Maddie whistled cheerfully as she stacked cups, plates and saucers on the draining board.
‘Maddie! A cranberry and chrysanthemum brew for table 4!’
‘On it, dad!’
Maddie prepared the concoction with quick precise motions.
She had grown up in these kitchens, sliding along the black marble counter-tops with Raven as a child, finishing her homework sprawled on the worm-eaten floorboards, curling up to sleep with Earl Grey on front of the cozy hearth, experimenting with tea blends and shortbread recipes with her dad in the brewery, planting magical mushrooms and sugarplums and yellow cherries in the garden with all her Wonderland friends – Alistair, Bunny and Lizzie.
All her childhood memories had been built here.
Even when she had left for Ever After High, she had come to visit on free weekends and had always come back to help out during the summer. She had rejected countless invites from her friends to come over, not regretting her decision once (except for that one time Farah had called her over to Evergreen Dell with the promise of showing her will-o-wisps and sirens and water nixies, amongst other rare fae creatures).
Maddie had always had a fascination for fae folklore and Pagan customs. She had fallen asleep to her dad reading her Celtic legends and myths of Nordic tribes, secretly imagining how they would look like and how they would converse, wondering if they would let her be their friend.
The only interaction she had had with such magical creatures so far had been during the Dragon Games when Raven’s mother had terrorized the castle. She had met the woodland nymphs then, but hadn’t really had a chance to speak with them.
Maddie knew that most wild woodland creatures were very shy and reserved, preferring to stay away from human interaction. Apart from trolls, dwarves and giants, other magical creatures stayed out of the light. Even fairies had become rare - apart from Faybelle and Farah, Maddie knew no one else.
Her curiosity and yearning had led her to finally decide her courses and subjects for university. The final date for applications were the day after tomorrow after they received their Fairytale A Level results. Raven had made plans to come over and talk over their decisions before submitting them together.
She grinned at the thought of her best friend of 11 years. Raven was one of the kindest and most genuine people that she knew, and Maddie loved her all the way to Wonderland and back. They were only one week into their summer break and Maddie was missing her already. Seeing her again would be spelltacular.
The water kettle went off, scattering her thoughts. She steeped and strained the steaming blend with pressed chrysanthemum petals and sundried cranberries, adding a dash of elderflower essence before pouring it into mismatched harlequin cups and plating them with ginger biscuits.
She carried out her loaded tray into the café out front, full with fairytale characters lazily enjoying their tea and pastries while letting their crazy sides out.
Maddie could finish her shift and take off her apron once the clock struck six, but there was still almost half an hour to go.
‘Order up!’ she yelled cheerfully, nimbly moving between tables covered with brightly chequered tablecloths and comfy chairs scattered with embroidered cushions. The low hum of chatter and the intermingling scents of various tea blends bought a deep sense of comfort to her.
She smiled at the old patrons at table 4 – Mrs. Gyves, the Shoemaker’s wife had brought along friends from her knitting group.
‘Maddie!’ she beamed. ‘How are you, sweetheart?’
‘Hattastic, Mrs. Gyves! How are Edward and Clarence?’
‘Eddie’s taking after his father already. Pulling away at some tortoise leather with a pair of tongs this morning, he was. Made Vincent laugh to no end. Clarence is down with that rotten flu, the poor mite. Been sniffling and snuffling the whole day. I have to get back home to him soon.’
Maddie shook her head in sympathy.
‘I hope he gets better soon, Mrs. Gyves.’ She offered her widest grin. ‘I hope you like the tea! It’s one of our summer specials-’
The reception telephone interrupted her, blaring out its signature cacophony of xylophone notes.
‘Maddie! Get the phone for me, sugarplum!’
‘Be right back, Mrs. Gyves!’
Maddie hobbled to the front desk, toes smarting. She had been brewing and serving in her 3 inch black lace-up heels all day without reprise, and her feet were begging her to stop. Unfortunately, she had no other shoes at the moment.
Nearly all her shoes now comprised of heels, wedges or stilettos - courtesy of Ashlynn Ella. The only exception was a pair of snow boots from their visit to the Winter Palace.
‘Letting Ashlynn do a makeover of my shoe cupboard? What was I thinking?’ she muttered mournfully as she rubbed the soles of her feet. Her trunks were yet to arrive from EAH, so she couldn’t even wear her bath slippers. She made a mental note to borrow a pair of flip-flops from Raven when she arrived.
She slipped behind the counter, holding the receiver in place with her chin while digging her hand into the pick-me-up marshmallow jar her dad had thoughtfully installed next to the till.
‘Hello! Mad Hatter’s Haberdashery and Tea Shoppe! How can we help you?’
‘This is Lady Castile of Aragon-‘
The bell at the front door chimed, announcing a new customer and distracting Maddie from her call.
A hush fell over the room as a beautiful cloaked woman strode in, every inch of her radiating elegance and poise.
Maddie stared in shock as the mysterious stranger drew the hood from her face, letting the afternoon twilight play over her snow-white hair, highlighting the wispy strands in shades of spun gold.
She gasped as the woman hung up her cloak on the hat stand, revealing delicate gossamer wings as fine as spider silk, inlaid with swirling runic patterns.
Maddie knew those wings.
The woman glided over to the front desk, stretching her arms before thumbing a well-worn menu card.
It couldn’t be.
It couldn’t be -