5st encounter, that before.

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-—- the events before the fifst time. moon 28. -—-

I awoke with a yelp, my head snapping up from my pillow. Groggy, I sat up on the floor’s low mattress. The room swam about me. The shallow ambiance hailing from the window’s light filters hardly pierced the blue-grey of total darkness. A gut instinct told me that I was awake far earlier than I intended. There was always a weird air about each morning I stirred awake - like the world was not ready yet. I felt like if I peaked my head out the door, I would see people rebuilding the entire living space, just setting up the stage.

I sighed, aggravated as I felt the dreams which startled me awake slip from me. I focused, half with effort, and only gathered a few details about the dream. A sandy place, I think my leg was cut pretty badly. There was something about a dragonfly. It was nonsense, a half-nightmare constructed with the narrative consistency of wood pulp.

My eyes trailed to the bottom corner of my vision, where I saw a translucent panel notifying me of a higher heart rate. My eyes shot away, not caring to see a metric proof of my nightmares. The health department was used to seeing them from me, to. I wondered idly what my heart rate logs must have looked like over the past few weeks. I had felt so jittered. I sat in my most traditional morning daze. The notification played a light twinkling sound in my right ear. I threw off my blankets, dismissed the notification, and turned on a dim light in one fell, choreographed action.

I began to get ready, going through the motions in the preparation rooms. It was such a stark environment from that of my early morning room. An array of sterile, neutral light dotted the ceiling above. A large mirror with the faintest hint of illumination seemed as thin as paint against one of the walls. Cosmetic, cleansing, and grooming supplies all sat flush with the counter, all within standardized and build-efficient cylinders. To someone not familiar with the system, it might just seem like a multitude of stickers with the faintest hint of branding and text. There were not any smudges or stains in sight either. The plastic-y material of the counters “ate” things like that, so to speak. Regardless, the room felt unnatural, like a space out of time. Even Vayshri SocioIndustries’ branding was reclusive, their palette and logo only appearing in small accents. Usually, I would be getting ready alongside at least one of my four other neighbors, but none of them were awake. But, after I became accustomed to the overbearing quiet, it was a nice and reflective part of my morning. It was not like I was particularly missing any of my neighbor’s morning smalltalk. After washing up and changing into my work-appropriate uniforms, I decided to head to the cafeteria. I partly hoped nobody was there, too.

The cafeteria was cavernous. A dark biowood floor shimmered the white and soft teal-blue lights. The floors were textured, and held a waxy look despite never being waxed as far as I knew. The lights above were spotted, thin strips that were no longer than two hands. They were placed across the ceiling in a sparse fashion, at least until it opened up towards the center and around the beams. There was a few spots left blank for carouseled images - though not advertisements this time. They were mostly photos that felt brand-friendly: things containing the branding colors, pictures of the city, exocity offices owned by the company, and so on. Artful, commissioned variations of the Vayshri SocioIndustries logotype scrolled around them all, like a slow journeying wind. More than a few hanging plants were kept up there as well, adding a touch of life to the tall atrium.

I entered from a set of double doors. To either of my sides was a large, beveled-edge archway that spanned the whole wall of the room, like a tunnel with windows and passageways to the central part of the cafeteria. Against the walls were bastions of wood-shuttered restaurants, most closed. I could still hear the scurrying of morning workers as they were preparing things for their intended opening. This archway gave the center part of the room a beveled, pentagonal shape. The center was delimited by a hip-high wall with a railing, with a few different openings. There were more than a few lockers and cubbies for temporary storage. I entered the main plaza, in which I had to cross to get to the cafe and brewery I had my eyes on. There was a plenitude of tables I passed, some raised and some floor-height. Most all tables had a parasol over it, wide and translucent.

My eye caught someone else’s as I walked by. They sat at one of the tables, the parasol unraveled to cloak the whole thing in a partly see-through fabric. It was that pale-haired girl again, the one I saw at the breakroom yesterday. She had a gentle look about her this morning. It seemed as if she was in the midsts of a coffee, so I did not want to bother her. With how she presented herself, I could not imagine that she would be sloppy about the traditional brewing rituals. The etiquette she held, regardless of how casual the situation was, made me assume as much. I would not want to be the cause of inaccuracy and broken concentration regardless. I politely waved and broke off eye contact, and she smiled lightly in response. I think she knew that I did not intend to interrupt her at all.

She had always piqued my curiosity. However, I did not often have a chance or reason to speak with her for more than a passing moment. In truth, while I had heard her name a few times, I could not remember it. I was not even sure what department she worked in. Plus, her air of sophistication was admittedly intimidating.

In little time, I stood before the cafe and the brewery. Coffee or tea, the decision haunted many of my mornings. I typically did not engage with either, just out of indecision. I suppose, in many ways, this choice was a symbol of how one wants to approach the day. The brewery plastered itself with sugary, caffeine-loaded teas. The counter was littered with an overwhelming amount of nods to popular media – games, shows, animations, books, the like. Much of it was energetic promotional illustrations and in-house drawings, occasionally sliding through different images on a shuffled loop. There were also figurines and the like, all on display. Some of them were the collection of the store itself, as to display the interests of those who work there. Others were themed with the vivid palette and, occasionally, the uniforms of the brand. There were pseudo-handwritten notes saying that those exclusive figurines were on sale in the back room.

I think the brewery in particular, JN Crave, was pretty popular. I would imagine that it is a more nation-wide brewery, as I had seen a few others the handful of times I had visited other offices. JN Crave was an established chain, and they held some pretty unique flavors in their teas. They were lacking in their sparkling teas, but had much more malty, creamy, spiced energy teas. I did not drink them often, but the few times someone had picked one up for me, they were quite nice. Of course, they were loaded to the brim with sweetness and overly-intensive aromas.

The dhomOrlzets Zazewrpeyl to the side of JN Crave was in stark contrast. As I hovered close to it, a virtual prompt to connect to the ambiance of dhomOrlzets popped up to my right. I did recognize the artist, though I was not familiar with the album. I knew well that it was likely slow-tempo lounge jazz, a sort of classier and more reflective alternative to that which typically plays around the halls of the building. The cafe had warm, orange lights, as well as a few ever-small windows that opened up to let the soft violets and blues of the early dawn pour in. The counters held on them a few guides and booklets to coffee. Dark wood shelves housed the orange-accented cream manuals. Many were about traditionalist brewing techniques and coffee etiquette, but there were many on the different coffee and blend selections as well. There sat a single worker behind the counter, reading one of the books. I had seen him before, their strongly-build figure having been requested for a few odd jobs around the office. It was not uncommon for them to be called up when larger pieces of furniture needed moving.

I was always so intimidated by dhomOrlzets and other cafes. It was not like anyone would judge me if I messed up coffee etiquette, especially those who were well-practiced in it. I guess I mostly did not want to make a fool out of myself. Why did I not typically visit JN Crave? I certainly wasn’t worried about breaking some sort of social code, there. I suppose I felt an overly-energetic air didn’t suit me well. The drinks were okay, but they were dressed up in an atmosphere of ambition, bursting with joy and vigor, constant celebration and so on. Starting one’s day with a tea always seemed like you were planning to conquer whatever stood in your way. Starting the day with a coffee signaled an intent to take the day at a more calm, meditative, and gentle pace.

In that moment, I was a bit more lucid about my hesitation towards coffee. I supposed if it was something I wanted to do, I should actually do it. With a sharp breath, I took steps towards the small cafe, accepting the prompt to connect to the music playing currently. A breathy, feminine voice soon filled my ear, providing a whispery and minimal rhythm to the piano. The piano took good advantage of this, playing around the sparse moments of rhythm with twinkling, shimmery melodies. Betwixt the slow breaths of the guest singer, the pianist played these almost raindrop-like melodies, like temporary breaks in grey clouds of music and voice.

The worker turned his head. He had a soft, round, cheery face. It had a hint of fat, as was true with the rest of his build. Though, he still had a well-trained and optimized physique — I had little doubt he took pride in it. His graphite-grey and sunset gold accented uniform was well-fitted to the point of acting like a second skin. It was unbuttoned down to a bit under the collarbone. I had to wonder if he had fit it himself, had his uniform fit by a tailor, or if dhomOrlzets made sure it was well-fitting. A jacket, looking much more like a formal and professional food-handler’s overcoat, hung on the chair behind him. His neck was adorned in a myriad of short necklaces, all seemingly made of twine-like string. They had simple stone charms at their respective apexes. They crossed atop each other often, and I wondered if they every got tangled up. His eyes focused above small, round reading glasses, and he gave a polite head bow.

I exchanged the bow, one of the few things I knew for certain about coffee etiquette. I felt a bit of satisfaction for performing at least that well. He smiled, and said, “Good morning, what is your name?”

“Woyrel of accounting,” I replied, quickly noting that ‘of accounting’ probably was not a necessary addition.

He did not pay that any mind though, politely moving on. “My name is Roshdzis, but you may call me Roshd if you prefer.” He placed his book to the side, a history text about a specific roast. “You are up quite early, are you an ambitious sort?”

I half shook my head, before stopping myself. I did not want to say I was an ambitious person per say, but I did not want to say say I was particularly not ambitious either. I was certainly over-thinking things. “I am not usually up this early, Mr. Roshd. My dreams woke me early, today.”

Mr. Roshd nodded, responding in a gentle and slow tone. “I understand. Hopefully you are still able to enjoy this morning. Now, how can I help you?”

I smiled, enjoying the worker's comforting air. "I am looking for something easy to drink and prepare." I briefly glanced at the near-arcane set of devices and tools used for brewing behind the counter. "I have not had much experience with coffee."

"Understood," he responded with a nod. "Do you object to the South-Isle Merht? It's much like the floral merht coffees grown here, but they spice it a little more, and roast it much more unbitingly. It also has that notorious resilience common to the region — I could not burn the coffee if I tried."

I nodded, responding, “That sounds fine, thank you.” With that, he stood up, revealing how towering he was in full. I was fairly tall, but Mr. Roshd was immensely so, even more so than Romance. I would imagine that it was just tall enough to be inconvenient in his day-to-day. I had not really seen him so close-up before, only seeing him in passing as he walked with others in the company, or seeing him in the distance of the cafeteria. There was something about it that recontextualized his strength-trained form, and how much dedication it might have took to reach it.

I trailed him down the long bar, watching and engaging with each step of the brewing process he showed off. There seemed to be a heavy focus on temperature management, but a lot of it was over my head. We used a cloth cone filter, though I could not retain what sort of cloth or why we used it. The same was true for the particular way he ground the coffee. I thought that, if given the equipment again, I should have been able to mimic with he had done, but generally had very little understanding of the actual theory and purpose. Still, it was better than nothing.

The larger issue I had was with remembering the socially significant parts of it all. Mr. Roshd said that it is customary for people to give newer brewers space to learn and grow. People only bring up potential missed steps and the like in aftermath, if the brewer asks. But it still seemed so overwhelming. The angle of the pour, the order of rinsing and heating vessels, the pacing and times to speak and remain silent, the way the coffee was supposed to be handed out to the taster, and similar optimizations were all fairly overwhelming. And I knew well that Mr. Roshd hardly covered all the nuances as to not drag it down with specifications and minutiae. It was a little demoralizing, but the coffee was still really good. It was fulfilling to have learned a bit more about the interest.

The merht itself was very smooth down, though still a bit heavy and earthy. It had the taste of a herbal dark chocolate, but with a very flowery smell to it that really shaped the taste after the initial touch of the tongue. After the tasting, Mr. Roshd excused himself, ducking his head down and apologizing.

“Normally, I would like to stay longer with tasters to give them some story about the coffee, but I have to take leave for a moment. I have an important call, I hope you do not take offense.” There was a sort of shame and embarrassment in his voice, eyes looking straight down as to not meet mine. His shoulders seemed tense.

I smiled. His professionalism and over-politeness was like that of someone who just started working. Though, I knew Mr. Roshd had been working for at least as long as I had been with the company. “No, please go ahead. Thank you for showing me this.”

He bowed lightly, something I mirrored with untrained movements. “Thank you for your business and time, then. You are welcome to take a seat in the rest of the cafeteria if you would like. Please do leave your mug at the cleaning station towards the back, when you are done.”

I turned to acknowledge the station he spoke of, and excused myself too shortly after. Mr. Roshd seemed to almost rush to the back of the cafe. It was peculiar seeing him suddenly so tense, but I suppose I did not know him all too well.

I walked into the main area of the cafe. The white-haired girl was raising up her acoustic barrier into the main body of the parasol, apparently done with her coffee. My eyes scanned over the different coffee supplies she was tidily putting away. I was satisfied in recognizing one or two more pieces than I otherwise would have noted. However, the equipment did not carry any dhomOrlzets branding. Had she brought her own supplies?

I was going to take seat elsewhere, but I accidentally locked eyes with her. As much as I wanted to wave away and dismiss myself as I did last time, her eyes were particularly striking. The pupil and the iris clashed in value heavily, and drew the eye like a contrasting checkerboard. The eye contact felt very intensely sudden, and I must have froze there. Her expression softened from confusion to amusement. After a smile, her gaze gestured to the chair across from her, before returning to the stare-down we shared.

I broke eye contact, trying to stifle the awkwardness I was feeling. I felt that, even though I must appear particularly amateurish this morning, this was a nice opportunity to finally meet them. I approached towards her table, carefully holding my coffee in my right hand, “Good morning.”

“Good morning, I do not believe we have formally met.” I nodded, and pulled a wooden chair back. She continued, “Pr. Woyrel, if I remember? I am Mufmtmov.” Her tone became less introductory and more drenched in curiosity. “I did not know you had an interest in coffee!”

“Yes, it is Woyrel. It is nice to finally meet you, Pr. Mufmtmov.” I sat down, continuing, “As for coffee, I have wanted to try my hand at it for some time, but I suppose I lacked the boldness for it. It’s an intimidating field, but one I would like to learn more about.”

She let the air pause for a moment, as if listening to what I said a second time internally. “I am glad to see you are putting yourself out there to learn, then.” She cast a glance towards the cafe, asking, “I hope my brother gave you satisfactory guidance through brewing?”

As I processed her words, an almost satisfactory smile crossed Pr. Mufmtmov’s face. My eyes must have pried open from their sleepless state once I realized that Pr. Mufmtmov and Mr. Roshd were siblings. The two did not look anything alike, except maybe a rounder face. But, I supposed they had very similar mannerisms. They both seemed well-studied on etiquette and particularly coffee etiquette. “Yes, he did! There were a few things that I did not wholly grasp, but I know what to pay better attention if I tackle coffee again soon.” I paused for a moment, “I am a little surprised you two are siblings, though.”

She cast a glance back to the cafe, Mr. Roshd returning to the main counter of the it. I could hear a light amusement on her words, “We get that often, it’s always humorous. It is said that dear Roshdzis received all of our mother’s genes, and I half-unfortunately received all of my father’s.”

“Half-unfortunately? Why is that?” Remembering I still had coffee in my hand, I took a sip of it.

She locked eyes with me again. It was always painfully difficult to not snap my eyes away each time she made did so. Her eyes were piecing things, desaturated but seemingly still holding some almost undefinable color. Her pupil and the edge of her iris were much more dark in comparison, and the contrast was intimidating almost. “My father’s lineage has quite a strong oversees presence. It does not show much in dear Roshdzis, but it is plainly visible on me.” She ran her fingers through her choppy, feathery hair. “And as such, many people are needlessly hesitant around me.”

I half considered asking why she didn’t dye her hair, but swiftly squelched the thought. She very likely had some pride in it, especially with how long and lush it was. The lengthiest parts of it reached to at least her navel when she stood. As I thought about it more carefully, she did have a number of features common to foreigners. I supposed her distinctive fashion aesthetic and way she carried herself almost distracted from it, in a way. The only thing that really stood out was the hair. It stung to know well that I fit the bill for ‘needlessly hesitant.’

She seemed to take note of my silence, and smiled once more. She let out a soft laugh, and changed the topic. “Please do forgive my brother, though. He is usually more put-together, but his social circle has been in quite the stir of late.”

The previous topic still lingered in my mind, but I kept to the topic. “Oh, there’s no apology needed, he was more than hospitable.” An inquisitive curiosity taking hold of me. “His social circle, though? Like the other workers at the cafe?”

She shook her head, “No, it’s not them. As far as I know, they have all been quite satisfied with work. The social circle in question is…” She puts a finger to her chin. “Well, are you familiar with gentlemen cabarets?”

I tilted my head. I hadn’t heard that particular term before, no. “I have heard a few stories about cabarets; small clubs for musicians and poets practically, right? Is it just that, but for a ‘gentlemen’ subculture?

She nodded. “That’s mostly it. The bawret gentlemen subculture sees it as sort of a cornerstone, though. Nobody is allowed in, except those within the culture, so I only know what my dear brother has shared with me. But he meets there twice a week or so.”

I did not have much experience with those in bawret circles. The few people I met from them seemed like very stern, but caring people. Thinking back, I suppose there were a lot of albums I listened to that had the subtle trappings of gentlemen cabarets. It was a distinctive sound — careful, deep, and yet minimal melodies, often solos or duets. “I see, so there’s something going on within the cabaret, then?”

She nodded, “Indeed. He’s been awfully vague about it all, but it seems that someone there is suspected for being in some major trouble.” As soon as she mentioned that, my mind jumped to the murders that everyone had been talking about. I dwelled on it for a second. The color must have flushed from my face. Pr. Mufmtmov nodded solemnly, adding, “Yes, I have been morbidly curious if it has anything to do with that as well.” As if to take her mind off of it, she began to put away the coffee equipment she still had on the table. She had a case for all of it, which she seemed to keep in a bag by her feet.

I shook my head. “That’s quite a harsh thing to deal with, if so.” I paused, trying in vain to put myself in the shoes of those at the cabarets. “I can imagine it would really twist a social dynamic on its head if something like that happened.”

“He has been quite terribly consumed, whatever it is. I feel like I only see him in these early mornings the past week or so.” She took her hands off the table, offering a bow of the head. “I am sorry I brought such a dreary topic into this conversation. I must be going, though. There are a few things I must have put together before my shift begins.”

“No need to apologize,” I said. It was strange, just a few days ago I would have been brought down by further theorizing of company murders. But now, I was happy to get any and all information I could. “Thank you for chatting with me, Pr. Mufmtmov. I wish I had met you sooner, you seem very kind.” I glanced down to my still half-full cup of coffee for a split moment. I feel like I forgot it existed during the conversation.

She stood from the chair, grabbing her large, grey bag as she did so. She politely bowed in a way I was not familiar with. “Of course, Pr. Woyrel. It has been a joy.”

I added, “Do you mind if we speak again sometime? I would love to become more accustomed with coffee, and you seem like you likely are very familiar with it.”

She looked a little surprised, but responded with a cozy smile. “Outgoing, this morning? I would not mind the company at all. I am here most all mornings, but if that may be inconvenient, I’m sure we can arrange something.” She broke free of the strictly formal tone she had mostly maintained, adding playfully, “Perhaps next time you will finish your coffee?”

“Perhaps I will,” I mimicked. Smiled warmly once more, before leaving out from the cafeteria. I was a little surprised that she did not say bye to her brother before she left. I had to wonder if that was just the sort of relationship the two had, or if Mr. Roshd was just the sort who wanted to be left alone when dealing with social struggles. When I came back to the cafe to return my mug, Mr. Roshd was presumably in the back room again. I left shortly afterwards.

I was glad to have gained some hint of a lead when talking with Pr. Mufmtmov. I had to wonder if A Character of Romance might know more about gentlemen’s cabarets. They were likely not a member of one, of course, but they might have a better network of people who might. I had to hope that this knowledge was at least somewhat actionable. It felt surreal, being focused on a goal like this.