Story for the Day: Decaf -- Part 2
I have discovered there is such a thing as decaffeinated black tea. I have never been so horrified in all my life. The Frewyn in me revolts every which way.
The party turned toward the adjoining lane, and coming toward the terrace, in all his stately splendour, was the Lucentian beauty merchant, looking as shining as ever, his leiotrichous mane, lacustrine and radiant, spilling over his shoulders a wave of black silk, his limbs lentic and elegantunder his undulating robes, his smiles labouring under an immaculate expression. Alasdair came to greet him, and the merchant bowed to the king and paid his formal addresses to the party, telling them how pleased he was to see them, and to see His Majesty keeping with his skin treatments.
“Oh, can you tell?” said Alasdair, somewhat embarrassed.
“I can always tell, Your Majesty. It is my job to recognize when someone’s complexion has improved.”
Alasdair blushed in spite of himself, but paused and wondered whether the merchant meant to compliment him for his efforts or deride him for his previous inattention.
“I agree with your conjectures, Your Majesty,” the merchant continued, “when you said this decaffeinated business was somehow a foreign conspiracy. It is not only bad for Lucentia’s exports but is it bad for the beauty trade. I use coffee grinds in many of my cosmetics. Caffeine tightens the skin and reduces the effect of flush. I come here to get all of my coffee grinds, but the decaffeinated ones are absolutely useless to me. If Lucentia somehow would fall into this decaffeinated craze wholeheartedly, it would indeed be the end of our country, regardless of whether Marridon or Sesterna were the nation responsible for it.“ He caught a hint of Alasdair’s sudden suspicion. “But I am still not a spy, Your Majesty, so I have no idea whether that is actually true.”
Alasdair narrowed his gaze as though trying to descry something, but he could discern nothing from the merchant’s placid looks; he was as composed as ever, his lirks and subtle expressions betraying no hint of duplicity or double dealing anywhere; the merchant only boasted a subtle smile and looked resplendent, his smooth complexion glistening in the natural light.
“Fortunately, however,” said the merchant, “I don’t think my people would suffer decaffeination for very long. It might be all the rage at the moment, but Lucentia thrives on its long nights and rampant debauchery, and if drinking coffee at all hours is considered scandalous everywhere, I think we may be sure that Lucentia will caffeinate itself well into the morning hours just to spite everyone else.”
“You’re not wrong,” Alasdair mused. “The café quarter in Lucentia capital wouldn’t let decaffeinated anything overrun their businesses. They sell caffeine more than they do coffee, between their teas and their chocolates. I cannot think why this is becoming such a trend in Marridon, but it certainly won’t catch on here, if I’m allowed to be honest. Frewyn is a nation of tea, especially black tea—we practically live on it-- and though Marridon claims to be the nation that drinks the most tea on the continents, our import reviews tell us otherwise. We drink nearly three times the amount of tea that Marridon does, and we have the smaller population between us.”
“Which reminds me, your Majesty, there is something else I would like to show you,” said the proprietor, looking sagaciously, “if you can pretend to be not too offended.”
He moved the curtain covering the tea trey aside and took a small wooden box from the shelf below. He opened it, and inside was a mound of black tea and several sachets, asperged with an air of despondence. The box and its contents were presented with a gesture of mock magnificence, and Alasdair instantly grew nervous.
“Please tell me that’s not what I think it is,” said Alasdair, in a dreadful whisper, his hope for the world diminishing slightly.
“It is,” the proprietor laughed. “Decaffeinated black tea, Your Majesty. The experimental batch, made in Marridon.”
“This is an unconscionable slight to Frewyn feelings,” said Boudicca, jeering at the box, and then, turning to Alasdair, “He should be hanged for smuggling this abomination into the kingdom. Surely it’s a plot to undo us as a united nation. A pot of this in every farm house, and our resident economy will by crawling by its teeth.”
“Well,” said Alasdair, after a moment’s pause, “if it tastes anything like the decaffeinated coffee, one sip will have all of Frewyn perform a revolution again you.”
The proprietor made a diffident laugh. “One cup won’t make a war, Your Majesty,” he laughed, preparing the water and a glass.
Alasdair and Boudicca shared a doubtful look.
The tea was made, and neither Boudicca nor Alasdair was willing to sacrifice their scruples to try it.
“Alasdair will try it,” said Boudicca, pushing Alasdair forward. “A king always sacrifices himself for the good of his people.”
Alasdair gave a sigh at this.
“Besides, better Alasdair should try it than the farmers behind you,” she continued, nodding toward the far table. “They are somewhat civilized when sober, but give them anything like bad tea, and they will be surrendering themselves to the crown for tying you between the horses.”
The proprietor promised that decaffeinated tea should not warrant a murder, whether his or anyone else’s, but once the tea was steeped and stirred and strained, his confidence began to flag; the inquiring earnestness of the farmers and the severity in their looks discomfited him, and the Commander’s quiet remark of, “Do a Frewyn wrong by tea, and there is an end of you,” made him fearful to an uncommon degree. He would wait, however, and see what His Majesty had to say, upon whose judgment would determine whether he would be informing the trade minister of his departure from Frewyn.
“Well, it certainly smells like tea,” said Alasdair, inhaling from the glass. “It looks like tea.” He peered into the glass and gently sloshed the tea about. “It even foams like tea.” Courage surmounted sense, and Alasdair brought the glass to his lips, incurring inquisitive looks from the party, who were awaiting his assessment with pursed lips and folded arms. A moment passed, and Alasdair slowly peeled the glass away from his lips, remarking it with grave suspicion. He studied the glass, and said, in a low and terrible voice, “…That is not tea.”
Cachinnations from the nearby tables echoed across the quarter, the reboations of which rumbled along the river, bringing everyone’s attention to the terrace, and Alasdair, checking himself, returned the glass to the tea trey, adjusted his jerkin, and affected to look calm and unconcerned.
“You will excuse me,” said Alasdair composedly, “you have been very hospitable, and certainly more than generous, but I absolutely cannot drink another sip of that.”
“There is no obligation, Your Majesty,” the proprietor, with a bow.
“I can see how it would make a tolerable substitute for tea, if there is nothing else to have, but that is not tea. That is tea-drink, a something like tea that needs honey, milk, and a prayer to be drinkable.”
“Once again, Marridon’s infectious need to science everything has ruined something that was perfectly good to begin with,” Boudicca observed. “We ought to take this to Bilar, to see whether it has any medicinal purposes, for you will get no one else to drink it otherwise,” and then, turning to the beauty merchant, who was standing near and simpering to himself, she said, “Is there anything you can use this misconstruction of science for?”
“Black tea in general is high in anti-oxidants and is excellent for nourishing discoloured and dry skin,” said the beauty merchant, “but without the caffeine, it is missing its most important property and is therefore, I’m sorry to say, not beneficial for me.”
“Not even a practical use,” Boudicca snuffed. “Marridon’s scientists create abominations that are of no use to anybody merely because they can, and yet they call us savages. They should be forced to drink this monstrosity and only this all the rest of their days. There is capital punishment enough, I’m sure.”
Alasdair seemed thoughtful, and just as the farmers were calling out for their turn at the tea, he took up the glass and poured its contents into the strainer at the bottom of the tea trey. “No one else should drink this,” said he, in a serious accent. “If anyone else were to try it, I honestly don’t know if I could secure your safety.”
A softened mirth succeeded, but while everyone else was dismissing the king’s appeal with blithesome dispatch, Boudicca was closing the tea box and taking it from the trey. “We should bring this to the keep,” was her quiet suggestion, “and have it burned along with everything else that belongs to the latrine.”
“I think that might be best,” said Alasdair, and then, raising a brow at the proprietor, he added, “Is there any objection?”
“No, Your Majesty,” said the proprietor, smiling. “I had no intention of importing it. I was given only one box, to see whether the drink would catch on here, but I think you’ve convinced me against that ever happening, Your Majesty. The box is yours, if you wish.”
“Good.” Alasdair took the box from Boudicca and gave a proud sniff. “I think I know someone who will appreciate this, someone who thinks caffeine is evil and anything that tastes even mildly delicious is bad for your health.”
“Bilar will appreciate it, I’m sure,” Boudicca laughed. “Astonishing that you thought of him so easily in relation to bad tea.”
“You know how he is,” Alasdair grumbled. “As much as I appreciate everything he does for us and how conscientious he is about our health, he does is best to ruin any food or drink that anybody likes. Ale is bad for you, butter is bad for you, eggs are bad for you, bread and meat are bad for you—the next thing he’ll say is breathing is bad for you.”
“Not for you surely. We need you to enjoy breathing, so you can continue to run the kingdom, and having butter and eggs in smaller quantities means nothing to you. Your only real enemies are rhubarb crumbles and Count Rosse’s ideas on serrated pantaloons, the former of which Bilar guards you against with his particular style of guilt when your willpower gives away.”
“He does have my best interests at heart,” Alasdair conceded.
The proprietor, having escaped the consequences of offering the king bad tea and worst coffee, excused himself and brought the beauty merchant into his establishment, to relieve the place of all its old coffee grinds, but he was thanked for his great attention and general generosity, the party appreciating his service and his cakes more than his experimental spreads. The cards were gathered, the tables were cleared away, and it was someone else’s turn to taste the potable mirk that pageanted itself as coffee, the decaffeination process and all the bitterness it evinced curing Alasdair of obsession for Escera for a while.