A Coup of Tea: Chapter 4 (introduction)

I wake with the birds and stare, disoriented, at a ceiling that is not covered by mosaic depiction of the three great spirits of the world. Instead it’s plain and white.

I look around, see the line of trees outside the window. This is not my view, and yet, now it seems to be.

I have a room with a window. That’s always been considered too ill-advised for a princess’ rooms, even in secure Miteran.

The events of the previous day filter back in. I don’t remember getting into bed, but either I must have, or Risteri moved me and I didn’t notice.

I rub my bare wrists. I need to be more attentive. Perhaps I can be forgiven for letting my guard down my first day on my own, but for exactly that reason I can’t make it a habit—it’s no longer anyone’s job to protect me. Only mine.

I’ve been exceedingly fortunate, but I can’t keep depending on the goodwill of others.

Sitting up, I feel crusted layers of mud crinkle on my skin.

I am downstairs in the bathroom instants later.

I take a breath, thinking back to the night before and all the instructions Risteri gave me. I wasn’t processing very well, but I did, at least, listen. Twisting nobs tentatively, I manage to get the tub filled with hot water and find bottles of liquid soaps stashed in a cupboard.

As I sink down into the tub, I revel in the feeling of being surrounded in warmth. It’s a facet of water I’ve never truly appreciated before.

Then I go about figuring out what to do with the soaps, relieved they’re labeled.

I step out regretfully when the water begins to cool, pulling on a robe hanging from the door. It’s lavender silk, delicately embroidered with violet birds flitting across, and I love it immediately.

Then I remember it isn’t mine. Nothing is mine. I rub my wrists absentmindedly again.

I find a comb and attempt to use it on my hair, but after a few fruitless minutes my stomach rumbles. I’ve barely eaten in two days now, and I’ll need food before I can be good for anything—beginning with being able to stay awake in the presence of strangers, and ending with no longer being dependent on their charity.

In the kitchen, there’s a note from Risteri left on the bar, right in front of the stool: she’s left soup in the cooler.

Splendid, as I have no idea how I’d have found food otherwise. I have no way to contact Lorwyn or Risteri, no money to buy food, no idea where I could even obtain it.

The magnitude of my impulsive decision the day before threatens to drown me. It’s not that I didn’t understand I’d have to find food for myself, but there are so many details. I will have to relearn completely how to live.

I take a few deep breaths. Air, for calm.

I’m rubbing my wrists again. I stop.

I figured out the bath. I will figure out food, too.

The soup is cold, congealed; it will need, I assume, to be reheated. If I can heat water in a kettle, I can probably manage this.

I rummage through cupboards, surprised anew by the wealth of wares needed to outfit a kitchen for one person—glasses, plates, serving bowls and measuring spoons, many other utensils I can’t identify that must be for cooking. I eventually land on pots, use a large utensil I don’t recognize to pry the soup into one, and have clapped the magical stove fire on before I’ve realized I’ve done it.

Strange that it’s cooking, an expression of earth and nourishment, that comes easily to me today, when I’ve never felt so untethered from my roots. It’s like I’m a whole new Miyara.

No: I’m myself for the first time.

As I search for an appropriate bowl and spoon, I wonder if Risteri’s grandmother uses this kitchen. Has the kitchenware sat here unused for years? Does she have a servant come by every day? Has a noblewoman of my grandmother’s generation taught herself to cook?

Maybe I can too.

Soon enough, I’m seated on the stool with a bowl of hot soup. It’s milky yellow, rich with mushrooms, cabbage, and noodles speckled with peppers. It’s all I can do to keep from inhaling it, but I can’t afford a burnt tongue—I may need my tasting skills again today.

So I take a moment to study the cottage a little more closely. I’ve been moving through it like a ghost, but this is the place that, if I’m successful today in securing a job at the tea shop, I’ll be spending the next half a year.

It feels cozy to me, which is not at all what I associate with grandmothers—though it must be said mine, as the most dominant queen of Istalam, is perhaps not a customary standard for grandmothers.

Then again, what do I know of grandmothers? Perhaps they are all inscrutably wise and terrifying.

It’s not at all what I associate with a place that I live, either. After all of one day of cold, I think I will make it a point to embrace coziness in my new life.

The kitchen, with its bright white cabinets and brass nobs, stands out at striking odds with the sitting room: there the floor is covered in rugs, deep burgundy with burnished yellow floral patterns; the oversized chair in front of the fireplace is a cream with the same pattern embroidered around it. A bronze table with a ruby and gold mosaic surface sits next to it in front of the fireplace, where a thick, saffron yellow blanket rests invitingly.

There’s no altar to the spirits, though. I’m sure I didn’t see one upstairs, either. That’s highly unusual—at least, to the best of my knowledge; it’s not as though I’ve been in many private citizens’ homes over the years.

So maybe having an altar in every home isn’t as normal as I think, but it’s still important. You invite the spirits into your home, and you invite their blessings and balance into your life. That matters.

Perhaps, once I have money, I can make a small one myself. There aren’t many open surfaces in this cottage, but it occurs to me there should be flowers here.

I’ve finished the soup and am attempting to find a vase when Lorwyn barges in without so much as a knock.

She kicks the door closed and glares at me.

I frown back at her.

“How are you awake this early?” Lorwyn demands.

“How are you this rude at any time?” I return without hesitation.

Lorwyn pauses in the act of shedding her coat, looking at me sidelong. “I’m always equally charming, even before I’ve had sufficient cups of tea.”

Aha.

“And you are even sassier when fed and bathed, I see,” Lorwyn continues. “But I hesitate to ask what you’ve done to your hair.”

Did I make it worse? “I tried to comb it.”

Lorwyn sighs, the sigh of a thousand sighs. “You have older sisters, don’t you.”

I’m not sure how that’s relevant, but nod regardless. This seems safe enough.

Lorwyn throws up her hands. “Of course you do. I am cursed with younger sisters. Let’s go upstairs and get this sorted out, though I’m warning you, I’m not helping you with your hair every day. You’d be better off cutting it off.”

My face betrays my horror before I think better of it.

Lorwyn sighs again, and I follow her numbly up the stairs.

It would make it easier to hide, but… surely it won’t come to that. Surely I’ll be able to figure out how to care for it without maids?

Upstairs, Lorwyn goes straight to the closet and starts rummaging. “We need to convince Talmeri you’re as good as a tea master, even if you don’t have the credentials, which means you need to look the part,” she says, then freezes. “Curses. Anyone will recognize this as one of her grandma’s formal tunics, won’t they? I didn’t think of that.”

“No,” I disagree. “They’re at least a season old, which means, as a noble, she’ll have been seen, the pattern disseminated. I’ll merely look behind-the-times. But are you sure it’s fine to borrow?” Nightclothes were one thing, but formal dress—

“It’s not like I have formalwear lying around,” Lorwyn says. “Come on. Try this on.”

She waves a bolt of pale, sunny yellow cloth with hints of purple embellishments at me.

“Is that the only one?” I ask.

She glares at me. “Are you picky? We don’t have all day.”

“That is not a color I should ever wear, and in particular it’s not one I can wear in autumn if you want your boss to take my knowledge of etiquette seriously,” I say firmly.

Lorwyn throws her hands up. “Fine. Come look. I’ll go get the combs and clips.” She tears downstairs in a whirl, and I feel a moment of sympathy for her younger sisters.

It is perhaps the strangest moment of the morning yet to go through the formal tunics and pants in the closet. Not so much because they belong to another person, but because this feels familiar. With dress, at least, I know how to present myself—except, again, I don’t. I’m not a princess anymore.

This is the first time the thought hasn’t sent me reeling. Good.

I choose a cream-colored dress shot through with a design of coppery feathers and the orange pants from a different set to wear underneath. The orange, being intended for spring, is the wrong shade, but paired with the cream the discrepancy is offset. I’m pleased I can manage to struggle into the dress alone—but already I realize the problem.

Risteri’s grandmother is apparently taller than me, and also a bit stockier. The high neck of the dress falls loose at the top; the long sleeves are longer than my hands; the flaps of the dress hang too low and the slits on each side don’t hit at my waist.

I stare at the travesty in the mirror, feeling a sharp sense of dread.

And then while I watch, the fabric tightens around me, magically fitting.

I turn to see Lorwyn watching me from the top of the stairs with narrowed eyes.

“There,” she says. “That’ll do for now. I’m not experimenting with witchcraft to unsnarl your hair, though. Sit on the edge of the bed and let’s get this over with.”

“Experimenting?” I echo.

She waves her hand vaguely. “Not like I need it for my own. You want me to practice on you?”

“No, thank you,” I say quickly, resisting the urge to cover my hair with my hands.

“That’s what I thought. Now hold still.”


 

In the light of day, Talmeri’s Teas and Tisanes doesn’t look nearly as inviting as it did when I was freezing wet. Its pale green façade and the gold lettering of the shop’s sign give it a veneer that separate it from the plain stone apartments above, but it looks cold, faded.

I’m disappointed. I want to remember it as a beacon of light and hope, drawing me in from the darkness.

Inside, at least, it’s warm, and a little bell tinkles above our heads as Lorwyn unlocks the door and ushers me in.

This time, the magelamps are lit, and I can make out the interior of the shop.

At the back of the room I see the door to where Lorwyn’s lab and supplies are. There are two other doors—one around the corner from the front door and one tucked away on the side—and I can’t tell where they lead.

The front, at least, is mostly reserved for round tables of varying sizes, covered in pastel-patterned tablecloths, each with a small arrangement of woven flowers and candles in the center. There is a booth against the side wall, behind where I sat the night before, outfitted with a stove and multiple kettles, a special drawer unit with miniature compartments that I hope hold tea, and cabinets arrayed behind with tea utensils stuffed inside, cups and pots separated from their sets to fit wherever they can.

And the rest of the room is covered in shelves: the highest display expensive pots and china, as well as frames of pressed high-grade tea leaves.

A simple, classic tea set is on sale, but the lower shelves hold a stranger assortment: paper pads emblazoned with the title “tea recorder”—to keep track of teas customers try?—candles and incense, jewelry with charms that look like cups or pots and some with little jars that hold dustings of tea leaves. And—

“Does that say tea soap?” I whisper to Lorwyn.

“It does, and no I can’t explain,” Lorwyn says. “Are you ready?”

I don’t ask why she didn’t wonder this before and simply nod.

At that moment, the door around the front corner bursts open.

The woman that emerges is well into her middle age; possibly older. She’s Istal like me and Risteri, but stockier, and her facial features flatter. She holds herself proudly, and her knee-length, loose dress over cropped pants is finely made. At a guess, she’s a successful merchant, not a noble.

“Lorwyn, what a pleasant surprise, seeing you at the store so early! I almost couldn’t believe it when I heard that door unlock. Now, before you get to whatever you came in for, if you could just help me—”

“Actually, I have someone for you to meet, Talmeri,” Lorwyn says, stepping aside to gesture more obviously at me.

Talmeri pauses, as if noticing me for the first time. Her polite waiting smile is too affected, too forced. “Oh? A… friend?”

I hear the implication in her words, the unlikelihood that Lorwyn could have friends. I barely know Lorwyn, and still this galls me.

Perhaps because no one would ever believe I could have friends, either.

“No,” Lorwyn says, a tightness in her voice and a strained smile. “Not a friend.”

Talmeri nods, clearly having expected no less. “So, do tell. I do have quite a lot of work to get to this morning—”

“This morning?” Lorwyn cuts her off. “Does that mean you’re planning to leave the shop—and the untrained boy on shift today—unsupervised again?”

Talmeri looks at her reproachfully. “A dear friend is ill, Lorwyn. Of course I’ll go tend her. You’ll manage—”

“Not and produce palatable sleekbeetle tea at the same time, I won’t,” Lorwyn says. “Which if you had given me any notice of, I could have—”

“Well, it’s a good thing you’re here early then, isn’t it!” Talmeri says with obviously false brightness.

Lorwyn grows tenser beside me.

I, on the other hand, relax.

I grew up at the court of Istalam with this sort of biting smile. I don’t have the full measure of Talmeri yet, but this I can handle.

“My pardon for interrupting you at such a busy time,” I say. “I had not realized the situation here was so precarious. I can return again at a later—”

Talmeri’s head snaps back to me. “Precarious? No, not at all. Please, how can I be of service?”

I bow low, careful not to smile. That was the easy part. “Grace Talmeri, I have some experience in the preparation and serving of tea. I hoped you might do me the honor of allowing me to serve you.”

As I stand, Talmeri looks slowly from me to Lorwyn. “What’s this?”

Lorwyn says, “I think she should work here.”

Drat it, I’d just hooked Talmeri—Lorwyn is moving too fast!

Talmeri shakes her head. “No. I’m sorry, I don’t know what Lorwyn has told you, but she knows I don’t hire female servers.”

To me, Lorwyn says, “Part of what Talmeri does here is train well-off boys in service and etiquette so they can make better matches. Having a nice young gentleman as your server is part of what Talmeri’s is known for.

“But,” she turns back to Talmeri, “you’re comfortable with women for other positions. I’m in charge of the back, and you take care of the customers in the front.”

“And what other position do you think needs filled, precisely?” Talmeri asks, her smile fixed.

“Yours,” Lorwyn snaps.

The beat of silence that follows is deadly.

“I beg your pardon?” Talmeri says, her façade of good humor vanishing.

I can practically see my promise of lodging for the next half year, and any possibility of income, let alone self-sufficiency, going up in flames in front of me.

Not to mention my barely begun notion of making an altar, a space of my own.

“You haven’t been present for a full shift in over a month,” Lorwyn says. “Who do you think is promoting the image you want for your customers? The boys who’re barely trained? Surely you don’t think it’s a good idea to leave me responsible for service? At a time when we need more revenue than ever, why do you think our business is dwindling?”

“I might ask you the same,” Talmeri said. “You have no idea how much I do.”

“I do, since I end up doing most of that too!”

Enough of this. “Grace Talmeri, please forgive me.”

They look up as if surprised and chagrined to be caught arguing in front of a stranger, which makes me wonder how often that happens.

“I was not fully aware of Lorwyn’s plans,” I say, “but I believe I can be of use to you regardless. I respect that this is your establishment, and you more than anyone know its needs. I’m sorry to have caught you at such a busy time. Before any further discussion or decisions, I would be honored to serve you tea.”

Talmeri watched me through narrow eyes, clearly distrustful.

Lorwyn adds, “Please let her, and I promise I’ll find a way to have sleekbeetles on the menu by tomorrow no matter what.”

“That quickly?” Talmeri pounces on her words. “Aren’t you the one who told me you’d need at least two weeks, and that it possibly couldn’t be done at all?”

“I didn’t just pluck any old person off the street,” Lorwyn says, though of course this is patently false. “Miyara’s trained to taste, and she pointed me toward a major breakthrough yesterday.”

“Oh, is that so?” Talmeri asks, turning back to me, and I can practically feel her thoughts spinning as her false smile returns. “Lorwyn is notoriously picky. If you two worked well together, perhaps you’d be willing to stop by and help her from time to time?”

I open my mouth to answer affirmatively, but Lorwyn says, “While I’m sure she would dearly love to offer her services for free, alas, she also needs money to eat.”

Talmeri glares at her.

Aha. Talmeri hadn’t been offering me a job, but trying to cheat me out of one.

I incline my head in a way that indicates both acknowledgement and regret.

“Well, now, look at those manners,” Talmeri murmurs. Folds her arms. “All right. You have one chance to impress me, Grace Miyara. What tea will you serve me?”

And now it begins.

I don’t know what tea she carries or what accoutrements are available, so I’ll assume the best and work from there.

“If you’ll permit me, I’ll perform the tea ceremony,” I say.

Talmeri’s eyebrows creep up, and even Lorwyn looks surprised.

Practitioners of tea ceremony train for years. It’s possible to do poorly, but for my confidence that I can impress her with it, they intuit I must possess some actual skill.

“You didn’t say you were a tea master,” Talmeri says.

“I regret that I’m not.” I incline my head again: acknowledgement and regret. “However, you may judge my skill for yourself. Sadly, I can’t prove my pedigree with credentials. There are no records of the masters I’ve trained under, nor have I taken the requisite certification exams. But I don’t think you will be disappointed with my performance.”

“Why do you think I’ll hire you for a tea master position when a noble household wouldn’t?” Talmeri asks.

“I’m not applying to be your tea master,” I say. “I’m not that presumptuous. But I can see you run a special kind of business and you’re not afraid to take risks—either with sleekbeetles or with a brewer as unconventional as Lorwyn. So I don’t expect you to hire me, but I hope you might consider the notion.”

“Hmm. An answer that’s to the point, indicates a firm understanding of your place, and is still polite.” She flashes that false bright smile at Lorwyn, and I realize Lorwyn’s own unnerving smile is a perversion of this one. “A skill we don’t see much of day to day, don’t you think?”

“You don’t say,” Lorwyn says dryly.

“Very well,” Talmeri says. “We shall take tea in the ceremony chamber. Let’s see what you can do.”

Lorwyn looks hesitant for the first time. “Talmeri, we haven’t used that room in a while.”

“Then it should be clean, shouldn’t it?” she says, holding out her hand.

Lorwyn winces, handing over a key. “That’s not, exactly, how—”

She breaks off as Talmeri opens the door, and dust wafts out of the room.

“You see?” Talmeri asks from inside. “It will do nicely.”

“She has never had to clean a day in her life,” Lorwyn mutters in explanation.

“Lorwyn,” I say quietly. “Do you have any aloia incense in the back?”

She glances back at me quickly, catching on. The combination of aloia nectar and fire will suck the dust away. “I can whip some up quickly,” she says.

“Three, if you can,” I say. “Let’s draw the dust away from her, before she starts coughing.”

“On it,” she says. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

So now I’m on my own.

I step across the threshold, and my test begins.

I place both hands palm down on my thighs and bow at the waist.

There’s an altar on each of the other walls, and I bow to them in turn, then to my guest, kneeling on a cushion at the low square table in the center.

Her expression is pinched, but she won’t cough, not yet. Nor will she admit she erred—at least not without blaming Lorwyn.

“All the materials you need are in the closet on your right,” Talmeri says.

I bow once more and slide open the door. There’s a small stove with a kettle, and a case underneath that holds all the tea ceremony utensils—much more organized than the front room’s, thankfully, and the case has protected them from the dust. There is a shelf with several canisters of tea.

This is the next part of the test: not only setting up the ceremony on my own in an unfamiliar setting, but selecting the appropriate tea.

I look over the shape of the leaves in each before pulling down two canisters. After sniffing, I make my choice. Talmeri has work to do now but will have a mellow afternoon sitting with her friend: I’ll make her the classic green water blend, for adaptability.

I hear the door open again, which must be Lorwyn coming in with the incense.

I start the water heating in the kettle and arrange the wooden tea tray: the clay pot with the stylized wave swirling around it, indicating it pairs with the water blend; two cups lined with porcelain; scoop and tea pet and kettle stand. It’s not just a matter of what’s on the tray, but how each piece is positioned, distinct for each tea ceremony.

When I have them all set appropriately, the door shuts again.

With a breath, I lift the tray carefully and carry it out.

Lorwyn is nowhere to be seen. Talmeri must have asked her to leave us. I don’t mind: Lorwyn would probably only antagonize her accidentally.

And the tea ceremony is a sacred ritual. It’s right for it to be just Talmeri and me.

I bow at the waist again, still holding the tray out, parallel with the table, demonstrating to my guest that I possess the skill to take care of her.

The tray’s angle is perfect, and it never wavers.

I set it down on the table, bow, and on cue the kettle begins to whistle. I fetch it, deposit it in its place, and kneel.

The tea ceremony is a series of stylized movements that serve multiple purposes. Part is practical: the method of brewing that draws the best flavor from the leaves, priming the pot and cups, discarding the first steep. But even this is to feed into the main purpose of the tea ceremony, which is an experience.

The guest must always feel that they are taken care of, that they will be well served.

They must feel comfortable, and they must feel special.

They must feel the ceremony is a sacred oasis.

The particular movements are a ritual to bring them into this experience. Every turn of a cup, every splash of water, every bow creates that space.

Bows are second nature for anyone at court. But that’s not my only strength.

Although I have a tea pet, I know exactly how long it takes for this amount of water to cool from the boiling point to be at the correct temperature for this tea without having to time it.

I know how long each of my movements must take in that time so there is never a lull during which my guest might worry or their attention wander, and I know how to make the best effect of the formal dress I wear as I move.

I know how much tea to scoop without a measure, and I know how long it must steep for.

I know how to kneel in this position for hours if I have to, if that’s what it takes to serve all my guests.

When I serve Talmeri the tea, I know that while she might not hire me despite my and Lorwyn’s hopes, it won’t be due to my lack of skill.

Talmeri takes a deep sip of the tea. Her eyes close, and she takes a deep breath.

“Well,” Talmeri says, and sighs softly, setting the cup back down. “Well. I can’t deny I’d like to hire you, Miyara, after a performance like that.”

Despite my calm moments before, I feel a spike of panic.

I don’t know how else to persuade her, nor how to get a job elsewhere.

“But?” I ask quietly.

“This area is under a lot of pressure,” Talmeri says. “We need every coin we can bring in. Lorwyn makes a salary, but our serving boys don’t—their education is a service I provide to their families. You need to make a living wage, and I’m not willing to pay you one.”

I steady my breathing, watching her, trying to think.

No. I need to listen.

I’ve heard how easily she manipulates her tone—she should have pronounced that with finality, and she didn’t.

This is the opening sally to bargain.

Saiyana once told me diplomacy and bargaining are the same thing.

“I don’t need a living wage right away,” I say. “I need enough for food, general household items, and to style myself in a manner befitting your shop. Lodging rent is not an immediate concern, so I’d be comfortable starting with a low salary initially until I’ve proven to you how useful I can be.”

It’s a risky statement, with undefined parameters. But I need to turn the ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ before I impose conditions.

“A possibility,” Talmeri allows. “And what if I never decide you’re worth a full salary?”

“I’m confident you will,” I say.

Talmeri laughs. “I appreciate that kind of confidence, but I’m looking for a plan of action here, Miyara.”

Certainty in her voice. “You already have one in mind.”

Her eyes narrow, though she doesn’t look upset. “So I do. In three months my lease on this building expires. What do you think that means for a struggling business, when prices are rising?”

I think for a moment. “If your profits have been dwindling, then it isn’t enough to make as much as you used to. You need to be more profitable to compete.”

She nods. “Just so. Good, you understand the basics of commerce.”

“Lorwyn intimated she hoped I might take charge of the business spreadsheets.”

“Ha! Clever girl, dropping that in. And just like her, to try and pass those off. But one thing at a time, Miyara.”

“Yes, Grace Talmeri,” I say demurely.

“Good,” she approves. “Now. You understand that even if you took on more of the work around here, that wouldn’t be enough to turn our fortunes. I have some plans in the works, but if I can’t count on customer revenue exploding beyond my wildest dreams, what does that leave me to bargain with?”

“Providing a valued service to the community,” I say.

“I already have that. No, stop, I realize I can add value or services. That’s not the answer I’m looking for.”

I cast around, thinking of what else I’d heard from her this morning. She’s leaving her business to see a friend, she values her image, she’s proud—

“Reputation,” I say.

She nods slowly, eyeing me with more appreciation.

It occurs to me that until that moment she wasn’t sure I was actually intelligent.

She waves her hand at me, indicating my body, my clothes, my poise. “Yes. Reputation. With a reputation, I have bargaining power. It affects the network I have access to—where do you think these serving boys come from, after all?—and the degree of investments. And you know what would bring me one?”

“A tea master,” I say. And: “Which you can’t afford.”

“But you, with no credentials, references, or paperwork to your name, I can,” she says. “Because I can pay you whatever I like.”

My face is carefully blank. She wants a reaction from me at that, the implicit threat. She knows I’m desperate or I wouldn’t accept less than a full wage.

“But I’m still not a tea master,” I say. “And if you try to use my position as leverage for investments, every noble will know you for a liar. Which won’t be good for your reputation at all.”

“Ah, you know how the game is played. We’ll get along fine.” Talmeri smiles. “And that won’t be a problem if you become a tea master in the next three months.”

I blink.

She’s serious.

“Three months?”

“Three months. You clearly have a thorough background in the ceremony already, so that should be sufficient. I will sponsor your study materials, of course.”

I’m intrigued despite myself. This is mad, but if I can pull it off, I won’t need this job any more—as a tea master, I’ll be sought after wherever I go. Since it’s likely I’ll need to move eventually to hide from my family, that holds a lot of appeal.

“The exam has multiple components, if I recall correctly,” I say. “I’ll also need to practice, and it’s clear that this room is not in regular use. Shall I add a service of value to your shop in the course of my studies?”

Her eyebrows shoot up, but she remains smiling. “An interesting idea. You’re amenable, then?”

“With some qualifications,” I say.

This is the next part of the test.

“Oh?” Talmeri asks politely, her smile fixed.

“If I’m to work here, I’ll have to be studying on my own time,” I say. “That’s a great investment of my time up-front. Accordingly, I would like an advance of my salary up-front.”

“You think I should pay you before you’ve done any work?” Talmeri inquires, as if to point out how ludicrous the very notion is.

“Yes,” I say, pressing the point. “Every week, we will both put in either money or time and effort at the start. If you’re not satisfied with my progress, or I experience difficulties with my degree of compensation, then we will adjust before more work begins.”

“And I will agree to this because…?”

“Once I’m a tea master, I won’t demand compensation equal to the value I bring.”

Her face tightens, and I know I’m right to address this now. Did she think that wouldn’t occur to me in the next three months, or did she think she’d be able to lock me into a bad arrangement while I was desperate?

“Lots of vagueness in those terms,” Talmeri points out, as if regretfully broaching an uncomfortable issue of etiquette.

It’s my turn to nod. “Yes. I’m taking a risk trusting you now, and your risk will come later. But so will the fruits of this arrangement, for both of us.”

“Unless you leave me in the lurch,” she says doubtfully.

I amend my assessment. It’s not that she didn’t think I would realize this—it’s that, overcome with the possibilities, she hadn’t thought her plan through.

I remember that she mass-purchased sleekbeetle scales for tea. Talmeri understands her business and is a woman of many fine ideas, but she does not consider consequences thoroughly in advance of their eventuality.

I’ll have to keep this in mind.

But she’s also a woman who takes risks.

“Grace Talmeri, I would like to be of service,” I say. “I think I may be able to do that better here than anywhere. You have my word that I’ll stay as long as I’m able, and you will not regret our arrangement. And if you’re not willing to take this opportunity, my word is all I will ever be able to offer you.”

Talmeri considers the tea service between us, the image I strike in formal dress, and she stares at me, hard.

Then she stands. “Let’s go to my office, then, and look at the numbers.”

And with that, I have three months to pass the most restrictive exam in the post-Cataclysm nations and become a tea master.

Only once Talmeri leaves the room do I have a moment to reflect in horror at what my impulsive bargain means, how impossible that task truly is.

What have I done?


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2 thoughts on “A Coup of Tea: Chapter 4 (introduction)

  1. I love how a situation so domestic and commonplace as this can be imbued with the same feeling of stakes and consequences as the more traditional battling dragons and saving kingdoms. Well played. And of course, fantasy of manners happens to be more or less my favorite subgenre.

    Liked by 1 person

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