Chapter 2: Tea and cake

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

***

The afternoon breeze brought into the quiet tea shop a hint of the ocean, but no customers.  Nor had it for several days.

 

Miyo caught herself sighing and shook herself, consciously straightening her slouched posture. ‘You can’t tell tea to steep faster,’ she told herself firmly.  ‘And you certainly can’t tell people to trust faster,’ she thought as she glanced at the open notebook on the counter and thought back to the 49th day death ceremony.  

 

It had been a surprise to her, on her first day on the island, to see such a crowd gather to celebrate the former tea master of Crescent Island. Of course it would take time for people to gather courage to walk to the tea shop, knowing that it would be her and not Master Daichi to greet them when they arrived.

 

She closed the book, patting its cover before turning towards the shelf-lined wall behind the counter.  As she reached up to place the notebook back in its place, a slip of paper fell out.  It took a moment for the curves and lines to match up in her head with what she knew of the coast and the road the tea shop was on.  ‘Well, if the people won’t come to me, I might as well go to the people.’

 

*

 

Miyo locked the door and turned the hanging sign from Open to Closed before tucking the map into her pocket.  She stood in the shade for a moment longer to coax her short hair under the wide brimmed hat on her head and the cuffs of her long sleeve shirt down to her wrists.  

 

As a child, she had never worried about drying out, but that had changed as she had gotten older.  ‘Maybe it was that walk through the desert on Black Island,’ Miyo mused.  If Master Hino hadn’t found her, fainted in the middle of the desert without an ounce of water to sing, she wasn’t sure if she would have survived.  

 

Thoughts of the pilgrimage lingered as she walked westward toward the town.  To the south were empty fields, unused since the war.  She wondered what kind of crops would have been grown there, if children had run through their rows like she had at home as a child.

 

The sound of a tricycle’s engine brought her out of her memories.  She watched the driver give a thumbs up to a figure in overalls and patted the sidecar attached to his motorcycle before setting off down the road.  As she walked, Miyo passed by a mix of homes and small shops, though many shops seemed to be homes as well, like the auto-shop.  In their windows were a mix of laundry and offerings of stationary, haircuts, and even fortune telling.  

 

It was the faint tinkling of a melody that finally caught her attention enough to step through one of the stores.  She grinned upon finding it full of a myriad of musical instruments and trinkets, all singing songs that her magic yearned to join.

 

“Good afternoon, young master,” came a voice behind her.  She turned to find an old man sitting behind one of the glass cases, his wrinkled hands jumping along the fingerboard of a rounded 3-stringed instrument.

 

Her curiosity made way to memory and she finally placed the face, now relaxed compared to the harried expression it had held last week.   “Mr. Aragaki,” she greeted in return.  “I didn’t know your shop was so close by.”

 

“Master Miyo!” Kensaburou’s wife, Takako, entered from the back, a delighted smile on her face.  “You must have heard us talking about you. We were going to stop by and thank you for that herbal tea you gave us for Hiro. His cough cleared right up, just like you said.”

 

“I’m just glad to have helped, Mrs. Aragaki.  Was Doctor Taira able to check on him?”

 

Takako nodded.  “He came the morning after you left, actually, straight away from that emergency in the valley.”

 

“He was impressed by the infusion,” Kensaburou said.  “Sounded like he might start using it for himself.”

 

Miyo smiled, a touch relieved.  “I’ll go see him and give him some extra then.”

 

“But you could make some good coin selling that!” Takako exclaimed. “It’s bad enough that chain pastry shop has the nerve to be selling tea.”

 

“Here we go again,” Kensaburou muttered, turning away from them to focus solely on his instrument.

 

“Now don’t get me wrong, the pastries are nice and all,” Takako continued, ignoring her husband. “But it’s a chain from the north and you know how they are up there.  Miss Kanako and I, we tried to tell them about the tea, but they just wouldn’t listen.”  

 

She shook her head.  “At least potters have some respect.  They don’t go barging into the city to take Master Chie’s customers.  I heard that the young one in the valley never sees customers unless they’ve seen Master Chie first.”  She crossed her arms over her chest.  “I have half a mind to protest against that shop.”

 

Kensaburou paused in his playing and spoke in a loud whisper to Miyo.  “Last year she led a protest against one of the flower shops for not having red striped tulips on her birthday.”

 

Takako glared at her husband but Miyo gently cut in before things turned into an argument. “Speaking of, where would you recommend?  I think the shop could do with a flower or two.”

 

*

 

Miyo’s wanderings kept her along the eastern edge of the town as she followed Takako’s recommendations and bought a small plant for the shop.  She figured she’d place it near Naruko’s usual seat, imagining it there on the corner of the counter, next to the butterfly teacup and bread.

 

Miyo blinked. ‘Bread?’

 

She felt her stomach awaken and she chuckled, letting her nose lead her to a storefront with the windows full of baked goods. It was a large, cavernous space, with high ceilings and walls lined with pastries.  Behind the registers was a seating area.  

 

But with the exception of the two cashiers in matching pink and red edged uniforms, there were only two other customers in the store, making it feel a touch lonely.  It took some time for Miyo to walk around all of the displays, amazed at all of the varieties of cookies and breads that she had never seen before.  However, it was the desserts in the case next to the registers that captured her full attention.  

 

She pointed to an intricately designed slice of strawberry shortcake as her selection.  As one of the cashiers carefully transferred the cake onto a plate, Miyo caught sight of several black tins on the shelf.  “May I also order some tea?” she asked, her mind already wondering what the taste combination would be like.  As she waited for the tea, she couldn’t help but take a bite from the cake as she waited.

 

But her delight quickly dissipated as she watched the other cashier prepare her tea.  It was a simple preparation, if Miyo was even going to call it that.  She heard the song of boiling from the water the cashier poured out from one of their machines.  Miyo gritted her teeth as she watched the girl take out a tea bag and unceremoniously drop it into the cup, covering it with the label sticking out as she handed it to Miyo.

 

“Who taught you to treat tea that way?”

 

The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, harsh and cold and making both girls’ eyes widen.   Miyo took several measured breaths, palming the timer in her pocket to calm herself down.  

 

“Could I see the tea tin please?” she asked, trying to keep her voice level.  There must have still been an edge as Yuki scurried away so quickly her nametag nearly came off of her uniform.  The other girl took the opportunity to tend to pastries on the other side of the shop.

 

Yuki handed the tea tin to Miyo shakily.  Miyo’s guess had been right, the signature black design marking the tea as from Black Island, near Master Hino’s shop.  But when she opened the tin, her eyes widened when she found pre-packed teabags.  

 

“Headquarters packs the tea into these bags and sends it to the different locations,” Yuki blurted out.  “They just started serving tea when this location opened. They thought the tea would be a gentler companion to the pastries.”

 

“A tea’s gentleness depends on the hands that prepare it,” Miyo said.  She caught Yuki’s wince and she sighed internally.  “I can understand how it’d be easier for a chain as big as yours to use bagged tea,” Miyo allowed, “But the very least you could do is watch the temperature and steep it properly.”

 

Only a confused look met her words.  ‘They haven’t been taught,’ Miyo realized.  

 

She thought for a moment then nodded to herself.  “If you’d allow, could I order another cup of this same tea?  However, I’d like to prepare it myself this time.”

 

Curiosity had taken a firm hold of Yuki as she followed Miyo’s instructions, handing her took a cup of hot water and a tea bag.  Miyo moved to the end of the counter, still within sight of the two cashiers who glanced at her every now and then from their registers.

 

For a while, Miyo just kept still, listening carefully to the water’s shrill song of boiling.  It reminded her briefly of the water at the shores of Black Island, as the water met the lava that was constantly erupting from its lone volcano.

 

She heard the water’s song start to slow, and she waited for just the right moment before she placed the tea bag inside the water and covered the cup.  Miyo took out the small timer from her pocket, watching the white crystals fall and flipping it over twice. She listened to the melody steadily settle into the song of black tea.  Finally, she uncovered the cup, took out the bag, and motioned for Yuki to come over.

 

“It won’t be a major difference,” Miyo said as she set the cup in front of Yuki.  “But one thing you may notice is that it won’t be quite as bitter.”

 

Yuki took a hesitant sip, her eyes fluttering in surprise.  “Oh wow, you’re right! The bitterness is like, not even there. It’s almost like there’s oranges here!”

 

Miyo smiled.  “That’s because there are.  But using boiling water and letting it steep too long hides all of that.  The tea simply doesn’t have a chance to share all those things when it’s treated that way.”

 

Yuki was quiet for a long moment. Wordlessly, she turned away and walked over to the other cashier, talking quietly and gesturing towards Miyo.  While they talked, Miyo took a bite of the cake, then took a sip of the tea.  A hum came to her lips as the flavors melded together in a dance that far exceeded her expectations.  

 

Finally, Yuki came back with the other cashier in tow.  “Could you show us again?” she asked shyly.  

 

Miyo smiled with a full heart.  “Of course.”

 

*

 

The whine of a tricycle’s engine outside the tea shop surprised Miyo from her stool.  She watched curiously as a woman in a pink and red edged uniform climbed down from the sidecar and stepped up into the shop.  

 

“Are you Master Miyo?” the woman asked, her mouth forming oddly around the title.

 

“Yes,” Miyo answered, then guessed at the sharp features and the blonde hair. “You must be the manager of the pastry shop.”

 

The other woman stuttered in surprise.  “Yes, I’m Alicia, how did you know?”

 

Miyo smiled briefly.  ‘Not many with that hair,’ she thought wryly.  “I was hoping you’d come,” she said instead.  “I wanted to apologize for disturbing your store yesterday.”

 

“It was quite a disturbance,” Alicia said evenly, taking a seat at the counter with a casual grace.  “Headquarters has very strict rules on how we’re supposed to serve everything. After all, our motto is precision and consistency.”

 

“There was nothing about that preparation that was precise,” Miyo said quietly.  

 

Alicia gave her a long look, but Miyo kept her gaze steady.  It was Alicia who broke the stare and sighed.  “No, you’re right.”  Then she looked up at Miyo with a mix of curiosity and confusion.  “But why help us? If we kept making horrible tea, everyone would go to you for tea instead.”

 

Miyo nodded.  “Did you know the first name given to tea masters was actually by the Sirens?  They call people who make tea this.”

 

She sang a short melody that rose gradually three times before fading.  “The rough translation is ‘one who shares water,’ which is fitting because the main job of a tea master is to share tea with all they come across.”  

 

Then Miyo smiled.  “Besides, it would be a shame for people to not know how wonderful your strawberry shortcake tastes with Black Island’s tea. That’s something that’s only possible at your store.”

 

Alicia stilled at that, not even breathing as the words sunk in.  She let out a small, breathless laugh.  “I’m honored that you think so.  But we’re one store in a large chain.  Headquarters is very particular about how we do things.”  She shrugged.  “I moved here from Crystal Island so I could be on my own and challenge myself.  But instead, I just feel more trapped than before.”

 

“What’s stopping you from leaving the chain?”

 

Alicia’s expression grew distant.  “What indeed,” she murmured after a while.

 

A quiet fell between them and Miyo slowly navigated around it with a deftness that comes only from having had those thoughts before.  As the tea reached the end of its steep, she finally spoke.  “When I went north to visit Crystal Island during my pilgrimage, what really struck me were the mountains.  Where I grew up, there were only trees and small hills.  I’d never scaled a mountain before, or felt the clouds from that high up. It made me think that the people who live there must be incredibly strong, just like their mountains.”

 

Miyo poured out the tea into two cups, placing one in front of Alicia, who stilled once more.  The scent of the tea brought her back immediately to the mountains at the edge of Crystal Island, overlooking the whole southern coast.  If she was high enough, and the air was clear enough, she could see the other islands, small figures in the ocean, beckoning to her.  If she listened closely she could still hear the call.  ‘Or was it echoing here in the tea shop itself?’ she wondered.

 

Alicia took up the tea cup.  Questions upon questions were forming in her head, and she knew it would take time to answer them.  But for now, there was tea. 

 

She gestured towards Miyo in a toast.  “To sharing,” she said simply.  Miyo echoed it softly as they clinked their cups together.

 

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