Testing the tea
A short story about tea and reading the future.
The tea leaves swirled through the hot liquid as I filled the teapot. As I did so, I poured all my questions and uncertainties into the brew. This was my chance to show Madame Puffifrew my skills. How I could interpret the remains of her drink as a story for her future. As long as I could see something relevant.
No, don't think about that.
Concentrate instead on brewing the perfect pot of tea. What would happen after would do so with or without my worrying.
Let the dandelions and orange blossom steep alongside the top tips of the tea I'd plucked that morning. All prepared by myself in anticipation of this test.
Gingerly, I picked up the elegant porcelain teapot. Holding it the requisite thirty centimetres above the cup, I let the first drops fall. The fresh, inviting aroma rose up from the cascading liquid. Spashes fell onto the saucer, but none further. I poured til the liquid approached the rim of the cup, leaving a narrow band of ivory above it.
With her blond ringlets and flower patterned dress, Madame Puffifrew was the epitome of a society hostess. Wife of one of the most eminent politicians. Only those few she trusted knew of her connections to the Potions Academy, and no one outside it knew she was our current Master Brewer and Head of the Academy.
The second cup, for myself, suffered from only half of my concentration as I poured. The other half watching as she reached for her cup, sipping gently from the hot liquid inside. The second pour was messier, leaving drops on the white damask tablecloth. But that wouldn't matter, either way.
I set the teapot down before I flooded my saucer, forcing myself to drop my hands to my lap. There was no way I could drink while I waited. I knew it was the polite thing to do. Expected, even. But I was too on edge. This was the culmination of my time so far at the Potions Academy.
Not only were we required to brew all sorts of tonics and elixirs, but also serve as the perfect hostess when needed. With the added bonus of reading our guests' tea cups after to find out thier darkest secrets.
Reading from a recently used cup was far easier than one hours old. But I'd struggled even with that. If I flunked this last opportunity, there would be no future for me as a tea maiden. No position to secure my future hosting the society ladies for the benefit of the academy which had trained me.
Without this skill, I'd be renegated to the kitchens brewing up the worst of potions for those who needed it and didn't want to brew it themselves. I'd become little more than a kitchen drudge, only without the benefit of being able to snack on the food while I worked.
I couldn't think that way.
Focus instead on the scent of the tea, letting it connect me to the stories behind the two of us.
The chinck of the cup returning to its saucer forced my thoughts back to the present.
Madame Puffifrew pushed the cup across the table towards me. "There you are, child. Take a moment to compose yourself and tell me what you see."
I took the cup in both hands, the warm porcelain dropping into the hollow of my palms while I stared at the remnants of the drink I'd served.
"Um... yes ... I see ..." What did I see? A clump of leaves near the handle, others like a tide mark round the side of the cup.
Sweat prickled along the back of my neck, my heart racing as I stared at the cup in my hands. My mind raced through everything I'd learnt about tea leaves and what their positioning meant. With no conversation during the drinking to guide me, I was reading these blind. But equally, the conversation wouldn't be a distraction. Quiet meant I could focus purely on what the leaves told me.
I forced myself to speak. "This clump here shows you're at a crossroads, uncertain which path to choose." Cripes, that sounded too much like me, not her. "Leaves circle round all sides of the cup, which implies each option is equally balanced." Was I being too vague? No time to worry about that. "Lastly, the shape of the cup showing through the tea at the bottom is a flower." If I squinted at it. "Which tells me you have something to celebrate in the future."
I held out the cup back towards her, my gaze focused on her hands and unwilling to rise to her face. I couldn't bear to see her disappointment. My breath stuck in my chest, unable to fill my lungs. This was the moment of no return.
"Thank you, Cara." Madame Puffifrew took the cup, returning it to the table. "How did that feel?"
I stared at her, uncomprehending what she wanted from me now.
Her bright blue eyes looked back. "How did that feel? Talk me through your connection to the tea and to the cup I drank from." Her freckled cheeks glowed, an after effect of the tea I'd chosen.
I swallowed, gathering my thoughts together. This wasn't something I'd practiced. "I picked the dandelions and orange blosson yesterday from the groves. They lay on my dressing table over night to absorb the moonlight through the window, as well as to assimilate to my breath. The tea tips I picked this morning, still fresh with the dew. While preparing the tea, I made sure to handle all of the ingredients and the instruments used. The teapot is a family one my grandmother gifted me when I joined the Academy." This was all standard from the manual. "As I added the water, I focused on my intentions for this drink and how I wanted to prove myself through it. The importance of finding a message to my future." Maybe over the top, but it was true. "Once you handed the cup to me, I opened myself to the messages it contained."
She leant forward, one hand reaching across the table towards me. "And?"
What did she want to hear? "I remembered what I'd been taught and what to look for." That was what happened, right?
"I ignored whatever else was going on around me, focusing on the cup. Drawing sense out of the placement of the leaves, as well as where they weren't." That was the essence of reading tea leaves, after all.
She sat back with a sign, a pleased smile brightening her face. "Congratulations, Cara. The key is to look at both where the leaves are and where they are not."
I blinked. It was that simple? That couldn't be right.
"And you were correct. The decision whether to grant you access to the next year's studies has been weighing on my mind. I hope this will be something we celebrate."
My shoulders relaxed. I'd done it. She approved of my continued study.
"Now, this is only the first hurdle. You will need to refine your readings for them to be of use. Practice as much as you can. Even on yourself." She took my hand. "I'm proud of all you have achieved on the brewing side, but that is nothing without the ability to read the leaves. Build on this success and you will be one of the stars of our Academy."
That was more than I'd dared to hope for. "I will endeavour to be worth your trust in me." It was the least I could do. Now she'd given me a future. Again.
"Now, I'll leave you in peace to drink your cup of that splendid brew while you gather your thoughts." She patted my shoulder as she left.
Plans and ideas spun through my mind as I did as she instructed. While tepid, the combined flavours brought me calm and fortitude. I'd passed this hurdle and I'd do every other one they placed in front of me. I would be a tea maiden, that was my destiny.