The idea of a tea house was not an unfamiliar one: a place to sit and drink tea with friends or associates, perhaps have a small meal, and then disburse. In practice, it seemed to be far more focused toward clandestine gatherings than strictly social ones. When I arrived and gave my title, the guide was immediately replaced at her podium with another so future guests would not have to wait. This guide led me past a surprising number of small tables, each with no more than four chairs, most with only two.
I dared to make eye-contact with one gentleman and he gave me first a look of astonishment at my audacity, and then glared at my impertinence. I gave him a gentle nod as I passed and made sure not to do it again.
Finally, a table near the back wall came into view with Prevot seated so that she could see me arrive. My guide gestured to the empty chair and disappeared immediately at twice the speed she’d led me. I gave Prevot a shallow bow, keeping her eyes in view. She looked charmed and then pleased when I moved my seat so that it was closer to her own. Truthfully, in this place where I clearly did not understand the rules, I did not want it to be so easy for anyone to approach me from behind, unseen.
The chair was cushioned but delicate and I was nervous about it breaking beneath me. Prevot saw my discomfort and misinterpreted it. “Not one for tea, Don Gentillini?”
“Truthfully, I have never been in such an establishment,” I answered easily. “I would suggest it holds a certain charm, but I would need better lighting to confirm.”
She raised a hand to laugh discreetly. “Would you prefer my guidance?”
“You are most gracious.”
A waiter approached wearing a simple set of clothes that I expect would have purchased half the morning market at home. Without a splash, he set a shallow bowl in front of each of us. I followed Prevot’s lead and rinsed my fingers daintily, drying them on the edge of the tablecloth. The bowls were removed and another waiter replaced the first to give us each a matching cup and saucer. Again, he disappeared and another was swiftly installed with a three-tiered plate stand of small sandwiches, savory pastries, and sweet ones, bottom to top. He paused a mere moment, I assume for questions, but then went the same way as the others.
At last, a waitress stopped at our table and said, “It will be my pleasure to serve you. Do you have any specific teas in mind?”
Prevot glanced sideways at me and said, “A sampling would be best. Don, do you prefer sweet or savory?”
“Citrus has always been a favorite,” I answered. My father told me to answer with an unpresented option when possible. For the briefest of moments, Prevot looked impressed, so I thanked my father’s ghost with a quick and secret ward under the table.
The waitress hurried away and Prevot placed her elbows on the table and laced her fingers under her chin to look at me. I looked back, not sure what part I was expected to play, but patient for the signs.
“Where did you grow up?” she asked.
“So forward,” I answered.
“I only ask because citrus is so interesting a choice. Most nobility I’ve known would have suggested a floral brewing. I expect you were raised then with citrus. In so unfamiliar a place, you seek the familiar.”
“Or perhaps merely the expensive.” I gestured with my chin at the surrounding tables, all close enough to hear, but not make out their words. “These peers of mine must have their expectations assuaged.”
She smiled primly at that.
“All in fair play, where were you raised?” I asked.
Prevot leaned back and her hands unlaced to smooth the front of her skirts. “Far from here, but I believe I’ve come to speak the language quite fluently.”
“Quite,” I agreed. “I hear only the vaguest hints of… accent.” I kept her eyes again and hers narrowed, wondering what I knew. Nothing, I assured her mentally.
She waved a hand dismissively. “What care we for the past, after all?” She took a tiny sandwich and managed it in two bites. I expected I could fit six or seven in my mouth at once, but followed suit. The bread had no crust and was the softest I’d even eaten; it was like clouds in my mouth and the only way I was sure I hadn’t simply dropped it without notice was the flavor of mustard, dill, and duck. It was quite good and I noticed there were different choices of sandwich.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” I said as I selected another. “I am positively famished.”
“Please,” she agreed. “There isn’t a point in leaving any on the tray.”
She spoke of the recent weather and mentioned names of nobility I admitted to not knowing much about. She was surprised that I hadn’t seen the works of local artists and insisted I stay another day at the least so that she could escort me to their showings. I was tempted.
“Where are you expected, that you cannot spend one further day here?” she probed. I could tell by her joking tone that this was what she really wanted to know. I knew she’d made assumptions about me from my previous answers, mostly that I was either poorly disguised as a rich person, or that I had been raised far away from any court activities, which was fair enough.
Strangely, I did want to tell her more. I leaned forward. She was wearing some kind of subtle mixture of scents and it was quite nice. She tilted her head and made that subtle smile.
“Prevot, I wish desperately to tell you, but am ashamed to insist on my privacy on such a subject, as innocuous as it may seem.”
She leaned further forward. “Don, if you are not careful, you will build a mountain of curiosity too tempting to climb.”
With no answer in mind, I leaned away and she mimicked me. The conversation had lasted us through most of our platter and several cups of tea. I desperately needed to find a place to relieve myself so I stood. “Would you excuse me for a moment?”
Prevot nodded gracefully and I knew her eyes were tracking me as I made my way to the front, careful not to meet the eyes of anyone on the way.
“I’ve had quite a lot of tea,” I started. The guide at the front podium nodded firmly and led me without need of further explanation. The door she left me in front of hid from view a very clean space for three men at a time to use a wooden trough that appeared to empty itself outside. There were also two closet-spaces for those requiring more privacy and a boy around fourteen was waiting patiently in the corner to assist.
I finished my business and returned to the table where I found another shallowed water dish waiting for me. As soon as I used it, a wordless waiter swept it away. I turned to Prevot but followed her gaze to the approach of the gentleman whose eyes I’d met when I arrived. My stomach flipped, but I stood politely, waiting for him to speak.
He eyed my outfit, and my company, and said, “Do I know you, boy?”
I raised an eyebrow. “You have not yet had the pleasure. How would you ask to be addressed?”
His eyes narrowed and his mustache bristled. “I am Visconte Oscuro.”
I inclined my head in a shallow bow and he looked furious at the perceived slight.
“Who is your family?” he demanded. His guest had left the table and was coming up behind him both curious and wary.
“They are quite extensive,” I explained calmly. “I find it generally easier to make myself known as Don Gentillini.”
The Visconte shook his head without understanding but before he could speak again his friend, overhearing my name, took his shoulder and whispered urgently in his ear. The Visconte’s expression slackened he swallowed. When he turned his attention back to me he bowed more deeply.
“My apologies, Don. I hope your visit here is pleasant and you will remember me with fondness when you depart.”
“I have no doubt that I will, Visconte Oscuro,” I agreed. When the men left the table, I sat and turned to Prevot.
She asked again, “Who are you?” I smiled, but faltered in my answer when I realized she was afraid.
“No one who would offer you any harm,” I said softly.
She looked toward the previously offended Visconte. “I don’t know if that is true,” she said. She smoothed her skirts again. “I should go.”
I stood as she did, wondering desperately what I should say, but also knowing it was better if our conversation ended. She put a mask of pleasant calm in place and soon disappeared from view. I slowly sat and let memories of the conversation filter through my father’s teaching. I drained my tea, turning the cup upside down on the saucer. Seeing I was finished, I agreed when the waitress asked to box the unfinished pastries for me. I wanted to be alone; I had a lot to think about.
April 09, 2021