She sips her Thornberry Tea, sitting in a booth all to herself. She's about to open the shop. The sun is rising up above Neopia, but she is down among the flickering torches, the sputtering flames of lanterns, sprawled across her walls, a ring of knights protecting the coffee and pastries. It was a long time ago that she opened The Coffee Cave. She was fresh out of Neoschool, just a young yellow Shoyru, seeking her fortune. Her family and friends told her she made the best mocha this side of Kreludor. She had been naive, and believed them.
When she first opened shop, her friends would come to sit and chat about their hobbies, their futures, their far-flung dreams. She would lean across the counter, smiling and attentive. She already had her dream, and now she was tied. Where could she do but indulge them?
But then her friends had begun to trickle away. It wasn't a conscious, spiteful thing. There were no spats, no tears. They still assured her she made the best coffee in Neopia, even as they left for their jobs in Faerieland, or Mystery Island, or Shenkuu. She had stayed there behind the counter, a stupid smile plastered on her face, watching as they left the shop for the last time. The bells tied to the top of the door frame tinkling blessings down on their heads as they left.
For the first while, they sent her letters, and she had responded. They told her they had houses, they had families, they had friends, they had lives. They were working for Fyora. They were training to become warriors. They were saving lives.
She was in Neopia Central serving Zeenana Cappuccinos.
At last the letters had stopped coming. They trickled to a halt, with no definable finish. She turned herself inward, concentrating on the shop. Business was doing well, and it required all her effort to keep up with demand. She would come in at four in the morning, and only leave after closing, at eight at night. She would return to her small house on Rainbow Lane for a few fitful hours of sleep, wondering if this was all her life would be. And for some years, it was.
Then the Chia reporter visited. He was a gaudy from his starry paint and sported an ill-fitting toupee, but he was all enthusiasm for her goods. She had demonstrated her Tigersquash Bun recipe for him and had shown him how she ground her coffee beans every morning. He had called her a Neopian treasure, had lingered on her every word. He had spent a few hours with her, watching her greet customers. She had been nervous and shaking from his wholehearted verve. When he left with his purple Kougra assistant, she was relieved, and had returned to her more demure style of service, the one that had brought them to her doorstep in the first place.
During the course of the following week, she forgot he had ever visited her and had gone about business as usual. It was following Saturday that the influx of customers started. They boiled down into the Catacombs, clattering, nattering, boisterous and eager. It was noon before an orange Eyrie shook a newspaper in her face, saying, "Did you hear? You're famous!" She had bobbed her head and shoved a hot mug of Banana Cream Coffee across the counter. The Eyrie had left, newspaper tucked under one wing, coffee clenched in his free claws. She closed the shop soon after, her heart racing. She wasn't sure whether she was afraid or excited.
She took a copy of the Neopian Times home with her that evening and pored over the article. Words like "quaint" and "quality ingredients" stood out, embarrassed her. But she had stowed that copy of the Neopian Times under her bed in a little keepsake box, a little memory. Five years of scraping by didn't seem like success to her, but maybe others found it so.
Business leveled off after a few weeks. She gained a few more regulars, was called upon to do a few larger orders. For the first time since she had opened, she had a profit margin. It wasn't big, but it was there. She opened an account at the Neopia Central Bank. The green Skeith manager lit up when he saw her. "You're the owner of The Coffee Cave! Your Chai Tea Cake is out of this world. Always a winner at meetings."
She had blinked owlishly at him, muttered a thank you, then scurried out of the bank as fast as her legs could carry her in the hopes of getting home before dark. When had been the last time she had properly seen the daylight?
Already it's been over a year since she made that first visit to the bank. She drains her cup of tea and sets it back on its delicately saucer. It's hard to believe she signed the contract only a week ago. She gets up, swiping her mug off the table and carrying it into the kitchen. She rolls up her sleeves and plunges her arms into the sink. It's already full of mixing bowls and empty pans from the morning's baking. Today is the day she's been waiting for. Her stomach buzzes with excitement. Just this last day.
It's not long before the bell tinkles at her door. It's six in the morning, and the customers need their coffee. She bustles over to the counter.
"What may I get you?"
The starry Zafara in front of her rubs his chin and peers shortsightedly into the display cases. "I'll take a Choco-Strawberry Muffin and a Krakuberry Mocha." The faint wheeze in the back of his throat hails the beginning of Spring and Grenanna Iced Tea. She pulls his muffin out and draws the coffee; he pays and leaves. The bell chimes as another customer swings in. She sets her jaw in her famous smile. She is determined.
* * * *
The dishes are done. The ovens are cold. The lanterns are blown out. The store is closed. She stands outside the door, her fingers on the key. She flips it in the lock, an action perfected by years of practice. Now it's nearly automatic.
She backs away from the door, looking to the sign above the door, then to the ceiling of the catacombs. This has been the sight greeting her for the last six years. Before the dawn breaks over the horizon, here she's come; and here she's stayed until the mutter of Grumblebugs and the flickering of Lightmites are the only spice to the moonstruck night air. Thick layers of rock span over the top of the shop, filtering out light and sound, maintaining an eternal fall. Spiced Pumpkin Coffee is always in season here.
But that will be no more. She turns her back on The Coffee Cave. From the moment she made that first deposit at the National Neopian, the only thing on her mind was sunlight. She wanted real sunlight to stream in through her windows, hitting the tables at soft angles, warming the air and wafting the scent of Tigersquash Buns to the waiting patrons and on out the door.
Her walk this night isn't home to Rainbow Lane. She heads instead toward the outskirts of Neopia Central, to the wide canal that separates it from Roo Island. She arrives just in time to catch her boat. The captain of the vessel, a sleepy cloud Blumaroo, welcomes her with a nod, and they are off across the wide, lapping waters.
The stars are bright over their heads, sparkling with violent fervor. She stares up at them. They've been her constant companions since she started The Coffee Cave. For once, her eyes are not tired; she feels energetic like a child, and shivers with excitement in her seat.
The trip isn't long. Their boat is soon bumping up against the pier, creaking as it strains against the anchor the captain has thrown over the side. He is lashing the boat to the pier, casting a heavy rope around a nearby metal post. She is up from her seat, pulling her skirts high as she clambers out of the boat onto the pier. For a moment she bobbles as she regains her land legs, and then she is better. She turns to the Blumaroo and curtsies. "Thank you," she says.
The Blumaroo raises his eyebrows. "Any time."
The Shoyru sets off again, winding through the streets of Roo Island. She meanders past colorful stalls and masterfully decorated shop fronts. All of them are desaturated, featureless whispers in the moonlight. She loses her way a few times, but eventually arrives at her new store. Finally, it's ready. She goes inside and lights the window lanterns. She must get ready for tomorrow's grand opening. Light pours out the shop front onto the stone-paved street. It bounces off the stones, giving life and color to the freshly painted store sign.
She works the whole night long, running on sheer adrenaline. The air is full of the sweetness of fresh ground coffee and the astringency of Blairnut Tea. Tigerswash Swirly Cakes puff high in the oven, their scent twining out from the kitchen to the shop front. She doesn't know how she makes it, but she finishes her preparations by the time the clock strikes six in the morning.
Above the door, the bell sings as a rainbow Bori pushes his way into the shop, staring about curiously. She smiles, a sincere smile this time.
"Jammin' Java! What can I get you?"
"Quando Fruit Tea and a Thornberry Kougraclaw, please."
The thin rays of dawn are sparkling off her counters. She couldn't be paid to live in Faerieland, or Mystery Island, or Shenkuu. Right now, she's greeting the sunrise.