It was a beautiful story. Bracken read it when he finally woke up, curled on his side on the cot. He turned the pages slowly, savoring each illustration and word. He remembered the story from when Sadie used to tell it, but she had expanded on it since then, merging it with the story about the blue-haired princess. Now that Bracken knew the story behind the story, as it were, he could see why she had merged them into one.
He was thirsty, his throat dry and lips tight, but he continued to read. In the end, the bird traded her wings, her ordinary, non-magical wings, for a key that would free herself and the princess from the box. Bracken had to brush his hand across his eyes every few moments to clear away the tears blurring his vision as he read. The illustrations moved scratchily over the last page: The princess distraught because the bird could no longer fly, and the bird overjoyed to finally be able to free the princess:
‘Don’t worry,’ the bird told the princess. ‘When we’re free I’ll just ride on your shoulder.’
Bracken had to push the book aside then. His tears were falling too fast, and he didn’t want to ruin the pages. He curled over his knees, shoulders shaking with emotion. This was why she’d left, and why she’d stayed away. Not for flightiness, not to escape a family that should have treated her better, but for loyalty. She’d gone to help a friend.
After a while, Bracken leaned back against the wall, gasping softly for air and rubbing his arm across his damp face. He pulled the book back onto his lap, and began reading again from the beginning. He read and re-read the story, turning the pages back and forth to admire the moving artwork. He only stopped when his thirst grew too strong to ignore. His limbs were stiff and cramping by now, his body demanding hydration.
He finally ventured upstairs, parched and sluggish, not bothering to texturize, but at least composed enough for conversation.
Vivid afternoon sunlight oozed into the shop, adding a glow to everything it touched. The chairs and tables were returned to their normal places, and Jaz had cleaned the floor. The spare suitcases were also gone, no doubt stored in the basement until they could be returned to their owners in a week. Outside, the brick landing pad and the city of Vasencea had been replaced by a wide paved street lined with low, white houses with red tile roofs. The roofs peaked sharply in the middle and curled up at the eaves, like tall red hats. Short trees with delicate, whiplike branches stood in front of the houses. A soft breeze occasionally rippled the bright yellow leaves.
Jaz looked up from wiping a counter as he sidled onto the nearest stool. She looked tired, her eyes and mouth tight with hidden worry. “I was just about to check on you,” she said, coming over. “How are you feeling?”
“Sore,” Bracken replied. “It’s too bad I don’t reset like you.”
Jaz picked up a teapot. “Want some? Tea is good for healing.”
Bracken shook his head. “Just a gallon or so of water, please.”
Jaz poured him a glass of water, which needed refilling twice before he slowed down to sip on a fourth.
“Where are we now?”
“Kysoto,” she answered.
Bracken couldn’t remember reading anything about a Kysoto. Probably because he had stopped reading the binders once he found Vasencea, where Sadie’s alternate lived. The coffee manual sat near the register; Bracken stretched an arm across the workspace to grab it.
Jaz began to say more, but stopped as Janus appeared on a stool beside Bracken.
“So, you were unable to find any information about Sadie’s whereabouts in Vasencea,” said Janus, watching Bracken retract his arm with the notebook in tow.
Jaz made a small, irritated noise in her throat and went away to arrange spoons and shot glasses on the espresso counter.
“It’s too bad I didn’t.” Bracken flipped through the coffee manual, searching for information on Kysoto. “Especially since Jaz says I have to go home tomorrow.”
“Even though Jaz doesn’t wish you to remain, I still could use you.” Janus’s smile seemed out of place beneath his inhuman eyes. “You can still be united with your aunt. Even though she will be slightly different from the Sadie you knew, in time you will not notice. New memories will overtake the old.”
Bracken thumbed the edge of the manual, fanning the worn pages. He waited for Jaz to yell at Janus, but she kept her back to them.
“You should hurry and decide,” Janus prompted. “You don’t have much time left.”
“Until what? Monday?” Bracken looked over as the doors opened and stiffened. Costello walked toward them, clothed in loose black clothes, holding a black scarf in one hand.
Bracken gripped the edge of the counter. “Jaz, you said this wasn’t—” He stopped.
Jaz was smiling.
“Hello, Kumosan,” she said to Costello.
“Good morning, Jaz-san.” Costello-Kumosan bowed prayerfully, pressing the scarf between his palms. He climbed onto the stool in front of the empty row of cups. Bracken gaped. The voice was Costello’s, as well as the face and body. His eyes had the same piercing confidence, his jaw just as solid and manly, but there was no bluster or bullying, no shouting or shooting of air bullets.
“What are we tasting today, Jaz-san?” Asked the new, improved Costello.
“I have three coffees. Two with spice notes and one—if I did it right—with notes of toasted marshmallow. You all get to help me pick a holiday roast to feature.”
“With great pleasure,” said Costello-Kumosan. He noticed Bracken staring at him and nodded pleasantly. “Greetings. Are you here for the cupping ceremony?”
Bracken said, “No…yes. Kind of.”
Janus leaned in and said softly, “Not to worry. He is simply an alternate version of the Costello you encountered yesterday.”
“So…there are two of them.”
“Many more than two,” Janus corrected.
Bracken continued to stare. “What is he wearing?”
“Work clothes. He’s an assassin.”
“Is he going to shoot me again?”
“No. He doesn’t know you, or anything his alternate does. The only thing they have in common is they look the same. Also, he only kills dictators.”
“Does Kysoto have surplus of dictators?”
“They are always popping up, here and there. I think they’re simply spawned in tanks and shipped off to take over cities. Eventually they get assassinated by the ninjas, and replaced, and so on.”
“Sounds like a racket,” said Bracken.
Janus shrugged and sipped his coffee. “Whoever organizes the coups and assassinations profits enormously from it, I’m sure.”
“Who’s behind it all?”
“It hardly matters,” Janus said dismissively.
“Yeah, but it’s interesting…”
Two more men dressed in the same black outfits entered. They greeted Jaz respectfully and settled at the counter with Kumosan.
Jaz returned their greetings and turned to Bracken. “They’re here to taste coffee. We do it every Sunday.”
She smiled as she said this, not her short smile but a long one, the same one she had given Sean when he complemented her roasting methods.
“Wow, Jaz. Coffee appreciation really is the way to your heart,” observed Bracken.
“I’m just happy someone else appreciates it,” she said pointedly, turning back to address Kumosan. “Where is Weisan? He’s usually the first one in.”
“Weisan has gone on his final mission,” said Kurosan reverently.
“Oh.” Jaz turned back to the tea counter, somewhat deflated.
Bracken leaned in to Janus to ask softly, “What does that mean?”
“He died attempting to assassinate the latest dictator.”
Jaz gripped the edge of the counter with both hands, staring down at her knuckles.
“He was ready to give his life for his people since the day he was born,” recited Kumosan.
Jaz blinked hard several times before turning and opening the dishwasher. “I’ll miss him.”
“Do not worry, Jaz-san. He will respawn until he completes his mission. It is the ninja way.” Kumosan nodded.
“Whenever one of you respawns I never see him again. It’s the same to me as if you died.”
Bracken felt a twinge of sympathy for her. He wouldn’t have believed it before last night, but now he knew that Jaz actually did care what happened to the people in the worlds outside of her shop, in her own way.
“Have hope,” Kumosan was saying. “We will assassinate the despot who oppresses your city. It is our destiny.”
“It’s not my city.” Jaz shut the dishwasher harder than necessary. Then she changed her tone and said brightly, “Let’s begin, shall we?”