One, two, three steps into the dusty room and Morris already wanted to leave room 23. The footsteps he left on the carpet made him uncomfortable. No one had walked into the room for some amount of time. At least no human had walked here as far as he could tell.
The windows on his right were covered in thick, velvet drapes that went to the floor. Only a slight outline of light over the rails was visible, highlighting the tips of the curtain maroon. The rest of the curtain was black, like the rest of the room.
A snicker to her left, stopped her inspection. They were here – just like her master said they would be. She squinted trying to see through darkness and could barely make out a heavy desk in the corner and a dark outline that could only be the door.
A shadow shifted behind the desk. A feminine voice whispered across the room.
“Ah, yes the messenger-boy from Monsieur Disner. You are here to claim payment for his services, yes?” She ruffled some paperwork and without waiting for a response and without looking up she waved her hand and dismissed her. “You may follow the sprites through the door. They will take you to our accountant.” With that she ignored her. She wasn’t bothered at being called a boy. She could pass by unnoticed most of the time when she dressed as a boy. When she dressed as a girl, witches and criminals licked their lips and waited in ambush.
Morris was familiar with cold welcomes. Monsters did not respect humans. In fact humans were considered nothing short of imbeciles. No smart monster trusted them. The monsters set the perimeters for their trades, promises, and favors and as long as they were carried out, there was no trouble.
Morris just nodded and walked deeper across the blood red carpet towards the door. The snickers beyond became louder.
As she passed, the receptionist stopped her. She said, “Oh, and our accountant is in a bad mood today. Bow before you speak. Receive permission before stepping inside. Do take off your hat at least when you see him. I have chosen to ignore your impudence, but not all monsters are so kind. If you can, just take the money and leave.”
Morris knew that of course. Her master Disner had taught him the importance of supernatural etiquette. Her master had also taught him not to be needlessly subservient to every haughty monster that she crossed paths with. She said nothing though but kept her herringbone cap on.
Beyond the door the snickers turned into giggles. One of the sprites spoke, “Yeah, we don’t want any human smells to linger.”
“Yeah, the last one left nasty stains on the walls. Human blood smells just like a pigs’,” the others agreed, giggling with glee.
Standing up straighter, Morris walked through the open door. Her eyes swam all about the hallway, trying to capture any image, but without superhuman powers her pale eyes were useless. Instead, she followed the sound of mirth that traveled away from him. As she started walking she straightened her gray vest and smoothed her elbows of creases.
Her freshly polished shoes made no noise on the carpet and she found her mind wondering how thick the dust was that settled there.
As soon as the giggling stopped, Morris took off her cap and turned towards the door. The hair she’d balled up in her newsboy cap tumbled down her back. She made a mental note to cut it soon.
The sprites whispered in her ear as they flew back towards the lobby. “You are now in the presence of Monsieur Traver, human. Do try to stay alive. A dead human smells stronger than one that’s alive. We do not like to clean it.” A smile tugged at his lips, but she refrained from granting it space on his face.
Without hesitation Morris bent into a bow. She opened her mouth to seek entrance but was interrupted.
“That was the most tolerable bow I’ve seen in a human so far. Your kind forgets respectable customs too fast. I could stomach being in human society back when everyone knew how to bow or talk with dignity. That was one tradition I was disappointed to see gone.” Seeming to get lost in his thoughts, the accountant was quiet for a moment. Morris shuffled her weight to the other foot and purposely looked somewhat nervous. Morris would be killed if she brushed a monster’s thoughts aside and changed the subject. By appearing weak and affected, she was maneuvering her way into the room and therefore closer to payment. Traver noticed the discomfort and said, “Enter, human. I permit it.”
The sound of a snap heralded a dim light into the room. The accountant was sitting behind a tall desk. The rings of the dark wood rose like mahogany flames the height of six feet. A toad-like monster with a wide mouth cleared his throat and said, “Who do you represent?” The gold chain on his waist coat glittered when he waved his hand to brush away his question.
“Nevermind, Disner is the only monster odd enough to work with humans. He sent five shipments of tea yesterday and the agreed sum was…”
Morris looked around the room and found that it was piled high with boxes of all sizes and colors. Some of them were normal rectangular boxes, but some of them were oddly shaped boxes with as many as fifteen corners. She could not fathom what it was made to fit.
As she stood there her eyes wandered up. The ceiling was vaulted in this room and the curtains stood what Morris estimated at thirty feet. There was the smell of musk and roses that erased the smell of decay that he expected to smell. Taking a closer look at the furniture, she realized that only the carpet and the curtains had gathered dust. Every box looked new. The countless counters and desks gleamed like they were waxed yesterday. The stained glass on the lamp sparkled. The colors were bright considering the faintness of the light.
Her sights settled on the accountant again just behind the lamp. He was finishing his summary of the transaction. “Do give my compliments to Disner. No other monster can create tea like he does. Even tea masters who include human sacrifices fail to reach the same quality. Anyway, here is the payment and a little extra because I feel that is what the tea was properly worth.”
Morris bowed again before he walked forward and accepted the coins. One of the things she respected about the monsters was that they were obsessed with balance. If the quality of a good was esteemed higher than its sold value, they sent more money to the seller to equal the scales. Of course to them it had more to do with not owing debts to another than generosity. That way they could kill the seller if their factions ever went against each other.
“Thank you, sir,” said Morris.
Traver froze and peered at the human with wide eyes. Morris thought he might expand his throat and croak when the pale monster started laughing. His belly shook, casting gold stars across the wall with the chain on his watch.
“A human, thanking a monster! What a sight that is to see.” A fat hand landed on Traver’s big belly and Morris looked on in confusion. She heard some rustles behind her and she knew that some of the other monsters within the vicinity had come to see what was happening in the accounting room. Unconsciously, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
Wiping the tears from his eyes the size of saucers, Traver said, “You are an interesting child. Disner has found a human just as odd as he. Tell him, child, I will order ten more shipments of his rose tea. Instruct him to send word of confirmation.”
Morris bowed, the hat still in hand.
Still laughing the accountant fluttered his hand at Morris and said, “That is all. You may return to your master.”
Pondering the words, the tea maker’s apprentice bowed again and left the room. Morris never had much interaction with the human world but to walk past on the way to a delivery. Humans didn’t come to the House of Sorrows. They had plenty of tea shops in their human communities, not that they could find the tea house to begin with. Perhaps studying them more closely would quiet some of the questions Morris still had.
The sprites and servant monsters whispered behind her all the way to the front room. As she passed several paintings of prominent monsters, they too seem to whisper at the human passing beneath their noses.
Morris quickly walked into the sunlight of the quiet Bloomsbury Street. She breathed a sigh of relief as the humans walked unaware of a building full of monsters in their midst. Ladies with white parasols and well-dressed men in tucked cravats walked up and down the cobble stone. Shoes tapping on the stones, Morris hurried home with the tea shop’s velvet bag of money.
When she arrived at his master’s familiar shop with the gold lettering. She called inside just as the green door hit the bell attached to the wall, ringing her return. “Master! It’s me! Morris is back.”
A fearsome beast appeared from the depths of the tea room. “Ah Morris, child, welcome back. Was there any trouble?” Morris handed the sack of money to her master. Shuffling the long spikes that protruded from his back, he eased himself onto a bar stool.
The tea master was one of the last tomb bearer monster. And among his kind, the oldest. His aged, thick horns stretched out in a diamond shape and welded away from each other at the tips. The long ears that grew behind the horns were perpendicular to the line of his skull. In the dark it looked like an additional set of horns. Usually, his whole body was horned, but Disner could retract the horns into his skin as a tattoo – save his spinal protrusions. There were holes on the backs of all his shirts to accommodate the extra bones.
Morris sat down on her favorite stool at the tea bar and huffed, “No, not entirely, but… And well, I’m not sure how to explain this, master, but…” The master joined his apprentice and waited patiently as the girl told the story of what happened at the poison-maker’s office. At the end of the story Master Disner gruffed heartily – which was his peculiar sort of laughter. He tapped her face twice with his nail, doing his awkward best to comfort Morris.
“Morris, to monsters thanks is given to pay back a debt. You sold Traver a kindness that he must now repay. He laughed because monsters aren’t used to receiving kindness, especially from humans. They only receive what they are owed. Genuine kindness is the only thing they buy without hesitation. The most delicious tea or the greatest dish cannot substitute,” he said. “We are a very predictable species.”
Brow furrowed, Morris said, “If that is true, wouldn’t most humans have already used that in their dealings with monsters? A lot of humans express gratitude. Why did Traver think it was rare?” She shrugged out of her suit coat and tossed it onto the bar.
“You were sincere. You weren’t trying to barter. If it had been any form of a lie Traver would have ignored you.” Master Disner started stirring his white coral tea, a hint of a smile still in his eyes.
“So you’re saying that if I had tried to buy his kindness with my own kindness that would have been seen as a barter and therefore insincere?”
“Yes, the difference was you wanted nothing back. There was nothing to gain and you still chose to present kindness.”
Morris tightened the muscles around her eyes as she tried to understand. “But what about when Traver turned on the light for me when he could have left me in the dark as he counted out the coins?”
The master shrugged his shoulders sheepishly and said, “It served a functional purpose. If you could not see, you could not have received the due payment.”
“So that was not kindness?”
Morris threw her hands up in exasperation and buried her head in his arms on the table. “I will never understand the thoughts of monsters!”
Disner thought for a moment. “Emotions don’t come readily generated for us. Whereas your kind are very active, we are reactive. A baker’s daughter will do little else in life than set her course to be a baker.”
“Aren’t humans the same?” interrupted Morris.
“No, humans are rather free with their decisions. You should observe them closely when you get an opportunity. Humans hesitate to choose a path in life that is the most logical or easy choice. A baker’s daughter might dream of becoming a blacksmith and fight for that dream. It may not be a fulfillment of her lifetime, but she will ensure that her offspring has a new choice of becoming a blacksmith.” Disner brought out his pipe from the folds of his sleeves, still smoking. He puffed some as he stared off into the distance.
“I envy that trait of humans. In comparison we are much like children. We monsters do not go too far beyond logical. Too easily we shy away from the new and difficult. It’s only a matter of time until we retrogress.”
Morris’s hazel eyes looked into the monster’s black ones. “Why is that? Making a choice can’t be that hard.”
“It shouldn’t be. But I’m afraid we’ve lost the courage to make those choices. If one succeeds, someone must fail.”
Slowly, Morris nodded. “There is no such thing as a way for all to succeed.”
“That would, of itself, be a failure,” said Disner woefully. “Monsters expect to give kindness only when it is given first. But someone has to offer it first. If we’re all waiting, nothing gets done.”
The clock stroke eleven, but the apprentice continued, “It can’t be that hard. There just has to be a catalyst.”
“But that would only work if the kindness was passed on forever. They usually aren’t. And who would be a completely selfless individual that would continue offering kindness when none is offered in the first place?” prodded Disner.
Morris rubbed her forehead with her palm, clearly frustrated. “Yes, no one’s that selfless. Even friendship is…” The young apprentice sighed. “I can’t find a solution, Master. I wish I could understand this way of thinking.”
Master Disner chuckled. “One day you shall, my apprentice. One day you shall help change the way monsters think about the world, about humans. Until then I will teach you.”