A missing scene from the short story "Touei." For Juuni Kokki 20+ themes #14: The shape of friendship.
The tea Renrin served at their guest hall was like nothing Taiki had ever tasted. It was milky and sweet, spicier than the afternoon tea he had known in Japan, the sugared kind his human mother had sometimes bought for him and his brother on the rare occasions when both of them were good. He sipped, careful not to burn his tongue, as Renrin poured for Seirai, Tansui, and Asen.
"It's delicious," said Taiki. "Thank you!"
"I'm glad you like it. It must seem funny to Tai Taiho that we drink such hot spiced tea in a place so hot to begin with, but this is a favorite in Ren."
With her free hand Renrin cradled her sleeve (pale rose, embroidered with peacock feathers and ladyslippers in silver-blue) to keep it from drooping as she poured. Like her king she seemed to be always smiling, and she moved with a golden serenity that haloed all her gestures. It was impossible to be shy of her: Taiki couldn't think why Seirai and Tansui looked so alarmed at her hospitality. Asen, at least, seemed faintly pleased. Taiki looked down at the swirl of cloudy tea in his cup.
"I wonder what all the different spices are?"
She lowered the pot. "Perhaps Tai Taiho would care to learn the recipe? It's very simple."
"Really, can I?"
"Of course. But there's a legend about this kind of tea, shall I tell it first?"
She folded her hands in a ripple of silk about her lap, and told the story.
"The first empress of Ren was a child empress, no older than Tai Taiho. The legend goes that she hated bitter-tasting things. Even tea was too bitter for her, and she would not drink it. At that time the Taiho of Ren was Renki, who had no name because the empress had not yet granted him one. It was a great distress to Renki that the empress would not take tea, which is good for one's health and brings clarity to the mind and heart.
"One day it came to Renki that if tea could be made sweet enough, Her Majesty might deign to drink it. You may wonder why he didn't simply ask the royal kitchens to prepare a sweeter tea, but this was very long ago, when the palace was not so grand, and there were not so many hundreds upon hundreds of servants to the throne. So Renki brewed tea himself with milk and honey, but it didn't please Her Majesty--it was sweet but too bland, she said. Then Renki brewed it with cinnamon, but that was too stark. He tried cardamom, and that was too subtle. He tried cloves, and that didn't suit Her Majesty, either."
"She was picky," murmured Taiki.
"She was. Then at last Renki threw up his hands and put everything into the teapot at once: milk, honey, the three noble spices. He offered this tea before the empress, and she drank it and was pleased. From then on she took tea with the Taiho every day. She would have no one else make it for her, and she gave Renki the name Shimi out of gratitude." With a graceful finger Renrin traced characters on the tabletop. Her fingertip was dry, but her strokes seemed to shimmer liquidly on the gloss. Taiki watched and giggled when he saw what she had written.
"Now I have the pleasure of making tea for His Majesty," Renrin said. "When His Majesty receives guests, I prepare it for them as well." She turned her serenity on the rest of the entourage from Tai, who thanked her with hurried courtesy but did not sit down. Taiki looked at her face in its radiance.
"If I learn the recipe, maybe I could make it for Master Gyousou," he said. "But--the tea he likes isn't sweet."
"I think King Tai would be pleased anyway, if Tai Taiho made it for him."
"I think so. And it would give him a little taste of Ren."
In a rush Taiki thought of all the things he had wished he might take back with him to show Gyousou, the things he wished they might have seen together: flowers in midwinter, orchards in the palace, crimson fruit on the trees--the lazy warmth of air that seemed always a breath away from rainfall, even when the sun shone. There was no way to buy souvenirs of those things, no postcard he could send. He smiled at Renrin a smile frayed with sudden homesickness for his master's side. There was no need to hide it from her, he thought. She was a kirin, too. She smiled back.
"Shall I teach you to make it?" she said, and offered him her open hand.