Miyo let herself sink into the ocean, feeling the air in her lungs and the tension in her muscles leave her body. It was times like these that she wished she could breathe underwater, if only to feel the cool water rush through her.
Her energy was beginning to return nonetheless, bringing with it a deep relief. She hadn’t had the water fever this bad before. It had come to the point where just standing had nearly been enough to bring her unconscious. She resolved to stay in the water for at least half the day to make sure she was fully recovered.
Usually, Miyo came to the ocean at the first signs of the fever. But when the first headaches had come, the bride’s mother’s health had taken a turn for the worst. What had been intended to be a luxurious wedding on a picturesque mountaintop became a desperate redecoration of the hospital cafeteria. Miyo’s last minute contribution had been a live water feature, a mini-waterfall in front of which the couple had said their vows.
Powering the feature had been worth the gasp of amazement that had come from the bride’s bedridden mother, but it had drained her completely dry. By some miracle, Ryou had been outside the hospital when Miyo had stumbled out the main doors and hadn’t questioned her barely lucid request to come to the beach. She made a note to thank Ryou when she returned to shore.
Miyo kicked her way back up to the surface, taking in air and the southeast coastline of Crescent Island. A wave of homesickness crashed over her as her eyes traced the curves of the beach. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with it – the long stretch of soft white sand that gently bowed to the waves ranked high in terms of calmness in Miyo’s opinion of beaches.
It was simply the complete opposite of the beaches on Star Island, what with their gritty sand and sharp coral. Not to mention the waves that tossed the uninitiated like wild horses would their riders. Down south, the ocean was known for being much rougher and less forgiving, to humans and Sirens alike. Many a human ship and Siren hunting party had disappeared in those harsh waters.
But it had been what Miyo had grown up with. Over time, the coarse sand toughened up her feet and she learned to swim with enough deftness to avoid coral at all costs. And most importantly, Miyo had learned the personality of the ocean, its ups and downs, when to duck under its tempestuous waves and when to fling herself headlong into them, to be wrapped up in its own exhilaration.
It had been due to her near daily visits that she had made friends with the owner of the snack shop that she stopped by whenever she was coming home from the beach. Back then, Miyo primarily drank the colorful, sugar-filled juice boxes popular among her peers. But the owner had taken it upon himself to get Miyo to drink something healthier. And it was during one of their daily “debates” that Miyo had been coerced to try her first cup of tea.
“You mentioned tea?”
Miyo started and spluttered at the voice, but she accepted the hand that steadied her as she coughed up the water from her lungs. “Youko, please -”
“I know, announce myself, I’m sorry.” There was a healthy bit of apology in the Siren’s normally mischievous silver eyes. “I’ll remember next time, I promise.”
Miyo kept herself from rolling her eyes, having lost count of how many times Youko had made that promise to her. But Miyo really couldn’t blame her. After all, it had been her own fault for not listening to the songs around her. It was a good thing it had been Youko who happened upon her and not something with more teeth.
“It’s okay,” Miyo said. “And yes, I was thinking about tea.”
Youko clapped her hands, her skin shimmering in the sunlight. “What a coincidence! I’m on my way to Hiroki’s place. She serves tea there, among other yummy things.”
‘Tea in the middle of the ocean?’ Miyo wondered as she followed Youko through the water. She didn’t ponder it too long as they quickly moved into waters Miyo wasn’t familiar with and it took all of her energy to keep up with Youko’s pace.
Miyo felt a prick of guilt, knowing that Youko was already swimming slower than usual. Speeding through the water was a basic skill for Sirens and Miyo’s mother had shown her the basics when her magic first manifested. But at that time, Miyo’s focus had been on her new apprenticeship at Master Hatsumi’s shop.
Miyo wondered why her mother had never said anything. Her mother had always celebrated Miyo’s growth in tea, but surely she had to have been disappointed at how her daughter’s magic had staled in comparison. Miyo certainly was when she realized just how disparate her skills were in comparison to a Siren like Youko.
Miyo had been so focused on Youko’s silvery back that she hadn’t noticed they’d slowed until they were already in the cave. Inside was a sharp contrast of light and shadow. All around them, the song of the ocean seemed to echo within the rock walls.
Youko had already made her way to a colorful part of the wall where another Siren was waiting. As Miyo came closer, however, she realized that the colors were not from the wall itself but from a collection of bottles nestled in the crevices within the wall. Extending from the wall was a slab of rock that curved like a counter, upon which Youko was resting her elbows and talking with the Siren who Miyo assumed was Hiroki.
“So this is the tea master who helped you,” Hiroki was saying as Miyo approached. Hiroki’s gaze rested gently on Miyo. “That was very kind of you. I know my cousin here isn’t the most graceful of beings.”
Youko gave an indignant squawk. Miyo chuckled. “She’s been an invaluable friend, especially in introducing me to new places like this one.”
“Do places like this also exist on land? Hiroki insists that there are places that serve both tea and liquor, but I’d trust your word over hers,” Youko said with a glare at Hiroki.
Miyo hummed as she thought back. “When I was in the capital, there was a specialist who served both. But the way he ran his store was that he would serve tea in the day, then the liquor at night.”
Hiroki said nothing but there was a faint quirk at the corner of her lips. Youko rolled her eyes. “Well, at least Hiroki doesn’t keep things separated by the time of day. Dear cousin, could I have that pink thing you made last time?”
Hiroki nodded and turned to Miyo, who turned up her palm in deference. “If you don’t mind choosing for me?”
Hiroki’s face lit up into a smile. “Is alcohol also okay?” Miyo nodded, her curiosity piqued even more. She watched as Hiroki took a couple bottles from the wall, along with a bag that Miyo recognized as what canoe paddlers took on their excursions. After working through the intricate sets of knots, Hiroki reveal a tin inside.
Miyo had assumed that Hiroki would use a song to create water but when Hiroki began to sing, the opening notes were not at all what Miyo had expected. She stared as a globe of ocean water lifted from the water’s surface beside Hiroki, shimmering in the faint light. After a moment, Miyo realized that the shimmering wasn’t from the light but from tiny salt crystals moving out of the water.
The pitch of Hiroki’s song shifted suddenly and the sphere separated in three parts. One third was funneled into an awaiting teapot and while Miyo was familiar with the song that followed, she was amazed at the speed at which the water heated. In seeming no time at all, Hiroki had already added the tea leaves to steep.
The other two parts were reformed into spheres and remained hanging in midair. Miyo waited. A few minutes passed. Miyo frowned, not seeing any change. She glanced over at Youko but she only received a grin in return.
Miyo fixed her eyes once more on the suspended spheres, watching them closely. Then for some reason, she started to think of snow.
A memory surfaced from her pilgrimage, that day when she had arrived at the Island of Five Peaks. She had been warned about the extreme cold of the island many times during the pilgrimage. Miyo had expected a wasteland when she stepped off the boat, and had been prepared for a scene bleak and harsh. But what greeted her had been instead a white softness that had left her breathless.
Miyo shook her head slightly and frowned at her lapse in concentration. But then she felt a chill along her arms. She looked up.
It was coming from the spheres.
Miyo’s mind became a whirl of questions as she watched the water rapidly harden. She knew now that it was Hiroki’s song that had triggered her memory, but to use that song to change water into ice! Changing a water’s state like this was something Miyo had never thought possible and yet, here it was, happening right in front of her eyes.
The ice balls were gently placed into two clear glasses. The first was joined shortly by a pink mixture, the second a darker infusion that held the scent of tea, which Miyo hadn’t even noticed Hiroki cool down. With the most content of smiles, Hiroki placed both glasses in front of them. “Please enjoy.”
Youko gave Miyo a look. “It’s like she didn’t even try,” Youko said. It gave Miyo a bit of relief then, knowing that even Youko had found Hiroki’s magic to be such a feat.
The two cousins began to banter back and forth but Miyo focused on the drink in front of her. She took a moment to admire the burnished color of the liquor, the faint floral notes of the tea, the sparkling of the ice as she lifted the drink to her lips. As the drink filled her mouth, it felt like she was transported back to the Island of Five Peaks, laughing as she tried to catch all as many snowflakes as they fell.
Miyo set the cup down with a shaking hand. It was a well-made drink. Far better than anything she could make.
Miyo shook her head quickly and pressed a smile to her lips. “It’s wonderful,” she said quickly, turning to Hiroki as well. “I’ve never had anything like it.”
Youko raised an eyebrow. “Surely you’ve had tea with liquor before. Hiroki is smart but I doubt she’s the first to think of this.”
Miyo dropped her gaze back down to the glass. “That’s true but no, I’ve never had something like this.” She lifted her hand before Youko could ask another question, giving her time to get her words in order.
“Everyone has their own experiences and that comes out in what the eventually serve. For example, two masters could make the same exact tea, but there would still be differences,” Miyo said, the image of Naruko coming briefly to mind. “So as someone who serves others, you work to make the perfect drink that only you can make for that person.”
Hiroki nodded. “It doesn’t happen often, but you know you’ve gotten it right when the other person says that they’ve never had anything like it before.”
Youko was quiet for a breath then peered suspiciously at Miyo. “She conned you into this, didn’t she? It’s all right, you can tell me,” Youko said laughingly as she ducked Hiroki’s hand.
Miyo chuckled at their play and took another sip, letting the mix of alcohol and tea warm her from the inside. There was still much more for her to learn, that much was sure. It was times like these that made it painfully clear just how wide the gap was between who she was now and who she wanted to be.
But that gap wasn’t something she was meant to jump all at once. As long as she kept moving forward, she would get there eventually, at her own pace. Memory by memory, cup by cup, she would build a bridge towards that point that only she could see.