All across the City, from the seamiest shadows of the river-wet docks to the elegant terraces of the Hill’s grandest mansions, apple blossoms in great white cascades are blooming. Snowy petals blushed with palest pink drift across the cobblestones of the Middle City, shedding their sweet fragrance in a promise of imminent summer. In a blink, it seems, the chill of early spring has turned into soft golden warmth, but the residents of the City have not appeared to notice. Instead of throwing off the last dregs of winter and turning their faces up to the sky and the sun, they huddle indoors, grouchy and dispirited, complaining about the lack of that most invigorating drink, chocolate.
For almost a month now—since shortly after the Duchess Tremontaine’s infamous ball to which the Kinwiinik chocolate Traders wore their jewel-toned feathers (which became instantly fashionable, even as the ball itself ended in a fiasco of epic proportions)—the stores of chocolate in the City have been dwindling. According to those in the know (most assume the news traveled from the Kinwiinik Traders to the Middle City chocolate house owners to their increasingly irritable patrons), a long-awaited shipment was sunk in a storm, the ship lost at sea and the sailors, tragically, drowned. A new shipment is expected (the chocolate house owners hasten to assure their patrons), but due to variable weather across the North Sea, no one knows precisely when it will arrive.
For Jeremiah Clarkson, owner of Clarkson’s, the Middle City’s finest chocolate emporium, this uncertainty has led to drastic measures. At first, he raised the price of chocolate, which had the desired effect for a brief period of time: fewer patrons paid more, which meant his income stream remained level and his supplies did not decline as quickly. But as the shortage dragged into a second week, and then a third, Clarkson resorted to watering down his chocolate and hoping that his patrons would not notice. Unfortunately, they did, and he was forced to reveal the truth of the matter: there was no more chocolate in the City for him to buy.
On this fine early summer day, as Clarkson gazed gloomily into his empty stockroom before opening shop, he wondered for the first time how long he could manage to keep his business afloat. He would have to close if he couldn’t find a substitute for chocolate. He had heard that the nobles on the Hill had begun to drink something called vanilla cream instead of chocolate, but vanilla was so expensive he would have to find a cheaper substitute before he could sell it to his patrons. He had also heard that some intrepid University students had fermented a strange new brew made of crushed nuts, which they called amandyne and which they claimed recreated the flavor and effect of chocolate. The idea intrigued him. Clarkson resolved to take a trip to the University area, where he was friendly with one of the few chocolate shop owners— chocolate being a luxury to most students—to try some of this amandyne himself.
The Duchess Tremontaine lifted the delicate porcelain cup from its saucer and took a particularly satisfying sip of bitter chocolate. It was the finest in the City, kept under lock and key by the cook, and was flavored with Kinwiinik spices that the duchess had personally requested from the Balam family. The cup was a beauty, too; one from a set of twelve given to Diane by her husband, each hand-painted with a different blooming rose. This one Diane especially loved because the thorns in the pink rose’s stem were rendered with such exquisite detail it seemed as if one could easily prick a finger when touching the cup itself.
The duchess set the cup back into its matching saucer, relishing the lingering taste of chocolate on her tongue, and glanced out the window. She always enjoyed the expansive view from her private retreat at the highest point of Tremontaine House. Diane’s writing desk was situated so that she could look out the windows as she handled her private correspondence, providing her with a lofty vantage point suitable to her station and matched to her ambition. It was in this room that she had conceived of the plan that would finally engineer the outcome she desperately needed: the Balam would have their tariff relaxed, and she would receive her cut of their increased profit, thus mitigating the disaster of the Everfair. Her previous efforts with her husband and with Gregory, Lord Davenant, had not resulted in immediate success, but she was certain that this time would be different. None had ever dared to do what she had orchestrated, but she was not one to allow tradition to dictate her desires.
It was quite simple, in the end. The City loved chocolate, but the Balams controlled the entire supply. Diane had suggested that the Balams send their most trusted envoy to the private residence of the Dragon Chancellor with a message, dictated secretly by the duchess to appeal to Gregory’s ego. First, the Balams’...