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Gracefully Stewing

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The first thing Say'ri found upon waking was that once again, Tiki was sprawled over her. At least this time, Tiki had managed to tuck herself underneath Say'ri's head. She had more than enough unpleasant instances of waking up to a fistful of Tiki's hair in her face.

As she laid there, she wondered whether to wake Tiki or not. It was still early, the sun just barely peeking past the mountains that hid it. She knew that if Tiki were able to open her eyes at this moment, she would close them and fall right back onto the bedding, grumbling about the hour. Say'ri had always been someone that woke with the sun, or sometimes even before, and Tiki… was very much not a creature of the morning. Were this any other person, Say'ri would leave to allow them to continue slumbering, but she knew, no matter how much she tried to keep it hidden, that one of Tiki's fears was being alone when she woke.

Thankfully, Say'ri did not have to deliberate any further because Tiki, in some sort of Naga granted miracle, began to rouse of her own volition. "Say'ri?" she murmured, her voice quiet with that hint of panic she could never quite hide before full consciousness.

"I am here," Say'ri answered, reaching out to grasp Tiki's hand before she could reach for her. Tiki murmured words too low for Say'ri to make sense of until at least, her eyes cracked open. She peered up at Say'ri, blinking several times as if she were looking at someone else before a smile came to her lips.

"Good morning, Say'ri," she said, her voice thick with sleep. She yawned, and laid her head back down atop of Say'ri, clearly intending to return to her previous state.

"Good morning, Tiki. On this rare occasion, should you not also enjoy the pleasures of the morning?" Say'ri moved her hand up to Tiki's shoulder, shaking her awake. Tiki mumbled something Say'ri could not understand, perhaps one of her ancient languages, and tried to wave away Say'ri's hand after.

"Wake me when the sun is past the peak."

"... while you still have me here?"

"Yes, of course. Where else will you go?"

"Fie, I must refuse! You know you ask the impossible of me, to stay in bed while the sun rises!"

"There's always time to form a habit," Tiki murmured.

In any other circumstance, Say'ri might have thought it sagely advice. As it was, this conversation was already had far too many times already between the two of them. Left with no other choice, Say'ri finally showed her hand. "Do you not remember of the last even when you insisted on wanting to stay here? And when I questioned you, you spared me none of your thoughts, only to say that you would show me in the morning."

"Did I? I don't seem to remem—" Tiki cut off her own cheeky answer with a gasp as she sat up. "You're right. There is meaning to this place, and we shall have it as one of their freshest bowls of stew."

"B-bowls? What do you mean by—my lady!"

Thus, Say'ri found herself seated in the tavern area, a steaming bowl of fresh stew in front of her. Its tantalizing waft, along with the cold chill of the morning, tempted Say'ri to consume the meal without a second thought but she refrained. Manners thoroughly instilled in her since childhood bade her to delay satisfying her hunger until everyone at the table received their portion. Next to her, Tiki was seated, waiting for the innkeeper to finish preparing her bowl. Despite her earlier exuberance, Tiki was already nodding off again, mumbling noises incomprehensible to Say'ri.

When the bowl of stew was placed in front of Tiki, Say'ri could pinpoint the exact moment the smell struck Tiki's nose. Her ears twitched and perked up, and Tiki, on the verge of falling out of her seat to curl up on the floor, immediately righted herself to stare ravenously at the bowl. Grinning so widely that even her fangs peeked out, Tiki dug right in. Say'ri had the feeling that if Tiki were in her dragon form, there was little doubt that she would swallow it all in one go.

Now that Tiki had received her meal, Say'ri could sate her own hunger now. Curious as to what could even rouse Tiki from her slumber, Say'ri carefully lifted a spoonful of the stew to her lips.

She knew, the moment the liquid touched her tongue, that she was tasting something… extraordinary. The flavor of this was far deeper and stronger than anything she had ever tasted in her life—nay, she was sure she would never come close to a flavor like this ever again. This flavor was even deeper than the soups they prepared where meat and bone would be cooked for over a day before being served. How, then, was this taste achieved? And how might Say'ri be able to bring this knowledge back to her homeland?

"Amazing, right?" Tiki suddenly said. Say'ri looked over, and found Tiki's bowl was already half gone. And what a change had come over Tiki, as if she hadn't just been nodding off earlier, so alert and wakeful now! Even her ears were twitching, a sign that Say'ri had learned to recognize as great delight.

"The reason you wanted to be here, 'tis the stew you were after?" Say'ri asked. She had thought it strange how Tiki's demeanor had changed upon entering the area, and how very insistent she had been on wanting to stay here. Tiki smiled as if she were sharing a secret.

"The flavors of this stew are still as wonderful as I remember—no, they are even better than they were! A hundredfold!"

Say'ri paused. "Do you mean to say that this is the same recipe as you have eaten centuries ago?" Surely, that had to be what Tiki meant.

"No, I mean this literally. This stew is still the very same one I've eaten centuries ago!"

"... what? How can that be?!" Say'ri peered down at the stew. The idea seemed farfetched, sounding more like Tiki trying to tease her into believing something from the olden times, but… there was no explaining this flavor that was so rich and deep that nothing else seemed to compare.

"Some of the places that we had stopped at also employ the same practice though theirs are not so long stewed at this one, and they will replace their stock after some time. But this place did not, keeping their stock hot and boiling. Days turned into weeks, then months, then years, now decades and even centuries later! Even I thought it had been an outlandish idea at the time, but there is history in this stew that you can taste, flavor that been building and building." Tiki stopped speaking to finish off the rest of her stew, leaning back in her chair now with a satisfied smile. "I was afraid this place would be gone. Now, do you understand why I wanted to stop here?"

"Aye…I understand it all now." So the secret to this stew had truly been time itself. Say'ri wondered what might have inspired this line of thinking. Was it ingenuity, or even a touch of madness?

"No matter the year or age, mortals truly come up with the wildest yet innovative ideas, don't they?" Tiki laughed but her face became solemn. "That's why they are so endlessly fascinating. Humans may not live to see what will become of the seeds they've sown, but their later generations bear the fruits of their labors."

Tiki seemed to stare off now, seemingly lost in a memory of the past. Say'ri wondered how many memories were in there, which ones she were looking at, and if the ones she were seeing right now were fond ones. She hoped they were.

"I must say though," Tiki spoke up suddenly, and Say'ri was not sure if she liked that sudden sparkle in Tiki's eyes. "I have witnessed so many humans and mortals come and go… yet none have kept their beauty so keenly as you have."

Say'ri nearly sputterered. That, she had not been expecting, and she sent a flat look over to her companion. Tiki was unfazed, only more amused than she had been earlier. "I am curious though, is there some sort of secret from Chon'sin? Our allies grow lines on their faces and yet, your beauty still has not waned in the slightest even as the years pass! You still look just as youthful as the time we used to march in the army!"

"Your flattery is too heavy-handed for me," Say'ri muttered, wishing her cheeks did not have to feel as warm as the stew right now.

Tiki reached out to pat her hand. "Not flattery, my lovely Say'ri. Take it as a compliment, for your hair has yet to change color even for all your worrying after me."

Exasperation flooded through Say'ri, but so did embarrassment. It was unfair how Tiki could easily tease and compliment her all in one breath, and Say'ri could do naught against it but become flustered. She had thought constant familiarity with it would give her resistance, but Tiki always knew how to strike when Say'ri least expected it.

"That is why you must take care to live long, Say'ri." Tiki's voice was solemn again. Say'ri straightened herself up, nodding.

"Of cour—"

"Live long, Say'ri, so that you may age gracefully like this stew!" Tiki looked over at Say'ri with adoration… the very same expression she had earlier for the bowl of stew.

Say'ri began to think that perhaps it was for the better if she let Tiki sleep in for the mornings.