The pastries baked in Auntie Mayya’s ovens owned a reputation unrivaled throughout the Rosepike Quarter. If that reputation didn’t extend into the other six quarters of Calcharra, it wasn’t because their peoples could boast of a baker whose skills bested hers. More likely, it was because bragging about your home quarter while visiting another could spark a duel if done in the wrong place, and few would risk death by knife or sword over baked goods.

Trukos kept his gaze focused on the blade gripped by his ill-met new acquaintance. He held his own knife level, with the blade pointed away from his body, edge forward.

His opponent, though dressed like a dockworker from Noonsail Quarter, had cursed him in the name of the four caryatids of House Tharychtis, and those furious women adorned the pretentious colonnade of a manse central to Goldbrook Quarter. Trukos knew that house to be pretentious because Auntie Mayya described it so. Surely something else entirely had been troubling this scar-browed, pale ferret of a man, and Trukos’s breadcrust-brown skin, lisping speech, and innocuous boast about Mayya’s cooking had given this malcontent the excuse he needed to unharness his aggression. That Trukos had encountered him inside the familiar dusk of Diggurd’s smithy, with its delightful heat and dozens of fascinating tools for shaping metal hung neat in racks, stung worse than stray sparks from the forge. The smell of the reddened coals had reminded Trukos of Mayya’s ovens as they warmed.

A knot of strangers had formed a semicircle around the combatants. At least two of the five whispered in a familiar way to the man from Goldbrook, who stood with knifepoint forward, dark eyes focused like a dog’s in the instant before a bite. Diggurd watched from the forge, his beard and lowered eyebrows highlighted from beneath by the light from the coals.

One of the strangers said “Begin” and the Goldbrook man lunged. His blade sunk to the hilt in Trukos’s chest, the impact like a hard punch. Trukos retreated a half-step but stayed upright, meeting his attacker’s eyes as they widened in surprise. Neither struggling for breath nor bleeding, he grabbed the man’s extended arm and struck toward his jaw with his own knife hand, aiming down and left so the blade cut deep into the man’s neck. Bright arterial blood sprayed the onlookers as the man choked and stumbled backward. The grotesque sight made Trukos gasp and recoil, almost too late remembering to clutch at the knife protruding from his own chest and feign agony.

For better or for worse, more blood from his dying challenger splashed his tunic, providing camouflage for his lack of same. So sad, he thought, that this angry fool chose to die over Mayya’s pastries, which he surely would have enjoyed if he had just tried them.

Trukos didn’t even know the man’s name. He had known the names of the first two men he killed, evil souls who had deserved worse than he gave them—Mayya had told him as much. This man, hot tempered and foolish, had gambled grossly and lost, but did he deserve this death? Trukos would never be sure.

He lurched toward Diggurd, still grasping at his chest, as the others huddled around their fallen acquaintance. Diggurd, who knew something of Trukos’s true nature, twitched his head toward the rear entrance to the smithy. As Trukos staggered past him in a pretense of being wounded, Diggurd leaned in, beard prickly as horsehair against Trukos’s ear. “Get back to the witch and tell her never to send you here again.”

Trukos halted, crestfallen, but Diggurd had already moved away, hefting a hammer as he bore down on the cluster of men. “Get that out of here!” he bellowed, with a sweeping gesture at the body slumped on the dirt floor.

It wasn’t in Trukos’s nature to disobey. He resumed his pretend stumble until it carried him outside, then broke into a run. He didn’t pull the blade from his chest or discard his bloodied tunic until he’d left the smithy many streets behind.

The bloodless wound gaped, gruesome as an empty eye socket. Wounds that he had sustained in the past had closed within minutes, but this one showed no sign of doing so. He slipped from Noonsail Quarter back into Rosepike and eventually rapped his knuckles on the back door of Mayya’s bakery.

Inside, upstairs, in the closet that served as his humble living quarters, the place where he often lay curled on a threadbare scrap of rug when he had no chores to perform, Mayya glared at his injury. “Fool child.”

“I only spoke truth,” he told her. “I didn’t expect a man would kill for that, or die from it.”

“Death needs no reason, much less a good reason.” Mayya sighed. “This will be difficult to mend.”

A chill weighted the place where Trukos’s heart would have been had he possessed one. The sensation of ice in his torso ached unlike anything he’d ever experienced.

Gouran, that hateful old sorcerer, in a last desperate act, had stuck a double-edged dagger in his side as Trukos squeezed his throat closed. Though the blade’s full length sank into Trukos’s flank, the sensation had troubled him no more than the poke of a finger. Soon after, Mayya had pulled the dagger out of him, and the wound sealed itself, leaving no evidence that it had ever existed.

Trukos frowned. “It wasn’t difficult before.”

Another sigh. “Oh, child, it’s not the same.”

In the first moments of his life, Trukos had awakened as if from a long sleep—and he understood what sleep was and what awakening meant, even though he possessed no memories of an existence before he had opened his eyes. The first sight that met him had been Mayya’s bruised face; the next her spacious kitchen and three stone ovens, one still hot.

“Child of my oven,” she had said, “my husband Gouran sleeps upstairs. He must die at your hand.” Though tears glistened on her cheeks, her voice flowed with a summery calm.

There had been a cost to Trukos’s birth. Mayya had never said what, only that she deemed him worth the price.

Frowning at the hole left in his chest by the Goldbrook man’s knife, Mayya said, “Come with me,” and led him downstairs to the kitchen. “I need to examine your wound properly. Wait here.” She left Trukos alone, sitting atop her long, smooth-polished wooden cutting counter, the same spot where he had first woken to this life. Though Auntie Mayya called him child, he had towered over her from his earliest moments. He was even taller than imposing Gouran. Despite his slighter frame he was far stronger, as his first night alive and Gouran’s last had proved.

Not unlike in Diggurd’s smithy, pots and pans and an awe-inspiring array of iron utensils hung on iron racks. Come the morning, the assistant cooks would arrive, four in all, along with a dozen boy and girl apprentices for the assistants to order about, and then the kitchen, despite its size, would feel small and crowded. For now, Mayya’s single lantern burned, suspended by a wall hook. The trapdoor to the cellar thudded shut. He had lived in this building for a complete turn of the seasons, and never once had she ordered him to fetch something from the cellar.

Mayya returned, the light from the small flame etching deep lines in her face. She carried a basket, which she set on the counter with a gasp of effort. The substance revealed when she lifted the lid resembled bread dough. Trukos frowned. He had never seen it before. “What’s that for, Auntie?”

“I know you’re confused, child. Please hold still.” She took a handful of the white batter and started to push it into the hole in his chest. The chill at his core sharpened and he cringed, unsettled by discomfort for the first time in his life. Mayya withdrew her fingers and stared up at him with eyes set like green jewels in a sorrow-seamed face, eyes that glistened with worry.

Her tone, though, came out stern. “I told you to hold still. The binding needs time.”

She resumed her task and he abided by her wishes, though if anything the cold intensified until it burned. He didn’t flinch away, though he desperately wanted to. She repeatedly frowned up at him but continued to pack the wound.

At last she patted his chest. The substance remained pale, as if a blind eye had opened over the place that would have held his heart. The burning cold continued, relentless.

“This is like nothing I’ve foreseen.” She closed the basket. “You took a life that I didn’t ask you to take, and it’s corrupted my recipe. It’s affected you, like a mold growing under the crust, ruining the loaf as it rises.”

Trukos began to cry, though he could no more shed tears than bleed. Mayya placed a warm hand on his neck. “Please don’t do that. You have to give the remedy time, if it’s to work at all.”

Ashamed, he stilled his sobbing, despite the pain and his growing alarm. “I’m sorry, Auntie.”

“Hush, Trukos. I am the one sorry for you. You have always been faithful. You do everything I’ve asked. You don’t deserve to suffer. Would that I could have baked more wisdom into you, that you’d have known to hold your tongue among strangers.”

“Did I do wrong, Auntie?” If he had made a mistake, he never wanted to repeat it.

“No, no, I’m honored by your love, and you had to defend yourself. You’re lucky that oaf you killed was too ignorant to recognize what you are.”

Trukos found that statement strange. He knew exactly what he was: a thing Auntie Mayya had made. The pain, though, he needed her to unmake. “How do I stop it? Please tell me what to do.”

“No blood flows through you, so no medicine for dulling pain can help you. I’m sorry, child. I will try to find a way, but I know of no such elixir for one like you.”

“This is hard, Auntie.” His hands balled into fists. He forced them open. “I didn’t know it would hurt.”

“I didn’t either,” she said. “I hope you find the strength to bear it. I loathe the thought of unmaking you.” She took the basket by the handle. “I’ll fetch you a tart, if it will help, but then I must sleep and you must try to rest.”

Despite his agony, the thought of sweet crust and sugared fruit spurred hunger in Trukos’s belly. There could not be a taste more heaven-sent in all of Calcharra.

But the tart didn’t help, and neither did Mayya’s doughy patch that grew heavy within his wound. Rest was impossible as he lay shuddering in his closet, the ice ball inside him refusing to thaw.

When Mayya at last reappeared in his doorway, her eyes brimmed with pity, but her words were stern as stone. “I need you. I can’t give you leave from you duties any longer.”

“I’ll do my best.” He did not want to trouble her with complaints, but the ache in his chest pulsed, relentless. “Nothing has changed.”

“I’m sorry. If it hasn’t healed by now, I’m afraid I can do no more. You have no choice but to learn how to live with it.”

Despite her rebuke, she showed consideration in how she altered his routine. Instead of sending him out on errands, she told him to tend the oven fires, a chore often delegated to the boy apprentices. He adored her for this kindness and the promise of warmth. Yet, to his dismay, the heat from the wood and coals did nothing to ease the freezing spike that pierced his chest.

Once, making sure no one was paying attention, he caved in to temptation, picked up a red hot coal with tongs, opened his tunic below the collar, and pressed the coal to the discolored spot. He almost cried out as the coal instantly extinguished.

He didn’t tell Mayya what he had attempted. Troubling her about his plight would serve no good purpose.

All of the assistants and most of the apprentices avoided speaking to him, with the exception of a boy who hailed from Loamfire Quarter named Yshan. He would catch Trukos in the rare moments where both were unattended and ask questions. “You don’t look like you come from Rosepike. Where are your parents?”

Auntie Mayya had forbidden him from talking about how he was born, so he would say, “I don’t know where they are. I never knew them. But I am from Rosepike.”

“You’re so strange and sad.”

“I’m not sad.” Horrible as the ache in his chest was, agony wasn’t the same as sadness. Yet Auntie Mayya no longer smiled each time she laid eyes on him. Since assigning him to mind the ovens, she had not once inquired after his pain.

“Be quiet,” hissed one of the assistants, a stick-thin blonde woman. “We have customers.”

Of the five people who entered the bakery, one stood out to Trukos as unlikely. Her threadbare dress and face unadorned with the hues that wealthy women applied before a mirror implied she could not possibly afford the breads and treats Mayya and her bakers made. Short and stout and plain, she attracted little notice from Mayya’s underlings. Nonetheless she put on a show of browsing the confections as if she intended to buy—often stealing glances at Trukos. He in turn watched her like a hawk, because guarding the store was part of his ingrained purpose.

He fully expected the pauper woman to attempt a theft—hoped she would, in fact, because it would give him reason to draw Mayya’s attention—but her perusals of the pies and loaves betrayed no genuine interest. After a short while, she left.

The next day, she returned, and the day after, and the day after that. On that fourth morning, she walked straight to Trukos at his post before the ovens and said, “You’re the one who killed my husband.”

Her voice, soft and tremulous, was hard to hear over the bakery’s bustle, though every word reached and jolted him. “What did you say?”

“My husband Padraen. You cut his throat and ran.” Her voice remained soft, though her eyes blazed. Two, then three, then all of the apprentices and assistants stopped and stared.

Nothing from Trukos’s store of words rose to the surface. Nothing was adequate. The woman glared up at him, her stance wavering as if she might bolt and run or charge and attack.

He tried to explain, unsure what else to do. “I... I... he stabbed me. All I said was that Auntie’s cakes were the best in the city, and he swore to kill me for it.”

Her eyes narrowed even as she trembled. “But you stand here hale and hearty, and he’s food for the monsters in the Nightcreek ditch! I can’t even bury him!” Tears of anger and more anointed her cheeks.

“I’m—” Trukos began as Auntie Mayya stepped between them.

“What’s going on?” she demanded.

“Your boy killed my husband.”

Mayya didn’t hesitate. “The lowlife deserved what he got. Leave my shop or I’ll summon the guard.”

The pauper woman dangled a beat longer in her state of high-strung indecision. Then she turned with a cry of anguish and fled.

The cold spike through Trukos’s chest grew no more intense, yet he was more conscious of it than ever. He winced as Mayya grabbed his shoulder. Her scowl swept through the kitchen and the shop, and at once assistants and apprentices resumed their chores.

Auntie Mayya turned to Trukos. “Child, don’t look at me that way. That woman doesn’t know her place.” She leaned closer. “She might be a threat to us, and especially to you, if she tries to involve the guard and they decide to listen. Follow her, carefully. See where she lives.” She took a deep breath. “When night falls, end this threat. You know what to do.”

Word for word, her command was the same as it was on the afternoon Sarskile burst into Mayya’s bakery with three mercenary soldiers in tow, each bearing fierce longswords. Sarskile ran a bakery of his own at Rosepike’s southmost limit, catering to nearby manses from Rosepike and Steermast. Mayya, too, catered to the wealthy, but she also opened her bakery to daily purchases from members of the merchant and trade guilds. Sarskile did not.

At the top of his lungs, Sarskile accused Mayya of stealing his recipes and his customers. He ordered his sellswords to upend every confection onto the cobblestone floor. Mayya watched the destruction, expression a careful blank, as he proclaimed he had unassailable proof and dared her to appeal to the guard.

That night, Trukos had scaled the back wall of Sarskile’s stately home, squeezed through an opened window, and strangled the man in his sleep. He’d left the same way he came in, taking the corpse with him.

Auntie Mayya had assured him that Sarskile’s complaints were slanderous lies. As she repeated her order now, urging him to kill a grieving widow, an alien thought intruded. What if Sarskile’s grievances were truth?

“No,” he said, unsure which thought he was responding to.

Mayya’s sorrow-filled gaze widened with oven heat. “You refuse me.”

The agony in Trukos’s chest throbbed. “Yes.”

Mayya’s next words emerged rapid and raspy, in a language he’d not been created to understand. As those syllables resonated, Trukos experienced two overwhelming sensations. All through his body, fissures cracked, so many that he believed himself about to shatter toe to scalp like a sugar crystal stomped by a boot. In opposition, expanding outward from his chest, flows of ice filled him as water from a well pump fills a flagon. He screamed in animal terror.

The dueling sensations dissipated as fast as they manifested. Trukos stood whole before Mayya, whose mouth hung agape.

She regained her composure before he did. “You are no longer my child. Begone from here.”

He obeyed and put the bakery many streets behind before her full meaning crashed down on him. He staggered to a halt against an immense wall smothered by desiccated stalks of ancient ivy. As carriages, rickshaws, and pedestrians crowded past, he wailed with every breath, uncaring who saw. The few travelers who glanced his way granted him a wide berth.

Trukos had no need to eat or sleep—before, he had only rested because Mayya had ordered it. For days he haunted the streets of Rosepike, with its red-tiled roofs and forbidding bronze gates, never bothering with a hiding place because he never stopped walking.

At first, an impulse that seemed to originate somewhere outside his own mind pushed him further and further from Rosepike and the bakery, but Trukos found that the more he fought against that impulse, the easier it became to resist. The cold in his chest flared each time he turned back, and this made him wince but a little less pronounced each time.

Yet he would at times realize he had unconsciously taken a path through streets and alleys that led directly back to Mayya. Whenever he became aware of this, he would with some strain reverse course, as phantom resistance snagged at his steps.

He remained unsure whether the source of all this push and pull had root in Mayya’s power or his own longings. The frozen spike through his chest never diminished—it was one more factor in his new existence, a thing as present as his limbs, his skin.

He most missed the taste of Mayya’s pies and pastries. He soon wished, too, that he could have completed the thing he had intended to say to the pauper woman: “I’m sorry.”

After days of wandering, he followed the twin diamonds of the moons northwest into Goldbrook, with its tiles of sandstone fused hard as glass. This newer longing, an urge Trukos could still act upon, to say something not said, had come to eclipse all others.

He ventured to the fog-shrouded docks, asked workers dressed as Padraen had been how to find Padraen’s widow. They directed him to a run-down neighborhood where makeshift shanties of wood, straw, and mud clogged the alleys. A reek of decay and offal tainted every breath he took. When he reached the hut where the widow lived, that reek would have brought tears to his eyes if he could shed them.

The front door was latched but easy for him to force open. The whine of flies amplified into an ear-drowning din. A foregone conclusion that he would find her dead in her bed. Her bulging eyes, protruding tongue, burst blood vessels, bruised neck, told Trukos she had been strangled, her life taken exactly as Mayya would have had him do it.

Trukos had been tasked with cutting the first two men he had killed into pieces, scattering their remains into the horror known as the Nightcreek ditch, in truth a wide, reeking canal filled with unwanted remains and the horse-wide worms that fed on them—the Oldest of All Calcharra’s Gods, as they were sometimes called. The disposal of corpses was an instinct baked hard into what passed for Trukos’s bones.

Above, hungry clouds swallowed the twin moons.

Later that night, rain pelted Trukos’s skin, trickled through the short curls of his unchanging hair. If he perched here beside the butcher’s brick chimney long enough, with the rain beating upon him like fey hammers, would the substance he was made of at last grow damp? Would he slough apart, leave a doughy pile of remains on the butcher’s rooftop? Would the ice in his chest at last release him? Variations on these questions pricked him, prolonging the hours as he spied on Mayya’s bakery directly across the emptied market plaza.

A candle flickered in Mayya’s second floor window, its glow muted by the intervening rain.

This close, the impulse to turn and flee returned, a ghost of Auntie Mayya’s geas, but the discomfort it caused was just one more corpse on the pile. He clenched his teeth against its push as he slid cautiously down the roof tiles until his feet dangled over the edge, aimed into the narrow, unpleasant-smelling gap between the butcher’s shop and the tanner’s stalls. Thunder masked the sound of his landing. The impact shook every joint. He heard pops as his strange flesh cracked, though no pain accompanied the damage. No mending from Auntie Mayya in his future—perhaps these new imperfections were destined, also, to fill with ice.

He did not stride directly across the plaza. Even through the storm he would be visible from the window, and lightning would expose him as brazenfaced as a head displayed on a pike. Instead he crouched or crawled in the intervals between thunderbolts, scurrying like a rodent among the permanent merchant stands that afforded deepest shadow. As he peered around the corner of a stand inhabited during the day by an orchard grower, the candle in Mayya’s window moved.

It had not occurred to Trukos until that moment that perhaps she might sense his proximity in the same way he sensed hers.

A hand brought the candle closer to the window. A figure leaned out. The face didn’t belong to Mayya. Trukos had seen it before, in reflections.

Auntie Mayya baked with unmatched skill. Whatever miracle she could produce in her ovens, it only followed naturally that she could reproduce it.

Trukos retreated into shadow, the ache where his heart should have been throbbing with new vigor that had nothing to do with the permanent spike of ice. Likely this new Trukos had a task to complete tonight, and even a person as simple-minded as the old Trukos could deduce what it must be.

He contemplated the life that lay ahead for his newborn twin.

He emerged from the darkness and drew his knife from his sheath. His double, still leaning out the window, got a good look at him. Trukos made sure of it.

Moments after, Trukos heard, through the rain patter, the slight creak that the back door to the bakery made each time it swung open.

Mayya waited by the ovens.

The Trukos who returned to her held a makeshift bundle in his one remaining hand, its contents wrapped in the rags of his vanquished foe’s clothing. He let the dripping bundle tumble to the floor, spilling out contents that could have been dried-up loaves of brown bread, as if a gingerbread man the size of a real man had been carved apart.

“He will not ache,” the surviving Trukos said, and used his single hand to part his own tunic, revealing a pale discoloration in the shape of an eye.

Mayya gasped in dismay.

Trukos regarded her with his wide dark eyes, his gaze blending something akin to pity with whipped-dog betrayal. “Auntie,” he said.

The address drew a hesitant smile from her like a fish reeled slowly from the depths. At the sight of it, Trukos fought not to return it, the expression that ultimately resulted both grim and thoughtful.

“Tell me you’ll never make another,” he said, “and I will not harm you.”

To her credit, her promise came without hesitation, and he could not mistake the sincerity of her oath. It was a quality he was attuned to recognize.

After that, the silence stretched between them, the small flame from the lantern brushing gold across their faces, weaving shadows around the awkward pile on the cobblestone floor.

Mayya’s voice resumed with an uncharacteristic quaver. “It may still be possible to end your suffering,” she said. “But it will take me time, and many trials and tests.”

He put a hand over his chest. “This is my birthright. The first thing I have ever owned.”

She took a step forward. “You need not only own pain. You are free to acquire other things. You would need help, doing so.” A question hung in her voice, one he answered by turning away.

He helped himself to a tart before he left the shop behind for good.

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World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson, and Nebula Award-finalist Mike Allen has written several poetry collections, including Strange Wisdoms of the Dead (a Philadephia Inquirer editor’s choice selection), The Journey to Kailash, and Hungry Constellations; a twisted dark fantasy novel, The Black Fire Concerto; and three collections of strange and scary short fictions, Unseaming, The Spider Tapestries: Seven Strange Stories, and Aftermath of an Industrial Accident (forthcoming 2020). With his wife Anita, he runs the Mythic Delirium Books imprint, home to the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series and critically acclaimed works of fiction by C.S.E. Cooney, Theodora Goss, Nicole Kornher-Stace, and Barbara Krasnoff. By day he works as the arts and culture columnist for the daily newspaper in Roanoke, Va., where he and Anita live with a cat so full of trouble she’s named Pandora. You can follow Mike’s exploits as a writer at, as an editor at, and all at once on Twitter at @mythicdelirium.
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