Late afternoon light glittered off the folds of midnight oil that crinkled under the delicate pressure of touch, the planes and angles worn soft and hazy from the feather light caress of a thin pair of hands, skin pale against the stark black of the paper crane’s wings. Hammered gold foil glossed the wings and neck of the ephemeral bird, twinkling in the buttery sunlight, lines of fire on the striking facsimile. A soft rasp scraped aloud in the relative quiet, finger pads whispering against the polymer of the delicate piece of art.
“Would you like some more tea, love?” came a hushed drawl, halting the stroking fingertips in mid motion like a startled deer gazing at a previously unnoticed interloper.
“Yes, thank you,” replied a younger woman’s voice, perhaps unsullied by age though there was a quality to the ethereal lilt that was sad beyond the capacity of someone so young.
Without further comment, a woman in red and gold plaid wools swished forward, her wrinkled, age mottled hands clutching an ornate teapot, steam wisping from its spout. In fluid, practised motions, she leant over the glass topped table and poured forth a stream of dark amber liquid from the intricately worked porcelain pot, the vessel covered in a motif of white lilies on deep red glaze.
“Will that be all?” asked the woman when she had finished filling the matching cup and saucer, the piping ambrosia giving off a musky aroma that wafted in the still air. As she waited for a response, her eyes crinkled in sympathetic concern, though her lips quivered slightly in apprehension when there was no immediate answer.
“Perhaps a tangerine from the garden if you please, Mercy,” the younger voice asked wearily. “It’s no trouble if you’re busy or if you’d rather not bother.”
“Nonsense, love. I’ll be back in a jiffy,” Mercy said with a bob of her head. In seconds her clicking heels rang out tartly in the stillness of the glass panelled solar as she retreated, though the soft pattering of the rain on the roof soon became the only sound that could be heard as a door closed somewhere in the distance.
Without waiting for her return, the hands grasping the paper crane relinquished their grip on the miniature bird, balancing the sculpture on its angular legs atop a thin, paperback novel that shared the tabletop with a plate littered with the crumbs of a ridged, half-eaten shortbread round. In return, they took up the teacup, red lacquered fingernails clicking against the porcelain in a light staccato as the cup was raised to a full pair of deep crimson lips.
Idly, the woman with the red fingernails sipped on the still scalding tea with little regard for the sensation of the super heated liquid as it ran down her throat in smooth waves. Wanly, a smile crept across her slender jaw and tugged at sharp cheekbones, the severe lines of a gaunt face softening from the warmth of the Assam blend.
When she had imbibed her fill of the smoky tea, the woman returned the teacup to its saucer before settling back into the hanging wicker chair, the off white cushion of the seat cradling her like an open armed embrace. As she watched, pearly clouds rolled across the evening sky and a light rain tapped gently on the glass above before running down in long trails or solitary droplets. Out there seemed so far away, the warmth indoors a far cry from the blustery winds that slid over the steel and glass alike on their westward journey.
The lazy incandescence of the nascent evening sun sheared through the roiling silver storm front, the translucent rays of liquid light dazzling the eye through the myriad raindrops. Admiring the spectacle of the fading rain shower, the woman brushed back a lock of rose blonde hair, tucking the strand behind her ear before taking another sip of tea.
This time she balanced the saucer on her lap, her knees tucked under her slight frame as she let the teacup hover in front of her lips, the last tendrils of steam swimming in her vision as she contented herself to watch the world go by. From where she sat, the crowned tips of several skyscrapers peered over the evergreen foliage of the back garden, a stream of drone traffic woven between the corporate spires.
As she watched the rains retreat and the moon rise behind them, its pale glory emblazoned with the light of the still present sun, the sound of returning footsteps echoed throughout the solar, pinging off the wood panel of the back wall and the flagstone of the floor like little gunshots.
“Found a nice plump one for you, love,” Mercy remarked as she set down a pealed and dressed tangerine, the brilliant orange of the wedges reflecting off the white china plate that they rested on.
“Thank you, Mercy,” crooned the blonde woman, her smoke-stained hum as warm as the tea that still clung to the bottom of her cup, “you’ve been nothing but kind since we met. You have my gratitude.”
Mercy blushed at the praise and bobbed once in a small curtsy that made the woman in the chair blink in surprise.
“Of course, miss, uh… Miss?” Mercy trailed off expectantly, waiting for a name to put to the hard face the looked back at her almost fondly.
“My name is Beatrix, but please just call me Bea. I feel ridiculous being treated like a royal or some corporate executive from the bay area,” Beatrix offered, her gaze softening further when the woman blushed again at the implied tone of familiarity.
“Beatrix. What a lovely name,” Mercy gushed, her hands flapping restlessly against the pressed fabric of her monographed apron and plaid dress. “Some of the others down at the café said you came in with JJ just yesterday.”
Beatrix watched Mercy for a moment as the woman paused meaningfully, clearly awaiting a response to an unasked question. After pondering the subtext for a moment, Beatrix nodded and sighed softly.
“Yes I did. She picked me up from an unfortunate situation that required outside assistance,” Beatrix said.
“Oh! That sounds dreadful, love. Was it really the the White Dragons?” Mercy asked hurriedly before drawing up short and swallowing hastily when Beatrix narrowed her eyes perceptibly.
“Word travels fast here, I see. No, it’s all right. I don’t mind,” Beatrix murmured. “I’m already getting used to the questions. Simply put, yes, it was the White Dragon. I needed to get out.”
When she saw that her curiosity hadn’t been rebuffed out of hand, Mercy took a few steps closer and lowered her voice conspiratorially, “If you don’t mind my asking, is it true what Charon and the ladies down at the café were saying? That the Dragons bought your debt off a collection agency, and… owned you?”
Beatrix paused again, longer this time, before responding, a distance coming to her coppery green eyes. Rather than answering verbally, she simply turned her back towards the other woman, unfastening the buttons of her high collared vest until at last the felted interior peeled away to reveal the portrait of a massive white dragon biting its own tail that had been etched into her skin, a ring of red roses outlining the mythical creature.
“Oh god. So, it is true. I’m sorry I asked,” Mercy stammered, clutching at her chin with a hand, her fingernails clasped between her teeth. “I suppose you get lots of people prying into things like that.”
“They do, and I answer,” Beatrix replied casually, twirling a strand of hair around her forefinger with lazy motions of her hand.
“What was it like?” Mercy asked, her eyes wide with morbid curiosity. “And what does it mean, having that tattoo on your back like that?”
“It’s how they tell who belongs to them,” Beatrix explained in a bored monotone that cut like glass, “You’ve likely seen something like this on the wall of a convenience store or a back alley, haven’t you? I thought so. It’s not that uncommon the farther from the metro centre you get.”
Mercy balked at the outpouring of information, her eyes widening as she processed Beatrix’s words. Her whole body leaned inward at a slight angle as Beatrix continued, her flat tone unfettered by anything other than an inward tiredness.
“To them, I was nothing but another piece of that property that needed to be looked after, maintained, cleaned, and occasionally defended,” Beatrix said. “And like any good property manager, when the lot ceased to turn a profit, they cut it loose, usually to someone who would use it up until there was nothing left.”
“That’s ghastly,” Mercy breathed, her hands now clutching her apron in apparent distress.
“It’s the speech they gave me the first day after they purchased my debt. Two dragons held me down on a table while a third ran the printer. And the whole time a woman named Perdita Weeks held my face and wiped away my tears and told me those words over and over again until it was done. I’ll never forget that speech, or the woman who gave it,” Beatrix murmured quietly, her lips rasping against one another dryly.
Before Mercy could respond, Beatrix drank the final sip of her tea to wet her suddenly dry throat, though her eyes remained clear and bright in an unspoken defiance.
“None of that matters anymore. I’m here with you lot, and what was in the past is past. Besides, you’re a far better caretaker than my previous owners. I’m debt free and ready to return to the world. It helps that I have someone to talk to and wait on me hand and foot until everyone at Clementine’s figures out what to do with me,” Beatrix admitted kindly, her face parting in a tiny grin.
“Well, I would do just about anything for you girls that come through,” Mercy blustered, clearly incapable of taking a compliment without some retort. “I’m not a fighter or a doctor like some of the folk here, but I try and do my part to make this place feel like a home. It’s what I can do to make the world a little bit better of a place.”
“Thank you, Mercy,” Beatrix repeated, her gaze returned to the rising moon and the twinkling starlight of a late afternoon sky. “Maybe this world isn’t so bad after all.”
“No, it isn’t,” Mercy said in agreement, following Beatrix’s eyes out to the panorama beyond the glass of the solar. “Not all of it.”
Beatrix nodded before a large yawn split her features in two, “Now, I’m afraid I need sleep, Mercy. Please forgive me while I take a nap. The last few nights have been… hellish. I need some time to rest. Will you wake me if anything changes?”
“Yes,” Mercy said, nodding once with a kindly expression on her face. “I’ll be sure to wake you if they come to a decision. Maybe they’ll even remember to give you the password to the net so you can do something other than sit here all day and watch the weather.”
“Maybe,” Beatrix sighed, pressing herself further back into the egg-shaped basket of the chair, her eyes closing as she settled into the dim interior. “Thank you for the tea, Mercy. And for talking to me.”
Mercy nodded and smiled fondly at Beatrix before turning and retreating out of the solar, her steps muffled by caution as she did her best to leave the room quietly so that Beatrix could get some sleep. Hearing the doors of the glassed in room slide closed, Beatrix nuzzled into the softness of the pillow underneath her cheek, fading into a blank emptiness that was comforting.