Every year when the harvest came, the two brothers prepared themselves for battle. Each would disappear into his greenhouse while the other men worked from sunrise to sunset getting the crops ready for market. Only when the carts were fully packed and ready to go, would the brothers emerge, bleary-eyed, drained, yawning as they sucked in great breaths of unfiltered air. Each cradled a package, a bundle that took pride of place when the line of carts and wagons set off for the city.
In the lead wagon, Joshua turned to his brother David and said, “I’ve heard there’s some new competition this year.”
“They say the Williams boy has a gift,” said David, hands loose on the reins. Joshua thought his brother looked more strained than usual, with dark patches under his eyes that stood out even against his hard, sun-worn features. “But I’ll believe it when I see it.”
They took turns driving while the other slept fitfully in the back. Time was getting tighter every year as the weather changed. A consequence of excessive tinkering, according to the almanac. The number of rain days they’d had to cast during the last season was more than any in their lifetimes, or that of their father. The extra work pulled at Joshua, like walking through deep mud. He would never say it, but he wondered often whether it was time to give it up. Wasn’t it enough that they could sustain themselves and their farms?
In line at the city gates, while the tax men pawed through their cargo, the two brothers smoked from old, hand-carved pipes. The sweet smell of their custom blend traced small air currents, escaping into the rosy sunset happening somewhere behind the high stone walls. Joshua sensed an unfamiliar stiffness in the way his brother sat, but they did not speak. They never spoke this close to the contest. There were no allies in there, and now was the time to prepare for what came next.
Long, low tents of billowing white circled the city’s main square. While the men began preparing their fruits and vegetables for sale at their rented booths, Joshua and David carried their packages to the largest of the tents. They were late for registration, and the short line ahead of them shrunk rapidly as the other entrants signed in quickly so they could move on. To everyone else, the harvest festival was a festival first and foremost, and they could already hear the anxious sounds of spontaneous, makeshift bands starting up near the taverns past the square. For them, the party was just beginning, and would last all night.
To David, those were distractions. He signed himself into the registry, paid his fee, and nodded to Joshua as he left the tent. His men would have his usual room ready, where he could read by the light of a lamp until the noise outside died down enough to allow sleep.
Joshua had once felt guilty about leaving his brother alone like that. But the single time he’d coaxed him out to drink and dance and sing with everyone else, David sat, or stood, to the side, eyes narrowed as he kept a look of sour annoyance on his face. “This is not what I’m here for,” he said. When Joshua offered him a drink, David gave him a slight, condescending shake of his head. “And this is why you have never won.” Joshua stopped asking him to come out after that.
There were other things on Joshua’s mind now, anyway. In particular, a dusky young woman working in one of the bakeries near the north end of the city. Even with the weather as it was, the farms were now working at capacity, and it was only right that he should think about the next step in his life. He thought coming home to the smell of freshly baked bread could be a part of that.
Joshua met his brother in the square at noon, still feeling the effects of the previous night. “Did you decide to go out after all?” he asked.
“No,” said David. He had his package on a rolling cart, while Joshua cradled his in both arms like an overgrown child.
“Then why do you look worse than I feel?” he wondered.
“I had work to do still,” said David.
Which meant he was up half the night casting spells. “Do you know something I don’t?”
David smiled, a slight expression that only twitched at the corners of his mouth, but carried through to his eyes. “Of course I do.”
The crowd behind them parted as another late arrival rolled a package into the square. A kid, tall and gangly thanks to a late growth spurt, led his preening parents toward where the other entrants stood in a loose semicircle before the registration tent. He held his head high, squinting at the sky while he avoided looking directly at anyone else.
“Where’ve I seen that before?” asked Joshua. “Oh, right. I saw it from behind, while you lead the parade.”
“I was never that bad,” said David. “Was I?”
“Williams,” called Joshua, waving at the father, who had a stooped back that kept him at his son’s eye level. The man turned to them, held out a thick paw for the brothers to shake.
“It’s good to see you’re still coming out to these,” said Williams.
His wife leaned in. “Now, Bill, let the boys have their hobby. They’re still young and free, you know? Someday they’ll have obligations, too.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Joshua said, keeping his voice neutral.
“No,” said Williams. “I suppose you wouldn’t.”
“Remind me again about that one and only time you got second place.” Joshua crossed his arms, smiled with teeth. “I think our father mentioned it once. Said he’d come down with cold that year and almost didn’t enter. But you’d have felt cheated with a win if there was no competition, right?”
David said nothing. He and the Williams kid eyeballed each other with a careful suspicion while the others pretended they didn’t hate each other. Finally, the church bell began to ring out the hour, and all eyes turned to the central tent. It was time to begin.
In the central tent, now open at the front so the public could look on, the dozens of objects rolled, pushed, or lugged in by the contestants lined the back wall. Like every other entrant, Joshua and David stood with their hands on cloth shrouds, waiting for their turn at the dramatic reveal for the group of judges.
“Behold,” said Joshua, with as much forced enthusiasm as he could manage with his dry mouth and throbbing eyes. He tugged at the cover, which fell away in a cascade of white cloth.
After a ponderous second of silence, one of the judges asked, “What is it?”
On the wide tray sat the result of Joshua’s labour. “It’s a lemon tree,” he said. Which was true. It was a lemon tree, but shrunk down to the size of a small bush, with little lemons as big as cherries.
“And what purpose does it serve?” asked another judge. “Why should anyone want a miniature lemon tree?”
Joshua reached down and plucked one of the lemons from a twig-like branch. “Try it,” he said, and handed it to the nearest judge.
The woman looked at it, squeezed it between her bony fingers, put it close to her nose and inhaled deeply. She licked it, a lizard-like flick of her pink tongue. Then she popped it into her mouth and bit down. Her eyes went wide. “Lemonade,” she said, and spit the rind at a nearby bucket.
“Yes,” said Joshua. He picked a lemon for each of the judges. They nodded and made notes on their pads of paper before moving on.
David was next. Like Joshua–like everyone else in the competition–he used his botanical magic and alchemy to create new hybrid species of plants and seeds. He spent hours almost every day in his greenhouse experimenting, poring through old books, working out new chemical compositions for the soil, new sunlight regimes, breeding new pollinators, all to win this competition. He might say that wasn’t the real reason–originally, the competition was a way to advertise, to get attention for the farm–but David spent so much time and effort on the prototypes that nothing he completed ever went into commercial production. The amount of energy involved, the intricacy of the magic, made the upkeep either impractical or impossible. But they did impress the judges. David had won or placed every year he’d entered, while Joshua considered it a good result if he took home a fifth-place ribbon.
This year, David showed off a plump, violet chrysanthemum that glowed with a faint lunar light in the dark. The judges tutted pleasantly when he shut the curtains around them to demonstrate. Down the line, the Williams boy stood with clippers over a painting-perfect white rose bush. With a smile and a slight bow, he cut flowers for the judges, always from the same stem as each time he snipped one away, a new growth sprang up almost instantly in its place. The crowd clapped politely.
“I’m not going to win,” said David while they sat waiting for the results in a shady part of the square. Joshua chewed on a piece of skewered meat, watching the crowd move about in small knots.
“You did your best,” he said between bites. “That`s all anyone can hope for.”
David sighed. “That’s the problem. You don’t know what it’s like to lose.”
“I don’t know what it’s like to lose?” Joshua asked, an eyebrow raised.
“It’s not the same,” said David. “You know it’s not.”
“Suppose so.” Joshua thought about the year he’d lucked out and managed a close second place, losing only by a narrow points decision. “That year was hell for me,” he said. “Never ending second-guessing, questioning my methods. What if I’d tweaked that one spell? Or used a little more direct sunlight? Or a little less? In the end, I was relieved when I lost for real the next year.”
“There’s nothing worse than second place.” David raised his hand in a half-wave at one of his labourers, who was walking through the square with a tray of refreshments for those left to man stalls. “Those are the real losses. There’s nothing worse than doing everything you can and finding it’s still not enough.”
Joshua handed his brother the stick and the rest of his snack. “But you’d miss this.”
“I miss getting drunk and making crop circles in the neighbour’s fields, too, but that doesn’t mean I want to start doing it again.” With a shrug, David took a bite, chewed. “If it happens, I’ll shake the kid’s hand, tell him its not worth the stress at the end of the day.”
“Do you actually believe that?”
“No,” said David. “But I’ll need an edge for next year.”
The bell began to ring again. It was judgment time.