This time when I knock on Deniel’s door, there’s still some sun in the sky. Probably any passersby can see how nervous I am, but so far I’m holding my composure substantially better.
Entero will certainly be able to tell from wherever he’s watching, I have no doubt, but he’s doing me the courtesy of remaining out of sight.
When Deniel opens the door, his surprise is plain. “What are you doing here?”
Oh, spirits. Maybe he never wanted to see me again, and I’m making a nuisance of myself.
It’s too late to hide the box in my hands, though, so I swallow and blurt, “I made almond apricot bars.”
As explanations go, it leaves a great deal of explanation to be desired. I feel my face heating.
“Oh,” Deniel says, sounding totally flummoxed, and I think I might die of embarrassment on the spot.
Why is this so hard after I felt so at ease confessing my deepest secret to him?
“I’m sorry,” I start to say.
At the same moment Deniel says, “Do you want to come inside?”
We both stare at each other.
“Only if it’s not too much trouble,” I say.
He steps back out of the doorway, running a hand through his ever-disheveled hair. “Not at all. Please.”
Hesitantly, concerned I’ve accidentally obligated him into welcoming me into his home a second time, I duck through the doorway.
This time, there’s enough light coming through the windows that I can see more of the pottery he has on display. My jaw drops in amazement. His work truly is exquisite.
Lorwyn was right. I can’t imagine being able to afford such beautiful craftsmanship in my current circumstances, but I can’t help gazing at the gorgeous tea sets.
My hands clench on the box of almond apricot bars, trying to forget the ungraceful baked goods I’ve brought him. Oh, how did I ever think these would be an adequate gift, when he shapes pieces like this?
“You came here alone?” Deniel asks suddenly.
I turn back to him, brow furrowed. “I came alone before, too. Should I not have?”
“No, that is—” Deniel lets out a breath and doesn’t meet my gaze. “I heard you were escorted through the night market.”
I’m not sure how to respond, and continue staring at him in confusion until Deniel looks up and clarifies, “With a man.”
This was what people in the market had been whispering about, wasn’t it? No wonder Entero hadn’t explained.
“His name’s Entero,” I say. “I wouldn’t return to the capital, so apparently I have an unofficial bodyguard now, courtesy of my grandmother. He’s somewhere nearby watching for trouble, but he agreed not to shadow me too closely unless he thinks I’m in imminent danger. So, yes, I’m alone. Not with a man.”
I just had to go and add that last part, didn’t I?
“Ah,” Deniel says, and he sounds nearly as flustered as I feel. “So. You—wanted to see me?”
Time to try this again. I take a breath. “Yes,” I say. “I wanted to thank you—”
“You already have.”
“—and I know I don’t have anything to offer you—”
Deniel frowns. Spirits, what did I say wrong?
I finish, “But I wanted another chance to say how much I appreciate what you did for me.”
Deniel is quiet for a long moment, studying me. “You already thanked me, and I already said I didn’t expect repayment.”
“I know.” My fingers twitch reflexively to rub my wrists, except I’m carrying a box and can’t.
“Are you here because I’m the only one who knows you were a princess?” he asks.
“What? No, of course not.” It’s refreshing not to have to lie about it, but that’s not what made me want to see him. If that were all—I wince. “In fact, I seem to be doing a rather terrible job of keeping that fact hidden. At least three other people in Sayorsen have recognized me on sight.”
“Who?” he asks.
“Entero, whom I’d never met back in the capital,” I say. “Also the tea master who assessed me, as well as a Nakrabi merchant.”
Deniel nods slowly. “So, why then?”
Finally I apprehend what he’s asking. I’m a former princess, and many nobles would see him as just a Gaellani, or just an artisan. I’m not those nobles, which he must know—but as far as he’s concerned, since I owe him nothing, unless I want something from him there’s no reason for me to be here.
So why indeed? Why didn’t I just send my inadequate box of baked goods with a note via messenger, and why did I accept his invitation to come inside?
“I just—” I feel heat creeping up my face again. “I want to get to know you better. If you want.”
Spirit of earth, if you would graciously swallow me hole this instant, I swear—
“I would,” Deniel says quietly.
I force myself to look up and meet his gaze. His face is pink, too.
“Oh,” I say, equally quietly, then abruptly can’t take this anymore and hold the box of almond apricot bars in front of my face to hide. “I’m sorry. I have no idea what to say now.”
I hear the steps as he crosses to me. Gently, Deniel lowers the box from in front of my face, and my face cannot possibly be more enflamed.
His eyes are crinkled with amusement. “Do you want to study with me?” he asks. Then he cringes. “I’m sorry, that must sound boring. I just thought, you have the tea mastery exam, and—”
“Oh, that’s a great idea,” I say. “Yes, let’s study.”
Surely that will keep me from continuing to make a fool of myself with conversation. Conversation may have been the point of coming in person, but evidently I’m in no position to manage it.
Deniel steps back, runs a hand through his tousled hair, and gestures for me to follow him into the back.
“Here, let me take this,” Deniel says, gesturing at the poor abused box of baked goods.
I hand it to him. “I suppose I can hide behind one of your enormous books if necessary.”
He flashes a grin, and my face heats again. I was definitely wrong about my improved composure.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have much seating, but please sit wherever looks comfortable,” Deniel says as he sets the box down in the center of his small table.
I look at the small sofa, and one golden eye squints up at me. “Oh! Is that Talsion? I almost didn’t see him there.”
“Ah, yes, he’s been helping,” Deniel says. “He likes that blanket because he blends in. You can sit next to him if you’d like. He won’t bite or anything—he’ll probably just pointedly ignore you, to be honest.”
“Spirits forefend,” I say. “I’m not sure I could cope. But I should think your chair and I are old friends by now.”
I open my bag, withdrawing the one tea instruction book I have on me, and peer over at the small table in front of the sofa. Deniel has a sheaf of paper full of notes spread out next to a fat tome—the one I saw him buy at the bookstore, if I’m not mistaken.
He sits on the couch, absently petting the cat, who burrows deeper into the blanket. I’m almost overcome by how adorable they are—but also by the sudden yearning to be so casually comfortable curled up on the couch with them.
I rub my bare wrists and ask, “You study law?”
“Not formally,” Deniel says, running a hand through his hair again. “I mean. I’d like to, but…”
Like Lorwyn. “Too much systemic bias against Gaellani,” I murmur.
He glances up at me in surprise. “Yes,” he says. “I couldn’t leave my job now, regardless. But I think it would be good for the Gaellani to have someone on our side who understands the laws that work against us. And even if I can’t ever become a lawyer in truth, I find it all fascinating.” He pauses. “Well. Not all of it. But I spend a lot of time studying all the same.” He looks away again. “That must sound silly.”
“Not even a little,” I say quietly. I’m retroactively angry at the bookseller who denigrated Deniel’s study as a frivolous waste of time. Even at the time I thought Deniel had handled the interaction gracefully, but now I realize it must not be the first time someone has tried to make him feel it’s silly in truth.
Deniel stands abruptly. “Would you like some tea?”
“Oh!” I scramble after him, setting my book aside. “I can make tea for us both, if you’d like.”
“I don’t have anything fancy,” he cautions as I follow him to the kitchen.
“As long as you haven’t combined sleekbeetle scales with Nakrabi death peppers, I promise to consider myself fortunate.”
Deniel chokes. “You have that at the tea shop?”
“Not anymore. Drinking it was part of my interview.”
“I admit that would have defeated me,” he says, pulling a tin of tea out of one cupboard and a kettle from another. “If you want to make tea, why don’t I make dinner?”
“You can do that?” As soon as the question is out of my mouth I cover my face with my hands. “Of course you can do that. I’m sorry.”
Deniel laughs. “Would you like me to show you how?”
I remove my hands from my face and, hesitantly nod. “If you really wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” he says, though his smile fades. “But you sound uncomfortable?”
I wave my hand vaguely. “It’s just… out of balance. You’ve already done so much for me, with the tea pet, and now—”
“I should thank you for bringing it to my doorstep,” he says. “I can rarely justify the ritual. But regardless, that’s not how it works. Do you expect me to do things for you?”
“Of course not! But… I would like to be able to do things for you, too.”
Deniel smiles. “That’s why it’s fine. Here, start the kettle. What do you like to eat?”
I blink as I fill the kettle with water. What do I like to eat? I’ve always chosen dishes with care to avoid offending dignitaries.
I stare at my bare wrists and finally say, “Not Nakrabi death peppers.”
“So, sleekbeetle scales are fine?”
“We’ve now worked them into a lovely green tea with aloia nectar and marigold,” I inform him.
Deniel laughs, peering into his cooler. “Noted. What do you think of mixed rice bowls?”
“I have no idea what they are, and I’d love to try them.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to make something you don’t like.”
“I don’t think I’m very picky,” I say.
“Miyara, you’re a professional taster.”
I shiver slightly. Has he ever said my name before? I breathe in the scent of Deniel’s tea and adjust the heating of the kettle slightly.
“Yes, but…” How to explain? “My preferences were never allowed to count, at the palace. I’m not sure I know what they are anymore.” That probably won’t reassure him about his choice. Hmm. “I had a noodle dish at a Gaellani market a few days ago that was delicious, but everything else smelled delicious too. I like trying new things.”
There, that’s true.
“Have you had a chicken and egg bowl?” he asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“Let’s try that, then. It’s pretty easy to make. I’ll save dazzling you with my cooking skills for another time.”
“At this time any cooking skills will dazzle me,” I say.
He grins. “All the more reason to wait until you can appreciate them. The tea cups are in that cupboard on your left.”
I gasp when I see them. “Deniel, these are beautiful. You made these?”
He glances at me sidelong. “I mean. I am a potter. It seems silly not to make my own. I decided I liked these too much to sell.”
“I can see why,” I breathe, touching them with not a little wonder. “Spirits, if you can dazzle me further I’ll never be able to form coherent sentences around you.”
Deniel chokes. “They’re not that nice.”
Modesty, or does he truly not know? Just in case it’s the latter, I say, “Deniel, I’m a tea aspirant, and I grew up in the royal palace. I promise you that they are.” Before he can react, I ask, “Are these two cups the only ones you’ve kept?”
“I don’t have many visitors,” he says, pulling ingredients out of the cooler as I scoop tea into the pot. “I can’t really justify keeping more on hand than I need when I can sell them instead.”
I cock my head to one side, watching him as I wait for the water to heat. “Your friends don’t come here?”
“I’m not close to many people,” Deniel admits, setting another pot of water to boil and measuring out rice. I’m interested to see how he does this correctly since I couldn’t, but not as interested as I am in what he just said. He seems like the easiest person in the world to be close to.
“Why not?” I ask, only belatedly realizing that’s probably rude.
But Deniel doesn’t seem to mind. “I was always quiet, and I got sucked into pottery young,” he says. “I never spent much time with people my own age, and then I was successful enough that I could afford to move out of the Gaellani quarter. I didn’t appreciate at the time how much it would help my business, but my parents did. Since I’ve been here, I’m even more removed from the community, not because I don’t see them, but because I have the option to be removed if I want to be, if that makes sense.”
“The model refugee story,” I murmur.
“That,” he agrees. “It’s not that I don’t have friends, and the people I knew still seem happy to see me when I visit. But they don’t drop by unannounced.”
“Success and power, even in limited amounts, are isolating,” I say. “I wonder if that’s truer when the perceived power is greater than the reality, or the reverse.”
He meets my gaze directly, unguardedly, for a long moment, and it’s like my world narrows, like I could anchor myself to his gaze and stare into his eyes forever.
Then the kettle whistles, and I tear away, busying myself with pouring water into the teapot.
“I have everything ready,” Deniel says. “Do you want to watch how I slice the chicken?”
“Yes, the tea just needs a couple minutes to steep.” I look over at everything he’s gathered. “What are all the sauces?”
“Let’s start there.”
He runs through the ingredients, and when he’s done I pour our tea and hand him a cup.
He takes a sip and looks at me curiously. “Why does this taste better than usual?” he asks. “I didn’t notice you doing anything special.”
“I was careful with the water temperature and steeping time,” I say. “I’m going to pay attention when you get the rice out of the pot, too.”
“That does take a few bad pots to learn how to judge,” he says.
“Then I’m well on my way. Except the place I’m staying has a rice cooker, so perhaps I’ll never learn after all.”
He smiles. “Actually, wait over there while I chop the onion. This batch is particularly potent. You live alone?”
“Yes, I happened to meet someone who was owed a favor by someone with an empty cottage. Why don’t your parents live with you?”
“Parents and little sister,” Deniel says. “They didn’t want their presence to hold me back, if that makes sense. For their struggles to keep me from reaching greater success.”
Regrettably. Istal families don’t typically live together, outside aristocratic mansions, and especially not combined with their place of business. Having his family here would have affected how people perceived him, which would in turn affect his business.
He starts tearing up, and as I widen my eyes in alarm so then do I. Spirits, I had no idea onions could do this.
“Are they doing well?” I ask.
“As well as can be expected,” he says. “I help them as much as I can.”
“But your mother wants you to prioritize yourself,” I say softly.
He glances at me sharply. “I didn’t realize you were listening at the bookstore.”
“I always listen,” I say. “My apprehension just varies greatly.” I hesitate and then add, “And I think you did realize.”
His eyes crinkle. “Okay. Maybe. I didn’t think you’d remember that. I think it’s safe to come over here now.”
So I do, and he talks me through everything he’s doing. I’m overly conscious of his warmth behind me as he shows me how to slice the chicken or crack an egg.
And we talk about his family. His shy sister, so many years younger than him, who came as a surprise to his parents after they’d had so much trouble conceiving him. His father, who trained as a bridge engineer before the Cataclysm and now works as a manual laborer, because no one hires refugees for respectable engineering work. His mother, who has a steady job assisting at a bakery, carrying heavy loads and working long hours.
“If you want, I’m sure she’d help you learn how to bake,” he says. “It’s not something I’ve done much.”
“You haven’t even tried my first attempt yet,” I say with a laugh.
“I’ll be honored to,” he says seriously.
Part of the reason I baked in the first place was hoping he’d feel that way, but the words make me awkward again. “I’d like to learn more about baking, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable asking your mother,” I say.
Deniel returns his attention to the stove. “She’d enjoy it, honestly. The bakery is steady work, but she doesn’t have any creative input. I think she’d love to have a shop of her own, if she could get a loan.”
“If she’s that good, I definitely don’t want to embarrass myself with her.”
He smiles. “Not a bakery. She makes sculptures out of candy. She never finished training, so she experiments whenever she lets me give her enough extra to spend on materials, after whatever food and clothing and whatnot the family really needs.”
Deniel carefully arranges the dish we’ve made in bowls, and I carry them to the table while he fetches sticks to eat with.
“How do you cope?” I ask him as we sit. “How do you keep from feeling guilty for all they’ve done, and all they still do to support you, when you can never do enough to help them?”
“I’ll answer that, but try a bite first,” he says.
I pause. With Lorwyn I pretended, but with Deniel— “Is there a correct way?”
“Not as far as I know. Ah, here. Watch?”
He doesn’t mix it, but takes a bite that includes some egg, onion, and rice. I do the same, and my eyes widen.
“It’s delicious!” I exclaim.
“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” he says, clearly amused.
“But it didn’t seem that hard!”
“Good.” He smiles. “So you like it?”
“Even better. So now you know one thing you like.”
It’s my turn to smile. “Yes, I do. Thank you.”
“So, your question. You hit on part of my answer already, which is acknowledging that there’s no possible way to help enough to restore any semblance of balance. My parents have supported me out of love, and although they’ll accept help from me, they get annoyed when they think I’m helping them too much. Because they didn’t help me in order to get help.”
“But you’re still ready to help them whenever you can.”
“Yes, but over the years I’ve learned some attempts to help are intrusive. If I help more than they want, am I really helping them, or just myself?”
“So what do you do?”
Deniel sighs. “Here is where I feel compelled to point out that my solution is not necessarily the healthiest. I can’t tell you what the right answer is, only what mine is.”
But I realize I already know. “They supported you so you could have your own life, not so you could serve theirs. So you do everything you can not to squander the opportunity.”
“Yes,” he says. “They want me to be happy, and I am. But I am happiest when my work can help them, too. So I work. And it’s work I enjoy, but… I do work a great deal more than they think I should have to.”
I remember what Saiyana said during my dedication ceremony. That there was a lot of work, and I could do so much good if I would just put my mind to it.
How much good can I accomplish as a tea master? I owe it to a lot of people to find out.
“What are you thinking about?” Deniel asks me quietly.
I swallow, shocked by how much of the bowl I’ve managed to eat so quickly. I wasn’t exaggerating about liking it.
“My sister Saiyana,” I say. “She told me something very similar, though she meant me to take it in a very different way.”
I sigh. “Saiyana was closer to me than anyone, but she has never really understood me. Or perhaps she understood I could never be happy with the opportunities afforded our positions. She’s happy ordering other people’s affairs for them, confident that she’s improving them for everyone, and thinks I could do it too if I wanted. But I don’t.”
“You want to help people help themselves,” Deniel says.
“But I don’t really even know how to help my own self,” I say, setting my sticks aside and rubbing my wrists. “I hope pursuing tea mastery will help, but I don’t know.”
“No one ever really knows,” Deniel says. “That’s the great secret. If your sister pretends otherwise, she’s lying to either you or herself.” Then his eyes widen. “Spirits. I probably shouldn’t speak of princesses like that, let alone to you. I’m sorry.”
I laugh. “Gossip is rampant at the palace. I assure you I have heard worse than you are ever likely to think, and I would far rather hear your honest opinion.”
“Is that normal, for a person in the royal palace? To want honesty?”
“To want it?” Hmm. “I’m not sure. But it’s certainly naïve to expect to receive it, or to offer it without an ulterior motive.” Deniel has finished his bowl, too, and I decide it’s now or never. “Would you like to try one of the bars?”
He smiles. “Yes, please.”
I pass him a bar and watch him chew with some trepidation, but his expression turns to surprised delight. “Have you tried this?” he asks.
I shake my head. “I feared I’d talk myself out of giving them to you entirely.”
“You should have one,” he says, “otherwise I’m going to eat them all before you have a chance.”
“That is their intended purpose,” I say, daring to hope. “So they’re not terrible?”
“Just try one.” I shake my head again, and he rolls his eyes. “All right, I suppose I’ll just bring the rest to my mother and see what the professional baker thinks—”
“You’re a terrible person,” I say, snatching one from the box and stuffing a bite in my mouth while he laughs.
And then I blink, staring at him with my mouth full.
“See? They’re great, Miyara. Have a little more faith in yourself.”
His gaze is warm, and I’m somehow blushing yet again.
I manage to swallow and say, “The texture is off, and the flavor is a touch too sweet.”
“And they’re still great,” he repeats, “even if someday you’ll improve them. Thank you for making them for me.”
“You’re welcome,” I say, looking away. My heart is beating faster than it has any right to be.
“You’re so worried,” Deniel says abruptly, “about not being able to take care of yourself, because it makes you feel like you’re only taking from other people instead of giving, which is what you want. So what do you need in order to feel like you’re not relying on other people?”
That’s a good question, but I fear the list of answers is unreasonably long. “I need to know how to feed myself, for one.”
“Demonstrably fixable,” Deniel says dryly. “That’s not what I mean.”
“I know,” I say, though sometimes the sheer quantity of everyday things I’m unfamiliar with feels overwhelming. I rub my bare wrists, thinking, while Deniel watches. “I need to feel like I’m making a difference. Where I fit.”
He nods slowly. “That’s harder. I don’t think you can know where you fit without knowing the shape of the space around you.”
It always comes back to the space I inhabit, doesn’t it?
“In Sayorsen, there are two things you have to understand,” Deniel continues.
“The Cataclysm.” It’s in the background of everything here, but although I’ve served tea made with ingredients from the Cataclysm, its physical proximity doesn’t truly seem real to me.
He nods. “If you decide to learn more, make sure you’re careful about who you choose as a guide. There are a lot of questionable people who’ll try to take advantage—”
“I know a guide I can trust.”
A smile ghosts across his face. “Then you’re better off than most.”
Too true. “What’s the second thing I need to understand? The refugee community in Sayorsen?”
“No,” Deniel says. “You don’t need to be part of that community, and in fact will never fit there.”
That stings, which is ridiculous, because of course it’s true, too. But I realize what he’s getting at, and say quietly, “It’s that I need to understand the ways people in Sayorsen are systemically oppressed, isn’t it.”
Deniel looks up sharply. “I was going to say it’s the way our social structure works, but, yes. It’s that exactly.”
“And how do I educate myself about that?”
“You already are. You’re listening.” He pauses. “But if you want, it might help to go to a city council meeting.”
I blink. It never would have occurred to me to get anywhere near the local governance, and I’m not sure how to navigate that—especially since there’s a chance city leaders might recognize me. “Do you go?” I ask. “Can I go with you?”
Deniel opens his mouth and closes it again, looking uncomfortable. My chest tightens.
“Would you rather people not see us together?” I ask softly. “Because I don’t know what I want or where I fit yet?”
“No, it’s not that,” he says. “I don’t want you to feel constrained by what I can reach.”
Like his parents separated themselves from him.
That’s not what I need from him.
“I won’t,” I say.
“You don’t know that.”
I nod. “I will learn for certain. But I think you’re wrong.”
Deniel smiles, and my chest eases. “Fair enough,” he says.
Suddenly the cat rubs against my leg and then waits, expectantly. I look at Deniel hesitantly, and he nods in encouragement. I reach down and pet Talsion gently on the head, and he bumps up into my palm.
“You can give him a piece of chicken,” Deniel says, tone full of resigned amusement. “Then maybe we should clean up and actually study?”
“I suppose we’d better,” I say, feeding the cat with some bemusement. “Washing dishes, at least, is now firmly within my skillset.”
Deniel laughs again, my toes curl in pleasure at the sound of it, and I realize I’ve never felt happier than I do when he smiles at me. Which is absolutely ludicrous, but nevertheless true.
I will wonder about my sanity at another time. Tonight, I am here, and so is he, and our work awaits us.
Support me on Patreon!
Continue to Chapter 14!