The next day, Trahmsi accepts Harthuk’s invitation for “tea” and suggests meeting at a teahouse she occasionally frequents — “Sarpah’s Choice”. It’s mid to upper class, reasonably good part of town in the merchant’s circle, well-lit, nicely decorated with lots of low tables and comfortable couches and chairs. It’s a little more hot and humid than Harthuk finds comfortable, but not excessively so. Not surprisingly, the teahouse caters to and its primary customers are Sarpah of various sorts — the proprietors are a pair of bullfrogs, both of whom are excellent cooks. It’s mid-afternoon, and the twelve tables are less than half-filled. A king snake and a boa are having a little tête-à-tête in the corner — they are obviously young and in love and extremely happy together. An anole and two lizards are discussing business at another table. An old terrapin and his older iguana wife sit comfortably together, enjoying the food and occasionally remarking on the beautiful landscape paintings on the walls, which Sri, the female bullfrog, proudly explains were done by her son, who studied art at the prestigious university in Sakrsa, capital city of Dar-Purám. Trahmsi is at a table in another corner, with a cup of something in front of her. It might even be tea. As usual, she is dressed in her oiled cloths, but today they are in brighter shades of blue and green, making her look much less threatening. She smiles as Harthuk approaches, and waves him to a seat. “Tea? Or something to eat? The food is quite good,” she says, cradling her own cup. “And I promise I haven’t touched any of it.” She grins.
The name of the place was a bit of a hint about who the regulars would be and what would make them the most comfortable so Harthuk is wearing a light shirt and linen kilt with a wide brimmed hat which he takes off and fans himself with briefly as he enters. He gives a half-smile and a nod to anybody who looks at him questioningly as he moves to Trahmsi’s table and makes a mental note to recommend the place to Kailua.
“To be honest, and I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I haven’t worried about you taking a personal interest in the details of the kitchen since that first evening. Your palate, on the other hand, intrigues me. If you think I’ll enjoy it I’ll try whatever you’re having, although that green leafy roll thing over at that other table looks tempting.”
Glances over at the young couple, the older couple, and at the proprietress as he sits down, “Lucky people, aren’t they?”
“The green roll is quite good, it’s stuffed with vishaíla meat. I fear my tastes are rather pedestrian, but Sri tries her best to educate me. She’s always bringing me little bits of things to try.”
Trahmsi calls Sri over, and asks her for a sampler platter. Sri is dressed in mottled blue-green robes (brighter than Trahmsi’s) that are belted and cinched around her somewhat rotund form so as not to get in the way. She beams widely, as only a bullfrog can, and hurries off to the kitchen. “There, that will make her happy. She loves a chance to show off some of her more elaborate dishes.” Trahmsi grins again — she seems quite relaxed. “I hope you’re hungry.” She scans the jánah that Harthuk indicated. “Lucky? I suppose you must mean something besides getting to taste Sri’s cooking.” Taking a sip of her tea, she rapidly makes the signs for “I protect this place. Threaten it and we are enemies.” (The classic Musti fist followed by the Suuchi needle gesture as she withdraws her hand.)
Harthuk makes the sign for “Safe haven. I’m a guest and will behave as one.” (An open Mudra for a brief moment before gripping the handle in Mukula lily gesture.) as he tests the tea to see if it’s too hot to drink yet. A pleased smile crosses his face as he realizes Sri has already cooled it to a drinkable temperature.
“Lucky in that their main thoughts turn towards their family or their spouses.”, smiles at the younger couple, “Or their families to be.”
“They don’t fear what their families might think of them. You were a considerable help with recent events, shame we have to be so discreet about our methods.”
The conversation pauses for a few minutes as Sri brings out the platter and Harthuk compliments her on the things he recognizes and asks questions about a couple of varying items he doesn’t think he’s had before. He doesn’t have to fake his reaction when he tries the baked modak dumpling to discover a soft cheese filling inside and has to remember that you should never close your eyes in front of a fellow assassin. (It’s considered impolite to act as if the other person isn’t dangerous.)
“Sorry, Trahmsi, where was I? Ah, yes, families and fear. More to the point, most jánah have nothing to fear FROM their families. I’ve put a few of the pieces together, but they don’t quite add up.”
Trahmsi’s relaxed mood evaporates, though only a trained observer would notice the subtle tells — the fixed smile, the tiniest quiver of her left hand as it grips the teacup. She catches herself almost immediately, and her smile becomes rueful. Sri quietly deposits a plate of baked goods on the table, glances at Trahmsi, and leaves again, just as quietly. Trahmsi picks up a bright red spiral-shaped piece of fried dough, representing the pattern drawn in the sand in the Spiral Arena. She toys with it as she considers Harthuk carefully.
“I don’t like mice,” she says finally. “They have a tendency to get underfoot. And they don’t understand that some people may want a certain amount of, shall we say, privacy in their business dealings. But you have also been helpful, and I am not ungrateful. Ask your questions, but I may choose not to answer.”
Harthuk lets out a small sigh before a smirk appears from the corner of his mouth. “My uncles said I’d have days like this.”
“My sincerest apologies. Really. It’s the way my luck comes and goes, especially when I talk philosophy.” giving a quick glance over at the anole and the two lizards, “I seem to do that to all of my potential allies recently.”
“May I?” he says, placing a napkin over a paw which he then holds out towards the fried spiral pastry.
“My concern isn’t your privacy, I… we can and will respect that. My concern is… ‘Chiefly’ how the actions of a guest in another’s house reflect upon the house itself.”
“Did he tell you about the gift he was sent?” Harthuk makes another gesture of peace by occupying his free hand with his own teacup as he takes a sip, when he puts it back down he briefly makes the sign for “Failed attempt.” (A quick closing of the right hand fingers into the Mukula gesture in a slight upward motion, the reverse of the Sandamsha offering gesture.)
Trahmsi looks down at the pastry, seeming to notice it for the first time. She places it in Harthuk’s napkin, then holds her hands out, palms up. Not a sign this time, just a reminder that she is wearing gloves. “She makes hundreds of these on festival days. Sells them to the hawkers in the Spiral Arena as well as some of the street vendors. The kids love them.” She starts to take another sip of tea, then realizes her cup is empty. Sri is at her side with two fresh cups before she has time to look up. She puts the second in front of Harthuk with a small dish of sweet syrup to stir into it. Trahmsi smiles her thanks and waits until Sri is out of earshot before she turns back to Harthuk.
“Your ‘guest’ is making trouble, is he? Or perhaps trouble simply follows him. He told me about the uproar at the Inn. Your… family is efficient, I’ll give you that. But there have been too many ‘accidents’ in Tiari the last few weeks, especially when it comes to Hardazi, and there are more patrols out. The ‘present’ was found, and Saheen had to pay off a few extra guardsmen. Nothing more,” she adds quickly, making the sign for “All is well.” (The Mrigasirsha Hasta gesture or “deer head”, generally meaning “without worry”.) She looks directly at Harthuk. “There is bad blood between you. I don’t necessarily favor him, but I will not give you his secrets. At least,” she amends, “not without good reason. Though if he tells them to many more jánah, you may only need to ask Sri.” She smiles drily, making the signs for “one who trusts without judgment”. (The Ardhapataka half flag followed with the Katakamukha open bracelet.)
The mouse blinks at the gloves for a second, he hadn’t actually noticed them before, and realizes that Trahmsi has been taking particular pains to not endanger him by being careless.
Chagrined he takes the pastry and napkin and sets it down, after a moment he breaks off a corner and nibbles it, sweetening his fresh cup of tea and taking another sip before he speaks again.
“I deserved that. I’ve heard it said sometimes that if you’re tired of a secret just tell it to the mice. Thing is,” as he traces one of the spirals on the top of the pastry inward, “it CAN work the other way, too. But like you said, even as efficient as we are some things don’t like to stay buried. As for bad blood, well, let’s say I’ve moved on to the taste of better cuisine.”
“No, you’re right to keep his secrets. He’s probably safer that way as well as everybody involved. But… IF the trouble that seems to follow him gets too close I’d like to make sure that neither you nor I are surprised by it.”
Harthuk works a crescent shaped blue crystal bead off of the string that would cinch his hat underneath his chin and places it on the rim of the saucer the cup of sweetener is on before sliding it over to Trahmsi.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed the beggars outside of the Temple of Krilárah, but maybe were in too much of a hurry as you passed by. If I can’t be reached and you find yourself wanting to be generous to, say, a poor spider monkey from Magára or really any one of the less fortunate of Muhjíbh’s messengers you might consider making a small donation.”
“Do you think Sri would mind some extra business? The way she takes care of her patrons I would think she deserves it.”
Trahmsi picks up the blue bead, tapping it on the edge of the saucer as she considers.
“Sri would be happy to get more business. Then she might be able to take on someone to wait tables for her during busy times. Her husband is too shy for that, he’s always in the kitchen. Best place for him, really. He doesn’t do the fancy stuff, but he knows what Sri needs and makes sure she’s got it. And he’s a hard jánah to cheat when it comes to bargaining for ingredients.”
She nods once, almost to herself, before seeming to change the subject. “Have you visited the marketplace on the south side of the Trade Circle? It is quite entertaining, especially on market days. Tomorrow, for instance, in the late morning. There is a puppeteer who sets up a stage at one corner, a jánah who calls himself Muítal, you can’t miss him. Just follow the children. I’m sure you’ll see something that interests you.”
The bead disappears into a pocket of her robes, and she stands with a sigh. “And now, I’m afraid I must go. Please stay if you like, it’s on me.” She adjusts her clothing, making sure her bright blue skin is completely covered. “If you need to find me, you can leave a message with Sri. Or with Rüktiv.” Her quick hand gesture of the Arala hasta for “bent” indicates exactly the opposite — “Not safe”. “Perhaps, if you find anything useful at the marketplace, we could speak again. I have… a thing or two that you might be able to help me with.” Her quick sign of the square Chatura gesture for “mutual benefit” is almost lost in the folds of her robe as she turns to go.
Harthuk rises as Trahmsi does, it’s only polite, and performs the side bending bow of the Dar-Purám region; the right hand raised palm side up in front of the chest and then lowered to the waist before finishing the gesture in a side sweep outward. He makes a point of not making any other signs or elaborations.
“Thank you for the hospitality, Lady.” he considers for a brief moment before adding “I look forward to the next time we have tea.”
He watches her go before he takes his seat again.
When Sri comes over after Trahmsi has left Harthuk asks if he can get a small serving of the festival pastries to go “for his friends” and makes sure to leave a generous tip.