“Sweet Builder, Martin, PLEASE do this for me.” Junie had more than a hint of desperation in her voice. “Mumsy has been bothering me all week about these ridiculous sticky buns, insisting that I keep trying until the recipe tastes just right. I have no idea what has gotten into her.
Martin shrugged. “Make Kaylee do it. She’s the baker.”
“Kaylee wants to know why we can’t just kill her since she’s old anyway. And says that if we don’t try something else we’ll go bankrupt simply from the amount of flour, butter, eggs and honey we’re going through.”
“Kaylee has good points.” Malus said, his face betraying nothing. “And honey is expensive this time of year.”
Emerson, who was listening quietly as Junie plead her case, chuckled. Junie could see that she’d hit on a good strategy and continued. “It really, really is, and she insists on the good stuff imported from down south where flowers are still in bloom.”
He still seemed hesitant and she pressed her case with an apologetic tone. “She probably won’t hit you again this year…”
Silence, accompanied by an icy glare as Martin recalled the painful bruise on his ankle from a swift blow of Mumsy’s cane. “I agreed to take the old bat to the messenger depot,” he said finally, “not run her all over town for pastries.”
Emerson came to Junie’s aid. “Squire, you are still my squire, and it is still in your duties to drive Junie’s aunt. You can have the steam carriage for the rest of the day after Mumsy’s errands are done. That was our deal.”
“Weekend,” insisted Malus.
“Day,” said Emerson with uncharacteristic firmness.
Martin sighed dramatically and grumbled while plucking the carriage keys from the hook under the bar. “Make sure to count our stock of Ravilan wines before and after Njal’s shift,” he retorted before storming out.
“Close the door behind you!” Emerson shouted, turning his attention back to the crossword puzzle before him. In answer, the front door of the Gangplank slammed so hard that the cuckoo erupted angrily from its clock seven hours prematurely to announce afternoon tea.
* * *
“You’re late,” Mumsy growled as Martin parked the steam carriage at the base of Coronet Gardens. “I’ve been waiting half an hour.”
“Life’s rough, old woman,” he said with a sneer. “I have better things to do than drive you all over town for some stupid pastries.”
Mumsy narrowed her eyes at him as he helped her into the carriage. “Somehow, I doubt that,” she replied. “No buns for you, Slim.”
He scoffed. “As if you’d give me any to begin with.”
She settled into the carriage seat with a groan. “How right you are,” she said as Martin returned to his seat on the driver’s side. Then, pounding her cane repeatedly on the floor of the carriage, she began shouting. “Let’s go, boy! Put this damnable contraption in gear and drive, already! Great Caesar’s ghost, what are we waiting for?”
“To be honest,” he replied calmly, “I was hoping maybe you’d die before we set off.” He opened the steam valve and the carriage began rolling forward. “But no such luck.”
* * *
To Martin’s surprise, Mumsy Abigail was unusually quiet once they got underway. He drove her to the three bakeries in town, to Brunel Hall so they could inspect Victor’s pastry inventory, and they were now en route to a small bread cart set up down on the Port. A testimony to their extensive search now lay in the rear of the carriage—a large covered basket filled with sticky buns, biscuits and an assortment of other flakey goods. She seemed unsatisfied with them all.
“This is the last stop we’re making for buns, Mumsy,” he advised impatiently as they pulled up to the merchant carts. “There isn’t much coal left and I’m not buying more for your wild goose chase. Next stop is the messenger depot and then I’m taking you home.” He knew that Mumsy’s final stop every Valentine’s Day was the messenger depot, so she could send a disgustingly sweet note to the same unlucky sod every year. He rolled his eyes just thinking about it.
Mumsy doddered toward the woman standing behind many baskets and boxes of pastries.
“Where are your sticky buns?” she demanded.
The woman smiled sweetly, ignoring the acerbic tone in her new customer’s voice. “Right here, made fresh this morning.” She picked up a basket. “Almost all gone though, on account of they’re one of our most popular items.” She removed the lid, revealing a clean muslin lining in which rested a half dozen of the most beautiful, perfectly sweet-smelling sticky buns Mumsy had observed in decades.
“I need to taste one before I purchase,” Mumsy said. The woman nodded and, in spite of her dwindling stock, relinquished one of the precious commodities into the old woman’s trembling hands. Mumsy had only to pinch a small bit off of the bun and place it on her tongue to know that this was what she had been looking for. Against all odds, this was the recipe she remembered from so long ago. That one small taste raised a poignant array of memories.
She suddenly narrowed her eyes at the woman, searching her face. “What is your name?” she asked sharply.
“Paulette Anders, mum,” the woman answered politely. She looked to be in her forties, dressed plainly as a working merchant woman would be against the cold.
“How did you learn to make these?”
“It’s my grandfather’s recipe, it is, passed down through generations,” she replied, a proud smile spreading across her lips. “His name was…”
Mumsy held up her hand. “Please,” she said. “I don’t want to hear it.” She turned abruptly to walk back toward the carriage and addressed Martin in an uncharacteristically low voice. “Pay the woman twice what she asks,” she said. “I’m ready to go.”
* * *
Standing at the counter of the depot, Martin glared at Mumsy as he prepared to write her note. “What a stupid valentine,” he said.
Mumsy pounded the floor with her cane. “Just do it!” she howled. “You’re hardly a good judge of what’s stupid!”
“What—what’s that supposed to mean?” he sputtered, his voice rising in both pitch and volume as a messenger girl tittered behind the counter. He turned on her and pointed threateningly. “You! Be quiet! I know Brother Lapis.” She ceased giggling immediately, pressing her lips together in a practiced gesture of silence. The last thing she needed was for Brother Lapis to hear that she’d offended a customer. It was bad enough that she was left behind by all the other messengers when they ran off at first sight of the steam carriage.
Martin turned his attention back to pen and paper. “Fine.” He began reciting condescendingly as he scribbled. “‘Honey… buns… for… ‘” He paused and squeezed his eyes shut. “Do you really want to say this? To him?” He look up at Mumsy. She just scowled.
“Write!” she commanded. “You may know that upstart Lapis,” she said with a hint of venom, “but he’s hardly at the top of the food chain.”
He fixed her with a quizzical expression, but she just waggled a gnarled finger at the paper.
She’s off her nut, he thought to himself. He shrugged and returned to his task. “‘Honey buns for… honey… buns. Signed, Abigail.'” He made an exaggerated gagging sound as he slammed the card against the counter. “There. Done. Happy?”
Mumsy harumphed. “Now the basket,” she said. She struck the base of the counter with her cane, causing Martin and the messenger girl to jump at the resounding impact. “Send the basket with the note,” she instructed the girl as Martin set the treasured sticky buns on the counter. “And don’t eat any. I’ll find out if you do…”
The old woman leveled a maliciously squinted eye at the girl and then hobbled out of the depot silently, leaving Martin to pay the unfortunate messenger.
“You’ll probably find her ‘valentine’ asleep somewhere near the foundry furnaces in this weather,” he told her. “And don’t worry,” he continued, pressing a coin into her hand. “I’ll give you advance warning next year. If she is still alive.”