I pick up the delivery, two boxes of tea satchels, and make my way carefully to the back of the store, dodging customers and my fellow part-timers.
I’m Hiyori Chiba, sixteen years old, and I work at The Flowering Tea Emporium. It's a big name for such a hole-in-the-wall place. It's a miracle that people even come here at all, with all it's been in the news.
See, there's a string of disappearances that began almost a year ago. All girls. All part-timers from this very store. Why, then, am I working here? I'm glad you asked. I've always had a plan: when I graduate, I'm going to join the police force. I'm determined to start my career before I even join the force by cracking the case wide open from the inside.
The owner denies any culpability, but I know better. I've been following his every move, and I'm definitely about to discover something. Today, for example, we received satchels of tea instead of loose leaf. Are the pouches better for smuggling? Why the sudden dip in quality? I plan to ask him about it, when—
"Why don't you try this new oolong before you leave?"
Even though I want to get home as fast as possible, it would be rude to refuse. I set a kettle to boil and scroll idly through the news on my phone.
The other employees have already cleared out, not interested in sticking around. I don't blame them. If I didn't have this open investigation, I certainly wouldn't want to waste time here, either.
A text from my mother comes up: Running late, don't wait for dinner.
I frown. One more reason to try the tea, I guess. I carefully open the box and enjoy the fragrance. For something that looks so cheap, it's not as bad as I thought.
Satchel first, then water – never the other way around.
I pensively watch the steam rise from the cup and then check my reflection inside the darkening liquid.
Looking good, Hiyorin, I tell myself.
"Looking good, Hiyorin," my reflection repeats in a distorted voice, its mouth moving to match the words.
I look around for the person pulling my leg.
The shop is entirely too quiet. The walls are closing in.
No matter how I look at it, the room is contracting. My cup rattles on the table. I try to speak, but I can't make a sound. My body is sluggish when I try to stand up. Surely the tea was drugged and I'm inhaling the fumes of it and hallucinating. That no-good boss, I should have suspected him from the start!
My stomach does a barrel roll and light flashes before my eyes. The walls become too bright as they move ever inward. I'm going to be sick.
The last thing I recognize before I pass out is the smell of the oolong tea I never had a chance to try.
"Welcome," an unfamiliar voice greets me. "Are you awake?"
Confused and groggy, I shift upright. I'm on a comfortable little sofa - not a fixture of the tea shop, and definitely not hospital furniture. Could I have actually slept through a car trip somewhere?
"I'm afraid you've mistaken me for someone else."
The figure in front of me bends down to look me in the eyes. They're positively unnatural! With light purple skin the shade of a faded bruise, mismatched blue and red eyes, and spiraling horns, I can't even begin to pinpoint the strangest thing about them. To top things off, they're dressed in an immaculate suit like some kind of butler.
"I definitely don't know anyone who looks like you. I think I'm still hallucinating. Look, just... spare me the crap and take me to the boss, okay?"
"It's only natural to be wary of new people in a new world," they answer. Their voice is soothing. I still can't tell if they're a man or woman, but it’s not important. "You should consider yourself lucky. You've been summoned by His Majesty."
What kind of bullshit is this?
"His Majesty, the Demon Lord of Camellia, the one and only Lord Sinensis."
"Okay. I'm going to close my eyes," I tell them, "And when I open them again, I'm going to be in a car driving back to The Flowering Tea Emporium or I'm calling the police."
"A car, my lady?"
"A car. A train. A goddamn airplane." I frown. "However I got here, send me back."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," they say.
"Because His Majesty would be displeased. And... the summoning spell only works one way."
I open my mouth to protest and come to the sudden realization that I’m indulging this body-painted cosplayer more than they deserve. I'm not restrained in any way. I pull my cell out of my pocket and prepare to dial the police, but there's no reception. Shit.
"The others had those strange devices, too," my new friend muses. "May I ask what it is?"
"You’ve never seen a cell phone?"
"What does it do?"
"You use it to make calls, access the internet... Wait, what do you mean others?"
"His Majesty has summoned other girls in the past." Those mismatched eyes suddenly go wide. "Oh, but surely you aren’t worried about them! Each guest is brought here for her own merits."
"And are they still here?"
"I’m afraid not. None elected to stay with His Majesty. They each received a small sum of gold and were sent out into the world."
"A small sum of gold? What is this, a fantasy game? Aren't you a little too old for delusions like this?"
They look taken aback. "I am only two hundred and fifteen."
"Like I said, too old—Two hundred and fifteen?" I rub my temples. "Okay. Let’s make this real simple. You take me to His Majesty, then I take your little cosplay ring in to the cops."
"Law enforcement, yes? I'm afraid those in your world have no jurisdiction here."
I shake my head. I have to keep pressing and they'll drop the act eventually. "And where is here, exactly?"
"The Kingdom of Camellia. His Majesty Sinensis has brought most of it under his control."
"And he’s your boss, right?"
"I am sworn into his service, as are all demons."
"You're a demon."
"What else would I be?"
"A delusional cosplayer." I sigh. I don't think I'm going to be getting anywhere with the way things are going. "Look, I’ll change the question. What’s your name?"
"Lavender," they answer. "Head butler of His Majesty's castle, in charge of chaperoning guests, getting them accustomed to this world, and preparing the tea."
"Preparing the tea?" I repeat. "You mean I was right? Your boss really is the old man from The Flowering Tea Emporium?"
Confusion takes hold of Lavender’s face once again. "I do not know of any flowering emperors. Let me be clear. You are here to have tea with my master, Lord Sinensis. I assume you like it. Otherwise, we would not have found you through the oolong."
"I like tea well enough," I answer. "But you summoned— You kidnapped me to have tea with a demon lord?"
"He does not get many visitors, and one can only have the same partners so often before the act becomes old. He grows weary of us demons and likes the variety that humans provide him. In a way, I am jealous. I have not taken tea with the master in a year."
A year. That's exactly how long the first girl has been missing. But if they were all released out into the world after having tea with this "demon lord", what could have stopped them from going back home?
"Here," Lavender says, extending a hand to me to help me off the couch.
I look around the room. Gaudy paintings of demons decorate the walls. There's a desk and chair in one corner. It's actually rather small.
"I don't need—" I lurch to my feet and, immediately, vertigo takes hold. "Help."
Lavender grips my hand with their own and it's inhumanly cold. I can't help but shiver. "My lady, let me assist you."
Until I can find out what's going on from the leader of this weird cult, I might as well play along.
"Fine. You may assist me."
"It's good to see that you are cooperating." Lavender smiles, revealing sharp fangs. They’re kind of a cool prosthetic, definitely custom-made. "Would you like to change into the garments we have prepared?"
"Absolutely not. I don’t cosplay. I didn’t even dress up for Halloween last year."
"His Majesty does insist on a dress code..." Lavender trails off. "I can hazard a guess that your foreign garb is casual rather than formal. Here, a suit or dress is preferable attire."
I check my cell again. Still no signal. I may have to buy some time.