Dawn was bursting over the rooftops when I reached the bakery, to find Aisha up to her elbows in flour. Behind her, the fire in the oven built to a golden glow, the previous night’s lucky bun turning to ash in the flames, binding one day’s baking to the next.
“Good morning, Gwen,” Aisha said brightly. “Could you make the calm and apple tarts?”
I didn’t mind that Aisha set me straight to work. That was what we did to keep her bakery going, to make sure that I could work with her every day.
I mixed the pastry, cut it into rounds, filled them with apples and soft, dark sugar. As I sprinkled on the cinnamon, I remembered a summer afternoon, the two of us sipping tea in the sunshine. My calm flowed into those little pastry cases, to be baked in with the other flavours.
By the time I put the tarts in the oven, Aisha had made a dozen other treats, delicate pastries full of melancholy or wistfulness, eclairs of joy, churros sprinkled with sugar and acceptance. There was a reason why her name was the one above the door.
Together, we worked on the bread, a simple staple without the flourish of spices or emotions. As I pounded the dough, I pretended I was fighting an ogre, and Aisha laughed at my dumb monster sounds. Our fingers touched as I passed her the finished loaves, and for a second my heart beat as loud as the ogre’s roar.
The first customers came around seven. Aisha served them with that same smile she gave us all. She sold them joy and whimsy, inspiration and exaltation, all wrapped in perfect pastry.
An old lady beamed as she tasted one of the tarts.
“This is very good, my dear.”
“That’s Gwen’s work,” Aisha said, turning her bright smile on me, and I felt so tall my head could have scraped the ceiling.
“Haven’t you trained her well,” the old lady said.
As she left, I jealously eyed the box of cakes in her bag.
Not long before midday, there was a lull in business. Having put fresh loaves in the oven, I crept up behind Aisha, pressed a hand against her back, and reached around her for an éclair.
“No!” She laughed as she slapped away my hand. “They’re for the customers.”
“I just want to try one.”
“I’ve made you something special,” she said. “Just like always.”
I pouted. “What if I don’t want special?”
She brushed a floured hand against my blushing cheek. “You deserve it.”
Then a builder came in looking for his lunch, and we were back to work.
For most of the day, the coffee pot was just a coffee pot, a source of tarry black caffeine, but in the middle of the afternoon a woman came in who needed something more.
“I’m not sure,” she said with a frail and quivering brightness, looking across the pastries rather than at Aisha. “I just wanted something to… to…”
She bit her lip and blinked hard.
“There’s a table by the window,” Aisha said. “Gwen will bring you a coffee.”
This was something she had taught me early on. Not every moment was one for excitement, contentment, or ambition. Not every day was bright. As I poured the coffee, I thought about walking away from the bakery night after night, leaving Aisha behind, and the melancholy flowed from me into the cup. I set it down in front of the woman and she smiled at me with forced brightness.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
She took a sip of the coffee, and then she broke. Tears streamed down her face as she slumped over the cup, giving in to the sorrow she so badly needed to release.
“Why doesn’t he want me?”
I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and held her until she was still. I understood her sadness all too well, and the need for human contact to carry her though. Aisha silently brought a churro to the table, and when the woman’s sobs subsided, she found acceptance in that warm, sugary stick.
“Thank you,” Aisha said, once the woman was gone. “Here, I made you something.”
Late afternoon light glistened off the glaze of a complex knot of pastry, with a spoonful of tapenade at its centre and a sprinkling of chilli. The things she made me were always like this: unique, spectacular, and with none of the sweetness she offered even casual customers. I tried to look excited, for Aisha’s sake, and failed. I wanted sweetness and comfort from her, not the bite of bitter and savoury spices.
In spite of everything, I held out hope. Pastry crumbled against my lips, and the earthiness of olives gave way to the sharpness of chilli. Through it all ran a sliver of grief, the memory of a beloved grandmother’s funeral. It was my turn to cry.
“That’s amazing,” I said, and Aisha smiled.
But it wasn’t what I wanted from her, to be the subject for her experiments, an outlet for loss, curiosity, bewilderment, whatever she was playing with today.
She brushed a crumb from my lips. I drew back, almost colliding with the wall. I couldn’t take this any more.
The shop was empty, the counters clear of bread, pastries, and pies. All that remained was Aisha’s good luck bun, her personal superstition, baked each day before I arrived and thrown into the fire the next morning. There were no cakes filled with joy or contentment for me.
Aisha closed the door, telling the world that we were done for the day. She turned back to me with the same soft smile she offered everyone, and it was too much. I couldn’t be just an employee to her.
“I—” The words caught in my throat. “I can’t work here anymore.”
Aisha stiffened. For a long moment she stared at me.
“I see,” she said. “Please bank the fire and lock the door before you go. You can leave the keys beneath the loose slab in the alley.”
The keys slipped from her hand and clattered on the counter. She strode out into the street.
I stared after her, feeling angry and confused. After all these months, no goodbye, no thank you for my work. It made me glad I was leaving. I deserved better.
My gaze fell on the good luck bun. Apparently, I didn’t matter, but making that bun did. She could make time for that but not to say goodbye.
I snatched up the bun and sank my teeth into it. Didn’t I deserve some good luck?
A warm feeling rushed over me. My stomach fluttered, like it had the first time I had met Aisha. I tingled from head to toe at that memory. Except that it wasn’t my memory, it was hers, and that fluttering feeling was still there.
The strange pastries I had been trying turned from experiments to a revelation, Aisha showing me her secret self. Her disappointment when I frowned at them hadn’t come from a baker showing off her skills but from a woman opening her heart only to be rebuffed. I felt the fear of rejection, baked into a bun with that love day after day, locked down in the only way she knew how, making it possible for her to work alongside me.
I dropped the remains of the bun and rushed out the door, keys and fire forgotten. The slapping of my shoes against cobbles echoed around the street, a fanfare announcing my approach. Aisha turned to look at me in confusion a moment before I swept her up in my arms.
Perhaps tomorrow we could make confusion cake together. We had been living with its ingredients long enough.
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The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.
Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?
Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.