A Coup of Tea: Chapter 12

When it’s finally time to leave the tea shop for the day, I say to Entero, “Walk with me.”

He raises his eyebrows but doesn’t protest. He would have shadowed me anyway, of course, but we haven’t had a chance to speak alone since he first tried to steal me away. I don’t know what I want to say to him, but it seems odd to know nothing about the man who has dedicated himself to my life.

Despite walking next to me and the opportunity to interrogate me on details about what really happened with Deniel—or Lorwyn, or the mysterious old woman—Entero remains quiet and watchful. It’s like there are two sides of him: this, and the belligerent, prickly side that emerges every time Lorwyn enters the room. I can’t decide which is truer.

For the rest of the day at the shop, the customers could talk of nothing but the priceless teapot, passing the tale of its appearance around. Iskielo ecstatically spoke of it to whoever wanted to hear him—for once, everyone—but Entero, like me, kept his thoughts to himself.

Perhaps it’s his training as an assassin. But I think, like me, he might understand what we were a part of was nothing short of magical.

At the night market, I dig out a folded list from a tiny hidden pocket in my sleeve. “Have you scouted the night market before?” I ask.

“Of course.”

“Do you think you could help me find flour?”

He pauses. “Is this why you wanted me to walk with you?”

“No. I’m happy to wander around and find things on my own.”

Entero studies me for a moment in the darkness, expression flickering in the inconstant light from the night market’s lanterns, before saying, “This way.”

With Entero beside me, no one gives me any trouble. His scowl and readiness to lead me off to other stalls is also shockingly useful for getting lower prices.

“You have no idea how bargaining works,” he mutters after having negotiated on my behalf for a jar of marmalade.

“I have no idea what anything costs,” I counter. “And however little money I make, my situation is still, in some ways, more secure than theirs.”

“They expect you to bargain,” he says.

“Even so.”

“No, I mean, it looks suspicious if you don’t,” he explains. “They’re asking you for unreasonable prices, and your willingness to accept them stands out.”

Oh. “I may need you to shop with me until I learn, then,” I admit, rubbing my wrists absently. “I didn’t realize that was the reason for their reactions.”

“It’s not, entirely,” he says. Before I can ask him to elaborate, he asks, “What do you need all this for, anyway?”

I hesitate, wondering if he’ll laugh at me. “I’m going to try baking.”

He cocks his head to one side. “Baking what?”

“Almond apricot bars. The festival kind?”

I’m not sure why I’m nervous about what he’ll think of this, but he doesn’t appear to offer any judgment. “I’m not sure you’ll be able to get the almond extract for that here,” he says instead.

“Oh, I got that this morning,” I say. “I think I have everything I need now.”

His head twitches, like he’s scented danger. “Got it where?”

I suppose if he knows the night market, he knows this too. “Thiano. The old merchant from the Isle of Nakrab.”

Entero sighs. “What did I say yesterday about trying not to get in trouble?” he wonders aloud, as if to the spirits.

“The less you know about what I managed to get into after you left the more easily you’ll sleep,” I say. “I promise I’m not habitually so reckless.”

“I don’t believe you,” he says seriously, and it occurs to me that after the last few days, I don’t truly have any reasonable basis to argue with him. “Miyara, you need to be careful with Thiano.”

“He’s incredibly shrewd,” I agree.

“He’s cunning and completely impossible to pin down,” Entero says. “Also, he’s a spy.”

“I did work that out,” I say, “but thank you for the warning.”

He studies me. “You think you can handle him. Miyara—”

“I don’t think anything of the sort. I think there’s more to him than you realize.”

“I think there’s plenty to him,” Entero says.

I smile. “I know. That’s not what I mean.”

I remember Thiano’s anguish at being asked about obligation. I know that he must have a reason for helping me, but I’m not confident it’s anything as simple as Entero would like it to be.

“I’ll do my best to be careful,” I say, hefting my bag of baking supplies.

“Please do not let me know what your worst at being careful is,” Entero says. “I may be your guard, but there’s only one of me, and I’m only human.”

There’s enough of a grumble in his voice that I realize he’s made an effort at teasing me, and I laugh. “Let’s go.”


 

With the aid of the recipe book, I manage to chop and stir fry vegetables, though I’m not convinced this is an unmitigated success. The seeds from the pepper scattered all over the kitchen, and every time I think I’ve found them all I step on another. The hot oil spitting at me makes me jump every time, and it’s only through grim determination that I don’t run away from the pan. Or rather, that I march myself back to the kitchen. The recipe book gives no indications whether this means I’m doing something wrong or that I’m simply not tough enough for the kitchen.

I manage to under-cook a pot of rice, then over-cook another, before I discover the cottage has a device specifically for this sole purpose. Lorwyn probably considers this one of those unnecessary pieces of kitchen equipment, but I’m unreasonably pleased with myself for finally managing to produce a correctly cooked bowl of rice.

I’ve managed to feed myself, and the results were not terrible. But they were hard-earned, and I go into baking with some trepidation.

The recipe that seemed simple does not now fill me with confidence. It’s all “finely slice nuts,” “stir crust until mixture resembles coarse crumbs,” “bake until golden brown,” “add milk until glaze is at desired consistency.” As if I have any idea how finely nuts should be sliced, what texture constitutes coarse when applied to crumbs, what shade of brown indicates under-baked or burnt, or what consistency of glaze I do in fact desire. I agonize and doubtfully make my best guesses.

I’m utterly shocked that my attempt appears to turn out well—better, in fact, than I had hoped, let alone expected.

They’re not the painting-perfect festival bars carefully curated for banquets at the palace. The texture is less even, and there’s more variation between the bars. But they smell as though they’ll taste good, and I try to believe what Thiano said, that my effort will matter more than their perfection.

I’m proud of myself, which seems a little ridiculous. And I’m nervous, which is possibly more ridiculous but seems less so.

I’ve finished cleaning the disaster I unleashed upon the kitchen and have flopped down in a chair, exhausted, when Entero arrives to escort me to the tea shop for work.


 

Talmeri is at the shop when I arrive, and I know instantly by her overly sweet smile that she is Not Pleased.

“Entero, there are some things I need to work out with Grace Talmeri,” I say. “Could you start setting up out here please?”

He shoots me a look, and I merely raise my eyebrows in return.

Of course I’m not supposed to try to escape my guard, but really, while Talmeri could cost me my job, she’s not likely to try to stab me. I suppose she might ask me to sample poisoned tea, but only if she could convince Lorwyn to brew it for her.

Talmeri scrutinizes the figure Entero cuts dressed to serve customers and nods in approval, a speculative gleam coming into her eye.

Entero turns to do as asked without another word, and I allow Talmeri to bustle me into her office.

“What did you think you were doing?” she asks, not bothering to tell me what she’s talking about.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to guess. “A customer who refuses to pay is not one we need,” I say evenly.

“And yet, you didn’t ask the woman who brought the teapot to pay,” she says.

“I gave her a gift. I think it’s best the shop appear to be in a secure enough position to bestow gifts, even if it isn’t.”

“That’s an interesting point,” Talmeri says. “Perhaps those gifts should be given to loyal paying customers who spread word of our service to other, loyal. Paying. Customers.”

“And,” I say as though she hadn’t spoken, “the woman who brought in a priceless teapot, word of which has also clearly spread, didn’t expect our service to be free. I offered it. She didn’t demand it. There is a difference, Grace.”

Talmeri’s eyes narrow. “Miyara, you offended one of the wealthiest patrons I can bring to this shop. She was prepared to let it go this time, but I admit I’m disappointed in you. I thought you understood business better than this.”

I furrow my brow in feigned concern. “I think there’s been some confusion. My understanding is that you brought me on to bring a tea master’s skill and reputation to Talmeri’s?”

“You’ve barely begun to aspire to tea mastery,” she snaps.

“If that’s as far along as you think I am, you must realize your plan to save this shop is doomed,” I point out, and her expression tightens. “Grace Talmeri, I did pass the tea master’s assessment without any preparation, and with your patronage, I will become a tea master in truth. But Grace, you must see that part of establishing the reputation you need from a tea master is establishing expectations about what kind of shop this is.”

“It’s the kind of shop that serves its guests! People don’t come here to be treated as inferior, but to be treated as though they’re special. That is how you ensure they come back.”

“And yet you did everything Tea Master Karekin asked of you and thought no less of his service,” I say. “He ordered all your wealthy guests out of your shop, and they went, and then they came back. If the patronage of customers like the one I offended yesterday were enough to save the shop, you wouldn’t have taken a risk on me. But you did, because Talmeri’s has to change. This was your idea.”

“This is not the kind of change or risk I meant,” she bites out.

“Isn’t it?” I smile in a way that invites her to share the joke. “Talmeri’s gains a reputation as a place that can afford to lose wealthy customers who behave badly, which means customers who behave well and don’t wish to tolerate such nonsense will be encouraged to come here. So you grow a base of customers happy to be here, and new customers will see how they behave and comport themselves accordingly. You want people to pay not just for the tea, but for the experience. That’s why you have the tea boys, and that’s why you now have me.”

“You’re talking about a strategy that bears fruit over a long period of time, when time is exactly what we don’t have,” Talmeri says seriously. “We can’t afford to lose any customers now. Even demanding ones.”

“I think we have to, or they will choke your business to death.” I rub my wrists. I’ve learned enough from helping Saiyana sort out business matters that affect the crown to feel confident in this as a strategy, but my ability to execute it is somewhat more in question. Theory is not the same as having a personal stake, but. “There are always more businesses they can choke. If reputation is what it takes to save your business, then this is the kind of threat we must become impervious to.”

“That’s easy for you, who does not see our weekly reports, to say,” Talmeri tells me. “There’s only so much risk the business can afford to take on at once. Sponsoring you publicly is a big one. Disrespecting our customers is too much.”

“I promise I don’t intend to make a habit of offending them,” I say. “If it helps, you can always blame my inexperience, so that I bear the consequence for that decision, rather than the shop.”

She shakes her head. “No. That only separates your reputation from the shop’s, which then defeats the purpose of having you here entirely.”

True. If we couldn’t present a unified front, we’d damage Talmeri’s reputation more than we could help it. In that, she’s right that my actions have put us in an uncomfortable position, but I can’t promise never to repeat them.

“Do you have time to stay and watch how things go in the shop for a while today?” I ask. “It occurs to me you’ve been so busy this week you haven’t seen me in the tea room, and perhaps this could be an opportunity for me to learn some of the important parts of management you have much more experience with.”

“And demonstrate that we work together but that I am still training you,” Talmeri says, sharp as ever. “Yes, that shouldn’t wait any longer.”

“It may actually the perfect time to demonstrate we won’t lose customers over this, because word has already spread about the teapot.”

“That is luck, Miyara, not good business practice,” Talmeri says.

“I know,” I say, “but it’s worth taking advantage of, isn’t it? Have you seen the teapot yet?”

“I have,” she admits. I assume she means it’s the first thing she looked for when she arrived.

But my diversion works, and she allows me to draw her away and into conversation about how running the tea shop is going. I fall into a role I know how to play too well, fading into the background, deferring to her and working around her to demonstrate I respect her authority, since I haven’t agreed to change my behavior.

But I admit I’m surprised, given that I’ve worked her only a few days and don’t consider myself adept at running the shop yet, by the aspects that seem obvious to me that Talmeri ignores.

She’s marvelous at handling customers, and given how little time she seems to spend in the shop I’m impressed by how thoroughly she knows every ingredient, its history and flavor profile and cost. Talmeri knows her business. But she’s very focused on the moment: she doesn’t make time for washing dishes or restocking tea, and scolds the tea boys every time those tasks have not magically been taken care of in their absence while she’s directed them in interacting with customers. I’m reminded again that while she has a keen business sense, prioritizing long-term strategy is not her strength.

Unfortunately, that means it will have to be mine, and I don’t have time to become an expert in that on top of gaining tea mastery. For now, I focus on redirecting the tea boys to other tasks when possible without making Talmeri feel as though I’m undercutting her authority.

“Grace Talmeri!” A short, well-groomed man with a sparkling smile and a sharp glint in his eye strides in, cutting a direct path to Talmeri.

I’m instantly on alert. It’s possible this is one of Talmeri’s wealthy friends, but I grew up in the heart of politics.

His smile I recognize as a snake’s, and the glint in his eye is malice.

I glance at Talmeri in time to see her muscles relax—which means they had tensed—as she assumes a forced smile. “Maveno, what a surprise to see you again so soon,” she says.

“A pleasant one, I should hope!” He flashes a smile that says he knows it is anything but.

I don’t know what this is about, but our customers clearly do; the one closest to this man has frozen stiff, and I see Maveno’s smile spread as he notices.

“Now, I don’t want to inconvenience your customers with our talk of business,” Maveno says, presumably to Talmeri, but all the while gazing at the rigid form next to him. “Shall we chat in your office perhaps, away from prying eyes?”

I may not have any idea who this man is or what he intends, but in that moment I understand that I can’t let him get Talmeri alone.

I take one step, and suddenly Entero is there, grabbing my arm. I glare at him.

“You can tell he’s dangerous. Think before you act, Miyara, because if he attempts to hurt you, I will hurt him definitively,” Entero hisses at me. “Don’t put yourself in an unsafe situation that will compel me to do that.”

How did I live my entire life with bodyguards?

I didn’t, is the answer. I didn’t live my life. I’m not sure I even lived someone else’s life. I moved through days doing nothing that mattered, and I won’t go back to it.

“It will not be safe for me if you blow my cover,” I whisper.

“If I blow your cover, I won’t have to keep guarding you here,” he points out.

I don’t have time for this. I yank out of his grip, and he lets me go—I don’t have any illusions about that.

But I do go.

“Welcome to Talmeri’s Teas and Tisanes,” I say brightly as I cross the room.

Maveno turns to regard me with languid curiosity. I imagine it’s the look of a predator, when the prey doesn’t realize who it’s facing.

The look itself tells me a lot.

It tells me, for instance, that he’s very confident no one here can stop him.

That he is confident doing things someone ought to stop.

And that he’s so sure of his confidence he can be manipulated with it.

If I can manage it just right.

“Well, well,” he says with that too-slick smile. “Who’s this, Talmeri?”

“Miyara, could you watch the front for a few minutes please?” Talmeri asks.

Trying to get me out of his way, after all our talk of acting in accord. As if I needed further confirmation he’s planned something unfortunate.

“Miyara, is it,” he says appraisingly.

I bow. “At your service, Grace. I’m here to assist Grace Talmeri with running the shop. Is there a business matter I can help you with?”

“It’s so nice to see young people these days express an interest in business, in responsibility, don’t you think, Talmeri?” Maveno asks, smiling at me. “They should know what their commitments are, and they should know there are consequences for failing to meet them.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Talmeri says. “Forgive me, I must be misunderstanding. It sounds as though I’m being accused of skirting payments, when you know perfectly well I have always paid what I owe in full. Talmeri’s is a business of good standing.”

“So it is, so it is! The last thing I want to do is suggest otherwise, Talmeri. You know that. It’s just that there have been questions lately. You know the kind. I’m just here to sort it all out. Shall we?”

Talmeri swallows.

“Oh,” I interject with wide eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand. What sorts of questions? Could you explain them to me please?”

Talmeri very nearly snarls, “Miyara—”

“Of course, of course! For the education of the young,” Maveno winks. “You know, of course, that Lord Kustio of House Taresim generously leases the land on which this business sits, and in fact the building itself, for Grace Talmeri’s use. And in exchange for allowing her to run such a thriving business here—”

“She rents the space from him,” I interrupt innocently. “Yes, I understand how that works. I meant, what questions are there about payments? That definitely sounds like the sort of thing we ought to get straightened out right away.”

“You delightful child,” he says. “You’re quite right. Lord Kustio is generous and doesn’t charge more than a grace can pay. In return, he expects them to be honest about what they can, in fact, pay.” He looks at Talmeri. “There are questions about whether you’ve been honest about your resources, Talmeri. A priceless treasure of a teapot. New tea boys. Sponsoring a tea aspirant. A tea master in your own shop! There are questions about whether you’re taking advantage of Lord Kustio’s generosity, and we can’t have that.”

Talmeri’s is struggling, and this man is reveling in it—is making it as hard as he can, trying to get every mark he can from her.

And he must be responsible for doing it to other businesses, too, because everyone but me knew what he was here for as soon as he walked in.

Talmeri is rigid. “I have been honest with you, Maveno. I have always—”

“Oh dear,” I say, “what a distressing misunderstanding. I’m so glad I caught you and have a chance to clear this up, since it’s entirely my fault. How wonderful that you had a chance to come by today.”

I cast a glance at Talmeri. She frowns, then nods almost imperceptibly. She’ll let me take the lead and do this after all, then: separate the negative reputation from the shop and take it on myself. Not a fair exchange, perhaps, but it will still create its own set of problems for her.

Maveno looks back at me, and for the first time he doesn’t look wholly amused. “Oh?”

“You understand risk, Grace? I mean in the sense of investments.”

“I have some understanding of risk,” he says, smiling again.

“I’m not only here to assist with the regular running of the shop, as Talmeri could handle that perfectly well on her own,” I say. “My presence, and my tea aspiration, are part of a plan to revolutionize Talmeri’s in a way that I think Lord Kustio will find most satisfactory. But as with any change, it requires substantial up-front investments and a reallocation of resources. We’re confident that those investments will be exceeded, of course, or the risk would be foolish—”

“Lord Kustio prefers to lease to safe businesses, able to reliably meet their commitments,” Maveno says. “If you mean to tell me you now lack resources, then—”

“And that’s why Talmeri’s has made sure its commitments are met first, before embarking on such a venture,” I interrupt him in turn, and Maveno’s smile has grown fixed. “If Lord Kustio believes when the time comes to renew the lease that Talmeri’s cannot meet the terms of its lease agreement—well, that is why agreements have termination clauses, is it not? But I’m confident you, and Lord Kustio, will find otherwise and will be happy with the results. We’d never have entered into this arrangement otherwise.”

“And yet,” he says, “questions persist.”

“Questions always do.” I spread my hands. “Is it not the nature of the world? But anyone who wishes to claim we have acted in bad faith may take it up with the law.”

His amusement is back with the glint of malice. “And who do you think would hold such claimants accountable?”

This Lord Kustio must sit on the local council, or have blackmailed those that do. Curse everything.

“The clerks who will be tasked with the mountains of paperwork, presumably,” I say lightly. “Happily, it will never have to come to that, will it? Because Lord Kustio should know we understand our commitments, and as long as he is satisfied, I’m sure the questions will fade with time. Don’t you?”

“We’ll see,” Maveno says, with a mocking little bow. “Lord Kustio will, of course, be very interested in the fruits of your investment, Talmeri. I would make sure you’re ready to answer those questions. And what an absolute delight to meet your newest employee.”

“I’m pleased I could help today,” I say.

“Miyara, is it? I look forward to meeting you again,” Maveno says.

For the first time in the last few minutes, Entero twitches.

“I’m so glad to hear it,” I say. “Can I offer you some tea before you go?”

Please go, before my bodyguard kills you.

“Oh, I have other business to be about today,” he says. “But I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again soon.”

And then he’s gone, and the whole shop exhales.

Talmeri immediately pulls me into her office and grabs me by the shoulders. “Miyara, do you realize what you’ve done?” she hisses at me. “Now they’re going to want proof of astronomical profits in three months—”

“You needed those anyway.”

“Not that high!” she cries. “I needed a boost to meet the expected terms, and now he’ll raise them!”

“Did you have enough to bribe him today, and tomorrow, and whenever else he shows up at the shop?” I ask.

She slumps. “I could have bought us one more day. I suppose either way, in three months we’d still be doomed.”

My heart twists. Her expectations and terms may be strict, but she’s granted me a lot of trust, too. More than I deserve.

“The shop will change, Talmeri,” I say.

She looks me in the eye. “Can it change enough? In only three months?”

I don’t know. I would like to reassure her, but all the knowledge of politics and economics and history I can draw on and transfer to this situation tells me it probably can’t.

Which of course she knows.

But she’s still trying.

She’s letting me try.

So I don’t lie to her, and she goes to put the customers back at ease and leaves off scolding me, because what’s the point? We both understand what I just promised, what I can’t guarantee we can deliver.

But I feel the urgency now in a way I didn’t before.

Not just to save the shop—to overcome this bully, the fear he struck in the hearts of our customers with a smile. Maveno, employed by Lord Kustio—

—of House Taresim.

I stride quickly to the back and Lorwyn’s grim countenance. “You heard?”

“Enough,” she says.

“Lord Kustio of Taresim,” I say. “How’s he related to Risteri?”

Lorwyn glances at me. “Her father. He’s the head of the House. Why do you ask?”

Of course. Of course it’s that tangled. I remember Risteri sneaking away before dawn and have to ask. “Do you think Risteri is a part of this? This… extortion? Driving people out of their businesses?”

Lorwyn snorts. “Try out of their homes. Talmeri has it easy. Lord Kustio has been buying up every Gaellani district he can, charging them so badly they’re forced to leave. They move in other places if they can, but he’s driving the Gaellani out of Sayorsen, Miyara.”

Sayorsen had one of the highest refugee populations anywhere. “To where?”

“Exactly,” Lorwyn says.

Oh, spirits.

“Talmeri’s mistake,” she continues, “was thinking she could serve everyone and her friends would protect her.”

“And when she realized she was wrong?” I ask softly.

Lorwyn glances up, then looks away again, as if embarrassed. “Nothing. She didn’t change her mind. It might have helped her, but she didn’t.” She shrugs. “Not sure if it’s because she knows she’d lose me, and then she’d be ruined anyway. She is pretty mercenary.”

But not as hard as Lorwyn. I don’t think that was the reason, but even so, a piece of the sudden knot in my chest eases.

But it is now an enormous knot, and I have to ask. “What does Kustio have against the Gaellani?”

Lorwyn’s expression twists. “Witches, Miyara. He thinks because we survived, we’re responsible for the uncontrolled witches that caused the Cataclysm. That’s always the justification for anti-Gaellani bigotry.”

I feel like a fool, but Lorwyn isn’t done.

“So no, of course Risteri isn’t a part of this,” she says, and it floors me again, how two people who seem to hate each other so much can still share so much trust.

“But I also wouldn’t be surprised if Risteri doesn’t even know it’s happening,” Lorwyn adds. “She’s always had her gaze so fixed on the clouds she can’t see what’s right in front of her. I’m amazed she’s survived trips to the Cataclysm this long.”

And there’s the flip side.

I sigh. “Entero has already realized I’m living on the property of the richest racist in the city, I suppose.”

“The most powerful one, at any rate,” Lorwyn agrees. “Taresim really isn’t that wealthy, compared to other Houses. Or so Risteri used to claim.”

“Then something changed,” I say. “Even wealthy nobles can’t just go around buying up cities.”

“Well, I don’t know what it is,” she says. “You can wonder about it later. Right now you should wonder about whether Talmeri has driven Entero to murder without you there to intervene.”

“Spirits,” I mutter as Lorwyn laughs behind me.

But I do wonder. And I wonder what I can do to find an answer to that question.

Later.

Today, I have plans.


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