A magic cupcake. A culinary killer. The perfect recipe for murder.
Wren knew her sweet treats could work wonders, but she never knew they could work magic. She barely has time to wrap her head around the stunning revelation when the head of the prestigious Confectioner's Guild falls down dead before her. Poisoned by her cupcake.
Now facing murder charges in a magical world she doesn't understand, Wren must discover the true killer or face the headsman's axe. With the help of a handsome inspector and several new friends, Wren just might manage to learn the ropes, master her new powers, and find out who framed her. But when their search for clues leads to a deep-rooted conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, she realizes that the guild master isn't the only one at risk of death by chocolate.
If Wren can't bring the powerful culprit to justice, she and her friends will meet a bittersweet end.
"An enchanting mystery that will engage readers' senses and capture their imaginations."– Kirkus Reviews
"A delightful, absorbing mystery - and one I couldn't put down!"– Cate Dean, author of the Maggie Mulgrew mysteries
"The Confectioner's Guild is a tale of mystery, intrigue, and romance wrapped in spun sugar and magic. Delightfully delicious"– Angel Leya, author of Skye's Lure
"A murder mystery in a fantasy world, with magic, romance, and court intrigue as the main ingredients, is a winning recipe."– Day Leitao, author of Step into Magic
The door swung open and Wren almost laughed in relief at the sight. A short ruddy man with a rotund belly and a thick head of snowy white hair stood before her. He reminded her of nothing so much as one of her cupcakes, the red velvet kind sprinkled with coconut shavings.
"Come in, come in," he said, waving them into the room enthusiastically. He wore a crisp shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing substantial forearms covered with downy white hair. As she passed him, she caught a whiff of butterscotch.
"Have a seat, my dear. Have a seat," he repeated, motioning to one of the two studded leather chairs that sat before his huge desk. Not at all the dungeon she had expected—the room was bright and cheerful, with tall windows letting in streams of sluggish summer sun.
Wren sat, smoothing her faded cotton dress over her knees.
"Callidus, feel free to sit," the man said, motioning to the other chair.
She shied away from it involuntarily.
"I'll stand," Callidus replied, leaning against a bookshelf by the door.
"Of course you will." The man paused for a moment. "I hope Callidus didn't scare you too terribly. He lacks something of a bedside manner."
Wren laughed, a forced bark that belied her nervousness. "He was… mysterious," she admitted, thinking it best not to antagonize him.
"Well, let's put the mystery to an end. I am Guildmaster Kasper, Head of the Confectioner's Guild. And you are?"
"Wren," she said. "Wren Confectioner," she added, in the Alesian style. In the country of Alesia, a guildmember who didn't wish to keep their father's surname, or who didn't know their father's name, could take the name of their craft as their surname.
"It's a delight to meet you, Wren," Kasper said. "Did Callidus explain why we summoned you?"
"Of course not." He pursed his lips. "You're no doubt wondering why you're here. Callidus, where are those cupcakes?"
Callidus dropped the box on the desk between them before resuming his statue-like pose against the bookcase.
"Excellent," Kasper said, opening the box. He removed one of the cupcakes and turned it before him, admiring it from various angles. "These are magnificent, my dear. I've known masters who couldn't make such masterpieces. You're what, an artisan?"
"Apprentice!" his brown eyes flew open. "For how long?"
"Four years, guildmaster."
"Four years!" He harrumphed. "Outrageous. You could cook circles around some of my best guildmembers. Your master will be hearing from me."
"Thank you, guildmaster," she said, keeping the vindicated smile from her face. She knew Master Oldrick had been lying about her not being ready for a promotion within the Guild, she just hadn't figured out what to do about it. Oldrick wasn't a bad man—only greedy. And promoting her meant paying her higher wages.
"I can tell you have a gift for confections. Such gifts are rare, even within the Guild," Kasper said. His eyes gleamed in the sunlight as he studied her, setting the cupcake before her. "You've sampled your confections, haven't you?"
She shook her head. "Master Oldrick forbids it." More for the customers. And the cash register.
Guildmaster Kasper sputtered, slapping his hand on the desk. "This Oldrick fellow, I like him less and less! How do you make chocolate if you don't taste it?"
"I follow the recipe. And get it right the first time." No need to mention that she had stolen a taste or two when Oldrick wasn't looking.
"Quite right, quite right. I suppose that explains how skinny you are. No respectable confectioner should be skinny!" He slapped the girth of his stomach and laughed, a warm husky sound. "Confections are what make the world go 'round, don't you agree?"
Wren cracked a smile despite herself. His enthusiasm was infectious. "The world would be a happier place if that were true."
"But it is true," he said, as if he had a secret he couldn't wait to share. Kasper reached in the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a heavy gold coin. It was an Alesian gold crown, more money than Wren made in a year. He handed it to her.
Wren cradled it reverently. "What's this for?"
"Flip it," he said. "If you get heads, you can keep it."
Sending a prayer up to the gods, she flipped and caught it, slapping it on the back of her other hand. The stately profile of Mount Luminis gleamed on the surface. Tails. Trying to still her disappointment, she put the crown back on the desk.
"Bad luck," he said, the corners of his eyes crinkling in a smile. "Eat the cupcake. You'll feel better. In fact, I think I'll have one myself."
She looked at him, unsure of his game. But the cupcake did look good, and she had missed lunch today, what with the bustle of the shop. He was already unwrapping his own, taking a monstrous bite that enveloped half the cupcake in one go. She shrugged and retrieved hers, unwrapping the lace around its base.
The first bite was the best. The sweet vanilla flavor of the fluffy cupcake mingled with the silky sugar of the frosting, hitting her taste buds like a cotton candy cloud. She closed her eyes as she chewed, trying to commit the pleasure of the moment to memory. She opened her eyes and found Kasper watching her with an amused expression on his face.
"Ehts gud," she admitted around the bite of cupcake. Her body buzzed pleasantly as she swallowed.
"Yes, it is," he said, licking frosting off his fingers.
She set the rest of the cupcake on its wrapper on the desk. "It seems a shame to eat it," she said. "It's so pretty. I love making those."
"And your love comes through in every bite," Kasper said. He tossed the coin back to her. "Fancy another go?"
She shrugged and flipped the coin, thinking that this was very unlike how she imagined this meeting would go. When she turned the coin over she laughed with delight. The face of the former King Leon shined up at her. "Heads!"
"I guess your luck has changed," Kasper said, as pleased as she.
Callidus made an exasperated noise against the wall.
"Best two out of three?" Kasper asked.
"No, thank you," she said, clutching the coin in her sweaty palm, dreaming about what she could do with the money. A new dress that wasn't three inches too short. An oil lamp for her room, rather than the stubby candles she had been using. A new palette knife without the wobbly handle of her current model.
"Go ahead," said Kasper. "You can keep the crown even if you lose. Humor me."
Wondering if it was a trap, Wren nevertheless did as she was told, flipping the coin once again.
"Heads!" she said.
"One more time."
She tossed again.
"Heads," she said, shaking her head in amazement.
"What if I asked you to throw tails," he said.
Getting into it now, she tossed the coin again and hit tails. Not once, but three more times.
"I think you get the point," he said.
She looked at him in amazement. "Is the coin… enchanted?"
"No, my dear. You are enchanted."
"What?" She shook her head, confused. "Trust me, I'm about the least lucky person in the city of Maradis."
"You were the least lucky person."
"Get to the point, man. I've got places to be," Callidus growled from his place at the bookshelf.
"Don't begrudge me a bit of theatrics," Kasper said. "It's not every day I get to reveal one of our biggest secrets to a new initiate."
Callidus huffed, and Wren looked back and forth between them. She was completely lost now.
Kasper stood and came around the desk, picking up the cupcake and sitting against the desk.
"This cupcake is magic," he said. "It imparts luck upon whoever consumes it."
An incredulous laugh escaped her throat. The man had to be mad. It was the only explanation.
"I assure you, it's no laughing matter. Such an item, in the wrong hands, could change the tide of nations. Wars. Destinies."
"I don't understand," she said. She was overcome with the urge to take her gold crown and get the hell out of this man's office.
"The guilds regulate the practice of their craft within Alesia. But do you truly think that a bunch of chocolatiers or bakers or winemakers warrant this kind of influence?" He waved his hand at the office, at the decadent guildhall around them. "No. This is the secret behind Alesia's political and economic success. The secret behind the royal family. A very special few individuals have an ability. An ability to imbue food with magic. You are one such individual. When you lovingly crafted this cupcake, frosting each rose petal, you filled it with magic. With luck. So that whoever ate it—their life would be forever changed."
Wren's mouth fell open as she looked from the cupcake to Kasper's face. Could it be true? It was insanity. Magic. True, there were tales of magic. Witches and sorcerers and genies in bottles. But they were children's tales. There was no true magic in the world. Just the grim reality of working hard until your body broke down and they laid you in the ground. If there had been anything special or magical about her, her life would have gone very differently up to this point. But she looked down at the golden coin, sitting so mundanely in her hand. She couldn't deny that something strange had happened to that coin.
"It is much to take in at first, I know." Kasper set down the cupcake. "But I assure you, it's all true. And now you understand why we can't have products like this, made by a person like yourself, out in the world."
Wren stilled, her body growing as taut as a wire. Here it was, what some part of her had been expecting all along. Girls like her didn't happen upon magic cupcakes and a fortune in gold. "What do you mean to do with me?" Wren asked, grasping the supple leather arms of her chair. She glanced at Callidus, leaning by the door. Is this why he had stayed? To intercept her when she tried to make a run for it?
"My, you are a skittish thing! I'm sorry, my dear. I didn't mean for that to sound so ominous," Kasper said. "We want to train you. You have a rare gift, and it is valuable to this Guild and the king. Only the highest levels within the Guild know of this secret—the grandmasters of the Guild, like Callidus and myself. You will become one of us."
Words fled as a sliver of hope surfaced within her. She looked around at the room they sat in, at the casual luxuries that she had never dreamed of having. Could he be serious?
"I assure you it will be quite a pleasant life," Kasper said. "We're not all so serious as Callidus. There will be other students for you to learn with, friends to make. Of course, you cannot share the true nature of this secret with them, but that won't be too difficult. What do you say?"
Wren looked between Kasper and Callidus, her thoughts spinning. Though she didn't generally trust people, she had found over the last few years that she had a knack for reading them. Despite Kasper's seemingly calm exterior, lines around his kind eyes betrayed his tension. "I don't have a choice in this, do I?" she asked, realizing the true nature of this summons.
"I'm afraid not, my dear, but it is truly an honor we are bestowing on you. Besides," he said, leaning forward. "Do you have somewhere better to be?"
She thought of the streets of Maradis, the other grubby orphans who had been her family but were now scattered, no doubt dead or selling themselves as whores or mercenaries. She thought of Master Oldrick, refusing to make her a journeyman for four years despite the fact that her skill had surpassed his long ago. It was her turn to sigh. "No," she said. "I don't."
"Excellent!" Kasper clapped his hands and stood, turning to the wooden credenza lining the wall behind his desk. "A toast is in order."
He poured three glasses of what looked like a sweet rosé wine from a crystal decanter. He offered one to Callidus, who declined with a curt shake of his head.
"More for me," Kasper grumbled, handing another glass to Wren. Wren wished she could decline, too, but feared offending the guildmaster. "Stand up, stand up," Kasper said, and she obliged, feeling a sudden poignancy to the moment.
"Now, before we toast to our newest future grandmaster, I need a promise from you. Do you solemnly swear that you will not speak of the truth of your magic, of our magic, to anyone save Callidus, myself, and the others we say are safe?"
"I do," she agreed. She wasn't sure she even believed what he was saying, so there seemed to be little danger in making such a promise.
"Excellent! Cheers!" He clinked his glass to hers and took a healthy swallow. She took a nervous sip of the wine, letting the effervescent flavors of peach and grass swirl across her tongue. She had sampled wine a few times before but hadn't yet developed a palate for it. Watching her father drink himself to death had been enough to quell any burgeoning interest in alcohol.
The instant she swallowed, the wine's sweet finish changed, turning hot and bitter on her tongue.
Callidus strode forward and grabbed the glass from her hand before she could drop it.
Her tongue burned, and when she went to open her mouth, she found she couldn't. It was glued shut. She backed up in panic, knocking into the leather chair, looking from one man to another with wide eyes. She clutched at her throat, grasping fingers leaving red trails down her skin. Had they poisoned her? What was the point of all this show if they were just going to kill her?
"Easy now," Kasper said. "It will pass in a moment, my dear."
He was right. Already the burning sensation was dying, leaving only the tingling aftereffects of the wine and the thudding of her heartbeat in her ears. She opened her mouth wide, gasping in air. "What… What did you do to me?" Her eyes were rimmed with salty tears.
"Standard procedure, my dear. We've found it's best to do it quickly, like pulling out a splinter."
"Do what quickly?"
"You are bound to your oath now. You are physically unable to break your word, to tell our secret. Your secret."
"How?" she croaked, her hands still at her throat, working her jaw as if she could stop it from sealing shut once again. The memory clung to her like taffy.
"Our Guild isn't the only guild with true magic. Vintner's Guild," he said, holding the decanter up to the light. "The magic of truth and lies. Secrets and whispers. Very helpful stuff. In the right hands."
Kasper's pleasant demeanor hadn't changed, but Wren shuddered, eyeing him warily.
Guildmaster Kasper came around the desk and put his arm around her, leading her towards the door. Wren shrank away from his touch, but he didn't seem to notice. "It is a lot to take in, but I promise you will be safe here. A world of wonder is now open to you. Learn. Discover. Explore. And make more cupcakes." He squeezed her shoulder and released her into Callidus's care. "Callidus will see you to Guildmistress Greer, who will take care of getting you situated. I'll come see how you are acclimating tomorrow."
"Thank you," she said haltingly. She felt faint from the whirlwind of the last few minutes and was content to follow Callidus's grim visage into the hallway like an obedient puppy. Kasper said she would be safe here. Dare she believe him? She had learned through trial and painful error what it took to be safe in this world. Blend in. Work hard and don't cause trouble. These things had kept her safe at Master Oldrick's. Would it be enough here?
Callidus towed her back down the corridor towards the staircase. As they reached the landing, a muffled crash sounded behind them, emanating from Guildmaster Kasper's office.
Callidus whirled and darted back down the hallway with startling speed, bursting into the office. The two guards looked at each other and followed suit, spears held before them, surcoats billowing behind.
Unsure of what to do, Wren drifted back down the corridor towards the office, not wanting to intrude but overcome with curiosity. When she reached the open door, she gasped.
Kasper was on the floor, his face an unnatural shade of purple. Foam bubbled from his mouth. His body shook and convulsed as Callidus and the guards tried to hold him down, shouting at each other for antidotes and doctors.
But it was over before it began. Kasper gave a final gurgling breath, convulsed once more, and fell still.
Wren's hands flew to her mouth as bile rose in her throat. Kasper's brown eyes, eyes that had sparkled with life just moments before, now bulged out in a blank stare that transfixed her own.
"He's dead," Callidus said, still on his knees, his head hanging in disbelief.
"Poison," one of the guards announced, standing and wiping his mouth with a shaky hand. "Nasty one." He pointed at the cupcake wrapper forgotten on the desk. "Where did that come from? It didn't pass the security screening."
"I brought it up… But the girl…" Callidus said, his voice ghostly. Then his head whipped around, his eyes locking on Wren with such force that she stumbled back.
"It was her confection," he said, pointing a spindly finger at her. "She must have poisoned it. Arrest her."