familiar sight by that point. But Basil his his awe under a confident smirk and a grand swish of his cape as he turned to face the other two. Prince Charming was never dazzled, merely impressed.
“My Lady, My…” Basil was unsure how he was supposed to address a giant. “Good sir. Welcome to Moonflower Market. I cannot tell you where we are or how the Moon Gate works, for I am sworn to secrecy. Well,” he added, “I don’t exactly know. But if I did-”
Marjorie cut him off with a hand wave. “Thank you, Highness! I always appreciate the introduction every time you go to the market with me, really. But I really must get to business. Ezra, remember my advice! And don’t be afraid to exaggerate the health benefits of strawberries just a tad. No harm in it! Ta!”
She wandered off with as much of a graceful step as one could manage while pushing a cart, leaving Basil a little puzzled. Didn’t she like his speeches? Had he really used that one already? It was at least new to the giant.
Oh, yes. The giant. It was difficult not to gawk; Ezra was twice as big as any human he’d ever seen, and could probably lean his chin on the roof of his grandmothers’ cottage. Even the pies he toted about were larger than Aurora’s great paw pads.
The Prince Charming of the tales he’d heard had saved the distressed from bullying, greedy giants. Great heroes and warriors had bested giants in combat or tricked them. He didn’t recall any of them saving giants. Why would they need to? Anyone that big and strong could defend themselves.
This one was obviously not small or weak; Basil had seen him strike down a wolf bare handed, and a huge one at that. Someone like that could only pity a short human like himself, one who needed a bear’s help to match a giant’s strength. It was embarrassing. There had to be at least a bit of pity in the odd, owl-eyed look this Ezra was giving Basil.
“Thank you again for saving me. And us. With your bear. It’s a very lovely white bear. I’ve never seen a tamed one before.” Ezra spoke in a low rumble and seemed to stand with his nose perpetually pointed just upward, like the nobles Basil remembered from his brief periods at court. The prince wouldn’t have imagined that sort of tone coming from a baker, unless Ezra was some manner of pastry royalty.
Then again, Basil thought, maybe Ezra just had an upturned nose.
Unwilling to let himself be looked down upon in any but a literal sense, Basil puffed out his chest and gestured to Aurora. She was behaving herself, despite the scents of fruit and meat wafting from the food stall sector of the vast market, seated behind Basil and nudging him. “Aurora is of the finest stock of gentle bears bred by my mother’s kingdom to the far north. You wouldn’t have seen one, I imagine!” He grinned, and then realizing that might not come across as properly Humble (for Prince Charming was always Humble when the situation called for it) he cleared his throat. “Shall I lead you around, Sir Kettle?”
“Ezra works,” the giant said, speaking a little too quickly. He lugged that big cart full of sweet-smelling pastry behind him as he took in the sights over Basil’s shoulders. “I appreciate the tour greatly, Your Highness.”
“Basil will do. It’s odd to hear ‘Highness, Highness’ when I’m not at my father’s palace. Speeches aside, the forest is no place for formality! If this is still the forest.” He cupped his chin in his gloved hand as he walked. “I was never entirely sure…”
He almost had to shout to be heard over the crowds of the marketplace. Basil only knew about the ‘gate’ in the Blue Forest, but he assumed there had to be many more. Travelers wearing clothing from nations far and wide gathered here, selling strange wares. A woman in robes sold eggs she claimed would hatch basiliks; Basil could have sworn he saw a snake peek out of her wrapped hair, but it might have been a decoration. A man with long fingers and curled nails like claws played music from a great clockwork machine apparently powered by mice on wheels. The air smelled of spun sugar and salt-cured meat, roasted root vegetables, saffron and lemon; the occasional whiff of perfume or lamp oil somehow only enhanced the combination of scents. As Basil led Ezra to where the other food vendors were situated, he nearly bumped into a palomino centaur busking with an oversized cello.
“Begging your pardon, my lady!” Basil tipped his hat and dropped a few coins in the tray at her hooves as an apology; she merely tossed her hair and kept playing.
“Nobody here really recognizes me as a prince,” Basil said over his shoulder to Ezra in the closest to a conspiratorial whisper as he could manage while addressing someone twice his height over a crowd. It wasn’t very much of a whisper at all. “But I don’t mind that! Prince Charming’s true nobility of heart and courage should be his heralds.” He was glad the crowd was dense enough to likely disguise the shivers running through his body; it would be too embarrassing to explain them. He looked longingly at a plump couple selling steaming bowls of cabbage soup, but reminded himself he was on a mission.
“Prince Charming?” Ezra’s brows wrinkled. “Who is that?”
Basil stopped to stare up, this time more out of bafflement. “You don’t know?!”
Was it just the light, or did a hint of red flush through the giant’s face? “We knew of no such person up there.” He pointed upwards, and then balked when he looked up at that sea of stars. “Well, by ‘up there’ I mean the Islands.”
Ah, Basil told himself, than he was recently arrived from the floating masses of clouds where most giants made their homes. This was a perfect chance to make an impression, and how perfect it would be to impress someone so much bigger! “Prince Charming,” he began in a clear voice, “is a great hero who once wandered the land, saving those in need, battling gi-erm, monsters, reversing curses and breaking spells. She lived as a prince despite being a woman of humble birth, and it is through her heroism that the very term ‘prince’ took on a meaning besides ‘son of a king.’ Prince Charming vanished one day without a trace, but her followers wrote the Edicts of a Prince Charming for all those who would follow in her footsteps. I use ‘he’ when I speak of them because I am a boy, of course. And…not the least of humble birth.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, and the fur on his glove made him sneeze.
At least Ezra seemed dully impressed, gazing down at Basil with what was quite obviously admiration. “We don’t have princes or nobles up there. It’s a different system. So I didn’t think much of it. But someone who saves those in need! That absolutely-oh, right here.” The stars left his eyes almost immediately as the baker seemed to switch immediately to the commercial instinct of a merchant, setting his big cart where it loomed next to the more human-scaled one selling cinnamon pastries. “This is perfect. The smells will bring customers in, and I just have a sense for this spot. Besides,” he added awkwardly, “I needed a space to fit.”
Already the presence of an oversized pie cart was attracting attention, mostly from passerby doing just as Basil had done-gawk at the rare sight of Ezra himself, with legs like tree trunks and heavy apron, carefully slicing a huge pie into very thin slices with a knife that Basil could use as a short sword. He seemed oblivious to the crowd, engrossed in his work. “What a fool I am! Of course there’d mostly be humans here, not my kinfolk, so why didn’t I just bake in the tart pan? Even if it would have taken forever. No one but the most daring glutton would buy a slice of pie big enough to feed five…”
Basil tried to hide annoyance at how much notice Ezra was getting just by being there, reminding himself of that whole humility part of Charminghood. Why was that part always so difficult? He could do the heroic deeds just fine if the opportunity would arise more often. He took a deep breath and then wrapped his arms around his chest as a bad chill came over him, his toes and fingertips suddenly quite numb and his face stinging. He pulled the scarf around his mouth again, suddenly quite glad that Ezra was too busy and the crowd too distracted to see him.
He forced himself to stand up straight again, flashing a smile. “Well! Good sir-I mean, Ezra, now that you’re properly situated I’ll leave you to your business. I have to go check on the Lady Marjorie and…” A frown crossed his face as something clicked in his mind. “There’s no sick grandmother, is there.”
“It’s just her and I,” Ezra said without looking up at Basil or the crowds. “And she was there first.”
“And to be sure, you are not demanding she cook for you or holding her hostage in some other manner that would require me to bring sugar and flour and eggs and such from my grandmothers’ farm and the trading post down the road?”
Two gold eyes shot a hurt-filled glare at Basil that left the prince flinching out of guilt as much as surprise. “Why would I do such a thing?!”
“Sorry! Beg your forgiveness, sir!” Basil held his hands up and took a step back. “I just wanted to confirm something. So if there’s no sick grandmother, and she’s not in distress…”
It was clear from Ezra’s quick, short tone that he was still a little offended by Basil’s ill-judged accusation. “She told me a story that I’m quite sure is also made up, because that seems to be her habit. I think she might just be a freeloader. But she seems to know more about the Center-I mean the land than I do, and she helps with the cleaning, and it’d be terribly lonely to be stuck in that cabin without a single friend…”
Basil bit his lip, thinking. He didn’t like the implication of any of this. “I think I will go check on Marjorie after all.” Besides, the inner cold was getting unbearable; he needed to warm up with some of that soup. The mulled wine tempted him, but the fairy godmothers had warned him to beware of wine being sold at an enchanted market. (They never said anything about cabbage soup. Presumably cabbages were too boring for enchanters to care about, preoccupied as they were with enticing luxuries.)
At least he could say he impressed the giant. His pride could stay intact. But pride was antithetical to a proper Prince.
How complex it was to be charming!
“Wait, Basil! Don’t-” But as Ezra spun around, he saw that the bear-rider prince had already disappeared into the crowd. Had Ezra reacted too harshly to Basil’s accusation? After all, he himself had the same ideas about Sky Folk exiles: they were untrustworthy, possibly violent, and definitely sent away from the Sky for a Very Good Reason. That he now counted among those exiles was a bit of a sticking point, one he smoothed over by reminding himself that he was falsely accused and should not have been grouped with the sorts of violent criminals who would menace and exploit the fragile humans.
And how many there were! He tried to connect this sea of half-size people with the Mielle marketplace, but Mielle had been a relatively small Island and would never draw crowds like this. Never mind that such activities would never be held at night; transactions under the light of the Moon were considered cursed. There was nothing to be done about it in this case. Ezra was already too far from the Sun.
Come to think of it, hadn’t the Moon been shining over the forest clearing? When Ezra looked up now through the strange domed glass, he saw only stars. Where were they?!
Customers, customers, he reminded himself as he turned to the crowd. There were a few centaurs standing heads and shoulders above everyone else, but for the most part he was looking at a gathering of humans wearing clothing familiar and unfamiliar. A young man up near the front of the crowd wore a buttoned, blue silk shirt and ponytail similar to the Vox style, though not quite. He pointed to the pie slices.
“Oh, yes, of course,” Ezra mumbled. Self-consciousness was quickly taking hold of him; for the first time since his arrival in the Center of the Universe, he was starting to feel unnaturally large in comparison to the world around him. Nonsense, he knew, for Sky Folk were the proper size granted to them by the Sun and blessed by the Moon. But here there were only stars. Nevermind it; he had business to do, and fell back on the means of advertisement he’d seen employed in Mielle since his childhood. He cleared his throat.
“You have never tasted pie like this,” he bellowed as he pointed out to the crowd. “Never in your lives! A perfect balance of sugar, and only the finest! Nothing but the plumpest and ripest berries, and a crust like biting into a cloud! A slice will still be good seven days from now! And so…”
Perhaps it had been his tone of voice? Had he been too loud after all? The crowd was dispersing quickly, covering their ears. Parents grabbed children, all of them staring up awkwardly at him as they excused themselves. Had he done it wrong? That was how business was done, wasn’t it? One sold one’s wares based on them being the finest color, the most durable build or the most luxurious taste. The exaggeration was key and expected. Sky artisans prided themselves on being the grandest, the loudest, the ‘most.’
But of course, this was not a Sky marketplace and he had just committed some kind of faux pas. Turning away again, he swallowed his hurt feelings and went to cutting one of the slices even smaller. “Free samples, maybe if I gave free samples…”
“Might I have one?”
The voice should have been drowned out by the crowd, so quiet and reserved it was, but Ezra heard it clear as a bell. It came from a man in a plain, long black cloak hung with herbs at the belt, wearing a wide-brimmed hat that obscured whatever part of his face his ornate black mask did not. He was exceptionally tall for a human, with long limbs and fingers like branches. With his hands gloved and his face covered it was difficult to discern his age, but the voice suggested an older man. The mouth, just visible under the mask, had thin lips and wrinkles, and the complexion was a striking red. Basil’s skin had a reddish-copper tint to it, but this man was the same color red as the strawberries.
He may not have been a human at all, but he was a potential customer, and Ezra wouldn’t miss it. He offered the man a slice, suddenly quite aware of how much more exciting the herb rolls, roast ducks and violet honeycomb being sold around him seemed in comparison to his own offering.
The man took a slow bite, and then nodded. Another crowd had gathered around him, and this one was quiet, as if awaiting his word.
“It’s quite good, very good. I have not had crust like this in ages. I know this taste…really, it is to be experienced.” He nodded again, and Ezra realized the slice was already gone. When had the old man eaten it all?
This prompted an eruption of whispers from the crowd. “The Gourmet likes it!”
“Well of course he does, he has such fantastic taste.”
“If the Gourmet likes it…”
“Sky Cuisine, right? I thought it was all too spicy.”
“You’re thinking of imitations! The real stuff is very rich and nourishing. I heard so many stories.”
“Well, the Gourmet should know…”
Seconds later, Ezra was practically drowning in demands for pie, being paid in strange Moon-patterned coins by the handful. Taken aback, he managed as well as he could, trying to be sure everyone at least got to try a bit of the sample even after the larger pies were sold out. They were too big, he realized that now, and yet the humans taking them away ‘for later’ didn’t seem to mind.
The man lingered after the crowd had left, standing as placid as the tree he resembled. Ezra turned and crouched down to face him, offering to take one of his hands. “Thank you, thank you! Sir, whoever you are. I wasn’t sure how business is done here, and I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do with this currency, but…”
The Gourmet held up one finger. “It’s alright. Quite alright. They hold my opinion in high esteem for some reason. People are quite easy to persuade, regardless of size.” He gazed outward towards the center of the marketplace, where an auction for a large bell was being held. “It’s a nostalgic taste. Brought me back to my childhood.”
So, Ezra thought, the key to business was just to impress the right people? Or was this man just being kind to him?
“It’s odd, though,” the Gourmet continued. “The crust, exquisite. I haven’t tasted anything like it in years. The filling was good, nothing wrong with it, but it wasn’t the same. It couldn’t match the flaky texture of the crust, and it was frankly just a little too sweet.”
Against anyone else, Ezra would have stammered an indignant reply to such criticism; towards his customer he just lowered his eyes. “Well, I’m always working on improving the recipe…”
“I think it is the recipe. The dough was a Kettle recipe, wasn’t it?”
Ezra froze, staring at the Gourmet and trying not to fall over. “You know the name ‘Kettle?’”
“Of course I do. I’ve been around. I must have tasted your mother’s cooking once, or was it your grandfather? I know the Kettles never sold their recipes, so for you to have access to one must make you a family member.” The Gourmet smiled, showing off very long white teeth. “Am I correct?”
“…Son,” Ezra finally answered. “Last son, right now.”
“And the other recipes? I’m sure they have one for strawberry filling. Even if you couldn’t get all the ingredients wherever you are now, it seems strange that…”
Heat burned Ezra’s ears and neck and he tried not to sound defensive. “I haven’t mastered them. At all. My old Master made me learn under his techniques, and the Kettle recipes…”
“Of course. You’re too young to be a master at them yet. But I do want to try them. How puzzling…” The Gourmet tapped his chin, and then grinned. “Tell you what. You make something next time that’s all Kettle. Give me a taste to break my heart, whatever it is. And then perhaps I’ll consider helping you out.”
“Helping me out? You mean like today? That was quite-”
The Gourmet snorted. “Today was nothing. Like I said, people of all walks and sizes are easily impressed. I made you some coin to buy some better ingredients and something nice for yourself here, nothing more. A Kettle should not be hawking his wares to the common folk who cannot even appreciate his techniques. He should be back in the heavens, preparing celestial desserts and making miracles. You know what Kettle recipes can create in the hands of a true master? Miracles. Magic, even.”
Ezra was sure that the Gourmet was speaking metaphorically, but it didn’t matter anyway. All questions were overwhelmed by the idea that this strange man could not only help him go home, but restore his family’s name. How, Ezra had no idea, but this human-or-whatever clearly had a great deal of influence. “Sir! Thank you, sir! I promise, next time-next week. I’ll be back next week, with something like a miracle. I hope, anyway.”
“No hope. Do it.” The Gourmet snapped. “And I’ll take care of any problems you have. You must miss your kinfolk anyway; this place is just so very small.” He turned to walk away, though he tossed Ezra one more handful of coins on the way out. “I’d suggest shopping for the best ingredients here. Use your instincts as a chef. Trust them!”
“Yes! Ingredients! Of course, thank you!” Ezra cradled the coins in his bag, a little baffled at his newfound fortune. He probably had to spend it all here, he imagined, for he couldn’t see any other use for those moon-printed coins. That meant he had to get to work. New pots for certain, and fine sugar, perhaps molasses or foreign fruits that would last the week. Maybe he could find some kind of magnifier so he could see details better; it would ease the difficulty of making pastries smaller than he was used to. Hadn’t there been something else he had meant to look out for? A plant of some kind?
It had to be a vegetable, right? Of course, vegetables for meat pies. That was what he’d been thinking of, wasn’t it?