By Beka Gremikova
The Sleeping Dragon Teashop was known in Quira for its spiced apple blend. Nobles often used Ximena’s teas to help them sleep—and sometimes, they requested her to ensure their political opponents slept… longer.
One such note slipped through the letter slot just before her shop opened its doors for the day.
Today, the princess will arrive for tea. She’s embroiled herself in the political turmoil between dwarves and humans, and I think she deserves a nice, long rest. Please use your spiced apple blend with its special ingredient, and take care of her for me.
Another missive from Queen Kadira, who had commissioned Ximena just last week to take care of an incompetent huntsman.
And now, the princess.
The letter flared under a self-destruct spell, crumbling into ash. Ximena wiped her soot-streaked fingers on her robes, tucking an unruly strand of black hair behind her ear. She let out a shaky breath.
The huntsman—old, weary, longing to simply chat and sip tea—had been a simple target. A stranger. He’d fallen asleep so easily, she’d almost forgotten he’d never wake up.
But the princess was another matter.
Shivers swept through her as she stepped into the back kitchens. Memories gnawed at her, sharp and painful…
“I can’t keep her,” Ximena whispered, blinking into the gloom. A dwarven midwife pressed a damp cloth to her cheek, while others cleaned the baby. Younger dwarves held torches and sang soothing lullabies to the newborn.
The eldest midwife glanced at Ximena keenly. “You don’t want to?”
Ximena’s cheeks heated. She looked away. “Her father wishes to raise her with his new wife.” She blinked rapidly against the sting of tears.
Ximena shrugged, her chin trembling. “I should have expected it, I suppose. His family pressured him to marry within his rank. I’m just a lowly tea seller, and he’s… the future king.”
“You could always stay here.”
“You’re very kind, but the mountains aren’t my home.” She longed for the cozy comfort of her brews and the familiarity of her shop.
The midwife clasped her hand. “Well, know that there’s always a place here for you and your daughter. Should you ever need it.”
The chime of the doorbell broke Ximena from her reverie. She blinked. Oh, yes. Her teashop. And the princess. Her stomach churned. Leaving the water to boil, she returned to the front of the shop.
A girl stood in the middle of the room, gazing at the dragon-shaped decorations hanging from the ceiling.
Princess Kuly was beautiful, with fair skin, dark lips, soft black hair, and a round, plump face that Ximena’s fingers suddenly itched to cradle. The sort of girl most Quiran mothers would boast about.
The sort of girl Kadira hated.
Though the queen didn’t know Ximena’s connection to Kuly, Ximena doubted that knowledge would matter.
In fact, Ximena reminded herself sharply, the knowledge didn’t matter. Kuly wasn’t her daughter. Not anymore. She was a target.
And if Ximena wanted to keep her home and her cozy, familiar life, she couldn’t let her longing for what had never been get in the way. She served the queen, who hadn’t abandoned her—who, instead, gave her purpose.
Ximena straightened. “Welcome,” she murmured, and tilted her head in greeting.
“Miss Ximena.” Princess Kuly smoothed her skirt, bowing. “My stepmother praises your tea-steeping talents very highly.” Her voice held the sweet formality and distance of a stranger.
Ximena’s shoulders relaxed slightly. A stranger. Yes, just a stranger. Like the huntsman. She didn’t owe strangers anything.
“I’m honored.” Ximena nearly walked into one of the dangling dragons, its lips curved in a snarl, its scales flashing crimson.
“I’ve been very stressed lately, and she insisted I try your spiced apple blend,” Kuly continued. She scowled slightly. “She’s so pushy.” Then, flushing, she bit her lip and tucked her shining black hair behind her ear.
At the same time, Ximena raised her hand toward her own unruly strands.
Their eyes locked, and Ximena stiffened.
The gesture was so small, so simple… And yet…
There’s always a place for you—and your daughter—here.
No manner of special requests, no manner of money, no manner of queenly wrath, could change that fact. Could turn this child into a complete stranger. Ximena stared at Kuly, a smiling mirror of her own soul.
Kuly giggled self-consciously and let her arm fall to her side. “My hair’s always falling into my face. It drives my stepmother mad.” Her dark brown eyes glinted. “Though she drives me mad with her politics. She thinks I should leave it all to her—”
Ximena’s mind whirled. She grasped for something to say. “Now, now, you’re supposed to be relaxing, aren’t you?”
Kuly shook her head. “Do you always mother your customers?”
A lump lodged in Ximena’s throat. Then she said hoarsely, “Only on special occasions.” Before Kuly said anything more, Ximena ushered her into a booth and hurried to the kitchens.
Not a stranger. Not a stranger. My… Trembling, Ximena picked a tea blend and brought the tray out, pouring a cup to set before Kuly.
Kuly inhaled, her nose wrinkling. “Such a sweet smell… apple?”
“Mountain apple, a dwarven blend. Easier on the stomach than the spiced.” Ximena folded her fingers together tightly. It’s not too late. You can serve the usual…
No. She resolutely tucked her hair behind her ear, smiling as Kuly raised her brows. “It always falls into my face, too,” Ximena admitted.
Kuly grinned and took a long sip of her tea.
A few moments later, the princess slumped across the table.
That night, a package from The Sleeping Dragon arrived at the palace alongside a note.
I took great care with the princess. To celebrate, enjoy this special blend—a personal favorite. I’m closing my shop and moving to the mountains with family for a while. I don’t expect you’ll need me anytime soon.
Take care of yourself.