Although I had successfully eliminated Alessandra Winters, my troubles weren’t quite over. Namely, I had to figure out what exactly I was going to do about the grasshoppers.
Now, if you’ll recall, I had successfully disposed of the grasshoppers that I had unleashed when I brewed my Black Dragon Pearls. You might think that’s the end of that particular problem, but you’d be dead wrong. The fact that the grasshoppers emerged from my tea meant that all the tea in my little shop could be contaminated – and there would be no way of knowing until I tried to brew it.
That nasty woman had left me with quite a dilemma.
Of course, the only solution was to cleanse my entire teahouse. The process is both painful and arduous, but it would be worth it. If I didn’t manage to purify my tea, I’d have to throw it all out….Or I’d end up victim to the grasshoppers.
So, I returned home and picked out a basic Japanese green tea, with long, twisted leaves. Going by the name Gyokuro Imperial, it’s famous for having a dark, vegetal taste. As far as teas go, it isn’t one of my favorites. But I kept some on hand just in case of situations like this.
Once I’d selected a portion of tea, I moved on to the garden I kept behind the house. I was instantly drawn to the Hollyhocks at the edge of the garden. They were bright pink blooms on tall stalks, trumpeting proudly into the sky. I remembered when I was young that my grandmother used to make us Hollyhock dolls. Childish games, however, aren’t the only thing they’re good for.
It took me twenty minutes to select the most worthy blossom of them all – it was young and luscious, but not yet in full bloom.
Returning to the house, I gathered my needle and thread, and prepared to make Hollyhock Blooming Tea.
In Japan, it takes a woman about five minutes to sew together a bulb for blooming tea.
I am not, however, from Japan, and I am not particularly good with domestic work. Sewing is far from my strong suit. In fact, out of my entire family, I’m the worst at wielding a needle and thread. Even more so when it comes to this particular tea.
In order for the tea to do what I need it to, I have to do more than scent the tea with Hollyhocks. I have to include an offering, as well. One that is not so severe as Jamie made, but painful nonetheless.
Taking a deep breath, I reached for the pliers that I keep near my workbench. This wouldn’t be pleasant, but I was no coward, and I certainly wasn’t pathetic enough to be afraid of a little pain. Opening my mouth wide, I fixed the pliers to one of my bicuspids. I had a nice, strong one on the right side of my mouth.
It took a few good yanks and twists, but I managed to get it out. Oh, there was a lot of blood, but I’d expected that. I stuffed a rag into my mouth and dropped the tooth into my palm. I examined it closely to make sure that I’d pulled up the entire root – if I’d broken the tooth, I’d have to repeat the process – but I’d managed to get it out whole, as usual.
With a relieved sigh, I slipped the tooth inside the Hollyhock bloom. I could already feel my mouth healing itself. That’s the nice thing about having my abilities – we heal quickly, and our teeth grow back. Most of the time.
It took me 20 painstaking minutes to sew the tealeaves around the Hollyhock. I had to make sure to sew them tight, but not so tight as to prevent it from steeping. I also had to use special thread that would loosen in the water. And then I had to make sure that the blossom wouldn’t be harmed. Arduous work, indeed.
Once the bulb was finished – just one bulb about an inch in diameter – I wrapped it in a silk handkerchief and headed for my teahouse. It was about 11 in the morning, and I wanted to get the shop cleansed as quickly as possible so I didn’t have to be closed any longer than necessary. There are people out there who need me, after all.
I heated the water to about 180 degrees Fahrenheit and then dropped the bulb, using a glass teakettle so I could watch it brew. For good measure, I added just a pinch of rock sugar – if you know anything about them at all, you know they like sweets.
Then, I sat back and watched the magic.
As the water softened the leaves and the thread, the bulb began to pulse and writhe. Soon enough, it opened and exposed the Hollyhock inside. The flower seemed to tremble with the heat of the water, but soon enough it unfurled, blooming completely in a burst of deep pink.
I peered inside. My tooth was gone.
That’s how I knew the offering had been accepted.
Satisfied, I took the glass teapot out through the back door, where a swatch of emerald grass drew the gaze of the sun. Very slowly and oh, so carefully, I poured the tea out into the ground, choosing the thickest patches of grass to concentrate my efforts.
Afterwards, I sat in a wicker lawn chair and waited.
It took almost two hours for them to arrive, but when they did, they seemed to come all at once.
It started with a little wiggling in the grass, barely perceptible if I hadn’t been looking for it. But I was, and when I saw it, I inched forward trying to see if it was finally happening.
Out of a tuft of grass, it popped. It looked vaguely human, though its skin was wrinkled and charcoal-gray, and its hair was long and stringy, looking for all the world like wet tealeaves. It had huge, ragged wings that were larger than its body. If they hadn’t been so thin, the poor little thing wouldn’t have been able to hold itself up. It had stark white eyes that seemed to glow in its skull, and it stared up at me, its mouth forming a mischievous little sneer.
It always amuses me when illustrations in children’s books depict fairies as dainty little men and women with pretty gossamer wings and flower dresses. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it. Fairies are not pretty creatures, but they are tough and hardworking. And they’re usually willing to help if you offer them something in return.
A few minutes after the first appeared, about two hundred fairies were crawling out of the grass, standing by their brethren and waiting for my request.
As an answer, I opened the door to my teahouse, and they filed in. As the last one flew through the doorway, it looked at me pointedly until I shut the door.
Fairies do not like to be disturbed while they’re working.
A few hours later, my teahouse was clean, and the fairies were exhausted. As they trudged back to the grass from which they emerged, I was sure to leave out a few bowls of sugar water to express my gratitude. I shut the back door and opened the shop, sparing no second thought for my little fairy helpers.
Unfortunately, I forgot that the fairies weren’t the only creatures inhabiting the teashop’s backyard.
And fairies are very mischievous folk.
When I woke up the next morning and saw the news, I refused to believe what had happened.
Of course, the newscasters had no idea how the woman had died. They said the victim was a 24-year-old Caucasian female with blonde hair and green eyes. It had taken some doing to find out her identity, because she was withered down to the bone, her skin shrunk tight around her frame as though all the meat inside her had been sucked out. The police chief commented that he’d never seen a case like this before.
But I had. Or, rather, I’d heard tell of it from my mother. And I knew immediately that this death heralded the return of someone I’d thought was long dead.
The general consensus, I’ve found, is that dead people remain dead, and there is no bringing them back. Sure, as a society, we’re obsessed with the idea – we talk about necromancy and ghosts and psychics. We want to believe that death isn’t the end. It’s sweet, really, although sometimes a little pathetic.
The thing is, death is real. It is the end. But that doesn’t mean it is permanent. There are always new beginnings.
My older sister was named Lisandra, but we called her Lisa. She was really only two years older than I was, but she had always seemed the wisest, more mature of us both. She didn’t quite take to tea magic the way that I did. Instead, she followed in our father’s footsteps. Her specialty was sewing. The garments she made were equal parts beautiful and powerful, able to create and destroy.
Unfortunately, it was also excruciatingly painful.
Each and every time she drew the needle through the cloth, it was as though she was sewing into her own body. And it wasn’t just a strange psychosomatic phenomenon – her skin was marred with thousands of little pinpricks and jagged tears, a memory of sewing long since complete. By the time she was 12, she was little more than a mass of scar tissue.
The simple solution – one would think – would be to give up on her sewing. To allow her powers to lay dormant. But for our kind, this is as good as a death sentence. If our power isn’t used, it begins to wither. As the power withers, so does the body, until it resembles…
Well. Until it resembles the dead woman on the news.
My sister lived 15 agonizing years, each day more painful than the last. The more beautiful her work became, the more hideous her body, twisting and molding into something barely recognizable as human.
My mother couldn’t bear to watch.
She loved us, you know. Some people might say differently, because they don’t understand that her choice was made out of love and compassion. Compassion for a little girl whose existence was so incredibly painful.
My mother told me what she was going to do. In fact, she had me do it, and watched from afar, instructing me. And what we did had nothing to do with magic, at least not the sort that you’re thinking. All chemistry is a little magic, but this was common. So common, it has been observed in human society for centuries.
The poison she kept for such occasions was strong and fast-acting, but it was not painful. I saw the effects of it myself, as my sister took a few sips from the cup and her eyes drooped. She was asleep within seconds, and dead a few minutes later. It was the only time I’d ever seen her completely at peace, her body for once blessedly pain-free.
Perhaps it was foolish, to imagine that she understood what we were going to do. That she took the poison knowing she’d die, somehow able to discern what we had planned. That she’d appreciate it, even. That she would see it as an act of love.
It’s easy to imagine such things. Things become much more difficult when a band of mischievous fairies reanimate your dead sister and she can finally speak for herself.
I could have sought her out, but I didn’t have the guts. In many things, I am fearless. When it comes to the intimacy of my own family, I am a shameless coward. Besides, I felt like I owed it to her. To let her come to me on her own terms, make of my life what she would.
As I waited for her appearance, I watched the body count increase. The news was calling it an epidemic, and people were beginning to suspect it was some kind of disease. The term ‘biological warfare’ was even thrown around a time or two. Of course, there aren’t many viruses that can ravage the body the way that Lisa could.
It was just after they’d found the fifth victim – a little boy who had disappeared from the local park – that she came to see me.
I could feel somewhere deep in my bones that she would be coming for me. That’s why I stayed at the teahouse later than usual – I knew she’d be there. I sat down to brew a rare yellow tea and waited, my eyes trained on the door with the precision of a great marksman.
True to form, she arrived at the witching hour – three in the morning, as my candles were burning low and I was on my fourth pot of tea.
She was beautiful, just as I remembered her. Ever and always 15, her face was round with baby fat and her curly hair hung in dark blonde tresses down to her shoulders. Her body looked lithe and strong, no doubt thanks to her sacrifices. Truth be told, no one would have guessed we were sisters… until they looked at our eyes. Our eyes are mirror images – big and hazel and unsettling.
For many long moments, neither of us spoke. It was quite some time before I summoned the courage to pour her a cup of tea, and she deigned to sit with me as she sipped it.
“Aren’t you afraid?” I asked, as she drank it without hesitation.
To the untrained eye, she didn’t look dead. She looked very much alive, in fact, but even the most oblivious of persons would be able to tell that she was… different. I could feel it as she stared at me, her eyes unblinking.
“You betrayed me with a cup of tea once before. I know you aren’t stupid enough to try it again.”
The word ‘betrayed’ hurt like a physical blow, but I reigned in my emotions. “We did it out of love. We couldn’t bear to watch you suffer.” It was the truth, and it was all I could offer her.
“It was my burden to bear, and the decision was mine to make, not yours.”
I had no counter to that.
We continued to sip our tea, drinking in the sight of each other, the empty years of separation stretched out between us like a yawning gulf.
“Are you going to kill me too?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Why did you kill them?”
“I was hungry.”
“Hungry enough to kill five in two weeks?”
At that, she smiled at me. It transformed her, and I knew that she was no longer human. She was Lisa, of course, but she wasn’t the same Lisa that I’d once known. Death had done something to her.
“Death leaves a person hungry. Your little stunt did yield some good, little sister. In death, I learned many things. Secret things. And I learned that blood and flesh and bone – these things keep the pain away. These things are my salvation.”
The air suddenly felt frigid. She was looking at me the way I imagine a wolf looks at the sheep it’s about to rip apart.
“What do you want from me?” It was the dreaded question, one that – as yet – I’d been too afraid to ask. She had to want something, anything to reconcile my past wrongs. Whatever she asked for, it was my duty to give.
“It’s hard work, finding food. Seeking out the plump and juicy and delicious. It takes time and effort, both of which are better spent on my sewing.” She sipped her tea as I gave her a surprised look. “Are you so surprised that I’ve returned to my craft? It’s my destiny – and now I’ve found a way to do it without pain. And you’re going to help me.
“You will find victims for me. Most anyone will do. I will require at least one a month, sometimes more. You’ll bring them to me, and you’ll let me do what I have to do.”
“And if I don’t?” I thought of what I’d done to Jamie. I thought of doing that to someone new every month for the rest of my life.
She shrugged as she said, “Then I’ll take your life instead, as is my right, and I’ll move on with my… existence.”
I paused to consider that, knowing it wasn’t an option. And yet… “What does it feel like? What you do to people.”
She seemed to have anticipated the question. Her eyes darkened as she reached her hand to me, palm up, and waited for me to take it.
Before I made my choice, I had to know. So I ignored the alarms screaming in my brain and I took her hand.
The pain that flashed through my body was pure agony – it was a litany of fire poured out into each and every one of my nerve endings. My throat and chest constricted, and I couldn’t breathe. It felt as though my bones were turning in on themselves, crushing my internal organs into mush. I could feel a hot pressure behind my eyes, and I wondered for a moment if they would pop right out of my head. My mouth opened to scream, but nothing came out – instead, my lips withered back from my jaw, leaving my jagged teeth exposed as though I was already no more than a skull.
She pulled back and I collapsed against my chair. It was several long minutes before I returned to normal, my body pressure evening out and my breathing coming in ragged gasps. She couldn’t have touched me for more than two or three seconds, but it had felt like hours.
“Now you know what it was like for me all those years,” she said. There was no hate in her voice, no relief, no absolution – nothing. She was no longer capable of true emotion. She simply existed, life in its purest, most basic form.
She was terrifying.
As I began to tremble, she waited for my decision.
In the end, I had to make my choice.
It’s been six months since Lisandra was pulled out of her grave in the back of the teahouse, and time has gone by slowly.
Six months translates to six victims, to both feed her hunger and placate her gnawing pain.
At first, I tried to only choose people who deserved such a terrible death. To kill is not such a difficult feat – but to do so repeatedly over a long period of time? That takes a toll even on something like me.
Eventually, I was forced to confront what I already knew to be true – it is impossible to tell who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Life is never so black and white, so morally clear. We’d like it to be, of course, but the fact of the matter is that good and bad are muddled together into humanity and there is nothing we can do about it.
Last month, an absent-minded mother left her three-year-old daughter at the teahouse while she ran out to do some errands. Lisandra wanted her. There was nothing I could do but oblige.
Through all this pain and suffering, there is one shallow comfort that I’m eternally grateful for…
At least I never hear them scream.