The boundary between the Builders District and the Central Square looked like a wave of rounded stones had crashed across the muddy streets. As Shel moved closer to the boundary, small stones appeared scattered through the mud, kicked this way and that by the many deliverymen who moved wheelbarrows and bags through the border. The Central Square was a few inches higher than the Central Square, and a gradual ramp led up into it.
Shel and Neal jumped over a large puddle that formed like a moat between the bottom of the sloped stones and the top of the roads in the Central District. Even though it was a few hours until midday, the busiest time in the Central Square, the crowds were deep, and people shuffled and pushed their way through the stalls set up along the borders of the fenced in areas. Except along the border of the Central Square, there were no permanent structures. At the beginning of each trading season, the governors would set out the stalls, which the merchants would bid on. The stalls closer to the center were larger and more sought after, even though transport to those areas was always difficult, particularly as midday approached.
The stalls near the center of the Central Square surrounded the district’s namesake, a large square where no trading went on. This was the seat of the government, where court cases were decided and decrees were handed out. There was little doubt that if it was true that the Empress’s soldier had arrived in Varis, he would have made his way to the square to hear petitioners. The governors came on Fridays and long lines of petitioners snaked through the stalls waiting for their petitions to be heard. The governor usually only got through the first ten or so petitioners, but even so, the lines snaked throughout the day, as unfulfilled expectations built of neighbors complaining about neighbors and business owners demanding retributions for unfair sales.
Although excited to see the Empress’s soldier, Shel went away from the square and headed around the outside of the Central Square for the side opposite where he entered. There he found the sweet pastry stands, a destination of any children with a few extra coins in the Central Square. A group of children mobbed the stands, and Shel and Neal had to push their ways through to place their orders. The children were mostly clean, as clean as children could stay in the rainy season. And while Shel and Neal received many strange looks for the mud covering them, their jingling pouches was enough for them to receive service when they approached the wooden stall.
A large man with a gray, curling beard leaned over the stall, his beefy hands resting at a strange angle on the wooden countertop. Neal showed him his small pouch and shook into to indicate coins, and the large man pulled a tray of steaming buns out from under the stall. There were fifteen buns on the tray, all shiny yellow with dark seeds covering the tops. All the pastries vendors sold the same items, and all of them sold it the same way. Each bun on the tray held something different. Some hold a gooey cheese, and some a rich, sugary paste. Not even the vendors knew what the bakers had stuffed into the buns, which was part of the excitement of buying the mystery buns.
“We have some fine buns today,” the vendor said. While he probably knew that his sales pitch was wasted on any children with money—seeing as it was next to impossible to resist the sweet buns—he continued his pitch. “Fine buns for this special day, boys. The Empress—may the gods bless and keep her forever—her own man came to this very stand and bought one of our buns. He told me not to tell anyone what was in it, but I sneaked a look as he took his first bite, and, let me tell you, I have never seen such dark chocolate flow out of the bun as when he bit it. I’m sure the bakers wouldn’t have made only one of those chocolate buns. Today may be just your lucky day!”
Shel found it unlikely that a cultured man such as one that served the Empress would have frequented the stall, but he humored the vendor and nodded eagerly. He had never had chocolate, although he had seen the beans transported under guard through the Central Square many times. Chocolate was reserved for the governors and the wealthy merchants. To think that any baker would put it in a sweet bun was ridiculous. But even so, the thought of the chocolate made his mouth water. During the festival of Nunial, during the harvest month, the governors of Varis distributed one chocolate wafer to each child who visited the Central Square. It sometimes took two days for the chocolate to be distributed, but with the trader’s stalls not yet set up, the atmosphere allowed the different children from the different districts in Varis to mingle, the only opportunity for the children of traders, and orphans of the wars to talk to one another. Any children caught fighting or disrespecting the wait, were escorted and banned from receiving the chocolate. It was the most orderly the children of Varis were all year.
Neal plopped down two copper pieces and chose his bun, a slightly oblong bun that still steamed from the oven. The buns were baked on wax paper, and Neal held the edges of the wax paper, blowing on the bun slightly. “Get yours,” Neal said, indicating the other coin.
Shel reached over and to the back of the buns and selected his. He lifted the bun off the paper and tossed it from hand-to-hand, unable to stand the heat in any one hand for too long. Neal held the bun close to his mouth and nibbled on the outside before taking a large bite to find out what was inside. A thick white cream oozed out from his bun. “Oh,” Neal said. “Some sort of custard, I think.”
Shel stopped tossing the bun and studied the bun on the palm of his hand. The bun was smaller than most buns he had eaten, and seemed almost as if it was collapsing into itself. Shel raised the bun to his nose to see if the smell would give away what it contained.
“Well, bite it. What’s in?” Neal asked, eating around the custard filling of his own bun. Many of the bun’s fillings were disappointing. It was considered bad manners to complain, but many times, the buns would be thrown out half eaten, with a small layer of bread remaining as a film around the filling, while all of the sweet pastry was eaten. Neal was about half way through the top part of the bun, leaving a small layer of bread, which was touching the custard filling.
“Imagine if they filled this one with chocolate, just like the Empress’s man’s bun,” Shel said. Shel did not like to speak of things he did not have. When he found something he liked, he wanted it always, and to keep it away from him was almost a painful exercise. The first year he had tried the chocolate at Nunial, he was struck dumb. He did not think there was a food that could taste like it did. He had laughed to think that so many children would wait so long for such a small morsel, but once he tasted it, he understood. There were some experiences that were meant to be repeated again and again, and to deny him that repetition struck a strange part of Shel as wrong-headed.
“Bakers don’t go and fill sweet buns with chocolate, stupid,” Neal said. He had finished eating the sweet bread around the custard and was now picking crumbs away from the remaining shell, hoping to get a few more pieces of sugar away from the custard before having to throw out the remnants of the bun.
“Nunial was so long ago,” Shel said. “Can you imagine an entire bun filled with chocolate? It must be incredible. Just the thought of it gives me bumps.” Shel began to shiver with delight. He had never considered any chocolate larger than the Nunial wafer. Imagine if such a thing existed. The bun was a bit larger than a man’s fist, and even if the baker was cheap with the filling, the chocolate inside would be two to three times the size of the wafer. The excitement began to build in him and he held the bun closer to his face.
Neal said something to Shel, but Shel did not hear. He was concentrating on the bun. It was almost as if he was trying to read the pastry, as if the disciplines of words would work with baked goods. He saw glyphs appear on the side of the bun. He could not make out the word. The glyphs were bright and looked lit up as if a lamp was hiding inside the sweet bun. Shel started sounding out the glyphs, as Audrel had taught him. He did not recognize the word, but he sounded it out and said it in a whisper. Shel felt a surge of heat flash up through his feet, into his legs, through his chest, into his arms, and out his hands. He felt a shock and felt like he had been knocked back fifteen feet. But when he opened his eyes—he had not realized he had closed them—he was in the same place, and Neal was still talking.
“. . .know what is in it until you stop staring at it and take a bite,” Neal said.
Shel lifted his left, bare foot from the ground and shook it gingerly. He felt like fire had passed through it. He switched foot and after lifting it, he twisted it until he could view its sole. He was sure that whatever had happened, his foot was now burned. A fire that hot could not have passed through his foot and left it uninjured. His foot was covered with mud, and he used his free hand to wipe it away. He touched it tenderly, expecting to feel intense pain, but he only felt mud and skin. There was no burn and no pain. This surprised him and he lost his balance. He held out his hands to catch himself from falling, and felt the bun squish in his hand. With both feet now firmly on the ground, he pulled the squished bun toward him, afraid to look at it.
“How’d you get mud on the bun?” Neal asked, leaning toward him to look at the broken bun. The crowd of children who had surrounded the vendor crowded around. After they had seen the custard in Neal’s bun, they had lost interest. But now that Shel’s bun was cracked open, the children pushed closer to see what it contained.
Shel looked down and saw that a brown liquid oozed from the middle of the sweet bun. He brought it closer to his mouth and tentatively stuck his tongue into the liquid, sure that he had ruined the bun with the mud on his hand. When he touched the liquid, he realized that it was not mud, it was something thicker and richer. The second thought that crossed his mind was that he must be tasting things. There was no way that he could have tasted chocolate. He did not even realize what he was tasting. Once he accepted what it was, he began sticking large chunks of the bun into his mouth.
“It’s chocolate!” one of the children around him yelled. Hands reached toward the sweet bun and he held his arm high in the air, as far as way from the children. Most of the children in the Central Square were from wealthier homes. The urchins, such as Tommy and her littlelings, were kept out of the square by the rough guards, who would demand to see coins before allowing them to walk around the square, the only exception being during Nunial, where the guards did not randomly check for coins.
As Shel pushed his way through the children, trying to get free, he again tried to stuff large chunks of the bun into his mouth. He fought his way away from the crowd of children. He felt the rough tongues of children as they tried to lick the chocolate from his hand. The remnants of the sweet bun had long since been taken from him. He heard Neal behind him, trying to catch up to where Shel was.
The crowd of children let him go when the realized he no longer held any part of the sweet bun, and his hand. The still attempted to touch his hand, but they realized it had been licked clean. When he broke free of the crowd, he saw Neal working his way out of the children, who did not seem to want to let him go, as if thinking that Shel had somehow passed part of his chocolate sweet bun to Neal. But eventually he made it through.
A man dressed completely in white was running toward them. He was followed by a line of guardsmen, and Shel was not sure what he had stolen, but he was sure he was about to get caught for his thieving. As he studied the man closer, he realized that his outfit was completely white, with no hint of mud. There were no houses in the Central Square, and therefore you had to pass through one of the outer districts to get there. Even if a person traveled by wagon, the wagons could not be taken into the Central District, and it was next to impossible for that person not get mud on their outfit, particularly around their legs. But the white-dressed man’s pants were white, and he even wore white boots laced halfway up his legs.
The man pointed at the crowd of children. “Surround them,” he yelled, and the guards following in file moved around the children to cut off their escape. Once Shel was able to take his eyes off of the man in white, he realized that the guardsmen following the white-dressed man were not the ordinary guardsmen who patrolled the Central Square. They were not even the governors guards, who would surround the square during the weekly governor’s petitioning. These guardsmen were fully armored, and carried wicked two-handed axes, which they held against their mail chest plates as they marched to surround the children. Shel grabbed Neal and began running away from the rapidly approaching guards.
Neal tripped as Shel pulled, his clogs catching on the stones, and his foot fell out of a clog and he stopped. Shel looked back, and yelled, “forget the clog,” but it was too late. Neal had bent down to pick up the clog, and in doing so, had become trapped by the marching soldiers.
The man in white saw Shel outside the reach of the soldiers, and he pointed and began yelling in Shel’s direction. Shel did not wait to see what the man in white was yelling, instead turning and running toward the center of the square, from where the soldiers had arrived from. Once he turned a corner, he slowed his pace and began following closely a group of children who had not been caught up in the progression. They each held buns from a different vendor, and were as muddy as he was. They were walking toward where the square, probably to catch a glimpse of the Empress’s man.
He followed the children as they arrived at the center of the square, which was vacant, a small crowd surrounding the outside and talking loudly.
“He just took off and ran away. Took all his guards with him.”
“I was next in line with the petition. Not even a governor would dare leave halfway through the morning.”
“Who did he think he was? And that outfit. Can you believe trying to keep that outfit clean in this season?”
Shel had heard enough. He now realized who the man in white had been. The soldiers he had seen were the Empress’s soldiers, and running was probably not the best thing to do. Shel left the group of children and walked around the outside of the square. Once he was facing toward the direction of the Builders District, he found the straightest path through the stalls and walked quickly away from the center.
Word count: 2,774
Remaining words: 40,988
Caffeination: A medium-sized Seattle’s Best mocha before getting on an airplane heading to see Doolies (yeah!).
Feeling: I’m still writing crap, but at least I wrote a lot of it. Yesterday’s complaints were more of the frustration of my writing. I’ve been very busy at work and I don’t feel like I’ve had the energy to write. Today was no difference, but being trapped in an airport and on an airplane certainly helped the output. Things happened a bit quickly there (sorry about blatantly stealing Harry Potter wonderful-beans (or whatever they’re called) ideas for the buns, but I needed Shel to whip out his magic somehow), and I lost track of the words. I had a few more things planned for today, but they’ll have to wait until tomorrow. I didn’t do any editing because I remembered too much of the crap that poured out of my finger. I just have to remember that this is first draft material, and the chances are, nobody (except, perhaps, Chuck, and even that is pushing things) will read all the words. Enough wasted words. I should go back and continue writing while the caffeine is floating through my veins, but I’ll resist, and save something for tomorrow.