Strangely, a cupping didn’t include actually drinking coffee but soaking grounds in cups of hot water and slurping the brew from a spoon. This seemed to be the elitist way to experience coffee. They discussed tasting notes and flavor profiles, leaning over a paper with color-coordinated adjectives arranged in concentric circles, using words like ‘acidity’ and ‘mouth-feel’ and ‘tannins.’ They agreed that one coffee had a wonderful pecan aroma but lacked body, and criticized the grassiness of another. Bracken watched them, quietly sipping his water, until the glass was empty and his attention had dwindled to nothing. He flipped through the pages of the coffee manual, looking for notes written by Sadie. The page titled ‘Ninjas’ was suddenly relevant. It had several entries. One, in Sadie’s neat handwriting, was contemplative:
When I asked her about it, Jaz couldn’t say whether the zealous ninjas respawned or not, but there are an awful lot of them, and always new ones coming into the shop. They might be reincarnations of their past selves, or clones, or who knows what, but when a ninja dies, they are lost to her. None ever recognize her, or have any prior memories of her. The rate at which she makes friends here and loses them is far greater than all the other worlds combined.
Dictators and tyrants spawn as fast as the ninjas. Ninjas are trained from birth to assassinate the dictators, as dictators are raised from birth to oppress cities and eventually be assassinated. Despicable as the order of things here might be to Jaz, she knows interference is pointless if not impossible. Regardless, it bothers her deeply.
Bracken looked up and stared at the windows, imagining what it had been like for Sadie, spending a quiet Sunday with Jaz and the ninjas. Perhaps she had written this very passage at the counter where Bracken sat, sipping coffee, listening to the technical coffeespeak, perhaps joining in.
He could almost see Sadie behind the counter, working the register while Jaz made drinks. Explaining the difference between roast flavors. Talking Jaz down from attacking customers. Eating pastries in the morning, ordering from a different restaurant every night.
He could almost hear her voice.
Janus cleared his throat, bringing Bracken’s attention back to the shop. Jaz was loading cups into the dishwasher. The ninjas had all gone.
Bracken shook himself and blinked. He stared at Janus, then over to Jaz. “I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t take too much time deciding. I have all the time in eternity, but you do not.”
Bracken opened his mouth to respond, but the sound of another voice stopped him. A female voice, belonging to a lovely creature with a short skirt and striped stockings who appeared to be a Morpha.
She was talking quietly to Athamas, who strode coolly beside her, his long coat feathering slightly along its edges.
Bracken blinked several times, rubbed his eyes and blinked again. He turned to Janus. “Did they just walk in through that window?”
But Janus had disappeared.
Bracken blinked again and looked to Jaz. She froze for a moment, watching them approach the counter. She glanced at Bracken, a flash of anxiety crossing her face. Then she breathed in sharply and said to Athamas, “When you see Weisan tell him ‘I told you so.'”
“I already have. He said he’ll get them next time,” Athamas replied.
Corrine scoffed, hopping onto a stool. “Yeah, right. You know how many the ninjas lost this month? Thirteen. Dictators lost four. Ninjas need better drafting next month.”
“She’s not the one to tell, Corrine,” said Athamas, glancing at Bracken as he sat. He quickly stood again, looking sharply at Jaz. “Jaz. What did you do?”
Jaz was suddenly occupied looking through the pastry case for blueberry cobbler.
Athamas turned stiffly to Bracken. “What are you doing here? Keep in mind it is within my discretion to terminate threatening anomalies ahead of schedule.”
It was Bracken’s turn to stare. On his last visit, Athamas had been focused on sending Fatson to some purgatory. But now all that focus was on Bracken. His mind went numb. He tried to say something, but he could only think of the hole in his chest, of blacking out and then waking up soaked in his own blood.
“It was an accident…” Jaz defended weakly.
Athamas produced a worn black notebook from inside his coat and flipped through it with intense concentration. Then he sighed deeply. “Now the date is going to be off.”
Corrine scoffed. “No, the date just looks off. It will look right in the base timeline in his world. It was the same with Sadie. When she traveled in here her date jumped all over the place, but it always went back to normal when this place stopped in her world. If you did this electronically you could program some equation for this, you realize.”
“I don’t need equations. The book is right. He’s wrong.” Athamas jabbed the notebook toward Bracken’s chest with a scowl. “What did you do?”
Jaz hopped over the counter, sliding across to drop down on the other side by Athamas. “It…there was an accident, and he got hurt…”
Athamas wasn’t listening. He studied the notebook again, one dark eye twitching, then shoved the book at Corrine. “Find an equation for this.”
Corrine stretched onto her tiptoes to look at the pages, and raised an eyebrow. “Shoot, kid…”
“What’s it say?” Bracken leaned across the counter to see the book.
Athamas pulled it from his view. “Tomorrow. In the base timeline, you would have succumbed tomorrow.”
Bracken stuttered. “T-tomorrow? B-but I…”
Jaz had gone quite still. “Athamas.”
Athamas stared hard at the page. Then he turned to study Bracken. “The timeline changed from the base timeline when he entered here, and now it has changed again. What was to happen will no longer happen at the proper time.” He thrust a long finger at Bracken. “You made an agreement with one of them. I recognize their work.”
He didn’t have to say Lumenatra; everyone in the room knew the implication, even Bracken.
“I’m…supposed to die tomorrow?” Bracken began to feel lightheaded. He steadied himself with a hand on the counter.
“Not anymore. Since you are now a free-roaming anomaly you can be terminated immediately,” said Athamas.
“What?“ Bracken’s steadying hand clamped down on the counter edge while he scanned the room, bracing for a dark, birdlike shadow to appear and slice him with its beak.
“Athamas, no.” Jaz stepped in front of Athamas, forcing him to meet her eyes. “It wasn’t him. I made the agreement on his behalf.”
Bracken stared at her.
So did Athamas. “How could you do such a thing? You are here because of a previous agreement you made!”
“I couldn’t let him die! He’s Sadie’s nephew.”
“Sadie never caused me such trouble. When he reenters his home world, he can cause things to happen that wouldn’t have, had he died at the proper time!” His tone went from stern to angry, its deep resonance filling the room.
Jaz flinched, but stood her ground. “He’s not going to cause anything to happen. He’s going to go home.”
“He was supposed to die tomorrow, Jaz. What if he goes home and the next day he shoots someone who’s supposed to die in 40 years?”
“He’s not going to shoot anyone!”
Corrine lounged against the counter, resting on both elbows. “The Lumenatra jack with probabilities all the time, Athamas. Just look at this shop. That book will never be a hundred percent accurate because of them. You have to let some of this slide.”
Bracken’s head was spinning, trying to grasp the nature of the conversation. Of what Jaz had done on his behalf. “So was I supposed to die yesterday, or tomorrow?”
“You won’t die tomorrow, that’s the point,” Corrine said.
Athamas straightened. “If an anomaly is deemed a big enough threat I—”
Jaz stepped closer, laying a hand on his arm. “Please, Athamas. Don’t.”
Athamas looked down at her. “Why does it concern you so much?”
Jaz flinched again. “He’s…my friend.”
Bracken swallowed, his chest suddenly tight as his mind flashed back to last night, of refusing to admit the same to himself. “Look. Why don’t I just stay with Jaz in The Defiant? Then I can’t go out and shoot someone, and mess up the balance or whatever.”
Athamas stiffened. “Because there’s nothing forcing you to stay here. Sadie went with me willingly when her time came, but you are nothing like her. Do you know how many people die every second? How many I am talking to this very instant? Tell me why you, out of all of them, should be an exception?”
Bracken opened his mouth to answer, and suddenly couldn’t. Because Athamas was right. He was nothing like Sadie. Even knowing what hell Jaz endured in this prison disguised as a cafe, knowing she had gone out of her way to protect him, even saved his life knowing he would probably abandon her for a promise of finding some version of his aunt—which in itself was shameful enough—he was at that moment still considering doing exactly that.
Which made him even more ashamed.
“Because,” he finally managed to say, “I’m going to help her escape.”