“Are we early?” I ask Deniel as we enter the audience section and its rows of chairs in the large room where the city council meeting will take place.
Entero told me he’d keep watch from the upper level and promptly vanished. I don’t see an upper level, so I assume this is another place he has mysteriously managed to scout in his nonexistent free time and located a secret hideout. He is more comfortable in the shadows.
There’s a stage at the front with a curved table for the council members, so they’ll all be able to see each other as they discuss issues. According to Deniel they rarely decide anything at these meetings—the public meeting is a holdover from an earlier era, now a token demonstration that the leaders of Sayorsen attend to people’s concerns so they won’t rise up in rebellion. Real decisions are negotiated in between meetings and announced to the public.
“A little,” Deniel says. “The audience doesn’t always fill up, but we don’t want to take the chance of being turned away at the door if more ethnic Istals want to come in.”
Without looking where he’s going he leads me to a group of Gaellani around the middle, and as he introduces me around the few present I realize they must always sit here.
Not so close to the front that they’ll be seen as impertinent, not so far back that they can be easily ignored, and close enough to the exit that they can escape if things go badly wrong. I’m sad that such consideration is necessary but also intrigued by what other tactics they employ.
The group doesn’t pay me any particular attention, returning to their discussions about the issues on the meeting’s agenda, which is a relief. I’m more comfortable in the shadows, too.
A sudden thought strikes me as we sit, and I whisper to Deniel, “Will I meet your family tonight?”
He blinks, then a small smile crosses his face. “As if you’re the one who should worry about meeting the other’s family.”
“I disowned myself, so my family isn’t likely to be an issue.” I hope. If I can hide well enough.
Deniel shakes his head. “You’re safe. They’ll both still be working at this hour.”
Most people who work long hours won’t be able to attend, or they’ll be too tired to, have other tasks that must be taken care of in the limited time allotted. “So the people most affected by council decisions often won’t have the opportunity to speak in their own interest,” I say, frowning toward the front where council members are beginning to arrive.
Deniel hesitates and then adds, “I’m not sure my parents would come anyway.”
That surprises me, when they’ve always been so supportive of Deniel, his work and his dreams. “Why not?”
“Because I think they may have given up. Not on change, necessarily, but—on this. But some other time, I’d—” He breaks off, shaking his head.
“Never mind,” he says. “I’ll ask you later. The meeting will be starting soon.”
It doesn’t, but I listen quietly as Deniel consults with the other Gaellani about what subjects are likely to come up and what they should be prepared for. While some non-Gaellani stop by to greet us, no one besides me joins the group who isn’t Gaellani. It can only be by design, but I’m not sure why.
The councilors have all filed in, with the exception of the seat left empty for Lord Kustio in the center. I can’t decide if I’m more relieved or disappointed by his absence.
“He doesn’t usually come,” Deniel explains. “Which is for the best. His presence never means anything good.”
But when the councilors actually start arguing about issues, I’m surprised not by their disagreement or the degree of their self-interest, but by how utterly inept several are at considering the ramifications.
Petitions made to the royal family are carefully prepared, so I’ve been spared many obviously flawed arguments. I know this. But as a princess, I was expected to learn the background and processes of many fields so that I’d be able to adapt and judge on any issue. It’s evident the councilors do not take their charge to serve Sayorsen so seriously.
It’s evident how support and precedent for some of the most trying issues we face develop.
The councilors indulge the most nebulous and bigoted of complaints with exhaustive discussion and promises to take the issue seriously while disregarding other concrete issues entirely. When they finally call on a Gaellani, who asks about antiquated fire regulations, they dismiss the subject at once and move on to another question.
This is the service Sayorsen’s citizens live with every day, and I can’t imagine it is so different elsewhere. I clench my hands, white-knuckled, until Deniel places one hand over mine.
“That went well,” he says quietly. “We had our say.”
He’s pleased with this? “And for what?” I whisper furiously.
His grip tightens, and I look at him—and am surprised by how fierce his expression is.
Is he angry with me?
“Now,” Deniel says, “other people have heard our piece, and they’ll look into it or ask us questions. In a few weeks, when the councilors can pretend they don’t remember Gaellani brought it up in the first place, someone else will raise the issue again. And we’ll do that, work with people again and again, for as long as we need to. That’s how this works.”
Or fails to. Now I see how his parents could have decided not to support Deniel in this, how they could believe anything he put his energy into was a waste of time. I’m horrified by the disgrace of this council, but what’s the alternative? My family could replace the councilors, but if the people those councilors need to deal with don’t respect their appointment, still nothing gets done. If Sayorseni citizens overthrew the council, the army could be called in to quell a revolt. And with such a high Gaellani population here, I do not like to think who might bear the brunt of that.
“You bear this because you have to,” I finally say. “I understand that, but allow me to hate it.”
Deniel is quiet a moment.
And then he says, “No.”
I glance up, startled.
“Change is slow, Miyara. It takes work. It takes time. But I don’t just sit here because someone has to. I sit here because I want to be part of the change. Because we do create change. Slowly, yes, and it’s frustrating a lot of the time. But we’re inexorable. We’re not leaving. Don’t diminish that.”
Inexorable, like the spirit of water. I search his gaze, not sure what I’m looking for. “It’s so little, for so much work and time put in, against needs that are so great. Why is this worthwhile? What don’t I understand?”
“That many people still don’t consider Gaellani people,” Deniel says bluntly. “Not really. They say or think they do, but they’ll seize on any difference, any excuse to justify different treatment of us. We come to every council meeting, and we force them to see us. To gradually make them understand we’re people just like them and we’re not going anywhere. It takes time to change people’s minds on that scale, Miyara.”
“And space,” I whisper, closing my eyes.
They’re here, taking up space, refusing to be driven out. And here I sit quietly in the shadows of their effort—I, who, as Lorwyn pointed out, have never had to worry about my rights, I sit here questioning the merit of their efforts.
“That too,” Deniel says. “As much as we can we pick subjects to bring up that people outside the Gaellani community are likely to have experienced issues with, to create common ground. That strategy has its own issues, and it’s one we debate a lot. It’s always a balance, because our power alone is limited, since the councilors are predisposed to dismiss our concerns.”
Because if they can make conditions impossible enough, the Gaellani will have to leave. But even if they wished to, they have nowhere to go.
Do the councilors all really believe that’s right? The Sayorseni don’t seem to. But even wealthy Istals like Talmeri are being pressed by Lord Kustio’s policies; they might exert enough pressure to outweigh the councilors’ better judgment.
Which means there needs to be stronger counter-pressure, and the Gaellani’s position is too precarious to afford to supply it.
“But I don’t have that limitation,” I say slowly.
Deniel frowns at me. “I thought you were worried one of the councilors might recognize you.”
“I am.” At the very least, to be on this council means they’re wealthy or well-connected, which means there’s a more than slight chance one of them will know enough to recognize me. And if they start making inquiries, and my family hears of it, they will drag me back, no matter what I want.
But if I won’t risk standing up for what matters to me, then I might as well still be trapped in the palace.
So I squeeze Deniel’s hand once, and let it go.
And I stand.
And I stand, and I stand, thinking all the while how I can make my statement so memorable it won’t simply be disregarded, and whether that is a mistake—for my security, too, and I’m surprised Entero hasn’t swooped down to make me sit again, but mainly for Sayorsen’s.
If I can even manage it.
Finally, Deniel says, “If you change seats, they’ll acknowledge you.”
I look at him, then around us, and at the audience at large. “That’s why no non-Gaellani sit with you, even those who are friendly to you. They only call on the Gaellani once.”
He nods. “At most. Also if non-Gaellani sit here, the councilors only call on them. So—”
“So I will always wait for you to make your points first before standing, but I won’t move and give them an excuse not to see you,” I say, turning resolutely back to the front.
I understand better now why Deniel feared I would find myself too limited, being with him. Perhaps I still don’t understand fully, but he’s wrong.
Being with him makes me strong.
I wait, and wait, and when the tenth question is entertained past when I should have been acknowledged, I finish waiting.
I have waited for too much of my life.
Before the next audience member is chosen, I call, “With respect, I would address the council.”
The audience murmurs as the council fixes its attention on me.
A councilor says, “The young grace with the… fascinating hair choices may wait her turn like everyone else. Such a bald need to be noticed will not further your goals in this chamber.”
“I appreciate your concern regarding how my style choices affect how others perceive me,” I reply coolly. “Happily, in my assessment Tea Master Karekin did not judge my hair color in opposition to my ability to serve. Councilor.”
There is a rustle of sound as the news passes around the room that I’m the tea aspirant. Even without mastery, that matters, and tonight I will leverage it.
It is petty, but I’m pleased that the councilor who addressed me now bears a pinched expression.
“Please pardon my interruption,” I say, bowing. “As I’ve been standing for some time, I thought for sure the council must not be able to see this section well. Shall I wait another turn?”
“That won’t be necessary, Aspirant,” another councilor says. “Our apologies for failing to address you more promptly. How may the council serve you today?”
My fingers tingle with nerves. I have the attention I wanted; now we’ll see if I can handle what it means.
“My question is one of a unique and baffling policy I’ve discovered since my arrival in Sayorsen,” I say. “It seems it is common to refuse to employ or serve Gaellani workers and patrons. As this practice is clearly illegal, my question is what the council is doing to curtail it?”
The room is silent.
Speaking of the practice out loud is taboo, I understand belatedly, as dozens of gazes turn on me in disbelief, and I fight the urge to apologize, to bow and shrink back into the shadows.
I stand, and I school my expression into one of calm. That, at least, is familiar.
The councilor who mocked me before speaks first. “While the council of course respects the position of the tea aspirant, this allegation lacks legal basis. Individuals can make choices based on who they think will best understand their business and will work hard—”
“One of my colleagues now is Gaellani, and I assure you if hard work were a racial trait you’d be silly to hire anyone but Gaellani,” I interrupt. “And I have certainly known Istals who put in less effort.”
“As you say, individuals vary greatly, and it’s up to each private citizen to make their own decisions, however much you might personally disagree with them. It is not the council’s place to tell people how to run their businesses.”
Oh no, this is your failure, and I will not let you eschew your responsibility.
“With respect to the councilor, while that is generally true, it is not universally true. People are not, for instance, permitted to run businesses that fail to pay taxes to Istalam. That is law. And in this case, there is likewise an exception. I refer you to Queen Esmeri’s official decree welcoming all refugees of the Cataclysm, including Sayorsen’s ethnically Gaellani residents, as equal citizens of Istalam.”
“A speech is not law,” the councilor argues.
“The speech has been cited as the precedent for several subsequent laws,” I respond without pause. “In particular, I’m sure you will remember the case that formalized Istal policy to the effect that the nation of Velasar and its people are not to be treated as holier than Istals or anyone else because it was untouched by the Cataclysm’s effects. The key wording from Queen Esmeri’s decree is that disaster strikes equals unequally, and that our responsibility as human citizens of this world is to reject that inequality wherever it is found, because it is humans that create it, not nature or magic. And to that end, all survivors of the Cataclysm are to be treated as equals of those—including Istals—who were lost. Allowing discrimination against Gaellani to continue when it has been found is, in fact, illegal.”
Some of the councilors appear speechless. I see panic on one face and weariness on more; those will be councilors who know this is wrong but not how to fix it.
But the one who called out my hair says, “How is it that an aspirant pursuing tea studies is so knowledgeable about the law?”
I’ve made an enemy tonight, and he will try to find out who I am.
“Tea masters are called upon to negotiate treaties, grace,” I say. “Such preparation is part of my studies. If the council wishes to verify my interpretation of the law, may I recommend Judiciary Advances for the Modern Era by the current court’s counsel and The Dowager Queen’s Legacy by Irota Sanevar?”
“Your recommendations will be duly recorded,” another councilor says. “We appreciate your service.”
It’s a dismissal.
And for once in my life, it’s a dismissal I blatantly ignore.
“I would also like to say, as I’m new to Sayorsen, thank you for accommodating my questions as I make my home in this fine city.” I will call your bigotry for what it is, I refuse to accept it as normal, and I’m not going anywhere. “The policy is harmful to Gaellani specifically, but I’m employed at an Istal-owned business, and this affects our sales, too.”
It bothers me to appeal to classism in this way, but while my tea aspirancy is enough to get me listened to, it won’t be enough on its own to make change. For that I need allies, so at the last minute I adopt Deniel’s tactic. Let them remember this, rather than my unexpected historical knowledge.
“I hear you don’t need sales as badly as that,” a councilor points out.
And my refusal of the rich woman continues to haunt me. First Talmeri’s vengeance this morning, and now this.
“You’re correct, I believe accommodating bigotry is bad for business,” I say. “We are all equal before the spirits, and we are all Istalam. If I don’t look out for the welfare of all the people I serve, can I be said in truth to be serving their interests? If we don’t care about the wellbeing of a group of our own citizens, how can we in truth represent Istals?”
“You raise interesting questions, and the council is not prepared to issue a statement on them at this time,” a councilor says.
“I thank the council for its consideration,” I say, and sit down at last.
Oh, spirits, what have I done?
“That was terrifying,” Deniel whispers. “Are you okay?”
Barely moving my lips I reply, “Everyone will be watching me, so I will be perfectly serene.”
Deniel turns away from me, and I resist the urge to clench my jaw, my hands, anything as hard as I can at his withdrawal.
Then he leans back in his chair, his shoulder brushing mine, and says lowly, “I’m here. It’s almost over.”
I take a deep breath. He did understand what it cost me, to fall back on the behavior most intrinsic to life as a princess.
Pretending nothing matters.
Later, as I walk back with Deniel to collect my books, I ask, “Did I make things harder for you?”
He frowns down at his feet. “Honestly, it’s hard to say,” he finally says. “I’m sorry I can’t be more reassuring. But probably nothing will come of this.”
Except that councilor will have it in for me. But if that’s the worst consequence, I can surely cope. If Entero forgives me for making myself a target.
“I know,” I say. “But I can make their failure to serve harder to ignore.”
And I can make my self harder to ignore.
I can make myself take up space, even, especially when it goes against my instincts, because my instincts on this are defined by a life of surviving in the palace. A life of knowing I had to hide my true self, because there was no place for it there.
Now I’ll learn to make a place for it here, or I’ll have none anywhere.
Deniel sighs. “Even if it does make things harder for us in the short term, thank you for that,” he says. “It’s not safe for Gaellani to bring that issue up. If we appear self-serving, we undo the careful work we’ve done before. But it makes it hard to advocate for ourselves. We have non-Gaellani friends, of course, but everyone has been afraid to approach this head-on because the fallout gets ugly.”
“Whereas I can get away with it, because I’m Istal and don’t have vulnerable connections here.” Risteri’s own father sat on the council, Talmeri moved in high social circles, and she’d never make it without Lorwyn. “And I have a bodyguard,” I add.
Deniel doesn’t laugh. “I hope it won’t come to that.”
That sobers me. “Do you have any suggestions for next time?”
“I don’t think you need any help from me to handle the council whatsoever,” Deniel says with the ghost of a smile, but there’s a touch of sadness in it.
“I meant how not to make things worse for you,” I say. “I assume drawing attention to the Gaellani isn’t ideal. I tried to mitigate it at the end with an appeal to the respectability argument, gross as I find it, though that might have undercut my own point—”
“The ‘it affects good old-fashioned Istal businesses too’ bit, and the question of which groups exactly the council serves.” Deniel nods. “Yes, you may want to appeal more broadly like that to develop credibility of the kind people will listen to.”
I’m not sure that’s the kind of credibility I want. But it is a kind of privilege, that I can afford to choose purity over practicality in this, and I wonder if that means I shouldn’t use it—or if I should.
“I didn’t realize,” Deniel says into the silence, “how much policy you know.”
I frown at him in the darkness. “What did you think princesses do before our dedications?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean I thought you were frivolous. I knew you must have studied history, but you quoted specific phrases, and you remember which books analyzed them without any preparation—”
Oh. “Princesses are expected to be conversant with many subjects, so we can’t be blindsided by negotiating tactics,” I explain. “We train our memory to remember details like that. It’s one of the few parts of my training I took to naturally.” Probably one of the main reasons Saiyana thought I’d be an asset in her line of work, now that I think about it.
And now I can be an asset to Deniel.
I almost gasp, then immediately realize I shouldn’t betray my excitement. I don’t want him to ask for my help because he knows how much I want to help; I want him to ask only if I can actually be of help.
“If you ever want references to back up the points the Gaellani plan to raise in the council meeting, please let me know,” I say casually.
“That’s a good idea,” Deniel says. “It’ll help us develop our case when other people come looking for more information, too. We do refer them to books when we can find them, of course, but you can probably find them a lot faster.” He hesitates and then blurts, “Do you know a good source on the history of trade law?”
I blink. “Yes, Traders and Traitors. It’s a collection of articles from university professors and government officials in Miteran. What do you need—oh, it’s for your own studies!” I smile widely. “I’m so glad my training will come in useful for something after all.”
He shakes his head in amusement, like he can’t believe I doubted it. I’m more cheerful than I’ve been all night as I regale him with my favorite smuggling anecdote from the book, and he tells me about one of his favorite lawsuits from my mother’s reign against a shrewd Velasari businessman. We both wear silly grins by the time we part ways at his house, and Entero appears at my side for the walk home.
Entero gives me a long-suffering look but doesn’t say any more about my choices tonight, at least not now. Perhaps he sees my smile and thinks I’m in no mood to take such chastisement to heart.
I can do something for Deniel. Perhaps that isn’t tonight’s greatest victory and shouldn’t be the thing about tonight that makes me happiest. I would be happier if it weren’t a skill so specific to being a princess—but no, that’s part of me too, will always be my past, even if it’s not all of me now.
But the me of before wouldn’t have been able to help Deniel.
Support me on Patreon!
Continue to Chapter 17!