Prince Steph of House Grimwood cradled a broad tray of pies as he stepped over rocks and between puddles on the way to his tree house behind the cemetery.
The warm scents of baked sugar, berries, and apples stirred with cinnamon made his mouth water as he settled into his cubby built amongst the thick boughs of a dead tree.
With scientific determination he tasted each slice of pie in turn, making notes in a small notebook balanced on his knee.
One apple pie had been mixed by stirring widdershins and with three knocks on the bowl for luck, the way Chef Marta liked to make them. The second apple pie had been stirred normally. Both tasted exactly the same to Steph.
One bumbleberry tart had pastry folded with thoughts of clean laundry and bell chimes, the way Chef Bashby had taught him. The other had pastry folded normally. Both tasted exactly the same.
Steph ate his way methodically through the pecan flans (one made with two whistles and a clap, the other without), and the honeyed pear cakes (one made with three wishes and a snap of the fingers, the other without), with similar failure to determine any difference in flavour, texture, or feeling.
Everything was equally delicious. Steph frowned. With a huff, Steph made a conclusive note in his book. “Absolute nonsense,” Steph muttered, gathering up his tray of now empty plates and making his way back down the treehouse ladder.
With great enthusiasm, Steph shared his notebook of findings with the kitchen staff. “See? They’re exactly the same either way you make them!” He told Chef Marta with a grin. “Now you don’t need to waste your time with all those extra steps!” Marta sniffed at the young prince and shooed him away from her bench.
Confused, Steph turned to Chef Bashby, who simply shook his head in disappointment and returned to his pot of soup.
“But isn’t it better to know what’s nonsense?” Steph asked Mina, a young kitchen hand.
“Nonsense!” She exclaimed. “Why do you get to say what’s nonsense and what’s not?”
“Because of science!” Steph called as he was herded out the heavy double doors of the palace kitchens by several affronted cooks.
Steph ran from the palace and curled up once more in his treehouse, crying with confusion and heartache. He’d put in so much effort to try making things their way. Yet in the end, their superstitions simply weren’t true. Shouldn’t they be grateful to know?
Steph started as the pointed tip of a magenta hat emerged through the entrance of his treehouse floor, followed by the rest of the wood witch Marmalade as she climbed into the confined cubby.
Seating herself between a stack of notebooks and a box of brittle flowers, Marmalade regarded the young Prince with his tear-streaked face and trembling chin.
“What’s the matter, little starling?”
Through sobs, Steph told the witch how he’d been learning how to bake from the palace staff. How they’d shown him all their different rituals for making pies taste better. How he’d tested their methods for himself and found they made no difference. How they’d sneered him from the kitchen for sharing his hard work with them.
“I don’t hiccough understand,” Steph wept. “My brothers tell me all sorts of nonsense to trick me. Make me seem a fool so they can laugh. My tutors always say truth is a gift. Isn’t it better to know what’s true than be a fool to nonsense? I thought they’d be glad to know the truth, but—but now they all hate me and—”
Steph cried into Marmalade’s shoulder as she smoothed his hair with a soft hand.
“Truth is a complex and wild thing, youngling,” Marmalade whispered as Steph’s sobs subsided to quiet sniffles.
“But… truth is simple,” Steph disagreed, his voice uncertain. “A thing is either true or it’s not.”
“That is certainly true of some things,” Marmalade said, laughter in her eyes. “Some things are true for most everyone. Some things are true for some people that aren’t true for others. Some things are only true for us and no-one else. It’s part of what makes truth so beautiful.”
Steph thought about this for a long time, as Marmalade hummed and brushed leaves from the tangles of his brown curls.
“What makes nonsense true for some people, but not for others? Not for me?” Steph quizzed, eyebrows knitted as he wrapped his arms around his knees.
“Hmm… it could be as simple as you think it’s nonsense, and they don’t. Here, why don’t I show you something.” Marmalade unclasped a teacup from her belt, then pulled a copper kettle and canteen of water from her rucksack. Filling the kettle, she brought the water to boil with a small heap of amber warming stones.
“Rituals have to mean something,” Marmalade explained as she crushed blue herbs in her hand and dropped them into the pot. “Something personal. Something true for you.” Marmalade stirred honey through her brew with a wooden spoon, drawing stars and spirals into the water. “A ritual that means something to me won’t mean a thing to someone else.”
“And if it doesn’t mean anything… it won’t work?”
“Exactly.” Marmalade poured the finished brew into her teacup and handed it to Steph. “What does that taste like to you?”
Steph took a sip. It tasted sweet, in a sad sort of way. And happy, in a sour sort of way. It tasted like the loneliness of midnight under a sky full of shooting stars, and the hope of thunder after a lightning strike.
“It tastes… like a home made in wild places. Like belonging where nothing belongs. But everything all fits together…”
Marmalade smiled, her blue eyes shining as she nodded. “That’s my truth. Or, a small part of it at least.”
Steph sat quietly, drinking Marmalade’s cup of truth with care. When he’d finished the cup, he handed it back to her gently and with both hands.
“Thank you. I think I understand now.”
Marmalade tousled Steph’s curls once more, gathered her things, and descended from the tree house. “Until we meet again, little princeling.”
After the sound of her footsteps had vanished to the distant forest, Steph sighed and climbed from the tree. He had an apology to make.
That night, after the last fires of the palace kitchen had long since burned out, Steph crept through the cold stone halls and lit the smallest oven.
Steph rolled out his pastry with care, holding in his heart a glowing gratitude for his kitchen friends who had shared their truths with him.
He chose two types of his favourite berry and mixed them with wild honey gathered from his favourite beehive. The one he whispered his secrets to, near the patch of brightest wild flowers.
As he sprinkled in cinnamon and powdered sugar, he drummed the side of the wooden bowl to the beat of his favourite song. One he’d heard while hiding in the balcony overlooking the ballroom, long past his bedtime.
As the pie baked, Steph waltzed across the flagstones. Sometimes in the lead of an imagined princess. Other times following the lead of an imagined prince.
Steph fell asleep at the kitchen table as the pie cooled on a tray beneath a cloth chosen for its pattern of embroidered ferns, just like those that grew around his favourite pond filled with fish and frogs.
The kitchen doors slammed open, waking Steph with a jolt as the chefs and cooks and kitchen hands bustled in to start the day.
“Prince Steph, what are you doing down here at this hour, eh?” Chef Bashby ambled over and took the seat across from Steph as the young prince rubbed sleep from his eyes.
Chef Marta and several cooks took their own seats at the table, their faces perplexed in the blue light of dawn.
“I wanted to say sorry. For yesterday. I’m sorry I called your truth nonsense. I didn’t understand.” Steph tugged at the sleeves of his pyjamas and nodded at the pie. “I made something for you all, if you want it. I made it with my own sort of nonsense. But it’s true nonsense.”
“It smells wonderful,” Mina cooed as she lifted the cloth. Steph grinned and sliced pie enough for everyone.
The kitchen staff chattered happily as they ate, talking of plans for breakfast and overhead scraps of palace gossip.
Marta kissed Steph on the forehead as she finished her slice and hurried off to start the bread, humming a waltz with a smile on her face.
Mina gave Steph a big crushing hug before she danced away to chop dried fruits for the porridge.
Chef Bashby clapped Steph on the shoulder with a warm grin. “That was some good nonsense, Prince Steph.”
Steph laughed as he was shooed once more from the kitchen, this time with affectionate admonishments to get to bed for some proper sleep and promises of a breakfast made with whistles.
The sky was pink with streaks of gold as Steph tumbled into bed, and dreamed of storms that felt like home.