One Year and Two Months Ago
The golden afternoon sunlight streamed through the trees and onto the table, and the tea inspector’s steady voice rose and fell as he told his tale. Everything was as peaceful and pleasant as could be—for Emmaline, at least. She could not say the same for Bostwick, whom she had last seen sulking around the halls of the palace, looking despondently into his empty top hat. She’d been tempted to invite him to lunch with them, but thought that Mr. Charles’s lessons about some of the more obscure aspects of the tea trade might not be the best way to cheer someone up.
“…and that’s where Dragon Well tea gets its name,” Mr. Charles was saying. “But I wonder if you’ve ever heard of the Drink of the Immortals?”
“Is that supposed to be some kind of elixir of life?” Emmaline asked.
“It’s actually just a particularly earthy variety of pu-erh. Never touch the stuff myself. Anyway, the interesting part is not the tea, but the creature it’s named for: immortal beasts.”
“What are they?”
“Mmm, it’s hard to say,” he said unctuously. He often used this tone of voice when negotiating with a client. “Are they goblins, or something else? No one knows. Long ago, humans and goblins alike told stories of strange beings, shape-shifters who never died and who, in no one’s memory, were ever born. Some said they were doppelgangers who imitated mortal beings and took their places, influencing the powers and politics of countries across the globe.”
“Why would they do that?” Emmaline asked, wide eyed.
Mr. Charles shrugged. “I guess if you live forever, you need a hobby. Anyway, humans stopped believing in such things long ago, but goblins still tell the tale of these mysterious people who may still walk the earth.”
He took another sip of tea, then began to spread cream on one of the scones.
“So…?” Emmaline asked, wondering where he was going with all this. She enjoyed Mr. Charles’s stories, but there were times when his point was opaque.
“That’s all, really. I’m no expert on such things. I just thought it was an interesting story. But I’m sure a thirteen-year-old doesn’t want to hear about some long dead creatures.”
“If they’re immortal, how can they be long dead?”
“Just checking to see if you were paying attention. You were, of course, but something else is on your mind. You were staring very seriously into your teacup a moment ago.”
“I was just thinking about Bostwick.”
“Ah, yes, the new court magician.”
“He seems so gloomy all the time, and he’s always thinking about that one spell.”
“Well, some people like brooding over things they’ll never be able to do,” the tea inspector said, pouring his fourth cup of tea.
“It doesn’t seem like he likes doing it at all. I just wish there was some way we could take his mind off it, but I’m not really sure what he’s interested in. I haven’t been able to talk to him very much, so—”
“It looks like this might be your chance,” Mr. Charles said, waving at someone behind her. She turned to see a brown-haired boy in a tailcoat coming towards them. He looked vaguely annoyed at life in general, far too world-weary for his sixteen years.
“Hello, von Dogsbody,” Mr. Charles said, though Emmaline knew Bostwick hated being referred to by his last name. “You seem peachy today. What’s up?”
“You’re late for some meeting about Earl Grey.”
Mr. Charles looked confused for a moment, as if he was desperately trying to remember who Earl Grey was. Then he snapped his fingers, rose, and clapped Bostwick on his shoulder.
“That’s right. I forgot all about it. Thanks for the tip, Dogsbody.”
“Why can’t you just call me Bostwick?” he asked in exasperation.
“‘Dogsbody’ is so much easier to remember. Anyway, since you’re already out here, why don’t you stay and tell the princess about the history of magic? You’ll find she’s quite bright,” he added when Bostwick cast a skeptical glance her way. “Besides, it’s your job to entertain the royal family.”
“With spells, not history,” Bostwick mumbled, taking Mr. Charles’s seat as the tea inspector whisked away through the garden.
“I like history,” Emmaline said, pushing the plate of scones over to him. He took one and began munching on it. This seemed to mollify him, so she continued. “I already know about how the invasion of goblins from Ataxia is what forced the human nations to join forces. It actually benefited humanity in the long run, because now everyone in the Empire has access to things like chocolate and lemons. We never would have been able to get those in Camellia originally, and we can trade our tea to other countries without worrying about bandits or tariffs or—”
She stopped, noticing that Bostwick’s look of irritation had returned. As she suspected, Mr. Charles’s brand of history—one that focused on trade—was a very acquired taste, and not one the magician seemed to enjoy.
“Um, anyway, Mr. Charles said that even when they formed the Empire, humans were still no match for goblins, so that’s why Melieh had to find a way for humans to do magic.”
“Sounds like you already know a lot about this,” Bostwick said, with the air of a mechanic who had been called out to fix a perfectly functioning machine.
“But what I don’t understand is how Melieh learned to do spells in the first place.”
“Technically, he always could. Magicians are born with the potential to perform magic, but without training, it’s too unpredictable and dangerous. That’s probably why goblins like it so much—though I hear they can control their magic without even trying… Anyway, Melieh was just the first human who learned how to do specific spells and tricks.”
“I don’t know… practice? Look, goblins liked casting spells on humans, humans learned to cast their own spells, and goblins were so offended by that fact that they left the Empire for good. That’s pretty much all you need to know about magic, as far as history is concerned.”
Emmaline was not entirely satisfied with this paltry explanation, most of which she knew already, but was glad that Bostwick seemed to be in slightly better spirits… at least until he tried to pour himself a cup of tea; Mr. Charles had emptied the pot earlier.
“Um, we can re-steep it,” Emmaline said, pulling the teapot over to the samovar. “While we wait, do you want to see the tea fields?”
“No, thanks.” He stared at his empty cup like it had rendered him a personal insult, and Emmaline decided that she had had enough of his gloominess for one afternoon.
“You know, Bostwick, things could be worse,” she said, standing and brushing some scone crumbs off her dress. “You could have to deal with an army of marauding goblins.”
“Or an immortal beast.”
She strolled away from the tea table and followed a stone path past red and orange rose bushes until it sloped down to a low stone wall that looked out over the Principality of Camellia. The hills across from her were green with row upon row of well kept tea bushes. Emmaline breathed in, smelling flowers blended with the scent of fresh-cut foliage.
I wish Bostwick would focus on this sort of thing, she thought, but I guess I can at least have one cup of tea with him, even if he won’t cheer up.
She spun around to return to the table, and felt something strange underfoot. Looking down, she saw that she was standing on what resembled a rat tail, though it was at least three feet long and continued into the bushes. She stepped off and followed it through the garden where it twisted around trees and flowerbeds until it finally connected to the backside of a short, furry creature with huge ears. At first Emmaline thought it was some sort of possum, until it turned to her and revealed a squashed, flat face with a malevolent expression. Though she had never seen one before, she knew immediately that it must be a goblin.
“Oh, um, is this your tail?” she said.
“Yeah,” said the goblin. “And you just stepped on it.”
Before Emmaline could apologize, the goblin snapped his stubby fingers, grinned at her, and ran toward the edge of the garden with his tail trailing behind him. Not wanting to lose sight of the first goblin she had ever seen, Emmaline started after him but tripped on the hem of her skirt—despite the fact that a moment ago it had been just below her knees. It felt like her entire dress was trying to swallow her, and soon her collar covered her face so that she couldn’t see a thing. What was more, the fabric had become so heavy that she had difficulty fighting her way out.
“Bostwick!” she called, hoping that he hadn’t left the garden.
My first encounter with a goblin, she thought, finally managing to get her head out of one of the sleeves, and he turns my dress enormous. No wonder the Empire expelled them.
“Emmaline?” Bostwick said, coming down the path. “Did you ca—ahh!”
He cringed away from her as she looked up at him—very far up. He towered over her, then knelt down, appearing huge.
“Oh no!” she said. “Bostwick, don’t tell me that thing shrank me. It shrank me, didn’t it?”
“Um, not exactly,” he said.
“What happened then? Why is everything so, so…”