*Read Chapter 1 here
“Wake up,” came a voice that was shortly followed by a jump onto Morris’s bed. The smell of oranges and vanilla wafted from downstairs. Morning tea. Morris huddled into the cheap comforter that had turned soft and smooth from the use of countless apprentices. The warmth was settling into all the right places when the intruder started to shake her. “I said wake up, Morris. It’s your turn to make the breakfast.”
Groaning, she opened her eyes to find the spice goblin staring at her. Immediately realizing how close they were, Morris frantically tried to get away from the monster two-third as big as her torso, but her limbs only furthered themselves into the blanket. The young monster reeled his head back and collided into Morris’s forehead in a good old fashioned head-butt.
Morris clutched her head with both palms as the goblin trumpeted around the room in victory. His short elephant nose that usually hung down lifted up to amplify the sound. He ran gleefully into the hallway and down the stairs in the noisiest clatter a small body could muster.
“Damn you, Rooster,” yelled Morris.
Blinking back the tears, she reluctantly headed out to the kitchen. On the days Morris ignored the headbutt, it turned into a gut tackle and wrestling. It was too early for that. She shuffled her feet into her indoor boots and traced the steps of the goblin.
As usual the kitchen felt as cold as if no one had used it for decades. The air was so still that it chilled the apprentice deep to her spine.
“Good morning Purgis, where are you?”
A high-pitched yawn came from the stone oven. Morris opened the thin metal door and peeked in. “Purgis?” A muffled voice answered from the relatively clean oven. A slight glow emanated from the gelatinous shape of the fire demon.
“Purgis, can you light the stove?” When the fire demon failed to respond, Morris filched some bacon from the storage and fed it to Purgis in pieces. Slowly, the fire started rumbling in the kitchen and a warm orange tinge danced on the blue tiles that filled the kitchen.
She brought two handfuls of fat sausages to the cast iron pan that was slick with cooking grease. She toasted some bread and fried some eggs, sunny side up. As the sizzling woke the kitchen, the sunshine peeked into the room. It began to look inviting. Even the dead herbs that hung from the ceiling looked alive.
A yawn came from the oven. The fire demon poked his head out. “Good morning Morrey. Can I have some of that sausage? If not I’d like some more bacon to start heating the water.”
“Good morning to you too. Did you have a late night Purgis? Here’s a sausage,” said Morris. She carefully speared a juicy sausage that was still half cooked and tossed it into the opening.
“Master stayed up late talking to that old curse hag, Theodora. She lives in that dead willow down near the pond. Do you know how much tea she likes to drink?” his voice turning incredulous.
Morris laughed. “No, how much?”
“She drinks enough to fill two bathtubs! She had me heating up pots and pots of water for her buehler tea. Nasty stuff. There’s too much gossamer herb in it if you ask me!”
“At least she doesn’t hate you, Purgis. Her nose turns up every time I walk into the same room as her. Her face looks like she’s smelling something vile.”
Pugis, looked surprised and said, “But you do stink you know.”
Morris stared at Purgis. “What?”
“You stink like a human. It’s pleasant once you get used to it, I suppose, but you stink nonetheless. Humans smell like a hackneyed words lovers say to each other. It makes you want to cringe,” said Purgis matter-of-factly while taking a bite out of the sausage. Each bite made a crunching sound as its skin was being snapped.
An eyebrow on Morris’s face lifted. “All this time, you couldn’t stand the smell of me?”
“Yes,” said the demon dead-pan. “But the smell of cooking meat made the scent tolerable. Plus, I told you, once you get used to it it’s not so bad. It’s like fruity yogurt. You can’t tell if it’s sour or sweet.” Purgis smiled at the end as if he’d reached a personal epiphany.
Caught in an awkward situation and Purgis’s smile, Morris’s chest burst out with laughter. She clutched her stained apron around the middle and heaved as she tried to suck in some air. This was why she loved the tea house. Honesty was the only answer to a question. To monsters it was unfathomable to lie. It served no purpose in the long run. Of course there still were some monsters that lied, especially those who dealt with humans, but the monsters that worked at the tea house always told the truth and meant well. Since Morris lived and worked with them, they were trying to understand humans. They didn’t always succeed.
They finished cooking together and Morris loaded the plates into her arms. The butter under her chin was close to falling but if she hurried enough she would make it. With one last glance and a word of appreciation, Morris went upstairs for breakfast.
“I heard a cackle of hyenas stampeding up and down the stairs today. Was it another head tackle?” Master Disner folded the Gregorian Wailer he was reading and looked up at his hard-working apprentice.
“Rooster,” nodded Morris. In a flash the spice goblin landed perfectly in his chair, butt first. Neither of them were surprised. Giggles still shaking his body, Rooster started pouring the tea into the porcelain teapot. The familiar smell of citrus vanilla wafted from the spout. The spice goblin distributed cups of the steaming, cream tea. It was nice to have Rooster around. They were never short on herbs no matter how much they took. The shelves were always full.
Vaguely, Morris wondered how long Rooster’s contract lasted. Master Disner was quite attached to the bizarre monster. Most likely there would be an extension.
“Any news from the Wailer, Master Disner?” asked Rooster.
“There’s sad news I’m afraid. Humans are retreating from towns they share with monsters. How can humans and monsters coexist if they don’t live together? One can only live an unbalanced life without the other.”
Rooster looked confused. He piped, “But, Master, young Morrey is here. There’s no need for you to worry. If no one else does, she’ll live with us!” With that he figured the problem was solved and dug into his breakfast without a thought for the napkin he usually needed tucked into his shirt. The juices from the sausage immediately dripped onto the front of his vest.
Master Disner and Morris shared a smile as they too moved their forks to their plates.
“After you finish your morning tasks please visit the bridge at Thousand Groves on your delivery route,” said Disner to Morris. He pointed at the package placed on the counter.
“The resident monster, Frederick, is trading us blue headless lilies, a rare flower, for five ounces of Rooster’s spider spice.”
“I like him. He’s the one that eats mud and insects. He always lets me trade some grasshoppers for the coins he finds under the bridge. Why does he need spider spice? It creates an illusion to whoever ingests it.
This time Rooster answered, “When it’s combined with Browning root that grows all around the bridge, it becomes a portal to Gren, the monster capitol. His wife’s disappeared and he thinks she’s in one of the Gren boroughs.”
Her fork clattered. “What? I hope Frederick’s alright.”
Rooster reached across the table for toast. ”Meh, he’s not the irrational kind. He’ll be fine, Morrey. Though knowing him, Frederick’s probably drunk himself silly at the Grim Troll’s Pub like a human. Anita meant everything to him.”
“I wonder why Anita left. She loved Frederick. I’d see them often at the Patisserie on Baker’s Row when I get almond macarons. I can’t see how she would ever want to leave Frederick. ”
Her thoughts were sympathetic as she took a huge bite out of the thick bacon and swallowed one of the fried eggs whole.
They finished breakfast and Morris tackled her chores. Master Disner and Rooster went off to the back room to try some new tea. Morris sighed. For two years she had been an apprentice to Grayson Disner. She had never once been allowed to touch tea leaves this whole time. She felt strange telling people she was an apprentice because it did not feel true. She felt more like a servant or errand-runner than an heir to Disner’s craft.
But perhaps it was worth all the knowledge she gained about monsters and the makeshift family.
When breakfast was over, Morris donned her coat and cap and hurried out the door. She tilted her cap in the direction of a couple of beautiful monsters on their way to the tea shop and happily clopped her way towards town. Bloombury had been a big city, but Ponderosa was a quiet town. It was one of the only places where humans were aware of monsters and they lived in peace, however uneasy.
Nearing the market, she slowed her stovepipe boots and halted to feel the remnants of the night fog. She felt the droplets of moisture lingering in the air.
Morris liked the mornings best. In the morning, when humans and monsters were selling their wares most vigorously, they distinguished less. The carts of fruits, vegetables, fish, and exotic breads cluttered the street with their owners. Signs and easels had the sales of the morning under the brightly colored awnings.
This morning, the plump baker was tempting a farmer’s wife, who already had tonight’s fish in her basket. The rich smell of rye filled Morris’s nostrils. The farmer’s wife was surely tempted.
“Hello, Madam! Would you like to buy some of our pumpernickel bread? We also have Roggenmisch bread. Here, have a taste!” The clamor was friendly and energetic.
A cart next to the bakery sold sizzling eggs and seasoned tomatoes that smelled heavenly. “Take some shakshouka to work today! Delicious shakshouka.” A bearded chef was handing his apprentice some steaming, square packages tied by twine. Its aroma filled the whole street.
“Croissants! Fresh, butter croissants!” This time, Morris stopped by the seller and purchased one of the uncresented croissants. The smell of rich butter perfumed the stall block, making all of the other scents have buttery undertones. The moist, fluffy bread melted in her mouth. The baker was a monster and Morris could tell magic was used to make the croissant. The warmth spread from her mouth down to her toes.
Watching Morris, the baker commented, “I haven’t seen you in a while, Morrey. It was mighty lonesome without your contented face eating my croissants.”
“Sorry Guillaume. I’ve been busy running master’s errands. They’ve been taking me to Bloombury.”
“Bloombury? That’s where that poison maker, Dampierre, lives,” frowned the baker, scratching his head.
“I collected payment from him yesterday. It wasn’t so bad. His accountant was nice,” said Morris, but added, “I think.”
“I’m glad someone thinks so,” said the baker humorously. “That Traver is a savage if I ever saw one. He’s eaten so many humans; he’d probably eat me too if I annoyed him too much. He prefers the young ladies, says they’re the perfect softness.” Morris shook his head to wipe the thought from his mind and continued, “Ah. Anyway, I need to get myself home. Today’s going to be busy; I can tell.”
“Oh, it’s Monday, isn’t it? Good luck with that. Tell Grayson Hello for me.”
“Sure. Let me know if you ever want to come visit!”
The baker gave a boisterous laugh. “That’s no place for me! Now I better get back to selling these croissants before I’m tempted. Get on with you! Be safe on your travels my boy,” he said joyfully. He gave Morris a hearty tap on the shoulder and threw her another croissant for free.
“Thank you, Guillaurme! Bye,” said Morris as she trotted down the bright street, pocketing the second croissant for later.
Her arms full of groceries, Morris turned the shop’s brass door knob. The green door swung inward and the shadows blinded her for a moment before her eyes adjusted to the subtle light of the shop. No one was at the counter and the sign in the window still showed CLOSED. With the accountant’s new order, Disner and Purgis couldn’t help setup the shop.
Morris rubbed her eyes, waiting for her vision to adjust to the darker room. She heaped the bags on the counter, letting a glistening orange roll out.
Now she regretted stopping by the candied watermelons. Their rough sugary varnish that melted in her mouth was something Morris had a hard time resisting. Just the second thought of them made her tongue fish back into her molars for some remnants of the syrup.
She put the groceries into the kitchen and wasted no time readying the shop for customers.
The table cloths were always first. Rooster usually got too excited for breakfast in the morning and placed all the cafe chairs on the floor, so all that needed to be done was the crisp, white linen.
She checked the tea water, always heated by the time breakfast was done thanks to Purgis. Today too, the water hot enough that the water would boil in an instant. She poured some of the hot water into two ceramic teapots so that they would be warm for the first customers that walked into the shop.
There was a knock on the door and Morris realized that the door was still locked. Alger, the traveling baker huffed warm air onto the glass as he waved. One arm was holding a large crate covered by his grandmother’s pink and worn handkerchief. Morris opened the door.
“Hello there Morrey,” he said. “It’s a bit cold today, ain’t it?”
“I didn’t notice,” Morris said. Her eyes didn’t stray from the crate.
He heaved the crate onto the counter before Morris would try to help. “You young ones are so lucky. The energy in your veins don’t even slow enough for you to notice the weather. If only I were that young again! Ah!” he lamented.
“The town’s shapin’ up a bit nicely with all the Apprentice Festival decorations. Do you need any help with your booth Morrey?”
“No, I-,” started Morris.
Alger grasped the tin lid in the crate and lifted it. The aroma added warmth to the waking cafe. Underneath was a number of freshly baked tea cakes. Before her hand hit the one on the very top, saliva was already at the coming over the tip of her lip. Aware that she was about to drool, she crammed the cake into her mouth and sprinted to the sink. Morris never ate sweets neatly. It was always a race whether the crumbs or the sugar could get to her clothing first.
Morris sighed, contented that she wouldn’t have the sweep the floor again. Used to the sight, Alger kept right on talking. “It’s been a half century since those blissful days.
“Say, Morrey, I think you’ve gotten taller since last I saw you.”
Morris grinned, “You saw me yesterday! I saw you, why don’t you remember?”
“You’re right!” he started. “I don’t know where my head would be if-.”
“If it weren’t attached to your head,” finished Morris. “But Alger! You’re not old! I don’t see a single gray hair on your head.”
“Ha! I was comparing myself to you humans.”
Morris snapped her jaw shut and tackled the happy baker. Her arms didn’t quite reach all the way around his bulbous belly.
Rooster walked in looking pretentious and said, “Children,” primly. He plucked one of the fatter teacakes and tried his best to take the tiniest bites possible. The cake, which as big as his head, was eaten in three bites.
Alger, ready to chuck Morris like a discus before Rooster walked in, thought better of it. He said, “That’s true, Rooster’s age could give us a run for our money.”
“Old man Rooster, are the teacakes to your liking,” asked Morris as seriously as she could. But she couldn’t resist and started tickling him. A fit of giggles escaped them both while Alger boomed his deep chuckle. Rooster jumped towards Morris and she braced herself to catch, but his dense body pulled on her arms like an anchor to its rope. With a thud like a boulder, Rooster hit the ground and began rolling around in all directions.
Unable to catch him, Morris said, “Rooster, is Master Disner ready for his customers?”
He stopped, concentrating. Morris jumped, sliding close to him and caught the monster. She asked, “Did he say he needed any dried fruit chopped?”
“No, he’s all ready. The invisible man came yesterday so we dried more blossoms and I chopped the dried peaches. We should be more than half full on all the teas now.”
“That’s right,” she said remembering the pale man with his crooked hat. “After I set his biscuits, Edith came in asking for the Apple Tea and Lemon Tea. We had to restock a few teas after that.”
“Might as well be juice,” heaved Rooster. “She drinks so much tea. I swear there’s a blackhole in her stomach.”
“I don’t know. The witch drinks 10 times as much as Edith does.”
A wicked gleam in his eyes, he said, “I hope those two and the old gatekeeper come in together. Purgis would cry.” He snorted rapid breaths out of his long nose.
“Don’t wish for such things,” shivered Morris. “Remember the time Purgis couldn’t cook our ham slices?”
“It took us ages to warm the eggs,” said Rooster, nodding. “But I do remember Disner allowing us to eat Alger’s warm bread for once though.” Rooster couldn’t relive a sad memory for long. Disner’s household only ate bread that was at least a few days old. The warm bread was stocked for the customers.
Alger straightened. “I’m honored you think so highly of my bread, Rooster. I’ll have to cut you and Morrey a slice for lunch! I’ll make everyone a sandwich with Purgis’s help.”
Rooster celebrated with cartwheels around Alger and trumpeted his approval. He panted while half laughing. “That’s a promise!”
Alger shook Rooster’s outstretched hand and nodded. “It’s a promise.”
He turned to Morris. “You’re younger than he is why are you letting him have all the fun? Are your cartwheels as good as his?” he grinned. “I really do keep forgetting how fast you humans grow. Morrey, you’ve really grown in the past year. If you stopped picking your nose, and you combed that mousy head of yours – and maybe wiped off some of those crumbs on your face – some pretty thing from the town would take a fancy to you.”
Morris tucked her mouth to one side, resisting the urge to scratch her nose.
“You humans really shoot up fast. Don’t die too soon, alright?” he continued. Morris blinked. “You’ll break that old man Disner’s heart.” Grunting, he hoisted the crate on his right shoulder and walked into the kitchen.