Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Category: Tea Fiction

A Wild Mountain Tea Mystery

Editor’s Note: The following article is inspired by real events. I say “inspired” because . . . well . . . obviously a lot of it is totally made up. It should be pretty obvious which bits are pure B.S. Anyway, enjoy. (This took weeks to put together.)

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Chances are, you’ve probably never heard of me.

Photo by Robert Norman.

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“All’s Fair in Love and Wolves” – An Open Letter to the Tandem Tea Tasters

“All’s Fair in Love and Wolves” – An Open Letter to the Tandem Tea Tasters

 

To my dearest Tandem Tea Tasters – Rachel, Jo, Nicole, Darlene, Jackie and Julia

Tandem Tea Tasters

Image by Jo Johnson

I regret that I was unable to attend last Sunday’s Tandem Tea Tasting, and I equally lament that I never got to make the real(-ish)-time acquaintance of Xavier – the original Smiling Frenchman. While you might think I either flaked out on it, or had something better to do, I assure you the reason behind my absence was far more bizarre than that. And it all started with a snowstorm.

As most of you already know, Oregon finally felt the brunt of “Snowpocalypse 2014”. Some viewed it as karma for laughing at the East Coast and southern U.S., others looked upon it as a freak of nature. What no one knows…is that I was indirectly responsible for it.

Until now.

Thursday morning, news reports were starting to pour in about the impending inclement weather. In a rare case of forward thinking, I packed a bag in preparation. You see, I work at a hotel. If snow did fall, I had a place to stay. By noon, snow did fall…and hard.

Salute to snow

What was originally supposed to be a day’s stay turned into two…then three. Then four. For a while, I looked upon it as a “staycation” of sorts. There was a microbrewery nearby, and free food was offered to the employees that stayed the night. But by the the end of the fourth day, I was starting to grow weary of my surroundings.

I had hoped to return home Sunday afternoon after my shift, but – while some of the snow and ice had started to melt – much of it still remained. There was no way my little Ford Focus would make it out of the driveway. Another night in, it was.

After grabbing a masala chai latte at the bar, I headed back to my room. As I lumbered down the hallway, I beheld an odd occurrence. Snowflakes were falling inside the hallway. They appeared out of nowhere…then disappeared before hitting the ground.

hallway

I continued down the hall and found the door to my room. Something must’ve been in that latte, for I was seeing things. Or perhaps I had been cooped up too long. As I opened my hotel room door, I was greeted by…

A wolf. Or was it a man? No, scratch that. It was a…

WOLFMAN!” I screamed.

The werewolf appeared taken aback by my girlish scream. He was dressed rather peasantly – ripped jeans, flannel shirt and a tattered scarf. His get-up was actually rather hip. He would’ve fit in well in Portland – wolfhead and all.

loup personne

“Th-th-that’s racist!” the were-hipster sputtered. In a French accent.

Where had I heard that answer before? Ah yes…from a were-tiger. That calmed me down right quick.

I closed the door and plopped down on the bed. “What do you want to be referred to as, then? Lycanthrope?”

The hip-wolf stared at me – stunned at my change in composure. What he didn’t know was that I had experienced similar occurrences before. Magical creatures whisking me away was nothing new to me.

“That’s even worse,” he said. “I am a loup personne.

I glared. “That just means ‘wolf person’ in French!”

He said nothing.

“Fine,” I gave in. “What do I call you, then? Quel est votre nom?”

“Your French is terrible,” the werewolf said, disgusted.

Pas de merde,” I replied. No translation needed.

“Theodor,” the wolf sighed. “My name is Theodor.”

“Okay, Ted.”

“Theodor,” he corrected.

“Whatever, Ted,” I continued. “Why are you here? And what’s with the snow inside the hotel?”

“The snow is a side-effect of opening a Narnia Gate,” he explained. “And I was told that you were a great warrior.”

My head hurt. “Narnia Gate?!”

“A magical tear in reality for transport from one place to another. The side-effect is snow within a three thousand mile radius.”

My eyes widened. I wasn’t very good with geography, but I knew what that encompassed. “How long ago did you cast that spell?”

“I started the incantation about two months ago.”

My stomach tightened. Just like that. I learned I was indirectly responsible for Snowpocalypse 2014.

“Why didn’t you use ley-line travel?” If it was good enough for Zombie Robert Fortune, surely it was good enough for a werewolf.

“On my salary?” His ears perked.

“There’s…magical minimum wage?”

Theodor said nothing.

I got up and patted him on the back. “I know that feels, bro.”

“So, are you?”

“Am I what?” I returned.

“A great warrior that helps others?” he clarified.

“Who told you that?”

“Shere Kahn of the Tee Faktorei.”

khan

“I’m a tea blogger,” I corrected.

What?!” Theodor roared. “The tiger-man lied!”

“Calm down,” I said, palms out. “What exactly did he say?”

“He told me to seek the aid of a Norman. I simply assumed he meant a warrior of Norse descent.”

I laughed. Hard. “Dude, I’m not even close.”

Theodor’s ears drooped, and he sighed a bit like a Saint Bernard I knew.

“How can I help?” I finally offered.

“I’m not sure you can. My mate, Romaine, was kidnapped by a dragon.”

“Any idea why?”

The wolfman shook his scruffy head.

“Well, I’d better get dressed,” I said, lifting myself from the bed.

“Aren’t you already dressed?”

“Not for a life-or-death tea tasting, I’m not.”

I grabbed some clothes and headed to the bathroom. When I re-emerged, I was attired in flannel-blue pajama bottoms, a blue J-TEA t-shirt (one size too big) and sneakers without socks. Theodor gave me a once-over.

“My mate’s life is on the line,” he argued. “This isn’t a sleepover.”

“Khan sent you to me,” I explained. “That means this has something to do with tea. This is my tea-tasting attire. If I’m going to help you, I’m going in uniform.”

Note: Not an actual likeness.

Note: Not an actual likeness.

I’m not sure what Theodor did next, but it looked like a facepalm. Or rather, a facepaw. We left the room.

One moment, we were walking down a snowed-in hotel highway, the next we stood in a grand cavern. Statues lined the walls – all of them various dragons of different shapes and sizes. Some Eastern, some Western. At the center of the cavernous meeting hall was an altar of some sort. Dead center, shackled to the wall was…well…a female werewolf with jet-black fur. She was unconscious but otherwise looked unharmed.

“Romaine!” Theodor yelled and ran forward.

I tried to grab him, but I was one step too late. As the wolfman dashed forward, the ground rumbled. A high-pitched roar echoed throughout the interior. Pink smoke billowed from the right side of the room. Theodor froze in mid-stride – legs shaking.

And a dragon appeared. Or rather…what passed for one

The “dragon” – if one could call it that – stood approximately seven feet tall with milky-white scales. Along its spine were various horns and protrusions, but they were knobbed and uneven. Its eyes looked glassed over, and – to my surprise – it wore actual glasses. With the thickest frames I ever did see.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that the dragon was fat? I mean, morbidly obese.

Francis

Art by Barb Bjornson

“So, Theodor,” it spoke. “This is the warrior you bring to face Francis the Ferocious.”

I tried really hard not to laugh. I failed.

“Who dares chortle in my direction?” spoke Francis the Ferocious. Oddly enough, his voice reminded me of Benny Hill.

“Uh sorry, Francis…um…sir,” I said. “I was just…laughing at the coincidence of your name. You see, my middle name is Francis.” It was the truth, too.

Francis brought a pudgy paw to his chin, “You have good taste, o’ warrior.”

“I’m not a warrior,” I said. “Just a tea geek. Like yourself.”

The dragon glared, “How did you know this was about tea?”

“You look like a tea drinker.” And in truth, he really did. Then I added, “Mr. Ferocious, sir.”

“Then perhaps you can help me where our Theodor here could not,” Francis said, pacing toward me.

The ground shook near me, and several black obsidian pieces magically coalesced into a table. A white Ceylon steeper cup and a sample bag shimmered into being. A stainless steel kettle winked into existence as well – water already heated.

The brand on the bag o’ tea I’d seen only once before, a couple of weeks back. Maison de thè THEODOR – the company my Tandem Tea Tasting group was covering today. What were the odds?!

The sample bag read: Thé Du Loup. My high school French was a little rusty, but I knew “Tea of the Wolf” when I saw it. Awesome name, I thought. I should remember that for a story.

The blend looked exactly like it was supposed to…a blend. A very French one, at that. The black tea base consisted of small-cut pieces with flecks of yellow flower petals for visual appeal. Marigolds, I thought to myself. Couldn’t be sure, though. I thought I also noticed a piece of orange or something akin to it.

Dry The Du Loup

As to aroma, this thing wasn’t kidding around, and I voiced as such. “It smells like…cookies.”

“Well, what kind of cookies?!” the dragon asked urgently.

“Girl Scout cookies?” I shrugged.

“Made of actual Girl Scouts?” Francis asked…a little too excitedly.

“You watched The Addams Family recently, didn’t you?”

The dragon looked confused.

“Nevermind,” I grumbled.

I thought I recalled a recommendation for 185F water or the Celcius equivalent. I found that a bit light for a black tea, but then again the tea leaves were small. And the blend was French. A lighter touch, it was.

The Du Loup

The liquor brewed to a dark red-brown, almost like a chocolate-dipped cherry. The aroma was cocoa mixed with vanilla with a floral underpinning – sweet all around but not too perfumy. Some of the floral character came through on the taste with a very pungent forefront that reminded me of candy-dipped flowers. (Or whatever I thought that would taste like.) The rest was rather pleasant. Some of the natural tea flavor showed up in the middle, and the blend ended on a candy-ish finish.

“And now for the ‘Love Tea’,” Francis ordered.

The obsidian slab rotated in on itself, replaced by a near identical taster cup. I marveled at the transformation, but remained bewildered at the fact that this dragon’s brewing equipment looked exactly like mine. Great minds…?

I looked at the sample bag. Indeed, it was a “Love Tea”, literally. The ornate letters on the bag read: Je t’aime. With Valentine’s Day a week away, I had to groan a little.

Taim

The leaves for this blend looked like…ah, hell, they looked the same as the Thé Du Loup – small black tea leaves, marigolds, orange pieces et al. The only considerable difference I could glean between the two was that the Je t’aime smelled creamier and more citrusy.

“Are you sure these are different blends?” I asked the dragon.

“These samples were gifted to me by a trusted colleague!” he roared. “Do you doubt me?!”

“No, sir!” Theodor kowtowed. Then shot me a glare and whispered, “Stop pissing him off!”

“I’m not trying to!” I rasped back.

I brewed the Je t’aime up the same way I had the Loup. The liquor turned out a shade lighter than the prior tea. The aroma was similar but a lot more delicate. Vanilla and something citrus-ish took point. Taste-wise, it was a lot more spry and less full-bodied that the wolf-named tea. It was also the most French. And, ironically, it was my favorite.

All Taim

“Very French,” I said with a nod. “But very good.”

Theodor rolled his eyes. “You’re a poet.”

“Your mom’s a poet,” I countered.

The werewolf growled. It was about as threatening as a puppy chewing on a fake steak.

“Well?” Francis the Ferocious pressed.

“Well what?” I asked, confused.

“Are they worth buying?”

Theodor looked at me, pleading.

“Um…” I had no idea what to say. “Blends aren’t usually my thing, but…yeah?” I shrugged a little with the cup in hand.

“Splendid!” Francis squealed, clapping his pudgy hands together. He pointed at Theodor. “I’ll take four ounces of each.”

“I…don’t sell tea,” Theodor said. “I’m a cashier at a butcher shop.”

“….What?” the dragon growled, fists clenched. Knuckles turning even whiter.

Before wolfman could answer, I stepped between the two of them. “I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

“How so?” Francis said, eyes leveling on me.

“I think you confused the ‘wolf’-named tea and ‘love’ tea from the THEODOR brand…with an actual wolf’s lover…named Theodor,” I explained.

“I never make mistakes!” Francis whined.

“What browser do you use?” I asked again.

“Um…Internet Explorer.” Francis answered.

“Search engine?”

“Bing.”

“I can see where you got confused, then.” I nodded, hand to chin. “How about you let this poor wolf’s girl go, and let them leave in peace. In return, I’ll help you make the tea purchase, okay?”

Francis kicked up some dirt, looking slightly embarrassed. “Okay.”

Over the next hour or so, as Theodor made his escape with Romaine’s unconscious form, I stayed with the dragon. Apparently, no one in his usual dragon-y circles had heard of Google, nor learned that some sites could be translated into different languages. Lucky for us, the THEODOR site had an English version, thus dispelling any future confusion…or kidnappings.

Before long, the dragon/nerd and I were having tea – an Uva Ceylon he had on hand. It was also nice to have a dragon nearby that could heat the water simply with his breath. We talked of small nothings and big anythings. All the while, sipping the night away.

Tea

Francis returned me to my hotel’s hallway via ley-line port. Far smoother than the Narnia Gate, and less cold. When I returned to my room, Theodor was waiting by the door.

“Where’s Romaine?” I asked.

“Two floors up,” he said. “We got a room for the night. I…can’t afford to open another Narnia Gate.”

“Just be sure to take human form when you go to breakfast.”

Theodor nodded.

“Something else you needed?”

“To apologize.”

“For what?”

“I doubted you,” he admitted. “You are a great warrior.”

“Nope,” I confessed. “I just look good in pajamas.”

Theodor seemed to accept that answer and left.

I slept rather soundly that night.

*****

The next morning, I worked a six-hour shift. I was a bit ornery the entire time, longing for home. As I was pushing a housekeeping cart, a couple passed by me. The man was wearing a flannel shirt and a scarf, and the woman on his arm had a long mane of jet-black hair. Both were speaking French. The man looked back, and shot me a nod and a grin. I nodded back.

And that, my friends, is the truth of it. I hope nothing quite as outlandish happens by the time the next Tandem Tea Tasting comes around. But I make no promises. The magical world is a tricky mistress, and she always seems to catch me in my pajamas.

 

With regards,

Geoffrey F. Norman

The Lazy Literatus

Tea and a letter

Everybody Hwang Cha Tonight – Gamnong Style

Previously on Steep Stories: Our fearless (or rather, fearful) protagonist was whisked away to an underground, dwarven tearoom in Darjeeling – one that was overrun with dancing snake-people. The crisis was averted by a well-placed Hindi movie musical number…oh, and splendid tea was had in the interim. Afterwards, the pajama’d thirtysomething, a gnome, and an undead botanist hastened their escape. And, now, the continuation…

“Well, this is awkward,” I said with feigned levity while sipping my green tea.

“You have a penchant for snark,” the once-living Robert Fortune grumbled.

The deceased-but-animated Scottish botanist had every reason to be ill-tempered. We were stuck in a rather large bird cage, guarded from all corners by birds. Worse, they were armed with what appeared to be glowing spears. I had no desire to discover what the “glowy-part” could do. On the bright side, though, the tea they served was good. Sipping it gave me time to think why all of the birds spoke Korean.

The only occupants of the cage were me, Zombie Fortune, and a rather disheveled, multi-tailed, yellow fox. Thed – our gnomish compatriot – was nowhere to be found. How we came to be caged by birds was the subject of debate. One moment we were escaping under Darjeeling – the next, we were greeted by pitch blackness, then…birds happened. When Fortune and I awoke, we were caged and served tea.

The bird-guard (?) that had handed us tea said only one word, “Teuksun.”

I assumed he meant the tea. The leaves were small by Chinese green tea standards, curlier than Japanese greens, and possessed a very different aroma than any green tea I’d come across. There was a sweetness and a smokiness to them that was strangely tantalizing. A bit of nuttiness also showed up in the after-whiff.

The liquor was a very light green with a yellowish tinge, very similar in appearance to a Chinese green. However, the scent was nut-sweet, almost like sencha by way of green rooibos. A lingering vegetal underpinning was also present. That same vegetal feeling showed up on first sip but transitioned to a bouquet of sweetened grass, chestnuts and autumn air. While excellent, a second steep turned out better.

“This is interesting tea,” I said, trying to distract from my predicament. “Hints of vanilla and caramel with a vegetal underpinning.”

“It’s Korean tea,” Fortune stated flatly. “Of course it’s unique. “

“How do you know?” I asked.

“’Teuksun’ sounds like a Korean word,” Fortune answered, staring at nothing.

“I wonder what it means,” I said.

“It roughly translates to, ‘You’re annoying.’” Fortune offered with a half-smile.

“You’re an ass,” I said with a glare.

“Arse, lad,” the Scotsman corrected.

The disheveled, five-tailed fox to our left pushed his tea tray toward us.

“Here,” he said. “This one’s called ‘Gamnong’.”

“You’re not going to drink it?” I asked – greedy hands at the ready.

“I’ve been drinking it for the last six months,” the yellow fox said.

The leaves for this looked just like the Teuksun – vibrant, forest-green, curly leaves. What was different was…well…everything else. The scent was less smoky and sweeter. There wasn’t as nutty a presence, either. Instead, it was just very pleasant to the nostrils. Not too strong; not too soft.

On the flavor front, the darker liquor that resulted imparted a way different profile than the Teuksun. The sweetness was doubled, and there wasn’t as strong of a vegetal note either. Grassy, yes. (It was green tea, after all.)

“Kinda silky and sweet,” I said with a swallow. “Comparable to some good spring Long Jings I’ve tried.”

“Agreed,” Fortune said perkily, awaking from his funk. “A sweet, white winy note.”

“You said this was ‘Gamnong’?” I asked. “As in, the rich part of Seoul, South Korea?”

The fox sighed. “No, that’s Gangnam. Common misconception, actually.”

Ah, I thought to myself. It sounded absurdly close to “Gangnam” – a place I had only become aware of thanks to a song. A catchy song, at that. “Gangnam Style” by Psy – the first Korean crossover hit of its kind. I had a feeling the fox knew of that as well, hence the misconception.

“I’m surprised you speak English,” Fortune said between happy sips.

“I’m surprised you’re both human,” the fox chortled.

“He is,” Fortune said, pointing a thumb at me. “I’m not…well…anymore.”

“Undead,” the fox pondered. “That’s rough.”

The botanist shrugged. “I’ve had time to adapt to it. I’m Robert Fortune, this living lad is The Lazy Literatus.”

“I have a name!” I snapped.

“No one cares,” Fortune returned.

“I’m Hwang,” the fox said. “The English sort call me Yellow. For obvious reasons.”

“Any idea where we are?” I asked

“A pocket realm known only to magically-imbued birds,” Hwang explained. “Awaiting judgment.”

“For?” Fortune pressed.

“Me? Thieving. You? No clue.”

“There was a gnome named Thed with us…” I began.

“He’s being sentenced right now,” the yellow fox added gravely. “By the Sparrow Prince himself.”

“Sparrow Prince?” I repeated. “Seriously?”

“Yes, what’s odd about that?” Hwang asked in return.

“Oh, nothing.” I chose to leave the South Park reference alone.

“Wait…did you say, Sparrow Prince?!” Fortune demanded.

“Indeed I did,” Hwang rolled his eyes. “So glad you’re paying attention.”

“Damn,” Fortune seethed. “They’re gonna kill him! We have to get out of here.”

“What do you know?” I queried.

“I know that Thed is dead if we don’t rescue him.”

Why?” I yelled.

“Because the Sparrow Prince is convinced that Thed sold actual sparrow tongues to humans in Korea two thousand years ago,” Fortune said through a heaving sigh.

“That’s stupid,” I said with eyes narrowed.

“Sparrows are stupid,” Hwang interjected.

Fortune continued, “Korean green tea is also known as jaksul-cha, which translates to ‘sparrow’s tongue’. Thed was one of the first magical creatures to bring tea leaves to the land that is now known as Korea.”

Hwang went wide-eyed, “He’s that gnome?! The one that was in hiding from Guan Yin?”

The undead Scotsman nodded. “The very same. He was part of Queen Suro’s caravan that brought tea seeds from India to ancient Korea. He was in hiding from the bodhisattva.”

“He’s famous among the fox-folk,” Hwang said with glazed eyes. “One of the greatest thieves and tricksters to ever ride the ley-lines.”

“He never intended to be,” Fortune countered.

“I didn’t either,” the fox winked.

“So…” I clapped my hands. “How do we get out of here?”

“Leave that to me,” Hwang said as he clanked his cup against the cage bars. “Guard! More hot water!”

One of the birdmen mumbled a curse in Korean, but sauntered off to fetch a kettle. When he returned, Hwang grinned with eyes closed. He, then, removed some dark-colored leaves from behind one of his tails. Appearance-wise, it looked like any typical black tea one would find on the market. The pieces resembled a BOP – dark brown, small, and with some curly pieces thrown in. Their aroma was straight nuts. No, not as in crazy, but actual nuts – almonds, I’d reckon. Only a few oolongs have had that type of scent. Before I could ask, he explained.

“This is what I was caught for – stealing tea leaves from a Korean bird merchant. How could I not? They were called Hwang Cha’. It had my name on it, literally. I was framed, I tell ya.” He detailed his claim to “innocence” further as he brewed up the leaves.

The leaves gave the water a yellow gold color – like the namesake suggested – with a pleasantly sweet and roastly aroma.

“Is this really the time for –“ Robert Fortune began.

“Just you wait,” the fox said, pouring the liquor into our cups.

On taste, there was an initial creaminess that transitioned to the expected nutty mouthfeel, and all the while there was this sweet underpinning to the palate. In character, it was a lot like another oxidized “yellow tea” I tried from the Goomtee estate in Darjeeling, yet much more refined. It is as complex as all the other Korean teas I’ve tried. A bit on the pricey side…but you honestly do get what you pay for.

Hwang motioned us to come nearer to him. “Now, blow the steam at the guards,” he whispered. “I could’ve escaped this way at any time…but never had a reason ’til now.”

Fortune and I shrugged at each other but did as we were told. We each went to a corner of the cage, faced our cups to one of the spear-birds, and blew as hard as we could. A funny thing happened…and I do – literally – mean funny. When the tea steam came in contact with the guards, each one sniffed, shook their heads, and promptly collapsed into a feathered heap.

The fourth guard noticed his fallen comrades and seemed poised to signal for reinforcements. Hwang was faster, however, leaping clear across the cage – blowing steam right before he landed. The bird fainted in mid-caw!.

“I’m surprised they didn’t hear us plotting,” I said.

“They’re Korean,” Fortune reminded. “And birds are idiots.”

“And so am I,” I deprecated.

“No argument here,” Hwang stifled a chuckle.

We dashed as best we could to the only source of light in the oddly-tunneled, avian catacomb. Upon reaching the illuminated opening, we were greeted by a grand amphitheater. All the seats were packed with flocks of birds, gulls, jays, and every other assortment of feathered beasty. At the center of the “stage” was a diminutive man in a pointed, green hat. To either side of him, a bird yeoman, and confronting him were a sparrow with a crown and sword and a heinous looking beak of a bird in robes.

“Oh my God, he’s real,” I said, in reference to the South Park-like Sparrow Prince.

“Of course, he is,” Hwang responded. “Why wouldn’t he be?”

“Nevermind.” I had no time to explain a cartoon to a talking fox.

The Sparrow Prince was orating fiercely, outlining the charges against Thed in perfectly cadenced Korean. The robed buzzard-pelican-thing nodded at the accusations listed. I thought I heard the word “cannibalism” mentioned in conjunction with “jaksul”.

“So, what’s the plan?” Hwang asked.

“Leave this to me,” Robert Fortune said, clearing his throat. “My fellow avian citizens!”

The interruption was met with alarmed squawks and siren calls. Fortune did his darnedest to academically explain the linguistic misunderstanding made by the Sparrow Prince and his ilk. The lecture was welcomed with deaf ears and deafening screeches. Hwang was right; birds were idiots.

“He’s dying out there,” I cringed. “Well…more than usual.”

Hwang nodded in agreement. “Zombies are horrible at speeches. Soul of the voice is the first thing to go with undying. “

“I guess I’ll have to give it a g-“

“No!” the yellow fox waved me back. “As a human, you’d be mauled on sight. I’ve got this.”

“But ho-“

“Just watch,” Hwang interrupted again, donning sunglasses.

“Oh no,” I said.

“Oh yes,” he said back, bearing a toothy grin.

The multi-tailed fox leapt into the air and landed right in front of the Sparrow Prince. The bird squawked something akin to gibberish. Hwang – in turn – held up a hand to the sparrow’s beak and said one thing. One thing that I had hoped he wouldn’t say.

“Oppan Gamnong Style!” the fox shouted. Electrosynth music blared to accompany his battle-cry.

Hwang had actually done it – took a well-known pop song (and Internet meme) and turned it into a tea pun. If I hadn’t been so embarrassed by it, I would’ve teared up at the ingenuity. The little trickster-fox trotted his way around the amphitheater, and the birds frenzied with him – enraptured by the retardedly addictive song. Fortune and I grabbed the chained gnome while the birds were distracted.

“Yet another adventure that ends in song, eh?” Thed commented dryly.

“Shut up,” Fortune said with exasperation. The poor zombie had been out of sorts this entire debacle. I guess being caged did that to the undead. Who knew?

As we made our way out of the bird tribunal, I looked back at the commotion. I briefly made eye contact with the fox – various chirping flyers swarmed around him. He smiled and winked before his form was enveloped by the fog of feathers.

I hesitated…then left.

Sacrifice by tea…and dance, was my final thought before leaving the “birdemic” behind.

Acknowledgments:

Special thanks to Hankook Tea for providing the samples for this write-up. To purchase their wares, go HERE.

A Dwarven Dance in Darjeeling

A month had passed since I came to the startling realization that I wasn’t going to review tea anymore. Days had passed when I realized I didn’t have a job anymore. Mere hours had crept by before I remembered that I wasn’t wearing any pants. Of course, I was still in bed when I pondered all of this.

Why I even had my alarm set was a force of habit – not out of any obligation. Last night was the first where I completely forgot to set it. A sure sign that I had given up on any semblance of a pattern. Unemployed, unmotivated, all I wanted to do was sleep. But something perched on my chest wasn’t going to let me…

“I said, ‘Ahem!’,” a squeaky voice chimed again.

I first thought the annoying, high-pitched hollering was my “smart” phone ringer. When I finally opened my eyes, I found…her. An off-white, slightly-worn, Chinese lidded teacup with a face, and she was staring angrily at me. I didn’t know gaiwans could get angry, nor that they possessed a face.

“For the last time…” she started again with a miniature huff.

“I’m up! I’m up!” I said quickly. “What’s so damn urgent?”

“It’s been a month,” the gaiwan answered flatly.

“Since what?”

“Since you promised to go to Darjeeling,” she stated.

“I made no such promise, Liddy,” I said, cradling her in one hand while making my way to the kitchen.

That was her name – Liddy. I received her for a little over three weeks. She was given to me by an undead Scottish botanist for magical teleportation. The fact that I could say that with a straight face proved either: (a) I needed to get out more. Or (b) I got out too much.

“That doesn’t matter now,” she shook her head…er…lid…whatever. “You’re needed.”

“For?”

“No time to explain!”

And with that, the little, lidded cup glowed white. Before I knew it, the glow encapsulated my tired, thirtysomething, pajama-clad form. (Why did this always happen while I was in pajamas?!) In a flash, we were both no longer in my kitchen. Instead, what greeted us was a large room that resembled a cross between Bag End from The Lord of the Rings and a mole cave.

There were many tables and chairs – some carved with wood, others straight from stone – with many worn occupants. None of them were human. The majority of them were snakes, and they were singing and dancing – if such creatures could do that. And they were, with reckless abandon. The most prominent feature of the place? It reeked of years-old cheese.

“This…is not Darjeeling,” I observed with… obviousness.

“Technically, you’re under Darjeeling,” said a gruff voice behind me.

I turned to face – and stare down at – a brown-bearded dwarf dressed in merchant attire. He looked like every quintessential dwarf I’d ever seen in fantasy movies or brandished on book covers. If anything, though, he appeared more haggard than his fictional counterparts. And smellier. Even his dapper attire was dusty – at best.

“Welcome to The Smiling Subterranean,” the dwarf baritoned proudly. “The only underground tearoom in (or rather, under) Darjeeling.”

“It reeks in here,” Liddy said with a sneer.

The dwarf merely laughed nervously. “C-can I get you anything?”

“Darjeeling first flush,” I said – a little too excitedly. “Er…if you have some.”

“Of course!” the dwarf clapped his hands. “We have several to choose from. We also offer flights of three, if you can’t decide.”

Given my propensity for indecision-making, I said, “I’ll go with the latter.”

“Excellent choice!”

Before the dwarf could walk away in a scurry, I grabbed his shoulder.

“Hey, you wouldn’t, by any chance, know where I can find a zombie and a gnome, would you?” I winced at the ridiculousness of my question.

“Oh? Those two? Yes, they’re in the far left corner,” the dwarf said cheerfully. “They – like the rest of us – have been here for quite some time. I apologize for the odor. Many of us haven’t bathed in weeks.”

“That’s alright,” I reassured him. Frankly, I didn’t know dwarves did bathe.

I made my way to the back of the “tearoom”, all the while inhaling through my mouth. As I passed the many different tables, I made brief eye contact with the other denizens of this cavernous tasting room. Some looked like mole-men. Others were dwarves, gnomes, pygmies and gremlins of varying color. All of them wore wan or tired expressions – save for the snakes. The serpentine citizens cheerily sipped there beverages, all the while singing. Some outright danced in their chairs. Their song seemed familiar.

The two patrons I was looking for were, indeed, where the dwarf indicated. Thed – the ill-tempered Greek gnome – looked disheveled, his once-green hat was now a shade of light brown. Formerly Robert Fortune, the slightly-blue-skinned undead botanist – to the gnome’s right – looked even more zombified than usual. His dapper dinner jacket seemed drab.

“Took you long enough,” the gnome grumbled.

“Indeed,” Fortune agreed. “Was a month really necessary?”

“I never said I was going,” I defended.

“You gave us the impression you were,” the once-botanist countered.

“By the time I determined I wanted to, I thought you would’ve been long gone,” I explained.

“No,” Thed returned with a growl. “We’ve been here the whole time!

“Here, as in, Darjeeling?”

“Here, as in, under Darjeeling!” Formerly Fortune corrected me.

“What’s stopping you from leaving?” I questioned.

“Them,” Thed pointed in the direction of the snake-people.

“Nagas?” I wondered.

“No, worse,” said the gnome. “Nags.”

“The imbecilic cousins of Nagas,” Fortune explained.

“Aaaaah,” I said with mock-understanding. “That’s why this place stinks.”

“We’ve been here for a month,” Thed sighed.

“On top of that,” Fortune began through gritted teeth. “They keep singing the same. Bloody. Song. Over and over again!”

“Nonstop,” came the forced-cheery voice of a dwarf behind us.

He had several Ceylon-style pouring cups on a wooden tray. Each had green-ish leaves to the side. I could smell the spice and muscatel from my seat.

The dwarf set everything up as neatly as he could with slightly-shaky hands. “From left to right: The first is a clonal from the Rohini estate, the second is dubbed ‘Classic’ from Giddapahar, and the third is a ‘tippy’ offering from Barnesbeg. My name is Cisnarf. Ask for me if you need anything.” He looked at my other two compatriots. “Are you two…”

“We’re fine, thanks,” Thed replied curtly.

“I could re-steep your leaves, or…”

“I said we’re fine!” Thed banged the table.

The dwarf appeared taken aback by the emphatic display.

“Apologies,” Fortune spoke up. “We’re a little wound up.”

Cisnarf nodded. “Trust me, we all are.”

He scurried off again toward the kitchen doors. I got a glimpse of five other dwarves in the back. All looked equally worn out. A month of tea imprisonment would do that do a man…or…um…non-man. Whatever.

I dipped into the Rohini offering first. The Rohini tea estate was actually one of the first to kick off Darjeeling’s first flush all the way back in late-February. It was considered a low-altitude estate – a designation usually met with derision among connoisseurs. I couldn’t really see why.

The leaves for this were large and beautiful, and the rolling style differed from some of her high-altitude cousins. There was some of the spice smell to the dry leaves, but most of the aroma was surprisingly fruity – not just grapy.

Brewed up, they yielded a pale yellow liquor with a sweet, fruity aroma. Such was also true with the taste. While the front was a bit harsh, the remaining mouthfeel was candied apples, grapes and a tickle of citrus.

“This tastes like a Darjeeling oolong rather than an OP,” I said aloud.

“OP?” Thed cocked an eyebrow. “Old Person?”

The zom-botanist literally facepalmed. “He means orange pekoe.”

“Those leaves aren’t orange,” the gnome responded.

“I’m not going to explain it to you again,” Fortune said with dejection.

I ignored them and turned my attention to the Giddapahar Classic.

Oh, Giddapahar. It’s been too long, I thought.

This was the first estate that convinced me that Darjeelings could be perfect with their second flush “Musk”. I also tried a bit of their China Classic and loved it with almost equal fervor. The dry leaves for the Classic were unlike any first flush I’d encountered – a strong, earthy and malty aroma wafted from the sample. The leaves were also uncharacteristically darker, looking more like an early Fall picking.

The liquor the leaves produced, though, was on par with other first flushes – yellow-to-amber – and the aroma was muscatel as all heck. Taste-wise, the forefront was a little vegetal, but it rose swiftly to spice-‘n-grape excellence. I couldn’t help but sigh with palate-related praise. The aftertaste finished on a nutty note, but that wasn’t unwelcome. Notes of white wine grapes lingered long after the sip.

I actually poured a second infusion and didn’t specify a brewing time or temp. What I got was an even better drink than the first!

“All chocolate, strawberries and bliss,” I exclaimed ‘gasmically.

“Are you quite done?” Thed asked with a hint of bite to his voice.

“Hold on.”

The Barnesbeg Tippy was the greenest of the three I encountered. The leaves were almost completely green save for a smattering of beige pieces in the mix – the “tippy” ones that were the drink’s namesake. As for scent, this felt like spring. The aroma was zesty, leafy, fresh and…well…young. As flushy as first flush can get. (Wait, that sounded wrong.)

The liquor brewed to a pale, almost “white tea” yellow. There was no other way to describe the aroma other than “creamy”. Very peculiar. On first sip, the first thing I detected was…vanilla? What the heck?! When did a Darjeeling ever have a vanilla?! How bizarre! The rest of the flavor sensation alternated between Long Jing-ish winy and greenery. This weird taste turntable continued well into the finish.

“Tastes like…vanilla?” I gave a puzzled look.

“That is peculiar,” Formerly Fortune pondered, sipping his own cup of tea.

“What are you two drinking?” I asked.

The botanist answered hastily, “This wonderful China Supreme from the Sungma estate.”

Thed mumbled something that sounded like, “Rushersher”.

“What?” I asked, cupping my ear.

“Risheehat!” the gnome yelled.

“And…how was it?”

The gnome started to sob.

Fortune interjected. “On our first day here, he said it reminded him of his childhood.”

“Is that a good thing?” I wondered.

“Oh yes, very,” Fortune nodded.

The gruff gnome cleared his throat and whiped his nose. “Can we get out of here now?”

“I just got here!” I blubbered, mid-sip.

“A month late!” Thed snapped back.

“Gentlemen, stop!” Fortune bellowed.

We did. Neither of us was used to hearing a zombie with mutton-chops shout.

“Thank you,” he breathed a sigh of relief. “Now then, Thed is right. We need to leave. I, for one, require a bath. A long one. Just because I am dead, doesn’t mean I want to smell like death.”

“What he said,” Thed agreed. “Except the whole ‘dead’ part.”

I finished the last of my Barnesbeg, gingerly set the cup down, and stood up.

“I… think I know a way,” I said reluctantly. “Get Cisnarf over here.”

The dwarf appeared before anyone could summon him. “You called?”

“Wow,” I said. “Er…yeah…does this place have a sound system of any sort?”

“An old one that runs on elemental aether, but it can tie into most frequencies,” Cisnarf offered.

“Can it tap into a smart phone?”

“As opposed to an unintelligent one?” Cisnarf asked – confused.

I groaned. “I mean, a computer. Can you link it to a computer?”

“Human ones? Oh, that’s easy!”

“Perfect,” I said with relief. “Prep your…uh…system. I’ll take care of the rest.” I motioned to the gnome and zombie. You two, follow my lead.”

While I was tasting the three first  flush Darjeelings, it had occurred to me what song the Nags were repeating over and over. It was “Kaho Naa Pyaar Na Hai” from the Indian movie of the same name.

If these snake-folk were anything like their less sentient kin, then all one had to do was charm them with a new song. Preferably from a better Bollywood movie; one that sounded like an ending. I had just the one.  All we needed was a dance to go along with it.

I was no choreographer, and my two left feet were evidence of my lack of rhythm. But there was a “meta”- Bollywood movie called Bride & Prejudice that gave some sound advice for European-ish appreciators of Indian musicals. One simply had to pretend they were screwing in a lightbulb and petting a dog at exactly the same time. I had no idea if this would work on snake-men, but it was worth a shot.

After removing my Android phone from my pajama pocket, I cued up my playlist. From the kitchen door, Cisnarf gave me a thumbs up. I tapped the Bluetooth setting, and prayed to Vishnu that it had a tenuous connection to…magic(?). There was a loud thumb throughout the cave-like tearoom. A connection was made.

I hit play.

Yeh Fizayein” from the movie Main Hoon Na resounded through The Smiling Subterranean. The Nags froze in mid-song-‘n-dance and took notice of the tune. There was a bit of commotional hissing between the varied factions, but – in no time at all – all succumbed to the scaly sway of the beat.

“Time to dance, gentlemen,” I said. “Toward the exit.”

Off our motley trio went toward the front door of the tearoom. All the Nags fell into step behind us – all Pied Piper-like. I stopped at the large, wooden door, opened it and continued to “dance” beside it. The gnome and botanist went to the other side and copied my motions. Truth be told, they kept better rhythm than I.

When the last Nag had left, I pushed the door shut behind them. I signaled Cisnarf to cut the signal. There was some emphatic hissing from the other side of the entrance, followed by some hasty knocking. Eventually, that died down. Silence met the cavern.

The tired tea-folk within stood up and cheered. Robert Fortune bowed; I nodded to the mini-crowd awkwardly. Thed hid behind us.

Cisnarf came up to us and shook each of our hands. “How can I ever repay you?!”

“Do you have a backdoor?” Thed asked brusquely.

“Through the kitchen.”

“Splendid,” the gnome finished. “See ya.”

As we went to make our hasty egress, I felt around in my pockets. Something felt off; I couldn’t put my finger on what. It didn’t occur to me until we were well away from The Smiling Subterranean. I cursed openly and colorfully.

“What’s with you?” Thed asked.

“The gaiwan,” I said shakily. “Liddy…”

“What about her? How is she?” Fortune grilled.

My face was pale. “She’s gone.”

 

Epilogue

Trailing behind the dejected group of Nags, a Chinese woman in purple robes held the off-white gaiwan to her face.

“Oh great, it’s you,” Liddy spat with disgust.

“Come now, that’s no way to treat your maker,” the woman said with a purr.

“Whatever you’re planning, Guan Yin, you won’t get away with it,” the gaiwan growled.

The bodhisattva practically cackled, “I love it when cups turn to clichés!”

Her laughter echoed throughout the tunnels, chilling even the snake-folk.

Acknowledgments:

Special thanks to Happy Earth Tea for providing the Darjeeling samples for this write-up. It was much appreciated. To check out their shop, go HERE.

A Tiger in the Taiga

It was, for the most part, a normal Sunday night. That is, if you consider coming home with a full body-ache normal. My work week had taxed me (both mentally and physically) yet again. Not something I ever wanted to be routine…but such is life. Typically, after a long night’s work, I came home, poured a pint of ale, vegged in front of the computer then slept.

I was about to do just that until I got a text from friends to meet them at a bar. The pint of Cascadia Dark Ale I was nursing was put back in the fridge. After two pints with said friends and a nice walk back home, I remembered the CDA still refrigerating. I was never one to exceed two pints (er…often?), but I didn’t want to let it go to waste. So, I nursed it lovingly. Again!

And felt a wee bit on the inebriated side.

Somewhere in the partial mental haze, I got the notion that the dog needed a walk. My brother was out of town, and I’d been tasked with feeding and entertaining the pup. Well…”pup” is probably the wrong word. He was a two-year-old, 140-pound Saint Bernard who thought he was a pup – fittingly named Abacus. I let him out of his “kennel” – in reality, a bedroom – and leashed him up for a dogwalk. Or rather, a dog-stumble.

It really says something when the dog walks in a straighter line than his walker. Such was the case this night. In all honesty, he was extremely well-behaved. Midnight walks were becoming our little routine, and I enjoyed the distraction. Something was different about this night, though. Well, beyond the beer buzz.

As we turned down one particular, dimly-lit street, I caught whiff of a familiar smell. Tendrils of campfire, burnt leaves, and awesomeness crept its way to my nostrils. Naturally, even in my befuddled state, I sought out the source of the smoky smell. Somehow, I even managed to tweet about it. (Still not sure how that happened.)

We continued down the dark street for what seemed like a few minutes. Abacus let out a couple of warning barks. I tried to reassure him, but I – too – felt something ominous. Of course, that may have been just gas. The further we ventured, the darker the path became. The road was more uneven with each step. Asphalt turned to dirt. Street lamps vanished altogether. Then we suddenly came upon…

Daylight?!

We were no longer in the suburbs. What beheld us was a coniferous forest with thin trees and prairie-like shrubs. It looked similar to our usual environs, save for the cold, dry air. Abacus didn’t seem to care. He found the nearest tree, gave it the sniff once-over then relieved himself – happily making his mark on this strange hillside.

Dead ahead of us was a small campsite. That alone didn’t puzzle me; it was the occupants that gave me pause. One was a short, stout, bearded man in a pointy green hat. Short was an understatement, though – he was downright diminutive. The other appeared to be a man on first glance, dressed very dapperly like a British scholar. Mutton chops hugged his cheeks, giving him a jolly appearance. The problem? His skin was an off shade of blue.

The third occupant was the only normal one of the trio, and yet the one that stood out the most. He was thin, neighborly-looking, and possessed a perma-smile. He was stirring “something” with a wooden spoon in a rather ornate cauldron. And he was staring right at us, grin never fading.

“He’s here,” the small, pointy-hatted man said.

“Looks like it,” the mutton-chopped, off-skin-colored man replied in a Scottish baroque.

The smiling man said nothing.

Abacus tried to escape the leash and pounce his new “friends”, but I reined him in. “Who…” I began.

“You should already know the answer to that,” the Scot said. “After all, you’ve written about us.”

“You can’t be-” I pointed, mouth agape.

The sort-of-Scotsman stood and bowed, “Formerly Robert Fortune, at your service.”

“Formerly?”

“That means he’s dead,” the smaller man cut in. “-Ish”

“The polite term is undead,” the Scotsman countered.

“A zombie,” I said simply.

“That’s racist,” the smaller man responded.

“So that would make you-”

“Thedaius,” he said with a salute. “Thed, for short. No pun intended.”

“You’re the gnome I wrote about!” I said excitedly.

“You’re a quick one,” Thed said dryly.

“Don’t mind him, he’s always pissy,” Formerly Fortune muttered to me.

As my attention was diverted, Abacus escaped my grasp long enough to nose-molested the gnome. He toppled over and tried to ward the Saint Bernard off to no avail. Fits of laughter escaped the grumbling gnome as he was tackled and licked.

“Abacus, get off him!” I yelled.

“It’s okay,” Zombie Robert Fortune assured me. “He’s good with animals, despite his gruffness.”

And just like that, Thed had the wily puppy eating out of the palm of his hand – literally. He had fetched some strange snack out of one of his many sacks. Abacus feasted from his tiny hand and instantly turned docile. A puddy of a pup if I ever saw one. Amazing.

“Funny,” the gnome said. “You named him Abacus. I knew an Abacus once. Saint Bernard, too.”

“Don’t tell me he runs a flying tearoom,” I said, arms akimbo.

“He does, indeed,” Thed said with surprise. “How’d you know?”

“Lucky guess,” I replied with an eyeroll. “Who’s he?”

My attention was turned toward the smiling stirrer by the cauldron.

“No clue,” Robert Unfortunate shrugged. “He just showed up today. He hasn’t said a word.”

“He might have something to do with why you’re here,” Thed offered.

“And he’s French,” Zombert Fortune growled.

“That’s a bad thing?” I asked.

Thed shook his head. “Not necessarily…unless you’re British.”

“I’m Scottish!” Zombert Fortune snapped back.

“Fine, British ‘citizen’,” Thed amended.

“What are you two doing here?” I asked. “And where is here?”

“We’ve been traveling for…” Thed paused in thought. “Shit, how long have we been traveling?”

“Going on forty years, I think,” Un-Robert Fortune-Zombie said, tapping his chin.

“And ‘here’ is Mongolia,” Thed answered. “Not sure what part.”

“We took a break from our trip to India,” Former-Robert sighed. “Ley-line travel is exhausting.”

“And thirst-inducing,” the gnome added. “I said I was parched, and the Frenchman appeared.”

“We think he’s brewing tea,” Undead Fortune whispered to me.

Sure enough, when I went up to smell the contents of the Smiling Frenchman’s cauldron, I whiffed tea. Smoky tea. One of my favorite types of tea. The Smiling Frenchman just kept right on smiling as I smelled.

“Have you guys tried any of it yet?” I asked.

“We haven’t dared,” Robert Unfortunate replied.

“Uh…you,” I addressed the Frenchman. “Three cups, please.”

The Smiling Frenchman’s grin widened, and three cups winked into existence – as did a smattering tea leaves that circled about our heads. He poured the contents of the ladle into them. Said cups hovered over to the gnome, the departed botanist, and myself. I took a sip..and instantly knew that it had a name – a fitting name.

“Pause in the Taiga,” I said aloud.

Pause in the Taiga

This was an interesting blend to look at, mainly because of the different leaf shapes present. There were the regulars – the BOP pieces, a couple of gold-tipped ones, and a few stems – but what was really shocking was the presence of some ball-fisted oolong leaves. Even more surprising, they were greener-style like an Ali Shan. The aroma was gently smoky with a floral underpinning – as expected from a Russian Caravan variant.

The liquor brewed to a rusted copper color with the same gentle, smoky aroma – like the last vestiges of a campfire. Taste-wise, the fire-fueled feeling hit first on the forefront, followed by a bit of malt and tobacco, and the aftertaste was oddly smooth. Not so much creamy, but definitely smooth. A very decent manly morning pint.

“It’s like a fruit garden someone set fire to,” Thed mused.

Zombie Fortune nodded. “I quite agree. Smoky but with an underpinning of fruit and flowers. Most peculiar.”

Abacus attempted to lick the edge of my cup, but I gave his nose a diligent swat. He recoiled slightly…before making a second attempt. When the dog no longer acquired my immediate attention, I looked back up at the Smiling Frenchman. His cauldron had changed to one less ornate and colored differently.

Another tea?” I asked – unbelieving.

He nodded, but that was all.

“I dunno about this,” Thed warned. “The first one was fine, but now what’s he got planned?”

My fears were abated by the smell. The Smiling Frenchman brought more cups to the floating fray, along with a pastiche of dry leaves. It was like these blends were tailored to me specifically. Like the Taiga one, this was also on the smoky side. Not as strong but rather more like a Keemun with a kiss of smoke. The leaves themselves looked like a mix of Keemun with a BOP of some sort.

Shere Khan

Shere Khan

The liquor brewed straight copper like an Assam with a burly, malty-sweet nose. Taste-wise, it was incredibly smooth, somewhat winy on the front. The middle was dominated by a sense of strength, smoke and sweetness. The aftertaste gave no impression of dryness or bitterness.

What was particularly odd, though, was that while this was a darker cuppa, it was lighter on the smoke than the Taiga.

“Shere Khan, you say?” I said aloud.

The silent smiler nodded again.

“He said something to you?” Revenant Robert Fortune asked.

“Not really,” I answered. “It’s like they have a name the moment you sip ‘em.”

“You’re drunk,” Thed stated bluntly.

“That’s…beside the point,” was the only the rebuttal I could give.

The cauldron in front of the Smiling Frenchman vanished again. One that was vaguely Russian in appearance replaced it. The smoke smell was superceded by something more wildernessy with a dash of fruit on the fragrance. As before, three more cups appeared in mid-air, a display of leaves danced above each. Literally, they were dancing. Quite Disney…and quite bizarre.

Just like the other two, I had no idea what to really make of this one, and the Smiling Frenchman was leaving no clues. I saw some obvious leaves in the fray – some Long Jing, maybe some Mao Feng – but there were others that were darker still. Some were even ball fisted and added a grapy lean to the scent. That made me think that some Formosa oolong had made its way into the recipe.

Origine

Origine

“Origine, huh?” I said.

The Smiling Frenchman winced slightly at my butchering of his language.

The liquor brewed a dark amber with a mineral and berry aroma. The taste was a collision of different sensations. On the one hand it was light and fruity, on the other, vegetal, graphite-like and slightly bitter. A part of me liked its harshness, but another part – the one that expected a lighter brew didn’t care for it. Given the oolongy inclusion, this would’ve probably handled a gong fu prep better.

“Definitely my least favorite of the three,” I said, pursing my lips.

My announcement of which actually caused the Smiling Frenchman’s grin to diminish somewhat.

“Actually, I prefer this one to its smoky counterparts,” the gnome chimed in. “Reminds me of home.”

“Quite a strong green tea presence, for my tastes,” said the undead Scotsman. “But it has enough of an orange pekoe palate for my liking. I wonder what’s in it.”

“Company secret,” came a German accented growl from behind us.

Thed’s face went as white as his little gnomish beard. Formerly Fortune paled even more than he already was. I stood there aghast…and promptly wet myself. Abacus wagged his tail happily in anticipation. Mere feet away from us was a half-man/half-tiger dressed – in what appeared to be – a double-breasted suit. He adjusted his tie as he came forward.

“A were-tiger?!” I yelped.

“That’s racist,” Thed muttered to me.

“Tiger-man, thank you very much,” the suited feline rumbled.

Abacus could no longer contain himself. How could he? There was a large cat in front of him. Before the tiger-“man” could do…whatever he was going to do, he was mauled (with love) by the 140-pound pup. The suited tiger shouted and “ROWR!”-ed in desperation as he was bombarded by licks, sniffs and drool of the fuzzy kind.

“That is one useful dog,” Thed smiled, arms folded.

“Sometimes,” I mumbled.

“Get him…” the tiger-man managed to start through the struggle. “…OFF of me! This is Armani!”

“W-what are your intentions?” I stuttered.

“I’m a tea merchant!”

“Abacus, leave it!” I snapped.

To my surprise, the Saint Bernard did as he was told. The tiger-man got up, dusted himself off, and attempted to wipe off the muddy drool with a handkerchief. It didn’t quite work.

“The name is Khan,” he said with a sigh. “I’m with him.”

He pointed at the Smiling Frenchman, who – in turn – waved innocently as he continued stirring.

“You could’ve just said so,” Thed grumbled.

“It’s enough that your partner doesn’t say anything,” the departed Scot-botanist interjected. “But a tiger-man showing up out of nowhere would cause even seasoned travelers a fright.”

“It was supposed to be a blind taste-test,” Khan explained. “For the Tee Faktorei.”

“Never heard of ‘em,” I said.

“No one has,” the tiger replied. “Yet.”

“I don’t think you understand how blind taste-tests work,” I continued. “You’re not supposed to surprise the participants, and they usually have to volunteer.”

“Oh,” Khan mused. “I was told you three liked to be caught by surprise.”

“By whom?” Robert Un-Fortune asked.

“Guan Yin.”

That name made all three of us groan.

Thed cursed first. “Damn woman sure holds a grudge.”

Zombie Fortune shook his head. “Guess it’s time we start packing.”

“Forgive the miscommunication,” Khan said with a bow. “We hope you enjoyed the experience.”

The tiger-man went over to the Smiling Frenchman, snapped his fingers, and both vanished with a flash of light. That left us – three disparate companions, all joined by a similar dilemma – alone by a dying daytime campfire. Only the whiff of smoky tea remained.

“So…” I said with a clap. “Now what?”

“Now, we head to Darjeeling,” Thed said while gathering his duffel bags – all twice his size.

“We’ve been trying to stay ahead of the Bodhisattva of Mercy for four decades,” Zombie Robert replied. “For awhile, we thought we lost her. Turns out her attentions were directed at you for the writing you did.”

“Then you found us,” Thed spat. “Thanks.”

“I didn’t mean to,” I said defensively. “I was walking the dog.”

“Ley-lines are tricky,” Un-Fortune returned. “Sometimes they’ll whisk you away without a moment’s notice.”

“You’re welcome to come with us,” Thed offered – albeit begrudgingly.

“I’ve…” I had to think of something. “…gotta get the dog home.”

The gnome shrugged, “Suit yourself.”

The undead Scotsman stretched out his hand and motioned for me to take the cloth-covered item in it. I unraveled it and found an oft-used white gaiwan.

“Her name is Liddy,” Zombie Fortune said. “Just ask her, and she’ll find us. Should you change your mind about joining our little trek.”

Thed interrupted. “Ley-line travel requires a vessel of some sort – magical, obviously.”

“Take care,” Robert Fortune waved. “And do be careful what you write about.”

“I will,” I lied.

The two disappeared in a flash. I looked down at the gaiwan, sniffed it for a second. Then I uttered a phrase jokingly, “There’s no place like home.”

Before I could chortle, the dog and I were back in our driveway. I looked down at the little lidded cup. Whatever beer buzz I had was replaced by tea reverie. The dog looked up at me expectantly. I smiled at him, and spoke to the gaiwan in my hand.

“Darjeeling, huh?” I said to no one. “Maybe…”

All custom blends used for this write-up were provided (and produced) by Teaconomics.

The Revenge of Finbarr’s Persian Princess in 1910

This review is actually a sequel of sorts. To read its predecessor – for context – go HERE.

Don’t you hate it when you wake up in the morning and end up in another time period? So do I. As far as I know, it’s only happened once – today. I found myself awake at the ungodly hour of 7AM after hearing a loud gagging noise coming from my cat. That was usually the early warning sign of an impending (and rather messy) hairball.

After dealing with that little nuisance, I figured I might as well stay up and get some water boiling. It felt like an oolong morning, so – naturally – I went for the gaiwan. Pot and apparatus at the ready, I proceeded to plug the kettle in.

And…nothing happened. I pressed a button – still nothing. I gave the thing a good punch. And…

A flash of light transported me, my plastic tea kettle, my gaiwan, and my pajama’d self to somewhere straight out of a Jules Vernian nightmare.

A “geared” world at sunrise greeted me. Airships dotted the sky, hovering about almost aimlessly. The ground below them was rattled with structures of varying shades of copper and rust. My immediate attention, though, was directed at an Irishman pointing a revolver at me.

His beard wasn’t just red – it was magenta. His attire was so flamboyant that even a metrosexual leprechaun would’ve blushed. What topped off the dandy’s appearance was a crown perched ever-so-slightly to one side of his head. He flashed a welcoming grin as he cocked the brass-plated pistol.

“Welcome to 1910, Mr. Literatus,” the Irishman lilted.

“Looks more like the 1890s,” I replied, backing away slightly.

Something pointy prevented me from backstepping any further.

“Ah-ah-ah,” a feminine voice from behind me warned. “Stay put, my dear.”

I turned my head as I raised my hands in the air. The mysterious woman behind me was shrouded by purpble robes. A bejeweled dagger was the “pointy thing” that gave me pause.

“Perhaps some introductions are in order,” the Irishman said. “I am Finbarr. This is Persian Princess.”

“She doesn’t have a name?” I wondered aloud.

“None that you need to know,” the woman said, giving a light poke with the pointy.

“And Finbarr…you don’t mean the fairy king of the Daoine Sidhe, do you?” I asked.

“No, that’s my cousin,” the Irish dandy corrected. “Finn Bheara.”

“Confusing.”

“More than a little,” Finbarr shrugged.

“Wait a minute,” I said with rising frustration. “Finbarr…Persian Prin-…THE DEVOTEA SENT YOU!!!”

At that moment, a slightly transparent, disembodied head appeared out of thin air.

“What he said,” Finbarr agreed as the disembodied Devotea winked out of existence.

“Then why are you here? Why am I here!?” I demanded.

“Truth be told, we’re seeing if our namesake blends actually hold up,” Finbarr explained.

“We want to make sure he’s doing us justice,” the Persian woman practically purred.

“And who told you that kidnapping reviewers was the way to do it?” I asked again.

“Petersham, of course,” Finbarr said delightfully.

“Of course,” I repeated flatly, rolling my eyes.

A table with a tea set, three bags, brewing equipment and a tea kettle miraculously appeared amidst sparkles and smoke. It was an odd thing to say that this was becoming far too routine for me. I perused the different ounce bags. One was labeled “1910”, another “Finbarr’s Revenge”, and a purple bag read “Persian Princess” embroidered in gold trim.

I put down the gaiwan and plastic tea kettle I’d forgotten I was still holding. “Well…let’s get this over with.”

The first I went for was the English Breakfast variant – the 1910.

“It’s a blend of Ceylon, Indian teas, an-“

“I know what it is,” I interrupted.

The dry leaves were both burly with malt and fruit-sweet on the nose, giving the impression that the blend consisted of Assam, Keemun, and a low-altitude Dimbulla Ceylon. It’s a credit to the blender that the leaves all looked the same, creating the illusion of single origin orthodoxy.

The liquor brewed lighter than I expected – a full-bodied bronze rather than the usual English Breakfast copper. The color may have been because of a Yunnan sourcing for the Chinese black in the blend, rather than Keemun. The smell was exquisitely smoky, really not sure how that happened. This was an incredibly smooth morning cup – no bitterness, dryness or kickback.

“Deceptively smooth and quite invigorating,” I said with approval.

“Next is my namesake,” Finbarr gestured toward the second set-up.

I couldn’t tell what went in this, but my best guess was Assam and low-altitude Ceylon. The smell was straight, burly malt (like the 1910) with no other deviation. One would think they were having a straight-up Assam on whiff. I actually decided upon a full pot of it.

The liquor brewed bold copper with the same manly malty aroma as the dry leaves. On taste, though, it was oddly forgiving. Instead of punching the tongue with its chewy presence, it shook hands first, imparting a floral forefront before the introduction of the malty middle. Here, the Ceylon and Assam worked quite well together. And – boy! – did it wake me up.

“This stuff actually gives you the courtesy of a reach-around before punching you in the junk,” I commented.

“Rightly said!” Finbarr guffawed, patting me on the back – hard.

The Persian Princess gave a loud – and disgusted – sigh. Speaking of which, it was time for her blend. She didn’t bother speaking up about it, though.

The thing that really surprised me about this blend was how sweet it smelled. There was some requisite malt, but a woody and sweet underpinning crept up in the fragrance.  I’m pretty sure the teas used were Assam and Yunnan, but – as with the other Devotea blends – one can never be too sure.

The resulting brew-up was an amber-colored liquor with a smooth, Ceylon-ish aroma – floral. On taste, the deceptive sweetness came back packaged with a strong, malty intro. Then it did the oddest thing by smoothing out completely – like an actual princess with a feigned, even-keel temperament. The best part? No bitterness to speak of and only mild astringency.

“Strong but not bitter,” I said briefly. “Like an actual princess should be.”

She still said nothing.

“Can I go now?”

Finbarr looked confused, “Go where?”

“Home? To 2012? My 2012.”

“Oh, lad,” Finbarr laughed, but there was mischievous shift in it. “This is your home now.”

“…What?”

“Aye, the trip’s one-way only.”

“…Why?”

“Revenge,” the Persian Princess finally spoke.

One would think a man whisked out of space and time would do something brave – like, say, fight off both of his assailants. Not the case, here. I took off running as fast as my slippered feet could carry me. Like a little bitch. I did make sure my beeline to…nowhere put me in contact with my trusty gaiwan and kettle, though.

Both of my kidnappers were in hot pursuit. Denizens of this steampunkish realm observed the spectacle with some amusement. I supposed they didn’t get many men in sleep attire – brandishing tea equipment – running down their streets. I ducked down an alleyway, hoping to lose the blend-named pair. As my luck would have it, though, it dead-ended at a bonfire surrounded by this realm’s version of the homeless.

“Nowhere to run now, eh laddy?” Finbarr said with a pant.

The Persian Princess glided in front of the Irishman, dagger drawn and eyes fixed. I did the only thing a man-bitch could do – I let out a full-bodied scream. In my ensuing panic, I lost my grip on the plastic kettle. It fell into the makeshift hobo fire. Then something…well…terribly inappropriate happened.

A blood curdling scream resonated from the flames. The discarded kettle fumed, smoked, melted and contorted into something hideous. The only comparison I could make was a demonic vagina.

It floated in the air, wailing loudly. Finbarr and Persian Princess halted their advance, but the vagrants around the fire fled in terror, providing me ample time to think.

That shouldn’t be possible, I thought. Unless…

“A dream!” I said out loud.

I looked down at my one remaining tea apparatus – my trusty gaiwan. If Leo had a spinning top as an anchor in Inception, then this lidded cup was mine. Turning around, I walked straight into the bonfire. I expected to feel warmth and…uh…”burning”. Instead, I was back in my kitchen – still pajama’d, still tired, but fully tea’d.

Epilogue

“Well, that could’ve gone better,” Finbarr said, scratching his head.

“His time will come,” the Persian Princess said, disrobing her covered head. A porcelain, Asian woman’s face turned toward the Irishman. “At least we know his weakness now.”

“You’re one stubborn woman, Ms. Guan Yin,” he remarked.

“Take the tea away from a man, then he is just a man,” she said to no one in particular. “Take the teacup from a man, then he is merely a boy…in hot water.”

The End (?)

To Purchase The Devotea’s Teas (1910, Finbarr’s Revenge, and Persian Princess):

In the U.S., go HERE.

In the U.K., go HERE.

In Australia, go HERE.

(No actual tea equipment was harmed in the making of this review.)

Guan Yins, Tigers and Lords, Oh My!

For context, READ THIS FIRST.

For once, I thought I’d get a full night’s sleep. The work week had been murder, and for some odd reason, I couldn’t stay in bed for more than six hours. Well, this time I had an excuse. A loud roar jolted me from sleep. When I opened my eyes, standing in front of me was the Bodhisattva of Compassion herself – Guan Yin – standing atop a rubber ducky (???). And she looked pissed.

How did she get in my room? Wait…where was my room?! I was greeted by blackness all around me as I sat straight up. The only occupants in this void/nullspace were me (still in bed), the ducky-perched Chinese goddess, and a third shadowy figure.

“Are you the one they call the Lazy Clitoris?” the bodhisattva asked.

“That’s…Literatus,” I corrected her. “Ma’am.”

“Silence!” she snapped.

“But you asked me to speak,” I reminded her.

She did not take my dry comment well, bringing a lightning bolt down within an inch of my bed. The smell of ozone wafted once the crackling ceased. I didn’t even know she had that ability.

“You have wronged me greatly,” Guan Yin said, lowering her duck.

“Is this about the story?”

“Of course, it is!” her voice boomed and echoed.

“But it was all true,” I replied.

“True or not, you have sullied my name,” she said. “And now, you must make reparations.”

“Why are you on a duck?” I had to ask.

“My dragon – Ao Bing – is…on vacation,” she replied, flustered.

“But why a duck?”

“A mutual interested party provided him,” she said, motioning for the shadowy figure to step forward.

A youthful man in dated formal attire approached in a carriage…pulled by two very imposing Bengal tigers. His attire was a mix-and-match of Victorian and Georgian influences, his cravat was flashy, and his top hat seemed to glow with its own aura. The man’s visage bore a striking resemblance to American actor, James Franco.

The Faux-Franco bowed in my direction, “Viscount Petersham, at your service.”

I cocked an eyebrow, “Petersham?”

“Yes?”

“Who is Peter, and why is he a sham?” I asked with a half-smile.

He simply looked at me for a moment, then spoke, “Oh! That was an attempt at humor. How precious.”

“And why are you here?” I asked of him again. “Wherever here is?”

“The lovely Bodhisattva and I have come to an arrangement,” the viscount explained. “One that involves you.”

“What for and why me?”

“My, you’re annoying quizzical,” Petersham sighed. “You wronged her and an associate of mine. She brought you to this ‘space between spaces’ where you will be subjected to a Trial by Tea.”

“Trial by-”

Tea!” Guan Yin finished for me. “If you pass, you live. If you fail…”

As if on cue, one of the Bengals roared. I gulped. No one wanted to die in their pajamas, especially not out-of-season Santa Claus pajamas.

“The idea, my good chap, is this,” the viscount said, dismounting from his grand tiger-chariot. “There are two teas in my repertoire that need testing. One was tailored specifically to me, the other – well – named for my feline friends over there.”

“So…what do I have to do?” I queried.

“Simply try them,” Petersham said with a grin.

“And if I don’t like them?”

“That won’t be possible.”

“Get on with it,” the goddess said impatiently.

“Yes, m’dear,” he said with a roll of the eyes.

He stretched out his hand. A platter, a teapot, a metallic kettle, two transparent 8-ounce teacups, and an hourglass perched above his hand.

“How did you-?” I started.

“I’m a dead man with two pet tigers,” Petersham stated flatly. “What can’t I do?”

“Fair point,” I nodded.

“Now, how do you take your tea, lad?” he asked.

Me? A lad? I look older than him! I said inwardly.

“1 teaspoon of leaves, boiling water, three-minute steep,” I replied.

“Only three minutes?!” Petersham looked aghast. “What are you, some kind of dandy?”

“You asked,” I shrugged – an odd question coming from a man with a lisp.

He sighed dramatically. “Very well.”

With a wave of a few fingers from his other hand, steam rose from the kettle – bubbling was heard from within. I wondered where the water had come from, but this was a magic void. Wondering was pointless. The kettle, then, poured the water itself into the pot. I guessed the leaves were already housed within. The hourglass flipped itself over independently and remained suspended in mid-air.

Three minutes passed by with awkward silence. Guan Yin had dismounted the rubber ducky and crouched down to pat the head of one of the tigers. It bellowed a loud purr in response. Petersham made unique use of a snuff box in the interim.

When the hourglass ran its last grain of sand, there was a loud chime. The tigers perked up in alarm. The source seemed to resound from all over. Petersham was unperturbed by it, gingerly waving a finger, and levitating the pot.

The liquor that poured into the clear cup was an even copper with a light gold ring on the periphery. It was a lovely looking beverage. I put cup to lips. On introduction, there was a bit of a citrus bite, followed by a slight tannic lean in the middle. Then it snapped at the top note with a presence of peppers, allspice, honey and Keemun sweetness. So many different flavors were at play – all vying for steeping supremacy.

“Damn,” I said with approval.

“Poetic, isn’t he?” Guan Yin said dryly.

The viscount, however, appeared overjoyed. “And, now, the Two Tigers blend.”

He repeated the same songless dance with a new set of “tea”-quipment. Water boiled, apparatuses flew about, and another clear cup was magically filled. The smell of the rising steam was strong on the nostrils.

The liquor had brewed only a slightly deeper copper than Petersham’s namesake blend with a very even and sweet aroma. Malt was also there but understated. Flavor-wise, it possessed a very crisp forefront, which transitioned to a strangely floral middle. It tapered off nicely without much lingering bitterness.

“A strong morning cup, for sure, but one polite enough to call you a cab afterwards,” I said.

The viscount looked puzzled. “I don’t quite follow.”

“It’s a sex reference,” Guan Yin growled, arms akimbo. “He does that.”

Again, Petersham was un-phased. “Splendid! You passed!”

“All I did was like the teas,” I said.

“That’s all that was needed,” Petersham said, clasping my shoulders. “You live to drink another day.”

With that, the youthful – and possibly immortal – lord retook the reigns of his tiger mounts, bid a gloved farewell with a “toodleloo ” of his left fingers, and rode off into the darkness. The cups of tea and brewing equipment, however, remained suspended in place – hovering. All that remained were me, the tea, an ill-tempered goddess, and a rubber ducky.

“Okay…” I started. “I passed. Guess that means I get to go now?”

“No,” she said.

“No?” I gulped – voice a little higher.

“You get to live, yes,” Guan Yin agreed. “But I get to determine the ‘where’.”

I said nothing, but my gaze narrowed.

“Here in the void,” she said with arms outstretched. “This suits you perfectly.”

“So, it’s like that, then,” I said, taking the cup with the Petersham blend.

“It’s like that,” she repeated.

I also grabbed the cup of the Two Tigers blend. “You’ve never read my work, have you?”

“You work?” she chuckled.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”

I held out both transparent cups so she could clearly see them. At first, she appeared puzzled…but then her eyes widened. I bore a toothy grin as I poured the contents of one cup into the other.

“NO!” she screamed.

“You forget, Bodhisattva,” I began. “When I blend, I don’t think of the consequences. And when I drink…”

One of the cups began to glow. The copper liquid bubbled and churned from other. Out of thin air, a third cup appeared. No, not a cup. A mug. I moved the three together. The shape looked…oddly (but appropriately) phallic.

“This. Is. MY CUPPA!!!” I bellowed, taking a swig.

Both blends combined tasted like all the things that men are made off – earth and smoke with an astringent stubbornness that couldn’t be quelled. I relished in the power. This was true tiger’s blood.

Cracks and fissures of glowing light pierced the pocket void-realm. The “ceiling”/sky/whatever flaked and crumbled. Shadows retreated and the intruding rays of luminescence penetrated ever-inward. Guan Yin screamed as her handiwork unraveled in mere moments. Without a means to retaliate, she retreated to the solace of the rubber ducky and made a hasty retreat.

As the last of the shadows receded, I found myself back in my haphazard room. All was in shambles, but it was the mess I had made – not the goddess. My bed was as I left it. Yet I still held the combined, phallic-looking tri-teacup.

“This isn’t over, Clitoris,” boomed a disembodied woman’s voice. “Those blends were his, and he still owns you until you finish.”

“His? He who? Finish what?” I asked the ceiling.

There was no response, only the echoes of tittering laughter.

“That’s LiterATus!” I corrected…to no one in particular.

What had she meant by being owned? Who was I indebted to? Who owned and/or made those blends? Not Petersham, he said they were commissioned. Then whom?

The realization hit me when I looked down at my computer.

The rubber ducky? Petersham? I inhaled sharply. HIM?!

I was in someone’s debt, someone for whom I owed a writing project. So long as it went incomplete, he owned my soul. Without further thought, I fired up the computer and went to writing. Shivering all the while, imagining his eyes (and ducky) were looming over me.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks are owed to Jackie, one of the co-pilots of Tea Trade, for passing the two Devotea blends my way.

Thanks, also, to The Devotea himself – Robert Godden – for making them. They were superb. (As if there was ever a doubt. One of these days, I’ll have to pick his brain for the recipes.)

You can buy the Lord Petersham blend HERE.

You can buy the Two Tigers blend HERE.

And, lastly, thanks to Jason Norman (my cousin) for helping me out with some last-minute Photoshopping. Much obliged.

The Tea Trolley

“What is it?” asked a passerby.

“What does it look like?” said a grizzly, overalled Brit sitting on a bench.

“A train,” was the American’s curious response. “Not like any I’ve ever seen.”

“That’s because it’s not a train,” the Brit said gruffly. “It’s a trolley.”

And indeed it was. A curious contraption to boot; instead of cars and compartments, it was three brass trays synced together with various clockwork gears and turbines. If one were staring at it from afar, they would’ve seen a go-cart or a push-table. But no, it was an actual trolley of weird and rare design. Like a table on railroad tracks. People milled about, all with teacups in their hands, some in their nicest finery, others in their pajamas. it was a bizarre sight to the newly-arrived American.

“What are they doing?”

“Tribute, I think.” It wasn’t a question.

The American left the gnarled Brit to his sitting and approached the crowd. Various women and men – some in Victorian attire, others in modern garb, and others still yet identifiable – were crowded around the odd locomotive.

Then, as if by some invisible chime, they raised their teacups to the sky. Not a word was spoken. Any murmuring ceased. The American was at a loss, for he didn’t have a cup to raise…nor a reason to raise it. He was confused by the entire display.

“Here,” came a sing-songy voice from behind him. “I have an extra.”

A slender, middle-aged woman in a bonnet and a sweater adorned with the British flag had her hand outstretched. Funny, since she didn’t sound British. He accepted the cup gently and graciously.

“What is this for?” he asked.

“That?” she said with a giggle. “It’s for the tea trolley.”

That is a tea trolley?!” he exclaimed with a furrowed brow. “Isn’t it…”

“Rather large?” she offered. “Oh yes. Wouldn’t have it any other way. How else can you have tea if you can’t travel?”

“So…it’s a trolley…in the shape of a trolley.”

“You catch on quick,” she said wryly.

“Why this display then?”

She sighed, “Because the tea trolley has ceased its run. All these people were once her passengers.”

“A eulogy,” the American said.

“No, a celebration,” she laughed. “Eulogies are far too dour.”

“Were you a passenger?”

“I better have been,” she said. “I invented it.”

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, Mrs…”

“Milly.”

“Mrs. Milly?”

“Just Milly,” she smiled.

The former passengers still had their cups raised. None seemed to be tiring with their arms outstretched, or if they were fatigued, they didn’t show it. Probably couldn’t.

“Well, are you going to join in?” she nudged.

“Should I?” he asked nervously. “I mean…I was never a passenger.”

“Don’t be silly,” she assured him.

With that, he reluctantly raised his dainty cup.

“You already are.” Her voice trailed on the wind with an echo.

The American looked behind him…but she was gone.

Author’s Note: Mildred P., a.k.a. @MildewPea (on Twitter) – or simply Milly – was one of the first people I ever talked to when I joined the site o’ Twits back in 2009. She was almost TOO wholesome and incredibly witty. It took all my gumption just to keep up with her.

One of the fun little games played on Twitter was the addition of “#TheTeaTrolley”…and me being the idiot I am, I thought it was an actual trolley. I never let on that I had no clue what a tea trolley even was, but I still considered myself a happy passenger.

R.I.P. Milly, you taught me how a Tea Twit should conduct themselves. Here’s a cup to ya.

Oolong Way from Gnome (Part 1)

Gnomish Charcoal Sketch by Robert Norman

Thed was on a cloud…and he wasn’t happy about it.

Gnomes weren’t meant for flight, especially zooming over mountain ranges at wind-wispy speeds. Cloud-travel was air elemental territory – not for earth ones like him. Yet he found himself flying on a magic cloud with five unlikely companions. Three of them claimed to be demons. Two of them weren’t; one was a pig, the other a monkey with a staff. He had met “daemons” before. These were simple, magically-imbued animals with delusions of grandeur.  But who was he to question their given titles? He was just a gnomish hired hand far away from home.

The third was an ogre, one of the lesser demon races. Unlike his Western kin, he was silent, stoic and serious. Such was the case with their fourth companion, too, possibly the oddest chimera Thed had ever seen – a dragon-scaled horse. Both were oddly resolute for so garish of beasts.

The source of his employ was the fifth occupant on the cloud – a quite, gold-hued man with his head shaved bald. He was unusual by human standards, but – then again – all humans were unusual to Thed. This one was fully aware of the magical world and seemed to revel in it, albeit tranquilly. When Thed had met him and his animal compatriots in India, the bald man had introduced himself as Tripitaka. It was a good, Greek-sounding name, and he had a trusting face.

After Tripitaka claimed he was a simple monk heading home, the poor gnome thought the golden man and his minions were journeying further West. Working for them seemed like a way to get a free ride back to Greece.

Wrong.

They were headed East…Far East. As far as Thed knew, no gnome had ever been to China. Given the different roles of magical beings there, he understood why. If mere animals were labeled as demons, what would they make of him?

He clutched a fist to his green, conical hat as another gust of wind threatened to part it from his head. It was precious to him. Granted, no Greek gnome wore such silly headware, but it was a present from a lady-friend in Germania. All Nordic-borne gnomes were fans of pointy hats. It was a rather odd distinction between them and their Greek cousins.

The three magic animals found the hat rather amusing as well. They often yanked it from his head, held it above him, and kept it from his reach – especially Sun Wukong. The Monkey King (as he was known) made sport of him the entire journey. Zhu Bajie, the pig “monster”, occasionally joined in and made lewd references, comparing the hat to a certain male body part.

These were his companions on the long journey back to Chang’an. And it was a very. Long. Journey. The territory between India and the Tang capital was wrought with danger. A day didn’t go by without the monk being threatened by some magical creature or another. Sun Wukong mentioned in passing that many of their assailants were after the monk’s flesh, saying it granted immortality to the eater. Thed rolled his eyes at that. Human meat, even a magus’s, didn’t grant immortality. (Although, according to some orcs he’d known, it did cause indigestion.)

Whenever they were attacked, Thed did what gnomes did best. He hid. At times, he would even employ an invisibility spell. His job was to guard the luggage, and guard it he did…but out of sight. No pay in the known world was worth the loss of hide nor hat.

Thed felt a poke against his shoulder. He ignored it. After a few minutes, he felt a second, harder poke. Again, he did nothing. A full five minutes went by before something cold and metal massaged his ear, followed by fits of high-pitched giggling. Thed had come to expect that from the Monkey King. He returned the effort with a glare.

Sun Wukong, un-phased, brought his staff up to the gnome’s nose and gently rubbed it against his nostril. Thed sniffed, wriggled his face a bit, but didn’t give the trickster “king” the satisfaction of a response. A reaction – any reaction – would be met with further taunting by way of staff. Today’s attempt was mild by comparison. Thed was used to this; he had fifteen brothers.

“As usual, you’re no fun,” Sun Wukong harrumphed.

The gnome merely crossed his arms, staring ahead.

“Perhaps he’s gone mute,” Zhu Bajie said with a snort.

The monkey beamed a grin, a mischievous one. “Let’s test that theory.”

Thed closed his eyes tightly, expecting sharp pain of some sort. He was used to it, even though it still smarted. The pain never came, however. A clanging noise was heard in its place. He opened one eye. A spade had parried Sun Wukong’s staff. The bearer of the weapon was the ogre – Sha Wujing – who glowered at the monkey and pig. He nodded at Thed before returning to his meditation, a free hand slowly stroking his ugly red beard.

“He’s no fun, either,” the Monkey King pouted, folding his arms in protest.

“Please, please, leave the help alone,” Tripitaka said softly. “Our journey is almost ended. Soon we will go our separate ways. Make our final moments together peaceful ones.”

Tripitaka was always like that. He would only intervene in a conflict after it was finished; imparting sage advice that largely went ignored. The true hand of discipline in the group was the river-ogre. Strange considering he was the roughest-looking of the bunch. The gold-tanned Buddhist never involved himself in the squabbles of the party unless it affected the outcome of his quest. Over his shoulder, he bore ancient scrolls that were kept in a magic ward-laden sack. What was on them, Thed could only guess.

They journeyed on in silence, puttering along on a fluffed-up pillow of a nimbus. Mountains unlike any Thed had ever seen came and went, transformed into valleys, and then spots of civilization. As the sky darkened, a large city came into view. The expanse of it was lined by a large rectangular wall. There were towered gates to the east, west, and south. They breezed over the southern gate, heading northward to another, inner-walled structure, which Thed could only assume was the Imperial palace. It was a striking city, well-fortified…and the citizenry appeared slightly alarmed that a giant cloud was flying into it.

Bells sounded off along with shouts. Thed peered over the nimbus and saw dots scrambling down below. Gnomish hearing was unusually sharp, and he thought he could make out shouts of, “Ready the archers!” It was times like these he wished he hadn’t chewed on glossolalia leaf to understand different languages. He was better off not knowing who wanted him dead.

Something whizzed past his graying beard. Another shape darted upwards to his right. Arrows – and more were coming.

“I thought you sent word to the Emperor,” Sha Wujing growled at the monkey as he batted an arrow away with his spade.

“Um…slipped my mind?” Sun Wukong shrugged nervously, withdrawing his staff.

Arrows ripped through the cloud with swarming ferocity. Zhu Bajie caught several with his rake weapon before they impacted Tripitaka, who appeared unmoved by the attack. He stayed sitting, lotus-style, but his grip on the magical sack with the scrolls had tightened. The dragon-scaled horse held vigil over him.

“We’ll be needle fodder in no time!” Zhu Bajie squealed.

“Quit your belly-aching, fatty,” Sun Wukong returned. “We’ve been through worse.”

“And just like those times, it’s your fault!” the river-ogre roared.

“Semantics,” the Monkey King waved the comment off, elongating his staff to double its length. He batted away an entire volley with one sweeping arc.

Thed – who until now used the party’s luggage as a shield – sighed and finally spoke up, “I’ll handle this.”

The gnome took a piece of flint, a few red leaves, and a round jewel from one of his many pants pockets. He sat down, placed the leaves on one knee, and rubbed the jewel and flint together. Violet sparks ignited. Instead of becoming flame, however, they swirled around the party like fireflies. When they reached the periphery of the cloud, they dissipated. In their wake, arrows bounced off an invisible barrier around the cloud.

Sha Wujing slumped his shoulders in relief. Zhu Bajie dropped his rake with exhaustion. Tripitaka and his weird horse still appeared the same, if a tad more tense. Only Sun Wukong eyed the gnome with suspicion.

“Where’d you learn to do that?” the monkey asked, eyes narrowing.

“It’s earth magic,” Thed replied. “All earth elementals know it.”

“What are you, some sort of Immortal?” Sun Wukong pressed further.

“There are no Immortals,” Thed stated flatly. “Only magic.”

That caught the ogre’s attention, “Blasphemy!”

“Not blasphemy,” the gnome said. “Truth.”

“Need I remind you, little goblin, that we were once Generals in Heaven?” Sha Wujing asked.

“No, you needn’t.”

“And yet you still don’t believe in the Immortals?” he queried again.

“No, I don’t.”

“Can we throw him overboard?” the pig asked.

“We’re here,” Tripitaka interrupted. “Thedaius, would you kindly remove the barrier?”

“As you wish,” Thed nodded slightly, tapping the jewel.

Air rushed back where the invisible enclosure had popped. In their heated debate, they hadn’t realized that the cloud had landed within the palace proper. Dozens of soldiers surrounded them at spear-point. Some commotion started at the rear and moved forward like a wave. Several of the spearmen bowed as a figure attired in yellow robes and – from what Thed could tell – a black hat came to the front of their quarry. Eastern dragons embroidered the upper and lower halves of his ornate clothing. An expression, equal-parts surprise and worry, showed on his face.

“Brother Xuanzang, you’ve returned!” the well-dressed (and slightly plump) man exclaimed.

The party dismounted the cloud. It vanished into the aether with a word from the Monkey King. Thed hadn’t been prepared for that, however, and fell with a resounding – yet tiny – thud. The monkey and pig both snickered.

Tripitaka kowtowed deeply, “I have, Your Highness.”

The three creature-companions looked at each other, then followed suit with awkward bows and kneels of their own. Only Thed remained standing. (Although, his standing posture was at their kneeling height.) He was tempted to go invisible. Mundane (non-magic) humans weren’t supposed to see magical creatures. It was forbidden in the West. The rules were apparently different in Tang China.

“So, you have them, then?” the Tang Emperor asked eagerly.

“I do, Your Highness.”

“Let us see them!” said the yellow-clad ruler with excited, outstretched hands.

The Buddhist monk withdrew the scroll sack from his shoulder. His stance relaxed at the heavy burden’s removal. He muttered a few words, and the sigil-drawn wards on the bag glowed. The string keeping it closed loosened of its own accord. Rolled parchments greeted the night air and onlookers. The Tang Emperor grabbed one of them with deft hands and unrolled it slowly. The unknown writing seemed to shine in the moonlight.

“The sutras of the Western Regions,” the Emperor said with reverence.  “You’ve done a great thing for the Empire, Xuanzang. A great thing, indeed.”

He rolled the scroll back up and handed it off to an attendant that appeared by his side. Other such attendants went about collecting the rest from the sack. Thed eyed them suspiciously. Why were a bunch of religious parchments so important? It wasn’t like they would be able to read them. The words were written in Sanskrit. Who on this side of the continent – who wasn’t magic-imbued – knew Sanskrit?!

“You must be fatigued from your journey, Little Brother,” the Emperor stated. “I insist you and your…companions stay here as our guests.”

“That is kind of you, Your Highness,” Tripitaka replied. “But I’m afraid I’m needed at Hongfu Monastery. I’ve been away from my brothers for far too long.”

This statement caused Zhu Bajie to grumble slightly. Thed couldn’t tell if it was from the pig’s mouth or stomach. Even the silent ogre groaned with displeasure, albeit through a firm expression frozen in kowtow.

The Tang Emperor also seemed mildly disappointed, “Very well. You deserve rest where you wish it. We shall talk of your travels in the morning. Sleep well, Little Brother.”

The yellow-robed ruler withdrew with his retinue, and the Monkey King summoned the cloud. Within moments, they were airborne again. Much to Thed’s dismay. He would never get used to all the flying. The nimbus floated northeast at great speed until it reached the summit of a mountain. Sha Wujing called it Quanling. Situated among the trees was a modest temple with a humble gate. Several monks saw their approach and instantly fell to their knees.

When they landed and departed the cloud, a younger monk – barely twenty-years-old – approached Tripitaka, “Master, these tree-tops all suddenly leaned East this morning. As we remembered what you had said, we went out of the city to meet you, and you had indeed come.”

“I have. I am sorry I hadn’t arrived in time to greet you all. We didn’t get to the city until this very evening,” Tripitaka said, touching the younger monk’s shoulder in friendship.

“We shall see to your things, Master,” another monk chimed in.

“No need. I have help for that.”

Thed waved. The monks eyed him quizzically. Obviously, they’d never seen a gnome before. Or anyone that small with such a thick beard for that matter. He muttered an incantation to himself as he dug his hands into the soil. After that, he clapped once and grabbed hold of the luggage. Like the “worker ant” that he was, he lifted the party’s rope-bound satchels with wondrous ease.

The pig’s jaw dropped.

“Earth magic, remember?” Thed said through a smirk.

Sun Wukong – the Monkey King – gave him a demonic sneer.

***

“I’ve grown quite tired of our tiny tag-along,” Zhu Bajie said, leaning against his rake.

The three demons watched the diminutive, white-bearded pygmy pass by with their belongings. The little man-thing seemed quite at ease with hard labor. No matter the task, he did it without voicing complaint. Or voicing anything at all. He didn’t talk much.  Zhu Bajie didn’t trust silent types.

“As much as it pains me to say it,” the river-ogre sighed. “I agree with you. He blasphemes against the Immortals. He speaks to all of us with disrespect, and – worse still – he didn’t bow before Emperor Taizong! I will grant a foreigner some leniency, but not if he shows complete disregard.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d piss on Guan Yin herself,” Zhu Bajie muttered.

Sha Wujing brought his spade to bear on the pig monster’s throat. “Do not speak ill of the Bodhisattva!”

“I wasn’t! I wasn’t!”

Sun Wukong rubbed his chin, “Actually, Piggy may have a point.”

“How so?” The ogre withdrew his weapon from the frightened demon’s boar-face.

The Monkey King bore a toothy grin, “I think it’s time our little friend visited the Goddess of Mercy.”

***

Thed plopped the satchels off in a nearby storage area. At least, he assumed it was a storage area. Truthfully, the entire monastery looked like one big, religious closet. There was plenty of clay and brick – enough to remind him of home – but the absolute modesty of the place annoyed him. Of course, he preferred the company of trees and structures borne of trees. He felt the human need to shape the environment to their will was a desecration, and oddly hypocritical in a region that prided itself on oneness with all things natural.

He heard a clopping sound behind him. Without realizing it, he’d uttered the invisibility spell. It was always fresh on his lips whenever he was startled. Thed turned to see the outline of a horse behind him, its body shimmering in the dull evening light.

“Oh, it’s just you,” he muttered, reappearing. “Stupid horse…thing.”

You shouldn’t talk like that to us, said a voice in his mind.

Thed looked around. “Who said that?”

The “stupid horse-thing” in front of you, the thought echoed again.

“Ah, telepathy,” Thed wasn’t impressed. “That’s a neat trick for a horse.”

Your attitude towards us may get you killed, little one.

“Says…the horse who can’t talk.”

I wasn’t always this shape. Thed thought he saw the dragon-scaled horse’s eyes narrow.

“Your point?”

My point is you should show a little courtesy. You are not in your lands. Politeness goes a long way here.

“Duly noted.”

There was a long pause.

“Can I get back to work now?”

As you wish. Just remember…don’t underestimate them.

“Them who?

The horse trotted away without a reply.

Before Thed could shrug it off, a hand clasped his small shoulder. Hard. He swiveled around and came face-to-face with the toothiest monkey grin he’d ever seen. It was Sun Wukong’s, and the expression made him uneasy. The pig and river-ogre were also there, both smiling just as broadly. Now he was scared. The river-ogre never smiled.

“Hello, friend,” Sun Wukong said.

“Uh, hello.”

“We have a task for you.”

“I have plenty of tasks already,” Thed countered. It was the truth.

“Oh, but you see, this one is really important,” Sun Wukong continued. “Our Master – your employer – is out of tea leaves.”

Tripitaka did love his tea. The gnome served it to him every morning on the journey. Gnomes were good at steeping any plant known to man or magic. It hadn’t taken Thed long to learn the temperature, brew length, leaf amount, and water depth that the monk preferred.

“That can’t be. I checked them myself this morning. There should be at least fourteen cups worth left.”

Sun Wukong shook his head, “I’m afraid they’ve all spoiled.”

“Impossible. Dried leaves don’t spoil in a day.”

“They do if you expose them to earth magic fires,” Sha Wujing intoned. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Thed hung his mouth open as if to speak, but nothing came out. Was it possible? He – like all gnomes – was well-versed in herbs, both arcane and mundane. Granted, his knowledge of the tea plant was limited at best, but he had studied some varietals during his time in India. Could earth elemental magic affect their staying power, whether fresh or dried? He was at a loss.

“That tea was a present from Guan Yin herself,” the Monkey King said. “They were plucked from her Mountain Wall Garden high in the Zu mountain range. They were priceless.”

“I-I…don’t know what to say,” Thed stuttered.

“Say that you will get some more,” was the monkey’s blunt reply.

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“How?!”

“With this.” Sun Wukong revealed his palm and floating right above it was a small cloud. “And these,” he said, plucking hairs from his own head.

“You want me to pick tea leaves,” Thed started. “From a mountain range. With nothing but a cloud…and some of your hair?”

“Watch,” the Monkey King said. He took one strand of hair and threw it on the ground. In a puff of smoke, a duplicate of himself appeared. “You’ll use these to pick the leaves.”

“And use the cloud to get there, I got it,” the gnome nodded, annoyed. “But what do I do if I get caught?”

“You’ll have him,” the monkey said with a smile, pointing at the dragon-scaled horse.

“And if I refuse?” Thed asked.

“You’ll die,” Sha Wujing said, pressing his spade into the ground.

Thed heaved the deepest sigh of his life. “Fine, I’ll do it.”

“Great!” the Monkey King shouted, clapping the gnome on the back. The impact sent him reeling. “We’ll see you at morning tea.”

Sha Wujing pointed at him, “Don’t be late.”

The three so-called demons departed, leaving the wayward gnome to collect himself. Tripitaka’s odd horse came up to him. If Thed didn’t know any better, he would’ve said the horse-thing was smiling at him.

I told you not to underestimate them, the horse sent.

“Oh, shut up and get ready,” Thed responded. He looked at the monkey hairs in his hand and the small cloud suspended in mid-air in front of him. “We have a long night ahead of us.”

To be continued…-ish…

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