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The Old Woman and the Tea

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood. She is the author of the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent along with several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the epic Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.
When the soldiers arrive, the old woman is waiting.
"Sit down, sit down," she urges them, gesturing with her free hand. There are cushions spread on the floor, one for each soldier. "The tea will be ready soon."
The soldiers grip their rifles. Their leader says, "Old Lady Meng, we are here to--"
"I know why you're here. That's no reason not to be polite. Didn't your parents teach you any manners? Sit."
They sit. The water approaches boiling, and she removes it from the fire before it can slip across that line. With a bamboo whisk, she stirs in five different ingredients. None of them look quite like tea leaves.
"We will drink together," she says as the brew steeps, "and then you can carry out your duty."
They're Red Guards, these men with their rifles. Their duty is to destroy the Four Olds, the shackles of ossified tradition holding China back from her glorious future. All these soldiers know of religion is that it's one of the tools the ruling class use to oppress the proletariat. That's all they need to know: They've been assigned to deal with this old woman, and a good soldier doesn't ask questions.
Elsewhere, there's a war on. Much bigger detachments of soldiers have been sent after the Queen Mother of the West, Guan Yu, the Monkey King. Those deities will fight back. The Monkey King might even win.
But one old woman?
They accept their bowls of tea. They sip. They smile.
It's a pleasure to rest like this, in an empty house, away from prying eyes. These men may be devoted to their duty, but they're still human, and every human likes to take a break once in a while, in those rare moments between assignments. Their commanding officer will contact them soon enough, with the name of another god to hunt down and kill. For now they relax, taking their ease while they have nothing to do.
Rain begins to fall as the old woman slips away. It smells a little odd--a bit like leaves and flowers, like something people drank once, but they can't recall when or where. They'll lick the water from their lips, brows furrowing as they try to summon it to mind; then they'll shake their heads and go about their lives in the bright, bloody world of Chairman Mao's China.
Salt mingles with the rain on Old Lady Meng's face, slipping from the corners of her eyes. She will survive the Chairman's revolution, when so many others are destroyed or reduced to a shadow of their former selves. Sacrifices on the altar of progress. She will live, and preserve the others in her heart.
But her survival has a price. No one will ever fully recall her glory now. Just a minor underworld deity, assigned to serve the Waters of Oblivion that wash souls clean of memory before their reincarnation. Most will not even recognize her name.
Old Lady Meng will remember--and be forgotten.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 21st, 2021
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