As some of you may know, I am taking part in the NYCMIDNIGHT 2021 Short Story Challenge. The first round finished last week, and now that my entry is submitted and I have their confirmation that it was received I can finally share it with you! The genre I was assigned was Fantasy (yes, I was very relieved about that!), the character I had to include was A Taster and the story had to prominently feature a torrential downpour.
So this is what I came up with:
“Sweet Magic Factory!”
The voice of the driver echoed through the coach, announcing the next stop. Darius, who had spent the ride stuck between two very chatty dwarf women discussing the events of their nephew’s birthday party at exhausting length, peeled himself out of his seat and pushed his way through to the exit. As always, he gave a polite nod to the centaur who was strapped to the front of the public carriage. The tired faces of the night shift were already waiting at the stop, eager to get home before sunrise. Behind them, the bronze gate of Sweet Magic Inc. loomed ominously against the dark sky. A slight drizzle of rain completed the depressing scenery.
The guard waved Darius through without even a glance at his company-issued ID card. He hurried through the courtyard, bracing himself against the wind. Someone, at some point, had made an effort to try and make the entrance to the factory a welcoming place. But by now, a few years after its opening, the rose bushes hung their heads in neglect, and the grass was always muddy from the many feet trampling through it every day. Maybe it looked nicer in actual daylight, Darius thought, not that he’d ever find out. The start of his shift was always ridiculously early.
Inside, the corridors were brightly lit by ever-lanterns, one of the more useful inventions that had come out of the royal artificer’s office. Their unwavering, modern light followed Darius down the corridors until he reached his office. Here, in his sanctuary, the ever-lanterns were replaced with torches, which doused the room in a softer light. His office, at least, was nice. It was a bit too spacious for a man of his size, but the walls were lined with comfortable divans. At the head of the room stood a large desk, and on it a brass plate with his name and title:
Sensory Quality Evaluator
He pondered his title, as he did every morning. It sounded unnecessarily self-important, as if bigger and better words made his job more interesting. It was funny, really, he thought as he shrugged off his jacket. Now that he worked in a factory, he had a job title with gravitas, when in his prime his title had been very simple: Darius Pendergast, Royal Taster. There had been grace in its simplicity. Of course, back then he’d had prestige and importance, so there had been no need to imply them in his title. Halflings were world renowned for their tastebuds, and the Pendergasts were better still. And Darius had been one of the best among them. His siblings and cousins had been tasters for Kings all over the world, but it was he who had landed the most prestigious job: The Royal taster for Emperor Ourri, the most important man in all the kingdoms. Back then, even though his title may have been simpler, his life had been anything but. He had lived in the palace, in rooms that were big enough to build a separate house in. With a sigh he reached for his uniform, suppressing the vivid memory of the finest linens and silks. There was nothing to be done about it now.
The purple apron, which Sweet Magic Inc. supplied as their uniform, never quite seemed to fit Darius. It pinched and nipped uncomfortably in various places as Darius walked through the corridors of the factory. At least there was never anybody around to see him adjust the fabric. Like every morning, his first visit was the pastry department. Sweet Magic was the empire’s chief provider of enchanted baked goods. The spells which were woven into the dough were mostly little gimmicks with effects ranging from harmless to utterly useless. One of their bestsellers was the Blueberry Cinnamon Bun™, which turned the consumer’s skin completely blue for a maximum duration of ten minutes. Other more useful wares included the Sleep-Away Vanilla Cream Pastry, the Beauty-Enhancing Chocolate Twists, and a range of macarons that made various animals like you more. Of course, to achieve the specific effects of these enchantments, the ingredients of the pastries had to be just right – and this was where Darius came in. With one bite he could determine the ingredients a dish contained and how they were balanced together. Once, he’d famously tasted an errant pinch of salt in a big cauldron of carrot soup made for Emperor Ourri’s birthday.
The pastry room always smelled delightful. The air was infused with the scent of cinnamon, almonds, and other ingredients. In the middle of the room was a supply of different pastry doughs, which the kitchen witches then worked into their specific treat. On the right side of the room, a young witch was rolling baklavas in pistachios and honey. She smiled at Darius as he approached but didn’t stop her work. He nodded and selected a piece of baklava at random. One bite and the taste flooded his mouth. The butter and sugar needed to make the dough. The orange blossom water needed to give the syrup filling a little kick. The crunchiness of the pistachios. Everything seemed to be in order, and so he checked the baklavas off on his clipboard. He felt his lips curl into a smile and shuddered – completely internally. As much as he enjoyed the taste of most of Sweet Magic Inc.’s products, he hated the side effects. He did enjoy the extra risk pay, though. The baklavas produced today were meant to be a gag gift, forcing whoever ate them to smile for the next twenty minutes. Darius knew that at the end of it his cheeks would hurt.
He approached the next witch, who looked at him with a raised eyebrow. He shrugged and gestured wordlessly to the baklavas in explanation.
“Oh, they’re the baklavas of eternal smiles™, aren’t they?” She craned her neck to get a better view on the other table.
Darius did not recognise her. She was clearly new, which she betrayed both by her enthusiasm for Sweet Magic Inc.’s products and by the fact that she was talking to him at all. Some of the other witches had tried to befriend him, possibly out of workplace camaraderie, but he had kept to himself. They had stopped trying after a while, and now most of them regarded him with friendly disinterest, which suited him well.
He cleared his throat, which wasn’t an easy task with a permanent smile etched onto his face, and nodded.
“The actual effect does not actually last forever, though.”
“Of course not,” She said with a nervous smile, turning her attention back to her own work in front of her. “I’m making CinnaMood Buns™ today.”
The table in front of her was filled with neat rows upon rows of cinnamon buns, all covered in their signature pink icing. The new witch clearly had a talent for presentation, as they all looked almost identical and incredibly appetising. He reached for one of the buns.
“I’m Cynthia, by the way,” said the witch, reaching out her hand, before immediately retracting it. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you!”
Darius started, his hand still hovering above the bun.
“Darius,” he forced through his teeth.
“You’re the taster, then?” She pressed on, curiosity lacing her voice.
“Sensory Quality Evaluator.”
“That’s a mouthful of a title.”
He nodded. Cynthia seemed satisfied with their small conversation and turned back towards her work area with a smile. Darius, concluding that must mean their conversation had come to an end, finally picked up the cinnamon bun to take a bite.
Something was wrong. There was the taste of the spoonful of vanilla sugar in the dough for the bun. There was the ground cinnamon for the filling. There was the sugar in the icing and – his eyes widened. Instead of two grams of crushed cherry blossoms, there were four. In alarm, he spat out the chewed-up remains. Cynthia turned to him, her eyes widening.
“Is – Is something wrong?”
That was when it started to rain. He could feel a small droplet hit his nose, then another one running down the back of his neck. Across the room, the witches looked up in confusion. The pitter-patter of falling raindrops filled the air, and within seconds the slight drizzle had turned into a downpour. All Darius could do was smile at the new witch in shock. In turn, she watched in despair as the fruit of her hard labour was drenched in water, leaving behind dozens of soggy cinnamon buns.
“We need to leave!” One of the other witches shouted from somewhere behind Darius.
“Did I do this?” Cynthia slowly looked up at the ceiling, and then back down at him.
He nodded, his teeth still bared. “Too many cherry blossoms,” He pressed out. “Made the spell go haywire.”
Her eyes widened. “Damn. And on my first day – must be some kind of record.”
“We should probably get out of here.”
She nodded, and Darius turned to lead the way out to the corridor. The room was now filled with soggy pastries, and the pleasant smell had completely evaporated. The rain was so dense that he could barely see five feet ahead of him. Finally, he reached the door to the corridor. The cold light of the ever-lanterns beckoned, promising dry land.
Only when Darius stepped out into the corridor, the rain left the room with him. Confused, he turned to find a dripping Cynthia standing on the other side of the doorway. The floor was covered in a few inches of water, and the tables – still covered in soggy pastries – were slowly dripping. But there was no more rain coming from the ceiling. In the hallway, however, it was pouring down.
“It’s you!” Cynthia looked at him incredulously. “You’re the one causing it!”
“It’s your pastry,” Darius corrected her impatiently. “I don’t have any magic powers of my own.”
“But they were CinnaMood Buns™! Why would they start causing rain? They’re supposed to turn your face into a real-time mood ring!”
Darius contemplated this for a second.
“It’s probably because I’m in a bad mood.”
He and Cynthia considered the scene for a while, taking in the carnage the rain had caused in the pastry room.
“I think I would have preferred it if your face had turned blue,” She finally concluded.
Darius found himself rather agreeing with that statement. Finally, his smile subsided.
“You do realise we’ll have to deduct the cost of materials lost from your wages, don’t you?”
Cynthia squirmed uncomfortably under the stern gaze of Pixie Moonfall, founder and owner of Sweet Magic Incorporated. Madame Moonfall, seated behind an impressively large oak desk, was as always impeccably styled, a pointy, black hat sitting askew on top of her perfectly coiffed blonde hair. A black umbrella was floating above her, protecting her from the steady downpour that slowly filled the room with water. Already, the floor was covered in puddles.
“That seems a bit unfair,” Darius volunteered, wishing he had an umbrella of his own.
Madame Moonfall turned her attention to him, and he almost wished he had not spoken up after all.
“There’s no need to be worried, Mr Pendergast,” she said in a tone that heavily suggested he did, in fact, need to be worried. “Your risk pay should cover the damages caused by this little… inconvenience. As soon as we are done here, our disenchantment department will have a look at you. I can assure you they are the best in their field, and they’ll have you right as rain in no time – pardon the pun.”
“That’s not what I am worried about.” Darius glanced at Cynthia, who was staring down at her shoes. “It’s her first day, and I’m sure it was an accident -”
“I’m sure it was,” The businesswoman interrupted him, leaning forward in her seat. “But we cannot afford this kind of negligence in our operation. It is very simple, Miss Cynthia. You have two choices: Either you work off your damages and keep your position here at Sweet Magic Inc., and we all hope that you are not one to repeat mistakes. Or you can leave your post voluntarily and thereby free us of any obligation to pay you any severance pay or any other support that we offered you in your contract.”
Pixie Moonfall linked her hands together, her elbows leaning on her desk, and regarded Cynthia with an expectant look.
“I don’t know,” the young witch muttered, steadily avoiding the gaze of her employer.
Darius had enough. The intensity of the downpour doubled, the atmosphere in the room rivalling a hurricane. The impact of the individual drops on his skin stung, as if he were struck by a thousand tiny needles. He grimaced.
“You can’t treat your employees like this!”
“Excuse me?” Madam Moonfall’s gaze hit him almost as hard as the raindrops.
“This is unacceptable!” He pressed on, gathering his courage. “Magic accidents happen under the best conditions, but especially in a factory! The poor witches under your employ – they stand in the same spot all day, rolling out hundreds and thousands of products. Of course accidents happen! And you must be aware of it, otherwise you would not have hired me to taste them for you.”
“The Sensory Quality Evaluation is an insurance requirement.” She muttered, stunned at his outburst.
“That’s such a stupid name for such a simple job! And, by the way, who even needs cookies that turn your eyes a different colour? Who even wants to eat a muffin that brushes your hair for you? How do you come up with these things?”
The rain was now battering sideways as Darius paced through the room, his feet splashing through inches of water with each step. Both witches watched him cautiously.
“If people like you hadn’t meddled with magic in a way that shouldn’t be meddled with, I could still be comfortable in my rooms in the palace – but noooo, a wand of poison detection is much more cost-effective than a royal taster,” He threw his hands into the air. “But does it remember your allergies? Or the ingredients you like best? No! And yet I am stuck here, working for you in a dead-end, useless job – and you don’t even have the decency to treat your employees with kindness. That is it! I quit.”
And he stormed out of the room. With every step, the rainstorm around him subsided. He only noticed when he reached the courtyard and took a deep breath of the fresh air. Above him, the clouds parted, and warm sunshine fell on his face.
There was the sound of running feet behind him, and shortly Cynthia appeared beside him.
“I quit, too.” She said, looking up at the sun with a smile. “Fuck this place.”
“Indeed,” Darius replied.
And for the first time in a long time, he smiled a genuine smile, unaided by any enchanted pastries.