Leyra has often told me that life is a cruel joke played upon the living by gods or chance. I can certainly see her point, after being stuffed in a sack, flung downstairs, and slung across a horse at bedtime. Maybe she has the Northern true-sight after all, much as she’d deny it if she were here.
The smell of mould and winter-stored potatoes chokes me as I dangle across the high-cantled saddle; the coarse fabric of the sack chafing my face and hands, the rag stuffed in my mouth ensuring I can’t even complain about the bumping and the bruising.
Yet even now, even here, I wouldn’t change a thing about the life I’ve lived, if the chance were given. After all, it has to count for something that I’m the only Dwarven crafter ever to cause more deaths with flaky pastry than a well-honed blade.
It’s true that no one will ever herald my baked goods the way they would have hailed my metalwork, had I stuck to that, but at least my revenge was always sweet: sweet as almond paste and chocolate glazing, sweet as macaroons and spice-cake, sweet as seven kinds of baked goods laid out on a platter, served to the high and mighty for justice and revenge.
First and last sword I ever made I called Bleeder. I even etched my name into the steel: Crafted by Disa Rockbottom. These days, it hangs on the wall in my room above the bakery, and it’s a right gorgeous piece of work, straight and true, hilt all a-sparkle: the kind of weapon a hero might wield to fell a great beast of evil. Only thing is, you can never hit a damn thing with it. That’s how I made it: speaking my Dwarven craft into the steel as I folded and hammered it, as I held it in the flames, as I pumped the bellows, as I forged and tempered it, bonding the craft deep and true. A sword that will always miss, no matter how sure and skilled the hand that wields it.
A young warrior bought Bleeder from my family’s shop. He swung it once or twice, seemed pleased with the way the garnets and the crystals sparkled in the hilt, and paid handsomely for it. Never saw my parents as proud as I saw them that day: proud of me, of my craft, of my skill. Proud of the money I’d made them. It lasted all of one day.
Next day the warrior came back, so irate he could barely speak, besides the cursing. To demonstrate his grievance, he swung the sword at me, and though his stroke was straight and well-aimed, the edge turned aside and cut into the workbench. I didn’t even flinch.
Next, I made a dagger. Fang, I called it. Prettiest thing you ever saw with a straight-true edge, a hilt of blackwood bound with silver, blade so sharp it would bleed you just to look at it. Except I’d made it so that whatever it cut would also heal. My father liked the looks of it, and told me to show him that it worked, so I did. Cut my hand right then and there, almost severing the fingers. Fuck me, did that hurt! But worth it, for the look on his face. Took a few minutes for the flesh and sinews to heal over, and another minute for the skin to come in right.
My father wasn’t much for jests, especially not those that were made of craft and steel and iron. Still, he didn’t kick me out until he caught me in the act one night: blouse open at the neck, skin blushed, hair frizzled from the heat, sticky hands rising from the soft mound in front of me.
“Disa’s baking again!” my brother Malen shouted, pointing at me, his mouth ajar.
That louse. Never got a good word or deed from that runt. They’d come back a day early from the Crafter’s Meet, and I was stood there, elbow deep in bread dough, freshly baked raspberry hearts cooling on the counter betwixt the tools and ore, where mother liked to hone an axe-edge.
Father shouting: “Ten generations…!” before his voice gave out. As if to summon each and every smith before me into the room, to stand in judgment of my actions. Not even one lowly tinkerer or jeweler among them; only steel and iron, hilts and pommels, helms and shields.
“I am a crafter, father. Don’t you see how well you taught me?”
And he saw then. He saw the Dwarven craft I had spoken into the dough beneath my hands, the craft he’d taught me to use in the blacksmith’s forge now rolled into the sugar and the butter: glamour, fortify, and bliss, soon to be digested.
I’m still surprised he didn’t kill me, but he threw me out right then and there, mother helping with her boot up my backside, screaming “sacrilege!” and “blasphemy!” Wasn’t even allowed to bring a stitch or coin with me, just Bleeder, Fang, and most of those raspberry hearts.
I hopped a potato wagon to the city the next morning, to seek my fortune. Turned out my fortune was sleeping in the alleys, begging and pickpocketing, and fighting off the other scroungers when I had to. So it went, until the day Leyra snatched me by the braids.
There’s the sound of a rickety old door kicked open, the smell of a fish-oil lamp being lit, then I’m rolled out of the sack onto a warped and drafty floor. I find myself in a dark and dirty hovel, likely on the outskirts of Oldtown, near the harbour, a place I might have slept in a time or two when I still roamed the city streets.
As the oaf tightens the ropes around my ankles, I wonder if Leyra has been taken, if she’s still alive. She was at the tea-traders, staying over-late as she sometimes does, and it worries me that the oaf has not asked about her once.
He peers up from the ropes to look at me.
“You’re wondering about the Northerner.” A perceptive oaf. “Wondering if she’ll come to save you, or if I’ve already shanked her between the ribs and sunk her corpse beneath the pier.”
“You’d need a bigger sack to haul her, dead or living,” I mumble, and just manage to pull my scrunched up bustier out of my armpits with my tied-up hands, before he binds my wrists behind my back instead.
I tamp down the anger, breathing patience slow and purposeful into my lungs, letting my mind wander off to other things. Like the oaf’s crossbow leaned against the wall. Like the bundle in the corner that clanged like metal as he threw it down. Like Leyra eating sugar-dreams, pouring tea and smiling.
First time I met Leyra was on the street when I checked her pocket for loose change. She slapped me right over the head with that big hand of hers and held me by the braid when I tried to get away. Should have known to tack my braids down tight, but you don’t always find good hairpins in the offal heaps and gutters.
“You’d be that Dwarven sneak-thief I’ve heard tell about,” she said. “It’s said you’ve got a knife as won’t kill anybody.”
I guess I’d stuck enough people that word had gotten ‘round, and when I told Leyra about Fang and Bleeder she laughed so hard she had to sit right down.
“What else can you make?” she asked, and it might have been the way she laughed, or the fact that she’d shared a dram of Northern spice-wine with me, but I told her everything: up and down, inside out, the story of my life.
When she heard I was a scuttled baker, something lit behind those freeze-blue eyes.
“I run a tea-shop,” she told me, and I saw the gleam of something darker sunk deep in her eyes right then, heavy stones of grief and pain, gone right down in the depths, but I chose to ignore it for the dazzle of that smile. “I could do with hiring a baker. But you should know it’s not the teas I make the money on, not really. Most of the profit’s in killing people. Which means you’ll get a life of nought but disrepute and danger.”
“What kind of people do you kill, would you say?” I wondered, sipping on that spice-wine, and she said they were mostly the kind that had murdered old women, swindled widows, and were known to beat up children, pups, and kittens.
“Deserving, then?” I mused. “I’d be handing out some justice. Working for a just cause.”
A sideways glint, the smile widening enough that I could see the hunger lurking just beneath.
“Where would a Dwarf learn how to bake?” the oaf asks as he secures the ropes around a wooden post, left behind from when this building housed cows or horses. “Never heard of such a thing.”
He is talking more than seems prudent for a henchman, and I wonder if he might have pilfered some of my cinnamon buns from yesterday before he grabbed me, the ones sat cooling on the counter, with a smidge of swagger murmured into yeast and sugar.
“I watched the baker next door to my parent’s smithy,” I reply, wriggling my fingers to loosen up the knot. I think of old Kirra with her grey hair and bent back who let me watch her work, even though she knew my parents would never have allowed it. I think of the book of recipes she handed me one day, written out in her own hand. That book is still in my possession, dog-eared pages stained by lard and eggs and melted butter.
“Why’d you not leave town already?” he asks me next, almost as if he really wants to know. “You can’t have thought you’d get away with seven-fold murder, right here in the city?”
“We like our shop,” I answer, thinking of the gilded sign above the door, Leyra in her red-white apron, stood behind the counter, weighing loose-leaf tea on brass scales, using silver tongs to place pâtisseries into boxes.
“Well,” he says, drawing out his knife, and I can tell he doesn’t like the look on my face right then. “You’ve lost all of that now.”
He seems more for cutting flesh than breaking bones, and as he works me over, taking out the gag to let me speak every now and then, I tell him different things, but nothing that he wants to hear. I know he wants a confession of seven-fold murder, and a list of accomplices, but mainly he seems interested in extracting pain before he kills me.
“You should have stuck to smithing,” he tells me when he takes a break from cutting. “Decent profession, that. Respectable. Good money, too.”
“I have a sense of humour,” I answer, spitting blood and puke. “Steel and iron make worse jests than pastry. Also, dough and batter please me in a way that anvils and hammers don’t.”
I look at him, taking in the scarred face and the muscled arms.
“Why do you do what you are doing? This…henchman…ing?”
He shrugs and wipes the knife clean on his britches.
“Good pay. Hard enough to get work now that the war’s over. And I don’t mind serving justice and a just cause.”
I catch my breath enough to laugh at that.
“Who pays you?”
He gives me a long and quiet look. Considering. Deciding I won’t live long enough for the truth to matter.
“The highest.” Meaning, the Princeps of the City. Meaning, Leyra and I are both damned and doomed no matter how this goes. “He does not like having his men nipped away by poison.”
Once Leyra took me in I set to baking. Most days I made whatever took my fancy, while Leyra stood in the shop and sold the baked goods and the teas. I breathed just a hint of craft into my wares, enough to make you come back for seconds and for thirds, though not enough that you’d know why.
Special orders came through a man in Oldtown: some old swashbuckler who pretended he dealt in secret death and judgment, when he mostly dealt in beer and chewing tobacco. He passed assassination-orders on to Leyra, and I’d bake up something special for delivery, speaking my craft as I stirred and whipped and glazed, while Leyra added her philtres to dough and frosting.
Most often I’d use the fortifying crafts—the same kind you’d talk into the metal to toughen up a blade or shield—to make the eater live an extra day or two, hushing up suspicions. It is a testament to our skill and our discretion that never once in those years did we ever draw the attention of the shirriffs, but I admit that not all those days were rosy.
“Have you ever seen it, Disa?” Leyra asked me once as we sat and picked through the leavings of the day after the door was shut and locked: pastry crumbs, pot of tea, a flask of spice-wine, sleeves rolled up in the oven-warmth. “A house, torched and burned, with all the people still inside. Door barred. Most likely soldiers stood outside with their pikes and spears. No escape. And you see it as you come walking up the path, home from market. You smell it before you see it, but you can’t believe it, you don’t want to see. And then you see it anyway. Animals burnt and charred. Flesh and beams still smoldering. The house reduced to nought but heat and rubble. Small hands reaching for you out of the wreckage.”
“No, I’ve not seen anything like that.”
“Strips you clean. Leaves you always wanting. No matter what good you may have acquired since.”
She looked at me, and I saw the heavy stones of sorrow sunk deep into her eyes, long ago. I had no words to stir her smile.
“I trained to be a seer, did I ever tell you that?”
“Only every time you’re drunk,” I remarked, but quietly, so as not to disturb her brooding.
“Didn’t want to. Didn’t want the lonely life with herbs and prophecies. Didn’t want to see things true. So I chose my own life. Husband. House. Squalling babies. All burned now. So much for choice.”
Another slosh of spice-wine.
“Did you ever think you were meant for something else,” she asked. “Something other than cakes and teas?”
“Not lately. But before I left the smithy, I thought that maybe I should make armored underwear for ladies. Nicely fitted, easy to slip on underneath a gown or cloak, offering superior support and comfortable protection.”
Leyra kept her face straight, sipped her rum and tea.
“There’d be money in that,” she offered.
“I’d buy a bustier myself, if you were selling.”
“Let me take your measurements so as I can write up the order.”
That made her laugh, and for a moment the darkness lifted up its wing. But most times she would not be talking when she drank, just carving names into the table with an old skinning-knife. Children’s names. Same names she has tattooed on her arms, twisted round with runes and leaves. Northerns do that, so I’ve been told, paying tribute to beloved dead.
The oaf has taken a break from cutting me, and he’s rambling now, about the money he’s to get and what he’ll do with it. First off a fancy horse, then a property with fertile land and livestock, servants, wife, all lined up before me as he rambles, as he cleans the blood off his fingers, as he wipes the sweat out of his eyes.
Listening to him babble between the times when I’ve passed out, I’ve guessed the truth: that Leyra’s man in Oldtown got a taste for gold and drink, letting something slip. Not enough for a trial or the gallows, but enough to hire someone with a sack and blade.
“You’re a dreamer, henchman,” I rasp. “More than likely the Princeps will have you hung to sweep his own trail clean.”
I can see his face, can see he fears I speak the truth, and I drag another feeble breath to keep life flowing through me a while longer, still thinking about Leyra, and the waters beneath the pier.
For two years we made a good living, and we hung our sign above the door: “Northern Delights – Baked Goods & Blended Teas” all scrolled about with golden leaves and flowers. The bakery itself gained in fame and popularity, even in the highest lordly circles, until the Defender’s Council, the seven high lords with jewelled chains hung around their necks, wanted a platter of our wares for a private feast.
That’s when Leyra let me know her plan, the one that had been steeping in her mind since before I’d met her: a brew so strong and dark and bitter that it would choke the rich and mighty.
“It was the war, not men that took my husband and my little ones, people would say to me. But I know who gave the orders of rape and plunder. I know who sent the soldiers out into the countryside. I know who wanted the deed done: seven warlords, sitting now on Council chairs because peace is come and past misdeeds have all been swept aside.”
“I understand if you do not want to help me,” she went on. “This will surely drag you down even deeper into danger and disrepute.”
“Disrepute and danger is what I chose the day you snagged my braid. I won’t choose any different now.”
She smiled at that: a flick of it, soon gone.
Seven kinds of baked goods, that’s what would we would serve them, as was customary on fanciful occasions among the Northerns: cookies, cakes, and pastries, accompanied by cups of strong and aromatic tea.
Seven men, seven kinds of baked goods, seven poisons. I liked the symmetry of that.
I wonder now about the number seven. It takes my mind off how the oaf is cutting through my left index-finger with his knife. Why seven baked goods, particularly? One for each day of the week perhaps, or one for each of the seven sisters among the stars, or maybe one for each of the seven heavens up above, and the seven hells down below. Though that’d make it fourteen, and besides: that’s a Dwarven view, likely not an influence on Northerners.
How I baked for that, how I mixed and stirred and whipped, thinking of Leyra’s children; thinking of her, bent and broken amidst the rubble of her life, every step out of that fire leading to the here and now. Meringues, silken-skinned and lustrous. Lemon pastries, baked in fluted tins, filled with luscious lemon cream. Vanilla puffs, dusted white with powdered sugar. Chocolate mousse pâtisseries, brushed with cocoa glaze. Bite-sized rhubarb and strawberry pies with woven lattice crusts. Dark chocolate biscuits, rolled out thin as leaves. And Northern sugar-dreams, Leyra’s favourites, creamy white and tender-brittle at the touch.
With so many men so highly placed, all at the same occasion, it was utmost in our minds that they not all drop dead at once, or in the same way. The seven poisons were the key, because results would vary depending on what and how much each one ate. I spoke ample craft into those seven baked goods: to toughen up the eaters’ constitutions, reinforcing guts and organs, adding a whisper of desire to make the councilmen crave more.
Leyra paid a servant girl inside the castle to tell her how it went. They all ate, we heard, and not a crumb or crust was left behind. Then Leyra watched them closely, counting down the lives.
One man died on his way home right after the feast, stumbling off a bridge. An accident, so it seemed to most. Two died some months later once my craft wore off their innards, and their livers finally gave out. The last four died within eight months, from accidents and ailments that were the leavings of our work: organs weakened, veins stiffened, hearts made brittle. Natural causes, more or less.
Seven men, dead within a year. Struck down in their prime by a woman peddling teas, and a Dwarven baker. We raised a glass the night the last man died, and Leyra looked deep and long into the fire, fingers tracing the names inked and twirled around her arms.
Morning light comes through the boarded up windows. The oaf seems tired of cutting, and I feel none too good myself, what with my skin scored and bleeding, and half a finger missing. Can’t see too well either with my eyes caked shut.
He checks the ropes and says he’s going out to get the horse tacked up. Says he must deliver me this morning. Seems my confession is not required, nor a detailed list of accomplices and poisons. It would have been worth a little more, that much I understand from the way he glares: another bag of coin perhaps, or a younger wife.
Soon as he steps outside, I busy myself with my bustier.
The bustier is my most recent joke, and never has it seemed funnier than here and now. I crafted the metal springs and rods and braces, then had a seamstress sew the silk and cotton over top: a fine piece of armor-craft I guess, though it was fiddly work compared to baking. It fits me like a second hide, padded soft and reinforced, lined with silk and thinly felted wool, accommodating both my bosom and a hidden blade.
Flexing my left bicep, I squeeze the spring-loaded contraption hidden in the silk, and Fang pops out of my cleavage. I’ve practiced the trick a few times, but it’s harder when you can’t see straight and your hands are bound. Worse still when someone’s outside, wanting to kill you.
I wriggle. The blade slides across my thighs and towards my bound hands.
Another wriggle and I’ve got a feeble grip, managing to snick the ropes– wrists and ankles freed – before the blade falls from my hands. Then I run: blind, out the door, no time for clever plans or subterfuge, just hoping he’s gone far enough to give me a head start. No such luck. Soon, I hear him behind me, chasing down the alley. The alley’s narrow, barely wide enough for one, lined with empty houses, barred doors, brick walls. Far ahead in the dusk before dawn I see the docks. Too far.
I hear him coming, heavy thumping feet closing in, and then he’s got me by the arm and neck,
“You should have stuck to smithing,” is the last he whispers in my ear, before he cuts my throat, and goes off to collect his bounty, or maybe to get a sack and shank for Leyra.
I think of many things as I fall, none of them important anymore.
Fading stars above are glinting softly, just a hazy mist between me and them. I think of Leyra, of danger and of disrepute, my life laid out on a platter: each day devoured, every crumb, and come to nought but death in the end.
Then I follow the stars up into the deeps.
It’s Leyra who pulls me up. Should’ve known she’d come, dead or otherwise. But no one’s ever come for me before.
“Who will bake my sugar-dreams if you don’t?” she says when I wake up, and I pretend not to see her crying, grateful that she repays the favour.
I touch my neck, the blood soaked into my blouse and bustier, pooling beneath me. But the skin’s all healed, no seam or scar.
“Next time I make a dagger, I’ll blunt the edge somewhat,” I say, and try on a smile, though it falters.
“I came home and every room was empty and your room a right mess. Figured our luck had just run out. But it held a bit: some scroungers saw a man passing into Oldtown with a twitching package slung across his horse.”
“Did he come for you?” I ask.
“There was a man. Just now. He tried to grab me when I was looking for you in the alleys. I pulled an axe on him. He pulled a sword on me. A fancy sparkly one. Not sure where he might have gotten it.”
A length of steel wrapped in a bloodied cloak lands at my feet with a heavy clang. Then Fang lands there too, my own blood still dripping off the blade. Leyra laughs, and I laugh too, because once in a while, even life tells a joke worth laughing at.
“It’s the Princeps as was paying him,” I say when the laughter starts to hurt too much. “He’ll want us dead again.”
Leyra thinks on it. Not long.
“I hear the western cities are parched for proper tea and poisons, pastries, too, seven kinds and more.”
“Any chance of disrepute and danger?”
“Always,” she grins, and even now, after my throat’s been cut, that smile still leaves me dazzled.