The Confectioner’s Guild – Claire Luana

Wren had learned early on that trouble comes in all sorts of packages. Even vanilla ones with rose petal frosting. “Tell me about these cupcakes,” a cold voice demanded from the storefront. Wren froze on her stool, her ears perked to listen, the cocoa bean she held in her hand forgotten. “What would you like to know?” asked Master Oldrick, his tone light but wary. “Everything.” Wren set down her husking knife on the worktable with the rest of the cracked beans, wiping her hands on her streaked apron. She wanted a look at this customer. She crept across the worn tiles of the kitchen and slowly slid open one of the doors leading to the display case in the front room of Master Oldrick’s confectionery shop. A wave of cold air hit her, the ice that lined the case chilling her face as well as the chocolates. It was a blessed respite from the stickiness of the kitchen, where the air hung limp in August’s hot breath. Master Oldrick was babbling about the cupcakes now, clearly unsure of the nature of the man’s interest. “True, cupcakes are the territory of the Baker’s Guild, but I’ve some friends in that guild, and they don’t mind us having a little fun with the cupcakes. It’s the frosting that sets ours apart. Pure confectional art.

The frosting on this one’s so like a rose that you can practically smell its perfume. The ladies love them—they fly off the shelves.” The customer was a stranger, but the cupcake in his hand was not. It was one of Wren’s. Only she could pipe the frosting just right, each petal like a rosy-hued sunset. Master Oldrick’s arthritis was far too bad for him to perform such delicate work, and the other apprentices, Tate and Hazel, were all right for rolling truffle balls and stirring caramel, but they lacked her steady hand with a piping bag, despite being a few months younger than her sixteen years. Each of those cupcakes had taken her ten minutes to decorate, ten minutes scrunched over the countertop as beads of sweat dribbled down her knees and elbows. Master Oldrick was continuing his detailed exposition of the cupcakes’ finer features, discussing the third-generation ownership of the mill they purchased flour from, the fine sugar imported from Aprica, the fresh cream skimmed off the milk of dairy cows who enjoyed only the finest pastureland below the foothills of Mount Luminis. The customer held up a hand and Master Oldrick fell silent. Wren narrowed her eyes.

Who was this man, and what was his interest in the cupcakes? “Who made the cupcakes?” the man demanded. “Ahh,” Master Oldrick said nervously. “My apprentice Wren,” he said, rubbing his neck with a gnarled hand. His gaze flicked to the far display case, where Wren peeked out between the rows of caramels and chocolate chews. The man turned and his eyes, steely blue above the high collar of his navy coat, met hers. “I’ll speak with this Wren.” “I’ll fetch her,” Master Oldrick said with a bob of his head. Wren stood and slammed the door shut, her mind whirring. Despite the oppressive heat of the late afternoon, her body had gone cold. Master Oldrick’s hands were shaking as he came into the kitchen.

“What does he want?” she hissed. “Who is he?” “I don’t know,” Master Oldrick said. “But he has a stern way about him. Was there something wrong with the cupcakes? Could the ingredients have spoiled?” “No!” she said, affronted. Master Oldrick knew the quality of her work was her only currency in this world. “I would never let such a thing happen.” “I know.” He sighed. “You’re the best apprentice I’ve ever had, woman or no.” She rolled her eyes.

It wasn’t the first time she’d heard such antiquated views from Oldrick. She found it best to ignore them. “I’ll stand by your work,” he continued. “Now don’t keep the man waiting.” Wren straightened her stained apron and attempted to smooth the frizzy auburn halo that wreathed her head in this humidity. She marched into the front of the shop, back straight, head high. “You asked for me, sir?” she said, getting her first proper look at the customer. He was a tall, thin man with a horsey face topped with thick, dark brows that threatened to join as one. He had an impressive shock of black hair brushed to one side in a fashion that managed to look both windswept and carefully manicured. His slender fingers held her exquisite cupcake before her, as if he were offering her a rose.

His examination of her was as obvious as her scrutiny of him no doubt had been. What did he see? Milky pale skin, elfin features, a small mouth puckered in nervousness? From the slight sneer of his lip, it appeared he found her wanting. “Did you make this cupcake?” That cold voice again. She shivered involuntarily. “Yes. Why?” He ignored her question. “I need you to come with me.” “What? Where?” Wren took a step back. He put the cupcake back in its tasteful pink-and-white-striped box before deftly retying the white ribbon in a perfect bow. And then, task complete, he came around the counter in two strides, grasping her elbow.

“Master Oldrick!” Wren cried. She struggled against his iron grip, panic rising through her like a pot left to boil. Master Oldrick bustled through the swinging doors. “What’s this? No customers behind the counter.” “He’s trying to take me somewhere,” Wren explained, trying to draw her master’s attention to the more pressing issue at hand. “Now, sir, what’s this all about?” asked Oldrick. “Guild business,” the man said. “I’m her master; she’s got no business with the Guild that doesn’t concern me. Is she in some kind of trouble?” Master Oldrick asked. “I’m sure whatever it is, we can come to terms.

” The man readjusted his fingers on Wren’s arm, tightening his clammy grip. With his other hand, he pulled a card from his pocket. “I am Grandmaster Callidus of the Confectioner’s Guild. I set the terms. And this girl is coming with me.” Wren glowered at the grandmaster from across the jostling coach, trying to keep the embers of fear tamped down with the weight of her anger. It was a losing battle. She rubbed her damp palms on her dress, curling her fingers into the thin fabric to still her shaking hands. Whatever was going on, it couldn’t be good. “Where are we going?” she asked for the third time.

For the third time, he looked at her with a contemptuous flick of his gaze before his icy stare returned to the window. Despite her unanswered questions, Wren had been keeping a close eye past the lace curtains of the carriage and had a strong suspicion of their destination. As they turned off the packed dirt road onto the smooth granite stones of the Maradis town’s center, her prediction was confirmed: The Confectioner’s Guildhall. Just visible in the distance, nine guildhalls sat like petulant children at the knee of their mother, the gray behemoth Tradehouse where the guilds did business with each other and the rest of the city. The Confectioner’s Guildhall was a massive marble monolith resting in the place of honor at the Tradehouse’s right hand and was arguably the most magnificent structure of the impressive specimens that lined Guilder’s Row. The carriage came to a stop in front of the steps of the Guildhall and the coachman opened the door. Callidus swept out before her and quickly resumed his position as her captor, grasping her arm as soon as she cleared the steps. It was clear he didn’t intend to let her escape. Wren’s stomach flipped. What was there to escape from? Wren struggled up the towering steps of the Guildhall, scraping her shins as Callidus pulled her up.

Five steps for the five levels of the Guild: apprentice, journeyman, artisan, master, and grandmaster. Some designer had been so intent on his symbolism that he had thrown practicality straight out the window. As servants in the Guild’s brown and gold livery opened the wide wooden doors before them, Wren found herself pulled through the antechamber of the Guildhall for the second time in her life. And for the second time, she found herself wishing she had something better to wear. Her first glimpse of the Guildhall had been four years ago. That time, it had been Master Oldrick’s fat fingers gripping the flesh of her arm. She’d been a grimy orphan, fresh off the streets of Maradis. It had started innocently enough. She had been rifling through the trash in the alley behind his shop and had found a worn piping bag, mostly empty save for a dollop of shimmering green frosting. Any other street kid would have squirted the whole bag of sugar into their mouth, but the frosting had called to her.

She knew such an act would be a waste, a sacrilege. Crouched under the eaves of the building to keep warm, she had grasped the smooth parchment paper of the bag and decorated the hard shell of the snowbank with a pattern of ivy leaves. The leaves had sparkled against the snow in the low light of the alley, mesmerizing her, pulling her into a daydream where she was surrounded by lush green foliage rather than frozen garbage. Master Oldrick had woken her with a kick in the dim gray morning, but as she’d scrambled away down the alley, he’d called to her. “Stop!” She’d kept running. “I’ll feed you!” he’d called. She had frozen, looking over one shoulder, her gnawing stomach compelling her to turn around. He had fed her half a loaf of warm bread smeared with butter and jam, along with a glass of sweet milk. Once she had eaten, he’d made her scrub her hands in scalding water until they’d turned pink and had given her an audition. Wren had swirled ganache, puffed powdered sugar, drizzled white chocolate and piped more frosting.

When she had tried to sneak a taste of the ganache, Master Oldrick had whacked her hand so hard with a wooden spoon that she’d felt the vibrations in her teeth. “Never. Ever. Eat. The. Confections,” he’d said. But despite her faux pas, she had passed his test. Because that afternoon, he had marched her, dressed in a tattered woolen smock, into the marble cavern of the Confectioner’s Guildhall. And she had become his apprentice. The interior of the Guildhall looked exactly the same as it had four years ago, but for the exchange of one sour-faced captor for another.

The walls were made of creamy veined marble, and the tall pillars around the circular antechamber rose to form a massive dome coated in gold filigree. A magnificent crystal chandelier hung from the dome, dusting the room with sparkles of sugary light. Wren eyed Callidus sideways as she struggled to match his pace. Guildmembers seemed to part before him as he walked, nodding deferentially and sidestepping out of his way. He didn’t acknowledge any of them with so much as a smile or nod in return. So he was someone important. And, Wren decided, he was most definitely an ass. They ascended a twisting staircase at the far end of the antechamber, heading towards the upper floors. Where were they going? She could ask Callidus, but she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that his silent treatment was flustering her. He probably wouldn’t tell her, anyway.

They continued up two more levels until they reached a floor that was hushed and empty. Two guards in brown and gold flanked the top of the stair, their golden spears resting on the polished parquet floor. Their uniforms bore the Guild’s symbol on the breast, a golden whisk and spoon crossed like the letter “X.” Wren’s heart hammered in her chest as they came to a halt before a carved mahogany door. Why had she been summoned here? Was she being kicked out of the Guild? Had there been something wrong with the cupcakes? They were so deep in the Guildhall, if she screamed now, would anyone hear her? Callidus released her arm and rapped on the door three times with his pale knuckles. The door swung open and Wren almost laughed in relief at the sight. A short ruddy man with a rotund belly and a thick head of snowy white hair stood before her. He reminded her of nothing so much as one of her cupcakes, the red velvet kind sprinkled with coconut shavings. “Come in, come in,” he said, waving them into the room enthusiastically. He wore a crisp shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing substantial forearms covered with downy white hair.

As she passed him, she caught a whiff of butterscotch. “Have a seat, my dear. Have a seat,” he repeated, motioning to one of the two studded leather chairs that sat before his huge desk. Not at all the dungeon she had expected—the room was bright and cheerful, with tall windows letting in streams of sluggish summer sun. Wren sat, smoothing her faded cotton dress over her knees. “Callidus, feel free to sit,” the man said, motioning to the other chair. She shied away from it involuntarily. “I’ll stand,” Callidus replied, leaning against a bookshelf by the door. “Of course you will.” The man paused for a moment.

“I hope Callidus didn’t scare you too terribly. He lacks something of a bedside manner.” Wren laughed, a forced bark that belied her nervousness. “He was… mysterious,” she admitted, thinking it best not to antagonize him. “Well, let’s put the mystery to an end. I am Guildmaster Kasper, Head of the Confectioner’s Guild. And you are?” “Wren,” she said. “Wren Confectioner,” she added, in the Alesian style. In the country of Alesia, a guildmember who didn’t wish to keep their father’s surname, or who didn’t know their father’s name, could take the name of their craft as their surname. “It’s a delight to meet you, Wren,” Kasper said.

“Did Callidus explain why we summoned you?” “No.” “Of course not.” He pursed his lips. “You’re no doubt wondering why you’re here. Callidus, where are those cupcakes?” Callidus dropped the box on the desk between them before resuming his statue-like pose against the bookcase. “Excellent,” Kasper said, opening the box. He removed one of the cupcakes and turned it before him, admiring it from various angles. “These are magnificent, my dear. I’ve known masters who couldn’t make such masterpieces. You’re what, an artisan?” “Apprentice, guildmaster.

” “Apprentice!” his brown eyes flew open. “For how long?” “Four years, guildmaster.” “Four years!” He harrumphed. “Outrageous. You could cook circles around some of my best guildmembers. Your master will be hearing from me.” “Thank you, guildmaster,” she said, keeping the vindicated smile from her face. She knew Master Oldrick had been lying about her not being ready for a promotion within the Guild, she just hadn’t figured out what to do about it. Oldrick wasn’t a bad man—only greedy. And promoting her meant paying her higher wages.

“I can tell you have a gift for confections. Such gifts are rare, even within the Guild,” Kasper said. His eyes gleamed in the sunlight as he studied her, setting the cupcake before her. “You’ve sampled your confections, haven’t you?” She shook her head. “Master Oldrick forbids it.” More for the customers. And the cash register. Guildmaster Kasper sputtered, slapping his hand on the desk. “This Oldrick fellow, I like him less and less! How do you make chocolate if you don’t taste it?” “I follow the recipe. And get it right the first time.

” No need to mention that she had stolen a taste or two when Oldrick wasn’t looking. “Quite right, quite right. I suppose that explains how skinny you are. No respectable confectioner should be skinny!” He slapped the girth of his stomach and laughed, a warm husky sound. “Confections are what make the world go ’round, don’t you agree?” Wren cracked a smile despite herself. His enthusiasm was infectious. “The world would be a happier place if that were true.” “But it is true,” he said, as if he had a secret he couldn’t wait to share. Kasper reached in the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a heavy gold coin. It was an Alesian gold crown, more money than Wren made in a year.

He handed it to her. Wren cradled it reverently. “What’s this for?” “Flip it,” he said. “If you get heads, you can keep it.” Sending a prayer up to the gods, she flipped and caught it, slapping it on the back of her other hand. The stately profile of Mount Luminis gleamed on the surface. Tails. Trying to still her disappointment, she put the crown back on the desk. “Bad luck,” he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling in a smile. “Eat the cupcake.

You’ll feel better. In fact, I think I’ll have one myself.” She looked at him, unsure of his game. But the cupcake did look good, and she had missed lunch today, what with the bustle of the shop. He was already unwrapping his own, taking a monstrous bite that enveloped half the cupcake in one go. She shrugged and retrieved hers, unwrapping the lace around its base. The first bite was the best. The sweet vanilla flavor of the fluffy cupcake mingled with the silky sugar of the frosting, hitting her taste buds like a cotton candy cloud. She closed her eyes as she chewed, trying to commit the pleasure of the moment to memory. She opened her eyes and found Kasper watching her with an amused expression on his face.

“Ehts gud,” she admitted around the bite of cupcake. Her body buzzed pleasantly as she swallowed. “Yes, it is,” he said, licking frosting off his fingers. She set the rest of the cupcake on its wrapper on the desk. “It seems a shame to eat it,” she said. “It’s so pretty. I love making those.”

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