I stay out of it as Meristo continues berating Iskielo.
“You’ve got the whole boyish enthusiasm thing going for you, but you have to apply it on purpose,” Meristo tells him. “You’re just flailing around, and the customers can tell.”
“I don’t want to flirt with old women!” Iskielo protests.
“Who said anything about this having to do with them being old, exactly?” Meristo returns. “Or women? I’m not sure why you think that matters.”
Iskielo just stands there looking scandalized, having evidently missed the point that what Meristo is getting at has nothing to do with romantic interest.
A grin tugs at the corner of Meristo’s mouth, because of course he knows how Iskielo is taking this, and I have no doubt that learning is about to occur.
At that moment, a trio of young but adult customers walks in, two women and a man.
Meristo’s takes them in, and then a grin stretches slowly across his face. “Watch this,” he tells Iskielo.
Iskielo turns to me at last for help. “Are you really going to let him do this?”
“Flirt harmlessly with a man he has no intention of forming a lasting relationship with? Of course,” I say. Meristo winks at me and saunters toward our new customers while Iskielo flushes, still not understanding. “Meristo is fantastic at handling customers. Pay attention not just to what he does, Iskielo, but why.”
I narrow my eyes in the trio’s direction and begin brewing a pot of tea as Iskielo protests, “I can’t even hear what he’s saying.”
“What he’s saying isn’t important,” I say. “You have no intention of flirting like he does, do you?”
“Exactly!” Iskielo bursts out, part relief and part frustration.
“For Meristo that’s just a tactic,” I explain. “See how he engages all three of them, gets them to focus on him? He’s singled out the man so it’s clear he’s paying attention to their group specifically, and he invites the women to join in the conversation by directing particular comments and glances their way. That makes them feel welcome, and on top of that he’s also done the work of setting up the roles for each of them to play in this conversation so the burden of social navigation is his, too. This is how he cultivates their trust and puts them at ease: laughter, specificity, and taking care to account for their concerns.”
Iskielo says accusingly, “You make it sound very different from what it looks like.”
“We each have our own ways of charming customers,” I say. “Meristo flirts shamelessly. I, you may have noticed, do not, nor does Taseino. Meristo is trying to encourage you to harness what does come naturally for you, but to do so intentionally.”
“Now what did you think of that?” Meristo asks Iskielo, and then to me says, “They’re having a pot of the Perynroot Red tisane for the entertainment value of the continual whirlpools.”
I pass him the tray, already prepared. “Here you go.”
Meristo’s eyes widen, and then he erupts in laughter, while Iskielo’s jaw just drops.
“How did you know that?!” Iskielo demands.
Sagely Meristo says, “That’s why we’re tea boys, and she’s the tea master.”
“That was terrible,” I tell him.
“You loved it and you know it,” he says, sauntering back towards the trio as I suppress a grin.
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