I startle awake to hands shoving me roughly.
“Hey, grace, where’s your ticket?” someone is asking.
I blink rapidly into the face of a conductor. “I’m sorry?” I respond automatically, while part of my brain wonders if I have ever been addressed as “grace,” a common address of respect, rather than “highness.”
“Where’s your ticket?” he asks impatiently as the events of the morning come flooding back into my awareness. “We’re pulling into the transfer station now. This train turns north, so if you’re heading south you need to get off here. Where’s your final destination?”
If he finds out I have no ticket, he’ll arrest me, and my family will find me before I’ve been gone a day.
He’s blocking the aisle.
I shoot to my feet as if in panic, and he automatically takes a step back.
I squeeze past him before he has a chance to keep me there, demanding to see my ticket.
“Oh, thank you for waking me,” I say, and then I make a dash for the exit.
He calls after me, but in the press of bodies I have the advantage. I slip away into the darkness, darting out of the station before he has a chance to follow, listening to the sound of the horn as the train departs behind me.
Wherever I am now, I’m stuck here until I come by money for a ticket or another illusion spell.
I glance back at the train station and do a double-take at the name: Sayorsen South Station.
Sayorsen is all the way east. I’m on the other end of the country, right at the edge of the Cataclysm.
Which explains why it’s dark: I must have slept off the effects of the illusion spell the entire day long.
No sooner do I notice the dark than the sky seems to open up and dump down a sea of water.
I trip over the cobblestones as I run across the street looking for a place to take shelter.
Iron streetlamps dot my path, but they’re barely visible in the onslaught of rain. After a few minutes, I finally stumble upon a building with a light coming through the window.
A good thing, too, since my gifted slippers are now so soaked they’re sliding off my feet. I pick them up and scamper up the steps to the door—
Only for the lights to blink off.
A man walks out and is turning to lock the door when he sees me. “Can I help you?”
“Please,” I say. “Could I come in for a few minutes? Just until I dry off?”
I can’t make out his face in the darkness, but I get the feeling he frowns. “I can’t stay any longer, and I can’t leave you alone in the shop. Sorry. Where’s home?”
“Hello? Where are you headed?”
I have no idea, and this time no clever answer comes to mind.
“If you have nowhere to go,” the man said slowly, “the police—”
Definitely not. That’s the fastest way back to everything I just left.
It occurs to me that there may be forms of help that are worse than none at all, even when sincere.
“Sorry to bother you,” I mutter, and when he reaches out as if to hold me back I slosh away into the night.
A block later and walking on the cobblestones is hurting my bare feet. I pause to shove the slippers back on—at least they offer some protection. I make another illuminated building, but out of the haze come three figures, all scantily clad, swaying and smelling of smoke and wine.
I am just worldly enough to understand what this suggests about the lit venue they’re staggering from.
“Hey there,” one of the figures says in a voice made husky by smoke. “Want to join us?”
I am also sheltered enough to understand that I will have even less idea how to handle such a situation than the one I just fled from.
“No thank you,” I say, “but I hope you continue to enjoy your evening.”
They laugh, and I stumble onward.
At this point I’m not looking for a place that’s open—it’s clearly late enough that most everywhere is closed for the night—but maybe I can find an overhang to keep me out of the rain. A large tree to sit under. I’m increasingly less picky.
Then I see one more light.
I can’t see anyone inside.
Should I bang on the door? Probably someone left a light on by accident, but even if someone is inside they’re likely to put me in a difficult position.
I stand there debating, staring at the possibility implicit in the light through the window until the door is flung open.
A woman stands there—around my age if I were to guess, in her early twenties. She’s wearing a blood red sweater that’s far too big for her, but it’s hanging dramatically off one shoulder like she planned it that way. Combined with her tight leggings and the black boots that lace up almost to her knee, the effect makes her body look gamine. But her face is utterly feminine, with full lips and black-lined eyes that stand out in the frame of her short-cropped, artfully disheveled hair, light gray-gold like frosted sand.
With hair that color, she is likely a refugee of the Cataclysm from Gaellan. Gaellani aren’t common in the west, but here, on the border of the Cataclysm, they would be.
A woman born a refugee who looks totally together, while a woman born a princess stands sodden and aimless before her. There’s irony in this.
“How long are you planning on standing there?” the woman asks casually while I drip.
“I hadn’t decided,” I say. “Am I in the way?”
“There aren’t many good reasons to be lurking outside a business where only one person is inside,” she says. “And lest you find the odds of robbing me reassuring, I promise I can maim you in any number of ways if you try.”
That statement should probably worry me, given how calmly she says it, how unconcerned she is with a bedraggled visitor on her doorstep.
I’m too preoccupied with freezing to concern myself.
And she did open the door.
“I was looking for a place to warm up and dry off.”
The rain continues to pour on top of me, and not on her.
“You are rather sopping,” she agrees.
“Your powers of observation are remarkable,” I say.
Her eyebrows lift.
Chagrined, I open my mouth to apologize for my rudeness—
But she huffs out a breath that sounds almost like a laugh.
“Come in,” she says, stepping back from the door.
I stare at her, disbelieving, but only for a moment, and then I duck inside.
I strip off the slippers once again and, standing just inside the doorway, try to wring them out over the street. This fails; they just get wetter as the rain dumps on top of me.
“That was a really poor choice of footwear for around here,” she says.
“I agree,” I say. “This has been educational.”
She makes that small huffing sound again. “Leave them there. Better take off your shawl too; spread it out over the coat rack—no, the other side. Yeah, there. Spirits, you wore white this time of year too? What’s your name, anyway?”
The question startles me so much I answer honestly, “Miyara.”
It’s a mistake—I’ll be easier to find using my own name—but I can’t remember the last time I met someone who didn’t know my name already.
“I’m Lorwyn,” she says. “Sit over there and don’t touch anything.”
I follow her instructions, sitting on a wooden stool at a round table without question until she’s vanished through a back door.
Only then do I look around. The room is still pretty dark—the light I saw is apparently coming from the back—but there are small tables and stools throughout, with colorful cushions and patterned tablecloths. With that much fabric everywhere, it’s no wonder she wanted me planted at this one table near the door—I’ll soak the whole place if I move.
I squint into the darkness in the direction Lorwyn went—there are shelves on the walls with things on them, but I can’t make them out. I think I see a teapot?
Lorwyn comes back in with bundles of cloth in her arms.
“Towels to clean up spills,” she says, tossing me one. “May be tea-stained; I think one of the boys put used towels in the clean pile by mistake.”
I don’t care. All I care about is being warm.
My hands shaking, I wipe myself down. Lorwyn then produces a large tablecloth and wraps it around me.
“There,” she says. “Back on the stool. Tuck your feet under you—yes, like that. Better?”
I stare at myself, huddled in a tablecloth, and back at her. I’m reasonably sure she’s mocking me, though I am, in fact, better. I’m no longer getting sloshed with water, I’m indoors and absurdly grateful for it, but somehow I can’t wrap my mind around my current situation.
This morning I was a princess. Now I’m a vagabond in a tablecloth.
Maybe tea will help.
“Good,” Lorwyn says. “Sit there and thaw for a while. Don’t touch anything, and don’t bother me. I’m going back to work.”
“Wait,” I say.
She turns back, and now she looks suspicious. I’d disarmed her mistrust, somehow, at the door, but now she’s considering me as a potential danger again. Or maybe just wondering how much of a nuisance I intend to make of myself.
“Please,” I say. “I smell ginger. I don’t suppose—is there tea?”
She stares at me. Sniffs obviously at the air. “You can smell that out here? Really?”
I start to nod; stop. “Well. It smells like ginger, but there’s a subtle difference I can’t place.”
Mentally I kick myself. Lorwyn is not one of my tutors. I’m allowed to give her incomplete answers. I’m tired and falling back on old habits.
A smile spreads on Lorwyn’s face.
It is not the sort of smile I consider comforting.
“You,” she says, “are going to earn your keep. Yes, there’s tea, and you’re going to taste it for me. Wait right there; I’ll be back when it’s ready.”
It doesn’t take her long, but still long enough that my hands are beginning not to shake. She clatters down a tea service in front of me.
“Is this a tea shop?” I ask. “I couldn’t see signs in the rain.”
“Talmeri’s Teas and Tisanes, yes,” she answers as she arranges the kettle, the small pots, a cup in front of each. It’s clear she knows her way around a tea set—her movements aren’t the deliberate ones I learned for tea ceremonies, but this is a woman who has poured an awful lot of tea and is confident she won’t break anything.
Lorwyn pours water from the kettle over the tea pet—an exquisitely crafted clay dragon that moments later spouts out water as if it were breathing fire.
Lorwyn smirks in satisfaction. A tea pet only spouts water once it’s at the correct temperature—she has a good sense of timing to guess that accurately.
“What kind of tea are we having?” I ask.
She pours. “You tell me,” she says.
A tea pet only works for specific water temperatures, and the correct temperature for brewing green tea is not the same as for white, or for a tisane. Even if she chose tea randomly from a shelf, to make use of a tea pet she obviously has to know what tea this is.
So this is a test for me.
“My main job here,” Lorwyn says, “in theory, anyway, is to prepare tea blends. Talmeri, the owner, just got a new ingredient in stock that’s posing a particular challenge. But for reasons that can’t possibly be good enough, she bought crates of the stuff. So we have to find a way to sell it or else cut a huge loss. So.” She hands me the first cup. “Tell me what you think.”
Right up front I get the full-bodied floral taste in an overpowering blast—that still somehow manages not to cover the slick, almost oily note underneath.
“Well?” Lorwyn asked.
“White tea and fairy dew extract are commonly paired together,” I say evasively.
“And I’m clearly not trying to do something common here,” Lorwyn says impatiently. “What do you think?”
My thoughts. Who has ever been interested before?
And of course I’m asked by someone who’s not going to like the answer.
But I’m not a princess anymore, and I can share whatever thoughts I want. Perhaps not without repercussions, but all of a sudden I desperately want to know what it is to experience fallout for speaking thoughts of my own.
“I think you’re failing to cover whatever else is in there and abusing the fairy dew in so doing,” I say. “I’m not sure what sort of tea blends you usually sell, but I would never choose to drink this.”
And then Lorwyn smiles again, that uncomfortable, predator-like smile.
“So you can taste after all,” she says, and although she doesn’t seem upset I feel a spike of unease. “Try the next one.”
This one is a tisane, no tea at all. It contains the ginger I smelled before, along with ground peppers that only long training in not visibly reacting to Nakrabi cuisine in public prevents me from coughing as my throat tries to close, that other mystery flavor slithering through in a slick trail.
When I’m sure that my mouth is under control, I say evenly, “Please understand, I say this with the utmost gratitude for the tablecloth and the dry space. But I can only consider someone who would ask another, unsuspecting, to drink this as being an unkind person.”
Lorwyn throws her head back and laughs, or perhaps cackles.
“Sorry,” she says, not sounding sorry in the least—more delighted. “I thought the Nakrabi death peppers might burn through the—the new ingredient—”
“They do not,” I say firmly. “They burn, but your mystery ingredient slides underneath until everything is terrible.”
“Noted,” she says, clearly not offended in the slightest. After that cup she has no grounds to be offended, anyway.
She hands me a third cup, though, and I eye her mistrustfully, that unease back again and sharp.
“Earning your tablecloth,” she reminds me.
I smell the grassiness of the green tea before I taste it. But the flavor is so strange I can’t immediately identify the elements—she’s used aloia nectar not just as a sweetener, but to bind this mystery ingredient, and the result has a strangely smooth, nutty element. I frown at the cup and take another sip, swirling the tea in my mouth.
“So?” Lorwyn asks.
It’s much better than the other two, but this tea gives the impression of oozing—no, crawling through the grass—
I set the cup down abruptly. “Please tell me your mystery ingredient is not insectoid.”
Her eyebrows rise in surprise. “Wow. Okay, I’m impressed. Apparently the trekkers named them sleekbeetles. New species discovered in the Cataclysm. Talmeri bought crates of their scales.”
I am drinking beetle scale tea.
This morning I was a princess, and now I sit sopping in a tablecloth drinking beetle scale tea.
Lorwyn shrugs. “I’m sure they were cheap—even in a place as used to weirdness as Sayorsen, beetles aren’t exactly a much sought after commodity. Talmeri’s always on the lookout for novelty items to boast the most unique tea flavors in the city, and she also likes torturing me. Who can say which was the primary factor this time?”
I grimace. “Wonderful. A hitherto untasted bug. I hope it’s at least magically inert and you haven’t poisoned me?”
“Of course I didn’t poison you,” Lorwyn says. “I tasted it before you did. You didn’t tell me what you think of this one, though. How could you tell it was beetle?”
“The grassiness of the green tea,” I say. “It’s too sharp. You need something mellower that’s still robust enough to hold up to the aloia nectar.”
Lorwyn slumps back—I’m not entirely sure how she manages to, since she’s sitting on a stool.
“Aloia is tricky,” she grumbles.
“Maybe it needs another note,” I say. “The aloia clearly manages the beetle flavor into something salvageable. Now you need a bridge between the aloia and the tea.”
Lorwyn bolts out of her stool before I’m done talking. “Wait there!” she calls.
I blink, and then smile just a little. Her commanding presence gives her a sophisticated air, but it falls apart when she gets distracted.
She returns with another small pot and a cup, adds them to the tea service. She lifts the pot to pour, and all at once I realize, beetle scales aside, what’s been bothering me.
It’s not her smile that’s triggering the bolts of unease—that’s my mind reacting to unexpected magic use, perceiving a threat.
The water from that kettle should not have correctly brewed different kinds of teas and tisanes. The temperature of the water has to have changed, and there are no cooling or heating devices anywhere near the table.
I glance around for a structure, anything she could have used to anchor magecraft. The stools aren’t in any particular order around the table, there are no candles, and the tea cups are arranged for the taster’s benefit alone.
Which means this isn’t magecraft at all.
Which is supposed to be closely regulated.
I promise I can maim you in any number of ways, she said.
Brewing me concoctions with unknown ingredients from the Cataclysm she is sure are magically inert.
A mysterious air of confidence and sophistication.
Lorwyn holds a cup of tea out to me with an excited look on her face.
I’ve lost my wits. After realizing what she’s doing, it’s the only explanation for what I do next.
I take the cup, and I sip.
It’s the same tea leaf, but it’s been brewed with roasted rice—mellow but rich. And not only that, she’s added a sunny note light enough not to overpower the tea but robust enough to moderate the aloia—and most importantly it does not at all make me think of beetles.
“Marigold,” I say. “Perfect. Maybe even a touch more. This tea can handle it.”
Lorwyn studies me. “Which flush of leaves?” she asked.
I cock my head to one side, not sure why she’s asking. “Second,” I say. “It has to be, to balance these flavors correctly.”
“So you’re a professional taster,” Lorwyn says bluntly.
This startles me. “No, I’m not.”
“A tea master, then. Or at least an aspirant.”
“What? No, I mean—I can perform tea ceremonies, but I’m not certified or part of the tea masters guild. I’ve never taken any of the exams.”
It’s strange to think about my education that way. Of course I’m not a tea master—a princess can’t be compared to a person who works in service.
That thought takes my breath away.
Lorwyn pushes on. “You’ve done some of the same training though! That’s practically the same thing.”
“Is it?” I ask. And then: “Is that how it is for witches?”
Lorwyn has gone utterly still. “Are you implying I’m a witch? Just because I’m a woman, and—”
“Not all witches are women,” I say automatically. Our current understanding is that all witches are born with female reproductive organs, but that isn’t the same.
Lorwyn’s shoulders tense, as if she’s clenching her fists, hard, under the table where I can’t see them. “I’m aware of that,” she growls.
“The water,” I explain.
She closes her eyes. “Of course. If you know tea this well, of course you’d notice that. Curse you.”
She sounds bitter, but also resigned.
“I take it that means you’re not registered,” I say.
The registry is the rare piece of legislation my grandmother had been forced to approve or face a popular uprising, even though she was against it. Ever since the Cataclysm, witches have been required to register with the state to be regulated. Because unlike magecraft, which anyone can learn but has natural limits imposed by the need for physical structures to anchor it, witchcraft is innate. The registry enables mages to watch over witches—and if their power is considered too great, they can be executed.
What this means, of course, is that witches notoriously don’t register. Which means the mages have a greater mandate for laws that crack down against those that disobey, and people come to mistrust witches, and then witches are even less likely to come forward even if their power is minor.
But since Lorwyn heated water in this kettle without even appearing to think about it, I do not think her power is minor.
“No, I’m not registered,” she says evenly, confirming my assumption. “I prefer living. Do you?”
My heart races, and I know I need to think very quickly. “I do,” I say. “You have no more reason to maim me now than you did in the doorway.”
“Don’t I?” she asks. “I can never trust you won’t get in trouble and decide to give me up to ease your way, can I?”
It occurs to me that I wouldn’t. That should bother me—I barely know this woman, and she has threatened to hurt me.
But she also brought me in out of the rain and wrapped me in a tablecloth.
Saiyana always grudgingly admitted my snap judgments of people are usually correct. I can’t help wondering what she’d think of this one.
“Do you think,” I say, “I would have been standing out drenched in the rain, in the dark, if I could appeal to local authorities for any kind of assistance?”
Her gaze sharpens. “Are you in trouble of some kind?”
“Of some kind,” I agree. “And it’s the kind that is in no danger of vanishing for the rest of my life.”
“A lot can change,” Lorwyn points out.
“Not this,” I say firmly. “And I’d be more distressed than you if it did—this situation is of my own making, and I don’t want it reversed.”
“Even if it means freezing in the rain.”
I hadn’t even considered going to the police and having them send me back to Miteran. That reassures me—deep down I’m more confident in my choice than I fully understand yet.
“Yes,” I say. “Even then.”
“Yet we’re still unequal,” she points out. “I have to take you at your word that you won’t betray me, with no insurance. I don’t think that will work.”
She says this matter-of-factly, not like she’s looking for excuses to maim me but as if we’re haggling over a business contract. But her complete surety in turn leaves me sure this is a sticking point. She has to have more of a hold on me to let alone the hold I have on her.
Spirits guide me.
“If the police ever have reason to investigate me,” I say, “it will be the end of my life.”
Not in the literal sense, probably. But I will never be allowed any agency in my own life again, not after what I’ve done. And thinking of returning to the palace, to be carefully managed forever, turns my stomach. Already I’m not sure how I lived so long with it.
I hope it is easy to live a life where the police will never have a reason to investigate me.
“That’s not good enough,” Lorwyn says. “I need to know why.”
“No,” I say. “You do not. And it is good enough.”
I say this with authority, as calmly as I pronounce judgments on tea. And I see this makes a difference: she believes me. But she’s not quite prepared to let the point go.
“And for whatever it’s worth,” I add, “I also think the law is egregiously immoral on top of being counterproductive and should have been repealed years ago. I have no trouble behaving as though that wrong has already been righted.”
Lorwyn throws her hands up in exasperation. “Who talks like that?” she demands as I blink in confusion. “And anyway, you can’t behave that way—can you imagine how quickly I’d get noticed? Keep your head down and pretend everything is as it should be. That’s how hiding works.”
Hiding. For someone who’s spent her entire life in the background, it ought to be more natural for me. I need to learn that better, fast.
“And,” she says, “I’m going to keep you where I can keep an eye on you, I think. You don’t have a place to stay or work, correct?”
Cautiously hopeful, I say, “That’s correct.”
“Tomorrow I will bring you back here, and you will convince Talmeri to give you a job.”
“How will I do this?” I ask. “And why do you want me to?”
“Self interest,” Lorwyn answers easily. “My main job, as I said, is making tea blends. But the entire lab is mine. I work here because I can experiment with whatever I want, whenever I want, without interference. And since Talmeri knows I’ll never give that up, I also end up with any other jobs she can’t be bothered to deal with. Bookkeeping is bad—how are you with spreadsheets?”
“Fine?” Were spreadsheets dangerous somehow?
“Fabulous. Anyway, bookkeeping is bad, but it’s not as bad as supervising the boys who serve tea. Or having to serve customers myself because one of them is too incompetent. You know tea, you need a job, I have all these jobs I don’t want—you’re going to persuade Talmeri that you should run the tea room.”
“And why,” I ask slowly, “do I want to do this? Aside from the need for income?”
“Because in exchange, I’m going to arrange free lodging for you for half a year,” she says brightly, and I am now completely sure I should never trust this particular smile from her.
“How?” I ask.
“Do we have an agreement?” she presses.
“Tentatively,” I say, and knowing she won’t mind clarify, “as this sounds rather too convenient for me all around.”
I’m right. My honesty makes her laugh, and the tension that’s been in the air eases a bit.
“Oh, it won’t be convenient at all,” Lorwyn promises. “Just you wait. No, you know what, we’re getting this over with—are you dry? Let’s go see if you approve of your housing arrangements.”
“Now?” I ask, glancing habitually up, where the room remains dark.
“No better time,” Lorwyn says with her predator’s smile.
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