“A Recipe for Magic,” by Kat Howard & Fran Wilde

Illustrated by Wendy Xu • Edited by Joel Cunningham

At the Night & Day Bakery, spells are baked right into the sweets, cakes, and pies–sugar magic for joy, grains of patience, dark as chocolate. The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog presents an original short story by award-nominated authors Kat Howard and Fran WildeYou can also download this story for free to read on your Nook app or device.

A Recipe for Magic

By Kat Howard & Fran Wilde


At midnight in the Night & Day Bakery, the burnt-caramel vanilla scent of warm sugar rose into the air and hovered. Esmé was careful to keep the heat balanced—if the sugar got too warm, not only would the syrup scorch, but the spell inside of it would burn, too. The oven, as if attuned to her very thoughts, held steady. Esmé smiled.

When the syrup formed a ball, Esme withdrew the heat. As it cooled, she began to work with it. A twist of her hand. A pinch of finger to thumb. The final petal formed: a sugar iris, blue as the night sky. The spell settled in as the flower cooled, a slight haze of translucence just below the surface, as if that night sky had clothed itself in clouds.

Esmé’s own night was quiet, even as she cooked. The pots didn’t dare clang or rattle. The hum of customers in the bakery had long passed. Only the echoes of the day clung to the corners, pleasant memories of whispers.

The sugar magic smelled like blueberries, cast so that when the petals of the iris were broken, each would sing a line of verse. She placed the flower with the others, in a garden of white icing.

It would be a wedding cake. Complicated and fussy, but the labor, in the end, a joy, and that joy, another sort of magic.

The anticipation of that joy eased the ache in her shoulders and her back as she worked, and curled the edges of her mouth even as she cleaned the kitchen and prepared to turn in for the morning.

*

All the best baking requires balance: that agreement struck between substance and air, between sense and whimsy. Same for spells.

Memory of her mother’s words made Lux yearn for the honey-dew cakes she’d watched blossom into fruit on wedding tables. For the memory cakes that contained parts of Lux’s childhood—the good parts. But that was long ago, in another city, another life almost.

The bakery’s countertops were clean, but the air still tasted sweet. A sugary grit the color of an iris’ crests and falls, blue and yellow, sifted the light; the sugar dust sparkled as dawn pressed through the shop’s display window. Lux could almost hear the candy flowers hum.

While Esmé slept in the back room, Lux set the big paddles on the mixer whirring. They mixed air and sunrise, and nothing else, for exactly thirty seconds.

When the air turned taught and the soft orange light whipped into stiff peaks, Lux added a drop of joy and a pinch of difficulty. “No easier way to delight than through its opposite,” she whispered. Her mother’s words too.

The mixer spun agreement until Lux turned it off. She poured the batter into seven differently sized springform pans and set them in the oven.

Cold. The oven was cold.

That was wrong. Esmé always set the oven for her, or left it on if she’d used it. But the pilot light had burnt out. Only the cooktop held warmth from Esmé’s night cooking.

Lux looked to the back room just once. Esmé snored softly. Lux snapped her fingers and the oven glowed warm and preheated.

She wasn’t supposed to do that. But who was going to know?

*

Heat curled through Esmé’s bones like dragonfire. She sat up on the narrow cot, then shoved the blankets off. The oven. Someone had used magic in the oven.

She closed her eyes and breathed in, pulling the oven’s warmth deeper into her bones. When it felt like her blood might boil from the heat of it, she breathed out. Steam curled from her mouth as the heat left her body, and left the oven.

In the kitchen, she heard Lux’s curse, then the scrape of the match.

Esmé rubbed the grit from her eyes, and shook the stiffness from her hands. Tired as she was, she wouldn’t fall back to sleep now. Rolls, she thought. First on the list today.

Thick, yeasty rolls, with dark chocolate and patience baked in.

It was going to be one of those days.

*

“You cannot bake magic with magic,” Esmé told Lux as she kneaded dough.

This wasn’t quite true, but saying so was easier than explaining the prohibition on using spells to light the oven, especially to her stubborn new apprentice. She had thought the girl would have already known—she had clearly been trained—but it seemed not. “If you try, it can scorch, or leave an aftertaste.”

“I thought the spell was small enough,” Lux said.

“A spell to light something?” Esmé snapped her fingers, and the tiny blue candles that sat on the tabletops sparked to life. “That is a very small magic. But the oven isn’t.”

Lux wrinkled her nose and went back to the cakes—orange-scented and light as air—she was stacking into a tower. A morning wedding, and one of the girl’s exquisite dawn cakes had been requested. They were a marvel.

Lux’s movements were correct, but short, fast, tense. Disaster crouched at their edges. Esmé watched her work, then added to her rolls more grains of patience, as dark and bitter as the chocolate she mixed them into.

*
All apprenticeships have their ups and downs. Lux washed the mixing bowls and tried to reassure herself.

Esmé had loved the Dawn cake so much when Lux first asked to work—and stay—at Night & Day that Lux felt at home for the first time in months. Even the air around her seemed warmer, more gentle. She could almost relax.

Now that she’d crossed a line—a transgression she could feel on her skin, and in the pit of her stomach—Lux panicked. She had nowhere to go.

What she needed was a new cake that would help Esmé see her worth to the bakery —the Dawn cake was her best, and it was tainted now. She needed something that would help make up for the oven magic. Can’t bake magic with magic! I knew this! She scolded herself, and scrubbed a layer of dried sunrise from the bowl. I did know it once. But I was rushing and… 

Always rushing.

Rushing to school, rushing to work in the incense shop, always up and out, never time to bake at home, and then one day the bakery where she’d grown up was gone, and her mother too, just like that. A scorch mark, a charred frame. The bare bones of the blackened oven.

Lux had rushed from that town as soon as she could, out of range of the pitying glances, the memories. Your mother always knew who needed something sweet. She showed up at my door once, just after—well, you know. Oh Honey. I’m sorry.

She’d lost her way home, in her rush. She’d lost her name too. No one called her Honey any more. All she had were recipes. Three recipes, in fact. The ones she’d taken time to learn.

Haunted strange cities’ sweet shops and cafés, seeking the familiar smells. When she found them, she’d lied so hard her teeth ached in the telling.

Yes, I have experience, yes I understand this is a certain kind of bakery, let me tell you my favorite original recipe.

The cinnamon rolls went first. Then the lavender-lemon squares. The bakers had taken them gladly, had appreciated their subtle spells for joy and forgiveness.

Once the recipes were part of those kitchens, the bakers tossed Lux out. They never said why.

The dawn cake was the last recipe. The one real cake—an old family recipe kept secret from other bakers—that Lux had learned to make by her mother’s side.

Esmé’s eyes had widened at the audacity. Then, when she tasted it, she’d laughed. She hadn’t asked many questions, to Lux’s relief. She’d given Lux the day job, conditionally. Like an apprenticeship.

But she’d let her stay.

And now all Lux could picture were the fallen cakes, the spilled batter of the weeks since. The time she used salt instead of sugar on a dozen chocolate cupcakes. The oven, lit by magic.

Mistakes multiply as easily as dough rises. From Lux’s hands, the water-slick bowl fell to the floor and shattered. A piece of the sky-blue ceramic skidded into the back room where Esmé attempted to sleep.

*

It had been part of a set of bowls. Her favorites. The ones that had been with her since she started baking. The only thing more closely connected to Esmé was her oven.

Esmé weighed the broken piece of ceramic in her hand, and thought about the girl.

The dawn cake had been a marvel, bright and full of possibility. Exquisite in both concept and taste. She had felt the oven’s welcome in her bones as it baked.

And so Esmé had chosen not to think too much about the salt of regret that crackled in the air when Lux spoke. The way her hands shook when she placed the layers on the cake. The perfume of rosemary that clung to her, memories that clutched and would not let go.

She could see that Lux was trying, and she had hoped if she just gave the girl enough space, she would heal.

It didn’t seem space alone would be enough.

Esmé resigned herself to the lost sleep, and stood, waiting for the warmth of the day to take root in her bones. She fisted her hands, curling the fingers in tightly, then stretching them open, letting the aches of time and use soften with the movement.

The clatter and rattle of Lux’s aggressive cleaning of the kitchen had quieted, the excess of noise no longer needed to cover emotions the girl was not yet ready to trust Esmé with.

Esmé slid the shattered piece of blue into one of the deep pockets in her apron, and walked into the front of the bakery.

“I am going to teach you a recipe.”

*

Lux looked up from the spotless counters. “A recipe?”

“For memory cake,” Esmé said. “Vanilla bean memory cake.”

Expressions chased themselves across Lux’s face, settling on almost-masked disappointment. “I… I’m familiar with that one already.”

“I’m certain you are. It’s the first recipe most of us are taught. A foundation.” Esmé walked to the oven, lit it. She waited with her hand on the cooktop until she felt the heat in her bones. “Get the bowls out, please. It’s also the first recipe I ever baked here, in this place. And the one I always go back to when I need to remind myself of who I am and what I do.”

Lux gathered butter. Eggs. Sugar. Flour. Salt. Vanilla beans. All necessary. None the most important.

“Do you have your memory?” Esmé asked.

Lux looked into the bowl, seeing not the blue of Esmé’s set, but the warm sunflower color of the ones she had grown up with. She shook her head, fingers tensed on the counter.

“The thing about baking, and especially a memory cake, is balance. There must be balance, and if there isn’t, balance must be created. If your memory is bitter—“

“Then I add more sweetness,” Lux said quietly, tracing her finger down the crinkle of the vanilla bean.

“Precisely.”

Lux’s shoulders squared, her hands relaxed. “I’m ready.”

“You are. Begin with the sugar and the eggs. Hold your memory in all of your motions.” She watched as Lux worked, offering suggestions when necessary. Drew in a breath and smiled when the air began to smell more like the vanilla of the cake than the rosemary of the girl’s memories.

She tasted the batter. “Well done. It will be a lovely cake.”

Lux’s lips curled up as she poured the batter into a round pan. “I can watch things here, if you want to sleep.”

Esmé yawned. “Thank you.”

*

The thick charcoal smell of burnt cake and the muffled sound of weeping woke Esmé. She closed her eyes and sighed. But when she emerged from the back room moments later, the kitchen sparkled, immaculate.

Lux had thrown the memory cake in the garbage and, from the way Esmé’s skin tingled, used an industrial-level spell to clean up.

She’d missed a few wisps of smoke near the ceiling, and the drain on the bakery’s resources,—on her resources—made Esmé grind her teeth.

The girl was too much trouble to be worth it. Surely Lux could find another position, somewhere far away?

Her feelings must have showed, because Lux bowed her head before she spoke. That’s when Esmé noticed her bag, already packed, by the bakery door.

“I am grateful for your taking me in. I made a mess of things. I know. I always do.”

Esmé’s mouth opened to argue, but no sound came out. Lux had made an enormous mess. The young woman was a hazard, especially as untrained as she was. Still, Esmé hesitated. Her gut told her there was something there. And the oven had liked her. Still liked her.

She lit a small cinnamon stick. The crisp scent made quick work of the bitter smoke.

It lit up Lux’s spirit too, so Esmé could see a little more of what she was working with. The cinnamon spell was intrusive and, yes, maybe even a little rude, but she couldn’t take the risk otherwise.

There: a warmth, like the dawn air. A brightness to match her name. And a sweetness at the core. Hiding, tucked away, but alive. A bread starter’s worth of hope.

“You can’t go yet. We lack balance, and I won’t have my bakery unbalanced.”

Lux squinted at her employer from beneath heavy bangs. “What do you mean?”

The girl’s spirit was like a ragged shadow clinging to her heels, covering the brightness at her core. Esmé’s skill wasn’t in auras, or anything near, but thanks to the cinnamon, the shadow was visible, clear as day. A hazard indeed. What had happened? What had Lux done? What had Esmé done taking her in?

The risk was immense, especially given the drain in supplies, but Esmé reached out both hands. “I taught you a recipe. Now you must teach me one. Then we will be balanced. Then you can go.”

Lux’s spirit was already halfway underneath the doorframe. Esmé’s words seemed to reel it back.

“Teach me one more recipe,” Esmé coaxed.

“Fine.” Lux’s words were clipped short. “I’ve been working on one of my own. Regret Popovers. Will that do?”

They sounded fast, and nominally easy. Lux had put very little investment into her apology—if that was what this was—but it was an effort nonetheless.

Esmé sighed. “That will do.”

*

Lux took down the custard pans, the flour and the whisk. No mixer. She would do this by hand. When she went to get the eggs and milk, the refrigerator’s cold air hit her like a reprimand..

Esmé sat on a stool to watch.

Lux drew a complex, inlaid box from her pack. Her mother’s own saltbox. The smallest compartment was the hardest to unlock, the most painful to keep stocked, but lately, Lux had filled it night after night.

Tear salt.

She withdrew a pinch, let Esmé see her do it.

When she’d whisked everything together gently, Lux said the spell she’d improvised that morning as a goodbye note. Everything. I am sorry for everything. Esmé lit the oven, and Lux let Esmé help fill the pans. They watched them rise together.

Twenty minutes later, the popovers were enormous. Lux withdrew them from the oven and put them on a plate, where they fell, immediately, into soft piles. Lux kept her head bowed as Esmé realized she’d put a memory into the popovers, along with the apology.

They both closed their eyes and breathed in the scent of regret. Relived the moment Lux had been hiding for all these months.

Her mother at the door that morning, begging Lux to stay, to help. A big order was due, she’d been ill and, flustered by the demands of the client, she was tired. Five dozen hearth cookies, the kind that glow softly and warm the belly for days. The client had demanded they be fresh, not batched. Had offered enough to pay for a month’s rent on the bakery, and they’d sorely needed that.

But Lux had rushed off. Her job. Her friends. And when she’d returned, all was gone.

Who had the client been, Esme wondered. Five dozen hearth cookies were hard enough. And forty, hardly a friendly request. No wonder Lux’s mother had been ill. And no wonder she hadn’t taught her daughter about the connection to the oven. It would have taken almost all she had to maintain it. Trying it herself would have burnt Lux into charcoal.

Esmé stood and took down a bowl. “Let’s make something together. Something new.” Something that would set Lux’s heart at ease, Esmé hoped. Even if it didn’t work out at Night & Day, Lux might have an easier time of it in the future.

*

Lux fought the new recipe almost the entire way. Just as she’d fought her mother’s magic. And her own. She’d seen how it drained her mother. How people used it up, came back wanting more, but rarely reached out to share their own sweetness when they had it.

We share our gifts, her mother had said, with those who need them.

Magic was for suckers, Lux had concluded, and rushed away.

Now, here, all Lux wanted was to be able to do things properly. She wished she’d let her mother train her. She wished she’d stayed.

Esmé knew sugar magic and bread magic. But the recipe she planned out now was neither. It was a pie—one of complicated layers, and savory, not sweet. With a pastry lattice that bound up both their talents together, and three frozen songbirds baked right in.

That’s what Lux fought the most. The thought of the ice-still bodies slowly warming, unaware. The heat of the oven would have to be carefully balanced the entire time. Was Esmé that cruel?

It turned out, she was.

“You’ll mind the oven,” she said. “While I rest.”

Despair flashed through Lux’s eyes.

“Do you know why it is that you cannot light an oven with magic?” Esmé asked.

Lux opened her mouth, closed it. “No.”

“Because in a bakery like this, the oven must choose the baker. The oven must recognize a magic that balances its own. Any sort of imbalance can result in disaster.”

“Imbalance?” Lux’s voice shook. “Like the kind you would get if you were working too hard without help?”

“No.” Esmé’s voice was firm. “Like the kind you would get if an unrecognized baker lit the oven with magic. Like the kind you would get if the oven were used by someone it disliked. Magic cannot be forced. But it can be conjured. The oven likes you, Lux. Ask.”

The three bright songbirds, yellow, blue, and white, rested atop the savory pie as Esmé and Lux laid the lattice down. Then Esmé showed Lux how to coax the oven. Such an intimate act of trust, Lux could barely breathe. She sensed Esme’s doubts then, and nearly pulled away, but Esmé held her wrist and kept her there.

*

When the pie was in the oven, Esmé turned to Lux. “Your uncle, he wanted your mother’s bakery?”

Lux nodded. The man had lost his own by trying to short expensive ingredients. The very pots had rebelled. She hadn’t thought of him in years.

“You remember more than you think.” Esmé showed Lux what her heart had been hiding beneath the crusts the oven’s warmth had burned away: Lux gasped.

The client had been her uncle, demanding more and more. The hearth cookies, his favorite since childhood. And only the last of a set of demands. All destructively draining to her mother. He’d thought she’d grow weak enough to turn the bakery over. To go into a partnership with him. And her mother had said no, every time.

“I don’t see him any more than I see your mother,” Esme said sadly. The girl was alone in the world. Magic—even kitchen magic—could be dangerous. Bakeries had exploded before.

Esmé turned and went back to her cot, leaving the dangerous girl alone. But not before she gave the oven a stern glance to make sure it would behave. An answering warmth seeped through her bones.

She closed her eyes, trusting in her kitchen, her tools, her own magic, and went to sleep.

*

With a sharp knife, Lux opened the pie.

First one bird, then two more, flew out singing. The savory smell of the pie blended with the sweet song until the bakery was filled with something new.

She smiled, astounded. Esmé wiped her hands on her apron and grinned.

*

To this day, if you go to the bakery, the birds—named Dusk, Dawn, and Midnight—will sing you a melody while you wait for your cakes of sugar and sunrise, melancholy and moonlight. If you’re particularly lucky, you will receive the specialty of the house—a tiny pastry bird that is never sold, only given. Sometimes it tastes of salt, sometimes rosemary. Sometimes its flavor is like honey, bright and sweet as the dawn.

You can also download this story for free to read on your Nook app or device.

Kat Howard’s short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in best of and annual best of collections, and performed on NPR. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Roses and Rot and, recently, An Unkindness of Magicians. She lives in New Hampshire, and you can find her on twitter at @KatWithSword.

Fran Wilde is an author and technology consultant. In 2015, her first novel in the Bone Universe trilogy, Updraft, accomplished the rare feat of winning the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy while also being nominated for the Best Novel Nebula Award. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Nature, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Wilde also blogs about food and genre at Cooking the Books, the popular social-parenting website GeekMom, and at The Washington Post.

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