It was the finest teahouse in Trevanne; everyone agreed on that. The ancient Dragon Queen’s loyal courtiers would buy their tea nowhere else, for the quality of the tealeaves was unmatched and the blend was one that no other teahouse in the city could provide. The courtiers, all powerful men and women with subtle minds sharpened by decades of scheming, spent many a happy afternoon gathered around the central hearth, spinning political webs over steaming cups of tea while sitting in their favorite armchairs, which had worn over the years into the shapes of their familiar bodies.
The younger, wilder, and more dissatisfied members of the court, who cared far less for tealeaves than for wine, still followed the aging crown prince’s lead in spending long raucous evenings at the teahouse, bypassing the fire-lit rooms inside for the pleasures of the lush, beautifully laid-out open courtyard filled with lanterns and pink-blossomed magnolia trees, where the most popular musicians in the city played nearly every night. The fires burned cozily within the teahouse, keeping it the perfect temperature, never too hot even at the height of summer; the magnolias bloomed year-round in the warm inner courtyard even when three feet of snow piled up in the streets outside.
It had been the finest teahouse in Trevanne for generations, by then. No one thought to question its magic anymore. The owner had seen to that, long ago, with promises and threats and a contract that had nearly been forgotten, by now.
But that contract had not expired.
Of course, few people had ever met its owner in this new generation. The current manager, Florian—a tall, slender man with deep brown skin and a cool, confident smile, who had spent his first years on the streets of Trevanne before being taken in by the teahouse as a child—was famous throughout the city for his dry humor, which he applied equally to all classes of society, and for his invariably calm demeanor in the face of even the most questionable customer behavior. There were stories traded, even now, of his particularly witty remarks when faced with an elephant brought in from one lord’s menagerie for the crown prince’s birthday five years earlier. Even those customers from the highest families in the land vied like eager children for the honor of Florian’s conversation when they visited.
Some of those customers, by now, no doubt thought he was the owner—indeed, the crown prince’s set even referred to the teahouse as “Florian’s” sometimes, when making casual appointments for a party or a duel. The Dragon Queen’s own courtiers would never be so rude or so informal; but even they would have to squint and frown for a long time to remember, vaguely, an indistinct figure in the past, hidden under layers of gauzy drapery, bowing and withdrawing—most politely—from their memories.
“A good chap,” they might say at last, of the teahouse’s owner. “Or... was it a lady, after all? Well, no matter. They’re the only ones who sell the right blend, nowadays. I don’t even know where they find the stuff, now that the ships don’t leave the harbor anymore.”
But they were given no explanation, for Florian only smiled mysteriously when asked those questions—and no one but Florian ever walked up the small, discreet staircase that was hidden behind the kitchen, anymore.
...until one night, in the middle of one of the crown prince’s rowdiest parties yet, a plain, dark sedan chair arrived at the back entrance to the teahouse, which only the most trusted staff was ever allowed to use.
Two servants lowered the chair to the ground. One knocked on the door, after a quick glance around the darkened alleyway; the other stood by the closed sedan chair with her cloak flipped back and one hand set, waiting, on the hilt of a sword that had clearly seen long use.
In the distance, there was the sound of breaking glass, and a responsive gale of laughter. The two servants glanced at each other, eyebrows raised expressively. The woman sighed and shrugged, infinitesimally. The man glanced warily at the curtained windows of the sedan chair... but there was not so much as a twitch of the curtains to give any sign of the inhabitant’s reaction.
The door to the teahouse opened, and a young girl looked out at them with watchful dark eyes.
“Tell your master—” the man began, holding out a folded piece of paper.
But the girl only shook her head, stepping back. “Her Majesty is already expected,” she said quietly. “If she would follow me?”
The man’s eyes widened, and he reached for his sword, his gaze darting around the alleyway in open suspicion. “How—?”
His voice cut off as the sedan chair’s door opened and a shrouded figure stepped out.
“Of course I will come,” said the Dragon Queen. Her voice was muted beneath the layers of dark cloth that covered her, but a ripple of amusement sounded as she added, “I should hope my old friend has not forgotten my favorite blend, after all these decades. I shall be disappointed if there isn’t a fresh pot awaiting me.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” said the girl, and dipped a low curtsey before leading the shrouded figure up the stairs.
The queen’s servants followed close behind, jaws stiff and hands ready at their sides. At the top of the staircase, the woman held out one hand to halt her mistress on the narrow landing, and the man made to step between her and the door.
“No need for that.” Heavy irony rang in the Dragon Queen’s tone. “Believe me, there is no safer place for me in this city. Only point me in the right direction, and the two of you may wait out here.”
“But—” the man began.
The woman put one hand on his arm and bowed, although her face, too, was tight with frustration. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
The teahouse girl knocked softly on the door, then ran lightly down the stairs, skipping around the Dragon Queen and her guards.
“Come in,” a voice called, from inside the room. “Your tea is waiting for you.”
The heavily draped figure moved forward, guided by her female guard’s helping hand... and a moment later, the door closed behind her, leaving the two guards standing alone, in simmering silence, on the landing.
Inside the room, a fire burned. A low table was drawn up before it. At the table sat a comfortably round, middle-aged woman, her skin creased with laugh lines around her eyes and mouth, and her eyes warm.
“Come now, my old friend,” said the Dragon Queen. “You know you needn’t disguise yourself with me.” She pulled off her own layers of veils, and they slipped to the floor by her feet. A girl who looked no more than twenty stepped free of them and walked gracefully across the room.
The older-looking woman who awaited her gave a small shrug and smiled ruefully. “Very well,” she said. “If we’re making ourselves quite comfortable tonight...”
She lifted one hand to her face, and rubbed her forehead.
Skin peeled aside under her fingers, revealing glimmering, luminescent scales underneath.
“Much better,” said the Dragon Queen, as she took her seat. “I should hate not to see each other clearly after all these years.”
“Oh?” Her hostess cocked her head, golden eyes snapping in the reptilian manner, from side to side, as she blinked. “Some would say that illusion is the key to true happiness. Otherwise, why wear those veils at all? Why not reveal yourself as you still are to your people?”
“And to my son?” The Dragon Queen’s smile was faint. “My son, who wakes up every day hoping to finally inherit my crown... and curses every morning when he finds me still alive?”
Her hostess tsk’d. “Florian tells me he’s lost nearly all his hair, now. Carelessness. He always was a whimsical boy, as I recall.”
“Mm.” The Dragon Queen leaned forward to lift the lid of the teapot that sat between them. She sniffed, appreciatively, her long hair falling around her face. “Bliss, as usual.”
“As always,” said the owner of the teahouse. “Didn’t I promise you that, all those years ago? Perfect safety, forevermore. Everything you humans want.”
“And the contract has been kept on both sides.” The Dragon Queen set one hand on the intricately carved teapot as she set its lid back in place. “Shall I pour, this time?”
“Nonsense. You are my guest.” The dragon reached out with long, sharp, delicately curving claws and tipped the teapot once and then again, hot tea pouring into the two small cups. “A cup of youth, forevermore. A cup of comfort, to reassure you of yet another peaceful and prosperous decade.”
A sudden, raucous roar of male laughter rose beneath them, echoing through the floorboards, and the dragon let out a hissing laugh, a thin line of smoke escaping her nostrils. “And, so I hear, another birthday for your son.”
“He’s celebrated so many, now,” said the Dragon Queen softly. She lifted her cup to her lips, inhaling the sweet-scented steam. “I remember thinking of that first cup I drank as his birthday present, though he was only hours old at the time.”
“You couldn’t have given him a better gift.” The dragon lifted her own cup. “After all, he would never have survived the month without it. You assured his safety from the outside world, along with that all of your people.”
“The outside world,” the Dragon Queen mused. “Do you know what’s been happening outside our city, all these years? I do find myself wondering, from time to time.”
The dragon shrugged, with a whispering of scales beneath her gown. “Empires rise. Empires fall. Only yours remains beautiful and true forevermore.”
“A comfort indeed,” murmured the Dragon Queen, gazing down into her cup. “For all of my people. And for you, connected to us all through my blood...”
The dragon’s teeth gleamed in a smile. “Have no fear, Your Majesty. My own purposes have been served very well by our agreement.”
“Indeed.” The Dragon Queen swirled the pale green tea in her cup, her gaze distant. “I used to wonder, you know, why you fought so hard to persuade me to our bargain. Not that I wasn’t grateful, of course. With my poor husband murdered and enemies everywhere, how could I not be grateful for the salvation you offered? It felt like a miracle.”
“And I am grateful, too,” said the dragon smoothly, “for this cozy home and loving bond to you and your people. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, you know. A safe home that I can provide for my guests.”
“Where everyone gathers,” murmured the Dragon Queen, “from my court and my son’s court, too. Everyone drinking your tea and celebrating their finest moments. All those fights and dramas and little worlds of human emotions...” She cocked her head. “Did you know that there used to be stories, in my childhood, about dragons who actually ate people?”
“Ha.” The dragon’s eyes gleamed. “Pure superstition and nonsense.”
“Oh, I know.” The Dragon Queen smiled. “I worked that out decades ago, in the oldest scrolls I could find in our most deeply buried archives. It’s not human flesh you care for, is it? It’s human feelings... and human souls. Bound to you through me, and through our contract, forevermore.”
A long line of smoke hissed out from the sides of the dragon’s mouth as she considered her guest, her golden eyes unblinking. Then, finally, she smiled. “Ah, we know each other so well, do we not? We are the oldest and truest friends in this city.”
“It’s true,” said the Dragon Queen. “No one else knows me as you do.”
“And no one else knows what you’ve done for your people,” said the dragon. “What you do every decade to renew it. And now...” She looked over the Dragon Queen’s shoulder at the tall clock that stood in the corner. “It’s time, Your Majesty. You wouldn’t want to wait too long.”
“Ah, no. That wouldn’t do at all, would it?” The Dragon Queen’s lips twisted, as the clock ticked behind her. “No drink before midnight... would mean no youth left for me, wouldn’t it? Although it wouldn’t hurt you, really, I suppose. Everyone always said, in all the old stories, that there was no way to truly hurt a dragon.”
The dragon’s golden eyes slitted and blinked, twice. “Even my magic is subject to the rules of our agreement.” Her claws clicked, once and then again, against her teacup. “The bubble that holds your city fast, renewed here every decade. Should the midnight hour pass...” Her eyes snapped, her nostrils flaring. “You shouldn’t care for the sensation of so many years passing at once, Your Majesty. Nor would your vulnerable, cosseted little city cope well with its sudden rediscovery by all those old enemies at the moment of your death.”
“My old enemies. How could I forget?” The Dragon Queen sighed, her hand sinking back toward the table. “There seemed to be so many enemies, then, and so little I could do about them. Trapped in bed after childbirth with the fever raging through me, threats everywhere, my husband gone, my baby in danger, and only your tea giving me any respite...”
“You’re safe from all of them now,” said the dragon, her golden gaze on the queen’s cup. “Don’t torment yourself by thinking on the past.”
“But what of you, my friend?” the Dragon Queen said. “Which enemies were you fleeing, I wonder, when you came up with your marvelous plan to hide us away from the outside world?”
“Me?” The dragon’s claws tightened around her own cup. “Why would I have had any enemies?”
“Why indeed?” asked the Dragon Queen. “And yet, dragons were once feared, and stories told. There were even records kept, and warnings left, though those were buried so deeply over time that they were considered lost forever.”
“Time...” The dragon’s gaze moved to the clock, and her teeth set together with a click. “We have only two minutes left until midnight, Your Majesty. Two minutes for us both to drink our tea, if your youth is to be preserved and your safe rule is to continue. We must wait until later to catch up on idle gossip.”
“Of course.” The Dragon Queen smiled faintly. “Safety is always paramount, is it not?”
Smoke panted faintly from the dragon’s mouth. Her teeth glinted, sharp and long. “One minute, now,” she said, her body tense. “Will you drink, and protect your city?”
“Of course,” said the Dragon Queen. “I will always protect my people.”
She lifted the cup to her mouth and drank it all in one long, slow sip.
The dragon sucked her own tea down with more haste than grace. “There,” she said. Her tail twitched with visible relief against the floor. “You’ve done the right thing, Your Majesty, and won back your youth.”
“I have,” said the Dragon Queen. She did not move. “But I am not a young girl anymore.”
“Nonsense.” The dragon grinned, her teeth gleaming, as she sank back in her chair. “No one would look at you now and think you’d aged so much as a day.”
“Except for you,” said the Dragon Queen. “Or have you given in to the lure of illusions, too, my old friend?”
The dragon’s claws twitched. She glanced down at them, as though startled. “I beg your pardon?”
“My son celebrates his sixty-sixth birthday today,” said the Dragon Queen. Her face was clear and unlined, but her dark eyes held all her years. “I haven’t been able to show him my face without a veil since he was seven years old. Too many questions would have been asked, as the years passed—and not by him alone.”
“Your Majesty...” The dragon blinked twice, and then a third time, her scales shivering. “Your Majesty...”
“I should have asked more questions,” said the Dragon Queen. “But I was only a girl, then, and I was frightened and alone, and feverish, too... despite all that healing tea I drank. I have had decades to find the answers for myself, since then.” She shook her head a fractional amount, then slumped as if the effort had exhausted her. “Those records were not buried so far after all, you see. Not for a woman who has ‘forever’ in her grasp... and more than one lifetime of regrets to answer for.”
The dragon’s claws rattled against each other as a convulsive shiver wracked her body. “What,” asked the dragon through gritted teeth, “were you looking for, exactly?”
“Revenge,” whispered the Dragon Queen, as her hands shook and her teacup rattled against its saucer. “I was not the only one who drank your tea, remember? You made a special blend for my husband, too.”
“He was poisoned by your enemies,” hissed the dragon.
“So he was.” The Dragon Queen bared her teeth in a ferocious smile. “But those enemies weren’t outside our kingdom after all... even if you tricked a frightened young girl into thinking so, once upon a time.”
“But how?” The dragon clawed at the table as she tipped forward, but it wasn’t enough to stop her slow descent. “How?” she repeated, in a hoarse whisper, smoke flooding out through her nostrils and ears as she fell toward the floor. “Nothing can hurt a dragon. Nothing!”
The Dragon Queen tried to shake her head, but she couldn’t manage it. “Ah, my old friend,” she whispered. “Perfect safety was an illusion after all, for both of us. Two weeks ago, I finally found the records I’d been hunting for ever since I first realized the truth.” Her lips twitched in the faint, unmistakable attempt at a smile. “I made the dragonsbane myself... and I dropped it into our tea when I opened the lid of the pot.”
“But...” The dragon stiffened against the floor, eyes flaring wide in outrage and disbelief. “But you...”
“Yes,” sighed the Dragon Queen. “We are that much alike, after all. Dragonsbane will kill me, too. But you were wrong about humans. Change isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. Sometimes...”
She stopped as a gasp of pain was torn out of her, breaking through her pretense of calm. Moaning, she rocked in her seat, her face taut with pain. But she still managed to finish, in a thread of a whisper: “Sometimes... the worst thing of all... is hearing hatred in your own son’s voice for all the power you’ve stolen from him. And knowing that that hatred will last... forever.”
The dragon twisted on the floor. Her jaw opened. Her claws clenched...
Her golden eyes went dull, as her body began to burn.
The Dragon Queen let out a laugh that held a drop of blood. “A cup... of comfort... after all,” she whispered.
She wrenched open her trembling hand. Her empty teacup fell to the floor.
Laughter echoed below the floorboards.
“Happy birthday,” the Dragon Queen whispered. “Finally.”
Her eyes closed and her body crumpled as the dragon across from her burned and burned.
The queen’s guards were the first to smell the flames, moments later, from their position in the stairwell. They broke the door down, but it was too late.
The Dragon Queen’s body was never found, no matter how many guards her grieving son commanded to search the ruins of the teahouse afterward. All that anyone ever discovered, in the seat closest to her charred veils, was a pile of strangely sweet-smelling dust... a dust that smelled to the new king, when he ran it through his fingers, strangely of the past... of safety...
...of his mother’s arms wrapped around him, long ago, and of a face that he couldn’t even remember anymore.
The Dragon King pulled his age-spotted hand out from the wooden box that they had brought him, full of the dust that they had found. His eyes were red from days and nights of weeping.
“Enough,” he whispered, in a voice gone hoarse. “Enough.”
There was no more time for searching, or for loss.
Ships had been sighted on the horizon, for the first time that almost anyone in the city could remember.
Messengers had already arrived, traveling from neighboring city-states that had turned to long-distant legends by the time of the Dragon King’s youth. They bore letters offering opportunities of trade, of reunion... and of danger.
“Enough,” the Dragon King repeated, turning on his heel. “I need my advisors. Now. And for God’s sake, man, bring us all some tea!”
But when the advisors all gathered in his meeting room half an hour later, they sighed at the sight of their dull, courtly surroundings. Old and new, every one of them thought back nostalgically to the golden-tinted, perfect past, when any significant meeting could only ever have taken place in a single setting in Trevanne.
There would never be another teahouse like it.