The Emperor's New Cakes

In Dillariewis, a border trade town famous for its cakes made from every ingredient imaginable, a baker's apprentice has to find an ingredient never used before in baking. (2554 words)

Disclaimer: All characters and settings are entirely original, with any similarities to any person or characters from other works coincidental.


– Part 1 –

Birkla Brobimr had an impossible task. He was an apprentice at the most famous bakery in Dillariewis, the town known all over the country of Gfiewistan as the City of Cakes for its incomparable baking. And now he had been sent out to the many markets of the town to search for some new special ingredient so the bakery could make some new cookies that would impress the king when he was coming to to town. Or rather the Emperor of All Ystelian People, as he styled himself now that he laid claim to the entire continent. The sovereign would host a competition and so every bakery was falling over themselves to win his favor.

The problem wasn't just that the competition was fierce. It was that as a bustling frontier town, located at an important border crossing and a large river connecting many trade routes, it always has had foods from all over the country, the continent and beyond streaming into the city. Cloudberries from the eastern forests, sunflower seeds from the north, and exotic ingredients such as allspice, nutmeg or dates from overseas. No place in Gfiewistan had nearly as much variety.

Birkla just couldn't imagine what kind of ingredient there could be that hasn't been used in dozens of different recipes already, especially now in winter.

Having walked in circles across the fruit market, the berry market, the spice market and in their desperation even the meat market, they finally set down at a bench near a fountain that was out of order due to the water being frozen. Snow was falling softly and covering statues, stalls and trees around him in a soft white cover that stood out beautifully against the twilight of the winter afternoon. Time was running out. The cookies would need to be ready tomorrow.

He was pondering whether he should save his energy and money for later or get himself some buckwheat porridge at an inn or something that still might be open when he heard a tired voice muttering to themselves in a language he had never heard before. Looking around, he noticed a man in his late 20s walking in his direction. who had short black hair that had become the home of a number of slowflakes, and eyes that were fixated alternatingly on the snowy ground and a big bag he was carrying on his shoulder and what seemed to him like an unusually dark skintone for the region. Birkla noticed the man was shivering, his steps being slow and measured, and his arms firmly clasped around his small jacket. It was a pitiable sight, and yet the young baker's apprentice couldn't help but just observe him for a moment.

When he had almost reached the bench, he asked "Is this free still?" in slightly broken Gfiewish with a strong accent Birkla had never heard before. A moment of involuntary hesitation and a simple "Of course" later the man muttered a thanks and sat down on a spot he had hastily cleaned with a rough rug colored light grey pulled from his bag.

"Weather terrible. So cold." he said to his new neighbor, who just nodded in response.

"It's hard, life here." he began again, seemingly waiting for an answer that didn't come, just another barely visible nod.

Finally, he said "Sorry if I'm trouble...", looking dejected to the side.

– "No, it's fine! Don't worry. I ... just didn't know what to add." Birkla hurried to reply this time. It seemed to eased any tension, as he noticed the faintest of smiles appearing on the face of the man before disappearing.

Trying to be a proper icebreaker, Birkla asked: "Sorry, can I ask your name? What are you doing here? Also in search of a lost treasure?" The last question was meant to come out differently and forced him to let out a chuckle. It was contagious. Soon, both were laughing loudly.

"I'm Utuko. I come here to sell my cakes since I hear all cakes sell here." He stops abruptly, as if unwilling to continue. Birkla glanced at the bag. It seemed to still be filled to the brim with baked goods that looked like the local circular buns.

Realizing Utuko didn't want to say it himself, Birkla decided to do it himself.

– "Oh... and you couldn't find anyone to buy at all?"

"No one." Utuko stared off into the distance.

Birkla realized the running had made him hungry, but he felt he couldn't spare the time to go look for something now that still offered something warm. Or the energy. A bun, even a cold one, sounded great right now. Especially if it meant spending more time with a friendly stranger rather than with the head baker at work. His heart sank at the idea of having to go back there empty, get chided and then have his wage cut to zero for the day.

– "Can... can I have one? I'm really hungry." he asked Utuko, feeling sheepish, as if he was worried he could come across as mocking him.

But this was not the case. Instead, Utuko's eyes lightened up and he was beaming with genuine happiness, more than the most beautiful summer day. "Of course, of course!" He fished one of them out of the bag, handing it to Birkla. "I'm sorry, they are very cold now. I hope you enjoy still."

– "It's fine. I just need something good to eat now."

Birkla grabbed into Utuka's bag and took out one of the individually wrapped buns. Or what he had thought would be a bun. Instead he was holding something that resembled more a snowball, white, grainy and mostly spherical, just with the lower part flattened as if someone had tried to prevent it from rolling away so it could be used in a snowball fight. He couldn't help but stare at it all the while real snow continued to fall on it. Utuko had the excited face of a child who made their mother pancakes for her birthday and now waits for her to try them.

The silence around them was perfect, all the market activity had ceased some time ago and the snow was dampening all other noises like a blanket. One statue near the fountain had a cap that from the distance looked like what Birkla was holding. He finally bit into it and his eyes shot open. Inside the dough, which was softer and juicier than anything he had ever experienced before, he found a smooth white core, and for a moment he felt his mind ascend to a higher plane of existence.

– "Is ... is this what snow tastes like? So rich, creamy and sweet... an undescribable, fresh flavor... I have never had anything like this"

Utuko let out the happiest laughter Birkla had ever heard, it was so warm that he expected the snow around them to melt and flowers to bloom.

"No, this is coconut" he heard once the laughter ceased. "I'm from tropical island of Jute, coconut eaten all time there. I wanted to become baker and heard here was best place. But no one wanted them. Only you. I'm very happy you like them." he said, any hint of melancholy covered up by his big smile.

– "You know" Birkla said with a smirk, "people here probably thought you were trying to prank them and sell them actual snowballs rather than food."


– "Yeah, no one here has ever seen such white foods before. What else did you use?" he asked, eyeing the baked good with the eyes of a scientist putting a plant specimen under a microscope.

"Just some buckwheat flour and eggs. Coconut is amazing, it makes coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut sugar, coconut shreds and much more..." He sounded like he could barely restrain himself from continuing ti talk for hours about the powers of the mighty coconut.

Birkla found himself speechless and was trying to avoid staring, looking around aimlessly. A single nut was responsible for all this? Then an epiphany hit him.

– "By golly, I think I have my special ingredient now!" he exclaimed to no one in particular, before turning back to Utuko "Please, do you have a recipe and some coconuts left?"

"Sorry, no recipe, I make food with my feelings. But I can help you and teach you." He extended his hand towards Birkla's chest, apparently awaiting him to do the same to him to signal mutual agreement. The meaning was however lost on him and he just grasped the hand with both of his hands and shook it.

"Together we will win the favor of the emperor at tomorrow's cake competition and gain glory, honor and a permanent delivery contract that will make us rich, at least for a year!"

Utuko tried to hide his astonishment, failing badly. He cleared his throat, evidently to stay calm, but the excitement in his voice was still audible: "Like this, we should get to work then."

– Part 2 –

They got up and moved past the deserted stands covered in icy dust and foam, soon reaching the gate of the international market that during the day draws vendors and visitors from the entire continent of Ystel and beyond. But now it lay dark and silent, the moon already shining. It was getting late.

The two walked in silence for some time, until Birkla finally talked again, more to himself: "I hope I'm not too late... it was noon when they sent me away and now..."

Utuko just looked at him worried.

They passed the town hall, a large castle complex, and the stone buildings began making room for wooden buildings as the streets got narrower, walking until Birkla stopped at a corner house with beautiful arcades in the ground floor. A statue representing a stack of pancakes was hanging outside. Both made it clear this was a very expensive bakery.

A letter had been attached to the front door. Dread, that unshakeable feeling of doom overcame the baker's apprentice. Utuko took it off and read it out aloud.

"Birkla!" it began. "You have disappointed us for the last time. We could not make any cake worthy of the emperor due to your inability to fulfill a simple task. Consider yourself fired, and don't ever show your face here anymore."

Birkla let out a sigh that might as well have been all of his life force leaving his body. This felt like the end. But he had forgotten he wasn't alone.

"Here idea mine, I show you everything at your home instead. I need to fetch coconut from my place just first."

Birkla just nodded in agreement, still dejected at his entire past life having come crashing down on him, and the two split.

As he entered his cold apartment, he realized with a glance at the clock near the door that it was already nine in the evening. No surprise the bakery had already been closed. To not freeze and prepare the kitchen for Utuko's return he reluctantly began making a fire in the oven, even if it felt pointless. Then he noticed he only had a small oven dish and a plain sheet pan, no bun tin to make a dozen buns or tiny cakes like he had been shown. That would really not suffice, he thought.

Utuko knocked on the door, he had brought a big bag of jars filled with perfectly transparent oil, a number of coconuts and some tools.

"Bad news, I don't have enough baking dishes." Birkla told him.

Utuko thought for a moment, then said. "We can figure out something, I am sure. Do you know any other ball recipes?"

"Sadly, not–" Birkla began, but then cut himself off. He remembered some cookies he had made turned out to be way too soft, so that they could be rolled into balls. That could work, actually! And why not arrange these smaller ones around the larger "snowball"? It could be garnished, too. Picturing it in his mind he began to regain hope that there was something worth attempting after all. It even put a smile on his face, which earned him a warm, supportive laugh from his new bake-mate.

– Part 3 –

Together, they worked through the night and in the morning, just two hours before the emperor was supposed to arrive and begin the festivities of Empire Day. Then they packed their things, hurried to the still snow-covered town hall square and showcased the results of their efforts on the last free stand, next to the stand of Birkla's previous employer.

Small snowballs, cookie balls covered in shredded coconut that could fit onto a tablespoon, were arranged around a larger, but still relatively small semi-spherical cake with a flat bottom, similarly covered in ground coconut and garnished with three coconut slices. Holly leaves surround both. All in all it was a rather inconspicuous arrangement that almost stood out from the other competition entries in its simplicity and small size.

The neighboring stand was staffed by two men in their twenties who had this extremely self-secure attitude on display that bordered on, if not outright crossed into arrogance. Birkla sighed, he knew them from work. Whenever they looked at Birkla's and Utuko's table, they could barely keep themselves from giggling and mock them.

"Hey twerps, are you sure you're right here? This isn't a miniature cake competition." began one.
"Birkla, I know you can't bake, no one is getting fooled by you presenting some snow you scrapded together." said the second.
"If you want to show them off, why don't you go back home? Your mother probably is already looking for you." added the first one.

Birkla clenched his fists but tried to ignore them. Utuko putting a hand on his shoulder helped. No one had ever shown affection to him like that, but it wasn't unwelcome.

Due to them being so late, their stand was called on last to bring their baked goods to the emperor sitting on a throne in front of the gates of the town hall. The emperor was slumping on his throne. This year there had been particularly many contestants, and getting through them all seems to have exhausted him.

"By Brotanoda, I will *not* do this again next year. Instead... " he groaned quietly, but he cut himself off when Birkla and Utuko appeared in front of him, together holding the plate with the cakes.

"Your Highness, we present you with our highest regards the effort of our labor. We call them snowballs."

A fit of laughter could be heard from the tables which was shushed by a guard.

The emperor leaned forward out of interest. All the other cakes had been layered, huge and extravagant creations building on established traditions, but this was something entirely new.

He took the plate into his hands with no word and exclaimed. "My, it's a snowball with a haircut with his children! How quaint!"

The two bakers looked on, nervously smiling.

And then he took a bite, much to the surprise of the court surrounding him, expecting more grace. "A taste like the first snow of the year, and just as beautiful!" He took another bite and then just said "We have a winner!" before continuing. "Please make me more. I will send an envoy."