Taseino approaches the tea counter, frowning. “Can I get your help for a minute?”
I’m in the process of tracking the brewing of six different orders at once, and I’m running out of time to put in the order Talmeri forgot to one of our regular suppliers, let alone any of the other store tasks. But this is Taseino, and he knows I’m busy and has still asked, so still I say, “Of course, what do you need?”
“There’s a customer who… I don’t know what to do.”
I measure out a spoonful of White Embrace and prompt, “Does she need a recommendation?”
“No, she ordered. One of our simplest green teas. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but she just looks so… sad. I don’t think it’s because of the tea she ordered? But I just wondered if something else might make her happier, but I didn’t want to push, because—”
“Because she’s already sad, and perhaps the last thing she needs is for her tea order to be any harder,” I finish. “Yes, I think that’s good insight. Which is she?”
I arrange a spread of inert rainberry crystals on a tray, eyeing the customer he indicates with the hunched shoulders. He’s right: she looks not just weary, but defeated.
“Here,” I say, “while I wrap up here why don’t you go back and tell her the tea will be a few minutes. Take this to the table by the door on your way back, and duck into the back for a minute. Don’t start preparing her tea yet.”
“I can just take over here,” Taseino says.
I shake my head, removing a kettle from the heat. “It will take me too long to explain where each of these pots is at. I need about three minutes, and then we can swap.”
And I pull out another cup.
“I’m so sorry,” I say to the customer in question with a bow. “Are you in a great rush?”
“Is there a problem?” she asks tonelessly.
Oh dear. “My sincerest apologies.” I bow again. “There’s been an inventory error. We do have the tea you requested, but it’s wedged in a difficult-to-reach place.”
“Oh,” she says, closing her eyes, trying to stir herself into the effort to respond, “you don’t need to—”
“We’d need to retrieve it anyway, so this is no trouble at all for us,” I say. “I’m simply sorry to make you wait, as it will mean a delay in bringing your chosen tea. So I wanted to offer you another cup to enjoy, on the house, while you wait for us to correct our error.”
“That’s not necessary.” Her voice is quiet, and she doesn’t meet my eyes. “You don’t need to do anything special for me.”
“With respect, grace, it is absolutely necessary.” I bow and place the tray on her table. “Please don’t feel obligated to drink it if it’s not to your tastes, and it would be my honor to bring you another beverage. This one, though, I offer as a way to take the edge off the outside chill.”
“Doesn’t all tea?”
I smile. “This tea is made with pods of sunshine.”
She glances at me then, the first spark of interest in her eyes. But rather than asking me to explain what that means, she musters, “I’d be happy to try it. Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” I say, and with a final bow take my leave.
Back at the counter, I watch as she takes her first sip of the tea. Sips again. Her shoulders relax, her whole body loosening.
Her expression turns startled—she takes another sip—and then a soft smile creeps onto her face. She turns toward the counter and bows minutely, which I return with more depth.
Next to me, Taseino breathes a sigh of relief. “Thank you. I didn’t know what to do.”
I incline my head to him with a smile. “On the contrary, you knew exactly. Thank you for your service.”
Taseino ducks his head as a flush creeps into his cheeks and quickly darts away to the back to finish pretending we’ve actually been liberating the customer’s chosen tea.
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