Three days passed with no new travelers appearing on either the Dice Road or the Lantern Road. Then, after the sun vanished from the sky on the third day, soft indigo clouds drifting from the Dice Road released a willowy drizzle. The cool humid air felt charged with static electricity. It felt charged with something else too.
An hour passed and eventually, I decided I needed to end the day and go to bed. As a cleaned my little shop, a few flashes of blue sparks suddenly snapped out of the empty air between my shop’s threshold and the tea bar. Their startling appearance turned out to be a precursor, a warning for a sudden and blinding flash of lightning. A cord of sizzling light stretched from my bamboo floor to the stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling. Twisting arcs reached out and whipped about as if the bolt were a wicked tree made of light.
Then, the air rippled like water. The writhing arc of lightning split and parted releasing an inky black smoke. The murky, zigzagging rip in the world’s flesh grew until it formed a door large enough for a woman to step through.
The sorceress had arrived.
She stood 6 feet tall and wore a red dress and cloak. Upon her head sat a wide-brimmed leather hat the color of rosewood. The band encircling the crown of the hat was fastened with a silver buckle shaped like a fox’s face. Her clothes were of a style I had never seen before but appeared well-made and tailored for a traveler. Her violet eyes glittered with sapphire and ruby facets as they slowly scanned my shop. Eventually, her penetrating gaze landed on me.
“Tea Master, I have come from a cold and dark place. Might I have something warm to drink?”
I nodded and stoked the fire of my little stove. I readied a pot of water upon it so that it would heat once the fire grew. The sorceress found a seat at my bar. She took off her cloak and hat. Silky rich black hair fell down my visitor’s back as she made herself comfortable. She leaned back, casually, and smiled. Her lips were in English violet and her skin the color of fresh cream. Her high cheekbones and perfectly straight nose made her the picture of grace and poise. The sorceress possessed beauty that could only be described as magical.
“My last visitor traveled the Dice Road and brought with her golden sunshine. You come by no road and through a door of smoke and lightning. How did you two know each other?”
The corners of her full lips turned up and a perfect eyebrow arched. “This is very clever, very clever indeed. I do not know your last visitor, yet. One day, her path will circle back to the material worlds. The return of her soul will be as sunshine on the land, and the people will call her ‘The One Without Fear’. She will surround herself with people possessing powerful character and spirit. They will provide her with cunning, courage, and wisdom. They will help raise her banner and crest , and eventually she will be known by it.
Through her actions and the actions her court, she will earn the title ‘Queen of the Rainbow Rose’. It is in that time, I will know her.”
This news shook me and filled my stomach with butterflies. I turned back to the stove and remove the water. I began to make my Gumboot Tea, but my hands shook so much that I spilled the water everywhere but into the teapot. I refilled my kettle, but before I could return it to the stove, the sorceress appeared by my side. “If I may?” She asked as she placed a hand on the side of the pot. Instantly the water boiled, and when she drew back, the metal she touched glowed cherry red in the shape of a handprint.
I carefully, very carefully poured the water. As we waited for the tea to steep, I asked my visitor, “You’ve been on a long journey. Where did you travel and why?”
The sorceress’s smile parted and let out a laugh of surprise. She stared at me silently for a long moment, her smile never wavering, but it felt sad somehow. Not a fake smile, but rather an inverted smile. An expression that’s true but means something it shouldn’t.
Eventually, she answered, “I have walked so many roads; the roads in-between spaces, the roads of darkness, the roads of light, the roads of stardust, and roads without names. I have even walked the Dice Road and the Lantern Road. But I tell you this honestly, Master of Teas, I do not know or cannot remember why.”
I then placed the Gumboot Tea and my Deck of Secrets on the bar before her. The smile slowly slipped off the woman’s beautiful face. She picked up the tea and took a sip. Setting it down, the sorceress said, “Thank you. It is warm and tasty”. The whole while, her purple eyes never left the cards.
“Shall I choose one?” She asked, but it sounded as though the question was meant more for her than for me.
Still, I answered, “A card has chosen you already. The question is, do you wish to know what it says, or to stay in ignorance and darkness?”
Her eyes flicked towards me but returned instantly to the cards. Slowly, she lifted a hand. Long, delicate fingers removed the top card from the deck. She turned it over and left it, face up, on the bar. The card showed a man dressed in filthy rags and surrounded by snow giving a piece of bread to a small gray mouse at his feet.
“You’ve sacrificed something. What did you give up?” I asked.
The sorceress looked up at me. Her face was a frozen mask devoid of any discernible expression. When she spoke, her voice carried the stillness of a glass lake, flat yet brittle. “I have never sacrificed anything in my many, many years, but it would appear that one day I will. I will follow a path and sacrifice something as important to me as food is to a starving beggar. And the bearer of this gift will scarcely be able to understand the magnitude of my sacrifice.”
The sorceress sat at my bar for a long time. She didn’t drink any more of the tea, and her eyes never left the card. Then abruptly she stood up and looked at me with such suddenness I felt startled and fell back. I caught myself by placing a hand on the hot stovetop. Hissing in pain, I pulled away from the heat and clutched my tender fingers. Looking up again, I found the sorceress had moved around the bar and now stood but a few inches from my face. How she managed this feat within a span of seconds and without me noticing confounded me.
So close to her, I saw the flex of sapphire and ruby in her purple eyes twisting and turning like a kaleidoscope. She said, “Tea Master, you have dwelled here for some time. Is this cave your home? Or would you like to continue on your journey? I can look after your shop in your stead.”
I felt a spark of excitement burn deep within my heart, but I did not know why. I couldn’t imagine where I would go. Would I return home? I knew I had one, but I could not remember it. Would I go on? No, I had no destination in mind.
I shook my head, “No, I do not travel that path today, and you have your own to walk. I will stay here and tend my shop.”
The sorceress’s eyes grew bright and her mouth opened wide as a wrathful scream poured out. I glimpsed the inky black smoke swirling in the back of her throat. The bamboo planks beneath my feet began to shake, and my poor little teacups rattled off their shelves and shattered on the floor. Behind me, thundered a terrible snap. Looking over my shoulder, I found a great crack split open in my cave wall. Nothing but darkness filled its depth. The sorceress turned and picked up her hat and cloak.
When she spoke again, her bitter voice sounded like ice cracking. “Keep your deck of secret lies, Tea Master. I need none of it. I walk whatever path I choose, and never a path given!”
She then pushed me aside with a wave of her hand and marched to the crack she made in my cave. When I looked up again, however, I saw her chosen card sticking out of the belt of her wide-brimmed hat. I don’t believe she knew it was there, but it made sense. It belonged to her, after all.
Note From the Author:
This was my favorite chapter to write. It was also the spookiest. For a person to possess otherworldly powers and knowledge, yet still have the frailties of a normal human being is a frightening thought. I could see this person so clearly in my mind, and she, frankly, kind of freaked me out.
Humans don’t possess godlike powers, and godlike beings shouldn’t be possessed by human failings. If that sentence were ever untrue, I feel that the results would be utterly horrific. The sorceress has lived too long, accumulated too much power, and is still driven by the need to collect more and the fear of losing what she has.
Writing this chapter, I felt as though the sorceress was really writing herself. She was incredibly powerful, but I also thought she was incredibly lonely. I honestly felt a little sad for her as I imagined her walking back into the darkness. The “Tea Master” couldn’t ease her troubled spirit. Hopefully, she will understand one day what it means to end her loneliness.
The Last Tea Shop
Check out the other chapters in this playthrough of “The Last Tea Shop”.