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Custard Tarts

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“That's a Portuguese air,” Grant said in surprise, stopping outside the pasteleria in Villava.

Strange could not have told the difference between a Portuguese air and a Spanish one, but bowed to Grant's knowledge of music.

Grant addressed some remarks in Portuguese to the white-aproned pastrycook. The man stopped singing and looked suspiciously at him, but as Grant went on talking in his usual friendly way his expression thawed, and he gestured to them to come in. He seemed to be asking about their reason for being in the town. Grant replied with something about Lord Wellington and um mago, which rather surprised Strange.

“Merlin, can you show our friend here some magic? One of your visions, perhaps.”

“Certainly,” Strange said, taking his silver basin from his pack, “if he can spare us some water. What does he wish to see?”

Another exchange in Portuguese produced a still more unexpected request.

“He would like to see the Hieronymites Monastery, in Lisbon,” Grant said, a little apologetically. “Can you show it to him?”

“I can try,” Strange said doubtfully.

The vision was a clearer one than he had feared, and the pastrycook gazed at it with a mixture of wistfulness and satisfaction.

“Why did he want to see that?” Strange asked.

Another rapid exchange between Grant and the man produced his history: he had once been a monk of the order of St Jerome, but had left the monastery some years previously and buried himself in this obscure corner of Spain.

“He says he can never go back,” Grant reported, “but he wished to see if his friend Brother Tomás is alive and well.”

From the man's expression Strange guessed that the answer was in the affirmative.

“Did he say why he left?”

“A business matter, apparently. There was a particular delicacy of the monastery kitchens that he thought the monks should sell for the benefit of the order, but his superiors did not agree. So now,” Grant said, looking expectantly at the pastrycook, “he sells them for his own benefit.”

The man said something about secrecy, and Grant gave him what were clearly the strongest assurances of their silence on the matter. This appeared to satisfy him, for he brought forth a tray on which some dozens of small tarts were cooling, their yellow tops flecked with brown and black. He sprinkled one with spice and powdered sugar and handed it to Grant, who bit into it and rolled his eyes with delight.

Delicioso,” Grant said. “You must try one, Merlin.”

Strange had no particular love for custards, but clearly it would be ill-mannered to refuse. He put out his hand cautiously and took the proffered tartlet, still warm from the oven. Flakes of crust fell onto his shirt as he bit. The pastry was meltingly rich, and the sweet thick custard so luscious and delicately flavoured that it made him groan.

“Aha!” Grant said, looking very pleased with himself. “I told you so.”

Strange was too occupied in savouring the rest of the tart to make any reply. He could not recall the last time a confection had given him such pleasure, and when he was able to speak again he said so. Grant relayed this to the pastrycook, who beamed at them and put four more tartlets in a small basket lined with vine leaves, refusing all offers of payment.

They parted on cordial terms with the former monk and went out into the sunshine, blinking a little after the dimness of the shop.

“You see,” Grant said with a grin, “your culinary education continues.”

Strange gave an assenting groan and said something not very coherent about Grant's kindness in tutoring him.

“I am always happy when I can add to your pleasures,” Grant said with a meaning look that made Strange feel hot all over. “So if there is any thing you wish, my dear Merlin, you have only to name it.”

“I should like to go to bed with you now”, Strange said, feeling quite faint with desire. “And -”

“And what?” asked Grant, licking his lips. His eyes were dark with want.

“And then I should like another custard tart,” said Strange.

Grant burst out laughing, and Strange, who did not usually care to be laughed at, laughed with him.

“Come along then, you shameless creature,” said Grant. “If one custard tart has such an effect on you, lord alone knows what a second will do.”