A Coup of Tea: Chapter 5

“That’s the Central Market,” Lorwyn says, pointing at a shining, tidy, open street lined with shops and vendors, bustling with activity.

I take a step toward it, but Lorwyn yanks me back.

When I look at her in confusion, she jerks her chin over her shoulder. “We’re going to this way.”

Then she turns on her heel and rounds a corner.

I scramble to track all the turns she takes down narrow alleyways and don’t have confidence I’ve managed it. But soon enough we emerge in a courtyard, surrounded on all sides by crumbling stone buildings covered in ivy, like ruins of old, abandoned castles.

It’s clear, however, that this place, while in disrepair, has not been abandoned.

I can scarcely hear anything above the clamor in this courtyard, and I lose track of Lorwyn in the sudden press of bodies jostling all around.

Then a hand closes around my bare wrist, and I tense before I realize Lorwyn has located me and is now pulling me through the crowd.

Suddenly there’s space again; it’s only around the edges of the courtyard where it’s a fight to move. But on the inside, like we’ve passed into a bubble, I can hear again.

And I notice the majority of people in this courtyard are Gaellani.

“Two noodle plates,” Lorwyn calls to a man in a booth at the center, then looks at me. “You’re paying.”

My eyebrows shoot up as I pull out the pouch of coins Talmeri gave me. “Do I have enough?”

Lorwyn swears and covers the pouch, pressing it back against my tunic. “Don’t wave money, or anything valuable, around like that,” she says. “At least make the thieves work for it.”

I nod. “That doesn’t answer my question.” I’m sure I can afford a meal of some kind, but this money needs to cover all my expenses for the week.

Lorwyn rolls her eyes. “So you grew up rich and not in a city, I take it. Yes, you have enough. You can count money, can’t you?”

“Yes.” I know precisely what each coin should weigh, its metal content, the symbols of my house’s history and images of my ancestors and all the political maneuvering that led to the decision for each. But I’ve never actually used one before.

“It’ll be two marks for each,” Lorwyn says.

“That little?” I ask, but quietly, in case this is the sort of place where merchants raise their prices for certain people.

“That’s why we’re here,” Lorwyn says. “If Talmeri’s going to be cheap, at the very least her money can go to Gaellani.”

I pass a five-mark coin to Lorwyn and watch carefully how she handles the transaction with the vendor. Now that I’m not startled by the new place and the sheer quantity of people, I see that in front of the booth there’s a drawing of three dishes next to a number, presumably the cost in marks for each of the day’s specials. I’m glad I won’t have to magically intuit prices every time I purchase a meal.

In short order we’re seated at stools around the side. The noodles are a different texture than I’ve eaten, fried noodles that are twisty, round and of medium thickness. The sauce is sweet rather than spicy, and the vegetables are all ones that I know from the yearly crop yields are among the most common and least expensive.

“This is delicious,” I say. “Thank you for bringing me here.”

Lorwyn snorts. “For cheap Gaellani street food? No problem.”

It is wonderful, though, and new, but possibly it’s too normal for her to see it that way. Sensing she’ll scoff at any further compliment of the food, I instead say, “It’s a far tastier meal than I could have made.”

She waves her chopsticks expansively in between bites. “Anyone can make this. I don’t care if you haven’t done anything more than boil water for tea, this dish is the easiest thing in the world to cook.”

I’m not sure she realizes I have literally done no more with a stove than boil water and decide not to mention it. I’ll have to learn how to cook for myself, but it’s not her responsibility to teach me. She’s already done more than enough.

“Why not take me somewhere more expensive, then, if you were planning on paying with Talmeri’s money?” I ask.

She eyes me sidelong as she chews, as if weighing how much to tell me. Then she swallows her food in a big gulp and says, “Okay, two reasons. The first, which you’ll start hearing about soon enough, is that Gaellani businesses, and even businesses that serve Gaellani customers, are being charged higher rates.”

That would make it harder to bring enough money in to run businesses or to buy the products that are suddenly more costly too. Maybe the fact that the courtyard is mainly full of Gaellani isn’t entirely by choice. “If I’m going to start hearing about it, does that mean it hasn’t always been that way?”

Lorwyn salutes me with her sticks. “You’re quick. It has always been that way, and the costs have risen over time as costs do, but there’s been a steep increase in the last year. So we support each other as much as we can.”

“Then I’ll have to make sure I can find my way back so I can contribute, too,” I say. “Thank you for letting me know.”

“How can you miss it?” Lorwyn asks, and I can’t tell if she’s joking or just that entrenched in living here before she looks a challenge at me. “And I may have been angling for that.”

I cock my head to one side. “Why wouldn’t I help if I can?”

She shrugs. “You’re a sheltered rich girl with no ties to anyone here. You might be more comfortable at nicer places, and you have no reason to care about anyone here.”

I have no reason to be notably comfortable at a “nicer” place, either, as I have no standard for what a commercial dining place should look like. The idea that I should need a reason to care about people’s wellbeing is so reminiscent of the life I’ve abandoned that I refuse to address it.

“You remember I’m the girl who sat sopping in front of you in a tablecloth just last night.”

“So it’s gratitude, then?”

I frown at her. She’s asking the question, but I don’t get the sense she’s actually interested in the answer. More that she feels she ought to challenge me. So I respond in kind.

“For gratitude, I tasted your beetle scale pepper tea,” I remind her, and she laughs.

“The second reason,” Lorwyn says, “is that if you shop Gaellani you can save some money. That apparently didn’t occur to Talmeri, since she only gets her food at ‘respectable establishments’. It’ll help you get around this horseshit about justifying every purchase to her.”

I blink, and then it’s my turn to laugh. “You hate manipulating people, don’t you?”

She glares at me. “What makes you say that?”

“Not only did you tell me what you were angling for, you did so before you gave me an extra reason to be grateful to you.”

“Maybe I was judging what kind of person you were before making sure you had a reason to do it anyway.”

I shake my head, still smiling. “You already knew I would.”

Lorwyn regards me for a moment, and then stands abruptly. “Are you done? We should get moving.”

Sudden longing strikes me. She’s brought me to a place unlike any I’ve experienced, and I’m to catch just a glimpse and then be spirited away again?

In a way, it’s not so different than the life I’ve abandoned. I recognize that’s dramatic, but my hesitation remains.

I know I’m prevailing on her time, but I take a breath and ask, “Is there a reason I can’t walk through here first?”

Lorwyn looks at me strangely, like she can’t believe I want to. Is it her bias about the place, or about what I must think of it?

“We have to get you a full set of formalwear and get back in time for me to start teaching you what to do at the shop before customers arrive,” Lorwyn says. “You really think we have time to spare now?”

I have no idea how much time any of this will take. I’ve chosen formalwear before, of course, but I don’t know if my experience will be comparable to visiting a tailor in the city. I don’t know how long it will take me to be ready for customers, but I’m inclined to think an afternoon won’t suffice in any case.

“I suppose not,” I say, casting a wistful look around. I can hardly make out everything being sold here; just people. People who know each other, who trade jokes and shouts and are here, and that is more compelling to me than all the things I can’t see.

“It’s not like the courtyard is going anywhere,” Lorwyn points out, already striding back toward the edge. “You can always come back. Hey, that’s Glynis. Glyn, hold up!”

Lorwyn takes off, and as I race after her I decide I think I will enjoy coming back here—if I can find the courtyard again—without Lorwyn. This isn’t a place she thinks is worth showing me for its own sake, so I will discover its character on my own, without needing to justify my attention with every step.

Lorwyn hauls me through the press of bodies, and we’re back in an alley, still running—and then Lorwyn stops abruptly.

“I’m in a hurry,” a new voice says, higher-pitched and bored. “What do you need?”

From behind Lorwyn, I lean as far to the side as I can and see a girl, maybe on the cusp of adolescence. Her ashen hair is shoved up in a hat, and her boots are sturdy but have clearly seen lots of use. Her clothes are worn but neat and well cared-for: trousers and a buttoned vest over a crisp shirt with the sleeves rolled up right above the elbow, revealing that one of her arms stops there.

Lorwyn turns, leaning against the wall of the alley casually so the girl can see me. “Glynis, this is Miyara. She’s staying at Risteri’s grandma’s cottage.”

Glynis nods as though this is a completely normal thing to tell a stranger while I stare at Lorwyn askance.

“You remember I’m trying not to announce my presence?” I say to her, letting a hint of anger bleed into my tone.

Lorwyn holds up a hand—to Glynis, I realize, who’s frowning at me. “Glynis is a messenger,” Lorwyn explains. “If you need to reach me, or Risteri, or anyone else, you either flag down a messenger—see the guild patch on her sleeve? Or you drop by the messengers’ guild headquarters and leave your message with them, and they’ll see it delivered.”

I hadn’t noticed the patch, but now I peer closer, fixing it in my memory. With everything so new and thus noteworthy to me, I’m not sure how easy it will be for me to notice, so I’d better learn where the guild is based, too.

In the silence I realize Glynis is staring at me, and I’m not sure if it’s because she thinks I’m rudely staring at her arm or if she’s suspicious that I’m not already familiar with the patch, but I step back and nod briskly as though nothing’s amiss.

“What kind of privacy do you want?” Glynis asks, and my façade fails.

Much? Some? I turn to Lorwyn at a loss for how to begin to answer that question.

Lorwyn says, “Personal for now—she’ll accept messages from anyone who knows her by name.”

I shake my head quickly. Giving Lorwyn my name last night was a big mistake, but it’s too late to undo. “No, there are people who know my name that I don’t want to know where I live, or where I am.”

“With all due respect, grace,” Glynis says, drawing herself up to her full height, “I assure you, no one can track a messenger.” She glares at Lorwyn. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s it,” Lorwyn says with a wave. Glynis nods perfunctorily and vanishes down the alley.

“I didn’t mean to offend her,” I say, “but is this really a good idea?”

“Yes,” Lorwyn says, resuming walking at a more normal pace. “The messengers’ guild is serious about being incorruptible, since people rely on them to communicate. And no one will find out your whereabouts from them—you don’t get to be a messenger by being stupid. If people start sending you messages or packages you don’t want, you can set up a system for them to filter your mail. This is totally normal, Miyara, and it would be more suspicious if you tried to go around without getting set up with the guild.”

I don’t want to be isolated, but I can’t help but feel uneasy about an organization that everyone believes can’t be corrupted. I hope my suspicions are never substantiated. “And am I now? Set up with the guild?”

“Yeah, Glyn will take care of it.”

Glyn. Lorwyn knows this girl well enough to feel comfortable addressing her by a diminutive. I hesitate for a moment, and then ask, “Do you know what happened to her arm?”

Lorwyn cocks her head to the side for a moment, thinking while we walk. “I can’t remember if it was an accident when she was little or if she was born that way,” she finally says. “Her arm’s been like that as long as I remember. It annoys her that she can’t sew as fast as her mom—I mean Glyn’s still faster than almost anyone I know, but her whole family’s seamstresses—so she decided to join the messengers’ guild early. Why, does it bother you?”

“No, of course not,” I hasten to say, because it shouldn’t, and if it bothers me in the way she means that is a problem with me, to work out on my own. But then I pause, because that’s not why I asked, and add, “Well. No, it does bother me to think she might have lost her arm due to the lack of available quality medical care, and I hope that wasn’t the case.”

Istalam has been blessed with talented healers, but the Cataclysm and the influx of refugees strained our resources. Although I never made policy, I know even Saiyana feels measures to ensure the communities with the greatest influx of people are being adequately served are insufficient.

“Oh,” Lorwyn says. “No, definitely not. If it had come down to that, for a serious injury to a child—we’d have worked something out.”

She means witchcraft.

I’m not sure if I should feel better, knowing the Gaellani have witches to call upon when needed, or worse, that they should be forced to because the state is failing them. But it seems that at least Glynis is not a victim of Istalam’s failures, and that’s all I really meant to ascertain.

To my surprise, Lorwyn returns us to the Central Market. For the most part, the Central Market is lined with indoor shops, though there are a few carts and booths set up alongside. After the shock of the courtyard, it feels calmer, almost sedate in comparison. It is, I admit, more what I expected a shopping district to look like—neater, more orderly, and above all quieter—but although in a way it’s more soothing, I find I already miss the raucous atmosphere of the courtyard.

Lorwyn drags me along. There is an entire shop for crafts made from mulberry paper—boxes, stationery, art—and another selling fine inks of every shade. That shopkeeper catches my eye and bows, and I return her regard automatically before Lorwyn tugs me onward.

I smile as we pass the display of whimsical glass statuettes, bowing in return to another shopkeeper’s greeting, until I catch Lorwyn’s scowl, and I finally notice something else:

They are only bowing to me.

I stop all at once, going cold as panic seizes me. I look all around, and my dread grows. They aren’t bowing to anyone else either. I should be glad that they’re not disrespecting Lorwyn specifically in their greetings; this isn’t anti-refugee sentiment at work. But.

Lorwyn appears directly in front of me, hands planted on her hips. “What now?” she demands.

I swallow and whisper, “Why are they all bowing to me?”

Lorwyn rolls her eyes. “You know how rare tea masters are. Talmeri’s spread the word among her contacts that she’ll be sponsoring your tea assessment, clearly, and they’re treating you with the respect due an aspirant.”

Talmeri had said she would arrange for an assessment with a tea master, hadn’t she? And only someone who seriously expects to pass the tests for tea mastery schedules one, so of course this news would be worthwhile for her to spread. My breath escapes me in a rush of relief, and a little irritation with myself.

Of course, why should shopkeepers in Sayorsen recognize the fourth princess of Istalam, anyway? My secret is still safe.

Except that Lorwyn narrows her eyes and asks, “If you weren’t expecting this reaction, why weren’t you bothered by all the bowing before?”

She’s right; I should’ve expected this, given how rare tea masters are, but I’ve been trying not to dwell on that for fear I’ll daunt myself out of the task before of me.

Tea masters fill a unique role in our culture. In a way, they’re more respected than royalty or priestesses. Not only are they highly sought after as guests, a certified tea master can travel through any country, regardless of national treaties, and sometimes are called upon to help establish those treaties in the first place. Although it’s sacrilege to refuse the request of a tea master, they’re supposed to be too wise, too deft with people to create such a situation. Tea masters are experts of etiquette and poise, of history and diplomacy, of art and science. They transcend borders, and they specialize in bringing people to a greater awareness of themselves and their place.

Becoming a tea master is, in a way, symbolic of everything I want for myself, and everything I have no idea how to achieve.

It’s not enough to be able to brew tea. That, at least, I have a head-start on, or the task ahead of me would be impossible rather than merely improbable. But how to accomplish the rest? Aspirants to tea mastery spend decades in study and practice.

I have three months.

But if nothing else, I am well-practiced at presenting a façade of calm and partial truths to the world, so I shove down my rising panic and address Lorwyn’s question.

“Formal manners were a matter of great concern where I grew up,” I say. “Reciprocal bowing is such a habit I sometimes forget that my upbringing was nonstandard in that regard.”

Lorwyn snorts. “You sometimes forget how to talk in a standard regard, too. Come on.”

But I don’t follow her, instead drifting a few paces away, because I’ve noticed a store filled with all sorts of equipment I don’t recognize in between pots and spoons and tea kettles.

I could have a tea kettle of my own.

The force of that sudden want is staggering, and I swallow to hold it in.

“What are you looking at now?” Lorwyn asks, and my eyes dart around the display for a likely distractor and find confusion.

“I have no idea,” I admit, entranced by the breadth of gadgetry on display. “These things are all—for cooking? What do you do with them?”

Lorwyn laughs. “You don’t. Most of these things are totally unnecessary if you have a good knife and a steady hand. And the ones from this store you could reasonably use are either overpriced or overly concerned with being pretty at the expense of stability.”

“So they can then sell you another one later,” I murmur. “I see.”

“Also so they can keep their profit margins high,” Lorwyn notes dryly.

A rough chuckle sounds from the booth next door. “Such cynicism from one so young,” he says in a rich voice weathered with age.

He doesn’t appear so very old, but he’s striking nonetheless: his skin is light, but not like the Gaellani’s—there is more gold in it, and his straight hair is a thick, true black. His eyes are sharp as he drums long, heavily ringed fingers on a display table while lounging back in his seat in a way that somehow conveys his weariness with everything around him and yet utter confidence.

It’s a demeanor every person I’ve met from the Isle of Nakrab has possessed.

“Don’t even try with her, Thiano,” Lorwyn says. “She has to justify every purchase she makes to Talmeri.”

It clearly bothers Lorwyn, but despite my newfound commitment to never let my life be controlled I decide that, for now, I’m actually relieved by an externally supervised budget to keep me from buying items I don’t need. I don’t expect to spend frivolously, but my ability to judge what is useful or what may be a scam is limited.

“Talmeri is bearing the brunt of the risk in this venture,” I point out. She’s the one who will be putting up money for a task I might not be able to accomplish, and she has only my word that if I do I won’t leave her in a lurch. But I don’t say this out loud, because Lorwyn already knows; my words are for the benefit of Talmeri’s reputation and thus the tea shop’s, and not undoing the groundwork she’s laid spreading the word of my tea assessment.

“But Talmeri’s not going to be doing the work,” Lorwyn says.

“It’s not unreasonable for her to be strict with her investment up-front,” I say, mindful of our interested audience.

“And if she never loosens up?”

Lorwyn is not, evidently, quite so mindful. “By then I intend to have a greater ability to negotiate, and regardless, this is perhaps not the best place for this conversation?”

“Oh, don’t mind me,” Thiano says with a smirk. “I’m well aware Talmeri has the soul of a mercenary, and no amount of careful words will convince me otherwise. But if you’re to be studying the ways of tea, perhaps I can interest you in a tea set?”

He gestures to a white porcelain pot, delicately painted with exquisite flowers. As I watch, the flowers dance, shifting around the exterior, and I smile, delighted.

“Don’t even think about it, Miyara,” Lorwyn says. “Thiano’s no less mercenary than Talmeri, and he’d grin at you merrily while counting every last coin of your life’s savings. Which would also be at least twice as much as the value of his merchandise.”

“Lorwyn, you wound me,” Thiano says, and with a wink at me adds, “As though I’d settle for payment less than three times the value.”

“Not if you’re selling pottery to anyone who knows their business,” Lorwyn says easily. “Anyone in Sayorsen knows perfectly well not to pay more for pottery from you when it’s not on the level of what Deniel makes.”

“Deniel?” I ask.

Thiano sniffs. “An ungenerous Gaellani artisan of some renown.”

Lorwyn smirks. “You’re just sore he won’t sell to you so you can re-sell for more.”

My curiosity is piqued. “Does this Deniel have a shop nearby?”

Lorwyn snorts. “In the Central Market? Not hardly.”

“As I said, he’s ungenerous, and also miserly,” Thiano says, shaking his head. “Deniel hoards every coin of his success for himself and won’t spend a mark that doesn’t benefit him in some way.”

Lorwyn is set to erupt in outrage, but I beat her to it. “So keeping a storefront in the Central Market is expensive, and his skill is known enough that he can afford not to pay for the placement here?”

Thiano smiles toothily at Lorwyn, who scowls. Ah, so he was deliberately trying to get a rise from her.

She crosses her arms and tells me, “He set up shop in the same district as Talmeri’s. Don’t bother visiting unless you want to torture yourself, though. You won’t be able to afford his pieces anytime soon.”

I now want to visit simply because she’s told me I shouldn’t, and I wonder if I’ve always been this quietly contrary, or if it’s a result of exposure to freedom and the urge will lull with time.

I sense more than see Thiano watching me—and in fact his eyes aren’t on me at all, but although he banters with Lorwyn I can tell he’s aware of every movement I make. This is a man of deliberation, who has allowed me to become aware of a competitor for my interest. Why?

The shop behind him contains all manner of items, from vases to exquisite time-pieces. Not, in truth, a surprise: it’s rare for Nakrabi to spend any length of time on the continent, and I assume this shop is a sort of trading outpost to funnel goods considered exotic in either their culture or ours.

But when I look at the table between us, the selection is more limited. There is the tea set, there are heavy bracelets not unlike the cuffs I wore in the palace, there are scarves of rich, royal purple. And there is a small painting, a tree with shades of leaves falling as though in autumn, but all of them are green.

I finger the edges of it gently, and look up to find him watching me. “Why green?” I ask.

Thiano shrugs. “A color of harmony and new beginnings, I suppose. Who can say? I’m not the artist. Maybe she was just feeling overwhelmed by all the oranges this year.”

Shades of green aren’t out of season, but they’re not the common trend for this year’s autumn in Sayorsen. If I’m to distinguish my wardrobe in a way that will serve my role at the tea house, this is information I can use.

“Miyara, we’ve lingered here too long. We should get going,” Lorwyn says.

Holding my gaze, Thiano says, “You may not be able to afford any of my wares now, but perhaps you should stop by sometime to check.”

I smile. “I’d like that very much,” I say, and we exchange a bow of understanding before Lorwyn leads me away.

My grandmother was right. I know how to listen, and so, clearly, does Thiano.

He knows who I am, and I now know he’s a spy. I only wonder what he thinks helping me will gain him.

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