Ecilan frowned down at the blank page in frustration, tapping his quill against his lips. He'd bought a small journal with his own allowance, but so far he'd only managed to fill one page. He couldn't resist flipping back a few pages to look at it again, scanning his own careful handwriting for any mistakes he'd missed the last time he'd triple-checked it. Along the top was a title, letters as straight and simple as he could make them.
"Sweet Blueberry Pie."
It was followed by smaller writing below, listing ingredients and instructions to make the most sugar-filled blueberry pie known to mankind. It had taken weeks to perfect the mixture; thankfully, Grisia was always happy to be his taste-tester. Ecilan had wanted to thank his fellow student for showing him that 'sweets are equal to smiles,' so he'd put in extra effort to learn exactly what it was Grisia enjoyed. Even Teacher had commented on his new resolve. Now that he'd achieved his goal, however, he'd run into a new problem.
If he didn't know what everyone liked to eat, how was he supposed to 'smile' at them?
Ecilan let his head hit the desk, closing his eyes and sighing heavily. Giving them something they didn't like would be worse than not smiling at them at all. If his father were here, he'd probably laugh and ask them straight out, "what do you love? I will bake you something better!" and he could do it, too. Just by looking at someone, Ecilan's father would know what they liked and what they didn't.
"Baking is love, Bambino," he always said, with a twinkle in his eye. "If you love someone, you will know what to bake!"
Ecilan leaned back and twisted his quill in his fingers. But Padre, I don't even know them! How could I love them? It's not that he didn't like his fellow students, of course, but there was a big difference between getting along with them and loving them. All he ever did with the others was swordfight under Sir Neo's supervision- and eat pie, if he was with Grisia. At this rate, Ecilan was never going be friends with the others!
He had to do something.
"Laica, may I ask you a question?" Ecilan settled into a defensive position and leveled the Metal Knight-in-training with a serious look. It wasn't often they sparred with each other, since the Ice Knight's passive sword style made it tough to defend against the Metal Knight's throwing knife techniques. The other students had paired off as well, with Sir Neo pacing around them all and correcting their postures.
"Sure, knock yourself out." Laica pulled a knife from his belt and twirled it in his hand, scanning Ecilan's position for any holes. Ecilan adjusted his sword in his hands, palms sweating from nerves, and began speaking as casually as he could.
"Before you came to the selections, did you ever happen to visit the Zucchero Neve bakery, near the Imperial Palace?" It was his family's bakery, founded by one of his ancestors. Generations of his family had lived and worked there all their lives- he was the first Zucchero in centuries to choose a different profession. If Laica had ever been there, he would definitely have a favorite sweet, and then Ecilan could make it for him! Unfortunately, Laica's next words crushed his hopes.
"Nope, never even heard of it. I came straight from my village to participate in the selections, so I've hardly even been outside the church." Laica decided to strike as he spoke, dashing forward and swinging his knife downwards towards Ecilan's shoulder. The blades clashed loudly, but Ecilan's strength won out and he disarmed Laica in one smooth movement, sending the knife flying out of reach. Laica cursed as he backed away, reaching for another knife. "Why do you ask, anyway? It's not like we're friends or anything."
Ecilan flinched at the question, Laica's words managing to pinpoint his greatest weakness. No wonder he'd breezed through the selections!
"I just- I was wondering if you'd ever eaten anything from there. I've heard it's really good." Ecilan jumped when Sir Neo barked at him to stop standing around like concussed pigeon, and quickly shifted into the third form of defense his teacher had shown him. Laica, seeing this, began circling again, trying to find the holes in this new position. "They bake bread and things like normal bakeries, but their sweets are the best in all of Forgotten Sound." Ecilan wasn't exaggerating. His parents didn't usually let him eat the merchandise, but when they did he could feel himself falling in love with baking all over again.
"Sweets, huh?" Laica pulled out another knife and frowned at them both as though comparing them. Ecilan forced himself not to flinch as he watched the other boy slice both knives across his arm, apparently testing their sharpness. Laica nodded to himself, holstering one of the knives and gripping the remaining one with determination. "I don't know if I believe that nonsense about being the 'best in Forgotten Sound.' It sounds like they're compensating for something."
Ecilan's expression wasn't a smooth as it should have been, but his baker's pride had flared.
"Well, why don't you try it, then? You can see for yourself if they're really as good as they say." Laica considered Ecilan's proposal for a moment, frowning thoughtfully.
"What do I get if I'm right?"
"Well," Ecilan floundered for a moment, "Satisfaction, I guess. And you'll have eaten sweets either way."
"Good point. Alright! You've got yourself a deal!"
Ecilan didn't have a chance to reply before Sir Neo stormed over, yelling at Laica for "getting blood all over his training uniform again," but he didn't let this distract him.
Just you wait, Laica! Don't underestimate a Zucchero!
He didn't buy sweets from the bakery, of course, Ecilan made them himself in the church kitchens. He'd let himself get sidetracked from his goal of figuring out what his fellow students liked, but now that he'd made the bet he could hardly back down. His honor as a baker- and as the Ice Knight-in-training- was at stake! Unfortunately, it had already been three weeks since Laica had challenged him, and Ecilan had yet to make him admit defeat. He would eat anything Ecilan brought him, but no matter what changes were made to the recipe it was always "too sweet," or "too bitter." He'd had tried adding nuts last time, and Laica hadn't liked those either, but he had liked them more than the others, so Ecilan must've done something right.
But what could it be? The salt from the nuts? No, he mentioned he didn't like how the nuts tasted. Was it the chocolate? But I only used enough to keep the nuts together because I wanted to keep them small . . .
Ecilan was sitting on a stool in the kitchen, scanning the ingredients laid out on the counter and trying not to let his frustration show on his face. His teacher had scolded him recently, lamenting that he'd gone from smiling all the time to frowning, and Ecilan didn't want to waste time in character development classes when he could be baking.
Maybe I'm going about this the wrong way, he realized. I keep trying to add things, like how I added sugar for Grisia. But Laica only likes it when I take away from his candy. Ecilan lept up from the stool and began pacing the room. It must be that he doesn't like chocolate. He came from an isolated village; maybe he never got to eat chocolate at all, so he never learned to enjoy it! But what can I use if I can't use chocolate? Ecilan whipped around, digging through his stockpiled ingredients for a hint. Back at the bakery, they sometimes got orders from customers with allergies to certain ingredients, so his parents were careful to teach him alternatives to every ingredient. Try as he might, however, he couldn't remember them teaching him a substitute for chocolate.
Ecilan forced himself to sit down and think clearly. OK, I can't substitute anything for chocolate, because that would make the taste even less appealing to Laica. I have to think of something he would have eaten before. Think, Ecilan! He lived in the middle of the woods, miles from any trading posts. It's not likely they would have many chances to buy sugar, so he must've gotten it from somewhere else.
His eyes swept over the ingredients one last time, landing on the heavy ceramic jars the kitchen ladies kept sugar in. He'd spent plenty of time scooping sugar out of those jars for Grisia's sweets, but he'd never seen any use for the little blue jar that held the wrong kind of sugar. This time, with a little improvisation, Ecilan was sure he could make it work. It will work, or my name's not Ecilan Zucchero!
Laica was sitting in his room, waiting for the sun to rise and absently tossing a knife between his hands. He was a really light sleeper in the first place, and it was boring to sleep for more than a few hours at a time. Teacher got annoyed when he wandered the church at night, though, so he made sure to stay inside his room until a more reasonable hour. (After all, the only other person who woke up as early as he did was Sir Chasel, and Laica certainly didn't want to hang around with the Judgement Knight!)
Suddenly, his door flew open, slamming against the wall with a bang that made Laica jump. Ecilan, who looked absolutely exhausted, made a beeline for Lacia and thrust a bundle into his arms.
"These are for you." He sat down heavily on the bed, staring intently at Laica and waiting for him to open the bundle. The Metal Knight-in-training turned the package over in his hands, curious; it was probably more sweets, since they were wrapped up in Ecilan's handkerchief. He didn't know why the other boy had been consistently buying candy for him recently, but it was probably something he'd said; with his luck, he'd insulted the Ice Knight-in-training so badly his ancestors ten generations back were offended. Maybe this candy was poisoned, and he was dying really, really slowly. OK, don't get paranoid, Laica, just open the hankie before Ecilan freezes your nostrils shut or something.
The smell that hit him once he untied the knot was almost painfully familiar, and he hurried to open it fully. Inside were perfectly round lumps of soft candy, smooth and malleable. They were roughly made and had clearly been a rush job, but Laica almost couldn't breathe in surprise. Bringing one to his mouth, he realised that it wasn't just the smell that was familiar, the taste was as well. Ecilan must've seen his shock, because he began explaining;
"It's maple flavored toffee, since you probably don't like the taste of chocolate. I would've made something less sticky if I'd had a chance to harvest the syrup myself, but all we had in the kitchens was maple sugar, so it might not taste the way you're used to-"
"Hold on," Laica interrupted, words muffled by the toffee he'd stuffed in his mouth, "You made these? I thought you bought them from that bakery place."
"Zucchero Neve," Ecilan supplied. "And no, I'm sorry. I've been making it all myself. I mean, it's still Zucchero, but it's not really the same." He paused for a moment. "It's my family's bakery, you see, and my Padre always said that if you love someone, you should bake them something that will make them smile, and, well. We're brothers, aren't we?"
Laica swallowed, staring intently at Ecilan, who was fidgeting and shyly looking down in a way that didn't suit the Ice Knight-in-training at all. So I DID insult his entire family tree back then.
"Well, thank you, I guess." Ecilan jerked but didn't look at Laica. "I mean, I don't know why you went out of your way to do this, but it's perfect." He popped another toffee in his mouth. "It tastes a lot like the candy my mom used to make. I didn't think I'd ever get to eat something like this again." He didn't mention it wasn't just the taste that was familiar; Ecilan probably hadn't done it on purpose, but his ice magic had kept the toffee cold, much like the maple candy from back home. "I love them."
Ecilan was quiet as he watched Laica dig through the pile of toffee. He'd stayed up all night to make passable toffee, working until he'd been kicked out of the kitchen by the ladies getting ready to make breakfast. He'd exhausted his powers trying to make enough ice to cool the boiling syrup properly, and he'd burned his tongue trying to taste it and it still felt numb. It had been one of the toughest things he'd ever tried to make, but the warmth that bloomed in his chest when the other boy thanked him made all his regrets fade away.
"Baking is love, Bambino. If you love someone, you will know what to bake!"
You always made it sound so easy, Padre. But I think I understand.
Years later, the newly-knighted Ecilan Ice flipped through his notebook again, skimming the countless recipes that filled the once-empty pages. His handwriting had gotten smaller and tighter, less childish, and it had helped when his recipes had gotten more complex. Some of them took up several pages all on their own, the margins filled with details he'd added in later on. The pages themselves had aging splatters of flour and chocolate and God of Light knew what else sticking them together, so he had to pick the open carefully. Ecilan could remember the trials that had gone into each one of these recipes, the guesswork and the stomachaches from eating too many failures.
"Sweet Blueberry Pie," for Grisia, which was still too sweet for anyone else to eat, especially now that they'd grown up. "Maple Toffee," for Laica, who refused to eat anything else. There were dozens of pages with extra parchment pasted on top of scratched-out recipes, back when he'd tried to pin down Elmairy's tastes. (The other boy had always thanked him so kindly he assumed that he'd hit the perfect mixture, only to change it again when he learned that Elmairy had given the candies away. Again.) Every single page had brought him closer to understanding his father's words, and finally, Ecilan could claim he knew what his father had been talking about. Baking is love, Padre. If you love someone, you will know what to bake, because you'll care enough to figure it out.
Ecilan could use a little more love, don't you think?