"Seek that which is not bidden, that which cannot be lost,
That which is hidden, that can never be taken
Yet comes with the greatest of cost."
When he opened his eyes to return to the world about, he nearly jolted on his feet at the return to the material plane, breathing in as he stared into the ink-black depths of the mirror before them. He straightened dismissing the connection, before he extended a hand to the table alongside him. The tiny decanter of wine lifted itself, flying into his bidding hand and he wrapped his fingers about it, taking several sits of sweet, cool red liquid to quench his thirst. Such matters did tend to work up a thirst, the lord of the manor thought. The encroaching footsteps did little to startle him from his reverie, Damian barely glancing back over as he heard the door open.
"Damian," the gruff voice was calm, relaxed, albeit tinged full with a shred of worry. "Stanley sent word, he- "
"The pale woman with the red hair," Damian turned to the bearded countenance of his brother. The younger Lascar flashed his teeth in a knowing smile, but Damian's face remained implacable as stone, exhaustion flooding into his limbs as he remained upright, determined to display no weakness. "I am lord of these lands, Sebastian. What occurs to anyone here that has not yet reached my notice?" The lord of Lascar gave the hint of a smile upon his handsome face. Damian's skin was slightly tanned from years in the sun, a light scar upon his left cheek. His features were high, aristocratic, smooth shaven with defined cheekbones, his lips full and his eyes a deep blue. His black hair was worn short, slightly askew now from hours of deep concentration.
"If I didn't know any better, I would imagine you set this up, Damian," Sebastian returned, his hands folded behind his back. The two were, Damian reflected, quite close. Not only in lessons and training, but they had fought through conflict after conflict together.The war against the Hellkites, the conflicts that had sealed back the veil, the encroachment of the Draconic Brethren upon the Lascar lands...Sebastian had been there each time, with scars to show for it. It was almost enough to make one forget the grim history of the Lascar lands and the even grimmer history of the Lascar family.
Almost, Damian thought as he turned from the mirror, locking his eyes upon Sebastian's. The resemblance was unmistakable between them, Damian's eyes narrowed softly. "It's said she's magic, but has no magic ability. Quite the contradiction, don't you think?"
"I assure you, that occurred to me," Sebastian said. "Stanley said the rest of the council said it was just what you might have been looking for."
"I've had to look through enough potential keys here," Damian replied in turn, his hands flexing before him as tiny Azure lights danced between them. "A living contradiction is what they said, and a living contradiction she is. A baker who might well possess magic within her very bones, so I hear tell."
"What a shame it's Lascar that's her final destination," Sebastian shook his head, glancing up at the manor about them. At one time, the manor had seemed a living beast caging its inhabitants. Now it seemed to be the skeletal remains, a living cage of bone to enshroud its occupants within the great pits of its stomach. "I don't suppose you'll want to greet her first off?"
"I would observe her, without making much an impression, brother," Damian said in turn with a dismissive wave. "Pretend to be me."
"To be you?" Sebastian grinned with the quirk of an eyebrow. "Come now, Damian, surely Vicente would be more suited of our family to- "
"She doesn't know me, save maybe by reputation. You, Julian, Vicente, it makes little difference to me. You are here, do as I say. Glean her mettle. I will speak to her soon after, if you must know." He turned to the mirror. "I have received enough portents of calamity. We must be certain what this is in order to glean what it might be, Sebastian."
He saw his brother sigh heavily, his brows knitting together. The younger Lascar sighed deeply at last. "I will, Damian," he said. He glanced at the mirror closely. "You think the council had this in mind when they sent her?"
"It is entirely possible," Damian said with a gruff cast to his voice. He drummed his fingers against the nearest table, setting aside the decanter. The ancient home of their family was waiting to receive its new visitor. Damian held in the troubled visions he had received, the possible 'key' this Baker might be towards them, the secrets she may hold. The trickery or even coercion he may have to use to unlock them. "After all...
"Lascar has many ghosts within its walls. Let us see if she can avoid joining them."
Many magical houses could get very hungry at night. Lascar Manor was no exception.
It was why Lord Damian Lascar, if in the event he had to travel, moved only between the walls, gliding effortlessly in the spaces between. There were things that lurked within the material corridors, his mother had taught him when he had been a boy; things that hid without the walls and the corridors, things that feasted upon secrets. They came with the house, Sebastian had been wont to joke. Or perhaps it was the house itself. These ancient walls had witnessed so many murders, so much darkness, so many furtive and secretive acts that even in their decay, they still hungered for the taste when they could get them.
Even an effective and battle-hardened mage such as Damian Lascar dared not face the full might of such an ancient and ravenous place. Any of the magic-bearing beings within the halls were trained well on how to travel safely after the hours fell upon them. Damian simply glided in the Spaces Between. He had lingered long in his study, seeking what could not be found within the mirror, leafing through prophecies and grimoires.
What was more, he had not even glimpsed hide nor hair of the visitor. Not in the flesh, at any rate. He had left it to Sebastian; his brother had done a passable impression as Lord of Lascar, but there was hardly much a need to fool such a baker. In fact, when Damian had scryed in upon the meeting, he had confessed to a measure of disappointment in the woman he had seen. She was ordinary to almost startling degrees, with not a single trace of magical knowledge to her. He could scarcely sense the pulse of power from her, not from his position, and this was supposed to be a being containing magic within her?
By all the gods of sorcery and shadow, why had his studies led him to her? Why did Lascar Manor's fortunes center upon her? Why did these ancient tomes point to her, why did the Council-
he stopped himself, a frown deepening upon his features. Of course, he decided, the simplest solution was likely the most obvious here; she was lying. She knew more of Lascar, of his family, of everything about here than she let on. She had ti know something. Why was someone of her importance, someone like her prancing about making cupcakes?!
He was of a mind to spy on her when he glanced about, sensing a settling of the house, a satisfaction to it. His eyes narrowed as he focused upon the place that had been both home and prison. His mother had ever warned him that the manor had a will of its own, not a will that any human being could truly understand. It was neither cruel nor kind, it simply was.
He damn well hoped someone had explained to this Alice the importance of wearing enchanted cloth. Because if they hadn't... well, it would be no problem as long as she remained within her room. Wouldn't it? Wouldn't-
Mist was beginning to swirl about in the material plane. Damian stopped short for a moment. "...Ah." He said, all his exasperation, frustration and exhaustion in that one singular syllable. He hovered along the floor from the spaces In-Between, following the mist. He flew, arms outstretched, racing headlong towards his target, hoping he would be in time. It would not do for this strange visitor to have her story ended. It would not do to have Lascar Manor claim her and her secrets before he could have at least the latter.
He returned to the material plane, the cold settling about him as he stomped through the manor. His eyes flared with an unnatural, argent light as he raised a hand, murmuring words of power. The cold was centering in on a person, Damian realized. He quickened his pace, rushing forwar, and then-
The cold receded, hurled back. Misty tendrils beckoned for his face, a low and haunting voice chuckling, as if forced through a thin layer of ice grown upon a grave: "Tell us your secrets, Damian!
He flared to life, banishing it from them as he made his way down the hall, bringing warmth and power as he beheld her there, shivering and huddled before him. His hands folded across his muscled chest, his eyes narrowed. "I see you have made the acquaintance of the house as well," he said in a gelid tone, chin tilted upward. "It is not safe to be outside a room, unprotected, at this hour. The House grows hungry then." He flicked his eyes to the side, seeing the mist creeping expectantly from around the corridors. He raised a hand, the light coming off from him. The mist receded as if struck, an enraged hiss sounding in his ears.
Damian turned to her again. "Alice Stone," he knew her name already. "You are safe now," he said, his voice almost gentle, even if his face and eyes were not. "Though wear that cloak tight...we should get behind a door quickly now. And then I am going to have questions for you...." The touch of the mist had clearly left her legs like ice, he thought. He reached a hand out and with a gesture, he magically lifted her into the air, bringing her closer to hold her in his arms. "Feeling will return to your legs in a short while." He murmured a spell, warming his hands, intending to transfer the heat into her, to chase away the numbing, hungering cold. He began to walk, holding her as he made for one of the rooms.
"You may call me Damian Lascar, Lord of this House. What you are...has yet to be determined."
It seemed as though months had gone by while Alice hid underneath the protection of some dusty cloak she’d randomly grabbed on her way out of her assigned room. With each huff of breath, she felt the piercing cold from her legs crying out for attention, for relief. She had nothing to offer her body or mind. The smell of the floor filled her nostrils as it mixed itself into the scents of the cloak. Alice tried to focus on it. She needed to concentrate with purpose in hopes of distracting herself from the discomfort.
Perhaps she was nearing her end. The hallway was growing warmer around her though she was certain her legs had been frozen stiff. Men told tales of a cold-death— something about feeling warmer just before the end was near. Dealing with a hex for the rest of her life would have been a far better option, she thought, than going to the Council of Magics just to end up losing her life only days later. If only she had the insight to leave it alone. It seemed so problematic at that time. Her workplace was on the fritz because of some mage playing a prank. Alice knew of a group in her town that enjoyed bullying her, they had since primary school before all of them broke off to chase after their magical careers while Alice stayed to learn her father’s trade. Oh, how she wished in those moments she’d open her eyes from the nightmare she was in only to smell her father baking his pastries.
A voice cut through her pitiful moments of regret. Her forehead crinkled, followed by her nose, as she tilted her head to allow her ear better access. Maybe the room really was warmer, but it seemed far more likely to be another trick. She hadn’t heard a single footstep down the corridor to indicate human life was near, but if she was off in her own little world, she rarely heard most things happening around her. Even so, the next sentence made her curious enough to at least take a peek. Her fingers gripped at the fabric draped around her form, carefully pulling it away from the floor. A warm light pooled in, almost like liquid trying to cover any surface it could touch. Hopeful, she lifted the veil between her and the true master of the murder house. “The house— it grows hungry?” she repeated him in disbelief. She hadn’t pieced together much of anything yet, especially not the identity of the man before her being different from the one she’d met the prior day.
He moved his arm and lifted the soothing light up, scaring off the ravenous mists back to the edges of the walls where they struggled to retreat further. He said her name, and as he did, she noted his tone wasn’t one of disgust. He seemed almost like a different man in a way, but as he stood above her, the light making it difficult to really see or focus, she dismissed any developing thoughts that had begun to blossom in her mind. Alice tugged at the cloak protectively as he suggested she keep it tightly around her, almost nervous he’d decide to snatch it away shortly after his instructions.
Assuming those “questions” he had for her were related to why she decided to wander the halls, she sighed quietly to herself, pushing herself up with one arm while clinging to the cloak tightly with her opposite hand. Alice looked stumped, though, and still in pain as she concluded that her legs were still useless for sets of limbs. Perfect for chilling a bowl of punch, though. “I ca— aaa-aaahh—!” Alice cried as her communications were interrupted by fright when her body started to rise faster than any dough she’d ever made. She stiffened with her arms wrapped around herself, hands clinging to the sides of her own shoulders. She closed her green eyes with lids clamped down so tightly she was somehow seeing white. Her body sank against muscle as the weightlessness of floating turned into being carried. The hard lines that lay at the corners of her eyes softened as she opened them once more, finding her body in the capable arms of the man with the warm light.
The muttering under her breath were words Alice couldn’t understand. She regarded him with both confusion and curiosity. Her legs were already starting to feel better from whatever he’d done, but as he introduced himself— she panicked. She’d already met the lord of the house; one Damian Lascar. Shallow breaths caused her chest to rise and fall quickly as she processed. “You cannot be, I met Damian Lascar yesterday.” she said as she watched him nervously, careful not to overstep— not that she could literally step at all. This man— this imposter was still holding her. Alice glanced up at him, soaking in his features. Maybe he could have shaved that night? But even still— or was this more magic?
With a head spinning full of conflicting ideas, Alice felt defeated. His last choice of words left her apprehensive. “I’m just Alice.” she mumbled quietly. She didn’t attempt to argue more with him, as he was her ticket out of the wicked hallway.
Being in proximity with Alice did little to confirm or deny a single suspicion that lingered within the mind of the Master of Lascar Manor. Master, he thought, and yet the Manor had almost taken upon itself to attack and devour the recent arrival, his 'guest' as some might have called it. The very thought kindled a burning flame of rage within Damian Lascar- many traditions of the ancient magical families had been long abandoned but Lascar still held to guest-right as something most sacred. With the woman before him nearly devoured by the whispering walls, Damian found himself wondering quite a bit just who their mysterious new visitor was. He had watched as she had spoken with Sebasian, spoken with Vicente disguised as a servant. He had observed it all...
Hoping to glean something that made this Alice so unique. Alas, he had come away with nothing. The thought was simply vexing, the eldest of the Lascar siblings thought to himself. When Lady Stone, Alice, he reminded himself, wriggled within his arms and repeated his words, he glanced down the hallway with a haunted expression. He betrayed neither concern nor remorse for her as he made sure the red cloak wrapped her tight, clutching her within his arms. "Did nobody think to warn you?" He asked, even though he knew deep down he would have been most intrigued in seeing how she might have reacted to a genuine danger.
"It is unwise to walk the halls of Lascar Manor at night unprotected. Magic and secrets bleed into the very walls of ancient manors and Lascar has drunk more than most. They tend to get a taste of such things, as a Manticore might harbor a taste for blood should it up too long upon the flesh of man. You are fortunate you reacted in time. Though I see you did not escape entirely unscathed." His tone was admonishing, almost as cold as the starving mist summoned by the manor itself. He stared firmly at her, trying to take her in.
He was certain she was not simply ordinary, no. She looked it, the only interesting thing about her pale body was the mess of deep red hair, a match for the red robes she now wore about her body. She did not seem to be carrying much by way of affects, nothing to explain anything intrigue, yet there was something he could detect within the traces of her aura. There was something odd there; if magic were a flowing current, hers was static and placid as a frozen pond. And yet...
And yet, underneath it, he could detect something different about the "waters." It was light, imperceptible. He could barely piece it together, barely even notice. A more skilled practitioner might not have garnered even a hint of it. But Damian could, even if he could not understand nor explain it. His brows knitted as he stared at Alice. "If nobody thought to warn you," he said while ignoring her queries for the moment, "those robes are to protect you from the house. Specifically enchanted to do so. You shall recover soon enough, but do not be so foolish as to offer yourself to its rapacity." He glared down the halls, staring into the very bowels of Lascar manor.
"You would not be the first hapless visitor to fall into the belly of the beast and fail to emerge ever again," he added as his gaze flicked to the nearest door. He recalled it as a guest room. "And to be exact, you encountered my brother Sebastian. I had him don my name to test your mettle while you could speak unburdened by the truth. My brother Vicente was on hand to greet you earlier, the one you knew as 'Vinn.' If deception offends you, girl, then I suggest you get over it quickly. You shall need thicker skin to survive in the world of mages."
He gestured to the door and the knob turned, twisted by an invisible hand. he marched there carrying Alice in his arms, gentle even if there was no affection in word or soul. He walked in and kicked the door shut behind him. "If you are finished offering yourself to the hungers of my home tonight, perhaps you will attempt to satisfy another need. I refer to my curiosity, baker." Once within, he levitated her away from him, letting her hover over the bed, before he dropped her there. "Remain there while feeling returns to your limbs. I have cast a spell...it attempted to drain the life from your body, the chill of death is not so easily forgotten."
He folded his hands behind his back. "Take a moment, Alice the Baker," he said as he watched her with a chill gaze. "Then you are going to answer...what did the Council see in you? I would know how you came to know yourself as so special."
It was unsettling how closely the man— claiming to be Damian Lascar— held her without portraying any indication of real sympathy for Alice. He looked more concerned for the hallway and what lay within the walls, with its chipping paints and cracks that accented the dark wood panels along the floor and ceiling. How could one even categorize a dangerous mist? Was it truly a monster if it had no real form or body— or maybe it did and that was just a preview of the main attack against her very life. Alice shivered, not from her legs, or the rush of heat that crawled up to her knees, but from the idea of dangers she had never thought to imagine before. “I wasn’t—” she answered him, and still, Alice couldn’t discern whether or not Damian actually wanted her to speak or if he was simply speaking in rhetoricals. He moved with instinct, at least, that’s what it felt like, as he adjusted the cloth around her body, his arms clamping firmer than before as he held her.
His lectures were taken as seriously as the ordinary, imaginative Alice could comprehend. She wasn’t well versed on magical creatures, having no idea what a Manticore even was. She didn’t suppose it was a dragon, and although she found the word reminding her of unicorns, she supposed that wasn’t correct either. Regardless of her ignorance, Alice was certain this man— her teacher?— wasn’t willing to go into details over such things at that time. “The mist held onto my legs as though it were a rope binding me— I’m not familiar with magical dangers like that.” her voice was smaller as her gaze settled onto her covered knees. She wasn’t sure why he was scolding her, or being so critical of her actions. She was up before the sun rose every morning to start the fires in the bakery. She had to do that by hand, not magically. Her home had never attacked her for being up and active in the dark.
“Even your magical house lacks proper manners, then.” The words left her before she could reconsider whether or not to speak again. “I mean— thank you. For informing me about the robes. And— and for saving me.” she said quietly. This was horribly awkward. Damian continued to carry the lame Alice and she hoped to keep her tongue in place long enough to convince him not to throw her back down onto the ground so that his home might finish her off for her bluntness. It had been a long while since Alice had answered to any man, the last being her father while he still ran her bakery.
She could feel the steely gaze that penetrated into her soul, and cautiously, she turned her head just enough to meet blue with green. Alice’s nose was near his neck, and as she breathed, it was possible Damian could feel the small, warm exhales of breath that left her. She defensively clenched her teeth, her jaw tightening as the pale skin of her cheeks grew warm with mixed feelings of embarrassment and tension. What was he looking for? She had already told him— well, no, not him— Alice shifted against Damian, her shoulder lightly brushing against his pectoral as her fingertips clung to the cloak.
Alice was ready to object; to protest such tricks and games. Damian must have read her face— or could he read her mind? That was a whole new topic Alice wasn’t ready for her mind to tackle. If he was in her head it didn’t matter how many insults she held back. And still, he carried her off to a room, safe from the evils of the manor. That was the hope, at least. “I didn’t ask to be here.” she told him. She didn’t want to live in a world with mages. She didn’t want to get thicker skin than she already had. Mundane people could be cruel, and Alice wasn’t afraid of a bully most days, but this was a world in which she didn’t belong.
The walk to the room took forever, but it wasn’t due to the corridor stretching and warping to an infinite path in which one could never escape. It was just… awkward. Alice’s eyes pulled away from his and resumed their staring at anything other than Damian. But as the master of the home suggested she satisfy a need, her ears and face flushed instantly. She was in a room alone with him, wearing a thin dress of a gown beneath the cover of the red cloak and he was strong— magic. Panic jolted her heart into a fast paced beat before Damian even clarified his words. Had he— did he do that to her on purpose? She dared draw her eyes up to meet his again, but her body pulled away from his arms and the warmth that came with them.
Waves of her auburn hair lifted and danced around her with the spell that carried her over to the bed before being dropped a foot or so above it. She bounced, her hair then flying every direction, causing her to coax it back into place. The bed was eager to welcome her in with plush blankets and pillows filled with down feathers. She sighed, allowing herself to relax— just a little.
“I suppose I have no choice if you cannot control your own house. What am I supposed to do while I wait for the rest of your household to awaken from slumber? Sit in the dark? My luggage is gone— I suppose that was your brother that took my things. And— a candle. I need commonplace items that non-magical folk require to survive. I cannot do what you can.” She was sure he was exaggerating about it draining her life, she didn’t feel like she was dying. Another trick, perhaps.
The mage stared at her and Alice felt as though she were shrinking. It wasn’t everyday someone was able to make her feel so small. “I don’t know what you mean. I do not act as though I am special. I’ve literally told every person I’ve come across I have no magical powers. No one is listening to me. They could not explain the circumstances I am experiencing. The Council was sure I wasn’t hexed by someone, but I think they are wrong. From what I understand, you’re the guy they get to help when nothing makes sense, though I don’t get the feeling they trust you anyway. For that matter, the way those men were cast out of the manor, I’m not sure anyone is civil with one another.”
Damian was wondering just how much sense this woman lacked in her pretty, red head just now. As he carried her down the dim corridor his lips seemed to be creased within a permanent frown. Had nobody ever warned her of this? Why had she not simply donned the blasted robes? It was what they were there for. Yet despite that, he knew there was another reason he was so frustrated that he found difficulty in admitting to himself: if she was so special, enough to be seen by the Council and sent here, why had she needed his help? Why had not she not been able to deal with this upon her own power? "You weren't? Were not what? Thinking? That is abundantly clear."
"Not familiar with magic dangers of that variety?" He couldn't keep the scorn from his voice. "Did you think this was akin to a bakery where the greatest danger is a spot of bad yeast? That it might be a hotel where you might lodge for the night without fear or hardship? You are so ignorant of our ways, of the dangers in the magical realm? And you were sent here to be instructed by me?" Perhaps not only instructed; the lord of Lascar had been most intrigued at the notion that he get to the bottom of just what the hell made this woman so special.
...and then he heard the words "your magical house lacks manners then." He almost misheard it was 'manors' and was certain she was making light of the situation. He stared, more than a touch perturbed, his face grave and without expression. Then a low rumble built in his throat when he heard I mean— thank you. For informing me about the robes. And— and for saving me.” He began to chuckle, then he laughed softly, actually laughing at her words.
"You might say the house lacks a great deal of manners, baker. It is not an entity used to abstaining from its desires. You are fortunate you bore the robe with you as you left the room. Had you not, I doubt I would have been able to assist you, truly." When he laid her down and worked his spell, he moved to examine her leg, calmly and scientifically like he was glancing at a microbe beneath a scope. He pressed his lips together in appraisal while he ran his gaze across the milky flesh. "You are fortunate. The limb won't be harmed, quite salvageable with just a short time of rest. It is good you attached the robe when you did, Baker Alice Stone...you might have lost feeling and use in the limb had the Manor been able to attack further. It was quite apparent to him that Alice was unprepared for that.
It was also self-evident she was markedly unprepared for the cut-throat nature of the magical world. No head for tricks, no head for intrigue. She would be eaten alive left to her own devices. Probably literally, his mind added as he gave a shake of his head, almost despairing in how helpless she was. It was like watching a bird with a broken wing flop about outside the nest. He was almost beginning to believe she truly had no answers. Unless she was cleverer than she appeared, as his divinations might have indicated, he reminded himself.
When he settled her upon the bed, he ensured she was comfortable, drawing sheets about her. "Remain there, keep the robe on. You will need warmth of the conventional variety as well as the magical I had lit within you. As for what you can do in the dark?" Now he did smile, a brief half-smirk that quirked up one of his lips. "I hear there is a thing called 'sleep' that mages do every so often. It's quite popular, actually. Unless you have the ability to avoid needing rest? I hope that is not your only talent. As for the Manor, it is not a matter of keeping it under control. Think of houses as beasts unto themselves. They have minds of their own, wills of their own. As long as magic remains to the Lascar name, even as dilapidated as the place may be, its will persists. You had best adjust quickly. As for deceiving you, I make no apology, nor excuse. You will need to get used to that as well. Your luggage is not 'gone,' it is merely being inspected. It will be returned to you in time. As for candles...I shall ensure you are given a lantern. Make certain you are in those robes when sun sets if you attempt to traverse the halls."
The next words brought him to her bedside, his hands behind his back. "I am what you might call a specialist, someone they do indeed obtain to appraise and handle unique situations. And you are a unique situation. There is a difference in your aura, Baker Alice....and civility is a luxury, be pleased if you can afford it." He rubbed his fingers upon his shaven chin.
"I suppose I would query as to your life...I do not recommend lying- I will be able to tell. What unusual events have filled it? What unexplained happenings? What has made you who you are...?" He added then, in almost wry amusement, "Baker Alice indeed...perhaps we might get tot he bottom of it together. I, for one, am most interested at what you might have to say. If nothing makes sense, then perhaps we'll find our answers in the nonsense of it all."
Taking offense to Damian’s lack of compassion was as natural as inhaling her next breath of air. Why did he think she was prepared for his magical house? Why did he assumeanything regarding the baker? The Arch Mage couldn’t even be bothered to greet her properly upon her arrival. There was no real welcome; no instructions or syllabus for her to follow.
“Why would I expect to be sent off to a place that might kill me for trying to find a kitchen? I’d hate my fate if I had needed the washroom. I wasn’t informed of you— of your home. Nothing. Don’t treat me as though I’m being idiotic. Your culture is not mine. And I didn’twant to come.” she added angrily. Alice felt as though she was talking in circles about the same things. Why weren’t these men listening to her? Sure, there was the obvious answer: because she was a woman. But, was it really that simplistic? “I don’t understand what other reason I would be sent to you, if not to learn.” her voice grew quiet as she neared the end of her sentence. Alice was not ready to hear that she was some kind of science experiment where its only purpose was human discovery of new magics. She didn’t want to be tossed aside, shriveled and weak at the end of her life at a young age, because the mad mages were done with her.
With a soft, sunken expression that hid her eyes from him, she turned away staring off into the void of her own thoughts. She wasn’t entirely certain why she continued to speak with him; Damian appeared annoyed with each new thing she said, he didn’t even look remotely amused with her comment about the home— or was she wrong? After a moment, rumbles of gentle laughter rolled against her side and caused the woman to turn back to the mage, watching him laugh for the first time— and possibly the last. That was unexpected. At least she now knew that he could smile.
“Well, the note never said, ‘Wear this so you don’t die,’ or anything. The answer is easy enough. I want my own garments back— well, that and— I hate the color red.” The statement seemed trivial when it came to cloth that was supposed to keep her alive, but she truly wasn’t informed until it was far too late. Still, she felt silly just saying it as her leg suffered the consequences. The spot on the bed away from Damian was quickly invaded by warm hands and nosy eyes as he examined her without thought of her personal space. Her torso instinctively leaned away from his direction, and Alice’s body tensed as he drew nearer still. Her jaw clenched as she looked down to the exposed skin of her leg, then to the mage as he assured her she’d be fine. “Thank you.” she responded hesitantly. She wasn’t sure what more to say. Would she really have died if left alone long enough? Such a fate hadn’t fully processed in her mind. Alice didn’t feel like she was near death.
Chills traveled from her toes up toward her knees. Alice curled her body closer together, the soft flesh of her skin touching as her thighs pulled up while Damian moved the sheets around her form. She wiggled and began to pull her arms away from the cloak, feeling tangled up, but he firmly suggested, that she keep wearing it. Her mouth settled as a thin line as she stared up at Damian, adjusting herself back into the red fabric she wasn’t pleased to wear. “Okay.” she responded. At least it was warm, as he said. There was no point in arguing with him and his expertise when it came to magical wounds in the murder house.
Damian’s voice had a hint of mischief in it as he spoke of what she might do in the dark. Her mind wandered to a far more sensual, embarrassing idea that brightened her face and broke her eye contact. Then he said “sleep.” Of course he said sleep. He didn’t mean sleep originally, did he? Alice peered up at him, catching the last of the smirk before it faded once more from his features. ’What a shame,’ she thought. His face looked better with a grin. “I’ve already rested. I’d been stuck in a carriage for 3 days, and slept soon after eating last night. How much more do I need? This is hardly productive— just loafing about in bed.” The mage was right, however. In her current state, she couldn’t even walk properly, so what more could she do?
He might have caught the light flare of her nostrils, or the agitation in her gaze before she looked off to the wall insead. So he wasn’t sorry, not even a little? He was stronger than her, magical and powerful. Of course he wasn’t sorry. When someone had status, they didn’t have to be apologetic to anyone unless they were even more entitled . Alice preferred being kind to all, but it wasn’t a commonality in the world as a whole. Magic or not. She frowned and stretched back out in the bed, the sheet hugged her form and outlined her shape underneath it. He was accommodating her in the minimalist of ways, but at least it was something until she could get away from the manor and find herself back in her bakery. She was certain that was her new plan. Escape and go back home— somehow.
Icy blue eyes stared at her, colder than the mists that clutched her earlier. Why wasn’t he leaving? She inhaled nervously, watching as he positioned himself beside her, puzzling over what secrets she was hiding. He wanted her to talk? To better know her life? She arched a brow, her face could have had the words “You’re crazy” written across it because her expression was all but screaming it aloud.
“This— you want me to— no. Sorry, but I’m not in the mood to entertain you with my life story. There’s nothing relevant for you to know that you don’t already. You can go. I’ll stay in bed all day if that’s what you’d prefer.” Was he really going to push for more? She hoped not. Alice knew her life to be unremarkable.
The fact that this woman seemed to take umbrage with his tone did not impress Damian Lascar. This was his own home, dammit, he thought, and some baker devoid of magic would not dare to offer offense at his words. The Arch Mage kept his arms folded behind his back, allowing her to expel the fire in her words, as blazing and heated as the fires with which she must have worked in her bakery. "And for what point and purpose did you have to stalk through my home at night like a thief? Trying to find a kitchen- " he stopped short with a shake of his head. "You cannot be serious," he said through clenched teeth. "I cannot possibly be hearing you right. A kitchen?"
He managed to quiet himself, his lips pursed as he studied her face. "...That flame is a good start. I had feared you were little but a meek and submissive lamb. This, however, shows I was at least partially wrong about you. I am pleased for that, at least." He gave a complimentary nod, rubbing his chin. "I suppose there has been some undue harshness. I shan't apologize for it, not the suspicion. You have been sent here because I am often the last resort in the magical world. I have fought, I have killed, I have mentored and very much more when the situation call for it. I have attempted to divine your purpose, should you even have one, with little success to date." He paused to rub his forehead with two fingers, exhaling firmly. As much as it galled him to admit it, Alice had an inkling of a point, even as his pride refused to allow for the admission. "Apparently you lack any hint of survival instinct within our world. Ergo, we have work to do on this. I remain convinced you know more than you are letting on, baker girl, but perhaps it is not consciously known."
He looked to the robe, then back to her with another despairing sigh. "I would be stunned if you lasted a single week," he grunted to himself. The Lascar lord looked to her, fixing her with his eyes. "I am the barrier of last resort, but I am not a miracle worker. Even I have my limits!" He hated to admit she may have a point, even if he knew there was so much to learn. "It would take time and effort to enchant your garments. But I suppose I can have it done. Provided you demonstrate that you are worth the effort, baker girl." When he examined her, appraising to note she was safe, he gave a small sound of approval and even perhaps relief.
He felt her skin gently, focusing his power further to seep warmness, vitality into her drained limbs. "There we are. You will be fine," he assured her. "I had expected you would be tired. Carriage or not. I had hoped you would be sensible in the night. Evidently, I provided you with too much credit....you shoud be fine with rest, in a few more hours. Your first lesson: do not wander about as night. If you dislike red so much, here is your second lesson: what you want is sometimes immaterial. It will take time to enchant your garments which I do for you only as the vaguest of courtesies to a guest. For the rest, this should be eminently obvious: trust is a precious and valuable commodity. Do not parse it out like you would fresh bread at your former establishment. I required a neutral observation to glean something of you. I took the chance as a result."
He looked to her, the smile growing on his face. "But for the purpose of guest right, I admit I am pleased to see you well. Let us not make a habit of seeing you in mortal danger from hereon. I would see us plumb the depths of your mysteries when we are able to, Baker Alice Stone." The look she gave him told him she doubted his sanity, which he found amusing. "Come, why don't- " he paused at her next words.
"For starters, woman, I truly doubt your life story is as entertaining as you fancy it!" he snapped softly. I ask only to gain an understanding deeper than what you yourself may know! I know you spoke with that Stanley, but I cannot be aware what others know. The name Lascar carries a great deal of prestige, or used to, in the magic world, but that did not come without cost or rivalry, I can assure you of that. I ask for your safety as much as my own education! And you should not need to remain in bed all day!" He stormed up, but rather than lash out, he took the blankets and slid them up, adjusting her until she was comfortable. "You should only need a few hours," his voice grew gentle. Now he did smile, a put-upon gesture meant to relax her.
"It would look poorly upon me if I let harm come to you. I intend to ensure you are well first. If you enjoy the kitchens so much, we might dine together tomorrow and you may tell me more then. I would prefer doing this the easy way." He knew Alice may not appreciate the other methods at his disposal.
"....It is customary to want to know one's guests, is it not?"
Was it so absurd that the woman wanted to scope out his kitchen? She’d trained from adolescence and onward in a cooking world and had a love of foods and curiosity when it came to the sort of kitchen one could find in a much larger home. The manor served real foods, at least, so they had to have a place to cook, and hopefully proper storage to keep meat. Alice bit her lip and looked down, timid about responding to his disbelief. “If you went to some giant place that had— uh— a big room full of magical things, wouldn’t you want to see them? I don’t actually know how to give you a comparison, sir. I just mean to say that I was excited to see what the kitchen looked like and what things I might be able to prepare. I’m a baker. I craft, I cook. It’s my life. Dinner lacked real bread, and when I woke, I hoped to take stock of what there was, and later look into what markets were near to get anything missing—” she sighed softly. He didn’t have her come there to cook and bake. “I’m sure your household would enjoy some sort of baked treats.” she mumbled. She wasn’t a thief. She didn’t even consider the time of day to be “night” as Damian kept insisting it was.
“You’re probably more wrong about me than you know, considering you only just met me. I could say you seem slightly less aloof and dangerous than your brother you subjected me to last night, but who am I to know? You could be worse.” Her arms folded over her chest as though they were a shield to her soul somehow. As he mentioned killing for the sake of his specialty, Alice squirmed more.
“Me? My purpose?” All of this talk was exhausting. If he kept up this game of pretending she was special, maybe she really could get back to sleep. How many times did she have to tell these people she wasn’t anything special? She felt like screaming, but even then, they’d probably mistake it for the living manor that liked to eat its occupants. Alice’s head flopped back against the pillow and her head sank into the plush, feathered cloud. “The only thing you have right so far is that I don’t know how to survive here. I’m not anything magical, and I don’t know more things. I have nothing to hide. I didn’t have anything different to say to the Council, and yet they were convinced.”
Damian sounded as though he was about to open a magical boot camp for Alice, complete with mud and ropes to climb. She wondered what real magical school was like; it couldn’t be this. This was ridiculous. “I’m stunned you think I’ll be here an entire week.” she reciprocated. This time she was the one with a smirk on her face. Alice was certain she’d be sent right back out of the door with her bakery key in hand after being looked over by this Lascar fellow. And yet, there she was, first night, already nearly killing herself in the halls.
Alice tilted her head. She had imagined magic to be easy for these people. Like, with a snap of his finger, the color red would turn purple. But if it really was a process, and he was going out of his way to give her those minimal comforts of being able to wear her own garments, maybe he did have a soft side. His hands gliding along the soft flesh of her leg certainly helped her imagine such a side of him. “That depends on how you measure the worth of a person, I suppose. I might not be. But nevertheless, I’d prefer not to be devoured by your home.” she added lightly.
The warmth extending from his fingertips pushed beyond her skin and into the depths of her muscles. Her body was willingly consuming his spell, wanting more of what he offered. Within the woman, an tendril of energy pushed forward, invisible to any normal eye, coiling around Damian’s fingertip. Although such a motion could be interpreted as hostile, it was quite the opposite. As if something within her was happy for his healing, it gave back to him, making the spell spike in intensity, though only in his one finger. Alice jerked as though she’d been shocked by static electricity. Puzzled, she looked at Damian’s hands, then back to his eyes. “Magic is weird.” she said. Freezing, Alice realized those words weren’t just spoken in her head like they usually were. She chuckled nervously, glancing away. “I mean— that was weird.” She barely put effort into covering up what she’d said. He knew when she was lying, right? Alice was pretty sure he’d said something like that a little while ago, not that she was sure she could believe that. She’d want to test out that theory more at a different time— a different day perhaps— if she truly did last that long in Lascar Manor.
“I’ll just sit here in the silence for hours waiting for the rest of you to wake. That’s fine.” she told him with a hint of snark. She had nothing to say about the rest of his advice. More and more, Alice was certain talking was getting her absolutely nowhere. The energy that had raveled around his finger had already retracted, leaving him just as he was before, its effects quickly fading away.
“I’ll do my best to stay alive.” she muttered. She was starting to feel like a child. “But I really don’t know what mysteries you think you’ll uncover. I’m quite ordinary.” she admitted with a shrug of her shoulder. “And I didn’t tell Stanley anything. He seemed more like a hired babysitter that just sat across the way, jotting down notes in his little book. I’ve had better conversations with bread.”
Damian was practically throwing a fit now. She wasn’t sure what to think of his temper, though she was sure she was still more fearful of his wild brother. Perhaps his entire family was very high strung. If they worked to have such a name, as Damian was going on about, maybe that was the cost. He grew restless and began to move toward her aggressively, though his frustrations were directed to blankets that he used to tuck her in like a new babe being swaddled. Alice’s eyes went wide with surprise, then she smiled softly as he explained she’d only need a few hours of rest. She wished his was more genuine, but it was the thought that counted.
“Okay.” she said quietly. His offer was a kind one, at least. Perhaps a tour of some sort— with a guide that could win against a murder house— was the more ideal way to travel. Alice wasn’t sure what ways were the difficult ones, but she hoped he was bluffing. “I’ll try to rest then.” she told him.
'Rest and try to figure out what I can tell you that will satisfy your need to pick apart my life.’
The fact that this woman seemed to take this so lightly was not ceasing to frustrate the lord of the manor. Taking a moment to compose himself, Damian shook his head with a despairing sigh. "You wanted to see the kitchens, of all places? I assure you, it looks no different in the dark. There is an oven, a boiler. I can assure you, I have spent a fair bit of time there." It was true, Damian did enjoy cooking. Lord of the manor or no, the eldest of the Lascar family had a preference for looking after himself and preparing food at times when he was a mind to. He had always enjoyed such things. "If you desired a pumpkin or blackberry tart, you couldn't have waited until breakfast?" He sighed and put a hand to his head, shaking it all the further. "If you believe my household would benefit from pastries, I would happily take your suggestions..." He let that hang there for implication. "Of course, I suppose you are an effective baker. I would hear your suggestions sometimes."
The notion of being compared to Sebastian in such a way did bring a rueful chuckle from his mouth "Disabuse yourself of the notion I may be worse than Sebastan, Alive Stone. I am." He said it without boast, the simple statement of fact now. His eyes studied her calmly. "I did not rise to the head of this family solely by virtue of birth order. I do not maintain it without having earned it. The magical world is a very dangerous place, as you have no doubt surmised from your near consumption at the hands of my manor. But homes are not the only danger here, my dear baker, oh no. Blades in the dark and honeyed smiles often go hand in hand with one another. Those you might despise can turn out to be your fine allies and more. Those you begin trusting might well turn out to be the most dangerous of all." His voice carried a sudden tone of bitterness, the distinct flavor of over-dark chocolate.
But he could see Alice was growing stressed, nothing changing in her aura. "The possibility exists you don't know anything. Consciously," he admitted. "But that, dear baker, only worries me all the more. You may yet know more than you might possibly fathom. But if the council simply sent you, they must have taken this on some faith." Why send her into obvious danger, Damian thought. It didn't make sense why she wouldn't even be slightly warned, how she didn't have the barest hint of how to survive. It made, he thought again, not a trade of sense unless her ignorance was part of the story. Yes, he thought to himself, that bore consideration now.
He snapped his fingers, the robe around her shifting from red, to blue, to green. "Red is traditional, but if you have another color, I suppose I shall entertain your own personal preferences. For the moment," he added. "Since for right now at least, I would also prefer you not be eaten by my house. Before we get to your mysteries. You will have new clothes prepared, that will take time to enchant. I will," he added with a touch of sarcasm, "ensure they are not in shades of red if that is your preference, Baker Stone." He then laughed again, his lips spread up into a smile. Not cold or cruel, but for a moment genuinely warm, erasing the old coldness on his face as surely as the dawn sun would chase away the last chill vestiges of midnight.
"Magic is indeed weird," he admitted. "As 'weird' perhaps as a mysterious baker girl thrown into my home who goes snooping for my kitchen to greet me with bread in the morning and nearly gets consumed by my house. I will not be easy on you to start, Baker Alice Stone, but I will say this much: I will have the intent to remain up front with you. You seem almost suicidally incapable of guile in this manner...and what is more..." he lifted his finger, having felt...something. The way she had taken his energy and given it back stronger made him stare close, debating what to reveal or what not to say. "As you say...magic is strange. But so are you. And then so am I, so we are a very strnage pair together, girl with mysteries not even she knows." He paced by the bed. "...Rest without fear of queries for the moment. I can be most difficult later, but it is evident you are in no position to answer anything right now, Alice Stone. I am many things and I can be cruel, but not without purposes. Right now to be cruel to you would be like plucking the wings off a tired butterfly. So I instead invite you to rest....it also almost dawn, so I might..." he considered it for a moment before he snapped his fingers.
The room fell away and they were suddenly in a different region of the manor, passing so rapidly through the very walls that they snapped back suddenly to reality. "You wanted to see the kitchen?" Damian asked as he gestured about them, to the pantries and the cupboards, along with the meat lockers, the stoves and the ovens. Alice was still in bed there, the bed having traveled with them. "Your first wish of me is granted without much cost. The next may not be so simple. Would you like some fresh bread then? Or a tart? You are, after all, a guest." his smile bore traces of wry, cool humor as he waited to judge her reaction.
“Yes, well if I wanted to have my tarts by luncheon I could certainly wait. I hope you don’t expect me to eat magically conjured food, especially not baked goods. It should be a crime to ingest such things. You may as well kill me now if you intend to make me eat rubbish. I’d rather the house eat me. If you have a baker or chef, then I simply wanted to meet more of the staff— Unless your brother intends to pose as every servant and hired help. Was he also the woman, Beverly?” she asked with a grin.
“Honestly, I just thought if I was to stay here, then I would contribute by doing what I’m good at.” she mumbled quietly, her mood shifting to a more docile nature. Alice didn’t expect a free ride to stay in such a place, run down or not. She supposed she could try to clean, but heading into the kitchens felt far more natural and instinctual. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, Damian. Uh, Arch Mage— Sir Lascar.” she fumbled over the right formalities for a moment before landing on the last. Why did she use his name? She felt as though a nervous sweat was beading against the back of her neck, threatening to give her away.
When the mage bluntly stated he was worse than Sebastian, Alice could feel her body become rigid, as though her insides were freezing over in fractals of ice. Or maybe she was finally feeling the damage of her leg, but everywhere. No, this was a direct reaction to his statement. She was trapped in a house full of mad men. No— mad mages. Sebastian, posing as Damian, looked as though he was about to filet her where she stood. If he was posing as his brother, was it an act to seem more convincing? Alice struggled to relate to Damian’s rise to leadership and power. The most she ever did was work the system to run her own business and own her house— though everything was signed off under her brother’s name. As he continued to speak to her, she noted how he called her “dear baker” more than once. Was he simply patronizing her? Why did hearing it make those frozen nerves start to thaw? The lessons he was trying to teach her early on were likely some of the most important words he could offer her, but was Alice ready to hear them? Was he telling her not to trust him— or anyone at all? A life like that sounded lonely, but the woman had been on her own for long enough previously. Either way, it sounded as though, with the shift in his tone and expression, Damian had been deceived, or perhaps jilted in the past.
“I genuinely wish I had more to tell you. I do. Then the two of us could go back to our own lives. It’s not an ideal situation. Certainly not for me. And you’re clearly unhappy. From the chatter I could hear, it sounded more like the Council felt it was time for you to do your part— fulfill a duty. I don’t know. Although most tend not to notice a woman in a room, eventually doors are shut on my face.” The rumors about the Lascar Arch Mage were fairly basic: He refused to take on apprentices and the Council struggled to get him to cooperate with most things unless they threw things into his lap. But Alice was not familiar with such things, living in a non-magical community.
The woman was going to struggle from recurring fears of Damian being a mind-reader. As though she had spoken her thoughts aloud, he literally snapped his fingers and the robes that hugged her form began to bleed into new colors. Her mouth set slightly agape, in pure awe of the ease in which he altered the reality around them. The best and brightest article of clothing she had ever owned was a faded blue dress with lace cuffs and neckline that looked far more dated than anything the proper women wore. The fine colors that rushed over her body were like being given new eyes with better focus. “That’s amazing.” she whispered, her eyes fixed on the material. “It’s not that red is awful or anything. It just feels so harsh against my skin and hair. It’s far too powerful and strong. Something cooler, or even more muted—” it was possible this was Alice’s way of asking to fade away into the background. She didn’t much care to be noticed. “But yes, I would appreciate your efforts, truly.” she said gratefully. His teasing coaxed a true smile that touched the corners of his lips and eyes. Alice tilted her head and looked at him with soft eyes. Finally they had found something to agree upon.
Another flare of her nostril hinted at how quickly Damian was able to strike another nerve— even if he had a point. Alice was headstrong. It was a trait that occasionally led her down the path of trouble and misfortune. Curiosity was in her nature, and Alice wanted to see all that she could when the mood struck. The mage paused, staring at his finger as though he had a fingernail that needed clipping. Alice knew that look, so she thought. But as he regurgitated the same sentence as before, she suddenly had her doubts. What was on his mind?
A strange pair, indeed.
Something had halted Damian’s inquiries as he visibly shifted in thoughts he dared not share. Alice watched on, trying to fathom what it could be without a clue as to where she should start. With another snap of his fingers, Alice glanced down, first, at the robe to see if he had changed the color again, but soon met a feeling of vertigo as the room around her shifted and faded away like a piece of paper sitting in water, fading and tearing away until its image is distorted and washed away. “Wha—?” Alice placed a hand against her forehead as if to steady herself. Her stomach threatened to travel up her throat and Alice swallowed hard, forcing herself to settle. With labored breathing that took several moments to steady, Alice looked around the room, lit by the same lights that Damian used around them.
Her eyes needed a moment— no two— as she blinked hard, adjusting to the new scene. Did people always travel that way? She supposed it made it more difficult for the manor to eat a person that could snap their fingers and arrive somewhere new. He even took care to keep her in bed. It was an absurd sight— a large tree looking bed in the center of a grand kitchen. And it was grand as she hoped. In ways it reminded her of home, but on a grander scale and with nicer finishes. She smiled as the luxuries of his prep areas made the woman forget how nauseous she felt seconds before.
“You intend to make something?” she asked him in disbelief. Did mages actually learn trades, too? How were normal people supposed to compete against that? “I wouldn’t want to have you go out of your way,” she said slowly as she shifted her eyes down to the bed. He was clearly already doing so. “I could—” she began as she attempted to move, soon remembering her legs weren’t her friends. Right.
"Magically conjured- " Damian folded his arms now, staring at her. "What has put such ideas into that ginger-burnt skull of yours!?" He shot back with a weary groan. "Magic does not work that way! Magic can alter properties, magic can affect the world, it cannot simply conjure things! I can assist in the making of it, it can help to prepare but I cannot snap my fingers and craft a pie from empty air! I swear, there is none more vexing than you, baker!" He rolled his eyes. "Beverly has worked here for quite some time. She, at least, well knows to steer clear of the halls at night....but I will show you that my baking is far from rubbish. You should feel lucky enough to even sample it!"
....maybe Alice was getting to him a bit, Damian thought. He cocked his head. "Contribute to something you are good at...do you believe this is transactional?" He asked. "That you must provide to stay here?" He gave a shake of his head there. "No, you must do nothing save learn and perhaps educate. An since you have already demonstrate you have no mind for formalities, you may choose to to refer to me as "Damian" from this point on. "Lord Lascar, my mentor and master" shall also be somewhat acceptable." He was making a joke, but he didn't quite know if she would appreciate it. Alice didn't understand and there was an almost enviable simplicity in that.
Damian was ruthless, hard when he needed to be. Alice had no capacity to understand what he'd had to do to remain in control. Strength only respected strength in the end. He had to be hard, even cruel. He had to be strong that way. He had to be powerful. He had to make his heart ice when ice was needed. He needed to remain inexorable, even when the opponent might be his own brother. There was something in Alice's eyes he wasn't certain of, emotions he could not quite place. Was that...pity? Compassion?
The notion made him recoil, as if a baker could understand this. His frown deepened until he managed to adopt an expression of neutrality. "Shut on your face. Is that literal...?" He asked. Damian's refusal to take on apprentices had never been a personal affair. Point in fact, he didn't like being responsible for the lives of others, avoiding it when he could. He didn't even care for military commands when it came right down to it. And the council? Arrogant, dusty old fools at the best of times or power hungry malcontents. He wondered how to tell Alice this, but eventually decided it might be best to let her form more opinions herself. After all, he considered, it might be for the best not to bias her more than she already was even if some of those biases were debatably right.
He looked amused at Alice's shock at such simple parlor tricks as changing colors of her clothes. "You find red harsh? I'm rather fond of it. And your hair is quite red. Should I change it as well?" He lifted his hand, thumb to finger as her offered a sudden grin. "I jest, dear baker. I like you with such tresses, unless you prefer to change it. It's a reflection of yourself well enough...this headstrong nature that you utilize to stretch forth and speak equally even to those who might prove dangerous. Truthfully, I find it refreshing," he said before he lifted a hand.
Once they were in the kitche, he took note of Alice's expression and burst out laughing. The stove roared to life, the pantry opened. "You, dear baker, should see the look on your face!" He folded his arms smugly. "I am an Archmage, my dear. Such travel in my own home is easy. It also avoids the attention of the house. He glanced about as he waved a hand so that the kitchens roared to life. "Of course I intend to make something. If only to still your wicked tongue that I simply 'magic' such things in to being. Well, I shall do you the favor of allowing for requests. What strikes your fancy, baker? Fresh bread? sausage rolls? A pasty? Perhaps a pie so early?" He glanced smugly at her. "Do you think me without culture or skill, dear baker? And if you desire to assist..."
He shifted over, beginning to empty the pantry, the pans and trays ready as he began to gather ingredients, beginning to mold them together for a yeast, for both break and breakfast tarts. Oh, he'd show her now, he thought...
"You have suggestions, dear baker? I would love to hear them." His eyebrow lifted, a smile on his face again, with his eyes seeming to dance and the words "challenge accepted" in his mind.