“Good day, Nerina,” a waitress waiting by the door of The Silver Rose greeted me.
“Good morning, Samina. Is it busy here already? Well, sure, I’m a tad later than usual, but 11:30 on a gloomy, winter Saturday? Some people want their sandwiches and cocoa, that’s for sure,” I commented, putting my case of pastels down to hand her a dollar coin.
She slipped it into the charcoal folds of her dress pocket and led me over to my usual table in the corner.
“You want me to be any race in particular when bringing you your chamomile tea?” Samina asked me, leaning slightly on the back of the spare chair. The grey light from the window behind me made the circles under her eyes seem twice as harsh as they had earlier.
I shook my head. “Goodness, no. I never do, you know that.”
She gave me a hard-stretched grin. “Still don’t want a show from the ‘shape-shifting girls of The Silver Rose,’ Nerina? We’ll make ourselves be any race you wish, for your personal comfort. Any race, you name it—human, sorcerer, elleman, odingsan, sprite, etc. as long as it’s not seander. It’s hard to have a whale’s tail and still do my job as a waitress.”
Setting out my paper and chalk pastels, I shook my head again. “I see you and Kagamee and and Moritzia do it enough when dealing with the real customers. I don’t need to wear you out even more than they do, especially with how little they like to tip you for doing it. You know I unfortunately can’t scrape up much more than the dollar or two I spend here every week. My paintings don’t sell for that much yet. Besides, I’ll be too busy trying to capture the patrons’ actions on paper when you get back anyway. I really want to get as accurate a painting of how you three are treated by those wanting their food and beverages.”
Samina sighed and nodded. “Still have to ask every once in a while, though. Just trying to do my job. Good luck with capturing such a thing, though, especially with pastels, sitting far away, and the limited time they’ll stand there for you. Well, just the chamomile, then?”
“Yes, just the chamomile, please. Thank you.”
I hardly heard the swooshing of her skirt over the growing chatter within The Silver Rose. Kagamee was the closest waitress to me, blocking my view of the other two young women. She was currently engaged at the takeout counter, explaining the menu to a sorceress with peppered hair.
I liked their positioning enough to make quick sketches, then fill the corner of the paper with the necessary colors: navy blue for the customer’s tweed coat, near-black for Kagamee’s uniform, and the same golden-brown for their faces. The woman was long gone before I finished the final details. Curt Sorceress Inquires About Bagels, I wrote in pencil underneath. I traced a thin square around it to frame it off, signing my name underneath. The chamomile tea that Samina had brought me was half gone and lukewarm, but I took a drink nonetheless. I looked up to watch the customers some more.
All throughout lunch time, I drew, making many little figure studies and small pastel paintings of the people and things inside The Silver Rose. There were decent pictures, but I wasn’t satisfied. None of them were likely to make Nerina Gioconda the talk of the salons or the galleries.
The noonday rush was mostly over when a girl dressed in brown came in. Kagamee tilted her head slightly and gave the newcomer a half-smile. She changed her shape from an odingsan with rabbit ears to what I recognized was her human form. Ah, so I wasn’t the only one who was unable to distinguish the new customer’s race by her appearance. I was on the verge of packing up when I heard the girl’s gentle voice, melodic as a forest brook, over the chatter of other patrons.
“Oh, it’s alright, Kagamee, don’t worry about trying to match me. Why don’t you take your favorite form?” It was strange the way her voice cut through above the others, yet nobody else seemed to notice.
Kagamee gave a nod and changed into her sprite form, skin all silvery-olive and with a slight aura.
“You look lovely, but please, is it honestly your favorite? No truer form suits you?” the girl asked.
Kagamee frowned and hesitated. Her voice wavered. “Are you sure… ma’am? Nobody really ever wants to see it.”
“I’m certain, my dear. It would be nice for you to feel comfortable in your own skin.”
With a shiver, Kagamee obediently dropped her shape-shifting guises. Her green skin was marked with black, tiger-like stripes, and despite her being under twenty years old, her hair turned a limp, dark gray as well. I couldn’t help but stare – the waitresses at The Silver Rose never worked while wearing their natural looks.
“There, now you are lovely,” the girl told her with a sincere smile.
Kagamee blushed uncertainly. “Thank you. What can I get for you today, though?” she inquired.
“The cranberry scones are especially enticing. Four of them, please.” When Kagamee turned to fetch and wrap the scones, I saw the customer carefully place a large coin inside the small jar on the countertop. It had a paper that read, “How much was my service worth?” pasted to the side. I realized my opportunity was slipping away, so I quickly started drawing what I could see of the girl in brown.
“Two dollars, ma’am. Thank you.” Kagamee took her payment, handing over the paper bundle of pastries. I saw her glance down at the tip jar and give a little gasp. She looked up, awe and sunshine in her eyes.
“For me? I only did what you asked. Thank you—thank you,” she breathed, gently pressing her fist to her heart.
“Have a wonderful day, lovely Kagamee,” the girl kindly bid as she left.
My strokes and scribblings grew faster as I half-watched in awe at the radiance surrounding my friend. Never had I seen her take her natural form at work before then, but I had a feeling that shape-shifters didn’t glow like sprites did. Nonetheless, I drew almost an aura around her, doing my best to catch every detail of her jubilance.
I didn’t finish until a majority of the patrons had gone, but I knew that the piece was my triumph of the day. I titled it A Beauty and the Angel in Brown.
I took one last look at Kagamee’s shining face before signing the painting. Her smile was still dazzling across her face as she served the next customer. Though it had started to snow outside the window, inside The Silver Rose, spring had already arrived.