The news of my new status as a tea aspirant has begun to spread, and I spend nearly as much time carefully answering questions about the assessment and my course going forward as I do serving tea.
After two hours of this, Meristo and I retreat to Lorwyn’s lab to confer.
“My presence is making everything go slower,” I say without preamble.
“The gossip will die down in the next couple days,” Lorwyn says, but she doesn’t sound convinced.
“Then you’d better have Talmeri get Taseino scheduled double with me until then,” Meristo tells her grimly. “We’ll need more hands on deck to manage this.”
“What about Iskielo?” I ask.
Meristo rolls his eyes. “I shudder to think what adding Iskielo to the mix would do. In the meantime, can you stay back here?”
I purse my lips. “I’m supposed to be working.”
“Oh, you will be,” Lorwyn assures me. “I’ll help you get more oriented here, and whenever Meristo needs something you can fetch it for him. Aaand that’s the front door chiming. Meristo, you’re on. Miyara, with me.”
And that’s how I end up spending the afternoon in Lorwyn’s lab.
She gives me a tour full of wisdom like “never touch this under any circumstances” and “this is where merchandise goes to die” and ends with, “But honestly, there’s so little organization back here there’s really no good way to learn other than having to find things.”
More magical knowledge, like the locations of the tea up-front. This should not surprise me.
“I hope you’ve at least labeled whatever is likely to kill me?” I ask.
“Not really,” she says, and smiles. “How do you think I keep the boys from messing with my things?”
I huff a laugh. “Well. If there’s nothing else you can teach me about where things are, could you help me study?”
She frowns, very gently replacing the tea pet from the other day on a shelf, giving it a lingering pat. “I do have things to do, you know.”
“Oh, I know, and please tell me if I get in the way—”
“You’re getting in the way,” she says, but the laughter in her eyes tells me it’s a joke and I roll my eyes in response.
“I mean, I guess, could you explain some things as you do them? There are whole chapters in one of my books on the properties of different tea leaves, and more on rolling techniques—”
Lorwyn’s eyebrows rise in surprise. “Well, yeah, I guess there’d have to be. You’ve never rolled tea leaves?”
I shake my head.
“Huh,” she says, already wandering off to one of the shelves. “Okay, I have some preserved leaves here I’ve been meaning to experiment with anyway. I’ll walk you through the basics, and if you’re at least halfway competent you can be my lab assistant today.”
I smile past the obscure pressure I now feel not to disappoint her. “Such faith in my ability to learn.”
She laughs. “Don’t worry, you won’t like assisting me anyway.”
But I do. It’s soothing, and warming, set up at a station next to her, learning about the leaves and how to manipulate them, watching her incorporate them into her work. She points out when my work fails in some way, but never in a way that makes me feel like a burden. And we spend most of our time working comfortably together or laughing, together.
I wonder if this is what it’s like to have a friend.
Or a sister.
Lorwyn is in the middle of a careful measurement when the back gate to the lab bangs.
“That’ll be a delivery,” she says without looking up. “Can you go let him in?”
I wipe my hands off on a cloth, notice they’re still stained hopelessly green, shrug, and go. It takes me a moment to figure out how to make the latch work, and then the gate is sliding up out of the way to reveal a pallet full of crates.
A lean young man—Istal, I think, but oddly I can’t guess his likely background more precisely than that—peeks around the back. He’s wearing nondescript black, but that just makes his muscles appear all the more prominent. I suppose he’d have to be strong, to move pallets like this around all day. He moves with a fluid grace, and something about him puts me almost instantly at ease: perhaps it’s the way he moves with such confidence in his ability, in himself, as though he always knows which way to step.
It’s the kind of grace I aspire to in the tea ceremony; perhaps that affinity explains it.
“I’m with South-Central Shipping,” he says. “Can I bring this in?”
Lorwyn calls, “Check his paperwork! There should be a box that indicates whether they think we’re going to pay them to roll it inside.”
The delivery man scowls. “You think I’m cheating you?”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re the sweetest man alive,” Lorwyn says absently. “But your coworkers have given South-Central a reputation around here. Miyara, check the paperwork.”
I bow slightly in apology, coming around the side of the pallet where the man shoves the piece of paper at me.
“Fine, here,” he announces loudly.
And then as I’m scanning the paperwork, he says in a much quieter voice, “My name is Entero, and I believe I’m an acquaintance of your grandmother’s.”
I can practically feel the blood draining out of my face, but somehow I manage quietly, “I don’t know what you mean.”
But I do, of course I do, and my knuckles are as white as the paper I’m clutching.
They’ve found me.
Oh, spirits, my family has found me already.
“Miyara?” Lorwyn arrives around the side. “Is the box checked?”
I stare blankly at the man’s guarded expression. “No, it’s not,” I say, and my voice sounds faint.
Entero says mildly, “Maybe we should take a few minutes to catch up. I’m sure we have a lot to talk about.”
“Miyara, what’s this?” Lorwyn asks sharply.
He knows where I work, which means he can find me at any time.
And my presence has led led him right to Lorwyn, my first friend, an unregistered witch.
If he does work for my grandmother, then I can’t let him realize. He’d have to report her, and Lorwyn’s freedom and possibly life will be forfeit.
I have to get him away from her no matter what.
“He says he knows my grandmother,” I say. “Would you mind if I step outside for a few minutes?”
She frowns. “Yes. You’re working. What can’t he say in front of me?”
Too much. But what she might reveal to him is the real problem.
“I’ll be very quick,” I promise, hoping I’m not lying, and jerk myself into motion, striding out the gate with my head high as if I don’t believe I’m walking into desolation.
Drat, the purposeful stride along with my tenseness probably does give that impression. Too late now.
Entero follows me, very quickly taking me by the elbow in a way I’m familiar with. “Please, this way.”
His touch is too rough, though, which tells me everything I need to understand about him: he hasn’t been trained on how to innocuously steer a princess.
But I’m not a princess, and I don’t want to give him time to strengthen his grip.
I fling my arm away from him.
He tenses, just barely, but otherwise doesn’t show his surprise. “We’re still in view of the shop,” he says, perfectly controlled, as if he is never anything but, as if I’m the one creating chaos with my presence.
So, Lorwyn could have seen that. Curses. “I’m walking with you. But don’t try to touch me.”
He nods, and we walk, my thoughts spinning rapidly.
I’ve been worrying about being dependent, but not what my very presence means. Stupid, stupid Miyara! I’ll have to divert Entero somehow, then think of a way to keep him from returning to Talmeri’s. I’m not sure what my next steps are after that, but how I’ll even manage that much fills me with despair.
We round a corner, then another, and soon I won’t be able to find my way back.
I stop when we’re in a secluded alley. “That’s far enough. What do you want?”
“I told you, I know your grandmother,” he said.
“Many people know my grandmother,” I say. “Are you a spy of some sort? An assassin?”
“No, you’re not.” This I’m sure of.
A touch of irritation in his expression, and I’m ridiculously gratified to see a crack in his no-longer-comforting façade. “Okay, yes, usually I’m one of her spies. But I have guard training, and there’s no way your bodyguards would blend in here. Are you happy? Can we go now?”
I can’t say I’m shocked to hear him confirm my grandmother, the former queen, has spies. I suppose it would be unlikely for a force like her to ever truly retire. But that one of her people has found me faster than anyone else indicates an unmatched level of competence on that front, and that leaves me with more questions—about how my grandmother occupies her days, why she sent him, how he found me.
None of which are relevant right this instant. “Go where?”
Entero frowns. “Back to the capital, of course.”
I expected that answer, but my stomach still drops. Suddenly chilled, I wrap my arms around myself. “No,” I whisper.
“You must realize even if you’re technically no longer titled, you need to be protected,” he tells me. “You may not care about your own life, but you could be taken hostage and used against your sisters. Or your mother.”
This, unexpectedly, makes me laugh. “How foolish. As if any of them would give in to a demand for my sake.”
“That may be, but it doesn’t mean people won’t try to kidnap you or worse regardless,” he says. “And it doesn’t mean your family wouldn’t be bothered if you were hurt.”
“And so my grandmother, out of great concern for my safety, has sent you to find me and bring me back.”
Maybe if my grandmother had been concerned about more than my physical wellbeing and how it could be deployed against the House she should have given me more specific advice at my dedication ceremony.
“Then I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I say. “But I will not go back. Not with you, and not for any reason.”
He sighs. “You’re being unreasonable, and you know it. You followed a man you’ve never met before, who you think has the ability to kill people professionally, alone, down a maze, and you think you can keep yourself safe?”
I cringe. “I think my safety is my own affair now.”
“And that’s where you’re wrong. Your grandmother has made it mine.”
That’s all the warning I have before he lunges forward, seizing my wrists before I’ve managed to dance back more than a step.
I tug him forward, hoping to off-balance him in a move my own bodyguards taught me. But he’s prepared for this, using my own momentum to back me against a wall while I struggle—
And then I see a bright light in my peripheral vision. He notices it, too, his eyes widening an instant before he throws himself backward to avoid it.
The ball of light flashes in front of me, right where he had been standing. Lacking an Entero to hit, it crashes into a trash bin behind us, and the bin melts.
Just, disintegrates, as if it had never been.
I’ve never seen power like that.
But Entero released me rather than drag me with him. Keeping myself to the opposite wall as far away from him as I can be, I scramble further back down the alley.
Where Lorwyn is waiting, menacingly tossing another ball of witchlight in one hand.
Entero’s expression rapidly shifts from shocked alertness to something darker as he puts it together in an instant. “Witch,” he growls.
And he moves.
He launches forward with stunning speed, drawing knives from somewhere on his person as he runs.
Lorwyn hurls the witchlight ball at him, but he’s faster. The ground sizzles behind him as she hurls ball after ball, and he’s going to gut her right in front of me—
I throw myself in front of Lorwyn just before Entero gets close enough.
Finally, Entero demands, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“My question exactly,” Lorwyn snaps. “What were you thinking, following a dangerous stranger down an alley alone?”
Entero snorts in dark amusement. It’s almost exactly what he accused me of.
“I was attempting to keep him from finding out you’re a witch,” I say with exasperation.
They’re both surprised silent for a moment.
Lorwyn reacts first. “Well, try to appear less terrified next time so I don’t have to follow you! And anyway, I can take care of myself.”
“Can you?” Entero asks mildly.
I feel heat against my back, see him tensing again, and stomp. “Stop it, right now!”
“I will if he will,” Lorwyn says pleasantly.
“I won’t lose to anyone, even a witch,” Entero says.
“Entero, enough,” I say, and I almost don’t recognize the implacable tone in my voice. “If you make any attempt to attack her again, or any attempt to report her for witchcraft, I will personally hold you still while she does whatever she must to ensure your silence. Do I make myself clear?”
“Are you mad?” he yells. “Witches are dangerous—”
“Says the assassin with all the knives who tried to kidnap a woman,” Lorwyn retorts. “Who here was attacking Miyara again?”
“I said enough. Entero, you will swear an oath on the water in your body, right this instant, or so help me this day will be your last.”
He stares at me, utterly shocked. Even Lorwyn is quiet.
In truth, I’m shocked at myself, too. I’ve never done anything like this, and perhaps later I’ll have the space to wonder if he’s right, and I’m mad.
But even if this is a different kind of mistake, I don’t waver. He doesn’t get to kill Lorwyn because I’m foolish and untried.
“You can’t be serious,” he says.
“Miyara…” Lorwyn says quietly, uncertainly behind me.
I reach behind me and tap the wrist of her throwing arm. She tenses; she’s taken my warning to be ready.
“I have never been more serious in my life,” I say. “You will not do anything to cause Lorwyn to come to harm. The oath or your life, now.”
Entero’s expression sets as he considers his options. “And what if she hurts me? I’m not just going to swear any oath you demand any time you demand it,” he says.
The fact that I’m asking him to swear one is outrageous enough. Such a demand is outside the scope of bodyguard contracts for good reason: given substantial power discrepancies, guards must be protected from the dangerous whims of those they serve.
We don’t have a contract, though. Even so, I still shouldn’t demand such a concession of him. But I don’t know him, I don’t have any proof beyond his word that my grandmother sent him or that he truly is here to look out for me, and I have no other way to protect Lorwyn.
She may be untouched now, but I didn’t miss the fact that not one of her balls of witchlight actually hit him.
“But you’ll swear this one,” I tell him. “And in return I swear not to demand an oath from you again.”
“Miyara, don’t do that!” Lorwyn hisses.
But it’s too late: Entero stands slowly, deliberately, and nicks a finger with one of his knives. “With this drop I swear to the spirit of water I will neither physically harm one Lorwyn nor inform on her witchcraft. Happy?”
He sounds utterly disgusted.
No, I’m not happy. But I am surprised, and unutterably relieved, he swore the oath.
This proves that he was, in fact, sent by my grandmother and tasked to see to my safety. Otherwise he would have either left, or killed us both. I forced the issue, but it was well within his ability to take a different path; he chose to accept this limitation.
I hope our ideas of “safety” are enough in line that I won’t regret removing my own ability to limit him further. But at least this way he’ll never face conflict over what to do about Lorwyn; any fallout will land squarely on me.
“You realize,” he says, “this means if she attacks you and I have to defend you, my life and spirit are forfeit.”
Yes. If the oath were any less serious, I wouldn’t trust him to abide by it. I glance back at Lorwyn, whose face is unreadable. “I’d appreciate it if you could make an effort to not put him in a position where he feels compelled to sacrifice his life on my behalf.”
“No promises,” she says, eyes narrowing. “You want to tell me what this is all about?”
Carefully, I step out of the way, keeping an eye on both of them to make sure they don’t go for each other’s throats the instant I’m not standing between them.
So far so good.
And now we can all look each other in the eye and speak civilly as if we have not all forced terrible decisions on each other in the last few minutes.
“Apparently my grandmother has more varied resources at her disposal than I realized, and she’s concerned for my safety,” I say.
Lorwyn looks at me incredulously. “Your grandmother is in a position to hire an assassin to kidnap you?”
I exchange a look with Entero. I hadn’t told him to swear to keep my secret, but I don’t think I need to. By his own reasoning, the more people who know I’m a princess, the more danger I’m in.
He scowls but doesn’t say anything.
In fact, the scowl is so at odds with his utter ease when we first met back at the shop that I begin to wonder if it’s an act. For Lorwyn’s benefit, or mine?
“So it would seem,” I say.
“Then you have family with enough money and resources to provide for you,” Lorwyn says slowly.
Oh. “No. I mean, yes, I have family with resources, but they can’t provide for me. Not officially. It’s… a legal thing, basically. My family can’t give me any direct support. If that became public, they would be in serious trouble, and they won’t risk that for my sake. Thus, I assume, the choice to go with an assassin.”
“Can he get you money? That’s not direct.”
“No,” Entero says. “That’s not how it works. No official resources can be directed to her. She’s cut off.”
“But her grandmother sent you.”
There, that’s what I’ve been missing.
“How exactly did she phrase your assignment?” I ask Entero.
He crosses his arms. “I won’t answer that.”
But he’s frowning, which makes me think he’s just realized the same thing I have and isn’t happy.
My grandmother sent someone unofficially—and someone who can blend in. Someone with guard training. Someone who can keep me safe.
“You’re supposed to guard me, aren’t you?”
He pounces on that, apparently intent on salvaging something from this disaster. “And you think I can do that here?”
Lorwyn mutters to me, “Should have made him swear not to kidnap you, you dunderhead.”
Entero ignores this. “My job is to guard you, and you think you’ll just be able to—what, live a normal life with a bodyguard?”
I cross my arms. “If my grandmother truly chose you, then yes, I do. Will you need to stay with me?”
“What?” Lorwyn cries. “Miyara, don’t you dare.”
I blink at her. “Don’t what?”
“You’re not bothered by sharing your personal chambers with a man you don’t even know?” she demands. “What kind of upbringing did you have?”
One that included bodyguards, which Lorwyn must have realized, though I don’t know how much of our conversation she heard. But I’ve also realized, with her witchcraft display earlier, more about just how powerful she is, so perhaps she’ll let that pass to avoid prying questions.
I glance between her and Entero, uncertain how to proceed. “Do people not typically share chambers?” I ask.
Lorwyn throws up her hands, but Entero answers me succinctly. “They do, but it typically implies a close relationship. Lovers, family.” He shoots a pointed look at Lorwyn. “Or bodyguards.”
“No one is going to assume you’re a bodyguard and you know it,” she says.
“Miyara, even if you’re okay with that, two things you need to consider,” Lorwyn says. “First, I’m not vouching for him to Risteri. He’s outside our bargain. Second, he clearly doesn’t want to stay in Sayorsen with you. How do we know he won’t try to run off with you when I’m not there to watch?”
“As if you’re the greatest deterrent,” Entero sneers.
It’s a valid point, but I admit I’m more interested in the one she didn’t specify: the one where it would be decided for me how people perceive me.
“Okay,” I say slowly, “so Entero doesn’t stay with me.”
“And how am I supposed to keep you safe if I can’t even stay in the same place as you, exactly?”
Lorwyn snaps, “That’s your problem, not hers.”
It’s both, really. By consenting to be guarded, I need to make allowances to make guarding possible. But it is his job to figure out the particulars, and I notice that, unlike moments earlier, his muscles are very relaxed right now. Which tells me he’s not actually worried about it; he’s pushing to see where my boundaries are.
As if I know.
But I am consenting to be guarded. That Entero swore the oath I demanded from him proves he takes his commission seriously, and I don’t think he would leave if I asked. Ultimately, he works for my grandmother, and he doesn’t strike me as someone who could be easily swayed from a course he’s committed to.
So I will not go out of my way to make his life any more difficult than it already has to be. This situation has been forced on both of us, and until I’m ready to outright oppose my grandmother’s wishes and expect to triumph, we’ll have to make the best of it gracefully.
And before he tried to kidnap me for my own good, I felt instantly comfortable in his presence. My initial impressions are rarely wrong, even if I don’t understand them.
“I don’t think there’s a good way to guard me during my time at the shop, either, unless you’re inside,” I say. “And people will ask questions if you simply loiter around the shop.”
“Oh, that’s easily solved,” Lorwyn says. “He’ll just have to work there. That way I can keep an eye on him, too.”
I glance at her in surprise. “You think Talmeri would hire him? He’s not one of her wealthy connections.”
“I can get any credentials you need by tomorrow,” Entero says.
“You’ll need forged social references, I think, rather than credentials,” I say.
He shrugs, unconcerned. “I’ll handle it. Working at the same day job as you is the most logical solution.”
“Be still my beating heart,” Lorwyn drawls, “we can agree on something after all.”
“Don’t get used to it.”
I ask her, “Will it really be that easy to get Talmeri to hire him?”
She snorts. “Of course it will. Free labor that comes with apparently respectable references? And, well, look at him.” She gestures vaguely in Entero’s direction—at the figure he cuts with all his well-honed, deadly muscles.
“I see what you mean,” I murmur, and Entero rolls his eyes.
“So,” he says, “what else do I need to know?”
Lorwyn cackles, and finally everyone seems to have calmed down.
And then she crows, “Oh, are you ever going to regret this, tea boy,” and I pinch the bridge of my nose, resigned to an endless afternoon of sniping.
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