“Ah! Cooper, my dear,” Mariana said, “I wasn’t expecting you so soon. Come in, quick, the air is nippy this morn’.”
“Expecting trouble?” Cooper asked.
“I’m expecting customers,” Mariana replied, giving one final glance outside before locking the door behind Cooper.
Although he was no stranger to Mariana’s bakery, it never ceased to amaze Cooper the sheer methodical disarray of her shophouse. The main room was a long and narrow space, divided down the middle by an empty glass display. Bestrewn on the far wall behind the display was an array of intricate gears, spinning and spurring in turn, coming together to form a series of mechanical clocks. Some were of wood, others of a reddish-brown metal, but no clock was the same and they each counted down at different intervals, ticking in a syncopated rhythm to create what sounded like an endless stream of marbles hitting a hardened floor.
Suddenly, a jarring, high-pitch wail erupted from one of the clocks. It sputtered and jittered, vibrating in place. It caught Cooper off-guard and for a moment, he thought it was going to explode. He took a precautionary step back.
“Ah! The Strudels!” Mariana yelped, “Wait here—don’t touch anything,” she said, quickly dashing past Cooper while donning her apron.
Then, a second clock erupted into a similar noise. And a third, and a fourth.
“The Suncakes! The Pies! The—I don’t even know what that one’s for!” She let out in an exacerbated cry while disappearing into a small passageway at the back of the room.
Only a few seconds had passed and Cooper had already grown restless. For the first time in his many visits, he was alone. Gifted a momentary chance of unequivocal access, entirely unsupervised, and he was anxious to peer into the inner workings of the most well-renowned bakery in the Daimon District. It would only be a peek, he told to himself and he eyed the darkened passage where Mariana disappeared into. A quick glance – no harm done. Besides, she did explicitly say for him to wait. Which, naturally, would make him all the more curious and Mariana would know this to be the case. So, if she really deemed it important, she would have said nothing at all. Cooper quickly made haste towards the passageway. But, he assured himself that he wouldn’t touch anything – just like Mariana asked.
He paused at the entryway, staring down the dimly lit path before him. It was shallow in depth, only reaching a small distance inward before disappearing into a sharp corner where the passageway continued out of sight. Suddenly, a tremendous clatter of crashing metal emanated from deep within the passage, followed by a hazy amber glow that painted the passage walls in a deep orange hue, flickering against the shadows like fiery imps dancing on a backdrop. Then, a blast of heat came gushing out from the bowls of the passageway, impacting Cooper before he had a chance to react – it suffocated him in a vortex of searing heat, forcing Cooper to keel over gasping for air. The sound of clattering metal came for a second time and the amber glow quickly dissipated, along with the sweltering heat – giving Cooper a chance to breathe.
His moment’s respite was short-lived though, as bolting out from the passageway with a face full of grit and arms stacked with a tower of trays, each lined with pastry’s, was Mariana. Her complexion was darker, if not slightly cooked, and the ends of her hair were sizzling with smoke. Two white lines marked her forehead to indicate where her eyebrows may have once been. Cooper quickly sidestepped out of her way, fearing he might get trampled.
“Come on,” Mariana called out as she stormed passed without a wavering glance, “Stop dawdling and help me get these on display.”
As the last pastry was placed, Cooper and Mariana took a step back to admire their work. The previously empty glass display was now a beautifully transformed patisserie. There were soda breads and flatbreads, loaves and cobs that scented the room in a hunger-inducing aroma, garnished by buns rich in colour and meticulously decorated cakes. Cooper now understood why Mariana’s baked goods were highly sought after, but he couldn’t help but feel that this display of edible art felt out of place, contrasting against the austere walls and motley design of the room that contained it.
“Can I ask you something?” Cooper said to Mariana, who had just begun rummaging through a container of dried leaves that sat behind the patisserie.
Cooper nodded, “I assume you’re not short on coin, if your reputation is to be believed.”
“Hmm,” Mariana responded while stoking the flames of a small countertop burner before placing a small pot of water atop.
“So, why does everything look so… out-of-sorts. I mean, if it was the Apartheid District this place would be like a shining beacon of light. But, compared to your typical building in Daimon – it just feels a little, underwhelming. I’m sure you could easily afford to reinvigorate the place.”
Mariana scoffed, “Why have a brick measuring contest with these snout-nosed tailcoats when I can make long, hard bread instead,” she said with a giggle, before shifting her focus away from the boiling pot and on to Cooper, who remained silent.
“Oh, you’re being serious. Well, it’s all to do with ‘R’-and-‘D’—Research and Development, my dear. Name one other baker who serves anything other than stale bread and dubious cheese. Everybody wants some of Mariana’s buns! Even those bastards up in the Legend’s District,” Mariana slammed a ceramic mug filled with an earthy brown liquid onto the glass display and then continued in a mocking tone; “No, you can’t sell your goods here. Yes, I know we want to buy your goods, but you need a Guild License. Oh, you want to buy a license? Well, you can’t buy a license. I know they’re available for purchase and I can see that you can afford it, but it’s restricted to those of whom who carry a Legend’s Name—well, it doesn’t stop you bastards from trying to buy-out my stock, only to flip it to your pompous, arbitrage lovin’, dick-jerkin’—” Mariana slammed a second mug onto the display.
Cooper tentatively picked it up, hoping to not draw her ire.
“Speaking of,” Mariana said, placing a small wooden placard inside the patisserie display. It read; ‘Maximum five-items per customer.’
“Besides,” she continued, “For what purpose would having a nicer outward appearance serve to be, other than a status symbol? Most folk ‘round here know me already. I would be better off investing those profits into what I’m most proud of; my product. Although, maybe a little help wouldn’t go amiss.”
Cooper’s ears perked up at the sound of this.
“If you’re looking for hired help,” he said, “I’d be willing to work for you.”
Cooper watched as Mariana’s face fell into a saddened smile and it resembled that of a mother’s pity.
“Oh, sweetie,” she said. Cooper knew exactly what she was about to say. He had just hoped, just for a moment believed, there was a chance. “You know I would happily have you… but, I can’t employ a Nameless. It’s just, I’d have the Guild breathing down my neck in an instant, and I couldn’t risk that. I can’t risk this. But, maybe if—”
“—It’s okay,” Cooper interrupted. He set down his drink and began to gather his belongings—what little he has, “I should get going. Grendel is going to want me back on the floor in a few hours, and I need to rest.”
“You should be proud. I know it’s gruelling—but not many get the chance that Grendel has offered you; see it for what it is, an escape from the streets. Here, let me get the door for you. And don’t forget to take this.”
She held out a weaved basket with multiple loaves of bread poking out the top. “I included an extra little something. Don’t eat them all in one sitting.”
“Thanks, but I can’t promise anything,” Cooper said in jest.
They said their farewells, which included a feisty waist-height hug from Mariana, and Cooper left to begin his journey back to the tavern. He tried to keep his mind focused on the feast that lay before him and not on the looming dread of his shift that hung overhead.