There’s a crowd waiting outside the tea shop when we arrive. Before I’ve decided whether to be concerned, Risteri has authoritatively convinced them to disperse enough to form a path for us to get through. “You’ll do great,” she whispers in my ear, and then it’s only Lorwyn and I entering the shop.
Which is also, it turns out, full of people. All of them clearly wealthy, all of them chatting with the air of people about to witness a good show.
“Oh good, Talmeri is showing the tea master off to her friends,” Lorwyn mutters. “I bet that puts him in a fine mood.”
While this will not be the first time I’ve dealt with an unhappy person in a position of authority over me, my stomach has still knotted uncomfortably.
I can’t dwell on how badly this can go wrong, I can’t stop moving forward, or I will be carried away by others’ plans and desires the way I always have.
So I bow, without even seeing the tea master to whom I offer respect. But all Talmeri’s friends are carefully angled in or against that direction.
“Miyara!” Talmeri bustles over to greet me. “I was wondering when you’d get here. What kept you?”
She stops dead at the sight of my hair, and I watch her expression move rapidly through shock, then anger, and then, taking in the effect with my formal wear, consideration.
I don’t give her time to decide. “My apologies,” I say, bowing again and not specifying. “I came as soon as I could. May I offer my respects to the tea master?”
She hesitates for just an instant, still eyeing my hair, but the room is too quiet; she’s invited to many eyes to this show to stop it here. “Yes, yes, of course.” She pulls me by the elbow with slightly too much force, but I flow into it, dropping into another bow as she leads me to where a man is dressed in a simple but traditional costume from Taresan, the nation just north of Istalam.
“You may rise,” he says in a smooth, even voice from which I can detect not even a shred of what he thinks of me. But he is, naturally, impeccably polite.
When I stand up straight again, he has risen, too. He is as tall as all Taresal people are, and I have to look up at him. His skin tone is lighter than a typical Istal’s—still brown, but with more yellow in it—but his hair is oddly similar to mine, thick and wavy. Though his is much shorter—but then, now so is mine.
“Master Karekin, this is Miyara,” Talmeri introduces me. “Perhaps—”
“I’d like to get started,” he cuts her off.
Talmeri is momentarily surprised speechless. That was downright impolite, and I get the feeling he has been offended by the spectacle she’s made of his presence.
This is the man who can, solely on his own judgment, block me from even taking the final examination for tea mastery.
And he is already upset before I’ve begun.
“Of course,” Talmeri recovers. “I can have the tea room prepared right away.”
I turn a quick bow to her, remembering Lorwyn’s comment that Talmeri has never cleaned a day in her life and probably has no idea what it needs. “There’s no need for that, grace. I’m happy to attend to that function.”
“Indeed,” Master Karekin says, “and so you will. Grace Talmeri, this assessment will take some time and requires utmost focus and silence. Now that we’re set to begin, I’ll need everyone to clear this space.”
“Leave? Oh, but I thought—”
“Yes, I gather there has been a degree of misunderstanding,” he says. No smile, no note of dry humor in his voice, and I gather he is, in fact, furious, though Talmeri has not realized. “This sudden assessment is irregular as it is, however, and I am here on very short notice. Will you permit me this courtesy?”
It is neatly, if bluntly, done—but then, handling Talmeri requires a degree of bluntness. Nevertheless, she cannot refuse.
But it is a bit surreal to watch all those people, clearly so used to having their way, obey the tea master’s edict with grumbles but not objections. I don’t think my mother the queen could manage such a feat with the nobles, but this man can.
This is the level of authority over others I’m attempting to claim. I, who barely have any idea of who I am or what I should be doing.
Don’t think yourself into inaction; move forward.
“Master Karekin, by your leave, I will retrieve cleaning supplies for the tea room.” I bow. At least I know some basics of how to care for a tea room, and surely Lorwyn must have something appropriate I can borrow in the back.
But he asks sharply, “Clean?”
I bow again. “It is my understanding that the tea room has not been in regular use for some time. I’m sure Grace Talmeri made arrangements to prepare the space in advance, but as I was unaware a tea master could arrive so soon I had not thought to check into them myself. My sincerest apologies.”
“You’ve not seen the space?”
“Master Karekin, I performed the tea ceremony for Grace Talmeri yesterday morning. At that time, I employed aloia incense to make the atmosphere bearable, but I would not call the resulting state fully satisfactory.”
He winces; it is the first expression I’ve seen from him, and it’s little more than a blink. “I see. Open the door and begin airing it out properly, then. We will begin with the oral assessment.”
The quiet of the shop when we sit down to begin is almost like the night Lorwyn first welcomed me inside. It is amazing, how much physical and emotional noise we all generate. I close my eyes for a moment, focusing on that tangible sensation of silence, holding my center of calm.
When I open them, we begin.
And I’m immediately left reeling. I know some, because I was raised to diplomacy, and because I know how to taste.
But I don’t know how to judge the quality of tea leaves at different stages in the process: the quality of the plants, or how to roll the leaves. Aside from the core tea ceremony teas, I don’t know all their nutritional properties, or the reasons for the correct brewing temperatures for every kind of tea and tisane and how different ingredients affect them. I know different materials of pots can affect the tea flavor and which is best, but not always why; I need to know the stories and the history of all tea, different techniques in brewing, in making, and the advantages for each method; I need to know, mathematically, how much tea to use in any cup, and I need to synthesize that without overwriting my instincts.
It is surreal to be on the edge of the Cataclysm answering questions about tea traditions from far-away places that, to the best of our knowledge, no longer exist. There is so much I don’t know, so much I barely know enough to recognize how much knowledge I lack.
Throughout Master Karekin’s rapid, close questioning, he gives no further indication of his opinion than the same impatience I noted at the outset. Still, I cannot help but feel like I’m failing more with every answer.
At last, we come to the tea ceremony. I resolve not to consider the effect of my new hair at all on my movements and affect—if the tea master has not acknowledged it, nor should I.
With the tea ceremony, even now, I’m confident in my ability. I’ve performed for tea masters and royalty, and if Master Karekin decides to thwart my aspirations, I’m sure it will not be for this.
So when we are, at last, finished, and I am thoroughly exhausted in every way, his response is not what I expect.
“Well. At least you can forego the training in politics and etiquette.” I frown, and he rolls his eyes. “You are clearly the same Miyara lately departed from the royal house of Istalam. Did you think I would not know?”
My heart stops.
I was so worried about the assessment itself that I did not even consider this possibility, but I am not, evidently, too exhausted for panic.
“Will you send me back?” I manage to whisper past the sudden constriction in my chest.
“Don’t be foolish,” he says, and for the first time I can hear the annoyance—the waspishness—in his tone. “I owe your government no fealty, and even if I did, as a tea master, I answer to no one but the tea guild. I don’t care if you’re a witch or the retired queen herself. You either know tea, or you do not, and any other concerns are outside my purview. I only mention it so we can be honest about the serious challenge you face in becoming a tea master, and it is not learning the etiquette.”
I sit back wide-eyed, somehow more shocked than relieved. “Oh,” I say numbly, reminding myself I can still breathe. “I see.”
He’s waiting for something else from me, and although he claims etiquette is not my greatest challenge I have no idea what it is. “Thank you,” I hazard.
He snorts, and continues as if I’d said nothing. “You do have a head start on many aspirants. In some categories. But you have a lot to learn.”
I swallow. The oral examination is still fresh in my mind. “Yes.”
“Not that,” he says.
Is the ability to read minds a skill shared by all tea masters?
“Yes, you have a lot to learn, but the hardest for you will be the ceremony. I see you are surprised by that. Understand, it is not enough to be merely good, or correct; the tea ceremony must always be perfect. It’s not about exact execution, nothing so mathematical. It’s about the experience of the tea ceremony. Do you see?”
He waits again, for me to understand. “Do you refer to accounting for the individual guest when creating the experience?” I ask.
“No. That is also important, but you know how to listen. You have innate talent there, and you will improve naturally with practice. No. What will be difficult for you is learning to take up space.”
I walk alone through a hallway of strangers, and no one can see me.
“I’m… not sure I understand,” I say, though already I begin to think I may.
He nods, as if he truly can sense this. “I admit, it’s not the set of challenges I would have expected, from a princess. But you need to learn how not to make yourself smaller and more contained. You need to not pull each movement for fear of pushing too far. You need to make a space of your own, because that is how you create a path to connect with any guest. You cannot fade away in your own ceremony. Avoiding misstep, or the chance of giving offense, rather than stepping with conviction, leaves a gap in the ceremony and the experience, and no amount of perfectly executed movements will bridge it. You must be the bridge between your guest and the tea. Now do you see?”
I want to laugh, or maybe scream.
It is the exact same challenge I faced in the Grand Shrine, that I could not meet.
I’m now convinced he cannot simply read the thoughts in my mind, but the tenor of my soul, because he has seen me more clearly than anyone, including myself. Perhaps it has simply taken the ancient art of the tea ceremony to reveal me, the way I should have revealed myself at the dedication ceremony.
He is right: I do not, in a spiritual sense, know how to take up space. And I don’t know how to learn to.
“I don’t suppose,” I say, “you might have any suggestions?”
He shakes his head, though this time it is with regret. “No. This is not something anyone can help you learn. I have seen it done, but not from such as state as you’re starting from. And it can take years.” He waits, expectant again, and this time I know what he means me to hear.
It can be done.
And perhaps, the first step to knowing the space I inhabit and filling it without apology is resolving to.
“Then I will have a full three months ahead of me,” I say.
If he dares prevent me now, I will not accept it.
Master Karekin considers me. “You have considerable talent and skill. You should not rush your studies. The examination can only be taken once.”
I know, and that terrifies me. I can fail completely all at once, and I will have only one chance to succeed.
But. I will have one.
“I will gladly spend the rest of my life studying the intricacies and art of tea,” I say. “I have no intention of stopping on this course once I’m certified.”
He snorts. “Your desire to continue learning is admirable; your desire to rush less so.”
I wait a moment, and then venture, “But you’re going to allow me to try.”
And for the first time, he smiles.
“You are equal to aspire to tea mastery,” he proclaims formally. “May the spirits guide your quest.”
After Master Karekin finishes my assessment, I sneak out the back and get directions from Lorwyn. I have just enough time before the tea shop opens to pick up the study materials Master Karekin has recommended to me at the bookstore.
Although Lorwyn offers to accompany me, I want to be by myself for a bit, to let my thoughts bounce around without worrying about how others will take them.
And I want to take this step by myself, to prove that I can.
I will find this bookstore, and I will find the correct books, and I will manage the transaction of purchasing them, and I will find my way back to the tea shop, and I will begin to behave as though I do not need my hand held for every step of what for most people are basic, everyday facets of living.
Despite my best intentions, I do end up asking passersby for directions to the bookstore, twice.
Still. They do not lead me the whole way there, and I will count it as a partial victory.
Outside, I smile for a moment to myself as I realize it is the same bookstore I attempted to shelter from the rain in two nights and a lifetime ago. How different would my path be now if the man that night had let me in here, if I had never continued on to find Lorwyn and the tea shop?
Perhaps the spirits are already guiding my quest. It’s a comforting thought as I take the steps.
The bookstore itself is like a maze, and one that I would gladly be lost in. Here I don’t ask for assistance, content to wander, marveling at all the knowledge I didn’t know existed, the stories I’ve never been permitted to read.
My time, unfortunately, is not endless. I do find a map of Sayorsen with notable destinations clearly marked, though, and I decide I’d better acquire it, no matter what Lorwyn thinks. And although she scoffed at the notion of learning to cook, I find a recipe book with plenty of drawings, too.
But I don’t find the correct tea books, so I am again in a state of only partial success. Still, I steel myself, and venture to the front counter.
We will see how I do at monetary transactions. Surely, after an afternoon working in the tea shop, I can handle the other side of the encounter.
But I’m startled instantly to see the bookseller is in fact the same man who would not let me in from the rain, who thought to bring me to the police. He looks confused for a moment, too, but I don’t think it’s because he remembers me. Either a woman in need of shelter makes little impression, or I appear too changed for him to recognize me as the same person.
“Just a moment, grace,” the bookseller says to me, with a pointed nod to a young Gaellani man beside me. “You can wait behind Deniel in line.”
I glance at this customer in surprise that quickly turns to mortification, and I bow rapidly, deeply.
How have I already made such a mistake, and such a silly one? Lines, Miyara!
But although the customer doesn’t say anything—as I have not—he smiles.
And it is as though I feel his genuine amusement, his desire to set me at ease, and warmth suffuses me as I shyly return his smile and retreat behind him.
Perhaps I am still mentally present in my tea assessment, focused on how an individual can create a true experience for another.
Perhaps it is merely that I have become too accustomed to shark-like smiles, or smiles that convey a fiction of politeness.
But I still feel warm.
And I resolve to give as many people as true of smiles as I can.
“On to the next one of these law tomes, are you,” the bookseller is saying jovially. “I was surprised when your request came in!”
“The last couple months have been good to me,” the customer—Deniel?—answers in a low, soothing voice. I open my map, trying not to eavesdrop so obviously, trying to imagine what his expression must look like. “I tried to give my mother a gift, but—”
“But of course she insisted you spend for your own pet hobby before considering her.” The bookseller shakes his head. “She’s too good to you.”
“I can’t deny that,” he agrees. “So I at least owe it to her to push myself as far as I can with this.”
“Even though it won’t go anywhere?” the bookseller presses.
There’s a wry note in Deniel’s voice as he answers, “Perhaps especially then.”
I wish I could see his face, then. Already it’s as though the impression of his thoughtful features are fixed in my mind. I realize I’m staring at the back of his head, his disheveled, ash-blond hair and quickly focus back on my map, studying it furiously.
Only to start in surprise when I see his name marked on a destination of interest in Sayorsen.
All at once I remember the potter Lorwyn taunted the spy Thiano over, the one who makes the most gorgeous tea sets, is named Deniel.
My head snaps back up, but it is now only the bookseller in front of me, waiting expectantly.
I hear the telltale chime as the door opens, and look just in time to see Deniel’s slender frame slipping away.
Was he the potter? Is Deniel a common Gaellani name?
I have no idea how to ask without inviting more questions than I’m prepared to answer, and that is a lesson a princess learns young.
“You can put those up here,” the bookseller says. “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
“Not quite,” I say, thinking of the easy opportunity for answers I just missed. “Tea Master Karekin said I could find a few specific books here, but—”
“Oh, you’re the tea aspirant!” The bookseller’s smile widens. “You should have said. Welcome! I pulled them from the shelves and set them aside as soon as I heard, just to be safe. Here.”
He hefts a stack of three enormous books out from a shelf under the counter, and my eyes widen at the size of them.
Learning to do, indeed.
“These will go on Talmeri’s shop account, I understand,” he says, wrapping them carefully. “But it looks like you found more?”
I blush. “I did. But not for any purpose I think Grace Talmeri would be willing for the shop to pay for.”
He laughs. “Unplanned purchases you can only questionably justify are a common experience in a bookstore, I assure you. Let’s get a separate receipt started, then.”
I carefully count out the marks from my own pouch, glad again that Lorwyn showed me how—and how to save enough with lunches that I can afford to this week. Though it’s clear these will almost have to be my last unplanned purchase until next week, and I begin to see why Lorwyn was so concerned about Talmeri’s tight control of my funds.
Still. I did not manage the tea books myself, but I am leaving with them, and I have successfully purchased two other items that will help me learn independence.
A partial success.
And despite my exhausting morning, I feel as though I will have no trouble carrying all this weight back to my place at the tea shop.
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Continue to Chapter 9!