Marya stared at the whitish-yellow coffee beans in front of her, shoulders hunched.
“Try again,” Dad snapped.
Marya bit the inside of her lip. She was trying, but her coffee beans stayed stubbornly un-fermented. She’d never be a proper coffee mage.
“But why can’t I try with tea, Dad?”
Marya bit her lip again and tasted blood. She shouldn’t have asked that question.
“Don’t be ridiculous, girl,” Dad said with frightening patience. “There’s no such thing as tea magic. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Marya squeezed her eyes shut, head down. Why had she asked that question?
“Tea is weak and rots the brain,” he continued. “Just look at you, for instance. Hankering after those young oafs on the other side of the Border Woods, when you should be applying yourself to your studies.”
The blatant unfairness of that accusation made Marya look up despite herself. “I don’t hanker after the tea-drinkers!” She’d never even talked to one of them. “All I want is…”
“What you want is to besmirch the family tradition by turning into a filthy tea-lover, that’s what you want!”
Dad was shouting now, all pretense of patience gone. Marya dropped her eyes again.
“You’re a worthless failure, is what you are!”
She hunched down, making herself as small as possible.
“Sixteen years old, and completely useless at magic!” He leaned over her, his shouts ringing in her ears. “Get out of my sight. Don’t let me see your dim-witted face again until you learn to make yourself useful!”
He turned away, and Marya hurried out of the room on shaking legs. He’d be sorry tomorrow, he always was. It would be a few days before he’d start in on her again.
At least tonight, he hadn’t hit her.
Safely in her room, Marya dropped on her bed and stared at the dark ceiling. What was she going to do? She’d never be a competent coffee-mage. Dad was right. She was worthless, a total failure.
Tears rolled down her temples and dribbled into her ears. She couldn’t muster the energy to wipe them away.
By sunrise the tears had stopped. Marya sneaked out of the house and ran. Only when her breath came in short gasps did she slow down to a walk and take stock of her surroundings.
The foliage above her told her she’d run into the Border Woods. The early-morning sunlight glistened emerald in the canopy of spring-fresh greenery. Cool air, carrying the musty scent of last fall’s leaves, soothed her tortuous breathing. Birds sang their courting songs, full of happiness and peace. Tension flowed out of Marya’s shoulders.
On a similar early-morning escape a few weeks ago, she’d stumbled into a little café in a clearing in the center of the Border Woods. The Leaf and Bean defied custom by serving both tea and coffee. The owner, old Emilia, had introduced Marya to the delights of a good cup of Darjeeling tea.
Briefly steep it in boiling water, and you’ll get a liquid of brilliant golden color. Its subtle, nutty fragrance will flow through you, carrying peace and soothing the heartbreak.
Just thinking of that golden glass of fragrant tea relieved some of last night’s anguish.
And here the clearing was. But — she was looking at a deserted yard! The little tables in their green alcoves stood just as they always did — only empty of people.
How stupid of her. Today was Market Day, and The Leaf and Bean was closed for the morning. Heart plummeting, Marya sank down at her favorite table, embraced by a small tree’s branches.
Just sitting here was enough to loosen the remaining tension in Marya’s shoulders, but it did nothing to soothe the tightness in her belly. She wanted Emilia, needed to hear the old woman tell her that she was not useless, no matter what Dad said. She needed her cup of bracing tea.
Marya could almost see the glass in front of her, its golden hue casting a shade of deeper gold on the table’s structured wood. The light breeze stirred its surface, making the shadow on the table waver and gleam in subtle nuances of amber. Its nutty scent made her heart float.
Marya closed her eyes and drew in a slow, deep breath.
The scent was real.
She opened her eyes, stared at the glass in front of her. She could see the steam rising from it, drifting away on the breeze.
Marya reached for the glass and took a sip. The aromatic liquid was almost hot enough to sting. Its subtle tannic bouquet had her exhale a contented sigh. This cup of Darjeeling tea she’d created was one delicate composition.
This cup of tea. That she’d created.
Using magic that Dad swore didn’t exist.
Dad had lied. Or maybe he just didn’t know.
Marya inhaled Darjeeling-scented air. Her heart sped up, drifted sideward, settled. She breathed out.
Dad was wrong about tea magic. What else was he wrong about?
She sat in her nook for a long time, sipping the slowly cooling tea. The early morning birdsong faded into mid-morning’s silence. The air smelled of musty forest ground, pine needles, and freedom. When the cup was empty, Marya set it down and started walking toward the far side of the Border Woods.
The suddenly bright future beckoned with possibilities for her to explore. Today, she was going to find out if there was a place for a tea mage on the other side of the woods.
Frances Silversmith writes computer software for a living and science fiction and fantasy stories for fun. She lives in a small town in Germany with her husband, six guinea pigs, and two Icelandic horses.