The shop closes at last, Meristo heads out, and after a shockingly long time spent bickering with Lorwyn, Entero finally does, too, to do whatever he needs to arrange the form his assignment has now taken.
“Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” he growls at me.
I’m reasonably sure I’ve managed the last few days without any assassins, but he’s had a long day. I say only, “I’ll do my best.”
Lorwyn snorts in disgust, Entero casts her one last dirty glare, and then Lorwyn and I are alone in the back again.
“Well,” she finally says, stalking over to her lab. “That could have gone worse, probably, though I can’t think how.”
I drop onto a box nearby. “Oh, surely your imagination is better than that. I can think of dozens of ways that end with one or all of us dead.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” Lorwyn says. “Why are you still here? I have work to do.”
“You always say that, but you somehow manage.”
I meant that to be funny, so I’m taken aback by how her face tightens. Apparently I’ve missed the mark, and I’m not sure how.
“I thought we should talk about what happened today, now that we’re alone,” I say.
She stalks around her lab. “What’s to talk about?”
I frown. “A blood oath? An assassin? Fighting with witchcraft?”
“What’s to talk about?” she repeats. “Everything is terrible, we’re stuck with it, that’s just how it goes. Are you going to help, or are you going to leave?”
“Are you mad at me?” I ask. “I thought you were scowling for Entero’s benefit.”
“I always scowl, because I’m always unhappy,” she says. And I’m used enough to hearing sarcasm from her that I’m especially troubled to realize I’m not hearing it now.
“Then maybe you should leave,” I say quietly.
She sets down the tea pet abruptly. “Excuse you?”
“If your situation is so unbearable—”
“You sound like Risteri,” she snarls.
That’s enough to tell me she won’t be receptive to anything I have to say. But she sounded so serious that I can’t help pushing.
She tried to save my life today.
“Either you’re being dramatic, or everything in your life is terrible. In which case why don’t you do something else? Anything else?”
“Oh?” she asks, voice dripping sweet malice. “Any ideas, my homeless, jobless, totally dependent friend?”
I grit my teeth. She has a point there. “Obviously I don’t have all the answers. But I’m better off now than I was.”
“You were lucky,” she snaps.
“Yes, and you could be too. And even if you’re not—” I break off before asking what she can lose, because I do know one thing: her life. “You could enroll in mage school. You can clearly keep all your power in check.”
Lorwyn laughs, and it’s the most desolate sound I’ve ever heard.
Then she begins to glow.
And then it’s as if she combusts into witchlight.
She is definitely not an ordinary witch.
“How about this?” she asks, stalking toward me, waving her hands. “Is this a good enough reason for why?”
As her hands move, the air around her bends, like she’s passed them through water. But the hair on my arms stands on end, crackling with energy.
“I can sense your power,” I say in some surprise. It’s emanating off her like heat.
“Yes, I’m sure you can,” she says bitterly. “Even without a display like this, though, a witch always knows another witch.”
“But if you were mage-trained, you wouldn’t have to hide.”
“You’re so naïve. Of course I would, because as soon as they knew what I was capable of, they’d kill me for sure. Even if I could somehow hide long enough, it wouldn’t matter. You think I can get in to mage school? How, Miyara?”
“What are you talking about? Anyone can go to mage school.”
“No, anyone rich can go to mage school!” She’s shouting. “Anyone with the right credentials, which of course Gaellani can’t get. Anyone with connections to the right people, anyone with money—and believe me, if any Gaellani somehow managed to raise the money, there’s always some other fee, some other hoop too impossible to jump through. There’s no way I could ever go to mage school even if I wanted to, which I don’t!”
Is it really that bad? Is she just being negative, or am I really as foolish as she thinks?
Probably, I decide, both.
“I thought you liked working on your magic,” I say. “I thought that was one of the reasons you worked here, so you had a place where it’s safe to experiment. Why wouldn’t you want to go mage school?”
“Besides that I don’t want to ruin my life with impossible dreams?”
“Better an impossible dream than none at all,” I say quietly.
Her face twists. “Of course you would say that. You, who apparently grew up with all the privilege in the world and threw it away and aren’t facing any consequences for it. You have a place of your own, which I’ve never had. Almost no Gaellani is able to, here. You have the admiration of half the city for aspiring to tea mastery in three cursed months, and believe me if I tried to aspire to anything, not only would no one sponsor me, they’d laugh at me in the street. Who are you to judge me?”
I swallow. “Someone who thinks you deserve to be happy.”
The air seems to crackle. “People like me don’t have the luxury of pursuing happiness, Miyara.”
“Happiness isn’t a luxury that only some people deserve to be able to attain—”
“Oh, come off it! When have you wondered how you would feed your sisters? When have you wondered when you would be thrown out on the street? When have you wondered when your neighbors would come to execute you for how you were born? When have you had to worry that if you make one wrong move—”
She snaps. The witchlight around her flares, and I take a step back away from the force of it.
Conviction shines in her eyes, and she opens her mouth for what I’m sure will be a scathing pronouncement when the air around us seems to shimmer, and she falters.
There’s a pop, like a bubble has burst, and dozens of items nearest to her on the lab snap.
The tea pet breaks into pieces.
Lorwyn closes her eyes; clenches her fist. “When have you ever had to worry if you make one wrong move, your power will destroy what you care about the most.”
My stomach is in knots.
I did this. I made this happen.
I fear I may have just destroyed what I cared about most, too: her happiness. Our friendship.
“The tea pet?” I ask.
Lorwyn glances down at it, jaw clenched. “A family heirloom,” she says in a neutral voice. “It’s always been fragile, but they trusted it to me as a show of faith that I would always be in control, despite my power.” She scoops up the pieces of the tea pet, drops them into a trash bin. “Well. Here we are.”
“Is it—can it be fixed? I—”
“A break like this? No. No, it can’t. It’s done.”
And she looks done, and broken, and—small, deflated, like the spark of her spirit snuffed out. “Lorwyn, I’m so sorry.”
“You know what? I don’t even care.” She stares at the remains of the tea pet for a long moment, then looks at the mess around her, and her expression twists in disgust and self-loathing.
And then she looks at me, shakes her head, and leaves without another word as I stare after her, frozen.
My words started this, and forced it. So much for knowing how to listen.
It seems like my words should be able to fix it, too, but I don’t know the words for that. Only that everything I’ve said in the last few minutes was exactly wrong.
I go to the bin and dig out every piece of the tea pet I can find, absently wiping the hot tears off my cheeks when my vision blurs.
She’s right. I don’t know anything.
And now I’ve broken everything. Her faith in herself, our friendship.
How can I fix this? Can it be fixed?
My hands tremble, and I clench them, shoving the pieces closer together so I don’t drop them.
Seeing them bunched together, I have a desperate thought. Maybe I can fix the tea pet. I could get glue—
No, I can already imagine how that will go. A horribly twisted version of the once delicately crafted piece will only represent a thoughtless perversion of what once was. I don’t have the skill, and I know next-to-nothing about pottery—
But there is that potter. Deniel.
Surely if anyone can fix this, it must be him. Right?
Oh, not our friendship. But maybe Lorwyn’s faith in herself could in some small measure be restored with the tea pet. Maybe she could believe that it’s not worth abandoning hope.
The location of Deniel’s shop is on my map.
This is probably madness, but it’s all I’ve got. I can’t just sit here with the shards of her broken faith in herself, when I’m responsible for breaking it, when she’s helped me through these days of finding my own faith in myself. I can’t.
I find a tea tin of innocuous ingredients I recognize—I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Talmeri’s choice ingredients could burn through ceramic—and carefully pour the remains of the tea pet into it. I gather my things, squint at the map, and charge off into the twilight.
I thought I might be so upset I’d have trouble finding my way, but the reverse is true: I am unerringly focused. I make not a single wrong turn, singlemindedly devoted to one task: find the potter’s shop.
As an added benefit, that means I don’t have to worry about what in the world I will say when I appear on his doorstep.
Despite that, I almost think I’m in the wrong place when the building resembles a cottage. Not like Risteri’s grandmother’s, exactly; it’s in a busier area, for one thing, and shoved right up against others just like it. I can’t put my finger on what the difference is—
But it doesn’t matter. I’m dithering.
Wringing my hands, I approach the door, where a small sign reads only, “Deniel’s.” So I’m in the right place.
What are the right words to fix this?
Here I am, showing up late in the evening after all the surrounding businesses are closed, crying, begging for help, and why should he give it to me? Why should he even open the door for the madwoman on his doorstep, and if he does why not close it in her face? In fact he’s probably not here at all. I could just go, and think about how to approach this rationally, and come back tomorrow.
I squeeze my eyes against the renewed spurt of tears.
My knuckles ache from the force of my squeezing my nails into my palms, the tension of holding it in.
How long has it been since I knocked? Do I knock again? Has it only been seconds?
I hear shuffling inside and freeze, one fist half-raised to knock again, my eyes wide and body tense as if to bolt, which is ludicrous since getting someone’s attention was the whole point.
The door opens, and there he is. The light from inside shines behind him, making stark every disheveled hair on the same man I saw at the bookstore.
Who looks totally startled to see me on his doorstep, which is utterly reasonable, but I still feel like I am even more startled to see him, which isn’t.
“Can I help you?” Deniel finally manages to ask.
I open my mouth to speak and it’s like my throat closes up on the words. I shake my head sharply, feeling tears fly off my cheeks, and in frustration, or perhaps desperation, I manage to force my trembling hands to open the tea tin.
“It—it was a tea pet,” I manage to choke out. “A baby dragon.”
“I see,” he says. His voice sounds grave, as though it is not utterly mad to be crying about a piece of pottery on a stranger’s doorstep at night, but I can’t bring myself to look at his face. “I recognize the design. It was important to you?”
I have never had trouble controlling my emotions. Perhaps the space to feel them freely has shattered that forever, but whatever it is, I have to choke back a sob as more tears squeeze out of my eyes and I shake my head.
“Not me. My—my friend. My first.” And then the words are spilling out with my tears. “I didn’t know it was important, but I should have, and I—it’s my fault it’s broken, and now she is, and I can’t fix it.”
Deniel doesn’t say anything. Maybe he’s wondering how to calm the madwoman down, or let me down gently, or just waiting for me to run out of words.
Finally, I make myself look at him and ask what I should have led with. “Can it be fixed?”
He’s watching me intently. “I can’t make it what it once was,” Deniel says. Before my stomach has finished bottoming out he’s added, “I may be able to do something else. But the price is not what you may think.”
My chest squeezes. Oh, spirits. “I don’t have money. At least, not what this is worth. But. Please. Please, if there’s anything—”
“There’s no monetary price that would be adequate. That’s not the cost.”
I blink, trying to understand through the jumble of my thoughts.
When he can see he has my full attention, Deniel says, “There is something I can do. But the process is sacred, and I won’t involve money in it.”
I nod, not trusting myself to speak, not sure where he’s going with this.
“The price,” he says, “is your greatest secret. No more, and no less. Is re-making this worth enough to you that you will trust that to a total stranger?”
It’s not so much that I’m shocked as that I’m utterly floored.
It ought to feel surreal that I am crying on a potter’s doorstep to save me, and he’ll do so for a secret. And I suppose it does, but not as much it should.
“Please think carefully,” Deniel cautions. “This is not something I ask lightly, and I would not expect you to give it.”
Perhaps another person wouldn’t understand the implications of divulging their greatest secret, might consider giving a less serious one even during a sacred ritual, or wouldn’t consider the question of that secret thoroughly.
I am not that person.
“I understand,” I whisper. “You may have it.”
He studies my expression for a long moment and, at last, nods, stepping back and opening the door. “Then come in.”
I follow him, no longer sure what’s happening, as we pass through a room full of displays that even at a passing glance I can tell hold some of the most beautiful ceramic pieces I’ve ever laid eyes on.
But we leave that room, and the one behind it is very different.
Deniel gently claps on the lights and leads me to a chair, which I drop into gingerly. “I apologize for the mess. My workshop doubles as my living area. Please, make yourself comfortable. This will take some time.” He kneels before me. “May I?” He gestures at the tin.
I try to hand it to him carefully, but my hands are still shaking. His are steady, though, and I swallow past the lump of relief and fear.
“My secret—” I begin, but he shakes his head.
“Not now. Take your time to think while I work. Can I get you anything?”
I open my mouth to ask about tea, but then I think of Lorwyn, and the tea pet, and I’m leaking again, covering my face in my hands.
“That’s okay,” Deniel says quietly. “Take your time.”
This is ridiculous. I cannot keep bursting into tears because of a piece of clay.
Although evidence suggests, to the contrary, that in fact I can.
By the time I’ve recovered enough to look up again, Deniel is no longer in front of me, though I can hear his quiet movements from the other side of the room.
The room is large, but not spacious, as, like the ground floor of Risteri’s grandmother’s cottage, it appears to serve multiple functions. Most of the space is Deniel’s workshop, full of tables, equipment, pieces in various stages of development—not as many as I’d expect, so either he doesn’t produce much at once or there must be more elsewhere—though he himself hunches in a corner. There’s a kitchen, too, with extra ovens, along with a small table and two wooden chairs; and then there’s the smallest section where I am, with a small couch, the unevenly stuffed chair I’m sitting in, clearly well-loved, and an overstuffed bookcase, much of which is devoted to books of law.
And there, in the corner, a simple pedestal atop which sits an altar to the spirits. Free of dust, the candle lit.
Deniel’s life is in this room, and he has walked me into it without a thought. I want to unravel what that means, what all these pieces together mean, but that’s not what I’m here for.
What is my greatest secret?
Is it really as grave and earth-shattering as Deniel is treating it?
Spirits, Entero would say so. In fact he’d probably have much to say about following a man, alone, without asking any questions—for the second time in a single day, no less—in fact asking that stranger to name any price.
It’s all well and good to understand that I’m a good judge of character, but all things considered I’m not sure I should trust myself to judge anyone, especially now of all times.
Leaving that aside, there is still a risk in sharing secrets. Not that Entero knows what my secrets are, but he’s a guard—I’m sure he’d assume divulging any is likely to make me less safe.
And that’s the crux. It’s not the secret itself as much as the act of divulging it. Of being willing and able to open myself that much. Of being honest enough with myself to know what it is I fear so much not a single other soul knows, and trusting that to another I don’t know.
If it were for my own sake, I couldn’t do it. Clearly, or at some time in the last twentyish years of my life I would have.
But for Lorwyn’s, to fix this—
Well. No. The tea pet is, however symbolic in my mind, still a piece of clay. But symbols have only as much weight as we imbue them with, and maybe this is what it takes for me begin to own the space I inhabit, to be aware enough that I don’t accidentally cause so much harm flailing to find myself.
A long time passes before Deniel is kneeling before me again.
“It’s time,” he says. “Are you ready?”
The first meaningless thing he’s said to me. My readiness has no bearing on this.
I take a breath for the words I have managed to avoid speaking all my life, even at my dedication, and meet his gaze head-on.
“My name is Miyara, and I was the fourth princess of Istalam.”
His eyes widen.
“That’s not the secret,” I say fiercely. “Well. It’s a secret, but it’s not the one that matters. It has never mattered, not really.”
What is it about my inability to stop words once they’ve started? When did this happen?
“It’s my duty to serve people. I want to, more than anything, and always have. But despite everything, I have absolutely no idea how. I am—I was a princess, and the only thing in this world and in my life that matters is the one thing I don’t know what to do about.”
And that’s it. That’s my greatest secret, the thing I’ve never been able to admit to anyone.
It sounds so silly out loud.
But if Deniel thinks it is, he doesn’t say so. Spirits, he may not even believe me. But he nods gravely, stands, and says with the weight of ritual, “I will keep your secret in my heart.”
He extends a hand to me, palm raised. It’s trembling, ever-so-slightly.
But when I put my hand in his and he helps me stand, we’re both balanced with each other if unsteady, and his hand is warm around mine.
Deniel brings me over to his work table, and I stop abruptly when I see the tea pet.
“What is this?” I breathe.
Because it’s not just reassembled. The cracks are filled with shimmering silver. The history of the break is still there, but it’s not just re-made; it’s made anew into something beautiful.
But I know what this is; similar artifacts were gifted centuries ago to an Istal queen, from a nation that, as far as I know, did not survive the Cataclysm. I had no idea this tradition had.
“Just because something is broken or appears to have no function doesn’t mean it has no value,” Deniel says. Then he runs a hand through his hair as though embarrassed. “Though I have to admit it won’t actually work as a tea pet anymore. I’m sorry, I should have warned you about that at the start.”
I can’t believe he thinks I’d care about that, but as I glance up to say something to that effect the words freeze on my lips.
Deniel’s eyes are bloodshot, and a quick glance toward the window reveals total darkness has descended. I’ve been here for hours—and he had probably worked a full day before I showed up and must be exhausted.
“This is too much,” I say. “The balance is not even. All you’ve done, what this is worth—”
“Is beside the point,” he says firmly. “This is the tradition as I learned it. It’s not about balance; it’s about a gift.”
My eyes search his. I can’t imagine what the cost of the metals alone must be, especially for a Gaellani craftsman. Not to mention his time and effort, and he can’t make a habit of doing this often or openly. “Why would you go to all this trouble?” I ask.
He smiles wearily, and I see a hint of mischief in his eyes through it all that tugs at me. “I’m not telling.”
I laugh outright, then, and then stop abruptly, startled by the sound after everything this night. He reaches around me and carefully wraps the tea pet in a cloth and inserts the package into the tea tin.
I blush, mortified as he places it back in my hands. I can’t believe I brought him a tea tin to hold something so precious.
I gaze up at him. “Thank you,” I say, with as much sincerity as I can put into the words, and they are still totally inadequate.
“The honor is all mine,” he says, the corners of his eyes still crinkled from that slight smile—or perhaps from the effort of keeping them open this late.
My words were inadequate, I don’t know what gesture can bridge the gap, and now that I’ve consciously thought about weariness I’m surprised I can speak coherently at all. It will have to wait.
I duck my head, and he steps back, and somehow we maneuver ourselves back through his shop. He opens the door to a pair of golden green eyes glaring cautiously out of the darkness.
“Oh, hello Talsion,” Deniel says.
The darkness resolves into a sleek gray cat that scampers inside.
“You have a cat?” I ask inanely.
Deniel glances back with a wry look on his face. “It might be more accurate to say Talsu has adopted me,” he says.
A teeny mew echoes.
“I should go,” we both say at the same time and exchange smiles.
The door closes, leaving me oddly bereft and certain: like I’ve found myself, my home, for the first time, and know how to find it again.
I’m too weary to tease that out, and my emotions have been such a jumble all night it’s probably nonsense anyway.
But I’m hopeful not for what tomorrow will bring, but to meet tomorrow as myself, in a way I can’t quite explain.
The moon is shining vividly against the velvet night sky when I arrive home. I clap on the lights and as I turn to shut my door I glimpse, just for a moment, Risteri, as a gust of wind blows back the hood of her cloak.
I blink, and then she’s gone.
Sneaking out when the household is most likely to believe she’s sleeping? If she makes a habit of it, I know how she manages to leave food for me so early in the morning, though the why is another matter.
For another time. Sleep beckons, and I shut the door on that mystery until tomorrow.
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Continue to Chapter 11!