A Coup of Tea: Chapter 17

I return to the Central Market with a mission. After all my pacing the day before, it doesn’t take long to locate a basic, portable, slatted wooden tea tray, lightweight and with compartments to hold tea tools once I’ve acquired them. When I have everything but the tea, cups, and pot, for as cheap as I can find, I march over to Thiano’s stall.

“How much is that bowl?” I point at metallic bowl shaped like a leaf, threaded with veins of bright blue.

“More than you can afford,” Thiano drawls.

“The blue is an indication of magical error in its creation, which anyone who could afford your prices would know,” I say. “And the aesthetic of its asymmetrical curves, while elegant, are not in fashion outside of Gaellani craftsmanship, and they can’t afford your prices. Are you sure you won’t sell it to me?”

Thiano sizes me up and names a price. Next to me, Entero nods shallowly. So, not as low as it could be, but not as exorbitant as Thiano’s typical prices. I start counting out marks before he can change his mind.

“Well look who’s feeling confident again today,” Thiano says, eyebrows raised. “You’ve sorted out your monetary difficulty, then?”

I smile faintly. “Not exactly. This may backfire spectacularly. But it’s a movement forward instead of back, so I can live with it.”

Thiano twitches, the barest movement in his fingertips, and he’s back under control as soon as I’ve noticed. But something about that sentiment resonated with him.

“You don’t think Deniel would make you a bowl?” he asks slyly, trying to distract me. Not so recovered after all then, or why let me know he’s aware of my relationship with Deniel?

“Perhaps I shall ask, and then I will fill this one with flowers,” I say. “Do you have any recommendations for where I can find a pedestal?”

He leans back. “I might be able to find something for you.”

“And I’m sure I couldn’t afford your prices if you did,” I say dryly.

“Then why should I help you?”

“Because I’m buying a bowl.”

“A bowl at a discount,” he says.

“A bowl you couldn’t have sold otherwise at all, so a discounted price still gains you more than zero,” I say.

“And why do you think that means I’ll help a competitor?” he asks.

“Because you know that I’ll buy more bowls from you in the future, when I can,” I say, meeting his gaze.

He studies me for a long moment.

Then abruptly says, “Tell me what you need.”

Too fast; I’ve missed something. “The pedestal, and the bowl, are for an altar in my home,” I begin.

He nods. “Say no more. I will take care of it, and you will promise to pay me whatever it is I say.”

I narrow my eyes, this time trying to discern his motives. “I think I would be a fool to trust you.”

Thiano grins, slowly, and it does not reach his eyes. Entero tenses beside me. “Is that a no, then?”

Whatever relationship we are playing at, I have no doubt it will be over if I refuse this. By any standard of logic, it’s a bad idea.

But I’m smiling anyway.

“I cherish the freedom I have to make such foolish judgments,” I tell him with a bow.

His smile this time is genuine, if small, and something in his eyes tells me it pains him, too. Perhaps someday I’ll know why.


 

Lorwyn opens one of the tea compartments at the shop’s brewing station. “This is the best approximation of a ceremonial green tea we have that isn’t exorbitantly expensive,” she says. “Talmeri won’t have a fit if you write this off.”

“Is there more in the back?” I ask.

“In theory,” she says. “We may never be able to reach it again, of course.”

The back is a disaster of boxes and debris, and every time I step back there it looks worse. I’d have been upset by the chaos in a place I considered my home, but Lorwyn is oddly cheerful about it.

The bell tinkles, and I hear Taseino greeting whoever has come in while Lorwyn’s eyes narrow. “That’s not the kind of person I expect to see around here.”

I turn casually to see what she means. The customer’s long, straight hair is pulled back in a simple clip, and he’s tall and lean, the robes of his mage’s office draping around him. The state robes aren’t fancy, but that’s not what arrests me: it’s that they’re lined with white, a right only the most advanced practitioners ever earn.

I know who this has to be before he turns. Our gazes lock, and I freeze, only my eyes widening.

Across the room, Ostario freezes, too.

“Miyara?” Lorwyn asks quietly.

“Go to the back, right now,” I say.

“I’m not leaving when you look like—”

I whirl so Ostario won’t see my lips move as I mouth, “He’s a witch.”

Lorwyn blinks, uncomprehending for a moment, and then she blanches, the blood draining out of her face.

A witch always knows another witch, she’d said.

And this one is a mage, too, one that works for Istalam.

Lorwyn slips away behind me, Ostario watching but not saying anything. Spirits, I hope I got her out in time.

“Something I should know about?” he asks me in his rich baritone.

“Yes,” I say.

He waits.

We stare at each other across the expanse of the shop.

“But?” he prompts.

“But not that you need to,” I say.

Ostario’s lips quirk, and he crosses over to me.

That’s good, that means he’s not planning on announcing to the few people in the front who I am and that we know each other.

But I still clench my fists, my world narrowed on this man who can ruin everything for me with a word closing in.

I fight the urge to flee. It wouldn’t help.

When he’s close, he says quietly, “Saiyana must find you infuriating.”

I swallow. “Are you going to tell her I’m here?”

He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Why don’t we go somewhere to talk?”

I shake my head. “It will be noted if I’m seen to be on casual terms with a mage of your stature.” I motion for him to follow me, leading him to the tea ceremony room. “But I can serve you tea.”

Ostario stops. “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly allow you to serve—”

“You should expect me to serve you,” I cut him off. “That’s what we’re for.”

Ostario studies me. When I step back and pointedly make space for him to enter the tea ceremony room before me, he goes without another objection.

I turn to Taseino, whose eyes are wide. He must know what the white lining means, how rare it is for a mage to be of that caliber. “He said he wanted to talk to Talmeri,” Taseino whispers.

“I’ll take care of it,” I say, hoping I’m not lying. “Please see to the front until we’re done. Pull the other boys from inventory if you need to. Oh, and please let Entero know that I’ll be serving Mage Ostario tea, so I’ll be with him soon.”

And then I enter the room myself, closing the door behind me, to face Ostario.

Who’s watching me carefully, like he’s not sure which direction I might attack from.

That won’t do. He’s my guest, now.

I take a breath and begin preparing the tea. “I’m not Saiyana,” I say.

Ostario snorts. “With that kind of insight into what I’m thinking about, you might as well be.”

Saiyana never knows for sure with him, and it drives her to distraction. I don’t think I should tell him that, though.

“So what brings you to Talmeri’s today?” I ask. “Since I gather you weren’t expecting to find me.”

“It wouldn’t have occurred to me to look for you here,” he says. “I don’t know where I would have looked, to be honest, and as often as we’ve talked I feel like I should apologize for not knowing you better.”

“There’s no need.” I cast him a rueful smile. “How could you know what I never let anyone, even myself, see? Even genius mages like yourself aren’t omniscient.”

He sighs theatrically. “My air of mystery and arcane wisdom bears further cultivation, I see.”

I smile a little wider. “No, it doesn’t. And you haven’t answered my question.”

“I was told Talmeri is the sort of person who hears everything and that she’s impressed by displays of power,” he says.

“Ah.” I nod, arranging the tea tray. “That’s why you’re wearing your official robes for once.”

“I often wear them on assignment,” he says. “It’s an efficient way to cut through nonsense.”

I kneel in front of him and begin the motions of the ceremony.

“Your High—Miyara, you really don’t need to do this.”

I meet his eyes, not pausing. “I know. I want to. It’s my pleasure to serve you.”

That startles him, and in his silence I flow into the tea ceremony.

I wonder if he’s more startled that I want to serve him, or that I have expressed a want of anything. He was years ahead of me in mage training, and we do not know each other well, except through Saiyana. But he could not have become so accomplished as a mage without being discerning.

Like Saiyana, who I also managed to fool my whole life.

Or perhaps I didn’t, and that’s why he knows enough to be patient now.

It’s a struggle to clear my mind, and the ceremony does not flow as naturally as usual. There is certainly more of myself in it, I suppose, but not, I think, in a useful way.

But when I look at Ostario as he sips his tea, his face is blank, like he’s fighting a strong emotion. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad—for either of us.

“Can you tell me what you were going to ask Talmeri about?” I ask, settling across from him.

He takes another bracing sip. “Unregulated magical items,” he says.

Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t that. “Come again?”

Ostario nods. “Normally it’s hard to smuggle magical items, but these aren’t registering as magical even though they are. So we have dangerous magical items the crown can’t track, and you can see the concerning implications of that, I’m sure. So since this is an unprecedented magical occurrence…”

“They suspect something to do with the Cataclysm, which means an investigator must be sent to Sayorsen, even with nothing more concrete to go on and the likelihood there’s nothing to be found here,” I say.

Ostario raises his tea cup as if to mock-clink glasses. “I assume this is the first you’ve heard of it, then?”

“Yes,” I say. “Ostario, why are you being sent out on such a flimsy excuse for an assignment?”

“It’s a serious problem.”

“And I’m not unhappy someone competent is on the case, but you’re the most promising mage talent of our generation. An assignment like this seems—”

“Beneath me?” Ostario suggests, amused. “Setting me up for failure? You don’t need to worry about me, Miyara. This is hardly the worst my mage superiors have thrown at me, and I promise I can handle my career.”

“I know,” I say, “but I will worry regardless. It is my nature.”

Ostario laughs. “You are different than Saiyana.”

“Not as different in this regard as you’d think,” I say. “I don’t think she’d be quite as intent on controlling so much if she didn’t care deeply.”

“A royal family that actually cares,” Ostario muses. “That may be the best kept state secret of all.”

“I wonder if we haven’t done people a disservice with that secrecy,” I say. “Of course I see how it could be used against us to take political advantage, but… I wonder if isn’t important for people to know that there is someone who cares, in a position to do something about it.”

Ostario leans back on his hands, staring at the ceiling above us pensively. “I’m not privy to a lot of court gossip,” he finally says, “but I do hear about what the mage corp is up to. Saiyana has refused to speak about you at all.”

My chest tightens. I should have expected that. I knew she’d be upset.

Still. “I see.”

“There were a few mages who spoke against you, though, and what you did, which I’m sure won’t surprise you,” Ostario continues. “But I thought you might like to know that Saiyana also challenged each of them to mage duels and wiped the floor with every one.”

My eyes sting with sudden tears. “I wish I hadn’t made this so hard for her,” I whisper.

“Hey, don’t be like that now,” Ostario says gently. “You’re more yourself today than I’ve ever seen you. I imagine everyone who knows about your choice wonders at it, but now that I’ve seen you here, I don’t.”

Now I am crying. I bow my head.

He’s the first to have known me before and seen me after. That the change in me should appear so obvious to him is a reassurance about the rightness of my choice I hadn’t known I craved.

Ostario continues, “Saiyana will continue to best everyone who opposes her, because that’s what she does. But that’s not you.”

No. No, it isn’t, and I am beyond words that someone has finally acknowledged and had the nerve to say that to my face.

“Saiyana hasn’t bested everyone,” I manage past the tightness of my throat. “She didn’t convince me to follow in her footsteps, and I know it’s always bothered her that she’s never definitively bested you in magework.”

Ostario’s eyes twinkle. “How tragic for her. We shall both have to see that continues.”

I laugh, perhaps harder than is truly merited. Especially since there is one substantial issue still between us.

I meet his eyes and ask again, but calmly this time, “Will you tell Saiyana?”

Ostario smiles. “Unofficially, I’m supposed to report your whereabouts, because you’re part of the royal family,” he says. “But you see, there’s a logical flaw with this charge, because if you’re part of the royal family…”

“Please do not tell Saiyana or any of the royal family I’m here,” I request quickly.

He flashes me a grin.

“But that is very shoddy logic,” I add.

He shrugs. “The order isn’t official, which gives me some leeway. My dedication as a mage entitles me to act in the country’s best interests as I perceive it, as well. I’ll manage.”

“Thank you,” I say. “Truly.”

“My pleasure,” he says. “Now, I regret to bring this up, as you were finally relaxed there for a moment, but I thought you should know that your hair color has been changed permanently.”

I still. “Oh?”

“As it’s not a spell that will fade with time,” Ostario says, looking directly at me, “if you wish to have it changed back, or changed in any other way, you’ll need to speak to a witch.”

Oh, spirits, he realized after all.

… but he isn’t saying so directly.

“Thank you,” I say, standing. “I had wondered if that was the case. But since you mention spells, I wonder if I could prevail upon you for a preservation spell—”

“Certainly,” he says smoothly, rising to join me. “A favor for a favor.”

Uh oh. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything about the smuggled magical items.”

“I appreciate that, but—hypothetically speaking, you understand—if you happened to know an unregistered witch, I would like for you to keep her out of my path.”

I have no idea how to respond to that and just stare.

Ostario sighs. “I’m going to be investigating in Sayorsen until this situation is resolved, which means for the foreseeable future. As long as your hypothetical friend isn’t involved, make sure she’s not in a position where I am forced to notice her. If that’s what you think is best. Though you might wish to mention that I’m qualified to give mage lessons. If she were interested.”

I’m still gaping and make myself close my mouth. “Hypothetically,” I say, “I doubt such a person could pay you.”

“That’s often the case,” Ostario says. “I’m confident we could work something out. Would you like to show me where you need the preservation spell?”

In something of a daze, I start toward the door to show him my portable tea tray—but before I open it I turn abruptly and hug him, hard.

“Thank you,” I whisper.

Gently, he returns my embrace. “It is my pleasure to serve you,” he says.


 

Once Ostario has taken his leave, Entero appears at my side like a shadow.

“I didn’t need protection,” I say without preamble. “The worst thing he could have done would have been what you want anyway.”

“I know,” Entero says, surprising me. “Ostario isn’t a threat to you. I was going to say, please go tell Lorwyn he’s not a threat to her, either, because she’s scared all the boys away and I can’t tell if my presence is making her more nervous or less.”

I blink. “I wish I’d known you were so confident about those things before I talked to him.”

“Then you should actually talk to me about your security sometime, instead of assuming you have to fight me about it,” Entero says pointedly, and I wince. “But later.”

“Later,” I agree, and go to see Lorwyn.

I pause just inside the lab. Lorwyn is sitting still, facing away. So still and stiff she could be a statue.

“I wasn’t sure you’d still be here,” I say quietly, crossing over to her slowly. “He’s gone from the shop, and he won’t come back unless I invite him.”

“That’s why you’re always so careful to point out witches aren’t always women,” Lorwyn says, still not moving.

I would like to think I would be so careful even if I hadn’t known Ostario for years, but all I say is, “Yes.”

“You were right,” she whispers. “I even felt his witchcraft when he walked in, and until you told me I still didn’t understand. All the witches I’ve ever known are women.”

Ostario doesn’t speak much about his past; his air of mystery may be constructed, but it’s effective. But I know he entered mage school in part because he didn’t think he’d be able to hide his witchcraft. I remember watching from the audience at Ostario’s mage trials when he’d been asked about being a witch sympathizer.

“Not only can I pass unscathed, I can now pass judgment,” he’d explained to the mages, and I remember thinking he’d seemed sad. “No witch will ever trust me now.”

And it hadn’t escaped me, then, that the mages judging him that day might not ever trust him, either. Because he’d been born a witch, and because he’d chosen to leave them.

“Maybe now,” I say to Lorwyn, “you’ll know others, if they feel safe coming to you.”

“Witches never feel safe,” Lorwyn snaps. “You were right, okay? You were right, and it shouldn’t have taken a witch who has power over my life for me to admit it. I hope you’re happy.”

“No,” I say quietly. “I’m not. But you can trust him not to turn you in as long as he can pretend not to notice you.”

Lorwyn buries her head in her hands. “How do you know? How do you know him, anyway?”

I ponder possible answers to that. “He was in my older sister’s mage class,” I finally say.

“And you know all your sister’s friends well enough to vouch for their trustworthiness, I assume? Ha!”

“I’m not sure they would consider each other friends,” I say, wedging myself into Lorwyn’s work area casually, so she can’t keep not looking at me. “More like rivals.”

“How encouraging.”

I sigh. “Truthfully, I’m reasonably sure my sister’s in love with him.”

At that, Lorwyn finally looks up at me, startled.

And then thoughtful, like that makes sense to her.

Oh, Risteri’s right after all about Lorwyn liking Entero, isn’t she?

“So,” I say, “what are we going to do? He’s powerful enough that if he meets you again, he won’t be able to pretend he can’t tell you’re a witch, and he’ll have to bring you in. And he’ll be able to.”

“I’m powerful too,” Lorwyn says grimly.

I shake my head. “Your determination might lend you extra strength, but Ostario has had years to practice openly. I’m reliably informed by someone dead set on beating him that he’s the most talented mage alive. Someday soon he’ll probably be the best. That’s without witchcraft.” I pause, trying to think how to bring this around.

Lorwyn slumps. “Whatever you’re not saying, just get it out already.”

Fine. “I have reason to believe he’d be willing to give you lessons as a mage—”

“Absolutely not.” Her voice was firm. “Then I would have to register. I don’t care if you like him and he likes you, I don’t trust anyone who’s sold out. It’s historically turned out badly for witches, so don’t try to tell me I’m prejudiced about nothing.”

I purse my lips. She’s wrong about Ostario, but she’s not wrong about history. Since I’m confident he won’t turn me in, though, it’s also not my life on the line here. “I won’t. But Ostario knows you exist, and he’s not turning you in.”

“Yet,” Lorwyn says darkly. “And he knows where to find me, so he can always blackmail me later.”

So, no mage lessons. I cross my arms, thinking. “Can you make something for yourself that’ll work on him like Risteri’s bracelet works on her father? That will hide you, but just from him?”

Her head snaps around to stare at me. “What?

Oh. “Risteri didn’t volunteer the information, if that’s what you’re worried about. I figured it out.”

“Your ability to find out absolutely everything does not make me feel any better,” she snaps, but I can see that it does: she’s already leaning back in her chair, frowning as she considers the problem.

Leaving me a moment to blink at that summation. Do I have such a talent for ferreting out information?

I startle at a sudden thought. My grandmother who I now know has a secret employ of spies had told me, “There will always be work for those who know how to listen.”

Is that what she’d meant?

“Tricky, since he’s a witch and a mage,” Lorwyn mutters, reaching up to where the tea pet sits and pulling a small shard down. She shrugs at me. “You missed a piece, but that’s fine. No one will ask why I’m wearing a piece of my family’s heirloom.” She shoves around her desk until she finds a box full of string, and she says, “Let me work on this alone for a while. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to send the boys back.”

Something in me eases. She’ll be okay. We both will.

I hope it will be enough.


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Continue to Chapter 18!


3 thoughts on “A Coup of Tea: Chapter 17

  1. Interesting.

    At this point in the story, there are enough people who have discovered who she is, deliberately or coincidentally, that it feels like the fragility of the secret could break at any moment. And yet, everyone who could have revealed her has not done so, or not done so as thoroughly as they could, often for reasons which seem opaque to the reader. If our attention as readers is supposed to be focused on the “Tea” more than the “Princess” of the story, I wouldn’t introduce any more possible discoveries, or at least, not any who raise tension, and then ease it by being agreeable or benevolent.

    It’s not that it’s been too much, so far – only that it’s reaching saturation (at least, for me).

    Like

  2. I really enjoyed this chapter! I enjoyed getting little glimpses into M’s past, as well as where she’s headed.

    Although it seemed deeply inadvisable for her to promise to pay Th. what he asks, I suspect it will all work out.

    I also liked the complication of a witch who is also a mage.

    How the plot thickens 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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