The Avlina Flower’s Magic’, Jamie Lackey

Illustrations © 2021 Carmen Moran

 [ Grind the petals © 2021 Carmen Moran ] My family believes that if you grind the petals of an avlina flower and bake them into your courtship cake, the magic of the binding ceremony changes, and guarantees the baker happiness. My mother and aunt searched the forest for one for me, and it’s sitting in a place of honor on the windowsill. My mother put it in the crystal vase that she’s always kept in the bottom of the china cabinet—the one that I’ve never even been allowed to touch.

I’d rather put nightshade in my cake. Or even better, not have to bake one at all.

I think about walking out the door, just leaving everything behind and starting over with just myself, without the weight of family or expectation or obligation. Maybe I’d meet a nice girl, and we could flirt over coffee and never talk about our past.

The morning sunlight sparkles through my mother’s special vase, paints rainbows on the wall, the chipped counter, my apron, the backs of my hands. It took them weeks of hunting to find the avlina flower.

I stand and measure out flour and sugar and oil. The flower itself is pale pink, delicate and lovely. Its subtle fragrance fills the kitchen.

My aunt hovers in the doorway behind me, watching my every move, her face tight with worry. Tradition demands that I bake my cake alone.

“Kitty’s baked cakes before, Haley,” my mother calls from the living room. “Stop lurking.”

“Our future has never depended on one of them before,” Aunt Haley mutters, but withdraws.

I pull the petals off one by one, whispering, “He loves me, he loves me not,” and of course I end on, “He loves me.” I glower at the final petal before dropping it into the mortar.

I grind the petals into paste and whisk it into the eggs.

My cake is lovely, if I do say so myself. I matched the avlina’s color in the buttercream frosting, and went with a simple, rough finish. I did a wonderful job. I want to cry.

My mother coos over it while I box it up, and even Aunt Haley looks grudgingly impressed. I hug them both tight. I remind myself that I love them very much.

I let my mother carry the cake, and we all leave together. With each step, I feel more tired, more trapped.

There are only three other girls my age in town, and we meet them at the town hall. They look nervous and happy and I try not to hate them. None of them meet my eyes.

Our cakes are placed on a display table. The others are covered with designs and smooth fondant. Mine looks out of place, and I feel a faint stir of hope.

The suitors aren’t supposed to know which is which, and they can only pick two cakes to sample. Maybe no one will taste mine.

People begin to trickle in. I sit between my mother and aunt. My mother grips my hand so hard that my bones ache. My aunt sits with her eyes closed and lips moving.

I daydream about getting up and just running as far as I can.

Nathan Hirth strides in. He smiles at me, and my mother squeezes my hand even harder. Finally, the mayor arrives. He intones a spell over the cakes, and magic drifts down from his fingers like flower petals. He steps back and smiles at us. “You may begin.”

Theodore Bingam, whose father owns the hardware store, steps forward and takes a bite out of one of the cakes. Light flashes, and one of the other girls stands up and runs to him, laughing.

In spite of everything, I find that I can be happy for them.

A few other men step forward and try two cakes each. Nothing happens, and they step back, disappointed. My cake is still untouched.

Nathan steps forward. His father is the richest man in town, and Nathan has made no secret of the fact that he wants me.

My feelings on the matter are of no consequence. With both my father and uncle dead, I need to marry someone who can support my mother and aunt. And no one else would dare to take me from Nathan Hirth.

It’s said that the magic favors the Hirth family. I think that it’s more likely that they just have the mayor’s favor. Nathan goes straight for my cake. He looks directly into my eyes as he takes a bite.

And nothing happens.

Nathan’s eyes flick to the mayor, who looks shocked for a moment, before an impartial mask slides over his face. For a moment, I think that Nathan is going to throw my cake onto the floor, but he just glares around the room and stalks out.

My mother and aunt’s faces have both gone gray. I feel shaky and sick. I don’t want to marry Nathan, but now that I’ve escaped it, I have no idea what else I can do.

More suitors approach the table. None of them touch my cake.

I feel hollow and shaken, like a bell that has just sounded.

We finally head home, and my mother and aunt collapse in tears. I carry my cake with its single bite taken into the kitchen. I cut myself a piece and eat it slowly. It’s fluffy and sweet and delicious. I cut pieces for Aunt Haley and my mother. It would be foolish to waste it.

Someone knocks on the door. My mother and aunt look alarmed. “Who could that be?” my mother whispers.

“Maybe they’ll just leave,” Aunt Haley says.

The knock sounds again, louder this time.

“I’ll get it,” I say, pressing plates of cake into their hands.

There is a woman standing on our doorstep. Her dark brown hair is braided, and she’s wearing a fitted leather jacket over a long, flowing black skirt. She scans me from head to toe. “Kitty? Did you become a spinster today?” she asks.

I want to be offended, but I’m too tired. “What do you want?”

“That’s what I’m here to ask you.”

“I don’t understand.”

She grins. “I don’t imagine you do. Are you going to invite me in, or are we going to conduct our business on the street?”

It is very satisfying to close the door in her face.

“Who was it?” my mother asks.

I shrug. “I think she was selling encyclopedias.”

I go back into the kitchen to make tea, and she’s sitting at the table, fork hovering over a slice of my cake.

Fear spikes through me. How did she get in? What is she doing?

Her eyes hold mine as she takes a bite of the cake, and a flash of light fills the room.

When the light fades, she’s smiling. She has a pretty smile. “This is quite good.”

“Who the hell are you?” I ask.

“My name is Tania Varuska.”

“Why are you here?”

She takes another bite of cake. “I’m here to claim you as my bride.”

 [ Eat the cake © 2021 Carmen Moran ] We end up letting Tania Varuska stay in the guest bedroom. She presses a kiss to my cheek before we part for the night. She smells like cedarwood and lavender. She practically vibrates with happiness. I have no idea how to feel about any of this.

“It’s all because of that damn flower,” my aunt says. “It has to be.”

My mother nods and wipes tears off of her cheeks. “We just wanted you to be happy!”

We finish the cake for breakfast. “We should go see the mayor,” I say. “He cast the spell on the courtship cake, so he should be able to check and see if Tania and I are actually bonded.”

“Sounds good to me.” Tania twines her fingers through mine and grins at me. “It’s interesting, isn’t it?” she asks as we leave the house.

“What is?”

“The magic. The way it’s working on us.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

She squeezes my hand, and I realize that I haven’t even tried to pull away.

Nathan Hirth is standing outside the mayor’s office when we arrive.

“Hello there,” Tania says.

Nathan purses his lips, glancing at our entwined fingers. “Good morning, ladies. Who is your friend, Kitty?”

“Oh, we’re not friends,” Tania says. “I’m here to seduce her.”

Nathan clearly has no idea how to react. It’s nice to see someone else feeling the same way I do. “I’m here to see if I can appeal the ceremony. Something clearly went wrong.”

“Oh no, the ceremony worked perfectly. She’s just not for you,” Tania says. She pulls me closer to her and squeezes my hand.

I like the way her shoulder presses into mine, warm and real.

Tania and Nathan glare at each other till the mayor’s secretary opens the door.

Nathan is ushered into the mayor’s office first, and the door closes firmly behind him. Tania strokes the back of my hand. “Don’t worry about him,” she whispers.

I squeeze her hand. After ten minutes, Nathan storms out of the mayor’s office. “This isn’t over!” he shouts. He glares at Tania. “You won’t have any better luck.”

My mother and aunt stand up. “We’ll go talk to him. You girls wait out here.”

“That’s not necessary,” Tania says.

My mother gives me a look. “We’ll wait here,” I say.

Tania frowns, but lets them go.

Once we’re alone, I turn and look at her. Her hair is down today, soft around her face. I find myself wanting to touch it, so I do. I push a strand back behind her ear. “What is happening to us?” I ask.

“I think we’re falling in love,” Tania says.

“Did you know it would happen?”

“I—I did. I was going to talk to you about it first, but you made me angry.”

“How did you get in? How did you know to come looking for me?”

She shrugs. “Your window was unlocked. I just climbed in. As for the how I knew—well, I dream things, sometimes.”

“You dreamed about me?”

She shrugs. “I’ve dreamed about you my whole life. I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.”

My mother calls us into the office. “The mayor wants to do a test,” she says.

“Test away,” Tania says. “You’ll find everything in order.”

The mayor frowns, but starts casting a spell. It makes Tania and I glow pale blue.

“Well,” he says. “It does seem like everything is in order.”

Tania grins, and I find myself smiling back.

“Do you have the bride price?” the mayor asks.

Tania pulls out a checkbook and hands my mother a blank check. “That won’t be a problem.”

I raise my eyebrow at her. She pulls me toward her and whispers, “My family is loaded,” into my ear. The words hardly register as her breath sends a shiver down my spine.

“You can participate in the group wedding today, if you’d like,” the mayor says.

It’s all so fast. I hardly know her. But it seems like she knows enough for both of us. “We’d be delighted to,” I say. My mother and aunt gape at me. Tania just grins.

I already have a dress ready, and Tania, of course, has brought one with her. My dress is pale pink. Like the avlina flower. Tania’s is sky blue. She looks stunning in it. I find myself reaching out to touch her hair again.

Before we leave for the wedding, I stop her. I have so many questions. “How are you doing this to me?” I ask. “The magic. How does it work?”

Tania tilts her head to one side. “I’m not the one doing it, Kitty. All I can do is dream. The love magic is all you.”

I think about the avlina flower and its promise of happiness. Yesterday, I’d been willing to marry Nathan for my family.

Today, I want to kiss Tania. So I do.

© 2021 Jamie Lackey

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