by Kirisaki Nizuki (霧崎弐透)
The little cafe was about two hours out of town. It wasn’t the easiest place to get to, especially without a car; it took Crys three transfers to get to the nearest bus stop, and from there she still had to walk a good twenty minutes along dirt roads. She’d brought a book, though, and it was a beautiful day, so she didn’t really mind the journey.
There was only one problem. Crys had been sitting at the ornate, wrought-iron table for what must have been half an hour now and Tarah was nowhere in sight. While she waited, she was trying to keep boredom at bay by watching the other customers on the terrace.
The colourful sun dresses and elaborate hats fit in pretty well with the marigolds and morning glories that surrounded the little patio. An elegant, middle-aged women was staring at her from her table under a nearby trellis whenever she wasn’t staring back. This wasn’t the first person to do that, either. Crys’s outfit may have been comfortably inconspicuous in the city, but out here her dark jacket and acid-washed jeans made her feel like graffiti in Monet’s gardens.
It had been Tarah who had invited her here in the first place. Crys had been skeptical—tea and scones in the countryside wasn’t really her idea of exciting. She had half expected to find a quaint little shop with the requisite handicrafts and heritage plaques. Her nose wrinkled as the word ‘picturesque’ came to mind, as if anyone in their twenties would want a picture of such a place.
Now that she was here, though, she felt rather relaxed. The air was pleasantly cool on her skin, the leaves stirred gently in the breeze, and the sunlight made everything seem so vivid. It reminded her a bit of one of those commercials for HD television, she felt a bit guilty to admit.
But there was still no sign of her friend. Knowing Tarah, something new and shiny had probably caught her eye. She would often get excited about something one week, talk it up day after day to Crys on the phone, then they’d set a date, and by the time Crys finally started to look forward to it, Tarah would have forgotten all about it and moved on. It was like they were operating in different time zones.
Making sure to avoid the judgmental gazes of the customers who didn’t look so obviously out of their element, Crys turned toward the only building in sight. She wondered absently what the owners of the old manor house would have thought to see their country estate turned into a cafe.
The red brick building was three storeys high, with small, white-trimmed windows. A long, shaded porch wrapped around from the front to an old screen door near the terrace, and at the back corner was a cute little tower with a pointed roof. It certainly had more charm than some of the reclaimed industrial cafes frequented by hipsters in town.
A waitress came by for what must have been the fifth time since Crys had arrived. This one was young and homely, with a round face, a winning smile, and a long auburn braid worn over one shoulder. Each time it was someone different, forcing her to explain yet again that her friend hadn’t arrived, and to endure yet again that look of pity that suggested she’d been stood up.
Okay, well maybe that was more Crys’s imagination than anything. This waitress seemed particularly happy to see her, though, and her eyes twinkled as she smiled.
“Hi there,” she said, “Welcome to Arcadian Infusions. My name’s Violet.”
“I’m sorry,” said Crys, “I’m waiting for a friend. Or at least I was— Who am I kidding, I should probably just head home.” She slid the chair back to stand up, but to her surprise Violet sat down in the chair opposite her.
“Well then, you need wait no longer,” said Violet, leaning forward with her elbows on the table. “I love making new friends. Is this your first time here? I don’t recognize you.”
“No,” said Crys, a bit taken aback. “I mean, yes, technically. My friend’s been here before—she recommended it.”
“Wonderful!” said Violet. “We’re always glad to have new visitors. What’s your name?”
“Crystal, but I usually just go by Crys.”
“Crystal,” said Violet. “That’s a beautiful name! I love it.”
Crys rolled her eyes. She never really liked how it sounded in two syllables. Unfortunately, everyone else invariably did.
“Shall I get you some tea? What’s your preference?”
“I really should get going,” said Crys.
“I insist. We have some really delicious varieties this week. It’s your first visit, so it’s on the house. Wait here and I’ll bring you a menu.”
As Violet went back into the manor, Crys thought over the fanciful story Tarah had told her. She claimed to have discovered that certain keywords, when spoken to the staff, granted her access to more prestigious and intimate dining rooms inside the manor. Crys thought she was full of crap—she had probably just chatted up one of the waitresses and been offered a different table.
Looking up at the large bay window near the back of the house, Crys could indeed see a few shadows moving around inside. On such a beautiful day, though, who would want to sit inside?
“Here you go, Crystal,” said Violet, returning with a little chalkboard. On it were written the names of a half-dozen types of tea, with descriptions in a narrow, pencil-width script. “The genmai tea is a personal favourite, if you’d like to give it a try.”
Tarah had said to wait for her and not use the keywords without her, but Crys was fed up with waiting. It was time to see if Tarah had just been leading her on to get her to show up. She made a show of examining the board for a moment, reading over the columns once or twice before answering.
“You know, I think I’d like to try one of your house blends,” she said, stressing the words for dramatic effect. She probably sounded like an idiot, but she was curious to see whether Tarah had been messing with her or not.
To her surprise, Violet’s eyebrows rose and she grinned a knowing smile. “Ooh, a house blend on the house. Interesting. I suppose that works. Please come with me.” Moving the braid around to her other shoulder, Violet turned back toward the manor.
Crys followed her up the wide steps to the screen door. Tarah had said that asking for a house blend let you dine indoors, where they had a different selection of tea. Crys was beginning to wonder why such an elegant cafe needed to resort to such cheesy gimmicks. A shame—she had just started to like the place too.
Violet held the door for her as she entered. The bright sun outside cast diagonal rays down through the windows, making the most of the inside seem dark and dusty in contrast. Crys could see a few well-dressed women quietly sipping tea in a tastefully furnished room to the left, but Violet went to the right and lead her up a long and narrow spiral stairwell in what must have been the little tower.
“This way,” said Violet, leading her down a second-floor corridor, the light from the tall windows they passed casting veritable walls of dust. The whole hallway smelled like cedar. They passed through what looked like a guest bedroom, then out another door onto a surprisingly wide balcony with four sets of wooden tables and chairs, all painted white. While the tables out on the terrace had been full, here only one was occupied.
Crys stood in the doorway and gaped. From the terrace below, she hadn’t seen anything more than a few small windows on the second floor—certainly no balcony, let alone one this wide.
“Here you are, Crystal,” said Violet, pulling out a chair for her at a table in the corner opposite the occupied table. Before sitting, Crys walked over to the white balustrade and looked down toward the gardens. The trees and flowers, fences and arches, they all looked the same from up here, but there were no guests and no tables in sight.
Blinking twice, Crys figured she must have gotten turned around on the staircase. She was probably on the other side of the house. Symmetrical garden layouts were pretty common out here in the country, weren’t they?
“A house blend, on the house,” announced Violet as if the words themselves tasted sweet. Once Crys sat down, Violet handed her a small card with four handwritten blends listed on it. “Which would be your pleasure?”
Crys looked at the list. The names were a little different from the familiar ones downstairs.
“No prices?” she said.
“On the house,” Violet reminded her.
“I don’t know,” said Crys, mouthing the syllables of the names as if re-reading them would help her deduce their ingredients. “What’s in them?”
Violet smiled. “Now now, if we gave away the contents of our blends, they wouldn’t be unique house blends anymore, would they.”
“Hm,” thought Violet aloud. “What are those two having?”
Violet turned to look at the two women sitting at a table nearby gazing into each other’s eyes. They seemed to be enjoying their tea so much, they could have been in an advertisement for Twinings.
“Ah, the Virgin Pekoe. Excellent choice. Would you like to try it?”
Crys swallowed, fidgeting in her chair. “Um,” she said, looking back at the little sheet, “Actually, I’ll try the, uh, Sugar and Spice Chai.”
“Sure thing,” said Violet, nodding slowly as she took the sheet back, a hint of a smirk crossing her face. “I’m sure you’ll love it. I’ll be back shortly with your tea.”
While Violet was getting the tea, Crys looked out across the countryside, gently-tapered hills, dotted with stands of ash and maple. Tarah had described some kind of sitting room with a beautiful fireplace, but surely she would have said something about an enormous balcony, especially one with such a gorgeous view.
According to Tarah’s story, once they got to the sitting room, they had to ask about the oolong tea on the menu, and then something about fermentation—Crys couldn’t quite remember. This wasn’t the sitting room, though, and there was no oolong on the menu at all. Maybe it had been a special the week that Tarah had visited.
Or maybe Tarah was just making the whole thing up. She’d always been one for theatrics. Crys had first met her in high school. She’d been playing Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest, and Tarah had starred opposite her in the role of Cecily. It was one of her fondest memories from high school. Tarah’s hair had been so beautiful when it was braided up, sort of like Violet’s, only blonde.
“I love your hair,” she said as Violet returned with a tray. “The sun really brings out the reddish tint.”
Violet looked a little surprised as she set the teapot on the table. “Oh, I’m glad,” she said, “I take care to brush it every morning.” Crys’s hair was short-cropped and dyed jet black; it was easier to take care of that way. “To tell you the truth, Crystal, yours looks a lot more fun.”
Crys smiled as Violet began pouring her a cup of the tea. It was in a tinted glass teapot, so she could see the little seeds and spices swirling around as Violet expertly decanted just the right amount, so quickly and yet so smoothly, with not a single drop missing its mark.
She then crouched down beside Crys—her hair smelled of flower—and set a slotted spoon across the rim of the teacup. Placing a tiny sugar cube on it, she poured a stream of milk over it with a flourish, leaving nothing but the empty spoon once it let up.
The ritual now complete, Violet put the spoon aside and turned back toward the house. “Enjoy.”
Crys sat wide-eyed, staring at the teacup. A look of amusement from the other couple lingered for a moment before they returned to silent conversation. Crys just shook her head, contemplating the strange kind of company Tarah keeps.
Lifting her cup, she watched the wispy clouds of milk chase each other around the liquid until they faded into a diffuse beige fog. Wrinkling her nose, she sniffed the concoction, taking in a slight whiff of cinnamon. For a moment she thought it might just be a common masala chai—until the liquid reached her tongue, that is.
As it coursed through her mouth, it seemed to awaken every taste bud it touched, its aroma filling her nostrils, making it feel like she was swimming in a sea of spice. She became lost in the taste, as if the flavour were permeating her every pore, until she noticed that she’d reached the bottom of the cup.
The feeling was gone as abruptly and mysteriously as a vanishing dream. She remembered its having persisted, yet the memory itself was transient and insubstantial, and the more she tried to grasp at it with her mind, the more it faded, until she was left with nothing but a vague sense that it had tasted indescribably delicious.
It was then that she noticed the sun had taken a trip, and she was now sitting in the shadow of the manor, her erstwhile fellow customers having left at some point during her reverie. The teacups were completely empty now; not even a faint brown circle was left to show a trace of the delicious liquid they had contained.
She stared at the empty teapot on the table, the dregs of the spices arranged like a tasseographic work of art around a perfect little cluster of star anise. She hadn’t remembered so much as reaching for it, let alone pouring out any more.
Violet returned a moment later. “It looks like you enjoyed that,” she said, grinning as she collected the holloware.
“What was that?” asked Crys with mild incredulity.
“That,” said Violet, “was the Sugar and Spice Chai.”
Crys sifted over the words in her still-cloudy mind. “How do you make it?”
Violet was looking from one of her eyes to the other expectantly, so Crys explained: “I’ve made chai before, but never anything that tasted like that. I’d love to be able to make one like that myself.”
Violet was still staring at her, but then the hint of a smile began to pull at the corner of her mouth. “All right,” she said. “Come find me inside when you’re ready. I’ll show you.”
When her head had cleared a bit, Crys stood up and stretched. The shadow had crept further across the porch, enveloping it almost entirely. Had she dozed off? Surely Violet would have come to get her if it had been too long. Or had she come by and just decided to let her sleep?
She still felt a little light-headed. She looked up at the manor house, wondering where Violet had gone. The sun was now even further from its zenith, blocked entirely by the manor’s triangular central roof. It cast a foreboding shadow over most of the porch.
Movement drew her eye up to a third floor window. It looked like a woman was watching her from a behind a set of red curtains, but it was hard to make out any details.
When Crys went back into the house, things looked a bit different than she remembered. She tried to retrace her steps, but at the end of the corridor, where the spiral staircase should have been, there was nothing but a three-by-four painting of a staircase on an otherwise-bare wall.
Crys stood at the dead end for a moment, trying to orient herself. She had never been great with directions. Tarah was like a human compass, but Crys usually got her bearings from landmarks. That certainly wasn’t helping her today—the rooms and paintings must have looked different in the morning sun.
As she wandered the halls, she counted six bedrooms, three bathrooms, and two linen closets on this floor, along with a few locked doors. Everything was bright and cheerfully decorated, but empty. She heard giggling from one of the locked doors, but when she knocked on it, the sound simply stopped, with no one coming to unlock it.
Crys sat down on an old chest at the end of the meandering hall and took a deep breath. This big old house was playing tricks on her, and Tarah’s stories didn’t help. After a short rest, she got up and began searching once again, going up and down stairs and passages until she felt completely lost.
At length, she came upon a rather unusual and luxurious bathroom. While small, it was made entirely of impeccably clean, light-coloured wood. To one side, small streams of water cascaded down from little holes in the ceiling over a miniature pile of quartz-like stones, and down into a grate in the floor.
A glass sink and cabinet were embedded into the opposite wall, and strangely, a rope ladder ascended through what looked like a trapdoor in the ceiling from which she could hear the sound of someone humming. The entire room smelled like flowers.
“Hello?” called Crys, tentatively peering up at the trapdoor.
The humming stopped. “Up here,” came a woman’s voice.
Crys climbed up the ladder and found herself in another bathroom, this one almost entirely taken up by a small hot tub that looked as if it had been fashioned from the bottom half of an enormous barrel. This must have been the source of the water in the installation below.
Standing beside the tub, Violet was wearing nothing but a fluffy white towel, carefully tying some of the eponymous flowers into her unwound braid. Crys stood dumbfounded with her head poking up through the trapdoor.
“There you are,” said Violet, crouching down to offer her a hand up. “I’ve been waiting.”
As she climbed up into the room, Crys averted her eyes and instead looked intently at the huge half-barrel pool. “I hope not long,” she said. The image of Violet’s half-naked form remained etched into her mind, even as she stared at the steaming water.
“Not at all,” said Violet. “You’re just in time.”
Violet began undressing her as deftly as she had poured her tea earlier. As Crys made no effort to resist, within seconds she was completely nude, though she was still staring intently at the pool as she felt the white towel drop at her feet.
“Come on, Crystal, the water’s just perfect,” said Violet, stepping into the pool and Crys’s sight.
The water was waist-high. Violet’s hair draped down over her breasts and brushed the water’s surface playfully. Her auburn curls, darkened a bit by the steam, only slightly obscured the shape and contours of her skin. A few of the little flowers came loose and floated across the water, moving in a slow circle around her.
Crys took a single step forward and stopped. Her eyes traced the smooth curves of Violet’s torso until they reached her hips, where the curves shimmered into the rippling water. Unlike Tarah’s physique, all bold and angular lines, Violet’s seemed soft yet firm, confident yet welcoming.
Taking Violet’s outstretched hand, Crys stepped gingerly into the water. The heat felt almost scalding to her bare toes at first. Violet took hold of her other hand too and drew her closer. The lightly swirling heat caressed Crys’s legs as she came to waist height, the water’s quivering surface tickling her hips.
Her fingers intertwined with Violet’s, their bodies mere inches apart. She felt a shiver run up her spine as the warmth down below made her upper half feel all the more exposed. Hesitantly, she let go of Violet’s hands and crossed her arms against the cold. Violet crossed the last inch between them and hugged her close.
Crys was the taller of the two, but Violet held her warmly and she felt small and comforted. Blinking away what might have been a tear, she drew in and kissed Violet, their lips melding softly in the tight embrace.
She felt the skin of Violet’s leg against her own as she hooked it in firmly behind her ankle, then pushed her down deeper into the water. Falling slowly but inevitably, like in a dream, Crys descended until the hot water began lapping at her breasts. Violet’s hair spread out around them as she trailed kisses along Crys’s cheek, biting lightly at her earring and then down her neck. Her hands serving as her eyes, she took in every contour of Crys’s form, half-obscured under the water.
Crys wrapped her arms and legs around Violet and pulled up tight against her. She began to feel a heat from inside as well as out, and shivered despite her immersion. Violet’s hands wrapped around behind her, a single finger trailing up and down between her cheeks, coming teasingly close to the edges of her lips before sliding back away.
The fragrant potpourri floating on the water’s surface wreathed her head as she sank back, her exposed face the only part of her still breaking the surface; framed with water up to the temples, she closed her eyes as Violet leaned into the water and kissed her neck again. Violet’s lips, cool relative to the water, left distinct-feeling afterimages on her skin.
The kisses inched upward as her hand moved ever downward. Crys rocked her hips each time Violet’s playful finger tantalized her clit. For a moment, she thought she saw a hint of a smirk cross Violet’s face before she was pushed underwater. It was then that Violet surged forward, plunging her tongue into Crys’s mouth just as her finger slid inside, bringing a surge of heat, only partly from the roiling pool.
When the two surfaced, she barely had time to take a breath of air before Violet leaned into her again and carried her back under. Violet’s hands seemed to know just when to be where—Crys couldn’t hold up for long. Yet amid the churning ecstasy, she’d lost count of how many times she’d been dunked before she convulsed in an incredibly intense climax, then almost choked on a mouthful of water.
Her last thought, in a fit of coughing through breaths of steamy air, was a feeling of frustration that what may have been the best orgasm in her conscious memory had been interrupted.
When Crys awoke, she was lying naked in a comfortable bed, neatly made with freshly-laundered sheets tucked in tight around her. Through a pair of red curtains, the sunshine drenched the wooden room in the bright rays of a Sunday morning.
Her first instinct was to stretch and roll over, basking in the clean comfort of the linens, but a faint scent of violets reminded her where she was.
Yanking the sheets free from the grip of the bed-frame, she sat up and swung her bare feet off the side of the bed to find her shoes and socks on the ground right beneath them. Across from her, by the window, on an old wooden chair, her clothes lay neatly folded in a pile.
Wandering over to the window, she pulled aside the red drapes. Looking out, she saw the enormous balcony where she had tried the chai. There were a few couples sharing tea and scones. As one looked up at her, she abruptly remembered her nakedness and moved out of view, quickly getting dressed before leaving the room.
She found a stairway down to the second floor, and then located the stairway in the little tower right where she remembered it being the first time. Looking at each customer and waitress she passed with a dreamlike skepticism, she retraced her steps back to the old screen door and went outside to the terrace.
“Some breakfast, dear?” asked an elderly waitress with a stack of menus. “Complimentary tea and biscuits for our overnight guests.”
Still feeling a little disoriented, Crys let herself be ushered to a nearby chair. The waitress left a menu on the table before she went to tend to another customer.
Crys turned and looked back up toward the third floor of the manor house, squinting her eyes against the bright sunlight. She couldn’t make out the balcony, and there was no sign of movement at the windows.
“Oh there you are, Crystal,” came a voice behind her. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”
It was Tarah.
She put her purse down and took the seat opposite Crys. “I’m so glad you could make it. They have the most amazing tea you’ll ever taste. I promise you’ll love it!”
Crys was still feeling confused. “Wait a sec—Weren’t we supposed to meet on Saturday?”
“Yes, exactly,” said Tarah. “Sounds like you could use a bit of caffeine! It is Saturday, silly. I’m not that late.” She picked up the chalkboard menu and had a quick glance over it. “Well, would you look at that. Looks like you picked the perfect day to come.”
The elderly waitress returned to the table just as Crys took the chalkboard back from Tarah. “Would you like a few more minutes, ladies, or have you decided what you want?” she asked.
Crys’s eyes had just found it when Tarah ordered:
“I’ll have a cheddar-onion scone with a pat of butter, and a Crystal Violet Tea, please.”
“And you, my dear?”
Crys just stared at the fourth item on the list.
Crystal Violet Tea: A vivid and unfermented green, made with the youngest, hand-picked leaves, this full-bodied tea has a light floral aroma and pleasantly fruity aftertaste. The perfect way to relax on a lovely weekend morning, it’s like being wrapped up in a soft blanket, knowing you can sleep the day away.
“If you’re having trouble deciding, I would highly recommend the Crystal Violet. We just brewed a pot this morning, and it’s already been very popular.”