Chapter 1 (introduction)

It’s finally time! I’m excited to launch TEA PRINCESS CHRONICLES, and I  hope you enjoy it. If you have any questions about the story, project, or anything else, you can reach me at tea.princess.chronicles [at] gmail [dot] com. Please read on for Chapter 1!

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Chapter 1

I walk alone through a hallway of strangers.

Ceremonially approaching the Grand Shrine is surreal in a way I didn’t expect. No one is permitted to guide me, but hundreds of people line the halls to watch my progress.

I must not walk too quickly. That would indicate that I don’t value their presence and dismiss them. But if I walk too slowly, then I show disrespect for their time and take advantage of the honor they do me in attending.

As the fourth of five daughters, I’m not used to being the main focus of so much attention, but my steps don’t falter. I know what outward appearance is expected of me.

But somehow it never occurred to me to practice this walk across the hard, cold stone barefoot. I wonder if anyone’s feet have ever frozen in the dedication process.

On one hand, this makes me want to rush my approach. Once I’ve completed the rituals I’ll have to meditate alone, and I can tuck my feet under me to warm them up.

On the other, the walk is unpleasant but not impossible. Not so the decision I’ll need to make at the end of the ritual meditation.

My older sisters’ paths were clear. There were obvious services the people needed from them, and each is shockingly well-matched to her chosen task. I’m expected to follow in their tradition—a low enough expectation, to only need to continue behind them, to make no waves and fade quietly into the background. And yet the weight of the prospect makes me feel smaller, heavier every time I contemplate it. I seem to be the only one who realizes how thoroughly I don’t fit, the only one who worries trapping myself in ill-suited service will twist my spirit, who thinks that will matter not just for me, but for the people I’m ostensibly to serve.

I wonder if I’m the only royal of Istalam who’s ever gone into the Grand Shrine to dedicate their life to service with so many doubts. It ought to be unlikely, but no royal since our house’s founder has walked out of the dedication ceremony without a clear path of service ahead of them.

After what feels like a lifetime, I reach the end of the hall. Here, at last, are people I know.

I do not feel any less alone.

I bow first to my only younger sister, Karisa. She’s just a few years younger than me, but it’s clear she’ll remain shorter than the rest of us. Each of us but my oldest sister bear some physical mark of my father’s foreign heritage, and that is hers.

Karisa bows in return, and murmurs snidely, “Your fingers are blue.”

So of course now I notice that the heavy silver cuffs I wear every day are freezing against my skin.

It’s a blatant goad, her attempt at political posturing against me of all people, who holds no sway over her life—and at a time like this, when I’m embarking on arguably the most spiritually significant moment of my life. This is the first time since I began the walk that I wish I were not forbidden to speak except as part of the ritual. In theory she isn’t either, but I’m not surprised she doesn’t care.

I ignore her baiting and turn to my oldest sister, Iryasa. I’m spared Karisa’s famous temper on a day-to-day basis, but it’s still no great mystery why she’s lashing out: even with Karisa in a gown finer than she should be wearing, Iryasa’s regal bearing in clothing only slightly more adorned than my ritual garb—a plain white, tight-fitting floor-length tunic worn over loose pants—outshines her. Iryasa is the pinnacle of Istal beauty: the lanky limbs, the perfect shade of brown in her skin, the sleek, dark hair. She would be the model for every artist in the city if she weren’t so busy doing the work of crown princess.

Of course Iryasa, as crown princess, is far too important to be a safe target for my youngest sister’s ire. But I’m not.

Iryasa is enough older than me that we haven’t spent much time together. She was already thoroughly occupied by learning the intricacies of statecraft when I could barely talk. But although I don’t know her very well I recognize Iryasa’s barely-embroidered choice of tunic as a form of wordless solidarity, and so I bow to her a little lower than strictly called for.

And then I turn to the figure standing in front of the Grand Shine’s enormous wooden doors.

My mother, Queen Ilmari of Istalam.

She may be more a stranger to me than anyone else in these halls.

Her expression doesn’t change as she faces me, and I know mine doesn’t either. No gestures of common feeling here.

I bow to her, and my royal silver cuffs feel somehow heavier.

I open my mouth, and my chest tightens as if my whole body conspires to keep the air from my lungs, to keep me from uttering the next words that I must.

Somehow I say anyway, “Your Majesty, I come to dedicate myself in service to Istalam or be cast out to make my way alone.”

The words are ritual and familiar.

But now my heart is pounding.

I don’t know my mother well personally, but I know her incredible political sensibility has held Istalam together through rocky times. Every word she utters is chosen precisely and with care.

And to me she says, “Go with honor, Princess Miyara.”

The doors open. I go.


 

The Grand Shrine has been cleared for my dedication ritual. I’ve never seen it in its simplest form, and it takes me a dizzying moment to orient myself. The dome is nearly empty but for the priestess and the three guides I’ve chosen to advise me.

Unlike most shrines, the Grand Shrine at the Royal Palace of Miteran isn’t dedicated to one element or manifestation, but to all three of the elements that govern life: earth, water, and air.

I walk to the bed of earth first, sinking my feet into the soil. Even that helps me feel warmer, until I look into the face of my father, Cordán the Consort.

I know as little of him as I do of my mother, which is by design. The marriage contract between Istalam and Velasar for their marriage stipulated that he could be as involved in his children’s upbringing as the queen. Velasar thought to gain a generation sympathetic to its goals.

Instead, until Karisa, my mother refused to spend any time with us as children. And so nor could my father.

My father is stocky, with bright blue eyes and tightly-curled hair. Those curls are my inheritance, tempered down into a less energetic, thick wave. I don’t know what other parts of my father I inherited.

He doesn’t either. At last he says, “I don’t know why you chose me for this.”

And then he goes silent.

I’ve given him a chance to talk to me privately before I reach my majority, and he has nothing to say to me.

I don’t know what I would say to him either, but I’m still not allowed to talk.

The silence stretches on, and my father finally rumbles, “Do your duty. That’s all any of us can do. That’s the lesson of earth I’ll leave with you.”

He has spent years doing his thankless duty, so he should know. But his is not a fate I would wish on anyone, let alone myself.

I know my royal duty is to serve. My spiritual duty, too—serving people serves the spirits.

I just don’t know how. Is my duty first to uphold the nation of Istalam? Is it to support my family? Is it to the Istal people? If I’ve learned nothing else from my father’s life, it’s that those three do not overlap as much as my tutors have taught me.

But I bow, and I move to the pool of water, where my sister Saiyana waits.

Saiyana is the closest to me in age, only three years older, and she’s spent more time with me than any of my other sisters.

“Your softness will be the death of you,” Saiyana says without preamble. “The first time you have the chance to make a statement about who you are and what kind of public servant you’ll be, and you waste it on pity. Transparent pity, at that. You clearly feel bad because our father played no part in any of his previous daughters’ dedications, so you gave him a chance in a way that wouldn’t elevate him over the queen’s authority by your other two choices for guides. Don’t think I don’t realize what you’re up to.”

Probably no one knows me better than Saiyana does. But our personalities are so far apart it’s a wonder we’re related at all.

Her blue eyes are hard like rocks. “What you need is to stop wasting time on nonsense like that and bother to apply yourself to what matters, Miyara. There’s a lot of work to do, and you could do a lot of good if you would just set your mind to it. So that’s my advice to you, sister. Surge like the water.”

From Saiyana, this is almost shockingly sweet. She’s not one for compliments, so it’s a remarkable admission of her confidence in my abilities. She’s the most effortlessly brilliant person I’ve ever known, and that she thinks I could do what she does twists the knife in my gut, making me feel worse about my doubts.

But I don’t miss what that confidence is predicated on: first stop caring about other people. Just do the work.

Not, ultimately, so different than my father’s advice.

But I can’t help feeling that if I have to ignore the parts of myself that make me me in order to dedicate myself, then who am I really dedicating into service?

I take my leave of Saiyana for the final station: air.

Saiyana was right about my choice of guides. To balance the choice of my father: first my sister, who knows me best.

And last my grandmother, the retired queen Esmeri, now in her seventies and seated behind a waist-high candle. The queen so fierce she’d bowled over anyone who opposed her in her reign.

She’d also been so polarizing that she’d retired to leave her careful daughter to manage the fallout in her wake.

I spread my hands over the air above the candle and watch her face behind its flickers as my fingers begin to thaw.

“You have an interesting choice to make,” my grandmother says.

My fingers still. This is the first I’ve heard anyone hint that I might do anything other than follow Saiyana’s footsteps into stewardship, the thankless work of going around the kingdom solving administrative problems.

“Iryasa will rule. Reyata has dedicated herself to the warrior’s life and commanding Istalam’s armies. Saiyana devoted herself to magecraft to prepare for her role as steward. How else can you serve that they don’t already have covered?”

I only realize my expression has betrayed my surprise at her words when my grandmother chuckles. “Let me leave you with this, then, as the lesson of air,” she says, and stares at me intently over the rim of her spectacles.

“There will always be work for those who know how to listen.”

What is that supposed mean?

She winks at me. “Careful with the fire, dear.”

I snatch my hands back from the candle—too long hovering and my silver cuffs will burn my skin.

But removing my hands is also the signal that my time for guidance has come to an end.

I want to shout at her, but I’m not allowed to talk until I speak my dedication. So my father, sister, and grandmother file out of the shrine, and the priestess seals us in.

“Take as long as you need to reconcile yourself, your Highness,” she says, retreating to the side of the dome opposite the great doors I’d entered through. “The rest of your life is ahead of you, but we have until sunrise.”

As if that will be enough time to decide the course of the rest of my life. As if I will have an answer today when I haven’t in all my years before.

I lower myself to the cold stone, tucking my feet beneath me at last.

After a minute I decide the priestess won’t tell anyone if I don’t observe correct posture, un-tuck my feet, and use my silver cuffs to warm them.

If I’d really wanted advice, maybe I should have chosen different guides. Although I’d chosen my father out of sympathy, ultimately they were all political. But being a princess means everything I do is political. I don’t know people for nonpolitical reasons.

No matter what I choose, that will still be true.

I will still have to do my duty, to move at the exact pace prescribed for me.

There will still be no space for compassion. Any attempt will be viewed as a sign of weakness, a waste of resources.

I will still be the fourth princess, redundant after my illustrious sisters.

There will always be work for those who know how to listen, my grandmother said.

Listen to what? To whom? How?

How can I possibly serve people if I can’t even answer those questions?

I blink. Stare at my royal cuffs in a moment of sudden clarity.

I can’t.

I can’t possibly serve people if I don’t know what they need from me. If I don’t know what I have to offer them.

And maybe that is the answer.

My heart pounds.

I’m not like my sisters, always pushing. I always do my duty. I always stay within the prescribed lines, fading quietly into the background. I never make a fuss.

And maybe that is exactly my problem.

I sit there for another minute wondering if I’ve gone mad, if the pressure to choose has finally snapped my wits.

But this feels right. Righter than anything has.

And if I have any hope of pulling this off, I need all the time I can get.

Shakily I stand.

“Priestess,” I call softly.

“Are you ready to dedicate yourself, your Highness?” the woman asks.

I swallow. “More than anything, I wish to serve my people, priestess,” I say. “But I do not know how.”

Her eyebrows rise. I’m not supposed to have said anything other than the path I’ll spend the rest of my life devoted to. “I’m afraid I don’t under—”

She breaks off as her breath catches, her eyes widening.

I slide the cuffs off my wrists and hand them to her. It’s strange to hold them, like I’ve never realized how heavy they are.

“No one has done this in hundreds of years,” the priestess blurts as if she can’t quite believe this is happening on her watch.

“Not since the founder of Istalam herself,” I agree. “But it is within the scope of the ritual.”

“Your Highness, this can never be undone!”

“I know,” I say, and meet her stunned eyes before pronouncing my fate. “I will make my way alone.”

Outcast from the royal family.


 

A moment passes after my pronouncement, and then another.

“Priestess?” I finally prompt her.

She presses a hand to her forehead. “Oh, my dear. I suppose we’d better get you out of here then, haven’t we? Quickly, now. Follow me, your High—”

She breaks off, and we stare at each other.

No one will ever call me ‘your Highness’ again.

I’ve chosen not to dedicate myself in service. I’ve forsaken my life, and once I leave the shrine I start again with nothing. No support. No family.

No expectations.

I’m not a princess anymore.

I feel around the edges of the thought, testing my reaction to it. Renewed relief at my escape, thrill at what lies ahead, and not a little fear of the unknown, of how quickly I’ve made the biggest decision of my life—they’re all there, but muffled, like my mind is still scrambling to make sense of the course my spirit has set me on.

The priestess ushers me to the back of the Grand Shrine. The dome gives the illusion of being stone all the way around, but we walk through what appears to be solid stone to an actual corridor. The priestess hesitates at a coat rack, grabs a serviceable gray shawl off it, and hands it to me.

“Put that on,” she instructs. “You’re too conspicuous in all white.”

While I’m ducking into it she must notice I’m barefoot, because when I look up she’s thrusting her own slippers at me.

I bow in gratitude. The slippers aren’t sturdy, but they’re more than she owes me.

No one owes me anything.

That thought is only just beginning to terrify me. I quash it as we keep walking.

Once I see the sun breaking through the early afternoon clouds I expect the priestess to leave me, but instead she motions for me to wait and pulls three candles out of her robes.

As she lights them, she says, “You realize your family will not be pleased.”

I nod. “This will bring them a great deal of embarrassment. They will probably try to bully me into making a different choice.”

“And attempt to push the shrine into thwarting tradition and letting you have a second chance to dedicate yourself,” the priestess says.

“But they can’t do anything if they can’t find me,” I say softly.

The priestess nods. “Exactly. Get as far away as you can. Lie low. If you truly mean to make your way alone in the world, that’s where you start.”

The priestess begins chanting. I didn’t pursue magecraft like Saiyana, but all the princesses are required to learn the basics so we can tell if someone uses magic against us. The cuffs are primarily intended as emergency devices to summon aid—and also to find us if we’re lost or kidnapped.

My mind keeps stumbling on each realization, and here’s another one: no one will be able to find me if something bad happens to me.

And here is a mage clearly intending to spell me somehow with this construct of candles.

I pay attention and work out that it’s an illusion spell of some kind right before I feel a wave of warmth wash over me.

The priestess says, “No one will pay you any mind while that illusion is up, and it’s good until the candles burn down.”

I hear the exhaustion in her voice and guess that this is the end of what she can do for me, even if she were willing to help more.

I look at the candles. They’re not very tall.

The priestess points down the street. “See across the square—”

“The train station?”

She nods. “Exactly. Get yourself on a train as fast as you can. May the spirits guide your way.”

I stare across the Royal Square of Miteran, the only place I’ve ever lived. I wonder what I’m supposed to be feeling about it—sad to be leaving it? Excited?

I don’t quite believe there’s no ‘supposed to’ for me anymore.

I step out of the Grand Shrine onto the dusty mosaic-tile road of the Royal Square.

I have all the time in the world to work out what I feel.

Then I hear a loud horn, and I look back to the station to see the train pulling in.

It’s not that I’ve never seen one, or that there weren’t others in the station. But this train is a big one.

Big trains are more likely to travel farther away. And I need to get as far as possible.

They also don’t arrive that often, and this illusion spell will only last so long.

I sprint.

I barely take in the gardens, the beautiful shops, the stages for players and music.

I ought to need a ticket, but I have no money to buy one with.

But I do have an illusion, and so I sail past the crowds, the ticket masters and conductors and guards, and I fling myself onto the train just before the doors close and it pulls away.

Only then does it occur to me that I never looked at where it’s headed.

I have no idea where I’m going. But as I watch through the window as the train picks up speed, I know I’m on my way.


 

As I walk through the train car I spy one of the other passengers’ tickets indicating this train is eastbound. This is more than I knew before, but doesn’t tell me much: the capital Miteran is on the western side of Istalam, so heading east leaves a lot of ground to cover.

More importantly, I don’t have much time until the candles run out. I make my way to the car with the non-reserved seats and scoot to the end of a bench.

I now have plenty of time to figure out my next move, but the train car is warm and all at once my energy seems to drain out. I have enough time to realize the illusion spell has probably just worn off and sapped the remainder of my energy with it, and then I’m asleep.


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