Before you bite into a taratensis for the second time, your whole mouth will shudder in anticipation; your teeth will clench, and for a moment you will think your lips are swelling, reaching toward the skin of the fruit before you are aware of it. Your body knows. The taratensis wants to be eaten as much as you want to eat it, perhaps more. Its pale blue skin is thin and easily punctured, and the juicy inside is more efficiently consumed with a straw than a spoon.
The countess who took me in soon after I came to Rialynas watched in amusement as I ate one after the other and told her I never wanted to eat anything else. She trailed one long finger down my cheek and told me I would not like it, having only sweetness all the time. I, having only come through the doorway to Rialynas a few weeks before, didn’t believe her.
If you’ve never eaten a liachensir, you will probably tell me that fruit cannot be dry. But if you are so fortunate as to be invited to one of the parties in the middle of the capital city—the ones in the high towers and low dungeons, where the password only gets you into the first room and knowing which masked figure is the queen might get you killed—you will find liachensir, thinly sliced, being passed around on silver trays by shadowy servants. A slice will pop and fizz against your tongue, sour and sharp, and your mouth will go a little bit numb.
Your mind will fizz and go a little bit numb too, if you want it to. You won’t worry about nourishment, about what strange foods grown from strange soils have to offer a heart and body from our fragile little land—not yet. When you glance around the dark room and see figures bent over, dancing, laughing, writhing, you will take another slice, and another, and be grateful for the distraction that tastes a little like pain.
When the weakness first came over me, only six months after I arrived in Rialynas, the countess fed me berentons that she peeled at my bedside. A single berenton is only the size of a thumb, or a nose, and she would often nick herself with the knife as she peeled them. The long thin strips of peel she would put in a bowl on her lap. Her bleeding fingers she would slide into her mouth, and she would suck on them absently when she handed me the slippery flesh of the fruits. My body was hot, and I ached all over. The cool sweet taste of the berentons soothed me but didn’t strengthen me, though I could not know that then.
When I recovered, I tried to peel a berenton myself. The skin of the fruit seemed to harden wherever my fingers landed, showed sharp scales everywhere I moved my thumb, made a bloody mess of my hand. When at last I wrestled the flesh out, it tasted of nothing at all. The flavor of a berenton is determined entirely by its surroundings. Alas, in Rialynas I came to find that I was the same.
The amiradel is formed of two rounded halves split down the center. Or perhaps that’s only how I see them in my mind, pale green flesh split in half by skillful hands, strings of thick sour juice stretching between the half globes.
The first time the countess ever offered me one, I stared uncertainly at the green peel and the soft insides until she broke into laughter and handed me a spiral fork with thin tines and taught me how to dig the poisonous seeds out. That, she told me, was why I should only eat what was given to me, though I was no little girl to be led. They mostly mix amiradel into juices and cocktails in Rialynas, adding sugar, but I always liked one in the morning with a sprinkle of pink cloud salt and someone to share the other half with.
Percotches can only grow in the presence of other plants and trees; their roots burrow down into those of the others and latch on, sucking nutrition from them instead of the soil. The greatest percotch trees grow in dense forests, gathered and scattered where they will, defying order, flowering fragrant purple blossoms and stealing, always stealing the best of what’s around them.
We have something in common there. I always wanted the best of as many worlds as I could get my hands on, though I only ever managed two. At the countess’s country estate, I would occasionally slip out of her room at night and wend my way between the trees in the moonlight until I found a round, perfectly sweet percotch, soft and sticky and a little forbidden. I would eat it there, lapping guiltily at the juice, unwilling to let even a drop go to waste.
A lorasid tastes a little like a plum, more like a plum than anything else in Rialynas tasted like something I knew, and they bake it into tarts with spices I’ll never be able to describe. There were days, walking through the crowded city, tripping over tails and trailing feather boas, where I stopped at every shop with a lorasid tart in the window. I spent those days wondering if the tremor under my skin would really stop when I walked back through the stone doorway into my garden, and wondering also if it would be worth it.
I always closed my eyes for the first sharp bite, and wherever I was—watching a griffin fighting match from behind my fingers in the countess’s box, at a restaurant late at night surrounded by her friends, wandering the streets of the city alone—the taste of something almost familiar weakened the pull of home.
The countess loved trialberries. She ate them with cream in the summer, blended and poured over puddings in the winter, and plain out of a bowl whenever she pleased. The berries stained her lips and fingers reddish purple, and I grew accustomed to carrying a damp cloth in my pocket to wipe juice off her fingers, her mouth, my mouth. The berries themselves are soft, almost impossible to keep for longer than a few hours if not packed in unicorn hair; nor do their vines grow without unicorn manure. The sweetness and bloom fades from them quickly, as delicious as they are.
I wondered sometimes if that very transience, the need for careful maintenance, was the greatest appeal of the berries to the countess—and if the same was true of her affection for me. She must have known that it would kill me to stay.
If you’re still listening to this, you’ve probably felt the shape of not belonging fully to one place. You want a city to blend into, a place with high walls and deep shadows and ten thousand different kinds of people, or a wild landscape, untamed and untamable. You want new shapes, new rhythms, new tastes on your tongue, and you want danger, or at least the hint of it, the satisfying knowledge that you know nothing. You haven’t learned yet to miss what you’re leaving.
The first fruit I ate in Rialynas was a noriad, and it gave me that, the sting of something completely new, the warm shock of comfort in the unfamiliar. In the instant that it took my teeth to part the thick skin, bitter and sour, and reach the soft center, unadulterated sweetness, I knew I would never belong to only one place ever again. It was a curse. It felt like a gift.
There was a time, just before I left Rialynas, when I was so ill that all I could eat were marentons and chicken soup. The countess took me back to the country estate, thinking that would help, thinking she might heal me, and she cooked marentons every way she knew how. This fruit’s second-greatest virtue is its versatility. She would fry the rind and beat the pulp with sugar into a sweet sort of soup or cut it into strips with salt and hot spices or boil it down into a tangy, jammy paste.
The marenton’s greatest virtue is its flavor, pungent and sour, with a lingering aftertaste. Most Rialynans eschew the fruit for those of greater sweetness, those with balanced flavor, but the faint burn in my nose and throat after a big bite kept me grounded. It gave me something to focus on other than the pain of brittle bones and sluggish blood, a homesickness that really was a sickness.
Ripe off the tree, nittlestones are the size of your palm, a bit tough, full of seeds, but by late autumn they dry to small shriveled bursts of flavor, bright orange and yellow and red. A perfectly dried nittlestone has a tough, almost brittle exterior that cracks into a thick, chewy center. The flavor is rich and deep, sweet and sour and sharp all at once.
Nittlestones last up to nine months dried—at least, that’s how long it’s been so far, since I kissed the sleeping countess’s temple in the soft morning light and walked back through the doorway, my body almost too weak and weary to propel me as I left home for home. I still eat them sometimes, late at night, when the moon casts a strange soft light on my garden and my small orchard and the doorway I am not strong enough to pass through again.
If you would like to try one, if you would like to step through the doorway and break your heart as I broke mine, you have only to ask. When you come back, worn and weary and alive, bring me the taste of taratensis and the brush of her lips and remind me what it was to have sweetness only.