Saturday 6:00 a.m.
It’s a quiet Saturday morning. The sun is creeping over the horizon as early as five in the morning. The sheer white curtains do nothing to hold back its amber glow as I watch the light spill into every corner of the room.
The events of last night are still buzzing across my skin. The music and singing, the series of drinks as we set aside whatever fears we’re harboring. I bite my lip as I remember how warm he was sitting beside me, how shaky his fingers were as he searched for the next song.
Oriana paid us little attention. She was too busy retelling stories from her latest adventure. Sajja spun a few spells in our drinks. Cero lit a cigarette with a flick of his fingers. But only when Hikari wasn’t looking. They forget too easily when they’re caught up in the mood.
I remember the scowl I tossed their way, a warning as not to expose what we are.
Not yet, I tell myself. It’s too soon.
Then when, my thoughts echo in reply. I turned over and put my back to the sunlight and press my face into one of the bed’s pillows. It is not a conversation I am ready to have even though I know the time is drawing near.
My lips curl into a grin as I remember again his warmth and the small subtle touches we made. I remember taking his hand as we left the second bar. The night was drawing to an end and I knew if I didn’t take the leap I would regret it later. It was a small gesture, fingers entwining and heated palms pressed flat together. For most it’s nothing to really remark about but it leaves me feeling like a young teenager falling in love for the first time.
I know I am far too old to be giddy. But as I roll onto my back and throw out my arms, I giggle maddly. I did it. I finaly made the first move. It has been a year since we first met, since he first stepped into the cafe and ordered a chai tea. I let my laughter bubble out of me. I let it roll free because pure laughter should never be swallowed lest it turns sour in the stomach.
But it begins to fade and I bite my lip again.
He is mortal, I think. I shove the thought quickly aside and sit up. I throw off my thin summer blanket and pad through the apartment towards the kitchenette. I put the kettle on then head downstairs to the cafe. I start prepping the machines and preheat the oven for that morning’s quiche.
Outside the train station is quiet. There’s no traffic, either, this early in the morning. A few elderly people are out sweeping the sidewalk and watering flowers. Someone walks by the front of the store with a gray-haired shiba trudging behind.
Then I catch sight of her, a black shadow leaping from the bushes and racing across the empty street. Her tail is high in the air and she steps before the cafe’s door. Her mew is high-pitched, insulted that the door does not open for her.
I move through the empty cafe, unlock the door, and let her in. “Fire, you’re looking well.”
She races past and leaps onto the bartop. “Finally,” she grumblled. “I thought you were going to sleep all morning.”
I chuckle. “It’s six in the morning.”
“My stomach says otherwise.” Her head raises and there is no arguing with her.
“The finest tuna then.” I moved in the back kitchen to put the quiche in the oven then cllimb the stairs with Fire at my heels. “Anything of interest happen on your travels?”
Fire races past me once we reach the apartment’s foyer. She leaps onto a barstool in the kichenette and licks her lips. “Nothing of interest happened to me but I heard a story in the bushels.”
“You mean you heard something through the grapevine?”
“No, I meant bushels. I know the difference between bushels and grapevines.” She eyes me as I put tuna into her bowl and set it on the counter in front of her. She forgets her story entirely. She begins snapping up bites of tuna, the delicate pur of delight chiming from her throat.
“Dark Fire,” I remind her. “You were saying?”
She licks her lips again and runs a paw back across her whiskers. “There’s talk that someone from court is visiting.”
I try not to groan.
The kettle starts whistling. I grab down the tea and start making a cup. I choose my favorite because I feel that today I will need its memory to keep me grounded. The tangy scent fills the air as hot water seeps into the Shisandra berries. It’s a Chinese tea known for its ability to hit all five flavors on the tongue.
“I also heard,” she adds slyly and she would smirk if she could, “you went on a date last night.”
I huff and sit down at the counter next to her. “Don’t you cats have better things to do?”
She purs in response. “It’s about time you asked him out. What took so long anyway?”
I want to admit that I hadn’t in fact asked him on a date. Oriana had been the one to weave a spidersweb, ensnaring both Hikari and me.
Finally I reply, “I’m just being careful.” I sip the tea and my tongue is desperate for another taste.
Fire ducks her head under my arms and sneaks into my lap. I know I shouldn’t let her. I have to start opening the cafe. But she is warm and smells of cedar sap and pine needles. I want to bask in her presence just a bit longer.
She pur, barely managing a reply, “You’re afraid.”
“I’m careful,” I correct her and scratch the soft fur along her cheek. “I just want to make sure he’s really the one before I make the first move.”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Her voice takes on a harder edge but her purring never ceases. “You keep looking for the holy grail when there isn’t one. They’re all just cups. Maybe some are more fitting than others. But in the end, it’s still just a cup.”
I whisper, nervous to admit it aloud, “It’s not just a cup.” I sip my tea again then another sip, trying desperately to keep my thoughts at the edge of my mind.
“Isn’t it, though?”
“It’s a cup I have to be faithful to and honest with and if I break that cup it’s all my fault. Because, in the end, it’s a very fragile cup and it’s hard to put broken cups back together.”
Fire stops purring and tilts her head to peer up at me, her large orange eyes gazing long and deep. “You’re really worried about him.”
I guzzled down the rest of my tea. “I have to get the cafe ready.” I scoop her up into my arms and carry her to the sunny spot next to the window. I place her down into the light and she melts happily against the plush blankets and cushions. I pat her head then hurry off before Dark Fire can unravel any more of my fears.
Downstairs, the quiche wafts through the air. I can almost taste the buttery crust and saltiness of the bacon. I remove them from the oven and set them aside to cool off. I busy myself with preparing ingredients for the day but the door to the cafe opens.
“Cassie,” she calls out, her voice is rough and hard, an expert of bargaining prices.
I peek out of the kitchen and she’s already sliding into her seat at the bar. “Clover tea?”
“With honey,” she adds sharply.
I grin and begin to make the flowery tea. The red clovers stain the water, their blood seeping out in clouds until every drop in the ceramic teapot is a light red. I bring her a tray with the tea set.
“Orange honey,” I tell her and set the glass container onto the tray next to her tea. The honey is collected by local bees near the lakeside.
She sighs as her spine eases into the back of the chair. “You always know just what I need.”
“It’s a gift,” I tease.
She pours herself a cup and spoons out a dollop of honey. She’s quiet for a moment and I can sense that she needs the moment of quiet. I know she needs to prepare herself for a busy day at the market, selling produce and jams.
She takes a cautious sip and closes her eyes. She nods approvingly. “Delightful.”
“The honey adds a little something extra to the clover.” I sit down across from her at the counter knowing all too well that she needs to have company with her tea. She hates drinking and eating alone.
“While I’m here,” she adds after another sip. “I have some troubling news to share.”
“Oh?” I pour myself a cup of the clover tea and feel the ceramic burn against my fingers.
“In town some people have gone missing.” She sits a little straighter but her voice still holds a wicked edge to it. “But not just mortals. Fae, as well. If it had been just mortals alone then I might simply have said it was a serial killer.”
I set the cup down and lean closer. “Fae are missing? Anyone we know?”
She whispers lowly, “Saya. She didn’t open her store this morning. I checked her home and she’s just gone.”
“Perhaps she’s visiting someone.” I shake my head. She would have told people. She would have posted a sign on the shop door to let people know she left town for a while.
“There are others.” She sits back a bit as if the whole idea revolted her. “If someone is taking mortals and Fae then something darker is going on.”
“I have noticed a change in the air.” My own voice begins to go quiet. Not just anyone can take a Fae against their will. It takes a special kind of power to lull us into admission.
She leans closer as well and whispers hoarsely, “Do you think someone is sacrificing us?”
The door to the cafe clatters open, the bell chiming someone’s arrival, a Mortal’s arrival. Outside it has started to rain again despite how clear and sunny it was earlier.
She shakes her head and jumps to her feet. “Thanks for the tea, Cassie. I’ll see you around.”
I watch her leave and for a moment my thoughts are still spinning. I just served tea to Saya last night. She couldn’t join us for drinks because she already had plans. Why hadn’t I asked her about them? I’d been too concerned about my own problems at the time that I didn’t even consider Saya.
The newcomer stands awkwardly at the door as if the rain has trapped her inside. But I can sense she was trapped long before entering the cafe.
I gather up the tray and tea. “Come have a seat.” I carry the used dishes to the sink in the back and return to find the woman still standing idly at the cafe door.
She looks as if she’s about to jolt out of the cafe.
“At least until the rain stops, you should sit down and have a rest.” I grab a cup from under the counter and start preparing her drink.
She shuffles closer and sits painfully jagged in her seat. “I don’t have any money.” She keeps her eyes down in expectation that I’ll tell her to leave.
“That’s alright.” I set the cup of tea in front of her. “You can pay me with your name instead.” I pick up my clover tea and sip it.
She eyes me as if she hasn’t decided whether my words are mocking her or not. “Kanae.”
“I’m Cassandra. You can call me Cassie.” I eye her drink and her gaze drops to it as well. “Milk tea. I added a bit of vanilla in there for you.”
A breath of air slips past her lips and it holds the ghost of a bitter laugh. “My mom loved drinking this. It was a luxury for her.” Her brows furrow. Her lips thin and I think she’s trying to bite down on the secrets that are trying to jump from her tongue. “Why are you giving me free tea?”
I smile and cross my legs. “As you can see, I’m not busy. It gets lonely sitting in a quiet cafe.” I watch the rain outside, the sunlight pouring between puffs of clouds. “You can drink for free. All I ask for is conversation.”
She lifts the cup to her mouth and hesitates. Not out of fear. She savors the scent, the warmth in her fingers, and I glimpse the bruises beneath her sheer sleeves. Kanae takes a sip and then another. She bows her head forward and lets the nostalgia wash over her.
I don’t have to prompt her. The tea does all the work for me. It peels back the flower petals to reveal whatever troubles she’s tried burying in the dirt of her garden. Her darkness has tainted the earth and grown up inside of her flowers, turning tulips to black and roses to gray. I can see the thorns she’s protectively wrapped around herself. But she’s bleeding and crying in pain.
I take another sip of my tea and roll the orange flavor along my tongue. I focus on it.
She chuckles. “You saw them, I guess.” She tugs her sleeves back and reveals the bruises. “You must think I’m stupid. But I’ve got good reasons, you know.”
“You love him?”
Kanae’s jaw clenches. “Maybe I did. I don’t remember anymore.”
I know this pain, this strange submission to circumstances. Even fae find themselves caught in abusive relationships. I quickly take a sip of my own tea and calm my thoughts.
I try to ask gently, “Why do you stay?”
She looks offended, like she might throw her cup down, but she takes a quiet sip. She savors it and begins to remember her own mother again. She thinks about blaming her. It’s easy to blame someone else. She takes another sip and sets the cup down but her hands are trembling. I can’t see her expression but I sense the tears as if they’re filling the room.
“I have two children. Two girls.” Her gaze is locked on the muddy brown surface of the tea. “I can’t take care of them on my own.”
She barks a laugh and the sound frightens her. She pulls her sleeves down and grips them against her palms. “You don’t understand. You’re a foreigner. In Japan, women get half the salary as men. If I take off work because my kids are sick, they’ll complain. I’ll have to leave work early to pick them up after school.”
“Let them complain. You are a mother. Take pride in that. Walk into work with your head high and declare it. You are a mother and your kids are more important than their hours.”
She ducks her head down.
“I have a friend who owns a daycare.” I pick up my cup and take the last few sips of tea. “I’ll have her stop by tomorrow evening to meet you. I’ll put in a good word for you.”
Her eyes are fluttering. She sits hunched over with her hands clawing at her knees. “You would really do that for me?”
“Of course. We know each other’s names. It makes us friends, don’t you think?”
Her chuckle is breathy. Her fingers shoves the tears from her cheeks.
“There’s a shrine north of here in the mountains. There are wolf statues along the path to the top.” I set down my cup and lean my elbows into the counter. “Have you ever been?”
“Not since I was a child.”
“Go there tomorrow. Take your children hiking and get some fresh air. Nature does wonders to heal the soul. Admire the wolves and remember that you are not someone’s pet. You’re a wolf and as a wolf, you must protect your pack. It’s in your nature. If there is a rabid animal threatening your children, there is nothing you can do but put it down.”
Her gaze finally jolts upward.
I chuckle. “I don’t mean kill him. Unless you want to.”
Her lips thin but she’s smirking.
I hum sweetly as I look out the cafe window and the rain has let up. The clouds still linger but the sun is strong. “Go hiking,” I tell her.
She follows my gaze.
“Pray to the gods at the top of the mountain. I promise when you come back, all will be better.”
“I can’t explain it but,” she hesitates, “I believe you.”
Trust me, I want to tell her. I’ll take care of everything.
Kanae slides out of her chair. She stands a little taller, a little lighter than when she first entered the cafe. “Thank you, Cassie. I feel like I might be able to do this.”
I round the counter and walk with her to the door. Outside is warm and the spring flowers drench the air with their scent. It’s as if the rain has released their perfume.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she promises and bounds off down the sidewalk.
I watch her for a moment then turn my attention to a raven sitting in the small garden in front of the cafe.. “Follow her. Find out who her husband is.”
The raven croaks a few times. She leaps into the air. Her wings spread outwards, black glistening under sunlight, to let the wind do all the work for her.