20. Ambiguousness

Jaz collected an empty teapot from a patron’s table, adding it to the growing collection on her tray. The patron— an elf—murmured thanks, stood smoothly and glided toward the doors in a whisper of silks. She watched them join the procession of similarly dressed pedestrians who moved along the sidewalk in groups of twos and threes, talking quietly among themselves. A light breeze stirred the feathery leaves of trees lining the road, causing a languid shower of pink petals that brushed the windows of The Defiant as they fell.

Thursday was Elf Day, when The Defiant stood on a quiet street in Houzai, a country famous for its advanced technology, relatively peaceful nature, and its inhabitants being the most beautiful and intelligent of all races in the world. Jaz had mixed feelings about Elf Day. It was generally quiet, with little chance of getting mauled to death or extorted, but on the other hand, she found elves to be rigid and fussy. Not to mention they preferred tea over coffee, so Jaz would spend the day collecting used teapots and washing them to be immediately used again.

It took more effort than tea should, in Jaz’s opinion. Tea in general was fine. She liked it. What annoyed her was how elves managed to make even the simple process of soaking leaves in hot water complicated.

Jaz stood beside the table, staring at the windows and following this line of thought for as long as possible. This allowed her to ignore the presence of the courier, Oz, who sat at the counter, watching her with quiet green eyes. Oz was Cialos, a race rarely seen outside of their far-off native country, whose bodies were almost entirely composed of water. Like the elves, Cialos were beautiful, graceful, with flawless skin and silky hair, but unlike elves, their skin was absolutely smooth, without wrinkles or folds, even around the knuckles or eyes, where skin would naturally crease. Neither did they have fingernails, eyebrows or eyelashes, unless they chose to form those details upon themselves, which they rarely did.

Like Morphas, Cialos could change shape. Unlike Morphas, who changed color and form, Cialos took a more random approach; transforming fingers into spikes, arms into whips, toes into sawblades; manipulating their mass to be pliable and smooth as seaweed or armorlike and abrasive as coral; taking on these attributes without warning or intent, unaware of—or indifferent to—injury caused to whoever or whatever was near them when they did.

Oz was one of the few Cialos who had left his homeland and the only one Jaz had met who wore clothing and had a job. The choice seemed to have been made on a whim, though his worshipful devotion to his employer, who among other things curated a large collection of ancient texts, probably factored into it.

More customers entered, forcing her to return to the register, and then to the tea counter to prepare yet another pot of tea.

“You seem agitated, Jaz. Were you surprised to see me?” Oz sipped water from a pint glass. He wore a yellow and black checkered vest. A matching motorcycle helmet sat on the counter near him.

“I thought I was on your list of people to shun.” Jaz said casually, keeping her eyes on her work.

“You are.” Oz adjusted the leather strap of the carrier’s satchel across his chest. “But I’m supposed to meet someone here. He’s returning an item.”

“Ah.”

“You probably know him.” Oz set down the glass and rested smooth, milky hands on the counter, one atop the other. “It’s Huey Castelaine.”

Jaz took the teapot and two mugs to the waiting customers, then without waiting for Oz to say more when she returned to the workspace, took a trayful of dirty teapots the sink to load them in the dishwasher. She took her time, hoping when she finished Bracken would be there, or Oz wouldn’t be, but Oz remained at the counter when she had dried the last pot, and Bracken had not appeared.

“Hubert Castelaine borrows a book from my patron,” Oz said in near-monotone, sounding bored, but still watching her, “and then arranges to meet me here to return it, instead of at the tea shop which is closer to the port and more convenient for him. Why, I wonder.”

Jaz couldn’t tell if Oz was being sarcastic or introspective. It was hard to tell anything about his kind: everything about them was ambiguous, from their tones and expressions to their gender. Sadie had had less trouble reading Oz than Jaz did; they had even seemed to have a rapport until the unfortunate book-burning episode; but Sadie was gone now. Jaz half suspected that was the real reason Oz hadn’t visited The Defiant in so long.

“He likes my coffee,” said Jaz, watching tea leaves expand in the pot. “And I don’t ship to Alchaven; too much stuff gets hijacked there. He’d have been coming to Houzai anyway to meet you. He probably wanted to avoid an extra stop.”

“Elves don’t drink coffee.”

“He’s half human. Maybe he puts it in his tea.” Jaz took the teapot and two cups to the waiting customers.

When she came back Oz propped his head on a raised fist, looking past her toward the basement door. “And who is this, now?”

Bracken had just emerged, shutting the door behind him. He held a pastry box in one hand and rubbed his chin absently.

Jaz moved toward him, eyebrows raised and hopeful. He seemed distracted, staring at her but not seeing her. “This is Bracken.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Bracken, this is Oz.”

“And who is he?” Oz persisted.

Bracken blinked, refocusing, and leaned around Jaz to see Oz. “I’m the hired help. Hi.”

Oz’s eyes flitted to Bracken, then back to Jaz. “He’s not as pretty as the last one you had. Where did you find him?”

“He found me.” Jaz squeezed Bracken’s arm and inclined her head interrogatively. He bobbed the pastry box slightly in response.

“Mhm. What is in the box?” Oz asked Bracken.

“Huh?”

Oz inclined his head toward the pastry box as Jaz had done.

“Oh. Just cobbler. I was just about to tell Jaz it’s…bad.” Bracken tipped his hand and let the box slide heavily into the trash can.

Jaz hiccuped, swallowing a rising exclamation.

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