This is a short story I started working on ages and ages ago that I loved, but that I could never figure out how to properly write the ending, or the middle, or the beginning really. But I came across it again today and decided to give it another look.

One long rewrite later, and I’m actually happier with it than I ever was. Hopefully I can post the next installment soon.

Please feel free to leave me any comments or critiques here or in a direct message. Enjoy!

They’d burnt the tea.

Kalhun could smell it before the girl had even poured. He held the chipped, clay cup they’d used to serve it to him within his fist, grimacing at the odor. He had hardly expected these people to provide anything substantial. This far from the cities, even a handful of even the most common Jaffan leaves would have been a thrice-blessed miracle. But he had expected them to be capable of boiling water without blackening it.

Knowing that did not make the swill any less appealing. Neither did the fretful glances from his host or the trembling, watery eyes of the girl who had served him. She clutched the teapot to her chest like a talisman, her hands wrapped tightly around the clay, evidently unaware of the heat that would be stabbing at her fingertips. Kalhun sighed and forced himself to lift the cup and swallow a mouthful of burnt leaves and black sludge, feeling it ooze down his throat and fall like lead into his belly. He held his breath to keep from coughing it back up.

The girl leapt to his side, filling his cup to the brim once more before throwing herself back to the farthest reach of the hall before he could speak.

Damn traditions. They only served to delay things and force him to be around people for far longer than he would have preferred. And judging by how the tea girl jumped when he nodded his thanks in her direction, these people were certainly not interested in prolonging his stay in the slightest.

That was fine. It just meant he could be done with it that much sooner.

“I’m sorry we don’t have much to offer you,” His host, Ohar, recited stiffly. It was the third time he had done so since they’d sat down almost a half hour ago. The village elder fidgeted with the hem of his robe, pulling a loose thread between his fingers. “The last shaman I called here left when he realized we had nothing to give him for his service.”

“You think we haven’t realized you’re poor?” Kalhun said sharply, forcing himself to take another gulp of the thick, black tea they’d served him. The small hall they occupied was stripped with age and wear, from the uneven dirt floors to the dozen candle lighting the room in lieu of a proper hearth. The flaps of cheap cloth meant to cover the windows in the cold night were thin and torn with holes. Everything showed signed of wear and neglect, even the village head who’d summoned him.

Ohar wore the white robe of leadership, a custom observed it seemed even in the farthest reaches of the Empire, but it was stained with soot and showed signs of patched repairs along the sleeves. The decorative border at his knees was coming apart at the seams; his incessant tearing at stray threads was only pulling it apart faster. Kalhun would be lucky to get a decent meal here, let alone any compensation for the unpleasant task ahead. The state of this tea was proof enough of that.

Beside him, Gaius sighed quietly, “He means ‘I’m sorry for your troubles.” He interpreted in his gentle tone, and took another sip from his drink, swallowing slowly and without the slightest hint of displeasure. “Please be assured that we will do everything we can to assist you if it is within our ability.”

“Assuming there’s anything to be done at all,” Kalhun interjected, “and this isn’t just another waste of my time.”

The village elder turned his head to stare at him with wide, startled eyes. He looked like an elk ready to blot. “Please… please, sir… I assure you, our… our situation is… we cannot… that is… this cannot be allowed to continue, and-and-”

“He means that there is likely little cause for concern,” Gaius explained, stopping Ohar’s ramblings with a smile and a soft gesture. “Often these sorts of cases are simply misunderstandings. We simply intend to proceed with caution and discretion so as not to cause your people any undo discomfort.”

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