THE LAST DAY OF Kaile’s life did not start well.
She was up before the sun bothered to be, and fumbled a bit with her bedside lantern. The flint sparked, the wick caught, and she blinked herself awake in the sudden, violent light. Then she wound up the base and watched it turn.
The lantern was a music box, a shadow puppet show, and one of Kaile’s very favorite things. Animals marched around the bedroom walls as it turned in a slow circle. She stared at the shadows while slowly remembering what day it was. She moved more quickly once she remembered, and scrambled out of bed. Ceramic floor tiles felt cold against the bottoms of her feet. Her own shadow climbed the wall behind her to join the marching puppets.
Kaile opened her window. She smelled coldness and wetness in the air outside. Her arms felt bumpy when she rubbed them, but she put on a simple work dress with short sleeves that wouldn’t get in her way. Downstairs the oven was probably roaring. Downstairs it would be too warm already.
Kaile, the baker’s daughter, closed the window and braided her hair by her reflection in the window glass. She hummed along with the lantern music, making it a tune to hold her hair together.
The music box wound down, and the lantern stopped turning. Kaile snuffed the wick and went downstairs.
A cloud of hot, dry air smacked into her when she opened the kitchen door. She had expected it, and was surprised by it anyway. The air also carried rich kitchen smells. It presented these various scents to Kaile with warmth and welcome. She breathed and sorted them, each from each.
Mother peered around the far side of the oven, which was a great, big, round, red mountain of clay with many doors and baking trays set into the sides. Mother’s hair stuck up in strange places. It looked like someone had scrubbed the top of her head with the side of a sheep.
“Take out the first batch of breakfast pies,” she told Kaile, without even saying Good morning. “They’re nearly done.”
Kaile grabbed a wooden paddle and braced herself for opening oven doors and breathing oven air. She tried not to be annoyed. Mother had probably not slept at all. She never did before Inspection Day.
Bakery inspections happened every year. The Guard Captain came, bought loaves of bread, and weighed them, one at a time, with his gearworked hands. If the loaves weren’t heavy and substantial enough to pass muster—or if they weren’t tasty enough—then the offending baker got locked in an iron cage by the docks and dunked several times in the River. After that the baker remained in the cage, suspended over the water, so people could laugh and jeer and throw stale breakfast rolls. The dunking went on for three days. It taught bakers not to cheat their neighbors by skimping on the substance of their bread dough.
Kaile suspected that her mother actually loved Inspection Day. She made the best bread and ale in Southside—everyone knew it, and Mother liked to remind everyone of it. She had never been dunked in the Zombay River for skimping on her dough. Not once. So every year her unbroken record got longer, and the pressure to keep it got stronger. Some neighbors started to whisper that she was getting a bit too proud, a bit too cocky, and that every baker should be dunked at least once to remind them that it could happen to anyone. Wasn’t it just about her turn?
Mother only ever smiled at the whispered spite. Not me, she would say. Not ever. But she wasn’t smiling now. She made grumbling and muttering noises at everything she touched. Kaile didn’t want to know what Mother was saying to the kitchen as she moved through it.
Together they covered a countertop with breakfast pies, and filled the open shelves in the oven with pans of bread dough.
“Where’s Father?” Kaile asked.
“I sent him out to clean the public room,” Mother said. She wiped her forehead with a rag. It didn’t matter. It only seemed to move the sweat around.
Kaile had helped her father clean the public room the night before. She didn’t point this out now. Instead she looked around to see what needed doing next. Inspections came only once a year, and the day went faster if she kept busy. Leftovers were also especially good after Inspection Day, so she had that to look forward to.
She checked the windows to make sure Southside dust wasn’t getting through the cloth screen and mixing with the flour—which always happened anyway, but it was best to limit just how much dust got in the bread—and then she set to kneading dough. She hummed a kneading sort of tune to herself. The tune gave shape to what she did, and held the whole of it together.
Kaile stopped humming and kneading when a shrill, piercing, horrible noise stabbed through the kitchen air. She covered her ears with both hands.
Now I have dough in my ears, she noticed. I wonder if I’ll be able to get it all out.
“Wake up, everybody!” the Snotfish shouted. His name was Cob, but the name did not suit him nearly so well as Snotfish. “Inspection Daaaaaaay, Inspection Daaaaaaaaay . . .” He marched through the kitchen and blew another note into his tin whistle. The sound made it through Kaile’s hands, and through the bread dough, and into her ears. It was even more painful than the first note.
Snotfish’s whistle was his very favorite thing, and it had been ever since Kaile had given it to him in a moment of foolish generosity. It used to be hers. Now her little brother tried to play marching tunes with it, because the Guard used marching tunes to get used to their gearworked legs. He wanted to join the Guard when he grew old enough—if he ever did, if he managed to live so long before Mother and Father baked him into a pie to be done with him.
Kaile took her doughy hands from her ears and prepared to say wrathful and scathing things. She wasn’t sure what she was going to say, but she took in a very big breath to make sure she would have enough air to say it with.
Her father was faster. He tore into the kitchen through the public room door and tried to snatch the whistle away. The Snotfish resisted, and the whistle spun out of his hands and into the oven fire.
Everyone started shouting at once.
The Snotfish ran to the oven with a shrill, wordless cry, ready to dive inside and rescue his precious whistle. Father grabbed the boy’s arm to keep him from burning himself. Mother called down curses on the both of them.
Kaile took the longest kitchen tongs and tried to fish out the whistle. It was far inside. She felt the fine hairs burn on her forearms. A horrible, acrid, metallic smell began to fill the kitchen.
The shouting subsided. It was silent in the room by the time Kaile pulled out a ruined lump of tin.
She looked at it sadly. She should have kept it. She shouldn’t have given it to the Snotfish. He never learned to play it properly, and now it would never play again.
Father brought her a water bucket, and she dropped the tin lump inside. Hot metal hissed and steamed. That was the only noise in the kitchen.
Mother opened the oven door and sniffed. She reached in with one hand, tore off a piece of still-baking bread, and took a bite.
“It tastes like tin,” she said. She sounded calm. Kaile was a little bit afraid of how calm her mother sounded. “Tin does not taste good.”
The Snotfish sniffed. Father’s eyebrows scrunched together over the top of his nose.
“Both of you get out,” Mother said. “Please get very far away from this oven.”
Father and the Snotfish turned and left without further protest.
“Kaile,” Mother said, her voice still very calm. “Fetch me more water. I need to make dough. Then take everything out of the oven and throw it in a crate for the guzzards, and after that open the public room. The old men are waiting already for their domini table, I’m sure.”
“Yes, Mother,” Kaile said, and left the kitchen. She was relieved to get away from the hot tin smell, and away from Mother’s cold-burning calm.