The teahouse hall unfolds before Sencha, long and spacious, seeming to go on forever. The wooden walls and floor are a deep honey color and polished to a high shine. Sencha is a humble green tea, never having been away from her mother plant before now. Ordinarily, she might have been sent off to some lower end establishment to deal with boorish attendants boiling her nearly to death and clients slurping her down without a thought to her taste. Sencha is special, though; fresh off the season’s first harvest, she is sweet and mellow, qualities that are perpetually in high demand.
Sencha admires the portraits of well-established teas on her way to the registration desk. The subjects are all exquisite, in a myriad of shades from rich greens to deep browns and reds, and everything in between. One stands out: Ms. Pu Erh, said to be this teahouse’s oldest patron. She’s something akin to royalty here, her name whispered with reverence. In her portrait, she wears voluminous robes the color of a clean canvas and embroidered with golden flowers. Her skin is as deep brown as the soil she likely came from, and the contrast with her dress produces a striking image.
As an attendant leads Sencha off to a bath, they pass Ms. Gyokuro. She is gorgeous, beloved by her clients, but very high-maintenance. She avoids sunlight like the plague to maintain her complexion and throws a fit if her bath is even a fraction of a degree too hot. Sencha keeps her head down as she walks by, avoiding her gaze. Ms. Gyokuro is from some fancy, well-tended field, and would sneer at someone like Sencha being anywhere near her. As Sencha passes by, she catches a whiff of Ms. Gyokuro’s perfume, light and sweet, making her own self-consciousness surface.
Sencha enters a bath redolent with scents. Searching for the source, her eyes land near the corner of the room where several tisanes occupy the tubs. Chamomile is in the biggest, its water stained gold. Her calming scent is the strongest. Hibiscus and some berry blend are in tubs on either side, hanging on her every word. They spot Sencha and look away; even an unimpressive green tea like her commands their respect. Chamomile, though, catches Sencha’s gaze, nods to her, and it’s Sencha who looks away. The attendant helps Sencha quietly slip into her hot bath, and she tries to relax.
The attendant is leading Sencha to her dressing room when excitement erupts in the hall. It starts with whispers that gradually amplify. Ms. Gyokuro steps out of her room as the whispered-about stranger rounds the corner.
“Oh,” Ms. Gyokuro says, disdainfully. “It’s you.”
The stranger, Ms. Darjeeling, glides towards Ms. Gyokuro. She, too, is a minor celebrity here, nearly on-par with Ms. Pu Erh; Ms. Gyokuro can’t stand it. Ms. Darjeeling gets close to her rival and whispers something in her ear. Whatever it is, Ms. Gyokuro’s posture stiffens, and Sencha hurries along to her dressing room before something happens.
An attendant calls for her. “Ms. Sencha, you’re due in the main room.”
Her dress is a simple leaf-green affair inherited from her mother. She hopes she’s wearing it with her mother’s pride.
The main room is not far from the entrance hall. Walking that way still feels like a long trek, as though eyes are on her.
Ms. Gyokuro is waiting for her near the main room’s entrance, arms folded and disinterest on her face. “I wish you luck,” she says.
Sencha acknowledges her with a quiet “thank you” before hurrying along. She refuses to reveal her nervousness to her.