A Gift of Sweetness and Spice by Myna Chang

Once in a lifetime, so the story goes, the twin moons of Sweetness and Spice rise together in the night sky. This rare intertwining of moonbeams is said to bring special blessings to the land.

Raf, the royal mapmaker, and Linna, the palace messenger, were married on such a night. They held hands and danced contentedly under the moonstruck sky. The double moonrise brought oohs and aahs from their assembled families, but Raf and Linna barely noted the spectacle, gazing, as they often did, only at each other.

In keeping with custom, their families had provided the luckiest of foods for the couple to enjoy: chestnut pudding and candied hawthorn in honor of the Sweetness Moon, and pepper-dried tannin leaves to honor the Moon of Spice.

The gift they most treasured was a crystal jar filled with ginger wine and a delicate glowing honeycomb, the ideal combination to capture the blessings of the twin moons. Linna’s grandfather explained that the honeycomb came from the hives in the Empress’s Forbidden Garden, where the bees fed solely on royal rosefire trees.

Raf and Linna understood that they must keep this special gift secret, as they were not of royal birth. They sipped the wine slowly, and only nibbled at the edges of the honeycomb, hoping to make it last as long as possible. Once empty, the wine jar was given a place of honor on a shelf above their hearth. Linna often smiled when light glinted off the crystal, and Raf hummed their wedding song every time he dusted the shelf.

The years seemed to pass in the glimmer of a moonbeam. Raf and Linna had been good parents, working hard to provide fine things for their daughter; after their retirement, they were even better grandparents, doting on their precious granddaughter as if she were the Empress herself.

On the day they learned their granddaughter had chosen her future husband, Raf and Linna had laughed and danced, twirling gently in the space between their kitchen and hearth. The glitter of the empty wine jar caught Raf’s eye, and his steps slowed.

“What are you thinking, Old Man?” Linna asked.

“I’m thinking I’m not that old,” Raf replied.

Linna laughed and kissed his cheek. “I recognize that look on your face. What could possibly bother you on the day of this happy news?”

Raf sighed. “Your grandfather gave us such a wondrous marriage gift. Now it’s my turn.”

“Put that thought out of your mind,” Linna scolded. “You will not steal from the Empress’s Forbidden Garden.”

“But how can I face the revered spirit of your grandfather if I fail to provide a suitable marriage gift for my own granddaughter?”

Linna shook her head. “We will go to the market tomorrow and find a clover honeycomb for the wine, and we will fill the jar with all the love in the world.”

Raf wrapped his arms around his wife, swaying slowly to the remembered rhythm of their wedding dance. “As you say,” he whispered. But his eyes returned to the empty jar.

As the royal mapmaker, Raf had memorized the secret paths of the palace complex. He had hoped to complete his task and sneak back home before the sun came up, but he had to admit, he moved more slowly than he used to. Dawn light pinked the tips of the rosefire trees as he approached the buzzing hives.

The roiling, angry cloud of bees caught him off guard. He had imagined the hives would be peaceful, easily giving up their glowing combs. The royal guards should have been his biggest obstacle. He now realized that honeycomb poaching was more difficult than he’d anticipated.

He squeaked when the first firebee stung him.

By the time Raf wrested the slice of glowing honeycomb free of the hive, he was dotted with puffy red welts and his left eye had begun to twitch. He limped into the thick shadows of the trees and wrapped the comb in a strip of parchment, placing it carefully in his pocket.

He froze when a pair of guards rounded the corner. The men squinted at the cloud of bees and hurried past, settling on a rock by the edge of the secret path. They tore pieces of bread and began to eat.

“What is wrong with the bees this morning?” one of them asked.

Raf held his breath, hoping they’d hurry and leave. Trespassing in the Forbidden Garden was bad enough, but being caught with a stolen honeycomb in his pocket would most certainly result in a harsh punishment. Besides, his welts itched terribly. He tried to remain silent and ignore the urge to scratch. Then an intense wriggling pain exploded inside his trousers. “Ouch!” he hissed, slapping at himself to dislodge a stowaway firebee.

“Did you hear that?” a guard asked.

A sharp crack followed by a series of crashes and screams erupted from the other side of the garden. The guards dropped their food and bolted toward the disturbance.

Raf watched them go, his heart pounding wildly. Then a voice emerged from the shadows. “What are you waiting for, Old Man?”

Raf gasped when he realized it was his wife motioning for him to hurry. “Why are you here?” he demanded as he scurried to her side.

“Shh!” She yanked him into a hidden alcove in the garden wall as a different group of guards raced past. Crashes and curses continued to echo across the grounds.

“It sounds like wild monkey-bats are loose in the palace,” Raf whispered.

“Yes, it does,” Linna grinned.

Raf scowled and scratched a sting on his arm. “You’re supposed to be home, asleep!”

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice you leaving the house before the cock’s crow?”

Raf straightened his shoulders. “I often begin my day early.”

Linna touched her finger to a fold of skin under Raf’s jaw. “The last time you woke before dawn, this wrinkle had not yet formed.”

“That’s not a wrinkle. It’s a mark of character.”

Linna traced the lines of his face. “You have a lot of character, my love.”

“And you are a mean old woman,” Raf huffed, but his voice was laced with laughter. “I suppose you learned the path to the monkey-bat cage in your work as palace messenger?”

“Of course.” Linna took his hand. “Come. You have a marriage gift to prepare.”

On the night of their granddaughter’s wedding, Raf and Linna presented their gift. The old crystal jar glimmered warm with the golden essence of ginger wine and rosefire honeycomb. Raf glowed almost as bright as the crystal.

And then an unexpected wonder came to pass; the twin moons rose, Sweetness and Spice together again, lighting the night sky with their intertwined moonbeams.

“So, it happens more than once in a lifetime,” Raf whispered.

Linna smiled and took his hand. They began to dance as moonmagic shimmered across the sky. The assembled families oohed and aahed at the celestial light, but Raf and Linna barely noted the shine, gazing, as they often did, only at each other.

Myna Chang (she/her) is the author of The Potential of Radio and Rain. Her writing has been selected for Flash Fiction America (W. W. Norton), Best Small Fictions, and CRAFT. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the New Millennium Award in Flash Fiction. She hosts the Electric Sheep speculative fiction reading series. See more at her website or on Twitter.