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Sweet Tooth

The woman ahead of me burst into tears, and then my turn on the witch scales arrived.

I stripped away the cloak and the hat, removed the heavy boots, and shivered under the cold, judging eyes of my peers. An empty scale tray swayed before me; its opposite was loaded with a book already open at my page. Too late to run, I stepped up. Metallic chill shot through thin stockings into my old bones. The scales groaned under my weight, and the book lit up with glowing red numbers.

Bugger that for a Sabbat.

I gulped a deep breath and transmuted the air in my lungs. With a pained squealing of chains, my tray and I rose halfway to the rafters, while our counterweight dropped like a brick.

A shocked gasp swept through the room, followed by a scattering of cackles. But the biddy who lorded over the witch scales was not impressed. Every feature in her already narrow face pinched further. The tilt of her chin could have stabbed through armour.

"Bergenia! Have you no shame?"

"Sorry, Wisteria." My voice squeaked as the helium-breath poured out of my mouth. The scales creaked on my way down.

The other witches giggled.

Our herbalist's glare turned on the room at large. "You think this is funny, do you? It is only your health at stake here. Don't you want to lose weight?"

We all did, of course, and none of us would be showing up at the monthly WitchWatchers meetings if one could simply magic it away.

I sighed. "Just trying to lighten things up."

"Then you failed miserably." Wisteria peered at the angry red numbers on my Balance Book page. The Doomsday Book, as some of us called it behind her back. "In fact, you have gained six pounds since your last weigh-in."

She didn't have to smile like that.

Clearly, hiding my sweets away in the cupboards, under the cottage floorboards, or buried around the dark forest in little troves of candy goodness hadn't done any good. Not after I'd dug them all up again and gone on a binge.

She asked, nay, ordered me to stay behind after the meeting for a "little chat".

"Wisteria," I said an agonising eternity later, "you take away my sweet tooth, there won't be any teeth left."

By now, my ears were burning with doomsday prophecies of clogged arteries, cauldron recipes involving broccoli and kale, and the virtues of a high-protein diet.

"Now, now, Bergenia. I wouldn't dream of asking you to go cold turkey again."

Good, I thought, because I wouldn't touch a turkey, cold or otherwise prepared, with a six-foot wizard's staff. Though being vegetarian did not exactly help with my weight problem.

She smiled at me with a full set of perfectly white teeth. "There is a new therapy: highly experimental but perfect for one of your … disposition. The whiz-boys in town call it Aversion by Immersion."

"Come again?"

"In other words, my dear, surround yourself with sugar."

Knock knock.

"Who's there?" Old ladies living alone in the woods soon learned to be cautious.

"Delivery service from Ma's Bakery," a hoarse voice answered.

It didn't sound like my usual delivery girl. Or the one before her. I cracked the door open on a chain.

The red cape covered a pair of shoulders too wide for its size. It wasn't really made for someone so tall or, well, hairy. Two big ears poked out from holes in the hood.

"Oh my," I said. "What big ears you've got there."

"The better to hear delivery instructions." A furry paw scratched the muzzle.

"What big eyes you have."

His eyes glowed in the twilight. "The better to see forest paths in the dark. Great for evening deliveries."

"What big teeth you have."

A scraggy tail flopped down from the cape. "You wouldn't believe the competition."

I squinted behind the wolfman at a cart full of goodies. The girls had only ever managed one basket at a time; who was I to complain? I unlatched the chain and stood aside as he carried the sweet-smelling packages inside.

"So, Bigbad." I poured a steaming cup of tea and set it in front of him on a saucer. "What made you go into cupcake delivery?"

The wolfman's teeth tore savagely into a biscuit. "Don't ask! My last business venture went pear-shape."

"And that was?" I dropped three sugar lumps into my cup.

"Property development." Bigbad the Wolf growled. "But then those pigs barricaded themselves inside my houses. I huff and I puff, and still they won't pay the rent."

"You do sound a bit hoarse. Have some honey with your tea. Hmm." I nibbled thoughtfully on my biscuit. "How would you like a little job on the side?"

The wolfman's ears twitched. "What kind of job?"

"It may involve some heavy lifting and gingerbread architecture."

Next market day, I gathered my potions and dug up a lifetime of savings from under a patch of cultivated nettles. Bigbad and I took a stroll to the village and paid a visit to the local businesses. The farmer for eggs, the miller for flour, the beekeeper for honey, the bricklayer for bricks.

In my architect's expert opinion, one couldn't build an oven out of chocolate. Not for very long, at least.

We stopped at Ma's bakery for lunch. An assortment of chocolates and cakes and those dainty merengues nestled behind the glass counter. The perfumed medley of sugar and spice lingered in the bakery's air, an enchantment I could never resist.

For once, I didn't have to try.

I ordered three cartloads of everything for delivery by wolf, and handed over most of my savings. The last potion vial went into curing Ma's sudden attack of nerves.

Bigbad had grabbed us a table on the busy market terrace and was poring over a sheaf of blueprints with a pipe wedged between his fangs.

I set a basket of pastries down on the table between us and collapsed in a chair, wishing I"d taken the broomstick. "Dig in."

Sunlight baked the terrace in a warm glow. The church tower across the market square struck twelve. Just a few hours since breakfast, but my belly was rumbling in time with the clock.

"Ah, food." Bigbad folded away the blueprints, and blew a smoke ring before tucking the pipe in the folds of his cape. 'something toothsome, yeah? I'm starving!"

"Um-hmm." I sank my teeth into a hot, steaming strudel. Layers of filo crunched open, unlocking their bubbling treasure of apple and raisins.

"What's this then?" He sniffed at the basket and wrinkled his snout. "That's not real food."

"I'll have you know, Bigbad, this is Fruit of the Bakery, practically health food. Besides, aren't you the one who delivers these?"

Bigbad huffed. "Deliver, sure. But I wouldn't eat this drek. My body is my temple."

The Hairy Temple of Drool had had no trouble tucking into my biscuit supply the other evening.

"Then why is your tongue hanging out?"

I followed his line of sight. A small army of goats was crossing the square toward the greengrocer's stall. Mama Goat marched up front; her seven kids trotted in line. Little bells jingled in time with the click-clack of hooves.

"You wouldn't!" Would he?

Bigbad's eyes dripped with innocence. He pushed back his chair and stretched. "Anything from the butcher's? There's a nice, bloody steak with my name on it." A lolling tongue whipped around his muzzle.

I treated him to my best grimace. No decomposing, dead flesh would pass these lips, no matter what he or Wisteria might think.

With Bigbad off hunting for butchers, I unpacked his strudel and considered my options. Oh, I was happy enough to go along with the first part of Wisteria's crazy plan, but the rest of it was doomed to fail. How could I ever grow tired of sweets: the only food group worth its sugar?

But what if it actually worked? I ought to stock up on so-called "real food". A large wedge of cheese, perhaps, or a basket of anything-but-broccoli from the greengrocer, before the Goat Squad cleaned out his stall.

One last piece of silver glinted inside my pouch. Enough to pay for one or the other. And no diet was ever complete without vegetables.

I picked up my basket and wandered into Ma's Bakery in search of a carrot cake.

While Bigbad's cart was groaning back and forth under the weight of local products, I fired up my new brick oven and got to work. The oven took up most of my kitchen, so the gingerbread sheets popped out on an industrial scale.

I'd planned to replace my cottage walls with rolled up gingerbread logs, but after Bigbad nearly had a fit on my doorstep, I took his structural advice. One layer of gingerbread lined the outside walls and another inside. Whatever was left of it after my lunch break.

"You can eat all the building materials you like," Wisteria had said. For once, I followed the programme.

More calories and sweat went into the roofing: thatched with liquorice and finished with icing on top and marshmallows around the eaves. I wouldn't recommend climbing up there without a broomstick.

I rendered the gingerbread walls with high quality marzipan, leaving some areas bare for a rustic effect. White chocolate panes framed the sugar glass windows, and a slab of dark chocolate replaced the door.

Next time I had tea with Bigbad, I forgot to add sugar.

The garden was landscaped with cupcake roses and candy canes. By then, I was munching far less of these. After tiling the kitchen with boiled candy mosaic, all these sweet aromas were making my stomach turn.

Nearly a month after the building work started, I collapsed on my new sponge cake mattress with the worst sugar crash. Both queasy and starving, I'd gone to bed without supper.

As I drifted in and out of sleep, I wondered what the witch scales would show at the meeting tomorrow.

Wisteria's Aversion by Immersion idea appeared to be working. I was finally craving something more savoury, but there was nothing of the sort in my larder. All the flour and eggs had gone into construction, and I had nothing left. Nothing but sweets. Bigbad's juicy steak didn't sound so bad anymore.

Chomp!

What was that? I sat up and stared at the window. A shadow moved across the sugar glass pane.

Crunch!

Someone, or something, was in my garden. I grabbed a leftover candy cane and opened the door. Slowly.

A pair of hooligans were munching away at my cottage. The little boy was definitely on the binge. He'd sunk his teeth into a corner, launching crumbs of gingerbread and marzipan into the air. The older girl seemed more cautious: she was carefully nibbling the milk chocolate fence.

My fists clenched around the cane. After all the back-breaking work I'd put into it, these criminal little terrors were demolishing my house.

My beautiful, nauseating gingerbread cottage.

I leaned on the cane and hobbled out into the garden. The children stared at me, paused in mid-crunch.

"Come on in, dearies," I said in a trembling voice. "There are more cupcakes inside."

Wisteria was right, I thought as I ushered the kids into my kitchen. What a balanced diet truly needs is some toothsome, savoury protein.

About the Author
Karina Steffens began her love affair with fairy tales as a young girl in Soviet Ukraine, quoting Pushkin at anyone who listened. It followed her to Jerusalem, where she picked up a degree in Journalism, and to Dublin, where she consults as a web designer and writes SFF. One of her poems appeared in the Gathering Storm Magazine. Check out her tweets @KarinaSteffens.