Mrs. Thalica had come downstairs to find me. Though I had warmed her bed for most of the night, not a wink of sleep would find me. I was nervous that maybe I couldn’t deliver on my promise that this new bread would really be as well received as I told her it would, so I came downstairs to create a few different batches at first to find out which tasted better.
“What are you up to?”
“Making a few different variations. I’m hoping maybe I can get your opinion on which one tastes the best.”
She looked over to see that the oven fire wasn’t even lit. Fuel isn’t free and I didn’t want to waste any unnecessarily. I was just preparing some dough for now.
“Did you not sleep?”
“I rested a bit, but no… I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was wanting more of you. But, you’ve already closed the bakery for a day and spent far more coin than I’m sure you were comfortable with. I wanted to make sure your trust in me was worth the risk.”
She came over and lightly placed her hand on my shoulder, leaning in to provide a soft, warm kiss on my cheek.
“And that’s why you left me cold and alone in bed once more?”
“It wasn’t intentional, Tally. I just didn’t want your work today to be affected by my inability to control myself.”
“So, even after all we did last night, you still wanted to continue with more? Did I leave you unsatisfied, Gar?”
I lowered my gaze to the bowl and the perfectly mixed batch of cinnamon raisin bread with walnuts. The last of the test batches I made.
“No. I just didn’t want you to see my ungentlemanly side. As if you were a tray of freshly baked cookies, I would have my fill of you until I am too full and ill to move. Then again, the very moment I recover, find the desire to fill myself with you once more until again, sick from the sweetness. You are the most delicious cookie I have ever tasted in my whole life, Tally. I… can’t get enough of you, yet I don’t want you to despise me for my inability to control my appetite for the myriad of flavors that I experience in your arms. I don’t want you in a moment of fatigue and frustration to say to me, enough.”
My fist lightly punched the dough ball.
“That is why I came downstairs and tried to put my mind to the task you trusted me with doing. You are right about not being satisfied, but it is not because of you. Even now, I knead this ball of dough which will be delicious bread, but what soft dough I want to knead exists only at your bosom. I’m sorry… you have to see the uncouthness I cannot so easily hide. I as yet do not have the experience to do so. Even now that I see you, I can feel my heart racing.”
Her head leaned against my shoulder.
“At risk of sounding like a vulgar woman, I also… wish for such things with you, Gardavan. I wish to lay breathless, tired, sore from being taken until my body has all but given up the ghost. To be touched and held strongly afterwards as the fire within rekindles. A night left sleepless, but never alone, Gar. Never again alone.”
We fell into a warm embrace. Her hands gripped my shirt, and her head pressed against my chest. My own arms wrapped around her body, which for the first time felt frail. How I wished I was possessed of the strength and ability to protect her.
Even her little ones, too.
She ended up staying downstairs with me, and began firing the ovens. We discussed how to best use the little bit of extra time we had this morning. Along with the test loaves that went in as soon as possible to bake, I made an assortment of different cookie doughs, having had the smashing and sieving of oats taken over by her, who was far more capable at the task.
“Have you ever gambled, Gar?”
“Once or twice, if you don’t count taking the invitation to warm your bed as such. In my homeland there were many activities one could consider as gambling, though the only one I would find myself playing was the lottery.”
“How would you feel about taking a gamble today?”
“What kind of a gamble are we talking about?”
“Today, we will only make your bread. Whether with cinnamons and raisins, or walnuts and those rotting fruits, I feel… today is auspicious.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am sure. If it is for one day, I do not think our customers would greatly mind the taste of something exciting.”
“Yes, my love?”
“I promise from now on, for as long as I am here, you will never again wake to find a cold and empty space in your bed.”
She smiled warmly.
“If you dare break that promise, Gardavan, I will be most vexed with you.”
“Mmm, and now you have only given me a temptation to see what kind of face you will make when vexed with me. Will it be as lovely as all the others, I wonder?”
We made bread. So many loaves of bread, it was almost nauseating. Nauseating because once the first batch of banana bread was made, it was difficult not to keep munching on slices of it throughout the day.
I was worried at first, because they really were close to being too far rotten to use, but they were perfect. Full of glucose to the point I had no need of adding any sugar. The children found them delicious as well, both preferring the banana bread over the cinnamon raisin bread by a country mile.
For today only, we would take a loss. Two loaves a copper still, until we returned to making regular bread again tomorrow. If I used up all of the bananas today, the banana bread would hold for a few days without issue. They would be priced at a copper each along with the raisin bread.
I had faith they were worth that much, and the losses of today would be gains of tomorrow. The day was wasted on making bread and cookies and it did not stop even in the afternoon well past time for Sup. Trevorkane had talent in convincing the customers to try this delicious new bread we had, and more than one trip with his older sister Nefetina was necessary to deliver it all.
Then there was Mrs. Windie.
Though I didn’t speak to her much, Mrs. Thalica and her often gossiped when she came in around noon to buy bread. She was a daily customer and someone with an extensive social network in the neighborhood. What interested her most of all were the cookies that we still had plenty of. She told us she would spread the word, and that we should decide on a price for the cookies before tomorrow.
The reason for her saying that, was because I had no idea how to price them in the first place. They were simply being given out with the bread to all the customers, as a sort of compensation for not having the usual brown bread Mrs. Thalica made in stock today.
It was only when it was time for dinner that Tally forced me to stop working.
“Take a break, my love. You will work yourself to exhaustion if you continue further. Save some energy for what comes later, or you may see my vexed face sooner than you wish to!”
Alas, I cannot go against her.
We all took the evening meal together, which consisted of a roast fowl that she sent the children to purchase with coin, and some potatoes which were the last things which would be baked in the oven today.
I was also finally able to take a single peppercorn and smash it into a coarse powder. The potato on my place was cut open; butter, salt, and pinch of pepper added to it as I mashed it together had garnered the interest of the children and their mother.
“What is that, Gard?” Trev, the first one to speak up.
“This is a mashed potato. Would you like to try some?”
“Is it tasty?”
“It happens to be one of my favorite snack foods. The butter makes it soft and creamy, so that it feel like it melts mushily on your tongue. The salt carries the flavor, and the pepper give it just the right kick.”
“Mm… a small burning sensation on your tongue. I happen to find it very enjoyable, in small amounts.”
“I wanna try!”
It wasn’t just the children, even Tally was interested in giving it a try. We had an enjoyable meal together, with me thanking each of them for their hard work today, especially the children who had to do twice as much as usual.
Trevorkane was nodding off shortly after eating his plate, and Mrs. Thalica had to scoop him up into her arms and carry him upstairs in order to lay him to sleep. While she did so, I found I wasn’t being let off from a similar task.
“Gardavan, carry me upstairs too!”
“Is that a royal command, Milady Nefe?”
“Yes. As a royal subject, I insist!”
“As you command, your highness.”
Scooping her up in a princess carry, I ascended the staircase to the children’s room which until this moment I had never before entered. The room itself was plain. There were a few toys scattered about, stitched ragdolls and wooden balls among the toys I needed to step carefully around. They each had a bed, on opposite sides of the room, and at the foot of them, a trunk containing their clothing, I presumed.
Nefe pointed obviously to the bed furthest away. Mrs. Thalica was pulling the covers up over her son’s chest, following it up with a kiss to his forehead, full of her motherly love. Depositing the bakery princess into her own bed, she easily slid into her covers, and seemed to be expectant of something.
I wasn’t sure that I should overstep such a boundary, but I softly stroked her cheek and did the same as Mrs. Thalia, giving her daughter a soft kiss on the forehead.
“Have pleasant dreams, Nefe.”
Her hand caught my own.
“Yes, my lady?”
“Can you stay here forever?”
“Forever? That’s quite a long time, forever...”
“You won’t?” She asked, a look of sadness befalling her face.
“I would surely like to,” I explained, “but that’s something I cannot do without permission from your mother.”
“But… But I’m a princess, so I can give you a royal command to stay!”
“That’s true, and I would have to obey it, but as you are the princess as you say, in this castle-bakery, that would make your mother the queen. I would have to obey her commands as well I’m afraid, and as I’m sure you are well aware, a queen outranks a princess.”
“But… I… don’t want you to go. You make yummy food, and you play with me, and you teach me things. You even help mommy and she has time to play with me and Teek again, too!”
“I’m sure for now I won’t be going anywhere, so don’t fret.”
“Gardavan… do you like my mommy?”
“I like Mrs. Thalica very much, Nefe.”
“I’m pretty sure mommy likes you too.”
“I certainly hope so. Your mother is very special, and she’s a kind woman. I have no doubt you will grow up to be as special and kind as she is as well.”
“…If mommy likes you enough that she lets you stay forever…”
She held on to my hand with her two little ones.
“…would you become my daddy?”
“Nefe!” Mrs. Thalica who was obviously within earshot barked out her daughter’s name.
“Mommy, all our friends have daddies! Why can’t we have one, too?”
“Nefe…” the voice of my angel softened, “It’s… not that simple.”
“Why not? Our daddy went to fight some stupid war and didn’t love us enough to stay alive and come home! Bina’s daddy is home all the time, and he likes her mommy, and he teaches Bina things, and he can’t make apple pies or cookies! Gardavan would make a much better daddy than even Bina’s!”
“Yes, sweetie. Gardavan probably would.”
“Then why… can’t he be our daddy… instead? Teek wouldn’t mind it, either!”
“Oh, Nefe, my sweet daughter…” She had hugged her daughter tightly.
I also took the opportunity here to kneel down so I was at eye level with her.
“You don’t need to worry about me going anywhere for now. I will continue to teach you the things I can, just as you teach me things you can. I’ll make plenty more things just as delicious as apple pies and cookies, and soon even fun games we might all play together. Isn’t that what really matters, princess?”
Mrs. Thalica politely asked me to leave the room for a moment so she could talk with her daughter. I did so, heading into the room next door, taking a seat on the bed, and wondering what was going on. Not with the conversation between those two. I had an idea of what that would be like. But from Nefe.
Was it just because her friend Bina who I had never met before had a father present in her life? Was it because she wanted to show off that she might have one too? I don’t really know the first thing about being a parent. I couldn’t even take care of this little digital pet thing I had on my keychain as a kid.
That’s before we even get into the subject matter of Mrs. Thalica and I.
Yes, I love her. But her children are the product of the love she had with her husband. The last living memory of his passing in some war which happened over five years ago, before her son even came into the world. Nefetina, being close to two years old at the time, might not even have a single memory of him.
But I’ve only just come into the lives of Mrs. Thalica and that of her children. It’s far too soon to be seen as something like a father figure. I’m… just an uncle. Yes, an uncle who is doing lewd things with their mother, but… I’m still a transient existence. Mrs. Thalica wishes for me to stay, and it’s also something I wish for as well. But how could I ever fill a role as important as being a father to them?
Lost in thought, the door to Mrs. Thalica’s room opened quietly and shut quietly. Soft footfalls came towards me and soon there was a lovely woman sitting on my lap and once more peering into me with her twin sapphires.
“Sorry for putting you in a difficult place, Tally.”
“What difficult place are you talking about, Gar?”
“Nefe… saying those troubling things. I don’t want you for a moment to think that I’m trying to be a replacement for their father. I’m… aware of my place.”
She placed her hands on my chest and pushed me gently until I was lying on my back and staring up at her, wrought anger present on her face.
“Your place?” She asked me, her words as piercing as the tip of an icicle. I couldn’t meet her gaze, and shifted my eyes away from her. “And what is it exactly that you think your place is here in this home, my dear, Gentlemanly, Mister Gardavan?”
Her hand brushed against my cheek, the firm and calloused hands, trained by years of dedication to providing everything to her children, raising them alone for years upon years, transmitted to me through her touch.
“I am nothing but a thief, Mrs. Thalica.”
“A thief you say?”
“Yes. Not a gentleman as I claimed, but a rogue, a scoundrel, and a thief.” I took a deep breath, and sighed. “I have stolen my way into your home, into your bed, into your finances, and finally into the sensibility of your daughter. I have never intended to do anything but show my gratitude for you rescuing my life, Tally, yet this is how I seem to be repaying all the kindness and mercy you have shown me. By causing you such strife with your precious child.”
“Do you dislike my children, Gar?”
“No. Nefe is a wonderful girl, bright as the sun. Trev is the most diligent young man of five I have ever met. Even my own sister’s children were not as obedient or well-behaved as yours are. I doubt that even if I were to have any of my own someday, unless the mother was as splendid a one as you are, I would fail them as a father for sure.”
“Gardavan, you speak such twisting words. It vexes me so!”
“You should be sorry!” she yelled at me, “Everything you have said is true. You took advantage of my charity and entered my home. You took advantage of my loneliness and entered my bed. You took advantage of my finances and emptied my coinpurse, and now you’ve taken advantage of Nefetina’s heart by letting her believe there is someone who could fill the empty role left behind by my long dead husband. You are a thief, Gardavan. A rogue and a scoundrel as well, masquerading as a gentleman.”
She unbuttoned my shirt.
“But all that you have stolen, you have done so with kindness and good intention. I… am not getting younger, Gardavan. I will soon be past a re-marriageable age, when the difficulties of remarriage and further childbirth rear their ugly heads. I have taken up with you, knowing well of my sin to the goddess, yet I have not been punished for this mistake until this moment.”
“So, it was a mistake…” I responded, desponded, with clarity finally being given to me from her own lips.
“Yes. But the mistake was on my part. The mistake was letting you crawl out of my bed after the first night our bodies entwined, letting you for a moment think that there was any escape from me. I’m no fool, Gardavan. The only man I had ever let warm my bed or body ran away. Whether to flee in disgrace or die so poorly there was no body left to bury, the result is the same: I was abandoned. The children were abandoned! How many times I cried myself to sleep over the first few years, praying the children would not overhear and take notice that the struggle was too much to endure each day he never returned when the war had long since ended. Each day believing that a widowed mother like myself might never find a man who would be so kind, caring, and accepting of herself and the children who have been without a father their whole lives…”
Her eyes, clouded by water which became tears, began to spill onto her cheeks.
“It may be too soon of me to say this, but would you not consider… taking that role in their lives?”
She was asking me to become the father of her children?
“Tally, there’s supposed to be an order to these things, is there not?”
“What do you mean?”
“While there’s no doubt I am in love with you, to ask me to be their father… would I not first have to prove myself worthy to marry their mother?”
“Then it is I who am lacking?”
“When did I say that? What strange conclusions are you jumping to, Tally? That I could be your husband would be a dream that I would never wish to wake from. I do not mind that the children were born from the love you had for your husband. The children are not to blame for his disappearance, that is just misfortune.”
“Then, you would become my man, Gar? You would take the role of father to my… no, our children?”
“Yes. If you somehow think a despicable man like myself is worthy if such an honor, not a day would pass that I would not give my all to you and yours.”
“To me… and ours, Gardavan.”
“I will surely stumble along the way, but I swear to never abandon you.”
“I will catch you when you fall, and you will never be able to escape me, my foolish, wonderful husband.”
There were no waters under heaven which could have quenched the fires we ignited in the bedroom that night. Our bodies ablaze with our new identities as man and wife. I could never imagine in my old life meeting a widow with children and mere weeks later finding myself a husband and father to them all. In fact, it would take some time to adjust to my new role, but it’s not as if I wasn’t up to the task.
Having Tally was all the motivation I needed to try my best.