When it came to ranking her fellow Temporal League agents, Lady Gwendolyn Canby-Cross had no qualms about putting Dr. Jing Qian in the tippy top percentile. Qian, a fairly recent recruit, had brains for days, skills for miles and seemed utterly fearless… if often a bit overconfident. Knowing of her teammate’s enthusiastic praise for her judgment and her abilities, Jing Qian vowed to never, ever tell Gwendolyn of how easily she was waylaid by a serving drudge in a Ravilan tea room like the rankest of amateurs.
Tall, swimmy shapes were as much as her mildly-concussed brain could process when Jing first began to regain consciousness in the back room of the Rambling Lotus Tea House; that and the fact that her current beau, Mr. Sonny Tsai (whose offer of aid she declined after telling him of her planned trip to Ravila) should be added to the list of people from whom she did not want to hear “I told you so.” While Dr. Qian had some training in fist aid, her PhD was in physics, not medicine, leaving her capable of only dim, semi-informed concern over the long term effects of blows to the head. As she became more fully awake, mental clarity did not bring with it anything nice; only the awareness that she was on the floor, her back pressed against a curved, wooden barrel. She tried to move her arms forward, but she’d been bound with rope that went from her left wrist, ’round the back of the barrel to her right wrist. Through the disconcerting haze of pain and confusion, it finally sank in that she was not alone.
Ladies were wandering in and out of the room, apparently curious as to how things were going, but not so curious that they cared to do more than take a quick peek and then return to their tea-soaked jollity. But a few stood before Jing, resolute and unmoving like a particularly judgmental row of lampposts. Taking them in, right to left, she saw:
– Madame Bloch’s pretty, petite blonde maid giving her a snakish, evil look
– A well-dressed, willowy aristocratic sort who probably would have been looking down her nose at Jing even if she weren’t tied up and sitting on the floor
– A plump, shortish woman who had been filling teacups and may have been the tea house’s owner
– A boney, severe looking woman with glasses and a pinched face who matched the maid’s scornful gaze
– A tall, young-old blonde wearing too much makeup who was puffing on a long cigarette as if she were sustained by tobacco smoke rather than oxygen.
Feeling clear-headed enough to take a first stab at sussing out what was going on, Dr. Qian said to the assembled ladies, “You weren’t drinking Guilliti Tea, were you?” to which the Maid smartly replied, “Huh?”
“The Guilliti Tea… it counteracts Mr. Marrow’s mind control drug. But that’s not what you’re all drinking, is it? You’re still following his orders. What’s the matter, can’t afford luxury tea on a maid’s salary?”
“What is she talking about?” said Boney in a most impatient manner. “Who can’t afford the tea?”
“We’re not going to let you do what you’re doing,” said the Maid to the captive. “You’re not leaving here tonight.”
Jing pressed on. “Why did Marrow order you to tie me up? Why not just kill me and be done with it?”
The Tea Lady seemed shocked. “Killing? What’s she talking about killing for?”
Boney seemed confused. “And who’s Marrow?”
“Isn’t that badly-dressed, crazy priest fellow named Marrow?” asked the blonde Chimney.
“Are you talking about the crazy priest fellow?” asked Willowy.
“Of course I’m talking about the crazy priest!” said Jing. “The one who gave you your orders!”
The Maid chuckled. “We do not take orders from him! That’s the men you’re thinking of. They’re the ones who’ve all gone mad as squirrels!”
“We’re just the ones who’re the better for it!” said the Tea Lady, grinning.
“So, it’s money? Marrow is paying you to…”
“Money? What money?” said Boney the impatient. “This girl makes no sense.”
“I’m confused,” said Willowy.
“Well, she’s confusing!” cried Boney. She directed a pinched, bespectacled glare at the doctor. “Do you ever make any sense?”
“So the priest isn’t paying you? And you didn’t drink the tea?”
The Tea Lady was exasperated. “And she’s back on the bloody tea again!”
“Everybody drinks the tea,” said the Maid.
“All the women anyway,” said the Tea Lady. “It’s healthy. Keeps away the bloat.”
“And the vampires!” said Boney. “Taints your blood so the vampires don’t bother you. Stupid bloody vampires!”
“Gives your head a nice little buzz,” said the Chimney between drags. “It’s like… wild…”
“It’s good stuff, that Guilliti Tea,” said the Tea Lady. “All the women drink it.”
“Including all of you?”
The Tea Lady was re-exasperated. “You’re in a tea house, girl! Good lord, she’s thick!”
Jing was starting to wonder if she was right. “Did you think I was working for Marrow?”
“Marrow?” queried Boney.
“The crazy priest.”
“Oh, we know you’re not working for the priest,” said the Maid.
“THEN WHY AM I TIED TO A [CENSORED] BARREL OF WINE?!? Don’t you know I’m trying to stop Marrow and get the men back?”
The Tea Lady was re-re-exasperated. “Get ’em back?? By the Builder, girl, we’ve only just got rid of ’em!”
“How are we supposed to have any fun with those patronizing, needy twits around?” said Willowy.
Finally, the Maid explained: “I told the ladies you were helping Madame Bloch and her doctor friend. You being tied up here should slow down their efforts so they can’t stop the boys going on their little trip… give my friends here a nice little break from looking after those useless, boring sacks of useless boring! Give Alderman Bloch something to keep him busy other than pinching my backside when his wife’s not looking… when he thinks she’s not looking. And it gives all of us a chance to let our hair down… have a bit of fun for once!”
Some ladies standing behind the Maid began to cheer, triumphantly raising their teacups. But, as it so often does, the mood shifted dramatically when the nuns walked in.
The first one to enter was thin and tall with dark skin and a globe of dense, black hair growing out of her head. She was followed by a shorter nun with pigtails, dressed in the same dark robes as her companion. “All right, ladies,” said the tall lead nun, “Surely you knew you were having far too much fun for it to last. Staying out all night, tea and whist into the wee hours… and, really, ladies… kidnapping?! You know this is kidnapping, right? That’s never good for tourism!”
“Sister Sade!” said the Tea Lady, slightly shocked. “What is it you want? Can I help you with something?”
“Why don’t we start,” said the nun, “by helping you avoid criminal charges and releasing our friend here. Sister Aminata, would you be so kind?”
“Now hold on! This isn’t at all fair!” said Boney. “She’s going to try and keep our husbands here!”
“The men’ll go away for a while and then they’ll come back,” said the Maid matter-of-factly. “Would that be such a tragedy? This interference is quite uncalled for!”
“Let the boys have their little jaunt,” said Willowy. “Like Beth says, it’s no tragedy.”
“Really, Madame Elena!” said Sister Sade. “You can see the armed airships from Nunnery Hill! Their ‘little jaunt’ is to blow up a major city! One that happens to have a fairly large impact on our local economy and we can’t have that. Sorry, girls, but they have to be stopped. Sister Aminata, if you don’t mind…”
Many of the nuns of the Church of the Builder routinely carry useful tools on their person. No one other than Dr. Qian was terribly surprised when Sister Aminata produced a machete from beneath her robes and cut the doctor free with a single swipe of the blade.
The Maid was disgusted. “Leave it to nuns to ruin everyone’s good time,” she said. “A few more rounds, Mrs. Balbon? While we still can…” Mrs. Balbon the Tea Lady was feeling perfectly mutinous, but didn’t wish to jeopardize her future dealings with the nuns of the Church. She followed the Maid and the others out into the main room.
“You must be from out of town,” Sister Sade said to Jing. “You know how I know? You don’t seem insane. Visitors are the only sane women in Ravila these days! Well, visitors and nuns.”
“You know,” said Jing as she removed the ropes from her wrists, “I’m very grateful, somewhat perplexed, and a little bit panicked. So let’s start with ‘Thank you’ and get the grateful part out of the way. It’s a lucky thing you came to the tea house.”
“It wasn’t luck, it was Madame Bloch. She sent a messenger over saying she desperately needed 80 pounds of Guilliti Tea. We grow it at the convent, but nearly every bit we harvest, we sell. We didn’t even have enough on hand to fill the order! (We grow it, we don’t drink it.) But I knew Mrs. Balbon always purchased extra so I thought we’d stop by and buy back some of her surplus.”
“Okay, still perplexed,” said Jing. “Madame Bloch sent me here to get tea… and then she got in touch with you?”
“Madame Bloch sent you here to get you out of the way,” said the sister. “If I’d been able to fill her tea order more quickly, without coming here, I’m sure she and her creepy husband and her creepy doctor friend would be busy hatching plots for what to do with the fleet of deadly airships that just fell into their collective lap.”
Dr. Qian was feeling extremely irked. “It’s as if I haven’t been right once during this entire escapade! That Madame Bloch… what a minx! And she seemed so… civic-minded.”
“Yeah… and she makes Lady Macbeth look like Florence Nightingale. You’re not a local so you can be forgiven for not knowing who’s who amongst our scheming, wretched, lying scum. Of course, everyone’s plans need to change now that the airships have gone.”
Sister Sade pointed at Jing. “And you’re back to panicked!”
“I’ve got to get the tea and get back to my flyer! Intercept those airships before they reach New Babbage!”
“Sister Aminata and I will go with you… make sure no one interferes with your departure. And, if you don’t mind, I have one or two other suggestions that might change your plans a little,” said Sister Sade with a wicked wink.
“Good heavens,” thought Dr. Qian. “Whatever would Sonny Tsai say?”