Chapter 11

I thought I could sleep forever, but I wake before dawn. As thoughts clatter through my mind, I decide I’m too restless for sleep to find me again anytime soon and get up.

When I wash my hair, I’m startled not just by the length—I wonder how long it will take my muscles to remember how short my hair now is—but by how easily I can run my fingers through it. I go to attempt combing and find that, although wet, the waves of my hair are already neatly arranged.

Lorwyn’s doing, clearly. She changed more than the surface color and length of my hair, helping me far more than I deserved.

The thought of Lorwyn propels me onward, and once I reach the kitchen I remember that nearly all the food in the cooler requires cooking. I have the recipe book, but not the patience. I’m not sure what to do with myself, but I need to move.

I pull out a container of pickled vegetables from the cooler and open a package of rice crackers, which appear to be the only food that does not involve some kind of preparation, eat enough to get going, retrieve my map and the tea tin containing the remade tea pet, and head out.

For a few minutes I take in the city in the pre-dawn light as I wander. It’s beautiful to me, even the parts that are worn down or poorly designed. I wonder if I’d have felt this way about wherever I landed after leaving the palace, or if the compassion I’ve felt from people here has colored my view. Perhaps Sayorsen is simply where I belong, but that answer seems too convenient. It may be where I need to be now; in any event, it’s where I am, and the little I know of it I already love.

That reminds me that I still haven’t visited Sayorsen’s shrine, which should be its heart. I search for it on the map, wondering if I’ll be allowed in at this time, when I suddenly remember the state I left the tea shop in last night. Namely, I’m not sure I locked the door when I fled, and Lorwyn had already gone. That must be my first stop, then.

I walk with more urgency now, hoping I do not arrive to find the shop ransacked. If anything could damage my friendship with Lorwyn worse, it would be having allowed the one space she considers safe to explore her witchcraft in to be desolated. I wish I’d thought of that last night. Perhaps I did lock the door and have simply forgotten, and I’m worrying for nothing—

The back door’s knob turns easily under my hand. I swallow and carefully open it.

And let out a breath. Everything appears to be in place.

Including the undisturbed mess on the floor of the warehouse.

After a quick look for any tentacles in my path, I go in search of cleaning supplies. Lorwyn should not have to deal with the mess I left in my wake.

That taken care of, I contemplate righting the objects on her desk and decide against it. She’d take that as encroaching, not helping.

But I do set the tea pet back in the place on the shelf where I saw it previously. Let her make of it what she will without any overt presentation or my reaction to account for.

She won’t want me in her space when she arrives for the day, so I lock the door on my way out. Now, finally, I will find the shrine.

Except that it’s not on my map.

I study it carefully, squinting in the dawn light, but if it’s marked there I can’t find it.

At least Lorwyn confirmed there is one. I’ll have to ask her—

Or perhaps Risteri. Another time.

What to do now, then? I’m still thrumming with restless energy. I consider returning to the Gaellani courtyard, but that, too, seems like an invasion of Lorwyn’s space. Not that it’s marked on my map, either.

The night market will have dissolved until tonight, but dawn is probably a good time to gawk at the wares in the Central Market without being in the way. This is marked prominently, so armed with my map, I set out again.

The path is empty and quiet. I take my time studying the magecraft jewelry behind the glass window of one shop when someone inside suddenly appears making shooing motions and mouthing “we’re closed.”

I scurry along, rubbing my wrists where the bracelets aren’t.

And then I come to Thiano’s. I might have expected him to fully embody his elitist persona, staying abed late even when his colleagues are beginning work, or perhaps recovering from a night of covert meetings.

But instead he leans back against the open door to his shop, expression sardonic as he waits for me to reach him.

I’m too impatient, too lacking in clarity to deal with someone of Thiano’s subtlety right now. Before I can gracefully back away, he asks, “What brings you here so early, tea aspirant?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” I admit after a moment. What other answer is there?

“Is there no tea for that? For shame.”

“There is. Perhaps Talmeri will gift me with some at the shop.”

Thiano snorts. “Your thieving plans are safe with me, for the great esteem I hold our budding friendship in.”

“I’ll be sure to stay out of the way of the local police, then,” I quip, but my thoughts have, finally, snagged on something particular. Perhaps too revealing a question to ask of a foreign spy, but—”Thiano, what makes a good gift?”

“What an inane question to interrupt my morning with,” he notes. “Even you have given gifts before.”

True. I chase the thought down. “Not when the gift I should give must make up for so much.”

“Ah,” he says. “The weight of obligation that knows no bounds.”

I shake my head. “There is no amount of labor or money that would approximate what he did for me.”

I wonder if Thiano will ask who I mean, or if he already knows—or will pretend to. This is not a subject I would have expected to speak with him about.

“You might be surprised by what a sufficiently large sum of money can do,” Thiano says.

“Probably,” I agree. “Still. A mere ‘thank you’ is inadequate.”

“Some debts can never be paid in full, or even in part.”

His tone is too carefully even. “That’s true,” I say. “But is it not worthwhile to try anyway? Is it better to let the past be the past and move forward?”

He snorts. “You don’t have enough life experience to know.”

“You’ll note that I asked you.”

His breath catches.

And then he laughs, long and hard. “Oh, child. I’m the last person outside the Cataclysm you should ever ask that. But, neatly done. Come inside.”

He kicks a box out of the way, and the door nearly shuts before I scramble up the steps after him.

The shop, like the man, is a maze. “What kind of gift are you looking for?” he asks.

“If I knew that—”

“Do better.”

I pause. “A gift that demonstrates I value his efforts on my behalf.”

“So, something nice. You want him to think kindly of you?”

I start to answer yes; stop. “I don’t want to give a gift so nice he’d feel obligated in turn, if that’s what you mean.”

He stops ahead of me, turning to cast me a look with a smirk. “It wasn’t,” he says. “But duly noted.”

I blush, not totally sure why. His smirk widens and he begins stalking forward again.

“Have you considered baking?” he asks.

It’s my turn to stop. “No. That is, I can boil water, but—I wanted something nice.”

Thiano snorts. “Cooking is work—any handicrafts are, but people value what we make with our own hands. And I’m going to guess there’s not much you know how to make with your hands.”

“There’s tea ceremony,” I say doubtfully.

“And tea, as you know, is an excellent gift, but it’s too inside your wheelhouse; it’ll seem too easy, like you didn’t care to stretch yourself. Food takes care. It’s something we need, but also something we enjoy.”

“Baked goods are a gift because they’re a luxury,” I muse.

“And the thing about nonessential food is that if people don’t like it, they can get rid of it without feeling bad. You come to visit a week later, the food would have gone bad anyway, so you can each maintain the fiction it was eaten and savored.”

“I still have to be able to make it well, though.” This is the oddest conversation to be having with a spy. Part of me is tracking the undercurrents to analyze later, but I still feel as though he is, in truth, trying to help me. I’m just not sure how, exactly, or why.

“Yes, well, try. Do work. Or is that too much for you?”

I smile. “I suppose we’ll have to see. I take it you’ve been leading me toward something relevant?”

He shifts sideways, and I see that he has led me toward more jars and bottles of spices than I could have imagined seeing one place.

But they’re ingredients I’m at least passingly familiar with tasting—in tea, particularly, but learning to taste for tea has also taught me to isolate flavors in general fairly well. I can recall desserts I’ve eaten and make reasonable guesses for some of the ingredients in them.

I scan the shelves, trying to think what feels right for Deniel—and what there is likely to be a recipe for in the one book I have on the subject.

“Have you ever baked?” I ask Thiano.

He snorts. “Not on your life. Wouldn’t do me or anyone else a lick of good. Will he know it’s your first attempt at baking?”

“He could probably guess that,” I say. “Without sampling, I mean.”

“Then it’s likely he’ll appreciate the effort regardless of the result,” Thiano says. “Unless he’s not worth the effort in the first place.”

“He is,” I say. But I wonder if what Deniel will take from my effort is that I’m still flailing: that I know so little of what I have to offer that I will try anything.

But I will try. I am trying, and that matters. I hope.

“You won’t be able to count on that, of course, in the future,” Thiano says, and I’m not sure if he’s referring to the fact that it’ll no longer be my first attempt at baking or that the recipient will be worth the effort.

“I’ll have to develop the skills to actually help people in anticipation of that eventuality.”

He’s watching me intently. “You won’t be able to help everyone.”

“Probably not,” I agree. “But I think I’m going to try anyway.”

I pull a small vial of almond extract off the wall. Whatever Thiano charges, I’ve read enough trade reports to know it’s expensive. But I’m also sure it’s responsible for the rich flavor of what I want to make: something comforting but full of flavor, and, if I’m recalling the reports correctly, a highly sought-after festival food. So it will be special, but still evoke warm feelings. If I can do it right.

Thiano waggles his eyebrows and grins at me in an awful caricature of Lorwyn’s shark-smile as he quotes me the price.

It’s more expensive than I can easily afford, but if I can manage to cook meals with the ingredients Risteri picked out for me I should still have enough left over for a few additional baking ingredients. I think. Or else I’ll have to wait until next week.

The decision grounds me: I have something concrete to do for one of the people who’s helped me. And now I will go home and see how I can manage to make it possible, and in whatever time remains I will study the art of tea to not squander the chance Lorwyn made for me when she couldn’t make one for herself.


 

I brace myself outside the back door of Lorwyn’s lab and knock.

The door flies open instants later, but it’s not Lorwyn.

It’s Entero, and he looks furious. “Where have you been?” he demands.

I blink. “Was I supposed to be somewhere in particular?”

“You were supposed to be taking care to be safe.” His eyes narrow. “You didn’t, did you?”

In the time since I last saw him, I’ve angered a witch to the point where she lost control, charged out alone into the night and then followed a man I’d never met before into his home to divulge my secrets, wandered around the streets of a city I barely know, entered an open shop that could have been full of thieves, and met with a foreign spy.

“I think it’s fair to say I failed at that rather more spectacularly than I could have anticipated,” I say. “But I seem to have made it here safely enough.” As his visage darkens, I add, “Could you ask Lorwyn if I can come in please?”

Somehow his scowl deepens. “Why wouldn’t you be able to?”

“Tea boy, stop blocking the door and let her in,” Lorwyn hollers.

Entero lingers, just long enough to make it clear how little he thinks of Lorwyn giving him orders, then steps back with one last dark glare, gesturing me in with mock-gallantry.

Lorwyn is facing away from me at her desk. “How did you get Deniel to fix the tea pet?” she asks without turning around.

Is his handiwork so distinctive, or is he the only person who knows the technique to restore pottery in this way? I want to ask, but this isn’t the time.

“I have no idea,” I say.

“Oh, come on. He hasn’t restored pottery like that for anyone in years, and people beg him about every week. You must have done something.”

I spread my hands. “I honestly can’t imagine what, unless he has a soft spot for women who appear deranged. I asked him why afterwards, and he wouldn’t tell me.”

She snorts. “Of course not. That’s just typical.”

She says nothing more, dropping the subject. But she still hasn’t turned around.

“He did mention it wouldn’t work as a tea pet anymore,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

She shrugs like this is nothing.

I know better.

“Lorwyn—”

“Spirits, do we really have to do this?” She whirls, planting her hands on her hips. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you. Okay?”

“No. With respect, I disagree,” I say. Her sharp eyebrows shoot up. “I was sanctimonious, and that would be obnoxious enough if I understood your circumstances, let alone what I was even suggesting, which I obviously don’t. Snapping is the least I deserved, but I should never have put you in that position. You deserve better, certainly from me. I’m sorry, and I promise I will do better.” I swallow. “Okay?”

So much packed into that last word. Is this apology sufficient? Is my promise worth anything?

Can we still be friends?

Lorwyn looks totally flummoxed, but only for a moment before her expression settles into more comfortably sardonic lines.

“I’ll forgive you if you can get the scowling tea boy here to crack a smile so he doesn’t terrify the customers,” she says.

Relief crashes through me so fast I worry my knees will buckle. But that, along with my gratitude, would make her even more uncomfortable.

I manage, “I’m not sure how many miracles I’m good for.”

She huffs a laugh, and I do have to squeeze my eyes shut for a moment.

Maybe I haven’t ruined everything after all. Maybe we can still be friends.

“Does that mean,” Entero says with a dangerous edge in his voice, “someone is now ready to tell me who this Deniel is, and what you were doing with him?”

“Deniel is a potter,” I say.

“Deniel is the best potter,” Lorwyn corrects, and I nod in accord.

Entero crosses his arms. “And?”

“And I watched him do pottery,” I say.

Lorwyn snorts unhelpfully.

Entero glares at me, and I return his gaze impassively.

It was sacred, and private, and as it all worked out I decide my guard doesn’t need to know any specifics.

“I take it,” I interject before his glower manifests as a literal cloak around him, “Talmeri agreed to hire you?”

“She did indeed,” Lorwyn says. “We’re officially stuck with him. Now before Iskielo gets here for his shift and I have two demons rampaging through my lab—because what we needed today was the two boys with the least training, I could strangle Talmeri—would you take him up front and make him set a cursed tea service correctly?”

“Of course,” I say. “After you, Entero.”

He stalks off ahead of me. Before I follow him through the door to the shop, Lorwyn calls tentatively, “Miyara?”

I turn back. “Yes?”

“Never talk to me about mage school ever again,” she says. “Okay?”

So much I would like to ask, but this is what she needs from me. “Done,” I say. She nods, a jerk of a motion, and turns back to her lab, and I go to train Entero.


 

The shop has been open for several hours, and I’m distracted attempting to explain to Entero the reasons behind the steeping time for a particular tisane as the bell rings and another customer enters. So I don’t look up until Iskielo mutters beside me, “Well, I guess I’ll go find the oldest, cheapest tea we can find. Assuming she can even pay. Maybe I should just ask her to leave.”

My head snaps around, and I see the subtle commotion. An old woman has hobbled in, her clothes in tatters and a huge sack attached to her back that I imagine contains all her worldly possessions. A hush has fallen over the front as the customers nearest edge away from her.

Iskielo starts to slink away, and I grab his arm.

“What?” he asks. “I said I would—”

He breaks off at whatever he sees in my expression.

“You will stay right here,” I tell him. “You will watch, and listen, and you will not say a. Single. Other. Word.”

Iskielo’s young face is a mask of confusion and fear, not sure what he’s messed up so badly or how, and I am furious. I sweep away without another word, and when I reach the old woman, I bow low.

“Welcome to Talmeri’s Teas and Tisanes,” I say. “Please, let me show you to a seat. Is there anything I can help you find today?”

“Oh, don’t mind me, dear,” she croaks, though she does follow me, and after a couple of steps accepts the arm I’ve held out. “I just wanted to take a moment to savor the atmosphere, if it’s not too much trouble. Been a long time since I smelled a good cup of tea.”

I help her set the bag down gently on the floor, startled at how heavy it is. “I think we can do somewhat better than that,” I tell her.

She squints at me, like she’s not sure what I’m angling for from her.

I bow again. “It would be a great favor to me if you would consent to sample a particular tea of ours. Please.”

The corners of her eyes crinkle. “If you say so.”

I return to the tea kiosk and pull down one of the rarest, most expensive teas Talmeri carries. I haven’t sampled it here, but I know what it is.

And so does Iskielo. His eyes are wide as he watches me, but when he opens his mouth to say something Entero’s hand shoots out and covers his mouth before any sound escapes. I incline my head to Entero in acknowledgment, he nods back, and the silence in the shop is complete while I brew the tea.

When it’s ready, I take a breath, and I glide over to her table with all the tea ceremony grace I can muster.

I don’t perform a full tea ceremony. But I can do an abbreviated version, more flexible than the specific historical forms, and one that doesn’t require privacy. With one more bow, this is what I offer her.

I want to say with a tea ceremony that she is welcome and valuable, that here is a place where she can be warm, that will offer her tea.

This, whether she meant to or not, is what Lorwyn offered me when I arrived bedraggled on her doorstep with not a mark to my name.

The old woman sips the tea at last and says, “You do me too much honor.”

“Grace, I fear I do you not enough. Is the tea to your taste?”

She smiles as she sets the cup down with a small clatter; there’s a slight tremor in her hands, more pronounced the longer she holds such a delicate cup, which I should have seen. Curses. “It’s the best thing I’ve tasted in ages.”

“Then please, take your time. I need to see to our other customers, but I’ll be back to check on you shortly.” I bow once more and take my leave.

I check on two other tables, where the customers won’t meet my gaze without false smiles. At first I think they’re embarrassed by my actions, but by the second table I decide it’s their own that has caused them chagrin.

The third table I visit is different. There are four women seated there, at least two of whom I recognize from the crowd at my tea assessment, which means they’re wealthy friends of Talmeri’s. As I ask after their tea, one of them says to me, “I can’t believe you’re letting that… person stay here. This is not what I expect from this establishment.”

My expectations and hers are clearly out of alignment.

In this, however, I’m determined that mine will take precedence.

I will make my space what it should be.

I clear the unnecessary dishes from the table with care and answer in the same way. “Talmeri’s is a place for all to feel welcome,” I say, “no matter their means or circumstances.”

“Well, I don’t feel welcome with her here,” she says.

“I’m saddened to hear that,” I say evenly. “Is there anything else I can get you today?”

“Some compensation, yes,” she says. “You gave her free tea. Why should I not have some?”

Perhaps this is shortsighted. Perhaps I have the luxury of confidence that I can be utterly clear on how this will play out. Perhaps I will regret this mightily in moments or days.

I find I don’t care.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m afraid I cannot oblige you.”

“What?” The woman’s arm sweeps out dramatically. “So you value a person like that above me? I am a longtime, paying customer, and she gets special treatment?”

“I believe everyone deserves a good cup of tea,” I say. “Which you have had.”

“Well, I’m not paying for it.”

I incline my head and say evenly, “Then we will not serve you again.”

It takes a moment for her to process what I’ve said, decide I mean it, and for shock to set in.

“How dare you! Do you know who I am? When I tell my friends—”

“Yes, I know who you are,” I say, though this is a lie. “And you are, of course, welcome to tell your friends whatever you like about our service. But I do wonder what your friends will think of someone who cannot buy her own tea yet begrudges it to another.”

She gasps in outrage, but her companions do, in fact, look embarrassed. Perhaps more by the scene she has created than the rationale for her behavior, but nevertheless, it arrests her for an instant. And that is enough for me to bow and take my leave.

Iskielo’s face, I notice, is white, which I take to mean this wealthy woman I’ve dearly offended is well-known in some way. Entero’s expression is utterly blank, and Lorwyn at some point emerged from her lab and is lingering by the door to the lab, watching this play out. “Talmeri won’t like this,” she murmurs as I pass her, depositing the dishes in the to-wash bin.

“Then Talmeri should have been more specific before she left me in charge,” I reply, continuing on toward the old woman’s table, where she’s finished her tea.

“I didn’t mean to start trouble,” the old woman says.

“Nor did you,” I say. “The fault is mine, for failing to create an atmosphere in which you feel welcome. My sincerest apologies, and I hope you will forgive me.”

She regards me levelly for a moment and then says, “Will you pull over this bag for me?”

“Of course.”

She opens the end of it so wide she’s able to stick her whole head inside as she rummages around.

When she emerges, she carefully unwraps a bundle of worn gray cloth. As its covering falls away, she reveals a teapot, and I gasp.

This is not just any teapot. It’s a teapot that is utterly stunning. I can’t imagine how human hands could shape such a thing. This teapot is shining and vibrant, its curves twisting to form the shape of a dragon with ornate precious metal detailing.

This is the sort of pot gifted to an empress, a magic-worker’s craft lovingly honed after decades, a priceless treasure that should be the subject of volumes of poetry, that none of us have any business even seeing. It’s impossible for me to do justice to it with words that cannot approximate the sensation of feeling as though I am witnessing something shaped by the spirits themselves.

It shakes slightly as the old woman proffers it to me. “For you,” she says.

I gape.

And then I shake my head rapidly. “Oh, no. Absolutely not. I couldn’t possibly. The tea was a gift—”

“And so is this,” she says, “with one condition.”

I blink, nonplussed.

“My hands,” she says, “are not steady enough anymore to handle this teapot carefully. But this is not a teapot that deserves to languish hidden and unused. So you may use it at your discretion, as long as whenever I stop by, you will always make me tea with it. Deal?”

Still kneeling before her, I bow low, my head hitting the floor. “Grace, it would be my honor.”

I take the pot from her gently, and she sighs, slumping back as though exhausted—but satisfied.

“Entero, Iskielo, come here,” I say. Iskielo can’t control his awe, and even Entero looks grudgingly impressed. “Never touch this teapot. This woman is always to be treated to the very best service we have to offer at no charge, and if I am not at the shop when she arrives you will send a messenger for me. Do you have any questions?”

Iskielo shakes his head rapidly, practically tripping over himself to bow. Entero manages to inject his motion with utmost respect, and I remember he knows my grandmother.

And has offered the same bow to this old, ragged woman bearing secret treasure.

When the boys have retreated, I whisper to her, “I would take it as a kindness if you would never let them know you’re not secretly royalty, or a spirit made manifest.”

“Oh, I think I can manage that.” Her eyes twinkle. “Besides, how do you know I’m not?”


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3 thoughts on “Chapter 11

  1. Great fun!
    I’m wondering whether Deniel fixed it for her because it was actually for someone else.

    The old woman with the wonderful teapot was very nifty.

    One typo:
    “What brings you hear so early, tea aspirant?”
    “What brings you here so early, tea aspirant?”

    Looking forward to the next update!

    Liked by 1 person

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