The shop is, at last, closed for the day.
I have abandoned dignity and sit slumped over a table in the center of the shop.
“I have never been this exhausted,” I mumble.
“Pretty sure you were in worse shape last night,” Lorwyn says, clearly amused and infuriatingly not even a little tired. “Then you were too worn-out to even know how tired you were.”
I manage to lift my head long enough to glare at her, but decide it’s too much trouble to respond and settle back down.
“If every day at the shop is like today, I’m surely doomed,” I mutter. “I can’t possibly have the energy to prepare for the tea mastery examination and work like this every day.”
Lorwyn snorts. “You’ll be fine. You just need practice.”
A chair scrapes, and I hear Meristo—for surely it must be, with the forceful sound of the flop—drop into a chair across from me at the table.
“Don’t look for sympathy from Lorwyn,” he advises me. “She has no tenderer feelings, and definitely not sympathy.”
“You don’t deserve sympathy,” Lorwyn drawls. “Only a sharp kick in the rear to wipe that smirk off your face.”
“You see? No respect. And try it—I’ll smirk harder, just for you.” I can practically feel his grin and Lorwyn’s ensuing eye roll as he continues, “But it’s always like this at the beginning. You did way better today than Iskielo.”
“That is an extremely low bar to clear,” Lorwyn says.
“Iskielo is the newest tea boy working here, right?” I ask.
“Yeah, Talmeri just brought him on a couple weeks ago,” Meristo says. “He’s mostly been working shifts doubled with me or Taseino, which you’d think would make things run smoother, with more people, but doesn’t, because Iskielo has no idea what’s going on. It’s faster to do something myself than to give it to him, but if I don’t give him anything to do he finds things that someone ends up having to clean up.”
Lorwyn elaborates, “Iskielo’s all of, what, fifteen? Full of enthusiasm, not a drop of common sense. But he practically worships the air Meristo passes through, which is useful for reining him in.”
Aha. “And Taseino?”
“Not good with customers, even after all this time,” Meristo says with a hint of frustration. “It’s like smiling is some kind of torture for him.”
“On the other hand,” Lorwyn says pointedly, “Taseino is quiet, focused, and not susceptible to distraction like certain others I could name Meristo. There’s more parts to this job than dazzling smiles, and you can actually trust Taseino to, you know, do them.”
“You’re just jealous because everybody likes me better than you,” Meristo says smugly.
Weary of his cockiness now that I’m not relying on it to distract customers, I say, “If you are using the customers most impressed by youthful muscles and grins as a standard for whose regard is worth acquiring, I too might question the merits of your charisma.”
“Hey now,” Meristo protests, laughing, “what’s with the formal rebuke?”
Drat it all, I’d been doing so well at keeping my more formal speech patterns at bay most of the afternoon, too.
Lorwyn apparently takes this as an indicator that I’m tired in truth, because she says, “It really will get easier, though. I promise.”
Meristo mock-gasps. “Be still my beating heart—common human sentiment in Lorwyn! She really must like you, Miyara.”
I open my eyes, see Lorwyn’s jaw set, and sigh. “I wish people would stop commenting on how remarkable it is that you like me,” I say as I lay my head down and close my eyes again. “It makes me feel as though I’m some rare magical creature you’re secretly fattening up to end up like a trophy on your proverbial wall, and before I know it I’ll be laid out on your laboratory slab and you’ll be going at me with an axe like that tentacular root.”
A beat of silence, and then Meristo is laughing uncontrollably, and I watch him nearly fall out of his chair.
“I guess that’s why,” he finally gasps, then jumps out of the way as Lorwyn makes as though to throw something at him. “Anyway, I’m off now. See you next time, Miyara!”
He bursts out the front door, and silence reigns in his wake.
“He amuses you,” I finally note.
“I’m endlessly astounded by the imperviousness of his ego, but never tell him,” Lorwyn replies.
I half-smile, sitting up at last. “Will it really get easier, or are you trying to make me feel better?”
“I wouldn’t bother,” she says dismissively, taking Meristo’s vacated chair. “I’ve worked here a lot of years, and I’ve seen too many boys on their first shift. There’s a lot to learn at the beginning, and a lot to keep track of, but trust me, you’re a natural. To be honest I wondered whether the whole management part of the deal would work out with you, but after today it’s clear you’ll be fine.”
“I can’t even find all the tea,” I protest.
She huffs. “Well, get used to that. We’re not exactly highly organized around here. But you’re totally unflappable, you have an answer for everything, and you never let any of the customers tell how totally out of your depth you are or how totally ridiculous they are. And you’re not above, you know, doing actual work. Everything else you need you’ll get with experience.”
It’s unexpected, that years of training as a princess to always pay attention, know the correct response, and project the image of serenity and poise for hours at a time have served me so well today.
Saiyana would probably be disgusted by the “waste” of those skills; Karisa, too. But I find myself wondering what Iryasa would think and can only imagine her nodding gravely.
Somehow I think my grandmother would be amused.
“You’re just saying that because as long as I work here you never have to deal with customers again, aren’t you?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, no question,” Lorwyn answers easily, and I’m laughing quietly when I hear a knock.
“Oh spirits, not another customer,” I mutter, expecting Lorwyn to laugh. When she doesn’t, I look up and see her glaring at the doorway.
I turn, and through the window Risteri waves at me and gestures pointedly at the lock.
I glance a question at Lorwyn, but she just shrugs and looks away.
“Miyara, you look half-dead again,” Risteri laughs by way of greeting when I open the door for her. “Ready to go home?”
“What,” Lorwyn says behind me, her voice a thousand times more caustic than it was when she was teasing Meristo, “don’t you trust me not to abandon her? Or is it that you think no one can find their way without your personal guidance?”
Risteri crosses her arms, but unlike last night it’s clear that this time she’s the one prepared for a confrontation.
“You’re the one who brought her to me,” she reminds Lorwyn, breezily ignoring the weighted malice in her words that makes me wonder, again, what went so badly wrong between these two people who are both going out of their way to help me. “And since I do actually live in the same neighborhood as Miyara, I thought I’d show her where to get groceries. Unless you think someone like me can’t handle that?”
The last is clearly a challenge, one that Lorwyn ignores with a scoff.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snaps. “Miyara has no idea how to handle herself in a night market, she’s exhausted, and everyone will try to take advantage—”
“She’ll be with me,” Risteri says, “and no one will bother her.”
There’s a beat of silence, and then Lorwyn makes a sound of utter disgust. “You clearly haven’t changed.”
“Neither have you. Miyara, shall we?”
I look between her and Lorwyn.
And, after a long moment, shake my head.
“I very much appreciate the offer, Risteri, I truly do. But I don’t appreciate being used as a weapon in the battle the two of you are waging against each other.”
“It’s none of your business, Miyara,” Lorwyn tells me.
“If that’s what you wanted, you perhaps shouldn’t have involved me in settling your score while flinging scathing innuendo over my head as if I’m not supposed to notice,” I say, keeping my voice even.
Lorwyn stands abruptly, pushing her chair back. “You know what, just go with her. I have things to do here without you anyway.”
And with that she stalks away and slams her lab door shut behind her.
I want to go after her and apologize, but I’m not sure exactly for what. In any case, I’ll see her again tomorrow—perhaps it will be easier with some time between us.
Then again, perhaps it will be worse.
I look back at Risteri, half-waiting for her to storm out the opposite door, but she looks apologetic.
“You’re right,” she says. “Sorry, I didn’t think about how you would feel about this.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “I really do appreciate the offer, and would be happy to take you up on it. It’s just hard to mind my business when yours seems to encroach on it.”
She nods. “That’s fair. Lorwyn and I barely see each other anymore, but when we do it’s almost always like that—just without witnesses. We’ll both just have to try not to snipe at each other when you’re around.”
As one, we both glance toward the lab door, then back at each other. My expression must look doubtful, because Risteri snorts and says, “Yeah. Or maybe we’ll just have to try not to be around you at the same time.”
That doesn’t seem like a solution, so I refrain from condoning it. “I don’t suppose you’re still willing to take me to this night market?” I ask tentatively.
And then she beams at me, openly and easily and honestly, and it’s almost shocking how different her utter forthrightness is from Lorwyn’s underhandedness.
Perhaps I do, in fact, have an inkling of what went wrong between them.
“Absolutely,” she assures me. “Just wait, once we get there you’ll forget how tired you are.”
I remember Lorwyn’s earlier observation of that as a symptom of being truly exhausted and manage to contain my amusement as I follow her out the tea shop.
Risteri was right, the night market is glorious, and I do forget how tired I am because I never want to leave.
The street is lined with booths crammed up against each other, lanterns lighting the way, full of people bartering—not angrily, but as though it’s a game, albeit a serious one, between friends. It is full of bright colors and laughter that light up the night, and after a day of careful words and smiles I can practically feel the atmosphere suffusing me with warmth, putting me more at ease.
If I were truly ready to be a tea master, that is the feeling I should have been generating for others all day.
I do gawk. Quite a lot, but Risteri was right about this too. She doesn’t snap at me to contain my reaction, and no one tries to take advantage of me—in fact, they seem to be greatly amused by my wide eyes. Perhaps in a mocking way, but I can’t take offense—I’m sure I do, in fact, look ridiculous.
But I am getting a lot of stares. At first I think it’s the tea aspirant news again, but few people bow—so it’s not my history as a princess, either. Although this market is mainly Gaellani, too, no one is staring at Risteri, so it’s not that I’m so plainly ethnically Istal, either.
“Is it because I’m new to this market?” I ask her. “Everyone seems to know everyone here.”
She shakes her head. “They don’t really,” she says. “Or at least, not all of them. But no, I think it’s your hair.”
I make to touch my hair, but my arms are laden with bags of food I have no idea how to cook and it seems like too much effort to lift them that high. “My hair?”
“Because it goes all the way to your waist,” she explains. “For most people, hair that long would be too troublesome to take care of, and it would get in the way of work. They probably think you’re a noble and are wondering why you’re here.”
Of course. Some of that mockery I sense must be because they think a noble has come to gawk at the way they live, and now I feel acutely embarrassed because they are not entirely wrong.
But Risteri, although she must be known to be noble, isn’t garnering the stares. In fact, she’s also cut her hair, and she wears clothes no one would mistake for noble garb, and that, no doubt, helps people treat her as though she’s not so different from them. Because she has taken real steps to elide the differences she can control, at least in this one, outward fashion.
The only clothes I’ll be wearing for some time will be formalwear, as it’s all Talmeri will pay for, so that’s not a step I can take.
But. My hair.
When Lorwyn first mentioned cutting it, I couldn’t control my horror at its loss. But that meant Lorwyn had to help me take care of it. And it means now that Risteri, who has been made responsible for hiding me in plain sight, can’t disguise that I’m a noble.
My hair is not so important that it should cause me to be dependent and a burden on those who are already doing so much for me.
“You’ve gotten quiet,” Risteri says, jolting me out of my thoughts. “Everything okay?”
I think for one more moment, steel myself, and let out a breath. “How hard is it to dye hair?”
Her eyebrows lift in surprise. “I have no idea, but I bet we could find dye here. What are you thinking?”
“That I want to be the one to shape how others perceive me, and not have it decided for me,” I say, and it feels right. “This won’t be enough, but it’s a start, and every time I look in the mirror I’ll remember to forge my own path. Will you help me?”
Risteri clasps my wrists and looks me in the eye. “Absolutely,” she says fervently. “Now, are you ready to answer the most important question?”
My eyes widen. “What question?”
Reflected lantern light dances in her eyes, and they’re bright in the darkness. “What color?”
I laugh, already glad of my decision. “Emerald green, if I can. So I will match the wardrobe I ordered today.” I swallow, and add, “We should also find scissors.”
“Cutting your hair, too? Are you sure?” Risteri asks, and I’m bolstered by the concern in her voice.
“Not too short,” I say. “Maybe just to my shoulders. That shouldn’t be too bad, right?”
“That’s a lot all at once,” she says seriously. “I mean, don’t let me stop you if you’re sure, but maybe start with, like, mid-back-length. You can always take more off.”
I let out a breath, and some tension goes with it. Yes. I don’t have to take all the steps at once. But I do have to start.
“True,” I agree. “But, for now. How do I begin?”
Risteri claps me on the shoulder. “We,” she says. “Let’s go.”
Risteri shows herself inside the cottage the next morning while I’m practicing the tea ceremony on the floor of the living room. “I brought breakfast,” she announces, and then, “Spirits, we really do need to touch that up, don’t we?”
“Oh yes,” I say fervently, and we both dissolve into giggles for a minute.
Our attempt to cut and dye my hair last night involved a lot of giggling, but as attempts go, it was not unequivocally successful.
In the light of day, and with my hair now dry and its waves returned, the length of my hair is a bit jagged; perhaps even ragged. This is less than ideal, given the image I’m to present at the tea shop, but more of a problem is my hair color. It is extremely uneven, and shows poorly. We realized too late that perhaps the thing to do would have been lightening my hair first, and now it simply looks like I dipped my head in a vat of oil and have not yet managed to get the stain out.
Still. “Let me finish this,” I ask, adjusting the angle of my head just slightly. I’ve been making minute changes in movements and drilling them into muscle memory for hours already, making sure my hair sweeps correctly now that its length and weight are so different.
I wish, fervently, that I had a proper tea set to practice with. I’ve commandeered several items of approximately the right weight or shape to stand in for the objects I’m more familiar with, so I sit on the floor with a sturdy mug, a delicate sugar jar, what I believe is a soup bowl, and various utensils that have nothing to do with tea ceremony.
But although it’s turned out rather badly, and I should have thought how this change would affect my ability to execute the tea ceremony beforehand, I don’t wish we hadn’t made the attempt at all. As I’ve repurposed kitchenware, I’ll adapt.
Risteri is still unloading breakfast pastries from a bag when Lorwyn bursts in the door and then freezes there.
“You,” she breathes in disbelief and horror, pointing a shaking finger at my hair.
Which she then promptly transfers, more firmly, to direct at Risteri. “You! What have you done?!”
“It was my idea,” I say, trying to head this off and hoping surely it isn’t as unsalvageable as she makes it sound. “Obviously it hasn’t worked out exactly as intended, but—”
Lorwyn stomps toward Risteri. “This is just cursed typical, you never think things through and what they will mean for anyone else outside of your own privileged bubble,” she snarls.
“Oh, this is my fault?” Risteri shoots to her feet from the stool. “At least Miyara is trying to control her own life, which is more than I can say for some people—”
I hardly know I’m the one who shouted until they both turn utterly shocked faces toward me. I take a breath, but although my voice quiets to almost a whisper it’s like the words won’t stop.
“I have lived as a pawn in bitter old struggles that had nothing to do with me my entire life, and I refuse to be put in that situation again.” I breathe again, trying to access the calming spirit of air, but it’s beyond me. I shake my head, and this time I point—to the door. My door. “If you cannot keep me out of your business, you will both leave. Now.”
They both stare at me for a long moment, glance at each other, then guiltily away again.
I wait, unmoving, not allowing myself budge a jot.
They are not my responsibility to manage.
Maybe this is why Saiyana was so disgusted when I chose our father as a dedication guide.
But maybe, if I’d refused to allow myself to be a victim of their political tug-of-war, I could have actually helped us all instead of settling for a useless, empty gesture.
We stand there for perhaps an entire minute before Risteri passes Lorwyn a pastry. Lorwyn takes it gingerly and then, as if steeling herself for her sleekbeetle and Nakrabi pepper tea, takes a bite, glaring at me while she chews.
As if it’s my fault she’s now being forced to deal with Risteri.
“Can you fix it?” Risteri asks her.
Or as if she can’t bring herself to believe what horror we’ve wrought upon my hair.
“Yes,” Lorwyn finally says. “But it would take me hours, and we don’t have them. The tea master has already arrived, and the tea assessment is today. I came to let you know.”
Today. I close my eyes, run my hand through my hair, and wince.
So, it was a mistake after all. I suppose I should have known taking steps to control my life could not possibly be so easy.
No tea master will ever consider me a serious aspirant in my current state. There is not a single chance in the world. I am done on this course barely after I’ve begun.
And so there will go my job, and thus my house, and I am back to where I started two days ago, but worse off for having squandered the goodwill of those who earnestly tried to help me.
“I’m sorry, Lorwyn,” I say, bowing as low as I can, knowing it’s inadequate.
“Oh, shut up,” she says. “Just don’t put me in this position again. What color were you trying for, anyway?”
I stand up, frowning in confusion for so long that it’s Risteri who answers her. “Emerald green.”
Lorwyn snorts. “Should have guessed. Well, at least after considering fabric with you for hours yesterday I can say with confidence I know exactly which shade. Turn around and hold still.”
“I’m going to have to experiment with witchcraft on your hair after all,” Lorwyn informs me with her shark-sweet smile.
My heart thumps—with fear, and with hope.
I turn around, close my eyes, and focus every iota of my being on holding completely, absolutely, still.
My gut roils in response to her magic. My scalp burns, and it occurs to me suddenly that although my hair does not feel in the same way that my skin does, I can sense it now. The sensations are not, precisely, pleasant, and I try not to think about what Lorwyn is actually doing.
“There,” she finally says, wearily but conclusively, when a lifetime has passed. “Go look in the bathroom mirror.”
I whirl to face her, not bothering to keep the naked hope out of my expression. Lorwyn nods gravely; Risteri’s hands are clasped tightly over her mouth, but her eyes are bright with excitement.
I dash to the bathroom, and my eyes promptly fill with tears.
My hair is now a lustrous shade of emerald, cascading in waves a bit past my shoulders. It looks better than I could have imagined, and I love it instantly and without reservation.
I dry my eyes before marching back out of the bathroom, knowing it would only make Lorwyn uncomfortable, but still I bow to her again. “Thank you,” I say fervently. “I’m so sorry I put you in this position, but I can’t regret the result even a bit.”
“You say that now,” she says, and I ignore her attempt to diminish my gratitude and turn to Risteri.
“And thank you,” I say, bowing, “for helping me find the courage to do this at all.”
“Anytime,” she says, and hugs me impulsively.
“Though perhaps we should consider research next time,” I add, and she laughs.
“And now,” I announce as I grab a pastry, “I think I should visit the local shrine. Could one of you show me the way?”
And this question somehow renders them both speechless in confusion.
“What in the world for?” Risteri wonders aloud.
I frown. “Because there’s no shrine in this home?”
“Why should there be?” Lorwyn asks, equally confused.
Because I’ve run the gamut of emotions in a very condensed time frame, have no time to process them, and need to restore my sense of inner calm before what will be an extremely difficult and stressful examination that relies on that serenity.
But this is not the answer to the question they’re really asking, and that they’re asking it at all baffles me so much I give what I consider the self-evident response. “So I have a place to offer reflection to the spirits before this examination so much depends on?”
Lorwyn blinks. “You do that? Really?” The latter question is actually addressed to Risteri.
“I certainly don’t,” Risteri says. “I mean, some nobles do I guess, but they’re usually, you know—”
She looks uncomfortable, and with a sinking feeling I think I know how to finish her phrase. “Sanctimonious,” I say, “only praying for the appearance and cachet associated with spiritual piety.” She nods, and I turn to Lorwyn. “And to you prayer is—a luxury, I suppose, and a frivolous one at that?”
“Pretty much, yes,” Lorwyn says bluntly.
“I see,” I say. “Nevertheless, whatever you may think, even a brief time spent contemplating in the shrine will do me a world of good.”
“Okay, I admit that I absolutely don’t understand that,” Lorwyn says, “but it actually doesn’t matter. I mean, one of us can show you where it is later for future reference if you really want, but not right now. We should have left already as it is.”
My eyes widen, and I try to quell the sudden panic. Surely it should not feel equal to the subliminal panic I lived with for ages before my dedication ceremony, and yet— “No. You can’t be serious.”
“The tea assessment is now,” Lorwyn says, confirming my fear.
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