Itsumi took a breath and smoothed her hands against her apron before finally stepping up onto the dias at the center of the store. She felt the eyes of the graders behind her, but the weight of their gaze was nothing compared to the joy of seeing the store from behind the main counter.
‘Finally,’ she thought, a wide smile spreading across her face, ‘I get to see what this view is like.’
Her muscles tensed when the bell at the front door chimed. Months of training flashed through her mind, particularly the countless hours spent adjusting her speech. She relaxed her jaw like she’d been taught, breathed in deep with her diaphragm like she’d been trained, bent down from the waist like she’d practiced.
“Welcome to Lady Vivian’s tea shop. How may I help you…”
Itsumi’s words trailed off as the customer’s face registered. “Master Miyo?”
Itsumi saw the flash of confusion on Miyo’s face and she explained quickly that she was from Crescent Island as well, that she had studied at the academy just as Miyo had.
Miyo chuckled as she approached the raised platform, her attention, Itsumi could tell, captured by the collection displayed along the perimeter of the circular counter. Itsumi had had the same reaction when she first visited.
It wasn’t long before Miyo began asking about the teas, and Itsumi eagerly prepared samples, the conversation deepening quickly.
‘How nice it is to talk about tea with someone from home.’
Itsumi had studied all of Miyo’s works when she had first decided to be a specialist, and even more when she had decided to enter the commercial side of tea instead of taking the mastery path like Miyo had.
Never had she thought that she would now be waving goodbye, bowing to Miyo as the tea master left with several tins packed by Itsumi herself.
‘My first customer,’ Itsumi thought in a daze, ‘And Master Miyo at that!’
She spun around, then spotted the graders on the bottom floor. “Did you see that? That was Master Miyo!” she blurted out, rushing to the edge of the counter. “She’s one of -”
“One of the most decorated tea masters of our time, yes,” Kakuyo said as she closed her grading folder with a snap. “And as such, one of the most important people to treat with proper decorum.”
It was the steel in Kakuyo’s tone that made Itsumi freeze. “What do you m–”
Itsumi’s hand went to her mouth. The long vowels, the melody untamed – the voice she had worked so hard to leave behind had come back without her even noticing.
“She’s from my hometown, you see,” she said, trying to control the desperate waver in her voice. “Everyone talks like that there.”
But the coldness in the graders’ eyes failed to thaw. Matoko sighed. “The key word, my dear Itsumi, is ‘there.’ While you are here, we expect properness.”
Itsumi began to speak again but Kakuyo cut her off, her voice level and pleasant as it always was when she spoke to a customer. “You may return early today.”
The words sunk in Itsumi’s ears and she felt her shoulders and her heart follow the same direction down. Itsumi had barely alighted from the dias before both graders had taken her place, fussing over everything she had touched. They gave but one glance to the tea she had prepared for Master Miyo, said nothing about the color or its smell. Instead, they measured the distance of the cup from the edge of the counter, shaking their head all the while.
Itsumi blinked and turned away, realizing too late that the test had never been about tea at all.
It was strange to see midday from outside, and not from behind the glass walls of the shop while standing painfully upright or with a broom in hand. Even with the bright sun and energy, the cloud hung dark in Itsumi’s mind.
It’s why it took longer than usual for her to register the elderly couple standing in front of her. She shook her head slightly, then asked once more for their question.
“Do you know the way to the Yamamoto tea shop?” the man asked, his and his companion’s clothes marking them as tourists.
The rounded tones made Itsumi pause but it was the shop name that lifted her silence. “Yes, however, the store is closed until next week because Satoshi is on vacation.”
The couple hid their disappointment quickly but Itsumi managed to catch the drop in both their faces. “I see,” the man said, forcing a smile. “Thank you for letting us know.”
“Wait,” Itsumi called out as they turned away, finally recognizing the melody in their words. “You’re not from are you – perhaps the Wind Islands?” She heard the roundness in her own words and ignored it. She wasn’t in the shop, after all.
The couple exchanged a surprised glance. “We are,” said the lady.
Thoughts rushed in Itsumi’s mind and she felt her face lift – she realized it was a smile. “Well, it may not be the Yamamoto tea shop, but I do know of another tea shop who uses teas from the Wind Islands in a really interesting way.”
Itsumi could hear the doubt in the man’s voice, but saw them both start to turn. She grinned. “Come, I’ll show you.”
Itsumi smiled as she watched the group at the counter. At the beginning of the tour, they had hardly acknowledged each other, but here they were now at the end of the day, talking and laughing as if they were all old friends.
Steam warmed her nose and Itsumi started, finding Miyo at her elbow. Itsumi bowed slightly and took the cup of tea on the tray Miyo carried. Miyo turned to watch the group as well.
“Such a nice view,” Miyo said as Itsumi took a sip of her tea.
Itsumi paused. She thought of the capital, the dias at the center of Lady Vivian’s.
A burst of laughter brought her eyes to the counter and the smiling faces there. Itsumi smiled and lifted her cup once more. “It certainly is.”