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…
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.”
“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.
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.
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, 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.
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.