Chapter 1: Late afternoon tea

An updated and revised version of this chapter is included in a collection available for purchase on Amazon: Of Leaves and Water: A mini collection

***

For the first time today, Miyo was glad for the tea master’s robes, now that the sun was beginning its late afternoon descent.  The stiff layers had begun to feel heavier with each meeting that had followed the 49th day ceremony of the former tea master’s death. She had thought performing a transition would be easier the second time around.  Instead, she found it just as tiring, if not more, than the first.  But then again, there was nothing about death and change that was meant to be easy.

 

There was little on this stretch of road besides the tea shop she had inherited, its solitary form stark against the island sky.  Past the shop, the road curved into a park, then the docks, and finally the beach. Yesterday’s passage through the channel had taken much longer due to the storm, and Miyo had exhausted herself using her magic to help keep the ferry afloat.  Still, she had walked to the beach in the moonlight to pay her respects to the sirens there.  But upon returning to the shop, she had fallen into bed without a glance into the shop.

 

She had hoped to spend the rest of the day getting acquainted with it, but noted two girls in front of the main door. The younger of the two was sitting on the front step, arms crossed and brow furrowed, ignoring the teenage girl’s attempts to pull her away.  ‘Must be sisters,’ Miyo thought, noting the resemblance and exasperation of the older girl as she pulled at her own short hair.

 

“Is there anything I can help with?” Miyo asked as she approached.

 

“Oh it’s okay -” “Milk tea.”

 

The older sister grimaced at the collision of their voices but Miyo smiled and motioned to the tea shop.  “I suppose I could make some …”

 

“You’re the new master? It’s an honor to meet you.”  The older sister immediately bent into a bow.  “I’m Makoto and this is my younger sister Naruko.”  From her bow, Makoto waved at her sister to do the same.  The younger girl mustered a bow that was more an exaggerated nod from where she sat.

 

“Naru was very attached to Master Daichi,” Makoto said quietly as Miyo straightened from her own bow, Makoto’s head still downturned.  “It’s just taking her a while to process.”

 

Miyo studied the young girl, shadows forming around her hunched form.  “These things often do,” was Miyo’s quiet reply.  She breathed in and gave them a nod. “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well,” she said in a normal tone. “Why don’t we all go inside?”

 

As soon as she unlocked the shop, Naruko jumped up from the step, pigtails bouncing as she scrambled up one of the high stools that lined the counter.  Miyo, on the other hand, took her time following them inside.

 

It was much smaller than her last posting. In the meager folder she’d received before the transition, she had learned that in its past, the tea shop had first been a ramen stall, then a roadside bar, before finally being turned into a tea shop.  It was very different from the massive shops in the capital city, some rivaling the shopping malls in terms of their size and range of services. Here, it was scaled down to the essential acts of making and drinking tea.

 

But with that focus, came an unfamiliarity that made Miyo feel off-balance as she walked the few steps from the entrance to the small space behind the counter, eyeing the shelves upon shelves packed with tins of tea. A cold stream of dread ran through her.

 

Across the bar from her, Naruko’s face was blank and still, but Miyo could feel the waves of expectation coming from her. Miyo swallowed.  Typically, she would have had a few days to go through the master’s notebook, would know how to use her magic for the water, would know each shelf and the tins therein –

 

But there was no time.  There was a customer here in front of her. Waiting for milk tea.

 

‘Breathe.  One thing at a time.’

 

First, she needed to find the ware.  Taking a chance, she dropped her hands below the counter and felt around.  Relief flowed through her as her fingers wrapped around a handle.  ‘Fantastic, the kettle.  Now for a teapot and cup.’

 

Each master had their own preferences when it came to arranging their teaware. The most commonly used ware was usually within arm’s reach, but that varied depending on the physical attributes of each master.  At her last posting on Fire Island, everyone had stood taller than her, and it had been her luck to transition a master who had been one of the tallest in the island. She had learned to take wide steps around the shop and had eventually bought stools for each corner of the shop.

 

Other than that, however, each shop was unique in its arrangement. While visiting the capital, she’d been amazed by one shop that had arranged their teapots and cups by color, which was enhanced even more by the lights installed in the shelves.

 

It was only after sliding open several cabinet shelves that she found the teapots and cups, lined up neatly in the shade.  The rest of the preparations went painfully slow.  The water pump was manual, and the gas stove fickle, but the teas – they were in an order she couldn’t discern no matter how she looked at the unruly shelves.  Wary of the sisters’ waiting silence at her back, she hastily decided on using the first black tea she was able to find.

 

The sisters’ silence magnified each sound in Miyo’s ears. Each scrape, bump, and clink was further proof of her unfamiliarity with the space and she fought to keep her features relaxed.  Not even watching the white crystals within her small timer helped to ease her frustration.

 

In the end, it was pride and training that kept her hands steady as she finally poured the milk tea and set the cup in front of Naruko.  Miyo felt like she had swam around all of the South Sea Islands and she clasped her hands in front of her to hide the shaking, watching Naruko take a tentative sip.

 

“Well?” Makoto prompted.

 

Naruko set the cup down onto the counter, eyes downcast.  A shrug was her answer.

 

“Master, I’m sor-”

 

Miyo waved away Makoto’s words. “I should be the one apologizing. It’s my fault for attempting to serve something the state things are.”  She managed a thin smile.

 

“We’ll come again later then, right?” Makoto said, exchanging a look with Naruko as she paid.  Naruko kept her silence and solemnity, taking her sister’s hand as they left, but not without a backwards glance at Miyo.

 

Left alone, she let out a heavy sigh and thumped her forehead against the counter. So many things had gone wrong!  She had been so preoccupied with the space, she had given no attention to the sisters themselves.  Master Regina would have had her washing teaware in the river until her lips turned blue from the cold.  Not to mention she hadn’t taken any time to taste the water, let alone its combination with that tea –

 

Miyo closed her eyes.  ‘Enough. You can’t change the cup that has already been made.’  She took in a slow breath, forcing each thought to settle to the bottom of her mind.  ‘One thing at a time.  First, find the notebook.’

 

She found it nestled between two tea tins at the end of the the third shelf, thankful that she didn’t have to go through any of the horror stories she had heard of secret compartments and hidden keys.  The notebook was a span wider than her hand, nearly square, and thick enough for her to need two hands to carry back to the counter.

 

Miyo smoothed her palm over the worn cover.  Inside would be notes on all the customers and teas used by every tea master posted here on Crescent Island since the beginning of the service. It was the key to each master’s transition.

 

Slowly, she turned the inside flap, covered nearly edge to edge with names. She read each one with quiet reverence, and when she came to the end, carefully wrote her own.

 

Then she began to read.

 

*

 

Miyo had learned not to expect many customers the first few days after the transition, and to let them return naturally to the shop at their own pace. So she took it as an opportunity to learn where everything lived, the silent voices of the previous masters guiding her through their entries in the notebook.

 

The former master’s entries were deeply contemplative, and Miyo could understand why Naruko would have found comfort in his presence.  It seemed the feelings were mutual, as Master Daichi commented often on her nearly daily visits to the shop while on her way home from school.  He saw in her “an old soul” that valued consistency.  “And yet,” one of his entries noted, “She is insatiably curious and can be quite mischievous when she allows herself to be.” Miyo had to smile at that. Naruko was a child, after all.

 

Miyo was inspecting the folding tables in the corner of the shop when a gravelly voice called out from the entrance.  “I like what you’ve done with the place.

 

An older woman stood at the steps, small and thin but with good posture and balance.  Miyo glanced around, confused. “Oh, I haven’t done anything yet, though I doubt I’ll end up doing much.”

 

“Not so much ‘doing’ as it is about ‘being’ was what I meant,” the older woman said.  She came forward and kicked out a wooden crate that Miyo hadn’t noticed before, and used it to step up and sit at one of the high stools that lined the bar.  “I remember when Master Daichi came.  He didn’t change a thing either.  But it was different,” she murmured, looking past Miyo.

 

Miyo stepped behind the bar.  “Shall I make you something?” Miyo ventured.  She had a feeling she knew who this person was from the notebook, but she didn’t want to make the customer uneasy.  It was a fine line, having the notebook, and it was why she had always been told to use it as a starting point rather than a manual.

 

“Sure – Jasmine tea, if you please.  Master Daichi probably called me ‘Chie’ in that notebook of yours.”  Miyo gave her a sharp look.  Chie just smiled.

 

Miyo breathed in to quiet the questions and confusion.  Right now, it was time to make tea.  The preparations were still slow, but she was glad that this time, there was less banging and clanking.

 

Chie closed her eyes to breathe in the steam as Miyo set the tea cup in front of her.  She took a sip and cradled the cup with the tips of her fingers, pinning Miyo with a long look.  “So this is your tea,” she said finally.

 

The knowing tone of her voice stoked Miyo’s memories of the master’s pilgrimage, and for a moment, she was back at her first trial on the Floating Island, facing Master Wren’s judgement.  She let the memory fade and ease back into the present, where Chie was finishing the rest of her tea.

 

Chie handed her payment to Miyo, but the weight of the coins caught her off-guard, making her look down.  Miyo sucked in a sharp breath when she saw the symbol in the silver token atop the coins.  “When you have some time to come into the city, stop by my shop,” Chie said as she slid off the chair.  “I think I have a kettle that will suit you more than that one.”

 

Miyo bowed hastily to the ceramics master but Chie only chuckled. “I’m looking forward to having more of your tea, young master.  I’m sure the rest of the island is as well.”

 

*

 

Late afternoon came quietly, with Miyo memorizing the third row of tea tins when a scuff at the entrance caught her ear.  She turned around, only to find the entrance empty.  She was about to go to the door, but paused, and turned around to the cabinets instead.

 

She took out a tea cup and saucer, butterflies dancing along the sides and set them atop the counter. She called out gently, “Would you like some milk tea?”

 

For a moment there was no movement. But then Naruko’s form appeared in the doorway. She took up a seat with a solemnity that wasn’t there yesterday, though a finger traced one of the butterflies on the cup as Miyo began her preparations.

 

Miyo could feel things flowing better this time, and even went so far as to forgo the water pump and stove, trusting that she could now replicate the town’s water with a hum of her magic.  She knew Naruko was watching every movement, and knew also that the girl was no doubt comparing her against Master Daichi, and finding her lacking.

 

But Miyo was content with that.  While all of the former masters had noted the teas, and sometimes ware, that they had uesd for each customer, none of them went into complete detail over how they made the tea. It simply wasn’t the point of the notebook.

 

Because the purpose of the notebook wasn’t to maintain consistency.  But to keep moving forward.

 

Miyo poured the tea into Naruko’s cup and stepped back from the bar to give Naruko a bit of space.  The tea was exactly as Master Daichi had described it, “Milky like clouds mixed with the afternoon sun, with a hint of chocolate rising from the cup.”

 

But they both knew that it wasn’t Master Daichi’s tea.

 

A small, quivering smile broke out on Naruko’s face.  Nodding to herself, she picked up the cup and took her first sip.  At the third sip, Miyo placed a handkerchief on the counter to catch the falling droplets that were not tea.

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