• I could see her reflection in the tea, and in that moment I knew what my future would hold. I looked up from the reflection, and saw the women from the reflection before me. The tea was warm and bitter. But unlike the tea the woman had a cold face that showed as much emotion as a stone. True to a stone's nature on a hot day she seemed to hold hidden warmth that could only be felt if one reached out to find it. She sat down before me. I poured her some tea, and as she took a sip I saw the first sign of emotion. She had grimaced from the taste. But in an instant the look was gone, and she was stone again.
    We sat for some time drinking the bitter tea. No words were uttered. It was just as well since we were both using the silence as a way to gauge one another. Her hair was silver with age. Her skin was smooth and milky as if to refute the age her hair displayed. Her clothes where of royal color but fashioned in peasant style that spoke of a humbleness. Her way of holding the tea cup told me she had been trained in etiquette and manners. Although her clothes were humble, she sat with a pride that was not quite hubris but was deserved.
    We must have looked like an odd pair. I knew what she was thinking as she looked at me. Though my hair was yellow it was also caked with dirt and grime that made it appear brown. My skin was bronze from working under the sun. My clothes were too small and made of various pieces of fabric that had been added over the years. My face showed scars that could never be hidden. I had no manners as I drank my tea; I sipped loudly and sat leaning backwards into my chair. The one thing we held in common was pride. Somehow her pride had sparked my own pride. I knew if I cowered before her in humbleness, I would be lost forever.
    Once the tea was gone there was nothing left to do but talk. She had come to me with a purpose, and I patently awaited her proposal. Still she said nothing but sat in silence. After a while I arose from my chair to make some more tea. As soon as my back was turned, I heard an odd noise that sounded like a croak. Apparently the silence had affected her ability to speak. A moment later she spoke clearly, and she said what everyone says when they come to see. "I am ready," she says. I had hoped she would be different. Though I knew when I saw her what would come, I had still hoped for something different. A friend, a long lost family member, a conversation, or a vagrant wanting a place to sleep: all of these I would have preferred. She says she's ready. But what is ready?
    I prepared the tea with a heaviness I had not felt in a long time. When I sat down with the fresh tea in hand her face was stone once again. I knew that when my back was turned her emotions had betrayed her, and her fear had been written all over it. I could still feel the fear in the air. She was not ready, and for that matter neither was I. Just like before we settled into drinking the bitter tea in silence.
    People come to see me for only one reason. It is the worst of reasons. They come for the bitterest of desires. They come thinking they are ready to have their desire fulfilled. They come in hopes of death. Though truly their desire is brought from love, it ends in death. There is a brew that can make anyone who shares it fall in love with one another. If drank alone the brew is harmless, but when two drink together it is fatal. The love the brew produces is a fraud and lasts for only one year. At a year's end the souls of the fraud lovers will die in anguish. That it is the punishment for those who deceive their hearts. I alone know the recipe for the cursed love brew, and I alone dispense it to those who are ready to die for a love they can not have otherwise.
    I could be humble and pretend ignorance of her fear and give her what she wanted. But my pride demanded answers, and in truth if I gave her what she desired I would be lost. I would be lost forever in knowing that I killed her and whoever shared the brew with her. Thus far I had only found two truly ready out of the hundreds who came to see me. That meant I was responsible for four deaths. If I humbled before her and fulfilled her desire I would have the blood of six on my soul.
    Once I finished my new cup of tea I asked her the question I ask everyone. "What is ready?" I said softly. She put her cup down and frowned.
    "I am ready," she says.
    "Ready for what?" I ask her.
    "I am ready to die for love," she answers. By now both of us have stopped drinking the tea. I inquire if she wants to die for love, or if she just wants to die in love and loved. She says she that she wants to be loved. My heart can not help but understand the need to be loved. Does not everyone wish to be loved?
    The words come from my mouth unbidden, "Does it matter who loves you when you die?" She says it does not matter. There is a problem with this answer. I felt as if she was hiding something. "Then would you mind falling in love with me?" I probed her to gauge her response. She had not expected this and emotions flash in her eyes, anger and confusion. I could not help but laugh. Who she loved mattered to her. It mattered greatly, and my question had made her think that I wanted her. She was angry because she thought that the tea we had been drinking was the cursed brew. I told her that it was simple tea and to examine her feelings to see if she loved me. She became stone again once she realized that indeed she did not love me.
    "Whose love are you willing to die for then?" I asked. She squirmed in her chair and did not answer. Love and death are never simple matters. I could tell that no one sentence could answer me this time, and she was not willing to explain in more than one sentence. I decided upon a new line of questioning. "I see that you wear the royal color," I said. The woman confirmed that she was indeed royalty but would not succeed the throne. She sat more straight when she told me this; she found pride in her heritage and thought that I would humble before her because of it. Her pride only sparked mine more; I was just as proud not to be royalty. My life had no use for politics and facades. After all the idea of being royal is just a facade of one person pretending to be better than another. She looked me straight in the eyes, and I could feel how unhappy she was that I could return her stare.
    I asked her what use a royal woman could have with love. This question saddened her and she was no longer a stone. "What use does anyone have with love?" she asked back.
    "I can not give you your desire. You are not ready," I could no longer continue questioning her. She would not tell me anything important, and all her answers urged me not to give her the cursed brew.
    This caused tears to swell in her eyes. Her face battled between pride and despair. "But you must help me," she begged. Despair won and she began sobbing uncontrollably. "All is lost if you do not help me," she sobbed, “Everything will be lost. The kingdom depends on it. You must help me."
    Now I was the one confused. The kingdom did not run on love. In fact, lies and facades were what kept it going. "I do not understand, and without explanation I will not help you," I told her. She began to regain her composure. Once she was calm enough she started to explain what had brought her here, and indeed it could not be explained in one sentence.
    Royal children are but pawns. They are raised from birth to be married off to other royal children to ensure peace and loyalty between countries. But the king only had two children. The first died leaving the second to be spoiled. The king loved his last child so much that he pledged that only a man that loved her as much as he did could marry his beloved daughter. Skirmishes began to brake out along the borders of the kingdom. War ensued, and there has been war in half of the country for ten years now. I happen to live in the peaceful area of the kingdom, but even I have seen the battle worn warriors return broken. If this war did not end soon all in our kingdom would be broken and lost to chaos. I could feel the coming chaos and the death that awaited us in the future. But it seems there was a chance for peace that only this woman knew. If she was to marry the warring kingdom's ruler there would be peace. However, the warring kingdom's ruler is well into his seventies and she in her youth could never love a man older than her father. The king's honor bounds him to never allow his beloved daughter to enter a loveless marriage. Thus, the war continues.
    "I am tired of waiting for love. I am tired of waiting for peace. I love this kingdom; I die with each warrior who dies," her voice was deep with emotions as she revealed these truths.
    I gave her the cursed love brew. She thanked me and left. Once she was gone I began drinking the now cold tea. Now I had the blood of six on my hands. There will be peace in the kingdoms for a year. It is not as if the warring kingdom's ruler has no heirs, their ruler has many children. One can only hope that the king has another child to rule this kingdom.
    I drank the cold tea knowing I had just caused my own death. After the beloved princess, the woman, drinks the cursed brew she will have doomed herself and me. She will tell the king where she got the brew, and he in his anger will decree that when the princess dies so shall I. In a year I will die, but until then I will drink bitter tea. There is a reason I drink bitter tea. By now you should know the reason. My life has been one of bitterness. I either send people away with no love and despair or I send them away with hope of love and knowing death will follow. How could I ever drink anything but the bitterest of drinks?