The pounding on the kitchen door woke her from an uneasy sleep. She had been dreaming of wading through endless drifts of flour, searching for something, though she didn’t know what. A voice she thought she recognized said, “Keep looking, I’m sure it’s there somewhere. Try using the sifter.”
She groaned and sat up. Her husband rolled over to face her with a muffled “Wha—?”
“I’ll take care of it dear, don’t get up,” she said, patting his shoulder. She stood slowly, wincing as her joints popped. After the first few limping steps her stiff hip loosened up a bit, and she moved more easily. She didn’t bother with sandals, but threw a loose embroidered sari over her head and felt her way down the stairs without using a light. The knocking was louder here, short sharp bursts interspersed with shorter silences. During one of these she called out, “Alright, I’m coming. Who’s there?”
The frantic voice of her apprentice answered her. “Mistress, it’s me, Hariya! Please, let me in!” Her voice dissolved into sobs.
Sri hurried to the kitchen door and unbarred it. “Hariya! What’s wrong?” She started to pull open the door, but was forced backwards as someone on the other side gave it a powerful shove. Hariya was pushed into the kitchen, falling to the floor and landing on her hands and knees. Her smock was torn and her nose was bleeding. “I’m sorry, Mistress,” the little lizard said as her tears continued to flow. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
A large and powerful-looking bustard shouldered his way into the room. His enormous wings flared out to either side, and he had to pull his arms in close to squeeze through the door. Light from the two moons illuminated the wicked-looking knife he held in one hand. With the other he touched his cap in a flippant salute. “Evening, mistress,” he drawled. “Nice night, ain’t it?” He was dressed in dull grey pants and a faded patchwork shirt, and he had a strong unpleasant smell.
She frowned and bent to help Hariya off the floor. “Stop that,” she said as the little jánah continued to blubber her apologies. “It’s not your fault.” She looked over at the bustard, who was watching her with a mocking smile. “Who are you? What’s this about? If it’s dalán you want, I can—”
“Oh, no, mistress, nothing like that.” The bustard held up his hands in mock horror, the light glinting off the amber blade. “You’ve got the wrong idea entirely. I’m not here to rob you, oh no, nothing of the sort! I’m here to kill you.” He smiled predatorily at her. Hariya let out a little scream and clutched at Sri, and the bustard laughed. “Oh, now don’t you worry, little one, I don’t have to kill you.” He pretended to consider the idea, then shook his head. “I probably will anyway, though. No sense leaving any witnesses.” He chuckled at his little joke, and Hariya collapsed into Sri’s arms.
Sri lowered the lizard to the floor once more, and gently but firmly pried the terrified jánah’s hands off her arms. She stood up and put her own hands on her hips, her throat swelling with indignation. “This is about Trahmsi, isn’t it? You’re too scared to deal with her yourself and so you thought you’d come and pick on me.” She snorted with contempt. “Stands to reason that Rüktiv could find only fools and cowards to take his dalán, seeing as he’s both.”
The bustard stared at her. His smile slipped away and a look of anger replaced it. “Who are you calling a coward, you stupid Sarpah? I’ve killed plenty of jánah, and no spawn of Amasúrah scares me!”
Sri sniffed. “You might be built like a kotha, but you squawk like a güle.” She made a shooing motion. “Go on, güle, run along home. I don’t have time to chase you, I have to get to work.” She glanced at the mechanical clock on the wall that her husband had given her for their twentieth wedding anniversary. Although she tried not to show it, her heart was beating very fast. The 22nd Chime had rung, and very few jánah were abroad at this hour. No one would miss them until the teashop failed to open in the morning. A terrible vision of the three of them lying on the floor, covered in blood, flashed through her mind, and she shivered.
The bustard noticed the movement, and his smile returned. “You think you’re so tough,” he sneered. “We’ll see just how tough you are once I let a little air into you.” He advanced on her, his knife at the ready. She tried to back away, but Hariya, now completely panicked, chose that moment to grab her around both legs. Sri fell heavily backwards to the tile floor and let out a sharp cry as she jarred her bad hip. She tried to scoot away on her elbows and rump, but soon fetched up against one of the cold ovens. The bustard followed her slowly, grinning at her obvious helplessness.
Above Hariya’s whimpers there was a sudden sharp click, and the bustard looked up in surprise. His eyes widened, and he started to raise his hands. “No, don’t do that, there’s no need for that, don’t—” There was a deafening bang, and a shower of feathers. The bustard looked down at the hole in his chest, and crumpled to the floor. “Don’t,” he said once more, and then he was still.
Sri got up slowly, her ears ringing. Her husband was standing in the doorway, naked from the waist up, and holding a Vaylah musket with a flared muzzle. He was trying to reload it, though his hands were shaking so badly that he wasn’t making much progress. She limped over to him. “Vaayu,” she said, but he didn’t seem to hear her. She touched his shoulder and he started violently. “Vaayu,” she said again, and he dropped the weapon and threw his arms around her. She hugged him back just as fiercely.
They stayed that way for a minute or so, both of them trembling with relief. Gradually Sri became aware of Hariya, who was now sitting on the floor and rocking back and forth. Her voice rose and fell in time with the motion. Sri kissed her husband on the cheek and then let go of him. She squatted beside the lizard, her hip throbbing as she did so. “It’s alright now, Hariya. You’re not hurt, are you?” Hariya kept rocking, but shook her head. “That’s good. Now why don’t you go sit out in the cafe for a little while? You’ve had a bad scare.” Hariya shook her head once again, and Sri sighed. “Alright, but if you change your mind, you go right ahead. We’ll get this cleaned up.”
She stood up, letting out a small hiss of pain as her hip protested. Vaayu had picked up the musket and was trying to reload it again. He looked at her with concern. “Are you alright, dear?”
She waved the question away. “Yes, yes, don’t worry about me.” She fixed him with a steely glance, and pointed a still-shaky finger at the musket. “Where did you get that— that thing? You could be killed just for having it in the shop!”
“It’s called a blunderbuss,” Vaayu replied mildly. He glanced significantly towards Hariya. “It’s a long story. Remind me to tell you later.” He looked down at the still-unloaded musket and said, “I’m going to put this away. Then we have some cleaning up to do.”
Sri glanced over at the bustard, whose blood was now pooling on floor. “Yes, we certainly do,” she said, shuddering at the sight. “What are we going to do with him?” Her husband started to say something, but she cut him off. “Go hide that thing and give me a chance to think.” Her husband turned and obediently started up the stairs.
When he came back down again a few minutes later, now fully dressed, the kitchen fires had been lit and a kettle was boiling. Everything looked a little fuzzy, and he rubbed his eyes before realizing there was a haze of fine dust in the air. A bag of flour had been dumped over the bustard and a large amount of it had been packed into and around his chest. Another pile was on the floor next to him, turning pink as it absorbed the puddle of blood. As soon as he came into the kitchen Sri started talking. “Do we still have that barrel of dried fish? The only jánah that order it are the alligators and the crocs, and we don’t get many of them this far south. We can dump out the fish and put him in there, and fill up the spaces with flour. The fish smell should mask his scent well enough.” As she spoke, Sri took the kettle off the fire and poured boiling water into three mugs. The familiar sharp scent of Kantara Mountain tea filled the air. Sri went to Hariya, who was now sitting at the little table in the corner, and put one in front of her. “Drink, dear, it’ll make you feel better.” The little lizard wrapped both hands around the mug and huddled over it as if she needed the warmth. Sri took a mug for herself, and handed the last to her husband.
Vaayu looked at his wife admiringly as he took his first cautious sip. The tea was heavily laced with asivam syrup, which gave it a little kick. “That’s brilliant. We can put him in the basement for today, and I’ll get some lads to help me take him out beyond the city walls later on tonight. How in the world did you come up with that?”
Sri, flattered, said only, “I had this funny dream. I don’t remember all of it, but—” She stopped herself. “But it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot to do before we can open in the morning. Come on!”
Much later, there was another knock at the kitchen door. “Go away!” Sri called irritably. “Haven’t we had enough trouble for one night?”
There was a brief silence, and then Trahmsi, sounding concerned, called out “Sri? Are you alright?”
Sri started and ran for the door. “Oh! I’m so sorry dear, I didn’t know it was you.” She hurriedly undid the bolts and pulled the door open. Trahmsi, hooded and gloved, came in quickly, looking around the cozy kitchen. “What is it? Did something happen?”
“Oh, bless your heart, no, we’re fine,” Sri lied. “Some of the local boys got drunk last night and went around banging on everyone’s doors. Just lost a little sleep, that’s all, though I think Hariya was a little worried, weren’t you Hariya?” She looked hard at the little lizard, who was scrubbing the same section of tile floor for the third time. Hariya looked up quickly, and then back down at the floor. She nodded without saying anything. “Nothing a little sleep won’t cure,” Sri continued. “Maybe I’ll close up early today.”
“Close early?” Trahmsi looked shocked. “But you never close early!”
Sri cursed inwardly. Of course she didn’t. She never had. It was a point of pride with her. The tea shop opened on time every day without fail, and didn’t close until the last guests were gone. That meant closing late, as often as not. She forced herself to smile. “I was joking, dear. If you weren’t so tired yourself you’d know that.”
And that was true. Trahmsi looked as worn out as she’d ever seen her. “I am tired,” she admitted, “but there’s too much to do. I’ve asked Harthuk to meet me here later on this morning, before the first sun rises. Can you send Hariya to fetch me when he gets here? She can leave a message in the usual place.”
“Alright, dear. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.” She looked anxiously into Trahmsi’s face. The smaller frog smiled reassuringly. “I’m fine, Sri. Don’t worry about me. If you have any trouble, though, you’ll let me know, won’t you?”
Sri nodded, only a little guiltily. “Of course! Now you be careful, and take these with you.” She rummaged in the leftovers from yesterday’s baking and came up with several rolls covered with dried fruit and a sugary glaze. Trahmsi unabashedly ate one right then and there, and stowed the others in a pocket in her cloak. “My goodness, Trahmsi! When you come back I’ll give you a proper breakfast. When did you last eat?”
Trahmsi shook her head dismissively. “Can’t remember. But it’s not important. I’ll be fine, Sri, really I will. But I wouldn’t say no to breakfast. And maybe coffee?” She gazed at Sri with such a look of greedy anticipation that Sri had to laugh.
“Coffee and breakfast. That’s settled. Be careful, dear.” Sri leaned over and kissed Trahmsi on the top of her hood. “Now get out of here! I have work to do.” She held the door open and watched Trahmsi as she headed off down the street. When she was finally out of sight, Sri closed the door and bolted it once more. She turned around to see Vaayu and Hariya staring at her. Her husband said, a bit hesitantly, “Don’t you think you should tell her—“
Sri cut him off. “She’s got enough on her mind. Poor thing, did you see how tired she looked? You’re not to say a single word to her, do you hear me? Not one single word!” She glared at both of them until they nodded. “Come on now,” she snapped, all business once again. “It’s getting late, and those pastries aren’t going to make themselves!”