THE PRICE OF TEA
The clear, bright tang of fresh grass drifted from twin ceramic teacups, riding fingers of steam. Ikumi sat cross-legged on a thin linen cushion, waiting for the man seated across the low, wooden table to explain why he’d begged for her presence before she left for the capital. She’d seen his ilk before. The leaders of these villages had much in common. Aside from this village leader’s wife, she wondered if anyone would notice swapping him for another. Even his wife might not care.
“We’re honored to provide the Chagu, our wise and just leader, with oranges, of course. I mean no disrespect to His Honored Soul, nor to his Honored Wives.” His hemp clothing, made of mismatched pieces in the rural fashion, rustled with every movement.
“Of course.” Ikumi lifted her teacup and breathed in the aroma. The Chagu’s tea lacked such body and verve. If Lady Tigress, third among the Chagu’s nine wives, heard about the quality of this tea, she’d storm the village and demand to buy it all. “I need to be on my way soon, Leader Ota. There are other villages with other children to test.” Her smooth, silky linens, dyed emerald green to honor her family patron, Crocodile, made no sound.
“Apologies, Honored Tester.” Ota bowed his head. “I waste your valuable time with nonsense.”
The first sip of tea awakened Ikumi’s palate with a whirlwind of delight. She tasted the ocean on a calm, clear day, sunshine sparkling on the surface. Small boats bobbed across the surface, their passengers driving wide oars into the water, bringing clams and abalone to market. Water lapped against the dock, shifting the wood enough to creak. Gulls called in the distance.
“I wish to speak to you about Aimi,” Ota said.
Ikumi started, expelled from an unexpected reverie by Ota’s words. Tiny drops of liquid sloshed from her cup to splatter on her kimono. “There’s nothing to speak about.” She sniffed the tea again, this time reaching with her small gift of magic, and sensed the mild spice of aether. “The test is for a man’s job. If I’d known I’d find a girl here, I wouldn’t have come.”
He bowed again. “I heard there was a girl taken from Tonoko.”
Everyone had heard about that girl. Ikumi wished her predecessor had refused to test the child. Desperate and deluded villagers kept luring her to test girls by lying and giving false names. Each girl she came to see meant days lost to find worthy boys. “That was a long time ago.”
“But it happened.” He raised a hand as if to point at her, but stopped short of delivering the obvious insult. Instead, he clasped his hands and set them on the tabletop. “Please, won’t you test Aimi? What if she’s the next girl?”
“There is no ‘next girl.’ ” As much as the beguiling tea called to her, Ikumi set it down and resisted the vulgar urge to daub at the damp spots on her clothing. After the Tonoko girl, the Sentinels had been clear. They didn’t want girls. Test results didn’t matter. “Is this tea grown locally?”
“Yes.” Ota sighed. “Aimi’s family has trouble, and her father’s honor is…” He pursed his lips and dropped his gaze to his hands. “This would be very helpful for them.”
“Helping them is your responsibility, not mine. How is the tea processed?”
For a moment, Ikumi worried Ota might do something impolite, such as thumping the table or raising his voice. He took several breaths through his nose before answering. “I’m sorry, Lady Hane, I don’t understand the question.” His puzzlement seemed genuine under his frustration. “It’s harvested and dried, not processed.”
Lady Tigress would pay Ikumi a fortune for a small batch of this tea. If she kept the source a secret, she could drain the Chagu’s treasury in a slow leak. That would amuse Ikumi’s husband. She rolled her feet to the side and rose to her knees, then bowed her head in respect for the table. “I wish to purchase as much of this tea as you’ll spare.”
Ota copied her movement, his bow directed to her. He had no need to show respect for his own table without his wife present. “Excuse me, Honored Tester Hane? Aimi–”
She placed her palm on the table, stopping his plea. “There will be no test for Aimi. This is about the tea. It’s quite good. I’ll pay a fair market price for whatever you’ll part with.” She hid a grin, because this man would never ask enough for his village’s tea. Her profit margin would be high.
He bowed again, his brow furrowed, and said nothing. His silence lasted long enough to annoy Ikumi with the insult. “I’ll have to speak to my wife.”
“Please do.” Ikumi flicked a hand to dismiss him. She watched him snap into rigidity, stand, bow to her again, and use the sliding door connecting to the rest of his home. Through the rice paper that made up the majority of the interior walls, she heard his bare feet on the wood. He and his wife murmured then used the outside door.
As she had to wait, Ikumi sat on her feet and drank her tea, relaxing in its entrancing embrace. This time, she tasted a meadow crowded with flowers. Light rain dripped onto the petals, splashing to the earth. Water pattered on her head and shoulders. The scent of fresh, damp dirt slithered through a harmonious blend of floral fragrance. Sparrows and finches chirped nearby.
This induced vision faded on its own within several heartbeats. Ikumi set the cup on the table and knew she had plans to make. First, she had to fulfill her testing quota to maintain her family’s honor and please Crocodile. Every year, six Sentinels died. Every year, she found another six boys to replace them. So far this year, she’d delivered five. She had one month left to find the sixth.
Two days ago, she’d met a boy four months too young. Candidates had to be ten years old–no older and no younger. Next spring, she’d return to that village and test him. She expected him to pass. He’d leave his family behind and join the Soul Sentinels for the rest of his life. His family would earn honor and the heavy coin purse in her travel bag.
Ota’s footsteps on the wood floor preceded him as he returned. Ikumi watched the door slide open. She caught a glimpse of his wife with her face drawn into a worried frown as he stepped through. His own expression seemed taut and grave.
“Esteemed Lady Hane, Honored Sentinel Tester.” He bowed deep enough to impress a governor. “If you take Aimi as a Sentinel and bestow all the due blessings on her family, I’ll collect enough tea from the entire village to fill this for you.” He held out a pouch big enough to contain Ikumi’s fist twice over.
With that much of a naturally enchanted tea of such impressive quality, Ikumi could keep some for herself and still reap a fortune. She imagined quitting her job and sitting with her husband on the bench in her backyard, watching the cherry blossoms fall. No more traveling meant she could wear fine silk all the time. When it rained, she could stay inside instead of urging her goat to plod through the downpour. Never again would she have to free a cart from mud by herself or with the help of only a ten-year-old boy.
On the other hand, she saw and heard many things while traveling that she otherwise never would. Tiny birds found in one sheltered cove sang sweet lullabies. The sunrise glowed indigo from rocky cliffs on the northernmost island. Bakers in a tiny village added tart berries to goose eggs and rice for a clever, unique concoction. Every time she visited a remote village, she experienced something new.
Perhaps she could take the payment and inform the Chagu she wished to retire in another year. He’d find her an apprentice. She’d make an effort to see as much of the islands as possible. Then she’d have the rest of her life to indulge in whatever luxuries she wanted, knowing she hadn’t missed anything important.
The girl could, of course, fail the test. Most girls failed, which had led to her predecessor testing one in the first place. Doing so then had carried no risk, and doing so now also carried little. Nothing changed if she failed. While she wanted Aimi to pass the test, the prospect concerned her more than failure. If Ikumi took the girl, she’d have to face the Sentinels. Fifty-four men with all the power of their patron spirits, including Crocodile, would stare her down and demand to know why she broke her word.
Ikumi stifled a scowl. She preferred to part with money, not honor, for what she wanted. “This is an unexpected offer, Leader Ota.”
“I don’t wish to offend.” Ota bowed to her. “This is merely the price of the tea. I believe it a fair market price.”
“I see.” Him throwing her own words back in her face made Ikumi twitch her mouth downward. Her eyes, though, refused to ignore the pouch’s gaping maw. So much of this tea lay within her reach. The freedom of fortune beckoned.
He set the pouch on the table. Ikumi noted a glint of triumph in his straight-backed posture. “Should I fetch Aimi for you?”
This rough man from a tiny backwater had maneuvered her into a corner created by her own lust for money and comfort. That sudden realization made Ikumi flex her jaw in anger. No matter how much she wanted the tea and all it would grant, she refused to let him win. She stood and bowed to the table. “No,” she said in curt, clipped tones, “I will not be bribed against the Chagu and his Sentinels.”
As she’d expected, Ota’s eyes widened. “A thousand apologies, Lady Hane.” He knelt before her, his head bowed. “No insult was intended. I only sought to offer payment for the great boon that I know we ask. The tea is all we can offer a lady as honored as yourself.”
The door slid open, and his wife stood in the doorway with her head bowed. “Please, Honored Tester. This was my idea. I beg you not to punish my husband for my mistake.”
Somewhat mollified to discover a woman had been behind this, Ikumi straightened her sleeves. “Then you can explain.”
The woman stepped forward with a contrite nod. “Aimi’s mother, Kanae, took ill a few weeks ago and has not recovered. We have no healer to tend her, which means one must be hired. Although our village thrives, we have little beyond what we need and can’t afford to bring a healer from elsewhere, even if the whole village pools our resources.
“Last week, against all advice, Aimi’s father sought the aid of a nightmare living in the river.” She sighed and closed her eyes with a bow of her head. “He struck a foolish bargain. If you don’t take Aimi and keep her safe, the nightmare will claim both her and Kanae tomorrow night. With Aimi out of reach, it will take only Kanae. As she’s already on her deathbed, this is better for everyone. Aimi requires protection that we can’t provide, or the nightmare will come for her.”
Ikumi’s anger faded and she let her frown show. “What kind of illness does Kanae have?”
“The wasting. We’ve seen this before. Most recover with the help we’re able to give. Kanae hasn’t. She’s dying. I don’t believe even a healer can save her now.”
In the face of such tragedy, Ikumi couldn’t turn away. Returning to the capital took three days from here, and she doubted anyone capable of slaying a river creature strong enough to make deals could arrive faster than another two days. By then, both Kanae and Aimi would already be lost. They could have requested aid instead of the Sentinel tester, but Ikumi doubted anyone would have grasped the true horror of the situation and arrived in time. Peasants reporting “nightmares” earned scoffing from those in power. Even she thought the creature sounded dubious. If not for this woman’s gravity, Ikumi might not believe her either.
“Please, Lady Hane.” The woman knelt and bent to touch her forehead and palms to the floor. Her husband followed suit. “With the honor bestowed when you make Aimi a Soul Sentinel, her father will be able to take another wife and have another family. He’s already pledged to use the money to entice a healer into moving here so nothing like this ever happens again. Aimi will live. This isn’t a happy ending, but it takes only one life instead of two.”
Ikumi imagined how the Sentinels might react to her explanation of this problem. She expected anger and frustration. They’d question her and despise the answers. Saving a child’s life, though, demanded sacrifice. However much her honor might suffer in the Chagu’s eyes, she thought her ancestors and Crocodile would approve.
“I wish you’d been more forthcoming with this to begin with. But here we are. Bring the girl, but don’t hold your hope too high. Girls seldom pass the test. If she fails, we must find another way to protect her.”
As Ota and his wife rose and left Ikumi alone, the daydream of fortune faded, leaving an aftertaste of regret. Even if the girl passed and Ikumi took the tea, the Chagu and the Sentinels required offerings to overlook such a gross breach of trust. Acknowledging her infraction in this fashion should allow her to keep her honor intact. Her position, on the other hand…
She sighed. So much trouble to save one life. And if Aimi failed, Ikumi had to take her anyway and find something to do with her. This girl needed to know the sacrifices made on her behalf to appreciate her place in the wider world. That subject would occupy their conversation for the entirety of the ride away from the village. If she passed the test, Aimi needed to arrive at the enclave with her eyes open and not full of stars like the boys. No one would give her the benefit of the doubt. If she failed, the discussion would take a more dire turn.
Ikumi needed to prevent failure. She had no place for a child in her life. Her children had their own lives and challenges. The Chagu’s wives wouldn’t take a girl this young as a maid. No one who could safeguard her would take Aimi unless she passed the test. Ikumi had no doubt she could place an errant boy somewhere for long enough to deal with his curse. For a girl of Aimi’s age, the options ran slim.
Ikumi pressed her palms together and focused on breathing to center herself. Crocodile could assist. She only had to ask and pay his due. If Aimi could help repay him, she would. His terms might strike a sour note, but asking did not require accepting.
The door opened and Ota’s wife ushered Aimi inside. Ikumi had seen her before this meeting, and saw no change in the girl’s homespun clothes, spatters of mud, or chin-length hair. Aimi shuffled forward, her mouth a thin, flat line, and bowed with the uncertainty of youth.
“Lady Hane, Honored Sentinel Tester,” Aimi said, her small voice thin but firm. “Thank you for helping my father.”
Ikumi nodded her approval. The girl hadn’t been protected from the situation. “The test is unpleasant. You will face your fears. If you pass, you will cast aside your family and ancestors forever to become a tool of your patron spirit and protector of your homeland. You may also choose to forgo the test and come with me to an uncertain fate. Do you wish to take this test?”
Aimi bowed again, her hair brushing her cheeks. “Yes, Lady Hane.”
“Sit here.” Ikumi pointed to a spot beside her and nodded her approval as Aimi rushed to obey. If obedience ensured passage, Ikumi had no need to worry. It did not.
She touched her finger to the girl’s forehead and summoned her power. Aether flickered around Ikumi in sparkling wisps and motes of green light. The lights spun down her arm. Aimi gasped in surprise as they flowed to Ikumi’s finger.
Shimmering green spread across Aimi’s dark eyes, and her mouth fell open. Ikumi had never tried to interfere in a test before, and neither had she summoned Crocodile. She waited until the girl fell across her lap, a sign the test had begun, and called with all her will to her patron for aid. With her magic, with her heart, and with her soul, she beseeched her patron for a moment of his time.
Between one eyeblink and the next, a man appeared across the table, sitting on his feet and picking up Ota’s untouched teacup. Tough, leathery scales of mottled green covered his skin. Two long, sharp teeth protruded from his lower jaw to rest in divots on his upper lip. Slit, yellow-green eyes regarded her with interest.
“Ikumi Hane, blood of my brood,” he said with a breathy rasp, “why have you requested my presence?”
That her call had been heard surprised Ikumi. She stared at him for a heartbeat before recovering her wits to bow deep enough to touch her forehead to the table. “Honored Crocodile, patron of the Hane family. Thank you for coming to my aid.” Beneath her hand, Aimi’s chest rose and fell, reminding her of the girl’s presence and predicament. Ikumi sat up, her back straight and stiff. “This girl requires protection from a creature beyond my skill to challenge. I believe she will enhance the Soul Sentinels, and ask for your assistance in convincing her patron to allow her to pass the test.”
Crocodile cocked his head to one side. One corner of his mouth twitched. “If you’re certain she’ll be a boon to the Sentinels, why do you believe she’ll fail?”
Ikumi’s mouth ran dry. She hadn’t considered the answer to a simple question. Unwilling to succumb to panic or beg, she offered the best explanation she could devise in the moment. “It is my suspicion the test is designed to favor boys and place undue hardship on girls.”
“Designs are intentional. Perhaps girls are too precious to waste on such duties as the Sentinels undertake.”
“That’s preposterous.” Ikumi snapped her mouth shut to prevent further rudeness. She took a slow breath to focus on her goal. “Excuse me, Honored Patron. I forget myself. This girl, Aimi, is cursed. She will never have enough honor to attract a husband, and cannot rise above her curse without aid. Though she may be soft now, I believe she will harden with proper training.”
Crocodile sipped the tea and sighed with contentment. “Remarkable. This tea is quite enchanting isn’t it?”
“Please, Honored Patron. The girl? Will you help her?”
He met her gaze. “What do you think she would fetch for a fair market price?”
Ikumi paled at Crocodile’s eerie echo of her earlier conversation with Ota. “I don’t understand the question. We do not buy and sell people. It’s immoral.”
“And yet, a purse of gold is a fair market price for a child, and a pouch of tea is the fair market price for your honor. Is that all the value you place upon the legacy of your ancestors?”
The question held the gravity of a test. Ikumi didn’t know the right answer. She looked at her teacup to summon her courage. Whatever response she gave had to be one she believed true. Crocodile would weigh and measure her soul upon death, and he would remember. Understanding the stakes, she bowed again.
She and Aimi had much more to discuss than she’d imagined. The child would have a great deal of expectation to live up to. If Aimi failed to be worth the sacrifice Ikumi now seemed poised to make, she would curse the girl more violently than any nightmare.
“I believe this child’s life merits sacrifice on my part or I would not have called for you. I have lived a life and given my husband children. Many of my years have been spent in service to the Chagu. This child has done nothing yet, except bear the brunt of her mother’s frailty and her father’s foolishness with grace and dignity. She is a part of the future, where I am a piece of the past.”
Crocodile watched her for so long she worried he’d refuse. He sipped the tea again then set the cup aside and laced his claw-tipped fingers on the table. “For the Chagu’s Honored Tester, who possesses questionable integrity yet admirable heart, I will intervene with Aimi’s patron. In return, you must take your payment for this boon, the tea this village now collects for you, and spread it in the sea.”
Ikumi blinked, taken aback at the demand. Without the tea, she had no way to placate the Chagu or the Sentinels. Even if she carried enough money to buy that much extra tea, the village had no way to produce it before she left with Aimi. She’d arrive with Aimi and no gifts. Shame would drive her from Daito forever.
“Is Aimi worth this sacrifice?” Crocodile asked.
Looking down at the girl draped across her lap, Ikumi wished Crocodile had demanded her life instead. That choice seemed simpler. She sighed and shook her head. Her own words had put her into this situation, and Aimi deserved a chance to rise above the choices made on her behalf.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I will make it.”
Crocodile’s mouth spread in a wide, toothy smile. “You’re a boon to my bloodlines.”
As he’d appeared, so he disappeared. Mild dizziness forced Ikumi to lean against the table. She noted with satisfaction a purple glow coalescing around Aimi’s head. Dragon accepted the girl and the test would end soon.
Ota’s wife gasped, reminding Ikumi of her presence.
“Please bring bread and fruit,” Ikumi told the woman. “And plain water for both of us.”
She bowed to Ikumi and left.
The energy around Aimi’s head crackled. For one heartbeat, fangs, horns, spines, and scales formed, showing Dragon’s face. Then the aether dissipated. As with every other child who passed the test, a simple image the size of Ikumi’s thumb burned itself into the flesh at the back of Aimi’s neck. Hers depicted Dragon in sharp purple.
“You’re lucky,” Ikumi whispered. Ota’s wife needed to hear none of this. “It’s been many years since Dragon’s last choice. The Sentinels will be pleased to have one even as they curse us both.”
Aimi rolled onto her back and blinked at the ceiling in silence. She took a deep breath, then sat up and beamed with radiant joy. With another deep breath, she recovered herself and stood.
“Tomorrow, my mother dies.” Her young voice wavered, thick with restrained emotion.
“Today, I die to my ancestors and village.”
“You sacrifice on my behalf.”
That Aimi already knew these facts filled Ikumi with a kind of relief. Though her road ahead would be difficult, she had one less obstacle to overcome. “Yes.”
The girl bowed to Ikumi with grave solemnity. “I understand.”
Ikumi searched the girl’s face and saw the seeds of strength and wisdom. “Yes,” she said with a nod, “I believe you do.”