The Master Cookiesmith’s hands were steady as she prepared to add the final lines of decorative icing. The icing was blood red, one of the Emperor’s family colors, and infused with the vampiric energies of three types of demons. None but the Emperor himself would be permitted to taste such a work of art, and the Master Cookiesmith felt a surge of love and pride for her work as the final detail fell into place.
It had taken her sixty years to master the art of cookiesmithing, starting when she was a young girl. The Guild of Cookiesmiths had visited her village when she was only four years old, and had immediately detected her talent. The strange-looking, light-skinned guild scouts had taken her from her home and her family and locked her in the Tower of Baking for fifteen years while she learned the basics of her craft. She started in the sweltering oven rooms, shoveling coal and stoking the fires, and slowly worked her way up to decorations, infusions, and enchantments. Even her own dark skin began to lighten somewhat after all those years away from the sun, but she learned and mastered new skills more quickly than any other novice cookiesmith. She specialized in weaponized cookies and was in charge of keeping the army’s armory well-stocked with razor-sharp gingerbread throwing discs and frosted shurikens, but her true passion lay in the life-giving cookies. It took an incredible force of will to focus at the level necessary to create one of these masterpieces, each of which must be customized for a single person.
Her passion and skill had been noticed by one of the Emperor’s servants on an inspection tour through the Guild, and she had been immediately promoted to Master Cookiesmith and selected to produce the centerpiece for the Emperor’s annual Day of Renewal. She was honored to be chosen, but more than that, she was pleased to be permitted to spend her work hours on something she enjoyed, rather than mechanically churning out tray after tray of the same boring confections.
And now, her work was completed. She lovingly set the Emperor’s cookie in its sheltered case in the cupboard, locked it, and went to bed. The ceremony was in two days, and she would need plenty of rest before then. It was the Master Cookiesmith’s responsibility to present the Emperor with his cookie at the appropriate moment on the Day of Renewal, in front of all his loyal subjects (the non-loyal ones having all been purged in the preceding Day of Cleansing), and she would need all of her strength.
“I’m okay”, the Master Cookiesmith was saying as her novice assistants helped her up from the floor. She felt her bed underneath her, was confused about why she had her apron on. “I was just asleep.” Had she overslept?
Someone was holding a glass of water to her mouth. She took deep gulps. Yes, she needed water. She still couldn’t quite wake up. What was wrong with her?
At last, she managed to get her eyes open. She was facing the empty, open cupboard. The cupboard which was meant to contain the Emperor’s cookie.
Oh. Right. She had fainted.
She nearly fainted again, but her assistants helped her to her chair. Slowly, she fought to regain her senses fully. One of the novices was trying to show her something in the cupboard. It wasn’t completely empty after all. Right there, where the cookie was supposed to have been, lay a slip of paper with a message roughly scrawled on it in red ink – or perhaps blood.
The Master Cookiesmith pulled her spectacles from a pocket in her apron and fumbled to get them on her face as the novice handed her the paper.
THE COOKIE FOR A DROP OF YOUR BLOOD
DAY OF CLEANSING
FOUNTAIN OF UNENDING PROSPERITY
It did appear to be blood, she thought, noting the variations in color, purplish in some places, nearly black in others, with bright red highlights. She’d spent enough time with blood in her line of work. And now someone wanted a drop of hers.
She shuddered to think of what someone could do with her blood. With the proper materials, enchantments, and knowledge of the magic arts (of which cookiesmithing was only one), they could do any number of horrible things to her.
On the other hand, if she failed to deliver the Emperor’s cookie at the ceremony, she knew exactly what fate awaited her. It was unlikely that the cookienappers, whoever they were, were capable of anything worse.
She had no choice.
It was no easy task, discreetly meeting someone at the Fountain of Unending Prosperity right in the middle of the Day of Cleansing. At that time, she should be engaged in reciting the Oath of Everlasting Allegiance to the Emperor, like everyone else. There were so many people in the crowd, it was unlikely that anyone would notice her gone, and she tried to content herself with that knowledge. Shortly before high sun, she straightened her apron and slipped out of the crowd, all of whom were heading towards the Stone of Oaths. She did fear being recognized; it was known by all who the current Master Cookiesmith was. For a moment she wished she had access to different clothes, but her apron was the only outfit she was permitted to own, and she hadn’t had time to try to find another. She hoped with all her heart that everyone would have their heads bowed and eyes pointed unerringly at the Stone, and her face, at least, would not be noticed.
Slowly, step by step, she moved towards the Fountain, which lay a short ways into the Forest of Souls, not far from the Stone and the crowds. If she could make it into the forest unnoticed, she would be safe.
The Emperor’s soldiers were watching, of course, but there were too many people for them to keep track of them all. By walking backwards, she managed to escape the casual glances of the soldiers, who assumed she was walking towards the Stone rather than moving away from it. Within a few minutes, she was hidden under the canopy of leaves in the forest, and turned and ran towards the Fountain.
As she neared her destination, she slowed her pace, and finally slipped into the forest itself, hiding herself behind a tree. It was not quite high sun yet, and she wanted to see who would be waiting for her. A pang of fear twisted her stomach as she imagined the consequences if someone discovered her missing from the crowd at the Stone of Oaths. A further pang followed, imagining the punishment if she failed to deliver the cookie.
She stood still behind her tree, not hardly daring even to breathe, cursing the light color of her apron in the shadows but grateful at least for her dark complexion. There were enough dark-skinned apron-wearing members of the Guild of Cookiesmiths that without the details of her face, she should be safe from easy identification in case someone saw her. The sun made its way to the highest point, and her whole body tensed with fear.
And then, the sun began its descent towards the other end of the sky. There was still no one there. How could they be late to such an important meeting? A new sense of panic gripped her as it occurred to her, for the first time, that she might not get the cookie back after all. A tear rolled down her cheek as she fought against the terror of that possibility.
She waited another minute, and then five, and then ten. Still, no one came. There was not a sound to be heard in the forest, aside from the occasional breeze rustling the leaves. Some moments were so quiet that she swore she could hear the crowd reciting the Oath some ways behind her. Not a soul was in sight.
Perhaps the cookienapper was also hiding in the trees, equally afraid of capture. The Master Cookiesmith considered running back to the crowd and trying to blend back in with the end of the Oath, but without the cookie, she could not leave. Summoning up all her strength and courage, she took one step out of the forest and into the clearing.
“Stop right there!” It was the deep, resonant man’s voice, and it was coming from right behind her.