The Tea Master and the Detective | Chapter 5 of 10 - Part: 1 of 24

Author: Aliette de Bodard | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 3919 Views | Add a Review

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The Tea Master and the Detective

The new client sat in the chair reserved for customers, levelly gazing at The Shadow’s Child—hands apart, legs crossed under the jade-green fabric of her tunic. The tunic itself had been high-quality once, displaying elegant, coordinated patterns, but it was patched, and the patterns were five years old at least, the stuff that got laughed at even in a provincial backwater such as the Scattered Pearls belt. Her skin was dark, her nose aquiline. When she spoke, her accent was flawlessly Inner Habitats. “My name is Long Chau. You have a good reputation as a brewer of serenity. I want to use your services.”

The Shadow’s Child stifled a bitter laugh. Whatever her reputation was, it hadn’t translated into customers fighting to see her. “Go ahead.”

That gaze again from Long Chau. The Shadow’s Child was used to respect or fear; to downcast eyes; to awkwardness, even, with people who weren’t used to dealing with a shipmind, especially one that wasn’t involved in passenger service.

The Shadow’s Child’s body—the metal hull that encased her heartroom and her core—was far away from the office compartment they were both in. The avatar she projected into the habitat wasn’t much different from it: a large, sweeping mass of metal and optics that took up most of the office, shifting between different angles on the hull and ports, giving people a glimpse of what she was really like—vast enough to transport merchant crews and supplies, the whole of her hanging in the cool vacuum of space outside the orbitals of the Scattered Pearls belt, with bots crowding her hulls and sensors constantly bombarded by particles. She could have made herself small and unthreatening. She could have hovered over people’s shoulders like a pet or a children’s toy, as was the fashion amongst the older shipminds. But she’d lived through a war, an uprising and a famine, and she was done with diminishing herself to spare the feelings of others.

Long Chau said, “I’m going into deep spaces to recover something. I need you to make a blend that keeps me functional.”

Now that was surprising. “Most of my customers prefer oblivion when they travel between the stars,” The Shadow’s Child said.

A snort from Long Chau. “I’m not a drugged fool.”

Or a fool at all. The name she’d given, Long Chau, was an improbable confection of syllables, a style name, except as style names went it was utterly unsubtle. Dragon Pearl. “But you’re drugged, aren’t you?” The Shadow’s Child asked. She kept her voice gentle, at that tricky balance point where customers had trust, but no fear.

An expansive shrug from Long Chau. “Of course I’m drugged.” She didn’t offer further explanation, but The Shadow’s Child saw the way she held herself. She was languid and cool, seemingly in utter control, but that particular stillness was that of a spring wound so tight it’d snap.

“May I?” The Shadow’s Child asked, drifting closer and calling up the bots. She wasn’t physically there, but physical presence was mostly overrated: the bots moved as easily as the ones onboard her real body.

Long Chau didn’t even flinch as they climbed up her face. Two of them settled at the corner of her eyes, two at the edge of her lips, and a host clung to the thick mane of her hair. Most people, for all their familiarity with bots, would have recoiled.

A human heartbeat, two: data flowed back to The Shadow’s Child, thick and fast. She sorted it out easily, plotting graphs and discarding the errant measurements in less than the time it took the bots to drop down from Long Chau’s head.

She gazed, for a moment, at the thick knot of electrical impulses in Long Chau’s brain, a frenzied and complex dance of neuron activation. For all her computational power, she couldn’t hope to hold it all in her thoughts, or even analyse it all, but she’d seen enough patterns to be able to recognise its base parameters.

Long Chau was drugged to the gills, and more: her triggers were all out of balance, too slow at low stimuli and completely wild past a certain threshold. The Shadow’s Child accessed Long Chau’s public records, again. She finally asked a question she usually avoided. “The drugs—did your doctor prescribe these to you?”

Long Chau smiled. “Of course not. You don’t need a doctor, these days.”

“For some things, maybe you should,” The Shadow’s Child said, more sharply than she intended to.

“You’re not one.”

“No,” The Shadow’s Child said. “And perhaps not the person who can help you.”

“Who said I wanted to be helped?” Long Chau shifted, smiling widely—distantly, serenely amused. “I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.”

“Except that you came to see me.”

“Ah. Yes.” She shook her head with that same odd languidness. “I do have... an annoying side effect. I’m more focused and faster, but only in a narrow range. Deep spaces are well outside that range.”

The Shadow’s Child had never dealt very well with dancing around the truth. “What are you talking about? Anxiety? Traumatic reaction?”

“Fuzziness,” Long Chau said. “I can’t think in deep spaces.”

It wasn’t unusual. Time and space got weird, especially deeper in. It took effort to remain functional. Some people could, some people couldn’t. The Shadow’s Child had had one lieutenant who spent every dive into deep spaces curled up on the bed, whimpering—it had been a hundred years ago, before the brews got developed, before brewers of serenity started doing brisk business on space stations and orbitals, selling teas and brews that made it easier for humans to bear the unknowable space shipminds used to travel faster than light.

“You could stop taking the drugs. It would probably help,” The Shadow’s Child said.

“I could.” Long Chau’s tone made it clear that she wouldn’t even consider it. The Shadow’s Child thought for a while, reviewing evidence as she did. Long Chau was entirely right. She was no doctor; merely a small-rank brewer of serenity struggling to make ends meet. And she just couldn’t afford to ignore a customer.

“I could make a blend that would suit you,” The Shadow’s Child said.

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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