‘Lavender Tea’, Míquito López

Illustration © 2015 Eric Asaris

 [ Teapot, © 2015, Eric Asaris ] The kettle started whistling louder than it had been two minutes ago. With a tired smile, Qa Wuda grabbed a nearby cloth and carefully lifted the screaming steel kettle off the stovetop; he set it down on the island he’d been leaning on as one of the kitchen aides set another kettle of water down on the stove in its place. Dancing around the others in the spacious yet crowded kitchen with practiced ease, Qa gathered up everything he needed before returning to the island.

One of the teahouse’s hundred-plus porcelain teapots had been set out for him when he returned. Rolling up the sleeves of his beige work tunic, he set off measuring out ingredients: tea leaves, sugar, cinnamon and his metaphorical sweat into preparing a simple ginger tea that was favored so this time of year by the people of the outer village. Done mixing and measuring, he poured everything into a tea ball. Taking the cooling kettle, he popped the lid off the teapot and filled it up, adding the tea ball when he was done.

“This one’s ready in ten minutes,” he told the waiter who walked up to him with an order slip in hand. “It goes to table twelve.”

“Alright,” the waiter replied with a grin, being relieved of the order slip. “By the way, table twenty’s here again and three guesses, asking for you to serve him.”

The waiter conveniently left Qa alone as a blush began blooming on his face, his heart quickening a little in pace beneath his ribs at the thought of the man at table twenty waiting for him. Four days out of the week for the last year, the man sitting out at table twenty would come in and somehow, always be lead out to the same table, no matter who was working behind the host bar. Always the same table, always the same order, always wearing the same uniform and always wanting the same person to being his order out to him: Qa. The young man motioned to an aide for another teapot as he set to work preparing an order he could make in his sleep blindfolded.

Unconsciously (at least that’s what he told himself to think) Qa ran his fingers through his wavy brown hair a few times before picking up the ornate serving tray with his quickly-made order and left the relative safety of his kitchen. His blue eyes automatically glanced over to the table he always thrilled at serving and locked with the patron’s. Like always, he found a shy smile forming on his lips as the older man grinned wolfishly at him. Qa managed to keep his composure (not an easy feat considering he was still convinced someone—he—could either hear or see his heart pounding) as he took in the sight of the man he knew so well. Honey-colored hair, eyes as gray as the Sea of Rhapsody after a summer storm and a smooth tan from his hours of patrolling outdoors as a guardsman of the Saffron Court.

“Good afternoon, Qoan,” Qa greeted with a polite smiling replacing his shy one, ignoring the thoughts running rampant through his head as he caught the familiar aroma of the older man’s fragrance and internally sighed.

As always, Qoan returned his kind smile but his eyes glinted with some unspoken primal promise that never failed to send shivers running up Qa’s spine or help those less than savory thoughts that plagued his mind whenever he saw Qoan. “Good afternoon, sweet sugar. What are we having today?”

At that, Qa set the tray down in the middle of the small table and maneuvered himself to sit down opposite the man, hoping it was executed more gracefully than it felt and that the blush hadn’t turned his entire face bright pink. “The same as always, what else? You never want anything but.”

Qoan laughed, handing out a small plate of spiced teacakes Qa baked especially for him. Qa accepted one before Qoan pulled the plate back and helped himself. “So how’s the patrol going?”

The older man sighed. “It’s beginning to get too warm out there, but thankfully nothing more than helping a lost Lavender Villager find his way to his new favorite gambling hall or helping turn over an overturned cart. I’m glad it’s nothing like what happened last year. You would think being so close to the coast would make a difference in this heat but …”

Qa nodded, knowing all too well how the summer weather could be despite living less than a couple hundred feet from the beach the Sea of Rhapsody and still privately thankful Qoan stood guard outside his teahouse during last year’s rioting. “When do you change uniforms again?” he changed the subject.

Taking a sip of cinnamon tea, Qoan sighed once more. “Next moon. Those of us based out here will only be too happy to wear our warm cycle uniforms.”

Me too, Qa mused as he followed Qoan and took a sip of tea. I’ve missed seeing your arms in all their muscular glory!

“Can’t you just quit? Set up a shop or something in the Saffron Court?”

Qoan smiled sadly at him, knowing the younger man knew as much as he did how much he hated working for the Guard when he originally came from the merchant class. “Do you have any idea how much it would cost to buy or even rent a Saffron Court property?”

Qa stared back blankly before ruefully shaking his head. He didn’t know how much anything cost in the Saffron Court, home to the Imperial Palace in the Lavender Village. “My family’s always been here, remember? No one here’s been invited to the Saffron Court or even the Lavender Village in three hundred years.”

That information was local knowledge, information that has kept his family’s shop going form its beginnings as little more than a windowless tin shack to its present day marble open-air grandeur of a teahouse.

It’s a story Qa never tired of hearing, proud of what his family had accomplished those three centuries ago. People from all corners of the kingdom flocked to the Outer Village when then-Queen Llané stepped into his distant grandmother’s tea shack for a drink. The tale goes the Queen was so impressed with his ancestor’s tea-making that she commissioned the temple-like marble teahouse over the site where the old shack once stood with her own money so she and other Lavender Village dwellers could have a place suited for their standings to enjoy his late relative’s tea.

Sometimes Qa can almost picture the tall, dark-haired woman in regal red and gold robes of her time dictating a team of workers constructing his present workplace and home. Then he finds himself wishing someone would make tea like his ancestor had to attract the royal family and all their rich friends back to their teahouse because the closest they’ve been to someone living within the vicinity of the Imperial Palace in the last seventy-five years are the Saffron Court guardsmen stationed in Qa’s sector of the Outer Village. He then sometimes curses his relative for her refusal to write her recipes down for fear someone would take them and make her tea their own; a realistic fear, he would begrudgingly reason, but still. Whatever she’d done, he wish he knew so the teahouse could once again enjoy its once-upon-a-time prosperity. She could write her fears down in her journals but couldn’t be bothered writing her recipes somewhere, maybe even in some kind of code? Maybe it was karma that kept the royals away since their tea hadn’t managed to get them back in almost a century.

“I lose you somewhere?”

Qa was pulled from his thoughts to notice Qoan waving a hand in front of his face.

“Sorry, just thinking.”

“About anything in particular?”

The younger man just smiled shyly and shook his head, trying and actually succeeding in not blushing since his thoughts (for once) weren’t about the man in front of him.

Another pot of cinnamon tea passed and a cup prepared for the end of Qoan’s shift before Qoan dropped five silver coins in the plain black lacquered collection bowl and took his leave. Like he did every time Qoan left the teahouse, Qa sat at the table they’d been occupying and watched his retreating figure, eyes focused a little lower than would be considered polite but still following the man. Qa knew the older man didn’t mind; right on time Qoan turned around and shot a wink in his direction. He blushed but his eyes didn’t waver as Qoan disappeared from view, Qa remembering suddenly he was in a semi-crowded shop and there was another three working hours to go before he and his grandmother closed up for the night.

With a sigh, Qa stood up from the table and began gathering everything up and motioning for another server to brush clean the tablecloth and re-fluff the seat cushions.

It was going to be a long day the second Qa heard the clomping horse hooves coming in from half a block away. The approaching heat called out the neighborhood residents who were and had been flocking to the teahouse since they opened that morning. Qa eyed an empty row of tables against the wall and wanted to cry at how occupied it was to be if the rapidly-approaching carriages were any indication how many customers were arriving. The noise grew louder and louder, closer and closer to their street. Qa looked up in time to see a single horse-drawn carriage pull up in front of the teahouse’s steps and frowned, confusion filling his head. All that noise for a two-horse carriage?

Maybe it was just my imagination, he thought, watching the carriage door open from his peripheral. I’m probably just tired or something. Or slowly going insane because I’m overworked.

Its occupant stepped out and Qa’s eyes nearly bulged out, all thoughts of tiredness and insanity feeling faster than they arrived. Qoan was dressed in his uncomfortably warm guardsman uniform; Qa unconsciously ran a hand up his bare arm and tugged a little at the short sleeve of his work tunic, willing it to go down so Qoan wouldn’t feel more uncomfortable having to be in that stuffy-looking uniform in this growing heat when everyone else was dressed more coolly.

There was another man with Qoan, and Qa placed his uniform immediately. The overstuffed amethyst-colored hat, deep indigo blazer with oversized shoulder pads, matching shorts with bleached white stocking hiding the faintest hint of leg skin and buckled black shoes was the official uniform of the Saffron Court messengers. The uniform itself was known to anyone, but Qa had never seen it in person before, especially not in this weather. Did the Court simply not care if its messengers and guards succumbed to heat sickness in those hot clothes? Together, the two ascended the wide set of marble steps up to the teahouse and the chatter of his neighbors died the instant that hat came into view.

Eyes followed the pair as they walked up the final step and into the shop’s main room, the warm breeze billowing past the marble columns and ruffling hair and clothes but no one noticed. The silence broke a little bit but not much, whispers permeating the vacant air behind the men as they walked. Qa stopped pretending he was sweeping as he watched the men walk up to his father and grandmother, both of whom were as awestruck by the stranger’s uniform and presence as everyone else and not even bothering to hide the fact they were openly ogling.

“Excuse me and good morning to you both,” the messenger man said in a pleasant tone that practically shouted in the quiet shop. “Do I have the honor of addressing Qa Wuda?”

Both of them shook their heads and then pointed to the left, where Qa stood paralyzed with the broom still in hand. The messenger bowed his head politely before them and walked over to Qa, Qoan in tow.

“Good morning, Mr. Wuda,” the stranger began, bowing courteously low. “My name is Quae, senior messenger to His Royal Highness, Prince Ço. It is my honor to present you this invitation from the desk of His Highness of the Imperial Palace.”

No one waited for Quae and Qoan to so much as start the descent down the steps of the teahouse before the dead air exploded with life and the loud gossiping started. The same nobodies didn’t even notice Qoan’s feverous footsteps thundering back up the steps to usher a still shell-shocked Qa and his family into a room away from the chattering crowd.

“What just happened?”

Qoan helped Qa sit down, Qa’s hand holding still the sealed parchment envelope Quae handed him as Qoan began gently massaging some feeling back into his stiff shoulders. “I was on my way home from patrol three days ago when the Prince’s carriage pulled up. He was out for a drink so naturally I offered him the cup you sent me out with. One sip and he demanded to know who made it and where it came from.”

“Is that what the envelope is for?”

Qa turned to face his grandmother and Qoan smiled in kind. “I wasn’t there when the Prince wrote it, Veena, but I’m sure it’s requesting an audience with our boy.”

Slightly stunned by Qoan’s description of him as being his ‘boy,’ Qa didn’t even notice his grandmother snagging the wax-sealed envelope out of his hand and breaking it. She plucked the folded onion-skin paper out carefully and tossed the parchment envelope on the floor unceremoniously.

“Let’s see what this says,” she held the unfolded paper up close to her face, reading with her son standing tall behind her.

“The Prince wants to meet you,” his father began. “He’s sending his personal emissary tomorrow at eight to escort you to the Imperial Palace in the Saffron Court.”

Qa’s eyes widened when the news hit his ears, his nerves clustering in his stomach. His reeling thoughts snapped back into focus the second his noticed Qoan clasping his hand in his and gently squeezing.

“The emissary is coming with suitable attire and will you instruct you on basic Court etiquette when meeting with the Prince.”

That answers those questions, Qa thought, maneuvering his fingers through Qoan’s in a more comfortable position.

He felt Qoan squeeze back and it’s what his nerves needed to calm down, both men missing the questioning look Qa’s father shot the action.

“Do I have to go alone?” Qa asked, finding his voice.

“No,” his father announced. “It says you can bring someone with you.”


“Oh, no, I’m too old for such a trip. Besides, it was your tea that the Prince had; two tea makers shouldn’t go if only one of them is going to work. You should ask Qoan to go with you so your father and I can mind the shop while you’re out.”

“Qoan?” Qa looked up at the honey-haired older man with a blush staining his cheeks, his temples beginning to throb painfully against his skull.

“Of course I’ll go with you,” he assured with a warm smile.

“Then that’s settled,” Veena sighed in relief. “Now, I should get to the market before everyone closes up and you two should get in the bath; it’s been a long day.”

“Mom!” Tam exclaimed, oblivious to his mortified son and the red-faced guardsman holding Qa’s hand.

“What? Qoan can escort me to the market while you both clean up and go to bed.”

Tam breathed a sigh of relief and Qa realized both of them assumed she meant he and Qoan should be in the bath while his father and his mother went to the market.

Not a bad idea, Qa mused through the growing pounding in his head his shock caused. But so not the time for that. I need to calm down before my brains explode.

Qa leaned up to Qoan’s ear. “Do you think someone should tell her it’s not even eleven o’clock yet?” he whispered.

Tam chuckled a bit as he watched his mother begin looking for her overtunic and coin purse, most likely unaware they were in one of their less used storage rooms and not their living quarters. His bemusement continued as Veena motioned for Qoan, forcing the man to reluctantly let go of Qa’s hand and shoulder, leaving father and son in the room they’d gathered in forty minutes ago as the guardsman and old woman left.

“What do we do now?” Qa asked with an incredulous smile on his dazed face.

“How about I make lunch and we’ll go from there? I’m sure the bath will still be there when it’s actually time for us to take one.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Qa agreed as he stood up and followed his father to let themselves out of the room.

Qa and Tam didn’t bother hiding their amusement at Qoan’s flustered expression and weak attempts at explaining he was a Saffron Court guardsman that was supposed to be patrolling downtown and not the market district. All three men watched as she put her linen overtunic on and made sure she had everything she needed, clearly not having heard a word Qoan said. Qa looked at him with sympathy and hoped he wouldn’t get in trouble for being where he wasn’t supposed to. Veena waved her son and grandson goodbye as she and the guardsman continued on down the hall in the opposite direction.

“Do you think he’ll be okay?” Qa asked as he and his father began climbing the stairs to their living quarters.

Tam chuckled. “I think he’ll live. If he plans on sticking around, he’ll have to get used to her eccentricities.”

The first half of his father’s words made Qa blush, and he pointedly ignored the older man as he crossed the spacious open-air living room, grabbed a seat cushion and sat down in front of a window. He heard his father laugh a little at his childishness before his footsteps echoed off the walls and sounded off in the kitchen. Qa looked out the window and watched two figures bounding down the flight of marble steps and soon disappearing in the throng of people on the sidewalk.

He sat down at the small table as he and his father camped out right there in the living room for lunch and fell into an automatic pattern of eating, hardly registering what he was doing. He was aware of his steel chopsticks picking up rice, noodles, fried shrimp and steamed vegetables but he could barely taste anything. Qa was aware of the questioning looks his father was sending him but he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge them; barely seventy-two hours he was reflecting on his long-passed ancestor and how her tea skills elevated the family to their current standings because of their kingdom’s ruling family. All of a sudden, it was happening again. If this is what he thought his family needed to have happen, why was he acting almost depressed, scared and kind of sick about it?

“Qa? You want to talk about it, son?”

Identical blue eyes met his and Qa felt his mind return a little back to normal as he looked at his father. “What?”

Tam chuckled not unkindly. “I said, do you want to talk about what’s on your mind?”

“It’s just… so odd,” he sighed, pushing away his empty rice bowl. “I’m excited, but—”

“Overwhelmed?” Tam supplied, gathering up their empty dishes.

Qa looked up meekly, feeling the tension leaving his shoulders. “I don’t know what to think,” he admitted. “I was thinking something this needed to happen again, and now I’m to serve the Prince tea tomorrow.”

“At least you’ll have Qoan with you,” Tam reminded him, pretending not to notice his son’s blush or the way his chest swelled with the mention of the man’s name. “And this is a good thing. Maybe now we’ll be serving those stuffy Lavender Village people who can afford more than five coins’ worth of tea and muffins. We’ll finally be able to afford some of the repairs we’ve been a little lax on and if the Prince really likes your tea, you might be able to use that to your advantage. Maybe request a certain guard is permanently stationed here instead of wandering around all day in this heat with that long-sleeved uniform?”

Tam was glad his son didn’t even attempt to hide his blush this time. “I can tell, he really likes you. Maybe we’ll be celebrating a bonding ceremony soon.”

His blush deepened. “Dad, I’m a little too young for that, don’t you think?”

“Did you know your mother and I were only twenty when we bonded? Your grandparents were both just fifteen when their parents bonded them off. If anything, you’re reaching old age.”

Qa laughed at that, feeling some of his headache ebbing away and the knot loosening a bit in his stomach at the thought of being elderly at twenty-four.

“Besides,” Tam continued. “If you and Qoan would just bond and get it over with, Mom would stop reminding me she’s not getting any younger and I wouldn’t have to hear about when you’re going to give her a great-grandchild.”

Both of them rolled their eyes; Qa drained his teacup dry and sighed. “You think she’d be happy she made it far enough to have a grandchild, now she wants great-grandchildren. I swear somewhere along the line she got greedy.”

Tam laughed. “True, but you know she just wants to see you happy. She wants all of us to be happy. And the more she focuses on you, the less she’ll be interested in getting me to re-bond.”

The mood took on a somber mood for a moment as both men reflected, Tam and the wife he still loved and missed after twenty years and Qa, about the mother he could barely remember but knew loved him with all her heart.

“You know if I got bonded, I wouldn’t have a child until she passed? Remember all the times I got in trouble for following her crazy advice?”

“You have an interesting childhood, I’ll give you that. At least there were never any dull moments.”

“I would’ve killed for dull, at least once,” he grinned bemusedly as he and Tam began gathering up the dishes and walking them to the kitchen sink. “My adventures were apparently legendary in school, all thanks to her craziness.”

“Nah,” Tam countered, giving his son a smile and his chin a squeeze. “They were just jealous your mother’s looks got you out of trouble while your grandmother went right back to getting you in trouble.”

Qa laughed and started feeling better, his tension forgotten and headache passed as he helped his father wash their lunch dishes. As he dried off what his father handed him, he realized he now had an entire day where he could relax until tomorrow when he would be presented to the Prince and maybe others of his family and serving tea, exactly what he’d been doing his entire life. If he could handle some of their rowdier patrons a little too drunk off their cheaper bottles of rice wine, he could handle serving these well-mannered aristocratic types… couldn’t he?

“Do you have everything?” Veena asked, huddled in her heavy shawl against the surprising morning chill.

As Prince Ço’s invitation said, Quae and the Prince’s emissary arrived at the teahouse exactly at eight o’clock with everything Qa needed for his appointment. The emissary, a kind-faced but quiet man, whisked him off to his bedchambers followed by his father and Qoan. It was difficult for him to be dressed by the emissary, his lithe frame bared to the waist with only his modesty covered and Qoan in his very bedroom. He’d focused all his attention on the emissary and was ever so grateful to be wrapped in the softest linen underclothes he’d ever worn, followed by the most exquisite white silk robes he’d ever seen. Being wrapped in various pieces of midnight-blue and violet muslin took some getting used to, but Quae assured him it’s what everyone in the Saffron Court was doing. Qa heard the same assurances when the emissary began dusting his face with white, jasmine-scented face powder before opening his mouth for the first time and advising him how to bow when in the Prince’s or other royal members’ presence and no one else needed more than a formal head nod should he cross paths with such people.

“Yes, Grandma, the kitchen aides put everything I’ll need in the carriage.”

“Did you decide what tea you’re serving to the Prince?”

Qa turned to face his father, thankful he’d had the hindsight and time to look through her old journals again and see if she’d written anything about what kind of tea she’d served Queen Llané that first time. “Lavender, the same our ancestor made the late Queen.”

All three of them looked skyward for a moment before facing each other again.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Veena remembered, pulling a small pouch of something in a black linen cloth tied with a thin piece of yellow ribbon from her robe pocket.

“What is it?” Qa turned the pouch around a few times in his hand after his grandmother handed it to him.

“Popcorn kernels,” she proudly beamed. “Present them to the Prince as a gift from the Wuda family.”

“Mom! How can we afford these?” Tam protested.

“I’ve been saving up for two years, just in case something special happened,” Veena looked up at her son. “Now I don’t have to worry about something happening to all that money I was hiding away. And don’t you even think about giving them back!” Veena said in a flash as she saw an uncomfortable look cross her grandson’s face at holding something so expensive. “What’s done is done now.”

“Qa, it’s time to go.”

Qoan’s words rang in his ears and an almost crippling wave of nerves and fear threatened to roll over him.

“You’ll be fine,” Veena promised his stomach, thin arms wrapped around his waist as she spoke into his navel.

“Good luck,” his father gently pressed a kiss into his done-up hair.

Qa untangled himself from his family gently and closed the distance between him and Qoan, only to be helped into the elegantly-crafted carriage waiting to take him to the Saffron Court. With a wave to his dad and grandmother, the carriage sprang to life and started down the cobblestone street. He felt Qoan take his hand and turning his head, looked into the eyes of the man who made this unbelievably incredible opportunity happen for his family all over again and smiled up at him.

“I’m nervous,” he admitted.

Qoan smiled at him. “Don’t be. If the Prince loved your tea before, he’ll love it again. Just remember to breathe and you’ll be fine. Besides, your family has history in serving the royals; if they could do it, you can too.”

“I hope you’re right,” Qa sighed, looking out the carriage window and watching the first rays of sun break through the clouds.

Please, my ancestors, be with me now, he prayed.

He sat back and let himself get lost in the feeling of Qoan’s thumb soothingly rubbing the back of his hand, silently wishing the man never let go of it as the carriage pulled onto the main roads and officially started north towards the Lavender Village and the Imperial Palace.

© 2015 Míquito López

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